Thursday, May 31, 2012

Best in Tokyo! In my humble opinion.

This is a collection of my choice food picks across a range of categories. It is of course a completely subjective list based purely on my own taste. My concept of ‘best’ here is mainly to do with the integrity of the food rather than the fanciness of the setting or whether or not the venue is currently fashionable. There is no sponsorship or bribery involved, these are all just places I love to visit, and whether or not you agree with me that they are the best in their category, I hope you find something interesting here and end up enjoying a visit or two.

Best pizza in Tokyo - Savoy

I’ve researched selflessly into the wide variety of styles and qualities of pizza available in Tokyo. ;) I personally favour the Napoli style of pizza, with the floppy stone baked crust, over the Rome style pizza with a thinner, crisp crust. For a while the also excellent Napule was my favourite place to get my fix, but now I decisively hand the trophy to Savoy Pizza. I think it’s the salt that gives it the edge. Many pizzeria in Tokyo with wood-fired ovens make fine pizza, such as the newer and flashier Pizza Strada, but they just don’t back the flavour punch of Savoy. Savoy does it very simply, with just 2 basic pizza choices – margherita and marinara, and they are both exquisite.

Don't be sad little guy, you're the best pizza in Tokyo!

There are 3 Savoy shops listed on the shop card, two in Tokyo and one in Saitama, I visit the Azabu Juban one. The pizzas are 1,575 yen each. There is a bit of showmanship in the preparation, the staff stretch out the dough on the marble surface in front of the diners, arrange the topping, give it a good slug of olive oil then slide it onto the peel to shunt it into the oven with a little flourish, and an occasional slap of the thigh. It comes straight from the oven to you, so if you’re not very careful you WILL burn your mouth. Not that you’ll care. The fresh and simple ingredients are dramatically showcased by the salt, it’s quite a ‘wow’. Now I've made myself want to eat Savoy pizza.

The shop does however have one particular problem – it’s too bloody popular! I’m not helping myself here by writing this am I? :) The Azabu Juban space is tiny, with room for perhaps 10 diners all squeezed together, and there are frequently queues outside. To avoid disappointment it’s best to reserve, or maybe try going before the 7pmish after-work rush. Also do be mentally prepared for the possibility of being hurried out of your seat once you’ve finished your food during busy times, even if you still have some wine left in your bottle – it’s one of the foibles of dining out at popular places in Japan, but it can really irk if you’re not expecting it. Ladies and gents, in my opinion the pizza is worth it. As a plan B, I have also seen them do take-away for pick-ups..

Best fish and chips in Tokyo - The Royal Scotsman

When you order fish and chips at certain British pub chains in Japan, at first glance you can’t be terribly sure which of the fried lumps before you are the fish and which are the chips. Breaded fried fish in place of proper battered fish is also a common sighting. The Royal Scotsman in Iidabashi however falls foul of neither of these issues. They do a man-sized portion of fish (though you can also order smaller sizes), which is coated in a light batter that is very reminiscent of what you’d get at a good chippie in the UK. It properly hits the spot. Particularly when you douse the lot in malt vinegar. 1000 yen for the large fish and chips.

Proper battered fish and chips in Tokyo

Wonder if they’ll start doing chip-shop gravy and mushy peas too? The space is cozy, non-smoking, the staff are lovely, and they also hold events like whisky tasting and Irish music sessions.

Best dal in Tokyo - Nataraj

 Another comfort food, this soup-style dish is available at many Indian restaurants across Tokyo. I’ve often had dal that is a bit gritty, putting me in the mind of spices past their use-by date. The most flavourful, fresh tasting and addictive dal I’ve found so far in Tokyo is at the Aoyama branch of the vegetarian Indian restaurant chain Nataraj, near Gaienmae station. A few months ago they started doing a lunchtime buffet, with 4 curries, rice, fresh naan bread and salad for 950 yen. It’s good value, healthy (unless you go mad with your serving sizes at the buffet), and you get to try the changing range of curries. Some of the other curries can be a bit hit and miss, and seem like they have been tailored to Japanese tastes (I’m not a fan of the gluten 'meat' curries for example), but the other curries are good and my absolute favourite is the daal (it's sometimes replaced by a similar and also delicious sambar, which is slightly sourer than the dal).

I need a better photo, but that dal at the front there? That's where it's at!

Nataraj grow a lot of the veggies used in the cooking themselves in Chiba, which is an interesting initiative and might be lending to the flavour through freshness. They also sell a recipe book at the restaurant which includes the dal, so you can reproduce it at home should you be similarly enamoured.

Best tapas in Tokyo - Tio Danjo

Previous to discovering Tio Danjo in Ebisu I'd spent some time looking forward to trying out a famous, posh tapas place in Azabu Juban, only to be thoroughly disappointed when I finally got to try it out. I should have known something was afoot when, in making the reservation I was told that 'they don't allow diners to have light meals, did I understand?' what, was I wearing a burlap sack? The food at that restaurant was nice enough, but the atmosphere of the evening was ruined for us by the staff whose role seemed to be to fret about the amount we were to order and then coldly ignore us once we'd passed some unspoken price threshold.
The posh tapas place, not the best experience..

What a relief it was then to find the more open and easy-going establishment Tio Danjo, with excellent homely food and friendlier staff, run as a standing-bar with customers casually coming and going throughout the evening. Items from the board behind the counter rotate (sautéed cauliflower, asparagus fritters) and there are staple items written on the menus along the top of the back wall (Iberico ham, Manchego cheese, dates wrapped in bacon, marinated anchovies). Our Spanish friend liked the croquetas de jamon so much "they're like my Mum makes!" we ordered them twice.

Honest good food and atmosphere at Tio Danjo in Ebisu

Best izakaya in Tokyo - Andy’s (Shin Hinomoto)

Ok so 'izakaya' isn't a food category as such, but Andy's isn't your average izakaya, and it's definitely in my list of favourite places with special food, so I'm wheedling it in here. Andy's is an institution. It's comprised of a low-ceilinged pair of old fashioned rooms under the JR train tracks in down-town Yurakucho (the upstairs room is a bit more spacious than the basement room, if you're booking ahead). Loud, smoky, and frequently packed full, Andy's is the place to come when you're with a group of friends looking for a lively evening with reasonably priced yet fantastic food. There is usually a good mix of foreigners and Japanese clientele, lots of salarymen, and as the evening wears on the divisions between the separate groups often wear down. Andy's is also good for casual work parties and for giving visitors from abroad a lively Japanese pub-style experience.

Fresh fish and seafood is the house specialty. The eponymous British proprietor goes to Tsukiji fish market every day to choose the produce which includes huge king crabs, swordfish steaks, sea bream, salmon.. well, here's the list. Various kinds of fish are served whole, grilled, fried, or prepared as truly excellent sashimi (many can also be delivered to your home through Andy's fish selection and delivery service). The selection changes depending on what's available, and so it's a good idea to check with Andy what he'd particularly recommend at that time. With non-fish menu options including grilled asparagus, tempura, a succulent tomato salad, chicken wings stuffed with gyoza meat(!), you start to get an idea why this place is head and shoulders above your average chain izakaya with their photo menus and the frozen fried chicken.

With a smile and the mixed accent of a long-time Japan resident foreigner, Andy himself has been on the floor taking orders and greeting customers every time I've visited, it really does appear to be his passion.

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Interview 4: Owner of The Royal Scotsman pub in Kagurazaka

To help me get an idea of what to expect running my own business I am speaking to a few people who have had experience setting up their own shop, running a food business in Japan, or running a business as a foreigner in Japan. Here is one of the interviews.

I started learning to play the violin a couple of years ago, and have recently been attending Irish traditional music sessions at bars around Tokyo. A friend at one of the long-running sessions told me of a new bar that opened up at the end of last year in foodie-heaven Kagurazaka/Iidabashi. The Royal Scotsman is a lovely little bar not far from Iidabashi station run by 3 friends. It’s incredible how they transformed the space from a dark teishoku-type place to an airy, open space with large windows across the two main walls, and authentic-looking exterior signage. Having attended some wonderful Sunday afternoon sessions (currently on the 2nd Sunday each month 3-6pm, bring an instrument and join in!) I can attest to the quality of their fish and chips and cottage pie, and they even have haggis! Quite uniquely for Tokyo pubs the space is also smoke-free, and the atmosphere is very easy-going and welcoming.
So what’s their story, how’s business, and what plans are in the works? Green mohican-sporting, gentleman bagpipe player Tomo-san pulled up a bar stool and started at the beginning.

The bar - selection includes some fantastic domestic brews

What was the idea behind The Royal Scotsman, have you spent time in Scotland?
We opened on the 19th of December 2011, but I guess the Royal Scotsman story started years ago when I was in France, actually. I was studying French cuisine, training with a master chef in a famous Paris restaurant. During my time in France, when I was about 26 I had the experience of seeing 100 pipers perform in Bretagne, it impressed me so much that I decided that was what I wanted to do. I begged the chef to let me quit, found a pipes teacher and managed to spend the remaining 6 months of my visa studying bag pipe playing. By the time I came back to Japan I had changed my plan of opening a French restaurant to that of opening a European pub-style venue, so I could keep up my interest in playing the pipes and meet similarly minded people.

It was another 7 years or so before we opened the Scotsman in Kagurazaka. In that time I worked in various pubs and studied the business, all the while planning how I might do it if it were my bar. Ange and I got married, and we visited Scotland - I think we tried out every single pub in Edinburgh! It's such a great place, you know, the Edinburgh festival was going on and everywhere was so lively, I loved it. One of our favorite pubs was the 'Scotsman's Lounge' - it didn't feel like a touristy place at all. Elderly customers were there alongside younger guys who were playing pinball, and even we as Japanese visitors were treated like part of the community. Then there was another pub where an old man was playing the organ, I had my bagpipes with me and people were encouraging me to play, so we ended up having a bit of a session. It was relaxed like that, people bringing instruments with them and joining in. The name of that place was the 'Royal Oak', and so there you have it, the 'Royal Scotsman' :)

What would you say your niche is - how are you different to other Brit. pubs in Tokyo?
I'd say we're a "minor pub" by which I mean, we're a unique little place. We're not some big chain business, we're able to be free in our style and really mean what we do. Like the experience we had in Edinburgh, I want the Royal Scotsman to be a place people feel 'at home', a place you can be yourself within a real community context. We're actually currently the only such European 'pub' type bar in Kagurazaka. I've loved the area since even before I thought I would open a French restaurant here, it's a very 'at home' down-town type of place, with an old-fashioned village character. We're really lucky to have been able to open up shop here, and to be the first here with this type of business!

View of the Royal Scotsman from the street
View from the back end of the Royal Scotsman

You do have a great property, and have clearly paid close attention to detail in renovating. How easy was it to find the perfect space, and to make it exactly how you wanted?
Having decided Kagurazaka, I kept my eye open over the years visiting the area and various real estate agents to learn about the kind of places available. After I was really in the position to go for it and had started actively looking I guess it took about 3 months to find this place.

We were considering another property further up the slope, but preferred to be in 3-chome if possible. On the off-chance an agent let us know this place was for sale, and we knew this was it as soon as we saw it. It's a wedge-shaped space right on the corner, not far off the main shopping street slope. In Europe the entrance to a pub is often on the corner, right? and so I thought we could do something interesting with this space. In the end we positioned a genuine antique door on the corner - it isn't a functional entrance, more of a prank, or a nod to the European pub style that I remember. Having windows running along both sides of the bar mean that people walking past see all the way inside, they see the musicians when we're having a session, and it helps makes us part of the community.

Creating the space itself took a while - I broke down the original space myself over about a month. We worked with Ono-san, a good friend from Victorian Craft ( on sourcing the perfect furniture, and another friend of mine helped with the installation. All in all it was about two and a half months in the making. Ono-san's business is amazing; they import original goods and antiques from the UK, sell them online and from their shop in Nagano, and also do bespoke design for businesses as in the case of the Royal Scotsman. The bar stool you're sitting on, it's been treated specially to look weathered, the counter has been purposefully worn and aged, that ceiling above the bar was white, but was stained and sanded, stained and sanded to achieve the effect we wanted.

Now you're up and running what’s a typical Royal Scotsman day like for the team?
There are 3 of us running the place: me, Ange and Yuji. My day starts about 10am when I do things like visit the bank and go shopping for veggies. I'll get to the pub about 11am and do some admin, check the company email and Facebook and maybe about noon I'll start preparation in the kitchen. Yuji comes in around 1pm and cleans and prepares the beer stock and the pumps and things, we open from 3pm. Yuji handles the bar until about midnight when I come out of the kitchen and run the bar area till 3am. After that it's final cleaning, ordering any stock, cashing up and bed by 5am maybe..?

Gosh that sounds like quite the schedule! Has that been particularly challenging, and what have been some of the highlights in running the business so far?
Actually it's ok, I enjoy it so it isn't as hard as it sounds. It's also important to us to be open as much as possible, we're just at the 5 month mark at the moment so there is a lot to do and still lots to learn.
The biggest highlight so far is that residents from the area have started to visit us. Kagurazaka is a “マナーのある街 / place with manners”, so you have to behave properly to be accepted as a business. Becoming a real part of the community is exactly what we hoped to achieve, so it's particularly meaningful to us when people living nearby choose to make us part of their daily lives - when people drop in separately and know each other, when neighboring business owners come and chat with us.

Quite possibly the best fish and chips in Tokyo

Are you finding that the Scottish/British food is finding a warm reception? What dish would you recommend people to try?
Try our fish and chips. Really, try it. When I was in Scotland I was impressed with the sheer size of the fish, that and the fact that even the girls could eat a whole one themselves! In Japan fish&chips at the British chain pubs tends to be little pieces of fish and a few chips. Our dish surprises both Japanese "うぁ!でっかい!/ OMG it's huge!" and international customers "finally, real fish and chips in Japan!" alike. It's not easy either - the frier in a Japanese restaurant kitchen may be able to do multiple servings of Japanese-sized fried fish at once, but you can only fit 2 full-sized battered fillets in at a time. It might not be very efficient, but it's worth it. We make the effort to get it right, using two different types of flour in our batter, and separating eggs to make it as light as possible. British food does have a bit of a bad reputation with some people, maybe they feel it's just 'potatoes with everything' or 'beans from a can' whereas traditional Japanese cooking starts from the dried beans etc. To me though, the preparation is the same whether it's going to be French food or British food, it's still about quality ingredients and the best method. With the Royal Scotsman being a pub, we haven't encountered any strange food prejudices however, people come expecting pub food.

I’ve attended a couple of your excellent Sunday afternoon Irish music sessions, and I saw that you do other events such as whisky tasting - what types of activities are you most excited about?
I love any of the events that let me learn, as well as the ones where I can join in with bag pipes! - Like craft beer festivals and so on. Playing the pipes has also enabled me to meet some of the beer and whisky producers directly too, so I can get advice directly from the most knowledgeable source and pass it on to our customers and incorporate it into our business and events.

What advice would you give for someone looking to open a small food business in Tokyo?
While you're at the planning stage, be imagining the whole time you visit other businesses 'how would I do it differently, what would I keep?' be precise too, 'would it be 2nd floor, 3rd floor? Would the counter be here, how many staff would I need..?' study well and it will help you plan for and recognise your space when you find it. Then when you have found your opportunity, strike quickly!

The Royal Scotsman
Kagurazaka 3-6-28, Shinjuku-ku, Tokyo 162-0825
162-0825 東京都、新宿区神楽坂3丁目-6-28、1F
Closest metro exit: B3 from the Yurakucho or Namboku lines, then walk up the hill.
Google map
Tel: 03-6280-8852

The turning you need to take, off Kagurazaka main shopping street

Thursday, May 17, 2012

Irish music sessions in Tokyo

When I have my own shop, I would love to host some sessions in the space. Sunday afternoons round the fireplace, in a set-up like a big old kitchen or cosy living room, epic banter ;), tea and cake, with some of the stronger stuff undoubtedly too... well it sounds so civil.

Wherever you go in the world you'll find people playing Irish traditional music, and most definitely in Tokyo. There is something inclusive, barrier-breaking, border-crossing about being able to sit down with a group of people and play the same music. You wouldn't even need to speak the same language very well, but you could maybe achieve something together, and even if not you'd have a great time trying.

My fiddle having a little rest

When I first came to Japan in 2001 I used to travel from Saitama to the Shannon's pub in Osaki sometimes on a Sunday evening to hear the Irish music sessions that were led at the time by the wonderful folks who went on to set up the band Gypsy Pot. I was just listening then, mind. I'd be living in Japan for another 6 years before I even considered trying to learn the violin myself.

Maybe a year and a half into my classical lessons at a music night school, I got a book on Irish music. 6 months later I joined in a session for the first time and stumbled through a tune, the bits of coloured guide-tape still on the finger board to show me the notes. I've now been learning violin for a little over 3 years, still fumble my way through a lot but am able to join in, ever so gradually, more and more tunes in the sessions. There is still a looong way to go, but it's possible, of course it is, if you're thinking of learning an instrument as an adult, go for it!

So here we go, whether you're playing, learning or just listening, here's a list of Irish music sessions in Tokyo that I'm aware of at the moment.
Note that these details are correct at the time of writing, but times and dates change all the time. I plan to come back and flesh out this post the more places I try out, but please do contact any venue yourself before making a special trip out.

The Shannon's Irish Pub, Osaki. Sunday afternoons, once a month on the 3rd Sunday, 5-7pm
The Shannons sessions are purely Irish traditional music. It's a small venue and a small group of about 5 regular musicians, with others who come and go. These sessions have been running for at least 10 years that I know of, but the bar itself has changed hands a few times with some staff being more supportive of the sessions than others. The atmosphere is very intimate, and you'll almost certainly be asked to start a tune off. There are sometimes a few other customers in the bar, people who have hunted the place down after seeing the warm description on the site, or random wanderers-in from the shopping mall it is situated within. Did I mention that it's strangely situated in a big brightly lit shopping mall, with a fountain out front of the pub..? If you're lucky, one of the talented musicians will have even brought his clàrsach, his small Irish harp to the session. Not much in the way of food on Sundays.

The Royal Scotsman, Iidabashi. Sunday afternoons, 3-5pm (Currently on hiatus, possibly re-starting Autumn 2013 - check their Facebook page)
A fairly new pub and fantastic venue for Irish traditional music sessions. Just off the main slope in Kagurazaka/Iidabashi surrounded by awesome restaurants and cute side streets, this pub while also fairly small is lovely and airy thanks to the windows all around, the open plan set-up and welcoming staff. I've seen maybe up to 15 musicians turn up at sessions here, taking up a good half of the space as other customers wander in for a few drinks, and maybe have a go on the bodhrán. The variety of instruments is surprising here, there is a regular ullieann pipes piperer, extremely talented fiddle players, a guitarist, flautists, whistle players and button accordionists, oh yes and mandolin players, bodhrán and banjo players too. It's really something. The food is fantastic, and they are in the running in my books for the best fish and chips in Tokyo.

The Dubliners, Ikebukuro. Thursday evenings, once a month on the last Thursday of the month (apart from a break in July and August), 8-11pm
Session led by Jim Ediger (see below). The only time I've been able to attend was before a national holiday and so the Dubliners management decided that the sessions couldn't happen there that night. Unfazed, we piled en masse into a local karaoke room and had a fantastic evening. Don't feel I can comment on the sessions at the actual Dubliners venue yet then, but the mix of people was certainly great!

The Dubliners, Shibuya. Wednesday evenings, once a month on the 2nd Wednesday of the month, from 8pm
I haven't been able to attend this one personally yet either, but I think the musicians might be set up on the balcony part outside. Sounds nice for the summer!

The Warrior Celt, Ueno. Wednesday evenings on the 1st and 3rd Wednesday of the month, from 8pm.
Another weekday evening session I haven't made it to, but have heard nice things about. Might be a little smoky, but it should be a welcoming and very good natured session.

Irish Times Pub, Shinagawa. Frequently the 4th Saturday of the month from 5pm-7:30 or 8pm - contact the venue to check.
This is a comparatively large venue for sessions, with the musicians taking up a space at one end around a big table. Lovely people attending this new session, and it as lots of potential as a very fun and welcoming one to join. Food served.

For the most up-to-date information on Irish music and culture events in Japan check this blog (in Japanese).

Ullieann pipes, what a treat

A few additional thoughts about learning Irish music and attending sessions in Tokyo:

- Quite a lot of musicians in Tokyo practice in karaoke booths, probably because so many apartment contracts stipulate that instruments are banned 楽器禁止/gakki kinshi. You'd need to ask at the particular karaoke place you want to use (maybe you could say 楽器の練習してもいいですか?gakki no renshu shitemo ii desu ka? Is it ok to practice my instrument?), but many places do allow it. Shidax for example is one place that even promotes the fact they rent out their rooms to individuals with instruments.

- When about to change to the second or third tune in a set, musicians in sessions in Japan generally look up and make eye contact with the other players, nodding or so, to indicate that the tune change is about to take place. I gather that in other countries a short shout along the lines of "hup" is shouted or whooped, but I've only ever heard this at larger events in Japan. You could probably do this yourself in a session if it's your tune and it would be awesome, but you'll probably need to watch out for the nodding looks for a cue to know when someone else is changing tunes or ending a set.

- There can sometimes be quite a lot of waiting between sets. Session leaders are generally present (or someone has the role foist upon them), but it isn't often that I've seen a leader start up one set after another to keep things going. There is a dynamic in some places, like the Shannons where the musicians are prompted to take turns to start something off, if they can think of something they fancy playing. Musicians will also pick out the first notes of a tune by way of suggestion and the group will often join in and make it the next set. Quite frequently though there is quite a lot of time for chatter between sets, which is great in order to get to know people, but might be a bit more "what can we play.. hmm, erm..." than some people might be used to.

- As in other countries, some sessions in Tokyo aren't that keen on having slow airs played. The tendency is to play faster-paced music to keep the mood up and so that everyone can join in. The Royal Scotsman session and possibly Ikebukuro could be good venues to try out a slower song, but as anywhere it's polite to ask the leader if you can do so. Also there are some sessions where it is strictly all Irish traditional tunes, and others where Cape Breton music and Scottish and so on are played, just check with the session leader if you're unsure.


Pete Cooper's 'The Complete Irish Fiddle Player' is the book I started with, (I know learning from a book  isn't the best or most traditional way of learning Irish music, but I needed to start somewhere) the learning CDs are clear and easy to learn from, and the guys at the sessions know pretty much any of the songs in the book. It's set up quite nicely, introducing new techniques bit by bit and building to more difficult tunes. When you've finished this book you should have the skills to pick out tunes from other recordings and teach yourself how to play them, which would be the proper way of learning, without the dots on paper. One caution is that some of the arrangements are a bit different to how the tunes are played in Tokyo (only a few, like The Banshee), and also the recordings are just played through once each, whereas you'd at least play them twice at the sessions - much to my surprise in my first Shannon's appearance :)

These fionn seisiun books (or actually just the CDs for learning by ear) were recommended by a friend at the Shannons group. They play a lot of these tunes, and the arrangements on these CDs are quite similar to how they play the songs in Tokyo. You can listen to clips on their site too - the Comhaltas site itself is a fantastic resource for Irish traditional music.

Another great site is the session, where you can find sheet music, the ABC notation, and informative discussions about various tunes, their changing names and the best recordings or links to YouTube videos. You don't have to sign up to search for and find probably any song in the tunes database, but there is also a nice forum there too, so it could be worth registering to join in the conversation.

Jim Ediger is a Canadian musician teaching fiddle in Tokyo. Jim teaches Irish traditional music as well as music from around the British Isles, and Cape Breton etc. Here is a link to Jim's site with information about his extremely popular lessons. Jim also leads some of the sessions, including the Ikebukuro celtic sessions each month in the Dubliners pub, and also does some in Shibuya. 've only had the pleasure of meeting him the once so far, when I went to the Ikebukuro session a couple of months ago. He's a really nice easy going guy. I'd love to make it to those sessions more, but it's difficult on a week night.

The Irish Network in Japan are an NPO run by volunteers to promote cultural exchange between Ireland and Japan.

If you're looking for an Irish music teacher, ask around at the sessions you attend. Some of the musicians also teach casually and formally, and the guys are likely to be able to point you in the right direction.

And finally! Back to the sessions, here are some of the regular tunes I've heard played in Tokyo: (though there are many, many more!)

Maid Behind the Bar
Cooley's Reel
Saddle the Pony
Tobin's Jig
Chicago Jig (or Dusty Windowsills)
The Teetotaler's Reel
The Silver Spear
The Castle
My Darling Asleep
The Salamanca
The Banshee
Lark in the Morning
The Kid on the Mountain
Morrison's Jig
The Road to Lisdoonvarna
Woman of the House
The Earl's Chair
The Walls of Liscarroll
Behind the Haystack

Hope to see you at one of the sessions around about town. I'll be the one sat with my fiddle on my knee, waiting for a tune I know to join in excitedly. Sláinte!

Sunday, May 6, 2012

Field Trip! - Coco Farm and Winery, Ashikaga, Tochigi

series of posts from visiting interesting little (and large) cafes, food-related establishments and other places of inspiration.

After hearing about it on the weekend Master of Wine course at Temple University in Azabu Juban (much fun and learning to be had, highly recommended btw), we took the opportunity this Golden Week to pay a visit to Coco Farm and Winery in Tochigi prefecture. It was beautiful weather.

Golden Week is Spring Vineyard Week (information in Japanese) at the winery which, unlike the larger Harvest Festival coinciding with an actual vineyard life-cycle event, seems to be an event thrown just to make an excuse to visit. Not that I needed much persuading. I’ll preface by saying that I’ve had a pretty poor experience with Japanese wines to date - I was disappointed when the house wine at brunch at Beacon was koshu, as I find it just tastes like faintly alcoholic water. However, I had heard very interesting things about Coco - the wonderful back story of how students with learning disabilities and their families had started a farming endeavour at the site in the 1950s and now produce quality wines, and the intriguing input of technical knowledge and artisanal tuning of the product over the years under the guidance of master Californian wine maker Bruce Gutlove (nice article there) who moved to Japan to join Coco in 1989, and stayed. This article in CNN World describes how Coco operates through sales of wine, government grants, donations and tuition fees from the students, and that over 100 developmentally disabled people work and thrive there. We didn't get to meet the students on our visit, but passing through the residential area ahead of the winery there were a couple of heartily shouted greetings of konnichiwa! and waving hands from inside houses which makes me inclined to agree the students must be happy and doing well.

Overhead trellises

Japan does not have a good climate for growing wine grapes. I understand that humidity is the main problem, then there is the summer heat, and the typhoon season. The vines at Coco are trained along trellises above head height to help combat the humidity, and I heard that each bunch of grapes is wrapped at a certain time in the cycle for further protection.

Painstakingly trained to the trellis by hand

Varieties grown have also been selected for their relative suitability to the Japanese climate. Looking around you can spot plates with the names of the varietal planted, the one nearest me was ‘Petit Manseng’ a grape from the South of France that I hadn’t heard of. Among others I wasn’t familiar with were Norton, Tannat and Riesling 'Lion', one I was very excited to try being a Riesling fan since my conversion to German wines during blind tasting on the wine course.

For the vineyard week, a covered area beneath the 2nd-floor restaurant was arranged as an alfresco tasting area. There were light meals available here and 3 flights of 4 wines to arrange on your semi-circle tasting tray, with more wines available, including the sparkling ones, to try by the individual glass.

Our Coco, Yama no Chardonnay, Koshu F.O.S., and Tannat-Norton

Bread made on site with wild yeast

Here came my first epiphany of the day. “Our Coco” あわここ (awa in Japanese means bubbles, hurrah for more cross-language punning!). It’s a cloudy (likely to be less filtered and over processed = more character), pleasantly acidic slightly spritzy wine, made with koshu grapes. My pet-peeve grape, and I loved it. It is 2,000 yen a bottle, and comes with the pre-corking beer-cap style top, that is used for the duration of the initial bottle fermentation when making champagne. The Tannat Norton was also surprisingly robust compared to the experience I have generally had with Japanese red wine.

My second epiphany was with the Novo. This is their star wine, with a matching price tag - the brut and demi sec bottles are 7,500 yen each, there is also a 1998 Grand Cuvee brut that is made with Californian grapes in the traditional champagne method that sells for 8,500 yen. The wine I tried was the Novo Brut made with domestic Riesling Lion grapes. Crisply acidic, with a remarkable sherry nose and a mineral finish, it was extremely elegant and yes, all Japanese! I'll just add here that I need to do the distance test on these wines - a friend told me he used to visit Coco often and have a great time sitting amongst the vines drinking with a big group of friends, rolling empty bottles down the hill, and the wine tasted excellent. Then you'd buy a couple of bottles to take back, but once you tried them at home out of the context of the winery, they paled against non-Japanese wines you could buy in Tokyo for the same price. As a serious student of quality and taste I pledge to look into this alleged phenomenon further, though it will, naturally, involve the drinking of more wine. ;)

Though Coco used to buy some grapes from Cline Cellars in California, the wine currently produced there is all made from domestic Japanese grapes, with much of the harvest coming from other, less humid regions of Japan - Hokkaido, Nagano, Yamanashi prefectures. The dramatic slope at Coco Winery makes up about 2 the total of 5 hectares of vines they have in Tochigi, from which they harvest between 15-20 tonnes of grapes.

We learned this and more on a tour of the winery, the first winery tour I’ve been on, as our friendly guide showed us how the wine making process takes place at Coco.

Fermenting white wine

Fermenting red wine

Explaining the méthode champenoise

It was surprisingly small scale - lots of manual labour involved, tending the vines and trimming leaves, scaring off crows, unloading and sorting bunches by hand. The bunches pass by on a conveyor belt as the bad berries are picked out, then the remainder fall into a machine with a large corkscrew-shaped device that pushes the them into a metal tube with holes for the grapes to fall through, separated from stems. The grapes are then ready to be pressed. It was explained that any kind of pressure, such as that used in many wineries to pump the grapes/juice to different parts of the process can stress the product undesirably, and so as much as possible is done fairly manually, or with the aid of gravity rather than pumps.

Bottling the wine

Labeling the bottles

Here we’re coming back to the small farm conundrum - that it’s endearing and laudable, but is it the right thing, for Japan and the global future of food production to cling onto the small less efficient farms? The staff explained that the usual yield from a hectare of land would be 10 tonnes of grapes, and that at Coco they produce up to 4 tonnes per hectare. Coco's 5 hectare size also contrasts sharply with the 10-100 hectares of "medium size" Californian vineyards. On the other hand the small scale certainly allows for a more artisanal approach - on the main 2-hectare slope of Coco Winery at least 8 different varieties of grape were pointed out to us. The winery also uses only wild yeast from the skins of the grapes for their wine making, all apart from the sparkling wines whose second fermentation uses added yeast. Then there are the people you meet there - the people who work producing the wine are not only knowledgeable about their product, they are interested in it, and excited to share their enjoyment with you. One of the pourers at the tasting area was telling me he was looking forward to the chance to visit England to see how the UK sparkling wine industry is blooming. They really seem to care about what they are doing.

Coco is clearly doing much more than mass producing a consistent standard of marketable wine, aside from the fantastic environment they have created to enjoy the wine in, there is an educational component, and a humanitarian core to the enterprise. It's a business and a school, a community and quite an experience to visit. "Coco Farm and Winery - Product of sun, soil and sincerity"

Clearing the slope

The spring Vineyard Week was not an overwhelmingly busy time to visit, which was perfect for me, preferring a leisurely pace and a bit of space. There were generally spots available in the ground-floor tasting area, I'd advise making a reservation for lunch though if you're thinking of eating at the restaurant (they do wines by the glass, decanter and bottles), to avoid having to queue. Harvest Festival time sounds like the most popular time to go, so if you prefer bustle and activity then you might prefer to go in the Autumn.

You can also buy their wines to be delivered inside Japan here, in Japanese. Here is a list of establishments in Tokyo stocking Coco wines, including Meidi-ya stores in Roppongi, Hiro and Marunouchi.

---- Update! ----

I'd like to report back with the first results of the off-farm context taste testing that I've selflessly subjected myself to (the idea that the wine tastes great because you had it at Coco, but then pales in comparison to other wines when you get it back home):

We opened our bottle of Our Coco the other day and had it with grilled swordfish (and fries). It performed admirably off-farm, and put me in the mind of a good cider, with its subtle spritz and light fruity flavours. One thing I hadn't been expecting however was the smudge of peanut butter-like sediment in the neck of the bottle. I understood it to be the natural yeast, the product of the wine making process, and not a fault, but how best to deal with it? Do you strain it, wipe it out, just ignore it?
I contacted Coco and got a very kind reply explaining that the sediment is called "lees" - residual yeast, and is still active. I guess this is the stuff that is frozen in the neck of the bottle and disgorged when making Champagne, and accounts for the cloudiness I mentioned above. The lady from Coco Farm went on to explain that Our Coco is made very naturally, without added sugar or sulfur, which are common ingredients in wine making. She assured me that the sediment is not harmful, and rather desirable in that it can lend complexity to the flavours. Here are her instructions for dealing with the sediment:

"Before you drink Our Coco, please keep the bottle stood up so that lees will be collected on the bottom of the bottle. After a while, the upper part of the bottle will be clear then lower part will be cloudy. Now, you can enjoy both flavor, freshness and complexity."

Methinks I'm going to need to 'test' this one out again... ;)

Thursday, May 3, 2012

Field Trip! - Gankaen Ryokan, Ashikaga, Tochigi

series of posts from visiting interesting little (and large) cafes, food-related establishments and other places of inspiration.

During the Golden Week holidays we made a plan to visit Coco Farm and Winery in Tochigi prefecture and, having seen that this gem of a ryokan was nearby, decided to make a weekend of it. Aside from affording us the luxury of being able to wake up and stroll 20 minutes or so down the road to the winery, the main pull of Gankaen ryokan, I have to say, was their “Sherlock Holmes Loung – Moriarty” (sic). The kanji for the lounge’s name reads 森亜亭 (mori-a-tei) Oh! I just love me some cross-language punning. Many ryokan I have stayed in have had a bit of the dusty bric-a-brac aesthetic, threadbare faded velvet, polished dark oak tables, a cared-for but fading old-world feel, but this is the first one I’d seen with a Sherlock Holmes theme! I was disproportionately excited.

It wouldn't be a ryokan without some stuffed animals

We fancied a walk when we arrived at Ashikaga-shi station, and it took about an hour to walk to the Ryokan (there are taxis outside the station however). The route we took was through the residential area of the town past lots of closed down shops and an abandoned ghost-town supermarket. Having forgotten to pack a toothbrush we ventured into a local unbranded convenience store. Two old ladies were sat with the lights off having a good natter, most of the shelves were half empty. Taking a bottle of water and the toothbrush to the counter, we were politely interrogated as to where we were going, where we were from and if we had friends in the area. I came across as Russian to the ladies who were maybe a little too apologetic when I told them we were British, clearly they had a profession in mind for me as well.. though maybe buying toothbrushes didn't help dispel them of the thought. We were having fun already, and we hadn’t even arrived at the ryokan!

Gankaen is a traditional old ryokan, which from what I can gather has been largely in its current state since the end of the Edo period in the late 1800s. In the welcome folder in your room (is it just me who loves to go through those? :) ) are postcards with present day and 1935 views of the entrance, and it looks like not much has changed. The Sherlock Holmes theme is just localised to the lounge area, and is the area where breakfast is served.

The Sherlock Holmes Lounge is a space for exploring – the mirror with top hat stand, the old Japanese beer posters, the strange wooden winch/pulley system hung in a corner apropos of nothing, the stuffed bird in the tangle of branches over the door.

At one end of the Lounge is the “Aperitif Ber” (sic) the bar, which looks like it might not be in use any more, but has an array of aged Western paraphernalia along the lines of an old blender, retro toaster, a radio with dials. Little leather pouffy stools line up at the bar, and I was thinking it would have been lovely to have a pre-dinner tipple there, only the current staff weren’t sure what an aperitif was.

The bar, "Aperitif Ber"

At the back of the lounge was an upright piano, polished and in working order, draped with a velvet tassled cover. On the music stand was an embossed leather folder bearing a lion crest on the cover, concealing a new Japanese text book for “100 popular songs for children”. There was a desk with an array of instruments, weighing scales, a tiny telescope, a couple of attractive old empty holders for unknown objects. A gramophone with a Japanese record sat next to a record box and a strange wooden chest.

Just outside the lounge is the communal teeth-brushing/hand washing area common to many Japanese hotels, sinks and mirrors in a row arranged all about with blue glass cups, vases, candlesticks, and empty enamel vessels. Opposite that was a display cabinet full of cat and witch knick knacks and sparkly scrunchies, for sale. Quirky, deliberate, sometimes crossing the line into twee, I was charmed.

I was interested to see if I might pick up any quirkly interior tips for my space. The Sherlock Holmes Loung - Moriarty is very Japanese interpretation of (Victorian) England, but there were a couple of things I had been pondering that made appearances in this space.

Flocked velvet wallpaper – in my space, maybe I'd do something with this in the bathroom area? I’m not sure what it is about Sherlock Holmes, but the excellent BBC TV series also has Sherlock dramatically backed by velvet patterned wallpaper (nice observations of the same on this blog). At Gankaen, there was a lovely folding screen that was covered in a light turquoise-green flocked paper, and framed by dark wood. Interesting to think that Japanese folding screens with cranes and mountains were all the rage at the same time in Europe with the Japonisme of the late 1800s. (The image below is from Burke Decor, sadly I lost all the photos I took at the ryokan and had to use my partner's.)

Wing-backed chairs – In Gankaen, these were a pair of deeply springy upholstered chairs secreted in the far corner of the room, next to a table on which was placed a little glass lamp, with a matching set of high-backed dining chairs pushed against another wall. Being upholstered in beige had them bordering on Granny-chic, I guess it would depend on the pattern. I think I might try to find slightly beaten up leather wingback chairs, comfortable but special. (Again, the pictures below are approximations of the chairs from Gankaen, found here and here. I quite like the William Morris one on the left actually..)

The meals at the ryokan were lovely, just what you’d expect from a traditional place – kaiseki style in a private tatami dining room, brought course by course and explained “this is the tempura course, the chawanmushi, the nama course, this is salt-grilled fish, rice, pickles, onigiri...” You do of course also get grilled as to whether you're really finished with that course, since there is still some left. The meal was started off with two little glasses of rose wine from the nearby winery (I got an aperitif in the end!).

Breakfast was also in the traditional style with grilled fish, egg roll, soup, rice, seaweed, pickles (I passed on the natto). Another feature of the ryokan was the private bath, not an onsen but set up in the onsen style with showers and wooden stools along one wall and an irregular shaped small tiled bath. You can don your yukata in your room, come down put the latch on the bathroom door and have it to yourself for a little while. The changing area has its own set of fascinating bric-a-brac in the various lotions, hair tonic(!), tortoise-shell effect plastic combs, weighing scales and strange old fashioned exercise machines, and it looks out onto a closed courtyard.

Ashikaga-shi station is on the Tobu line, which we boarded at Kita Senju station after stocking up on train-picnic goodies at the station. We’d bought reserved seat tickets for the Tobu line at the JR midori-no-madoguchi window in Yotsuya JR train station. The ryokan's website is here, and a little bit of information in English here.