Gotta Catch’em All: Ebisu

When spending the entire day studying, you really look forward to some nightly entertainment. With my checklist of Tōkyō neighbourhoods in front of me, it became clear I’d seen quite a bit of Japan’s capital already. There was but a single gaping hole on my map: Ebisu. Luckily, that’s exactly where Taka wanted to take me tonight. And if I say Taka, I mean glitz and glamour Tōkyō life. I was not to be disappointed.

ebisu1Our first stop was a nikuzushi restaurant. Niku is Japanese for meat and zushi, well you probably already guessed that’s sushi. Yes, indeed. Japan’s most famous dish comes in a meaty variety. Huzzah. Wait, what? Sushi uses raw fish. Does that mean I signed up for eating raw meat? Well, not entirely raw, as the chef attacked the pieces of meat with a flamethrower first.

ebisu2Afterwards we went on a little drinking spree, well at least Taka did, as I decided a few weeks back to bid alcohol a permanent farewell. Interesting though these intoxicating beverages may be, treat Simon with alcohol and he falls asleep. I like the crispness of sobriety. Well, whatever. I stopped drinking.
Taka recently “acquired a new girlfriend”, as he would put it, and therefore needed to check out some new bars to treat her to a night a out. That’s how we ended up in the ultimate love nest called ‘Cabriolet’. This bar boasted leather sofa’s on wheels, complete with a pull-up-hood, like a convertible automobile, get it? Get it? You take your seat, the lovely bartender pushes you and your partner up to the bar, and then they pull up the hood, leaving you with just a view of the bar, and the person sitting next to you. A strange way of providing privacy, but funny nonetheless. Because of my no-booze resolution, Taka’s sofa stayed relatively drool-free that night.

2011-11-22 – Study Session with Takemiya-sensei

Today was spent in the same way as most of my days recently: studying Japanese. In the afternoon there was to be a reward for my diligent studying: another English study session with the professional go players at the Nihon Kiin. Only this time, the cherry on the pie was the attendance of none other than Takemiya Masaki. He is just as friendly and easy-going during small-scale study sessions as he is during his lectures. Constantly smiling, and after joining in with some English terms (with some help by Mr. Urasoe), he even remarked that “English is very easy”, followed by another fit of uncontrollable laughter. He left during the middle of the study session for his dancing class, but promptly returned to show us some photos of his dance performance, a tango with an absolutely stunningly beautiful Japanese woman. The other pro’s were quick to utter the required ooh’s and aah’s, followed by some praise for his dancing partner (and no doubt her rather short skirt). It was wonderful meeting the legend up close, and my respect for Takemiya-sensei has only grown. Not only is he regarded as one of the best go players of the 20th century, turns out he is also one of the most friendly and outgoing Japanese I’ve ever met. I can only hope he drops in sometime during one of the following study sessions.

Back to the Future: Shinbashi, Odaiba

The area from Hamamatsuchō to Shinbashi forms one of the business centres of Tōkyō, and the architecture here is a suitably sleek ultra-modern combination of steel, glass and concrete. On a sunny morning, with most of the suits locked up inside the buildings, it really feels like you’re taking a walk in the deserted streets of the Tōkyō of 2050.

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I was listening to Martin Schulte’s Underwater EP, and wandering between these glass giants, as insignificant as the crows, pigeons and other wildlife present in this urban landscape, I experienced a deep sense of calmness. I really love the concrete jungle.

Tōkyō has an even more futuristic ace up its sleeve, though. Taking the Yurikamome monorail from Shinbashi to Odaiba, one of the artificial islands in Tōkyō Bay, displays the Rainbow Bridge and Odaiba’s alien skyline. The combination of Odaiba’s outlandish architecture, the large open spaces because of unused plots of land and the tiny amount of people that actually live here lend this artificial island an eerie atmosphere.

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Well, time for some more Japanese study. By this weekend I should have reviewed the first 500 kanji, and I’m ready to study 500 more by the time I go to Korea in about a month’s time.

Hamarikyū Teien, Tsukiji Fish market

Upon coming back from Odaiba on the Yurikamome Monorail, I saw Hamarikyū Teien majestically seated on its seashore throne, surrounded by menacing bodyguards of glass, steel and concrete. I got off the train on a whim and decided to investigate the gardens. I was not to be disappointed. A free audio guide is presented to visitors of the gardens, and using GPS-navigation it instantly knows which part of the garden you’re in, adapting the commentary on the fly.

hamarikyu1This garden is located right next to Tōkyō Bay, and houses a salt-water pond, the only one of its kind in Japan. There’s three tea houses in the garden, a 300-year old pine, duck hunting grounds, and above all: a lot of trees whose leaves were just turning, resulting in a canopy ablaze with an astonishing range of colours. The garden was meticulously tended to, and you’d be hard-pressed to find a single leaf out of place in this enormous compound. Though I think Rikugi-en is still my favourite Japanese-style garden, Hamarikyū is a close second. Walking around the garden for a few hours had turned morning into noon, and my stomach was purring a polite “feed me”. I’m not one to let a stomach in distress suffer, so I made my way to the nearby Tsukiji fish market.

hamarikyu2The travel guides all tell you to turn up at Tsukiji in the early morning, to catch the auctioning action. Early means even earlier than the first train, so you either take a taxi or camp out here. I’m not much of a morning person, and had therefore put off coming to Tsukiji hoping I’d end up going out pretty late and then just coming straight to the dawn auction at Tsukiji. After about two months of Tōkyō, this still hadn’t happened, and since I was in the neighbourhood now, I decided it was time to visit the fabled sushi restaurants of Tsukiji.
Even though the auction is completely finished at noon, I still managed to get run over by a dozen or so miniature forklift trucks. These make up much of the charm of the fish market, but a few years back, some drunk Australians carjacked one of these trucks and went for a little joyride. Needless to say, the local fishermen where not amused, and ever since there’s been plans to keep tourists out of the dawn auctions and hangars. Right now you’re still able to walk through, however, and it will be only when the fish market is relocated (in a few years’ time), that the auctions will become closed to public. After wandering through the hangars, I joined the ranks of hungry businessmen waiting for up to an hour to get their hands (the regulars don’t use chopsticks) on some of Tōkyō’s best sushi.

tsukiji1I had the luck of coming here by myself, and even though I was prepared to queue for around an hour to try the ultimate sushi, I only waited for 10 minutes. Most people came here in pairs and an odd three people party had created an available seat. I gladly helped them in filling their establishment. I was asked to leave my bags at the entrance of the miniature restaurant, and wriggled my way onto a stool, shoulder to shoulder with the Japanese businessmen. Three sushi chefs worked non-stop to serve us with the freshest sushi I’ve ever eaten. The oldest one of the three was constantly joking around in a rough old-man-Japanese, and was delightfully paternalistic toward some of the women and foreigners (that would be me) in his restaurant. When one of the women remarked the sushi was delicious, he grunted a slightly amused: “Of course, what would I do here if it weren’t?” The businessmen all laughed, and when I joined in, he immediately turned to me and said: “Well lookie here, even the foreigner is laughing.” I wish I could take this guy home and give him a plate of milk, such a character he was.
The sushi wasn’t cheap (3800 JPY for a set, and I had one extra helping of octopus), but it was worth it. Considerably poorer than when I entered, but completely satisfied, I left the store and disappeared into the bustling streets surrounding the central market.

The Hipster’s Guide to Tōkyō: Harajuku, Shimokitazawa

Time to introduce you to two of my favourite places in Tōkyō, and perhaps not surprisingly, the two places that remind me of my hometown the most: Harajuku and Shimokitazawa.

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Harajuku is a sight to see. I’ll go out on a limb and say that it is the most colourful place in Tōkyō. Even its metro station is delightfully different: it looks like some Swiss walked down the wrong mountain and constructed their train station in downtown Tōkyō. From this iconic station it’s a two-minute walk to Takeshita-dōri (if you take the JR Yamanote line it’s just across the street).

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Takeshita-dōri is the throbbing heart of Harajuku, a street full of clothing shops presenting the wildest, most tongue-in-cheek take on skate fashion I’ve ever seen. From vampiric Winnie the Pooh’s to lingerie shops that display their wares on a doll with a sheep’s head, weird is hip here. And that most certainly includes a lot of colours. The locals of this area are even famous for their almost clown-like make-up and outfits. These Harajuku girls will just hang around the streets and check out other people’s sense of style. This is the part of Tōkyō where “people-looking” is elevated to an art form, in which both subject and object compete for the trophy of world’s weirdest fashion sense. I can’t get enough of this place.

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Shimokitazawa is some 20-30 minutes west from Harajuku, and a perfect complement for its daytime shopping craze. Shimo, as it is affectionately called, offers its own array of second hand clothing shops, but it’s the large amount of ‘livehouses’ (small bars that feature live music almost every night) that makes Shimo a crowd-favourite around these parts. At night, Tōkyō’s hordes of university students come out here to have a drink (no doubt many indulge in the pleasures of Belgian beers) and watch anything from jazz to hardcore punk. If you’re a small musician in Tōkyō, this is where you want to spend your evenings.

Rain Dog – See Hear EP

coverOnly halfway through the first song of ‘See Hear EP’, I knew I wanted to hear more from both this artist and the netlabel that released his music. According to his soundcloud page, Rain Dog is a Newcastle-based dubstep producer and DJ. On September 12th, 2011, he released ‘See Hear EP’ on, enter drumroll, Cut Records. Seriously, Cut? Again? I decided to seek some answers to the seemingly magic way this label always seems to pick up the best releases out there, and found one on the label’s website:

“Most netlabels have a stigma attached to them leading people to assume that because the music is free, it’s low quality. Cut has set out to debunk that myth.”

Had this come from any other mouth, I might have had some reservations. But if there’s anyone out there that can achieve this goal, it has to be them. Anything touched by Cut Records seems to turn to gold. That is definitely true for this sixth release.

‘See Hear EP’ has very little to do with dubstep at first glance. It’s a great downtempo release, where the artist has painstakingly brought back the arrangements to the essential core. Seldom have I heard that much emotion in a piece with so little instruments. The great use of silence is in no small part responsible for this.
The dubstep influence is mainly audible in what dubstep does best: the rhythm section. The overarching tempo for most of the tracks on ‘See Hear EP’ is pretty slow, and keeping track of it has to be done on the snare drum. Within those slow measures, however, there’s tremendous variation and eye for detail in the drum programming. Combined with the previously mentioned top-notch melodic parts, this is the listening experience I never knew I’ve always wanted.

The first three tracks are all excellent variations on the theme described above, and though it’s hard to pick a favourite, I’d have to go with the obvious single, ‘Beyond their years’. Both ‘One to Love’ and ‘Dry’ are veritable gems as well, though.
The title track ‘See Hear’, also the last track of the EP, is the odd track out of the four. The rhythm is slightly more uptempo, and while it’s still a decent song, it does pale in comparison to the three tracks that came before it.

All in all, this release is a premium blend of downtempo cum dubstep injection, and very hard not to fall in love with. Rain Dog, if you’re reading this, we want more. A lot more.

Rain Dog – Beyond Their Years

Release Page


This review was originally published on netlabelism.com, an online music magazine covering netlabel culture and releases. I was editor for the magazine from January 2011 until December 2014.

Reunions and goodbyes

Today I studied in Harajuku library and in the afternoon, there was another study session at the Nihon Kiin. Today we were joined by a French ex-insei and an Australian English teacher, how’s that for credentials? I couldn’t stay for dinner afterwards, though, because I already had plans: Shabushabu! That’s an all-you-can-eat extravaganza with heaps of meat. Yeah! Take that rice and fish, the Belgian needs his meat. *froths at the mouth* You have to watch out when saying ‘shabushabu’ though, because that is also the onomatopeia for sucking (particularly in erotic contexts). What better place to host such an ambiguous all-you-can-eat with slightly sexual connotations than Kabukichō?

shabushabu

This mountain of food and people (Horiken, Abe-chan, Madoka and Hannah were there as well) was because no less than three people were leaving Japan: Aymeric, the coolest architect in the whole of Japan is soon to become the coolest architect in Paris again. On top of that, Martin and Nati, my favourite pair of Croatian-Canadian siblings left for Korea. This separation will be only temporary, though, as they’ll drop by Belgium looking for some premium Belgian chocolate around Easter. I can’t wait.

Tōkyō, The Nightmare

This city smacks me down at times. The endless streams of people, all suits, all serious faces. The trains, with people packed like cattle on their way to the slaughterhouse. During rush hour, you sigh relieved as you force yourself onto the train, and your momentary relief quickly turns into despair when you realize 15 more people just heaved the same sigh of relief. There’s not much heaving to be done here, much less breathing. There’s not even enough room to lift your arm to grab hold of the overhead support. But there’s not enough room to fall down either, so everybody sways from left to right, over and over again, like the giant, faceless suited mob they are. All of this pales in comparison to the true atrocity of these trains: the silence. Not a sound is to be heard on these rush-hour trains. Everybody just turns inwards, and sways like a numb zombie, waiting to get off again.

nightmare

Once you make it off the train, it’s not much better though. All I can do at times like these is sit down and regain composure. That’s easier said than done, however, as there are surprisingly little benches in Tōkyō. Stand still, and the endless faceless masses will push you – unmoving aberration – back where you belong: to the back of the train. To the bottom of the pack. I can imagine being infinitely lonely here. Which, no doubt, many Japanese are.

Eventually I get sucked back into the relentless rhythm that keeps this city going, and I go to my next host: Hiroshi Aobayashi. When I get there, I’m welcomed not by one, but five awesome Japanese guys in their twenties. They’re long-time friends and CouchSurfing hosts (they’ve been hosting for 3 years and have had more than 150 people stay at their place), and after being there for about an hour, I felt right at home. We spent most of the night talking (in Japanese this time, the Shinjuku crows have not been forgotten) and I’m amazed yet again at the nature of traveling. Not to sound like an overage hippie, but really: “It’s all about the people, man.”

Omote and Ura: On the Nature of Things

There’s a twin concept in Japanese culture called omote-ura. Omote means the surface, the front, that which is visible. Ura is the back, the hidden intention, the deeper meaning. Many actions and words in Japanese have quite distinct omote-ura relations, which are sometimes difficult to understand. The most famous example of this is perhaps the notorious inability to produce a clear “No” when a Japanese answers a question. It’s always “That’s a little bit,…”, “Yes, but…”, and it takes some getting used to figuring out when this means no. That’s all very interesting Simon, but what has that got to do with your stay in Japan?
The omote of my trip to Japan was to find a job here, and a place to stay for a longer period of time. Simple, clear-cut. The ura behind that, however, was to get to know Japanese people, culture and improve my language skills. I’ll admit that the relative difficulty of even getting a job interview here, as well as other bureaucratic nightmares preventing foreigners from integrating in Japanese society have helped in clearly identifying the ura behind my trip here, but maybe that’s all for the best. Even if I could find a job here, it would most likely be in English, and I’d work myself into oblivion, speaking a language I don’t really need to study at this point.

omoteura

That’s why I’ve decided to travel around the country, see the sights, meet the people, and above all: study the language. I’m going to suck up all the experiences this land has to offer in the limited time of 6 months, and then I’ll go home. Sure, I won’t be able to take the black belt exam at the JKA headquarters here in Tōkyō, or improve my Japanese to the point where I could take the higher levels of the Japanese Language Proficiency Test, or even become that much better of a go player while I’m here. But I’ve realized that I can do all of those things just as well back home.
I have clearly defined goals: I want to be a language teacher in Belgium. I needed this trip to fulfill that dream, but if I’m going to do that, I just need to go back and do it. Which is not to say I won’t miss my friends here like crazy. I’ve met some of the nicest, most inspiring people yet in this wonderful country. That, and I’ll never, ever get used to Belgian food again. You better prepare me a ramen shop back home, dammit!

Ryōgoku, Edo-Tōkyō Museum

Today I was going to fulfill one of my goals while in Japan: eat chankonabe. That is the traditional sumō wrestler’s dish, a protein-rich stew containing vegetables, meat, fish and tofu, usually served with rice. When sumō wrestlers retire, many of them open a chankonabe restaurant.

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The place to be if you’re somewhat chubby and like prancing about in thongs is without doubt Ryōgoku (or maybe Kabukichō, but let’s save that story for another time). Ryōgoku is sumō territory. It’s home to the imposing National Sumō Stadium, and nearby bars, chankonabe restaurants and gyōza (Chinese dumpling) shops are lined with sumō pictures. Apparently, sumō is one of the most conservative disciplines around, keeping customs that date back a few hundred years. The sumō stables have been involved in quite some scandals in recent years. In one extreme case a few years back, a young sumō wrestler even died from the horrible treatment his seniors gave him after entering the stable.
As I’d come to the heart of the sumō world, I didn’t have to look long for a chankonabe restaurant, which was all for the best, as it was raining cats and dogs.

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Positively stuffed, I made my way from the restaurant to the Edo-Tōkyō Museum. This behemoth of a building houses several life-size replica’s of Edo-period structures, among which a Kabuki theater and the original Nihonbashi-bridge. I’ve learnt many fascinating things about Edo (the old name for Tōkyō) today, regarding city planning, different professions and classes, economy, entertainment, etc. I spent a few hours in the museum, but I can definitely see myself spending twice that amount of time there again. Highly recommended.
I returned to Taka’s place around 6PM, but he informed me he’d be home pretty late, so I spent the rest of the evening studying kanji. When Taka eventually got home around midnight, we briefly popped into the local izakaya, for some – surprise, surprise – snacks and beer. There, I made a wonderful discovery: my two favourite Japanese foods, namely tako (or octopus) and kara-age (meat, usually chicken, fried in a sort of crispy crust), have spawned a love-child. Tako no kara-age, or as you would call it: crispy octopus. My tummy is in love.