Sunday, July 31, 2011

Misty Mountains

This morning was overcast and cool, and after waking up early I went for a walk before everyone else got up. Breakfast was pastries again, only notable because I chose a tasty, custardy slice of something like bread pudding or a piece of col
d french toast...
Our day was riding the transportation loop around Hakone; a series of cable cars, ga
ndolas, pirate ships and buses, and after breakfast we headed for the station and up into the misty mountains.
After going up, over and down the mountain, through the mist and over the trees and
clouds of sulfur steam from the hot-springs below, we took a "pirate" ship across
Lake Ashi and visited a temple on the other side. We had lunch in a favorite restaurant of Yoko's that specializes in Tempura (deep fried anything in a light, flaky batter). We started out with a plate of little tempura Wagasaki fishes, pulled straight from the lake outside, and then ordered lunch. Mom got a tempura assortment, a veritable kitchen sink affair, of prawns, mushrooms, eggplant, peppers, onions, lotus, etc., and Dad got a pair of enormous tempura prawns over rice that looked more like two golden-brown lobster tails.
I did the thing where I pointed to a picture on the wall, and what I got was a beautiful bowl of cold white soba noodles, topped with a mound of grated daikon, wasabe and sprigs of watercress, scattered with little pink tempura shrimps that dad's gargantuan prawns probably eat for breakfast. It was served with a soy and sweet sake sauce to pour over top, and boy was it good. One of those hit-the-spot meals.
Next we went to an art museum of modern Japanese art, the majority of which in my opinion, was too busy, and strayed too far from the usual simplistic and sparse Japanese aesthetic. Afterwards I bought a drink at a 7-11, and had to take a picture of the AMAZING
and fresh prepared foods offerings, a far cry from the Bahama Mama hot dogs and nachos offered in America.

Next, we went to another museum of ancient Japanese pottery which had an absolutely gorgeous grounds of small hills and gnarled trees, carpeted in thick green moss, with a tumbling creek running through it.

Although the plan had been to go out for dinner, we were all feeling pretty tired after such a busy day and opted to get take-out delivered, and let me tell you, I'm glad we did, because delivery in Japan is not like delivery in America! First off, the food is HOT, but more than that it comes delivered on a painted tray and each dish is in its own lacquered wood box or in ceramic pots and bowls.
You enjoy your meal, and then when you're finished, you either clean the dishes or not and leave them stacked on the tray outside your door. Later that night, or the next day, the delivery boy returns to retrieve the trays...awesome.

Mom and Dad ordered katsudon which is a tempura pork cutlet over rice with a sweet-Worcestershire type sauce, and Kathryn had her favorite chicken and egg on rice. I wasn't feeling too hungry so just ordered steamed rice and topped it with some skudani (sweet soy glazed) Wagasaki fishes which Naoko had bought me. It was a nice finish to a day of trekking.

Trains, Trains, and.......Trains

Today was not a very exciting day, and was spent in transit. We woke up and did the usual pastry thing for breakfast, but I went with another individually wrapped banana instead. However, I did finally find a place that sells American-sized coffee, and ordered myself a large iced for the train ride to Osaka. (Despite the ubiquity of coffee in Japan, every vending machine and kiosk plying the stuff, actual coffee houses and restaurants only serve it in very small quantities. Even when the cup is big they only fill it halfway...)
From Osaka we boarded another train to Odawaru where we were met by Yoko and Naoko, and had lunch at a small lunch court that sold Tempura, Fried Noodles and Ramen. There were two options with the Ramen; Shoyu (soy broth) with pork, and Miso (miso broth) with pork. I went with the miso, which came topped with slices of the roast pork, bamboo shoots, scallions and kimchi. It was a rich, salty broth, whose slight miso-funkiness clung to the noodles and made for a tasty, but very filling soup.
Next we took another train to Hakone, a resort/mountain-getaway city an hour outside of Tokyo, where Yoko's family owns an apartment. There we took a cable car up the incredibly steep mountain, and then walked the incredibly steep path about 10 minutes to said apartment which had a wonderful view of the surrounding mountains.
After a walk to explore the area and a relaxing visit to the bathhouse, it was time for dinner, beer, wine, and of course, sake. The meal was an easy affair, being prepared foods bought at the market, but was quite a spread. Naoko had made a special stop at a factory in Hakone that apparently produces a large amount of the Kambogo (fish sausage) supply in Japan, and purchased some especially for me. Also there was a plate of fresh vegetables to be smeared with miso paste, fresh edamame and two salads; one a sesame-garlic spinach and cabbage salad, and the other a cold "bean noodle", carrot and chicken salad with rice vinegar. To top it off there were also fresh pork shumais (little steamed dumplings) and gyozas (fried dumplings), and also chicken and liver yakitori skewers.

After a long day of training and another good meal, it was time for bed. I slept on the balcony and listened to the cicadas echo in the mountain night until the mosquitoes did me in.

Thursday, July 28, 2011

Beans in a Bun, Fish on a Stick and Girly Drinks up High

Well, I continue to indulge my love for the ubiquitous red bean paste, and for breakfast got meself another soft roll filled with the good stuff and another individually wrapped banana to top it off. I also tried two small donuts from the shelf to see what their deal was - one was filled with a sweet-cheese like substance, and speaking of substance, the other was a purple sweet potato filling in a poppy seed rice dough... it was good, especially for its new and different appeal thanks to the light purple filling.
Unfortunately, dad's feet are worse and we had to leave the poor guy at home as we made our way to Miajima, the island off of Hiroshima famous for the huge Torii gate rising from the water and the temple that appears to float at high tide. We were there for low tide, but it was still a cool thing to see. We spent the rest of the day walking the island and visiting another tem
ple and then doing some window shopping, and for lunch I finally got me some Japanese street-food. We were walking past a stall selling numerous varieties of what appeared to be some kind of kebabs. Imagine my delight when it turned out to be my beloved fish sausage! I was sold there and then and ordered a Ginger-Scallion and Mom ordered an Asparagus Bacon. We split a Shrimp one. The woman heats them up in the deep fryer for a second and then serves them in a bag or on a stick, and if you're a cool guy like me, you enjoy it with the spicy seasoning from the table-side shaker. This went well with a Honey-Lemon Fanta (we need this in the states) and would have gone even better with a beer.
After that we rentedsome bikes, rode around the island, saw a wild monkey and went to the beach where we did more standing-in-the-water than swimming, and finally headed back to the ferry and Hiroshima and the Hotel, where Dad was laying up, waiting for us.
It must have been a day sent by some benevolent god to indulge all my culinary loves in Japan, because for dinner we got to have Japanese Curry again, the rich, savory brown curry, so deliciously different than its Indian yellow, red and green counterparts. This time the restaurant wasn't a chain, and was a small one-man affair with a very hardworking curry master who appeared to be owner, chef, waiter and bartender all at once. But if he was stressed, the food didn't show it. The curry comes out still boiling in it's own little cast iron pot, along with a large helping of yellow (saffron?) rice, to be topped with the salty-sweet daikon pickles and whole pickled baby onions, whose sweetness cut the spice of the curry. I got an Eggplant and Okra Chicken Curry and washed it down with a couple of beers served in chilled mugs, and after the second time around, all of us are in agreement that WE LOVE CURRY.
I wish we had this in the states and am toying with dreams of becoming a stateside curry master...
When we got back, the good vibes of the curry carried us up to the lounge on the 21st floor of the hotel where we ordered cocktails and looked out over the glowing lights of Hiroshima, extending in all directions around us. Mom had a wine with her Creme Brulee, but Dad and I went for "Girly Drinks" in the form of a Bahama Breeze (rum, orange juice, pineapple and grenadine) and a Gulphstream (vodka, peach schnapps, pineapple juice). In our t-shirts, we were under-dressed for the atmosphere, and the tab was expensive, but it was nice to sit and sip drinks and look out over the lights on our last night in Hiroshima.

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Pancakes for Dinner?

Today we arrived in Hiroshima and went to the Peace Park and the museum there. This was a very sad and somber thing to see and I think it is a place that every person should visit to be reminded of the destruction and sadness that we can wreak on each other so that as humans we learn from our mistakes and begin to figure out how to coexist in a world without warfare or nuclear weapons. It was a lot to take in and weighed heavy.
Thankfully, dinner was a lighter affair. We had heard about Hiroshima-yaki which is a local take on Okonomaki, which are the veggie and meat/seafood filled egg and wheat pancakes that we had in Tokyo. However, whereas in Tokyo the fillings are all mixed up with the batter, in Hiroshima, noodles are added to the mix, and the fillings are layers, requiring a lot of skill, attention, and speed on the grill master's part. We ordered beers and let the show begin.
These babies start out pretty innocently as rice flour pancakes.
Add bean sprouts and cabbage to that, and then some noodles and shrimp+squid in my case or bacon and cheese in others, then noodles and chopped garlic, and it's a whole new ballgame...
Then crack and beat an egg into a circle shape, flip said pancake-monster onto egg, flip again, paint monster-cake with paint brush of sweet mystery brown sauce, and top with two handfulls worth of chopped scallions, and sir, you have a meal on your hands.
I only had time and room for a beer and a sake, but something tells me that Hiroshima-yaki are a real crowd-pleaser when the bars let out...

Beef, It's What's For Dinner

This day started out rough. Dad's feet haven't fared well with all the walking, and some seriously ghastly blisters made a trip to the public clinic necessary. Thankfully they patched the poor guy up and he's keeping in high spirits, especially when you feed him pastries for breakfast. I continue to indulge my love for red beans and bought another red bean roll, this one something akin to a pillowy-soft dinner roll filled with the sweet bean paste, that I enjoyed along with the largest and most beautiful banana I have ever seen that came individually wrapped in it's very own shiny wrapper and golden twisty-tie...
Next, we let the injured warrior rest up in the hotel for the day while we toured Osaka. First we went to a woodblock print museum which was, in my oppinion, one of the coolest things seen so far, housing elaborate prints of scenes from Kabuki plays. Next we went to Tenjin Temple, which dates from the 500s and climbed the pagoda there, and then had enough time to walk through the grounds of the relativley new Osaka Castle which was rebuilt after being completley destroyed in heavy bombing during WWII.
And then it was off to Kobe for, you guessed it, BEEF! And oh my friend, beef there was.
We went to a restaurant where we were again spoiled with our very own tatami room and kimonoed waitress/cook/helper/drink pourer. I of course ordered Sake, which our friendly and observant woman was more than happy to refill continuously, leading me to polish off three bottles of the stuff, which I choose to blame totally on her... but at least there was plenty of food to soak it up.
First off was an "appetizer" of seared beef which was eaten with a tangy soy jelly and also pieces of beef cooked on individual hibachis with onions and peppers and cabbage. Now, friends, let me stop here and tell you that, without exageration, this is hands down the BEST beef that I have, and probably ever will have, had. It is deeply flavorful, unimaginably tender, and being so intricatley marbled with fat, melts in your mouth like butter. Like beef butter...
Next came the main entree, called Shabu-Shabu. The beef came out, beautifully aranged on a huge platter with a tag attesting to its authenticity, as if we had any doubts after the appetizer.
With Shabu-Shabu, you (or your kimono woman) dip the beef in a pot of boiling seaweed water to your desired doneness (about 1 second) and then you dip it in one of two sauces; sweet soy or sesame. Repeat this process for cabbage, mushrooms, onions, chrysanthemum leaves, tofu, then beef again, than all that stuff again, then beef again, and more of that stuff, and then more beef and more beef, and you've got yourself a meal.
Lastly, I want to remind you that yes, the stories are true, this is the best beef you will ever have!

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

From Rock Gardens to River Ruckus

This was a jam-packed day. From the Ryokan we headed out to the famous Kinkakuji temple, with the absolutely stunning scene of a gold leafed temple gleaming in the sunlight and mirrored in the reflecting pond that it rises from, spotted with smaller islands and gnarled pines. From there we walked to Ryoanji, home to the famous raked rock garden, that though being smaller than expected, was something to see.
After heading back to Kyoto we ate lunch at one of those restaurants that serves a little bit of everything. Before coming to Japan I had always thought it silly to see those plastic models of food at Asian restaurants, but now I get it. Not only is it more efficient for people in general to see a picture of what they want, but moreover absolutely essential for the hungry non-Japanese speaker. It was hot out, and humid, so i ordered cold WHITE soba noodles with vegetables and swapped out the accompanying sliced ham for my beloved fish sausage. It all came in a sweet soy broth, on top of, get this, a big ice cube! They weren't kidding when they said cold soba... but hey, it was refreshing, and tasty to boot. (Its also awesome that the dishes actually do come out looking exactly like the plastic models.)
After that we decided to check out something called The Monkey Park, which turned out to involve climbing a mountain which made me happy, and at the top we saw a few wild red-faced, red-butted Monkeys and bought some chestnuts to feed them with from the vendor in the shack. And then, it was feeding time; not for me, but for them! This was hilarious, because the guy turned on music on the loudspeaker and Monkeys came running out of the trees. Imagine hundreds of monkeys going crazy and fighting over scattered food, all with the Can Can song blasting in the background! Pure gold.
Then we took a train to Osaka where we checked into our hotel and then made our way to the river where Yoko had reserved us spaces on a reviewing float to view the hundreds of lit-up boats that sail the river once a year as part of a special festival. They served us an awesome bento box with a little bit of everything from tempura to marinated beef and onions, from whole shrimps and sashimi to sweet-tofu rice balls and a pickle assortment. There was also an open bar that supplied me with healthy doses of shochu and so aided in my enthusiasm for the festivities which involved a special chant and series of claps for EVERY boat that went past. After the first 25 boats we got the idea, but all in all it was fun and quite an experience to be in the middle of a Japanese festival and crammed together with millions of people as fireworks explode all around you.

The Great Ryokan Adventure

Next to Sumo, this is probably the experience that I was most excited for in Japan. A Ryokan is a traditional hotel complete with the communal bath house, tatami rooms and girls in kimonos that kneel and bow and avoid eye contact when entering your room. The way this all works is that when you arrive you trade in your shoes for indoor slippers and are escorted to your room, which is a compact affair of low furniture and carpeted in bamboo mats. You do your eating and sleeping in the same room, and the girls bring in a table that you kneel at for meals and then replace it with bedding when you are finished. Before the meal it is common to bathe; you go to the bathhouse, SIT and rinse off at one of the faucets and then relax in the Jacuzi/hot tub for a few minutes before showering again and donning your kimono or robe. Awesome, right? RIGHT!Being the Samurai-san that I am, I of course wore the available kimono to dinner, but left my sword at the door and then ordered the 5 cup Sake tasting before deciding on a bottle.
As said, we had our very own girls in Kimonos to serve us the traditional Japanese dinner, which was an epic spread of succeeding course, all beautifully arranged and all quite tasty. First there was a small plate of sashimi as well as pickles and small smoked fish, but the coolest part of the appetizer was the eel being boiled in little pots to which we added a beaten egg.
When the egg is done you scoop the soup into a bowl and enjoy the sweet eggy-eelness.
Next was an artful array of boiled vegetables including carrot, celery and pumpkin joined by cubes of sweet marinated beef that were somehow simultaneously dry and moist
and therefor awesome, and after thatcame an even cooler plate of pickles and a whole smoked fish garnished with a sprig of ginger.
Being a proper Samurai-san I ate the fish head and all, which was good because it sustained me through the next plate of noodles topped with a piece of fishy fish that I was not too keen on. As if we needed more out came a small cup of what was translated as "Tofu Jelly" topped with garlic and ginger, and finally a cup of miso soup with mushrooms and a bowl of rice.
The Japanese are not big on desserts, which is A OK with me given the elaborate hugeness of their meals, but they often serve fresh fruit or something like bean cakes. I am not exagerating when I tell you that at the Ryokan I ate the best grape of my life! I don't know what vine this thing stepped off of, but it was motherf***ing amazing.
And if you thought you might skip breakfast after a meal like that, no, you are wrong. As any proper Samurai you would visit the bathhouse, strap on your kimono, and wait for that shoji screen door to slide open so the girls in the kimonos can come layout yo
ur trays of breakfast. Although this wasn't a coursed meal, breakfast seemed
to contain just as much variety as dinner, and somehow fit all on one tray.
On one side we had little pots of boiling tofu which you scoop into a bowl of sweet soy sauce and top with scallions and ginger.
On the other side was a piece of salmon garnished with pick
led horseradish as well as a small cake of sweet fried tofu and beans topped with a boiled carrot. On the tray itself was a small cup of plum and rice porridge and
also a cup of miso soup, flanking a bowl of rice to be topped with a number of toppings from small bowls that included Yuba, small dried shrimps, pickles, seaweed and beans.
I don't know if this is the Japanese equivalent of "the workingman's breakfast" but it was quite a spread, and enough to fuel any Samurai for a full day or a full week of battle.
It was with great reluctance that I returned my kimono and put my real shoes back on and said goodbye to the kimono girls, but in truth I know that it's the Samurai heart, not the looks that count, and the battles must go on!!!!!!!!!!!!!!