Friday, May 6, 2016

TRIP: Memorable meals in Tokyo (2/2)


Finally getting around to posting our second fabulous meal in Tokyo. We met another friend for lunch near in the Ginza area. She suggested Aya and booked us a seat for an Omakase lunch. 

We had a little trouble finding the rest
aurant, as you can see the front door is a little tucked into the building and just like the other place you probably wouldn’t have thought the door lead to a restaurant.

Inside the restaurant sat a total of eight people. The Chef worked in the center and as you can see there was a wall of beautiful dishes that he plated his creations, the space was very efficiently used. There were two waitstaff that assisted with bringing out things from the back as well as tending to your needs. I really like this style of eating, you feel very close to the restaurant and the people designing the wonderful food and ambiance that you are enjoying. Although the chef didn’t speak much english between ingredients and words I was familiar with (and gestures) I was able to understand most of his meaning even when our friend had to leave (lunch took a few hours and it was a working day).  Every course wait ate was a work of art and the dedication and these folks brought to their craft was amazing. 

Opening course: steamed broccoli and potato with miso dressing, young white eel in a soy ponzu sauce, and salmon roe with seaweed and braised bamboo shoot.  The eel was similar to the white fish we ate for dinner, except not live this time. 

Sashimi course of tuna and scallops. it was served with a citrus soy dressing.

Next came a soup course, it was a flavorful broth with fresh shiitake tofu shrimp and a fresh clam. The serving vessel was brought out and unveiled the stand heated the soup vessel to boiling and the clam slowly opened up. The chef explained that this soup is also served as part of “Hinamatsuri” or girl’s day and the clam symbolized a wish for a finding your true love, as both halves of the clam shell can only match the original whole. 

Sea urchin with mushroom and seaweed terrine. There wasn’t a lot of flavor to the terrine jelly, but there were some interesting textures going on, I think the jelly was achieved using agar agar, which makes sense with the whole seaweed theme. The sea urchin was (just like every sea urchin I ate in Japan) deliciously rich with a hit of brine. 

Watching the chef work was a treat.


Self grilled selection of Wagyu and Kobe beef. The Kobe beef (show on the bottom of the grill) was extremely marbled, I’ve never seen anything like it and the flavor was rich, meaty, I know it looks like you’d be eating a solid piece of fat but it was nothing of the sort.  

Next came a rice course called Takikomi gohan I had the chef spell it out for me so i could try to make it myself, he said it was pretty simple dish. He explained that rice was cooked in a earthenware bowl and the cooking liquid was a dashi and a bit of soy sauce. The brown pickle to the side was a daikon radish that had been buried in Sake Kasu (the left over rice when they make sake) for three years. 

This was the earthenware pot that the rice was cooked in and it was full of rice.We were getting full at this point and gratefully took the extra rice home (which made for a delicious morning breakfast with some miso soup). 


To finish things off we had a bit of Matcha Warabi mocha in a syrup with fresh strawberry and what looked like a large kumquat. The fruit was larger and sweeter than a kumquat. 

Finally we end with some Matcha and a single sweet bean, literally a bitter/sweet end to our meal. We enjoyed it so much we hated to leave but after three hours we were quite full! As I said, this was one of our most memorable meals in Japan. I can’t imagine that folks can normally spend three hours on lunch here, but the experience was phenomenal. 

Man I miss Japan, I want to go back as soon as possible!


Wednesday, March 30, 2016

TRIP: Kyoto


In the middle of our trip we took a four day excursion to Kyoto. The city once was the capital of Japan until the Emperor relocated the capital to Tokyo. Kyoto is a very different city compared to Tokyo, it has a fraction of the population (1.5 million) and as a result is not nearly as busy. Kyoto is known for old architectural buildings as well as lots and lots of temples and shrines.

We passed Mt. Fuji while on the bullet train.
Kyoto Tower (it's more impressive at night)



We only had two solid days in the city since the first and fourth days were consumed with travel. Riding the Shinkansen (Bullet train) it took us 2.5 hours to get to Tokyo not bad for covering 320 miles. Kyoto train station is every bit as large as Tokyo's. It's got at least two department stores and a hotel attached to it with a huge variety of restaurants. This picture really doesn't cover it, I just liked the roof structure.

We stayed near the station at an older hotel, the Kyoto Century Hotel. Despite being older and less expensive it was still immaculate and the service (just like everywhere else in Japan) impeccable. The pastries were from the shop in the hotel. Breakfast offered a choice of western style or Japanese style breakfast buffet.

They had a great what I called "old school" cocktail bar. I don't mean that from a disparaging sense, it was very well kept classy with the bartender well versed in all manner of cocktail.


Of course our first stop was lunch. We randomly picked a restaurant in the station (I swear there is not a bad restaurant in Japan) "Aoi-jaya". Their speciality was a bamboo steamed basket, I picked the beef hotpot, it came with seasoned rice, sashimi Japanese pickle and warabi mochi for desert. The egg is used to cool the beef from the cauldron. We added some tempura since we had yet to have any while we were here. This is considered a "traditional" Japanese lunch called washoku. It was a very light and well balanced meal a great way to start our visit. Washoku always consists of rice, miso soup and a bunch of seasonal side dishes. There are various sets that change up the "main dish" and as a result the complementing side dishes but you get the idea. (more examples to come)


That night we took a bus into city and walked around. Wandering around the city was pretty busy at night. Lots of shops and restaurants, almost every one we visit was solid with reservations booked all night. We managed to get a seat it a Korean BBQ place featuring wagyu beef. I want to take a moment to say that there was no where in this country that I felt the least bit unsafe. We remarked at the fact that people parked their bikes unlocked on the city streets here. I'm sure there's a "bad" part somewhere but for the most part it's not like anywhere else I've ever been. Most places if you don't have your bike seat chained up folks will steal it, not here.


The next morning we attended a traditional tea ceremony class. Our instructor was dressed in a full kimono and walked us through the "simple" ceremony (the full one takes up to four hours). She talked us through the significance of each of the implements as well as the preparation of the tea. This is a photo of the poem and flowers that adorn the tea room. The poem talks about the uniqueness of the gathering like the alignments of the planets is something to be treasured and honored. That's the really short summary of it, our host was far more eloquent. (I wish I had recorded it)


Here our instructor showed us what guests bring to a ceremony. A small fan which is presented and you bow with to upon entry. A small knife for cutting the desserts, and paper used as a plate for the sweets served. To teach the tea ceremony in Kyoto you need a teaching certificate from one of the tea masters of the city who trace their lineage back to the original tea master that first developed the ceremony.

The selection of the tea powder vessel, temperature of the water, and even the tea scoop are all deliberate to show respect for the guests as well as to the day and season.

The tea cup has a front and back. After the host prepares the tea they make two turns of the cup to present the nice front to the guest and likewise as the guest finishes they make two turns and presents the front to the host as they place back on the tatami.

Here's a selection of sweets, the larger ones were a jelly sugary confection and the small dots were made of a special ultra fine sugar that melt in your mouth. I think the sugar helps alleviate the bitterness of the macha.

For a small cup of tea you use a fairly large scoop of tea.

As you whisk the tea you make two clockwise circles and then a "W" shape whisking motion until you get a frothy tea. My guess is to aerate the tea and help reduce the bitterness. Matcha is made from grinding up young dried tea leaves. It has a very high antioxidant content and is considered very good for you. If you have free time in Kyoto you should definitely check out the Tea Ceremony room Ju-An it was a great education and we had a wonderful time.

After tea class we walked around a bit and saw the Higashi Honganji temple. On the way there we were greeted by this beautiful Grey Heron.
Front Gate of Higashi Honganji

The temple was a massive walled off compound that is actively in use. We observed an prayer ceremony. This is one of the two largest temples in Kyoto and considered the “head” temple built just over 400 years ago.

We went and visited the Shosei-en Garden just a few blocks away. It was originally built as a second residence for the Chief Priest of the Higashi Hongan-ji 370 years ago.

Although we were early for cherry blossom season (by about two weeks) we did manage to catch a couple of early blooming trees here in the garden. The one tree was quite a sight to behold, I can only imagine what it looks like to have them all in bloom.
Closeup of the Sakura


Another traditional Japanese lunch. Sashimi over rice with dried white fish and shredded egg with the accoutrements to make it a Chazuke (tea rice). The side dishes included a fresh made tofu, some chicken karaga, smoked fish and azure bean and mocha dessert.

More temples: we took a taxi to visit the Kiyomizu-dera temple. The temple is about 1238 years old and has been constructed without a single nail. It’s massive in scale and spreads out across the mountain side. It’s known for it’s cherry blossoms as well which we were again lucky enough to catch a couple of blossoming trees. (I think the front ones were actually plum blossoms). This is the front gate.
Here's a distance shot from the garden that includes the main temple, it's too bad part of it was under restoration.


The streets leading to the temple were lined with shops and various food vendors. Particularly popular were vendors of triangular sweet called Yatsuhashi. They came in mocha like sheets or folded in triangles filled with red bean or sesame and red bean (our favorite).

An interesting Pate a choux like pastry stuffed with a matcha cream.

Baumkuchen is a popular cake here brought over from Germany.The rings resemble the rings of a tree and hence the German name of "tree cake". We had some of this at the tea ceremony class as well.

Restaurant that makes their own tofu, the bottom poster show the process. This wasn't the only restaurant we encountered that served all tofu but we didn't get a chance to actually dine at one.


Walking around further you can get a really view of the historical architecture of the buildings in Kyoto. Everything was illuminated by lanterns.
Ume (Plum) Blossoms

We returned back to Kyoto station and found dinner at a restaurant serving Omelette rice. Rice fried with ketchup wrapped in an thin egg wrapper. This is actually a very popular dish in Taiwan as well. My Mom would make this for us growing up and it was on my wife’s “To eat” list while we were here. I’ve made it before for a bento, the ketchup gives a sweet and tangy flavor to the fried rice it’s actually quite good (don’t knock it till you try it).
Night View of Kyoto Station
Reverse view of the illuminated steps


Next day we visited the famous Temple of the golden pavilion: Kinkaku-ji. It was a residence of a previous Shogun who had the building converted to a Zen temple after he passed away.


The garden still features preserved structures like the Shogun’s tea room.


Prayer candles where you can pray for a variety of things. There are predefined inscriptions on candles that you pay a donation to light, so anything you need: good grades, safe travels, fortune etc it's covered. (I could have used these things when I was in school) They even have the label in english for us tourists.

Finally, my wife wanted to do pictures in full traditional gear. There were lots of photo studios that provided this service so we picked one with the best reviews. There were also plenty of kimono rentals that you could dress up in traditional gear to go to visit temples. There were quite a few folks decked out while we were visiting but we were also told that during graduation many women dress up in formal kimonos as part of the graduation ceremony. The guys were stuck with their standard school uniform. So no telling if it was graduation or the "thing to do" while we were there.


Finally after an exhausting amount of walking we finished and went back to Kyoto station and dined at a Washoku restaurant Eijuan. Fresh tofu salad with a ginger dressing, Tamoyagi (omelette) with soy daikon, Tsukemono (japanese pickle), sashimi, Mushroom miso soup, grilled Alfonsino. I’ve never had Alfonsino, it’s a firm fleshed white fish which kind of reminded me of a thin version of cod and has a bright red skin. Every dinner here has been just as much a feast for the eyes as for the stomach. I’ve always left feeling quite satisfied and “light” unlike some of the “food coma” inducing meals I’ve had back home. As much as carbs seem to be on my enemy list these days for food, it does make a case that maybe it’s not the carbs that are bad. After all, everyone here seems pretty healthy, but then again it maybe all that walking they do here.

We had a great time in Kyoto, it’s definitely very different from Tokyo. It’s a slower pace and more of a chance to see what traditional Japan looked like. Lots of temples… LOTS of temples. But each one was unique and they were a lot of fun to visit.

You know when you've gone on a long vacation and on the last day you get that "No place like home" kind of feeling? I didn't have that at the end of our trip. I definitely could have stayed a lot longer.  There's so many more sights to see that we're pretty sure we're going back sometime soon. I've got one more post about our second fabulous meal so that's coming up, but this wraps up my post on our two city tour of Japan. I highly recommend a visit!

Oh yeah. I did get a photo while we were doing the dress up thing....
Samurai Jack