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Buried alive

jason

I don't think you can say you've truly confronted your own mortality until you've been buried alive in volcanically heated sand.

When Hiromi and I discussed our plans for this trip to Japan, I mentioned I'd like to go to an onsen in Kagoshima, but I am fairly certain I never suggested that we should go to the beach and have some late-middle-aged sadists bury us.

Vacations don't always go the way you envisioned them, of course. Yet, it's important not to be close your mind to possibilities outside of the realm of your narrow experience. And, I'd say partly thanks to the limitations of my Japanese ability, I barely understood what I was in for, so I only experienced a surmountable bit of trepidation.

We were at Ibusuki, Kagoshima. Sane people take an airplane here, but after years of building my Japan itineraries one to three weeks in roughly the same place, interrupted by one or two short side trips, Hiromi and I elected to get a rail pass and see Japan like we're tourists. We took a 6-7 hour train ride from Tokyo to Fukuoka last Thursday, where we focused primarily on eating and sleeping (Fukuoka has other things to recommend it, but is a fine location for both purposes), before continuing on to our potential demise several hours further south.

We arrived at Hotel Shusuien Friday night at 6:30. This particular ryokan has consistently won awards naming its food the best in Japan (18 years running) from a ryokan-focused magazine, which we only knew a few days after Hiromi chose it. More on that later; I'll I show off what we ate in a subsequent post.

The staff suggested we try out the sand baths, and offered to start our dinner at an unusually late 8 pm. Most ryokan are nearly ready turn in for the night by this time, so we were pleased with the option. Hiromi looked forward to a quick sunamushi bath.

I didn't quite understand what was going on, but I did learn that most people can only stand 10-15 minutes of whatever we were about to do, and that if we couldn't endure it, we should shake our hips a bit. She demonstrated.

If you've never seen a 70 year-old Japanese obaachan demonstrate shaking her hips in a ryokan uniform-style kimono, it's a gesture which implants itself disturbingly deep in your psyche.

So on to the burial.

We had changed into the hotel's yukata, so we were presented with zouri and were shuttled by car a short stretch away.

On arrival, we presented a coupon from our hotel, and were provided with another yukata, into which we were advised to change. We followed signs that led us out to the beach, where we discovered a number of people already in the mummified state.

Staffed by two 60-something interrers bearing wide shovels, the sand baths occupy a long strip of land 30 meters or so from the water. Each bath is wide enough to support about 4 persons abreast, and 2 lengthwise.

The female attendant briefly explained to Hiromi how to position herself. My height and clumsiness presented a few logistical challenges, so the male attendant spent a bit more time guiding me into just the right position. They dig out a spot roughly based on the size of their typical customers, but with a little finesse, it works for everyone.

Once positioned, we are quickly buried. The attendants alternately dig, then drop hot sand over us. Dressed in simple yukata, head partially covered by a small towel, we are fully clothed, but somehow more vulnerable than we would be in a regular onsen or sentou.

After about 60 seconds underneath a pile of hot sand, you feel piercing heat on your naked extremities, the hands and feet. The rest of your body notices little more than the weight of the sand covering you, save for a hint of steam. After two or three minutes, you start to become incredibly conscious of your heartbeat. Every thump of your heart pushes the sand an inch higher, and yet it hasn't moved at all.

Your breathing necessarily slows as some kind of survival mechanism, even though the first impulse is to breathe more heavily. The ribcage actually does move; if you look at the person next to you, you will see that the sand rises and crests rhythmically.

After five minutes or so, your face becomes covered in sweat, and deeply red. Perhaps you feel the urge to shake your hips.

Seven or eight minutes into the burial, you cease to fight the improbability of your circumstances, and you are strangely relaxed.

And yet, after 10-12 minutes, you feel a slight discomfort again, and your toes and fingers want to find their way to the surface. You shake your hips, just as the obaachan instructed.

First, your toes emerge, and the ocean breeze against newly exposed skin makes the heat bearable again. Then, your hands are free, and you gain just a bit more energy.

But, barring some irrational competitive urge, you will last no more than 15 minutes. Any more would be too close to cheating death. You find a way to rise out from the sand, somewhat zombie-like at first, until you realize that you are still a mortal entity and that yes, in spite of your yukata, the sand has indeed made its way into every crevice of your body imaginable.

You retire to the shower, where you spend more effort than customarily needed to wash yourself, and take a brief dip in the onsen bath before returning to the ryokan for dinner.

You feel inexplicably refreshed.

You are still alive, and you have an extravagant dinner awaiting you.

Doing the unthinkable in Tokyo

jason

As a 6'3" tall American with a slightly larger than desirable waistline, there's one thing I've never been crazy enough to seriously undertake in Tokyo.

I've never gone shopping for clothing.

Sure, I've been in department stores, but usually in the food sections or the dinnerware and lacquerware sections. I've never been brave enough to look for clothing, on the assumption that sizes suitable for my frame would not be easy to find, and that prices would be stratospheric.

In desperation, I once bought a few pairs of socks in a department store in Seoul, but that's as close as I've gotten. (Note: if you have any antipathy toward being heavily branded, don't look for socks in Seoul).

In an attempt to be somewhat frugal for the last 8 months or so, I haven't bought any clothing. By "haven't bought any clothing," I mean precisely that: no socks, no shirts, no shoes, no service. Not once. Even my book-buying impulses had been mostly curtailed. My single pricy indulgence has been dining out for dinner once or twice a week.

The last time I bought any new clothing was when Hiromi was visiting in Vancouver, and I desperately needed a shirt to go with the suit that I had brought in anticipation of dinner at West.

The problem with not buying any clothing is that I had precisely two pairs of shorts suitable for use anywhere more public than the gym, and Tokyo is hot in August. Really hot. In Seattle, I can get buy on two pairs of shorts in the summer, as I tend to use them no more than twice a week.

So we went searching for shorts. I found some that looked decent at Muji, but the largest size available was, shall we say, snug. As soon as I lose 20 lbs or so, I can consider coming back.

Most other department store options we tried were similarly impossible, including outposts of Seattle brands like Columbia Sportswear and Kavu. "Extra-large" corresponded to a 34" waist. I've had a 34" waist, back when I considered myself reasonably skinny. But it's been a few years.

We did find one suitable pair of shorts at the department store, but it was nearly $80. With only about 4-6 weeks of "shorts weather" left when I return to Seattle, I balked a bit.

So finally, I did something else I've never considered. I looked for something at the Gap. For mostly irrational reasons, I've never been motivated to look for anything there.

XL here was actually the same as XL in US shops, so I managed to comfortably fit into three of four pairs of shorts that I tried. Sale pricing reduced the sticker shock considerably, and Japan's lower sales tax made the price roughly equivalent to what I'd expect to pay for similar items at home.

It's rather sad that I've come all this way only to find myself shopping at the Gap, but you do what you've got to do. Plus I did find some plain T-shirts and socks for a reasonable price at Muji, which I've been going through at twice the usual rate thanks to the warm weather, so I've stocked up a bit.

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Okinawan Lunch at Yurakucho

jason

Hiromi planned lunch with a few friends at Yurakucho yesterday, so we went a little early and shopped a bit at the Wakayama specialty shop and an Okinawan store to pick up some umeboshi, awamori, and various snacks and treats.

After browsing shelves full of tofuyo, Hiromi was in the mood to eat something Ryukyuan, so it was a fortunate coincidence that our group stumbled on an Okinawan restaurant in a nearby department store building.

Indulging my vegetarian habit in Japan is essentially impossible, at least with any degree of rigidity. But Okinawan food is even trickier. (More impossible?)

With a heavy reliance on pork wherever an excuse can be made to use it, even a basic noodle dish is served with hefty portions of tender braised pork belly (buta no kaku ni). Hiromi orders Okinawan soba as part of a set meal, and discovers that Okinawan soba is somewhere between ramen and udon in texture, and is made entirely of wheat flour, with poetic license much like "chuuka soba" or "yakisoba."

The buta no kaku ni is lighter in color than the typical Japanese version, thanks largely to eithered reduced quantities or the complete absence of soy sauce.

Normally, making substitutions at lunch is impossible, as it severely messes with the kitchen's mojo during the business lunch hour. But we came a little after 1pm, and the restaurant said they'd be happy to cook something off the dinner menu if I couldn't find something suitable from the lunch menu.

So we ordered the closest things to vegetarian dishes we could find.

First up was nigana no shiro-ae, made with a bitter herb indigenous to Okinawa. Nigana is a somewhat ambiguous term in Japan, but in Okinawa it seems to refer to one local species of plant. I was expecting this to be more of a vegetable dish than a tofu dish, but considering the intensity of the flavor, the proportion of tofu to herb made sense.

I can't quite place the flavor, but it would be somewhat fair to compare it to arugula or maybe dandelion greens.

Another dish, recommended by one of Hiromi's friends, was a soft tofu dish called yuri-doufu, somewhere between oborodoufu and kinugoshi-doufu in texture. It's quite similar to Korean-style soon-dubu. The soup it's served with is far from vegetarian, but was mild in flavor.

Nigana tofu and yuri doufu

I had another dish called hirayachi, an Okinawan-style pancake comparable to a the simplest Korean pajeon, but described in Japanese as "Okinawan okonomiyaki."

hirayachi

Unlike pajeon, the hirayachi I had did not contain scallions. The Okinawan dish is often made with nira, usually translated as garlic chives, an essential ingredient for making gyoza. I think there may have been a few pieces of tiny dried shrimp in the batter or maybe finely chopped kamaboko, and it's topped with katsuobushi, but I retain a sense of humor when dining out, especially in Japan.

The pancake is served with substantial portion of a mild soy-based dipping sauce, much less salty than the typical Korean equivalent. It's very simple, and since it's so thin, it probably just takes a few minutes to cook, but I like it.

We lingered long enough that it was already coffee hour when we finished, so we stopped and had some espresso-based drinks at some concept chain from the Illy brand. I ordered some odd (but actually nice) stuffed marshmallow concoctions, one made with tomato jam and the other flavored with coffee, as a little sweet thing.

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Catastrophic failure, just in time

jason

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.

Almost here

jason

Hiromi is finally due to arrive in Seattle on Tuesday. It would probably be smart to get the small errands done that I have fallen behind on, but I've only made a small dent. I've got a rather long list.

I have to pick Hiromi up at the airport, which is likely to take longer than usual thanks to the extra time involved in processing her visa. I'm still debating whether to take the whole day off  from my day job on Tuesday or just skip out for the morning.

This week is sure to be busy, as we have a full dance card almost as soon as she arrives. I'm hoping to have a day to relax sometime in the next month.

Our travel plans have firmed up. We'll be in Japan from August 13 to 28th. We have to be in Tokyo from the evening of August 17 to August 20th (though we might be able to make a little day trip on the 19th).

I'm hoping we'll head up north, though I'm not sure how far north, between August 14 and 17th. From the 20th-28th, we have no pressing obligations, so I want to find some way to go as far west as Kagoshima, maybe spend a little time in onsen. If possible, I'd like to stop in Karatsu and Hagi. Hiromi's got her eye on Takamatsu to see a friend, and I think Fukuoka might have been on her list as well.

I usually avoid the JR Pass these days, but this is the first time Hiromi will be eligible to use one, so we're going to be crazy and do the complete opposite of the style of travel I've been accustomed to.

Normally, I prefer to make a couple of small trips and not spend too much time in transit. But every once in a while, the whirlwind tour has its place... And I haven't been further west than the Kansai region in about 6 or 7 years, so it'll be nice to get to the other side.

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Tokyo embassy interview date scheduled

jason

Yes, I know I'm a slacker and all that. I promise I'll be somewhat motivated to write more in the near future. I might even cover something more interesting than the frustrations of navigating the US immigration system, like food.

I do have some good news, though it throws a wrinkle in my budget for the next several months. Hiromi got an interview date for her permanent resident visa at the Tokyo embassy.

It turns out that it's on her birthday, August 18.

She didn't want to be separated on either our anniversary or her birthday, so it looks like I'll be making a short trip to Japan in mid-August.

Ouch. Mid-August. That's going to hurt in at least two ways.

The average daily high temperature in Tokyo during the month of August is 87F (courtesy Weather.com), and it generally doesn't cool down below 75F at night. It's also incredibly humid.

The last time I visited Japan during the summer, it was late July, and my very light summer shirts soaked all the way through with sweat just minutes after going outdoors. You should have seen me walking through Kamakura...

Needless to say, for the last 7 years, I've avoided revisiting Tokyo in summer.

The other source of pain is this: mid-August is Obon season. Flights will likely be quite expensive, as will almost all over our lodging and travel. That's not even considering the impact of massive fuel surcharges and fee increases on airfare that have hit hard this year.

Hiromi has been tentatively planning to come to Seattle mid-July, as she does have a perfectly adequate spouse visa, and she also has some plans in Dallas for late July. As I've mentioned before, we wanted the most expeditious way of getting permanent resident status. Barring any disastrous complications, we should be able to quickly move on to the next steps, like finding Hiromi a job (anyone in Seattle need an experienced localization/globalization tester or PHP/Rails hacker starting in late August?), and moving out of my very confining Fremont apartment.

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Vancouver treats

jason

Briefly reunited for a couple of weeks during the Christmas and New Year's holiday, Hiromi and I spent most of our time in Vancouver quietly. Most of our previous trips to Vancouver had been rather quick and hurried, and we ended up choosing where to eat without any particular research or care. This time, though, we had the opportunity to do a bit more exploration, and we made some pleasant discoveries.

The exchange rates made even the cheaper dining options a bit expensive. Hiromi's whim to eat some sort of Mexican food led us to a place that made many of Seattle's mediocre chain yellow-cheese laden places seem almost gourmet, and we paid almost twice as much for the privilege. But we also had plenty of favorable experiences.

Cru in VancouverWe met up with some local members of eGullet.org, a food community site that I participate in, at Cru, a Pacific Northwest focused restaurant on West Broadway. We decided to mostly entrust the chef with decisions on the food, and they made one or two dishes just for my benefit (I was the only vegetarian) that weren't on the menu.

I can't recall a single misstep in the menu. Mostly simple, elegant dishes focused on the ingredients, the food was pleasant and carefully prepared. I was particularly happy with a mushroom risotto garnished with some pea sprouts. We had a nice Syrah and some complimentary sparkling wine. The interior had a cozy-but-contemporary feel, and felt very relaxed. It resembles Seattle's Veil in some ways, but has perhaps a bit more comfortable atmosphere.

Eggy pasta with the last possible chanterelles

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We stayed in a little Yaletown studio apartment, which gave us the luxury of eating at home reasonably often. We kept most of our meals simple, constrained as we were by a minimalist pantry and a more basic set of kitchen equipment than I have at home, but most everything we produced worked fairly well. I carried some basic magic from my pantry in Seattle: olive oil, Spanish paprika, a little argan oil, soy sauce, mirin, salt and a pepper mill. We had a little salad with macadamia nuts and dried cranberries, along with an improvised version of my yuzu dressing.

One night we had a simple wide noodle egg pasta with some truffled sheep's milk cheese, shallots, cream, and some of the last possible chanterelles of the season.

Raw brie!

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I had brought a couple of varieties of crackers with me from Seattle, mostly because I wanted to make use of them before they lost their charms. During our stay in Vancouver, we went cheese hunting on Granville Island, and came home with an excellent raw milk Brie de Meaux, a truffled sheep's milk cheese from Italy, and some soft nice chevre from Salt Spring Island. The raw milk Brie was spectacularly flavorful, with an almost grassy, pasture-like aroma... I really haven't ever had a nicer one. I'm not sure who they bribed to make it possible to sell in Canada, but we delighted in knowing we were eating something that's essentially forbidden in the US. Even when I was living in Germany, I don't think I ever managed to find a raw Brie. The truffled cheese was also very nice, and the chevre worked particularly well as a stuffing for sweet dates.

Hiromi had a craving for cookies on Christmas, so I made some thumbprint cookies with a black currant jam.

West Restaurant & Bar in VancouverWe had a quiet evening on New Year's Eve, as we had planned a special dinner at West in lieu of attending some sort of New Year's Eve party.

We had some nice pre-dinner cocktails, though thanks to our indecision on the drinks the first course or two passed before we really moved on to the wine. We had sort of imagined we would order a B.C. wine of some sort, but when we asked for something in the Syrah/Shiraz world, the waiter steered us toward the French or Australian options, so we gave up on drinking local in favor of an excellent French Syrah, priced fairly reasonably at around $85.

Hiromi had the West Tasting Menu ($129) and I had the vegetarian ($89). My amuse, a truffled cauliflower pureed soup, served in an espresso-like cup for sipping, was a pleasant way to start things off, and Hiromi had some little seafood treat that she was quite pleased with. We both had a beautifully presented marinated beet dish, in which a soft chevre was sandwiched between slices of beet, brightened by a simple vinaigrette and pine nuts.

Hiromi's next course was seared foie gras and duck confit and pear salad, and I had a shaved truffle-heavy frisee salad sprinkled with some translucent crispy wafers of unspecified origin. The truffles were almost overpowering in my salad, but I still ate every bite.

Hiromi was thrilled by a seared scallop dish with a delightfully rich-yet-refreshing cilantro sauce, which she thought would be enjoyable even by people hostile to cilantro. The vegetarian course also featured a bit of cilantro, adorning a surprisingly endearing ginger and tomato braised artichoke.

The next course, a fillet of sturgeon for Hiromi with fennel jam and artichokes, and a bell pepper confit risotyo for me. Both solid, nicely executed dishes.

The only misstep was in the fifth course, and the same error affected both of us. Hiromi received a lamb dish, and I had an "open raviolo" with butternut squash. Both of these dishes were accompanied by some unspecified savory foam and some sauteed wild mushrooms, and that's where the disappointment hit us: somehow they had been oversalted. When eaten together with another component of the dish, they were tolerable, but they were too salty to be enjoyed on their own merits.

The cheese course and dessert course took our minds off the imperfect 5th course. We both had a dark molded mousse (or "Marquis") between two rectangles of chocolate, served alongside a vanilla tapioca. For me this triggered a bit of nostalgia, but Hiromi has little to no experience with tapioca puddings, so it was more of a novelty for her.

We had a little grappa, one serving of a local dry, but slightly harsh B.C. product, and a fruity and memorable Alexander Platinum.

Service was not as flawless as our previous experience at Lampreia in Seattle, the only comparable meal we've had at a restaurant. The server was occasionally distracted, perhaps having too many tables to accommodate, so it took several attempts before we could order our drinks; of course, one was due to a bit of indecision after learning one choice wasn't available that night. But I was pleased to have a carefully constructed vegetarian tasting menu, an option that wasn't on the table at Lampreia. For that, we'd need to go somewhere like Rover's.

Hiromi's comment, after trying West, was that Lampreia seemed to delight in simple flavors occasionally constructed from impossible-to-imagine components such as a cracker made almost entirely from tomatoes, ravioli made with skins constructed from pineapple, and other fanciful pieces. On the other hand, in West's cuisine, every ingredient was recognizable; the effort seemed spent mostly on carefully composed, sometimes complex sauces with surprising, but not jarring flavors.

I've done most of my extravagant dining in Japan, in ryokan (Japanese inns), where the food is an elaborate but essentially rustic experience. I've not really done much in the way of true kaiseki, except some scaled-back versions in Kyoto. But I'm actually probably more familiar with the conventions of Japanese style multicourse dining than I am with the French tradition. I lived in Germany as a student with no money, so "fancy" dining meant going to a restaurant serving burgerliche Kuche and getting bland croquettes with overcooked vegetables, or perhaps a very, very buttery omelet.

I'm still excited by the experience of a place like West or Lampreia, but part of me wishes dinner included a Japanese bath and a place to sleep.

We got home early, around 9:30, thanks to our early seating. I think we were up until around midnight, because I recall hearing shouting and fireworks outside, but we weren't part of the revelry.

Hiromi goes snowboarding while I drink lousy coffee

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It's probably a good thing we had an early night. Although we were awake enough to hear the revelry at midnight, on New Year's Day we planned to wake up unusually early so that we could take Hiromi on a day trip to her first home in Canada, Whistler, B.C.

We haven't been to Whistler since Christmas 2003, when Hiromi made her first visit to the US to see me. Somehow I convinced myself to take a lesson in snowboarding, and then proceded down the mountain very, very slowly the next day. This time, I had a little cold, and my knees aren't what they once were, so I decided to opt out.

I spent most of my day drinking very mediocre coffee and hacking code on a pet Ruby on Rails project. When Hiromi was done for the day, we stopped at the home of Fusaki Iida, a snowboarder/writer/teacher that she knew when on working holiday in Whistler earlier in the decade.

My cold got particularly nasty at night. It was bad enough that, even though I'm sure Hiromi was completely worn out from snowboarding by the end of the day, she ended up making a run across the street to the pharmacy and took over making dinner while I collapsed on the bed, still in my wool coat

By the next morning, though, I felt much better... I was a bit congested, but not anywhere near the condition I went to bed in. The massive doses of hot, artificially cherry flavored cold medicine did the trick. Or maybe it was only a 24 hour bug.

During the trip, we also met a couple Hiromi's friends, from the days when she was living in Vancouver. We had coffee and desserts at Ganache down the street from us, and chatted for far longer than planned back at our apartment. We met another friend at Caffe Artigiano, which has decent coffee too.

A bit of good news arrived just after Christmas... After 4 months, the United States Customs and Immigration Service finally acknowledged receipt of our petition for Hiromi's permanent residence status. That particular step normally takes about 2 weeks, but things have been unusually sluggish. The attorney sent off the next batch of paperwork for her visa, which was acknowledged about 3 weeks later. We don't know how long it will take until Hiromi's visa is approved, but it's been a long process. The spouse visa is supposed to be done within three months or so, but can only be filed after the first petition is acknowledged. We're now expecting the permanent resident petition to be approved before the actual visa application, which adds some complications to the process.

No time, no time

jason

I've had some busy trips to Japan before, but this one pushes the envelope... Today, I'm on my way back home.

After I get back, assuming I have any energy, I'll write about a few trip highlights.

Akarenga Soka, Yokohama

Akarenga Yokohama

Tokyo celebrates Halloween

jason

Bee Movie?

Bee Movie?

On the weekend we discovered that Japan has taken a marked interest in Halloween... Harajuku and Omote-sando were filled with costumed children and adults, some carrying plastic pumpkins to various shops that apparently were giving away small treats.

Small superheroes

Small superheroes

Some people even lined up outside department stores, presumably for some sort of treasure.

Mostly costumed lineup

Halloween lineup

Harajuku had clusters of costumed children. We didn't make it out to the annual Kawasaki-area Halloween parade, but I understand that's an even bigger event than what we spotted in Omotesando.

We can perhaps thank global commerce and expert marketing, but Halloween seems to be roughly a week-long event in Japan. Costumes start on the weekend preceding the holiday, as far as I can tell, and continued all the way into bars and restaurants on Halloween night.

Bakeries offer pumpkin filled cookie sandwiches and in the shape of Jack-O-Lanterns, and I even found a Halloween-themed tenugui, or dyed cotton cloth. Halloween is all about commerce, much as it is in the US, without all the visceral impact the symbolism of Halloween has to most Americans, weaned on ghost stories about witches and zombies, during horror movie season.

Ladybug and wizard: Off we go

Ladybug and wizard

Obon and Halloween are really the same holiday, differences in rituals aside. Since I usually avoid coming to Japan during the peak heat of summer, I have only witnessed Nikkei celebrations of obon, and those a month earlier than typical (to fit in to the more important Seafair schedule in Seattle). But both are ways for living people to come to terms with death and the unknown.

In Japan, though, any of Halloween's association with the supernatural is apparently nonexistent. Cuteness rules all costuming decisions; nobody tries to be over-the-top disturbing, and everyone appears to use Halloween as an excuse for consumption.

In contrast, I remember being at a shrine in Kamakura just after dark many years ago, and my Japanese companion was clearly slightly unnerved... I was unable to relate, as I felt none of the same goosebump-raising vibrations that come from a lifetime of association of shrines with death and ghosts. Americans, more influenced by Christian teachings that tried to quash pagan leanings in indigenous European cultures, are more likely to find their hair raised by the shadows and noises of Pan's forests.

Travel plans: October 24-November 6

jason

My little brother took off the entire semester to save up money so that he could come to Japan to attend the family wedding Hiromi and I had planned... then our plans became complicated.

William was committed to making the trip, wedding or not, so I'm dragging him along on a quite different itinerary.

The schedule that worked best for us turned out to coincide with a weekend trip Hiromi had planned with her parents in Nikko. After discussing things with Hiromi, I slightly adjusted the plan so that we'd all be able to travel together.

We're also planning a trip to Mashiko on November 4, but most of the time we'll be in or near Tokyo. I'll do my best to post photos during the trip... I've been a little sluggish about posting recently, but that's mostly due to work-related exhaustion, and other minor frustrations.

If your path might cross mine, please let me know. Perhaps we can have tea or a little lunch...

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

jason

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...

Toraya Cafe: Wagashi reimagined.

jason

After our big lunch, we found ourselves at Toraya Cafe, another fancy Omotesando Hills concept restaurant.

You'd think that we couldn't possibly have room to eat more.

However, to think so, you must be oblivious to the concept of betsubara... literally, separate stomach, the idea is expressed rather verbosely in English as "there's always room for dessert."

Toraya Cafe is a contemporary-style wagashi shop... Much like Tsujiri Cafe, from Uji, they reference traditional wagashi (Japanese confectionary) but playfully reimagine flavors and presentations. Toraya, though, is a very old confectionary company, and their parent company is equally adept at old-school and contemporary wagashi.

Most of us ordered some sort of beverage, generally some kind of tea. Kristin ordered  a "matcha glacé", a sort of sweet matcha drink that doubles as a dessert.

Tōnyū Pudding with Matcha Sauce

Tōnyū Pudding with Matcha Sauce 

I ordered some azuki-cha (roasted azuki mean tea) served cold, with optional wasanbon syrup, a lightly processed sugar cane syrup, as a sweetener.

One of the things I love about soy-based foods in Japan, including desserts, is that, for the most part, little effort is made to conceal the soy flavor. In fact, the aroma of the soybean is often intentionally highlighted. Soy is not some sort health food or a second-class milk or meat substitute, but, when suitably fresh, a remarkable flavor all its own.

This tounyuu purin, or soy milk pudding, has a pronounced soy flavor and is pleasingly creamy.

A thick matcha-based crème anglaise adds a bittersweet touch and contrasts nicely with the soy pudding.

Dark azuki beans, slightly sweet, garnish the dessert in the same way you might expect to see in a coffee-based dessert.

Oshiruko With Pu-erh infusion

Oshiruko With Pu-erh infusion

This remarkable variation of oshiruko, sweet azuki soup, is relatively traditional except for one subtle base note: The azuki are simmered with earthy Chinese pu-erh tea. Since azuki already has a somewhat earthy flavor, the flavor doesn't dominate, but provides a pleasant underlying accent that adds a subtle complexity to a dish that normally has a very straightforward, sweet flavor.

A few shiratama, also slightly tweaked for this dish, had, I believe, a little accent from white sesame seeds.

Although Toraya is a fairly large company, their cafe is, for me, one of the pleasant things that can happen when someone with vision and firm roots in a culinary tradition smartly reinterprets their palette of flavors and techniques with a creative eye. It's not hit-you-over-the-head culinary drama, but it's pleasingly innovative, and worth seeking out.

Yasaiya Mei: Robata-ya for madamu in Omotesandō

jason

If you're a suitably fortunate madamu, you wouldn't be caught dead in your husband's favorite, smelly neighborhood robata-ya restaurant. However, that doesn't mean you would completely eschew the idea of charcoal-grilled altogether. You just want it to be a little more elegant... and perhaps a little less heavy on the smoke.

For those well-heeled women, there is Yasaiya Mei, a high-drama robata-ya in the sparkly, mine-like structure known as Omotesandō Hills.

Hiromi and I had eyed this spot after our previous outing to Omotesandō, and put it on our list of places to come back to. The dinner menu was out when we first walked by in the late afternoon, and it was fairly tempting, so we tried to find an excuse to come back.

We made plans for lunch with Kristin of eGullet and some of Hiromi's friends for a weekend lunch, and ended up choosing this spot since absolutely none of us would be able to make it there for lunch on a normal workday. For most of us it was a bit of a splurge, certainly for lunch, though some people got away with a slightly less expensive set. Lunch goes for JPY 2400-4000 ($22~40).

Two people, including me, ordered a spring vegetable set meal with some partial vegetarian accommodations. A British software developer in our group also prefers to eat vegetarian, so we ordered the same menu option. However, in just a couple months in Japan he's resigned himself to eating fish, preferring just to avoid chunks of pork and chicken and the like because it adds so much complexity to dining out, so he

On this trip I've found that restaurants we've visited have been surprisingly accommodating for my vegetarian quirk. It's not customary in Japan to accept special requests (or, more importantly, to make them) at restaurants, so that hasn't always been the case. I don't know if it's because we tended to eat in fairly high-end spots, if we just happened to stumble on places with excellent service standards, or if things are gradually changing.

Hiromi and Kristen ordered a special-of-the-day lunch, and one person ordered a simple curry set meal. Grilled items weren't terribly prominent, but were featured in most of our meals.

First course, vegetable set

First course, vegetable set, Yasaiya, Omotesando, Japan

Five little vegetable-highlighting dishes... as usual, practicing a vegetarian diet in Japan requires a sense of humor and a tolerance for fish-as-garnish, as in the case of the typical katsuo-bushi (shaved bonito) dressed ohitashi (blanched vegetable dish, center) and the sakura-ebi (tiny shrimp) garnished sunomono (sweet vinegar dressed dish, left).

Sappari Aloe

Sappari Aloe 

Our server noticed that one of the dishes in this starter course was made with crab, and without me asking, quickly swapped that dish out for an elegant and refreshing aloe ohitashi, which was meant for today's special lunchbox. A few years ago, aloe as a vegetable became all the rage throughout Asia, and this simple dish is reflective of that. It's reminiscent of mozuku, thanks to the neba-neba (sticky) qualities of the aloe and the slightly acidic sauce.

Ume gelee-dressed vegetables

Ume gelee-dressed vegetables

This ume-gelee dressed vegetable dish was surprisingly sappari. I guess I'm a sucker for Japanese apricot, but I was almost expecting this to be either strangely sweet or intensely sour; instead, it was well-balanced and full of pleasing contrasts.

Potato and green bean salad in bamboo "bark"

Ume gelee-dressed vegetables

This simple bamboo shoot and green bean aemono gets a dramatic treatment with a garnish from the outer layer of a bamboo shoot.

Vegetable curry rice set

Vegetable curry rice set

One of Hiromi's friends ordered an elegant Japanese-style curry rice with an unusual presentation... the rice comes adorned with goya (bitter melon), takenoko (bamboo shoot) and other vegetables, and the curry itself is served in a gravy boat, which the guest uses to pours the hot curry over the rice herself... some pickles and another small side dish accompany this.

Two-tiered lunchbox

Two-tiered lunchbox

I was too distracted to remember all of the things that come in the day's special two-tiered lunchbox, but the list was so long on the menu that I stopped reading carefully. It includes some agemono (fried foods), a rice dish with ikura (seasoned salmon roe) and bamboo shoots, a few yakimono (grilled fish, vegetables and meat). I think the confetti-puff-rice covered ball is a kind of meatball.

The starter tier

The starter tier

The upper tier includes an aloe dish (as above), a kind of nagaimo pudding (I think), renkon (lotus root) chips, and a little maguro.

Vegetable set second course

Vegetable set second course

My order comes in two stages, and this second course features a rice dish, a grilled dish, a poached glutinous rice ball, and miso soup.

Steamed rice with fava beans

Steamed rice with fava beans

Soramame (fava beens), maybe some nanohana (rapeseed greens), and some kind of ingen (green beans), along with some mushrooms and an herb garnish top my steamed rice.

Nimono, perhaps, with glutinous rice

Nimono, perhaps, with glutinous rice

This glutinous rice ball is poached a bit in seasoned soup stock and served with shiitake slices. It was hard to resist.

Yakimono

Yakimono with bamboo, asparagus, shiitake and cherry tomatoes

This was my set of robata-grilled dishes... the always-tempting spring takenoko, grilled bamboo shoots; grilled asparagus, shiitake, a cherry tomato, and a little nut that I'm forgetting the name of.

The bowl makes the miso soup

The bowl makes the miso soup

Spring greens in a strong miso soup.

Pickled gourd

Pickled gourd

Most of us got this surprisingly tasty pickled hyōtan, or gourd. I can't recall actually eating hyoutan anywhere else before. I wouldn't hesitate to eat it again... I was surprised. It was fairly ordinary, as pickles go, but I just haven't seen it before.

Shokugo

Shokugo

To finish the meal, everyone received a little tea (low-end matcha), and two kinds of wagashi. One is similar to warabi-mochi (right), and the other is a flavored rice cake.

We weren't quite finished... After our big lunch, we wandered off to chat more and to have some contemporary, reimagined wagashi at Toraya just a few floors below...

Short trip to Mashiko

jason

We made a little trip to Mashiko on the weekend before coming back to Seattle.

We went, in part, so that I could replenish my ever-shrinking ceramics collection on YuzuMura.com. I was also looking for some new artists to consider for later in the year.

Minowa Yasuo passed away a couple years ago, so I haven't been able to buy anything he made for a long time. Besides, my original plan to sell my ceramics to galleries morphed into a mostly web-based sales model. My previous habit of buying a few remarkable pieces per artist doesn't work very well on the web, since the burden of photographing something I only have one or two examples of becomes rather exhausting. By next year, I expect I'll have fewer choices but a better ability to handle larger orders for them.

Large bowl by Akutsu Masato

Akutsu Masato large bowl

During Golden Week, Mashiko has one of two annual pottery festivals, so many artists and production kilns were out showing off their wares. We made our way to my favorite galleries first, and we were pleased to stumble upon a show by Akutsu Masato and the rest of his family at Moegi. I hadn't done much advance planning on this trip, so it was a good coincidence... I discovered that I brought the wrong contact information for him anyway, so if it hadn't been for the show at Moegi I might not have been able to get hold of him.

Masato's father, who is incredibly charming, also had some very nice pieces at the family show, and Masato's mother's work is very compelling as well, so now I'm considering importing work from the whole family... While all three seem to work from a related palette, they each have very distinctive styles.

I also discovered some Minowa Yasuo pieces at one gallery, and I was so surprised by that that I ended up buying a number of pieces. It will become increasingly difficult to find anything else he made, so I took advantage of the opportunity.

Fortunately, the gallery was kind enough to extend me a reseller price, which means I'll be able to offer the new pieces at roughly the same price as similar items I still have in stock. I was expecting I'd have to dramatically raise prices on the new pieces, but it doesn't look like I'll have to.

One unfortunate side effect of my good fortune on this trip was that I didn't have time to meet up with Senda Yoshiaki, and I couldn't buy any of his pieces on this trip. I am almost completely out, so I really need to do something about that. I think I'll send Hiromi to Mashiko once before fall to remedy that.

I didn't buy a huge amount of ceramic pieces on this trip, but enough that it wasn't possible to transport things on my back... so I have to wait a few weeks before things arrive. I'm looking forward to it...

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Kitchen survivalism

jason

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.

Sake tasting

jason

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

jason

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.

 

Farewell to Aomori

jason

Finding washoku in Hirosaki for lunch was actually suprisingly tough... the streets perpendicular to Hirosaki park were mostly full of meaty youshouku-ya-san and kissaten. Finally we settled into an unremarkable department store restaurant floor, which had three choices.

We both had some sort of soba dish. Mine was a sansai soba, or mountain vegetable topped soba. Usually sansai soba in Kanto is a slightly more elegant looking dish with just a few vegetables on top, but this place used a surprisingly generous amount of vegetables.

Sansai soba

Sansai soba

It wasn't the nicest version of this dish I've ever seen. The vegetables probably came in foodservice packs and the soba was a little overcooked. But we were hungry and tired, and this was comforting and warm.

Driven by sunnier weather, we had done our second day of hanami, but we didn't do enough snacking at yatai to feel full. So a couple of orders of noodles helped fill us up.

I also did a little bit of shopping, making my first serious investment in urushi. I really like nurimono, or lacquerware, but I've never really been brave enough to commit to anything beyond some cheap wooden misoshiru bowls and chopsticks. Aomori's style of urushi is very distinctive, and appeals to Hiromi's love for visual drama and my own quirky tastes. I actually have some older chopsticks from Aomori given to me many years ago by a friend, but I bought my first lacquer serving ware and two really nice sake cups... I promise they'll make an appearance on my blog in the future, but I didn't take any photos in the shop.

We headed off to the mountains...

Sublimating valley

Sublimating valley

Dirty snow pocks

Dirty pockmarked snow surrounding trees

Somehow trees absorb just enough heat from the spring sun to help melt away small circles of the old snow.

We made our way to a tough ski destination... you have to trek your own gear up the slope, as there are no mechanical lifts. Our purpose for making this trek was to go to a hyakunin-buro, 100 person bath, with a highly sulfurous composition. Unlike most onsen in Japan, this hot spring spot has only konyoku buro (gender mixed baths) and has been that way for a very long time.

And unlike most konyoku buro I've been to in Japan, it was also very crowded.

You just pay a a small fee for entry... I think about 600 yen per person ($5-6)... if you're smart, you will come with a couple of towels; we neglected this and had to buy some tiny ones.

Hiromi scoped out the other women to decide whether she'd be brave enough to go with just the small towel as cover... After a demographic analysis, she caved in and bought this sort of bathing suit that loosely covers her body. Most of the women in their 20s or 30s, at least the ones without children, wore something similar; older women and women who came with children in tow concerned themselves less with such modesty, though most draped themselves with a large towel when entering or exiting the baths.

The men, for the most part, used their small towels when moving in and out of the bathing area, and some covered themselves when outside of the baths. It's a strangely communal experience, but I think the experience was so unfamiliar to most contemporary Japanese that I'm sure most people were fairly self-conscious most of the time.

In theory, the baths typically had a male and a female side, but the dividing line wasn't strictly enforced; I think it was just to give people some semblence of separation to create a small suggestion of privacy.

On our way out, we had some warm soba manjuu (buckwheat cake stuffed with sweet red bean paste) and some surprisingly decent sumibi-yaki coffee from the onsen gift shop.

We started heading toward Hachinohe again, where we wanted to get a quick dinner in before taking the long train ride back to Tokyo. In the mountains, plows had dug through several meters of old snow, but the roads were clear... as we headed down toward the base of the mountain again, I snapped a couple of photos, though the snow wasn't nearly as high down below.

Layers of old snow

Layers of old snow

I was probably too sleepy to remember to take pictures up higher, where thick layers of old snow were piled up even higher.

When we got back, we had a slightly rushed meal at a little train station robata-ya. I had packed away my camera in my luggage in the rental car, but we had a few memorable things... Hiromi had senbe-jiru, a soup made with puffed grain senbei and chicken, if I understood correctly; it's a regional specialty. I've kind of lost track of everything we ordered, but it was pleasing... I had a glass of a surprisingly whiskey-like aged shochu made with buckwheat. We also had some good tamago-yaki served like nigiri-zushi, grilled shiitake, and some really nice miso grilled yaki-onigiri. I'm such a sucker for charcoal grilled rice balls, because I can never get them quite right when making them at home on an electric appliance.

Everything was shutting down early that night, including gas stations, but somehow we managed to refuel and return the rental car just in time to make our train back to Tokyo.

 

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Fujiya Hotel at Oowani Onsen, Aomori

jason

After our cherry blossom viewing, we retired to Oowani Onsen to rest a bit, with the overly ambitious intention of returning to Hirosaki for night time cherry blossom viewing.

Fujiya Hotel has insanely roomy washitsu, or Japanese style rooms. The washitsu, which features tatami flooring, consists of a large dual-purpose room and a smaller one that might sleep a couple of children. But wait, there was more! For those who don't love Japanese-style bedding, or for particularly large parties, two twin beds are available in another chamber off the hallway.

We felt like we could live there... it was probably slightly larger than the weekly apartment where we were staying in Tokyo, and that was one of the roomiest places I've ever rented in Tokyo.

We chose to have a late dinner after a long bath. Both the men's and women's bath offer rotenburo, but the water wasn't especially warm, and it was more comfortable to bathe inside. They also had a sauna room, which I stepped into briefly before realizing I should have taken off my glasses first... I popped into the cold water for a bit and started turning my attention to dinner.

Menu

Fujiya Hotel Menu, Onsen hotel in Aomori

We ate in the hotel's dining room, which meant dinner was a little less intimate, but close to the kitchen, allowing for some surprisingly fresh, well-made food.

This menu reflects Hiromi's meal, and closely parallels my pleasingly customized one. Although

Grilled bamboo shoots

Grilled takenoko, bamboo shoots 

It's springtime, and I had a lot of fantastic grilled bamboo shoot dishes on this trip. But this was far and away the most visually dramatic, and one of the best tasting. I think it's seasoned with little more than salt and soy sauce and perhaps a hint of butter. I really enjoyed it and will be longing for this simple, elegant dish until I can find my way to Japan in springtime again.

The bamboo sprout's skin also decorated a dish made with soramame (fava beans) and potatoes.

Mango puree with shrimp

Mango puree with shrimp

This was Hiromi's, and at first I was a little bit jealous, but eventually my own version served with shibazuke instead of shrimp came. I can't say I've ever seen mango on the menu at a Japanese inn...

O-Sake

Joppari sake (stubborn sake!)

Apparently this sake's name, joppari, means stubborn, which fascinated Hiromi so much that she had to try it. It also happens to have a pleasingly complex flavor, even as it drinks rather smoothly.

Yakimono on urushi

Yakimono

This fish-like fillet for Hiromi is actually kabocha atop ham and cheese, with a few pine nuts. I believe it was served with a grilled scallop and a carved vegetable.

Aemono

Blanched and dressed with gomadare, sesame sauce.

Zenmai

Zenmai

More mountain vegetables, in a simple but pretty ohitashi.

Salad

Another example of Aomori-ken's fascinnation with Western food, this salad featured mixed greens, cherry tomatoes, cheese, and a fairly intense vinaigrette.

Terrine

Hiromi's featured youshoku dish, featuring cooked and cured ham and mint, koku no mi (the red berry sometimes put on top of okayu) or capers. 

Wagyuu

Wagyuu

Hiromi also has a grilled wagyuu dish featuring local beef, cooked on a ceramic plate over a small flame.

Kiritampo nabe

Kiritampo nabe

In place of the beef, I have another variation of that northern Japanese specialty, kiri-tampo. This is a simple kiritampo nabe, or hot pot dish. Since I can't have this in the US very easily, I'm pleased to have another chance to taste it.

Oh, and a very nice chawan-mushi, or savory egg custard, arrived at just about the same time as this was ready... Alas, it didn't photograph very nicely, but I'm a sucker for a vegetarian interpretation for chawan-mushi. It seemed to take advantage of some seasonal vegetables as well.

Kinoko no foil-yaki

Kinoko no foil-yaki

A simple grilled foil parcel of various mushrooms...

Ringo to sansai to shiitake no tempura

Ringo to shiitake to sansai Tempura

Ryokan tempura is often a little bit dreary, as it tends to be made quite far ahead of service... However, this one was served close to the end of our meal and was still mostly fairly warm. It featured tara no me (one of many Japanese mountain vegetables), fuki (butterbur) sprouts, shiitake, and, most interesting of all, a slice of apple. I've had heavy American fast-food fried apples before, and I have to admit having a soft spot for them, but this was surprising. The fruit was unprocessed, and fried just a short time, so it remained crisp and gently tart, and had the same light crispness that the rest of the tempura featured.

Kamameshi and Suimono

Kamameshi Suimono with sakura no shiozuke and mushrooms

Rice is cooked at our table... Hiromi's is a seasoned kamameshi with bamboo shoots and I think some pork. Mine was plain, but rice cooked in this kind of pot always tastes better. We also receive a simple clear soup with thin slices of mushrooms and salt-cured cherry blossoms.

Apple sorbet, in apple

Apple sorbet in fruit shell

This was a very good apple sorbet inside an apple shell... It's Aomori, after all, and apples are a big deal here.

Before dinner, Hiromi had thought we'd go back to Hirosaki, but I think we fell asleep no later than 9 pm. We somehow woke up again, but it was already approaching midnight... too late to seriously consider the 25 minute trip back to Hirosaki Park, but not too late to head to the outdoor ceramic onsen tub on the same floor as our room.

Hanami in Hirosaki, Part 2

jason

May 3. Hirosaki, Aomori, Japan. We came back the next day, too, because the weather had improved...

Unlike the previous day, May 3rd was also an official holiday, rather than one that people take off to get a continuous week of vacation time. Thanks to the weather, this meant that it was rather tricky to maneuver through the throngs of people populating the park.

We also came craving lots of greasy food, and had the good fortune to be first in line for some deep-fried, battered, butter-flavored potatoes straight from the fryer. All I can say is that I'm glad my blood pressure has always been fairly reasonable. I would have taken a picture, but I was too busy clogging my arteries.

Out of nostalgia Hiromi felt compelled to buy a couple of bottles of sickeningly sweet ramune soda from some charismatic vendors... they asked which flavor we wanted... I believe the choices were regular, pink and blue. She chose the colorful ones... they tasted... well, pink, and blue. And sticky.

We also had some "amai amai" corn, which is pretty much like the corn Americans of my generation grew up with. Since the average sugar content of American summer sweet corn has been hybridized to near candy-like extremes, I wasn't all that surprised by it, but Hiromi was impressed at how sweet it was.

Sunny

Sunny

Peek-a-boo

Peek-a-boo

Pink!

Pink!

White!

White!

Yatai

Yatai

An oyaji day off

An oyaji day off 

The birds enjoy the blossoms, too

The birds enjoy the blossoms, too

Matsuri folk dance and music

Matsuri folk dance and music

Extra-goofy Jason

Hiromi and botan

Hiromi and botan

Boy, is this ever twisted 

Boy, is this ever twisted

The wind picks up

[YouTube:4-NKEJfnKTU]

When the wind picked up, the cherry blossoms went flying...

See Part 1.