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Some Bad Ass Books on Japanese History

In Japanese Castles, Japanese Food, Japanese History, Travel in Japan on March 30, 2013 at 8:08 am

Make that… on Edo/Tōkyō History specifically.

For my series on place names in Tōkyō, I often scour the interwebs for old maps of Edo so I can get a feel for the local landscape back in the day. I also constantly refer to a couple of books that I have at home for comparison.

Today, I’d like to share a few of these books with you.

江戸散歩東京散歩 Edo Walk Tokyo Walk

An awesome book for designing historical walking tours of Tokyo!


Japanese bookstores are full of flavor-of-the-month history books, so you should always check the shelves. But this one was definitely cool. (The link is to the new edition, I have the old one).

This book lays out some Edo-centric walking tours you can do around Tōkyō. It includes side by side maps of Edo and Tōkyō as well, so you can plan your own walks and sightseeing adventures. The beauty of the old maps is that they include a legend that breaks down daimyō residences into specific categories (upper, middle and lower residences) and it uses current pen-based writing conventions (for example an original Edo Period map might say 甲ヒ literally Kōhi but actually Kōfu while this book uses the modern 甲府 Kōfu). It also recommends shops and restaurants in certain areas, which is why if you decide to buy it, definitely by the newer edition.

よみがえる江戸城 Edo Castle Resurrected

An awesome book about Japan's biggest and baddest castle!


One of the most disappointing things about living in Tōkyō and loving Japanese history is that the biggest and most important castle of the Edo Period is pretty much gone. All that remain are a few moats, a few gates and bridges and some turrets.

This book is totally bad ass. With maps and pictures (some real, some digital reconstructions) it takes you on a tour Edo Castle building by building. The maps of the moat and gate systems are invaluable to me when I write about place names near the castle because much of the original network has been torn down or simplified. If you love castles or just want to know what the hell Edo Castle was like on the inside, you’ll love this book. Even if you can only read minimal Japanese (or nothing), I think you could get a lot out of this book. When I bought it, I could barely string together a complete sentence in Japanese let alone read about Japanese History, so… there ya go.

Tokyo – A Spatial Anthropology

Tokyo - A Spatial Anthropology (English Edition)

Tokyo – A Spatial Anthropology (English Edition)

This is out of print, but I recently scored a copy to research my neighborhood. What’s awesome about this book is that the author, Jin’nai Hidenobu clearly loves the shit out of Tokyo. He talks about all the transformations of the city (fires, wars, earthquakes, urban sprawl) and especially illuminates the more mysterious side of the transformations – for example, how was all the land that compromised daimyō estates redistributed by the Meiji government? This is a question I could never find a decent answer for via Google. But something as simple as this explains volumes about how former daimyō residences of the Edo Period became centers of 下町 shitamachi downtown culture in Tōkyō in successive eras. It’s a fascinating book. I can’t recommend it enough if you, too, love the shit out of Tōkyō.

I might buy the Japanese version for my wife.

Tokyo - A Spatial Anthropology (Original Japanese Edition)

Tokyo – A Spatial Anthropology (Original Japanese Edition)





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Japan Gives the Worst Head

In Japanese Food, Japanese Manners, Rants, Travel in Japan on June 10, 2010 at 11:37 am

Living in a foreign country means you’ll always come across things that are done differently.  But generally speaking, any place you go on Earth an ice cold beer is always an ice cold beer.

I haven’t written in depth about Japanese beer before — because, while I am definitely a beer lover, I’m by no means an expert.  But Japan has some great beers!  All the Japanese brands of real beer are very delicious, smooth and drinkable.  And Japanese bartenders pride themselves on pouring a proper pint of Guinness too!  Most restaurants that serve Guinness actually have notices posted somewhere near the bar to show that the bartenders are certified to pour Guinness properly.  They even put a shamrock design into the head.

japanese guinness beer

a “perfect pint” complete with shamrock design poured into the head

On a Guinness, a nice head is always appreciated.  That head doesn’t dissipate quickly and tingles your lips and gives a creamy goodness to each sip.

But the Japanese bar owners obsess on pouring a beautiful looking head on each and every beer no matter what the brand or style.  Granted, it looks lovely if you receive your beer in a timely fashion.  But soon it dissipates and you’re left with a very sad empty space — often two or three fingers deep — of air.  And by “air” I mean “NOT BEER.”  And by “not beer” I mean “seriously, it’s not beer, even though you paid for it.”

3 styles of ebisu beer

they look delicious! they taste delicious! but are you getting your money’s worth?

In America, if you served a beer with a head 3 fingers deep you’d probably get it sent right back asking to tip it off properly with, um, you know, beer.  In NYC and parts of the UK or Australia, you’re likely to get the beer thrown back in your face — pint glass and all.

japanese bar fight

yeah, that’s right. hide under the bar, you little shit! your bad pouring technique is what got us into this mess in the first place!

When I first visited Japan in winter 2003, I took the head with a grain of salt.  I’m in another country.  I couldn’t speak a word of Japanese.  I felt some social pressure to just go along and not cause any problems.  But towards the end of my almost 2 month stay, I was DJing at a party as a personal favor to a friend.  It wasn’t a club gig.  There was no money involved.  Not even free beer.  It was for her university circle (like a social club) and I didn’t know anybody except my friend.

I kept ordering beer to loosen up, and kept getting tiny plastic cups full of Asahi Super Dry or something.  But each tiny cup had a massive head on it.  After my second beer, I was fed up.  I asked how to say “without head” and decided to make my first attempt at complaining in Japanese.

When I got next beer, I pointed at the white froth on top and said 「泡なしで」 and waited for the guy to go “sorry about that, let me fix this for you.”  But instead I got a blank stare that said “without head?  what’s that???”

My friend explained to him my request and the bartender, seeming to understand, took the cup of beer and proceeded to dump it out.  All of it.

I was shocked.  Just pour out the head and pour in beer, you don’t have to waste it! Isn’t that one of the seven mortal sins? Oh yeah, he’s probably a Buddhist…  Anyways…  He didn’t have to pour the whole thing out and start over again.  Sheeeesh!

Then he poured a new one and handed me what looked like a carbon copy of the first.

泡なしで、お願いします」 (no bubbles… please!)

Again, with the same confused stare back at me, he took the cup of beer, dumped it out and re-poured it — capping it off again with a lovely head.  A lovely head that I had just asked him twice to not pour.

My friend again tried to explain the situation to this bozo and he listened attentively, seemingly understanding everything.  He then poured out the beer, re-poured it and capped it off with the same perfect head.

don't waste beer

every time you waste a beer, god kills a kitten

He explained to my friend that it’s a policy to pour beer like that and he could get in trouble for pouring headless beers.  (I was thinking, you’d be in much more trouble with some of my British mates if they saw you dumping out beer after beer like a bloody wanker).

I didn’t know the word しょうがない at that time, but looking back, this was just one of those しょうがない moments.  I just had to let it go and move on with my life.  Getting worked up about this issue wasn’t going to help the situation.

A few years later I told the story to a colleague of mine who told me that he’d heard about a lawsuit a few years ago in which a man tried to sue a bar for refusing to pour him beers without a head.  In court, the defense showed that the alcohol content of the bubbles was the same as or higher than (I forget which) that of the actual beer.  The court then ruled that he was not being ripped off, but actually getting his money’s worth.

need i say more? (why yes, i need say more… please continue reading…)

At the time, I accepted the story as plausible.  But now that I think about it, it’s gotta be an urban legend told by ex-pats trying to rationalize the ubiquitous refusal by bar staff to pour “a proper pint.”  And by “proper” I mean “one with actual beer instead of 3 fingers of quickly dissipating bubbles.”  It’s gotta be bullshit.  I mean, the Japanese are not particularly litigious, like Americans.  The costs involved to start a lawsuits are extremely high and the cash payouts are extremely low.  All the guy would probably win would be the right to get a headless beer anywhere in Japan.  This would be a great hit to take for the benefit of all beer lovers across the country, but who the fuck is that selfless? Furthermore, I’m no chemist, but I’m very skeptical that the alcohol content in the bubbles would be higher than regular beer, or that such a bizarre demonstration of scientific-legal acrobatics would be convincing.

Anyways, I couldn’t find anything on the web to corroborate this story.

So I’ve totally made peace with the fact that I can’t get a “proper pint” in Tokyo — no matter how much it irks me . And it really does irk me if I’m drinking 大ジョッキ, the extra-large sized beers in some izakaya.  As you can imagine, those beers come with proportionally extra-large sized heads.

I can see the rationale behind wanting to save money by charging full price for a beer then skimming a bit of beer off the top.  I can see management justifying in their own minds the aesthetic beauty of a cold mug of beer with a creamy head at the top.  It does look good!!


it really does look good… on a poster.

But when a customer calls you out on it, I can’t see any manager actually justifying a policy that states that you can’t get a beer without a head because…  well, you just can’t justify that kind of heinous sin.

And this in the country where the saying “the customer is king” is rendered as “the customer is god.”

After 5 years of living in Japan, the only reason I bring this up now is because the other day I was at T.G.I.Friday’s in Shibuya enjoying a full rack of baby-back ribs with a frosty glass of Premium Malts or whatever beer they serve there.  As I was pointing out the extra-large sized head on the extra-large sized beer to my girlfriend, something caught my attention on the menu.  You know how fine print jumps out at you while you’re eating ribs, right?

I know the picture isn’t very good, so if you can’t make out what it says, I’ll include the transcription at the bottom.

japanese beer no head

now that i think about it, is the “no head” option only for pitchers?

(I would include a transcription of the Japanese, but I can’t actually make it out due to the crappy resolution of the camera on the iPhone 3G)

We are serving No Head Draft Beer as these prices: (sic)

(M)  +¥150        (L) +¥200
(M)  +¥100        (L) +¥150

Oh, and just for comparison…
Here’s an (L) sized beer.  I didn’t touch it.  I just let the head settle on it’s own and then took this picture.    That’s how much beer THEY DON’T SERVE YOU.  And if you want it, you have to pay for them to fill that “extra space.”


you call that beer? (say with crocodile dundee accent)

Makes me wanna beat somebody over the head with that heavy-ass glass!!!

If you think I’ve been to heavy handed in this rant, or have your own “bad head” story, leave a comment and let’s discuss.

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awwwwwwww yeah!
mαrκy( -_-)凸


Ramen References for the People

In Japanese Food on May 4, 2010 at 12:22 pm

Just a quick follow up to my TOP 5 RAMEN SHOPS IN TOKYO.

Before I try a new ramen shop, or if I get a craving for ramen but I’ll be in a part of town where I don’t know any next level ramen, I usually check the Ramen Database.  This site is an awesome user maintained database of ramen shops in Japan.

You can search by location, name, styles — almost anything!  There are rankings and user submitted reviews.  The site is only in Japanese.


ramen database page for KAOTAN RAMEN

There are a few English websites that are easily found via Google.
One that I came across today looking for pictures for my last post was this GO RAMEN!
I didn’t really look at the site much, but the guy who runs it seems pretty down with ramen, so I’ll go ahead and recommend it to you.  Oh…  and he started working at my favorite ramen shop in Tokyo, Bassa Nova!!!


the page on goramen! where he talks about BASA NOVA



Marky Star’s Top 5 Ramen Shops in Tokyo♪

In Japanese Food on May 4, 2010 at 12:02 pm

Laziness is one of my strong suits, and keeping true to form, I haven’t updated this blog in ages. Sometimes I feel guilty about it, but work and the social life have been keeping me busy — and even though it takes a few minutes to read a blog entry, it actually takes much longer to write one. At least it does for me.

Anyways, I decided today to offer my 2 cents on the issue of rāmen. This is a crazy topic to cover because there are so many people with rāmen mania here. Luckily I have 3-4 rāmen otaku among my Japanese friends who taught me well about the virtues (and pitfalls) of rāmen. I just want to list my TOP 5 or so rāmen and make a quick statement about mistakes that most foreigners make in Japan.


To the uninitiated, rāmen culture in Japan is half epicurean wet dream and mystical mumbo jumbo about rāmen chefs who put their heart and soul into a bowl of noodles. We can thank the movie industry for this impression. If you want to read something deep and profound into it, by all means go ahead. But keep in mind that just because you pass a rāmen joint on the street doesn’t mean it’s the good stuff. Japanese cities are littered with rāmen shops and the reality is most of them suck. Just because a shop is always crowded doesn’t mean it’s something special. Granted, compared to rāmen you get in the states, even shitty Japanese rāmen is superior. But just because you can eat shitty rāmen that’s better than back home doesn’t mean you should.

And this brings me to my point:

There is rāmen.

And there is NEXT LEVEL rāmen.

What I consider next level rāmen is something gourmet. A daring twist on the tried and true noodles and soup game. These shops are famous and often pricey. But these shops offer rāmen elevated to the level of high art. They will turn you into a rāmen snob. They will make you curse the day you ever put instant rāmen in your body. They will change the way you look noodles of any kind… including soba, rice noodles and even pasta.

And so without further ado, I present my Top 5 Rāmen Shops of Tokyo. Please note, that these are in no particular order because, quite frankly, I can’t decide which is better and it probably depends on which one I’m craving the most at the moment. But you can’t go wrong at any of these shops.

1. Bassa Nova

2. Gogyō

3. Afuri

4. Nantsu-ttei

5. Ippudō

I think my #4 and #5 are probably the most famous of all these shops (Ippudo has quite a few shops around Tokyo and also a NYC shop and a rather nasty tasting instant version available at 7-11. Nantsu-ttei has a few shops too and is regularly voted best rāmen in Japan on various rāmen ranking shows on TV). I also tried to include various styles of rāmen here. So let’s take a look at what’s in store for you at each shop!

You will quickly forget all about the seemingly misspelled name and find yourself eating one of the most unique rāmen in all of Tokyo. Breaking away from the typical classifications of shoyu, miso, shio and tonkatsu rāmen, BASSA NOVA offers a fusion Thai and Japanese tastes. My usual is the mix of fish stock and thai taste, usually I add nori as a topping. I always order a side of chashu. The soup is light but full of flavor and the noodles are thin (so you can eat kaedama easily if you need it). The crowning achievement, in my opinion, is the chashu which has a smokey flavor and is grilled over fire before being added to the rāmen. The shop is a bit out of the way, located in Shindaita, but well worth the trip.


This shop offers the thrill of delicious shoyu rāmen plus the added excitement of burning soup!! Fire! Fire! Fire! The specialties here are
焦がし醤油 (burnt soy sauce) and 焦がし味噌 (burnt miso) soups. My personal recommendation is burnt soy sauce, as the miso is bit heavy for my taste.  The shop is classy too.  You can take a date there and sit at the counter and watch the chef burn your soup!!


gogyo’s delicious burnt shoyu ramen!! they actually burn it. i mean, light it on fire!

Famous for Yuzu Shio Rāmen. Yuzu is a kind of Japanese citrus fruit (like a sweet lemon) and shio is, of course, salt. The soup is light and if you get the low grease one, even more delicious. The noodles are thin. I like to add nori as a topping because… it goes so well with the soup. The chashu is succulent but plain to highlight the delicate taste of the soup. It’s a great place to take girls who love rāmen but don’t want to eat a heavy bowl of noodles.


afuri’s citrus flavored salt based soup ramen. awwwww yeah!!

To many people, tonkotsu rāmen is the epitome of rāmen. It’s a complex soup based on melting down pig bones and pig fat into a thick and fatty mixture that supposedly originated in Hakata (a city in Kyushu). And while tonkotsu (the name mean “pig bones,” not to be confused with tonkatsu which means “pork cutlet”) is loved and cherished by all, the shops are a dime a dozen. It takes a lot of searching and experience to find a special tonkotsu rāmen like Nantsu-ttei. Nantsu-ttei offers a black soup colored by mā-abura (ma oil). Don’t ask me what mā-abura is, cuz I don’t know. But it tastes damn good. This rāmen is heavy and greasy (most tonkotsu rāmen is), so I don’t recommend it in the summer. But in the winter it really hits the spot.


nantsu-tei ma-abura tonkotsu ra-men

This shop also offers tonkotsu rāmen, but this one is more typical than Nantsu-ttei. But don’t let that fool you – this is no ordinary rāmen. This shop is hugely successful, boasting many chain shops across the country and a line a instant rāmen and even a shop in NYC. (Don’t bother with the instant version, it’s BAD!!!) I generally go for the aka-maru
赤丸, which has a little spice to it. I think this is a good “starter rāmen” – when my friends visit Japan and want to eat rāmen, I usually take them here first.


ippudo’s delicious tonkotsu ramen!

So, there you have it.  My TOP 5 Tokyo Ramen Shops.  I’d love to hear what your top 5 is!!  Bring it on!!




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