japan, #1, with a little jet lag ::::
Yay! This is the first of many installments (maybe 4?) I’ll do to highlight our recent two-week trip to Japan. We are back into the routine of real life with Japan still fresh on the tip of our tongues. My intention was to blast you all with food photos completely. I would be remiss if I left out some of the other history of Japan, however, so you are subjected to more than just the food. While I may not make all the connections here, learning about the general history as well as gorging on a locale’s food informs us and creates deeper connections with the world than would a “safe” and “Western” experience in a high end hotel. Immersing myself in Japan, albeit a short time, also gives me a much larger insulated appreciation for the country as a whole.
I also took all of these photos on my iPhone. I normally use my Canon Rebel for my blog. I’m not completely happy with the lighting and not a fan of excessive filters to correct, but I didn’t want to lug around a huge camera everywhere (or, rather, Eat would complain that I was lugging around a huge camera and taking too long to take a shot). Unless otherwise noted, all the history I’ve presented here is from paper literature gathered at the sites we visited or Wikipedia.
Day 1 / Tokyo: A blur of jet lag, a complete reversal of day and night. We are now 13 hours ahead, eating dinner when it feels like breakfast. Our circadian rhythms don’t care.
As soon as we found the apartment in Asakusa and unloaded our things, the first stop was ramen. We left the two older kids completely sucked in by jet lag sleep in the apartment as Eat, Sky-Girl, and I wandered in the neighborhood for ramen. We were not disappointed: We found perfectly cooked ajitute-tamago (soft yolked ramen eggs) nestled next to fresh noodles, bamboo, pork chashu, and nori, in a simple soy sauce broth at a closet-sized, terribly lit restaurant. See the twin yolked eggs? I also like the little shave of yuzu rind on top for a lemony pop. Jetlag and full stomachs got us in the end and we had to sleep.
Day 2 / Tokyo: Somewhat afresh with the soft gray light of morning and a wisp of sleep, we explored the famed nearby temple and more food. The kids woke around 4AM, hungry and disoriented. We found a 24 hour grill restaurant at 5AM, feasting on dried (and rehydrated) puffer fish, looking as if they were trying to swim away:
Delicately fried glass shrimp, edamame, and sashimi:
and crab tomalley (you know, the pasty guts that you usually throw away):
Asakusa (浅草) is a part of the Taito district of Tokyo where an air of old Tokyo survives, away from most of the glitz and flashiness. For many centuries, it was a site of entertainment and vigor. During the Edo period (1603-1867), it housed kabuki theaters and a red light district, gradually replaced with modern entertainment in later periods.
The main attraction of Asakusa is the Senso-ji temple (浅草寺), the largest Buddhist temple in Tokyo, and a huge attraction with millions of visitors per year. The temple is also known as Asakusa Kannon. If you look closely, you see the first two written characters for Asakusa and Senso-ji are the same but are pronounced differently — they are intimately linked. “Senso” is the Chinese pronunciation and “asakusa” the Japanese pronunciation. Eat was here 25 years ago with his grandmother (who was educated and worked in Japan for much of her life) and we took a similar photo of one of the large impressive paper lanterns hanging at one of the gates. The “Thunder Gate” or Kaminarimon (雷門) stands with one of these lanterns above. It was first built in 942, destroyed many times notably at least once during air raids of World War II, and most recently rebuilt in 1950.
The gates on the other end of the temple grounds:
And this was a familiar site by the end of the trip whether in a temple or a shrine:
In Shintoism, ema (絵馬, votive tablets) are wooden plaques on which to write prayers. We saw these in many temples and shrines we attended. Shintoism and Buddhism are often combined in Japan. Shintoism is culturally a Japanese way of life and respect for the past and the future, singling out divine beings and worshiping spirits. That definition is hugely simplified, merely a jist. The differences between Shinto and Buddhist buildings, should you want to look cool and informed on your trip to Japan are:
Shinto shrine = jingu suffix, entrance marked by a torii gate, guardian lions or dog statues at entrances, washing areas are near the entrance to cleanse mouth and hands before praying.
Buddhist temple = ji suffix, Buddha image or statue is always found somewhere at the temple, incense burners are near entrance, pagoda on grounds.
(Thank you to this link listing the distinctions. We’ll see more examples of these later.)
Senso-ji grounds with typical Buddhist parts. Look closely and the roof looks like the scales of a fish.
I love the lines of the roof, and the delicate upturn of the eaves.
A Japanese carp pond is an example of how I feel when I feed a table of hungry children. By the end of our morning wanderings, we were getting to this point at an exponential pace. These gaping-mouth carp were at Senso-ji, wild in the pond below us. One could argue the copper scaly roofs are physically modeled after the prolific carp:
Another big attraction nearby in Sumida is the Skytree Tower (東京スカイツリー), just one train stop away from our apartment. It is the tallest tower in the world and opened to the public in 2012. We traveled in a very fast elevator to the Tembo Deck on the 345th floor, marveled at the view, then sped up another elevator to the Tembo Galleria on the 450th floor (the second collar in the photo). Jetlag overtook any interest Sky-Girl had in the view. She woke up for food though!
We lingered in Oshiage Station (押上駅) for lunch, the first of many train stations we visited whose food courts rival anything we have in the US. We saw cute food: bears made of rice, vegetables, and eggs.
We looked at spicy bird pictures:
We ate chicken butt and it was really good! Like, literally, this is the butt.
We also visited the first of many takoyaki stands that day. Takoyaki (たこ焼き, literally “octopus to fry/grill”), or octopus dumplings. See, the octopus on the sign is trying to wave. Look for an upcoming post where I videoed a takoyaki kiosk in Kyoto making them — very fun process.
Day 3 / Tokyo –> Mount Fuji:
We had Denny’s for breakfast. Denny’s but better! I had salmon, miso soup, and natto:
Natto (なっとう) is made by fermenting soybeans with Bacillus subtilis natto, served with soy sauce, mustard, and onion. It’s recognized for its stringy sliminess and pungent smell, although this natto wasn’t much of either. When I dip into it with chopsticks, there are along strands of this fermented slime like long hairs of an animal, almost magnetic in its pull. It was originally produced by wrapping soybeans in rice straw, where the bacterium is usually found. Pyrazine is the chemical compound that accounts for natto’s odor, similar to compound contributing to the scent of Limberger cheese. Definitely stinky!
Before starting our day of trains to Mount Fuji, we walked back to the Senso-ji temple to explore more of the surrounding neighborhoods, seeing more characteristics of the combination of shrines and temples with washing fountains and incense burning.
Outside the shrine is the Senso-ji Hospital. I loved this garden with the Buddha statue behind the building.
We left the Asakusa station taking the Ginza Line to Shibuya, one of the busiest stations in Tokyo. From the Kanda station, we transferred to the Japan Rail line Chuo to Takao, then Otsuki. Commuters thinned out, the air cleaner and brighter as we traveled out of Tokyo into the green.
Homes are small and neat. The efficiency and respect for space in Japan far exceeds anything in the United States. The New York bestseller book by Marie Kondo The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up is a genius marketing tool in the country of excess, the United States. It is not anything new in Japan. The train stations and city streets are clean and generally free of any filth. The trains run on time. The United States pales in comparison. I am embarrassed for any Japanese tourists who come to the United States and see the condition our subway systems are in. They may get you to where you need to go but are smelly, dirty, and often running late.
At Otsuki, we took the local commuter line called Fujikyuko to the last stop Kamaguchiko. A seven minute walk from the station brought us to the hotel. Mount Fuji half hides behind a residential building in our view from the hotel room. Of all the hills and buildings here, Mount Fuji gleams the brightest and stands the tallest. The afternoon of traveling and jet leg once again creeping up, we settle on the half view of Mount Fuji and anticipate a traditional Japanese meal served privately in a tatami room, dressed in obligatory spa robes.
All of what you see are also the child portions.
We ate well, more than well. The dipping sauce for the shabu shabu (しゃぶしゃぶ), hotpot with thinly sliced meat and vegetables, was different then I’ve had before. It was vinegar-based with green onion and soy. Grub could barely stay awake for dessert, comfortable in our gluttony. My only complaint is that the waitress offered Eat alcohol to drink in addition to his plum wine whereas I did not have such an offer. Give this girl a beer.
Until next time, I’ll greet you with breakfast in Mount Fuji, more trains, a birthday, and maaaaaybe ninjas!
One year ago: matcha russian cream
Two years ago: grapefruit and campari pâte de fruit
Three years ago: scallops with mexican corn salad (elote)
Four years ago: berry yogurt popsicles