Redemption


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Asia » Japan » Tokyo » Asakusa
October 1st 2016
Published: September 30th 2017
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Geo: 35.7127, 139.792

Sadly, our first couple of nights in Tokyo have been a bit disappointing - perhaps our expectations had grown beyond reality after such an amazing first visit to Japan, setting an impossible standard. Our chosen activities likely didn't help - a sushi restaurant whose reputation has grown to a mythical level, and a show that has become a pop culture oddity, one that seemingly takes all things "Japanese" and mashes them all up into a giant cauldron of steaming assorted ramen.

Fortunately, today we came to the conclusion that Tokyo is at its dynamic best when allowed to reveal itself naturally, instead of trying to force experiences like we have. Case in point - we never actually walked around Tsukiji yesterday after eating at Dai, because we couldn't wait to escape after nearly six mostly-forgettable hours. Yet we still wanted to return today, because our experience was so oddly unsatisfying, leaving us with the desire to right a wrong. To our supreme delight, we unexpectedly discovered a measure of redemption, having another one of those amazing Japanese experiences that we remembered so fondly from our first visit.

It bears repeating once more - a sushi breakfast at Tsukiji is a must-do
Beautifully-Manicured Grounds ...Beautifully-Manicured Grounds ...Beautifully-Manicured Grounds ...

... Senso-Ji's grounds were sprawling, and exploring the area was unexpectedly time consuming.
experience while in Tokyo, so we tried once more, but not at Dai or Daiwa. This time, there would not be another ungodly start to the day - even showing up at nearly 9:00 AM, there were only four other people seated at Sushi Say. While it isn't famous or featured in guidebooks like some of the other Tsukiji joints, it was well reviewed online, making it an easy choice for us this morning.

It's not that Dai wasn't good, it's just that it wasn't worth the excessive wait - quite frankly, I'd take our experience at Sushi Say over Dai every single time. 80% as good, 10% cheaper, and most importantly, the wait was infinitely less - what's not to love? The one negative aspect was that Sushi Say doesn't offer a true omakase experience, as it was billed - sushi masters believe that each piece of sushi must be eaten with a minute or two of preparation, as the taste and texture degrades exponentially with time. With omakase, the next piece is only prepared after the previous one is eaten, which wasn't the case today - things were pretty rushed, with the sushi prepared and served fast and furiously, coming in batches of multiple pieces.

No matter, as we were still more than satisfied with breakfast, and the lack of waiting time allowed for plenty of time to explore Tsukiji's outer market. We had never before seen the market with all vendors open for business, and Tsukiji was an amazing place to spend a few hours, with all manner of tasty goodies to sample and buy, and a surprisingly large offering of non-seafood items. As if we needed any more food after such a substantial sushi breakfast!

Dried fruit, nuts, teas, and all sorts of Japanese confections ... there were far too many things to taste, but we did as much as possible with our limited remaining stomach space. Seasonally-available chestnut-stuffed buns, incredible mochi (red bean, green tea, and a fantastic and unique yuzu version), dried pineapple, tasty roasted almonds in the shell, matcha chocolates, and biscuits ... the eating was epic this morning!

Things quickly turned claustrophobically crowded, however, which was our cue to go elsewhere for a stroll and to burn off a few calories. Asakusa, Ueno, and Akihabara - three neighborhoods we had missed last time, and three uniquely-Japanese areas that are each worth far more than the afternoon we had devoted for them all. What makes Tokyo so unique is that each of its characteristic neighborhoods seem like completely different worlds, both in history and culture. We essentially time traveled through nearly 1400 years of history in an afternoon, not something that can be done in too many places in the world.

Asakusa is famed for Senso-Ji, an ancient Buddhist temple constructed in 645 AD, and the bustling atmosphere of its surrounding streets drew us in. It's a fantastic strolling area packed with cute little souvenir, snack, and confectionary shops, making for a great way to spend an afternoon. This was quite fortuitous, as we were dangerously famished, having not eaten anything for nearly TWO WHOLE HOURS! The same can be said for Ueno, a more modern-feeling neighborhood that seems to perfectly encapsulate the daily lives of Tokyoites.

Ueno's park offered a nice respite from Tokyo's hustle and bustle, which, while supremely enjoyable, can eventually wear you down. Of course, right in the middle of Ueno Koen, we stumbled upon a bouncing Latin festival, so our peaceful stroll was short-lived. But this is exactly what makes Tokyo so great - the combination of so many disparate elements that somehow manage to coexist harmoniously, forcing you to quietly nod your head and mutter "Only in Japan ..."

The last leg of our little journey through time was the stroll from Ueno to Akihabara, an area famed for otaku, or "Geek" culture - it's the go-to place for anime, action figures, toys, cosplay cafes, and all things wacky. It's the stereotype I once had of Japan, of something so tacky, that I never had any desire to even visit the place, let alone one day return to it. But like many things in Japan, upon closer inspection, it's not quite like what you had thought it would be, usually turning out to be far better than you had imagined.

Unfortunately, we didn't have much time to explore Akihabara, as our dinner reservation at the Ninja Cafe loomed - you heard right, the Ninja Café! We never made an effort to visit a themed café previously, but decided to do so on this trip, feeling as if we had missed out last time. We suspected that the food would be mediocre and the theme amazing, but it turned out that the food was quite good, at least some dishes, but the
theme was lacking.

Perhaps it was the rather comical start, when our guide gave us our Ninja training entirely in Japanese, which we initially thought was part of the shtick. At least we all shared a collective laugh towards the end of it, when our guide realized that we hadn't understood a single word! While all the staff dress in black Ninja-inspired outfits and the restaurant is designed and laid out as a cavernous maze, the theme seemed somewhat uninspired, overall.

The odd dish had a bit of a Ninja spin, but usually it was simply the usage of black food coloring to make it Ninja-like. Our expectations may have been too high - I thought the waitress might disappear into a puff of smoke, or that the bill would be delivered by a Ninja sticking his head out of a trap door in the ceiling, so it was my own fault for building up the experience so much in my head. Not being completely over our jet lag also didn't help, as the meal dragged on and on, as we grew sleepier and sleepier ...

The Ninja Café wasn't a bad experience by any stretch, and while we were glad to have eaten here, it's not something we would repeat. There are far too many amazing restaurants in Tokyo to sample, ones without any gimmick or premium price attached to them, to waste a meal on a theme restaurant. Our meal at Ninja Akasaka really reinforced today's lesson - Tokyo is far from its best when the goal is a "must-do" show, or a "must-eat" restaurant. The best Tokyo experiences are the ones that simply happen ...


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Covered Shopping Arcade ...Covered Shopping Arcade ...
Covered Shopping Arcade ...

... these abound in Japan, and though many of them are filled with touristy shops, they can't be beat for ambiance.
Aki Oka Artisan ...Aki Oka Artisan ...
Aki Oka Artisan ...

... an uber-cool market tucked underneath the train tracks, somewhere between Ueno and Akihabara. From the picture, you'd never know that trains were chugging along above, because the shops and market are executed so well. Definitely worth at least an hour or two, much more time than we had, arriving 20 minutes before closing time.
Saigo Takamori ...Saigo Takamori ...
Saigo Takamori ...

... a famous samurai, walking his dog, in Ueno Koen.
Chingodo Hall ...Chingodo Hall ...
Chingodo Hall ...

... dedicated to the Tanuki, a Japanese raccoon dog god - we saw these before in Kyoto, not really knowing what they were, thinking that they were just another cute Japanese cartoon character.
Shinobazu Pond...Shinobazu Pond...
Shinobazu Pond...

... obviously, the guidebook is out of date, as it talked about couples renting pedal boats to go out on this pond - uh, I think not, given that it was completely covered in water foliage. In fact, it was so dense that had we not known there was a pond there, we would've though it was just a lettuce garden of some sort.
Only in Japan ...Only in Japan ...
Only in Japan ...

... that's a phrase you utter to yourself every so often as you travel through this country, but this happened to us several times as we strolled through the geek area of Akihabara. This store was entirely devoted to capsule vending machines, so that you could get random stickers, trinkets, figurines, toys, etc.
Creepy ...Creepy ...
Creepy ...

... Akihabara may be famed for "Geek" culture, but apparently, it's also the spot for creepy little dolls! Especially freaky were the ones without any eyes ... perhaps you could buy some at the capsule vending shop!
Ameya Yokocho Street Market ...Ameya Yokocho Street Market ...
Ameya Yokocho Street Market ...

... today was an epic day of strolling through all kinds of bustling areas - this spot in Ueno was by far the narrowest and most crowded. For such a massively-populated city, Tokyo never really feels that busy - but at this market, it was Tokyo at its claustrophobic best.
Foundation of Japanese Cuisine ...Foundation of Japanese Cuisine ...
Foundation of Japanese Cuisine ...

... bonito flakes, available in abundance at Tsukiji. They are used to make dashi, a broth that is a fundamental ingredient in many Japanese dishes.
Tsukiji's Sushi Say ...Tsukiji's Sushi Say ...
Tsukiji's Sushi Say ...

... things started out well here, even though it wasn't a true omakase experience. This initial barrage of four pieces included medium tuna that easily surpassed Dai's, red snapper that was a tad chewy for my taste, an excellent scallop, and some bonito with ginger comparable to Dai's version.
The Second Barrage ...The Second Barrage ...
The Second Barrage ...

... some of the best items we've tasted at Tsukiji these past two days weren't even sushi - it's been the miso soup, and today's was an excellent version that was a bit like egg drop soup with strips of yuba mixed in. We weren't big fans of the shrimp, which was too mushy and a bit sticky. Mackerel back in Canada is typically fishy, but today's was pretty decent, though it had a slightly unpleasant metallic finish to it - the ginger and green onion helped mask this. The saury was also good, but paled in comparison to Dai's version. The fatty toro was sweeter than Dai's, and far less chewy.
The Final Onslaught ...The Final Onslaught ...
The Final Onslaught ...

... the uni has been the pleasant surprise so far on this trip, with today's and yesterday's both being excellent - Dai's gets the edge, however, as it just tasted richer, creamier, and fresher. The anago was better at Sushi Say, but it also had a few too many bones left behind - Dai's version was borderline mutilated and far mushier than today's. The raw crab was interesting, as neither of us had ever had his particular piece of sushi before - the taste didn't quite match the novelty, however, as there wasn't any overly-memorable taste or quality to it.
Yonemoto ... Yonemoto ...
Yonemoto ...

... a cute little Tsukiji coffee shop, which was full of both locals and tourists - a much more favorable ratio than you would find at Dai. They served up a charcoal-roasted coffee, which was quite nice - rich, with a pleasant roasted flavour, and lacking any excessive bitterness.
Waste of Space ...Waste of Space ...
Waste of Space ...

... eating in Japan is a funny thing - there are so many tasty things to eat that, when you come upon something mediocre, you feel like you wasted stomach space that could've been saved for something phenomenal. This was the case with this fish cake wrapped in bacon - we'd seen people eating a version of it earlier, and it looked and smelled spectacular. Unfortunately, the place we tried one didn't have much turnover, and the thing was stone cold ... it could've been amazing, had it been freshly prepared ...


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