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Searching for Japan in North London

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This post is will ultimately turn into a photo-essay about visiting a Japanese supermarket and having a very fine Japanese lunch in London, but before that it will be long and rambling in my preferred way. People who are just here for the sushi should go directly below the fold and scroll down

One peculiar thing about the novels of Cyberpunk novelist William Gibson is that he has often felt the urge to set large portions of his novels in two cities: London and Tokyo. I have one or two ideas as to why this is so, because, as it happens, these are my favourite two cities as well. Why is hard to describe, though. One aspect of it is that these are cities with tremendous amounts of fine detail or structure. Looking carefully at a street and the buildings on it, and what is sold in shops, in both cities one can see legacies of hundreds or thousands of years of history. (In Tokyo’s case, the fact that much of the city has been covered with concrete has somehow failed to destroy this. In London, the builders of 1950s public housing did do a good job of eradicating it in certain parts of the city, but a great deal none the less still remains) Both cities are collections of villages that have gradually merged into greater agglomerations, a process which was completed by a period of rapid urban railway building. But in both cases all these villages retain very distinct characters of their own and it is very hard to describe precisely where the centre of the city is. Visiting Camden in London or Harajuku in Tokyo on a Sunday afternoon somehow feels similar (although Camden is much grimier). There is a feeling that global youth fashion is somehow emanating from here, and in both places there is an interesting mix of the spontaneous and the commercial, as street markets sit right next door to international brand names, and the relationship is somehow a beneficial one to both parties. Both cities have a media hipness about them – for some reason London and Tokyo are the two cities in the world that produce the most interesting television commercials, although the programming itself on television in both places has rather less to recommend it.

And there is just a buzz that I get when I am in London or Tokyo that I don’t get elsewhere. (I get it to some extent in New York and Hong Kong, but not quite to the same extent. And not quite in the same way). And this buzz goes deep. When I am in a foreign city I like to visit suburbs as well as the centre of the city, and in both London and Tokyo I still find the buzz almost everywhere I go.

I am not going to speculate any more why these two cities are like this. (Well, not much. Both are great ports which are the capitals of Island countries separated from their continents. That must have something to do with it?). In any event, though , I am not the only person to feel this. And I don’t think Gibson is even the only cyberpunk novelist. (Neal Stephenson has just written The Baroque cycle, an immense three volume novel, much of it set in London in the late 17th and early 18th centuries, in which he is trying to figure out the same thing, I think. Stephenson has written less about Tokyo and Japan, although come to think of it there is a fair bit of Japan in both Snow Crash and Cryptonomicon, and even a little in the Baroque Cycle.

But, anyway, in early 2001 I was living in Sydney, Australia. Although Sydney has great weather, wonderful food, beautiful scenery, and many other attractions, I was a little bored. Life was a bit lacking in buzz. I found a link (probably from slashdot) to this article, in which the London Sunday newspaper The Observer had asked Gibson to describe his fascination with Japan. In it he writes as much about London as about Tokyo, both cities being in his eyes being the world capitals for the otaku – the passionate obsessive.

I think he is right. I think the reason I love it is that I can be a passionate obsessive myself.

And (back in 2001) looking carefully at the Observer article, I noticed that the newspaper’s magazine had put out an entire “Japan Issue”, an entire magazine full of articles looking at Japan (and mostly Tokyo) from the perspective of London. (The entire magazine is all still on the web, although there doesn’t seem to be an index. The URLs are fairly easy to guess though).. And reading this magazine in 2001, it was a big thing in making me realise how much I was missing my favourite cities – and as it happened I couldn’t hold out very long and before a year was out I had got on a plane for London. (Tokyo was more culturally daunting without knowing the language, and anyway I have visa issues there. There was nothing whatsoever stopping me from just hopping on a plane for London and looking for a job when I got there). In London I did find the obsessive compulsive Japanese-ness I was looking for, in the places Gibson described such as Portobello markets, and elsewhere. (I have a particular memory of sitting in a London cinema in 2002, watching an animated Japanese homage to a great German expressionist surrounded by an audience of very earnest young Japanese people).

And in particular, I followed the advice of this article from the Observer magazine Japan Issue, and made a visit to the Oriental City shopping centre, a place of amazing Japanese-ness in the unexpected location of Colindale in north London. Where I go from time to time, and where I went again last Sunday.

(Click on for the story and photographs of last Sunday).
Basically, the article states that there in an astonishingly good, authentic, and quite inexpensive sushi restaurant in north London, a place so Japanese that you almost forget you are in London. And when I got there I found it was true, and that there is much more to it than that.

And in fact I went there last Sunday. I had tried to persuade a couple of my friends to join me (Hi Brian!) but in the end I went by myself.

One steps off the tube, way up in North London.

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The best sushi outside Japan is supposed to be somewhere around here?

Eventually though, one does find what one is looking for.

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And although it is “Oriental City”, and products and food from other east Asian
cultures beside Japan are also present, the dominant culture in the shopping centre is overwhelmingly Japanese. There are stores selling Japanese cultural detritus, of various kinds.

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Of course, in Tokyo there is a Hello Kitty theme park, but I suppose I can’t have everything.

There is a terrific shop selling Japanese kitchenware, tea sets, chopsticks, cutlery, bowls, dishes and the like at very reasonable prices.

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However, the Japanese bookshop, which looked exactly like the kind of bookshop you would see in Akasaka railway station, was closed since the last time I was there. Kind of sad, really.

There are a couple of Chinese themed shops also, and a food court selling all manner of East Asian foods: Thai, Chinese, Malaysian, Indonesian, you name it. The sushi bar is off the corner of the foot court. But my thoughts were to wander around a bit and look at everything else before sitting down for some food, and the article will follow that structure.

The most important shop in the centre by far (apart from the sushi bar) is the Asian supermarket, which, once again, is overwhelmingly Japanese with other things added to the Japanese-ness. Which is great, allowing me to stock up on a few things I like to have in my cupboard. For one thing, there is Japanese beer. One thing foreigners don’t always appreciate is just what an enormous beer drinking country Japan is. And also, just how excellent is Japanese beer. It is mostly mass produced lager, but it is extremely good mass produced lager. Australia is also a land of mass produced lager, but Australian lagers are sweet, whereas Japanese lagers are much drier, which is more to my taste. Asahi Super Dry and Sapporo are fairly widely available in England, but the Japanese breweries make a variety of specialty and premium beers which are not as easy to find. In Colindale, however, there is a full range for me to stock up on. And of course I did.

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I am particularly fond of the Asahi Munich Style Black beer, although it goes without saying that it doesn’t greatly resemble any beer you would get in Munich. (Although like most beer from Munich, it is very good).

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The Japanese also understand that beer should come in cardboard boxes of 24 cans, what would be called a “slab” of beer in some parts of Australia. The English don’t really get lager, and they don’t get this aspect of lager drinking right either.

And of course there is the dazzling array of multicoloured cans of non-alcoholic drinks that one finds everywhere one goes in Japan, often available from Japan’s astonishing number of vending machines, that one even seems to find in remote places with no visible source of electric power.

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This is actually only a tiny fraction of such drinks available. There is actually shelf after shelf after shelf after shelf after shelf. To me these drinks all taste almost, but not quite, entirely unlike tea in exactly the same way. But what would I know? I’m not Japanese.

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And how does one live without the ubiquitous Pocari Sweat?

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It even comes in powdered form

Getting good quality seafood in London can at times be extraordinarily difficult. On special occasions I am quite a serious cook, and if I am cooking for a dinner party I like to do a seafood course. Getting the ingredients in London can be a trial, whereas in Australia I can just go to my local supermarket. However, as this is a little Japan the choice of seafood is just amazing, even in London. It is a shame this place is so far from where I live.

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My country produces Ichiban AA Grade Hiramasa? I am so proud. (Actually, I think I really am).

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And I can get Astro Boy Atom mild pork curry? That’s so sweet. (I watched Astro Boy cartoons as a kid on television in Australia when I was a kid in the 1970s. Of course, at that point I had no idea that this genuinely sweet creating was Japanese, or that he was an iconic figure in an enormous Japanese animation industry that would come to entertain me so much as an adult.

And of course

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Show Me. Show you. Kikkoman. Kikkoman. Show me. Show You. Kikkkooomaaaaaaaan. (Alas my photograph of a large number of bottles of soy sauce came out badly).

But much as I enjoyed the supermarket, it was time for lunch.

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Good thing I didn’t see this sign until after I had taken my photographs, however. (My old analogue camera would have been allowed?)

The style of the Noto sushi bar appears to have changed a little since the article was written in the Observer. The set lunch deals described in the article seem to no longer be available, and the article makes no reference to it being a kaiten-zushi restaurant, that is a restaurant on which the sushi goes past on a conveyor belt and you help yourself to the plates you want. I suspect the arrangements have been changed a little to make things easier for the chef. What has not changed in any way is the superb quality of the food and the very reasonable prices (by London standards, anyway).

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I tend to associate kaiten-zushi with small restaurants selling moderately good reasonably priced sushi where one grabs a bite to eat in between from the subway to the private line at Shibuya railway station, or with overpriced, slightly too westernised sushi in London or New York. This is perhaps not fair, as kaiten-zushi comes in various kinds, from mass produced to very good. And although this restaurant is superficially kaiten-zushi, and the kaiten-zushi aspect probably dominates at peak times and/or for inexperienced diners, it is only superficial and you can completely ignore it if you wish. (This is true of good kaiten-zushi restaurants in Japan and elsewhere, too).

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Upon sitting down, one is handed a menu, and there are signs saying “If you do not see what you want, please order it from the chef”. And if you do, the sushi chef behind the counter will make whatever you ask for to order. And he is exactly the same sort of chef you will find in an upmarket sushi restaurant: he wears the same white outfit, jokes in the same way, and says things to indicate that he is obviously concerned that you are enjoying the food, once more in the same way. (Japanese sushi-chefs have a certain clichéd style somehow. (My mind is thinking of the hilarious parody of this that Quentin Tarantino had Sonny Chiba play in Kill Bill vol. 1 for some reason).

In any event, I had the eel, the clam, the fatty tuna. Mmmm. It really is the best sushi I have eaten outside Japan, and better than much that I have eaten in Japan. And (by London standards at least) it really is very reasonably priced. I am way out in the suburbs of London, but the Japanese-ness of this place is somehow extreme, and concerned with detail, and with everything being exactly right. It is my favourite place to go for lunch in all of London, and having eaten very well there I paid the bill, thanked the chef and staff very warmly, praised the food excessively to them, and headed off.

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The fatty tuna was truly delicious, but I just managed to stop myself eating it for long enough to take a photo.

I then had a little bit of a further wander, mainly back to the kitchenware shop, where I bought some nice Japanese tea cups.

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Kitchenware and crockery here is once again very nice, and also substantially cheaper than I would buy non-Japanese equivalent stuff in a London department store. This is not a tourist destination but is concerned with value, no doubt for businesses as well as individuals.

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Whereas a Japanese tourist destination would undoubtedly take JCB, this is not a tourist destination. It is for resident Japanese who are concerned with value, and presumably the fees on JCB are too high, as with Amex. And probably most resident Japanese have British bank accounts anyway.

(The JCB (“Japan Credit Board”) card is probably the fifth largest credit card in the world in terms of the number of people who carry it. Almost all of thse are Japanese, however. One can track destinations frequented by Japanese tourists around the world by looking for shops that accept the JCB Card. (My most memorable personal example of doing this occurred once when I was at the Groot Constantia winery in Cape Town in South Africa. This winery made one of the most famous wines in the world around 200 years ago, before being wiped out by phyloxera and becoming obscure. However, as the wine from this winery is (amongst other things) mentioned in Jane Austen’s Emma, this is a perfect Japanese tourist destination. I was there with a friend. I pointed to the “We accept JCB” sign, told him almost exactly what I have just said in this paragraph, and within approximately 30 seconds of my finishing a bus of Japanese tourists arrived in the car park)

And finally, before managing to drag myself out of the place completely, I stopped off at Sega World for a few lanes of coin operated fully automated ten pin bowling. (Ten pin bowling is big in Japan for some reason. I blame the American occupation, personally. It’s terrible what those evil American GI’s will do to a country).

Once I had left the shopping centre, I saw something quite interesting, in some freestanding shops nearby.

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So the Japanese bookshop had not closed, but had merely moved, perhaps because the rent inside the shopping centre itself was too high. Or something. In any event, it still looked extremely Japanese on the inside, if not the outside.

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And that was it. The place I had visited is extremely Japanese, and yet somehow also very London. The Japanese population of London (which isn’t enormous) is somehow the sort of Japanese population that really needs these things to be right, and so this place is there to serve them. (The Japanese population in somewhere like Sydney is less obsessive, somehow).

None the less, I still wonder how well other cities do the same kinds of thing. As it happens, last time I was in Paris, I saw this advertisement on the side of a van.

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Besides asking the really important question – Why do the French love the prefix “Hyper” so much? – one also wonders how well do they do Oriental Shopping Centres. As it happens, I shall be in Paris next weekend, and one of my principal tasks is going to be to boldly seek out this Hyper-Asiatique and find out for myself.

16 comments to Searching for Japan in North London

  • According to his blog, William Gibson could actually be in London at the moment “in search of…inspiration.”

  • Jwarrior

    I live near the Japanese Centre and it is certainly a cool place to go visit at the weekends.

    I’m not much of a sushi fan, but I love Japanese culture and style…oh and Japanese sports cars! ;)

  • Neuroto

    I used to love sushi and sashimi, until the Kern County Department of Animal Control told me I’d have to get a permit for my steadily increasing collection of intestinal fauna.

  • Well, if Mr Gibson is in town, I shall happily take him to Colindale and buy him some sushi.

  • Johnathan Pearce

    Michael, next time you plan a visit, let me and the missus know. We’ll make a posse and hoover up some of that fantastic food.

    BTW, agree with you on the beer. Asahi and Kirin are both favourites of mine.

    Tokyo is definitely on the list of places I want to see before I die or get cryonically suspended.

  • mike

    I don’t know how I’ll manage to sleep tonight (or ever again) having followed your Kikkoman link… when I next see a Japanese person picking up a bottle of soy sauce, I don’t know, I’ll have some trouble thinking straight…

  • quentin

    Ah, Yaobhan Plaza. Great place. A friend of mine was the head chef at the okinomiyaki restaurant some years back. Later we used to enjoy the buffet restaurant at the far end of the top floor.

    Yum!

  • I'm suffering for my art

    I don’t know about Japanese beer – I find it rather flavourless and dull. I’d describe most Japanese beer as “beer for those who don’t much like beer”. I’d happily sink a Continental lager. Or Australian one – sweet? What have you been drinking?! Okay, a couple are slightly sweet, like VB, but it’s hardly a typical characteristic. Anyway, point is that my heart is with Central/Eastern European pilsners…dry, bitey and hoppy…bliss! And before anyone pipes up, yes, I am aware that lager is a type of pilsner. Or pilsner is the father of lager. Whatever…

  • In Australia “hiramasa” is the Yellowtail Kingfish. They are a reasonably common sportfishing species found in the southern waters from Perth right around to Brisbane.

  • Andy

    Please change where the images for this article are hosted. They aren’t downloading at all…..

  • Andy

    Wow, stuff is massively expensive there (compared to the US). That 24 case of beer looks like it costs UKP29, damn near USD54! (same case of beer in the US would go for around USD20). That bottle of Pocari Sweat (UKP4.59=USD8.50) would go for about USD4-5.

    Mind you I live in San Diego with a nice sized Japanese grocery store…and it’s possible that the Asahi beer we’d buy here is actually produced here in North America (like Foster’s is brewed by Molson’s). But jeez…no case of beer is worth USD54!

  • I’m also in SD, and currently drinking an asahi super dry, and it’s made by molson in canada “under asahi’s supervision”

  • Aaron

    I import American microbrews to Taiwan.

    A case of microbrew retails here for US$ 67.50.

    It’s worth it for some people apparently.

    Though a lot is taxes and they are in glass bottles.

  • Looks good enough though it seems to me that it’s impossible to cook a real Japanese food anywhere out of Japan.

  • Okinomiyaki seeker

    Anyone know of a japanese restaurant in London or near by that sells okinomiyaki please?!

    I’ve been hungering for some ever since I got back from Japan!

    Cheers!

  • I came across this page looking for a new coffee maker. But I’m intrigued by your take on Oriental City, which originally opened as Yaohan Plaza. I was there a few weeks ago, I hadn’t been in years, and was struck by how much the place had changed since its opening towards the very tail end of the bubble economy.

    The Japanese element of the supermarket has shrunk considerably over the years, and the fruit and veg section was very badly stocked on my visit. Obviously fewer people are willing to pay excessive prices for imported goods. It’s still got some things that are hard to locate in other similar supermarkets and the franchised fishmonger (Atariya) is still great, but the place seemed a bit sad in its way and certainly overpriced. £4.59 for a litre of Pocari Sweat?!? The bookshop had gone (the original one was a swish affair much as you’d find in Japan with new magazines and so on) and the one on the corner outside is second-hand. There was a lot about the place that murmured “closing down…this store is closing down…” A shame if it does, but now you can buy sushi rice, mirin and so on in Tesco.

    (and how any Korean section doesn’t include Shin Ramyun noodles I don’t know! That’s like not selling vegemite in an Australian ex-pat shop)

    The bread shop (now called Hamazaki instead of Yamazaki!) still sold curry rolls though. Yum!

    Okonomiyaki Seeker! I doubt you will read this, but there are two alternatives:

    a. There are two restaurants in London called Abeno that specialise in okonomiyaki. One’s by the British Museum. Not bad, even if the portions aren’t quite Osaka sized.

    b. Go to Oriental City (this is why I went) and buy an okonomiyaki plate to stick on top of the table-top gas cooker. It’s easy enough to make after all.