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/

Hawaii in Fukushima

Unfortunately Fukushima, a prefecture in the northeast of Japan, became world famous due to the accident of nuclear power plants after the big earthquake and tsunami in 2011.

However, Fukushima has not only nuclear power plants but also many attracting places. One of them is Spa Resort Hawaiians, a theme park featuring Hawaii inside of the northern province of Japan. The story of this park is a story of hope.

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In early 1960s, Iwaki city in Fukushima suffered from the decline of coal industry, which was the main industry for the city until that time. In order to create jobs for the workers in the coal mines and their families, Joban Colliery, an operator of the mines, made a very creative and challenging decision.

For coal mining, hot water springing out from the underground of the mines was not more than the nuisance. But the company’s idea was to heat up a dome with the heat of hot water and create a theme park featuring “Hawaii” inside the dome. At first many people including some employees of the company thought it was too unrealistic. But Mr. Yutaka Nakamura, one executive of the company led the company very strongly and made it decide to go ahead.

At that time Hawaii was the most popular foreign place for Japanese and the symbol of the oversea, while foreign trips were too expensive for ordinary Japanese. But they made a Hawaii in only 2 hour drive from Tokyo. Joban Hawaiian Center opened in 1966 attracted many ordinary Japanese dreaming a paradise and it became popular soon.

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In order to make the visitors feel like as if they were in Hawaii, the company recruited several girls in the city none of which had been overseas and gave them lessons in hula dance and other Polynesian dances so that they performed the dancing show in the park like the dancers in real Hawaii. After hard lessons they became the symbol of the park called “Hula Girls”. Their story became a movie in 2006 and made a big hit in Japan.

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Even after foreign trips became much less expensive for ordinary Japanese, the park had been surviving with some new ideas such as making the biggest hot spring in Japan and changing its name to Spa Resort Hawaiians.

Then, the big earthquake happened in the northeast region of Japan in March 2011. And the dome was seriously damaged and they were obliged to close the park in the long time.

However, the employees of the park didn’t forget how they overcame the serious decline of coal mining industry 50 years ago. Hula Girls visited all over Japan and performed their show believing that they could open the park again. One year after the big earthquake they reopened the park and had as much visitors as they had had before the earthquake.

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Again, when I heard a name of Fukushima in foreign countries, in many cases they mention the name related to the earthquake and the nuclear accident. I really hope Fukushima got more attention about the people who have strong mind to overcome many hard times.

Below is the website of Spa Resort Hawaiians (sorry only in Japanese).

http://www.hawaiians.co.jp/

How farms in Hokkaido attract visitors

In Japan most of the farmers struggles to continue farming when cheaper vegetables are imported to Japan and also they have difficulty to find their successors. However, in Hokkaido, the northern island of Japan, there is an area where the farms themselves attract many visitors.

Furano, a basin located in the central Hokkaido, surrounded by high mountains and along with Sorachi river, has fertile soil and there are many farms of potatoes, fruits and flowers.

A photo below is Mt. Tokachi, active volcano east to Furano.

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In Japan this area became famous in early 1980’s when the TV drama series Kita no Kuni kara (From the northern country in Japanese), a drama about a family which moved from Tokyo to Furano and lives in the nature, had been filmed in Furano and became a big hit. The drama series continued in 20 years till 2002. For many Japanese including me Furano is a typical image of the country side of Japan.

And in the drama the symbol of Furano was lavender and in Furano there are many farms which grow lavenders. And the biggest one is Farm Tomita. They open their flower farms to visitors for free and many visitors including foreigners come to the farm and can enjoy some flowers all the year round.

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In late August lavenders were at the end of its season. But we can still enjoy their beauty.

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Website of Farm Tomita (english available)

The farms which attract visitors are not only flower ones. Recently in Furano due to climate change some farmers started growing grapes for wine. And from a window of the cafe, Campana Rokkatei, you can see a fantastic view of vineyards on the hill with Mt. Tokachi on the back.

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Website of Rokkatei Campara (english available)

Of course it’s not only seeing vineyards. In Furano there are several winery as well and in the hotels and B&Bs in Furano, you can enjoy wines made in Furano with nice food in peaceful atmosphere. The chef of the hotel we stayed used vegetables grown in Furano as much as possible and they match with the taste of wine nicely.

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Lastly it’s reported on the news that some part of Furano area was seriously damaged by the typhoon a few days after we visited. We sincerely hope they recover from the damage soon and many people can enjoy the beauty of Furano.

Ainu, the indigenous people in Hokkaido Japan

In Hokkaido, the northern island of Japan, there is a people called “Ainu”. Before the Japanese expanded to the north and started living in the island late in the 19th century, they had lived there and had kept their traditional lifestyle based on hunting, fishing and gathering.

Now in 2016, somehow changed, but the Ainu people is still trying to preserve their culture. In Hokkaido there are some of their communities, called Kotan in the Ainu language. And Poroto Kotan located in Shiraoi-town in central Hokkaido is one of such communities.

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In fact most of the Ainu people doesn’t keep the same lifestyle of hunting and gathering as they had in 100 years ago. They have Japanese nationality. And in daily life they live like the other Japanese people live. Nevertheless with the identity as “Ainu” they try to preserve their traditional culture.

For example they have their own language, music and dance. This Poroto Kotan is not only their community but also their museum. And they show their music and dance to the visitors with their traditional clothing.

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Their culture is deeply related to their religion. In their religion all the stuff in nature is considered as gods. For example salmon, one of their main food is called “kamuy cup” in the Ainu language, meaning fish of god. Since it is a god, they treat salmon so respectfully and eat all the parts of its body. In the picture below they hang salmon from the ceiling of their house to smoke and make it to the preserved food for harsh winter.

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Among the animals as gods, bear is the most holy animal for them. In the community they raise 4 bears in the cage. It’s my first time to see bears raised in the place in Japan other than zoo or safari park.

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For the Ainu people the ceremony called “Iomante” was the most important for their culture. In one winter they bring a baby bear to their community and grow the bear with great care as if it’s their own child. But when the bear has grown up in a couple of years, they have Iomante celemony and “send back” the bear to the world of gods with a lot of food and drink. They think a god of bear come down to the world of human with the shape of the baby bear, and thus they treat it very respectfully.

It’s my fist time to meet with the Ainu people while I have learned and heard about them many times. It was so impressive! I believe it’s a key for Japan to be a multicultural society if they can keep their identity and preserve their own culture in the 21st century.

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Below is the website of Ainu museum in Poroto Kotan (English availalble).

http://www.ainu-museum.or.jp/en/

Godzilla is attacking on Kabuki-cho

Godzilla is a series of monster movies which have been made in Japan and the US since 1954.

Now in Japan Shin-Godzilla, a new movie of Godzilla, is a big hit again. While Godzilla was made by Hollywood in 2014, this Shin-Godzilla is a Godzilla movie made in Japan for the first time in 12 years.

In a lot of recent Godzilla movies there were many ones on which Godzilla and other monsters fought and sometimes Godzilla looked like an ally of human being. But this time Shin-Godzilla is coming back to the original concept of Godzilla, fear of a gigantic and unknown monster. In this movie Godzilla is approaching to Japan, especially to Tokyo, and the Japanese were deeply terrified.

I really enjoyed this movie and I respect Mr. Hideaki Anno, a film director of Shin-Godzilla, who is also well known as a creator of the popular Japanese anime “Neon Genesis Evangelion”, for his challenge to return to the original of the long lasting legendary movie series.

But even before Shin-Godzilla was published, Godzilla had arrived at Tokyo. See a picture below.

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This is the picture of the intersection at Kabuki-cho, an entertainment district in Shinjuku, Tokyo. Maybe it was taken from too much distance. Let’s go closer to the center of the photo.

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Now you can see Gozilla’s face from the top of the cinema building. He looks like gazing and roaring against something with his mouth wide open. Then let’s see there is what beyond his gaze.

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So he is gazing the board of “I love Kabuki-cho”. In fact that cinema building with Godzilla was built at the place where Shinjuku Koma theater, former cultural center of Shinzuku, was located in the past. And back then surrounding Shinjuku Koma theater, there were many bars, gentleman’s clubs and adult shops, like the chaos in Tokyo.

Tokyo’s local government has been trying to “clean” Kabuki-cho many times and now making another campaign to make it cleaner for Tokyo Olympic in 2020. However, as long as I can find, there are many such kinds of bars and shops newly opened maybe by the people who love Kabuki-cho as well as money.

Even Godzilla might not be able to destroy the desire of human being who try to earn money on night life…

Hot summer and shaved ice with fruits

Like other areas in the world, in this summer it’s incredibly hot in Japan. But Japanese have many ways to feel cooler.

For example, in Yanaka, a traditional shopping area close to our home, they had Hyakkoi festival. Hyakkoi means cool in a dialect of eastern Japan. They put big blocks of ice on the street so that visitors can feel cooler by seeing and touching them.

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However, on some days it’s too hot to walk around on the street even with seeing the ice. In such case we can “eat” ice as shaved ice as well.

Shaved ice with fruit flavored syrup, called Kaki-gori in Japanese, is a traditional sweet in summer in Japan. Normally they use an automatic ice shaving machine and pour artificial flavored syrup to make Kaki-gori. I like the taste of such Kaki-gori since I was a child. But in some shops they serve more special Kaki-gori and its special taste helps us to feel cooler.

In Yanaka, Himitsu-do is one of such shops. Even though it’s so hot outside, people makes a long line to eat their special shaved ice, Kaki-gori.

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At Himitsu-do they use specially ordered ice and shave it by hand with a traditional ice shaving machine. Compared to normal shaved ice for Kaki-gori, their shaved ice is very soft and it melts on tongue once we put it in our mouth.

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And their specialty is syrup. As mentioned above, it’s normal to use artificial flavored syrup. But at Himitsu-do they pour smashed real fruits with special syrup. It perfectly matches with manually shaved ice.

They have a variety of menus such as strawberry, melon, pineapple and green tea. So we can enjoy not only its taste but also its color. A photo below is shaved ice with strawberry and milk.

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After eating Kaki-gori shaved ice at Himitsu-do, we can feel much cooler and continue walking around for shopping in Yanaka in summer.