travel writing

Ejo #90 – Drunk In….. Hoi An

David and I just got back from Hoi An!! Vietnam, bitches! And, as always, we had a rip-roaring time. You might recall that we’ve been to Vietnam before, on a far more daring odyssey. In 2012 we rode old Russian motorbikes into the remote mountains of the central highlands, going WAY off the beaten track and totally off the tourist trail. It was scary as hell, and bloody amazing.

This time we were visiting our friend, Cath, who has recently upped stumps from Melbourne and moved to the beautiful and cultural, historic town of Hoi An. There were no fearless adventures this time. The gutsiest thing we did each day was to venture out of Cath’s house, and into the searing sun and withering humidity. This might not sound so heroic to you, but I cannot stress enough how UNBELIEVABLY hot and sticky it was. You’d think we are accustomed to high temperatures, having lived in Dubai for eight and a half years, but we spend very little time outdoors during summer. I tell you, I have never been so hot and so sweaty in my life. But hey, we were there to get drunk in Hoi An and we had no choice but to brave the hostile outdoors so that I could bring you this month’s ejo.

So, the first thing you do after arriving in Hoi An on a hot day is to get an ice cold beer into you, preferably under some shade, and ideally next to a fan. Air-conditioning is rare, so just get used to having rivulets of sweat constantly pouring down your body, and enjoy the hell out of that beer. And the next one. Beer in Vietnam is literally cheaper than water, and we paid less than 60 cents for a can. So crack one open and start hydrating. You’re gonna need it.

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Biere Larue, a local beer, cost less than a dollar a bottle and is a necessity in the searing heat.

 

BA LE MARKET

After arriving at Cath’s house we headed to the local market and walked around to take in the sights, sounds and smells of the local bazaar. Cath had mentioned that she’d spotted a huge pig’s head the day before and I was really keen to see it, so off we went in search of it, but alas it was gone. Luckily there was a cornucopia of other produce to stimulate the senses. In the morning heat, the meat and fish section was particularly stimulating.

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The hubbub of Ba Le Market – we went by the market at least a couple of times a day.

 

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All the fresh produce you could think of under one roof.

 

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Super fresh fruit and veg, at super cheap prices.

 

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Fancy some fish?  How about an octopus?

 

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Some beautiful fresh fishies being chopped up for someone’s delicious dinner.

 

We rushed through and quickly made our way to a refreshment stand for a little pick-me-up of Vietnamese coffee. Now, Vietnamese coffee isn’t your regular cup of joe. It’s very strong syrupy coffee, slow-dripped onto lashings of condensed milk. In hot weather it’s always served with ice. It’s certainly a heart-starter and we made it a morning ritual to get up early every day to beat the heat and head on over to our favourite stall to sit down in little plastic children’s chairs and slam a couple of these down in a row. Trust me, your hangover will thank you for it.

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You can get Vietnamese coffee, and juices (including the ubiquitous sugar cane juice) at any of the multitude of market stalls, but this one was our favourite (it’s on the main road – look for the sign) and we were there every single morning for our double dose of Vietnamese coffee.  They laughed at us the first time we ordered a second round.  But after that they started greeting us with a smile.

 

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Strong, sweet Vietnamese coffee.  SO good.

INFO:
Lê Thánh Tông, Hội An, Quang Nam Province
0500-1900
CLICK FOR MAP

 

MADAM KHÁHN: THE BÁHN MÌ QUEEN

So what makes bánh mì so special? Have you ever had one?? If so, you wouldn’t be asking. The best bánh mì is served in a freshly baked crusty, French baguette smeared with pâté and then stuffed full of goodness with all sorts of yummy ingredients depending on the region, or the shop owner. Bánh mì was one of the things we really wanted to try on this trip, so one sweltering lunchtime we grabbed a cab and took off for Old Town Hoi An, straight to Madam Khanh’s. We were offered no menu, just a choice of vegetarian or pork bánh mì. We got the pork, with a little extra spice and, of course, beer! This is PERFECT hangover food. Greasy, delicious, comforting and filling. I couldn’t finish mine, but I had the rest later at home while we were laying low to avoid the heat, and it was even better, as all the flavours had intensified and soaked into the bread. My mouth just had an orgasm, remembering how good it was.

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The famous Madam Khanh herself!  Still making bánh mì every day at the age of 79.  Hers are a special mix of pâté, pork char siu, sausage, fried egg, homemade pickles, papaya, carrots, parsley, chili sauce, soy sauce, and her secret sauce.

 

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Seriously.  Look at that.  To die for.

INFO:
115 Trần Cao Vân, Sơn Phong, Tp. Hội An, Quảng Nam
+84 90 666 03 09
0800-1900
CLICK FOR MAP

 

AGRIBANK ATM CUBICLE

Why am I featuring an ATM cubicle in a Drunk In….. ejo?  Because it’s the coldest 2m³ in the whole goddamn town.  No joke, keep this one up your sleeve.

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You know it’s hot when all three of you pile into the eensy-weensy teeny-weeny little ATM cubicle just for a few moments of respite.  © Cath Grey

CLICK FOR MAP

 

WHITE MARBLE WINE BAR & RESTAURANT

David and I don’t usually go for wine bars in South East Asia (it feels too much like a western concept), but Cath insisted we try this place for dinner one night and I’m really glad she did. The food was so good, and so authentic, that we went back again the next day for lunch and then again on our last day (it was those Money Bags damn it, we just couldn’t stay away). Each time we also consumed plenty of beer, tonnes of sparkling water and tonnes of sparkling wine. That’s how we roll, kids! The service here is impeccable and the food consistently amazing. Highly recommended.

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That Napoleon Bonaparte knew a thing or two, didn’t he?!!

 

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Hoi An spring rolls

 

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The best damn Money Bags I’ve ever had in my life.  Probably the best you’ll ever have too.

 

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Super fresh rice paper rolls stuffed with prawns, lettuce, mint, coriander, carrot, pineapple and vermicelli noodles.  So fresh and tasty!

INFO:
98 Lê Lợi, Minh An, Tp. Hội An, Quảng Nam
+84 235 3911 862
24H
CLICK FOR MAP

 

HOI AN OLD TOWN

We took a few trips into historic Hoi An. There are heaps of restaurants, shops, bars, cafés and stalls to while away several drunken hours, if not the entire day! One evening when we were rather drunk, we walked around the crowded riverside stalls, fending off overly friendly expat club promoters trying to beguile us into having a drink with them. As we navigated the thronging streets, one particular stall caught my eye, and even though I was absolutely stuffed full of Money Bags I just HAD to have a freshly made Vietnamese banana pancake. I’m a sucker for these things, and you should be too because they’re bloody delicious. Eggs, butter, banana, condensed milk. What else could you want? It was the perfect end to our evening out (because I shortly thereafter slipped into a sugar coma – totes worth it). But fear not, the party continued on Cath’s balcony with plenty of bottles of rosé and prosecco to revive me.

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These are made fresh to order with your choice of condensed milk or chocolate sauce on top.  Condensed milk wins for me ever’ damn time!

 

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Yes, you should.  © Cath Grey

 

NA SPA ESCAPE

Exploring the watering holes and eateries of any city is hard work and sometimes your body just cries out for some TLC. We made sure to look after ours by getting a restorative massage at Na Spa Escape. It’s a lovely, peaceful and air-conditioned (!!!!) oasis from which to escape the heat and noise of the city for just a little while. We were given the choice of a firm-pressure Asian blend massage, or a more relaxing Swedish massage. We all went with the firm choice. We needed it! And though the massage itself ended up being not as firm as I would have liked, I certainly walked away from it feeling super rejuvenated, relaxed and ready to take on the challenge of more eating and drinking!

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The calming interior of the Na Spa Escape retreat.  We were asked if we wanted to go for the three-way massage, but we politely declined.  David and I had a romantic couple’s massage and Cath went solo.  I think it was for the best.

INFO:
100/5 Le Thanh Tong, Cam Chau, T.P. Hoi An, Quang Nam
+84 235 3914 199
0900-2200
CLICK FOR MAP

 

TAM THANH MURAL VILLAGE

It’s never a “Drunk In…..” experience without at least a pinch of culture thrown in for fun. We’re not heathens, for god’s sake!! This time we hired a driver for a half-day trip to the seaside fishing town of Tam Thanh, also known as Mural Village for the multitude of murals painted onto the houses along its only street. About a year ago the South Korean government, in a lightbulb moment, commissioned a bunch of Vietnamese and South Korean artists and asked them to jazz up the tiny town with a lick of paint. The locals were supposedly a bit nonplussed about the whole thing, but they were completely shocked when people started coming from far and wide, just to take pictures of the wall paintings. It seems as though they still haven’t really recovered, because there’s not a whole lot of trade going on, which actually makes it a very charming little place. Everyone smiles and waves at you and no-one makes you feel like you’re intruding on them when you take pictures of their house.

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Vietnam’s second most popular mode of transportation, after motorbikes.

 

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Two types of local fishing boats, pimped up!

 

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Gorgeous artistry.  © Cath Grey

 

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Murals everywhere.

 

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Tam Thanh is a super gorgeous village.  I reckon I’d love to spend two whole weeks here, doing nothing but drinking beer and coconut juice and gorging on fish.

 

We had plans to go to a local beach restaurant for lunch but at 9.45am it was still way too early, so when beckoned by a group of locals, we took a break under the shade of a tree on some tiny plastic chairs and ordered three coconuts, stat! The lady of the house (and it really was just the front of some woman’s house) chopped the coconuts right on the ground with a huge machete, and served them up with straws. Perfecto! We slurped up all the juice and then she split each coconut in half with her big-ass knife so we could get at the young, juicy pulp. So much goodness. When it was time to pay, she totally fleeced us and kept increasing the number of fingers going up until our faces started registering shock. Then she put up one more finger for good measure and everyone in her posse laughed heartily, as we willingly handed over the extortionate sum of $4.50, which is about double the price we should have paid.

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Three coconuts please!

 

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The remains.

CLICK FOR MAP OF TAM THANH

 

NO NAME BEACH RESTAURANT

It was almost time for lunch, but the coconut had given me some, uh, shall we say trouble in the trouser department, so we headed off to the Tam Thanh Beach Resort & Spa’s Ocean Breeze bar for a couple of refreshing beers – and the opportunity to use the only nice toilet in the vicinity. If you come to gorgeous Tam Thanh, I’d definitely recommend coming to Ocean Breeze afterwards to use the facilities, and of course to have a refreshment.

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Tam Thanh beach (dotted with fishing boats).  It’s gorgeous, but it was brutally hot out there and we couldn’t even muster up the fortitude to venture down to the water.  Luckily, Ocean Breeze has toilets, beer and an air-conditioned lounge from which to gaze upon the lovely scene above. 

 

It was finally time for lunch, so we sauntered across the street to a row of open-air beach restaurants and made a beeline for the one on the far left (since that was the one that Cath had been to before).  I bet they’re all amazing though, and I bet they all serve the freshest seafood you’ve ever had. We negotiated the confusing, handwritten English menu with the help of the staff and kicked back with some beers and peanuts, contemplating what a lovely day we were having. If you’re looking for any recommendations, I will have to insist you get the calamari and the crabs. These were incredibly fresh and delicious. And even though we were quite full, the calamari was just so good we had to order another round.

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Fresh peanuts while you wait.  A perfect beer snack.

 

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Coz they could see us coming a mile away, they brought us a little cooler full of beer and ice. Which was most welcome.

 

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Coriander, pepper and lime salt.  Delicious on EVERYTHING with a squeeze of fresh lime on top.  We went through six plates of this stuff.  Sure, some of it ended up on the plastic table cloth – but that didn’t stop us from dipping our food into it.  Waste not, want not!

 

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The crab was super fresh.  How fresh?  Let’s just say that those lovely crabs sacrificed their lives for us about ten minutes after we ordered them.  Best crab I’ve had in 30 years.

 

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What was left of the fish that we didn’t really mean to order.  © Cath Grey

 

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The calamari was so good we ordered another plate of it to the bewilderment (and amusement) of the waitress.

INFO:
Get yourself to Tam Thanh Beach Resort & Spa where Ocean Breeze is located. When you’re ready to go to the No Name Beach Restaurant, just cross the road (DT614) and head to the restaurant closest to the beach.
CLICK FOR MAP TO TAM THANH BEACH RESORT & SPA

 

RESTAURANT 328

At the end of nearly every day of our stay in Hoi An, we ended up at Restaurant 328, a local dining establishment where Cath was greeted like long lost family and David and I were welcomed with open arms.  And every time we went, we each devoured one of these delicious, home-made frozen confections, delightfully (and aptly named) Mango Delights.  And how delightful they were.  The first day when we excitedly ordered them, Aunty told us that she had only just popped the ice-cream in the freezer 15 minutes earlier and that it would be too soft to serve.  I guess the traumatised expressions on our faces convinced her to offer it to us anyway.  This stuff alone is worth travelling to Hoi An for.  My mouth is spurting just thinking about it.  Oh, it’s spurting.

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Is it any wonder this is called a Mango Delight?  LOOK AT IT!!  It’s fucking delightful!!!!!

 

On another visit we ordered three Mango Delights and three shots of their home-made rice wine to wash it down. Uncle was chuffed and proudly brought over a plastic water bottle filled with the potent clear liquid, and poured out three measures for us. This stuff is STRONG. I’m not ashamed to say that there was some enthusiastic table banging, and a little bit of strident gasping for a few minutes there, but it’s still something I’d definitely recommend. It’s wine. Made from Vietnamese rice. Of course you have to have it. On our last visit to the restaurant, Aunty somehow knew that we were leaving the next day and wanted to give us a little surprise.  She furtively crept up to our table and burst into fits of laughter as she revealed what she was hiding behind her back. Yep, the plastic bottle of rice wine and three little glasses. Of course we had to partake. Twice. It would have been rude not to.

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Rice wine.  Tastes like a mixture of sake and petrol.  With slightly more petrol overtones.

 

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After I started writing this ejo I asked Cath if she wouldn’t mind going back to Restaurant 328 to get a photo of Aunty and her plastic water bottle of home-made rice wine. Unfortunately Aunty had better things to do that day, but Cath figured that this wonderful drawing was a pretty good substitute.  I tend to agree.  (But seriously, Cath, lay off the rice wine, OK?) 😉

INFO:
328 Cua Dai, Hoi An, Quảng Nam
+84 235 3862 095
CLICK FOR MAP

 

BIG BOWL PHO – NO BAI INTERNATIONAL AIRPORT

C’mon, we had to have one final hit of phở before we left Vietnam.

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A farewell meal at the airport.  There are some airports around the world where I much prefer to eat in the terminal rather than the airport lounge.  This includes pretty well all the South East Asian cities.  This farewell phở really hit the spot and helped to ease the anguish of leaving Vietnam.

INFO:
Level 3, Noi Bai International Airport, Hanoi
CLICK FOR MAP

 

CATH’S PLACE

Yes, we did.

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When the going gets hot, the hot get in the blow-up wading pool.  Sure, the two little girls next door laughed uproariously at us as we were filling it up with water, but in the end we were in a pool and they were not.  So, who’s laughing now little girls?!

Ejo #89 – Airbnb & Me

David and I stayed in our first ever Airbnb apartment in San Francisco in May 2011. Since then we have stayed in 59 houses, apartments, cottages, studios, pool-houses, a houseboat, a palazzo and even a converted hospital.

Pool-house

The pool-house we stayed at in Adelaide on our most recent trip to Australia.  We had free run of the pool which was nice coz it was HOT!!!!

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A palazzo.  In Barcelona!!!!!

It’s no exaggeration to say that we love Airbnb. But I’m not here to sell it to you – I know it’s not for everyone. One of my closest friends loves staying in five-star hotels and there’s no way I can convince her that staying in someone else’s pad could be better than 24 hour room service, someone making your bed every day and fresh towels on demand. So, this ejo is for people who may have heard a little about Airbnb and are interested in trying it but would like to know more before they commit.

Our experiences have, for the most part, been excellent*. One or two have been mediocre. And one was absolutely awful, but more on that later. Each and every one of the dozens of Airbnb dwellings we’ve stayed in has been a learning experience, and over the years I’ve got better and better at picking the right place. And I’d love to impart some of that knowledge onto you.

This isn’t a tutorial. I’m not here to tell anyone how to suck eggs. The website is very easy to navigate. You put in your desired city, your dates and your budget and voilà, you get to delve into the lives of people willing to open their homes to you, allowing you sleep in their bed, eat the food from their fridge and shit in their toilet. Oh, it’s intimate, folks. Before you gasp in horror and refuse to read any further, you should note that these days most places get professionally cleaned, before and after your stay. Of course you pay for the convenience but it is nice to know that the toilet has at least been scrubbed before you sit down on it for the first time.

And that leads me to my number #1 rule when making a selection. Cleanliness. If a listing has even ONE review saying anything negative about cleanliness, I nix it, right then and there. Even if it looks like my dream rental. I used to be a little more relaxed about this, giving hosts the benefit of the doubt if I read an iffy review, but then I got burned. So it’s become a very firm rule. Unfortunately, the only way to know if someone’s had anything bad to say about a listing is to read the reviews. All of them.

Unlike on TripAdvisor, the Airbnb host also gets to appraise you as a guest in return. And they can also comment on your review. Because of this, reviews on the website tend to be a little on the, shall we say, diplomatic side. Which is exactly why you need to pay attention to any negative ones. Someone is trying to tell you something, and sometimes that hint can be subtle, so it behooves you to read the reviews carefully.

OK, so not everyone has the time to read pages of reviews. If you find yourself stuck for time you can still get an idea of what previous guests thought of the state of cleanliness of a listing just by looking at the star ratings (though of course, it’s not as accurate). If either the cleanliness rating or the overall rating are lower than four, I move on. So should you.

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I don’t think we’ve ever stayed anywhere with less than a 4.5 overall rating. 

 

Something else I look for in a listing is the response rate and time of the host. I like to see a 100% response rate and “within a few hours” response time. I will persist if these are just a little bit off the mark, but I don’t even bother with hosts that respond only 34% of the time or “within a week”. I don’t have the time, or the inclination, to sit around waiting for some faffer to get back to me – or leave me hanging in the wind.

I also look for these auto-posts in the review section. So ominous.

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This has never happened to us before – because we stay away from hosts that cancel a lot. 

 

Even more ominous:

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Shudder.  I just can’t even with this.

 

Can you imagine booking a very special place to stay for your honeymoon, and then finding out when you arrive at the airport that you’re homeless??!! Of course sometimes there’s a very good reason for a reservation to be cancelled, and hosts are now able to leave a comment explaining why they did so. So one or two cancellations are fine, but if you see too many in a single listing, think twice before booking.

Let’s move onto photos. There are a lot of things to look for in the photos. Firstly don’t be fooled by the Airbnb photographer’s wide-angle lens and over exposure. They can make a couch that is this wide:

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look this wide:

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Same room!!!!  Look how wide the couch (and the map of Australia) looks in comparison to above.  Very deceptive. 

 

So, it can be a little misleading. I like to look at all the pictures, and then try to reconstruct the layout of the apartment in my mind, before looking at them again. You can usually get a better sense of scale that way. I tend to be drawn to the places that have had verified photos taken by Airbnb’s photographer. It shows the host’s professionalism and commitment to providing great accommodation. And I can usually tell from the cover photo if a listing is worth clicking on to inspect further. If I see a picture like this:

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C’mon, why is that cabinet door open??

 

or this:

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Where am I going to put my shit???

 

or this:

Ejo 8

I hate when a host leaves ALL their toiletries in the bathroom.  And WHY is the toilet seat up?  

I steer clear. It shows a lack of engagement, and if the host can’t even go to the trouble of tidying up and taking a nice photo of their place, it doesn’t bode well. Some better examples (of places we’ve actually stayed):

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What a beautiful living room.  An apartment in Madrid. 

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Look at all that space – and none of the host’s personal belongings.  An apartment in Amsterdam. 

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No clutter.  Room for me to spread out.  A bathroom in London. 

Also, I like to see at least one photo of each of the main rooms. The living/dining area, the kitchen, the bathroom and the bedroom. If any of these are missing it raises alarm bells and I move on. No point lingering – there are SO many other options out there. For instance, I have NO idea what this place really looks like. It might be super nice, but I’m never going to find out.

Finally, be wary of close-up images. These tend to mask a problem with the bigger picture – otherwise there’d be a photo of the bigger picture, right? I learned this on a trip to Copenhagen when failed to properly inspect this photo:

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Unfortunately the only way to get to the shower was to climb over the toilet (ew!). And you can’t really tell that from the photo. Rookie mistake. Don’t make it.

So, it’s time to hear about our one crappy Airbnb experience? OK, so here’s how it went down. Airbnb #21. Hackney, London. April, 2014. We checked into the place and I immediately felt that it hadn’t been cleaned for a while. I honestly don’t mind if there’s a little dust here and there. It happens. But we had paid £40 for cleaning, and that gives you some expectations. The couches were absolutely covered in dog hair and when I tried to brush it off with my hand, plumes of dust rose up. Now, I am not a fussy person, but there was no way I was sitting on those couches. So, I set about cleaning the place. I intended to do a quick sweep and dust, thinking that would be sufficient.

Unfortunately I couldn’t find a broom and dustpan so we had to walk to the local store to buy one. Yep. Also, it turned out that the problem was more extensive than I first thought and it took me over two hours to clean it to a level where I felt comfortable to sit down on the couch and walk around barefoot. Oh yeah, and to add insult to injury, when we opened the fridge there was a plastic container full of mouldy mushrooms that made the whole place stink.

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Here’s the dirt I collected in just this small area.  The whole house was as filthy.

I kicked myself as I swept and dusted because I remembered stupidly ignoring the warnings of a couple of reviewers, one of which had mentioned that the place “needed a bit of a hoover”. The other one was from a woman who had said that there was dog hair throughout the house. But the real clue that I glossed over when I made the reservation was the host’s response to that woman. He attacked her personally, calling her “bizarre” and claiming that she was being unpleasant towards him because he’s gay. He insisted that other hosts not “deal with this person”.

Unfortunately for me, after our trip was over, he did almost the exact same thing to me. I left him a pretty nice review, considering the state the house was in. And in “private” feedback to him I made the comment “I’m not OCD, but I like a clean house.”

Here’s the review he left for me.

Chryss, in your extensive private feedback you sent me you mentioned OCD (Obsessive Compulsive Disorder). Perhaps this is something you should explore with a professional. Sadly, I cannot say you would be welcome in my home again, at least not until you’ve addressed your OCD.

This really, really hurt me. I had 20 amazing Airbnb reviews under my belt and it just stung to know that there would be an incorrect, but public, record of me being a shitty guest. Potential hosts might see it and decide it’d be too risky to let me to stay in their homes. My reputation in the Airbnb community was tarnished and I was pretty devastated about that. I remember posting a woeful status about it on Facebook and being inspired by some of the comments to actually write to Airbnb and ask them to delete the nasty review. I knew they had a policy of not doing this, but figured it would be worth trying because the comments made could actually be deemed libellous. This was the response I got from them:

Airbnb

 

Amazing. It made me love Airbnb even more than I already did. And we went on to have another 38 wonderful experiences. I know we’ll have many, many more and I hope that you do too.

* One was particularly excellent. We loved our 41st apartment, an Amsterdam pad, so much that we asked the owner if she was interested in selling it. The answer, sadly, was no.

Ejo #86 – Drunk In….. Tokyo (Part 2)

So, guess what? I love Tokyo. Tell you something you don’t know?? Don’t worry, I plan to. We just got back from our fourth trip to Japan a week ago and I am still recovering from all the awesomeness. It’s a truly vibrant city, absolutely chock-a-block full of wonderful establishments to get varying degrees of drunk in. So here we go with the second volume in what I’m sure will be an ongoing saga of tipsiness in Tokyo (Part 1 is here). We did return to quite a few of the scenes of our old crimes, but I’ll feature only all the new places we discovered on this trip. Are you ready?  Let’s go!

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MYSTERY IZAKAYA #1

Every single neighbourhood in Tokyo is crawling with tiny little izakayas* where the beer and sake flow freely (and usually the staff don’t speak English).  Here’s my advice to you. Learn a few phrases.  Some that we found useful are “Nama biru, o kudasai” which translates as “Draft beer please”.  Very handy indeed.  Another that we used a lot was “Osusume” which translates as “Whatever you recommend”.  This can be used to refer to a choice of sake, or an entire food menu.  We’ve used it for both with unmitigated success. Don’t be fussy, just eat what they give you.  It’s going to be amazing.

So, it was our first day in Tokyo.  We’d found our Airbnb, dropped off our bags and headed out into the mean streets of Shibuya looking for some action.  About two minutes later we found it when we walked by this little place.  The plan was to grab a beer to hydrate, and some gyoza for energy before moving on – there’s such a plethora of restaurants and izakayas, there’s no point staying in one place too long, you’ve just gotta keep moving.  Or at least that’s our motto.  So while we were relishing our gyoza and beer we noticed that EVERY single other person in the place was eating this weird looking cabbage stew.  We thought, fuck it and decided to get one each.  Oh my god, what a perfect thing to eat on a freezing cold Tokyo winter night.  Comforting, warming, delicious.  It was packed with chewy noodles, fatty pork bits that just melted in your mouth, and seafood galore.  It was a delight.

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Because every good izakaya serves beer.

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The first stop on our Gyoza Tour Of Tokyo

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Noodle, pork and seafood hotpot with cabbage.

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LAST:ORDER WINE BAR

There’s a whiskey bar in Minato called Bar Le Coq which we stumbled upon a couple of years ago and decided we had to go back to.  When we arrived, we were disappointed to find that the street sign heralding its presence in an unassuming residential building was no longer there.  Perhaps it had closed. Being the intrepid travellers that we are though, we decided to go upstairs and try anyway. We walked up the stairs and faced what appeared to be the front door of someone’s apartment.  We looked at each other, and pushed the door open. And there it was, in all it’s glory.  But different.  Unfortunately, the old owner had died of a heart attack in the two years since we’d last been and it was no longer a whiskey bar, having morphed into a wine bar called Last:order.  We ordered some whiskey as a tribute to the previous owner and looked around the empty bar, wondering how the place stayed afloat with absolutely no signage and no patrons, when suddenly the door flung open and a group of young movers & shakers took the place over (which wasn’t hard as it is a very small bar, probably smaller than your living room).  Over the course of our drink (which was supplemented with some very tasty Pinot Noir, compliments of the owner) we learned that we were in the company of a famous Tokyo film director and actor, and their entourage. That’s how we do, folks!

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Mmmm, Pinot Noir – oh, and a whiskey highball. And an incredible bar made of a single, twenty foot long, piece of wood.

INFO:
南青山4-1-8 Minato-ku, Tokyo
+81 3 6438 9864
1900-0200

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ABOUT LIFE COFFEE BREWERS

Every good lush knows exactly where to get good, strong coffee for those morning-after paroxysms.  I’d done my research and we tried a few different ones, but the best (and the closest to our Shibuya apartment) was About Life Coffee Brewers, a small little shop window on a street corner.  The coffee was tasty, strong and consistent.  And that’s about all you need to know.

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Good coffee’s worth waiting for.

INFO:
1-19-8 Dogenzaka, Shibuya-ku
+81 3 6809 0751
0830-2030

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SAKESTAND

Since we’re always on the lookout, our eyes peeled for drinking opportunities, we happened to notice that two doors down from About Life Coffee was a place called SAKESTAND.  We were intrigued, so we decided to explore (mind you, this was after a little skiing mishap I’d had, so navigating the steep stairs of this establishment was a bit of an ordeal, but totally worth it in the interests of research).  What first struck us is that the staircase is completely wallpapered in sake bottle labels.  Very fucking cool.  Upstairs revealed a cute (and yes, tiny) space that kind of resembled an espresso bar in Italy – standing room only, hence the name. We asked the lady behind the bar to recommend a sake for us (“osusume”) and she gave us a very fine selection indeed.  Unfortunately we had to pack for our flight home that evening, so we couldn’t linger, which is a shame.  But probably a good thing.  But we’ll definitely come back next time.  And so should you.

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What it says on the label. Immediately to the left of this door is About Life Coffee.

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Steep stairs. Sake labels.

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Sake in a wine glass, coz we’re fancy like that.

INFO:
〒150-0043 Tōkyō-to, Shibuya-ku, Dōgenzaka, 1 Chome−19−8, 2F
+81 3 6416 4200
1500-2330

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MYSTERY IZAKAYA #2

Here’s the thing about Tokyo.  As of a few minutes ago there are 82,824 restaurants in the city.  And that’s only counting the ones that are registered on Tripadvisor.  Our favourite restaurant in Tokyo, No Name Teppanyaki isn’t even on there.  Thank god or it might be overrun with tourists (we’ve never seen another gaijin eating in there and I hope we never do which is pretty awful of me, but that’s just what I’m like, and if you didn’t know me by now, well… that’s on you). Anyway, what I’m trying to tell you is that when you want to get drunk in Tokyo, just take a walk. There’s an izakaya calling your name, just around every corner.  For instance, one afternoon after gorging ourselves on Nagi Golden Gai ramen, but before heading out for a late fancy sushi dinner we needed somewhere to go for an in-betweenie.  We spotted this mystery izakaya half a block from our house, and we took the plunge.  This place was a particular challenge as it had signs all the way down the staircase exclaiming “No English, Japanese only”.  We slid open the door and a lady stared us down.  In my very broken Japanese I asked if we could come in for some sake.  She looked dubious.  I looked her in the eye and said, “I understand Japanese” in Japanese, and she bought it!!!  The farce didn’t last long (who the fuck did I think I was fooling), but she served us sake anyway and then told us to get the hell out.  But it was nice while it lasted.  My advice to you?  Give it a go.  Walk through that curtain, slide open the door and say “Konban wa”.

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She filled our glasses to overfilling, but refused to refill them because we wouldn’t order anything to eat.  I liked her.  I liked her a lot.

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SUMO WRESTLING

If you travel to an amazing city like Tokyo just to get drunk, sorry buddy, but you’re doing it wrong.  You need to balance all that drinking with some culture (especially the kind where you can grab a beer at the same time).  This is something I refuse to compromise on, being the high-culture hound that I am (cough cough). And so, we went to see the Sumo.  Firstly, this is some serious Japanese culture right here. I’m not going to go into the history of it, but there’s a LOT of history – check it out. Secondly, I am going to make a huge confession and admit that the last time we’d had reservations to see the Sumo, we missed it because we were so hungover from karaoke the night before (more on that later). And just to give you some perspective on that, you can enter the stadium anytime up until 3pm.  So yeah, we were hungover.  Anyway, this time we made SURE we got there on time – and we were so glad we did.  We expected to maybe hang around for an hour, watch a match or two, tick the box and leave.  But no, we were there for nearly three hours, drank a few beers each and had a rip roaring time.  Check out the video below of one of the earlier bouts.  AMAZING!!  If you’re in Tokyo during Sumo season this is a MUST do – we’ll definitely be back. Word of warning, if you stump for those ringside seats be prepared to have a Sumo wrestler fall on, and probably crush, you.

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This is the crowd at 3pm on a Thursday!!!!  Completely booked out.

Check out the unbelievable athleticism. No, I’m not joking. These guys train like warriors. They’re agile, flexible and STRONG!!!

INFO:
Ryōgoku Kokugikan
1 Chome-3-28 Yokoami, Sumida-ku, Tōkyō-to 130-0015
+81 3 3623 5111
Various tournaments throughout the year

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DAVID BOWIE IS

OK, so I’m posting two culture hits in a row.  Whaaaaaaat??  Who am I anyway??  Trust me, I was drunk at both, so it’s fine.  But seriously, when a friend (thanks Cath) gives you the heads up that this exhibition is going to be in town at the same time as you are, you book the goddamn tickets. And because I am rather self-actualised, we paid extra for the “come-whenever-you-want-and-not-at-a-specific-date-or-time” tickets.  Worth every yen. Unfortunately, cameras were strictly forbidden in the exhibition itself, so I couldn’t take any pics of the exhibits, but let me just say that we spent three hours poring over his handwritten notes, mind-blowing costumes, video footage, interviews, music clips and much much more. The most I have ever spent in any museum or gallery is an hour – tops.  We actually ate into valuable drinking time by staying that long, but it was just so mesmerising.  I loved David Bowie before.  Now, I feel like I know him, and love him even more.  If you have the chance, go. Just go.  It’s on in Tokyo until 9th April 2017.

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It was light when we went in.

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Dark when we came out.

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Yes, he is.

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Oh, you pretty thing.

INFO:
Check website for details.

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Bar Martha

This bar in Ebisu is on the same street as our favourite No Name Teppanyaki.  It’s kind of an imposing place, inside and out, and it definitely divides people.  Tripadvisor is peppered with reviews saying things like “worst experience in Tokyo”, “very unfriendly to foreigners”, “rude people, not worth the visit”, “rudest staff I’ve ever encountered” and, quite alarmingly, “the downside of Japan”.  On the other hand, some of the reviews state “a must visit if you love early rock music”, “amazing listening bar” and “not for everyone, but I loved it”. Guess which camp I sit in!  So, you walk in to this place and are abruptly told not to take photos.  And then the bar staff kind of ignore you until you actively seek their attention.  There’s no cocktail menu, per se, so that pisses people off too.  And then, there’s the fact that the staff don’t speak much English.  How inconsiderate!!! Seriously people, get over yourselves.  The bar has great booze, amazing records spinning and a lively atmosphere. What the hell is not to like about that.  We got the attention of our surly bar lady and with our broken Japanese ordered some whiskey cocktails, dealer’s choice.  She whipped up some very tasty concoctions and left us to enjoy them while she changed records.  She seemed to be in charge of the music, so of course I started wondering if she was Martha.  After our second round of osusume cocktails (gin for me and tequila for David), I mustered up the Dutch courage to hobble together in Japanese the question, “Are you Martha?”.  A huge smile crossed her formerly surly face and she ran to the back of the bar to flick through some albums.  She came back and showed me the back of Tom Waits’ album, Closing Time and pointed to one of the songs, “Martha”.  She smiled again as we put on our coats and left.  See, it’s not that hard to make friends with people that others might consider rude.  All you’ve gotta do is be silly, nice and just a little bit drunk.

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Uh, I’ll do what I goddamn please. In the toilet anyway.

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But not where people can see, and evict, me – in which case I’ll use a photo I found on Google Images. Two walls are completely covered, from floor to ceiling in records.  Vinyl heaven!!!

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The last song on Side 1 – Martha.

INFO:
1 Chome-22-23 Ebisu, 渋谷区 Shibuya-ku, Tōkyō-to 150-0013, Japan
+81 3 3441 5055
1900-0500

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EBISU YOKOCHO

What is a yokocho, you ask.  I must admit, I was also in the dark until our most recent trip enlightened me, as I am about to enlighten you.  The literal translation is “an alleyway off to the side of a main street”.  How that translates into real life is a collection of small eateries and drinkeries all collected in an enclosed alleyway.  This is NOT fancy food.  It’s rough, and it’s a little bit intimidating, but it’s also a lot of fun.  We were in between eating gigs (again) and only had time to drop in for a quick sake.  This little shop had a few big bottles peering at us seductively, so we stopped for a while.  The only other customers were three burly Japanese men who good-naturedly (I think) made fun of us until we took off our coats and sat down. Once we were seated, I instantly felt at home and we osusume’d our way to this delicious sake (I told you that phrase came in handy).  My suggestion to you, if you want to visit a yokocho – have a drink before you go, just to loosen up a bit, and then walk through and try a little something something from each of the shops.  While they all serve something different, the one thing on the menu that they all offer is Japanese hospitality.

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So you can aim where you’re drinking.

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Really delicious sake in a really rough and tumble alleyway.

INFO:
Some stalls are open from 1100, but most open at 1700 and stay open until very late

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BIG ECHO KARAOKE

What to say about karaoke in Tokyo.  Bloody hell!  Just… bloody hell.  It’s fun.  It’s dangerous. It’s addictive.  It’s something we do every time we go to Tokyo, and something we will continue doing whenever we go back.  We like the Big Echo chain, and in particular the one across the street from Ebisu Station.  They have different size rooms depending on your group, and we always get the smallest but there’s still room for at least four people in there (maybe you’ll join us next time!).  It ain’t fancy but it has everything you need.  There’re booths, a table, a television and speakers, microphones, tambourines, a telephone and a drinks menu. There might be a food menu too, but I wouldn’t know coz we don’t come here to eat, bitches! We come here to sing, and we come here to drink.  What we like to do is order bottles of dry sparkling sake and glasses of umeshu, a kind of sour, kind of sweet liqueur made from ume plums.  And what we do is tell the staff to keep ’em coming!! Because everyone knows you can’t do karaoke unless you’re drunk!  Time behaves differently in Big Echo. You walk in at 10pm, all bright eyed and bushy tailed and ready to party, and about forty five minutes later you’re stumbling out into the cold street and it’s 4.15am! This happens ALL the time.  I tell you – it’s dangerous.  This time we decided we had to do a David Bowie, George Michael and Prince tribute. Seven hours wasn’t enough, so we did another five hours a few days later.  Dangerous.

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Enter these doors if you dare.

INFO:
Various locations throughout the city

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AFURI RAMEN

Thank god for Afuri Ramen.  In more ways than one.  Firstly, it’s fucking amazing ramen – a lighter variety that’s made from chicken rather than pork stock, it’s also seasoned with yuzu, a tangy Japanese citrus that makes the soup dance in your mouth. Secondly, it closes at 5am which is the ONLY reason we ever left the Big Echo karaoke before the sun came up. I swear, if this place was open 24 hours a day, we’d still be doing karaoke.  This ramen calms you down, but revitalises you at the same time.  It’s a miracle cure for whatever might ail you, especially if you’ve gone a little overboard on the drinking.  You MUST eat here if you are ever in Tokyo.  And when you face down that vending machine all written in Japanese, just press the button with the handwritten sign that says #1 Classic.  That’s all you need to know. You will thank me later.

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What you need to perk you up at the end of a long night of drinking.

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We stuck to the classic Tanrei (which was recommended), and never once felt we were missing anything.

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Oh my god, the ramen.

INFO:
1F, 117 Bld., 1-1-7 Ebisu, Shibuya-ku, Tokyo
1100-0500

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LIBRARY LOUNGE THESE

So there was a LOT of beer and a LOT of sake drunk on this trip (did you happen to notice that?).  Sometimes, you just get a hankering for a good ol’ cocktail, so we headed out to find Library Lounge These (with a minor accidental detour to a French/Japanese fusion izakaya for a glass of wine along the way). When we arrived, we were greeted warmly (a stark contrast to the welcome we received at the edgier Bar Martha) and shown to the bar before being presented with a bowl of fruit and asked to pick a couple each.  David went with pomegranate and lemon, while I chose mint and lemongrass.  Hey, we’re nothing if not adventurers.  We watched the man behind the bar do his magic and then marvelled at the beautiful libations he presented us.  And then we drank them, and we ordered some more.  This is a really lovely place where you could spend some serious time having some seriously good cocktails.

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Fruit, glorious fruit

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Pomegranate & lemon

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Lemongrass & mint

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Pear & ginger

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Tequila negroni – YUM!

INFO:
〒106-0031 Tokyo, Minato, Nishiazabu, 2−15−12, カルテットビル 1F
+81 3 5466 7331
1900-0400 (-0200 on Sundays)

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* an izakaya is a place that serves sake but usually only with food – it’s not a bar, it’s not a restaurant, it’s an izakaya.