Thursday, August 28, 2008

Central Tokyo

On a first trip to Tokyo (東京), visitors often look for « downtown » around the great suburban rail terminals of Shibuya (渋谷) and Shinjuku (新宿), or even in the “Foreigner Ghetto” in Roppongi (六本木). While those are lively areas, they were only recently urbanized. Akasaka would deserve more to be called “Central Tokyo”, but It is around Tokyo stations and the Imperial palace that the oldest and most prestigious areas can be found, with a wide range of atmospheres and architecture. The area deserves two visits: one when Japanese office workers are present on weekdays, and another on Sunday, when the roads are closed to traffic and given back to pedestrian and cyclists.
We will start our walk by late afternoon at Sakuradamon (桜田門) station. It is just south of the huge moats of the Imperial Palace (皇居). The pine forest can take southern Europe colors at sunset. On the other side is the administrative district of Kasumigaseki (霞ヶ関), home to the Japanese government. The old building of the Ministry of Justice (債務所) was built in 1895 by German architects (Boeckmann et Ende) and restored after the war. It is just across the crossroad from Sakuradamon and is now used as the ministry training center. There are other buildings in red brick « London Style »: Tokyo station and its «Classic Hotel» and the « Tokyo Bankers Club » (東京銀行協会) Building. The original front of the building was kept, while a modern office tower was built above. The area around the « Bankers Club » is called Otemachi (大手町). It gathers most Japanese press headquarters since 1957, where the land was freed by the government move to Kasumigaseki.
From Sakuradamon, Otemachi can be reached by crossing the Palace Outer Gardens (皇居外苑). The main luxury of this park is the indecently wide area in a town as crowded as Tokyo. It is the most impressive just before sunset. To have a complete view of parks in the area, we can also walk through the Hibiya Park (日比谷公園), a miniature of New York Central Park, also surrounded by high buildings.
The business center of Marunochi is located north of the Hibiya Park and south of Otemachi. The word means “inside the castle fortifications”, and is used to designate areas in most town that possessed a castle. Many banks and traditional Japanese companies are headquartered in this Tokyo district. It is the area downtown with the best access to public transport: 11 out of 14 subway lines in Tokyo have a station in the areas described in this story, all enclosed in a square kilometer, there are also very convenient connections to the northern, southern and western suburbs, and fast transport links to Tokyo two commercial airports. Architecture is uncluttered, and square: Neon light and billboards, so common in other districts, are completely missing here. The atmosphere is definitely snobbish; there is even an expression for the female office employees of the area, famous for their classical and elegant style: “Marunouchi OL”. “OL” or “Office Ladies” are the female employees performing clerical work, with sometimes much more responsibility than their title imply.
If the district was the most distinguished address for an office in the city, it had a quaint and boring image and until the mid 90s. Since a revitalization plan was launched in 1996, new buildings such as the “Marunouchi Building », nicknamed « Marubiru » (丸ビル) were launched. Similarly to all new towers built in Tokyo, they gather office space, restaurants and shops. So the streets are not anymore the realm of « salarymen », male japanese employees of large established companies usually wearing a dark suit, a white shirt and a necktime with colors that can go as exuberant as marine blue or grey : their skin sometimes has a tan called sakeyake (酒焼け), meaning « alcohol-tanned », a consequence of decades of after-work drinking with colleagues.
Most lively areas in Toyko have their International Top-End Hotel, from the « Park-Hyatt » Hotel in Shinjuku that got famous thanks to « Lost in Translation » to the « Ritz-Carton Tokyo » in the brand new « Tokyo Mid Town » Tower in Akasaka. Marunouchi also got one recently when the “Peninsula Hotel”, the famous chain from Hong-Kong built a branch near Yurakucho. The famous « Imperial Hotel » (帝国ホテル), one amongst the three traditional great hotels in Tokyo (the others being the Okura and New Otani) is also located in Marunouchi. I personally often prefer the relaxing atmosphere of those typically Japanese establishments to their more trendy successors, especially considering the facts those traditional hotels are often much more affordable.
We will now go south of Marunouchi around the Yurakucho (有楽町) station. Tokyo International Forum (東京国際フォ-ラム) is a modern conference center, with a shape that reminds a boat hull, and is certainly worth a visit. If you wish to buy electronics, the « Big Camera » (ビックカメラ) shop nearby the station is as convenient as going to the Akihabara (秋葉原) Electric town. Yurakucho also has another face, with the small down-to-earth Yakitori (焼鳥) restaurants where skewered chicken can be enjoyed while drinking alcohol. Most of them are located under the railway archs south. The atmosphere is much warmer there than upstairs in the offices. There are also small ambulant “Oden” restaurants (a Japanese pot dish) with no more than 2 or 3 seats, and plastic sheets as walls. Office workers and bureaucrats enjoy there the contrast with their luxurious, but probably impersonal offices.
On the other side of the railway is the Ginza (銀座) “silver mint” area, a reference to mint workshops that were located there during the Edo area. This is traditionally the luxury and fashion district, with plenty of department stores. Mitsukoshi (三越) and Wako (和光) are located near the intersection of Chuo Dori (中央通り) and Arumi Dori (晴海通り). This crossing is the center of Ginza, the place where postcard pictures are taken. There are also company showrooms, Sony’s one being located near the Sukiyabashi (数奇屋橋) crossing.
After dawn, the area located nearby Shinbashi in the southern part if Ginza gathers the smartest hostesses of the city. They are easily recognized as the only ladies to be wear evening dress. Westerners do not usually understand Tokyo hostess bars, where businessmen and bureaucrats have drinks with beautiful young ladies who listen patiently and empathize with their trouble and worries, without offering more intimate services. The best hostesses take their jobs very seriously, and regularly read about finance and business to be ensure they have an interesting discussion with their guest. Discussing sub-primes or hybrid engines with a beautiful young lady is certainly a subtle pleasure worth the very expensive fees of those establishments.
Ginza is also a great place to find second hand cameras and eat sushis (寿司), as the Tsukiji (築地) fish market is only a few blocks away. Following some abusive behaviour by tourists, they cannot go freely anywhere anymore, but the atmosphere is worth getting up early. The market will move to the artificial island in Toyosu in 2012, and many people think the unique atmosphere will disappear with the old market, and certainly most of small merchants who may not afford the new fees will also do the same.
The business center of Shinbashi (新橋), south of Ginza, has developed around the oldest station in Tokyo. It had a quaint image until a fret terminal nearby was redeveloped in a modern office center called Shiodome (汐留). Some sights of this compact area could easily be recycled in a SF movie. The contrast with the old warehouses of nearby Tsukiji bursting with people is impressive. Our walk in Central Tokyo ends here. We will propose in further articles other highlights on the many interesting areas of this endless city.

Suggestions for a meal or a drink

Tsubakiya CoffeeTokyo, Chuo-ku, Ginza 7-7-11 Sugawara Denki Building 2-3F, 東京都中央区銀座7-7-11菅原電気ビル2・3F, tel : 03-3572-4949, open from 10am to 4.30am on weekdays, and from 10am to 11pm on Saturday and Sundays: a quite expensive coffee shop but one of the best places to watch people in Ginza. Coffee from Yen 880 (5.50 Euros), lunch sets from Yen 1100 (6.8 Euros). From Shinbashi, go northward on the Chuo-Dori and turn left on the first small street after crossing the elevated motorway. The shop is fifty meters away on the right side of the street(

Ginza Rengatei (煉瓦亭) 東京都中央区銀座3-5-16 Ginza, Chuo-Ku Tokyo, tel : 03-3561-7258,open from 11:15 to 14:15 (last order), and from 4:40pm à 8:30pm (last order) on weekdays, and from 11:15 to 14:15 (last order), and from 4:40pm to 8:00pm (last order) : one of the best places in Tokyo to experience Japanese “western” cuisine, including Deep Fried Pork cutlets (カツレツ from Yen 1200 – 7.50 Euros) Japanese Style steaks and Home Rice (オムライス, from Yen 1250 – 7.80 Euros). The restaurant is on a block opposite the Matsuya (松屋) department store, in a small street parallel to the Chuo Dori.

Lounge Faro ShiseidoShiseido (ファロ資生堂)  東京都中央区銀座8丁目8-3東京銀座資生堂ビル11F, Tel : 03-3572-3922, open from 11:30am 11:00pm from Monday to Saturday, and from 11:30am to 6:00pm on holidays. A trendy coffee shop with a futuristic white decoration, and a superb view on Ginza, on the last floor of the Shiseido showroom. It is a nice place for a pleasant lunch or afternoon tea (sweet and hot drink set Yen 1500 –9.30 Euros ). The Shiseido Parlour (資生堂パーラー) on the fourth floor is one of the more emblematic places in Ginza, probably the only place in the city with curry rice costing more than Yen 10.000.( Located on Chuo-Dori avenue south of Ginza near Shinbashi

Umai Sushi-Kan Kan (うまい鮨勘), Floor B2 (underground), Karetta Shiodome 1-8-2, Higashi Shinbashi, Minato-Ku, Tokyo〒105-7090 東京都 港区東新橋1-8-2 カレッタ汐留B2. This branch of the Umai Sushi-Kan chain has sushis sets from Yen 1500 (9.30 Euros) to Yen 3000 (18.60 Euros) per person. Open from 11ham to 11pm on weekdays, and from 11am to 10pm on holidays (

It is a good idea to look for a restaurant on Yahoo Gourmet or Gunavi (Japanese language site). Restaurants go quickly out of fashion in Tokyo, so it is better to get updated regularly.
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Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Japanese guests in Europe

Last month story gave a few pieces of advice to westerners visiting Japan. I gathered in this story tips about the reverse situation: Japanese acquaintances coming to Europe for a personal or business trip. This is more delicate, as you are the host and responsible for the success of the visit: it is not enough just to be open-minded and adapt to the environment. This time, you have to take appropriate initiatives so that the stay of your guest is a success.

You probably have to organize a meal. You may hesitate between receiving them at your home or in a restaurant. Opening your house may be a way to show someone you already know that you consider him as a friend. If are living in the countryside, your friend may be impressed, and even embarrassed by the size of your garden, as flat land is very expensive in Japan even in remote areas. You may want to explain that it is not always expensive in Europe, where 10.000 square meters of agricultural land can often be bought for a few thousand euros.

With a Japanese person you are not intimate with, I believe a meal in a restaurant is preferable: Japanese people do not often invite for a meal at home as most apartments or houses are small, so your hosts may feel uneasy that they cannot return your invitation. As a general rule, it is better avoiding a Japanese restaurant, as offering a foreigner his own national food is considered bad taste. With a few exceptions, it is better to avoid foreign food, as large Japanese cities often have better foreign restaurants than most European cities. This is especially true for Italian and Chinese food. However, you may want to try an Indian restaurant in UK, or a North-African or Lebanese restaurant in France, as those are managed by natives from the country, and the food is authentic. If you know your host has already been in Europe for a few days, he may want his stomach to “have a rest” and eat a Japanese meal. If so, it is likely your host will drop a few hints. In that case, you will make a point of careful of choosing a true Japanese restaurant, not the sushi-Yakitori eatery at the street corner. Japanese Internet forums will have more information about the best places to enjoy a real Japanese meal. It may not be easy to find one in small cities though. In Paris, most of them cluster near “Rue Saint-Anne” nearby the Opera.

Japanese people are often gourmets, so you should choose a place with good food: you should stick to a reputable and well-known place, the kind that has been in the gastronomical guides for the last 30 years. This is preferable to the latest trendy restaurant where more emphasis is sometimes put on the decoration than on the food. Japanese people will appreciate restaurant rooms in old buildings, as this is very rare there. In France, “Brassseries” will do the trick: “La Coupole” or “Le Train Bleu” in Paris, “La Brasserie George” in Lyon or “La Brasserie des Beaux-Arts” in Toulouse.

If your hosts are eager to taste good food, they may not appreciate meals that is « too colourful » or with a too strong « taste ». They may not want to sample offal, but may stick to plain meat or fish. Most Japanese people do not eat raw oysters, which is unexpected in the country that invented “sashimi”. Meat with a strong taste like game, mutton or lamb may be too aggressive to some Japanese palates. Some Japanese people can barely survive without rice at each meal, so you may want to choose a restaurant where rice is served. Some Japanese people, especially men, do not enjoy wine, so it is better to choose a place where drinking beer is acceptable. Cheese may, or may not be, appreciated by Japanese people. You should not insist if your host abstains from eating them. Goat and cheep cheese may also be too smelly.

You shall book a table in advance, as it would be very unfortunate not to find a table when you arrive. If your host just arrived from Japan, you will have dinner as early as possible, as he will be tired by jet lag. He will not find it too early if you start eating at 7pm or even earlier, which is common in Japan. You will ensure that your host can come to the restaurant: the best would be to pick him at the hotel, or go directly with him from the office, as he may not feel at ease in English or the local language, and could be afraid of taking a taxi or the subway alone, especially on a first visit. If you cannot pick him, you may help him a lot just by booking a taxi and writing the address on a piece of paper, or buy a subway ticket and explain the trip to him. Once in the restaurant, you may have to explain the meals, as our chefs often use supposedly elegant but very obscure sentences for the meal names. You may also want to choose the meal for your guest, and check that your selection is OK for him. You will explain that meals are eaten one after another in most European countries, while everything is often put on the table at the same time in Japan. Meal size is usually smaller in Japan, so your guest may not be able to finish all the food presented to him even if he really enjoys it. Some Japanese men do not enjoy sweets, so you may want to ask your male hosts if they wish to finish the meal on a sweet flavor or only with a coffee. You will make sure the glass of your host is always full of wine, or order new pints of beers, and you may want to order some bottled water too.

The duty of a host is to ensure a pleasant conversation during the meal: if you know your guest has a hobby, you can start discussing it. You can also ask questions about Japan to show your interest of the country, or about your host family. You may want to explain briefly the history of the city you are in, and sights worth seeing during spare time. It is perfectly acceptable to speak about work, but this should not be the first topic to come in the conversation. Your host will probably speak-up his mind much more freely than in the office. Anyways, the most important thing is to let him speak, and not try to impress too much with your intelligence and your culture, which would be bad manner. You also express your opinions with some reserve, and accept that your interlocutor’s point of view, while different, may be as interesting as yours. In case you are inviting a person from the opposite sex for a business meal, I would strongly advise against ambiguous attitudes that can be understood as seduction. If you are interested anyways, you will probably impress much more by being slightly distant. You may want to know that in Japan, it is often the lady who shows her wish to go further by subtle hints in her speech and attitude.

A small personal present will be appreciated; it is common in Japan in many situations. You may want to offer a nice pen, or some find foods or alcohol. Do not be afraid of classic presents (Scotch whisky, Porto wine, foie-gras…), and put attention to the wrapping, which will be almost as important as the content. I believe you should avoid offering a necktie, but if you do, you should choose classical design and sober colors. A lady will always appreciate good jam or chocolate, but you should never offer perfume, as it is too personal a present, and some western perfumes do not match with Asian skins. At the end of the meal, you will not split the bill. You will excuse yourself for a moment and discreetly go to the counter to pay. Your Japanese guest will probably insist once or twice for paying, but you should refuse, and say that anyways, it was not that significant a present. After the meal, if your guest still has energy, you may want to have a glass with him in pleasant surroundings. This is what Japanese people call “Nijikai”, and is a privileged time for confidences. When you are finished, you should make sure your host can go back to the hotel by bringing him back or at least ordering him a taxi and explaining the address to the taxi driver.

You may have to organize some tourism for your Japanese acquaintances: they may want to see the most famous sights, and will likely be very well documented. Do not be surprised if they ask to see cute villages or small museums. They may also enjoy very much having a drink at a terrace, or visit a street market. You may also want to bring them to the countryside, where vast landscapes and animals will impress them. In any case, your hosts will want to bring back souvenirs for family, colleagues and friends. You should plan for a visit to the souvenir shop selling local craft or delicacies, with enough time to buy an appropriate gift for the impressive list of recipients they have in their mind.

This is the end of this small series on manners but also on the way to work with Japanese people. Those are of course general pieces of advices, but I believe they may come handy in most cases. Other people will have different experiences, and may offer slightly different recommendations. You should always seek different opinions when available, and in any case adapt to the context by using your common sense.

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Monday, August 4, 2008

Tea, pinetrees by the sea and a great Volcano

Located on the fertile Pacific coast of Japan, just midway between Tokyo and Nagoya, Shizuoka (静岡) is the nineteenth stage of the old Tokaido (東海道) road linking Edo (江戸, now Tokyo東京) to Kyoto(京都). Recent excavations have found a village with rice paddies on Toro (登呂) site, a sign that humans settled the site in early antiquity. More recently, the young Tokugawa Ieyasu (徳川家康) was held as an hostage in Sunpu Castle (駿府城). He was to unify Japan later in his life, and retired in Sunpu after his abdication. Today, Shizuoka is a lively city worth visiting for its outstanding scenery and food.
With 700.000 people calling it home, Shizuoka ranks amongst the 20 first Japanese cities and is well served by modern transport. The shinkansen express service stops in the station every hour. The lively downtown area is just by the station, where department stores, offices and restaurant cluster. Sunpu castle ruins, now converted into a garden, are nearby. The regular Tokaido service stops in the trendy suburb of Kusanagi and in the port of Shimizu in addition to the main station. A small local train (Shizutetsu 静鉄) also links downtown (Shin-Shizuoka station 新静岡) to Shimizu (Shin-Shimizu station 新清水). The locals will tell you proudly that it is not the smallest train in Japan, as it is a genuine double track all along the 11 kilometers of the line, and there is a frequent service of up to one train every five minutes. The most famous industry in the city is toy manufacturing, with a tradition of wooden toy going back centuries ago. The town is home to Tamiya, the famous plastic model manufacturer.
Shizuoka is an interesting stop on the way from Kyoto to Tokyo. The city is built in an outstanding location, and the climate is said to be the warmer of mainland Japan. The town is bordered on the west side by the Abe-Kawa river (安倍川), and on the north side by the foothills of the southern Alps (南アルプス). Shizuoka was build around the Sunpu castle, just north of the station, unfortunately destroyed at the end of Meiji era. It is worth a walk to enjoy the beautiful traditional garden, and the fantastic view from the top of the Prefecture building (free access). One aisle and the main door of the castle were rebuilt in the traditional way, and the moats are well preserved. Shizuoka center ends on Nihon-Daira (日本平) foothills.
Nihon-Daira is classified amongst the hundred beautiful views of Japan (観光地百選). It is an undulating hill covered by forests with beautiful views of Mount-Fuji (富士山) and Shimizu port in the foreground. The famous volcano is only 20 kilometers away, which makes Shizuoka one of the best places to watch the mountain.
From the top of Nihon-Daira, a cable car goes to Kunozan Toshogu (久能山東照宮) shrine, just uphill from the shoreline. It was built just after the death of Tokugawa Ieyasu, in a colorful style close to the one of Nikko that blends well with the tropical vegetation. The shoreline road is a pleasant way to go to Shimizu. The natural port lays in the bay sheltered by the Miho peninsula (三保半島). The peninsula is famous for the superb pine-tree plantations by the beach at Miho-Matsubara (三保松原). It also offers beautiful views of Mount-Fuji. Shimizu harbor was pleasantly renovated around the “Dream Plaza”, a modern shopping center. From the port, ferries leave to Toi, a small port on the Izu Peninsula (伊豆半島).
Shizuoka area has one of the mildest climates in Japan and rich soil, so it can grow some of the best tea of Japan. Numerous hillside fields are located near the Abe-kawa banks and the Nihon-Zaka (日本坂) hill west of the city. Shimizu port has the most important tuna fishing fleet of Japan, and Yaizu (焼津) port, just west of the Abe-kawa is also an important fishing hub. Sushi restaurants in the city have no issue finding excellent supplies. There is even a sushi museum in the Shimizu “Dream Plaza”. The town is also producing tuna preserved in Miso. Suruga Bay ((駿河湾) is famous for its Sakura-Ebi (桜海老), tasty small shrimps that are often fried, but can also be made into crackers (sembe). They can be harvested in April and Novembeer. Shirasu, young shrimps with a strong taste, are also excellent. In early spring, from February to April, « Ichigo-gari » (苺狩り) can be enjoyed in the strawberry fields near the road between Nihon-Daira and the sea. This is an « all you can eat » formula where you pick the fruits directly on the tree in the field.
Ideally located, Shizuoka is an excellent location for a pleasant stop-over between the Hakone / Izu region and Nagoya. The arrival from Toi by ferry well be unforgettable by fine weather.
Practical Information

Access to Shizuoka by Tokaido Shinkansen Hikari service from Tokyo (1h03, Yen 6.380, 40 Euros), or Shin-Osaka (1h50, Yen 10.780, 67 Euros), 1 train every hour; by car : Tomei motorway, Exit at Shizuoka IC or Shimizu IC.

Access to Shimizu: by Tokaido line from Shizuoka station : 10 minutes, Yen 230 (1.40 Euros), by Shizutetsu line from Shin-Shizuoaka : 20 minutes, Yen 290 (1.80 Euros).

Access to Miho: Bus line 57/58 (Miho Yamanote Line, from Shizutetsu company) from Shimizu station or « Dream-Plaza », exit at « Miho-Matsubara Iriguchi (三保松原入り口) bus stop, one bus every 10 minutes.

Access to Nihon-Daira: line 42 (Nihondaira Line, from Shizutetsu company) from Shizuoka station (platform number 13), one bus every hour on week-end, 4 buses a day on week-days, exit on the last stop.

Access to Toro: line 10 (Ishida Kaigan line) from Shizuoka station (platform 4), exit at ToroIsekiIriguchi (登呂遺跡入口).

Nihondaira cable car (access to Kunosan-Toshogu shrine): one car every 15 minutes and 10 minutes on peak hour, return ticket Yen 900 (5.60 Euros), one-way for Yen 500 (3.10 Euros).

It is much more convenient, and often cheaper, to visit the region with a car.

Useful Links

Toshogu Shrine (
Nihon-Daira Cablecar (
Shizutetsu bus company timetable (

An outstanding sushi restaurant in Shimizu: Suehiro Sushi (末廣鮨): lunch from Y2000 (13 Euros), dinner From Y8400 (53 Euros), telephone : +81.54-366-6083 (〒424-0815 静岡市清水区江尻東2-5-28), 5 minutes walk from Shimizu station, open from 11 :30 à 22 :00, closed on Wednesday.
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