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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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Utada Hikaru at the O2 Academy in Angel, 11th-12th Feb 2010 ★★★


The other day I was fortunate enough to see Utada Hikaru live at the O2 academy in Angel. Just how fortunate depends on your perspective of course, so for those who have never heard of her, a little background. She is a very famous Japanese singer who holds the title of best-selling single and album of all time in Japan with the ballad ‘First Love’. Three of her Japanese studio albums in the list of Top 10 best-selling albums ever in Japan (#1, #4, #8) and six overall of her albums (two English-language and one compilation) charting within the 275 Best-Selling Japanese albums list. Utada has had fourteen number-one singles on the Oricon Singles chart, with two notable record achievements for a female solo or group artist: five million-sellers and four in the Top 100 All-Time Best-selling Singles. Although she is relatively unknown here in the UK, with over 50 million albums sold worldwide, she is the equal of Britney Spears in popularity there; the kind of household name that even Mums and Dads would know. So, kind of a big deal really.

This was her first ever UK concert, and I suppose the organisers, not realising the amount of fans she actually has here, decided to play it safe by booking one night at the Angel O2 academy which has a capacity of around 800. The show sold out in hours. They later added an extra date on thursday, again, a sell out.

Seeing such a well-known star in such a small venue was a real privilege, although I’m sure it was a step down for someone who could easily fill the biggest stadiums on her home turf. The intimacy of the gig was definitely one of the strengths of the concert, and after opening with “On and On” there was some good banter between Utada and the crowd. She joked about how she would like to move to London and her penchant for rainy weather.

The point of this tour was to promote her new album “This is the One”, the third English Language album she has produced (the other five are all in Japanese) and I respect that, but most of the people who were there seemed to be Japanese, or at least Japanese speakers. Unless you have some sort of interest in J-Pop then there is no way you would know about her. (That should tell you about the demographics of the crowd. With so many nerds and weebos there, I thought I was in Akihabara all over again…)

There seemed to be a clash of interests – on the one hand, people like me who know and love her older stuff like, “Final Distance”, and “Colours”, or even songs off her most recent Japanese album with songs like “Prisoner of Love” and “Flavour of Life” were to be disappointed with a set constructed almost entirely around her new album “This is the one” and her other, less well-known and less promoted, English language recordings. On the other hand, she needed to promote her new record. The problem was that there was an mis-assumption that people in Britain and America would prefer to hear her English stuff and not Japanese songs.

Of course the aforementioned “First Love”, “Automatic”, and “Sakura Drops” all made appearances to my great relief, but for me there seemed to too many forgettable tracks as filler and not so much killer.

On the up-side, she really does have a beautiful voice, and the soulfullness really came through on the Bjork-esque “Passion”, and the heartfelt “Stay Gold” and “Come Back to me”. “You make me want to be a man” and “Poppin'” sounded ten times better live than on record even as a couple of my least favourite tracks.  “Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence” was another highlight,

Over the 10 years she has been around, she has developed her own unique style and her ability to pull off different styles such as the funked up “Automatic” and she even managed to hold her own while doing a rather unexpected cover of Placebo’s “The Bitter End”. What I had expected to come off as tinny-electronically engineered pop really came alive with the aid of the backing band.

Overall, it was a very slick production, even if Utada did seem a little tired from all the touring. I would have given it 5 stars if she had paid homage to her Japanese records a little more, but that is just personal preference, it was never advertised as a “Greatest Hits tour”. She really was a good performer and it was great to see and hear her talent in the flesh. I, for one, really hope she comes back to London in the future.

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This weekend was a blur. A very overwhelming blur! Even though I’d been told countless times that Tokyo is a very hectic place, nothing could have really prepared me for quite how crazy it is! Its like London on acid; so much bigger, buildings which touch the sky as far as the eye can see in every direction; adverts on every spare inch; people everywhere; flashing lights, television, music and sounds surrounding you wherever you walk…  Its multi-sensory overload. I’ve never felt more like a country bumpkin!

I apologise in advance that this is going to be a long entry!

We left straight after classes ended on Wednesday and took a Nozomi shinkansen which arrived a hour and 20 minutes later in Tokyo. It was my first time on a bullet train and I was incredibly impressed. They run every 10 minutes and are so fast – the same trip by coach takes over 6 hours! (They are also very comfortable; it is little wonder that they have such a good reputation.) Ironically, because we took a while to figure out where we were going on the metro, it took us almost the same amount of time from the JR Shin-Yokohama station to get to Joy’s cousins house! Luckily we got there just in time for delicious homemade Japanese curry and rice. As Noriko had had a cold, Joys aunt came over to help. It was really nice to get a glimpse of Japanese family life! Later on Joys long-time friend Chris came over and he took us for a drive around central Tokyo. I will not easily forget my first impressions of Shibuya at night – it was a Wednesday night and the streets were packed! Cruising around in a rather fast car with spoilers and listening to techno was a bit like being in the Fast and the Furious or something! Definitely the best way to see the city.

On Thursday we went shopping in Shibuya with Cynthia’s aunt, and I was really glad to have someone who knew the area show us around as the department stores are like mazes, and there seem to be amazing shops in the oddest corners where you would least expect them to be! We went for a slap up lunch – I had tempura oysters which were delicious! – and hit the shops really hard! Managed to find a really nice super long knitted wool cardigan with a real silver fox fur collar for only £30! I also got some glass gems to pimp my keitai phone, and a few gifts for people. That evening after a feast of temaki sushi we wandered around shibuya, took some purikura (sticker photos) and quite randomly got handed sweets by a salaryman.

We got one of the last trains home – the most crowded train I have ever been on! Between 6pm-12pm all the trains are packed to the brim. The marks on the platform tell you where to line up, but any sense of order ends here; once you are inside it is every man for himself! This is a photo of people being pushed onto the train by one of the white gloved conductors, something unique to Japan.

I can’t really express how squashed we were! We couldn’t move at all, backs twisted like a pretzels and feet trodden on! I don’t know how people can do this everyday. For those who miss the last train the sorry fate is a night spent on the platform, at karaoke, or sleeping in a manga cafe (a kind of Internet cafe) so most people get on these trains at all costs.

Along came Friday and a visit to Harajuku. Disappointingly didn’t see a whole lot of bizarrely clad individuals, but had a nice wander around some of the boutiques and interesting shops. As it was Halloween, the later it got, the more we saw people in costume wandering around. Before we came, about 10 of us had planned to meet up and go to AgeHa – a superclub on the industrial outskirts of Tokyo, but after we got off the bus and saw the queues of about 2000 people we realised that there was no way we were going to get in. A few of our friends had already queued for 2 hours and were still 40 minutes from the entrance! Luckily a friend from SOAS told us about another event we could go to in Shibuya which turned out to be the most amazing party! It was an invitation only club night with performances by a dozen different artists for about 200 people, on the top floor of a 12 storey building, complete with swimming pool outside, so it felt very exclusive. People dressed up in the most amazing Halloween outfits, so although it was quite surreal it was definitely one of the best nights out in Japan so far!

After the party ended at 4.30 am we headed out into Roppongi to another club. Anyone will tell you that Roppongi is Gaijin Central (foreigners = yuk) but at that time in the morning we couldn’t really be picky. We got the first train in the morning there and by the time we arrived it was light outside! Unfortunately the club we went to was of the very worst kind, and it was even worse that I had anticipated, sticky floors, perverts and vomit. So we didn’t stay long, and decided to go for breakfast ramen (noodles) instead. By the time we got home it was 9.30 am! As you might expect we slept till 3pm!

Later that evening Joys cousins family took the three of us to the Tokyo Tower where we got some fantastic views of the city at night. As far as you can see in every direction there are skyscrapers and bright lights. It makes London look like a hamlet!

After that we went to Onsen, which are like hot springs which you bathe in. The particular one they took us to is an Edo Period themed one where you can choose your favourite colour yukata, enjoy some dinner at the food court and play some old fashioned arcade games before going bathing. Its always a little embarrassing bathing with all the other naked with other people but its so relaxing that all of it slips away after the first few minutes. Obviously the main baths are single sex, but after you get out and dry off you can enjoy the outside foot baths with everyone.

So thats the general idea of my weekend! (I had to leave out most of the details otherwise it would have been ridiculously long!) I had such a fun time, and I will definitely be going back at some point because as a city it has so much to offer and I only really scratched the surface. I was really expecting to love Tokyo, as I love living in London and I’m fairly used to city life. But despite having an amazing time, I was so relieved to get back to Nagoya! The air and streets are cleaner here, people walk half a heartbeat slower, they apologise when they bump into you, there’s hardly any foreigners, the trains seem almost empty, and obviously its a lot cheaper. Nagoya is by no means perfect, but as a place to live it is everything I need in a city.

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I’ve finally booked my flights now, so I’ll be leaving on the 31st August and I’ll be in Nagoya for the 1st September. I’m excited and wondering what its all going to be like: who I’m going to meet, what the classes will be like and what Nagoya is like too.

I’m not really so nervous but I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about how much I’m going to miss London, friends and family, and even the over-keen socialists of SOAS! Having been to Japan before I have some idea of what to expect; I am preparing myself for a drought of bacon, and cheese, and Sunday roasts. Bad times. But on the plus side, Japan offers a lot of things which I wish we had here, most notably vending machines 【自動販売機】every 50 metres which serve tea and coffee in cans (hot in the winter and cold in the summer – amazing) and obviously all my favourite Japanese foods such as Tempura, Yaki Soba, Okonomiyaki, and Takoyaki – good times. I’m even excited at the thought of eating my first humble Onigiri again (rice-ball with fillings/flavourings and wrapped in dried seaweed) at newsstands and convenience stores.

I’m going to have to find a way of getting regular red meat in my life since Japan observes a predominantly fish/rice/vegetable based diet. The business minded amongst you should start buying shares in Kobe beef NOW. No Meat = No Meal.

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