Photo Diary: Tokyo | Neon Nights

Hello, Blogosphere! After much deliberation, I've decided to move all my in-depth travel writings over to a new blog: thecreativeadventurer.com! I spend hours and hours researching and writing these blogs, and they're more like mini travel essay's than blogs, and I felt like in the end they didn't belong on my portfolio site. That being said, I still do want to share photos and short memories from my travels here so I'm going to start posting these Photo Diaries which are mainly a collage of all the photos from a certain trip, activity, event or day out.

Tokyo was by far the most mind blowing city I've ever visited. Everything surprised me. Everything amazed me. Everything overwhelmed me (in the very best way possible). Reliving it here makes me want to go back ASAP!

Akihabara Vending Machine

In this little series, I wanted to focus on nightlife. Dan and I aren't much for partying, binge drinking and clubbing but we certainly are all for arcades, late night junk food, music and neon lights!

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Karashibimisoramen Kikanbo

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Akihabara

Akihabara Arcade

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Tokyo to Kyoto via Shinkansen

It seemed as soon as we arrived in Tokyo, it was time to leave and continue on our journey through Japan. We were incredibly sad to leave, there were so many things we had yet to do and see but it was time, and we knew we would come back one day. So with luggage in tow, we headed off to the last of our Tokyo destinations; Tokyo Station. Tokyo Station, located beside the Imperial Palace, is where you'll get on the high-speed Shinkansen trains but the busy station also sees well over 3,000 inner city trains every day. Despite this overwhelming number, it is only the fifth-busiest station in Eastern Japan.

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Tokyo Station was opened in 1914 as a means to connect Tokyo to the Tōkaidō Main Line and to the Nippon Railway. Back in 1914, only four platforms were serving two electric trains and two non-electric. The current design of the building reminds people a lot of the train station in Amsterdam. But the original design did draw this same comparison. Originally, the roof tops were domed with intricate designs on the interior. After the war had destroyed much of Tokyo, as well as the station, the roofs had to be rebuilt and were designed with a slanted style you now see today, which is what draws the reference to Amsterdam.

Tokyo station

In addition to being a railway station, Tokyo Station is also an excellent place to shop, explore and dine any time of the day. "Kitchen Street" is a maze of restaurants serving up Japanese style meals and some of the best ramen in town. The lines here for the most famous ramen shops can stretch around the station so be prepared to wait or come at off hours. For shopping, you have to check out "Characters Street". This long passageway is filled with shops selling toys based off famous Japanese characters like Hello Kitty, One Piece, Domo-kun or Pokemon.

Tokyo Character Street

But we didn't have much time to shop or eat; we had a train to catch. But the one thing we had to do before we left - we had to find ourselves something to eat on the train. Luckily for us, pre-packaged train meals is what Japan is KNOWN for! These are called Ekibens. "Ekiben" are a bento box, sold on trains and in train stations throughout Japan. Eating one of these ekibens is a necessary part of your Japanese travel experience. Each one is wrapped in intricately designed paper and shiny cellophane. The different colours and designs each vying for your attention, calling out to be bought.

Bento boxes for sale, Tokyo Station

"Ekibenya Matsuri" is the most popular shop in the station here you'll find over 170 different varieties of ekibens. Years and years ago, train stations all over the various regions in Japan, had their regional specialities, showcasing local produce, that was only available in that location. It meant that even if you didn't have time to try all the local foods while visiting, you could always try them out them on the way home with these portable dinners. One of the most engaging bentos sold here is the "train bento" which is in the shape of Japanese train. They are enjoyed by children and adults alike and contains all the same great foods as are options in any other bento. It's not just a "kids meal" of chicken nuggets and mashed potatoes. Oh no, children here eat just what the adults eat - no complaints here. Another one of their highlighted dishes is the "Beef Tsukudani" which is beef cooked in sweetened soy sauce and served on a bed of rice. Everything is cooked fresh so you won't find any day old meals here.

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Tokyo Bento is another trendy place to buy your bento box and ultimately where I bought my bento from. I take these things so seriously, and poor Dan had to walk all over the station with me as I looked for the supreme bento. I settled on Tokyo Bento since their meals looked to be the most traditional and definitely the most attractive. I didn't know much about it when I bought it but what I do know now makes me happy that it was the one I chose.

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Tokyo Bento serves boxes of food made by gourmet restaurants from all over Tokyo. For only 1,650 yen ($16) you can get a gourmet meal on the go. Inside this one little box is a sampler-like platter of signature dishes from Tokyo's best chefs.

Bento Box

In addition to bento shops, there are also plenty of convenience stores, cafeteria style quick service shops and fancy desserts stands where you can buy a sweet treat enjoy after your lunch.

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The one dessert I was sure to pick up when leaving the station was a box of Tokyo Bananas. Inside the beautifully designed box were 12 individually wrapped sponge cakes filled with banana cream. Perfect for sharing with family and friends when I got home. Tokyo Banana is one of the most popular souvenirs sold here and first went on sale in 1991. There are various flavours; Maple Banana, Banana Shake, Caramel, Banana Pudding and Tree Chocolate Banana but I stuck with the original. I also bought a box of Ginza Strawberry, cakes shaped like strawberries similar to the bananas, but wasn't a good and the original.

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We stood on the platform for a few minutes before our train arrived. People from all over seemed to be queuing up to get onto the trains. Old friends met up for a vacation, families set goodbye as their loved ones were headed home, and tourists like us were ready to set out for new adventures.

Tokyo Station - Kiosk

Shinkansen Trains are the most popular way to get from Tokyo to Kyoto, and on to Osaka from there. The trip lasts about 2.5 hours and costs about 13,500 yen depending on where you sit and if you get a reservation in advance (there is a slight charge for this, but it's small and very much recommended).

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These trains run at speeds of up to 320 km/h and arrive/depart precisely on time, every hour of every day. No mucking about, this is train travel at its finest. The cars are very comfortable, even in the economy class. After arriving at the station and getting ready to depart for the next destination, employees comes and change the direction of the seats, so they are always facing forward. A service, someone like me who gets sick easily when travelling backwards, really appreciates.

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With our reserved tickets in hand, we made our way to the numbered seats where we were situated. We quickly put our bags away and get comfortable. Unlike many other train cars, the seats are incredibly roomy. They are usually in rows of 3x2 but the "green cars" (basically the business class) all come 2x2 and provide slightly wider and cosy seats. But we thought the economy was splendid, and we wouldn't need any more space than we had. We had been worried about our luggage fitting in the overhead area, but they fit fine, and if our luggage had been any bigger, we could have easily set it in front of our feet with ample room to sit down. All in all, this was the best train car I'd ever had the pleasure of travelling and we hadn't even left the station.

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Throughout the journey, the announcements for the upcoming station were made in both English, Korean and Japanese so it was easy to know when to get off. The train cars were generally fairly quiet and surprisingly smooth for how fast we were travelling. Watching the urban sprawl of Tokyo disappear and transform into countryside vistas was an enthralling thing to watch unfolding out my window.

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After we go on our way, it was time to dig into my bento box. Unwrapping the bright vermillion box was like opening up a colourful jewellery box. Inside were neatly organised sections dedicated to each separate piece of cuisine. There was Uokyu’s Salmon Kasuzuke (pickled fish in sake lees), Tsukiji Sushi Tama Aoki’s special omelette, and Nihonbashi Daimasu’s braised vegetables. It was accompanied with a few pieces of pickled ginger and some other unidentified substances, all of which tasted amazing. The Japanese eat with their eyes first and never was this more clear than when eating a Tokyo Bento. I also grabbed an onigiri and some other Japanse drinks and snacks to enjoy throughout the rest of the journey.

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All shinkansen are equipped with multiple toilets. The train toilets I'm used to are pretty basic and sometimes pretty gross. But these - of course - are spacious, clean and very modern. Older trains might still have Japanese style toilets, but the Shinkansen has western style toilets with a large sink and mirror located outside. The toilets have all the same bells and whistles as they do in the rest of Japan and it's almost too comfortable....

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After a few hours, we pulled into Kyoto Station at the exact time, almost to the second, as listed on our ticket. There isn't much time to exit the train once arriving at your station, we had read this before, and we were ready at the door with our luggage to exit as soon as the train pulled into the platform. During our journey, the rain had crept up on Kyoto's skies, and once we exited the station, it was coming down hard. Although we could have taken a taxi (and we should have), it seemed so expensive for how close we felt we were to our hotel. So we set out, umbrellas in hand, to face the rain and race off down the old streets of Kyoto.

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We hardly had time to take in the sights as we stumbled along the rain-soaked cobblestone streets. The glowing light of our Ryokan (a Japanese Inn) in the distance was a welcome site to our soaking wet clothes. I have another blog all about our wonderful experience at the Ryokan so for more information of a traditional Japanse Ryokan - check it out!

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After settling in and having a nap, we had to head back out for dinner. Feeling a little overwhelmed in this new city, we decided on eating at "Coco Curry House" (a chain we'd eaten at before in Tokyo). The map in hand, we headed back out on the rainy street of Kyoto.

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There is nothing better for a cold, rainy day that a warm bowl of Coco Curry. Japanese curry is a thing onto itself. It's not like Thai, Indian or English curry; it's something totally unique. At Coco Curry House you can completely customise your meal. Choose your curry base flavour, meat, veggies, toppings and the level of spiciness. Every dish is unique and customised to you. I ordered mine with pork curry served on rice, with a chicken cutlet, mushrooms, cheese and garlic bits. Pretty spicy as I needed the heat to help warm me up from the inside out. Served on the side were these crunchy, sour pickles which helped cut the creamy and heavy nature of the curry, so you didn't feel as full afterwards. After finishing off our curries, we headed back out into the night. Kyoto already felt like a different city despite only really being able to explore in the dark, cold rain. It was quiet. It felt aged. And more than anything, it already felt more laid back. We seemed to be the only ones rushing.

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We went in search of a sweet treat and some Asahi Super Dry (both with and without alcohol) to enjoy in the comfort of our cosy hotel room. It was the ideal way to end a lovely relaxing day. Head on our pillows, I couldn't wait to get to sleep and start our exploration of Kyoto.

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Bucket List Dining with Sushi Yasuda

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Before we left for Japan, we decided that we wanted to have at least one big, blow-out meal. A dinner that would be as much of an experience as it was a culinary delicacy There are so many bucket-list sushi shops in Tokyo but based on looking thru a myriad of reviews, prices, location and availability, we decided on "Sushi Yasuda". Chef Naomichi Yasuda is somewhat of a household name in the industry due to his relationship with renown chef Anthony Bourdain and his feature in season 2 of the show "Parts Unknown". But despite the notoriety, he hasn't changed his menu, prices or the way he serves his customers in the six years he's been back in Japan.

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We made our reservations a few months in advance to ensure we were able to secure a table. We decided on a late evening reservation since it opened the rest of the day up for us and felt like the perfect way to end an evening. You only have two meal options here; the "Yasuda style Omakase" and the "14 piece sushi assortment". Omakase means "a meal consisting of dishes selected by the chef". With Omakase, chef Yasuda will prepare you a daily selection based on your preferences and seasonal items. He asks you both before your arrival and at dinner if you have any allergies or food aversions. Most chefs would never ask about preferences, preferring to serve what they see as the best of their cuisine but Yasuda values people individual tastes and wants each and every person, no matter how big of a savant or newbie, to have the best culinary experience possible.

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The Omakase will cost you ¥12,000-¥15,000, which is rough $120, and the assortment runs ¥7800, which is around $70. One word of warning, the Omakase's price will depend on how many pieces of sushi you eat and which fish he serves. The bigger your appetite, the rarer the fish, the bigger the bill. That being said, most people will only have a meal like this once. I held back on eating towards the end of the meal as I was afraid of the price as we ate more than was original allotted, whereas Dan ate a few more pieces and the difference on the bill was extremely minimal. If you're there, just eat your heart out! You might spend an extra 50$ or so, but you'll walk away feeling like you truly had an enjoyable experience. I regret holding back...but I guess that means I'll just have to find my way back.

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Being the intensely apprehensive Capricorn that I am, we arrived at least 20 minutes before our reservations. The restaurant is located in the basement of a narrow building down from the subway station. As you descend the stairs you pass by a variety of candles, incense and flowers left on each step. These are commonly seen on the front steps of houses we passed on the way in and putting them here makes you feel like you're entering someone's home. The restaurant itself is a modest, zen-like space, covered in blonde wood set against soft, white walls. A few small tables encircle a large counter with seats surrounding it. There was an air of calm and quiet when we arrived, and we whispered kindly to the waitresses who took our coats and asked if we'd like a cup of tea while we waited. A few people were finishing up their meal and bowed deeply to the chefs, full of smiles as they left.

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Chef Yasuda greeted us with a smile as we set down and began to explain what we were in for. He asked again for our preferences, where we were front and introduced us to the other guests. It felt like a family dinner.

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Chef Yasuda speaks perfect English despite growing up in Japan. In 1984 he moved to NYC to start a sushi restaurant but moved back to Japan in 2011. In NYC he owned a large restaurant and with that came a lot of responsibilities. He moved back to Japan not only to escape those duties but to start up a small, sushi restaurant where things could be simpler and made the way sushi was once served.

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Before starting on dinner, we were offered drinks from the cocktail menu. Everything served here (aside from the cans of soda) are drinks favoured by Yasuda using ingredients from his hometown of Chiba. Yasuda is very proud of where he is from and showing off their produce is an important part of the restaurant. Dan chose Yasuda favourite sake, and I decided on a glass of cold green tea. A sweet-faced waitress came up to Dan with a tray full of brightly coloured glasses for his sake. They were each hand blown glass, and not one was the same as the other. Choosing your sake cup's design and shape is as important to the drinking of sake as the elixir itself.

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Yasuda starts each piece of sushi off the same way. By forming the rice. His hands work with artful precision to make each one the perfect size for the fish placed atop it. Many sushi chefs and experts will tell you that rice is 90% of what makes good sushi. Therefore finding and perfecting your rice recipe are imperative to making good sushi. Yasuda's rice is both fluffy and textured, it has a tangy bite to it from the vinegar and alone is something truly delicious. The acidity from the rice against the creamy nature of most of the fish is the perfect combo.

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Once Yasuda had prepared the sushi for each guest, he would place it on our plate and proceed to tell us about the piece of fish. He would details where it was caught, the history of this kind of sushi and even sometimes how the environment the fish was raised in would change the way the food would taste. Once he was done talking all that was left to do was eat it. You picked up the piece of sushi with your hands (no need for chopsticks) and have the option of dipping it in some soy sauce, but each piece is flavourful enough on its own that I don't think you need it.

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Yasuda loves to talk. He loves to interact with his guests and encourage people to ask questions. I asked him about his thoughts on sushi making in Japan and he talked at length about his opinions, his technique and why he left New York. He is alone behind the counter. There are no assistants, no sue chefs, no cleaners. Just him alone working on his craft. This makes his creations all the more impressive. Most other sushi restaurants have a huge staff who shops, preps and helps make the actual sushi for the customer. Here, it's Yasuda alone.

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For my Omakase, it started off with Bluefin tuna. The perfect introductory piece of sushi. Clean and simple. Next, it was onto Norwegian Sea Bass. Yasuda makes sure to use both internationally caught fish as well as local since he wants to offer his customers the best of the best, no matter where it has been caught. After the sea bass, we moved onto the Fatty Tuna. Fatty tuna is known as being one of the most chased after types of sushi. The tuna comes in more than five different levels of fattiness. The chef's skill is shown in his preparation of the whole piece of tuna and separating it into the different cuts. "Akami" is lean part of the tuna, "chutoro" is the medium-fatty part, and the "otoro" is the highest fat cut. But even the otoro has levels of fat. There is the "kama toro" taken from the cheek and "hagashi toro" the super high-fatty tuna taken mainly from the top of the tail. Toro means "to melt", and that is exactly what this fatty part of the tuna does. Melts in your mouth.

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The raw shrimp was next. It was soft and rich, with a lemony finish.

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Horse Mackeral sushi is known to be slightly bitter and often passed over by many eaters, but Yasuda freezes the fish to "cure" it, allowing the fish to become much more enjoyable. I thought it was delightfully pleasant.

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Octopus has always been one of my favourite types of sushi and the one we had here was incredible. It was flavoured with lemon and topped with a splash of soy sauce. Softer and not tough or rubbery at all. A choice piece of fish.

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Yellowtail and needlefish were next. The needlefish was very similar to the anago (eel) we were going to have later on in the meal. It was great to try it before having the Japanese anago to compare the two. Next up was Uni - the kind of fish I was looking forward to the most. Uni is the Japanese name for the edible part of a Sea Urchin. We told Yasuda hadn't tried uni ever before but were excited to try a few varieties. Uni can come in a variety of colours, from deep gold to light yellow. The first type of uni was caught in California. It was light, sweet and briny and was intensely creamy. I was worried after all the hype, uni wouldn't live up to it all but it surpassed my expectations by a landslide.

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The second one we had was from Japan and Yasuda told us stories of how we went to the Tsukiji fish market every morning to make sure he found the best uni for his restaurant. This one had a much deeper flavour profile and impossibly creamy. I couldn't believe there even was anything in the world that could taste like that. It was a revelation.

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The woman beside us was genuinely afraid of the next dish that was served. But to me, it was absolute heaven. Salmon eggs, known as ikura in Japan, were cured by Yasuda himself and busted inside your mouth once you bit down. The ocean flavour explodes out and fills your entire mouth with the taste of the sea. It was surprisingly refreshing and perfectly salted.

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The Hokkaido oysters served next were unique. Hokkaido's water is freezing, resulting in a wealth of minerals deep in the ocean which is absorbed into the oysters giving them a delicious, sweet, savoury taste right out of the water. The taste was creamy and briny, these oysters we huge and every inch full of flavour.

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The sweet shrimp was one of the most magnificent parts of the meal and my second favourite piece of sushi of the night. The shrimp was lightly cooked giving it a slightly firm texture which brought out the bright and sweet aroma of the shellfish.

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Anago is the Japanese word for salt-water eels. If you get these in markets or other restaurants, they are usually doused in a sweet, cheap sauce, but here Yasuda cooked them atop a fire grill to give them a rich, smoky flavour and only lightly seasons them with sea salt, so you taste the trueness of the fish itself.

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We finished the meal off with salmon rolls, and snow crab and Dan had one last piece (which I regret not getting) - the sea clam. Dan said the clams were one of the most outstanding pieces of the meal. With the addition of a touch of lemon and sea salt flakes, the natural flavours of the fish were brought to the surface and was the ideal way to end the night.

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Although he offers us more, we couldn't eat another bite and gave in to our full bellies. Yasuda seemed satisfied with himself as we sat there, full of his excellent cooking. We thanked him kindly for such an enjoyable evening full of stories and laughter. Yasuda was kind enough to take a photo with us before we left to commemorate the evening. He flexed his biceps, he was once a famous boxer and still to this day retains those impressive muscles - which he is very proud of as well. His smile was beaming, and you can see by the look on his face how much joy that feeding us gives him. Some people have been known to be put off by Yasuda's attitude, he can be a bit cocky and judgemental of other sushi places, but he is truly a beautiful soul and cares deeply about the history and craft of Japanese sushi making. We were touched to have been able to taste a piece of his artistry and take with us the memories of those impeccable piece of sushi.