Matcha: aka Green Tea Powder- love it or hate it?

Much ado about Matcha. The finely ground Japanese green tea powder that is being used in everything from lattes, ice cream, noodles, bread, and of course in its traditional form as tea. So what does this mean and do you love it or hate it?

 

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LOVERS AND CONVERTS

Matcha is a finely ground green tea powder known to be a mood enhancer with 137 times the antioxidants of a cup of standard green tea. Amino acids called L-theanine abound in matcha and this, combined with natural caffeine offers a sustained calm alertness according to some aficionados.

So apart from the mood enhancing benefits matcha is touted as a superfood.  A read of the health benefits of matcha at Matchasource.com lists them as:

  • Is packed with antioxidants including the powerful EGCg
  • Boosts metabolism and burns calories
  • Detoxifies effectively and naturally
  • Calms the mind and relaxes the body
  • Is rich in fiber, chlorophyll and vitamins
  • Enhances mood and aids in concentration
  • Provides vitamin C, selenium, chromium, zinc and magnesium
  • Prevents disease
  • Lowers cholesterol and blood sugar

With all these benefits for the mind and health no wonder we are all going mad over matcha, you love it or hate it?

Matcha is part of the Japanese psyche and has formed part of the culture for many many years. A google search will yield any number of articles on history and uses. This blog is more about the new uses of this bright green powder in the western world.

We traveled to New York  in 2015 and visited the newly opened  Matcha Bar NYC

This was one of the first dedicated Matcha bars around, and I see they have also opened in Los Angeles. I can’t see a food menu on their site, but their lattes were superb!

 

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Matcha Bar New York

Australia could be considered to be up there with the best in terms of vegan and vegetarian eateries. The vegan movement generally goes hand in hand with a healthier lifestyle and the team at Matcha Mylk bar in Melbourne have made it all about this green superfood. Check out their menu and really its just a case of what can’t you add matcha to!

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Matcha Burgers at Matcha Mylk Bar, Melbourne , Australia

 

HATERS

This particular word doesn’t get used much around here, and certainly, matcha doesn’t polarise people in the way a brussel sprout does.  So lets put aside the nay sayers, as they are always there to throw water on a fire and label any fresh, new healthy initiative as a “fad” or “hipster” .  Yes, there are indeed people out there who don’t like ( or I prefer to say are not yet converted) Matcha. This particularly cynical site has a good whine about it!  In their defense, the article is mostly about over hyped claims of the nutritional value of Matcha……The flavor takes some getting used to as it is slightly bitter and can be a bit chalky if not made properly. But really whats not to love? if it’s too bitter add a sprinkle of sugar or agave ( for the anti sugar crew)

As a chef, I run a small catering company and am always looking for new and innovative ways to use this beautiful green silky powder.  If you are down our part of the world make sure to check out Matcha Mylk Bar ( no it’s not my place, I just think it’s great!)

Well, its time for a latte- make mine a Matcha one, please.

 

KYOTO: Shoguns and Geishas Part 2

As I approached Nijo-jo castle I seriously had tears in my eyes. Ever since studying Japanese history I have dreamt of visiting this castle. Excited is an undestatement!

DAY TWO. NIJO-JO CASTLE AND FUSHIMI INARI-TAISHA SHRINE.  This is the second of two posts on Kyoto, the first one you can read here .

Kyoto needs more than two days, I discovered, so in the interests of learning more about one of my favorite periods of history I chose to visit less rather than more places.  I think this gave me insight into a part of Japan well worth a second visit.

NIJO-JO CASTLE

Nijo-jo Castle has witnessed some of the most important events of Japanese history. It is an impressive sight to behold and the stories of the Nightingale floors surrounding the inner sanctum held me fascinated to learn more about the Shogun era. The first shogun Tokugawa Ieyasu unified Japan ending the civil war, ushering in a period of over 260 years of peace and prosperity although shut off completely from the western world. That is an impressive 15 generations of rule. In 1867 the castle was also the backdrop and place where the 15th Shogun returned the political rule to The Emperor and began the Meiji period from which Japan developed rapidly from a feudal society into the modern democratic nation of today.

 

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Nijo jo castle is an imposing structure surrounded and fortified with huge stone walls surrounded by deep moats. The tranquil gardens within the walls are also, as most Japanese gardens are, sublime and beautiful.

Hiring the audio tour was excellent and the entire visit not overly expensive. I recall the ticket included tea at a tea house within the walls but forgot this, unfortunately. The nightingale floors in Nijo jo castle literally sound like birds chirping. The noise of these warned the shogun and his minders of any approaching intruders. I have long held this as a romantic type notion only to have it crushed whilst listening to the recorded tour !! They do indeed make this noise but it was by accident rather by design that this occurred! The entire interior has large flamboyant and detailed pictures mostly depicting  scene of nature but including ferocious animals such as tigers , all showing off the power and strength of the Shogun.

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Check out the size of this moat! The grounds and gardens leave a person awestruck by the majesty of this place and the history behind it. Set aside three hours to comfortably see this castle.

FUSHIMI INARI-TAISHA SHRINE

I can’t even think where to start with this amazing place! Fushimi Inari-taisha Shrine is just a must see when you visit Kyoto.

Again I used insidekyoto to guide me through this incredible place. Google maps are awesome to guide you to the relevant trains to get here and once you have reached the destination the magic unfolds.

The shrine is dedicated to the gods of rice and sake. There are over 5000 bright orange tori gates the wind up a hill stopping at a magical lake with graveyards and smaller shrines on the way.

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At the start of the walk is the major temple. Here, there is a small shrine to the right with thousands of peace cranes made of origami folded by students praying for luck in exams.

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Oigami peace cranes

All through the shrine and the walk are a lot of foxes with keys in their mouths. The Fox is the messenger of the god of grain foods, Inari, and the keys in the fox mouths are keys to granaries.

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The Fox is the messenger of the grain god Inari.

The most stunning part, in my mind, was the meandering walk through the gates.  Apparently some of the gates date back to 711 A.D. Some say there are 5,000 and other info I read say over 10,000!!
These gates are entrances to shrines in Shinto religion, these ones are a bit different as they have been donated by people and organizations to give thanks for prosperity and hopes of more good luck. So as you walk up the gates are solid red and the names are engraved on the back. I walked up through the winding path to an amazing lake at the top full of huge koi and turtles which were a real surprise. If you get the opportunity please visit this place… indescribable might be my best word to try and describe this sight!

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Hello from Kyoto

Japan: Finding Vegan Food ..Easy?

Let’s face it, in the land of sushi and sashimi being a meatless and fishless eater was bound to be a bit of a challenge right?.. I would love to say, Nah it was easy, but no it is not easy. In fact, it was more of a challenge than I thought and many times I ended up eating only bread, not ideal for any number of reasons!

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Kyushu Jangara Ramen Harajuku fantastic bowl of goodness

The Japanese are famed for their longevity and healthy diets. So I will add this disclaimer…. I love Japan, its food, culture, people, and history, but I find a lot of food to be very processed and over packaged. A home cooked meal was high on my priority list after a week of eating, what I felt to be a mostly unhealthy diet. A trip to the market was interesting of course but so disappointing to find single items of food such as a tomato, or a ( singular) potato in its own package, and expensive to boot. Eating out seemed to be a cheaper alternative.

My Didi in Tokyo, who owns the fabulous chain of Indian restaurants gave me some insight into this. Vegetables are very expensive and are often a money losing dish at a restaurant as the general view held is that ‘why should veges cost more than meat…’  I found this sad and frustrating, to say the least.  Of course, people with some insight into the cruelty of animal farming get it, but to the general population, it seems animals are seen as food. That subject is not where I want to go with this post but rather to assist you on a visit with what to do! I must say though how is it then that the Japanese diet is hailed as one of the most healthy on earth. I wonder if this will be the case in the upcoming years as the western diet pervades the traditional way of life.  Any comments welcome please!

On a daily basis, my search for vege food became almost an obsession. I thank God for apps such as Yelp and Happy Cow which stopped me from starving. Okay, okay I am embellishing this slightly for effect! I tended to use Yelp due to the fact it lists places that have vege options whereas Happy Cow tends to be only those places that list with them and identify as veg only. If it wasn’t for the kindness of Funky Love Bunny ( yes that is his real name at Zen Japan in Coffs Harbour, Australia who has this awesome conversion card I surely would have eaten bread for two weeks.  He has sized it so it can be printed on a business card- wonderful idea. Please go visit Funky and his wife Emi at their fantastic Izakaya, well worth the trip.Vegan Convesion Card

I read up on many places to visit but once in a country full of more restaurants than people ( feels like it at times) I found trying to get to these places a bit overwhelming. A few in Tokyo are worthy of mention and relatively easy to find. Kyushu jangara is easy to find, but rather than give directions here, check it on Yelp and follow the map. Also worthy of mention is ramen at Tokyo station called T’s Tan Tan 

On the upside, Japanese food does not contain as much dairy as the western diet so I found that trips to the local convenience store were great. Lawsons stores have a great variety of takeout food and most people understand the word vegetaian. The rice onigiri parcels were the most consistent in terms of selection and even managed to find brown rice offerings. there are always salads and vege sushi available.

Compassionate cooking, vegan, plant based what ever you identify with is on the rise, especially in Australia. Other parts of the world have their traditional meat free dishes which are usually side dishes, and there are plenty of tasty ones in Japan, but on the whole, I found Japan not easy and certainly options were often limited to salad, so be prepared to be viewed as a weirdo for wanting to not eat meat. But hey whats new huh!

KYOTO: Shoguns and Geishas Part 1

I cannot believe I have not been to this wondrous place before. Step back in time to the richness that is the history of Japan. You can almost imagine yourself in the era of the Shoguns. My studies of Japanese history have always held me enthralled with Kyoto and finally, I am here! Kyoto is absolutely charming, quaint alleys, temples and shrines galore, geishas, ryokans, and more modern day offerings such as cute craft beer bars on the river….whats not to love.

Footnote: Two days was not enough but was a great taster. A stay in a Ryokan would be high on my list and more time wandering around Gion at night, especially to some of the more interesting places behind closed doors.

TWO DAYS IN KYOTO

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Prettiness in Gion

 

HOW I GOT HERE- I caught the Platt Kodomo shinkansen from Tokyo station. Obviously dreaming of ancient Japan I ended up in Osaka instead.. hmm rookie error and discovered that the distance is only 15 mins by shinkansen, or 40 mins on the local train, which is a lot cheaper. Telling myself it is all part of the adventure ( secretly irritated at myself) I eventually ended up where I was supposed to be. I discovered that Kyoto is more bus orientated than other cities so again I was glad I didn’t opt for the more expensive rail pass. The buses are easy and a day pass is around Y500

WHERE I STAYED-   I also chose Airbnb for this stay and picked a place near to the beating heart of Kyoto that is Gion. I chose this area as it was central and within safe night walking distance to most places I wanted to go to.

DAY ONE

An early start was in order as I realized there was far more to see here than two days allowed, so don’t try and do too much but rather savor the time exploring fewer places I have decided. I would highly recommend checking insidekyoto.com for their wonderful suggested itineraries, I literally used them as a guide map for everything I did in Kyoto, so helpful and informative plus easy to follow directions and tips.

Tenryu-ji Temple and Gardens – Arashiyama. Easy to get to by train, then a nice walk over the river to the temple and gardens. As it was a hot summer day I tried cucumbers on a stick – really, they are pickled in brine and lemon and were really refreshing. There is a recipe for this in another of my posts, so simple and easy- have a go!

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Pickled cucumbers for a summer snack

The temple itself is a large Zen Temple with some of the most famed gardens in Kyoto. I was here in June which is not as busy as other seasons, I can imagine the splendor of the gardens in both the cherry blossom season and in autumn, of course having to navigate the crowds at this time is a trade off. Personally, I found early June perfect as the crowds have lessened and the weather is warm.

 

 

 

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The walk through the gardens meandered up the hill where I found a temple restaurant called Shigetsu and decided to treat myself, knowing it was all vege cuisine.

 

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Shojin Ryori lunch at Tenryu-ji Temple

Shojin ryori cooking is the Zen Buddhist style that does not allow for strong flavors such as garlic and onions- interestingly similar to some cuisines in India- specifically Jain food. Each meal must have a harmony of the six basic flavors- bitter, sour, sweet, salty, light and hot, and on top of this the three qualities of light and flexible, clean and neat and conscientious and thorough. All meals eaten by the monks are proceeded and followed by verses expressing gratitude…. hmm also not that different from many faiths.
My favorite dish was the one in the top left, made of several components being I think a banana flower- the pink shoot one, a small green perfectly tied bundle with the most delicate matcha flavor mochi I have ever had and konnyaku- the dark brown item. This is the basis for shirataki noodles, a Japanese superfood… it is an acquired taste but the texture is very unique, bouncy and chewy.
I did a basic lesson in this style of cooking and had dreams of mastering this one day. When this food was put in front of me I was in awe of the simplicity and sheer beauty of it, the training, skill and patience involved is something people spend their entire lives perfecting… wow.

After lunch, walking through the gardens was a peaceful way to appreciate the attention to detail and serenity the gardens of this magnificent temple provide to Kyoto and the world.  Everywhere I looked simplicity and beauty shone through.

I again followed the directions of Insidekyoto to the north exit and walked into the incredible Arashiyama bamboo forest. The sheer height and colors combined with the odd dark wooden branches are a photographers dream. As I was here I was remembering my friend and photographer Mike Hollman’s work and marveled at how he managed to get such perfect shots. Head to his page to view these as they are unbelievable. When I saw his shots a year or so ago it made me want to visit and here I am!

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The warmth of the day and the walk provided the perfect excuse for a cool beverage, so off back into the city in search of a spot to sit and people watch. There is the main river running through the city and alongside this are dozens of small restaurants and bars mainly accessed off Pontocho Alley which is very quaint, touristy but still lovely. I found a small bar called Bar Jive up a steep flight of stairs that literally sat about ten people, all of whom were Australians, time to share some stories and cold beer, as we down under are so good at.

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Pontocho Alley

Gion is the centre of the cities nightlife on the opposite side of the river. Here it was important to follow the directions at Insidekyoto to where the geisha stroll about. It is a few streets of the main Dori (street) so could be easily missed. I was completely stunned by the winding cobbled paths, pretty willows ( I think that’s what they were… but just setting the scene) hanging over the shallow streams, cranes standing on one leg, fairy lights strung into the trees and yes, geishas walking the streets to their business. They sure can move quickly in those wooden shoes, I can’t believe I couldn’t snap a decent photo- but I am sure that was how it was meant to be. These pretty back streets are home to any number of very discreet, high-end restaurants and clubs, and I got a distinct impression that foreigners are not all that welcome. This is a case of invites only, on a highly sought after list, which needed forward planning. Never mind, next time I will plan this part better.

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Pretty streams in Gion

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Almost expecting a gondola to float by

A nightcap in a Spanish tapas bar seemed in order to finish off a full day. Japan is a gourmets delight for international cuisine, and not just at the high end as is the case in many countries due to the high cost of internationally trained chefs I am guessing. Whilst I had been told this by my friend and didi (Hindi word for sister) in Tokyo, in my mind this conjured up meals with a Japanese undertone. Well not so, and I take it all back…. the Spanish food I had was just fantastic.

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My spanish drinking pal

End of day one. Kyoto I love you and am so excited for tomorrow. I dream of samurai continues. The below picture marks the end of day one…. Sake and Bed.

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Thank you, and to all a good night.

Cucumbers on sticks- kyuri asa-zuke

My new favorite, healthy summer snack…. Japanese pickles on sticks

 

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kyuri asa-zuke Japanese pickled cucumbers

 

So today I have found my new favorite summer snack! Tsukemono mean Japanese pickle, and this one is kyuri asa-zuke.These baby’s are whole, on sticks and sold at many festivals and markets.

Wouldn’t the world be a better place if we encouraged everyone to eat these rather than sugary ice lollipops?

They were divine, a crisp tart and lemony Flavours with just the right amount of crunch! I have adapted a basic recipe for this below… you can slice them or skewer them like the picture, either way, they won’t last long!

Wouldn’t the world be a better place if we encouraged everyone to eat these rather than sugary ice lollipops?

They were divine, a crisp tart and lemony flavours with just the right amount of crunch! I have adapted a basic recipe for this below… you can slice them or skewer them like the picture, either way, they won’t last long!

 

INGREDIENTS
* 2 Japanese or thin Lebanese cucumbers
* 1 tsp salt (depending on the size of cucumbers)
* Small piece of kombu (a special dried seaweed at most Japanese stores)
* Slices of lemon
INSTRUCTIONS
1. Wash the cucumbers
2. Wipe a small piece of kombu with tightly squeezed wet paper towel, and cut it into thin strips with scissors.
3. Put all the ingredients in a airtight bag, seal, and and massage to mix the contents well. Cucumber pieces start to release water immediately.
4. Without taking out the cucumbers from the bag, put the whole thing in a small bowl, and place something heavy on top. Within 1~3 hours the pickles are ready.
5. Skewer them and eat!

TOKYO: Sipping wine under a bridge and plastic burgers.

TOKYO IN THREE DAYS

No I am not a wino, but I am a fan of small dive bars (and upmarket ones too), hard to find places and creating interesting memories. Tokyo could keep me writing for months. there is literally so much to see and do its hard to know where to begin. I am fortunate to  have had the benefit of having visited many times before. Each time I try and do something different. Its a city I never tire of, and whilst it has changed enormously  in the 30 years I have been going there,  in some ways it is still the same. At least I don’t get stared at like a she devil any longer and I manage a smattering of Japanese, although English is widely spoken, don’t rely upon that. Its always good to have a few basic polite phrases in store, and of course the essentials such as where are the toilets, and do you have coffee and wine!

NB: Any links I have added here are purely for assistance and in no way are advertising for these sites.

Wine under the bridge

Wine under the bridge

I was reading recently on one of my favorite travel blogs Nomadic Matt , his blog post on experimental travel and the fact this is a BS term is well worth a read.  “when you travel you eat the local food, soak up the local culture, take public transportation, and talk to people. Just travel….” I totally agree and I don’t get sucked into new and interesting ways to spend my money, rather I research,  and read blogs such as this and start making plans based on new discoveries.

So my time in Tokyo this time was much more one of immersion rather than sightseeing. Travel shapes who we are and time spent observing, learning and understanding all adds up to a greater understanding of life itself and people and ultimately oneself.

TWO DAYS IN TOKYO.

Of course if you haven’t been to this magnificent, modern and diverse city most Google searches will render the  ubiquitous top ten things to do list so I wont regurgitate that here, but rather I  tend to look for some more unique things to see in the city. However I do recommend a site  called Truly Tokyo written by a Lonely Planet guru that is super helpful!

GETTING AROUND –  A Japan rail pass is a great , easy way to get around, but do your sums as if you are only going for a few days it may well be cheaper to do the sectors individually. For me, I was only going between Tokyo and Kyoto as the major piece of internal travel and after much research I opted to use the Passmo card for all my city trips and then purchased a shinkansen ticket to get to Kyoto. The Man in Seat 61 was a wealth of information, although very comprehensive I was looking for more immediate answers and found the Tokyocheapo site to be excellent . I took their advice and went on the Platt Kodama train which was both fast and cheap!

WHERE I STAYED  – I chose to stay the first night close by to the airport, if you are flying into Narita beware, as it can be a long haul into the city. Narita village is only ten minutes from the airport and the hotel I picked also had a free shuttle. It was very reasonably priced- around $50 per night and I felt completely refreshed to then get on the train and enjoy the view into the city the next morning.

The train was easy enough, just be a bit patient as it can be confusing trying to understand where you need to go and how to get there, but everyone is so willing to help, relax and enjoy the unique city that lies in wait.

Taito- Ku, on the Hibiya line was a super convenient spot. The Hibiya line has stops for most of the major spots on the sightseeing route, making Taito-Ku a central, affordable area to stay.  I was rapt with my choice, a large apartment on top of a soba noodle shop    ( that is only open weekends so he doesn’t rent it out then) and it was truly eclectic. Thanks Airbnb

DAY ONE

The time difference is awesome! so I am up at 5 am ready to go, which I love incidentally.

KAPPABASHI- or Kitchen Town

Love gadgets and knives? this place will have you sorted. Whilst many shops cater to the commercial trade end of town many are stocked with individual items such as the famous Japanese steel, Kappabashi is a long street located between Ueno and Asakusa easily accessible and can be part of a day trip to all there areas. Read here for a useful article and perfect directions on how to get here. As a caterer I LOVE to spend time here each visit and come home with colorful and interesting pieces every time, The knives I bought here 30 years ago are still my pride and joy.

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The street is basically one large , long street and this guy is on top of a building at the entrance, you cant miss it!

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Colorful pottery is everywhere in Kappabashi

A restaurant venue this area is not.  There are not many places to grab coffee , let alone lunch, but out of the blue we found this  Italian restaurant that has been in the area for over 30 years, it was extraordinary, we discovered it completely from my friends memory and voila, ended up talking for ages to the owner whose daughter had been a student of my friend all those years ago. Seriously good Italian food. So far I have spent all day not eating Japanese food… we will need to fix that! Check out the creation below, not my lunch but a plastic window creation. You can even do a mini course at a shop called Ganso Sample and make your own mini takeaway food. Ill put that on the list for next time.

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A humongous plastic burger!

OMOTESANDO- Is a wide tree lined avenue leading to Harajuku. It is full of elegant high end shops. Sat down for a coffee but honestly balked at the price of Y900 ( approx $10 AUD) and by now I was hankering for ramen. Being a vego, eating good Japanese can sometimes be challenging to say the least, so almost at Harajuku station I saw a vegan Ramen sign , in English I walked almost in a trance like toward it.

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Kyushu Jangara Ramen Harajuku fantastic bowl of goodness

HARAJUKU After a wonderful bowl of steaming hot ramen we are off again. A trip to Tokyo for me always includes a stroll through Harajuku. Here you will find all manner of weird and wonderful , cute and quirky. I am talking about costumes, gadgets, cat cafes and even hedgehog and owl cafes. Personally I am totally against any manner of animal exploitation but there you have it, Japan really does not do things by halves.

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Any given day in Harajuku!

 

DAY TWO The first order of the day was to get my ticket for the next stage of the trip, so a visit to Tokyo station was in order. As you may recall I decided on the Platt Kodomo shinkansen and you actually have to go to the ticket office to purchase this. Follow the directions given on the website link above and all will be well. I always think getting around a train station is part of the adventure anyways.

UENO I love Ueno for its sprawling park , which was originally part of Kaneiji Temple,  one of the city’s largest and wealthiest temples and the family temple of the Shogun ruling Tokugawa clan during the Edo Period. I studied Japanese history so I am fascinated by this era, which in part was what this trip is about, well certainly the next leg….

ASAKUSA  Apparently the areas past was more of a red light district full of Yakusa ( gangsters) geisha, actors and the like.  Today it is a bustling  tourist spot, famous for the Sensō-ji, a Buddhist temple. I also found this a good place to pick up  souvenirs , on Nakamisi Dori- the street leading to the temple, strangely not overpriced. Asakusa is also home to Hanayashiki, Japan’s oldest amusement park founded in founded in 1853. There is loads of street food here, sweet potatoes and mochi. Green tea ice cream was the most popular food this time as it was hot.  However I go there for cold soba noodles, a dish I have grown to love. The last time I was here i was just about to tuck into my meal when a young boy ran through the restaurant,  grabbed the food out of my mouth and ran off! still makes me laugh and I go back for more every time.

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The cloudy skies add drama at Sensō-ji Temple

MARANOUCHI – is Tokyo’s financial district located close to the  Imperial Palace and Tokyo Station. Tokyo Station is the hub for most of the long distance shinkansen , and it was here I needed to go to purchase my ticket to Kyoto. The area is full of upmarket shops with all the big label names. We went to dinner at what I swear is the best Indian food in town. My Indian Didi has a suburb chain of restaurants throughout Tokyo and they are well worth visiting.

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Maranouchi comes alive at night

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Best Naan in town!

So how did we end up under a bridge drinking wine? well, after our banquet we decide a walk was in order . Remembering this place we found on our last visit, we set off to our bar under the bridge. Only a short walk from Maranouchi is a spot known in Japanese as Gado-shita, from “below the girder”, there are numerous great bars, izakayas and sushi joints alongside pizza and tapas, all with lots of beer and wine. These slightly gritty and lively bars stretch about 700 metes under the tracks of Yurakucho Station.

Tokyo is full of hidden spots, alleyways, bars, clubs, jazz rooms… you name it, it is there. I am in awe of the people all out late at night, most still on their way home from work, stopping in at these places, eating, drinking and laughing. Check this article for more on these places, and don’t miss it on a trip to Tokyo. Sitting underneath a bridge sipping wine… perfect.

Thanks for reading, off to Kyoto next.