Tag Archives: Japanese Food

Snap, Snap, Snap

Two more photos from my last supper before my phone died:

The little pink-striped balls in the soup had a light, springy texture.  I meditated on the artistic composition of tempura-battered leaf with sprig of crunchy something and a side of horseradish for about five seconds before devouring it.

The man in black came and went, kneeling down and serving me dish after dish.  It would have felt weird except that I assumed it was part of his practice of obliterating the ego.  Besides, the food was to die for.

Some people daydream of spending time in a mountaintop monastery.  Some think it’d be their worst nightmare. I didn’t know what to expect at Koyasan.  I hadn’t had time to dig into it beyond just finding a place to sleep, at Shojoshin-in monastery, one of 52 monasteries in Koyasan.

Some of the monasteries don’t accept any visitors, or women or couples, so that ruled out quite a few.  The process of finding a place was opaque.  I can’t even tell you how I found Shojoshin-in, which turned out to be quite deluxe and conveniently located right next to the entrance to Okunoin cemetery.

My only knowledge of Buddhist retreats was from Keiko, my sister in law.  As a grad student in public health, she had done an internship in Thailand.  Afterwards, she went to a Buddhist retreat center in the countryside for two weeks.  There was no internet or phone available, so my brother was kind of bent out of shape about not knowing what was going on with her.

Her description: She had a small cell with a hard, narrow bed.  Visitors were required to wake at 5am, meditate for an hour, then attend a two-hour group meditation, then they got a bowl of rice for breakfast.  Then they meditated off and on all day and ate more simple fare.  They never left the center to go sightseeing because there wasn’t anything to see in the surrounding area.  That’s as much as I retained of her story.  It sounded dreadful and I stopped listening because I knew I would never do that.  I knew Koyasan would be a step up, but not how much of a step up.

To paint a picture, here’s the intro from the glossy Guide to Koyasan brochure available in Japanese, English, Korean, Spanish, and Chinese.

Koyasan is a center of Buddhist study and practice, located in Wakayama Prefecture at an elevation of about 900 meters [2,953 feet]. Koyasan is a highland valley extending 6km [3.7 miles] east to west and 3km [1.8 miles] north to south.  It has a circumference of 15km [9 miles] and is surrounded by eight low peaks. The topography is reminiscent of the center of a lotus flower surrounded by eight petals.

Koyasan was founded about 12 centuries ago by the great Buddhist monk Kobo Daishi as a center for Shingon Buddhist training.  His wish was to establish a monastery deep in the mountains.  He wanted it far from worldly distractions where Buddhist monks could practice and pray for peace and the welfare of the people.  Emperor Saga granted him the use of this land in 816.  From around the end of the tenth century, the belief arose that Kobo Daishi Kukai had not passed away, but had rather entered an eternal meditation at Okunoin for the liberation of all beings.  Faith in Kobo Daishi Kukai has sustained generations of people and drawn pilgrims for millennium.    

For me, Okunoin cemetery was the main event in Koyasan.  I visited it three times.

Right after my fabulous first-night dinner, I stepped next door into Okunoin.  It was twilight.  Silent.  I was the only visitor in this cemetery of 200,000 graves.

Did I take the opportunity to feel the serenity after my hectic day of travel?  No, I treated the place like one gigantic photo opp.

It was impossible to capture the scale of the thousand-year-old cedars.

I tried including statues that were about 12-feet tall (4 meters).

I took multiple photos of jizos, of which I already had 100 photos from visits to other shrines.

It only occurs to me now, in retrospect, to ask: why did I need to capture everything?

In the Monastery

I waited on the platform for the train to Gokurakubashi, from whence I would take a cable car, and then a bus, to the monastery.  It was unclear to me, and still is, why I would take a cable car—not a train—directly to Koyasan station.

I had to hold myself back from jumping onto a waiting train. I must not have been the only one to feel this impulse, because a recorded announcement kept repeating in English, “Do Not board the train on platform x.  If you are going to Koyasan, there will be a later train.”

The monastery registration had stated that “visitors must arrive by 5:00 pm.”  It was only 3:00, so I wasn’t worried.  Who am I kidding?  My mind was busily generating worst-case scenarios.  But then the train came, and the scenery was vertiginous and spectacular, and I forgot to worry.

These signs were everywhere.  I’m not sure to what they referred.

I had imagined a rickety old gondola creaking and swaying up the mountain.  Instead I boarded a sleek, very expensive-looking car—as it should be, since it held dozens of people and their luggage.

In five minutes, it lifted us up a thousand feet. Or maybe it was 300.  I have no idea but it was steep and high. Whee!

The station at the top was decked out with glass globes and strips of paper fluttering in the breeze—maybe for the Tanabata festival?

Spiffy uniformed guides waited at the exit and efficiently pointed us to our respective buses.  Twenty minutes later I stepped into the monastery, where a man in black led me on a march around the facility.  In staccato English, he pointed—“Shoes, no!”—then point elsewhere—“Shoes okay!

“Meals seven in morning, six thirty evening.  You come down.  Women bath open, four to seven.  Gates close nine o’clock.  Meditation six a.m.  Yukata, no!”

This last part I would screw up the next morning.

He led me to my room which was up a steep flight of stairs.

The room was quiet and spacious and there was a view of the koi pond.  The man in black left me and I inspected the features.

There was a sink!  This small amenity would save trips down the hall to the shared bathroom area to fill the kettle, and I’d be able to wash my clothes, which by now were crunchy with dried sweat.

But why, why couldn’t pink champagne come out?

The internet was easy and fast, and there was a bean bun snack.  By now I was famished, and the snack fueled my hunger.  I rooted around in my suitcase, wondering if maybe I’d forgotten I had a pizza in there.  I came across a gift box of yuba, the specialty tofu I had been toting around since I left Nikko two weeks before.  It was heavy, so why not do myself a favor and just eat it now?  Turned out it was heavy because it was vacuum packed in broth.  I wolfed it down.

The best food is when you’re really hungry, which most of us aren’t, very often.

Several hours later the man in black served me dinner in a private room.  As someone who loves fruits and vegetables and beans and tofu, I was almost so enthralled I forgot to eat.  Except I didn’t, of course.

I tucked in to the 15 foods in 24 dishes.  The food was fab but I felt a bit isolated.  I had imagined a communal dining hall where I would meet interesting fellow travelers.  I could hear a pair of Aussies talking on the other side of this screen.

But never mind.  I had exploring to do.

In real time, I attended a training last night to volunteer as an election judge. I didn’t realize that part of it could involve “challenging” people who may not be eligible to vote, including felons.  I felt very sad, imagining anyone with a record caring enough to vote, then being questioned in front of dozens of his fellow citizens.

I hope I don’t have to do it, but if I do, maybe I am about the most empathetic person for the job.

Museums and Mosquitos

“A mosquito net museum?”  Lynn had just rattled that off along with a number of other museums in Naramachi.

“It’s called a mosquito net museum on this map, but a mosquito net shop on this one,” she explained, gesturing to the area map and her own paper version.  “Either way it sounds terribly exciting.”

“Let’s go to whichever museum we can find first,” I suggested.  It was pouring—one of those hard, slanting rains that soaks your feet and legs despite your umbrella.

We found the calligraphy museum, a low, modern building obviously purpose-built to protect its contents.  We paid the paltry admission fee—I think it was $1.50—and were directed to the first floor—what we Americans call the second floor.  We were the only visitors.

A table laden with colorful posters about art exhibits and performances around town caught our eye.  We each slid a couple in our bags.

“I always do this—pick up beautiful free things and take them home, only to find it will cost $100 to get them framed.”  Knowing this, I later slipped them into a recycling bin.

The exhibit room was dark but lighted up as we entered.

“Oh, I see, it’s just one room,” Lynn remarked.  And it was—just one room with about 10 pieces of calligraphy by “the great calligrapher Kason Sugioka.”  The whole building was dedicated to him.  No photos were allowed but I found this image of one of his works online.

My impulse was to say, “Check!” turn on my heels, and move on to the next museum.  But that would have felt disrespectful.  So we sat on benches and looked at the pieces—really tried to see them.  It was weird to be in a small silent room contemplating what—to me—looked like scribbles.

“I’m trying to see what is so special or different about his work,” I whispered to Lynn, “But I am obviously too much of a philistine.”

“Me too,” she replied.

I was being serious.  If enough people went to the trouble of building and maintaining a whole building in honor of this guy, he must be something very special.  I wondered how many years it would take of practicing or looking at calligraphy in order to appreciate the differences.  Maybe some people walked into this room and went “Wow!  These are so obviously superior!”

There was a second room downstairs that displayed works by other calligraphers in honor of Sugioka.  One was a woman, that’s all I remember.

There was a reference library, and a children’s corner where kids could try their hands at calligraphy.  Lynn and I hovered over it and exchanged glances that said, “Should we try it?  No!!”

“At this rate we’ll be done for the day by noon,” Lynn said as we exited.

But then we found the toy museum, which was delightful.  We were the only visitors.  This museum, which was free, had two rooms.  Low tables were set up with antique toys.

A volunteer demonstrated each toy.  Some were extremely simple, like the cup and ball.

I have to say, this place elicited my inner kid, which is not a frequent occurrence and felt great.

After a half hour of play, it was time for lunch.  Since it was still pouring, we stepped into the first place we found.

“I wouldn’t recommend the hot sand and pizza,” Lynn cautioned.

“No … sounds hard on the teeth.”

But they had a great set lunch for about $12.  I would call it “Japanese nouveau cuisine meets antioxidant blowout.”

 

We drank tea and talked for an hour, then stumbled upon the mosquito net shop.  As the name implies, it sold mosquito nets of all shapes and colors.  The one below is similar to ones Lynn and I have slept under in malarial regions.

“Which makes me wonder,” I said, “I understood I wouldn’t need Malarone in Japan.  And I haven’t noticed any mosquitoes here.”

“Yes, why is there a whole shop dedicated to mosquito nets?” Lynn asked.  The owner lurked behind a mosquito net, keeping an eye on us but making clear he was not interested in talking, so we will never know.

Signs and Mysteries

3am.  Lynn was snoring lightly.  I crammed in some earplugs and eventually got back to sleep, my mind awhirl with thoughts about my next move.

7am.  Lynn was calling, “Anne, wake up, your alarm is going.”

“Aww, I’m sorry!” I said as I rolled out of bed for a scheduled call with my family. I made a mental note to change my alarm from harp music to something easier to hear with earplugs.

The family was gathered for a birthday, and they passed Vince’s phone around.  I got to see an extreme close-up of my mom’s nose and then of her husband’s ear.  They don’t quite get how it works.  Some day that will be me.

A couple hours later Lynn and I were in a covered mall in Naramachi, the neighborhood near our hotel.  On our first day, we hadn’t found the “atmospheric” sections but after wandering farther we got why the guides promoted it.  Like most places except Disneyland, it is a patchwork of old and new.

Most everything was closed.  We tried to decipher the directory.

“I hope they don’t really sell owls,” Lynn the animal lover said.

“Tofu n’ donuts,” I read.  “‘The tofu donuts incident’? What the…”

“Maybe it means the tofu donuts experience?” Lynn posited, “or maybe it’s a reference to the war of the tofu and donuts, much like they refer to World War II as the ‘unfortunate period.’”

“That’s pants!” I riffed, using the British slang word for something that’s all wrong.  “And what do pants have to do with having a golden day?”

“It doesn’t bear thinking about!” Lynn shuddered as she walked away.

The only place open was a grocery, so we had a gander and I bought seaweed and bonito and a giant sushi takeaway for breakfast.  We sat in an area with picnic tables while I ate.  “Sushi for breakfast would be a fish too far,” Lynn said.  “Give me kippers or nothing.”

There were three coffee shops on the periphery of the seating area, but none were open and no signs indicated opening hours.

After I ate my sushi like a starving shark, we walked until we found a restaurant that was open.

“The selection doesn’t look very appetizing,” I commented.

“But it’s open,” Lynn said.  “How bad could it be?

The place was run by a husband and wife team; he was the cook and server and she worked the register, which was festooned with tree branches decorated with tiny colorful ribbons and flags.  There was only one other customer; he was smoking and reading a newspaper.

The proprietor handed us menus, saying, “No English,” apologetically.  “No worries,” Lynn replied, giving him a big smile.

The pictures were the same as on the sign board outside.  “So do you want red, tan, or white food this morning?” I asked her.  The proprietor returned and Lynn pointed to sandwiches, then coffee.  I only wanted coffee, which caused confusion.  There was much holding up of fingers and nodding and smiling and pointing.  Five minutes later he brought two huge plates of sandwiches and two bitter coffees and a tiny pitcher of gooey sugary white stuff.

The sandwiches were like the ones we’d been served on our first day at the Nara Hotel—they seemed to manifest the Japanese idea of what westerners liked—soft, white bread with the thinnest slices of cucumber and ham slathered with mayonnaise, crusts removed and cut into triangles.

I transferred half of mine onto Lynn’s plate when she was done so they would think we both ate half our food.

Outside, the mall was now bustling.  I found a knife shop where I bought what I hoped would be a good knife for Vince.  We stopped and ogled a bun-making operation which used something like the machine below.

I almost took a photo, then thought, “They’re not in the business of providing photo opps; they’re out to sell buns!”  So I bought a half dozen green buns filled with bean paste and ate one, then ate them all.

“Where to start?” Lynn mused as we consulted the area map. “The calligraphy museum, the toy museum, the period houses, or the mosquito net museum?”

Crusty and Wiped

The restaurant that my guidebook had recommended for lunch specialized in kamameshi, a local fare.  The place was packed and there were a dozen people crammed into the entry way waiting for a table.  A server thrust menus at us and ordered, “You pick food before you get table!”

The menu was simple; I ordered crab and Lynn ordered shrimp kamameshi.  What is kamameshi, you ask?  We too wondered as we read the eating instructions.

“It’s very complicated,” Lynn said.

“This is the important part,” I read, “after scooping out your first serving, make sure you place the lid back onto the iron pot. Remember to take the paddle out to ensure a tight seal—this is the key to delicious okoge!”

“What’s okoge?”

“I guess we’re going to find out.”

“There are certainly lots of exclamation marks,” Lynn counted, “I hope it lives up to the exciting taste experience implied herein.”

To be honest it was just okay.  Okoge turned out to be rice that is crusted onto the side of the pot.

A boy of around seven was sitting with his family at another table, playing a game on some device.  The device was not on silent and a constant refrain of “bloop, bloop, BLOOPITY BLING bing bing bing” filled the restaurant.  I won’t say what nationality the family was.  Everyone in the place, including the servers, were staring daggers at them but they were oblivious.

After lunch we found Isuin Garden, one of two “famous” gardens Lynn had bookmarked to visit in Nara.  At the entryway, a man in a pink hat bowed and introduced himself as a volunteer tour guide, then set off at a brisk pace.  Lynn and I barely had time to exchange glances that said, “Please, no!” before we were forced to march after him.

Now, when I speak Spanish it is at a very slow pace because I know my Spanish isn’t great.  Our guide, whose English was just okay, didn’t let that slow him down.  He spoke a blue streak while pointing and waving and telling jokes—we thought they were jokes because he laughed, so we laughed too—it would have felt rude not to.  He was delightful, and we got a bonus aerobic workout racing up and down hills and over bridges and across stepping stones.

After about 20 minutes he rather abruptly bowed and raced off, leaving us at the far end of the garden, presumably to return to the entry and collect another group of unsuspecting tourists.  Lynn and I wandered, off leash.

I was mesmerized by this 100-year-old glass in the tea house.  The photo doesn’t do it justice, but it was slightly wavy.  How wonderful that it has survived time, earthquakes, and war.

This lady seemed happy to have me include her in my photo, to give a sense of scale.  Exquisite, isn’t it?

Lynn picked up more bamboo tricks she can try in her Scottish garden.

We consulted our maps and decided to walk to the art museum.  The heat was stultifying so it was slow progress.  We passed Nara City Hall, which we thought looked vaguely like a samurai helmet.

There was a gigantic gift shop next to city hall.  The art museum was closed, so we returned to the gift shop, where Lynn found saki for Richard.  I bought some rice crackers and stood outside feeling the sweat roll down my back while I noshed.  It was only about 3pm, but I had hit a wall.

Some travel days are like that.  You just can’t force yourself to do one more thing.

“Would you be okay with going back to the hotel to veg?” I asked Lynn.

“We did hike a mountain this morning,” she reminded me.

I bought a beer in the vending machine outside our room and drank it while reading, scrolling through social media, and watching news of the G20 Summit.  True to form, Trump was insulting the Japanese—his hosts and our ally.

Later, we ventured back up to the rooftop lounge.

“You came back!” our server from the previous night exclaimed.

“I’m not sure if he was pleased to see us, or shocked,” Lynn said after he seated us at “our” table.

Walking Wakakusa

A newspaper was deposited outside our hotel room door each morning.  All the news was about the G20 Summit taking place in Osaka just as I would be transiting through on my way to Koyasan.

“You might want to ask if there will be train disruptions,” Lynn suggested.  “Security will be massive since Trump will be there.”

I hadn’t heard that name for a couple weeks and now we would be in the same city, if briefly. Why couldn’t he stay in Washington and eat hamburgers?

At the station, the JR information people had no idea what the G20 Summit was, much less whether it would affect my itinerary.

“Well I tried,” I shrugged as we walked on to find breakfast.

“Oh, oh, let’s try here!” I enthused as we passed a vending machine restaurant.  “It’s on my list of quirky Japanese things to try.”

Vending machine restaurants are restaurants with vending machines at the entrance.  You pick out your meal and pay for it, get a ticket, then are seated at a table to await your order.  The idea is to streamline the order process, I guess.  They eliminate jobs for real people in the restaurant but must create jobs for coders in Tokyo.

There were three machines.  Lynn and I stood before them in some consternation, pressing buttons, feeding in coins, and collecting meal tickets while one after another, Japanese customers came and went at the third machine.

“I just want the standard Japanese brekky with smoked salmon, miso, and that rice and nori thing,” I said.  “There’s a picture of it but 530 yen?  That seems too cheap.”

“I just ordered five breakfasts … or none,” Lynn said.  “I really do not want a raw egg!”

So we each received a raw egg and slimy beans.

I took a close up so you can see the strings of slime in case you’ve never seen slimy bean strings.

Lynn flagged down the server, whose job was to deliver trays from the kitchen and collect tickets.

“Excuse me,” she said as she held up the plate with her raw egg, “could I have this cooked?”

No,” he said, and walked away.

“Well that was clear,” Lynn said.

Slimy beans are very nutritious, so I mixed mine with rice and miso, doused it all with soy sauce, and cleaned my plate.

Today we would need a good breakfast because we were hiking Mount Wakakusa.  “I really want to see the Kasu … gaya…ga…yama Primeval Forest.  Let’s hope we can just point to the name on the map and won’t have to pronounce it,” I said as we headed into the Information Office.  The green squiggly line on the map indicates the road to the top of the mountain, and no pedestrians are allowed on it.

It was recommended to us that we take a taxi to the top then walk down “the back way.”  This felt wimpy to me but once we were in the taxi it became clear we could never have walked up.  The narrow road really did squiggle, and at a very steep incline.  It would have taken hours to walk.

We enjoyed the views of the city and surrounding countryside from the mountaintop, then proceeded to walk down.

Thousands of uneven stone steps were interspersed with grassy slopes.  There was a kiosk, literally in the middle of nowhere, from which a man sold hiking passes.

“Once again, I will just say that I’m glad to be doing this while my knees are still good,” I tossed back to Lynn.

At the bottom there was a small kiosk staffed by a friendly woman who sold passes to hikers going up the way we’d come down.

I wondered at this sign.

What would it take for the mountaintop to not be available?

“Thank you for resisting the urge to roll down the slope,” Lynn said as she pointed to the list of don’ts.

We asked directions to Kauga Taisha Shrine which was supposedly nearby, but never found it.

It was lunchtime anyway.  We found the one restaurant I had on my list, and a good thing, too, because it was closing the next day for a year of renovation.

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.