Jason Truesdell : Pursuing My Passions
A life in flux. Soon to be immigrant to Japan. Recently migrated this blog from another platform after many years of neglect (about March 6, 2017). Sorry for the styling and functionality potholes; I am working on cleaning things up and making it usable again.

Sake tasting

After our lunch at Bretagne, we again set out in entirely the wrong direction in search of the new Omotesando Hills building. Fortunately, this landed us at Pierre Hermé, where I convinced Hiromi that we needed to try some macarons. We had an "Earl Grey" and a "Arabesque", the former filled with a sort of Earl Grey tea infused ganache, and the second made with an apricot filling and possibly a hint of cardamom, with a secret center made with pistachio. The Arabesque also had a tiny bit of apricot in the macaron shell itself. The Earl Grey was well balanced as far as sweetness, and I loved the flavor of the Arabesque, but it could have been a little lighter-handed with the sugar.

It was a bit strange to me to taste macarons that have just come out of refrigeration... In Seattle at the few places that produce Parisian-style macarons, that's rather atypical, so the outer shell has an initial crunch that's really nice. However, the fillings are never nearly as nice, save for the matcha one at Fresh Flours.

Anyway, we reoriented ourselves and found our way to the sort of luxury mall known as Omotesando Hills.

It was right next to La Bretagne, really.

We felt so not clever.

After meandering through half of the floors, we decided to stop in here.

Hasegawa Sake Shop

Hasegawa is a sake shop with a small but elegant tachinomi baa, or stand-up bar. You can order 20-50ml samples of any of today's featured sake, a few types of shochu, and in my case, a yuzu liqueur.

Yuzu liqueur and sake

The yuzu liqueur of the day (they have two or three) is about 10% alcohol, which places it into the same proof as wine or sake; however, I believe they call it a liqueur because it was not brewed like sake, but made from distilled alcohol. Hiromi had a nice sake, though I forgot what it was called.

Had we planned a little better, I would have ordered a shochu first, but I thought we were just here for one quick sample. Hiromi got curious about other items on the menu, and she ordered a nice umeshu. I felt obligated to order something else, but I didn't want another sweet drink, so I ordered today's shochu, which I think was made with buckwheat (soba).

This is a great place to stop in and try a few things before committing to a full bottle of something you've never heard of. Most of the sample-size servings are 200-600 yen, so it's in the same class of indulgence that coffee would be. You can also order some tiny salty snacks to nibble on along with your drink.

The staff is very professional and knowledgable, and they'll answer your questions about anything on the menu in great detail (in Japanese, at least).

 

Bretagne in Omotesandō

Omotesandō is a very brand-conscious, upscale, fashionable district in Tokyo. It's home to boutiques by Pierre Hermé, La Maison du Chocolat, Louis Vuitton, and Hanae Mori, among others. It's part of Minato-ku, one of the most expensive wards within Tokyo.

A few years ago Hiromi read something about a fancy crêpe shop in Omotesando serving galette, or buckwheat-based crêpe, an idea which fascinated Hiromi. In Seattle, where savory crêpes are less unusual, they're a bit easier to find, but most of Tokyo thinks of crepes as a street dessert food for Harajuku-haunting junior high school girls.

We wanted to go out to brunch after returning from Aomori, and Hiromi was in the mood to revisit Le Bretagne, the crêpe shop in question, so we made our way to Omotesando without bothering to look it up, as Hiromi was sure we could find it by memory.

As a rule, if you aren't living, working, or regularly shopping in a particular neighborhood in Tokyo, don't ever make this assumption. We were quite on the wrong side of things, and only with a bit of expensive fancy web searching on my rental cell phone (thanks Softbank Telecom!) were we able to locate the address and realize the error of our ways.

There it is!

If you aren't already familiar with Tokyo, you need to know two things: 1) it is easy to get lost in a city full of small alleys of which you have only the vaguest memory, and 2) none of said alleys, or even minor streets, have actual names. Only fairly major thoroughfares and highways have meaningful designations. People in Japan give directions almost entirely using landmarks and notable features.

Le Menu

It took a while to get in... On a sunny Tokyo day when everyone in the city with a non-service industry job has the day off, the place was packed, and we had a 20 minute wait to be seated even after our long odyssey.

Pear cidre

 

It was brunch, but we wanted a little taste of sparkling pear cider, which is fermented much like beer and has a similar percentage of alcohol... 3-6%, depending on variety. The small cups let us taste without feeling overly indulgent for early afternoon.

Roquefort and walnut mixed greens salad

Hiromi loves blue cheese, so we decided to order a little side salad made with roquefort and walnuts.

Both of us were somehow craving eggs... Except for a great chawan mushi at the last onsen where we stayed and that fantastic egg cooked in a shell, I guess we just hadn't had our fair share of ovoid cholesterol delivery vehicles of late.

Galette de sarrasin with spinach, artichokes, tomatoes and egg

 

Galette de sarrasin with ham, egg and gruyere cheese

As you'd expect, I had the vegetarian thing and Hiromi had the ham and cheese.The nice gently fried egg helped pull the galettes together. The texture was crispy and the taste was nutty, and the filling was pleasingly decadent.

Facing the kitchen, dreaming of pear cider

 

After skipping breakfast with the intention of doing an early brunch, then walking around hopelessly lost until our early brunch turned into a fashionably late lunch, we were still craving a bit of dessert. On our previous trip here three years ago, we were satisfied with a single rhubarb-orange dessert crepe, also made with the buckwheat flour, shared between the two of us.

But this time, we were a bit hungrier. So both of us ordered dessert...

Buckwheat times three

My dessert was this buckwheat crêpe served with a buckwheat ice cream and drizzled with buckwheat flower honey. As expected, the texture and flavor of the crêpe was nothing short of spectacular. The ice cream was interesting and I've been known to use a bit of buckwheat honey myself, but the overall impact comes across as just a little bit healthy... nice, but not overly indulgent.

And then I tasted this...

Crêpe with "milk" ice cream and salted butter caramel sauce

Oh. My. God. It could inspire religion in the hardest-core of agnostics. It alone serves as proof that the divine exists right on this little green planet. Hiromi jealously guarded this, but I definitely stole my fair share... This had the most fantastic caramel sauce ever... a little buttery, and apparently a little salty, and very deep and rich in flavor. I didn't know it was possible.

The ice cream was simple and creamy and made with remarkably good milk. It provided just the right balance to the intensity of the caramel.

Thanks to our self-indulgence, we ended up with an extravagant JPY 9000 lunch ($80-90). A similar lunch (though not quite at the same level of quality) at one of Seattle's few crêpe  shops wouldn't have gone for much more than $50, but somehow, in Omotesando, where madamu go to spend their mid-level executive husbands' excess income on lunch and shopping, it seemed just like another day... and not a yen wasted.

 

Shalimar, Ochanomizu, Tokyo

An Indian restaurant may not be the most obvious place to eat one's first meal in Tokyo.

But this is far from my first time in Tokyo, so I can dispense with the ambition to eat the best possible Japanese food every meal I have in this city. Tokyo is kind of a part-time home for me... Since 1999 or so, I've averaged very close to two Japan stamps in my passport every year, sometimes several weeks per trip.

Besides, the tempting Italian-Japanese fusion inches from our weekly mansion was completely booked for the night. It was already rapidly approaching 9pm, when most restaurants start winding down in Tokyo, so we settled for another small temptation just a few hundred meters away.

Papadum

Papadum topped with onions

We ordered a pair of papadum, lentil-based crackers. Each papad was topped with marinated onions and other vegetables.

Bhindi

We were originally tempted to order a spinach dish but then noticed an okra curry on the menu. We've often had a simple okra and tomato masala, which we're huge fans of. This was a heavier dish with okra and potatoes along with a tomato-based sauce, which was not incredibly exciting, but was pleasingly comforting.

After a few minutes, we received another dish of what appeared to be the same okra curry, and we were told this was saabisu (free). We didn't quite expect it also to be studded with bits of lamb and chicken, but Hiromi made use of the animal bits. Based on the hodgepodge of ingredients, Hiromi surmised this was likely meant as part of the makanai (staff meal).

Channa masala

Channa masala 

We ordered a chickpea curry as our primary protein source for the evening, which looks perhaps a bit similar to the okra dish but was fortunately seasoned somewhat differently. Sometimes Indian restaurants in Japan serve the same base for almost every dish, especially if they're financed by Japanese owners. This place doesn't seem to commit quite that sin, although there are only a handful of vegetarian mains so it's a bit hard to tell.

Paratha

Paratha

This is a little different than the parathas I'm used to, as the dough seems to be twisted into a spiral. It was quite addictive, though... After everything came, we did order a bit of an unremarkable saffron rice, partially because we never received any tori-zara to set small portions of food, and maybe partially because it didn't quite seem like dinner without rice. Like many Indian restaurants in Japan, they used expensive but texturally and aromatically inappropriate Japanese rice rather than basmati. I don't really know if this is meant to accommodate local tastes or if the import tarriffs on rice make real basmati too expensive.

We also had some inexpensive but rather mild "cocktails", one made with mango, and the other meant to be a gently spiked sweet lassi, which tasted suspiciously like Calpis brand syrup (we liked it anyway).

Anyway, we were reasonably pleased with our choice to eat here. The food was slightly above average for a Tokyo Indian restaurant, and the staff was exceedingly nice to us, even offering us a complimentary salad before the rest of our food arrived.

During a trip to Osaka in Japan about 7 years ago, I visited an Indian restaurant run by a friend of a friend, who confided... no... broadcasted... that he gets tired selling the same setto combo meals one after another to 80% or more of the Japanese customers who walk in to the restaurant. He said loudly, in Japanese, that people who order set meals get much more boring food and that people should try to be adventurous "like these two" and order various things from different parts of the menu, as it would be much more delicious. After his gentle tirade, the couple sitting next to us brustled a bit, and proceeded to order two of that night's setto specials...

Phone: 03-5298-2036
Tokyo-to Chiyoda-ku Gai-Kanda, a 5-minute walk from the Ochanomizu station Hijiri-bashi exit, straight across the bridge.

Eki-ben on the way to Aomori

May 1st we had an early start... By this time, my jetlagged habit of waking up at 6 am without the aid of an alarm gave way to a more ordinary pattern of begrudgingly getting out of bed around 7:30 or 8. We had to use multiple cell-phone alarms to make sure we woke up in time... We had departed the football game after-party around 11, just in time to get home around midnight to bemusedly consider packing for our short trip to Aomori....

I think most of the serious packing waited until morning, but we had to wake up around 5:30 to make sure we could get to Tokyo station in time to grab breakfast and to make the shinkansen train.

JAL Sky Time Yuzu Original Citrus Drink

JAL Sky Time Yuzu Original Citrus Drink

I grabbed an overly-sweet yuzu drink from a vending machine to take on the train... I tend to make one that's closer to 4-5% yuzu at home, but mass production has certain cost constraints... the stronger-tasting yuzu drinks in Japan I've found tend to be about 200-300 yen for a small glass bottle... this was a bit more generous in size, but is only 2% fruit juice.

Balance Ekiben

Balance Ekiben box

Hiromi picked some reasonably vegetable-heavy bento... There's no such thing as a vegetarian ekiben (train station bento) anywhere in Japan that I've seen.

Balance ekiben inside

This one has a little shrimp, so Hiromi ate that part... Perhaps throwing this Balance Bento out of balance? Ah well. I was also a little sad that the takenoko gohan, which I usually love, was filled with tiny bits of chicken or pork...

Yasai Tappuri Haru-Yasai Bento

Haruyasai bento, box

This one, true to its description, was full of vegetables, but also had its fair share of animal bits.

Haruyasai bento, inside

These would have to do...

The two bento sustained us for the three hour train ride north. At our destination, Hiromi picked up our rental car and took us the rest of the way to our destination, on very little sleep, while I crashed in the passenger seat, mostly oblivious to the length of our trek across Aomori prefecture.

 

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Kitchen survivalism

Working in a minimally-stocked kitchen that's completely different than your own is pretty tricky.

Our weekly apartment was equipped with a rice cooker, a saucepan and a frying pan. We had a few plates and bowls, but nothing close to what I'm used to at home.

But after a bunch of elaborate, not to mention expensive, restaurant meals, we wanted to make something on our own.

Haru kyabetsu to nerimiso

We have spring cabbage made with a quick homemade sweetened miso... this is sort of a typical izakaya dish nowadays. We soon discovered that the lighter colored leaves from inside the cabbage were much more tender, and decided to reserve the dark outer leaves for an itamemono on another day.

Three nice side dishes made ugly

We didn't really have all the fundamentals... just mirin, soy sauce, salt, pepper and instant dashi. We had no vinegar, and we had only a small amount of miso. We didn't actually have any cooking oil; just some butter, meant for toast for breakfast.

I normally don't use instant dashi since it's not vegetarian, but when I'm on the road and only cooking a few meals on my own, it's a bit harder to stock a bunch of konbu and dried mushrooms, so we relied a bit on a few granules of that dashi for a few things. Although I'm not really a fan of the flavor of instant dashi, some dishes just don't taste right if you only use water. Since I already have to relax my vegetarian habits when eating out in Japan, I elected to make another small concession to reality, and I used small amounts of it in one or two dishes.

Since we only had a few plates, elegant platings had to be sacrificed, but we found some sort of solution.

Our side dishes included, from left to right: An egg scramble with some cheap maitake mushrooms and leeks, an ohitashi made with sakura no shiozuke, or salted cherry blossoms, and grilled bamboo shoots with butter and soy sauce. They may not look like much, but everything turned out slightly better than I expected.

Yuba and myouga

We love myouga, sometimes explained as ginger shoots in English, and it's hard to get in the US. Myōga looks a bit like the bulb of a shallot but has a gently spicy mild ginger flavor. I sliced some with the scary, flimsy knife supplied by our weekly apartment and scattered the slices inelegantly atop pieces of cut yuba, and carelessly drizzled some soy sauce over the yuba.

I miss fresh yuba when I'm in the US. The best I can do is dried or, on rare occasions, previously-frozen... unless I'm willing to commit to sitting in front of a nabe for an hour or two as I slowly peel off pieces of yuba from simmering soymilk. I don't do that so often.

Our dinner

Hiromi prepared a miso soup, which I nearly ruined by adding too much instant dashi. Since I never have any instant dashi at home, I didn't know how much is "normal" for soup. It turns out that the answer is very little.

She also blended some more salted cherry blossoms into the rice to make sakura-gohan, and whipped out the kuromame nattou (black bean nattō) before I could blink.

After a really fancy lunch in Omotesandō, this more humble dinner helped us balance our extravagance without feeling like much of a sacrifice.

Hwayo Soju

I had bought an "expensive" bottle of soju while in Korea at about KRW 11,000, or $11-12. The mass-produced stuff like Jinro and Chamiseul goes for less than $2 a bottle at your average convenience store, so this would be considered a bit extravagant. Anyway, tonight we cracked open this bottle and each had a glass of Korean shochu on the rocks with our dinner.

It's smoother and cleaner-tasting than the mass-produced brands, but not quite as nice as the better Japanese varieties of shochu. The flavor is relatively neutral  but still has a hint of complexity. I'd buy it again if I were in Korea.

Catastrophic failure, just in time

So my laptop hard drive has been complaining about little problems from time to time, and I decided to run a scanning and repair tool that came with my Dell (the Symantec equivalent of Chkdsk) on Sunday.

When I got home from a friend's birthday party across Puget Sound in Kingston, I saw that the appropriate magic had happened and I tried rebooting.

No luck.

Thanks to a late night call with a Dell tech support person I deleted my primary partition, losing a number of nice food photos and a few semi-important documents, along with some pet software projects that I haven't recently backed up. I don't think the losses were tragic, but they are disappointing nonetheless.

Dell sent out a replacement hard drive, but we were cutting it really close... Hiromi and I were leaving for Japan on Tuesday. It was destined to come via overnight service, but we wouldn't know if it would arrive before we had to leave.

I managed to bring my machine up to a semi-usable state, went to bed around 2am, and had a suitably restless night.

I think I had a similar fiasco a few years back just before an international trip, and about 7. I seem to be very hard on my machines.

 

Anyway, just minutes before we absolutely had to call a cab in order to get us to the airport on time, DHL stopped by. I was lucky I was able to get things semi-working without the new drive, because I wasn't looking forward to spending the first day or two of the trip installing software. I decided to chance the hard drive melting down more permanently, and left the replacement equipment behind.

 

We're in Tokyo now, and I rented a cell phone through Docomo. We thought I'd be able to get a local SIM card for my nifty new iPhone 3g, but Softbank's rental counter had a little apologetic sign in Japanese indicating that this wasn't an option right now. Apparently their web site had jumped the gun, or they had some problems, or they just don't want the support headaches yet.

The rental rates seem to have gone up. I had been getting nice 250 yen/day rates from Softbank on recent trips, but their best deal today was 525 yen/day. I caved in and got the cheapest domestic-only phone plan from Softbank at 300 yen/day, since Hiromi has her Japanese cell phone service still and we'll mostly be together on this trip, except when we're not.

I'm a bit tired. It's hot, but not as bad as I had expected, yet. I've always done my best to avoid summer in Japan, except for a brief business trip about 7 or 8 years ago. It's steamy, but it doesn't feel too hot right now. Even so, I think I need a shower.

Arrived, partially recovered

Over the holiday weekend I had the good fortune to be nearly unreachable, except via my prepaid Japanese cell phone, as I attempted to recover from jetlag in the hot springs of Hanamaki in Iwate prefecture, not far from Morioka. Monday was also a national holiday in Japan, so this was something of an international three day weekend... not completely work free, as I was always on the lookout for something interesting to import, and found lots of nifty stuff, but it was relaxing enough and helped me get enough sleep to be reasonably productive for the rest of the trip.

Alas, it meant also that I was blissfully unaware of some problems with some logistics issues with a few things that are being moved around right now, and I also discovered another couple of minor and major fire drills unrelated to products, but almost all of those were resolved in a few hours last night after I arrived in my weekly rental apartment in Shinjuku.

I need to take off to meet with a supplier... When I return, I'll talk about what I ate the last few days...

Asamushi, Onsen Ryokan, dinner

We stayed at an onsen ryokan (hot springs resort) called Asamushi in Aomori city.

Most Japanese ryokan, given sufficient advance warning, are reasonably accommodating of vegetarian needs, though they don't always quite understand them. Usually things work out, with occasional use of non-vegetarian soup stock or a garnish of katsuobushi. In some cases, the food ends up being a bit ascetic.

Ryokan also tend to veer toward the fairly esoteric, so some of these dishes I've never seen before.

My spread

My spread

I was mostly happy with the taste of the food at our first ryokan this trip, but the meal ended up being surprisingly devoid of protein... usually there's at least a bit of tofu or some egg dish, or sometimes some yuba. This time, though, there wasn't even a hint of that. Even my nabe dish was little more than a suimono, though I think Hiromi's had a little tofu. The actual dishes were actually quite nice, but I felt a bit low in energy after the meal, which rarely happens when I eat at ryokan.

Hiromi's spread

Hiromi's had a bit more seafood, of course.

Hiromi's spread 

A few side dishes

A few side dishes

These were some of Hiromi's side dishes. 

Youshoku?

Apparently Aomori has a fondness for youshoku, or Western food, as we discovered later in Hirosaki. I think this presentation, offered to Hiromi, was meant to be a kind of cute deconstructed pasta dish. My version had some grilled bamboo shoots with a miso sauce.

Spring nimono

One of Hiromi's dishes, this features fu (the cute cherry blossom shaped wheat gluten item), kagomi, shrimp, and takenoko (bamboo shoots).

Itadouri no ohitashi

Itadouri, Japanese rhubarb or knotweed, one of many spring sansai (mountain vegetables). While not technically rhubarb, it has a slightly acidic bite to it. When lightly dressed, it's slightly vegetal and gently bitter.

Fuki no tou

Fuki no tou, the sprouts of butterbur. This is particularly common in spring in northern Japan, but it's also found, and eaten, frequently in other parts of Japan.

Ohitashi

A simple dish of blanched greens.

Tsukemono

Or so I think...

Kagomi no aemono

Kagomi no aemono

More mountain vegetables...

Unidentified sansai

Unidentified sansai

I don't quite recognize this, but I believe this is the mountain vegetable that we spotted along the river...

Sansai Tempura

Sansai Tempura

I always seem to end up with tempura at ryokan... even if they aren't serving it to everyone else... It seems to be a typical substitution for a sashimi course. This one features some mountain vegetables, mostly kagomi.

Some more vegetables with sakura

Some more vegetables with sakura

I think this is was a mustard-flavored aemono, but my memory is failing...

Daikon to negi no suimono

Daikon to negi no suimono

A light clear soup with daikon and negi.

Living nama-shirasu

[YouTube:wgDAdsp7peQ]

As a special treat for Hiromi, the ryokan brought a small dish to our room featuring these nama-shirasu, which were still alive and kicking.

I've seen Hiromi refuse to taste something only twice. The first was bundaeggi, and she pretty much says all bugs are off limits. The second was this. I'm not sure the taste or aroma would be terribly shocking, but it seemed just a bit too disturbing for her. Actually, strangely, I think it bothers me less than it does her... and I don't eat any fish... Though I guess the point is moot.

Note the splashes of soy sauce along the side of the bowl are the work of the fish, not of sloppy plating.

Living nama-shirazu

(Video Link, in case video embedding doesn't work for you) 

After dinner, I ate some kurogoma ice cream to get at least a little hint of protein, and Hiromi ate a really nice apple sorbet.

 (See also: Breakfast at Asamushi)

Last day in Tokyo, at Wai Wai, Italian-Japanese Izakaya

May 8... I had a relatively quiet last day in Japan, and met a friend for a quick lunch while Hiromi started the first day of work after Golden Week. After lunch, I made my way to Yūrakuchō to look for some additional self-indulgent snacks and treats to bring back to Seattle. I made my way back to my usual favorite spots (Hokkaidō Dosanko Plaza, Mura-Kara-Machi-Kara-Kan) and discovered, downstairs in the same building, a shop selling Wakayama specialties and another focused on Toyama products. I ended up taking home some umeboshi, some yuzu yubeshi, and some high-powered umeshu, and a few other treasures.

I met up with Hiromi mid-afternoon, because she had a medical appointment and had to leave the office a bit early anyway. After she finished with that, we met in Ginza and went to Printemps, where we both ordered a really nice, this-month-only, Matcha Mont Blanc. We then slowly headed back home, rested for a few minutes, and made our way to a restaurant we'd been planning to try all week.

Wai Wai

Wai Wai

Wai Wai, or 和伊・和伊, is a Japanese-Italian Izakaya that cutely uses country-appropriate Kanji (Japan and Italy) as ateji for a word that usually means something like "noisy" or "noisily".

Seated

Hiromi at Wai Wai

The space looks tiny if you peek inside... There's only a U-shaped bar adjacent the kitchen, and maybe a small table or two. But it turns out that they have a half dozen or so tables upstairs, and that's where we were seated. The booths have small noren hanging to create some semblence of privacy.

Agedashi Mozzarella

Agedashi Mozzarella

This was fascinating. In fact, seeing this dish on the menuboard outside Wai Wai may have been what triggered us to try this restaurant.

They transformed a typical izakaya dish of fried tofu in a seasoned dashijiru into a clever, but not over-the-top, fusion dish. Deep-fried basil, mozzarella, and tomato make an appearance, along with the typical agedashi accompaniments of ginger, oroshi-daikon (grated daikon), and negi.

While the flavor isn't much a surprise, and any crispness quickly faded as the dish made its way to our table, the combination was quite successful. It's hard to go wrong with basil-tomato-mozzarella, and the mild broth added the same kind of complexity you'd get from parmesan or a more Italian style soup stock.

Nama-yuba

This was the most Japanese of the things we ordered. It's an elegant presentation of a simple dish: fresh yuba, made from skimming the surface of slowly simmering heavy soymilk, served with soy sauce, ginger, wasabi, and chopped scallions, which you add to the yuba to your own taste.

I ate most of this, as Hiromi ordered for herself some chicken thighs, grilled with something like sansho.

Caeser Salad and Crepe

This salad replaces the typical crouton with a sculptural crispy crepe, which you're encouraged to break up and scatter over the salad.

Tsukemono

Tsukemono/Marinated vegetables

Marinated vegetables, or short-term pickles, featuring Western vegetables, including red bell peppers.

Quattro Formaggi to Hachimitsu

Quattro formaggi to hachimitsu

Four cheese pizza drizzled with honey. Like most pizza in Japan, it has an impossibly-thin, cracker-like crust. With the honey it would have served as a great final cheese course, but we weren't quite done yet...

Yakionigiri no ochazuke with an Italian accent

Italian-style yakionigiri ochazukei with anchovies, parmesan and basil

Ochazuke is a popular way of finishing a meal at an izakaya... there are two main tracks of ochazuke, one of which is the near-literal interpretation of tea poured over rice, with some pickles and furikake as accompaniments. Another is with a soup broth, and this version clearly is in the latter school.

As accompaniments, some chopped basil, parmesan, and anchovies are provided; they've been served separately to accommodate my vegetarian habit.

Up close

Ochazuke up close

I'm wasn't quite sure which herb was used, but I think the rice has been mixed with a chiffonade of parsley along with some toasted sesame. Because the ball of rice is grilled before being incorporated into the ochazuke, the rice ball is called yaki-onigiri. Topping the yaki-onigiri is an earlobe of wasabi.

Any number of variations of ochazuke exist. I've made a yaki-onigiri ochazuke before, myself, though with a decidedly more Japanese flavor profile.

This dish was really smart. Well balanced and comforting, it avoids most of the cliches found in American "fusion" cuisine while still playing with foreign (to Japanese) flavors. I think it's successful because it's firmly grounded in one culinary tradition, while judiciously adapting ingredients found in another... So many fusion dishes in the US seem to have a poor understanding of all of the source cuisines they are borrowing from.

Cream anmitsu!

Cream anmitsu with tapioca in coconut milk

I think I haven't had a chance to have kuriimu anmitsu for quite a while. We had a small dish of anmitsu served with a quick set meal at a kissaten in Mashiko, but for some reason, Hiromi and I haven't found our way to any place featuring anmitsu for quite a while.

The ice cream version of anmitsu, called cream anmitsu, can be found at old-school kissaten around Japan, but it seems not as easy to find as it was even six or seven years ago.

Not your obaachan's anmitsu

Not your grandma's cream anmitsu

Usually anmitsu comes with fruit, anko (sweet red been paste), and wasanbon (blonde cane sugar syrup), kuromitsu (black sugar syrup) or occasionally a simple sugar syrup. Occasionally the concept is combined with kakigouri, the shaved ice dessert; a few years back I ate that in a little shop in Takayama in Gifu prefecture.

Since we were in a slightly quirkier restaurant, the dish had been altered a bit further... in place of a more common syrup, it was served with tapioca that had been simmered in sweetened coconut milk. That transformed this treat into a Japanese-by-way-of-Southeast-Asia treat, and it worked suprisingly well. Since cream anmitsu is sometimes made with green tea ice cream, perhaps Chockylit's coconut matcha tapioca topping would be equally suitable...

We meandered the few dozen meters to our weekly apartment and started halfheartedly attacking our luggage.

The next day, it was time to go home...

A Little Respite in Gunma-ken

We departed Japan on Sunday, but not without a valuable trip to Takaragawa Onsen, a hot spring ryoukan in Gunma prefecture.

After a quick lunch at a Meguro-station cafe on Saturday, Hiromi drove us through a mysterious maze of toll highways about three or four hours, but I managed to sleep through about two hours of road time, oblivious to my surroundings. Only when traveling internationally do I seem to magically acquire the ability to fall asleep anywhere, anytime.

For me, a stay in a ryokan is an opportunity for an extravagant simple meal, but it also offers an ideal bathing experience…

We stopped briefly at a highway service area for a snack, and after resting a bit upon arrival, we made a quick trip to the rotenburo (outdoor hot springs bath). This hotel’s rotenburo is one of the largest konyoku-buro (mixed baths). Although in other konyoku-buro, people generally enter the onsen naked, people at this onsen are advised to cover themselves with a towel (men with a tiny towel, women with a larger towel), as one sign indicated, so that “nobody has to be embarrassed” using the konyoku-buro.

We didn’t feel comfortable really photographing the baths themselves, of course, but here’s what we found along the way…

Lukewarm spring water

Nuruisen

The irouri as ashtray

Irouri-ashtray

In old Japanese houses, people sat around the irouri to share dinner and discuss the day’s business. For the contemporary onsen-goer, it seems to be a destination for an ippuku (rest, but actually a euphemism for a smoking break).

Tengu

Copper tengu

This hall is filled with tengu and tanuki, mystical creatures with exaggerated body parts.

In the ryokan eating area

Jasonatryokan

After soaking a bit we sat down to dinner. In this particular ryokan, most floors have two or three eating areas, at least in the steerage class, although in the most expensive rooms they serve fancier meals in the room.

Shokuzen-shu

Shokuzenshu

The apertif seemed to be some sort of shiso-based shochu infusion, heavily sweetened and only lightly alcoholic.

Kinoko sumibi-yaki

Kinoko no sumibi-yaki

Sumibi-yaki, char-grilled foods, seemed to be the theme of our stay. For a spring meal, the selections we were offered were surprisingly full of various “wild” mushrooms, but we had some fresh spring bamboo shoots as well.

Mmm-flames

Each table has a small shichirin, or clay grill, placed atop a concrete trivet with a wooden base to buffer against heat damage to the table.

Note to us

Ryokan-notetous

Each diner receives a note describing tonight’s menu. You can see from the “yamame” (small fish) and “joushuugyuu” (local beef) items that this is Hiromi’s menu.

Mame

Mame, slightly savory

A rare sweet-savory bean side dish, apparently typical for this area. Most of Japan prefers beans as a dessert, but this dish is prepared with enough salt to make it a pleasant side dish for a savory meal.

Maitake no itame-ni

Maitake-itameni

Several standard side dishes, such as ohitashi (blanched vegetables), pickled vegetables (nozawana, for example), and other obligatory ryokan fare, such as nabemono, were also featured. I had a cold dish with a kind of abura-age in clear soup, as well.

Sleepy Hiromi

Hiromi sleepy

After the meal, Hiromi became a bit sleepy.

On the banks of the river

Onthebanksoftheriver

We somehow managed to fall asleep around 9 in the evening, but the next morning, we awoke to this view outside our room’s window.

The bridge to the hot springs

Takaragawa bridge

We took advantage of the hot springs once more in the morning… a bit of snow started falling upon us while we were bathing.

Breakfast

Asagohan-takaragawa

Breakfast included miso soup, salad, bamboo leaf-wrapped nattou (fermented soybeans), more of the sweet-savory local beans, yogurt, an orange segment, and a soft-boiled egg, as well as some pickles and nori, not pictured.

Grilled potatoes, green beans and carrots

Youfu sukiyaki

This marks the first time I’ve been served ketchup at a ryokan, but my breakfast featured a sort of Western-themed sukiyaki, in lots of butter, meant to be dipped in ketchup.

Shake no sumibiyaki

Shake-sumibi

Salmon for Hiromi. We had a lot of fire at our table.

Breakfast window view

Breakfast snow

From our seats at breakfast, we could see the tall winter accumulation of snow that hadn’t yet sublimated or melted.

Display hearth

Display irouri

I’m guessing this irouri, not terribly well ventilated, doesn’t get much use in practice.

Goodbye!

Takara onsen

We had to rush back to Narita airport, where we met Hiromi’s parents one last time, and started the long journey back home.

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