Holidays

It’s a few days until another Thanksgiving, and then a few weeks until Christmas, and then before you know it, it’s 2018.  You don’t need me to tell you that, I think you’ve got a handle on these things, and I mention it in passing just to get it down, just to get my head clear, perhaps, and it’s as if you are listening in.

The past month, I’ve had a flurry of publications about Seoul, Switzerland, and Japan, places I’ve been, a couple quite often.  Next week, I return to Tokyo and Kyoto for nine days of work, meetings, and what-not.

Speaking of Japan, I finished my book inspired by the boy left in the mountains near Hakodate on Hokkaido.  Now it’s with an agent, and my thoughts and prayers, who could be the person who could rep it, will rep it, and then find a home.  The style of the book owes a debt to Hideo Yokoyama, whose, “Six Four,” is a wonderful and strange novel about a police investigation as well as family and work in Japan.

And as long as we are mentioning family, this week a welcome inundation begins, and we’ll have ma pa tofu with shiitake mushrooms on Monday night, Red Snapper on Tuesday night, fondue made with Rolf Beeler cheeses on Wednesday night, and on Thursday, there’s this:

Curried lentil soup, two dry rubbed 12 pound turkeys from Pennsylvania with lots of butter under the skin, chestnut and cornbread stuffing (maybe one with Chinese sausages), Robuchon whipped potatoes, cranberry sauces, some greens with sesame oil and toasted sesame seeds. 450 for 20 minutes, then 250 for about three hours. Good Austrian reds.

And pies, lots of pies.

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Luzern

Late arrival by train from Vals to this loveliest of Swiss cities, thanks to trade with Italy centuries ago that resulted in architecture and narrow streets reflecting Italian aesthetics more than Swiss.

We are in Wilden Mann, a favorite inn, by the Reuss, and though it’s only a very short stay, it feels like home since the city has many memories for me even from the time I was a boy of thirteen.

Luzern was the first place I went to with my family.  Then later I did a Landdienst in Root, a nearby village, about 10 km away.  There Herr Bucheli had me climb long, wooden, rickety ladders up forty feet to pick cherries, then clean horse stables, feed calves fresly mown grass, empty sewer tanks, etc.  Once or twice I hitch-hiked to Luzern.  Much later my wife and I traded homes with a city minister and stayed a month.

Now it’s vibrant, still, and as lovely as ever.

Last night we ate at Galliker, a favorite Stube away from the old city; 150 years old: Low ceilings, lots of good local wine, a great local crowd, Wiener-style schnitzel pounded flat.

VALS 7132 (CH)

It’s a gem, The Therme, designed by architect Peter Zumthor.  The gaunt stones and the play of light, the absences and suggestiveness, the emptiness.

Most of all, the nothingness.  So pleasing.

The rooms and outdoor areas are filled with water of varying temperatures, and all sorts of extremely subtle variations of shape and empty space.

It’s my third visit, and now with rooms designed by Tadeo Ando and Kengo Kuma, the feel is of a ryokan in view of alpine pastures.

Here in Graubunden, the village itself has numerous stone or wooden structures with slate roofs.  In the surrounding hills are herds of cows, goats, and sheep.

Today we walked on a long and familiar path, cows nearly nose to nose, and deep in a remote valley had a picnic of fresh rolls, local cheese, an apple, and Valser Wasser.

From the Balcony…

…it’s possible to see the Todi, to the SW, and beside it Selbsanft, after which this building is named.  On the East, the Alps are not as high, but tower still between 6,000-9,000 feet.

It’s quiet now, and will remain quiet, with the occasional hum of an electric transport vehicle, a crow, dogs, and maybe a helicopter or two bringing construction supplies to the village.

Yesterday it was another six hour walk above Braunwald, starting at Gumen, which we had reached by cable car, with old friends from Bern.  Soup in a cafe with cider and bread.  An alpine lake.

Prior, just the day before, we had started from the same place, this time heading West rather than East, and walked up to Rietstockli, a favorite hike, that takes one through valleys, past a pond, and ends with a view of two valleys.  At the top, Urnerboden, in canton Uri, can be seen.

Vals today, only 24 miles away, but a three and half hour trip by train as there are high mountains between us.  The Therme is there, designed by Peter Zumthor, whose bare walls of granite are suggestive.

The Autumn Updates

The boy in Hokkaido inspired a long work about…a boy in Hokkaido.  Why would parents leave a child in the mountains?  Why would the consequences of this decision be unknown or limited?

Then, too, work on the cognition behind longevity in Japan.  Why do people choose to delay gratification?  What delays are related to the planting of Western institutions on the Zen Buddhist hegemony that ended during the Meiji restoration?

Then, too, daily lessons, via the internet, to buttress my German.

All within the setting of two weeks of exploration: Very good dry rubbed pork ribs at Smoke Shop, an unpleasantly frozen chicken parm sub at Meridien Food Mart, first rate pork belly sliced thinly at H Mart, Icelandic lamb at Whole Foods, and really easy-to-follow Sichuan recipes from Fuchsia Dunlap.

Dinerstein’s book on postwar cool had a great intro, and the TLS review was intriguing, but the book was way overwritten, poorly or hardly edited, and seemed to be a throwback to the mumbo-jumbo of 1960’s existentialist canards.

Hamachi, tonight.

Summer of Noodles

I just put my three pairs of white jeans into the wash.  Summer is now over.

It was a summer of noodles for me.

I’m not one for eating sandwiches or salads in restaurants.  Each bite is the same as the bite before.

And while Boston now has many very good noodle joints, the salt and fat in the food served in these places makes them a treat rather than go-to.  On top of that, $14-17 a bowl?

So I learned how to make cold noodles at home.  Nothing tastes better in the summer.  The trick is to get great noodles.  There’s a company in California selling terrific noodles; these are about $4 for two servings, and the wonderful H Mart sells them.

I learned how to make cold, spicy noodles using Korean oil flavored with hot peppers.  I learned how to make cold sesame noodles using a Japanese recipe.  I learned how to make cold Sichuan style noodles with tofu, ginger, and shallots.

It was all flavorful, vegetarian, and relatively healthy.

The chief downside is the social isolation.  Few experiences in restaurants are more fun than slurping noodles with others slurping noodles.

Hunkered down in front of my computer and writing about longevity in Japan, and a boy lost in the mountains of Hokkaido?

Cold comfort.

Yakushima: A Japanese Island You’ve Never Heard Of

Traveling to Japan as often as I do, about three or four times each year, means discovering things.  Whether it’s a Japanese hip-hop club in Tokyo or a hidden whisky bar in Gion, each visit provides new experiences that are eye-opening.

Going outside of the routes of many vistitors is exciting, too.  Tokyo, Kyoto, Nara, and Hiroshima are important places, of course, and offer limitless and deeply memorable experiences.  And it’s great to build on times in these places by going to Hokkaido, Japan’s largest and northernmost island, which was more or less colonized in the nineteenth century with the help of Americans.  A visit can also be rewarding to the region of Kyushu, center of early Christianity in Japan, which is the subject of, “Silence,” Martin Scorsese’s new, brutal movie based on the classic Japanese novel by Shūsaku Endō.  (Ironically and tragically, Nagasaki was the capital of Christian life in Japan for centuries.)

But if you want to get way off the beaten track, you ought to head to the island of Yakushima, one of the most beautiful places I have ever been anywhere.  Part of the fun, as always, is getting there, which is easy, but requires a bit of planning.

Yakushima, located off the tip of Satsuma peninsula, in western Japan, can be reached in two ways.

You can take a boat from Kagoshima through the East China Sea.  The Yaku 2 Ferry leaves at 8:30 each morning (though the schedule may vary on time of year).  There is also a jetfoil, called “Toppy” or “Rocket.”  If you have time, the ferry is a cultural experience with tatami rooms, a small noodle bar, and a wide, open deck.  Both boats dock on the northern tip of Yakushima.

If you just want to get there right away, you can fly.  Direct flights are available from Osaka-Itami; return flights go through Kagoshima and land at Haneda in Tokyo.  To get to Yakushima from Tokyo, you go via Kagoshima and change planes for a second flight that takes less than thirty minutes.

The moment a visitor arrives in Yakushima, it’s clear that this place is different from most of Japan.  It’s a tiny airport and a tiny landing strip, and palm trees can be seen as well as ancient, verdant, volcanic mountains nearly 2,000 meters high.  In winter the mountaintops are decked out with crests of snow while below, in subtropical climes, jungle-like conditions exist.  No wonder at all that Yakushima, is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

There is one long and narrow two-lane road circumnavigating Yakushima, and with speed limits of 50 kilometers per hour on open stretches and as little as 20 kilometers deep in the mountains when parts of the road become one lane, driving here is a bit like being in a theme park.

The theme is nature.

The coastal regions provide views of the ocean that are vast and open.  Peaceful blue and gray, the occasional fishing boat or transport carrier.  Just east of Yakushima one can see Tanegashima, which is a long, flat open island that is home to the Japanese space program.  Lining the road are orange orchards, tea farms, bed and breakfasts, farm stands selling fruit and vegetables and sweets, a few cafes, and fewer restaurants.

The base I chose for a week long stay is Sankara: Originally designed in a style more closely associated with Bali, this small hotel has a series of villas divided into halves.  Each half has a sprawling bedroom, sitting room, bathroom, and balcony.  Spread out on well-manicured grounds, the villas surround a main building in which there are a couple of restaurants, one that is French-Japanese, and one that is Italian-Japanese.  There are also a spa, swimming pool, and library.

The library has a small machine in it that dispenses draft beer all day, which is a very good thing.

The food at Sankara is refined, modern, and informed by sophisticated techniques and local ingredients.  So, depending on the season, guests might have mackeral, flying fish, taro flan, or even a bouillon of hibiscus.

The hotel’s sister property, The Castle Hotel and Spa, in Tarrytown, New York, about an hour north of Manhattan, serves as a training ground for the chef so that much of what’s served is as good as it can get in a major urban center.

Yakushima is of course more than good digs, draft beer, and delicious food, and with a rental car, exploring the island is easy.

The Ohkonotaki Waterfall Scenic Forest, along the southwestern coast, with a tiny, one lane road weaving through a thick forest alongside a sea cliff is splendid.  Give yourself plenty of time: The drive is harrowing at points, the road is crowded in areas with families of wild monkeys and very tame deer, and is that a bus coming right at you?  It is.  Better find a place to back up.

Nearby is a remarkable site: The Nagata Lighthouse.  Reachable by a long road, unpaved in parts, the lighthouse has simple grounds and its interior is closed to visitors, but the reason to stop by is to walk just behind it and look out to the string of islands, which stretch south to Okinawa.  One can feel as if it’s the end of the world.

The farms, vistas, wildlife, cliffs, and beaches are all magnificent on this magical, subtropical island.  Japanese like to say that Yakushima is filled with “power” centers that provide spiritual sustenance.

Best of all are the island’s national parks known for their dense cedar forests.  Hiking on Yakushima is first-rate, and it is possible to trek deep into the mountains, coast to coast, without meeting many others.  If you are inclined, however, to take days hiking rather than days and nights, choose one of the parks and plan to spend time wandering.

Yakusugiland is one of the island’s best.  You go up a long, curving road, and as you near the top, great views of the harbor are possible.  Within the park, there are three extremely well-marked trails, which include stone steps and wooden walkways, and take you over ravines on suspension bridges and through mossy and verdant forests with many variations of exqusite green.  Long ago, the cedar here was harvested for shingles of roofs, but nowadays and in recent history, the forests are preserved.  No wonder: These majestic trees, each unique and some with name plaques, tower over hikers and provide a kind of serenity not readily found anywhere else.

And after these hikes, it’s a lot of fun to head towards the port where you can find Cafe Jane.  This is a tiny place where recorded jazz plays, old greats like Dave Brubeck, on a terrific sound system, and locals hang out and sip beer or drink tea.  For 800 Yen, you get a bowl of delicious udon noodles in broth.  Just be prepared to wait a little, and your patience will pay off: It’s made from scratch, each order, start to finish.

Now that’s eye-opening.

 

…fond farewell to the month of July

…and so another July is tossed into the dustbin.  Wet, cold, rainy, humid, a perfect month for writing and reading.

I read about a half dozen books and wrote about fifty pages this month in between naps and runs and walking the dog and tuning out.

Oh, and “Girls.”  A marathon watching of all six seasons.  Addicted to the extraordinary writing and wonderful acting and brave ideas as well as the shallow and narrow-mindedness.  Good riddance to the twenties, defined seemingly, so to speak, by sex and emotion, having little to show, no way of knowing limits.

The food jag has been chiefly Korean and Japanese this month: I learned how to make a very good version of cold sesame noodles and a very good version of cold spicy noodles, too.  Lately I’ve been grilling pork or chicken with a homemade Korean marinade.  I’m guessing this hunger for heat and soy and vinegar is related to time spent away from these flavors in the mountains.

August brings the eclipse.

Taking Stock

We stocked up on spices, and then got a hold of a few wooden spoons.  We brought sharp knives with us, and then, in about ten days’ time, bought a big, red manually operated citrus press, a manually operated coffee mill, a manually operated pressure cooker, and an electric food processor.

The new kitchen was all set.

The stove is electric, and the water safe to drink.

In the cellar, there are large, locked storage areas and along with the three other dwellers of, “Selbsanft,” we are putting down wines.  Heide, Humagne Rouge, and a white Merlot that a fellow named Guido, whom I met ages ago, is bottling.

The ingredients for cooking are extremely fresh, dated to show when they were produced, rather than dated to show when they expire.  Huge fresh garden lettuces, cherries, young cheeses, sole, and so on.

Meanwhile, on the home front, weeks later, new restaurants open.  Tech has come town, big money, so you now see beets as an appetizer for $15 or a plate of pasta with Bolognese sauce for $27.

On the former item, the joint throws in an ingredient no one has heard of, “panteleo,” (raw milk goat’s cheese) so that customers–oh, I mean, “guests,”–feel that the absurd price is somehow worth it.  With the pasta, it’s “traditional’ with “beef short ribs,” and there’s an account mark over the “u” in ragu.

Dinner for two at these places runs about $200, ballpark, so I went to EATALY and bought $200 worth of food, which will be enough for six dinners for two people.  Or: ten pizzas from Pepe’s.

 

 

 

Japan, Multifaceted

Japan is the focus, of course, sort of the flip side of the coin.  On one side is bombast, and on the other is silence.

The latest on Japan will be this, a 200 page book out on 6/23/17, about Japanese ryokan as well as a detailed history of aesthetics: https://www.dropbox.com/s/msuih10na0o88uz/R%26C_JapanBook_v12%20%28full%20hi-res%29_FINAL.pdf?dl=0

In addition, my new piece on Japanese environmental practices is out this month in University of California’s Gastronomica.  Then, too, there is this month my piece on Hoshino’s new urban ryokan in Tokyo: http://robbreport.com/travel/hotels/new-hotel-new-york-capetown-2715163/

Closer to home, it is page 155 in a long “project” inspired by the boy left in the mountains of Hokkaido last summer.