The line must have been 200 meters at least. And it did not move fast. My wife dropped me off at the end of the line and went to buy Korean cosmetics. We were in Koreantown, the shopping enclave north of Shinjuku station. And I was designated to buy hottoku. Or hotdogu. Or maybe hottodoggu. Not hottoki.
Brillat-Savarin said that the discovery of a new dish is a bigger service to humanity than the discovery of a new star, and in that case the Japanese streetfood scene must be more valuable than a few hundred astronomy departments. And nowhere more so than in the Koreantown of Tokyo.
However, he said nothing about the quality of the stars. And nothing about the quality of the dishes.
Where is Tokyo Koreantown?
In the beginning, this was just a few stores and restaurants specialized in Korean food. Some of the original restaurants are still there, serving specialities like burbot Korean style. The customers of these restaurants were not always the most upright citizens, and this was one of the few areas in Tokyo you would not go after dark.
40 years later it is a boom town, feeding off a Japanese frenzy for Korean foods, Korean cosmetics, and Korean boys bands (most of the visitors are women). Even though flights to Korea are cheaper than ever, you can not get there and back again in a day. But you can go to Koreantown from most of Japan. And back again.
The map above is showing a lot of stores and restaurants with Korean names, but the Koreantown designation is still unofficial.
The Korean Cosmetic Takeover
Koreantown used to be where you would go if you wanted to have authentic Korean cooking in Tokyo. Even though Tokyo has a considerable Korean minority, a reminder of Imperial Japan when Korea was formally a part of Japan and Koreans were imported as cheap, if not slave, labor.
Today, there are hundreds of thousands of ethnic Koreans in Japan. Most are second or third generation and equally much Japanese as Korean. But there are Korean public schools in Tokyo created for this minority.
A few years ago the restaurants were complimented by a new type of stores, selling Korean cosmetics. The first success of the Korean cosmetics industry, at least in Japan, was snail slime cream. The industry quickly moved on and there were soon hundreds of stores selling Korean cosmetics. Now, while there are cosmetics for men, I am not among their customers. And I have been married too long to tell my wife that the cosmetics do not work, since she is beautiful already.
Ethnic Enclave Tourism
When you go to Yokohama Chinatown, you can sometimes feel like you are in Hong Kong. The buildings are modelled in Chinese style, and there are hundreds of stores selling Chinese goods and tea. Chinatown in Yokohama was actually started at the same time as the first European settlements, since the opening of Japan meant opening to Chinese merchants as well. The Europeans and Americans spread out all over Japan, but many of the Chinese merchants stayed.
Going to Chinatown in Yokohama is a great experience for kids, because they really feel they are abroad. Going to Koreatown does not really feel like going to Korea.
What Is Koreatown Like?
The main customers of the shops in Koreatown are young women. The restaurants are playing Korean boys and girls bands in an infinite loop. There are theatres and dinner shows with Korean boys bands (no girl bands that I could find). And it is incredibly crowded.
Our kids like Korean food, at least the non-spicy types. But they do not really fit in Koreantown, even though they love going to Korea. It is not very child-friendly, and there are neither high chairs nor places to put your stroller in most places. The entire environment has a subtle (and occasionally not so subtle) undercurrent of repressed sexual tension which do not really feel right with kids.
Should we go to Koreantown?
Unless you are a girl or two, I would not recoomend it. As a guy, you feel slightly out of place. You get better grilled meat in Korean restaurants that do not carry the same baggage. Visiting ethic enclaves are interesting but Koreantown no longer works for me. But my wife loves it, so we are probably going to go back.
So did you like the hottogu?
Actually, I was not all that impressed. The idea of molten cheese in a deep-fried shell is nice but there is too much shell. And dipping it in coconut sugar was interesting but honestly does not do much for the taste.
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I am Wisterian Watertree, recently moved from Bangkok to Tokyo, with a brief visit to Honolulu on the way. I write about travel, especially with our three beautiful kids (two girls and one boy, soon turning four and a half - yes. they are triplets). Travel is education and fun rolled into one, and if you are like me, that is something you want to give to your kids. If you want more tips and want to find out when I will publish something, get it from my email list. If you want to be personal, drop me a note on email@example.com, or if you want general tips, follow me on Twitter @wisterianw.