When Japan opened up to the Western world in the end of the 1860′s, it didn’t take long for western things, customs and manners to be adopted by the Japanese. One such thing was the concept of a bar. The first western style drinking bar opened up in Asakusa in 1880 and it is still there, Kamiya Bar, with three floors, a restaurant and even an outside bar, right on the street corner near the famous Kaminarimon gate. A lot of the hip young creatives would go to drink there until the war and the bar has featured in many novels and even movies. To tourists it is mostly known for the unique brand of brandy, the Denki Bran, a mix of all sorts of liquor creating quite a special taste. At 30 or 40% (there are two varieties) it can be difficult to drink straight but its also popular in different long drink and even cocktails. Even though it absolutely unique, a true Tokyo and Asakusa souvenir and quite nice, it is really dirt cheap. I can’t remember how much I paid for this bottle but it is almost criminally cheap! Absolutely the souvenir to take home if you have friends that are into unusual liquor.
Kamiya bar is easy to find. Just stand in front of the Kaminarimon, facing it. Turn about right, and walk along the road until you have the bar on your left, about 100m.
The name is a combination of the word for electricity and the word for brandy. In 1882 when the drink was invented electricity was the cool new thing and almost all major brands that started in this period of Japanese modernization had the word electric or electricity somewhere in their names.
And for no real reason I also post a cherry blossom photo!
I am a sucker for new soft drinks, and as much as I try to stay away from commercial stuff I can’t help but following all the new flavors put out by Pepsi and Fanta. Here’s a shining new star in the Fanta family – the Fanta Ume. Ume is the Japanese plum that is inedible to humans as a fruit but delicious when properly prepared, for example as pickled sour umeboshi or as a super sweet umeshu, ume liqueur. This one however is not sour at all, but sweet, very similar to the Apple flavored Fanta. Easily one of the best Fanta flavors ever, I give it four and a half fruits of five possible – it would have scored perfectly if it had been a bit more sour or even vinegary in taste. Still, it will be hard to go back to normal boring orange or grape Fanta after this.
By the way, I really wish Fanta would sponsor me for writing about these things. One can dream…?
Japan is full of cities, towns and villages and they all have one thing in common – the ever present shoutengai. A shougtengai can be translated as a shopping street, a place where many little shops and stores crowd together to attract customers from all over the neighborhood. They all have their own ruling committees, quirks and specialities and one of the quirkiest must be the shoutengai in Daishimachi, the are right in front of the huge Kawasaki Daishi near the border to Tokyo. This is the place to stock up on traditional sweets, good luck charms, daruma dolls and all manner of semi-religious trinkets and cookies! If you’re in the area to visit the big temple, make sure to take the little detour and approach it from the shoutengai.
The speciality here to look out for is hard to miss, it is the traditional sweet and very sticky tontoko-ame, a nougat-like white paste that takes its name from the unmistakable tontoko-tontoko sounding hacking boards of the men who cut them up from long strings on big wooden slabs. The rival stores up and down the street will engage in a rhythmic cutting match, trying to overdo each other and attract customers at the same time. Actually, when they are waiting for the next batch of tontoko-paste they just hammer the cutting boards with the handles of their knives, making even more noise. Some of the rhythms are very catchy! The tontoko-ame is easily one of the best souvenirs you can get in the whole of Kanagawa prefecture!
One of the best things you can do in Tokyo is to get lost. I was wandering the back streets of Tokyo’s Asakusa district, just a few streets west of the famous Sensoji temple, and briefly lost my bearings. In one of the little back streets that I walked through once I had determined the correct route back to the station I suddenly came across this store, a specialist in miso, that superbly Japanese food you’ll get served in one form or another in almost every meal or restaurant throughout the country. These days most Japanese buy their miso from the supermarket but in the good old days people used to make their own and every village had their own special taste or variety of miso paste. The Mankyu Misoten (万久味噌店) has been in business in the same spot since 1804 and the current master is the sixth generation to continue selling all kinds of things related to miso. To be honest, the store looked so much like a large whole seller that I really hesitated to enter, until I saw the small sign for ice cream! If a shop sells ice cream, it means they are really happy to have people come in and browse! The store sells miso in large vats of many different varieties. Most customers get very confused by the many choices but since all Japanese grow up with miso there is one surefire way of knowing roughly what variety will suit them best – just ask the customer where they grew up and pick something that is similar to their hometown variety! If you are a foreigner wanting to try making your own miso soup at home – or my favorite, use it as a raw dipping for raw vegetable sticks – you can always start by asking for the Edoama Miso, a light, sweet miso that is native to old Edo, present day Tokyo. After all my years in Japan I have pretty much developed my own tastes when it comes to miso: I want yuzumiso for my vegetables, red miso for my soup and “the darker the better” miso for all kinds of cooking. After half an hour in the shop I exited with a big bag of purchases so now I’m loaded up with the best miso money can buy for the foreseeable future! I also got a bottle of rice vinegar from Kyoto (for making sushi) that I really didn’t need but the wrapping was so beautiful, some miso snacks wrapped in sea weed for my tea time break and of course, ice cream! The store has two kinds of ice cream, Salty Edo and Pepper! I tried the pepper flavored one and it was pure heaven. Easily one of the best alternative ice creams I have ever tried. Even if you don’t like miso, I recommend going to this store just for the ice cream, and of course, the ambiance! I also couldn’t help but sharing these seriously kick-ass daruma dolls, look at those eyebrows!
Oh, and how about the old photo of the store in 1927? They are all so cool! If you are interested in visiting, here’s the Google maps location.