You can sigh in relief, Tokyo has its own Le Verre Volé... The French iconic natural-wine restaurant (and caviste) has now its mirror venue in Meguro, close to Ebisu and Shibuya, not exactly the worst location for a restaurant. It opened last november (2012) and it is already among the top destinations for the natural-wine lovers in Tokyo, some of them having already visited the Paris venue during a travel in France. Its owner Ryotaro Miyauchi learnt his skills while working several years in France including at Le Verre Volé-Paris with Cyril Bordarier.
It takes a mere 10-minute walk maybe to reach Le Verre Volé from the Meguro station, an easy stroll along a large avenue with a mix of shops and other businesses. the avenue (named Meguro-dori) is wide and busy near the Meguro station but it's much more quiet when you reach Le Verre Volé on the right-hand side, the shops turning more artsy too, I spotted a couple of designers shops or something like that, including furniture shops. The area is also into fashion stylists if I remember and it has a particulat flavor in this regard. This visit to Le verre Volé was a good opportunity to discover another spot on the Tokyo map, which is healthy, because if you're not careful you end up going always to a handful of destinations in this huge city, when in fact it has so many neighborhoods with their own something.
I crossed the Meguro-gawa, which is also one of the destinations for hanami. Rivers are looking like canals in Tokyo, from a European perspective, that's because they've been built along and remodeled for so many years I guess. Meguro-gawa can't be compared to the Canal Saint Martin which flows 20 meters from the Paris'Verre Volé, but there's still something of the 10th arrondissement here, not too expensive and in the same time quite close to magnet neighborhoods like Ebisu and Shibuya.
I had the preconception that the tachinomi type of bar, the standing bar, was to be found only in the shitamachi part of Tokyo or other towns. In other words, I thought that it was a working-class
venue for the salarymen and workers at the bottom of the social ladder, but I began to explore what I would call
more upscale tachinomis or standing bars, located in more affluent neighborhoods and targetting a more middle-class clientèle.
We're in Shinjuku again, and following the tip of John W., I visited this place with my friend T. who in spite of being a native Tokyoite is always happy to learn about an interesting bar to go to for a few glasses and plates.
Again, even if this standing bar is neater and more sophisticated than the ones in more simple neighborhoods, I notice that there is little coverage on them, they are the second fiddles for the restaurant/bar guides, maybe because the patrons there are mostly local salarymen and executives, because foreigners are shy of venturing inside. This story will try to correct that and show how you can have a beautiful time for not so much money in this supposedly expensive city.
This venue is located in a basement (B1) and this is the opportunity to remind that in Tokyo, many restaurants and bars are not on the street level, they're either on upper stories (F1, F2.... F5 or higher) or in the basements, and an unsuspecting westerner passes them without even imagining that they pass dozens of hidden venues when they walk along these streets and avenues. We're so much used in Paris for example to just walk around a given neighborhood to have an idea of the potential restaurants that we're left clueless in Tokyo if we follow the same routine.
Tags : forgotten Tokyo, micro bars, brothels, city of pleasures, time wrap, Flamenco
Golden Gai is a surprising anachronism in the heart of one of the most modern and active part of Tokyo : Shinjuku. When you come out of the subway/Yamanote station in the evening like the thousands upon thousands of young Japanese who go out for fun and dinner, you don't expect to find this tiny block of alleys and small rickety buildings which seem to
come straight from the 1930s' or 1940s'. And actually you may come repeatedly to Shinjuku and pass this forgotten island without noticing it, hidden behind tall and modern buildings.
Golden Gai is a roughly square area stuck inside the modern city, with something like 200 low buildings that seem to be made as much with tin and planks than brick and mortar. The classic Japanese oldie below seems appropriate as you feel more like in the 1940s' or 1950s' here. This was all brothels in the past, every single building in here was for prostitution, I was explained that you could gauge the girl in the room at the street level, then walk up the stairs with her, and the madam owning the venue was sleeping in the small attic above the whole. When the thing was over, you could leave through the discreet back door so as not to stumble upon other clients... This sounds like today's love hotels where discretion goes as far as speaking wityour hands being the only thing indentifiable.
In the post-world-war-II era, somewhere during the 1950s' or 1960s', open prostitution was forbidden and the shacks were turned into bars and stayed that way to this day. the place is not very open to foreigners except a few bars and it's better to go there alone and speak a bit of Japanese if you want to experience one of these bars (which are not as cheap as they look as many ask for table fees).
Credit for the picture on left : IncontournableTokyo.com
Iidabashi (Toei line) Tokyo
Méli-Mélo is a restaurant focused on French natural wines and French cuisine prepared from carefully-sourced organic products. Again, I heard about this venue through Junko and John. this is not the only restaurant with a wine list of this type, as Tokyo begins like Paris to have restaurants wholly dedicated to serving wines made without corrections and from organicly-farmed grapes. Natural wines have become mainstream anyway in Japan in the last few years, according to this Japan Times article.
The Iidabashi neighborhood is mixed,
with businesses, residential buildings, some leafy streets
(with beautiful sakura flowers these days) and a view on the river Kanda, which goes through it and was in the old time a major way of transportation. In Tokyo there are not really-beautiful neighborhoods in the Western-European sense of the words, the buildings are generally all new, utilitarian and heterogenous by their architectural style. A particular neighborhood must be felt or analyzed through its human activity and style, which can vary enormously between day and dark. Whatever, Iidabashi has nothing special that I noticed during this single visit, it's an active area with neighborhood shops and businessmen, salarymen doing their daily work.
To reach it from Nippori, I had to reluctantly use another line than the Yamanote, in this matter the Toei Oedo line which goes straight through the inner city (if there is any inner city at all in Tokyo to begin with) from Ueno to Shinjuku, Iidabashi being roughly at mid distance.
The restaurant sits at a corner on a quiet side street (pic on left) and excecutives and other businessmen walk around at noon when they're looking for a place to eat (pic on right, Méli Mélo is in the background, near the tree).
Ueno/Okachimachi district (Tokyo)
Is there a gaijin who doesn't feel the urge to walk inside one of these smoky venues where few foreigners venture ?
I love strolling along the narrow streets of shitamachi in the evening. These popular, working-class districts have very vibrant streets at that time, the crowd stopping there probably on its way to the metro/train stations, in the matter the Yamonote stations of Ueno and Okachimachi. You can't imagine how different these streets look like in daytime and in the evening.
Here is a tachinomi (standing bar)
which is the 3rd such venue opened by its owners, the 1st being the one we visited last year (when you like a neighborhood, stick to it !). It is, like the original one, located near Okachimachi and Ueno in a maze of narrow streets along the Yamanote line. The area is busy on day time with shops and other activity, but it gets even more vibrant once the evening comes. This business is very local and the 3 Takioka venues are very close from each other, like if the owners were really at ease in their neighborhood. My friend T. knows them all and he says that the original Takioka is the best but I was happy to experience this one too and said, let's go try this one too (I'll never balk at going to these standing bars for a few glasses of sake and for the smoky ambiance).
First, I learned something again this time : I sort of thought that the tachinomi concept (standing bar) was a type of venue with a long history in Japan, but actually the original tachinomi was taking place in a corner of the sakayas (the sake shops) where there was always a narrow standing counter where men could stop and drink sake on the spot before buying some. At one point, the tachinomis began to be a separate venue from the sake shops, and we had these standing bars dealing only with the bar side of the trade, selling small plates of food in the way.
Sendagi, Nishinippori (Tokyo)
This is about a sakaya shop in a nondescript neighborhood west of the Nishinippori station. Through a visit to this wine shop and a short interview with its owner, I could gauge the interest of the Japanese consumers for natural wine and the growing popularity of these wines in a country where wine in general is a recent adoptee and where beer and sake still hold the lion's
share of fermented beverages. The japanese are in high demand for what they call Mutenka wine (無添加 - additive-free wine) or van nature (natural wine) and this sakaya/wine-shop is a convincing example of this trend.
First, a sakaya
means sake shop, the sakayas are where the Japanese buy their sake and miso under the form of concentrated paste. Since a few years, you see wines in the sakayas, so they're basically the Japanese equivalent of our local wine shops in the West, just that sake holds a prominent place there. Miso is more of a mystery why it's been sold there but I think that these shops sell miso because miso is like sake the result of a fermentation.
I thought that this particular sakaya would be very interesting to share because although it is located in a regular, almost working-class neigborhood, the owner has for a few years selected his wine portfolio on the criteria of their natural winemaking, and same for many of his other products including miso paste.
This is a very simple and even vulgar yakitori joint named Sasanoya, which sits along the Yamanote line in Tokyo, near the Uguisudani station a few meters from the railroad tracks. But beyond its food-shack appearance it's a place you have a hard time to resist stopping for a glass of sake (or beer) and a couple of yakitori.
I'll be Frank,
Tokyo may have become a haven for fine cuisine and
top chefs, that is for this type of vibrant small venues that I tick in this city...
Another thing to note is that this yakitori place is right next to a string of love hotels (beginning in the background on the pic above, see also pics on right and left), which gives a thrilling feel of sin and romance in the evening when all the colored lights and neons of the hotels shine in the narrow streets. Love hotels are a Japanese urban thing, you find them clustered near certain train/subway stations so as to allow illegitimate couples or young people without an appartment of their own to enjoy themselves a few hours, before presumably hopping on the train back home... They all have fancy, colored rooms, discreet lobby doors and they post two prices, one for "Rest" (an euphemism for the real purpose) which is for a duration of 2 or 3 hours and another for "Stay" which means the full night. Tokyo is a town where night and day makes a big difference, such narrow street will seem bland and uninteresting during the day and when the sun goes down it become another neighborhood with velvety nuances. Shibuya has lots such love hotels in the Dogenzaka area at a secure distance from the Hachiko crossing, but I think that you can find clusters of love hotels in the vicinity of many subway or Yamanote stations in Tokyo. If you're interested, "Rest" costs something like 4000 Y and "Stay" 8000 Y (respectively 33 € and 66 €)... And here is a map of Uguisudani's love hotels...
Ashikaga, Tochigi Prefecture (Japan)
The Coco Farm Winery has a very unique story that makes it stand out from the other Japanese wineries. In short, we could say that this winery became what it is today thanks to the persistent work of two men : Noboru Kawada and an American vintner named Bruce Gutlove.
At the origin, before the winery was founded, there was a project by a Japanese teacher named Noboru Kawada, who wanted to help mentally-disabled and autistic people improve their relation with the outside
world through manual and agricultural work. Kawada-san set up a special class for autistic students in 1958 and brought them on the slopes where the winery now sits, clearing the land, planting and tending table-grape vines as well setting up as mushrooms nurseries. The idea
was to give these otherwise-introverted students a healthy manual-labor experience in a natural setting that would help them relate to the outside world. The institution named Cocoromi Gakuen (cocoromi means challenge) was created officially in 1969 without outside help on a base of 30 disabled patients. In the early 1980s'investors from the families of the students decided to set up a winery all the while keeping growing mushrooms. In the end of the 1980s' they'd use grapes produced here as well as grapes grown in Sano (20 km from there) and they would also import grapes from Cline Cellars in Sonoma, California. That's through the owners of Cline-Cellars that Kawada-san met Bruce Gutlove, a UC-Davis-trained winemaker, and he asked him to come over in Japan to see what could be improved in the winemaking. He ended up saying yes and discovered there how big the challenge was to turn things around : the weather in Japan brings lots of rain, too much for the grapes, the table grapes weren't particularly fit for winemaking and the Japanese-style hiradana trellising system (very high above the ground-- see pictures) didn't help either. But the autistic students made for a compelling reason to stay as there was a very good spirit in this place, and Bruce Gutlove decided to stay beyond the several months he had enrolled for. Today, the Coco Farm Winery produces 200 000 bottles a year, a success story for such an institution and which happened without government subsidies, be it local or national.
I had heard about Coco Farm here and there for a while, even in France with for example Kenji Hodgson who spent time here, and I knew I would visit this winery one day.
Ueno Park, Tokyo
Hanami is there ! The traditional, utmost-Japanese tradition of going out in the parks to view and enjoy the full blossoming of cherry trees at this time of the year is back. On this occasion, friends, colleagues and family gather under the trees, drinking sake and beer (sodas for the kids) and
eating food... Hanami signals the end of winter but here in
this country there's a plus, it bears an almost religious or philosophical character regarding the yearly wonder of life and putting things into perspective after so much effort devoted to work and long hours to fuel the economy.
Predicting the date of cherry blossom is a difficult exercise every year and the target is often missed by the cherry-blossom forecast sites, this year making no exception. The blossoming was supposed to begin its full blown stage around march 25 but it happened actually a few days earlier, wednesday march 20, a public holiday in Japan (Equinox day, or spring), which was a wonderful chance as people and family could go en masse to the parks.
It seems that Tokyo has resumed its full-blown Hanami parties two years after the Tohoku disasters. This very Hanami at Ueno had been canceled in 2011 in the wake of the mourning and the ones that weren't canceled were very somber as all the attention was focused on the aftermath of the tsunami (see article).
Most of these pictures were shot during this very first day of Hanami 2013 in Ueno Park, Tokyo.
Kudos to the Domaine de l'Ocelle for this Cuvée Lagarto 2002, a 10-year-old Mourvèdre (majority, says the back label). We had got this bottle somewhere near 2005 as we dropped one day unanounced to visit the estate. Arnaud Warnery couldn't stay because he had to drive his son for an important exam, and he just gave us a few bottles including this one, which we aged carefully.
The wine has obviously matured with a red color bordering the tile, but in the mouth it's beautiful and refined, the wood and tannins beautifully softened by the years.
B. notes aromas of plum, sherry, aromats and pepper, with some hints of cedar coming maybe from the wood.
The back label says that this is a Coteaux du Languedoc AOC, and that the wine stayed several months in barrels, for a total volume of 1700 bottles (6 casks maybe). The Domaine de L'Ocelle sits near the village of Saint Christol south west of Nimes.