What you'll find on Storybook Days

The Home page displays all my musings on life in Japan and a few other things (baseball and children's books are distinct possibilities). For highlights only: "A Day in the Life (edited)." "Tabemono (Food)" is exactly that. "Big in Japan" is my completely biased and oversimplified list of what is popular in Japan, and "Kimono Count" is a day-by-day record of the people I see in traditional dress. "Editor's Delight" catalogs the unintentionally amusing and apparently quite complicated world of Japanese-English translation. "Uncle Tucker" tracks our sightings of a certain cat following us around Japan.

Saturday, October 13, 2012

Jiro Dreams of Sushi, but Elizabeth Dreams of Tohoku

Is this as good as it gets?

Recently my husband and I tucked the kids into bed and suddenly found ourselves nostalgic for Takayama,

 the charming and welcoming city nestled into Japan's mountainous Hida region: 

It was in Takayama that we were served the most unforgettable sushi of our lives while staying at the Honjin Hiranoya Bekkan, which overlooks the red-lacquered Nakabashi Bridge crossing the Miya River.

 Though most nights our meals were served kaiseki style in our tatami room,

on one special evening, we ventured across the street for a meal at the Honjin Hiranoya Kachoan, the contemporary sister hotel to our Japanese inn.

The Kachoan features a small and lively contemporary restaurant, where the sushi chef will feed you bite after unforgettable bite, until you simply cannot eat any more.

 Our sushi chef made his own special salt for his sushi rice and left no detail to chance:

First the salt is blended and left in the sun,
and when dried and ready to use, it look like this.
Not content to dazzle us with many different kinds of mouth-watering tuna (maguro), salmon (sake or shake), and squid (ika), we received tomato (which is tomato in Japanese, too) sushi

Tomato sushi
and even beef sushi made with the world famous Hida beef (Hida-gyu), which looks very similar to fatty tuna (toro) to the untrained eye.

What's that in the center?  Fatty tuna (toro) or Hida beef (Hida-gyu)?  I'll never tell.
 The boys received their own plates of sushi (light on wasabi):


After...just too full to finish right now...need to wait a few minutes.
It was a meal we will never forget, which is why Frank and I were slightly sad and craving exceptional sushi on this particular evening far from Takayama.

The cure?  "Jiro Dreams of Sushi", a fascinating documentary about Jiro Ono, the octogenarian owner of Sukiyabashi Jiro in Tokyo.

Jiro is one of the foremost sushi chefs in the world, and David Gelb's film focuses on the chef's life-long obsession with perfecting sushi.  Under Gelb's direction, "Jiro Dreams of Sushi" is as much a romanticized American hagiography of Japan as it is a documentary, but that is also part of its charm.  If you enjoy sushi, you'll find the movie fascinating, but I have admit, I walked away thinking:  "Sushi can be sublime, but this is not as good as it gets."

If you really want to delve into the luscious world of Japanese cuisine, you must go far beyond sushi, tempura, and the limited fare most Americans encounter, whether in Japan or the U.S.  Unquestionably the best person to lead you on this culinary and cultural journey is Elizabeth Andoh.  A native New Yorker, Ms. Andoh has lived in Japan almost continually since the 1960s, and she is a graduate of the Yanagihara School of Classical Cuisine in Tokyo.  Her Japanese is impeccable, as is her attention to the details inherent in the history, culture, and flavor of Japanese food.  Ms. Andoh understands that she is bringing to light a story with many ingredients, and her telling is masterful.

Here she describes the principles behind Japanese food and culture:

In Washoku: Recipes from the Japanese Home Kitchen, Ms. Andoh introduces the reader to what may be described best as Japanese home cooking, and it is a fascinating and delicious adventure.  In Kansha: Celebrating Japan's Vegan and Vegetarian Traditions, Ms. Andoh educates the reader on the spiritual and environmental awareness inherent in Kansha cooking.  As satisfying as both these books are, Ms. Andoh's finest achievement may well be her latest endeavor:  Kibo ("Brimming with Hope"): Recipes and Stories from Japan's Tohoku.

As described by the publisher, Random House Digital, Kibo:

"is a heartfelt and fascinating tribute to the food, traditions, and courage of the people of Japan’s Tohoku region before and after the devastation of the earthquake and tsunami of March 11, 2011."  In addition, the publisher explains: " Kibō was written by...Andoh, who was in her Tokyo kitchen when the Great Eastern-Japan Earthquake struck. Over the following months she witnessed the strength of the people of the Tohoku region—one of the largest miso- and sake-producing areas in Japan—as they struggled with the effects of the resulting tsunami and nuclear accident. She was inspired to write Kibō (meaning “brimming with hope”) to not only tell the story of the food of the Tohoku region but also to document the experiences of its people, both before and after the disaster."  But for me, what is most important is what the publisher points out last:  "this lushly photographed original eBook will honor the region and its rich culture on the first anniversary of the earthquake, with a portion of the proceeds going to Japanese recovery efforts."

That's right.  It's an e-book.  This world-renown cookbook author, culinary expert and instructor chose to make an e-book for her latest cookbook.  The obvious question is why?  Her answer, as explained to me last summer while I was fortunate enough to take an udon noodle class with her in Tokyo, is that the book is meant to help the people of Tohoku now.  The e-book was the best platform to accomplish her goal quickly and efficiently.  Ms. Andoh is currently in the U.S. promoting Kibo, and I wish her all the best in her efforts to teach a wide audience about the culture, cuisine, and strength of the Tohoku region.  Ms. Andoh is as good as it gets.

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Baseball, hotdogs, apple pie and DeNA

(Japanese) Baseball

My love of Japan notwithstanding, sometimes I feel a little homesick.  The fix?  Baseball, of course!  No matter how far through the looking glass this Japanese adventure takes me, I can always regroup with the entire fam while we take in a little good old fashioned hardball.  Not content to watch our beloved Mets fritter away another season on MLB.com, we headed to a Yomimuri Giants game at the Tokyo Dome to get a baseball fix.  (The Yomimuri Giants are to Japan what the Yankees are to the U.S.)  We learned a few things along the way.

Cue the music, "Centerfield," courtesy of John Fogerty:

Just like home, you can watch batting practice:

Note:  Mets shirt; Yomimuri Giants hat

 Score programs and coupons and other cool stuff:

 woof down a hot dog:

and (flavored) popcorn (soy sauce is a popular flavor in Japan):

However, you may be disappointed to learn that there are a few differences here.  You cannot get cotton candy.  Or Crackerjacks.  Or pretzels.  But, on the bright side, you can get Japanese food:

Nothing like a bowl of noddles with your baseball game.

(Fenway Park sells steaming hot chowder all summer long, so the noodles and sushi didn't phase me too much.)  And (thank God) beer.  Just like in the U.S., you can even get beer served to you right in your seat.  But I must tell you:  the Japanese have one-upped their American counterparts.  In Japan, they have Beer Ladies.  No sweaty, loud-mouthed middle-aged man named Lou hawking Bud Light with "Beeua hir" (That's "Beer here," for those of you who have never been to an MLB game on the East Coast.)  That would never do in Japan. It's not kawaii (cute).  Remember:  cute sells.  Apparently it sells everything from Hello Kitty t-shirts to beer at baseball games.

The Beer Ladies all wear matching uniforms and smiles, and they run at frightening speeds up and down the steps with portable keg backpacks.  (Yes, Homer, I know. Beer backpacks. Genius.  Sheer Genius.)  If I could have bought one of these beer backpacks and shipped it home, I promise I would have done it.  All I'd need is a street vendor permit/liquor license in NYC and I'd be rich.  Rich I tell you.  Rich!  But I digress.  Without further ado, Beer Ladies, just for you, my faithful Storybook Days reader:

Kirin Beer Lady

The pink flower adds a nice touch, don't you think?
There are other remnants of U.S. baseball to be found.  The jumbotron, of course, with instructions for those few hapless fans who don't know any better:

Is it just me, or does this look like a screen shot from a SF Giants game (except for the kana letters)?

Loyal fans wave orange towels whenever there is an RBI:

So what makes the experience completely Japanese, you ask?

The cheerleaders and mascots, for one:

Kawaii desu nee! (VERY cute!)
There is no such thing as too many mascots.

One cheerleader (check out the summer-time legwarmers) and three lucky fans leading cheers from the field before the game.
And I could not possibly forget to include the official cheering section, complete with flags, horns and drums:

There are the all-important groundskeepers, to make sure the field is ready for play, but in Japan they seem to function more like gardeners:

Sweeping the baseline.  Yes, sweeping.  With a broom and dustpan.

More sweeping.  And watering.  With a watering can.

My FAVORITE part of the game.  The first pitch is thrown out by a kid and fielded by kids.  Each position has a kid and a Yomimuri Giants team member playing it.  It was so cool.  MLB should take note.
Because this is Japan, the fans' safety is the number one priority.  If you sit along the foul line, you get one of these helmets:
Guess who sponsors the helmets?  Now THAT'S American!
I don't exactly know what this is, but these 5 guys in orange vests walked up and down these aisles VERY slowly for a good 30 minutes or more before the game. The aisles are just behind home plate, so I am assuming it was some kind of warning about foul balls. 
No organs playing.  No snippets of "Put Me in Coach," "Take Me Out to the Ballgame," or the singing of the "National Anthem."  But it was baseball, and it was good.  Not great, but good.

The game we saw had the Yomimuri Giants playing the Hanshin Tigers, Japan's version of Yankees v. Red Sox.  It was a Friday evening.  We figured it would be packed, and (eventually) it was, but it was clearly not the baseball crowd I expected.

Most of the fans were men in business suits and the mood was subdued, though folks did get excited when there was an RBI.  The game itself moved along perfunctorily.  No arguments with the ump.  No flashy plays.  No fans ejected.  Nobody screamed out that the Tiger's red-headed pitcher sucked (though he did).  Just technically precise, polite and efficient baseball.  The game was there, but the life was drained out of it.

The family and I left the game early feeling pretty disappointed.  I had hoped to see the fabled Japanese love of baseball.  It definitely exists, but not in the way I had imagined.  In Japanese baseball, honor and pride come first and the team, coach and players are focused on honoring the tradition, not the player or even the team.  I knew all this going in, but I guess I thought that things might be a bit different now that it is 2012 and there are several successful Japanese baseball players in the U.S.  Many U.S. players (even former MLB players like Benny Agbayani), have long careers in Japan.  Bobby Valentine coached in Japan for years and is absolutely adored (and perhaps, after his season in Boston this year, he should return there?).  Was I naive to expect a more Americanized game?  Maybe.

But maybe not.  It turns out that there's a new breed of owner in Japanese baseball.  DeNA, a small start-up gaming company in Japan, recently bought the lowly Yokohama Baystars.  The Baystars have come in dead last their six-team Central League in 8 of the last 10 seasons.  The goal of DeNA?  To inject life into the team?  Maybe.  In the words of the team's new chief executive, Harvard-educated Jun Ikeda, DeNA wants to "...do something in the baseball world. It could improve our [DeNA] brand."  (Ken Belson, NY Times)  Now THAT'S American!  (If it works, maybe they'd be interested in the Mets?)

For more on DeNA and the Yokohama Baystars, read Ken Belson's article in The New York Times.

For an excellent history of baseball in Japan, check out the writings of Robert Whiting and others at Japanesebaseball.com

Last but not least, for those of you who stayed with me for all nine innings, here's a treat:  the "Talking Softball" song from "The Simpsons."

Saturday, September 8, 2012

Where Are You Going?

Map from The Japan Times

What is it like, you ask?  Take a walk with me around our 'hood (Yushima) in our borough (Bunkyo) of our city (Tokyo)...

Strolling music courtesy of The Dave Matthews Band live in Central Park:


Our rooms without much view:


Yushima Tenjin (Shinto Shrine)
Buddhist tea shop at the temple...some tea with your Tao.


How to have a catch (or, "catch ball" as they say in Japan) when you don't have a yard.


Concrete Jungle

Parks and Recreation

If you build it (and fence it off), they will (eventually) come...

Market Economy in a Café Society

Hustle and Bustle

Sacred and Mundane

Make a wish

Buy a fortune from a shrine, but if it is not what you hoped for, tie it here and let the wind blow the misfortune away.

Even in Japan, all roads lead to