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Sunday, May 20, 2007

Burgers, cosplay, yakiniku and Japanese Elvis'

My favourite day so far.

We headed straight to Harajuku in the morning and were starving for breakfast by 11.00am. With clamours for a burger fix by Veruca and Bellboy we were tossing up between Lotteria and McDonald's. McDonald's didn't have anything much excitingly Japanese on the menu - only a Tamago Double Mac which was actually just a fried egg. Lotteria won.

An Asian version of McDonald's, Lotteria opened its first shop in Tokyo, Japan in 1972. It now has chains across South Korea, Taiwan, China and Vietnam. I had the straight burger set meal with fries (choose from large size with salt, medium size with dipping sauce or small size with a salad) and a drink (I leapt on the ginger beer option).

I'm not a huge fast food fan, but there was a small element of long-forgotten satisfaction sinking one's teeth into a burger and munching down crispy fries. The burger was a little on the sweet side and the fries were rather salty (I had mine with honey mustard) but I was very impressed with their recycling campaign, a concerted effort for which they're particularly renowned. The refuse area is split into different compartments with labels in Japanese and English. All ice and liquids are poured down one chute, all plastics (straw wrappers and drink lids) go into one bin, all paper products go into another.

Then down the hill into the throbbing masses of Takeshita Dori, the famous street of Harajuku packed with clothing stores, handbags, crazy fashions, pampered pet outfits and crepes.

Crepes are the must-have accessory along here. We joined the never-ending queue at the popular Angels Heart and feasted on thin crisp crepes filled with fruit, sauce and cream and rolled into a cone. The candy pink wrappers bring a smile to any girl's face and crowds of teenagers and tourists hover around the staircase in the shade polishing them off with a grin. I had the cheesecake with strawberries and cream version: a wedge of cheesecake, a few chopped strawberries and oodles and oodles of pure white mock cream. It was enormous but the mock cream did defeat me and I ended up flicking some of it out with a spoon (shudder).

We made the mandatory wander to the bridge near Yoyogi Park to check out the cosplay teenagers. Every weekend youths gather here in outlandish costumes that attract a papparazzi of gawking tourists. It's a strange scene that sees a motley of dressed-up Little Bo Peeps, goths and anime characters alternate between huddling conspiratorially in corners, cowering under black lacy umbrellas and, when beckoned, shyly posing for the hordes of camera-wielding tourists. It's a disconcerting atmosphere that swings between intrusive voyeurism and moments of fleeting acceptance and admiration.

From there we follow the crowds to Yoyogi Park and this is when I really get to see Tokyo-ites let their hair down. We are greeted at the entrance by a group of Japanese Elvis' who are rocking to a blaring rockabilly soundtrack straight from the 1950s. There are leather pants, leather jackets, Levi jeans, huge gelled-up hairstyles and a giant 40cm long comb sticking out of one guy's back pocket. It's not until the Jive Bunny remix comes on that everyone comes alive and the men (and one woman) take turns to strut their bestest dance moves.

Yoyogi Park is an oasis of green filled with rose beds, water fountains, shady trees and endless lawns of grass. It's a gorgeous day today with the bluest skies I've seen so far and the delicious feel of golden sunshine warming our cheeks. There are hundreds of people picnicking on rugs, gathering with friends, throwing balls and playing frisbee.

There's plenty of entertainment too as all types of interest groups gather. We walk past skateboarders and bikers doing tricks on the boulevarde, a troupe of practising tae kwan do artists, a corner of impromptu salsa dancers, Japanese drum specialists, a class of ukele players, and a joyous throng of African-style drummers and flamboyant dancers.

Down one side the tree-lined park is a series of rock bands, all set up within six feet of each other and playing their hearts out to the passing crowd. There are about a dozen in total, varying from hard rock to boy-band rap to a swing set that includes two trumpet players, a saxophonist and back-up dancers. All are selling copies of their albums, although none seem to be touting for busking money. We even receive a free sample CD from one rock group. Their love of music is apparent, and their unbridled enthusiasm is infectious and heartwarming. It's such a fantastic balance to so much of the inhibition implicit in Japanese culture and I could have quite happily spent all afternoon soaking up the sun, the sounds and the sights of Tokyo at play.

Instead we head across the road wondering the huge white tents are. It's a We Love Jamaica festival, complete with reggae band on a huge public stage, second-hand markets and more Jamaican flags, beanies and dreadlocks than you could ever think possible. There's plenty of love in the air and although there are a couple of beans and rice food stalls, it's clear that most of the crowds assembled here still prefer feasting on yakisoba and takoyaki, as they spread out on red, blue and white plastic mats.

There's time for a long shop through the famous Daisu 100 yen shop at Harajuku (four floors of products that span from cosmetics to homewares to foods and kitchenware) then Speedster and I meet up again with Veruca and Bellboy at the sentimental's favourite Hachiko statue at Shibuya.

Hachiko was a dog who would meet his professor owner at Shibuya station every day after work. One day the professor had a heart attack at work and never came home. Legend has it that for the next ten years, Hachiko would go the station every day to wait for him. He has a statue now in tribute, now a hugely popular meeting spot and photo opp for tourists and schoolkids as well.

Shibuya is probably the quintessential encapsulation of neon-lit crowd infested Tokyo. Three enormous screens showing music videoclips and ads dominate the towering buildings that look down on the world's busiest pedestrian crossing. All traffic stops for the hordes of people that weave their way across the convergence of streets and zebra crossings. It's a scene that makes you want to stop and soak in all the bright lights and chaos that is Tokyo.

We have dinner at a yakiniku restaurant that does all-you-can-eat for only 2,079 yen. The quality and variety is unbelievable. A chiller is filled with plates of thinly sliced beef and pork, tongue, liver, chicken and prawns. There are platters of karaage fried chicken, crispy hot chips, steaming hot dumplings, a pot of simmering onden vegetables and tureens of miso soup. There's a shredded chicken salad, wakame seaweed, crisp fresh lettuce and bowls of boiled edamame soy beans. For flame grilled vegetables there are slices of pumpkins, strips of capsicum, wedges of eggplant, onions and more.

We fire up the grill and eat our fill until we really can eat no more. Then we head onto dessert, a treasure trove of sweets that include green jelly cubes set with jackfruit, an almond jelly and tinned fruit salad, coffee jelly topped with cream, little sponge balls decorate with chocolate and sprinkles, slices of banana covered in chocolate sauce and wedges of ruby grapefruit, pineapple and honeydew melon. There's an ice crusher for DIY shaved ice with a rainbow of syrups. In the corner is a freezer filled with mini tubs of ice cream in vanilla, chocolate, strawberry and green tea matcha flavours.

There's a 90-minute time limit but we're well and truly done within 75. Nature calls not long after and we end the night with a surreal scene on the first floor of the nearest McDonald's. Filled with clouds of cigarette smoke, it's like a convention of hairdressers and make-up artists. Everyone in there has highlights of honey gold, the faces have deep orange tans and there's more make-up on each person than an entire Mardi Gras parade. Everyone has an A4-sized mirror in front of them (boys included) and they're all preening and plucking and primping and posing whilst gossiping with fag in hand and not a care in the world.

It's only as we exit that we realise the second floor was non-smoking (with toilets too). But I'm glad we ventured onto the first floor - even if our lungs did emerge the worser for it.

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2 comments - Add some comment love

posted by Helen (Grab Your Fork) on 5/20/2007 11:55:00 pm


  • At 8/22/2007 2:47 pm, Blogger Sydneyguy said…

    Oh Japan, how its a different world!! There are corners and actually rooms smokers go into the smoke!!

    Mcdonalds there, well the japanese seem to like there tomato sauce and the teriyaki burger is nice!!

    KFC had tomato soup and macaroni there!!

    Shin Yokohama has the RAMEN musuem, cheap to get into, and inside is like a 19540's, 1950's buildings inside and Ramen to try from all over the region.!! More down south, the Ramen has a more spicier taste, which taste better than any Ramen i tried in Toyko or Osaka.

    Lastly i went to a LOCK IN JAIL theme restaurant, it was really good, they lock u up in a small jail cell, and suddenly the lights go out and people in costumes come rattle your cage wearing masks, my friend jumped out of his seat!! haha

  • At 8/27/2007 11:09 pm, Blogger Helen (Grab Your Fork) said…

    Hi Sydneyguy - We didn't get to the ramen museum unfortunately. And I've heard about the jail restaurant. How bizarre!


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