International Meals – South Korea

If North Korea had a paucity of choices, South Korea is the opposite – there’s so much good stuff that it was hard to narrow it down.  Korean Fried Chicken is definitely having a moment, at least in Vancouver – you can’t throw a stick without hitting a new place.  (Although they have politely requested that people stop throwing sticks at their restaurants.)

However, deep frying at home sucks, so we decided to do something else.

First up, however, is the absolutely mandatory Korean side dish / condiment / national dish – kimchi!  And the reason it’s first up is that it takes a bit of time to ferment properly.  So with our meal scheduled for Saturday evening, we took Tuesday night to get the cabbage going.

I made another trip out for supplies, and discovered that the Korean supermarket not only sells WHOLE Napa cabbages, but you can also buy half and quarter portions, too.  Which is a good thing, because half a Napa cabbage still represents about six pounds of cabbage! To start, you salt all the leaves and then leave it to soak for a few hours.

Napa cabbage soaking

Ideally, you leave it to soak in a basin larger than the cabbage itself, but we don’t HAVE a basin larger than even HALF of one of these beasts.

Once it’s ready, you cook some glutinous rice flour and sugar in water to make a sticky base for the sauce, the rest of which consists of garlic, ginger, onion, fish sauce, fermented shrimp, and a LOT of gochugaru. (Korean red pepper flakes.)  Like, a LOT a lot.

Kimchi ingredients
Or, at least, you’re SUPPOSED to put in the fermented shrimp, and not just buy them and then leave them in the freezer like an idiot.  Sigh. (We added a little bit to the Kimchi right before serving, at the suggestion of our guest.)

Once the sauce is mixed, you also add in some thinly sliced carrot, green onion, and daikon radish.  Also something called “water dropwort,” but in this case the store didn’t have it. And then you get messy!

Applying kimchi sauce to cabbage
To do this right, you have to get in there and smear sauce on each and every cabbage leaf.  It takes a while.  But once you’re done, that’s it!  Kimchi goes into containers on the counter to ferment for a day or two, and then into the fridge.

Kimchi in tupperware
For our main dish, we’re making bulgogi. Turns out this literally means “fire meat.” Can’t argue with that.  But also can’t actually use fire, since we’re on the fourth floor now.  But that’s a problem for Saturday us.  First, FRIDAY us has to make up a tasty marinade.
Bulgogi marinade
Obviously, there’s many different recipes.  The one we went with included Korean pear, onion, garlic, ginger, green onion, soy sauce, brown sugar, sesame oil, black pepper, and carrot.  As it turns out, pureed pear looks EXACTLY like pureed onion, but you don’t want to get those two confused!

We mixed that up, smeared it over some nice thinly sliced top sirloin, and that went into the fridge as well.

Saturday, it was time to put everything together, as well as make our side dishes.  And for extra special nervous making, we had invited an actual Korean person over to share the meal! For those keeping score at home, this is the third time we have done this – the first two were Brazil and Italy.

As mentioned last week, Korean meals typically have a range of side dishes, or banchan.  If you count rice (you probably shouldn’t) we’d be having three.  The only interesting thing to say about the rice is that short-grain sushi rice, like we used last week, appears to be the standard tabletop rice in Korea.

Next up, a nice simple dish with bean sprouts.  A quick blanch in boiling water, then mix together with garlic, fish sauce, and sesame oil.  Done.

Bean sprout side dish

Our final banchan involves potatoes.  While potatoes are originally native to the Americas, they are at this point a staple just about everywhere, and that definitely includes Korea.  This is another simple one – fry potatoes and onions in oil, and then glaze with soy sauce, garlic, and sugar. (The picture was taken in the “pre-glazing” portion of the program.)

Potatoes cooking.

For the very final step, the bulgogi came out of the fridge, and was slapped onto a hot cast iron grill to quickly cook.  So quick, that I didn’t even remember to snap a picture.

Given that, let’s skip to the final spread!

Korean Meal
Clockwise from upper left, we have lettuce for wrapping, kimchi, soy sauce potatoes, chewy sweet rice flour desserts that our guest brought, seasoned bean sprouts, bulgogi, and rice.  Looks pretty tempting, doesn’t it?  Here’s a pile of everything on a plate:

Korean plate o'food
Om nom nom.  This was SO good.  My only complaint would be that I didn’t cook the potatoes long enough, so they were a bit too crunchy.  But the flavor of everything was great, and in particular, we nailed the kimchi.  Our guest (who we COMPLETLY FORGOT to take a picture with, as usual) said that she couldn’t believe we had done it ourselves from scratch, and that it was an excellent job.

Normally, I’d be concerned that she was just being polite, but not this time.  We did an excellent job.

You may be wondering about the liquid in the glass.  We had not one but TWO Korean beverages available for the meal.

Cinnamon drink and Makegoli
The one on the left was brought by our guest, and is called Sujeonggwa, or cinnamon punch.  It’s quite sweet, but it tastes of cinnamon and dried persimmon.  In other words, it’s fall in a glass.

The one on the right is Makegolli, which is a fermented sparkling rice wine.  Our guest was quite surprised that we had a bottle on hand, but it turns out there’s a local store quite close to us that specializes in making the stuff.

They’re also not technically allowed to sell alcohol for takeaway unless you buy food, because they are not a liquor store.  So I bought a scone.  They also have a basket of $1 Rice Krispie treats by the door, if you REALLY don’t want to shell out too much extra.

That aside, Makegolli is ALSO delicious.  There’s a little chart on the bottle to show how the levels of “sour”, “sparkly” and “sweet” change over time.  This was a quite young bottle, so “sweet” was the dominant of the three.

And finally, dessert!  These tasty little packages, called gyeongdan, are just rice flour with a little sugar syrup inside, but they were a great conclusion to a hearty meal.

Korean rice cake dessert

And that’s it for South Korea!  We had a wonderful time with our guest, and will be eating leftover kimchi for WEEKS.  Next up, we have to decide if we’re doing Kosovo – they’re recognized by more countries than not, but they aren’t on the UN list.

Recipes:
Kimchi
Bulgogi
Soy sauce potatoes
Seasoned mung beans

International Meals – North Korea

Let’s get something out of the way right up front – alphabetical order is a social construct.  Sure, we could put North Korea under “N”.  That would make more sense, probably.  Or we could put it under “D” for DPRK, which is what the United Nations does.  After all, we put the “Democratic Republic of the Congo” there.

But we didn’t.  We’re putting it here. Moving on.

North Korea is one of the most secretive states on the planet.  Not for nothing is it called “The Hermit Kingdom.”  And while there is a long traditional food culture in that part of the Korean peninsula, our understanding is that your average North Korean is more likely to be hungry than they are to be feasting on traditional delicacies.

So we’re going to split the difference here – we’re going to attempt to make one relatively modern North Korean dish, which was born out of the need to make something from very little.  And to balance it, we’re also going to make a more traditional dish from the North.

All of this also has our usual caveats applied – we don’t know what we’re doing, we’re not very good at research, and a number of approximations, both intentional and un- have inevitably crept in.

The good news is that there are a number of excellent Korean supermarkets in Vancouver, so ingredient hunting was pretty straightforward.

Korean ingredients
Look at all this neat stuff!  You can tell it’s Korean by the Chinese characters on the bean curd sheets, and the Japanese ones on the mustard paste. The buckwheat noodles are at least DEFINITELY Korean, although on closer inspection they turned out to be sweet potato, and not buckwheat. Look, we’re trying, OK?

For our “modern make the best of it” dish, we’re making Injo Gogi Bop.  This literally means “artificial meat rice.”  This sounds worse than it is – the dish is actually just sushi rice inside a bean curd wrapper, with a flavorful sauce. Done right, the texture is almost, but not quite, entirely unlike meat.

Lots of sources talk about this dish, (here’s the Wikipedia article) but very few provide an actual recipe.  We consulted our friend Ji Hyun for advice and she came through with a recipe.  Thanks Ji Hyun!  Weirdly, the only recipe on the English language internet that she found for us was from… a German meal kit site.  She also found a video of some nice German people attempting to make it.

OK, so how do you do this?  Rather than making bean curd wrappers from scratch, which is part of the origin of this dish, we opted to follow the meal kit route by buying ours premade and soaking them.

Bean curd sheets soaking

And this is the first place we went wrong – the meal kit site doesn’t say how LONG you need to soak these for.  Opinions vary on the internet, but several hours is the low end, and we hadn’t allowed that.  So they never really unfurled the way they were supposed to.

Next up, you make sushi rice.  Rice cooker. Bam.

Finally, you make a sauce by frying some onions, green onion, and garlic together, then mixing that with soy sauce and Korean chili flakes.

Injo gogi bap sauce
This is actually where 95% of the flavor in this dish comes from, and it wasn’t half bad at all.

The final assembly, in theory, consists of rolling out the beautifully flat soybean sheets, putting a dollop of sushi rice in each one, and then rolling them up to make a nice “meaty” little package.

In practice, our sheets never really unrolled, so we ended up having to make bean curd – rice – bean curd sandwiches instead.

Bean curd and rice assembly

For our second, more old-school dish, we decided to make a cold buckwheat noodle recipe called Mul Naengmyeon. I mentioned that the noodles we purchased did not seem to contain much buckwheat, but it turns out that’s not disqualifying – there’s a whole family of noodles that works for this dish, and the ones we bought seem to fall comfortably within it.

Being a cold dish, there wasn’t a LOT of complex prep here.  Cook noodles in boiling water, shock in ice bath. They had a fascinating translucent color.

Naengmyeon noodles
Top with broth (yes, out of a bag – we went lazy), slices of cucumber and Korean pear, and serve with mustard paste and vinegar on the side.

Finally, we made a banchan.  If you’ve eaten in a Korean restaurant, you know that meals tend to be served with a bunch of tasty little side dishes called banchan.  We were already making two mains, so we went with just one side, a cucumber and sesame salad.

And here’s the final spread, with the sauce on the Injo Gogi Bap.

North Korean meal

Sure looks a mess, doesn’t it? Still, the important thing is taste, right?  And this poverty food, born out of necessity and desperation was… actually pretty tasty!  It’s hard to go wrong with garlic, soy, and chili as a seasoning mix.  The noodles had a fun chewy texture, although I would say they definitely needed the mustard and vinegar to perk them up a bit.  And our banchan, while basic, was also quite good.

And that was Korea, North!  Next up, we’re staying in the “Ks” with, surprise, surprise, Korea, South.

Recipes:
Injo Gogi Bap
Mul Naengmyeon

International Meals – Kiribati

One of the struggles of this project is to not simply cut and paste our recipes from other bloggers who have taken on this task.  Especially since they’re mostly doing a better job.

In particular, United Noshes is doing a really exceptional job.  They have dinner parties.  They donate to charity.  They’ve been on NPR.  Have WE been on NPR?  No we have not.  Are we doing nearly a careful or accurate enough job to WARRANT being on NPR?  Also no.

But when United Noshes says they are unable to identify much, if any, of a distinct food culture for a country, we know we’re not going to do any better.  In order to avoid just copying them, I will generally do quite a bit of Googling, as well as checking actual cookbooks.  But in this case?

Nope – we’re just copying them.

To get a few things out of the way:

Kiribati is an island nation in the middle of the Pacific ocean. It is the 172nd largest country in the world by surface area, putting it between Sao Tome and Principe, and Bahrain.  By population, it is 178th. On the other hand, they have bent time and space to their will.

By which I mean there’s a big diversion in the international date line which Kiribati unilaterally declared in order to have the entire country be on the same day of the week as their major trading partner, Australia.

International Date Line
Can you guess where Kiribati is in this picture?

Two more facts before we get onto the food.  1) The name of this country is pronounced “Kiribass”. 2) Kiribati is very likely to be the first country we lose entirely to climate change.

OK, so before that happens, what are we making?  Two dishes – fried parrotfish, and pumpkin simmered in coconut milk.

Both are VERY simple, as befits a country with very little land area for cultivation of herbs and spices.  Let’s start with the fish.  Parrotfish are actually found all over the world, but since they are also found in the freezer at my local Supermarket 88, we decided to ape United Noshes and go with that.  After all, we can’t argue with this irrefutable evidence:

Kiribati stamp with parrotfish.

That’s more or less exactly what the frozen one looked like.

Parrotfish
Uncanny, isn’t it?  I am NOT good at gutting, scaling, or filleting fish, as has already been established in this project, but fortunately, parrotfish have BIG scales, so it’s easy to tell when you’ve gotten them all.  A great deal of utterly terrible knife work later, and we had this.
Parrotfish filets

And a quick fry in oil later, we had this.
Fried parrotfish
That would appear to be fried fish, all right. To be clear, I used absolutely no seasoning or breading of any kind.  Just patted them dry with paper towels and hurled them into the oil.

For our other dish, we made Te bwaukin, or pumpkin simmered in coconut milk with pandan leaf.  And there’s really not much more to it than that.  There’s literally only one ingredient (sugar) that isn’t listed in the title of the recipe.

Chop up pumpkin. (shown here mid chop)

Put in a pot with coconut milk, sugar, and some pandan leaves.

Simmering pumpkin

The pandan leaves are interesting.  They have a really lovely, sweet fragrance, and are used for seasoning desserts all over Oceana and southeast Asia.  Our entire fridge now smells like pandan, and I am not complaining.

And with that, we’re done.  Here’s dinner:

Kiribati meal

Simple, isn’t it?  The nice thing about saltwater fish is that they taste just fine when you cook them without any seasoning.  It was a nice crunchy piece of flaky fish.  And the pumpkin was so sweet (if a bit mushy) that it was basically a dessert.  Nothing fancy here, but as authentic as we were likely to get, and nothing we wouldn’t eat again.

Thanks Kiribati!  We hope everyone gets out safely.

Next up, due to our refusal to file it under “N” or “D”, we have Korea, North.

Recipes:
Fried Parrotfish: Seriously, just toss it in hot oil for 12 minutes or so.
Pumpkin Simmered in Coconut Milk

International Meals – Kenya

For previous Christmas day meals, we’ve sometimes tried to make what would be traditional for the holiday in that country.  Not so much on this Christmas, but it was nice having the day off to cook.

Kenya is on the east coast of Africa, and has historically had a wide range of visitors, from Zheng He to Vasco de Gama. The colonial era wasn’t any less awful than anywhere else, but modern Kenyan society represents a wide range of intra- and extra- African influences.

When you google “national dish of Kenya,” the main result is ugali, or cooked cornmeal, used as a base to consume other dishes.  So we’ll make that.  Hot water, cornmeal.  Bam.

Ugali
OK, what else?

We settled on two dishes, a veg and a curry.  The veg was also pretty simple: sukuma wiki, which literally means “stretch the week.”  It would traditionally be made with whatever vegetable was readily available in season to provide a filling means of pushing the food budget.  Collard greens would be very authentic, but those don’t turn up in our local Canadian grocery store all that frequently.  So kale it is!

Note: for a number of years, Leigh and I took part in an absolutely amazing scavenger hunt called “GISH”.  It is a running joke in GISH that kale is always redacted. Here is the only GISH item that I personally ever managed to get included in the annual coffee table book.  It has nothing to do with this meal, but I’m going to use this excuse to include it anyway.

Pirate cake

So anyway, to make Sukuma Wiki, you simply Sautee some onions, wilt in some [redacted], and then finish with heavy cream.

Bam. Done.  What else?

For our main dish, we are making a chicken curry called kuku paka. This is an abbreviation of “kuku wu kupaka”, which literally just means “chicken in sauce.” It’s a coconut milk based curry featuring not terribly exotic ingredients.

First, you marinate the chicken using chili powder, garlic, lemon and salt.

Chicken marinade ingredients.

Mmm.. gros salt.

Next, you make a curry base consisting of onion, tomato, chilies, and cilantro.

Curry base ingredients

Knife for… scale?  To show we mean business?  Not sure. Moving on…

The base gets pureed and then cooked with some spices for a bit to get rid of the raw onion taste.  Once it’s ready, you add coconut milk to make it creamy.  Meanwhile, you broil the marinated chicken until it’s done and a bit charred in spots.

Broiled chicken.
Chicken and pan juices go in the pot with the sauce and everything gets simmered for a bit, and finally the whole thing is finished with a bit more heavy cream.  And with that, we’re ready to bring everything to the table!

My goodness, isn’t that pretty?  We’ve made some fairly beige meals on this journey, (looking at you, Iceland), but this was not one of those.  And in addition to being fun to look at, it was TASTY.  The richness of the coconut milk combined with the spices in the curry made for a hearty, satisfying meal.  The [redacted] was crunchy and rich with cream, and the ugali was… fine.  It was fine.  It soaked up the sauce nicely.

Next up, we return to Oceana for a country that isn’t pronounced the way you think it is.

Recipes:
Kuku Paku
Sukuma Wiki
Ugali

International Meals – Kazakhstan

It’s been a hot minute since we posted one of these, but we’ve been busy.  Specifically, we’ve moved!  Now that we have our permanent residency in Canada, we decided that we’d rather start building some equity of our own, rather than continue to help our landlord do so. So we’ve purchased a condo.

Of greater relevance to THIS blog, however, is our new kitchen.  The oven is tiny, but we have SO much more counter space!

Counter space with dough ingredients
Look at all that room!  And there’s even more on either side of the range top.

Good thing, too, because the perceptive among you may have looked at that picture with flour, water, salt, and eggs, plus an expanse of blank countertop, and deduced that we are making glue.  But you’d be wrong, because glue doesn’t HAVE eggs, silly!  Add eggs to glue, and you get noodles!

Add sugar to glue, and you get cake.

I have no idea how cooking actually works.

At any rate, we are going to attempt the national dish of Kazakhstan, beshbarmak. Beshbarmak literally means “five fingers”, and is a dish of meat and noodles that is intended to be eaten with your hands on festive occasions.  Since it’s not a terribly complicated recipe, we decided to complicate matters a bit by making our own noodles.

To balance that, we are using a SLIGHTLY non-traditional way to cook the lamb.

Instant pot
Because we sprang for the Instant Pot with the stainless steel insert, we are going to be able to save some effort here by doing everything in one pot – moving it back and forth from the pressure cooker to the stovetop.

But first, let’s get that dough going.  Mix, knead, and rest.

Dough in plastic wrap.

Ball of dough in plastic wrap.  Not the most exciting photo.  Then roll out.  I rolled it to what I THOUGHT was fairly thin, but future me will wish I had gone even farther.

Dough rolled out and cut into squares
Various recipes have differing ideas about how large these squares should be.  Again, hindsight is 20/20, but we’d probably have gone slightly smaller if we knew then what we know now.

Here’s the sequence.  First, the lamb is cleaned with vinegar, and then boiled on the stove to get the first round of foam and fat off.

Lamb on stove.

Next, the meat is drained and then the pot is refilled with water for a 30 minute pressure cook.  At the end of this, you have tender cooked lamb and a nice pot of broth. The lamb is removed, and the broth goes back to the stove top, where it is used to cook a big pile of onions.

Chopped onions
Out with the onions, in with the pasta.  It poofed up pretty thick, which is why we wished past us had done a better job.

Pasta draining
Finally. two cups of the stock are boiled with more onions (diced this time), salt, and a fresh bay leaf to make a sauce.  Yes, I know – the joke is that bay leaves don’t actually DO anything.  I thought so too.  But science has been scienced, and you can’t argue with science.
Sauce and herbs
With that done, it’s time to assemble: noodles, onions, meat, greenery, (dill and parsley, here) and sauce, with a nice bowl of broth on the side.
Kazakh meal
And it was perfectly fine.  Super exciting?  Not really. But onions, dough, and meat with a few herbs is a nice filling comfort meal all over the world.

It’s not at the top of the list of international meals we’re eager to make again, but it’s ALSO nowhere near the top of the list of international meals that weren’t to our tastes, either.  It was just a solid, hearty meal that was MUCH easier to make on a big countertop.

Next up – Kenya!

Recipe:
Beshbarmak

International Meals – Jordan

Full disclosure – this meal was WEEKS ago.  But I wanted to finish writing up our Japan trip, and the school year is starting, and we’re buying a condo, and we agreed to run a roller derby officiating clinic, so it’s taken a bit.

We’ve visited this part of the world, primarily while in the “I”s, so I knew where to head for the specialty ingredients we would need.  The national dish of Jordan is Mansaf, which is meat cooked with a fermented yogurt sauce.

The original type of yogurt that would have been used with this is called laban jameed, and consists of goat’s milk yogurt that’s been preserved with salt and then dried into hard balls.  These are then crumbled and reconstituted, and represent a really clever way of storing milk in a hot climate.

However, this form is challenging to locate in North America, and every source we looked at assured us that Iranian liquid Kashk is essentially the same thing, just skipping the “dried and then rehydrated” step. So we got that.

Kashk

Preparation of the dish as a whole is not complicated.  You just deal with each of the parts and then put them together.  Part the first: boil some nice lamb shanks until tender.
Lamb shank
(They are not yet tender in this photo.)

Part the second, thin the yogurt with a little bit of water, bring to a low heat on the stove and add the lamb.

Yogurt on stove
It doesn’t LOOK terribly appetizing at this point, but it had a wonderful tangy fragrance.

Part the third, make rice.  We continue to ignore directions that don’t involve “put in device designed expressly for this purpose and push button.”

Finally, bread.  We just purchased it, rather than making our own this time.
Persian bread

And that’s it for prep.  Final step is to just layer everything and pour more sauce over it all.

Assembled mansaf

We didn’t just make the one dish, however – we needed an accompaniment and something to drink.  For the former, we made a Jordanian roasted eggplant dip, moutabal. It seems very similar to baba ganoush, but apparently many baba ganoush recipes do not use tahini, and this one does.

At any rate, just like hummus, the recipe is pretty simple.  Cook your vegetable, eggplant in this case.

Eggplants on a roasting tray

Then mush them up with tahini, lemon juice and salt. Bam.

Moutabal

And to drink, Limoana, which is basically mint lemonade. Mint, fresh lemon juice, sugar, and ice.  What’s not to like?  Unfortunately, I didn’t let the sugar syrup cool far enough, so it melted the ice.  Still tasty, but not quite the intended texture.

Lemonade in a blender.
Here’s the final spread.
Jordanian meal
This was excellent.  The tangy yogurt coating on the lamb in particular was really memorable.  The bitterness of the eggplant was offset by the tartness of the lamb and the lemonade.  No notes.

And that’s Jordan, and the Js!  Next up, Kazakhstan.

Recipes:
Mansaf (Lamb with yoghurt sauce)
Moutabal (Roasted Eggplant Dip)
Limoana (Mint Lemonade)

Japan, Day 16 and Wrapup

Our final day in Japan wasn’t terribly exciting.  We had breakfast at a coffee shop, and then checked out of our room.  (Remember the crappy umbrella we bought on the first day and had been carrying around with us ever since?  We donated that to the hotel supply.)

We went to the department stores in Ikebukuro station and bought some souvenirs for friends and family, and then boarded the train to Narita airport. We had one critical task to accomplish at the airport – we needed to spend the rest of the money on our IC cards.  Fortunately, there’s a 7-11 inside the security cordon full of people doing exactly the same thing.

For our final meal in Japan, we had conveyor belt sushi, which once again was far better than it had any right to be.  And that’s the trip!  Our return flight was utterly uneventful, and we landed about six hours before we took off.  Thanks, date line!

To wrap up this journal, I’m going to post some pictures of interesting translations.  To be clear, our Japanese is terrible, and we give carte blanche to anyone to make fun of it.  But in return, here’s some of the more amusing ENGLISH text we saw on the trip.

Wasted Youth Budwiser
No smorking7 min if run a little!Eggslut set

Monkey's Feeds

EnglishifyNo paking

Again – the only reason we were able to function in Japan at ALL is that nearly everything is labelled in English.  We were EXTREMELY grateful for this fact.  But translation does go awry, and the fact that we are posting these doesn’t mean that we aren’t grateful for all the times it didn’t.

Japan, Day 15: Tokyo – Tsukiji, Shimokitazawa, Nakano

The main Tokyo fishmarket used to be in the Tsukiji neighborhood.  If you got there at 5 AM, you could watch tuna being auctioned off, then dodge forklifts to get to amazingly fresh food stalls.

A few years back, it was decided it might be better to separate the “tuna-and-forklifts” portion of the operation from the “crowds of people trying to get breakfast” part, and the wholesale market moved out to Toyosu. Not too far from the art exhibit we had been to the night before, in fact. The outer market with the food stalls largely remained in Tsukiji.

Since we didn’t want to spend the night in a karaoke parlor, we had gone back to our hotel the night before. But since we wanted to get breakfast in Tsukiji, we hopped on the train promptly at 8.

8 AM.  Rush Hour.  In Tokyo.  On a train headed directly into the city.

I have drawn a helpful map to explain the situation.

Tokyo Map

That 20 million people is a made up number, of course.  40 million people live in the greater Tokyo metro area, but how many of them were really between us and breakfast?

A lot.

We boarded a subway train with 12 cars, the platform for which was longer than a city block.  This train runs every 5 minutes at rush hour. Nonetheless, when it arrived it was as densely packed as I had ever seen a subway car. Despite this, a sold twenty or so people, including us, pushed into the car via our door alone. (This was repeating itself at all three doors on all twelve cars.) As standees, you are crushed together with everyone around you so solidly that breathing becomes restricted.  For 40 minutes.

I can now say a) that I have experienced one of the great wonders of the world that is the Tokyo metro at rush hour. and b) I have no desire to ever do so again.

But we made it to our station alive, and started walking towards the market.  We stopped to investigate an interesting temple, which is a strange mixture of Japanese, Indian, and Western architectural styles.

Tsukiji Honganji temple
This is the Tsukiji Honganji temple, and it dates from the 1930s, replacing one that was destroyed in the Great Kanto Earthquake.  It belongs to the same school of Buddhism as the giant wooden temple just north of the Kyoto train station, Jodo Shinsho, or “True Pure Land” Buddhism.  It’s definitely unique among the temples we visited.

But we weren’t here for temples, we were here for fish.  The Tsukiji Outer Market is a maze of little twisty passages, all alike. As always, food needs to be consumed more or less where it was purchased. We started with some absolutely ridiculously good sushi, to the point where we had already eaten half of it before we even remembered to take a picture. It was also insanely cheap.

Sushi

At this point, we pretty much fell down in the “photography” department.  According to my notes, we had Sushi, Squid on a Stick, Grilled Tuna Skewers, Fresh Fruit Sodas, and a Fish Burger. This was all a result of simply wandering up and down the tiny market streets and pointing at what looked good.  The fish burger in particular was excellent, and we’d never have found the tiny shop selling them if it weren’t for watching so many YouTube videos in advance – the shop is down a tiny offshoot alley that we’d likely never even have spotted.

Fish burger stall
The case on the left side of the picture has fish of various types.  You pick your fish, and they turn it into a fried fish sandwich while you wait.
Fish sandwich
It may look humble, but it was outstanding. The sushi was outstanding.  The squid on a stick was outstanding.  This guy was probably outstanding, I have no idea, we didn’t talk to him.


Our bellies full, it was time to go elsewhere.  Our plan was to visit the neighborhood of Shimokitazawa, which was described to us as a neighborhood with a cool, hipster vibe. “Cool” would be nice… I know I haven’t bitched about it for a few paragraphs, but it was still incredibly hot.  Every day had a rhythm of “do stuff until we can’t face moving any more, then go find some A/C”.

On the train, however, we realized we would be passing right by Harajuku, and decided to hop off and see if the woodblock museum that we missed on Saturday was open.  Nope.  Change of exhibits.  We did, however, get a chance to walk down Takeshita street, which was merely crowded, rather than bonkers like Saturday.  Sadly, we appear to have neglected to take any pictures, so here’s one from a previous day of a cat flipping you off.

Cat mural
After that, we did make it out to Shimokitazawa.  As promised, it had a cool, hipsterish vibe.  Lots of vintage shops. Lots of coffee shops. Lots of statues of Mickey Mouse, destroying a guitar.

OK, just one of those.

Mickey mouse statue
Still, it was a fun place to wander around.  Very quiet, which was a nice change from the chaos of the last few days. When we needed our next AC break, we found a coffee shop with absurd ice cream sodas.

Ice cream sodas
We weren’t really hip enough to be allowed in here, to be clear.

From here, we decided to go check out a mall called “Nakano Broadway”, which has been described as “Akihabara West.”  From the subway, you walk down a covered shopping street to the mall entrance. Nakano Broadway entrance
The mall itself is four BIG floors with a number of different stores. A lot of them sell watches, for some reason.  But the biggest category is anime merchandise. Figurines upon models, upon clothing, upon books, upon figurines.  So many figurines.

The most interesting part was the consignment sections. A number of shops consisted of nothing more than rows of floor to ceiling, neon lit glass cubes. Each cube was rented by a seller who was looking to display and sell their used anime goodies.  I don’t know how the actual sale process works, since I didn’t actually want to spend several hundred dollars on a rare Evangelion figurine.

After this, we decided to split up – I went to a nearby arcade to play some rhythm games, and Leigh went to look for Japanese skin care products.  While walking to the arcade, I snapped the picture on the right.  The one on the left is from Shimokitazawa.  Strikingly similar composition. Shows how much imagination I have.  At least you can’t see my finger in the left one.

Shimokitazawa streetscape   Nakano streetscape
Rhythm games in Japan continue to be incredibly fun, and very good value – I played for nearly an hour for about 3 bucks.

Dinner time, and it was our last chance to visit an Ainu restaurant I had been wanting to check out.  The Ainu people are the indigenous population of Hokkaido, Japan’s northern island.  Like indigenous peoples everywhere else in the world, their culture has been violently suppressed for generations, and what’s been preserved is due to the dedicated efforts of the survivors.

My meal of wild boar and salmon broth was fantastic, and the hosts were extremely friendly.  The restaurant’s name is Harukor Ainu Restaurant, it’s near the Shin-Okubo station on the Yamanote line (just north of Shinjuku), and if you’re in Tokyo, I strongly recommend a visit.

And with that, it was time to head back to our hotel and pack. Over more than two weeks, we had Japanned all the Japan we could possibly handle. Time to go home.

City at night

Japan, Day 14: Tokyo – Asakusa, Akihabara, and Toyosu

Leigh’s conference theoretically had another half day to go, but she had basically conferenced all the conference she was capable of conferencing, so we decided to spend the whole day exploring the city.  We started with another delicious train station pastry breakfast, but while we were eating, she spotted an extremely critical item…

Moomin gachapon
… a Moomin gachapon machine.

Moomin, for those as unfamiliar as I was before meeting Leigh, are a Finnish media property involving creatures that look like Hippopotami, but are apparently trolls. And for some reason, are also located in a gachapon machine in Japan.

She got Little My, in case you were wondering.

Something else I learned while writing this pots.  Gachapon machines are named for the “gacha” noise the crank makes, followed by the “pon” noise of the capsule falling into the chute.  The more you know…

From there, we headed to one of the major tourist sites in Tokyo, the Senso-Ji temple complex.  It’s famous for a reason – the gates and the temples are imposing and beautiful.

Kaminarimon gate

This is the Kunarimon gate, which was originally built in the 10th century.  However, this one is from 1960.

The gate leads to a long shopping street, but much less cool than most of the others we visited, as it was more or less entirely geared towards tourists such as ourselves.

Nakamise-dori shopping street.

On the other hand, I’ll point out that this street has ALWAYS been geared to tourists visiting the shrine.  The only difference in the modern incarnation is that there’s more T-shirts and fewer… not T-shirts?  I don’t know what Edo period tourists would have considered a desirable 安ぴか. (What Google translate assures me is Japanese for “tchotchke”)

At the far end of the street is another massive, imposing gate.

Hozomon Gate
Again, while the original dates from the 900s, this steel-reinforced concrete structure was built in 1964.

I don’t mean to be glib.  The REASON this structure had to be rebuilt was World War II, which obviously no joking matter. (Although the previous Edo structure, was also built to replace the one before THAT that was destroyed in a different fire.)  It’s just a consistent pattern in Tokyo that you can appreciate the incredible architecture of these structures, while bearing in mind that they are copies, and also thinking about why these copies exist.

Inside the second gate was a number of shrine buildings, which were all quite packed, so we were startled to find a nice quiet little garden only steps away that we more or less had to ourselves.

Waterfall at Senso-ji
We also got a fortune from the fortune telling machine.  You shake a stick out of a container of sticks, and them open the drawer corresponding to the number on the stick and take the fortune.  Ours was a BAD fortune, so we left it behind, tied to the structure placed there for precisely that purpose.

Bad fortuneAbandoned fortunes

Also in the vicinity we found this interesting grave, which is apparently for a famous early 20th century actor and comedian named Soganoya Gokuro. (The birds aren’t real, but – are any?)

Gokuro Saganoya's grave
After wandering around a bit more looking at the other shrines and graves in the vicinity (including a sign for a ceremony for blessing pins and needles) we started moseying back towards the metro station, at which point I decided to follow the coordinates for a geocache.  They led through this tunnel, which I GUARANTEE was only ever visited by tourists if they were looking for the same cache we were.  Leigh can’t say I never take her any place unique.
Dingy tunnel
But we did find the cache, and ended up walking along the river a little bit.  This is the Tokyo Skytree and the headquarters of the Asahi beer company. (Which is which is left as an exercise to the reader.)
Skytree and Asashi headquarters.
And after that, we were off to our next stop – Akihabara!  Known as “electronic town”, Akihabara is famous for arcades, electronics stores, and anime and manga merchandise.  It’s also back in the penumbra of the curry district, so after perusing a little arts and crafts arcade for a bit, we did that for lunch.

Curry
I’ve not had cheese on a curry before, but I regret NOTHING.

There’s a large shrine in Akihabara called Kanda shrine, which is in many ways similar to the other ones we’ve visited. However, there was one really neat feature that we learned about once again from the “History of Japan” podcast.

Tablets at Kanda shrine
The tablets you see in this picture are a standard feature at shrines and temples around Japan.  Visitors will write wishes on them for benefits from the resident deity.  Some of them are simple things like “I want to do well at school this semester,” while others are quite poignant requests from folks with a lot of terrible stuff going on.  Because of the latter category, we opted not to photograph these from any closer in, but what makes Kanda unique is that a LOT of the tablets here have art on them!

Akihabara is not only the district where a lot of anime merchandise is sold, it’s also home to some of the animation studios where it is made, and there’s really impressive artwork on a number of these tablets.

We did visit one other shrine in Akihabara, at the absolute other end of the imposing spectrum.

You know “Up?”  The Pixar movie that you can never, ever, watch a second time because of the first ten minutes?  The one where they build an entire skyscraper around Ed Asner’s house, because they can’t get rid of it?

Tiny shrine in Akihabara
This is the Hanabusa Inari shrine.  It has been here significantly longer than any of the surrounding buildings. It’s in a tiny space between two buildings, located off a narrow alley located off an only slightly less narrow alley.  It’s pretty damn cool, isn’t it?  It’s apparently dedicated to a spirt of food.

I suppose we should post a picture of Akihabara itself, too.

Akihabara
Yep.  Pretty much exactly as advertised.  We did go into some game, electronics, and anime stores, and they were fun to poke around in, but mostly didn’t allow pictures.  We played a … what’s the opposite of virtual? Actual Reality? Virtual Virtual Reality?

Anyway, we played Pong with real pieces.

Pong

You spun the knob, and the physical paddle physically moved and utterly failed to prevent the physical ball from scoring.

We also went to an arcade with a lot of rhythm games, and had fun trying to figure out how they worked while local teenagers next to us were playing so fast I’m surprised they weren’t giving off Cherenkov radiation.

We needed a break at this point, so we went and had some NON blue beer at a local brewery located under a train bridge.  After this it was time for dinner, and we spent a while trying to locate a restaurant recommended by a friend of ours on the Discord for the Youtube channel “Chinese Cooking Demystified.”  (Great channel, you should watch it.  Start with “Old Buddy Noodles.”)

Tokyo is absurdly dense.  We finally realized the restaurant we were looking for was in a four story building with a tiny restaurant on each floor surrounded by uncountable other buildings with restaurants on every floor.  The one we wanted was on the third floor, had eight seats, and served one of the most amazing pork bowls I’ve ever had. Which, including the beer, came to less than ten bucks.

Pork bowl

While at the pork bowl place, we started looking at tickets for an art exhibit we had been considering, and realized that we could get in that evening if we bought the tickets online and hustled.  So we did.

This exhibit is called “TeamLab Planets.”  Most stuff we did in Tokyo was actually pretty cheap – even the National Museum was only about ten bucks to get into.  This was closer to forty per person. And VERY certain of its own profundity.

TeamLab Planets
We were informed that we were going to be connected to the experience of the shared humanity of… whatever. Something.  The verbiage was too pompous to take seriously, but the actual exhibits were pretty neat. Plus, it was fun trying to photobomb wannabe influencers’ selfies.

This one felt like you were in the middle of a 3D starfield.

Starfield exhibit.
This one had you wading through water with fish projected on it.Virtual fish
This one had giant balls.
Big balls.
One of the most interesting, though, was a room full of orchids trained onto strings, which automatically lifted out of your way as you walked toward them, and lowered behind you, so you were always surrounded by orchids.
Orchid room
Overall, a very cool experience, as long as you didn’t take it too seriously. In other words, do NOT take it as seriously as it takes itself.

Whew.  What a long day!

Japan, Day 13: Tokyo – Ueno and Takadanobaba

On Sunday, Leigh had another full day of conference stuff to attend to, so I was once again left to my own devices.  I planned to spend some more time in Ueno Park, particularly at the Tokyo National Museum, but since I had some time before the museum opened, I decided to check out Yanaka Ginza, a street described in the tourist guides as “old-fashioned”.

Unfortunately, not much opens early in Tokyo, but that did mean I was able to get a nice shot of the art on these shutters.

Painted shutters
I also caught the very end of some sort of procession featuring senior citizens with flowers on their heads.

Senior citizens
From there, I started making my way towards Ueno.  I passed this, and was absolutely baffled.

Temple with statue of cartoon character
Why is there a stone sculpture of what appears to be a cartoon character in front of what appears to be a Buddhist temple?  After-the-fact research seems to indicate that that is “Baikinman“, the villain from the “Germ Planet” and leader of the Viruses. And the Buddhist temple may also be a kindergarten?  I’m really not any less confused.

My route continued through a graveyard, where I was able to (though a fence) photograph the grave of the last shogun, Tokugawa Yoshinobu.

Grave of the last Shogun
Moving on, I had timed my trip to arrive at the Tokyo National Museum just about as it was opening.  The museum grounds are enormous, and consist of quite a few buildings.  This “black gate” is one of two remaining Edo period gates in Tokyo.

Black Gate
Plus, “The Black Gate” sounds metal as hell.

Once I entered the grounds, I spent all of my time in the “Japanese Gallery” of the museum. Visiting all of the buildings would take at LEAST two days to give the entire museum its due.  Surprisingly, almost everything in the museum can be photographed.  Here’s some samples.

The Imperial Palanquin

TriptychSamurai Armor

Rabbit Plate

Frog

This frog has seen things…

Crab bowl

This crabs on this bowl are all one piece with the bowl itself.

And as an interactive exhibit on the way out, visitors could make their own Ukiyo-e wood block prints.  Ukiyo-e is a distinctive Japanese style of color woodblock printing, where each color is applied to a carved block which is then applied to the final image one at a time.  When you think about Japanese visual art, you are very likely thinking of this style of printing.

Here’s a stunning one from the museum.

Ukiyo-e print
The way the interactive one works is that you are given a blank piece of paper and there’s a series of stations with frames to hold the paper in place and a large rubber stamp.  You stamp each color onto the paper, and voilà!

Interactive woodblock demonstration
Remember, this page was BLANK when I started.  Pretty nifty souvenir.

At this point, it was lunch time, so I wandered out of the museum and toward the shouting and music I heard from further into the park.

When later describing to Leigh what happened next, I opened with “The nice Australian man said the blue beer was delicious, but I shouldn’t have listened to him.”

There was a beer festival going on, familiar in a lot of ways from any similar festival in North America.  Tourists who could show their passport got in free. Dozens of tents selling beer and food on sticks.

Beer fest

The entertainment was wannabe idol groups, mostly set on proving unambiguously that they did not have the aid of Autotune.

Performers

And there was blue beer.  It was not good, no matter what the nice Australian man said. I honestly don’t know what I was expecting.

Blue beer

The park contains lots of other stuff, like a memorial to that time Ulysses S. Grant planted a tree.

Plaque of U.S. Grant

There’s also a shrine dedicated to the FIRST Tokugawa shogun, coming full circle from the gravesite earlier.

Tokugawa Ieyasu shrine entryway
At this point, I was ready for a break (the heat had NOT magically abated, and I’d been doing a lot of walking), so I headed back to Ikebukuro to relax in the hotel for a bit before heading down to Takadanobaba to do probably the LEAST relaxing thing I had planned for the whole trip.

Before we get to that, a quick note on Takadanobaba.  Every train station in Tokyo plays a little jingle to announce the train doors are closing.  At the subway stops, the jingles are all unique, but that’s not necessarily the case for the above-ground rail lines.

However, it’s DEFINITELY the case for the Takadanobaba stop on the Yamanote line, which plays the theme to “Astro Boy.”  Apparently Astro Boy was actually based in the neighborhood.  There’s a big mural under the train tracks that I didn’t photograph because there were a bunch of protesters in front of it.  What were they protesting?  No idea, my rudimentary Japanese only sufficed to determine that they were not professing a desire to be taken to the train station.  That would have been silly anyway, considering they were directly under it.

But not taking pictures of murals is NOT the stressful thing I had in mind.  Rather, as someone with a whopping year and a half of jazz piano lessons under my belt, I somehow thought it would be a good idea to go to a jam session.  In Tokyo.

Not to bury the lead, the experience WAS pretty cool.  The place was tiny, and the owner bounced back and forth between playing saxophone with the house band and tending bar.  If you wanted to play, you put your name down on a list, and after the house band’s set, they started calling people up to play.

I was paired with a local on drums, and three other Americans, two of whom were friends and colleagues of Leigh’s that she had brought with her from the conference.

Jam session in Tokyo

So… yeah.  That happened.  We played Corcovado. Leigh’s friends were amazing, and I am informed that I did not humiliate myself TOO badly.  And the bass player rapped “The Fresh Prince of Bel Air” instead of taking a solo.  That happened too.

The second time I got called up didn’t go as well, but the fact that I was even able to force myself to give it a go at all is something I’m proud of.

Afterwards, the three of us and Leigh went and got ramen.

Friends at the jazz club