|Streets of Shinjuku by night, Tokyo, Japan|
I was priveleged to all the stereotypes straightaway, within hours of arriving: face masks on the train; drinks vending machines everywhere; a drunken salaryman swaying/dancing against a street pole. There was no doubt that I was in Japan.
|Streets of Shinjuku by day, Tokyo, Japan|
Shinjuku is home to the world’s busiest train station and quite the shopping and entertainment centre too. We spent many an hour walking the streets of Shinjuku; discovering little back streets and eateries, chain stores and boutiques, and most fun – department stores and their food-filled basements called depa-chika.
|Sashimi selection from Isetan department store, Shinjuku|
|Eating depa-chika sashimi on the streets of Shinjuku|
|A fruit stall near Shinjuku station (not depa-chika and a lot cheaper)|
It wasn't just the picture-perfect musk melons – with evenly patterned skins and harmoniously angled stalks – more so the eye-watering price tags that could be 10,000 yen for a single melon.
There were also cherries and mangoes sold in this fashion and I had to wonder about Japanese society and who was really buying these painfully overpriced fruits.
|Children involved in a Shinto festival|
While in Shinjuku we came across various parades for a Shinto festival of some sort with lots of children and their parents actively involved.
|Schoolgirls pray at the Hanazono Jinja Shrine, Shinjuku|
One particular weekend saw a festival full of stalls and people, young and old, making offerings and prayers at the Shinto shrine.
|Ayu no shio-yaki - salt grilled sweetfish at Hanazono Jinja Shrine, Shinjuku|
|Side streets in Shinjuku Ni-chome|
|Tsukemen restaurant in Shinjuku|
Their enthusiastic welcome and immediate service of iced water and English menus quickly affirmed that we would be having our very first tsukemen dipping ramen experience.
The briefly cooked noodles are served cool, maintaining the all-important texture of the noodles while the soup – available in a range of flavours – is noticeably more intense in thick flavour than normal ramen and maintains a high heat throughout most of the meal.
Tsukemen eaters grab some noodles with their chopsticks and dip them into the soup, both heating and flavouring the mouthful of noodles, and then with a requisite slurp (of which I am yet to master) bring them up into the mouth.
As we dried our bowls of soup, a large group of students filled the restaurant chairs for a late lunch. I'm told tsukemen is becoming increasingly popular in Tokyo and in warmer weather, I can certainly see the appeal over a steaming bowl of ramen.
That's the other thing I've noticed about lunching in Japan - there doesn't seem to be a set time like the 12–2pm rush I imagine most Sydney lunch venues contend with. During several late lunches, we were joined with various ones or twos having their late lunches, without concern about the time or dining alone.
|Back streets of Shinjuku|
|Whisky and soda highball (hai-booru) and snacks at 82 Alehouse, Shinjuku|
After a UK craft beer on tap (!), Brew Dog Punk India Pale Ale, we treated ourselves to a fried pasta snack seasoned with the childhood flavours of Mamee Noodles. Drinking snack heaven.
|Appetiser at Pukunotori, Shinjuku Go-chome|
One venue we did have izakaya style eats also provided one of my favourite appetisers of the whole trip. Served complimentarily before a meal, this very Japanese appetiser of cold tofu, chopped pickled greens and tiny pink prawns dressed in soy sauce was a study in Japanese subtlety and simple ingredients.
|Grilled salted squid|
This was on the same level of saltiness as Vegemite, though infinitely chewier than a piece of toast. I can definitely understand why it's a drinking snack and was thankful for the draft beer.
|Ginger-infused vodka and Hibiki 17-year-old whisky at J-Bar, Shinjuku|
It was the first place where I was reminded that people are still permitted to smoke indoors in restaurants and bars in Japan, though not outdoors on main streets.
We went straight for the drinks and I couldn't resist the ginger infused vodka sitting on the counter. I like my ginger and the Smirnoff bottle filled up to one-third with thin slices of ginger was promising.
The classic Bloody Mary was a safe bet, presented with a caddy full of DIY condiments like Tabasco and worcestershire sauces. Classic cocktails in a smoky room ended up being the perfect end to a busy day in Shinjuku - plenty more Japan posts to come.