Tokyo Kameido | Marshmallow Supremacy & The Samurai Cafe

This past weekend I sat in a rocking chair and drank whiskey. The room was smoky in a way that I like. And I truly came to appreciate the word senmon (specialty) in Japanese. Not too long ago I was contacted by Johannes who runs a YouTube channel called Japanese Journey. He wanted to do a collab and I was happy to oblige. He creates very well produced videos and even after meeting him for a very short time, I could tell, he shared my same interest in videography. I, in the not too distant past, enjoyed creating neighborhood videos which featured areas of the less explored variety. I thought that for our getting together we could return to that style. After talking a bit with Eiko she suggested we return to where she used to live by a station called Kameido.

She specifically suggested that we visit the Samurai Cafe. I am so happy that she did. We would of course need more to cover and research revealed there a specialty marshmallow shop. The fact that they made a set number of batches for the day, and once sold, they closed down, really appealed to my sense of exclusivity. That—care enough to get it early—or don’t get it at all vibe. Deciding that I would cover the Samurai Cafe and the marshmallow shop, Johannes set his sights on covering the quite beautiful shrine the area was known for as well as a business co-op street. In Japan they’re known as shotengais and created to retain the often ancient mom and pop shop history of certain areas.

First stop was the marshmallow shop. After circling the block it was on, and starting to worry that perhaps it had shut down, we found it, not yet open. You could however, see through a crack in the not quite lifted protective shutter for the building, people working away in preparation. They were at once friendly, and when I waved to them through the crack they waved back and although they were wearing masks I could tell by their eyes that they smiled. That kind of wonderful openness would be the hallmark of this whole outing.

While filming the intro for the video Eiko attempted to elaborate on the kind of feel you could expect in a place like Kameido. She described it as Shitamachi – which in literal translation means under-city. The sounds far more devious than it actually is. More accurately it simply means away from the central core of the city and as a result of that the people on average are more welcoming and open. I found that description particularly interesting as this is more the sort of contrast that you’d expect to hear in comparison of the city and the countryside, but here it is, within the city itself. And after experiencing as much friendly charm as I did I wouldn’t argue with its accuracy.

Case and point, when we went to the Samurai cafe, a place Eiko had not been for five years, one of the serving staff recognized her. Heartwarming stuff. Not to mention that the way that member of staff behaved was the rule not the exception. Everyone was so kind. I cannot emphasize this enough. Naturally as a YouTuber, or maybe not so naturally? I worry about making people I film around feel comfortable and not intruded upon. Samurai Cafe as well as the marshmallow specialty shop made it abundantly apparent that they not only endorsed my filming but that they would love to see the video once it was uploaded. The man working at the till at the marshmallow shop specifically asked for channel and went so far as to ask if he could take a picture of it on my phone so he wouldn’t lose it. If I am making it sound like I would hang out at one of these places much as eat anything, it’s because I would.

That said, the marshmallows were on another level totally earning their description as a specialty shop and Samurai Cafe somehow turned toast lunch items into the most beautifully presented thing I had ever seen. The lunch special at Samurai Cafe was 780 yen. That included a drink and I am not exaggerating when I say this food looked and tasted incredible. Usually when you say the words pizza toast it summons up the image of some cosco slice of oily bread, an impoverished amount of tomato sauce with a suggestion of cheese and at best two or three meager grade F salami or hotdog slices for protein. Samurai’s pizza bread, holy shit! The bread itself, thick and fluffy, the toppings generous and of a high quality. When you peeled away a slice from the main section you got to enjoy watching thick hot melted strands of cheese clinging to the rest, as though from some carefully edited food commercial. Sometimes you have a feeling that a place will be amazing and you are disappointed. Then there are those rare times when your expectations are left in the dust. Samurai Cafe pulled it off with style.

While a video is always satisfying when things go your way of course a little challenge will sweeten the final result. Japanese summer provided that in the form of stifling humidity. When we did finally get to the park at sometime around 2 o’clock the mid-day heat had come on and I began to melt. I have not begun editing but I am pretty sure there is going to be some supremely unflattering sweat to deal with. Such is life though. I am telling myself that it adds character. The lies that I believe are beautiful. Whining aside, the shrine actually was really cool. Sometimes in Japan you get that feeling like you’ve seen one shrine you’ve seen them all. That would be a horrible mistake and you’d miss out on seeing some very cool places if you give in to this way of thinking.

Kameido’s shrine was fantastic. Two red moon bridges were the feature design points. But in addition to those, water features and to bloom next year wisterias added to the scenery. In my research I learned that Kameido, like many places in Japan, is quite seasonally focused. I do think it would be worth coming back to check it out when the season better suited it. But for the time being I was happy with the experience. Finishing my filming at this point I finally had an opportunity to become more photographically focused. I even got a bad-ass #photographer4life shot by laying down on my back and framing these very cool looking cranes hanging from one of the many prayer placard stations found around the shrine.

Final note about this shrine. The pigeons are fucking Nuts. That capital N is to emphasize the degree to which these pigeons have lost their goddamn minds. One landed on Eiko’s head and I was accosted by two others that had come straight out of a come-at-me-bro meme. I swear they were stalking me. I felt at a loss. They were getting crazy close, threateningly so! But what was I gonna do? Punch a pigeon? I was seriously considering it to get these things to leave me alone but then someone of course is gonna see me without context and now I’m the foreigner who punches birds. Canadians have been doing horribly in Japanese media this year and I don’t want to add to the doggy pile so I stowed my rage and opted to flee in terror from these alt-right pigeons, with their extreme beliefs and acts of aggression.

I’ve covered another shotengai in the past and had an incredible time doing so. It was with Victor and Charles from Yummy Japan when they still ran that channel. For that reason I am usually quite optimistic when I check out a new one. I think Johannes did a good job of finding interesting places to go but we had somewhat restricted options in the form of time. It was at that point nearing five-thirty and being on your feet filming all day does, much fun as it is, wears you down some. I say time restrictions not only for the fact that it was later but that for the true specialty of the street, Horumon (guts), you would need to sit down. This did however give me inspiration. Horumon is a Japanese food not for the feint of heart. I’ve overcome most things that might intimidate people when it comes to Japanese cuisine but Horumon has yet eluded my. I think then, what possibly could be better than that for a video idea? You have something extremely exotic that is going to push me far outside my comfort zone. Perfect. That is next up on the list. To Kameido I say in closing. I’ll be back.

 

 

 

 

 

Winter Waterfall

Avocado

While living in Japan I’ve tried to avoid setting a strict unbending routine. With that in mind, when Kimura sensei, a diminutive woman with a fierce passion for life, invited me out this past weekend for a fresh air frolic to a waterfall in Chiba Prefecture, I said yes. I work with her at Matsuo JHS. We met at the start of my second year during the annual March term shuffle of teachers. One of those wonderful unexpected surprises. Accompanying Kimura sensei and myself on the hike were two of her friends. Before continuing I should mention that Chiba Prefecture has a business relationship with the state of Wisconsin USA. Defining the relationship is the salty business of soy sauce and the factories that make it, of which Wisconsin has many. Additionally, I’ve discovered it includes programs recruiting Wisconsians who wish to teach in Japan. Kimura’s friends are two such recruits who’ve made use of that association. It was from them I finally learned of the relationship’s extensive impact on the region. It did much to clear a growing haze of foreboding clouding my thoughts. One that had me deeply concerned that I’d landed myself in an episode of the twilight zone, titled “Revenge of the Fromagians,” where the only people left in Japan were those of native birth, and those with a profound knowledge of cheese, bordering on eldritch.

We, the Canadian and pair of Wisconsians, met Kimura sensei at the train station in the morning. A glorious winter sun brightly lit a cloudless sky, providing the backdrop for a wonderful day. We did not wait long before a smiling Kimura sensei drove up in our ride for the day. Her vehicle defined Japanese engineering, gas efficient enough to run for days on an eye dropper. Small enough to fill me with horror as I speculated that only a cirque du soleil performer could actually fit in it. The ride was surprisingly smooth and spacious. All I had to do was nearly crush the girl sitting behind me. Not in a metropolitan area to begin with, we quickly found ourselves surrounded by pastoral Japan’s elegance. Tiny roads, rice fields, and corridors cut out from the forest, provided space for homes. Ubiquitous towering bamboo surrounding us created the illusion that an infinite forest stretched in all directions. A fascinating element of Japanese architecture is its mix of old and new. Out in the boonies however, ancient styles are unquestionably prevalent. With no signs of modern society other than the road and car, the mind can play tricks on itself. I found myself more than once stopped at a crossroad, stealing surreptitious glances out the window. Worried a charge of mounted samurai lay in wait to overturn the vehicle and slay us for the honour of their Daiymo. The cowards never did attack.

Kimura sensei eventually informed us, much to the relief of my crushed friend in the back, that we would make a stop at a mid way point. I recommend that anyone visiting Japan, who finds themselves out in this neck of the bamboo, stop where we did. A place called Awamata Herb Island. Vegetarian paradise. The business has a fantastic concept, green house herb garden with attached restaurant. All the food cooked in their kitchen comes from the seasonal produce grown in the greenhouse. I’ve included at the top of this post a picture of an avocado tree found within. Enjoying first a walk through the fragrant rows of plants, we then ordered our food from a cashier and waited for our order to come up in the pass. Picnic style, comfortable sturdy wooden benches provided the seating while we waited. Above us hung a low net ceiling completely grown through with verdant vines. The greenhouse’s proximity foreshadowed the food with its herbaceous smells. I had the basil pasta and tormented the women of our expedition by treating myself to two desserts, woe to those who watch their waist line. If partaking of meals while sitting in an idyllic garden interests you, there exists no finer venue.

Lunch

Concluding our conversation, our plates wiped clean, we set out again. Driving twenty more minutes brought us to a parking lot. A short walk through the countryside awaited us before actually reaching the river trail leading to the waterfall. This, presented another opportunity to experience rural Japanese culture. Stalls dotted the landscape, set up by local farmers who sold seasonal items, from decorative wreaths to enticing simple sweets. Everything tempted me and I would have tried it all if not having eaten so recently. Passing through the farmers fields we reached stairs which descended to a place marking the official start of our hike. Reaching the bottom a concrete lane snaked along the walls of the riverbed, well maintained and populated by others out to bask in the sunshine. Beginning the walk signaled the start of new easy flowing conversation. Time, like the water beside us, passed pleasantly. I punctuated our discussion with stops to snap pictures of our surroundings. Great shots were in abundance. Wherever you looked, frames of natural symmetry vied for the camera lens’s attention. Trees hung over the water and walkway, sparsely graced with vermilion leaves. Stragglers, defiant of Fall, still clung to bony fingered branches bleached white in the mid day sun. A pastel blue sky made a perfect canvas for the sharp colours contrasted against it, yellow, gold, and orange. Even the surface of the water became art, blanketed with the small star shapes of Japanese maple. They have a word for when the wind blows and cherry blossoms fall from trees. I imagine there must be a Winter equivalent for dead leaves, I never asked. With my camera battery exhausted we came to the waterfall. Taking a break at the popular spot, we assisted those needing an extra pair of hands to take a picture. After snapping a group shot of our own, we then started on our way back. Kimura sensei hosted us that night for dinner. We dined on Okonomiyaki, a Japanese style savoury pancake, along with plenty of wine, beer, and sake of course. A treasured memory and one I will not soon forget.

I talk about this trip on my YouTube channel DaveTrippin, if you care to check it out.

The gallery section of this web-page has more shots of the journey if you wish to see them.