Browsing articles from "February, 2013"
Feb 18, 2013

Quirky cafés

 Nanjya Monjya

Treehouse café Nanjya Monjya: photo by Jessica Kozuka

If you don’t fancy waiting in line for your cup of Joe, try these offbeat watering holes.


The short menu might be limited to curry, French toast and pizza, but, let’s be honest, the food choices were never going to be the main draw of this treehouse café. If you think you’re the only person in the area looking for an excuse to recapture their lost childhood, mind, you can think again – and be prepared to queue.
Open Fri-Sat non-5.30pm, closed Sun-Thu. 5-55 Mitsuzawahigashi-cho, Kanagawa. Nearest stn: Mitsuzawashimo.


If, for some odd reason, you are nostalgic for the days of school lunches, sit at a tiny desk in a tiny chair and eat tiny dishes commonly served in Japanese schools.
Open Mon-Sat 11:30am-2pm, 6-11pm, closed Sun. 1-4-4 Moto-Asakusa, Taito-ku. Nearest stn: Shin-Okachimachi.


Relax in a place that looks like your office, at Office. Just try not to get crumbs in the keyboard.
Open Mon-Sat 7pm-3am, closed Sun. 5F Yamazaki Bldg, 2-7-18 Kita-Aoyama, Minato-ku. Nearest stn: Gaienmae.


Goats are the new cats. Hang out on the terrace with Sakura and Chocolat, the owners’ pet billies. Just keep an eye on your waffles.
Open Mon-Sat 11:30am-4am. 1F Shinoda Bldg, 23-3 Sakuragaoka-cho, Shibuya-ku. Nearest stn:


If you thought maid cafés were the nerdiest coffee spot, Handazuke Café is a step up. It doesn’t even serve food—or drinks (customers bring their own). It does offer free use of a soldering iron and other tools, though, so you can build electronic gadgets (possibly a coffee maker?). They even have workshops, a live webstream—and it’s free.
Open Mon-Fri 6-8:30pm, Sat-Sun 1-6pm. 11-14-6 Sotokanda, Chiyoda-ku. Nearest stn: Suehirocho.


This one is sure to make your kids—or the kid in you—squeal in delight. The café is built around a huge model train display with several locomotives whipping around the tracks. There’s also plenty of train-themed food and a trinket shop.
Open Mon-Fri 11am-11pm, Sat 11am-10pm, Sun 11am-8pm. 1F Shin-Yurakucho Bldg, 1-12-1 Yurakucho, Chiyoda-ku. Nearest stn: Yurakucho.


Not many Japanese homes have room for a bulky sewing machine, so what are crafters to do? Head to Nico, where they have 11 machines of different types for you to use, as well as all the other tools of the dressmaking trade. And coffee, of course.
Open Tue-Sat 10am-8pm, Sun 10am-5pm, closed Mon. 103 Arai Daiichi Mansion, 7-19-16 Kamisoshigaya, Setagaya-ku. Nearest stn: Sengawa.

Feb 11, 2013

Slappy Cakes

Slappy Cakes

Courtesy of Slappy Cakes

What better way to celebrate Pancake Day than with a visit to this new breakfast outlet. In a country where massive egg mixtures are heaped onto hot plates at tables and cooked by customers, it’s no surprise someone is applying the Western breakfast ideal to the formula. What is surprising is the idea came from Portland, Oregon. Slappy Cakes has just opened only its second worldwide branch here in Tokyo (7F Lumine Est, 3-38-1 Shinjuku;, allowing a fresh continent’s citizens to fry extravagant pancakes at their table—while imbibing breakfast cocktails. We don’t know what breakfast cocktails are, but they sound great.

Feb 11, 2013

UFC Japan 2013

Wanderlei Silva

Pictured left: Wanderlei Silva. Photos: © Getty images

The Ultimate Fighting Championship returned to Japan last February after more than a ten-year absence. Fight fans streamed into Tokyo from all across Japan—and the world—to get their MMA fix, selling out the Saitama Super Arena for 12 televised fights over the course of the day. In the end, Benson “Smooth” Henderson defeated Frankie Edgar by unanimous decision to become the new UFC lightweight champion.

This year the headline encounter will feature former Pride middleweight champion Wanderlei Silva stepping into the Octagon against top contender and decorated US Marine Brian Stann in a five-round, light heavyweight bout.

Silva, from Brazil, is an aggressive striker known for dropping his opponents to the canvas—earning him the gruesome nickname “The Axe Murderer.” He holds Pride records for most wins, knockouts, title defenses, and the longest winning streak in the organization’s history. Stann, a Marine Corps vet with a Silver Star for combat, was born in Tokyo on Yokota Air Base and should prove to be a hometown favorite.

Stefan Struve

Pictured right: Stefan Struve

The tallest fighter in UFC history will stalk the ring in the heavyweight throw down. Seven-foot-tall Stefan “Skyscraper” Struve, from the Netherlands, will make his first appearance in Japan against “Super Samoan” Mark Hunt. Hunt’s Maori warrior spirit has made him a popular fighter in Japan. He knocked out Cheick Kongo in the first round last year, and is currently on a three-fight winning streak.

Japanese MMA fans have much to cheer for at the March event. Like last year, Japanese fighters and favorites figure prominently in the mix. Said UFC Managing Director Mark Fischer, “We’re delighted to bring a world-class card with a distinctly local flavor back to Japan.” As such, proceedings will also pit Yokohama native and former Pride champion Takanori Gomi against Diego Sanchez in a lightweight matchup, and Korea’s Dong-Hyun Kim against knockout specialist Siyar Bahadurzada in a contest of up-and-coming welterweights.

Brian Stann

Pictured left: Brian Stann

Other showdowns include Japan’s own Riki Fukuda facing off against Brad Tavares at middleweight, Japanese bantamweight Takeya Mizugaki vs. Bryan Caraway, and the UFC debut of two Koreans: welterweight Hyun Gyu Lim and bantamweight Kyung Ho Kang, taking on Marcelo Guimaraes and Alex “Bruce Leeroy” Caceres, respectively. Also making his debut is Japan’s Kazuki Tokudome, who will take on Cristiano Marcello in a lightweight matchup.

“This exciting mix of former Pride champions, contenders from various weight divisions, and up-and-coming stars from the region,” says Fischer, “is sure to entertain all our fans here—whether old or new to the sport.”

Saitama Super Arena, Mar 3. Tickets are ¥5,800-100,000 and can be bought from Lawson stores, or online at or UFC Japan 2013 will air live on numerous UFC broadcast partners in Japan and globally.

Feb 11, 2013

Baby Star Land

Baby Star Land

Enjoy retro snacks at Baby Star Land

Retro snacks will be the order of the day at Baby Star Land in the new Chinatown complex Yokohama Hakurankan, slated for opening mid-March (145 Yamashita-cho, Naka-ku, Yokohama). The Baby Star facility enables lovers of the potato-chip style snack to witness them being created right before their eyes—and then slurp them up hot and freshly made. Apart from other food outlets on the second floor “Oyatsu Factory,” the Hakurankan will boast a Yokohama market as well as a garden terrace to sip Chinese tea, eat sweets, and zone in on the Zen.

Feb 11, 2013

Valentine’s round-up

Romantic Kanji

Lover letter: romantic kanji

Love letters


ai ai kasa

When it comes to romantic expression, school age Japanese kids are no different than their Western counterparts. Mostly. Instead of a simple mathematical expression (John + Jane = Forever), they use an “umbrella of togetherness” to lay bare their true feelings.

Similar to many kanji, this doodle is a pictogram. It’s just like writing your name next to the other person’s and bringing them closer. Aw.

相 (ai)

Together, mutually, fellow (can also be read as “saga” meaning one’s nature or destiny)

合 (ai)

To come together, unite

傘 (kasa)


Gift ideas

Car Mania Set V5

Courtesy Kobe Frantz

There are only a few days to go before the most romantic day of the year, so if you’re looking for some not-so-cutesy chocolates to impress the manly man in your life, then this handy box of treats could be the tool for the job. From Chocolatier Kobe Frantz comes Car Mania Set V5, an edible toolkit that is bound to get your parts moving. The set includes a spanner, a pair of pliers, a monkey wrench, a G-wrench, a nut and bolt, a screwdriver and a Valentine’s card. Don’t eat the last one. Scoff the utilitarian snacks as is, or dip into hot water for instant cocoa.

¥3,500; available at


…and what not to buy

Ever wonder what’s the worst gift you can give your man? If you really want to impress your partner on Valentine’s Day, be sure to avoid these common pitfalls:

1 Too many “obligation” chocolates that need a response on White Day

2 Handknitted scarves and sweaters

3 Clothing that doesn’t suit your taste

4 Large boxes of cheap chocolate

5 Loud or garish neckties

6 Stuffed toys

7 Expensive chocolate

8 Romance novels

9 Too sweet or badly made homemade chocolate

10 Underwear


So now you know…

Feb 10, 2013



Courtesy of Basashiya Masashi

Flutter on the horse’s meat in the Skytree’s shadow at newly opened Basashiya Masashi (6F HK Asakusa Bldg, 1-1-16 Asakusa, Taito-ku; Tel: 03-3842-5600). Tuck into delicacies like the white fatty tategami, or the grilled senba hire steak (¥1,980). Get intimate with equine motor functions by chomping down on spinal cord tempura (sekizui), then relax with the horse-less karashi renkon (deep-fried lotus root with mustard). The goten mori offers five types of basashi for ¥2,380. Clients are mostly 60-something chain-smoking men—who know a good bet when they see one.

Feb 10, 2013

Old-school Asakusa

Fried oysters at Yutaka

Fried oysters (kaki furai) at Yutaka. Photo by Yukari Sakamoto

A visit to Asakusa is a little like stepping back in time. The historic shitamachi district is filled with great restaurants, many of them very traditional and with a focus on just one cuisine. The menus and décor of these shops reflect the quaint, nostalgic atmosphere of the neighborhood. If you’re looking for that old-time Tokyo vibe, then the following backstreet eateries are well worth seeking out.


Oden, the hot-pot stew of fish cakes and vegetables, really hits the spot in this cold weather. Kanto-style oden is made with a rich, dark-colored soy broth and is the typical type served in Tokyo. Otafuku, however, serves it Kansai-style, with a delicate broth that allows diners to better taste the different ingredients. Or so they say.

Otafuku started serving oden in 1915, though they took a break during the Second World War. The fifth-generation owner still manages a large hot pot behind the long, wooden counter. He dishes up orders onto small serving plates and garnishes each one with karashi (spicy Japanese mustard), on the side. Some of our favorite items are rolled cabbage stuffed with ground meat, tender octopus legs, Satsuma-age fishcakes, yuba (tofu skin) and hanpen—a fluffy, light fishcake that resembles a marshmallow in texture. Nerimono is the group of foods made from ground fish, molded into different shapes, and then cooked—either fried, steamed, or broiled—before being added to the pot. The oden is ordered in sets, often three pieces per order. We like to order one nerimono, a vegetable, and then something like konnyaku, kombu, or a hard-boiled egg.

Otafuku has a full menu that also includes sashimi, grilled meats, and gyu suji nikomi (simmered beef tendon). The drink list features the staples: beer and a selection of nihonshu and shochu.

1-6-2 Senzoku, Taito-ku. Tel: 03-3871-2521.


Perhaps most striking about this restaurant is the lack of that frying smell typical in tonkatsu places. Perhaps it’s to do with Yutaka’s time-honed culinary skills, which it has been sharpening ever since it opened just after the war.

Great attention is paid to each ingredient, from the Yamato pork from Gunma to the panko (bread crumbs), from bread that takes four days to make. Even the earthy nukazuke pickles have a rich taste, reflecting the care taken to manage the fermenting pot of rice bran.

The tonkatsu at Yutaka is non-greasy with a crisp crust and meaty interior. As oysters are in season this time of year, kaki furai (breaded fried oysters) is a special treat. Other katsu include crab croquette, shrimp, and scallops. The menu also includes a sautéed pork dish, as well as the ginger and soy sautéed pork dish shogayaki. Small sides include yakitori, monkfish liver, and shiokara—funky fresh squid innards.

Popular with locals but off the main drag, this shop—which offers excellent service from the welcoming staff—tends to stay largely clear of tourists.

1-15-9 Asakusa, Taito-ku. Tel: 03-3841-7433.


Also further away from Nakamise Dori and Sensoji is Yoshikami, a classic restaurant specializing in yoshoku—the Japanese interpretation of Western-style cuisine. The dining room feels like a typical American diner with red- and white-checkered tablecloths and a counter overlooking the open kitchen and the cooks at work. A disturbing number of tomato-sauce bottles line the kitchen wall, as it is a key ingredient in the classic omuraisu dish: ketchup-seasoned rice enveloped in a fluffy omelet.

The menu is unusually large and includes many grilled meats, sandwiches and pasta. Our favorites are the rich beef stew, the cow tongue stew, the hamburg steak, and of course, the omuraisu. At yoshoku restaurants the Japanese staple is not called gohan but raisu, as it’s served on a flat Western-style dish and not in a bowl.

When oysters are in season October to March, Yoshikami serves them up grilled, au gratin, à la meunière—and in spicy “Diablo” form.

1-41-4 Asakusa, Taito-ku. Tel: 03-3841-1802.


This 6th-generation shop has been serving wagyu nabe (beef hot pot) both sukiyaki- and shabu-shabu-style since 1895—and since


Sukiyaki. Courtesy of Asakusa Imahan

1928 in its current location. Marbled Japanese beef is sliced thin for these dishes, which diners cook on small gas burners at each table. During lulls in restaurant conversation, listen for the “gutsu gutsu” sound of the sukiyaki pot bubbling.

Asakusa Imahan created beef Tsukudani, sold at most Tokyo depato. Named after Tsukudajima (the fishing village/island in the middle of the Sumida River), the dish is traditionally made with seafood or sea vegetables seasoned with a sweet soy sauce. The beef version is a modern twist, and is a popular omiyage for diners to take home.

Some of the lunch dishes come pre-cooked—so ask for something you can cook yourself if you want to fully enjoy the experience. Reservations are recommended.

3-1-12 Nishi-Asakusa , Taito-ku. Tel: 03-3841-1114.


The food at Oiwake is typical izakaya fare including fish and seafood in various guises, and a simple selection of beer and sake. But people tend to come here for other reasons.

The izakaya is a storied venue for live folk music, where artists like the Tsugaru-shamisen playing Yoshida brothers cut their teeth before hitting it big. The beating of taiko drums provides an energetic atmosphere, with singing and dancing by the talented staff three times a night.

Diners are occasionally invited to sing on stage, a unique live karaoke the shop is famous for. The music is performed at set times in the evening and there is a minimal cover charge.

Between performances the house musicians mingle, and regular customers are always welcoming to newcomers. All in all, it’s a memorable evening­—one that could only be had in Asakusa.

3-1-2 Nishi-Asakusa, Taito-ku. Tel: 03-3844-6283.

Feb 8, 2013

Taj Akasaka

Taj Akasaka

Courtesy of Taj Akasaka

Formerly known for its South Indian cuisine, Taj Akasaka has widened its menu over the last two years. Now offering customer-requested staples like naan and tandoori, chef Ami and his team are also keen on introducing diners to regional street foods they might not have tried before.

A starter is the rassam soup (¥400) from the southern Tamil Nadu area, a house specialty. The hot, sour play of tamarind and tomato broth and other spices was a sharp wakeup call for our taste buds. It set a tough precedent for the rest of the meal. Paired with a simple bottle of Kingfisher lager (¥650), it settled us into a Bollywood state of mind.

Next was the Goan dish chicken cafreal (¥700)—legs and wings marinated and slathered in a popping mint and coriander paste, then grilled and served with lemon and salad. The grilled calamari (¥700), a South Indian favorite, seemed bland after the lively rassam soup. Following came the sookha (¥700), a northern dish of chunked mutton with a spicy dry rub—almost BBQ-style—tossed with garam masala and crunchy bits of fried garlic.

The aloo tikki chaat (¥600) is a street hawker food ubiquitous in India. These mashed-potato cakes, reminiscent of veggie burgers, are fried crispy on the outside, but softy and fleshy inside, filled with veggie goodness. Served with a slightly sweet tamarind mint sauce and a chutney, these were gobbled down quick, bringing understanding of why their name (chaat) means “devour with relish.”

Westernized classics are still on hand, such as samosa (¥500), palak paneer (cottage cheese cooked in spinach) and butter chicken with naan and rice (both ¥1,300). Asahi Super Dry is on tap for ¥500 (¥2,500/pitcher), with wine, etc. from ¥500, and chai or lassis if they are more up your street-food alley (¥400).

The challenge of the Devilz Egg Curry couldn’t be passed up. Hard-boiled eggs simmering in curry look innocent enough, but sautéed peppers and onions smolder in the spicy tomato sauce with peppercorns, cinnamon, cardamom and a wicked garam masala. Be warned: the heat is a slow builder that leads to a very necessary lassi. If you can make it through (without the yogurt crutch), the dish—normally ¥1,300—is free.

We finished up with the chicken tikka masala—and my notes say one thing: “Delicious.” This is Ami’s thick, spicy take on butter chicken (not the overly sweet version) with a creamy, fire-orange sauce soaked up by cubes of tandoori chicken.

Add a vegetarian/vegan friendly menu, some interesting set menus and a bumper ¥1,200 lunch buffet, and the variety of Taj Akasaka’s hawker-style menu is something to return for again and again.

Feb 1, 2013

Tempura Buono

Courtesy of Buono Tempura

Tempura Buono exudes exclusivity from its Kyoto-style wooden exterior, curved bamboo slats, paper lantern, and noren curtain over the shoji door. Inside, however, the small restaurant is casual and welcoming. It ought to be: with only three small tables and a clean wood counter, you’ll get to know your neighbors—and what to order— rather quickly.

First, we cooled off with Kirin Ichiban Shibori draft (¥600). We went with the chef’s recommendations from the large menu—after all, he does have 37 years’ experience in upscale tempura restaurants across town. After some okayu (rice in hot water) to coat the stomach (the antidote to tempura grease) our otoshi of sesame tofu appeared, then a large tossed Buono salad (¥650).

The chef suggested shochu so we ordered a round of mugi (wheat) and imo (sweet potato) on the rocks to accompany the hirame (flounder) and ika (squid) sashimi. The sashimi, dressed with ginger and shiso, was fresh and flavorful, not the rubbery thawed kind, and its simplicity paired well with the shochu. The imo (¥550-750) was floral and earthy, while the mugi (¥650-700) was fragrant and delicate with a corn-still moonshine taste. Neither overpowered the light taste of the sashimi or the dishes to come.

Two fried shrimps were on the menu, the maki ebi (¥250) and the oebi (¥500). The maki was served with three kinds of salt (green matcha salt, salt with pepper, and salt with spice), and then came the “Oh!” ebi—long, thick tiger prawns fried in a fritter-like batter. They disappeared quickly along with the lightly battered asparagus and piman (green pepper) dipped in sea salt or tetsuyu sauce. The gooey fried mozzarella was also a welcome surprise.

The in-season ayu (sweet fish) came with a sauce a little too syrupy after the previous simplicity. We asked their recommendation on some reishu (cold sake) and were pleased with the dry, delicate Hakkaisan honjozo from Niigata and the Uragasumi tokubetsu junmaishu from Miyagi (both ¥750).

The chef offered us the kakiage donburi lunch set (¥800) to try. The huge deep-fried veg, crisp and hot, were practically meals in themselves. More than surfeited, we slurped down some ochazuki (green tea and rice with salmon) and enjoyed cold cantaloupe to round out the set.

Tempura Buono isn’t slow food, but don’t rush. This is real-style tempura at bargain prices. Ask for the chef’s recommendation, or the tempura course (¥3,500), and you’ll be battering yourself up for a delicious meal.

Feb 1, 2013


Courtesy of Diamond Dining

Having walked past Warayakiya many times, and always thought it looked beautiful but probably too touristy and very expensive, we decided to try it out when friends were in from out of town. Turns out we were wrong on both counts.

We booked Saturday morning for that night to be rewarded with the best table in the house—one running the length of the open front windows. Seating is also available on the deck outside, or at the counter to witness the chefs employing the technique from which the restaurant gets its name.

The warayaki cooking method from Kochi in Shikoku uses straw instead of coal for a greater burning temperature. The 900-degree Celsius fire is perfect for lightly searing food without touching the insides. A favorite recipient of this nifty trick is Kochi’s specialty, katsuo (bonito).

This is the flagship dish of Warayakiya (¥1,280), and the slabs of red seared fish, served with slices of garlic, wasabi and crystal salt on the side, are like buttery steaks. The meatiness is locked up in a soft, wanton texture, and we eschewed soy sauce in favor of the crystal salt to avoid undue influence on its purity. It’s worth coming here for this dish alone.

But while you’re at it of course, you might as well order more from the pictorial menu (available in English). We tried the deep-fried eel (crunchy on the outside, gooey on the inside; ¥680), the seared mackerel sushi (spectacular; ¥880), and a surprise hit: the deep-fried sweet potato (¥580) that tasted like an exquisite fairground treat.

While all this was going on we were tucking into varieties of sake at an alarming rate (from ¥380). The entertaining list features a grid with two axes: sweet versus dry on one, light vs. strong on the other, with the labels distributed accordingly. We carried out some tastings and failed miserably at guessing which was which. Though we did successfully get drunk.

The décor, with a wooden porch-like facade, subtle lighting and a summer breeze wafting in from the street, gives a classy burnish to the proceedings—as does the mostly Japanese urbanite crowd chattering and noshing away. The only incongruous element to the experience was, happily, the price. For ten or so dishes, half a dozen tokkuri of sake, two rounds of shochu sours (from ¥480) and even a digestif to round it off, the damage was an undamaging ¥4,000 per head. Maybe it’s got something to do with the price of straw.