Saturday, December 11, 2010

Shibamatsu, Midorigaoka (ドスコイ酒場 ちゃんこ芝松)

Going to meet Jimmy Dean for an early opener at a chanko place that someone suggested near his residence, I thought I'd go for a bit of walk to build hunger, exercise the legs, see some sights. Once in a while a restaurant listing pops up in Hatanodai or one of the other stations on the eastern reaches of the Oimachi line, and walking that to Midorigaoka looks like a 2-hour proposition once you factored in exploration. As it turned out, there wasn't much to see restaurant-wise (hard to say when the sun's still up, honestly), but at least the atmosphere of each station was clear. And dinner was great.

Getting to the start of the Oimachi would involve an irritating transfer, but you could go through Shinagawa and get off in Aomonoyokocho, just to the east. There are some really grubby little alleys around Oimachi, like this Higashi Kouji area. They'd make for an attractive evening out, depending on your preferences (see you there). Actually there were plenty of people getting an early start at 3:15, so it doesn't even have to be 'evening', strictly...

Moving on, the streets are very convoluted, so it's best to follow the Oimachi tracks, which are elevated and thus reasonably straightforward to parallel. Suburban Japan is difficult like this though - even though most buildings are only 2 stories, the streets between them can dwindle to alleys with no warning, and you can lose sight of the tracks and get befuddled in no time and, er, late for dinner. Sorry!

Unless someone can offer a better explanation, we're going to have to assume that advances in manufacturing led to an ability to make ladders out of fiberglass and aluminum, but the shape stayed the same as when they were bamboo. Ironic.

That thing we agreed before about narrow alleys and befuddlement? Every 20 minutes or so on this route, you'll come to another town center. It feels like coming out of a forest, or a canyon, and back to civilization. In this case, the part of 'Civilization' is played by Nakanobu's Skip Road. There's a mildly flamboyant style here, bright colors and lots of signage. It might just be the contrast to the surrounding grayness and house-iness that made it seem so lively. There was one nice-looking restaurant on the covered part of the shotengai, east side near the entrance.

More funny sights...funny only to me, but here's why: During the dark days working at the Greenery at Waterbury, 'BM' was a special term that was close to everyone's hearts, or at least top of mind to many employees. Nothing clever about it - it meant 'Bowel Movement', and since then it's hard to see the letters without chuckling, and thanking some nonexistent higher power that my tenure there was short.

...And more shopping streets. This is the eastern limit of Hatanodai's shopping area. This was supposed to be the highlight of the walk, but without checking the list to see where the prospect places were, the fun areas may have eluded me. At dusk it had a pleasant, half-lit atmosphere, but there wasn't much to see or get excited about. 3 or 4 places rated a quick 'remember this' photo in case someone and I end up exploring here, but that isn't much. If you walked around Monzen Nakacho for the first time, you'd fall over at the weight of cards you'd be collecting from tasty-looking shops. Proven fact.

Coming on this in one of the canyons between stations, it looked right away like a big Victorian somewhere in San Francisco. Minus all the decorations, and a lot less design sense, but the odd angles and volumes and stairs and garage...

Sure, this isn't interesting to anyone else. We'll get the food soon. First we have to get lost in Oookayama. And I wanted to type that, because I think it's funny that it has three o's in the beginning (大岡).

There are common jokes about how City Hall in Japan (or State Hall, or whatever government center) is always an overblown affair that makes you feel bad about how your tax dollars are used. Hence this picture. Turns out it's Tokyo Institute of Technology, so that's all for naught, eh smart guy?

Well, this is when I got lost. After walking successfully from Oimachi to Hatanodai, it seemed like nothing could go wrong. I started freestyling instead of looking at the map. A combination of looking at traffic and following my nose led me to Oookayama successfully...but then the tracks were suddenly underground and everything went pear-shaped, with the accidental route going one block too far north and thus hitting a street that curved away from Midorigaoka, around the perimeter of a big block of government housing. When I finally asked a stranger for directions, he looked puzzled and said "Just turn left..." He didn't know that I didn't know. Anything.

It is a damn fine thing to have Cherman friends, because they arrive on time. I got to Shibamatsu less than 5 minutes after the 5 PM opening, and there were people waiting outside - it's that good, or popular, evidently (and reservations cost Y1k extra!).  The atmosphere is extremely likable - bare wood, low ceilings, sumo-themed decorations, staff in brightly-colored pajamas. Add a warm, friendly feel, and good food, and that's probably what keeps people coming back.

What keeps the people passing out is the house 'cocktail', described by the waiter as a glass of shochu with some ice and a splash of ginger ale (shown visually by two pinched fingers next to the top of the glass. Frightening.). I found this puzzlingly enjoyable, although it felt more like the 'pitchers' of 'Red Death' they used to make in cocktail shakers at the Star Cross Tavern (not that I was drinking them; I was probably 14 at the time), in the sense that you might have been better pouring it out slowly and doing shots among several people. I don't think anyone could drink two of these. And coming on the heels of a frighteningly big handle of beer, and breathing down the neck of some atsukan...ahhhh, Tobi, you're a hard man.

And a hard man is good to find, especially one who's comfortable enough to wear a pink shirt to an old-fashioned chanko place. Let's see what he was taking pictures of...

You'll want to start with some cold things, or at least some non-nabe things. Going clockwise, someone wanted to order the fish liver, which is always more than fine with me. After that, they didn't have any raw horse, so we settled for raw beef, and honestly it was deeeeelicious. Really, look at that marbeling. It's kinda rough-cut, with fat around the edges...but if you like steak, and you like sashimi, you'd like this. The croquettes, seen here in a blurry picture (trying not to look like a picture-taking nerd for a change), are outstanding. They're your normal crab-and-cream, but I don't know how they get them to stay together with this much creamy goodness inside. Must be made cold and then fried so that the shell has formed before the sauce can melt. Oog. Yakitori are medium-forgettable, but there were so many tasty-smelling places over the course of my 2-hour walk that a few bits were mandatory.

And now, the main event. You know that chanko is the staple food of sumo wrestlers, yes? Well, here's what it looks like. This is miso chanko for 2 people (with the above, it's really enough for 4, but never mind. We are Cherman, or have Cherman names, or speak Cherman. We are hearty.) Start with a burner. Add a pot that has been carefully composed of vegetables, meats, seafoods, tofu, noodles and soup - a bit of everything, and I really do mean 'composed'; it's pretty. Joking with the middle aged ladies at the next table is strictly optional. Boil the hell out of it. Spoon into a wooden bowl. After that, you're on your own, but you're all smart people, and you can figure out what to do. It would be cool if it involved squatting while wearing a mawashi.

Now, JD comments that this is not a cheap place. On the night it wasn't as obvious, because it's really tasty - the beef, the croquettes, the chanko, the company. No, not the company, that wasn't exactly tasty. But it's really fun. Looking back at the menu, I see that that pot of soup is at least Y5k, which is a bit rich. Still, could it get much better than this?

Cheers!
03-3717-5751

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