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This is what I've bee reduced to: whiling away the afternoons in my hotel room eating $3 bananas.

This is what I’ve bee reduced to: whiling away the afternoons in my hotel room eating $3 bananas.

The old adage is true.  You never truly appreciate something until it’s gone.  Like, say, your appetite.  Or even the ability to eat something without having it transform your stomach in a raging maelstrom.  At the beginning of this trip, I was on the top of the world, assuming I’d get to try anything and everything.  The bechamel-laced gratin croquette from Tokyo McDonalds.  The ice cream waffle sandwich from Ginza’s Manneken.  A casual lunch-time visit to Pizza Seirinkan in Naka-Meguro.  I figured there’d be time.  But there wasn’t.  Instead, there was a banana and sliced bread and a manuka honey throat lozenge Akemi picked up at Mitsukoshi department store the other day.

Not even a final drink at Star Bar or a return visit to Butagumi for their delicious braised pork appetizer.

Well, let’s not get ahead of ourselves here.  I don’t fly out until 6:05 p.m. tomorrow evening.  Maybe there’s still hope?

We started our Tokyo trip with lunch at Sawada sushi and ended it with a dinner there.  As always, excellent.  On last night’s visit, we ended up befriending some of our fellow diners and retiring to Star Bar for a nightcap – cocktails for them and a medicinal stomach-settling amaro for me.

New friends!

New friends!

So, we fly back to Vancouver today.  By the time you read this blog entry, Akemi and I will already be thinking about eventually heading to the airport to catch our flight back to Canada.  Unless, of course, you read it much later in which case we’ll already be in the air.

Random shots:

Me in happier, hungrier, more hopeful times at the beginning of my journey.

Me in happier, hungrier, more hopeful times at the beginning of my journey.

The zen garden outside the hotel.  I'm tempted to crawl in and attain some inner peace.  Especially so far as my stomach is concerned.

The zen garden outside the hotel. I’m tempted to crawl in and attain some inner peace by quelling the inner turmoil. In my stomach.

A beautiful day in Ginza

A beautiful day in Ginza

My awesome new t-shirt from that NHK show I don't watch but should.  It look awesome.

My awesome new t-shirt from that NHK show I don’t watch but should. It look awesome.

A pre-wedding snap

A pre-wedding snap

Akemi all dressed up

Akemi all dressed up

The green "health juice" Akemi made me drink.

The green “health juice” Akemi made me drink.

Avoid swimming in this without a certified lifeguard present.

Avoid swimming in this without a certified lifeguard present.

Fresh orange jelly.

Fresh orange jelly.

Tokyo is the worldwide home of individually-wrapped items.  Like, for instance, bananas!

Tokyo is the worldwide home of individually-wrapped items. Like, for instance, bananas!

Warrior woman at the Robot Restaurant

Warrior woman at the Robot Restaurant

Thanks for coming along!

P.S.  I am NOT looking forward to that 90 minute shuttle bus ride to the airport.

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I think I actually put on some weight on this trip.  No.  Really.  Upon my arrival in Tokyo, I had a choice between two notches on my belt – the first, a little tight; the second, a little loose.  I opted for the latter and, fourteen days later, that loose notch is actually kind of snug. Wha- happened?!  I thought all the walking I was doing would burn off the extra calories.  Okay, granted, I have been eating a lot – but no more than on previous visits.  I even took a bit of a break today, not so much out of a desire to curtail my culinary spree as it was the fact that I just wasn’t hungry after “the ramen debacle”.  I was up most of the night and into this morning nursing a sore stomach and I simply couldn’t do it today.

But that didn’t stop me from trying.

For lunch, we went out for oden, a traditional Japanese “comfort food” consisting of daikon radish, fish cake, boiled eggs, and konyakku, a flavorless potato noodle with a consistency like jelly.  It’s all served in a dashi broth and is beloved by many here, including Akemi.  Me, not so much, but I didn’t mind.  If Akemi was willing to eat deep-fried pork tonkatsu with me, I was certainly willing to eat a giant steamed radish for her.   True love, huh?

Following the line of customers into the restaurant.  The joint is jumping.

Following the line of customers into the restaurant. The joint is jumping.

Akemi's oden lunch setto, minus the daikon that has yet to arrive.

Akemi’s oden lunch setto, minus the daikon that has yet to arrive.

Karashi, a Japanese mustard that is about a thousand times hotter than what we have back home.  I'm going to have to pick up a jar to bring back with me.

Karashi, a Japanese mustard that is about a thousand times hotter than what we have back home. I’m going to have to pick up a jar to bring back with me.

Otakou: 2-2-3 Nihombashi, Tokyo

After lunch, I was feeling surprisingly “not terrible”, so rather than head back to the hotel, I accompanied Akemi on a stroll through Nihombashi.

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I wonder how hot it gets in there in the summer.

I wonder how hot it gets in there in the summer.

Although I still wasn’t hungry by the time we returned to Ginza, I figured I had to get back on the horse, just like a real athlete plays through pain.  With only days to go before my departure, I have a lot of ground to cover after all!  So we started off easy, sharing a meager two dessert snacks that we picked up at the Peninsula Hotel and brought back to our room:

Chocolate hazelnut cream cake and a mango pudding.

Chocolate hazelnut cream cake and a mango pudding.

One of the desserts Akemi was dying to tru was the famed Peninsula Hotel mango pudding, purportedly THE BEST mango pudding ever. So, I had to try it as well.  And the verdict?  It was pretty damn good mango pudding!  I never thought I’d ever say those words.

1Akemi also surprised me with a box of assorted chocolates from Madame Setsuko, an Osaka legend.  She gifted me a similar box after our first date way back in 2009, dropping them off at my hotel on her way to work the next morning.  Sweet, no?

Well, with time winding down on our trip, we’re making the most of our last few days by paying second visits to some of our favorite haunts. Last night, it was L’Atelier de Joel Robuchon for another excellent dinner:

111Followed by a romantic night-time stroll through Roppongi:

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P.S. In retrospect, that Hattendo fresh cream bun before bedtime was huge mistake.  I was up all night!

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Nobody appreciates the fine arts like I do and it should come as no surprise that there’s nothing I enjoy more than hitting the local museums whenever I visit a foreign city.  Such was the case yesterday when Akemi and I woke up early so that we could catch the bullet train to Yokohama and check out one of its most famous museums: The Shin-Yokohama Raumen Museum.  There, we checked out the masters who dabble in oils, broth, and noodles…

On the shinkasen, headed to Shin-Yokohama

On the shinkansen, headed to Shin-Yokohama

Truth be told, it’s not really much of a museum.  The educational portion is scant, but the hands-on experience is plentiful with a wide variety of ramen to choose from.  The lower level of the museum has been transformed into a latter-day Japan complete with winding back alleys, shuttered old time bars, and numerous ramen-yas.

Night falls on old ramen town...even though it's broad daylight outside.

Night falls on old ramen town…even though it’s broad daylight outside.

The back alleys remind me of some of the old Stargate sets.

The back alleys remind me of some of the old Stargate sets.

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A chart at the entrance gives you a rundown of the dozen or so chefs and their respective ramen.  Then, it’s up to you.  Choose a place and enter your order at the little machine outside the restaurant.  Then, all you have to do is grab a spot in line and wait to be seated.

The choices were overwhelming, so I simply went with what I thought looked good.  We started at a place called Ganja where we ordered…

Thick noodles and a slice of pork...

I had the thick noodles and a slice of pork…

...with spicy broth.

…with spicy broth

While Akemi went with the thin noodles

While Akemi went with the thin noodles

...and the regular broth.

…and the regular broth.

It was, hands down, the best ramen I’ve ever had.  Both broths were incredibly complex, rich with levels of flavor.  The thick slice of pork was incredibly tender, the egg I got with my broth perfectly cooked, and the noodles terrific.  I honestly could have ordered another bowl – not because I was still hungry, but because I didn’t want the meal to end.

We ordered two small bowls so that we could sample some of the other ramens being offered.  The busiest ramen-ya by far was Sumire that had a line-up that snaked around the corner.  We dutifully lined up, placed our order, and gradually inched our way toward the entrance…

Order your ramen here.

Order your ramen here.

I had the miso ramen.

I had the miso ramen.

Akemi's shoyu ramen.

Akemi’s shoyu ramen.

Wow.  And not in a good way.  After Ganja, what a letdown.  My miso ramen was fine but I found Akemi’s shoyu ramen was possessed of an unpleasant, oily flavor.  In fact, both broths were surprisingly oily.

There was a couple standing behind us in line.  She didn’t want ramen but he did.  Unfortunately, the house rules state that everyone taking up table room must order ramen.  So, they compromised.  He sat down and ate his ramen while she stood outside and watched him.  Weird.

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Uncle Charumera, former mascot of an instant noodle company.  And Jim Beam whisky.

We finished up by taking a tour of the “museum” section and shop that offered everything from ramen keychains and chopsticks to your own personalized box of ramen.

Shin-Yokohama Raumen Museum: 2-14-21 Shinyokohama, Kohoku Ward, Yokohama

111We took a little stroll through Shin-Yokohama, then caught the bullet train back to Tokyo where we took an even longer stroll through Tokyo Station.  An unintended one as we got turned around at some point and spent close to an hour trying to find the subway back to our hotel. The place is huge!

1Finally, we made it back!

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LIGHT at the end of the tunnel!

I arrived back  at the hotel to discover a package awaiting me.  It was from Akemi’s mother and it was filled with what I estimate to be about a year’s word of matcha (ceremonial green tea)!  Between this and everything I’m planning to pick up, it looks like I may have to invest in a second suitcase.

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We tried to work off dinner with a walk along Ginza-dori…

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These guys were very popular.

Akemi getting into the Christmas spirit

Akemi getting into the Christmas spirit

For dinner we went to Chikuyotei, one of the country’s oldest unagi restaurants.  It holds special meaning for Akemi because it was a favorite of her grandfather’s who used to take her there when she was young.

Alas, no tables available so we had to settle for floor seating.  And by “floor seating”, I mean we sat on the floor at a low table.  Apparently, this isn’t terribly uncommon in Japan and many Japanese have mastered the art.  I, unfortunately, have not and spent much to the meal shifting uncomfortably between kneeling, sitting cross-legged, and stretching my legs out underneath the table.

We ordered from an English menu that helpfully warned us to “be careful for the eel bones”.  So we were.  As for the meal…

Grilled eel "kabayaki".

Grilled eel “kabayaki”.

The eel guts soup.  From the kitchen of Chef H.R. Giger

The eel guts soup looks like a prop from the last Alien movie.

Another great meal and, I’m sure, very natsukashii for Akemi.

Chikuyotei: 8-14-7 Ginza, Chuo-ku, Tokyo

Well, I think the law of averages has finally caught up with me.  I fear I’ve done in – not by the little aliens in my soup or the countless cream-filled desserts or even the chicken sashimi.  It was the ramen!  I woke up this morning feeling like my stomach has undergone a mochi massage…

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Tokyo is a vibrant metropolis of neon lights and raucous party districts, 7:00 a.m. to 8:00 p.m. work days and all night manga cafes were salarymen who have missed the last subway home can catch a few hours sleep before sunrise.  It’s can be chaotic and crowded…

The crowd funnels its way up the sole UP escalator on a subway platform in Shibuya station.

The crowd funnels its way up the sole UP escalator on a subway platform in Shibuya station.

Saturday night shopping in Shibuya..

Saturday night shopping in Shibuya..

And yet, there are parts of Tokyo that are strangely idyllic, isles of solitude amid the mayhem.  One such area is the neighborhood of Daikanyama, a district I would want to call home…if a move to Japan was ever in the cards.  What really distinguishes it for me, besides the tree-lined roads, quiet side streets, and generally laid-back attitudes is the prevalence of dog owners.  If you want to meet some dogs, Daikanyama is the place to go.  And, today, I did.  And did.

"Pugu!"I shouted so loudly I startled the owner.

“Pugu!”I shouted so loudly I startled the owner.

We ended up stopping to chat with the owner of this bouncy pooch for a good twenty minutes.

We ended up stopping to chat with the owner of this bouncy pooch for a good twenty minutes.

An atypically calm french bulldog.  According to the owner, he was just shy.

An atypically calm french bulldog. According to the owner, he was just shy.

And another half-dozen dogs who moved so quickly, the photos I snapped were unusable.

Earlier in the day, we enjoyed an excellent lunch at Sushi Kanesaka. Some of the highlights:

Chef Sanpei at work.

Chef Sanpei at work.

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We were served by the affable Chef Sanpei who spoke pretty solid English. According to him, one of their former regulars was an English teacher who used to come in twice a weak and give the staff lessons while he ate.  They’re obviously fast-learners!

A great place for sushi enthusiasts who are a little apprehensive about the language barrier.

Sushi Kanesaka: Misuzu Bldg, 8-10-3 Ginza, Chuo-ku.

And, of course, as always, the day was not without its memorable sights:

Mannequin display at Uniqlo, Ginza.

Mannequin display at Uniqlo, Ginza.

I tracked down the shirts and shorts but couldn't find the hear gear anywhere.

I tracked down the shirts and shorts but couldn’t find the hear gear anywhere.

Another mannequin display, this one inside a cosmetic shop.

Another mannequin display, this one inside a cosmetic shop.

Rental pet strollers parked outside the Green Dog vet, grooming, and treat shop.

Rental pet strollers parked outside the Green Dog vet, grooming, and treat shop.

I'm always searching for the nearest WiFi hotspot.  Maybe not this one.

I’m always searching for the nearest WiFi hotspot. Maybe not this one.

"Pick him up,"suggested the elderly owner.  Akemi did and I feared the instantly cranky dog would chew her ear off.

“Pick him up,”suggested the elderly owner. Akemi did and I feared the instantly cranky dog would chew her ear off.

Inside Roppongi Hills

Inside Roppongi Hills

It's already Christmas in Roppongi.

It’s already Christmas in Roppongi.

I run into (actually, she practically tackled me) my friend Yuki on my way to the subway.

I run into (actually, she practically tackled me) my friend Yuki-san on my way to the subway.

Finally, for dinner I met up with my friend Moro-san at Dominique Bouchet…

The ox-tail

The ox-tail

A side of mash.  The not-so-secret ingredient is butter.

A side of mash. The not-so-secret ingredient is butter.

Moro-san's raspberry soufflee.

Moro-san’s raspberry soufflee.

And the after dessert desserts.

And the after dessert desserts.

Dominique Bouchet:  5-9-15 Ginza Seigetsu Hall building B1F/B2F – Ginza, Tokyo

Today – The Yokohama Ramen Museum!

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If there’s one thing the Japanese love, it’s a line-up.  And this fact was reinforced as we strolled through Ometasando yesterday where we noted not one, not two, but THREE line-ups.  The first for a newly opened popcorn shop (?), the second for some other presumably new shop of indeterminate nature, and the third…for a Shakey’s Pizza!  I mean, come on!  Shakey’s Pizza?

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Line-up for the popcorn shop.  Really?  Popcorn?

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Line-up for…something else.  I suspect that half these people didn’t even know what they were lining up for.

Okay, come on now.  When there's even a line outside Shakey's Pizza, then you know someone is screwing with you.

Okay, come on now. When there’s even a line outside Shakey’s Pizza, then you know someone is screwing with you.

We had lunch at a yasai-ya (vegetable restaurant) where we enjoyed a very healthy-tasting meal after which Akemi headed off to a head spa while I caught the subway to Akihabara, Geek central:

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My future apartment building?

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Customers line up to input their orders outside a ramen restaurant.

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Akihabara – an anime enthusiast’s dream.

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Pillows of your favorite anime characters!  Never sleep alone again!

A little artwork for Carl's new office perhaps?

A little artwork for Carl’s new office perhaps?

My guess is...Box Man?

My guess is…Box Man?

An ad for Akihabara's many maid cafes.

An ad for Akihabara’s many maid cafes.

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A maid rustles up a customer for the cafe.

A maid rustles up a customer for the cafe.

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The doorman at the Gundam Cafe - Akihabara (Tokyo, Japan)

The doorman at the Gundam Cafe – Akihabara (Tokyo, Japan)

And, this time, I didn’t return empty-handed.  My new purchases:

New cell phone covers.

New cell phone covers.

New t-shirt.  Bonus points if you can guess the anime.  Randomness, you got this!

New t-shirt. Bonus points if you can guess the anime. Randomness, you got this!

For dinner, we met up with my friend Koji, man about town and Tokyo expert, who took us to one of the most happening yakitori restaurants in town: Morimoto in Shibuya.

The master of ceremonies: Koji.  He paces himself at one skewer per glass of sake.

The master of ceremonies: Koji. He paces himself at one skewer per glass of sake.

It was an excellent meal, highlighted by some noteworthy menu selections, among them the house tsukune (minced chicken), the crispy bonjiri chicken butt), chicken heart and even some chicken sashimi…

The chicken breast, served medium-alive.

The chicken breast, served medium-alive.

And the sashi trio: breast, liver, and gizzard.  Koji assured me they had been blanched in boiling water before serving...in case you were worried for me.

And the sashimi trio: breast, liver, and gizzard. Koji assured me they had been blanched in boiling water before serving…in case you were worried for me.

The verdict?  I preferred the chicken butts.  Overall, a terrific meal.

1Morimoto: Hamanokami building 1F, 2-7-4, Dogenzaka, Shibuya-ku, Tokyo

From there, our host, Koji, took us to Nombei Yokocho.  Located down a side alley, it’s a block made up of a host of tiny stand-up bars and eateries evocative of old Edo.  As we walked down the street, Koji gave me the rundown of the various establishments.  “This place is owned by an old high school friend who serves up excellent meguro.  That one is owned by a very nice Russian woman who tends the bar.  This one is run by a former French chef and serves some amazing cheeses and wines.”

1We ended up at Saya, a tiny bar belonging to an old friend of Koji’s. And I do mean tiny.  About the size of my bathroom, it has counter seating for four and standing room for another three.  Still, the cramped confines are conducive to a real get-to-know-you atmosphere.

Our friendly bartender.

Our friendly bartender.

Four sakes in and I was ready for bed.  At approximately 8:00 p.m.  I felt like THIS guy -

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AND I had the munchies.  So I stopped off at McDonalds and grabbed an ebi (shrimp) burger.  Then, a mini tonkatsu (fried pork) burger at some other place.  Oh, and a chocolate eclair.  To help soak up the alcohol and prevent hangovers.  Works like a charm.  You should try it some time!

An early night as as I have  big day ahead of me.  Details to come!

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Being a huge fan of science fiction, I have always been fascinated by the world of future tech: nanotechnology, faster than light travel and, of course, robotics.  Last night, I was afforded the chance to explore the latter at one of Tokyo’s hottest night spots, the Robot Restaurant, a place where science and spectacle converge in a flashy, sonorous, dizzying – and informative – display.

Located in the hear of Tokyo’s Shinjuku neighborhood, the restaurant was opened a couple of years ago at a cost of an astounding $10+ million and has been packing them in ever since.  The price of admission (about $50 per person) gets you an unremarkable dinner (we ate before we came) and a seat at THE GREATEST SHOW ON EARTH!

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The streets of Shinjuku

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Right down this side street…

As we walked along in search of our destination, this caught my eye -

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We already had plans for the night but, being a military buff, I thought this would be an equally educational opportunity for some other time. But I was surprised to discover that said Tank Girls make up part of one of the acts I’d be watching that night.  Robotics AND military history!  I actually felt myself getting smarter!

We purchased our reserved tickets (There are a couple of shows each night so make sure to book in advance), selected our meals (you have a choice between meat or fish), then walked across the street and into…well…let me show you…

Once downstairs, we were ushered into the showroom and over to our assigned seats.  With ten minutes to go before the commencement of the festivities, we were free to walk around, check out some of massive props on display, and grab a drink.  The crowd was, perhaps not so surprisingly, mainly made up of foreigners, ranging in age from tiny kids to grandmothers.

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My bartender, Neko-chan.

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Unfortunately, these massive set pieces.

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Dinner.  I can say with certain confidence that of the $10 + million spent on the Robot Restaurant, very little of it went to food costs.

The audience settled into the seats flanking the stage area and we were instructed to remain seated during the show as there was a danger of being clipped by moving set pieces.  Also, I imagine that every so often one of these robots gains sentience and runs amok, necessitating prompt action by trained professionals who don’t need innocent bystanders getting in the way.  Photography is permitted, but big cameras (?) are frowned upon.  Also frowned upon = touching the robots or dancers.  :(

The show kicked off with an impressive choreographed taiko performance involving two groups of women on two moving stages, massive wadaiko drums, a moving omikoshi and its dancing bearers, a slew of oni (Japanese demons), colorful costumes, flashing lights, blaring music, smoke.  Here’s a taste:

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Omikoshi and bearers

Following a five minute intermission, it was time to start the next act – which ended up being my favorite.  And, speaking of favorites, as much as I loved the headlining robots – especially the goofy dancing samurai-bot – I ranked this performer as my #1 draw:

Another five minute intermission and then we moved onto the third act which was weird and my least favorite, but no less entertaining.  This one actually told a story and involved a fearsome black samurai and his two underlings who looked like rock ‘em sock ‘em robots dancing around and talking trash.  They are confronted by a panda and his two tiger buddies.  The robots kick the crap out of the panda but are in turn beaten up by the tigers who end up getting their asses kicked by black samurai.  Enter a warrior woman armed with Thor’s hammer and Captain America’s shield.  She takes on the robots.  And loses.  She retreats, but another champion steps into the fray: a woman riding a dinosaur wielding a giant iron ball on a chain.  She battles black samurai and is forced to retreat.  At which point this giant spider woman makes a grand entrance, battles the black samurai, and captures him with her webbing before dragging him back to her lair. Hurray!  The day is saved!

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Panda makes his grand entrance.

Another five minute intermission.  We are all handed glow wands and instructed on what to do.  Alas, all the instructions were in Japanese – but I got the gist.

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Signaling flight #302 in for a landing.

And the show goes on with another wild performance, this one involving roller-skating robots and warrior women.  Also, towering robots programmed to serve humanity.  And dance!

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Robot hearts you!

A break in the action affords us the opportunity for a photo op:

1A goodbye to the robots…

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Sayanora, robo-san

And then it was time for the capper, a performance highlighted by more costume clad women, loud music, laser lights, and a technicolor tank…

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Wow.  What a production!    I was impressed – not just by the scope and scale of the production, but the talented performers as well.

On my way out, I bought a souvenir Robot Danger Dance & Mechanic Crew t-shirt.  The fellow at the counter informed me that they had received some mighty impressive guests from overseas  in recent months (Anthony Bourdain, JJ Abrams, The Walking Dead’s Norman Reedus) and suggested I check out the website as the performances were always changing.  A return visit is a must!

Highly recommended.  If you’re in Tokyo, not to be missed!

Japan Robot Restaurant – ロボットレストラン

http://www.tokyoweekender.com/2013/07/robot-restaurant/

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Yesterday, we took a day trip to Akemi’s old stomping grounds, catching the Chiyoda line from Hibiya station to Yoyogi Uehara where we transferred to the Odakyu line and finally arrived in Seijogakuen-mae.   In short, just a little easier to get there than it is to pronounce…

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Working on our tans at Yoyogi Uehara station.

Once we arrived the first thing we did was go on a tour of the places Akemi used to frequent – like, say, the local grocery store…

Canned pork belly

Canned pork bellies!  They beat sardines any day!

Then, we took a stroll through the area.  Akemi offered insight throughout the tour.  “This is where you can come and get your shirts dry-cleaned,”she would helpfully point out as we’d pass a dry-cleaners. And “This is where you can get your hair cut” – as we’d walk by a barber shop.  “And this is where you can buy your insurance.”

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I stopped to contribute a little to help the poor cats and dogs displaced by the tsunami.

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It’s actually a quaint little walking neighborhood.

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Very homey

Sun-dried bottarga

We walked by this restaurant courtyard where two tables of bottarga were being sun-dried.

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The food is great but apparently the service is an issue.

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“Colonel Sanders Fried Chicken”as Akemi calls it.  CSFC

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A beautiful view of the area I took well away from the edge of the balcony with my zoom.

Akemi had a hankering for soba (buckwheat noodles), so we had lunch at a soba restaurant called Akatsukian.

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I ordered a lightly battered vegetable tempura.  The maitake mushrooms were outstanding.  In fact, this trip has given me a newfound respect for the humble fungus.  Who knew they could pack so much flavor.

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My soba broth was incredibly rich, imbued with a deep, sweet smokiness from the duck and charred green onions.

For dessert, we headed over to another one of Akemi’s old haunts: Seijo Alpes…

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“This is perfect!”I said – only to be informed it was a sample tray of that’s day’s selection.

Akemi had a chestnut dessert that I found not sweet enough and texturally kind of strange – but she loved.  “Very Japanese taste,”she said.  I, on the other hand, had a decadent hazelnut taste.  Very Joe taste.

And the overall verdict?

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Two big thumbs up.

As we walked through the area, Akemi kept mentioning what a great neighborhood it was and how wonderful it would be to live there. I was unconvinced until I came across these guys…

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Potential buddies for my crew.

We continued our exploration of Seijogakuen-mae with a little tour of the local bakeries.  We picked up a few samples for…well…sampling.

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Clockwise from upper left: almond and walnut bread, custard cream bun, cream cheese danish, curry bun, chocolate bun, sweet potato bun.  Loser = chocolate bun due to its solid chocolate center.  Winner – custard bun due to its deliciousness.

We eventually wrapped up our tour and caught the subway to Shinjiku where two girls complimented me on my awesome Attack on Titan cell phone cover, and we walked some more…

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The streets of Shinjuku

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I’m not usually one for salad but…

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Inspired curry.

It was a great day – but little did I know that the best was yet to come.  Our evening was so awesome, I can’t properly do it justice in the tail end of this blog so what I’m going to do is give our outing its own special blog entry later in the day.  Consider it a bonus blog entry.

Now, I don’t want to say too much and spoil the surprise, but here’s a sneak preview…

Damn.  Ivon is going to be SO jealous.

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Kanpai!

Kanpai!

Akemi: When I was a kid, I had big eyes.  Like everyone in my family.

Me: Why?

Akemi: I’m not sure.  Maybe because we eat a lot of meat.

Well, just a little meat for me yesterday – but a lot of whisky.

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The open kitchen concept at L’Atelier de Joel Robuchon

We joined Akemi’s family for lunch at one of my favorite restaurants in Tokyo, L’Atelier de Joel Robuchon, a place that offers terrific high-end value for your money.  If you’re looking to sample Michelin-starred cuisine without breaking the bank, this is where you should come.

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Creamy pumpkin soup with ricotta cheese gnocci

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Pan-fried duck liver and parmesan cheese risotto

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Dark chocolate ganache served with cocoa sherbert and bitter biscuit powder.  Super rich and decadent!  You’ve been warned!

This was my third visit to L’Atelier de Joel Robuchon and I can honestly say that not only have I never had a bad meal here; I’ve never had a bad dish here.  That’s damn impressive.  So much so that we made dinner reservations for next week.

L’Atelier de Joel Robuchon:  6-10-1 Roppongi, Minato

We exited the restaurant and just happened to stumble upon (okay, I had this scoped out days in advance) the Roppongi Hills Whisky Festival showcasing a bunch of Japanese blended and single malts.

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Hey, check it out!  The Whisky Festival has kicked off at Roppongi Hills.

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The menu

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It’s Whisky and Photobombing Chihuahua Day at Roppongi Hills!

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We made two new friends – three if you count the dog – while sampling whisky.  Alas, we didn’t get their names.  Except for the dog.  His name was Coco.

I sampled the 18 year old Yamazaki (at one third the price of what it cost me for a shot in L.A.) and the 21 year Hibiki.  I’ll be coming back for the Hakushu and Kaku.

After the whisky-tasting, I was feeling nostalgic and melancholy – so I figured a trip to the Mori Art Museum to check out the Charles Schulz retrospective was just the thing.  We filed through the packed rooms and checked out Peanuts arts ranging from early sketch work through the various decades (Akemi: Snoopy went to war?  Me: Yeah.  He killed thirty nazis!).

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Akemi: “Charlie has a humungous face.  How does he support his body?”

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1Ah, good times.  My sister was a huge Snoopy fan – and still has a soft spot for the lovable beagle.  Maybe I’ll bring her back something nice from the gift shop for minding my dogs while we’re away in Tokyo.

Mori Art Museum:  6-10-1 Roppongi, Minato

While in town, I’m thinking of checking out a Japanese movie:

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Didn’t love the manga, but the movie looks suitably creepy.  If I have time, I may check it out.

We returned to the hotel to gather our strength for the night ahead.  A little downtime, a little snack:

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The choux creme from Creme de la Creme at Roppongi Hills.

And we were ready to head out once again:

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One outfit change later and Akemi was ready to go.

We had dinner reservations at Fook Lam Moon, a Chinese restaurant with branches in Hong Kong, Ginza, and Marunouchi.  Akemi and I arrived early so we killed some time…

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Akemi and I killed time by taking a ride on the Disney balloon.

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Tokyo in Christmas mode.

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Interesting art work

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With the release of the new Thor movie, it’s all about the Marvel heroes in Marunouchi.

We dined with Akemi’s family  - mom, dad, brother, sister, and new brother-in-law – and had another great meal.

The Aota clan

The Aota clan

A couple of the highlights:

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Crab meat and bright orange guts

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Pictured above: the siu long bao.

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The waiters prepare the Peking Duck: carving the meat and trimming the fat.

Fook Lam Moon: 36/F Marunouchi Building, 2-4-1 Marunouchi, Chiyoda-ku,

Despite all we had accomplished on the day, it was still early so we had one more stop to make before turning in for the night.  We headed to Ginza and my home away from home: Star Bar.  It was great to see the old gang!

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Master Kishi-san

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It’s been a year since my last visit but I didn’t even need to order.  I sat down and, a couple of minutes later, this was presented to me.  Perfect.

Yamazaki-san does his thing:

Rounding out the crew is Yoshida-san who recommended a terrific bourbon: Rowan's Creek.

Rounding out the crew is Yoshida-san who recommended a terrific bourbon: Rowan’s Creek.

Star Bar: Sankosha Building B1F, 1-5-13 Ginza, Tokyo

Whew.  What a day!

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It would seem that my mother’s opinion of Japan has taken a drastic u-turn after she watched the Tokyo episode of Anthony Bourdain’s Parts Unknown.  I assured her that not all – in fact, I’d venture to say very few – Japanese women choose careers as skimpily-clad performance artists in robot theater.  Also, I had no imminent plans to join any sadomasochistic rope-binding clubs.  I’m not sure I convinced her though.  Yesterday, instead of ending our phone conversation with her customary “Have fun!”, she opted for the infinitely more foreboding: “Be careful!”.

Somewhat along the same lines…Did you know that it’s impossible to take a discreet picture with your cell phone in Japan.  The other night, my dining companion, Tomomi, expressed nothing short of awe at my ability to snap photos of the food without making a sound.  I explained that all she had to do was switch her phone to silent mode but, apparently, there is no such thing as silent mode in Japan.  When it comes to taking pictures on your cell phone anyway.  This fact was confirmed the next day at lunch when one of our fellow customers tried taking a photo of her sushi – and ended up drawing the attention of the entire room when her phone emitted a sound akin to a sound effect for fairy dust being sprinkled.  What gives?  Well, according to Akemi, perverts ruined it for everyone.  Isn’t it always the way?  Apparently, upskirt photos became pandemic that the authorities stepped in and passed a law to stem the flow.  Now, if you’re going to snap a photo of someone’s panties riding the escalator one floor up, someone is gonna know!  Unless, of course, you have one of those stealth phones.  Like I do.

Well, yesterday I spent the day with my friend Moro-san visiting Kamakura, a small and quaint city in Kanagawa Prefecture notable for its temples, shrines, giant statue, and the exact same chocolate cake with a side of whipped cream that is served at every restaurant and cafe in the area.

Four subway transfers later, I arrived!

Four subway transfers later, I arrived!

We had lunch a tiny Italian restaurant.  Check out the menu.  Decisions, decisions.

We had lunch a tiny Italian restaurant. Check out the menu. Decisions, decisions.

Ojizo-osama.  According to Akemi "Statues with different meanings.  Usually good luck thing I guess."

Ojizo-osama. According to Akemi “Statues with different meanings. Usually good luck thing I guess.”

The temple grounds.

The temple grounds.

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According to Moro-san, they're especially fond of creampuffs.

According to Moro-san, they’re especially fond of creampuffs.

According to Akemi, this gets turned the 18th of every month.  Why?  "I don't know."

According to Akemi, this gets turned the 18th of every month. Why? “I don’t know.”

Kamakura.  View from the hilltop.

Kamakura. View from the hilltop.

That's what SHE said!

That’s what SHE said!

The giant bronze Buddha

The giant bronze Buddha

All aboard the party bus!

All aboard the party bus!

We stopped off for a pre-dinner snack where I enjoyed a very beery beer ice cream and a bite of Moro-san’s lavender ice cream that tasted like that time I was accidentally sprayed in the mouth while cutting through my local department store’s women’s perfume section.  Then, about an hour later, we had dinner.

We capped off our day with drinks at a bar called En in Yokohama. Owned and operated by master mixologist Endo, it’s a small place and homey watering hole with an astounding selection of booze.  We were the first ones in and, over the hour and a half we were there, a half dozen other clients made their way in – all regulars.  Moro-san introduced me and I ended up chatting with all of them, alternating between English and Japanese as I knocked back 12 year old Yamazaki and Four Roses Single Barrel.

Bar En: 4 Chome-180 Motomachi, Naka Ward, Yokohama.

Yokohama by night.

Yokohama by night.

By the time I got back to my hotel in Tokyo – a little over an hour later – I was exhausted.  But Akemi was on hand to greet me in her very special way.  With a welcome back hug?  A kiss?  Even better!  Check it out -

A Hattendo cream bun.

A Hattendo cream bun.

The perfect way to end my night.

5 Heartwarming Soldier and Dog Reunions in Honor of Veteran’s Day

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Poor white dress shirt planning.  That’s what it came down to.  The occasion called for a black suit, white dress shirt, and white(ish) tie and I was ready.  I traveled with not one but TWO white dress shirts (I’m not an idiot after all).  Of course, it didn’t dawn on me until this morning that I happened to wear my back-up dress shirt on the flight over (Scratch that previous comment), so I had only the one.  The one that fit comfortably enough until you fastened the top button.  As a result, I wasn’t so much wearing a tie as I was sporting a tourniquet, intermittently loosening my collar throughout the day to relieve the pressure and restore blood flow to my brain.  But far be it for me to complain.  This was going to be my first Japanese wedding and I wasn’t about to make it about me.  Until, of course, the reception.

For her part, Akemi picked up a smashing outfit for her sister’s wedding.  Unfortunately, she learned too late that tradition forbade her from exposing her shoulders so she got to wear the new dress for all of the twenty minutes it took us to go from our hotel to the Hotel New Otani -where she changed into a much more modest kimono.

Akemi brought this dress for the wedding...which it turned out she couldn't wear because her shoulders were exposed.  So, kimono it is!

So, kimono it is!

I'm rarin' to go.

I’m rarin’ to go.

At the New Otani, I killed about an hour – and a chocolate parfait – cooling my heels while Akemi got her hair done and got packed into her kimono which is, apparently, a to-do.

It's a two-woman job.

It’s a two-woman job.

By the time she was done, Akemi could barely breathe.  And using the bathroom would be out of the question for the next seven hours so drinking was a no-no.  But she did look great!

Akemi and her mom, dressed for the occasion.

Akemi and her mom, dressed for the occasion.

We met up and were shuttled into a room where “some” of the photographs were being taken.  In fact, this room turned out to be the first of many, many photography rooms.

The groom and bride in their traditional Japanese wedding wear.

The groom and bride in their traditional Japanese wedding wear.

Watch the kimono!

Okay, just a sip.  Watch the kimono!

Akemi's father is always genki

Akemi’s father is always genki

Akemi's brother = also genki.

Akemi’s brother = also genki.

Kimono fashion

Kimono fashion

Turns out the woman on the left is a huge Stargate fan - while the woman in the right is a huge fan of my grilled cheese sandwich video.

Turns out the woman on the left is a huge Stargate fan – while the woman in the right is a huge fan of my grilled cheese sandwich video.

We were ushered out of the room and into the hallway to meet a dignitary and the wedding guest of honor: Genshitsu (Soshitsu XV), Grand Master XV, President of the Urasenke Tankokai Federation, President of the Junior College of the Urasenke Way of Tea at the Tianjin University of Commerce, UNESCO Goodwill Ambassador, and President of the United Nations Association of Japan.  At 90!  Other attendees gathered giddily around him as if he was a rock star.  When we were introduced, I felt like I was meeting the Stan Lee of Chado, the Way of Tea.  Like Stan the Man who I met way back at the upfronts in Pasadena when SG-1 was celebrating its 200th episode, the Grand Master exuded warmth and charisma, giving me a surprisingly firm handshake and happily congratulating me – in Stan’s case, for the show’s 200th anniversary; in this case, for presumably dating the bride-to-be’s sister.

We were ushered back into our room and, following a short wait, a woman entered and delivered detailed instructions on the upcoming ceremony – which, according to Akemi, broke down as follows: “Bow twice, poom poom (clap) twice, bow again.”

“When?”I asked her.  “Where?  Who?”

She offered a shrug by way of response and then motioned me toward the other family members heading out the door single file.  I joined the procession, following them down the hall to an antechamber where water was poured over our hands after which we were offered a paper towel with which to dry them.  Then, it was into the adjoining room.

The bride and groom’s closest family members (and yours truly) were seated on opposite sides of a stage.  Musicians played a flute and another instrument that wasn’t.  The Shinto equivalent of the minister/priest/justice of the peace presided.  He intoned.  The music played.  The bride and groom stepped up and bowed twice, clapped twice, and bowed once again.  We all did the same although I was, admittedly, taken off guard and missed the first bow.  I hope no one noticed.  I sat with my hands in my lap until Akemi motioned to everyone else seated with their hands on their knees, so I did the same – except not exactly, as Akemi was forced to demonstrate the proper technique.  I followed suit, forming my hands into fists and laying them palm down on my knees.  But that wasn’t right either.  Again, Akemi had to show me and, finally, I got it, tucking my thumbs under my closed fingers.  It took me so long to get this part down that I kept my thumbs tucked securely in my fists resting palm down on my knees long after everyone else on stage had relaxed.

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The ceremony ended.  The bride and groom left.  And then everyone introduced themselves.  One by one, they went through the groom’s family, every family member rising to let the room know a little about themselves and their relation to Hiroshi-san.  My mind scrambled to come up with something I could say by way of an introduction.  In Japanese.  I was thinking something along the lines of: “Konnichi wa. Joe desu. Canada kara kimashita.  Anime dai suki!” = “Hello.  I’m Joe. I came from Canada.  I love anime!”.  In the end, Akemi’s father wound up making the introductions for the bride’s side of the family and all that was required of me was a stand and bow that I accomplished without incident – but, on the other hand, without demonstrating any real aptitude either.

From there, it was off the banquet hall where we handed over our gift envelope and signed our names.   In hiragana.  With a calligraphy pen. I’d practiced last night.  But, evidently, not enough…

One of these things is not like the others.

My “ro” needs work.

Then, it was into the banquet hall for the reception.

400 of the newlyweds' closest friends and family.

400 of the newlyweds’ closest friends and family.

But first, some speeches.  By a famed news anchor.  By a business partner.  By the Grand Master who extolled the virtues of green tea. And there was even a speech by the chef!  An hour later, it was time to eat.

And, I have to admit, it was the best wedding food I’ve ever had.  A couple of the highlights:

Symphony of the Sea: lobster, crab, and caviar.

Symphony of the Sea: lobster, crab, and caviar.

Melon cake with vanilla ice cream and red fruit coulis.

Melon cake with vanilla ice cream and red fruit coulis.

Throughout the reception, the bride underwent a series of transformations, changing outfits every half hour or so, going from the traditional Japanese wedding dress to a kimono to a contemporary wedding dress to a colorful wedding dress to, of course, mecha-robo, and finally to a wild ensemble that could have come from the Charlie and the Chocolate Factory set dec sale.

Unlike every other wedding I’ve been to, there was no dance music – much less any dancing.  Instead, the tunes, a variety ranging from classical to J-Pop, accompanied the meal and various entrances. At one point, believe or not, they actually played the theme to Stargate SG-1. I like to think it was for my benefit – although I seemed to be the only one to recognize it.

Meanwhile, Akemi and I worked the room, meeting friends and relatives, all of whom were exceedingly kind and very interested in taking our picture.  Whenever we approached a table, everyone would stand and bow.  I would bow in response.  They would introduce themselves and say “Dozo yoroshiku” which roughly translates to “Pleased to meet you.”  And I would introduce myself (“Joe desu”) and say “Dozo yoroshiku” – at which point everyone would chuckle goodheartedly.  “Why is everyone laughing at my dozo yoroshiku?”I asked Akemi who could barely contain herself.  “Because,”she said. “You’re so cute.”  I sincerely doubt that was the reason.

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I meet a Japanese blog-reader: Kato-san.

The bride's kindergarten friends, Akemi, and Haruhiko.

The bride’s kindergarten friends, Akemi, and Haruhiko.

The festivities wrapped up a little before 8:00 p.m. (tomorrow’s a work day after all!) although, by the time the last guest made their way through the “what’s the opposite of a receiving line?”, it was closer to 9:15.

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The bride and groom.  Harajuku-bound? 

From there, we scurried back upstairs so Akemi could change and we could finally make our way back to our hotel.

I must admit, it was quite a wedding.  Not sure how you top that!

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