Monday, December 29, 2008

An Acquired Taste

It's a typical Friday night in an typical neighborhood izakaya. The man next to me asks if I like sushi. He acts genuinely surprised when I say yes. He asks about natto  (musty tasting, gluey fermented soybeans). 

I say, "it's OK, but I wouldn't go out of my way for it."

He smiles. "Shiroko (steamed fish milt)?"

I answer the same, having spent a week last February accidently ordering it in restaurants over several days and finding it not so unpleasant.

He hopes to catch me. "What do you think of shiokara (salt pickled squid, guts and all)?"

Japanese rightfully pride themselves on the amazing permutations and variations of their cuisine. From many a Japanese point of view, a measure of cultural difference is the stuff they eat. Quite often, among less worldly folks here, there is an assumption that only Japanese like - and can eat - Japanese food. What makes the outsider truly different is that they will never like the food from their world. And the litmus test is how the outsider reacts to the ostensibly difficult foods - from the raw, to the sticky and slimy, to the obscure, and to the fetid.

When the Ajimi team first began flirting, a true "ah ha, this is a woman who can rock my world" moment came in a missive in which Virginia stated "we will sing for our supper at a local Japanese restaurant (try the fish innards)." A complex and brilliant seduction was underway. Appealing to our mutual desires of making music and being in the spotlight together opened up a door. But fish innards were a key to my heart and soul. I soon flew from Seattle to Japan to spend some time with this woman whose taste for culinary adventure was boundless. Our first night together in Japan took us to what would become a favorite restaurant, Kawacho. At this small, neighborhood joint hidden on a back street in Bakurocho, we ordered a small plate of house-made shiokara. As I offered the first taste to Virginia, she declined, saying she actually really didn't like the stuff. At least she had tried it before.

The rough handmade dish complimented the silky bands of squid. A beautiful mahogany colored sauce caressed the off-pink strips of perfect briny cephalopod. I picked up a glistening bit of squid in my chopsticks. The moment had finally come. I ate my first bite of shiokara.

It was awful. It was just how one might expect several days-old squid to taste - sour, rubbery, rotten.

Two years have nearly passed since our first outing in Japan. Since that time I've had the opportunity to eat shirokara often. It's a recommended snack to compliment one's sake. As time has passed, I've actually grown to like it. At a recent Slow Food dinner several bowls of potatoes slathered in shiokara appeared. They were great.

I turn to the man in the typical neighborhood izakaya. "Actually, I really like shiokara."

He looks at me quizically, then lets out a hearty laugh. We toast to our mutual likes. Virginia joins in, though she passes on the shiokara.

If you want to make your own shiokara there's a recipe at this link.


NV

Saturday, December 27, 2008

The Ajimi Team in the Press

We've been busily writing over the last few months about a variety of topics, from music to wine to chocolate to coffee. This month the New York Times published our piece about the music scene in Koenji. We'll have articles in Wine Enthusiast Magazine about the Japanese wine industry (November) and boutique chocolatier Claudio Corallo (January or February). Finally, Fresh Cup Magazine will run a piece about roast-to-order coffee merchants in Tokyo in its February issue.

We hope you enjoy reading these articles and we'll keep you posted on future developments.

Sunday, December 14, 2008

We Got the Beets

A few years ago, my then-neighbor Adrienne bought a juicer and began making juice out of everything she could lay her hands on: garlic, carrots, apples, ginger, celery, spinach...all were drawn into the vortex. But one vegetable eluded her: beets. It seemed that she could not find a beet anywhere in Tokyo, at any price. I had not given much thought to beets in many years but began to keep a sharp eye out for them whenever I went shopping. And, indeed, beets were nowhere to be found. A few months ago we did spot some at the Kinokuniya supermarket in the basement of the Bunkamura building in Shibuya...puny things for about 3 bucks each! We wrote beets off and moved on.

But Christmas is the season of miracles. On Friday night we attended a bonenkai party where we met Alex the Russian. Nick's first question: where the heck do you find beets in this town? Alex scores his -- affordably -- at the OK Market near Yoyogi Uehara station. He even makes a sweet liquor infusion out of them. But then, the following night, we attended a Slow Food party at the Shinjuku Kumin Center and what to our wondering eyes should appear but a boiling cauldron of home-made borscht! Synchronicity! One of the organizers, Noriko, orders her beets from a food co-op and the resulting soup was served with fresh cream and yogurt. The borscht had a special Japanese touch: a dash of Awamori, high-octane Okinawan rice liquor, to give it a special zing.

The party was a very yummy affair with guest foodies from all over Japan. We met Narita-san, a master soba maker from Tokyo; Meero-san, an international food consultant from Hokkaido; seed savers from Osaka; and Masu, who throws monthly fruit, music and art parties in Aoyama (reservations in English and Japanese at fruitsparty@gmail.com). Most of the guests had arrived before noon and spent the day cooking together in the well-outfitted kitchen-cum- function room overlooking Shinjuku Gyoen. We dined by candlelight with the lights of Shinjuku glowing in the distance. As we left around 9 pm, people were still arriving to share food and comradeship. We received a large, lovely beet as an early Christmas present.

VS



Monday, December 1, 2008

Uguisu Droppings


Here is an example of how a little curiosity -- combined with confusing information -- can be a dangerous and wonderful thing. We were riffing the other night on the meaning of the names of stops along the Yamanote Line, that roughly oval train line that circumscribes central Tokyo. Many of the stations along the Y are named after natural or historic features that were obliterated in the urban expansion. Take for example Uguisudani -- Valley of the Bush Warbler -- the stop north of Ueno on the city's east side, now noteworthy for the sharp contrast between its 20th-century love hotel district and Sasanoyuki, one of the city's most revered tofu restaurants dating back 200 years or more.

So, like, today, Nick picked up a wee treat at the local konbini, a pastry filled with green bean paste. It was called "Uguisupan." The penny dropped and we started thinking that there might be some connection between the pastry and the place. The pastry was a classic an-filled bun, but instead of the traditional red bean filling, there was a sweet mild green beany paste. We hit the Internet, with its problematic auto-translation, to assist our limited Japanese. Several false leads later, we finally came upon a site that had a recipe for uguisuan - the mildly sweet paste filling. Voila! The secret of the paste was endomame - peas, minus pods, cooked with sugar to create an enjoyable sweet spread. But where did the bird fit in? Was the treat named after the color of bush warblers? Their droppings? The sound of steaming bean paste mimicking their love call? Or what?

Uguisuiro -- or "bush-warbler color" -- also translates into olive green. A quiz of some Japanese friends revealed that the names of many colors - or at least the more appealing ones - come from their resemblance to the flora and fauna of Japan.

The uguisu is also sometimes referred to as the Japanese nightingale, although it never sings at night. A web search followed for the term "Japanese nightingale." And what should turn up first but a reference to the use of Japanese nightingale droppings as a component of a beauty cream used by Victoria (Posh Spice) and David Beckham. This wonder product apparently contains an enzyme that lightens skin, cures acne and could enhance your career as a kabuki actor.

Alas, the little mystery of the origin of the pastry name remains unsolved. Is the green bean paste known as uguisuan because of its resemblance to the bird or its droppings? It's a sticky subject we've come to - and maybe not just metaphorically. When you open the door and a little uguisu darts in, be prepared for a few flights of fancy and some potentially profitable cleanup.

The wikipedia entry on the bush warbler - http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Japanese_Bush_Warbler- adds another layer of lore and uguisu usage for your pleasure.


NV and VS

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Tokyo Style

Like many a culinary capital, Tokyo, is the nexus for regional styles and international influences, and by sheer scale a place where one can find nearly anything to satiate one's oral desires. But what foods and what styles denote food that one can truly say "comes from Tokyo."

Well documented is nigiri sushi - the act of putting a slice of raw fish on a thumb sized lump of rice. Also classically Tokyo are standing bars - yakitoria and other places near stations or on corners that befit a fast paced, commuting lifestyle.  

And then there's ramen. Or at least Tokyo style ramen. Born in the years of postwar reconstruction, it's a simple style that reflects hard and lean times. American occupation forces brought in cheap wheat flour. Japanese forces returning home from China brought a newfound taste and acceptance of Chinese noodles. Traditional disdain for the inelegant and plebeian food of immigrants fell to the serious demands of hunger. Broth, a bit of protein - slivers of meat or an egg, some preserved vegetables, starch - all basic foods to feed a hungry nation. The Japanese foodscape changed irrevocably. Ramen, in countless variations, is now as Japanese as tempura, originally a Portuguese import.

On a cold and rainy November Saturday, the Ajimi team journeyed to Ogikubo, the west side neighborhood where the first famous Tokyo style ramen joints opened in the black market shotengai that popped up near train stations after the war. Laying claim to be the originator of the style is Harukiya (春木屋), an unprepossessing place a couple of minutes from the Ogikubo station.

Unlike many modern rameneria, Harukiya only offers a few variations on the basic soup. But what a soup it is! In essence, thin, kansui-yellowed noodles with a good bite, nutty menma (麺麻 - reconstituted dried bamboo shoots), thin and powerful slices of roast pork, sharp rounds of negi (ネギ - Japanese leek), maybe a perfectly cooked ajitsuke tamago (味付け卵 - a egg boiled in soy sauce, runny in the middle, hard on the outside)  and a shio enhanced stock made of chicken and dried sardines. It's the fishiness of the stock that gives it the Tokyo taste. A trademark of Tokyo style, whether it's with oden, soba, or ramen is the affinity toward things piscine. 

There's an artlessness, an honesty and assurance about the ramen at Harukiya that appeals to our sensibilities at Ajimi. Every wonderful slurp brings time, place, history, necessity, and taste to the forefront of an experience beyond consumption - to an understanding of what makes something Tokyo style.




NV

Sunday, November 16, 2008

You Can't Beat Christmas in Tokyo

The Christmas windows at Isetan's flagship Shinjuku store are remarkably awful this year. The displays are 99% bling free and seem pieced together from stuff they had lying around, like big sheets of cardboard, tufts of cotton wool, old cake models, balls of yarn. Maybe they were going for a retro 1970's JC Penney's kind of look. The theme is Christmas A to Z and "M" is for "muffler" - the scarf kind - while "W" is for "waffle." In less troubled economic times those letters would likely have been represented by Missoni and Vera Wang. The entry for "F" caught our eye: it stands for "fork," "flower" and an activity one would not generally associate with the spirit of Christmas.


VS

Sunday, November 2, 2008

Hitting the Art Trail

Go west from central Tokyo by train and, within an hour, you are in the mountains. Not big mountains -- for those you need to continue another hour or so by Shinkansen to the Japan Alps. The mountains just west of central Tokyo are wooded and welcoming, laced with rivers and lakes and onsen and hiking trails. Small towns cluster around the train stations on the Chuo and other tributary lines. Like many small rural towns in Japan, these places often have a faded, forgotten quality owing to mass migration to big cities, particularly Tokyo, during the postwar boom. In some cases, local boosters have developed promotional campaigns to lure daytrippers from the capital. Some of these campaigns are fun and quirky, some are just sad. Banners tend to feature anthropomorphic cartoons of the local produce - melons, peaches, whatever - or advertise some aspect of the local culture.

The Ajimi Team found Fujino by describing a 90-minute train travel radius from home base. We were looking for a Sunday hiking destination that involved both open water and an onsen to soak in at the end of the day. A stop past Mt. Takao on the Chuo main line was the town of Sagamiko on the northern shore of its namesake lake. A quick google of "Sagamiko onsen" turned up a very cool site highlighting the neighboring town of Fujino. Here is some of what it had to say...

Fujino, which means "field of wisterias," attracted several Tokyo artists during the war. Since then, other Japanese and foreign artists have settled there, numbering around 100 all together among the population of some 11,000. Since it is a watershed for Lake Sagami, which provides drinking water for a portion of Kanagawa Prefecture, industrial development has been restricted in the area. Consequently, the Fujino municipal government has attempted to promote the town as an "art resort" to boost the local economy. Artists were commissioned to create outdoor sculptures to line an "art trail" winding through the hills. The prefectural government kicked in, building an art workshop and performance space.

This much we knew before we set out on our expedition. At Fujino station, a large map provided the bare minimum of information. (Note to Japanese mapmakers: Pulleeeze start including scales of kilometers, walking times, something to indicate how long a hike one faces from one place to another. The occasional North arrow would be nice, too.) But on a hillside rising to the south (we think) of the station we could see a large sculpture in the shape of a letter sealed with a heart, held by 2 giant red hands. We set off in that direction, following signs pointing to the art trail. All along the way we found stands selling fresh vegetables and nuts, often on the honor system, with no one monitoring the cash box. Persimmons (kaki 柿), daikon (大根), walnuts (kurumi 胡桃) and a wide variety of potatoes (imo 芋) were the most common offerings.  The directional signs were infrequent and confusing enough that we got lost a few times, though not unpleasantly, since the place is pretty and the weather was sunny and clear.

It turned out that the route circulating through the outdoor art installations was much longer than we could have navigated in the few hours we'd allotted to it. We did see several pieces on our walk which were far more fun and original than the usual kind of public art one sees in Tokyo, where it runs more to lifesize bronzes of naked ladies in front of public buildings or insane-looking bronze babies frolicking in public plazas. By the time we found a sign that actually showed the location of the 20-or-so Fujino art trail pieces along with photos, the need to find lunch forced us to turn back toward town. After eating soba, we visited a culture exhibition at the local grade school (this was the Sunday before Culture Day). We took a free shuttle bus through the hills to Higashiotaru Onsen where we were able to soak for a couple of hours in 100% natural spring water for just 800 yen. We didn't make it to the prefectural art workshop.

The next day we did some additional googling to find out more about Fujino. The aforementioned cool site, curated by Norman Havens, was last updated in 2004 (are you still there, Norman?). But there was a very recent entry concerning the town on the website for The Guardian. Fujino was identified as the planet's 100th "transition town," and the first one in Japan. Founded in England just two years ago, the Transition Towns movement encourages localities to create their own plans for developing low-carbon economies that respond to the needs of local people. The website for Fujino's group isn't up yet but we will be checking back soon on this community's latest efforts to determine its destiny.

VS

Sunday, October 26, 2008

Some Thoughts on Ramen

On top there are the primates. Beneath that dolphins. And then there are pigs on the level of smartness. An old human idea is that by eating the organ, the muscle, the essence of those things that we have conquered or killed we receive that essential quality. The liver for courage, the heart for honor and compassion, the muscles for strength. Does one get smarter for consuming tonkotsu, the rich milky broth that defines Hakata-style ramen? Pork bones boiled hard an long are at the heart and soul, and perhaps are the brains behind, this great style of Ramen.

The Ajimi team recently visited Hakata Tenjin (博多天神), a favorite little ramen chain, in their Shibuya location. They've got a pretty famous branch in Shinjuku, often photographed for the bigger than life-size pig-faced tanuki in front of the shop. Though crass - what else from a ramen joint? - the sculpture belies the fact that the place makes a simple, cheap, and lovely ramen that's well worth a taste in one's search for noodle bliss. 

What one gets for 500 yen is a bowl full of fine ramen noodles, a thin slab of fragrant char sui, a pile of menma (dried and reconstituted bamboo shoots), and some shavings of negi. It all works together beautifully with the collagen-a-riffic broth. But what takes it over the edge are the brilliant condiments that line the counters and folding tables of this simple establishment. First, there's pureed garlic. Then there's benishoga, vermillion colored pickled ginger. And then there's the karashi tenaka, spicy pickled Chinese mustard greens. They are musty, smokey, sharp, and perfect at Hakata Tenjin.

So, what's all this have to do with getting smart? Well, Hakata is a ward in Fukuoka, where this wonderful style of ramen was developed. It was in Fukuoka where Sugawara no Michizane died in exile in 903.  His spirit, which was some mighty powerful, was deified and became known as Tenjin. Over the years Tenjin became the kami, or god, of scholarship. Some food for thought when slurping down a bowl of noodles at Hakata Tenjin.


NV

Wednesday, October 8, 2008

Black Eggs in Hell

There is a place called Owakudani (大涌谷) in the resort area of Hakone that demonstrates that there are no limits to the local-delicacy-hawking ingenuity of Japanese tourism developers. The name means something like "big gushing valley" owing to the plumes of sulfur and other noxious gases that burst from the landscape. It smells -- and looks -- like absolute hell, so of course we had to go there the other day to check it out.

Owakudani is about a 40-minute bus ride from the town of Hakone Yumoto (箱根湯元)a comfortable little tourist trap where we spent Saturday night. All of the Hakone region is more than usually seismically active and attracts crowds of visitors who need something to do when they are not soaking in hot springs. Owakudani is also a stop on a ropeway that connects the tourist towns of Soun-zan and Togendai on Lake Ashi (the latter is a port for the famous pirate ship excursion). Both Lake Ashi and the sulfur fields were created when Mt. Hakone blew up about 3,000 years ago.

Big signs at the entrance to the nature trail advertise warnings in three languages -- Japanese, Korean and a kind of English -- about the toxic nature of the gases. If you are of "delicate bronchus" you are strongly urged to vamoose. Despite this, a steady stream of tourists climbed the stairs from the parking lot to the end of the trail. What emboldened them to risk lung damage by traversing the volcanic field? Perhaps it was a sense of adventure for some but for others had to be to down a couple of the famous black eggs.

Here is how to make black eggs. Start with regular chicken eggs. Gather several dozen together and put them in a little cage. Attach the cage to its own wee ropeway and send it up the slope to the edge of a naturally boiling, sulfuric cauldron with big signs around it advising people to stay away. There, have a guy wearing absolutely no respiratory protection gear dip the cages of eggs into the volcanic goop. Keep the eggs in there for probably 10 times longer than you would boil them on the stove as people stand around taking pictures and breathing deeply. Pull them out when they are good and black. Sell the eggs for about a buck a pop to people who believe that eating one will add seven years to their lives (I wonder if that is before or after you factor in death from exposure to the sulfuric acid fumes).

I don't know why the usually intrepid Ajimi Team did not choose to sample the famous Owakudani Black Eggs since we will usually eat just about anything once. Perhaps it was the odor of the surroundings, rather like being trapped in a banquet hall after dinner with 300 people with active constitutions who had forgotten to take their Beano. Maybe we were just full. It had to happen eventually.




VS

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

The Downpour

A summer of constant rain in the Kanto plain inspired the Ajimi Team to seek higher ground when planning a recent vacation. Up we went by midnight bus from Tokyo to arrive at dawn in the mountain town of Hida Takayama (飛騨高山) thence several days later to Matsumoto (松本)for what we hoped would be four days of hiking in the hills, interspersed with onsen visits and great regional cuisine. But the rain followed us, and whenever we passed a television set it was showing images of the entire midsection of Japan awash. We did make an attempt on our second day in Takayama to follow the trail of shrines and temples that meanders through Higashiyama (東山) but the downpour got the better of us and we were driven indoors.

The town of Takayama is often referred to as "Little Kyoto," both because of the Higashiyama district patterned on the more famous one in Kyoto and because of the wealth of historic architecture that lines the streets at the center of town. A large number of old merchant dwellings and storehouses are used today as retail establishments ranging from twee boutiques to sake breweries where -- you guessed it -- the Ajimi Team managed to overcome its disappointment over the foul weather.

One very nice thing about certain Japanese towns, Takayama included, is the way they are integrating regional cuisine into their tourism promotion. Almost every town in Japan is "famous" for one kind of food or another and, although local lampposts and tourist literature can be festooned with images of the relevant fruit, grain, animal, flower or tuber, encounters with the actual foodstuff can be rather underwhelming (although we learned later on this trip from a resident of Chiba prefecture that certain famous watermelons in that part of Japan really are remarkable in their delicacy and sweetness and we should make a special trip to experience them next July). The Hida region is famous for its beef, the yumminess of which we will report on later. But we were pleasantly surprised by the ubiquity and quality of the jizake (地酒) or local nihonshu and the multifarious circumstances in which one could sample it.

A local sake association publishes a lovely guide -- only in Japanese as far as we know -- to 13 Takayama sake breweries, including descriptions of their products and suggested pairings with local cuisine. The Ajimi Team didn't make it to all 13 breweries, but we settled in for extensive samplings at several and three tasting experiences were especially noteworthy.

Our first stop was at Sansha (山車) where the main attraction was their signature sake ladled from a small cask for a bargain 250 yen per serving. We sank into comfy benches surrounding an unlit but cozy hearth. The woman serving us explained that this was "old style" nihonshu, and we labeled this and several other sakes we would sample in Takayama "pre-central-heating nihonshu" with a lingering sharpness that would come in handy during cold mountain nights. Beyond the counter was another area with the original boiler, curing tanks, a picnic bench, several chairs, and a collection of dilapidated machinery whose original function was a mystery. We enjoyed several additional cups of Sansha and namazake (生酒 - NB: the storm was raging at this point) sitting back in the storage shed amid the not-unpleasant aroma of machine oil.

At the other end of the spectrum, both in terms of the taste of the nihonshu and tastefulness of the surroundings, was the Niki (二木)brewery. There, the heavy beams and white plaster walls of the tasting room echo the style of traditional Takayama mercantile architecture, but are a recent addition to the original 200+ year-old building. We ordered a flight of 5 samples, all lovely, but lighter and more floral than the Sansha. The staff there were very welcoming and gave us an English translation of a chart outlining the sake brewing process.

Then it was on to Kawajiri (川尻), an older style sake brewery with a couple of details that set it apart. First, they offered coasters for each sample that were miniatures of their respective labels, very handy for making notes and remembering what the hell one is drinking on what might very well be the nth brewery visit of the day. Second, they had a stuffed tanuki. Any experience, we believe, is enhanced by the presence of a stuffed tanuki. This tanuki was sans chapeau but was otherwise accessorized like the pottery variety, clutching an account book and sake flask. Here, we tasted the very robust Masamune (正宗) which is aged for two years after a brewing process that lends it it both a light yellow cast and a dizzying 20 proof alcohol rating.

Each year, from early January to mid-March, the sake breweries of Takayama open their doors to visitors. For further information about visiting these and other breweries, click here.

VS

Saturday, August 23, 2008

Kujira Helper

Japan is one of the few countries in the world that does not take part in the international ban on whaling. Every year, through the auspices of the Japan Institute of Cetacean Research (日本鯨類研究所, Nippon Geirui Kenkyūsho), Japan harvests whales in what it terms "research" on the sustainability of whaling.  The results of this research can be found in grocery stores and restaurants throughout Japan. 

Whales, most famous for being the subject of a magnificent book and for spawning a subgenre of songs in the 1970s dedicated to their salvation, were historically a part - a small part - of the Japanese diet. They became a much bigger thing in the Land of the Rising Sun when American occupation forces were faced with a large, destitute and hungry population in much need of protein. Whales are big and got a lotta meat - an easy solution.  Japanese school kids' lunchboxes throughout the 50s regularly included a slab o' whale.

Recently the Ajimi team were walking through a shotengai in Asakusa where we came upon a restaurant specializing in research. A small and tasteful retail section opened up to the walking street proffering any number of cuts of whale meat and various flavoring agents, pickles, and packaged products to cover up... er... enhance the taste of these fat and protein filled behemoths.  And best of all we came across an instant curry manufactured specifically for making くじらカレ (kujira kare), or whale curry.

We at Ajimi are suckers for a good curry. And we're also suckers for the Japanese variation on this Indian import.  Japanese curry can be amazingly bad at any number of cheap "kare" joints that dot the urban landscapes of all Japanese cities. A pool of thin one-dimensional sauce, a potato, a piece of rubbery meat and some tired rice make for a quick, but particularly unsatisfying meal. But Japanese curry can also be great!  When prepared well, it's got a nice complexity of spices, with a mild burn, a lively and "fruity" edge and the Japanese secret - a nice dark roux to thicken it all up.  Served with fresh seasonal veggies and quality meat... well, it's a perfect comfort food that holds its own against other world curry variations. 

Curry, Japanese-style, hit the market in the late 50s, with easy-to-make instant variations made available to busy housewives and salarymen. Around this time interest in consuming whale was on the decline. Other, tastier and better foods were becoming more readily available as Japan boomed.  Whale never left though. There are a few restaurants that specialize in it and it shows up seasonally (perhaps when some research is being activated) in supermarkets. However, the Ajimi team, having come of age in the 70s still remember Graham Nash and David Crosby's To the Last Whale - and whether it's at a certain revulsion in remembrance of that song or if we're just being PC, when it comes to whale, we just say no. 

NV




Thursday, August 21, 2008

To Dorothy

It was just about 8 years ago that I visited Japan for the first time. I had fallen in love with a building -- Rafael Vinoly's Tokyo International Forum -- and wanted to check out both the building and the city where it was built. After a couple of months of searching I came across a ridiculously cheap airfare and, with my mother's 75th birthday looming, invited her to join me for 10 days in Tokyo and Kyoto.

Dorothy had always been an excellent traveling companion. We had visited Italy, England and Mexico together. She was the kind of traveler who was up for anything, approaching each new horizon with a sense of adventure. Our budget for the Japan trip was tight. Aside from the first few nights at the lovely Ryokan Shigetsu in Asakusa, we roughed it in cheap lodgings. Dorothy gamely hoofed it up and down subway stairs, often with the aid of a cane. But she endured the hard walking and lack of luxury, propelled by the desire to see everything.

On that trip we developed a shared love of tanukis, an animal indigenous to Japan that over the centuries has become mythologized into a party-loving, shape-shifting, impecunious rascal and the patron deity of actors and lovers of the bottle. The dictionary defines them as "raccoon dogs" and they are renowned for having some of the biggest balls in the animal kingdom. There are tanuki statues all over Japan, often outside izakaya and restaurants. Dorothy in particular took a shine to these statues and whenever she saw one would make a note of what was going on below the waist.

Dorothy died a year ago today. The trip to Japan was the last one she would ever take. Her eyes went first, then her knees, limiting her horizons to a few square yards in a small apartment. Cancer came next and, although it was beaten back with drugs and radiation, ultimately it was she who was beaten. Today we will visit a small shrine in Asakusa that Dorothy and I visited for the first time together. There we will light a candle and give her regards to the tanukis.

VS

Golden Bats

The first bats of the season appeared this week. Flitting above the Zenpukijigawa, a few brave furry fliers tested out the warm spring air, darting hither and yon, daintily devouring insects. It's a welcome sight here in Tokyo. Sakura blossoming means that spring is coming. Bats mean that spring is here. Seeing these super-signifying flying mammals made me think of the archetypical Japanese smoke, Golden Bats.

Oh, wait... it's been a few months since I wrote those last few words. We're nearly through the doldrums of another hot and sticky summer. The bats are now out in force. Last night at twilight, the sky was heavily peppered with bats, the air buzzed with drill of cicadas. And boy, do I need a cigarette.

Golden Bats (Ogon Batto) are the grandaddies of Japanese cigarettes. In 1904, the Japan Tobacco, the state-run tobacco monopoly, was formed and by 1906 the flagship brand of Golden Bats was introduced to the public. They are still being made with their distinctive green packages and pair o' bats design, somewhat compromised these days by the oversized health warning labels. They're a classic non-filter smoke, akin to Luckies. And they are cheap! Japanese cigs are one of the few bargains to be had in the land of the rising sun, but Golden Bats are a true steal at about 180 yen a pack. That's about a buck and a half! Rumor had it that Golden Bats were made of the leftover leaf ends from the manufacture of other brands of cigarettes, making them either really great - if you got some from the batch made with premium cigarettes - or really horrible - if you were just unlucky. But the truth is they are made from a strict formula and like most contemporary cigarettes generally designed to deliver nicotine and tar, rather than taste.

Another great story around the Bats is that during Japan’s occupation of Manchuria in the 1930s, Golden Bats were sold to the local population heroin-spiked, to keep them docile on off-kilter. A rather sinister idea, that lends a certain frisson - outlaw cred and reprobate nationalism together at last - to these cigarettes in particular. 

However, Golden Bats have perennially been a favorite choice of cancer for generations of Bohemians.  Photo documents of writers such as Yukio Mishima and Osamu Dazai with smokes in hand offer proof. Both Mishima and Dazai managed to beat death by cigarette by taking control of their own destinies and committing suicide. To this day at Dazai's grave in Mitaka, devotees often leave packages of Golden Bats as remembrance offerings.

Golden Bats have developed a great lore and hark back to a somewhat more nostalgic time, when things such as drinking, smoking, and living were judged a little less harshly and the interdictions against them were a bit more benign. However, you can still find some interesting propaganda on the positive side of slow death at the Tobacco and Salt Museum in Shibuya. Japan Tabacco runs this museum, documenting in loving detail, history, package and poster design, and lore about smoking. It also has a space for changing exhibitions. Most recently the Ajimi team saw a photo show on stimulants throughout the world. Coffee, tea, betel nuts, and khat use were lusciously documented in oversize photographs. But when you're at the museum, there's no smoking allowed. You can go outside, though, and huff down that Golden Bat in a special designated smoking section.


NV


Saturday, August 16, 2008

Navel Grazing

Among the many pleasures of exploring Tokyo is taking a stroll on a warm evening, rounding an unfamiliar corner, and stumbling across a neighborhood festival in full swing. These are not grand, traffic-stopping celebrations like Gion in Kyoto or Asakusa's raucous Sanja festival. Instead, Tokyo's neighborhood matsuri allow you to enter the intimate spirit of the surrounding area, to feel like a member of the community. A visit to a matsuri can begin with a stop at the temizuya to purify the hands, then at the main shrine building for a prayer and a blessing. After the religious rituals are dispensed with, participants get down to the serious business of eating, drinking, listening to traditional music, playing games of chance, and seeing what the neighbors are up to.

If, in mid-September, you happen to be exploring the area around Eifukucho station on the Inokashira line, you might stumble across the Aki Matsuri, or Autumn Festival, at Suginami-ku's Omiya Hachimangu. Sometimes referred to as Tokyo no heso, or the navel of Tokyo, this shrine is said to have been founded during the Heian era, between the 8th and 12th centuries. Stretched out along an avenue lined with towering cedar and zelkova trees, small food stalls serve up traditional matsuri fare such as yakisoba (fried noodles), takoyaki (octopus balls) and okonomiyaki (a kind of pancake stuffed with vegetables). But there are also yatai selling Thai food and Chinese dumplings, reflecting the changing population, or perhaps just the changing tastes, of Japan. To see more photos from last year's festival, click here.

Omiya Hachimangu Autumn Festival 2008
September 12 - 16
Nearest station: Keio Inokashira Line Eifukucho Station (10 minutes)

VS

Monday, August 11, 2008

Veg-a-matic

Tokyo is known for its quirky vending machines: from them, you can buy booze, porn, fresh flowers, even, according to legend, the used undergarments of enterprising schoolgirls. But would you believe vegetables? Yes, indeed! In northern Suginami-ku, a 20-minute bike ride from Ajimi HQ, a vegetable vending machine operates at the edge of a small urban farming plot. For those of you who have just had your minds blown by the idea of a farm in the middle of a Tokyo residential neighborhood, be aware that these kinds of market gardens are a fairly common sight within the bounds of the 23 districts that make up the central Tokyo region.

The vending machine has 36 little doors and looks more like the kind of locker that you put your shoes in at public bath houses than, say, a canned soda dispenser. You slip in your 100 yen coin (about $1) and pull out a bag of four or five vegetables that were picked that morning from the adjacent garden. At the time of our visit, about 5 pm on a Monday, all that was left were a few bags of なす(nasu, or eggplant) じゃがいも(jaga imo, jacket potatoes) and きゅうり (kyuri, slender Japanese cucumbers). A sign next to the machine invited customers to e-mail a website to have tomato harvest updates transmitted to their cellphones.

These are not bad prices by Tokyo standards, especially considering that the produce carries Eco Farmer certification, indicating that the farm, called Miyuki-en (三幸園), has made efforts to reduce dependence on chemical fertilizers and pesticides through soil enhancement and use of organic farming techniques.

If you can't peddle up to Igusa 2-chome to visit the vending machine, you can have the vending machine come to you, so to speak, at least at certain times of the year, at least if you live anywhere in Japan. At Miyuki-en's website, www.yasai.com, one can place vegetable orders via the Internet or download a fax order form. Alas, that service has ended for this year, but seasonal vegetables will be available at the vending machine through January.

The website is fun to look at just to read the blog (hit the auto translate option to get the Japanese translated roughly halfway into English) and the commentaries on urban agriculture and the latest goings-on in the garden.

Now, as for those vending machines dispensing schoolgirl panties...the Ajimi team will offer a bag of fresh Miyuki-en eggplants to anyone who can provide documentary evidence that such things exist.

VS

Monday, August 4, 2008

Yuzu Wonderland

The Ajimi team's hands-down favorite Japanese fruit is yuzu(柚子), that sweet, winter-bearing citrus fruit that is used to spice up everything you can think of, including your bath. It shows up whole in stores around mid-November, in spice and pepper mixes throughout the year. It has a nicely warming effect when you squeeze it into the bathtub, making your body tingle. So imagine our delight when we found a ryokan for our weekend getaway that is as crazy about yuzu as we are.

The place is called Yuzu no Sato (ゆずの里)and is perched on the northern bank of the Tamagawa in Mitake, about two hours west of central Tokyo on the Ome line. Sato means village and the ryokan itself is village-like, a collection of small, wooden buildings, traditional in design but modern in execution and comfort level, connected by covered walkways and surrounded by landscaped ponds. Even completely full as it was it on the busy weekend, it was very quiet and relaxing.

We chose to have our multi-course dinner served on the large wooden deck along with two other groups at separate tables. We started at 6 sharp with a shot of yuzu liqueur then on through a dozen courses including vegetables in aspic, salad, tempura, and ayu (鮎), that sweet river fish that is served on sticks at Japanese festivals. But unlike the matsuri version our fish was fresh from the river. Awesome. We also ate sashimi of river fish: trout or masu (鱒)which tasted a lot like salmon, and koi or carp, which was a bit on the chewy side, but salvaged somewhat by the delicious miso and yuzu dipping sauce. Every course had yuzu in some form, shredded, squeezed, dried, powdered, even whole, scooped out and used as a serving dish for a seafood gratin. We ate the bowl afterward. The meal was accompanied by a bottle of nihonshu we had acquired down the road that afternoon at Sawanoi, the local sake brewery. After sunset, we could hear the sounds of fireworks drifting up the river from Ome mingled with the screeching of cicadas.

The Tamagawa hereabouts is as wild as rivers around Tokyo get, cutting through a gorge and providing lots of pools for wading and fishing, rapids for doing the things one does in rapids. The pilgrimage site of Mitake Shrine is atop a nearby mountain, a cable car ride away. But beyond that there is not a hell of a lot to do in Mitake. The precipitous climb of the landscape away from the river doesn't leave a lot of room for development and the entire area is within the confines of a national park. This certainly helps reduce crowds and maintain the relaxed atmosphere but makes it tough to go down the road for a nightcap at 9 pm on a Saturday. We attempted to do that and found one barlike establishment open, a fried pork emporium that one member of the Ajimi team found brimming with local color and the other declared simply fetid.

That night, following our piping hot yuzu bath, we slept with the windows open, bathed in breezes. At 4 am we were awakened by a chorus of frogs. We hiked up the hill before breakfast, to a shrine dedicated to the water god.

For additional images of Okutama and Mitake, click here.
For more on Yuzu no Sato, click here: http://www.est.hi-ho.ne.jp/yuzusato/e-top.htm


VS




Wednesday, July 9, 2008

The Rhythm of Work

The age of the computer seems to have dealt the final death blow to any idea of music coming from the workplace. Gone are the field hollers, shanties, and chain gang calls and responses. Heavy labor is not romantic. Nor is the modern office place. But what music came from sweat and toil of working men and women! The legacy of songs wholly defined by the rhythm of work is rapidly becoming the province of collectors. The tapping of fingers upon the keyboard may lend itself to some manipulation and novelty in the making of music, but it will never become an intrinsic part of any sort of new music.

We recently visited Kawasaki, a township a little south of Tokyo, most famous for phalli, a pink one named Elizabeth and a more sturdy solid steel prick, which shall remain nameless. They are the prominent features of mikoshi paraded around the streets in early spring during the famous Kanamara Festival

A few blocks away from the Wakamiya Hachiman-gu shrine, the Shinto fertility shrine that hosts the Kanamara festival, is Nakamisedori, the street leading up to the Oyama gate of Kawasaki Daishi, Kawasaki's main Buddhist temple. Turning the corner onto Nakamisedori, one is greeted by the tap tap tapping of knives on cutting boards in complex rhythms clacking out from the portals of the dozens of ameya (candy stores) lining the tidy walking street.  The seemingly random yells and cajolings of candy sellers add yet another counterpoint to the beats competing from the different stalls.

Here's how it works. The candy maker, making toffees to be precise, rolls and stretches the soft candy into thick cords, all the while chopping in steady rhythm, modifying it occasionally while turning and twisting and placing the toffee into position. Meanwhile, a companion candy maker, sans toffee in hand, keeps a lively counter rhythm going -variations on one, two... and four and...

Unlike the txalaparta, the Basque instrument that has become an aestheticized analog to its humble origins in cider making, the music of the Nakamisedori candy makers still functions within its role as work.  And a joyous sound it is!

The sound of Nakamisedori is so compelling that in 1997 the Japanese Environmental Protection Agency included it in its compendium of environmental sound, 100 Soundscapes of Japan.


Nakamisedori candy makers



Txalaparta players


NV

Monday, May 19, 2008

Cognitive dissonance, supersized

This has nothing to do with Japan but may, in a weird way, have something to do with food culture. Yesterday I was reviewing the news on Yahoo. The topic was the Myanmar government's refusal to solicit or distribute aid from foreign sources for its dying people. People were starving to death despite the world's efforts to intervene. While I was reading this a video window at the upper right of the page attracted my attention. The words "Rescue Brigade" shone in red, illuminated by a flashing Mars light. For a moment I thought this might be an appeal for aid to Myanmar, China, or any of a thousand places in the world that could use a few extra calories right now.

But, no, it was an ad for Arby's. "Are you driven by hunger?" it inquired. I didn't put on my headphones to catch the soundtrack but it looked like the premise was that our hero, Captain John Maddox, could be dispatched in an instant to your suburban US neighborhood to lay on a bag of beef sandwiches, mozzarella sticks, and a Berry Swirl to help you alleviate your boredom between lunch and dinner. The Captain himself looked as though he had been alleviating his own boredom quite a bit on the job. And I thought to myself, this is the essence of the bipolar information barrage of the 21st century, the cognitive dissonance of being alive right now. Here, on one page, the clashing extremes of deprivation and excess. To see the excess side, click below:

http://www.arbysrescuebrigade.com/

VS

Sunday, April 6, 2008

Slow Food that Quickens the Heart

The Pillow Book, Sei Shonagon's observations of courtly life in 10th century Japan, is full of lovingly detailed observations and obsessively concerned with lists. Among her more famous lists is "Things that quicken the heart." She lived and died long before cacao sailed from the Americas to all parts of the world. And long before the Meiji era, when confectionary giant, Meiji, began its domination of the Japanese chocolate market with its decidedly dreary chocolate bars.  I'm quite sure that on her list that includes such things as "to notice that one's elegant Chinese mirror has become a little cloudy" and "to pass a place where babies are playing", she would have added "to eat chocolate."

Eating pure chocolate - eating good chocolate, one feels a slight surge under the skin, a slight chill on the cornea, a spark of electricity. The heart quickens.

The Ajimi Team recently met with a bunch of folks from Slow Food Suginami-ku for a leisurely dinner with internationally renowned chocolate maker, Claudio Corallo. Over platters of pasta, cheeses, and various antipasti, about a dozen of us chatted over all things food, chocolate in particular, at a cozy little Italian cafe called Lemon near Ochanomizu. Conversation rolled in a mix of Japanese, English, French, and Spanish over the course of three hours. As the delightful meal came to a close, Claudio brought out samples of the very artisanal chocolate that he is justly famous for.

First a bit about the man himself. Corallo, originally from Italy, went to Zaire in 1974 where he found his way into the coffee business. Revolution in Zaire and a growing interest in cocoa led him to São Tome e Príncipe in 1993 where he set up shop. He's been on a voyage of culinary love, rehabilitating old plantations, and rediscovering and husbanding ancient strains of cocoa and coffee that found their way from the New World to the tiny islands that he now calls home.

And what about the chocolate? Corallo first brought out 3 of his flagship chocolates; one he labeled his "soft" chocolate - a 75% cacao; his 85% chocolate; and his 100% chocolate. It should be noted that Corallo's chocolates use no vanilla, just cacao and sugar. Even the most "pure" of what's available in the market is no match for Corallo's. His chocolates are simultaneously austere and completely indulgent. Used to the contemporary style in artisanal chocolates that forefront a certain perfuminess and BIG taste, Corallo's seem to be a bit lacking at first taste. However, we found ourselves sneaking more and more samples of his fine chocolates. They unlocked their pleasures slowly, subtly, and to great satisfaction.

Chocolate, often gobbled down unthinking and un-tasting, is common currency. Fast, easy - a quick sugar fix.  We rarely give it time. And much chocolate is not worth much time. The slow food pleasures of Corallo's chocolates, however, were well worth taking some time over.

Just as the dinner was wrapping up, Monica Cespedes and Juan Carlos Fernandez, a couple of Chilean food producers in town for FOODEX, brought samples of their avocado oil, fruit vinegars (not fruit-infused vinegars, but vinegars made from the fruits themselves - raspberry, strawberry) and cusqueño (a dried aji chile condiment). 

It was a pleasure to take some time with food and new friends in this city that seems as if it can't go fast enough.  Special thanks to Toshiya Sasaki and his wife Noriko of Slow Food Suginami-ku for putting this all together.

More on Claudio Corallo - his fascinating story and information on his chocolates can be found at this link.

Slow Food Suginami-ku's site can be found at this link.

Chilean vinegars and other artisanal food products can be found at this link.


NV

Saturday, April 5, 2008

Snow Strawberries

The Ajimi Team is a sucker for snow strawberries (yuki ichigo - ゆきいちご - 雪苺娘), the delicate decadent mochi confection. Like a pink-cast snowball, it's a wrap of thin mochi over a light cake, whipped cream and a sweet/tart strawberry. The gooey chewy moochi makes a perfect compliment to the spongy cake, the unctuous cream, and the berry fruit goodness of this perfect treat.

The movie Careful comes to mind when looking for yuki ichigo. Guy Maddin's contemporary bergfilm takes place in an alpine village where the threat of avalanches is so great that the residents must speak softly at all times. Quietly repressed desires fuel passions in this pastel tinted winter wonderland. One can imagine soft pink yuki ichigo - they not only look like breasts, but they feel like them too - as objects of illicit desire.

But there's no problem with speaking quietly at our favorite yuki ichigo stand under the tracks at the entrance to the Yurakucho JR station.  But it's for a different reason. The place is run by hearing impaired workers, who quickly and quietly dispatch orders from this perfect little hole-in-the-wall.  Also available are momo (peach), pudding, and anko plus strawberry filled daifuku.  A perfect place to indulge those desires.


NV

Tuesday, April 1, 2008

Fugu 'n me

My track record with fugu is not great. My first encounter with this delicacy came during my first-ever Internet date. I knew that this relationship was not going to be long-term within the first 30 minutes when the guy told me that he owned exactly 30 pairs of shoes, most of them expensive Italian ones. Now, as a dedicated shoe fetishist I am not opposed to the idea of a man owning 30 pairs of shoes: I was put off more by the fact that he had classified their number and value as priority information.

Nevertheless, off we went to dinner at a moderately expensive restaurant that featured fugu and shabu-shabu. (The kanji for fugu, by the way - 河豚 - means something like "river pig.) This being November, I ordered une petite verre de Beaujolais Nouveau, the only wine available, which was served well-chilled as red wines generally are in Japan. Shortly, the fugu arrived, arranged like a feathery collar on an enormous platter. A few bites into it I felt a mild tingling sensation in my mouth then, before long, I began to feel decidedly woozy. One glass of wine does not make me woozy, at least, not since 5th grade it hasn't.

After a decent interval my date and I swapped banalities about what a nice time we'd had, must do it again, then I stumbled off to the train and he went home to count his shoes. The next morning, I felt an oral itching and, next thing I knew, the inside of my mouth was peeling off!

My next encounter with a member of the fugu community was when a couple of fins showed up, less than deliciously, in a can of sake that the Ajimi Team bought on the shinkansen to Yamagata. See the February 19, 2008 posting for more detail.

Perhaps these sub-optimal encounters with the fish make me especially melancholy whenever I pass a fugu restaurant. Usually, fugu float around in big tanks in the windows of these places, reminding one of prostitutes in the redlight district in Amsterdam. Often, a few hapless fugu are "resting" on the bottom of the tank, belly up, past caring about their fate. The live ones are not much livelier, gazing out at onlookers with the calm blankness of the doomed. Which begs the question: how do you select your own personal fugu from among the dozen or so in the tank? My guess: don't pick a dead one.

VS

Solitary fugu photo: VS

Fugu funeral photo: NV

Saturday, March 29, 2008

Stop and 見the 花

A few years ago I was lolling with friends on a blue tarp during a hanami party at Shinjuku Gyoen. We were tucked under the sakura, several beers into the celebration of spring and the transitory nature of existence when we noticed that a neighboring tree was attracting a lot of attention. One by one photographers, some of them bearing foot-long lenses that looked like they could have been used to read a newspaper on the Moon, came up and snapped pictures of the same ordinary blossom on the same ordinary tree. There were maybe 10 of them. And, according to a poll conducted later that day, 80% of our group had the same thought flash through their heads as they observed the parade: how many other blossoms had these people photographed before, just like that one? Or as one observer quipped: "That's Japan for you: intense, joyless appreciation."

Japanese friends tell me that to understand Japan you have to experience hanami. But unlike other Japanese cultural gateways like tea ceremony or ikebana or calligraphy, which require years of discipline and study, hanami is instantly accessible. It's about liberation from the constraints of winter and embracing the promise of the season ahead. It's like spring break, except instead of heading to...wherever college students go for spring break these days...people of all ages head for the sakura groves with 3-liter bottles of sake and karaoke machines and let loose. It's about controlled hedonism. I have heard tales of one company's annual hanami parties at which a supervisor got bombed and disrobed down to her underwear, then climbed a tree, every year for years, becoming something of a legend among the English teachers who worked for her, and her students. At Ueno Park yesterday, where millions converged for the first Saturday of hanami, two 60-something men attempted to cut their way through the crowd by pretending they were about to barf, like a couple of 8-year-olds. At the Shitamachi Museum at the edge of the park, we saw an Edo-era woodcut of a long-ago Ueno Park hanami depicting a drunken game of blindman's bluff, with one guy on all fours lapping up some spilt booze.

But back to the trees. Clustered together, arching over as you walk beneath them, the blossoms are an exhilarating gift. The world feels reborn in a state of pink grace. The experience is evanescent and eternal and impossible to capture on camera. Nevertheless, some people -- myself included -- can't stop trying.



VS

Thursday, March 20, 2008

Beer for your Dog - Happy Lager

You've just gone out shopping with Fritzie to the little shop in Ginza that specializes in dogwear for dachshunds only. Perhaps you've bought him custom-fitted lederhosen and you're thinking "hmm, a nice Bitburger Pils for the both of us might be nice." There's a great little izakaya down under the JR line that has German ryori and beer. But alas, in Tokyo, there are cafes for pets and for humans, but never the twain shall meet.

Don't despair, though. You can get a six of Happy Lager and have a little party at home!

We recently were at our local discount liquor barn and saw a display for Happy Lager, a near-beer marketed for dogs... er, rather for obsessive dog owners. The beer's label, touting "healthy drink" pictures a happy beagle, slavering over a freshly poured glass of suds. The "beer", itself, is a beef-flavored beverage that little Fido will love.

Pet owners worldwide anthropomorphize their charges, but in Japan it's taken to new level. To wit the specialty shops and cafes and the parade of fashionably clothed dogs you can see on many streets and any park. But now, you can sit at home, crack open a beer for yourself and the dog, bring out the milkbones and kakipeas, and settle down in front of the TV with your best friend and maybe watch some sumo... or perhaps a dog competition?

Check out their website here, where they have a wonderful promotion for hanami (cherry blossom viewing) featuring crudely photoshopped dogs viewing flowering trees - and a sweet pink-cheeked, fluffy white mutt passed out in the foreground.

NV

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Menami

Is Menami the best restaurant in Kyoto? And therefore in all Japan? The ajimi team thinks so.

Kyoto is justifiably famous for its cuisine. Born in an unforgiving environment - frigid in the winter, stultifyingly hot in the summer, a bit to far from the sea to create a fresh seafood cuisine - Kyoto ryori has made the best of limited resources and its plebian food products to develop a truly elegant kaiseki tradition, a delicious and varied tofu cuisine, nishin soba - a Kyoto specialty served with a dried herring, obanzai ryori - the home cooking of Kyoto, and many other wonderful regional foodstuffs.

Menami is a modern obanzai restaurant, reviving and updating the cuisine under the sure hand of chef/owner Ippei Yamamoto. A block off Kawaramachi, the less snooty party district on the opposite side of the Kamogawa from Gion, Minami's decidedly modern interior emphasizes the beguilingly simple and perfect food that comes from its kitchen.

Sitting at the dining bar, with full staff on hand, the counter was lined with bowls of the day's bounty. Like a Spanish tapas bar, one could just point and choose from any of the delectable offerings on hand. We chose to give our waitress a budget and let the feast begin.

First up was an elegant plate of perfect sashimi - maguro (まぐろ- tuna), madai (まだい - porgy), and hirame(ひらめ - flounder). The maguro, which far too often comes badly cut or partially frozen, was simultaneously rich, unctuous, and almost melty. The madai, clean and fresh. And the hirame was slightly briny, with a toothsomeness that gave it completeness.

Next came dish of sei no hana (せいの花 - broccoli rabe), perfectly steamed with light wasabi-tinged dressing. A gentle crunch, a slight wateriness, and a zip of spice brought us out of sashimi heaven and set our taste buds buzzing for the next dish, which were some satoimo (さと芋) - rich, slightly glutinous taro tubers - in a brilliant yuzu and tonyu sauce, a classic of obanzai ryori. The flowery citrus danced playfully with the big round tastes of the spuds and soy milk


Next came a hotate kakiage tempura. With rough cut carrots, onions, and scallops in a perfectly cooked batter with sea salt and slice of fragrant and wonderfully sour sudachi, the simple fritter reached sublime heights.


Then came a plate of beautifully cooked gyu no shippo (牛のしっぽ - oxtails). Slow-cooked so the meat was hashi-tender, the fat, gelatinous and flavorful. A perfect expression of umami for the closing of the meal.


A coda arrived with a simple salad of steamed broccoli and lettuce. No frills, but none were needed. From the presentation, to the choice of the best ingredients, to the orchestration of the dining experience, Menami left its mark as one of the most memorable dining experiences we've had.

Menami
Kiyamachi, Sanjo-agaru
Nakagyo-ku
Kyoto 604-8004
tel: 81 75 231 1095

NV

Friday, March 14, 2008

Meet the Neighbors

We were walking home last night across Zempukujigawa Park. It was around 11 o'clock and the rain had picked up, the river was moving more swiftly than usual, puddles of mud were spreading under the pine trees. In the darkness I noticed a small movement on the path along the river's edge, progressing from the river toward the woods. At first I thought it might be a rodent but it was moving a bit too slowly for a rat in the rain. "It's a frog!" I shouted at last, but, no, it was two frogs, one small frog clinging to a bigger frog's back. They stopped as we approached them, not showing the slightest apprehension (how do frogs show fear?), allowed me to take their picture, then calmly moved on.

VS

Saturday, March 8, 2008

Food vs. Art

The kaiseki ryori tradition descends from the spare meals eaten by Buddhist monks and, later, the selection of small dishes eaten during the tea ceremony. It has evolved into Japanese haute cuisine and consists of several courses of small dishes of seasonal fish, poultry, fruits and vegetables (never beef or pork) selected to complement each other, then perfectly prepared and arrayed on the table. Kaiseki ryori is considered a Japanese art form and like so many others – noh, kabuki, tea ceremony – can sometimes become ossified by ritual. The meal we were served in our room at Nissho-besso followed the classic kaiseki formula, six courses in all and, since this was Kyoto, was heavy on the local staples of vegetables and tofu. It included a lot of flavors we’d never encountered before, unusual juxtapositions of ingredients that made us occasionally slow down and savor. But overall it seemed less like a meal than a museum piece, a bit too precious and fussy to be appreciated as real food. Not a big wow factor.

For the record, we have had a couple of extremely wow-inducing kaiseki meals at ryokan. The most recent was dinner at Notoya Ryokan, in the Taisho-era onsen resort of Ginzan Onsen in Yamagata Prefecture. It was mid-December and the meal was built around local game and river fish. It followed the kaiseki pattern but the flavors seemed fresher and more interesting than those in our Kyoto kaiseki experience, the meal overall, more relaxed. Part of this was owing to the delightful personality of the woman who served us: she mothered us from the moment we walked in until we left two days later and explained everything about the food she presented us with. But it occurs to me that the little ryokan in the hills of Yamagata, a region not especially known for haute cuisine, was freer to experiment and to focus on flavor and hospitality since it didn’t have to bear the burden of all that Kyoto culinary tradition.

But don’t worry: we didn’t starve in Kyoto. Breakfast the next morning at the Nissho-besso was delightful: tofu stew and fresh vegetables, several kinds of pickled vegetables, dried fish. We also made several wonderful discoveries over the next few days, from simple meals in local izakaya to our first obanzai ryori meals. And we haven’t given up on kaiseki. Someday I really would like to try one of those lavish $500 meals overlooking a Kyoto garden. But that’s a few meals from now.

For information about Notoya Ryokan, click here.

VS

Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Kyoto Kaiseki

Here's what we had at our kaiseki meal at Nissho-Besso

A plate of sashimi - tai, maguro, and hirami










Hassun -  various appetizer tidbits, including tarako, tako, little fu cakes, among many other things









Futamono - a bowl of delicately stewed shirako











Futamono # 2 - hotate stewed in tonyu with yuzu










Yakimono - grilled buri with mixed pickled and fresh vegetables










Suzakana - ebi with pickled daikon, koimo and snowpeas










A little interlude with king crab










Shiizakana - Kamo-nabe ingredients










Kamo-nabe cooking










Naka-choko - tarako










A Kyoto regional specialty, yudofu and fu










Gohan










Kanomono - beautiful pickled vegetables










Mizumono - a light dessert of melon and ichigo