Our Culinary Adventure in Tokyo, Japan – Part II

I am sure I left off with something about food. That did seem to be our focus on this trip. The next day involved more hunting for food and finding a few places by accident. We decided to head towards the Roppongi district with the intent of going up to the top of one of the tallest buildings in Tokyo at Mori Tower (http://www.roppongihills.com/en/) for the Tokyo City View. On the way, we passed the U.S. Embassy, compared to all the other ones we passed they take their security very seriously, and walked through a deserted office building where we stumbled upon a Katsu place. We love this type of breaded dish, especially if it includes Japanese curry, and this was a good place to store up extra carbs. It wasn’t the best but it was quiet and a good price. Plus it was one of the few places with a window display of fake food that always helps ordering when the menus are in Japanese! I think its great someone made a whole business out of all the different kind of fake food items.

Not for dining - near the Hard Rock

When finished, we walked through Roppongi and passed the Hard Rock Café on one of the side streets. No reason to stop here. I did that my first time when the Americans I was with didn’t want to venture out for local food at night (goofballs!).  It still is very touristy but the small club on the 2nd floor of the next building had a sign that caught our attention. Maybe it was a different kind of hot spot but not at 2:00 in the afternoon when we ventured by. Hmmm. Maybe later?

We eventually got to the Mori Tower – mainly by keeping it in sight because of its height versus actually knowing how to get there. Like most high rises, the top floor inside allows a 360 degree view of the city but the best part is the extra bit of Yen that allows you to go up and walk around the perimeter of the roof! Of course you can’t picnic on the helipad but the view up here is fantastic and there are no windows to get in the way of your camera. It can get very windy therefore they make you bag up any articles such as hats, small clothing, etc. The wait was 10-15 minutes this day and that seemed very short considering the amount of people and the fact this is listed as one of the top things to do in Tokyo.

Tokyo skyline wide-view

After the tower tour, we found an outdoor café at the Grand Hyatt next door. This meant a quick afternoon snack of cheese and beer. Ahhh. As we headed back to the hotel for a break, I happened to take a snapshot of local male fashion – you can see the colorful choices in the gallery at the end. It appears I am behind the times in my style and color choices with my Levis and t-shirts. Actually Levis are very big in Asia, and much more expensive, therefore maybe I wasn’t as out of fashion as I thought.

Time to head to dinner and one of the few places we planned in advance. Well partly in advance since we made the reservation about 2 hours before showing up on a Friday night! One of our favorite meals we miss is Shabu Shabu. It is cooking thinly sliced pieces of meat in boiling water. You also cook cabbage, noodles, tofu, mushrooms, etc. Back home, we knew of a great, popular place in Costa Mesa. Even more missed, once they opened the Japanese supermarket near our house, we could buy all the ingredients and make Shabu Shabu at home. It’s affordable and healthy. Good stuff!

The place we decided to try in Tokyo, Shabu-Zen (http://www.shabuzen.jp,- Japanese page only but it looks good! | 3-16-33 Roppongi Minato-ku Aoba Roppongi Bldg B1, Phone 03 3585 5600) is highly recommended albeit hard to find. It is located in the basement of a small building and you need to be able to read the characters on the outside sign to realize you are in the right place. It is below a large sports bar and the Hobgoblin bar if you can find those. My other hint is it is about 2-3 blocks from the Audi dealer. There are several other locations but this seems to be the most popular. Shabu ShabuThe staff confirmed Lady Gaga ate here several times during her tour week a while back. We were very lucky when we were escorted into a private room! Most of the tables are in a communal setting but our first night (yes we went twice) we had our own room. The first waitress came in and upon realizing we spoke English, sent in a young Japanese girl who was bilingual. We pigged out. 2 bottles of cold Sake, six plates of meat (it is all you can eat for 600 Yen more!), and 2 trays of vegetables were very filling. No dessert here but none needed. We did have some hot tea since only liquid would fit in any of the vacant space left in our stomachs. If it weren’t for the fact we were on the basement level, we would have rolled out of there. As it was, we staggered around town for a bit. This place is also in the Roppongi area therefore we wandered around the crowds and did a bit of tourist kitsch shopping.

The next day was much of the same. Wander here and there but this time we went to Ginza to do some shopping. One of the very large department stores was having a going out of business sale. We took a peek and somehow ended up in the art gallery section on one of the top floors. We spent some time, some Yen, and brought back one piece of Japanese modern art. The artist is Takashi Murakami and he is extremely well known in Asia and for those who are collectors of Louis Vuitton purses, apparently. (http://www.takashimurakami.com). Our piece has a different feel than many of his well-known designs but there is still playfulness if you know where to look.

Lunch today was a basement restaurant in one of the food alleys we ventured into. Fried oysters, a small salad, and some draft Sapporo was enough to get us through the next phase of shopping – the large multi-level toy store. Not sure how we ended up here but we successfully made it out of there with only 2 puzzles and an assortment of gifts we’ll be sending to our family. I hope they can translate the Japanese instructions on some of the packages because I can’t! At least they’ll be conversation starters sitting on the coffee table unopened I guess. Good luck!

Time for dinner and guess where dinner was? You bet – back to Shabu-Zen. This time we were at one of the normal tables. I think we were aiming to break our previous night’s record but we only went through 6 plates of meat – the same – but this time one extra plate of veggies. Maybe it helped we only had one beer each? Again we were so full we had to roll up the steps. Even remembering how stuffed I was, writing about it makes me hungry and I just ate dinner tonight too!

After dinner, we hopped in a taxi to venture towards the Kabukicho red-light district (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kabukich?,_Tokyo). We like to see all the highly rated tourist destinations! Not. Of course it is not only a red-light district as there is the usual shopping, cinemas, and loads of people walking around at night.  Our first stop out of the cab happened to be a Japanese chain store Muji (http://www.muji.com) that we visit in Singapore too. I guess there is something different about shopping locally though since we spent time and Yen here too! It is actually a great store – sort of a combination of the Gap and a Travel Store for those U.S. folks.  They have a good assortment of ‘stuff’ you can use for travel or at home. There is nothing I like more that adding ‘stuff’ to my inventory. One of these days I’ll write about the electronic ‘stuff’ I continue to accumulate. I think those gadgets replicate on their own.

Short Time Hotel - Tokyo red-light districtWalking a few blocks off the main stretch took us into the red light district. Yes, apparently Tokyo also has a red light district of hostess clubs and love hotels. The signs make it obvious but the lack of Gaijins was also obvious that this may not be a place for us to wander too long. A little Internet research showed the high-end places don’t exactly reach out to invite you in when you are a foreigner. The ones that tend to solicit you are the low-end bars that we don’t expect to visit in any country! This might explain why the high-end places had big men in dark suits at the doors. Yes, the rumors of Yakuza doormen seems to be true. Doesn’t seem the friendliest place to hangout therefore we high-tailed it. The interesting part is on the way out of dodge, we passed the hourly-rate love hotels. These are not your local Motel-6. The signs outside not only show the price but also list many of the room amenities including Jacuzzi tubs, roman looking room designs, high-end TVs and stereos. The building designs and neon lighting were enough neon to make Las Vegas jealous. This was a side neither of us had seen on past visits to Tokyo.  Been there. Time to move on.

Foreigners welcome side street barWe continued to work our way out of the adult maze by following a quiet park path back towards the main intersection. As we did, we noticed a small set of alleys that had very small bars. 8-10 people seemed to be the maximum you can fit into these places. We walked over to the alleys discovering a hodge-podge of bars stacked up to three levels high on either side of a few narrow alleys. I would not want to be in one during an earthquake here but we saw one that said “foriegners welcome” (sic) and decided to give it a try.

The first challenge was this 2nd level bar had some very steep stairs. Not the kind of steps you want to try after you’ve spent any amount of time enjoying the libations the bar has to offer. This was at 9:30 PM on a Saturday night therefore we were able to get two of the 8 seats at the bar. This bar seemed about 15 feet wide and maybe twice as long. It really was like a stackable shipping container converted into a small bar. There were two bartenders and three other patrons. And that made it 80% full! The bartender spoke enough English that we spoke about the bar, Japanese history, and then some Chinese history which, not being the flattering kind from him, convinced us it was time to pay for our drinks and mosey on out. I am still not entirely Interior of a typical side street barclear on the purchase choices here but one option appears to be all-you-can-drink for a set fee. We chose pay-as-you-go which also includes a service fee. While talking to him, it turned out he was the owner at 35 years old and a huge fan of Queen. There were several shelves of rock concert DVDs and he was proud to play one of Mercury’s last concerts while we were there. He even taught us a new game of luck. A small box has a row of numbers 1 to 9 and you roll the dice hoping to get one or more of the of the numbers by either a single die or a combination. If you can flip up all the numbers, you win! You lose when there you roll and there is no number you can flip up. We came close a few times but no such luck. We are actively looking for the same game to buy here in Singapore though if you happen to see it.

After leaving the bar, it was time for the taxi back to the hotel, fast packing, and sleep. They next day we used the car service back to the airport and thus ended our journey to Tokyo. The nice thing about Singapore Airlines is they let us check-in the large painting for free! It actually helped that our overall suitcase weight was under the limit and the painting was light but still I appreciate the no cost shipping. We had a great time in Tokyo and I can’t believe how much we wandered each day. Now it is a few weeks later and we are trying to find a good Singapore Shabu Shabu place! I hope we don’t have to wait until our next trip to Japan or wait until a trip back to the U.S. for our next meal.