Ideas for New Year’s Eve in Tokyo

While your Japanese mates have plans to be holed at home eating mochi, soba, and drinking beer with the fam, you are wondering what is on offer for the expat crowd. There are plenty of parties out there and here are some we think would be pretty groovy for some champagne and shaking your tush.

+ G9 NYE Countdown Party at Shibuya’s Gonpachi/Legato. Dance the night away to house and techno beats right in front of the awesome night views of Tokyo from the 15th floor of Space Tower. Click here for details.

+ 2009 Liquid New Year’s Party at Liquidroom in Ebisu promises Japanese techno and sensational psychedelic videos.

+ If you want something heavier music-wise, you should make a beeline for Club Asia in Shibuya, where the music will range from cyberpunk to deep house to hip hop.

+ Fans of Womb will not be let down by its New Year Countdown. Though Sven Vath has always made the headline act at the club, this year his protégé Andre Galluzzi will take over as spin-meister. Expect tech/house tunes all night.

+ For a chi-chi night out, Velours has its Gold Rush Party for those looking for a bit more velvet and champagne.

Photo: jmvnoos

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Tokyo food review: Delicious modern Japanese at Hachiuta, Shibuya

There are hordes of cookie-cutter izakayas that serve up the same dishes in Tokyo, and if you want something a bit more special, you need to make a little effort to hunt down the good places.

Part of the popular Goma izakaya chain, Hachuita (means “eight lyric poems”) is a warm, cosy joint that is tucked away on a small lane in the Shoto-Kamiyama area in Shibuya.

It’s worth the hike as its carefully prepared modern Japanese fare is made from fresh ingredients but is easy on the pocket where most dishes are below 1,000JPY.

Like most fine establishments in Japan, the flavor of the meat or vegetables shine through with only a dash of herbs or sauce. Your taste buds are never overwhelmed and the tapas-style servings are perfect to linger over some excellent shouchu or sake.

Hachiuta is a lively, bustling restaurant, so it’s best to make reservations, especially on the weekend.

Since I was with a group of eight, we ordered a stream of dishes to indulge in.

A simple appetizer of fresh oysters with lemon brought the taste of the sea to our mouths.

The handmade Chinese dumplings with chopped shrimp, water chestnut and spinach were juicy and savory, which make you want to swear off all mediocre frozen ones.

The deep-fried eggplant was very tasty for a stand-alone plate of veggies.

We ordered two of the escargot-style shrimp because it was simply mouth-watering. The cute escargot dish only has six servings of garlic covered prawns, but even if you are in a small group, you may be tempted to order more of this savory sensation.

The dab of yuzu sauce makes all the difference in this generic dish of grilled chicken — it was absolutely succulent with just a hint of citrus.

This is a homey, traditional dish of braised tuna in soy sauce and lots of negi.

A little over 4,000JPY can stuff you to the brim and you’ll leave very satisfied. Hachuita has been mentioned in a few expat-friendly publications and websites so it has drawn many gaijins to its honeypot of culinary delights but there still isn’t an English menu available. The staff is comfortable to speak in English or you could simply point and choose blindly — you won’t be disappointed at all.

Address: Udagawacho 38-3
Nearest station: Shibuya JR station
Opening hours: 5 – 11pm
Access map

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Christmas Day is really Valentine’s Day in Japan

From where I come from (Singapore), Christmas Day is a time to drink and party way too much, with the occasional obligatory gift to colleagues and family. Unless you’re Christian or Catholic, Christmas is just another public holiday.

In Japan, it’s similar in that respect — religion has no presence on December 25. In fact, you don’t even get a day off and I think it seriously affects expats who are used to celebrating it seriously. They feel kind of sad and lost in this strange land that doesn’t see it as a day for bonding with family.

And the weirdest part about Christmas in Japan is it’s really Valentine’s Day.

Valentine’s Day exists, too, but it’s not really for lovers. In Japan, it’s associated more with corporate culture where the women are expected to give chocolates to the men. It’s always the opposite here. Then, there’s White Day, which is March 14, when the men have to return the favor, so the chocolates go back to the ladies in the kaisha (office).

When I taught English to Japanese adults a year ago, all my students complained of this tiresome ritual and chocolate jumps twice in price the day before. Most penny-pinching folks will buy boxes two weeks before the actual day to save money and it’s not too early so that the chocolate goes bad.

But Christmas Day is a time for unicorns, violin playing, diamonds, and marshmallows to come out in great big grand gestures. Even then, only the young and starry-eyed think it’s an important occasion.

Photo: mrhayata

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This weekend in Tokyo

If you’re at a loss for what to do with yourself and your head feels like it’s stuck in a watermelon, here are some ideas to have a fun weekend in Tokyo.

+ Summer may have all the cool outdoor parties but the tunes don’t stop in winter. The good people behind Womb Club in Shibuya is throwing an all-night techno and hip-hop party, Womb Adventure ’08 Contakt, on Sat, Dec 20 at Makuhari Messe.

+ Recession entertainment idea: a free Christmas concert at the Canopy Square of Tokyo Mid-Town in Roppongi. Remember to rug up, though. Expect J-pop artists Sowelu, Meg and others. Dec 20-25, various times. Click here for the schedule.

+ If you’re stressed and dying to get the kinks out of your body, make an appointment with zen shiatsu therapist for a real Japanese-style massage. It’s a great solution for those who dislike the hard-kneading style of Thai or Chinese massages. One session costs 5,000JPY and above. Surf over to for more details.

+ You’re probably planning to do some Christmas shopping this weekend, and if you’re around Omotesando, you might want to inhale some ramen sustenance at Mist. It’s pretty fancy ramen in a chic joint, but here’s some motivation: it’s really really tasty shoyu and salt ramen with melt-in-your-mouth charsiu (roast pork). The chef behind this enterprise was featured on TV several times, so this stuff is good. 3F at Omotesando Hills.

+ Catch Wall-E or Tropic Thunder for some laugh-out-loud action at the movies. I know, I know, we get Hollywood stuff waaaay after the rest of the world. Better late than never.

Photo: Danz in Tokyo

Tokyo Nightlife: Majestic Bar

If you are looking for a quiet canoodle or a lounge to chat over delicious cocktails, Majestic Bar in Nishi-azabu is where you should head over.

“It’s the kind of place where you want to take your relationship to the next level,” chuckled a Tokyo gal pal of mine. I giggled, too, and wondered what kind of place it would be like.

The words sultry and sexy popped into my head instantly with its gothic candles and black velvet drapes. It was like a 21st century dungeon where you wonder what would await you in its curious lair.

There are private nooks where a tiny couch (good for snuggling) and a translucent black curtain are great for some privacy. I don’t think you could go “all the way” but it’s a great prelude to something more.

It’s not something I would mention in a review but another unusual aspect of Majestic is its labyrinth-like layout. You could get lost on your way to the loo and what greets you is a huge red gothic light display that’s a little scary. But Majestic has a lot of character and it’s quite a conversation-starter.

The drinks are skillfully made with care and our group sampled the margarita, pina colada, whiskey, and mimosa. But be warned that it’s pricey — a cocktail can set you back 1,200JPY to 1800JPY. It’s perfect for a special occasion or if you tire of izakayas and noisy bars.

Address: B1F, 1-14-17 Nishi-Azabu, Minato-ku.
Nearest station: Nogizaka
Tel: 03-5770-3182
Opening hours: 6pm-6am daily

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In pictures: Tokyo loves dogs

There’s a sweet side to uber-cool Tokyo — dog lovers take their devotion to their little pooches up to totally different level.

On a sobering note, the birth rate hovers at a very dismal rate in Japan and dogs are more favorable companions than children in one of the world’s most expensive cities. Here’s a staggering statistic: there are more cats and dogs in Japan than children under 15.

The latest trend in the dog-lovers’ circle is dog-dancing classes. Kawaii, desho? (Isn’t that cute?)

Photos: azure

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This Weekend in Tokyo

At Tokyo Metblogs, I’m going to start a new column, “This Weekend in Tokyo”, or TWiT, for short. I’ll put it up every Thursday night, so if you’re thinking of what to do on the weekend, you can poke around here for some ideas when you’re dreaming at your desk on a Friday afternoon.

Photo: regolare

+ Popular dance event, OOOOZE, is holding its final party of the year at hot Ginza club, Desert Rose, on Dec 12 2008, Friday. For details, click here. I’ve been to one of their parties before and I was impressed — just lots of playful, happy grooves in a cool venue.

+ If you’re into watching dare devil stunts, the X-Trail Jam at Tokyo Dome this Sun, Dec 14, 5pm, and Mon Dec 15, 3pm could give you an adrenalin fix. The best snowboarders in the world will gather at this one place to show off breathtaking moves on scary slopes.

+ Take up a hoop class at Hoop Lovers if you’re looking to shake up your workout or just want to try something different. These guys make hooping look way cool.

+ There is such a thing as affordable kaiseki dinners and you can savor authentic, delicate Japanese cuisine at Rakushokushu Maru in Omotesando. 5,000JPY – 7,000JPY for set dinners and an English menu is available.

+ Even if you are a pedestrian museum go-er, you would jump at heading over to have a peek at Picasso’s personal art collection at the National Arts Center and his captivating series of self-portraits at the Suntory Museum of Art. Find out more here. You’ve got to hurry because the exhibition ends this weekend.

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Odd sighting: Christmas crusader in Tokyo

I used think everyone in Tokyo dressed like the kids in Harajuku, but when I arrived, it was obviously not the case. The media does like to portray Japan as another dimension where weird stuff happens and people dress like freaks.

When I taught English, my Japanese students used to protest that the Western media is not portraying their culture and lifestyle as accurately as they would like.

Waves of salarymen in identical black suits and OLs (office ladies) in generic skirts and cardigans in the train stations actually make you think again if Japan has really that many people with a unique sense of style. They do, but in pockets of the city, and they orbit in a totally different atmosphere.

Yesterday, I spotted this flamboyant old dude standing up with both hands up in front of his car. He didn’t move for a whole five minutes. There were people and cars streaming past him but he just didn’t budge.

I chuckled and wondered what on earth he was up to. Was he a right-winger? Or was he anti-Christmas? Who knows. He had a pretty nice sedan with two Santa Claus dolls and a miniature Christmas tree. Maybe he was trying to promote Christmas in his own way?

He zoomed off in his car after I took a picture of him. Very odd, indeed.

Stopping you in your tracks

Photo: taiyofj

A mural painting of the atomic bombings in Hiroshima and Nagasaki made commuters take a second look, while walking through Shibuya station, a busy train hub in central Tokyo. Some even took out their mobile phones to take a snap.

Photo: pierdolapaciencia

Painted by Japanese artist Taro Okamoto, his surreal art piece Asu no Shinwa (“Myth of Tomorrow”) is now placed near the Keio Inokashira line at the station.

TIME magazine wrote an interesting piece on this mural and I couldn’t re-tell it in a better way.

I would like to add that there’s so much amazing art in Tokyo — it’s intense and inspiring. Just another spanner in works when you think the Japanese way is rigid and monotonous.

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Everyone’s fave Japanese drink

There’s nobody I know who doesn’t like chu-hi (which originated from the words shouchu highball — go figure). It’s a fizzy vodka-like liquor mixed with fruit juice which is especially a favourite in summer.

But this winter, the good people at Kirin are not resting and have released a special Apple chu-hi this Christmas season.

Chu-his can be very sweet so Kirin has “50% offu” (means half the calories) and chu-hi zero (which has no calories). Some people don’t fancy the saccharine taste but if you’re a Diet Coke fan, you would think it rocks.

I’ve been trying to figure out why they are so popular and my conclusion is that it’s available in every conbini (convenient store), it’s affordable (250JPY for a regular can), it’s refreshing and it definitely packs a punch even after one or two, so don’t be fooled by its light taste.

To me, chu-his mean party in parks, cozy get-togethers at home, awesome music festivals, and lazy nights in front of the telly.

Top chu-his in my list:

Photos: Kirin

Ageha: A Tokyo rite of passage

If you’re up for all-night clubbing, Ageha is the clubber’s paradise in Tokyo. Located in Shin-kiba, Ageha is a sprawling warehouse-like establishment in the middle of suburbia.

My friends and I were all pumped up at dinner in an izakaya in Shibuya and went onto pocketing chu-his and beers for the train ride to “the middle of nowhere” (which means anywhere outside the JR Yamamote Line or central Tokyo).

Photo: Markiemarc

*These photos were not of the night I went and it was forbidden to bring in cameras. Unfortunately, the camera in my mobile phone kind of sucked, too, so many thanks to the great photographers at Flickr.

UK spinmeister Armin van Burren was spinning the main set and was slated to begin at 330am. The two DJs before him were excellent at working up the crowd to a frenzy.

Photo: switchstyle

The stage was massive and the main dance floor felt like two basketball courts. We did some exploring in the beginning — there were a couple of small rooms with alternative tunes and a spacious poolside bar that was absolutely rocking despite the stinging cold (people just bopped around the huge heaters erected around the water’s edge).

It’s been awhile since I heard such great music blasted from a top-notch sound system so it felt great to dance for hours.

…Till 430am. My body just shut down and I elbowed my way out of the heaving crowd to find a seat. I was kind of like this dude over here.

Photo: soleada

One useful tip for non-nocturnal animals like me: Don’t share a locker with anyone. You can’t return to the premises once you step out and the locker room is outside. I wanted to go home at about 530am but we couldn’t find the last guy who shared a locker with us until much later. With booze-addled brains and half-shut eyes, we stumbled around looking for our equally drunk friend.

Also, if you are clubbing in winter: make sure you bring along a warm coat. It may not look cool but you get to stash in lockers. I, for one, was a little too vain and was decked out in a short dress, a cardi and a thin jacket, which made me shiver my ass off and fall sick after my Ageha escapade.

There are shuttle buses that depart every half hour from Ageha back to Shibuya where most people can catch a train back home. The JR and metro start at 430am from Shin-kiba station so you can take off before dawn if you want to.

My take on Ageha: Fantabulous clubbing experience and you should at least check it out once if you are remotely interested in good electronica.

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H&M mania in Tokyo

Photo: Hiroki Blue

High street Swedish giant H&M created a retail frenzy in Tokyo this November, despite economic woes. The news reported insane queues and disappointed shoppers who couldn’t find their sizes despite waiting for hours.

Photo: kuschti

The lines at the Ginza store looked scary, so I decided to wait till the hype died down a little.

Photo: Guy Flaneur

But there were more crowds at the second opening in Harajuku – check out a short video about it here. Some of my fashionista friends went crazy over the Comme de Garcons/H&M collection and were determined to get at least one piece. Apparently, they look a lot more wearable than the ads make them out to be.

Photo: tokyofashion

It takes about an hour and a half to try something on in the dressing room and another hour or so to pay for your goodies, so a trip to H&M would be a whole-day affair.

Does this sound familiar? Krispy Kreme gave birth to impossibly long queues for their fabled double-glazed donuts — for a year.

Photo: joellymo

Anyway, this is indeed a breath of fresh air in the fashion scene and would make staples, like Zara, Gap, Uniqlo, sweat under the collar a bit.

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Mind your manners on the metro

The Tokyo Metro came up with a series of cheeky posters about minding your behavior on the train — I find it hilarious because the trains are extremely quiet compared to other countries’, so I don’t see that there’s a need for them. In fact, the hushed silence in the trains freaked me out a little but I come from Southeast Asia and we’ve got a noisy culture when we board the bus or train.

I suppose quiet comfort in the train in important in Japan because there’s such a huge number of people commuting and it’s common to travel as long as two hours from your home to the office. If you have somebody who has loud music blasting from their headphones or taking up two seats instead of one, you would feel thoroughly annoyed after a couple of hours, I suppose.

The Manners series kicked off with “Please do it at home” and among these my favorite is this one below. I have definitely seen women fixing their makeup with a big hand mirror for their entire train journey and the average travel time here is about 30 to 45 minutes within Tokyo. But I don’t really see how this would affect other passengers unless said culprit keeps jabbing her elbows into her neighbor’s ribs.

Summer brought on this one and it’s the coolest so far in the series. I’ve definitely seen salary men transform into action heroes as they leap between closing train doors.

I only ever see rowdy peeps on the last train after a night of drinking, though it seems the norm to take a tall can of beer on the shinkansen (bullet train) even if it’s 10am in the morn…

I wonder how many more quirky posters they would come up with….?

Photos: courtesy of Jean-Marc Rocher

The original Ippudo Ramen in Tokyo

Much has been gushed about Ippudo Hakata Ramen in New York since its grand opening in March this year — news articles reported that New Yorkers waited in the brutal winter cold for up to 90 minutes to eat a bowl of steaming ramen that was a “religious” experience, as quoted in popular food blog, Serious Eats.

A friend who lives there declared Ippudo was her favorite after eating her way through many ramen shops in the Big Apple. With such a vote of confidence, I had to try this tonkatsu (pork broth) sensation when a couple of friends were in town for a visit.

For kicks, I decided to patronize the very first shop built in Ippudo’s chain, which is located in Ebisu, a chic well-heeled neighborhood known for its cool nightlife and culinary delights.

There wasn’t a line to get in (phew…) but it was pretty full of salarymen and OLs (office ladies). I got a seat immediately and pointed to the fabled Akamaru set. Being Singaporean, it was the natural choice as it’s topped with a spicy paste that is not in the Shiromaru one which is just plain tonkatsu soup.

Large bowls of spicy preserved spinach and bean sprouts were placed at every table — this simple but yummy appetizer whetted my taste buds for what was to come.

The rich, savory flavor of the ramen made everyone at the table slurp in silent appreciation. Oishiiiii (delicious)… The noodles were al dente and slippery, while I was just floored by the complexity of the soup — it was a melange of mysterious minced beans (probably from the spicy paste) and punchy meatiness.

You’ve got to try the sui gyozas (steamed pork dumplings) which swim in a clear, light broth and spring onions. Since I’m Chinese by ethnicity, I’m quite critical of gyozas and these little babies were definitely a five-star experience.

What’s unusual about the yaki gyoza (pan-fried pork dumplings) was it had a smidgen of yuzu (Japanese mandarin) paste on the side. The citrus bite completely transformed its heaviness and you’d feel you could stuff in just a few more.

Did I see the Ramen Gods in Ippudo? Almost, just almost. I’ve yet to find another shop that’s better and it’s no wonder that it’s touted as the best ramen chain in Tokyo.

Address: 1-3-13 Hiroo, Hainezu Ebisu, Shibuya-ku, Tokyo
Tel: 03-5420-2225
Opening hours: 11am – 4am daily
How to get there: Take the West Exit from Ebisu JR station and head towards Meiji-dori. You’ll spot the shop next to a post office.

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Tokyo Metblogs is revived again

Hi, I’m Yu Ming and I’m a new blogger for the Tokyo edition of Metblogs. I’ll be posting on what’s going on in Tokyo, interesting places to visit, and anything quirky in that Japanese way all of us Japanophiles love.

Even though I’ve been here for two years now, I still get a bit starry-eyed when I see the William Gibson-esque skyscrapers right next to ancient Zen temples. Japan is a living, breathing oxymoron that’s a fascinating creature to watch whom no one can quite figure out.

I’m familiar with the city and can get around without a glitch, but it is a huge metropolis and I’ve still got loads to discover. So come with me and follow my exploration of this adopted home of mine and hope you enjoy the ride. Feel free to give me feedback or ask me a question about Japan.

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