Monday, January 24, 2011

Shogatsu Party

This month I went to a start-of-the-new-year party with my rock climbing friends. We went to an Izakaya by campus. I guess we weren't the only ones to have the idea. The restaurant was absolutely packed with business people having nomi-kais, or drinking parties, with coworkers. It was a sea of black suits and a cloud of cigarette smoke. We ate lots of yummy sashimi and tempura...
...had some beers...
...and some yuzu cocktails and had a really nice night. Next week it's back on the wall!

Monday, January 17, 2011

Tetsu Ramen in Bunkyo-ku

Since I returned from the States, I have been craving ramen like nobody's business. Not the packets of DIY stuff, of course. The real thing, with the long lines and the short counters and the thick broths with giant chunks of pork. I checked my go-to blog (Ramen Adventures) and searched for a place close to work. It was sort of an unofficial holiday that day. There's nothing on the calendar, but apparently it is common knowledge to everyone but me that nobody actually comes to work on January 3rd. They wait until Tuesday, Jan. 4th. Since I was literally the only person in the building, I decided that it didn't matter if I took an incredibly long lunch and decided to try out Tetsu Ramen, which is infamous for having a really long line.

I bundled up and got on my bike, headed downhill from campus to Shinobazu dori and headed North past Sendagi station. As I rode down the unusually quiet street past one boarded up business after another, there was actually a moment when I feared that a) I might not see it and would pass it up, or b) it might be closed because of the holiday. I was wrong on both accounts. Not only was it the only business open on the entire block, it already had a line that was 10 people deep. And it wasn't even noon yet. There was no way I could have missed it. 
I got in line and tried to figure out the system. A guy walked up after me and went directly to the machine beside the door, got a ticket and got in line behind me. Oops - this is a buy-your-ticket-right-away kind of place. I put my money in and took a wild guess at the buttons. I usually opt for something that is the 2nd or 3rd most expensive on the list, that way I get something good, possibly special, but probably doesn't contain extra portions of pork, etc. This strategy often works for me. On this occasion, however, I got it wrong and ordered cold tsukemen (noodles that you dip in thick broth) instead of hot. Fortunately the guy who comes out to seat people spoke english and fixed my order for me. Inside, there were only about 9 seats. My order was ready only a minute or two after I sat down.

The noodles came in water, which was a little surprising to me, but maybe that is how they keep them hot. The broth was really thick and tasty, had a perfectly cooked egg, huge chunks of pork and some chopped onions. 
Toward the end of the meal, you can ask for a hot stone to lower into your broth to warm it up. (I forgot the japanese word for it, but I just copied the people to my left).  As you can see, the broth is really thick and sticking to the side of the bowl (and to my ribs!)  I will definitely go back to Tetsu ramen the next time I accidentally show up to work on a holiday.

Monday, January 10, 2011


The final destination on our journey with Ryan's parents was Hiroshima. Below is the famous building with the domed top that was one of the only structures standing after the atomic bomb dropped. 
The A-bomb dome is an important landmark in Hiroshima and can be seen here through the middle of the arched monument in the Peace Memorial Park.
This monument is for a Japanese girl, Sadako Sasaki, who was two years old when the bomb dropped. She survived the blast but years later developed leukemia, likely due to radiation. In the hospital she folded hundreds of origami cranes in hopes of getting better, in reference to a Japanese proverb that promises a wish to anyone who folds a thousand cranes.
She died before reaching her goal of one thousand, but every year Japanese school children from around the country bring cranes to place at her monument. The cranes have become a symbol of peace.
There are tons and tons of paper cranes all over Memorial Park.
And also many school children. Here is a group who were interviewing Ryan's parents for a school project. That is the Memorial museum there in the background.

Since Himeji castle, which we really wanted to see, is under construction, I was glad to get the opportunity to visit the Hiroshima castle. Although it has been completely rebuilt in recent years and made of concrete, it is rather majestic and hints at its former glory.
It has a moat and outer buildings.
The castle itself is now a museum. You can go all the way to the top for a great view of Hiroshima.
One of the foods that Hiroshima is known for is its Okanomiyaki. Unlike the Tokyo version, theirs is layered. On the bottom is batter like a crepe, then seasonings, cabbage, onions and bean sprouts, pork, then a layer of noodles, a fried egg, some sauce and finally sesame seeds and seaweed powder. Phew! It is so complicated that they don't let you make it yourself. They start making it over behind the counter and bring it out to your table side grill to finish cooking.
Ryan and his parents returned to Tokyo and I stayed on with my boss for a 3-day conference. One of our colleagues took us to his favorite okanomiyaki restaurant.

Only a brief ferry ride away from Hiroshima is the island Miyajima.

Which is home to this famous submerged torii, which appears in every guide book for Japan.
The Miyajima temple is called the floating temple, but it is actually just built on stilts in shallow water, the level of which goes up and down with the tide.
It is a good setting for a wedding.
Miyajima has a lovely 5-story pagoda...

and a population of deer.
For reasons unbeknownst to us, Miyajima is also all about rice spoons. The bigger the better. It is apparently the home of the world's largest rice spoon, below. Why?  I really don't know.
One of the Hiroshima/Miyajima specialties is oyster. Here is the oyster extravaganza set meal that Ryan had for lunch one of the days: oysters fried, steamed and baked in a leaf with rice. 
And then it was back home via the high speed shinkansen, or bullet train.

Sunday, January 09, 2011

Kyoto III: the food

Final post about Kyoto. Lots of yummy food, including all things green tea. At one point we ducked in to a cute little tea house for an afternoon snack. The tea house had a nice Japanese garden and koi pond and a menu filled with a million different varieties of tea flavored treats: hot green tea, iced green tea and even a phenomenal green tea ice cream sundae below.
Not too far from our hotel was the Nishiki Market, a narrow, indoor shopping street lined with hundreds of small food shops, some of which have apparently been operated by the same families for generations.
On the left here is a bucket of preserved eggplant I think. I can't say I totally understand what this is all about, but it is a common sight to have various vegetables in this paste stuff. It must help to keep the vegetables moist and fresh in the winter months. On the right is something I am far more familiar with: breads, meats and veggies, all deep fried and crispy. Yummy!
And here was a curious sight at the market: a small quail egg atop a baby octopus body on a stick and dyed in maybe beet juice.  Pretty cute, but I can't attest to the flavor.
On the last night in Kyoto we all went to a fancy restaurant called Minokichi near the hotel and ordered a Kaiseki tasting menu. We opted for the fall-themed menu. 
The highlight was definitely the duck breast, which was cooked at the table in these leaves (maybe banana leaves?) with mushrooms and an amazing miso, walnut, butter sauce. Oh my god, I get happy just thinking about that dish.
All told, we had about 10 courses, each served in beautiful dishes by our kimono-clad waitress.
We even had a small tatami room all to ourselves.  As is usually the case when Ryan and I dine, we were the last people to leave. If you ever find yourself in Kyoto, please check out Minokichi restaurant. It rocks.
And we couldn't let the folks go home without experiencing at least one multi-bowl traditional breakfast. Smoked salmon, egg, simmered tofu, rice, pickled bits, miso soup and even some natto.

Tuesday, January 04, 2011

Kyoto II: Arashiyama/Takao

On the third day of our Kyoto trip, we ventured a little farther outside of town to Arashiyama.
Here we toured a large living area, perhaps a former shrine, with lots of tatami and wood, but very few other tourists.

After the dwelling, we toured the gardens, which included this pool with frogs.
Finally the garden spills into the main attraction: the famous Arashiyama bamboo forest.
Once out of the forest we found a quiet trail down to the river where one could take an old-fashioned skiff across (or walk a little farther and take the bridge, as we did).
On the other side of the river is the monkey park. After a steep hike up the hill, we made our way to to the park that is home to maybe 50 or so wild monkeys. These ropes are merely there to keep the people from going too far. The monkeys can go wherever they want.
However, since inside this building people buy peanuts and bananas to feed the monkeys, they don't tend to stray very far. Peek a boo!
And finally we ventured even further outside of Kyoto to Takao. A visiting researcher raved about this place, but he failed to mention the long steep approach.
But it was well worth the hike. Unlike every other temple in Kyoto, this one was absolutely empty. We were the only four people in the area, so we just wandered around at our leisure. It was a completely different experience from the rest of the trip.
And the view of the valley from up there was incredible.
'Twas a rainy but peaceful day.