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Saturday, May 19, 2007

Sanja Matsuri, Kitchen Town and Beard Papa

A light breakfast of gyudon beef-on-rice at the Sukiya chain near our hotel. A small bowl only costs me 270 yen, rounded out with a bowl of miso soup for 70 yen. The service is supremely fast. Your order is tapped into an electronic device and served to you literally within 30 seconds. We watched keenly as the man in the kitchen scooped a fellow customer's bowl of rice, then ladled on the sweet and saucy beef and onion topping from a simmering pot. Fast food. And tasty.

The Sukiya menu is littered with proud proclaimations of "100% Aussie beef", sole suppliers since the ban on American imports in 2003 because of mad cow disease. It's a little taste of home anyway :)

We head to Asakusa for the Sanja Matsuri, one of the three big festivals of Tokyo. Over three days in May, hundreds of mikoshi portable shrines are paraded through the area. We arrive at Asakusa Shrine (also known as Kannon-do) along with hundreds of other spectators. The walkway to the shrine, known as Nakamise-dori, is lined with a jostle of stalls selling all types of rice crackers, bean cakes, biscuits, handbags, geta wooden clogs and tourist trinkets. It's packed shoulder to shoulder today with festival-goers.

Through the huddled masses there's a stir as the sound of drums, cymbals and chanting wafts towards us. The crowd surges for a better view as a portable shrine appears and makes its way through. The men and women are wearing cotton outfits emblazoned with Japanese characters. Lots of men are wearing short shorts (and I mean short shorts) and they stamp past us, heaving the shiny golden shrine up and down on their shoulders as they chant in unison. It's quite hypnotic.

It soon becomes apparent that there are hundreds of shrines being milled throughout the area. Some are bigger than others. Some are carried by women. Smaller versions are hoisted by children. There are wheeled carts seating three people that are pushed through the crowds. Traffic police are on hand to hold ropes taut that act as crowd cordons. One shrine I see has a young boy standing on the wooden supports, bending his knees up and down for balance.

The grounds are filled with the usual assortment of food stalls. Okonimiyaki, takoyaki, yakisoba, salted river fish and baked potatoes. Desserts include chocolate covered bananas, fruits dipped in toffee and shaved ice drinks. The most unusual thing I spot are cucumber kebabs, small continental cucumbers jammed onto skewers and eaten whole, like some kind of refreshing diet icy pole. I really am noticing that there's so little junkfood in Japan; most sweet treats are fruit based, and modest in size.

We head to Kappabashi dori next, the Kitchen Town of Tokyo. This street runs for about four blocks and either side are shops selling all types of commercial food tools and restaurant products. There are plenty of takoyaki makers, knives, cookie cutters, cash registers, waitress notebooks, plastic food models and more. My favourite shop along here specialises in cellophane bags and twist ties, perfect for packaging home baked treats. I'd seen this shop last time without purchasing anything, and been kicking myself ever since. I don't make the same mistake again, and pick up 100 tall bags with gold twist ties for only 620 yen.

Next stop: Ameyoko in Ueno, a cluster of streets beneath the clatter of railway lines that are packed with an assortment of stalls selling food and clothing. This had been one of my favourite haunts on my last trip, filled with plenty of things to see, taste and photograph. Seafood alley is always chaotic, and the stall holders here are famous for their loud and energetic spruiking.

The fruit stalls littered throughout the area are always popular. Wedges of pineapple, rockmelon and honeydew are stabbed with skewers and sold for 100 or 200 yen. We having a standing feast of pineapple, so sweet and juicy, and I lament that in Australia we never think to do something similar: fresh fruit on a stick served cheap.

I also have a mini okonomiyaki-style pancake. Batter is poured into circular molds and layered with cabbage, pickles and seaweed. An egg is broken on top, cooked, then the whole thing is flipped over and served with brown sauce and a squiggle of mayonnaise. There's also a bbq rice cake to be had, a block of mochi grilled on both sides until golden and blistered, then wrapped in a square of seasoned seaweed nori, a chewy starchy snack.

We pick up some custard puffs and cannoli from Beard Papa in Ueno. Both are ridiculously cheap compared to Sydney - only 128 yen each. The custard puffs are crisp and crunchy with soft silky vanilla-bean flecked custard within. The cannoli are more like puff pastry than traditional Italian style.

There's a wander through Tobu, the huge department store at Ikebukero. This place boasts 10 floors plus two basement levels of food. There's plenty of yelling and carrying on as the stall holders try to clear their stock at the end of the night.

Dinner is a simple affair: an instant noodle bowl (still craving soupy stuff with the cold slowly clearing) pepped with an assortment of fixings from the local cooked food store - a place that sells pre-cooked obento-type meals, karaage chicken, deep-fried battered prawns and a whole fridge full of salads, tofu and seaweeds. Meals can be cooked to order and all serve-yourself stuff is sold by weight. The place is open 24 hours. Food here is so cheap and freely available. It makes the whole idea of Japanese kitchens seemingly obsolete!

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2 comments - Add some comment love

posted by Helen (Grab Your Fork) on 5/19/2007 11:38:00 pm


  • At 6/13/2007 7:26 am, Blogger Unknown said…

    oh dear what a travesty to be there with all that food and no taste buds to enjoy with! I am just one of the masses who are vicariously enjoying your trip to Japan. I lived there as an exchange student over 20 years ago and have yet to return... I have to say that your travel stories and pictures are very inspiring!

  • At 6/13/2007 9:55 pm, Blogger Helen (Grab Your Fork) said…

    Hi Foodhoe - It was very depressing but thankfully I was only out of action for one day :) I think you should return to Japan. Think of all that eating you have to catch up on!


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