Saturday, June 30, 2012

Tokyo, Part Ni

After our lovely time at the hot springs, we headed back to Tokyo for one final night.

By this point in our trip we had zero ambition for sight seeing, although we still checked out the big department stores and fancy shops in Ginza near our hotel.

Mostly though we were excited to try Japanese whiskey,
and Kobe beef.  I didn't have a fork, but I did cut it with a chopstick, just to prove to I could.  Yum!  

I'm still mad I didn't order a second steak.  

And the next day, we lazed around, enjoying our last night in a hotel for a while, before heading to a final, or rather finale, meal at Sushi Sawada.  I don't have enough superlatives.  All I can say is even after all the fish we'd eaten, even after that traumatic abalone, Michelin-starred sushi still tastes special.  

They don't let you take photos, so I couldn't capture the gorgeous spot prawns, or the squid tentacles being finely diced, mixed with rice and stuffed back into the body of the squid, or the wasabi being grated to order, or the delicate tendrils hanging off the grape leaves he used as plates for the veggie rolls he serves as part of his extended tasting menu.   I had to grab this photo off the interwebs.
But notice the special fish locker behind him, with slots perfectly sized to hold his lacquer-ware trays of precious fish.  It's that kind of a place.

The chef doesn't speak English and so he focused mostly on his Japanese guests which left us feeling a bit neglected, but MAN.  I will remember the three grades of tuna (fatty, semi-fatty, and semi-semi fatty) that he served us, from the same fish caught near Kyoto - he told us that much - for the rest of my life.  Just as I'll remember this entire fantastic trip.


The day after we went to Hiroshima we left Kyoto and traveled to Hakone, a town in the mountains close to Tokyo.  It was nice to be at a bit of elevation where the air was cooler, if no less humid.  Everything there is so GREEN!

It rained much of the time we were there, but we didn't mind so much because this was supposed to be the mellower, "vacation" portion of the vacation.  We did visit the Hakone Open Air Museum, which has a marvelous collection of modern art sculptures, displayed in a very pleasant park,

along with it's very own hot spring-fed foot bath.

We also stopped at Woody's which was quite aplty named.  It was pretty cool to see what Americana looks like, Japanese style.  And at this point in the trip, we were happy to eat something that didn't include fish, and to have a shot of SoCo.

The detour into "western" culture was all the more of a contrast because the first night we were in town we stayed at a semi-traditional ryokan.  The beds were western style, but we had to wear our yukatas to our (very fishy) dinner and breakfast in the communal dinning room. 

Overall, that place was rather depressing (the property felt neglected, and our room smelled strongly of mildew) so the next morning we were happy to get an early start on the traditional tour of the Hakone area.  I'd hoped to see some of the Japanese "back country" this trip, and although I knew Hakone doesn't qualify, I still had to laugh as we spent the day moving from a mountain train to a cable car to a gondola to a replica pirate ship to a bus, to a....  I lost track of the number of modes of transportation we took that day, but it was all very scenic, 

and we did get to see some of the geothermal activity the area is known for.

Right as we got hungry for lunch it started to pour, so we holed up in the Gyoza Center and ate ourselves silly.
Although it was warm and cozy, and lovely to sit and look out at the rain while eating one of my favorite things in the world, it wasn't the best idea because shortly after we left we took the train partway down the mountain to our next hotel Taiseikan.
A true ryokan with its own hot spring baths (I guess that makes it an onsen?) situated at the bottom of a steep gorge, right on a river, we were blown away by this place.  It might have been the private cable car you take to get down to the hotel, or the fact that we were waited on hand and foot the whole time, or their enormous outdoor hot spring pools right on the river, but I have a feeling it was all of the above.  All I know is that by the time I took my 5th soak, in our own private hot spring, I was finally on vacation in Japan.

Unfortunately, I was still full of lovely gyoza by the time our elaborate dinner started being served to us in our room.  Still, the only thing that marred the whole experience was the live abalone that arrived at our table for dinner that night, twitching before it was steamed alive.  I swear I can still hear it screaming.


When we got back to Kyoto from Hiroshima, we needed to lighten the mood a little bit, so we walked through the trendy/cute area between Sanjo and Shijo west of the river.  It reminded me a lot of Nolita, in NYC, and it was probably a good thing for my wallet that most of the stores were closed.  Even more of the ground floor spaces had been converted to boutiques than the last time I visited, but I was very happy to see my street-food izakaya guy was still doing well.

Eventually we got to our destination: Bar Yoramu.  Run by an western expat (Israeli? we couldn't get a good read, and he was very mysterious) who fell in love with Japan, Japanese culture, and sake, it's a treat to visit.  The fact that the store is a hand-made soba noodle shop by day, and a whatever-the-equivalent-of-micro-brew-is-for-sake bar by night I think means the space is steeped in foodie fetishism.  Which means that it wasn't a wild night out, but it was a fantastic way to taste unusual, delicious sakes with someone who is only too happy to explain what is unique about what you're drinking.  (And how to drink it.)  We tried some more "standard" ones...

Some more "unusual" ones...

which I definitely found challenging, tasting as they did like sweat, and feet.  Um, I meant they tasted earthy.  Yeah.

And because we were there, and the bottles were there, and because all sorts of things start to seem like a good idea after 6 glasses of sake, we tried three more.

Which actually turned out to be a great choice, because the blue bottle on the right, which tasted distinctly of apples, was my favorite.  So if anyone reading this can decipher the label and help me try to track down my own bottle, I would be hugely grateful.  Otherwise I might just have to go back.

We also tried fried mochi, which was nothing like the stuff wrapped on the outside of the balls of green tea ice cream I used to buy at Berkeley Bowl, and yuba, which I learned is the soy-milk equivalent of that skin that forms on the top boiled milk that used to so freak me out.

[Allow me to digress: when I was 9, we spent Christmas in Mexico City, which considering it was 1989, and my younger sister was only 6 means the trip was more adventurous and exotic than it sounds today.  And although I do have memories of the lights on the plaza, the impressive amount of gold leaf on the inside of the cathedral,

and the cardinals in their pointy hats, what I remember MOST vividly is going out with my parents for hot milk and pastries after midnight mass.  Since I was raised a non-believer, with a dash of cultural Judaism, you'd think the mass would've impressed me.  Or even just the fact that I'd been allowed to stay up so far past my bedtime.  Nope.  What really sticks in my mind is the trauma of getting milk that! had! something! floating! on! the! top!  I don't know how my parents didn't wring my neck.]

You might be pleased to learn, after that sidebar, that the yuba was bland but quite nice.  And the mochi was lovely, but so too were the snacks we procured at 7-Eleven on the way back to the hotel.  Because after 9 glasses of sake, everything seems like a good idea.  Even convenience store fish.  Even a King Size Cup of Noodles!

Thursday, June 14, 2012


Although Kyoto has enough temples to keep even an efficient tourist busy for a month, it turns out we're not really temple people.  (Or museum people, which is why there are so many pictures of food on this travel blog.)  So the next day we decided to head to Hiroshima, because we'd heard the memorials there were really worth a visit.  It wasn't a "yipee - vacation!" way to spend the day, but it still felt very worthwhile.

The Hiroshima Prefectural Industrial Promotion Hall is an old building very close to the hypocenter of the explosion that partly survived the blast.  Now known as the A-Bomb Dome, it's been preserved as a memorial.  The eerie sight of it,

in real life now surrounded by a vibrant modern city, 

and in photos, standing alone when everything around it was leveled, is very affecting.

The Peace Museum presents a surprisingly neutral and balanced view of events, all things considered.  The photos, descriptions and artifacts of the damage done by the bomb (three types - shock waves, heat/fire, and radiation) are almost impossible to bear.  But the thing that I found most compelling were the historical documents they've assembled, showing the decisions and maneuvering that led up to the dropping of the bomb.  There's a lot they don't teach us in US history, including how much effect the political situation with the Soviets had.  (The bomb was never considered for Germany, only Japan.)  

I was very impressed.  And, after a long day walking through the museum, also impressed that a) I was hungry for lunch, and b) anyone living in that city would serve it to an American, let alone be friendly when I made a mess of trying to eat (really good!) okonomiyaki.  
But there you go - it turns out humanity is resilient and wonderful as well as terrible, and I can only deviate from the topic of food for so long.

Thursday, June 7, 2012

Kyoto, the second time.

Day 4 - Monday (cont'd)

Upon our arrival we headed to Hotel Kanra, which is a boutique hotel, very design-focused but also very Japanese. I loved it, so much so I didn't want to leave, but they only had space for us on one night - I guess I'm not the only one who loves it!

That night we went out for Okonomiyaki. It was better than last time, and I liked the yakisoba. After dinner, we walked around the futuristic-looking Kyoto station for a bit, cruising the Isetan department store, which made me realize how far, as a genre, such things have fallen state-side. The grand staircase of the station was impressive, but the fact that there's a Cafe Du Monde there that !does not serve beignets! was not.

Day 5 - Tuesday
We started with a very nicely presented, but slightly-too-foreign breakfast at our hotel.  It turns out that as interested in food as I am, and as open to new items as I try to be, it's a big challenge to adapt my breakfast preferences.  I remember this from my visit to Brazil back in 2000, when I encountered strongly garlic-flavored meaty black beans for breakfast.  I wound up loving those beans at other meals, but in the morning, it was just too much.  Likewise, whole fish (their eyes seem to follow you), mysterious pickled vegetables, and uber-runny eggs are not for me at 7 am, not matter how much my fellow dinners enjoy it.  I do love the rice though, which is flavorful enough to eat on its own.

The first sight we headed for in Kyoto was Fushimi Inari, which I'd loved so much on my last trip.  This time around I still found it a fantastic place to visit, but we quickly discovered that on a weekday morning it's also a favorite among school groups, and the tranquility of the shrine is rather marred by the hordes of thundering pre-teens racing through the lanes of torii gates at top speed.  We gave it a shot, hiking up the mountain in the hopes of outdistancing them.  I had ambitions of making the top, until as we were all out of breath we passed a sign that told us we had another 4km to go.  Since by this point in the trip I already had a serious case of tired feet, I quickly gave up on that project.

Just like last time I visited, right as we were leaving, the skies opened up and it started to pour.  We returned to Kyoto station in a heavy cloudburst, and decided we'd check out "ramen alley" before going anywhere else.  Bowl 2 of ramen for the trip was much better than bowl 1, not least because we had the novelty of paying at the vending machine outside the restaurant.  I ordered the shoyu broth instead of the miso the way I usually do, and I was very pleased with my choice.  Just don't ask me the name of the restaurant we chose - it was whichever one looked like it had the biggest crowd at that particular moment.

After lunch we changed hotels, then went in search of an ice cream parlor that Doug had read about that makes their own ice cream, fresh.  Contrary to my experience on my last trip when I could never find the things I was looking for, after a short walk through the picturesque streets of the Gion neighborhood, we made our way upstairs in a very nicely restored old-style building and sat down to a lovely treat of brown rice, green tea, black sesame and red bean ice cream, with mochi and raspberries.  In addition to the delicious ice cream, I loved the atmosphere - this was clearly a spot where people came for a "treat", so I felt like we'd sniffed out something extra special about Kyoto.

We left the shop in another cloudburst, but that matters less when you're a tourist, and we wandered along through Gion, to the well-preserved but even more touristy pedestrian streets of Sannen-zaka and Ninen-zaka.  Along the way we stopped in a spot that had a plaque about geisha, and somehow wound up as part of a school group's vacation photos.

Eventually, we made our way all the way up to Kiomizu-dera, which unfortunately was still largely under construction, just as it had been two years ago.  But this time it provided a great spot to stay in out of the rain, and I was actually brave enough to drink the waters that draw such a crowd.  I later read that they're supposed to provide success in study, which perhaps explains why the cute little pudgy Chinese kid in front of me in line was gulping the stuff as fast as he could!

That night, after a brief rest in the hotel and a change out of our soggy shoes, we wandered out in search of dinner.  We walked along Pontocho, aiming for the next canal over with the thought that one might have cheaper, but still picturesque restaurants.  Quite the opposite it turns out, so we kept wandering, until eventually we wound up in what was clearly the red light district.  Not that there were prostitutes, but there were plenty of strip clubs, which is when I figured out it doesn't matter what language the signs are printed in, the indications for a strip club are probably the same the world over.  The funny thing was, the street we were on looked oddly familiar, and after a bit of wandering back and forth, sure enough we stumbled on Sen Mon Ten - the delicious gyoza restaurant I'd found on my last visit.  Many gyoza later, we stumbled around the corner and also found Pooh's - the cafe I'd loved so much last time too.  Even though we didn't get to try their egg salad sandwiches, it's still wonderful to know the business is alive and well.