April 2009 Archives

 

Hiroshima has the most unpleasant of reasons for being a remarkably pleasant city. We arrived in early twilight, the last of the suns rays turning the atomic dome a rosy pink, and in the morning the sun was bright and cheery on the strings of paper cranes festooning the Peace Park.

For dinner in Hiroshima, we had tsukemen, a ramen variation where the noodles are served separate from the broth, and dipped before eating. The broth is necessarily thicker and saltier, to cling to and flavor the noodles. I often find it a little too salty, but this version replaced some of the salt with intense spiciness, which I much preferred.

Miyajima, the island home of the famous "floating" tori, is just a quick jaunt from Hiroshima, and provides some of the most beautiful scenery we experienced in Japan. Yes, the tori and the shrine, perched on stilts over the shore, are spectacular, but I didn't expect the cherry trees in full bloom avalanching down the hillside, or the twisted pines on the sandy beach-side promenades that lead to the temple.

(Nor did I expect the world's largest rice paddle, but it turns out that is in Miyajima as well.)

Miyajima's culinary specialty is a maple-leaf-shaped bun, called momiji manju, made with a cakey batter in a mold, and featuring a variety of fillings, most often red bean. We sampled one with cheese, which made a tasty sweet-savory combo, but which would have been better if it had still been hot from the griddle..

While on Miyajima, I also sampled a sweetened mugwort-flavored grilled rice dumpling slathered with thick soy glaze, another sweet-savory combo. While I enjoyed the mild herbal mugwort flavor, the larger size of these dumplings made their chewy texture a little overwhelming.

 

One of our favorite sights in Kyoto was the Fushimi Inari Shrine. Its maze of bright orange torii were donated to the Shinto deity Inari to give thanks for success in business, industry or other endeavors. Inari is also the god of rice and agriculture, and, while we didn't have any on this visit, it is interesting to note that a traditional offering is the familiar inarizushi, or rice wrapped in fried tofu, which is the savior of many a mediocre supermarket sushi tray.

The culinary highlight of our time in Kyoto had to be the Nishiki Market. This long covered arcade features a variety of food, fresh and prepared, but seems to be dominated by tsukemono (pickle) and fish stalls.

Japan is home to the widest variety of pickles that I can think of, but I have often been underwhelmed by them. They can be limp and anemic, especially when they come from one of those little vacuum-packed baggies. Not so with these! Barrel after barrel of vegetables were being pickled before the eyes - some in brine, some in miso paste, some in less easily identified pastes or solutions, and every one I tried was vivid and crisp. As a devoted pickler, I can't wait to try some of these preparations at home.

We also sampled some oden, a cousin of the odeng (boiled fishcake) we had earlier in Korea. Oden is really a type of winter hotpot, with a variety of ingredients like egg, radish, yamcake, and fishcake added to a dashi (or other) stock, but when it is served as street food, it often is presented with the ingredients on skewers stewing in a giant tray. We had a fish cake layered with tender potato slices and infused with butter. It was hot, savory, and (there is no other word for it) squoosy. Greg found it a little disconcerting, but I loved it - it was almost a Willy Wonka creation, like a whole fish and potato dinner rolled together with the texture of a marshmallow frog.

The one other thing we tried at the Nishiki market were these beautiful candies. Unfortunately, they were more charming in appearance than flavor. They taste simply of sugar, and although one of them had an intriguing chalk-like crumbly texture, I don't think I would go out of my way to buy them again. (Unless I had a last-minute cake-decoration crisis, because they certainly are pretty!)

 

Kyoto is in most ways a very average large Japanese city. Bulky, gray buildings and power lines dominate the skyline and malls and subways bustle with commerce and traffic. Even Gion, the famed geisha district, is, aside for a few lengths of narrow alley, hardly charming to look at. But just moments away, on the borders of the city, lies the seemingly separate universe of temples and old streets. While it's just as bustling as the rest of the city, if not more so, the pure beauty of the temples and gardens bestows a kind of calm lacking elsewhere in the city.

The sun-warmed wood of the temple verandas, worn into smooth ridges and burls by generations of feet, is pleasant and calming under the stocking feet. In the courtyards, the gnarls of ancient tree roots are softened by moss and dappled with sun. Cherry blossoms wave over bridges and garden stairways, and nothing could be farther from the harried pavement of downtown. Kyoto's culinary spectrum is as broad as its aesthetic one. While Kyoto is famed for having some of the best food in Japan, our sampling was rather limited, due to both time and budget concerns - but I think we still had some good finds.

Our first and most spectacular meal was happened upon by chance: as we arrived rather late and needed a meal near to our hostel, we chose a ramen shop down the block that specialized in a particular form of green onion ramen, or negi ramen (negimen for short.) The chefs unique touch was the flambéing of the dish with a pour of hot sake, a treat for which patrons lined up, donned a bib, and then learned back - to avoid the conflagration at the bar. We, unfortunately, ordered before we understood that a giant plume of flame was on the menu, so got the rather sedate, but still tasty, regular pork ramen. The casual atmosphere and comforting savoriness of the ramen perfectly fit the rather working-class neighborhood of our hostel, and the firm noodles and salty broth slurped up satisfyingly.

For a contrast, in the temple district we sampled Kyoto's traditional delicate confection of folded mochi rice sheets flavored with cinnamon and enclosing red bean paste. It's now made with a variety of fillings and flavors, from chocolate and strawberry to black sesame. My favorite was a sakura-flavored rice sheet with the traditional red bean inside. While the treat is basically comparable with the most common daifuku mochi, a rice dumpling filled with sweetened bean paste, the thin rice sheet is firmer than a daifuku exterior, and less gooey, while the cinnamon adds a refined air to the simple rice and assertive red bean.

Nara has a more rustic feeling than Kyoto, but its sights share an elegance with the best moments of Kyoto and indeed, the lunch we had there was at once comfortingly simple and surprisingly refined. Kamameshi is rice served in a hot iron pot, mixed with meat or seafood and vegetables. The iron pot crisps the rice around the edges, while the lid on the pot keeps in some moisture to soften the rice, allowing you to scrape the darkened kernels from the sides of the pot. We had one pot of chicken with herbs and one with mixed seafood, chicken and vegetables, and both had a remarkably nuanced flavor. Sweet and nutty toasted rice mixed with savory chicken and light, fresh herbs to be at once warming and refreshing, filling, and lightening. The seafood was clean and mild, and the oysters, from Hiroshima, were the largest, plumpest, and sweetest I've ever had. The weather was dreary that day, and we were chilled and worn from temple-hopping, and the reviving effects of the kamameshi were invaluable.

 

Tsumago began as a post town, developing around a core of facilities for travelers between Tokyo and Kyoto. After it was bypassed by the railway, it turned to tourism to restore some of its former prosperity, and now you can tour historic buildings both genuine and reconstructed, buy handcrafts, and enjoy a beautiful mountain hike to the next post town, Magome. The buildings were certainly some of the most interesting we've seen, with the honjin and waki-honjin featuring a secret room and a never-used toilet reserved for the emperor.

Even nicer than the history, however, was the fresh mountain air and invigorating walking. We stayed in a small ryokan, or traditional inn, outside of Tsumago, arriving by bus and then spending a pleasant day hiking back to the rail station by way of Tsumago. Our ryokan was in a new building, but offered the traditional trappings: yukata robes, comfortable futons, a hot bath, and two extensive and beautifully presented meals.

Dinner focused on a whole salted and grilled fish and a mini-hotpot of pork and vegetables, accompanied by pickles, soup, fresh fruit, and gohei mochi. Gohei mochi is a treat popular in Nagano prefecture, and consists, not of mochi rice, as the name implies, but regular rice, pounded and pressed onto a stick, then coated with a sweet and nutty sauce and grilled. The sauce varies regionally, I believe, but here it was a combination of miso, walnut and sesame. Breakfast the next morning was a similar, but smaller, affair of preserved fish, miso soup, pickles, egg, and rice. As in many of the countries we've visited, breakfast is the meal that most contrasts with our American experience, but we had adjusted enough to find this a perfect beginning to the day. Later we discussed how much we'd be interested in making some of the breakfasts we've eaten here - things like fried rice, congee, and miso soup - part of our breakfast rotation at home. We both agreed a bowl of cornflakes would go down pretty well right about now, but also that we've become rather fond of some other breakfast dishes, and I, in particular, have even been waking up craving congee with preserved egg and chicken, so we'll have to see how it goes when we get back.

After breakfast, we proceeded into Tsumago proper, a long line of traditional and historical buildings, dotted with shops, restaurants and confectioneries. Buckwheat soba, gohei mochi, and chestnut-based treats were the basis of the local menu. We haven't tried many of Japan's extensive varieties of confection, as they tend to be rather expensive - generally around 2 USD per piece - but we made an exception for these chestnut paste sweets, as I have a particular weakness for chestnuts. They were smooth and creamy, with a really fresh and direct chestnut flavor. They seemed so simple, I was wondering if I could replicate them at home in the fall.

 

It's been nearly three weeks since we left Tokyo, and I still haven't managed to think of a good way to sum up our experience of the city. Perhaps because we spent more time in Tokyo than any other single area, I don't have a neat, clean opinion of it to share. It's easy to have a unified impression of a place you only spend two days in, but of course it's never an accurate one. Our experience of Tokyo was perhaps more genuine, but that makes it much harder to share. So, instead of summing up the entire week, I'll just give you one last moment.

It's very late at night, or rather, very early the next morning, and we are walking somewhere in Tokyo, our beds some distance ahead of us, and the perfect Tokyo evening behind us. We didn't set out to have the ultimate Tokyo experience, but we realized that we had done just that when we stumbled out of Shinjuku station, the last train rumbling away into the night, and our capsule hotel waiting miles away. (Of course, if we had planned it, we would have picked a capsule hotel in Shinjuku!)

The night started in an izakaya. Most Japanese restaurants specialize in one type of food, serving only ramen, only sushi, etc. Izakayas are actually bars, but they also serve dishes from a variety of Japanese cuisines, often in small plates for sharing. This makes them great for groups, and for foreigners, since they can cater to a wide variety of tastes. That made it perfect for the group of friends we had made while snowboarding earlier in the month. There was sushi, sashimi, yakitori and yuba, as well as plenty of beer, sake, and shochu spritzers with fresh grapefruit juice.

From the izakaya, we moved on to (where else?) a karaoke bar. Now, I am not a singer, and I have always passionately hated karaoke in the US. You know why? Because they make you do it in front of strangers. Possibly sober strangers. But put me in a private room full of friends and grapefruit shochus, and let me tell you, I am a convert. And this is why we found ourselves running for the train at sometime after midnight, managing to screw up the karaoke room payment system in our haste to leave, and still missing our connection at Shinjuku. It turns out that Tokyo is very pretty at 3:00 in the morning, and surprisingly quiet, except for that one tipsy tourist who can't stop humming Tom Jones.

 

One kind of food that is particularly easy to find in Japan is the fake kind. We saw food made of fabric, of plastics, of resin and of foam, food designed to hang from your cellphone, sit in your shop window, stick to your fridge, and adorn your apartment or your person. There were fake foods with no purpose at all, like these miniature traditional food sets, which come, like a wide array of tiny Japanese toys, in unmarked boxes so that which set you end up with is a surprise.

Professional restaurant supply shops in Asakusa, in Tokyo, can create any dish with remarkable realism, for a price. Most restaurants in Japan have made the investment in a full set for their front display case. While, as a traveler, I have found these models to be incredibly helpful, as a customer, I can't help but find them a little tacky, no matter how realistic they are. For some reason other fake foods don't bother me, in fact, I find them delightful as charms or ornaments. Then again, I can't stomach (sorry) fake food earrings! I am fickle, but luckily, Japan supplies fake food for every taste (again, sorry).

There are even kits to make your own fake pastries using plastic cream in a tube. You can make a cellphone charm, or, cut out the middleman and decorate the phone itself. I have to admit, if it hadn't been for the hefty price tag on these treats, I might be carrying a slightly sweeter cellphone right now. Instead, I settled for these little trinkets:

 

Nikko is a popular day trip from Tokyo, and it makes an excellent break from the crowding and rushing of the city. The weather was crisp on the day we visited, and the sun sifted brightly through tall evergreens, making gilded temples glitter and photography difficult.

Nikko's culinary specialty is yuba, or fresh tofu skin. Yuba is the layer that forms on top of reducing soy milk, and can be eaten "raw" or wrapped into tight coils and cooked with sauce. Tofu skin can also be dried, fried, used to wrap dumplings, or to masquerade as meat, but in Nikko, it seemed most popular either fresh or in sticks as a ramen topping.

While I've seen yuba in its rolled (or otherwise compressed) form used in vegetarian cuisine in the US, I don't think I've ever before had it fresh. It has a mild, sweet soy flavor, and a silky but tenacious texture. Rolled and cooked, it becomes firmer and spongier, and takes on the flavor of any seasonings while retaining a pleasant proteiny sweetness. The bite and flavor are surprisingly robust and satisfying for something whose nearest neighbor is pudding skin.

Getting to Nikko using your Japan Rail pass involves a transfer at Utsonomiya, which, as all its tourist literature proudly proclaims, is known for its gyoza. This, and the handy gyoza map available at the tourist desk at the train station, make it an easy place to stop for dinner after Nikko has rolled down the shutters. Or, you could simply grab a styrofoam box of frozen gyoza from any shop in the station between trains. We opted to let someone else cook the gyoza, although to be honest, I probably could have done a better job at that than the restaurant we picked - the exterior was burnt in some spots and still cool in others. The fillings, on the other hand, were pretty awesome: shiso, green onion, chili, garlic,and even cheese. If we had had more time or energy, a gyoza tour, with a few dumplings here and a few there, would have been a delightful way to fill up.

 

One thing that everyone agrees is a foodie must-see in Tokyo is the Tsukiji fish market. We were so excited about it we went twice. Well, ok, the first time we forgot to check the online schedule and showed up on a day it was closed. Did you know that there is very little for a tourist to do in Ginza at 6:45 in the morning?

Luckily, the second time we went it was in full swing. We didn't go to the auction, as it starts before the trains are running, and we were staying too far away to walk. But the main market is interesting enough on its own, with every kind of seafood from squid to dried fish flakes, many of which I'd never seen on a plate, let alone whole on ice.

There are a number of sushi places located in the outer market, which makes it a convenient place for breakfast. The sushi we had that morning was the best I've ever had, easily topping meals three times as expensive. It was so different from the sushi that I'd had in the US, that I realized that certain qualities of fish that I had taken for granted were actually signs of age or other imperfection. Mackerel, which I generally think of as mushy, was firm and clean-tasting. Yellow-tail usually strikes me as bland, a one-note taste, but here it was complex and sweet. And tuna, which I generally like anyways, became symphonic, my teeth sluicing through the smooth flesh to release rich fatty roundness and fresh, sweet fish flavor. The tangy-sweet rice, spicy wasabi and salty soy sauce all drew the attention away from and then brought it back to that perfect tuna taste. If there is one fish that saw only a slight improvement over my past experiences of it was salmon, which is by far my favorite sushi fish, and it was then that I realized that I probably like salmon the best just because it ages better.

Perhaps more amazing than the excellent sushi outside the fish market, was the pretty-damn-good sushi on a conveyor belt that we had later in Shinjuku. Only the best sushi I've had in the states could compare to the $1 a plate pieces.

 

In Tokyo, we rented an apartment to save a little money on both accommodation and food. (Although Tokyo nevertheless tore a hole in our budget that you could drive a shinkansen through.) I spent a significant amounts of time in high school and college watching anime, reading manga, and shopping and eating at places like Uwajimaya, Little Tokyo, and Monterey Park. So Japan, and especially Tokyo, felt so strangely familiar to me that, spoiled by subtitles, the language barrier surprised me every time. Cooking at home and shopping in supermarkets added to this sense of odd familiarity.

At the local supermarket in Nakano, where our apartment was located, we bought rice, miso, tofu, fish, green onion, kombu, cabbage, and powdered dashi: most of the components of a basic Japanese meal. I made miso soup, rice, and grilled fish, and we ate our first meal in Tokyo with our dishes balanced on our knees and our eyes on the TV (where we had to make a difficult decision between Dr. Doolittle in English, or reality tv in Japanese), and enjoyed the calm of a dinner that felt refreshingly routine after months of traveling.

For our lunches, I made onigiri with a few budget filling picks like pre-seasoned curry chicken, canned tuna, and dinner leftovers. Onigiri are as easy, portable and durable as sandwiches. Pretty much all you need to know about onigiri can be found on the Just Bento Onigiri FAQ.

While my homemade onigiri are still always a little lopsided and lumpy, if you prefer a more tidy presentation, pre-made onigiri can be bought at any convenience store, or at dedicated onigiri counters, and while they aren't quite as cheap as making your own, they're a bargain compared to almost any other prepared lunch aside from instant ramen.

For breakfasts, we ate the Japanese way as well, with leftover rice and miso soup most mornings. We definitely saved money by cooking in, which made us feel better about the few meals we did eat out at Tokyo prices, but it was also nice to feel a little bit like a local. With our apartment, we got to sleep in when we felt like it, cook what we wanted, and get to know a more residential neighborhood a little bit better.

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