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.

Tōkyō ni tsuita : Arrived in Tokyo

I arrived in Tokyo last night... There's still a lot to write about from my Korea trip, but I just wanted to post a quick update... Off I go to cause trouble with Hiromi.

My timing was fortuitous., or insane, depending on your perspective... right outside the Marunouchi exit of Tōkyō station, a brand new building opened up, the Shin-Marunouchi Building. Just as you might expect, it was crowded and bustling with activity... When something new and big comes to Tokyo, everyone wants to be there.

Shin-Marunouchi Building Opening Day Congratulatory Flowers

Hanawa

These flowers mark the opening of a new building or business.

Lining up

Shin-Marunouchi Building Opening Day

Every restaurant or cafe had a long queue.

A new restaurant menu

Dashichazuke

Dashi-chazuke. Rice with various toppings and Japanese soup stock instead of the typical tea.

Gateau Fraise

Gateaux Fraise

I just managed a glimpse of the goods at this fancy cake shop.

Coffee from my hood

Caffe Appasionato Tokyo, Shin-Marunouchi Building

Seattle's Iranian-American family-owned Caffe Appassionato gussies up their look for the Japanese market.

Fancy little gourmet shop

Salad dressings in Shin-Marunouchi

Too many salad dressings.

An upscale outpost of an ordinary supermarket

Seijo Ishii

Somewhere to buy the essentials, and everyday splurges.

 

Jiyuugaoka, A restless kind of leisure

Last night Hiromi’s parents picked us up at the airport and took us to our hotel near Shirakanedai station, and treated us to dinner at a kind of izakaya-like spot at Meguro station called Himono-ya.

Himono-ya is one of many basement restaurants in Tokyo, a class of restaurant that occurs primarily in extremely urbanized parts of the U.S. but is fairly ubiquitous in Japan. I recall most German city hall buildings even in moderately small towns tended to have a restaurant, often called “Ratskeller” (City hall basement, unpoetically rendered in English), which tended to serve standard bourgeois German fare. Most of the U.S. restaurant scene prizes street level space and ignores all other options, which means that we don’t spend a lot of time eating underground.

Anyway, we had a pleasant meal that, after 10 hours in an airplane, might have tasted much better than it really was. We had a plate of variously dressed hiya-yakko (cold tofu), an assortment of grilled vegetables with simple condiments, a kabocha salad (more salad than kabocha), and a couple of grilled fish dishes for those who were eating animals. I started falling asleep toward the end of our meal as I didn’t rest on the plane at all and only had 6 hours of sleep the previous several nights.

Today we woke up around 5am and nibbled on whatever we had smuggled into the country with us. We ate some slightly less than agetate curry pan at a Meguro deparment store, and then made our way to Kobeya bakery, where we indulged in some more carbohydrate laden fare.

Satsumaimo Boat

Satsumaimo-boat

Behold, a “Sweet Potato Boat”. This is a crumbly cake with nutmeg and cinnamon and serious sweet potato chunks.

Sakura danish

Sakura danish

A bit more seasonally appropriate, we had this star-shaped sakura (cherry blossom) danish, full of buttery decadence and featuring bits of presumably preserved cherry blossom seasoned bean paste. Nearly cropped out of the frame are some mochi-mochi mini cheese-filled buns, which we would also recommend.

Tribute to Roboppy

Crumbs

These crumbs are all that were left.

We headed to Jiyuugaoka, not far from Shibuya, for aimless shopping (really, market research). We have some very cool booty from a 100–yen shop and some more extravagant minor indulgences which we’ll post later when we are less completely jetlagged.

I’d like very much to highlight our lunch, but the low lighting conditions in the restaurant meant that our meal was represented sufficiently blurrily as to be unrecognizable. We ate at a restaurant which focuses on negi in all its guises, from scallions to Japanese leeks and perhaps some European varieties. Hiromi had some kind of unagi-topped rice garnished with scallions and served ochazuke style, with tea. I had tororoimo with negi served over brown rice with some pickled konbu, sweetened miso and tarako as accoutrements, along with a nice springtime nimono of simmered bamboo shoots and lotus root, along with a sweet dashimaki tamago with scallions. We both had a nice wakame soup with spiral o-fu (wheat gluten) strips.

Late afternoon we made a pilgrimage to a tea shop operating out of an old house, where we ordered two very Japanese confections.

Anmitsu

Anmitsu

Anmitsu is a dish of fruit and anko (sweet red bean paste), often served with a black sugar and honey syrup called kuromitsu. In some cases it may be augmented with ice cream, though the shop where we went serves it fairly simply. Anmitsu is the main reason I keep coming back to Japan on a regular basis. (OK, so that’s a bit of an exaggeration…)

Thick matcha and zenzai

Matcha-zenzai

Zenzai is usually little more than anko  and shiratama, but this nifty version is elegantly bittersweet, slightly covered with thick matcha. I feel a need to replicate this in my own kitchen.

At night we met up with an old friend of mine from my Microsoft days, and a friend of Hiromi’s, whom Hiromi has known since elementary school, dropped in after a late shift at a hospital. We ate at Meguro’s Tuk Tuk, a clever Italian-Thai fusion restaurant that plays it safe on some things, and does a few innovative things. We kept our dishes primarily in the single-metaphor range, and had fairly nice results, by the end of which our jetlag started winning the battle for control over our minds and bodies.

Farewell to Aomori

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.

 

Technorati tags: , , , , , , , ,

Hanami in Hirosaki, Part 2

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.

Short trip to Mashiko

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...

Technorati tags: , , , , , ,

One last gimchi-jeon in Seoul

My last reasonably complete meal in Seoul was a late lunch last Thursday... Somehow, after a week of sleeping six hours a night I didn't have quite the energy level required to search for something more substantial, and I was only moderately hungry that night... I ended up just grabbing an overpriced smoothie and some more of those addictive but deadly hoddeok.

Anyway, Thursday afternoon I found this little spot, Waelbing Buchu Nara, just a short stretch from Namsangol Hanok Village. It's extra tiny, and only has room for a bit more than a dozen people to sit. But I was drawn in because of the short, simple, reasonably healthy-looking menu. More importantly, they had gimchi-jeon (kimchi jeon), which is one of the few vegetarian-ish jeon I hadn't indulged in on this trip.

 Waelbing Buchu Nara restaurant

The restaurant offered up a few simple banchan, though I skipped the one that involved a bunch of fried tiny fish.

Mu gimchi

Mu gimchi (daikon kimchi)

Common enough, but this pretty daikon kimchi was quite nice.

Minari

Minari

I might be wrong about this, but I believe this is minari, similar to garlic chives.

Kong namul guk

Kong namul guk

The jeon comes with a bean sprout soup... It's fairly strongly seasoned with bits of what appears to be dried mackerel. Thanks to my vegetarian habits, it was a bit difficult to for me to eat much of this, but it was a nice touch.

The main event

Kimchi jeon (gimchi jeon)

I ate way more of this than I should have... but the kimchi jeon was pretty nicely done. On previous trips to Korea, at a couple of restaurants the kimchi jeon I've had somehow seemed slightly undercooked. I think that owed itself to the complexity of identifying how well cooked a very uneven batter covering copious amounts of kimchi might be.

At Waelbing Buchu Nara, however, I was pleased with my order. The surface of the jeon just teeters on crispness, while the pancake itself is almost fluffy. The kimchi adds a lot of flavor without being overwhelming.

Even with my almost nonexistent Korean ability I was able to make myself reasonably well understood, and they understood my badly worded request to make sure the jeon was devoid of meat. (It's not all that common to add pork or seafood to this type of jeon, but some places might).

 

Mini-vacation in Vancouver

We had planned to make a day trip to Vancouver on Boxing Day, before I remembered something about a signature that most students need to get on their I-20 before departing the country… alas, I realized this just about an hour before we were hoping to take off, early in the morning, and of course Hiromi hadn’t quite formally enrolled in school yet, so it wasn’t even possible to get the signature had we planned for it.

Fortunately, we were able to make up for it this weekend. Instead of my usual supermarket demo routine, we drove up to Vancouver Saturday morning. Somehow we cleared the border in record time, and we walked the usual Robson stretch as Hiromi hunted for post-holiday discounted clothing. We also stopped at a tea shop that offers a lot of aromatized teas (I didn’t expect my kukicha to be fruity… that’ll teach me) and instant chocolate fondue with various fruits, marshmallows, and, well, gummy bears.

We also got some roasted chestnuts from a street vendor, whose shells we discarded at every trash bin on the way from Sears back to our hotel off Granville Street.

At night we tried to find something to bring along to a potluck party at the home of one of Hiromi’s friends near Gastown. We discovered, much to our dismay, that restaurants in Vancouver Chinatown are pretty much shuttered at night, so we abandoned our thoughts of bringing along some vegetarian jiaozi or other nibbles. Fortunately, I had a stash of matcha chocolates and matcha-white chocolate enrobed fortune cookies to contribute. We were able to eat our first semi-nutritious meal of the day at the party, as other guests brought more than the usual bread and chips… the party also had a spectacular view, facing the water, in a common room on the roof of an neat residential project in an industrial part of Gastown.

After a late night it took some work to extract ourselves from the hotel, motivated primarily by ever-increasing hunger pangs. We took a short hop from our hotel to the Granville Public Market, where we overindulged in pastries from La Baguette & L'Echalote, a samosa-like filled pastry from Laurelle’s, and some passable teas from Granville Island Tea, along with a nice aged Gouda from Dussa's.

Our pastry and cheese indulgenceGranville Island Public Market

We noticed a coffee shop offering employment only to people literate in Japanese.

Staff wanted

Actually we subsequently noticed two similar signs the same day at non-Japanese restaurants. Apparently Japanese-speaking staff are in demand in Vancouver.

We had dinner at one of the many Vancouver Greek restaurants… somehow Greek is neglected in Seattle, but we had a pleasant enough meal at Taki’s, along Davie, with another pair of friends Hiromi is connected to from her working holiday era.

Somehow, we sailed through the border control again on the way back home… the miserable weather and lack of significant holiday-like events must have reduced the line-up at the

Final days in Japan

I just arrived this morning... the last few days in Japan were somewhat busy, and though I started writing entries in my web journal a few times, I got distracted by other things. I will start to fill in the blanks tomorrow, if I can spare a few moments.

Seoul Bread and Coffee

I'm usually craving coffee and bread in the morning, although I'll certainly dig into a heavy Korean or salt-laden Japanese-style breakfast from time to time. Fortunately, Seoul and Tokyo, more so than Seattle, have an insane number of mostly French-influenced bakeries, all with local touches, so I often have the chance to find such treats in the morning. The main caveat is that in Tokyo, bakeries often don't really open until 10am. As for coffee, both Japan and Korea are heavy consumers of coffee, but with big chains like Dottoru and various Korean Starbucks knock-offs, it's sad to say that quality is not usually a priority.

Tokyo, in spite of an extended reign of coffee superiority vis a vis the land of Maxwell House and Folgers, is really not that great a place to drink coffee. During the economic bubble, it's said that Japan had a number of cafes with owners fanatically devoted to the art of coffee, but these days it takes a special effort to locate anything substantially better than the ubiquitous "blend coffee" or watery "America coffee". Espresso, save for places like Macchinesti, is generally more a milk delivery mechanism, and tends to be bitter and undrinkable, often even more so than what Starbucks produces.

Seoul, in my limited experience, is even worse. Most places I've had coffee (and there haven't been that many even over several trips so I may not be fair) served something that was not only painfully bitter, but tasted stale and faintly metallic.

Paris Croissant latte, Gangnam-gu station

Kapae Latte, a cafe latte in Seoul 

Fortunately, I've had just slightly better luck this time. A cute little flower-shop/cafe, just inches from my hotel, suffered only from having slightly stale coffee and oversteamed milk; it wasn't the bitter mess I had encountered on previous trips. Another bakery (Paris Croissant at Gangnam station, I believe) seemed to almost understand milk foam rosettas, though the milk was also slightly too hot and the coffee had that faint stale flavor I've come to associate with drinking coffee in Korea.

I was even more pleased yesterday morning, when, in my urge to caffeinate myself, I ended up buying coffee at a chain bakery, Tous Les Jours, also a stone's throw from my hotel.  It wasn't as pretty as the one at Paris Croissant, but it was flavorful without being unnecessarily bitter, appeared to be made from reasonably fresh beans, and was well-balanced enough that I wouldn't have been surprised if someone told me it came from a local Seattle indie coffee place. Even better, the drink was notably cheaper than the Big Green Monster's Seoul offerings, from what I understand.

The one constant this time for coffee in Seoul, it seems, is that nobody ever uses a thermometer to check the milk temperature and it's always life-threateningly hot.

As for the pastries (because Roboppy always wants to know)... well, Tokyo still seems to have a slightly higher standards overall, but in Seoul prices seems slightly more reasonable. Both Korea and Japan almost always cheaper than Seattle when it comes to laminated doughs and such, thanks to saner portion sizes and higher volume.

I usually try to go for flavors that are hard to find outside of Japan or Korea when I come to this part of the world, and I certainly found plenty to choose from.

Sweet potato roll

Sweet potato pastry roll

A pastry with sweet potato puree in the center from Paris Baguette, Gangnam-gu station...

Marron cherry puff

Marron (chestnut) cherry puff 

Puff pastry with the unlikely but pleasant combination of marrons glace (candied chestnuts) and cherries.

Tous les jours trio

Sweet potato filled danish, croissant, anpan with walnut

Sweet potato-filled pastry, mini-croissant, and red bean stuffed soft bun with walnut.

Black sesame tapioca roll

Black sesame tapioca bun

Nice. Chewy, mochi-mochi, slightly salty, and, well, black sesame-y. Good with cream cheese. You want one of these.

Chocolate streusel bread

Chocolate streusel bun

A lot less sweet than it looks, this one was a pleasant surprise.

One caveat to pastry and bread in East Asia, though: Savory, hearty breads are relatively rare, and even items that sound savory are often made with a sweet bread base or heavily sweetened laminated dough. Ham, processed cheese and sweet mayonnaise seem to be a favored combination in both Korea and Japan, as are things baked with sausages, and, of course, corn-mayo.

Tokyo embassy interview date scheduled

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.

Technorati Tags: ,,
1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12