Shopping In Tokyo’s Kitchen District

A giant chef statue marks the entrance to Kappabashi.

One of the most interesting and fun places we visited back when we were stationed in Japan was Kappabashi, or Tokyo’s “kitchen district.” The district is actually a long street lined on either side with stores that provide supplies to restaurants, bakeries, tea and coffee shops, noodle stands and home kitchens – anywhere food is prepared and served in Japan. You can find everything kitchen-related here: dishes, pots, pans of all shapes and size, baking pans and supplies, utensils, knives, glassware, uniforms, cookie cutters, every kitchen gadget imaginable and anything else a cook might want or desire. There are also stores that sell lanterns for the front of restaurants, signs for restaurants, uniforms, and realistic plastic food samples used for restaurant display windows.

Brett and I told ourselves when we went last Tuesday that we were only going to go and look, but I tucked some extra yen into my purse in case we saw something we had to have. We have been planning to buy some plates and soup bowls while we’re here in Japan, and I knew there was a chance we might find something we liked in Kappabashi.

We had an easy train ride to the area, about 35 minutes from our station, a big change from when we lived here before and our train trip was nearly 1 1/2 hours each way. Two Japanese men stepped up at our station to help us buy our tickets when we couldn’t find the stop on the station map (if you look confused in Japan, someone will always step forward to help you). I remarked to one of them that he sounded like a native English speaker, and it turned out he had been born and grew up in the Los Angeles area, in the next town over from my hometown!

This dish store had beautiful and affordable items. Japanese dish stores are dangerous places for me because I’m the proverbial kid in the candy store and want almost everything.

Coming out of the station, we turned to the right around the corner and headed down the street until we saw the giant chef statue, the sign that we had reached Kappabashi. Of course, the first shop we came to when we arrived had to be a large dish store where I could have happily spent all our money before looking at another thing because they had good prices and a big selection of beautiful dishes. However, I was able to restrain myself and only looked, and then Brett and I headed across the street to look at the rest of the shops.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

We did well fin keeping our money even though we saw many tempting items, but finally met our match at a large all-purpose kitchen store that catered not to restaurants but to home cooks. This place had everything for the kitchen it seemed but the kitchen sink, and in every size, color, shape or design imaginable. Brett and I strolled around and ended up with a small stainless steel mesh basket (for washing rice), a six-pack of microfiber cloths, and a pack of bamboo chopsticks (with a twist at the top, my favorite design), all things we need to replace and could easily fit into our suitcases.

After walking for a while we turned down a side street when we spotted a huge temple sitting just a block off of Kappabashi Street. We had seen on an area map that lots of temples and shrines were in the area, but were surprised to see one this close. The little street also was home to a small antique store with a beautiful blue Imari hibachi sitting out front. Back in the day I would have probably picked up one or two things from there as well, but I restrained myself this time.

Higashi-Honganji Temple is one of the oldest temples in Tokyo, established in 1651.
I could have happily taken this beautiful hibachi home with me but didn’t think it was fair to ask Brett to carry it.

We crossed over to the opposite side of the street after a while as we could see several dish stores (the side we started on had more pots, pans and other cooking implements). Dish stores are always fun for me to go into because I absolutely love Japanese dishes! We eventually found some reasonably priced pottery salad plates in one store that called our names ($8.60/plate) and bought five, and then found even more reasonably priced pottery soup bowls ($2.88/bowl) in another store and bought five of those. Both were carefully wrapped up and will be carried onto the plane with us when we fly home. We also found and bought two packages of our favorite toothpicks – we’ll never need to buy them again in our lifetimes.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

One of the most interesting things to check out on Kappabashi are the stores selling plastic food samples. We wandered through a couple of them with large selections of plastic food and were amazed by the skill and artistry of the work. I’ve added a video below of how plastic food is made – it’s quite amazing. Plastic food is not cheap either – pieces of sushi start at $5 and go up from there, and an item like a fancy ice cream sundae or bowl of ramen can cost over $100. The video below shows how a couple of different items are made (it’s in Japanese, but you don’t need the sound to understand what’s going on).

We had a great time visiting Kappabashi and we’d like to go back once more if we can – we think we’d like to get two dinner-size plates, and some dessert plates if we can find some we like. The train station for Kappabashi (Tawaramachi) is also just one stop away from Asakusa, where Sensoji-Temple is located, and we could make a day of it. But for now we’re happy and satisfied with our purchases and the items we bought, and glad we made the effort to go again to Kappabashi.

Food Shopping In Japan

Although we have access to the commissaries and American-style supermarkets and products on several bases in the Tokyo area, Brett and I decided we wanted to do as much as possible of our food shopping “out on the economy” (the military expression for anything off base). Not only would it be more convenient, but we wanted to see what it would cost to feed ourselves if we lived here, and what and how we eat might change.

Japanese shoppers typically only buy enough food for a couple of days at a time so that they are getting the freshest food possible. And, because Japanese meals usually consist of small servings of several different items, and kitchen storage space is minimal compared to the U.S., product sizes are much, much smaller than what Americans are used to. There are no big family packs of anything, no big cuts of meat, or five-pound bags of fruit. Loaves of bread have maybe six slices at most.

We did our weekly food shop at the Tokyu supermarket this past Saturday. We feel very lucky to have such a big supermarket nearby as they offer store brands and regularly have sales going on. Shopping carts, as I’ve mentioned, are just a standard plastic shopping basket on a trolley, but because the sizes of everything are so small we can really pack a lot into one of those baskets.

We spent a little more than we usually do last weekend, but that was due to the addition of a few items we don’t regularly buy, like two bottles of wine and a bag of flour. We also purchased a couple of splurge items, and spent more on one item because we decided to buy the more expensive “American” name brand (Johnsonville sausages) when we couldn’t figure out any of the similar Japanese products.

Our haul from the bakery – all of this deliciousness cost around $8.

We began our shopping trip with a visit to the bakery just down the street, where we bought two raisin rolls, an onion and cheese roll (for me), a cinnamon doughnut (for Brett) and a matcha cookie (for me). The raisin rolls were deliciously yeasty and light and we ate them for breakfast on Sunday morning along with some fruit. The onion and cheese roll was my breakfast this morning.

Below are pictures of what we bought this week at the supermarket, a fairly typical weekly shop for us. It was an all-food shop as well – we didn’t buy any toiletries or other non-food items. To give an idea of how small the below items are, everything fit into one standard size plastic shopping basket. 

Our produce purchases included a small head of broccoli; a bag of small eggplants (for mabo nasu); a carrot and a potato for curry; red, yellow and a bag of small green peppers for a pork & pepper stir fry; two tomatoes for BLTs (we have some bacon in the freezer, and lettuce in the fridge that needs to get finished); half of a cabbage for another stir fry and some cole slaw; and bananas and strawberries.

Our meat purchases were beef stew meat for the curry; ground pork for the mabo nasu; thinly sliced pork for a stir fry; a bag of frozen shrimp for chili shrimp; and Johnsonville sausages. We’re not exactly sure what type of sausages they are but we’re going to have them for breakfast. None of the meat packages weighs more than a quarter pound. The beef was the most expensive at $7 for that tiny package while the pork for stir fry was around $2.89. The seafood selection at the store is immense, but there are many things we don’t recognize. There are also several cuts of meat we don’t recognize either.

We bought two bags of raisin cookies (there are only five packages in each bag and the cookies are tiny); a package of sesame biscuits; two bags of soy peanut crackers, our favorite snack; two matcha cream cookies that we want to try (they were very good!); a bag of cheese snacks for the grands; two individual containers of purin (a flan-style custard) for dessert one evening; a package of Boursin pepper cheese, a surprise find as well as a total splurge for us; and wheat crackers to have with the cheese.

Beverage purchases included a small container of fat-free milk to use for pancakes and cereal; a bottle of unsweetened iced tea for Brett; two bottles of French wine, one red and one white (both are from Bordeaux, are delicious, and were surprisingly affordable); and two bottles of water. The bottled water is for drinking – there are still lingering concerns because of the Fukushima accident. All plastic bottles in Japan are recycled – we have a separate container for them in the apartment.

Miscellaneous items include three Cook Do sauces (chili shrimp, mabo nasu, and pork and cabbage stir fry); a box of curry sauce cubes; a small bag of flour for pancakes; and a bag of Chinese steamed pork buns (nikuman).

Tokyu supermarket, like almost all markets in Japan, has a wide selection of high-quality, affordable prepared foods for sale. We bought two katsu (panko-breaded fried pork cutlets), finely-shredded cabbage, and tonkatsu sauce for our Saturday night dinner – all I had to do was make rice and we had a delicious restaurant-style meal for around $8!

Everything we bought is recognizable to us, and we know what it tastes like and what to do with it, but about 75% of what’s available in the market are things we have no idea about how to cook or what they are (even if I can read the label). So, we are fairly constrained in what we buy compared to what’s available although we try to push our boundaries from time to time.

Food is expensive in Japan – there’s no getting around that – and we’re fortunate to not have to feed a family over here, at least not cooking the way we do now. For just Brett and I though the expense hasn’t been bad. The total amount spent this past weekend was $123.76, more than usual but still within our food budget of $500/month. Brett would like us to segue into more frequent shopping trips so that we don’t have to carry several heavy bags of food back to the apartment, but I worry that doing so might mean we spend more. Maybe shopping twice a week might be the answer though.

Some of what we bought will segue into next week’s meals as we’ll probably have dinner a couple of times with our son and family. Still, we’ve got everything we need for some tasty meals this week!

Gotokuji Temple

Gotokuji Temple is believed to be the place where maneki-neko originated.

It took us three tries this week, but Brett and I finally were able to visit Gotokuji Temple, located just a short distance away from our apartment by train and on foot. We initially set out for a visit on Wednesday, but had a disagreement over getting to the station that heated up to the point that neither of us was in a mood to go anywhere with each other that day (sigh). We got that settled though, and were ready to try again on Thursday, but just as we were heading out of the apartment the heavens opened up, so not a good day to be outside visiting a temple. We went over to our son’s instead. But, this morning we woke up to blue skies and warmer temperatures, so off we went!

The Senmon (main) Gate of Gotokuji.

According to Japanese legend, Gotokuji Temple is where maneki-neko (lucky cats) originated. During the early Edo period (1603-1868), one night a cat supposedly led a feudal lord to shelter at this temple during a fierce thunderstorm, beckoning with its paw to show the direction. Because he was able to stay safe and warm during the storm, the lord donated rice and land to the temple, and chose the Gotokuji cemetery for his family burial site. Later, it began to be said that the cat brought good fortune, and it was given the name of maneki-neko. These days maneki-neko cat figures always have one paw raised to beckon, either the left or right, but Gotokuji specializes in the lucky right-pawed version of the cat.

A large bronze vessel sits in front of the main temple.
The beautiful pagoda – the sight of one always make me catch my breath.
A look under the eaves of the pagoda shows the amazing woodwork and design of the roofs.

We were a bit surprised by the size of the temple and its well-tended grounds when we entered – we had been expecting something much smaller. The temple complex contained several buildings, including a towering pagoda, the main temple, a meeting hall, a temple shop, and several smaller temples and pagodas. We were not the only visitors either – there were also a few other small groups while we were there.

One of two large boards hung with ema (prayer boards).  The little boards are stacked several deep.
Each ema was adorned with a picture of a maneki-neko, and many also had a pig (boar) because it’s the Year of the Pig. Prayers or requests are written on the back of an ema and left at the temple to be carried to heaven.
Bad fortunes are tied to the branch of a pine tree and left behind at the temple; good fortunes are taken home.

Walking over to the cat temple we spotted two large boards where hundreds ema (prayer boards) were hung, each with a picture of a maneki-neko on the front. Visitors purchase a board, and write their prayers and wishes on the back to leave at the temple – these can include requests for healing, to pass a test, to get a promotion, to have a safe childbirth and so forth. There was also a small pine tree with omikuji (fortunes) tied to the branches. Good fortunes are taken with you, bad fortunes are left behind at the temple.

So many cats!
Maneki-neko figures ranged in size from large to very tiny.
A small shrine is being engulfed by maneki-neko figures, but room has been made for a few more down in the lower left.

We finally came upon the collection of maneki-neko figures – there seemed to be more than a thousand of them arranged at the side of one of the smaller temples, and seeing them all together was quite impressive. The maneki-neko figures ranged in size from large to extremely small, and most were neatly arranged on wooden shelves provided for them, but others were tucked into small shrines or even into the big stone lanterns around the temple. The cat figures are purchased at the temple shop, and visitors can either leave their figure at the temple (along with a wish) or take the figure home and return it to the temple when the wish has been fulfilled.

Smaller maneki-neko figures were also placed in and around small shrines or inside lanterns.
The entrance to the Gotokuji cemetery.

Beside the temple is its cemetery. Usually cemeteries are closed in Japan, but this one was open. Filled with towering trees, it looked very peaceful and interesting, but we decided not to go in.

Our train arrives to take us home! The line was really more like a tram with just two cars, and which wove though mainly residential neighborhoods versus stopping in commercial areas.

We were pleasantly surprised to discover it was just a short walk back to the station from the main gate as we had accidentally gone the long way around the back of the temple when we arrived. Before boarding the train Brett and I stopped at the convenience market next to the station and picked up a couple of bentos to have for dinner. We left almost feeling glad we had failed to make it to Gotokuji earlier in the week as we ended up getting to visit on what turned out to be the perfect day for it.

A Rainy Day Outing

The calm before the light changes at the famous Shibuya Crossing.

Cold rain was falling once again when we got up on Monday morning, and at first we thought we just stay in for the day. We did a couple of loads of laundry, but by early afternoon we were starting to go stir crazy so we grabbed our coats, gloves, umbrellas and our trusty canvas shopping bag and went to visit Shibuya, two stops away on our subway line, and one of Tokyo’s busiest major transit, shopping, and nightlife areas.

Welcome to Tokyu Hands!

Our plan was to spend some time checking out the Tokyu Hands flagship store, and then head back to Shibuya station to ride one stop to Ebisu Station so we could visit the Muji store, which had been recently expanded.

The crowd begins to head out into the crosswalks the second the light changes. Even on a rainy there were a LOT of people in Shibuya. These BIG crosswalks go in three directions.

Shibuya is always busy and full of people, and the fact that it was raining didn’t change that other than everyone was carrying an umbrella, so walking around was a bit of a challenge. The Japanese seemed to do it effortlessly while Brett and I struggled to not bump into others with our umbrellas. Thankfully the walk from our subway exit to Tokyu Hands was easy, and only took a few minutes.

Does anyone need a pen? This floor was dedicated to writing instruments and notebooks.
My favorite floor is always 4C, kitchenware. I could happily wander around here for ages, checking out all the gadgets and dishes.

Tokyu Hands has been called the ultimate DIY store, but it also showcases plenty of Japanese design and innovation. The flagship store has seven floors, plus two basement levels. Each of the floors (other than the basement) is divided into three levels – A,B & C – so combined with the two basement levels there are 23 floors, each dedicated to a different theme, from tools to interiors to kitchen to bathroom to paper to crafts to stationery and so forth. It can take a while to go through each floor, but it’s still a lot of fun and a good way to spend a couple of hours. We found a few things we had been looking for, like 3M Command hooks for the kitchen, an over-the-door hook for the bathroom (there are no hooks in this apartment), a notebook for Brett, and a new rice paddle for the rice cooker (the one in the house had melted and didn’t work very well). I also restrained myself in the kitchen section and only bought two small Japanese dishes (that I can use in multiple ways).

Our swag from Tokyu Hands – we were happy to finally find 3M Command hooks there. The little bird design on the dishes, chidori (plovers), is one of my favorite Japanese motifs as is Mt. Fuji.

At the top of the store is a small snack bar where we took a short coffee break. Well, Brett had coffee but I decided to try a “tea float” – iced Earl Grey tea with a large swirl of soft ice cream. It was amazingly delicious and refreshing, and I will definitely be going back some day for another!

Brett said his coffee was just OK, but my Earl Grey tea float was out of this world!

Leaving Tokyu Hands, we walked back to Shibuya station by a different route in order for Brett to experience the famous Shibuya crossing in front of the main station. After making it across we stopped in front of the station to check out the Hachiko memorial statue, hero of one of the most beloved stories in Japan. Hachiko (an Akita) used to walk to Shibuya station every day to meet his owner, a doctor, when he came home from work. Sadly, the doctor died one day while at work, but Hachiko continued to come to the station every single afternoon for 10 years to wait for the doctor. Hachiko is still honored and remembered for his perseverance, loyalty and fidelity, and the statue is a must-see for anyone visiting Shibuya. It’s a well-known place to meet someone, and these days there is usually a long line of people waiting to get their picture taken with the statue (even in the rain).

Hachiko

Japanese train stations are usually not merely places to get on and off, or change trains – in urban areas they are typically surrounded by large shopping districts, especially in the busier parts of the Tokyo area, like Shinjuku or Yokohama. Many larger stations have one or two levels underneath like giant shopping malls as well as stores above and around the station. Ebisu is surrounded by a huge shopping venue called Atré, consisting of eight floors with all kinds of stores, including food shops and restaurants. There is a huge escalator in front of the station that takes shoppers up to the fourth floor, where the entrance to Muji is located as well as several different food-related shops.

Our purchase from Kyo Hyahashiya is ready to face the rain!
Matcha roll cake is a very special treat for me, and no one does it better than Kyo Hyahashiya in my opinion. 

Our first stop in Atré was Kyo Hyahashiya, a Japanese confectionary, for one of their scrumptious matcha (powdered green tea) roll cakes, a splurge as they are not cheap. Their cakes and sweets are made in the Kyoto style and most feature matcha in some form. The roll cake is made from an incredibly light matcha sponge and filled with a rich matcha cream and a touch of red sweet bean paste – it’s my favorite Japanese cake. Besides receiving lots of bows from the staff following our purchase, our clerk also wrapped our bag in a plastic cover because it was raining – Japanese service at its best!

Our BIG D&D cinnamon rolls were an affordable, delicious and special breakfast. The raisin-creme cookies were very good too.

Brett had spotted some large cinnamon rolls in the window at the nearby Dean & Deluca store along the way, so we went back there and bought a couple of those for today’s breakfast (they were surprisingly affordable), and at the cash register we found my favorite Japanese cookies, raisin-creme sandwich, so we bought a couple of those as well. Raisin-creme sandwiches were a very popular cookie back in the early 1990s, during our second tour, but not so much these days so I am always happy when I can find them.

The Muji aesthetic is one of simple, affordable function.
The Muji food and kitchenware section – I had to restrain myself.

Our final stop for the day was the Muji store, which used to be located on one floor at the top of Atré but is now a full two stories in a newly built annex. Muji is something like a Japanese IKEA, but besides simple, stylish and affordable housewares they also carry simple, and stylish clothing and books, and have a nice food section as well. I could happily live with just about everything in Muji, but Brett and I restrained ourselves and only bought a few items from the food section.

Our Muji purchases were inexpensive treats to go with our afternoon coffee as well as two packages of crab bisque, and bottle of delicious peach green tea.

Then it was back to Shibuya where we caught a very crowded, packed express subway back to Sangenjaya station for our short walk back to the apartment. In spite of the rain and the crowds we had an absolutely wonderful day, found things we needed, and didn’t spend much!

Setagaya Kannon Temple

The Setagaya Kannon Temple contains both Buddhist and Shinto features within its grounds. A Shinto torii gate sits in front of a building with a gold Buddhist swastika crest on its roof.

This somewhat unusual (well, to me anyway) temple is located fairly close to our apartment in Setagaya; Brett and I came upon it the other day when we were walking around the neighborhood. I use the word unusual because Buddhist temples are typically quite distinct from Shinto shrines, but this site seemed to be something of a mash-up of both, which I have never seen before in Japan.

The main entrance to the temple is a traditional Buddhist design, but hanging across the front is a Shinto shimenawa (hemp rope) with shide (folded paper strips).
One of two Niō, guardians at the temple’s main gate. The Niō are aways very large, fierce and muscular.
The Niō represent not only protection for the temple, but also the beginning and end of all things (“the alpha and omega”).

According to what I could find out about the temple, it was constructed in 1951 following World War II. However, in 1955 the Special Attack Kannon (Buddhist Goddess of Mercy) statues were moved to the temple. Initially these Kannon statues were placed in the main temple, but were moved to their own building in 1956. The statues are in remembrance of Special Attack forces (known as kamikaze) during the war, and dedicated to the 4,615 young men who sacrificed their lives for their country. A memorial ceremony for the dead is held on the 18th of each month.

The main temple is on the right, and the small temple containing the special Kannon is on the left.
We were not sure of the purpose of this building . . .
. . . nor this one, but both were quite striking, and again have Shinto shimenawa in front.

The temple grounds contain several memorials to the kamikaze. Some appear to be group memorials, while a few seemed to be for individuals. One memorial is in front of the main gate, but the others are located throughout the grounds.

What appeared to be the newest memorial to the kamikaze sat outside the main gate.
This memorial to the kamikaze was located inside the grounds, nearby the building that holds the Special Attack Forces Kannon statues.
These appeared to be memorials to individuals, located near the main temple.

What was most interesting and confusing to me were the Shinto shimenawa (hemp ropes) and shide (folded white paper which is attached to the rope) found throughout the temple grounds, and on all of the buildings. When we first entered the temple compound I thought we were visiting a Shinto shrine, and was confused by Buddhist indicators or symbols, such as statues of Kannon and swastikas. Shimenawa are placed to note that ritual purification of a space by a Shinto priest has taken place, and that the area inside is sacred. They act as a ward against evil spirits. They are also placed around objects which can be inhabited by spirits, such as trees or rocks, and cutting down those trees or moving those rocks can bring misfortune. Although Buddhist temples and Shinto shrines can share many features, in all my visits to Japan I have never seen shimenawa placed inside or anywhere near a Buddhist temple, and now I am very curious about why it’s been done at this particular place.

Sacred tree wearing a shimenawa – so unusual to see this inside a Buddhist temple’s grounds.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

The whole temple area had a particularly haunting feel to it. It’s all well-maintained, some other visitors came and prayed while we were there, and we were greeted warmly by a priest. But the overall sensation was one of great sadness like I’ve never felt before.

Getting To Know Our Neighborhood: A Picture Story

Just around the corner from our quiet street is a busy shopping area that we spent some time checking out yesterday and today.

Brett and I have spent the past two days walking around in the area close to our apartment, getting to know where things are and what’s nearby. Quite a lot, it turns out!

Tokyu is our closest supermarket, located in the basement of this building, called Carrot Tower. The supermarket is absolutely HUGE, and it’s like fantasy land for me. It’s about a seven minute walk away from our apartment.
One of the closest places to our apartment is this lovely tea shop, which sells specialty tea drinks and gourmet soft ice cream.
Yesterday I tried a rose & white chocolate soft cream cone – so good, even on a cold day.
Uh oh – shades of Old Delhi! This type of wiring lines the shopping avenue, just another of the many conundrums of life in modern Tokyo.
We’re so happy to have a very good bakery close by. Upstairs is a dental clinic.
A 7-11 is our closest convenience market, but just a few feet up the street from it are a Lawson’s and a Family Mart, so we’re well-covered.
Brett and I chose this pork cutlet bento at 7-11 for our lunch today. It cost us $4.07, and was enough for both of us!
When it rains in Japan, out come the clear umbrellas for sale. These cost a little less than $5 each, but when I first came to Japan in 1971 they were only 100 yen, about 37 cents back then.
A shop further down the street displays a traditional cedar twig ball which signifies sake is for sale.
This rustic looking place is a noodle restaurant. Right down the street from it is a takoyaki (octopus fritters) stand, so if this restaurant is a good one, we’ve got two of our favorites covered close by.
Here’s a little spot along the way where you can stop and do a few pull-ups to get your circulation going.
And of course, there are vending machines just about everywhere! Interestingly, the Coca-Cola machine contains no Coke.

In Japan At Last

First task today was to figure out how to get to our subway station (that’s it over on the left).

We are so happy to finally be in Japan!

While we have had a wonderful time since we began traveling last August, our arrival in Japan has felt a bit like coming home. Not only are we thrilled about being nearby to our son and his family again, but we’re going to be here long enough that we can fully unpack our suitcases and live somewhat like “normal” (whatever that is) for a while. We still haven’t a clue what most anything around here says, and we’re just getting started figuring out our way around in a new area of Tokyo for us, but it’s so wonderful being in our favorite country in the world once again. We’d still move here in a heartbeat if we could.

As we walked around our neighborhood today I took pictures of stores located at key locations – I still navigate best in Japan using landmarks since I’m otherwise mostly unable to read anything here.

We left started for the airport yesterday at 6:00 in the morning. It was pitch dark when we left our Airbnb and since I couldn’t see the two small steps in the pathway out to the street I of course stumbled and fell. It was very painful and at first I couldn’t get up because I was so twisted around, but Brett helped me stand and assess the damage. I thankfully didn’t break or sprain anything but I did bang myself up pretty well and have the bruises and scrapes to prove it. How Brett got down those steps without falling when he was taking out the two heavy suitcases to the car was nothing short of a miracle.

We had hoped that by leaving early we would avoid Auckland traffic issues but it was not to be – there was an already heavy amount of cars out on the road. The signage to the airport was very confusing as well, but we eventually found our way, got our car turned in and ourselves to the airport. We got in line and checked our bags and got our boarding passes, and departed Auckland a little after 10:00 a.m. It was a long flight (nearly 11 hours) but our seats were OK and we were fed two meals with an ice cream break in the middle. The flight also had a fantastic movie selection which helped pass the time (we both finally got to watch Bohemian Rhapsody).

Our daughter-in-law had everything ready for tacos when we arrived last night, as well as a couple of appetizers, and fresh strawberries for dessert.

Arriving in Narita Airport is convenient to nothing but the town of Narita, and there’s generally around two hours of commute time to reach any destination in the Tokyo area. Our son was at the airport to meet us, and got us on an express train (NEX) into Tokyo followed by a taxi ride to his beautiful new house where our daughter had a light dinner waiting for us.

The kitchen has an incredible assortment of Japanese dishes – this drawer is full of teacups, bowls and small plates.

Our apartment here is very nice, but it’s going to take us a few days to figure some things out, like the washing machine. We have a nice, well-equipped kitchen with loads of dishes, a very comfortable bed and a good-size living/dining room. The bathroom isn’t the most modern (it sadly doesn’t have one of those fully-automated toilets) but it’s very clean and has a traditional Japanese bath for soaking which we’ll enjoy. The apartment and the building are very secure, and just a short walk away from shops and restaurants.

Our granddaughter in full fairy princess mode. She loved the dress and wands but was not too sure yet about the wings.

We’ve already been having a grand time with the grandkids. The first thing our grandson (C) said to me was, “Grandma, you look thinner than you used to.” I love that boy! It took just a few hours for our granddaughter to decide we were OK and could pick her up or hold her hand when walking.

Lunch today came from Mos Burger, a Japanese chain that serves regular burgers as well as ones that appeal to more traditional Japanese tastes. My “burger” had a toasted rice “bun” and was filled with a medley of Japanese-style vegetables and seaweed instead of lettuce. It was very tasty – I’d order it again.
Some of our Japanese favorites from the supermarket today include miniature KitKats (including two new flavors!), peanut crackers, asparagus cookies, sakura mochi, giant strawberries, Japanese fried chicken and potato salad, yakisoba, and roasted wheat tea.

We had lunch at our son’s this afternoon and then went out with him to find an ATM that would accept our American debit card as they are often rejected, even by bank-owned machines. Today the ATM in our subway station refused the card but another one located in the back of a nearby minimart (owned by the same bank) worked fine – go figure. After we had some cash, Brett and I then headed to the supermarket with our grandson to do our first round of grocery shopping. C read labels, asked employees where to find things or translated what people were saying to us – he did a very good job and was a huge help. I absolutely ❤️❤️ Japanese supermarkets, and we had to make an effort to keep from buying too much. We chose some yakisoba from the prepared food section for our dinner tonight, and are otherwise set for the next week or so. Tomorrow our son is taking us out to the navy base so we can get some American items from the commissary and exchange, including plenty of Diet Coke for him.

Finally, it is definitely winter here. After three weeks of hot summer weather in Australia and New Zealand, we arrived to temperatures around 40°F (or less – there had been snow earlier in the day). We had our coats with us coming off the plane, but today the scarves, hats and gloves came out as well! The apartment was also extremely cold inside when we first arrived, but with our daughter-in-law’s help we got the heater working and now we’re toasty and comfortable.

Here’s hoping the next few months will not go by quickly!

Collections: Japanese Eki Stamps and Goshuin

The little stack of books above doesn’t look like much, but of all the Japanese things I’ve collected over the years they are the most precious of all. Each book contains stamps collected from train stations, attractions, and temples or shrines around Japan we visited during our two navy tours and other trips. Encouraged by my English students, I began collecting stamps during our first tour (1980-1983), and dutifully wrote the name and date of each station or place visited on the page to remember the visit, and one of my students wrote “memories of Japan” on the front of my first book (the green one). For the most part the books went everywhere with me because I never knew when I would be somewhere and able to collect a new stamp.

Two stamps from the Mashiko (the famous pottery village) train station. Stamp ink is either dark purple or vermillion red.

There are over 9,000 train stations (eki) throughout Japan. Most of these stations have a unique stamp (or even two) that highlights a particular attraction or novelty that the town or area is known for, from festivals to bridges to food. The stamp designs are detailed, and are a fun to way to collect memories of places visited. The stamp is usually located at the entrance to most train stations, but sometimes I had to do some searching to find it. One other issue that popped up now and again was the provided stamp pad was dry, and I could barely get a print in  my book (some hard-core collectors supposedly carry their own stamp pad). Occasionally I would come across a stamp but I did not have my stamp book on me, but many places had a stack of paper that I could use and I would glued the stamp into my book later. Eki stamps are not limited to train stations though. Most tourist attractions, including castles, museums, amusement parks, hot springs and so forth, have stamps as well.

Goshuin from Sanjusangendo Temple in Kyoto, from our second tour
Goshuin from Kyoto’s Golden Pavilion visit during our first tour

A special kind of stamp are goshuin, obtained at Buddhist temples or Shinto shrines. There is usually a special window at bigger temples or shrines where a small fee ($3 or so) is paid, and a monk or priest puts a stamp in the book and then writes the name, date, and maybe a blessing in beautiful calligraphy over the stamp. There are literally thousands of temples and shrines around Japan, and goshuin can technically be obtained at most of the bigger ones. Some people collect goshuin exclusively, but others, like me, mix them with their eki stamps.

Stamp books purchased at temples and shrines are accordion style, with room for stamps on both sides of each page.

Stamp collecting in Japan is very, very popular among all ages. There is often a “stamp rally” going on somewhere in Japan, where special books can be picked up and a prize earned for filling all the spots with stamps. Our grandson participated in one a couple of years ago, filled his book and earned two tickets to see Moana! I think I paid around $4 each for my books back in the day, but the traditional silk-covered accordion books are available for sale at most temples and shrines for around $10 now. Other stamp books, some of handmade paper, can be found in souvenir shops. It’s a small price to pay though to develop a wonderful collection of memories of places visited in Japan.

An Invitation . . .

The inner courtyard of the Meiji Shrine

Just around a year from now Brett and I will be beginning our three-month stay in Tokyo (mid-February to mid-May 2019). We’ll be spending lots of time with family and learning about a new part of Tokyo as well as visiting familiar sights. We’re also going to be in Japan for cherry blossom season, which we’ve just missed by a few days on our last two spring trips.

Brett and I have had an idea for a while now that if any of our readers has ever thought about visiting Japan, we would enjoy helping you arrange some of your trip and also showing you around Tokyo while you’re there!

We would be willing to:

  • Make suggestions for lodging options
  • Suggest transportation options from either Narita or Haneda Airports into Tokyo
  • Serve as tour guides around Tokyo, including showing how to shop and eat for less.
  • Assist with planning transportation around Tokyo (trains or taxis)
  • Set up day trips in the greater Tokyo area. For example, we could arrange or even go along on a walking tour of Kamakura or up to Nikko for the day.
  • Make suggestions for transportation to and lodging, etc. in other areas of Japan, such as Kyoto or up to Hokkaido, for example.

    The Kamakura Diabutsu

This is a very soft outline, and of course can be adjusted and/or adapted as needed. We’ve had the great pleasure of meeting and getting to know several readers while we’ve been here on Kaua’i, and would love to continue that tradition and share our love of Japan with others.

Shibuya’s famous zebra crossing

We know a trip to Japan is a big undertaking so we don’t need to hear anything now, but wanted to get this out as food for thought. If now or in the coming months you think you might want to come to Japan while we’re there,and connect with us, just drop a note in the comments and I’ll email you back and we can go from there. We won’t be available the entire three months we’re in Tokyo, but we are willing to set aside some time, and would be happy to arrange a meet up or more.

The Toshogu Shrine in Nikko

Conveniently Eating In Japan

A fun, but often overlooked place to find tasty and affordable meals in Japan is at neighborhood convenience stores (7-Eleven, Lawsons and FamilyMart are the top three). Called konbini in Japan, these small markets are seemingly located just about everywhere and are easy to find. Besides the typical convenience store offerings of drinks, snacks, medicines and other items, convenience stores also have a large selection of freshly prepared foods at very reasonable prices. If you’re traveling in Japan on a budget, a meal from a convenience store can be had for $10 or less.

The biggest difference between the  foods found in Japanese convenience stores and those found in the U.S. is the quality and the variety. In Japan, prepared foods are for the most part stocked fresh every day because they have to be – go into a convenience store in the late afternoon or evening and your selection will be very limited as most everything in the that section will have already been purchased. The quality of the food is also much higher than what you’ll find in a U.S. convenience store.

Here are some of the best and tastiest items or meals (IMO) you can find at Japanese convenience stores:

Oden is a hearty and filling stew filled with various items such as potatoes, boiled eggs, fishcakes, and other items that are served in light dashi broth. It’s usually only available in cold weather. You’ll be charged by the number of items you select.

Karaage is fried chicken Japanese-style, with bite-sized pieces of tender thigh meat twice fried in a lightly-seasoned batter. You can buy it on its own or as part of a bento. Karaage and potato salad is my all-time favorite convenience store meal.

Potato salad all on its own can be a pretty tasty meal as well. Potato salad in Japan traditionally includes very thinly-sliced cucumber and carrot, and the potatoes are nearly fully mashed. It’s amazingly delicious.

Nikuman are Chinese-style steamed buns filled with savory pork and vegetables. They’re big enough on their own for a meal. Pizza- or curry-flavored buns are also popular. Nikuman are kept warm in a steamy case located next to the cash register.

Maybe the most popular food item in any store, onigiri are triangular Japanese rice balls wrapped with seaweed, but inside are different fillings, such as pickled plums, salmon, tuna salad, etc. They’re very popular and very convenient, and more filling than you might think. The plastic wrapper folds back to use as a holder.

Sandwiches range from ones Westerners can easily recognize to some many would find quite weird (like a hot dog roll filled with yakisoba noodles). Dessert sandwiches are now a thing, and are made with whipped cream and fresh fruit. YaYu had one on our last trip and proclaimed it extremely delicious.

Korokke (croquettes) are tasty and satisfying fried mashed potato cakes with other ingredients added which can include cheese, vegetables, seafood and so forth.

Gyoza are Chinese potstickers, typically sold in groups of five. They’re wildly popular in Japan, are found in any market, and can be eaten hot or cold (hot is better).

Convenience markets carry a huge array of bentos, too many to name here. They usually run around $7 or $8 dollars, but can cost more or less depending on the size of the bento and what’s included. Most come with rice, but some have noodles for the starch.

There are lots of higher end places to eat sushi in Japan, but the packages found in convenience stores are perfectly good if you are wanting it.

Yakisoba is fried noodles which are tossed with a Worchester-like sauce. They are usually fried with cabbage and onion, and sometimes have a small amount of protein like shrimp or chicken, but the noodles also available plain, like in the above photo. They’re always served with slivers of red pickled ginger called beni shoga. A small serving of yakisoba noodles is also sometimes included as a side dish in a bento.And of course, convenience stores are where you can pick up all sorts of snack items, Japanese candy (including KitKats!), and all sorts of amazing cold and hot drinks!

Convenience stores also always carry a big selection of ice cream treats, and what’s available will vary from store to store. They are affordable and always worth checking out!

SaveSave

SaveSave

SaveSave

SaveSave

SaveSave

SaveSave

SaveSave

SaveSave

SaveSave

SaveSave

SaveSave