Thursday, August 30, 2007

Japan Trip 9: The Edo Tokyo Museum

Frank had reccommended the Edo Tokyo Museum, in Ryogoku, next to the Kokugikan, Tokyo's Sumo palace. It was indeed an incredible museum. You enter on a small replica of a famous Tokyo bridge. Later you can see a small version of the same bridge. Throughout the museum, it's little replicas and big replicas from 400 years of this city's history.
A childbirth diorama. Life size figures. Looks painful.

Kabuki is much better when done by dolls.

Life size or not. Very impressive.

I used to collect 19th century manga, Japanese comic books, so the lengthy exhibit about their history and bookselling in Tokyo (my school was in the bookstore district) was of particular interest to me.

Toys from the 50s. Did Fumiyo and her brother play with these?

A very moving exhibit of the firebombing of Tokyo in 1945, in which Fumiyo's father's first family was incinerated. It killed a lot more people than the far more famous atomic bombs but is little known outside of Japan. It reminded me of Canada' s War Museum I saw last fall, though Canada has never had death rained upon it like this- nor has it rained death upon other countries, something this museum does not address, at least in English

Having just walked by the real Nikolai Cathedral (see my post on tourism) it was intriguing to see it in miniature in this museum. When it was built in the 1890s, it was visible from all over Tokyo. Now it's visible from accross the street, but that's about it.
All in all, the museum was a perfect way to spend my last day in Japan. It summed up the trip. I regret not trying any of its food, as the pork shumai I had after was a vast dissappointment. Not really having any expectations of this museum, I was continually delighted with the displays and educated by them. It is a very kid-friendly museum, as proved by the legions of kids crawling over the exhibits and bouncing about, and it never felt like "school."

Tuesday, August 28, 2007

Japan Trip 8: Tourism

Not only do Eiichi and Tomomi have a great apartment, they also have this great view of the river behind their building in Ojima.
When I wasn't interviewing people who knew Bit for her website, I tried to do some touristy kinds of things. Even though I lived near this building when I was in Tokyo 4 years ago, I didn't get to visit it until this trip. There's a skyscraper called Roppongi Hills and numerous other buildings around it. I saw this wall of water in several places in Japan. It's cooling to look at when it's hideously hot outside, as it was every nanosecond of my two weeks there.

For 1500 yen, you can go up to the 45th floor and see Tokyo, visit the Mori musuem and....
the Sky Aqaurium. I wonder if the fish enjoy the view of Tokyo as much as the humans enjoy looking at them.

This is the Roppongi Hills skyscraper as seen from the 45th floor of Tokyo City Hall.

The last school I taught at in Japan was called ELEC. It used to be in the Jimbocho area of Tokyo. Then it moved closer to Ochanomizu. Is this another school on the move?

Wandering around Ochanomizu, trying not to die of heat stroke, I marvelled at the combination of old and new. Not so much old though. Here, the old Russian Orthodox Church is mirrored in the windows of a new bulding accross the street from it.

It reminded me of my hometown, Yorkton, Saskatchewan. Another outpost of Russian religiosity. My grandparents would feel right at home here.

Fun with reflections.

I spent one day with my Vancouver friend Frank who was in Yokohama while I was in Tokyo. This is his favourite Tokyo building, the Tokyo International Forum. Serious science fiction.

It also offers lots of interesting reflections.

Frank's daughter (and Bit's friend) Leah, who teaches in Tokyo, suggested Frank visit the Cow bookstore. Unfortunately, most of its books are in Japanese. Not surprising though. I didn't know cows could read.
After the Forum, a great tonkatsu lunch and the cow bookstore, we headed for Shinjuku and its towering city hall. On our way there, we were watched by the Tokyo Eye. The fate of every tourist, to be observed in the process of observing. Sounds kinda Buddhist. Or Orwellian.

Japan Trip 7: Hamamatsu

The building is still there but it's no longer the school where I taught in 1971. It seems to be falling apart. Considering how many new buildings there are in Hamamatsu and Japan, it's amazing that it hasn't been torn down yet.
A shrine near the school. Serious Japan cliches. Pretty too.

The Heartland Building. They love to use funny English here. I was just interested in the reflections.
Hamamatsu's own skyscraper. A hotel and some other stuff. A teppanyaki restaurant but I couldn't get in without a reservation.

The view of Hamamatsu from the 45th floor. Well worth 300 yen.

Japan Trip 6: Bon Odori

When I was last in Japan in November, 2003, I noticed this store in Kamagaya, where we used to live. I wondered if Bon referred to Obon, the Japanese festival welcoming the dead back to their home towns by dancing. No, probably the French word for good.
Off shoes? Am I supposed to take them off? This is after all, Japan. No, I suspect the price has been diminished for the festival. Shoes for the dead indeed.

Bit loved dancing at the Bon Odori festival. Later in life, she loved shoes. Bringing her shoes back to dance with her fellow Kamagaya folk at the festival was the reason I came to Japan this summer. Otherwise, there is NO REASON AT ALL to be in Japan in the summer.

The dance pavillion features a drummer on the top and then a platform below where women who know what they're doing do the appropriate dance. Below the platform, the community dances.

Tomomi was the puppet master with Bit's shoes. The other kids may or may not have thought it odd that shoes were dancing with no one in them.

Thursday, August 23, 2007

Japan Trip 5: Home Made

Yes it is possible to make delicious food. Even in Japan. Inspired by the grated daikon on the burgers we had on my arrival in Japan (?) Tomomi, my host in Tokyo, cooked up this wondrous burger. The green stuff on top is shredded shiso leaves. Called "Japanese Basil" for some reason, this local herb goes well with any meat. This was the first time on this trip I'd had it with beef. Both daikon and shiso are cooling, the main thing anything should be in this inferno.
Our friends the Miyoshis live in the upscale Azabu Juban neighbourhood in Tokyo. Fumiyo, Bit's friend Steph and I stayed with them when we were in Japan in 03. This time I just visited them for lunch. But what a lunch. The cheese piece at 9:00 in the picture went heavenly with the French rose wine that accompanied the meal. You notice how artistic this is? Are Japanese people (women especially) trained from childhood that food has to look good as well as (well, rarely anymore) taste good? Flower arrangement with food instead of flora. The gold bordered plate mirrored the gold borders everywhere in their condo. I thought I was in Versailles. Thankfully, I didn't have to speak French. My Japanese is diminutive enough.

Real Basil. Also tomatoes and Parmesan. Mmm.

Some kinda fish. Not fishy at all. Louis XVI might have dined on this. He's dead now. So is the fish. Best fish I had in Japan. Ok, the Only fish I had in Japan but still.... These were the only non-restaurant or dept store prepared/frozen foods I ate in 2 weeks in Japan. I'm not a bad cook and Fumiyo, who cooks rarely, is about as skilled as you can be in the kitchen but much as I'm used to eating/preparing great meals at home in North Van, both these meals my friends concocted in Japan were of a higher level. While eating this burger or this piece of fish, I could look down and see the earth from a great distance.

Sunday, August 19, 2007

Japan Trip 4: Drinks

I'd had tomato, and later apple juice on the flight from Vancouver. A glass of mildly chilled white wine helped make the brown meat painted white airplane chicken vaguely digestible and set me up for the rest of the trip: cocktails, anyone?
I had a beer with my first meal in country, a burger with grated daikon a vast number of hours since I'd last slept. Tasted beery. When I was here 4 years ago, the beer was suddenly Very Good. Not beery at all. Just refreshing. I would find that to be true as part of a meal, primarily ton katsu, while here this trip but beer divorced from food, and I find that with wine in general, is not something I care to drink. Prefer fruit juices or fruit teas. Brought a box of fruit teas with me, separate teas for separate fruit, and when I discovered my hosts were serving sliced peaches for breakfast, I naturally broke out the peach tea. Alas, the weather was so hot my body rebelled at having to process a hot beverage and that was the last hot tea I had in Japan.
After searching for it during my 2nd visit to Korakuen, Bubba Gumps' colourful cocktails more than made up for the overly bland food. And I like bland food!

After discovering the new location of my old school Elec, I kept walking towards Ochanomizu, a student area of Tokyo that had been my favourite since first coming here in 72. I went to 10 jazz kissaten in one day here then. Now there's only Naru. Set up like a live club, it was odd not to see living musicians at the instruments but they thankfully let me out of the heat even though it was 5 minutes to opening time. I savoured this grapefruit juice immensely. The waitress wondered what the cut off age was for student work visas to Canada. It's probably at least 30.
While wandering around in search of what I remembered of 1971 Hamamatsu, I came up this kissaten The Sun. It was much larger when I hung out here long ago and I didnt get to listen to Abbey Road or Elton John. They had an immense coffee list and I finally found something I could drink, an ice tea. Read a few paragraphs of Collapse and left. From machines I had some strangely undrinkable beers. At the skybar of the Hamamatsu Grand Hotel, I had a wonderful cocktail called Long Hot Summer Night. Something about cold fruit juice, with or without booze, that my body seemed to need to survive this climactic assault. Orange juice (thankfully an option rather than coffee at Morning Service, a Japanese menu restriction imposed on those forced to be in train stations before noon) lubricated my last minutes in my first Japanese city. Off to the Nagoya suburbs where my friend Manny lived on beer. His daughter, the delightful Kaori bought me a bottle of wine that she likes and I was amazed at its quality, even without a fine meal as accompaniment.

My friend Frank was aware of the fact that the Tokyo City Hall has a bar on its top view floor. Now you are too. The passion fruit drink below was immensely quenching. Frank had a proseco. Then I had one, The passion fruit was better. On my last day, I had several glasses of Rock n Roll punch at the Hot Rock Cafe in Ueno Station while hanging out with a musician. I'm still awaiting his CD. Will it be as good as the punch? A very high standard. The sangria I had at the Italian restaurant (opened the year Fumiyo was born) in Ojima was of Spanish quality. It was billed on the menu as Home Made. Like the bread crumb coated ton katsu at Katsugen, the "home made" really meant something special. But Spain Club, the Spanish restaurant my friends took me to which had excellent tapas, actually had rather poor sangria. Drinkable, but dont serve it to your Spanish friends. I regretted the evocative muscatel grape Can Wine of 4 years ago has dissappeared. The cans of wine now, and in general the canned beverages I tried were not so good. I did have a good grapefruit juice on occasion, but the apple tended to be headed a different direction than I would consider tasty. Great really cold apple juice used to be as common as rice here. No more. The idea seems to be if you want a cold fruit drink, you'll have to go inside. One thing that did not exist here before, or I just wasnt exposed to, was the excellent apple cidre Eiichi and Tomomi drank. I never saw it in liqour stores but it's made by Nikko. I introduced them to the idea of adding a slice of lime to this already excellent Japanese dry apple cidre, a drink once so common in Vancouver but no longer. Thats what liquids do. They come, they go.

Thursday, August 16, 2007

Japan Trip 3: the sad sound of seafood sucking

I've had a lot of good sea food in Japan. The scallops in XO sauce at the Chinese restaurant at the basement of Roppongi Hills is the kind of Chinese food I'm used to in Vancouver- scallops bursting with their own and the recipe's power and juiciness. I mean that's the base line. Bad scallops are to be avoided. These were not bad scallops. The Asian Mojita I had with it wasn't spice-cancelling enough and the vegies were a bit crisper than I'd have preferred, but this was a fine meal. The Mori Museum website said it had a show on humour in Japanese art which I wanted to see. After the scallops, I went to the Mori but the only show was Le Corbusier, who struck me as Picasso without the talent, and some fish. Maybe they were good to eat too. But these scallops were consumed my 6th day in Japan. Every previous day I'd been assaulted by Bad Shrimp. I don't remember their existence when I lived here, but now every shrimp dish I order is tasteless, as best. Salad after shrimp salad is like eating the menu. Seriously expensive Prawns Mayo from Isetan's teeming basement. It's as if all the prawns in the world had suddenly shed their taste. Or maybe the Japanese fishing fleet fished all the good shirmp out, and now all they can catch is tasteless shrimp.
A refreshing salad at the Hamamatsu Grand Hotel. Thankfully, no shrimp.

This restaurant specialized in crab dishes. I had the crab grautin. You are ushered into your own little room. I had just bought Jared Diamond's Collapse at a local bookstore I could never afford to buy books at when I lived here 36 years ago. Delightfully I opened book, drank a glass of draft, put my aching feet up and awaited the crab. I'm still waiting. Yes I was served a grautin and it appeared to have crab-like particles, but their tastes never penetrated the cheese. Useless. A crab died for naught. Do crab well, or leave it alone!

In Hamamatsu I did have some prawns and scallops as part of the Teppan Yaki feast described in post #1 of this series. They weren't bad, but that was a factor of their sauces. I was told that Nagoya had great prawns, great Ebi Fry so I wanted to try it. Unfortunately, my friend Manny had the shrimp. It was so big it came with a scissors. My miso katsu was also a local delicacy and I was on a winning streak with pork. A few days later I had ebi fry as part of the tonkatsu set in the ship-like new building in Nihonbashi. It was superb. Finally. So good prawns still exist and can be found in Japanese restaurants. I was relieved. But still. 9 out of 10 prawn experiences ranged from insufficiency to matter in their nest of spaghetti at a superior Italian restaurant and an even better Spanish place, to downright tasteless, like eating toy food, as part of salad after salad I soaked up to mitigate summer's assault.

Bubba Gump's shrimp stuffed with crab. Yeah, right.
The overall flavour is monterey jack cheese. I love good cheese and miss it in Japanese food. But where's the crab flavour? Where's the shrimp flavour?
Not so long ago, you could go into any random restaurant and get good shrimp. They may now be so rare you need speciail permission to eat the good shrimp. I was saddened, remembering how much my daughter loved shrimp, and the many great shrimp we'd had in Japan. The flavours we savoured have vanished. Its as if a nation of people with sophisticated tastes, exposed to phenomenal food, was now only exposed to lower quality and less flavourful food. Is this an Orwellian experiment, to convince a formerly shrimp knowing populace that bad shrimp is good shrimp? Help, Bubba. Help.

Japan Trip 2: Cat Pigs Out

When I ate at Katsugen 4 years ago, it was after I'd been told my old favourite Tonkatsu restaurant Tonki was no more, and this was the new capitol of pork worship. I was so impressed with my first visit, I came back again, during brief time in Tokyo then. This was my first visit on this trip. Just as good as I recall. Menu is so funny (assuming you know English) that whatever calamities have befallen you before coming to the Marunouchi Bldg to devour it's sublime pork, will vanish away in hilarity and amazing meat. You read, between guffaws, of the arduous selection process of their pork, and their home made bread crumbs. I can imagine the owners of the restaurant sewing the wheat, raising it, milling it into flour, baking bread and then making the bread crumbs to encrust this finely appreciated piece of pig meat. I was instructed to try its two kinds of salt, but micro-experiment proved enough; save the salt for bad food. This is not that. The miso soup wasn't as good as I recall from 4 years ago and maybe they should hire someone to convert their menu into a known language but for good tonkatsu, you'll want to check this out. Identifying your supplier, or even being your supplier, these were marketing tools that could have a good effect. If you know brand X is good, maybe we'll notice when it isn't. I noticed when a local cidre maker changed its taste but kept its name. Did no one notice when Denny's went from Great Food to anti-food?
Next, Eichi and Tomomi met me at Tonki, still in Meguro but in a different location. After a long wait, the pork was very good. But not as good as the tonkatsu I'd just had two days before at Katsugen. No photos were taken. If you like tonkatsu, you won't be disappointed here, but my memories of standout egg batter based bread crumb empire are as long gone as the Austro-Hungarian Empire of my grandparent's day.
Hamamatsu bar acquaintances told me to order the Ebi Fry, big fried shirmp in Nagoya and my Nagoya-esque friend Manny did but I went for the Miso Katsu on his wife Mineko's advice. A pleasant diversion from the usual tonkatsu and apple-based sauce.

My Vancouver friend Frank was also about Kanto so we checked out his his discovery in the Coredo building in Nihonbashi, which looks like one of those buildings turned into pirate ships in the Python flick. This was a lunch set. I swapped the fried oysters for some more shiso pork. Again with the salt competition, but the sauces were worth exploring and the food was as good as one would expect, if one had very high expectations. One purpose I had in coming to this city where I'd eat my weight in tonkatsu on a regular basis (OK, I'm not very heavy, but still!) was to find its best tonkatsu. This was different. For the first time, nearing the end of my 2 week trip, I had a goood shrimp. Like my old friend Manny had in the restaurant pictured above, it was what I remembered as ubiquitous in Japan: Great Shrimp. No oysters thankfully and the hire katsu, at the right in the picture, usually the most expensive thing on the plate, was ok. No award winner. Glad they know their pigs and even gladder that's a trend in Japan now. Hirata Bokujyou is on the 4th floor
Eichi had been recommending this place Maisen in "trendy" Omotesando and I finally went there my last full day in Tokyo. It was as if I'd never eaten tonkatsu before. Like that first teppanyaki encounter. Admiral Perry invades my tongue. I didnt know tonkatsu could taste that good. The sauce in the biggest jar was the best. Was that grated daikon in it? No, that wouldn't keep long. Something chunkified the sauce like sudden bombs of pleasure blowing your enjoyment of the tonkatsu into some other level. This must be what only the Emperor got to eat not so long ago. I've had a lot of good food, and spent a lot of energy in search of it, but eating the top grade of hirekatsu at this restaurant (show up before noon to avoid the rush) is why you're alive. There may be pleasures greater than this food, but the difficulties you'd have finding them make a Maisen meal about as good as is available, in this known universe.