Thursday, April 23, 2015

Shibamata and the Taishakuten Temple -- a very local Tokyo experience

What does Tokyo look like beyond its skyscrapers?  On this last trip, I decided to venture out from the tourist trail -- I would go and see what the other side of Tokyo looked like.

 I asked my Japanese friends to recommend a place and they suggested I visit Shibamata,  50 minutes out of Shinjuku.  They assured me that it would be exactly what I was looking for.
To get to Shibamata,  I took the JR Yamanote train to Nippori and transferred to the Keisei Line headed for Takasago.

Exiting Takasago,  I transferred to the Keisei Kanamachi line that goes to Shibamata.

  On this Saturday morning, I practically had the train all to myself.

The Keisei Kanamachi line has just three stops.  I had barely warmed my seat when it was 
time to get off.

The Shibamata station looked like it had been trapped in a time warp.  It was just 50 minutes from Shinjuku station but I felt 50 years removed from the present.
Aside from its Buddhist temple, Shibamata is famous for playing a major role in the longest running film series in Japan.  Called "Otoko wa Tsurai Yo" or "It's tough being a Man", this film which debuted in 1970 and had 48 serials until the 1990s,  was all about the life and times of "Tora san",  a characterisation of the Japanese everyman.
In the film, Tora san hails from Shibamata and while he has adventures all around Japan, he always finds his way back home.
A bronze statue stands right by the station and shows the traveling Tora san, wearing a suit and slippers and carrying a suitcase. He looks as if he is about to catch a train for somewhere but still looks back at his hometown.

A quaint, pedestrian only street lined with shops and restaurants is the main road to the temple.
Dripping with  atmosphere and nostalgia, this shopping street evokes a time that is long past -- I have not watched the film series but this must have been what Shibamata looked like in the 70's, during Tora san's time.  I love these vintage style Japanese shopping streets, more than any of the high rise gleaming department stores and architecturally cutting edge malls.

They say that sometimes you can see characters dressed up as Tora san, walking along.  
For now, I am happy enough to see his photo in this sweet shop that played a prominent role in the film series.

Tora san was played by the late actor Kiyoshi Atsumi, who because of his iconic portrayal was never able to play any other character.  It's a good thing he starred in 48 Tora san films -- he must have enjoyed a successful career.

I get caught up by each and every store that I pass by -- even the items for sale seem to belong to another era. Colourful candies in glass jars remind me of the sweets I used to enjoy as a child "lima cinco sa sari sari store" (5 candies for 5 centavos from the corner store).

Of course there are the ubiquitous packs of senbei or rice crackers, in all shapes and flavours.   
Some of them are even stamped with the likeness of Tora san -- thus making them the perfect omiyage from Shibamata.

Even the little curios and knick knacks are of the vintage variety.  They bring to mind simple 
and easy times.

After much dawdling and loitering, and yes shopping -- I finally come to the end of the street and see the  temple gate right in front of me.  The green tiles on the roof make a striking contrast with the dark patina of the unpainted wooden gate.

I pass through Nitenmon, the main gate.  It stands tall and graceful and is beautifully carved with very detailed and intricate decorations.

This is the main hall of the temple, the Taishakudo.  
Shibamata Taishakuten is the popular name of this temple,  but it is also known formally as 
Daikyo-ji.  Established in the 1600's, it did not do well through natural disasters like earthquakes and fires.  Thus the main buildings have been rebuilt and are only about one hundred years old.  
This massive pine tree with its branches spread out stands guard in front of the Taishakudo or main temple.  
Called the Zuiryu no matsu or Lucky Dragon, this tree is spread so wide that it actually needs wooden beams to support the weight of its branches.

The treasure of Taishakuten is kept in the inner temple of the Taishakudo.  There is a fee that includes entrance to both the inner temple and the garden.

The inner temple has incredible wooden panels featuring very elaborate carvings of scenes from
the Lotus Sutra.  My photo does not do it justice at all -- each little figure, each part of the scenery is so detailed, so lifelike that you just cannot help but stand mesmerised  in front of each one.  

It's very helpful that there is an English description of what is depicted in each panel.  This is something that is not usual in most Japanese temples and shrines.

The panels cover this huge "gallery" in the middle of the building.  As I walked around these amazing works of temple art,  I was reminded of the stained glass windows inside old Catholic churches all over Europe.  Like these wooden panels, the stained glass windows depicted stories from the Bible and were used to both inform and educate the faithful.

Aside from the carved wooden panels in the inner temple, Taishakuten  has a lovely little garden in its backyard that is definitely worth seeing.
A covered wooden pathway takes you all around the garden.    I felt as if I was walking down an extremely long red carpet -- albeit devoid of crowds and paparazzi.

A central pond, carefully placed rocks and greenery -- Taishakuten features the essential elements of the traditional Japanese garden.  
There are few visitors on this spring day so I truly relished the silence and the serenity.

The temple bell outside Taishakudo was rung 12 times to signal the noon hour.  
Time to take my leave of this charming and delightful temple discovery.  

But first, a sip from Taishakuten's "divine" waters.  This spring  flows naturally and has been part of the temple since the 17th century.

What a well spent Saturday morning!
It was a fascinating glimpse into a side of Tokyo that I had not yet seen.
While there are more well known and popular destinations in this megalopolis that tourists flock to, this was a distinctly local and native experience that I very much enjoyed.

Friday, April 17, 2015

Cutting edge Japanese cuisine at Itamae Bar in Ginza Tokyo

I was looking forward to a traditional  Japanese dinner this cool Sunday evening in March with my long time gourmet friend Abe san.  However,  he ended up surprising me by bringing me to his latest restaurant discovery - a trendy, cool bar somewhere in the side streets of Ginza.

Itamae in Japanese means cook or chef.  Such a basic, simple name for a place that Abe san said was quite new,  now very popular and hot with the Tokyo dining crowd.

Itamae proudly proclaims what it offers ... Japanese Food / Sake / White Wine.  Oh dear, it seemed quite hipster-ish and young to me.

Looking around the casual, "industrialised" interiors of this modern izakaya,  I laughingly told Abe san that we were the oldest patrons in the place.

Counter seating was available,  conducive to watching the itamae or chef prepare and plate the dishes.  As it is essentially an izakaya or bar, Itamae serves mostly "otsumami" -- the Japanese version of "tapas" -- lots of small dishes meant to be enjoyed while drinking.   
It's what you would call a gastro-pub.  This being Tokyo, I was sure the pub fare would be superb.

When drinking in Japan, it is normal to start with a cold glass of nama or draft beer.
Then you can move on to sake or shochu or in the case of Itamae, something from their carefully chosen selection of white wines.
We were started off with a small amuse bouche of a shiso leaf wrapped around bits of stewed tofu, bamboo shoots, greens and diced potatoes.  The sauce was sharp, vibrant and refreshing.
A single pink blossom garnished this appetiser -- perhaps to evoke the coming sakura season.

 Abe san ordered one of Itamae's specialties -- grilled awabi or abalone, sliced and artfully presented on the shell.  Along with the awabi were fresh vegetables like baby corn,  a surprisingly sweet and tasty no-heat little red pepper,  cucumbers and daikon.
Everything was beautifully presented on a large glazed dish that mimicked the sheen and shape
of an abalone shell.

A dark green sauce accompanied the dish.   Made of abalone liver and fat, it delivered a
straight umami kick right to my unsuspecting palate.  This dip was decadently delicious --
rich, with a light hint of bitterness and deep overtones of the briny sea.
So silky smooth with a complex, satisfying taste.
My Pinoy sensibilities secretly wished for a small bowl of  hot kanin or rice to slather all this superlative sauce on.
Extra rice please!

Itamae puts its modern, contemporary take on regular Japanese food.  From recent forays to non-traditional restaurants and bars in Japan, I note that cheese is used more and more in Japanese dishes.  This dish Abe san ordered was camembert lightly dusted with herbs,  fried up as a tempura and then wrapped in a thin, nearly translucent slice of fresh, uncured ham.
Pork and cheese -- definitely not kosher but oh so delicious.

It must have been all the richness -- from the ambrosial abalone dip to the mouthwatering camembert tempura but I was all of a sudden,  "onaka ippai yo" or quite full.
But it just took a little bit of persuading for me to agree to a one-for-the road order of assorted sashimi.
Abe san and I enjoyed fatty toro, slices of tai or sea bream,  succulent kampachi or yellowtail tuna, slivers of raw squid that slithered down my throat -- all these artfully presented on a bed of greens, twigs, julienned radish and yes -- a small dish of "nitro" for that  foggy molecular gastronomy effect.
I am happy to say that nitro or not, the sashimi was the star of the show.

An evening spent in wonderful company,  excellent contemporary Japanese food, beer and sake -- it was the perfect way to end the week-end, fully recharged for the meetings ahead.
I walked back to the hotel, enjoying the bright vibrant lights of Ginza and feeling grateful for new memories made -- of another great food experience with a dear old friend.

Sleeping under the Sakura Tree - Park Hotel's Artist Room by Hiroko Otake

When in Tokyo, I always stay only at the Park Hotel in Shiodome, a few steps away from the head office.  While I have tried other hotels in the area, I prefer this hotel for its quiet, relaxing ambience and discreet stylish elegance.

Park Hotel is on the 24th to the 34th floor of the Shiodome Media Tower,  also the headquarters of Kyodo News, a non profit Japanese news organisation.  

The past couple of years, the hotel has embarked on an arts program -- inviting well known and contemporary Japanese artists to showcase their work in the hotel.  The artwork is not confined to just exhibits in the lobby and public areas -- rather the art is brought right into the guest rooms themselves.  Featured artists are invited to create a special "Artist Room" with themes of their own choosing.

On my last business trip to Tokyo this March, I decided to book my stay in an Artist Room.
Since it was almost sakura season,  I was happy to choose the " cherry blossoms" room so that I could sleep with sakura all around me.  This particular room featured art done by Ms Hiroko Otake.

The entire hotel room is the artist's canvas.  As I entered my room, Otake san's happy blue butterflies greeted me at the hallway entrance.

This hardly prepared me for this  astonishing,  stunning sight --  a gorgeous cherry blossom tree in full bloom.  Pink sakura, petals and butterflies seemed to shower down on the bed.
Dreamy gold clouds made up of separate gold leaves added warmth and richness.
What  dreams would I have amidst all this breathtaking beauty?

Otake san's  large sakura tree trunk dominated a corner of the room -- spreading out blossom laden branches throughout the two walls.  Butterflies continued their flight on the dark blue ceiling.  
It was an enchanting, captivating sight.  I felt like I was part of one big magical canvas.  
And I was almost sorry to spoil the effect by my presence.  
Perhaps I thought,  I should sleep in the bathroom and preserve this scene, unsullied by my ordinary, messy self.

Gold butterflies flitted about wherever I looked, even behind the small t.v. on the work desk.
Each day of my stay,  I hurried back to Park Hotel as soon as my meetings ended to luxuriate in my delightful surroundings.
And for once, I kept the t.v. turned off throughout  -- it didn't seem right to watch sordid and mundane affairs such as the world news on CNN in the midst of a peaceful and tranquil setting.

It took quite an effort to break my gaze from Otake san's art, so soft, serene and timeless,  to view the steel and concrete city that unfolded below me.  
I always book a room with the view of Tokyo Tower at the Park Hotel.
Then I would sit and watch the changing colours of the city skyline, a panorama  I never grew tired of.
This time, the blues, pinks and gold of the art on my walls perfectly complemented the vista that unfolded outside my window.

This small plaque with Otake san's  bio data and brief description of her artwork and her aesthetic    was tucked discreetly on one portion of the wall.  As I read her message about the sakura and its meaning and symbolism, I appreciated her art and her aesthetic even more.

Domo arigato gozaimashita, Park Hotel Tokyo and Otake san.
I am truly grateful for this extraordinary stay --  it was brief but utterly exquisite -- just like the remarkable sakura.

Tuesday, April 14, 2015

A German break at Stein Haus in Ginza, Tokyo

It was a Sunday afternoon and I wandered around the side streets of Ginza, not knowing what I wanted to eat -- but knowing what I didn't want to eat.  
And sacrilegious as it may sound, and the Japanese embassy may revoke my visa for saying this, 
but at this particular moment in time, I knew I didn't want to eat Japanese food.
Fortunately, Ginza has many international cafes, trattorias, bistros -- you name it, you can find it.  
In Ginza 2 chome, I stumbled on Stein Haus,  a German beer garden that also serves hearty German fare.

Stein Haus is on the 8th floor of  Ginza Velvia.  The building itself houses a lot of froufrou trendy boutiques and shops.  The restaurants on the 7th and 8th floors all had long queues this Sunday afternoon -- making me think that these young Tokyo-ites had just woken up and were sitting down to a very late lunch.

I ordered a glass of a premium German draught beer called Franziskaner Weissbier,  which was golden and cloudier than the normal Japanese beer.  It was slightly pleasantly sour  and had a fruity and a bit of a spicy undertone.   Much heavier than Asahi or Kirin but still very easy on the throat.  
Stein Haus offers a number of high quality German beers and I was very happy with my choice.

 A side dish of piping hot truffled  fries arrived right after the beer did --  I had to exercise extreme restraint to keep from finishing the entire plate.

Please don't think I ate this all by myself.   My colleague and I ordered a sausage platter good for two with three different kinds of sausages, a  generous slice of ham, roasted potatoes and a very good sauerkraut that wouldn't be out of place at the Oktoberfest.  
Hot grilled sausages and beer  -- Ach mein Gott,  sehr gut!  

On top of the fries and the roasted potatoes, we ordered the bread plate -- warm soft pretzels and slices of sourdough bread -- these certainly upped the carbohydrate count.
I was so tempted to take two pieces of bread to make a sausage sandwich but didn't want to raise the stylish eyebrows of the hip young diners beside me.

Tomorrow I promise to go back to sushi and sashimi but for now -- Prost! 
Danke, Stein Haus.

Monday, April 13, 2015

A Salaryman's Super Chirashi Bowl at Sushidokoro Marui in Ginza, Tokyo

When in Japan for work,  I try eat where the normal salaryman eats.  This has led me to some of my favourite restaurants -- the food is always good, served fast and most importantly is reasonably priced.  On this last trip to Tokyo, my colleague took me to a sushi place in Ginza -- an area where prices are usually on the high side.  But surprise, surprise -- I had a fantastic lunch at normal salaryman's prices.

Sushidokoro Marui is hidden somewhere in the back streets behind Matsuya Department Store.  We arrived way past the lunch hour on a Saturday so the entrance was devoid of the usual long queue of office workers.

Sushidokoro Marui is compact --  the sushi counter  on the ground floor seats just six people.
While there were vacant chairs in front of the sushi chef, we opted to take our meal upstairs in less cramped surroundings.

 There are just 11 items on the lunch menu.   Marui caters to salarymen and OLs or office ladies who need to get back to work right away and thus, do not have the time to lengthily ponder the question "What am I going to eat today?"
I find it so amazing that most of the sushi offerings fall well below 2,000 yen.  Such a bargain for sushi in the Ginza district.

 I ordered the Zukeana Chirashi which is a bowl topped with grilled soft anago and slices of dark red maguro.  A raw quail's egg sits atop the fresh ingredients, ready to be poured over everything.    Bright yellow tsukemono or pickles,  fresh perilla leaves, a smudge of wasabi and other greens make this bowl so colourful, vibrant and appetising.

 The fresh quail's egg mixed with the sticky sushi rice complemented and tied all the flavours together.   This was definitely one of the best chirashi bowls I had ever had!
Once I got past the surface of the bowl  I found more meltingly delicious tidbits mixed in with the sushi rice.  There were bits of tamago, mini umami-laden globules of tobiko, pieces of ebi, salmon,  shredded nori ... each bite yielded a new texture and surprise.
It was such a delicious and satisfying lunch bowl and at 1,300 yen -- definitely a culinary steal!
Marui -- I will be back!