I hope your Friday was good and your Sunday miraculous. I had the privilege of hosting my sister here in Japan last week. Having her here allowed me to appreciate my growth in knowledge of the Japanese language and culture compared to her blank slate. This is no mockery of her entertaining attempts to live and speak as the Japanese do but a celebration of my improvement; I mean, this is my blog!
Some of our attempts:
For her first meal, we headed to Honmokuya- a tonkotsu (pork broth) ramen shop- for her first real bowl of ramen. Known by sailors as Black Door Ramen. A well seasoned man stands behind the counter waiting for your order from the ticket machine that guards the entrance. You select from the machine the size, toppings, and whichever of the few drinks he offers and hand him the tickets. And then with three words, you customize your order:
- light/thick (broth)
- more/less (oil)
- al’dente/soft (noodles)
And in a few minutes, he hands you your warm, hearty, and heart warming bowl of ramen. Nothing fancy but you don’t come here looking for fancy.
We walked down the street, glistening under rainfallen and the nightlights, lined on either side by shops- food vendors and souvenirs.
We peeked in a few shops, some longer than others and we picked out some things- she more than I- for her to take back to the family. I had been here only once and was nearly as entertained as she was. I was glad she got to see some of what we imagine when we in the West think of Japan- Yukatas (the summer variant of the kimono), Torii gates, and shrines.
I don’t think you can call a trip to Japan complete, at least not your first trip, without having a taste of sushi, even if it is from the convenience store. (Don’t tell anybody, I told you that.) But one of the things that seems to be increasingly popular among visitors and Japanese alike is the “Sushi-Go-Round”.
I don’t know if that’s the official name for it but it’s certainly been the most popular (preferred to kaiten or conveyor belt sushi). As the name suggests, the person preparing the sushi- prepares a number of sushi dishes for 100 yen, more or less, usually two pieces per plate, and loads them on to the belt, floating along until they catch the eyes of a diner!
But if you don’t see what you want or your concerned that its been on the belt too long – especially during slower periods of business- you can order it up fresh! You keep the plates on the table until the server comes and tallies your plates for the grand total. I wanted to try the chawanmushi, especially because I heard everybody else ordering it. But by the time I got the words out of my mouth, they were sold out.
Tsurugaoka Hachiman Shrine
Japan loves food on sticks! Yakitori, dango, chocolate covered bananas and anything penetrable by a skewer or suspended between chopsticks! But this one! Scattered through the streets with some friends, we were looking for somewhere we could eat without delay- and together. After a few shut downs, we stumbled across this place, stuffed in a walkway hanging off the street. We gazed at the menu for a moment but it was simple. Endless tea, all-you-can-eat salad, miso, and rice with your choice of an 8-12 “course” kushiage. The kushiage consist of a variety of foods pierced by a skewer, coated and fried.
Kushi connotes the stick and age, fried. The difference between Kushiage and the probably better known tempura is that tempura doesn’t involve sticks and it is batter dipped in a more airy batter resulting in a crisp snack. Kushiage is prepared through more similarly to the standard breading procedure- flour, egg, bread crumbs.
I had the 12 course.
- Chicken and leek
- Lotus root
- Sweet potato
- Quail eggs
It’s not that I can’t count. I just can’t recall the other two.
Available on the table for dipping was, believe it or not, ketchup and mustard, grey salt, ponzu and some teriyaki based sauce. I shall return.
Museums are another ubiquity of Japan. I’ve visited the Ramen Museum in Shin Yokohama, but wasn’t too impressed. If you know what to expect, you might have a better experience. After you’ve paid the small admission fee, maybe 300 yen, you are granted access to two exhibits, one, the history of ramen presented in black and white, and detailed in the Japanese syllabaries and the other ramen throughout the world, with little more information than the general “foodie” would know. Theirs also a souvenir shop and a slot car track. On the lower floors, there are a number of ramen shops that you must stand in line and pay at the ticket machine for your “samples”. How much ramen can you eat?
But I figured I’d try out the CupNoodle Museum. I personally believe it was more of a museum. I don’t know what more I would expect of it but within a museum devoted to such a specified topic, I guess they do an okay job. We began our tour with a video presentation that speaks of the times and thoughts that inspired Momofuku to invent CupNoodle and how he became the chairperson for the industry.
The rest of the museum elaborated on the contents of the video with photos and text blocks along the wall with a vague art forms and philosophical quandaries on the topic of noodles in a cup and the inspiration that it potentially births. I enjoyed it for what it was but wished I got there earlier before the “Make your own Cup Noodle” tickets were sold out.
We continued on to Shibuya, not just to be tourists- drawn to the busy intersection featured in movies, tossed to and fro by the excited crowds and the snooty horns of impatient drivers. But I thought it would be a good launching point into our exploration of Tokyo. Honestly, once we arrived, I didn’t really know where to go from there.
We did visit a Krispy Kreme (’cause you just don’t find those in the states.)
(Actually, you probably would never find one as bound in the details and with flavor offerings like this one.) and we wandered into an izakaya for some cheese sticks (not mozzarella), wings, and yakitori- that is if yakitori includes pork
Named Tokyo’s fashion capital, Harajuku was worth a visit. Lots to look at. One of those kinds of places that you can go without a plan and not be disappointed, if you go on a weekend or before things close at 10 during the week. After work, there wasn’t much I could do. I was tired, and a bit bothered to learn that we had begun this journey with the desired end at a 4 floor 100 yen store, comparable to a dollar store. But hey, she’s just visiting.
Perhaps our best experience was motsunabe- or offal hot pot. I never told her what offal was. Granted what we were eating wasn’t so bad: it included chicken knees cartilage. I don’t know if this would’ve sounded any better if I just stopped at chicken knees. But it wasn’t really the food that made the time. We sat down with a Japanese friend who isn’t fluent in English but speaks more English than I do Japanese. We ordered a round of sake and were treated to what I guess we could call soup. It was some rough chops carrots and potatoes with chunks of chicken in small bowls of the broth they were probably used to make.
Then came our personal burner, our nabe pot and a mound of cabbage, garlic, chiles, and chicken knees. Flame on! And as it boils, the cabbage is flattened in the heat, lowering the mound to its demise. We laughed and joke as we tried to master the language and read the menu, teaching each other of the differences in our cultures. John, the guy who runs the shop, even joined in for some of the fun.
Her child like fascination and the incessant appearance of her phone, capturing and sharing every detail of the slightest contrast to the world she’s known, reminds me again to enjoy all of Japan, or any new experience I find my self in- even in the slightest. Things that I would smile at one day and take for granted the next. To cherish these things is easier when you have somebody to share them with.