Saturday, August 23, 2008

Kujira Helper

Japan is one of the few countries in the world that does not take part in the international ban on whaling. Every year, through the auspices of the Japan Institute of Cetacean Research (日本鯨類研究所, Nippon Geirui Kenkyūsho), Japan harvests whales in what it terms "research" on the sustainability of whaling.  The results of this research can be found in grocery stores and restaurants throughout Japan. 

Whales, most famous for being the subject of a magnificent book and for spawning a subgenre of songs in the 1970s dedicated to their salvation, were historically a part - a small part - of the Japanese diet. They became a much bigger thing in the Land of the Rising Sun when American occupation forces were faced with a large, destitute and hungry population in much need of protein. Whales are big and got a lotta meat - an easy solution.  Japanese school kids' lunchboxes throughout the 50s regularly included a slab o' whale.

Recently the Ajimi team were walking through a shotengai in Asakusa where we came upon a restaurant specializing in research. A small and tasteful retail section opened up to the walking street proffering any number of cuts of whale meat and various flavoring agents, pickles, and packaged products to cover up... er... enhance the taste of these fat and protein filled behemoths.  And best of all we came across an instant curry manufactured specifically for making くじらカレ (kujira kare), or whale curry.

We at Ajimi are suckers for a good curry. And we're also suckers for the Japanese variation on this Indian import.  Japanese curry can be amazingly bad at any number of cheap "kare" joints that dot the urban landscapes of all Japanese cities. A pool of thin one-dimensional sauce, a potato, a piece of rubbery meat and some tired rice make for a quick, but particularly unsatisfying meal. But Japanese curry can also be great!  When prepared well, it's got a nice complexity of spices, with a mild burn, a lively and "fruity" edge and the Japanese secret - a nice dark roux to thicken it all up.  Served with fresh seasonal veggies and quality meat... well, it's a perfect comfort food that holds its own against other world curry variations. 

Curry, Japanese-style, hit the market in the late 50s, with easy-to-make instant variations made available to busy housewives and salarymen. Around this time interest in consuming whale was on the decline. Other, tastier and better foods were becoming more readily available as Japan boomed.  Whale never left though. There are a few restaurants that specialize in it and it shows up seasonally (perhaps when some research is being activated) in supermarkets. However, the Ajimi team, having come of age in the 70s still remember Graham Nash and David Crosby's To the Last Whale - and whether it's at a certain revulsion in remembrance of that song or if we're just being PC, when it comes to whale, we just say no. 


Thursday, August 21, 2008

To Dorothy

It was just about 8 years ago that I visited Japan for the first time. I had fallen in love with a building -- Rafael Vinoly's Tokyo International Forum -- and wanted to check out both the building and the city where it was built. After a couple of months of searching I came across a ridiculously cheap airfare and, with my mother's 75th birthday looming, invited her to join me for 10 days in Tokyo and Kyoto.

Dorothy had always been an excellent traveling companion. We had visited Italy, England and Mexico together. She was the kind of traveler who was up for anything, approaching each new horizon with a sense of adventure. Our budget for the Japan trip was tight. Aside from the first few nights at the lovely Ryokan Shigetsu in Asakusa, we roughed it in cheap lodgings. Dorothy gamely hoofed it up and down subway stairs, often with the aid of a cane. But she endured the hard walking and lack of luxury, propelled by the desire to see everything.

On that trip we developed a shared love of tanukis, an animal indigenous to Japan that over the centuries has become mythologized into a party-loving, shape-shifting, impecunious rascal and the patron deity of actors and lovers of the bottle. The dictionary defines them as "raccoon dogs" and they are renowned for having some of the biggest balls in the animal kingdom. There are tanuki statues all over Japan, often outside izakaya and restaurants. Dorothy in particular took a shine to these statues and whenever she saw one would make a note of what was going on below the waist.

Dorothy died a year ago today. The trip to Japan was the last one she would ever take. Her eyes went first, then her knees, limiting her horizons to a few square yards in a small apartment. Cancer came next and, although it was beaten back with drugs and radiation, ultimately it was she who was beaten. Today we will visit a small shrine in Asakusa that Dorothy and I visited for the first time together. There we will light a candle and give her regards to the tanukis.


Golden Bats

The first bats of the season appeared this week. Flitting above the Zenpukijigawa, a few brave furry fliers tested out the warm spring air, darting hither and yon, daintily devouring insects. It's a welcome sight here in Tokyo. Sakura blossoming means that spring is coming. Bats mean that spring is here. Seeing these super-signifying flying mammals made me think of the archetypical Japanese smoke, Golden Bats.

Oh, wait... it's been a few months since I wrote those last few words. We're nearly through the doldrums of another hot and sticky summer. The bats are now out in force. Last night at twilight, the sky was heavily peppered with bats, the air buzzed with drill of cicadas. And boy, do I need a cigarette.

Golden Bats (Ogon Batto) are the grandaddies of Japanese cigarettes. In 1904, the Japan Tobacco, the state-run tobacco monopoly, was formed and by 1906 the flagship brand of Golden Bats was introduced to the public. They are still being made with their distinctive green packages and pair o' bats design, somewhat compromised these days by the oversized health warning labels. They're a classic non-filter smoke, akin to Luckies. And they are cheap! Japanese cigs are one of the few bargains to be had in the land of the rising sun, but Golden Bats are a true steal at about 180 yen a pack. That's about a buck and a half! Rumor had it that Golden Bats were made of the leftover leaf ends from the manufacture of other brands of cigarettes, making them either really great - if you got some from the batch made with premium cigarettes - or really horrible - if you were just unlucky. But the truth is they are made from a strict formula and like most contemporary cigarettes generally designed to deliver nicotine and tar, rather than taste.

Another great story around the Bats is that during Japan’s occupation of Manchuria in the 1930s, Golden Bats were sold to the local population heroin-spiked, to keep them docile on off-kilter. A rather sinister idea, that lends a certain frisson - outlaw cred and reprobate nationalism together at last - to these cigarettes in particular. 

However, Golden Bats have perennially been a favorite choice of cancer for generations of Bohemians.  Photo documents of writers such as Yukio Mishima and Osamu Dazai with smokes in hand offer proof. Both Mishima and Dazai managed to beat death by cigarette by taking control of their own destinies and committing suicide. To this day at Dazai's grave in Mitaka, devotees often leave packages of Golden Bats as remembrance offerings.

Golden Bats have developed a great lore and hark back to a somewhat more nostalgic time, when things such as drinking, smoking, and living were judged a little less harshly and the interdictions against them were a bit more benign. However, you can still find some interesting propaganda on the positive side of slow death at the Tobacco and Salt Museum in Shibuya. Japan Tabacco runs this museum, documenting in loving detail, history, package and poster design, and lore about smoking. It also has a space for changing exhibitions. Most recently the Ajimi team saw a photo show on stimulants throughout the world. Coffee, tea, betel nuts, and khat use were lusciously documented in oversize photographs. But when you're at the museum, there's no smoking allowed. You can go outside, though, and huff down that Golden Bat in a special designated smoking section.


Saturday, August 16, 2008

Navel Grazing

Among the many pleasures of exploring Tokyo is taking a stroll on a warm evening, rounding an unfamiliar corner, and stumbling across a neighborhood festival in full swing. These are not grand, traffic-stopping celebrations like Gion in Kyoto or Asakusa's raucous Sanja festival. Instead, Tokyo's neighborhood matsuri allow you to enter the intimate spirit of the surrounding area, to feel like a member of the community. A visit to a matsuri can begin with a stop at the temizuya to purify the hands, then at the main shrine building for a prayer and a blessing. After the religious rituals are dispensed with, participants get down to the serious business of eating, drinking, listening to traditional music, playing games of chance, and seeing what the neighbors are up to.

If, in mid-September, you happen to be exploring the area around Eifukucho station on the Inokashira line, you might stumble across the Aki Matsuri, or Autumn Festival, at Suginami-ku's Omiya Hachimangu. Sometimes referred to as Tokyo no heso, or the navel of Tokyo, this shrine is said to have been founded during the Heian era, between the 8th and 12th centuries. Stretched out along an avenue lined with towering cedar and zelkova trees, small food stalls serve up traditional matsuri fare such as yakisoba (fried noodles), takoyaki (octopus balls) and okonomiyaki (a kind of pancake stuffed with vegetables). But there are also yatai selling Thai food and Chinese dumplings, reflecting the changing population, or perhaps just the changing tastes, of Japan. To see more photos from last year's festival, click here.

Omiya Hachimangu Autumn Festival 2008
September 12 - 16
Nearest station: Keio Inokashira Line Eifukucho Station (10 minutes)


Monday, August 11, 2008


Tokyo is known for its quirky vending machines: from them, you can buy booze, porn, fresh flowers, even, according to legend, the used undergarments of enterprising schoolgirls. But would you believe vegetables? Yes, indeed! In northern Suginami-ku, a 20-minute bike ride from Ajimi HQ, a vegetable vending machine operates at the edge of a small urban farming plot. For those of you who have just had your minds blown by the idea of a farm in the middle of a Tokyo residential neighborhood, be aware that these kinds of market gardens are a fairly common sight within the bounds of the 23 districts that make up the central Tokyo region.

The vending machine has 36 little doors and looks more like the kind of locker that you put your shoes in at public bath houses than, say, a canned soda dispenser. You slip in your 100 yen coin (about $1) and pull out a bag of four or five vegetables that were picked that morning from the adjacent garden. At the time of our visit, about 5 pm on a Monday, all that was left were a few bags of なす(nasu, or eggplant) じゃがいも(jaga imo, jacket potatoes) and きゅうり (kyuri, slender Japanese cucumbers). A sign next to the machine invited customers to e-mail a website to have tomato harvest updates transmitted to their cellphones.

These are not bad prices by Tokyo standards, especially considering that the produce carries Eco Farmer certification, indicating that the farm, called Miyuki-en (三幸園), has made efforts to reduce dependence on chemical fertilizers and pesticides through soil enhancement and use of organic farming techniques.

If you can't peddle up to Igusa 2-chome to visit the vending machine, you can have the vending machine come to you, so to speak, at least at certain times of the year, at least if you live anywhere in Japan. At Miyuki-en's website,, one can place vegetable orders via the Internet or download a fax order form. Alas, that service has ended for this year, but seasonal vegetables will be available at the vending machine through January.

The website is fun to look at just to read the blog (hit the auto translate option to get the Japanese translated roughly halfway into English) and the commentaries on urban agriculture and the latest goings-on in the garden.

Now, as for those vending machines dispensing schoolgirl panties...the Ajimi team will offer a bag of fresh Miyuki-en eggplants to anyone who can provide documentary evidence that such things exist.


Monday, August 4, 2008

Yuzu Wonderland

The Ajimi team's hands-down favorite Japanese fruit is yuzu(柚子), that sweet, winter-bearing citrus fruit that is used to spice up everything you can think of, including your bath. It shows up whole in stores around mid-November, in spice and pepper mixes throughout the year. It has a nicely warming effect when you squeeze it into the bathtub, making your body tingle. So imagine our delight when we found a ryokan for our weekend getaway that is as crazy about yuzu as we are.

The place is called Yuzu no Sato (ゆずの里)and is perched on the northern bank of the Tamagawa in Mitake, about two hours west of central Tokyo on the Ome line. Sato means village and the ryokan itself is village-like, a collection of small, wooden buildings, traditional in design but modern in execution and comfort level, connected by covered walkways and surrounded by landscaped ponds. Even completely full as it was it on the busy weekend, it was very quiet and relaxing.

We chose to have our multi-course dinner served on the large wooden deck along with two other groups at separate tables. We started at 6 sharp with a shot of yuzu liqueur then on through a dozen courses including vegetables in aspic, salad, tempura, and ayu (鮎), that sweet river fish that is served on sticks at Japanese festivals. But unlike the matsuri version our fish was fresh from the river. Awesome. We also ate sashimi of river fish: trout or masu (鱒)which tasted a lot like salmon, and koi or carp, which was a bit on the chewy side, but salvaged somewhat by the delicious miso and yuzu dipping sauce. Every course had yuzu in some form, shredded, squeezed, dried, powdered, even whole, scooped out and used as a serving dish for a seafood gratin. We ate the bowl afterward. The meal was accompanied by a bottle of nihonshu we had acquired down the road that afternoon at Sawanoi, the local sake brewery. After sunset, we could hear the sounds of fireworks drifting up the river from Ome mingled with the screeching of cicadas.

The Tamagawa hereabouts is as wild as rivers around Tokyo get, cutting through a gorge and providing lots of pools for wading and fishing, rapids for doing the things one does in rapids. The pilgrimage site of Mitake Shrine is atop a nearby mountain, a cable car ride away. But beyond that there is not a hell of a lot to do in Mitake. The precipitous climb of the landscape away from the river doesn't leave a lot of room for development and the entire area is within the confines of a national park. This certainly helps reduce crowds and maintain the relaxed atmosphere but makes it tough to go down the road for a nightcap at 9 pm on a Saturday. We attempted to do that and found one barlike establishment open, a fried pork emporium that one member of the Ajimi team found brimming with local color and the other declared simply fetid.

That night, following our piping hot yuzu bath, we slept with the windows open, bathed in breezes. At 4 am we were awakened by a chorus of frogs. We hiked up the hill before breakfast, to a shrine dedicated to the water god.

For additional images of Okutama and Mitake, click here.
For more on Yuzu no Sato, click here: