Sushi

Almost a year has gone by since I ate my way through Tsukiji and it’s time to update — especially since revisiting some older posts, my face turned hot and red; I am extremely embarrassed at how little I knew about sushi.

So today, almost 12 months and many, many high-end sushi meals later, here are a few things I have learned. Warning: this will be a super long and ultra nerdy post with barely any photos…

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Arashiyama, Kyoto and a Tofu Kaiseki

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A ten minute train ride from the Kyoto station transports you to a magical area of Kyoto called Arashiyama. My heart never fails to start pounding during the ride in when the scenary opens up revealing the rolling mountains of the Kyoto countryside. (Make sure to sit on the right side of the train. There is only one train to and from Arashiyama.)

Spring and autumn are the best times to visit Kyoto. The landscape is unbelievable, especially when Kyoto’s greenry looks like it is on fire from the bright orange, red and yellow leaves during fall’s foliage. Or in the spring time when the delicate cherry blossoms fill the city and countryside with the sweetest shade of pink amongst the vibrant green of the newly sprouted leaves. Kyoto is out of control stunning.

Winter is a bit of bummer for all nature. The trees are bare and seem almost cold. But not Arashiyama.

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Hiroshima Style Okonomiyaki and How Locals Roll

The other day, I stumbled onto a wonderful okonomiyaki spot so I thought I would share. Okonomiyaki is easiest explained as “Japanese pancake” but it’s not really a pancake. Okonomiyaki is a savory flavor bomb.

On the opposite side of Tokyo from where I normally work and play, there is an indoor onsen (hot springs) known and loved by locals. There are a total of nine hot springs and eight saunas. It’s really great but unfortunately they don’t allow people with tattoos to enter. Tattoos are associated with yakuza (Japanese mob) and Japanese equate tattoos with bad people and bad things. This old school mentality still applies in 2015, even in Tokyo. It’s so stupid but what can you do.

Anyway, I trekked to this unfamiliar area to take a friend in need of massive R&R to the spa. He is tatt’d up so we got rejected which ruined my plan of killing a few hours between lunch and dinner at the spa, then heading to Kagurazaka (a short cab ride away) from the spa for dinner.

Sidenote: Kagurazaka is still a little known area to tourists. It’s a tiny neighborhood with an old Japan feel and a slight European twist. Lots of cafes and little restaurants line the cobble stone streets. Tucked in this area are top quality restaurants (mainly Italian and French). There are several Michelin rated restaurants but Kagurazaka is notorious for restaurant owners rejecting stars because they don’t want attention, tourists, etc. Sounds silly but Japan is filled with amazing restaurants that prefer to remain low key.

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Yokocho: Japanese Food Alley

Yokocho’s characters 横丁・横町 means side city, and translates to alleyways off major streets. The origin of the word comes from describing the passages of Tokyo when it was still called Edo (between 1603-1868 wow that’s such a long time ago). These alleyways were garbage depots and sewage canals but as the population of Edo grew, waste required to be properly maintained.

Soon the side-streets were cleared of the waste and sewage. The people of Edo decided to fill the empty space with food stands or tiny eateries. There were even squatters who took the handles and wheels off their food carts and brought them into Yokochos. In modern day, Yokocho means a passageway of food stalls.

The most notable Yokocho is in Shinjuku, called Omoide Yokocho; also known by its unfortunate nicknames “Shomben Yokocho” (Piss Alley – classy) or “Gokiburi Yokocho” (Cockroach Alley – appetizing). The stacks of stands appropriately reflect their names: run down and a bit gross. The restrooms are vile.

In Ebisu, I am fortunate to reside near one of the newer (and more sanitary) Yokochos of Tokyo. I bring all visitors there to experience it at least once.

Next to a 7-11 and a run-down ramen? yakitori? shop, there is a traditional Japanese sliding door with paddles of colorful squares on top. Rolling the door to the side exposes a scene of inebriated salary men, groups of girls dressed to the nine, a sprinkle of non-Japanese faces. Ebisu Yokocho is popular with tourists as of late.

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People are cramped around tables made of crates, and benches made for two. The teeny counters where the food is prepared fits one or two people behind them at the most. There are stands on stands, serving a hodge-podge of Japanese small plates. I normally choose any place that has empty seats.

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Local Experience: The Snack Bar

The Snack Bar or Dagashi Bar in Japanese is on a corner of a small street, one block away from the lively food alley of Ebisu. If you don’t know of its existence, you would most likely miss it no matter how many times you walk by: it’s a dump.

See?

In the dark the Snack Bar looks even more tattered. Metal signs are carelessly slathered onto the shack’s walls that are bleeding with rust. The front of the bar is un-inviting like the owners purposely neglected renovating to keep strangers out. I’ve come to learn the run-down look is the Snack Bar’s signature to give a retro feel.

Dagashi Bar is its name in Japanese. Dagashi are cheap snacks ranging from candy to crackers, chocolates to cakes, juices and gummies and sugared powder (like Pixi Sticks) and lots more. They are individually packaged made especially for children to easily afford with their very small allowances.

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Beyond Jiro of “Jiro Dreams of Sushi”

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A glimpse of Japanese craftsmanship, furniture edition.

My heart is still fluttering. Goose bumps have yet to cease. I am flying high, so high, off the scent of wood. All kinds of wood. I can vividly hear the sanding, the hum of the chain saw. I want to bottle the saw dust and carry the wood chips in my pockets. I don’t want these sensations to end. This is Japanese craftsmanship at its finest.

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Tsukiji Fish Market

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It’s dark. And cold. But it’s okay, because you are charged by an energy of knowing you are about to witness something special. As you walk towards the warehouses miniature tractors stacked with styrofoam crates and boxes zoom around. Tens of men and women in oversized rubber boots with matching poofy black jackets are rushing in all directions yelling:

Doke, doke! Jyama, jyama, jyama!!

If you don’t speak the language the shouting from people known to the world as polite and quiet, could easily be misinterpreted as some sort of war cry. After all, these men and women get up at the crack of dawn for fish.

Some sell the fish in a freezing cold warehouse to the crowds pushing and shoving their ways to the front. Some may transport the heaps of fish with the miniature tractors. Others may be cooking the fish at one of the many sushi restaurants with tourists milling about. Or others man the retail storefronts.

Whatever their roles, these people aren’t at Tsukiji Market to Instagram or blog about being at Tsukiji Market. These men and women wake up everyday at ungodly hours for fish — their crafts, and their trades. Of course a motivating ritualistic chant would make sense, as the same words echo from different directions: doke, doke! Jyama, jyama, jyama!!

Well. Sorry to break it to you, but these men and women aren’t collectively shouting some ancient ritualistic chant. They are yelling because they are annoyed. Doke means move. Jyama is outta my way.

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Rickshaws and Bullet trains and Yakuza — oh my.

*Note: this is one leg of an eight night, nine day in 15 or so different cities around Japan.

On my out of Kyoto was when things got weird and kept getting weirder.

I missed my bullet train, hopped onto the next one – all was well. Then, things took a turn towards crazy town.

Stupid me left my phone (iPhone!!) in the bullet train — yes, that bullet train, those insane Japanese trains that transports people hundreds of miles in a few hours.

Who does that? Me. I do.

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Kumamoto

*Note: this is one leg of an eight night, nine day in 15 or so different cities around Japan.

On the southern tip of Japan, there is a land centered around a castle and a bear.

The people are kind and directionally challenged (The tourist information woman told me to make a left, while tracing a right turn on the map. The train station employee inside of the ticket booth, guided me to the wrong train and I ended up going the opposite direction!)

The young men shave their eyebrows like this:

…and look like characters from mangas published for teenage girls.

There are trolleys with wooden floors and the insides are painted sea-green. The paint is peeling. The steel is rusting. The trolleys are rickety and the motor is so loud, the vibration shakes the wooden floors until they squeak. I think they may be falling apart.

I am in Kumamoto of the Kyushu region. Home to the majestic Kumamoto Castle built in 1467. Kumamoto Castle is one of the three major castles in Japan. There are 13 structures in the castle. Kumamoto Castle along with its 13 structures is a national treasure.

…at least according to Wikipedia. I didn’t get the chance to learn about the castle’s history or even see it up close; the darn thing was closed.

Kumamoto Castle is the main attraction of this city. Even if the grounds were closed, I hadto get as close to the castle as I could. And I did. I wandered around the outside quarters to see as much of it as I could.

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