Saturday, March 29, 2008

Stop and 見the 花

A few years ago I was lolling with friends on a blue tarp during a hanami party at Shinjuku Gyoen. We were tucked under the sakura, several beers into the celebration of spring and the transitory nature of existence when we noticed that a neighboring tree was attracting a lot of attention. One by one photographers, some of them bearing foot-long lenses that looked like they could have been used to read a newspaper on the Moon, came up and snapped pictures of the same ordinary blossom on the same ordinary tree. There were maybe 10 of them. And, according to a poll conducted later that day, 80% of our group had the same thought flash through their heads as they observed the parade: how many other blossoms had these people photographed before, just like that one? Or as one observer quipped: "That's Japan for you: intense, joyless appreciation."

Japanese friends tell me that to understand Japan you have to experience hanami. But unlike other Japanese cultural gateways like tea ceremony or ikebana or calligraphy, which require years of discipline and study, hanami is instantly accessible. It's about liberation from the constraints of winter and embracing the promise of the season ahead. It's like spring break, except instead of heading to...wherever college students go for spring break these days...people of all ages head for the sakura groves with 3-liter bottles of sake and karaoke machines and let loose. It's about controlled hedonism. I have heard tales of one company's annual hanami parties at which a supervisor got bombed and disrobed down to her underwear, then climbed a tree, every year for years, becoming something of a legend among the English teachers who worked for her, and her students. At Ueno Park yesterday, where millions converged for the first Saturday of hanami, two 60-something men attempted to cut their way through the crowd by pretending they were about to barf, like a couple of 8-year-olds. At the Shitamachi Museum at the edge of the park, we saw an Edo-era woodcut of a long-ago Ueno Park hanami depicting a drunken game of blindman's bluff, with one guy on all fours lapping up some spilt booze.

But back to the trees. Clustered together, arching over as you walk beneath them, the blossoms are an exhilarating gift. The world feels reborn in a state of pink grace. The experience is evanescent and eternal and impossible to capture on camera. Nevertheless, some people -- myself included -- can't stop trying.


Thursday, March 20, 2008

Beer for your Dog - Happy Lager

You've just gone out shopping with Fritzie to the little shop in Ginza that specializes in dogwear for dachshunds only. Perhaps you've bought him custom-fitted lederhosen and you're thinking "hmm, a nice Bitburger Pils for the both of us might be nice." There's a great little izakaya down under the JR line that has German ryori and beer. But alas, in Tokyo, there are cafes for pets and for humans, but never the twain shall meet.

Don't despair, though. You can get a six of Happy Lager and have a little party at home!

We recently were at our local discount liquor barn and saw a display for Happy Lager, a near-beer marketed for dogs... er, rather for obsessive dog owners. The beer's label, touting "healthy drink" pictures a happy beagle, slavering over a freshly poured glass of suds. The "beer", itself, is a beef-flavored beverage that little Fido will love.

Pet owners worldwide anthropomorphize their charges, but in Japan it's taken to new level. To wit the specialty shops and cafes and the parade of fashionably clothed dogs you can see on many streets and any park. But now, you can sit at home, crack open a beer for yourself and the dog, bring out the milkbones and kakipeas, and settle down in front of the TV with your best friend and maybe watch some sumo... or perhaps a dog competition?

Check out their website here, where they have a wonderful promotion for hanami (cherry blossom viewing) featuring crudely photoshopped dogs viewing flowering trees - and a sweet pink-cheeked, fluffy white mutt passed out in the foreground.


Tuesday, March 18, 2008


Is Menami the best restaurant in Kyoto? And therefore in all Japan? The ajimi team thinks so.

Kyoto is justifiably famous for its cuisine. Born in an unforgiving environment - frigid in the winter, stultifyingly hot in the summer, a bit to far from the sea to create a fresh seafood cuisine - Kyoto ryori has made the best of limited resources and its plebian food products to develop a truly elegant kaiseki tradition, a delicious and varied tofu cuisine, nishin soba - a Kyoto specialty served with a dried herring, obanzai ryori - the home cooking of Kyoto, and many other wonderful regional foodstuffs.

Menami is a modern obanzai restaurant, reviving and updating the cuisine under the sure hand of chef/owner Ippei Yamamoto. A block off Kawaramachi, the less snooty party district on the opposite side of the Kamogawa from Gion, Minami's decidedly modern interior emphasizes the beguilingly simple and perfect food that comes from its kitchen.

Sitting at the dining bar, with full staff on hand, the counter was lined with bowls of the day's bounty. Like a Spanish tapas bar, one could just point and choose from any of the delectable offerings on hand. We chose to give our waitress a budget and let the feast begin.

First up was an elegant plate of perfect sashimi - maguro (まぐろ- tuna), madai (まだい - porgy), and hirame(ひらめ - flounder). The maguro, which far too often comes badly cut or partially frozen, was simultaneously rich, unctuous, and almost melty. The madai, clean and fresh. And the hirame was slightly briny, with a toothsomeness that gave it completeness.

Next came dish of sei no hana (せいの花 - broccoli rabe), perfectly steamed with light wasabi-tinged dressing. A gentle crunch, a slight wateriness, and a zip of spice brought us out of sashimi heaven and set our taste buds buzzing for the next dish, which were some satoimo (さと芋) - rich, slightly glutinous taro tubers - in a brilliant yuzu and tonyu sauce, a classic of obanzai ryori. The flowery citrus danced playfully with the big round tastes of the spuds and soy milk

Next came a hotate kakiage tempura. With rough cut carrots, onions, and scallops in a perfectly cooked batter with sea salt and slice of fragrant and wonderfully sour sudachi, the simple fritter reached sublime heights.

Then came a plate of beautifully cooked gyu no shippo (牛のしっぽ - oxtails). Slow-cooked so the meat was hashi-tender, the fat, gelatinous and flavorful. A perfect expression of umami for the closing of the meal.

A coda arrived with a simple salad of steamed broccoli and lettuce. No frills, but none were needed. From the presentation, to the choice of the best ingredients, to the orchestration of the dining experience, Menami left its mark as one of the most memorable dining experiences we've had.

Kiyamachi, Sanjo-agaru
Kyoto 604-8004
tel: 81 75 231 1095


Friday, March 14, 2008

Meet the Neighbors

We were walking home last night across Zempukujigawa Park. It was around 11 o'clock and the rain had picked up, the river was moving more swiftly than usual, puddles of mud were spreading under the pine trees. In the darkness I noticed a small movement on the path along the river's edge, progressing from the river toward the woods. At first I thought it might be a rodent but it was moving a bit too slowly for a rat in the rain. "It's a frog!" I shouted at last, but, no, it was two frogs, one small frog clinging to a bigger frog's back. They stopped as we approached them, not showing the slightest apprehension (how do frogs show fear?), allowed me to take their picture, then calmly moved on.


Saturday, March 8, 2008

Food vs. Art

The kaiseki ryori tradition descends from the spare meals eaten by Buddhist monks and, later, the selection of small dishes eaten during the tea ceremony. It has evolved into Japanese haute cuisine and consists of several courses of small dishes of seasonal fish, poultry, fruits and vegetables (never beef or pork) selected to complement each other, then perfectly prepared and arrayed on the table. Kaiseki ryori is considered a Japanese art form and like so many others – noh, kabuki, tea ceremony – can sometimes become ossified by ritual. The meal we were served in our room at Nissho-besso followed the classic kaiseki formula, six courses in all and, since this was Kyoto, was heavy on the local staples of vegetables and tofu. It included a lot of flavors we’d never encountered before, unusual juxtapositions of ingredients that made us occasionally slow down and savor. But overall it seemed less like a meal than a museum piece, a bit too precious and fussy to be appreciated as real food. Not a big wow factor.

For the record, we have had a couple of extremely wow-inducing kaiseki meals at ryokan. The most recent was dinner at Notoya Ryokan, in the Taisho-era onsen resort of Ginzan Onsen in Yamagata Prefecture. It was mid-December and the meal was built around local game and river fish. It followed the kaiseki pattern but the flavors seemed fresher and more interesting than those in our Kyoto kaiseki experience, the meal overall, more relaxed. Part of this was owing to the delightful personality of the woman who served us: she mothered us from the moment we walked in until we left two days later and explained everything about the food she presented us with. But it occurs to me that the little ryokan in the hills of Yamagata, a region not especially known for haute cuisine, was freer to experiment and to focus on flavor and hospitality since it didn’t have to bear the burden of all that Kyoto culinary tradition.

But don’t worry: we didn’t starve in Kyoto. Breakfast the next morning at the Nissho-besso was delightful: tofu stew and fresh vegetables, several kinds of pickled vegetables, dried fish. We also made several wonderful discoveries over the next few days, from simple meals in local izakaya to our first obanzai ryori meals. And we haven’t given up on kaiseki. Someday I really would like to try one of those lavish $500 meals overlooking a Kyoto garden. But that’s a few meals from now.

For information about Notoya Ryokan, click here.