Japan: Shibuya, Tokyo.

05 December 2019 Thursday
Day 6:

Around 6am the next morning, Florian and I were up and training it from Sapporo Station to New Chitose Airport. We purchased our tickets the night before to spare ourselves the potential stress of waiting in line and delaying ourselves.

Still imprinted in my memory was the flavour of the ramen eggs we had in Furano. I’d heard so much about the ramen eggs available at 7 Eleven. So we bought a packet the night before for me to breakfast on before our flight.

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They were so dang good! Considering that they came from a convenience store, in packets, I was surprised by the quality of the eggs and how well the yolk oozed. Lightly marinated in the soy sauce marinade, it made for a tasty, nutritionally packed, small morning meal. There were two eggs in the bag, so obviously I couldn’t resist not finishing the second one!

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I bought these again in Tokyo but somehow, the yolks were firmer. I tried again in Singapore and again, the yolks were not so liquid. I still yearn for the molten gold of Furano’s ramen eggs, and if not, at least these 7 Eleven ones from Sapporo. I wonder if it has to do with the freshness of the eggs. I assume the eggs in Hokkaido may be a lot fresher so they stand to be cooked a little less well done?

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Anyway, we made it safely to Narita airport where we took the Skyliner train to Nippori.

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Our ryokan sits a short distance away from Nippori station. We could have changed lines there and taken the Metro to either Sedagi or Nezu station which would have been a lot closer. I was confident that it wasn’t a far walk from Nippori, but there we were, perspiring under the winter’s sun as we lugged our suitcases up and down the slightly hilly streets. I forgot that distance stretches further than you’re hauling heavy bags around.

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We stopped by this quaint little cafe about three-quarters of the way to the ryokan to have some lunch. It was more a cake and tea cafe, so there was only one lunch set available. It was a traditional Japanese lunch with hijiki rice, miso soup, boiled chicken doused with sesame sauce, gently simmered radish, a wedge of omelette, and that white spongy thing looked like tofu, but wasn’t. All in all, it was very much like a home-cooked meal, with mother not being the most deft at cooking. It was passable and pleasant, but definitely one of the weaker meals we had in Japan.

A short few minutes from the cafe and we finally arrived at our ryokan. Sawanoya ryokan is 70 years old this year. It’s family run and is not all shiny and modern and new like some of the other ones you find littered around Tokyo.

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There’s a charm in its rustic interior, and Grandpa Sawanoya is the cutest! He speaks enough English to be understood, and speaks slowly but purposefully.

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We chose not to have breakfast provided since they only serve ‘Western’ breakfasts ie toast, or toast with eggs, or toast with ham and eggs. Neither do they offer kaiseki dinners.

We were treated to a beautiful room with futons on tatami mats, and an aircon-cum-heater that kept our room warm and cosy. There was a traditional Japanese tea set for us to make tea, which was really thoughtful. We also had a toilet, separate from the shower area, as well as a little reading corner.

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Our ryokan was a mere few minutes walk to the market street. On our way to the ryokan, we had caught the aroma of freshly grilled rice crackers in the making. I told Florian that we had to go back to try one since we both enjoy rice crackers but never had any as fresh as these.

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They had a wide array of crackers available in different flavours. We narrowed it down and got the chilli rice cracker to try.

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The light specks of chilli powder managed to provide enough heat. The rice cracker was so aromatic and crisp, in a way that the ones you get commercially aren’t. The flavour of the rice was almost sweet and it had only the slightest hint of salt to enhance that sweetness. These were definitely not made for those with weak teeth. A hard crunch gave way to an airiness within that I thoroughly enjoyed.

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Just opposite from the rice cracker shop was this little store selling tsukudani – small seafood, meats or vegetables simmered in a concoction of soy sauce and mirin.

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It was interesting looking through the glass windows to not only see the variety of tsukudani available, all homemade it appears, but also to notice that those running the shop look like great-grandmas and grandpas. I don’t mean that in a pitiful way. I mean it in a way where I have so much respect for their robust health and ability to keep making foods that were borne from tradition.

Young Japanese don’t consume as much tsukudani as they used to because diets have changed to become more Westernised. As such, the demand for tsukudani have fallen drastically in recent years. These preserved food items are delicious with rice or hot porridge. I actually really enjoy them. But they hardly go with burgers, or pasta, or even ramen, unfortunately.

Our ryokan was surrounded by a peaceful neighbourhood. We had a local nursery right across from us so we saw the cute little bubs all out one morning.

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There were lots of local bakeries around the area and small cafes. We often saw mothers riding their bicycles with one or two little ones in tow. It felt as thought everyone knew each other. I liked that.

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There was even a small park nearby that we stumbled upon. I think this group of women just went on a sporting activity together.

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Down these stairs is where their main market street is. There were lots of stalls selling fresh produce as well as desserts and hot food items. I noticed quite a few rice mills too.

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As usual, I took this photo below only to realise after that there was a ‘no photographs‘ sign smack in the middle.

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This yakitori shop had a nice line going.

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Just this couple manning the flames, skewered chicken, and customers. We were very tempted by the fragrant smell of savoury meats being caramelised but just about managed to tear ourselves away…

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In search of ice-cream. Hubs got himself a Lime and Vanilla Swirled Soft Serve.

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I always associated lime with sorbets rather than ice-cream. Imagine my delight when I tasted the ice-cream and found it smooth and creamy with the undeniable tang of lime. It was so well balanced, and rather addictive.

After our stroll around the neighbourhood, we went straight into Shibuya.

Took a quick snap of old, faithful Hachiko,

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Before crossing my number 1 thing to do in Tokyo – Cross Shibuya Crossing!!

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It was a little anticlimatic because I expected there to be more people. Like way more people. I think it was more interesting watching from a bird’s eye view (like the one we got in Starbucks just in front of one of the crossings). The scramble of people crossing in multiple directions in such a disordered orderly fashion can be quite therapeutic. Organised chaos as they call it.

Shibuya was full of bright lights and the pulsating thump of music. Every so often, you’d hear a recording of a  high pitch girly voice advertising for something or another.

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The streets were alive with activity and it felt quite surreal. For me, it was like standing in the heart of Japan. After so many days in Japan, it was at this moment that I felt like I really was in Japan.

Florian and I only needed to turn a few times away from the main shopping street to find quiet, empty alleys. Walking along these darker streets, you wouldn’t be able to tell that the centre of Shibuya laid only a couple of minutes away.

Having had such an amazing experience in Sapporo’s izakaya the night before, we decided to venture into another one for dinner.

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As soon as we walked in, we were almost turned away for not having a reservation. They asked if not having an English menu was okay with us. Florian and I happily nodded, pleased at the idea of having an authentic experience.

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We thought there would at least be pictures but sadly, it was a purely Japanese menu through and through. I could make out Chinese characters, but nothing that helped me pick out a single item. I contacted Pea and my cousin TY, to try and make some sense out of the menu but there was only so much help they could muster via Whatsapp/phonecall.

The initial relish at our near state of panic eventually gave way to pity probably, as staff finally pulled out a photo album that had some, but apparently not all, of the items they made. A few random choices later, Florian and I could finally relax and start on our snacks (which were part of the cover charge).

I had something like a pumpkin custard and pickled vegetables. At first, I wasn’t quite sure what to make of the pumpkin custard. It was smooth and thick, much thicker than chawanmushi and a lot creamier. I’m partial to all things pumpkin you see, so when I finally got the sweetness of this beautiful squash, I happily polished it off, smacking my lips as I went about it.

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Florian also got the vegetable pickles, but instead of the pumpkin custard, he had chicken in a creamy sesame sauce. That was pretty good!

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The first of our four choices that arrived was the grilled squid with uni sauce. The smoky char of the squid was delicious – crispy where it needed to be, tender where it was supposed to be. The sauce was rich and briny. I would have been happy without the sauce, because as I’ve mentioned before, I don’t think I take to the flavour of uni very well. Still, a very well executed plate of food that we enjoyed.

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We managed to order grilled leeks by showing them a picture off their Google listing.

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It came with a generous side of sweet shiro miso. It didn’t need the miso but eaten with, it amped up the sweetness of the leeks, while added a saltiness that further highlighted its natural flavour. At the bottom of the pile of leeks were the more ‘burnt’ ones. These were even better to eat with the heady harmony of sweet, salty and bitter.

We had a grilled head of seabream to share. You’d think there wouldn’t be much meat on the head but trust me, this fish head had so much to give. I was pretty full at this point but still managed to put away most of the meat here. Especially around the cheeks, which, as we all know, is amazingly moist and tender.

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And unfortunately for us, neither Florian nor I appreciate the eyeball or lips. Those, and the bones, were all that was left when we were done.

Our last dish was the Beef and Miso. The beef was slathered in miso and topped with a piece of seared foie gras. For once, Florian actually liked the foie gras and lapped it all up! He felt it wasn’t as fat and as cloying as most of the ones we have tried before were. The beef slices were cooked well, but still tender with bite. The miso contrasted nicely with its savoury flavour, while its juices melded nicely to create a deeper, complexity to the salty miso.

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It wasn’t cheap but this izakaya was quite a gem. The food provided had a modern twist to them. Rather than simply grilling their food, they added elements that elevated them in taste, without overdoing it. We had happy bellies walking out into the cold night, and looked forward to another day in Tokyo.

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