Steve’s Weird Food for America: the fry-fecta!

Monday, May 31, 2010

First, a bit of non-food business. I’m home. Or at least I’m in the last place I called home: Winnipeg. After traveling for 351 days I’ve finally gone so far east that it turned into west and have ended up back at the very house from which I launched this crazy adventure. It will take a while for me to formulate some thoughts on this momentous occasion, so in the mean time let’s talk about the last triumphant Weird Food Adventure.

Weird Food Steve, the world-weary traveler, and the endlessly helpful Karen in the kitchen in Winnipeg, all modeling Japanese yukata imported via San Jose.

You didn’t think I was done did you? Just because I was on my home continent? Just because the number of days left in the adventure could be counted on one hand? Ha! Not when there was a whole new country’s worth of weird food out there, and certainly not when it was a country that has given us fried peanut butter and jelly sandwiches on a stick, garlic ice cream, and reindeer dogs. (No, really.) America’s Weird Food potential could not be ignored.

I have to thank my hosts for leading me to what turned out to be Weird Food Mecca – the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk. This is a permanent carnival on the Santa Cruz beachfront with roller coasters, carnival games, and enough artery-clogging food to stain a warehouse full of brown paper bags into glassy translucence. It was perfect.

The Santa Cruz Boardwalk

Our first stop was Marini’s candy shop, famous for salt water taffy, candied apples, caramel corn and…

Yes, you read that right: chocolate covered bacon!

Unfortunately, the boardwalk outlet of Marini’s only carried the milk chocolate variety (the flagship store downtown also stocks dark chocolate) but nonetheless I went ahead and ordered three pieces, which came to a grand total of $3.16. Each piece was thickly coated with chocolate and had, as advertised, a nice crispy strip of bacon inside. It was creamy and sweet and a bit salty and smokey, but mostly just chocolaty and crunchy. And the verdict? Six thumbs up: all three of us agreed that it was definitely worth another try, and the three slices disappeared fast. If there was any criticism it was that we thought it needed a bit higher bacon to chocolate ratio, and all agreed that the dark chocolate variety would probably be more sophisticated and generally superior. Further investigation is required, which I leave to Amy and Randy who I suspect will seek out additional samples on their next trip to Santa Cruz. They’re like Weird Food Deputies!

Amy and Randy, doing their Lady and the Tramp impression over a piece of chocolate covered bacon.

Our next stop was a short stroll down the boardwalk (which was, disappointingly, all concrete, with not a board in sight…). It didn’t take long to reach this stall:

Deep Fried Twinkies! Oh yeah!

That vendor was selling two items on the must-try list, not only deep fried Twinkies (on a stick, no less!), but also deep fried Oreo cookies – 3 per serving. I got one order of Oreos and two Twinkies because Randy was man enough to join me in the grand experiment, whereas Amy pleaded that she was afraid of developing spontaneous diabetes and could barely be convinced to try a single bite. No matter, soon enough we were seated and ready to dive in.

Me and Randy with one order or Oreos, one Twinkie with powdered sugar and chocolate sauce, and one Twinkie with powdered sugar and strawberry sauce. (I recommend viewing the entire series of ten Twinkie-tasting photos as a slide show over at Flickr. Amy was diligent in her role as photographer of the event, so you can get an almost flip-book style bite-by-bite documentary, including one photo in which I appear to be pontificating with Randy about the whole experience as if we were on the Food Network, which clearly we should be. Or me at least.)

Twinkies first: Nice. Sweet, yes, but the heat from the fryer partially melted the “cream” (or, more accurately: Kreeeeem TM) and the whole thing was quite moist. Surprisingly, I preferred the strawberry sauce to the chocolate, because even my prodigious sweet tooth found the chocolate sauce added to the powdered sugar and the Twinkie a bit too sweet. On the other hand, the strawberry added just a hint of tartness that blended well. Here I have to report that Amy vociferously objected to my use of the word “tart” in the same sentence, time zone or continent as a deep fried Twinkie, but she was clearly suffering from insufficient sugar intake and so could not be taken seriously.

Close-up of the Twinkinum Arterius Impedimenta, subspecies: Common Cocoa

With Amy’s fat/sugar level dangerously low, we moved quickly to the deep fried Oreos. I declined to have any sauce with the (the same chocolate and strawberry were available) but this turned out to be an error in judgment. An Oreo cookie is an inherently dry item to begin with and the batter around it didn’t add much moisture to the mix. We all agreed that the flavour was good, but decided they’d be best with a cup of coffee.

Me and the deep-fried Oreo. Last Weird Food of the trip.

After the tasty but arid Oreos we really really needed something to drink so we stopped for lemonade at a stand near the exit. True to form Amy had the traditional variety, but Randy and I had Cherry Lemonade (which Amy pronounced to be “cough syrup” after a small taste). No matter, because it was wet and cold and had the added advantage of turning my tongue red, giving a good photo op before we piled into the car for the drive back to San Jose. Off we drove into the sunset, awash in the satisfaction of having risen to the Weird Food Challenge, and only slightly queasy.

Me, my cherry lemonade, and my red tongue, after finishing the last of 38 different weird foods on the trip

Nine and a half hours in San Francisco

It’s been a good few days in California. I arrived after my overnight flight feeling jetlagged and exhausted but I took a whole day off from being a tourist and got to sleep in, do laundry, manage a bit of shopping, blog, and make dinner for my hosts. It was great, and the jetlag hasn’t been nearly as bad as I was expecting.

First though, a brief diversion about my trip from Japan to California. I mentioned that I stopped in Vancouver to have coffee with friends so I’m honour-bound to include them here because I promised Steve, and he’s been a faithful blog-lurker since Day One. Also, he bought me a latté at the Starbucks. Rob and Steve: It was great seeing you guys, thanks for making the trip out to the airport. I hope you liked the green Kit Kats

Rob H, Me and Steven G., at the lovely Vancouver Airport. The photo is not great, because Rob managed to find the one guy in the Vancouver airport who, when presented with my camera, could not figure which way to point it and spent a few fumbling moments with the lens pointing at himself. So the fact that there’s a photo at all is a minor miracle.

And now, back to your regularly scheduled California blog post: On my second day in San Jose I got up at a more reasonable hour and caught the train into San Francisco for a day of proper tourist business. Because at least for a little while longer, that’s what I do. The train from San Jose to San Francisco took about an hour and a half, and I arrived in town at 11:00 am. It was a strange feeling to get off the train with no guide book, no map, and no plan. Perhaps it’s a bit sad, but as soon as I walked past a bookstore I jaywalked over and hit the travel section (California shelf). I came out a few minutes later with a tiny, cheap guidebook, an excellent map of the transit system, and the personal advice of a woman in the travel section. I felt muuuuuuch better. Brimming with confidence, and with my transit map in my lap, I boarded the “F Market” streetcar and headed for the seashore.

Inside the “F Market” streetcar

I got off at the stop for Pier 39, which is a popular tourist destination, if your idea of tourism is buying craploads of cheap tourist tat of every description and eating until you can’t move. There was no doubt I was in America. It seems that the whole northern tip of the peninsula on which San Francisco sits has been turned into one long street of shops and restaurants, with very occasional alternative diversions. Even after having been in the retail heaven of Tokyo, it was a bit much. There was one store called, I’m not kidding here, “Who You Callin’ a Crab?” which sold nothing but crab-related products. There were several stores selling only wacky socks. And if you wanted anything you could imagine with the Golden Gate bridge on it, well, let’s just say your search would not be arduous.

Pier 39 did have one non-consumer-related attraction, though, and it was a good one: sea lions! It’s not clear why the sea lions have chosen to hang out on the docks near Pier 39 – they used to sun themselves on a place called Seal Rock, but gradually migrated to Pier 39 around 1989. I thought they were fantastic – cute, and ungainly on land, but incredibly lithe in the water. And I couldn’t believe how they were able to get themselves up onto the floating docks – they seem to just launch themselves out of the water.

Video of the sea lions at Pier 39

After that I wandered along the Embarcadero, and I admit I did a bit of shopping. I bought a pair of jeans! I haven’t worn jeans in almost a year, so I was a bit giddy when I found a pair that fit properly and weren’t nearly as enormous a size as I feared. And now I can walk around in my jeans feeling like a normal person instead of a cross between a Mountain Equipment Co-op catalogue model and a hobo. It’s great.

My walking eventually led to Ghirardelli Square, which is where the famous Rice-a-Roni Streetcar turns around to head back across the city (though it’s more properly known as the Hyde-Powell Streetcar). I thought about taking a ride but the lineup to get on was ridiculously long, so I decided this was going to have to be one of those must-do things that just didn’t get done. Luckily Ghirardelli Square is also the home of the Famous chocolate makers, and the site of their flagship store where they give away free samples of Ghirardelli chocolate to anyone who walks in the door. Nice place, even though the woman at the ice cream counter gave me some advice that was in direct opposition to the information on my transit map. I scarfed down a few more squares of free chocolate and then followed my own counsel and was able to find the right bus stop and the right bus to take me to the Golden Gate Bridge, which was my next stop.

The bridge was excellent and well worth the bus ride, even though I was accompanied an obnoxious herd of thirteen-ish year old boys who spent the whole time talking loudly, posturing, and generally being as unpleasant as thirteen-ish year old boys can be, which is to say very very very very very unpleasant. Bridges in general are a favourite of mine, so a classic like the Golden Gate Bridge was a real treat. I especially liked the cross-section they displayed showing what the main cables of the bridge are really like – they’re HUGE! You really don’t get a sense of that when they’re hundreds of feet away.

This cable is just over three feet in diameter and is made up of 27,572 individual strands.

I also walked out onto the bridge itself and took approximately 732 photos (all on Flickr), and had a very nice visit.

Mandatory shot of me at the Golden Gate Bridge

Back on the bus again (minus thirteen-year old boys) and my next stop was Golden Gate Park. (Note to those of you not familiar with San Francisco geography, as I was until I arrived: Golden Gate Park is not named after the bridge. In fact, it and the bridge are both named after the Golden Gate, which is the name for the opening into San Francisco Bay. Hence, when the channel was bridged, they called it the Golden Gate Bridge.) Golden Gate Park is a big rectangular green space on the western side of the peninsula, similar in shape to New York’s Central Park, but 20% bigger – just over a thousand acres. I walked from the bus stop at the centre of the southern edge of the park, past Stow Lake, a Japanese Garden that I declined to pay $8.00 to enter, a lawn bowling club and the large, open Bowling Green. I was having a nice walk towards the east end of the park but at the very end things started to get a bit dodgy. I think there’s a fairly large community of homeless people who camp out in that area, and there seemed to be some vociferous conversations going on among a few of them that were vaguely worrying. I sped up a bit until I was walking right behind a normal-looking couple who I estimated could be counted on to point the police in the direction in which my unconscious body was dragged if things turned ugly, and made it out of the park without incident.

That landed me at the end of Haight Street, hippie central in the 1960s and still home to spaced-out oddballs of all stripes. I had a really nice supper there at a funky café (though in fairness everywhere in Haight was funky) where the young guy behind the counter asked me for I.D. when I ordered a beer, thus instantly catapulting himself to the status of Favourite Food Service Professional of All Time.

See what I mean about the funkiness thing?

After supper in Haight I kept walking, aiming for Castro, and went past a nice park and up some very steep hills. It turns out the route I chose required me to climb a fair bit, only to descend precipitously a few blocks later, but I guess that’s just life in San Francisco. Still, the steepness of the streets was startling. Some of the sidewalks even had shallow steps.

If the street had been leveled, this is how slanty the houses would be.

Castro was a great neighbourhood – the heart and soul of San Francisco’s big and lively gay community. I was there on a Friday evening and the whole place was just buzzing – people out on the streets, packed into restaurants and bars, and chatting with friends. It was easily the friendliest, most comfortable part of San Francisco that I visited and I found myself wondering if there might be a job opening or two worth considering in the Bay Area. The vibe was really nice.

The rainbow flag which flies over Harvey Milk Plaza, peeking out from behind a block of Castro. The plaza commemorates the San Francisco city supervisor and gay rights activist who was assassinated in 1978. (You know: the guy in the Sean Penn movie. And don’t try and tell me you were all “Oh-yeah-Harvey-Milk-I’m-up-on-that-noise” BEFORE you saw the movie…or is that just me?)

From Castro it was another ride on the streetcar, which included a free performance by a couple of San Francisco’s more colourful characters. Then I had a short walk down 5th Street, which also turned out to be… colourful, so I was happy to see the bright lights of the CalTrain station before the sun set completely. An hour and a half later I was safely back in San Jose and ready for bed. It was a good day in San Francisco, though a ridiculously short amount of time to see anything but the barest snippet of the city. I’d definitely like to go back some day, especially if young food service professionals keep implying that I’m under 21 years old, and they’re still giving away chocolate. I mean what’s not to like?

Final thoughts on Japan

Thursday, May 27, 2010

As I write this I’m comfortably ensconced in the living room of friends in San Jose, California, jetlagged but conscious. This is after a Day 346 in which I packed up in Tokyo and then visited a museum and an electronics megastore, had more conveyor belt sushi, took the train to the airport, flew overnight from Tokyo to Vancouver, crossed the International Date Line, had coffee with Rob H and Steven G in the Vancouver airport, flew from Vancouver to San Francisco, got picked up and driven to San Jose, napped, and went out for dinner before collapsing into bed at 10:00pm after the longest Wednesday of my life. I’ve got a few days here in the San Francisco area, then it’s home to Winnipeg on Day 351. So the Fat Lady is certainly warming up in the wings, but it ain’t over yet.

There’s still a lot to say about Japan. For instance, I haven’t really talked about the language at all. I found it a much easier to pick up than any of the other Asian languages, mostly because it doesn’t have those maddening tones that make proper pronunciation so difficult. The script, on the other hand, actually employs three different systems all mushed together. Kanji are the borrowed Chinese ideographs that represent whole words or concepts; it’s generally agreed you need to know about 2,000 of these to be considered literate. Hirigana are symbols that are building blocks to forming larger words; they’re complete syllables like ka, sha, ti, tsu, cha, and so on. There are 46 of those. And then there’s katakana, which represent the same syllables as hirigana, but are used for words borrowed from other languages, mostly English. If my name were to be rendered in Japanese it would be done using katakana and would come out something like Pa-me-ra: ラ. I think this is why the Japanese have such trouble with R and L. There is no L sound in Japanese so R is used as a substitute when they adopt words from other languages that use the L sound. So naturally they have trouble pronouncing L sounds to begin with, and they have trouble remembering when to use R and when to use L when speaking in English). Some excellent Japanified words that would use katakana are things like: “wa-ru-do kap-pu” and “to-ra-be-raz chek-ku”. See if you can figure out what those are.*

And did I mention that there is always a free, clean public toilet around when you need one? Like the vending machines, just when the urge swims into your consciousness, you look up and there they are. And you know how I’ve complained a few times about countries where no one can ever give you change for a large bill? In Japan, vending machines will all take ¥100 notes (that’s a $10 bill) and the local 7-11 won’t bat an eye if you give them a ¥1,000 note for a bottle of water.

Speaking of vending machines, how about some fun vending machine food? I never found any really weird stuff in vending machines, though you can get hot cans in coffee and tea in many. And I did run into these things in a machine in Kyoto, and subsequently saw them in convenience stores too. I couldn’t help but think of soylent green when I saw the package, but it turned out just to be dull and dry chocolately flavoured cookie sticks.

Soylent Yellow

How about a weird drink to wash down your “balanced food block”? Believe me, you’ll need it. Well you could do worse than a refreshing bottle of squid juice! Actually it’s hard to imagine a worse concoction than squid juice, but luckily this turned out to be surprisingly tame.

Nicely chilled and ready to drink!

The most interesting thing turned out to be the bottle. It was sealed with a glass ball stuck in the top of the neck. To open the bottle you pull off the plastic cap and peel it apart to turn it into a sort of plunger. Then you put the plunger on top of the ball and smack it with your hand. This forces the glass ball down into the wide part of the neck of the bottle and lets the beverage flow around it. Apparently it’s very retro. And what does carbonated squid juice taste like? Cream soda. No, really. I think the squid ink was only used for colouring because it really just tasted like cream soda. Phew. Talk about dodging a bullet.

And I have to show you this short video I took on my first night in Tokyo, as I was wandering through the Akihabara area. It's... well, it's kind of a car vending machine:

Now, back to some sightseeing. I mentioned in the last post that I’d hoped to get out to the Hakone area, and I actually managed to do that on my last day in Japan when it finally stopped raining. Hakone turned out to be a bit of a bust, but that wasn’t due to the scenery, it was simply because I was trying to fit two days worth of sightseeing into about six hours. First I made my way by bullet train to the city of Odawara. There’s a castle there, and since I hadn’t seen any Japanese castles yet I figured it was worth a stop. It was, but only barely. The original castle dates back to the 15th century, but was demolished in 1872 by order of the Meiji government. The current castle was rebuilt in 1960 and though it’s pretty on the outside the inside is fairly modern looking and filled with case after case of only mildly diverting artifacts. At least they had the decency to build it a short walk from the train station.

The donjon (keep) of Odawara Castle

After hopping onto a slow local train in Odawara, I made it to Hakone-Yumoto, where the wacky transport starts. First is the switchback train, an antique two carriage affair that chugs up the side of a mountain using three switchbacks with a maximum grade of about 8%. They're a bit startling at first, those switchbacks, because the train pulls into a station and then pulls right out again back in the direction it just arrived from. Of course it switches to another track as it’s leaving, but it’s still disconcerting the first few times it happens.

Insufferably arty shot taken on the switchback train

After 45 minutes the train drops you off at the base of the funicular line, which climbs up Mount Soun-zan and deposits you at the cable car station. The cable car then travels over a remarkably blighted valley that looks like a strip-mining operation but is actually a sort of geologically unstable area over a volcanic rift.

A look at the rift, including the operations that are attempting to stop the mountain from continuing to slide away

The volcano is called Owakudani, and at the top there’s a short but smelly walk to view the sulfurous steam bubbling out of milky white pools of water. After Owakaduni it’s possible to take another cable car to the top of Togendai and then visit Ashino-ko Lake where they have tourist boats that are purported to look like something out of “Pirates of the Caribbean”. Unfortunately my schedule meant that I only had time for a quick hike around the windy, stinky slopes of Owakaduni before I had to start retracing my steps back all the way back to Tokyo. I did, however, find the time to indulge in the volcano’s famous weird food: black eggs! These are plain eggs that are boiled in the sulphurous water of the volcano, which causes a checmical reaction that turns the egg’s shell totally black. The legend is that consuming one will add seven years to your life. They’re sold in packs of five (35 years) for ¥500, and EVERYONE tries them while they’re at the top. So many hard boiled eggs have been consumed in the area that in places it looked like the ground was paved in tiny shards of broken eggshell.

Black on the outside, but plain old white on the inside. They tasted like… boiled eggs. The taste could not hold a candle to the eggs-on-a-stick.

I had to rush back to Tokyo because that evening I was having dinner with Paul and Takako, the dynamic duo who smoothed the way for me the whole time I was in Japan. For their grand finale they invited me over for supper and whipped up a Japanese feast of roll-your-own sushi cones and takoyaki. Takoyaki (literally meaning fried or baked octopus) is a party food that I first saw at the food fair on the temple grounds during Aoi Matsuri in Kyoto, though I didn’t know what it was at the time. And what is/are takoykai? They’re bite-sized fried dumpling sort of things with a chunk of octopus in them, and with tempura bits, pickled ginger, and green onion. At fairs the vendors make them in huge cast-iron grills, but at home people have special little electric tabletop versions. They’re yummy, and get topped with mayonnaise, okonomiyaki sauce, flakes of nori (seaweed) and katsuobushi, which are micro-thin shavings of dried fish that wave like a living thing when the heat from the takoyaki rises past them. It’s fun and tasty.

Paul and Takako, tending to the tokoyaki, with partially devoured plate of assorted raw fish in the bottom right. (My new favourite is hotate – raw scallops. They are soooo yummy.)

And after dinner Paul gave me a ride back to my hotel on the back of his motorcycle. He’d picked me up by the same mode, and I loved having a chance to see Tokyo that way. You get a much better view from a bike than you do from a car. After dinner we took the scenic route through Shibuya crossing, which is lit up like Christmas at night.

More video! This is us pulling up to Shibuya crossing just before the pedestrians start their massed scramble through the intersection.

We also went through a few back streets in Shibuya, and I got to see some of the famous “love hotels”. The entrances are shielded from view so you can’t be seen entering or leaving, and they all had signs outside advertising the “rest” rate (just a few hours) and the “stay” rate (overnight). Paul told me he’d read a statistic that said the average stay in one of these places was 45 minutes. That’s the average, which means half of the people who come must stay for less than that... We also drove past the Tokyo tower, and over into Odaiba for a look at the bizarre Fuji TV headquarters “Death Star” building. It was a great ride, and a perfect way to end my last night in Tokyo.

Tokyo Tower. Nine metres taller than the one in Paris on which it was based.

On my last morning in town I finally made it to the tiny Shitimatchi Museum, which was conveniently located next to the train station I needed for the trip to the airport. I stuffed my big bag in a locker at the station (there are always lockers at stations) and went to check it out. It was great – charming and compact, and offering a free English guide service that I took advantage of. The museum is dedicated to showcasing a tiny bit of the Edo period Shitimatchi area, a work-a-day neighbourhood of shops and tenements. The whole main floor was not much bigger than an average Starbucks, and had a recreated tenement house on one side and a recreated shop on the other. The second floor had some fun games and toys you could try and a few interesting displays. My guide was a friendly woman who showed me around for 30 or 40 minutes and when I turned to leave the woman at the front desk stopped me and pulled something out from behind the counter. As she offered it to me she said, “Present”. It turned out to be an amazing bit of origami – an octagonal box with a perfectly-fitting lid that appears to use no fewer than sixteen separate pieces of paper. I have no idea why she gave it to me, but I was blown away. What a great way to end my time in Japan.

My good bye gift from Japan

Yep, Japan was charming right to the end. For instance, on the train I took out to the airport they switch the orientation of the seats at each end station so that they’re always facing in the direction of travel. That’s nothing special; the shinkansen clean-up crews that descend on the train at terminal stations go through each car and spin the seats by unlocking them with a foot pedal and swinging them around. However the Keisei Skyliner to Narita Airport did this all automatically. I looked over as I was waiting for the train doors to open and saw all the seats in the car spontaneously spin themselves around. I love Japan.

And now I’m in America for continent number 4, country number 33, and bed number 158. In a few days my long journey will be over, but don’t despair. I’ve still got a few things on my mind so you’ll have to endure some more of my long-winded ramblings before we can finally put this thing to bed.

* “Wa-ru-do kap-pu” is World Cup. “To-ra-be-raz chek-ku” are traveler’s cheques. I love that.

Two Rainy Days in Tokyo

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

I had a spell of wet weather while in Tokyo, but I tried not to let it get in the way of things. On Sunday I met up with ever-helpful Paul and Takako and they gave me a quick tour of the area around Shibuya. Shibuya Crossing is, as Paul describes it, the picture postcard shot of Tokyo: tall buildings covered in video screens, traffic, the world’s busiest Starbucks, and a timed surge of humanity every few minutes when the whole intersection is given over to pedestrians as a giant scramble corner. (People in Saskatoon: remember those?)

Shibuya Crossing, through dirty window, in the rain

I also got a picture of me at the statue of Hachiko, the little dog whose story is essentially that of Greyfriars Bobby from way back in Edinburgh: faithful hound who came to Shibuya station every day to await the arrival of his master and continued to do so after his master’s death, until his own death 11 years later. The statue is famous, and I hear the dog himself is preserved through the miracle of taxidermy at the National Museum.

Me and Hachiko, in the rain

Paul and Takako and I wandered around the area a bit, and they gave me the Coles Notes version on lots of different odd Japan things that we happened on, like game parlours (as distinct from pachinko parlours). The game parlours seem to be filled almost entirely with variations on the old “claw” machines where you try to pluck, nudge or otherwise persuade some article inside the case to drop into the chute below where you then claim it. There were the mandatory stuffed animals of all descriptions, but there were also silvery sort of briefcase things with skull-and-crossbones motifs, and in Kyoto I even stuff like boxes of Ritz crackers and bags of cookies in these machine, which seems like a really cumbersome way of doing your grocery shopping.

And there was the Taiko Hero game! Actually, I don’t know what it was really called. I call it Taiko Hero because it was just like Guitar Hero, but with Taiko drums. There were two drums in front of the machine and you had to bang away at them in sequence with the dots that scrolled past on the screen. Red dot meant bang the drum. Blue dot meant whack the edge. BIG red dot meant whack the drum really hard. And yellow seemed to mean go nuts on the drum for the duration of the dots.

Me and Takako (hidden behind me), in a head to head Taiko Hero duel, seeking refuge from the rain.

I’m proud to report that even though Takako is Japanese and hence must have an inborn cultural advantage, and despite the fact that for half the game I thought that blue dot meant whack the SIDE of the drum, not the edge, it still ended up being Canada 55,570 - Japan 43,370. The Maple Leaf forever!

After that vigorous session of taiko drumming we visited a store called Tokyu Hands, which was one of a chain of enormous crafty-ish stores that carried a little bit of everything. There were seven floors and they stocked pet and garden supplies, knitting stuff, sewing notions, fancy stationery, ordinary stationery, games, puzzles, cell phone accessories and ornaments, kitchen, bath and linen supplies, luggage, rubber stamps, stickers, foot care products, tools, building materials, Father’s Day gifts, travel gadgets, and on and on and on. It was a bit overwhelming, but at least it was out of the rain, and I was able to pick up a gift and some origami paper.

Eventually we made our way up to Harajuku, an area that’s normally famous for the cos-play people that come out on the weekends to strut their stuff in weird and wonderful costumes. However, did I mention it was raining? Well the cos-play gangs don’t tend to come out when it’s wet, for fear of matting their fun-fur or streaking their hair dye or something, so there wasn’t much living scenery that day. We did have fun poking around a ¥100 Shop (Japanese dollar store) and then Paul and Takako delivered me, on time, to my next appointment of the day. I tell you, I’m a freakin’ social butterfly in Tokyo.

This appointment was a GSRED first. For the first time I was to meet someone who knew me only through the blog. Charles found GSRED through a link at the Tom Bihn site (the company that makes the Aeronaut, the bag I’ve carried around the world, and to which I have referred many times). He wasn’t related to me, or a friend, or someone who’d been referred to the blog by one of those two classes of people, and those are the only three kinds of readers that I’ve really considered might exist. So when Charles sent me an email saying that he’d been reading the blog and lived in Japan and would be happy to help me out with Japan stuff if I needed it, or even just go for a coffee or beer, I figured I should take him up on that.

I’ll admit I was a bit nervous because you really never know when someone is going to turn out to be a mouth-breathing, cyber-stalking freak. But then I realized that I’d just spent the better part of a year meeting and drinking beer with total strangers, so there was no reason I should exclude this guy just because he’d been taken the trouble to read my blog, and apparently liked it. Actually, the fact that he likes the blog is a sign of great intelligence and discernment. You should all give yourselves a pat on the back for being such a high-brow crowd.

And of course it all turned out fine. Great, in fact. We got along right away and spent most of the afternoon hanging around chatting. Charles is a teacher from the States who’s lived in Japan long enough to be fluent in the language and, I think, to call it home. He had a lot of interesting stuff to relate about life in Japan, and about his travels (the Galapagos Islands! Cool!). We talked about my travels too, and what it feels like now that they’re almost over. (Unreal. Sad. A relief.) Most people who hear about my trip ask me what my favourite place was, but Charles asked me something no one else has asked yet: “If you could go back to one place before your trip was over, just for a short while, where would you go?” (Ireland. I missed too much there. Like pretty much the whole country). And I told him something weird that I realized recently: I can’t remember what my socks look like. Not the ones I’m wearing, obviously. I mean the dozen or so pairs of non-traveling, non-quick-dry, normal, everyday socks that are waiting for me in a suitcase in Winnipeg. This was an oddly disorienting realization.

We talked over coffee and then over lunch, and Charles took me to a big bookstore with a large selection of English books. This was lucky because my latest disposable paperback was almost finished and I needed something to tide me over until I got back to English-land. It all ended up being a great afternoon, and I feel like I met a good friend. Thanks for not turning out to be an axe murderer, Charles!

Me and Charles, in front of Shinjuku Station, the busiest train station in the world, in the rain.

On Monday I’d hoped to spend the day outside Tokyo in the Hakone region, which is full of nice scenery and wacky forms of transport like switchback railways, funiculars, cable cars and cruise boats that look like Disney pirate ships. But that kind of thing is no fun in the rain so instead I decided to stick around Tokyo. My first stop was to be the famous tuna auction at the Tsujiki fish market, where ten thousand dollar fish are auctioned off at an ungodly hour every morning. It’s supposed to be fascinating, and the sashimi is as fresh as it comes. But if you’re plugged in to the Tokyo tourist scene at all you know that the tuna auction has been closed to tourists, off and on, for months. Apparently the crowds got a bit out of control and some particularly gormless and half-witted tourists actually got in the way of the buyers while trying to pose for photos, and some even touched the fish, so you really can’t blame the Tsujiki people for being touchy about things.

They’ve now decided to limit the number of people allowed to view the auction every day and restrict them to a particular viewing area, so you have to get in early to get a spot. Very, very, very, very early. The auction starts at 5:00 am, so I got up at 4:00 and got a cab (because of course the subway does not run at that hour). When I got there it was immediately obvious that what the LP said was true. This is not a place for tourists. This was an enormous, working fish market with big trucks everywhere and zillions of foam coolers full of every imaginable species of fish and little motorized carts zooming all over. I was trying very hard to stay out of the way of those little carts, but then one of them pulled right up to me and the driver turned around and told me to hop on! The guy was incredibly friendly and zipped me right through the whole warehouse kind of place to where the tuna auction is held, at the back. It was really really cool.

In fact, it was by far the coolest part of the morning, because I quickly found out that the spaces to see the tuna auction were all full. And then there was a Japanese security guard type guy with a hat and a walkie-talkie who seemed to be telling everyone that the whole area was closed and could we all please bugger off. And then there was a huge lineup of people at the place I assumed to be the sushi shop. It was at this point that I decided to give up and start my day over. So I legged it to the nearest metro station (which was running by this time), went back to my hotel, and went back to bed. I didn’t even get any photos. It was a total bust.

When my day started for the second time it was still raining, but I was much happier. I spent a pleasant, slow afternoon doing a bit of souvenir shopping in the Asakusa area, near the famous Asahi Brewery. I say it’s famous, but really I think it’s only notable for the gigantic golden statue of a sperm on the top of the building.

Well what do YOU think it looks like? (… in the rain)

That night I had weird food, and then suddenly it was my last full day overseas. More on that in another post, along with as many random observations about Japan as I can remember and make worth reading about. For now let’s leave me content but damp after two days of rain.

Steve’s Weird Food for Japan: the trifecta

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

There has been a lot of weird food in Japan. In particular, I’ve been a bit obsessed with the amount of matcha-flavoured stuff I’ve encountered. Astute GSRED readers will remember that matcha is the particular type of powdered green tea used in the tea ceremony, and for some reason it’s a popular flavour that gets added to, well, just about anything. Pretty much any food you encounter has a matcha variety, identified by a particular shade of green packaging, and a particular shade of green food. Let’s have a look:

Matcha-flavoured cheesecake. This was the only “matcha” food I had that actually had any matcha flavour at all, due to the fact that I think it was sprinkled with real powdered matcha. This gives a decidedly bitter topnote to an otherwise pleasant cheesecake.

Matcha Kit Kat. I love this. It’s a Kit Kat, but it’s GREEN. Tasted just like it was covered in white chocolate - no matcha flavour, just generalized creamy sweetness. (I also saw banana flavoured Kit Kats, and heard they have strawberry as well.)

Matcha Oreo Cookie Candy Bar. Green crunchy oreo stuff.

Matcha Balls. Little crispy sweet balls covered in the ubiquitous green creamy coating.

Matcha and black bean donut. Again, no matcha flavour, just a cake donut that happened to be green, and studded with things that look like chocolate chips, but are actually beans. The fact that Asian cultures persist in the belief that beans are a dessert food is weird.

Matcha chocolate chip cookies. Again, chocolate chip cookies… but they’re GREEN.

Matcha mousse. Lovely, creamy, and with the faintest hint of matcha.

Matcha caramels. The weirdest of the lot. They are presented in tiny flat cellophane wrappers that you peel open like those Listerine breath-freshener sheets you stick on the back of your tongue. This reveals a square of very squishy goo that you pop into your mouth. It’s definitely caramel, but there may have been a vague note of matcha too. But really, shapeless green goo? That has to qualify as weird food.

But that’s not the weirdest food I had; that honour goes to a meal I ate in Tokyo on my second-last night there. I got some advice from the very friendly guy at the hotel desk and headed out to a local place that turned out to be quite fancy, though surprisingly reasonably priced. (This was mostly in comparison with the tempura meal I had the night before which, while pleasant and tasty, clocked in at a budget-busting ¥8778. More than $90. Ouch!). And when I opened the menu I saw right away that I was going to be able to make this a Weird Food trifecta – starter, main course and dessert. How could I not?

My started was based on an ingredient called yuba, which is soy milk skin. The LP says, “Its creation is a labour-intensive process in which soy milk is allowed to curdle over a low heat and then the skin is plucked from the surface.” Yes, first they curdle the milk, and then the nasty skin that forms on the surface? The bit you’d normally skim off the top and throw out? That’s the bit they keep. However, the way I had it prepared it was really nice. The menu described it as “baked fresh yuba and cheese”. It came in a very hot little dish, bubbling away, with small pieces of toasted baguette on which to spread it, and it was really nice. Creamy, a bit cheesy, and with no trace of skin-ish-ness.

Baked yuba and cheese

The main course was the real centerpiece – that which I’d specifically sought out as the Weird Food of the night. The Japanese call it basashi, but the English speaking world would describe it as raw horse meat. It’s a real delicacy, served sashimi-style with slabs of fat and a light dipping sauce.

It’s a delicacy, I’m telling you

The basashi was, well, sort of like you’d expect any raw red meat to be. It was chewy and a bit stringy, and the bits of fat between were tough (not like a melting lardy kind of thing). There wasn’t any strong flavour at all. I tried a few of the pieces of fat along with the meat, but decided it was better on its own. Better being a very very relative term here, sort of like you might describe the third season of “Heroes” as better than a boot to the head. Truthfully, it wasn’t bad. It wasn’t really… anything, which makes me think I’ve been doing this for too long.

On to dessert, and we’re back to that bean thing again. My choice was “yam pancake with sweet bean jam and ice cream”. Among the other choices was black bean ice cream. I’m telling you, this place was a Weird Food gimme.


It was very nice, though I still can’t get over the sweet bean thing. The flavour is sweet, but the texture is… bean. I suppose it’s not miles from carrot cake, or candied yams. Entirely cultural, I’m sure.

And to top it all off I had to try a glass of sake, which turned out to be much much bigger than I expected. The “small” glass I had was 180 somethings, mililitres, I guess. It seemed like a lot, and it was poured right at the table. The glass was set and then carefully centred in a large wooden coaster with a high lip. Then the glass was filled. And I mean filled, until the sake reached the rim. I was impossible to lift it without spilling, hence the heavy-duty coaster. It was nice enough, but by the time I got through the whole glass I was ready for bed. After all, I’d had soy milk skin, raw horse, and bean jam. What else could I do that day to top that?

Bed time

The Big Mikan

Sunday, May 23, 2010

I’m told that’s the nickname English speakers use for Tokyo - The Big Mikan. (Mikan means mandarin orange). So I’m here in the big city, the last overseas stop in a string of stops so long that people’s eyes glaze over when I’m asked to list them. And I’ve checked in to my last hotel room. The hotel room I’m in now, however, was not the first place I stayed in Tokyo. I decided that one of the things I needed to do in Japan was to stay in a capsule hotel, so I booked into a place at Asakusa (not to be confused with Akasaka…) and checked in when I got off the train from Takayama.

I’ll admit I had some preconceived notions about what the capsule hotel would be like. I imagined floor after floor of spotless, space-age capsules arranged with same-floor access to pleasant common areas and with communal toilets, showers and a bath close by. The capsules would be small but cozy, with tv, alarm clock, power outlets and maybe even internet. Spacious lockers would secure my belongings right next to my capsule. It would all be clean, efficient, aesthetically pleasing, and display one or two unforeseen but brilliant little bits of hospitality or technology, like sliding doors that would automatically open and close to seal off the capsule, making a whooshing Star Trek noise when they did. This is Japan, after all, I’ve come to expect nothing less.

Not surprisingly, I was mostly wrong. The capsule hotel I stayed in did have rooms spread over many floors, but it shared those floors with a bunch of other things. The place was generally run down, and the services were scattered all over. My capsule, #8021, was on the 8th floor, and shared the room with 23 others. There were toilets and sinks in the next room. Lockers were there too, but were awkwardly shaped, like interlocking Ls, I suppose to allow you to hang up clothing in the tall part. Large bags had to be left unsecured, or put in pay-as-you-go lockers on the 2nd floor. Luckily I was able to rearrange things to be able to fit everything important into my locker, but it was a bit of a pain.

The weird-shaped lockers

There was a communal bath on the 9th floor, divided between men and women. The only showers were the ones next to the bath. They’re a particular sit-down type that you find at onsen all over Japan. And because I happened to have my camera with me when I was investigating, and there was no one using the place at the time, you get to have a look. You’d normally use these shower stations to wash yourself thoroughly before getting in the bath. I I’m used to having a shower in my room at other times, so maybe this is what communal showers are always like in Japan.

The sit-down showers

And just because I can, here’s a look at the bath. It’s much more utilitarian than the ones I’ve had in nicer hotels.

There was wifi internet, but it was on the 2nd floor, along with a tv and a bit of a lounge area. The 9th floor had laundry machines, the baths, and a reasonable view over the river. And once I got over my initial disappointment at the decidedly non-Flash Gordon-like atmosphere, I realized that it did indeed have everything I needed. If I thought about it as a hostel with slightly more private bunks, then it all seemed pretty reasonable. And for ¥3,240 per night in Tokyo, you can’t really argue.

And the capsule itself? It was about 1 metre x 1 metre x 2 metres (one tatami mat), and had a very 1960s moulded plastic kind of flair. It did have a tv, though I didn’t bother with that because, like lots of TVs in hotel rooms in Japan, it had an impenetrable vending machine pay card system for viewing any channels other than those showing Japanese game shows. It also had a digital clock and a small shelf and a light with a dimmer switch. The opening could be covered with a rolling blind, and once I was ensconced for the night, it was pretty comfortable and cozy.

The capsules

All in all, the capsule hotel wasn’t bad, but I was very happy to move to my “real” hotel the next day. It has a full-sized bed, desk, internet, balcony and a very very small kitchenette. It’s my last hotel room of the trip, and it is certainly worthy of that honour.

Once I’d safely moved hotels, it was time to actually see something of Tokyo. My first stop was the Edo museum, which was really excellent, giving a great overview of the history of Tokyo (which used to be called Edo) during some of the most interesting periods. Better still was the guide service that was offered. The LP indicated that English guides were available, and signage at the museum seemed to confirm this, so I presented myself at the guide desk and expected to be given a pamphlet, or, at best, an audio player. Instead, I was presented with a perky Japanese woman who was my personal guide for the next hour and a half. It was an outstanding service – all volunteer, and totally free. She took me through most of the displays, explaining things I wouldn’t have understood on my own, and even took a photo.

Me in a traveling palanquin sort of thing

I spent a very happy morning at the museum, had lunch, and then went back for a bit to see some of the exhibits I didn’t have time for with my guide. Then it was time for the other big event of the day, and when I say big, I mean BIG:


I was lucky enough to be in Tokyo during one the three grand sumo tournaments held each year, and when I realized this, and found out that I could get a walk-up ticket on Friday morning, I was there in a flash. (Well, actually I was there after a frustrating ride on the Tokyo subway, more on that later). The ticket was ¥2,100 for an all-day seat anywhere in the very last row of the very top balcony. The nice thing is that most of the people who attend these tournaments only come for the later matches of the day when the highest-ranked wrestlers are competing. This means that lots of good seats stay empty during the afternoon so it’s quite normal to camp out in a better seat than you’ve bought until someone with a real claim to it comes along. And that’s just what I did.

Sumo is fascinating, partly because it’s full of tradition. The matches take place in a ring called the dohyo, which is made out of straw rice bags arranged in a circle and then mostly covered with clay and dirt so that only a slight ridge is exposed. A new dohyo is constructed for each tournament. The one at the national sumo stadium also has a large roof structure suspended over the dohyo, meant to resemble a Shinto shrine. The rules of sumo are simple enough, the bout is one by the first rikishi (wrestler) who either forces his opponent to step out of the ring, or to touch any part of the dohyo with any part of his body other than the soles of his feet. Sometimes matches are over in seconds, sometimes they last a minute or two. Interestingly, there are no weight classes in sumo, so a small guy can be put up against a monstrous mountain of flesh, and that’s just his tough luck. These are the kind of matches the crowd really gets behind, but they usually end up the way you’d expect, with the little guy tossed out in short order.

What takes the most time is all the ceremony and posturing that goes on before the bout starts. There’s a lot of pomp involved, including the ceremonial arrival of the fighters in each division at the beginning of their day’s session. They parade in wearing nothing but their mawashi (the loin cloth/waist band thingy you’ve all seen) and an elaborate and colourful silk apron with rich embroidery and fringe (costing up to ¥500,000). And each bout is preceded by the sing-song announcement of each fighter’s name, performed by a specific person. There’s also lot of symbolic and aggressive posturing by the rikishi who, at the highest levels, are allowed to spend up to four minutes preparing for the match by getting set into the crouch position, glaring at each other, and then walking back to their corners for more ritual cleansing, scattering of salt in the ring, and general gamesmanship. This just gets everyone – the fighters and the crowd – more and more worked up before the initial clash.

And lucky you, you get to see some video of one of the sumo matches I saw. This is two of the higher ranked fighters, who came along later in the afternoon. They’ve just finished about four rounds of posturing, crouching, getting ready, walking away, slapping themselves, cleansing themselves, throwing salt, and generally trying to intimidate the other guy. (And look at that guy on the right, sitting down. He’s huge! I think they just classed him as a new planet…)

I really enjoying watching the sumo, partly because they had an excellent and informative English pamphlet available, which helped immensely. I spent a couple of hours there, wandering around the stadium, watching matches, reading my pamphlet, and just enjoying myself. It was a great afternoon.

I mentioned that I’ve had some trouble with the Tokyo metro system. It turns out that the Tokyo metro/subway/trains are a bit too Kuala Lumpur for my tastes. There are several different companies running trains around the city, and they don’t always play nicely together. For instance on the morning of sumo, I strode out confidently and bought a ticket from Asakusa station, planning to head to Ryogoko, just one change and two stops down the line. It turned out though, to be a case of you-can’t-get-there-from-here. I needed to be at a different Asakusa station, on a different line (Asakusa on the Asakusa line, not Asakusa on the Ginza line. Silly me). That station was a few blocks from where I started, and necessitated me buying another ticket. Then I got to the interchange station and discovered that Tokyo defines interchange in much the same way that Kuala Lumpur does meaning, it seems, that any station within a 1.5km radius of can be considered “connected” to the station you’re changing from. Considering that Japan is so very good at so very many things it’s odd to me that the transit system in the country’s largest city should be so… meh. People who live here tell me that once you get used to it it’s very efficient and you can get anywhere and blah blah blah… to which I say: Tell me that the next time you have to walk three blocks between the Asakusa line and the Odeo line in the pouring rain. And if it’s so easy, then why does everyone have some kind of application on their phone to help them navigate the system? I rest my case.

And how about a few more thoughts on vending machines? Remember how I mentioned that the TVs in hotel rooms require cards you get from a vending machine? The same thing was true when I went to buy laundry soap so I could do some washing at the capsule hotel. I managed to convey the idea of “laundry soap” to the mostly uni-lingual desk clerk (though of course he was a lot more bilingual than I was) and he kept pointing behind me and saying “30 yen”. I turned to where he was pointing and faced some kind of vending machine. It was covered in buttons labeled with Japanese characters, so I punched the one that said ¥30, shoveled in some money, and was rewarded with… no, not a packet of soap. I was rewarded with a tiny ticket. I turned 180 degrees, advanced one step and presented the ticket to the desk guy, and he presented me with a packet of soap. This seemed an oddly complicated system. Surely it would be simpler if I could have given the guy ¥30 and he could have given me the soap, and we could have eliminated the machine entirely. However, in retrospect I realized that by using a ticket machine like this for all kinds of odds and ends, the hotel managed to avoid having their staff handle any money. It’s actually kind of smart. (Hey wait a minute! They took my money when I paid for the capsule… so much for that argument.)

Ticket vending machine outside the ramen restaurant where I had supper one night.

So that was my first few days in Tokyo: capsules, vending machines, subway frustrations and sumo! And now I’ve had two solid days of rain, and am getting a bit frayed. It’s a cool city, but it’s less cool in the rain. Perhaps this is good though, because I’ve only got two days left and the rain is making me feel like that will be just fine. Two days. Too weird.

Tatami mats in Takayama

Saturday, May 22, 2010

I know I have been unreservedly lavish with my praise for Japan so far, so I feel like I need to admit the few things that I find annoying about being here. So here you go, the things I don’t like about Japan:

  1. Hotels have slightly less-than-generous check in and check out times. Check out is usually 10:00 am, which is a bit early for comfort. Check in is rarely before 3:00pm, which can also be annoying. And there’s really no room to move on those times. 3:00 is 3:00, do not ask about getting in earlier. I arrived in Granada, Spain after an overnight train ride at about 7:30 am and was genially shown to my room at 7:31; I can’t imagine the apoplexy that would cause here.

  2. A couple of times now I’ve come up against maps that are oriented with some direction other than north at the top. This is maddening, especially when you’re confronted with two different maps of the same place, one with north pointing to the right, and one with it pointing to the left.

  3. Despite the fact that the country is spotlessly clean it’s often ridiculously hard to find a garbage can. I have no idea what Japanese people do with their garbage, though if there’s like me they end up carrying it around for hours as if it’s some kind of precious keepsake.

  4. Toilets are bizarrely and unnecessarily complicated. They usually have long instruction stickers posted nearby telling you how to operate the various automatically telescoping nozzles that spray parts of your anatomy which, if you are from North America, are probably not accustomed to being sprayed at all regardless of the many combinations of water temperature, angle and pressure you might be presented with. And sometimes toilets do things all by themselves. I first ran into this in a hotel in Kyoto when I sat down and the water started running immediately. I swear my first thought was, “Has my ass become so wide that I’m sitting on one of the little buttons on the side control panel?” Then I realized that there was a pressure-sensitive switch. I have no idea what this was for. My best guess is it’s just there to make noise to mask the sound of whatever you’re doing, which seems incredibly wasteful. In Turkey I was asked not to wash out my laundry in the sink because it used too much water, but in Japan they’re literally flushing it down the toilet. (Then again they also have clever all-in-one toilet/sinks where the toilet tank cover is a shallow basin and the water that fills the tank when you flush first comes out of a faucet above the basin so you can wash your hands with it before it flows into the tank. Clever.)

The instructions for my first Japanese toilet, at Narita Airport. I rest my case. (Also: “Equipment to cleansing the buttocks” Hee hee!)

But on to Takayama, which I liked very much, partly because it had almost no temples and the ones it did have were easily avoided. It’s a small city (population about 95,000) and most of the interesting bits are easily reached on foot. It’s got an excellently preserved section of Edo Period homes (1600-1868), a few of which you can tour through, but most of which have been turned into restaurants and shops selling tourist tat, sakē, ice cream, glutinous rice balls (err… yum) and zillions of these creepy faceless dolls called saru-bobo (monkey babies) in sizes ranging from key-chain to impossible-to-pack.

I think it’s a town bylaw that every shop in the city sell some form of saru-bobo. I’m surprised they let me leave without one. (I did buy a souvenir though, a lovely wooden lacquered tray that’s very plain, very Japanese and not creepy at all.)

The big sight to see just outside of Takayama is the Hida-no-Sato village. It’s a collection of dozens of traditional homes that were dismantled at their original sites around the area and rebuilt in an open air museum. I arrived early enough one morning to avoid most of the crowds and had a very nice, quiet time wandering in and out of the buildings . I also borrowed the free English audioguide (On cassette! Remember those?); it talked about the styles of architecture, the various industries villagers would have engaged in (like silk production), and the lifestyle of the people who lived in the houses.

One of the steeply pitched, thatched roof houses of Hida-no-Sato. They’re steeply pitched to shed the snow, which falls up to 8 feet deep in this mountainous region. It’s nice to be back in a part of the world where people have snow scoops leaning next to the back door.

One section of Hida-no-Sato contains the homes and workshops of artisans who live and work at the park, demonstrating their craft and selling their artwork to tourists. There were supposedly workshops for pottery, weaving, lacquerware and carving, but they were almost all closed the day I was there. There was one old gentleman in one of the historical houses demonstrating how to make straw sandals. Like everyone in Japan (except tour guides) he wasn’t exactly gregarious, but he let me take some pictures after I asked (in Japanese, even!). The sandals themselves look remarkably uncomfortable, but it was interesting watching the man work.

Straw sandals, under construction

And just because I’ve got bandwidth up the wazoo here in Japan (which can be uncomfortable, but the toilets have a setting for it), here’s a video I took of a clever bit of water-powered machinery at Hido-na-Sato.

The automatic banging device

I did enjoy some local cuisine in Takayama, which is most famous, culinarily speaking, for two things: hoba-miso, a particular type of local miso served on a mulberry leaf over a ceramic burner (miso is the ubiquitous soybean-derived salty paste that’s used to make miso soup), and Hida beef, cousin to the renowned Kobē beef, and famous for its quality and marbling. Of course I tried both. I went to a very local place recommended by my hotel and had the miso (described by a friend’s traveling companion as “cat barf on a leaf”) which turned out to be really tasty in a salty, savoury, umami kind of way. It was also quite nice when spread onto thin slices of Hida beef grilled on the same ceramic burner. And it all goes down a treat with a glass of cold beer to put out the fire that’s lighted when you apply a slice of molten-miso-covered beef directly to your tongue.

Hida beef. Marble-licious.

Because Takayama is so compact I ended up being able to delve into a few more corners than I expected, which is how I found myself rushing to take a seat at a Karakuri puppet show. Karakuri dolls are clockwork-driven creations originally from the Edo period; their most famous incarnation in Takayama is on elaborate parade floats that are brought out every year for the local festival. The floats are oddly tall and skinny, and I walked past a couple of three-storey garages in town with very tall doors where parade floats are stored. The karakuri I saw were smaller than parade float ones, ranging in size from about 18” to 36” high. They were quite impressive, too. Controlled by a series of rods and mechanisms, there was a karakuri that could climb steps with nothing connected to the bottom of his feet, one that swung through a series of trapezes, and even one that could write calligraphy on a piece of paper. I managed to get a video of part of the show, which was completely fascinating and charming:

Karakuri in action

I mentioned that Takayama has an excellent stock of historical homes, and I toured through two of them that have been preserved in the northern end of the city. Both had been home to merchant families and were collections of tatami mat rooms, large and small, that could be reconfigured with sliding screens. The screens might be opened to allow a view of the garden, or closed for privacy, or removed completely to join several small spaces into one for a large celebration. It’s a very different style of design than we’re used to in the west. Here’s an excellent introduction from a pamphlet I picked up at Yoshijima House in Takayama:

“The rooms with tatami, or straw mats, not only in Yoshijima house but in most traditional Japanese houses, possess no fixed function. The function of the room is determined by the objects which are placed in them. For example, by placing a portable dining table in a room, that room becomes a dining room. If fine zabuton, or floor cushions, are placed in the room, it is now a guest room; when bedding is placed in the room, the same room is transformed into a bedroom. Furthermore, the furnishings, hanging scrolls, etc., would be changed to fit the seasons or the ceremonies to be undertaken in a particular room.”

A typical 8-tatami mat room

Again and again in Japan I’ve run into the “tatami mat” method of measuring floor space. The size of a single tatami mat differs slightly in different areas of Japan but is always around 3' x 6' and always a perfect 2:1 ratio. All of the indoor living space in the historical homes I’ve seen have floors covered with tatami mats, as have several hotel rooms I’ve stayed in. And whenever they describe a room in one of these historical structures they almost always start by telling you the number of tatami mats covering it. (“This 8-tatami mat room was used as a resting place for guests before blah blah blah…” or “This large 49-tatami mat room can be divided into three different spaces with the use of sliding screens.”). One of the most famous rooms at Ginkakuji is called the Four-and-a-Half Tatami Mat Room, capitalized here because that particular room came to be a model for similar rooms all over Japan. And I think this method of measuring space is still used today. When he saw the picture of my ryokan on Miyajima Paul was quick to point out that it was a 12 mat room, generous indeed since many modern apartments are only 8, or sometimes just 6 mats.

I also noticed that the importance of the room can sometimes be divined by the elaborateness of the binding along the sides of the tatami mats. The mats in servants’ quarters might have no binding at all, whereas everyday rooms could be bound in plain black or blue. And I saw rooms for important guests or for the master or mistress of the house where the tatami mats had been bound in patterned fabric.

A stack of tatami mats in a shop in Takayama

And it’s not just the historical homes that display particularly Japanese characteristics. The modern places occupied by the normal people of Takayama were wonderful too, in a very Japanese way. For instance, windows facing onto the street are almost always frosted or covered in rice paper. In addition there’s usually a slatted wooden screen of some kind in front of that and sometimes a bamboo blind hanging in front of that. Very private, and so very Japanese. And the gardens in front of the houses are fabulous too – compact, spare and thoughtful.

A normal house in Takayama

I loved wandering through those traditional Japanese homes with the tatami mats, the sliding rice paper screens and the woodwork burnished to a smooth, deep brown colour. Again and again I’d turn a corner and be faced with some perfectly designed space with a single scroll of calligraphy hanging in an alcove and a view over a fantastic garden; it was all really peaceful and calming, and I liked it very much. As I get closer to having my own space again I wonder how much my experience in Japan will affect how I chose to design where I end up living. I don’t think I could manage the completely empty look – I like a good couch and a proper bed too much for that. But Paul’s words echoed in my head as I stood in those rooms and my mind whirred thinking about how I might fit my own life onto 8 tatami mats. I’m definitely going to miss life on the road, but at the same time I can’t wait to get back and see how it all unfolds.