[Previously: Bristol, Camden, Newcastle, Birmingham, Shoreditch, Aberdeen, Manchester, Edinburgh, Glasgow, Stockholm, Leeds, Shepherd's Bush, Nottingham, Sheffield, Dog Tap, Tate Modern, Clapham Junction]
It’s the Friday before Christmas, and The Belated Birthday Girl and I are out on the streets of Tokyo, killing time between breakfast and kabuki. In the middle of the classy shops of Ginza, we encounter the Salvation Army – or, at least, one man with a trumpet playing carols, and one woman with a collecting tin. You could, perhaps, suggest that the Japanese have taken the idea of a Salvation Army band and made it smaller and more efficient. I wouldn't indulge in such blatant stereotyping myself, but I guess that's the difference between you and me.
What’s Japan like in the run-up to Christmas? 2014 was the year that we found out. So welcome to the first of three reports on our latest visit to the country. (See also: 2002, 2004, 2006, 2008, 2010 and 2012.) In this part, we’ll look at the four days we spent in Tokyo, encountering cultural delights both ancient and modern. The BrewDog bar in Roppongi counts as one of the modern ones.
When we eventually get on board the plane, it transpires that The BBG's veggie meal reservation has gone missing somewhere along the line. She's also annoyed by the inflight entertainment, because the only headphone option supplied involves earbuds, and she hates those. My own problem with the entertainment is that the menu system is a mess (it uses poster images rather than titles), and the films it shows are largely cut. I've already mentioned the damage caused to Dhoom 3: meanwhile, The BBG reports that Finnair's version of Guardians Of The Galaxy censors the line "what a bunch of a-holes," but leaves in "if I had a blacklight, this place would look like a Jackson Pollock painting."
Despite all these niggles, we arrive at Kansai on schedule, around 10am local time. As we've got a fair bit of train travel planned over the next two weeks, we've already pre-ordered a pair of Japan Rail Passes, so our first job on arrival is to pick those up from the station. (Useful tip: the English-speaking counter upstairs at Kansai Airport Station doesn't open till 10.30am.) We immediately use them to order a couple of seat reservations for our first rail journey, heading across to Tokyo, about three hours away. At this point, the booking clerk starts to look a bit flustered: we've arrived on one of those rare days when JR is having a bit of a punctuality nightmare, thanks to the heavy snowfall in some parts of the country. He can't give us a reservation for the shinkansen, because he doesn't know when or if it'll be running. All of a sudden, the Finnair flight is looking like the easiest bit of the journey.
In the end, it's actually not too bad. The connecting train to Shin-Osaka is slow and draggy, and we miss the shinkansen we were aiming for by about 15 minutes. But there's another one 25 minutes behind it, which we make it onto comfortably even without reservations. We move to the left hand side of the carriage after the first stop, on the off chance we might see Mount Fuji. At first it seems unlikely - we pass through thick fog and heavy snow along the way - but after a while it gets bright and clear, and we end up with a ridiculously good view of the mountain for several minutes. It's a fine start to the holiday.
From Tokyo station, it's a couple of short hops on the Metro followed by an uphill walk to the b Akasaka. Our first hotel of the trip is a member of the same chain we used when we went to Nagoya four years ago: I praised that one at the time as “a classier version of a Western business hotel, but everything works the way it should,” and that pretty much applies here too. The only weirdness comes from the shower - it has three nipples on the control panel in the middle, and just like women's nipples they distract you from the more important stuff going on underneath (in this case, the temperature control at the bottom of the unit). Once we've worked all that out and cleaned ourselves up, we head back to Akasaka subway station to commence our search for fun.
Part of that fun, eventually, will involve BrewDog Roppongi. We decide to save that particular pleasure for the second day of our visit, to give us some time to recover from the jetlag. In fact, thanks to overambitious planning on our part, the second day of the holiday is even more exhausting than the day that included a 14 hour long haul flight. In the description that follows, I'm actually going to leave out one of the things we did that day, because it involved a cinema, and I'll be covering that in an upcoming Monoglot Movie Club piece for Mostly Film. But leaving that aside, Friday December 19th turns out to be a crazily active day, which is impressive given that we're still not quite sure what our plans are at breakfast time.
We start the day traditionally, with a morning performance at the splendidly restored Kabukiza theatre. A typical kabuki show can be a marathon three-act, four-hour affair, and the theatre managers have realised that a casual visitor may not want to make a commitment of that size. So they have a series of rush tickets available: turn up ninety minutes before the start of an act, and they'll sell you a cheap seat in the top tier for just that portion of the show. If the performance you're going to consists of three unconnected one-act plays - like ours does - then so much the better.
The seats you get for your 1400 yen are fine, with a good view of both the stage and the real-money-paying audience below. As for the play itself, Maboroshi Musashi? Well, my previous kabuki experience has been restricted to a couple of touring companies who've visited Sadler's Wells. Those performances tend to be stripped back, as a company on a world tour needs to minimise the amount of theatrical machinery they're carrying with them. Here, in a theatre dedicated to the form, the main thing that hits you is the extraordinarily high production value: a revolving stage, dramatic lighting, and good use of heavily stylised sound. All the audiovisual delights help cover for the plot being virtually incomprehensible, even with an English summary of sorts being included in the programme. But there's a nicely spooky atmosphere conjured in the story of a man's journey through a haunted castle, culminating in a stylised battle against a dozen copies of himself.
In cultural terms, it's all downhill from there, and it's all the fault of Kyary Pamyu Pamyu. Our post-kabuki lunch is held at Mos Burger in Narimasu, recently highlighted on Kyary's TV show Moshi Moshi Nippon as the first ever branch of Japan's most famous burger chain. Inspired by Ichiya Nakamura's talk on the chain's specifically Japanese innovations, The BBG goes for prawns on a rice bun rather than bread, while I try the teriyaki chicken burger. I was expecting the latter to be a little more teriyakiy, but it's certainly a step above the mere exercise in texture that most chicken burgers are. More directly related to the singer herself is Kyary Pamyu Pamuseum 2: Ishou Mori Mori Okashi na Mori, a temporary exhibition of her costumes that we visit at Roppongi Hills. It's more or less exactly what you'd expect, apart from a neat trick with mirrors that allows you to take pictures of yourself wearing two of the costumes. (No, you're not going to see those.)
Being in Roppongi Hills positions us nicely to wrap up the day at BrewDog Roppongi. The BBG was always a bit concerned about the location of BrewDog's first Japanese bar: Roppongi is one of those notoriously sleazy areas aimed at leery ex-pats rather than actual Japanese people. (Case in point: the bar's immediate neighbour is an incredibly dodgy-looking joint called 10 Sluts.) When we get there, the clientele is roughly a 50/50 mix of gaijin and locals. It seems surprisingly quiet when we walk through the door, but maybe 10.30pm on a Friday night doesn't meant the same thing in Tokyo that it does in London.
As soon as we enter, one of the bar staff greets us and shows us to a table, which comes as a bit of a surprise. Over the next hour, the Scottish guy who's taking our orders is splendidly chatty on the subject of how the bar's developed since it opened. It turns out that personal greetings and table service are a key feature throughout the Tokyo bar scene, and they've had to tweak the standard BrewDog approach to accommodate that. At the same time, one of their key USPs - talking to the punters about beer and making recommendations - has had to be dialled back a bit, as that's a little too forward for Japanese tastes. He confirms that the customer base is generally a nice mixture of locals and expats, although earlier that evening was heavy on Western office parties celebrating the last weekend before Christmas.
It's fascinating to see an actual culture clash between East and West, and looking at the compromises that have had to be made to accommodate both sides. (This, for example, is where we learn for the first time that dried fruit is a traditional Japanese accompaniment to beer. It won't be the last time.) The staff are performing a complex juggling act to match the customer service level with each customer, and seem to be doing a fine job of it. In our case, they spend a good five minutes digging through their fridges to find the last bottle of Tokyo* in the building, and we're happy to pay the 1950 yen for it as a fitting nightcap to a ludicrously busy day.
There’s plenty of other food and drink to report on from Tokyo: and the biggest news – something I’ll come back to in a later chapter – is that craft beer isn’t just limited to that BrewDog bar, or even to this city. But for now, here’s The BBG to tell you all about her own personal highlights.
Sometimes – when you’ve just arrived after a long-haul flight, followed by a train half-way across the country, and you’ve got a gig to get to, for example – you just want something straightforward to order and eat, and Smile Kitchen in the Biz Tower, down the road from our hotel, fitted the bill. With cheap set meals on sale into early evening, they were able to provide us with decent, filling, uncomplicated old favourites. Spank went for a Tonkatsu set, while I went for the seasonally appropriate fried oyster set. Smile Kitchen sells itself as a healthy restaurant (in spite of the deep fried breadcrumbed dishes we both chose), and unusually for Japan, both sets came with brown rice. Both sets were filling and tasty, and comforting, familiar old friends. It may not be fancy, but it does the job admirably.
But we did have one fancy meal in Tokyo, and that was thanks to the benefit of eating out with Japanese friends. I am sure we would never have decided on Kappou Tonbo, in an area not far from the Tokyo Sky Tree, without them. It turned out to be an excellent choice, with some lovely lunch options. I went for a kaiseki set, which included delicious sashimi, really good tempura and excellent grilled fish, while Spank had a wagyu sukiyaki lunch, his first sukiyaki, which he tells me was very good indeed. Not the cheapest of places - we’re not talking about 1,000 yen set lunches here - but prices were not unreasonable for what you got, and what you got was a very high quality, traditional Japanese meal in a refined and beautiful setting.
We had a couple of other restaurant meals in our Tokyo leg of the trip – Spank has already mentioned our visit to the first ever branch of Mos Burger – but the other places I want to mention are bars. As well as a visit to BrewDog Roppongi, we wanted to get to sample some actual Japanese craft beer and craft beer bars. We had hoped to try one in Yokohama, which has some of the oldest local breweries in Japan, but we failed even to find the correct exit from Yokohama station. Instead we stopped off at Shimbashi, where the rather lovely Dry Dock is nestled under the railway arches. With a tiny downstairs standing bar and an upstairs seated area, and a good selection of Japanese craft beer on tap and bottle, Dry Dock was a delight. The staff were friendly and welcoming, the atmosphere laid back and casual. We were the only non-Japanese there but felt completely at ease. As we’d already eaten in Yokohama, we just ordered a beer each and no food. We both liked the sound of both the Honey Marriage from Osaka’s Minoh brewery and the Hop Tea from Hokkaido’s North Island Beer, so we ordered both and swapped half way. Both were excellent, with some very interesting flavours in the Hop Tea in particular, somehow uniquely Japanese, although difficult to lock down. If we had wanted to eat, there was plenty to choose from, and we noticed a group of Japanese men with a big plate of dried fruit, which was something we’d also spotted on the menu at BrewDog Roppongi. Dry Dock was a very lovely little find, and I would recommend it highly.
The other craft beer bar we went to in Tokyo was one we’d already earmarked. Owing to some misreading of a map, it took us longer to find Good Beer Faucets than it should have done, but once we got there, it satisfied both our beer and food needs. Food-wise, we ordered between 4 of us an anchovy potato salad, a mixed mushroom pizza, garlic toast, a vegetable and crab-miso gratin, Greek-style octopus and fried burdock. All the food was excellent, with the gratin a stand out for me, and the burdock making perfect beer food. As far as the beer went, we mostly stuck to Japanese beer again, with me having a Nide Cream Ale from Shizuoka brewery Baird, and a rather fine Shonan Double IPA. Spank had a Nide Gyaru Blond, which was nice and hoppy, and broke from the Japanese beers to sample Mikkeler’s Mad Salt, which does what it says on the tin, so to speak. Good Beer Faucets was a much bigger bar than Dry Dock, and attracted a young crowd including several non-Japanese. All in all, it made for a good night out, and more evidence of the popularity of craft beer in Japan. Between the two Tokyo bars (3 including BrewDog) we visited, we had a pretty good introduction to the Japanese craft beer scene.
That gig that The BBG mentions above is the reason why most of our first day is spent on a high-speed train between Kyoto and Tokyo: because Vanilla Beans are playing in Tokyo that night. Regular readers may recall that we first saw the pop duo in 2010, as a more-than-acceptable consolation for missing out on Tokyo Jihen. Four years on, they're playing the Liquid Room in what's incongruously billed as a one-man show: there are a dozen or so other musicians and singers with them, but no support act, which is what the term means here. It's a lot more ambitious than the two-girls-and-a-backing-tape arrangement of four years ago, though that's how it starts, with Rena and Lisa ploughing through a few medleys. Then there's an extended natter with a protege group, Tokyo Girls Style, and a pair of tunes where they perform together. There's a cringey and ever-so-slightly-racist interlude involving Super Beans, a group of black backing singers whose microphones appear suspiciously inoperative. Then, after an intro video to cover a costume change, the rest of the show is the Beans with full band, giving their songs a degree of oomph that suits them really well. It's all lapped up by the audience of mostly young males, who formally demand an encore with the three-syllable chant 'en-co-re', which they get, and which whacks up the show to a gargantuan two and three quarter hours. (A DVD of the gig will be packaged with the first pressing of their new album Vanilla Beans IV when it's released in early February, so order now on the off-chance you might spot the only two foreigners in the audience.)
Despite all the unlimited rail travel our JR passes offer us, virtually all of our journeys on this leg of the holiday use the Tokyo Metro, which isn't covered by the pass. The passes do, however, get a brief outing during our Saturday day trip to Yokohama. We start out from Tokyo railway station, on a day that turns out to be its 100th birthday: the station building itself is rammed, and we don't find out until later that a commemorative travelcard was released to mark the day, and what we were seeing was the tail end of the very polite riot that occurred when stocks ran out. Once in Yokohama, we head for the Bay District ferry port to get a Sea Bass boat to the opposite end of the bay. The best thing to see there is the Hikawa Maru, a legendary Japanese ocean liner that's been magnificently preserved and now acts as a museum. There's several storeys to explore and lots of fun historical detail, all for around half the price of a room full of Kyary Pamyu Pamyu's old frocks. Nearby, you'll also find the Akarenga red brick warehouse area, which like many such warehouses has now been converted into hipster real estate. Most of the year it's a collection of artisan stalls and cafes: in December, it's also home to a traditional Christmas market, plus an amateur art competition featuring lots of predictable views of Mount Fuji, and a less predictable obsession with elephants.
Meanwhile, the Sunday is spent catching up with The BBG's Tokyo pals Miki and Taeko. We take in a couple of the local attractions during the day, and it has to be said that the National Showa Memorial Museum is probably the less fun of the two. Certainly it's not the obvious place to take two Japanese women you've just presented with a Cath Kidston handbag and a London Underground espresso set, but we do it anyway. The museum is an interesting look at pre- and post-war Japan, carefully skirting round the more unpleasant aspects in the middle. It's more enjoyable looking at the artefacts from the period than being reminded of the horrors of what went on, the museum being more concerned with orphaned children than what their dads were up to. There are some fun and occasionally inappropriate interactive attractions, including a video game where you gather bits and bobs from around the house in preparation for an air raid.
But our main business with Miki and Taeko starts earlier that Sunday morning, as we sort out some unfinished business from 2012. You'll remember that our last Tokyo trip coincided with the opening of the Tokyo Sky Tree, and we spent most of our time complaining about how impossible it was for foreign visitors to book advance admission tickets. That's still the case, regrettably, but buying tickets on the door is perfectly fine. Here's the trick - find a timeslot when the queues for tickets are at a minimum. We're working on the assumption that 8.50am on a Sunday morning will be such a timeslot. We're right: we're through the box office queue and onto the elevator in literally a couple of minutes. There's none of the fuss you tend to associate with similar towers: the lift whizzes up with ear-popping speed, the doors open with a triumphant twinkly noise, and you're looking out over a fabulous view of the city, on a day that's wonderfully bright and clear. (It's a good job we didn't decide to do this on the previous day, when we were swimming through the rain-sodden streets of Yokohama.) We take loads of photos, and hang around for a daft seasonal singalong with Sorakara-chan and her fellow mascots. By the time we head back down again, the queuing time has increased to an estimated 120 minutes, so we feel very smug indeed. It's taken us two and a half years longer than we'd originally hoped, but we can finally tick the Sky Tree off our list.
Coming in part two: Sendai, Naruko Onsen, and a very Christmassy earthquake.