Kyoto: No Season Like Winter Season

Arriving in a Dr. Zhivago-like snow, through various stations, below mountains and beside forests, we reached Kyoto mid-day.  The city was lovely in the white although crowds showed dismay.  Not a place where cold is welcome, which is surprising given the powerfully hot summers that drain energy.

A lovely meal of unagi at a hole-in-the-wall and wallets lighter by a total of $30, we strolled a department store food hall and returned with ground sansho, Ippodo tea, and grilled chicken wings.

That evening we wound up at a remote mom-and-pop chicken joint and enjoyed delicious bird and cold beer on a tatami mat.  Later that same night it was an ex-pat bar–Irish Pub–in Gion.

It’s a city easy to navigate and wonderful for walking in.


Washoku: The Heart & Soul of Japan

So what is washoku?  Yes, you in the back.  Right, pre-Western foods from Japan.  Mountain vegetables, miyoga, fish and shellfish from the Sea of Japan, and so on.  Plus the style and pace and presentation of dishes–wa.  Harmony.   Order.  Succession of flavors, textures, and temperatures.

All that said, yesterday saw the D.T. Suzuki museum in Kanazawa, which was designed by Yoshio Taniguchi.  Same architect who did MOMA.  Stunning, empty spaces, no clutter, lots of places for the mind to roam.

Later, on the very same day, it was a delicious dinner at Beniya Mukayu–the name “Mukayu” means non-being or nothingness–consisting of exquisite fish and vegetables.  Flavors sang, the chef is restrained and playful at the same time.  The owner, Sachiko Nakamichi, and her husband Kazunari, epitomize omotanashi.

More baths in the hot springs.

And then a Japanese breakfast of yuba, grilled fish, salad, steamed vegetables, and miso.

It’s food and space that speaks of temporality.

Japanese Inn: Nap, Read, Walk, Bathe, Eat

We’re at The Kayotei, my favorite inn or ryokan, and although interviewing the chef and the owner and the GM about seasonality occupies time, there is still plenty of room to take cat naps throughout the day on the pristine tatami mats while lounging in yukata and reading about the storied history of jazz in Japan.

Then, of course, there are brief walks to the small village on the other side of the gorge where yesterday we had bowls of hot buckwheat noodles and cold beers, lunch for $20, including everything, and also bought small lacquerware for serving tiny amounts of food.

Lots of outdoor and indoor bathing, too.  You grunt, you submerge yourself, you think of nothing at all.  This goes on at least three to five times each day.  One feels as clean as a newborn.

Last night it was sukiyaki with a freshly whipped egg and lots of mushrooms, leeks, and mountain greens.


Japanese Hot Springs

A new day is dawning and from here, deep in the snow covered forest, glimpses of light portion out visible things such as tree branches.  I’ve just returned from the baths down the tatami matted hallway.  This place, The Kayotei, is a mountain inn where I’ve been many times before, in which a lot of space is created in which to put and receive thoughts and memories.  Things die out, creation starts anew.  Entropy, my butt.

Last night it was kaiseki in the room, on the floor, and an array of small plates came, including: Mountain vegetables, white miso soup, salmon in broth, a few slices of beef, beans and rice and dried, sweet kelp.  Local sake and a Nikka afterwards in the lounge.

I’m interviewing the chef, the owner, and the GM here over the course of three days.  Hearing about the washoku or pre-Western diet, and as always when I am in Japan, taking in new information.  The spoils, the hopes dashed, and the compromises that in short order are a way of life rather than a receptive series of distractions.

Soon it will be time for breakfast: 和朝食.

Dried fish, grilled and aged tofu, small omelet.

Japan in Winter

Tokyo is to snow as D.C. is to snow: Sure, it was the “worst” snowfall here “in forty years,” according to published news reports, but it wasn’t much, not by New England standards nor those of northern Japan where, in places like Niigata and Hokkaido, ten or twelve feet per winter is not unusual.

Things slowed down.

Things will slow down more today as well due to it being a national holiday related to national pride.

Good thing, too, because the intensity and energy of Tokyo are always on the edge of being overwhelming.

Yesterday it was spectacular Neopolitan pizza for lunch at a place I’ve visited before, back in November, where the cheese, olive oil, and tomatoes are all from Japan and the baked dough?  Well, you may as well be in Naples.  Truly one of the best pies in the world.

Later, after a long mid-day nap, it was sukiyaki at a tiny, hidden place.  Delicious, marbled beef in thin slices cooked with a bit of soy and onions and mushrooms and dipped in eggs and washed down with beer and then sake.  Did we eat too much?  We ate too much.

This morning it’s a long train ride to the mountains for three nights at two different inns where we will attempt to do nothing except bathe and eat very lightly.


Sun over Tokyo Harbor

The mad rush after nine and a half hours of sitting on the floor before the gates of the train to leave Narita Airport ended yesterday afternoon about 1:30, and in a daze induced by lack of sleep, invasion of privacy, hopelessness, and hunger, we got on a crowded car and made our way through fields covered in light snow until we reached Ueno Station in Tokyo.

Tokyo never looked so good.

It truly is a miraculous city, in the literal sense, having been rebuilt twice within one hundred years, first after the great 1923 earthquake and later post the world war two bombings.  Currently, its architecture both numbs and stimulates the senses, its modernity unparalleled in the ability to evoke desire, discontent, and hope all at the same time.  You might say its buildings capture a part of the Japanese heart and soul.

The view from here on the 33rd floor of the Conrad is of the harbor and river, and no property in the city has a better point from which to see the start of commerce.

The lounge below of the hotel has lighting, drinks, and service that make it so that one feels content.

But we had to leave last night for food, which we found on a couple of subway rides.  Yakitori, one of my favorite places, too, where my very estimable friend Shinji ordered fourteen sticks and draft beer and cups of cold sake from Kyoto, Hiroshima, and another region in the middle of the country.  Simply the best chicken imaginable.  Grilled in a light sauce and served, too, with beautiful vegetables with sprinkles of numbing peppers and crushed ginger and red pepper flakes?  Perfection.





Live in Narita!

5,000 of us are strewn around the airport, many in blue or orange sleeping bags that were issued to us, along with Ritz crackers and bottled water, and the silence and glare of the fluorescent lights, the repetitive sound of the escalator next to me, and the pacing of the sleepless create a whole new experience.

Whether it’s cultural or not, time will tell.

What happened, speaking personally, was that, after 21 hours in the air, from Boston and via Seattle, with a three hour diversion to Nagoya, just west of here, I found myself at Narita Airport in the midst of a storm.  It wasn’t a storm storm, not by New England standards, but, hey, an inch and a half of snow is an inch and a half of snow.

This just in: 15 inches in some suburbs of Tokyo.

This in mind, officials closed the highways and shut down the trains.  Taxis stopped running.  All the local hotels were filled.

After cold soba and duck broth–a really delicious version, which for $10, was a delight–we all bedded down beside that previously noted escalator.  Ritz crackers and sleeping bags were dispensed, a few caught some shuteye, and hope filled the air.

The quiet is lovely.  The floor is hard.

The plan tomorrow is take a train or bus to Tokyo, but we shall see.


The News from Japan

Well, how would I know?  I’m not there.  All I know is what I hear and read.  But, fine, yes, here is the news: 雪.  That’s right, yuki.  Yuki-des.  Snow.  Lots of it.  We’ll be flying into a storm, and already, I’m told, Japan Rail is shutting down runs.

But we’ll be fine.  The flight to Seattle leaves later this morning, and then it’s “Asian Vegetarian” all the way to Japan.  A bus?  A train?  Either way: Shiodome by nightfall.

Yakitori?  A sake pub crawl?

Let it 雪, let it 雪, let it 雪!

My Latest Food Projects

Fine, yes, I’m trying to sell my book on the psychology behind the phenomenal success of Indians in the U.S. and, yes, I’m in neutral on the work having to do with growing up (feeling) Ethiopian, but on a pragmatic, let’s-get-it-done level, and in anticipation of my imminent trip to Japan…

We’re looking at a piece on jazz in Japanese cities and the places where people go to eat, drink, and hear the music.  We’re looking at Kyoto–not the temples, not the Kamo river joints, not the Gion and the geisha trappings, but the sweet spots to relax and have a shochu and some noodles or grilled chicken.

We’re looking at a remarkable bartender in Tokyo, whose shaved head sparks stories in his customers at his tiny, eight-seater on a hard to find alley.  And describing the deep seasonality of Japanese cuisine where purveyors are regarded as spies almost with access to a few precious ingredients that at times are available for “seasons” as short as a few days.

And we’re looking at context: Until the Meiji era in the mid-nineteenth century, Japan was feudal, divided, impoverished and rich, retro, and in danger of colonization.  Then all of a sudden: Western!  But with that imperial transformation, the threat of facade as opposed to what is in the genuine soul became a hallmark of the spiritual crisis of modernity in Japan.  Which, for me as a writer, makes it a spellbinding place to be.

And on top of all, as a pinpoint, is the fact that for all the celebration going on right now about Japanese supremacy in cuisine, what I have to wonder about is how the very recent development of beautiful food impinges upon that crisis.  And is compounded, very frankly, by post-war famine, hunger, and a loss of national sense of purpose.

“Jiro Dreams of Sushi?”  Um, no.  Jiro dreams of meaning.  What is the meaning of his life?  It sure ain’t fish.

The Big Trend in Dining

Well, the more things change, the more they remain the same, as the saying goes.  You can dress things up, and change the lighting, but what really changes?  Why, there’s this one idiotic restaurant here in West Cambridge that has the menu in French.  The prices are in dollars.

No, the secret to success in the business is, first of all, that it’s a business.  Sales depend on volume, and say what you like about The French Laundry–it is wonderful–the real money maker in that group is Bouchon, the much less expensive bistro.

The restaurant industry depends on four things: Lots of salt, lots of fat, lots of choices, and service.  If you sell high fat food and give customers choices, voila, you’re on the road to success.  The most successful restaurants–Starbucks, McDonalds, Dunkin’ Doughbuts–all proceed in this way.

OK, fine, you want to open a small, cute place.  That’s fine, but then?  Then it’s A Way of Life.