Sunday, September 25, 2011

Old, Low, High - My Tokyo Walk

It's not always about food when I'm in Tokyo -- it's also about exploring, discovering and just walking about this really unique city.
 I go to Tokyo for business, and most of the time I go alone, so I try to stay an extra day -- presentations and meetings are done, time to relax, unwind and have some me time!

I wake up to this view when I'm in Tokyo. The city unfolds before me and I can't wait to get out and start my day!
Today, I've decided on the theme for my little walkabout ... I want to experience the various nuances of the city.  
My walk will start with visiting the "old" side of Tokyo.

So, I take the metro, riding the Ginza line all the way to the end -- to one of my favorite places in Tokyo, Asakusa. It's a must-go-to every time I'm in town.  I love the vibe of Asakusa. 
In the old days, Asakusa was the center of  the city's shitamachi or low or old town.
Since it's a popular tourist destination, you can stop off at the Tourist Info Center for tips on how to walk around the area.

Right at the corner of Asakusa, you can catch a glimpse of the new Tokyo Sky Tree, now the tallest tower in the world.  It stands by the Sumidagawa, the river that runs through Tokyo.

Old style rickshaws can be hired in Asakusa, you can have yourself pulled around the area by young Japanese rickshaw drivers.

The rickshaws are parked by the sidewalk and since it's still early morning, most of them are waiting for customers.

I walk past this very old tempura store where tendon is the main specialty.  I've enjoyed a number of solitary lunches here but for now, it's just after 9 a.m and too early for lunch!

And here is the first torii or gate that welcomes you to the entrance to the Senso-ji, the most famous Buddhist temple in Tokyo.

Beyond the gate starts Nakamise dori, a shopping lane lined with shops selling all sorts of toys, kimonos, souvenirs, sweets, candies, Japanese crafts that date back to the olden days. There are other smaller alleys and lanes off Nakamise dori where the locals shop for clothes and shoes. 
I've spent many a happy hour meandering along the side streets of Nakamise dori.

Another gate comes up after the shops end, beyond which is the temple.

Just before I climb the Senso ji Temple steps, I pause by this urn where sticks of incense burn continuously.  People believe that the smoke from the urn can heal all sorts of ailments.  The trick is to stand and waft the smoke onto the part of your body that you feel needs healing the most.

And right inside the Senso ji Temple is the image of the Buddhist deity Kannon, the goddess of mercy.  Devotees clasp their hands and bow their heads in supplication and to thank the goddess for blessings she has bestowed on them.

Off to the side of the temple are rows of fortune cards. You whisper a wish to the deity, shake the canister and get the wooden stick that falls out from the hole.  Each stick has a japanese number character (which is exactly like the character on a mahjong tile!) which matches the various small drawers.  Open the one that matches your number and the answer to your question or wish is printed in the piece of paper.
If you're not happy with the answer, that's okay.  Just fold the paper and tie it on the many lines set up outside -- with so many little pieces of paper tied on the lines, I'm  thinking that many wishes were not granted today.

I stand on the steps of the temple, looking out on the people who have come to Senso ji this morning.

As I get ready to leave, I look up at the Five Storied pagoda, which is right beside the Senso ji Temple.

Then, it's back to the metro to take the train to the next destination!

I get off at Ueno and since it's midday and a weekday, the usually busy train station is quite empty. Ueno is another old district of Tokyo.  The station has exits for the famous Ueno Park and Zoo and the Tokyo Museum is close by but those are not my destinations for today.

I get off the station and into the hot and humid day.  

My plan is to go across Ueno Station and walk all the way to Okachimachi through the Ameyokocho Market which is a narrow alley that runs right beside the JR Railway Tracks.  After World War II, Ameyokocho was also known as the place to go for US goods -- PX in my vocabulary!

Today, Ameyokocho offers up all sorts of shops where there are bargains to be had, in a city as expensive as Tokyo.

It feels like Divisoria!  There are lots of stores selling all kinds of trendy apparel -- casual clothes like shirts, tees and jeans.

Ameyokocho is a major attraction in Ueno and tourists and locals alike both love shopping here.

Footwear spills out onto the sidewalk.  Lots of sandals and sneakers, given the hot September weather.

You can also do your food shopping here -- there are all sorts of fresh meats, seafoods and produce that are available.

My favorite chain drugstore, Matsumoto Kiyoshi!  I absolutely love this place and find all sorts of tonics, cosmetics, remedies, skin care and hair care products that are available only in Japan.

If you start to feel a little hungry, there are Japanese style carinderias where you can sit and have a meal.

As I walk closer to Okachimachi, sporting goods stores start to proliferate.  Okachimachi is the go to place for golf enthusiasts -- serious bargains can be had here for both used and brand new golf equipment.

Finally, my walk through the "low" part of Tokyo ends at the JR Okachimachi station!

I go up the platform and don't have to wait for too long before the train comes to whisk me away to the last segment of my walk for today.
I'm headed for Omotesando, definitely a "high" part of Tokyo.

I get off at the JR Harajuku Station.  It's a weekday so there aren't any cosplay dressers (by the way, they've all moved out to Akihabara) but there are a couple of guys with differently colored hair!

Takeshita Street, right across the station, is the heart of the Harajuku spirit. But that's not my destination for today so I walk on.

The tree lined Omotesando avenue leads to all things expensive and premium, Tokyo's "high" life indeed.

Omotesando actually means "front approach" and this refers to the Meiji-jingu Shrine which stands at the end of the avenue. I make a mental note to visit next time I'm in Tokyo.

Aside from the leafy and shady trees that line the avenue and the expensive shops that stand beside each other, there are metal quasi benches  -- you can sit and rest, take a phone call or just watch the people walking by.

Small shops dot the avenue -- I pause and take a photo of this really kawaii cat bag!  It takes a lot of will power to stop myself from buying this.

I cross Meiji dori Avenue and continue walking down Omotesando. Another new shop looks like it's about to open!

Omotesando Hills is a luxury mall right in the middle of the avenue.  I decide to take a detour and walk in.

I'm glad I did.  It's a very quiet, elegant mall with such high end branded stores.  It's also quite empty.  The Japanese economy is still hurting from all the obstacles it has had to face.

I walk back outside and see more luxury brands -- LV has a store right across the street.

As I near the end of the avenue, I come upon a small shrine. It's a serene spot amidst all the commercialism and I find it quite comforting.

It's mid afternoon and I've been out and alternately riding and walking for more than six hours! Time to head down the Omotesando station and catch the metro back to Shiodome!

Back in the hotel room, a glass of very tart but cooling cherry juice aptly named "Refresh" is just the right thing to restore and recharge me.

With my tired feet up on the window seat, I relax and look out onto the same view I woke up to this morning.  I already have plans where my feet will take me next time!
Tokyo -- jaa ne!

Friday, September 23, 2011

Chef Onodera at Kagurazaka ... slow food in Tokyo

Kagurazaka is an area in Tokyo that is known for its proliferation of upscale restaurants and small cafes. It is easily reached by getting off the Oedo Line at the Iidabashi Station.
It is in this quiet, genteel neighborhood that I was introduced to Chef Onodera who like the young chef at Kisaku (see other post) is part of a new breed of young chef proprietors who run their own small bastions of fine Japanese cuisine.
My Japanese gourmet friend discovered Onodera and had become a regular patron. I was truly bowled over the first time he brought me there.
Since that first dinner two years ago, I have gone back to Onodera a total of four times. Each time has brought nuances and subtleties of tastes and flavors -- truly worth the more than three hours that it takes to finish the meal.

Onodera is in one of the small buildings along the main street of Kaguraza. The road gently slopes uphill, you walk past boutiques, cafes, specialty shops until you see the lighted sign at the building's entrance.

Onodera is on the fourth floor, you go up via a small elevator and a curtained door greets you as you step out.
Inside, you take off your shoes and slip into the comfortable slippers provided for guests. You have to do this even if you are not sitting in the tatami area.
The place is small -- the counter which is right in front of the cooking area, is good for just seven diners. To the side, a semi private tatami room fits seven comfortably.
All in all, Onodera only makes 14 or 15 covers each night -- there is no second seating.
My friend told me that because of its size and because Onodera is open only for dinner, reservations have to be made weeks in advance.

Before the meal starts, a cold glass of beer sets the mood and tempo for the dinner ahead.
Slow down, Asahi san whispers to me -- relax and put your mind at ease.

There is only one set menu every night at Onodera which consists of about seven or eight dishes. Each diner gets a special handwritten menu so that you can follow the progress of your meal. Since I don't read Japanese, I mentally tick off the items as they arrive.
While there are constant dishes, which are the chef's specialties, the menu changes according to the season and what is fresh and available in the market.
Aside from the set menu, Onodera has plenty of sake and shochu choices -- according to my Japanese friend, it's a high quality, premium drink list.

The dinner starts with a small cold salad of bonito flakes, chopped seaweed and other vegetables. The bonito and the seaweed bring the briny taste balanced by undertones of the yuzu flavored dressing. Bonito flakes melt in the mouth while the pickled greens provide a different texture.

After the salad comes three slices of sashimi -- tuna, flounder and sea bass. Three slices, you might think... in this case, it's about quality and not quantity. I pause to savor each slice and the unique flavor of each. Wasabi is freshly grated and that makes a difference in the enjoyment of the sashimi.

The last time I ate at Onodera was late November last year when meat was still part of my diet.
So I was able to enjoy this simple, comforting chicken meatball soup. In a clear and delicate broth, the meatballs stood out for their rich mouth feel and complex flavor.
It seemed so un-Japanese to have chicken meatball soup but once I had a spoonful, I understood. Hai, wakarimashita!

This is Chef Onodera preparing and cooking everything in his mini kitchen right behind the counter where we sit to have our dinner. He is a terrific person -- as he slices, dices, cooks and plates, he is also constantly bantering and talking with his customers -- most of who are regular patrons.
The second time I ate at Onodera, I brought the chef a colorful Philippine cookbook and some packs of dried mangoes.
That certainly bumped me up in terms of recognition and recall!

After the chicken meatball soup, comes a slice of grilled swordfish -- so yummily fatty that I greedily ate every bit -- saving the bit of crisp skin for last!

We are past the halfway mark and have been eating, talking, drinking for two hours.
Up next is a small bowl of tofu, eggplant, bokchoy and fish cake in a lightly sweet and gelatinous broth.
It is topped with a smudge of wasabi and surprise surprise -- popped corn kernels which Chef Onodera had just whipped up on the stove top behind the counter!

At this point, my friend has convinced me to switch from beer to sake. He says it will perfectly complement the small shot glass of assorted fish roe and grated daikon. We take our sake cold, even if we are in the middle of a chilly November evening.

After that taste breaker of salty fish roe, we are served smooth and creamy chawan mushi but not the ordinary chawan mushi that I usually have. This one has grated seaweed on top and flecks of cheese blended in with the custard. Different but very good.

This steaming earthenware pot placed on the counter to "rest" contains aji gohan or flavored rice. Chef Onodera cooks a pot which can be good for two to four persons. He starts cooking it as you are eating, timing it just so that the aji gohan will be ready to be spooned into bowls at the end of the meal.

The steam rises from the hot rice once the chef lifts the cover. Before doing so, he has finely chopped spring onions and broiled a smoked mackerel on the salamander oven.
The final touch is to mix in the broiled fish flakes and garnish the rice with the chopped spring onions.

This is the last course of our dinner. The bowl of just cooked aji gohan, made more flavorful with smoked fish flakes and spring onions, a small side dish of tsukemono or japanese pickles and a cup of mushrooms garnished with cilantro in a clear broth.
The rice is warm, sticky, delicious. The tiny mushrooms are just perfect and slide down your throat. Crunchy and salty sour bits of tsukemono add texture to every mouthful.
There is more than enough in the pot for another serving of aji gohan but we are both too full.
My Japanese friend asks that the remaining aji gohan be made into an onigiri or rice ball which he can take for breakfast the next day.
The chef laughs and obliges -- he scoops up the remaining rice in the pot, puts it in a square of cling wrap and quickly presses it into a ball. Presto - onigiri from Chef Onodera!

We sat down to our dinner reservation at exactly 6 p.m and it is now past 9.
Somehow, time slows down at Onodera. The chef weaves his culinary magic and delights everyone. It's just as if we had been his guests, sitting in his kitchen, watching him cook, talking and having a good time.
Who cares about time when one is sharing a meal among friends?