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.


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.


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.