Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Fear & Loathing in Tokyo (15 March 2011)

I am writing this final blog whilst sitting on the window seat of a Japan Airlines flight back to Australia having left Tokyo in what could only be described as completely unforeseeable and extraordinary circumstances. My last blog was about living through an earthquake in the heart of the city. This one is about the aftermath.

The weekend was a strange one. Friday night I watched reports on the quake and had an early night after a few scotches to calm my nerves. After sleeping in on Saturday, I planned on visiting one of my favourite areas, Shimokitazawa. I walked along Aoyama-dori (near Akasaka), a well-to-do, upmarket area and was struck by the quiet on the streets. I walked into a convenience store and was greeted with empty shelves – no bread, no milk and little much else. So I jumped on the train at Shibuya station and rode a few stops to Shimokitizawa. The mood felt grim.

I walked around Shimokitizawa, an area heaving with bars, second hand shops and cafes, and full of students and other scene kids. The place was desolate. Most shops closed, the open ones, empty. I went to a café called Bear Pond and it was there, after finishing the last drops of a strong black coffee late in the afternoon, that another patron asked whether I had heard the news about the nuclear reactor explosion – “no, in fact, I had not.” Probably better things to have been asked by a random stranger in a café.

I left straight away and frantically googled anything I could find on the topic. The stranger had been correct. There was an explosion close to one of the reactors. Why? Well, without having any sort of scientific background, I now know that a nuclear meltdown is caused by the build up of heat in a reactor such that the nuclear rods melt. Following the quake, the power company worked to cool the rods, including by using sea water. The explosion, we were told, was a “hydrogen” explosion which was a build up of steam resulting from the cooling of the rods.

From that point on, the mood in the city become very tense. The news agencies sunk their teeth into the explosion like Schapelle – the Australian papers claimed the most dire of events: “Nuclear meltdown”, they exclaimed. Local media was a lot less despondent about the situation. Japanese Prime Minister Kan, in a press conference, proclaimed that Japan was facing the most dire situation since World War II. In my mind this was a very strange comparison – one a once in a lifetime unavoidable natural disaster, the other surely lay at the hand of man himself.

I spent the rest of Saturday watching CNN and religiously refreshing the news wire services, eagerly sipping a calming scotch, which was not as calming given the images that were appearing from the regions most affected by tsunami. The reports of the death toll were clearly not even close to what would result in the coming days and weeks.

By about 10pm Saturday night, I had had enough and decided to venture out for some post (or pre?) apocalyptic partying to take my mind off things. With two other guys, we headed to Roppongi – where else would you go when Armageddon seems imminent? Roppongi is a bit like a Japanese Vegas without casinos, equal as many foreigners and more strip clubs. If ever there was to be a tour of Babel, tonight was the night. I was taken to a long list of establishments, each seedier than the next, some in basements, some on random floors of an office block. We moved hedonistically from bar to nightclub to bar till the sun came up – and, from having been to Vegas, I can safely say it never looked nearly as good in the daylight.

I slept in late the rest of the day, only to wake to similar morbid news stories. I switched them off and went back to sleep, hoping for something more uplifting the next morning. Going into work on the Monday morning after the quake was a strange experience. Most people were still very shaken up and all conversations would start with: “Are you ok?” Although everyone responded that they were, the truth of the matter was clearly that it had effected them all like never before. After arriving at work, turning on my computer, checking a few emails, I felt a heavy aftershock. Some complain about Monday mornings at work, but an aftershock is certainly the worst way to kick off a week. Later in the day, reports came through of another explosion at one of the reactors along with rolling blackouts being announced to save power. The situation seemed to be becoming more grim as the hours wore on. Even worse was the limited news flow and guidance coming via the government.

After discussions with colleagues and friends, the feelings were mixed on whether to stay or get out of the city. One friend had travelled south to Osaka, some of the lawyers had since departed offshore. I eagerly watched the news on Tuesday night hoping for something better.

I woke up on Tuesday morning to another heavy aftershock, which I previously had not felt in my sturdy second floor apartment. I switched on the television to be greeted by even worse news – more major problems at the reactor, to the point where one was apparently spewing radiation, resulting in the extension of the 20 kilometre evacuation zone to 30 kilometres from the plant. Next, one of the Tokyo electric power company (TEPCO) spokesman was being interviewed about the problems and clearly was refusing to answer certain questions, and the ones he did answer did not fill me with confidence that TEPCO were in control of the situation. After receiving an email from work noting that the office was closed due to transportation issues and the nuclear issues, I decided it was time to make my move. Within 2 hours I had packed, booked flights, booked an airport bus booked, collected items left at the office and then, my last meal of sashimi.
It wouldn’t be one of these blogs if I didn’t mention the food – I walked in at 11:20am and was the only person in a deserted restaurant in Akasaka. I looked at the great meal before me - sashimi, a cup of hot tea and a miso soup and thought to myself, it’s been great. The sashimi was so fresh. I thought of the city sushi roll I would probably soon to be eating back home, with a tough, chewy, stringy piece of salmon, and realised that the fresh, smooth and soft piece of deep red tuna I was eating might be the last time I get to experience true authentic Japanese sashimi.

On my way to the airport, I noticed that readings of radiation had been found in Tokyo, so I felt that I had made the right decision to depart, but who really knows? The upside of it all is that I am on my way back home, presumably radiation free, to see family and friends. And a little sooner than expected, I have to say sayonara to Tokyo.

Friday, March 11, 2011

Just when you think things can't get crazier in Japan - EARTHQUAKE!

In a similar vein to my previous posts, this one begins the night before. I had a good mate of mine's going away party here at a bar called 7-3 in Nishi Azabu last night. The guy has lived in Tokyo for some time (and Japan for even longer) and it brought back a lot of fond memories of having done the living/working thing overseas back in the Caymans some years back. You end up with this rat-pack random eclectic group of people, most who meet for the first time at your own going away party. Was a great way to kick off the night and the drinks were definitely flowing freely. From there we ventured to the usual haunt Alife, locked in a VIP table and partied well into the early hours of the morning.

This did not leave me in great condition for a Friday in the office. But I managed to pull myself out of bed and drag my sorry ass into work feeling very worse for wears. I spent the morning contemplating whether I should send some work I'd been doing to my boss, pondering whether, if I sent it, I would need to discuss it at some point. I saved the message as a draft and ventured downstairs for a coffee to consider it further. Shortly thereafter it was midday and time for a Japanese lesson with my ever-so patient Japanese tutor. I suggested an outdoor class because the sun was out, so we sat outside Starbucks whilst I worked on becoming a shade darker than Caspar-white. My next suggestion was to cut the class a few minutes short because I was starving and hadn't eaten breakfast. I ran from the class to get a big bowl of cleansing soup, vegies and noodles which really hit the spot.

I went back into the office feeling only mildly better and still kicking myself for not calling it a shift an hour or so earlier the night before. After an hour at my desk I thought: "I would do anything to get out of here a bit earlier today." And then, only a few minutes later, I felt it. A tremor. I kicked myself again - had I stooped so low that I was feeling the earth move on account of the previous night's shenanigans? Surely not. And then another one. I looked at my Japanese office-mate, asked "Earthquake?" and he nodded, non-plussed. But then, the rumbling really started and the Prudential Tower which houses our office (12th floor no less) started to sway, as it had been designed to do, to avoid cracking in exactly this situation.

I stood up and the floor was moving, looked out the window behind me and saw the adjacent hotel swaying violently, the aerial towers bending like plastic sticks. I walked out of my office and the local Japanese seemed relatively calm, for a few minutes, until the movements became more aggressive. It was like turbulence on a plane - everyone is ok with it, until it goes on for a bit too long and is a bit too noticeable. Then you start to freak out. And freak out I did. After 5 minutes of serious shaking, I saw Christchurch and pictured myself as that guy being hauled out of the rubble, covered in debris, and ended up not making it.

An announcement came through the pa system instructing us to remain calm because the building was earthquake resistant. Even with a hereditary trust of architects (from my father who is one), and without any formal engineering training, the amount the building was swaying was very distressing. And with even the local Japanese exchanging their non-chalance for pained, worried looks, I became even more anxious. Even my other office-mate, a very calm quiet expressionless German who had lived in Tokyo for many years looked edgy. I ran back to my desk contemplating my next move, and by the time I sat down, the rumbling had subsided. I quickly shot out a status update, but no sooner had I clicked the post button, the movement started again, equally if not more aggressively. I thought this was the time to send the folks a goodbye email, just in case, clicked send, and got up again, asked whether it was best to stay or go. The answers were mixed. I thought that there couldn't be much worse than being on the 12th floor of an office building if it went down. I grabbed my coat and made a beeline for the exit as the tremors subsided.
With a few others, we clambered down 12 flights of stairs as the floor started to move again. I looked up and thought to myself a stairwell would not be the best place if the whole thing went down. So I moved a bit quicker and made it out the front. Security guards suggested the lobby was a safer place than outside due to the risk of debris falling off buildings. I preferred the outdoors than having multiple storeys crashing directly on top of me. So we left to go to a nearby temple which seemed like a safe place because it was not surrounded by skyscrapers. Quite a serene place to be amongst so much chaos.

After the quake, walking down the street felt a bit like a US box office sci-fi thriller. People everywhere, looking dazed and confused, staring up above to make sure they weren't going to get smashed by some loose debris. People huddling in the cold outside televisions to watch live news feeds of the carnage in other parts of the country. Both phones and the subway were not functioning.

So now I keep looking at the light in my apartment just to see if it is swinging, each creak of my apartment building makes me check again.

I have to say a big thankyou to everyone for their messages of support, and especially the Bakers' people from back home for making sure I was ok and offerring to help in any way possible. Funnily enough there was an earthquake here a few days ago and I joked about having been in the gym pumping iron at the time (and drew a loose connection between my weightlifting and the earlier quake). Lesson is: Don't joke about earthquakes! They are no laughing matter.

And to Japan I ask - what next?????????????????

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Crazy Tokyo nights / Mediocre Tokyo Brunches @ Trump Room / On The Corner, Shibuya

With great sadness I said goodbye to my partner in crime as he departed on the remainder of his overseas trip and realised I was once again being left to my own devices in this great city. On previous jaunts overseas I was always worried about time alone and not having anyone to call to go out with on a night out. However, this time I am more often than not relishing the opportunity to go out and do my own thing.

So it was Friday evening and I had finished another week in the office, and had a great night lined up. My usual co-conspirator was stuck in the office crunching a deal and after a quick meal I had to make the call. Do I go out by myself or just take it easy at home? I know back home what my answer would have been, but this is Tokyo and you only get opportunities like this so often in your life. So I showered, put on my Friday night best, polished off a couple of eye-opening Asahis, rugged up, picked up my Google maps print out and jumped on the subway to Shibuya.

I got off the subway and trekked through the biting cold in search of the Trump Room. I remembered from the last time I went how difficult this place was to find and my map was proving to be little use. So I tucked it away in my pocket, surveyed the street and told myself: "You are just going to have to do this the old fashioned way." After scoping a vaguely familiar landmark and a hill, I realised I was close and shortly thereafter noticed a small sign in a darkened alley which said 'Trump.' You enter by just a tiny door in a basement of what looks like a run-down office building, pay your cover charge, walk up a flight of stairs to be greeted by an unassuming door. But once you open the door (Alice in Wonderland style), you see that this is no ordinary office building. The room is decked out with chandeliers and a DJ booth/stage at the front, with low ceilings so you feel packed in. The floor above has an almost identical setup and the floor above that is the same but all white.

So I picked up a drink at the bar, and sat alone, thinking: "Was this a good idea?" No longer had that thought crossed my mind that someone asked me for a lighter, and then I sat down with a group of local Japanese crew. They told me I had big eyes!! (which was not the case 4 drinks later). I bought a round of drinks, chatted a bit more, then went to the bar and noticed another Gaijin and got chatting. He happened to be the DJ who was playing (Dangerous Dan - or Dan Single of Ksubi fame). I told him I had 5 pairs of their jeans in my closet at home (probably not the best given their financial difficulties) and wished him luck for his set.

By now the place was jumping with people going crazy - bottles of Jose Cuervo Tequila were being passed around and Dan started his set. The crowd got up and pushed forward like a mosh and I hit the dancefloor and let loose. There was also a famous Japanese MC called Verbal playing on the floor above so I took a break to check him out - the guy was wearing a Fez and sunnies and had the crowd in a rapture. But leaving aside patriotic bias, I thought Dan had the points so I walked the single file back down the stairs through the door and got back into it. 3am came and I thought it best to leave it there and jumped a cab back to my apartment, congratulating myself for going it alone and thinking what I would have missed had I decided to stay home.

After sleeping in on Saturday morning, I really felt like a solid coffee and brunch. Unfortunately, the one thing Tokyo does not do well is just that. For a nation of heavy coffee drinkers, finding a good strong well brewed cup is next to impossible. I ventured back to Shibuya to a cafe called On The Corner which, from my research had a barista out the front from a renowned sister cafe in Shimokitazawa called Bear Pond. The place looked promising but alas the coffee was disappointing. There is just no such thing as a Long Black in this country and its sickly American cousin, the "Americano" is a watery grave.
I had been told that On The Corner does a solid brekky but a woeful lunch. Aesthetically the placed looked no different to a well fitted out Melbourne establishment. I sat down and the first thing I realised was that brekky had finished at 11:30am - most people don't come to work till 10:30am on a weekday so you can imagine how many people are having brekky at 1130 on a Saturday. None.
I ordered the least offensive item on the menu - a sandwich. Beyond average - the bread was filled with this omletty number with cheese and chicken (or probably pork) drenched in a tomato sauce and was making me regret the Tequila from the night before. The side of shoestring fries was manageable but the little tub of yoghurt with honey was a bad mix with all of the above.

Anyway that is how it seems to go here in Tokyo so make the most of your poached eggs with avocado/fetta mash in the leafy streets of Melbourne because you certainly can't get it here!! Note anyone who has the financial ability and interest in funding a good brunch spot in Tokyo, I reckon you would make a mint!

Friday, March 4, 2011

Great Burger @ Great Burger, Harajuku, Tokyo

This entry begins from the night before when we celebrated the imminent departure of a good mate of mine following a quick-fire week of hijinks in Tokyo. We had some epic nights out over the course of his stay, including seeing bands at a tiny rock venue called Fever in Shindaita to dancing to electro till 5 am at a bar in Aoyama. But this particular night happened to be a Wednesday night. We started with a very traditional Katsu dinner (which is basically schnitzel) served with fresh cabbage, steamed rice and miso, then headed to a local Akasaka pub for some beers and then hit what is starting to become a Wednesday night regular called A-life in Nishi Azabu. I would never even consider going to a place like this in Melbourne and most certainly not on a Wednesday night. But this is Tokyo and we must adapt and change to our environment. So we rocked up to the club sometime after midnight, were set up up brilliantly at a table next to the dancefloor by one of our other partners in crime on the night, and ordered some drinks.

By about 12:30 the place was out of control, the dancefloor was packed and the young Japanese crowd were screaming along with the music - think 500+ Japanese clubbers in their 20's screaming Lady Gaga's "Poker Face". My good mate and I didn't need more than that so we jumped up out of our seats and pushed through to front and centre on the dancefloor and spent most of the night there making friends with the locals and dancing like fools! We kept that going till about 4 am when I realised that I needed to be at work in about 5 hours' time (unlike the other guys I was partying with!). So we jumped in a cab and took it directly home. Thursday was a tough one at work and I got through it thanks to a solid bowl of Ramen for lunch and a big bottle of water. But throughout the day, all I could think about was eating a big greasy hamburger. Not your fast-food variety, but more your uber-gourmet variety.

So I had a look on the Tokyo blogs and forums and found a very highly recommended burger place only a few stops away from Akasaka in Harajuku, and with a name called "Great Burger" how could we go wrong? On another blisteringly cold Tokyo night, we jumped onto the subway and after the standard Tokyo destination search we found it in a small street which was 3 streets off a main road. The place looked like a replica rustic American diner filled with ubiquitous Americana items like boxes of Oreos, pictures of Colonel Sanders, etc. The menus were presented to us by a friendly waitress and the choice of burgers was immense - chilli, avocado, mozzarella paprika, traditional cheese, gorgonzola, hickory, teriyaki egg, and so on. We hurriedly ordered - for me it was the double cheeseburger with bacon and egg. I wasn't holding back. My cohort ordered the straight-up double cheeseburger. The place was deserted apart from two older Japanese women who must have been giggling at the sorry state the two of us were in.

After a short wait, the burgers arrived and I felt like my prayers has been answered - see photo. The bun is called a "natural yeast" bun and it was just right, the meat not too heavy, rich and well cooked, tomato, relish, mayonnaise, chopped onion, cheese, lettuce and bacon all fresh and complementing the other as the ingredients in any good burger do. We both looked at each other wondering how the hell we were going to eat the damn thing due to its size. No chopsticks on the table and the knife and fork were clearly never going to work. Of course the Japanese have come up with a very logical solution - they give you a kitchen-paper pocket that you drop the burger into so that the juices drip into the bottom of the pocket, rather than all over you. I asked my friend if he would be using the pocket method but he had already dug in and said it was too late. The giggling from the next table continued whilst he devoured his pocketless burger with his bare hands. Oh, and when I said devour, I meant inhale. Granted the burgers were outstanding and we were starving, but I have never seen anyone finish a burger that quickly. I estimate somewhere between 7-9 minutes for the burger, and the meagre serving of chips, to be gone. To put this into perspective, the other diners sitting next to us had been served their burgers shortly before us and by the end we both had finished our meals and desert (chocolate brownie and apple pie each with vanilla ice cream) by the time they were done with their burgers! The giggling continued unabated.

I've tried to stay away from eating too much Western food as what I have generally had so far has been average - a caesar salad which only contained cos lettuce and parmesan, a bland margherita pizza and a mediocre burger were enough for me to avoid it all costs. But the Great Burger may be the turning of the tide!

For those of you who are in Melbourne and are looking for some good burgers, I recommend the following:

1. Cafe Vue (430 Little Collins Street, Melbourne)

2. Barney Allens (14 Fitzroy Street, St Kilda)

3. Rockpool (Crown Casino, Melbourne)

4. Trunk Diner (275-285 Exhibition Street, Melbourne)

5. I am leaving number 5 as a tribute to Greasy Joes in Acland St, St Kilda. Last time I walked past it looked like it had shut down, the time before I went there it was terrible. But for a very long, long time, Greasy Joe's was the absolute hands-down best burger place going around ole Melbourne town and was packed full with an eclectic mix of St Kilda locals. The servings were US style health risks but the burgers were incredible. No, they were not the refined wagyu beef burgers that pervade my recommendations above, but they were juicy, tasty and you never left hungry. So, from Tokyo, Vale Greasy Joes - gone but not forgotten.