Monthly Archive January 2019

ByJason Gatewood
Jan 29, 2019

Best Breakfast Spots in Tokyo

You might not know this, but Japanese cuisine was added to the UNESCO ‘intangible heritage’ list in 2013, meaning its something unique in the world not found anywhere else (we won’t talk about that “Japanese” teppanyaki and all-you-can-eat buffet place you liked before you got here.) I could eat my fill of sushi, takoyaki, udon, soba any and every day of the week, but one thing that I constantly pine for is a hearty breakfast. Scrambled eggs and bacon with toast, hash browns, and pancakes… or heaven help me, WAFFLES and SAUSAGE! I grew up in a family where my first meal of the day sometimes bigger than the other two. And after decades of Japan living under my belt, a top ten question is always “where can I get a decent down-home breakfast around here from many a gaijin. Allow me to share a few of my favorites.

World Breakfast All Day

This appropriately named establishment does exactly what it says on the label; serve breakfast foods from around the world all day. Thai, Mexico, Poland, Germany, France, the UK, and America are all represented here with decent portions and prices.

3-1-23 Jingumae, Shibuya-Ku, Tokyo
https://www.world-breakfast-allday.com/
Open Everyday 7:30~20:00
Access: Gaienmae Station [G]

Sarabeth’s

“The Breakfast Queen of New York” landed here in Tokyo about three years ago at Lumine II above Shinjuku Station. I couldn’t actually get in the place to have a meal until 2018 because it’s always crowded, but thankfully since then, they’ve opened two more locations around Tokyo and also operate in Osaka and Nagoya too. My favorite NYC export on the breakfast scene and probably the only place where I can get Eggs Benedict with lox here in the Metropolis.

Multiple locations and hours; check Sarabeth’s Japan locations web page for more info.

Jade5 Breakfast & Brunch

Have you ever been out in some part of town doing something and afterward intent on getting home but then stumbled upon a diamond of a find and wound up spending more time and money than you should have? That describes my experience with Jade 5 perfectly. After a night out in the area, I fell into this cafe and was blessed with a menu that had BREAKFAST BURRITOS and BLUEBERRY PANCAKES! ‘Nuff said. You know that ain’t appearing any other menus in Tokyo, so I suggest you find your way to Hiroo for some comfort breakfast stat! (Lunch is also good with a BLT with for-real bacon, and actual apple pie like granny makes.)

5-17-6 Hiroo, Shibuya, Tōkyō
Open Tuesday-Sunday, 7:30~18:00.
Access: Hiroo Station [H]
Jade 5 on Facebook

Royal Host

This entry on the list is specifically aimed at those people like myself who were extraordinarily disappointed upon finding out that Denny’s in Japan is a Bizzaro twin to its American sibling. Not a single Grand Slam breakfast in sight. Royal Host, on the other hand, has all-day breakfast, has a drink bar with unlimited coffee (my savior), and can be found in most major cities in Japan.

Multiple locations and hours; check Royal Host’s locations page (in Japanese) for more info.


— By Jason L. Gatewood
Images:

Royal Host Breakfast by Jason L. Gatewood

Eggs Florentine at Jade 5) by John H, Yelp

German Breakfast at World Breakfast all day by Kazuhiro Hasegawa via Google Maps

ByJason Gatewood
Jan 29, 2019

Art of the Abandoned Station at Ueno Park

The Keisei Railway runs between Ueno Park and the far reaches of Chiba Prefecture including the city of Chiba and Narita Airport. Up until 1997, Keisei had a station right in the middle of the tunnel directly serving the Ueno Park Zoo and National Art Museum. The former Hakubutsukan-Dobutsuen station (what a mouthful!) stayed idle while trains sped between Nippori and Ueno. Because of it’s prewar era construction, it’s now gazetted as a Tokyo historical landmark, and cannot be torn down. Which is good, because that means it can be opened up from time to time in order to show it to the public.

Every Friday, Saturday and Sunday until the end of February 2019, the Ueno Cultural Park Project has sponsored a group of artists to “take us down the rabbit hole” with a tour of the inside of the old station along with a multimedia art exhibition that’s a mix of Alice in Wonderland and A Series of Unfortunate Events. The tale unfolds as a rabbit from nearby Ueno Park is digging a hole with the homeless lady he calls “Grandma”. Suddenly it caves in and he ends up in a big place. Perhaps it’s the station itself?

I won’t give away the rest of the tale, but it is centered around a newly written original work by theater director Shirotama Hitsujiya and artworks designed by Akiko Sakata. The story is based on her research collected in Ueno when studying the history of the station, and while interviewing workers at the National Museum of Nature and Science, the Ueno Zoo, and Keisei Railway. It alludes to the point that the station is undergoing a transformation and will be restored bit by bit, but for now, we can expect more pop-up exhibits like these in the future.

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Old Hakubutsukan-Dobutsuen Station

13-23 Ueno Koen, Taito-Ku, Tokyo

Access: Ueno Station [JY][JK][JU][G][H][KS]

Dates & Times: Fridays, Saturdays & Sundays until Feb. 24, 2019. 11:00am – 4:00pm. Limited Admission; Last admission at 3:30pm. On busy days, tickets will be handed out for time slots starting at 10:00am, first come, first served.

Admission: FREE!

Web: uenoyes.ueno-bunka.jp


— By Jason L. Gatewood

*Images: Jason L. Gatewood*

ByJason Gatewood
Jan 29, 2019

Tokyo Area Flea Markets

If you’re searching for a truly unique curio or gift for someone here around Tokyo or are looking to get a one-of-a-kind item at a really low price, then you should check out one of the many flea markets happening around the metropolis. All kinds of treasures (and a little junk) abound at these bargain-hunting street markets, from artwork and clothing to toys, games, and cookware (and sometimes the food itself!) There’s a little everything out there.

While the chance is very high that there’s a street market going on somewhere around Greater Tokyo any given weekend, for some unknown reason the month of February seems to be chock full of some pretty famous ones. So if you needed a reason to escape the comfort of your futon or kotatsu on a wintery weekend in February, here’s your chance!

Tokyo International Forum Oedo Antique Market

We will start with the biggest one in town, held in the area between Tokyo and Yurakucho stations every first and third Sunday of the month. Upwards of around 250 separate sellers are out on the street ready to hawk their wares. Since it’s near the Ginza, Marunouchi, and Shinbashi areas, there are plenty of ways to get out of the elements and take a break too.

Dates & Times: February 3・17, 9:00~16:00
Address: 3-5-1 Marunouchi, Chiyoda, Tokyo
Access: Tokyo Station, Yurakucho Station, Hibiya Station
Web: https://www.antique-market.jp/english/

Yoyogi Park Keyaki-Namiki Oedo Antique Market

Usually held around the outdoor stage and pathway between NHK Broadcast Center and Yoyogi National Gymnasium, it qualifies as the second largest running flea market in Tokyo with over 150 sellers. An easy stroll to take if you’re headed between Harajuku and Shibuya as well. There’s usually food stands open here too if you’re looking for a simple snack while you bargain hunt.

Dates & Times: February 24, 8:00~16:00
Address: 2-2-1 Jinnan, Shibuya-Ku, Tokyo
Access: Harajuku Station, Meiji Jingu Mae Station [JY] [C] [F]

Aoyama Weekly Antique Market

Held on the grounds of the United Nations University, this market is a weekly event every Saturday, but depending on the season and week is bigger and sports a theme. Sometimes concurrent events such as the World Coffee Market take place at the same time too, so there’s always something to explore in this smaller venue. Plus its around the corner from Omotesando in Aoyama, so the 30 or so sellers are a bit more upscale here too.

Dates & Times: February 2・9・16・23 (every Saturday)
Address: 5-53-70, Jingumae Shibuya, Tokyo
Access: Omotesando Station [C][G][Z]
Web: http://www.thejmp.com/

Hanazono Shrine Weekly Market

The shrine nicknamed The Guardian of Shinjuku holds a pretty popular weekly antiques flea market as well every Sunday with about 30 booths hawking everything from woodcraft to stamp and coin collections. It’s pretty easy to get to as well, located just east of Kabukicho and Shinjuku station. It gets started quite early, so don’t be suprised to see plenty of bleary-eyed all-nighters passing you on the way in!

Dates & Times: February 3・10・17・24 (every Sunday), 6:30~15:30
Address: Shinjuku 5-17-3, Shinjuku-ku, Tokyo
Access: Shinjuku 3-Chome Station [C][F][M]
Web: http://www.thejmp.com/


— By Jason L. Gatewood

Images: Copyright OpenCage, Flea market in japan, CC BY-SA 2.5
おむこさん志望, Flea market at Meiji Park, CC BY-SA 3.0

ByJason Gatewood
Jan 29, 2019

How to switch to the Japanese “Bargain Mobile” MVNOs

It was bound to happen to me at some point, but the way it happened is a bit out of the ordinary. I switched mobile phone provider recently… Actually make that mobile data provider as this was for my iPad, but that distinction doesn’t matter anymore in 2019; data is king and who makes normal phone calls that much anymore, amirite? Probably the biggest reason most long-term residents, along with many Japanese themselves are switching carriers lately is that there are many options among companies now that offers almost exactly what you need without having to pay for a lot of stuff you don’t. Of course this is easy-peasy in many other parts of the world; just go to an electronics shop, find a plan you like with the new company, grab their starter kit, go home and turn it on through their website, terminate the old service on theirs, and change SIMs, done. Japan is a bit different, but not entirely complicated if you know the steps.

Step 1: Find a new plan and carrier

There are a TON of mobile phone companies in Japan now due to the laws regarding MVNOs (“kakuyasui providers, 格安プロバイダー” in Japanese parlance) changing a few years ago. The Big Three (Docomo, AU and Softbank) are still doing as well as ever, but the likes of LINE Mobile, Mineo, IIJMio, OCN One, and more are really starting to nip their heels as many folks in Japan look for ways to cut their expenditures. The new MVNOs are really good at one thing: giving out big buckets of LTE data for cheap and shaving off the fat. Young folks don’t care about making phone calls because they likely use LINE for all that, and increasingly old folks are doing the same. If you do need to make a plain ol’ fashioned phone call, many of the MVNOs have also made VOiP apps that can make and receive calls inexpensively as well. In short, there are now many people out there saving money with data + SMS service only and not having phone calling on their plans in the traditional sense. In my case, My iPad cannot do regular phone calling anyway but because it has a SIM slot, can do LTE data and SMS, so I decided to go that route, choosing a company that I can also shift my service on my iPhone to later when my contract ends in autumn.

Step 2: Move your current phone number to the new carrier

This is where things differ between my experience in my home country (USA) and here. In the US, we’d simply be asked to log on to our current carrier’s website in the signup process while either in the new carrier’s shop, on their website or app. This would then go directly to a Mobile Number Portability (MNP) agreement that we agree to and the data is automatically pulled into the new carrier’s systems and that’s it. In Japan, you need to go to your carrier and get an MNP Authorization Number first. This number will be asked for by the new carrier at some point, so please keep it safe. With Docomo, I was also using my secondary service on my iPad as a second line of sorts, as I could pop the SIM into a spare phone and actually receive phone calls (couldn’t make them though). Of course, I was also getting SMSs and WhatsApp, so I got an MNPA# for the next step…

Step 3: Get that new plan ordered!

I decided to go with Biglobe Mobile because they have an option that allows for unlimited streaming of YouTube and Spotify and a few other digital media sites. My main data killer is YouTube and Spotify when I’m out; I like watching videos and streaming music on my hour-long commutes to and from work. I tend to do this from my iPad because it has a bigger battery and screen.

While I know I could have simply gone through Amazon, Rakuten or the Biglobe site itself to get the service started, I headed over to my nearest Bic Camera to do it. This is because I wanted to do this the way someone with no knowledge of Japanese should for the purpose of this article (there’s really no phone service that is very accommodating to long-term residents with very little Japanese ability except one, more on them later.) Once I arrived, there was a whole section of the store dedicated to MVNO 格安SIM services. I told the nearest salesperson what I wanted (She spoke English too, but this is typical of stores in Shinjuku, Shibuya and other parts of central Tokyo; your mileage may vary) and I was promptly sat down in a booth while she grabbed a “Biglobe Service Starter Kit” from one of the shelves, and proceeded to interview me to fill in the blanks on her laptop. Everything proceeded quickly until we came to a payment method…

Step 4: How exactly do you pay the bill?

Because I have a Japanese issued credit card, I didn’t really need to worry much about this step, but this is the #1 reason why many expats get stuck with one of the Big Three; they let you pay your phone bill in cash at a shop or with a paper bill that can be taken to the convenience store and paid there. In my case, my particular MVNO will only accept payments through a Japan issued credit card, or a Japanese bank account direct transfer, however, there are a few out there that will take payments in other ways. The easiest MVNO to d9 is to go with LINE Mobile; you can pay them with LINE points and LINE Cash, meaning you can just sign up for their free reloadable debit card and pay it that way or simply register your current card.

Step 5: Insert SIM, and use

After completing the digital paperwork, I had to download the new network settings via Wifi to my iPad (another good reason to go to the electronics shop) then pop in the SIM card. Like magic, my tablet locked on to the Biglobe signal and got a few texts in Japanese explaining the service and that was that. I haven’t had any issues in the few weeks I’ve been running it and the first bill was way cheaper than what I had been paying; 65% cheaper!

Other considerations…

Foreigner targeted MVNOs

There are a few companies that have cropped up that target Foreign people; I only have experience with one, Sakura Mobile and was impressed with their ease of getting set up, and actually getting the SIM card in hand by picking it up at their Shinjuku office. All transactions can be done in English so there’s no “feeling in the dark”. Payment was done via convenience store kiosk and cash; no bank account or credit card was needed. The network speeds were decent and so was coverage. However, prices tend to be a bit higher than the others due to the added conveniences.

Data-Only Service

Also, consider whether or not voice calling is a real need. With the ability to use “software phone” VOiP services like LINE Out, Facetime and Skype, you may get even bigger savings just by getting a big data+SMS plan and leaving regular voice calling out of it.

Your Device

Lastly, it’s important to make sure your phone will connect to Japan’s phone networks. Make sure you have a SIM unlocked phone, meaning it’s able to work on any network and not locked to one carrier. Next you need to make sure it’s compatible with Japan’s radio frequencies. You can check using the tool at WillMyPhoneWork.net to check. If you’re in the market for a used or new SIM-Free device, then it’s as easy as heading to the large electronics stores or even online from the MVNOs themselves.


— By Jason L. Gatewood

Images: “Apple iPhone 6” by Kārlis Dambrāns  (CC BY-SA 2.0)
“Smartphone Apps” by IJMaki is in the Public Domain, CC0
“Forgotten SIM Card” by JohnDiew is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

ByMark Guthrie
Jan 28, 2019

Things are Hotting up at Toba no Himatsuri Fire Festival

Aichi sees a fair number of harvest festivals around the start of the Chinese New Year, with communities praying that their crops in the coming year will be bountiful and generous. However, very few of them are quite as, without wanting to seem disrespectful, terrifyingly crazy as The Toba no Himatsuri, also know as Toba Dai-kagaribi, or The Great Bonfire of Toba.

What is Toba no Himatsuri?

The Toba no Himatsuri, held in Toba in the Aichi city of Nishio, has a history spanning back some 1,200 years, and has in that time been used to predict the year’s harvest as well as the predominant weather for the coming year.

Preparations for the festival, traditionally held on the seventh day of the Chinese Year’s first month (though now on the second Sunday of every February), begin the day before, when locals build two giant torches of sun-dried kaya grass and sixty rods of fresh bamboo that stand some five meters high and weigh approximately two tonnes.

Around these torches, called ‘suzumi’, are wrapped twelve ropes to symbolize the months, and inside is placed ‘shingi’ holy trees, before the two suzumi are placed in the center of Toba Shinmeisha shrine.

What happens at Toba no Hi Matsuri?

On the day of its festival itself, two teams of local men are formed, with those coming from the east area of the Toba River being called ‘Kanchi’ and from the west, ‘Fukuchi’. Amongst each team is one 25 year-old man who is designated the shin-otoko (god man) and his ‘kamio’ ministers, and the festival is begun at the shrine, with the shin-otoko being blessed by the shinto priests.

Then, the two shin-otoko and their kamio, dressed in nothing but loincloths, head to the icy river to cleanse themselves in preparation for the main event: the lighting of the torches.

As night falls, the two immense suzumi are ignited, and protected only by the prayers that have been given to their clothing, the shin-otoko and kamio climb ladders and hurl themselves into the flaming torches, risking serious injury – or worse, with the intention of rescuing the shingi holy tree and as many of the ropes as they can.

Once the death-defying ritual is complete, a score is taken to see which team has collected the most sacred apparatus. If the Kanichi (福地: 福 means happiness or fortune) team wins then the mountainous harvest will be bountiful, but if the Kanko (乾地: 乾 means dry) team win, there will be droughts or natural disasters.

After the count the shingi are taken to the shrine as an offering. It is believed that if chopsticks are made of the shingi, then those who use them will not suffer from tooth-related disease, and if they are crafted into tools for sericulture, then the silk yield will be large.

Toba no Himatsuri Details

When: Second Sunday of February (February 17, 2019). Blessings begin at 15:00. Cleansing in the river is at 15:30. Torches are lit at 20:00.
Where: 89, Toba-cho Nishio (map)
Getting there: Toba Shinmeisha shrine is approximately 10 minutes walk from Mikawa Toba station on the Meitetsu Nishio-Gamagori line
Websitekatch.ne.jp

Mark Guthrie

Image: by tohsuke minatoya via flickr.com (CC BY-SA 2.0) -Modified
Image: by 1192_tenugui via flickr.com (CC BY-SA 2.0) -Modified
Image: by hitoshi ozaki via flickr.com (CC BY-SA 2.0) -Modified

ByMark Guthrie
Jan 28, 2019

Nagoya’s Record Shops

While it feels like the music industry is becoming ever-increasingly digital, with the likes of Spotify, YouTube, Apple Music, and Soundcloud being the favored media for accessing artists, conversely, at the same time, the humble vinyl record is making a come back. According to Forbes, the format has grown 260 percent since 2009, and in 2017 the US saw vinyl sales increase for the 12th straight year, with the most units sold since Nielsen Music began tracking sales data in 1991. Vinyl, it seems, is no longer the preserve of music nerds and hipsters.

The rebirth is also being felt here, in Japan, evidenced by the fact that Sony is once again firing up its pressing factory after a 30-year break, as younger music lovers discover artists via streaming sites and then look to own the physical album.

If you too are a vinyl fan or are interested in finding some hidden gems in the Japanese market, there are absolutely tons of CD and record shops around Nagoya. Below is just a small sample of some of the better-known record stores that the city has to offer.

Banana Records

Many of Nagoya’s record shops are in the Osu area, and with its bright yellow front and distinctive facade, Banana Records is the one that stands out the most.

Split over two floors, it has a mix of new and secondhand records with a wide variety of genres to choose from, including a decent selection of indie/alternative, J-pop and classic rock, with punk and hardcore being particularly well represented. The second floor is a mecca for hip-hop and reggae fans, with a massive selection of options for each style.

There are also branches of Banana Records in Kanayama and Sakae.

Where: 3 Chome-22-32 Osu, Naka Ward (map)
Websitebananarecord.com

Sound Bay Republic

While Sound Bay Republic is mostly a CD store, there is still a great selection of used records of all genres to be found. It’s a little bit grotty, but there are bargains to be found, and at the very least it is an excellent place to while away an hour or so flicking through records.

Where: Kanayama, 1-7-4, Naka-ku Naka-ku (map)
Tel: 052-332-1662

Tower Records

Tower Records is an internationally-renowned record store, and there are two branches in Nagoya, one in the Passé shopping complex near the Nagoya Station and the other in Parco department store in Sakae.

The Passé store is a little on the disappointing side, with a small collection towards the back of the store (with a surprising number of David Bowie records) and a few more dotted around. The Parco store is bigger and better stocked with new releases and reprints.

Where: Sakae, 3 Chome-29-1 Nagoya PARCO East Building 6F (map)
Websitetower.jp/store/NagoyaParco

Greatest Hits Records

Greatest Hits is a two-story shop which stocks second-hand records and CDs exclusively, making it fantastic for a rummage.

There are a load of rock and pop records, particularly from the ’60s and ’70s, but where Greatest Hits excels is in soul, jazz and Motown, of which there are huge selections.

Keep an eye out for their sale days, when all records are 25 percent off, and the entirety of the top floor is overtaken with bargain boxes, and outside has numerous boxes with records for just 108 JPY.

Where: 2-27-26 Osu, Naka-ku (map)
Websitegreatesthits-rec.com

Recordshop Zoo

Tucked away on an Osu backstreet, Recordshop Zoo, much like its name suggests, has a wide range of choices, with lots of great punk choices from both Japan and overseas.

But if you are a ‘dumpster diver’ and like to while away your time delving through boxes of old gems, this is the place for you. Outside the entrance, the floor is lined with boxes of records that go for 100 JPY each, half of which seem to be hip hop. It’s certainly the place to go if you want to take a chance on an unknown artist at bargain prices. Or on Rod Stewart, who seems to be particularly over-represented.

Where: Naka Ward, Osu 2-chome 30-19 Mizuno 2nd Building 2F (map)
Websiterecordshopzoo.com

Mark Guthrie

Images: Mark Guthrie (Own work)

ByMatt Mangham
Jan 28, 2019

Mexican Food in Hiroshima

The rest of the world’s foodies may cast a longing eye toward Japan, but let’s face it, if you live here sometimes you just want a  decent taco. Once upon a time, this was surprisingly difficult, but no longer. Hiroshima has at least two good Mexican options now, while an hour’s drive (a little longer by train) will take you to a third and praiseworthy option in Yamaguchi Prefecture’s Iwakuni. In no particular order, here they are.

Graffity Mexican Diner

After living in San Diego, the Nakashima brothers returned to Hiroshima with the skills and flavors they’d acquired while working at a Mexican restaurant a stone’s throw from Tijuana. Their Graffity Diner (and yes, some of the walls are covered with messages from happy customers) was one of the first Mexican places in town to make a successful start, and in their 11th year, they’re more popular than ever, with both locals and travelers. Expect to run into overseas players for the Hiroshima Carp here on a fairly regular basis. On my most recent trip, one brother manned three burners and a fryer, cutting up beer battered fillets of catfish and tending his carne asada, while the other brother worked the floor and register. They make their own sauces, and in addition to tacos, burritos, and chimichangas they offer steak, chicken mole and a popular Pescado a la Veracruzana. I ran out of guacamole in a hurry and was promptly provided more without asking. Their collection of beers and tequilas is a welcome feature, including Dos Equis lager and both a Porfidio and Olmeca. Group courses and all-you-can-drink specials are also available, though I wouldn’t count on that Olmeca being included.

Borracho’s

A more recent player, Borracho’s opened up about two years ago and immediately began winning rave reviews. Located well into the chaos of the Nagarekawa drinking district, it should be tricky to find, but luckily the enormous Virgin of Guadalupe above the entrance makes it fairly easy to spot. The menu isn’t especially surprising; it includes tacos, fajitas, taquitos, and chimichangas along with other bits and pieces. But the food is excellent, especially the small corn tortillas made fresh on the premises and featured in many of the dishes. The guys in the kitchen travel to Mexico often and have a lot of the flavors just right. I especially liked the little show they make out of creating your guacamole fresh at the table, and with the help of a few extra jalapenos, you’ll soon feel that friendly prickling of the scalp that means you’re enjoying yourself.  

Borracho is also a great place to share dishes, and a large plate of chorizo tacos is an excellent place to start. The decor steps right up to the edge of being overdone and stops just in time. Mexican blankets, milagros, braided ristras of chiles, and other touches grace both the first and second floors. The top floor is nonsmoking, with a small bar of its own to see to parties and other groups. And the selection of tequilas? Outstanding. And since they’re open until 5 in the morning, you have plenty of time to try them all. God speed.

Mike’s Tex-Mex

As a transplanted Texan, this is the closest thing I’ve found to the kind of restaurants my family visited in the halcyon days of the 1970s. My kids love it, and despite it being an hour by car from our front door, we make the trip two or three times a year. Mike’s is old school Tex Mex, with enchiladas, refried beans and “Mexican rice” all running together on the platter. 

I assume, that you’ll be ordering the Hungry Hombre special. The chips arrive at the table hot and greasy, and the guacamole is served in a bowl at least twice the size you’ll find elsewhere. Even drinks come in the kind of pebble-textured plastic tumbler I remember from childhood. Cocktails include both the regular margarita and the “Coronarita,” with a bottle of Corona upended in the margarita glass. Dessert? Try the cinnamon tortilla chips and vanilla ice cream. You’ll leave full and happy. 

Mike’s has locations near U.S. military bases around Japan, so they’ve no doubt benefited over the years from customer feedback. And while the other two restaurants mentioned here are relatively small, Mike’s offers a spacious, non-smoking dining room with a rack of sombreros for the kids to wear and polaroids of happy diners covering one wall. The only thing missing is a mariachi band.

Graffity Mexican Diner

Address: 6-4 Fukuromachi, Naka-ku, Hiroshima-shi 730-0036
Access: South from Yoshinoya in the middle of the Hondori Shopping Arcade. Walk two and a half blocks toward Peace Boulevard and look for the sign on your right. The restaurant is on the fourth floor.
Hours: Seven days a week. Lunch 11:30-14:00, dinner 18:00-24:00
Telephone: 082-243-3669
Additional Info: English menu, and limited English spoken. Smoking. Credit cards accepted
Website: http://graffity.info/

 

Borracho’s

Address: No. 2 Mizuno Bldg, 6-5 Yagenbori, Naka-ku, Hiroshima 730-0027
Access: Easiest way to find it is probably to head south along Yagenbori from Kamiyacho. It’s about six blocks, but just keep an eye out for the huge Virgin mural over the door on your right.
Hours: Monday-Saturday, 18:00-05:00. Sunday, 18:00-02:00
Telephone: 082-241-3911
Additional Info: English menu, and limited English spoken. Smoking. Credit cards accepted
Website: http://borrachos-hiroshima.jp/ (apparently down at time of writing) 

Mike’s Tex-Mex Restaurant

Address: 1-7-12 Mikasamachi, Iwakuni, Yamaguchi-ken 740-0016
Access: By car, take Route 2 to the Hatsukaichi Interchange entrance to the Hiroshima-Iwakuni Toll Road. Exit at Ootake and continue south on Route 2 into Iwakuni. At the junction with 110, follow 110 south. You’ll find Mike’s on your right shortly before the bridge over the Imazu River. Or, from Iwakuni Station, follow the tunnel below the station and walk south (right) along 110, past the Yamaguchi Prefectural Culture Hall. You’ll see Mike’s on the right.
Hours: Lunch 11:00-14:00, dinner 17:00-22:00. Closed Wednesdays and some national holidays.
Telephone: 082-724-7001
Additional Info: English menu, English spoken. Nonsmoking. Credit cards accepted
Website: http://mikes.jp/shopinfo04.html
Website 2: www.facebook.com/borrachosonline/ 

Photo by author

ByMatt Mangham
Jan 28, 2019

The Shopping Underground: Depachika in Hiroshima

One of the best reasons to visit a department store here is to ride the elevator down to the basement, where a food lover’s wonderland lies waiting. ‘Depachika’ combines the first two syllables of “department store” with the Japanese word for “basement.” Though they’ve evolved over the decades, depachika have been luring shoppers underground since the 1930s to browse gourmet goods, locate hard-to-find ingredients, or come away with the perfect gift.

Often connected to train stations, most of Hiroshima’s depachika are downtown. Like depachika elsewhere, though, they’re broadly organized into three sections, a deli, gift section, and market. In the deli, you’ll find salads, cold cuts and beautiful take-away bento boxes along with other offerings, all ready to eat. The gift section is a gallery of traditional Japanese teas, crackers, and sweets, arrayed alongside Western chocolates and pastries and row upon row of wine and sake bottles. The markets, meanwhile, may look at first glance like a standard small supermarket, but a closer look reveals a line of merchandise that you’re unlikely to come across at your local Fresta. Combining practicality and luxury, many visitors come more to browse than to shop, nibbling at samples as they wind their way between the glass display cases.

Fukuya

Fukuya is located between the other two department stores mentioned here, at the intersection of Aoi-dori and Chuo-dori right in the heart of downtown Hiroshima. Because it anchors the Hondori shopping arcade, Fukuya is often busy, and its depachika is a fairly lively place. Striking a balance between the gleeful sprawl of Sogo’s basement and the more curated elegance of Mitsukoshi, Fukuya’s depachika has a relaxed atmosphere, with a large proportion of elderly customers who look as if they’ve been shopping here for decades. The space occupies a large, L-shaped footprint, though as is often the case with depachikas you can quickly lose your way on a first visit. There are spots to sit with a cup of tea, and even a small branch of the local Michan okonomiyaki restaurant at one end. In between, you’ll find everything from Japanese sweets and tea to jewel-box arrangements of sushi, French fruit preserves and glass cases of pickled vegetables. The wine and spirits section is modest but has a whimsical selection of Hiroshima Carp-themed bottles, a perfect souvenir of Hiroshima.

Sogo

This is actually a double depachika, with two levels, so after you’ve browsed the stunning variety of sweets and teas available on the B1 level, perhaps pausing for a coffee or picking up something to bring home, be sure to check out the supermarket and fish counters at the north end. Then head down to B2, where the delicatessen section’s vendors offer yakitori, fresh dumplings, salads, fried pork cutlets, and croquettes and a hundred other things.

The first level opens directly onto Hiroshima’s Shareo underground shopping center, which is worth a stroll. The sweets section is often crowded even in the middle of a weekday, which can make it feel like a year-round food festival. They are, though, gradually trying to raise the image of the place. My eight-year-old’s heart was broken a year ago when we found that an old candy shop, with a rotating display of delights at child’s eye-level, had been replaced by something slightly more elegant but instantly forgettable. Still, this is the place to go if you want to load up on provisions for a day at the beach or the stadium or buy the perfect gift for a friend with a sweet tooth.

Mitsukoshi

This is the fur-draped old queen of Hiroshima’s depachika. Not as large as the two mentioned above, it makes up for volume with its endlessly fascinating selection. The supermarket section, in particular, is a wonderful place to browse if you love food. The fish in the seafood case look thrilled to be here, gleaming and glossy-eyed, while the abalone writhes fetchingly in its shell, unaware of the horrors in store. I knew a bodybuilder who for a year ate chicken breasts from the meat department three times a day because they were the best to be had. The fruit looks more engineered than grown, each piece huge and utterly flawless (with prices to match). Need more than one brand of Sacha inchi oil to choose from, or for your black cumin seed oil to be certified organic? You’re covered. Unhappy with a selection of butter that represents fewer than a dozen creameries, foreign and domestic? Have no fear. Unsure whether your freeze-dried currants should be whole, flaked or powdered? Get all three! The shochu and sake cases here are fantastic. Just running a finger along the labels is a luxury. Nearby are displays of old-school Japanese sweets, glistening bars of colorful jelly that friends and family back home won’t know whether to eat or wash with. And an octogenarian gentleman advising at the tea counter draws on a body of knowledge that should qualify him as a National Treasure. A great place, and well worth a stop, even if you have no intention of actually buying anything.

Fukuya

Address: 6-2-6 Ebisucho, Naka-ku, Hiroshima-shi 730-0021
Access: Corner of Aoi-Dori and Chuo-Dori, north from Parco in the Hondori shopping arcade.
Hours: Monday to Thursday, 10:00-19:30. Friday and Saturday, 10:00-20:00.
Telephone: 082-246-6111
Website: http://www.fukuya-dept.co.jp/honten/

 

Sogo

Address: 6-27 Motomachi, Naka-ku, Hiroshima 730-8501
Access: Downtown, two blocks north from where the streetcar line bisects Hondori.
Hours: 10:00-20:00 daily.
Telephone: 082-225-2111
Website: https://www.sogo-seibu.jp/hiroshima/

Mitsukoshi

Address: 5-1 Ebisucho, Nakaku, Hiroshima 730-8545
Access: One block east of Fukuya along Aoi-Dori.
Hours: 10:30-19:30 daily.
Telephone: 082-242-3111
Website: https://mitsukoshi.mistore.jp/store/hiroshima/index.html

 

Photo by author

ByMark Guthrie
Jan 25, 2019

Toyokawa Inari – One of Japan’s Big Three Inari Shrines

About 75 minutes from Nagoya, in the Mikawa Bay region, you can find Toyokawa Inari, one of the most unique and unusual places of worship in the area.

Along with Kyoto’s Fushimi Inari and the Yutoku Inari Temple in Saga Prefecture, Toyokawa Inari is considered one of Japan’s ‘Big Three’ Inari Temples, but even such an impressive claim to fame is to belittle the importance – not to mention interest – of this extraordinary historical landmark.

The Duality of Toyokawa Inari

Established by the monk Tokai Geki in 1441, Toyokawa Inari is uncommon in that it is not only a Sodo sect Buddhist temple, but also a Shinto place of worship. While the duality of shrines and temples was once commonplace throughout Japan, during the Meiji era reformists decreed that places of worship were to be devoted to one or the other. Toyokawa Inari, however, escaped this fate, and today it retains many aspects of Buddhism as well as enshrining Inari Okami, the Shinto god of fertility, agriculture and success.

Toyokawa Inari covers a sprawling 1,272 hectares, the entrance to which features a huge 4.5-meter-high door crafted from a single slab of wood, and you are welcomed by both a Shinto torii gate and a pair of fierce Buddhist Nio temple guardians.

Although most of the temple was rebuilt in the Meiji period or later, the Sanmon dates from 1536 and is the oldest existent building in the complex.

Elsewhere within the grounds you can find the temple’s Treasure House, which includes a statue of the god Jizo Bodhisattva, and was crafted in the Kamakura era and later designated as Important National Cultural Asset. As well as the statue there are a number of interesting artifacts, including scrolls, folding screens and an ornate wooden palanquin for use by a noble woman.

But perhaps of the greatest interest is the foxes.

The foxes of Toyokawa Inari

Once you have offered your prayers to your faith of choice, or simply marveled at the impressive structures, follow the path down the steps to the right of the main shrine. Here you will find Myogen Temple, which houses the effigy of the Thousand-Handed Senju Kannon, a sight that most of the shrine’s six million annual visitors miss.

From there, pass through the sacred copse and behind the Okuno-in pavilion, along the winding paths lined with flags flown as offerings. Here you will find the Reiko-Zuka, a hillside covered in red-bibbed stone foxes.

As well as being the god of prosperity and agriculture, the aforementioned Okami Inari is also the god of foxes, as the pure-white animal is considered to be Inari’s messenger. At Toyokawa Inari you will find literally thousands of fox statues of varying sizes throughout the grounds.

Inari was also seen as the protector of warriors and merchants, which has over the years brought a number of visitors of great note, with the likes of Oda Nobunaga, Imagawa Yoshimoto, Toyotomi Hideyoshi and Tokugawa Ieyasu amongst many the many others who made the pilgrimage to the Toyokawa Inari to pray for victory in battle.

But it is not only samurai who visit Toyokawa Inari. Today, many people come in order to pray for good fortune, prosperity and success. Or they just come to look at the foxes. One reason is as good as another to discover this unique structure of mysterious beauty in the south of Aichi.

Toyokawa Inari Details

Where: Aichi-ken, Toyokawa-shi, Toyokawachō (map)
Getting there: Take the Toyohashi bound train from Meitetsu Nagoya Station . At Ko Station, change to Odabuchi Station. The shrine is a three-minute walk from there.

Mark Guthrie

Image: by Roy Navarro via flickr.com (CC BY-SA 2.0) -Modified
Image: via wikimedia commons CC BY-SA 4.0 – Modified
Image: by GothPhil via flickr.com (CC BY-SA 2.0) -Modified
Image: by Kasadera via flickr.com (CC BY-SA 2.0) -Modified
Image: by Bong Grit via flickr.com (CC BY-SA 2.0) -Modified

ByJason Gatewood
Jan 25, 2019

Setsubun Festivals in Tokyo

So you survived O-shogatsu (Japanese New Year’s) and are looking forward to the end of March and the blooming of the cherry trees, but the reality is there are at least 60 more days to go before a single pink blossom appears. While it will not bring the blossoms any closer, did you know that in Japan, spring actually starts on February 3rd?

In Japan, Setsubun is traditionally the day before the beginning of spring. The name literally means “seasonal division,” but it usually refers to the division between winter and spring, properly called Risshun and celebrated yearly on February 3 as part of the Spring Festival (Haru Matsuri). In its association with the lunar new year, Setsubun can be (and was previously thought of as) a sort of New Year’s Eve, and so was accompanied by a special ritual to cleanse away all the evil of the former year and drive away disease-bringing evil spirits for the year to come. This special ritual is called mamemaki or literally “bean throwing.”

The custom of mamemaki is still performed at shrines and temples all over Japan (and if you have kids, you’ll also notice them raving about throwing beans at their classmates soon as elementary schools do it too!) Roasted soybeans (called “fortune beans”) are thrown either out the door or at a member of the family wearing an oni (demon or ogre) mask, while the people recite “Oni wa soto! Fuku wa uchi!” (Demons out! Fortune in!) and slam the door. The beans are thought to symbolically purify the home by driving away the evil spirits that bring misfortune and bad health with them.

setsubun-eho-maki-sushi

Then, as part of bringing luck in, it is customary to eat roasted soybeans, one for each year of one’s life, and in some areas, one for each year of one’s life plus one more for bringing good luck for the year to come. You’ll also start noticing the area convenience and grocery stores will be selling a long uncut makizushi roll called eho-maki (lit. “lucky direction roll”). It’s to be eaten in silence on Setsubun while facing the yearly lucky compass direction, determined by the zodiac symbol of that year.

Here are some of the more popular places to take part in the Setsubun festivities in the Tokyo area. If you live near a shrine, then you might want to check with the officials there to see if they’ll have one. It’s a good chance to talk to your neighbors and possibly be pelted with beans by their kids… Just be gentle with the little demons and ogres!

Senso-ji Temple Setsubun Festival

Perhaps the oldest organized Setsubun festival happens at Tokyo’s most famous temple and tourist destination.  Senso-ji is Tokyo’s oldest temple, it is known as the temple of the Asakusa Kannon and draws millions of visitors every year.  The setsubun festival is well known for having celebrities throwing the beans around; be sure to come early, because there’s always a crowd.

Transportation:

  • Asakusa Station (Tobu ISKYTREE,  Tokyo Metro Ginza, Tsukuba Express, Toei Subway Asakusa Lines)

Tokyo Tower, Shiba Koen Setsubun Festival

That’s right, the actual tower observation deck and not Zozoji Temple next door.  That temple’s priests are joined by the tower’s cone-headed mascots to toss the beans around… When they’re done, you can buy some eho-maki from a stall on the same floor. This festival has taken place on the 333 meter tower since it was built in 1958 at the 150 meter observation platform.

Transportation:

  • Kamiyacho Station (Hibiya line)
  • Onarimon Station (Mita line)
  • Akebanebashi Station (Oedo line)

Kanda Myojin Shrine Setsubun Festival

This shrine near the Akihabara area always has a big mixture of Japanese tradional and pop culture in its Setsubun ceremonies. The temple site is over 1200 years old, so you will have the formal ancient processions, but since Akiba is around the corner, don’t be surprised to see a member of AKB48 or someone in a Gundam costume tossing beans at you as well.

Transportation:

  • Ochanomizu station (JR Chuo/Sobu lines)
  • Suehirocho station (Hibiya line)

–By Jason L Gatewood

Image “Setsubun,bean and mask of ogre” katorisi (Own work) [GFDL or CC BY-SA 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons (modified)

Image “Eho-maki” by Zenjiro (Flickr) [CC BY 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons (modified)