ken-sama

A perk of being a long-term resident in a country that is currently sitting atop most lists for “cool vacay destinations in the world”, is being asked on a weekly daily basis:

“So… What are your Tokyo/Kyoto/Japan tips and recommendations?”

To which I politely smile and internally try to decide whether the person asking is mentally diminished or just hailing from an Internet-free country. Because all I hear is “Could you google Lonely Planet’s Top 10 List of Things to Do in Tokyo for me?”…

Since there is clearly no useful or interesting answer to that question, and since it is a lot easier to be negative than positive1, I instead decided to compile a near-exhaustive list of places and things that you should stay away from, when you visit Tokyo.

You will notice an important overlap with aforementioned “Top 10 Tokyo whatever” lists commonly found elsewhere, and there’s a good reason for that: these are mostly places that were interesting/special at some point long ago or fit well-enough in the trite “Japan-be-crazy-yo” narrative, to make them ideal candidates for lazy tourist guides and other lists catering to the lowest-common denominator.

Rule of thumb: if you are the sort of tourist who loved their visit to London’s Piccadilly Circus, Paris’ Champs Élysées, NYC’s Times Square or SF’s Fisherman’s Wharf, this list of don’ts is emphatically not for you. In fact, you can even use it as a blueprint for your dream Tokyo visit. For everyone else, here you go:

Maid Cafés

aka Maido Cafés

Last cool/interesting: Never

Who goes there: 20% Japanese (otaku on the spectrum and/or sex-offence-on-minors-under-the-age-of-consent waiting to happen), 80% tourists that heard these things were super popular and cool in Japan.

Selling points: Bland overpriced biscuits served by pimply high-school students to awkward shut-ins and clueless tourists in a hastily-refurbished Akihabara apartment. Basically like Applebees, with more pedophilia and shittier food.

Harajuku’s Takeshita Dori

Last cool/interesting: 2004? 2001?… Whenever the dozen Japanese girls who used to buy their cosplay outfit there graduated from high-school.

Who goes there: 99% foreign tourists (about half Western tourists, convinced that the other Chinese/East-Asian half are authentic locals). 1% Nigerian guys pretending to be from Chicago to sell you authentic American hip-hop streetwear.

Selling points: Foreign otaku cosplay-freaks. Foreign tourists busy photographing authentic Tokyo cosplay-freaks who were seated a row behind them on the flight in. Souvenir shops for tourists. McDonald’s. Starbuck’s. Shops that sell wacky t-shirts that read “Stupid gaijin” or “Looking for Japanese girlfriend” in Japanese. Zero actual Japanese people cosplaying.

  1. Exhibit A: over ten years of writing on this very blog. []

Yukata night at Gaea During all my years in Kyoto, I carefully avoided writing about my usual haunts for very selfish reasons1. I guess now that I no longer have a vested interest in keeping them sparsely attended, I might as well share them with whomever ends up here.

Note: For each entry, I tried linking to Google Map (when a listing existed) or whatever relevant page I could find with directions. For entries missing an address, try copy-pasting the Japanese name into Google Map and keep your eyes peeled for signs (keep in mind Japanese bars are often in the upper stories of non-descript buildings).

Note 2: Despite its relatively active nightlife for a city its size (thanks to a sizable student population), Kyoto is not a metropolis: do not expect crowds on weekdays. Depending on all sorts of factors, practically any place listed below is liable to be empty on any random day.

Gaea, aka Rei’s bar

By far my favourite place in Kyoto for drinks, food or conversation. Set in a traditional machiya that has been tastefully redecorated along the African sensibilities of the previous owner, the result is a low-key, friendly and warm izakaya-style bar where it is impossible to not feel at home. Rei (Kyoto’s Finnish-Japanese answer to Kurt Kobain) welcomes every new customer like an old friend (and indeed, most are or eventually become so). More than a neighbourhood bar, the place is a social club where a large extended family of friends and strangers-soon-to-be-friends meet up for casual chit-chat and regular food/music events (Facebook’s page of the bar is the best way to know about these). A funky Manson family, with less beards and way less gruesome murders.

Because the place is well hidden (better check the map twice), attendance on nights where no special events are taking place is very erratic: you might walk in the middle of some wild impromptu jam party or find yourself in small committee with Rei and the odd regular having a nightcap on their way home. If you do catch Rei on such an off-night, don’t miss the occasion to pick his brain on any item of local interest: the man is a living-yellow-pages of all things bar/music/food/fun-related in Kyoto and surrounding areas (and speaks perfect English).

Beside a few creative cocktails and reasonably-priced beer, the place has a small daily food menu (with more elaborate options available on special events, such as Mami’s infamous afternoon cake café event).

Frontières Sans Nations, aka Philippe’s bar

Another fixture amidst cosmopolitan kyotoites is Philippe’s cozy hole-in-the-wall bar along the canal street of Kiyamachi. With room for a dozen (thin) people at the best of times, it is not unusual to find the place packed on big nights, but generally there is always a spare stool or the edge of a bench for you to squeeze in (not the ideal place for large groups).

On most weeknights however, the atmosphere will tend toward a more intimate mix of Japanese and Foreigners (French/Europeans well represented), both in clientele and style, with a good selection of wines and home-cooked vegetarian dishes available.

Update 2013: Philippe moved to a (slightly) bigger location, still on Kiyamachi, but now south of Shijo.

Kazu bar

Easy to see why the place is so famous among Kyoto semi-underground drinking circles (and the strongly non-overlapping set of people who read the kind of fancy glossy travel magazines that lap up that sort of place): on the 3rd floor of a building tucked in a tiny back alley, no sign (no name), minimally decorated, well-stocked with exotic liquors and only lit with enough candles to ensure you can see as far as your drink on the table…

But despite its typical hipster-traveller appeal, the place is an authentically awesome bar, in no small part thanks to the eponymous Kazu: friendly, outgoing and quite often drunker than everybody else in the bar. Does your local barkeep spontaneously come up carrying enough takoyaki from his favourite nearby store to feed your entire table at 2am? I didn’t think so either.

“How to find it?”, you ask… Err, well, yea… You are probably gonna have to befriend some trendy locals (or ply me with the promise of free Gin&Tonic, on the next occasion I am in town). Failing that, it’s not gonna be an easy search. You can try going toward this place and looking up (good luck, it took me half-a-dozen times learning to get there without getting lost).

Milan’s and ING

When needing a change from intimate moods and underground vibes and looking for a bit more of a shot-bar party atmosphere, Milan’s bar is a pretty reliable choice: comfy middle eastern opium den meets cheesy hip-hop bar… Smoke a shisha, share a few shots with Milan (all drinks ¥500) and who knows where things can go from there.

If no amount of drinking can make you put up with shitty music, ING bar guarantees a much more palatable selection of rock classics (and less classics), with a student crowd and super-friendly staff (owner will gladly take music requests for your favourite bands and might even spontaneously play them again, the next time you show up).

More…

Of course, there are always the classics (those you have already read about a dozen times in every half-assed Kyoto guide): Café Indépendants is a nice place to grab a beer and some tasty food (cheap menu sets available on weekdays), but despite its nifty old-school cantina style, it is more of a place to chill-out on your own or with your own friends, than to meet new people.

A-Bar is the ever-reliable go-to place for travellers looking to socialise… with other travellers mostly (expect to see on average one Lonely Planet guide on each table) or large groups of students that would not fit anywhere else. A little overrated, but the beer is cheap and atmosphere convivial.

Grab a bite…

Too many good food options in Kyoto to even consider listing, but a few places I like in the vicinity of Kiyamachi (where all aforementioned bars are located):

大豊ラーメン [Taihō Ramen]

Hands-down my favourite ramen place in Kansai: cramped, scary-looking and of questionable hygiene standards, as any proper ramen place should be. Serves the fattest, most awesome, black pork-based ramen soup you will ever find (Kyushu style). Stick with the normal version and stay away from the shashū (extra pork) option, unless you fancy eating half a fattened pig with your noodles. Perfect after (or before) a night of clubbing and/or drinking. Located in a tiny alley, off Kiyamachi-dori.

彌光庵 [Mikoan]

The exact opposite of the previous place in every respect: cozy (albeit quite messy in its own way) bar/restaurant that specialises in vegetarian food similar to typical shōjin-ryori, at a fraction of the price (evening menu set for ¥1000). Super-friendly owner and equally friendly in-house cat. Also a good place for an evening tea in a jazzy atmosphere. Place is a bit hard to find (Google map): take a right from the main street and go up to the nondescript door at the end of the (ultra-narrow) alley.

石焼 石庵 [Ishiyaki Ishiori]

More traditional (and pricier) restaurant specialising in meat and fish grilled on a stone (at your table). Cool yet unpretentious setting and good food. Owner lived in San Francisco for many years and speaks fluent English.

Will add a few words about Kyoto’s two surviving nightclubs in a bit. Anyway: due to Kyoto mayor’s successful crackdown on nightlife, there isn’t much to talk about right now.

PS (2014): on my occasional visits back to Kyoto (and while getting a drink at some of the aforementioned locales), I have bumped in quite a few people who ended up there through this post. Which is really awesome. If you end up checking any of the above and like it (or not), do post a comment down here!

  1. There is very little information on Kyoto bars and clubs available on the English web (all your google searches and guidebook reading will yield the same tired 2-3 touristy bars). In this situation, even the most mediocre write-up of a bar on English blogs or media immediately brings a large contingent of out-of-town punters looking for a way to fill their evening after the temples have closed. Nothing personal, but I had rather not seeing my favourite tiny bars suddenly overrun by one-timers at the risk of losing their personality. []

I should preface this somewhat-less-than-glowing review of Sonic Mania (aka Summer Sonic for people who dance at night) by mentioning one important detail:

I don’t really like music festivals.

More exactly, I don’t like a certain kind of music festivals (that kind). I think I have spent enough of my youth, dancing half-naked on Californian beaches or through Black Rock Desert that I don’t need to defend my record of appreciation for spontaneous music-oriented gatherings. I just still can’t figure the draw with mainstream music festivals: horrible acoustics, quantity-over-quality line-ups and uninspiring settings.

If I wanted to dance in the middle of stadiums, I’d be a football cheerleader.

Acts at major music festivals fall into two categories: bands that were cool 20 years ago (and whose sole surviving member badly needs to pay his taxes) and up-and-coming bands you will hear a 100 times better at a smaller, more targeted venue. The packaging of the two together, along with laundry-detergent levels of sales/marketing based more on PR momentum than musical coherence (complete with nonsensical stage schedules) are what make music festivals such a profitable deal for major industry players and a miserably pointless experience for everybody else.

Sonic Mania certainly followed that pattern. In fact, every other headliner on the line-up could accurately be summed-up as: “That guy you’ve never heard of, with ties to that band you definitely knew [and perhaps liked], back in the 2000s/1990s/1980s”…

Considering how much whining is liable to follow, I should add I had a perfectly OK night, fun even. But my enjoyment of the event was entirely down to being with a cool group of people and, most importantly, being comped and not having paid 10,000 of my hard-earned yens to attend that semi-debacle of a festival night. I feel I kinda owe it to the poor saps that paid out of pocket to let the world know what passes for top-yen-worthy festival in Japan these days…

10pm-ish: Arrival, Primal Scream

Last Tuesday, I was serendipitously told of a talk by Anna Baltzer in Yoshida campus. I remembered seeing her on the Daily Show a while back and was curious to hear her talk in more details about her experience and views on the current Middle East situation.

As it happens, I even ranted not long ago about the lack of rational and moderate discourse, in the neverending clusterfuck™ of a situation that is the Middle East. How timely.

No point copy-pasting Anna’s bio, but the skinny is: as a Jewish-American grown up in the US and backpacking her way through North Africa and Asia, she came by herself to the conclusion that many of the views commonly held by her fellow countrymen and community members with regard to contemporary Israeli politics were perhaps overlooking a few teeny details… In particular: serious human right issues with the current treatment of Palestinians in Occupied Territories.

Yesterday’s concert by Yugao (夕顔) at Zac Baran was absolutely brilliant.

Yugao combines traditional shakuhachi, jazz piano, classical cello and tabla to make music that covers the spectrum from atmospheric folk to very energetic jazz, with a good dose of western classical in the middle.

Surprisingly, all four instruments blended together in a very natural way, with none of the gimmicky feel that sometimes come with these far-fetched collaborations. It was my first time seeing a professional shakuhachi performance live, and I was blown away by the complexity and texture of the sound that guy could get out of his flute, not to mention the obvious physical effort and precision that went into the process (as someone who could probably not even get a sound out of a pan flute, I am always amazed by wind instrument players). Hard to go wrong with tabla (although I wasn’t too crazy about the wind-chimes addition on some of the more atmospheric pieces). Cello and piano mostly played on scores apparently composed by Yoshida Koichi, the shakuhachi player, and made really solid jazz, avant-garde and whatever you can call music made with a shakuhachi, a piano, a cello and a tabla. Some of it sounded vaguely reminiscent of older Sakamoto Ryuichi pieces, but it might just be the whole cello-shakuhachi thing. Their interpretation of the sinfonia from Bach cantata BWV 156 was moving beyond words: the near-weezing haunting sound of the shakuhachi far surpassed what any oboe could ever achieve in expressing the sadness of the original piece.

You can see some of the videos from a past concert (also at Zac Baran) here and most of their tracks on their MySpace page. They also play next week at UrbanGuild and I strongly recommend you check them out!

For my birthday last week, I decided to give my late 20’s the proper send off they deserved, and went for a nice intimate dinner with I. at a somewhat fancy French restaurant overlooking the kamogawa near sanjo.
In addition to the impeccable, yet friendly service, the food was some of the best I had in a very long time. I still can’t get over how delicious the homemade foie gras with figs was…

Definitely recommended if you are ever looking for good French cuisine in Kyoto (while there are probably some less expensive options in town, they really aren’t even in the same range of quality)…

Strolling through Bic Camera the other day, I stopped in the handheld electronic Japanese dictionaries aisle and had a quick look at prices for a laugh.

Seriously, who still buys these things?

My guess is: people who also just purchased a brand new Sony Minidisc player1 and/or will only use devices that bears the same comforting look as the pocket calculator they had back in High School.

I don’t see why else anybody would willingly spend up to twice the price of an iPod Touch on a tool that will, at best, do roughly what any iPod/iPhone does… minus the thousands of non-Japanese-related features.

Trust me, I am very receptive to the argument of the simple tool that does one thing and does it well, without the clutter and confusion of a myriad peripheral features… But if that’s what it takes, buy an iPod Touch, forget it can be a music player, a web browser or a gaming platform and use it solely as a Japanese study tool: you will still be getting a better deal than with one of these ridiculously overpriced/underfeatured denshi jisho.

In case you are considering such a purchase, or if you already own an iPhone/iPod Touch and wondered what apps you should get in order to turn it into the ultimate Japanese studying tool, here are my three picks:

  1. “fit up to twenty tracks in your pocket!” []

The Cove is not gonna make Japan many friends among the world’s dolphin and whale lovers, but it is definitely worth a watch.

Although it could probably go lighter on the whole Mission: Impossible antics (unfortunately, it seems you just can’t sell a documentary nowadays if it doesn’t feature endless gratuitous action montages), the scenes it captures are captivating and hard to ignore. Beyond the expected money shot of an expanse of ocean literally red with dolphin blood, the investigative work offers some fascinating insights into the cynical political maneuvering that goes on to ensure the fishing doesn’t stop.

The vast farce that is the International Whaling Commission and a long tradition of Japan’s bribing third world island countries for votes, gets the bashing it deserves: I don’t care what your opinions on the whaling issue are, if you seriously believe in the “scientific whaling” argument, you are very misinformed or a moron.

Casual observers of Japanese modern history do not need to be told of its infamous propensity to always side with industries against public welfare, when environmental or public health scandals strike. Others will probably think that the recount of Minamata disease’s infamous cover-up is exaggerated… After all, while Western countries routinely poison locals in remote third-world countries and get away with it, it is quite a rare thing for a country to let companies do it on its own soil and unfalteringly support them when things go awry (and long after that). Long-time residents will also enjoy the nod to Japan’s sub-par criminal justice system, delight in spotting the usual cast of Japanese administration characters (the blatantly corrupt – yet utterly polite – cop on local business’ payroll, the roboticized bureaucratic talking-head, the government “scientist” spouting pseudo-science etc. etc.), without, unfortunately, escaping the usual trite clichés (is there a single japanese story that cannot be illustrated with a nail and a hammer?).

This documentary is not without its faults and I honestly have my doubt about the efficiency of the “Us vs. Them” brand of activism, when confronted to Japanese culture. But regardless of which side of the Blubber Hamburger / Cute Smiling Cetacean debate you stand on, there are a couple items worth pondering in there.