Teyandai – Okinawan Small Plates

You probably are wondering if these entries about Tokyo will ever end, right?  Well, just a few more, then we’ll be back to Thailand.  Actually, we’ve been back in Thailand since Thursday evening, but it takes a while to sort through pictures and tell all the stories.

During our trip, we were fortunate to have many friends to visit, most of whom are Japanese or Japanese-Americans who have lived in Tokyo for some time.  This gave us an edge in knowing where to go and what to see and eat, because they made the decisions for us.

Taro took us to Teyandai, an izakaya (basically a tapas bar) that specialized in Okinawan cuisine.  Hidden down a small street just a few blocks from the hustle and bustle of Shibuya, Teyandai is a real gem.


You would never notice it.  The sign (in Japanese only) is the small patch of light on the upper left side of the lava stone facade.  Other than that, there’s no indication what the building is.

Taro 011

But you head inside and find this wonderful space.

Taro 012

There are several small sections to the restaurant, all crowded and cozy.  Notice the small seating area halfway up the steps!

Taro 003

There was quite a large group of us: HP, Mark and Kathy from San Francisco, a couple HP and Mark knows from Spain and their son, and then Tawn and I and Taro.  We settled into a tight corner at the back of the room and started drinking and eating.

Compliments to Taro’s Panasonic Lumix LX3, which I borrowed to shoot these shots.  Its low-light performance is incredible, as its macro function.  HP helped by using a white screen function on his iPhone to provide some close-up ambient light.  (Thanks to Taro for letting me snag these pictures from his Facebook site.)

Here’s a look at some of the dishes we enjoyed:

Taro 001

Recognize it?  Everyone’s favorite: umi-budo (sea grapes), a type of seaweed that is also known as green caviar.  Served with a plum-yuzu dipping sauce.

Taro 002

Yamaimo no tatsuta-age (fried mountain yam) with tartar sauce.  Lovely.

Taro 004

Atsuyaki tamago (fried egg) stuffed with unagi (grilled eel).

Taro 005

Buta-suki corokke (pork sukiyaki croquette) which you dip in raw beaten egg before eating.

Taro 006

Ebi-mayo (deep-fried prawns with mayonnaise sauce), similar to the walnut prawns dishes you find in many Chinese restaurants, but without the walnuts.

Taro 007

Don’t have the Japanese name but it is a fried rice dish with pickled takana vegetables.

Taro 008

Pan-aisu (bread ice cream) – it is actually a very French baguette stuffed with vanilla ice cream.  Can I tell you how wonderful this combination is?

Taro 009

Fondant chocolat – not a traditional Okinawan dessert, I might add!

Taro 010

Kokutou purin (brown sugar pudding).  Taro’s favorite, the eggless custard on top hides a rich pool of pudding made from an unrefined, molasses-like sugar.

Taro 013

Me and Tawn in the entryway of the restaurant.  It contains little counters so if you’re waiting you can go ahead and start eating and drinking… which I guess means you wouldn’t really be waiting.

This was the highlight meal of the trip.  I really enjoy restaurants where I can try many different things and of course a “small plates” restaurant really meets that need.  There is no Japanese menu but if you make it to Tokyo I would encourage you to seek this restaurant out – the map is above.  I’d be happy to get you the name of things in Japanese so you can order.  Or just randomly point at things in the menu.

View Restaurants in Tokyo in a larger map

After dinner we went to Advocates Bar, one of the most inclusive bars in the gay district in East Shinjuku.  Situated on a corner, the bar only has room for about three people, so it inevitably spills out onto the street.

Taro 014

Left to right: Mark, Christina, HP, Chris, Tawn and Taro.  Kathy took the picture.

Unlike many of the small bars in Tokyo that are geared very much to only Japanese or only men, Advocates welcomes anyone and everyone.  We had a tall Japanese drag queen wandering around, plenty of westerners and women, as well as locals.  All in all, a very “community” watering hole.

Last thing to write about: our trip to Tsukiji fish market.

Shiodome and Naka-Meguro

After a night in Hakone Yumoto we headed back to Tokyo on a misty and overcast Tuesday morning for two final days in Japan.  Switching hotels from our comfy little place in Ueno, we went upper end and stayed at the swanky Park Hotel in Shiodome. 

This hotel, which I initially confused with the Park Hyatt Hotel of “Lost in Translation” fame, is still very nice and a very good value.  Located on the 25th-33rd floors of the Shiodome Media Tower (with the lobby on the 25th floor!) this new hotel is centrally located to four subway/rail lines.  Rooms are modern and well-equipped and the staff is exceptionally attentive.

Best of all, the view from the room (the same one as from the reception counter in the lobby), is stunning:


The upside/downside of this hotel’s location is that Shiodome is kind of like Century City in Los Angeles: largely a complex of business towers, a glass and steel wasteland that is deserted at night.  It is at once well connected to the city and cut off from it. 

An example of the stunning modern architecture across from our hotel, along with the kitschy faux tori gate set up in front of it:


Not far from this concrete netherland we did find signs of nature: the landscaped grounds of what is considered one of the world’s finest daily newspapers, the Asahi Shimbun.


Along our way we found more of the ubiquitous vending machines.  Water, water all around and not a drop to drink… if you don’t have a 100-yen coin.


One of our stops was the Tokyo Metropolitan Government complex in Shinjuku West.  The pair of buildings at the center of the complex house two free observation decks: one of each tower’s 45th floor.  The view is wonderful and Tokyo stretches as far as the eye can see.  They say that on exceptionally clear days, you can see Mt. Fuji.  Today, though, all we could see is this funny egg-shaped building.


It took me a while to find out what building this is, but the internet is a wonderful tool.  Thanks to Emporis.com, an international commercial real estate database that is accessible to the public, I located the so-called “Mode Gakuen Cocoon Tower”.  This 50-story educational building houses three different vocational schools and was selected by Emporis as the 2008 Skyscraper of the Year.  More info here.

On the ground floor of the Tokyo Metropolitan Government towers is an excellent tourism office that provides all sorts of useful, free information about greater Tokyo.  One thing they offer (for which you are well-advised to sign up for in advance) is free tours in English.  Something I will do differently on my next trip to Tokyo: stop here on day one.

There is also an office providing information about the other prefectures of Japan.  Although much of the information is in Japanese, some English language materials are available.  There are some fantastic three-dimensional wall displays showing the highlights of various regions.  They looked like the hats from Beach Blanket Babylon.

P1150832 P1150833
P1150834 P1150835

For lunch, we tracked down Funabashiya, a famous tempura restaurant in East Shinjuku recommended by a friend, Masakazu.  Dinners run around $50 here but like most restaurants in Tokyo, lunch is a much better deal.

P1150842 P1150838

This restaurant is about only one thing, tempura, and they do it incredibly well.  They’ve been around for years and their lunch special – about $10 – was a set of two batches of tempura with rice, soup and pickles.  The second batch of tempura was a surprise.  After receiving a generous serving of light, crispy vegetables and shrimp fresh from the wok, we were already satisfied.  Then the waitress returned a few minutes later with a second serving!


It is hard to describe how perfectly cooked this tempura was.  Very light batter and not a bit of grease.  There were three types of sea salt to sprinkle on the tempura, including a red salt with lots of minerals and a pepper-salt mixture.

After lunch we did a little more shopping in Shinjuku, including a stop at Tokyu Hands, an eight-story crafts/hardware/home improvement/DIY store in which you can definitely find at least one thing you never knew you needed.

On the way back to the rail station we passed something surprising: a large Krispy Kreme donuts outlet.  Fellow Xangan Tony took a picture of this on a recent trip to Tokyo but I was surprised to see it in person, and even more surprised by the number of people queued outside at 3:30 in the afternoon!


Nearing rush hour, we hopped on a train, connected at Shibuya and traveled two stops further to a hidden gem that isn’t on the tourist guidebooks’ radar screen, yet: Naka-Meguro.


Everyone wants to find that little hidden corner of a city, one they enjoy because it is hip and cool but not yet discovered.  Of course, by the time you find out about it, the secret is already out and Naka-Meguro is no exception.  Recently dubbed “the coolest corner of Tokyo” and profiled in the NY Times travel section, Naka-Meguro is a collection of cafes, boutiques and bookstores that runs along an idyllic, tree-lined river.


Sure, gentrification is quickly happening and this area, which has never been inexpensive, is getting pricier by the week.  But it is still a cool and relatively quiet area and, given that it is just two stops from Shibuya – home of the intersection that sees two million people a day pass through it – it is amazing that it exists at all.  I’d definitely recommend you spend a few hours in the afternoon here, spilling into dinnertime if at all possible.

P1150873 P1150898 P1150907

Left to right: clothing and other fun items recalling Blackploitation and the 70s; Tawn in front of something a hair hipper than a Goodwill Store; a uber-modern Japanese sweets shop.

P1150878 P1150886

Left: Another clothing store with a vaguely “rust belt” look; a stock pot cools on the windowsill of a restaurant specializing in squid.


Sadly, evening was falling fast, Tawn was feeling a bit exhausted from all our running around, and we had a 3:45 am appointment the next day, so we excused ourselves from Taro, Mark and HP’s company and headed back to Shiodome, stopping at a tiny hole-in-the-wall tonkatsu place at the JR Shimbashi station and unwittingly finding the best tonkatsu we had in Tokyo!


This tiny place was full of salarymen – the typical Japanese office workers – and there was nothing in English except for the Asahi beer bottle label.  We pointed to one thing on the menu (after all, everything there was a form of tonkatsu so how wrong could we get?) and ordered two plates of it.


What arrived was beautiful in its simplicity.  The chef cooked and drained cutlets of pork loin, each with a small strip of fat along one side and served with shredded cabbage, rice, pickled daikon radish, and miso soup with baby clams.  The setting was pretty plain and the plating was that of a blue plate special, but the tonkatsu was divine: moist and flavorful interior with a crisp, dry exterior.  Perfection.

We were in bed by 10:00, trying to catch a few winks before a very early morning on our final day in Tokyo.

Overnight in Hakone

After four days in Tokyo, we checked out of our cute little hotel and took the train out of town.  Our destination: Hakone, a cute little town with onsen (hot springs) in Kanagawa prefecture and the gateway to the Mt. Fuji region.  The timing was perfect: as much as we enjoyed Tokyo, after the first four days we were ready for a little break.


The “Romance Car” is a 90-minute service from Tokyo’s Shinjuku station to the town of Hakone Yumoto.  It isn’t particularly romantic but it has forward facing seats as opposed to the subway car that is used for the local service on the same line.  The best part of the Romance Car is that it looks vaguely like a Boeing 747.


You can sit in the nose area and have this fantastic view for the whole trip.


Arriving in Hakone Yumoto, we found it to be a charming, quaint town.  A small river flows through it and it is easy to walk from the train station to just about anywhere in town.


Our hotel, Hotel Senkei, was a traditional Japanese inn complete with hot springs bathing facilities just a ten-minute walk from the station.  Nestled into a hillside, the Senkei is quiet and charming.

One overall observation with travel in Japan – an observation which held true at the Senkei – is that English isn’t that widely spoken.  Not that I expect people in other countries to speak in my language, but with the large number of non-Japanese we encountered, both in Tokyo and even here in Hakone, I was a little surprised that there aren’t more people in the tourist industries who speak languages other than Japanese.

That’s not a problem, though.  Between Tawn’s few words of Japanese and a good game of charades, we were able to communicate reasonably well with almost everyone.  There were only a few times – I had a problem with my train ticket to the Narita airport, for example – when we felt a communication barrier.  In that case, I felt like the person working the ticket gates genuinely didn’t want to help me.

In either case, what is there to do in Hakone?  Well, seeing Mt. Fuji is the main thing and it was my objective.  You can buy a “Hakone Free Pass” which isn’t free but which allows you to travel on all the different types of transportation in the region.  And what a range it is!


First, you take a cute two-car train about twenty minutes up the mountain.  (This isn’t Mt. Fuji, just another small mountain above the town.)  Then you transfer to a funicular railroad (above).  This leads to the “Hakone Ropeway“, an aerial lift that carries gondolas over the summit of the small mountain and down to the shores of Lake Ashi.

Hakone Ropeway

This is what the view from the Hakone Ropeway is supposed to look like.


When we arrived there at 4:30 on Monday afternoon, this was the actual view. The entire lake and mountainside was socked in with fog.  It reminded me of San Francisco.  So, no Mt. Fuji.


Along the ropeway’s path you cross a large sulfur mine – the so-called Valley of Hell – that really is aptly named.  You can see where they’ve stripped away large portions of the mountain and there are large yellow deposits of sulfur.  Oh, and it smells like rotten eggs, of course.


When we arrived at Lake Ashi, it was also socked in.  We had just ten minutes before the finally ship of the day would sail to the far end of the lake, a thirty minute journey that normally affords nice views of Mt. Fuji.  Incongruously, the ships are decorated like pirate ships.

Why Tawn was eating an ice cream, I don’t know.  It was very chilly on that dock and we stayed inside the boat for the whole trip.  At the far end of the lake we boarded a bus, completing the circuit back to Hakone Yumoto.

Exhausted, we returned to the hotel and changed into our yukata, the traditional Japanese robes one wears when lounging about the room.  We had already been asked of our preferred dinner time and we chose the latest we could – 7:00.  This video shows highlights from our entire Hakone trip but a large portion of it shows the elderly Japanese housekeeper who lays out an elaborate dinner spread and tries to explain to us how to eat it.

To say that the meal was elaborate is an understatement.  There were some dozen individual dishes, each prepared with great attention to the presentation.  They were delicious and beautiful and by the end of the meal, we were truly satisfied.


We had a lacquered tray of five little amuse bouches.  Sadly, I can’t tell you what they were, only that each was tasty and fun to eat.


We had sashimi, pickles, potato salad and something in the green jar that I can’t remember.


The main course was shabu-shabu, beef and vegetables boiled in water and dipped in a sesame sauce.


Twenty minutes after we started eating, the housekeeper returned to serve tempura, the lotus root rice, and a cold pork dish.  The miso soup in the corner had these tiny clams in it, smaller than my smallest fingernail.  The tempura was a new experience: instead of being dipped in a heavy batter, it had just a light egg wash.  The inside was a scrambled egg, one pouch with a scallop and the other with a shrimp.  The theme was “sakura” – cherry blossoms – and so the little decoration is meant to evoke a sakura in full blossom.  The other thing I learned is that with really good tempura, you’re meant to sprinkle a little sea salt on it.


We were so busy taking pictures that the housekeeper was probably wondering if we were ever going to eat.


Not only did I have to take pictures for this blog, but we had another Flat Stanley traveling with us, this one from Monterey, California.  Of course, Stanley wanted to try some Japanese food, too!


While Japanese meals don’t usually include dessert, we were served some of the wonderfully sweet local strawberries with a dollop of whipped cream.  The perfect way to end the meal.

After dinner, we went downstairs to the hot springs.  Hot spring baths, or onsen, are a central part of Japanese culture.  These mineral rich waters are said to be good for any number of ailments and I think the simple act of relaxing in a tub of hot water is a good stress-reliever.

The hotel had both indoor and outdoor baths.  The single outdoor bath alternates days for men and women.  Both sexes had their own indoor bath, though.  Japanese baths are the great leveler: everyone is naked and young or old, skinny or fat, the baths make you realize that we are all pretty much the same.

There were signs and cartoon instructions in both Japanese and English making sure the two important rules of Japanese bathing were observed: First, you clean yourself thoroughly before entering the hot springs.  There are little stools and shower hoses in a row and you sit down and scrub yourself until you are pink.  Second, your little hand towel must never be put in the bath water.  You can put it on your head, use it to cover your face, set it on the side of the bath – but don’t put it in the water.


While we were being scalded in the onsen, the housekeeper took down the table and set up our futons.  These were not as comfy as the ones in the Ueno hotel but we still had a good night’s sleep after the day exploring, the filling meal and the relaxing bath.


An elaborate breakfast was served bright and early the next morning as light spring rain fell outside the room.


Boiled tofu and seaweed, fish cake, pickles, rice…


and a poached egg (served, oddly enough, a bit cool) in a thick soy sauce.

Checkout time was 10:00 and we were packed and ready to head to the station, re-energized and eager to return to Tokyo for a few more days of exploring.

Here’s a video of the meal:

Harajuku and Ginza


We started Sunday morning at a reasonable hour, leaving our hotel (pictured above) and heading to the Ueno-Oichimachi station.


Still craving those wonderful strawberries, we stopped back by the greengrocer’s next to the station, admiring the wide range of strange produce and fish products before buying another pint of berries.


We took the train to the Harajuku district.  First stop: Meiji Shrine, the grandest Shinto shrine, rebuilt in authentic fashion in 1958 after the original was destroyed in the Second World War.  If we had been wondering where all the tourists were, we finally found them on the pebble path leading from the railway station to the shrine.  “Crunch, crunch, crunch” went the pebbles as they were trod upon by hundreds of dazed and confused tourists.


The shrine itself was beautiful but we couldn’t really appreciate it with the crowds.  Not just the tourists but the string of wedding parties that had booked space at the shrine.  We saw two in the short while we were there and I imagine more were to come.

If Shibuya is the scene for young Tokyoite’s trendy fashion, Harajuku is where the cutting edge of fashion is located.  Known for its “cos-play” (costume play) young people who dress up in bizarrely elaborate outfits on the bridge crossing the railway tracks, this area is where all sorts of hipsters create their own new looks.


The main, tree-lined street doesn’t give a hint of the truly groundbreaking fashion the neighborhood is known for.  While very crowded, the main street is lined with shops that would look at home in any major city around the world.  Above, on a major intersection in Harajuku you find a Gap store.


And if that isn’t high-end enough for you, there’s always the beautiful, paper lantern like Christian Dior store.


Along this street you will find small groups of men in suits, sitting on folding chairs and holding counters in their hands.  Who knows what sorts of demographic data they are gathering?



The real fashion is found off the main street, in a warren of alleys that are home to cool shops and small boutiques with names like Come Together, Ill Store and Junk Yard.


Along these streets we found an interesting place for a distinctly American snack: Munch’s Burger, a mobile hamburger stand.  The grill (and griller) are in the back of the van.


Nope, we weren’t hungry so didn’t try them.  The burger looked good, though.


One store that caught my attention – I think my cousin who works for the airline will love this – is Ships Jet Blue.


After an hour or two of wandering around we continued to another shopping area, Ginza.  This is the original home of haute couture in Tokyo and is still the major shopping district.  Every big name has a store or three here, along with outlets of the major Japanese department stores.


On one side street there is a playful sculpture of Cupid peeking around the corner and down the alley.  Who knows where next he will spy love?


Inside the Mitsukoshi department store is the only Tokyo outlet of La Duree, the fine Parisian patisserie.  We stopped by to buy some macarons.


As sun set, I took the opportunity to snap a few more photos of this neon-charged city.


Next: Hakone

Shibuya and Surroundings

In the interest of not falling too far behind in my posting, I’ll get pictures up with some comments and then can go back to fill in stories and details later.  Saturday we headed to Shibuya, the center of Tokyo youth fashion.  The main intersection at Shibuya – (the one that when you’re in Times Square in New York makes you think, this looks like the “Shibuya of the US!”) is the one featured in Sophia Copola’s “Lost in Translation”.  Some two million people a day pass through this intersection.


We started our day with a quick bite at one of the commuter restaurants near the Ueno train station, a simple meal of katsudon (fried breaded pork cutlet topped with scrambled egg and served over rice) and soba (buckwheat noodles).


As we waited for the train, Tawn took care to observe the various signs warning as to correct behavior on the trains.


We arrived in Shibuya and spent a few minutes just taking in the sheer number of people.  Unlike Manhattan’s Times Square, which stretches over several blocks, Shibuya’s crowds converge at one single intersection.


There is a free shuttle bus for the area.  But what really struck me about this bus was an observation that Tawn made: here in Japan there are cartoon characters used all over the place: signs, advertisement, logos, announcements… anything and everything can have a cartoon character and still be taken seriously.


We met Taro and his friend Kathy near the station and then went to Taro’s favorite ramen restaurant.  This one specializes in noodles that are slightly thicker than the average.


The restaurant only seats about twenty people, mostly along a counter.  Before you enter, you select what you want on a vending machine near the front door and pay there.  Your order is transmitted to the kitchen and you receive a small ticket in exchange.  Don’t read Japanese?  No problem – order by picture.


Our table came with a wide range of condiments: Pickled ginger (pink), toasted sesame seed grinder, black pepper (in the can), toasted garlic, and fresh garlic.



Our soups arrived – a traditional one for me and a spicy version for Tawn.  The difference that makes this ramen so good, Taro says, is the soup.  Instead of being just one or the other, the soup is a mixture of pork and fish broths.  Sure enough, it was the best ramen I’ve ever had.


You’ll be glad to know I wasn’t the only one taking pictures.  Taro had a new Panasonic Lumix camera that had superb low-light performance and macro function.


After lunch we did some sight-seeing / window-shopping in Shibuya.  There were these funny little fake cacti plants done up to look like desserts.


We went to the park that runs along the northwest side of the Imperial Palace’s moat.  With two windy days since our arrival the cherry blossoms were largely descimated.  But to give you an idea of what it would have looked like, see this picture below.  You can still see the cherry blossoms – now imagine them with about 20 times as many blossoms, hanging down the bank towards the water.  That was what it was like a week earlier.


This is one of the most popular paths both for cherry blossom viewing and general strolling.  There were plenty of young lovers enjoying the breezy spring weather.


Where there are people there are invariably ice cream vendors.  Some locals were posing for my camera.


Tawn tried the seasonal specialty: sakura flavor.  Notice the color-coordinated shirt!


In addition to ice cream vendors, since the weather was a bit chillier today than the day before, there was a roasted sweet potato vendor, using a wood-fired oven in the back of a truck.  Very creative arrangement.  At 300 yen ($3) per potato, these sweet and hot morsels were perfect for warming us back up after the ice cream.

We walked from the moat towards the Yasukuni Shrine.  This beautiful shrine is the official home of State Shintoism.  It is also the shrine regularly in the news when a Japanese prime minister goes to pay his respects to the war dead, outraging residents of nations such as Korea and China that see this as Japan’s continued unwillingness to acknowledge and come to terms with the attrocities it committed during World War II.

The extensive museum there definitely tells the history of the so-called “Greater East Asian War” from the Japanese perspective.  It is useful to understand how they see things but also easy to see why neighbors who suffered at Japan’s hands take such offense.  I could go into a lot more detail here but won’t do so right now…


Above, the sun setting through the fading cherry blossoms at Yasukuni Shrine.


There was some fascinating architecture in this part of town, including the striking Italian Cultural Institute building.  This neighborhood (surrounding the shrine) reminded me a lot of downtown Seattle, actually.

That evening, we met up with HP and Mark (from San Francisco) and another couple with whom they were traveling.  Taro took us to an amazing (and amazingly hard-to-find) Okinawan style restaurant.  His camera’s low-light capabilities were put to good use and once I get all the pictures from him, I’ll do an entry just on that meal.


Meantime, in the same neighborhood as the restaurant we came across a vending machine corner that had just about everything in a vending machine you could want: drinks, cigarettes, underwear, socks…


Finally, we headed to Shinjuku, Tokyo’s nightlife district, for some drinks.  This was just one corner of the city that looks like something out of Blade Runner.

Up next… Hakone.

Around Ueno

Sorting through pictures last night, I realize that there are so many things we’ve seen and done and so many things we’ve eaten, that unless I write huge entries, I’ll be writing about this trip for the rest of the month!  At some point I’ll have to wield a sharper editor’s sword.


After a morning wandering Ueno Park viewing sakura (cherry blossoms), we went to Ueno Station, one of the larger stations in the city and the convergence of several subway and rail lines.  The station itself has been transformed into a bright and modern shopping arcade and it is a pleasant place to transit through.

We were there to meet Alex, our friend Doug’s brother who has been living in Tokyo for several years and was so helpful in answering questions and making recommendations before our arrival.  He continued to be a perfect host, spending the afternoon to show us around Ueno, the residential district on the north side of town that is home to Tokyo University and many of the city’s museums.

First stop, though: lunch.  A block from the station, tucked under the tracks, is a hole in the wall gyoza shop called Rising Dragon.


How do you know the good places to eat?  The queue snaking out the front door.  These family-run operations are really efficient, tight ships both in terms of organization and efficiency.  Out in front one man was making trays of gyoza – the Chinese-inspired dumplings you probably know as “pot stickers” – and packaging them uncooked in take-home trays for those commuters who wanted to prepare them fresh that evening.


How many gyoza are made each day?  Guessing from the vat of pork filling, which was several gallons in size, I’d say the answer is easily in the thousands, served four at a time to hungry customers.  There are only ten seats in the place, all along a single marble counter facing the galley kitchen.  The place is spotless – not surprising in Japan but still amazing given the quantity of oil and high temperatures used in cooking.


The menu was simple: noodle dishes served either as stir-fries or as soups and, of course, gyoza.


These gyoza are about three times the size of the typical one and I can safely say they were the best “pot stickers” I’ve ever had.  The exterior was perfect: steamed to a tender but not mushy consistency with a crisp but not tough bottom.


We also had a few noodle dishes: yakisoba (fried soba noodles) and a vegetable stir fry with bean sprouts and pork.

After lunch we headed through the park again up towards the University.  Alex’s touring brought us through back streets and a thorough exploration of the neighborhood where he lives.

This was an excellent introduction to Tokyo as friends who have visited before have told us how overwhelmed they were with places like Shibuya and Shinjuku – some of the most crowded intersections in the world.  Starting small allowed us to explore the life of Tokyoites without the Blade Runner-like aspects of the busiest corners.


Above is an example of a small mom-and-pop convenience store that, until Family Mart and 7-11 started showing up, was a typical sight in neighborhoods.  This is where you bought snacks, beverages, and little supplies for your daily use.

Sadly, these are the types of stores that are disappearing.  Still, in the densely packed neighborhoods without a lot of free space, there might be a place for stores like these because there isn’t enough room for a modern convenience store to operate.


At another little shop, a green grocer, we bought some beautiful looking strawberries.  Alex informed us of Japanese strawberries’ reputation: supposedly the best in the world!

Were they?  Watch the video to find out.


This is an example of some of these smaller back alleys that are typical of this neighborhood.  They are confusing to navigate but fascinating to explore.  One house had all of these small flowering potted plants sitting on shelves out front, a good example of something we saw again and again: people tried very hard to incorporate nature into their lives, even in a place that is as urban and paved as this one.


We continued through another park and shrine where we caught a group of turtles dozing on top of one another in the afternoon sun.  It was pleasant weather – about 22 C / 72 F and a light breeze.  We couldn’t have asked for better temperatures.


Another street shop in the Ueno area, this one more typical of a street large enough for cars.  There were so many interesting shops in this area and very friendly people.  Of course, it helped that we had someone fluent in Japanese with us, but I suspect they would be just as friendly even if we were alone.


A nice contrast of colors parked in front of a shop.  I’m amazed at how many people ride bicycles in this city.  When they park them they just lock a chain through the back wheel.  The bicycles themselves could easily be picked up and carried away but that doesn’t seem to be a concern.


In Alex’s neighborhood there is another shrine and small cemetery.  Cremation is typical and so an entire family’s ashes will be stored in a single grave site.  The wooden sticks are prayers that are written and placed at the grave on the anniversary of a family member’s death.


Same graveyard but looking from the top of Alex’s condo, the building on the left of the picture.


We stopped by Alex’s condo for a drink of water and then to climb onto the room and take in the view of Tokyo as the sun lowered.  As you can tell from Tawn’s hair, it was a bit breezy at this point.


As Alex had another appointment, we navigated back to our hotel, walking through another beautiful cemetery, Tokyo University and Ueno Park before returning to the bright lights and bustle that we had previously associated with Tokyo.


Sakura blossoms dust the graves like pink snow.


Above, the final few blocks take us back to the bright lights of Tokyo near Ueno Station.  Can you find Tawn in the picture?


Sakura – cherry blossoms – are one of the common images of Japanese culture.  The fleeting existence of the blossoms and their incredible beauty and delicacy have inspired artists of all genres and give good reason for the citizens of Tokyo to come out to the parks and celebrate the emergence of another spring.

Had we arrived a week earlier, we would have seen them in their fullest stage, but per Masakazu’s recommendation we headed directly to the park on our first day here to catch them while we still could.  Thankfully, we did, because the breezy weather had pretty much stripped the trees by our second day here.

Ueno Park is nearby our hotel, home to the zoo and several museums, and adjacent to Tokyo University.  This is one of the popular places to come see the sakura.


Everyone was out, even in the midst of a weekday morning.  Business men, pre-schoolers, retirees.  And lots of people had cameras.  So much appreciation for nature.


Who wouldn’t be inspired to write a poem?  The brown stalks are lotus.  In the summer, this whole lake it filled with chest-high lotus blossoms.


Some of the sturdier types of blossoms were still out in full force, giving us an amazing display of colors.


The park was full of vendors, visitors, and recycling bins to sort out the rubbish left by the sakura-viewers.  Not the sheets laid out in the shade.  Different groups staked their claim to viewing spots for after-work parties.  We were amazed by how many groups of office workers came out in the evening to sit under the trees, drink, and socialize.

Above, a Thai monk poses for a picture with the sakura.  Below, sakura in the setting sunlight.



Ueno Park also has a long line of tori gates, which mark the entrance to a shrine.  Their orange-red hue is amazing and the repetition of the gates makes for a meditative walk through them.


In the evening, the crowds came to the park, taking their reserved spots and enjoying the pleasant weather and the remaining blossoms.  Dozens of vendors served favorite snacks and everyone was drinking.  So far, I’m of the opinion that the Japanese are a pretty heavily drinking population, at least those who live and work in Tokyo.


Above, a view of the vendors lining the path to one of the shrines.

Yokoso Japan!

While it was an early morning Thursday, we made it to the airport and onto our flight with no problems.  I’ll write at a later date about the experience on United’s new business class as I know it isn’t the most pressing news to cover.

It was still sakura (cherry blossom) season when we touched down at Narita airport north of Tokyo.  A row of trees lined the runway, their light pink blossoms at their peak.


We passed through immigration and customs with no problem, located the post office where I picked up our rental mobile phone, then we headed to the train station.  Ninety minutes later we were walking to our hotel, the Ueno First City Hotel, located in the Ueno district near Tokyo University.

The Ueno First City Hotel wasn’t our first choice.  Several of the recommended ryokan (traditional Japanese inns) were full.  But this is actually a nice hotel.  We have a Japanese style room that is tiny but comfortable.  The staff is friendly and helpful and we’re less than a ten-minute walk to three different rail stations.

We met Taro for dinner, a friend who used to be the Assistant Director of the SF Int’l Asian American Film Festival.  Taro took us to an izakaya in the neighborhood that specializes in lotus root dishes.  Izakaya – literally, “drinking houses” – are pubs that serve small plates of food.  Kind of like tapas bars, you order a few small plates at a time to accompany your drinking, until you are full.

We had some excellent food and, really, the food is just about the most important thing to experience in a culture.


Burdock root with pork, carrots and sesame seeds


Hokke – a type of sashimi from a fish from the northern island of Hokkaido.


Fried lotus root with grated fish meat.


Yamo-udo, a mountain vegetable that is known in English as jicama.


A super-sized shui mai, a minced pork meat dumpling that is borrowed from Chinese dim sum.


New potatoes fried and served with chili salt.


Mizuna (Japanese mustard greens) salad with vinaigrette.


Lotus root steamed shinjo (dumplings) – this is unusual as they are usually fried rather than steamed.


Cabbage with ponzu sauce and bonito flakes.


Lotus root soba.

It was an amazing meal and really a nice start to our trip.  It was nice to visit with Taro and we’ll look forward to seeing him again Saturday.

Friday we spent a lot of time exploring our neighborhood.  Starting out with the local area, which is relatively low density, allowed us to get our bearings and explore a lot of wonderful little back alleys and side streets.  I’ll write more about it in the coming days, but one of the highlights was a chance to see the sakura up close.


Sadly, the ones in Tokyo are past their peak, but they’re still beautiful.


Finally, one of the cutest shots of the day: a little girl waves to us as she crosses the street with her grandmother.

Off to Tokyo

Well, my apologies for running out of time.  I was going to write about Sunday’s adventure to the Northeast of Thailand with Stuart, a combination train ride and bike ride that was a lot of fun.  The good news is, I have the photos and video and the memories, so I’ll write about it upon my return.

Meanwhile, I’ve been rushing around getting loose ends tied up for the trip to Tokyo very early tomorrow morning.  I still have to pack (14 hours before departure – plenty of time!) and to top it off, a couple from Hong Kong arrived this morning so we’ll try to meet for an early dinner tonight.

Biggest excitement besides just being on holiday in Tokyo for eight days?  The opportunity to try United Airlines’ new business class.  You’ll recall that I got a bit of a run-around with them in booking these mileage award tickets.  Thanks to a helpful UA representative, a few strings were pulled and the situation was resolved nicely.

So I was especially pleased when I checked seat assignments this week only to discover that we are scheduled to fly both ways on the new business class configured planes.  I was surprised as these are in only about half the fleet right now and BKK-NRT isn’t on the list.

The seats are lie-flat, which United’s researchers determined was the number-one criteria for business travelers: the ability to sleep on the flight.

UC C Class 1

The potential downside: in planes that competitors have in a 2-3-2 or 2-2-2 configuration and a few competitors (Singapore Airlines for example) have in a 1-2-1 configuration, United has optimized in a 2-4-2 seating arrangement.  For business class!  Considering that they usually charge quite a bit more than many competitors, I’m curious to see how they’re going to really make that work, but we’ll see.

US C Class 2

The other unusual aspect is that the seats face different directions.  Unlike most airlines where all the seats face forwards, or even British Airways that uses a “herringbone” pattern in which individual seats are nested in opposite directions, each row on United’s new business class faces the opposite direction.  Ostensible this creates a greater sense of privacy.  We’ll see.

I’ll try to keep postings as up to date as possible.  Apologies in advance as I know I’ll fall behind on my subscriptions.  Happy Songkran and Easter to those of you who celebrate them!


Italian Food Porn – Delicatezza

Oh, my friends, Saturday night I had a good meal, a fun meal, a wonderful communal dining experience that began with spicy tomato sauce and ended with tart gelato.  It was at Delicatezza, an Italian restaurant on Soi Thong Lor 10 (Between Thong Lo and Ekkamai), a restaurant past which I had driven a hundred times and yet – foolishly – at which I had never dined.

It was a bit spontaneous, a gathering of some random friends, some of whom had yet to be introduced.  Truthfully, though, it was just an excuse for me to carbo-load before Sunday’s ride.  Ken and Brian each shared a nice bottle of red with us, and not long after the appetizers, we were already giddily listening to Brian’s explanation of his different airline mileage credit cards and their relative merits.


Appetizers – click on a photo to see a larger, more succulent version.

P1140839 P1140841 P1140843
From left to right: parma ham and sweet melon; mixed seafood with spicy tomato broth; mussels with spicy tomato broth.

The Cioppino-like seafood appetizers were amazing: the broth was rich and tomatoey, with lots of spice and pepper.  The seafood was really fresh and the servings generous.  The melon, which was so crisp that I thought it wasn’t ripe, showed why it is called a honey-dew.  I haven’t had so sweet a melon in a long time, a perfect foil for the salty ham.

We enjoyed liesurely service and the modern, well-lit atmosphere.  The crowd was mostly Thai families with lots of large groups.  When our main courses arrived – and they actually arrived at about the same time in very un-Thai fashion – we were treated to even more wonderful delights!

Mixed seafood with angel hair pasta

Clams with squid ink pasta – Matt’s black lips were very Goth

Bacon, musrooms and olives with spaghetti and garlic

Penne with salmon and a vodka-tomato sauce

Pork chop with demi-glace and vegetables

These were fantastic mains.  Very reasonable prices, generous portions, high-quality ingredients and very good technique.

P1140857 Before Suchai arrived, we told the waiter that it was his 40th birthday, which was true a week or so ago.  But it is fun to sing Happy Birthday and we knew it would annoy him so we did it anyway.

Below, Matt, Kobfa and Tawn – the ex-San Franciscans – pose before dessert.

Dessert was simple: homemade gelato.  The orange is a flavor that is just like taking one from the market, throwing it in the freezer for an hour, then biting into it.  The lemon was super tart and so refreshing after the relatively heavy meal.  The strawberry and rasperry were very good, too.  The chocolate was heavenly rich.


I think that Delicatezza has just become my new favorite Italian restaurant in Krungthep.