Monday, July 25, 2011

Roughing It

Yeah, it's rough. We left Tokyo and have been on the road the last few days, or the bullet train more accurately, exploring the surrounding cities like Nagoya, Kyoto, Osaka... It's a tough life; waking up in the morning, spending the day beautiful ancient temples, feasting on delicious foods, imbibing in the Sake...yeah, it's a tough gig alright, but somebodie's got to do it, and being the Samurai-san that I am, I humbly accept my duty!
But what kind of hero would I be if I didn't share with you some of the arduous journeys and battles that I've fought? And here they go...
I guess that Yoko liked having us to cook for, because the morning after that awesome dinner, she cooked us an "American Breakfast" complete with a loaf of Maple Swirl Bread, sweet sausages from Fukushima in the north and scrambled eggs made from the eggs with
the most golden yolks I have ever seen (all the eggs here seem somehow more intensely gold than back home...).
Then we made our way to the National Treasure Museum which was mostly filled with portraits of all the Emperors, and then we headed for Asuksa, a covered market area that leads up to a large temple in downtown Tokyo. The market was really touristy with hundreds of stalls selling the same things for too much, but it was fun. Many stalls sell gifts like red bean cakes or assortments of pickles to bring to someone's house when being hosted for dinner, Japan's equivalent of our "bread and butter gift" of a bottle of wine or chocolates... And speaking of which, we bought a box of bean cakes to bring to Reyko's that night for dinner, who wanted to cook for us before she left for Hawaii, and HOLY CRAP, this was the most epic battle yet, a feast of feasts that tested even the fortitude of this brave Samurai. But with the aid of my trusty steed Sake-san, I brandished my chopsticks and fought the good fight.
First up was a BEAUTIFUL arrangement of sashimis of all types, from Tuna to Sea Clam to Mackerel to Sea Urchin; you name it, I ate it.
Next came out BBQ tripe skewers, which I am glad to say I have tried, but was not a fan of the funky flavors... But just when it seemed the battle had been won handily, Reyko
produced a small propane-powered single-burner and a large skillet filled with onions and mushrooms and shiritake noodles and chrysanthemum leaves bubbling away in a sweet soy sauce to which we added thin sliced Kobe beef.
This, my faithful audience, is Beef Sukiyaki, and has the magically deadly effect of making you keep eating it until you simply ask for death. This stuff is AWESOME!!!!!!!!!! You let the beef cook till your desired doneness and then take it with some onions and mushrooms or whatever, dip it in a bowl of beaten egg and eat it straight up or over rice.
And eat it I did! Call it the Sake, call it the Sukiyaki, this warrior felt like he needed to be
carried home by the end of this battle, feeling more Sumo than Samurai, but the battle was won!
And did I say Sumo? The morning after the Sukiyaki Incident we got a train and headed for Nagoya to see the National Sumo Tournament being held there. We arrived around noon and before heading over to the imperial palace and the tournament we wanted to find a local eel specialty called Hitsumabushi, which is essentially grilled eel on rice, but eaten 3 ways. Thankfully the restaurant we found, conveniently in the basement of the train station, had instructions in English laying it all out. The first way is for the purist and is just the grilled eel on rice, while the second jazzes it up a bit with wasabi and sliced scallion. The third way is to continue on from the second but to pour broth over your eel, rice and scallions to turn it into a soup. Of course, being the stalwart adventurer that I am, I tried all 3, but found the first way to be the best, as there is little ways to improve upon something so simply delicious as eel on rice.

Next we headed for Nagoya Castle which is a huge complex of thick stone walls and a moat surroundingthe giant castle that dominates the beautiful tea gardens that surround it. And then it was time for SUMO, which was awesome. Sumo matches are much shorter than I had thought, lasting only a few seconds, and are all about knocking your opponent off balance as fast as possible. The explosive power of these huge guys is evidenced by the thick body slap that resounds through the stadium when they collide. Who knows, a few more weeks of eating here in Japan, and I might be able to join their ranks...
Next day we reunited with Yoko and had breakfast at a little cafe called OPEN (hahaha). There were three items on the menu, all variations of toast with a boiled egg and side salad, which is a very typical breakfast here. I had the "cheese toast".
We went from there to a beautiful old temple on a mountainside just outside of Kyoto, and then to another temple dedicated to the performing arts where there was a small show going on and a man playing a Biwa. For lunch we ate at a Soba house, and because it was so hot out, I wanted something cold, and the cold Soba with Seaweed and Taro hit the spot! Light and refreshing, the noodles came topped with a porridge of Taro and Seaweed and a sweet soy and mirin sauce, but I also added some fish-cake/fish-sausage to it because I wanted something a tad more substantial. (fish cake/sausage is ground fish pressed into form, lightly sweetened and served sliced in salads, soups or over rice).

We continued from there to a movie set with a Samurai village, which was a really goofy and cheesy experience, being geared towards kids, but fun nonetheless (especially for this Samurai who's ego was amused by the imposters around him). Dinner that night was especially awesome, because we ate curry. I'd heard about Japanese curry from an Indonesian friend before the trip, and learned that it is not the usual red or yellow curries of the Indian persuasion, but a brown curry, a legacy of the English in Japan. And damn is it delicious! We went to CoCo Curry House, which is a chain here in Japan, but sometimes fast food is the best food, and that was certainly the case here. This is not your typical fast food; the ingredients are fresh, the dish made to order and served by a waiter, and the quality is excellent.
You order your chosen curry and then how much rice you want, then the spiciness level (1 to 10, 3 being the "traditional" level) and then any toppings you want. I got seafood curry (shrimp, squid and scallop), spiciness level 3, topped with vegetables and crispy garlic. It was awesome, awesome, awesome. The curry is rich and savory and spicy at the same time, and level 3 was definitely the way to go, pushing the limits itself, and I cannot imagine ordering a 10.
The next day we ate breakfast in the train station at a bakery on our way to Nikko. Baked goods in Japan are often a fusion of French and Japanese cuisines, which was exemplified by the red bean roll that I chose; a light, buttery roll, studded with sweet whole red beans.
I will leave out the next part about my getting lost in the Kyoto train station and us missing the first train and get straight to the temples at Nikko... Nikko is a very interesting place, because it is overrun with "wild" but tame deer who fill its parks and temple squares waiting for tourists to feed them with cookies being sold by vendors here and there. But when they see you buy them, they stop being cute and start being ravenous, hooved, aggressors! These deer will butt you, bite you and knock you down, and their are warning signs around the park to attest to it! But there were also temples, and gorgeous ones at that. The first we went to is famous for its enormous Buddha, so big that they welcome visitors to shimmy through a hole the size of the Buddha's thumb that's been drilled in one of the support columns to attest to it's size. Next we went to another temple, dating from the 1200s, which housed a Buddha surrounded by a semicircle of 12 guardians of the zodiac. What was so cool about Nikko was that you walk through the back streets of these suburbs and then there are these ancient temples sandwiched between houses.
Then it was time to head back to Kyoto, and not having much time we decided to grab snacks. Mom and Dad and Yoko went to Mos Burger; a chain like McDonalds but better. Mom got a tasty-looking Korean BBQ burger that is worth mentioning because it came on a bun made out of rice.
I went to 7-11 and got some snacks; dried seaweed with chile and garlic and also dried squid, which Yoko tells me is called "Sake Friends", meaning any kind of sweet/savory jerky (quid, fish or beef) that is eaten as snacks with Sake.
And then begins the Great Ryokan Adventure!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

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