As some of you know, I spent the first few days of this year in Tokyo and while woefully late, here are some pics from the trip.
It was a short few days, but I managed to get some traditional osechi ryori, went to Meiju Shrine from Hatsumoode, wandered around Kabukicho and even got to see the emperor give his new years address.
I got a room at Fraser Place Tokyo that was a little out of the way in far north Shinjuku because the place I normally stay at was booked. I've stayed at some of their other locations before and they typically have large modern rooms that are more like an apartment than a hotel, often including a full kitchen.
At first, the room looked promising, being on the top floor and having a fantastic east facing view. The loft style layout was large and almost all white with a bathroom in the center of the room enclosed in floor to ceiling 1-way mirrors. This gave the huge tub and shower the same view that you had from the room, looking out on the city. The problem was, the heating system couldn't keep up with the cold air coming off the windows and I was freezing the whole time I was there. I even complained about it but they either couldn't, or weren't willing to do anything about it, so I was left wearing my winter coat indoors.
Knowing that almost everything would be closed on New Years day, I rushed out to find some food for the next day as soon as I dropped off the bags in the hotel room. My plan was to hit up the depachika (department store basement) at Isetan and secure a jubako of osechi ryori and some other snacks to last the day. There isn't really an equivalent to a depachicka here in the US, but if you imagine a huge gourmet supermarket and pair it with the best bakeries, delis, chocolatiers, and specialty food stores all crammed into the basement of a department store, you'll start to get an idea of what it's like.
Of course everyone else seemed to have the same idea and it was nearing closing time, so the place was more packed than a rush hour train. I managed to bag 2 chirashizushi, a couple onigiris, a mont blanc, a strawberry shortcake, and a huge box of osechi ryori. The best part was that since it was the end of the day, some of the vendors (including the $160 Osechi Jubako) was 20% off!
I go into more specifics about Osechi Ryori here, but traditionally it's prepared ahead of time and served out of a 3 tier jubako (lacquered wooden box). These days, many people don't have time to make their own, so families are increasingly turning to pre-made sets that you can purchase from restaurants, supermarkets and department stores. After surveying the vendors that still had Osechi sets available, I ended up going with this one that came wrapped in a furoshiki and and a convincingly shiny cardboard _jubako.
On New Years day, before tucking into their special meals, millions of Japanese go to shrines around the country to do Hatsumode (pronounced hatsu-moh-deh). It's a way to get the new year off to a good start by going to your local shrine, offering up some money and praying for good things in the coming year. Meiji Jingu is particularly well known for this and every year about 3 million people visit the shrine during the first few days of the year. For the very serious (and late night revelers), many shrines are open right at midnight, so you can be among the first to ring in the new year with a prayer.
Typically the way any visit to a shrine works is you first clean you hands and mouth with water (pictured above top) as you enter the grounds. Then you go up to the alter, toss a 100 yen into the box, bow twice, clap your hands twice while praying, then bow once to finish it off. Since this was Hatsumode and the crowds were insane, you couldn't go all the way up to the shrine. Instead, they set out a huge tarp on the stairs to toss your money at (pictured above bottom)
One of the best parts of Hatsumode is that it takes on a festival like atmosphere and there are stalls selling souvenirs, charms, and most importantly FOOD:-) I picked up some freshly made takoyaki which are little spherical pancakes with veggies and a piece of octopus inside. It's crisp on the outside and soft and custardy on the inside, topped with shaved bonito, sweet sauce, and aonori (green nori)
After going to the shrine in Shibuya, I walked over to Harajuku. You're probably most familiar with this neighborhood from Gwen Stefani's song Harajuku Girls (which I hate by the way), but it's an über-trendy shopping district nestled in between Shibuya and Aoyama where you see crazy Japanese kids dressed like milkmaids and cosplay freaks that look like they jumped out of the pages of a manga (Japanese comic book)
It's really not my scene, but I always get some good laughs while there, and there is a great Japanese crepe shop along the main strip, so I stopped by. One of the highlights of this visit? Prominent banners places all over the place that declared "No Smorking". Yes, my people are notoriously bad at "ingurish" and it's especially funny evident in their signs and packaging
The imperial palace, located right in the middle of Tokyo is usually closed to the general public, but twice a year it opens up the inner grounds to the public when the emperor makes a public address. The crowds were obscene (and honestly, there are other dignitaries I would have rather seen in person), but it was a fun, and given that I was almost a head taller than most of the people there I got a fantastic view.
Well, almost anyway:-)
I hope you found this little tidbit interesting. I know this is a food blog, so I always worry about straying too far off topic. Leave a comment and let me know if you think I should post more about my travels.