Monday, October 18, 2010

In 3...2...1 (days, that is) - Blastoffffff!

Way back when (um, 2 days ago), when five days lay between me and my Singapore Air flight from Tokyo to LAX, there was a little farewell barbecue party. It was on Yoko's rooftop, overlooking the Asano River and the old wooden tea district where powder faced geisha entertain sake buzzed businessman.

As the pink sunset faded into a dark sky, we swooned over Maggie's ohmuhgawd juicy jerk chicken, nibbled bits of warm naan and licked our spicy fingers clean. We forwent all manner of plates and civility, passing big bowls of couscous and banana creme pudding from person to person, opting to savagely nibble off the shared serving spoons. Max and Kaitlin busily smeared hunks of baguette with cheese, creating the perfect vehicle for slices of smoky grilled eggplant and green peppers snapped off the grill. Creighton had to hide his mother's oatmeal chocolate chip cookies in the back of Yoko's closet in order to make them last the entire evening.

It was one of those parties where you don't take any pictures. When you're too busy making ridiculous conversation about inappropriate things til your face hurts from laughing. When you get a little buzzed and say silly sentimental things like "I am honey drippingly happy right now" and your friends tell you you're smiling like a loon and take your picture to prove it. It was one of those parties where you are aware you had some sad times, some lonely times, some frustrating times this past year, but all that really matters is now: that rooftop, that pudding and those people.

It's the kind of party that makes you think "Damn, I should really have more rooftop parties." 

Saturday, October 9, 2010

How The Mighty Have Fallen: Tales from a McHypocrite

Pure class: the unintentional pinky lift
The Ebi Burger. For twelve months I have wanted to try the Ebi Burger. Every morning when I bike by McDonald's I give her a little "Wassup" nod, a little "Hey Baby, you be looking good today" smile, a little "Don't worry, Sweet Thang, I'll be back for you one day" wink. On the poster the burger's pink shrimpy center is revealed by a dainty little nibble of a bite, and it's that seductive peepshow of prawn that's had me hooked.

From head to toe she's a fried ground shrimp patty, special sauce and lettuce resting between two sesame seed buns. I had to have her. But I could never bring myself to actually walk in and order the thing. I mean, this is McDonald's we're talking about. No self-respecting Snobby McFoody Pants goes to McDonald's. Taco Bell maybe, but McDonald's? It just isn't done. I mean, wasn't I just berating other foreigners for eating at McDonald's in my last post?

But there is something fun about sampling something so supremely American, in a foreign place, where the menu has been tweaked to reflect that country's tastes. In an act of desperation (missed flight + cranky + curious) I visited a McDonald's in Lima, Peru and was shocked to discover it's celebrity chef created menu, extensive hot sauce bar and classy McCafe, featuring espresso served in swank little porcelain cups. This website might make you want to fly to Kuwait to sample a McArabia and if I'm ever in the Philippines no one can keep me from the McDo, a fried chicken drumstick served with a side of spaghetti.

Having already tasted the majority of my must-try Japanese foods, plus a long list of things I'd never even heard of (sesame pig ears and barbecued blowfish are delicious, emu kara age is not), the only item lingering on my list was that silly old Ebi Burger. Sigh. Am I really that much of a snob? I mean, I've already super-sized myself (I literally gasped after stepping on the doctor's scale this morning: I'm up 13 pounds) so why stop now?

Milk makes it healthy
I finally gave into the Ebi Burger last weekend after my school's Halloween party. It was 2am, I was filled with liquid courage, disguised in head-to-toe hot pink and my voice had that unmistakable post-karaoke rasp. It was nothing less than an Ebi Burger booty call and she welcomed me with open arms. The automatic doors parted and I walked fearlessly toward the welcoming glow of the Golden Arches.

For a fleeting moment, I was tempted to order one of the new Fondue or Carbonara Chicken Burgers, which seemed far more strange and therefore alluring, but I stayed strong and got what I came for.

As you might expect, she left plenty to be desired: a bit too mild and more than a tad understated. In a word: boring. I don't know about you, but if I'm gonna wake up the next morning looking like a starving Ethiopian child, belly round and protruding with McSodium, McTransFats and McWhoTheFuckKnowsWhat, I want to experience a flavor explosion. A flavor typhoon. A fast food flavor Armageddon. I'll I'm sayin' is: Thank God for those magical McDonald's fries. At least it wasn't a total loss.

The next afternoon, sober and still a bit McBloated, I did the walk of shame past Ebi. Once a vibrant pink poster girl, she now looked pale, lackluster and small next to the new cheese blanketed chicken burgers featured on the jumbo sized sign boards. Like most long term fantasies, the reality could never live up to the dream. I knew that the night before had been our last. But I gave her a little wink anyway. I owed it to us, Ebi and me. After all, one year is a really fucking long time to be lusting after a shrimp burger.

The aftermath

Thursday, September 30, 2010

Konichiwa from Mt Hakusan!

Even outhouses are picturesque on Hakusan
Konichiwa! Konichiwaaaaa! Konichiwa!

One after another, they barrel down the steep trail, their uniformly lithe bodies wrapped in brand new, name brand, stylish outdoor gear in colors like fuchsia, pumpkin and brilliant blue. Half of them are senior citizens. Quite a few are using walking poles and many have bells tied to their packs. Observing a lack of rabid wild animals and other white people, I note that the bells must be working. At first I found the jingling festive and cute, but after trailing a man for 20 minutes, his small cowbell dangling on a string along the line of his asscrack, jingle jangling to the beat of his every step, I found myself desperate to jog ahead. Hiking bells: they keep the whiteys away, indeed.

It turns out Japanese people are just as polite on the trail as they are in the city. Every single one of them gamely calls "Konichiwa!" as they walk past me, even though it is 10am, which in the unwritten book of Japanese salutation law means we're still in "Ohayo Gozaimasu" territory.
My badass alpaca socks and I on top of the summit

I am the only foreigner on the trail to Mt Hakusan, the only foreigner sleeping at the lodge atop the mountain, the only foreigner eating dinner and breakfast in the dining hall and the only foreigner waking up at 4am to hike to the summit to see the sun rise. I will admit to you, dear reader, that all of this left me feeling just a wee bit smug. I felt like my mere presence was screaming: "Yes, it's true! All the other Americans in Japan are fat and lazy and spending their Sunday morning at the church of McDonald's sloppily masticating their McChickenFriedSteaks in hopes of drowning out their McHangovers. But not me! I am hiking up one of Japan's Three Holy Mountains because I am hard core...just like you!"  Never mind the fact that many of my non-Japanese friends have hiked this mountain before, some of them multiple times and a handful of them just the day before. Whenever such facts surfaced in my mind, I promptly pushed them back down and instead chose to bask in my extreme outdoorsyness.

I hoped my fellow trekkers simply assumed that a pair of old leggings topped with booty shorts and a Target hoody is how Americans typically dress for a big hike. I had also pulled on a pair of alpaca wool socks I had bought in Peru. This would surely elevate me to "serious hiker" status. As I huffed and puffed up the mountain, I imagined the conversation that would inevitably occur at dinner:  

Breakfast at Morodo Lodge
Japanese Hiker: Where did you get those hard core, super outdoorsy, alpaca socks?
Me: (looking super nonchalant and polishing my Swiss Army Knife) Oh, you know, Peru.
JH: You mean, in South America?!
Me: (absent mindedly, yet skillfully, skinning a squirrel I caught with my bare hands) Uh huh.
JH: Did you climb Machu Picchu?
Me: (sipping potentially polluted river water from my CamelBak brand water filtration system) Totally.

Then they would lift me up on their shoulders and parade me around the dining room while the others looked on in admiration, chanted my name and festively threw their SoyJoy energy bars at me.
Sunrise from The Summit: 5:47am

Sadly, this never happened. But in reality, I did get a lot more attention than usual. Tall, curly haired and super white, I expected, and was often told, I'd be gawked at in Japan. But, in general, I am mostly ignored and rarely spoken to by random strangers. But on top of the mountain I was the Queen of the Caucasians, often bluntly greeted with questions like: "Where did you come from?" and "What. Is. Your. Country?" making me feel like an outer space alien and an illegal one at an immigration office, respectively.

 "I'm from America!" I crowed and began to seriously contemplate buying my own jingly jangly cowbell.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

I Heart Ice Cream or "Why I no longer need to wear a belt"

Some people inherit their mother's nose, her nearsightedness or her ability to do long division without a paper and pencil.

I seem to have inherited my mother's love of ice cream. Love? Maybe that's not a strong enough word. Barbara has a very special, even passionate, relationship with her ice cream. There's something very peaceful about watching her lovingly assemble a massive Wednesday night ice cream Sunday that she'll carry to the couch and slowly devour while only half-watching some critic approved movie my father has selected from Netflix.

A slave to vanity, the ice cream is always of the low-fat variety, but last time I visited I caught her red-handed and in rare form: with the nozzle of a can of generic whipped cream between her lips, noisily spraying the white fluff directly down her gullet. She wordlessly passed me the can. Mother daughter bonding at it's best.

During the summer months in Japan, you can barely walk five feet without tripping over a giant, plastic ice cream cone, signaling that there is soft serve for sale inside. I felt that each of these plastic cones was a personal invitation for gluttony and ate my way through barrels of green tea soft serve all summer long. Maybe it was because I missed my mommy, or maybe ice cream eating is in my genes. Or maybe it's simply because green tea soft serve ice cream is really damn good. Regardless, I can no longer zip up my favorite gray dress.

Last week, while wearing a more forgiving frock, my BFIJ and I were strolling Higashi Chaya, Kanazawa's real-life geisha district, with it's old wooden storefronts and traditional tea houses. There's also an amazing looking ice cream shop that I have been meaning to try for months. Soy sauce, miso, yuzu, kabocha, black sesame, they were all there in ice cream form, along with the most exciting flavor of all: kagabocha, a smoky, local tea that I absolutely adore.

You can have your scoop nestled into a waffle cone (plain or chocolate) or you can try something really special: a scoop of ice cream smooshed between two squishy bamboo charcoal pancakes, topped with a floppy square of mochi and a smear of adzuki bean paste. An ice cream sandwich, Japanese style. The textures were amazing, but the delicate kagabocha flavor was drowned out by the parade of accessories. Still, I immediately began to crave another.

If the Japanese can create their own ice cream sandwich, perhaps the Jewish version isn't far behind. I'm thinking Manischewits flavored ice cream between two matzo with a smear of chopped chicken liver and a smashed coconut macaroon, kosher for Passover of course. Barb could eat it over the sink, noisily spraying each bite with a poof of generic whipped cream.

Monday, September 6, 2010

My Summer Vacation

I always loved the first day of school. It meant a new unicorn Trapper Keeper, a closet full of new Fall clothes and a fun little assignment called "What I Did Over My Summer Vacation."  Still sun burnt and scratching at lingering mosquito bites, I enjoyed reminiscing over my summer and writing about my family vacations and frequent trips to the community pool.

So here it is, What I Did Over My Summer Vacation: Jewshi Edition. This will mostly be a photo essay, but I can't resist a few words.

In a nut shell: I saw a lot of art, played a lot of Scrabble, ate approximately 5,657 ice cream cones, sweat so much I looked liked like my entire body was painted in melted butter and wore the same outfit nearly every day while hauling a massive backpack full of unworn clothes around Naoshima, Takamatsu, Tokushima, Miyajima and Hiroshima. Oh, and I went camping. So I was dirty, sweaty and fashion challenged. But you should still look at the photos because dirty sweaty vacations are the best kind. Well, minus the dirt and sweat parts. 

If you ever come to Japan, or if you're currently here, you must must must visit Naoshima. I just used bold and italics so you should know I'm being totally serious. It's famous for being an art island, which means it's crawling with modern art galleries and outdoor sculptures, funky cafes and restaurants (something I constantly long for here), chill people and the most amazingly cool public bathhouse that looks like this on the outside:

And like this on the inside:

We were sleeping on the beach, so it was a nice treat to do our nightly scrubbing and soaking at this artsy little sento. Naoshima also has beautiful beaches and everything on the island can be reached by pedaling a bright blue rented bicycle.

Another highlight of the trip was the Awa Odori dance festival in Tokushima. The normally sleepy city is invaded by a million tourists who come to watch the 80,000 participating locals who wear costumes and do traditional dancing and drumming in the streets. We wandered the streets, beer in hand, sometimes getting pulled into the big dance circles to shake our booties, old school Japanese style.

There was, of course, lots of eating: Tom and I took an udon making class, which you already know about, ate oysters in Miyajima and visited Okinomiyaki Village in Hiroshima, which fulfilled my gimmicky food tourist needs. This "village" was, in fact, three floors of okinomiyaki stalls. Hiroshima-style okinomiyaki is different than it's Kansai cousin; instead of a mixed up meat, seafood and vegetable pancake, it's meat, seafood and vegetables are sandwiched between a thin crepe and a thin omelet. It's also stuffed with noodles, usually soba but we also tried one with udon.  

Ok, I'm doing that thing. I'm doing that thing where I say I'm not gonna say much and then I can't stop blabbing. It's the "you hang up, no you hang up" of blogging. So without any more adjectives, nouns, verbs or even adverbs, I give you:

What I Did Over My Summer Vacation

Sunday, August 29, 2010

Udon: Dancing For My Dinner

Just to set the record straight: udon has never been on my Top 5 Noodle Dishes of All Time list. Yeah, that's right, I got a list. Perhaps I've seen High Fidelity one too many times or maybe I just like to be prepared (you never know when someone is gonna ask you about your Top 5 Noodles) but the fact remains: udon does not make the Top 5.

This is not to say that I haven't eaten buckets of it over the years. When I was a kid I often ordered the noodle soup, topped with shrimp tempura, when my family went out for Japanese food. It's also an easy lunchtime staple so, for years, I toted containers of instant udon to work, gussied up with cubes of tofu and sliced scallions. So, you see, udon is just fine. Udon is nice. But when it comes to food, friends and boyfriends, nice is never enough.

So when I was researching the foods of eastern Shikoku, in anticipation of my summer Obon vacation there, I wasn't too excited to discover that the Kagawa prefecture is famous for its "Sanuki" udon. Apparently there are over 700 udon shops in Japan's smallest prefecture. "Perfect," I thought, immediately resenting Kagawa for it's lack of what-the-hell-daifuku, "700 ways to have a boring lunch."

But further research lead me to an udon making class which lead to the udon making technique: apparently the dough is traditionally kneaded with one's feet. Hmm, not so boring after all. I signed my friend (and travel partner) Tom and I up for an afternoon class at Nakano Udon School in Takamatsu and spent the next 2 weeks perfecting my pedicure.

The class was run by two amazingly peppy old ladies who seemed thrilled to be showing us how to make noodles, even though they've likely done it billions of times. One was clearly the leader (endearingly pushy) and the other the sidekick (likes to be pushed), and I imagine they zip around town on one of those motorcycle-with-sidecar contraptions, a la Wallace and Gromit, and sleep in side-by-side twin beds while wearing matching pajamas.

After being guided through the dough making process, the much anticipated foot kneading could begin. The dough was slid into plastic bags, dropped onto the floor...and then the music started. Yes, the music. Wallace and Gromit wanted us to dance. On top of the udon. To old granny Japanese enka music and what I can only describe as b-side disco 70's pop.

No problem.

Our spastic passionate dance moves proved to be successful, because after inspecting everyone's dough, the Leader Teacher proclaimed ours to be the best in the class. Booya! The next step was to roll out the dough, gently fold it, and cut it into thick noodles.

Finally it was time to taste our handiwork. We were guided into a big dining room and sat at a long table where each noodle making team got their own bubbling pot of water and an array of udon condiments. We dumped our freshly cut noodles into the pot, anxiously poked and prodded them with chopsticks, and stirred up our dipping sauces. Instead of eating a big bowl of noodle soup, we would be pulling the noodles out of the pot and dipping them into a mix of dashi, soy sauce, grated ginger and scallions. We each had a bowl of ice water in case we wanted to eat the noodles cold. We did.

Yum. Seriously yum. Thick and pleasantly chewy, these udon noodles were noticeably different and seriously better than any I have had before. The udon of my past never put up a fight, they were soft and limp and sad, unlike their toothsome Sanuki udon cousins. I also realized how much better they taste cold.

Suddenly Shikoku's food scene was looking up. 700 udon shops? How could we possibly visit them all? We were in love with cold udon and needed our fix. But sometimes love is fickle. After a lifetime of boring encounters I am still weary about adding udon to my Top 5 list. But I'll gladly dedicate the #6 position to the bowl of cold, Sanuki udon I slurped up in Naoshima, pictured at the top of this post.

My (current) Top 5 Favorite Noodles/Noodle Dishes in no particular order:

1. Chinese hand shaven noodles (Seven Stars Pepper in Seattle is my favorite)
2. Pappardelle (handmade are obviously best but Trader Joe's brand are also excellent)
3. Ramen (Let me be a broken record and say I heart Kyushu style ramen best)
4. Pad see ew
5. My lasagna with homemade noodles, pork ragu and bechamel

Sunday, August 22, 2010

The Great Epiphany

In my 10th grade home economics class we had to fill out a survey about our futures, and make a magazine cut-out collage to go along with it. Through my marijuana haze, I predicted I'd be married at 25 and knocked up a couple of years after that. Not that it was necessarily my teenage fantasy, it's just what I thought people did. As I snipped out pictures of Jared Leto (my future husband, obviously) I certainly wasn't thinking "When I'm 30 I'll be sleeping on a beach on a Japanese island because there are no hotel rooms available." I was too busy gluing photos of the Smashing Pumpkins (Jared was able to get them to play at our reception) next to a white, poofy cupcake of a wedding dress.

But last week, when I was sleeping on a beach on a Japanese island because there were no hotel rooms available, I started thinking about being 30 and how much a single birthday has affected me. I thought about how my 28 year old self couldn't have predicted my life at 30 any better than my 15 year old self could. I thought about my mom, who had me at thirty, and how 30 always sounded kind of old but how young I feel.  I thought about how liberating turning 30 has been for me and how happy I was to be sleeping on that beach at that very moment.

My first blast of liberation came the day before my 30th birthday on January 2nd, 2010.

I was in Yokohama, on my winter holiday, with a plan to travel to Kamakura for a quiet, reflective birthday on my own. I had just spent the past week with one of my best friends, visiting from California, and it sounded like a nice, relaxing follow up to our up-all-night Tokyo New Year's extravaganza. The night of the 2nd, I had arranged to stay with a Japanese guy from because he lived close to Kamakura. His messages had been a bit odd and I felt uneasy about the plan, but I talked myself into it and hopped on a train. I arrived at 9pm and was relieved to find a seemingly normal, chatty university student who studies veterinary science. He said he lived a short walk from the station and we took off on foot, me looking like Travels McTravelpants with a big pack on my back and a small backpack on my front. So we walked. And we walked. And. We. Walked. After 30 minutes we were deep in the suburbs, my back was aching and I started to feel a bit nervous. Where is this stranger taking me? I swear I saw my mother hiding behind a bush, wagging her finger and giving me disapproving looks.

Finally we arrived at his apartment. Just before he put the key in the lock he looked at me sheepishly and said "It's very dirty." This being Japan, the land of modesty, I figured this meant he had a few dishes in the sink and a sock on the floor. But then he opened the door.


Dirty was an understatement. Nasty, filthy, disgusting, garbage hoarder are all better adjectives to describe the pit of filth this boy lived in. His tiny entryway was stuffed with big, black overflowing bags of garbage. The kitchen sink was erupting with grease caked pots and pans and the floor of his studio was littered with empty instant ramen cups, disposable chopsticks and bits of old, dried up food. It was almost comically dirty: there was a layer of earthen dirt and cigarette ash on the floor and hair balls rolled like tumbleweeds across the plains of his carpet. There didn't appear to be a closet so the rest of the space was cluttered with teetering stacks of books, videos, piles of clothes and even more black garbage bags.  

I gingerly sat down on his bare, stained mattress as he took a seat on the floor and started chain smoking without bothering to crack a window. As the room filled with smoke I asked him if he'd like to get a drink or something to eat. "Not really," he said and I glanced at the clock wondering what we were going to do until it was time to go to sleep. Sleep! Where was I going to sleep? I didn't see an extra futon or blanket and even his bed was devoid of sheets.


It may sound extreme, but I started to do what any gal sitting awkwardly in a stranger's filthy apartment would do: I started scanning the room in search of weapons.


As he babbled on in broken English, I saw it. A gun. An actual gun. It was propped up in the corner next to a long box that read "Air Gun." I still have no idea what an air gun is. It doesn't sound as scary as a pistol or a rifle or a canon or a bomb, but it's still a gun and guns are scary and my heart started pounding and my vision went blurry and ohmygodhe'sgoingtokillme. I got up and said I had to go to the bathroom.


Yes, the bathroom was also nightmarishly dirty and as I hovered over the germ-infested toilet I was blessed with an amazing epiphany: I don't have to stay here. I can leave! I'm turning 30 tomorrow and I don't have to put up with this shit!

This may sound like the obvious course of action, but the 25 year old me might have stayed. The 25 year old me might have been too chicken to tell the guy I wanted to leave. She might not have wanted to pay for a taxi back to the station and a train back to Yokohama and another night at a hostel. She might not have wanted to spend the next hour and a half backtracking, at 10 o'clock at night, in a foreign place.

But the me who was turning 30 in two hours marched out of the bathroom and told the guy his place was too dirty, it made me feel uncomfortable, and I needed him to call me a taxi back to the station right now. I walked out the door feeling strong and powerful. I also felt extremely pissed off, scared and annoyed that my entire night had been wasted and that I had ignored my initial instincts and put myself in a potentially unsafe situation. But I also felt liberated and immediately coined my new motto: "I'm 30! I don't have to put up with this shit!"

The next morning, I awoke in the hostel feeling groggy, travel weary and a little bit sick. It was my 30th birthday and I was going to Kamakura. Oh man, I really didn't want to go to Kamakura. I wanted to go home and take a bubble bath and sleep in my comfy bed. But it was my 30th birthday. What would I tell people? That I spent my 30th alone doing absolutely nothing? I would look pathetic.

Epiphany #2: Who cares what people think! I'm 30! I don't have to put up with that shit!

So, I boarded the bullet train and spent the four hour ride high on my new found liberation. I got home, took a long hot shower, put on my favorite pajamas and gave myself a fun little hairdo. It was my birthday, after all. I cooked up a big pot of basil marinara and ate my spaghetti under the covers while watching downloaded episodes of Mad Men. It felt amazing and not the least bit pathetic.

Oh, and then I had a roller skating birthday party the next week. Any excuse to buy a pair of legwarmers.

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Not Your Average Marshmallow

Up until two years ago I consistently spelled "marshmallow" wrong. It's that A, man. No one ever sees it coming. I bring this up because, until last week, this was my most interesting bit of marshmallow news. Wanna make marshmallow small talk? Challenge me with "marshmallow" at the Seattle adult spelling bee? No
problem. I can contribute this little nugget. But! Breaking marshmallow news. Can you tell I miss reporting? 

I was shopping in the international grocery store, a place I had completely forgotten about and only visited once many months before. The shelves are stocked with items I hadn't seen in ages: garbanzo beans, tortilla chips, sauerkraut. Who knew I could go weak in the knees over a jar of kosher dill pickles? 

I had just set a sack of oh-my-God-they-have-granola in my cart when a bag of marshmallows caught my eye. There, next to the regular whites and pastels, were coffee flavored marshmallows. Beside them? Marshmallows flavored with Darjeeling Tea. Ooh! I marveled at their uniqueness, held the packages in my hands for a while, took a few photos, but not being a fan of "raw" marshmallows I set them back on the shelf. Like most normal Americans, I prefer my marshmallows with a healthy crust of black carcinogen, topped with melting Hershey's chocolate and squeezed between two graham crackers. These are best eaten with a little dirt under the fingernails and a beanie covering one's head.

But today I went back. How did I forget I have a camping trip planned for next month? Camping trip = marshmallows! My camping companion is from New Zealand and not only has he never tried a s'more, he'd never even heard of one. This must and will be remedied. I threw a bag of each flavor in my basket and vowed to keep them sealed until I was sitting in front of a campfire.

Cut to me in the store's parking lot, ripping open the bag of Darjeeling like a male stripper rips open his cop uniform in a suburban living room full of cougars. "Just one," I told myself. Ok, two. Mmmm, these are really good. Three. Dammit! Four. At every red light I reached into my bike basket, guiltily unrolled the bag, and popped a marshmallow into my mouth. "Ok, this is the last one." Five. Six. Seven. Eight.

I had no idea they would be so good. Perfectly chewy, not overly sticky or sweet, they actually taste like they've been steeped in Darjeeling tea. Would it be so wrong if I finished off the bag while writing the last three paragraphs?

While I would truly love to end this story here, tied up nice and neat, this is a Japanese product so please allow me to share a couple of things printed on the label.

First, the ever present slogan. They love a good Engrish slogan in Japan. Under the word "marshmallows" it reads: Your favorite tea time partner that warms your heart with the soft and sweet delight. I would have let this go if it weren't for the photograph on the back of the bag, suggesting how to best enjoy these soft and sweet delights. On a lovely white platter, next to a cup of tea, the marshmallows are arranged on top of Ritz and Saltine crackers. Each one is topped with what appears to be a little dollop of a) caviar b) jelly c) cheese d) frosting or e) fruit. A little herb garnish hovers above each one and red holly berries add color to the platter's corners.

I like to imagine the stay-at-home Japanese Stepford wives, buzzing away in their tiny kitchens, preparing a lovely little afternoon tea for their galpals. Keiko breezes into the living room with a platter of marshmallow, caviar, cheese, mint, Saltine canapes.The ladies gasp and cover their mouths with delight. "Oh Keiko!" they cry, "These tea partners warm my heart!"

Saturday, July 10, 2010

When the 4th of July is just simply July 4th

I used to plan my life around holidays. What am I gonna make for the Thanksgiving potluck? Will anyone remember if I bust out the Super Absorbency (tampon superhero, duh) costume again this Halloween? Who's gonna invite the lonely Jew over for Christmas dinner? But now that I'm living in a mostly Buddhist country, the holidays I've celebrated, or at least been saturated in, my entire life have faded away like Marty McFly in that family photograph he kept tucked away in his puffy orange vest.

Christmas came and went without a single drug store candy cane and there was no mountain of rejected pastel Peeps hardening on the "somebody anybody eat this, please!" communal food table at work. Hannukkah? Yom Kippur? Pffft. I have given up trying to explain that I'm "Jewish" and my dad is from "Israel" where they speak a language called "Hebrew." Between the cocked heads and furrowed brows, you'd think I was explaining the Pythagorean theorem while dipping a newborn in chocolate. Which, funny enough, is exactly what Moses was doing right before he led the Jews out of Egypt and into the land of milk and honey.

So, it's not surprising that I completely forgot it was the 4th of July until I glanced at my bus ticket to Shirakawa-go and saw the familiar numbers stamped in the corner: 7/4. Ah! It's the 4th of July! But instead of elbowing my way through crowds of Budweiser-scented men wearing American flag tank tops & lighting bottle rockets, I would be taking myself on a day trip date.

Here's where I went:

I sat around with a bunch of older ladies and gents painting the scenery. I told the guy next to me his picture was pretty and he gave it to me!

The little thatched roof village is like walking through a fairytale, with butterflies fluttering through fields of flowers and frogs croaking from somewhere between the green blades shooting up from the small rice paddies. But after about 3 hours of wandering, I'd seen every house, every gift shop and taken enough photos to suitably drain my camera's battery. So I did what any self respecting American would do on Independence Day: I lit up some sparklers and burned that village down! No, wait, I did the other thing: I ate.

Yes, the rumors are true: I ate two ice creams, since the first one was disappointing (so it didn't count) which meant I "deserved" to advance into Round Two.
It doesn't look so disappointing, but the scoop of sugary strawberry ice cream, smooshed between two wafers, tasted more like "pink" than natural berry.  I forced myself to wait another three hours before caving into my old standby: a cone filled with creamy green tea and vanilla soft serve. 

When I saw that the little grilled mochi balls painted with soy sauce were a mere 70yen (about 70 cents) a stick there was no question I'd be having one of them; and who can resist a tiny old fashion bottle of milk squeezed from local cows? Not me. A complete milk drinking addict, I was often mocked for ordering a glass of cold milk at a fancy restaurant my partner and I were reviewing and my mother makes sure to have a carton waiting in the fridge when I visit.

Since it was the 4th of July, I decided to have a burger. A rice burger. That's what they called the two grilled rice patties sandwiching a little sauteed local beef and onions.

I sat in the little cafe, hiding from the humidity, nibbling my rice burger, guzzling water and attempted to get sucked in to my first Salman Rushdie book (So far? Meh). A day on my own. It truly was Independence Day.

Saturday, July 3, 2010

Bubble Tea: 5 Years Later

Oh my God, you guys, I just tried the most amazing dish! You have to try it. It's, like, this kind of bread, like a flat kind of bread and they put this tomato sauce on it and then cover it with cheese and then they bake it and, like, oh my God you guys, you're gonna fucking die. It's sooooo good!

This was how I felt after trying bubble tea. For the first time. Two weeks ago. Like Christopher Fucking Columbus "discovering" America even though the place had been inhabited for about a bazillion years by people who covered their junk with buckskins and made really great elk jerky. Like I'd finally found the one, long lost, missing piece to my kittens and puppies puzzle right there under the couch. Like (let me just ruin the above joke by explaining it) I had just discovered pizza.

I don't know what has kept me from trying this delightful drink all these years. There is certainly no shortage of bubble tea establishments in Seattle. Even my former boss, who still wears shoulder pads and considers frozen T.G.I. Fridays mozzarella sticks to be an elegant cocktail party snack, could be found sucking tapioca pearls up those comically girthy straws on a daily basis. 

Funny Story. No, I don't have one, that is actually the name of the bubble tea & crepe place in the shopping center next to my work. Funny Story. I don't know what's so funny about bubble tea (the comically girthy straw, maybe?), but every time I see the big orange sign it makes me giggle (hmmm, so it is funny!) so I finally stopped in to see what all the fuss was about.

Oh man have I been wasting my life away drinking other things! Bubble tea! It's like a drink and a snack all in one, with it's sweet milky tea (or frozen slushy, your choice) and big chewy tapioca pearls. If there's one thing I like in this world (besides Scrabble and swallowing Jello without chewing) it's contrasting textures, and bubble tea has got just that. I lost my bubble tea virginity to the magical purple potato flavor and have had a hard time trying anything else despite a single, short lived, affair with coconut (it's pretty good too, but smacks slightly of Hawaiian Tropic).

I don't know why I'm telling you all this since you, and the rest of America, have been enjoying bubble tea since George Bush Jr was reelected and the Taiwanese have been sucking down the stuff since about the time I learned that yellow and blue make green. Maybe it's because I am newly in love, and like anyone in love, I want to tell absolutely everybody about it. Maybe because there are a few of you out there who have yet to be enlightened, and I want to be the one who saves you. I have been saved, my friends, and let me tell you: it feels good.

Monday, June 28, 2010

A Ramen Round-up

Balmy. It's my new favorite word and, lately, I have had ample opportunity to use it. The weather here has turned hot, sweaty, sticky and strange. I'm either pairing tank tops with rain boots or hunkering down inside my air conditioned apartment as the warm, tropical rain loudly crashes down outside my window.

With the heat came a chilling realization: ramen season is over. Sure, technically, I can still pop into a noodle shop and get my slurp on, but I'd prefer not to spend my lunch break sweating into a hot bowl of soup. This is truly heartbreaking as I despise hot, humid weather as much as I love good ramen.

So, I'd like to do a little tribute to my dear friend ramen and share with you a collection of top notch bowls I've enjoyed in various cities around Japan. I'll miss you over these next couple of balmy months, my porky salty friend. Have a great summer! Stay Sweet! KIT!!
Butter + Ramen
Last weekend, as the temperature began to rise, I panicked and insisted on squeezing in one last round of ramen. I was visiting my BFIJ in Fukui so we stopped into her favorite local shop. It didn't look particularly exciting, but then I saw it. The ramen I have been wanting to try. The Shio Butter Ramen. Butter is a common ramen accoutrement in the Hokkaido region, the most northern island in Japan, where all the cows live and moo and donate their milk to make the particularly flavorful butter. The bowl arrived, as promised, with a fat nug of butter bobbing atop the salt broth. Chopped shiso leaves were another added bonus.  I swirled the butter around the bowl until it melted, immediately adding an oily sheen to the soup and even more calories to my (poor poor) happily overfed body. Salt is not my favorite ramen flavor, but the butter took the edge off, and the broth was smooth and unctuous. 

The Old Standby AKA My Very Very Favoritest Ramen in Kanazawa 

Ippudo is where I ate my very first meal in Kanazawa and it remains to be one of my favorite restaurants in the city. Not only is their Kyushu-style tonkotsu ramen consistently amazing, but they provide two of my favorite things: lots of condiments and free side dishes. Hurrah! After your bowl arrives, with it's rich, cloudy-white, pork broth and slippery noodles (you can choose to have them cooked hard or soft), grind some sesame seeds on top and use the garlic press to add a freshly crushed clove or two. Dig into the wooden bowls full of all-you-can-eat spicy chopped greens and bean sprouts coated in chili oil. Always pay the extra 100yen to add a perfectly cooked egg. After carefully biting through the hard cooked white, you'll be rewarded with a gooey, Hawaiian sunset orange, yolk. Sip your complimentary, bottomless iced tea and listen to the jazz playing in the simple but stylish dining room. When you finally stumble out the door, woozy and comatose from the decadent combination of pork, noodles and egg, the entire staff will shout after you. I don't know what they're saying, but I imagine it's something like "Dang! That shit was the joint, huh? Good luck staying awake at your desk, sucker!"  Some Bad News: I was shocked and disappointed to discover that Ippudo is a chain, with 34 shops in Japan. Some Good News: There's now an Ippudo in New York City, so I can get my fix stateside. 

Kyushu: The Ramen Mecca

Japanese people love waiting in line for food. A long line means it must be good, and these people will consistently queue up for hours for what they hope is the perfect plate of gyoza or freshest slices of sashimi. It is rumored that some will hop in any old line, not even knowing what they are waiting for, but assuming it must be life alteringly delicious. I am not so keen on the lines, but line up I did in Kagoshima. What else could I do? There I was in the motherland. The birthplace of my beloved Kyushu tonkotsu ramen. I was finally gonna eat one of my favorite foods on its home turf. I was like a Jew in Jerusalem, but with way more pork. Of course I would wait in line. And it was totally worth it. This was the absolute best bowl of my life. The pork nearly melted on my tongue, the noodles were chewy and ropey and (bonus round!) there was a handful of silky skinned, pork filled, wontons. A cold glass of lunchtime beer cut right through that rich, porcine broth.

So, there ya have it. Ramen season is officially over (maybe, probably, most likely). But not all is lost: cold soba season has just begun!

Wednesday, June 16, 2010


One recent rainy day, hundreds of sumo fans pulled on their clear plastic, convenience store, rain ponchos and bussed up to Kanazawa's Mt Utatsuyama to observe a centuries old tradition.

Me? I came to gawk at the diaper thongs and man boobies.

Correction: teenage boy boobies. This was a national high school sumo tournament that takes place in Kanazawa every year.

It was just like a classic American high school football game: the stands were packed with hoards of cheering classmates, singing chants, stomping feet and clapping, and a school marching band was playing Eye of the Tiger. Yes, that Eye of the Tiger. At a sumo match. The only difference was the star athletes were wearing nothing but loin-cloths-meet-g-strings and the cheerleaders donned kimonos and danced to traditional Japanese music during half time.

Having become completely accustomed to Japan's delicate man waifs, with their Pocky-like legs and Mary Kate Olson sized waists, I was taken aback by the size of these burgeoning athletes.

How do the pro-wrestlers manage to get so plump and pudgy in the land of the slim and skinny?

The regimen of no breakfast and a large lunch followed by beer and sleep helps rikishi put on weight so as to compete more effectively.

Epiphany alert! It seems I was on a sumo wrestler's diet nearly every weekend of my Chico life. Only Wikipedia made no mention of Super Burritos with extra sour cream or the come-hither green label of a Sierra Nevada Pale Ale. Instead, the big boys feast on chankonabe, a tasty Japanese style stew packed with chicken, fish, tofu and vegetables. Oh, and plenty of rice, of course.  

Speaking of food, the muddy pathway leading to the sumo ring was lined with colorful tents pumping out yummy smells and selling greasy foods-on-sticks. After several soggy hours of sumo watching, consuming a freakishly long and crooked hot dog seemed like the absolute right thing to do. As did following it up with beer and a nap.

(If you actually want to learn more about sumo, check out this link. It's actually really interesting and much better than me paraphrasing Wikipedia and pretending I am some kind of expert.)

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Fish food

I suppose it was my time to give back to the fish community. For years, I have mindlessly absorbed their Omega 3's, nibbled their sweet flesh and crunched on their crispy tails. I have eaten them raw, broiled, baked, barbecued, boiled, fried, chowdered and, most recently, live. I've sucked their shells, devoured their eggs and removed their succulent cheeks with surgical precision.

So, in the name of 'what goes around comes around,' I allowed dozens of fish to chow down on me. In fact, I paid for the privilege.

Up until I actually did it, I thought getting a fish pedicure was an absolutely brilliant idea. Going to a spa, sticking my feet into a little bath and letting dozens of fishies nibble off the dead skin sounded like a perfectly bizarre, only-in-Japan, experience. I held on to these positive feelings up until I was actually faced with the tub of fish. Remember the shrieking and the carrying on I did trying to get up the nerve to eat the live fish? Well, this was like that...x10.

I don't know what these insatiable fish eat in their natural habitat, but it seems they are positively mad for human foot skin. It's pretty much their favorite food. As soon as I lowered my foot into the bath, those little fuckers absolutely swarmed it, like Barbra Streisand walking into a gay bar. They immediately latched on, opening and closing their creepy little fish beaks, gorging themselves on my delicious calluses. It was repulsive. It really tickled. I became hysterical: laughing uncontrollably, squealing with disgust and causing my friends to look at me like I had lost my mind.

But it's sandal season and I really wanted my pedicure, dammit, so I managed to keep my feet (OK, only my heels, I couldn't handle the entire foot) in their food bowl for about 20 minutes. And you know what? Those fish did a horrible job! Despite the fact that they treated my feet like an all-you-can-eat-salad bar at the Sizzler, they weren't even a teeny tiny bit smoother.

The moral of this story: What goes around comes around: You eat the live fish, the live fish will eat you.

The reality of this story: Fish? Not so good at giving pedicures.

Thursday, May 20, 2010

'What The Hell' Daifuku

I do enjoy a good list, and recently I have started making a mental one of the things I will miss when I leave Japan. Oh, and when I say "things" what I really mean is "foods."

Over the past seven months I have developed quite a fond relationship with a little sweet called daifuku. But the relationship quickly turned from fond to addictive. A day without a daifuku was not a day I wanted to live. Every lunch break or walk home from work, I found myself magnetically drawn to the glowing light of the convenience store, desperate to get my mochi fix. These little treats come in all sorts of varieties, stuffed with a strawberry or studded with black beans, but the standard is deliciously simple: the softest little smush of a mochi ball stuffed with sweet adzuki bean paste. My favorite daifuku come three to a bag at Lawson's and only cost 100yen. My BFIJ and I call them "baby's butt mochi" and they usually made their way into our evening tea, salty snack, beer and bullshit (not necessarily in that order) routine. That is, until I faced my addiction head on and went cold turkey. Actually, it was more of an overall convenience store food ban, but that's for another day and another blog post. Having battled The Great Sour Cream Addiction of 2004 I knew I could gain control over the daifuku and eventually learn to appreciate my favorite treat in small doses.

But just as I had settled into my new daifuku-less life, there it was. In my Rough Guide Japan. The ultimate daifuku. Yoko and I were still in the planning stages for our Golden Week trip to Kyushu, and I was researching places we might visit. After reading the following sentence it became absolutely clear, and essential, to both of us that we visit the city of Miyazaki:

Try their Nanjya-kora Daifuku - a chilled package of soft white rice flour, filled with red bean paste, a strawberry, a chestnut and cream cheese; it's absolutely divine. 

Holy. Jesus. Daifuku. Fuck. I had found the turducken of daifuku.

This was a daifuku of epic proportions. I began to ask around. "Have you heard of this daifuku?" I asked my students and coworkers, but no one knew a thing. That's the beauty of Japanese travel + food love: every city has it's own little culinary specialty that can't often be found anywhere else. Finally I laid the question on my head-teacher, Hisano. She started laughing. "Nanja-kora daifuku? That's what it's called? That pretty much translates to 'what the hell?' daifuku!"  This only added to the excitement. Yoko and I justified the side trip to Miyazaki by penciling in a visit to "one of the world's largest planetariums" and I proceeded to talk about What The Hell Daifuku for the next two months. Most of the conversations went like this:

Me: "Only 36 more days until What The Hell Daifuku! Oh, I'm so excited! Yay!"
Other person:  "Um..." *continues to stare out the bus window or organize a lesson plan*

Finally the day arrived. We got off the train in Miyazaki, marched straight to the planetarium, and were greeted with a dark building and a grim "closed" sign. Luckily Miyazaki turned out to be a beautiful city, the sunniest in Japan (according to the Rough Guide), lined with palm trees, dotted with uncharacteristically lovely Japanese modern architecture and contained both a beautiful little tropical island and a Mexican restaurant. Things were looking up.

Determined not to miss out on the main attraction, we headed for Hidaka cake shop, which turned out to be the only shop in the city selling the fantastical daifuku. Yoko talked me out of ordering three. We each ordered a single daifuku and watched as the shop girls spent several minutes carefully, and individually, wrapping each one. There was a special little box, a small ice pack, and finally a bag. There might have been bubble wrap. This was obviously as special as I had imagined.

We took our packages to a botanical garden and unwrapped. There stood two of the biggest daifuku I had ever seen. They were absolutely pregnant with strawberry, chestnut, cream cheese and adzuki bean paste. We started to eat, trying to get the perfect bite containing all four elements. We mostly ended up with a lot of white powder all over our faces. Yoko was fairly unmoved. I was quite pleased, mostly with the novelty, partly with the daifuku goal being achieved, and also with that soft little chestnut.

It was my first, and probably my last, What The Hell Daifuku. Maybe I should have gotten two. 

(photo credit: the first strawberry daifuku photo was stolen from a blog called Hunger Hunger)

Here are some photos from our day in Miyazaki, more specifically, from our time spent in Aoshima.

 The gates to enter Aoshima
 Yoko, my BFIJ, in front of the island. It only takes 15 minutes to circle.
 The single torii gate of Aoshima
 The island walkway at dusk