Browsing articles from "February, 2013"
Feb 1, 2013

The Best of Koenji

Map of locations below

best italian

Antica Locale

Courtesy of Antica Locale

It’s not your classic sit-down restaurant, despite a smattering of tables, nor is it a straight-up bar, despite the bottle-lined counter. It’s probably best described as a tavern, and its warm atmosphere, buoyant regulars, and pleasantly arty décor are presided over by Taka-san, one of the neighborhood’s nicest guys. But the prime reason to step through its doors (which are open from 7pm-3/4am), is the sumptuous outpourings from the chef’s skillet. This is unquestionably the best Italian food we have tasted in Japan. And its quality has been corroborated by real Italian people. Kick off with the heavenly penne arrabbiata (¥800), and choose from other pastas and risottos, toasties and entrées, plus decent wine for ¥500/glass or a paltry ¥300 before 8pm.

2-39-15 Koenjikita, Suginami-ku. Tel: 03-6383-0190.

best décor

Nanatsu Mori

Photo by Margarita

Antique furniture, gigantic matchboxes, a wooden counter lining a sunken kitchen, rows of cupboards lifted right out the servants’ quarters at Gosford Park, a menu that could pass for a diary in Narnia, books and lamps and tchotchkes, a squat oshibori heater from Barton Fink’s hotel room, and usually a jazz soundtrack pouring out of excellent speakers… This decades-old artist and musician’s hangout in Koenji-minami wraps you in a blanket of eclectic timelessness and charmed wonder—while serving you heartwarming homemade curry lunch and dinner sets (¥1,050; with soup, salad, drink) at the same time. Their varied menu matches the interior design choices, ranging from snacks and meals to coffee and cocktails, desserts including kawaii hoop-shaped jellies, and more.

2-20-20 Koenji-minami, Suginami-ku. Tel: 03-3318-1393.

best home cookin’

El Pato

Photo by Mara Duer

With a handful of tasty craft beers on tap, a friendly owner-chef who speaks English and loves a good chinwag, and outdoor seating for when the weather perks up, there’s more to El Pato than just a brazenly delicious lamb burger. But carnivores out there should probably taste it before they agree. The woolly quadruped, rarely found in Japan outside jingiskan joints, is here served up in thick, juicy squares of grilled meat, on a substantial foccaccia-like bun (¥1350). If you’ve been hankering for the bleating meat it doesn’t get much better than this. Bovine boffins can also order up the sirloin roast beef, though ask the chef to give it a flash in the pan if you don’t like your flesh quasi-raw. Vegetarian recipes include some of the homemade pasta dishes (from ¥1,100)—and you can even witness the chef rolling the strands out of his colorful pasta maker by hand. Various salads (from ¥600) and appetizers such as the show-stopping roasted fig with Gorgonzola are just a couple more picks from a stunning menu.

2-22-10 Koenjikita. Tel: 03-6795-7888.

best coffee & cake

Coffee Amp

Courtesy of Coffee Amp

On your left as you walk down the eclectic southern-side shotengai, just a minute before reaching Omekaido avenue and Shin Koenji station, sits this charming little café, fronted by a small wooden deck and a slightly surreal patch of grass. The interior design is post-industrial chic, and the few chairs and stools are spare but comfortable enough to sit and inhale the incredible aromas of the house-roasted coffee. A superlative macchiato can be had for ¥350, and the unmatched cheesecake (¥300) will get your blood sugar pumping along with Coffee Amp’s generally old-school funk soundtrack. Choose from the various beans on offer and take away a bag, ground to order (from ¥790/200g).

2-20-13 Koenji-minami, Suginami-ku. Tel: 03-5929-9587.

best burger

Bake Crowns Café

Slip on your wingtips and glitzy waistcoat and slink into the Prohibition-era style Bake Crowns Café, where the burgers are as big as the task facing Elliot Ness and his “Untouchables.” Slide onto one of their roomy leather couches on the ground floor and tuck into the old Japanese ba-ga favorite of avocado and cheese (¥780 regular; ¥1,460 jumbo). The buns are stiff floury-bap-style and the burger sauce is tasty without being sickly and overpowering. Jumbo is genuinely jumbo. Another one to try is the spicy-beef sandwich (¥1,050), with salmon and cream cheese (¥690) on the menu for the non-meat eaters, ELT (¥850) for the non-vegans, and various salads, soups and desserts to round it off. If they’re playing their CD of Beatles covers, tell them we said to change it. Hoegarden on tap (¥780).

104 Baoshan Bldg, 4-21-11 Koenji-minami. Tel: 03-6768-5539.

best weirdness


Become a forest elf in the woody weirdness of this tall, narrow structure, where the only things stranger than the toadstool-like desserts and creepy face-cakes are the childlike daubings on the dimly lit walls. This otaku node is a hippy maid café without maids, and without any obese customers, owing to the diminutive size of the door. Main courses are surprisingly earthy and substantial, with various bakes clocking in at just under ¥1,000. A complex key system in the cocktail menu will entertain you for hours before you get stumped and order a nama biru (¥525). Various art and music events are held in the space—check their site for details, or just turn up and try not to trip out.

2-18-10 Koenjikita, Suginami-ku. Tel: 03-6762-8122.

best vegan

Meu Nota

Black bean hummus (¥520). Courtesy of Meu Nota

With a wide selection of vegan dishes all prepared with love and creativity, this self-styled “vege & grain café” provides a living room-like setting lined with books, dangling pots, green leaves, and musical instruments. One of the landmark dishes is the fresh, tasty taco rice (¥1,000/half ¥650), and today’s soup (¥400) is always a good bet, though the menu is flush with pastas, donbori, and much more. Quaff a coffee certified by Rainforest Alliance (¥480), detox with a green smoothie (¥700), sip on organic wine (¥480/glass), or give yourself a healing winter boost with the wonderful homemade ginger tea (¥580). Check their site for details of art happenings and music events.

2F, 3-45-11 Koenji-minami, Suginami-ku. Tel: 03-5929-9422.

best bar

Koenji Beer Kobo

Craft-beer purists might find the proverbial hair in the home-brewed jibiru at Kobo, but they’ll not be able to fault the atmosphere at this woody shack o’ love. The three or so ales which are literally cooked up out back are usually fair enough—as are a few externally-sourced options—especially when they come as cheap as ¥350/glass. Bar food includes doorstops of bacon (¥550) that you cook on your own little Bunsen burner, fish ’n’ chips (¥650), and more, and the relatively spacious interior is like your dad’s shed or your mother’s sukkah—with sacks of hops lying around to give a good ole bumpkin feel to the place. Keep quaffing and you’ll no doubt get a chance to witness the bizarre bathroom.

2-24-8 Koenjikita, Suginami-ku. Tel: 03-5373-5301.

Map of locations here:

View 980 LF Koenji roundup in a larger map

Don’t agree? Chip in with your own tips in the comments below.

Feb 1, 2013

Grow Ops

© Fotolia

Hiroto Matsafuji and his fruit at the Earth Day Market

Farmers’ markets are nothing new to Japan. Asaichi (morning markets) traditionally took place at prominent public places where regional farmers would display their wares for perusal by city residents. Some, like Akita’s Gojome market, still run five hundred years later as popular tourist attractions and sources of locally grown food. Others disappeared as modern supermarkets impacted farmer numbers, or because of changes in landowner priorities.

In 2009 the Japanese government, facing a dual conundrum of declining food production and a citizenry wary from a series of food scares, created Marché Japon. New markets and some established ones joined this effort to boost the ailing agricultural sector and soothe public fears. A public-relations campaign involving celebrities, YouTube, and various events started reconnecting eaters with growers.

Today, a handful of Western-style markets in Tokyo bring farmers, producers, craftsmen, and customers together to talk, trade, and build community in an age-old tradition. Successful markets have solid customer and vendor bases, reliable schedules, and fun atmospheres. Customers know where to find a favorite grower and the grower knows the effort of coming into the city will be rewarded.

“It’s very different from the supermarket,” says Yusuke Tanaka, manager of both the United Nations University and the Gyre Farmers’ Markets. “People come because they like the vegetables, but they also really like talking with farmers. At the supermarkets there is no talk.” Visitors find, he says, what they like to call “my favorite farmer.”

Since setting up their first tents in 2009, the number of vendors and visitors at the UNU market has more than doubled. The 60 regular vendors meet upwards of 10,000 visitors a day, claims Tanaka.

Gyre Farmers’ Market

“At first, people only walked by and looked,” says Tanaka. “When they saw us here every Saturday and Sunday, they stopped. They met the farmers. They became regulars.”

Takayuki Shimizu, manager of the Ebisu Farmers’ Market, agrees. “These kinds of places are ‘B2C’—business to customer—rather than B2B,” he said during a recent visit to the bi-monthly market. Customers meet the grower, the pickler, and the jammer. Producers, in turn, put a face alongside their products, answer questions and develop relationships.

Goda Masaki, an Akita rice farmer, finds the Ebisu Farmers’ Market a perfect testing ground for his carrot, sun-dried tomato, and basil yasai mochi (vegetable rice cake). On this Sunday he hands out samples with a small crew he met through NOPPO, a company that partners university students interested in agriculture with farmers seeking new ideas. “It’s a great way to support independent farmers,” says NOPPO CEO Yukiko Fukumoto, also helping at the table that day.

Shigeto Katayama, manager of the Roppongi Ark Hills Farmers’ Market, recalls when his market was started ten years ago by a group of Ibaraki growers who came in every Saturday with their wares. Four years ago, the Mori Corporation offered them the use of Karajan Plaza at the center of a newly completed residential complex. Now in that plaza, upwards of 40 vendors meet 1,500 loyal customers every week.

“Our purpose is to make community. Farmers and customers talking and laughing together is the most important,” comments Katayama. “We think a good farmers’ market is part of a good lifestyle.”

Yoshio Kosaka’s stall at the Roppongi market is piled with bundles of carrots, haksai (Chinese cabbage), negi (long onions), daikon, and an assortment of winter greens from his farm in Kokubunji. He nods and smiles as a woman points to a basket of pale udo (spikenard). “I bought that last week. It was really delicious,” she says. Kosaka grins wider as he thanks her. They talk about how it grows (under cover to keep it white) and its season (January through April). She asks a few more questions before buying more udo along with other vegetables. As she arranges her bag, she waves farewell before heading to a nearby fish vendor.

Goda Masaki and NOPPO helpers, Ebisu Farmers’ Market

Kazuo Keino, owner of the high-rise and plaza where the monthly Nippori Farmers’ Market takes place, had something similar in mind. Steps from Nippori Station and the historic Yanaka district, a market seemed a good way to integrate new residents. Atsuko Fujita, Nippori’s manager, recalled the first market two years ago—made up of just herself and four farmers. Nippori now hosts more than thirty vendors a month along with workshops, prepared foods, and music.

The Earth Day Market started in 2006 in order to support organic growers. According to Hiroshi Tomiyama, manager and founder, most farmers there have been in business less than ten years. Nearly all are small family operations with many in their first year, while other vendors are transitioning from other work to farming.

“The first years of farming can be very unstable. By coming here, farmers establish a customer base that will help them become successful,” explains Tomiyama.

Hiroto Matsufuji, a Yamagata fruit grower, comes to the Earth Day Market each month. Originally from Chiba, Matsufuji left the airline industry ten years ago to focus on his orchard. He sees the market as a place to share his joy in farming and make a living. “Farming is art. It’s my life. If I don’t sell, then I’m done. The market communicates all of that,” he says.

Shoppers find it worthwhile, too. Prices, especially for organic items, are the same as or less than in the supermarket. Farmers’ markets also offer an unmatched diversity of fruits and vegetables—more than 180 can be found at one Earth Day Market, according to Tomiyama—as well as a unique selection of other food items and crafts.

The markets also mean less packaging, more seasonal eating, and new recipes to help with that. There is your train fare, and lugging home two kilograms of rice in a backpack full of produce can be a weighty affair. But meeting the grower, having fun, and knowing the where and how behind the food on your table is a tough deal to beat.

Earth Day

Tokyo’s only all-organic, all fair-trade market features a fantastic variety of vendors offering all one might need for dinner, breakfast, and beyond. Some of Shizuoka’s best organic tea, a fine selection of rice growers, purveyors of old-fashioned grains, homemade miso, and an ume jam that will knock the socks off your taste buds are just a few of the treasures to be discovered here. Throw in a little music, workshops, and artisans and you’ll find yourself becoming a regular.
Last Sunday of every month, 10am-4pm, Yoyogi Park Elms. Nearest stn: Harajuku.


A charming market at the entrance of Ebisu Garden Place, visitors will find a lovely selection of growers and producers from all over Japan showcasing everything from the usual seasonal fruits and vegetables to the more exotic dried natto (a delicious, crunchy version of the usual “aromatic” bean). Handmade soaps and other craft items also join an array of juices, jams, and teas. Each month also features a different region of Japan and its culinary delights.
First and third Sunday of each month, 11am-5pm. Nearest stn: Ebisu.


One flight of stairs below Omotesando’s fashionable hub-bub, the Gyre Farmers’ Market is where fashionistas do their grocery shopping. Gyre offers visitors a more intimate and indoor version of the UNU Farmers’ Market. Seasonal produce, including a nice selection of heirloom and foreign varieties of vegetables, is showcased at its best along with a variety of pickles, jams, and baked goods. Never overly crowded, there’s plenty of opportunity to talk with the farmers or sample a tasty new spread.
Second and fourth weekend of every month, 11am-5pm. Nearest stn: Harajuku or Meiji Jingumae.


Just outside Nippori Station and on on the edge of Yanaka, one of Tokyo’s most outstanding historic districts, the Nippori Market features a carefully selected combination of seasonal produce, music, crafts, and prepared foods. Tohoku farmers display their best vegetables, and a monthly regional theme draws growers and producers from around the country. A nice selection of food carts, too, offer some of the best manju and tea around, as well as other tasty fare.
Third weekend of every month, Saturday and Sunday, 10am to 5pm. Nearest stn: Nippori.

Roppongi Ark Hills

A bustling market nestled in the central courtyard of Roppongi’s Ark Hills where shoppers will find everything from household items, preserves, handmade crafts, fresh produce from Tokyo farmers in Kokubunji and Okutama, along with a wide variety of fruits and vegetables. Small- to medium-sized growers and producers will help visitors discover a new variety of citrus or a novel way to love old friends like daikon and spinach. Regular workshops and seasonal food themes make for a fun atmosphere, too.
Every Saturday, 10am-2pm. Nearest stn: Tameikesanno.


Sixty growers and producers from all over Japan are on hand every Saturday and Sunday with the best seasonal fare their fields and kitchens have to offer. Find everything from jams to pickles to fresh produce to baked goods and tea along with a wide selection of unique handmade crafts. Some vendors don’t come every weekend, so ask about a schedule if you find someone you like. A night market every third Saturday offers music and themed food sampling, too.
Every Saturday and Sunday, 10am-4pm. Nearest stn: Omotesando or Shibuya.

Feb 1, 2013



Riding up the escalator in a small, nondescript shotengai just north of JR Asagaya station, you’d never imagine you were about to enter a haven of home-cooked Turkish cuisine. We entered the softly lit space, and chose the counter in front of the workstation of chef Elif (pictured).

Charming waiter Sali brought us two glasses of Efes Pilsner, a Turkish standard—elegant and dry, but with a slightly sweet aftertaste (¥630)—as we perused the menu. Other drinks include Sapporo on tap, Turkish wine by the glass (¥525) as well as a few Turkish, French and Chilean selections by the bottle (¥3,150-8,400). For those who don’t imbibe, the salty yogurt drink ayran is one to try among the usual soft drinks.

Elif was happy to talk us through the dishes in her charming English, with occasional translation help from the fluent Sali. We went for the chef’s special course, which is priced and sized according to your preference. Set courses are available, and solo diners can request a daily special sampler of appetizers and meat dishes for ¥2,415. Otherwise, choose à la carte from the well-explained English menu with photos.

First to arrive was the assorted appetizer plate (¥1,365 small; ¥2,520 large; pictured). This is a scrumptious selection of homemade Homemade Turkish dipsTurkish dips such as hummus; patlican ezme, or Turkish babaganoush; and the excellently tart avuc tarama (seasoned carrots and yogurt). Included for mopping up this tasty kaleidoscope was the addictive, freshly baked flatbread ekmek, which Elif warned us to go easy on­—to save room for later. Not easy, but we did our best.

Next up was akdeniz salatasi, a rich, herb-dusted salad including tomato, cucumber, and salty feta—plus the surprising bonus of chopped pickles (¥945). Then came domates dolma: roasted tomatoes stuffed with rice and pine nuts (¥840), excellent with a squeeze of fresh lemon. The term “Turkish pizza”—used in the menu—doesn’t do justice to lachmacun, the country’s baked dough discs topped with spicy meat sauce. As a nice twist, Izmir serves its version with fresh arugula leaves and sliced tomato, which you lay on the lachmacun with a squeeze of lemon, roll up and get crunching.

We were lucky enough to witness Elif methodically construct a giant spindle of meat for her doner kebabs. She chatted to us as she patiently trimmed wafer-thin slices of meat and piled hundreds, one by one, onto the giant metal skewer. She inserted the occasional layer of fat, which was probably the reason why the kebab we ordered was so divinely moist. Our dish was the iskender kebab—succulent shaved meat swamped with a piquant mixture of yogurt and wonderfully rich tomato sauce, and layered with chunks of toasted flat bread (¥2,100). Unforgettable. This is just one of the various grilled meat dishes on offer, but sadly we were physically unable to try more.

Stewed dishes populate the menu too, such as the standout manti (Turkish dumplings)—bite-sized lamb-stuffed ravioli served with yogurt, a hint of garlic and a mouth-watering paprika-butter sauce (¥1,785).

To wind down, we sipped a glass of famous Turkish tipple raki, made from grape and flavored with aniseed. Our stomachs recovered enough to try the dessert of the day—the stretchy ice cream dondurma, homemade and topped with a sprinkling of walnuts (¥630). Finally, a glass of strong cay tea was a refreshing counterpoint to the sweetness.

The flavors encountered at Izmir are hard to find elsewhere in Tokyo, and the quality of the home cooking, combined with the chef’s maternal presence, will definitely see us going back for some more Turkish-style comfort food.

Feb 1, 2013

Takao Trick Art Museum

Realism, the dominant artistic genre until comparatively recently, has always relied on trickery to achieve its effects. But sometimes being deceived is a pleasure, especially when we see that it’s not just us, but others too, and we also learn something about how the deception works. This is the premise of the Takao Trick Art Museum (TTAM), definitely a fun place to visit and, given its location at the foot of Mount Takao, an interesting alternative to literally taking a hike.


Takao Trick Art Museum

Photo courtesy of C. B. Liddell

“Fun and art!” Well, that doesn’t sound right. We all know that art is some kind of substitute religion that we are meant to take devilishly seriously. Visiting museums in Japan is often akin to popping into a church during a funeral—shuffle past the pictures, look reverential, and whatever you do don’t talk or laugh. At TTAM, cameras are allowed and you can ham it up posing for pictures; laughing is expected; and don’t worry about touching stuff: this place is hands-on.

Meanwhile, the museum workers in their cute, airhostess-style uniforms are always ready to help and several of them speak English as well.

The museum has an ancient Egyptian theme, with rooms painted to look like interiors of pyramids and temples. These can be viewed from different angles, including an upper floor, to reveal different optical effects. There are also various artworks and other items that first amaze and then shed light on how our eyes and minds work. One of the most effective is a spiral set next to a painting with clouds. Once you have observed the spiral spinning for 15 seconds you turn to the painting and incredibly the clouds start to swirl.

Another fascinating attraction is a room where people seem to become giants when they stand in one corner and midgets when they stand in another corner—at least when viewed from the correct viewpoint. Such tricks reveal the rules of perspective perfected by the great artists of the Renaissance.

Although there is a serious and academic side to the laws of optics, TTAM’s approach is to keep it fun and not to bother with the science too much. The museum’s perfect demographic is probably young couples on dates or families with young kids. This gives the museum a rather cheesy or corny atmosphere—a hint of a travelling fair or a seaside amusement park like Coney Island. There are also some lame exhibits and the museum is far from slick. But such weaknesses actually make the place more endearing.

If you want a museum that will engage and involve you, and you are not afraid of a little tackiness, then the TTAM is a great day out, and, unlike most museums, when you get home you’ll be able to flood your social networks with a lot of daft pictures showing you kissing fish, fending off crocodiles, or falling out of temples in the sky.

Tokyo Trick Art Museum, 1786 Takaomachi, Hachioji-shi. Tel: 042-667-1081. Nearest stn: