Category Archives: My Love Affair with Tokyo

Machida Squirrel Garden

Machida Risu Park, squirrel parkBefore we left for Japan, I read about this squirrel park outside of Tokyo. It was a park and a petting zoo all wrapped in one and Naoto was confident that we could get there easily, though he wondered what the appeal was. “Squirrels are rodents. Who would want to pet one?” I insisted it would be a fun adventure. I wanted to feed a squirrel and have one hop on my shoulder. Machida Risu Park, Machida Squirrel GardenThe first part of the park was similar to an American petting zoo. Guinea pigs, rabbits, turtles, and squirrels were in cages and you could feed them and pet them. It was very laid back and lots of parents and children were roaming about. Machida Risu Park, Machida Squirrel GardenI fed some rabbits who were quite greedy, stealing lettuce from each other and almost eating my finger along with the carrot stubs! And I petted the hedgehogs and marveled at the slow moving turtles.Machida Risu Park, Machida Squirrel Garden, squirrel entrance When we walked through the gate through to the squirrel part, I was instantly bombarded with squirrels. If you stand still, they will run up your leg hoping you will have food! begging squirrel, Machida Risu Park, Machida Squirrel GardenI was uneasily walking around when this guy ran up to me and stopped and begged…shudder. Before I had a chance to tell him that I was a coward, Naoto ditched me and bought some food so I could feed the squirrels. I enjoyed watching him get up close and personal with those crazy beasts, but I was too chicken to be a squirrel feeder!  The rest of the park is an enclosed area where the squirrels can roam freely. We walked through and saw squirrels sunning themselves and napping. It also felt a bit like the Pied Piper of Hamelin because groups of squirrels would follow us around, hoping to be fed!  There was also an old tortoise in the squirrel area. He was more my speed. Machida Risu Park, Machida Squirrel GardenEven though I was a big scaredy cat, I’m so glad we went! It was a perfect spring day and a good excuse to be outside.

I would be remiss if I didn’t mention that the workers at the park are adults with special needs. They earn money by selling and taking tickets, handing out the food, working in the gift shop, and they benefit from the profits of the park. I think it’s an additional bonus to the park, and the customer service is top notch, following the strong Japanese custom of hospitality.

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Itoya & Cafe Stylo

Itoya big red paperclip signOn our first full day in Japan, we went to Itoya, one of my favorite shops in the ritzy Ginza district of Tokyo. (I’ve blogged about Itoya a little bit before, here and here.) Itoya has been building a new store since 2011 or 2012, so for the past few years, we’ve been visiting the temporary location. On this trip, I was most looking forward to seeing their shiny new store. Itoya buildingThe new twelve floor building is very sleek and it sits between Tiffany’s and Bvlgari (just to give you an idea of what kind of neighborhood we are talking about.) The lower floors are all devoted to retail space selling stationery, pens, paper, craft supplies, and high-end travel and home goods. On the seventh floor, there is a “paper bar” filled with hundreds of papers that you can use for personalized stationery, business cards, or wedding invitations. (I didn’t take any pictures inside the store, but you can see part of the wall of paper at the bottom of this page.) What I’ve always loved about Itoya is that you can find very expensive things there, you can also find plenty of special gifts at reasonable prices. And they’ve always had a huge selection, especially of the things I love: origami paper, stamps, stationery, pens…I used to spend hours in the store narrowing down my choices. Itoya spring windows, flower pensThe new Itoya, though, is much more pared down. They still sell amazing things, but they just don’t carry the same wide-ranging selection that they used to. Truthfully, I hardly bought anything during my visit. And we didn’t stay all day like I thought we would. It was kind of a bummer at first, but honestly, I had more money to spend at the other stationery shops all over Tokyo. (There was no shortage of things to buy!) It was just an unexpected change. Cafe Stylo lettuce, ItoyaBut, one really cool thing about New Itoya is that they have a full-service restaurant, Cafe Stylo, on the top floor. (The old cafe had a very limited snack menu.) And in Cafe Stylo, they serve Itoya-grown lettuce grown in a hydroponic farm on the twelfth floor! We visited the farm and got a peek at the lettuces growing at various stages. Cafe Stylo smoked salmon, ItoyaCafe Stylo chef salad, ItoyaNaoto had the Smoked Salmon Sandwich, which he loved. Because I wanted to try the Itoya lettuces, I ordered the “Cobber Salad” (Cobb salad). It was crisp and fresh and delicious! And we both enjoyed Campari cocktails with our lunch.Cafe Stylo floor sign I highly recommend checking out the restaurant if you go! It’s the perfect spot to write postcards and enjoy your new stationery!

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Naoberly’s Noodle Tour: Fujishiro

Fujishiro in sangenjayaOn our last night in Japan, we finally ate ramen in a neighborhood shop. After our happy hour in Carrot Tower, we walked though the winding streets on a hunt for dinner. We found so many little ramen shops, but it was hard to choose which one would be tastiest. Fujishiro was tiny and crowded and it had recently been featured in a Tokyo magazine, so we figured it was good.Fujishiro in sangenjaya, ramen ticket, ramen in Tokyo We made our choices using the ramen ticket machine outside the shop and then we sat and waited on little stools outside for seats to open up inside. Fujishiro in sangenjaya, place settings, Tokyo ramen shops Fujishiro in sangenjaya, place settings, Tokyo ramen shopsOnce we got inside, Naoto gave our tickets to the guys behind the counter and they started making our ramen. One guy focused on the noodles, the broths, and the grilled meat and the other interacted with customers and built the bowls of ramen. Chopsticks, spoons, spices, and pitchers of water were on the counter so we could help ourselves. It was a no-frills kind of place. There were six other people filling the restaurant with us, mostly salary men, but also another couple enjoying noodles together. Fujishiro in sangenjaya, tonkotsu ramen, Tokyo ramen shops, fishcake Fujishiro in sangenjaya, tonkotsu ramen, Tokyo ramen shops I ordered the tonkotsu ramen. It had a meaty broth and nice, chewy noodles topped with pork, egg, scallions, nori (seaweed), and fishcake (that pink and white thing in the picture above). Simple, but delicious. Fujishiro in sangenja, shoyu ramen, Tokyo ramen shopsNaoto had the store special ramen*, ajitama ramen. It was similar to mine but it had two marinated soft boiled eggs (ajitama) in it. He enjoyed every bit of it and part of mine! It was the perfect end to our vacation!

*Ramen Tip: If you go to a local ramen shop that uses a ramen ticket machine, the shop’s special ramen will often be on the top left corner. It’s a fun way to try unique ingredients or preparations!

 

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Carrot Tower

Carrot Tower, SangenjayaContinuing our exploration of Sangenjaya…

We’ve walked by Carrot Tower a number of times without giving it much attention. It’s across from the Sangenjaya Post Office, it’s on a busy corner, it’s very tall…but it looked like an office building with a couple of street level shops. On our last day, Naoto wanted to go to a book store to get a magazine and a Kanji character dictionary, so we ventured in.

First though…how cute is the name? I learned from Wikipedia that it was named by local school children. The only thing that could make it better is if there were a carrot mascot greeting you at the door.

ambiance in Carrot TowerThe first floor is an open shopping area where you can buy Japanese pottery, stationery, souvenirs, pastries, flowers…I bought stationery. And the other floors are dedicated to the bookstore, a theater, and office space. But, at the very top, there’s a restaurant and an observation deck. We decided to go up to see what the observation deck was all about. The red carpet leads you to Sky Carrot, the restaurant and then the space to the right is the observation/banquet area. It was SO WEIRD! Some people were sitting quietly and reading. Others were chatting at tables. There was a small family with young children just hanging out. We saw vending machines and an ice cream freezer. ambiance in Carrot TowerKimberly & Naoto from Carrot TowerThen we ventured further and found the bar. It felt a little bit like a hotel bar with plush chairs and a few tables. There was a grand piano in the corner. And there were comfy seats facing the view, so we decided to stay awhile. The bar offered a few simple cocktails, beer and, and wine and it was so cheap! (¥500 for sparkling wine and even less for a beer!) view from Carrot Tower IMG_3769At twenty-six stories, Carrot Tower is no SkyTree, but the views were still pretty and it was fun to see Sangenjaya from a new perspective. Kimberly & Naoto from Carrot TowerCheers from the Carrot!

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Hoshino Coffee

Hoshino Coffee, SangenjayaOn our last full day in Tokyo we decided to explore Sangenjaya, the neighborhood where we stay each time we visit.  We are ashamed to say that we’ve missed out on SO MUCH good stuff! Next time, I’m going to have to remember that there’s more to Sangenjaya than Mister Donut and our hotel street! For the rest of the week, I’ll be sharing some gems from the neighborhood. IMG_3752Hoshino Coffee was one of our final hour discoveries. You can find Hoshino shops all over Japan (and even in Singapore). The Hoshino in Sangenjaya happened to be just three blocks away from our hotel. They are famous for their hand-poured coffees and their soufflé pancakes. I had the Charcoal Roast Coffee. It was STRONG, but really delicious. (It seems like all of the fancy coffee in Japan is strong.)  IMG_3753Naoto ordered a soufflé. To say it was heaven in a ramekin is an understatement. I’ve never tasted something so light and sweet and buttery. The thick chocolate syrup was rich and just bitter enough to balance the sweetness of the soufflé. IMG_3754 IMG_3757The trouble with Japan is that there are just too many good things to eat!

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Kayaba Coffee

IMG_2969Before we enjoyed Hasegawa Happy Hour at the Suzukis, we spent the day together shopping in Asakusa and having lunch and coffee in the Taito Ward of Tokyo. We went to this charming old coffee shop called Kayaba Coffee. Kayaba Coffee signKayaba Coffee building from 1917The building that holds Kayaba was built in 1917 as a house. In 1938 the Kayaba family turned the house into a coffee shop that Mrs. Kayaba and her daughter Sachiko ran for almost 70 years until Sachiko died in 2006. When Sachiko died, Kayaba closed until 2009 when it was renovated and reopened. The outside of the building has remained the same since 1917 and much of the inside–the ambiance, chairs, signage, and china–are true to the past. The chairs are super-short, designed for Japanese people in the 1930s, but they were surprisingly comfortable. (Of course, I’m short, so…)history of Kabaya coffee shopIMG_2920The menu is filled with drawings of the key historical points of the Kayaba building and history, and of the drink and food choices. They offer a huge variety of hot and cold drinks and food. (The egg salad sandwich is crafted to emulate the original recipe. I want to try it the next time we go!) IMG_2924Naoto had a Russian, a classic Kayaba drink made from half hot chocolate and half coffee. It was rich and delicious. IMG_2923I had a matcha latte and it was life-changing. The matcha, the foam, and the subtle sweetness were all perfection. And, it was stunning.

America, we need to up our matcha latte game!

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Hasegawa Happy Hour: Mixology in Tokyo

IMG_3542 Craft cocktails are still a new thing in Tokyo. Most bars are still the izakaya style where copious amounts of beer and simple cocktails are served alongside fried foods, meat, and noodles. There are only a handful of actual cocktail bars in Tokyo, four or five mixologists are paving the way in their own little pockets of the city. I found this article in Time Out Tokyo and added a visit to one of these cocktail bars to our must-do list. IMG_3544We decided to go to Codename Mixology since it’s only a few steps away from Tokyo Station and its wonderfully stocked post office. The cocktails here are developed in a “lab” and using unique combinations and uniquely developed liquors. They offer a whole menu of cheese-infused martinis, foie gras vodka, and gins distilled with hinoki (Japanese cedar), blue cheese, and other unusual flavors. We had read about the Tomato Cocktail and the Tom Yum Cooler in the article and decided to start with those. The tomato cocktail (pictured above) was lovely. It was garnished with drops of olive oil and a dried tomato and had a subtle tomato flavor. The Tom Yum Cooler stole the show though. I’m not a huge fan of Tom Yum soup, but the flavors in the cooler were exploding! Lime, balsamic vinegar, and tamarind–it was at once sweet and savory and tart.

Our bartender, Ohba-san let us taste some of the weird gins and told us about the behind-the-scenes development of the cocktails. IMG_3545 Even though we had planned to drink just one cocktail, we decided to go upstairs to Codename Mixology Laboratory, a prohibition themed speakeasy. Ohba-san walked us upstairs, punched in the code, and introduced us to the bartender upstairs. Everyone else who entered the Laboratory after us knew the code. It felt like a secret society in there! IMG_3547Mixology Laboratory pizzaIMG_3550 IMG_3552 The menu upstairs was very similar to the menu downstairs, but the atmosphere felt more dark and moody. We ordered a pizza–which was so good! One half was Margherita and the other was prosciutto and arugula. We ordered specialized versions of familiar drinks, a Manhattan and I can’t remember what Naoto had. (Sorry!) There was less “showmanship” upstairs, but the presentation of the cocktails was superb. Both of ours were served in pewter goblets with matching coasters.

I made a quick little video so you can hear the music and the quiet chatter at the bar. The 1930s and 40s music really set the tone in the room. IMG_3558IMG_3564After dinner, we ventured back downstairs for another drink. Watching Ohba-san masterfully create these crazy cocktails was well worth the bar tab! IMG_3572 IMG_3574To end the night, I had a Smoked Negroni and Naoto had a Peach Wasabi Martini. (Truth be told, I had ordered the martini, but I liked the Negroni better, so we switched.) At first the Negroni seemed like just an average Negroni, but the smoky finish made it special. And Naoto’s martini was fruity with a slow burn from the wasabi vodka…delicious!

We are looking forward to exploring more craft cocktail bars on our next trip!

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Spending the Yen 8: Ramen Souvenirs

Ramen Souvenirs, Japan, Naoberly Noodle TourWe picked up a few silly treats during our visits to the Ramen Museum and the Cup Noodles Museum. I’m a sucker for a good gift shop and both museums had few offerings but some really fun stuff. I try to get something useful or something we can use up, but I don’t always succeed. Ramen Spoons, vintage ramen shop, Ramen MuseumWe each chose a porcelain ramen spoon at the Ramen Museum. We will most likely use them as soup spoons, but maybe they will inspire us to make ramen at home? They also sold ramen bowls, but spoons took up much less space in our suitcase! Ramen Spoons, vintage ramen shop, Ramen MuseumThe images on the spoons are logos from old Japanese ramen shops. We thought the ramen cart was classic and of course, I chose the ramen chef cat. Naoto in his Ramen Museum t-shirt, Naoberly Noodle Tour, Ramen MuseumNaoto got a ramen t-shirt (he’s sporting it at Mister Donut in the picture above). Hisae told him he looked like an American tourist because Japanese men do not wear t-shirts with pictures on them…I guess that’s why we had to sit in the English-speaking room at Maisen!Cup Noodle note, Cup Noodles stickers, Cup Noodles postcard,  Cup Noodles MuseumThe Cup Noodles Museum had a few paper-y delights for me. Cup Noodles Museum pencil and stickers (2)I picked up a few pencils while I was in Japan this time. The Cup Noodles Museum logo pencil was one of them and I thought these build-your-own-ramen stickers were cute. Cup Noodle postcard, Cup Noodles MuseumThe only postcard the Cup Noodle museum sold was this hologram one. Depending on how you look at it, you can see the cup noodle or a cross-section of the ingredients (top pictures). Cup Noodle note, Cup Noodles MuseumThese little Cup Noodle notes are my favorites. They’re 3-D! Cup Noodle note, Cup Noodles MuseumOn the top, there’s a place to address the note. Cup Noodle note, Cup Noodles MuseumAnd inside, there’s a place for the message. Cup Noodle note, assembledThen, roll it up, tuck in the tab and place the Cup Noodle on the recipient’s desk…a Cup Noodle note cannot be missed! (Just ask Presley. She got her treat last night!)Ramen journal, Ramen log, Naoberly's Noodle TourI purchased this Ramen Log at Loft. I have a failed history with book logs, movie logs, dream logs…pretty much all logs, but for some reason, I was compelled to buy a ramen log. I’m hoping, with the team effort of Naoberly’s Noodle Tour, we can keep up with it. Ramen journal inside pagesl, Ramen log, Naoberly's Noodle TourInside, there pages and pages where you can rate the broth, noodles, and toppings and there’s a place for photos. I’m looking forward to filling up the pages with our past and future ramen stops!

Do you have favorite souvenirs?

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Maisen

Maisen Tonkatsu MealOne of my favorite meals of our trip was the tonkatsu at Maisen. Maisen is an old and famous restaurant in Omotesando, the same part of Tokyo as the Bunbougu Cafe is in. Naoto’s sister, Hisae, took us there a few years ago and I’ve been dreaming of going back ever since. This time we made it happen.

Tonkatsu is a fried pork cutlet (we had it at home for Christmas dinner once) with a delicious crust of panko breadcrumbs. At Maisen, it is served with miso soup, rice, pickled vegetables, and as much shredded cabbage as you can eat. (There are servers who walk around with giant baskets of cabbage, offering up refills throughout your meal.) I love that the tonkatsu is served on a little metal rack so the cutlet stays crisp until the very last bite. Maisen Tonkatsu SauceAnd the sauce!! The Maisen tonkatsu sauce is like a tangy barbecue sauce and it’s delicious on the pork AND on the cabbage. It’s similar to Bulldog Sauce (which is what we use on tonkatsu at home) but it’s richer and thicker.

The main part of the restaurant is a former bath house dressing room (you can see pictures here) but there are also several other rooms and counters for dining. The first time we ate here, we ate in the main room, which feels very spacious and light with its high ceilings and sky lights. This time, the hostess said something about English speakers and stuck us in what I assume is the part of the restaurant where the servers speak English. (There were other families in the room with English speakers, so I can only assume that’s why we were all sitting together?) The big room had better atmosphere but the food was just as delicious!

Oh, and my favorite silly part of Maisen is…they have a parking lot. It holds two cars. And there is a parking lot attendant. He’s not guarding the cars…Omotesando is a very nice neighborhood.  He just stands there and bows to you as you walk by. Oh, Japan.

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Naoberly’s Noodle Tour: Cup Noodles Museum

Cup Noodle Museum entranceBack to Japan

After we stuffed ourselves at the Ramen Museum, we decided to make a noodle day of it and visit the Cup Noodle Museum. We just made it with an hour to spare, so we didn’t have time to read every word in the museum, but we had a good time learning the history of our favorite late-night snack*. Cup Noodle Museum lobbyThe museum is really spare and modern. The lobby is huge, open and only decorated with an illumination of a Cup Noodle. You take a giant staircase upstairs to the museum. Cup Noodle Museum hall of noodle packagingThe first part is the Instant Noodles History Cube where you can see the history and the packaging of 3000 instant noodle products. Cup Noodle Museum hall of noodle packagingCup Noodle Museum hall of noodle packagingIt was crazy to see the subtle changes in packaging over time and all of the regional flavors that were introduced as Cup Noodle took over the world. Cup Noodle Museum noodle artCup Noodle Museum Momofuku AndoMuch of the Museum is devoted to Momofuku Ando, the inventor of the instant noodle. (You may be familiar with Ando because he recently was honored with his own Google Doodle!) Because he invented the instant noodles later in life (he was 48) after two failed careers (he was even jailed for tax evasion!), Ando is the perfect example of how success can come at any age. Cup Noodle Museum Momofuko AndoCharming illustrations take you through the history of instant noodles. It took over a year of trying and failing every single day (and only sleeping four hours a night), but in 1958 Ando invented Chicken Ramen (which is like the packaged block of noodles we have today.) Cup Noodle Museum Momofuku AndoLater, in the 1960s, Ando came to the U.S. and saw people breaking up the blocks of ramen into styrofoam cups and adding hot water and eating them that way. Ando figured, why waste time with a separate bowl when the ramen could come in its own bowl! Cup Noodles were introduced in 1971. Cup Noodle Museum Momofuku Ando Cup Noodle Museum historyCup Noodle Museum historyAndo’s last invention and lifelong dream invention was Space Ramen–instant noodles that could be eaten in space. (They are thinner so they cook quickly and have a thicker broth that won’t float around as easily.) Cup Noodle Museum historyIt was fun to see the annual consumption of Cup Noodle around the world. Cup Noodle Museum historyCup Noodle Museum history, Momofuku Ando's obituaryAndo passed away in 2007. (Isn’t the drawing sweet?) I loved reading the New York Times obituary. Cup Noodle Museum, making our own cup noodleCup Noodle Museum, making our own cup noodleIn the next part of the museum, we got to make our own Cup Noodles. (It was an extra ¥300, so less than $3US.) There were stations set up in another huge room where you could decorate your cups. (I’ll share ours tomorrow, but we didn’t go too crazy with the decorating!) Cup Noodle Museum, making our own cup noodle Cup Noodle Museum, making our own cup noodleNext, the Cup Noodle guy sanitized our cups and we each turned a crank that and added a block of noodles to our cups. Cup Noodle Museum, making our own cup noodleThen we got to choose from four different soup flavors and twelve different toppings to personalize our cups of ramen.Cup Noodle Museum, making our own cup noodleThe guy seemed excited about my choices, but now I’m not so sure: spicy tomato soup flavor, scallions, corn, cheese, and little bird wafers (I can’t remember what they are). Cup Noodle Museum, making our own cup noodleCup Noodle Museum, making our own cup noodleNaoto played it safe: chicken soup flavor, ham, bacon, corn, and little bird wafers.

Then our cup noodles went through a machine that sealed the tops on and shrink wrapped the cup. (Please enjoy my mediocre video.)

“Noodle Day” was definitely one of my favorites on our trip. I really left the Cup Noodle Museum feeling thoughtful about failure and age and invention. Ando’s determination to turn his life around and his success at midlife was really inspiring. Momofuku Ando said, “It is never too late to do anything in life.” and I couldn’t agree more.

Do you eat Cup Noodle? Have you ever tried the spicy tomato flavor?

*We’ve slowed down our instant noodle eating because it’s not the healthiest diet (though Ando supposedly ate it every day for his whole life and he lived to be 96), but we still enjoy a cup now and again.

P.S. This bit about the Cup Noodle Mascot shoveling snow made me smile.

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