Tokyo, in 18 Pictures

Posted in Food and Drink, Japan, Travel Log (Asia) at 6:24 am by Benjamin Ross

It’s been almost two weeks since my most recent repatriation, and I wanted to give a final pictorial recap of my brief stopover in Tokyo.  Enjoy.

cylinder of Japanese beer
On my first night in Tokyo, my American friend asked if I wanted to go out for a “cylinder” of beer.  Originally, I thought this was some new English slang phrase I which had yet to make its way into my lexicon.  But no…in Tokyo they do in fact serve beer…in cylinders.
Japanese Internet Bar
Here’s a shot of a cubicle from a Japanese Internet cafe, basically the same setup as a Chinese net bar.  You can see the computer, webcam, headphones, a food menu to order from, and so on.  The only things missing were the clouds of cigarette smoke, the grime on the keys, the cacophony of pop music, and the empty peanut soup cans filled to the brim with cigarette ash.  Other than that, it was just like any old Internet Cafe in the Middle Kingdom.  The cost was roughly $3 USD per hour.
Tokyo House and Skyline
You can’t really see it so well from this picture, but Tokyo is easily the cleanest major city I have ever been to.  Even down the restrooms in public parks, Tokyo looks as if they have an army of Japanese Danny Tanners running around the city 24/7.
conveyor belt sushi
One of the highlights of any trip to Japan is the food.  Sometimes I find myself seriously wondering why more food isn’t served via conveyor belt.
sashimi in Tokyo
Sometimes I also wonder why the human race ever came up with the crazy idea to cook its fish.
chinese baozi steamed buns
In addition to all of the endemic Japanese snacks, baozi have now fully been thrust into the Japanese culinary radar.  In Chinatown, those lovable steamed buns are now the hot item sold in every nook and cranny, as shown by this Chinese woman preparing her baozi for Japanese patrons.
Tokyo Street Festival
Outside my friends apartment in Ikebukuro, I had the chance to experience this Japanese street festival.
Groups of men and women, each dressed in matching outfits, carried several of these sedan chairs through the street, as the surrounding people banged drums and other musical instruments.
My knowledge of Japanese folk customs is quite lacking, so if anybody has more insight into what is going on, please feel free to comment.
Yokohama Railroad tracks
Tokyo has the best rail-transit network I have ever seen in Asia, and arguably the best one in the world as well.  Train tracks, such as these, run all throughout, above, and below the city, making it so that virtually any destination is conveniently reachable via public transit.
Signs in most stations are written in both Japanese and English transliteration, making the subway system easy to figure out, even for those who don’t read Japanese.
Tokyo Subway car
The one downfall of the Tokyo transit system, and this is a major downfall, is that the entire thing shuts down from midnight until 5 am.  Since a cab ride in Tokyo can cost as much as a routine surgical operation in China, a typical night out in Tokyo forces the decision to either stay in one’s own neighborhood, be home before midnight, or party until 5.
Japanese Wendy's
It’s really a shame that the main frame of reference for a “hamburger” in the Middle Kingdom is KFC and McDonald’s.  After three months in China, I couldn’t help myself, and had to splurge on Wendy’s in Tokyo.  If by chance anybody within the Wendy’s organization is reading this, will you please, please, please, consider expanding your operation into mainland China???
smoking on the street is prohibited japanese
Like my own country, Japan (or at least Tokyo) is vigilant on the anti-public smoking trail.  In order to light up in public places (city streets included) smokers must do so in designated smoking areas.
Japanese traffic deaths sign
Every day, Tokyo police stations publish a count of how many traffic fatalities and injuries occurred during the previous day. The figure in red is for deaths, and the one in black for those injured.
Japanese pachinko
The big gambling rage in Tokyo these days is Pachinko, which according to Wikipedia is a “cross between pinball and a video slot machine.”  Day and night, Tokyoers can be seen staring at the screen, following the balls, and playing for hours on end.
Nincompoop Capacity
This is the name of a clothing store.  I am at a loss for more words.
Shibuya night shot
And finally, one of the busiest street corners in all of Japan.  This view is just a few feet from the exit of Shibuya Station. Possibly my all-time favorite venue to people watch, Shibuya is one of the hotter, trendier areas in Tokyo for night life and shopping…definitely a must see on any Japanese excursion.



Japanese meat…banned in China?

Posted in Curious English, Health and Medicine, Japan at 7:06 pm by Benjamin Ross

Lately, the hubbub in the press has been all about the safety of products originating from China.  As I was leaving Japan, I ran into this sign at Narita Airport.

China prohibits carry-on beef from japan

I had been previously unaware of any Chinese restrictions on transporting Japanese beef. However, I guess you have to run a pretty tight ship when you are selling to distributors like the one pictured below.

Really Safe Meat

Maybe they just have to massage all of the cattle in-house now…安全第一



A Chinatown in Japan

Posted in Down in Chinatown, Immigration, Japan, Travel Log (Asia) at 1:02 am by Benjamin Ross

Note:   I am now back in the US, and have been taking a little hiatus from blogging while I catch up on time, sleep, and Mexican food.  I will be in Chicago for the foreseeable future, and the blog should be back up to speed this week.

Japan is home to one of the world’s largest overseas Chinese communities, and the Tokyo Chinatown is a major attraction that I missed in my first round to Japan in 2007.  For me, Tokyo’s Chinatown bears a special significance.  I spent my first fifteen months in the Middle Kingdom living in Fuqing, a small town in Fujian.  Like most small towns in Fujian, Fuqing’s primary export is people, mainly in the form of commissary staff.  For many small towns in Fujian, they have corresponding locations abroad where its residents sneak over to, and then in turn help their friends and relatives make the journey.  Whether by arranged marriage, fraudulent passport, transit via shipping container, or in the rare instances with legitimate credentials, the Fujianese have spread themselves further across the globe than any other Chinese demographic.  Once abroad, the typical program is to find a job in a Chinese restaurant, work 70-80 hours a week for an interlude of 5-10 years, and then head back to Fujian with a veritable pile of money.  Even within Fujian, the residents of Fuqing are known for their prowess in sneaking across borders.  As for their destination, Tokyo is number one.

Where specifically do all of Fuqing’s emigrants end up?  A trip to Tokyo’s Chinatown was in order.  For starters, it’s actually a misnomer to say “Tokyo Chinatown,” as the Chinatown is technically located in Yokohama, a separate city which has now been completely engulfed by the Tokyo megalopolis.  On my second day in Japan, I made the 25 minute pilgrimage from Tokyo to Yokohama, in search of anything Chinese.

Like most Chinatowns, the entrance to Yokohama’s Chinatown is marked off by a large 牌坊 (pai2 fang1)*, with the characters 中华街 (zhong1 hua2 jie1), one of the various translations of “Chinatown,” written on it.  Behind the gate is a tangled web of streets and alleys, swamped by mobs of people.  The streets are jammed with stores selling Chinese spices and trinkets, restaurants with names such as “Shanxi Family Chinese Restaurant,” and street vendors galore.  By far, the most common items were smoked chestnuts (板栗) and baozi (包子).

But what was different about this Chinatown were the linguistic sounds emanating from the streets.  The racket of a typical Chinatown is usually dominated by the hyper-tonal sounds of Cantonese, the glottal emanations of various Fujian dialects, and a competing amount of Mandarin, usually spoken with a rough southern accent.  In Yokohama’s Chinatown, all I heard was Japanese.  In fact, it took me seven minutes from the time I walked through the 牌坊 until I first heard any spoken Chinese, during which time I had easily passed several hundred individuals.

If I had to give an estimate, I would say that on any corner of Chinatown, 90% of the people are Japanese, and that’s being conservative.  Like many famous “ethnic areas” in the US, Yokohama’s Chinatown seems to have long expired as an ethnic enclave, and is now merely a destination for Japanese tourists.  Although many of the businesses are still run by Chinese owners, their clientele are primarily Japanese.  The young wait staff can be seen outside storefronts yelling their sales pitches in fluent, but heavily Chinese accented, Japanese.  Even the “Chinese food”  (see picture below), looked and smelled Japanese.  I couldn’t help but conjure images of Homer Simpson eating at Americatown during his own visit to Japan.

So what has happened to the Chinese community in Tokyo?  My best guess (and I would love some feedback from those with more knowledge of the situation) is that as cost of living has risen in Yokohama, the Chinese community has dispersed to other parts of Tokyo.  During my previous visit to Japan, I had been eating Yakitori with a Japanese-speaking American friend in an old neighborhood in Tokyo when it came up that our waitress was Chinese.  She had been from Changle (a neighboring town of Fuqing), and told me that all of the store owners on that particular street were from Fuqing.  In another instance, on my way to Narita airport, I stopped to explore the area near Nippori Station.  While wandering through one of Tokyo’s more neglected neighborhoods, I was startled by an old woman on the street yelling “国际电话卡,”  (Get your international phone cards!)  As I meandered through the run down neighborhood, I encountered a disproportionate number of Chinese restaurants, and even a 刀削面馆 (cut noodle restaurant).  And if that weren’t enough, on my first evening out in Ikebukuro with the same American friend, we were repeatedly solicited services by Chinese hookers standing on street corners.  (I wonder if I could have worked a discount by speaking to them in their native language?)

So as it stands, Tokyo seems to still be a hotbed of Chinese activity.  It’s just no longer confined to a single Chinatown.  If I had more than three days, I probably would have dug deeper into the Japanese-Chinese community, but ultimately I was too distracted by people watching, conveyor-belt sushi, and all of the other stimuli which come with spending three days a city where you constantly feel as if you are inside of a cartoon.  Bottom line, if you’re going to Tokyo and interested in overseas Chinese communities, you might want to take Chinatown off of your must-see list.  Below are some pics from my afternoon in Yokohama.

*I honestly have no idea what you would call a 牌坊 in English.  Maybe “big overhead Chinatown gate thingy,” but that’s my best shot.

Yokohama River
Yokohama has less of an urban feel to it than Tokyo…which now that I think of it, that probably applies to just about every other inch of space in the world, save for possibly Manhattan.
Yokohama Chinatown
This is the entrance to Chinatown with the 牌坊.  The characters read 中华街, (zhong1 hua2 jie1), one of the various Chinese words for “Chinatown.
Japanese Chinatown
This shot probably could have come from just about any other Chinatown in the world.
Tokyo Chinatown
However, I must admit, Yokohama’s Chinatown probably has the  cleanest streets of any Chinatown I have been to.
Chinese food in Japan
Like most Chinatowns around the world, the primary reason non-Chinese go there is to eat.  The picture above showcases the typical fare of most Chinese restaurants in Tokyo.  Usually there is 麻婆豆腐 (ma2 po2 dou4 fu2, spicy Sichuan tofu), some variation of beef with green peppers, and everything else is about as Chinese sashimi and a ham sandwich.
Chinese steamed buns baozi
As is also the case in the non-Chinese parts of Tokyo, baozi are the big rage in Yokohama.  A friend of mine who had been living in Japan for six years describes Chinatown as “basically a feeding ground for Japanese people to eat baozi.”
All in all, I knew I couldn’t make it two trips to Tokyo without a single visit to Chinatown, but it certainly was not a highlight of my trip.  I am quite sure Homer’s experience at Americatown was infinitely more cultural than mine in this assumed hotbed of Chinese activity.  But hey, they got great baozi, so how much can I really complain?



Baozi (and Japanese Efficiency)

Posted in Food and Drink, Japan at 5:56 am by Benjamin Ross

Japan has a worldwide reputation for its efficiency.  For years, they built their economy on taking foreign products and making them better than the original inventors had.  Whether it is cameras, computers, or automobiles, Japan simply makes quality stuff.  Let’s take another product and add it to the list:  baozi (包子).  Yup, those puffy steamed buns which are a hit with both Chinese and foreigners alike in the Middle Kingdom are wildly popular in Japan as well.  And just as a Honda is a superior machine to a Volkswagen, I must admit the Japanese have a better take on the baozi than the do its original inventors.

Japanese baozi
Baozi, slow cooking in a Tokyo 7-11

Baozi can be found in virtually every region of China.  They are typically cooked in large bamboo steamers, and sold in the morning as a breakfast snack.  Their flavors tend to vary from region to region (i.e. the “soup” baozi common in Hangzhou and Shanghai, or the “cha shao” baozi found in Guangdong), but for the most part this variation is regional, with each region having a rather unvaried baozi selection.  (While I know several shops in Beijing putting everything from mapo tofu to stir-fried pork and cabbage in their baozi, this is the exception, not the rule.)

In Japan, baozi can be found in 7-11’s and various other convenience stores.  Rather than using metal steamers, the baozi are slow cooked on metal cooking racks which in the US would probably contain hot dogs or taquitos.  But what sets Japanese baozi apart from the rest is the barrage of flavors in which they are available.  Each level of the cooker contains a different flavor:  pork, beef, high grade pork, red bean, curry, and my own personal favorite:  pizza.  In addition to the insides being varied, the steamed bread itself is modified with the different flavors too.  For example, in the pizza baozi, the bread is cooked with cheese flavoring, and in the curry one the yellow buns, in addition to their flavory insides, carry the scent of Indian curry.

As they are in China, baozi are now a common staple in the Tokyoite diet for all walks of life.  With their portability, and ease of production and variation, baozi are perfectly suited for the busy Tokyo lifestyle.  Accordingly, they are also probably the most visible Chinese culinary product in Tokyo today.  Now if only some American company would take wind of this trend, and pick up the baozi slack in the US…or did we already learn our lesson with the automobile?



A $5 Culinary Trip Through Tokyo (Part 3 of 3)

Posted in Food and Drink, Japan, Travel Log (Asia) at 12:43 pm by Benjamin Ross

I just wanted to take a minute to apologize to all the people who follow this blog for the lack, or should I say extreme slowness, of content of late. Things have been a little hectic as I begin the next phase of my life, which will entail moving to Chicago to look for a full time job, and the blog has found itself a little further down on the priority latter. Nonetheless I hope to pick up the pace in the next few weeks. I still have a post or two about my recent (well, not so recent anymore) trip to Japan, and then it’s back to content centered primarily on China. Without further adiu, here’s the final segment of “A $5 Culinary Trip Through Tokyo” continued from part 2.

On my final day in Japan, I actually only had half a day, since my flight departed Narita Airport at 4 pm. The trip from my youth hostel to the airport required me to switch trains at Nippori (an outer district of Tokyo) on the way to Narita. One of the unfortunate limitations of my trip to Japan was that I only had enough time to explore Tokyo, and by Tokyo I mean central Tokyo. The difference between central city and Narita was apparent from the moment I stepped off the train. Unlike the high-tech underground malls of Shinjuku and Shibuya which seemingly go on forever, Nippori station reminded me of a Chicago L-train stop, with its exposed steel beams and cement floors.

The area around Nippori Station, where I spent my last few hours in Japan, lacks the hustle bustle of downtown districts like Shinjuku and Shibuya. But it makes up for them with its quiet streets and charm.

Upon walking down the stairs of the station on to the street, I was greeted by a streetscape which appeared modest and calming, compared to the bustling districts of Central Tokyo. As I meandered off the main street and through quite alleys, I came upon a residential area. The houses were cramped and close together, but the streetscape remained impeccably clean. It was calmer and more serene than anything I had previously seen in Tokyo (or all of China for that matter).

As I came to another main street, I saw the characters 中国饭店 which mean “Chinese restaurant” in both Chinese and Japanese, posted on a sign. Turning the corner, I came across two more restaurants with 中国饭店 placed in front, one of which was 兰州拉面 (Lanzhou pulled noodles) shop, like the ones spread all over China. Just past the noodle restaurant, I heard a familiar sound resonating from a voice down the street. “国际电话卡,国际电话卡” (guo2 ji4 dian4 hua4 ka3). An old Chinese woman was selling international phone cards, and using her bellowing voice as the primary marketing tactic. Apparently I had stumbled upon another one of Tokyo’s mini-Chinatowns.

The ever so ubiquitous Chinese Restaurant. You can’t go too many places in the world these days without finding one, and Tokyo is no exception.

Since it was to be my final meal in Japan, I opted out of eating at one of the many Chinese restaurants, and continued away from the station, in search of another local Japanese dive.

After walking a ring around the area surrounding Nippori Station, I settled on a small restaurant which from the outside resembled those in which I had eaten in downtown Tokyo. The inside of the restaurant consisted of two rows of booths with a kitchen behind them. Next to the kitchen was an open-air refrigerator which housed various a la carte items. Not knowing whether I was supposed to sit and order, or select directly from the a la carte items, I sat at one of the tables and waited for a cue from the waitress. Looking around the restaurant, I could feel an entirely different vibe than those of central Tokyo. There were no flamboyantly dressed teenagers, or businessmen in suits looking as if they hadn’t slept in weeks. Instead, the mood of the clientele was a calmness I had yet to experience in Tokyo. Middle aged men and women, casually dressed, sat in the booths, eating their noodles and sushi at a slow pace while they chatted the afternoon away. When my waitress came back, it also became apparent that foreigners were much less common in these parts of Tokyo. Handing me the menu, she gave me the “Oh no, this guy doesn’t speak my language!” look that I had yet to see in Japan.

Granted, the servers at other Tokyo restaurants I had patronized didn’t speak much English either, but they clearly had a great deal of experience in serving gringos, and knew exactly how to take an order using a combination of pictures and hand signals. I motioned over to the a la carte area, pointing to myself, and then pointing to the food in a lame attempt to communicate the sentence “Why don’t I just pick it out myself?” The waitress replied with a nervous gesture, which I interpreted as “No, I don’t think so.” After several more failed attempts at non-verbal communication, I decided on another method…that is to test how well Chinese characters work in ordering food in Japanese restaurants.

The Japanese language itself is has little, if any, relation to Chinese, however the writing system borrows many of its ideograms from Chinese writing. The Chinese characters used in Mainland China today are the simplified set, which are modified from the traditional set used pre-1956 and still in use in Taiwan, Hong Kong, Macau, and most overseas Chinese communities. Japanese Kanji characters, as they are called, were taken from the traditional set of Chinese characters, but many still bare close resemblance to the simplified ones they were replaced by. Their meanings remain the same as the Chinese characters they were borrowed from, but the pronunciation is different. This is why many Japanese signs (like the one for Chinese restaurant) can be written the same in Chinese as they are in Japanese.

I wrote down the character 粉, which means “rice noodles” into my notebook and showed it to the waitress. With a look of amusement, the she took my pen and scribbled a sentence of Japanese into my notebook. As I mentioned before, many of the Japanese characters are borrowed from Chinese. However, a great deal of Japanese is also written using the Hiragana and Katakana writing systems, which bear no resemblance to Chinese whatsoever. Most of what the waitress had written had been either Hiragana and Katakana as it was completely incomprehensible to me.

“Kanji” I told the waitress, hoping that a) my pronunciation was accurate enough she would understand what I was saying and b) that the sentence “I only read kanji” could be extrapolated from my one-word statement.

“Oh, oh, kanji,” she replied, indicating she at least understood what word I was saying.

She yelled a few words to the cook in back, who then held up some rice noodles, as if to confirm that that was what I wanted to order. I nodded my head, and everybody smiled. We had made it this far. The waitress then asked me several more questions, and after 30 seconds of gestures, I finally realized she was asking “What do you want with your rice noodles?” Giving my trusty, old Chinese characters another chance to save the day, I wrote the character 肉 (meat, or pork) in my notebook. Another shot of excitement came to my servers face. We were making headway.

My final meal in Japan consisted of rice noodles, fried dumplings, and kimchi. The first person to identify the white and pink stuff in my noodles wins a prize.

After putting the order in for my pork rice noodles, the waitress lead me over to the a la carte area, where I selected some fried dumplings and Korean kimchi. The waitress promptly whisked away my dumplings, and heated them up in a nearby microwave, not exactly my idea of gourmet, but at least I was being served. When the rice noodles arrived, the pork had been crumbled into little, stringy bites, and sprinkled on top of my noodles along with fresh scallions and a slice of an unidentified piece white matter with a pink coating (see picture). If anybody knows what this is, please let us know.

The noodles were impeccable, having a texture with just the right degree of chewiness, and served in a bland soup with just enough flavor to compliment the noodles and pork bits. Even the white and pink nugget of unidentifiable food matter hit the spot. Teamed with the spicy kimchi and the surprisingly zesty microwave fried dumplings, my final meal in Tokyo left me as culinarily satisfied as I had been throughout the entire trip.

Price: 1020 yen (aprox $9) Final Verdict: 9


To obtain a deep level of intelligent insight about the cuisine and food culture of a particular country usually takes staying there for at least a few months, and dining in both different regions, and with different social classes of the populace. Before I make any far-fetched conclusions about Japanese food, I need to reaffirm that I was only in Japan for 3 days. And during those 3 days, I did not leave Tokyo proper, nor did I eat in any restaurants which cost more than $10 a meal. Additionally, I ate all of my meals in restaurants, and did not have the chance to try any home cooked food. Disclaimer out of the way, here are my final conclusions about Japanese food.

1) Like the country itself, Japanese food is highly efficient. The food I consumed was all small, portable, and required very little cooking time.

2) Generally speaking the food was highly nutritious, especially for restaurant food. Most of what I consumed consisted of rice, fish and seafood, and vegetables, either served raw (the healthiest way to eat food) or cooked without much oil.

3) Tokyoers like to be dispensed their food at bars, and by bar I mean the place you go to drink, I mean a physical bar inside a restaurant.

4) The Japanese food served outside of Japan is much less modified than Chinese food served outside of China.

5) Thanks to the plastic food models in windows, and the small morsels of restaurant English from Tokyo waiters and waitresses, you can eat in downtown Tokyo quite easily without knowing any Japanese. Outside of the downtown (and presumably in smaller cities) it is a little bit more taxing, but certainly can be done. If you can read and write Chinese characters, they may come in handy a bit too, but if you really want to be sure what you’re ordering, you’d be best to bring a phrase book.

6) After 3 days in Tokyo, I have nothing but good things to say about the food of Japan…well, maybe except for that hoagie sandwich overflowing with mayonnaise I had at 7-11. The food is tasty, healthy, and surprisingly affordable…even if you are only spending $5 a meal.



A $5 Culinary Trip Through Tokyo (Part 2 of 3)

Posted in Food and Drink, Fujian, Japan, Travel Log (Asia) at 5:34 am by Benjamin Ross

continued from A $5 Culinary Trip Through Tokyo (Part 1 of 3)

With a sour taste still in my mouth from the previous day’s 7-Eleven hoagie, I played it safe for my second breakfast in Japan…this of course meant another sushi bar. I found yet another cheap conveyor belt sushi joint in Shibuya (a hip shopping district in downtown Tokyo) and parked myself at the bar.

Tokyo sushi bar
The sushi place I at my second day in Tokyo was almost an exact clone of the one I ate at on my first day…not that I’m complaining.

The setup was nearly identical to the conveyor belt sushi place where I had dined two days before, and the sushi and sashimi looked and tasted identical to those at the other place. At the end of my meal I could not decipher anything about the second sushi joint which was different from the first. Even the prices had been virtually identical. It led me to wonder if sushi preparation is more about standards and uniformity than uniqueness and creativity. Maybe somebody who has spent more than 3 days in Japan can fill in here.

Cost of meal: 700 yen (approx $6 USD) Final Verdict: 7…just like the other sushi place.

In addition to all of the tempting Japanese food Tokyo had to offer, it is impossible to walk too far in Tokyo without taking in the sights and smells of good ol’ hamburgers and fries. Whereas in most parts of Mainland China American fast food is still relatively exotic, American grease has seemingly been more so integrated into the Japanese culinary psyche. In Tokyo, small dive restaurants advertise for hamburgers, french fries, and steaks, often being served in the same storefronts as traditional Japanese cuisine, and rarely more expensive than Japanese alternatives. Japan also has several of its own homegrown American fast food restaurants, the most prominent I noticed was called Lotteria. For lunch on my second day in Tokyo, I gave it a shot.

Like most of the fast food restaurants I saw in Tokyo, the Lotteria I went to also had 3 stories. The first storey opened up to the street and consisted of the kitchen and ordering area, and the second and third floors were both tight, cramped-in dining rooms. Inside the dining rooms were Tokyoers of all ages and demographics, reading the newspaper, sending text messages, and taking slow, gradual bites out of their fast food. As I approached the ordering area, my eyes were immediately drawn to Lotteria’s current specialty item, the tandori chicken burger, which I ordered along with a hamburger on the side.

lotteria tandori chicken burger></td>
<td><font size=Japanese fast food at its finest. My personal recommendation goes to the Tandori Chicken Burger (top left)

Wrapped in soft pita bread, and topped with lettuce, onion, and tandori sauce, the tandori chicken burger provided a surprisingly zesty fusion of Indian cuisine and American fast food. It easily ranks up there with the Wendy’s Spicy Chicken and the Taco Bell 7-Layer burrito as one of the more innovative fast food creations I have sampled. The fries and the hamburger, however, were sub-par, comparable to those of the homegrown burger joints which have popped up all over China in recent years. I would liken it to an hour-old McDonald’s hamburger coupled with semi-stale KFC french fries. Not exactly a fast food all star lineup.

Cost: 520 yen (approx $4.50 USD) for the Tandori Chicken value meal, and 100 yen (approx 90 cents) for the hamburger; Final Verdict: 5, If I were to rate the meal separately, the tandori chicken would get an 8 and the burger and fries a 2.

For dinner on my second, and last evening in Tokyo, I met up with my old friend Andrew Houston, who has lived in Tokyo for over 5 years. Leaving the choice of dining establishments in his hands, he suggested a meal of yakitori.

meat on a stick
Yakitori, or “grilled bird,” or in this case, grilled pork liver

Andrew took me to a small dive restaurant where we sat at the bar and he proceeded to order. Literally, “yakitori” means “grilled bird,” and I think they chose this name because it would have been too troublesome to use a more accurate name which would have been “anything possibly edible to humans…on a stick.” Our meal consisted of beef, pork, chicken, liver, and fish balls, all strung together on long, wooden toothpicks, and smothered in a thick sauce.

Japanese Yakitori
More yakitori, now with beef, shrimp, and fish balls

As we consumed our yakitori and drank Asahi beers, Andrew struck up a conversation in Japanese with one of the waitresses. After an apparent communication mishap, Andrew turned to me and said, “That waitress has a strong accent when she speaks Japanese. I think she might be Chinese.”

When the waitress came back to the table, I asked her, in Chinese, “Are you Chinese?”

The waitress let out the token “woooaahhhh” (It’s probably not everyday she runs into a Chinese speaking white guy in Tokyo), and replied, “We are all Chinese,” pointing to the two other waitresses.

Overhearing our conversation, the other waitresses came over to say hello to the pair of bilingual gringos.

“Where in China are you from?” I asked the first waitress.

I probably shouldn’t have been so surprised when she quickly responded “Fuzhou,” as my former Chinese residence is well-known for its large amount of its people going abroad, but I never expected the first Chinese person I met after leaving China would be from Fuzhou as well. When I told her, in the Fuzhou dialect, “I used to live in Fuzhou” (one of the few sentences I can say properly), her jaw nearly hit the ground. After several minutes of reminiscing about Fuzhou shopping districts and fish ball restaurants, the waitress mentioned to me that there was an area, just down the street, where all of the shop owners are from Fuzhou. Unfortunately it was nearly 11 o’clock and all of the stores had closed for the next evening.

Andrew and I finished our Yakitori and 2 rounds of Asahi beer, and after bouncing English, Japanese, and Chinese around the room for an hour, we paid our tab and called it a night.

Cost: 2100 yen (aprox $18 USD, total for 2); Final Verdict: another 7

It was refreshing to find Tokyo residents with whom I could communicate, and reinforced the fact that you typically don’t have to look very hard to find Chinese people, especially ones from Fuzhou, in most parts of the world.



A $5 Culinary Trip Through Tokyo (Part 1 of 3)

Posted in Food and Drink, Japan, Travel Log (Asia) at 1:46 pm by Benjamin Ross

This past August, on my way from China back to the US, I spent 3 days in Tokyo. Japan has a long and colorful culinary history, and with just under 72 hours to work with, I wanted to consume as much of it as possible. Seeing as it would be impossible to sample every facet of Tokyo cuisine in 3 days, and that I was traveling in Japan on a Chinese budget, I focused my scope on Japanese food to that of small dive restaurants, most of which cost only around the equivalent of 5 or 6 US dollars per meal.

Before I had arrived in Japan, I was a little concerned as to how I would order food once I got there. Whenever I travel abroad, I generally try to avoid restaurants with English menus, because they are usually the places which are most adapted to foreigners and thus not as authentic as the small holes in the wall where locals dine. When I went to Mongolia last year I brought along a phrasebook which proved invaluable. Want to eat mutton? Look up “mutton” in the phrasebook, point to the Mongolian letters, and show them to the waitress. Want to eat potatoes? Look up “potatoes” in the phrasebook, point to the Mongolian letters, and show them to the waitress. This method worked like a charm, and allowed me to eat in restaurants where I otherwise would have had no way to order.

For my three days in Japan, I did not have the luxury of a phrasebook. A good portion of the Japanese language is made up of kanji characters, a large percentage of which are the same as traditional Chinese. I only speak a few words of Japanese, but have on several previous occasions glanced at Japanese magazines, and noticed I was able to understand quite a few words. So I was curious as to how far Chinese reading would get me in reading Japanese menus.

Japanese food models
Ordering food in Tokyo is made easy, with life-sized food models, on display in the windows of most restaurants.

I didn’t get to test this out much at first, however, because virtually every restaurant in downtown Tokyo has realistic-looking models of each dish on the menu placed in a window in front of the restaurant. In order to pick a restaurant, you can walk down the street, and without even going inside, glance over all the dishes offered. Once you find a place where the food looks good, you walk in, and signal to the waitress to come outside, and then point to what you want to eat. No menu required.

Most of the small restaurants in Tokyo are set up as bars, with the cooks in the middle, and for my first meal in Tokyo I found a small sushi bar in Shinjuku (Tokyo’s busiest central district).

sushi bar
A Tokyo sushi bar employs the conveyor belt system to dispense sushi and sashimi to hungy patrons.

Tokyo sushi bars further simplify the ordering process by employing what I refer to as the “sushi conveyor belt.” As you sit around the bar, pieces of sushi and sashimi revolve around a conveyor belt which makes its way around the bar. Each item is placed on a different colored plate. Each plate has a price in yen. As the food revolves, you take what you want. At the end of your meal, the waitress counts up the price of your plates and gives you the bill. It is by far the most efficient way of ordering food I have ever encountered..

As for the food itself, the sushi and sashimi I ate my first night was surprisingly not too different from any other sushi I had eaten in Fuzhou or the US…which still means delicious The only variant being the degree of freshness which was definitely fresher than Kansas City, but about the same as Fuzhou.

Tokyo sushi
My first authentic Japanese meal

Granted, I am not a connoisseur of Japanese food, (and I did not go to any expensive places) but I did find that at least in regards to sushi and sashimi, the Japanese cuisine found in other parts of the world is not nearly as altered as is the case for Chinese food. Plates were priced from 110 (approx. $1 USD) yen to 440 yen (approx. $4 USD), with the cheaper plates consisting of sushi rolls, containing permutations of veggies, imitation crab, and tuna, and the more expensive ones containing mostly sashimi with shrimp, eel, and raw fish. Soy sauce, wasabi, and tea came on the side.

Price of meal: 720 yen (approx $6.50 USD) Final Verdict: 7

I began my second day in Tokyo with a stop at 7-11 on the way to the Yakasuni Shrine. There is much to be learned about a particular culture based on what products are available at its convenience stores and kiosks, and 7-11 is no exception. Racks of pre-prepared sushi and curry meals in neat little treys were stacked up inside the refrigerators, and divided container by the register contained greasy treats on sticks which resembled street food.

My original reason for stopping in at 7-11 was to look for the cartons of fresh chocolate milk which I drink compulsively every time I pass a 7-11 when I am in Hong Kong. Fresh milk, and especially fresh chocolate milk are not easy to come by in China. Unfortunately, there was no fresh chocolate milk at the Tokyo 7-11. I told the attendant, who spoke a bit of English, that I was looking for milk, and every time I pointed to a brown-colored carton, she told me “no, coffee.” By the time I had finished sifting through all of the drinks, I had counted nearly 20 different cold coffee drinks, but still no chocolate milk.

Japanese 7-11 snacks
Tokyo 7-11 snacks.

Since I was also getting hungry, I decided to take a venture into the realm of Japanese 7-11 food. After careful consideration, I selected what appeared to be a pre-prepared mini-hoagie sandwich…probably not the most authentically Japanese food available, but why not give Japanese Western fusion food a try? The sandwich came wrapped in cellophane and contained sliced meat and a white creamy substance between the bun (I tried as hard as possible not to make that sound sexual, honest). It didn’t take long to identify the creamy substance as when it finally hit my mouth I wasn’t sure if I was eating a sandwich or chugging a bottle of Hellmann’s mayonnaise.

Price: 120 yen (approx $1) Final Verdict: 2

After my hour of being bombarded by Japanese War Propaganda at the Yakasuni Shrine, I made my way to Harajuku, a trendy area where Japanese teenagers hang out and showcase their latest fashions, many of which resemble Halloween costumes more than everyday clothing. I stopped in an underground shop near the main drag of Harajuku to have my lunch. As I walked down the narrow stairs, I entered a room where 3 or 4 locals, all sitting at different tables, were smoking cigarettes and watching a baseball game on TV. Unfortunately, there were no food models, so the waiter handed me a menu, which was only about 1/3 kanji. Other than a dish which appeared to be 麻婆豆腐 (ma2 po2 dou4 fu, spicy Sichuan tofu) I couldn’t make out any of names of the dishes. So much for my Chinese reading helping me to read Japanese menus! Seeing I was having trouble with the menu, the waiter then brought me a stack of about 20 notebook-paper sized laminated cards, with pictures of each dish on them. I pointed to a noodle soup, and the waiter nodded his head and said “oohh…miso.”

miso soup
The most multifarious miso soup I have ever experienced.

Previously, the only miso soup I had consumed had consisted of little more than broth and tofu, however, this miso soup was the full magilla, consisting of noodles, sliced bamboo shoots and carrots, seaweed, corn, and a couple slices of pork. The noodles where chewy and filling and coupled with the variety of toppings, made for different tastes with every bite.

Price: 500 yen (approx $4.50) Final Verdict: 6

After a day of exploring Harajuku and Shibuya, I made it over to the Tokyo Dome to see the Yomiuri Giants take on the Chunichi Dragons. As would be expected for a baseball game, there were the usual hot dogs and hamburgers in the concession stands. There also were sushi plates and rice bowls with various toppings. I opted for the curry pork rice bowl.

curry beef rice bowl
Take me out to the ballgame. Take me out to the crowd. Buy me some peanuts and…….a curry pork rice bowl, only at the Tokyo Dome.

The bowl or rice was sectioned off into two “regions” with one being chopped up meat covered in curry sauce, the other covered with shredded meat and onions. White rice was on the bottom. Now, there is something inherently strange about sitting through a baseball game while eating concessions with chopsticks, but I am certainly not complaining. In the words of Homer Simpson “mmm…super pork curry rice bowl.”

Price: 540 yen (approx $5) Final Verdict: 8

Twenty four hours and several thousand calories into my Japan trip, I retired to my youth hostel, with blisters on my feet from all the walking, and a full belly of Japanese food.

continued in A $5 Culinary Trip Through Tokyo (Part 2 of 3)



Take that cigarette outside!…not in Tokyo.

Posted in Health and Medicine, Japan at 9:04 pm by Benjamin Ross

While American states and cities are systematically banning smoking in indoor public establishments, the city of Tokyo has recently enacted a law which has banned smoking in outdoor public establishments as well. Outdoor smoking is now restricted to special smoking zones. Like China, Japan has high rates of smoking, and from what I gathered from the locals, people are not too stoked about this new regulation. However, based on my limited observation (I was only there 3 days), it did seem that a large portion of Tokyo’s smokers are complying by the new rules. With serial public smoking becoming increasingly difficult in Japan and the United States, one might wonder if at some point the smoking dominoes will begin to fall in China as well. My personal thought is that as long as the Chinese government remains interested in promoting “stability” and creating a “harmonious society” smoking will go on unchecked in virtually every nook and cranny of the Middle Kingdom.

smokers in smoking area Shibuya Station
Smokers congregate in the designated smoking area outside of Shibuya Station.
Shibuya City Smoking Rules
A sign clarifies the policy for those uninitiated.
A lit cigarette is carried at the height of a child's face.
Japanese anti-smoking propaganda (closeup of sign in the middle of the first picture)



Images from a Tokyo Subway

Posted in Japan, Travel Log (Asia) at 1:12 pm by Benjamin Ross

Sometimes a picture conveys what can’t be communicated by words. Here are two of my favorite shots, both taken on the Tokyo subway.




Branding and Advertising in Japan

Posted in Curious English, Japan, Travel Log (Asia) at 7:31 am by Benjamin Ross

During my 3 day stint in Japan I brought my little Canon IXUS850 pocket sized camera everywhere I went, taking pictures of anything which caught my eye. Not surprisingly (for anybody who has been to Japan) I found myself taking a lot of pictures of Japanese advertising, be it posters, storefronts, or simply the products themselves. Here’s a sampling.

US Hyper Convenience Mart
I did not know the US was thought of as convenient, especially when paired up against Japan. Nonetheless, we have the Hyper Convenience US Mart where everything is 100 yen (a little less than a dollar).

Calorie Mate Block
Here’s another product which comes out of Tokyo’s ubiquitous vending machines. I’m not exactly sure what it is, but if the claims on the label are accurate, then this is some pretty powerful stuff.

McDonald's McPita
Nobody does advertising like McDonald’s, especially when it’s for a new product such as the McPita.
Michael Moore Sicko Japanese
Apparently Michael Moore isn’t only making his presence felt in the US. This poster was in Shibuya Station, one of the busiest subway stations in Japan.

Hello Kitty Poster Tokyo
It just wouldn’t be Japan without Hello Kitty, now would it? These posters were tacked up all over town. Unfortunately my Japanese reading only goes so far as the Kanji I know from Chinese, so I am not sure what this poster is for. Anybody care to translate?

UCLA bar Tokyo
This was the bar I went to on my first night in Tokyo. It’s called UCLA.

Hot Men's Box
hmm…not really sure what the owner of this bar was trying to imply when he named it…maybe it’s better off that way.

Nude Rump
This one seems to be a little more obvious.

Jesus Diamante
For those looking for a more wholesome establishment, may I recommend Jesus Diamante?

Shalom Relaxation Salon
What? Too Christian?….Ok, then how about the Shalom Relaxation Salon?

Tokyo Metropolitan Art Museum Engrish
I know one this isn’t really advertising, but it was just too good not to post.

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