Have you ever been in need of an izakaya that was reasonably priced by reasonably healthy? Where the atmosphere is casual yet comfortable?
Well, Obanzai Nana is your answer…I’ve now hit up their Shibuya store (opposite BIC Camera) three times and delighted whoever I’ve introduced.
A good friend of me let me on this secret as she’s a big veggie fan. Nana will sort you out with veggies, pickles, grilled fish, tofu. Nothing is overly sweet, although I did order some grilled chicken once that could have oiled my bicycle for a year…
Obanzai itself refers to a kind of traditional cuisine from Kyoto, in which at least half the ingredients must be produced and processed in Kyoto, and be seasonal. Obanzai Nana is a very small chain, ironically with no stores in Kyoto but I guess they have plenty of obanzai restaurants there already… Continue reading “Obanzai Nana, Shibuya / おばんざい 菜な、渋谷”
The Uji Saga Part 3: Stoner Café
(Or the Curse of the Uji Tea Spirit continued…)
Every so often you get a feeling that you’ve interrupted something – that you’re in the wrong place at the wrong time, blindly committing a faux pas that you had no chance of foreseeing. Maybe you’ve just walked in on an intensely private conversation, maybe the shop was just about to close but they’re too polite to ask you to leave, or maybe you’ve just discovered a secret community of elderly stoners.
The Uji Spirit, revolting against our choice for coffee (or rather, my choice for cocoa) over the Ujilicious green tea, struck again.
Calle and I were meeting our friend James for a quick catch-up. We were limited on time so we didn’t stray too far from the station before selecting our café. It was small, apparently without a name sign and no visible menu. The important thing was this sign:
We walked into the café, a single room with counter. Everyone stopped and stared at us. A masked lady hurriedly encouraged us to sit down in the only table free. People were still staring. I could almost hear the whispers and the unspoken words. The atmosphere was thick enough to be sliced up and served.
We exchanged glances which told us that we were all thinking the same thing: “Are we not supposed to here?”
The masked lady returned and asked for our order. But there wasn’t a menu on our table, nor was there one in sight.
We don’t have a menu, she told us. You can have coffee, tea or hot chocolate.
We nervously gave our orders, praying it wasn’t 1000円 a cup. I had my back to the room but my neck prickled. James, in front of me, kept glancing uncomfortably over my shoulders at whatever the room’s inhabitants were doing next.
Calle later told me that a couple of old ladies started eating pasta, which we definitely weren’t offered. Others kept changing seats, wandering up the counter, then back to their table. It wasn’t like a café – it was more like we’d walked into a family’s front room – a family that were so stoned they were unable to communicate or engage with the world around them.
The counter was also strange. The floor behind it was set down, so it was hard to see the serving ladies over it. The design perplexed it and every time, I risked turning my head, I couldn’t quite work out what was so puzzling about it or whether there was a purpose in building it that way.
Our drinks arrived in old-fashioned chinaware and, to our relief, were quite good. They did actually know how to make drinks even if there’s no menu. Next thing I knew, a courtesy Ipad was placed on our table, with the instructions to play with it.
A bit later, one of the men sauntered out the café. 15 minutes later he returned.
“Here. Japanese orange,” he said, putting it on top of the Ipad. Then he sat back down at one of the tables. He didn’t work at the café but seemed to wander in and out as he felt like it.
Drinks finished, orange eaten and a couple of Ipad games later, it was time to go and we stood up to pay. It came to 1100円. We were left to guess the individual costs.
We stepped outside, glad to shake off the atmosphere. Our friend James, not prone to remark on trivialities, shook his head in disbelief. “That was very, very strange.”
Reflecting on it later, Calle told me, “It’s weird. I thought I smelt marijuana when we first went in there. I didn’t smell it again though.”
Marijuana. That would explain a lot. Especially a counter you can’t see behind. We should have been a bit more creative when ordering from the invisible menu.
I’ve turned into a local. I curse the tourists staring gormlessly at signs/maps and blocking my way. Rather impatient of me, especially as I can’t read the signs, and probably can’t read the map either (A geography degree didn’t teach me that!)
At the beginning of April, Kyoto was swarming with tourists who had come to see the sakura (cherry blossoms). If you don’t know already, sakura is a national obsession in Japan (find out just how much here). It is fetishized in all kinds of alarming ways as you can see here.
On an unseasonably cold Saturday, we set off to Uji, a small town to the south-east of Kyoto. Famous for special Japanese tea, it’s also famous for cherry blossoms and today was the creatively named “Sakura Matsuri” or “Cherry Blossom Festival.”
Turns out, the freezing weather meant the cherry blossoms were a little slow to wake up. We shivered our way around Byodoin, a temple enshrined on the 10円 coin.
Set very grandly by a pond, the Phoenix Hall (as depicted above) was originally built in 998 andearns its name from its supposed phoenix-like shape and the two phoenixes adorning the roof. The entrance fee of 600円 includes the museum, which displays all kinds of artefacts from the temple, including a spectacular room filled with 52 Bodhisattvas, now classed as a National Treasure.
We then had a coffee to warm up and witnessed a man publicly masturbate (Uji Saga Part 2), which just confirms my theory that cherry blossoms have erotic associations.
We then headed to the island where all the (Universal-rated) action was.
It was pleasing to see that Kyoto City Police were making a welcoming and friendly presence, with giant mascots bouncing around.
Aside from all the sakura viewing, there were lots of stalls selling second-hand crockery and food. Calle and I bought this delicious dango (literally means dumpling but it’s an extraordinarily broad term – see the dango that blogger friend Cocomino bought). Not usually a fan of anko (sweet azuki bean paste), this deep-fried treat mellowed the flavour and provided a wonderful contrast between the crunchy doughnut-like exterior and smooth filling. I could have easily eaten six, and shall continue to fantasise about it.
The place: Seike Yuba
The food: tofu skin AKA yuba
Lunch transported me back into a Dickensian world. I was Oliver Twist, wanting to ask for more revolting slop because we were so starved.
We decided to try yuba, tofu skin. We ordered the a lunch set including a yuba rice bowl, soup and some pickles for 980円. Compared to the other sky-high tourist prices around, it didn’t seem bad.
That’s until we saw the pitiful size of it and actually ate some of it. An incredibly slimy mass was dumped on top of rice, with a few spring onion slices and a little ginger on top. The results: slimy rice porridge which tasted of nothing but salt. The soup could have been water and we were given so few pickles that they were barely worth bothering with, except they had the strongest flavour of anything on the table.
Overall 1/5 Better tasting food Food which has a taste can be found almost anywhere else. Only go if you want to pay above-average prices for workhouse gruel.
Cherry blossoms (AKA sakura) are fetishized in Japan. The way in which cherry tree seeds have been strewn across the landscape, creating avenues of white explosions, can appear like a virile obsession. Yet they’re also the epitome of beauty and regarded in such a wondrous manner that one might think that they’re only seen once a century. Actually they bloom for one – two weeks in early April, and every year the mania sets in.
Let me explain. Not only are they dotted around in manga-style pictures, no doubt to add a touch of fragility to the already fragile virgins, but I even saw a guy publicly masturbating by them (post coming soon). Just like the rose came to be associated with the feminine form within European culture, maybe the sakura hold a more sensual connection in Japan.
The majority of people, fortunately, don’t whip down their pants at the sight of sakura – they whip out their cameras, their picnic rugs and several bottles of alcohol, and sit around outside at a hanami (literally, flower-looking) event. In reality, this is an excuse for many people to get wasted. I did plenty of hanami – minus the alcohol. And mainly minus the picnicking as well (it’s my duty to restaurant hunt, so I tell myself).
Scroll down for sakura saturation, brought to you from various locations around Kansai.
Section 1: Hikone-jo, Hikone, Shiga prefecture
Hikone Castle is situated in a park full of a thousand cherry trees.
Section 2: Maruyama Park, Higashiyama, Kyoto
Famed for a very grand Weeping Cherry Tree, a festival atmosphere settles across this park, and people eat and drink and be merry.
Section 3: Sosui, Yamashina, Kyoto
I’m lucky enough to live near a canal area, which has also been sprayed with sakura seeds. It also features some overgrown yellow plants, creating a spectacularly colourful, flowery effect.
Section 4: Around Kyoto
My camera’s been having a little trouble focussing on these snow-like scenes. Here are a few for your perusal:
Although childhood can sometimes seem like the golden days of one’s life, I’m sure there are things that everyone is happy to leave behind. For me, one of those things is school dinners.
I was in school way before Jamie Oliver’s Turkey Twizzler revolution. The result is that I have vague memories of a square, grey block of “roast meat” being sliced by a crumple-faced, bad-tempered woman.
“Want some meat?” she crowed.
“What meat is it?” I innocently asked.
“It’s meat! Roast meat!” was the impatient response.
Senior school was no better, slopping up dishes that, quite frankly, resembled vomit. These “meals” were made by people who cared so little about food that they, either accidentally or intentionally, made quiche using sweet pastry. Cross contamination was common – we’d often find unidentifiable objects floating in the baked beans or custard.
Needless to say, at the age of 23, I never thought I’d be opting to eat school dinners again. But due to a lack of time, effort and creativity on my part, I’ve decided to eat schools dinners with the kids. At elementary schools, it’s supposed to be quite good and I’m supposed to enjoy the communal eating experience. I’m nervous about the meals at junior high schools having spoken to the teachers. I’ll update you when I know.
But, it just so happens that recently, I had a school dinner experience OUTSIDE of school.
The evening had not been going well. Our friend Anthony was visiting and so we decided to go to the special exhibition at Kyoto International Manga Museum – “Eshi 100 – Contemporary Japanese Illustration in Kyoto.” We arrived just after 5pm, which gave us just under an hour before the place closed. It was going to be tight, but we could do it.
Marching purposely in, we found ourselves in ….a library. Because, the museum turned out to be little more than a large library. In disbelief, we climbed the stairs to the main exhibition.
It was obviously not designed for foreigners. The only thing I remember are signs that went along the lines of “Who decided the reading order of the boxes?” and “Who decided that a comic had to have pictures?”
We then found a small saviour of the visit – an exhibition called “Magnitude Zero”, a collection of artists’ responses to the March 2011 Tohoku earthquake and tsunami. There were pieces from artists all over the world, in a variety of styles – not all to my taste – but interesting nonetheless. I recommend visiting the exhibition and attending the book launch event on April 22nd.
This ray of sunshine aside, we stumbled upon the exhibition we’d actually paid extra to see. With 15 minutes to go, we raced in to the hall to explore contemporary illustration in Japan.
Now I was expecting illustration that portrayed a contemporary Japan. The artists were, after all, working with the theme “Japan.” However, it didn’t take a lot of examining to see that this exhibition wasn’t about contemporary Japan – it was about young girls waiting to be violated. Unless contemporary Japan is solely constituted of horny, not-so-innocent schoolgirls (which if you’ve ever seen an anime or Japanese adverts, you’d be more than prepared to believe).
From the walls, teenage girls gave us coy looks of desire combined with modest blushes as they tried to suppress their urges. A friend of mine encapsulated their “voices” perfectly: “Oh, oh [moan] ….my age is dubious and my panties might be showing…”
Yep. There was nothing sophisticated about this exhibition, even if they did throw in some traditional garb for good measure. I enjoyed the art for the pop culture flick it was and laughed at the increasingly ridiculous representations and their balloon-sized boobies. For the record, there were two male manga characters in the whole exhibition – both of whom were lurking far away in the background.
The souvenir postcard selection was limited but I bought this more tasteful one, of a young school girl, listening to her IPod at a rural bus stop, because rural Japan really does look like this.
I also bought the picture below, because, supernatural manga-schoolgirl aside, I’m pretty sure that’s Fushimi Inari in the background and it brings back good memories.
Feeling more than a little ripped-off at our 1000円 entrance fee, we set off in the direction of home, hoping to discover dinner along the way. It began to drizzle. Shivering we discounted place after place until we were almost at Teramachi, the main shopping arcade in central Kyoto.
That’s when we spotted Café Reims, a faux-French cuisine café. It seemed popular enough and offered a Dinner Plate set at 950円, which is extraordinarily reasonable.
We should have known. It didn’t even make it to the bog standard faux-Western Japanacised food we were expecting.
I asked the waitress what the Dinner Plate included.
“Pie. Beef pie. Wrap. Pie. Pie!” She became more insistent, miming the wrapping of the beef in the pie. She explained that it also included duck, salad, and “fresh tart.”
I am very fortunate that I don’t have any photos of what was served to me on a large metal tray-plate. Just remembering it makes me feel ill.
Firstly, the beef pie wasn’t a pie. It was some poor quality piece of meat, with the thinnest layer of pastry over it, so thin that it was impossible to taste. It was slowly sinking into mashed potato sludge, which had clearly been made by the classic technique of adding water to powder.
The salad tasted like a Big Mac. Now, I haven’t eaten MacDonald’s since I was maybe 6 years old so this salad took me on a long trip into my memories. I thought I must have been mistaken when my friend Anthony piped up, and confirmed my suspicions. There were also some dried-out looking sardines on the plate, also covered in MacDonald’s sauce. I couldn’t bring myself to touch them. The duck could have been any kind of meat and was doused in sickly sharp and sweet sauce that tasted as artificial as the salad.
The fresh tart, apparently, was pretty poor too. I say “apparently” because it was one of those “death on a plate” moments for me, where I was served a double-whammy of kiwi and strawberry (I’m allergic to both!)
It was meal that made me want to rip out my insides and even my teeth, and start all over again.
And, to vindicate the age-old adage “It never rains but it pours”, it started pouring with rain as I cycled home alone.
I was so distraught by this nauseating dinner that I demanded that Calle and Anthony brought me a cake home. On their arrival back to find me still dripping, they presented me with a “chocolate mousse cake”.
“She said it’s chocolate mousse all the way through. Lots of chocolate!” Anthony claimed excitedly.
Do you remember this mystery constellation? It was twinkling at me from the ceiling of my local department store that plays fake organ music at random intervals. (See here).
Well, fortunately, I now know that this man is not clubbing a monkey to death. He is Orion, the hunter. And he is clubbing a lion to death (which, er, makes it so much better!) Thanks to Catherine Harris for solving the mystery!
March 3rd – Hina Matsuri AKA Doll Festival AKA Girl’s Day in Japan
Since Valentine’s Day left the poor shop windows bereft, hina matsuri displays have been appearing. The simplest sets feature representations of the Emperor and Empress in traditional garb, sat side by side on a red floored setting, with various other traditional items, including sake, rice cakes and lanterns. The more elaborate include tiers that stretch from floor to ceiling. Here are some I found in the Isetan department store. Take a good look at the prices, convert them if needs be, then decide if you’d pay over half your monthly salary for the set.
As with the commodification of everything in Japan, the dolls have been hard to miss. Seemingly innocent stickers lurk even inside ropeway compartments. I’ve had to make some of these out of tissue paper and card with the kids at school. (In fact, mine were very popular because I gave them spectacularly emo hair cuts with jagged fringes.) But actually, I’ve found this festival to be very charming, perhaps because it’s purely Japanese in origin.
It was today that the doll-delirium came to a head. When they were thrown into the river.
No, not the super-duper expensive ones. That would be just a little too stupid. Small, light, purpose-built ones were floated in baskets down the river which runs through Shimogamo shrine. This is part of a ceremony where people pray for the health of their children. The day also acts an excuse for parents to dress their daughters up in school uniform or traditional dress and take photos of them with a giant hina set, laid on a stage for the purpose. Needless to say, the kids were very very cute and snot-free.
Our day continued on a very traditional theme as we decided it was time for some plum blossom viewing. Check out the glorious blossoms at Kitano Tenmangu shrine, which should be on all Kyoto visitors’ to-see lists.
I may have this before but I really appreciate the overt appreciation for natural beauty in Japan. It causes me to look at the world around me with new eyes and re-examine things I would have walked past with only the briefest of glances. However, I can’t appreciate Ryoanji and it’s 15 rocks with raked rubble. Yes, it’s supposed to be one of the finest examples of a Zen rock garden. But I obviously can’t appreciate rock gardens. My inner zen is non-existent or only revealed when I’m in a more growing-things-filled environment. At 500円, Ryoanji is a total rip-off. To add insult to injury, you can wander the rest of the garden for free!
On a rather miserable January day, my friend Mimi and I decided it was time for some exploring, super-cold weather or no. So we headed to the Nazenji temple complex in Eastern Kyoto. I haven’t visited the main temple yet but this is on my to-do list and I recommend anyone visiting Kyoto to investigate this area.
Sitting at the foot of the eastern Higashiyama mountains lies a remarkable aqueduct. I say remarkable because it’s architecturally dissimilar to anything I’ve seen in Japan so far. Maybe it’s just because it reminds of Victorian railways bridges in England, but I want to cuddle up to it as if it’s a precious relic from my past. I also associate it with the graffiti on the bridge between Junction 16 and 17 (clockwise) on the M25. Anyone know the one? See below.
Regardless, it makes for really fun photos through the arches.
And there’s a delightful, if dangerous walk, along the channel to the south (there’s a sheer drop behind me).
We also visited Nazen-in where you can wander a small garden for 300円. I absolutely adore Japanese gardens because, even out of season, they manage to charm with their intricate layouts and twisty trees. I imagine this garden really comes into its own during spring and autumn.
Lastly, no outing is complete without food or cake of some kind. So we stopped at Kyoto City International Foundation (KCIF / Kokoka) and got a coffee and cake set for an incredibly reasonable 500円. This cake is pleasantly chocolately – if a little dry – and was definitely satisfying after my adventures.
I have to admit that I’m slowly adjusting to Japan and all its oddities. I no longer dance to the train station “theme” tunes that play when you board or get off a train. I don’t stop to laugh at politicians waving in white gloves out of vans. I no longer get creeped out by the eerie robotic voices from the advertising vans or the eerie tunes from the rubbish truck. I take my shoes off without thinking. I no longer have the urge to stare at perfectly made-up women sporting white face masks (although I did stare at the leather-bondage themed one. That was too much to ask. Incidentally, you can buy one here.)
However, today was an all new experience. I think I saw a constellation of a man clubbing a monkey to death.
The story begins, unromantically, with housework. The kitchen floor needed to be mopped. So the logical solution was to mop myself and Calle out the front door and not come back until it was dry. This meant we had to go out for lunch. What a shame.
It was a Sunday and past 2pm and so our options weren’t great. We walked down to Daimaru department store in Yamashina and went for “Italian”.
Of course, you don’t get ham and cabbage pizza at a real Italian. The cabbage seriously didn’t help things but it wasn’t bad. I tend to find pizza is nearly always edible – never great, never atrocious. It’s a boring but safe option.
But we didn’t decide to go to the Italian place for the pizza. We went because of the salad bar. The salad bar wasn’t some tired lettuce but a whole array of cress, broccoli, tomatoes, ratatouille-style pumpkin, baby corn, sweetcorn, green beans, carrot, chick peas, kidney beans, pasta salad and potato salad. Tomatoes and chickpeas are really expensive in Japan so they were, in effect, a luxury.
We left with near-bursting stomachs and were casually groaning our way down the stairs, when the shopping centre erupted into music. Organ music.
The grand atrium contains a giant organ on the third floor level. The organ is not real – or if it is, no-one was actually playing it. Fake organ music streamed through the shopping centre and the ceiling lit up to reveal some constellations and shooting stars.
I guess the shopping experience is managed very differently in Japan. The 4pm Organ and Constellation Time really increases sales. I suppose.
However, I tried zooming in on the constellation to work out exactly what it is. But it looks like a man clubbing a monkey to death. Which one is it? Ideas please?
I am convinced that France and Japan should never collaborate… when it comes to cuisine.
Fortunately, I think things might be going my way. Japan has now overtaken France as the country with the most three-star Michelin restaurants. This is bound to generate some (un)healthy rivalry. Chefs across both countries must be whipping up a storm of nationalism-infused dishes, harking back to traditional dishes and giving them that modern twist, which makes critics melt over them. Whatever does happen, I’m hoping it might reduce the number of places that think they’re serving French cuisine in Japan.
Disturbingly, it was at the Kansai French-Japanese Institute where I was traumatised by a Japanese rendition of French cuisine. Perhaps more disturbingly, French people actually frequent this place and its restaurant. In fact, as we entered the building a Frenchman called out bonjour to us as we passed him. (If only he’d known I was British – the greeting may have been more along the lines of “Cameron, shut eeeet!” and “Join ze Euro!”)
The traumatic event involved this:
That is a ~1500円 confit de canard. It’s a sorry excuse for confit de canard (duck confit). I am more than familiar with the French way of cooking meat (ie. as little as possible) but confit is a preservation process and the meat should therefore be cooked. When a duck is well cooked, it falls off the bone. Let’s refer to theoracle Wikipedia on exactly how a confit de canard should be done: “The meat is slowly poached at least until cooked, or until meltingly tender, generally four to ten hours.” All recipes online for this dish mention how the meat should be tender.
Then why was I struggling to tear it off the bone?
I left in a very bad mood, partially because I should have known better. What was I doing eating French in Japan? I wouldn’t eat sushi in France! Yet I’m still drawn to international cuisine….
Coming up on the blog:
A Quest for Bread: The Japanese Bakery Saga
A Tale of Two Indians: The Good and the Ugly
And….does this look good? In-depth deliciousness will be posted here soon!