Review: Baiso, Shimokitazawa, Tokyo; 梅窓、下北沢、東京

Niku udon
Niku udon

Of the variety of noodles that constitute Japanese cuisine, the humble udon is less well known in the West, which is a tragedy. These white, egg flour noodles are fat enough to have a slight and wonderful dough-like texture when consumed. They’re served in a light broth, comprising dashi (Japanese fish stock made from bonito flakes), mirin (cooking rice wine), soy sauce and sugar. This is served with ginger and spring onions, and a variety of toppings. There is niku udon (beef), kitsune udon (sweetened deep-fried tofu pouch, and even kare udon (curry udon). One of the most popular versions is tempura udon, which I utterly fail to understand because why would you want that nice crispy batter to get all sodden and disintegrate into the broth?!  Continue reading “Review: Baiso, Shimokitazawa, Tokyo; 梅窓、下北沢、東京”

Furniture stores & sushi trains

I am becoming domestic. I may be typing this in a hotel room with wet jeans hanging off the bath and knickers dangling from door handles, but I like to think that I’m entering a new era in my life. I am on a Daiwa Scholarship to become fluent in Japanese so I can become the ultimate writer and culture journalist, bringing you all the latest awesomeness from Japan, and Asia more generally. This is the biggest commitment I’ve made to a career path so far. Not only is the programme a whole 19 months of my life, but I intend to stay for longer to attain the highest Japanese language level JLPT 1.

With such long term ambitions to stay in Japan, finding and furnishing a flat that feels like home is important. No more Poundland – or, rather, no more 100 Yen shop. I don’t want to camp. I’m in my mid-twenties. My home should surely have a little style and charm to it.

Then why was I a little alarmed that I jumped with excitement on entering a furniture store?!

Last weekend, one of our sempai (previous Daiwa Scholars) kindly took us on a house furnishing trip. As this clearly is a chore, the adventure naturally had to begin with a meal to fuel our energy levels and moods for tackling furniture. We ended up at Daikonman again (which I reviewed here), tucking into okonimiyaki. I can confirm that putting avocado and shrimp into the pancake mix is a VERY good idea.

Prawn and avocado okonomiyaki, Kansai-style, 980 yen
Prawn and avocado okonomiyaki, Kansai-style, 980 yen

Their yakisoba (fried noodles) with mixed seafood also looked pretty yummy.

Mixed seafood yakisoba
Mixed seafood yakisoba

Sated we stopped by a second hand store in Shimokitazawa in which we met this fine and gentlemanly polar bear (I’m not sure about his wife though). I also bought a floor length lime green mirror for 1080 yen – bargain! The Japanese don’t tend to like buying second hand so prices can be great.

Polar bears are HUGE
Polar bears are HUGE

Then we set off to Nitori, which is the Japanese equivalent of Ikea. They market themselves slightly differently though – it’s all about “total coordination”:

Nitori Google

It’s a little trek out from the centre of Tokyo, and it took us two trains and a taxi to make it there. On arriving, I felt overwhelmed. There were so many choices. Did I want a bed or a futon? Traditionally, Japanese dwellings are furnished with tatami mats as flooring, which are similar to straw mats and have some give to them. This makes sleeping on a futon on the floor not as unforgiving on one’s back as one might expect. However, the majority of buildings now have wooden floors, particularly in an area like Tokyo which evolves at lightning speed. But what if you hanker after the traditional, despite your modern surrounds? I present to you this hybrid: the tatami bed!

Oh look, the love child of a tatami bed coupling...
Oh look, the love child of a tatami bed coupling…

A key difference between Japanese homes and UK homes is the lack of insulation and central heating in the former. Unfortunately, I am not exaggerating and I do not mean “poor insulation and central heating”. I mean “There is no insulation and central heating and you risk losing your nipples to frostbite in the winter!” The windows are single-glazed. I wish I were joking when I tell you that I bubble wrapped my windows on the advice of my neighbour when I was living in Kyoto. And that I’m not the only one – check this article out.

One of the ways that the Japanese stay warm is through using a kotatsu. This is a low table with a heater underneath and a blanket which covers your legs. We found a very fancy one in Nitori. But I stubbornly refuse to see the comfort in warm knees and a freezing top half. As someone with asthma, a myriad of allergies and all-round pathetic immune system, breathing very cold air makes me ill. So there will be no kotatsu in my flat, just a very large electricity bill.

The perfect heater for warm knees
The perfect heater for warm knees

After wandering the aisles in a furniture-induced tranced for an hour or more, I eventually managed to pick a futon set, bedding, towels and basic kitchen equipment. Almost everything I bought was green: I believe that the second-hand mirror purchased earlier must have had an influence.

It was a major relief to learn that Nitori has a reasonably priced home delivery service, where you can specify the exact time on the exact day – unlike England, where sometimes you might wait in for the whole day in the hope that your item appears (no guarantee). I am getting my futon delivered by 8pm on the day I spend my first night in my flat. Let’s pray their service is excellent or it may be a very miserable first night.

After any shopping trip, a gastronomic celebration is obligatory. So what better way to reflect on our furnishing achievements than having sushi delivered to us on a train?!!!!! In this busy restaurant in Shibuya, everyone has their own touch screen menu and, within five minutes or less, your chosen dish will zoom along the tracks and stop in front of you. It delighted me so much that I can only imagine my fascination as a child. Watch the video below. For the record, I’m not stalking the blonde women – I just don’t have a clue how to use my camera:

Yet super-fast train sushi was not enough for us. What better way to finish the day than to whizz up to the 15th floor and look out over Tokyo, whilst sipping a yuzu and ginger cocktail?

Lights inside and our - fifteen floors ip
Lights inside and our – fifteen floors ip

We then raced to get to an ice-cream parlour before it closed, admiring donuts en route – and fortunately found that the parlour was closed because we may have been getting a little carried away.

It was  when I was waddling back late, full of food, pondering all the ridiculous events that I had lined up for the following day, contemplating booking a flight to Hanoi, that I came to the conclusion that “wants nice furnished flat” could definitely be compatible with “not grown up yet.”

And so I pay tribute to my parents, who have told me many times:

Don’t ever worry about growing up. We’re still waiting.

I got a flat! (And it is the best flat in the world)

Yes, that's mine!
Yes, that’s mine!

Flat-hunting in Tokyo:

1) It’s much simpler than you might think.

2) It’s possible to flat hunt without speaking Japanese.

3) You can get what you want if you really, really want it and are prepared to search/fight for it.

With less than two weeks before starting Japanese school, I was keen to find a flat. No-one wants to be juggle new classes in a new environment with tramping around properties and picking over contracts. I started the process early, spamming English listing sites and trekking to four flats with a Japanese ‘buddy’, who had kindly volunteered herself for the task.

Standard kitchen - one hob, no sideboards, no fridge
Standard kitchen (fortunately not mine) – one hob, no sideboards, no space for fridge. 

As it turns out, flat hunting in Japan is actually incredibly simple. I don’t mean it’s going to be easy, especially if you have specific requirements, but the entire process is so efficient that you could walk in off the street, view a few properties and sign a contract within a few hours if you wanted to.

I’m not going to bore you with the details (email me if you’re moving and want some advice) but trust me when I say that same day viewings are a big thing in Tokyo. In fact, the estate agent drives you around in a car to all the properties you select, effectively giving you a free mini-tour of your chosen area(s). If you’re super lucky, he may have parked in a giant automated car park, which delivers your car to you when you punch in a number:

The big BUT is whether you’ll be able to find exactly what you want and, if so, whether the landlord will accept foreign tenants. My requirements – modest by most people’s standards – effectively turned me into a Foreigner Princess in Japan. Among reasonable distance to school/to a station, sanely priced rent, and at least 20 square metres of floor space (“apartments” AKA boxes that are only 12 square metres do exist), I also wanted the following:

1) The flat must be bright. Many apartments in Japan are wedges within apartment blocks – long and thing, with one large window at one end acting as the only source of light. I wanted ideally more than one window (ie. a corner property) on the second floor or higher to let in light. I was in a womb once for nine months – I didn’t want to spend a further 19 months cooped up like that! 2) I must be able to see at least one tree from my window. Nature makes me happy; please see the biophilia hypothesis.

I then added:

3) The windows must be CLEAR GLASS. In Japan, the vast majority of windows are frosted glass – what they call “smoked windows”. I was told this is because of “privacy”/”Japanese are shy people”; the idea of net curtains/blinds leaves them cold. It’s a vast cultural difference.

But I wanted clear windows. And I was going to get clear windows.

Having viewed over ten flats found a beautiful flat at the very upper end of my budget range, I wondered if I could do better. I caught the train to Shimokitazawa and walked into the first estate agents I saw. With my broken Japanese, the aid of a biro and Google translate, we communicated enough to see some properties.

After four hours, I wasn’t that keen, and so I got up, walked 30 seconds down the road, and sat down in another office. Things got off to a good start as I noticed that the man helping me to fill in my form was rather tall and good looking. Given that I didn’t understand much of what was going on, I decided to gawp at him instead. Another man took over and after some more form filling, Google translating and a few miscommunications, I was shown a flat that was perfect on paper, save one thing: frosted windows. The estate agent said that we might be able to plead with the landlady to change them if I said I really liked it.

And I did. A corner property, second floor, 22.86 sq metres, large kitchen with two gas hobs and a grill (most flats don’t even come with lights, let alone a cooker), a quiet area, and a view of CHERRY BLOSSOM TREES from my balcony. A view that was only visible with the windows wide open.

My view - cherry blossoms!
My view – cherry blossoms!

We went to knock on the landlady’s door. An elderly lady answered, who seemed genuinely warm and pleased to see me.

“You’ll be living above my daughter and grandchildren,” she told me in Japanese. “One is at elementary school, one is at junior high school.”

“That’s great,” I told her. “I used to teach English in elementary and junior high schools in Kyoto.”

“I’m afraid I don’t speak English.”

“I don’t speak Japanese. So together we can practice!” I laughed.

Now, about those windows…

She said yes! I’m having to pay twice, because she’s going to change them back as soon as I leave. This means I can only afford to change two panels but I don’t care – I’m going to see the trees! Plus my rent is about half what I paid in London – who would have thought that Tokyo is so much cheaper?

And so, after viewing EIGHTEEN flats and a few calls to a window pane company, I have an amazing place in a beautiful setting where I can practice Japanese with a Japanese family. Do check out the pictures! Who wants to come for tea? 🙂


Back at the estate agents office:

I was sitting at the desk, elated by the news that I wasn’t going to be homeless, when the tall estate agent guy showed up again. I sat there willing him to come and pay me some attention.

“Phoebe san, how old are you?… Wow, we’re nearly the same age. I’m just a bit older. Can I see your mobile phone? So cool! I’ve never seen an English phone. When are you coming back to the office? Can we take a beautiful picture together?”

That was the first and probably the last time in which silent flirtation has worked for me. But I’ll definitely use this in a book and laugh at the people who tell me off for a clichéd plot.

Nezu-jinja Matsuri


Any first time visitor to Japan will be struck by many things, not least the vast number of temples and shrines dotted across the countryside, squeezed in between office blocks and train tracks, and tucked underneath dense foliage.  Continue reading “Nezu-jinja Matsuri”

Konnichiwa, Japan!

Sushi chef
Sushi chef

I’ve had several requests and so here it is… I present to you the return of the Pheebz in Japan blog, added as a new category to Pheebz Eatz (because occasionally I do things other than eat, rare though that is… And to reassure you, there are lots of food pics and info below). I am lucky enough to have been awarded a Daiwa Scholarship and so I will be spending the next 19 months studying and working in Japan.

My arrival in Japan didn’t go quite as smoothly as I had hoped. I travel a lot and seem to be searched more often than not. Today’s searching was on the UK side, however, as security told me my pots of jewellery in my rucksack were too dense to show up on the Xray, which led to the tedious incident of tiny pots of (junk) jewellery being opened and examined with care. On arriving in Dubai over the summer, security saw fit to pull me aside and search my belongings (presumably for drugs), which entailed waving my knickers in the air. I wish I were joking.

Continue reading “Konnichiwa, Japan!”