Singer/songwriter Aidan James had a star-studded CD release party last night at the Doris Duke Theatre, bringing celebrity musicians, the cast of Hawaii Five-0, chefs and producers together to support him in his latest project. “Echoes” drops on December 1, featuring 11 original new tracks by the 14-year-old ukulele prodigy, including collaborations with Kapali Long, Shen of Def Tech, and slam poet Sans.
We had originally planned to visit the Yamazaki whisky distillery in Osaka, but found that it would be closed in November for renovations. Deb — who knows Japan well — did some quick reconfiguration, and determined that Suntory’s Hakushu distillery in Kobuchizawa might be almost as good. Hell, we just wanted to drink. Why not?
Now, it takes about three hours by train to get there, and that is quite a long ride. You can opt to bite the bullet and do it all in one fell swoop, or break the trip up as we did. Personally, I felt like even a two-hour ride whizzed by rather quickly, since we had transfers and the scenery was pretty nice.
We stopped at Katsunuma for a couple of hours, since it was along the way, to do some wine tasting. A blog had recommended all-you-can-drink tasting at Budo no Oka (Grape Hill), and said that it was a seven-minute walk from the train station. Repeat after me: IT IS NOT WALKABLE. Maybe it’s a seven-minute cab ride, which we were glad we did, because the road is a series of rolling hills.
Katsunuma is often referred to as the “Napa Valley of Japan,” since there are 31 wineries and the area has its own grape varietal. For just 1,100 yen, Budo No Oka gives you the opportunity to sample about 150 of the wines produced here. I should tell you, though, that although Japan makes exceptional beer, sake and whisky, their wines range in taste from cloyingly sweet to communion-style, with some rogue wines being bitter or … um, something. We did the wine tasting with the faith that there might be some good Japanese wines out there, and I’m telling you now that as of November 2015, finding a truly good one will be akin to Indiana Jones finding the Holy Grail. Choose wisely.
It’s not all bad — I shouldn’t exaggerate. Most of the muscat wines we tried were pretty good, good enough to drink and get a good buzz off of, but probably not good enough to buy and take home. In fact, we drank enough wine to make this short video:
Another reason to go to Katsunuma is the view. We stopped briefly outside to take in the panorama of wine country.
There’s also an area in which lovers can put heart-shaped locks on to declare their love for each other. Someone needs to help them with their English, though.
Getting to Katsunuma: The JR Chuo Line Limited express Azusa or Kaiji trains leave from Tokyo’s Shinjuku Station for Katsunuma-budokyo Station in Yamanashi Prefecture. The trip takes about 90 minutes.
And then we were off to Kobuchizawa, home of the Hakushu Distillery! This took us another hour, so once we got there, we left our bags at a station locker and took a cab to the distillery instead of checking in at the hotel first.
Hakushu’s distillery, known as “the forest distillery,” is located in a huge park, and it’s home to a bird conservatory. Even if you weren’t there for the tour, it’s a great place for a walk or run.
My Hakushu whisky against the autumn backdrop was so inspiring, I even busted out a whisky haiku. Still waiting for Mari’s approval on that one.
Here are scenes from the guided tour. Since we were the only two Americans, we had to listen to a recording while the guide explained the facilities to the group.
And then, the part we were really waiting for! Tasting the various whisky that they produce.
Most of the tour group left before the third tasting, which was the serving of our choice. Boo! If I were fluent, I would have asked some people to just get some glasses, straight, and let us have them. But alas, it wasn’t a whisky buffet, so we were only allowed three glasses.
Even if we weren’t liquored up, Deb and I would have still gone crazy in the gift shop. We bought a lot of bottles, but they offered takkyubin and were able to send our stuff to the Hotel Metropolitan back in Ikebukuro for just $10. That was well worth avoiding the stress of carrying it all ourselves on the next few legs.
Kobuchizawa is a sleepy little town, and a lot of things seemed to be closed, even in the daytime. But we were told to go to a special, old school unagi restaurant called Itutuya. From the train station, just walk down the hill until you find the ability to make a U-turn, then make that turn. Itutuya is down that street, on the left.
Itutuya is an old school unagi restaurant, with eel pots decorating the interior and quirky nooks for dining. Unlike the unagi that is served in Hawaii, the flavors here are intense but delicate, not overly bold.
Unagi two ways. Now, when you eat this kind of thing in Japan, it’s not just the unagi, but the amazing rice underneath. It’s so hard to come back to crappy Hawaii rice after the exquisite fluffy rice we had here.
Yubinbango 407-0024 Yamanashi Prefecture Nirasaki Honcho 2-9-26
Up next: Kobuchizawa discoveries and why you REALLY should go there!
To see more of my photos from this trip, click here.
It sounds kind of touristy, but you might have fun at the Cup Noodles Museum in Yokohama if you have the time. Many of my friends have been through this attraction, and it is actually pretty interesting if you look at the history of the company and how it’s evolved. Go on a weekday if you can to avoid the crowds. (I went on my own as Deb went to the International Manga Festa.)
Outside the Cup Noodles Museum with their Hawaiian Host fruit bites (from left) Amy Setsuko Hanashiro, Sayoko Takeuchi, Inoue san, Deanne Matsushima (in a photo!) and Kurt Saito. Amy, Deanne and Kurt are all originally from Hawaii.
The mascot is a cute chick, since their signature dish is chicken ramen. This was Cup Noodle’s first creation back in 1958. If you can speak Japanese and make a reservation well in advance, you can take a class with your kids that shows you the basics of making chicken ramen noodles. And yes, you can keep that bandanna.
The big attraction for me was the Noodle Bazaar, which is basically a food court that showcases all the different noodles of the world. They’re smart — each bowl is not too big, and only costs 300 yen, so you can easily sample many kinds of noodles in one sitting.
You can also get one or all of the Cup Noodle ramen, which are served in smaller bowls so you can sample more. Overall, I was expecting the food court to be a lot of really crappy food that you can only serve to kids, but was really surprised to find the noodles all made a nice lunch for foodies, too.
Many of the stalls had some kind of dessert, but we opted for shave ice, of course! This was like Taiwanese shave ice, where the flavor is in the ice: Mango, vanilla with blueberry sauce, and matcha with azuki.
I forgot to get a photo of the balloon bag it eventually gets wrapped in. It’s a ridiculous, huge pillow that is meant to protect your cup of noodles. Clever gimmick!
Cup Noodles Museum
〒231-0001 Kanagawa Prefecture, Yokohama, Naka Ward, Shinko, 2−3−4
Ryuji drove us to wherever we wanted, so we asked him to take us to Shimokitazawa. But first! He drove up with a box of Leonard’s malasadas. Since Leonard’s on Kapahulu changed their recipe and Yokohama stuck to the original, you pretty much get a better product in Japan.
Now, Shimokitazawa is a kind of hip, trendy neighborhood, full of coffee shops and Western-style boutiques that make it look like the Japanese version of Hayes Valley in San Francisco. If I had more time and room in my suitcase, I might want to go back to explore it a little more, but on this night I was interested in getting natto donuts from Sendaiya, a natto specialty company.
And then, the moment of truth! The donuts were just like the sign said: No natto smell or taste, light, and moist. You can enjoy the health benefits of natto without the slime, smell, or taste. I’m pretty sure these have no preservatives, otherwise I would have brought some home. These were great with coffee, by the way.
〒154-0001 Tokyo, Setagaya 池尻３丁目２０−３ 柳盛堂ビル
We went down the street to a very narrow coffee shop to enjoy our natto donuts with coffee. There were many coffee shops, but this one was ideally set up so no one would bust us for bringing our own food in!
Our day ended with dinner at Akasaka Tsutsui, a shokudo (casual restaurant) in a classy setting. It’s a little pricier than a super casual restaurant, but fairly reasonable nonetheless.
Deanne and I weren’t hungry, so we split a set (about $35) and that worked out fine. The items we got were comforting and delicious. I love that the sauces are all home made, so you can taste everything that goes into it.
If you get nothing else, get the wagyu donburi. This bowl was part of the set, so it was a little small. The meat melts in your mouth like the butter it’s topped with, like a meaty little cloud. You hardly even have to chew … but you will, just to prolong the experience. The flavor of the sauce is just perfectly savory without covering the taste of the wagyu. On one hand, we were sad because the bowl was so small, but on the other hand, we knew we were too full to have eaten a whole one.
Izumi-Akasaka Bldg, 2-22-24
Akasaka, Minato-ku, Tokyo
Another filling day in the books! Up next: Deb and I go off to Kobuchizawa to tour the Hakushu whisky distillery!
To see more of my photos from this trip, click here.
Tokyo fanatics who geek out on the vast amount of comics, games, anime and more should head out to Nakano Broadway, a whole mall with collectible stuff from old-school classics to the current popular characters. Deb Aoki always tells me about it, so although I am not a collector, I’ve been fascinated with the culture. We decided to take a day to skim the surface.
But first, breakfast: You know how everyone loves the different-flavored Kit Kats from Japan? The restaurant chain Pronto has taken it a step further and created a Kit Kat croissant. These are less than $2 and go well with their coffee — they’re small, and not too sweet. Our friend Nate Gyotoku, who was visiting from Hawaii, met us for a quick bite. (Deanne Matsushima, who doesn’t like to be in photos, declined.)
If you are into nostalgia, manga, anime, and other collectible items from Japan, Nakano is a geek’s dream. Here’s the shopping mall heading to Nakano Broadway. If you’re a Tokyo otaku, I think you can easily spend a few days here just getting lost in the maze of shops with wall-to-wall stuff. That is, unless you’re Deb and know exactly what you’re looking for.
I couldn’t take photos in the stores, but they did encourage photos at the pop up gallery there. Yoshinori Shizuma is a popular character designer for games, and some of his works were on display showing the development from sketches to the finished product.
This photo is for my friends who are avid collectors of “natsukashii” or nostalgia stuff. This place is called Gaocci (pronounced “Gow-chi”), which is apparently the sound Japanese monsters make when they are hit. There’s everything in here: good guys, bad guys, girl stuff, boy stuff, things that you may not even have heard of unless you are a collector. In fact, these two photos may not even make sense to you unless you are or know a collector of such things. But my classmate Dan Hahn came here and went crazy buying things, possibly so much that he will take the next two years to pay it off.
Downstairs, there is food! A famous soft-serve shop called the Daily Chico serves various flavors, but their most photogenic one is this eight-layer monster. From the top, we got: strawberry, milk tea, chocolate, sesame, grape, matcha, ramune, and vanilla. Be sure to have a friend nearby to write the flavors down, though, because the flavors sometimes change. Guess how much that cost? Just 480 yen, which is about $4.
Next to us, Hiroya Ikuni was eating the whole cone by himself. While talking story with us, he said it was the third time he had done so. What?! And on top of that, after the three of us tapped out, he accepted our offer to eat the rest of ours, too. I bow to Hiroya-san! I’m not worthy! Look, he’s so skinny, too!
Daily Chico / デイリーチコ
Tokyo-to, Nakano-ku, Nakano 5-52-15, Nakano Broadway, basement level 1
東京都中野区中野5-52-15 中野ブロードウェイ B1F
Open 10 a.m. to 8 p.m.
We took a little detour from there to a reception in Asagaya (remember how I went there in April?) for the Toronto Comics Art Festival, put on by Christopher Butcher (top left). Also shown here with Deb are Japan TV personality Matt Alt of AltJapan, and longtime manga translator Jocelyne Allen (also from Toronto).
With all that snacking, you’d think we were done for the day, right? Wrong! We had reservations at our favorite izakaya, Narukiyo. We loved it so much when we ate there last year, we had to go back. Big mahalo to Amy Setsuko Hanashiro for helping us with the reservation, because little or no English is spoken here.
Narukiyo Yoshida, the izakaya’s chef/owner. Instead of ordering from the menu, we said, “Osusume!” (Which means “recommendation,” short for “Osusume wa nan desu ka?”) Another way to ask is if they have “omakase,” which is the chef’s choice.
Before and after: little crabs steamed and halved, then sprinkled with lime. Again, really simple, but super delicious — you get a taste of every part of the crab without over indulging. Everyone got some meat and miso in each serving.
Speaking of simple: What. The. Heck. This is a little bowl of potato balls with aonori, so it was a simple, savory broth with hints of the ocean. Deanne and I practically licked the bowl, and were very sad when it was gone. Who knew this would have been so good, and so memorable? We are still talking about it to this day.
Many of us don’t like mackerel — it’s too oily and fishy — but this didn’t taste like mackerel at all. The shiso, shiso flowers, and sesame-miso dressing transformed these fish bites into a whole other kind of experience, with the bright, salty and rich flavors all working together.
Some of you may be squeamish about eating shirako (cod sperm sac), but I assure you it’s good! This treatment in a chawan mushi, however, made it a little tough. Sperm meets egg? I get it. But I’ll stick to the more traditional ways of eating the sperm sac.
Since we were repeat customers, Narukiyo gave me and Deb T shirts with his face on it. I know that sounds kind of wacky, but these aren’t given to everyone. We loved it! And we loved our meal, again — one of our top three from the trip. Thanks again, Narukiyo san, we’ll be back.
B1F, 2-7-14 Shibuya, Shibuya-ku, Tokyo
03 5485 2223
Up next: Touring the Cup Noodle Museum!
To see more of my photos from this trip, click here.
First things first when in Japan: Get some good sushi! There’s no place better for fresh raw seafood than at Tsukiji Market itself. Since Deb and I are veterans of the famous fish market, we allowed ourselves a slightly later start and set out for brunch with her friend Chris MacDonald.
On the way there, we saw a persimmon street vendor selling fruit and giving samples. This was too hard to resist! Now I know what persimmons are supposed to taste like, and these were huge, sweet (almost like candy) and juicy.
If you’re an uni lover, you may want to check out Uni Tora, an uni-centric restaurant in the Tsukiji Market area. Click here for great visual instructions on how to get there.
When you find the restaurant, you go up the stairs until you see the sign:
Meet the chef, who just goes by “Saeki.”
They have a map of Hokkaido to show where their Japanese uni comes from, but they also offer Russian, Canadian, and American uni so you can taste the difference.
This is their signature dish, a kind of chirashi with uni, crab, ikura, and assorted diced fish (including toro). It’s about $23 US. Eat this in three stages: As is, then with vegetables mixed in, then with dashi as a deluxe ochazuke.
My bowl featured five different kinds of uni. From left, two kinds from Hokkaido, then Canada, Russia and America (which was torched). For some reason I really liked the Russian one more than the others; I think it’s because I had never had it before, so the overall flavor and consistency was new to me. They were all good, though. This was about $30 US.
Tsukiji Uni Tora Kurau (うに虎喰)
4-10-14 Kato Shijo 1F, Tsukiji Chuo-ku, Tokyo
There’s a lot more to Tsukiji, but since you’ve already read my other blog on it, I don’t need to show you, right? Ha! But I’ll leave you with one last look at an oyster vendor we found nearby, who had Hokkaido oysters, ready to eat. The smallest were as big as my hand, so you can imagine how huge the 800 yen oysters were!
That night, we went to an omakase dinner at Sushi Aoki in Ginza, on recommendation from my friend Yasuo Ogawa.
The approximately $250 course meal was comprised of bonito, flounder, mirugai, akagai, anago with caviar, tai, baby tai, kohada, ika, shiro ebi, aoyagi, uni with ikura, more anago, and miso soup (no egg at the end for us, apparently) but there were so many dishes, I’m just going to show you the highlights.
I know you’re going to ask me: Was it worth it? Hard to say, since there are so many good sushi restaurants in Tokyo. This one was nice and was popular with people entertaining clients, but not pretentious at all. If you’re looking for an upscale experience in Ginza, though, this is a good option, and they allow photos.
Sushi Aoki Ginza Honten
Takahashi Building, 2nd Floor
7-4, Ginza 6-chome, Chuo-ku, Tokyo
Up next: Exploring Nakano Broadway and returning to Narukiyo for dinner! To see more of my photos from this trip, click here.
To see the most current updates, follow me @Melissa808 and Deb at @DebAoki on Instagram and Twitter!