13 February 2014

Summer in Tokyo ~ Wandering the Suburbs

A couple of days wandering the suburbs of Tokyo. And eating. Two of our favourite things in the whole world.

A friend once asked us what we did when we went on holidays.
"We walk around and look at things, and we eat" we replied. We tend to miss out on some of the other things people might do like spend hours in a museum or getting driven around on a tour bus to see the best sights, but we find walking around (sometimes getting a little lost) and just being in the place is enough. We don't feel like we miss out on anything much.

Our museums and galleries are often a little side street, a railway yard, a small supermarket, a shopping mall. Our art is street signs, houses, vending machines, people, cats and dogs, which we find along the way walking around a city. Our fine dining is a small ramen bar, a convenience store, a street corner take away, whatever we find that looks good. This is what we do when we are on holidays.

The combini, or convenience store, is one of the modern miracles of Japan. They are found all over and have an amazing selection of fresh foods that are actually very edible and tasty. There's no week old hot dog on a rotating stand here. They stock sandwiches, one of the great food strange wonders of Japan. From light fluffy white bread pouches filled with curry, egg or hamburger to tonkatsu filled square cut sambos, there is a simple joy in a  good sandwich to be found here.

After sandwiches comes the amazing selection of bento boxes. Look at the prices for these, 420 yen for a selection of nigiri, inari pockets, sashimi, fried snacks and pickles on a bed of rice.

More choices, smaller and even cheaper at 380 yen.

While waiting for our flight to Sapporo we had a small snack from the combini at the airport, a small bento with little asari clams, savoury rice and pickled vegetables for only 380 yen. You can also see we had a wee drinkie to go with it, a Suntory Highball (whisky and soda) and a lemon chu-hi. Alison is the whisky fan, Shawn likes the sweet one. The chu-hi was cheaper than a can of coke or a coffee.

Once we were back in Tokyo from Sapporo we hit the city. This time around we stayed at the Ibis near the west exit of Shinjuku station and close to the wonderful Piss Alley or Memory Lane, the Omoide Yokochō. While the hotel was cheap and well located, it wasn't as good as the Hotel Sunroute Plaza we stayed in last time.

Happy curry.

On a previous trip we had spied a few set price food and drink bars and this one near the hotel looked worthwhile.

While the inside wasn't spectacular and the service not sparkling, it was a cheap and easy place to order and try out a few different dishes. Touch screens made it easy to order (and order some more.)

Fresh edamame, lightly salted. Good beer drinking food.

A couple of chu-hi's to get the ball rolling.

Lightly grilled fish - we didn't note the variety, potentially mackerel which we love.

Fresh cucumber with pork mince and chilli.

Fresh sashimi with salad greens. A smaller amount is on top, with lightly seasoned avocado, almost making this a deconstructed California roll.

Finally, we couldn't resist this hotdog wrapped in a crepe and given the cheesy pizza treatment. Cheese is one of the things we miss the most travelling in Asia, even treated this way it was still a bonus.

Nakano was on our walking hitlist after reading about it in Pretty Good Number One, one of our favourite books about Tokyo. The Nakano Broadway is the central shopping area, and the streets around are filled with bars and small eating places. We too dreamed of spending a month living here.

We were too early for any real shopping here (and we mostly just browse anyway). We did stop and have some fine cold noodles though.

The real attraction for us here is not the shopping but the neighbourhood, so we got out and hit the streets. Lane ways, beautiful lane ways with tiny gardens, bikes and mix of old and new houses.

Tokyo Dream House No 1: tucked up the end of a lane way, an older style house of wood.

Tokyo Dream House No 2: an architectural modern style.

Local supermarket lunch options.

Some of the vegetables were surprisingly cheap and in usual fashion cut up and prepared and packaged in small servings. Makes it easy for cooking in tiny kitchens.

Train station vending machine, "Frozen Drinks for Refresh Time". The heat of the day demands an ice cold slushy.

Matcha slushy, ready to go. We also tried the ramune soda slushy, sweet.

Even the soup is being served cold.

And the beers are flavoured and coloured in summer special editions.

If the heat really gets to you, buy a kawaii cool turban where you can insert a tiny frozen pouch to cool your weary head.

Maybe the heat turns the watermelons all crazy shaped too!

Workers heading home in the late afternoon, looking for a cold beer.

We start checking out some dining options for the evening.

The area on the other side of our hotel street, business towers and glass.

We tried some cold soup from a combini. Not the most refreshing soups ever, kind of like cold tinned soup. Dig the Blublockers ad in the background...

Being so close to the Omoide Yokochō has its advantages, it's just a skip across the intersection and we are in one of our most favourite places in Tokyo.

We wanted to try a different bar to past visits so picked one run by a lovely woman who was more than happy to help us out with choices. Fuku Hachi (or Happy Eight)  has been around for many decades, there's walls filled with stories and photos of the owners and their little sliver of a restaurant.

At work on the grill. Sitting close by gave us our own personal reality cooking show. The other benefit is seeing what is popular and what else might be 'off the menu', and you can point and order one for yourself.

Selection of grilled skewers, liver, chicken skin and chicken and negi (scallion) are our favourites.

Ika no shiakaro, or fermented raw squid. This funky smelling, chewy and slippery bowl of squid makes the most surprising drinking snack. It's delicious, too.

Grilled rice balls, coated with a light sauce and toasted until crunchy on the outside.

One of the best recommendations from our bar lady was an ice cold sake. These went down a treat in the muggy Tokyo evening, sitting next to the hibachi. If you find someone handing out free promotional fans in the street, grab one as you'll need it if you get seated next to a hot grill.

Grilled peppers stuffed with mince. The smoky grill blisters the skin and cooks the meat on the flipside.

Simplicity in grilled mushrooms with a squeeze of lemon.

Little patties of grilled chicken mince.

Large clams, grilled so the juices start to boil and the clams pop open.

The shells delicately balanced to old in all the sea flavoured liquid. Clams and other seafood are usually on the counter or behind a small refrigerated  or on ice cabinet, and are sold at market price.

We were served all night by the nicest lady, who got kicked off the cooking duties when this fellow arrived. He had a certain flair and charm, but we had finished up by then so left him to it.

The crossing near the railway overpass at the west exit leads us home.

The next day we are back out to wander the streets.

Perhaps a schooner of frozen yoghurt is tempting?

No yoghurt for us, but a small pop up bar inside the cavernous passageways of Shinjuku station takes our fancy. It's 11.30 in the morning, and there seems to be plenty of takers for a quiet morning beer, one of the great pleasures in life.

Sometimes when you travel it's a golden opportunity to do something you would normally never do, or to break out of your routine. Who says you can't have a beer before lunchtime? Even nicely dressed Japanese women are enjoying one.

We ordered a Super Dry and a Black with lemon, 550 yen each. Little pot of rice nibbles came with the beers. Super refreshing on a hot Tokyo morning.

Kagurazaka is a quieter suburb of Tokyo, known for it's large population of French expats. The streets are filled with stores selling traditional kiminos, fans, writing tools and the feel is of an older world Tokyo, and the cobbles and lanterns give it a little bit of a Paris feel.

The streets here are easy to walk and so a stroll down through the slightly hilly centre is a pleasure. We went to the tea shop Kinozen for kakigori, the surrounds matched the delight in stopping for green tea and shaved ice desserts.

Burger King gets in on the sparkling vinegar craze.

A take home goon box of iced coffee, perfect for the gaming addict/computer nerd in your life who needs to stay up all night.

More iced treats on offer, all of the stores seem to stock iced drinks in one form or another.

More sandwich joy, this one has been around since 1967 so the Japanese delight in the sandwich isn't a recent one.

Hello Kitty gets her claws into everything, even curry.

We head over the bridge at Kagurazaka toward the medial centres on the other side. There isn't too much to see, the suburb changes back into usual Japanese style and away from the gentler style we'd just walked through.

Keeping on with our walking tour, we jumped on the train at Iidabashi train station to get to Shimokitazawa. We love the older style above ground stations which don't feel as claustrophobic as the underground ones.

Shimokitazawa  or Shimo as the locals call it is a small suburb that has a name for hipness. It is slowly being lost through renovation and renewal, but it holds out with some cool bars, vintage clothing shops and small cafes.

The afternoon walking calls for a coffee, a sit and a rest.

We're too afraid to sit on this neat little chair.

The cutest cafe art, it was hard to break through the bunny head and sip. We did have a comfortable elegant time though.

Complete ready to go meals in a vending machine. These beauties are hard to find.

To honour the hipness of the area, we decide to get some burgers at the Village Vanguard.

The Japanese are masters at recreating American style diners, they must buy up every vintage beer sign that ever comes up on ebay.

Shawn decides to try a Japanese / Mexican hybrid of Taco Rice, 950 yen. The smoky bacon bits were fought over.

Cheeseburger and fries, 980 yen. Beaut, we reckoned this was better than any dude food burger we'd find in Sydney.

Cat cafe opportunity gets passed up in Shimo.

We love all the ingenious ways bikes are stored in garages, special multi tiered compacts and storage centres with hydraulic lifts. When space is at a premium, even bike parking becomes a problem.

There's endless side streets to explore in Shimo. The lack of cars on most of them makes it a great place to wander around and shop and look and walk.

A last snack before we go.

Small chicken strips deep fried and coated in sweet sauce.

Where to next?

We didn't feel like getting back on the train so headed in a direction that looked interesting. Well, all of Japan is interesting to us, so it could have been any direction.

The streets were paved, and leafy and the houses had an almost English village charm to them.

Tokyo Dream House No 3.

We started to follow a walkway / cycleway that went on forever. There were people out walking dogs and babies along this quiet oasis, hardly a car or motorbike to be seen driving by.

It turns out this walkway is huge, and we mark it in our minds to follow the whole walk next time we are in Tokyo. It is part of the Todoroki Ravine in Setagaya, and there are so many more beautiful little spots along this walk that really take you out of the urban-ness of Tokyo.

At the end, we kept on walking. It wasn't much further to Shibuya, so we headed in that direction.

More tempting ice cold drinks along the way.

Pepper Lunch popped up too, could really go a Bacon Cheese Pepper Rice, damn having a hamburger before. Travelling often messes up your eating timing, and it's the worst when you find something better once you've already eaten.

Even worse is finding one of the most interesting little bar areas on the quieter side of Shibuya (not the crossing side) and you don't feel like a drink! These little bars are tiny, only about three or four people can fit in.

Once we got back closer to home we cooled down with an ice treat from the palace of Ronald, and ventured out for ramen at Ramen Sakure (part of our ramen quest).

The next day we had our drinking mojo back and decided to spend our final afternoon in Ueno before an evening flight back to Sydney. We headed for the Daitoryo, our favourite spot to sit outside, snack on snackages and drink chu-hi.

Our favourite way to Chu -hi, a Hoppy for Alison ( a non alcholic beer, very Tokyo) and a lemon sour soda for Shawn.

Every one is getting into the summer mood. This lady is thrilled when we order the fermented squid (we got the taste after our night in Memory Lane.)

Simple sliced cucumber. Japanese cucumber has a magical refreshing taste, even better cured in miso.

Smoked horse pastrami. Is it, isn't it? We'll never really know. Delicious nevertheless.

Grilled mackerel, another favourite.

Simple salty chicken yakitori.

Good-bye Ueno, we've got a plane to catch...

Goodbye Tokyo

One last meal at the airport at N's Court and Cafe Dining. Pork cutlet in miso sauce is good, not the best but hey, this is airport food.

Shawn gets the hamburger with fries. So not Japanese, but so yes in many ways. The potato salad and rice gives it away.

We love Japan, and we'll be back.


  1. So many great pics and memories! Loved looking back at Omoide Yokocho - and Hoppy! Oh dear, a return trip to Japan is definitely due...

  2. A wonderful post, thank you. Informative and entertaining. But surely that dream home #2 is an electricity substation or telephone exchange?

  3. You guys make me miss Japan every time you write a Japan post =)
    I love the wanderings you make, seeing your photos make it feel like I was there too. If you ever set up a walking tour company - I'll be there!!

  4. This was a fantastic post. Love posts like this

  5. Everybody who visits Tokyo should read your posts. There's nothing better to do in Tokyo than wander around and eat whatever looks good, and you really know how to capture the delight of that approach. Can't wait for more.

    1. Sadly this is probably our last Tokyo post until we visit again. Our next adventure needs writing up now - Taiwan!

  6. Visit soon, write more, please.

    Looks like we got some 2 for 1 tickets to Tokyo with Deathstar. $2600 for a family of 6, don't mind if we do.

    Give me another crowded Asian city to write a blog about getting such a large family around in.

    1. So jealous, we looked at the workings for the sale and just couldn't fit it in. We might go for a winter in Tokyo next time.


Thanks for your comment joy - please keep your musings happy - if you want to complain about a restaurant please do it on a restaurant review site (or your own blog) - we're all about celebrating cultural diversity and the great eats that come along with it :-)

Our ethics: We pay for all our own meals and travel (though sometimes Mum shouts us).