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Traveler, surfer, and scribe. Based in Tokyo for six years.

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Adachi-ku, Tokyo
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Expat: Live From Japan
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Annie at The New National Theatre Tokyo

My Golden Week in Japan kicked off in highbrow fashion with a trip to the theater. OK, so a musical production of Annie perhaps doesn’t qualify so well in that regard but it’s certainly an improvement from YouTube or a Tsutaya DVD rental. It had been years since I’d last ventured into a theater, and upon being invited to see this production of Annie at The New National Theatre Tokyo I had flashbacks to childhood trips to see pantomime with my parents and sisters at Christmas. As for the story of Annie, even though I must have seen one of the movie versions a number of times over the years, all I could recall of it were the “Tomorrow! Tomorrow!” chorus and a few bars of ‘Hard Knock Life’, (although that’s largely thanks to Jay Z rather than the original musical). A cursory bit of research for this blog post revealed that Annie goes back to an American comic strip launched in the 1920s, Little Orphan Annie, itself based on a poem written in the late 19th century. Apparently, a musical production of Annie is an annual event in Japan. This year’s ‘Annie’ seems to have something to do with Nippon TV among others, notably furikake maker Marumiya (丸美屋). In fact this is where we got our free tickets from; friends who’d sprinkled enough furikake on their rice over the months that they’d collected the requisite numbers coupons to send off and win a prize (four tickets to Annie, in this case). The freebies continued after the show with Marumiya (丸美屋) goodie bags handed out to all audience members. The New National Theatre Tokyo opened its door to the public in the late 90s. It’s a modern looking structure, all straight edges and sharp corners, decorated outside with minimalist water features. The facility is right outside one of the exits of Hatsudai Station, near Shinjuku. Not that I’d know, but people say it’s a world class facility, and the theater homepage talks of being Japan’s only national theater dedicated to opera, ballet, dance and drama. Our Annie show started at 12:00 pm. I would say nearly half of the audience were yet to enter their teenage years. (The kid sat next to me had breathing that was so nasal I initially thought they’d fallen asleep and were snoring). The production was broken down into two sittings (70 mins / 50 mins) with a 20-min interval. During the interval a small bar/cafe counter sold teas and coffees (400 yen), as well as wine and beer (too early). Profiteroles and ice cream were 500 yen. As for the production itself, well, I’m a musical / theater philistine so am really not the best audience member to pass judgement. Anyway, it was fun. The big song and dance numbers had all the requisite pizzazz and ‘jazz hands’, and the cast could certainly belt out a tune. Despite being in Japanese, the Annie story is simple enough that any language barriers were fairly negligible. Between the main numbers I was struggling a bit, and my bum started to get numb a good 20 mins before the interval. As for the cast, I’m told there are one or two ‘celebs’ in there, but they meant little to me. The part of Miss Hannigan (the drunkard who runs the orphanage) is played by Brazilian / Japanese actress and singer Marcia, and I have to say, she was brilliant, a jittering, wobbling whirl of drunk energy and sex appeal. The show is worth it for her alone. The production has two Annies (as well as two, rotating teams of child cast members, as I guess is required by Japanese law). There are two dogs, also. I don’t know whether our’s was Oz or Munroe. Whichever it was, I’m assuming the barking was improvised rather than scripted. I’m trying to think if there were any noticeable cultural differences between the Japanese musical experience and that from back home, but non jump out. Everyone clapped in the right places, and there was the usual encore to show off, and shower applause on, individual cast members. The Annie production at The New National Theatre Tokyo runs until May 8. Tickets are 8,500 yen (inc. tax). Programs (Japanese) were 2,000 yen. After the Tokyo shows, Annie is touring Japan during the summer … Osaka Umeda Arts Theater: Aug 10 - 15 Sendai Tokyo Electron Hall Miyagi: Aug 19 - 20  Nagoya Aichi Arts Center (Big Hall): Aug 25 - 27  Ueda (Nagano) Ueda Santomyuse: Sept 3 Annie (Japanese): WebsiteNEW NATIONAL THEATRE TOKYO: NNTTMap 

  • Living
  • Tokyo

Yakiniku party for two

The Japanese display a giddy fondness for the 'insert food here party'.  Said gathering might involve but two people and the title food, however, if you call it a party, it's a party.  Although it's really not.  Anyway, what's in name?  And who cares what it is when it involves yakiniku, the theme of tonight's, errrm, 'party'. Off all the things that Japan has 'borrowed' from other countries, be it language, Zen state of mind, medicine, engineering, green tea, English teachers, cheesy weddings ... the Korean form of barbecuing meat has to be my favourite.  It's typically something I'd go out for (there's a Gyu-Kaku near the crib, and a thousand other yakiniku joints near work).  Sometime's of a Saturday night though, you just can't be bothered to go out.  For those times when the lethargy hits then, you want to get yourself a hot plate combo.  Like this ... ... so that you can have yakiniku from the comfort of a sofa.I've used the hot plate for a number of Japanese classics; yakisoba, shabushabu, sukiyaki, and winter-warmer staple, nabe.  All fine dishes, even when subject to these culinary-stunted hands, but all of them pale in comparison to yakiniku.For tonight's 'party' for two, we hit up the local supermarket and walked out with a bumper-size pack of 牛肉バラカルビ / gyu-niku bara karubi  (1280 g for around 500 yen - fairly cheap), 250 g of ホルモン / horumon (intestines and other normally unwanted bits - 200 yen), and some cuts of American 'prime' beef (331 g - 1,000 yen).  If this sounds expensive, it could have been so much more had any of tonight's beef come from Japan. We flavoured the カルビ with a cheap yakiniku sauce before 'BBQing' it, and finished it off with a one-time-serving packet of ジャン(焼肉んのたれ) which I'm told is much fancier.  For the sake of adding a bit of veg to help 'process' the meat, we threw in some cabbage, pumpkin, and mushrooms.  OK, so the hot plate can't really compete with open flames and hot coals, but it does a pretty sterling job nonetheless, and remains a legitimate yakiniku option.  It doesn't half stink out the apartment though!!NB; the volume of meat in today's yakiniku party was just about too much for us to get through comfortably!

  • Food
  • Chiba

Marvel Age of Heroes Exhibition, Roppongi Hills , Tokyo

Roppongi Hills has always been a good spot for photo ops, to which the recently opened Marvel Age of Heroes Exhibition (マーベル展) adds another. In the grounds that surround the base of the monolithic Mori Tower there’s nearly always a temporary feature of some kind, be it a market, a promotion, flower beds, Christmas trees, or an army of Doraemon. The photo fun continues inside on Hillside 2F, where you can often find small displays, at times purely promotional (fashion brands, chocolates) and at others a mixture of the two, Halloween being a good example of the latter. And if there are no temporary features to snap, there’s always Tokyo Tower.   From Friday the Marvel Age of Heroes Exhibition kicked off at Tokyo City View on 52F of the Mori Tower. The exhibit features 200 pieces from the Marvel world with characters past and present on display alongside movie props and costumes. The exhibit promises not only to look at the Marvel characters as heroes, but also as conflicted beings with their own struggles. Staying on the theme of struggle; if you’re struggling with the contents of your wallets, you can cop a free look at some Marvel kit on Hillside 2F. In a small but impressive display you can see large-scale Marvel hero figures of The Hulk and Iron Man scrapping it out, and cabinet displays of a whole host of characters from the Marvel ‘verse. Of course, it’s all a teaser to get you into the real exhibit another 50 floors up, but still, it’s freebie. A Tokyo life hack, if you can stand the phrase. (Staring contest, anyone?)The actual exhibit runs until July 25 Open between 10 am and 10 pm Entrance 1,800 yen Marvel Age of Heroes Exhibition Website: For something similar, I went to Tokyo's first Comic Con back in Dec. 2016.  You can see some pics from that in the post below:Tokyo Comic Con 2016: Cosplay and kit in images

  • Living
  • Tokyo

Atago Shrine can keep its stairway to promotion, I like the peace and quiet at the bottom.

There’s a sequence in the Sofia Coppola film Lost in Translation, in which Scarlett Johansson drifts around some of the temples and shrines there. The camera rarely takes its focus off her and there are few people in the background. The light is kind of dusky and the song by Air that guides us through the sequence completes the feeling of her (and thus the viewer) being alone. I’ve always liked this section of the film but I’ve always been sceptical about it, too; one could possibly feel lonely in Kyoto, but it would be hard to find yourself as nearly alone as Scarlett Johansson does at the city’s big temples and shrines. The marquee attractions of Kyoto are many things, but a place to seek solace probably isn’t one of them. I’ve always wanted that kind of moment though. Amidst the madness of Tokyo, where I live, that kind of quiet in the surrounds of ancient Japan isn’t immediately obvious. You have to seek it out. But how would you know where to look? I certainly didn’t and although I got myself that moment, I wasn’t looking for it. Especially not at Atago Shrine (愛宕神社 Atago Jinja) near Toranomon Hills. Atago Shrine commands a certain presence in Tokyo; it sits on the highest natural hill in all of Tokyo’s 23 wards (a somewhat laughable 26 m), and has an old stone staircase that is a steep lung buster. Shrines are nothing without their legends. Atago Shrine’s bash at spiritual marketing tells us that if we give those stairs a climb we’ll be successful in our careers. I gave it a go. These legs felt far from successful after the climb, but we’ll see how the career gets on. At the top, the shrine displays the usual fixtures and fittings. Between trees in the small grounds skyscrapers and fancy apartment complexes loom. Befitting of its claim to hand out promotions, Atago wasn’t short on visitors. (Promotion!)(Demotion!)It’s just south of Atago, down the hill, that you can perhaps find yourself a quiet moment. A very quiet one, like I did. In the grounds of Seisho-ji, a Buddhist temple that was so quiet I wasn’t sure I should have been there (and so quiet it doesn’t even have a Wikipedia page, or not one that I could find). Whether or not I was out of bounds poking around, it turns out I don’t care. It was a rare pleasure having a place like this all to myself. Pottering around the nooks and crannies, the expansive courtyards, annex buildings, and gardens with no sign of anyone around I did what I’ve come to do all too rarely in this city; spent more than just a few minutes without plugging into some kind of portable device, checking for messages, drinking coffee, smoking, ogling some lurid signage, or thinking about work. I recommend it to others. During the Lost In Translation sequence, there’s a moment when the camera draws away from Johansson to focus on a small wedding procession. It’s another part of the sequence that troubles. I know we’re supposed to look at that and think how beautiful, exotic, and simple it is. How Japanese it is. But I have a hard time doing so. I’ve been here for a while now and that kind of misty-eyed nostalgia about those ‘Japanese’ moments I find hard to come by. Perhaps I’ve spent too much time of late on that bloody Atago stairway. So, it came as a surprise to get it back for a while. Note; I suppose I could look into finding out more about Seisho-ji, and maybe one day I will. For now though, I’m happy enough with my experience of it thus far. Around Atago Shrine ...Around  Seisho-ji ... 

  • Living
  • Tokyo

Cold, wet, and windy Kujukuri. Feels like home!

If I can help it, I refrain from the checking the surf forecast for the weekend until some time on Friday. I do this out of fear. If it turns out that there will be no surfing over the weekend, I’d rather not know about it until later. The prospect of work without the reward of surf is more than I can be bothered to bare.    Sometimes you just have to go and give it a try though, even when wind charts are telling you to spend your Sunday morning in bed. It’s a daft form of denial I suppose, especially when it’s going to drag you out of bed at 4 am and into the cold and wet dark. Still, one of my favorite things about getting up for a surf is stealing out of the city on empty highways with a good CD playing in the car. It’s one of the few times I listen to music through speakers. There are indicators I look out for on route to the beach in Chiba which give me some idea of what the ocean will be like. The first is a river seeping into Tokyo Bay. From the bridge I check the surface of the water; if it’s glassy, that’s a good sign. Today it was a little bumpy, but not really giving too much away. Of course, it’s not until you actually lay eyes on the ocean that you know if you’re going to be surfing or not. There is, however, one more advanced indicator that is rarely off; the old geezer that attends to the car park by the beach. This morning he greeted me, “Daijoubu kai?”. A kind of eyebrow raised, Are you alright?. Not a good sign (we still can’t see the ocean at this point). Then he nailed the coffin shut, “Ki wo tsukete ne!”.  Take care, alright!.  Now, he only ever says that when the ocean is rougher than a hangover. So there and then I knew that the surf was likely a no go. (Don't know what he's looking so happy about!)This morning I probably should have turned around immediately and headed for home. I decided to hike around for a bit and get soaking wet, instead. This kind of weather reminds me of home though (even after plenty of years in Japan, it still isn’t home) and it felt nice to be out in it. The scruffy desolation of a Japanese beach outside of season and in grotty weather also has the look and feel of mid-winter seaside resorts back home. In the end, despite getting soaked to the bone, I enjoyed snapping some pics of beach (sorry, this is the Fudodo area of Kujukurihama, by the way). I took these with my pretty out-of-date iPhone (Are they ever in?) and played around with some filters when I got back. Kujukurihama, Chiba on a foul Sunday morning then: (Wind swept)(I snapped this as I was racing back to the car to save from getting any more wet)(The other side of the road that runs parallel to the beach; houses that look like they've seen better days)

  • Living
  • Chiba

Why are there no Japanese surfers on the Championship Tour?

In the summer of 2015 Hiroto Ohhara (大原 洋人) became the first Japanese surfer to win the U.S. Open of Surfing held at Huntington Beach, California. To put this into some kind of perspective, it’s a sporting achievement akin to, and as unlikely as, Leicester City winning the Premier League (only with far less money involved). In front of Huntington Beach’s arena sized crowds (some of the largest in surfing) Ohhara saw off a field in 2015 that, as always, was full to the brim with the usual mob of Australian, American, and Brazilian surfers, all seasoned competitors, tour veterans, and heavy wave chargers. In that victory Ohhara jumped from No. 81 to No.13 on the World Qualification Series tour and thus was in spitting distance of qualifying for surfing’s elite tour for 2016. He would have been the first Japanese surfer to do so. His amazing win and his name barely made a ripple here in Japan. Ultimately he didn’t make the elite tour in 2016 and now in 2017, Japan is still waiting for representation on surfing’s top tour, the recently name-changed World Surf League Championship Tour.(Surfer, unknown, Huntington Beach, California)I’m writing this now because the above-mentioned tour recently wrapped up the first of event of the year at Australia’s storied Snapper Rocks on the Gold Coast. It’s a sports event that likely had plenty of Japanese among the spectators given their penchant for study breaks and surf in that part of the world. But there were no Japanese competitors (men or women) for them to cheer on and I want to contemplate why this might be so?Why even ask?There are plenty of nations that aren’t dining at surfing’s top competitive table (nearly all of them, in fact). A cursory glance at the ‘Top 34’ reveals a blur of Australia, America, Hawaii, and Brazil. The one’s that stand out do so exactly because they are not part of that triumvirate; France, South Africa, Portugal, Tahiti (French Polynesia), and Italy (yes, Italy). So why should Japan appear on this list?Well, it may come as a surprise, but in industry terms, outside of those countries that dominate competitive surfing and the surf industry as a whole, surfing in Japan is likely at the upper echelons of any list of ‘the best of the rest’.  I’m just looking at my The World Stormrider Guide for some numbers. It lists Japan as having some 200,000 ‘waveriders’ (compare that to Australia - 1 million, America - 800,000, Brazil - 500,000). This was in 2004 (when the book was published) but if you’ve ever been to Shonan on a warm weekend, you’ll come away thinking 200,000 is a conservative estimate at best! Surfing is popular in Japan, and it’s understandable; Japan loves a hobby, especially all the kit that comes with it, and plenty of people here have the expendable income to get involved. On top of this, much of the population of Japan has relatively easy access to the surf. And the industry is acutely aware of this."... it might further raise the eyebrows to know that the country has a pretty rich history of hosting elite tour events."If it came as a surprise to hear that surfing is popular in Japan then it might further raise the eyebrows to know that the country has a pretty rich history of hosting elite tour events. History being the key word here. In fact, on what was formerly known as the ASP World Tour, the beaches of Chiba were a regular fixture. I was lucky enough to have been ‘in country’ to catch the tail end of these fixtures at the 2005 Quicksilver Pro in Hebara. That year saw surfing legends Andy Irons and Kelly Slater in a final that would spark what surfing often refers to as one of the greatest rivalries in sport. It was an amazing final held in great waves, but even an epic showdown between the two in front of a large local crowd wasn’t enough to keep Japan its place in the future of the sports elite competition calendar.  "What chance or right of a Japanese surfer getting on a tour that doesn’t even come to these shores?"It wasn’t long after 2005 that the ASP changed the elite tour format to what it called the ‘dream tour’; a concept that would forgo the crowds and a pandering to sales / numbers in favor of putting the best surfers on the planet on said planet’s best waves, regardless how remote they may be. That fewer spectators would make it to the events was of little concern given that these things were now streamed live on the Internet to armchair surfers around the world (something that TV was unable to do for the industry). A combination of the best surfers on the best waves sounds good, but for surfing in Japan, it was a blow to the credibility, and it also meant that Japanese surfers would miss out on the wildcard spots given to locals at each event (in this respect there have Japanese surfers at least making cameos on the elite tour). There’s an undermining mentality here, too; What chance or right of a Japanese surfer getting on a tour that doesn’t even come to these shores?(Image: tonko43 Flickr)Japan has crap wavesThis would seem to be a safe argument to make. Japanese surfers don’t make it to the top because they haven’t grown up in the right waves. It’s true to a certain degree. Few would argue that Japan is a world class surfing destination although there are plenty of waves here. Good ones, too. But with warmer waters, cheaper prices, and easier communication available on this side of the globe (I’m thinking Australia and Indonesia), why would the holidaying surfer bother with Japan?  The quality of wave argument is further undermined when we look at Kelly Slater, the Michael Jordan of surfing, and one of the most successful athletes of all time. 11 times World Champion Slater was schooled in the breaks of Florida which, temperature and abundance of sharks aside, are probably comparable to Japan in terms of power and quality. In fact, Florida has produced a whole bunch of word class surfers, and it’s often cited that growing up in such waves makes a surfer hungrier and better able to get the most out of conditions that aren’t always ideal. So why can’t the same be said of Japanese surfers?Is it the money?Maybe it’s an issue of funding? Perhaps surfers in Japan aren’t afforded the support from organisations or sponsors that surfers in say, Australia, are getting? Make no mistake, getting to the top of this industry requires a lot of travel and simply doing well in contests won’t come close to picking up the airfare tab. No, a surfing talent needs financial backing, and few people are willing to invest in something that has no record of bringing a financial return. Ohhara may have won one of the biggest contests in surfing but people with stuff to sell remain unlikely to be able to do it through his name power. On top of which, what the surf industry is selling is a lifestyle. An unobtainable one for most, but one that panders to dreams of the simple and slow life; of beaches and waves, padding about in sand wearing board shorts and bikinis. Of casting aside the rat race race in favor of a simple home, a garden, and epic waves. All images that are hard to find over here, especially when you consider the backdrop to many surf spots in Japan as being heavy industry and unwanted land.(Huntington Beach crowds, 2010.  Image: YoTuT Flickr)MentalityI’m clutching at straws here but I’m wondering if there’s a mental aspect to this. Have you ever felt that people over here are quick to assume an overly humble position on their supposed lack of expertise or ability to do something? I’m being vague because I can’t pinpoint a specific example, and there are plenty of things in which the Japanese have an almost jingoistic sense of pride; food, for example. But with something like surfing it falls into that category of, Well, they do that much better somewhere else, and we’ll never get to be as good, so that’s the end of that. Maybe it’s an overbearing sense of futility that is holding the nation’s surfers back.Awareness"... in the 2020 Tokyo Olympics the industry’s money-makers probably soiled themselves with joy."Awareness is a double-edged sword for surfing. Those that make money from it, of course, can’t get enough. Those that do it for fun, take to awareness with all the enthusiasm of a Monday morning. Make no mistake though, Japan is about to become far more aware of surfing. And the same for the world of surf’s potential in Japan. When the decision was made to include the sport in the 2020 Tokyo Olympics the industry’s money-makers probably soiled themselves with joy. ‘Imagine the sales!!’. Whether not the waves turn up for the 2020 Olympics is for others to have sleepless nights about (and they will), but you can bet your favorite board the event will spark a new generation of surf enthusiast here in Japan, as well as give some of the local pros a chance to rub shoulders with the best. A successful event and a decent showing from ‘Team Japan’ could well result in better funding Japanese surfers in their bid to reach the top.  How close are they?The World Qualification Series is a bit like surfing’s J2. It’s a dog fight around the globe to scrape and scrape for enough points to qualify for the elite Championship Tour. The World Surf League’s homepage ranks the surfers on the 2016 ‘qualification’ tour. I’m looking at it now, and can see some 1239 athletes listed on the mens side. If I haven’t missed anyone out, I can see Ohhara as the highest ranked Japanese surfer for 2016 at No. 78. He’s followed by Shun Murakami at No. 92 and Hiroto Arai at No. 98. On the women’s side, we can find Reika Noro at No. 48, Nao Omura at No. 51, and Ren Hashimoto at No. 64, all out of 391 athletes ranked for 2016. So the women seem to be faring much better than the men. Actually, these are pretty impressive numbers in the global context, but given that the men's’ elite tour has room for only 34 and the women's’ only 18, there is still some way to go for the Japanese surfers.(In my happy place!  Although this isn't actually me.)Again, why?"... participation from Japan’s elite amongst the world’s elite would add credibility to my own status as ‘surfer in Japan’"I suppose that Japan has become my ‘second team’ in many sporting disciplines, and although surfing doesn’t really lend itself to sporting patriotism (it is, ultimately, a very solo and personal pursuit), it’s nice to see the people around you do well. Far more than this though, participation from Japan’s elite amongst the world’s elite would add credibility to my own status as ‘surfer in Japan’. It’s pathetically shallow, I know, but I can’t help myself. For years now I’ve been saddled with an image of someone who’s spent their entire life behind a desk, rather than a well travelled surfer. And yes, this bothers me! The eyebrows raised in surprise that I’ve spent anytime in the ocean wilds, the blanks looks at the idea of Japan have a surf scene (and that I might be a part of it), were once a source of self-deprecating jokes, but have now become a mild irritation. Perhaps having Japanese surfers dine at the sport’s top tables will add a bit of credence, however limp, to my own fragile belief that I am a surfer in country that, to some degree, is known for having surf.If you're interested in surfing in Japan (beyond questions about why Japanese surfers don't compete in the Championship Tour) maybe this would be a good place to start with my posts about surfing:An Introduction To Surfing In Japan

  • Living

Ground raw beef on rice - Tokachi gyu-toro flake don

We ate this dish in a tiny place somewhere on the backstreets of Tokyo.  It was one of two items on the lunch menu.  The item we had intended to eat, a kind of lamb-don dish (grilled lamb on rice) had sold out.  The menu was written in Japanese only and it was one of those situations you often have over here where you feel the pressure to order and do so without knowing what it is you're ordering.  In this case, it turned out to be the dish in the images; 十勝牛トロフレーク丼 / Tokachi gyu-toro flake don.  Essentially ground raw beef on rice.  The Japanese have a taste for all things raw, but beef hit the headlines a few years ago over here after diners had died from eating raw beef dishes in cheap yaki niku joints in other parts of Japan.  Is 1,300 yen cheap?  Because that's what we paid for this.  I had thought that the above incidents had lead to bans on serving raw beef in restaurants in Japan, but given that our Tokachi gyu-toro flake don was being served without a seeming second thought, maybe the bans are restricted to certain dishes (or maybe the proximity to warm qualifies it as cooked of a kind).  Anyway, my friend and I were the only diners left in the restaurant so it would have been awkward to leave full dishes behind.Taste wise, these things are rarely as bad as one fears.  With warm rice and oily meat 'flakes' the overall effect of this dish was buttery smooth, warm, and with that dull tang of raw meet (the 'tang' part might just be a mental thing of eating something that for year's you'd been told would kill you).  Anyway, it was fine in the taste regard.  And you get a raw egg, incase things aren't raw enough for you.I had to look up the Tokachi part; apparently Tokachi is a 'sub-prefecture' of Hokkaido Prefecture in the North of Japan.  I also learned that the dish 'Tokachi Gyu-toro Don' (the 'flake' part is absent) was entered into the 4th Japan Local Bowl Dish Competition held in Tokyo in 2012.  I don't know how it ranked, or even if it was that kind of competition.   I won't be eating it again unless circumstances dictate otherwise.  Not out of a great fear or because it tasted particularly bad.  I just wasn't taken by it that much. 

  • Food

Counting the cost of surfing in Japan

One of the worst things about being a surfer in Japan, or any nation for that matter, are those days when there's no surf. Even worse than this are those days when close study of swell, wind, and weather charts tells you that they'll be no surf of a Saturday morning so you wake up late. But then you flip on the webcam out of curiosity only to find that there is, in fact, surf! It sounds petty (and it is) but it's enough to make a surfer weep.  So it is this Saturday morning that I find myself making matters worse by doing a bit of surf kit itinerary check and reflecting on how much it costs to go surfing in Japan.The timing isn't completely arbitrary. Last month I picked up a new wetsuit to get me through Japan's winter surf. After a session last weekend during which I could no longer feel the tips of my fingers and a case of 'ice cream' head that made it a bit tricky to focus, I promptly went out and bought gloves and a hood/cap. I was hoping to give them a run out today. Anyway, I'll add this to some of the other surfing bells and whistles that make up my surfing in Japan kit and wince at how much all of this has cost me. Starting from the top ... Wetsuit cap/hood I picked this up from a Murasaki Sports in Shin-Ochanomizu. They seemed to be having a 20%-off sale on a lot of their surf clobber (maybe a January sales thing). This is a 'large' size cap/hood from TABIE REVO (no idea). It's 3mm and has an extended neck that can tuck into the wetsuit. I felt like a complete plonker trying it on but it slipped on like a favorite sock and certainly feels warm. It's a little tight on the jaw but hopfully that'll prevent the teeth from chattering. Cost: 3,680 yen (with tax) Gloves Same store, same brand. 'Large' size. Black with a rather loud purple lining. These are 3mm. I recon I've got pretty winter resistant hands. I never wear gloves in day-to-day-life so I'm confident that I won't need to step up to 5 mm. Cost: 3,440 yen (with tax) *Surfing in Japan hack: I got 2,000 yen off the above due to points aquired from the purchase of the wetsuit below. Wetsuit I picked this up in December from a store called The Suns, again in Shin-Ochanomizu. The Suns has some sort of relationship with Murasaki Sports and they'll give you a point card that you can use in both. I'm not one for shopping around, it bores me stupid. I went in, said I had a budget of around 50,000 yen and was looking for something that could keep me surfing in January, maybe February, and then back again in March, in the central/north Chiba breaks. The kind worker picked out this Super Freak by O'NEILL. It's 5 mm on the legs and body. 3 mm on the arms. I love it! It's really easy to paddle in, gives me at least an hour of super warmth before things start to get a little chilly, and is nice and easy to slip on. The same can't be said about getting it off at the end though. Also, at 3 mm, the arms aren't the warmest. Still, I'm really happy with it. Cost: around 52,000 yen (with tax) Booties I don't know why we have to call them 'booties' instead of just 'boots'. Mixed feelings about these booties from Feel. I've had them for a few years now though. They start off warm but they don't half let a lot of water in. I can feel them weighing me down at the back end of a session. They're a nightmare to take off once you get back to the car. I have to 'peel' in stages which is the last thing you want to be doing when your freezing to death. Cost: It was a long time ago, but I think around 5,000 yen The stick I got this from a large secondhand store near the beach in Chiba (not one of the 'OFF' chain). It's a 6,2; a great all-round board for this part of Japan. It cost 15,000 yen. I've not idea how old it is but it works like a dream. Along with my smartphone (depressing, but yes), laptop, and electric blanket, it's one of my most valued possessions. The picture was taken in Bali (but I wish Chiba looked like that). Cost: 15,000 yen Leash The old one snapped last month. Just old age as, luckily, the waves that day were little tiddlers. I got this leash/leg rope from a local store here in Urayasu, Chiba. It's by CREATURES OF LEISURE. It's a 'standard' thickness and 2 m in length. I like the 'quick release' pully thing and the bright blue color. Cost: 5,000 yen Board bag A trip to Bali on an LCC airline forced me into buying a new, more streamline, board bag. I detailed that in a post here. The bag is from TRANSPORTER. It's light and slim and can only handle one board. I got it from The Suns. Cost: 7,000 yen Kit bag This was a gift, and I love it. It's got a water proof and insulated lining. The showers at my regular surf spot are cold so I can fill up some bottles with hot water and in this thing they'll still be nice and warm when I'm out after a session. Cost: It was a gift so rude to ask. Anyway, this is years old now but I found similar items online for around 5,000 yen Trinkets Key holder - can't remember and given the above costs, negligible Hot gel - 2,000 yen Board wax - 280 yen I've started so I might as well carry on with this cost of surfing in Japan business. Travel costs I'm about a 45 min drive from my regular break. I use one toll road/highway which costs me 880 yen (with an ETC card) one way. I'm not exactly sure but the buzzy little 'k car' Daihatsu that I drive requires about 4,000 yen to fill the tank with gas and I can squeeze four beach trips out of that. Parking is 500 yen (at the beach). While a lot of my Japanese surfer counterparts are lighting up pre-surf cigarettes I'm trying to give this spindly frame of mine all the help in the water it can get. Every morning before setting out I buy two packs of energy gel (weider ENERGY IN), a 4-stick pack of Calorie Mate, and packet of biscuits, all from the local Family Mart. This comes in at around 600 yen. On the way back I make a stop at a highway service station to ditch the rubbish and down a can of vending machine coffee (130 yen - it's a highway service stop after all). The cost of surfing in Japan: Budget summary Kit Wetsuit cap/hood  3,680 yenGloves3,440 yenWetsuit52,000 yenBooties5,000 yenThe stick15,000 yenBoard bag7,000 yenLeash5,000 yenKit bag5,000 yenTrinkets3,000 yen (est)Point card discount- 2,000 yenTotal: 97,120 yenTravel ...Highway tolls1,760 yenGas1,000 yenParking500 yenSnacks and coffee730 yenTotal: 3,990 yenOver the course of year, maybe I average four surfs a month and two bars of wax (summer / winter) Total: 191,520 yen Absent from this list are ... a very old, and thinner, wetsuit: 30,000 yen board shorts (they're redundant right now and are packed away somewhere): 7,000 yen the first board I bought in Japan (which I no longer use): 30,000 yen a car (not necessarily an essential for surfing in Japan, but this is more than likely going to be the case): not saying - this will make my eyes water I had though that doing this cost of surfing itinerary check was going to make me puke but the totals are actually not as high as I feared. Don't get me wrong, I could be buying a couple of flight tickets home to see the family with this, and around 4,000 yen for a surf session seems high. However, one could easily drink 4,000 yen away weekly in weekend drinks (which I rarely do). No, for me, surfing in Japan is emphatically worth it. In fact, I'm not sure I could put a real price on it. Well, no, I probably have a limit but I'm not sure where that is and given that work prevents me from surfing on weekdays, I'm unlikely to find it right now. Anyway, I hope this has helped any prospective surfers in Japan get an idea of how much it costs and what kind of surf gear you can get over here with what kind of money. More of my surfing in Japan stuff ... An Introduction To Surfing In JapanThe Best Surf Shops in Tokyo

  • Living
  • Money
  • Chiba

Jingiskan? Lamb don? Mutton don? What's in a name when it tastes this good?

A friend took me to this pint-sized place in Tokyo the other day for some jingiskan (Genghis Khan); a dish of grilled mutton (aka adult lamb).  Actually, with jingiskan you're often going DIY with that using a hot plate at your table.  On this occasion my grilled mutton came prepared on a bowl of rice.  Can I call this 'mutton don'?Now, gyūdon (牛丼 - beef bowl) has become something of a staple for me in Japan.  It's cheap, quick and seldom fails to deliver the goods, even at 'fast-food' joints like Matsuya and Yoshinoya.  This was my first time to try 'lamb don', and my first time to pay 1,200 yen for a bowl of meat on rice in Japan.I'm not sure any dish that basically lumps meat on rice could ever be worth 1,200 yen, but if there's one that comes close, it could well be this one.  Where a serving gyūdon often has meat that is kind of stringy and flimsy, the cuts of meat in this dish were a class above.  Really substantial, juicy, and with a little bit of 'chew' factor, too.  The raw egg in the middle might have been something of a hurdle a while ago, but spend long enough in Japan and you get used to it.  The dish was topped with some diced negi and served with a steaming cup of green tea.We ate in one of those places you can often find in Japan that get by with only one or two dishes on the menu.  Popular joints, like this, also have a limit on the number of dishes they can make, and they usually sell out.  Pretty quickly.  We arrived at around 1:00 pm at the (by then) empty shop and were served the last two dishes available.  

  • Food

Old skool grilled salmon set and an old skool Japanese dining experience

The first time I went to this place for lunch the main 'grill man', a proper old skool lookin' Japanese dude, was giving hell to one of the waitstaff, or rather, the only wait staff. I don't know why, but it was happening for all to see in this small restaurant. Nobody batted an eyelid (save for this blogger).  This restaurant is very popular during lunch with workers from the surrounding office towers. It specializes in grilling things; mostly fish but they can also do some chicken. Just about. I went with the chicken lunch set once. The chicken, purposefully, was uncooked in the middle, or rather, it was only cooked on the outside. I was given a pair of industrial scissors to cut it up. I've been back since, and usually go with one of the fish options (they grill it all they way through). This time I went with the salmon set. For 800 yen you get the fish, rice, miso soup, pickles and some very finely grated daikon. It's a really nice combo. The salmon in this case is served with a slice of lemon. It's incredibly soft and really easy to handle with chop sticks. It's quite greasy through, which may be off putting for some. The pickles are not so strong, rather they have a soft kind of taste that's a nice compliment to the sharpness of the lemon. The only thing I'm unsure about is the grated radish. I mean, it's fine an all, I'm just not sure a which stage and accompanied with which bit of food I'm supposed to be eating it.  The door is always open at this restaurant, literally, I mean. Even in winter like now, so it's not really a place you can get settled in. Added to this, tables are shared with with other diners, so there's a lot of coming and going and little privacy to talk about those deals you've been trying to make at work (everyone in here is an office worker). There's no menu to speak off, just an illegible list of dishes (it's written in kanji) by the cash register at the door. You somehow indicated what you want and given a old wooden 'token' with a number on it. You find your own seat.I think the vibe of the 'grill man' seeps into every corner of this place. This is no-frills Japanese dining. There are few pleasantries, few choices, and little time for messing about. Get in, sit down, eat, and get out. Perfect for the busy Japanese office worker, I guess.

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  • Maruzen Marunouchi Main (Book) Store

    Probably the best book store in Tokyo

    I remain pretty convinced that the branch of Maruzen in the Marunouci 'oazo' building outside of Tokyo Station is the best book store in Tokyo.  Unless you're after used / second hand books, in which case it definitely isn't as all the books in this large store are new.This branch of Maruzen occupies four floors but it's the fourth floor that will be of most interest to most people reading this; this is where the English (and other foreign-language) books are to be found.The strength of this store lies in its diversity covering, as it does, most genres that people might be looking for.  If you're after something 'educational' or something more learned you'll find genres that include - economics, business, history, politics, religion, sociology, popular science (Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris et al), and computing/programming among others.  Most of these have a good row of shelving to their own.  Books are organised alphabetically, and are often divided into sub genres.  English teachers will find a good selection of teaching textbooks and textbook sets.  Japanese language learners are also well served here.In terms of novels, all the 'big new releases' have their own set of shelves which you can see as soon as you get off the escalator from the lower floors and then the older titles are further in the back of the store.  There are quite a few shelves devoted to 'classics' which cover later authors like those from the 'Beat Generation' (Kerouac, Ginsberg, Burroughs) and then back in time from there to the usual suspects (Dickens, Conrad, Bronte, ...).  For me, it's a good selection, perhaps the best I've seen in Tokyo.  Books relating to Japan have their own plot of land and are divided into novels / social commentary, and travel.  On the theme of the latter, you can find plenty of titles from Lonely Planet here.  There are magazines and newspapers for sale here, too, as well as an impressive collection of photography books (as in the coffee table kind), and those relating to hobbies, crafts, design, and fashion.If there is a complaint about Maruzen (although it's a little pedantic), it's that with so much on offer, if you don't have a clear idea what you're looking for, it can be a little overwhelming.  Also, the store is guilty of doing that thing that a lot of book stores in Japan do, selling a bunch of pointless, and poncey, nick knacks.  OK, the stationary I can understand (a bit) but things like boring hand bags I just don't get and give me the impression that they just want to flog any old nonsense to customers while they've got them in the store.  That said, you can find a pretty good selection of greetings cards here.  Another slight gripe, if I may, is that the staff here all have the manner of someone who doesn't really want to deal with you.  I don't think this is coincidence.  I think it's the shop's attempt to appear serious, learned and bookish.  It doesn't work and isn't necessary.  Anyway, those gripes aside, there's much to discover and enjoy in this branch of Maruzen and I've rarely come here and not been able to find that book which I was looking for (or at least somewhere in the ballpark) or, indeed, some gem that I wasn't looking for.  Highly recommended, although all the books being new, a little expensive also.To get to this branch of Maruzen, from Tokyo Station take the 'JR Marunouchi North Exit'.  Turn right out of that and you'll see the 'Marunouchi oazo' building in front of you across the street.  It's next to the Marunouchi Hotel.  Enter 'oazo' through the entrance at street level and Maruzen is on your right.Hours: 9:00 - 21:00

  • Ramo Frutas Cafe Ginza

    These are the best pancakes I've tasted in Tokyo.

    The best things in life often appear when you aren’t even looking for them, and this could well be the case here with what, I think, are the best pancakes I’ve tasted in Tokyo. I was actually looking for a toilet when I ended up pouring over the menu of Ramo Frutas Cafe on the 3rd floor of Ginza Place (above the ‘Nissan Gallery’  at Nissan Crossing - What a pointless waste of expensive real estate that is, by the way). It’s quite staggering really, that a cafe specializing in fruit should have itself a prime view of one of the world’s most expensive street corners, but here it is, and we should all be happy about it. Ramo Frutas Cafe is a welcome break from the ‘designer brand’ contest that is going on outside. The space of Ramo Frutas Cafe is light, airy, and natural. There’s a small, sheltered terrace overlooking Ginza’s central crossroads. Otherwise, it’s all fairly simple in appearance. Orders are made at the counter before getting seated. The menu at Ramo Frutas Cafe is fairly simple, with nearly everything on it being based around fruit, even the ‘meal plates’ - fruit curry, fruit pasta, fruit taco rice …, all between 1,600 - 1,800 yen with salad, seasonal fruit, and drink. ‘Sweets’ at the cafe come under three headings; pancakes, parfait, and ‘showcase’ (largely cakes and tartes). We went with the pancakes at 1,350 yen (including a drink); me, the ‘banana and cacao’, the partner, ‘berry and sour’. Both are what pancakes should be (the come served in the hot pan for a start); thin, eggy, hot, messy, and generously / randomly adorned with toppings. The arrive on your table looking like an Instagram pic. Highly recommended, and possibly the best pancakes I’ve had in Tokyo (or anywhere in Japan, for that matter). Another touch I liked about Ramo Frutas Cafe was that the fruit theme continues with the free water - ‘Fruit Water’ and ‘Fruit Vinegar’. Don’t be put off by the name of the latter, it really just tastes like weak apple juice. I’m having a hard time finding fault with this cafe. I mean, it specializes in fruit, but isn’t so expensive (take note Sembikiya). OK, there is one thing that bothered; the couple who occupied one of the tables on the terrace with their books and laptop getting more attention than the single parfait they ordered (which remain untouched throughout). Ramo Frutas Cafe isn’t really a place to be doing work on Sunday afternoon, especially when half of Ginza is looking for a place to eat. I would have liked to see the staff move them on. I’m a bit of a killjoy like that.Take exit A3 from the Ginza Metro Station.

  • The Conran Shop Kitchen

    Quality kitchen goods, homeware, and gift options in this Tokyo store

    This ‘kitchen’ (and home) store in Shibuya’s ‘Shibuya Hikarie’ shopping mall has become something of a go-to resource for me, when I’m in need of gifts for people who come from money and have little need for gifts. In fact, the whole of Shibuya Hikarie is a good resource in that regard. Somehow though, The Conran Shop Kitchen seems to be the easiest option for me to pick out some easy gifts.My first stop is usually the consumables. You can find really nice looking (organic and healthy) juices and drinks here; apple and cranberry, wild strawberry and farm grapes, Mediterranean orange and Caribbean coconut … I’m making the names up, but the juices here are along those sort of lines.‘Conran’ is also a good place to go for nice looking preserves, jams, pickles, and spreads. They usually have some fancy imported biscuits, cookies, crackers, candy, and chocolate. They are all a premium prices, but they have look of being something that you might have put some thought into (if you’re buying them as gifts).As the name might suggest, The Conran Shop has some very classy (and expensive) kitchenware; pots and pans, pins and chopping boards, aprons and tea towels. The list goes on. A lot of it is out of my price range, but if you are the type of person who has few ‘ichi man’ to drop on a frying pan, this could be a good place to do it.  It you weren’t aware that you could spend thousands of yen on washing detergents and fabric softeners, come here and you soon will be. Again, probably unnecessary for most, but they are here, and if you know someone who’s fanatical about doing laundry (as many people in Japan are) they might appreciate an injection of class into their routine.Just as with the detergent, it’s in this classy Japan homestore that you might come to realize how something so humble at a shower sponge can fetch and eye watering price. (Don’t worry, at least you’ll be able to ‘sponge up’ those tears!)The Conran Shop Kitchen is spacious, bright, easy to negotiate and despite the quality kit and high prices, not at all stuffy or snobbish. It’s a place to have look about, if nothing else. And not everything in here is outrageously expensive; for a treat or a nice gift it could be a good place to look.Open: 11:00 - 21:00 every day of the week.You can find it on the 5th floor of Shibuya Hikarie (ShinQs)Shibuya Hikarie is just across the street from the east side of Shibuya Station

  • Sekaido

    The best arts and crafts store in Tokyo?

    Sekaido could well be one of the best art / craft / stationery stores in Japan. Located near Shinjuku-Sanchome Station the lofty building is home to 8 floors of all the bits and bobs one could need to get creative. Floors 1 - 6 will be the main focus for shoppers. The two basement floors host a car park and a center for something of which I can’t read the kanji.The floor layout for Sekaido Shinjuku:1) Stationery / business supplies2) Comic corner / Design goods / Drawing goods / Copy corner3) Painting goods (Japanese and Western) / Moulding, sculpting goods4) Picture frames / Certificate frames / Prints5) Oil painting goods, frames6) GalleryOn the first floor, on the left as you enter, you’ll find a good selection of greetings cards for birthdays, weddings, e.t.c. Actually, this must be one of the better places to buy greetings cards in Japan, a pursuit that can often lead to frustration, and poor quality cards.  Painters and drawers will really enjoy Sekaido. There’s so much in here to choose from; brushes in all shapes and sizes, pencils with pretty much every grade of lead you could think of, paints for all types of canvas (I was in here to buy some for fabrics), and plenty more. In fact, if you don’t know your stuff, or you’re not sure what you’re looking for, it can be a little overwhelming. Still, this isn’t the chaos of say a massive Tokyu Hands. The atmosphere is much quieter and has an air of the scholarly about it. Serious staff are on hand to help with inquiries, although I can’t vouch for their handling of languages other than Japanese.Sekaido (at least not this Shinjuku branch) isn’t really a place to come for the quirky stuff. The store is more geared towards those who take their arts and crafts seriously. That being said, if there is any ‘only in Japan’ novelty, it may will be on the first floor, by the greetings cards, where you can choose from plenty of stickers.  There is a Sekaido homepage which is Japanese only. The design kind of reflects the store’s atmosphere, and also that this art / craft store has been around for some time. (It was established in 1940).  The are 11 branches of Sekaido in Japan, most of them in Tokyo, but there are a few in Kanagawa and Saitama, and there’s a solitary branch in Nagoya. Shopping is also available online, but again, it’s in Japanese. Overall, a really useful arts and crafts resource in Tokyo. In terms of painting and drawing, it you can’t find what you’re after in this branch of Sekaido, perhaps it doesn’t exist. For those with a more casual interest, there is plenty of stationery here, and as has already been mentioned, the good selection of greetings cards.Take Exit C1 from Shinjuku-Sanchome Station

  • Narita Airport Terminal 1

    Great terminal but access leaves a bit to be desired

    Terminal 1 at Narita is certainly one of the better international terminal out there, for me.  It's pretty well organized (although I have experienced pretty long queues at security from time to time), and has all the facilities and shops you could want from a terminal.  It shouldn't really be a plus point but the smoking rooms here are good, too being as they are on the outside of the building and once you go through immigration they do a pretty good job with them in the departure areas.My one gripe with all of Narita Airport is the access, especially getting away from it when you arrive.  The frequency of train services just doesn't seem to match the airport's status as a major travel hub for the largest city in the world.  It's not too bad for departures when you can be pretty sure exactly of the times and schedules, but for arrivals when you can't be sure if you're landing on time, and you're likely tired and irritable anyway, missing a train by a couple of minutes and having to wait half an hour for next one isn't the best feeling in the world.

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