Strolling down the streets of Tokyo, I took in the bright billboards and the organised crowds walking in single file (or actually make that blocks). I found it such an eye-opening experience. As The F Man aptly puts it, “The Japanese really know how to walk properly!” I experienced first hand, how humans can actually walk briskly (Godspeed) without bumping into each other even with restricted walking space.
Both The F Man and I hate the idea of squeezing with hoards of people “admiring” the crowded view. We are always zipping quickly in and out. But it was such enjoyment exploring the shops and even back alleys to the extent we found ourselves way past dinner time still wandering, ambling along.
Late night shopping is not as accessible or common, other than at all-day discount chain stores like Don Quijote, electronic retailers like Yodobashi or “combini” (コンビニ) a.k.a convenience stores. So we did a lot of our shopping till closing time, which for most (e.g. Takashimaya) was at 8:00pm. We only stopped to search for our dinner location after that. The good news is food kiosks and restaurants are open till much later and we began our search for a perfect bowl of steaming hot ramen. After all, we are in a Japan!
No help from Google Maps
Initially, we wanted to visit a popular ramen restaurant, but we ended up getting very lost, no thanks to my limited knowledge of how the Japanese address system works (chōme chōme everywhere) and having too limited vocabulary of Japanese to even piece together anything substantial. We ended up ditching that plan and just looking for a place for us to settle down for dinner. So long as it served ramen, we’d be happy to just dine there.
From chi chi Omotesando, we took the subway to Shinjuku where nightlife and dining options are aplenty. We spent most of our time at the colourful East Shinjuku (Naito-Shinjuku). This is the area where you can find the fascinating seedy red-light district in Shinjuku, Kabukicho, and the artistic bar district, Golden Gai. It has no shortage of people milling about and it has its own unique brand of charm with its iconic visual assault of neon lights and interesting characters.
Bustling Shinjuku and a glimpse of the six-storey Commes Ca Shinjuku Shop.
It’s a hectic city life, but no one gets knocked into and given dagger stares here!
Shop fast! Stores close at 8:00pm!
At the beginning of my Japan 2014 adventure, I was driven to eat at restaurants on my “to visit” list, but as time and time again, random visits to even the smallest and dingiest cubbyhole eatery had proven, Japanese truly take pride in their food and there was not one single meal I had in Tokyo, Osaka or Kyoto that would fall below average.
The fact is, as with most aspects of Japan, uniformity and precision is observed strictly. As such, the “average” in this case, for food, is actually much higher than anywhere else I have been to. There will always be hits and misses during my holidays, whether I travel to the Philippines or Taiwan. I’ve accepted that there will some great food and a real possibility of having… rock bottom crappy food. Japan, though, is quite different.
There are the extremely acclaimed establishments which require hours of queuing before you get yourself a seat. The food at those places can apparently cause an orgasmic reaction for taste buds. But, every for most other establishments, the “average” is so standardized. The minimum requirement to hit that average is that the food be at least good.
So it reached a point we were hungry like nobody’s business and 本小姐 (this lady here a.k.a me) was becoming a bit of a hangry grouch. That was when both The F Man and I decided, enough was enough, we’d enter the first restaurant we set our eyes on next and so it was this place which has no English name, so I have no idea what it is called.
EAT: GUANGZHOU MARKET EAST SHINJUKU BRANCH
If I’m not wrong, a bit of post-trip cyber sleuthing has confirmed that it is 広州市場 西新宿店 (translated as Guangzhou Market East Shinjuku Branch). It’s a wonton specialty chain ramen store that serves freshly made dumplings and ramen.
No idea what this place is called, I only know, it sells ramen.
All I know is, this little ramen restaurant sells ワンタン麺 (wantan men) or Chinese woton dumpling noodles, but whipped up in Japanese ramen style. As a child, one of my favourite food was wonton noodles. I would never tire of it and could have it day and night. Even now, in my twenties, wonton noodles is a comfort food for me. I love the taste of minced pork wrapped in delicate wonton skin and I really love slurping up noodles in yummy broth. Gimme, gimme, gimme!
I spotted these characters on one of the posters outside of the restaurant – 黒豚 – and immediately my eyes lit up. I haven’t really learnt Japanese and I have limited abilities when it comes to reading, but I thought this looked really like Kurobuta or Black Berkshire Pork and I think it is. Now that I have Google translate as my help, it has confirmed that I was right about that.
Okay folks. Looks like this place is popular!
Counter seats on first floor near the entrance.
The restaurant was buzzing and we needed to wait to be seated. Even as we were queuing inside and waiting for a table to be available, I spotted curious passers-by stopping at the restaurant front, scrutinizing the menu. I thought to myself that the place mustn’t be too shabby for there to be so many people waiting to dine here.
Queuing to get a seat.
I would be kinda dead if the queue took ages to clear, but thank God for Japanese efficiency! As soon as diners were done, the service staff would swoop down on the tables and have them ready in a jiffy. So we didn’t end up waiting too long anyway!
It’s kind of cute to be in a Japanese restaurant serving a Chinese inspired wonton noodle ramen dish that’s all decked out to look red, loud and typically Chinese!
Trying to get the Chinese “feel” in here.
However, other than some little red Chinese decorations hanging on the walls and the fact that it sells wonton which is of Chinese origin, everything else was distinctively Japanese, from the bandanna-ed chefs behind the counter to the Japanese carb-on-carb “set menus”.
Some really serious action behind the counter by a bandanna-ed chef.
So standard. From prices to taste. Welcome to Japan.
I noticed in the 10 days I was in Japan, that food prices were pretty standardized. Very often, I would pick up a menu sitting on the table and realise that for under ¥1,000 I’d be happy and full and I could actually share a full meal.
On average, most “set meals” which came with a noodle (could be soba, ramen or udon with a very small portion of meat) and a small bowl of rice. That’s what I mean by carb-on-carb meal. As a Singaporean, a set meal is way too much for me to finish comfortably. Anyhow, non-set dishes would also cost between ¥500 (on the lower end) to ¥850 (slightly heartier with more meat), so the set meals make a lot of sense.
I was always under the impression that cost of living would kill me if I went on holiday to Japan, but clearly, food wise, the cost was reasonable. To be fair, even a trip to the cafe in Singapore with its paltry portions would cost more than a bowl of really awesome ramen noodles. I definitely thought food would be more costly. (FYI: Transport and hotels are actually what’s really expensive in Japan.)
As you can already tell, my proficiency in Japanese is confined to figuring out if there is beef, chicken or pork in a dish based on the kanji (漢字) adopted from Chinese characters. I don’t know if it made ordering food easier or more difficult. On one hand, I have no clue what exactly the dish is like other than the main meat ingredient (if there are no photos accompanying the menu). On the other hand, knowing less, I just order whatever. So I had no clue what I ordered here. I just know it was probably a Kurobuta pork-filled wantan men for me and a spicy rendition of some wantan men for The F Man.
I suppose this is the Black Kurobuta Pork Dumpling Noodles – have no idea!
Even less idea what this is – obviously Freman’s order – but I bet it was a spicy version.
The wonton-men noodles were springy ramen noodles and sitting in a classic clear ramen broth topped with my favourite gooey onsen eggs and with pork dumplings made fresh every day! The pork was deliciously marinated and encased in a delicate and silky wonton skin. There are three types of sauces to enjoy the dumplings with: chilli oil, soy sauce and salt and ginger.
I don’t think this was the most amazing bowl of wonton noodles I’ve ever eaten in my life, but it was definitely tasty and a great place to have a quick bite. The price was also pretty affordable and portions were very big. I swear, two of us could have just done with one bowl instead of two. (We were perhaps a bit too greedy.)
Why would I eat a “Chinese” dish in Japan?
Well, ramen is truly an art form. The respect towards every profession in Japan is something that is sorely lacking all over the world (by the way here’s a great piece by Aya Imura, a Japanese woman living in Singapore on this exact topic). In Japan, no matter what role and duties are (even street cleaners and service staff), it is still highly respected. Professionalism is high and there is clear pride in ensuring work, no matter what, is of a certain high standard. It’s a unique cultural distinction. I didn’t shy from eating a familiar dish because I was really curious of how different it would be presented and taste. Anyway, wonton noodles are my favourite thing ever, so whatevs!
The place takes no reservations, so its first come, first served. Get in the queue, buddy!
Guangzhou Market East Shinjuku Branch
1-12 Nishishinjuku, Shinjuku, Tokyo
3-minute walk from Shinjuku Station, West Exit
Open daily from 11:00am to midnight.