Boston Hiatus

ISETAN @ Shinjuku on Friday morning yielded a good eki-ben for the plane ride home of yakitori, which included very good tsukune as well as a flat tray of pickled vegetables, udon, dark miso, and fried strips of tofu for later.

That very night, in Cambridge, we’re talking miso soup that was crazy good with enormous depth, fried tofu toasted with onions, and udon with black Kyoto spice.

The following day, work continued on a top secret Korea project as well as foray into a locked psychiatric unit.  That night: Wagyu-Style cheeseburgers.

With the Bank of Japan creating negative interest rates, as of Friday, who knows what and how things will change there: Bet we see a decline of otaku style bars and haunts.  The economy grows, people work in teams, identities change.

Oh, and last night, one of my top five movies: (天国と地獄.  Mifune?  Out of control!

Bye-Bye, Tokyo, See You Soon

It’s the last day of two weeks of good, hectic work throughout Japan, learning new things, seeing old friends, enjoying food, taking long walks, appreciating the ups and downs, dashes to catch trains in Nagano, late nights with smoky, grilled yakitori.

Meiji shrine in Yoyogi yesterday: Sorry to say I’d not been before.  Little troops of children, who looked no more than  four years old, wearing colorful hats, led by patient women.

Harakuju.  Omotesando.  Shinjuku.  Azabujuban.

One more meeting this morning, and then a walk to Isetan in gentle rain to Isetan for eki-ben on the plane, and maybe a good pizza on the restaurant floor.

Mt Fuji, in the Distance

From my bedroom, I see Mount Fuji, snow capped, volcanic in shape and intention, and after a two mile run during which time Fuji-san was visible throughout, the mountain is making inroads on my consciousness.  I hope.

Yesterday was made up of meetings in town, in Ginza, and meetings in town, in Shinjuku.  Drinks high above the city, yakitori at Birdland (Ginza branch).  That Birdland is located below street level, in a passage above a subway, and literally next door to the famous Jiro who, for $300 per person, will serve you sushi in 20 minutes and then ask you to get out.

I’d been to Birdland before, and this time was as good as the previous visit.  Delicious chicken, cold beer, cold sake.  What’s not to like?

Two more days in Tokyo before returning to Boston.  Gen Yamamoto tonight.

Overlooking Hibiya Park

Overlooking Hibiya Park, the blinking red lights on tall buildings are extinguished now that we have daylight.  Yesterday it was a couple of train rides down from the snowy mountains and here we are in the big city again, a stone’s throw from Ginza and in view of the Imperial Palace.

Three days remain to the visit to Japan, and this time I learned new words, saw parts of the country I’d not seen before, interviewed numerous chefs and ryokan owners, and tried to absorb and observe patiently.

Each visit deepens my desire to learn more.

Today there are two meetings, a dinner of yakitori with friends, and maybe even a nap.

After being in the countryside for much of the past ten days, Tokyo is like a bracing shower.  Get ready.

Japanese Alps: Matsumoto

Kaga onsen in the morning, Matsumoto at night, a mad dash to catch a train in Nagano as the first train was delayed due to snow on the tracks.

A winding road into the national park on a small bus with Japanese tourists brought us to this small, 82-year old inn.  I’d been before, maybe five years ago, and this time it was transformed from old school to new school: An open Japanese kitchen, a beautiful French restaurant, huge windows overlooking the snowy forest, a bar lounge with subtle lighting and cool jazz.

Lots on onsen, naturally.

Regret to say it’s back to Tokyo this afternoon.

In Mountains, in Ishikawa

Snow kept falling from early evening.  It continued for most of the night.  Here at Mukayu, it was cozy: A ryokan with natural onsen.

The train from Kyoto stopped by woods due to snow, and was an hour late arriving.  We had fried chicken from Nishiki market and cold beer to tide us over.

Mukayu means, “Nothing is everything,” which is a theme that can be applied to other ryokan.  One ryokan I know has as its “slogan,” the phrase, “A return to nothingness.”

You remove clothing, wear a yukuta (cotton robe), take hot baths (I’m up to five a day), nap, and eat a breakfast and dinner chiefly vegetarian and fish.  Last night it was two versions of crab for L–male and female–and fugu wrapped around winter greens for me.  Net caught duck for open (stew).  Broth from konbu and duck bones.

Silence, by Shusaku Endo, is by the bedside.  Many Japanese read this in junior high school and high school, and it tells the story of the difficulty of Christianity taking hold in Japan.  Different approaches to human suffering.

Sunday Morning in Kyoto

They say it’s cold here, locals do,  寒い, but seriously?  It’s high 30’s F, and easy strolling through alleys and arcades, up and down hills, alongside canals and on bridges over the lovely river with a view of snow-capped mountains in the distance.

Yesterday, it was a long leisurely day, punctuated by research for work here, and that meant visits to a shop selling noren, another shop on a long alley of antique shops where 木版画 or moku-hanga are sold.  At the latter, I picked up a pre-Meiji woodblock print of a “beauty” who stands before a screen in which dancing shadows are depicted.

Lunch at Omen: A great udon place I’ve visited many times, near the temples, and we’re talking cold beer, fried mountain potatoes, tempura udon, and kamo udon for $14 per person, inc. tax and tip.  Whoa.

In the evening, met up with the very estimatable K: He took us to Rohan, a remarkable 10-seater in Gion, where very delicious small plates of vegetable dishes arrived in succession and then plates to share of chicken, beef, and fish.

Good conversation about Kawabata, Tanizaki, Mishima, John Wayne, and J.D. Salinger.

A private club with hidden whiskies followed, and then a long soak in the room’s onsen.

KYO-ITALIAN FOOD IN KYOTO, JAPAN

Japan is renowned for its sashimi, noodles, rice, and sake, but a younger generation is adding to the culinary mix by deciphering and appreciating Italian food through the use of ingredients and knife skills as good as and often better than what you find on average in Italy.

This isn’t refinement or mimicry, the terms which Japan has been saddled with by Western critics, who somehow see Japanese appreciation for Italian cuisine as imitations when homegrown English and North American chefs, unrooted in continental European culinary tradition, are seen as original in  their efforts to create fine Italian food: Vetri, Batali, Carmellini, White, Conant.

In Kyoto, a new and exciting group of chefs, who eschew the limelight, have established terrific Italian restaurants.  We’re talking first rate pizzerias like Mercato and high-end dining at Cenci.

It’s the start of something new, in a way, as well as a recognition that these two broad cuisines–Italian and Japanese–have a lot in common: Lots of noodles, lots of fish and shellfish, vegetable driven meals, a strong understanding of seasonality, the use of certain foods linked to religious events.

Itadakimasu or buon appetìto!

Return to Kyoto

Is Kyoto my favorite city in Japan and one of my favorites in the world?  Probably.  It’s a great walking city, has natural views of hills and the river, a pace that’s not too fast and not too slow, good and simple restaurants and cafes with French, Italian, and Japanese food, lots of students at lots of universities, and an architectural scale with few buildings over eight stories and most that are three or four.

Just returned yesterday, my fourth visit in a year, and after checking into Nishitomiya, a ryokan near Nishiki market, walked over to Owariya, which is one of my favorite soba joints in all of Japan: Old wooden building of two floors, narrow corridors, small dining rooms, and good bowls of buckwheat noodles.  We’re talking a bowl of kitsune soba and a cold beer for $16, inc. tax and tip.  I know, right?

That night it was back to the ryokan for onsen and after the bath a kaiseki dinner that included fugu, yuba and miso “fondue,” and steamed turnip.

Early to bed, early to rise.

Japanese breakfast of pickles, miso, three kinds of fish, gohan, and so on.  Later today: Noodles with A. and yakitori at Torito with I.

And in-between: Honda brand miso and nori from Giboshi shop to bring home.

And, oh yes, the daunting, strange, magnificent epistolary novel: Kinshu, by Teru Miyamaoto.

Osaka Interlude

The 48 hours in Osaka is coming to a close.  Preparing today for a short train ride to Kyoto through Sunday.  Eastern hills visible from the 21st floor, Yodo river below.

I had only been through Osaka a couple of times before, not staying, so it was a pleasant surprise to discover its charms.

A good subway system.  Long streets on flat terrain for good urban walks.  People who seemed outgoing without being noisy.  The Kuromon Ichiba market with its many stalls.  Shinsaibashi walking street along a canal: I wonder if this was the area in the 1920’s where coffee salons and jazz clubs and dance halls took hold until shut down as anti-western sentiment and war took hold.  Shitennoji temple grounds with its funerary stones, surrounded by schools, shops, apartments and offices.

From street food on up, the food here has depth.

Kuromon Ichiba had great stalls.  Bincho, on the 7th floor of Grand front Osaka, next to JR Station, has delicious, Nagoya style (crispy, thin, sauced) unagi.  (It is next door to an outpost of Maury Rubin’s City Bakery.)  High end: La Bécasse and Kashiwara!  The former is a stunning, intimate French-Japanese restaurant, and the latter is a wonderful, hard-to-find washoku style, *** Michelin home where the menu is a remarkable and deeply memorable set of eight very small, focused, and deeply flavorful courses of fish and vegetables.

Time closing here, but the door is open for a return.