Toma celebrated his fourth birthday today. We had a wonderful steak dinner and he enjoyed a special birthday cake.
While Tokyo is a mega-city with endless, top-quality food options, it is the ubiquitous neighborhood restaurants, cafes and bars that offer a uniquely local Japanese experience. And, one benefit of exploring our new “home town” is finding these delightful places to relax and enjoy drinks and food.
The traditional place to drink in Japan is called an “izakaya.” Though they are often likened to pubs, they bear little resemblance to the local bars found in the United States.
The best izakaya are characteristically small and crowded with “regular” customers. They specialize in serving premium quality sake and small plate offerings usually made with ingredients carefully sourced by the proprietor.
On our recent visit to the Yushima Tenjin shrine in the Ueno area we visited an izakaya named Shinsuke that was highly recommended by our good friends Ron and Yumi Dearth. It did not disappoint.
Shinsuke is a classic traditional izakaya located in the old shitamachi district of Ueno. The family owners have been in the sake business for eleven generations since 1924.
We waited outside with a few of the “regulars” until the 5:00pm opening. It was clear from the time we entered that it would be a unique drinking and dining experience. The character and atmosphere of the place bespoke history, quality and welcoming comfort. The service was attentive, the drink and food outstanding.
I particularly enjoyed my first-time sample of Taru sake, a dry Japanese sake characterized by its refreshing taste and the wooden aroma of Yoshino cedar.
Our meal consisted of wonderful perfect Japanese comfort food –– a refreshing organic daikon salad with scallops and citrus, the best Norway smoked salmon I have ever eaten, and a very tasty minced pork cutlet. I shared some of Keiko’s beer to savor the pork dish.
We had been away for a long while and needed to return home or we would have spent more time in this truly magical place. Our sincere thanks to Ron and Yumi. We will return to Shinsuke and begin a search for other Tokyo epicurean delights.
Earlier that afternoon we had another delightful dining experience as Keiko discovered a small stylish café called Mijinko in the charming Yushima neighborhood a short walk from the shrine. Minjinko is a café/bar and the interior décor projects a museum-like calming atmosphere with paintings and books everywhere.
The coffee freshly roasted from very high-quality beans, is exceptional and is complemented by a selection of cakes and hand-made sandwiches. I had a latte and a delicious piece of cheesecake.
The signature menu attractions however are their soft and airy pancakes made with a batter that includes cultured butter and served with maple syrup and a honey and mascarpone-topped version of French toast. We did not order either item but after seeing other customers receive their orders, we are going back to sample them in the near future.
The efficient and pleasant service matches the quality of the coffee and food, but be prepared to wait. The coffee drink preparation is not rushed. The pancakes or French Toast take 15-20 minutes to prepare. Everything is made to order with great care, so relax and enjoy the experience.
On Wednesday, February 5 Keiko and I, along with good friend Mikako Nishikawa the Yushima Tenjin Shrine. The picturesque shrine, dating back to 1478, is full of beautiful plum trees and sits on a high hilltop near Tokyo’s Ueno Park.
The purpose of our visit was to pray for our niece Mai who will soon be taking an exam to gain entry to the high school of her choice. Her academic, athletic and creative talents and experience speaks well for her continuing success and a bright future. She is among the top three students in her junior high school and served as the school’s student organization President.
Tenjin is the name of the deified spirit of the famous ninth century scholar Michizane Sugawara (845-903), a Heian Period high government official who is worshiped as the god of learning.
Yushima Tenjin, like all Tenjin shrines throughout Japan, is a scholar’s shrine. It is visited annually by thousands of students, and their family and friends, before an examination to pray for passing grades, a very competitive process to gain entry to the schools of choice. Students inscribe ema (small wooden votive tablets) with petitions to Michizane Sugawara’s spirit for success in examinations. The ema are then hung on special racks seen throughout the shrine.
I found it interesting that the ema depicts a picture of Michizane riding a cow, discovering a large bronze statue of a cow as I toured the shrine’s gardens. Known as a nade-ushi (“stroking cow”), it is believed to be the servant of the god Tenjin and that touching the cow will cure physical ills.
The shrine buildings are constructed in the shaden style of architecture entirely from Japanese cedar featuring brightly painted carvings of scenes from Japanese legend and surrounded by beautifully landscaped gardens. A highlight of the gardens are the hundreds of plum trees displaying magnificently colorful plum blossoms (ume).
The plum blossoms prompted memories of the two beautiful plum trees that populated our home property on Crystal Lake in Gray Maine. They were prominent features of our Japanese garden landscape along with a majestic Japanese weeping maple tree. It is wonderful now to live Tokyo, a city with so many natural and beautiful landscapes to enjoy.
We will return to Yushima Tenjin later this month for the spectacular spring blossom festival when the 300 trees of 20 different varieties are in full bloom.
There is also another Yushima Tenjin festival held on May 25. It is marked by drumming, dancing, and excited hoisting of Yushima Tenjin’s portable shrine, or omikoshi.
Yesterday Keiko and I celebrated Setsubun with thousands of our neighbors and other Tokyoites at the Nishiarai Daishi-Sojiji Temple. It was great fun but not exactly what we anticipated. (It was Keiko’s first experience as well.)
A very large crowd stood quietly in the Temple courtyard listening to the Buddhist monks saying the sutras accompanied by rhythmic drums and flutes. Then, the monks accompanied by politicians, athletes and entertainment celebrities, paraded along an especially constructed platform throwing soy beans, candies and amulets to the assembled crowds below.
The most recognized “bean thrower” star attractions were definitely the sumo wrestlers and TV personalities. On leaving we walked into the temple garden area to be greeted by an early display of plum tree blossoms, a sign that spring is on the way.
Later, having done the ritual bean throwing and a trip to our local spa, we enjoyed a quiet dinner at home. We began by standing and facing south-west to begin eating our special eco-maki rolls. Keiko also made a tasty crab miso soup and I drank a traditional Japanese New Year’s bottle of sake with floating flakes of gold. I then scattered toasted soybeans around our apartment to be sure the demons got the message!
It was great fun watching the SuperBowl on Japan TV (Monday 2/3 @8:30AM JST). We could access the English-language play-by-play on the audio sub-channel function of our tv. It was one of the better games and it didn’t feature the Patriots. Sadly, at least for this event, there were no commercials. The only thing I missed was my traditional “SuperBowl” chilli. Wait till next year.