Several styles of Soba noodle in Tokyo

In this blog, I have once written that Soba, Japanese traditiontal noodle made from buckwheat flour, was a fast food in Edo era (17th to mid 19th century) in Japan.

http://howdyjapan.com/2016/05/11/soba-japanese-fast-food/

However, it doesn’t mean soba noodle is just a simple food without any sophistication. In the contrary in Tokyo in Edo era many master chefs of soba noodle had been making continuous efforts to cook the better soba and such efforts reached to 3 different cooking styles of soba noodle. Now in Tokyo, there are still some soba noodle restaurants which keep each traditional style.

Minowa is an area in northern Tokyo where traditional shopping street are still well used by local people. And at a corner of the street there is a soba noodle restraurant Sunaba-Souhonke whose building was built in 1912.

Sunaba is one of 3 styles of cooking soba noodle in Tokyo (the others are Sarashina and Yabu). And it is said that Sunaba is the oldest style stemming from the location in Osaka to build Osaka castle for a famous Shogun Hideyoshi Toyotomi in the 16th century. Once we enter the restaurant, we can feel such tradition even from the interior of the restaurant.

In each traditional soba styles, chefs make soba noodle from buckwheat flour manually. And each process to cook soba noodle is slightly different among each styles. But in common soba noodle in Tokyo styles are known as long length of each noodle and crisp feeling on month.

Traditionally people in Tokyo have been enjoying sucking in such crisp soba noodle making a big noise. Differently from Western culture, it’s never rude to make a noise but an appropriate way to enjoy feeling the noodle into mouth and down throat.

To be honest, I as a person from a country side of Japan like Inaka Soba (country style soba noodle) better, which has a feature of more chewy mouth feeling and stronger flavor of buckwheat. But when I see local people in Tokyo eating Tokyo traditional soba making a big noise, I would feel a sense of “Iki” (sense of sophistication in old Tokyo).

When you have time, you can enjoy not only soba noodle but also Tempura. In the centuries, Tempura has been considered as one of the best matches with soba noodle.  It’s also cool to drink Sake little by little while eating soba noodle and tempura.

When you think to eat some traditional food in Tokyo, why don’t you consider soba noodle as an option. Although it looks simple, it has a long tradition for chefs as well as people to eat it.

Urban trail around Nippori Tokyo

It’s one of highlights of travels when you walk through trails which are conditioned well in nature or in a country side. However, in Japan, a railway company, Japan Railway East provides events named “hiking from stations” on which we can enjoy exciting urban trails in Tokyo. And this weekend they provided the trail from Nippori station close to our house. Now let’s walk through the trail together!

After we left Nippori station, we headed to the east to Nippori Fabric Town. For those who like sawing, Nippori is well known as a center of small fabric retailers.

Then we went down to the south through Yanaka cemetery and several temples up to Ueno park. Ueno park is a huge park where there are several museum and a zoo. But one of these museums, National Museum of Western Art, attracted big public attention last year since it was registered to UNESCO World Heritage, as one of masterpieces build by a French architect, Le Corbusier.

We turned to the west for a while and came to Shinobazu Pond. The area including Ueno park and this Shinobazu Pond was parts of Kanei-ji temple ‘s land in Edo era from the 17th to mid 19th century. When Edo Shogunate started at the beginning of the 17th century, they tried to build a center of Buddhism corresponding to Enryaku-ji temple and Biwa-Lake in the Western Japan. Now in the 21st century well grown lotus leaves shows the beauty of Buddhism culture.

When we came west up to the corner of Tokyo University, we turned to the north and walked along the wall of the university. In 10 to 15 minutes we arrived at Nezu shrine. As I introduced in this blog in the past, Nezu shrine is famous for azalea flower in bloom in April.

When we walked to the northeast for a while, it’s almost the end of the trail. But we had another amusement before the end. On Yanaka shopping street you can enjoy a variety of sweets which cure your fatigue after the walk.

How was the trail? It’s about 11km and 3 hour walk by walking slowly while enjoying the places on the way.

If you come to Shitamachi, traditional area in Tokyo, please don’t take taxi all the time from one place to another. But please take a walk some time to know how places are connected to each other.

A cafe with passion of young artists

Close to our home there is an area called Yanaka where old and small buildings built in the middle of 20th century still remain. Such scenery let us imagine the beautiful days when Japan was poor but everyone was enjoying their life. And now the area attracts a lot of visitors.

However those who have been living there long felt that even this area changed. And they experienced the situation that a shop or a public bath they had visited one day disappeared in the next day.

Hagiso could have been one of such buildings. It was built in 1955 as a wooden apartment building. And since 2004 it had been used as a shared house by students of Tokyo University of the Arts nearby. But when the big earthquake hit eastern Japan in 2011, the owner of  the building decided to dismantle it due to deterioration.

But for the young artists who lived there it was a place filled with their memory. They asked the owner to let them have an art exhibition in the building as their last memory of the building. Then the exhibition received a lot of  visitors and the owner decided to renovate it as a cultural space, “Hagiso”.

Now the first floor is open to everyone as a cafe “Hagi Cafe” connected to an art gallery “Hagi Art”. At the cafe we can have a good time seeing a well preserved wooden building and works created by young artists.

Such a space makes me feel that a building, a space engraves its history in itself. And the history is a kind of the arts.

When it comes to history in Japan, old cities like Kyoto and Nara attracts foreign visitors. But Tokyo is also a city where creating its own history. I hope the building attract more artists and visitors, and then have more history.

Hydrangea is in bloom in Tokyo

Even though Mr. Trump decided to withdraw from the Paris climate agreement claiming that it’s not clear how human activities effect on climate change, I, living in Tokyo Japan, feel each season of Japan became more vague than that in the past.

Late June and Early July is a rainy season in Japan called “Tsuyu” in Japanese. However, this year we didn’t have so much rain yet, rather there were several hot days when we felt summer had come without Tsuyu.

Nevertheless we still have a symbol of our rainy season. It’s a flower, hydrangea (“Ajisai in Japanese”).

In Nippori, the area we live, we see beautiful hydrangea close to temples and shrines. For example on the way from Suwa Jinja, small shrine in the area to Nishi Nippori station, a flock of hydrangea flower is in bloom in the contract to trains.

Ueno Park, a big park close to our home, is famous for flowers in each season, especially cherry blossom in Spring. It also has hydrangea, while the size of flower is smaller than others as long as we found.

The origin of hydrangea is Japan but had been exported to Europe and America as an ornamental flower. The pH of land effect on the color of hydrangea. Acid land turn it blue, while alkaline land turn it red. However even blue hydrangea turns gradually red as it ages.

In the short rainy season the flower makes us enjoy its changing beauty.

Halal food in Nippori and Halal Navi

Nippori is an area more diversified than other areas in Tokyo. And there is a certain amount of Muslim population.  For Muslim it’s very important to know if a restaurant or a shop serves halal food or not. Halal means that the food is allowed to eat in accordance with the Islamic law.

There are several restaurants to serve halal food. For example Cous Cous is a Tunisian restaurant which serves halal food. A photo below is cous cous in Tunisian style, which is one of  popular menus.

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Among south Mediterranean cuisines there is much diversity. In Tunisia it’s allowed to drink alcoholic beverage. For example this is Cedratine, sweet and strong distilled beverage made from citrus fruits and produced in Tunisia.

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Halal food is served not only in restaurants but also in shops. Around Nippori station there are many shops to sell halal food. For example, the shop owned by Nepali sells Asian halal food.

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In accordance with such an increasing potential demand of halal food, ROI, a startup in Japan started an smartphone application called Halal Navi to search halal restaurants in Japan.

Halal Navi

On the other hand it’s true that Islamic culture is not understood well in Japan and some Muslim people feel difficulty to live in Japan. I hope the service such as Halal Navi will help them to get accustomed to the life in Japan.

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Mitsukoshi, first department store in Japan

During the process to modernize Japanese society, Japan accepted a lot of things from the West. The department store, where they have a variety of specialized stores in one huge building, is one of them. And Mitsukoshi is the first Japanese department store whose flagship store is located in Nihonbashi, Tokyo. In 2016, this building is designated as an important cultural property to show the history of the department store in Japan.

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The current building itself was built in 1935 as the Renaissance style architecture. And its gorgeous appearance makes visitors feel that the store has whichever luxurious brand they want. But the building is not an only attraction for Mitsubishi Nihonbashi.

At the main entrance there is a pair of bronze statues of lion. They were reproduced from the lion statues at the Trafalgar Square in London and installed in 1914 at the present location.

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Such a statue indicates that they tried to make Mitsukoshi as a gorgeous department store like Harrods in London. However, when you walk up to the central hall on the first floor, you will find how Mitsukoshi, as the first Japanese department store, tried to show their originality. Then let’s see the central hall.

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At the first glance you might not be able to recognize what you are seeing at the center of the department store. Then let’s come closer.

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Now I hope you realized that this is a gigantic and colorful statue of the Japanese goddess. This statue was made by Mr. Gengen Sato, Japanese craftsman in 1960 after spending 10 years to produce it. And it shows the moment when the goddess wrapped with a swirl of clouds has just descended to the flower stem.

According to Mitsukoshi, this statue symbolizes their basic philosophy, which is Magokoro (sincerity). And they have been keeping its philosophy in a long time. While Mitsukoshi branded itself as a department store in 1928, its history back to the 17th century.

In 1673, Mr. Takatoshi Mitsui, started Echigoy-ya as a kimono shop. In those days, other kimono shops, whose targets were rich people, showed higher prices than their real prices to the customers at first preparing for their request of discount and sold only with the unit of a roll (approx. 10.6 meters).

However, Mr. Mitsui showed his sincerity and in order to make his shop approachable for normal people, they showed their real prices from the beginning and sold kimono with the much smaller unit than a roll.

 

When you visit Mitsukoshi Nihonbashi, you can understand not only a history of Japanese department store but also history of commerce in Japan.

Below is the website of Mitsukoshi Nihonbashi.

Nihonbashi Mitsukoshi Main Store

Azalea festival at Nezu shrine

Our current home is close the areas called “Yanesen”, a set of three smaller areas, Yanaka, Nezu and Sendagi, which is one of the most popular areas in Tokyo for foreign visitors.

And Nezu, one of Yanesen areas, is famous for a shrine, Nezu shrine, as well as a traditional shopping street. In April, Nezu shrine has the Azalea (Tsutsuji in Japanese) festival to celebrate full bloom of Azalea in the shrine.

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The shrine says that it was established 1,900 years ago by Yamatotakeru-no-Mikoto, who is one of the legendary heroes in Japanese myth. But current main buildings were built in the early 18th century and they are well preserved. Japanese people, as they do in other places, make a long line and wait in a long time in order to come to the front of the main building and pray for the gods.

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And in April the shrine has the biggest number of visitors who come to see the Azalea festival. In the shrine there are approximately  3,000 azalea with 100 different kinds in full bloom.

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For Japanese azalea blossom is one of the common flowers we can see everywhere. when we were children, in spring one the way to school we used to pick up azalea blossoms and suck sweet nectar from the flowers. But, even though azalea is so common for Japanese, we didn’t know azalea has so many different kinds.

We thought the color of azalea blossom is pink. However in the festival there are many other colors of azalea such as white, dark red, purple.

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We thought the flower which represents April in Japan should be cherry blossom, but after the festival we cannot ignore azalea blossom as another flower of April. Furthermore like cherry blossom azalea matches Japanese traditional buildings.

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Packed train in rush hour

One of globally-famous but not comfortable things in Tokyo is packed trains in rush hour. When I lived in the US, I drove to the office every day. And before I moved to the US, I had lived in Tokyo but at the apartment very close to our office so I could walk to the office.

However finally we need to ride a train to go to the office every day now !

Below is a photo of Nippori station in rush hour in the morning but on the day with “relatively” less passengers. On the other days, there were much more passengers and I had no chance to take a photo.

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A good point of train network in Tokyo is that trains come to the station every a few minutes without delay. A bad point, especially in rush hour is that there is almost no room for us in any train.

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Japanese people are known to be kind and modest. However, when the train arrives at the station in rush hour, people behave as if there is no human right in this country. We need to push other people in the train to make some space and squeeze ourselves into the train. While we are in train, sometimes we still keep pushing each other and need to be silent like a statue.

And when the train arrives at the destination, people start walking to each office as if there were nothing special inside the train.

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Nevertheless, Japanese people like train. Nippori station is one of stations where many train lines including Japanese bullet train pass by one another.

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And there is a bridge next to the station where we can see each train comes into the station. On weekend many people including families with small kids spend a long time watching trains coming in and going out. I got surprised some (not single) kids memorized many names of trains, while I cannot even distinguish some train…

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Maybe it would be a good strategy to learn more about train in order to somehow enjoy the time in the train in rush hour.

 

Akihabara, changing area of electrical products in Tokyo

Recently Akihabara is one of the most famous areas in Tokyo for foreign visitors. But for me it’s one of the most changing areas in Tokyo as well.

When I firstly moved to Tokyo from my hometown in 2002 in order to enter the university, since Akihabara was close to the university, I sometime visited there. At that time, there were many small shops which sold electrical parts for those who can made their own machines such as transceiver.

However after 15 years such scenery has totally changed. the most of such small shops has disappeared and when it comes to electrical products there are some gigantic stores with multi floors.IMG_0054

Yodobashi-Akiba is one of such gigantic stores with 9 floors. And even though some Japanese manufacturers of home electrical appliance recently sold their business to other Asian companies (Sharp is the latest example), here we can still see Japanese technology which is famous for improving the original concept created by others.

For example, next to Roomba developed by iRobot, American company, Panasonic, Japanese company sell their model of the automatic cleaning machine with lower price and (most possibly) better performance.IMG_0059

Japanese people is famous for hard working and also being always tired. So there is unique development of electrical appliance for relaxation. For example Japanese massage chairs are so good that customers start sleeping on the chairs even inside the store.IMG_0060

On the other hand, in the past decades Akihabara has been expanding as a center of Japanese pop cultures such as animation, manga and video game, which Japan has been trying to export as “Cool Japan”. As for this side of Akihabara culture I’m a little afraid that the industry of such cultures is targeting too much the specific people who like cute but unreal girls and started losing diversity.  IMG_0070 (1)

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Anyway, the change of Akihabara is successful in the sense that I see the more foreign visitors than any other areas in Tokyo. And there are several new fancy hotels which target such visitors. IMG_0067

So over all I think Akihabara is still one of must-visit areas in Tokyo for foreign visitors.

 

Sakura, Japanese soul flower

In this weekend, cherry blossom (Sakura in Japanese) is in full bloom in Tokyo Japan. I believe Sakura has been one of main subjects in Japanese culture, such as literature, song and paintings, so we can call Sakura as “Japanese soul flower”.

When we woke up on Saturday morning and saw outside from the window of our room, we found a very interesting thing.IMG_0033

Surprisingly there is a road led by Sakura trees in full bloom. We went downstairs and tried to find what it is.

On the way, many people are enjoying Sakura and taking pictures.

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After 5 minutes we arrived at the entrance of the Sakura road. It was a cemetery!IMG_0038

This cemetery is called “Yanaka Reien”, the biggest cemetery in this area. And there are a lot of Sakura trees along the road in the cemetery. According to our neighbors, here is the most famous spot to enjoy Sakura in this area. In the past people even sat down on the ground and drank sake to enjoy Sakura (now it’s prohibited, though…)IMG_0040

Sakura in full bloom is beautiful indeed. But at the same time Sakura sometime indicates an image of death for Japanese since the period when Sakura is in full bloom and thus in its full beauty is very short like human’s life and it scatters too soon like human does.

For example, Sai-gyo, a samurai as well as monk and poet who lived in Japan in the 12th century, made a following famous Tanka (Japanese traditional short poem) shortly before he passed away (above is an original Japanese version and below ( ) is my English translation.)

ねがわくは 花のしたにて 春しなん そのきさらぎの もちづきのころ(現代仮名遣い)

(I hope to die under Sakura tree in spring in that April with full moon)

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I hope this post could somehow express the delicate feeling about Sakura in Japanese culture.

Lastly Sakura is matching with a very American thing, McDonald’s, as well. lol.

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