Monday, February 16, 2009

A fancy ryokan

I received my work visa to live and work in Japan for the next year! I have my passport stamps, my "alien" card, and even a library card from a local library that has a whole wall of books in English and even some in Spanish!

To celebrate my work visa, Itsumi treated me to a weekend getaway at a beautiful ryokan, or Japanese traditional inn, in the Kawazu area where we looked at cherry blossoms (see the previous post). The ryokan was beautiful, with several beautiful indoor and outdoor hot springs and traditional tatami-mat rooms, but the best part was the amazing food!

This was our dinner spread, and we were served more dishes even after I took this picture!

The seating was traditional Japanese style, cushions on a tatami mat floor.

This is a beautiful sashimi (raw fish) platter, with four different kinds of fish from the local area, as well as shellfish.

Turban shell shellfish

Clockwise from the lowest point: octopus, shiitake mushrooms, two types of hu (cooked soybean gluten), turnips, show peas, and another type of hu. Center: bamboo shoots.

Clockwise from top left: salad dressing, pounded mochi cake flavored with cherry blossom leaves, salad, soymilk tofu, half-cooked egg. The center tray contains small appetizers.

At one point I counted 40 vessels on our table, and the server had already taken away some empty bowls at that time. There must have been at least 50 in total.

In Japan, people really like to cook their own food at their table. I think it's all about the freshness. On the right is shabu shabu, and on the left is a steamed rice dish.

Shabu shabu is a dish that involves swishing a piece of raw fish or meat around in a pan of boiling water until it is semi-cooked. Then you dip it in a delicious shabu shabu sauce, and eat it! You can make shabu shabu from fish, beef or pork, but of course you must cook the pork fully. You also boil delicious vegetables in the water. This is fish shabu shabu.

This is a fancy dish of soymilk tofu, with salad in the background.

The half-cooked egg is a garnish for the salad, along with salad dressing, and it was very good!

Just when we were almost finished, the server brought us deep fried shrimp croquettes, lotus root and other vegetables, and a gelatin type dessert which was not the actual dessert, just an appetizer dessert.

I'm not big on octopus, but Itsumi likes it!

Clear soup with egg cake and vegetables.

Dessert! On the left: bavarian cream. On the right: fruit.
In the morning we had a delicious breakfast, with another huge spread of food! At a ryokan, guests are provided with robes and outfits like the one I'm wearing in the picture, which we can wear as we walk around the ryokan and eat in the dining room.

The breakfast spread

The burner in the back is steaming fresh locally grown vegetables, and in front a fresh scallop is being grilled.
Fresh scallop, which we ate with butter and lemon.

Me in a yukata robe.

Cherry blossoms and spring are here!

Cherry blossoms are a symbol of spring in Japan, and the cherry trees are blooming in Kawazu! Kawazu is on the Izu peninsula southwest of Tokyo, known for its warm weather, tea production, tangerines and oranges, fish, hot springs and earthquakes. Kawazu is right on the ocean, and surrounded by mountains.

Most cherry trees bloom at the end of March, but Kawazu has a special type of cherry tree that blooms starting in February. The town has several walks lined with these special cherry trees. The trees look so beautiful in bloom because they actually bloom before their leaves emerge. So we see all pink and no green. Kawazu also has a lot of field mustard plants which are edible and provide a beautiful contrast to the cherry blossoms. Many of the cherry blossom observers wear surgical masks because spring is allergy season in Japan, too.

A cherry blossom viewing festival was going on, which means that vendors were selling lots of locally-produced food, such as half-dried salted anchovies (below)
another type of dried fish

and cherry blossom waffles filled with pounded rice cake (mochi).

Above, a man roasts fresh chestnuts (below).
Roasted chestnuts are delicious!

This is fresh wasabi root.

And above I am walking on a massage walkway made of massaging stones.
After two days in Kawazu we returned to Tokyo where it is still chilly and doesn't quite feel like spring yet, but we are assured that spring is coming soon!

Saturday, February 14, 2009

Happy Valentine’s Day!

In Japan, women give chocolates to men on Valentine's Day. This is not just for love interests, but also for men who are co-workers, etc. During the weeks before Valentine’s Day, the stores are filled with chocolate for sale. Below is a picture of a chocolate booth in the Valentine Chocolate Extravaganza at the Seibu Department Store in Tokyo. In Japanese department stores, only a small portion of the merchandise actually belongs to the department store. The rest of the space is rented out to small shops, and around Valentine’s Day the space is rented to chocolate shops.
February 14 is all about women giving chocolate to men, but men get their turn a month later, on March 14. On White Day, men must give white chocolate to all the women who gave them Valentine's chocolate, and the white chocolate must be double the value of what the men received! A Japanese man told me that one Valentine’s Day he received chocolate from fifteen women, which meant that he had a very expensive March 14!
Left to right: fresh white chocolate from Japan's north island of Hokkaido, a chocolate tin with the Penguin Suica Card logo, fresh caramel from Hokkaido, and chocolate truffles.

Friday, February 13, 2009

Vending Machines

Japan is a vending machine Mecca. You can even buy eggs from a vending machine, in front of a farmer's house! Some vending machines are refrigerated, and others are hot, for hot drinks.
And the vending machines have recycling!

Some even accept my Suica card, which is a plastic card that I use for train fare. It's a pre-paid card, and I add more money to the card as needed. In addition to using it for train and bus fare, I can use it at many vending machines and convenience stores.

Monday, February 9, 2009

The Golden Unchi

This is my favorite building in Tokyo. It's the headquarters of the Asahi beer company. The story goes that Asahi paid tons of money to a French architect to design this building. The portion on the left is supposed to look like a golden glass of beer with foam on the top. The yellow thing on the right is supposed to look like a flame, the "burning heart of Asahi beer." What do you think it looks like?

Japanese people think it looks like a cartoon drawing of poop (unchi in Japanese) and so this building, described on Wikipedia as one of Tokyo's most recognizable modern structures, is known as The Golden Turd (kin-iro no unchi)! The 360-ton golden flame, which is completely empty, was made by shipbuilders using submarine-construction techniques.

Sunday, February 8, 2009


Japan has cool varieties of KitKats!
Above: Sweet potato with sesame seeds; tiramisu; green tea tiramisu

Chile pepper. I didn't buy this one; it was too expensive!


Cookies; flan.

Muscat (a type of green grape). This one is my favorite!

Saturday, February 7, 2009

Tsukiji Fish Market

I visited Tsukiji Fish Market, a bustling place in Tokyo. Tourists are no longer allowed to visit the early morning fish auction, but visitors can still walk through the huge market while dodging vehicles and trying to stay out of the way!
This is frozen tuna, which probably came from long distances such as coastal Europe or the Indian ocean. I thought all of the sushi in Japan would be fresh and local, but the salmon actually comes frozen from near Norway!
Scallops and shellfish

Boiled octopus
After visiting the market, I went to a restaurant across the street for some of the freshest sushi ever. A Taiwanese tourist sitting next to me ordered this shrimp sushi, which was still moving on her plate. You can see that it lifted up its tail while I was taking this picture! A gruesome sight to me, but Itsumi said that, since the head had already been removed, the shrimp was already dead and this was just a reflex, and an example of Japanese emphasis on freshness. This is certainly no more gruesome than what happens in the slaughterhouses in the United States every day.
Around the same time, my cousin MJ bought fish from Tsukiji market on the other side of the ocean, in San Francisco!

Friday, February 6, 2009

Japan is incredibly safe!

I am continually amazed at how little people worry about theft in Japan. In the morning, delivery trucks leave boxes of new products in front of the stores. The boxes sit unattended on the sidewalk for hours before the stores open, and nobody takes anything!
In restaurants, I frequently see a woman, dining alone, leave her purse unattended on her chair while using the restroom. People sleep on the trains while leaving laptops on the shelf above the seats. Remember that I am in Tokyo, the capital city, not a rural community!

The shop pictured below sells antique coins, and displays them unattended in bins outside the store. Some of these coins sell for US$70 or more.
Bicycle locks here are a flimsy affair. There are several styles of lock. Generally they hold the rear wheel in place so the bike can't be ridden, but there is nothing to stop a thief from picking up the bicycle and carrying it away. Nonetheless, the bikes don't seem to get stolen. A bicycle with this type of lock in Fort Collins, my former town, would surely be stolen, (people will steal just a wheel or a seat if they can get nothing else) but not in Japan!

In the farm communities outside of Tokyo, and even in an agricultural area within Tokyo, farmers sell their produce at self-serve stands. Customers take what they want and leave payment in a tin can. Neither the produce nor the money in the can is protected from theft, but the system seems to work here. Below you can see yuzu, a special kind of oranges used for the flavorful peel, and a money can on the left.Of course, I am always careful about the way I carry money and belongings while traveling, but it's really pleasant to live in a place where I don't have to worry much about crime.