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.

Trick or Treat

Halloween really isn't celebrated here, but it does have a tiny presence, mainly in stores:

I recently bought a thermos from starbucks and the gal ran out to show me the options, which included holiday-themed ones. She was having so much fun giggling and saying "Trick or Treat", I almost felt bad for getting the plain white one.
Much more common are the general autumn-themed decorations. Here is the menu window at my university cafeteria. The brown baby porcupines are apparently chestnuts (I had no idea they looked like that) which they call marrons, after the french. Lots of marron-flavored desserts this time of year.

I have been on the lookout for Halloween decorations on people's homes. There are only a few discreet decorations here and there, mostly on houses where some children live.

But I have been told that kids do not dress up and actually go trick or treating here. I think they do learn the term when they are in elementary school during English class. I guess the teacher keeps a bag of candy and has them come up one at a time and say the phrase to collect a treat.
However, I was pleasantly surprised to see a table full of japanese undergrads in costumes at the cafeteria on Friday. There were several cats, maybe sort of a zombie, and the character from a Nightmare Before Christmas. And then last night while we were coming home from dinner we saw these two Care Bears waiting for the train. Halloween in Tokyo.