Thursday, December 30, 2004

Marunouchi, Marui Men again, and Price Level in Tokyo

It was sunny today. This is what I miss a lot in London: winter sunshine. Sunbathing on the tatami mat floor in my house in the morning is a very comfortable experience. Nyanko, our family's cat, does this everyday in winter time. She's been a bit icy to me since I came home. My parents say that she is just shy. :-) But when I started sunbathing next to her, she walked away to another room in the sunshine through windows. Boo.

Day three in Tokyo featured Marunouchi (the area on the east of the Imperial Palace) to meet up with Ono-san, an econ PhD student at the University of Tokyo.

The Marunouchi area has recently been rejuvenated to become a trendy area, featuring, as usual for any redevelopment areas in Tokyo, two new shopping and restaurant complexes (Marubiru and Oazo), stylish cafes/restaurants and fashion boutiques on Marunouchi Naka Dori Street. But the area looked astonishingly inorganic, partly because it was the end of a year when office workers entirely disappeared. But, I don't know, something was missing for this area to be attractive.

Anyway, we had lunch at Brasserie Aux Amis, ordering today's two course lunch (1050 yen, or 5 UK pounds / 9 US dollars): pumpkin soup and sea bass with risotto. Having this kind of lunch in London at this price is impossible. You have to pay double the price or you have to end up eating sandwitches by paying the same amount of money. The taste? Not as bad as lunch in London at all.

Then we went to Oazo, which was pretty much uninspiring except for the entrance hall. So we took away a cup of coffee (350 yen or 1.75 pounds / 3 US dollars) and sat down at a table in the hall.

We talked about each other's pieces of research, the English language, etc. He told me that it is difficult for him to get an PhD because his research is different from what professors at his university are interested in. So his strategy is to publish his paper in an academic journal first. He needs acceptance of his research by academics outside the university.

Ono-san is a very smart guy. I hope he will get out of rather unfriendly research environment for him as soon as possible.

After saying goodbye to him, I headed for Marui Men Shinjuku, one of many Shinjuku branches of Marui department store chain. As I wrote on 4th April 2003 and 3rd January 2004, this is the place I always go to in order to get cool men's gears. The idea that the whole eight-storey building serves for fashion-conscious young men is unbelievable, something you can never imagine in London.

On the way to the store, I felt thirsty. If it had been in London, the only option would have been to get into a supermarket to buy soft drink or to take away a cup of coffee at a coffee shop. But I was in Tokyo now. What I could do was to buy a canned soft drink, priced at 120 yen (60p or 1.1 US dollar) at a vending machine! I got Kirin Beverage's Gogo No Kocha, meaning afternoon tea. With 60p, you never get a cup of tea in London.

In Marui Men Shinjuku, I got a pair of trousers (15800 yen or 80 UK pounds / 140 US dollars) and a red mohair sweater (at 14700 yen or 73.5 UK pounds / 130 US dollars) at Rupert and a long black trench coat (36750 yen or 183.5 UK pounds / 330 US dollars) and a black round-neck sweater (12390 yen or 62 UK pounds / 110 US dollars) at Tornade Mart. You never get cool men's gears at these prices in London. Also, I love Tornade Mart; no other shops sell long coats because they are out of fashion right now. But Tornade Mart always doesn't care about trends. They always sell what they think is really cool. I always appreciate it.

The Marui Men Shinjuku building is packed with many casual fashion brands targeted at young men like Rupert and Tornade Mart. There's no such middle-ranged fashion house for men in London. I told a shop assistant at Tornade Mart that they should come to London. Londoners will love them.

Another impressive thing was the kindness and friendliness of shop assistants. When I bought the clothes at Rupert shop, it was already after eight in the evening, which is a closing time. They never rushed me. What's more, the assistant who served me took me to the exit of the building to see me off. You never expect this at garment shops targeted at young men in London. When I told this to him, he said, "My service isn't that good." Can you believe this?

Did you notice that I obsessively wrote down prices of a variety of things yesterday and today? This has a reason. Tokyo is believed to be the most expensive city in the world, even more expensive than London. When it comes to rent, it may be true. But when it comes to eating out and shopping, this is certainly not true at all. Nobody living outside Japan understands this. So I'm trying to give you an idea of how much it actually costs by living in Tokyo.

Well, maybe public transportation in Tokyo costs more than in London. Today's train ticket fees were (1 UK pound = 200 yen; 1 US dollar = 110 yen): Koiwa to Tokyo (17 min by overground) for 210 yen; Tokyo to Shinjuku (18 min by underground) for 190 yen; Shinjuku to Koiwa (33 min by overground) for 290 yen. What's inconvenient in Tokyo's public transportation is that there are several different railway companies in operation and whenever you change to a different railway company, you have to buy another ticket. And these different railway companies issue different one day pass tickets. So buying a one-day pass doesn't pay; travelling around different parts of Tokyo costs you a lot. Plus bus services are not as good as London's, including the fact that there is no night bus service.

Wednesday, December 29, 2004

Tsukiji Fish Market, Matcha Sweet, and Japan's workplace

It was a rainy and cold and windy day today. From the late morning, it started snowing. Why do I need to see wet weather even after running away from London?

Morishita-san took me to Daiwa Zushi (its review at, Japan's no.1 (according to Zagat Survey a few years ago) sushi restaurant at Tsukiji Fish Market. When we arrived at the place around seven in the morning, more than 20 people were already queuing. After waiting about two hours in a miserable weather like in London, we finally got in. We ordered omakase course (eat whatever the chef serves). How much do you think the course costs? Just 3,150 yen (16 pounds or 29 US dollars)!

In front of Daiwa Zushi with Morishita-san and other people queuing

The first pair of sushi was chu-toro (mildy fatty tuna) and squid. Squid was brilliant. I usually don't like squid sashimi, but this one was delicately soft. The second pair was tuna and shrimp. Brilliant again. Meantime, a waitress served us miso soup with white fish. It's fantastic, too. The third batch was a char-grilled shrimp head (without rice, so it's not sushi, technically). This was a revelation. The fourth batch was gunkan maki (fighting-ship-shaped sushi roll) of sea urchin accompanied with fried egg. This was the ultimate extravagance: even nori seaweed was perfect. The fifth pair of sushi was sea eel and kanburi, which is the name for yellowtail in the winter: they become fatty in order to preserve warmth inside the body. This was again fantastic. The final batch was three sushi rolls (tuna, fatty tuna, and salmon roe). As sea urchin was so impressive, we ordered extra ones (700 yen per piece).

I was extremely happy while I was eating. This is something you never enjoy when you live in London. Happiness never comes from eating.

After strolling around Tsukiji market and taking away for lunch Yoshinoya's gyudon, a rice bowl topped with soy-sauce-marinated sliced beef, which is currently available only at Yoshinoya's Tsukiji branch due to the ban on importing beef from the United States, where mad cow disease broke out a year ago, we headed for Shiodome, the latest redevelopment area of Tokyo. This area was not that impressive except for Caretta Shiodome, one of many shopping and restaurant complexes in this area. On the 46th floor were a couple of cool bars including so/ra/si/o/ (its review by Metropolis Tokyo magazine) and Hibiki. It's a pity that it was in the morning when we arrived there.

The purpose we came here was to try matcha (strong green tea) sweets at Saryo Tsujiri on lower ground floor two. Morishita-san tried its original store in Kyoto a few weeks ago and wanted to have matcha parfait again. It cost 1,365 yen (6.5 UK pounds or 12 US dollars), quite expensive for sweets in Japan. But it was worth trying. The whole mixture of a variety of sweets was excellent: in a tall glass, it's got (from the top) matcha whipped cream, matcha ice cream, matcha kasutera (a kind of cake originating in the Iberia Peninsula), sweet chestnuts, honey-dipped satsuma, shiratama (sweet dumplings made from sticky rice), anko (red bean jam), plain ice cream, and matcha jelly. All come in a compact size. (See its photo.) Coldness of ice cream and warmth of kasutera cake, deep sweetness of matcha whipped cream and mild sweetness of shiratama dumplings, a variety of textures ranging from satsuma orange to chestnuts to anko jam, this subtlety is what's good about Japanese sweets, something you never get in Anglo-Saxon countries. Amazing. I was enormously impressed. No doubt there was a queue of ten people when the shop openned at 11 in the morning.

I'm very much greatful to Morishita-san for taking me to these two excellent eating experiences. Let's meet up again next time in Seoul! (He's moving to South Korea in a few week's time.)

In the evening, I met up with Takeshi at Fonda De La Madrugada, a Mexican restaurant in Harajuku. Whenever we meet up, we go to a Mexican restaurant ever since I introduced him to Mexican cuisine and tequila.

Once entering this restaurant, I lost a sense of where I was. The dining space was on lower ground two, looking like the inside of a cave. The waitress who served us was (probably) Mexican. There was also a mariachi (guitar, accordion, and percussion). Before I knew it, I had spoken in English when I asked something to the Mexican waitress. :-)

Takeshi is a fledgling lawyer. His life was incredibly busy: everyday he comes home at 5 or 6 in the morning and goes to the workplace by midday. He has a girlfriend, but he has almost no time to meet her, only calling her for an hour in the early morning. He told me how outrageous his boss was. One example: they went to a karaoke bar with other colleagues including female personal assistants. It was already in the early hours, but his boss wanted to move to an another bar. He asked Takeshi to ask the PAs to come with them (Takeshi has no choice but coming with his boss). Takeshi asked the PAs, "Would you like to come with us?" His boss got angry. "What are you talking about? You must say, 'You are coming with us, aren't you?' I'm deeply disappointed at you."

His boss is rather exceptional. But this kind of experience with your collegues in the workplace is not that uncommon in Japan. A couple of my Japanese friends quit thier jobs because of this sort of outrageous working environments.

Still, Takeshi said he had been learning a lot from his boss and other senior colleagues. He'll be working with them in coming years. I'm quite sympathetic with his idea. The most important thing in life is the pursuit of your career, even if your private life suffers. Maybe Westerners (especially, Continental Europeans) don't understand this, but my Japanese friends (and myself) tend to be like this. It's not that all Japanese are like this. We always complain that very few people understand us. That's how we are linked up. That's an essential part of our outlook on life.

Tuesday, December 28, 2004

Back in Tokyo for the third time since moving to London

I felt dizzy when I arrived at the fastidiously clean Tokyo Narita Airport. In comparison, London Heathrow looks dim and scruffy.

As a pastime on the Virgin Atlantic plane, I bought Time Out City Guide Tokyo. Reading this guidebook is a revealing experience. It gives a different angle to what's so familiar to me. (I was born and bred in Tokyo until the age of 24.)

From the airport, I took a coach that directly took me to my hometown Koiwa. Last time I came back a year ago, there wasn't such a coach service. My hometown is quite out of the way in Tokyo. It is a town where people don't seem to be interested in going abroad. (Actually, my dad has been abroad only twice in his entire life, and my mum only once.) Fair enough, I was the only passenger on the coach. The ticket cost 1,500 yen (7.5 quid or 14 bucks). But I bet the charge for driving on motorways is more than that (Japanese motorways all charge you a lot of money). I asked the driver if there is any demand for this coach service. He said, "If it's the holiday season, the demand is high." Notoriously, Japanese people take very few holidays in a year. Although it was very convenient for me (it just took one hour to Koiwa railway station), I suspect this service will be discontinued by the time I come back home next time.

Through the coach windows, I saw an awful lot of high-rise residential buildings that look all the same (but by far tidier than the ones in London's East End) and a dozen of 'love hotels'. After the coach took off from the motorway, I noticed quite a few small manufacturing factories and, for some reason, fishing tool shops.

It's so different from where I live in London. But when the coach went across the bridge over Edogawa River, I felt nostalgic.

I got off the coach and took a walk to my house. Only a year made my hometown a facelift. A third of shops on high street have changed. A couple of new residential high-rise buildings are under construction.

As expected, when I arrived at my house, I felt I became taller: Japanese furniture is made for short people.

I talked to my parents. I have a bit of trouble talking to them on the international phone call. But coming face to face with them, conversations naturally flew. Our family is not good at talking on the phone.

I'm so confused. This is my hometown. So it should be so familiar to me. But at the same time, a tremendous degree of difference between London and Tokyo caused me a counter culture shock. I don't know where I am now.