Saturday, November 27, 2010

From Japan to Argentina and memories of dulce de leche

I am finally adjusting to the time change between Tokyo and Cleveland; a doctor friend of mine told me it takes one day for every hour that is different before you recover fully.  Tokyo was such a whirlwind of experiences that I've enjoyed reflecting on the memories of such  a unique country.  The incredible sense of order and politeness--one rarely hears a car horn, even in Tokyo--is juxtaposed against a blur of modern architecture and a kaleidoscope of glaring lights.  The absence of diversity in the people is striking to a Westerner accustomed to people of varying size and color.  To the Japanese, diversity seems to manifest itself more in the differences between people based upon station in life.  The language used to address another, the depth and duration of a bow, all signify that everyone is not the same.  These differences appear baffling to an outsider.  I spoke with an American who has lived in Japan for fifteen years and he still does not fully comprehend the bowing ritual.  Perhaps it is these mysteries of the Japanese which would lure me to visit the country again.  Not just the sake, not just the food, not just the incredible hospitality, but the sense that coming to understand Japan is like unpeeling layers, each time revealing and knowing a little bit more. 

Our next entry will focus on our trip to Argentina, in part because I want to contrast our impressions of Victoria Falls with our thoughts of Iguazu Falls, on the Argentine/Brazilian border.  While Angel Falls in Venezuela is the tallest waterfall in the world, Victoria and Iguazu vie for most spectacular and, by volume, the largest. 

As a lead-in to Argentina there is a terrific spread they make there called dulce de leche.  It is now available at some speciality food stores in the U.S. and, if you haven't tried it, I highly recommend that you pick some up.  Legend claims that it originated in 1829 when a general's servant accidentally left a mixture of sugar and milk on the stove.  A daring soldier tasted the dark brown paste that remained and a legend was born.  Today, dulce de leche is ubiquitous throughout Argentina and some estimate the average national consumption at five pounds annually.  To enjoy dulce de leche like an Argentine, sample it in the morning melted atop warm toast, or as an afternoon snack encased in milk chocolate.  Drizzle some over ice cream after dinner.  With none of the cloying stickiness of peanut butter, only the sweet caramel taste will linger, creamy and delicious, before melting away.  The memory of it won't so easily disappear.

Saturday, November 13, 2010

Surviving Fugu, Ginza, a German Beer Hall, and a long night in Tokyo

Our return from Nikko was uneventful, save for a ride on the bullet train from Utsunomiya into Tokyo.  The Japanese trains are clean and on time, and the bullet train rocketed through the countryside and dropped us downtown in no time at all.  We returned to the Hyatt to prepare for dinner at a restaurant specializing in the traditional preparation of Fugu, or puffer fish.  The fish has a neurotoxin in its system and, if prepared improperly, can result in what witnesses describe as a painful-looking death.  There are no first hand accounts because no one has ever survived a dose of this lethal little problem.

Hunter and I were given our own small room for the dinner, and a waiter who spoke some English took care of the meal.  He wore a kimono and helpfully explained each course and how it should be consumed.  The first course was Fugu sashimi accompanied by a mound of thin shreds of Fugu skin, served with red and green peppers, soy sauce with vinegar, and salt.  The taste of the sashimi was mild and the texture slightly firm.

The second course consisted of seaweed boiled in water with fresh chunks of Fugu added to the roil.  A thick foam appeared atop the water and was scooped away by the waiter.  He then added leek, Chinese cabbage, and mushroom to the mix.  The meat, sliced about three-quarters of an inch thick, had been cut so that it was still attached to the spine.  We were given a bowl for bones and dug in.  The taste and texture reminded me of monkfish.  My mouth and lips did not experience any tingling sensation, contrary to reports I had heard of what to expect.

The third course was prepared when bean curd and rice noodles were added to the broth with the remaining fish.  Some quarter-sized remnants of skin remained on a few of the fish pieces and we liked neither the taste nor texture.  It seemed like I was chewing on a piece of rubber flavored with fish oil.

The final course was prepared when rice was added to the now-fishless broth.  A shot of sake was poured in, together with salt, a sticky rice cake, and egg yolk.  The mixture thickened and was ladled into a bowl, then topped with sprinkled leeks and a bit of soy sauce.  The concoction had the rich taste of egg with the tang of soy.

Our final conclusion:  an enjoyable experience, but not one to try a second time.  Monkfish will do quite nicely, thank you, and without that pesky threat of lingering neurotoxins.

The next day, Saturday, we went to the Sensoji Temple and the warren of shops jammed into the nearby Nakamise bazaar.  We had visited this complex on a prior trip, but that had been during the week and in the morning.  I had no idea that a weekend would bring out a crowd that was literally shoulder-to-shoulder for blocks on end or, given our height, more like shoulder-to-rib cage for Hunter and me.  We moved with the herd for a while, but decided to retreat to Ginza for lunch and shopping.  Our lunch stop was a treat:  The Lion Beer Hall.

Built sometime in the 1930's, the Lion Beer Hall is a Tokyo institution that was built to resemble an European style beer garden.  We ate on the third of three stories for the Lion, enjoying pints of Japanese beer served in unique boot-shaped mugs.  Dark wood paneling was the order of the day, with a large central dining area surrounded by private rooms.  We learned that the Lion had needed to be relocated approximately 15 years ago and was dismantled and reconstructed, piece by piece, at its current location. 

We visited a few of the high-end shops in Ginza, amazed at its resemblance to New York's Fifth Avenue, and returned to the hotel to await our second night on the town with the good people from Bespoke Tokyo.

Our first host from Bespoke, Charlie, was not feeling well and sent his associate, Hikari, to escort us for another night on the town.  Hikari, a Japanese-American who has now lived in Tokyo for several years, was a terrific host.  We visited some extremely unique bars, including one modeled on an European cafe and specializing in absinthe. The food all night was great, including platters of terrific sashimi and a variety of succulent yakitori.  Cold sake flowed freely, as did the time, and we ended the evening in a late-night noodle establishment debating the structure and ethics of the current world order.  Before the evening drew to a close we had solved most, if not all, of the world's problems. 

We depart tomorrow for the states and, while certainly ready to return to Cleveland, I value the time spent in Japan.  I'll reflect on what has been seen, what has been learned, and write a final post when we're back in the blur of snow and the comforts of home.

Friday, November 12, 2010

The Temples of Nikko

We opted for a tour bus to take in the many sites of Nikko, a few house drive north of Tokyo. Few trips have been so worth taking. Nikko was chosen as the location for the mausoleum of the powerful shogun Tokugawa Ieyasu following his death in 1616. His grandson subsequently engaged 15,000 craftsmen to work on the project and the result is, in a word, incredible. Three gigantic golden Buddhas, their gilt shimmering even in the shadows, are arranged side-by-side in the first mammoth temple, Rinno-ji. Their dark eyes seem to stare as visitors shuffle along the aged wooden floors.

Exiting the temple, a dirt and stone road slopes upward toward a towering stone torii that sweeps overhead. After passing a five-story pagoda, a bright spectacle of red and yellow and green, a set of stone steps end in a courtyard bounded by three elaborate storehouses and the sacred stables, or Shinkyusha. The stables are noteworthy for the series of bas-relief panels depicting a sequence of monkeys, which were believed to protect horses. One colorful panel has a trio of monkeys in the famous "Hear no evil, see no evil, speak no evil" pose.

Passing beneath a bronze torii, it is impossible to tear one's eyes away from one of the most dazzling structures I've ever seen, the Yomeimon Gate of Sunlight. More than 400 carvings, an indescribable array of gape-mouthed dragons, serene lions, detailed flowers, and Chinese figures, adorn the ornate structure. A dull white coloring, derived from oyster shells, catches the light in a way that seems to make the Gate gleam. The detail is so extraordinary that one column was intentionally installed upside down to appease the gods, lest they take offense at the ostentatious display.

Hunter and I made the trek uphill, on a series of thick stone steps,to see the Shogun's austere shrine. We enjoyed the view as the leaves were changing color and the woods rippled with bright hues of red and yellow, a particularly attractive sight when we could glimpse the gold-trimmed roofs of the temple complex below.

Reluctantly, we left for a drive through Nikko National Park but were rewarded with some truly beautiful scenes. Lake Chuzenji-ko, reached after a drive up the mountain on a series of over twenty switchbacks, is a delightful resort lake popular with foreign embassy staffs. Nearby is the Kegon-no-Taki waterfall, which elegantly cascades more than three hundred feet over the dark walls of the cliff. We left the park, and more than twenty hairpin curves back down the mountain, to check in for the evening at the Kanaya Hotel. The venerable Kanaya was the first hotel in the area to host western visitors and is where General McArthur stayed when he visited Nikko during the occupation.

Near the hotel is the Shin-kyo, a graceful vermillion bridge crossing the Daiya-gawa River. With the mountain range sweeping skyward in the distance, the scene really is the stuff of postcards. We enjoyed a traditional Japanese dinner that evening, a kaiseki, where we set on cushions atop tatami mats at a restaurant called Gyoshin-Tei. The establishment had no sign, and we initially thought that we had arrived at a private residence. We were warmly greeted, however, by kimono-clad waitresses and every delicious course was presented like a work of art on a platter.

We ended the evening back at the hotel and the clubby Dacite Bar, replete withndark wood, a stone floor and fireplace, and dim lighting. The talented bartender, nicknamed the 'Maestro' by Hunter, took good care of us and played Sinatra tunes on the bar's record player. Yes, record player and Sinatra. It was that kind of place.