Tuesday, November 20, 2012

The whole world, in my hand.

Once upon a time Tokyo Bay was all about industry and military. And it probably still is, in places. But in the area called Odaiba land has been reclaimed from the ocean and a fantastic amount of building has gone on. Bridges have been built, transit links have been established. And acres and acres of shopping and entertainment complexes have been built. And, because why not, there is a copy of the Statue of Liberty.

We walked around a bit, decided that the gaming complexes and amusement arcades were not for us. Instead we decided to visit the Museum of Emerging Science and Technology - also called Miraikan, may be an acronym for something. It is an amazing facility. While there is lots aimed at children, most of the science on display is at a really high level. We couldn't decide if we felt really smart or really dumb, being there. Know quite a bit more about various aspects of physics than previously.

But, oh, but. There is one truly astonishing thing to see. It is called GeoCosmos. It is a sphere 6 meters across that hangs from the ceiling. It is completely covered with more than 10,000 LED panels. With more than 10 million pixels available images of incredible clarity are shown. And the images, of course, are of the earth. It is staggering in its beauty. The picture shifts across the surface, spinning along. The clouds drift along. Sometimes it switches to a night view. The sphere is housed in a huge glass box of a room with a ramp that spirals down around it. But, best of all, at ground level couches are arranged where you can lay and watch the world spin by it all its glory.

Look here: http://www.miraikan.jst.go.jp/en/sp/tsunagari/geocosmos.html

Hello Yokohama

We decided to make a little road trip down the way to the city of Yokohama. It is the second largest city in Japan, with a population of 3.5 million. We took the train from Shinjuko station, which is a five minute walk from our hotel (by the way, Shinjuko station handles over 3.5 million people per day, has 35 tracks and over 200 exits and it always feels like a victory when we get either in or out of the place!). Thirty minutes from Shinjuko and we were in Yokohama.

Our lunch plan revolved around the Ramen museum in Shin-Yokohama, 15 minutes away from the main station on another train. The main floor of the museum contains a gift shop. But down two floors is the main thing. In full scale a street scene from Yokohama in 1958 has been recreated. The little shops contain tiny little ramen shop - there are eight of them. Each one represents a famous ramen shop in Japan, with a style specific to a certain region. Fortunately they offer half size bowls of ramen, so we could try more than one style. After we had our two bowls of ramen we were approached by a young woman doing a tourism survey. Turns out that she is Taiwanese, and that she studied English for two years at the University of Manitoba in Winnipeg. She nearly fell over when she discovered Wilf was from Winnipeg - although she found the cold a bit much she had only happy memories of her time there and wanted to talk about it. So, you never know, do you?

One of the other attractions of Yokohama is an enormous Ferris wheel. Apparently it is the largest in the world. We decided to give it a whirl. It took fifteen minutes to glide around and the views were really amazing. On a very clear day Fuji-san is sometimes visible in the far distance, but not today.

It turns out that Yokohama is a big craft beer town. An American fellow named Brian Baird runs Baird Brewing Company, and we went to his taproom in the Harajuku district of Tokyo. They recommended their Yokohama branch - the Baird Basamichi Taproom. We paid them a visit and didn't just discover good beer. Turns out they've got someone there doing real Southern barbecue. Not grilling, but actual smokehouse style barbecue. Holy doodle was it good! W had a sampler of brisket, pork loin and rib. So - the best Italian food we've had was in Buenos Aires, and for southern barbecue we had to go to Yokohama - go figure!

Don't play with your food....

Let's talk about okonomiyaki. I have the hardest time remembering that name, so I tend to refer to this food item as okiedokie pancakes. We had them last time we were in Japan, and on Sunday we went down to Tokyo Bay to a part of town know for its okonomiyaki restaurants. Even at 6:00 all the restaurants on the street were almost full, but we found one with a table for us.

At these restaurants you sit at a table with a cooking surface built into it. This pretty much requires serious amounts of beer be on hand, because it gets hot! The waitress brings out a small mixing bowl, mixes it all together and pours out onto the griddle, where the cooking gets going.

We decided to try a version that is thinner than the classic okiedokie, more like a crepe than a pancake. We chose the seafood version, and our gal brought out a bowl heaping with goodies, and shredded vegetables and the batter. Once mixed and on the grill she attached it with a pair of spatulas, chopping the seafood up and blending it all together. We then had to wait, watching, until it got all brown and lovely. We each had a big spatula and a small triangular spatula which were our utensils. We would scrape up pieces as the edges cooked - yummy!

Round two also started with a smaller bowl of beef, vegetables and a thicker batter. It was piled up and formed into a pancake. The trick is to cook it just right, then flip it over for finishing. When it is ready it gets a coating of barbque sauce, piles of Bonita flakes and a serious lashing of mayonnaise. I know, it sounds really weird. But it is so good!

Monday, November 19, 2012

How hard can it be?

I often comment about how happy we are when we actually find the restaurant or attraction we we are seeking. Perhaps you are wondering how hard that be? It turns out to be surprisingly difficult to find things. We are illiterate. Pretty much totally so. When we've been in, say, Germany I may not know what kuchenstrasse means, but at least if I see it on a sign I can recognize it. In Japan the odds are pretty good that I won't even be able to recognize the symbols.

As an example, while in Fukuoka we decided to go to a ramen restaurant called Ichiran. We knew about it. We had a very good English language map provided by the tourist information centre. We knew where we were. We walked up and down the street a bit. Nothing. We looked down what looked like an alley but turned out to be a short street of restaurants. No Ichiran that we could see. Check out the picture at the bottom of this post. That is, in fact, the restaurant. We figured it was the one because there was a line up. Nothing on the ticket machine, though, that said Ichiran. We asked someone in line. I'm sure they're thinking 'Lady, it says Ichiran all over the front of this place'.

While Wilf was taking the picture I looked at the row of boxes in front of me. In tiny little print in one corner it said 'Ichiran'. So why is it famous? Porky ramen of deep porky porkiness. Oh boy, was it good. We bought our tickets from the machine out front and went inside. We were seated at a long counter that looked like a series of library carrels - dividers between the seats, a curtain that rolled up directly in front of you. Suddenly up comes the curtain and someone you cannot see is there handing out a form (thankfully in English) on which you specify how spicy, how much garlic and green onion, how hard the noodles, etc. Down goes the curtain and you wait. Shortly the curtain goes up and there is your bowl of ramen. Once our ramen was delivered the curtain came down, leaving us in solitary splendour to slurp up the delicious tonkotsu. Save some broth and ring the bell, hand in another form to order extra noodles or, in our case, additional slices of pork. Pay the person and wait. Up comes the curtain and your order appears. Still no direct contact with a waiter. No chitchat with your neighbour, either (although we did figure out how to unlatch the divider between us and fold it back a bit)

So that day was a successful expedition. It isn't always so - last night I finally went into a real estate office to get help finding the restaurant we wanted. And when we did find it I could actually read the hiragana writing that gave the name of the place - except that they had folded one panel of the curtain out of the way and that panel had the character that made it all make sense. It's always something.

Sunday, November 18, 2012

Been to Hell, got the postcard.

Okay, not Hell. But "The Hells". All those lovely hot springs are one way that excess volcanic energy heat gets dealt with. The hot sands of Ibusuki are another. When we arrived in the coastal town of Beppu we thought we were seeing bits of fog or cloud snagged on some of the hills. But, no. We were seeing clouds of steam venting out of the ground here and there.

There are 8 'Hells' in the hills above Beppu. We took the city bus up to visit three that are close together. First up was the 'Sea Hell', so called because the water the bubbles up is a lovey aquamarine colour. It is also well above 40 degrees C. They hang bamboo baskets of eggs in the water to hard boil them and you can buy them for a snack. They also have a lovely garden with a big lily pond filled with lily pads two and three feet across that a child can stand on. Heat from the hot water also warms a greenhouse full of exotic plants.

Next door was the 'Monk's Head Hell' Here the hot water comes up through heavy thick grey mud. It comes up in huge bubbles that apparently look like the shaved head of a monk. Can't attest to that, but they were pretty interesting.

Last up was the 'Cooking Pot Hell'. Back in the day this was a place where people cooked their food. Now it has some really lurid statuary and some really fierce pools of super hot water. The water here is well past 50 degrees C. In some places is it red, other places is blue. Some of the Hells have onsens attached to them - we were told that the the spa at the monk's head hell is very good for you, but you'll smell like sulfur for a week after. Most of the Hells also had footbaths,too.

So, Beppu was the last of the geothermal adventures for us. On then to our last stop on Kyushu island - Fukuoka.

An afternoon with the big boys

One of the things we wanted to do on this trip to Japan was go to a Sumo wrestling match. A series of championship matches rotates through the country during the year, and the big match in the late Fall is in Fukuoka, on the Southern island of Kyushu. Through the wonders of the Internet were able to order tickets and have them delivered right to us at home.

The tournament began on November 11, but before then we began seeing sumo on tv. Given that Japanese tv is pretty much incomprehensible we figured perhaps it was highlights of previous matches. We watched some and did some research on-line to prepare for the tournament.

Our ticket gave us access for the whole day, but we figured nine hours of anything, let alone sumo, would be way too much. We decided we would go just after 2:00, when the second tier guys were up, and watch them and the top tier guys. We were very relieved to be given a brochure, in English, about the history, the ceremony and the rules of the sport. We also got an English language version of the bout card so we could figure out who was who.

When we ordered our tickets we asked for seats with backs on them, which put us up fairly high, but there was no way we were going to be able to sit on the floor cushions for several hours. In the end it was sort of like being at the circus - there was so much going on all the time. And the preparation and staring and stomping before the match often took longer than the actual match itself.

It used to be that only the Japanese were sumo wrestlers, but that hasn't been the case for some time. There are a lot of men from Mongolia, who are on the small side and therefore have to have some pretty fancy technique. There are also a handful of Westerners - mainly from places like Georgia, the Czech Republic and other former Soviet Bloc countries. They're tall, and more obviously muscled than the Asian competitors.

Part of the fun was the audience. When we first got there the crowd was pretty sparse. Up at the top, behind us, there was one woman who was a big fan. She had this high clear voice and we could hear her calling 'Gambare' to her favourites. Gambare was the usual cheer in the building - it means 'Do your best!'. By about 4:30 the place was really filling up - troops of school kids filling in the very top rows. During the early part of the day I could make out what the announcer and referee were saying but eventually there was just too much cheering and calling. At 6:00 the event was over for the day. The lobby was a free for all of shopping, and then everyone trooped outside, where express buses to the major subway/train stations were waiting to take us all away.

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Ryokan dining

Part of the deal with staying at a Japanese inn (ryokan) is the food. The Sanga Ruyokan in Kurakowa included dinner and breakfast each day. These meals are major productions - it is kind of like going to a huge buffet, but they just bring you one of everything. By the time all is said and done there are usually about 12 different courses. Some are big things, some are just a few bites. The range of tastes and textures is quite amazing.

We had two nights to try this kind of Japanese food. We ate in the dining room, which divided up into little bays and cubbies. Our attendant looked after us and another table that we could see through a screen panel. She spoke a little bit of English and could give us some idea of what we were eating. We couldn't always tell.... Overall I think I can say that we enjoyed both meals.

On the first night the centrepiece of the meal was chicken nabe, which is a hotpot dish cooked at the table, where chicken and vegetables are cooked in a light broth. After the chicken and veg are lifted out and eaten, rice and an egg are added to the broth to make a type of soup.

On the second night the centrepiece was beef suikiyaki, which is not a grilled dish. Again a hot pot is used, filled with a very rich broth, to which slices of beef and vegetables are added. We had a smaller bowl, into which a raw egg was broken. As the beef and veg were cooked they were taken out and swirled in the small bowl. Their heat would cook the egg a bit, making a sort of sauce.

On both nights, before and after the main course there were all kinds of dishes. Sashimi both nights - both fish, seafood and horse meat. There was a tempura course. There was fish - one night it was a whole small fish that had been grilled on a stick, the second night a different kind of fish was steamed and served with a vinegar sauce. There was tofu (very fresh tofu) done many ways. There was a huge variety of pickled things - vegetables, seaweed and fish. There was miso soup. On the second night we had a clear soup with noodles early in the meal and miso soup later.

Each night there was only one thing that each didn't like. In both cases it was both a texture violation and an unpleasant taste. Might have been able to take the taste, but the texture turned out to be the deal breaker...

There was a dessert each night - something small and light - and a perfect ending.

Here are some pictures from both nights:

The Freshest Fish I Ever Ate

Tonight we had another culinary adventure. Wilf had read about a restaurant where you could catch your own fish and they would prepare it for you. Off we went, first by subway and then on foot. It turns out to be a huge place - like warehouse sized. In the middle are two big boats. And in the water - around the boats - fish! We told the waitress we wanted to fish and she brought a bamboo rod, a net and a shrimp for bait. And before you could say Boo - Wilf had caught our dinner. The waitress suggested half the fish as sashimi and the other half grilled, which is what we did.

It was delicious!

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

At an Onsen

When a Japanese bath meets a natural hot spring you have an onsen. And on an island with as much geothermal energy as Japan has - you've got lots of onsens.

Wilf decided we should really get the onsen experience, so he booked us two nights at the Sanga Ryokan at Kurokawa. This a little town in the back of beyond that has about 24 hot spring spas wedged into a little valley - it is a resort dedicated to bathing. When Wilf was making our bookings he didn't realize that we would be there on a weekend at the height of leaf viewing season.

Our ryokan (inn) was beautiful, nestled by the river a few kilometres from town. Our room was huge and welcome tea and a sweet bun were waiting for us. Also waiting were the yukata, hapi coat and tabi socks that are the usual resort wear. We had already left our shoes at the front and picked up indoor slippers. Everyone else was dressed the same, and we wore our yukatas for our meals, as well.

One of the things about Kurakowa is that besides enjoying the baths at your own resort the idea is to trail off and sample some of the other places in town. We were assured that we just sail off in our little outfits - everyone else does. After breakfast on Saturday we got a ride in the shuttle over to another out of town ryokan and started our day. By the time we got to town it was a busy Saturday - lots of day trippers all around. But if there were any fellow ryokan folks they had changed back into their civilian clothes. Because we were the only people in 'traditional' Japanese clothing. We were also the only Westerners in town. I mean that quite literally. Now we were never going to pass un-noticed. But we were pretty high on the dork-o-meter that day, I think. Yep. Sharon and Wilf - amusing the locals since 2012.

But - let me say. The town was beautiful and the baths were lovely. As day visitors we could use the outside and some of the inside baths at each inn we visited. The outside baths tend to feature stunning views and beautiful foliage while the inside ones concentrated more on interesting architecture.

The etiquette around bathing shifts a bit, too. From the dressing room we would usually go right outside. Instead of a row of taps there would be a stone basin with hot water running into it and small basins or buckets to scoop water with. We'd throw several buckets of hot water over ourselves with a bit of extra attention to private parts and feet. Then, into the pool!! This usually happened pretty quick, what with it being November and all. The pool isn't crystal clear like an indoor pool - the water is heavily mineralized and leaves fall in. Did I mention that the water temperature was usually between 40 and 45 degrees C?

At the first place we went to I was sorted of adopted by a group of young women who saw me wandering around a bit - unable to read the signs and so a little confused. After a soak in the big outdoor pool they called me to come with them. Off we went down a boardwalk through then woods (each carrying a wee hand towel and that's it) til we came to a building with two more baths in it. Quick splash and in we went. It was super hot, which led to cries all around of 'atsui, atsui' (hot,hot) . In this building the windows slid back, framing a perfect view of a waterfall, surrounded by Japanese maples. Really lovely.

After each bath Wilf and I would meet up, stroll around a bit, look at the shops, have a drink. After we had don town we returned to our ryokan. As guests of the inn we could reserve a private bath. Also called family baths, these baths are not segregated - you can have whoever you wish with you. We went each night around nine. It was really nice, but the 40 degree water temp and the 10 degree air temp ment that there was a lot of Goldilocks going on - too hot, too cold.

So, I'll leave you with some pictures - Wilf took the camera into a few of the men's outdoor baths (shhhh don't tell). And you can decide how dorky we looked!