Japan

Some cute Tokyo stuff by Thomas O'Malley

T&L Cute Tokyo
T&L Cute Tokyo

A quick tour of Tokyo's kawaii culture (cuteness), written for Travel and Leisure SE Asia. Because everyone needs some cute Tokyo stuff in their life.

Sanrio Puroland

Hello Kitty, Japan’s queen of kawaii and an official “tourism ambassador” for 2010, has her very own theme park on the outskirts of Tokyo where she, boyfriend Dear Daniel and dozens of dancers dazzle wide-eyed tots with a glitzy stage show set in a magic forest. Visitors can tour Kitty’s house, eat Hello Kitty jello and embark on a theme ride so packed with peculiar characters it’s like “It’s a Small World” on LSD. Inevitably, all paths lead to the gift shop, where fistfuls of yen change hands for Kitty pajamas, backpacks, cuddly toys and even packets of Kitty-brand dried squid.

Tokyo Disney Resort

As if Walt’s creations weren’t cute enough, the folks at Tokyo Disney Resort went and dreamed up Duffy the Disney Bear, Mickey Mouse’s adorable latte-colored teddy companion. More style accessory than souvenir, on any given day, half the visitors at Disneyland and DisneySea will be humping their Duffy from one official photo point to the next, taking snaps of the little guy in various states of hug. If you really want to blend in, note that it’s de rigueur for couples and friends to sport matching mouse ears or a signature Minnie bow, available at kiosks on every corner.

Maid Cafes

Maid Cafes are veritable churches of cute, where otaku types (read: nerds) pay by the hour to sit in pink-decorated diners and be called “master” by waitresses in frilly maid outfits and pigtails playing out babyish “eternally 17” personas. The first cafes appeared in Akihabara, Tokyo’s electronics district and otaku refuge, at the turn of the millennium, and now some of them – like @home Café and Maidreamin - boast several branches. To appreciate Maid Cafes, you need to get the concept of moe – which loosely describes an attraction towards fantasy characters. But curious tourists are welcome, and it beats Starbucks any day.

Beautician Stations

Step past the ubiquitous claw games in Tokyo’s many amusement arcades and you’ll usually find a bank of all-white “beautician” stations – think photo booth meets the spaceship in 2001: A Space Odyssey. Here, girls (and boys) transform themselves, with a bit of Photoshop touch-screen wizardry, into cuter-than-life J-Pop starlets. It works like this: pop 500 yen in the slot, strike a pose for the camera, then edit your image Cosmo-style, adding fake eye-lashes and a new hair-do, airbrushing any pimples, and widening the eyes and lips.  Decorated with the mandatory kisses and love-hearts, it makes for a hilariously freakish souvenir.

Cosplay

Dressing-up like your favorite anime or manga character is no child’s play for Tokyoites. Outfits should be meticulously faithful if you want to earn the respect of your fellow otaku. Harajuku is Tokyo’s cosplay epicenter - head to Harajuku Bridge on Sundays to see the kids strutting their stuff. If you want to get the look, Shibuya has a number of niche boutiques selling complete Goth or Lolita get-ups, or for a bit of fun, hit-up the back alley stalls in Akihabara for a pair of animal ears (cats are always popular) or some giant-sized furry bear paws.

A Tour with Shinji Nohara the Tokyo Fixer by Thomas O'Malley

UPDATE: I have a 2017 article I wrote about Shinji, published by Lonely Planet. You can read it here.

My original gastronomic romp through Tokyo for CNN with the wonderful Shinji Nohara the Tokyo Fixer is now offline, but I've added the text below. Shinji is to unlocking Tokyo's gastronomic secrets what Pulp Fiction's 'The Wolf' is to disposing of dead bodies. He's the man for fugu, kaiseki, or just the best bowl of shoyu tonkotsu in town.

A Tour with the Tokyo Fixer

Professional gourmet guide Shinji Nohara offers his choice spots for food, drink and fun.

Hunting down fine food and drink is a tall order for the Tokyo noob, which is where Shinji Nohara comes in. He’s the Tokyo Fixer, a gourmet guide, journalist and shochu-swilling bon vivant, and the man who fed fugu to TV chef Anthony Bourdain. Visiting writer Tom O’Malley joined the Fixer on this gourmet highlights ramble.

Tori Yoshi

“Yakitori for yuppies,” notes Shinji with a smile as we descend into an under-lit counter restaurant, all hard woods, smoke and sizzle. A round of Ebisu draft, Shinji’s beer of choice, sets the evening in motion. “These heavy ceramic mugs make the froth really smooth, like silk”, he explains, as chefs in slick white robes baste, skewer and grill with extreme precision. Soon a mouth-watering precession of chicken thighs, wings and other morsels sails off the coals. “Everything is sourced locally, so you can be sure of the quality,” says Shinji. Little ginkgos out of their pods are a seasonal treat, and young, charred bamboo shoots are served simply with grated fresh wasabi.

Tori Yoshi
Average price per person: Y4000
Address: B1F 4-2-6 Nishiazabu Minato-ku
Tel: 03-5464-5466 

Gogyo

“I love this place because you can eat great ramen in the atmosphere of an izakaya,” Shinji says as we squeeze in amongst lively tables of salary men and well-dressed couples kicking off a night on the town. On the Fixer’s recommendation I go for the “inky-black” kogashi broth, meaning charcoal-scorched. “The yakibuta (barbecued pork) is to die for if you like flaming meat”, he adds.  As Shinji espouses the many merits of shochu, we’re distracted by cooks fighting huge flames in the open kitchen. “It’s a good sign, isn’t it?” Too right. An order of gyoza is a delight: gossamer-thin skins and juicy, porky middles.  

Gogyo
Average price: Y2000
Address: 1-4-36 Nishiazabu Minato-ku
Tel: 03-5775-5566
http://ramendining-gogyo.com

Azabu Kusafue

Next we’re weaving our way through the gently sloping back streets of Nishiazabu. “This area is the hangout for people like me who love speakeasies", says Shinji as we enter the first floor of a nondescript house and into a living room-styled space, accented with modish furniture, leafy plants and a beautiful brick bar, stocked to the hilt with shochu. “Shochu isn’t harsh like vodka, and its distinctive flavor really depends on its ingredients”, schools Shinji as we work through several varieties. A chestnut shochu is a turn of the taste buds too far, but we can’t get enough of a cask-aged barley variety - “like a good single malt”, is the consensus.

Azabu Kusafue
Average price: Y2000
Address: 2-3Fl. 2-25-13 Nishiazabu Minato-ku
Tel: 03-3498-3181
http://www.kusafue.com

Wodka Tonic

Just across the street, this sumptuous underground bar comes over like a ‘30s Chicago speakeasy. As if on cue, the impeccably-dressed bartender puts the final chips to a flawless globe of ice as we enter. The epic sweep of bar is a feast for the eyes, boasting an inventory of some 1000 bottles. “It’s expensive but justified because you can find rare bottles here. I found a Rhum Agricole that survived the eruption of Mount Pelee on Martinique in 1902”, says Shinji. Bar snacks are a cut above, like pale shavings of ripe Tetes de Moines cheese, and a shot glass of angel hair pasta fried to a salty, savory crunch.

Wodka Tonic
Average price: Y2500
Address: B1F 2-25-11 Nishiazabu, Minato-ku
Tel: 03-3400-5474 

Sushi Sho

"This place kicked out the Michelin researchers. The master told me they were rude and didn't know how to appreciate sushi," Shinji laughs as he introduces Sho, meaning "master" in Japanese. Day two of the tour, and time for some serious fish. I’m told it was here that Keiji Nakazawa created the new school of Edomae nigiri in the 90s. The omakase (chef’s choice menu) is a breathless banquet of near indescribable luxury, paired with micro-brewed sake from all over Japan. The kohada (a little herring-like fish) – the test dish for a sushi restaurant in Tokyo - is exquisite. “The problem for you now is that you can never go back to regular sushi again,” Shinji tells me. I can live with that.

Sushi Sho
Average price: Y20,000
Address: 1-11 Yotsuya Shinjuku-ku
Tel: 03-3351-6387

La Jetee

“This bar is a must visit if you like French Nouvelle Vague films,” says Shinji, as we squeeze up a staircase to a tiny room crammed with old French jazz cassettes, curios and bottles of half drunk booze tagged by their owners. Run by the disarming madam Kawai, La Jettee in the Golden Gai became famous as the best-loved bar of Japanese movie director and legendary drinker Yasujiro Ozu. Pastis seems to be the tipple of choice, but we round out the tour with a final Ebisu draft and madam Kawai’s delicious tofu nibbles, as we decipher some of the (very famous) signatures of patrons past on movie posters that line the walls.

La Jette
Average price: Y1500
Address: 1-1-8 Kabukicho Shinjuku-ku
Tel: 03-3208-9645
http://www.lajetee.net

You can out more about the Tokyo Fixer by visiting Shinji's website, www.tokyofixer.com.