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Rising Monkey 2012 Part 2: North Tokyo

'Welcome To Sawanoya, Welcome To Japan' by Isao Sawa, published by Omega-Com, ¥1200[previously: May 18-21]

May 21-28

You should know by now how The Belated Birthday Girl and I roll: we arrive at a town, stay in a hotel for a couple of days, and then whizz off to the next place before we get too settled. This year, however, we have a complication. Our list of things to do in Tokyo requires us to be there for over a week, but the first hotel we stayed in could only take us for two nights. (The Dai-Ichi Ryogoku's rooms with a Sky Tree view suddenly became scarce once the Sky Tree opened.)

Which is why our second hotel of the trip, the Ryokan Sawanoya, is our base for an unusually long seven night stay. Not that this is in any way a problem – it's a terrific guesthouse, for several reasons. And I don’t even need to explain those reasons to you: the hotel’s owner has already done that in his book.

Welcome To Sawanoya, Welcome To Japan is written by Isao Sawa, and explains how he’s spent a couple of decades carefully tailoring his ryokan's service to meet the needs of foreign travellers. It’s easy to forget that when we Westerners complain about the cultural differences that separate us from Japan, the Japanese feel exactly the same way, just in reverse. Sawa’s anecdotal approach (nicely translated by Julie Kuma) gently illustrates the compromises made on both sides of the landlord/guest equation to achieve the perfect ryokan experience.

If you stay at Sawanoya, you can buy a signed copy of the book from the man himself, and examine the setup while you're there. The main area on the ground floor doubles as research station and breakfast nook: there are shelves of leaflets for attractions both local and national, and the breakfasts come in Japanese and Western varieties. (The Western menu is cunningly made up of options where the Japanese name sounds almost identical to the English name, thus obliterating language problems at a stroke.) The rooms are comfortable, the private baths even more so, and despite an 11pm curfew they’ll still let you have a key on request. Every detail - including real-time availability updates on Twitter - is brilliantly thought through, putting Sawanoya straight onto my list of ryokans that I'd recommend to anyone visiting Japan for the first time. (See also: Kimi Ryokan, Andon Ryokan.)

Sawanoya is less than ten minutes walk away from Nezu Metro station, so it's a great launching point for our week of Tokyo exploration. Our first main appointment is on May 22nd, the opening day of Tokyo Sky Tree. As discussed previously, we don’t have a hope in hell of getting up into the tower itself, but are curious to see what else is available to the casual visitor. If nothing else, there's plenty of [insert Japanese for schadenfreude here] in the realisation that Sky Tree has opened on one on the wettest and mistiest days of the year, meaning that all those people with tickets can see precisely sod all from the top.

Below the tower is what they call Tokyo Solamachi (or Sky Tree Town), which is much easier to get into on the opening day. A large part of it's taken up with souvenir shops selling gifts related to the Sky Tree itself or its commercial partners, with frequent use of the number 634 in the prices to commemorate the tower's 634m height. (The most ludicrous example is World Beer Museum, selling a gigantic collection of brews for 634,000 yen.) The Tree Of Dreams attraction tells you more about Sky Tree's construction, in a skimpy audio/visual presentation hosted by black-headed gull mascot Micharin. The building also contains a full size aquarium with a heavy emphasis on interactive labs, meaning you may have to hurl kids out of the way if you want to see any fish. And there’s a planetarium with a couple of alternating shows: we catch one which uses every gimmick it can to evoke the feeling of looking at the stars in the open air, all the way up to piping pine-scented air freshener into the auditorium. With the relaxing narration and ambient music, it's probably a dangerous way to finish a long day at the Sky Tree, but I don’t think our snoring is too audible.

This is a picture of the egg in my sundub going hard.And, of course, you’ve also got restaurants. Here’s The Belated Birthday Girl to talk about what we ate at Tokyo Solamachi, as well as the rest of the city.

During our day at Sky Tree Town, we had the opportunity to try two of its restaurants. For lunch, okonomiyaki is always a good bet, and Fukutaro sorted me out nicely with a scallop version, while Spank went for a pork one. Along with a couple of soft drinks, that came in at 2,580 yen. We had considered the Indian restaurant Amara for lunch, but the menu was a bit limited for me, so we decided instead to come back for dinner, when the choices were a little wider (and the prices are a little higher, as is typical). My seafood curry was advertised as being spicy, and definitely had a bit of bite to it, though maybe more peppery than chilli spice. But both that and Spank's butter chicken curry were tasty. Washed down with a couple of draft beers, the lot came to 4,590 yen.

Another new, shiny shopping centre with plenty of restaurants - Hikarie - recently opened in Shibuya. The lunch deal at Pan Table Cafe La Lobros offered unlimited bread from a varied buffet, and a choice of main courses with a soft drink, for 1,480 yen per head. The food is the sort of Italian food which you'd never have in an Italian restaurant anywhere in the world apart from Japan - and that's not a criticism. The pasta of the day was delicious, and although the scallop and zucchini risotto wouldn't pass as a traditional risotto, it was still excellent. The generous helping of salad consisted of a very tasty selection of leaves in a tangy dressing, and even as a non-fan of leafy salads I happily ate my portion. The breads were also very good.

In big Japanese cities there are whole buildings made up of restaurants on every floor, almost like a restaurant shopping centre, if you like. At Chomp Chomp Akihabara, we ended up at Kamakura Original Dining on the 4th floor. It was another izakaya-type place, with a varied menu from which we ordered chamame (edamame cooked in green tea), a teriyaki chicken dish, their own version of Tako-yaki, and - as foreshadowing of our forthcoming trip to Okinawa - a tempura of goya (bitter gourd, an Okinawan delicacy) and avocado. Finally, there was a tofu blancmange for dessert. With a couple of beers and the cover charge (which comes with a small dish), the bill came to 5,115 yen for two. The one slight marring of the evening was the reminder that restaurants in Tokyo generally still allow smoking, which can come as a bit of a shock when someone lights up near you.

Although we didn't only eat in shopping centres, it seems much of our best eating was done in them. DEN Rokuen Tei, at the top of Parco Shibuya, was possibly my favourite in this Tokyo trip, although both time constraints and a slightly higher price meant I didn't get to eat quite as much as I would have liked. What we did have was terrific and very original. Although the dishes were somewhat izakaya-style, the food had much more modern twists, and naturally fell into starters and mains. The starters, of a smoke-flavoured cream cheese and a camembert dish, were superb. To follow, Spank went for a duck udon dish and I chose a very stylish and delicious variation on ochazuke, which came with sea-bass, a fish I had never seen used in it before. The elements of the ochazuke were all served separately and combined by yourself to taste, and all the ingredients were top quality and made an excellent whole. At 5,928 yen for two, this felt a bit pricey, particularly as ideally we would have had another dish each, which would have added another 600-800 yen per head. But if you compare that with prices in, say, London, then even with the high yen, it's really not so expensive. Time Out recommended this place for its rooftop garden. I'd recommend it for its innovative and fabulous food.

In addition to the bath-related pleasures of Oedo Onsen Monogatari [discussed previously - Spank], there are lots of options for food and drink. Although they cover a lot of the basic Japanese restaurant types you would expect (sushi, katsu, and the like), there are a couple of reasons why I wanted to mention our lunch. This was the first time I can remember a non-meat option at a katsu place which wasn't prawns - the Aji (horse-mackerel) fry made a nice and tasty change. Also, I think it's the first time I've had Premium Malt's beer, and that turned out to be very flavourful. Along with Spank's katsu curry, in total it came to 3,080 yen which, given that we were very much a captive market, wasn't too bad at all. And I liked the ingenious way you were billed by scanning your wristband, so you could leave all your cash in your bath locker.

For the last of the Tokyo meals I want to mention, we go back to another new shopping centre. We didn't have time to shop in Diver City Tokyo, but it turned out to be a good choice for an evening meal in the Odaiba area. Craving healthier options with more vegetables, and loving spicy food, Tokyo Sundub appealed to me instantly. Sundub is a Korean tofu-based hot-pot, also including egg, spring onions, a degree of spice (you decide how spicy you want it) and your choice of main ingredient. I was very tempted by the scallop and asparagus, but left that one to Spank, as the lure of 5 types of spring vegetables proved stronger on this occasion. I can report, however, that both were terrific. The sundub comes bubbling in the pot, and you stir in your raw egg before it sets (unless I make you pose for a photo and the egg sets - sorry about that, Spank!). We had them with rice on the side and a beer each, and the whole lot came to 3,900 yen for two. Reasonably priced and very tasty, one of my favourite meals of the trip.

STOP FEEDING CRAP TO THE MONKEYS YOU LITTLE BASTARDSReading back everything on this page so far, you'd think we spent all of our time in Tokyo hanging round shopping malls. For myself, after spending quite a bit of the last twelve months in glittering palaces of Mammon in the likes of Shenzhen, São Paulo and Abu Dhabi, shopping centres all start to look the same to me nowadays. Of the newer malls mentioned above by The BBG, Diver City only really stands out because of the gigantic Gundam statue guarding its main entrance.

In terms of non-mall shopping, Akihabara is still the go-to place for the latest electronics, but the maid fetish cafes - once a quaint subculture only visible in Jonathan Ross documentaries - appear to be completely overground now. Still, I always like looking around there whenever I'm in Tokyo, and the same applies to the Tsutaya Records megastore by the Shibuya scramble crossing. Following a quick scan of the in-store adverts and listening posts, The BBG makes an impulse buy of Demparade JAPAN, a frenetic single by girl band Dempagumi.Inc. Meanwhile, I invest in the debut album from Kyary Pamyu Pamyu, a decision inspired by an eye-catching subway poster, and one that would ultimately lead to this happening.

But there are also plenty of enjoyable sights within walking distance of the Sawanoya guesthouse. Nezu Shrine is charming, even in the constant drizzle that attacks us as we walk through its ludicrous numbers of torii gates. The nearby Ueno Zoo has its moments, its pandas being the obvious hit with the public: unfortunately, as ever, the less popular and more enclosed animals have a rough time of it. Best of all is the Yayoi Museum, a delightful collection of artefacts. At the time of our visit it's running Nihon no Kawaii, a sensational exhibition on Kawaii culture, showing that Japan’s obsession with cuteness has gone back well over a century. (And it makes the important point that all cultures go through a phase of worshipping the cute, with Mabel Lucie Attwell quoted as the British example. Disney industrialised the concept for the US, but the Japanese weaponised it.)

I need to slip out of modish present tense for a paragraph here to point out that there are lots of things we did during this week that I've already written about – the movies we saw were discussed on Mostly Film, while elsewhere on this site I've covered our other movie-related activities. So as you can see, we were busy. Our eight days in Tokyo started with a sumo tournament, an eclipse and the opening of the world's tallest tower in a single 48 hour period: it would be a bit much to expect our final day to live up to all that in terms of incident.

We give it a damn good go, though.

(points at seated figure in bottom left hand corner) Haircut!A quick flashback to November 2004 is required at this point. Back then, we watched the sumo in Fukuoka, and joined the crowd in cheering on local wrestler Kaio. There was talk back then of him becoming a major player, but he never really got out of the sumo equivalent of mid-table obscurity. Eventually, Kaio decided to retire gracefully from the sport, as all rikishi do. (Unless you’re Asashoryu and end up battering someone in a car park, of course.) Kaio’s retirement ceremony was to be held at the Kokugikan just one week after the sumo final, so we ordered tickets for both from, without quite knowing what to expect.

It turns out to be a packed programme of events. We start with a quick bit of taiko drumming and a parade of the current roster of wrestlers, followed by something I wasn’t expecting at all – comedy sumo. Two wrestlers come into the ring and take the piss out of all the ritual clichés: throwing huge dollops of salt over the people in the ringside seats, hitting each other with shoes, and so on. After that warmup, we get the first appearance of Kaio himself, losing a series of charming exhibition bouts with young trainees, none of whom appears to be more than ten years old.

We get to see fights involving all the wrestlers we saw this time last week, interwoven with bits of ceremony. And the climax of the ceremony is the most extraordinary part: Kaio's topknotted hair being cut off to symbolise his departure from the ring. This is done by a procession of dignitaries, celebrities and officials, a couple of hundred people all queueing up to take a little bit off the top in a procession that takes about 90 minutes to complete. (The gasp of astonishment when former Prime Minister Aso steps up is worth the ticket price on its own.)

So despite all the fighting action in the ring, the main focus of the day turns out to be watching a man having his hair cut for an hour and a half. At the end of it, the lights are dimmed and Kaio is given a big emotional farewell. He’s gone off to be a sumo coach now: we can only wish him all the best. But we can’t hang around, because we’ve kind of double-booked ourselves. And it's all the fault of Mr K from Nihongo Quick Lesson - or at least Matthew Masaru Barron, the guy who does his voice. Earlier this year, Barron hosted a short series on NHK World TV entitled Alterna JPN 2012, a showcase for the less commercial varieties of Japanese pop music. That was where we first heard The Cherry Coke$, who are – and there’s no easy way of putting this – a bit like a Japanese Pogues. “Will they be playing live while we’re in Japan?” we wondered. Turns out the answer was "yes, but you'll have to run straight from a sumo retirement ceremony to get there in time."

The Liquid Room in Ebisu is hosting a six-band mega-show that starts at the ludicrous hour of 4pm. By the time we’ve grabbed a quick bite at the hipster-packed Time Out café upstairs, it's nearly six, and two of the bands have already been and gone. But it’s always fascinating to see how other countries do the live music thing. The main quirk at Liquid Room appears to be the awkward combination of a non-smoking auditorium and a no-pass-outs policy, meaning that the bar area is so clogged with secondary smoke that girls are holding scarves over their faces so they can breathe. Inside the auditorium, they lower the curtain in between acts, as if to hide the grim reality of the soundcheck ritual from the audience. Inevitably, as middle-aged gaijin we stand out a mile in this young, bouncy crowd, who are wearing lots of festival t-shirts namechecking the acts on tonight's bill in various permutations.

That would suggest that the bands we're about to see are part of some sort of scene, but they're very different from each other. Hey-Smith start our evening off nicely with their raucous horn-driven ska. Inazuma Sentai are more like a boy band with bigger amplifiers, their unphotogenic keyboard player pushed so far back on the stage that he’s virtually in the dressing room. Over Arm Throw work in a similar vein, playing J-Pop style tunes at thrash metal speed, but their banter is entertaining even as it flies over my head. You’ve got to love a band whose final word on leaving the stage is a cheerful yell of “sumimasen!” (“We’re sorry!”)

As for the headliners, The Cherry Coke$ turn out to be one of those bands who work best in small doses. The Pogues always understood the importance of light and shade, mixing psychoceilidh with ballads. The Coke$ stay at full throttle throughout, playing standard rock songs with bolted-on diddly-diddly interludes, and once you’ve spotted that they become less interesting. But the energy is fun to watch, and eventually outbreaks of moshing start breaking out. Not too much, though, this being Japan and everything.

It's a fine end to a busy week in Tokyo. Next stop is the airport - who knows where we'll end up next? (Although The BBG kinda gave it away a few paragraphs ago.)

[next: May 28-June 1]


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