Thursday, April 24, 2008


Hanami Crazy

It's not enough to admire cherry blossoms in Japan; you have to ingest them too.

From the sublime, a Kyoto style lunch with a sakura blossom in my soup . . .

to the ridiculous, a sakura shaped and flavor infused danish . . .

I ate them both. I had to. But not at the same time.


Sakagura Hanami Sake Tasting

This past trip to Japan was in many ways about: hanami, Edo, food (of course) and sake. Unable to let go of these obsessions, I recently attended Sakagura's annual Hanami Sake Tasting. Sakagura is a (perhaps the) sake bar in New York, located in the basement of a building on the East Side in a neighborhood populated with small, authentic Japanese eateries.

I liked the sugidama hanging in the entry, all green, signaling fresh sakes!

The event was advertised as a "hanami" festival. I hadn't expected that the decor would include so many real cherry blossoms, but sure enough, these flowers and all the others were real.

There were at least 50 sakes to try. I lost count of how many I drank. There was also food--which was quite good--but the focus was definitely on the drinking. I really liked some of the sakes I had that were made in Niigata and also in Akita

The gentleman in this photo works for "Sake Story," which distributes from Atlanta. He was very friendly and also good at explaining what everyone was drinking.

All in all, it was a fine event and a great way to try many sakes all at the same time, and to develop a sense for what you like and why. The next tasting looks like it will take place in the fall. I'll try to go if I can. In the meantime, this is a nice place to get some sake and some snacks if you are in New York and missing your sake fix.


Natto Bagel

Inspired by the comments over at Japundit regarding my "real natto" post, I decided this morning to try out a natto bagel.

I have to admit, it was really, really good. And really filling.

I expect one of you cafes in Tokyo to start putting this on your menu for "morning set."


Mitsukan, er, Mizkan

I'd been to rice vinegar factory Mitsukan a few years before during a visit to the Handa matsuri, but was pleased to take a more leisurely tour on my recent trip. Handa is my mother's hometown, and a place filled with memories for me. The minute I switch to the Taketoyo train, which takes me from Nagoya down the Chita Peninsula, I immediately relax, because I am "going home" in a way. Whenever I buy Mitsukan products in America, I note the "Handa, Aichi" label on the bottle and smile inwardly, thinking of the place and the people crafting the vinegar I use for cooking.

The location of the company is incredibly picturesque--right on the river, and with the old warehouses still preserved. It's no wonder the company grounds have been used for backdrops to historical films. I love these old, low Meiji buidings, painted dark like this to keep insects away. Note that the buildings have many windows. This is because rice vinegar, Mitsukan's main product, is made here, and the temperature regulated during the summer via all these windows.

The company has been through a few changes since I last visited, including the purchase of Holland House and a rebranding of "Mitsukan" to "Mizkan." The rebranding doesn't change the name really, but I assume it was part of an effort to get foreigners to stop saying "Mi-TSU-kan" and to start pronouncing it "MITS-kan." Come to think of it, I often spell my middle name as "Mutsky" so people won't say "Mu-TSU-ki."

One thing that hasn't changed much is the logo. I was told on a tour that the logo was developed to symbolize the successful making of vinegar; three levels of flavor--taste, smell and acidity must be balanced for a round flavor.

In all of this reorganization, Mitsukan also has made the effort to explain its role in history and to tie its success to that 21st century global phenom: sushi.

Sushi, after all, requires good vinegar!

The above graph demonstrates how vinegar consumption during the Edo period skyrocketed as nigiri-sushi (what we in the west commonly just call sushi) became popular as street food. According to family lore, Matazaemon Nakano (get a load of that feudal name) first had the idea of making vinegar out of discarded sake lees; the Nakano family also made sake. This would have been back in 1804. To give you some sense of how business works in Japan, Mitsukan is still owned by the Nakano family!

There was even a reproduction of an Edo period sushi stand to demonstrate how people would have sold and purchased the food to go.

The actual vinegar making facilities can't be photographed. And I was so intent of tasting the vinegars that I was allowed to drink, that I forgot to photograph the charming man who gave a talk and showed us a little film. Needless to say, much of the company's focus seems to be on demonstrating how healthy vinegar is for the body, how it can release calcium from the bones of meat, how it relieves fatigue and lowers cholesterol. No wonder, then, that vinegar drinks are part of the line of products available--at least in Japan.

After visiting the sake factory, we wandered over to Nakano, which still makes sake and is run by a different brother in the Nakano family. Unlike Ichizawa Hanpu, the Nakano family outwardly still seems to be intact.

This is a lovely and historic neighborhood with pretty gardens and old-fashioned construction. I loved the atmosphere.

While the actual Nakano sake is no longer made in this facility, the tour does explain very nicely how sake is produced.

This photo demonstrates how rice is polished down from its natural brown state, to become white. "Daiginjo sakes" receives its honorary designation because anywhere from 50 to 70 percent of the exterior of each grain is polished away. The "waste" is used to make crackers or noodles--so waste is not an entirely appropriate term!

We had a nice tasting, which left me toasted. The day before, Gordon and I had really enjoyed Nakano's Daiginjo, and so were very happy to leave the tour with several bottles, two of which made it home to New York. I know one of these will be enjoyed with some special people.

Historically, businesses that dealt in sake hung a "ball" made out of cedar called a sugidama in the entrance to their shop. A green or fresh ball indicated that new sake had been released. The one in this photo is not green at all, as you can see! (It's hanging over our heads, in the window).

Note: In more recent news, Mitsukan has just acquired more brands, beefing up its North American presence.

Wednesday, April 23, 2008


Smart Starbucks

I was intrigued by the little stopper that comes with Starbucks drinks in Japan. It's basically a little stirrer, with a wide area on top that fits the sipping hole, like a second lid. This is very practical. It means that no hot liquid will jump out of your cup and scald your legs or hand. Can't we get some of these little things in the US?


Wild Vegetables: Foods of the Season Continued!

As you might have noticed, I spend a lot of time thinking and photographing what I eat in Japan. This is because food is very good in Japan; Japan is truly one of the great food cultures of the world. Even a Japanese person who has been in the US for twenty years and can't imagine going back to the homeland for fear of engaging in unwelcome social norms and pressures will wax nostalgically about the food. The only other thing such a person will might as much are onsen (hot spring baths). But that's another subject.

One of the first things I spotted in Japan was this poster of a "Gourmet Fest(ival)" for wild vegetables. See? The seasonality of food is so important there is a fest(ival)! I wrote last year of the experience of picking fuki no to and later tsukushi. If you find yourself lucky enough to be in the mountains during the spring, then you don't need a fest(ival), but can pick your own vegetables.

In Himeji, I spotted this farmer's cart laden with sansai. I immediately ran over to take a photo and wanted very much to buy everything she had for sale. I assume that she was a she. I never saw her. And I doubt that the enthusiastic gaijin taking photos was going to prompt her to come out to see me. Or perhaps everything was for sale on an honor system. This is still done in Japan.

I was initially most excited by the bamboo shoots for sale. Look at them! How big and fresh and appetizing! You may remember that I have something of a passion for fresh bamboo shoots. Characters in my novel eat said shoots early on in the book; seeing the shoots for sale here made me think about Rumi and Satomi.

She was also selling tsukushi. If you don't remember why this "wild weed" is so important to me, here's a refresher.

If I'd been staying a ryokan that night, I might have picked up a few things and handed them to the cook. But instead, we had to let all those nice, appetizing vegetables go. Isao, however, had arranged for us to visit a supermarket. And as you can see, there were plenty of seasonal foods for sale there too--all nicely wrapped in plastic, as food is in Japan.

If those ferns look familiar, it's because Isao included them in his Himeji hanami bento.

At some point, I mean to write a longer article on the subject of wild vegetables. I'll just conclude by saying that my mother heads out to the hills of California every spring to search for these vegetables, many of which are available but not appreciated in the States. Now, to give you a sense of our values and how much my mother loves me, she actually Fed Exed me a package of her harvest so I could enjoy the flavors. So it was that I made my first batch of tempura with wild ferns. I seem to have misplaced my photos; here then are some from California when my mother made her tempura with wild vegetables.

Lest you think my mother loves me more than I love her, know that I have been known to Fed-ex a package of ramps and fiddle-heads from New York to California (she promptly went on to try to plant the ramps in her garden). The ramps have started showing up in our local farmer's market in New York, and I tried out our favorite (and easy) miso recipe on them. I'll post the information for preparing ramps a-la-Japonaise another time.

Fiddleheads are due out next month. I'll be back from Japan by then and imagine that another Fed-Ex package will soon be hurtling its way across the US to a kitchen in California.

And that is how much we love to eat.


Real Natto

Knowing how I love natto, friends arranged for me to eat the real thing.

It comes wrapped in straw, like this. Open up the straw bundle (which is held together by a piece of string I didn't photograph, so intent was I on unpuzzling the package) and out pops a dollop of natto.

It was really, really good and lacked the smell that some find so offensive from packaged natto. (Thank you Isao).

Comments on Japundit.


Family Portraits

In Tokyo, we had a fabulous lunch with a number of family members. Because I was still so tired from travel (and from hanami overload), I didn't have the energy to talk as much as I would have liked. This just means I have to go back to Japan and take more time with people! Present at the lunch were childhood friends, and one cousin I hadn't seen in 27 years. That is too long.

Gordon and my Uncle had an interesting conversation about baseball during which I was forced to confess my difficulty with watching sporting events (They aren't like books! There is no plot! Someone will actually lose!). The two of them, however, understood each other immediately and I know that a visit to the Hanshin Tigers is somewhere in the future.

These photos are probably only of interest to family and friends. I promise to follow up with something less personal soon.

Tuesday, April 22, 2008


Mental Health Break

Please enjoy the trajectory of pop song "Age Age Every Night," (no, that is not "age age" but "a-geh ageh") made popular by mysterious popstar DJ Ozma--he of the blonde afro and sunglasses (I'm not making this up).

It started as a Korean song . . .

and became a hit for Ozma in Japanese with the most interesting English interjections . . .

who went on to authorize a Dance Master Video so you too can get all the correct moves, including the "serious" and "smile" expressions at the right time . . . (Not having tried the dance out myself, I cannot say if you too will sparkle and glitter, as does DJ Ozma at the end. But I'm quite sure you too can wink.)

before the song went on to be a challenging tune on Taiko Drummaster . . .

and a cult favorite in the, uh, world.


Ticket Mosaic

Once upon a time, train stations in Japan clicked and clattered. It was common to give your ticket to a ticket man who clipped a hole in your paper ticket. While waiting for the next passenger, the ticket man rattled his hole puncher rhythmically. Icoca, Suica, Pasmo and other automated systems have mostly rendered the ticket man obsolete.

But one meticulous person took some of those spent tickets and put together a mosaic. I think I saw these creations somewhere in Osaka--I just can't remember if it was at Kix, or some other station (I was jet-lagged). A rather creative use of old tickets, I think.

Top photo via.

Sunday, April 20, 2008



I really, really wanted one of these insanely expensive hairpins that I saw in Kyoto. If I were getting married, I might have justified the purchase.


Naughty Naughty

I'm pretty sure TPTB meant "No graffiti." But the most appropriate English phrase in Japan is often rewritten to become what a Japanese person feels would be the correct expression, if only English were spoken as it is supposed to be. Or so a certain translator tells me.

(Photo taken at Himeji.)


Return to Hanpu Heaven

I written before of the fascinating "in-group-magic-spell" that bag company Ichizawa Hanpu casts on certain Japanese people, and how the original business has experienced a wrinkle in its recent history. To recap, Ichizawa Hanpu originally made sails, then adopted its nearly indestructible sailing cloth to make such utilitarian bags as the Showa era milk carriers, before giving these practical items up for fashionable handbags. Even on this trip to Japan, a cousin I hadn't seen in 27 years exclaimed, "Oh! You have an Ichizawa Hanpu bag! How cool!"

Except, it's not enough to have an Ichizawa Hanpu bag anymore. Now you must have a Shinzaburo Hanpu bag. You see, Mr. Shinzaburo Hanpu was the bag designer behind Ichizaburo Hanpu for many years, though he suffered the misfortune of being the "third son" in the family hierarchy. Tradition triumphed over talent, and when Ichizawa Hanpu's family patriarch died, the company passed into the hands of first brother, who cannot design a handbag. There was a revolt. Designers quit and closed ranks with Mr. Shinzaburo Hanpu, who had the temerity to open a store practically right next door.

Of course, I had to go and see what the fuss was all about. The stores are indeed right next to each other. In the photo above, Shinzaburo Hanpu is in the foreground. In the background, you see a similar vertical white sign with black lettering; that is Ichizawa Hanpu.

Shinzaburo Hanpu was a flurry of people. It was hot inside. I was frustrated. I wanted a bag with a zipper, but only one model had a zipper. The atmosphere was competitive. I had to hang on to handbags I was thinking about "in case" I decided I wanted them or run the risk of seeing it fly into someone else's arms. This was worse than the Hermes sample sale. This was like the Hermes sample sale in the middle of Tokyo rush hour where no one bumps into anyone else and I was self consciously trying to avoid bumping into anyone, lest I look enormous and clumsy, all while still trying to get my damned bag. I was glad that Gordon was tall and I could find him by looking up at the ceiling. I ended up getting a massive tote bag with feet. Most of the bags were too small. "We don't need big bags in Japan," Isao explained. This did not help my self esteem.

Down the street at Ichizawa Hanpu, the scene was much quieter. I felt sad. I was sorry for the bags, for the salesgirls inside and the security guard stationed outside (why was he there?). When I recounted my experience to a few older relatives, they said: "Yes, the brothers should get along. Siblings should be friends." Yeah, and sometimes following tradition like a hardliner isn't the best idea.


Biwako Incline

These tracks used to transport boats between the end of the Biwako Canal and Kyoto's water system. Now it is a nice place for walking and is lined by cherry trees.

From a little distance, you can see how the tracks are elevated.


Sakura People

It is nice to see people dressed up in kimono for flower viewing.

Of course, there is also always the sakura viewing dog in appropriate garb.

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