April 14, 2009

From SFO to Seattle

R. and I were in Seattle. Click "read more" to see a bunch of pictures and words about it.    read more (1775 words)

March 5, 2009

Goro's Diner: a Shibuya burger joint

Last night I met three friends for dinner at Shibuya. I had heard about Goro's diner over on tabelog and it looked interesting. An English search turned up Jackson Hole burgers, but still) but very good. They have Anchor Steam on the menu, but didn't have any available while we were there.

After burgers we walked over to the "Suite" cafe and had some cakes. Nice!

I have to go running today...

January 20, 2009

I need to check out 紅虎餃子房 or 万豚記

According to Famitsu, the restaurants 紅虎餃子房 and 万豚記 will have SF4 themed menus from 2009-02-12 to 2009-04-12. There are a bunch of either of those places in Tokyo, so I should be able to find one. Didn't look like there were any in Shibuya though.

Also you get a card with a QR code and can download a character voice to your phone. Or something. I hardly use all the crazy stuff that my phone can supposedly do.

December 28, 2008

Two Christmas Dinners

Dinner with the in-laws

The 23rd was a national holiday in Japan for the Emperor's Birthday. It was also coming up on Christmas, so we got together with the in-laws for dinner. We usually get together once a week for a weekly dinner, so this isn't an unusual occurrence, but for the occasion R. and I drove out over the weekend and bought a turkey. You don't see those too often in Japan so we had to go out to Kinokunia to buy one. Because of the New Year's holiday R's little sister also came up and brought her daughter Yuzuna, who is super cute at a bit over 1 year old.

R. spent the day at her grandmother's working on the turkey stuffing and other dishes. By the time I showed up, the table was set and we were ready for dinner. We started things out with some champagne and then dug into the turkey. The turkey, named Nanami-chan by R., was very juicy and delicious. Maybe I just thought so because I went to a lot of trouble to drive out and get it, but still. I brought along some brownies, and R's sister made a nice cake.

I made a joke about this being a "Traditional Imperial Birthday Dinner", but the only response I got was "oh, that's right today is the Emperor's birthday", so maybe that isn't a holiday that people are all that worked up about.

We took home some of the leftover turkey, but haven't had a chance to work on it yet. It was nice spending time with the family, but I wish I could see my family back in the US as well. It is a little tough though when they are a 12+ hour flight away. I've been making do with email and phone calls though. I had been told that Christmas in Japan is usually a holiday for couples, and not so much the big family extravaganza that we have in the states, so it was nice to spend time with everyone here. New Year's is coming up fast, and that really is the all-family all-the-time holiday so I'm sure I'll get plenty of family time in the next week.

Xmas Eve Dinner at Coucagno

On Christmas Eve R. and I headed out to Coucagno, a nice French Restaurant in the Cerulean Tower for dinner. Last year we went to the New York Grill in the Park Hyatt Hotel in Shinjuku for a very, very nice dinner. Since we have done the same thing for a second year in a row, I think now we have started a family tradition. I have to start thinking of where to go next year. I need to find a nice restaurant up high in a tower with a nice view for next year. Figuring the expansion rate of Tokyo and how often they build new skyscrapers, I don't think we'll run out of candidates for a long time.

In this case, we were up on the 39th floor of the Cerulean tower and had a great view of Shibuya. The dinner started with a nice appetizer, Regina Caviar, Sea Urchin Mousse, and Sea Bream Tartar. The mousse was a bit strange, but it was a good appetizer. The first course was a Foie Gras course shaped like a Christmas tree. The toasted bread was great, but the Foie Gras was a bit strong. I've had it a few times before, and generally thought that the flavor is a bit strong for the cost. An acquired taste I guess. I still happily ate the dish up: it might not be something that I would make at home, but I'm happy to eat it when it is done well at a nice restaurant.

The second course was interesting on a linguistic note. It was a lobster and shrimp dish, but when I was talking with the waiter, he called them both 海老, Shrimp. I'm a big fan of delicious foods, and lobster hits that category for me. I was a bit surprised to hear them both called shrimp, because as far as I know big things with claws aren't called shrimp in English. I could very well be wrong though. I would have thought that they were both crustaceans, but maybe in Japanese shrimp is that larger category. Anyway, no matter what you call it, the lobster was totally delicious. The shrimp was great too. I could have used more of both.

The third course was a nice steak course. The steak was very small, very tender, and delicious. Compared to the dinner last year, this one had smaller portions and that actually worked out very well: last year I felt like I was going to explode. This year I felt a lot better, and much less explodey. The steak was really tender and just excellent. The potatoes of various types were really great too: I definitely could have used more of those. I'm a big fan of mashed potatoes though.

There was a small dessert which was some sort of orange sherbert or something, and then a nice cake. The cake was also great, and followed by coffee, which included three types of things that were too sweet for their own good. They would have been better if they were chocolatey sweet, but they were all fruity sweet.

A day or two before Christmas Eve, Mibe Atsushi, R's friend who makes jewlery, finished the rings that we commissioned and brought them to us. I would link to Mibe's website, but he doesn't have one yet. I'm supposed to look into that and get a website built for him. So keep your eyes open for that. I'll put up a few more pictures of our rings in a bit, but there is one shot in this set with R. and I wearing our rings.

Hitler Clause?

Finally, there was a strange ice scultpture that was trying to get people into the Christmas Spirit, but looking at it just made me think of the Hitler salute thing. It was really strange. I'm not really sure what they were thinking. But it creeps me out. So of course I took a few pictures.

December 27, 2008

Real American Brownies

This isn't really something that deserves a blog post, but it gets one anyway. The other day I made brownies for the first time in Japan that actually came out correctly. I made them in my convection oven - one of the first times I've used it to actually bake something instead of using it just as a microwave - and they turned out great. I cut the cooking time by about five minutes, but they turned out great. I haven't used a convection oven before, and it seems like they cook things a bit quicker. That's cool by me.

Sat down to actually make the things, I freaked out a bit: the recipe called for the oven to heat up to 350 degrees or so, but my oven couldn't even reach 200!! What am I going to do!? Oh, I'll convert to Celsius because that is what my over runs. Doh! After that brilliant observation (this is why mars probes go boom people) things went great.

I brought the brownies to work and put a sign saying "Merry Christmas!" but throughout the day nobody was taking them. In fact, someone had put the lid back on the tupperware because I guess the brownies were too smelly. R. was telling me that the brownies are too sweet, and Japanese people wouldn't like them. Fine, that's just more for me! When I came back the next morning though, only one was left. I guess people just had to get hungry before they tried them.

I enjoyed those brownies so much that I'm going to make some more right now.

December 7, 2008

A busy day - another typical blog post

This is another really typical blog post. Nothing interesting here.

I had a lot to do today, and didn't get enough done. In the morning I got up at a reasonable time for the weekend - 9:30am, and called the family back home. It is hard to find good times to call America because usually in the morning I've got to go to work and can't spend too long on the phone. After chatting with Alana and Mom I started in on folding the laundry, which had been waiting for me since Saturday. My wife was catching up on sleep, since I think she didn't make it home from her work-related drinking party until very late.

I had a bit of work to do for NTCIR (an academic workshop I'm involved in) and standard checking up on email and the web, then I spent some time writing blog posts. I've been meaning to write about a bunch of things, and finally knocked a few of them out. There's still more on the list, and I'm not sure why I'm writing these things since I don't know who is reading, but I think it will be nice to have these things down for posterity. In eighty years maybe it will be interesting for me to go back and read these things. Assuming the technology still exists to access such ancient data. :)

R. cooked up some spaghetti for lunch, and we worked on the leftover meat sauce that I made a while back. It was good. She added some spices to it, so it was a bit hot too. Nice though. Then she headed out to work and I went to the local Jusco to buy some clothes for running: it has been getting cold lately, and I want to keep jogging, so I needed to get some good sweat pants and a light jacket.

More bad things to put in doughnuts

While shopping, I ran by the Mister Donut shop and saw another doughnut combination that I just really don't think should exist. I wrote about unusual food combinations before and think this is another good example: a Shrimp Gratan donut that has shrimp, a white cream sauce, macaroni, and mushrooms. That doesn't sound bad really, I just don't want that in a doughnut shop.

Jogging

Once I came back from that, I needed to test out the cold weather running gear so I took off for a jog. Since it was still 4pm, there was a bit of sun out (only for another hour though) so I thought I would try to find a new loop. I had a nice 6.8km loop, and a nice 4.3km loop, but nothing longer. We live in a nice area for running (for Japan) I think: we are right on the Tokyo Bay on a little canal that runs up between us and an island that is used for loading and unloading boats and storing trains. There is a big park on the island. I can see the loading docks from my balcony, so I've been trying to find a way to get out there and jog alongside the open bay. Today was the closest I have ever come, but I failed. I don't think that loading docks are really open to the public.

You see two pictures of the route that I took that were recorded with my cell phone. It has a nice little GPS program that can do all that stuff. The website that displays the data isn't very good though and it drops a lot of the little location dots. Bummer. I tried to get over to the bay twice, and was stopped by dead ends or major highways. I'll have to check the area out with Google Maps more and see if I can get over there somehow, because the view must be great.

Running back up the canal area at night is really nice: you can see the Monorail glide by over on the other side of the canal, there is a nice big horse racing stadium that is lit up sometimes, and there are some nice towers that make neat reflections over the water (including ours.) Hopefully I'll be able to keep on jogging through winter. The new running clothes worked great, and the jacket was too hot, so I almost ended taking that off. Should be great for even colder weather, and Tokyo usually doesn't get down to much below 0 Celsius, so I think I'll be fine.

After the run I came home, took a shower, vacuumed, did the dishes (man I have got to take a picture of our dishwasher. It is comically small - only slightly wider than my outspread hands) then had some leftover curry.

Dealing with HD Video is much harder than it should be

R. has been trying to make a DVD of a video she took for her friend's wedding, but she used this completely high-tech 1080p HD video camera. (Not ours, borrowed from her sister.) I couldn't get that thing to transfer data onto my OSX machine, couldn't get it to transfer data onto my big ThinkPad, didn't want to try to do it on my linux machine, and had major problems doing it with the little ThinkPad that R. uses, but finally that went through. She burned a few DVDs and finally asked me why she couldn't watch them. Hm. Good question. Checking the DVDs out, it is clear: the program that she used to edit the DVDs only seems to burn to a format that can be ready by Blu-Ray DVD players, of which we have none. She just wants a normal DVD. I have iMovie on my Mac which can do that, but it can't read the files spit out by that camera.

So she asked me to do something about this. I spend some time with the "HD Writer 2.5" software that Panasonic included with the camera (and which wouldn't install on the beefier ThinkPad) and found a way to export to MPEG-2. That is a pretty reasonable format, so I was pretty sure I could get that to import on the Mac. Annoyingly, you have to export each scene one at a time. Then getting the network settings on all the machine right so I could copy them over the internal network took more time, but finally I got the files moved over to the Mac, and...

Wouldn't you know it OSX can't read MPEG-2 out of the box due to probably licensing issues. I needed to buy a $20 add-on to get Quicktime to read MPEG-2. So annoying. Once that was purchased and installed, I could import the MPEG-2 files. Great! It is only going to take 299 minutes.

Oh man, you've got to be kidding me. I'm going to bed. I hope this thing finishes by morning.

What I had for lunch and other misc

Yeah, I know, the stereotypical "What I had for lunch" blog post. Well, you have to put up with these sometimes. This is a recent food post and a few other random notes.

First up: food.

Breakfast

The other day I stopped by McDonald's for breakfast. They have a bunch of "Mega" stuff here, where they basically just try to make things really huge and big. The most well-known is the Mega Mac, basically a big mac with the beef patties doubled up. I'm not a big fan of Big Macs normally (the cheese is terrible) so I haven't tried one of those yet. I did see a "Mega McMuffin" though, and tried that one morning. Two sausage patties, an egg, bacon, and the McMuffin muffins. It was pretty good. I usually just get some toast, eggs, or cereal at home, but once in a while I might go with this again.

Lunch

The concept of pre-made lunch boxes, bento, is really popular here. You can walk into any convenience store and there is usually a selection of 5-10 different types of little microwavable lunch boxes. I'm co-organizing a track at the upcoming NTCIR Information Access Evaluation Workshop and we have 4-5 hour organizational meetings for that every once in a while. The other day we had a meeting, and I thought I would snap a picture of the lunch box that they supplied us with. It was also pretty good - but everything was cold. It is very common in Japan to eat things cold that in America I wouldn't consider eating cold. (Then again, I was never a fan of eating cold pizza.) Usually things like roast beef fall into that category, and often there are meatballs or other things in these bento that I think should be hot. Throw the whole thing into the microwave and you are golden, but it is also common just to have it cold.

Anyway, this was a nice bento. We eat stuff like this pretty frequently here.

Dinner

For dinner I've been cooking a lot myself lately. Unfortunately, I don't really cook well: I plan to take a cooking class next year once I have cut out some of my obligations and free up some time. I particularly want to take a real cooking class because I insisted on getting a real honest-to-god oven (you do not get those in Japan generally) in our apartment. It cost thousands of dollars. Completely ridiculous (granted, it is a microwave - convection - conventional oven and plays like, music and stuff) but I absolutely demand an oven because my previous attempts at making brownies in toaster ovens failed completely and I really want to be able to make brownies if I will be living here for 30 years.

So now that I have this crazy oven, I want to learn to use it. And generally cook more because I do enjoy cooking. Some of the things that I have in my cookbook (I have to update that someday) are dirt simple, and a spaghetti meat sauce like my mom used to make is on the menu. Simple, but you can make a whole bunch of it at once, and it is good.

Update on Quarter Pounder in Japan Situation

The other food thing is a quick update on the Quarter Pounder situation in Japan. Recently these two "Quarter Pounder" shops opened up and proved really popular. They only sold quarter pounder and double quarter pounder meals. Japanese people love things that are new and limited edition, so for the month that the shops were around (one in Shibuya, near where I work) and one in Omote-sandou (super high-end shopping place, like Park Ave.) were pretty crowded. The really funny thing is that most Japanese people had no idea that these were McDonald's shops. The Quarter Pounder has never existed here, so I think the general consensus was that these were new fast food restaurants. Anyway, last week the Shibuya shop disappeared (and I assume the Omote-sandou one as well) and a bunch of signs went up at McDonald's shops everywhere: "Surprise! Qaurter Pounder was us! Now you can order them at all McDonald's Shops too!"

Most Japanese people I've asked so far were shocked. They had no idea. I guess the equivalent would be some cheap fast food place opening up that is fairly stylish and serves good sushi in the US. Then after a month, "Surprise! This is McSushi, and now you can get it at every McDonald's in America!" Not that that will ever happen, but still.

Random other stuff

Last week I stopped by my old workplace for a meeting. Checking my old office, my name is still on the door. It has only been three months, so I'm not completely surprised, but I'm sure it will disappear after a while. I think that the last time I visited Columbia University my name was still on the door of my old office - that is about 2.5 years. I'm pretty sure it is gone now since everyone that I was working with at the time is gone now. 2.5 years is a pretty good record though.

While at my old workplace I took two pictures of the fall leaves at the Imperial Palace. One of the really great things about the Japanese National Institute of Informatics is that it shares a building with Hitotsubashi University so there is a small gym with showers, and the Imperial Palace is really close. I used to do a 5km loop around that place a few times a week and miss it (but there is a great 6.8km loop right near my new apartment, so I still have a place to run.) The fall leaves look pretty nice out there.

Finally, there are two new buildings going up right near where I live. It looks like one will be ~20 floor office building, and the other a residential tower. I think it won't be bigger than the tower we are in though (26 floors, not that we're that high up) so that is cool. I would hate to have our brand-new building eclipsed by another brand-new building next door. :)

November 4, 2008

Simplifying the menu

At work this afternoon a friend brought in a bag labeled simply "Quarter Pounder". Our office is out in Shibuya, and randomly what used to be McDonald's turned into some random post-modern simplified version of McDonald's called simple "Quarter Pounder". I guess they are promoting the Quarter Pounder coming to Japan (wasn't it always here?) by changing two shops, one in Omote-sando and one in Shibuya, into Quarter-Pounder only joints. I stopped by for dinner more out of curiosity than anything else. I actually really like the idea as a short-term thing: it addresses the concerns brought up by The Paradox of Choice.

The interior is all black, with nice modern (well, modern from the point of view of the 80s) furniture, and everyone has black uniforms. It reminds me of some sort of Clockwork Orange view of restaurants of the future. The menu is great: Quarter Pounder with Cheese, or Double Quarter Pounder with cheese. You get a medium fry, and a choice of Coke, Coke Zero, or a hot coffee. All for the low price of 500 or 600 yen. You also can get them without cheese, which is awesome.

While I like the idea of simplification, I don't know realistically how long that place will have customers with such a sparse menu. I did notice more people than usual getting take-out from there today, but I think, like me, they were drawn in by the novelty factor.

Also, I can't believe how many people they had out there holding signs and proclaiming the arrival of "the number one most popular burger in America now available in Japan!" I'm sure this will be all over the ex-pat Japan blogosphere (Marxy at least already posted about it in the Meta-no-tame blog.)

July 21, 2008

A BBQ down by the Tamagawa River

On Sunday, I went down to the Tamagawa River for a BBQ with my friends Watanabe and Tokuda. I've been to maybe three or four of these: Watanaba lives at Saginuma on the Den-en-toshi line, so Futago Shin-chi is fairly close. It is also very close to where I live, and there is a big space down by the river where people do BBQs.

A BBQ is a little tough for me, because I sunburn very easily. I took precautions and used lot of sunscreen. I survived with only a bit of a red face, which I consider a complete victory.

I always like these BBQs. The food is very different from the stuff that we have back in America. There are usually lots of vegetables (mushrooms, onions, pumpkin, peppers) and fish, both whole (like Shishyamo) and fillets. There is also thinly sliced meats, some sausages, and usually by the end yakisoba. There is always plenty of beer, but I only had one and then because of the crazy heat (like 32 degrees Celsius) I drank lots and lots of tea.

I was there for about four hours, and basically had minor variations on this conversation fifty times:

Person: "My ... name ... is ... X".
Me: "Oh, hi X. I'm Dave. What brings you to this BBQ?"
Person: "Hey, you can talk!"
Me: "..."
Person: "Where did you learn Japanese?"
Then we went one to job stuff, how it is hot, etc., etc. I kid a little, but it is always tough meeting new people because first they are shocked that you can speak Japanese, then they go on for quite a while about how well you speak, when in actuality I've got a long way to go. But I can hold my own in conversations. You don't start noticing my deficiencies until you start getting into complicated stuff, like tax codes and social policy. Those topics don't come up at BBQs in the first hour or so of conversation.

So, onto the more amusing things. The group next to ours had a few guys who kept getting naked and horsing around. First they took some pictures in the flowers nearby, then got dressed again, and a while later got naked for some swimming. They were a mixed group, but none of the girls seemed too bothered or interested. My best guess is that they were playing drinking games and just got carried away.

I was surprised at how many people were going into the river. I should have worn a swimsuit. It was really hot, and I wanted to go and try to cool off a bit. A lot of people weren't prepared for swimming, wearing normal clothes. A lot more people weren't planning on going in, but their friends made plans for them and people got dunked.

Also not too far from our group was a large group of tattooed men. They had tattoos that are typical of Japanese gangsters. They also were getting naked, but this was more of a sempai - kouhai sort of thing. They'd tell one guy to get naked and then go over to the DJ area and dance with some people for a bit, then come back. Just fooling around. They also at one point had a bunch of roman candles and were shooting them off at each other. When some of the shots went stray, and came close to other groups of people, those groups tried pretty hard to just ... pretend that nothing was happening. Crazy.

I know I'm talking a lot of about naked guys, but it really seems like the social sensibility in Japan with regards to nudity is very different from America. If you were at some sort of summer river or beach type thing that was not specifically specified as a nudist area, I do not think people would put up with guys getting naked and running around. I also don't think that you would see as many guys getting naked because in my experience, guys don't often want to get naked around each other in social situations. It just doesn't seem to be as big of a deal around here - see Onsen for another good example.

Anyway, it was really nice getting out in the sun. I feel like I've had a whole month's worth of sunshine in one day. I've lifted the tag of hikkikomori for another month.

July 4, 2008

Japanese Chocolate

As I mentioned in a previous post, I've been seeing a lot of Salty Chocolate lately. I picked up the Morinaga Salty Chocolate candy the other day. I opened the box, expecting a standard candy bar, but instead I got about eight individually wrapped really small chocolate wafers. They are pretty good, with a bit of salty flavor that isn't overpowering.

As always, I also picked up a new flavor of KitKat when I came across it this evening. Triple Berry. It is one of the better strange KitKat flavors.

It is great that Japan has so many seasonal changes in their coffee and chocolate and other snacks and drinks. It gives me an excuse to keep buying them.

June 30, 2008

Paying the Tax Man, and stuff around town

When I get mail, I usually like to let it sit around and age for a bit, like a nice wine. In all honesty, I only get a few pieces of mail a week, and it is all blindingly obvious what it is just by looking at the envelope. Generally they are bills, so letting them sit for a week or two isn't a problem. (Of course today, just to prove the exception to the rule, I got some mail from a friend. I was expecting that though: a pair of tickets to the new Setagaya Museum of Art exhibit on architecture by Osamu Ishiyama.)

A few weeks ago I got a big, fat letter from Setagaya county. I knew that they wanted money from me, and specifically money for having the honor of living in their ward. I wasn't in any rush to open it. I wonder if I had just refused to open, like the White House, if it would all just go away. Probably not. So I finally opened it over the weekend, and found out that I had to pay up on Monday.

Monday was actually the last day that I could pay the first installment of the tax (although I've paid other installments a bit late, and they have been very kind about it) so I deviated from my standard schedule. Usually I'm out of the house by 7:30am, but today I needed to go to the bank, get some money, go to the post office to mail some stuff, and then go to the ward office to pay the tax bill. I went to my local bank, and was amazed. I have never seen more than two people in that bank ever. There must have been twenty people in line for the ATM machines. I believe that you can register with the ward office to pay the tax bill using the bank system, but I'm not really too sure about that. If I'm going to pay a bunch of money, I like to go down and talk to people, especially because then I can ask questions. That's a lot easier than making sense of tax documents written in Japanese. I still needed to get money out though, so I got hit by the last minute rush. (Nobody was at the actual ward office tax payment division though - that was super quick. Much quicker than waiting for the ATMs.)

After pulling out some money, I walked by a local shop that makes tatami mats. I've seen that place once or twice before, but generally they are never open when I am around. I had a camera handy and asked if I could take a picture. It would have been nice to hang around and get some shots of them working on those mats by hand, but I had to get going to get my taxes paid and get to work. It really is pretty amazing though: they do all that weaving and finishing by hand. It looks really tedious.

Finally, I also found another interesting candy bar at the local convenience store. Meiji Salty Pralines Chocolate. It is pretty good! I just barely taste the salt, and I really liked the pralines a lot. There are a few more salt and chocolate items that I saw, so maybe I'll pick a few more of them up.

May 11, 2008

Mabo Tofu: Cheap and easy food

I'm always interested in adding new options to my menu of things that I can (poorly) cook. I often cook some kind of curry rice (it is one of my favorite dishes, it is easy to make, it stores well, and it is flexible because you can always add some side dishes to it) but it is nice to have some variety. One thing I always look for is a simple dish that I can cook up on the weekend and eat over the week.

One of the things that I ran into lately is Mabo Tofu. Mabo Tofu is a kind of spicy flavored Tofu. I saw a package at the Supermarket that said it is a mix for the stuff, all you have to do is basically add this stuff to Tofu and you are set. Sounds easy enough.

Basically, you make the stuff by cutting up your Tofu into small blocks - this is surprisingly fun, and if you get the hard Tofu it works fairly well - and then add some water to a pot. Put in the flavor packet, and heat it up. While you do this, there is a packet of corn starch that comes with the mix, which you should mix with water. The first time I made this I added ten times too much water, and ended up with a kind of Tofu soup. It was actually really good, and I think I'll make that sometime in the future as well. If you do it right, you bring down the heat and mix in the thickening agent, then heat it up again. The second time around I also coocked up some hamburger and threw that in - it was great.

Unfortunately, this stuff doesn't keep very well. After about three or four days it starts to smell bad. It still tastes good, but starts to smell like ... rotten bean paste. Well, more like you would imagine rotten bean paste would taste like.

It turns out that it mixes fairly well with Curry too. I don't mean that you should mix them together, just that having some curry one one side of rice, and Mabo Tofu on the other is pretty good.

February 23, 2008

Salad

I've been having salad more and more often. I would like to say that it is because I'm on a diet, but more truthfully it is because I'm lazy, and making salad is easy. Also, I don't like thinking about what to eat. I like having a clear decision. Since thinking about what to eat is often difficult, I just punt on the issue and have something easy like salad. (I love it when I have a big batch of curry at home, and I just eat curry. Then the decision is "what do I pair with the curry tonight?", which is a much simpler question.)

Anyway, this is what I want to say about salad:

It is amazing how you can eat a lot of salad, and once you have enough, you don't feel hungry any more. But I still want to eat, because I also don't feel satisfied! Damn you salad!! Be more satisfying!

Although, I have to admit that when I stop by the local Three F convenience store (I just looked up what that means: Fresh, Foods, Friendly. I especially like question 2 in their FAQ: when do they people at three F sleep? This page must be for kids, because it explains that more than one person works there. ha!) and pick up one of their spicy chicken cutlet things and cut that up into the salad, it is pretty satisfying.

The non-spicy chicken things from other convenience stores are not satisfying though. Probably because they aren't Fresh, Food, or Friendly.

Anyway, a random salad rant. Tomorrow I'll go into work and end up with a bento, so maybe I'll have a random bento rant. Probably not though, because Hokka Hokka Tei bentou are pretty good, and that is what I'm planning on getting...

January 3, 2008

Osechi Ryori

I feel obliged to say that the next few posts on my blog will be about the New Year in Japan.  None of them will really have interesting observations that haven't been made before, many times, by foreigners in Japan.  That is one kind of interesting thing about being a foreigner in Japan: you go through phases.  I'll have to write about that at some time, but we all go through a "I'm a funny guy and will comment on these crazy Japanese" as well as a "wow, look at all the cool cultural things they have here" phase.  You can probably find any number of similar posts on the blogs listed at the Japan Blog List.

I have been in Japan for about one year and nine months now.  Last year, I spent the new year on my own, and visited a local temple.  I didn't know what was going on really, but I enjoyed it.  This year, I had the chance to spend New Year's Eve with a Japanese family.  I was looking forward to the chance, because the New Year's holiday is one of the biggest holidays in Japan, very similar to a mix of Christmas and Thanksgiving in the United States, where families gather together  and eat food while celebrating the New Year and reflecting on the year gone past.  (Although in practice it reduces down to over-eating and watching people sing on TV.  I'll write more about that in a later post.) 

The main thing to which I was looking forward was Osechi Food (おせち料理), which is the kinds of food that families each over the New Year's Holiday.  I never really had a good idea about the food consisted of, and now after having experienced it, I'm pretty sure that there are not any real set dishes aside from a few common things, and that anything can be Osechi Food.  It is just a time for the family to gather, sit around the table, eat, and enjoy. 

On New Year's Eve it is traditional to eat a special kind of Soba called Toshikoshi Soba.  I didn't know the origins of this custom, and found two interesting sties with more information on it.  One is at jpn-miyabi.com and the other is at urban.ne.jp.  It seems like soba (buckwheat noodles) are traditionally thought to symbolize long life and good fortune.  The custom dates back to the Edo period, perhaps around 1700 or so, perhaps earlier.  More interesting is this post over on justhungry.com where they have a nice recipe for Toshikoshi Soba.  The Soba that we had was nice, although grandma humbly complained that it has weak flavor, and tasty.  It had some great wild mushrooms in there, and some chicken.  I hope it passed on to me the attributes of long life and wealth, but I'm afraid all it did for me was to fill me up before the main course: Sukiyaki.

Sukiyaki is a food that it seems like is a traditional Japanese "comfort food".  Lots of people associate it with happy times with the family, sitting around the table and talking happily.  I have had Sukiyaki a few times, and I think it is really great.  Absolutely delicious.  I was told that the Kansai (Kyoto / Osaka area) version of Sukiyaki uses a sweet sugar base with Mirin, while the Tokyo version uses a salt-based sauce.  This version was the sugar-based one, and I thought it was great.  What happens is you put food - vegetables, meat, and so on - into the Sukiyaki bowl, and pull it out as it cooks.  If you like, you can take a raw egg and crack it open into a bowl, which you then dip things into.  I am not crazy about the raw-egg-on-things custom that the Japanese harbor, but I don't dislike it.  (Other places where you can find this include Yoshinoya, where you can get a raw egg to put on your beef bowl, and many of the "o-don" dishes where the raw egg cooks, essentially, over the hot rice.)  Incidentally, you can buy eggs at the supermarket that are specifically meant to be eaten raw for this kind of purpose.  I suppose they have some sort of higher quality standard for safety or whatever, but I'm not really sure. 

Along with the Sukiyaki meal there were other small dishes, such as mochi (rice cake) both cold and hot with soy sauce on it, and of course alcohol.  The New Year's Eve meal was accompanied by sake and beer.  And not a small amount: every time I checked, my cup had been re-filled.  I also made sure to do my duty and keep the cups of those around me full.  After dinner, we all gathered around the TV to watch the special sets of shows that are specific to New Year's Eve, and pass the time until midnight.  I won't go into detail about that here, but shortly after midnight we went to bed.  I slept on a Japanese futon, the first time in quite a while, and woke up with a sore back. 

The next morning at 9:00am we gathered for breakfast, which is the proper Osechi Food.  There were two main components to the meal: the Ocean Foods, and the Mountain Foods.  The Ocean foods consisted of things from the Ocean and peculiarly a sweetened mashed-like Potato dish that I really enjoyed.  I liked the Ocean Foods a lot because they are colorful and made a very pretty arrangement on the plate.  The traditional colors of the New Year are Red and White, and some delicious seafood cakes took on those colors.  Sadly, I don't know what everything on the plate is, but it was all quite nice.  The Mountain Foods are fresh vegetables and things like that, including mushrooms and other things that I don't know.  As with many of the foods, some were round and in a ball-form since that symbolizes good luck.  There are some beans that are traditional as well, but I don't know the story behind that.  Interestingly, you can see in the lower-left of the photo that I took that there is a bottle of Sake and three bowls for drinking, each smaller and with a good-luck character written on them.  Before breakfast everyone at the table had a saucer of the sake before the saucers ended up with their rightful owners (in this case, the head of the household, his daughter, and myself.)  I enjoyed having sake for breakfast, although it isn't something that I want to do every day.  The final part of the meal was the Mochi (rice cake) soup.  I'm not sure what all was in it, but it was quite nice.  As with the previous night's dinner, mochi (rice cakes) were present and I was given a rice cake roasted with soy sauce and then wrapped up in nori (seaweed.)  It was nice, but those rice cakes can fill you up really fast.  They are heavy, sticky, and sink to you stomach.  I'm pretty sure I added a layer of fat composed entirely of rice cake over this three day period.

After breakfast Lisa and I headed out for our first temple visits of the year, which I'll document in a later post.  We returned after a few hours, and snacked on tea and some cakes, before dinner at 6:30pm.  I didn't get any pictures of the tea that we had, but I had a very, very large amount of tea over those three days. 

Dinner was Western Style (on my account?) consisting of Roast Beef that Lisa and her grandmother cooked previously, some salad, and leftovers from the previous day's food.  Of course, the Sake tradition continued, but this time we also had two bottles of Red Wine to go with the meat.  The roast beef was quite nice, but curiously served cold.  Actually, that isn't all that surprising; Japanese often eat meals (Bento boxes in particular) which are cold, and I've had roast before here before that was served cold.  It was still quite nice.  To accompany the beef there were two sorts of sauces: one was standard Wasabi like you would get with Sushi, and the other was a type of salt, called "Yuzu Salt", that was very nice.  Yuzu is a Japanese Citrus, and this salt was made with Yuzu in some way.  I've equated it with Garlic Salt in my mind, and will try to pick some up next time I'm at a shop that might have some. 

After dinner, I went back home so that I could sleep in my own bed, but I was asked to come back for breakfast the next morning at 9:30am.  Breakfast consisted of the same foods seen previously, and more Breakfast Sake.  To tell the truth, I was still absolutely stuffed from all the food over the past two days, but I think the point of the New Year Holiday is to save up energy and fat for the coming busy times when everyone goes back to work and does their standard twelve hours days subsisting on only ramen.  After breakfast the family watched some more TV, then Lisa and I went out to hit the last two temples on our temple card.  More on the Temple Visits and crazy Japanese New Year's TV at a later date.

December 26, 2007

A delicious Christmas Dinner

Ever since I saw Lost in Translation I have wanted to eat at the New York Grill, the restaurant in the Park Hyatt Hotel at which Bill Murray's character is staying. It is a bit out of my price range, but I thought I would take my girlfriend there for a Christmas dinner.

I put in a reservation about a month back, and since it is Christmas (I suppose) they were only serving a set menu. We started off with a Rose champagne, and then ordered a bottle of 2006 Pinot Noir from Santa Barbara off of their wine of the month menu. It was really delicious.

The dinner was a four course affair, and was absolutely delicious. It started off with shrimp in a caviar sauce. The shrimp were delicious. The second course was an artichoke soup with candied hazelnuts. The nuts really remind of Christmas for some reason: my mother collects Nutcrackers and usually sets out a few for Christmas, which means the taste of walnuts. They aren't quite hazelnuts, but it is close and felt a bit like home.

The third course was a delicious roasted John Dory (a kind of fish I've never had before) along with some great truffles and wild mushrooms. The fish was a bit salty, but I thought it made a great contrast with the previous soup. The next dish was a steak from Sendai. I don't know if Sendai is famous for their beef or not, but this steak was just delicious. It was tender and juicy, with an excellent sauce. Now I really want to try some Kobe beef in a similar style to see how they compare.

Finally, the evening ended with a nice chocolate fondant and vanilla ice cream along with a coffee. I don't usually drink coffee, but this was a special occasion so I'll deal with the caffeine headache tomorrow when I don't have another caffeinated drink. The dessert was very nice, but actually I was very full from all the food, and it was a bit tough to finish it all off. Of course, I did end up eating everything, but I do slightly regret it. I guess it just means more time jogging when I get back onto my regular schedule.

The view from the restaurant was really spectacular. From where I was sitting I could see Tokyo Tower, which surprised me by disappearing for a portion of the night. They turned the lights off, and when they turned them back on there was a heart made of lights near the base. The blinking red lights from the surrounding skyscrapers were nice - they made a somewhat surreal background. On the way out I noticed that the Shinjuku Government office towers were lit up all pretty - most likely for the Christmas holiday.

I highly recommend the New York Grill. It is expensive, but it was worth it.

July 24, 2007

Pizza: A comarison between Italian, New York, and Japanese perspectives

On my recent trip to Italy, New York, and Dallas, I ate some good food. Great seafood in Italy, and excellent steak and BBQ in Dallas. In New York, one of the things that I most wanted to eat was good old-fashioned New York style Pizza by the slice.

I really like Pizza. I wouldn't say that I love it, but I've always enjoyed a good slice. The problem is that here in Japan, Pizza is very different from what you get in New York, which is my favorite. I haven't really had much Chicago style deep-dish pizza, and while what I have had has been good, I still prefer New York style pizza. Greasy, lots of cheese, thin crust compared to Chicago style, but not super thin. Put some pepperoni on it, and you've got yourself a tasty meal.

In Japan though, Pizza had been adapted to the Japanese palette, and also seems to come more from the Italian thin crust style of Pizza. Japanese pizza often has seafood on it, shrimp is very common, as well as seaweed, bonita (a kind of fish flake), and inexplicably corn and mayonnaise are very popular. While I don't think Japanese pizza is bad, it just doesn't resemble American pizza. When you get a type of pizza that has normal ingredients, you still have the problem that the crust is thin, there is very little tomato sauce, the cheese is sparse, and oh, by the way, the pizza is very small (a large will feed two Americans maybe) and that large also just cost you $30. The first picture shows a current Pizza Hut promotion of a "Double Roll" pizza with both sausage and cheese "ears". Notice that on one half of the pizza is hamburger, complete with small cute mini-patties, not crumbled up as you might get in America, and corn. The other half has the Pizza Hut Gourmet side, which doesn't look too bad. If I poked around their site I could probably dig up some crazy seafood combinations (like the fried shrimp and tartar combination or Seafood mix with shrimp, squid, tuna mayo, broccoli and onion, or just about anything else off of the menu.) Anyway, like I said, while the pizza isn't bad, I don't really consider it in the same food category as American Pizza. It is a distinct category of its own.

While in Italy, I was also determined to try some authentic pizza. I had a nice Prosciutto pizza that was very good, but also isn't what I want when I feel like a New York slice. The crust is light and flaky, burnt in places, with cheese, but not a large amount, and not very oily. The Prosciutto was great, but I really wanted a pepperoni. I don't know if they just don't make that kind of pizza there, or if I didn't go to the right places. I only had one Pizza meal though, since I wasn't really there for that long. It seemed about the same as the Italian style brick-over fired pizzas that you can get in New York, or for that matter, here in Tokyo if you look around.

The real deal finally: New York by the slice Pizza. I had two Slices of pizza, one for lunch at Famiglia's near Columbia (famous Pizza since 1987. 1987? Are you serious? That's like only 20 years!) and one slice from Koronet's . Koronet's Pizza is crazy huge: the slices are as big as your forearm. Huge, huge slices. And cheap. About $4 with a drink. It was so very good, but I'm not used to eating that much and felt bloated for the rest of the day. It was worth it though. I've linked to a flikr picture of Koronet's Pizza so you can get an idea of the size. I should have taken a picture of my slice, but I was too excited and by the time I thought of it had already eaten most of the slice.

Good old-fashioned by the slice New York pizza. Oily, drippy, cheesy, thin crust that you can fold - in fact, I think it is required to fold your Koronet's slice in half to eat it. Good stuff. Man, I want some pizza. (Instead I'll have Japanese curry that I made last night: another favorite of mine.)

July 17, 2007

Who needs the Kwik-E-Mart?

As part of the promotion for the Simpsons Movie, about 12 7-11 stores have been converted into Kwik-E-Marts, the mythical convenience store from the show. Since there is one in New York City, and I happen to be there right now for my friend's wedding, I made a point to go out to the Port Authority Bus Terminal to check out the Kwik-E-Mart.

They have a lot of merchandising going on, and many limited-edition items for sale. The most interesting are the Squishy-labeled Slurpees and the Buzz Cola and crazy pink sprinkle doughnuts. Those doughnuts are huge: a box of six comes in a box that would be a dozen doughnuts anywhere else. I had one and could not believe how huge the things were. The Buzz Cola is a regular type of Cola in the Coca-Cola mode, but I don't know who actually manufactures it. I'm sure they are making a killing though: the place was packed with people taking pictures and buying up the Simpsons-related stuff.

I particularly liked the Jasper poster on the Ice Bag freezer (note the "Jasper Extra" sign), and there are also interesting Giant Pez Dispensers, but I couldn't bring myself to buy one. Not only can I not cart something like that back to Tokyo, where would I put it??

There is also a Kwik-E-Mart in Dallas, TX, so I'll try to get some pictures of that when I head over there tomorrow before getting on the plane back to Tokyo.

Also, please note an appropriate usage of donuts here, unlike what I often see in Japan, where donuts are made out of strange and unusual things. (Well, not that strange, but still, frosting or at least sugar should be required!)

July 5, 2007

Unlikely food combinations: What are you thinking, Japan!?

This is a post that started from a Mixi post I made about unusual donuts (in Japanese) and then purely by coincidence the next day I stumbled upon some other unusual foodstuffs. First, on with the donuts.

Don't make donuts out of that

On the way home from Jiyugaoka one fine Saturday afternoon, I stopped by the Boulangerie Asanoya, a bakery in the newish Trainchi Shopping Center in Jiyugaoka. It is a nice bakery - there are actually a bunch of nice bakeries in the Jiyugaoka area, but this one is on the way home. I was really hankering for a nice doughnut, but I instead came across some unusual doughnuts. This isn't uncommon in Japan, but for whatever reason (mostly the Ham and Cheese) I decided to take a picture of it this time. In this case they are calling one of their creations a ham and cheese doughut. While that sounds like a perfectly reasonable food, take some ham and cheese, stuff it in dough, and fry the whole thing, I just don't think it should be called a doughnut. I like my doughnuts to be sweet. I don't know if these had sugar on them or not, since I didn't want to try it particularly, but I don't think they should be called doughnuts.

Next to those were the green tea and Azuki (red bean paste sweetened with sugar) doughnuts. The Azuki doughnuts are very common. I'm sure everyone who visits and gets a doughnut expecting a nice creme-filled center is surprised with the slightly thick, somewhat unusual taste of the Azuki bean paste. They are very common. They are pretty good too. This is the first time that I've seen Maccha doughnuts though. Maccha is a green tea flavor, and I suspect the taste would be bitter, but again, I didn't venture a taste myself.

I went with the quite delicious, and exactly what I wanted, jelly-filled berliner.


Give me a break!

The other day while in a convenience store, I came across some unusual flavors of KitKat bars. Maybe I should back up a bit here. First, the Japanese really love the four seasons. You can have a very long and involved conversation about what your favorite season is, and none of them get short shrift really. There is a long tradition of poetry that extols the virtues of a given season. So, following that, there is a tradition of having foods and drinks that are exclusive to each season. Unlike poetry, Summer seems to get the lion's share of goods here - although in Winter our vending machine at work sports more hot coffees and hot chocolate, which turns cold in the summer. Anyway, there are lots of things that only show up at certain times.

For some reason, KitKat bars seem to be pretty popular here in Japan, and there is even a strange breaktown.com web site with KitKat themed games and stuff. They normally have regular KitKat bars, a Maccha green tea variety, and Strawberry KitKat bars (which are quite good.) The other day I stumbled upon three more mutant flavors: Orange, Kiwifruit, and Pineapple.

Orange isn't too bad. It is very similar in flavor to the regular chocolate KitKat bar, but has a really overwhelming Orange scent. I think they just added orange perfume to a regular KitKat and called it a day. Kiwifruit is pretty bad though. It has a really strange aftertaste. Pineapple is somewhere in between.

If I get around to it, I'll try to track down the other unusual (to me) KitKat bar flavors. According to the website, I should at least be able to find Exotic Tokyo II White Chocolate flavor (white chocolate and gooseberries with mixed American cherries), Exotic Tokyo Chocolate flavor (with mixed fruit!), Exotic Hokkaidou 2 (with Red Wine and Strawberries), Exotic Hokkaidou (white chocolate with creme cheese and matched sour berries to express Hokkaidou's oneness with nature), Exotic Kansai (with lemons and ginger), and Exotic Kyuushyuu (with Mango and Orange Caramel and black pepper).

On second thought, perhaps I'll pass on trying to track those down (although, the lazy can order them from the web via the links.) I also vaguely recall seeing other strange flavors like Sakura (cherry/blossom) at some point. I'll keep my eyes open at the local convenience stores.

Crazy country.


June 12, 2007

A trip to faraway Yokohama for Gyoza

Last Sunday I headed out to Yokohama with my friend after a relaxing weekend. About a year ago, a researcher I met while at Columbia University who grew up in Yokohama took me to a Gyoza shop in Sakuragicho, Yokohama that he said has some of the best Gyoza in Japan. For reference, that is a little place called Sanyou, which is always busy, but did have great Gyoza. One of the reviews for that place said they didn't like the place because they want you to order quickly, and he didn't know what to get. They gave him a beer and told him to get out.

This time instead we went to Ban-Li another ramen-gyouza shop nearby. We ordered some gyouza, both fried and steamed, and they were great. A while back I went to Namco Namjya Town's Gyoza Battle Stadium, where there were lots of different types of Gyoza to try out. That was fun too, but I was glad that this place was a normal restaurant with just your normal choices. One of the annoying things about the Chinatown in Yokohama is that it has been created and marketed as a kind of "China Land" within Japan, and is almost more theme park than neighborhood. Everything there is really expensive, and more for show than anything else.

Ban-Li is not for show: it's the kind of hole-in-the-wall Chinese place that you would find at New York's Chinatown. Along with the gyoza, we got beer and mabu-tofu, which was also great. On the way out we went and checked on Sanyou, and it was packed. Lots of people waiting outside to get in. It is a place that I would like to try again sometime.

After dinner, we headed over to Landmark Tower, which has the tallest observation deck in Japan. They are very proud of their elevator, which is the fastest in Japan. It was very fast. I think it reached speeds of 470 km/h, but it was impressively smooth. I generally don't like elevators and easily get motion sick on them, but this elevator was ok. (I really think they should replace the elevator in Disney's the Tower of Terror with the one in Landmark Tower - I got totally sick on that one, but this one was fine.)

On the way we also checked out the Yokohama Ferris Wheel, which puts on a really nice show when it isn't doing its impersonation of a giant clock.

April 4, 2007

Namja Town

On Wednesday, I had a day off from work on Wednesday, so I met up with Risa and we went to Namja Town. Namja Town is a strange place in Ikebukuro, Tokyo that is essentially a food-based theme park for kids and older kids. It seems like a completely strange place to me, because it was constructed by Namco, a video game company, in conjunction with Bandai Namco group, which is I guess a toy company but I'm not really sure. I'll give you a brief run-down of the things that we did at Namja town, and let you decide for yourself what kind of place this Namja town is.

First up was a trip to Gyoza Stadium, a themed area with a whole bunch of Gyoza shops. There are about 13 shops in the area, all but one (Big Man) specializing in Gyoza. In the middle of the "stadium" there is a seating area, so we went around to three shops and grabbed three types of Gyoza, and some of the crazy Namco-branded Beer. We actually went later and got two more types of Gyoza later on.

We then went over to the Amazon Mosquito Shoot-out, which has the story of some crazy large mosquitos that came to invade Japan from Brazil, so we have to shoot the mosquitos down. It is a tracked ride where you get on these pig things, you know like they have here for burning anti-bug incense with the large mouths, and shoot at mosquitos. The guns shoot light and there are sensors on the mosquitos that track if you hit or not, just like Lazer Tag back in the day. It was actually pretty tough, but kind of fun.

After that, we decided to run the scavenger hunt / town clue hunt type thing. You get these little cats that have RFID chip or something in them, and when you are near a clue the cats meow. You set the cat down on the receptacle for them and then see a clue of some sort. Some of them are just a recorded message, others are some sort of video type thing, or something like that. After running around to the eight or nine stations you go back to the "police station" and then take a little quiz. Now this was really tough for me because the quiz (well, everything really) was all in Japanese. You have to answer each question in five seconds. That is just about enough time for me to read the question, so even with a multiple choice setup I didn't really have much of a chance. Even worse, the questions are hard. For example, at one of the "clues" you ring a doorbell, and then look in through the peep-hole at a scene inside a bar. Ok, putting aside the issue of optics and how looking through a reverse fish-eye peephole would not give you such a clear image, it was a long scene about a woman talking to someone offscreen about losing her husband, and how she is now perhaps ready to move on, and a bunch of details about her life. The question in the quiz about this clue was "What was the color of the table in the bar?" Had I known that question, I could easily answer the question, but of course if you go to ten stations first, not knowing what will be asked, it is impossible to remember all these details. That is probably the plan: you can buy a card of some sort to track your progress and run the course over and over, so it is a way to encourage people (kids) to come back over and over.
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