Gibbs 5 – Good Coffee in Tochigi?!

You can always check my old posts about Utsunomiya and how with the exception of Miya Matsuri I was quite underwhelmed by the city. It still got a post, unlike Ashikaga or Mito, but I didn’t really get what the city was about. I’m not sure if things are just looking up for Tochigi, I’m more willing to accept fun things, having a friend from the city helps, or I was just never able to find the cool and social parts, but Utsunomiya is definitely not a bad place. The city seems much more lively and social than I remember and has a lot of hidden gems I was never able to find the first time around. Apparently Jazz is also a big thing there, though when I went to a jazz bar it seemed to be just someone playing pop on an electric piano. But to put the cherry on top, I found a cafe that uses Bear Pond Espresso coffee beans.

As you can see, the sign says Bear Pond which made me literally stop and go back.

I saw the sign...

New Yorkers will know that seeing a shop that serves up Stumptown is nice but a common enough occurrence to tell us little about the cafe, and that it would be more notable if a cafe were serving up Blue Bottle or Gimme. Katsu doesn’t really let other cafes use his beans in an attempt to keep the brand associated with quality, so far so good, so it was incredibly surprising to find that the a cafe, in Utsunomiya of all places, serves Bear Pond. The owner told me she is the only shop not associated with Bear Pond to use their beans. Gibbs 5 has a similar drink to Bear Pond’s signature ‘Dirty’ and also serves espresso at any time for those of you who are incited by Katsu’s no espresso after 11ish rule. The owner is a very skilled barista, and instead of comparing her to Katsu, let’s just say that if I still lived in Tochigi I’d probably be up there almost every weekend.

The vey tall and skinny cup did throw me off a bit, it's a bit off-putting

The colors are crazy because this is from my instagram, sorry.

The smooth milk and chocolatey flavors of the beans worked out well together and was just as good as the coffee at No. 8 in Shibuya. The cafe also has alcohol and looks like a good place to hang out at night as well. So if you ever find yourself in Utsunomiya, maybe waiting an unbearably long time for the Nikko express, you owe it to yourself to check out Gibbs 5.

Why did she have to wait until after I left Tochigi to open up...

Traditionalish Toppokki

I was first introduced to toppokki on the second floor of a Korean restaurant-bar in K-Town, a part of New York that is to Korea what Little Italy is to Italians. One of my students at the time turned to me and asked if it was spicy, I said no, after all it had cheese on it and was in K-Town, spicy was near-impossible. She told me “In Korea the toppokki is soooo spicy” she had this way of slowing down when she emphasized things that was funny. I’ve heard the same thing many times from so many different students that if I were to list all of them, you’d think I was just stealing from a list of popular names in Korea. So part of my time in Korea was the search for the truest, and possibly spiciest toppokki, which led me to Tongin Market.

There's a QR Code at the front of a traditional market, if there's something more Korean than that I don't know it.

If you read my last article then you may be pleased to know that Tongin Market is quite close to Changdeokgung. While they do have a great deal of Korean street food and traditional fare, there is a rather popular spot for toppokki, Wonjo-Halmeoni Toppokki (which means Original Grandma’s Toppokki), made in a bit more of a traditional style than usual. This toppokki had thinner and smaller rice cake and instead of being drenched in (delicious) sauce, was more coated in a pepper paste and light soy sauce…sauce respectively. The fried green goodness you can see in the picture is Jeon, another street food staple.

I'm assuming that's the aforementioned Grandma.

Given my love of toppokki this is kind of like torture.

While the rest of my toppokki nights involved the modern style, I can’t say that it wasn’t great to try a different type of toppokki. If you’re wondering where it hit on the spice meter, it’s pretty much in line with what you can find anywhere in Korea, not that spicy for Korea. The search for that would have to continue.

You don't get much more local than this, beautiful


Changdeokgung is one of the major palaces of Seoul and is possibly the largest or second largest at that. It became the main palace of Seoul in 1610 for about 270 years, so it’s actually the most used palace in Seoul.  One thing to note if you’ve been following along for a long time or have been in Japan, Korean palaces are so wide. Comparatively everything is very well spread out so it takes a while to get around the grounds. This palace in particular was made to merge with the mountains behind it unlike the other palaces of Seoul, in the very late 1400s.

Donhwamoon, the main gate to the palace.

Injeongjeon, the main hall of the palace.

The area around the palace.

There's just so much to see in Seoul's palaces

There's really more to see than there is for me to say

As you may or may not know, Toyotomi Hideyoshi (from Japan) launched a failed invasion of Korea in the (very) late 1500s but actually made it far enough to burn down the original Changdeokgung. Meaning that what you get to see is more similar to what was around in the 1600s and beyond. With the Imperial Japanese occupation of Korea, Changdeokgung was of course damaged further but not completely destroyed so much of the interior reflects the time right before the occupation.

Seonpyeongmoon, the gate leading to the queen's hall

The inside of Injeonjeon has curtains and lights, showing its latter influence.

There's also generally a lot more color in Korea's palaces compared to Japan's castles.

Jinseomoon, another gate of many many many

Huijeongdang in particular very much reflects the time period when the original was destroyed by being heavily european influenced. It shows what I’ve always found to be an interesting time period in Asia, the time when a country was trying to utilize modern improvements while still keeping their cultural identity. For this reason I found Changdeokgung especially interesting.

You can see the highly modernized interior

Daejojeon, the queen's hall

The back of the palace

Yes, this is another part of the palace that I haven't shown yet

A closer look at Injeongjeon

Changdeokgung is a huge palace, but a great part of that goes into the mountain in what’s dubbed The Secret Garden. There is already enough to see of the palace without the secret garden, so if you can’t get the necessary reservations to see that area, there’s still reason to go. This also means that I’ll be saving The Secret Garden for a separate post.


The foliage in the back

A courtyard in the back, the stone walls on the side were once spots where buildings were

See all this space!?

When I went it was free (July 2015) but the usual fee is: 3000won (~$3)

5 Extracts – Seoul Espresso

Starting the Seoul cafes off in no particular order with 5 Extracts, this is totally not because it lists as the first folder on my computer, but sure was convenient. We went to 5 Extracts three times and I had the opportunity to try both the regular espresso and the ristretto. It’s also a good cafe to start with because it started to paint some ideas I formed about Seoul’s Cafes.

If you thought that said "SEXTRACTS" you're not alone.

Showing off their roaster front and center, can't say I'm not jealous.

Located pretty centrally in the ‘hip’ area of Hongdae, 5 extracts is in a quite convenient spot when you’re planning to meet up with friends. The cafe is adorned with trophies and similar awards for Barista competitions and Cups of Excellence but like most new third wave cafes, you won’t get any snobby bullshit flying your way (though I can’t promise that if you’re a really indignant person). Like almost any Seoul Cafe, its a good place to relax and you likely could spend your entire day there, it also wasn’t that crowded both times unlike some other cafes we’ll talk about later on.

It's actually really difficult to take pictures of espresso.

The espresso had a bit of a roast flavor and the slightest bit of burnt caramel but so slight that it’s almost not worth mentioning. It has a medium body with nutty and cacao notes, I wasn’t able to decide whether I would say hazelnut or walnut. The espresso ristretto was an improvement in my eyes. Of course being ristretto made the body thicker, but it also completely lost the roast flavor in favor of a nice grapefruit flavor note I wasn’t able to notice the first time. The ristretto starts off strong, dark, and a bit salty (like salted caramel), evolves into a grapefruit fruitiness, and finishes off with chocolate and richness.

Gotta respect any cafe that puts their extraction method up on the wall.

This is about as busy as I've seen it all the times I've gone.

If I were in the business of making top fives or harsh criticism, I’d have no problem putting 5 Extracts onto a top 5 of Seoul, though the same can be said of the other cafes I’ll be reviewing. I hope they keep it going because the Korean coffee scene is about the most promising I’ve seen in a while.

Raw Beef and Korean Street Food

Seoul has a ton of markets for food and clothing, some of which I’m going to cover in the future, but if you ever wanted to try raw beef with some delicious bibimbap (and most importantly, safe to eat) you should head to Changsin Yukhoe in Gwangjangsijang, very close to Jognro 5 ga station.

Local and awesome

Don't forget how to say toppoki chugseyo.

As I alluded, some people not from Korea may have a bit of an issue trusting raw beef which is understandable and why I chose to go to a place a friend has gone time and time again.

I didn't know that raw beef would be so delicious.

Of course if you’re going to be in the area more often than once, there is also a lot of good street food.

In the corner you can see all the workers preparing the beef.

I could use some toppoki right now.

Bukchon – Old Korea

I felt this area was a fitting place to start posting about Seoul, seeing as how it’s a highly touristy area that most people going to Seoul will probably end up in and needs little explanation.

Not many places in Seoul look like this.

Being hilly, there are some good views you can get of the nearby parts of the city.

Bukchon is a hilly district near Changdeokgung that still has a lot of traditional Korean architecture. Because of this it has a lot of guest houses and like the rest of Seoul has a lot of cafes, most of which seemed to be merged with galleries.

This is actually a cafe building.

Being a pretty artsy area, you can find stuff like this.

Bukchon is also known for fried dumplings, which sadly we didn’t get a chance to indulge in because we were too busy filling up on Toppoki.

Back downhill towards the rest of Seoul

Quite possibly one of the best cafe menus I've ever seen. Sorry other cafes.

Cafe Des Gitanes – There’s Good Coffee in Aomori

Aomori is a great city, but it has no guesthouses that I was able to find. So when I went to Aomori from my awesome guesthouse in Sendai, it was a bit too sudden of a shift from very social to staying alone at a hotel in a small city. Little did I know that there was good coffee to be had in Aomori, and it’s just a few minutes from Aomori Station. Sadly, as my luck would have it, I found it on my last day in the city so I was only able to try one.

It's also a surprising amount of time for a third wave shop to be open in Japan.

Seeing the quality of the roast was the first thing to impress me.

Cafe Des Gitanes is a good looking place, it’s apparently been there for almost 10 years and has a pretty good following. The style is certainly that of your third wave cafes but also ever so slightly apes Italian cafes, though not to any detrimental degree. I didn’t go for the espresso, sorry if you were drinking something and spat it all over your computer, and the reasoning is a bit judgmental on my part. Cafe Des Gitanes uses almost the same setup I had in New York, a good “prosumer” home espresso machine and a Rancilio Rocky. Anyone who says that setup can’t make great espresso deserves a swift punch from me, but it also doesn’t seem to be this cafe’s focus and is a bit unfair to judge when I only had one chance to try some coffee. Of course you’re free to make your own decisions but in the right hands a “prosumer” machine and Rancilio Rocky can be far better than a La Marzocco and a Mazzer in the wrong hands.

I really tried to avoid blur, I really did T_T

Been drinking coffee consistently for about 12 years, come from an Italian American family, but this is the first time I ate a biscotti with coffee.

So we fall back on my second staple, Ethiopia Yirgacheffe. It’s becoming quite common that I’m using African coffees, especially Ethiopia as a sort of second standard, I’m not sure if it’s because it’s kind of an average level of difficulty to extract or because I’m just biased. My cup was perfectly extracted, 10/10 and all the wonderful fruity flavor notes were really prominent. The location of the cafe makes it both great and horrible for me to recommend. If you will ever find yourself in Aomori City, even for only an hour or so, I would highly recommend going there. However the nature of Tohoku and lack of other great cafes means that coffee geeks might rarely find themselves that way. It’s a shining beacon of deliciousness in a wasteland of Dotours and Mister Donuts.

And you guys should be proud, hopefully it can get even better.

The Best Cafes in Seoul

From here on I’m going to try to maintain a pattern for  a while, this will be to alternate posts about coffee and sights or food. This is mostly for travels in Korea, but I was able to find good cafes in Fukuoka and Kobe as well. Travelling through Korea gave me hope for the state of espresso in Asia as well as all other coffee. Seoul has no shortage of cafes, but a great majority of them roast their own beans, making finding the good ones even harder. Before I get into detail (which I’ll later link to), I’d like to provide all of the cafes I’m going to talk about in Seoul, just in case you’re going there soon and can’t wait.

Similar to grumpy in the design aspect.

Coffee Libre – This place reminds me of both Stumptown and Cafe Grumpy, the big fish in the waters of Seoul and keeping it down with some good style and even better espresso. One of the only places I found in Seoul with multiple locations.

A kind of coffee factory, really reminiscent of Panther Coffee in Miami.

Anthracite – A huge coffee warehouse that’s open late in the tail end of Hongdae. Great variety in espresso and other interesting drinks to tide your non-coffee friends over.

Forgot to mention how the toilet has some cartoon eyes on it.

5 Extracts – An awesome little cafe in the heart of Hongdae that makes a killer espresso. Variety in the form of available drinks, meaning if you wanted to taste even more you can get that espresso ristretto, just like your Italian grandpa did all those years ago.

Sadly didn't get to find hat wonders are beyond that tasting room.

Republic of Coffee – The site I found out about this from said that the owner had switched, so I was a bit worried, however the new owner, who was trained by the former one, still extracts that espresso like a pro. They also have a wide variety of alcohol too for your friends who like to drink mid-day.

This location was a bit small.

Coffee LEC – Supposedly has two locations but one is under construction right now, both of which are in Gangnam. Great espresso but the other location is a bit of a trek for a small shop without any Single Origin Espresso.

It does look like a factory, doesn't it?

Modern Factory – A shop with a lot of heart, a very solid espresso.

Would a pancake epidemic be too many or too few pancakes? For me, 3 pancakes would be an epidemic.

The Pancake Epidemic – I’m torn about recommending cafes that use well established American roasters, in this case Stumptown, but if you were craving Stumptown’s espresso or Cold Brew you won’t find a better place in Korea for it. Also located in central Gangnam, so if you’re going to fashion school, this is your cafe.

Sadly some cafes fell through the cracks, and we found out about certain cafes after I had already left Seoul, so here are some places that were checked out on my behalf:

Tailor Coffee

Cafe 101

Cafe The Gentle

Coffee Lab

Goryokaku – The End of an Era

Goryokaku is a five pointed, star-shaped fort built in the Bakumatsu era of Japan. This being the time of the rapid westernization of Japanese politics and culture, the fort is similar to one you would find in Europe or America but major buildings were distinctly Japanese. It is quite possibly one of the best sakura viewing spots in Japan, and also has a very late blooming period. So just when you thought it was over, you can still enjoy more sakura. The best place to see it from is Goryokaku Tower nearby.

The entrance, nope it's not much to look at.

The statue of Hijikata in the tower lobby.

If you wanted to find out about the real end of samurai culture and politics, Goryokaku is the spot. I’ll try to be quick. The Shogun of Japan gave up his power thus returning it to the Emperor, but really just giving it to the newly formed government forces, yet there were still those who had a lot of power in the old government or just couldn’t go with the change, that decided to fight. I mentioned one of the major battles at that time which happened in Aizu. Their last stand, was to go to the still unclaimed land of Ezo (modern day Hokkaido) and set up their own government with their own president, called the Ezo Republic.

There is no castle tower, just a magistrate's office.

The halls of the office.

It’s a bit of a strange part in Japanese history, as the supporters of the former government set up a democratic government and would later face the new government which was to become an oligarchy. Another thing to note is that Ezo was never conventionally considered a part of Japan, and was barely developed. The republic of Ezo petitioned the emperor to let the state develop, partially to protect Japan from Russia, but the request was of course denied.

Still looks quite Japanese.

I'm sick so I'm out of interesting things to say.

It is also close to the final resting place of Hijikata Toshizo, the last Shinsengumi. For those who don’t know, the Shinsengumi were a pack of mostly former ronin (who would be viewed as lower than dirt at that time) who were given the tasks of maintaining order in Kyoto and carrying out very violent attacks during the Bakumatsu. There’s a lot of romanticizing and modern support for the Shinsengumi, but I’ve never been on that page. For one thing, Serizawa Kamo is quite possibly one of the worst human beings I’ve ever read about, for another their cause was barely noble and mostly opportunistic. That being said, if any of them deserve to be considered heroic it would be Hijikata, and you can see the love for him all over the area.

Hijikata atop the city he arguably helped create.

Goryokaku Tower (Observatory): ¥840

Sannaimaruyama – Ever wanted to go back to early humanity?

I shouldn’t need to make this so clear but the area is a replica. The entire place is made to replicate the Jomon Era which is about 12,000BC to 300 BC. However, there are a good number of well preserved artifacts to see, mostly behind glass, but some inside of temperature controlled domes that look like they may still be excavated.

Still debatable what the pillars were for, I'd like to imagine it was just some modern art piece.

There’s really not much to say about the history, as far as we know the site is a perfectly fine recreation of what the Jomon people lived in. One part that stands out is the wooden structure with six columns and three levels, but even the reason for it’s existence isn’t well known.

Hope you like straw roofed huts.

It should be noted that this time period is well before and location very far from the origins of the Yamato people who later established the Japanese court system, and means that the people at this site may be more closely related to the Ainu people or may have been supplanted by them as the earliest records of Japanese history indicate that they moved in from Northern Kyushu til they set up their capitals in the Yamato Plain, modern day Kansai (Kyoto, Nara, Osaka…). At that time (which started in 250AD), the Ainu had control reaching as far down as modern day Kanto (Tokyo, Kanagawa…) and held onto parts of Tohoku well into the establishment of Japanese warrior culture.

Disney's newest resort

So it is interesting to see the similarities and differences between what was used thousands of years ago and years later. Jomon people were said to mostly be hunter gatherers but had some degree of farming, the level of which is up for debate. It is a good chance to get a break from seeing what you normally would see in Japan, and as far as I know it’s the only recreation of a Jomon site in Japan.

It was so important I had to include it twice.

It’s also quite close to the Aomori Museum of Art, which was amazing but like most museums in Japan, don’t allow pictures. I would recommend both.

But you can take a picture of this strange statue which I assume is here to throw everyone off.


Bus: ¥500 (1 day pass) [¥200 for one ride]

Aomori Museum of Art: ¥510

Hours: Both are 9am-6pm but close at 5pm between October and May.