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.

Hidaka-ya, reasonable Chinese restaurant in Japan

Recently an American-style Chinese restaurant chain Panda Express, which is popular in the US, opened a new branch in Japan as their second shot to Japanese market after they had closed all the branches in 2010. However, same as the last time, many people is skeptical that the chain can succeed in Japan.

Panda Express takes second shot at Japan

The reason of the concern is the competitive situation of Japanese Chinese food restaurants. In the US Panda Express has been growing as they serve Chinese dishes with reasonable prices quickly compered to authentic Chinese restaurants. However, in Japan there are many other Chinese restaurants with as reasonable pricing as Panda Express or even more reasonable.

A typical example is Hidaka-ya, which operates more than 300 chains in Tokyo and metropolitan area.

In Tokyo the branches of the restaurant are usually located close to main stations where many people come and go. And they have a lot of seats to absorb all the customers even at busy dinner time.

Their main menu is a variety of ramen noodles. In Japan popular ramen noodle restaurants serve their ramen noodles with own special recipes but high prices. On the other hand, Hidaya-ya serves basic ramen noodles with lower prices, which allows us to eat ramen noodles as a fast food.

But in order to keep the customer’s loyalty, they sometimes create special ramen noodles (but with reasonable pricing still) in limited time only. The below photo is their new menu, ramen noodle with thick starchy sauce and mixed vegetables (with dumpling of course).  This is my recent favorite since I can eat plenty of vegetable while ramen noodle is normally considered as fast food with little nutrition.

And they are aggressive to attract foreign visitors to Japan. Rarely as a Chinese restaurant chain, they have a website not only in English but also in English and Chinese. And at the restaurants

http://hidakaya.hiday.co.jp/english/

Moreover while many fast food restaurant chains tend to limit their opening hours in midnight due to difficulty to secure employees who want to work in midnight, many branches of Hidaka-ya in Tokyo still open till 3 or 4 AM. It’s very helpful for Japanese business people who sometimes need to work until midnight while it’s not healthy to eat so late.

In order to lose weight this year, I need to overcome the temptation of Hidakaya’s ramen after work in midnight.

Yui, old post town loved by the Ukiyo-e painter

I believe you have seen Mt. Fuji, painted on Ukiyo-e, kind of art made in Japan in Edo era (from 17th to 19th centuries) as woodblock prints. Especially Tokaido Gojusan-tsugi, series of Ukiyo-e made by Hiroshige Utagawa, one of masters of Ukiyo-e, featuring travel scenes on Tokaido road, old main road of central Japan from Tokyo to Kyoto included several beautiful paintings of Mt. Fuji seen from different places.

Now in the 21st century, the most of the places painted on Ukiyo-e had been modernized and lost such scenery loved by the painter. However, in Shizuoka prefecture, there is an old post town, Yui, which still keeps the scenery of the era when Ukiyo-e flourished.

Once you arrived at Yui station, you can see old houses which had been used as hotels in Edo era.

Near Yui town there is the place called Satta Pass, a traffic difficult point on Tokaido road. Therefore in Edo era travelers between Tokyo and Kyoto stayed here to rest before or after passing such a difficult point and Yui thrived as a post town.

However, the steep terrain also provided the travelers with a fantastic viewpoint of Mt. Fuji with Suruga bay. Hiroshige Utagawa loved this scenery and included it in his series of Ukiyo-e about Tokaido road.

Even though we see modern highways, with Mt. Fuji and Suruga bay unchanged this point is known as only a few points which still preserves the scenery of Ukiyo-e.

Nowadays there are not many hotels in Yui town,  but this town attracts visitors as a town of Sakura shrimp, kind of small shrimp fished in Suruga bay around Yui town.

At restaurants in Yui town you can eat a variety of dishes of Sakura shrimp, such as tempura of Sakura shrimp. The shrimps are crisp and tasty.

On the way from Tokyo to Kyoto how about dropping in such an old post town to see the scenery loved by the Ukiyo-e painter?

Mt. Mitake, another approachable mountain from Tokyo

When it comes to a mountain near central Tokyo, many people would consider Mt. Takao. However, in 1.5 hours from Shinjuku station, you can access to a less crowded but attractive mountain Mt. Mitake. Let me introduce this favorite mountain of mine.

After you arrive at Mitake station, same name as the mountain, the beautiful stream of Tama river welcomes visitors. There are not only hikers but also many anglers enjoying fishing. I recommend you to walk along the river up to the trailhead while you can take a bus as well.

At the starting point of the trail, like Mt. Takao, there is the cable car service which lifts visitors up to the height of 830 meters in 6 minutes. The service has been operated since 1927.

Once you arrive at the summit station, you can see a lot of small hotels in the summit area. What differentiates Mt. Mitake from other mountains in the area is the fact that there are still many people who come to the mountain to worship gods of the mountain. These small hotels called Shukubo were originally built around 300 years ago for such people but if you have enough time you are welcomed to stay there.

In 30 minutes walk from the summit station along the hotels, you can easily reach the summit with Musashi-Mitake shrine with the height of 929 meters. In the past for the Japanese, the high mountain was the place where the gods lived. And in the medieval Japan, in several high mountains, Japanese indigenous animism synchronized with Shinto and Buddhism, and the original religion called Shugen-do was created. In Shugen-do monks lead the ascetic life in the mountains trying to get supernatural power of the mountains.

On the backside of the summit there are various trails which takes 1 to 3 hours. And I recommend to take a trail called “Rock Garden”, which you can see many rocks with strange shapes in green woods. For example, the rock in the photo below is called “Tengu-Iwa (rock in Japanese)”, since the shape of the rock looks like a long nose of Tengu, monster (sometimes regarded as god as well) in Japanese indigenous religion.

If you have enough courage to climb up to the top of the rock, a small statues of Tengu praise you for your courage.

I recommend Mt. Mitake as the mountain easily approachable from Tokyo, and where you can see many attractive sides of Japanese mountains.

Below is their official website (sorry English is under construction).

http://www.mt-mitake.gr.jp/

Sushi with heaping fish in Ueno Tokyo

In worldwide Japanese sushi is famous as a healthy food. But some people might feel that a portion of sushi is too small to enjoy the taste of particular fish. Don’t worry. In Ueno Tokyo there is a sushi restaurant which expands your image of sushi by serving you sushi with heaping fish.

In 5 minutes walk from Ueno station, the sushi restaurant Miura Misaki-Ko is located.

This sushi restaurant serves sushi on conveyor belt. Normally conveyor belt sushi is popular among the ordinary Japanese since we can enjoy sushi quickly with reasonable prices. However, in case of this restaurant the people always make a long line to eat sushi on conveyor belt.

Now let’s see how different their sushi is. Even though sushi goes around on the conveyor belt, we can also order to sushi chefs to eat sushi more fresh.

The first one is Zuke-Maguro, tuna marinated with soy sauce.

Gunkan-Maki is a kind of sushi with seaweed surrounding rice in order to prevent fish on the top from collapsing. However, in case of Zuke Maguro at this restaurant, seaweed is not helping so much and tuna is sitting on the top with a delicate balance.

The second one is Engawa, flounder edge.

In this case some parts of fish have actually fallen on the plate. But don’t you think it would show the chef’s generosity?

Finally, the chef’s specialty is Maguro-Nakaochi, left-over flesh on the spine of tuna. It costs only 105 JPY!!! Considering its volume, it’s a incredible price.

Meanwhile this sushi restaurant also serves a normal type of sushi, which is also delicious. Below is Oh-Toro, fatty tuna, which is the most expensive menu in this restarant.

The above fatty tuna costs 630JPY. Even though it’s fatty and tasty, since Maguro-Nakaochi, another kind of tuna at this restaurant costs only 105JPY, I prefer to order more Maguro-Nakaochi to enjoy sushi reasonably.

If you want to expand the concept of sushi, go to Miura Misaki-Ko. They have 4 restaurants in Tokyo and Yokohama.

Below is their website (sorry only in Japanese.)

http://www.neo-emotion.jp/post_kaitensushi/miuramisakikou-ueno/

Sugiura, Japanese French restaurant in Yanaka

In Nippori Tokyo, where we live, there are a lot of cheap restaurants for the ordinary people living here. However, in Yanaka, located in five minute walk from Nippori, there is a French restaurant, Sugiura, named from the family name of the owner chef. Even though it’s a real French restaurant, they serve French menus arranged for the ordinary people in Japan.

The restaurant is located in the quiet residential area in Yanaka.

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It’s a small restaurant. The first floor is the chef’s kitchen, and there are a few tables for customers on the 2nd floor where they have simple interior furnishings.

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Even though it’s a French restaurant, they prepare not only folks and knives but also chopsticks as a part of tableware. In this area there are not few people who are not familiar with French table manner and thus reluctant to dining at French restaurant, but their approach makes French more approachable for them.

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Not only chopsticks but they cook foods familiar for Japanese in French way of cooking. Now let me introduce the full course of chef’s selection!

First of all, amuse-bouche including mini tomatoes covered with candy.

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Soup with Jerusalem artichokes and lentil.

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As a cold appetizer, sea urchin with crab, carrot mousse, consomme jelly and tomato puree. For the ordinary Japanese people, sea urchin is one of typical fancy foods.

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As a hot appetizer, sauteed abalone. Abalone is another typical fancy food for the ordinary Japanese food.

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As a main fish menu, grilled flounder.

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As a main meat menu, steak of Hitachi beef. Hitachi beef is high graded beef produced in Ibaragi prefecture, north of Tokyo.

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Lastly as a dessert, fromage bran with kiwi ice cream.

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How did you feel? Did it expand your image of French?

Furthermore, the price of the full course is only 9,000 JPY. In Tokyo there are a lot of fancy French restaurants which even got 3 stars by Michelin guide. However, Sugiura is the special French restaurant which serve very approachable French for the ordinary Japanese people.

Below is their website(sorry in Japanese only).

http://www.yanaka-sugiura.jp/

Restaurant serving a set of sushi and pasta

In Nippori Tokyo, where we live, it’s not a single case that we find a strange restaurant. This time we found a restaurant which serves a set of a typical Japanese menu and a typical Italian menu, sushi and pasta. Do you think this collaboration would create a synergy?

East to Nippori station, there is an area called Nippori fabric town where there are many shops of cloth and dress material for those who want to make clothes by themselves.

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In this area compared to the number of  cloth shops there are only a few restaurants to supply energy during shopping. But today we found a strange signboard. It said in Japanese “sushi and pasta” with bigger characters than a name of the restaurant.

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We went upstairs to the entrance of  the restaurant. In the first glance it looked like a small sushi restaurant with a sushi counter.

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But when we saw the menu, in fact it said a variety of sets of sushi and pasta. Even though we couldn’t imagine yet how they collaborate, we ordered a set of chef’s sushi selection and spaghetti Neapolitan.

In a few minutes they served spaghetti Neapolitan at first with green tea.

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Spaghetti Neapolitan is a menu of spaghetti which has been popular in Japan in a long time. Many Japanese people believe spaghetti Neapolitan is a kind of spaghetti made in Napoli, Italy. However, this spaghetti with ketchup source, sausage, onion and pimento is made in Japan only as one of typical images of the western food.

Then in another few minutes they indeed served chef’s sushi selection.

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Kinds of sushi the chef selected were normal, not special to collaborate with pasta. So we wonder how two menus influence each other.

In conclusion, there were no synergy, nor marriage between two menus. Each taste of two menus were quite normal. I guess that this restaurant was originally a sushi restaurant, but they started serving pasta with sushi in order to attract women who come the area to buy cloths and want to eat the western food for lunch than Japanese food like sushi.

We believe there are many other strange restaurants here in the northern part of Tokyo…

Karasawa, colored leaves in Japanese mountains

Japanese people like colored leaves in autumn (Ko-yo in Japanese) and we visit many places such as temples, shrines and mountains to see scarlet maple leaves and yellow ginkgo leaves.

But with the variety of kinds of trees and spacious views I like colored leaves in mountains the most. And Karasawa, in Hodaka mountains, Japan Alps in Nagano prefecture is one of the best spot of autumn colored leaves in Japanese mountains. Let’s see its beauty!

The entrance to Hodaka mountains is Kamikochi with the altitude of 1,500m. The visitors to Kamikochi are welcomed by a magnificent view of Hodaka mountains from Kappa bridge. This view has been popular as a picture of postcard in a long time.

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Once we depart from Kamikochi, we need to walk a flat trail along Azusa river in 3 hours. The walk in trees and along the river is a fun but 3 hours are too much for  many people. It’s one of only a few bad points on trekking in Hodaka mountains and we come to wonder if we could drive since the trail is so flat. But don’t worry, the view after the trail rewards you.

Also in every one hour there are mountain lodges. We can rest and enjoy good food and drink.

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After Yokoo, the third lodge, the trail gradually goes up. While we enjoy colored Erman’s birches (dake-kamba in Japanese), a gigantic rock shows up. The rock called Byobu-Iwa, and many alpine climbers dream to climb up this face.

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In other 3 hours from Yokoo, we reach Karasawa. Karasawa is a valley made by glacial erosion surrounded by Hodaka mountains.  Now it’s a base for climbing of Hodaka mountains with 2 lodges and numerous tents. And from the bottom of the valley, we can view colored Erman’s birches and mountain ashes (nana-kamado in Japanese) with steep rocky mountains on the backside. I believe this is one of the best beauty in Japanese mountains.

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You might feel that the view from Karasawa lacks red color such as scarlet maples. Don’t worry. What you should do is to set a tent and sleep in your sleeping bag. In the early morning, the rising sun paints the mountains red. We call it “Morgen Rot” (morning red in German, since the Japanese imported technique of mountain climbing from Germany, there are still many German words related mountain).

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Normally the leaves in Karasawa color in early to middle October. However this year they were at the peak at the end of September. It happens in some years when cold days continue in September. When you go there, please check information on the website of Kamikochi. (Japan Alps Kamikochi Website)

Mos Burger, gourmet burger in Japan

In Japan hamburger is a symbol of fast food with low price and short delivery time. McDonald is its typical example. On the other hand, recently the concept of gourmet burger with high quality and high price is getting recognition by ordinary Japanese. Shake Shack from New York which opened in Japan in 2015 is a typical example of such burger.

However, there was also a Japanese burger chain restaurant which has been focusing on the premium quality since 1972 and also focusing what the burger fitting to Japanese is. It’s Mos Burger.

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Mos Burger was opened in 1972 by Mr. Satoshi Sakurada who learned the way to make burgers from Tommy’s, an American burger restaurant. However, he didn’t just imitate its way. In order to make the burger fitting to the taste of Japanese, he developed his original recipe and conceived an idea to put Bolognese source on patty. In Japan Bolognese source is often called “meat source” and very popular as a typical foreign taste.

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Mos Burger is not a so “fast food” as they cook it after order. And their basic Mos Burger is 370 Japanese Yen (approx. 3.7 USD), while their rival burger chain restaurant McDonald Japan sometimes make a campaign to serve their basic hamburger with the price of 100 JPY (approx. 1 USD).

But Mos Burger stack to their way. As for the vegetable of their burger they bought only from contracted farmers in Japan to get safe food. Also in order to attract Japanese customers they created “teriyaki” burger, which is now popular in the US as well, and even created “rice burger”, a burger on which they put a patty between rice cakes instead of buns.

With such many unique efforts, now Mos Burger is the 2nd biggest burger chain restaurant in Japan next to McDonald Japan. Reflecting their strategy to focus good and safe food, there is modest atmosphere inside the restaurant.

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They also focus on healthy food. In addition to regular meat patty, they serve “soy patty”, patty made from soy beans instead of meat. Furthermore they also serve “Natsumi”, a burger on which they put a patty between lettuce instead of buns. (I’m not sure if I can call it “burger” though.)

I want to see how Mos Burger will keep developing new burgers by answering the changing demand of customers.

Below is their website (English available).

http://www.mos.co.jp/global/

Tori-Kizoku, a fast growing Izakaya in Japan

Izakaya is a traditional style of dining bar in Japan which serves a variety of foods and drinks with reasonable price and is popular among ordinary Japanese. However, recently there is very strong competition among main Izakaya restaurant chains and many restaurants suffer from decline of sales and profits.

Tori-Kizoku is a unique Izakaya restaurant chain under such situation. They have been increasing the turnover and profit in the past 5 years continuously and expanding their chains in and around big cities such as Tokyo, Osaka and Nagoya. Then what’s is their advantage?

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First of all, as their name indicates, they are specialized with menus of chicken. Tori means bird and Kizoku means aristocracy in Japanese. I believe they include Kizoku (aristocracy) in their name to show their strong adherence to chicken. In Japan by their specialization, they obtained strong brand image as a restaurant chain of Yaki-Tori, grilled chicken skewer and typical menu of Izakaya. Also since Yaki-Tori is one of popular Japanese foods for foreign visitors to Japan, their strategy can attract foreigners too.

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Secondly they serve all their menus with only one price, 280 Japanese yen (approx. 2.8 USD). However, it’s obvious that their gross profit of some menus are less than those of the others. For example a photo below is their most popular menu, Kizoku-Yaki, which is a big Yaki-Tori and has good taste at the same time. The menu has the same 280 JPY price as other smaller sized Yaki-Tori.

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Moreover, This menu, Tori-Kamameshi, rice boiled together with chicken and vegetables in a small pot costs 280 JPY as well.

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Lastly they use the food made in Japan for almost all their menus. Like in other developed countries, nowadays the Japanese people more and more prefer to eat the food made domestically. In their website, Tori-Kizoku shows the reason to use domestic food as below.

-To serve the customers with the menus made of safe food.

-To use fresh food and to serve more delicious menus

-To support Japanese food producers as a restaurant company

Overall, I believe Tori-Kizoku has been rapidly growing not only because their menus are reasonable but also they have clear vision as a restaurant chain.

At the end of this post, one advice for those who are interested to visit the restaurant. They made a small trap for you. Not only Yaki-Tori, but the simpler menu like sliced tomatoes cost 280 JPY, too. Be sure that such menu is less reasonable than other chicken menus, especially after drinking some glasses of beer.

Below is their website (sorry in Japanese only).

http://www.torikizoku.co.jp/