Saturday, January 29, 2011

Tengu Matsuri

We hit the Shimokitazawa shopping streets on Saturday afternoon (Jan 29) to check out the Long Red-nosed Goblin festival, or Tengu Matsuri, with Sandra, Sean and their boys...

"[T]he bird-like Tengu is a skilled warrior and mischief maker, especially prone to playing tricks on arrogant and vainglorious Buddhist priests, and to punishing those who willfully misuse knowledge and authority to gain fame or position. In bygone days, they also inflicted their punishments on vain and arrogant samurai warriors. They dislike braggarts, and those who corrupt the Dharma (law). ” Source: A to Z Photo Dictionary – Japanese Buddhist Statuary
(and posted here )

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Now there's a T.G.I. Friday's in Jingumae

Sometimes we just need to get back in touch with the homeland --
-- by going to a restaurant like TGIF and ordering off the dessert menu.

Say Hello to "Oreo Madness", double portion. It's overly sweet. It's messy. It's e-NOR-mous. The very antithesis of a Japanese dessert.

The place pulls no punches, really, with the red and white balloons, and a wait staff that wears suspenders with just the right amount of flair.

Don't get me wrong. I liked Fujimamas, which used to occupy this building just off Omotesando dori and close to Cat Street, but I must confess: I totally dig this over-the-top replacement. You know, in an ironic sorta way.

Who am I kidding-- this is comfort food! We're talking Cobb Salad the size of my head!

In any case, it's an easy way to get my boys on their bikes on a sunny Sunday afternoon, if they know this is their destination.

"Happy Birthday, dear (customer)...."

And the decor is nothing if not inspirational.

Monday, January 24, 2011

and another one

Dentist office in Nezu

I just like this sign

restaurant on Yamate-dori, near Naka-meguro metro station

Wednesday, January 12, 2011


My friend, the lovely Mikayo, cooked for the boys and me at her home last night. She made sukiyaki (which I thought was pronounced "soo-kee-yah-kee" but is actually "skee-yaki" if you want to speak proper Japanese).

First she sliced the negi, those big green onions (leeks?) and laid them down like a "carpet" in the cast-iron pot, on top of a drizzle of sesame oil.

The pot sat on a freestanding gas burner that she put right on the counter in front of me. I must get myself one of these.

After the onion, the sliced beef. (I buy this meat all the time at the grocery store, but usually just throw it into a frying pan with a splash of teriyaki sauce, put it on a roll and call it a steak sandwich. Which is a big hit in our home, but this is way better.)

On top of the meat, Mikayo poured a mixture of sake, soy and sugar (which you can boil down separately beforehand or buy in most supermarkets here already bottled, like this one, named for Imahan, a famous sukiyaki restaurant in Ningyocho -- like buying Rao's tomato sauce at Gristede's).

After the beef had cooked for a few minutes, she added some enoki (those pale skinny mushrooms) and cabbage and some slices of fried tofu, then a few clumps of potato noodles.

Everything nestled together nicely in the pot and simmered in the sweet tangy sauce.

Occasionally she'd toss in a little bonito broth (or dashi, a fish broth) to keep everything moist. She added the mizuna, a mildly bitter green, last, maybe because it wilts so fast.


As I tucked in to my first bowl, Mikayo told me that sukiyaki is enjoyed in three stages:

Round one: you serve yourself some meat and veg and enjoy it as is.

Round two: you break a raw egg over everything and mix is all up. The egg cooks as it combines with the hot food. Serve.

Round three: add white rice to the pot of whatever is left (mostly sauce) and simmer, "like a risotto."

We never did get past round one because we were all stuffed, and I didn't think the boys would go for the egg bit anyway.

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

caption contest

This latest "Please do it again" poster from Tokyo Metro leaves much to be desired, doncha think?

For one thing, it needs a caption that says a bit more about what's happening here than the generic "Please be considerate of others on the train."

That's where you come in!

I am inviting you, dear reader -- and I know there are at least a few of you out there -- to submit something better, something amusing, something pithy, whatever. Please leave it as a comment to this post. Who will take the top prize (i.e. my congratulations in a follow up blog post)?

Monday, January 10, 2011

Congrats, 20-year-olds

Today was Coming of Age Day (Seijin no hi), a bank holiday honoring all those who turned 20 (the "age of majority") in the last year, and an excuse to close off the streets in some parts of town, like Bunkamura-dori near the Shibuya 109 building in Dogenzaka, where Conor and I happened upon these dudes on stilts.

The day's honorees like to dress in traditional finery and walk around the city with their friends. Special thanks to Paul Hitchens for this excellent photo that I just copied off your facebook page:

today's sports section

Day one of the New Year tournament at Ryogoku Kokugikan

Sunday, January 9, 2011

Just a regular Sunday afternoon

Yoyogi Koen, East entrance, Jan. 9, 2011, approx 3:30pm

Thursday, January 6, 2011

Nozawa Onsen Pt. 3: the slopes

If you want to ski or board from dawn to dusk, by all means stay at Pension Schnee, which is on the mountain and a short walk from where you can rent your equipment and buy your lift tickets and take a gondola up to the top.

To go to Nozawa Onsen the village -- it's very charming -- from Schnee you need to take the moving walkway, or the "Yu-Road," which is just like the rolling sidewalks you see at airports. Only it stops operating around 4:30pm, so unless you want to walk uphill on packed snow for 15 minutes after an evening out, it's the pension's bar/restaurant for you. Which is fine, a cozy spot with an extensive drink and snack menu.

The whole setting is idyllic, really. We've skied in a few places around Japan -- Hakuba, Yuzawa/Niigata, in Hokkaido just outside Sapporo -- and I must say that Nozawa Onsen was the prettiest, with its many tall pine trees with branches sagging under enormous clumps of snow...

The area saw some heavy snowfall while we were there, which made for some nice and soft and fluffy-powdery conditions. The weather was wild, actually, shifting dramatically all weekend long. You'd have clear blue sky/bright sunshine/great visibility one minute, dark gray overcast sky /heavy snowfall and chill the next. The swings, so regular and extreme, were unlike anything I've ever experienced on a ski slope anywhere, no kidding.

On Sunday we took a few hours off from skiing/boarding to check out the town...
It's a pretty steep descent

shops on main street

Lunch at Wakagiri featured a full range of local cuisine: ramen, kappamaki, tempura and tonkatsu. And a menu we could read!

I ditched the group before they had a chance to order dessert and found myself in a "paper dolls and origami" shop. Proprietress Silvia, originally from El Salvador, makes some pretty cool dolls out of washi paper:
foot bath on the corner

On Monday morning we had a couple hours to spare before our train left, so the boys went to a public onsen for a free soak (they had to use Terry's jeans to dry off because towels were not provided and we didn't think to bring any) while I wandered around and ultimately found Memorial Hall. It was then I started to understand what the upcoming Fire Festival was all about...

Nozawa Onsen Pt. 2: the Guardians

Say Hello to the Dosojin, Shinto-Buddhist gods of roads and borders, believed to ward off evil spirits and protect the village from harm.
These guys are the VIDs (Very Important Deities) of Nozawa Onsen, the hot spring and ski resort town in the northern part of Nagano prefecture I mentioned in my last post (more on our recent trip there later). When they are depicted in human form, as a man and a woman, as they are here, their guardianship extends to marriage and fertility and childbirth. (They also protect travelers -- a natural extension of the roads and borders thing).

Maybe because it was New Year's weekend or maybe they are always on display, but we saw loads of these doll-couples all over town, in shop windows, on doorsteps and street corners...

And here they are protecting the TogariNozawa-onsen train station.
(Photo taken on Jan. 3, 2011)

Nozawa Onsen Pt. 1

Street brawl!

I mean, Fire Festival! (Dosojin Hi-Matsuri)

Nozawa onsen is a lovely little village in the Japan Alps known for its many public hot springs baths and European-style ski chalets. It is where we spent New Year's weekend after our trip to New York. It is where the boys learned how to snowboard, and I learned that I should stick to skiing. It is also the site of this curious annual ritual.

Apparently every year, on Jan. 15, villagers try to light a bunch of 42-year-olds on fire.

The targets sit on top of a huge shrine (assembled over three days leading up to the event) while the town's 25-year-olds stand guard and try to beat back the attack, whacking at the flaming torches to snuff them out. (25 and 42 are two of the "unlucky" years for men, according to Shinto belief.)

Happy New Year!

This impressive diorama in the town's Memorial Hall explained a lot. So did the video the museum cafe has showing on its big screen TV on continuous loop. But I still have questions. Such as, do the defenders wear flame-retardant gloves? what happens if the attackers are successful and the giant pile of wood actually catches fire? Is the fire brigade standing by?

Learned a few more things at

During the festival, much free sake is consumed.

Visitors are asked to carry a badge to identify themselves and their accommodation, so that those who overindulge can be given a ride home in a fire truck, after a spell in the tent of shame.
The evening starts with some ceremonial events, namely lighting a fire with a flint to then light the fire sticks.

The protectors yell “hi motte koi” (bring on the fire), and that's when things really get going.
The first fire attacks come from the youngest villagers, who are carried up by their parents.
The 42 year olds sit on top of the shrine, drink sake and egg on the attack.


If you want to check it out, you can take a shinkansen to Nagano (about an hour from Omiya) then the Iiyama line local train to TogariNozawa-Onsen (another hour). The village is a 10-15 min taxi ride from the station. There's also a bus that can take you into town. I will not be on it. As much as my boys want to go see this spectacle, I can't imagine that's a good idea.

fun with iMovie

Here is a 5-min slide show I put together using photos and a few short video clips of our weekend in Nozawa Onsen....

I've also posted it on Vimeo, which I think I like better than YouTube

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Akemashite omedetou gozaimasu!

This New Year's gift-o from my dry cleaner reminds me that I should go buy some really nice cookies or crackers (or bottle of sake?) for the doorman/maintenance guy at our apartment building. Is there a grace period or am I already too late?

now that's an avocado burger!

decadent lunch at Kua'Aina today