Overview of Japan posts:
Japan 1: Welcome to Tokyo! (and a killer okonomiyaki)
Japan 2: Yokohama and Omuraisu
Japan 3: What Makes Japan One Of A Kind
Japan 4: Special Japanese Neighborhoods + Those Famous Food Floors
Japan 5: A Gourmet Japanese Lunch + Roppongi Hills
Japan 6: Kyoto (1st installment, 2nd installment)
Japan 7: Disneyland and DisneySea
Japan 8: Tsukiji Fish Market & Tsukiji neighborhood
Barely getting our bearings in Tokyo, Yappi whisks us off to Yokohama, Japan’s second-largest city. It’s a perfect day trip from Tokyo since it’s only about a 30-minute bullet train ride from the capital. Riding several buses and trains today, it’s true what they say that Japan is one of the cleanest and most punctual cities in the world. The train stations themselves are like little self-sustaining cities complete with kiosks that sell onigiri (rice balls), beverages, and everything else to make one’s journey pleasant and painless.
It’s still early, so there aren’t any signs of that mad crush of humanity often seen in photos of Japanese train stations. If the stations themselves were pictures of cleanliness and modernity, I should’ve prepared myself for the trains themselves. Looking like bullets with their pointed fronts, the inside of a train is reminiscent of a plane ”“ look at the photos below and tell me you don’t agree. All around, commuters are seated tucking into their breakfasts packed into compact bento boxes and quaffing down some biru (beer). Boo and I can’t contain our newfound pleasure at the rice balls stuffed with gyuniku (beef).
Good thing we stuffed ourselves with sustenance because we’re doing a lot of walking at Zoorasia, a massive zoo with habitats for its 60 species recreated based on their regions and climate zones: Asian Tropical Forest Zone, the Sub Arctic Forest Zone, the Oceanic Grassland Zone, the Central Asian Highland Zone, the Japanese Countryside Zone and the Amazon Jungle Zone.
The zoo itself is a lovely stroll, plenty of green and picnic areas and playgrounds, though I need to avoid getting hit by strollers or running over somebody else with my stroller ”“ Boo has decided to resurrect her oft-forgotten (now too-small) set of wheels and is enjoying the ride while my Bin and I take turns huffing and puffing behind her.
Boo in her stroller . I wish they’d make adult strollers, but then again, I guess those would be called wheelchairs, eh?
Some of the animals we see at Zoorasia:
Feeding time at the zoo
It’s hot today, almost 28°C, almost as hot as Manila though not as humid. With the midday heat bearing down on us, we scamper into the Aussie Hill restaurant for lunch. Looking and operating like a cafeteria, we take our places at a line that stretches out the door. Thankfully, it’s moving quickly and before we know it we’re at the head. Picking our choices from a (thankfully!) illustrated menu, we eat a meal composed of victuals commonly known in Japan as cafeteria food.
There’s the popular ramen and udon in a Kikkoman-based soup made with dashi, as well as a bowl of tempura udon…
… and a Japanese hamburger steak blanketed in a thick gravy. This dish was very good, and not like the usual American hamburger.
… and a new discovery, omu-raisu (also omuraisu, omurice). Quite simply, it’s a rice-ketchup or rice-curry sauce covered with an omelet and doused with either a curry sauce or gravy. It looks simple enough to make ”“ fry rice, make omelet and put on top of rice ”“ but I’ve read articles explaining how the more skilled will shimmy and “gyrate” the pan until the omelet has wrapped itself around the rice. Throughout my travel in Japan, I’ve even seen the omelet draped in a crescent form around the rice. Lordy. Whatever presentation it is, this omuraisu captures my heart with two simple ingredients that I love dearly: rice and eggs. Satisfying to the core, ketchup or its accompanying brown sauce is contentment on a plate.
As I eat, I can’t help but think that this food tastes exactly like the Japanese food back in Manila. And then I remember: of course it tastes the same because the Japanese ingredients are the same! (Dashi, mirin, Kikkoman, et al.)
Japanese sense of humor
Whizzing through another train station on our way to Minato Mirai, a main area in Yokohama, I see a coffeeshop that stops me dead in my tracks:
Its name, Coffee Shop Cute, is so… erm, “cute”, that I call out to my Bin and his sisters to stop while I snap a photo for giggle purposes. That’s the Japanese sense of humor for you. I don’t get to peek inside to determine for myself whether the interiors are cute as well, but I’ve no doubt they are.
A few stations away, Yappi points out Doutor to me, the Japanese counterpart of Starbucks. She explains that Starbucks had a tough time making it in Japan because of Doutor which has been around since the 1950s. Both coffeeshops now have their followers and besides, choice is always good.
Train stations in Japan are a good place to get lost in or pass the day away. At the very least, I know I’ll never go hungry. There are supermarkets, gourmet stores, and loads of food counters to please my every whim. There’s a sushi counter selling unsliced rolls of maki sushi, a stall selling various types of tea, and a large, fluorescent-lit space gleaming with all sorts of meals-to-go. Yappi points out the rice rolls made with yuba, soy milk skin, perfect with sake, freshly grated wasabi, and tsuyu (dipping sauce). With all the variety of packaged meals here, I don’t wonder anymore why the Japanese don’t cook at home so often. After all, if all these stores are aching to feed you, why not give in?
Minato Mirai 21
Minato Mirai 21, which means “Port Future 21,” sits on a landfill reclaimed from old dockland that’s been converted into a wealth of entertainment spots, convention centers, museums, plush hotels, and shopping centers. Japan’s tallest skyscraper, the Landmark Tower, holds court here, and it also boasts the world’s fastest elevator ”“ 45km/hr straight up to the pinnacle of this 972-ft building. Connected to the Landmark Tower is Queen’s Square, a shopping center that is huge but relatively empty (of stores). It reminds me of a skating rink, with people gliding by on their way to the Tokyu Toyoko/Minato Mirai train line. In the near distance is the Yokohama Cosmoworld amusement part where the king is obviously, the towering Ferris wheel.
All this walking has worn out our feet so we take a breather in Kihachi, an Italian place. It’s appropriately elegant and sedate for its clientele composed mainly of upscale executives. At 4:00 in the afternoon, the restaurant is serving tea and desserts, perfect refreshments for our souls and a respite from the heat.
As Yappi orders the Opera Cake, I almost want to say, “No, not that!” (I have yet to meet an Opera Cake that I like) but remembering those dreamy custard filled strawberries and how I almost missed them because of my ignorance, I keep my mouth shut, and again, I’m proven wrong. Kihachi’s Opera Cake is, like the operas it’s inspired by, a theatrical presentation and revelation of chocolate and sponge cake, their flavors accented with a whisper of coffee in the soaking syrup and buttercream. There are other sweets too, an éclair paired with a fruit compote, the poached pear meticulously peeled, its lush flesh twinkling under the lights, and goblets of iced coffee, their milky swirls creating temporary mosaics in the liquid.