Thursday 27 June 2013

Banking in Japan and perfection found, at last - Okonomiyaki

This week I only had one day off and I was feeling a bit sick as I had caught a cold so I didn't really have anywhere planned to visit.  I did, however, need to go and open another bank account. When I got here, I opened an account with a bank called Shinsei bank.  Their website and online banking are completely bilingual.  Their branches also usually have some English speaking staff, so for the convenience, i chose them.  They are, however a foreign owned bank, and it is for that reason that some Japanese companies won't accept payments from Shinsei bank accounts.  Strange, I know, but that is how it is here sometimes.  So I had decided to open a new account with one of Japan's major banks as I want to get my own internet service.  The house I live in has internet, but the router blocks some streaming websites that I use to watch sports sometimes.  Some of you who read this blog may be doing so as you may be about to move to Japan, or are thinking of doing so, so this information is specifically aimed at you.

Just as I was about to head outside, I heard a thunder storm start up, and I thought, yep, it's my day off!!  I grabbed my, by now, well used umbrella and headed out the front door.  This is what it looked like.

The rain was so heavy that the steps leading from my front door down to the road level resembled a waterfall!

So I got into Shibuya and made my way to the bank I wanted to open an account with.  Something to note here is that Japanese people mostly don't use a signature for any official capacity.  People here use a name stamp, or hanko which is, as the name suggests, a stamp with their name on it.  Most foreigners here do not have one, although they are quite able to get one if they choose.  I went into the bank and told the information lady that I wanted to open a new account.  She started going through the things that I would need to open an account, passport (yes), official ID card (yes), hanko (no) "but is it OK if I use my signature", I asked.  The answer was no, I would need to have a hanko.  So I told her that I would go elsewhere.  The name of this first bank is Mizuho Bank, and their sign looks like this

I went to the next one on the list and walked inside.  The information lady was very friendly and spoke quite good English.  She sat down with me and started going through the process and then told me that I would need to either go to the branch near my work, or near home to open an account as I couldn't open one at the branch I was in.  I didn't really understand that, but it was no big problem.  I asked her if she could tell me the address of the branch near work and she wrote it all down, gave it to me and then proceeded to tell me "oh, and you will also need a hanko"......  I handed back the directions and address she had kindly written down for me and left saying I would try somewhere else.  This bank was Mitsubishi UFJ bank and their sign looks like this.

Right next door was another one of the big banks so, feeling pretty frustrated at this point, I walked inside, was given a ticket and sat down waiting for my number to be called.  It finally was and I walked up to be served.  The first thing I told the lady was that I didn't have a hanko and would that be a problem.  She responded that it would not be a problem at all.  First hurdle cleared! Now my Japanese is not real good at this stage, and the poor lady's English was about as good as my Japanese!  If people keep their Japanese nice and simple (like speaking to a 2 year old) I can usually understand.  Unfortunately, opening a bank account generally requires a higher Japanese ability than a two year old has!

Things were going relatively smoothly until she noticed on my ID card that my contract with my company runs out in August.  Now Japan recently has been hit by people from other countries scamming Japanese citizens using pre-paid phones and temporary bank accounts in doing so, and the fact that my contract was due to run out in a couple of months set off alarm bells in her head, and I can't blame her really.  Now the situation with my company is that they work on 6 month long rolling contracts, but what two year old have you ever heard succinctly explain what  6 month rolling contract is?  She went off and checked with her boss and them came back to me and asked if my job was a summer job, or if I was part time or full time.  All of this was happening half in Japanese, half in English and with the use of her electronic translator.  Where she could, she spoke English to me, and in turn, where I could, I spoke Japanese to her.  Finally I called my head office and thankfully a Japanese staff member answered the phone.  I explained my situation and then handed the phone to the bank teller.  The girl from my company then explained my contract to her.  The bank teller handed the phone back to me with a big smile and an OK sign!  Great.  It was then just a matter of filling out the paperwork and the process was done.  I gave the girl a big thank you for her patience and persistence and walked out.  The name of this bank is Sumitomo Mitsui bank and their sign looks like this.

So please, if you are planning to move to Japan, or will be soon, save yourself a few headaches and go straight to Sumitomo Mitsui bank to open your account!

Those who read this blog regularly will know that I am searching for a great okonomiyaki restaurant.  I have had a couple of failed attempts but kept on looking.  One of my students had mentioned an okonomiyaki restaurant in an area called Kanda that had a great restaurant that she and her husband love.  She said that people from Hiroshima go to this one and love it, and that's usually a good indicator.  So after opening my bank account I headed off to Kanda in search of perfection!

Kanda, or the section I was in, is another of the many business districts in Tokyo and I got off the train along with a sea of salarymen and office ladies and set off in search of okonomiyaki.  I knew the restaurant name was "Carp" (the professional baseball team in Hiroshima is know as the Hiroshima Carp), I knew the general area it was in, but not much more than that.  Again, those who read this blog regularly will know that my lunch of choice on days when I am out exploring for my blog is ramen (soup noodles), but I was on the hunt for okonomiyaki today.  That didn't stop Kanda from trying to tempt me every 


step of 

the way!!

But, no, I stayed strong and eventually found my pot of gold!

The part right at the end - カープ says Carp.  I walked inside and the owner (a guy who looked like he was in his seventies.  His wife and son were working with him) looked up at me with a bemused expression on his face.  I guess it is not everyday that a foreigner walks into his restaurant!  He asked me to take a seat where ever I wanted to so I did and started looking over the menu.  There are three alphabets in the Japanese language, and most of the menu was written in the most difficult one (kanji), and I really have no idea how to read that one!  He must have seen I was looking a bit confused so he asked me if I wanted Hiroshima okonomiyaki.  I said yes, and to save me the hassle he started cooking the standard okonomiyaki which was fine by me.  There are no "special" ingredients in the standard one, I know exactly what is in it.  I asked him if it was OK if I took some photos and he said yes.  As he was cooking he asked me where I was from and I told him Australia.  He then said with a big smile on his face that he went to Australia fifty years ago when he played hockey (the field variety not ice) touring Australia and New Zealand.  He obviously had enjoyed himself as that smile stayed on his face for a while!  This conversation was happening entirely in Japanese as he was keeping his Japanese nice and simple and easy to understand (just like talking to a two year old!), and I was very appreciative of that, and was able to respond back in Japanese.

The okonomiyaki that traces it's roots to Hiroshima is my favourite Japanese food, but, as some of you know, I have been having trouble finding a restaurant that makes great okonomiyaki.  Looking around the restaurant, i was hopeful with this one.  It was just a simple little unpretentious local restaurant.  The process of making okonomiyaki involves quite a few steps.  First a layer of batter is spread onto a hot plate in a circle.  Next a couple of handfuls of cabbage and bean sprouts are laid on top of the crepe and along with some bacon and a couple of different herbs and spices.

This is then flipped over and progressively flattened as the cabbage begins to cook.

While this is happening, some boiled noodles are then placed alongside the crepe and cabbage part and are cooked through on the hotplate.

Finally an egg is cracked onto the hotplate and spread out in a circle about the same size as the other part.  The crepe and cabbage are then placed on top of the noodles.  This, in turn, is placed on top of the spread out egg.  The whole lot is then flipped over, covered with a sweet sauce (a little like BBQ sauce) and whatever other toppings you have ordered.  You then eat it off the hot plate in front of you.  If done successfully, it should look like this.

Also, if done successfully, the finished product should look like this!

Okonomiyaki is best washed down with this.

Especially if it is a warm humid day like it was!

This okonomiyaki, unlike other ones I have tried, was simple, no frills okonomiyaki.  The cook didn't try to do anything fancy with it, just made simple, authentic okonomiyaki, and I loved it!  Finally my search had ended.  I can now say I have found my new favourite okonomiyaki restaurant.  

I don't think it was coincidence, but I walked outside and noticed that the rain had stopped.  I walked back to the train station is bright sunlight and went home a happy man.

So, if any of you are in Tokyo at any point in the future and want to try okonomiyaki, I'm the man to talk to!

Thanks again for reading.  Take care, and I will see you again next week.

Thursday 20 June 2013

Cool Koenji

One of my close mates here in Japan is a Canadian guy called Charlie.  He has lived in Tokyo for about 14 years.  He chose Shimokitazawa to call home, but he almost moved to a place called Koenji.  I had been told by Charlie and a number of other people that the vibe of Koenji was very similar to Shimokita and being that Shimokita is my favourite place in Tokyo, I thought I should head over the Koenji to check it out.  I was heading over with high expectations as everyone had talked it up!

I checked the weather forecast before heading out the front door.  Thunderstorms were on the way....... Cursing the weatherman I grabbed my trusty umbrella and set forth.

As with Togoshi Ginza, the subject of last week's post, Koenji's history is also heavily influenced by the 1923 Great Kanto earthquake.  Prior to this devastating event in Tokyo's history, Koenji was simply a sleepy little farming community.  Immediately after the earthquake, displaced residents of Tokyo moved into the area.  The farmers subdivided their land and set up housing for the new residents and pretty soon businesses opened in the area to cater to the growing community.  It is now an energetic, vibrant community where music, second hand clothes stores and cheap eateries thrive.

Stepping out of the station I had a look around to decide which direction to head off in.

Hmmm, not so interesting.

That looked a little better, a little street running alongside the train line, so I walked along that street to see what I could find.

The first place I cam to was offering 190 yen glasses of beer!

As tempting as it was, I was on a mission.  The beer could wait.  Continuing on, there were a few restaurants along this street, but not a lot else.

A couple of things I had seen along the way were interesting.  A lot of people ride bicycles to the train station in the morning, catch the train to work and then the process is reversed at the end of the day.  Where do they leave their bicycles during the day?  A bike park of course!

It is also sad to see that there is more of this than there was when I lived in Japan before.

I had seen on the map of the area in the train station that there was a temple not far away so I wandered off in that direction.  I got to the area where I thought it was but couldn't find anything, in fact what I was finding was very different to what I was expecting.

This wasn't the Koenji I had heard so much about.  I was beginning to think that I might have to do another "random thoughts" post!  I kept on going though and found a very green tree lined car park that looked nice enough for a photo.

As I was about to walk off, something caught my eye on the other side of the car park and I decided to investigate.  On the other side, I found a temple, not the one I had been originally looking for, bit I wandered in for a look.  There was no-one else around and the solitude I felt was nearly overwhelming.  It was like Koenji was telling me "Here you are Jason, this one is just for you".

All I could hear was the faint whine of the nearby train pulling into the station.  The detail in the architecture and the carvings in the stone pillars was very impressive.  Looking  around further, I found some stone statues around the temple grounds.

This next one had a few one yen coins in it's open mouth.  Possibly for good luck?

Starting to feel a little better about how the day was going I walked on.  I started circling back towards the station and started seeing a few indications that suggested that maybe I had gone out of the wrong exit of the station to find what Koenji was all about.  I started seeing a few new and used clothes shops.  Not sure about the name for this one though.  I don't think I would like to wear my Grandfather's clothes!

Saw this one in a shop window.

And if you are wondering, yes temptation did get the better of me and I have checked the website and can report that is is rated PG.  Just a clothes store, nothing nude or rude to see there!

Saw this supermarket and was happy that they weren't overselling themselves.  After all, you don't want to get people's expectations too high, then you have to keep on delivering.

Now I was starting to get where I was wanting to go, second hand clothes shops, record stores and small restaurants.

Still sensing that there was more to see I pushed on.  Weaving in and out of all the streets around the station I started felt that I was getting closer, and on seeing these guys outside a second hand clothes store, the anticipation was building.

I finally found myself on a little paved shopping street!  It was lined with a variety of clothes shops, restaurants, salons, bars and home ware shops.

Mmmm, tequila and Mexican food, tempting

Some kind of toy or collectibles store where you can buy a Ronald Mcdonald head!

A little bar, but it was too early in the afternoon for it to be open.

This sight showed that the shopping street had ended so I turned back around and walked back along the street as I had seen a few streets leading off this one that were worth investigating.

I found another little interesting street to explore so I wandered along it feeling satisfied that I had found the Koenji I had come for.

What my bad photography doesn't show here is that the legs you see are from the Mad Hatter from Alice in Wonderland, and this was his tea shop.  I liked the opening hours!

Rice anyone?  

This shot shows how the buildings are all crammed together.  Every inch of space is used.  In a country the size of New Zealand that has a population of over 120 million, you need to utilise all of the space you have!

 I walked back past the station figuring I would check out a few places over there and was walking past a fruit and vegetable store listening to the staff welcoming people and telling them how good their goods were.  One of the guys was a really thick set man who had a really guttural voice that almost scared me into buying a banana!  Suddenly I saw something that gave me goosebumps!  A tiny little alleyway that ran alongside the fruit and veg shop.  Those of you who read my blog regularly know that I love small shopping streets, but this was taking it to the extreme!

Looking back the way I had come and I thought how lucky was I to have seen this as it would have been very easy to not notice it walking along the street.

 Getting to the other side I walked out onto this!

This day was getting better and better!  I walked up and down the street absorbing the sights, sounds and smells of the shops and restaurants.  It must have been a strange sight, this foreigner wandering up and down the street mouth wide open in awe taking photos!  This looked like a nice little bar to check out another time.

A little coffee house,

and an even smaller temple!

Well, at least they are being honest, unlike other burger places......  I was almost tempted as I was starting to get a little hungry, but I pushed on instead.

By this stage I was back near the train station again and saw this little alcove under the train line.  A few restaurants and a little bar.  I was again tempted by the ramen shop at the rear but it appeared to be not open.

 I loved seeing this.  This had just put the icing on top of the cake for me for the day.  I had come and finally found what everyone had been talking about, and the sights of the last hour or so had completely justified my decision to come here to  have a look around.  I wandered back in the direction of the station figuring I would go home for dinner when I saw this......

The sign said "Koenji street" and it lead under the elevated train lines!  This I just had to check out!!  I walked in and got goosebumps for the second time today!  It was a rabbit warren of restaurants and bars running along underneath the train lines.  I felt my jaw drop open even more!

That is incredibly cheap curry rice for the size of the serving.  I guess the rent on these places is not too high!  I didn't go in as I was not finished exploring!

Reaching the end of the street (it didn't feel like I should call it a street but there were a couple of cars and motorcycles driving along as well, so I guess it was a street!) I found some stairs leading down into a basement so I went down and found myself in a small food court with four ramen shops.

This was too good to be true!!  My stomach suddenly convinced me that it was time to eat, but how was I to decide which one to eat at?  As I was standing outside of this one.....

looking at the menu, a guy who looked Indian came out and said "Come on in!" so I went in and he helped me decipher the ticket machine that had no pictures.  I sat down and waited for the food to arrive.  The restaurant atmosphere was nice and had a selection of dance, hip hop and R & B music playing.  The staff were hard at work and there was quite a good number of people inside, which was a positive sign.

My food arrived and they actually gave me a second piece of egg for free!  That was nice of them.  I almost forgot to take a photo of the food, and had started eating it when I remembered, so the food is not as immaculately presented as it was before I started devouring it!

After I finished the guy came over and we had a chat.  Turns out he is from Singapore and he had lived in Sydney for 3 years!  He gave me one of the restaurant's point cards and instead of giving me one stamp for my meal he puts on 4 stamps!  He smiled at me and said "Come back anytime mate, and just ask for Roman"!

Walking out with a smile on my face I headed back to the station feeling completely happy with how my day had turned out.  However, Koenji was about to surprise me again......I was just about back to the station when out of the corner of my eye I saw a tiny little alleyway.

Were they the orange lights of a restaurant I could see down there.  For the third time today, Koenji had just given me goosebumps.  Yes they were indeed restaurants and a little bar down an even smaller sidestreet running off the alleyway!

I didn't go into any of them as I'm sure the sight of a big foreigner walking into their establishment with his mouth wide open in shock would be enough to send any of the staff running for the phone to call the police, or the ambulance, or both!

The alley was only wide enough for two people to squeeze by each other, so it was difficult to get good shots of the restaurants as I couldn't stand back far enough to get everything in the shot!

One day I want to come back and try a couple of them though!

Walking out the other side of the alley, I found myself back at the same fruit and veg shop I had gone past earlier.  The big guy almost had me buying an orange, but I scurried past not looking at him and resisted!

Well, Koenji had certainly saved the best for last, that's for sure.  Standing back at the train station on the platform waiting for my train, I found it difficult to believe that a place that looked like this from one side...

also looked like this....

 less than 50 metres away.  That is what I find fascinating about this country, and while I continue to find places like this, this blog will continue to be written.

Thank you again for reading.  It was an amazing day today and looking back on how it started out, I would never have guessed it would finish like it did.  Oh, and the rain, it held off until about 11pm, so I silently apologised to the weatherman for cursing him earlier and instead thanked him for being wrong.

See you again next week.