Traveler, surfer, and scribe. Based in Tokyo for six years.
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 I took these with my pretty out-of-date iPhone (Are they ever in?)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)
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
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.
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
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.
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.
I've subject the 'bento' of the title to inverted commas as I don't want people to be mislead. The bento (Japanese 'lunch box') that I throw together pale in comparison to the efforts from some superstar homemakers that trend on social media. Nobody will be getting hits if they somehow decided to upload an image of my lunch time efforts onto Instagram, no matter how much filter they apply. Essentially, I'm defrosting some pre-frozen rice (the product of a frantic Sunday evening trying to prepare the next few days' worth of lunches and dinner so that I can come home and do just about nothing after work), throwing in a bit last night's dinner, and adding the odd tomato or spear(?) of broccoli.I do make a little effort towards making my bento more native by adding to them some traditional Japanese side dishes. Actually, the four that I regularly go for (image above) perhaps lack the colors and shapes that one might associate with a 'cute' bento. As is often the case with food that doesn't look particularly flashy though, they are very healthy.You can find all of these Japanese side dishes (what they call 煮物/nimono), and more, at the deli section of probably all supermarkets in Japan. You're looking at around 150 - 200 yen for 100 g for this kind of stuff. Very often they come in servings of around 50 g. Bento size!いんげんの胡麻和え (ingen no gommae)This is green beans in a sesame 'dressing'. It's probably my favorite. The taste is a familiar one, I love sesame, and the freshness of the green beans can help to loosen up the sometimes heavy feeling of the rice. 鶏そぼろ牛蒡 (tori soboro gobou)The tori soboro part is minced chicken. The gobou part is maybe burdock (some kind of root vegetable). There is some carrot and chilli in there, too. I like that this side dish has an ever-so-slight bit of heat to it. Helps to liven up those lunches that are in danger of being a bit bland.ひじき煮 (hijikini)Quite honestly this my least favorite of the four dishes here. Actually, I don't particularly like it at all, but people tell me it's very healthy. It certainly tastes healthy in so far as it has that very 'earthy' taste like nothing has been done to it. Hijiki is a kind of seaweed. There is some deep-fried tofu here, and soy beans. I don't find the appearance particularly appealing either! Super popular in Japan though.ふき煮 (fukini)Fuki on Wikipedia is referred to, delightfully, as bog rhubarb! It's the green 'stem' in the dish below. Overall, fukini has a kind of sweet and sour thing going on which, again, makes it a good way to cut through your oft stodgy (or dry) defrosted rice!Anyone out there making their own bento? I'd definitely be interested in your bento ideas. Especially if they are easy to apply!
Tokyo Comic Con 2016 wrapped up today after it's weekend residence at Makuhari Messe International Exhibition Hall, Chiba. This year was the first Tokyo Comic Con, the brain child of Tokyo Comic Convention Committee Chairman Mitsuaki Munegumi, who spotted a need to quench the thirst for American comic books and Hollywood produced movies amongst Japanese readers and enthusiasts. Stars at Tokyo Comic Con included a 93-year-old Stan Lee, the man who helped bring into our live's comic book legends like Spider-Man, Iron Man, Hulk, X-Men ... a staggering list, basically. Jeremy Renner (the dude from Hurt Locker) was also floating around somewhere, presumably on the back of his character Hawkeye in the Avengers movies. Those who like their sci-fi of a older vintage would have enjoyed the prospect of meeting Lance Henriksen who played the android Bishop in Aliens.When you hear or read the noun phrase 'comic con', those in the relative know will likely think of the San Diego Comic-Con (with a hyphen). By all accounts, Tokyo Comic Con cannot compare its Californian counter part in size or scale, nor is it as big, noisy, and sexy as the Tokyo Game Show. But it's still a lot of fun.The first Tokyo Comic Con laid out it's stall early doors; as soon as you entered the DeLorean time machine from Back to the Future, and KITT from Knight Rider lay in wait, and you knew that American productions were ruling the roost at this convention. The Stan Lee influence was best reflected in the number of Spider-Man cosplayers wandering among the booths. Batman, The Joker, and Stormtroopers (along with other Star Wars characters), were also well represented by the delightfully bonkers cosplayers in attendance on the Sunday.A lot of the booths at Tokyo Comic Con displayed/sold models of super hero mainstays. Some of the detail that goes into these things is staggering. As are some of the prices they were selling for (this blogger didn't see much money changing hands other than at the official Tokyo Comic Con souvenir area). But whilst most models seemed to be aimed at collectors, there were plenty of 'cute' versions of Spider-Man et al going for far more accessible prices. There were a couple of spaces at Tokyo Comic Con for cosplayers to pose and for regular visitors to take photos. It probably doesn't need to be said, but the visitors with the best photography kit were the otaku, and they weren't really interested in the dudes dressed as Spider-Man. At the other end of the scale, plenty of giddy tourists were bouncing off the walls in the their attempts to take a selfie with the maddest/cutest cosplayers they could latch onto. Video game, and soon-to-be movie, Assassin's Creed had a pretty big presence at Tokyo Comic Con, as did Japanese staple Biohazard (Resident Evil to everyone else). Star Wars fans also had plenty to get their teeth into, including the chance to mess around with some lightsabers, debate about whether or not to pick a very smart looking 'coffee table' book, and ogle models/figures that basically most of us can't justify buying. This blogger enjoyed the chance at Tokyo Comic Con to check out props and replicas from movies which included some bit and bobs from the Alien and Predator stories.As the for the sex-sells (or sex-increases-the-chance-that-you'll-go-home-with-our-flyers) ethos that you can find at, say, the Tokyo Game Show or any exhibit that involves cars/motorbikes, well it was at Tokyo Comic Con, too, just less of it. With all the fantastic cosplayers wandering around, it seemed a bit pointless and boring anyway. Enough of the words and on to the pictures. Here are images taken by me of cosplayers and kit at Tokyo Comic Con 2016.Toys, props, originals, and replicasIron Man outside the Hot Toys boothGodzilla seems to have a goofy grin from this angle.T-800 (Terminator) gets a change of look with the lights.DeLorean (Back to the Future)KITT (Knight Rider)CooProps use the original moulds to recreate props from classic movies like Predator and the Alien franchise. Some of the models/figures from Prime Studio 1 drew a lot of attention from both fans and regular visitors. The attention to detail is quite frankly jaw dropping. The Pop collection of toys from Funko do a sterling job of blending 'cool' and 'cute'.Tokyo Comic Con CosplayAs I said earlier, there were two 'cosplay' zones at Tokyo Comic Con, as well as cosplayers walking between booths, contests, and special events/photo session organized by exhibitors. There had been a bit of furore online about a decision by organizers to prevent males dressing up as females for the purposes of cosplay at this convention. I can't remember what became of this bizarre decision, but I don't recall seeing any 'crossdressing' cosplayers (on the male side) which might have been to the detriment of the spectacle. I don't know.Data storage device producer drobo organized a cosplay session on the Sunday.There were plenty of Star Wars cosplayers to spot Tokyo Comic Con.This blogger arrived at Tokyo Comic Con early afternoon on the Sunday. Given the swarms of people pouring out of Kaihimmakuhari Station I had that sinking feeling that getting into the convention was going to be a major hassle. It wasn't, and it wasn't that crowded around the booths either. I got my 'ticket on the day' within about 5 mins (2,000 yen) and after security had a cursory look inside my bag, I was in amongst the action. There's a bit a food court in there, and when you exit you get a stamp on the hand that'll let you back in again. Website (Japanese): http://tokyocomiccon.jp/
Tell a local in Japan that you're going somewhere for a trip and there's the best chance that the first thing they'll say is you must try the insert regional food here. They really know the geography of their food. A part of this is probably because it's rammed down their throats by every prefecture, city, and hamlet across the country, desperate to establish an identity, either through food or some kind of anime style character. So it is that when I went to Sendai recently, had I not tried a serving of gyūtan, I might well have hurt someone's feelings. Gyūtan; lit. beef tongue, the idea for the grilling and eating of which, is apparently claimed by Sendai, at least as far as Japan is concerned. Our gyūtan was the focus of a lunch set for around 1,600 yen. The name of the restaurant I can't recall. A shame really, as this was a fine lunch set; simple, tasty, and well balanced. In traditional 'Sendai style', four cuts of gyūtan are served with rice, soup, and a pretty substantial amount of pickles (as far as servings of pickles usually go). The tongue itself is served with a slice of lemon and a sprig of parsley. You grill it at the table yourself. Four cuts might sound a poor return for 1,600 yen. I've no idea. To date, this was my first and last gyūtan lunch set in Sendai. As I said though, it was really good. High quality grilled beef in Japan is usually half grease (like Kobe beef), and leaves me largely disappointed (and slight sickly). This being tongue though, we can expect things to be more lean. If you're after a fancy bit of beef, this is a solid way to go.
I usually associate oyakodon (親子丼) with the kind of Japanese dish that can be easily whipped up a home when you're bereft of ideas for anything else. It's a simple enough job; boil up some rice, thrown some eggs and chicken chunks into dashi and simmer for a bit, put one on top of the other. It's rare that I would go out and eat oyakodon in a restaurant. There was that one time I want to Tamahide (玉ひで) in Ningyocho, Tokyo, a restaurant that has gotten itself known as serving the best oyakodon in the city, if not the whole of Japan, but I haven't been out for it since. Until today. A couple of us went to place in Ginza called ふなちゅう (Funachu) which serves lunch sets of tempura, sashimi, tempura/sashimi mix, and oyakodon. For 1,100 yen my oyakodon lunch set came with a side salad, soup from chicken stock, pickles, and a rich matcha pudding for dessert. The square dish in the picture above it shichimi (sprinkle on for a bit of heat).As, I'm told, with most places serving oyakodon, it comes in a deceptively large bowl that looks impressively deep. It's not. That said, this is a dish that can be a little heavy so the deception is perhaps a good thing. When my Japanese friends cook oyakodon, the egg gets a cursory glance of the frying pan before it's thrown on top of the rice i.e, it's way under cooked for my liking. Reassuringly, the egg in ふなちゅう is pretty well cooked.Tamahide is famed for it's 'special' chicken. The standard dishes there come with a mix of meat from this 'special' bird, and that from birds which seem to be looked down upon as common as muck! I can hand on heart say that the meat from the 'special' bird is like chewing on a pair of old boots, and would normally be pushed aside on plates back home. Here, the chicken (I don't know how special) is grilled on coal before being added to the eggs and dashi which is apparently unusual for oyakodon. I liked it very much; catching the occasional over-grilled sharpness makes for a nice contrast from what is an almost sweet dish. Those two ball-type-things in the soup are まり麩 (marifu); some kind of wheat gluten business. No taste to speak of, but they look suitably Japanese. oyakodon remains a kind of stay at home and cook kind of dish for this blogger, but next time I'm after a bit of 'burn' on the chicken, I'll be giving this place another go.What's your stay-at-home-and-cook go to Japanese food?(The dessert)
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
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.
A shopping center with all the shops but little of the fun
You can find shopping mall SUNAMO about a 5-mins walk from Minami-sunamachi Station (Tozai Line).As shopping malls go it's got enough of the shops one would need to get by; UNIQLO, a bookstore, stationary shop, MUJI, Lush, drug store, food court, AEON supermarket. The list goes on. It must also be an important resource for a station area that has almost no distinct features. To be brutally honest, this is the kind of place I hate to spend a Sunday afternoon. It's very much full of families, but when the idea of quality family time is to spend hours/a day in a place like this, it makes me not want to start a family. There's little reason to go out of one's way to come here, but if you're in the area and in need of a UNIQLO or some warm air conditioning, then maybe it'll do.SUNAMO does have a few interesting restaurants on the 4th floor, which is also where you'll find the food court.Maybe I've been a bit harsh with this review. SUNAMO is spacious, clean, warm, and has a range of stores, but on a personal level, it just isn't for me.
Bits n bobs for the home with a slightly alternative vibe
I had no idea ZARA were in the business of dressing up peoples' homes. I wasn't actually looking for this place, rather I stumbled across it while I was trying to navigate my way around the massive LaLaport Tokyo Bay.The store isn't as large as some of ZARA's clothing branches and there's not a huge amount of variety but it might be a step up from a typical home store or somewhere like a MUJI. Not in terms of price, but in terms of a bit of flare. It you're looking to try and inject a bit of style into your soap dish holders, or pizazz into your place mats you might find something here.The shop (at the time of visiting) seemed to have separated things mainly in terms of 'style theme' rather than location in the home; for example there would be a section of stuff all based around the color pink, or a section where everything was shiny/silver/gold.The goods here are smaller in scale (you won't find beds, sofas, arm chairs etc). This is more about trinkets, holders, mats, cups and other items of that ilk (although I did spot some curtains).Prices kind of reflect the ZARA brand; not expensive but a bit more than UNIQLO (if UNIQLO were to sell stuff for the home).ZARA HOME LaLaport couldn't be considered an essential home-shopping resource but it does make a refreshing change from the 100 yen store or a lot of the awful homeware crap that you can find dotted about Japan's suburban retail locations.ZARA HOME is on the first floor (1F) of the South Building (南館) of LaLaport Tokyo Bay in Funabashi.
Aussie pies that will put a smile on your face
Australian-style pies are delicious. Nice then to find a branch of Pie Face not far from home. Actually, I'd lever heard of Pie Face (always went with the cheap ones from Woolworths when I spent time in Australia) but this branch has always seemed popular so thought it was time to give the pies a go. Glad that I did.Pie Face has about 8 different fillings for its collection of savoury pies and 7 fillings for the sweet pies. I went with a Classic Mince Beef. My friend chose Chicken and Mushroom. Both 390 yen individually, but we had a 'juice' set (apple or orange juice) for 600 + yen. Both pies were delicious. Fillings are rich, thick and smooth and the pastry is light enough but still with a bit of grease to remind you of the working-class origins of the humble pie.At Pie Face you order your pies from a display counter and then move on to order drinks at the the cash register. Collect your drinks/pies from the counter at the end after paying. Clear away your own trays after eating.This particular branch of Pie Face is cozy but still with enough space to stretch out a bit. It looks new (although I don't know how new), and aside from the pies, is itself a nice place to hang out (although it has the potential to get very busy given how close it is to Disneyland, and the fact that it's in the popular shopping center IKSPIARI). Anyway, regardless of decor and atmosphere, the pies here are delicious and well worth a visit should you be in the area. There is also am option to take out as well.
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