Tokyo: Mecca for Food and People

In Japanese, “tok” means city, and “yo” (pronounced Yu-a) means food. Put it together, and you get “Tokyo” – city of food.

Actually I just made that up, but it might as well be true because Tokyo genuinely has some of the best food in the world. Sushi, ramen, soba, udon, Kobe beef, Tokatsu – fried pork, chicken on a stick, squid on a stick, stingray on a stick. . . and the list goes on. And on.

We flew into Tokyo’s Haneda airport on Saturday night and left by bus on Tuesday afternoon. It was just enough time to wish we had a lot more time.

While in the city, we took an all-day bicycle tour – an unconventional way of seeing Tokyo but something I would highly recommend – joined a night food tour and explored as much of the city – by foot and by subway – that we could. To sum it up: we walked a lot, we ate a lot.

Food wise, In those three days we managed to sample a bit of everything. From the indulgent – Kobe beef and lobster …

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This beef came with a “certificate of authentication.” I’m sure the cow would be proud
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Lobster cooked in front of us

to the simple: ramen served at convenient, cubicle-style desks where patrons are free from distractions (like other people) to concentrate on the flavors of the meal.

Plus, the ordering is all done through an easy to use vending machine – so no reason to bother with those annoying people who always try to talk to you at restaurants – I think they’re called waiters.

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Vending machine ordering
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You don’t have to bother with pesky small talk from waiters here – the food is slid through small slots in the wall
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Ramen!

Our first meal in the city was in the Tokyo subway – that city beneath a city. We ate tempura at this small restaurant in the Shinjuku station.

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Amy enjoying some tea
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Tempura in the Tokyo subway

On our food tour, we ate Yakitori – chicken and pork skewers cooked over an open flame.

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Yakitori at the bar

A plate full of fresh sashimi and a fish that was hand picked from a tank and filleted, still flopping helplessly about, in front of us.

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Fresh sashimi

And of course we had more ramen.

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You can’t have enough ramen

People

Tokyo is second to none when it comes to people watching.

On the subway and on the streets – Tokyo fashion runs the gamut from 1980’s esque puffy colored pants and all denim outfits – big accessories included – to slim cut black suits worn by the endless masses of sleek but tired looking Japanese business men.

In Akihabara, an electronics (and sex) district – women dress in French maid outfits to promote fetishized cafes. And in Shibuya -at the famous cross walk – one could spend all day watching the never-ending stream of busy looking pedestrians hustling off in all directions.

Finally (but not really – not by a long shot) on Takeshita Street, locals and tourists push together in a giant mass of slow moving, consumer-happy humanity.

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Takeshita street on a busy Sunday afternoon

Bottom Line

If I were more adventurous – and had more money and spoke Japanese – I would move to Tokyo in a heartbeat. An endless melding of concrete, bright lights and over-the-top eccentricity – Tokyo is a city that defies characterization. Urban sprawl writ large, Tokyo can neither be fathomed nor explained – but it should, without doubt, be experienced.

Japan Revisited – Ten Years On

I first visited Japan ten years ago as part of a study abroad program at Nanzan University in Nagoya, Japan. I went with a good friend from school and, after five weeks of pseudo-study, we booked tickets on the Japan rail pass and explored the country from Tokyo to Nagasaki.

In those pre-iPhone days and before TripAdvisor had fully caught on, our itinerary was based less on concrete travel plans and must-do activities, and more on WWII nuclear destruction: which is to say we visited Hiroshima and Nagasaki because, well, they are Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and because we didn’t quite know where else to go.

In Hiroshima, we explored the peace memorial, walked the city’s hallowed grounds – watching the eternal Flame of Peace burn – and then, unsure of what to do next, boarded the Shinkansen and headed south to Nagasaki – where we did largely the same things.

After Nagasaki, we travelled north to Tokyo. That massive, thriving and urgently vibrant megatropolis that is the heart of Japan. There, we wandered the city’s chaotic streets, got lost in its incomprehensible subway, ate whale meat and other non-traditional “food”, and toured the famous fish market – watching the tuna auction at 4:00am.

I loved everything about Japan. I loved how there were multiple vending machines on every corner and back alley in the country – offering everything from beer to umbrellas. In Nagoya, I loved how the streets and subways were immaculately clean – even though it was virtually impossible to find an actual garbage can. I loved, of course, how good the food was – even 7 Eleven had excellent Onigiri; and I loved watching the nonsensical Japanese television, which seemed like a strange, non-english cross between Pee-Wee’s Playhouse and a Snuggie infomercial.

That trip, now a decade on, seems at times like it happened ages ago, and at times like it could have ended just the other day.

I was 21.

All that is to say, it had been a long time since I was in Japan, and I was ready to go back. This time, despite my protests, there would be no atomic site visits, instead, as detailed in the coming posts, our week-long itinerary (this time with my wife) was split out as follows:

  • Three days in Tokyo;
  • one day in the Mount Fuji area; and
  • three days divided between Kyoto and Osaka.

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Japan, 2006

Hoi An, Vietnam – 12 photos

The city of Hoi An is located in Vietnam’s central coastal region.  Last Friday we flew to Da Nang and took a bus the 45 minutes south to Hoi An, where we spent the weekend. We were there with a larger group to celebrate a friend’s birthday. The busy weekend included a bicycle tour, a cooking class and an afternoon spent walking around the city’s old town neighborhood, a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Although a bit touristy, Hoi An has a lot to offer. Here is a glimpse of the trip in 12 photos:

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View from the plane as we come into Da Nang, Vietnam
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Visa on arrival booth at Da Nang airport
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Full moon over Hoi An
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Crossing the river by boat
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Greens!
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Early morning at the market
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Live frogs for sale at the market

 

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Lazy tourists being pushed through old town Hoi An
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Final product of the cooking class
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Cao Lau noodles in a market in Hoi An
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Learning to make Pho

 

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Amy making friends on the river

 

 

Singapore: A Week in Food

Food is an important part of Singapore’s identity. The city-state is home to not only a diverse mix of cultures and languages but also cuisines.

Before moving to Singapore, I knew little about the country’s rich culinary history. Even today, after living here for almost a year and a half, I remain woefully ignorant regarding the names and unique ingredients that make up many of my favorite dishes. My food choices are often based on recommendations from friends and my own rather arbitrary sampling.

Many of my favorite Singapore dishes are from hawker centers. These outdoor food courts offer a wide variety of food options at very reasonable prices. Over the last few days, I’ve tried to document a few of the meals I eat during any given week (at hawker centers or otherwise). I do not profess to be a food critic, or to even be an exceptionally picky eater, I just know what I like (most Singaporean cuisine) and more importantly, what I do not like (see pig liver and durian). But in general, I will try most things at least once.

The list below, in chronological order, represents a few food highlights from the last week. Hope you enjoy.

Monday lunch – Fried fish in a spicy tom yam soup with yee mee egg noodles.

Hot fish soups, in various forms, are popular dishes in Singapore. It can take a while to get used to eating hot soup in the blazing Singaporean heat. But for those willing to sweat a bit (or a lot), it can be well worth the effort. My favorite variant is a simple sliced fish soup bee hoon. This rice noodle soup contains a broth made with a small amount of milk and lightly cooked sliced white fish. In contrast, the soup below was made with fried white fish, egg noodles and a spicy, Thai influenced, tom yam broth.

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The fried fish was the best part

This is from a very small hawker center / coffee shop on Boon Tat street near the Telok Ayer MRT. The queue was long but well worth the wait. In Singapore, a long line generally means one of two things: either the food is very good; or the food is very cheap. It is rare to find both. At S$4.00, this dish was actually near the more expensive end of the spectrum. Very cheap hawker food can run for as little as S$2.50.

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The queue in front of the fish soup stall

Tuesday lunch – Chicken rice from one of my favorite hawker centers, Golden Shoe

This popular downtown hawker center is one of my go-to lunch options.  I particularly like this chicken rice stall on the second floor.

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There is always a long line at this chicken rice outlet

This is labeled boneless chicken rice, but it is still good to ask for no bones.  The juice from the chicken at this stall is unbeatable.

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My large portion was S$4.50. The rice is cooked in the chicken stock and the chicken is steamed (the other method, more palatable to some, is a roasted variant).  The black sauce on the side is a dark soya sauce. Next to it is a red chili sauce that adds a nice kick. Both are great complements to any chicken rice meal.

Wednesday  lunch – Indian food at Shenton House

With a population that is approximately 10% Indian, Singapore has no shortage of good Indian restaurants.  Hawker centers downtown are an especially good place to find quality Indian food at reasonable prices (Indian food is generally a bit more expensive than its Chinese and Malaysian counterparts). This Indian restaurant is located in Shenton House, a commercial high-rise building with a popular food center on the second floor.

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I opted to go for an à la carte option that was more expensive than some of the pre-set meals.

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You can’t go wrong with butter naan

I had butter naan, a cauliflower and green bean vegetable and a spicy chicken dish (not butter chicken).  It tasted great but at S$9.50, it was a bit pricey, especially when a nearby hawker center also offers high-quality Indian food at much better prices.  You may be paying a bit of a premium here to eat indoors.

Thursday lunch – Chicken and noodles from Chinatown

This was possibly my favorite meal of the week. The soya chicken was perfect – juicy and plump. The noodles were also great. I was with a large group of friends so we ordered a whole chicken.

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A whole chicken
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We each got our own side of noodles

The chicken went fast.

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Not much left

We got to the restaurant early to avoid the lunch rush.

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The queue was long when we left

My friends ordered in Chinese so I’m not sure what other foods are offered at the restaurant. However, I will definitely go back for the soya chicken. The meal was about S$6.00 per person, including drinks.

Sunday dinner – Crab Bee Hoon Soup

Amy and I went out to a famous Singapore crab restaurant, Mellben Seafood, which is about a 15 minute walk from our apartment.

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The wait was about an hour but we were rewarded with a delicious, although messy meal of the restaurant’s famous crab soup.

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Crab Bee Hoon soup – tastes like butter!

We also ordered a medium, salted egg crab (think deep fried goodness).

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Salted egg crab

It took a lot of work to get through this meal.

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We made a mess

By any measure, this was not cheap. Each crab came in at nearly S$70. However, it served as a satisfying conclusion to another great week of Singaporean food.