Saturday, 22 September 2018

Deathmatch in Hell: Drinking in the Golden Gai, Tokyo

On this trip I was assisted by the Japan National Tourist Organisation.

My final day in Japan was... interesting. 

I returned to the city from the spa town of Kinugawa Onsen, dropped into the Japanese Sword Museum, checked into my Shinjuku hotel, walked to the Park Hyatt to find its New York bar wasn't open, enjoyed the over-the-top show at the Robot Restaurant, ate ramen at the local branch of Ichiran, then finally walked into the Golden Gai.

Ah, the Golden Gai.

This atmospheric warren of bars along narrow alleyways is a relic of the 20th century, when the area was associated with prostitution. 

Although areas like this were reportedly demolished by fires started by the gangster Yakuza chasing redevelopment profits, the Golden Gai miraculously survived; partly thanks to locals taking turns to act as lookouts overnight.

The legacy is a fantastic area that feels separate from the big, busy city enveloping it. The small grid of alleys is dotted with tiny bars, most with room for only a handful of seats. 

The result is that each bar has its own distinctive, warm personality, and patrons and bartenders end up chatting to each other.

I enjoyed wandering through the maze, but I also had a mission: to drink at Deathmatch in Hell, the metal-themed bar which a friend had put me onto.

Like all Golden Gai bars, it was tiny - but the owner had packed a lot into the decor:

Two Japanese whiskies and a bourbon later, I was feeling the Golden Gai vibe. 

I had a flight to catch... but I didn't want to leave this ethereal Tokyo enclave. Like MacArthur, I shall return.

Thursday, 13 September 2018

How to Eat Ramen in Fukuoka, Japan

On this trip I'm being assisted by the Japan National Tourist Organisation.

I arrived in Japan yesterday by ferry from Busan, South Korea, and one of the first things I did was eat ramen. Fukuoka is famous for its particular style of the noodle dish, known as Hakata ramen after its most historic district.

The best place to go for the real thing is Ichiran, a ramen chain which has outlets dotted across the city. I found one in an underground food hall near Hakata train station.

There's a little bit of self-education required so you can order, but there's English language signage so it's not too difficult. 

The first thing you see upon entry is this vending machine:

If you have a closer look, you can find an array of choices beyond the basic ramen dish. 

Note that there's no credit card option here. Japan is still a cash-oriented society for small purchases like this, so you'll need to have cash ready. The machine very efficiently accepts notes and coins.

I ordered the ramen and their special vinegar. I could have added lots of toppings to that, and maybe a beer or a tea, but I wanted to keep things simple on my first try. And that came out to 1,010 yen (A$12.60), which was easy to produce as a 1000 yen note and a ten yen coin.

It's worth noting at this point that even without adding an extra order of pork slices on top, this is not a vegetarian dish. The broth which is the foundation of Hakata ramen is made by boiling pork bones, which is what gives it its characteristic taste. I'm usually vegetarian, but today I was being 'flexitarian' for research purposes.

The machine spits out some tickets, and you take these with you into the dining area, which is a compact space of private alcoves - one per diner:

Once seated, you'll find a form in front of you which is to be filled out with the provided pen, allowing you to tailor your dish in a number of ways from noodle firmness to level of spiciness:

When this is completed, You press a button on the table top, and a partly concealed staff member behind the screen takes the tickets and your order preferences. Once cooked, it's delivered to your table via the same gap, and the curtain is then drawn down.

There's another form on the table for extras which you can order while eating - an extra serve of noodles to dunk into the soup, for example - but otherwise you're all set. You have ramen!

Hot, tasty, Hakata ramen...

Who's hungry?

You can find Ichiran outlets at its English-language website.

Friday, 7 September 2018

Between North and South Korea: Into the DMZ

I was hosted on this visit by the Korea Tourism Organisation.

Today I had the chance to do something I didn't have time for the last time I was in Seoul: visit the Demilitarised Zone (DMZ) between North and South Korea.

The tour run by Panmunjom Travel Centre takes the traveller to a number of sites connected with the border, culminating in a brief visit to the Join Security Area (JSA) itself - the heart of the DMZ, where the two Koreas literally meet in a small 'negotiation village'.

Interestingly, we were joined on the bus by a North Korean defector, a woman who fled the north in 2011 with her daughter. It was fascinating to ask her questions about her life and former country as we headed to our first stop.

This was the Mount Odu Unification Observatory, where one can gaze upon North Korea across the point where the Han and Injin Rivers meet, forming the border at this locality. Across Korea the DMZ is four kilometres wide by agreement; but at riverine sections like this, it narrows significantly so the two countries are only a few hundred metres apart.

We then visited the Freedom Bridge, across which prisoners of war returned after the Korean War ended...

... and nearby, saw this massively damaged locomotive which had been trapped between the opposing forces, and later moved within South Korea as an an emblem of the conflict:

The highlight of the day was the visit to the JSA, a slow process involving barricades, checkpoints and passport checks - even a dress code inspection, as North Korean soldiers used to take photos of sloppily dressed Westerners to use as propaganda with their people.

Finally we stood inside the simple blue conference room at the heart of the zone, constructed so the border literally runs through the centre of the conference table.

We were allowed a few minutes to take photos, as long as we didn't bother the South Korean soldiers who were our escorts and protectors.

Here I am standing briefly within North Korea, with my military protector. The door behind leads to even more North Korea... but I didn't fancy stepping through it.

Our video briefing earlier had, after all, described the JSA as "the most dangerous place in the entire Korean Peninsula."

In the circumstances, I was glad to get out of there in one piece.

Find details of the Premium Panmunjom Tour at this link.