Thursday, February 20, 2014

News in Japan: Trending now - chun-gao

Selfie takers everywhere, consider yourself on notice: duck face is not only ridiculous looking, it is also way out of style (from what I hear here, it is "so 2012"). Here in Japan, selfie experts are already perfecting the next generation of ridiculous selfie faces.

Please welcome chun-gao, aka sparrow face.

You're welcome. And I welcome your best chun-gao faces in my inbox.

Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Tokyo: Senso-ji Temple and the Elusive Dai-kichi Omikuji

This past weekend, Vince and I went out touristing in Tokyo. We traveled to the neighborhood of Asakusa to see one of the city's most popular tourist destinations: Senso-ji Buddhist Temple.

Dying for some fast facts?
  • Constructed in 645 (completion date), it is the oldest Buddhist Temple in Japan
  • The temple is dedicated to Kannon, the goddess of mercy and compassion
  • Legend has it that the temple was constructed in her honor after her statute repeatedly appeared in front of two fisherman in a nearby river (even after they originally sent the statute on down the river)
  • The entrance to Senso-ji is called Kaminarimon (かみなりもん), which means Thunder Gate
  • Kaminarimon, which was originally built in 941, relocated in 1635 and destroyed and rebuilt several times since, is guarded by Fujin, the god of wind, and Raijin, the god of thunder

We relied on our handy Pocket Tokyo guidebook by Lonely Planet (thanks to Gina and Daniel!) and approached the temple through かみなりもん and proceeded to walk down Nakamise-dori, an old shopping street selling sweets and traditional Japanese wares among other things.

View down Nakamise-dori to Senso-ji.

We passed so many delicious smelling sweet, and I vowed to get one on my way out after I had a chance to peruse all the offerings. I ended up getting an agemanju glazed with Japanese apricot confection. Agemanju is deep fried rice flour bun stuffed with azuki bean paste. Um, yes, it was everything that a sweet should be, and it was delicious down to the bean paste.

The vendor sold many flavors including pumpkin and black sesame. I went with Japanese apricot because it sounded traditional enough and decidedly delicious. But, I have since learned that Japanese apricots (or prunus mume) were originally introduced from China, though that was centuries ago. 

Now, to the main attraction, Senso-ji. The first sight that draws your attention after you enter the inner gate is a smoking cauldron of incense. The smoke from this cauldron is believed to bestow health, so it is surrounded by people who are wafting the smoke over their faces and bodies.

The other notable "attraction" seemed like a classic tourist trap. You can make a small offering and draw your fortune or o-mikuji at Senso-ji, as you can at many other temples and shrines in Japan. Here's how it works: 

-1- Make an offering. 

The suggested offering at Senso-ji was 100 yen (~$1 USD). Although no one is policing the donations, who really wants to skimp on an offering and then draw a fortune? That seems to be asking for it!

-2- Lightly shake the silver canister.

The canister contains 100 sticks and has a hole at one end that will dispense a stick when shaken lightly. Each stick has a number on it in kanji (one of the three Japanese character systems). Remember your number (!) and return the stick into the canister. 

-3- Find the drawer with the same number as the stick and pull from it your paper fortune or o-mikuji (おみくじ).

Your o-mikuji will bestow upon you a general blessing that can range from "great blessing" (dai-kichi - 大吉) to "great curse" (dai-kyo - 大凶) and then makes recommendations about certain aspects of your life.

-4- If the fortune is negative, it should be tied to one of several metal racks, so that the bad fortune will not follow you. 

Happily, our fortune was a dai-kichi! It advised, among other things, that it is good to make a trip. Thanks, o-mikuji.

I have now spent some time trying to track down the history of the o-mikuji to assess the depth of its historic (versus tourist) roots. It seems that o-mikuji have a long history in Japan. According to one source, the drawing of fortune lots dates back to ancient times and was specifically used to choose successor shoguns and make important leadership decisions. Their use as vehicles of personal fortune is less historic, but still seemingly dates back several hundred years. 

Tuesday, February 11, 2014

Nihon Ryori (日本料理)

So far, we have found a reasonable balance between comfort food and culinary adventure.

In the past two weeks, we have eaten at three Japanese places in our neighborhood. At each place, I had to put aside my peculiar food neuroses (like convincing myself that a supposedly vegetarian menu item has a distinctly umami taste, it must have been cooked in fish broth!!). All three were quite good and one has been sworn into our permanent rotation.


The first place was a small yakitori (a term which formally means skewered chicken but also is used to refer to skewered food generally). We ordered several items, each was quite small but before the first one showed up, we were presented with a dish of tofu cubes topped with tuna and shrimp (more on this in the "final note" to this blog entry). I tried with the tofu with the tuna (!!) on top but passed on the shrimp. Honestly, the tofu was less appetizing than the tuna and that is not an endorsement of tuna. The tofu was in large cubes that were totally unseasoned and uncooked. Not yummy. But then, in the next round, the yakitori fare improved dramatically. We received a cucumber and peanut salad with a light peanut sauce. It was unbelievably simple and still quite delicious. Those appetizers were followed up with a series of vegetable skewers and chicken, which varied in memorability. 

Perhaps the most interesting component of the meal was the shochu (), a traditional Japanese distilled beverage. Shochu is commonly made from distilled from barley, buckwheat, rice, or yams. We tried the yam shochu.

Courtesy of

I wish I could say it had "earthy undertones" or something else sophisticated, but it just tasted like vodka. I think Vince was turned off for good, but I plan on doing more shochu exploration over the next few months.

Did I mention this place had no seats? Weird. Between that, the average-at-best skewers, and the otooshi (see the end of this post), I don't think we will be going back.


Over the weekend we ate at Sarashina Horri, a soba restaurant. We were seated at a communal table and next to us were two Buddhist priests (a father and son pair out to celebrate the father's 84th birthday). The pair kindly struck up conversation with us halfway through the meal, and I suspect that this was partly for the purpose of giving me a basic lesson on how to eat my soba appropriately. Soba is a buckwheat noodle, most common in the northern parts of Japan. Soba noodles can be served cold (zaru-soba) with a dipping sauce or hot in a broth soup. I ordered them cold, in which style they are served on a lattice of bamboo with a square wooden frame, essentially a square plate. 

I ordered onijiru-soba, cold soba noodles and Japanese hot radish soup with soy sauce as a dipping sauce. While cold noodles are going to take some getting used to generally, they were perfectly setoff by the dipping sauce, which slowly set fire to my lips as I did my best to noisily slurp my noodles down (following the specific instructions of the priests). Oh, my soba also came with bonito (fish flakes), otherwise known as katsuobushi (かつおぶし) Despite the initial and insistent instruction (read: mandate) of the middle-aged Japanese waitress to integrate the bowl of bonito flakes into my meal, I surreptitiously passed them over to Vince after I put on my best "confused gaijin" act and she gave up on trying to lead me across the bridge over the cultural divide. 

For the curious, the proper way to eat cold soba with dipping sauce is to lift a bundle of noodles off the bamboo lattice with your chopsticks, which you are holding in your more dexterous hand. There seemed to be little concern for how high much of your noodle bundle is hanging freely from your chopsticks or how far it hangs - I saw Japanese women raising their chopsticks fully above their head to shake the hanging noodles loose from their bamboo bead. Once extricated, you lower your noodles, dangling end first, all the way down into the dipping sauce. You then lift the noodles that properly sit between your chopsticks to your mouth and loudly slurp the foot, or feet!, of hanging noodles directly out of the dipping sauce to your mouth.

And that's not all. After all the noodles are gone, you will notice that at some point during the meal a large teapot looking ceramic piece has appeared on your table (I simply can't slurp and multi-task yet). You pour the hot liquid into your dipping bowl, lift the bowl with both hands and drink the remaining, now diluted, dipping sauce. That was also delicious and my "don't ask, don't tell" eating policy was in full-force. Was it fish broth??!! ~Put fear aside, bottom's up!~

Fodor's travel guide, which I happened upon in the public library this morning, described the Japanese tradition of eating noodles as a total abandonment of all pillars of western eating etiquette that have been ingrained since childhood. That's a pretty accurate statement. Fodor's also says that you can pick up on many Japanese cultural norms by mindful observation. I'm hoping that is also an accurate statement.

I left wondering if this place was considered the best soba in Japan, so I did some unscientific polling of the voices in the internet and read up on the history of the place. My conclusion was that it was an oft-repeated claim. At the very least the place has history. According to the restaurant's website, Sarashina Horii has been around since 1789, when a feudal lord advised a textile merchant with a knack for making soba to officially change his profession to soba maker. I guess that is a suggestion you didn't refuse in that day and age.


Then, two nights ago, we had our third adventure in 日本料理 (Japanese food) when we stopped at a nearby ramen place. It was Sunday night and our neighborhood was getting quiet with this restaurant as the lone exception. It was packed.

After stumbling through the standard blunders associated with eating anywhere you don't speak the language, we ordered. I got a hot ramen soup with soy sauce topped with leeks and corn. Vince got fried rice with grilled pork. We both got beers and we both left so happy, each beyond satisfied with our filing (and affordable!) meals. Vince already has his next order ready, having seen the dish that the guy next to us ordered.  We also spotted two must try appetizers - BBQ tofu cubes and, for Vince, beef wraps. We will be back there and hope that we might take some of you there too if you come and visit!

Welcome to our permanent rotation, Manriki-Ya!

As a side note, ramen is not actually native to Japan. It is traditionally a Chinese-style wheat noodle that has been long-embraced in Japan to the point where the Japanese have put their own thumbprint on the dish. Ah! I just started researching more about ramen and it is destroying my don't ask, don't tell gastronomic policy! This portion of the blog must now come to an end. Sincerely, the world's worst vegetarian.

A FINAL NOTE (for this blog entry) ON DINING OUT

Otooshi (お通し) -- A custom? A rip-off? A taste of what's to come? 

At Japanese bars, as soon as you get your first drink you are presented with a small dish that you didn't order. At the yakitori above, this was the tofu, tuna and shrimp dish. This dish, called otooshi, is a tradition in this type of establishments. However, a visitor will be surprised to learn at the end of the meal that otooshi isn't free. We were certainly surprised. How can this be? Well, from everything I have read, it's a tradition with its backers and its critics. It would be indefensible in the US and probably many other places, and perhaps because of this, the term is commonly translated on the world wide webs and by Japanese wait staff as a table charge. It averages 500 yen (5 USD) per person. Japanese never refuse it and attempting to refuse it may be impossible with the language barrier and will certainly stand out. 

So.... Surprise! Uncooked tofu cubes for everyone, $5 a piece. This compounds the negative leaning of my already-mixed review of the food at the yakitori. If you're going to charge me for something I didn't order and want to see me again, it better be good!

This leads to my phrase of the week "Saabisu desu!" (pronounced sah-bee-soo des), which means "on the house!" ;)

Friday, February 7, 2014


I am adding Nikko to our list of places to see. Thanks, NYT.

Oh yea, and also, Tokyo's electronic stores are pretty awesome. They have, among many other interesting, cutting-edge items, an enviable assortment of iPhone covers:

For the ultimate hipster. So hipst-a-matic -

For anyone who wants to lose their phone in their dog's bed or their bear skin rug --

And for foodies -- 

(I wish I could have captured the depth of this pile of rice. It's a solid inch of plastic deep. Also, you get a peek of another food inspired cover in the background - some sort of crispy noodles or maybe sardines??)

... and these were just a few of literally hundreds, some gauche, some chic and everything in between!

Thursday, February 6, 2014

All This Fascinating Stuff

Watch this documentary on Japan if you have an extra hour. Underneath the titillating title, it provides a fascinating look at Japanese demographics and culture (even if it focuses in on some of the eccentric extremes!) --

Monday, February 3, 2014

Combustion-Dried Cuttlefish and Generational Rubbernecking

There is a lot to report on as we increasingly attempt to get our physical, social and mental bearings. I'll touch a bit on the high (and low) lights of each.

Walking - Touring - Drinking - Dancing

This past weekend, we started to explore the different neighborhoods and sites of Tokyo, of which there are no shortage.

On Friday, we walked to and ascended Tokyo Tower (東京タワー), the second tallest building in Japan. Dying for some fast facts?
  • Second tallest building in Japan
  • Design was inspired by the Eiffel Tower
  • 333 meters tall (13 meters taller than Eiffel's)
  • Constructed in 1958
  • It has two observatories, the main observatory (150m) and the special observatory (250m)


Among my first observations was the Tower's color: an aggressively ugly shade of orange. I have since learned that this color ("international orange") is required of structures of this height to comply with international air safety regulations. That is the only acceptable excuse for this shade of orange.

We ascended to the main observatory and got a fantastic view of this sprawling city, which dwarfs New York City in terms of square kilometers. In the morning (8-9am) on a clear day, you can see Mt. Fuji in the distance. We went in the afternoon so the mountain was hidden in the brilliance of the low-hanging sun.

At the base of the Tower, within the confines of its four legs, is what I can only refer to as a 4-story mall -- a real tourist trap. We perused the goods and found this:

Combustion-dried Cuttlefish by Hello Kitty

Yep, Hello Kitty makes combustion-dried cuttlefish, and combustion-dried cuttlefish is a snack here.

In case your wondering about the combustion-drying process... (click here). By the looks of this video, combustion-dried cuttlefish is possibly the "street meat" of another corner of the world.

I can't even.

On Saturday, we attended a self-proclaimed "international" bar crawl through the Roppongi (六本木) neighborhood of Tokyo. Roppongi is a vibrant nightlife and entertainment area, with an inescapable seedy element. It is a short 10-12 minute walk from our apartment, but the change of scenery is dramatic as compared to our little slice of cobblestone street zen.

I found the event through a site called Meetup that gets people together to do any number of activities - hiking, photography, eating, language learning, etc. I thought the crawl would be a good way to get introduced to the nightlife and, hopefully, meet new people somewhat naturally.

Upon arriving to the first bar, we were confronted with the immediately undeniably fact that we were among the oldest people there, if were not the absolute oldest attendees. The majority of the crawlers appeared to be college-age kids and the demographic heavily favored native English speakers and, by that, I mean Americans. Put plainly, we found ourselves at a frat party at the ripe old age of 30. OK, I am actually only 29, but the difference between 29 and 30 doesn't matter much when the average age is decidedly south of 22 and your first and most friendly acquaintance of the evening is 19. Nineteen! He was a Brazilian guy in his first year of college. He held my non-cane bearing arm as I teetered across each of the streets with my knee high socks slouching into my orthopedics.

The frat party feel was quickly amplified by the booze and the increasingly loud music at each successive location. At bar 3 of 4, a young man stood up on a table and depantsed himself... by choice.

I desperately want to follow that sentence with "and I left immediately," but I didn't.

I just turned away and continued to talk to the small but civilized cadre of teenagers that had bonded, perhaps out of pity, with us old farts. Perhaps I couldn't bear the double humiliation of 1) not having anticipated that we would be the oldest person at such an event and 2) subsequently leaving because of the behavior of "kids these days"? But I would be disingenuous to deny that there was an element of generational rubbernecking. I had to see just how disastrous this fiasco could be.

I can only hope I looked elegantly mature and too sophisticated to deign to validate the evening's shenanigans with my attention. Something like this:

But I'm pretty sure I ended up looking more like this:

Bar 4 was a full-on dance party, and we lasted there for no more than 15 minutes. I felt victorious to have made it to the last official stop on the teenage party train. The next morning I signed myself up for a group called "ladies who brunch" and the two of us up for a hiking group.