Tag Archives: Japanese Food

Rain. That is all.

Drenched, I retreated to my hotel to re-charge my phone and myself.

After snarfing down two containers of Cup-O-Noodles, I thought a hot bath would be nice.  The tub was very deep and very short which required me to assume a sort of crouching position which was not very relaxing.  I lay down on the hard-as-slate bed “for a few minutes,” while my phone powered up.  The rain had only increased in intensity and it was hot and humid.  I got up and tried to figure out the free-standing device I assumed was an air conditioner.

After pressing half a dozen buttons, it did generate a low—not palsied—wind.

Maybe I should just take a nap.  No!  I was not going to nap on my first day in Japan.  In a minute I would get up and … and ….

An hour and a half later I woke to the sound of a hard downpour. It was only 2pm.  I donned the flower-print rain poncho I had bought in England two years before and headed out, this time plucking up one of the clear complementary hotel umbrellas, which wouldn’t clash with my poncho.

I walked to Hamarikyu Gardens, only taking one wrong turn in the one-mile route.  The wind kept gusting and pulling my umbrella inside out.  When I pulled it back, water shed down on me as if I had no umbrella.  The poncho did its job, but again, I was slipping around in my flip flops.

As I paid my 300 yen admission fee, the young woman cashier looked at me blankly, which told me she thought I was a fool.  I appeared to be the only customer of the day as I sploshed across a muddy expanse and plunged into a wood.  I passed two other tourists who were clutching at their clothes and hurrying in the opposite direction, to exit the gardens.

I didn’t take any photos because I didn’t want my phone to get wet, but the gardens had a kind of dismal beauty in the rain.

I arrived at the point where one could board a boat for a “cruise” up the Sumida River to Asakusa, a bustling neighborhood with several sites I wanted to visit.

The boat ride was meh, not only because of the rain and decrepit state of the boat, but because the riverfront was all hideous tower blocks and utilitarian bridges.  A woman in front of me stood up and banged her head on the ceiling.  I loved that someone had taped up too-short pieces of foam to try to prevent this.

Off the boat, I splashed a half mile through standing water to the Amuse Museum, which isn’t about amusements but which contains a collection of handcrafts, like clothing made from rice sacks that people creatively made when times were hard.  It was closed for the day.

Onward.  It wasn’t cold but after hours of rain I felt shivery.  A street vendor was selling steaming gooey-soy balls on a stick slathered with a maple-y tasting sauce. I don’t normally care for maple, but these were divine.

All the wet plodding became worthwhile as I entered the precincts of Sensoji Temple.

I huddled under a nearby overhang, ate my soy balls, and watched other people who knew what to do bought fortunes.

What you do is: shake the metal box, let a numbered wooden stick fall out of a hole in the bottom, then open the corresponding drawer to retrieve your fortune.

Here’s my fortune:

Luckily there were Chinese and English translations on the reverse.

Unluckily, the English didn’t help much.  It seemed to boil down to, “You’ll have some good and bad things happen.”

If you really got a bad fortune, you could tie it to this rack.  I’m not sure what happened next.

As it began to get dark, I found the train station to return to my hotel.  Unlickily, it turned out there are two stations with the same name operated by different train companies, and I was at the wrong one.  Luckily, a passerby told me how to get to the right station, “Walk one block, turn down the alley, then go down stairs.”

Runny, Slimy Things

The Mielparque Hotel had a breakfast buffet with Japanese, Chinese, Korean, and western-style foods.

Alongside various forms of tofu, pickled vegetables, and fish, there were runny scrambled eggs, British favourites like fried tomatoes and baked beans; and spaghetti—something I saw on breakfast buffets in Australia.

I loaded up and felt like I was in heaven.  This was my first Japanese meal and looking back, it’s pretty sad compared with many that followed.

One of the joys of Japanese eating is that a meal may include 12 small dishes, all served in beautiful porcelain or lacquered wood bowls or plates, on a wooden tray.  So the serving ware above is not typical.

But the squash soup was to die for.  So rich!  I never tasted its equivalent again.

Miso was served with every meal I had all month.  Rice was standard unless it was a noodle meal. Pickled plums (lower right) are sweet, sour, and salty all at once and absolutely sensational. Smoked salmon was central to breakfast. One standard breakfast thing not shown above was the sheets of nori (dried seaweed) in a plastic wrapper.  Several times in the days to come, waiters would point it out on my breakfast tray and explain that I should unwrap it and soak it in soy sauce before eating it with rice.  You can imagine how many tourists must have tried to eat the wrapper, or dry.  Kind of like people trying to eat the corn husks in which tamales come wrapped.

Another item not shown above is the aduki, or adzuki, beans.  On the buffet, they came in a little paper cup with a cellophane lid.  I was intrigued.  At my table, I peeled back the lid to reveal strings of slime.  I tried a few, gagged, and set them to one side.

The Mielparque was one of only two places I stayed that made coffee available.  Typically, only green tea was provided in accommodations.  I would be grateful I had brought a small jar of instant coffee and a box of creamer cups in my suitcase.

Most meals in Japan start with the cleaning of one’s hands at the table.  This might be as lovely as being handed a warmed, jasmine-scented white wash cloth artfully rolled up and presented on a small tray, but usually it involved a wet wipe in a plastic wrap.

I had used the wipe and it had been whisked away by a waiter.  My nose started to run.  It unhelpfully does this when I eat something spicy.  I searched for a paper napkin but there were none.  Could I get away with rubbing my nose with the back of my hand?  I was the only westerner in the dining room and I had chosen a seat facing the center of the room so I could people watch.  This meant they all faced me. Would my fellow diners be disgusted if I wiped?

Over and over, I had read that Japanese expected westerners to get their etiquette wrong.

I wiped, trying to act nonchalant.  No one looked in my direction, but somehow I felt they all saw what I did and condemned all Americans for being nose wipers.  But hey—there were toothpicks on the table.  Was it acceptable to pick my teeth—if not my nose—at the table?

The dining room was silent except for a small boy playing with his Anpanman action toy.  This was my introduction to how quiet Japan is.  No one in the dining room—or anywhere, ever—was blabbing loudly on his phone.  I never heard a text alert tone or cell phone ring. I never heard a jack hammer, although there must have been construction going on.  I only heard one power tool in the many gardens I visited, and the user switched it off as soon as he saw me coming.  I heard only a handful of sirens or cars honking.

This all goes to the Japanese value of harmony of the group, which Lynn and I would learn more about when we took a cooking class in Kyoto from a guy who had lived in the US.

I forgot to ask him about nose wiping.

I’m Here

Here I am—yoo-hoo—over here!  Way over here, in Japan.

The 11.5 hour flight was uneventful. I watched five movies, ate three meals, and slept for five minutes.  Every once in a while I glanced back between the seats at my five-year-old nephew, and he was only sleeping once.  The rest of the time, he was hunched up like little kids do when they’re jazzed, his black eyes twinkling with excitement. He and his brother are now attending kindergarten and fourth grade, respectively, in local Japanese schools for two weeks.

I had brought my full-size smushy pillow, and it made all the difference in comfort to be able to lean against the window with some padding.

I had a bit of a rocky start in Tokyo.  My cell phone wouldn’t charge, then died.   I walked in circles for almost an hour trying to find my hotel.  The “tower view” I’d paid extra for was a view of a brick wall, and no one at the front desk spoke enough English for it to be worth my while trying to explain it.  When I logged into my credit card account there were a slew of charges from a company I’d never heard of.

Thank god I’d brought my laptop!  How else would I have been able to find an Apple Store in Tokyo?  The folks at the front desk knew only enough English to point at a map handout (all in Japanese except the name of the hotel), to show me how to get to a local train station.

All is well now.  My experience at the Apple Store was delightful.  My Restless Legs disappeared completely for three nights!  I can only guess that my brain thought nighttime here was daytime due to the 14-hour time difference, and I never get RLS during the day.  It’s back now, bad as ever.

I spent two full days in Tokyo, then moved on to Nikko, a small city in the north.  The advertised reason to come here is to visit the shrines dedicated to the first shogun, Tokugawa, and others.  They are amazing, but the delight for me here has been nature and food.

This was my first meal here; a bento box featuring yuba, a local specialty that is soy rolled out paper thin then rolled up into pinwheels.

Here is a photo from a walk I took yesterday along the Tamozawa River.

You could look at this and say, “Hey, this looks just like the Knife River on the North Shore near Duluth!  Why go thousands of miles away when you can drive two hours and see similar scenery?”

And you would be right, to a point.  I love the North Shore and fully intend to go there this summer, too.  But it doesn’t have red painted sacred wood bridges that are hundreds of years old, or stone bodhisattvas wearing red knitted caps and bibs.

It was on this walk—on my fourth day after arriving—that I felt myself come down off the ledge of worry about my phone, my credit card, finding stations and getting on the right trains….  This is often the way when I travel.

After my two-hour walk I hit the main shrine, which involved another half hour hike up a very steep incline followed by 200 steps where I passed people literally bent over double and clutching their chests.

At the top, in the Temple of the Crying Dragon, I was basically accused of shoplifting a lucky talisman.  Thankfully I was too tired to come out swinging, which would be my usual response.  But I left in a huff wishing bad karma on a Buddhist.  More on that later.

I consoled myself with a bowl of yuba ramen.

I returned to my inn and soaked in the onsen, or hot spring bath, which is 10 steps from my room.  Yes, you do it naked.

As I sat on the edge of the pool and gazed out the window I saw there was a stone Buddha in the bushes.  I could just make out his big fat belly … wait—I was looking at my own reflection!

Dang, guess I better watch it with the giant ramen bowls.