Thursday, February 24, 2011

I just wanna pinch those cheeks

Fun Fact of the day: The Japanese word for Mumps is Otafuku - because if you have the mumps, your cheeks look like this:

Otafuku, mythic creature and folk heroine, is as ubiquitous here as Daruma, I'd say. In all her various incarnations - her image adorns food labels, ceramics and signboards; she's a mask, she's a doll, she's a sculpture -- you know her by the plump rosy cheeks, laughing eyes and rosebud lips.

She hangs in our hallway, a tiny mask covering an ugly picture hook.
According to Otafuku, Joy of Japan by Amy Katoh, "She is every woman, a source of generosity, a fertility symbol; her essence is goodwill and affirmation and delight, and she is thought to bestow pleasure, success and well being, and to grant wishes."

What's not to love?

Friday, February 18, 2011

Dinner out!

A few of the folks I play tennis with got together for an evening out in Kagurazaka, at a restaurant modeled after an old-style Kyoto merchant's house. Shoes off, sliding screens, floor cushions around a low table, private room, space heater. The course menu, always a risk, was a real winner. Aces, even. (OK I'm outta puns.)

First we were given a tasty block of green tea tofu with a pretty little goji berry (a.k.a. wolfberry) on top

Next: delicate folds of tofu skin (yuba) and a dollop of sesame tofu, with freshly grated wasabi and a carrot flower

Third course: flaky white fish with pickled ginger root, fresh fig and candied walnuts

4th: yet another type of tofu (soft, warm, yummy-- still not tired of it!) topped with tasty bits of grilled beef and a stringy red herb we couldn't identify (is somebody in the kitchen tweezing the legs off spiders?)

5th: a light stew of root vegetables with prawn and fish cake (and there's that green tea tofu again)

6th: tempura vegetables (a food stylist could make this look a lot better)
7th: yummy soba noodles

8th, last and yes, least, dessert: tofu with sweet red bean sauce.
It looks a little sad, doesn't it. It wasn't terrible, really. But it didn't matter because by this time we were all pretty much satisfied, even though we were taking, like, three bites of food every 10 minutes.

It really is all about pacing (and using chopsticks, which I still can't seem to get to hold more than three grains of rice at a time). When you are forced to eat smaller amounts over a longer period of time, you eat less. And you enjoy it more. (American restaurants take note.) You eat everything, and savor everything, even the garnish.

You also drink more. Opting for nomihodai (all you can drink) for 2,000 yen per person for two hours kept the sake, grapefruit-shochu sours and umeshu (plum wine) flowing.

The point is, you're not stuffed, you're content. It's why I try not to serve everything together anymore when we have dinner at home. When I think the boys are at their hungriest, I put out some raw carrots. Gone in 2 minutes. Out comes the steamed broccoli. Inhaled. Only then does the chicken appear. Some time later, I pour the milk. Still hungry? Here's a nice hunk of crusty bread. And so on. One thing at a time. It stretches out the meal time (from 5 mins to maybe 15) and I get more green stuff into the boys. It doesn't always work, and I don't always time things properly, but when I can get it right, it's good.

So I highly recommend this restaurant in Kagurazaka, only it's not easy to find. The signs out front are all in Japanese and it's down a dark little cobble-stoned alley off one of the main drags through the neighborhood, a narrow street-with-no-name packed with izakayas and other places to eat and drink a few blocks south of, and running parallel to, Okubo-dori, west of Iidabashi (a stop on the Tokyo Metro Oedo line as well as the JR Sobu Chuo line).

Click here for a map and a free-drink coupon! Click here for another link with more info (in Japanese).

Kagurazaka Kyoto Gion Oshinbo
4-8 Kagurazaka, Shinjuku-ku
Phone no: 03-3269-0779

Meanies on the Court (from left to right): Laura, Sally, Stuart, Amy and Nikki, outside the restaurant, Feb. 16, 2011

Saturday, February 12, 2011

Yokohama Pt. 3

This is the window display at a shark fin restaurant in Chinatown. We didn't go in, but were impressed with how many different size portions were available.

Many of us snacked on steamed pork buns in between browsing in the shops.

Our moms' tour ended at The Raumen Museum in Shin-Yokohama, where the year is 1958 (Showa year 33) -- the year instant ramen noodles were invented (leading to affordable nourishment for countless American college kids) and the popularity of this Chinese noodle dish among the Japanese was at its peak. Much like a Las Vegas casino, it's a beautiful evening inside this place, all day long.

museum wall art

We had lunch at one of the restaurants serving Kyushu-style, or tonkotsu ramen, known for its creamy, pork fat-infused broth (miso and soy are the other two popular versions).

Julie and I spent way too much time studying a menu that we could not read, hoping the photos would give us a clue.

To order, you must feed yen into the ticket machine by the door, press the button for the dish you want, and out pops a tiny ticket stub, which you then hand over to the server. Lunch arrives a few minutes later.

We bonded, the waitress and I

Friday, February 11, 2011

Yokohama Pt. 2

Clear blue skies and mild temperatures are the norm here in winter, but not so today! A thin layer of snow -- snow! -- was actually sticking to the track and field outside school this afternoon. Usually flakes, if they form and fall at all, disappear as soon as they hit. But looky here, we have tiny doilies floating down, landing, and lingering. Amazing.

I know, I know, the States are snowed under, everybody's miserable, etc., and that I would not want, of course, but some snow is good, because my boys love the stuff. They stick their faces right in it. They gather armfuls of it, pack it into cluster bombs, stomp on it, trudge through it, roll around and make snow angels with big fat grins on their faces. To do that, though, we usually have to leave Tokyo for the mountains.

I'm not complaining, really. I'll take the gentler climes, gladly I will, because it means no snow days (can you believe four in a row last week in Dallas, Texas?). It means I can get out and do things, like join a bunch of other moms from school for a day trip to Yokohama, Japan's second-largest city, about 20 miles SSW of Tokyo...

There's a lovely waterfront park in Yokohama, a port city (the port city, in fact, beginning in the 1860s when Japan opened itself up to foreign trade). And it's got a super-nice Chinatown - probably the cleanest, tidiest Chinatown in the world, I suspect. I've only been to San Francisco's and New York's, so what do I know, right? But I tell you this: if I dropped a steamed pork bun on the ground in Yokohama's Chinatown, I wouldn't be worrying about any 3-second rule. But on the corner of Bayard and Mott, well, I think I'd bin it.

More from Chinatown later. First stop on our ladies' tour was to go to the top of the Marine Tower, and, check it out! There's Mt. Fuji on the horizon there (squint and you will see the snowy peak).

From the opposite side of the observation deck, we caught the south-southeasterly view of the port and Tokyo Bay

View to the north:
Look at that blue sky!

Yokohama Pt. 1

In Chinatown in Yokohama the other day, at a shop selling mostly Chinese silk embroidered tops, I came across two of my favorite things in Japan, Fortune Cat (who's beckoning, as in customers into a shop, or good luck and wealth for the family) and Daruma, the Zen Buddhist monk-doll that wards off evil spirits. The guy wanted about $100 for each. I did not buy either. Oh but I wanted to. The Daruma head, he said, was hand carved, an antique, so smooth and solid. Would've made a great bookend. The Fortune Cat is a piggybank. Heavy painted ceramic I think. Ah well. I bought this vintage kimono instead.
Still not sure I made the right choice.

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Japanese saying I learned today

ていしゅ げんきで るすが いい

Teishyu genki de rusu ga ii

"Husbands should be healthy and outside."

Translation: It's bad enough you've decided to work from home this morning. Can't you go out for lunch?

Origin: an old commercial for bug spray

Saturday, February 5, 2011

Sapporo beer ad

This is fun to watch -- it's a brief YouTube clip that Terry's Dad told us about. Thanks Jack!

And now that we've all got beer on the brain, a photo pick of the day:

I took this with my phone during a recent Year 5 parents' night out at Andy's Izakaya (Shin Hinomoto), a cozy joint shelved beneath the railroad tracks in Yurakucho. (Menu highlights: sashimi! sliced, sauteed eryngi mushrooms drowning in butter!) The drinker was not with our group. I think he was celebrating a birthday or something. I just like the guy in the next booth's expression. I can see the thought bubble over his head: Silly gaijin!

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Sneak peek!

Here's the latest in handheld gaming, on display last Saturday inside Mark City, a shopping mall/train station in Shibuya. According to 3DS Buzz, this next-gen Nintendo handheld will be released in Japan first, on Feb. 26. Europe gets it on March 25, North America March 27. Apparently, the device gives you 3D visual effects without the glasseszzzzzz... Whuh, huh? Oh, sorry, must've dozed off. So over the 3D thing. Still, it's always fun to run into these sorts of things when we're out and about. And the boys (all three of 'em) thought it was cool, of course.

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Beyond words

Sign board spotted in the Labi electronics store in Dogenzaka

I really don't know how to apologize to you. Please move to other cash registers.