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

Visiting the pottery town, Mashiko

For a day which I had originally written off as an R&R day, I was incredibly productive.

Somehow Japanese style domestic travel usually means going to be early… Especially if one soaks in a hot springs bath for more than 30 minutes a day. It sort of makes sleep an inevitable event shortly after dinner, unless one has unusual willpower. It also tends to result in early rising… I think I was fully conscious and rested shortly by around 6am this morning. We showered, had breakfast, and packed up, and were on the road by around 9am.

Hiromi had planned a day in Mashiko. For her, it was the first time to visit; I’m kind of a veteran by now, with today being about the fifth or sixth visit for me; ever since my second trip here I’ve led whoever was traveling with me to all my favorite shops.

I managed to abuse my friend as an unpaid interpreter, and did some basic negotiations for ordering pottery under wholesale terms from several of the resellers of pottery in town. I took a ton of photos of things I am interested in buying, and I’ll need to come back here in a week or two so that I can finalize my purchasing decisions, after I’ve arranged for freight forwarding services. I’ll be able to offer some really beautiful pots from some young potters, as well as some impressive but more anonymous pots from the big production studio in town, Yokoyama.

Mashiko ware has incredible variety of styles, mostly because it has a relatively young history as a pottery center; Shoji Hamada basically led the way to the village, encouraging a couple of generations of potters to settle here relatively unconstrained by pervasive traditions common to the legendary kilns (Arita/Imari, Seto, Hagi, Bizen, and so on). There’s a lot more experimentation, influence by foreign potters who found the area more welcoming than most, and the durable legacy of Shoji Hamada’s and Murota Gen’s philosophy of soulfully-created craft ware.

We were encouraged to try Yokoyama’s new café atop the school where they offer wheel-throwing, slab-building and decorating lessons. I had taken a lesson here about a year and a half ago with another friend of mine, and it was the first time to attempt the very humbling wheel-throwing process. I still have evidence of this attempt, and although I still have limited throwing skills after over a year of practice, I’m slightly embarrassed by this “early work.”

I had a mushroom pilaf, which was actually surprisingly tasty, considering how meager my other dining experiences in Mashiko have been up until now. We also shared a sampler of cakes… green tea chiffon cake, chocolate gateau, pumpkin flan (kabocha purin), a maple syrup scone, and pot du crème or panna cotta.

For dinner, we stopped at a rest stop along the highway and I ate two oyaki (pan toasted buns filled with vegetables), and a stick of battered fried small potatoes served with a packet of mayonnaise. Not haute cuisine, but filling enough.

After a long drive back to Tokyo, I settle into the weekly-rental apartment and start to think about how to best make use of a free Monday before the FoodEx show.

On the streets: Namdaemun market, tasting hoddeok

Unlike Tokyo, Seoul still has a vibrant street merchant scene. Every subway station seems to have a few ajumma peddling some sort of medicinal mountain vegetable, bottles of some morning drinking yogurt concoctions, and the occasional roll of gimbap. The average newsstand/kiosk has a pile of popcorn or puffed barley snacks ready for the taking. And some stretches of sidewalk have an endless series of ddeokbokgi, odeng and skewered meat yatai.

In some cases, places housed in permanent buildings open up right out into the street, and these offer the best of both worlds: fresh, inexpensive street food, and access to refrigeration and handwashing facilities.

Streetside meat and sugar

Streetside ajumma preparing sweet Korean pancakes 

We happened on this shop, where an efficient ajumma was constantly preparing fresh hoddeok while taking orders, exchanging money, and serving a steady stream of customers.

Pressing the hoddeok flat

Tamping down the hoddeok

You must have hoddeok at least once when visiting Korea. Essentially a yeasted pancake stuffed with brown sugar, often featuring peanuts, walnuts or sesame seeds, they are occasionally flavored with green tea or other ingredients. I'm almost always most impressed by the simplest versions. These are sold in molten form straight from the grill by various street vendors. Some use a flat teppan style griddle and a flat metal tamper, and a few use gas-powered waffle-iron-like contraptions that press the pancakes flat as they bake.

Assembling the next order

Gathering hoddeok for the next big spender

Each hoddeok gets a very brief rest at the side of the grill, but orders come in so fast that they still reach your little hands in a tempting but dangerously hot state.

Brown sugar gooey goodness oozing molten hot out of the hoddeok pancake

The brown sugar-cinnamon filling bleeds right out of the broken pancake.

At 500 KRW per piece (about 55-60 cents), they are an ideal afternoon snack.

 

Asamushi Onsen, Asupamu, Apple Pie

May 2nd, at Asamushi Onsen, on the way to Hirosaki. We wake up early and have another bath, then breakfast, and we head off. But first we looked out the window, and decided to make a quick trip to the beach...

Our ryokan wasn't quite on the waterfront, but it's just a short hop across a busy road to the beach...

Yu no Kabuto Iwa

Yu no Kabuto Iwa

A big rock, a little island, just across the bay.

Lone tree

Lone tree, Yu no Kabuto Iwa

A view of the left side of the island reveals a dramatic-looking pine.

Torii

Torii, Yu no kabuto iwa

There's a gate and a long stairway to a temple starting at the waterfront.

Asupamu

Asupamu, Aomori city, Aomori, Japan

We made our way toward Aomori city, and discovered this odd looking building called Asupamu, to which Hiromi made a beeline in our rental car. It turns out that it did its job very well: the ground floor is full of gift shops peddling various Aomori specialties, and an impressive observation deck about 13 floors up. (We didn't feel any need to spend 600 yen each for that, even after buying so much stuff that we were good for up to two hours of free parking).

We gave in and bought a lot of them, some of them destined to be our gomen nasai present for coworkers when we return to the office, and some treats for friends, family, teammates, and fellow Meetup members. Oh, and some "gifts" for purely self-indulgent purposes. We need those. Self-indulgence is good.

Apple Pie

Apple Pie from Asupamu

After sampling the delights of the many Asupamu gift shops, we had pie from an Asupamu apple shop. We like pie. This one has some cream cheese in it. Aomori is famous for apples, so that makes this local food.

Chausson

I chose this chausson (lady slipper?) for myself, but Hiromi thought it was boring compared to two of the other nifty options and I could sense her disappointment. Until she proceeded to eat at least half of mine. (I got my fair share of the cream cheese one though...  I'm just making fun of her for visibly, if quietly, doubting my judgment).

[YouTube:Mwf3EeF6SMg]

Of course, no coastal tourist shop would be complete without some sort of rotating squidmobile.

 

Introducing MoriAwase.com and the debut of my "other" blog

Pursuing My Passions has always been focused on my life after Microsoft, about indulging my passions for good food, contemporary Asian craft, and travel while somehow trying to build a business around those obsessions. But except for the occasional comment on a restaurant here an there, I haven’t spent much time looking outward at what other people are doing.

I wanted to build a bit of a community focused on changing contemporary Asian lifestyles, as well as on food, crafts, and design. Of course, with my ever-increasingly insane schedule, I never put the necessary amount of time into the project. But I’ve decided I will bite off a little at a time, much like I did originally with this blog… and for now, I’ve decided to create a blog wholly focused on an assortment of such things, rather than just on what I’m up to myself.

The first couple of entries on that blog are now up on MoriAwase.com. If you have any sort of enthusiasm for rustic-contemporary Asian craft, contemporary Asian art and design, for Asian cuisine and travel, please take a look, and consider signing up to participate in the MoriAwase.com Forums.

Pursuing My Passions will continue, focused mostly on what I’m cooking, where I’m traveling, and what I’m doing with my business, as it always has… MoriAwase will be a bit more focused on the world around me, and perhaps more traditionally blog-like with links to interesting content outside of my narrow little sphere.

Almost here

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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Ganmodoki, warabi, and houtou

Last week Hiromi and I decided to take advantage of one of the packaged foods we picked up at Takaragawa-onsen called houtou, which are fantastically wide noodles typically served with fall or winter vegetables.

On the other hand, I didn’t want to completely ignore the fact that we’re already seeing the bounty of springtime. I picked up some fiddlehead fern fronds, and thought a simple warabi no nimono, simmered fiddleheads in seasoned soup stock, would be nice.

And then I thought I’d like to have a little protein in the dish, and my mind turned to a favorite oden classic, which is ganmodoki, a sort of tofu fritter. I started looking at packaged ganmodoki, and wasn’t inspired at all. I realized it wasn’t that hard to make ganmodoki, and so I decided to make it at home.

Homemade Ganmodoki

Ganmodoki version 1

Ganmodoki often has some hijiki in it, but I discovered I was completely out. Instead, I used some shredded gobo or burdock root, along with the typical shredded carrots. Hiromi told me that she’s partial to ganmodoki made with sesame, so I also used some kurogoma (black sesame) and the slightest hint of sesame oil. The fried ganmodoki went into the seasoned soup stock, perhaps not quite long enough to get the incomparably oden-like quality of pervasive soupy richness, but just about right to bring out the freshness of the tofu.

Houtou

Houtou

Houtou is seriously rustic. You are probably less likely to find this nabe dish in a U.S. Japanese restaurant than you are to find a fortune cookie in China, which means the odds are almost infinitely improbable.

Our favorite nabe is sadly leaking a bit, but houtou would normally be prepared on top of a portable konro at the table. We had to improvise, and prepared it in a pot on the stove and transferred it into my largest Hagi earthenware bowl.

Houtou aren’t really substantially different than udon, except that they are cut thinner and substantially wider. The soup usually has root vegetables such as carrots and satoimo (small taro), along with Japanese kabocha squash.We also used strips of abura-age, loosely translatable as tofu puffs. They have a slightly spongy texture that just loves to absorb tasty liquids like broth. The seasoning base of our broth is miso, along with, of course, some dashijiru. Although the gift package Hiromi found at our ryokan’s convenient omiyage-ya-san includes some miso-based seasoning, she wanted some more miso intensity, and we used a blend of hatcho-miso and a lighter miso.

The result is rib-sticking comfort food. It’s the kind of food someone’s grandmother would make: not terribly fancy, but somehow incredibly satisfying. We look forward to devouring the other half of our stash of houtou sometime soon…

Kamakura and a day of serious snacking

I got a bit of a late start today, even though I woke up at a reasonable hour.

Around 11am Hiromi drove us to Kamakura. After finding parking, we headed to a place that serves purple sweet potato soft ice cream. We ended up noshing at various streetside vendors… some over-salted senbei (rice crackers), and dorayaki with sweet potato paste in the middle (sort of a stuffed pancake).

Sometime around 3pm we stopped and had a sort of baked rice (kamameshi); mine was made with bamboo shoots. Normally the place we went to is a drinking spot, but we came for the food. It turns out to have pretty nice food. The regulars there all buy whole bottles of shochu (actually Korean soju), whiskey, or other spirits, and they keep the bottles on a shelf labeled, each bottle carefully labeled with the customer’s name.

We stopped at one temple toward the south end of Kamakura and took some photos, and saw some early cherry blossoms and other blooming trees. We also briefly visited one side of the temple leading from the station.

Since we did a lot of snacking and had a late lunch, we weren’t hungry at any normal dinner. Later in the evening we went to an izakaya for a late dinner in Nishi-Shinjuku. We ordered a bitter melon dish made with eggs and tofu, a pretty spicy tofu salad, some “fuki” tempura, and some fried nattou and yamaimo wrapped in nori, and a not very sappari mozuku. We both ordered pomegranate sours, and Hiromi ordered a umeboshi sour and I had a lime one. The pomegranate sour was nice. I’d definitely repeat the nattou dish… it seems like a great dish to confound people with at parties.

FoodEx 2006, Day 1

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.

Hoteres 2005, Day 3

I tried to compress seeing all of the Tokyo Hotel, Restaurant and Catering show into one day this year. It was quite similar to last year, but I did find some excellent suppliers of Japanese tableware for restaurant and gift markets… some very stylish bamboo tokkuri from a couple of makers, some nice contemporary nurimono (lacquerware), and some Singapore-made furnace glass tableware well suited for trendy Asian restaurants.

Nothing too exciting in the equipment arena this year; maybe I saw everything imaginable last year. The really cool “clean fryer” I saw last year was apparently absent and I didn’t see anything that was totally new to me, save a variation of the self-shaking wok which featured a corkscrew stirring mechanism.

One company showed off a nifty line of teas produced in China, containing hand-tied teas with flowers that “bloom” as the tea leaves expand; the product is nearing a launch in Japan. The teas are all about the drama of the flowers revealing themselves; the exhibition design had them presented in wine glasses or glass teapots. I’ll get some samples when their packaging design is ready to go next month. It seems like a clever concept, though I think they are targeting about a $2.50–3.00 retail price per bundle (essentially one pot), so that may be a very narrow market in the U.S. In Japan, they are targeting the bridal and banquet markets.

I’ve been facing a little bit of pain in my legs and back the last couple of days… when I left for Hong Kong I swapped out my worn-out custom orthotics for the standard ones in my usually comfy Ecco loafers, and I think my feet aren’t happy about the sudden change.

Tomorrow I think I’ll just spend the whole day at FoodEx, where I’d like to follow up on some things that I looked at previously.

One item that I received a small sample of turned out to be more interesting than I initially gave it credit for. It’s a wheat-free and soy-free “soy sauce” that tastes very similar to the real thing. It’s apparently meant to satisfy a particularly narrow range of folks allergic to wheat or soy proteins. It’s made with compressed sesame seeds, barley and salt instead of soy beans, wheat and salt. I used it in tonight’s dinner and it worked quite well; it had a pleasant taste, and was functionally equivalent to soy sauce as a seasoning. I should find out if the manufacturer is willing to export it. It wasn’t made by the usual soy sauce suspects (Kikkoman, Yamasa, etc.)

Buried alive

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 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.

Technorati Tags: sunamushi,Kagoshima,Ibusuki,Japan,onsen,travel,sand baths

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