April 22, 2023

Japan Michelin tour 2023 day 8: exploring Yanaka

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I'm spending the day with two old classmates from high school. While I love to tell people that "I went through puberty in Tokyo at an all boys school," the old friends I'm meeting up with are from my second stint in Singapore. Both are Japanese who eventually found their way back to Japan, and I haven't seen one of them for 35 years! I'm especially grateful since one of them is coming into Tokyo from her home in Chiba...

I know nothing about Yanaka (谷中) and how it's been slowly gentrified recently, so I thought nothng of it when I was asked to meet my friends at the JR station in Nippori (日暮里). I had briefly looked at the link my friend sent me about our lunch spot - Sun Potter Cafe Nonbiriya (散ポタカフェ のんびりや) - but nothing about it struck me.

First of all, the building itself is more than 100 years old, and the place is decked out with tons of retro fittings - things that we had used when we were kids but have long disappeared. We got to sit at the table by the entrace, on tatami (畳). I haven't done that in a while...

Then I took a look at the empty bottle of wine behind me and realized I had stumbled into a real gem. The owners of the place obviously are fans of Japanese wines, and I could see some very sought-after bottles. I immediately asked whether I could order one up, even though I normally don't drink at lunch.

Alas, I was told that first-time customers would not have the privilege of ordering these special bottles, and I would have to wait until at least my second visit. I was already thinking of how I could fit in another trip here in the roughly 50 hours I have left on this trip...

I did order 2 glasses of other wines to try, though...

2022 Domaine Mont Mont Kern AK - really floral, like Hoegaarden with the hops. Tastes fruity and as it is lightly sparkling, very much like beer.

2021 Sapporo Fujino (さっぽろ藤野ワイナリー) Taiyo - a rosé that is nice and fruity like strawberries.

Ninjya omelette rice made from squid ink (オムライス黒) - gotta say I really liked this. The squid ink risotto at the bottom was very, very tasty, with plenty of garlic.

We strolled around the area after lunch, and made a point to visit the Asakura Museum of Sculpture (朝倉彫塑館) - the former studio and home of artist Asakura Fumio (朝倉文夫). I had the opportunity to learn a little bit about the life and work of the artist, as well as admiring the beautiful home he kept with the central garden and pond.

We followed up with a visit to the Yanaka Antique Market (谷中骨董市), which had some interesting stuff but I wasn't in the mood for more chachkies. Yanaka Ginza (谷中ぎんざ) is an interesting area boasting many traditional shops and restaurants with a history, and although there were many tasty treats on offer, I didn't need more calories than I had already planned to consume today. My waistline doesn't need them.

The surprise was the gentrification of this neighborhood. For a very nondescript area which seemed to have an unusually high concentration of temples off the beaten tourist path, there are now a disporportionate number of cafés, coffee roasters, and even crêperies. More weekend tourists are arriving, including some foreigners. It's obviously become a shitamachi (下町) that is becoming popular with people who are looking for that kind of feel and experience, but want something a little more modern at the same time.

It was good catching up with old friends. We may have led different lives since our teenage years, but when I looked at the old photographs my friend brought, all those memories came flooding back. I hope it won't be decades again before we meet next.

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