Tuesday, July 31, 2007

looking at the bay

I SPENT all Friday night researching observation points around Tokyo Bay. First was Rainbow Bridge, which I'm sure was the inspiration for that legendary Mario Kart racetrack. It gets a lot of traffic - pedestrians, trains, and automobiles. My boss said it was known as a prime spot for romantic strolls, which is funny, because the walkway is about 5 inches from freeway traffic. So much for that. However, the view of the bay below was gorgeous. During the summer, traditional boats with red lanterns carry drinking parties around the bay. In the background is Odaiba, a shopping and entertainment metropolis.

My favorite observation deck was at the top of the Telecom building, because of this view of the shipyards I was able to snap (below). Aesthetically, I think I'm in the middle of my second infancy right now. I find I hold an innate fascination with large vehicles. I love to watch 747s gliding out to the runway in state, itching to flex their jet-engine muscles and leave terra firma behind them in a swirl of burning air. I like to feel trains rumbling under my feet, like to watch iron cranes unloading huge cargo ships, picking up 20-ton containers like so many lego blocks.
Plus, all the best action scenes happen in shipyards.

Thursday, July 26, 2007


UNLIKE WESTERN gardens, developed as exclusive playgrounds for Europe's aristocrats, Japan's teien were cultivated as sanctuaries where Buddhist priests could share wisdom with their disciples. Even though teien were later co-opted as leisure areas by the Tokugawa family, Japanese gardens remain quite different than their western equivalents because they were developed to fulfill such different needs.

Teien are carefully constructed to exist harmoniously with the natural elements. Sometimes this requires aggressive disruption of nature (relocating hills and trees, diverting streams), sometimes laissez-faire adjustments (working around streams, subtly rotating rocks).

Teien are very peaceful - the calmness hastens up to you like a pleasant, tangible fog. It's hard to describe, and I can only say you need to visit one to understand. Earlier in the summer I reviewed a few gardens for my company, and they were some of my most enjoyable experiences. In Japan, teien aren't just for older citizens carrying half-folded newspapers. Young couples, moms and daughters, the odd college student with a camera - people from all compartments of society make the trip. You don't see many little kids though - gardens are serious business.

tea house, originally a temple, Shinjuku-gyouen, Tokyo

Tokyo gardens have their own special twist - they're usually surrounded by tall skyscrapers.
If I were an ancient Buddhist horticulturalist, reincarnated in 2007 to see my beautiful garden hedged in by these new-fangled, straight-angled posts, I would probably mutter and shake my fist at them. But I think a real Japanese gardener would, upon reflection, accept these new surroundings and enjoy how his creation and the creations of men like him complement and contrast with each other. Japanese gardens were not constructed with discrete boundaries in mind - there were always backdrops. The backdrops used to be mountains and oceans, now they are skyscrapers and monorails. As a gardener you accept that you work with a living, mutable palette - the earth.

Kyu-Hamarikyu with office buildings, Tokyo

I am aware of the cliche, but when you enter a Tokyo garden, the noise of traffic and train-catching fades away surprisingly fast, and the silence is startling. An afternoon vacation.

carp, Shinjuku-Gyouen, Tokyo

Left: Workmen clearing a pond of algae, Hamarikyu, Tokyo

Friday, July 20, 2007

can you find charlie chaplin?

DURING a particularly hot and humid day, I found my legs taking me to a dark, cool alley underneath the railroad tracks on the outskirts of Ginza. I had a beer in a tiny Okinawan bar and found these old advertisements plastered on the alley wall. The signs were bound to the sheet metal through years of rain and weather. I wonder what the rest of Tokyo looked like when these signs were still new?

Tuesday, July 17, 2007

weather and udon

WE'RE FINALLY having a cool spell, flung at us by last weekend's typhoon. A typhoon and an earthquake at the same time. I remember the day before everything happened. Everything was quiet; still and quiet. Houses around here have metal shutters that can slide over all the windows. I went away for the weekend (to Karuizawa, to bathe in the onsen), so I barricaded my windows securely. I felt like a tortoise sucking in its appendages, or sailor shutting hatches to keep out storm rain or artillary. I've never seen a house that dark.


Tokyo summers: hot, awful, and sticky. Any breezes that venture inland from the bay give up and turn around, or are completely stymied by the tall buildings. I can't be sure, but I am almost certain that I saw a Tokyo building sweat once. Everyone carries around a handkerchief to slough off his/her sweat with. Plus it rains.

From the time I get to the office, fresh and sweaty from a long walk and train ride, to the time get home, I fantasize about waterslides and surfing. Oh well. Comes with the territory. On the plus side, because of the hot weather I get to try delicious dishes like this one: cold udon noodle soup at Opippi, a favorite local hangout in Kasumigaseki. I thought the name was funny too.

I ducked in (literally) during lunch time and was greeted by a kind, grandmotherly hostess who sat me down facing another businessman at a tiny table, probably two feet across. There were about 8 bar seats and 3 tables total.
I tried to scan the menu but realized it was all in kanji and hiragana. Desperate to try some fresh udon, I pointed to one of the few items that didn't have kanji in the name - "kayaku udon." The hostess nodded, indicating that it was a good choice. OK then, we'll see what comes out.
The cold soup (Opippi serves mostly cold udon in the summer) had a light broth, sweet shiitake mushrooms, egg, shredded daikon, nori, and onions. It was delicious. The udon noodles were smooth, thick, and substantial - I could taste the hand made texture in my mouth. I was able to practice my slurping technique, which I have yet to master even though I've lived in this country for almost a year. Very satisfying. The shiitake mushrooms provided a perfect, subtle balance again the light saltiness of the broth.

Men eating udon, Opippi, Tokyo

Friday, July 13, 2007


FUGU. The bleeding edge of cool when it comes to sashimi. Maverick among shrimp, salmon and maguro. Lethal, white, and chewy. A fish to be reckoned with.

In the English language, fugu is "blowfish." It might as well be called "death on fins" because of its notorious toxicity: the skin, testicles, and liver of fugu are bursting with tetrodotoxin, a powerful neurotoxin (wikipedia). A fugu chef must carefully carve all the precious fugu meat from the fish without rupturing these organs, which would release the toxin. If he does, little Joey at table four could wind up paralyzed (while still conscious) , comatose, and probably dead with a few hours. No, there's no antidote; I'm not kidding.

But I love playing with culinary fire - it's the only reason why I get up in the morning. So, my trusty friend Hideki and I set out for Torafugu in Hibiya, Tokyo, to gamble with our lives and maybe eat some sushi. "Fugu doesn't actually taste like much," said Hideki, "It's kinda rubbery, like a cross between tuna and chicken. Most Japanese eat it just or the novelty, although there are some gourmets who claim the taste is desirable."

Those suicidal Japanese. According to varying reports, somewhere between 20 and 100 people die from fugu poisoning in Japan every year. However, most of these deaths result from fugu caught and prepared by amateurs - it's highly illegal to prepare and sell fugu without licensing. If you want to become a fugu chef you have to train for several years. Part of the final exam involves preparing fugu sashimi and eating part of it yourself. Ha ha.

Hideki and I needed an aperitif, so we ordered hirezake, or grilled fugu fin steeped in hot sake (above photo). This is a very traditional fugu specialty. Hey, I'll try anything once. I had to put my glass down quickly because at the first sip I felt like someone had grabbed my throat wearing hot oven mittens. Apparently, good hirezake includes a tiny amount of tetrodotoxin, which has a buzzing, numbing effect on the lips and tongue. Coupled with alcohol, it packs real punch. I sipped cautiously. I was startled at the juxtaposition of tastes (fish and sake? Together? In the same cup?), but I quickly grew to like hirezake. The flavors play off each other so well, and it warms your trunk better than hot cider on Christmas Eve.

We ordered a seven course fugu dinner, with - you guessed it - fugu prepared 6 different ways. The seventh course was ice cream. First came fugu sashimi, or fugusashi, so thinly sliced you could see the plate underneath. The taste was pleasant, but rather bland. Mouth feel was not quite satisfying either; a little too rubbery.

Next came fugu nabe, or shabu shabu style fugu. Our server arrived with the raw ingredients to dip into boiling water: mushrooms, cabbage, and large slices of fugu meat, prepared seconds before. I know this because the meat was still twitching when we picked it up with our chopsticks.
Top: fugu nabe; above: fugu ojiya

After Hideki and I finished eating, our server added rice to the soup broth, which she then ladled into bowls. The rice is supposed to absorb the fugu flavor in the broth.

My boss had told me to review shirako as well, so I ordered a plate to go along with my rice. Shirako is very rich, like fois gras, but with seafood undertones; goes well with rice. I later found out that shirako is cooked fugu testicles.

Hideki and I relaxed over beers, our mission completed. We smiled at each other, because we knew that if we had been poisoned, we would have noticed by now. I guess this time I dodged the bullet.

above: shirako; below: hideki eating fried fugu

Thursday, July 12, 2007


Tokyo from Tokyo Tower, Tokyo

HERE'S SOMETHING to hold everyone ever until my next post, hopefully tomorrow. Sorry I haven't been updating so much. I try to update at least twice a week.

Sunday, July 08, 2007


TODAY I CONVINCED my boss to send me to tea houses. Smart move. Tea has been a casual hobby of mine, rather dormant since my last stay in Japan. Sweaty, muggy city days don't lend themselves naturally hot tea drinking, and neither does the workload. This was my chance. I went to three tea houses; one modern, two traditional.

1. Yamamotoyama is a tea institution in Tokyo, selling tea for "over 317 years," according to a poorly-written English flyer. It functions as a tea retail store and tea cafe. A long glass counter winds around the inside, displaying boxes and casks of tea, in addition to nori, seasonings, and sundry other trinkets. Yamamotoyama is slightly cluttered, and probably hasn't been fully redecorated since its original building was destroyed by the 1945 air raids.
I ordered the day's sencha (green tea) and a slice of cake for 300 yen.
I sat next to a few older women around a low table with a sunken range and teapot in the middle. The sencha was just so-so in my humble opinion. Came from Saitama-ken, the prefecture I live in. Actually rather bitter, although it got more friendly after the second cup. I think it may have been steeped too long. I was expecting an expertly prepared tea, but it seems like the tea cafe doesn't emphasize the tea so much as the conversation. There was another bar in the back where people seemed to be tasting tea more discriminately, but I had no idea what to order and it looked rather expensive.

2. Next, I went to Tsujiri. Unfortunately, Tsujiri seems to have caught the Shiodome bug - the philosophy that anything traditionally Japanese is better when you multiply it times ten, add a liberal dose of the nearest western-inspired ingredients, and up the price a bit.
To be fair, Tsujiri does have a large selection of matcha (fancy green tea for ceremonies) for retail. However, since there was no traditional green tea on the menu, I was forced to try what everyone else was eating - a matcha "parfait." This gastronomic ogre was a complete departure from matcha tea in the traditional sense, consisting of a milkshake-sized glass full of mochi, green tea whipped cream, green tea ice cream, vanilla ice cream, yokan, oranges, and a little tea at the bottom. A maladroitly-colored, tasteless excess. All the people around me were digging in, though - Japanese twenty-somethings, mother and daughter teams, the odd Taiwanese tourist group. I don't get it. Looks kind of cool though.

3. So, stomach aching slightly, I journeyed to Ginza for my last stop of the day. I think I judged Ginza too harshly. There's actually some good, inexpensive, authentic eating here if you know where to look. When walking by Uogashi Meicha it's all too easy to write it off as a modern tea shop full of style but no function (i.e. tasty tea). However, don't let looks fool you this time. Meicha has been selling high quality teas since it's conception in 1931 - it just has a trendy makeover.
Cup of sencha at Meicha, Ginza
I really recommend this place for people with a casual or not-so casual interest in Japanese tea. It's dark, sophisticated, and professional. Floor one is retail, where English-speaking employees will offer you one or two of the day's specials in small cups and are more than happy chat about their teas. The second floor serves sencha and the third floor serves matcha.
To go to the second or third floor, you simply buy a 500 yen ticket and take it upstairs. I consider 500 yen to be a great deal for an experience like this, right in the middle of Ginza. The second floor was inhabited but quiet. I sat near two old ladies on a dark wood bench as I watched my server painstakingly prepare my tea set. The first course was a chilled 1st flush Indian darjeeling taster - golden-sweet with a dry finish. I later tried to buy some downstairs, but it wasn't for sale - annoying. The main sencha came from Shizuoka; also sweet and dry. I was given a few tiny palette cleansers, and finished with houjicha (potent, oily taste, like sesame oil. I like it). All in all a great experience. My server really took pride in doing everything right - adding just the right amount of water, using every single drop, swirling hot water around the tea pot to warm it up. Check out her work station.

Tea prep counter at Meicha, Ginza

If anyone wants to try these places I'm happy to send you contact info.

Thursday, July 05, 2007

rained out

GOT CAUGHT in a quiet drizzle walking back to the office. These pictures were taken in Shiodome, the most modern, built-up part of Tokyo. Kind of quiet thought because at 3:45pm it was still work hours. Drip, drip, drip.

Tuesday, July 03, 2007

taking a break from food

Garden, Yamamoto-tei, Shibamata

shibamata vol. 2


I SPENT a good thirty minutes buying, looking, and eating. Upon reaching the temple gate, I rested in the shade. The pressing heat and humidity made my white Oxford feel like damp tissue; there were widening sweat marks under my camera bag strap. I scribbled a few pre-notes and watched two Japanese tourists chatting with a monk, sitting cross-legged by the entrance. I was surprised at how casual his demeanor was, and by extension how much he seemed to have in common with the husband and wife couple - as if the three of them had been taking weekend yoga classes together since college. Though I could not make out what the monk was saying from where I sat, I could tell he was rather into it from the way his long-brimmed white hat bobbed up and down genially.

Top: temple entrance; above: washing statue; right: small fountain in Japanese garden

Like most larger temples, the temple building itself is surrounded by a wall and a large gate. To my left as I entered I saw three old women washing an old stone statue. The statue apparently had healing powers - I've never seen this ritual before. What were they silently hoping for as they ladled holy water over the venerable ancient? I'll never know, because I didn't ask.

Taishakuten is a temple truly worth visiting. Unlike so many other Buddhist temples that start to fade into the scenery through overexposure and ubiquity, Taishakuten is a living building: many monks work and live here. You can hear them chanting through the paper walls of the sanctuary. The temple is connected to the monks' living quarters by long, wooden walkway. For 400 yen I can entered, slipped off my shoes, and padded quietly over red carpeting. The walkway took me through a small Japanese garden, saturated by deep greens and silence. Afterwards I peeked into the dormitories and got an eyeful of Buddhist ascetic life: sparse furniture, infrequent but beautiful pictures alongside the walls.

The highlights of Taishakuten are the incredibly intricate and beautiful wooden carvings on the temple's outer walls, now preserved under a glass canopy. Each pane tells a parable of Buddha, encouraging his followers in their faith.

Close up: a solitary ascetic monk receives the respect of angels and demons alike (demons in this case). I found it interesting how art styles like this continue to influence anime, etc.