Saturday, March 29, 2014

First Earthquake!

It just happened, just this minute! For 2-3 seconds it felt like the whole building and I had turned to Jell-o and someone had tapped us on the head with a spoon creating quick though muted reverberations through every square inch of our joint structure. Crazy.

I think it has stopped but the feeling was so disorienting and sudden that my body still feels off-kilter.

The Art of Little Things

Based on my experience in Japan so far, I dare say that there is no culture in the world that has made an art of as many small things as has Japan. Etiquette is highly-nuanced and strictly followed. Although I have no meaningful understanding of it, a bow, for example, is not just a bow. A gift received must be reciprocated with a gift given (which seems to create an endless cycle, which I also don't understand).

The same complexities and subtleties permeate the language. Certain words, like sushi, are to be said differently by men than by women. A woman must say o-sushi, a man can say sushi. The nuances of Japanese culture are enough to make any gaijin (foreigner) feel like an elephant in a flower garden.

In other fora, Japan's mastery of the little things, is so precious and elegant that it's irresistible. Chief among these precious art forms, for me, is the art of wrapping gifts. 

I took the picture above at a local store that primarily sells chopsticks (called hashi in Japanese). However, the wrapped packaging in which the chopsticks may be presented is also on open display. For in Japan, the packaging of a gift is commonly considered at least as important as the gifts itself. And when gifts look like this, this comes as no surprise. 

These hashi are placed in a beautiful box and then presented in a traditional Japanese wrapping cloth called a furoshiki. 

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Tokyo: Tsukiji fish market and its bounty - Alive, Dead, Eaten.

Tsukiji fish market is the world's largest wholesale fish market.

Craving some fast facts?

  • 1935                    
The year Tsukiji opened
  • 1.6 million
The highest price ever paid (in USD) for a tuna sold at the tuna auction [The fish weighed nearly 500lbs giving it a price north of $3,200/lb]

  • 4 million
The number of pounds of seafood and fish pass that through Tsukiji each day!

  • 18 million
The approximate amount of money in USD that exchanges hands each day

  • 2.47 million              
Approximate square footage floor space of the market

To put the size of this market in perspective:

The floor area at Tsukiji is larger than the following:

Heinz Field

1.49 million sq. feet
(the footprint of the entire structure)

All of the rentable space in the Empire State Building
~2.25 million sq. feet

This is all to say, Tsukiji is a tremendous operation and a real spectacle to behold. It is also obvious however that the facility is old - it lacks modern amenities (eg climate control) and is not designed to handle the chaos or volume of people including the fast-moving workers, the forklifts and the ceaseless waves of tourists.

Relocating Tsukiji
The End of an Era

Owing to these and other issues, there has been talk of relocating Tsukiji for decades. The current proposal for relocating the iconic site, which was put forth in 2001, has met with significant opposition, troubling obstacles and extended setbacks since that time. Some opposition voices have objected to relocating the iconic operation on principle and expressed concern that the new, modern and sanitized operation would not have the same tourist appeal. There has also been significant criticism of redevelopment plans for the site as luxury high-rise condos, a plan which now seems to be on hold because the site is being proposed as a tourist hub for the 2020 Olympics, which Tokyo will host. Perhaps most troubling of the issues facing the relocation is the discovery that the soil at the new site (which formerly housed a gas refinery) is contaminated with well beyond acceptable levels of cyanide, arsenic and benzene. Not ideal. All of these issues put together have pushed back the estimated relocation date from 2012 to 2014 to the present expectations of early 2016, but definitely sometime before the 2020 Olympics.

A little more on the pollution: The soil at the new site contained benzene, which is carcinogenic, at 43,000 times the permissible levels under Japanese environmental regulation and cyanide at 800 times a level that is considered safe. (source) Clean up efforts are underway, but there is significant concern over whether they have been proven to be sufficient to ensure that the new market location will continue to enjoy the reputation of bringing in some of the best and freshest seafood in the world, and commanding the prices associated therewith. Read more here. 

What I do know is that I am grateful to have visited Tsukiji at this historic, if totally chaotic, site. I am doubly grateful because I have actually seen it twice - I first visited Tsukiji in 2005, during my first trip to Japan (thanks, dad, for introducing me to this beautiful country).

Back to the Main Attraction
The Sites, Sounds and the Chaos

I find it difficult to describe Tsukiji in words. I have recently seen it described as "the Louvre of the oceans," and I think that description is spot on insofar as Tsukiji is a place, perhaps The place, to see first-hand some of the most magnificent and valuable creatures of the ocean. However, the experience of visiting Tsukiji has next to nothing in common with a visit to a museum otherwise.

Where a museum is enhanced by a sense of stillness, contemplation and quiet, Tsukiji is a world-renowned commercial enterprise, in which all of its (non-tourist) guests are bustling, calculating and assertive. In Tsukiji, the prized edible exhibits are not intended to be long-admired. They are expertly yet efficiently assessed with cold calculation by knowing buyers. The day's catch are poked and prodded for indicators of their quality before they are selected and diced, filleted or bagged whole for the purchaser. 

Where a museum thrives on cleanliness and order, Tsukiji's appeal is in its rawness and chaos. It's cobbled stone floors are haphazard and uneven, ensuring that each brimming container of aquatic life sits at an angle decidedly not parallel to the horizon. Intermittent pools of seawater and blood make polka dots on the narrow paths, resting wherever stones are missing or unevenly set and making it necessary for the squeamish and inappropriately shoe'd to play at least a few games of hopscotch.

Yet, it was well before we entered the bizarre bazaar that is Tsukiji, that we got a healthy dose of its charmingly unwieldy bustle. To reach the inner market we had to pass through a gauntlet of dozens of forklifts and delivery trucks, not to mention the occasional bicyclist and the disoriented throngs of tourists, myself included. In hopes of capturing the scene, I took a brief video clip outside the wholesale area. In this clip, I am standing at the edge of one intersection (near what would be a curb if there were actually a sidewalk). You can see in the first seconds of the clip a near collision between two forklifts blinded to each other by a delivery truck  inching out to make a left-hand turn. 

Keep in mind also that I took this video holding my iPhone just at my chest. That forklift nearly rolled over my toes! 

Once inside, Vince was treated to and I was terrified by an incredibly diverse array of sea creatures for sale. I tried to enjoy the spectacle without screwing up my face in fear, but the aisles between rows of vendors are so narrow that two people cannot pass each other without making accommodations for the other. So, each time I passed someone (a once every 30 second occurrence) I had to lean toward the edge of the aisle, over and around things like this: 

which was totally alive and moving!
and this:

and this:

This is direct from my nightmares to the real world. 

It was occasionally cool but mostly just terrifying. Of course, even with my major fish phobia, it is obvious that the fish trade here is an art as much as it is commerce.

Andy's Shinhinamoto
Tsukiji's Bounty, Plated

Shortly after going to Tsukiji, we joined Vince's co-workers for dinner at Andy's Shinhinamoto, known by expats as Andy's Fish. The restaurant's slogan is "Straight from Tsukiji to you." It is run by a British guy who has developed an impressive reputation for his ability to pick the most choice fish from Tsukiji's many vendors. We ordered liberally tempura vegetables, crab, several types of fish, and Korean squid pancakes.

Building on my trend towards non-vegetarian exploration, I tried the Korean pancakes. For the record, it was not clear to me that they had squid in them when I started. I ate one and a half pancakes (each of which was about the size of a cookie) before that became clear to me. I finished the second one as assertively as I could. All I could think was... GOTCHA!

Courtesy of

Sunday, March 16, 2014

So, this happened

On my way back from running errands a couple of weeks ago, I found myself stuck on a delayed subway train for, quite literally, 45 minutes. The train was stopped at a station, so I had the option to leave. There was, however, no alternative route to get home quickly, so I decided to wait it out. As the delay dragged on, I asked not one but two fellow passengers if they could explain tin English what the Japanese conductor continued was saying over the PA system. Unfortunately, neither man -- one young, one middle aged -- had the English language capabilities to do so. I stuck it out anyway, settled into the corner and pulled out my book.

Over the course of the 45 minute delay, the number of passengers willing to wait dwindled from several dozen down to 2 - me and a young Japanese guy, probably in high school, who I imagine was looking for an excuse to be late to wherever he was headed. Everyone else left. Everyone.

Then, this past week, I picked up the monthly English-language magazine. And now I'm dying to know how in the world the conductor explained this delay:

Monday, March 10, 2014

Tokyo: Kill Bill Vol. 1 Inspiration at Gonpachi

This past weekend Vince and I went out to dinner with some other gaijin (foreigners) to a Japanese restaurant called Gonpachi. Gonpachi, I learned, is quite famous in Tokyo, and has hosted international celebrities from Sylvester Stallone to Lady Gaga as well as an diverse collection of dignitaries.

It is also considered common knowledge that the venue was Quentin Tarantino's inspiration in the making of this fight scene in Kill Bill Vol. 1 --

Warning: gratuitous violence

Here is a picture that I snapped at of Gonpachi, the alleged source of Tarantino's inspiration:

Displaying image.jpeg

The legend has deep roots, but I can't find any direct confirmation of the inspiration, except the chatter of 10,000 blogs, so I leave you to be the judge.

Thursday, March 6, 2014

Udon With a Dash(i) of Japanese Folklore

On the recommendation of a Tokyo native, we went on our third noodle adventure to an udon restaurant in Roppongi, called Tsurutontan. (This actually happened a few weeks ago, but I'm just getting around to blogging about it now. Oops!)

For those who haven't explored the diverse world of Japanese noodles, udon is a thick rounded noodle made of wheat flour. It is easily distinguishable from soba, which is much more delicately-sized noodle, made of buckwheat, which gives it a more grainy taste. The taste and texture of udon by comparison, is doughy.

Tsurutontan heart of udon noodles Takumi store in Tokyo and Osaka
Signage for Tsurutontan

As soon as we entered, Tsururontan, I was overcome by the  complex, umami-rich smell of Japanese cooking and braced for my third battle with my vegetarian paranoia. However, thanks to Vince's extremely thoughtful colleague, the battle was but a minor skirmish. Vince's colleague recommended this restaurant specifically because he knew I am a vegetarian. He gave Vince the name of one of Japan's traditional, and vegetarian, udon dishes: Kitsune udon, which literally means fox udon.

Vince mentioned to me in passing that the name of the dish had its roots in Japanese folklore, and I had to investigate: 

The fox, like many animals native to Japan, is a common symbol in Japanese folklore. The fox is considered to be a spiritual entity or "supernatural monster" (yokai in Japanese). The yokai of the fox, aka fox spirit, seems to have positive associations, like with the Shinto deity of rice, as well as more questionable associations. It was long believed to be able to possess people, and I have read lore about such possessions having both beneficial  and malevolent effects. The lore of possession by fox is so widespread that it has its own word: kitsunetsuki, which means literally 'the state of being possessed by a fox.'

And, kitsunetsuki does not just exist in the world of folklore. It has evidently been used as a medical diagnosis for mental diseases dating back to the first century A.D. Remarkably, it seems it continued to be a popular diagnosis for the cause of mental illness until the early 20th century! To check the veracity of my otherwise questionable source material, I did a quick search for academic literature and voila! there it was - one piece of academic literature investigating this diagnosis in rural Japanese mountain villages as recently as the 1990s (abstract) a la The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down

How is this legend related to my dish? And is it safe to eat? 

It is commonly thought in Japan (for reasons that I have not been able to identify) that foxes, or possibly just the fox spirits, love fried, sliced tofu (go figure). And, this dish I ordered, kitsune udon, is a bowl of udon noodles in dashi broth topped with a gargantuan slice of fried tofu, hence the name.

Kitsune udon at Tsurutontan, Roppongi

I am happy to report that no possession (that I acknowledge) came to pass. The meal was delicious, and Vince made sure to follow standard Japanese eating etiquette: 

First stop, chopsticks.

Then, the wooden spoon for extra broth or to get those last bits of meat and vegetables that are seemingly impossible to capture with chopsticks. 

Displaying photo 1.JPG

And finally, the whole lacquer bowl, bottom's up to get the remaining dashi. 

Displaying photo 2.JPG

Yes, that bowl is ENORMOUS. More on that later. 

News in Japan: Japanese App Promises Eat Lettuce, Smell Steak

Things to file under only in Japan.

Japanese born app, Scentee, enables your phone to emit a growing number of scents, including a perfectly prepared  steak using a small accessory that plugs into the headphone socket. Click here to read more.

App owners can also program their phones to emit specific scents to notify them of incoming text messages or calls, according to this International Business Times article. Mint for your sister? Rose for your mom? Potato soup for your dad? All options.

I acknowledge that I'm months behind the times as the app was launched in late 2013, but with Scentee I could literally wake up and smell the coffee!

Unfortunately for Scentee, the trifecta to the concept eat lettuce and smell steak is... taste lettuce. No app for that yet.

Saturday, March 1, 2014

Early Spring is Ume Blossom Season

Ume (Japanese Plum) blossom season and the nicest weather we have had yet.
The sights and smells of Koishikawa Korakuen Gardens could not be more welcome.