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A common question I get asked is, “Where can I get good ramen in London?”

Well, I’ve been trying to do some research (results below). Unfortunately the short answer is that nowhere and noone does ramen like they do in Japan. There are places which do serve “ramen” but inevitably the stock or ingredients are different and I am yet to find somewhere which gets it spot on.

The main problem with Japanese food outside of Japan, particularly in London is the structure of the menus and the belief that restaurants should and can work in the same way ours do – a menu filled with variety, something for everyone. Whilst this may work with Izakaya style eateries, one thing I noted in Japan is how most restaurants specialise in a particular area. Apart from standard side dishes like miso soup, sushi-ya’s serve sushi and nothing else.  Yakitori places serve nothing but variations on yakitori.

Naturally it follows that if you want to eat good ramen, you go to the place where they have perfected the stock, make nothing but ramen, and make so many batches everyday that they have the art of noodles down to a T. Unfortunately, ramen in the UK all-too-often amounts to little more than instant noodles with some sad-looking spinach on top.

I have been gradually trying out places and asking Japanese friends in the hunt for the best ramen around, and here are a few suggestions. (Please note that  the ♥ rating is purely on the quality of the ramen and not on other dishes!)

♥♥♥♥♥ Okawari, China Town (Leicester Sq.) – the Char-shui ramen is really tasty here. The soup was made with chicken stock, so its not 100% authentic, but its not too salty, comes with bamboo shoots, beansprouts and sea weed and a very generous portion of delicious char-shui (barbeque-style) pork. At only £4.50 off the lunchtime menu this is one of the cheapest and best places to go. I like the atmosphere here too; you get unlimited free green tea and generally I have always had satisfactory service. The rest of the menu has many other good dishes on it including bento boxes, tempura, gyoza, sushi etc.  As somewhere which hits the spot in between super-cheap and fine dining, this place comes recommended.

♥♥♥♥ Asa Kusa, Eversholt St. (Mornington Crescent) – As would be expected of my favourite Japanese restaurant in London, this place has vastly superior noodles. Udon comes with a soft poached egg, and is absolutely delicious. Don’t be fooled by the dingy interior and unlikely location, this place serves the best cheap Japanese food around (proved by the vast majority of Japanese patrons), and also gives fantastic service. It only opens in the evening and it is always packed out to the brim so booking is essential.

Ryo, Brewer Street (Piccadilly Cirus) – This was recommended to me as one of the better places to get ramen in London but I was pretty disappointed with their Miso Ramen. It consisted of the cheapest kind of soggy, overcooked instant noodles, and a broth which left much to be desired. Sure, it’s a  no frills kind of place, but considering how cheap ramen is to make, and how badly it was done here, I felt like I had wasted my money.

Ten Ten Tei, Brewer Street (Piccadilly Cirus) – Terrible food, terrible atmosphere, terrible service. Definitely one to avoid.

♥♥♥ Murasaki, Seven Dials (BRIGHTON) – Fabulous little restaurant, always had fantastic food here. Reasonably priced, friendly service, and if the food took a little longer than most other places it was only in the name of taste and presentation. All the chefs are Japanese, and they make the food as authentic as they can with the limitations of certain ingredients. The seafood miso ramen here is really rather good and hits the spot, although I am slightly disapproving of the use of sweetcorn as one of the toppings.


Other places that have ramen on the menu:

Eat Tokyo, Fitzrovia (Holborn)

Taro, Brewer Street (Piccadilly Cirus) – I would give this one a miss since I’ve had other food here and it wasn’t very good.

Ramen Seto, Kingly Street (Oxford Circus)

Misato, (Leicester Sq.) – Again, I haven’t ever eaten ramen here, but the rest of the menu was fairly mediocre (although they compensated by giving huge portions). so I wouldn’t hold out too much hope.

Tokyo Diner, China Town (Leicester Sq.)

If you know anywhere better or disagree, please feel free to comment!

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Golden week was a really good opportunity to have a proper break, catch up on sleep and do a few fun things. Its a fantastic idea having a week of national holidays back to back, but unfortunately this means that everywhere you go, prices are doubled and everywhere is crowded. Interestingly, Japanese people love domestic tourism, so even at “touristy spots”, places of interest or natural beauty I often find myself the only white person there.I really would have liked to have gone to Okinawa or at least Kyuushuu, but it would have cost me so much more than I could have afforded so I stayed around Nagoya with a few day trips, and plenty of trips to onsen to relax!

Ise Jingu

Ise Shrine is where one of the main gods is supposedly enshrined, and it is also the setting for part of the Japan myth (a bit bonkers). It is a collection of lots of small shrines which you can wander freely around, and Ami, Yasu and I decided to go on a daytrip there as it is pretty famous. However, as one shrine looks much like another, we spent most of the time going around the surrounding “town”. All the buildings look old-fashioned, with the signs written in the pre-war style (kanji which are read from right to left instead of the now conventional left to right) and even modern banks and the post office are made to blend in!

It was absolutely fabulous to wander around and soak up the atmosphere. There are all kinds of shops selling souvenirs, toys, clothes, and amazing food. Essentially it was as all good days out should be – very chilled out and constructed around eating lots of local specialities and yummy food. We had the finest steak grilled on a stick, semi-frozen cucumbers on sticks, Ise style udon noodles (, freshly caught whelks, melty-cheese filled deep-fried giant crab stick things, plus, shaved ice covered in syrup of freshly pulped strawberries.

We also got to see live taiko drummers which were fantastic!

Ninja Town

I also went for a mini road trip with Yasu and went to Ninja-mura, to see an actual ninja house filled with trap-doors, revolving panels, hidden passages, hidden upper floors, hiding places and doors/windows with special locks that only those in the know can operate. After that we went to the most amazing playground which is called ninja town. Its built like a mini village and ninja training ground – I would have loved to gone as a kid but that didnt stop me trying out the assualt course as an adult!

They even had costumes for you to rent so you could look and feel the part! We went on the zip-wire, climbed over a roof, crossed a pond using ninja floats, and paid a visit to the ninja-star throwing gallery. Even though the stars weren’t particularly sharp I got the impression that even in a semi blunt condition they could still inflict a lot of damage!

Shiga

During that same road trip, we were already in Shiga, so I took the chance to go back to where it all started, the Wilsons house in Ono. Since it was almost exactly 4 years after I left, I wasn’t sure if I could find my way there, but as soon as we got to the local station I instantly remembered the way that I used to bike home everyday! Unfortunately they werent in, but I left a note and maybe I will get to see them another time. Still it was really fun going back to where I used to live. Not much has changed at all! Its still exactly as I remember it!

I also got to see the replica of the inside of Nobunaga’s castle (important Japanese historical figure) and went around the attached archealogical museum – since there was no English I really had no idea what I was looking at though!

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Just when I thought I had seen it all in Japan, I realised I have only been scraping the surface of bizarrity. (That isn’t a word but it sounds right somehow. My English ability has dropped to the level of a 6 year old.) I went for a mosey around the public library at Tsurumai Park the other day, and was more than a little surprised to see that there is a Sugakiya (ramen restaurant) inside. Not attached to the outside, but actually inside the library. I was thinking how amazing it would be if SOAS had something similar – during the exam period and 24hr opening a ramen restaurant in the library would be the perfect antidote to a hard nights revision!

But it gets even weirder than that. After a hunger fuelled stroll in search of a new and exciting restaurant, we found the perfect place that the producers of Hells Kitchen would probably commit acts of indecency in public places for Gordon Ramsey to sort out. A restaurant called “Mountain”, which specialises in interesting types of rice and spaghetti. Naturally, amongst the list of about 60 types of spaghetti (which actually turned out to be more like a noodle-pasta hybrid; best not to ask) you have standard sauces such as bolognese, carbonara and Japanese style flavours such as Mentaiko (spicy roe). What is surprising however, is seeing strawberry pasta make an appearance on the menu. Or kiwi pasta. Or banana pasta. There were a lot of very strange combinations – none of which sounded very appetising! I saw someone eating said strawberry pasta, and it seemed that it was the sauce and not the actually pasta which was strawberry flavoured. I must say it looked truly horrific. However the absolute worst item on the menu had to be the “Italian Tomato Parfait”. What part of  mixing ice cream and tomatoes seems like a good idea?! And what sort of person orders such a vomit inducing concoction?! Whats more, the portion sizes were bigger than American sizes, enough for 2 very hungry people or maybe even 3! After eating about a third I had to give it up to Michael who has the appetite of an mammoth. I would love to see Gordons reaction to the menu and restaurant…

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Japan has a wonderful variety of food, some of which is strange, some of which is horrendous. Some things which I used to think were really different or interesting have become so normal (green tea ice cream, miso soup, seaweed, raw eggs, pickled cucumber and radish etc) but there are still things which I find a bit bizarre.

However strange something sounds, I will always try it once to see what its like, and so I thought I would share a few of my experiences with you.

Whale – Amazing. If whales want to stop being endangered then they should stop being so delicious! I had it served raw, very thinly sliced with garlic, soy sauce and ginger. It has the appearance of very fine quality steak, very lean and not fatty at all. It also tastes similar to steak, but even softer. It didn’t have a fishy flavour at all. I wish whales weren’t endangered, this is definitely the most un-eco-friendly food I have ever eaten, but I am glad to have had the chance to try it.

Fugu (Highly poisonous Pufferfish) – One of my students took my out for a very posh meal and this came as part of a set course feast, so I didn’t even know what it was until after I ate most of it! It looks like any other kind of white fish, has virtually no distinguishing taste, and is in fact rather bland. I am sure people only eat it for the death factor, and as I didn’t know what it was, this was non-existant! Nice to be able to say I’ve tried it, but I won’t be wasting money on it anytime soon (due to the fact that it is so poisonous, the chefs have to pass very rigurous tests before they are allowed to prepare it and so it is top-end price range). Incidently, almost all deaths caused by fugu are due to housewives trying to save a bit of money and prepare it at home, although the jury is out on whether this can be considered accidental or not!

Sea Urchin – I was expecting this to be good since it is such a prized delicacy in Japan (at up to $450/kg its up there with caviar and the like) and maybe its something you get used to, but I’m not a big fan. It has the strangest flavour. Very strong taste of the sea, very salty, and with a rather nasty after taste. I didnt like it the first time I had it at an average quality sushi shop, but I tried it again at a posh restaurant and it was slightly better, so perhaps it depends on the quality.

Octopus – fairly standard by Japanese standards but very nice all the same. Bit of a chewy/rubbery quality to it like squid, but as long as its fresh, it always has a slight tenderness too.

Sea cucumber – not bad, bit chewy. It came raw but pickled which has the effect of dehydrating it and giving it the texture of raw Octopus. Having encountered a sea cucumber or two in Australia while diving I was rather interested to see what it tasted like.

Sea Cucumber’s Bowels – Tried eating the bowels raw after seeing the head chef so boldly down a piece,  however this was  honestly the most disgusting thing I have ever eaten/seen/smelt. Bearing in mind that Sea Cucumbers are bottom feeders and scavenge whatever they can find, plus sift through sediment, you can get some idea of the flavour. Essentially it smells and tastes really strongly of the sea, whilst being incredibly salty. The sensation of eating it is comparable to drowning in the sea with the pungent sting of seawater all up in your nose followed by the abrasive scratching of crushed seashells and sand. However, instead of dying, you will have an unforgettable aftertaste that will have you retching. Avoid at all costs.

Tuna/Bonito’s Bowels – Not as bad as the above (kind of chewy like beef intestines very very salty and very very fishy) but not particularly enjoyable by any means.

Raw Jellyfish – a really tasty treat. This one has become a favourite in my bento lunchbox and I will miss it when I go home. Slightly strange chewy texture, it seems to be served in a sesame seed sauce wherever I eat it. I was half expecting to have a numb tongue after eating it but thankfully it doesn’t come with such a kick!

Abalone – Kind of chewy, pretty yummy. Its a bit like a cross between squid and moules!

Pigs trotter -not something I would probably ever order again, but not half as bad as it sounds. Essentially it was just fat, served on the bone in some kind of sweet and salty soup.  I’m not a big fan of fatty textures which was the main reason I wouldn’t order it again, but it had obviously been simmered in the soup for hours and had absorbed all the flavour which made it nice.

Face of a Pig – Again, this isn’t something I wouldn’t necessarily have chosen, but I did enjoy eating it. It was the skin of the pig’s face sliced up, and although it is cooked for a long time it remains ever so slightly chewy.

Pigs Ears with kim-chi -pretty much the same as pigs face, thinly sliced pieces served in a kimchi sauce. Delicious.

Raw Chicken- thought this would be horrendous, but I have eaten this twice now with no foul consequences. Apparently salmonella isn’t a big problem in Japan, and when you eat chicken sashimi its with meat that has been slaughtered that morning (or so I am told). It is poached for 20 seconds and then sliced thinly. Served with soy sauce, ginger paste and finely sliced spring onions. Its the same texture as raw fish but obviously the taste is different! I would recommend trying it if you are in Japan, but can’t imagine eating it anywhere else! It is surprisingly nice.

Fermented soy beans (納豆) – not pleasant. Very standard in Japan, but I have no idea why. Everyone raves about its health benefits but that’s not enough to persuade me that I should eat it it. It is brown, sticky, gooey,and  stringy like melted mozzarella cheese. It looks AWFUL, it smells AWFUL, it tastes AWFUL, but the worst part is that it leaves a disgusting aftertaste in your mouth which leaves you wondering why you let it violate your body out of choice.

Chickens heart, beef tripe, liver, and other various innards – not bad. I know you can get these at home, but they don’t really form part of my everyday diet, so it was good to try them. I like the way things are cooked here, very simply with subtle ingredients, so you really taste the meat. Japanese/korean barbecue or Yakitori is the most common and best way to eat innards. If you go to a Yakitori restaurant with a Japanese friend, get them to order a bunch of random ones and try them without knowing what they are – such a fun game!

The only random thing left I really want to try whilst in Japan is horse meat sashimi which I will get around to as soon as I have some money!

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Question: what whips Japanese girls into a fury of baking, borrowing sugar, and locked kitchen doors? Valentines day of course!

Valentines Day in Japan is the complete opposite to what you would expect. The tradition here is that on February 14th WOMEN give MEN chocolates! And as if that wasn’t unromantic enough, they are nicknamed called “obligation chocolates” for the reason that they have to be given to male work colleagues, superiors, teachers, and all men who you interact with on a frequent basis. Its not all bad for women though; exactly a month later the men who received these chocolates have to return the favour by giving presents such as handkerchiefs or hand towels on what is known as White Day.

The fun part for the men is working out whether the chocolates are “Honne” (a gift from the heart) or “giri” (given out of social obligation). Obviously the more time you take to make them or the more expensive they are, the more love they show.

Rebbekah and I spent the best part of Saturday afternoon making home-made chocolates for our friends with fairly good results:

Valentine Chocolates

Valentine Chocolates

Oh and one other thing. To add another twist into the mix, and apparently due to the “influence of western customs”, one of the major chocolate manufacturers has brought out “reverse chocolates”. These are exactly the same as the normal chocolates except for the fact that the packaging is printed in reverse, and MEN are meant to give them to WOMEN in accordance with the usual Valentines day customs. And before you ask, no I am not joking.

Essentially, noone knows who to give chocolate to anymore.

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This week is a very welcome week off whilst the University entrance exams are undertaken by scores of terrified looking High School students from all over Nagoya. I was unfortunate enough to be walking the wrong way back to the dormitory on Monday afternoon just after 5pm faced with a stream of about 500 students, some talking and laughing, others looking petrified from fear. Unlike the UK, you take an entrance exam directly with the university; it is said to be the most stressful part of Japanese childrens lives. After you get into your chosen university the work is relatively easy, you have free time, you can wear what you want, you can dye your hair etc and jobs are won on the university you go/went to rather than your degree, so getting into the right place is pretty much the most important thing. To pass these exams, kids got to after-school “cram-schools” from the end of school till 9-10pm most evenings during the week!

Anyway, we get the week off which is fantastic as I have time to recover from all that party planning! Luckily everything went perfectly the other night; people liked our goody bags (5000 yen vouchers redeemable at a local hairdressers, free food/drinks vouchers, chocolates, hair wax, shampoo etc) the red carpet, the prizes – concert tickets, hair straighteners, clothes etc – and everyone said how professional it was. Judging from everybody’s photos on Facebook, it looks like everybody had a good time! People are already asking when the next one is… Between George and I we know most of Nagoya so we are thinking of making it bigger – maybe 300 people!

We even made enough profit to pay for a thankyou slap-up meal at Outback Steakhouse for our closest friends who helped with the party preparations – currently still full of delicious ribs!! That place is a saving grace – although I still can’t believe that the finest fillet steak comes chopped up in little chunks just because Japanese people can’t use knives and forks! And whilst fish/eggs/horse meat/everything comes raw in Japan, steak comes medium rare even if you ask for it to be still moo-ing. Still I’m not going to complain, as where else can I get such decadent Gaijin Fodder?

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For the last month or so, one group of friends  have been telling me of the wonders of a particular restaurant in Nara (not so far from Kyoto). This restaurant was said to have served very authentic and delicious Indian food the like of which I have not seen for over 4 months. Ever since they got back they have been talking about making a return trip, and on a complete whim (and also out of boredom) I decided to go and see what all the fuss was about.

My oh my. I was not disappointed! Proper Indian food, tasty, hot, flavoursome, authentic AND all you can eat (cooked to order) for only 2500yen! We all ate until we could barely move!

Whilst we were in Nara we also got to see the giant Buddha that sits in the middle of the main park in the worlds largest wooden structure. The Buddha is absolutely vast; one really does have to wonder how they made it all those years ago.

We also got to feed the deer which were a little too hungry/friendly for my comfort. They are “technically” wild, and they roam around the markets and parks like cattle in India, although I don’t know if they would be able to survive on their own without all the tourists feeding them deer cakes. Far too much time was spent trying not to get  nibbled or headbutted, or indeed running away like a little girl from these cute critters which are only a bit bigger than dogs! Luckily the males have their antlers removed or else I would probably be in a world of pain right now…

Argh! Deer!

Oh I almost forgot to write how we had a nice little adventure getting home too. We arrived and planned to return via JR local trains which is a pretty cheap route if you have the time and don’t mind a couple of changes. Unfortunately we forgot to check how late the various lines ran and we missed the last connecting train. Luckily we checked before we left because if we had got stuck at Kameyama then that would have meant Actual Death, by which I mean spending the night in the middle of absolutely nowhere, with no hotel or place to stay, no place to eat and no food in temperatures which have recently been barely above zero.

So we took a very long winded route home via Kyoto from where we caught the shinkansen home. Saying it like that makes it sound like a rather casual affair, but in all honesty we caught it by the skin of our teeth! I’ve always admired how punctual Japanese trains are. They are Never, Ever EVER late. Especially not the bullet trains. Their reputation depends on it. However, for some reason (*cough* MIRACLE *cough*) this particular train was 4 minutes and 30 seconds late. Buying the tickets for shinkansen always takes a bit of time so you can imagine what it was like trying to get six tickets in only 5 minutes! If it had not been for those extra 270 seconds… Even one of the guys agreed it was the most compelling evidence for the existence of God that he had ever seen!

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