Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Japan eats

Not to discount its culture and richly diverse landscape, but Japan's best comes in the form of malls. And luckily, they come in the millions.

The large, towering buildings congregate in the handfuls as a shoppers delight. But it's not the clothing that drew us in. It was the food. The (multiple) underground levels of each mall is a foodie's delight. From Dean and Deluca and other prominently chic bakeries to winding food stalls nearly a football field deep filled with ready made or cook at home foods, Bryan and I spent hours in the cave of artificial lighting - hopping from one mall to the next (which is usually connected by underground tunnels) - absorbing, visually and otherwise, the great eats.

After two months of South East Asian travels, subjected to the same types of foods on offer - generally in the fried rice or noodle varieties - Japanese cuisine opened my mind back up to the possibility of endless menus. Every day brought a different meal. And every day, my stomach thanked me.

Taiyaki - fish shaped pastry (this one filled with vanilla custard and chocolate sauce)

Kamameshi - iron pot of rice and toppings found in Nara

green pea sweet pastry


Shabu-shabu and sukiyaki - meats and veggies cooked in broth or soy sauce


Okonomiyaki - the iconic Japanese pancake
unidentified street food

Friday, February 21, 2014

3, 2, 1, shoot

We met Hoa at a tea ceremony in Kyoto.  Like Bryan, she was in Japan on business and came a few days early to do some touristing.

That night, the three of us decided to explore the central area of the city together and found ourselves walking down an arcade of shops, stopping the moment we saw a giant airplane suspended in the air.

"It's a Photo Booth!" Hoa and I both exclaim, nearly in sync.

"We have to go inside," I stated. "Do you mind, Bryan?"

He obliged and joined us as we peeked around curtains at dolled up girls getting glamour shots taken by a machine. We were in awe, mainly by the complexity of it all. Unlike the familiar 'put your money in the slot,' 'make a goofy face at the count down', 'collect your photos as you exit' photo booth, this one had steps, stages, stations and choices galore.

"We have to do this," Hoa said.

"Oh... absolutely," I agreed.

But it was too much to figure out on our own. We tried, as Bryan's face had a hue of embarrassed tinted on it.

That's when we spotted them: a couple in the process of receiving their photos.

Language barrier aside, they explained all that needed explaining.

Step one, go inside any photo booth (all of which have differing themes).
Step two, play along with the on screen images explaining the poses you should make.
Step three, leave booth and go to coinciding booth to decorate your photos with hearts, stars, and any other image that suits your fancy.
Step four, learn Japanese quickly enough to figure out what you're supposed to fill in at the collection machine in order to receive photos.

Having said our arigatos, we giggled our way into the booth.

"Wait! Where's Bryan?" Hoa asked as we shoved money into the machine.

I hadn't even noticed he was gone. I drew the curtain and looked around. He was no where in site. But we couldn't leave, not with half the cost of the photos already deposited into the machine.

So together we held up peace signs and had one photo after another taken, laughing at the poses we were asked to make. Neither of us had felt so ridiculous in quite a while, which made us love it all the more.

Decorating the photos after the shoot had us wondering why Japanese photo booths aren't strewn across the world. Our inner 5 year-old-selves rushed to paint, stamp and write all over the images as the clock ticked our time away. We were in little girl heaven.

It took a few moments to finally locate Bryan, a few shops down, after we exited with our photos in hand.

"Why'd you leave?" we asked him.

"I felt uncomfortable being in there," he explained. "So I stepped just outside the door, but even then I felt like a creeper."

Apparently it was harder for him to tap into his inner girly 5 year-old-self than it was for us.

Tuesday, February 18, 2014

temple hopping - in photos


sake barrels

ritual cleansing of hand and mouth - before prayer

traditional wedding

Senso-ji temple


Jishu shrine

(with verbal assistance)

Kiyomizu temple

Fushimi-Inari Taisha


Todai-ji temple

Daibutsu statue, inside Todai-ji

Kasuga Taisha

Thursday, February 13, 2014

dipping noodles

Flying from Europe to Asia, and having watched every last movie available on the on-flight media player in front of me, I watched an episode of Mind of a Chef (because as my sister once put it, there's nothing better than food and television). It was a noodle episode. Specifically, ramen.  The host, David Chang of New York's Momofuku restaurants, explored a few of Tokyo's greatest noodle hot spots.

In his rounds, Chang stopped at a restaurant owned by a legend in the noodle world. Kazuo Yamagishi, also known as "the master of ramen", is said to be the inventor of Tsukemen - dipping noodles. Unlike traditional ramen where broth and noodle are combined, tsukemen consists of a strong stock in one bowl, and a pile of thick cold noodles in another. The noodles are dipped into the broth, warming them up and never getting soggy.

My mouth watered. I vowed that if I ever made it to Japan, knowing I never would, the one thing I would do is eat at Yamagishi's tsukemen restaurant.

Then plans changed.

The moment a flight to Japan was purchased, my internet search changed from seeking out the best airline tickets to figuring out where the famed tsukemen restaurant was located.

The search was worth it... both online and by foot, because physically finding it was half the battle.

In our limited Japanese, and the patrons limited English, we managed to order a noodle dish that satisfied a craving I had carried with me for three months, starting when I was 35,000 feet up in the air, half a world away.

ticketing menu machine

Sunday, February 9, 2014

fighting the fat man

Sumo is a lot more involved than what we had previously stipulated.  In actuality, the pushing and shoving part of the fight is only a fraction of the entire ceremony. And a ceremony it is. 

Our timing fell beautifully in line with the 15 day professional sumo competitions that are held three times a year in Tokyo.  We debated purchasing ringside seats but settled on ones higher up due to the possible implications of having a master eater fall upon is. Clearly we chose wisely. 

Sumo is an ancient religious ritual who's same traditions have been carried throughout the ages.  Wrestlers greet each other in the ring, slap themselves and bow before leaving the ring to take a sip of water, swirl it around in their mouth and spit it out into a towel. Then they'll grab a handful of salt and throw it into the ring, symbolically purifying it.  The cycle is then repeated over again. That alone can be done four or five times before they make physical contact.  The actual wrestling can be over within a matter of seconds. 

  • According to tradition, wrestlers are divided between East and West. It is between those two divisions that they compete - depending on their ranking with further sub-divisions.
  • The more evenly matched in wins the wrestlers are, the longer the physical contact.
  • There is no weight restriction. Wrestlers can be matched up with someone twice their size. So it is in their favor to gain weight.
  • Japanese sumo wrestlers once thought 'the larger the better', when in fact the extra weight made them less stable on their feet. They noticed that Mongolian wrestlers were dominating the ring at a lower weight class, and decided to cut back caloric intake to a degree. 
  • Even at the lower weight, however, the average life span is around 45 years.
  • The water and towel each wrestler is given when going to their respective corner during the fighting ritual is provided by a wrestler who has either just won a match or one who hasn't yet stepped on the ring for the day. 
  • The competition is an all-day event, starting from the lowest devision, working its way up to the highest around the four o'clock hour when the near empty stadium fills to the brim with animated onlookers.
  • The start of the highest ranked competition at the four o'clock hour is commemorated with a ceremony where apron clad grand champions circle around a referee as the crowd cheers on. 

Tuesday, February 4, 2014

finding freedom in good fortune and bad

Entering the first gate of the Senso-ji temple grounds, which Bryan was returning to in order to show me, he explained his willingness to visit a second time.

"You can get your fortune here," he began. "When Margaret and I came, she got a lucky one while mine was only normal."  Margaret is a colleague who joined him in Tokyo for a week's worth of work.

"What do you mean, normal?"  

"It didn't really give any good luck. And to be honest, I was jealous of Margaret's fortune. At least now I can try to get a better one."

We passed through a maze of vendors selling everything from magnets to traditional Geta shoes, and multi-flavored ice cream to fried octopus until reaching the second gate.  

The gate is a two storied, red building. Beneath the roof of the first floor hangs three lanterns, the middle and largest of which is 12 feet tall. We passed through, into a cloud of incense smoke and climbed the stairs of the temple. 

Bryan led me to a counter jetted against a wall of 100 thin Japanese-numbered drawers. On the counter sat a long hexagonal metal box and a set of instructions which read:

How to draw OMIKUJI
(a written fortune)
1. While praying for your wish, shake the box politely a few times. A stick marked fortune number will come out. 
2. Make sure your number and put the stick back
3. Take out a sheet of OMIKUJI from the drawer of your number, and take it home
*When you draw a good fortune you should not be careless and arrogant. Even if bad fortune, have no fear. Try to be modest and gentile.Whether in good or bad fortune, you should tenaciously do your best. You can carve out your own fortune.  

We deposited the requested equivalent of a $1 coin in the designated slot and Bryan shook the box to show me how it worked. Turning the box upside down a stick fell out of a tiny hole. Engraved at the top of the stick was a Japanese number. We matched up the symbols to the corresponding drawer. 

"Normal again!" 

"Let me see what it says," I requested.

"First you try."

I repeated his actions, making a little wish for a good fortune and safe continued travels, and tipped the box over. 

I pulled my fortune out of the drawer. One side was designed with rows of Japanese characters. The opposite side had a few paragraphs in English, sandwiched between more Japanese. 

"Best fortune."

"What?"  He looked over my shoulder to read the paper I held in my hand.

When spring comes, you will get good fortune. 
Just like flowers bloom on old branches, something happy will come. 
When spring comes, your life will change to be prosperous just like rice grows. You will be able to reach the highest position. 
*Your wishes will be realized. *A sick person will recover. *The lost article will be found. *The person you are waiting for will come. *Building a new house and removal are good. *It is good to make a trip in spring and summer. *Marriage and employment are all good.

"I can't believe it.  Now I'm even more jealous."

"Let me read yours," I begged.

It said things like patience is a virtue, how life will be like hunting a deer that can never be caught. I laughed.

"This one is even worse than the last," he dejectedly stated. "I think it's because the Buddhist gods were spiting me for not liking the first fortune I was given."