Ask anyone at the Gumyoji dorms back in 2012-2013 about Piago, and you’d surprisingly be met with a breadth of opinion: it’s a pretty good supermarket; the 100-yen Seria store on the top is the best; it’s okay but I like to swing by Gyoumu Super in Isezaki-cho since you get a lot more for your money; the theme song is really, really annoying and I normally try to finish my shopping there before it starts playing again; and so on, and so forth.

Zoom forward about five years since our first visits to the neighborhood supermarket, and much to the chagrin of the collective nostalgia of the ol’ Gumyoji gang, the Piago of Gumyoji is now gone (including the Seria on 3F), as of the 15th of October. I don’t know what’s going to happen to the old building, but if it’s like the other Piago that used to stand in Isezaki-cho up until 2015, it’s probably gonna be taken down and replaced with something a bit more new. Thankfully, there’s a new Yokohamaya supermarket that replaced a different building down the Kannon-dori, so it’s not like the guys living at the dorms this year have to trudge up the hill to the next closest supermarket Aoba.

In any case, thanks for the food and memories, Piago, and thanks to fellow dormmate C.M. for letting me know about its closure. ◆

Jiro Strikes Back

I'm BackA bit of a break from the whole serious-business welcome to YNU guide: let me talk a bit about Jiro again. As in, Ramen Jiro.

So a friend from California came to visit last month — in the two weeks before he did, while he was planning out itineraries, I think even before he asked me about specific plans to meet up, there it was: hang out with Mattie in Yokohama, “…destroy a garlic ramen place.” I giggled. I was cool with that, actually; I’d not returned back to Jiro ever since that fateful first time — I was pretty ready to give it another go. He was ready to pay his respects to the garlic king, and a chat over Skype confirmed his hype.

Meeting up with him and a couple of other people — mutual friends — at Kannai station at about 1 PM, we proceeded to walk right down the street to the line already 15 people strong. I describe to them once more how the ramen is, and tell them, based on the one prior experience that I had, to get a small. They didn’t believe me — after all, all of us had been busy enough in the morning to skip a decent breakfast. I looked up and showed them pictures. They were flabbergasted. My dear friend continued to waffle for a while wondering if he should just go for it, destroy a huge amount of food, like any stereotypical American could and would.

“No,” I discouraged empathically. “You are going to die.”

“Dude, don’t worry about it, I can hella finish that off,” came the response. One by one, we entered the store and ordered Jiro’s ramen.

OK, GoIn the end, we all went for the standard small bowls. As I’d planned earlier, I dropped the garlic level down to chotto dake. The ramen became a bit more bearable, but the garlic was still strong; I managed to get all the way down to the broth, at which point I couldn’t continue. Gulping down the customary bottle of twice-steeped oolong tea afterward returned most of the inside of my mouth to normal, but the garlic stuck around in the back of my tongue. I’d prepped mints, too — those didn’t help, either. As the shirts the chefs wore said, in perfect English: Jiro without garlic is like a life without love.

One by one, the others rose from the store. None of them finished it — one admitted he’d left a bit of cha-shu behind, but if he’d gone any further he would’ve thrown up. Another — one of the people who’d thought about getting a large — asked me how people could ever hope to finish a large. I shrugged. (I remember asking the friend who’d first recommended Jiro to me the same thing; his response was “no normal person can.”)

And then my friend appeared, the last to come out of the store. He loved it. He’d finished the bowl, broth and everything. Apparently something had snapped inside him, gave him a second wind. But he needed a bit of a rest. He did admit defeat, at least, to the legendary large.

We walked through Isezaki-cho for a bit. All we could think about and talk about for the next fifteen minutes was the ramen and how much it destroyed us.

None of us ate dinner that night. Ramen Jiro was filling enough for an entire day. ◆

Just Desserts

Carvin' out a tunnel through the ice cream mountain.

It all started out innocuously: a trip to a restaurant two days before Christmas garnered the attendance of a good amount of people, and merriment was had. What happened afterward, shook the hearts of many a Japanese student: I and two others introduced the hosts to the idea of a second stomach for dessert. (Image-heavy post ahead!)  (more…)

Taiyaki Trip: A Tribute to Sweet Breams

Sad but tasty taiyaki.

A lot of people have been joking about the end of the world Mayan calendar over the past week. It might not be the end of the world (otherwise I wouldn’t be writing this post), but it is the end of an era back home in the Bay: taiyaki (a Japanese fish-shaped pancake pastry, traditionally filled with red bean paste) outfit Sweet Breams, some thirty minutes by car from where I lived, decided to close up shop for good after four and something years serving up sweet chibi-taiyaki, soft serve ice cream, and wonderful kitsch and art aside. This happened just this Sunday, and, having not had taiyaki yet here, I decided I’d grab some in tribute.

Sadly, the taiyaki place that used to be here in Gumyoji back in 2008 has likewise closed up shop, so instead I opted for the next best thing: Yokohama Kuriko-an, which, despite being a store specializing in their namesake kuriko-an (chestnut/red bean paste) taiyaki, sells the pastries in a variety of different flavors. I’d hoped to get their “apple cheese cream” taiyaki (having assumed they really meant cream cheese), but apparently that was an autumn thing; apple-filling taiyaki was nowhere to be found. Instead, I went for two of this winter’s strawberry cheese cream taiyaki (¥180), alongside a normal custard cream one (¥140). I savored every last bit of all three of them, their just-sweet-enough fillings having been laid on super-super-thickly.

Swimming in the bag.

Granted, this isn’t the death of taiyaki in the Bay Area. I could go to May’s Coffee Shop in San Francisco’s Japantown if I really had a craving, but I won’t lie: I’ll miss Sweet Breams. Starting about a year before I started this program, I used to go from time to time with friends and we’d hit up what we called the Trifecta: Sweet Breams, Tpumps (a milk/bubble tea place that’s really good, really cheap, and therefore really popular), and Game Center (an independently owned arcade that’s been making a couple of waves in the fighting game community, but has some awesome setups otherwise). I’ve got handful of fond memories from before that, too; the most poignant being that on my way back from taking the JLPT 3-kyu (now N4) one year I’d rushed in and placed an order for three boxes of eggnog chibi-taiyaki right as they were closing…they were fine with me coming in late, amidst my apologies. (The eggnog taiyaki was delicious.)

So when they’d announced their last weekly flavor would be eggnog, I admittedly sort of teared up a bit. I’d told myself I would go and have myself a taiyaki on the day of their closing, but it wasn’t until tonight that I was actually able to get a trip to Kuriko-an in.

In any case, to Tara and the rest of the Sweet Breams crew: thanks a lot, and good luck in your future endeavors!

Mille-Feuille Pizza


For the pizza fan in Japan, there are plenty of options: go to a sit-down Italian restaurant (like, say, Saizeriya); go to a mom-and-pop pizza place (we’ve got one here in Gumyoji); or, the simple lazy option: delivery. There’s no shortage of places (serving pizza or otherwise) that’ll deliver food to your place of residence. (While I’m on the subject: Costco also exists in Japan, and, like its American counterpart, has pizza slices and full pies ready to order at their snack bar. I presume it’s take-out only, just like in America.)

American brands such as Domino’s and Pizza Hut have Japanese branches that’ll nurse your cravings while abroad, but there’s a catch: though the US has enjoyed the luxury of great deals such as Little Caesar’s $5 Hot-N-Ready boxes and Pizza Hut’s $10 for nearly-anything-you-want, Japan has not: pizzas are three to four times more expensive than what you’d pay back home. (This apparently isn’t true of just the US; my British and Australian friends have said likewise.)

Domino’s Japan seems to understand this: for those of us who use the English language, there’s a special site just for us.

On the English side of the Domino’s Japan website, there are several deals not to be found on the Japanese version — deals good enough that there’s a Japanese guide on how to order from the English pages because it’s cheaper that way. Tax isn’t included in the advertised prices, but with an automatic 5% off for placing your order online that’s stackable with other coupons and promos like the ones on the English page, you don’t have to worry about it.

So, in a weak moment of fiscal irresponsibility the name of checking whether or not these deals were actually worth it, I placed an order of the “Home Alone” package: one medium two-topping pizza (I went with basil and pepperoni) and a solitary can of Coke (yes, Coca-Cola or its diet variant only!). Normally, it’s ¥1400, but there was something I was sort of curious about.

When I think of interesting and occasionally strange pizza crusts, I think of Pizza Hut (an image that I also think may be perpetuated in Japan — Code Geass, anyone?), so when I saw these options for “mille-feuille” crust, I waffled slightly, then went for the triple for the sake of blogging science curiosity. Total cost: ¥1874, thirty minutes to delivery. And it arrived on time. Apologizing to the driver for my terrible Japanese, I paid and brought the pizza back up to my room.

Of course, the first thing I did was to take a look at its three layers — wait a minute, where’s the cheese I was promised?

Ah, there we go.

Turns out the cheese in the “layers” of this particular mille-feuille pizza were actually sort of spotty, moreso designed to give you a huge mouthful of mozzarella at once every few bites. There was one slice of pizza in which the cheese was actually fairly uniform, and that was quite nice. But with how the cheese was set up on the other slices, I was actually fairly surprised at how well it held together before I bit into it and the three layers separated in my mouth, making for a really nice texture. The pizza itself was rather small (the site claimed their medium is 10 in/25cm — update: according to a picture a friend posted, 10″ at Domino’s is a “small” in America); I was able to finish the entire pizza in one go. (mind, I hadn’t eaten anything beforehand).

Would I order it again? I didn’t think it was worth the premium, but if I’m in a super-cheesy mood, I might consider ordering another. ◆

The Other Kind of Okonomiyaki

I’ve covered Hiroshima-style okonomiyaki store Ganbaru-tei before; it’s only one of several places around Gumyoji to get your fix. In the same week, I accepted an invite from one of my dormmates to go to another restaurant, the one I’d been to before: Yocchan-tei. This store also serves up okonomiyaki on plates right in front of you, so it’s perfect for escaping from the cold of autumn and winter by ducking in and having a steaming hot grill to warm your hands up with by hovering them above.

Whereas Hiroshima-style okonomiyaki features layered ingredients, this more traditional style of okonomiyaki features them mixed up. Yocchan-tei actually has people mix the ingredients themselves (they’re served in a bowl for you to do so); I imagine they do this so you can get the consistency you like. (If you don’t want to, or if you don’t know how, they’ll also be happy to do so for you — but it’s not as fun, I think.) Spatulas are also provided, for shaping the mix afterwards.

Despite how similar everyone’s okonomiyaki looks, as the name implies (okonomiyaki can be translated as what you like, fried), you can choose from a variety of ingredients. They’re traditionally served with seafood inside, but there are also other options at most places, it seems; mine, for example, had bacon, cheese, and garlic inside. Then, you can top it off with whatever toppings you’d like: pictured above are the three okonomiyaki we ordered, with okonomiyaki sauce, Japanese mayonnaise, katsuobushi (sliced bonito flakes), and aonori (seaweed flakes). Slice the finished okonomiyaki into quarters with the spatula(s), and you’re ready to eat! ◆

Pesto, Cheese, and Salmon on Rice

Caution: writing this post made me super-hungry. Reading this post may make you super-hungry and/or in a mood for sushi probably more expensive than this. You’ve been warned.

This weekend’s been quite packed with a major event falling on each day: on Saturday, the Japanese culture class’ trip to Sankeien garden (words cannot describe how beautiful this place is so I’m installing a gallery plug-in instead for the post I hope to up); and on Sunday a trip to go see traditional horseback archery in action at Zushi (also to be covered in a future post). But once was all said and done with the yabusame, my group — having replaced not having had breakfast with a light lunch consisting of a frankfurter sans bun and a bottle of ramune — decided we’d eat at Sushiro, a restaurant a train stop away from Yokohama Station. Sushiro’s notable for being a restaurant that sells all of its plates of sushi at 105 yen (100 yen + 5 yen consumption tax).

Sushiro is a kaiten-zushi (“revolving sushi”) place, where sushi simply rides a conveyor belt tempting customers. But, for those who don’t readily see what they want, they have touchscreen menus that you can order anything with, including non-sushi items such as udon, karaage, French fries (?!), desserts, and so on. When they’re ready for you, the chefs will place them on the conveyor belt and the menu gadget will signal to you that your food is coming; your order is served on top of a stand indicating that it’s for your table. Most sushi platters come with a dab of wasabi on the inside by default, denoted by the yellow plate it’s served on; certain other sushi types (such as tamago, egg) do not, denoted by the white plate. (The touchscreen has a small button allowing wasabi-less order of items that come with wasabi.)

As I’d thought, Sushiro focuses more on nigiri than on the rolls popular in Western sushi restaurants (though they do serve some); and, of course, some of the things popular with American sushi lovers aren’t to be seen here (good-bye, California roll, good-bye!). In lieu of that, there are a pair of other dishes that caught my eye —

The first one is the salted beef kalbi sushi, perhaps the closest analog I can find to American teriyaki chicken sushi. Not as cold as the more fishy offerings, but just as melt-in-your-mouth delicious. No wasabi option available (though I suppose you can attempt to add some). As shown above, it comes with a light garnish of onions to accentuate the flavor. An interesting thing I noted is that the beef sort of seemed to taste like pepperoni…I’ve not had kalbi here yet, so I’m not sure what’s up with that, but I can at least tell you I don’t have as much of a craving for pizza as I did two days ago.

The second is their basil salmon sushi, which is actually an upgrade of their cheese salmon sushi (not pictured). The green topping there is a basil pesto sauce, the likes of which I sadly hadn’t seen in a while. It’s quite nice, actually — it takes the taste of salmon and instead of stopping there finishes off with a creamy pesto flavor. This is a dish I kept on returning back to — a third of what I ordered consisted of plates of this — so I was a bit surprised that I was the only one chowing down on this.

With sushi (albeit 100-yen sushi) crossed off my Japanese food list, I’ve got plans to hit up a yakiniku place with some friends next week. Do look forward to the ensuing post and complaints about my food coma! ◆

Hot Hiroshima-Style Yaki-on-Yaki Action

On an impulse, today for lunch I swung by Ganbaru-tei, the local Hiroshima-style okonomiyaki shop. Okonomiyaki, for those who don’t know, is a mishmash of things fried together and shaped into a sort of a pancake/pizza-ish shape (you might have heard it referred to as “Japanese pizza”). Hiroshima-style refers to the kind of okonomiyaki that, among other things, adds a layer of yakisoba underneath. Now, although I’ve had okonomiyaki twice since coming here, they were of the traditional potato/yam kind — wonderful, yes, but as a sucker for the Hiroshima style (and for noodles in general), I’d been meaning to go here for a while.

Above is their negi/soba okonomiyaki (~800 yen), listed on their specialty menu, which forgoes the common filling of cabbage with several healthy handfuls of bannou negi (“all-purpose leek/onion/chive”). Despite that, the flavor of the dish wasn’t terribly unbalanced (even if it did skew toward the onion flavor). ◆

Slices of Life

Something I would probably never think to do at home: realize thirty minutes to midnight that I don’t have bread for breakfast tomorrow morning, then fix that instantly.

So, I’ve got this sort of experiment going, of buying progressively thicker slices of bread. It’s amusing, really. The bread I just bought has slices twice as thick as bread back home (the volume of manga in the picture above is my attempt at illustrating this terribly), which I think is sort of awesome. In order to get this bread, I used my commuter pass to hop down one stop to visit the supermarket at one of the exits, then catch the next train back — something that I also think is pretty awesome.

(One might ask, why didn’t you just go to the FamilyMart next door? I did. They were out of stock of four-slice loaves.) ◆

Ramen Jiro, Round One (Or: Mattie vs. Japanese Sizes, Part 3)

One cold Saturday morning, right after the first trip I took to Tokyo, I’d decided that finally having real ramen for the first time was a good idea. See, I’d had at least eight varieties of the instant stuff (my current favorite being Nissin’s original Chicken Ramen above), and I’d had shio ramen from one of the cafeterias on campus, but I’d never actually gone to a true ramen place.

I’d had two suggestions thrown at me thus far: an old high school friend suggested I try Yoshimura-ya, by Yokohama station; and, an acquaintance on Twitter suggested I go to any one of the Ramen Jiro stores around the Tokyo area. Both have excellent reviews and ratings on Tabelog (the Japanese analog to Yelp); Ramen Jiro, being the higher-rated (and the closest) store, won my vote.

Looking up the closest Ramen Jiro was a cinch: the Kannai one happened to be a short walk away from the Isezaki-chojamachi subway station. The place opened at 11:00; when I got there slightly past 11:30, there was already a twelve-person line waiting outside of the packed shop. The shop itself was quite small; it featured only one counter, two cooks, and some fifteen-odd seats.

Eventually, I got to the front of the line; one of the staff confirmed that all of us here in the front wanted small (sho) sizes of ramen. Continuing my bad habit of simply replying “hai” to everything, I confirmed, then realized what he was saying, somewhat begrudgingly went up to the food ticket vending machine and hit the respective button.

After sitting down and once again reflexively saying “hai” to “ninniku irimasu ka”, I traded my ticket for this:

Turns out, ninniku irimasu ka is sorta translated into English as “should I put garlic in?” And while that lump of garlic on the side might seem innocuous, it ended up destroying me — never before had I had any sort of broth with an garlic flavor as intense as what I got served at Ramen Jiro. It was so strong that there were still remnants of this garlic in my mouth the next morning.

The ramen noodles, by the way, were fantastic; they had a rather firm yet chewy texture. The bean sprouts and cabbage added a nice fresh crispness to the texture and taste of each bite — yes, even through the garlic, but boy, oh boy that garlic was nuts. And it’d be hard to forget the two slices of chashu that came with my order; they were really tender and melted in my mouth.

I’m also glad I got the “small” — because the noodles were nice and dense, they were very filling; I was struggling to finish this bowl (I’m sure the garlic didn’t help things, either). In retrospect, I was very, very glad I didn’t opt for the large size; that would’ve turned into a waste of good ramen right there.

I definitely want to go back. The mission plan for next time: get a small with extra pork, hold the garlic. Or maaaybe put just a little in. Chotto dake. ◆