Wednesday 22 November 2017

No ramen no life - Tokyo ramen show

I have a very good friend who I used to work with called Jorge.  He, like me, is a ramen lover.  Jorge, however, takes it to a whole nother level.  After Jorge left Japan, he moved to Brussels, Belgium.  One day he woke up craving ramen and before the day was out he was on a flight to Tokyo for a bowl of his favourite miso ramen!!  Possibly one of the most expensive bowls of ramen ever!  Jorge recently sent me a message on Facebook letting me know that the Tokyo ramen show was on.  In the midst of packing and moving apartment, a trip to the Tokyo ramen show was decided.

A few years ago I developed a New Year's routine.  I would go to my local shrine for the typical New Year's shrine visit (hatsumode) followed by a trip across town to my favourite miso ramen shop, Kururi.  Suddenly in late 2015, disaster struck.  Kururi closed.  After the tears and the wailing and gnashing of teeth had subsided (I don't know if gnashing of teeth is a sign of sadness and disappointment, but I was grieving)  I set about trying to find my new favourite miso ramen place.  I decided to extend this quest to the Tokyo ramen show.

The Tokyo ramen show is held each year at Komazawa Olympic Park so I set off towards Komazawa Daigaku station.  After a quick 10 minute walk from the station I arrived at the ramen show.  It was early evening so there were not too many people around.

Pulling out my English shop information map I plotted my first miso ramen raid.

Seeing that miso was the theme of the night, I picked out Musashi miso ramen as my first bowl of the night.

As I said, no lines, perfect!!  I grabbed my bowl and headed off to a table to tuck into my first bowl of the night.  It looked beautiful!

The charsui pork was fall apart tender, delicious.  The egg was seasoned nicely, probably the best part of the bowl.  The bowl was topped with a burnt garlic oil which initially added a punch of flavour to the bowl, but all too soon the flavour diluted into the rest of the soup.  The soup was okay, but no wow factor and the noodles tasted a bit cheap (I was to discover that all of the ramen noodles tasted the same, maybe the same provider).

Having finished my first bowl I decided to head for a walk around the park to get the digestion process started.  About 30 minutes later I was back for my second bowl.  Seeking another bowl of miso I lined up at Kanazawa Mentatsu Kenrokukai.

The crowds were now starting to appear.  After a 10 minute wait, I started getting nearer and the smells were getting stronger and stronger.

Finally I was there!

Just in time too as now the crowds were really swelling!

I sat down at another table to start slurping on my second bowl.

The winner in this bowl was the pork.  

Seasoned beautifully and cooked in black pepper, I could have eaten a whole bowl of it and gone back for seconds!    The soup in this bowl was also good, a stronger miso flavour, very smooth and mild with a lingering salty aftertaste.  Nice!

After my second bowl, I needed an extended break before attempting a third bowl so I took another walk around the park and washed everything down with a chu-hi.

Tempting fate, I went back for my third bowl.  Again, sticking with the miso theme I went for a bowl at Ramen Gimparou Sapporo.

The menma (bamboo shoots) on this one were great, soft and tender and the sesame seeds added a nice elements to it.  The charsui was pretty standard but the soup in this bowl was the winner, delightfully creamy!  Unfortunately I was not able to finish this bowl off.  The soup disappeared but the noodles were left remaining.  Three bowls proved to be too much.....

So, did I find my New Year's miso ramen replacement.  It is with great sadness that I report, no, none of the bowls I ate matched up to the great Kururi.  The search continues.

Thanks again for reading.  I hope you enjoyed it Jorge, and I look forward to slurping a bowl with you again sometime in the future.

Please leave me a message below, if you have a favourite miso ramen place around the Tokyo area, please tell me about it and I will check it out and report back here!  See you next time.

Sunday 1 October 2017

Okinawan gourmet - Charlie's tacos in Naha (taco rice)

I recently had an opportunity to go to Okinawa (the southernmost islands of the Japanese archipelago) with my friend Tetsuya.  Now, Tetsuya is from Okinawa and has been there many times as well as spending the first 6 years of his life there.  Me, however, it was my first time and when the decision was made to go, I started researching where I wanted to go and what I wanted to do.  As fate would have it, it was so hot and humid while we were there that I didn't get to do half the things I wanted to do.  I am a much better winter person than I am a summer person even though I come from a very hot area with temperatures sometimes over 40 degrees celsius in summer.  

Okinawa has a very different culture to mainland Japan having only been part of Japan for a tiny part of its history.  It also has a very different food culture to Japan.  For example, take a look at the photo below......

As you can see, every part of the pig is eaten.  Now in Tokyo I have not yet seen anyone sitting down to a meal of pigs face.  Waste not, want not!

A little more to my liking is the Okinawan invented quasi Mexican dish, taco rice.  Now I'm sure you can all imagine what this is.  Take a taco, empty the contents onto rice and (SHAZAM!!) taco rice.  Now, it may not sound like much, but, in my humble opinion, much more appealing than pigs face.  So I started doing research about what taco rice restaurant to visit while in Naha and one name kept coming up, Charlie's tacos.

From what I can gather, Charlie's tacos is an institution in Okinawa and has been running at it's original location since 1956.  Sprawled across his original shop window is "Mexican born, Okinawan raised".  So the decision was made we were going to Charlie's.

The Charlie's that we visited is on Kokusai Dori (International street).  Located on the second floor (first floor if you are Australian) of a building on the south end of Kokusai Dori about 150m along the street from A&W burger.

Stepping inside, the decor was a little classic, kind of retro but homely.

Sorry to the lovely lady taking a huge bite of her taco......

The menu is on the table

and you go up to the cash register when you are ready to order.

Before too long, the food came out.  Tetsuya ordered a taco with onion rings

and I went all out and got a taco with taco rice!

Both of us agreed that the taco was a little dry (maybe I should have used the sauce) but the real winner was the taco rice!  Delicious, not so spicy (there are bottles of chili sauce around that you can use to amp up the spice levels) and filling!

Next time you are in Okinawa, the main island, check out Charlie's tacos for some great taco rice!

Thanks again for reading.  Leave a message below if you have been to Charlie's.  What was it like for you?

See you next time.

Wednesday 20 September 2017

One of Japan's top 100 castles - Hachioji castle (八王子城)

At the end of the last post I left a message inviting people to leave me a message with a letter of the English alphabet and a number.  What I would then do would be to find a train line in the Greater Tokyo area beginning with the letter provided and then find a station along the line that matched the number (train stations here recently have been given a designated number to assist foreign tourists make their way around.  I would then try to find something in the area to write about.  The first person to leave me a message was Ms B.  She left me B 22.  I searched long and hard around the Tokyo area for a train line beginning with the letter B, but no luck.  Sorry Ms B but I had to move on to the next letter in the alphabet, C.  Immediately I thought of the Chuo Line.  Now station number 22 happens to be Hachioji.  Next problem, what is there in Hachioji?  I started searching and found that Mount Takao is located in Hachioji city but I have already written about that (post can be found here).  A little more searching and I stumbled across Hachioji castle.  "What is this?" I mused, having not heard of Hachioji castle before.  I little more searching and I realised that this was it.  I was going to visit Hachioji castle!  I was also to find out that not many Japanese people know of Hachioji castle, even people who have lived in Hachioji city for years.  What a hidden gem!

Hachioji castle has a very short history, and a very violent finale.  Construction of the castle started in the 1570's by Ujiteru Hojo of the powerful Hojo clan.  The Hojo clan controlled most of the Kanto area which is comprised of Tokyo, Kanagawa to the south, Chiba to the east and Saitama and Gunma to the north.  Possessing such a large tract of land gave them a huge amount of power.  Their main castle was located at nearby Odawara but Ujiteru built Hachioji as a defensive fortress.  Located at the top of a mountain, it was thought that it would be much easier to fend off enemy forces.

Skip ahead to 1590 and another guy by the name of Hideyoshi Toyotomi was well on his way to unifying all of Japan under a central rule.  One of the final pieces of regional power left to fall was the Kanto area.  He marched 150,000 men to Odawara, surrounded the castle and started a waiting game.  He didn't attack the castle, just lay siege to it.  What he did do was to send a force of men around the Kanto area taking down each of the smaller Hojo family castles, slowly whittling away their power.  Our friend, Ujiteru Hojo heard this news and quickly made his way back to Odawara castle leaving a force of 1,300 men protecting Hachioji castle.  Hideyoshi Toyotomi sent two of his military commanders, Toshiie Maeda and Kagekatsu Uesugi, along with a force of 50,000 soldiers to take down Hachioji castle.  It fell in less than a day. This victory was influential in finishing the resistance of the Hojo family at Odawara caslte and they surrendered the next month.  A couple of weeks ago I paid a visit to Hachioji castle.

The nearest station to the castle is Takao station and while technically not station 22 (it is 24) it is within Hachioji city.  I met up with friends Tetsuya and Jarrett at Takao station and headed out the North exit to where the bus stop is.  We jumped on the bus (which is clearly marked in English "For Hachioji castle" and within 15 minutes we had arrived at the entry point to the castle.

We started in toward the castle and the forest was thick around us.

This is in the area where the front gate of the castle used to be.

Walking through here I could imagine the Hojo soldiers viewing the sight of the massive Toyotomi army marching toward the castle gates.  I could imagine them retreating from the front gates back into the main castle area.

The path kept winding up the hill toward the castle proper

eventually arriving at the last obstacle before reaching the castle, Hikihashi.

It was one final obstacle as the bridge was built so that it was easily collapsible, thus forcing attacking enemies to find an alternative way across the river to get to the castle, effectively buying the inhabitants a little extra time.  In this case, it was futile as Toyotomi's men soon found a way in, as did we.  We had it a little easier than those 427 years ago as those who had reconstructed the bridge in recent times kindly made it sturdier and non-collapsible.

Reaching the other side, we made our way up the stone stairs just as Toyotomi's men had 427 years ago.

and into the grounds of the main castle building.  All that remains now are a few foundation stones and the foundation of the main castle residence where Ujiteru Hojo lived.

The silence was mystical and mesmerising, while at the same time, sombre and haunting.  Just a handful of people wandering around wordlessly taking in the atmosphere of this place, this place which had been, historically, a crucial part of one of the most significant episodes in Japan's history, the re-unification of Japan under a centralised rule.

Turning around, I noticed a path leading back into the forest behind the castle so I wandered in to have a look.

I kept following it deeper into the tangle of trees and undergrowth

further deeper until the path started fading away

and I began to feel as though I might just about to have my own Blair Witch moment so I turned around and made my way back along the path and back into the clearing.  Heading off to the right I made my way down a path that led me away from the main area of the castle ruins.

In front of me was a worn path

that led to a waterfall.

It was here on that fateful day, in 1590, that thousands of soldiers and regular townsfolk fled to get away from the oncoming forces.  It was here that they took their own lives rather than be captured or killed by the enemy.  Exactly how many people died here that day is unknown, lost in time.  Some reports say 50,000 people died here (although that number may have been inflated by the sands of time).  Legend says that the river water ran red for 3 days after.

A memorial to the fallen, perhaps.

I made my way back down to the entrance of the castle area, again, surrounded by silence, a silence that cloaked what had happened all those years ago.

I think I will end this one here.  There is more to the castle are than I saw, I just had to leave when I did to get back to the bus stop to catch the bus back to the train station.  As it turned out, we had missed the last bus and had to walk back to Takao station!

Thanks again for reading and I hope you enjoyed that Ms B.  That one was for you.  Please leave a comment below and tell me what you thought of this post about Hachioji castle.  Also, feel free to sign up for email updates when I put up a new post.  See you next time.