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.
We had a leisurely morning one day and decided to stay home for lunch. We took advantage of some food Hiromi's parents had sent us away with, all acquired at a supermarket.
The souzai (side dish) set, ready to eat, included several small portions of simple dishes that are easily prepared in bulk, but rather time consuming to do in small quantities. At home I've made some variation of almost all of these dishes, but rarely all for the same meal.
I don't usually buy a lot of convenience foods in the U.S.
Some sweet-savory beans, tamagoyaki, kabocha no nimono (simmered squash), one aemono, a little hijiki with moyashi, and two other simple nimono. One contained gobo (burdock root), daikon, carrot and ganmodoki. The other is a mildly seasoned satoimo (small taro potato) dish with scallions and a little bit of yuzu peel.
We also had some black sesame, starch-thickened, gomadoufu, which came with a little sauce packet.
We only needed to prepare a little rice to accompany this to have a fairly decent everyday meal.
On the Sunday before Golden Week, Hiromi had a practice session to attend, so we needed to have a late dinner. Ochanomizu completely clears out during Golden Week, as it's mostly populated by university students, so nearly every place we walked by had just closed for the evening. Most of the shops closed around 8:30 or so, even if their signs indicated that they were customarily open much later.
An incredibly intoxicated woman just outside of one restaurant loudly offered a bottle of something that was allegedly jasmine tea to everyone within earshot, and some of her friends humored her, tasted something that was likely higher proof than the average bottled tea, and spit it out onto the street. We discovered that the restaurant around which they were congregating was still open.
The restaurant promised we could still eat if we coult get all our orders in within about 30 minutes... We were up for the challenge. The one caveat is that the shop specializes in yakitori, grilled chicken (and assorted parts) on skewers.
View of the kitchen
Fortunately, many yakitori shops have a number of vegetable options, and we happened to stumble into one with a surprisingly long menu.
Sobacha-Ryokucha to Shochu Cocktail
We started with these allegedly seasonal drinks made with ryokucha (green tea). Mine had soba-cha and shochu in it... thanks to the toasted buckwheat, it resembled a slighlty alcoholic genmaicha with a pronounced buckwheat aroma.
Our first thing to nibble on... some sort of cheese-filled stick harumaki... My memory of the other ingredients has faded, but it was pleasingly crunchy and creamy.
Spring greens salad
Some bitter greens with a kind of grapefruit dressing, topped with little webs of dried fish and a garnish of katsuobushi. Another example of the sense of humor required to be vegetarian in Japan, perhaps, but the greens and dressing were nice.
Soramame no sumibiyaki
I always delight in unexpected greatness in simplicity... These were one of our favorite treats of the night. Oak charcoal grilled soramame (fava beans) served with coarse ume (Japanese apricot)-flavored salt. The easiest way to eat this is to out the fava beans one by one and eat with a grain or two of the salt.
Shouyu-butter tofu with moyashi
Another pleasant surprise... This tofu was served on a small sizzle platter with a sauce made from little more than butter and soy sauce, and tasted surprisingly indulgent. It's topped with negi (scallions), and like so many other pub side dish in Japan, is dressed with some katsuobushi.
Tsukune-stuffed shiitake for Hiromi in the background, served with a heavy dose of yuzu-kosho, and grilled bamboo shoots with slightly sweetened miso. It's really hard to get nice bamboo shoots in the US, especially this fresh. I don't know why that is, exactly. But these were very nice, very appropriate for spring, and they were completely free of the unpleasantly preserved taste that most bamboo shoots in the US have.
Hiromi and her cheer team had a game on Monday, April 30, just before we headed off to Aomori for a little hot spring vacation and late hanami at Hirosaki.
She's part of Club Cranes, a 2nd-division X-League American Football team sponsored by Toa construction company.
Because there's a fairly long warmup, Hiromi suggested I could wander around the station or drink coffee for a while before heading to the stadium via taxi. But one of her teammates suggested that this was altogether unnecessary, and that perhaps I could serve as their paparazzo for the day. We grabbed some takeaway bento for me and some onigiri for Hiromi right at the station, and the entire group gathered into two or three taxis to head on over to the stadium.
I sat down in the stands at first, but was invited to come down and take a bunch of photos right from the sidelines.
Rehearsal action shot
Sidelined for a few weeks...
The big guy heading back to switch to game gear
After some warmups, it's game time... the Cranes players and cheerleaders change into their game colors. I got to stay close to the action...
The pre-game bow
An early touchdown
Hiromi's team took the early lead, but missed the extra point... It put them at a slight disadvantage for the first half.
Everyone else ordered a kind of set meal, but since I'm the odd duck and don't eat animal bits, we ordered a few vegetarian items. With 40 or so people, we completely filled the tatami room at the edge of the little Chinese restaurant we visited.
We had a little to drink, a lot to eat, and some people made a series of little speeches and a few very personal announcements...
My poor camera's 2 GB memory card was completely full at the end of the day, thanks to a couple of days without transferring to my laptop and the excessive number of photos I took that day, but I found some completely blurry images I could toss and made room for a few hurried food shots...
I've been to the smaller, original location of Macchinesti in Akabanebashi two or three years ago with Hiromi, the Vivace-inspired outlet opened by a protégé of David Schomer. But they also run a bigger shop with a simple savory food menu not far away in Azabu-Juuban, which benefits from a pleasant outdoor seating area.
Hiromi felt the urge for some decent coffee after we woke up late Sunday morning, so we made a pilgrimage to the new location, found in a posh residential area in Tokyo.
Seattle meets Tokyo
Eggs Benedict on the menu
We've never encountered this favorite of Hiromi's on the menu anywhere in Tokyo, and have only seen evidence of it on expensive hotel menus online. In Seattle, we often make eggs florentine or whatever at home, and Hiromi gets her fix for the porcine version when we go out for a weekend brunch.
Take something home
We didn't take any beans home, of course, since there's no coffee brewing equipment in my weekly apartment. For those who live in Tokyo, however, freshly roasted Vivace-blended beans (and some Tokyo-only single-estate treats) are a must-have.
Ok, that was a cruel caption. But even Vivace rarely pumps out rosettas as elaborate as this duo. We might have just been lucky, though... one of the two coffees was made with a more typical single-pattern rosetta.
On a wet and rainy April 28, Hiromi, Hiromi's mother and I trekked to Meiji Jinguu, then briefly toured Shibuya's Tokkyu Foods Show depachika madness. We were planning to have dinner at Hiromi's home that night, so we actually wanted to pick up a few things to take home.
The nifty thing about department store basements in Japan is that you can assemble a fairly elaborate meal without ever needing to whip out a spatula or your handy kitchen saibashi.
Not one of the dishes required more than a bit of reheating, although for one of the two grilled eggplant dishes (far left, middle) I chose to make a quick nerimiso to help the two variations stand apart from each other. Even in that case, however, the department store had a ready-to-buy sauce you could take away to remove even this tiny step of production.
I also made a quick seasoned soup stock for the big ganmodoki (upper left), but everything else was just a matter of heating, at most, and plating.
Among the other dishes: Fresh yuba with soy sauce, an okra ohitashi with yuba, two kinds of vegetable croquettes, supermarket sushi, blanched kogomi (a spring mountain vegetable similar to warabi), a vegetable aemono, dashi-maki tamago (a broth-seasoned omelet), takenoko gohan (bamboo shoot rice), and four kinds of inari-zushi. One variety had a wasabi-seasoned rice, another was gomoku, another might have been made with azuki, and the last one had age puffs made from black soybeans.
It wasn't all easy, though... A fair amount of time unwrapping, plating and transporting foods from the kitchen to the table made preparation take almost as long as making a simpler dinner might have taken. Of course, the quality was much better than the average takeaway meal at a US supermarket, and everything was nicer than most of what you might find at even upscale urban specialty shops.
April 28: Just after my first brief visit on opening day, Hiromi and I made our way back to the Shin-Marunouchi building again in search of a late breakfast. It was still a madhouse.
Point et Ligne Bakery, Shin Marunouchi Building, Tokyo
We couldn't help but buy a lot of bread here. Point et Ligne bakery carefully illuminates the bread, but prefers to keep the staff as a background feature, assiduously assembling your order.
Yes, you want these olive-oil anko-filled baguettes
Many bakeries in Japan skip over the savory breads in favor of sugar-laden pastries... There's some sweet stuff here, but I was pleased that even the sweet treats like these olive-oil laden sweet red-bean paste baguettes avoided sugar in the bread itself in favor of an ama-sioppai experience. And there are some savory mini-baguettes just to the left of these for those who want to go straight for the butter...
Point et Ligne's extremely open format doesn't hide the guts of the operation. I wouldn't want to be the one responsible for keeping those beasts sparkling clean...
Contemporary wagashi at Kanou Shoujuan
Ume zerii presented at Kanou Shoujuan, Japanese apricot jelly, available for takeout in a bamboo-shaped cylinder. We took some home to Hiromi's parents, along with a matcha jelly.
Monaka, typically sweet bean paste-filled crispy cakes (the outside texture resembles an ice cream cone), also from Kanou Shoujuan.
14 Juillet Debutante
All dressed up for 14 Juillet's second day of courting new customers.
Cassis eclair at 14 Juillet Tokyo
Black currant eclair. You must have one. We did. We will never be the same.
14 Juillet Sorbet
In case pastries don't suck you in...
1F Cafe that spells like Emeril
Although the photos of their coffee look pretty, I can't bring myself to go inside a place that spells espresso like this. And no, I don't think it's a Japanese mistake... it's far more difficult to make an "ekkuspuresso" sound in Japanese than to say "esupresso." Some highly paid consultant is clearly responsible.
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.
We ordered a pair of papadum, lentil-based crackers. Each papad was topped with marinated onions and other vegetables.
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).
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.
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.
I don't remember how long ago it was, but probably about four or five years ago I was staying somewhere in Nishi-shinjuku... Several times on the way to somewhere more interesting than Shinjuku, I found myself walking right past a tiny bakery called Rappopo. I was tempted by the aroma of constant baking, and by a shockingly long line for a train station bakery.
Most people were walking away with a Rappopo Pie. It's built on a foundation of pie crust, or perhaps what in Germany is called Biscuitt-Teig. Above that, there's a thin layer of something like pound cake, followed by a thick layer of sweet potatoes, and a layer of apples, and then topped with some sort of lattice-pattern piped streusel.
At about 700 yen, give or take, it seemed like too much to indulge in all by myself, so I kept waiting until I had a good excuse to buy one... maybe a chance to split one with a friend or three... well, such an opportunity never arose on that trip, so I finally grabbed one on my way to Narita airport.
Once I arrived at the airport, I set out to eat one quarter of the pie while it was still a bit warm, thinking I'd snack on some of the rest during the middle of the 9 hour flight.
Narita airport is a really boring place to be trapped for a couple of hours, especially if you've been there a dozen times or so and you've seen all of the duty-free shops, convenience stores, and gift shops. Even more so if you've already done all your gift shopping before leaving.
So after due consideration... Do I want to walk around the airport aimlessly for another twenty minutes? Or have another slice of this nice pie? I chose the more comforting, fattening route.
Every 20 minutes or so I repeated this internal conversation, until the pie had completely disappeared.
Friday afternoon when I arrived in Tokyo, I had some time to kill, so I spent an hour or so at Shin-Marunouchi building on opening day, but I avoided every temptation to try one of the many fantastic-looking new shops.
But when Hiromi and I met on the Yaesu side, we passed another location of Rappopo, and our fate was sealed... we had to have one of those pies.
Reunited with both Hiromi and Rappopo, the three of us made our way to the Ochanomizu weekly apartment we had arranged for this stay in Tokyo. Hiromi and I each tucked into a small wedge of the pie shortly before we started hunting for dinner, some towels and some knee supporters for my increasingly temperamental legs.
I arrived in Tokyo last night... There's still a lot to write about from my Korea trip, but I just wanted to post a quick update... Off I go to cause trouble with Hiromi.
My timing was fortuitous., or insane, depending on your perspective... right outside the Marunouchi exit of Tōkyō station, a brand new building opened up, the Shin-Marunouchi Building. Just as you might expect, it was crowded and bustling with activity... When something new and big comes to Tokyo, everyone wants to be there.
Shin-Marunouchi Building Opening Day Congratulatory Flowers
These flowers mark the opening of a new building or business.
Every restaurant or cafe had a long queue.
A new restaurant menu
Dashi-chazuke. Rice with various toppings and Japanese soup stock instead of the typical tea.
I just managed a glimpse of the goods at this fancy cake shop.
Coffee from my hood
Seattle's Iranian-American family-owned Caffe Appassionato gussies up their look for the Japanese market.
Fancy little gourmet shop
Too many salad dressings.
An upscale outpost of an ordinary supermarket
Somewhere to buy the essentials, and everyday splurges.
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
The irouri as 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).
This hall is filled with tengu and tanuki, mystical creatures with exaggerated body parts.
In the ryokan eating area
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.
The apertif seemed to be some sort of shiso-based shochu infusion, heavily sweetened and only lightly alcoholic.
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.
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
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.
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
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.
After the meal, Hiromi became a bit sleepy.
On the banks of the river
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
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 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
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
Salmon for Hiromi. We had a lot of fire at our table.
Breakfast window view
From our seats at breakfast, we could see the tall winter accumulation of snow that hadn’t yet sublimated or melted.
I’m guessing this irouri, not terribly well ventilated, doesn’t get much use in practice.
We had to rush back to Narita airport, where we met Hiromi’s parents one last time, and started the long journey back home.
A somewhat dry-fleshed, thick-skinned orange, possibly from Ehime prefecture, popular for its sappari or refreshing taste. It’s a bit bitter and perhaps a bit similar to a Seville orange.
Not quite shaped like a traditional madeleine, this was a conceptual sample from one of my green tea suppliers made with a madeleine-style batter.
This matcha dessert was more of a pound cake style.
Zundamochi and Ayamemochi
Zundamochi are daifuku made with edamame paste. They’d probably be more impressive in cross-section, but we were hungry already. We found them at Mura-kara-machi-kara-kan.
One of our smoked eggs, before peeling. We ate the smoked eggs for breakfast in the hotel.
A few years ago a chain of okayu restaurants sprouted up around Tokyo, even offering brown rice and multigrain versions. With modest 200–300 calorie portions and optional add-ins, the restaurants are popular with women in their 20s and 30s. There are no unaccompanied men in most of these, and I was one of perhaps two in the restaurant. Hiromi had the yuba and greens okayu in the foreground, which had 5 grains; mine was a brown rice okayu with fried onions and greens, with an add-on onsen tamago (soft-boiled egg).
Kabocha mushi cake
I’ve forgotten what they called it, but this is essentially a steamed cake with chunks of kabocha, and ever so slightly sweet. It’s actually in the “yum-cha” or dim-sum part of the okayu shop’s menu, rather than their dessert section.
Almond “tofu”, a flavored gelled dessert.
Sakura ice cream
Cherry-blossom ice cream, from an old-school kissaten near Meguro-station that serves average quality vacuum-pot coffee and various sandwich-like nibbles. The ice cream appears to be a lightly-flavored cherry ice cream served on a cherry leaf and topped with shiozuke, or salt-pickled cherry blossom. This one wasn’t terribly salty, so they may have rinsed it first.
For people who appreciate food and would like to take a bit of Japan home with them, Yurakucho (Yuurakuchou) is a dangerous place. It’s home to the regional food specialty shop Mura-kara Machi-kara Kan, which features fresh and packaged foods from all over the country, as well as alcoholic drinks, and Hokkaido Dosanko Plaza, which features lots of treats from Hokkaido. A short walk from here will take you to another shop that focuses on all things Okinawan.
If you’re easily tempted, it might be best to avert your eyes as you walk by these shops.
We left with soba karintou (buckwheat sweet crackers), haru yutari karintou (a wheat snack), black sugar peanut crunch, a shiso drink base, yomogi senbe (mugwort-flavored crackers), Hokkaido Tokaji wine caramels, Hokkaido hascup caramels, Hokkaido’s famous raisin butter cookie sandwiches (not from the most sought-after brand, but still quite tasty), murasaki-imo senbe or purple sweet potato senbe from Okinawa, another purple sweet potato snack also from Okinawa, some yuzu-flavored konpeito (hard candy), shiikuwasaa kokutou (Okinawan citron flavored black sugar), shiikuwasaa Calpis, some snackable salted konbu (kelp), kiritampo (rolls of mochigome toasted sort of rotisserie style, often used in nabemono or hotpot meals) from Akita,some heart-shaped cookies, umi-budou (sea grapes) from Okinawa, smoked eggs, yuzu-miso, yuzu kanten, yuzu-sake, ume-shidzuku (chewy Japanese apricot kanten candies) and two bottles of yuzu juice. Hiromi also picked up some drinking yogurt from the Hokkaido shop flavored with hascup berries, but we drank that before even getting back to the hotel.
Most of these items found their way into our luggage, but the Hokkaido raisin butter sandwiches have long since disappeared, because, of course, they are so perishable and we couldn’t possibly keep them…
For the most part, these shops carry items that are not widely distributed even inside Japan, so if you want to suprise someone with a little gift with minimal probability they will find the same thing in their local Asian market, this is the place to go.
I got a late start on both Thursday and Friday, but considering the pain my knees are causing me right now, it was probably for the better. Although I’ve been waking up reasonably early, we sometimes don’t leave the hotel until fairly late, and our relatively long distance from Meguro station means that it takes about 15–20 minutes just to get started on the long journey to Makuhari Messe in Chiba.
Thursday I met up with a the Japan forum manager from eGullet and spent most of the time in the international section, where I found most of the products I was most interested in importing were from companies I’ve seen in the last two years. My favorite discovery was a special gochujang from a medium-sized Korean producer, though I’m a bit afraid I’ll be beaten to the opportunity after they exhibit later this year at some big food trade shows in the US.
The most rapidly spreading single ingredient this year seems to be salted cherry blossoms and pickled cherry leaves, represented by all sorts of Japanese companies either as an ingredient or as a part of a packaged food, and exhibited by Chinese suppliers as well. If I hadn’t attended FoodEx for the last three years, I might haved assumed that presence was seasonally-driven, but I never saw such a presence of the ingredient in previous shows. In Japan it’s mostly used for sweets such as the classic sakura-mochi, but some companies even incorporated it into nattou or other savory foods.
Okinawa-based companies had, for the last two years, run a retailer-targeted booth that showed all sorts of Okinawan packaged foods, which probably explains the three or four Okinawa-themed gift shops I’ve run into since Tuesday without really trying. Now, most of the Okinawa presence this year seemed to be booths from specific companies, such as a company that produces a deep sea water-based soda drink and various bottled Okinawan fruit juices in hip packaging.
In the international foods section, I didn’t notice as much in the way of organic food products as I had in the Japanese area, but a Korean company had a huge assortment of organic products that, if I were comfortable importing refrigerated containers of products, I’d be very excited to bring in to the U.S. Right now, though, I don’t have the facilities or the distribution network to make that work very well.
Thursday night I met with the CEO/President of a Japanese tea company that produces incredible hand-tied flower ties primarily for wedding and banquet markets, but increasingly for the gift market as well. I first talked to her last year at the Hoteres trade show, and she wanted to make sure we met up before I left Japan this time. I think I’d really like to bring their products in to the U.S., because they are particularly innovative in the domain of flower teas, with unlikely shapes and some unusual designs of their more conventional tied teas.
Friday I had to fight with some heavy winds that caused train delays going toward Chiba… we caught a train that didn’t depart until about 80 minutes after its scheduled time, or about 30 minutes after we entered the train. It moved at half speed to avoid being derailed, and took more than an hour to arrive, about 30 minutes longer than normal… So I was expecting to be at the show around 1:30 on Friday, but didn’t arrive until 3:15, for a bit more than the last hour.
Fortunately, that was just enough to see the sections that I had previously neglected, mostly in the Taiwan section. Hiromi also got a chance to check out the shochu section, but of course, we both left relatively unaffected. For me, the most interesting shochu was a 3–year aged brandy-like shochu, but Hiromi was partial to a kind of imo-jochu that she discovered, and we talked with that company a bit, even though shochu is more complicated to import than I’m willing to handle right now. It never hurts to have an interesting supplier contact, though.
I’m off to restore my body in Gunma-ken tonight. Hiromi’s driving about three hours and I’m probably going to fall asleep in the car…
Wagashi filled with cherry blossom seasoned shiro-an.
Painted, sculpted shiro-an with a cherry blossom theme, filled with koshi-an.
Three kinds of umeshu
Nigori (unfiltered) umeshu, kokutou (black sugar) umeshu, ryokucha (green tea) umeshu. No, I didn’t drink them all; we went to a restaurant in Futako-Tamagawa, Tama-no Baiken, that featured a lot of house-made umeshu variatons and each of us ordered a different one. Mine was the nigori on the far left, and I stole a sip of Hiromi’s kokutou, both of which I would recommend.
Umeshu, frequently mistranslated as plum wine, is made by infusing a kind of green Japanese apricot in a neutral spirit such as shochu or vodka.
Nanohana and hamaguri
Hiromi and her mother ordered this clam and nanohana (rapeseed plant) dish.
Haru no yasai no tempura
Fuki, bamboo shoots and other spring vegetables, prepared as tempura.
Kuromame tounyuu toufu to yuba no nabe
Black bean “soymilk” hotpot, with custardy tofu, yuba, leeks, and greens. We were wanting the benefit of some yuzu-koshou to enhance the experience, but this is basic Japanese homestyle comfort food with a bit of a twist.
Kisetsu no nimono
Spring vegetable nimono (simmered vegetables), with some not-quite-so-seasonal kabocha and satoimo.
Deep-fried wheat gluten.
Tsukemono no moriawase
Pickled napa, Japanese cucumber, mustard eggplant, aka-kabu (red turnip), daikon.
Nama-fu no dengaku
Broiled “fresh” wheat gluten, with a sweetened miso sauce. On the far right is one with yomogi (mugwort) and a dark miso.
In a break from the pattern I set a couple of years ago, I went to the Hoteres show on the second day of the FoodEx/Hoteres pair of trade shows; in past years, I usually went on day 3.
Hoteres focuses mostly on restaurant and hospitality industry needs, and this includes equipment, smallwares, guest amenity products, spa and bath, and foodservice products such as frozen pastry doughs for all of those fancy-looking bakeries all over Japan.
I missed most of it while touring the rest of the floor, but apparently some sort of Japanese national barista championship was going on in the food demo stage this afternoon. I managed to catch one contestant show off his skills producing Seattle-style latte foam patterns, a simple pulled shot, and a signature drink/dessert that I’d be tempted to attempt myself. His signature drink was, like most drinks that move beyond the basic latte/straight espresso/con panna pattern, more dessert than coffee, but instead of producing a dessert masquerading as coffee he embraced the idea that a barista could produce a savvy, elegant dessert. Within a strict time limit, he made a whipped cream flavored with chocolate and maybe some espresso, which he piped into a rose shape, then placed in a wide serving cup. He created an infusion of orange peel and milk, simmered briefly, then he whipped an egg or two with some sugar. He produced maybe four shots of espresso which he combined with the strained orange-infused milk with perhaps a bit of chocolate sauce, and he worked the milk into his egg-sugar mixture, creating a kind of liquid custard. He carefully poured the custard into the cup, enabling his whipped cream rose to survived the violent heat of his custard.
The usual assortment of espresso machines, ovens, gas ranges, automatic sushi-making and gyoza-filling machines took up a fair percentage of floor space in the equipment show halls. Hiromi noticed a vendor producing a machine that automatically measures and serves portions of rice into a bowl for donburi-mono, which sounds preposterously unhelpful unless, of course, you happen to run a donburi shop that has huge lunch crowds and want to shave off several seconds per customer to squeeze in as many people as possible without over– or under-portioning.
My favorite fryer company from two years ago was back this year, demonstrating their clever “Clean Fryer” system that filters out liquids and debris into a collection tank at the bottom of the machine. Instead of creating a clogged grease trap, restaurants just need to empty out the slightly dirty wastewater that gets collected below. The gimmicky demo I saw two years ago featured ice cubes and other potentially explosive foods dropped into the fryer without disastrous after-effects; the water gets absorbed by their filtration system, rather than creating a burst of pressurized steam erupting through a batch of hot oil. The wastewater collection area is apparently stable enough to sustain life, as this year’s demonstration gimmick featured tenkasu-fed goldfish swimming obliviously in the glass-walled collection tank.
I’m sure it’s useful for oden-making companies, but I was a little surprised to see a machine that automatically and precisely peels boiled eggs…
For the Japanese spa market, the most amusing product I saw was a variation of the classic “Ashiyu onsen”, or hot spring foot bath. The typical ashiyu onsen is just a small publicly-accessible covered bath that people can take advantage of to get a bit of a respite in a hot spring town. The product we saw was basically a foot bath with a picnic table mounted over the bath, and bench seating… you can imagine a small outdoor restaurant serving simple foods as people relax with their bare feet warmed by hot water, perhaps operating deep into the winter.
The coolest piece of equipment I saw this year was all gimmick, but potentially interesting as a foundation for a franchisable business concept that would give Cold Stone a run for its money: the teppan ice cream maker. The idea is modeled after a teppan, or teppan-yaki grill, but meant to produce cold foods. A shop would use the machine to make made-to-order ice cream, sorbet, and so on, with a -30°C chilled plate, enabling completely custom, made-to-order custom frozen treats. The operator pours sweetened liquids (a gelato or ice cream base, or sorbet base), and can add fresh fruit or other items at the customer’s request, and scrape everything together teppan-yaki style to produce a scoopable, lickable treat. I think it would translate readily to the U.S. market, even if nobody gets the reference to that style of cooking, just because it’s so dramatic to watch ice cream made before the customer’s eyes in just a few seconds.
I didn’t spend as much time as I usually do in the smallwares section, since my knees have been giving me a lot of trouble, but with my current business objectives, I’m thinking any substantial mass-produced ceramicware that I might import won’t be possible to kick off until next year, at the earliest. I’d love to offer some more stylish wafuu ceramics and lacquerware than the larger U.S. importers are doing, but I’m going to continue to keep these kinds of companies in my back pocket rather than invest a lot in buying inventory from them right now.
As I had originally planned for today, I met with a company that makes some really cool hand-tied flower teas, mostly for the hotel and gift markets in Japan, designed in Japan and made by Chinese tea companies. They’ve moved beyond the already innovative flower teas I saw last year that have different stages of expansion, and now have some novel shapes such as ducks, fish, and stars. It may sound a little funny, but the effects can be quite visually stunning to watch.
Tomorrow I’m going back to FoodEx for Day 3, but I have another late night ahead because of another vendor meeting, so I may not get as far as posting photos I’ve taken outside of the trade shows.
After three years attending the same insanely large trade show it would be easy to become a bit jaded… in fact, it’s surprising how little changes from year to year, but the event is still somehow exciting.
One of my goals for this trip was to find some artisanal soy sauce, vinegar, ponzu and tsuyu, hopefully to bundle as some sort of gift package for YuzuMura and then perhaps to offer as a limited-time-only kind of product through my retail client base. Hiromi also steered me toward some specialty udon and soba makers, which I’ve tended to ignore on previous trips, in spite of a personal affinity for such items. I found a fair amount of regional vendors offering products that fit this bill, and I’m hoping one of the companies I met today will work out.
We saw some interesting seasoned nori products from a Japanese company that might be another limited edition product or possibly worth test marketing at higher end retail venues. I know of an insane number of Korean companies doing this, but we found a rare Japanese maker of these products with choices of cute or rustic-gifty packaging, depending on the target customer.
I spent most of my time in the Japanese section of the hall today, taking advantage of Hiromi’s presence to extract more information than I have historically been able to do at this show, and I tried to look at the products with a slightly more opportunity-conscious eye than I have previously done. Of course my eyes were always open at previous shows, but this time I have a better picture of what’s possible in the U.S. market thanks to a fair amount of customer interaction and the benefits of a couple of years of experience. I’d say I have a better understanding of what products can work in the US at price points typical in Japan compared to my first two visits to this annual show.
I met with a couple of my contacts from a Japanese tea company and a “functional foods” ingredient company that I previously worked with to try to get yuzu products for the U.S. market, which continues to be a challenge due to supplier capacity problems. I’m looking for alternate suppliers of Japan-produced matcha as my client’s matcha-focused business grows, and hopefully a few sources of very high quality organically-grown and estate-grown teas.
In a lot of Seattle coffee shops, the owners are increasinlgy demanding organically-grown teas even if it means relying on expensively priced low-grade teas from ubiquitious companies that I shall not name. If you know tea well you know at least one brand of miserably hard to drink organically-grown tea with solid name recognition. Chances are that’s one of the companies I’m thinking of… and I’m rather tired of that kind of expensive mediocrity. I’ve talked with a couple of Japanse tea companies to see if I can find some better options, and I probably have at least one promising candidate for good green tea.
My jetlag is still pretty powerful and I’m not sure I can hold on much longer, but I’ll write a bit more tomorrow on FoodEx. I should be at the Hospitality-focused trade show, Hoteres, most of Wednesday.
Last night Hiromi’s parents picked us up at the airport and took us to our hotel near Shirakanedai station, and treated us to dinner at a kind of izakaya-like spot at Meguro station called Himono-ya.
Himono-ya is one of many basement restaurants in Tokyo, a class of restaurant that occurs primarily in extremely urbanized parts of the U.S. but is fairly ubiquitous in Japan. I recall most German city hall buildings even in moderately small towns tended to have a restaurant, often called “Ratskeller” (City hall basement, unpoetically rendered in English), which tended to serve standard bourgeois German fare. Most of the U.S. restaurant scene prizes street level space and ignores all other options, which means that we don’t spend a lot of time eating underground.
Anyway, we had a pleasant meal that, after 10 hours in an airplane, might have tasted much better than it really was. We had a plate of variously dressed hiya-yakko (cold tofu), an assortment of grilled vegetables with simple condiments, a kabocha salad (more salad than kabocha), and a couple of grilled fish dishes for those who were eating animals. I started falling asleep toward the end of our meal as I didn’t rest on the plane at all and only had 6 hours of sleep the previous several nights.
Today we woke up around 5am and nibbled on whatever we had smuggled into the country with us. We ate some slightly less than agetate curry pan at a Meguro deparment store, and then made our way to Kobeya bakery, where we indulged in some more carbohydrate laden fare.
Behold, a “Sweet Potato Boat”. This is a crumbly cake with nutmeg and cinnamon and serious sweet potato chunks.
A bit more seasonally appropriate, we had this star-shaped sakura (cherry blossom) danish, full of buttery decadence and featuring bits of presumably preserved cherry blossom seasoned bean paste. Nearly cropped out of the frame are some mochi-mochi mini cheese-filled buns, which we would also recommend.
We headed to Jiyuugaoka, not far from Shibuya, for aimless shopping (really, market research). We have some very cool booty from a 100–yen shop and some more extravagant minor indulgences which we’ll post later when we are less completely jetlagged.
I’d like very much to highlight our lunch, but the low lighting conditions in the restaurant meant that our meal was represented sufficiently blurrily as to be unrecognizable. We ate at a restaurant which focuses on negi in all its guises, from scallions to Japanese leeks and perhaps some European varieties. Hiromi had some kind of unagi-topped rice garnished with scallions and served ochazuke style, with tea. I had tororoimo with negi served over brown rice with some pickled konbu, sweetened miso and tarako as accoutrements, along with a nice springtime nimono of simmered bamboo shoots and lotus root, along with a sweet dashimaki tamago with scallions. We both had a nice wakame soup with spiral o-fu (wheat gluten) strips.
Late afternoon we made a pilgrimage to a tea shop operating out of an old house, where we ordered two very Japanese confections.
Anmitsu is a dish of fruit and anko (sweet red bean paste), often served with a black sugar and honey syrup called kuromitsu. In some cases it may be augmented with ice cream, though the shop where we went serves it fairly simply. Anmitsu is the main reason I keep coming back to Japan on a regular basis. (OK, so that’s a bit of an exaggeration…)
Thick matcha and zenzai
Zenzai is usually little more than anko and shiratama, but this nifty version is elegantly bittersweet, slightly covered with thick matcha. I feel a need to replicate this in my own kitchen.
At night we met up with an old friend of mine from my Microsoft days, and a friend of Hiromi’s, whom Hiromi has known since elementary school, dropped in after a late shift at a hospital. We ate at Meguro’s Tuk Tuk, a clever Italian-Thai fusion restaurant that plays it safe on some things, and does a few innovative things. We kept our dishes primarily in the single-metaphor range, and had fairly nice results, by the end of which our jetlag started winning the battle for control over our minds and bodies.
I’m going to FoodEx for the third year in a row next week, the insanely huge Japanese food trade show, where I will go hunting for interesting Asian food products. I’ll also go to Hoteres, a hospitality industry focused trade show.
My business focus has gradually shifted to be less focused on importing itself and more on building the web retail customer base, even if I use other U.S. importers as my vendors for that project, but I am still trying to keep connected to a network of suppliers so that I’m able to move on new opportunities. Also, one of my customers has now dramatically increased their volume requirements, and I need to get in touch with a supplier in Japan to see if I can gain some advantages by working with them.
Hiromi and I have been gradually preparing for our departure on Saturday, but I neglected to snag a reservation at the hotel where we originally planned to stay. It’s probably for the better, because I am really tired of staying in Shinjuku, where the other hotel was located. Instead, we booked a reservation at an even better hotel near Meguro for almost the same price.
I have two days that aren’t fully booked yet, but one of them is on the weekend… I’m not sure if I am going to go to Mashiko to hunt for pottery, or maybe just do something a little more leisure-focused. I’m not sure I can buy any crafts on this trip, although it’s a little less crazy from a cost/margin perspective to import small amounts of pottery than small amounts of food. It does take a bit longer to sell artisanal pottery, though.
We’re only gone for 9 days, departing this Saturday and returning the following Sunday. This is probably the shortest trip I’ve made to Japan in a long time, outside of weird 2–day weekend trips I made bordering other business trips to Asia when I worked for Microsoft. But my contracting gig limits how much time I can spend traveling, and even if I weren’t doing that right now, I’d be a little concerned about the insane costs of spending a couple of weeks in Japan. Of course, the cost of 2 weeks isn’t very diferent from 1, but the distraction from my business is pretty painful.
This time I’ve got some meetings planned with some companies that I think will be interesting to work with, and I look forward to opening some new doors.
In spite of occasional binges cooking okonomiyaki, I don’t think I’ve ever bothered to photograph the results.
I have two or three variations of vegetarian okonomiyaki that I cycle through… Later this fall, I’ll probably start making some with kabocha, and I sometimes like to make it with kimchi and cheese. I probably should have done something with corn this summer, but I only started to think of making okonomiyaki when I saw a great deal on nagaimo recently… it was $3/lb, instead of the usual $6–9.
In this case, I’ve made a mochi cheese okonomiyaki, with a healthy dose of grated nagaimo, kizami shouga, and tenkasu. The mochi I purchased frozen, so they aren’t quite as dry as the kirimochi that are sold vacuum-sealed; they required no special consideration except for a few minutes of thawing before being cut into small pieces.
Tenkasu are small fried balls of tempura batter, which were originally merely side effects of deep-frying foods but now are produced as a carefully manufactured, predictable product. They add a little crunch to okonomiyaki, but the texture disappears quickly since okonomiyaki takes about 10–15 minutes to cook and steam will often soften much of the tenkasu.
In the last minute or so of cooking, I add Japanese-style mayonnaise, okonomi sauce, and some aonori (unseasoned gren nori flakes).
I did do some actual work today and met with a whole bunch of people, most of which were productive, though nothing I can quite reveal yet. I was running around but not really overwhelmed.
On the last day at FoodEx I followed up with a couple of companies I had some interest in, and then I made a few other discoveries.
I can’t say that there was one product I would absolutely have to have this time, but I found several that I’m quite interested in and I think I’ll try to work something out with a few of the companies I ran into.
Because it was the end of the show for me, I spent more time cruising the non-Asian booths, and I found a suitably gimmicky nightclub drink product from an Austrian company. The product comes in metal tubes, in either alcoholic “cocktails” or non-alcoholic “energy drinks.” The taste of the cranberry-flavored “Wodka” cocktail isn’t quite my style, but the overall concept seems very clever and suitable for clubs trying to get some sort of attention. I chatted in German with one of the company representatives for a little while, and realized how sloppy my German is these days.
Actually one thing I’m happy about is that I think I’ve found some items with reasonable shelf-life at modest costs which still have decent style and interesting origin stories. Some nice cookies from Malaysia, some nicely-packaged sauces from Thailand, and various other things that seem to have good market potential without steering too far from my company vision.
By 4:10 pm most exhibitors started packing everything and departing. I was surprised that the 4:30 finishing time really meant “no later than 4:30”. Of course the trains were completely insane for the next couple of hours… I sat in a pastry shop for about an hour and I still couldn’t get a seat on the train from Makuhari station.
For dinner Hiromi and I stopped at a restaurant I really enjoyed a few years ago called Yuuan in Nishi-Shinjuku. It was still good food, but not quite the transcendent experience I remember from last time I was there. We had a nice “white sesame oil” nabe with very soft tofu and various spring vegetables, a simple tomato appetizer, and a pumpkin croquette, and some mountain vegetable tempura. The last time I was there they had their own house-infused liqueurs but these were apparently absent this time.