Monday, January 25, 2010

on a boat

This weekend we joined some friends on a boat cruise around Tokyo harbor. We embarked on our journey from a small dock in a channel near Tsukiji and then proceeded through the harbor to Odaiba, hung out for a short while and returned to the dock.

Altogether I think it was about a three hour tour....a three hour tour (fortunately for us the weather never got rough). We were invited by Julian, here in red (take a picture, Julian: we're on a boat!), who took Japanese lessons with Ryan up at the kita-ku community center. Julian's wife organized the outing as a venue for a live performance of Japanese traditional comedies.

There was a ton of food --sushi, rice, fresh shrimp, salmon rolls, even cheese!-- and as much beer as we could drink.
Also, they cooked tempura right on the boat and just kept bringing it out. We enjoyed what seemed like an endless array of deep fried shrimp, fish, sweet potatoes, peppers and squash. All of it was incredibly fresh and served up hot with our choice of the dipping sauce or coarse salt.
In Odaiba, the boat cut its engine for a little while so that we could hear the main entertainment. This man with the microphone is a sort of actor/comedian. After a brief stand-up routine, he performed a very animated traditional Japanese story. Armed with only a small paper fan as a prop, he acted out multiple characters, each with a different voice. Even though we couldn't really understand the story, his expressions and range of voices were fabulously entertaining.
And the views of Tokyo at night were just stunning. A lot of other boats were out enjoying the lights as well.
At one point during the night, a small boat pulled alongside ours and tied up. The boat driver then proceeded to sell some of his foods to the folks in the kitchen. He made them small plates of food and sold them a few boxes of things. He then opened up the sales to passengers via this window.

The kitchen crew later came around and shared some of the treats (the small bits on the plate next to the turnip covered in mustard). We couldn't quite tell what they were. They were kind of fishy, kind of salty, but not terribly offensive.

Oh and I almost forgot: one of our fellow travelers, Todd-a-tron, documented the whole night for his youtube channel. He did a nice job of editing the footage down here.

Sunday, January 17, 2010


In our continued effort to do more exploring in Japan, last weekend we took a day trip to Yokohama, which is only about 45 minutes southeast of us. It happened to be a holiday celebrating the coming of age of Japan's youth. All twenty-year-old gals donned fancy new kimonos (with fur stoles) and the guys all wear suits and they head to the main center of town for a big ceremony. Here we see a couple of gals on the train en route and a few gals getting their grub on at AM/PM post-ceremony. It is quite rare to see people eating on the street in Japan, so to see these girls doing it in their finest dresses on a busy street was really strange to us.

The Ramen Museum was our first stop in Yokohama. It basically is a large building housing a 1:1 replica of a Tokyo neighborhood from 1958 (the year that instant ramen was invented or first put on the market or something). There are about 8 different working ramen shops inside showcasing the various styles of ramen available in Japan (each region has a specialty). Plus there are just a bunch of antiques (not necessarily related to ramen) thrown in to give it the right ambience.

Then it was down to the waterfront Minato Mirai area, where there are amusement park rides (ferris wheel, roller coaster, log ride and boat swing all occupying the same small chunk of land) and this weird disney-style lane of candy stores and game shops.

At some point during the walk, we decided to cut through a building, inside of which we saw a line forming around this orange kiosk. Pretty much our guiding philosophy here is that if we see a line forming around something selling food, we just get in it. No questions asked.

In this case, Leonard's, which we came to learn was originally a small stand in Hawaii, sells hot, donut-like things rolled in your choice of either sugar or sugar/cinnamon. They were pretty good (I mean, who doesn't like just-fried donuts?) but I don't really think the long line was justified. Perhaps no one else in line knew what they were queueing up for either.

Then we made our way out to the red brick warehouse area (Akarenga Soko) for some shopping and browsing, but no ice skating (though we did stand around reminiscing about skating in central park in our early dating days).
After that we walked along the waterfront and headed toward Chinatown behind this guy in his interesting jacket (click to read).

Yokohama's Chinatown is apparently the biggest chinatown in Asia (outside of China of course). Encompassing several densely packed streets, it was home to more restaurants than you can imagine, all of them offering what seemed like exactly the same things. After attempting to find some perfect combination of traits that we wanted, we finally, out of pure exhaustion, just settled on one in a quieter section of town.

For a set price of roughly $30, we just kept ordering small plates of things by number from the rather expansive menu. Here is one of the prettier items, peking duck (really just the skins thereof) with crepes and hoisin sauce.

Tuesday, January 05, 2010


On Sunday of the holiday weekend, we decided to head to Kamakura. We got a rather late start (shocking) so had to confine our trip to just a few sites. In Kita-kamakura, we went to the Engaku-ji shrine, which happens to be the most peaceful of the bunch and represents shrines from the samurai era. We didn't know that at the time. We just lucked out. Incidentally, it also happens to be the closest shrine to the exit of the train. The grounds have some interesting features that cut into and incorporate the surrounding cliffs and caves.

Sneak picture of Ryan examining strange stone marker near Engaku-ji.
Next we took the Enoden train to Hase-dera, which has a temple that dates back to AD 736 and thousands of tiny Jizo.
Here is a small Buddha with a tiny New Year's mochi tower in front of it. The mochi tower I guess used to be two balls of mochi (smashed rice paste) with an orange on the top. Modern towers consist of a plastic container with mochi inside (presumably to keep the mochi from drying out) and a fake plastic orange on top. The tradition is that sometime between the 7th and the 10th of January, you eat the mochi in a soup of sweet red beans.

At the Hase-dera you can place incense in a large vat as a sort of prayer. However, I think the incense are supposed to slowly burn over time in a cloud of smoke and not go up in the fiery rage shown below.

There is also a prayer-go-round:

Inside the wooden center are stacks and stacks of prayers. When you turn the wheels, it is thought to be the equivalent of saying all those prayers. Quite efficient!

After a 10-minute stroll down the street from Hase-dera, we arrived at the bronze Daibutsu, Japan's second largest Buddha. It was once housed in a huge hall but the building was swept away by a tsunami in 1495. You can climb steps and look out windows that are essentially at Buddha's shoulder blades, but the line was really long so we skipped that. In the summer you can do a lot of hiking around the hills of this area and even trek down to the beach below. As it was, it took all of our strength just to get out of the cozy train (with its built-in seat-warmers!) and walk around a bit. Have I mentioned how cold we are here? Friends, we are FREEZING!

Sunday, January 03, 2010

Bringin' in 2010, Japan-style

New Year's is big in Japan. The first thing I noticed when getting back into town (right after Ryan pointed it out to me) is the presence of bits of greenery on all of the businesses. Some just have a sprig of pine leaves around their doorway; others sport an elaborate bouquet like the one on the left. You can make your own doorway decorations at various stands around town (like the one below). We opted for a very simple one with some squares of white paper hanging from a loop of grass.

On New Year's eve we first went to see Avatar (in 3D - very cool!) and then came home to make some nabe in the new bowl that Ryan gave me for Christmas (it tasted much better than it looks). After we dug out all the chunks, we cooked soba noodles in the remaining broth. We were told that you are supposed to have soba noodles as your last meal of the year because they bring long life.

Then the tradition is to bundle up and head to your favorite shrine for the midnight celebration. On only this one night, subways run 24 hrs to allow people to do this. Like everyone else, we stood in line to toss money, ring the bell (attached to those long lengths of fabric), clap two times and say a prayer.

We decided to do this all at the shrine in Kita-ku (where Ryan took Japanese lessons) because they were additionally having a fox-celebration.

We still aren't entirely sure what the fox celebration is all about, but they had a little parade after midnight and lots of folks either wore makeup or a mask (or both). Sake and mulled wine were sold by vendors to keep the blood warm while watching the parade inch by.

On the 1st, we headed out to Funabashi to have a barbeque at Momoe's parents' house. Among MANY other things, we ate this yummy Japanese beef. mmmgood. We also got to relax around the low table in the living room, eat oranges, and watch some funny game shows. It was a great way to bring in the new year!