Saturday, October 31, 2015

How to eat: Sukiya - hot pots, beef bowls, fish, curry and more!

In the first installment of How to eat, we visited Matsuya, which specializes on beef bowls. This time we will go to Sukiya, which has a much greater variety of food on offer, but is also a bit more challenging, because you have to order manually, and they have virtually no English on their menus! But hang tight and you might very well find a new favorite place to eat...

The name Sukiya is composed of the word for "like" (spelled out phonetically) and the kanji character "house", so literally it means a place where you can find things you like. But it is also a play on the word sukiyaki, which sounds similar but is written with different characters. Sukiyaki is a Japanese hot pot with various meats and vegetables that are cooked at the table. And suitably, the hot pot turns out to be one of the best things you can get at Sukiya. There are also beef bowls (much like at Matsuya and Yoshinoya), curries (of the peculiar Japanese variety – not very spicy and rather sweet), fried fish, raw fish bowls, and even desserts. Pair this up with big bottles of beer and a decent selection of highballs, and Sukiya feels less like fast-food place and more like an economy version of an izakaya, the typical Japanese casual restaurant. However, unlike izakayas, the interior is not really designed for large groups going out together, and the dishes are generally meant for a single person rather than sharing. Not a great place for social meals in other words, but perfect for grabbing some good food on a busy day or night out.

When you enter, you just take a free seat at a table or at the counter. A waiter will come over with a glass of cold tea, which is very good in itself and included in the meal. 

At your table you will find menus at the side or in front of you in a stand. (The most popular items may also be printed directly on the table.) There are napkins, chopsticks, various condiments, and something you will find very useful at many similar places: A button that rings a bell to call the waiter's attention!

Grab a menu from the stand and start studying it. The first pages are dedicated to an overview of the most popular items, and after that comes pages for specific categories such as beef bowls, fish bowls and curries. There are also numerous side orders and drinks to choose from. There will be little or no English on the menu, but the pictures are for the most part self-explanatory. There is also some handy calorie and nutritional information for every dish!

When you have decided what you want, you call the attention of one of the waiters, either verbally ("sumimasen!") or by pressing the button. (Ringing for someone on a bell might seem rude if you are not used to it, but it is perfectly acceptable in Japanese restaurants.) Don't expect the waiters to understand English, but you can simply point at the picture of what you want. Also, make sure to decide which size you want; some dishes come in different sizes, denoted by different prizes and calorie counts.

The waiter will come to you with the food on a tray as soon as it is ready, which is usually very quickly. Here, we went for a bowl of beef on rice topped with mayonnaise, a side of miso soup and a raw egg for good measure! Beer is served in generous big bottles, and although it is not quite the steal of Matsuya's 150 yen draft it is still good value.

Here we got a bowl of raw minced and sliced tuna on rice, with a side of miso soup and a block of tofu (soy bean curd). There is a bit of wasabi to add to your soy sauce too. The fish is not as good as at a dedicated sushi restaurant or better izakaya, but it's a great option for non-meat-eaters or just as a change to the usual beef fare.

But the hot pot is the best thing of all, and at 680 yen (less than 6 US dollars) it is incredibly good value! It will be clearly advertised on its own page in the menu (including instructions for use which you probably can't read, but don't worry). The exact components seem to change with the seasons. This summer, it was a Korean-inspired bin bin bap that you would fry at the table and spice with hot chili sauce. In autumn, this got replaced with a more typical hot pot – a variety of ingredients in a broth that you cook for as long as you like.

The hot pots taste delicious, and are fun and easy to make. This one has beef, noodles, a variety of vegetables, a side of rice, and a raw egg to stir in whenever you like.

There will be a flame burning under the pot, and you simply stir the ingredients, taste as often as you like, and eat when you think it's ready. Don't worry about the open flame – the system is practically fool-proof.  There are no set rules on how long to cook your food, and it will be more or less pre-cooked anyway, so it is safe to eat as soon as you want to try it.

A useful tip is to remember that the broth gets very hot, so you may want to transfer some into a separate bowl to let it cool of before eating. You can also use one of the empty bowls to transfer foodstuff into as it gets cooked, or you can place it on top of the rice. Another thing to note is that you can use the metal sift that comes with the egg to separate the white from the yolk. Simply crack the egg over the sift into a bowl, and the yolk will stay in the sift.

When you have finished, look for the receipt. It will most often be on the tray you got your food on, or (more rarely) placed in the little metal tube at the table. You simply take the receipt to the front counter and pay there. As usual in Japan, you will get exact change, and you can not tip. Have fun enjoying your new spot on the Japanese food map!

Quick facts

Link: Official Sikuya web site

Where to find it: Everywhere – there are over 1800 locations in Japan

Price: Small beef bowls start at 430 yen. Set meals around 600-1000 yen depending on size; hot pot currently 680.

Hours: Open 24 hours.

Order system: Self-seating, order from the waiter at your table, pay at the check-out counter. Little or no English on the menu, but pictures are self-explanatory.

Take-out? Yes.

Vegetarian options? Most meals are based on meat or fish, but you can put together a decent vegetarian meal with sides such as salads and tofu.

What to get: The hot pots are the chain's signature and great fun to make, and they are delicious. They change with the seasons so make sure to check out the details in the menu. There are also good beef bowls, curry and fish options.

Tuesday, October 27, 2015

Live picks: Week of Friday, October 30, 2015

Halloween Hangover!

The Back From The Grave Halloween Ball was a non-stop barrage of great bands and outrageous costumes – click here for our small random sampling of the madness! 

But after the party comes the hangover, and if you are up for even more garage punk antics head over to Hatagaya Heavy Sick this weekend for the official Halloween Ball Hangover! A bunch of our favourite bands will be there including Stompin' Riffraffs, Rock-a-Cherry, and the always astounding Texaco Leatherman. Put your fangs back on and come on over!

Location: Hatagaya Heavy SickMap
Time: Sunday Nov. 1, 18.00
Charge: Advance ¥2000 / door ¥2500, plus one drink 

Other events

Friday: Mystery Meat vol. 31

Just want to relax with some horror-show DJs, including Ham Solo, Extenders, Meat Loafers and more? Head over to Beatcafé in Shibuya!

Saturday: Mau-Mau Twist

Also at Heavy Sick is Mau-Mau Twist with another sampling of Back From The Grave favourites including Mellvins and The Fadeaways, plus top DJs. Stay all night for the ultimate party twist!
Facebook event page

Saturday: Punk Pandemic vol. II

More noise and mayhem from Three Minute Movie, Wotzit (ex-Gimmies!) and much more at Waseda Zone-B!

Saturday: In To Tomorrow

For a lighter touch, there is a power pop bonanza at UFO Club in Higashi-Koenji, including the superb Tweezers (featuring Fifi from everyone's favorite bar Poor Cow) and up-and-comers Gorilla. 

Monday: The Let's Go's present ロックン・オムレツ

Our favorite pop punk girls The Let's Go's invite a host of stars including the immensely entertaining Electric Eel Shock for a night of fun at Shindaita Fever.

Monday, October 26, 2015

Halloween Ball 2015

Back From The Grave Halloween Ball 2015 at Shinjuku Loft was an absolute blast! Here are some random pictures in no particular order. Now get ready for the Halloween Hangover!

The Mellvins
The Johnny Disco Beach
That's A No No
Your blogger takes a bite out of That's A No No's Kei
Our DJ sets were heavy on Australian garage punk and power pop
View from the DJ booth at the main stage
The Raydios
Theee Bat
The Fadeaways
The Stompin' Riffraffs
The Black Alligator Party Band, aka Soul Crap
Melon-chan and Rin
The Untamed Youth party in style

Toyozo from The Fadeaways
The Kannana Speedcats had the best costumes – your blogger is still laughing!
Kannana Speedcats
The Pebbles
Tokyo Cramps
The Tweezers
Untamed Youth finish the Halloween Ball for this year

Monday, October 19, 2015

Live picks: Week of Friday, October 23, 2015

Saturday, October 24 and Sunday, October 25: Back From The Grave Halloween Ball

The place to be this or any other Halloween is of course the annual Back From The Grave Halloween Ball at Shinjuku Loft!  With over 20 years of history, this is the biggest showdown of Japanese garage punk and wild rock bands you will ever see. Over 50 bands are on the bill, including Guitar Wolf, Jackie and the Cedrics, Kinoco Hotel, The Fadeaways, Stompin' Riffraffs, Tweezers, Supersnazz and so many more it will make your head spin. The bands really get into the Halloween spirit, with outrageous costumes and all-out performances. All this plus surf legends Untamed Youth all the way from Missouri, US, and a lineup of regular and guest DJs, including yours truly. If you've never been to a Japanese garage rock show this is the place to be, and if you have, well, you won't need any more persuasion! This is going to be the party of the year for sure!

Location: Shinjuku LoftMap
Start: Saturday 16.00, Sunday 14.30
Charge: Advance both days ¥5000. Single day ¥3000 / door ¥3500, plus one drink

More Halloween shows

Friday, October 23: Bellring Girls Heart, Necronomidol

If you didn't get tickets to Baby Metal's latest concert, the school-girls-meet-HP Lovecraft trash metal disco of Necronomidol is not a bad way to kick off the Halloween weekend. Purportedly the first "occult idol group", on the surface they seem like any Japanese manufactured pop group, fronted by four cute young girls. But their imagery is full of blood and weird monsters, and the lyrics speak of the coming black magic apocalypse. Necronomidol are playing Friday at Shinjuku Loft along with similarly weird Bellring Girls Heart and several other entries in the "alternative idols" genre.

LocationShinjuku LoftMap
Start: 19.00
Charge: Advance ¥2900 / door ¥3500

Saturday, October 24: Fun Last Summer vol. 1

For something a little less rowdy, you can spend Saturday at Music Shed Yes, where Tokyo pop-smiths Beat Caravan put on a show together with the 60's swinging sounds of The Pebbles and more.

Location: Music Shed Yes. Map
Start: 18.30
Charge: ¥1800 plus one drink

Saturday, October 24: Punk Pandemic

But wait! There's more! Rounding out a very busy weekend is Punk Pandemic 2015 volume 1, with a host of great Tokyo punk bands including Xtits, Raydios and Car Crash! If you go more for classic punk than 60s garage, this could be a good alternative to the Halloween Ball. Some bands actually do double duty and appear at both events! And if you miss this one, there is another coming up next week!

LocationZone-B. Map
Start: 16.00
Charge: Advance ¥2300 / door ¥2500 plus one drink

Saturday, October 17, 2015

How to eat: Matsuya – delicious beef bowls with added spice

In this new series, we will offer step-by-step instructions to eating at some of the best value fast-food restaurants and chains in Tokyo. The city offers an incredible amount of places to eat well and inexpensively, but for the first-time visitor, it can be bewildering to understand the many different options. Whereas you can find any amount of fancy restaurants in every guidebook, the real deals are usually in the many excellent chains offering beef bowls, curry, ramen and other Japanese staples. They are all easy to eat at once you understand the system, and are vastly superior to Western chains such as McDonalds and KFC. However, the first visit may be confusing if you are not familiar with the system. But don't worry – if you follow these simple steps you will be well rewarded with a great meal, and best of all you'll never have to go to McDonald's again!

Today we go to Matsuya, a ubiquitous chain that offers beef bowls (gyumeshi or gyudon, meaning literally beef in a rice bowl) and other dishes such as curry plates and barbecued meat. Matsuya is everywhere so you will have no trouble finding one, just keep your eyes open for the  characteristic blue letters on yellow background (although their website has a store locator just in case).

The name is generally written only with the Japanese characters "matsu" (pine tree, or highest) and "ya" (store), but the blue text and the red, yellow and blue logo are easy to spot.

Before entering, you can check out what's on offer on the menu outside with helpful English translations! They often have special items or limited offers too, but these are generally advertised in Japanese only.

It is not exactly a cozy place for a romantic dinner, but for a casual meal it is a great option – quick and delicious, and very good value. They even offer beer and small snacks if you just want to relax after a hard day's sightseeing or shopping!

Matsuya uses a system that is very common at Japanese fast-food places: a ticket vending machine for orders. (By the way, a vending machine is not in any way an indicator that a restaurant is low quality – for instance, many excellent noodle places use one too.) Vending machines may spell trouble if you can't read Japanese, but fortunately, most Matsuay shops have switched over to new machines with interactive touch-screens and an English language option. So first of all, make sure to switch to the English option – it's the middle yellow button.

You will then be offered a choice between eat-in or take-away orders. (Take-aways are cheaper but don't include miso soup.)  Once you have selected the one you want, there will be a number of submenus. 

In addition to gyumeshi (regular beef bowls), there are other bowls including Korean-inspired barbecue beef, sliced pork, etc. Several bowls include kimchi, which is a spicy cabbage and chili concoction popular in Korean food. You can also get curry plates with rice and beef or hamburgers. There are often special menus too, which tend to be offered for a limited time. You can round out your meal with different side items such as salads and toppings.

The classic choice is of course the gyumeshi or beef bowl. Depending on the store, there will be either regular or premium guymeshi on offer; the latter has higher quality but is a little more expensive. Don't worry though – both are good! The bowls come in different sizes, and even the smallest is filling, but a regular size should be more than enough unless you are very hungry. Add in a fresh salad from the sides menu, and you have a well-rounded and healthy meal!

Once you have made your decision, you just input money in the machine and push the correct meal button. A ticket will vend in a slot to the left. You can use both coins and bills, and when you are done ordering, press the red Change button to get your change back. If you use large bills, you will get paper money in return, so you don't have to end up with a sack of coins if you happen to just have a 10.000 yen bill! You can even use a public transport payment card such as Suica or Pasmo – just touch the card to the reader when prompted.

The machine will vend a ticket a ticket for each item that you have ordered. Go to the counter and sit down. A server will come over with a fresh glass of water and take your ticket, tear off half, and give the other half back as confirmation. If you are getting take-out, you can go to a take-out counter in the back and wait.

While you are waiting for your order, you can contemplate the different dressings and sauces on offer, including (left to right) French dressing, barbecue sauce and sesame dressing (goma). Feel free to try them out and put them on your rice or salad!

You will find chopsticks in a glass-lidded box on the counter, as well as napkins.

Now we have received our premium gyumeshi beef bowl, for a very reasonable 480 yen (about 4 US dollars)! It consists of a layer of thinly sliced beef, covering a generous amount of rice, some green onions, all topped with a soft-boiled egg. You also get a cup of miso soup and a small wooden spice container – just pull out the tiny plug and sprinkle some on your beef if you want it extra spicy!

This is an example of a Korean-inspired beef bowl, made with generous amount of kimchi, a soft-boiled egg, and some sea-weed topping for good measure! Very good value for 450 yen. The beer is also bought from the vending machine, and may be the best deal of all, just 150 yen!

Overall, Matsuya offers an excellent range of good and inexpensive food options made from fresh ingredents, and it is head and shoulders over any Western fast-food chains. So the next time you are feeling hungry in Tokyo, but don't feel like going to a fancy restaurant, bypass the sandwiches and hamburgers and go to Matsuya for a great meal! It's one of the best deals in Tokyo!

Quick facts


Where to find it: Everywhere – Matsuya has over 800 restaurants. Store locator

Price: Beef bowls start at 380 yen including miso soup. Set meals around 500-600 yen.

Hours: Open 24 hours.

Order system: Touchscreen, English menu available. A few places still have the old-fashioned mechanical vending machines, but even they will have clear pictures and English translations for the most popular items.

Take-out? Yes.

Vegetarian options? Not really, although you can get salads and eggs as side dishes. (We will investigate further and update if we find any better options.)

What to get: The gyumeshi beef bowl is the chain's staple and great value. Korean-inspired kimchi bowls and binbin are also good if you want a little more spice. Draft beer is a steal at 150 yen.