Dispatches from the back of the sock drawer of life

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After Corona… The Return!

Dear Diary…

so, after the shitshow of Covid (everyone says Corona here, as ‘v’ is a bit tricky for the Japanese), missed Olympics etc etc, I finally made it back. I’d hedged my bets and decided that Japan must have to resume visa-free travel for tourists by October, so booked flights for October 4th. Sadly the announcement finally got made on Sept 16th, and the date was… 11th October 😱.

Some rebooked flights later and…

October 12th/13th 2022:

Long but uneventful flight, with some detours to avoid tinpot dictators – Putin and KimJong.

Quarantine control checks very straightforward as I’d already registered my vaccination status on the MySOS app. Breezed through immigration, then thought my bag had been lost – until I realised it had gone past me 3 times unnoticed. Changed cases at the last minute while packing, haven’t used this one in years…

Tully’s for iced coffee, then monorail and Asakusa line to my hotel. Bags dropped, and on to February Cafe for cold brew, cheese toast, and a creme caramel topped with chestnut puree (a Mont Blanc) and a glacee chestnut – heaven! It’s been too long.

Evening: head for Shinjuku for dinner – Shinjuku station, west exit. Sanbangai St, home of Shinpachi Shokudo Shinjuku, syokudo and teishoku restaurant. Favourite set meal restaurant that James and I discovered on our first visit in 2015, set of grilled salted salmon, rice, miso soup, pickles and daikon. Looked through local BIC Camera and Yodobashi stores, new Google Pixel 8 just got released here… Temptation!

Then had a wander round the bar district of Golden Gai in Kabukicho. Dozens of tiny bars – most just 6 or 8 stools at the counter. Jetlag won, plus it was raining, so headed back to the hotel in Asakusa.

October 14th 2022:

Started the day with a visit to the Shibuya Sky observation deck – a stunning new office/shopping complex right next to the famous Shibuya Scramble crossing. It has an AstroTurf helipad 😁 and views all around.

As you look around from the centre, at 47 storeys high, all you can see is city… It has its green spots, and there’s Ocean in the distance, but no countryside.
And one of these days the earthquake proofing in all these high rises will get a proper workout… but life goes on.

At the bar, there’s a piano version of The Art Of Noise ‘Close to the Edit’ playing 😁 – my kind of vibe.

Lower floor shops are intense, the Japanese have such an incredible design aesthetic.

Hopped the train afterwards over the Rainbow Bridge to go and visit TeamLab Planets. I’m currently working my way through the whole of Peter Gabriel’s discography – current song ‘The Humdrum’ – ‘I ride tandem, with a random’ – mood.

On the way, passed by the large car park that was the site for the Sport Climbing events at the Tokyo 2020 Olympics. Alas, our visit was not to be… Site still watched over by the Unicorn Gundam.

TeamLab Planets was a wild ride. They describe it thus: “teamLab Planets is a museum where you walk through water, and a garden where you become one with the flowers. There are four massive exhibition spaces and two gardens.” It’s a real trip, you enter walking up a carpeted incline with a stream running over your bare feet, then first stop is a room with soft, deep flooring like the world’s biggest bean bag. It only gets stranger from there.

Hitachino Beer Lab in Akihabara for beer and sausages. Then a nightcap at Beer Komo (was Campion Ale), followed by a stroll bacl through Asakusa.

October 15th 2022:

Started early, Ginza line train heading out to a suburb called Setagaya. I’d seen lots of info and photos about this area from an Instagram account I follow, @LisaInJapan – amazing photographer. Headed first to Sangen-jaya Station, and up to the observation deck in Carrot Tower. Great views over the area, and you can see Mount Fuji on a clear day – sadly today not quite clear enough.

Local train ride to the other end of the Tokyu Setagaya line, looking out for the cute train with lucky cats all over it – spotteed it at Shimo-Takaido:

Started to walk back along the line towards Sangenjaya, through nice little Tokyo neighbourhoods with – what else – a community rice paddy:

Along the way I found a nice little shop to give me my first taste of a delicacy I hadn’t tried yet – tayaki! A batter poured into shaped irons and then sweetened red bean paste as a filling, delicious, or as the Japanese say ‘oishii’ 😋. Then on to my goal – Gotokuji temple.

From Tofugu: “I’m sure many of us out there are familiar with the beckoning cat that greets customers in front of Japanese restaurants and stores. Known as the maneki neko, or literally “the beckoning cat”, the small doll is believed to be a lucky charm that brings in customers and money into the shop.

While there are several legends about the origins of this cat charm, one of the widely known story regards Gotokuji as the place of origin. Legend holds that the maneki neko originated back in Edo period, when a feudal lord from Hikone (a city in present-day Shiga Prefecture) passed by a temple in Edo. There, he met a cat that beckoned him to come into the temple. The lord followed the cat and decided to stop by the temple; soon after, a thunderstorm came by. The lord, who took shelter at the temple, became thankful of the cat’s deed; eventually, he collected enough funds to rebuild and claim the temple as his family temple, which eventually became Gotokuji. As time went on, people began to offer maneki neko figurines to the temple as a sign of gratitude when their wishes came true.”

There are a LOT of manekineko here… 😺

Train back to Sangenjaya, and a quick Google Maps search for ‘craft beer’ brought up “Beer jyuku MARIBANA Sangenjaya”. Walked past it twice before deciding it was the right place and to go in – very low key frontage with – of course – Japanese signage. Glad I did – 12 taps of mostly Japanese craft beer, and some great sashimi and edamame. And some… other… stuff 👀

Met two locals who spoke great English, one works with US and UK companies in the automotive software field. Just came from an over 50s soccer march which they won! They thought I must live in Japan to be able to have found that bar… and when they heard about my trips they decided I must be half Japanese already. Also got complimented on my skill with hashi – chopsticks – always nice to hear.

Quick run back to Asakusa to freshen up, then met with a local for dinner. Yaeko guided me and another couple on a food tour of Osaka on my last visit. She’s now based in Tokyo, working for an all-female startup (most unusual here) focused on B2C sales of cosmetics and lingerie. She’s also starting to work in the food tour guiding again now that tourists are heading back – busy young lady!
Meat sushi (heaven) and assorted sake for the win. Sushi was at Ebisu Yokocho Nikuzushi, located inside Ebisu Yokocho – and complex of tiny food stalls/pubs. Very lively as you can see below!

Funky bar

Streets of Tokyo

January 8th 2019:

Good reading at the cafe

In the morning, went to find some of the places related to Katsushika Hokusai’s life, having had the fun of printing one of his most iconic works the other day. It turned out that Hokusai’s grave was in a neighbourhood very close to my hotel, so after a February Café cheese toast I wandered over – took a little tracking down, as GPS can’t say which side street you should use to access the site from!

It was nice to walk the little backstreets of Asakusa for a change – too often travelling between the landmark spots relies on either metro or the wide main streets. Hokusai’s grave is in a small temple courtyard, very simple. The weather had been so unseasonably warm of late, the tree at the gateway was actually bearing blossom already. As I walked on, happened upon the Pelican bakery that provided the café with its awesome bread.

Next stop was the Hokusai museum in the Sumida neighbourhood where the artist lived all his life. He was so dedicated to his art and spent so much time on it, he would no concern himself with trivial things like house cleaning. It’s said that when the house became too dirty, he would just move – and that he had lived in around 90 different places in his 90 year life. I like him even more now.

Walked there along the banks of the Sumidagawa, some nice reproductions showing how it would have looked in Edo times. The museum was very impressive – the general exhibition showed just how prolific he had been as an artist, including whole books of sketches about how to draw – some read like guides to modern cartooning, and indeed Hokusai is viewed as the creator of manga which ultimately became the Western cartoon tradition.

A while ago, I had found an interesting story in the Japan Times, about an architect and academic that led walking tours of Tokyo’s forgotten landscapes. As Tokyo evolved from the Edo era town into the massive metropolis we see today, parts of its topography have been preserved, with steeply sloping streets showing where rivers once ran:

“Yet a closer look at the topography of the yamanote turns up a more complicated picture: The yamanote itself is perforated by rivers that run toward the bay and rivulets that end in swamps and pools. The result is an undulating unevenness, a series of hills and valleys. It’s a topography that sets Tokyo apart from other Japanese cities, and most cities in general.”

So I decided to follow one of the routes mentioned in the article.

Steep streets

Steep street down from Shinanomachi station led into a quiet little neighbourhood. The river was still there – just buried, you could occasionally hear rushing water as you passed manhole covers. Long winding route before finally a steep ascent back onto one of Tokyo’s main streets.



Decided I couldn’t leave Tokyo without a visit to Akihabara. Came in via a Metro station I wasn’t familiar with, and on the walk over to Hitachino Nest Brewing Lab happened across something I’d read and seen video about – the creepy vending machine corner!

A street corner, with a whole cluster of the ubiquitous vending machines seen all over Japan. But actually inside the dingy corner building as well as outside. At first they seemed ordinary enough, with the usual drinks. Then a row of toy trains on the top shelf of one…. Large plastic beetles in cans… the cans of food (soup and oden)… and finally the boxes. Many, many boxes, each with what appears to be a short story on the outside, and no indication of the contents. One YouTuber dared to try one out, and found that it just contained a box of vegan crackers. Weird? You betcha!

Some excitement on the next street, as the driver of a lorry carrying a shipping container realised in time that he was about to drive under a railway bridge which would be too low for his load… cue lots of police and traffic cops running around excitedly.

Hitachino beers awesome as ever.

Last orders at Campion Ale. Got chatting to a couple of guys, Alex from England, George from Romania, both studying Japanese at a language school. Alex’s girlfriend has been working in Tokyo for a while, so he’s decided to move here as well, 6 months in. George just wanted a complete change of scenery after working in Israel, looking to work in the same design related field once he has enough Japanese under his belt. Like the couple I met in Aso, this is more food for thought. Need to hit those Japanese textbooks once I’m home and start seeing what the possibilities are.

Walked about 14km today. Legs a little tired to say the least…

Enoshima: Rush hour and bird bandit.

January 7th 2019:

(C)rush hour

So, today was time to head to the coast and see if I could get some Mt Fuji viewing in. Headed out early to face the joy of rush hour in Tokyo – had to let 3 trains go by before getting on one, though the locals happily cram themselves in until the doors could only just close.

View from the air

Changed trains at Shinagawa, for the service down towards Kanagawa. Was the train late? Nope, still showed as the 9:11 even though it left at 9:17. Changed onto the Shonan monorail at Ōfuna Station, second time riding this one. Suspended monorails are good fun – gliding along above the level of the traffic, with great views off to the mountains to the west. Arrived at Enoshima station, strolled down and across the bridge to the island itself. Had to chuckle at the signs telling you to beware of hawks (a particularly nice specimen pictured on top of a street lamp), turns out I was laughing too soon…

Ice cream spotted

Wasn’t in the mood to climb all the steps up to the top of the island, luckily for a modest fee you can ride a set of escalators past the shrines that take you most of the way there. Along these were sets of adverts, and one kept catching my eye – the current seasonal ice cream flavours, one umeboshi (pickled salted plums) and the other apple + camembert cheese. Decided this would be a good idea after some Fuji watching.

Sadly – no Fuji today, clear skies locally but over towards the mountains the clouds thickened in just the right (or wrong) spot to hide the key player. After surveying the beautiful views for a bit, decided ice cream was in order. At the counter, they helpfully pointed out another of the warning signs, this time mentioning kites instead of hawks, and cautioning that they were ‘looking to steal your food!’. Wasn’t going to be outwitted by a birdbrain, no sirree.

The apple + camembert was really nice, good combination of sweet fruit and creamy cheese (not an overpowering blue cheese flavour). Parked myself by a railing right next to a palm tree, figured the birds wouldn’t risk flying that close. Had finished most of the ice cream above the top edge of the cone, when I heard a whooshing noise and a powerful downdraft of air hit my head – and the whole top section of the cone disappeared, carried away in the beak of a big bugger, must have been a metre wingspan easy.

Looking around, he must have made a pinpoint bombing raid, dropping low between palm trees behind me – most impressive. Had to admire my winged bandit.

Walked back down the stairs past the shrines to the shopping street at the bottom. Having been done out of part of my ice cream, decided to try a local speciality – octopus senbei (crackers). Octopus was dredged in cornflour and a light corn batter, then placed on a two sided hot press that had a mechanism to clamp it down really tight. Over the cooking time the chef would crank this tighter and tighter, until you could hear a squealing noise as the water in the octopus was instantly turned to steam. End result a light cracker a couple of millimetres thick, crunchy and absolutely delicious.

Print with woodblock

Rode the Enoden (Enoshima electric railway) up line 4 stops to Fujisawa then all the way back to Kamakura. Main line train back up to Asakusa. Chilled out at the hotel for a bit, then went to Mokuhankan and spent far too much money on prints.

Decided I’d have an evening cruise so rode ferry Hotaluna (the sister ship of the Himiko we rode on our first trip here) down to Hinode pier, then local Metro to Odaiba. Primary reason was to visit Toys’r’Us, to track down a limited edition Lego set only released in Asian countries (Japan, China etc) to celebrate New Year.

Learned that they have a Statue of Liberty there…

Metro onwards to Shinjuku to my favourite dinner spot there, salted salmon set for dinner.

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