Sunday, March 3, 2013

Japan: Akasaka District, the Emperor's Palace, Sushi and Kaiseki

I left Phuket to travel to Tokyo to speak at a joint Japanese/American Symposium on Health Care Law.  Our delegation stayed in the Akasaka District of Tokyo at the New Otani Hotel, known for its beautiful garden. 

Back to Work

                                                A temple pathway in the Akasaka District

                                                                    Akasaka at night

The New Otani garden

We strolled the tranquil complex of the Emperor and visited the ruins of Edo Castle, all but the mammoth stone foundation lost to earthquakes and fire. 

                                                                  Emperor's Palace


A swan in the moat

                                                                 Edo Castle ruins

I had some terrific dining experiences in Tokyo and, subsequently, in Osaka.  In Tokyo, I dined at the restaurant of Jiro, the famed octogenarian sushi chef and subject of the documentary, "I Dream of Sushi."  The tiny restaurant, wedged into the basement of an office building and near the entrance to the subway, takes some work to find.  The sushi, prepared by Jiro and two assistants, is superb.  I question the value of the entire experience, however.  Twenty succulent pieces of sushi are served rapid-fire and the meal is over in approximately half an hour, with a tab in excess of $300.00 for one person.  Jiro is very gracious, signing my menu and speaking with me briefly through an interpreter, but I'll file this away as a once-in-a-lifetime experience. 

Our hosts treated us to a traditional kaiseki multi-course meal at a spectacular restaurant, Nadaman, where we dined in the Sazanaka house, a Japanese style cottage which served as a dinner setting for a 1986 G-6 (now 7) conference attended by several luminaries including Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher.  Kaiseki is the finest of dining and the meal was terrific, with each course presented beautifully and the texture and flavors of the food combining in memorable ways.  We enjoyed eight courses in all; a few examples follow:

Hors D'Oeuvre (Zensai):
Boiled Japanese greens with thick sauce
Mixed kidney beans and tofu
Inari-sushi (fried tofu stuffed with sushi rice)
Salmon roe
Grilled prawn, fried angelica
Deep fried Japanese ice fish

Raw Fish (Tsukuri)
Blowfish and skin
Prime tuna and yellow tail

Grilled Dish (Yakimono)
Grilled red tile fish
Griled beef, saikyo-miso taste
Mixed rape blossum and grated radish with angler liver

We were also invited to a traditional sukiyaki house in Osaka, where waitresses prepared the meal--thin strips of meat sauteed in a light soy sauce with a variety of vegetables--atop our table.  The food is traditionally dipped in raw egg, which I enjoy.

Our send-off party ended with one of our hosts inviting us to a club he frequents where, upon entry, the staff wheeled out three carts laden with our host's private collection of scotches and cognacs.  I sampled more than I should have, and ended the evening by joining my host in a glass of Hennessy Timeless cognac.  A fitting end to a great trip. 

Phuket: James Bond Island, Phang Nga Bay, and Bangla Road

We left Cambodia to return to Thailand's Phuket island.  Seeing Phuket today, it is difficult to imagine the devastation of the 2004 Tsunami.  The island appears fully recovered, tourism is once again in full swing--and it is not difficult to understand why.  Phuket offers something for everyone, from the tranquility of high-end beach resorts and fine oceanfront dining to the raucous nightlife of Patong and cheap establishments for backpackers. 

                                             Private plunge pool at the Banyan Tree Resort

Main hall at the Banyan Tree

Banyan Tree beach

One interesting aspect of Thai culture is the popularity of Muay Thai, or Thai boxing.  Using eight points of contact--fists, elbows, knees, and feet--the fighters square off while the audience bets not only on the outcome, but on each round.  The Muay Thai fights in Patong are clearly for the tourist crowd, but I attended fights in Bangkok as well, at Ratchadamnoen Stadium, and enjoyed the spectacle.  The fighters engage in pre-fight rituals, Thai music blares during each round, and runners scurry about taking wagers while the crowd cheers loudly at every solid blow. 

Pre-fight ritual

                                                   Fighters promoting the upcoming bout

It is the stunning Andaman Sea, however, which is the real draw.  Particularly Phang Nga Bay.  Dotted with countless verdant limestone islands which trickle away to the horizon, a panoramic view is surreal.  One island, a setting for a climatic fight scene in The Man with the Golden Gun, is now known as "James Bond Island."

James Bond Island

To view some of the limestone formations up close, a kayak trip through the mangroves is popular.

Patong is notorious for an active nightlife where drinks are cheap, music is loud, and women of the world's oldest profession are plentiful.  So, too, are lady-boys.  The center of the action is neon-illuminated Bangla Road. 

Citadel of the Women and a Floating Village

The temple Banteay Srei translates as "Citadel of the Women" and the legend is that the detailed, intricate pink sandstone carvings must have been made by women because they are too fine for the hand of any man.  Whatever the origin of the carvings, they are considered among the finest on earth and are certainly captivating.  That they have withstood the ravages of time for over one thousand years is incredible. 


We left Banteay Srei for the fishing village of Kampong Kleang on the northeast shore of Tonle Sap Lake.  Sky, our guide, explained that there are really two types of dwellings in the village, "floated" and "floating".  Floated structures are erected atop towering bamboo poles and look like something from a science fiction movie set.  In rainy season, the river rises to the base of the dwellings, hence the term "floated".  By contrast, floating dwellings actually float year-round on Tonle Sap, clustered together and anchored to bamboo poles wedged into the muddy bottom of the lake.  There is even a floating grocery store of sorts stocked with staple goods.  

Floated Village
A fish trap

                                           Fishermen with casting nets lines the banks

The river is everything to the people who live here and fishing is their way of life.  The poverty is obvious--no running water, no sanitation system--and tourism is just beginning to poke its way into the community.  I expect that its otherworldly charm will soon be discovered and they'll plop open a restaurant, a bar, and a souvenir shop hawking T-shirts and trinkets.  For now, though, a journey to Kampong Kleang feels like a journey into the past and a totally different way of life. 

                                               The Floating Village comes into view