Off to Tokyo Again, Alone

 Hanging out in one of the lounges at Changi while waiting for my flight to Tokyo. It’s been more than 2 years since I’ve been in Japan, and the Go Go Curry craving is getting a little unbearable.

I haven’t been in the mood for this trip this past week; too many things on my mind at work and home. But a friend just told me how they would kill to switch places right now, traveling alone (well, for a few days until I’m joined by some friends), getting away from a nagging partner, responsibilities, etc. and I have to say, it woke me right up for this.

It’s super uncool to not have gone on a holiday alone before (I’m guessing being abroad to study doesn’t count), but yeah I’ve never done it. There’s always someone else to plan with, figure out transport with, make decisions and compromises with (or force into compromises most of the time -_-), so now I think I’m going to be a little lost. Wandering and just seeing what happens. Not really my nature!

26° Clear
T1 Link West, Changi, Singapore, Singapore

Playing Yakuza 3, Six Years Late

I recently got a second-hand PS3 and have been buying up all the games I’d heard about for years but never had access to. Final Fantasy XIII, Heavy Rain, The Last of Us, MGS4, etc.

Yakuza 3 & 4 weren’t on the list for some reason, but when used copies appeared at Qisahn.com, I had a quick look and decided I needed them. It’s kind of a no-brainier, both being set in a virtual open world Tokyo and all. I had a pretty great time running around in the virtual Akihabara of Akiba’s Trip 2 on the PS Vita.

So far, it’s an even more faithful recreation of the atmosphere, albeit without much in the way of atmospheric sounds. They’ve retained a lot of the real world brands and shopfronts, unlike most anime (see screenshot above), and every street feels like it was modeled on a real place. One opening bit takes place on a rooftop that reminded me of the Roppongi Hills Mori Tower, with a vast open view of the city by night below, never mind that the game recreated it with a large repeating texture; it felt right!

A couple of tweets so far:

(And there’s golf with a politician. Let’s not forget about the full-fledged golf simulator built in. I’m hoping for pachinko to show up at some point.)

Akihabara Park, Real vs. Virtual Photography

There’s this spot in Akihabara Park beside the designated smoking area, across from Yodobashi Camera’s rear exit, where I’ve taken the same photo twice; on the second occasion purely because it was a beautiful evening and I suddenly remembered taking the first photo and wanted to replicate it from memory without referring to my Flickr account. They turned out pretty close.

The other day while playing the game Akiba’s Trip on my PS Vita, I decided to visit the same spot to try and take it again with the in-game camera feature (the title is quite an accurate recreation of the gaming/anime/gadget town); again trying to find the same spot from memory.

The level of detail is surprising, and this is just for one building out of many. I even got the same corner of the little rain shelter peeking in from the left. Makes me feel like I should visit again sometime soon.

Tokyo Snack Stash #2

I’m eating yesterday’s Italian Curry cup noodle right now and I was right, it’s a mildly spicy tomato sauce with mystery meat and capsicum bits. But tasty enough to eat way too fast at 2am.

I really like that they realized people are gonna drink the soup from the cup and wrapped the whole thing in shrink-wrapping to keep it clean while on the shelves.

Anyway snack stash video #2 is up.

Hello again, Tokyo

First day in Tokyo (2013 edition) went well. The new hotel we’re trying out is well located near Shinjuku station and roomier than the last place I occupied in Ginza — also a single room, although this one could be a double.

We tried to eat at the Go Go Curry branch we loved near the West exit of the station, but it was closed for renovations or something. Ended up eating a substitute beef curry rice in the basement of the Odakyu department store, I think. Good, but not the same.

The next couple of hours were spent walking in circles trying to get our bearings and cross the sprawling station over to the East side, and then trying to understand all the back lanes that have changed. When you use transient shops as mental landmarks, you risk disorientation. The same happens in Singapore.

Finding a place to have a beer wasn’t easy; many of them were fully packed and had to turn us away. We ended up in an English pub that was having a 50% off celebration day (complete with handwritten ‘thank you for coming to celebrate Hub Day’ cards upon leaving), just as crowded as the rest, and standing room only. Tiring, but fun.

Afterwards, on the walk back to the hotel, we saw amateur acts performing on the streets, hawking self-burnt CDs and having a good time. Great to see unsigned musicians out there and going at it. This doesn’t really happen back home. Is it because they need licenses and those aren’t easy to get? I don’t know.

Along the way we discovered two things. Another Go Go Curry branch that is now second on our to-do lists after sushi tomorrow, and an awesome iPhone accessory shop called AppBank. It has tons of high quality cases and decorative add-ons, and upstairs, a large section devoted to LINE merchandise, alongside Puzzle & Dragons books, figurines, collectibles, etc. and also a Tokyo Otaku Mode corner.

The brand power that LINE and P&D have amassed here is extraordinary. A chat app that has convinced me and many I know to part with tens of dollars for non-essential in-app purchases (imagine then, how much Japanese users must spend), and a single mobile game that currently makes $5M a day in revenue from IAP.

On this trip, I’m trying to shoot more video in addition to photos. I’ll have to see about editing something together to remember this trip by at the end of it (we’re celebrating my cousin’s upcoming wedding), but in the meantime, Qwiki has pivoted from a knowledge tool into an app that automatically assembles clips for you, and it’s done an ok job of the first day.

I also did another Family Mart snack run video rundown, because the only video I made the last trip down here was one where I talked to the camera about the stuff I’d bought, and it was fun.

Sent from my iPhone

Omodaka: The Sound of an Electronic Edo

If you like traditional Japanese folk songs (you shall recognize them by the winding female vocals traveling up and down a scale unlike anything else, usually sung by geisha in period films, accompanied by a shamisen) AND ALSO LIKE CHIPTUNES(!) you’ll love the music of Omodaka. Here’s an article from 2010 that I found, which mentions the songs are composed on a variety of devices including a Sony PSP, Nintendo DS, and a Game Boy.

From what I can gather, the group is a vessel for producer Soichi Terada’s experiments and collaborations — most of which feature intriguing art music videos. Check out the one below: it’s trippy as hell.

Later in the day, I was pleased to get a retweet from Terada’s Far East Recordings account (@fareastrecordin), which seems to tweet info about upcoming shows in Japan. I’ll be heading that way soon, so maybe seeing them in the flesh will happen.

The Sanosa album is a collection of singles released over the years, and should be a good place to start. You can listen to it on Spotify in the player below [direct link].

On the Loss of Go Go Curry in Singapore, and Monster Curry

Happier times: this might have been my last Grand Slam, at Millenia Walk

Go Go Curry was one of my favorite things IN THE WORLD.

For the uninitiated, a primer: a casual dining restaurant serving Japanese curry rice of the Kanazawa variety — which has no surviving example in Singapore now that the gorilla mascot-fronted Go Go (“Go” being the number 5 in Japanese, 55 being the jersey number of a Japanese baseball player with which the franchise owner is obsessed) has left the country.

There were three outlets in Singapore, with the brand brought in and (mis)managed by the En Dining group in 2009, I believe. Some elements of the experience were lost in the journey over (the original low-rent diner aesthetic, with food served on metal plates, somehow translated to porcelain in a FOOD COURT setting here, to say nothing of the missing red pickled vegetables) and it was clearly underpromoted — I’ve told my sad story of curry withdrawal to many who returned blank stares, “What curry?”, and then, “Oh that sounds like the kind of thing I would have liked, too bad.” We often say Singapore is a small place, one easy to tire of, but things in the middle of town can still elude notice.

Every time I’m in Japan, I find myself eating at least two precious mealtimes’ worth of the stuff, just because. I was grateful for the Singapore branches, only the second country outside Japan to have any, but it’s naturally best in its native land.

Native habitat: the Go Go Curry branch in Shinjuku

And so, finally, after a couple of years of disappointing sales despite my best efforts (I sometimes clogged my arteries there more than once a week), it just disappeared. I haven’t a clue if the contract just expired, if it was given up, or taken back. Tears were cried on the inside. I blamed myself for not soliciting a job with En Dining’s marketing department when the thought once occurred to me; the conceited idea being that maybe I could have helped prevent this. I daydreamed about making it big so I could one day buy the franchise rights back and do it right by myself. I railed on Twitter, I had a public breakdown on Facebook, and then I renounced this awful life and shook its grasp on me, wandering into the mountainous hinterland of my gastronomic impulses. Over time, in between the valleys of fading memory and hopeful promise of one day meeting its rich, dark, peppery flavor again, I finally found peace. And now I am ready to address its would-be successor.

Of all the colors in the world: the Monster Curry identity is too close for comfort.

Monster Curry. From the first moment one sets eyes on its circular yellow & red logo, featuring a cartoon dragon face where the gorilla’s face should be, there is the overwhelming sense of deja vu, and treachery.

With the birth of this new enterprise, in the same three places where Go Go Curry once stood, The En Dining company has engineered itself a stand-in to the throne. The large serving options are intact, and some new twists added. Inspired by the more successful CoCo Ichibanya chain, 5 levels of spiciness are now offered. In addition to the handful of fried meat options from before, some new menu items, including NATTO CURRY (abandon hope, all ye who dine here!). The porcelain plates have reached comically-large proportions: I swear the one I just ate off was larger than a 12″ pizza.

And yet somehow, the same staff who once cooked pork katsus under the Go Go banner now do a worse job in their Monster uniforms. Something’s not right, and nowhere is this more obvious than in the curry.

Heart disease by any other name: the Mountain Monster Curry comes satisfyingly close to the decadence of Go Go’s Grand Slam/Major Curry.

It’s thinner, and doesn’t taste anywhere as moreish. I don’t think it qualifies as Kanazawa style. This situation is helped a little by the proprietary new hot sauce they add according to your scale-of-1-to-5 spice wishes. I don’t want to give it too much credit, but the hot sauce is the best thing Monster Curry has to offer. If you don’t get at least one dollop of it (that’s my personal limit), you may as well not eat here.

There’s a spiel I’ve seen written up on a couple of food blogs around the net (must have gotten the same press release), about the lengths En’s head chef went to in the creation of this ‘ultimate Japanese curry’. The stuff is purportedly cooked for two whole days before being given another day to collect itself in silence before being served. He needn’t have bothered! It’s flat and devoid of character without the hot sauce. I’ll bet that’s made in a blender in under 5 minutes.

I’ve been back to eat the stuff several times now, not nearly as frequently as before, but close. It’s all I’ve got for now, anyway.

In all fairness, would I have willingly traded Go Go Curry in for this? Of course not. But the list of things I wouldn’t pick over having Go Go in Singapore is long: The Whopper, Colonel Sanders’ original recipe chicken, Frappucinos, steady employment, the love of my parents…

I’ll end with an excerpt from my smartphone diary:

My $19 “Monster Egg Curry” large enough for two (pfft!) has arrived. The cheese is off to one side instead of being placed on the hot curry to melt. Why are they getting this wrong now? It’s as if being privy to the methods of a leader in Japanese curry as an official franchisee for over 3 years has taught them nothing. What.

➟ Last photo of Hachiko on display

Most will have heard the story of Hachiko, the loyal dog who showed up at Tokyo’s Shibuya station every day for years, waiting for his master who’d passed away at work. If not through a visit to the statue of him erected near the station — where the exit is named after it — then through the Richard Gere movie set in America that someone greenlit one night after more than a few drinks.

I’d never seen a photo of Hachiko before this one, taken after his death. I’m glad to hear he was fed during those years; for some reason I’d always assumed he lived as a mysterious stray, in keeping with the sadness of his story.


Photo of Hachiko at death, from asahi.com


Link

Bario ramen, Ramen Champion (Iluma)

P186

What I said on Instagram: “One garlicky son of a bitch with coarse, chewy noodles made from bread dough”, “If you like garlic, salt, and fat… best I ever had of the sort”.

There’s a sign on the outside that claims they came in #1 in a poll of ramen that a man would choose, and I’d agree with that assessment. This is a huge, Go Go Curry Major/Grand Slam Curry-sized meal, with a generous helping of everything, and a salty soup that could dehydrate a cactus and kill a vampire in a single stroke. Quite simply, someone dared to take ramen to 11, and this is it.