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January 2018

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Monkey Madness in Nagano

Jigokudani Monkey Park in Nagano, JapanThere’s a place near Nagano called Jigokudani Monkey Park, and it gives you exactly what you’re hoping for.  So many monkeys.

Jigokudani Monkey Park in Nagano, Japan

It’s about an hour bus ride from the city — you can actually get a special pass that includes the bus fare to and from Jigokudani, and admission to the park for 3200 yen (about 36 bucks Canadian).  Best 3200 yen I ever spent.

Jigokudani Monkey Park in Nagano, Japan

Even just walking from where the bus drops you off to the park itself is surprisingly memorable, with a really scenic trail taking you through a forest of super tall pine trees.

Jigokudani Monkey Park in Nagano, Japan

Once you get to the area, you can see the steam coming off the ground from one of the natural hot springs.

Jigokudani Monkey Park in Nagano, Japan

Then you get there, and the monkeys are everywhere.  I figured there’d only be a dozen or so monkeys, but there’s gotta be at least 40 or 50.  It’s amazing.

Jigokudani Monkey Park in Nagano, Japan

They’re all just hanging out; walking around, grooming each other, chillin’ in the hot tub.

Jigokudani Monkey Park in Nagano, Japan

Here’s a mother cuddling with her kid.

Jigokudani Monkey Park in Nagano, Japan

After a while, the kid suddenly angled himself butt-up towards his mom, and without missing a beat, she started grooming him.

Jigokudani Monkey Park in Nagano, Japan

More grooming.

Jigokudani Monkey Park in Nagano, Japan

And I guess because these monkeys have spent their whole lives surrounded by gawking tourists, we’re just a part of the landscape to them.  It’s like we’re not even there.

Jigokudani Monkey Park in Nagano, Japan

You can get surprisingly close to them, and they’ll completely ignore you.

Jigokudani Monkey Park in Nagano, Japan

And they’re amazing.  I mean, look at them.  They look like tiny little people wearing fur coats.  They’re almost absurdly adorable.

Jigokudani Monkey Park in Nagano, Japan

Suffice it to say, if you’re in Japan and you’re anywhere even close to the vicinity of Nagano, you’ve gotta go see the monkeys.  It’s amazing.

Jigokudani Monkey Park in Nagano, Japan

Amazing Japanese Curry in Tokyo

Kitchen Nankai in Tokyo, JapanCurry isn’t necessarily the first thing that comes to mind when you think about Japanese food, but yeah, they love it here.  And if a hole-in-the-wall joint called Kitchen Nankai is any indication, that love is very much justified.  Like pretty much all of the food I’ve had in Tokyo, it’s good.

Kitchen Nankai in Tokyo, Japan

There isn’t a single word of English to be found anywhere in the restaurant, but — as is fairly common in Japan — they have plastic replicas of their dishes in a display out front.  This is a godsend for clueless travelers such as myself; the grizzled older lady who runs the place followed me outside, I pointed, and that was that (in retrospect, I probably could have just said “katsu curry” and saved her a trip outside.  Oh well).

Kitchen Nankai in Tokyo, Japan

The place specializes in katsu curry, which is a deep-fried chicken cutlet and a side of rice that’s been slathered in a tasty curry sauce.

Kitchen Nankai in Tokyo, Japan

That curry was bonkers.  It was so good.  I’ve never had anything quite like it — it had a really rich, beefy flavour, and tasted more like a long-simmered chili or a stew than like any curry I’ve had before.  It was also spicy enough to get some sweat going, but not so spicy as to distract from the flavour.

The chicken katsu was the perfect vehicle for the curry; it was perfectly tender, and crispy enough to stand up to the deluge of sauce.  It would have been delicious on its own, but with that curry it was out of this world.

Shinjuku Gyoen National Garden

Shinjuku Gyoen National Garden in Tokyo, JapanYeah, I know, yet another Tokyo park post.  But this is the nicest one yet, so I think you’ll just have to put up with one more.

Shinjuku Gyoen National Garden in Tokyo, Japan

It actually costs 200 yen (a bit over two bucks Canadian) to get in, and I was like, what’s this?  I have to pay to get into a park?  What do I look like, Warren Buffet?  I almost turned around.

Shinjuku Gyoen National Garden in Tokyo, Japan

I’m glad I didn’t, though.  The park is huge, impressive, and certainly worth two dollars.

Shinjuku Gyoen National Garden in Tokyo, Japan

I think this is the point where it’s best just to let the pictures speak for themselves.

Shinjuku Gyoen National Garden in Tokyo, JapanShinjuku Gyoen National Garden in Tokyo, JapanShinjuku Gyoen National Garden in Tokyo, Japan

Tokyo is too Sexy

Fuunji Ramen in Tokyo, JapanRemember that old SNL sketch from the ’90s where Chris Kattan played Antonio Banderas as the host of a talk show?  And every time he tried to unbutton his shirt, the members of his band would plead with him to stop, because he was too sexy?  Well that’s how I feel about Tokyo at this point.  It needs to stop, because it’s clearly too sexy.

Even aside from the food, there’s something about this city that’s completely beguiling.  I don’t think I’ve been anywhere else where just wandering around is so consistently rewarding, with interesting stores everywhere you look, amazing parks and temples all over the city, and a very pervasive (and endearing) love of pop culture — among many, many other things that make me want to fake my death and live here forever.

The latest place that has me contemplating buying a dummy replica of myself and throwing it over a waterfall is Fuunji Ramen, which might just have the longest food line I’ve come across in Tokyo so far.  Not only is it super long outside the restaurant (as usual), it actually continues once you get inside.

Fuunji Ramen in Tokyo, Japan

It’s totally worth it.

Their specialty is tsukemen ramen, which features a separate plate of noodles that you dip into a much more concentrated bowl of soup.  And oh man, the soup… I don’t even know how to describe that flavour.  It was everything at once.  It was like a magnificent fireworks show inside my mouth.  It had a bit of a fishy funk (but in the best way possible, trust me), it was a bit smoky, mildly spicy, and just the best.  It was the best.

Fuunji Ramen in Tokyo, Japan

The soup also featured some amazingly tender pork, and a perfectly cooked hard-boiled egg — the eggs in ramen shops here all have this dark orange, amazingly creamy yolk, and how do they do it?  Is it the quality of the eggs?  The way they cook them?  Or is it just the magic Tokyo fairy dust that seems to be in the air here?

It’s the dust.  I’m pretty sure it’s the dust.

The thicker-than-average noodles had a super satisfying chewiness that, when dipped in the amazing soup, were pretty much the best.

Yeah, I live here now.  Sorry, everyone back home!  Come to Tokyo if you ever want to see me again.

A Million Dollar View (For Free)

Tokyo City Hall in Tokyo, JapanWant an amazing view of Tokyo?  You could go up the Tokyo Tower and spend a whopping 1600 yen (!), or you could visit the Tokyo Skytree, which costs as much as 3090 yen (!!!) to go all the way to the top.

Tokyo City Hall in Tokyo, Japan

Or!  Go to Tokyo City Hall, spend a grand total of zero dollars, and get an absolutely magnificent view of the city.

Tokyo City Hall in Tokyo, Japan

The view from up there is breathtaking.

Tokyo City Hall in Tokyo, Japan

When you’re just walking around the city, it’s easy to forget that it’s one of the largest in the world.  Seeing it from above is a palpable reminder of its size; it’s just unending city stretching all the way into the horizon.  It’s kind of insane.

Tokyo City Hall in Tokyo, Japan

Beating the Line (and eating delicious food)

Kanda Matsuya in Tokyo, JapanYou’ve probably noticed from some of my posts, but there are lines everywhere here.  Everywhere.

They don’t bother me all that much (and in fact, sometimes I’ll seek out a line since it’s a fairly reliable indicator that a restaurant is serving tasty food).  But I was going to Kanda Matsuya, a really well-regarded restaurant that’s been serving up soba noodles for over 130 years.  There was no possible way there wasn’t going to be a line.

Kanda Matsuya in Tokyo, Japan

So I showed up just after they opened, at around 11:20.  The place was already quite busy, but no line — success.  By the time I left, it was packed and the line was several people deep, as you can see in the photo above.

Kanda Matsuya in Tokyo, Japan

As for the food?  Yeah, it would have been worth a line.  I ordered cold soba noodles with a sesame dipping sauce, and it was seriously delicious.  The noodles had a hearty chewiness, with a flavour that’s much more robust than, say, what you’ll find in a bowl of ramen.  When dipped in the sesame sauce, they’re delicious and addictive.

Kanda Matsuya in Tokyo, Japan

Plus, when you’re done with the noodles, they come around with a pot of boiling water and use it to dilute what’s left of your sauce.  You can then drink that like a soup, and it’s surprisingly good.

Attacked by Deliciousness

Melon Pan Kyuei in Tokyo, JapanSo there I am, just walking around in Tokyo and minding my own business, and wham.  Attacked by crazy deliciousness, completely out of nowhere.

Which is to say that I was hungry and wanted a snack, so I stopped by Melon Pan Kyuei, a bakery in the Tsukishima area of Tokyo.  Most of the time, if I’m eating somewhere, it’s because I’ve looked it up and heard that it’s supposed to be good.  This was a completely random drop-in.  I’d never even heard of a melon pan, which is kind of like a Chinese-style pineapple bun, but a billion times better.

Melon Pan Kyuei in Tokyo, Japan

Oh man, this thing.  It was still warm from the oven, which is always delightful, obviously.  It’s got a crispy, sugary exterior that’s made all the more crispy and amazing thanks to those deep ridges, and the interior is fluffy and light as air.  The inside is kind of like the lightest, fluffiest slice of white bread that you’ve ever had — it’s not all that sweet, but that’s where the crispy, crunchy, amazing exterior comes in.

I figured this was going to be more like a pineapple bun, so I wasn’t expecting much — it was actually kind of shocking how good this was.  It was an unexpected sucker punch of amazingness.

Sweet, Sweet Beans

Fish cake with beans in Tokyo, JapanOne of those things that’s huge in Asia and virtually unheard of in the west is putting beans in desserts.  It’s a little bit off-putting at first, but then you quickly realize it’s delicious and wonder why you haven’t spent your whole life eating beany sweets.

Fish cake with beans in Tokyo, Japan

These little bean-filled, fish-shaped cakes are particularly popular, and with good reason.  And this place (this was a random discovery and the sign was all in Japanese, so I have no idea what it’s called) was particularly good.

It was warm and fresh, with a generous amount of sweet bean filling encased in a subtly sweet, pancake-like exterior.  This particular place had a bit of extra cake around the edges (it’s usually just the fish) — this is actually kind of ingenious, because the extra part is nice and crispy, which contrasts nicely with the cake and the beans.  It’s really good.

Imperial Palace East Gardens

Imperial Palace East Gardens in Tokyo, JapanTokyo seems to be pretty good about making sure that the city has a bunch of green space mixed in with the in-your-face modernity of the majority of the city.  I’ve been to a few of these areas so far, though I think the Imperial Palace East Gardens might be my favourite.

My visit started quite memorably — the place is formerly a castle, so it’s surrounded by a watery moat.  There was a heron standing in the water, staring intently at a specific spot.

Imperial Palace East Gardens in Tokyo, Japan

In one impressively quick motion, he suddenly had a fish in his beak, and then he just sort of hung out for a few minutes (I think he was trying to figure out how to eat the fish without dropping it in the water).

Imperial Palace East Gardens in Tokyo, Japan

Eventually, he made a few skillful moves, and that fish went right down his gullet.

Imperial Palace East Gardens in Tokyo, Japan

The rest of the visit wasn’t quite as dramatic, but it was no less memorable.

The place was quite impressive, so I think I’m just going to shut up and let the pictures do the talking.

Imperial Palace East Gardens in Tokyo, JapanImperial Palace East Gardens in Tokyo, JapanImperial Palace East Gardens in Tokyo, JapanImperial Palace East Gardens in Tokyo, JapanImperial Palace East Gardens in Tokyo, Japan

And speaking of birds, I saw these two guys on my way out.  I have no idea what they were doing; they were just standing there flapping their wings, like a couple of old guys doing calisthenics in the park.

Disney Food Extravaganza

Disney food in Tokyo, JapanThe food at Disneyland/DisneySea in Tokyo was shockingly good.  I was expecting something along the lines of Disneyland Paris, which was pretty much nothing but boring theme park staples like chicken strips, hot dogs, and hamburgers.

Instead, there was a veritable cornucopia of interesting  (and surprisingly delicious) treats.  It was so amazing that I felt compelled to write a whole post about it.  So buckle up, because here’s a breakdown of everything I ate in both parks (it’s interesting, trust me!  No?  Everyone stopped reading several sentences ago? Yeah, I get it).

Tokyo DisneySea

Now, this is going to seem like an absurd amount of food (and yeah, it kinda is), but in my defense I arrived at the park at 8:30 in the morning and didn’t leave until around 7:30 that night, so this was breakfast, lunch, and dinner.

Also, everything looked good and I wanted to eat it.  So there’s that.

Disney food in Tokyo, JapanPopcorn
They had popcorn stands all over the park, each selling one particular flavour.  These flavours ranged from the standard to the bizarre.  I sampled three different varieties, and they were all great.  It helps, I’m sure, that these stands were all very popular, so the popcorn was always quite fresh.

Disney food in Tokyo, Japan

There was blueberry, which had the perfect amount of sweetness and a surprisingly pronounced blueberry flavour; curry, which wasn’t spicy at all, but absolutely nailed the flavour; and garlic shrimp, which was so good at replicating that particular flavour that it almost seemed like a magic trick.

Disney food in Tokyo, JapanChocolate Churro
You can’t go to a Disney park and not have a churro (unless you’re at Disneyland Paris, in which case they don’t sell churros like a bunch of stupid jerks); I had two at DisneySea, and the first one was chocolate.  Imagine if a churro and a brownie had a baby, and you kind of know what to expect here (it was delicious, in case that description didn’t tip you off).

Disney food in Tokyo, JapanSweet Fried Burrito
This was filled with banana, caramel, and a bottom layer of some kind of chocolate cake.  The whole thing was wrapped in a tortilla and deep fried.  Do I even need to say that it was delicious?  Because of course it was delicious.

Disney food in Tokyo, JapanUkiwah Bun
This was an Asian-style bun filled with shrimp and designed to look like a life preserver.  Even if this were bad, this is what it looks like when they give it to you:

Disney food in Tokyo, Japan

Delightful.  It was otherwise a pretty standard bun; it was tasty, though nothing about it particularly stood out.

Disney food in Tokyo, JapanGyoza Sausage Bun
Another bun; this one is shaped to look like a giant gyoza (a Japanese-style dumpling), and filled with gyoza filling.  Tasty stuff.

Disney food in Tokyo, JapanTiramisu Ice Cream Sandwich
This was probably the most disappointing thing I ate all day, and it was still pretty decent.  It’s basically a standard ice cream sandwich with a vague coffee flavour.

Disney food in Tokyo, JapanPotato Churro
Churro number two.  This was actually a churro in name (and shape) only; it was actually a savoury creation, with a lightly crispy exterior, and a creamy, vaguely chewy interior (I think from potato starch?).  It was bizarre at first (especially since I was expecting something sweet), but after a few bites it grew on me.  It was kind of like a cross between Pringles and mashed potatoes, only a little bit chewy.  Odd, but good.

Disney food in Tokyo, JapanBourbon at the Teddy Roosevelt Lounge
So DisneySea has a Teddy Roosevelt-themed bar on a full-sized steamship in the old New York area of the park.

Disney food in Tokyo, Japan

I went there and had a bourbon, mostly just for the novelty value of drinking whiskey in an old-timey bar in a Disney Park.

Disney food in Tokyo, Japan

They served it in a shot glass — I don’t know what they thought I had in mind for the evening, but I certainly didn’t drink this in a single shot.

Disney food in Tokyo, JapanSeafood-Cheese-Curry Fried Pizza
At this point I was actually pretty full, but then I saw a stand selling these things, and obviously I had to try one.  I mean, what do I look like, someone who isn’t going to try a fried pizza filled with cheese and seafood curry in a theme park?  This could have been disastrously bad, but I think it’s clear at this point that Tokyo Disney isn’t kidding around when it comes to food.  It certainly wasn’t great — the crust was a bit soggy, and the seafood a bit overcooked — but it way better than you might think, and a tasty way to end the day.

Tokyo Disneyland

The selection of food at this park wasn’t quite as awe-inspiring as what they’ve got going on in DisneySea, but it was still pretty impressive in its own right.

Disney food in Tokyo, JapanSweet Potato Tipo Torta
I had absolutely no idea what this was going to be — it’s sort of churro-shaped, so I figured it would be something like that.  It’s not that at all.  The exterior is crispy, flaky, and buttery, like a really good pie crust, and it’s filled with a creamy, custardy sweet potato filling.

Disney food in Tokyo, Japan

This was shockingly good — it was easily the best thing I ate at either park.  It also had one of the longest lines, so clearly, everyone knew what’s up.  I wish I could eat these all the time.  I wish I could eat one right now.

Disney food in Tokyo, JapanSoy Sauce and Butter Popcorn
I was a bit popcorned-out from the three boxes at DisneySea, but I felt compelled to try this flavour.  This was a rare misstep from Tokyo Disney.  Not that there was anything wrong with it — it basically just tasted like standard popcorn.  The soy sauce flavour really didn’t stand out at all.

Disney food in Tokyo, JapanSmoked Turkey Leg
Another Disneyland classic.  This was quite tasty, with a nice smoky flavour, though it turns out that eating a turkey leg by hand is actually a bit of a pain thanks to all of the inedible bits you have to navigate around.

Disney food in Tokyo, JapanPretzel Filled with Sweet Cream Cheese
This tasted more like a bagel than a pretzel, but it was nice and fresh, with a very generous amount of sweet cream cheese filling.  Yeah, it was good.

Disney food in Tokyo, JapanStormtrooper Dumplings
These were mochi balls with little Stormtrooper faces printed on them, which is delightful, obviously.  They also tasted really good, with three different fillings — custard, strawberry, and caramel.

Here’s a little thing that shows you the surprising amount of care Tokyo Disney puts into their food: the strawberry filling is clearly made with real strawberries, because there were a few little strawberry seeds interspersed throughout.  Any other theme park would just use cheap strawberry flavouring and call it a day, but not here.  It’s so great.

Disney food in Tokyo, JapanPork on a Chinese Bun
Last but certainly not least, there’s this Chinese bun with pork belly and some kind of sauteed greens.  The bun was fluffy and perfect, the pork was unctuous and tender with a really tasty sauce, and the bitter greens helped to cut the richness of the pork.

Also, it looked like Mickey’s glove.  Come on, man.  Food this good at a theme park?  Delightful and delicious?  What is this madness?

Disney food in Tokyo, Japan

But that’s just the way that Tokyo Disney rolls.  And not only was everything really good, but it also wasn’t crazy expensive.   Pretty much everything was between three and six bucks Canadian, which certainly isn’t cheap — but it’s still quite reasonable for food at a theme park.

So there you have it.  If you go to either Disney park in Tokyo (and you should definitely at least make time for DisneySea — it’s magical), make sure you go with an empty stomach.