Thursday, March 31, 2011

Asakura, Tokyo, Japan

I had the opportunity to spend Sunday afternoon strolling around a very interesting neighborhood of Tokyo called Asakura. Asakura is the best approximation of what Tokyo looked like hundreds of years ago, with narrow streets and tiny stores surrounding beautiful temples. Here is a tour of my experience in Asakura.

After exiting the metro, I soon found myself at the Kaminarimon Gate. Hanging in the gate is a 220 pound lantern. Gods of wind and thunder reside at the gate and are an impressive sight.

Right next to the Kaminarimon Gate is the Tokiwado Kaminari Okoshi, which is a 250 year old maker of rice sweets. They were tasty, though to me were odd.

After passing through the gate, you reach a long straight street full of tiny shops. They sell everything from touristy souveniers to very nice artwork. Radiating off in every direction were more tiny streets with more shops and restaurants. I could have spent days wandering, it was really fun.

At the end of the street you pass a traditional Japanese garden designed in the 17th century full of peaceful statues. Then you reach a large incense burner surrounded by people "washing" themselves. It is supposed to be healthful to cleanse yourself with the incense. I waved some smoke over my head for good measure and good health.

Overlooking the garden and incense burner is the Sensoji Temple, the oldest temple in Tokyo. Built in the 7th Century, the Temple is home to a golden statue of Buddhist goddess Kannon, which was apparently pulled from the ocean by fisherman.

In front of the temple are several covered areas where you can determine your fortune. For 100 Yen ($2), you shake a metal canister until a stick falls out. On the stick is a number. You match that number to a drawer in a long cabinet full of hundreds of drawers. Inside each drawer is a fortune. The first time I tried, I got a terrible fortune, appropriately named "The Worst Fotrune". After the experience I had the past three days (earthquake, sitting forever in a plane, sleeping on the airport floor, taking three whole days to get to my hotel), I did feel like I had the worst fortune. I didn't like the fortune though as an indicator of my future though, so I decided to try again (I was informed in Chinatown in San Fran that this is perfectly acceptable). I pulled what is labeled the Regular Fortune. It was better. Inside the temple, I realized that the official fortunes are given out there, so I decided to try one more time, just to see what my "real" fortune really is. Again, in spite of the hundreds of fortunes I pulled the "Regular Fortune" so that must be it.

My fortune is as follows: "When spring comes, withered tree blooms so charming. The sweet smell fills in the wood field and the sky. Your fortune will go developing your chance. The bright moon comes to shine among the fading clouds. Meeting a person of high social status, his help will bring you a happy life.

*Your request will be granted. *The patient get well soon. *The lost article will be found. *The person you wait for will come. *Building a new house and removal are both well. *Marriage and employment are both well. *To start a trip is well."

Past the temple are a variety of shrines, gates, and pagodas. They look like the traditional Japan that I really hoped to see. It was fun to wander through the shrines and ponder how old they are. There were many tourists admiring the buildings. I almost forgot that this country had just experienced a major crisis and still was facing a long road to recovery.

Saturday, March 26, 2011

Eating my way through Asia

While my trip to Japan and China was short, I did have some great food. I try to eat what the locals eat when I can, and on this trip I had some really interesting, unique food experiences. Below I feature some of my favorite food.

After many delays and an uncomfortable traveling experience, I was so happy to find a little stand in the Hokkaido airport that sold containers of sushi. It was an unusual breakfast for me, but to the Japanese much more usual. The fish was very fresh though and with the rice actually made an excellent breakfast the was gentle on the stomach. Cost: $11.30.
Living in the airport for a day, waiting and hoping I would eventually leave for Japan, I had my first noodle bowl in a small café in the Hokkaido airport. A clear broth, some noodles, and fried tofu slabs on top. There was also a pink marshmallow which I still am confused about. The soup was sweet, hearty and satisfying. I really enjoyed it. Cost: Free, courtesy of Delta airlines.
The next day, I did some sightseeing in Tokyo. I was not very hungry that morning, so I avoided the big American style buffet in the hotel. Instead, I got a cream puff in the subway. It was warm from the oven with a seriously rich cream filling. I stood in the subway, making a mess of myself from all the powdered sugar and started to really enjoy this trip. Cost: $0.80.

I went to an old section of Tokyo called Asakura. After a few hours of walking around, I was very hungry but a bit unsure where to eat. I strayed a bit from the tourist areas and found a narrow street lined with tiny restaurants. None of them had any signs in English, so eventually I picked one at random and sat down. This place was tiny. They had about ten seats total plus a small bar in front of the kitchen. The kitchen was the smallest restaurant kitchen I have every seen. Everything needed to be coordinated so the three people in the kitchen did not knock each other over. The cook was stationed by a small stove tucked in the corner. A woman washed dishes at a small sink right next to the stove. A steep stairway led upstairs to what likely was storage. A few shelves held bottles of saki. They seemed a bit surprised that a westerner had come to dine with them, but they quickly had a menu in my hands. The menu had a bit of English, combined with limited English spoken by the waitress. I told her to make me something good. A little while later they delivered chicken on skewers with a sweet teriyaki sauce, accompanied by a cold Asaki beer. Cost: $6.00.

The next day, in downtown Tokyo I want to a local noodle shop with my work colleagues for lunch. Noodle shops are great and I wish we had something like it in the US. I ordered a Golden mushroom soup. You sup the broth with a large broad ceramic spoon and eat the noodles with chopsticks. You can see by the picture that it was good. Cost: about $10.

That night I flew to Shanghai, China. I stayed in a small Chinese hotel and I think I was probably the only Westerner there. The front desk staff spoke no English, but the rooms were only $32 a night. In the morning there was a breakfast buffet set up that consisted entirely of Chinese foods. No bacon, eggs, and hash browns. There was no coffee, in fact there were no drinks at all. There were steam dumplings, vegetables, noodles, rice noodles and fruit slices. It was a simple but good breakfast, of course eaten with chopsticks. Cost: Free, included in the price of the hotel.
The next day I had the chance to spend a couple hours in Shanghai, exploring the Yu Garden area. While exploring alleyways a bit outside the tourist area, I stumbled upon a street lined with outdoor food vendors. There were so many choices, but I was drawn to a man making fresh bread turnovers stuffed with turnip greens, onions, and spices. They were cooked over a propane flame in a big covered flat pan. Fresh and steaming, I hope to learn to make these myself. Cost $0.40.

A little while later I stopped by the JR Dumpling shop because I was still a bit hungry. The shop was tucked under a staircase in a little alcove. It was piled high with stacked steaming baskets over boiling water. There were many different varieties, but all the signs were in Japanese. So, I selected at random. Inside was a spiced meat that was tasty. No better than the frozen dumplings I buy in Columbus, but good for the price. Cost $0.80.

Walking from work to the hotel the next day I stopped by a woman cooking potstickers at the side of the road. These dumplings were being made fresh, boiled then fried. A line of people were waiting to be served, which is always a good sign. They came with a sweet soy sauce which made it possible to eat all eight. Cost $0.75

That night was my last night in China and I decided to go to a Chinese restaurant (hah!). I went to a very busy place that had about thirty tables, all full. The menu was all in Mandarin, but there were pictures. I picked out Ma La Tofu and a hot and sour soup. They arrived at my table covered in red spicy peppers. It was so hot I could not eat it. My stomach turned to fire and I started worrying about vomiting. I ate a bit, washed it down with a cold beer and headed for the door. I was worried that I would offend them by eating so little, but they did not care. They were happy that I got up so they could seat the next customer. Cost: $4.35.

Japanese Plastic Food

In my travels sometimes I run into something so fantastic I have to mention it here. While walking through Tokyo I noticed most of the restaurants have food sitting out front with little price signs sitting in front. It looks good and gives you an idea of what is on the restaurant menu. But the interesting thing is that the food is made of plastic. All sorts of food, from soup, to shrimp, to noodles, to pizza. All looks so real that you have to look carefully to distinguish as fake.
I noticed plastic food all over the place. It was at the airport restaurants, small little cafes, even large formal restaurants. I liked it as it gives a quick easy way to see how much food you get at what price. I have not seen anything like it anywhere else in the world. It seems like a good idea, but perhaps the complication is that you need some very talented artists to produce this food.

Monday, March 21, 2011

Trip to Asia – Part 1 – Earthquake in Japan

You do not always need to go looking for trouble, sometimes it comes to find you. Life can take a left turn at the most unexpected times. I cannot explain how I came to be caught up in the worst disaster to hit Japan in modern times. Perhaps it was bad timing. Perhaps it was simply that if you travel enough you tend to get caught up in the problems of you adopted countries, both large and small.

I was on a flight from Detroit to Tokyo for my first trip to Asia. Work had me going to Japan and China to meet some people, take a few plant tours, and conduct some planning for the upcoming year. It promised to be an interesting trip and I was looking forward to it.

The flight from Detroit to Tokyo is a long one, lasting almost thirteen hours in total. As we were nearing the end of the flight and going through preparations for landing, suddenly the captain made the announcement that there had been an event on the ground and that the airport in Tokyo was closed. A few minutes later he came on and said that there had been an earthquake, that it seemed to be a big one, and that we were being diverted to a small airport in the north of Japan in Hokkaido. Of course everyone on the plane was alarmed and had a million questions, but being in a plane, we had no access to any information. It was only once we landed in Hokkaido that I was able to turn on my cell phone and get some information. At that time there was just a short article on CNN saying that there had been a large earthquake.

Our plane was directed to park on the runway and there we sat for twelve hours while air control tried to figure out what to do with us. I counted at least ten other large planes also on the runway that had likewise been diverted. The situation was confused and we were low on the priority list as at that time Japan was dealing with many much more serious issues. I watched the sun set for a second time outside my window and settled in for the wait. No food was served and I spent most of the time sleeping and watching movies.

Finally they decided to allow us into the airport, at around 4am. We sleepily went through customs and immigration and were handed blankets. The airport was full of people sleeping on the floor. A large group clustered around the only TV, watching to see what the latest news was of the quake. At that time there were still only a few sketchy details on the tsunami and the ultimate death toll. Despite searching high and low I could not find an ATM that worked or any food, so I resolved to make the best of it. All the hotels in the area were full. I tried to sleep, but it was difficult with the many people walking around and the bright lights.

At around 8am the domestic side of the airport opened up and I was able to find a working ATM and a few food shops opened. I discovered that the Japanese do not eat a breakfast anything like a western breakfast. They eat noodles, rice, fish, that sort of thing. I was so hungry at that point, that anything sounded good. I ended up purchasing some sushi and an iced tea and I happily wolfed it down.

The hours passed by and I waited for news on my flight. At that point it was unknown how long we would be stuck in Hokkaido, but it was very likely that it would be a while. I found a lounge with free internet and soft drinks for $10 and I gladly parked myself there for much of the day. The Japanese lived up to their reputation for being orderly and clean. Despite an overflowing airport, the facilities stayed in very good condition throughout the day and there was no loss of patience.

That night Delta passed out meal vouchers and I had my first meal at a noodle shop. I selected a mushroom soup with fried tofu, which was very tasty. At this point it had been several days since I showered, changed clothes, or had a good sleep, so I was starting to get worn down. At 11pm, my flight finally departed to Tokyo and I slept the entire flight.

Arriving in Tokyo, I found that it was so late that all trains and busses had stopped running. My only choice was a $400 cab ride to my hotel. It was worth it though, as I was not about to spend another night wandering the cold hard floors of an airport. All in all, my situation could have been much, much worse. I was not on the ground when the earthquake struck. Many people lost their lives and property.

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Restaurant Bla Bla

Every time I visit Rotterdam in the Netherlands, I try to stop by Restaurant Bla Bla for dinner. Bla Bla is located in the Delfshaven neighborhood, where I lived for a month last year when work sent me on special assignment. It is a strictly vegetarian restaurant that maintains a small menu focused on what is available fresh depending on the season.

When you enter the restaurant, the first thought is just how small it is. The restaurant is located in a tiny, narrow canal house. There are about eight tables on the ground floor and two more upstairs on a balcony, sharing the upstairs with the kitchen. It is cozy and intimate and very comfortable. The menu is written on a chalk board behind the small bar specializing in organic Dutch beers. Beware, there is no english menu, but the staff are more than happy to help explain what is on offer.

The menu generally consists of three main meals, each consisting of around eight courses. Each meal has a theme. When I was there last time, the themes were Indian, Mexican, and Dutch. All the food shows up at once, piled high on a plate. It is fun to eat around the plate, sampling each item and pondering what makes it so good. I would not hesitate to bring my meat eating friends to this vegetarian restaurant as the food is interesting, filling, and so very good.

I selected the Indian meal and it was a treat. The meal included samosa, tabouli salad, cauliflower with cashews, dal, salad, curried eggplant, basmati lemon rice, and poppadoms. It was excellent and filling. I have eaten in vegetarian restaurants all over the place but few are as inspired as Restaurant Bla Bla.