Monday, August 24, 2009

so many festivals

We have continued to enjoy the festival season in Tokyo, sometimes partaking in 2 per weekend. Here are some highlights.

On the way to Asakusa for lanterns we stopped by Senso-ji temple, which was having its own thing - some shots from around the place

In Asakusa there is a celebration at the end of Obon, in which you are supposed to light a lantern for deceased relatives and float the lantern down the Sumida river to release their souls. Folks line up with their lanterns about 100 yards down one side of the river, over the bridge, and down the other side of the river. Bystanders (like us) stand on the bridge (below) and watch the lanterns and passenger boats float by. We had a nice spot near the middle of the bridge. Oh and the golden turd, as it is affectionately called, is supposed to represent beer foam rising (designed by architect Philippe Starck), and is perched there on the Asahi Beer Hall.

We also attended the Bon-Odori festival held at the shrine across the street from our apartment. Odori is the word for dance and here everyone does traditional dances in a circle around the drummer. The inner circle of women in Yukata are the experts, so we all just watch them for the first go and then the little, say, four 8-count segment repeats. This one was pretty simple, but the dances start to build on one another and get pretty complicated by the end of the set. The people on either side of me were really nice, explained how things worked and pulled me out there.

Then the same weekend we went to the International festival held in Azabu Juban, which is home to various embassies and many foreigners. Each embassy had a stand with yummy foods from their home country: tacos and nachos from Mexico; brats from Germany; pork on a stick and pad thai from Thailand; chorizo from Argentina; chicken skewers from Egypt. And those were only the stands we actually went to. There were half a dozen more that we missed.

We went with our friends Michael and Momoe, who are here in the massive crowd. This is once it was getting late and thinning out actually.

Unfortunately Festival season will be coming to an end soon. I guess we will now be spending our weekends seeing museums and other sites. And soon there will be Sumo wrestling...

Sunday, August 23, 2009

Tokyo does French

I am considering making a separate blog for restaurants and food, but since our dining out is so sporadic, I thought I'd keep this here for now.

Last night I was feeling particularly flush and decadent and suggested we go to the french restaurant around the corner. It's called Petit Four. It is a very small place and only serves about 12 people. We arrived at about 8:30 on a friday night and were the only ones there. Not sure why this is, whether we were dining too late for this small place or whether business is just slow in August. I certainly hope it doesn't portend to an imminent closing of Un Petit Four, because I am now a *very* big fan.

For our first course, I had the chef favorite, foie gras creme brulee. Yes, you read that correctly. These two favorite things could have combined to form something truly awful, but on the contrary, it was a creamy, fatty heavenly custard (with a crunchy lid) that was cut perfectly with the tart vinaigrette on the salad.
Ryan had lovely little bits of roast beef, pickled things, a creamy tart drizzle and this small salad. There was also a little bit of pate in the lower right corner. We usually do a lot of sharing of our dishes, but I was totally bogarting the creme brule and don't remember having any of his app.
For our mains, Ryan had the fish of the day, which was a delicate white fish with a subtle cream sauce, and small japanese vegetables (that little green is our favorite micro-shiso).
My main was a perfectly-prepared filet that melted away in my mouth, served with sesame puree and basil puree, mushrooms and grilled potatoes.
Desserts were a chocolate cake for me and a panna cotta for Ryan, both sprinkled with fresh pineapple and sprigs of mint. mmmmmgooood.

Friday, August 21, 2009

one night in malaysia

During our trip to Singapore we decided to see a little nature by traveling a bit north into Malaysia, to the rain forest and waterfall of Kota Tinggi. From Little India, we hopped a bus to Johar Bahru, where we were dropped off in a parking lot filled with idling buses. The moment we stepped off the bus, looking like total suckers with our rolling suitcases, we were accosted by people demanding to know where we were going next and insisting that we take their bus (even if it wasn't going to our destination it seemed). Finally we found the bus to Kota Tinggi (to our dismay stopping at EVERY block in between).
After an hour or two of travel we arrived at Kota Tinggi, where we grabbed a cab out of town to our hotel, the Kota Tinggi Rain Forest Resort.

We stayed in a little bungalow with mosquito netting over the bed. It was clean and simple.

I could definitely see bringing a family or large group here. A bridge led to a lake area full of boot camp style activities, plus there were mountain bikes for rent and lots of areas for lounging.

In Malaysia we got our fix of tropical flora and fauna.
Some wild and some not so.
We also hiked a half hour away to see the main attraction in Kota Tinggi, its waterfall. Here is the bottom section that then flowed into waterpark tubes and slides. Above this were several smaller falls that were less populated and in which I splashed around a little before we headed back to the resort and back to Singapore.

Thursday, August 20, 2009


Last week there was a conference held in Singapore for the Asia/Oceania geologists. I was invited to give a talk on my ice work. The conference fell during the same week as Oban, which is the Japanese week when many people return to their home towns and pay tribute to deceased relatives. As a result, it was impossible to find reasonably priced plane tickets during the exact time of the conference (Mon-Sat). Instead, I had to go Th-Th, so Ryan decided to join me to spend the time before the conference sightseeing.

Singapore has a really interesting contrast of very old and very new: small colonial-type buildings mixed in with skyscrapers...

traditional Chinese junks alongside state of the art amusement rides and fancy hotels...

and right down in the middle of the high rises of the conference center district is Raffles, the first hotel in Singapore and named after its founder, with its tropical flair, filigreed trim and gravel entrance.We stayed a couple of nights in Chinatown. Here is the view from the coffee shop in our hotel ground floor. We were right in the thick of it. Great dim sum just down the road and a street fair held every night on the next street over.

Although the architecture in Singapore was pretty interesting, our main focus was the food. Here we purchased the ubiquitous stack-o-meat that comes in a multitude of flavors. We bought this from the first place we saw, thinking it was something special, then realized it is sold every 10 feet.

You know what else is sold everywhere in Singapore: durian.

This blow-fish/porcupine-looking fruit is so stank that it is outlawed on busses and trains (image left from wikipedia).
We decided we had to give it a try, so, against our noses' better judgment, we picked up a durian pancake from a street vendor. We hoped that the pancake might just incorporate a hint of durian and that the batter and sugar would help the overall effect. We were wrong. In between the far too thin pancake/crepe the vendor placed a giant dollop of what must have been pure durian. The texture is similar to maybe vanilla pudding with bananas mashed into it. The smell is of trash and vomit. The first taste actually has a slightly pleasing mango-ish fruitiness, so that you are deceived into thinking maybe it won't be so bad. But this is soon replaced by an intense green onion flavor. We each took one small bite and will never come near the foul thing again. Unfortunately even one bite provides lingering smells and flavors so that you spend the night in the shower scrubbing your face and mouth out with soap.

On to more enjoyable eating experiences... Basically we found a guidebook with the top 10 things to eat in Singapore and worked our way down the list. Here is Char Kway Teow (#2) and a pork hamburger (Ryan strayed from the list with the burger, but it was pretty darn good).

Here is Laksa (#8) and Fried Carrot Cake (#5) --both awesome-- and Rojak (#9), a mixture of fruit, fried bits and a fishy, tamarind dressing with peanuts. It was just eh.

Then we went to Little India (above) to knock Chili Crab (#3) and Curry Fish Head (#4) off the list, both of which are I guess southern Indian delicacies (as opposed to the northern Indian food that is usually served in restaurants in the states). We were served everything on banana leaves. We used a combination of fingers, forks, spoons. It was total chaos.
Not shown (in case you are planning a trip to Singapore and want all 10) is chicken satay (#10), which we ate in Malaysia, and Bak Kut Teh (#1) a brothy soup that I had for lunch one day during the conference. The only two we didn't get to try were Hainanese Chicken Rice (#6) and Roti Prata (#7). Next time.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Iitabashi matsuri

They really don't mess around here when it comes to fireworks (or "flower fires", hanabi, as they are called). When we went to the firework festival at Iitabashi there were no fewer than 11,000 individual fireworks. Some people paid for fancy seats, but the rest of us schlubs packed into all the open space on the two banks of the river, for as far as we could see.
The show lasted about an hour and a half and was nonstop. The main difference I saw in the form of fireworks is that they have some that grow slowly like a stem, shooting off to the sides at angles like leaves until finally bursting into a big colorful ball. They also had several Saturns and a segment of colorful rings that I believe was to advertise their bid for the Olympics in 2016.

Here Ryan captured the grand finale - Just fireworks, but we were impressed. Unfortunately the camera does not capture the walloping sound of the large ones:

A great many of the folks (guys and gals) at the festival wore the traditional yukata. Here are a couple of gals waiting for the subway with us.

After the show we grabbed some "Japanese Pizza" or okonomiyaki. Typically you make it for yourself on a big griddle in the middle of the table. I think we may have appeared particularly helpless after the epic firework episode because the waiter/cook took one look at us and offered to make it for us in the back. He removed all sharp and hot objects from our table and went off to work. His creation actually looked and tasted pretty damn good, so perhaps it was for the best.

Friday, August 14, 2009

Espero Heights

Before we post pix from our trip to Singapore, I thought I'd share some older photos of the apartment. Here is the building. It is definitely the most interesting one on the block.
Here's our tiny little kitchen. The IKEA cutting block makes a big difference and makes it feel like a little area instead of just a wall. So far, the small gray (free) fridge under the rice cooker is working for us, but we may have to upgrade down the road. I've been on the lookout for rugs and hand towels that have dark brown with an accent of that light mint color of the tile. I'm particularly psyched about the built in shelf that is the perfect width for bottles of wine. New IKEA table and chairs in the foreground.
Finally, Bibi has been wondering what our tatami room looks like. We have the traditional futon that is only about an inch thick. I don't roll it up and store it everyday like I should because then we would just have an empty room, but I do fold it in half every couple of days to let the underlying tatami breathe. Behind the screen is a quiet little balcony area where Ry can smoke and where we hang our clothes to dry. So far nothing else out there, but I want to put some plants and place to sit.One great thing about the apartment is that there is plenty of storage space. We didn't have to buy any shelves or drawers because everything just goes in the closets and out of sight.I still have to take pix of the living room but it's currently a mess, but here is our newest acquisition, a washer/dryer that we bought used.

We've been alternating between the sink and the laundromat for the last 2 months and are very excited to finally be able to wash and dry properly. A dryer is actually kind of a luxury item here I think, but since it was used I don't feel too guilty. Spacious tub/shower area is just beyond.