Nicoletta Goes to Japan (part 3), or, how I had to pinch myself that I actually was in Japan, delving into its culture and tradition.
Song of the day: Big In Japan – Alphaville
If you read Part 1 and Part 2 of the “Nicoletta Goes to Japan” saga, you know that I recently returned from an incredible, once-in-a-lifetime trip to Japan, where I appeared on the TV show ‘Who Wants to Come to Japan‘. In part 3, I am enjoying some time in Tokyo where I got to taste Dorayaki from two of the best stores in Tokyo.
We left Shizuoka late afternoon to go back to Tokyo via Shinkansen. I did not know much about the plans for the day after, only that we were staying in Tokyo and I would get to eat some more Dorayaki. Always up for that!
Tokyo was quite the thermal shock coming from the warm Shizuoka!
The hotel was in a quiet residential area, the room was small but clean and cozy, and with a nice big window with a view on the street. Before falling asleep, I reviewed the pictures I took, had my usual call with Loreto and closed my eyes thinking about the next day’s breakfast. The morning after, as usual, I was eager to get ready and go for breakfast. As soon as I got out of the room, with every person I met, there was a mutual bowing and gently saying Ohayou gozaimasu (Good morning). I love the politeness of the Japanese people and their greeting etiquette, going from a small nod of the head to a deep bend at the waist. I did a lot of that, it came to me quite natural, at the hotel, at shops and restaurants, with new people I met.
Onigiri for breakfast
The day started chilly and rainy but inside I was all sunny and cheerful since I knew we were going to two of the best dorayaki stores in Tokyo. But first, breakfast.
Naturally, I knew breakfast would be quite different from what I was used to having. It is already peculiar -for me- in Canada, I wouldn’t expect it to be any less unusual in Japan.
There was a great selection of onigiri: with grains and beans, with tuna or salmon, with meat, with the umeboshi plum. My two favorite ones were salmon and sesame, and barley with beans and seaweed. I would have never thought I could eat rice for breakfast, but it actually was quite delicious and filling. Moreover, there always were a few cookies and of course coffee, which is what I usually have for breakfast. The morning after I tried the onigiri filled with the umeboshi, but it was a little too sour for me, and the famous anpan, a sweet bun filled with red bean paste. Did I tell you that I LOVE the red bean paste??, lol.
The best Dorayaki in Tokyo
Dorayaki is a long-loved traditional wagashi (Japanese confectionery) and Tokyo has some of the best dorayaki stores. Usagiya is a long-established dorayaki store, and it is said that Usagiya invented the shape of dorayaki back in 1914. But we did not go to Usagiya since it seems it has become a little too industrial and mass produced and my preference always goes to a more traditional concept.
Kameju is also a long-established dorayaki store, with 90 years of history. Their dorayaki is very big and it has the peculiarity of a ‘rough’ texture. It is prepared by skilled craftsmen who purposely cook it to have grill marks on the surface. It was delectable! Much fluffier and lighter than the other ones I tried, more like a chiffon cake texture and their homemade bean paste was cooked to perfection and not too sweet. They also offer Dorayaki with white bean paste (shiro-an), but of course, I had the one with regular anko. Only 3,000 Dorayaki are made each day and most often than not, their dorayaki are sold out by noon, so there is normally a queue outside the store and it is worth the time you wait in line. Probably due to the rain, that day there was almost no queue at all. I got to meet and talk to the owner, who spoke a little bit of English too. I congratulated him on the quality of the Dorayaki sold at his store and I told him that I came all the way from Canada to taste it! He was quite impressed and pleased that he was going to be on Tv. Not that they needed more publicity, they are already very famous!
Kameju is just across the Thunder Gate of Sensoji in Asakusa, an area of Tokyo which is a hugely popular tourist destination. After the shooting at Kameju, Erika my translator and I enjoyed some time off in the area.
In a city full of temples, Sensoji is the eldest, boasting almost one and a half millennium of history. Tokyo’s biggest souvenir market and perhaps the gaudiest rendez-vous point is Kaminarimon Gate with the huge red chochin lantern. The common tourist route is to start from the Kaminarimon Gate and move up along Nakamise Dori.
We strolled down the 250-meter long shopping street between the Kaminarimon and Hozomon gates of Sensoji Temple. This narrow street, that can be crowded, might seem like a recent invention for tourists, but actually, the Nakamise goes way back to the pilgrim guides from the times of Edo. It is lined with close to 100 shops that sell everything from snacks to souvenirs. While lazily walking, we enjoyed vendors making ningyoyaki, Japanese snack cakes. They are tasty local treats, made by pouring batter into intricate molds with a dollop of sweet red bean paste (yes, the anko again!) in the center. There are also vendors of dorayaki and a wide variety of rice crackers.
Facing Sensoji Temple there is a dragon-themed fountain and a large pot emitting smoke. Those are to purify yourself, and for tourists to take pictures of, like I did. I had already done the water purification in the Shizuoka temple, here I tried the smoke, copying what everyone else was doing, i.e., just gently wafting the smoke towards me.
In Asakusa, you can see people dressed in traditional clothes, but Erika told me they are tourists wanting to experience the traditional Japanese clothing, and the kimonos are rented just for the day to take pictures. It is not unusual to see rickshaws, too, and that helps you piece together a picture of what Asakusa was like during Japan’s Edo period.
I was mesmerized and tried to absorb as much as I could, helped by Erika who turned out to be a marvelous guide. I had eaten a big Dorayaki at Kameju but while still in Asakusa she suggested I tried something new and delicious. Needless to say, I was ready for the new experience. She took me to a specialty store in Asakusa called “Oimoyasan Koshin” where something beautifully golden sweet captured my eyes, that is daigaku-imo (literally means university potatoes). Daigaku-imo is a Japanese snack made by chopping sweet potatoes into chunks, frying, then caramelizing them with sweet sauce and lightly sprinkling them with black sesame seeds. I shared our order with Erika. That candied golden piece of sweet potato dipped in thick honey has an outer crunchy shell and a scrumptious, moist interior. Absolutely irresistible for a sweet lover.
Soba noodles for lunch
The day was rainy and wet, and quite chilly to be honest. Our lunch consisted of a warm, comforting bowl of soba noodles. Asakusa is supposed to have many famous soba noodle restaurants and they chose one they probably knew. The menu was all in Japanese and I had to ask for “directions” as to what to order that was vegetarian. They helped me choose a wonderful bowl filled with veggies, mushroom, green onion, and a white, sticky, paste-like cream made of grated raw nagaimo (yam). Interesting was for me to share the table with Japanese people having soba served in a soup. They use their chopsticks to lead the noodles into their mouth while making a slurping sound, and the broth is drunk directly from the bowl. It seems like the slurping enhances the flavors and helps cool down the hot noodles as they enter your mouth. I tried, but there was no way I could do that, I was almost choking, lol.
We left Asakusa to reach the second dorayaki store of the day. While walking towards the subway station, we took a glance at the offices of Asahi Breweries and their landmark “the Golden Poo”, as everyone just calls it. Actually, the building and sculpture itself were designed by French designer Philippe Starck in 1989 and that gold thing is a flame meant to represent the passionate heart of the Asahi Beer company. The main tower’s outer surface is covered with a gold-colored material, except for the very top where white fixtures create the impression of a giant beer mug with a head of frothy foam.
Another long-established dorayaki store in Tokyo is Seijuken. Founded in 1861, with more than 150 years of history, during the Edo period, the dorayaki from Seijuken were a popular gift to the daimyo (the most powerful feudal lords). If you want a real old-school dorayaki, Seijuken is for you. The chefs pride themselves on making their confectionaries entirely by hand, stewing their anko for up to five hours, and not using any preservatives or additives.
Their oval ‘pancakes’ are bigger, thicker, but very moist and fluffy, and the amount of red bean paste sandwiched in it is impressive but moderately sweet. They are baked at high temperature on a cast iron griddle, and this gives a unique, roasted brown sugar flavor. Their dorayaki usually get sold out quickly so better to go in the early morning or early afternoon.
When we arrived there, early afternoon, the director pointed to a note on the window saying that the dorayaki were sold out for the day. I was so disappointed! But I soon found out that the director only wanted to film my sad face (which they did!) and instead, I got to go in the kitchen of Seijuken, watching the chef make Dorayaki from scratch just for us and eating one while still warm. What an experience! Especially being filmed while rolling my eyes in delight as I eat the dorayaki, lol.
There’s still room for dinner
The day had been memorable (and long!) but we had some energy left to go out for dinner. It was actually only Erika and myself, since the director, assistant and cameraman were busy. Not far from the hotel, there was a nice street full of places to eat, and frankly, we were spoilt for choice. Our intuition guided us towards one and it was a great choice! Everything we had was grilled: shitake mushrooms, fava bean, eggplant, fish, with a side of ginko nuts on a skewer, cilantro salad, and cold beer. Erika told the chef/owner that was grilling just in front of us, that I was there from Canada to appear in an episode of “Who Wants To Come to Japan”. He was so happy we were dining in his restaurants and said he loved the show and was going to watch my episode! I felt, for an infinitesimal fraction, like I was somebody famous, lol!
The day after we would leave Tokyo to go to the island of Hokkaido, located at the north end of Japan, where we would expect to find snow (and an azuki bean farm).
Stay tuned for part 4!