Thursday, 17 February 2011

Rock, paper, scissors pwnage in Yokohama

I spent three days couchsurfing in Yokohama with Hanna and Atsushi. They proved to be most excellent hosts.

The first night we sat on the floor around a table Japanese style and ate a homecooked meal prepared on a portable stove. But not just any table! Japan seems to be a nation that doesn't understand the term 'central heating' but they compensate for this in several ways. One of the most interesting being a heated table. A small circular table covered by a blanket. Underneath an oasis of warmness! So wrap the blanket around your legs and let the warmth wash over you (Well your legs at least)

The meal was delicious. Sukiyaki - Beef, vegetables and noodles cooked on the stove and then dipped into raw egg. Yum.

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I stayed in Hanna and Atsushi's guest room complete with tatami mat, futon and Japanese style slide doors. The apartment was pretty huge by Japanese standards and I felt very comfortable and at home. They were great hosts! We watched some Japanese TV and I was exposed to enka, a traditional style of Japanese singing. This style seemed to involve two key ingredients - blazers and crying. The songs were so emotional that several of the singers were simply overcome and burst into tears, either whilst chatting with the host before they sang, or preferably during the songs themselves. The singers and audience were largely of the 50+ category, with many of the males clad in Alan Partridge style blazers. Back of the net.

The next day it was off to something I was looking forward to a lot. The Ramen Museum! Inside we were straight into an educational talk from a man in a white scientist coat about the history of ramen and how it was made. He frequently quizzed the audience in the manner of a university lecturer testing slightly disinterested pupils. We got to try several of the ingredients that make up ramen and got to see several quite excellent graphs and visual aids. In fact I'd have to say visual aids seem quite an important part of presentation in Japan. Watching the news the evening before with English translations, we got to see a variety of props to help illustrate the erruption of a volcano earlier that day. Several of them were somewhat amateurish in their appearance, but to me that added to the charm.

Downstairs was a couple of fake streets from 1950s Tokyo, complete with sound effects and people in period dress. It was quite a fun diversion, but there was something I was here for.

Must. Eat. Ramen.

Eight different shops from around Japan were represented and you could even buy a small bowl, giving you the stomach space to sample more than one.

First, on Hanna's suggestion, we tried a Miso Ramen. It was my first miso ramen of the trip and I liked the little added kick to the taste. This one also came with some nice spice and was an enjoyable bowl.

Next was onto a bowl from the town of Kawagoe in Saitama. It was somewhat of a coincidence that this shop was represented as I'd visited their main venue the week before. The shop was called Gangya and was run by Japanese rasta guys. I'd visited the shop with Brian, a man who loves ramen and who's knowledge of the food and Japanese food in general is extensive. I'd become a big fan of Brian's Ramen Adventures blog and had mailed him to ask if I could join him for lunch sometime.

The shop in Kawagoe was interesting. It was tiny, seating only 11 people and servied meals in sittings. 11 people gave their order at the door and were then seated. Whilst they were eating, the next 11 gave their order and all went in together when everyone had finished. The popularity of the shop and its small size meant that we waited perhaps 45 minutes to be seated, but it was worth it. I asked Brian to choose and he selected the tsukemen, a bowl of thick noodles that you dip into the broth yourself. This particular broth was extremely fishy and absolutely delicious.

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I ate as fast as I could, but I was still the last person to finish in our sitting. As Brian describes on his blog, he had to rush to another part of town to give an English lesson so wolfed his bowl down in record time before running to the train station.

Afterwards I had a chance to wander around Kawagoe and check out some of the old buildings. It had a nice old town with some peaceful temples, graveyards and a wooden tower that reminded me of playing the computer game Age of Empires.

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I was delighted to get another chance to try the tsukemen. And whilst not quite as good as I remember the bowl tasting out in Kawagoe, it was still delicious.

Belly full, it was time to think about moving on. In the fake town square, a group of people gathered and standing on the periphery, I was drawn in.

It seems there was some kind of rock, paper scissors championship about to take place. A trophy appeared to be on offer for the winner and I wanted to win it and take it back to Europetown. We were split into three teams. The leader of my team was a homely looking lady in a kind of chef outfit. The two other leaders were a schoolgirl and a scary old clown man. An MC stood on a box directing proceedings and we were away.

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I was expecting this thing to be over in a few minutes but it turned into an endurance fest. We went through several rounds of matches trying to gather as many small flags as we could. Occasionally there were double or even triple flag rounds, but I was getting my arse kicked. Hanna later told me that people play rock, paper scissors in Japan from a very young age, so I was clearly at a disadvantage much as a Japanese person would be if they played me at conkers.

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I did not win the trophy, but at the end of the game (which probably lasted half hour), I felt like I'd had a physical and mental work out!

One of the things I'd wanted to do on this trip was to visit Cosmoworld - A small theme park in the centre of Yokohama that featured in one of my favourite music videos of all time. Motorcycle Emptiness by the Manic Street Preachers.

Sadly, for a reason that I do not know, the park was closed so I didn't get to have the chance to be a geeky fanboy and try to recreate scenes from the video.

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I consoled myself by walking through Chinatown. Yokahama has a pretty large Chinatown and it was cool to take an early evening stroll and enjoy the atmosphere. A TV news crew were filming something there so I snapped a picture.

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Later on that evening, Hanna and Atsushi took me to somewhere that I'd have never found myself. The entrance was non-descript. It looked like a garage. Well it was basically a garage.

Inside was a bar, but a bar with a difference. This particular joint was run by two 80 year old ladies and it was a bar serving only one drink - SAKE! And to add to the lack of choice, only one kind of sake was on offer. This was my kind of place!

The premise was simple, you were allowed up to three glasses maximum - which were poured out of a large teapot by the waiter. As you were drinking, you could enjoy snacks - I don't think you got to choose which ones. After three drinks, that was it, you weren't allowed to drink any more. The place also closed at around 10pm. This was responsible drinking and we sat on the tatami, enjoyed our snacks and sake with the business guys and other regular customers. It was pretty awesome and something I will remember fondly from my trip.

Thanks Hanna and Atsushi!

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