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.

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Touring Wakayama

jason

The lack of sleep caught up with me. I got out of bed around 5am again only to realize that the only motivation for that was to turn off the alarm clock on my cell phone, which was reprising yesterday’s schedule. I slept another 3 hours or so.

After that I exchanged several email messages with various companies, though I wasn’t able to read a few price sheets that I had asked for since I was unable to open PDF or Word attachments on the hotel business center computers. I guess I’ll look at them Tuesday night or Wednesday sometime.

My major accomplishment as a tourist today was walking through the rain up to Wakayama castle. The grounds for the castle are about 20 minutes from my hotel on foot, and it takes another 10 minutes or so to climb the hill. Inside the castle, the reconstructed interior features institutional tile flooring and various exhibits of historical relics. Most of the artifacts on display are the usual military attire, weaponry and old maps. Usually I look forward to seeing some pottery in such venues, but in this case, there wasn’t much to see; just some roof tiles and the like.

Sachi had previously planned to go to a piano concert which was, unfortunately, sold out, so I didn’t meet her until after I had a small meal at a barely occupied chain izakaya called Iroha, located near my hotel. At Iroha, I had a stone bowl bibimbap, some mochi-mochi-camembert-potato-age, edamame, and some yuzu-infused shochu.

Of course, Sachi was hungry after the concert, so I ended up joining her for a second meal at a more interesting place that she knows. We had some rice croquettes with various seasonings, and some salad-stuffed raw spring rolls with a sort of Caesar dressing, age-dashi-doufu, and a little dessert. The dessert is called Nostradamus, and we ordered it solely because of the name; we didn’t know what was in it until we ordered. It was basically a parfait composed of various ingredients that Japanese expect in parfaits, served with a sparkler and a little bowl of diffusing dry ice in water, intended for a fog effect.

We stayed past our welcome at the restaurant and Sachi dropped me off at my hotel, making arrangements to meet briefly tomorrow before I head to the airport.

Hiromi called me and we chatted a little bit about my trip and about our plans for the next few days.

The Big Buddha: Off to Wakayama and Nara

jason

Awakened by about four alarm clocks after a short night’s sleep, I found my way to Haneda airport. My confusion transferring at Shinagawa meant that I only had a minute or so to spare when trying to transfer to the express Keikyu line. I ended up eating far too much for breakfast at the airport, but I managed to sleep a bit on the airplane.

Of course, somehow my brain wasn’t working entirely correctly when I told my friend I’d be leaving at 7:30 and arriving at 9:30. It’s actually only an hour flight to Kansai airport from Haneda, and although I did know this, somehow I confused myself into thinking I was scheduled to arrive at 9:30. Anyway, when I arrived, I called my friend Sachi, who was surprised that I had arrived hour earlier than she expected. I apologized for being confused. She came at the originally planned time; I waited in an airport Starbucks.

Sachi had arranged to have a couple of her 50-something coworkers drive us to Nara in a big van. When stopping at a rest area, she said, “don’t you think they look like yakuza?” Actually their faces are very rough-looking and they speak with thick Kansai accents, and if you looked at them from across the room you would probably not imagine it was a good idea to pick a fight with them. But they are very gentle, pleasant folks.

This was the first time I’ve been to Nara, so I took various pictures of deer at Nara park, parts of the Daibutsu (big Buddha) temple.

This is a group whose priorities I can appreciate. At the rest stop, we ate tai-yaki (fish-shaped waffles with bean paste in the middle), and Sachi picked up a cake to share in the car. We arrived in Nara not terribly long thereafter, and, after walking around a bit, they started plotting lunch. We did manage to feed “kiza-senbe” to various deer at the park, then walk around the Daibutsu, before actually committing to lunch, which was at an udon/soba/donburi-focused place targeting tourists. Sachi even made a second order for herself after a craving for curry rice overcame her. Within minutes after lunch, we were already eating again; from a street vendor, Sachi bought four sticks of dango (rice dumplings) seasoned with a lightly sweetened soy sauce and divided the spoils. It wasn’t 5 minutes after that when she had us buying freshly-made senbe (crispy rice crackers) with various seasonings.

We visited the 5-storied pagoda nearby, and then headed back to the car. Sachi made a destination stop at a shop which apparently has some of the nicest Warabi-mochi (a sticky, soft Japanese sweet rolled in toasted soybean flour) around; her companions bought obscene numbers of boxes of them. I would have bought some myself but they only stay fresh for a couple of days and I won’t be back in Tokyo to share with others until late Tuesday night.

On four hours of sleep I tended to nod off in the car on the way to Wakayama, and I wasn’t the only one. Sachi was driving on this leg, but her colleagues fell asleep in the back seat soon after digging into the warabi-mochi. I was seriously drowsy; I fell asleep before even getting a chance to try them.  Fortunately, I did get a chance to taste them when we arrived in Wakayama; Sachi and her colleagues stopped to give some to some Thai friends of theirs in town. When Sachi’s friend was curious about the contents of a plastic bag in one of the Thai women’s basket, she claimed to have “etchi no video” (dirty videos) and was going out on a date… This opened the door for him to make a dirty joke after the woman reluctantly tried the warabi mochi, as she commented that she doesn’t like to eat soft things. Apparently they already know each other pretty well, or this is just a regional variation on acceptable behavior, as I’ve rarely seen this kind of interaction between men and women I know in the Tokyo area.

The food didn’t stop. We ended up at a popular local family restaurant, a few notches above the Japanese version of Denny’s, less than an hour after this stop, and we had a private room to celebrate Sachi’s coworker’s birthday.

The vegetarian or almost-vegetarian items included some dengaku-nasu (grilled eggplant with a sweetened miso topping), tofu salad, daikon salad, inari-zushi, and some egg white tempura. They also ordered a few things for the pescevorous. We shared half a fancy strawberry birthday cake from a local French-style cake shop. I probably shouldn’t have eaten so much today, but there was always something there…

If Sachi eats like this everyday, it doesn’t show on her waistline. While not rail-thin, she’s reasonably slim. I suppose her secret is that she keeps on sharing a substantial person of whatever she’s eating with whoever else happens to be around.

When I came back to the hotel I had a complication due to unavailability of a usable internet connection in my room; when my friend called last week to ask if I can connect to the internet in the room, they said, oh, yes, you just plug in and you’ll be fine. Apparently that means you can disconnect the phone and dialup to your usual Japanese internet service providers; I’ve gotten spoiled by in-room broadband, and I don’t have access to the convenient Microsoft dialup system on my new company’s laptop. The hotel tried troubleshooting for an hour or so before we mutually realized this was a communication problem rather than a technical problem. I tried mimicking the settings on the lobby computer and taking advantage of the wireless network down there, but apparently nobody knows how to log in. I found the WEP key in the registry but was stumped by the PPPOE password. After a while, I gave up and did what I could do with Hotmail and the horrible web-based email interface that my provider for yuzutrade.com offers.

On dinner parties and not traveling light

jason

Saturday, March 20, 2004

This morning I packed up my larger suitcase, which is now full of product samples and related pamphlets, in preparation for an early Sunday departure to Kansai airport. I think there’s a little bit of clothing somewhere in there as well. Actually I have little desire to carry this overweight suitcase with me, so I made arrangements to deposit it at the Yokohama area hotel where I’ll be staying on my return.

The hotel in Yokohama is near Bashamichi, where Hiromi and I wandered around last Saturday. It’s a little dodgy… although it’s a full service hotel, it’s at the low end of the scale; a sign at the front door advertises short-term rates for those who might need a room for a few hours in the afternoon. The lobby lounge is occupied entirely by Russian guests who must have discovered the place in a guidebook. My friend Hiromi found the place online, but it doesn’t offer the usual amenities, like a credit-card secured reservation over the telephone, so I also made advance payment on the room for next week while checking my baggage.

We had lunch at a little kissaten-style place nearby which has dozens of varieties of tea and a few interesting tea beverages, but we’re in a bit of a rush, so we order only a couple of simple dishes (a Japanese style dish called omu-raisu, which is an omelet with seasoned rice, in this case made with various mushrooms; a spaghetti arrabiata, described in Japanese as an “angry Italian” dish; soup and salad) and then we move on.

Afterward, we meet Hiromi’s friends, both named Sanae, and go shopping in preparation for nabe dinner party. Nabe is the kind of dish that is nearly always ignored by U.S. Japanese restaurants; it’s a very rustic, humble, communal one-pot meal that is for Japanese in winter what outdoor grilling is for Americans in the summer, except, perhaps, without the heroic grill-meister bravado.

In this case, we were having a miso-seasoned nabe filled with various mushrooms, tofu, a kind of translucent noodle, and greens, with a little bit of kiri-tampo (toasted mochi).

I contributed by making a hijiki (black, noodle-like seaweed) dish with renkon (lotus roots), carrots, and sora-mame (fava beans), and a little dessert of oboro-doufu (very soft, custardy tofu) with boiled sweetened azuki beans and a ginger syrup.

The Sanae whose home we were visiting has a 5-year old boy and an approximately 2-year-old girl. The girl was a bit of a fan of the renkon in the hijiki dish and said “daikon choudai” (please give me some daikon) to her mother a couple of times… she hasn’t quite learned the word renkon yet. Another one of Sanae’s friends also made use of the blanched renkon and carrots I had leftover by pan-frying them in a little butter with a sprinkling of salt, making an elegant and simple appetizer or drink accompaniment.

Everyone was fairly sleepy after dinner and I was one of three people who dozed off occasionally near the couch. I need every bit of rest I can get, as I only have time for about four hours of sleep tonight.

Japanese-Indian, French pastries, and comfort food

jason

I spent most of the day writing email messages to various companies, and responding to a couple of incoming messages. I occasionally took short breaks to finish reading Jeffrey Steingarten’s book, It must have been something I ate. I actually read more than half of it on the airplane ride over to Japan, but I’ve only been reading a chapter here and there since I hit the ground. I usually enjoy reading about other foodies’ adventures and idiosyncrasies. Of course, I can’t believe he wrote an article about espresso without visiting Vivace’s in Seattle; David Schomer’s obsession with the technical minutiae of the ideal espresso would have been the perfect supplement to Steingarten’s haphazard experimental efforts.

The weather was a little less pleasant today, so I didn’t really look forward to stepping out for lunch. I ducked into a little “curry-ya-san” that is slightly more Indian than the usual Japanese roux-thickened interpretations but still catering to mainstream Japanese tastes. I had a dish of dal, some ambiguous vegetable curry with potatoes and disintegrated greens, an egg, and pickles with a little rice and nan. Everything was sort of the quality that you would expect from a buffet in an Indian restaurant in the U.S., by which I mean edible and more pleasant than the average fast food chain but not particularly special.

In the early evening I wandered around and found a café in Lumine that was offering a mille feuille pastry with strawberries and a custard cream, so I stopped there and had a 600 yen serving of the cake and a 400 yen espresso.

My friend offered to make a vegetarian version of nikujaga, which is normally a beef and potato stew a la japonaise, for dinner tonight, so this is the first day I’m neither cooking nor am I eating restaurant fare for dinner. With a limited kitchen, a one-pot meal is a pretty good idea, and it’s a little cold today, so it was comforting.

Eating Italian in Japan; where else?

jason

Today I met with a representative from a company that makes yuzu drink “marmalades” in Korea and we talked for a couple of hours about products and selling strategies. Actually I can get customized labels and even packaging, so that will be beneficial. Prices seemed ok, but I don’t have much to compare against.

It turns out I can also get a customized drink product created to my specifications, and if I can do that, I could introduce a product very compatible with my company name and pretty distinctive in the US market. I thought this was pretty cool. The turnaround time could be pretty fast: one or two months.

This representative took me to a Hiroshima-style okonomiyaki place opposite Starbucks in an area on the west side of Shinjuku station, and we had a simple lunch followed by coffee. I had appreciated our previous conversation at FoodEx but actually this discussion made me more likely to work with his company, since they seem to have more options for product development than I expected and pricing could be quite reasonable.

I contacted Yamato Transport’s Seattle office by telephone and talked with them about their shipping logistics services and pricing. They should be able to provide pretty simple support for my ceramics shipments from Mashiko, so that made me happy. They can of course also do shipments from Hong Kong, Taipei and Korea.

Today I also got responses from almost all of the companies that I have been waiting on, including the Taiwanese tea company and the soap company. So now I just need to meet with the companies I can see while still in Japan, make a few more logistics arrangements and I can go back well-armed with a product line and a lot of samples for demonstration. I’ll also go back to Mashiko to make a few small orders. I guess the next step is sales… That’s the scary part for me…

I tried to find a way to reach a couple of companies I expect to be dealing with in the US but was reduced to using their online feedback forms. I don’t expect much to come out of that, but I’ll have a better chance of getting to the buyers when I can go and knock on their doors back home.

For dinner I went to La Manina, an Italian restaurant on the top of Takashimaya in the area south of Shinjuku station. It’s very corporate and large and dramatic, but has pretty decent food, so I’ve been there on several business trips in Japan. I broke one of my own rules and we ordered some tomato-based appetizer in March… and we had pizza with pesto Genovese and mozzarella, and nice gnocchi with a gorgonzola sauce. After dinner I had a limoncello digestif and my friend ordered flaming Sambuca anisette with a few coffee beans floating on top.

Kamakura and a day of serious snacking

jason

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.

Slacking in Yokohama and Omote-Sando

jason

I suppose I could say I took the day off today. Hiromi and I went to a crepe shop in Omote-sando which is famous for its soba (buckwheat) crepes. I ate most of a carrot soup, and I ordered a buckwheat crepe with fresh fava beans, various vegetables, an egg, and a relatively young gruyere. She ordered one with an aged soft chevre topped with mixed greens and walnuts. For dessert, we ordered a buckwheat crepe with rhubarb-orange jam. We also ordered coffee. She had a “Bretagne Irish Coffee”, an espresso drink served with some caramel liqueur and a little cream. I had espresso with calvados.

Afterward, we headed off to Yokohama and wandered around the Daisambashi (大桟橋) pier, which is sort of a boardwalk jutting out into the bay. It’s an international port, but also doubles as a place for parents to bring their small children to play, and functions as a date spot for an uncountable number of couples. On the way there from the station, we see a few quirky little restaurants, the storefront of a vacationing reflexologist, and a couple of stores that sell hemp products or various other things that might appeal to twenty-somethings.

Basha-michi road, nearby, features a red brick building called Akarenga (which, not coincidentally, means "red brick building", if I am not mistaken) that is filled with various shops and chain stores, and is so shopping-mall-like inside that I would probably see it as a destination of last resort if I were back home, but it’s kind of interesting to see how stuff is being sold (and bought) here. Some of the shops are hipper than the usual shopping-mall fare. It kind of strikes me as similar to University Village in Seattle.

We stopped at a department store for some grocery items for dinner. I picked up some mushrooms which are similar to cauliflower-mushrooms, a little bunch of spinach, some already-grilled-tofu, and some things for breakfast. For dinner I cooked the remaining bit of penne with a sauce of butter, garlic, pine nuts, the grilled tofu, spinach, the mushrooms, and some of the tsuyu from yesterday’s noodles, then topped with some pecorino romano. The mushrooms turned out to be a little fragile and shouldn’t have been cooked more than a few seconds. The sauce was pleasant enough, but as I’ve come to expect from the pans I have in my rental kitchen, I couldn’t heat it through again in the uneven fry pan quickly enough to avoid slightly overcooking the pasta.

Hoteres, Day 2: Nifty equipment and ceramics

jason

I decided after all to go back to the Hoteres show, which turns out to have been a good idea. I found a lot of suppliers of ceramics mostly focusing on restaurant clients, one of which can also serve as an export agent for products from a potter I like in Takayama. Beyond that, I found the company behind an extra nifty cedar soap line, which is the same product that my friend Hiromi told me she uses religiously for her face. I also found another producer of a similar product, and a company that markets private label soaps to spas and hot springs and hotels in Japan, including a yuzu soap, a green tea soap that unlike Elizabeth Arden’s hyped product actually smells like green tea, and several “massage soaps” which include some kind of exfoliating ingredient.

In the “interesting kitchen equipment” category, the coolest thing I saw was a fryer which is promoted as a “clean fryer.” In a floor demonstration, one of the promoters asked an audience member to pour a glass of water directly into the hot oil, which was frying some tonkatsu or croquettes or something similar, with her hand directly above the oil. When she poured the water in, it simply disappeared; this was followed with someone tossing in an ice cube. The water, according to the demonstrator, had simply moved to the bottom of the fryer.

Another interesting machine was a countertop device that produces nigiri-sushi shaped rice in precise portions. In a similar vein, there was an automatic gyouza stuffer for countertop use. There were a couple of interesting conveyer-belt products which looked surprisingly elegant; two of them didn’t even have obviously moving belts.

I talked to one small company that manufactures oshibori wetting, disinfecting and warming countertop machines. Oshibori are wet napkins used in Japan usually instead of paper napkins, and are kind of an alternative to running off to a washroom to clean one’s hands before a meal. After the president told me everything he thought I could understand, he introduced me to his secretary, who is also his daughter. She used to study in New Zealand and had a kind of New Zealand Japanese accent. Apparently they are trying to sell a version of this in Hawaii later this year, and I suggested if they have a 110 volt version, it’s worth exploring the West Coast of the US in general, and to please let me know when it’s going to be released.

During these four days, it’s been kind of amusing how many people comment on my company name (Yuzu Trading Co. LLC). It seems to instantly establish some rapport, since it’s obvious to them I’m influenced by Japan; referring to Yuzu in my company name strikes some folks as surprising, leading them to think of me as not your usual run-of-the-mill gaijin.

I left the show around 3pm and came back to my apartment. I managed to sort through most of the papers I’ve accumulated over the last few days, organized by their relative importance to me (products I’m very interested in, products I was attracted to, companies that might be good sources if someone comes to me looking for something in particular, and companies which I don’t think I have much likelihood of being useful for me). I still have to sort through at least several dozen business cards I’ve received as well.

Tonight I cooked some of the yuzu-flavored udon I picked up last weekend in Nasu-Shiobara. I made a couple of simple side dishes… I have some leftover nanohana (canola greens or rapeseed greens), garlic stems, and one eringi from a few days ago. So I just blanched the nanohana in lightly salted water and served it with a drizzling of a white tamari sample I got from FoodEx. I also sauteed the garlic stems and browned the eringi, seasoned with some salt and the white tamari, then topped with some toasted pine nuts and pecorino romano cheese. The yuzu udon I just boiled and served cool with some store-bought noodle dipping sauce. The yuzu flavor isn’t very strong, but is at least noticeable and pleasant.

FoodEx Day 3 and on to Hoteres

jason

I had a pretty interesting conversation with a Sri Lankan tea company director… They have a pretty decent upscale tea that they mostly sell in England, and they aren’t very happy with their U.S. distributor, which has started to focus on its own branded tea. They sell single-estate teas

Anyway, he’s interested in doing a line of “healthy” teas and could source organic single-estate products, and says he could contribute some kind of marketing effort for this line; some kind of high-profile tasting event, for example, which they have done in London. They’re also creating a sort of prefab tea bar concept, which is a British-style presentation, but kind of interesting. I could actually start with relatively small shipments with them, which may be compelling; they also have a reasonably interesting story (163 year old company, bought back from the English by a Sri Lankan family, and their tea line is all single-estate, they’ve got a standing deal with the Queen of England, etc.) It’s not necessarily in the “pacific lifestyles” category, but with an organic product line I think I could be happy.

Beyond that, I noticed a couple of gems that I had previously overlooked in the Japanese food sections. I was kind of frustrated that I hadn’t seen many products from Japan that I thought were must-haves… I still don’t know that I’ve found a must-have item, but I did discover a nice natural aromatic vinegar line and some interesting grain-based tea beverage products, including an azuki bean tea similar to mugicha.

In the afternoon I went to another trade show at Tokyo Big Site in Odaiba, the big artificial island in Tokyo Bay. That show was mostly food equipment and furnishings for hotel, hospital, and restaurant businesses. I think I don’t really understand food equipment well enough to operate as an importer for that kind of thing, but I did see some cool stuff… there was a product that takes a small block of ice and turns it into large spherical, soccer-ball-shaped, or other novelty shaped large ice “cubes”. Another product in the same vein makes ice bowls for serving food, and produces the sort of ice you’d expect to serve oysters atop. Beyond that, I spent a while talking to a guy whose company produces a product for making fresh oborodoufu (custard-texture) tofu at the dinner table, for home or restaurant use. The device could be used for other recipes as well, but they have a companion product which is soy milk mixed with nigari and some other ingredients, and has a fairly long room-temperature shelf-life. I think it could sell to certain Japanese restaurants and maybe to Asian shops in the west coast; the tofu it produces is actually pretty decent.

The other cool thing was an ozone-generating hand dryer that operates with the mythical (by which I mean often overstated… another story) Japanese efficiency… very high powered air. Unfortunately, none of the companies producing these devices have a 110 Volt product yet, but if they did, it would be really cool as an alternative to the paper-towel heavy solution that health departments in the US seem to prefer. One of the companies producing them has one that’s been marketed mostly to medical institutions and outperforms alcohol-based hand sterilization using a combination of heat, high air pressure, and ozone. I got a non-specific invitation to go out for drinks with a representative from one of the companies making these before I leave Japan.

For dinner, I went out with Hiromi to Okonomiyaki at a family-restaurant style chain in a Shinjuku department store. The okonomiyaki was average, as would be expected; I’ve been there before, but we were at a loss for interesting okonomiyaki restaurants in Shinjuku, which is dominated by expensive corporate concepts and chains.

The main selling point of this okonomiyaki restaurant is the cheap drinks… a grapefruit and cassis drink went for 280 yen, and another drink made with lychee liqueur and a self-squeezed grapefruit half went for 380 yen. By way of contrast, afterward, I ordered a small pot of tea at a popular cake shop, Comme Ca, for 600 yen, with a couple of slices of impressive-looking cakes for 700-800 yen each. 90% of those attending the cake shop were women, and maybe more than 95% of the male customers are there with dates.

I haven’t decided what to do tomorrow… I’ve seen nearly everything possible except some seminars at FoodEx, and I’m not sure that the rest of the Hoteres show will be that valuable for my current business direction, though I’ve only walked through half of the exhibition area.

FoodEx trade show, day 1

jason

Today was the first day of FoodEx and I must have visited several hundred booths and talked to people at several dozen. The experience was truly dizzying. Some 2,300 companies are exhibiting, catering to manufacturers, restaurant and food service, intermediate companies (which is the category I fall into), and retailers (these booths occasionally have some relevance to what I’m handling).

I wandered around for about 6.5 hours and talked to a whole bunch of people. The highlights for me were some tea-related products, some yuzu ponzu from Ibaragi prefecture that was surprisingly nice for a packaged product, and various green/organic products which are still slightly uncommon in Japan.

Tonight after the show I met a friend and we tried to find vegetarian options at a Korean restaurant, which was interesting because this is far less trouble in Korea than here. There were whole clams in the kimchi tofu jjigae, which the waiter said had no meat in. I just worked around them and my friend at them. There were also bits of meat in a chijimi that was described as meatless.

When eating out I usually try not to concern myself with most kinds of soup stock or other things that are too much trouble to worry about, even in the U.S. where restaurants cater to every dietary whim, but being vegetarian in Japan is always complicated.

Yesterday I was a little too tired to write. I did some research in the morning and met with a couple of friends, but I didn’t really do anything that impressive. I did cook a half-decent penne with a cream sauce, garlic stems, and maitake mushrooms with some coarsely chopped pecorino romano and pine nuts. It took far too long in my weekly apartment’s kitchen, which has one burner, a warped frying pan that only cooks in one spot, and a tiny saucepan that isn’t really big enough to boil any amount of pasta in. I also made a frittata-like thing for dinner using nanohana (the greens from the canola plant) and eringi mushrooms, served with some whole grain bread I found. I got home too late to cook rice.

I realized that some people might see my half-finished web site for Yuzu Trading Co. now that my business cards are in the hands of strangers, so I fixed the layout and altered some text so that the work looks less unfinished, hopefully. I wish I had spent more time on this, but I have some ideas on how to actually make it useful later.

Somehow I’m awake much later than I should be. I should go to sleep. I’ll have time to be more reflective later …

 

Visiting the pottery town, Mashiko

jason

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.

Relaxing in Nasu-shiobara at a hot spring

jason

Daylight suffices to signal my body to wake up. Outside, fresh snow is accumulating on the trees and rooftops.

My friend’s hopes of driving to Nikko are dashed by reports of poor road conditions, so she makes inquiries about things one can do in sleepy Nasu-shiobara. We snap a few photos around a pedestrian bridge that crosses a river bordered by snow-covered rocks. We visit a museum and mostly see various artifacts chosen to demonstrate that famous poets have stopped in town here before. I pick up some udon which have bits of yuzu zest embedded in the noodles, which I’ll cook while staying in a weekly apartment in Tokyo.

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We drive to a soba/udon shop recommended by the tourist information center and have handmade soba in soup, served with freshly made yuba, and rustically cut udon in soup, served with mountain vegetable tempura. We also order some soba-gakki, after I describe it to my friend based on the one time I tasted a not-very-similar version of it in Saru-ga-kyou.

Afterward we drive around somewhat aimlessly, and stop in a gift shop and find ourselves attracted to some kuromame daifuku with zunda filling (black beans mixed with mochi, and filled with sweetened paste of mung beans, and some black bean cocoa, which we buy and take along with us. I am nearly convinced that the dried niga-uri (goya, or bitter melon) chips are worth trying by the salesperson, who says they are easy to eat, but I don’t buy.

My friend convinces me to order “cream soda,” an ice cream float made with an aggressively green-colored soda which is flavored similarly to the vanilla soda known as cream soda in the US but apparently with extra esther of wood rosin. At least the vanilla ice cream was nice…

We go back to the hotel and my jetlag catches up with me… I sleep, though I have no idea if my friend does the same or not, for about an hour. We decide to head to the outdoor hot springs pools again after learning we just missed by a few minutes the chance to use one of the private ones… but nobody else is down there, as it’s the start of the dinner hour. The view of the snow-covered rocks in the river is probably more compelling anyway.

Dinner is a typically elaborate spread of mostly simple foods that you would expect to find in a Japanese ryokan, and I get some special treatment to accommodate my vegetarian habit. Dengaku nasu, and some unusual cross between yuba and tofu that the woman serving us couldn’t quite explain, and some nice jelly covering crisp fresh shredded vegetables, and a pot of yu-doufu are all nice; there’s also chawan-mushi (savory egg custard), and some dried persimmon stuffed with candied yuzu peel.

I end up eating so much I barely touch the rice. The half hour in the hot spring makes it hard to concentrate on anything, and sleep seems inevitable…  

Arrival and collapse

jason

I arrived at Narita airport and cruised through passport control, baggage claim and customs unusually quickly. After getting a small amount of cash at the Citibank ATM, I made a stop at the KDDI/au booth on the fourth floor of the airport to inquire about and obtain a prepaid telephone.

The last time I was in Tokyo I rented a cell phone here, which incredibly simplified the often daunting task of meeting friends in various public places… the pervasiveness of cell phones has greatly diminished the importance Japanese once placed on punctuality. Beyond that, picking a well-known landmark at a particular train station as a meeting place always sounds simple, but usually at least 500 other folks had the same landmark in mind, and seeing through the crowds isn’t always easy without additional lines of communication. The rental cell phone made my life much easier; however, with a 25 day stay in mind, the 600 yen/day rental fee plus outbound talk time makes the prepaid option a financially more attractive option, and I’ll be able to use it on subsequent trips.

After wandering around Tokyo station in search of food, I finally settle on a couple of onigiri: one stuffed with natto and seasoned with soy sauce, and, apparently, butter; the other, made with “wasabi-zuke”, pickles seasoned with cheap wasabi mix that consists of more mustard than anything else. I also picked up a burdock (gobo) side dish and some CC Lemon. The gobo side dish promptly disappeared out of the little plastic bag; I must have held it with only one handle without realizing my mistake until I looked for it.

I wandered around the a little bit while waiting for my friend to fight traffic on the way from Kawasaki. After her arrival, we climbed in the car and spent about an hour trying to get out of the city, and another couple of hours heading toward an onsen ryokan in Nasu-Shiobara, “Myouga-ya Honkan”. I managed to doze off in the last hour of the trip.

Upon arrival, just shy of 11pm, we settled in, and then decided to take a late night dip in the roten-buro, an outdoor hot springs pool out back of the hotel which was actually built 300 years ago. This is actually an increasingly unusual venue; it features konyoku (mixed bathing), unclothed; very few hot springs have mixed bathing anymore.

As we walked through the old wooden structure that leads down to the outdoor pools, we could see snow slowly sublimating on rooftops. We were alone, as it’s not particularly common to be out in the onsen after 11. We tried a couple of the pools, overlooking the concrete-banked river, for maybe 30 minutes. There was a light breeze extending the influence of near-freezing temperatures, but the warm pools of highly mineralized water covered us up to our shoulders, and the baths removed all of the economy-class aches and pains in my body.

Upon returning to the room, jetlag and relaxation synergized and I easily collapsed into bed.