Archive for the ‘Japan 2011’ Category

World’s Largest

16 August 2011

Miyajima Island, in addition to being the home of the iconic “floating” O-torii gate and the source of momiji manju, is home to the world’s largest rice paddle. I would never have known this if our tour hadn’t included a stop there, but I am really glad it did! We spent two nights on Miyajima island, climbed to the top of Mt. Misen, and avoided the ubiquitous deer who love to beg for food. While we were there, there was a typhoon hitting parts of Japan and the island experienced  some strong winds and a little light rain.  The winds prompted the operators to close the ferry to Hiroshima and the ropeway up the mountain, and most of the restaurants and shops were closed as well.  This was nice, because there weren’t crowds of people and it was quiet and pleasant, but on the other hand there was not a lot of choice for what to have for lunch.  The two places open for lunch both served Hiroshima-style okonomiyaki, so that was it.

Map of the side of the island that faces the mainland.

Keiko walked out at low tide to get a close-up view. Can you spot her?

At high tide, it does look sortof like it is floating.

Momiji manju are cakes (manju) filled with yummy filling and shaped like maple leaves (momiji). But one shop sells them with Hello Kitty on them.

This rice paddle is over 7.7 meters long (over 25 feet) and is made from a tree over 200 years old. And no, I've never been to the largest ball of twine.

The view from Mt. Misen. You can just barely see the ferry dock at the lower right.

A deer begs one of our tourmates for some of his ice-cream sandwich. The deer are not above chewing clothing and snatching pocketbooks.

Hiroshima-style okonomiyaki include pancake, cabbage, noodles, and omelet (invisible on the bottom.) There may be meat inside, too.

The finished okonomiyaki has been flipped so the omelet is on top. I got mine with oysters, another specialty of Miyajima. It was so big though, I could not eat it all.



16 August 2011

With the Republican presidential candidates attending the Iowa state fair in preparation for the Iowa straw poll, NPR had to do its obligatory story on “fried food on a stick.”  This year’s gross-out item was deep-fried butter on a stick. Well, in Japan, one needn’t go to the state fair (or rather, whatever the local festival is) to have food on a stick. There are sit-down restaurants devoted to fried food on a stick.  We ate a couple of them, enjoying chicken, pork, mushrooms, quail eggs, tomatoes, bell peppers, small fish, pumpkin (the green Japanese kind), potato, and probably something else I can’t remember. Dip the item into a sauce, or salt, or green sancho pepper (like black pepper but with a tingle and a citrusy flavor), and enjoy!  Then reach for another.

I think this is pork. The dish has wells for different sauces.

As you will see included with almost all Japanese meals, you can see the small dish of pickled vegetable in this photo, and in this case also a dish of cabbage for “cleansing the palate” between fried items.

You don’t have to go to a restaurant for your fried food on a stick, however. When we were in Osaka, the takoyaki that Keiko and I had were served with skewers, not chopsticks.  So I guess you could hold your octopus doughball on the stick and eat it that way.  I think it would have been easier to use chopsticks.

I used a couple skewers to dissect a doughball so you can see the little chunk of octopus.

What if you like food on a stick but are not a fan of deep frying? You can get that too. In Kyoto I passed by a shop with this display out front:

I don't think I could make myself eat one of these.

I have no idea if you are supposed to eat these octopuses as they are, or if maybe you buy a few to take home and fry up fresh for dinner. Or maybe you could do the other deep-frying: tempura.  Greg and I took a cooking lesson with a very nice woman named Emi, in her home in Kyoto.  She taught us to make tempura by combining half an egg (150 ml) and a combined 150 ml of flour and water, mixing it until combined but lumpy, and smearing the mixture by hand over whatever food you want to eat. While in Japan we tried tempura-style food of many different kinds (including nori and flowers and lotus root and pumpkin), but Emi introduced us to Japanese-style wheat gluten.  We were familiar with the seitan-style wheat gluten, but the Japanese style is more like a thick gel.  First, put the wheat gluten on a small stick.  Then coat in tempura batter and deep fry.

Wheat gluten before tempura. I don't know why it is green.

After tempura. Note the presentation has changed now that it is ready to eat.

My last food on a stick is not fried.  In Takayama, we went to a tofu restaurant.  Tofu served a lot of different ways, and listed on the menu as “tofu 3 ways”, “tofu 4 ways,” “tofu 5 ways,” and so on.  I think Greg had “tofu 7 ways” or maybe it was 8.  I went for fewer, thinking I wasn’t that hungry (having had a snack not much earlier).  I chose the option that included, you guessed it, tofu on sticks:

Tofu three ways. Plus soup with tofu skins, rice, and pickles (the pink things are pickles).

So much for not being very hungry.  I guess the fewer types of tofu in your order, the larger the portions.

Anyway, since being back in the USA I have stuck to only frozen treats on a stick. I am still finishing off last year’s watermelon-mint ice pops, and I recently made a large batch of fresh ones to take to the pool party on Labor Day.  Just watermelon, mint, lime juice, and sugar.

I photograph everything

29 July 2011

When walking with the tour group in Japan, I would sometimes fall behind due to stopping and taking photos of things.  If something catches my eye, I like to take a picture. I have a bunch of photos of  interesting signs, most meals I ate, vending machines, store shelves, lotuses, pigeons, stray cats, lots of roofs, roof gutters, and one of my favorite categories: things on the ground.  Here are some things I saw on the ground in Japan:

A Tokyo manhole cover

The floor of the stairway to a basement Internet/manga cafe

Another Tokyo manhole cover

Salt at the entrance to the ryokan/onsen in Hakone

Yet another manhole cover

Tatami border in the temple lodgings in Koya-san

Flowers on the ground at Koya-san

Maple leaf design in the pavement by the Miyajima ferry

Paper cranes we left at the Children's Monument at Hiroshima Peace Park

Design on street in Gion district, Kyoto

"Street sign" in Gion district, Kyoto

Japan goals

29 July 2011

I had a mental list of things I wanted to experience in Japan.

  • Stay in a ryokan
  • Relax at an onsen
  • See Mt. Fuji
  • Eat takoyaki
  • Eat taiyaki
  • See the Akihabara district in Tokyo
  • Get a Japanese ear-cleaner
  • Ride the shinkansen
  • Get a Daruma doll for Greg’s job search.

and I am glad to report that I did all of these things!

We stayed in ryokans every night, though the temple lodgings at Koya-san were technically a shubuku not a ryokan.  At Hakone, our ryokan was also an onsen, and on the women’s side at least there were 5 pools/tubs.  We saw Mt. Fuji from several vantages at Hakone, as well as from the shinkansen on the way to Nagoya to get to Takayama.  In Takayama I ate taiyaki, and in Osaka I tried takoyaki.  On our free day in Tokyo we visited a bunch of famous districts, including Harajuku, Shinjuku, Shibuya, and Akihabara.  And at Nara, home of the largest Buddha statue in Japan, I got an ear-cleaner. I picked up the Daruma doll at a souvenir shop (not a temple) toward the end of our trip, but I can’t remember if it was in Nara or in Kyoto.

What the heck is all this?

The ryokan in Tokyo, with our futons ready for us

A ryokan is a Japanese inn, with tatami floors that you may not wear shoes on, futons that are stored away during the day and set out at night, and complimentary green tea in the room.

An onsen is a hot-springs bath, open to the public.  There is a space for putting your clothes, a place to wash yourself, and one or more pools for soaking.  There are lots of rules, like no clothing allowed and no towels allowed in the bathing pool, and you must rinse off all soapsuds before entering the pool, and at the Hakone onsen they didn’t allow any metals in, by which I think they meant take off all your jewelry.  I guess the minerals in the water might have reacted with it.

Leave your clothing in a basket

Wash yourself all over

Enjoy a hot soak with a pretty garden view

I know you know what Mt. Fuji is.  The most important and revered mountain in Japan.  We did not climb it, we just posed for photos with it.

We were lucky that the clouds retreated for our photo opportunity

Takoyaki is dough balls with a bit of octopus inside, cooked on a griddle with lots of hemispherical depressions in it so the dough balls come out round.  Taiyaki are fish-shaped snacks filled with red bean paste (or other fillings) and cooked on a griddle with fish-shaped depressions in it.  If a Japanese word ends in -yaki, it is probably yummy, like sukiyaki (usually beef and vegetables in a sweet sauce), or okonomiyaki (a pancake-ish dish with egg and meat and vegetables in it).

Keiko took this photo when we shared takoyaki. We got them "wit" (as we say in Philly) everything - brown sauce, mayonnaise, bonito flakes

Taiyaki-the kind with red bean paste

In Tokyo, there are many neighborhoods with their own distinct characters, like in many large cities around the world.  Akihabara (also known as Akiba) is “electric town” where you can buy almost anything relating to electronics, video games, anime and manga. There are girls in costumes on the street corners (they won’t let you take a photo), giant gaming arcades, the nerdiest-looking guys (also known as “otaku”) who you will never see in the fashionable districts like Harajuku, and shops devoted to single types of item, like fluorescent light bulbs, or wire!

One of the wire shops in Akihabara, Tokyo

We rode the shinkansen (bullet train) numerous times as we traveled between cities.  They are pretty slick.

A shinkansen arrives at a station. Or maybe it departs - they look the same at both ends

A Daruma doll (Dharma) represents the founder of Zen Buddhism.  It is used to represent a wish or goal, and one draws in the right eye when making the wish and one draws in the left eye when the wish is fulfilled.  I wanted one for my husband who is hoping to make a career change this fall, as a fun representation of his goal.  We are not Buddhists.  This morning I drew in the right eye, and when Greg gets his new job I will fill in the left eye.  Traditionally Daruma dolls are burned at temples at the end of the year, but I think we will keep this one.

Japanese ear-cleaners are not q-tips.  They certainly have cotton swabs on sticks in Japan, but the ear cleaners are usually bamboo and you use them to carefully scrape the wax out of your ears.  My mother-in-law says they are very effective!  You can get them shaped like samurai swords or like light sabers, but I chose a more traditional style.

Can you tell which is the ear cleaner and which is the Daruma? Daruma dolls are weighted so if you knock them over they turn upright again

I’ve got a lot more Japan-related topics to write about, so be patient!

Japan Trip Overview

26 July 2011

My husband and I took a two-week trip to Japan with my mother-in-law this month.  This post is the overview, but there will be other posts featuring different aspects of our trip.  It was a great trip!

We (well, Keiko) booked a tour with Samurai Tours, and owner Mike Roberts helped us customize it so that we had some days with the guide and tour group and other days on our own.  Ours was a “Best of Japan” trip, and started in Tokyo.

Shibuya crossing in Tokyo

From there, we went to places west and south of Tokyo, avoiding the north.  This was the tour route anyway, but as a result we were never anywhere near Fukushima and we didn’t see any earthquake or tsunami damage.  There had been a tour option for the town of Nikko, but that was changed due to the loss of tourist traffic there.  Apparently many of the restaurants and shops are closed due to lack of tourism.

Our tour included travel on trains, subways, and public buses.  Samurai tours arranged our Japan Rail Passes which were useful in many places as a free pass for travel.  Only foreign tourists can get these passes, and they are good on shinkansens (bullet trains) and ferries and local train lines.  If you want a reserved seat on a shinkansen, you need an additional ticket for that reserved seat, but you get on the train by just showing your pass as you walk through the turnstile area.

Throughout our tour, we stayed in Japanese inns, or ryokans.  These are very traditional, and you must take off your shoes (either when you enter the ryokan or when you enter your room).  The floors are tatami and the beds are futons on the floor.  And the futons are not American-style fat futons, but thin Japanese futons that are at most 3 inches thick and are easily folded up and put away in a closet.  They provide yukatas (thin cotton bathrobes) for hanging out in, and slippers for entering the toilet room, and toothbrushes.  I will show you my toothbrush collection in a later post.

So, the overview.  Our tour started in Tokyo, as I said, and then we went to Hakone.  Hakone is a resort town in a volcanic caldera.  There are hot spring-fed public baths (including the bath at our ryokan), a caldera lake with regular touristy boats crossing it, and hot-spring-cooked “black eggs” which we ate.  Hakone is where we saw Mt. Fuji from!

The tour group wears yukatas for kaiseki dinner at our Takayama ryokan

Then we went to the pretty town of Takayama, famous for their festival floats and a style of lacquerware that emphasizes the grain of the wood.  We enjoyed the farmer’s markets and the old municipal building, the Takayama-jinya.  There are very few such 17th-century buildings left in Japan, as they were all made of wood and are very susceptible to fire, despite the ornamental fish on the roofs.

Koya-san was next, the world headquarters of the Shingon School of Esoteric Buddhism.  We stayed in a temple, ate only vegetables, and learned that we are all Buddha.  We also had a meditation lesson and attended a morning prayer service.

Halfway through our trip we reached Osaka.  Our stay was brief, and it was very crowded despite the rain. Osaka was our only really rainy day.

Then we went to Miyajima Island, where we weathered the edge of a typhoon (mostly a wind event for us, with little rain).  Unfortunately, the high winds closed the ferry and the ropeway to the mountain top.  As a result of the ferry closing, there were few tourists so most of the shops and restaurants didn’t open.  We would have stuffed ourselves on maple-leaf-shaped stuffed cakes if the shops had been open.  That’s the local specialty.  That and rice scoops.

Kinkaju-ji, the Golden Pavilion, in Kyoto

We had a sobering visit to Hiroshima on our way to Kyoto, where we spent the last three days of our tour.  There is a ton of stuff to do in Kyoto.  We skipped a lot of it.  There are shrines and temples all over the place, thousands of restaurants, palaces, gardens, and Monkey Mountain!  Of course we went to Monkey Mountain!

So, more posts to follow on specific aspect of the trip, with more photos!