Thursday, 11 November 2010


Here’s a quick report of our Japanese tour with my good friend Laurent. Unlike many visitors we weren’t interested in visiting temples and museums. We just marked on a map all the cool shops and places to visit to immerse ourselves in Japanese culture.

We decided to sart our exploration by Ginza one of the most exclusive and expensive areas of Tokyo. When we arrived, we were greeted by tall skyscrapers, cool architecture and a heavy heat wave. We spent the whole morning figuring out how to navigate through the district, 2 hours later we crashed into Apple store with a gigantic map of Tokyo noting down our places to visit.  Phew, finally we could start and explore. We ate fantastic light and crispy seafood tempura, payed a visit to Ships, one of our favourite clothes shops. The day was saved.

This trip offered me the first opportunity to test couch surfing. Our first Tokyo hideout was located in Kanamecha near Ikebukuro. We were hosted by Cyril who is surely in the top 10 most generous people on earth. If she makes it into politics, we have a potential Nobel peace prize winner. We shared her flat with 10 other fellow couch surfers from all other the world during one week. Most of them were travelling on a very low budget, some even had been sleeping in public parks. This drew an amusing contrast with Laurent and me. We were bringing back 100 of euros of shopping bags every day.
Where there's a will there's a way:
One thing you get used to in Tokyo is making mistakes, after walking in completely the wrong direction for half an hour, asking people for directions (sending us even more in the wrong direction. I did end up with a very frustrated Laurent several times but thank god to the locals sense of sacrifice who would literally walk us to the place we’re looking for. We spent 30, 40 mins with some people walking with them, because they just didn’t have a clue of where they’re going. Gordon Bennett
Going Underground:
Just picture yourself in the Parisian metro full of filth and rats with the smell of cat’s urine. This was just a nightmare out there, It doesn’t exist, The underground stations and all the streets are so clean. No graffiti, litter or vandalism anywhere! They have people on the platforms with wireless microphones to announce the trains, and they depart perfectly on time!    While commuting, we were fascinated by the salary men completely wasted with their heads nodding to the rocking of the train. The only times I’m in that kind of state back home it’s because I’ve been severly drinking for 5 hours. In their case, they were just coming back from a day’s work. We found it hard to understand the working hours, we were always seeing people going and coming back from work. A Sunday morning commute resembled to a Monday rush and bumble back home, even the school kids were dressed in uniforms and heading to school. I never ever want to work for a Japanese company in Japan.
The Mecca of gaming and electronics in Tokyo - if not the world. Our first and only stop was Akihabara Electric Town, an eight-storey jumble of geek electronics and culture. One of our tips included the opportunity to shoot with a real pistol for just 8 euros. Wow, we really getting psyched up about this prospect, but once we arrived at the top, we figured out that they were only selling air gun replicas. Still, any arm or uniform you could think of was available in replica. Another great highlight at Akihabara was the discovery of the best doughnut chain that exists on earth: Mr Doughnut. Light soft and delicate.
Food Heaven
The only criteria of consumer satisfaction in Japan is “peRFection” and this applies to food, from the cheapest fast food to a good Sushi restaurant. We just bowed down and made the most of it, while we were there. Unlike in Paris, where every tourist has been completely ripped-off by entering any random restaurant in the city. In Tokyo, fear no more.
When, I travel in terms of eating out, I want to eat exactly the same meals as any random local. It’s a fantastic and exciting way to immerse yourself in the local culture. Because the food is such good quality, we did not put on a kilo which is pretty exceptional considering our giant appetites.
I would split into 3 categories the places where we went out eating: Japanese fast food:  It’s basically the same dish and I think we must have eaten 20 of them each. The recipe consists of very thin sliced but fatty meat with rice, enlivened with sauces, curry, or Korean-style condiments. Salads and semi-cooked eggs as extras, or maybe included in the set. Water and/or tea if you eat in, free miso soup at Matsuya. We fell in love with the chains that served these meals: Matsuya, Yoshinoya, Nakau. The quality of service was beyond our world, continuous refills, instant food delivery, discreet attention from staff. I think I could live in one of theses. Matsuya's menu bellow:
Isakaya: It’s basically where you splice the mainbrace. You can find some very high quality Sushi, tempura and other traditional meals. It’s the local pub in Japan, It's amazing to have such a variety of food with your drink, there are fumes everywhere, different scents attacking your audora, batter from the tempura splashing to your face, knives being viciously sharpened just before slicing up the most perfect sashimi. Have I just described the promised land?
Burger Chains: And finally of course I have to mention Moss Burger, which is simply the best Burger chain on the face of earth, eating any of their burgers feels like flying in the air with a snowman (if you could figure out what that feels like). But, I’ll talk about them later in another post. We also tasted other burger chains like lotto and freshness burger, but they were no great shakes compared to Moss.
It was real dog-day when we first visited Shibuya. The streets are lit up and there are huge multilevel shops and people everywhere! Laurent was a moaning Minnie that day between the orientation and the thermal shocks we were receiving every-time we entered an outlet equipped with very heavy air con. Anyway, It was a great exploration we did it on purpose to get lost and adventure through this amazing maze of boutiques, food and micro-trends. Many other tourists we encountered were obsessed by visiting the famous dog statue, we couldn’t care less. Special mention to the via bus stop, club Quattro, beauty & youth and that home made melon ice cream store. Even-though, We were soaking wet, baking under 36°C at the end of the day, we were signing: To-ky-o! Ooooh, Oooooh, Ooooh, Ooooooooohhhhhh.... We love you(minelli vanilli).
We were in the midsummer madness of our Tokyo visit and now it was time to visit the converging point of the city, the busiest train station of the world: A convergence of train lines, department stores, skyscrapers, corporate head offices, fashion stores, shopping malls, clubs, bars, nightlife, and major non-stop 24/7 animation. 
We reached out to shopping heaven at the Isetan superstore which is literally the new Jerusalem. The store is the elder amongst the Shinjuku department stores, offering a massive array of merchandise, in an atmosphere of elegance and refinement. I remember horrid images of Parisian staff in department stores there, treating with disrespect and arrogance customers, here there’s none of that and your just overwhelmed with the care and intention you receive for just entering the store. 
I had a security guard walk with me for 10 mins to the lavatory room, we had 4 people handing us receipts for our payments, there are dedicated staff with maps inside the shop to give you directions around the city and the store, the floor managers literally run around the shop while serving you. The 7th floor is dedicated to the most expensive and rare men's clothing in the world, available in abundance. We bought an 8 euro book and they wrapped it up as if we bought a Rolex, with pleasant smiles and millions of thank yous. We concluded with Laurent that if you were going to construct paradise, you would start by Isetan.
After all these emotions we found some treasure of an address to slap up a meal. I can’t remember the name but the meal consisted in rice balls covered in smoked pork and melted cheese covered in BBQ sauce, one of the most extraordinary street food experiences out there. At the end of the day, we were  pleased as punch.
Daikenyama   This was my favourite district, It’s a quiet and elegant contrast to what is often the Shibuya area’s crowds, noise and consumerism. Everything is so quiet and calm, It’s like walking through a peaceful village with open houses except that they are the most fashionable shops you’ll ever find on the face of this earth. Special mention to the Haversack store, especially after High fiving my vintage Lafuma back pack. Not so far way, we also got a chance to check out the best denim shop in the world: The Real Mccoy’s. A major highlight of our visit to Japan. We'll never forget.
Baron de Paris
We only went to one night club in Tokyo and that was the Baron, It’s a completely different vibe from what you would experience in Pairs or the west. The dance floor was empty everyone was sitting down having dinner with their friends and a lot of guys were unconscious laying down on the couches. We didn’t feel like in a club but more in a Parisian Bistro bar. We never got to experience a real eccentric Japanese party.
To get there we were lucky to experience the bullet train the most advanced fast train that exists on earth. I’ve taken the TGV in France & the Eurostar, they felt like old steam engines compared to the quality of service and engineering advancement that was offered on board of the bullet train. I was able to lean my head against the window and feel no vibrations at all, there is no 2nd and 1st class, just one. The chairs were really comfortable with loads of space for your legs and the staff well, I'm tired of repeating myself, It was peRFect. We arrived in Kyoto under tense circumstances, we were carrying heavy bags of shopping over 40 kilos each and of course we didn’t have a clue where we were heading, no underground service in Kyoto just buses. We finally located our hotel in the district of Gion, the middle class district of the city. But our worries were from over, the Ryokan we were staying in, was located up a mountain climb behind a temple, it was very humid and raining, we started our ascension with the wheels of suitcases detaching themselves to the contact of ancient stairways, we did cause a lot of distortion on the way. The journey never seemed to end it was always up and the road was getting more and more steep. After 40 mins we were in limbo, we dug deep into our Dunkirk spirit to carry on climbing, by hook or by crook we were determined to dip into our Japanese bath ASAP. We finally made it to the Ryokan half alive but nearly dead. It was magic, calm, tranquil, Japanese garden and bath, futton and a lot of attention from the staff. The next morning when we met with the residents and staff and told them about our Journey, they said we were completely out of our minds and should have taken a taxi. What they didn't understand is that we were travelling on a tight budget specifically dedicated to clothes and street food. Impressions of Kyoto: The city offers a glimpse into the past of Japan, a city of rich tradition and cultural importance. There are several thousand temples, hundreds of Shinto shrines, pagodas, Zen gardens and numerous historical districts to be explored. Philosopher road - Our cob smack sight seeing: Honen-in Temple   Once you step into this temple, you will feel time slow down. It's a short walk away from the philosopher's road, across a narrow stream and up a hill along a dark, winding path through a bamboo grove is the lesser known Honen-in Temple. That's where we were going. Peaceful, shady, cool, covered in moss and surrounded by jungle, and free of charge to enter, it was a wonderful place. I felt like on a Indiana Jones film set. We experienced our first Japanese sushi in the Pontocho alley, a lively narrow alley with restaurants, bars and branching streets, It was so pretty, in anything the Japanese take on, you always get this cuttiness factor. Anyway the fish was fresh and chunky but so light and delicate. Special highlight was the grilled eel sushi, I was feeling really good in Kyoto at that point. Osaka & Nara  On our a second day in Kyoto, we were tipped to go and hike for a day in a mountain, It was meant to be the day of our holiday to remember. Of course we woke up late and rushed to the station, we jumped on the ticket sales woman, she announced us the price, we yelled out loud in distress: “What!!!!!!”, we then opted for a cheaper option Osaka, the most American city in Japan from the building till what they sell in the stores, we spent the whole day in the American district, with emotional highs and lows o, deciding from which rival shops should Laurent buy his shoulder bag. The day before that we visited Nara, which is Japan’s first capital city set in a rural area, cute narrow streets, wild animals on the loose and a gem of a vintage shop. I got arrested in the street for smoking in the street, the policeman took the cigarette and asked me where I came from I said France perhaps that helped me to avoid a heavy fine.
Harajuku, Omotessando
Back to our home: Tokyo, we were invited to Joe Conte’s concert, a band from SF we met in our Ryokan in Kyoto they were playing at the FDD design bilding. There was an hostess that read out the program that day: Joe Conte supporting Soulit, The gig was funny the public were very seriously into it and it was being broadcasted outside in the street from a giant screen on the building's façade. It was one of many out of the ordinay experiences we had that day.
Before that we wondered around Harajuku, a lot of designer stores with a laid back spirit. It was a Halycon day.
Rockabilys,  We were very lucky to be able to see the Rockabilys perform at Yoyogi park, It may seem very touristy but it’s really worth seeing.  
Chez Harumi and the men from IS BBDO
For our second week in Japan, we were hosted by an exceptional couple Harumi & Eric. Never before people offered us so much care and nice things to eat a drink, while being humble guests. I remember a special traditional meal in a restaurant where Harumi’s family have been going for years. We ate the best Sashimi I’ve ever tasted even the rare horse one. Following that, It was just a festival of succulent Japanese dishes coming in one after the other (fish stew, grilled aubergines, pure sacke, meat balls, etc). A night I will remember for a long time. It was manna from heaven. 
For our last meal out we were invited by our work colleagues in Japan. We ate Shabu Shabu, succulent Japanese beef that you boil with vegetables and dip into a selection of sauces. Our Japanese table manners were all wrong, the succulent tastes travelling on our taste buds made us loose control of the situation. Arigatou gozaimasu again to Kats, Muramoto and Terasawa. 
The flight:
I flew out with Etihad, probably the best value for money company you can get if you’re flying Europe to Asia. I got my return ticket from Paris for 536 euros. I love aeroplane maeals and  Etihad knows how to prepare them, the scents emanating from the food trolleys definitely added excitement to a long flight. My friend Laurent even asked for second helpings on the way back. First time I’ve ever seen anyone ask for this on a plain. Bellow, Etihad dinning service at it’s best with this Japanese meal:

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