Monday, February 20, 2012

Day 4 - Shibuya, surviving fugu, and Kabukicho

So this morning we had another onigiri breakfast. So onigiris are little rice balls wrapped in nori (seaweed). They're single serving snacks, and there's usually a filling in the centre of it, like tuna and mayo, or teryaki chicken. They're tasty and a nice little self-contained snack for about a buck a piece. In order to keep the nori wrapping from getting all soggy from the rice, it's wrapped in a special way that requires a special way to unwrap.

Japan is *all* about the packaging and presentation

So we got all these snackies at the Lawson konbini. Konbinis are a big deal in Japan, apparently. One thing you first note, is that these aren't your Western grandpa's convenience stores. They're well lit, extremely clean, and safe and usually open 24 hours... and everyone goes there to buy basic staple foods, magazines and manga (well, they don't buy them, they just stand around and read them in the store - it's kind of a thing here). You won't find any toxic hotdogs. They're all clean, and the food is great. They even have prepared bento boxes and other quality foods. They don't have the same stigmatism as stores back home, for good reason. It's almost like if a place like Shoppers Drug Mart and a high-end cafeteria opened a corner store.

And they're everywhere. There's at least 2 to every side of a city block, most owned by about 4 different major companies: Lawson, Family Mart, 7-11 (ha!), or Daily Mart. They also have automated kiosks at all konbinis that you use to buy concert tickets, pay utility or phone bills, use as a post office, etc. The one at the ground level of our hotel was a Lawson. Konbinis go hand-in-hand with the dollar stores, which I'll talk about later, when I make it to Fukuoka. I'm actually taking pics of all the different konbinis, so once I get the ones in Fukuoaka, I'll post 'em.

Today we went to Shibuya, which is the shopping and fashion district. It's like downtown Toronto Dundas Square, but amped up to 11. Lots of shopping chain stores, lots of little cool alleyways with stores, lots of consumer type stuff. First we came out of the station, right near the Shibuya Crosswalk, which I talked about on Day 2. Near the station is a neat statue of a dog, which I took a picture with.

Akita breeds look like little foxes, hehehe.

Apparently in the 20's, there was a university professor whose dog would wait for him after work every day. The professor died in 1925, but the dog kept coming back every afternoon to wait for his master, until the dog itself died 11 years later. The city little honoured the dog (named Hachiko) by erecting a statue and naming the station after him. Very cute and sweet.

We just started walking around the back streets from the main streets, and immediately we stumbled onto the Love Hotel Hill. It's a back area of Shibuya with tons of little sex shops, love hotels, and screening rooms and strip clubs.

It looks so unassuming during the day, we didn't even notice as we headed up here until it was too late!

This was around noon today, so it was completely empty. It's probably busy and bustling with pimps and working girls at night, but right now it was nice to get away from the bustle of the main streets. It was very quiet and a little creepy, actually - lots of garish little girl anime all over the signs.

Pretty much every storefront had those doorflaps with an "18 Only" sign.

At the end of one of the alleyways, we saw a small Zen Buddhist shrine sitting right next door to a love hotel. Very odd.

When you're done your act of physical corruption and defilement, you pop next-door to cleanse your spirit - convenient!

After leaving the area and feeling a little dirty, we went to a great 5-floor record store, each floor being a different genre. They had an original pressing of record that I've been looking for since I started collecting (Rythym is Rythym - Strings of Life), but it was 7500 yen, which is almost 100 bucks. I just couldn't do it. 10 years ago, in a heartbeat, but my days of fetishistic vinyl buying are over. Ah wells, bought some triphop and an Ella Fitzgerald album for about 6-10 bucks a piece... It was a really great record store that I could spend a whole day in, but alas, we only had time for me to quickly grab stuff that I already knew.

After that, we did a pitstop at a little chain soba noodle place. It was very cute!

Shibuya Soba Shop

It's neat... so outside they have the plastic foods (a huge thing in Japan, they love their plastic food models out front) of the different meals, and right inside the front door they have a little ticket machine where you get press your meal number to get a meal ticket.

Everything is tickets and automated machines here.

We both got the same thing, a pork cutlet with egg and rice (and soba).

Refreshed, we went back out onto the streets. We hit up this famous Otaku type store called Manadrake, which was a huge basement store catering to Japanese nerdism. Robot models, kitsch, manga, pokemon-type cards, anime DVDs, all that stuff. I was never into the Japanese-style of nerdism, so I didn't find anything I liked. Forgot to take pics as well... but picture a used-bookstore type layout (cramped, shelves stacked to the ceiling) filled with all sorts of Japanese nerd stuff.

Then onto our last stop, which was Tokyu Hands... a 7 story building, almost like a department store specializing in arts, crafts and hobbies on the upper floors. Each floor was actually made up of 3 separate "half floors", with 4-5 stairs separating them... each section was devoted to a different range of goods - like kitchen goods, travel goods, games and hobbies, model trains, etc. More cool little kitsch stuff, but by this time my feet were hurting and my already-small patience for shopping was tapped out, so we breezed through and headed home.

On the way home, I took a video of Shibuya Crossing. This actually isn't very busy - it was the start of business rush, around 4pm or so, but everyone always works late, so it really picks up in the evening. On saturday, it was 3 times this size, it was like a sea of people. But it was still pretty impressive.

So we stopped at home and I enjoyed some bidet, and just rested our tired and hurting feet... and gathered our strength for fugu! The place, Torafugu Tei, was literally across the street from our hotel. As you go on, you can see your dinner at the front window.

They were actually really cute, they have these open mouth kind of faces... maybe they're just terrified because they know they're tonight's dinner.

The place was very Japanese, with tatami mats and the rooms where you take your shoes off and sit on the floor... but we just got a Western style booth... maybe because we were gaijin, or maybe because there was only 2 of us, and it was actually relatively busy. We got one of the set courses, to have the full experience. The staff, although they didn't speak much English, was very very nice and accomodating. The appetizer was brought out first, which was a parboiled fugu skin with garnish.

It had a springy, spongey texture, and a very mild taste.

Hmmm, no closing of the throat, no tingling tongue or shooting pain. So far so good. Next was the shashimi.

The texture was a little more forgiving on this, much like other types of shashimi... but again, the vinegar-based dipping sauce they gave you provided most of the flavour.

Now the main course. They bring out some seasoning (on the right), and they fill a bowl of water and start it to boil using an inset induction coil on the table.

Oops, looks like there's some work involved for our blowfish.

Then they bring out the main, which is the rest of the fugu, veggies, tofu, glass noodles and mushrooms. They must use the whole fish for the set course, so we had one of the little guys that we saw out front when we came in.

Aww look, it's waving goodbye to us! Sayonara, fugu! I hope you'll be oishii!

In fact, it must have just been yanked from the tank, because it was so freshly-cut that the pieces were still twitching! Ewwwwwww!

So you put in the boned pieces in first and let it boil... then a bit later you put in the boneless filets, and the veggies, and let it stew for a bit.

You get some fugu, some veggies and noods... you got a stew goin'!

Then once it's cooked, you pull out the pieces and eat them using a dipping sauce, which is more soy/vinegar base with pepper paste and onions. They also brought out some deep fried fugu, which tasted like yummy chicken fingers.

It was actually REALLY good and tasty! Once it's cooked, the flavour really comes out... it's a very unique taste - it has a heavier flakey texture like a denser fish, but the taste is almost meaty, like a light chicken - with barely a "fishy" aspect to the taste at all... it was unlike any other fish I had eaten! No wonder at all why it's considered a Japanese delicacy!

Once the main course is done, you empty out the remaining noodles and anything left over (there was no fish left over, of course!), and the server comes by and reduces the broth, adds rice, egg, and soy/salt, and makes a porridge for you. Was interesting to watch her work, was very fluid and professional.

It was a surprisingly good! We thought it was weird at first, but the mildness is actually a perfect finisher... we each had three bowls. Well, not only because it was so good, but because we didn't want mottanai and leave anything behind. Wasting food is a super dame (super bad) thing in Japan. No problem for me!

All in all, a great meal, probably the best we've had so far! It was a great nice place, and a little on the pricey side, but definitely an experience. I would totally do it again in a heartbeat. Also, Kevin said we had to eat live squid, but I'm calling this as equivalent, because the fish was twitching right before we ate it. :D

This describes our feelings about the meal pefectly: at the start, apprehensive and a little scared but trying to put on a brave face, but by the end, satisfied and happy!

After the fugu, we went walking around our neighbourhood. The redlight district was in full effect. Very busy, very.... adults only.

All these signs are sex related in some way, I'm sure.

One weird thing we saw were these "relaxation rooms". There's no girls there, but they advertise that you can rent out a room with internet, a couch or a bed, a DVD player. Since there's no girls and you're basically renting a room to hang out alone in, we figured it's a way to get some alone-boy-time...

Maybe it's a salaryman thing? You're not really allowed any self-love at home, if you're in your house with your wife and children?

So once we were done walking around that area, we stopped into a game arcade and Carey found a new love: Claw prize games (or UFO games, as they're called here)!!!

Hehehe, I think the addiction started because she won some chopsticks on her first go, with only a few 100 yen ($1) coins. After that, it was over, she was hooked...

She blew a ton of money on them, but didn't win anything else... but she came close a few times. In all honesty, they're fun, but they're like the carnival games, they feel rigged. Today, when we get back from Akihabara, we're going to research how to properly play them, and try to get some more prizes. There were some real experts there... some old Salary Man in a suit was having his prized boxed up, and he had huge bags full of them... so there's obviously a way to be "good" at them. We'll try again tonight or tomorrow night, maybe. Heheh.

So that's it! All in all, the day started kinda sucky because Shibuya wasn't really our style (high-end shopping and endless consumerism), but was totally 180'ed by an awesome dinner and a really fun night walking around in the sleazy part of town. Today (it's the AM right now) we're doing Akihabara Electric Town (nerd shop central) and the Imperial Castle! Stay tuned!

Today's vendy is special, for Ty.... Cow piss! I tried it last night! Not bad!