Monday, September 28, 2009

Baby Bags!

In Japanese they're called kobukuro (コブクロ). "Little bags," or as I prefer "baby bags." They've been calling out to me for some time, but a certain squeamishness would take hold every time I had the opportunity to order them. Last night the Ajimi team was in need of a low budget celebration, so we went to our favorite moderne retro izakaya in Kichijoji, Tecchan.

Tecchan (pronounced tay-chan) is a place that can't and shouldn't be missed. North of Kichijoji station is a small honeycomb of small covered alleys called Harmonica Yokocho. Dozens of little watering holes, noodle shops, a handful of boutiques and more fill this last reminder of the black market shanty towns that sprang up around stations throughout Tokyo in the immediate post-war years.

In the heart of Harmonica Yokocho, you will find Tecchan, a medium sized yakitori-ya, with ever-billowing smoke and an ever-full bubbling cauldron of motsu (innard stew). A funky counter snakes around the theatrical serving and preparation area. Two charcoal grills seem to never be empty as busy workers fan the flames with singed red fans. The best tsukune on the west side can be found here, in addition to mune, momo, negima, lamb, buta bara, miscellaneous innards and various vegetables.

All of this and a great selection of nihonshus and shochus. This is the place where the Ajimi team's love affair with Kumesen, a favorite awamori, began.

But back the the "baby bags." For some time, I had watched enthusiastic revelers chowing down on what looked like caducei of some unidentifiable organ meat. It intrigued me. It was finally revealed that these strange little curlicue meats were none other than pig uteri. I didn't jump immediately at the chance to scarf them down. But for some reason - maybe it was the moon, maybe my looming mortality - I decided, by way of special celebration, that it was time to partake of this delicacy.

At 100 yen a stick, a true deal. And raw, to boot! Slightly gray and of trembling flesh - not me, the kobukuro - in a pool of ponzu and sprinkled liberally with chives, they beckoned. The first bite revealed a mild meatiness, with a slight tooth and good give. They were a fine accompaniment to the tall glass of amakuchi nihonshu that we were sampling. With the enthusiasm of a new discovery, I offered a taste to the more demure member of the Ajimi team. She politely passed.

Map to and pics of Tecchan are available at


Sunday, September 6, 2009

Vida brevis. Esselunga!

The Ajimi Team wanted to commemorate our last night of housesitting in Kamakura (thanks again Denise and Robbie!) with a really special meal. Over several weeks we had enjoyed tasty Japanese restaurant experiences, yummy beach food, lots of good crunchy korroke, plus some marvelous meals prepared at home from local provender. We were hardly starving but we wanted to round out the dining out portion of our stay with something continental: the European continent, that is. Weeks before a friend had enthusiastically recommended a new Italian place near Hase station on the Enoden Line, started with an "I" or something, couldn't exactly remember the name. On a walk in the neighborhood the distaff member of the team stumbled across Esselunga, which fit the description. Windows overlooked a sunny garden, which was filled with culinary herbs. Yes, indeed, this was the place that our friend had recommended, and on Sunday the team settled in for a two-hour dining experience that could have occured in Rome or Florence or maybe Palermo.

Esselunga opened in spring 2009 on a sidestreet a few blocks from Hasedera. The building appears to be of fairly recent vintage but is modeled on traditional Japanese architecture: viewing the spotless wooden floor from the genkan we asked if shoes were allowed. Of course, they were, and we were escorted to a table for two overlooking the herb garden. There was just one other couple dining at 6 pm on Sunday (the room seats around 20). We settled in with the help of a friendly, unstuffy and English-speaking waiter who guided us through the selection of white wines by the glass. We selected the vermentino by Poggio di Paterno, a marvelously citrusy and slightly frizzante wine.

There were about 8 choices in each of the antipasti, primi and secondi piatti categories, chalked on a board suspended over the dining room. Choosing took some time. For starters we decided on the carpaccio of the day's fish, inada, or young yellowtail. It was served in an almost fugu-like ruffled arrangement on a large plate with fresh dill and red peppercorns, sliced leeks, lemon and a light vinaigrette accompanied by homemade foccacia and sliced baguettes. The toughest decision was the pasta course. Three varieties of homemade pasta were on offer in addition to an array of other secondi. We ordered the polenta with ragu of lamb and beef and a kind of miter-shaped ravioli (all the pasta is made on the premises) stuffed with the same ragu and topped with a sage and butter sauce. A light sangiovese accompanied the pasta course.

The pasta portions were large and delicious enough that we could have stopped there but, hey, who are we kidding? We moved on to a meat course, roasted cubes of pork paired with dry roasted potatoes. The pork was heaven, slightly fatty, flecked with rosemary and perfectly cooked. We were told that it came from a farm in Yamagata prefecture. We discovered this during a tableside chat with the chef, a young Japanese man who had studied cooking in Milano and elsewhere in Italy. The waiter, for his part, had spent some time travelling in Spain. Their combined periginations help to explain the decidely mediterranean sensibility of this place: service is relaxed yet attentive, and the dishes are perfectly executed.

We skipped the dessert course, feeling constrained by the mental calculation that the bill we were racking up was fast approaching the 12,000 yen we had with us. But we plan to go back, next time armed with (1) more cash and (2) more people so that we can savor more of what Esselunga has to offer.


Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Hockney Days in Wadabori Koen

Somewhere in the top 5 of our personal favorite Tokyo summer phenomena (along with cicadas, butterflies, summer festivals and strawberry kaki kouri with evaporated milk) is splashing around in outdoor swimming pools. Our nearest and dearest is the public pool in Wadabori Koen, about a 10-minute bike ride from Ajimi HQ. Like most municipal pools, it opens on the first of July, about a month later than our biological thermostats tells us it should. By mid-June at the latest summer in Tokyo is literally going full steam and we find ourselves longing for a sunny pool to plunge into.

For the first few weeks each season the 50-meter pool is relatively empty for most of the day and one can spend blissful hours floating through a David Hockney world of sunlit bright blue and do actual laps without running into anyone. But as schools let out for the summer around mid-July and the heat becomes increasingly insufferable, the pool becomes a tangle of legs and floatation devices. It is then hard to advance more than a few meters without getting broadsided by a 1/2 scale inflatable killer whale. One gives up hope of doing any real swimming but surrenders to the joys of splashing around and goofing off like a 9-year-old. There's plenty of real wildlife to relate to there, as well, among the inflatable kind. Dragonflies dart along the water's surface on bright afternoons and bats emerge from the adjacent woods in the evenings. Then there are the buzzing near-corpses of doomed cicadas bobbing along in the water which we gently move to the drier pool edge as much to avoid swallowing the damn things as out of respect for their final agonies.

But my platonic ideal of a neighborhood pool is still the first one I encountered when I moved to Japan. I lived then in Urawa, Saitama prefecture, and Harayama was my local pool. The main pool was an oval course about 7 meters wide and 200 meters in circumference. In addition, there was a lap pool located within the oval and a kiddie pool with a slide. But the oval pool was the main attraction. On hot days it was packed with people walking, floating, occasionally swimming in the same direction, a great tide of humanity. In fact, the current created by this movement was so strong that it was impossible to walk against it in the opposite direction. I could spend hours in that pool, chatting with friends, watching young families float by on air mattresses, occasionally stepping out for a lunch consisting of a footlong hotdog and yakisoba. I started work around 1 pm in those days so most mornings I hit the pool and I got brown as a nut.

The Wadabori Koen pool closes this week for the season, a bit too early, of course. We could happily swim there well into October. We will hit the nearby indoor pool from time to time but it won't be the same. The mood at the indoor pool seems more geared toward the inner geriatric than the inner 9-year-old.