Bars/Lounges · Beer · Cheap Eats · Japanese · Restaurants · Tokyo

Tokyo – Yakitori at Sanja Matsuri Festival

Every year, we head to Sensoji Temple for the Sanja Matsuri festival, the largest festival in Tokyo. There’s music, floats carried by locals, and a bunch of other religious stuff that goes over my head. There’s lots of food stalls – crab on a stick, karrage, okonomiyaki, chicken skin gyoza, takoyaki, yakisoba, and ice-cream. However, I prefer to eat at the makeshift restaurants bordering the festival.

Last year, we found a restaurant on the corner with outside seating. We sat down to drink beer and eat gyoza. I remember there were a group of tough-looking, hard-drinking Japanese men sitting by me. They stood up and started slapping each other around. One of them elbowed me in the head and didn’t apologize. For this post, I have to play Gangsta’s Paradise by Coolio.

We returned again this year and I tried to get the attention of the server. I thought the server was ignoring us and my suspicions were confirmed by the same group of toughs from the previous year and other less muscled customers.  We were bestowed with the dirtiest of looks. This was a first. Usually when it’s a locals only place, the server is polite but says very firmly that there’s no room. This time around, I could feel the menacing hostility, not so much the staff who just avoided eye contact but the customers.

This turned out to be a blessing. We wandered around and saw this tiny little bar with a few seats on the outside. We could see kids, parents and an older generation sitting inside. We stood outside and debated if we dare enter. A male customer waved us in and told us to sit down. A server came over and when she learned we couldn’t read or speak Japanese, pleasantly handed me an English menu. See how much head is on that beer? The Japanese like having lots of foam in their beer, as it shows how fresh it is.

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We chatted with the friendly fellow who invited us in and kanpaied him a few times. He was tipsy and wanted to know if we liked Japan. He kept touching his heart and welcoming us to Japan and the festival.

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The best thing on the menu was the cheapest – chicken thigh and chicken skin. The yakitori was grilled on a tiny grill by the window. The taste of the charcoal on the meat was tantalizing. The chicken was beautifully grilled and delicious. I can’t believe it was only 100 Yen.

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We started off with the set price menu – 1000 Yen for a drink and a few skewers. We ordered several more because it was so tasty.

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I ordered prawn (300 Yen), squid (200 Yen) and more chicken skewers but with salt instead of sauce. That was a mistake. I much prefer the sauce version.  I don’t know what they put into their sauce but it was the best thing I’ve ever tried, a balance of sweet and salty.

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I ate the prawn whole. The prawn and squid were juicy. After we couldn’t eat anymore, we wished the gentleman goodbye and thanked him for his hospitality. L said it was too bad we would not be back because he had no idea how to find this gem again. I took a picture and told him we’re coming back in 2019. Lucky for him, he’s married to a restaurant savant. This was one of the best places we ate at in Tokyo.

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I love Japan but sometimes I get exhausted by the rejection of locals. I get tourists are annoying and time consuming. So it was comforting when we meet a random stranger that made us feel welcomed.

Cheap Eats · Comfort food · Japanese · Restaurants · Tokyo

Tokyo – Harajuku Gyoza Ro

TJ had evening plans that didn’t include me. Oh boy. Hitting the Sauce was single for the night. Lucky for me, Cascara was up for a food adventure. She received a recommendation from Good Son to check out Harajuku Gyoza Ro. For this post, let’s listen to Happy End by Kaze Wo Atsumete.

Gyoza Ro is a small bar, jam-packed with tourists. Expect to wait on average about 20 minutes. Part of the issue is that customers sit and linger inside. We went in for a leisurely meal and when we left, most customers that were there before us remained there.

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We each ordered a Lemon Sour for only 450 Yen. That’s a wicked price in Tokyo! You’d think such a cheap drink would be weak. Nope. I still got a glow on.

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We ordered the original and garlic and leek gyoza. You get a set of six for only 290 Yen. The skin was thin, the bottom was nice and crispy. We ordered the dumplings pan-fried and some boiled. Both versions were tasty.

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The cooks serve the dumplings fresh off the frying pan. There’s an assortment of sauces to spice things up. For three bucks a plate, I have no complaints.

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Even better than the gyozas were the cucumbers with special miso sauce (250 Yen). The miso was sweet and almost peanut buttery. The cucumbers were so fresh, it tasted like they were plucked from the garden that day. I’m use to good produce. I purchase all my vegetables from Broxburn Farm. Cascara and I ordered another plate of cucumbers because it was that good.

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The boiled sprouts with special meat sauce (250 Yen) were meh. I would skip it. There was no flavour and it tasted like watery boiled meat with sprouts.

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I would go again. I plan to take L if he can tolerate waiting in line for so long. Thanks Cascara and Good Son for the recommendation.

Cheap Eats · Comfort food · Curry · Japanese · Restaurants · Tokyo

Tokyo – Ikebukuro Cheap Eats

It’s interesting traveling with other people. You get to learn their quirks. For example, TJ does not like to hunt for a good restaurant. Sometimes, she won’t eat for 24 hours. I asked her how she can go without food for so long. TJ responded I could do it too. You just go without. When she’s finally ready to have a meal, she wants her food immediately. Her criteria in Japan: 1) fast 2) convenient 3) cheap and 4) big portions. I’ve tried to bring her snacks to quell her appetite so I can search for a better restaurant, but I was unsuccessful. I’ve found a few places that meet her criteria. For this post, let’s listen to The Hanging Treefrom the Hunger Games soundtrack.

TJ approved of Kareno Lo. I found this katsu curry shop, which was less than five minutes from our hotel. You buy your ticket from a vending machine. The descriptions are in Japanese, so make sure to bring your Google translate app with you. There’s only about 12 seats at the counter. It’s the sort of place you’d go by yourself to chow down and then get the hell out.

Once you get your ticket, hand it to a cook who will fry up your cutlet. The portions here are hearty. For about 900 Yen, you get a generous cutlet, rice and curry. The katsu at Karen Lo is superior to what you can get in Calgary. I’ve had better katsu in Kyoto, but I paid at least double that amount. The difference between Karen Lo and other higher end joints? You get a fluffier batter, different breed designations, variety of cuts, endless bowls of perfect rice, miso soup, pickles, salad, condiments and tea.

TJ tried to find Kareno Lo again without me but she couldn’t find it. I thought that was hilarious. This is a woman who can find any business, cultural site, university or village in Japan. Tj uses real maps, not Google map. She even looks up multiple maps for one location, because each version shows varying degrees of detail. I’ve got my own special powers. I’m a savant when it comes to eating out. I can remember every single restaurant I’ve even been to, everything on the menu, where the restaurant is located, and everything that was ever written about the restaurant’s food. Sadly, no one gives out awards for this rare talent. I’d give the katsu 3.5/5.

The third place I found that TJ enjoys is Ginza Kagari Echika Ikebukuro. This noodle shop is located next to my favourite sushi joint by Exit C6 at Ikebukuro Station. There’s usually not a long line-up. I’m particularly fond of the cold soba noodles with the sardine dipping sauce. The cold, grilled vegetables and meats were refreshing and the perfect accompaniment to the noodles. Bowls of soba cost 1000 Yen and up. I’d give the sardine noodles 4 out of 5.

I’ve tried the famous chicken soba soup with truffle mayo. The broth was very fragrant and rich, almost like butter.

I found Iwamotokyu at the end of our trip. Iwamotokyu is not nearly as good as the tendon chain – Tempura Tenya – but it’s open 24 hours. The soba is quite nice, far better than the rice, which was too wet. The noodles were firm, toothsome and almost nutty in flavour. The tempura itself was average. I’d skip the fish and meat and go for shrimp or veggies instead. For about the same price as a meal at the local 7/11, Iwamotokyu does the trick of filling up our bellies. Solid 3 our of 5.

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There you have it. There are loads of cheap eats in Tokyo. Not so much in Kyoto. To be continued.

Cheap Eats · Comfort food · Deli · Restaurants · Tokyo

Tokyo – Ootoya Ikebukuro

Before L and I leave for dinner, we would usually have a drink in our room. When L first came to Japan a decade and a half ago, there was only Asahi, Kirin and Sapporo. The beer scene has really taken off and craft beer in Japan is booming.

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Now when we visit an upscale grocery store, there’s a half-dozen options. Each can is between 300 to 500 Yen, depending on the brewery. I prefer Alberta’s craft beer because of its greater complexity. I find Japanese beers one-dimensional.

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Ootoya was a restaurant I found on Yelp that L and I both would not bother returning. It had all the makings of a good restaurant. The interior is pleasant and clean. Service was prompt. Prices were excellent and the presentation of the food was nice. The only thing missing was taste. For this blog posting, I’m going to play some music you’d probably hear at a restaurant in Tokyo.

It’s cheaper to eat at this pleasant canteen than a combo meal at McDonalds in Calgary. Most dishes were around 1000 Yen. We picked a chicken dish and breaded pork in curry with an egg. Both entrees came with rice and vegetable side dishes.

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See how good this chicken looks? Well, there wasn’t much flavour. On the plus side, no flavour usually means it’s not drenched in sugary or buttery sauces. The portions are generous, more geared to Westerners. We were both too full after eating our meal.

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L ordered breaded pork cutlet in curry. The batter was soggy and all the vegetables were overcooked. It’s pretty rare we try a restaurant in Japan and wouldn’t return. The only other place is a noodle house right by west side of Ikebukuro station exit – Tachi Kui Soba Kimidzuka. L hates this place. Whenever we walk by, which is at least twice a day, I make a joke about eating here.

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This stand room only shop sells udon and soba for cheap. Despite its prime location, it’s only busy around lunch time. Most of the customers are business men in a rush to get in and out.

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In 2017, I wanted to try it. We saw another person order zaru soba (cold buckwheat noodles). I know we are supposed to order by number but the zaru soba wasn’t on the menu. L said excuse me in Japanese and pointed to what a customer was eating. The man in charge in the kitchen shouted at L to order by number. I said “Zaru soba” and then showed two fingers. I wanted to add tempura at the last moment and that infuriated the man even more. He slammed the food down on the counter and gave L a dirty look. He didn’t gave L his change back either. There’s no tipping in Japan, so this was a big affront.

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L said it’s a huge insult for a local to not give you your change back. It wasn’t busy inside either. It takes a lot to get L mad, but oh boy, when he does get riled up, watch out. I told L that it was clear that the man wasn’t living the high life and to let it go.

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How was the food? I’ve had better instant noodles in Japan. Having said that, some of the instant noodles in Japan are better than the ramen I’ve had in restaurants in Calgary. L didn’t eat his food. I thought it was a bit tasteless, the service and the soba. If anyone tells you that you can’t get a bad meal in Japan, just send them to Tachi Kui Soba Kimidzuka and tell them to special order something ;-).

Cheap Eats · Restaurants · Tokyo

Tokyo – Tempura Tendon Tenya

L gets annoyed when I use Yelp to find a restaurant. He said the restaurants I find on Yelp are good, but tailored to tourists. I agree with him, but the alternative are restaurants that do not want foreigners. I’ve found a number of restaurants catering to locals that turned us away. Plus, we are foreigners. I can’t even string together a coherent sentence. I found Tempura Tendon Tenya via Yelp, but this one is a winner. For this post, let’s listen to Shonen Knife’s “Top of the World.

We were walking around Ueno Station when I opened up my Yelp app and saw the pictures of Tempura Tendon Tenya. I ignored L rolling his eyes and navigated to the restaurant. We were seated right away. I noticed all the customers were old men. Always a promising sign.

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We were given cold cups of tea. I noticed there was complimentary hot tea at a self-serve countertop. We went through the menu to view variations of tempura on rice and soba noodles. We picked the easiest and best value option – mixed tendon on rice for only 790 Yen.

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The tempura is made by a machine. We waited about ten minutes for our bowls to arrive. Each bowl came with two shrimp, eel, fish, two green beans, seaweed, and a lemon peel. I found the portion quite generous, particularly for the price.

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Despite the bath of sweet tempura sauce, the generously battered seafood and vegetables remained crunchy and delicate. Oh god – this was good stuff. The tempura lemon peel was refreshing and decadent. The eel tasted like an oyster.

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The shrimp was crunchy and toothsome. The seaweed was incredibly delicious – there was a layer on top of the seaweed that gave it some bite. The rice was good – firm and sticky. Next time I come, I want to order all shrimp tempura and seaweed.

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There was an old man who made a loud production when he went to pay for his meal. The cook and staff come out of the kitchen to see who was making the commotion.  L and I were quite shocked because no one in Japan makes a scene unless their drunk. He was yelling and it sounded like he was complaining about the food. The female server said yes, yes, so sorry a few times in a quiet soothing voice. Then she asked him to settle his bill.

I spoke to TJ about our meal at Tendon Tenya. She informed us that Tenya is a chain restaurant and one of her favourite places for tendon. I told her about the scene the customer made and she concurred that it was very unJapanese to make a public spectacle like that. She mentioned that people with mental disorders are often not diagnosed in Japan, implying that the man’s behaviour was abnormal.

Cheap Eats · Japanese · Restaurants · Sushi · Tokyo

Tokyo Eats – Sushi

Sushi in Tokyo is fantastic. I haven’t done the whole Jiro Dreams of Sushi thing because I don’t want to drop $600 US + for a meal for two that will last only 30 minutes. I’m sure I’d love such an experience, but it’s not within my means. I have long suffered from a problem called champagne taste on a beer budget.  So,  I make do with super sushi finds that costs me a fraction of what I’d pay for in Calgary. For this post, let’s listen to All My Money by Matt Giovanisci.

I introduced our group to a cheap conveyor belt sushi place by our hotel – Tenkazushi Ikebukuro. Plates of sushi start at 125 Yen. L and I will have around five plates each, and our bill is always around 2,000 Yen. On our second night in Tokyo, I accidentally went to the wrong conveyor belt restaurant. Their sushi was 110 Yen and it was not nearly as good as Tenkazushi. The extra 15 Yen is worth it.

outside sushiTenkazushi is foreign friendly and are accommodating even if you speak zero Japanese.  I find the sushi tasty, particularly for the price. Take a look at the amaebi (sweet raw shrimp). I think it cost me about 275 Yen. The sushi rice was good too. L liked this place but he’s never been to Tachigui Midori Echika, my favourite spot.

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Tachigui Midori Echika is located at the C6 exit in Ikeburkuro station. The standup room is tiny and fits 10 people at a time. I’ve waited in line at 10:30 a.m. before it opens to snag a spot. I’ve arrived at 10:50 a.m. and had to wait half an hour. L doesn’t like to wait in line or stand up while he eats, so I haven’t taken him here.

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Tachigui gets busy at lunch because of their 500 Yen meal set. You get a bowl of complimentary miso soup too. This set is a steal. You can get a similar set in their takeout section for 500 Yen, but I wouldn’t recommend it. I found a piece of octopus so chewy and fibrous, I couldn’t eat it. For the takeout sets, it’s best to pick the most expensive ones, which aren’t pricey. For eight pieces of nigiri, I only paid 790 Yen. The quality is much better than your average sushi joint in Calgary.

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Inside the sushi bar, I enjoyed the trio of salmon nigiri. Two are seared, one with a creamy sauce on top. The pieces of salmon are generous. The texture is so smooth and soft. I love the smokey taste of the torched salmon. Just thinking about it makes me drool. This trio cost me 390 Yen.

CHEAP SUSHI

My only issue is I don’t like the new sushi chef. Last year, there was a jolly guy who was very kind to me. I spoke what I could in Japanese and when I struggled, I would make up with it by a sumimasen (excuse me) domo arigatō gozaimasu (thank you) and look apologetic. That chef  gave me a baby scallop on the house when I told him the sushi was oishī (delicious). He recognized me in future visits and was always pleasant.

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This year, I made the mistake of ordering from a man who gave me an English menu. He was actually in charge of bringing people inside and setting them up for the meal. The sushi chef looked pissed and the poor guy I first talked to looked startled, and pointed to the sushi chef. I apologized but it was too late. The damage was done. I’ll call this sushi chef Enraged.

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I ordered the most expensive stuff – uni (300 Yen), uni cone with the most expensive fatty tuna (490 Yen) speckled with ikura (salmon roe), different cuts of toro (200 – 300 Yen) and  everything my heart desired. The other customers enviously looked at my picks as they all got the 500 Yen set and cheaper pieces.

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I saw all the other customers calling out their sushi requests. Enraged would nod and make them their dish, no problem. These customers weren’t polite and didn’t say thank you or anything. However, I had to wait until we made eye contact and then he would nod his head to me and say something in Japanese before I could order. No one else had to do this. It could have been because he needed to be free in order to take my order, as I pointed or spoke in poorly pronunicated Japanese.

Below is a tuna set for 990 Yen. I wouldn’t order this again. The seared tuna was average. I only liked three of the five pieces. I’m better off ordering a la carte.

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I didn’t clue in until the second time that I had to catch his eye and not to call like the other customers. When I didn’t stare at him until he noticed, Enraged would hiss at me and give the meanest look and say something in Japanese. I don’t know what he said but if I had to guess, it would be “Wait! Not your turn.” The other customers and the junior sushi chef would look at me intently for my reaction.

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I was really pissed off by his attitude. I was about to give him a foul look in return. I paused, took a bite of my sushi cone, then decided to shut my mouth. The combination of uni, fish roe and tuna belly was amazing. Everything – the texture, the taste, was exquisive. Enraged being a jerk didn’t detract from the food at all. I had a choice. Either swallow my pride and eat like a queen and pay like a pauper or be rude back and not be able to eat here again.

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At the end of each meal, I said in Japanese, “thank you” and “delicious”. Enraged would beam at me with such pure joy, I realized that I can put up with his attitude. Plus, obviously I did something to offend him even though I tried my hardest to be polite. Story of my life in Japan.

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In Japan, the locals treat me like a local. I even had Japanese speaking guys come up to me to ask for directions. When locals would speak to me in Japanese, I didn’t know what to say back. If I get too anxious, my mind goes blank. I freeze up and forget the phrases L taught me – Nihon-go wa wakari mason (I don’t understand Japanese) or wakari mason (I don’t understand).  When I didn’t respond properly, locals would give me the cold shoulder. It was so frustrating. At least when I offend someone in North America, I know I did it on purpose.

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Highlight: Sushi in Tokyo is superb even if you are on a budget.

Lowlight: Passing for a local sucks if you can’t speak the language.

Bars/Lounges · Beer · Japanese · Restaurants · Tokyo

Tokyo Eats- Towa

On a humid afternoon, L and I went to Taitō to buy a yukata for our nephew – Jack the Lad. Taitō is best known for its zoo, parks, museums and bustling street shopping. After we picked out a new kimono, we sought refuge from the heat and crowds.

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I searched Yelp for a nearby bar and found Towa. Towa specializes in craft beer and soba noodles. Located on the second floor, the restaurant is tucked under Ueno train station. At 2:00 p.m., the restaurant was packed. In Japanese, L politely requested two seats. As there were no empty tables, the bartender told us we would have to wait up to half an hour. We nodded and said we would be happy wait. In less than ten minutes, we received a spot at the bar.

I could hear the train rumble overhead. The ceiling shook slightly from the vibration. For this post, let’s listen to The Passenger by Iggy Pop.

The restaurant was filled with locals, though tourists have gotten wind of this place. At 2:30 p.m., we saw a couple come in with a baby. They made no attempt to speak any Japanese and they insisted on a specific table in the back. I could tell that the employee didn’t really want to seat them. He told them it would be half an hour for a table and he couldn’t guarantee the table they wanted. The couple sighed and left without the courtesy of a bow and a sumimasen. I guess they couldn’t find another restaurant because they returned. The server ignored them for ten minutes and then coldly seated them in the back, which was by this time completely empty.

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There were two pages of Japanese craft beer. I picked #262 Mahoroba Wheat Kai –  Ushitora Brewery (1150 Yen) and L picked Struggle IPA – Isekadoya Brewery. My beer was clean and refreshing. L’s beer had a refined hoppy note to it.

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We saw locals dining on cold soba noodles along with sides of tempura and sashimi. After our beer, we indulged too. I picked soba with grated radish (670 Yen). The soba was chilled and chewy. As instructed, I poured the cold soba sauce over the crisp vegetables and wet mound of white radish. Then I dipped my noodles into the sauce before slurping away.

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Service was lovely after we attempted to order in Japanese. My advice for foreigners? Not learning a few basic Japanese phrases (which is rude), being demanding, and expecting locals to speak English doesn’t get you very far. You can expect to be denied service through various excuses, such as you need reservations or they are all booked up. L and I would happily return to Towa again. The food was well-priced and refreshing on a hot day.

Japanese · Restaurants · Tokyo

Tokyo Eats – Sakura Cafe

Back in Japan! Due to L’s work, we spend three weeks in Japan. In Tokyo, our group stayed in Ikebukuro, a lower income area known for a surplus of girlie bars. There are a few seedy streets, but other than that, Ikebukuro does the trick.  For this post, let’s listen to Plastic Love by Takeuchi Mariya.

For breakfast, L always goes to Sakura Café, which is part of our hotel – Sakura Ikebukuro. The 24 hour cafe has a large outdoor patio, a rarity in Tokyo. Last year, the cafe was quiet and filled with mostly tourists. This year, the cafe was packed with locals and tourists. In the previous year, the staff allowed our group to meet inside the cafe.

On our first morning in Tokyo, I knew our group was in trouble. A bunch of them came in and ate their store bought food inside the cafe and threw away their plastic bag and containers in the cafe’s bins. Japan is very strict regarding where you dispose your garbage. The appropriate thing would have been to keep your garbage with you and dispose of it in our hotel room or the hotel’s garbage bins.

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Other customers looked annoyed at our group, as the communal volume deafened all other conversations inside the patio. When we left, a staffer informed TJ that our group was too large to meet inside the cafe and no one was allowed to bring outside food to consume inside. We were also told that our group was too loud and implied we were being obnoxious.

L likes the breakfast at Sakura Cafe. For 350 Yen, you get all-you-can-eat white toast, Asian soup, coffee and tea. L ate here every day because he prefers a light breakfast and he could work while the group could find him if they had questions. I joined him a few times. I would get there early in the morning and drink three tiny cups of soup. I always scooped up the goodies on the bottom of the pot (bits of meat, seafood, vegetables). By the time I got my third cup, the pot of soup was mostly broth. I thought it was funny but when I told L, I could see he disapproved. I didn’t feel bad that other customers only got broth. It’s not my fault the cafe skimps on the good stuff.

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The coffee was weak and the toast reminded me of Cobb’s white bread. A flavourless margarine and three types of jam were offered for the toast. I preferred picking up oden from 7/11 and then buying a coffee at Sakura Cafe so I could sit with L.

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Most convenience stores don’t sell oden in the spring or summer season. However, the 7/11 by our hotel did. I would eat three to four pieces – usually an egg, daikon, kinchaku, wiener-maki or shirataki.  Each piece ranges from 80 to 120 Yen. The broth was light, salty and savoury, made from a combination of soy and dashi. This simple stew looks strange but it’s tasty and warms you up first thing in the morning or late at night.

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Our hotel gave us a coupon for a free glass of wine or sake with the purchase of an entree. After a long day, TJ told us she wanted to grab a bite for dinner.  I knew from past experiences that when she’s hungry, she doesn’t want to wait for a table or to take the time to look around for a good restaurant. TJ only cares about the three Cs – convenience, cheapness and copious portions. I suggested we eat at Sakura Cafe even though I knew the food was the equivalent of Calgary’s Chili’s.  The wine taste like apple juice so I requested some ice cubes to enhance the flavour.

We all ordered the cafe’s specialty – Hamburger Gratin (1, 290 Yen). Basically, it’s a hamburger in a bun, covered in a creamy, cheesy sauce and baked until it’s a hot molten ball. I ordered a side of fries (490 Yen) to mop up the sauce and scraped most of the bun under the cast iron pan on top of my plate. L made a face because of the mess I was making. I told him I’d put the discarded bun back on the pan after I was finished dipping my fries with the sauce. I needed to move the bun otherwise the bread would soak up all the sauce. He pretended he didn’t know what I was talking about. After eight years, I can read L like an open book.

Highlight – my newfound love for oden. It’s a low calorie and a guilt-free option.

Lowlight – getting reprimanded for our group’s behaviour. Toto, I’ve a feeling we’re not in Kansas anymore.