[blog]* Day 8 - revenge! Back to Asakusa, and going to Ryogaku for chanko-nabe
Now that I could walk (hobble) again, there was no question of where I was going next. I was going back to Asakusa.
On the way there from Shinjuku, though, I saw this most arresting scene. Sandwiched between two monstrous office buildings there sat a quiet, tree-lined lane leading up to the local shrine, a little slice of serenity unperturbed in one of the busiest areas in the world.
It's notable how this nation has powered ahead to become one of the most technologically and economically advanced in the world, and yet still managed to fastidiously protect its culture and heritage. I think it's wonderful.
With a little tweaking it looks pretty old, right? Pre-war or something? Anyway, just messing around - that photo was taken in 2009 (obviously)
But Japan is really amazing in this way.
Shinjuku to Asakusa is just a quick train ride.
While we're on that note, let me introduce you to Hyperdia, the most amazing invention known to man. Actually, it's just one of many Japan train timetable websites - put in a Start and Finish station, and out pops the perfect route. It does it in English, too.
The timetable is king. I've had JR staff refuse to reserve me advance tickets because they insisted I couldn't get to so-and-so station in time.
(And of course I made it, with 15 minutes to spare.)
On the underside of the big-ass lantern
So, Asakusa. I was, of course, here to do over the first-day assignment I had failed to do, but I had another strong reason, too.
Remember that awful omikuji from Day 1? I had scorned time-honoured tradition and superstition and taken it along with me because it was really just so awfully bad, I had to keep it. But then I ended up in hospital. Twice! And endured a lot of other assorted nasty things which I will spare my dear readers - feel free to use your imagination. But no, I have never had so much bad luck in my entire life.
But! First - food! The avenue leading up to Sensoji is famous for senbei - well, I'd like to say that, except it's more like the avenue became so clustered with senbei stalls that eventually people began to associate one with the other. But in any case, at ~¥70 ($0.77 / £0.53) I just had to try some.
It's served freshly done up and sandwiched between a folded piece of dry nori. It was... good. Kind of like how you'd imagine senbei to be, but less salty - very crisp, very fresh, none of that ridiculously overdone glaze you find in store-bought senbei (which is to keep it fresh)
I guess it doesn't help very much if I describe the taste as rice-y?
Asakusa's ningyoyaki, or "doll cake", is a little more famous within Japan. Similar to taiyaki (the fish-shaped one) red bean paste, or other filling, is baked within a blob of waffle batter, so that the outside is (usually) crispy, and the inside fluffy and moist.
"Ningyoyaki" is shaped like... well, random baking-friendly objects. I had a duck and Doraemon head. Mine wasn't so amazing, with the red bean and cake both overly dense and incredibly sweet, but it was quite cute and at 2 for ~¥100 ($1.10 / £0.76) you could do worse.
I actually enjoyed having the crowd around me. Sometimes I felt almost immersed in it, as if I really were any one of the local people here - doing some light shopping, eating, paying my respects as if it were any other Friday afternoon.
But anyway, the omikuji. The idea is that if you tie your bad omikuji down, it'll be unable to follow you. This is obviously what I should have done before - but better late than never... right?
Tying the buster down
So I figured that having tied it down, I was allowed to draw another one...
It was also awful. In fact, I would do this several times again as I went down the country and not once would I draw a good one. Sigh.
Actually, awful omikuji aside, Japanese mythology is pretty interesting. Did you know that there's a Japanese spirit which brings people tofu? I mean, what kind of culture collectively thinks up a benign, tofu-bearing child spirit? I think it's wonderful.
Anyway, deed done, I took a look around the rest of Sensoji.
People often get confused between Sensoji and Asakusa. Sensoji refers to the temple - the oldest in Tokyo - while Asakusa refers to the area encompassing Sensoji. The famous little street leading up to the Temple is the Nakamise-dori.
Anyway, enough of that. I was here, actually, for another purpose - to try out the food I'd missed on my first day.
Remember? Aquatic creature, sucker mouth. Mm. Any guesses?
Founded in 1801, this restaurant is one of the most famous for this dish, and carries with it all the according old-world charm.
You're required to take your shoes off before you enter, and sit cross-legged or knees to one side, on the floor.
As for the food...
Sardines? Except, on closer inspection...
This is, in fact, dozeu-nabe or loach (dojo) pot. Loaches are first cooked alive in sake, then transferred to a small hot plate, and cooked again over a charcoal fire.
The soup base is a blend of thick shoyu, sake, sugar and miso - quite surprisingly sweet. I think it's traditionally to mask the taste of the loach itself, which is fishy and a little bitter - rather like sardines, actually. But the slow cooking makes it incredibly soft, to the point where it is eaten whole, bones and all.
Despite its biological closeness to the rather more disturbing leech family, loaches are just harmless freshwater fish. They're also known as "weatherfish" because they're sensitive to air pressure, and thus get agitated when the weather is about to change. I think they're actually relatively common as pets...
Loaches used to be abundant throughout Japan, and dozeu-nabe was a "local dish" of the merchant areas of Edo (old Tokyo). However, nowadays it is relegated to pretty much being just a specialist dish.
I'd ordered the lunch set, which also came with some appropriately Edo-era side dishes, like this grilled tofu and konnyaku skewer pair, which was topped with a light, sweet miso paste.
Japanese pickles, and miso soup. For the miso soup, loaches are cooked in chikuma miso, an unsalted variant popular in the Edo period. I have to say I couldn't really taste the loach and it felt pretty much just like a really intense miso soup.
But all in all, a really enjoyable meal, if only for the novelty factor. Prices start at ¥1,700 ($18.59 / £12.83) for the nabe alone - which is perfectly reasonable, I think, for a precious little slice of history such as this.
Anyway, onto the next stop - the Ryogaku district, just next to Asakusa.
Ryogaku is famous for being home to a large number of sumo stables (training halls) - and food-wise, for being home to chanko-nabe, the "sumo wrestler's food".
The area was delightfully seedy, with lots of crowded side streets winding in and through old residential blocks. It looked like something that had been pulled from Ghost in the Shell...
A Japanese contact had suggested this restaurant for chanko-nabe. It's hard to take a decent in-restaurant shot as space was so limited, but I was seated, with about either others, in a narrow corridor near the entrance.
Apparently this was the only space available for those without reservations, and I was actually lucky. It was already almost full when I got there - this was before 6pm - and a couple who got there just minutes after me were turned away.
I ordered one shio (salt) base chanko-nabe. Chanko-nabe is more typically served with a miso or shoyu broth, but the shio base had apparently become more popular lately, and the chef recommended I try it.
So, what is chanko-nabe? All said and done... it's basically a big hot pot, where the ingredients are boiled together in a light broth. The ingredients are pre-cooked and seasoned in the kitchen, but finished in front of you on a personal gas cooker.
There's no fixed recipe or formula for chanko-nabe - the only defining characteristics really are just that it should be big, and based around some main protein source (in my case, chicken). Sumo wrestlers apparently eat it in vast quantities to help put on weight.
The shio base was light and peppery, and brought out the flavours of the ingredients nicely. All in all I enjoyed it, and I think it'd be wonderful as regular comfort food, but I didn't find it particularly remarkable - perhaps because I grew up on Taiwanese hot pots and these can't really compare.
But that might be down to my base choice, perhaps. Maybe I should try miso next time...
Results: Day 8
Areas: Tokyo - Asakusa, Ryogoku
Anyway, not much else in Ryogoku (except seedy mahjong parlours) so that was it for the day.