Saturday, December 26, 2009

Christmas in Tokyo

With winter in Tokyo comes the arrival of the sweet potato vendors. All day long these guys wheel around a cart that has a wood fire burning inside. They are cooking and selling the sweet potatoes that they grew on their farms just outside the city. The megaphone at the top of the cart lets them call out as they traverse through the streets. One vendor is often parked outside the gates to my work in the morning. Though the potato itself is rather dry and bland, kept inside the bag, it makes a fabulous lap warmer for ridiculously cold offices, and the sweet earthy aroma is out of this world.

Also during the winter, the Tokyo Dome area becomes illuminated.
The tradition for Christmas here in Tokyo is a little odd. Apparently it is a big date night during which couples eat fried chicken (?!) Since I was in California for the 25th, rather than venture to KFC all by his lonesome, Ryan decided to wander around the dome and check out all the cool lights instead.
Oh and one other thing that happens during winter is a visit from the christmas chopperman. Just kidding. We have no idea why this grown man is dressed up, but we love that he is wearing the pink version of the silly hat the grad students gave me, along with what I guess is a pink reindeer costume (but do reindeers have tails like that? I am so confused).

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

a little cosplay at tokyo dome

Apologies, friends. We are woefully behind on blog updates. Here are some very old pictures from Ryan's phone from a day last month (maybe even September?) when we just stumbled onto the strangest thing. We were each in different parts of the city and decided to rendezvous at the Tokyo Dome amusement park for dinner. I was over on the side with the log ride and the starbucks when I get a text from Ryan from the side with parachutes and goth stores: "omg get over here quick".

Apparently it was costume day at the dome. Everywhere you looked, folks were decked out from head to toe in extremely elaborate getups. Here by the merry-go-round we seemed to have interrupted a proposal. No wait, they aren't moving. 25 pictures taken by the gal in black and yellow later and they still are not moving. From what we could gather this is a day (perhaps following a more formal staged event) when guys and gals get together to reenact stills from their favorite cartoon or comic strip.

Some were all sweetness and innocence; others were ready to throw down (though I am dubious about the efficacy of those cardboard swords and platform boots).

Most were just completely baffling to us.

The only constant was that there were lots and lots of pictures taken. Here, of course, a gal with white hair, red contact lenses and a baby chicken on her head pretends to be beaten with a fry pan by a swedish dairy maid, while the purple-haired sailor captures the scene for posterity.

Our favorites, by far, though were these two photographers. I know, it is kind of hard to tell since they blend in so well.

Thursday, December 03, 2009

Hakone no kuro-tamago

We were recently invited on a weekend trip to Hakone, which is a town about two hours southeast of Tokyo. The women we went with are volunteers at the local community center (same ones who roped me into teaching the cooking class) and wanted to show us some Japanese culture. It was the last weekend or so of the fall colors, so seeing the countryside was lovely and we even got a glimpse of Mt. Fuji. Unfortunately it was a three day weekend so we weren't the only ones trying to get out of town. After what ended up being an eight hour car ride, the only thing we had time for on the first night was a traditional meal in the hotel.

Under the guise of "selling bingo tickets" to diners in the hotel restaurant, this chipmunk went around groping unsuspecting gaijin. Kidding, I am quite positive the poor gal inside had no idea where her hands were and probably still can't believe she got stuck with this lousy job. Poor thing.

When our dinner guests actually did buy a couple of tickets to the bingo game, I was quite shocked. I mean, Bingo? But as we soon discovered it is really the thing to do! After dinner, we donned our complimentary yukata and went down to the main floor. To our surprise each and every other person staying in the hotel was down there as well. There was a table full of prizes and a very fancy-schmancy video bingo player (which called out the number in japanese and put it on the screen, so it was very good practice for us!)

Also, every child under the age of 7 was able to roam free and harrass the poor chipmunk unencumbered. Alas, not only did we not win at bingo, someone let me leave the room with my hair looking like that. People!

Early the next morning we got up and, after a very interesting traditional japanese breakfast, made our way out to the sulfur pools. We first took a cable car up the mountain.

Then we took the rope car over the sulfur fields, which you could smell way before you could see.

A short hike from there took us to the large pools where they cook the eggs ("kuro-tamogo").

We can't seem to find any information on the exact chemical reaction that is occuring, but the sulfuric acid in the pool is reacting with something in the shells of the eggs. The outside shell turns black over the course of a few days but the inside is merely hard boiled and tastes perfectly normal. The story goes that eating 1 egg adds 7 years to your life, 2 eggs adds 14, but by no means are you ever supposed to eat more than 2.5 eggs.
Then it was off to the Yuneson hot springs resort with 25 different kinds of baths. I don't know if the picture (below) adequately captures the absolute chaos of having that many kids and adults playing in a pool under one roof. Also if you look closely you can maybe see some of the lovely decorating elements, such as fake plastic flowers, stucco'd walls and pillars and clouds painted on the ceilings. Plus, can you see the floor? Those are hard, rather sharp, pebbles in concrete. Who thought that would be a good surface to let wet kids run around on? I was going crazy with worry that someone was going split their head open in front of me. Ryan never needed a cigarette more.
For this reason, we actually braved the outdoor area (above). Despite the icy chill in the air, the throngs of people (mostly adult though), and the merely tepid water in the baths outside, we made our way up the hillside from the coffee bath, to the wine bath, to the green tea bath and finally to the sake bath before we decided to head back and just call it a day. Below you can hopefully see the hooplah surrounding the pouring of a new batch of coffee-like water into that bath (via that other man's head).
And on the way back to Tokyo we stopped to admire the beautiful Fujiya Hotel. If you get a few extra bucks in your pocket, staying at this Hakone hotel (built in 1878) would be a real treat!

Wednesday, November 18, 2009


This Sunday was shichi-go-san day, during which families bring children to the nearest shrine for a day of firsts: 3 year old girls wear their kimono to the shrine for the first time; 5 year old boys wear whatever the name is for a male kimono; and 7 year old girls wear the obi, or fancy belt, with their kimono for the first time. First stop is the hand washing station. Below is a cute pumpkin in bright orange. It's hard to see in the picture, but she had matching shoes, a little purse and ornate combs in her hair.

Although the girls wore a variety of colors, the boys all had the same set of greens of blues in their hakana. A few boys wore western-style suits instead (but with shorts). On this day the children were given long red and white candy inside these thin paper bags (above).

Here's my favorite in a little purple kimono. She was so cute. I wish I could get better pictures but I was trying to hang back and not get too involved in what was clearly a special day for the family. Ok - here is one I stole from the internet but it will give you a better idea of what the mini-version of a kimono looks like.

This all went down at the Nezu shrine, which is right next to campus. Here's a koi pond and bridge.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009


I just got back from a two-day workshop up in Northern Japan. It was held at Hokkaido University in the city of Sapporo (yes, where they make the beer of the same name). After a frantic hour of not being able to find the right building (why I thought that I could just show up and ask information at the front gate is beyond me. lesson learned), I slid in the room 40 minutes late, sweating and panting. My talk was 15 minutes after that. Let's just say it wasn't my calmest most succinct talk ever, but the Q&A went well, and getting the talk over early meant I had the rest of the workshop to relax. That night we all went to a local restaurant for a reception dinner. It started with a big lacquered boat with several sushi including the deepest purplish red tuna I have ever seen. Then came a huge pile (Hokkaido-style they said) of cabbage and seasoned raw beef that cooked down on pans at the table.

This was followed by a big pot of soup with chicken wings, crab legs, mushrooms and clams.
...and of course beer, plenty of beer.
And at the end came the Hokkaido version of onigiri with an extra long seaweed sheet so that you could grab it like a taco. That large dollop of fish eggs was daunting so I had the brown kind in the front. I think it was a kind of seaweed. 'twas salty, but not overwhelmingly so.

What I really couldn't believe was how much it all reminded me of the northeast. Here is a row of ginkos on the University of Hokkaido ("Hokodai") campus.

This white building, for instance, is like every building on the Dartmouth campus. Definitely not what I expected here.
A stream ran through the center of campus. It was all really beautiful and tranquil. I met lots of good contacts and had some fun geeky conversations with a couple of folks from Nagoya who also do experiments on ice.

Unfortunately it was a very short trip. Before I caught my plane back on the second night, I grabbed some dinner. I lost track of the other folks in the conference so I was on my own. Hokkaido is known for its really fresh seafood, so I set out to look for a good restaurant. A couple of small cool looking places didn't seem keen on having someone who spoke zero japanese, so I decided to just look for the most touristy place I could find.

Voila! I guess when all else fails, look for the place with the giant mechanical crab out front. Yes, this place did just fine. I got a big quiet room all to myself and great service and really really yummy tempura fried king crab legs (below). So then it was just off to catch my flight and what ended up being the very last train to our neighborhood.

Sunday, November 01, 2009

Birthday Kaiseki

For my birthday, Ryan treated me to a fancy Kaiseki, or Japanese tasting menu, at Kozue.
We donned our best duds and headed out to Shinjuku to the restaurant on one of the top floors of the Park Hyatt (of Lost in Translation infamy).

Here is the top half of our menu. Every item was prepared by a different cooking method and each came in a uniquely crafted dish. Here is seared Bonito I believe.
And here is simmered surf clam with some cooked sea urchin and dried seaweed. These first two appetizers were amazing.
The soup course came in beautiful earthenware pots nestled in wooden baskets. We were told that a small quantity of soup should be poured into the tiny bowl with a good squeeze of the lime and sipped first. Then we could open the lid and fish out all the larger chunks with chopsticks.

Sashimi included toro, ebi, mounds of fresh seaweed and the surprise treat was that they were out of turbot and instead served us blowfish, a very special delicacy, wrapped around thinly- sliced scallions.

Then came assorted delicacies (two of each) in a ceramic basket, covered with a large lotus leaf.

All were autumn-themed and included a variety of tastes and textures. There was firm, gooey, gummy (the reddish brown cube), crunchy (fried bit), slimy (in the little bowl), mushy (chestnut flavored thing), dopey and sneezy.

Okay - halfway there. Let's have some more sake and look around the room. Ooh nice art and an amazing view beyond that wall of windows. Sometime after the sashimi they actually moved us to a more intimate window seat. Thus the pictures get a little darker.

Here is the second half of the menu. Deep-fried flounder and a little bowl of crispy, salty bones with lime.

Simmered beef and mushrooms (above) and a very methodically-prepared rice course (below) with a big wooden squisher and several rice specific tools I have never seen.

And I think for dessert they must have gone off menu and instead brought us one with creme anglaise and green tea sauce with a chestnut. Very yummy and not overly sweet. Even with dessert the focus was on subtle flavors.

Overall a really amazing meal and incredible service. I didn't get any pictures of them, but we were served by two women in beautiful kimonos. As we got in the elevator one server even gave us the deepest bow I have ever seen. As usual we were the very last ones to leave.