Saturday, May 31, 2014

Geishas and Kyoto Gourmet

Farewell to Ryokan
There was calm in our hearts as we left the ryokan for a day that turned us into feast fans. Every meal and adventure takes us to places where we never dreamed we would go. We started with a visit to Nijo Castle, which was the first official residence of the Tokugawa Shogun, Iemitsu, built in 1626. The place
Shogun castle
was packed with youth on summer break, arriving in bunches in their school uniforms, but most interesting were their backpacks, hanging low, in a range of patterns from Mickey Mouse ears to frothy French baroque flower patterns. After removing our shoes, we entered the single story spacious main residence where the Shogun held sway in days of yore. The “nightingale effect” from so many shoe less feet walking across the beautiful wooden floors was entertaining here (sounds like birds chirping.) Each large space was empty of furniture and clutter  but with screens and walls ornately painted in gold to reflect the sunlight - since there was no electricity in those days - and each space had a political purpose: the  military officers and enemies and political plunderers met in one large room where the Shogun was raised on a dais to emphasize he was better than all; visitors who could arrive with their short Waki-sasha swords (used in hari-kari situations when embarrassment led them to admirable suicide so as not to taint anyone else), but not the long fighting ones.  
backpack craze

There was not one reference to a female presence in the old days until we walked around many corners (this place was packed like a Disney sight and we followed in a line) to reach the Shoguns bedless sleeping quarters. There, in model form, two women in fancy kimonos, were shown awaiting on the favors and needs of the Shogun. This was not a woman’s home. Servanthood was their use, and I guess their beauty offered some delight. In the Shogun eras, there was an hierarchy: At the top was the Emperor, just above the single Shogun.. Below him was the Daimyos or feudal lords who answered to the Shogun. And below the Daimyos were the Samurai who worked for the Daimyos and as a side note, on this level, were the Ninjas, who were hired assassins. 
A Scavenger Hunt

We left the castle and headed to the oldest food market Nishiki ichiba, started 400 years ago, and is a slick, clean, almost meditative long covered street of the best of food and its accessories, like famous Japanese knives. Vegetables unique to Kyoto are called  Kyo Yasai, and don’t look like anything in our edible checklist - try Kamaboko or fish cakes of all shapes and sizes, and Tsukemono or Japanese pickles, which accompany rice everywhere it goes.  But Caroline was given an 18 question scavenger hunt so that she would learn much about the market, like what type of flour is used for soba noodles,  find 3 foods she had never seen at home (Japanese spinach, bonito flakes and the black pepper green berries); Name two types of green tea - Sincha and nacha. She aced the test. And I purchased 3 special Japanese knives which need more care than a diamond. 

Kyoto spinach
Next on our agenda was a cooking school. But we had the choice delight of going to a typical small restaurant (there are no large ones), which seats 13 people at a long bar-style, where the client watches everything the chef does in preparation and usually by himself. This chef  who owns YUBI Restaurant, was a young man who had spent time learning the skills of Parisian cookery and had returned to make an art of food out of Kyoto’s unusual selection of products. He had closed his restaurant this day for lunch to teach us about Japanese cooking.  Caroline and James were incorporated to do the labor  to prepare for a Kiseki style meal, one with many offerings - stringing beans (that’s hard), slicing a raw trout to be used for sashimi, learning how to make tofu from soy milk and liquid magnesium,  and, of course, preparing, washing and steaming rice. The chef told us that no rice is supposed to be left in a bowl, because each grain of rice has a spirit. If one cannot eat all of it, they preserve it to make rice balls.  In a Kaiseki meal, all the ingredients are local. It’s
Slicing Trout
considered a banquet style or in the tea ceremony meal it can take up to four hours to consume. We were doing a short version. 

This chef’s speciality is the “dashe” or bonito broth. There was a salad of string beans, sliced mushrooms and a sesame paste that Caroline put together herself, watching the chef artistically place each small piece. Japanese meals are not large plates of over-kill helpings, but small elegant pottery shapes and bowls with a small artistically arranged offering. It takes time to prepare. No fast food here (although there is an abundance of Macdonalds and Starbucks in Japan.) We learned how to properly slice vegetables and fish and how to quick fry what we used to consider tempura in a lightweight powder and cotton flower oil; and we engaged in a dessert like nothing i’d ever seen - sort of a rolling jelly dusted in soybean flour called Warabi Mochi. Wasn’t easy to handle with chopsticks, but it certainly entertained the taste buds. 
Geisha encounter

After the meal, we had the special privilege of meeting two Geisha women: they are often a part of tea house experiences and they travel in pairs: the geiko, who is the senior Geisha, and the maiko (dancing child.) They are skilled in the art of conversation, music and beauty. The maiko, apprentice in training, wears the more elaborate kimono with long sleeves and a belt that wraps around many times, and with many ornaments in her hair (it’s still her own hair and not a wig). This , we were told, is because she has not completed the skills of conversation that are primary in the Geisha relationship, and so must be a joy to behold for the time being. The geiko, matured, who can be a Geisha all her life if so desired, often speaks for the maiko, and also wears less ornate and more comfortable kimonos, and most likely a wig, which, she says, is quite heavy. Both paint their faces in the familiar white makeup. 

We spoke for about a half hour and asked many intimate questions. The street on which our cooking experience happened is one of the most known streets where Geisha’s live and entertain. It was immaculate and serene and outside the Geisha’s residences were white and red lanterns, signs of their trade which had drawn tourist for years. But now, the streets are nearly empty. 

Ritz Bonsai
My journalistic skills rose to the surface, curious as I was to learn truths about their lives, but then, these women, the
Street of the Geisha
maiko 19 years old, have chosen this journey with approval of family, almost like going into a nunnery.  They can be or become a Geisha for life and at any time in life if they have the beauty and skills. They an also leave, and choose “freedom,” as the geiko said whenever they desire. If they keep their skills, they can even apply to return. There are years and years of training (at least five) and discipline, and above all, these women feel safe in what they do. It is not prostitution, by any means. They are not forced into the brief companionship, but do it by choice. Our geiko actually saw an article in the newspaper about Geishas and applied.  It’s being a companion for a few hours and enhancing the man’s appearance by being with such a beautiful and skilled woman. Most play a musical instrument, as our geiko did. The maikos see their families about twice a year, and live under the eye of a house mother. 

Tempura Restaurant
Now don’t translate this into things we are accustomed to in America. the Geisha, which is a dying art - dropping fro about 220 in Kyoto to  about 75  - but Kyoto Geishas are the trademark of the profession. A maiko is not paid but receives all she needs to live and study her profession. The geiko does get paid and can be in charge of herself and enter a high-cultural world called karyukai (the flower and willow world.) Normally the don’t go shopping and the IPhone is left behind but the maikos do not have them yet. The girls stayed with us awhile as we wandered the beautiful street (Japanese
Ritz Entrance
skills in wood and use of space and design is awesome), and they allowed us to take a photograph, which most do not. This experience, woman to woman, I will never forget and I understand more, now, of the drive in their charm.


While all of this was going on, we moved into the new (two months opened) Ritz Carlton which takes Japanese modern architecture and grace into a new high. Once again, the service and attention that spoils us, and a room with a complicated lighting system (fading and unfading) and an splendid view across the river that speaks of the beauty of Kyoto. We had another dinner experience this night - Dinner at a “tempura” restaurant - another long bar (tables and chairs just take up space) where we can interact with the chef. His hand was constantly dipping fish, veggies and other condiments into flour to fry under a huge copper shield and frying apparatus. We had 15 different pieces of tempura and a tiny scoop of green tea ice cream. I wore out about
Tempura Chef
piece 10, and was not sufficiently brave to toss down the shrimp heads and another sardine like fish with eye, bones and tail covered in fried crinkles. Sorry, guys.  

A Night to Remember

Ohayou Gozaimasu -
Our Ryokan room
Good Morning from Japan. The past 24 hours has engage taste buds, introduced a new kind of comfort, stirred up our smiles and admiration for the Japanese tradition. To begin with, we spent one night in a traditional ryokan. Like so much of Kyoto, a ryokan, hidden on the immaculate narrow streets  where it is hard to tell the beauty behind the wooden fronts, hangs on to historical hospitality at its finest. It is called “omotenashi” and is a family business (like an inn) where the proverbial red carpet is rolled out for you as you experience traditional life in Japan. The staff is run by women in kimonos and the white two-toed socks, who continue to bow in humility  and welcome when you cross the threshold, until you are safely in your room.  We arrived with our baggage (in more ways than one),  slipped out of our shoes backward - so as not to step on the dirty entrance floor mat and track dirt inside - and were assigned to one  sizeable room. The floors are covered in mats. The decor is minimal, in fact, the only furniture is a beautiful low lacquered table about 12 inches off the ground which has four chairs and four tiny tables with pillows for leaning on. The walls are paper. The windows extend us into intimate gardens with orange and white koi (fish), and you wonder, where do we sleep.
appetizer 
Nothing is lockable. Trust is primary. A traditional shower where you sit on a bench to lather up, then pour warm water over you - to clean off so you can sit in the hot tub hiding under a wooden cove - is hidden behind another screen, and the only modern “gadget” is the heated toilet (which is a comfort you cannot imagine.)  No TV. No music. Just peace everywhere. And wi-fi. The brave can leave their quarters and participate in a communal hot bath. That was not on my agenda.

 We put on our “yukata” (traditional  cotton robe - wrap right over left  - if reverse, means you are dead - and after sipping green tea, served by the agile constantly kneeling waka-okami (young women staff) and prepared for
Caroline dines
another many course meal - 13 courses, in fact. The bad news we have to get onto the floor to enjoy it. (They don’t have the drop down areas under the tables as in USA sushi restaurants where your legs can hang. No. It was pure torture to fold up like a pretzel and try to pretend you liked the position you were in.) But each course of our dinner was a show piece - always some interpretation of fish and vegetable as if an art form, and it tasted splendid.  Each course was served separately by the attentive women, and each moment, as you got fuller and fuller, you wondered if you could hold on to the end. After having experienced every kind of water creature,  some known, some unknown, there comes the proverbial bowl of miso soup and a bowl of  perfect rice accompanied by various pickles (no, not like our gherkins). I was about to keel over with exhaustion of just being uncomfortable on the hard floor, wondered if I would ever get up again, and certainly had hoped I didn’t have to kneel back down again. Dessert was a small helping
This is sashimi at its best
(everything is a small helping or bite) of fruit - one of which was green melon better than any I’ve ever tasted. James and I looked at each other as it dawned on us, as we turned the piece over to look at the rhine, this was a thin slice of the beautiful melons we had seen priced at $220 a piece. Now that was a kick! 

Transformed for sleep
After dinner, we moved out of the way so the Waka-okami could clear out table, chair backs, and used eating equipment and in its place put three double size mattresses called futons, with duvets and pillows and hope of sleep. It took me three seconds to fold back up and plop down on the mattress and forgetabout my discomfort for the night - until I had to get up for a bathroom visit, no lights, no noise, and awakening my knees and toes to keep me balanced for a few minutes. All that silence and peace is a good thing, but since we three slept side by side (on individual mattresses), our own quirks of sleeping were present. I was up at 4 a.m. to write my blog at the one normal chair and table off to a side niche in the room. 


By seven the young ladies arrived with tea and right behind it came the typical Japanese breakfast which included grilled fish, a salad, spinach, other unidentified vegetables and roots, miso soup, egg omelette, rice and pickles, so many things, each in tiny bowls and cups so there wasn’t too much of one thing, and each was presented again as an art form. But
Japanese breakfast LOL
definitely an overload for someone who grabs a spoonful of yoghurt and pureed fruit to start her day back home.  The Ryokan experience got me closer to Japanese culture and my appreciation of it. People care about your comfort and condition. There is just no bitterness or complaint or disruptions in the old way. And the staff stands at the entrance and waves Sayonara to you until your car is out of sight. Life is good.

Friday, May 30, 2014


Hi Ho Through Kyoto We Go

entering a little paradise
grilling the pancake
Now we are cooking. After three days exploring one of the largest concrete cities in the world (Tokyo), we allowed the Bullet Train to carry us like a snake on a two and a half hour mission into the hilly, quaint, canal-filled spiritual city of Kyoto. We sped through packed cities which looked there was no place to breathe, power lines of all types holding them as if string on a box,  lots of Toyota references,  baseball sandlots, through many dark tunnels, into countrysides of rice patties and produce being harvested, stopping  only 3 times (takes a while to slow down a bullet), and  noticeably without the noise of clanging bells  and warning lights at railroad crossings since at no time does a road cross the railroad (too dangerous at speeds up to 200 m.p.h.), We passed but due to haze could not get sight of Mt. Fujiyama, at least not this time.

Duff, the owner of Wabi-Sabi, the agency which prepared this extraordinary trip for us, was waiting in Kyoto at the train door for us and immediately led us to a small, family restaurant where I think I found my favorite food - Okonomiyaki - which is sort of a pancake omelette grilled on a flat small table at your seat, Benihana-style. The omelette can be wrapped around fried soba noodles and cabbage, pork, shrimp (called Yakisoba), or it is flat like a  thick pancake (I dare not say pizza because this is still an egg delight) and covered with green onions, more eggs, cheese, squid, pork, shaved carrots. The secret of the whole thing is a sweet, spicy sauce more like Worchestershire sauce than anything else. Mayonnaise can be dribbled over that. It’s your call. OMG! It is huge on my like list. 
the ultimate pancake

Reenforced we set out to discover new things older than time: spiritual havens which come in large and tiny sizes throughout this city. Tiny shrines sneak up as you walk through narrow lanes and the big ones, at this time of year, are packed with students in sailor uniforms (style) on their summer break field trips. Interestingly, as we walked through the historical treasures dusted and garnered by Buddhist, Shinto and Zen monks, I only saw one monk dressed in white at the final one, which is quite different from other Asian experiences. The Japanese are amazing, hard working, respectful, learned, welcoming people. Tokyo was completely destroyed in World War II, yet in 60 years it has risen to one of the most modern, exciting cities without giving excuses or wining about how they have been treated. Politeness reigns. So does reaching goals and visions. Kyoto, oddly, was not damaged during the war, so it retains the charm and openness it always had through history. The Japanese spirit and culture is out there for all of us to enjoy. What a blessing.
Sanjusangen-do Temple

Zen meditation time

1000 Konnan
Probably one of the most exciting discoveries I’ve experienced was the visit to Sanjusangendo Rengeo-in (which means a hall with 33 spaces between the columns). Known historically for being the site of ancient archery contest (both women and men competed), it has always been a Buddhist temple where the longest wooden building in the world (they say) houses 1001 statues of Buddhist deities that took my breath away when I turned a corner and met what seemed forever rows of  identical standing gold Buddhas. It was as impressive as I expect the Chinese warriors in stone must be. These were in gold and equal in structure, all 1000 if them, smaller versions of the center giant one who is seated, not standing.  In the center of the long hall is the principle image of Kannon Bodhisattva with 11 small faces on his head ranging in expression from anger to a happy smile, and 20 pairs of arms symbolizing 1000 arms
The woman guard
because each saves 25 worlds (I hope ours is included, it could use some help.) It is said Kannon, god of compassion, can transformed himself into 33 different figures, which would mean 33,003 Kannons, a mighty force to engage. In the many hand palms branching from the side of the breast are tools to be used  like axes, bows, nails,lotus flowers, religious relics and incense bottles. I was overwhelmed by  the 1000 standing figures carved from wood in the “Yosegi-zukuri” manner, and covered in gold leaf. Each one almost duplicate of the other, and yet each face had something different about it from the other - the mouth, the hair, something  somewhere so subtle you had to look long and hard to see the difference.
A Zen temple
 There’s more: between the rows of golden Kannons and the fence protecting from public touching and feeling or photographing this menagerie of religious art (each about 62- 65 inches high) are 28 guardians of the deities, protectors in horrifying and threatening poses and faces. Here are combination of Hindu and Buddhist characters such as  Jimmo-ten, (Kishimojin) once a female demon who ate children but got enlightened and now protects children and child birth and Birubabuska who is a guard with a thousand eyes, one being on his forehead - eyes are big in this faith. Every statue has an eye in the palm of its hand.

 But I was mostly infatuated by two guards - Vasu who is represented as a thin, begging, ratty bearded hermit among all the growls, grimaces and muscles of the ugly guardians;  Vasu, in appearance lonely and unworldly,  is on a continuous pilgrimage through the wilderness, taking with him 9,200 million sinful men and women whom he has saved out of Hades. He is the symbol of truth and charity. But what tore my heart was at one side of the center giant Konnan image is a single, simple female, who could be the Virgin Mary or any shrouded religiosa in our Christian faith, simply robed, humbled, her hands joined in
Zen mediation here
prayer, as if that was her main job. She is called Mawara-nyo, meaning mighty female General, but no details are known about her. Aha. The mysterious woman of faith. She uses peace and prayer whereas the other 71 are like overachieving monsters putting all the physicality they have out there to protect the Buddha. What is eerie about Mawara-nyo, the empowered woman no one knows much about, is her eyes. Through thin slits they look so real it makes you stop and look again. I know she was looking at me, (I could feel it in my gut), and I’m sure she sees all of us women who fight for our faith. Whew. This was a tremendous opening for me. Nearby one could by a candle for a dollar and give it light for your needs. I lit one for our WANA cancer group.

Zen Maples
Torii Gates
It is amazing
Could go on forever
Next we stopped by a Zen temple/garden -  Tofuku-ji - where peace and horticulture and sand and stone alignments give visitors a place to slow down and meditate. At cherry blossom time in the spring and the colorings of the trees in the fall, the place is packed. This temple was started by a priest, Enniben 750 years ago, who became the first priest to be called KoKushi (chief priest) by the Japanese Emperor. The garden wanders between double roofed structures spread out across the park - mostly dark brown wood with tile roofs, typical temple stances, roomy with decks that allows one to gaze and ponder the beautifully combed images in the white sand spiritually arranged around boulders of all sizes for contemplative highs. A slow down. Much needed. However, as one enters, stepping on the thick panels of Japanese Cypress wood, you hear a peep, cheep noise, strange as it is, which has a purpose - an alarm to the monks that someone is coming in. It’s call the nightingale effect. 


Finally, softened in energy by now, we got to the famous orange Torii Gates. Another WOW moment for me. These bright orange thick columns with an arch holding them together that grace so many tourist minds about Japan,  are much more than that. Fushimi Inari-taisha Shrine, a Shinto shrine , is dedicated to the god of rice and sake (wolf)  and was built in the 8th century. In a Shinto shrine relics of the sacred Kami are stored so people patron these shrine to pray for good fortune, even though no one can see the relics. At Fushimi are over 5000 vibrant orange Torii gates winding through the hills of this shrine. Late in the afternoon  is the best time to visit (along with everyone else) and the more you walk through the wooden columnar gates (like trees themselves), packed one after another and all donated for the purpose of  offerings, you get energized. There are many statues of wolves as well but the fun, the spiritual pursuit, is to walk through as many gates as possible - and at one point as the grow shorter in size, the path splits and there is a choice if you want to go left or right. I went left, thinking it the road less traveled. The non-tired can make the entire trail to the top. I hope I can get back and do that before I leave Kyoto. It was late and hot yesterday afternoon. 


Thursday, May 29, 2014

The Holy, The Funk, The Beef Extraordinaire

Saki for all forever
 
Shinto Gates
Joyfulness and positive living are the basis of the Japanese Shinto ancient religion. People seem happy to be alive, not complaining, not mulling over the negative, loving to be with family, smiling, respecting (the eternal bows) and believing they are blessed to be here. It’s not an attitude predominant  anymore as the American way. And believing God is in all things, the best place to give thanks - for this is not a faith based on sin and evil - is at one of the popular shrines, such as Meiji Jengu. When I asked about the after-life, my guide told us that Shinto is what they live by but many incorporate Buddhist beliefs about death and the afterlife, but not necessarily. They don’t worry about it one way or the other. 

Steam Funk
On the way to Meiji Jengu, we passed giant lanterns on street corners lighting the way to the holy place. It is an enormous park, a well planned jungle of 100,000 trees donated from all over and planted by volunteer Shinto believers in the 1920s, with wide pathways lined with story telling billboards dedicated to the divine souls of the first Emperor of modern Japan, Emperor Meiji and his consort Empress Shoken.  The  height and size of the welcoming Meiji gate, through which all must walk, is like a boulder to an ant (we being the ants.) There were many Japanese pilgrims visiting, very few Europeans.  Once again, we stopped by the water pool to
Prayer for Memphis
cleanse ourselves, pouring water over the left hand, the right hand, and then the mouth. Priests in white kimonos led a worship service and school girls (this is the time of year school children take class excursions) were giggling and eagerly writing on wooden cards their praises and prayers. We, too, purchased the post-card sized prayer cards so we could hang our prayers along with all the rest. Then we tossed coins to accompany our wishes, rounded the prayer off with two claps, two bows and one more clap. 

steam funk fashion
From the peace of this shaded place, we stepped into the fun, high energy area Harajuku, home of Tokyo’s teenage culture. The short street  called Takeshita Dori, is filled with the latest fads and fancy of extreme teen fantasies. The latest fad is Steam Funk, which incorporates things from old steam ships and railroads and has a touch of the old West in its style.I loved the small stores filled with punk, funk, Hello Kitty gear, wild socks, wilder sunglasses, sneakers with 6-inch platforms, bright neon mini tutus, and young girls in pigtails dressed in layers devouring the latest craze - pancakes, wrapped like a cone to hold ice cream. Another fad is popcorn, Garrett’s popcorn in fact has a continual line around the block filled with youth on their cellphones and Ipads, waiting for a bag of popcorn for up to a couple of hours. Even pharmacies are jammed pack with pink, purple, yellow and blue makeup and needs - like walking into a toy shop. Everything jammed in, the spirit young and with hope.

Pancakes - the rage
From the strange and funky, we walked to the high end shopping area where all the European expensive stores live in incredible architectural environments - Prada, Hugo Boss, Gucci, Dolce & Gabanna, Issey Miyake, Harry Winston. These groups of shopping meccas pop up all over the city. Someone must be spending money whether in Omotesando Avenue or Rappongi. All the streets are tree lined and filled with activity and yet not the disorder and jams of most modern cities. Most Japanese use public transport to get to work. It helps. 

Hugo Boss store
A quick stop into a small sobu noodle shop (all the restaurants are small so attention and service is on the customer) helped us get our strength up and we drove to our Taiko experience. Taiko is a modern art form of music. There are studios because playing the Taiko drum is major exercise. These fat drums are carved from huge trees.( different sounds from different trees.) Drying takes six to seven years and to finish one drum takes about 10 years. Such drums have been used  from ancient times for religious ceremonies in the temples and shrines. Often when touring a shrine, we heard a huge drum sound - and were told it was “used to get God’s attention.” Well, we must have gotten his attention with our banging on odaiko drums.

Drummers to be
 The style we learned (kumi-daiko) is credited to Daihachi Oguchi, a jazz drummer wjho jappened upon an old piece of taiko music and performed it for the Osuwa shrine. We took off our shoes and entered a sound-proof studio filled with drums and a mirrored wall.
Prada Store
Starting from knowing nothing but rhythm, we pounded out complicated patterns that made me realize dementia has not yet set in (Ha.) James, Caroline and I, by chance dressed in salmon and pink, were led into a padded studio by our teacher, who spoke no English, but our amazing guide translated as we moved forward to learn the art. After a one hour class (in air conditioning) we were all heavy with sweat, filled with enthusiasm and pride that we had done it, and secretly pleased to have gotten a different kind of exercise. The drum vibrations we caused must have been healthy. Caroline stole the show with her smile and antics. We also had good cause to visit a small but elegant chocolate - pastry shop (mostly French Macarons) owned by one of the 10 top chefs in the world, Aoki, who lived and was trained in France but returned to his home in Japan to open a couple of exclusive shops. 


The creme de la creme of our food exploration came at dinner. We were to finally go to a steak house (no bigger than a home dining room as the master chefs want to attend personally to their clients) for the chance to experience real
Uruguayan Architect

Kobe beef. Even I, the vegetarian, agreed to stir up old tastebuds and eat the best beef in the world. The appetizer was beef tartare (too good to describe) and then the filet - if beef were butter itself, it could not have been tenderer nor more flavorful. The Master Chef, who spoke some English, made sure we had the right stuff. Having seen the beef in the market which is so laced with fat (not clumps but veins) we were primed to see what the affect was. Understand: Kobe cannot be duplicated anywhere else. It must be from the Tajima strain of waygu cattle raised in Hyogo Prefecture. Efforts to duplicate never come close to the real thing. (Hmmm - there is a USA Kobe who dunks). And it is expensive but worth every bite.  

Wednesday, May 28, 2014

Magic of Sushi: from Blowfish to Sea Urchin


説明を追加

Blowfish Fins to go
You’d think we would be worn out by now. We were. But high on the list of things to do today - and it was 3 p.m. - was to go to have the shaved ice experience. Wow. Another Wow. We went into a tiny tiny cafe with metal chairs. There were options - strawberry and milk; green tea mixed with milk and syrup and bean paste; caramel and milk; well, things like that. Caroline and I chose strawberries and milk. James, the green tea. In 15 minutes, I, the soft ice lover, had the extraordinary experience of Japanese shaved ice. It made me think of what you get when you try to make ice cream out of snow. It was delicious. It was huge. It was just sweet enough. Dig in with a spoon and it begins to melt down rapidly until it kind of becomes soup. But, we did it. It was a highlight.

Bit of the Blowfish - I live
Blowfish Ready for Me
Finally back to the hotel, we had a shot period before our sushi dinner - and before that I was to take the plunge into the blowfish. Here’s the story. Blowfish can ONLY be prepared by someone certified to do blowfish (in other words they know its parts well.) Although we were going to have omasaki at one of the best sushi restaurants in Tokyo this night, the chef there was not qualified. So I had purchased a small plate of it at Mitsukoshi Department store. It was fully iced and wrapped so I could get it back to the hotel for the experiment - would I live or die. This was a bucket list thing. And it was delicious. And I survived. I had no doubt. 

Sushi in Japan is a serious consideration. The high end restaurants have temperamental chefs who guard the quality of their work and fish. They have little patience with “tourist” and prefer the aficionado which we hoped we were. However Caroline needed to be considered and so our guide found a restaurant where James and I could enjoy a true sushi omakase (it means “I’ll leave it to the chef to pick out what he wants us to eat.”).  The chef bases his menu on what was found to be the best quality fish and seafood available that day. We were booked at Sushi Kanesaka, considered one of the best, and also there was a la carte choice for Caroline.

Tuna Toro Terrific
Transparent Ice Fish with eye
I was impressed about how small sushi restaurants are. Just a beautiful blond wood bar that holds about a dozen people. That’s it. Two  to three chefs work the diners and there  is an assistant who brings the fish in bamboo boxes to the chief chef. It is all very silent and dignified (none of the shouting) and sort of puts us in the role of responding properly. (I am embarrassed when my arthritic fingers cannot manouver the chopsticks to pick up a tiny piece of crabmeat. Oh well.)  We were told most sushi restaurants are not suited for younger children and rarely have a la carte.  These chefs are serious and they want guests to appreciate  and focus on their art of the fish and their presentation (this is the heaven of sushi). If a person finds something “gross” and struggles to eat them, some sushi chefs like Sushi Jiro would be upset and would question why the guide would bring someone not comfortable with the sushi selection. So we were happy to have a place where Caroline could enjoy what she wanted as well, and she did, and we did. Each politely small piece of fish was an epicurean miracle - from the fatty toro (tuna) to the Bafun sea urchin (where I tried to smile as it slipped down my throat). James and I started with ice fish (transparent tiny fish still with the eye dot - similar to the morning one but much more elegant); then the fatty tuna, medium fatty tuna, and just plain tuna; (you elsewhere have never tasted anything like the real Japanese tuna sashimi); snapper, horse mackerel, mackeral, ark shell, baby scallop, razor shell scallop (big), sea eel, raw baby shrimp, monk fish liver, crab with a hairy shell - way too much to eat but an extraordinary experience. I have LIVED sushi. Domo Arigato.

Finally, Food, Glorious Food

red eel
My eyes are stuffed.
 My feet screaming.
 My soul soaring with thanks. It’s been quite a day of new experiences in Tokyo, most of it related to food adventures. 

Out of the way
The Fish market in action
Early rising (who sleeps? body is time-tortured) got us to the Tsukiji Fish Market, known throughout the world as the place where the most expensive  and best Tuna  is auctioned daily. Yes, once a large tuna - and they can get larger than walruses - brought over a million dollars. (Most everything cost the sky, here in Japan).  This riverside market, largest in the world and featuring all sorts of seafood, dates from the Edo period (16th century) but has so outgrown it’s location it must swim to a more ample location in Toyosu in 2016.  Although 120 select humans in a lottery are allowed in during the bustling hours, tourist like us are not welcomed until 9 a.m., after the very exclusive auction of fish from seven wholesalers is done (that begins at 5 a.m.). Then we leap  into a slippery confusion of styrofoam boxes and blood and ice cubes (like we used in ice boxes when I was a small child) and, worse,  turret trucks, which transport the fish and boxes from area to area, and the visitor, taking life in hands, must give way as these fork-lifts driven by single standing young men in a rush.  Although over 2000 tons of marine products pass through here per day, we see mostly the remains by 9 a.m. - basketball size heads of tuna severed from their valuable bodies to become sushi delights, red snappers, red breem with bulging eyes, red eels longer than a whip; tiny fish no bigger than a piece of yarn piled in schools; giant crabs with hairy shells, all of it looking so unappetizing, you realize how much we trust sushi chefs to turn them into gustatorial delights. 

red fish
The rules of the market - no sandals, no high heels,  no smoking, no backpacks, no pets or small children, and DO NOT TOUCH anything. But it’s really worth it. I could spend my days wandering through markets taking photos of people and food.
On the Bridge

There is plenty of market outside the facility as well, where we passed vegetables, herbs, fruit, fish cakes, tamago (egg omelets), and strange comestibles of every shape and odor.  As we strolled, samples were offered. One man had a sack of candied walnuts mixed with tiny almost not there fish - all I could see was this eye looking at me - but I braved it and was sorry for a few hours. We also tried some of the many flavors of  tamago, some with spinach, others with carrot and peppers, others with sweet things.

After this, we needed to visit the calm and peace of a Japanese garden, where even large pines are pruned and directed so they become, if you could say so, a large bonsai in the ground. (A bonsai is a tree in a container that is being controlled to stay miniature.) In the Hama-rikyu Gardens right in the middle of modern skyscrapers, the family garden of Tokugawa Shogun, there is a seawater pond, tea houses for resting, the spot where shoguns once boarded ships, peony gardens, pruned azalea shrubs covered in controlled pink flowers, wisteria trellis, bridges made of cedar upon which one must have the proverbial photo; a kamoba trench where shoguns with hawks hunted duck; and a 300 year old tree whose heavy branches wander in all directions and had to be propped up over the years. 
300 year old tree
Store display
From here we launched our energy toward Ginza, the high end shopping area of Tokyo. These stores (the usual high priced fashion houses - Chanel, Vuitton, Prada, Burberry, the Sony showroom - how many phone covers does one need? - and the Apple Store  - don’t open until 11 or later.  So we walked as the feet began to complain and found open a shop selling French Macarons - Japanese strawberry and green tea were two unusual flavors - and a wild toy shop where Caroline was able to find something she had been looking for a long time. 


tamago for sale
Skewer chef
Lunch was of a different sort. We, hungry, were first to go down into the cellar of Gnvai where three chefs in white were dipping food on sticks into batter and panko crumbs to be fried. We each had a ceramic dish to hold two sauces (one was Worchestershire like, the other soy); another small dish for the chef to put the finished product, and then a ceramic fish with a wide open mouth where one puts the used kebob-like stick. This was not tempura.  Each stick carried a different bite size experience of food. The batter was thicker. My favorite was moshi (made from bean paste) stuffed with fish eggs (sounds awful, but it wasn’t.) There were thick asparagus wrapped in prosciutto, sweet potato and onion slices, mushrooms (treasures in Japan), beef, tomatoes stuffed with cheese, and so forth, all tiny samples of goodness. “Hike”, we chanted as we finished each bite. That means we liked it. 

The next big thing was to visit Mitsukoshi Department Store Nihonbashi. It is the oldest, largest store in Japan, equal in quality and size to Harrods of London (in fact, in the food section there is a mini sampling of Harrods food products.) But, WOW! This place started as a kimono shop in 1673. The best of the best are housed here, not only in clothes, but in food. What else could one want? 
Entering Mitsukoshi

We started at the 4th floor (there were more, but this was a good place) to see the kimono section - amazing embroidered silk fabrics with price tags beyond belief. Actually, on display was a man’s blue kimono for sale for 30,000 US Dollars. Yep. That’s what I said. This was not unusual. I didn’t even get close to a lady’s kimono, but wandered around admiring the extraordinary needlework. All the sales ladies in this store were amazing, and I did stop by Issey Miyaki’s boutique, an old favorite from my fashion editor days. Miyaki and Yoijo Yamamoto were two of the three original Japanese fashion designers to break into the tight world of New York designers back in the 1970s. (He is a year older than me.)  I wanted to see the products of today’s young designers of Japan, but didn’t get much response. 


30,000 man's kimono
Baumkuchen cake
Cantelope for $225
So we eagerly headed for the basement where food paradise lived. It was the truth. I thought I had seen the best in Bangkok, but here in Mitsukoshi there was so much, so well present, so filled with creativity (samples too) in appearance and taste, I didn’t want to leave. Maybe I should move nearby. I could have sushi, sashimi, lotus salads, amazing veggies, cantaloup valued at 220 dollars for ONE!!! and Japanese cherries (a small box of about 8 cost $65 dollars) which are said to be unbelievable in taste. Forget chocolates (although there were plenty) - I prefer green tea cakes, baumkuchen (a German layered cake on rollers  made from 15-20 layers of batter and brushed with a glaze) which is extremely popular in Japan and I had eaten in Uruguay; all sorts of crackers (those made from shrimp I can pass on ), sweets you would never have considered possible; the best fatty tuna in the world, the best fatty beef (Kobe is not the best, there is another brand more highly valued - this meat is so filled with fat it can only be a tender experience); salads from lotus root to roots one has never heard of, and my new fav, jellies of exotic flavors - (sort of jello on steroids but doesn’t have to be kept in the fridge.) Also we sampled mochi - something I could die for - a bean paste dough filled with different flavors. This I associate with Japans culinary art more than anything. We get them frozen at home in markets featuring foreign food, but there is nothing so pleasing as fresh mochi the size of a scoop of ice cream. 
Fruit sandwiches?

When we finally rolled out of this food paradise, we headed for a much needed visit to a temple to give thanks for our trip so far. The most populated Buddhist temple is Sensoji in Asakusa zone. It was packed with high school kids in uniforms like sailor shirts. Here all the kitch of worship and souvenirs are unleashed to those willing to buy once you pass through the giant red bells painted with black Japanese words. We entered through Thunder gate  to walk the shopping street to the actual temple. A five story building on the left (five layers representing earth, fire, water, wind, sky) is said to be where Buddha’s ashes are preserved. No one goes there. Two giant flipflops made from thick rope (I mean giant, like 10 feet tall)  were hung on either side of an arched wall to scare off invaders who would fear that behind the entrance someone that big was waiting to jump them. 


Fortune Telling Time
Buddhist temple
Whose shoe?
At the holy end, we went to the water fountain, took a cup on a stick and poured the special water over our hands - first left then right then left - then a sip in the mouth and we were ready. All faiths prefer a clansing. Nearby a well filled with ashes of incense and  prayer smoke required we get that smoke on us to keep us clean, I guess, or make us sufficiently holy to go up the stairs to the temple and pray.  Before the huge altar, which is gated off, we saluted Buddha and then had our fortunes told. Bamboo sticks with numbers on them are in a tall metal canister (about 16 inches long). Each of us had to shake it til a stick came out of the tiny hole. First Caroline, then James - they both had good luck fortunes. Then came me. Mine was 59, not a lucky fortune. Then one opens the appropriate drawer in a cabinet and get your predictions. Mine was disorder in my work. (I already knew that.) But I had an out - fold up the paper with the fortune and tie it in a knot on a wired frame (along with lots of others) and then the bad luck is thrown away. Well, that’s what they say.