Dean and Linda’s Kobe Adventure

Today Dean and I traveled to Kobe, Japan. It is Dean’s first Japanese business trip. We are scheduled to be here for ten days.

Dean’s company is concerned about service interruptions due to the uncertain power situation in Tokyo. This is having a significant impact on employee’s ability to get to and from work. To mitigate the Tokyo risk, some employees are going to Nagasaki and others to Kobe while most remain in Tokyo. Dean was sent to Kobe, so we embarked on our first Japanese adventure outside of Tokyo.

Kobe is centrally located by Nara, Kyoto and Osaka – all places we want to visit. We had several mini-adventures today including the Haneda airport, our first flight in Japan, a new city and some amazing goyza (dumplings) for dinner.

For clarification, we still don’t think Tokyo is a dangerous place to live. The temporary relocation is to accommodate business continuity not because of safety concerns. It is disappointing as we have things to do in our new apartment and now we have to readjust to an adventurous spirit instead of one focused on home. Power cuts have not yet affected our central Tokyo apartment but there are outages and transportation stoppages affecting other employees at Dean’s company. This is especially relevant to the trains. To function, his office needs power to work, trains to bring their employees in etc.

For anyone worried, Kobe is 267 miles south of Tokyo and 364 miles from the Fukashima reactor. This should be good news for anyone worried about radiation. It takes one hour to get fly to Osaka from Tokyo, and another 40 minutes to Kobe.

The only negative I can think of is lack of an iP phone. With our iP phone, I chat away, as long as I want for the cost of a local call. Without it, we are back to international calling or Skype. So, if you want to chat skype me – I even have skype on my cell.

Today, Dean went to the office and I started walking around Kobe. I found hundreds of restaurants. Hundreds. Indian, Indonesian, Thai, Chinese, Belgium, German, Turkish, Russian and more. Then there are the Japanese; Don Don, Sushi, Tonkatsu, Okkaymayi, Steak, Shabu Shabu, Goyza, Curry, Sandwiches, baked goods etc. I’m sure if I could read I would know about even more.

Kobe gives me access to a new city, and lots of other historic and cultural sites. Tomorrow I will start exploring. Thanks again for your thoughts and support – lots of interesting pictures and stories should come from this trip!

One month in Japan

One month in Japan and I have learned the following things

Some of the Hiragana: the Japanese writing system is made up of Hiragana, Katakana and Kanji. For those of you who followed our China adventure, you may know how much I HATED being illiterate there. In Japan I am absolutely determined to learn to read. This is the first step. So far, I can read a few words, like cat, dog, horse and some colors.

Japanese like electronics and high-tech stuff. There needs to be much more information about this for you and much more education about it for me. High-tech is key here. This explains my bathtub, my toilet, my refrigerator, the elaborate fan system and venting in my apartment.

Japanese food is excellent and varied. Yakitori, soba, Udon, Korean BBQ, Tonkatsu, pickles and on and on. One great thing about Japanese foods is that they are generally basically the same. If you buy something with the same name from two different places, it will be pretty much the same. This makes it so much easier to manage.

Japanese tofu, I can’t believe I am back to this. In China, my favorite dish was Mapo Tofu. Pockmarked women’s tofu, with spicy Sichuan peppercorns. But what I have learned here is there are tons of different kinds of tofu and I like them. In fact Dean has been to a tofu restaurant. So far, I prefer grilled tofu – somehow it is grilled, then packaged and sold in the store just like regular tofu. What I need is something like an encyclopedia of tofu. So far, all I have been able to find is a 1970s book with some definitions in it, but maybe I’ll have something when my regular cookbooks come. I’m going to learn all about this miracle bean product.

Japanese snacks are amazing, and delicious and shocking. Doughnuts, rice balls, strawberry flavored Cheetos, plum flavored potato chips, a cold hot dog in a bun from the bakery? You can find it all here.

Sushi. Having our own local place, trying a few others and serving it at home are just the beginning. I’m going to buy a sharkskin grater and grate my own wasabi and after that, who knows? My first sushi class is Monday.

Japanese drinks are a completely untapped area of knowledge. Not just beer, though it is sold with different alcohol contents which are taxed at different rates. Beers are also seasonal, but I don’t quite understand how here. There is also sake, which is as complex as French wines. To add to the complexity there is also Shochu a beverage I really like. It is distilled from barley, sweet potatoes, brown sugar, buckwheat or chestnuts. Generally it is a little stronger than wine, but not as strong as vodka. It is a clear liquor and comes in bottles that seem like sake if you can’t read…much more needed on this. And there are also fruit flavored drinks – like a Japanese wine cooler, grape, lemon and others.

Japanese temples are very interesting. They are complicated, so many details. What does it all mean? I have seen a bean throwing ceremony, some Shinto brides, barrels of ceremonial wine and paper lanterns. Fortunes, wishes and deities. Shinto, Buddhism, and Japanese culture come together – this is something I need to learn about.

Japanese fitness is different. Japanese gyms, at least mine are different form the American type. Even if they have the same equipment inside, they are still different. Hopefully during the time I live here I will figure out how to use the Japanese elliptical and maybe even manage some Japanese yoga. For both of us, the Asia diet is a good one, more walking and smaller portions.

And mascots? Mascots are very popular here. In fact there is a mascot book! So many creatures both real and imagined and they are everywhere. Pink, orange and green seem to be the popular colors. Some are copies of actual animals, others completely imagined. And Sanrio, don’t even get me started on it.

Pink seems to be the color of Japan. So much pink, everywhere. It is the beginning of spring, so cherry and plum blossoms are starting now – both pink. Cherry blossom watching seems to be a pastime. But pink is also acceptable for coats, shoes, all kinds of bags, cars etc. Pink is good. Embrace it.

All these things to learn about, and we haven’t even left Tokyo. In fact we haven’t even wanted to.

Depato

It seems as everyone in Tokyo is as food obsessed as me – now that is really saying something! 

Let’s start with some basics:

Depato = Department Store

Every department store has food/groceries.  I don’t know why all stores in the whole world don’t subscribe to this philosophy.  After all, a girl gets hungry when shopping.  And sometimes loses track of time.  It is so convenient to be able to eat a snack, buy a few ingredients for dinner or even the whole dinner right in the store.  There are two major Depato’s in my neighborhood. 

Mark City is owned by the Shibuya Mark City Company.  It is made up of two buildings and opened in 2000.  This Depato is conveniently located right at Shibuya Station.  You might have seen Scarlett Johansson in the Shibuya crossing in Lost in Translation.  Facebook reports Shibuya is the busiest pedestrian crossing in the world – so I guess there is need for food.  Tokyo Food Show also has a website, which I can’t read full of daily specials, hot topics etc.  Eventually I will conquer enough of this language to read websites!

Tokyo Food show includes lots of stalls selling so many things.  In fact it is basically three stories, top or main level including high-end products and some really excellent tuna.  B1 including a small International Grocery store, large vegetable section and stalls selling lots of stuff and lots of sweets. This was where I found Godiva Chocolate for Dean for Valentine’s Day.  The floor below is additional restuarants. 

Siebo is a Japanese department store which opened in 1949.  There are 16 stores in Japan.  Siebo also owns Muji.  So fall all I have to say about Siebo is that this is the first place I had an impulse food buy in Tokyo.  For about $12 I bought a bottle of unknown sauce just because I tasted it, on tofu.  It was delicious.  Lightly soy, thin in texture and a faint citrus scent/flavor.  So amazing, I did not let a little thing like having no idea what it was stop me from buying it.  Instead I brought it home with great pride and searched my dictionary for at least an hour before giving up about the $12 soy-ish sauce.  I now know it is Ponzu Sauce and I eat it with great regularity myself.  Generally on small pieces of tofu. 

Siebo also has a terrific bakery – as pretty much every depato does, with delicious bread for making grill cheese sandwiches or sending a sandwich to work with a busy husband.

Depato – this is a topic I will be revisiting.   There are more to explore throughout Tokyo and I suspect, in two years I can visit them all.  In fact there is even a website Depacjika.com which is all about department store food halls.  Unfortunately it is in Japanese and I can’t read yet.

 

Tonkatsu

I don’t really recall eating pork chops growing up, and am pretty convinced the first time I ate one was at the sorority house around 1989. They were hard and gray. Therefore I did not like pork chops.

My husband adores pork chops and always wants to cook them or better yet have me cook them. I stuck to my position until he made a delicious, perfectly cooked chop with fresh rosemary. It was life changing as pork chops go.

After a few meals of that amazing chop, he introduced me to another favorite of his – Shake n’ Bake pork chops. Kraft owns this brand, which was apparently created by General Foods in 1963. It was introduced to my life around 1997. Shake n’ Bake, both pork and chicken are some of Dean’s favorites so we eat them at home with regularity.

While living in Shanghai, Dean would get a craving for Shake n’ Bake, I remembered this and brought a couple packages with me to Tokyo.

But while learning about food in Tokyo I came across something interesting, Tonkatsu. Tonkatsu is a deep fried pork cutlet. Fried in the Japanese style it is not as greasy as it sounds, and is breaded in panko. Apparently Tonkatsu is the single most popular type of restaurant in the Tokyo area.

According to Wikipedia, Tonkatsu or Katsu as it was originally called came to Japan in the late 19th century from the European culinary tradition, which was very popular at that time. Probably more like schnitzel or cutlet than Shake n’Bake. It is served on a bed of shredded lettuce/cabbage, with a bowl of rice, miso soup on the side and some Tonkatsu sauce if you want some. Tonkatsu sauce is basically Worcester sauce mixed with ketchup, though it is very popular here and comes bottled on its own.

We ate our first Tonkatsu in a restaurant near the Shibuya train station. It was in Vending Machine restaurant. It was my second time to a vending machine restaurant – I am getting closer and closer to the Jetson’s experience.

This time we did not need as much support as there was a menu with pictures and numbers on the window outside. We looked at the pictures, decided what numbers we wanted, added some yen to the machine and printed out tickets. Then we put the tickets on the counter and waited.

Tea arrived instantly. We both agree that Tonkatsu should be eaten with beer, but we don’t think this restaurant had beer, or any drinks other than tea. No one was drinking anything else, and there was nothing cheap enough to be a drink on the push-button menu.

After about five minutes the Tonkatsu arrived. We should have ordered one, not two. It was two large cutlets on a bed of lettuce/cabbage. Each of us got a bowl of miso soup and a bowl of rice. The pork was delicious, not at all greasy and not like any cutlet or schnitzel I have eaten before.

I still have three packets of Shake n’ Bake in my apartment, but when we run out or maybe even sooner this will be a great solution.

And you thought there was only raw fish in Japan!

Setsubun Day in Tokyo

Setsubun is the day before spring per the Japanese lunar calendar.  This year it took place on February 3.  I went to the Senso-ji Temple in Asakusa to watch the Mame make ceremony. 

Setsubun is a day of ceremonial bean throwing.  Seriously.  It started with a parade led by priests and ministers followed by toshioko and toshionna or people born in the year of the rabbit.

Then a ceremony reciting a sutra and finally the bean ceremony.   The bean ceremony includes filling small boxes with beans, and then a throwing of the beans while yelling “oni wa soto, fuku wa uchi!” or basically, “demons out good luck/happiness come in!”, according to my festival book.  Traditionally the idea what that the beans and yelling would drive away the demon of misfortune.  Then prosperity could enter one’s life.   

Dried soy-beans are the most common type of bean used for Setsubun.  There were so many bags of soy beans available in the stores I am certain there are many acres grown to support this holiday.  There is also a tradition of eating the number beans corresponding to your age – especially if you are 12, 24, 36, 48, 60 or even 72 years old.  All these were born in ox and this year’s festival is especially lucky for them.  If you are an rabbit, maybe you should eat some dried soy beans too. 

Apparently some people, especially children wear masks of either good fortune or demons.  Conceptually this is like “spring-cleaning” your home or New Year’s resolutions.  There are other ceremonies and performances through Japan, some featuring demons or Continue reading

Third day in Tokyo

The third day was the most affected by jet lag.  I was slow getting up, slow eating breakfast and slow at the gym. 

After the gym I was starving, so I ate an apple and a hard boiled egg I saved from breakfast. Then I went out in search of two of the neighborhoods we were considering.  It was nearly impossible to find any of the buildings since I have no idea how to read a Japanese address.  But one was easy to find, since it was right by the subway and big, square and yellow. 

I visited the Shibuya and the Asakusa neighborhoods. Eventually I had walked all I could, and had no idea where I was.  I took the subway home.  The subway is completely amazing.  It is in Japanese, but there is English everywhere.  There are so many lines, but they are color coded and easy to follow.  Sometimes the transfers are long 15-20 minutes walking.  But the trains come very quickly.  I don’t think Japanese really want to sit next to me on the train, but I don’t mind. 

I have not noticed the crowed trains, but apparently they are only really crowded during morning rush hour. 

When I met up with Dean for a drink, I realized I had not eaten lunch.  That is a sure sign of jet lag.  We ate a good dinner of Indian food, which seemed pretty actual except for the saffron Japanese rice it came with.  It was a pretty good match.  On the way out, we did notice that it was possible to order Basmati.  (Japanese rice =$5, Indian rice +10). 

I fell asleep at about 8 PM…

 

Second Day in Tokyo

Work up early, but did sleep all night, which is good.  Ate breakfast on the club floor which included some terrific apple and crab apple juice.  Went to the gym, which really helps my jet-lag.  This was fine except for the fact the elliptical machine had hand bards that were shaped different from what I was used to.  Somehow I hit myself with one causing a large bruise.  After that I switched to biking.  I plan to try to beat that machine again today.

Bad time caused my room to be unavailable due to cleaning when I came back from the gym.  So I grabbed some jeans and went out.  I visited an Indian Spice store nearby the hotel to establish what spices they carried and determine if Basmati Rice was available.  Then on to a book store.  I was excited to see the Michelin Guide for Tokyo available.  Japan has the most stars of any country and I hope to enjoy some of these amazing restaurants while I am here.

The cookbooks are completely amazing.  So many specific pictures and explanations of how to do everything just so.  I MUST learn to read Japanese as quickly as possible.  

By the I was starving again and remembered a sing for a grocery store  below Banana Republic so I went down to the basement.  Not only was there a grocery store but all kinds of small and fast restaurants.  Bento boxes of all kinds, soups, sushi, sandwiches etc.  I came away with about $10 in carry out sushi which was a fine lunch. I must say that the cherry tomatoes on the top of the dish were just delicious. 

Around this time there was an earthquake, but I did not notice.

After lunch I walked around for the rest of the afternoon, just looking at parts of the city.  The subway is so easy here, that once I got tired I just jumped on it and came back to the hotel. 

Dean and I met up for cocktails and then headed out for dinner at a terrific sushi restaurant.

First Day in Tokyo

Left JFK at an 11:30 am flight.  Tried to sleep, watched three movies, ate three meals – each worse than the last, read about Japan. 

Arrived at 3:30 PM on Sunday.  We were through immigration and customs, and had our bags by 4:00, plenty of time to take a shuttle bus to our hotel in Roppongi.  This is a trendy area comprised mainly of hotels and shops from what I can tell. 

By 6:30 we were in our room.  Despite an overwhelming desire for sleep, we showered and went to dinner at a Yakitori restaurant.  It cost $85.  We drank 3 large Asahi beers which cost about $7 each here.  The same beer, imported to China cost about $3 there as I recall.   Yakatori means the food comes on a long stick, grilled over a small charcoal grill.  In Yakatori restaurants, this is generally the main food served. 

Our meal started with chinese broccoli cut small in a sesame based sauce.  Next two skewers of chicken, and two skewers of basil chicken.  The basil chicken appeared to be chicken rolled around basil and sliced to make a pretty circle.  I didn’t like the chicken too much, but the cumin flavor was nice.  There were also skewers of sliced grilled leek.  I don’t think the leek was the type of leek we buy in NY, I think it was more like a giant green onion. 

Also there was a gorgeous giant scallop, cooked gently and served in a light sauce with mushrooms and seaweed.  It was served in a giant shell.  There was some other kind of tentacle added, which was not as good but this was so lovely I should have taken a picture of it. 

Chicken meat balls and pork meat balls were both delicious.  Chicken and beef chunks were good.  Squash, asparagus and okra were excellent. 

Yakatori will become a favorite for us here.  As you can imagine, once we had finished eating we feel straight into bed slept as long as we could.  Awake at 6.

Eating Tempura

Monday, December 6, 2010 at 9:39am

Tempura seems to be the ultimate fried food.  On Friday for lunch we had two pieces of tempura as a part of a set menu.  One was a shrimp – delicious and delicate.  It came with the head and tail on, but we chose NOT to eat them.  The second piece was some kind of long pepper.

Friday night I ate curry soup, which requires a post of its own.  It also came with a tempura shrimp and two tempura green beans.  The shrimp was good, but not as good as the one we ate for lunch.  The beans were completely amazing.

Saturday night we decided to eat in a tempura restaurant.  We selected it since it was located in the complex where we are staying and we could find it on a map.  Not the strongest criteria.  We sat at the counter.  I love sitting at the counter, or bar in Japan.  In the US, Dean loves sitting at the bar, but my legs get tired since they are not that long.  The counters or bars here in Japanese restaurants are just my size!  Sitting at the bar we could watch the chef cooking the tempura.  We shared a set meal which was made up of 6-8 small courses.

It started with pickles and quickly moved to various pieces of fish.  Shrimp was served in two pieces – one was the body and the other was the head.  I think each of the shrimp was just sliced in half down the middle.  It was good, we did not eat much of our shrimp heads.

Our place settings included a bowl for some grated daikon and sauce, and a small dish to put the pieces we did not eat into.  Like the shrimp heads…

I think we had two or three pieces of fish, all tasty and then we saw the eel come up for cooking.  I’ve seen live eels at Chinese groceries in the US, and in the markets in China but had not eaten one before (at least not to my knowledge).  I was afraid.  It came in a large snake-like piece, with some skin.  I confess a serious feeling of dread.  But Dean popped a piece into his mouth and said it was good. He was right – just like eating fish.

After the eel, our waitress told us the next course was the daily special.  She reported it was fish stomach, and showed us on the menu.  I was not familiar with it.  She also told us that most foreigners don’t like it and offered us something else.  We decided we would have plenty of time to eat a fish stomach over the next two years and had lotus root instead.

We also had eggplant, some kind of squid, mushroom and some kind of bean that looks like a grape.  We had these beans with our sushi too, I think they might be soy beans but I am not sure.

The final course was scallops, they were available tempura style, or on rice or in soup.  We had them on rice, and miso soup came on the side.  The scallops were small, and kind of mixed into a brown sauce then fried up together en masse.  I was not sure about this, but they were delicious.  It was also the second time we have had miso soup with tiny clams in it.  They are hard to eat, but delicious.

The meal ended with green tea, some kind of jelly and jellied beans, they were better than they sound.  Tempura is interesting, since you really eat just one or two pieces of each item, you can eat lots of different things.  The tempura coating also keeps most of the food from tasting oily.  Maybe in time I will even like shrimp heads.

Oh beautiful tomato

Today is December 2 in this island nation.  How can the cherry tomatoes taste so good?  The first one I ate could have been a fluke.  It was randomly cut in half and placed on tip of my take out sushi.  Weird, I thought but I ate it anyway.  Amazing.

Later that night, on a salad.  The next night at happy hour, on a vegetable tray.  Today at breakfast on a vegetable tray.

I am considering buying a large batch of them at the grocery store and just eating them.  They taste like tomatoes fresh from the sun.  Amazing.  delicious.