Friday, October 19, 2007

The Best of Tokyo, According to Lynn

Having lived in Tokyo for almost six years, I get approached a lot by friends and cyber-acquaintances for recommendations on sights to see and places to eat when they visit Japan. While I am by no means an expert on either subject, I do have a list of favorites. After typing out more or less the same responses at least half a dozen times in the past year, I finally got smart and decided to write it down in my blog so that the next time I’m asked I could easily attach a link instead of digging up all the information from the depth of my drawer and computer files all over again. So here it goes, in no particular order and highly subjective:

You will see kaminarimon when you get out of the Asakusa subway station. It is the gateway with the giant red lantern that’s on all the tourist information brochures and post cards. Walk through it to find yourself in a little covered street lined with souvenir stores selling everything from snacks to key chains to doggie outfits. Most of them are quite cheesy but there are a few gems tucked in between, such as the store selling antique hair ornaments and combs and a paper store with endless varieties of Japanese paper. At the end of this street, just before you reach the Kanon temple, you will probably see some people waiting in line on the right side of the street. This is a must-stop for me every time I go to Asakusa, a little store selling Age-manjus, which are little deep fried buns with different fillings. My favorites are sesame and pumpkins.

Take a stroll in the kanon temple after your snack of Age-manju. Work up an appetite by seeing how ravenous the pigeons are, and find your way back up the market street. On one of the side streets on your right is a famous tempura restaurant. I can’t remember which street it is, but a fail-proof way to find it is to take a short walk down any street and look for a line of people waiting outside. I’ve personally never tried it because I haven’t had much luck with that place, but if you must eat lunch in Asakusa I suggest you eat there. Otherwise you’re likely to end up in one of the many many tourist trap restaurants in the area and be hugely disappointed. After lunch you can walk across the red bridge and take a look at infamous “golden turd” perched on top of the Asahi building.

If you have even the slightest interest in cooking or kitchen appliances, you must not skip this stop. It is on the Tawaramachi stop on Ginza line, within walking distance to Asakusa. Most shops are closed on Sundays and Public holidays and are crowded on Saturdays so the best time to go is on a weekday, during the day. I can go on and on about the things you will find on this street, but suffice to say, if it has anything to do with food, you’ll find it here. For dessert enthusiasts who don’t have a lot of time to check out all the stores, go straight to Okashinomori (it’s on the second floor with a small street entrance). You’ll find most of everything here, although prices tend to be slightly higher.

Meiji Jingu aka Meiji Shrine
Subway station Jingumae on Chiyoda subway line or Harajuku on the JR Yamanote line.
Right smack in the middle of lively Harajuku, yet as soon as you step through the first gigantic torii only tranquility and utter peacefulness awaits you.

Place a 100yen coin in a slot and shake out a stick from a metal can. Find the drawer with the corresponding number on the stick and get your fortune (it’s in English too). If it’s good fortune, keep it with you so it can come true. If you don’t like it, tie it on a tree branch so it can be taken away with the wind. Or purchase a wooden plaque and write your wish on it, then tie it to the designated racks where thousands of others have done the same.

If you are lucky you might catch a glimpse of the Crown Prince or the Prime Minister at the shrine or a wedding procession all decked out in traditional kimonos, led by a priest under a big red umbrella.

Wear appropriate shoes because you’ll be walking on tiny pebbles the entire way in, no short cuts.

Harajuku – Omotesando
After visiting the shrine, take a left and walk towards Harajuku station. Walk past the first station entrance and at the next, smaller entrance cross the street at the traffic light. You are now at the entrance of Takeshita-dori, home to the mega 100yen shop and cos-play costume stores. Walk down this street and you’ll come out on Meiji-dori. Take a right and walk to the intersection marked by La Foret on your right and Gap on your left. Here you can eigher continue on Meiji-dori to go to Shibuya, or take a left and walk down Omotesando-dori, dubbed the Champs-Élysées of Tokyo, it is home to luxury brand boutiques and the super chic Omotesando Hills. You'll also love the unique architecture of some of the flagship stores. My favorite is the bubble-like Prada store on the other side of Aoyama-dori, the Japan Nurses Association HQ, which houses Burberry, and Dior, whose silvery curtain can change color.

If you get hungry while on Omotesando, there are a few places to grab a quick bite:
Jangara Ramen, 1-13-21 Jingumae, Shibuya-ku
Get the “all-in” (zenbu iri) or, if you don’t like mentaiko, ask for mentaiko-nuki. The ramen is Kyushu styled, with a very rich broth. Best to avoid in summer.

Harajuku Gyoza, Jingumae 6-2-4, Shibuya-ku, behind Kiddie Land toy store
They have four types of dumplings: boiled with chive, boiled without chive, fried with chive, fried without chive. Get one of each, it’s very cheap. The chili dipping oil in jars placed on the table is not to be missed. I also like to order their cucumber salad with a very nice peanut dressing.

Azabu Juban – Roppongi Hills
Take exit 5a (Shin-Ichinobashi intersection) of Azabujuban station on the Oedo line, turn left and walk towards Roppongi Hills, turn left again at Jomo gas station. On the left side of the street is a little store called Naniwaya selling nothing but taiyaki. Unlike other taiyaki’s spongy shell, theirs is crispy and thin. They only have one type of filling too: red bean paste. On most days you’ll have to wait for at least 20 minutes but if you are lucky and go on a rainy day you may not have to wait. It’s best to eat it right there on the stop when the skin is still crunchy and the filling piping hot.

Continue walking down the street and you will hit Azabu Juban’s main street. Turn right and shortly afterwards you’ll see a store on a street corner selling mostly snacks made of peanuts. The store is called Mamegen. My favorites are the umeshiso and green tea covered peanuts.

Follow the main street to the end to find yourself at TV Asahi’s new modern headquarter. Check out the Mori garden and explore Roppongi Hills. Don’t miss the spider sculpture and the observation deck in Mori Tower.

The restaurant that we visited the most was probably Teyandei, our neighborhood Izakaya. We’d show up on a Sunday night with no reservation and it would be ok. Weekdays are little more tricky so it’s best to call ahead. Our favorite dishes there are chirimen cabbage salad with jakko (ask the manager to make it for you if it’s not on the menu); unagi tamago atsuyaki; deep fried yamaimo (mountain yam); gomadofu (sesame tofu); buta-no-kakuni (braised pork); and ochatsuke (rice with dashi poured on top).

One word of warning, the restaurant’s entrance is not very conspicuous. From the outside it looks like someone’s house and the sign is a wooden board no bigger than a name card nailed to the wall. Walk upstairs, however, you’ll see an unmarked wooden door. This is the entrance to Teyandei.

While in Roppongi Hills area, there are two nice restaurants in the neighborhood:
L’Atelier de Joel Robouchon (5772-7500) and Aburiya Fudo Azabu-Juban 1-8-6 (3568-6224). It goes without saying that Robouchon needs no further intro, and the food is excellent. However, they only take reservation for the 6:30pm seating and the place only has counter seats. Aburiya Fudo is an Izakaya type of restaurant specializing in slow grilled food. From the freshest of mountain vegetables to the fattiest cut of meat, they do everything perfectly.

Daiwa Sushi in Tsukiji fish market is worth a visit if you don’t mind waiting. (there is ALWAYS a line) You can get up early, catch the tuna auction and head over to Daiwa before 6:30am or some sushi breakfast. The Omakase set contains the freshest catch and varies from day to day. We always order that plus a few pieces of uni and ootoro to finish. Hurry up and go before the entire Tsukiji market is torn down and moved to its new locations.
Tsukiji Market Central Building 65-2-1

If you are in the mood for some fine dining while in Tokyo, Sens & Seveurs atop the Marunochi Building will never disappoint. The food is always fantastic, the staff always attentive and the view is amazing too.

My favorite subject. First, let me just say that if you go to the basement of Mitsukoshi or Isetan or any major department store you will be spoiled for choices and most of them are really good. But if that’s not enough to satisfy your very discerning taste buds, I have the following recommendations. They are, in my opinion, crème de lacrème. I hope you enjoy them too.

3-6-17 Kyobashi, Chuo-ku 3538-6780
Get there early (before 9:30am) to avoid disappointment, as most items will be sold out by lunch hour. Many cakes cannot be taken out of the shop so be prepared to eat everything there.

Patisserie Paris S’eveille
2-14-5 Jiyugaoka, Meguro-ku, Tokyo 5731- 3230

Sadaharu Aoki
3-4-1 Marunouchi, Chiyoda-ku, Shin-Kokusai Bldg 1F 5293-2800

La Maison du Chocolat, next door to Sadaharu Aoki, so you might as well. Their chocolate tart is very good.

Patissier Chocolatier Frederic Scailteur
1-11-10 Azabudai, Minato-Ku

Pierre Hermé
La Porte Aoyama (5-51-3 Jingumae, Shibuya-ku) next to the UN building.

My “To-Visit” list:
Mont St. Clair
2-22-4 Jiyugaoka, Meguro-ku, Tokyo

Toshi Yoroizuka
Midtown, Tokyo

Tuesday, October 02, 2007

Halloween Bakes

Without a question, my favorite holiday is Christmas. Even though it’s becoming more and more over-commercialized, I still enjoy seeing all the Christmas decorations and hearing the carols, not to mention the sweet aroma of gingerbread cookies baking in the oven.

My second favorite holiday, also without a question, is Halloween. It is probably not a coincidence that it happens in the peak of autumn when all the leaves are the deepest shade of gold and the air is crisp with just the hint of the approaching winter. The fact that autumn is the season of harvest with no shortage of ciders, caramel apples, chestnuts and pumpkins among other yummy things, also does not hurt. The most fun part of Halloween, of course, is trick or treat. You never really outgrow it. Mind you, I’m not saying I want to dress up in silly costumes and go knocking on doors for candy, but buying candies and waiting anxiously by the door to see what/who turns up shouting “Trick or Treat” is something I never get tired of. Outside of the US, trick or treat is rare. While we were in Tokyo, the Americans in our neighborhood organized trick or treat for kids. Knowing exactly whose kids will turn up at your doorstep takes a little bit of fun out of it, but I still looked forward to seeing the kids in cute costumes. And if you know me, you’d know I must really love Halloween to want to see kids at my door!

This year, I decided to celebrate and introduce Halloween to Singaporeans by holding a Halloween baking class on Oct 14th from 11am to 2pm at Palate Sensations. We’ll be making chocolate spider web cupcakes and witch’s broomstick cookies. The cupcakes are soft and fluffy, topped with a chocolate sauce. It is NOT overly sweet but full of chocolate flavors. Although Jason teased me that the cookies don’t really look like broomsticks, I think they’re cute. They also taste great too, not to mention tons of fun to make. It was nice to let the kid inside me out to create something less perfect and more fun, instead of my usual elaborate cakes.