Tag Archives: Japanese Cooking

Nosing Around Naramachi

Waiting to get into our room, Lynn and I decided to have a snack in the Nara Hotel lounge.  The room hadn’t been updated in decades; it was dreary and the carpet was stained and worn.

The menu was geared to westerners.  We ordered a very expensive platter of sandwiches which comprised of crustless, doughy white bread smeared with the thinnest layer of cucumbers and tomatoes and cut into triangles.  The mixed nuts were reliably salty and filling and the black tea was served with real cream.

“I can’t see us eating here every night if these prices are indicative of the food joints,” I said. Throughout the hotel, we’d seen a cafe, a restaurant, a bar, this lounge, and other eating and drinking establishments.

“But if you noticed from the taxi on the way in,” Lynn replied, “There’s nothing nearby. We’ll have to figure out where the nearest restaurants are.  If we have to take taxis to get to them, we may as well eat here.”

A young woman escorted us to our room.  “Down two levels, in the basement,” she pantomimed as she pulled a trolley with our cases down several long hallways.

“There are windows?” I asked, alarmed.

“Oh yes!” she replied, laughing as she pressed the elevator button.  “It will take time,” she said, and walked away.  As we waited, we tried to decode a sign promoting beers on a rooftop terrace.

“Forty thousand yen?” I said in disbelief.  “That’s about forty bucks … for a beer?  I’m sure the view is very nice, but ….”

Our girl guide returned.  The “modern” wing of the hotel was very 80s style, in teal, grey, and mauve. There were more long hallways. I noticed vending machines selling beer for 2,500 yen—$2.50.

The room was geared to feel familiar to the western visitor, complete with a fake fireplace with plastic logs.

“It’s very spacious,” Lynn commented.

“Yes, and clean.”  A sliding glass door lead out to a cement patio without furniture. “This will be a good place to hang washing.”

I had read an article about Nara in Conde Nast Traveler which mentioned the Nara Hotel. You could walk down a set of stone steps (of course!) to the “atmospheric” Naramachi neighborhood of tiny streets and houses.

“It sounded really easy in the article,” I told Lynn as we reached the bottom of the steps.

“Don’t believe it!” she replied.

We did find it, despite ourselves, and I can’t say it was as I’d expected.  It was a typical urban neighborhood with streets, narrow alleys, and houses and shops.  Kind of like west St. Paul.

Why does the same place strike one person as “unforgettably atmospheric” and another as ho hum?

We accidentally found a temple, the Gangoji.  It had a beautiful inner shrine and nice collection of Buddha statues in an air-conditioned building.  No photos were allowed.

The courtyard was strewn with lotuses.  Would they stay in pots all summer?  There wasn’t a body of water nearby that I could see.

“You know how Taro had us use lotus root in our stir fry?” I reminded Lynn.  “I wonder if you can just go out in a kayak and pull them up?  We’ve got millions of ‘em in Minnesota.”

“Oh I should think not,” she replied.  “Wild ones are probably full of parasites.”

Not oishi.  As it turns out, harvesting wild lotuses in Minnesota is not allowed; I don’t know it it’s because of parasites or something else.

The only other photo I took at Gangoji was of a workman setting up a dicey-looking ladder.  I mean really—a three-legged ladder?

We walked back out into Naramachi and I may have startled Lynn when I expressed a great deal of excitement over a little housewares shop.  Inside, it was about the size of my bedroom and packed to the rafters with pots, straw brooms, plastic tub sets, and clothes-drying contraptions, most of it covered in dust.  An ancient woman sat behind a smeared glass counter; she didn’t move and her expression never changed.  Was she dead?  I found an omelet pan for about $5 but the mood for buying one had passed.

Comfort Food

“Where should we go for breakfast?” I asked Lynn the next morning.

“Dean and Deluca?”

“We’ve gone there twice.  How about we try that authentic-looking place across from it?”

“All right,” Lynn said doubtfully.  “As long as you don’t make me eat horse sashimi or deep-fried chicken tendons.”

“Or chicken chops.”

We snickered. How bad could it be?

“I wouldn’t call it bad, I’d call it interesting,” Lynn said. There had been no photos on the menu so we’d guessed our best based on the English translations.  Our plates contained Texas toast topped with a thick layer of mashed potatoes, then Sriracha sauce, and crowned with about a pound of shredded iceberg lettuce.

“But it’s authentic,” I insisted.  We were the only westerners in the place.

And here I will sound like a whiney tourist, but it was really hard to get milk for my coffee.  Where you could find it, the coffee in Japan was extremely strong.  If I asked, I received one tiny plastic tub of “cream” which contained about a half teaspoon of white syrup.  If I asked for more they would bring me one more, to total about a teaspoon.

Wah wah. At least the coffee was strong, not weak.  It’s just a tea country, not a coffee country.

“Let’s go to Dean and Deluca tomorrow,” I capitulated.

Today we were visiting the famous Golden Pavilion, Rokuon-ji.

“Or is it Kinkaku-ji?” I wondered, looking at the map.

“We’ll find out … or we won’t,” Lynn answered as we walked toward Kyoto’s main station to catch bus 205.

“Didn’t we take the 205 to the cooking class?” I asked.

“Yes, it must be a different 205.”

We chanced upon a temple complex and walked in, as long as we were there.  This turned out to be Higashi Hongen-ji, which neither of us had seen on a map or guide.

It was impressive, with a beautiful dragon at the hand-washing station and ornate detail on every door and pillar.

“… established in 1602 by shōgun Tokugawa Ieyasu when he split the Shin sect in two …” Lynn read.

“There’s a hair rope!” I interrupted.  “When the shrine ran out of rope the monks made one out of their hair.”

“I think I can live without seeing that,” Lynn responded.

I just googled the hair rope.  Call me biased but it can’t rival the world’s largest twine ball in Darwin, Minnesota.

The shrine had a nice gift shop where I bought an exquisite fan for my future daughter in law.

The shrine had inspirational messages on its outer walls.

We stood and pondered what “Now, life is living you,” meant.

“It’s either really deep, or makes no sense at all,” I said.

“I’m afraid I’m not deep enough to understand it,” Lynn said, and we walked on.

Half an hour later, we stood admiring the Golden Pavilion.

It really is layered in gold.  It’s surrounded by a lake and gardens, so you can get photos that don’t show the thousands of tourists.

I felt claustrophobic in the crowd so I stepped aside and contemplated this moss-covered gateway.

You can’t go inside or get close to the temple, so we were back on the bus in 20 minutes.

Lynn studied her map.

“We’ve still got the Fushimi Inari-taisha shrine to see,” she pointed out.  “It’s in the other direction, also about 20 minutes out.  We could see it on the way to Nara tomorrow.”

“That’s the one with all the red gates?” I asked.

“They’re iconic gates,” Lynn replied.

Kyoto Station is part of a massive mall.  Of most importance, it’s air conditioned.  We nosed around Isetan, another department store.  We were interested in buying an omelet pan so we could make the Japanese-style omelets we had practiced with Taro, but they were asking $50 for one here.

On the 11th floor there was a restaurant advertising a sushi set meal for $55 for two, including a glass of saki.  Aside from a salty custard and green jellied cubes, the sushi felt familiar.

“Isn’t it interesting,” I pondered, “how sushi, of all things, has become the iconic Japanese food in the west.”

“Yes,” said Lynn, “It’s almost like comfort food.”

Shrine, Shrine, Everywhere a Shrine

Lynn and I walked slowly around the massive park that was home to Yasaka Jinga, Chion-in, and Shoren-in temples—or shrines. As I wrote previously, the distinction was never clear to me, and Kyoto is blurred together.

A common theme was stone steps.

As we entered one of the compounds, we caught sight of something humping back and forth in a tiny glass cage.  We both recoiled in shock, then approached it slowly.

“Oh, thank god … It’s mechanical,” Lynn said.

“I thought it was a crippled child!” I said, relieved.  I can say “crippled,” which is politically incorrect now, because I spent much of my youth at Shriner’s Hospital for Crippled Children.  They changed the name to something less pointed years ago.

“I thought it was a very small disabled person,” said Lynn.

I believe visitors were were meant to make an offering, then stick their hands into the tiny window to touch the bodhisattva for good luck.

We walked beyond each shrine and climbed steps as far as we would go.  We were the only visitors to a cemetery where Princess Sen was buried.  This was something we gleaned from a map or guidebook, but there was nothing to mark where she was interred or who she was.  The views were worth the climb.  It was silent except for an occasional bird call.

The serenity was thanks to these and other hand-tools.

Later, in a garden, we sat on a bench and observed a gardener at work.  You may just be able to make out his silhouette in the center below.  He worked on his knees, wearing long pants, a long-sleeved shirt, gloves, and a traditional straw hat.  Using a hand-trowel, he knelt forward and dug away at something.

Then he sat back on his knees and stayed that way, looking down at his work, before working away again.

Getting things done fast was clearly not a priority.  We didn’t see any other gardeners.  How he did he keep it all up—was this such an old, established garden that it didn’t require much maintenance?  That seemed unlikely.  There were ponds and bridges, moss lawns and trees,  and meticulously-raked sand.

“I saw those prehistoric trees in the outback, in Australia,” I commented.  “They’re low maintenance for sure.”

“Maybe there isn’t much to do now because it’s the rainy season,” Lynn said.  That seemed like a possibility.

At the bottom of a set of stairs we admired this goddess.

“She looks like a Buddhist version of the BVM,” I said.

“Yes,” Lynn replied.  The Virgin Mary with wings.  She’s lovely.”

As we exited a garden, we were greeted by stone welcoming committees.

“Is it a cemetery?” Lynn wondered.  There were no signs.

“Or a garden store?” I guessed.  “You know, like in the US or the UK where you can buy gnomes and fake deer?”

“I like the cheery chap with the kumquat on his lap,” Lynn said.

We found a tea house on the grounds and were led into a private room with sliding screened walls.  Everything was tranquil simplicity itself, including the placemats.

Based on the photo menu, I ordered the eggplant dish I’d enjoyed the day before. Untranscribable noises of appreciation issued involuntarily from me as I ate.  “Mmm…I have to ask Taro what this topping is,” I managed to articulate.  He had offered to answer any questions that came up after our class, whether about culture or cooking.

It turns out this was a sauce called miso dengaku, which is made with sake, sugar, miso, and a sweet wine called mirin.  It is used to top off eggplant, daikon, tofu, or whatever else your imagination dreams up.  I’ve tried making it twice since returning from Japan, with mixed success.

Japan is a land of contrasts.  Later that evening we dined in a dive that featured horse meat sashimi, innards stew, and deep-fried chicken cartilage. Some of the customers were smoking inside, something I experienced here and there throughout the month.

On the plus side, the place had great vintage beer posters.

We ate nuts and talked about international development.

How do you categorize a wealthy country that eats horses, we wondered?

Cooking with Taro

I had read about Taro’s cooking classes in Fodor’s Easy Guide to Tokyo, Kyoto, and Western Honshu.  These easy guides condense monumental travel planning into one succinct guide.  I had found the Australia version immensely helpful.  For them to include this cooking class said a lot; the guide said it was the highlight of many visitors’ trips.  It was certainly one of mine, if not the only one.

Taro had made it clear in our email communications that he is not a professional chef, but a passionate home cook who loves to share Japanese cooking and culture. He told us a bit about his background.

“My father’s company relocated us to America when I was nine,” he said.  “He could have moved us to Seattle or some other place with lots of Japanese, but he purposely chose Virginia where I was the only Japanese in a school of a thousand kids, so I learned English quickly.  It was a good idea of his.”

He asked about our impressions of Japan so far, and I mentioned how quite it is.  It was Taro who explained this was about harmony and getting along with others.

“So…” I asked, “How do you explain World War II?”

“Ah … that was, that was about colonialism,” Taro said as he got us chopping.  “Japan saw Britain and America invading other countries and didn’t want to face the same fate.”

I have no idea if that’s accurate.

He encouraged us to ask him anything we liked about Japanese culture or food.  Taro had started cooking in high school because he was a picky eater and wanted to control his own food.  This morphed into cooking for his family and friends, and now he eats almost anything.

I told him about the chicken chops.  He explained that chicken is raised so cleanly in Japan that there’s no need to cook it thoroughly, and in fact raw-ish chicken is considered a delicacy.  Hmm.

He gave us a hand out and an overview of our 3-4-hour lesson.  We would learn how to combine kombu (seaweed) and bonito (fish flakes) to make dashi, a base used to many dishes.  We would also make a Japanese omelet, stir-fried root vegetables, and wagu beef.

I told him about my misperception that Japanese eat sushi morning, noon, and night.  He said he makes sushi for his family about once a month.  “It’s just one style of Japanese food.”

Taro walked us through the various seasonings like miso, soy sauce, sake, mirin, and of course, dashi. He pulled out the beef and its certificate of authenticity.  He talked at length about Kobe Beef and Wagu beef, none of which I remember.

He got Lynn up and cooking at the stove.

Taro’s wife and two young daughters came home.  As kids do, the girls immediately turned on cartoons and sat glued to the TV.

Taro had been teaching cooking for 10 years. He had also tried distributing an oil bottle that had a built-in brush in its cap; it sounded like there were 10,000 left over in his spare room.

“I want to focus more on teaching culture,” he said.  “That’s my next venture.”  It seemed to Lynn and me that cooking was an excellent gateway to teaching about culture.  “It’s hard to imagine people paying the same price but not getting a meal,” Lynn commented later.  I agreed but wish him well.

This was our meal.

Taro left us to eat while he and his wife busied themselves elsewhere in the house.  Then he emerged to collect our fee.  When I had inquired about the class I had said we would be open to either the vegetarian or beef version.  He chose the beef version for us, which cost $82 vs. $64 for the veggie option.  It was well worth it.

Taro gave us good directions back to the bus stop.  It was pouring and the bus was packed.  Lynn and I clung to the straps.  Sitting below me, a little boy in a Spiderman costume kept saying, “Hah-loh!” to us shyly, as he leaned against his grandma.

That evening we had a modest tempura ramen and sake, then slept well because our neighbors had moved on.

Chicken Chopped!

As we waited for the bus, Lynn and I recalled the noisy neighbors and laughed over our meal experience the evening before.

“Maybe the chicken was an omen about the Chinese,” she said.

We had walked up and down the main drag near our hotel seeking a good restaurant, then any restaurant.

I had arrived in Japan anticipating I’d be able to eat sushi for breakfast, lunch, and dinner.  I was aware there were other Japanese foods, like tempura and ramen, but that was about it.  I thought all Japanese food was healthy, lean, and fresh.

Every guide will recommend eating kaiseki in Kyoto.  Kaiseki is a type of Japanese haute cuisine that features local, in-season foods.  We never had it because it was too expensive. On the evening in question, we found a basement-level kaiseki restaurant despite its best efforts to hide, but the set meals started at around $70 per person.

“The guides said to eat kaiseki at lunch, when it’s a lot cheaper,” I said as I read the board.  But the lunches on offer here started at $50 per person.  “I’m sure it’s wonderful, but fifty bucks for lunch?”

“And we have to make a reservation,” Lynn read.  “We only have two days left.”

“What if it turned out to be 50 bucks worth of that grey, shredded-tire-like stuff?”

We walked on.  There was an Irish pub and an Italian pizza joint.  Several Japanese places were already closed.  The only Japanese-style restaurant open was a steak place.

“I hadn’t expected the beef here to be so fatty,” Lynn said.  “It makes sense; fatty beef is more tender. But it really is different from British beef.”

“I’m starving.  Okay with you if we just eat at the pizza place?  At least it’ll be familiar and we can order fast.”

We sat at the bar.  Lynn had no trouble ordering but I don’t eat pork, and most of the menu items involved pork.

“I’ll have this,” I told the waiter, jabbing my finger at the “personal pizza with chicken chops.”

“What are chicken chops?” Lynn tried to suppress her laughter.

“I don’t know!” I chuckled.  “For some reason it sounds hilarious, and more ominous than something specific, like chicken feet, or chicken beaks.”

Whatever they were, they were raw.  I looked down at a pizza covered in chicken meat oozing with blood.

“How ghastly!  That can’t be right!” Lynn exclaimed.

With Lynn’s help I managed to flag down the waiter and ask him to cook the chicken more.  He looked at me, puzzled, but took my plate and returned it with the chicken still pink but not bloody.

“I can’t eat this,” I said, “I feel bad because I like to think of myself as an adventurous eater.”

“Well there’s adventurous, and there’s salmonella,” said Lynn.

I removed the chicken chops and tried to eat the pizza, but just the thought of chicken blood oozing into the crust made me gag.

However, for the rest of our lives, whenever Lynn or I want to crack each other up, all we have to say is chicken chops.   It’ll be one of those little inside jokes no one else gets.

We arrived at the bus stop where we were to meet our cooking teacher almost an hour early.  There was nothing around but a little tea shop set in a lovely, wild garden, so we stepped in for another tea break.  We were the only customers and the elderly proprieter talked to us a while about the garden that he and his wife had spent a lifetime developing.  It was serene.

Back at the bus stop, a young man approached and stuck out his hand to introduce himself. We had corresponded over email. “I am Taro,” he said.  Then he spun around and walked briskly through alleys and streets, turning so many times we would have never found our way back to the bus stop if we lost him.

“Here we are,” he said as he invited us into his house.  His was the only Japanese house I would see the inside of.

We washed our hands and then sat at a table, ready to learn and be put to work.