We met up with my very good friend Naoko at Tokyo Dome and joined the queue to enter the Furosato Matsuri (hometown food festival). This festival is extremely popular and is held in January every year. I'd been twice before but Naoko had never heard of it even though she lives in Tokyo!
Japanese people often like to visit their families and home town over the New Year holiday, but many are unable to, so this event enables them to eat local foods as well as try specialities from other regions.
Thankfully, Naoko had secured us tickets weeks ago and already got us a good deal which meant we could save 600 yen each on a ticket AND get in quickly. The queue was a chance to introduce her to Man, and since they share a wicked sense of humour they hit it off immediately.
Once inside this immense space we shuffled our way down the aisles, taking advantage of the numerous free samples on offer and buying things here and there to either eat on the spot or save for later.
Aisles were organised by region, so there were clusters of stalls featuring local specialities such as mikan (orange-like citrus fruit), green tea and garlic (the garlic wine was...interesting!). A lot of the stallholders were real characters who went out of their way to offer as many samples as you wanted, with very little pressure to buy.
As a vegan my choices were somewhat limited, but Naoko and Man enjoyed many foods from around Japan. Despite the crowds, some stalls were quiet while others were obviously more well known and had long lines of people waiting patiently for their delicacies.
Before we left, we watched some of the 'Nebuta Matsuri' performance from Aomori prefecture. This famous festival features a huge float made from paper stretched over a bamboo frame which is carried by about 20 men. Women and children perform a jumping dance while taiko drums pound out a strong beat and everybody shouts a repeated chant to encourage visitors to watch. This was particularly nostalgic for Naoko as she had seen this festival many times as a child, when visiting her grandmother.
We took the Metro to Sangenjaya to show Man a view of Tokyo from the 26th floor of Carrot Tower. Whilst not the best city view of Tokyo, this one is special because Naoko can point out her house from it! Afterwards we fulfilled Man's sushi dreams at the sushi-go-round downstairs.
After saying goodbye to Naoko we decided to head to nearby Shibuya so Man could experience the famous Scramble Crossing.
Little did we know another fabulous and jaw-dropping moment awaited us - in Uniqlo there are now self-service checkouts where you put your basket full of clothes into the 'bagging area' and it automatically tots up your bill!!! How???! And why can't we have things like that in the UK?
Amazed, we took the Yamanote line train a few stops to Shinjuku to check out some nightlife in the Golden Gai district. Because I often come to Japan on my own or with my daughter, I've not really explored Tokyo's bars much, so this was new for both of us.
We wanted to find somewhere really off the beaten track and the first place was a Kyoto-style izakaya bar serving Kyoto food and drinks. You have to be careful in Japan as a lot of places have a cover charge for entry which can be extortionate and you may not realise until you leave! This place clearly stated its cover charge, which wasn't too much and included a small snack.
We ordered two types of sake, some tofu dishes and green tea noodles, via an iPad with each ingredient listed on the menu so we could be sure they were vegan - another great innovation as usually it's a lucky (or unlucky) dip with many dishes harbouring meat or fish somewhere.
Moving on, we found a side street so tiny it felt like we were in someone's kitchen with towels, pots and pans and glasses stacked up next to outdoor taps on the dirt floor. It was hard to believe we were in the centre of one of the busiest areas of Tokyo as we wove our way down the dark alley with the only light coming from tiny bars here and there.
We spotted an open door with some rickety stairs leading to who knew where, and dared each other to see what was at the top...
It was a minuscule bar, empty and quiet, with an elderly owner who looked like he hadn't seen a customer in years! Having climbed the stairs we had no choice but to give it a go, and what a gem it turned out to be!
The owner put on some Otis Reading but was rather unforthcoming with a vague wave at a few bottles when we asked what sake he had. However, when we asked which one he would recommend he became animated and pulled more out from under the counter. He was very generous with his 'tasters' and we felt we had almost had enough before we'd ordered anything! We picked several varieties which were served in large glasses filled to the brim, then the owner proceeded to give us numerous, random snacks from here and there on his shelves until we politely said we were full.
We got chatting, with me translating to Man, and ended up having a really lovely time with our generous host over several hours, during which no other customers came in. There were no prices displayed, so I muttered to Man that I was fully expecting to get fleeced by the cover charge, as well as the snacks and brim full sake glasses - these were regularly refilled with ever more special sake which kept appearing from under the counter. Our 75 year old host also enjoyed generous helpings of 'tasters' and glasses of sake with us, and provided a variety of cool music from Nina Simone to Jimi Hendrix.
When we tentatively asked for the bill, he ummed and ahhed for a bit then plucked a number from midair and asked if it was ok. It definitely was!
What a fun day and evening seeing many facets of Tokyo life. Tomorrow is Man's birthday so I'm sure we will have many more adventures to look forward to x
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I started Japan Crafts in 2006 and have been bringing wonderful fabrics and techniques to people in the UK ever since.