Wednesday, May 27, 2009

A Fortnight in Japan - Day 7 in Kyoto

Our second fantastic day in Kyoto started just out of the city, at Fushimi Inari and would end in the western suburb of Arashiyama, with our dinner reservation at Nishiki Restaurant.

In the morning, we trained out to Fushimi Inari, where those rows upon rows of orange torii gates are found (Brian posted a picture in an earlier post). It is romantic to think, wow, those tens of thousands of gates have been standing there for hundreds of years, guarding an important religious pilgrimage. But the truth of the matter is that they are basically for sale to whoever can afford them, which buys both advertisement (most are purchased by companies, whose names are painted on one side), and blessings. They are renewed every 10 years - no lifetime blessings bought here! Though they are packed in quite tightly, we saw some empty post holes, presumably where a company let their blessing subscription 'lapse'. Still, they are a beautiful and iconic sight.

Torii avenue at Fushimi Inari

From Fushimi Inari, we headed back on to Kyoto on the train, stopping first at Tofuku-ji temple. Here we got our first glimpse at a zen rock garden, where the gravelly sand is carefully raked into forms around the carefully placed stones. You are supposed to sit and meditate on these gardens, drawing your own meaning from their usually abstract form. However, our schedule didn't really allow for such lengthy contemplation! Really though, I've never really tried to meditate, and I'm not sure I would be very good at it - too much noise always filling my brain!

Ripples in a gravel pond at Tofuku-ji

There was also a lovely moss garden at Tofuku-ji.

Back in the city, we took the bus to Tetsugaku-no-michi, Philosopher's Walk. We walked along the canal path heading north. A few weeks earlier, it would have been framed by delicate, overhanging cherry blossom trees, but when we were there it was peaceful and green. The path was quiet, with very few other people, so it was quite jarring to me when we reached the end and emerged at the entrance to Ginkaku-ji (the Silver Pavilion), with its tourist shops and cream-puff stand. Along the way, we had stopped for lunch at a tiny restaurant that basically looked like a woman's home kitchen. We had our first taste of okonomiyaki, a sort of pancake made with cabbage and thin slices of pork in batter. This would be a very different version than what we would later have in Hiroshima, which is known for their okonomiyaki.

Philospher's path, which runs between Nanzen-ji temple at the south end,
and Ginkaku-ji at the North end.

Okonomiyaki, what is often, I think erroneously, called Japanese pizza.

At Ginkaku-ji, the Silver Pavilion was not, as you might have thought, leafed in silver (though it was supposed to have been, they just never got around to it). It was actually under restoration while we there, and years of wear made it rather unsightly. Around it were some zen rock garden formations, most strikingly a meticulously raked gravel 'sea' that flowed around a stone cone representing Mt. Fuji. The cone is permanent, but the sea around it is apparently reshaped every day.

We got a glimpse of Mt Fuji after all, just on a much smaller scale...

After the Silver Pavilion we felt the need to upgrade metals, so we took the bus West to the Kinkaku-ji, or Golden Pavilion. Originally built in 1397 as a private estate, it was later turned into a Buddhist temple. Each of its three levels was constructed in a different architectural style,, but only the top 2 storeys of the pavilion and the phoenix that crowns it are, true to its name, covered in gold leaf. It is stunning and gaudy at the same time, especially since I prefer white metals to yellow ones, heh... Platinum Pavilion, anyone? It is probably really beautiful at night (if lit well), and in the fall when the maples around it are lush and turning red and orange.

Kinkaku-ji, reflected in the Mirror Pond. It's much shinier in person.

We were a little worried about time (dinner was at 6:30pm and it was about 4), but to Brian's consternation I decided that we would run up to Ryoan-ji, another temple complex that was pretty far NW. Otherwise, it was unlikely that we would make a special trip out to it the next day, and we didn't want to miss it. So we bussed out there, to see Japan's most famous zen garden. On the approach, you walk alongside what seems to be a lantern depot, with stone lanterns of all shapes and sizes, which was pretty fun. The zen garden has 15 stones placed so that no matter where you stand (within the viewing area), you can never see all of them at once. This garden was very abstract, definitely needed more time than we could give it to truly appreciate it, I think.

Found in the lantern depot, one cute statue

Rock garden at Ryoan-ji (the picture does it little justice;
this is just a small part of the large garden).

We rushed back to the hotel (the biggest difference between the bus and the metro is of course that the bus is dependent on traffic, so it took longer than we wanted) and changed for dinner. We decided to take a cab - our first and only cab ride in Japan - for fear of being late. We had a bit of a mixup which involved the non-English speaking driver heading in the wrong direction, a lot of one-word broken English and Japanese, and a call to the restaurant (the driver put ME on the phone - what good was that?!?!) In the end, though, the driver figured it out, we relaxed, and arrived at the restaurant early. Whew!

Nishiki Restaurant specializes in kaiseki, the Kyoto cuisine which uses very fresh, seasonal ingredients. Two geishas met us at the door and led us into our private tatami room, with a view of the Hozu-gawa river. They didn't speak English, but we were soon joined by one who did. She was our server the whole evening, but unfortunately, we didn't get her name - she was really sweet and took care to explain each of our dishes to us. Soon after we sat down (cross legged on the floor), the courses started to arrive. Since it was a 10 course meal, I won't post photos of all of it, just some of the standouts. (You can see the complete set of pics on the Picasa site.)

Because of the complaints that we aren't in any pictures... here we are,
happy to be have made it and to be eating such beautiful food in a lovely setting.

Crispy tofu - the outside of this was so delicate, it almost shattered when I broke into it.

A bunch of different small portions served in a beautiful lacquerware box.
The unassuming broad beans in the middle of the top compartment were
wonderfully tasty, sweet and creamy. The bottom compartment was
actually a drawer that pulled out of the box.

Our server explaining all the little dishes in the box.

Brian's favorite course, a grilled mackerel-type fish topped with grated daikon in a light broth.

A whole deep-fried mini-eggplant, stuffed with a thick, sweet ginger-miso sauce.
Delicious and rich - I actually opted not to finish the whole thing
since this was only course number 6!

As you can guess, we were stuffed and very pleased at the end of the meal. Everything was quite flavorful, fresh, and lovingly presented. We were quite glad that we had chosen it as one of our few splash out meals, as it was another experience - like the previous night's cooking class at Emi's - that gave us a very unique and personal experience. Nishiki is one of the more affordable kaiseki restaurants in Kyoto, and it was perfect for us.

A short after dinner stroll (ok, we got a little lost finding the bus stop), a bus ride back to the hotel, and we quickly fell into a deep, satisfied food coma.

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

A Fortnight in Japan - Day 6 in Kyoto

Early on the 7th, we left Mina's (goodbye, home sweet homebase!) and made our way to Tokyo Station, where we would pick up a Shinkansen (bullet train) to Kyoto. We had purchased 7-day Japan Rail passes before we left Chicago - they are unlimited passes only available to tourists, so you can't buy them in Japan - but we weren't going to activate them until we were leaving Kyoto. So while we were in Tokyo, we had bought tickets for the fastest train available, the N700 Nozomi. Woohoo superfast trains! It's a shame that rail travel isn't as easy or advanced at home, because it was pretty pleasant (and so much less hassle than plane travel!)

The front of the train - different models had different 'noses,'
and it even looked like the headlights were made to look like
nostrils. Everything's so cute in Japan!

I'm thinking, "let's get this show on the road... onwards to Kyoto!"

The ride between Tokyo and Kyoto is about 2.5 hours, so we bought some food for the train. All train stations have a lot of food for purchase, but I think the Shinkansen ones in particular have a lot of bento boxes for sale - food sets that have several different small dishes, usually a rice dish, prettily prepared in a cute box. We got one that ended up being a Japanese take on Chinese food:
Beautifully packaged bento for the train

Arriving in Kyoto, we quickly stashed our bags at our hotel (a Toyoko Inn, part of a huge chain of business hotels in Japan. These are great and highly recommended wherever you go; they are small but affordable and consistent. Breakfast is always included, as is internet access) and were on the move again. We had a busy plan for our 3 days in Kyoto, so we didn't want to waste any time! Again, the rain was falling hard, and we were armed with umbrellas, but the day would prove to go by in a bit of a blur because the rain made it kind of a challenge to really enjoy seeing the sights.

Kyoto, once the capitol of Japan, has gotten quite used to its status as a tourist destination, and is pretty user-friendly for foreigners. Though there are two subway lines running through it, the extensive bus system is really easy to navigate. All major sights are easily accessible by bus, all stops are announced and signed in English, and we got a very helpful map available at the info centre in Kyoto station with every stop listed. All this, and an unlimited day pass for 500Y ($5), = smooth busing.

We took the bus to Kiyomuzu-dera, one of Kyoto's famous temples. Our plan was to make our way North through the smorgasbord of temples and shrines that flank the Eastern part of the city. On the way to Kiyomuzu-dera, we stumbled upon the cutest little ceramics shop. Foolishly, I didn't buy anything, thinking that there would be a hundred more like it along the way (there weren't - turns out this was kind of a gem in terms of actually having handmade, unique pieces, as opposed to the standard tourist crap you can find everywhere). But not to worry, we got back there and I ended up buying a couple of cute pieces.

Storefront of the cute ceramic shop on the way to Kiyomizu-dera

I'll just post a few pictures from the sights that we saw on that walk, as there isn't really a need to explain much about them. Like I said, the rain made it a bit of a blur. At some points, we weren't quite sure what we were looking at, or we would arrive at a place that we thought we had just visited... Stupid rain!
A huge statue, the Ryozen Kannon - a monument to WWII soldiers.

A pretty little path in Maryuma park

Gate to Kiyomizu-dera, through a sheet of rain

Gate and pagoda at Kiyomizu-dera
A huge San-mon (three-gate) that we actually got to go up and
inside - access is apparently only allowed for a couple of weeks during
the year, lucky us! There are a bunch of kannon statues in that top level

A "tree" at Heian-Jingu. It kind of looks like it's full of cherry
blossoms, but the blossoms are actually paper tied to the tree, on
which people have written prayers and blessing requests

We made a special effort to get to the Murin-An gardens, and were very glad when we got there. it is a meticulously cared-for little green oasis, worth a spin through.

Pretty Murin-an gardens

On the way there, we had checked out the hard-to miss giant orange torii. Can you imagine having this in the middle of the city? Right over Michigan Ave, perhaps.

Giant torii near Heian-jingu

We also stumbled upon this cute shrine dedicated to rabbits, where people go to pray for... any guesses? Anyone? Blessings of childbirth (and probably, conception). I guess Japanese rabbits are just as...prolific as American rabbits!
Rabbit sculpture at the washing area of the Okazaki shrine

As night started to fall, we made our way up to the Kyoto University of Art and Design. There, we were meeting Emi Hirayama, with whom I'd made arrangements for a private cooking class. I found her through the Rough Guide (and her own website), and had emailed with her before we arrived in Japan. Kyoto has a distinct style of cooking which is very pure and simple, involving the freshest, seasonal ingredients and simple preparations such as simmering, grilling, and steaming. Emi invites you into her home and shows you how to cook whatever you want - in this case I had asked her to show us some dishes with yuba (soy bean skin), fish, chawan mushi (egg custard), and sweets.

Emi picked us up at a bus stop and immediately I loved her. She was very sweet, and had closely read my emails before our arrival ("How do you like Chicago? You are a PhD, what do you study?") Her English was very good, but she would say a sentence in Japanese first, think for a second, and then translate it into English. It reminded me of the time that I was talking to Brian's grandfather in my laboured Mandarin at dinner, thinking hard about each sentence before I spoke aloud, and he basically announced to the table that my Chinese was... very laboured :)

Anyway, we spent 4 lovely hours in Emi's little kitchen, cutting, peeling, mixing, and, best of all, eating. Each course used similar flavors - dashi (soup stock made from kombu seaweed and dried bonito fish flakes), mirin (cooking wine) and soy sauce. We ate more than enough, and then had fun making the little mochi balls with cinnamon and green tea. Mochi with cinnamon? Brilliant!

Brian rubbing down on some veggies

Me filling the rice mold with green pea-sticky rice to make a
gourd shape. We liked this so much we bought a couple
of rice molds later on!

The banquet (clockwise, from upper left): bamboo shoots in miso,
chawan mushi with shiitake mushroom, eel, and shrimp, yuba-wrapped fuki greens,
rice with green peas and ginger bud (note the lovely gourdy shapes), grilled sawara fish

Fresh green tea and cinnamon mochi balls, ready to
be dressed with red beans and soybean powder

Emi's class is highly recommended, for a personal take on Kyoto. (Oh, and remember how the Tokyo tourism office wouldnt' make recommendations for us at a Kyoto restaurant? I had emailed Emi while we were still in Tokyo and asked her if she would make the reso for us, and she did. So nice.) At the end of the class, as we were saying goodbye at the door, I kind of leaned in for a hug - that's how awesome I thought she was... But there were no hugs, I didn't want to force myself on her because I wasn't sure of what is customary. Brian laughed at me for this, because he knew exactly what I was thinking when he saw me lean in with misty eyes...

Us and Emi

After that lovely, filling meal, we rolled ourselves back onto the bus and back to our hotel. My feet were wet and achey from the distance we covered, but it hardly mattered after such a great day!

A Fortnight in Japan - Day 5 in Tokyo

**Brian has posted an annotated album of our Tokyo pictures on our Picasa site, found here. We'll post up albums after we finish posting about each city, so you're not totally inundated with pics! We put the food photos into another album, which will go up soon as well.

May 6 was our last full day in Tokyo. Having dumped the Mt Fuji trip, we finished up some areas that we hadn't seen (leaving Ueno and Asakusa for the day or so we would have on the way back to Narita). Again, we woke up to a cloudy, overcast day with sprinkles of rain threatening a repeat of the deluge from the day before. We were smarter today, though, and borrowed two of Mina's umbrellas before we headed out.

That's me, with the orange umbrella under the big wooden torii leading to Meiji-jingu

We began at Meiji-jingu (jinja/jingu = shrine), which has a lovely approach path. There were several weddings, or wedding portrait sessions around the shrine on this day, probably because it was a holiday. It is hard not to stop and stare when you come upon one of these wedding processions, as they are beautiful and the attire worn by the bride and groom is much different than the usual western wedding. Some examples:

This picture was about 20 minutes and 2 arrangers in the making...
the fold of the kimono had to be just so.

Wedding procession at Meiji-jingu

While we were waiting for the first procession to pass, a man was getting his son to take a picture of him with the procession in the background. Brian nudged me and said, "is that Brian Grazer?" and yes, yes it was. He's a big producer, of the film A Beautiful Mind and favorite TV shows of ours Friday Night Lights, 24, and Arrested Development. We didn't talk to him, but I did manage to catch a photo of him on the sly (check it out in the Picasa album). 

Next, we checked out the Yoyogi National stadium, a gymnastics stadium built for the 1964 Olympics. Designed by Kenzo, it (and the smaller stadium next door) resembles a big ark. On this day there was a very long lineup of young girls in gymnastic uniforms sitting outside, probably a meet going on. (Side note, people here are great about lining up for things, even if it's just to get into a store when it opens, or, most appreciated by us, to get onto the subway trains.)

Yoyogi National Stadium

We then took the subway to Ebisu station to check out the Japanese Metropolitan Museum of Photography at Ebisu Garden Place. In some cases, "u" is not pronounced so it actually sounds like "Eh-beese." Anyway, we paid for two exhibits, the first on historical Japanese photography (meh, a bunch of faded old daguerrotypes). The second one was a phenomenal display of recent work called Nomachi's Sacred Lands. Beautiful, emotional pictures of people and landscapes in Iran, India, Africa and the Andes. The exhibition only ran until May 17 (I feel very lucky to have seen it!) bu you can check out the work on Kazuyoshi Nomachi's website.

For lunch, we bought nigiri sushi from the department store in Ebisu Gardens Place, a huge box for about $12, and a big cream puff. Loving the price of sushi! (We had first checked out the fancy Joel Robuchon complex of 3 restaurants on 3 floors, where we were told in not so many words that we were not properly dressed to eat there... but decided that a lower-brow lunch would do the trick.) A quick, dizzying ride up to the 38th (restaurant) floor afforded us some more nice views of the city.

Seriously, about $12! Mmmmm

Though the rain was coming down heavily, we were foolishly emboldened by our umbrellas. We trekked a long ways to the Meguro Parasitological Museum. Yes, this is a showcase of bugs and worms and other gross things. The kind of thing that gives you the willies but is impossible to turn away from. It was actually really busy, and Brian remembered that one of the guidebooks said that it has surprisingly turned into a popular date destination! Most impressive by far was this, extracted from some poor guy' regions:

Um... 8.8m long... tapeworm... extracted... ewwwwwwww

After we finished cringing and shuddering, it was pouring (hello) kitties outside, so we re-thought our plan to walk around Naka-Meguro, the area near Mina's house. We walked too long to a store she had recommended, unfortunately named BALLS. I was really, uncomfortably wet, and didn't particularly enjoy squishing around what was otherwise a very cool store, with mod, stylish home furnishings. After that we were pretty fed up with our drippiness, and decided to just go home and warm up. Given how hard we'd been going for several days, a couple of hours off of our feet sounded pretty good... After a couple of hours of resting up, we had noodles close to Mina's house and called it a night. We packed up and got ready for our next adventure... Kyoto, here we come!

Gratuitous picture of adorable little schoolkids on the subway. The
pack on the very left has a little rain guard on it!

Monday, May 25, 2009

A Fortnight in Japan - Day 4 in Tokyo

On Tuesday, May 5th we woke up to a cloudy, gray sky (a change from the nice, sunny mornings we'd been seeing). Rainjackets in our bags, we headed out to Shinjuku-gyoen. The garden was quite pretty, with large ponds full of jumping carp and a Taiwanese Pavilion. We briefly met a woman from Japan who was hanging out in the garden, and was interested in where we were from, how long we were staying etc. It felt kind of weird and we hurried to get away from her, but afterward I felt really bad. She was just being nice, probably enjoying practicing her English, and we were so, what, cynical? Xenophobic? Ugh, I vowed to be more open from then on.

Taiwanese Pavilion, Shinjuku-gyoen

We had a tea ceremony in the Rakutei teahouse in the garden, which was a bit disappointing. We paid via the vending machine outside (definitely not traditional!), slid the wooden screen door open and sat down. A woman came out with two bowls of green matcha tea (traditional) and two little sweets. We were left alone to drink and eat, so it didn't feel all that special. I think in a more elaborate tea ceremony, the host actually makes the tea in front of you (which involves whipping the tea powder into water), so I guess we got an abbreviated version. The sweet was interesting, kind of a chalky, not-sticky mochi - similar in texture and moisture to the inside of a moon cake, if that rings any bells.

Tea ceremony elements at Rakutei, Shinjuku-gyoen

Leaving the garden in search of lunch, we came across a restaurant called Tsunahachi, a tempura bar of some renown. Tempura is obviously widely available in Japan, but this restaurant is a bit higher-end, because you sit at a bar where the chef actually fries up each piece for you to order. Hello, personal deep-fry chef! We were seated at a little bar in the back, and expertly guided toward the set menu which comprised tempura fish, shrimp, prawn, eel and veggies, with soup and rice. Delicious! Full on our set menus, we watched covetously as the people next to us ordered very fresh scallops, scooped right out of the shell.

Our tempura chef, placing some fried goodness on my plate

Our next stop was one we'd been looking forward to for a while, the Isetan foodhall. Now, to this point we'd been in several foodhalls, and been suitably impressed. As I mentioned in a previous post, these are the bottom (usually 1st or 2nd basement) floors of Japanese department stores, filled with prepared foods to go. There are always sections of sushi, cakes, fried foods, and hot items. And everything is nicely presented, of course. We don't have anything like it at home, and boy, do we wish we did! But back to Isetan, which had been touted in every guidebook we'd seen as the "king of foodhalls." We walked in and it was truly a sight to see. We tried to take pictures, but they just don't do justice to the selection, beautiful presentation, and the general busy-ness of the place. It was packed with people buying snacks or perhaps supplies for dinner. We didn't actually buy anything because it was not really cheap. It was enough just to look!

Stages of tamago(egg omelette, the kind that is often used in sushi) making

The rain had started falling while we were inside (I think God was crying with joy at the beautiful foodstuffs), so we donned our jackets and went to find the intersection that includes the Studio Alta building. It wasn't very impressive, just another big intersection full of huge, loud TV screens. So jaded, so soon - There goes another famous intersection, *yawn*

Studio Alta building, Shinjuku

We then made our way SW of the station in search of some more cool architecture. The Tokyo Metropolitan Government Building is a huge blue and grey complex that consists of 2 towers and a half-circular columnade. It was built to resemble Notre Dame, with Japanese accents (though we didn't quite get that part, other than that the facade kind of looked like a giant computer chip). You can go up to the top of either tower for views of the city, so we did that as a welcome respite from the rain. It was here that we made a big decision about the trip - no visit to Mt Fuji this time around. (It is apparently notoriously shy and so you need a perfectly clear day to see it. With the rain coming down pretty hard and probably continuing to fall into the next day, we figured that we didn't want to waste our last whole day in Tokyo, not to mention a bunch of money, going out to it if it wasn't going to be rewarding. So that was that).

The Kenzo-designed Tokyo Metropolitan Government Building

Back out in the pouring rain, we looked for "yakitori alley" (or "piss alley," as it is more crudely known) which is supposed to be a small lane of teeny yakitori (yakitori = chicken skewer restaurants) establishments near Shinjuku Station. We gave up after a few minutes, our attention spans probably being curtailed by the rain falling in our eyes. Instead, we got back on the subway and made our way to the neighborhood of Ikebukuro.

A cool art piece in Shinjuku Station

Off the subway, we beelined it for a ramen shop, Ramen Jiro, that I had heard about on Unfortunately, the line was longer than 10 people and the wait would have been in the rain. I was sad, as rameniac had given this ramen shop a rare 10/10 rating, but my spirits and stomach quickly rallied when I saw that a different ramen-ya (ya = store/shop) listed in the Rough Guide was pretty nearby. We ran over there and saw a thankfully shorter line. It moved pretty fast (it seems like people really tend to eat and run here), though we were still soaked by the time we were seated. I began to realize that my supposedly waterproof (not water-resistant) rain jacket was, in a word, not. Luckily it wasn't terribly cold, or I would have been really miserable!

The ramen went a long way toward making us forget about how wet we were. I'll just show you a picture:
Restorative ramen at Mutekiya, Ikebukuro

Full and re-energized, we backtracked to the station and went to the Japanese Traditional Crafts Centre, which was really a glorified gift shop, but a cool one nonetheless. It showcased (and sold) artisanal items, one of the requirements for the "craft"designation being that they are used in daily life. So there was beautiful washi paper, ceramics and lacquerware, kimono fabrics, etc. Too expensive for the most part, though I spent a bit of time trying to convince myself that we really need this lovely, 315 dollar bowl, so I should buy it. (We don't. I didn't. I kind of regret it.)

Next we left the station again and ran up to a store called Tokyu Hands. We had already been to another branch of this earlier in the day (up by Shinjuku), and I wanted to go to this one to see Nekobukuro. What is that, you ask? First, Tokyu Hands is an amazing store. With many branches, they all have no less than 8 huge floors filled with stationery, housewares, camping equipment, kitchenwares, woodworking supplies, art and design supplies, luggage, etc. etc. Like Muji, but not quite as cool, more supply-y than product-y. Another heaven, and a destination for me as I was looking for some specific screenprinting supplies (found them!). So that alone made me love it. This branch was also blessed with Nekobukuro, which is a part of the 8th floor where you can pay a nominal fee (around $6) to go in and play with the 20 or so cats they keep there. Yep. Apparently this really appeals to kids (duh) and adults whose apartments are too small for pets. Odd and fascinating. We didn't go in (being the non-animal people we are) but we definitely checked out the cute entrance.
Nekobukuro, the ultimate in surrogate pet-dom

Heading back to Ikebukuro station, Brian remembered seeing some fish-shaped red-bean pastries (tayaki) being freshly made when we had gone through the station before, and we decided we had to find them again for dessert. Now, this is not necessarily an easy feat given that Tokyo train stations in general are huge and mazelike, and Ikebukuro in particular is the second-most busy station in the city (in fact, the world, according to Wikipedia!). 2.71 million people move through it per day! Wow. Anyway, amazingly, we somehow found the fishcake stand, and watched as they made our red-bean and custard cakes from scratch.
The magic of tayaki, Ikebukuro Station

Happily, we decided we'd had enough for the day, and headed on home. Rain or no rain, we were loving Tokyo for all of its crazy, cute, dizzying, and decidedly tasty quirks.