Sunday, December 25, 2011


メリークリスマス = "Meri Kurisumasu," or "Merry Christmas" in Japanese.

We're home visiting family in the US for the last week. We had some exciting (read: terrifying) moments on an excessively bouncy flight en route. I've never had a captain come over the loudspeaker before to inform the passengers that "this turbulence does not pose a threat to the safety of the aircraft."

We did plan to do some blog posts but we've been really busy. In between holiday stuff, we've been chipping away at massive piles of grading. (The answer to the song "What are you doing New Year's Eve" is much less exciting when you are a teacher). I spent a whole morning stealing clothes from my pregnant sister, which was delightful because this is the first time in history the clothing theft has ended in my favor. We were going through her wardrobe looking for stuff that doesn't fit her anymore and I swear half of it was mine in the first place.

Best holiday wishes to all of you wherever you are, and safe non-turbulent travels.

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Kyoto - Nishiki Food Market & Kaiseki Dinner

It should surprise no one who knows us that the Nishiki Food Market was one of our first stops in Kyoto. This narrow covered arcade is the number-one source for all kinds of Kyoto treats.

These are basically molded sugar.

A black sesame rice cracker. These things are heavenly.

A kind of sweet brown mochi.

You know, I spent a lot of time there making this face.
 But not everything was quite so appetizing.

Whale tongues in wet clay.

A Polynesian sacrificial altar.

The work of an adolescent dolphin sociopath.
Either an anorexic squid or an eel with hyperthyroidism.
Candied octopus lollipops.
 (Actually, from the top: eggplant in miso; red snapper, dried and fried; ???; ?!?!; candied octopus lollipops.)

Obviously, Nana and I were neither hungry nor adventurous enough to try everything we saw at Nishiki, though a couple days later we did eat some pretty wild and wonderful stuff at a kaiseki (Japanese haute cuisine) restaurant near our B&B.

Just a few items on the nine-course tasting menu:

  • Smoked oysters in a kind of mustard sauce
  • Crab dumpling soup (basically, they use every part of the crab but the shell)
  • Sashimi (slices of raw fish), including yellowtail, scallops
  • Some smoked mackerel with a touch of mustard (which currently ranks among the most delicious things I've ever eaten in my life)
  • A chunk of chicken liver
  • A hunk of some kind of fish, vaguely mackerel-ish, marinated in that same brown miso paste you saw above
  • Japanese winter stew
  • Rice with poached salmon and ikura (salmon eggs)
It wasn't cheap, but it was definitely worth it. Even better, we were seated at a counter right in front of the chef, who spoke some English and was able to describe a bit of what he was up to. A lesson, a show, and a fine meal, all rolled into one! 

Sunday, December 11, 2011

The aesthetics of lunch

Japan is known as a country with a passion for design. If I had more time, I could probably come up with some scholarly explanations of the principles of space and balance, but it's 8:30 and I have ten papers to grade before bed, so you can just imagine something excellent. Go revisit my sushi triumph and experience the majesty all over again.

Or don't. Because the stuff in this post makes my award-winning sushi platter look like just another pile of carbs and Omega 3.

Here is a snack Justin and I got in Kurokawa, a hot springs town. On the left, a bowl of hot frothy green tea (delicious!). On the right, rice cakes and sweet red bean.

The presentation is so balanced and lovely, except for the spoon, which I moved to eat with but then stuck back in the wrong place. Whitey has no style.

And then there's this opus from a local tempura (fried things) place. The theme of the dish (of course fried things have to have a theme; this is Japan!) was "autumn."

Decorative maple and ginkgo leaves. A mushroom with a flower carved in the top. Two edible gingko berries on what we thought were actual stems, but then found out were edible pieces of Japanese buckwheat noodle. And then the pinecone, which was a potato. Hand-carved. We saw him making some for the next day, and they took five to ten minutes each.

Which brings us to today's BBC News magazine special on lunchboxes for Japanese schoolchildren. We noticed products especially for the lunchbox crowd in our local supermarket, such as decorative plastic grass, miniature flowers, and pressed seaweed precut so that when you wrap it around rice it turns into a soccer ball, or Mickey Mouse. My immediate reaction was, "This cannot be about the kids. This has got to be competition with other mothers." And lo and behold, BBC confirms. The mothers in this special take lessons so they can make cartoon character lunchboxes, and the mother who teaches the classes has made everything from a Sony Playstation controller to Indiana Jones. She says her human character bentos (lunchboxes) take two hours. There is a reason Japan has a low rate of mothers in the workplace.

On a totally unrelated note, congratulations to the Fukuoka Softbank Hawks, purveyors of odd city tours, on their recent victory in the Japan World Series! We learned about this when we got into the subway, in which all the advertisements had been replaced by Softbank Hawk posters and banners, and then we got stuck in the crowds leaving the victory parade. On the plus side, we taught our landlord the word "ticker-tape."

Hopefully you remember that Softbank is brought to you by the White Family, in which the mother and daughter are Japanese, the father is a dog, the son is a black American guy, and Grandma has gotten remarried to a twenty-something Japanese movie star. We have recently learned that the family has an uncle, and it is Quentin Tarantino.

The same league also brings you a team called the Hokkaido Nippon Ham Fighters. They were not in the final and apparently never are, but they are relevant because according to a fan web site, the team has a "fluorescent pink mascot, Fighty, who resembles a fuzzy pterodactyl and rides a bicycle." I think we can all agree that Fighty needs to marry into the White family ASAP.

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Kyoto - Eikan-do and Nanzen-ji Temples

Near the southern end of the Philosopher's Walk, on the eastern edge of Kyoto, lay the two sprawling temples of Eikan-do and Nanzen-ji. We visited each temple at the end of a different day - an unplanned bit of serendipity, as the light was perfect in the late afternoon.

Eikan-do, the more northerly of the two, came first. The temple has three claims to fame: an iconic hillside pagoda, some spectacular gardens, and a statue of a backwards-looking Amida Buddha. (A bit less of a draw these days.)

As with many of the temples we visited on this trip, Nana and I spent a lot of time just wandering - these big temples have a lot of pretty little nooks and crannies to explore. I think our favorite spot was an enclosed courtyard in the old abbot's house, filled with a swampy little koi pond and some brilliant red and yellow trees.

We sat down here to wait out a brief rain shower, but ended up staying quite a while, as the considerable crowds drifted quietly by. A whole ten minutes, at least, were spent marvelling at a strange little freshwater crab that seemed to be common in those parts.

But that little courtyard wasn't the only place we stopped and sat around a bit: this Zen garden was also a good spot for a little quiet contemplation.
After a time, we started up the hill to the pagoda, where we'd been told to expect a nice view of the eastern part of the city.

Alas, I couldn't seem to find a good angle on the pagoda itself, one of the classic Kyoto sights.

In addition to all this, Eikan-do is also known for its diverse architecture. The aforementioned pagoda, accented in red, blends Chinese and Japanese elements. Other parts of the temple are classically Japanese, all dark wood and white walls with occasional touches of gold.
While still other parts of the temple look almost Korean, exploding with vibrant colors.


We wrapped up the following day at nearby Nanzen-ji, the head temple of the Rinzai Zen branch of the same name. While Eikan-do feels very much like a temple, Nanzen-ji feels more like a park, with buildings and sub-temples dotting its wooded expanse.

At the front of the temple is a huge ceremonial gate half-hidden by trees. For a small fee, you can climb to the second-floor balcony, which is a rare treat - most of the time, you're stuck staring up at these things from below.

 The balcony provides a great 360-degree view of the temple and its surroundings.

Nana thought that tree looked suspicious.
At the back of the temple is the abbot's house and its famous Leaping Tiger Garden.

Strangest-looking HoJo's I've ever seen.

Not pictured: leaping tigers.

You'll notice the plastic bag Nana's carrying. It's not discount luggage - it's actually her shoes. Guests at most temples in Kyoto have to tour the buildings in their socks. This is partly a nod to the Japanese custom of changing shoes when entering a house, but it's more importantly a preservation measure, as socks are a whole lot gentler on old wooden floors.

It does mean your feet get pretty chilly by the end of the day.

After exploring the abbot's house, Nana and I headed uphill, so a noted sub-temple and its little garden on the southern edge of the complex.

On the way, an eerie sight: a 19th-century aqueduct, casting a gloomy shadow over the trees.

I can't tell you if it's still in use, but the water is still running. There are even some fish in there, and at least one patient heron perched on the ledge.

The sub-temple garden itself was a fine spot to rest our legs for a bit at the end of the day.

Nana in quiet, totally un-ironic contemplation.
As we were leaving Nanzen-ji, the setting sun gave us one last glimmer on the roof of the main hall.

EDIT: I've just noticed that I described Nanzen-ji out of order - we went up the hill first, then to the abbot's house. But I'm much too lazy, and photos in Blogger are much too unwieldy, so please forgive me for leaving the post as it is.