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.

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.

Kuku Paku
Sukuma Wiki

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!


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.


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.


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.

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.


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.

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.

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.


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


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.


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

Japan, Day 12: Tokyo – Harajuku

Saturday morning was Leigh’s conference presentation, using her freshly rebuilt slides.  I came out to watch, and as far as I could tell, it went over very well.

The conference would only last a half day, so I headed back to town with plans to meet Leigh later after she got done.  Not wanting to get too far away, I spent the morning in the vicinity of Ikebukuro.  The first thing I visited was a girls’ school designed by Frank Lloyd Wright.  Unfortunately, there was some sort of event going on, so I couldn’t go inside, but it was still pretty neat.

Frank Lloyd Wright building.
Next, I wandered down to a lovely little neighborhood Japanese style garden park, which had a sternly worded sign out front.  Google Translate informed me that a TURTLE had been found in the pond, and anyone caught dumping turtles in the pond would be in big trouble.  Remember kids – when you go to Japan, don’t dump turtles.  (Don’t do it anywhere, they’re a serious invasive species issue in a lot of places.)
Small park

Leigh messaged at that point that we would be having lunch with two of her undergrad students, who had made the trip all the way to Japan for the conference.  I had read that the department store on the WEST side of Ikebukuro station had a nice food area, so I spent half an hour trying to locate the correct elevator to get to it.

I should mention – there’s two department stores in Ikebukuro station.  The one on the west (西) side is called Tobu.(東武) The one on the east (東) side is Seibu. (西武) It is apparently an absolutely deceased equine to point out that the western store has the character for east in its name and vice versa. “Park on a driveway and drive on a parkway” level of eye-rolling “we know.”

We ended up not eating in that food area anyway.

After lunch, we went to see a dance festival that I had found an article about before we left.  Called a Yokosoi, it’s an ancient style of dance that dates all the way back to (checks notes) 1954. Still, that’s getting pretty ancient at this point.  And the dances were amazing.

Each group consisted of a large number (20-50 or so) dancers, a few people waving very large flags, and a hype man, who narrated and chanted along with the music. I’m pretty sure the actual term is not “hype man,” but I’m going with it. (Which is not to imply that this person was always male-presenting, as they absolutely were not.)  The other defining feature of yokosoi is a small clapper called a naruko, which is always incorporated into the dance.

The groups ranged from reasonably good (including one delightful group that seemed to consist entirely of senior citizens) to absolutely spectacular, with phenomenal dance moves, costume quick changes, and flags the size of Luxembourg.

Yokosoi group
This one had two small children on stage for no apparent reason other than it was cute. Which it was.
Yokosoi group
The amazing thing is how MANY groups there were.  Each performed for about three minutes, and then a minute later there was another one.  For HOURS.  Over two days and five stages.

This stage was at the corner of Yoyogi park, a large park that contains the shrine to the Meiji emperor.  In addition to legendary figures like Inari, shrines can also be constructed to memorialize specific people.  The Meiji emperor was “restored” to power at the end of the Tokugawa Shogunate after the Americans showed up in the mid 1800s.

However, it’s important to note that what “restoring” the emperor actually meant was moving the real power from the shogun’s “advisors” to the emperor’s “advisors.”  The emperor himself didn’t have any MORE power than he’d had for centuries, he was just being used as an excuse for replacing one faction with a different one.

It’s difficult to learn much about the actual PERSON of the Meiji emperor, but it’s pretty clear he had a serious alcohol problem, which made this massive display of sake barrels at his shrine somewhat ironic.

Large display of sake barrels

Irony or not, it did still feel somewhat awkward to take too many pictures of the shrine itself.  Yes, EVERYONE was doing it, but the shrine was full of actual Japanese people, performing the rituals of veneration with apparent sincerity.  Instead, here’s one of Leigh from just outside the shrine, sporting the latest in portable air conditioners.
Leigh outside of shrine
Seriously, we traded that thing back and forth all trip.  It was an absolute godsend.

Moving from the sublime to the ridiculous, we walked back through the park to the bustle of the city again.  In particular, Harajuku, which is known for being the center of cosplay / kawaii / youth culture in Tokyo.

Although it probably isn’t.  From what I’ve read, it was the center twenty years ago, and now it’s the center of tourists taking pictures of other tourists looking for the center of youth culture.  The main street is Takeshita Street, and we were NOT walking down there.
Takeshita Street
Nope.  We wandered around a bit and looked at some other stuff.  We found the shrine to Admiral Tōgō, who defeated the Russians in the Battle of Tsushima.  It’s a very important story, which I am not going to go into here except to point out that this long form video about the “Voyage of the Damned” that the Russian fleet took to GET to its destruction at Tsushima is great.

We then realized we were right near a woodblock museum that I had thought about taking us to, but also that it was about to close. Shoulda gone straight there after the dancing.

Which was STILL going on, by the way.

Yet more dancers
We also so this guy trying to wrangle an absurd number of dogs.

Many dogs

However, at this point, we needed to leave to meet friends for one more quintessential Japanese experience – Karaoke!

We headed back up to Ikebukuro to a place called “Karaoke-kan”.  No, not the one at 1 Chome-23-1 Nishiikebukuro, Toshima City, Tokyo. The identical one two blocks away at 1 Chome-25-1 Nishiikebukuro, Toshima City, Tokyo.  Seriously, there are a LOT of karaoke places in Tokyo.

This was organized by one of Leigh’s fellow conference goers, and over the course of our two and a half hour slot, more and more people kept arriving.  We started in a private room that held about ten people, and by the time it reached twenty or so, the staff realized they needed to move us to a larger room.  There were two tablets that we could use to select songs and perform other functions, although given that the other functions were all in Japanese, we didn’t use those much.

As these were all goers to a music perception conference, the average performance level was perhaps somewhat higher than normal.  Or not, who knows.  I sang “Birdhouse in Your Soul.”

What the Karaoke place DIDN’T have was food other than small snacks, so after the singing broke up, Leigh and I went to a tiny, tiny gyoza place I had found online earlier.

How tiny, you ask?

Tiny gyoza shop
There were only six seats, three of which were occupied by the owner’s family.  The dumplings were, unsurprisingly, fantastic. We even managed to deploy our terrible Chinese to say “Thank you” to the owner, who was from Taiwan.

My, that was a long day, wasn’t it?

Japan, Day 11: Tokyo – Random Wanderings

Day 11 was not terribly exciting, from either a photography or a reportage perspective.  Leigh was in her conference all day, so her pictures are full of things like this:

Academic poster
Interesting stuff, but requires a bit of background, and not particularly Japan-specific.

Meanwhile I didn’t do any big things – I just wandered about.  I started the day in Ueno park, which DuoLingo informs me is “a very pretty place.” (とてもきれいな場所) It is, too, although I did see my first evidence of homelessness since we had arrived in Tokyo.

Paddleboats in front of a city skyline
I only wandered around the south end of the park, and mostly failed to find a few geocaches.  I returned to the north end of the park later in the trip, so more here later.

Most stuff in Tokyo doesn’t open until at least 10, so I was at least partially killing time at this point.  Looking at a map, I noticed a nearby shrine (Yushima Tenjin), which as it turns out, was dedicated to education and learning. I like those things, so I wandered over and had a look.

Oh good, more stairs.  Did I mention it was still really, really hot?

Still, the shrine itself was pretty cool, and among other things, still had a functioning gas lamp.

Gas Lamp

The reason I was killing time is that I wanted to check out the bookseller’s district.  Tokyo does this thing where a lot of the vendors of a particular thing will cluster in one place.  The downside is that you may not have a good used book store near you (although you probably still do).  The upside is that there are DOZENS of used bookstores all right next to each other.

It was REALLY fun to walk past and look at all of them.

Naughty French Spot Illustrations (book)
However, unsurprisingly, the books were mostly in Japanese, which three months of DuoLingo was really not enough to prepare me for.  I was hoping to find some sheet music, but the one store that had some didn’t have anything that really jumped out at me.

Just down from the bookstore district is the musical instrument district, so I had a peek down there, but I certainly wasn’t buying any of those, and I was too self-conscious to ask to try out a French horn.

And overlapping with both of those districts is… the curry district!  If you Google for the national dish of Japan, the most likely result isn’t ramen or sushi – it’s curry, made with sauce cubes out of a box.

Fortunately, in the curry district, they go a BIT nicer than that, although it’s still a similar sweet-mild flavor profile.  Found a great place where I could try two different styles, separated by a fortification of rice.

After lunch, my plan was to go explore the east gardens of the Imperial Palace, but… I just couldn’t do it – I got maybe a third of the way from the nearest train station to the entrance, and realized that I just wasn’t going to be able to appreciate them properly while trying to stave off heat exhaustion.  So instead I went back underground and made my way to the Seiko museum, more or less reversing the route we had taken a few days earlier to get from Ginza 6 to Tokyo station.

Apparently, most big companies in Japan have a museum dedicated to how great they are.  (This isn’t a Japan-only phenomenon, as anyone who’s been to Battle Creek or Hershey can attest.)  The Seiko museum is full of fascinating old clocks and watches.  Here’s a bunch of them that were fused together in the fire after the Kanto earthquake of 1923.

Pile of melted watches

And here’s probably the most famous Seiko in Ginza. (This is not the museum, which was on a back street.)

Seiko House

I also went to the Yamaha main music store, which had an absolutely amazing sheet music store on the third floor.  Still too shy to ask to play either any pianos or horns, though.

After all this walking and museum viewing, I decided I deserved a treat, and stopped off for some gelato. Matcha and salted watermelon.


I made my way back to Ikebukuro to have dinner with Leigh, who discovered that all of her slides for her presentation the next day had randomly borked themselves, so after a brief flurry of cursing and fixing stuff, we went out for a rather frustrating attempt to find dinner.

I had planned to take us to “Gyoza Stadium”, which is a cluster of different kinds of gyoza shops, inside an amusement park, inside a shopping mall, which I had been assured was tasty and entertaining.  However, the admission price to the amusement park had been raised a LOT since the reviews I read, and most of the shops were about to close anyway.  So we spent quite a while wandering around neighborhood trying to find somewhere to eat that didn’t look too skeevy, but still wasn’t a Denny’s.

We eventually got some chicken skewers at an extremely understaffed restaurant, and vowed to find some good gyoza later in the trip.  (Spoiler: we did.)

So… yeah. Went to book stores – didn’t buy books.  Went to music stores – didn’t play instruments or buy music.  Went to gyoza store – didn’t get gyoza.  Went to park – didn’t actually go to park.  On paper, it doesn’t sound great, but it’s fun to just BE in a new place.

Japan, Day 10: Tokyo – Ikebukuro and Shibuya

Leigh’s conference started on this day, but as we were still getting accustomed to the Tokyo rail system, I rode out with her so I could see where it was.  The conference was at a university in a quiet residential neighborhood in the northwest suburbs.

After dropping her off, I wandered past a nearby shrine. This one has an ersatz Mount Fuji, so if you, a pilgrim, can’t climb the real one, you can climb this:

Ersatz Mount Fuji

Or at least you could on the three days a year it’s open.

I had breakfast at a tiny little bakery that clearly doesn’t get many tourists, but I managed to order some nice cheese toast.  And then I had the rest of the day left to my own devices.  Apparently, left to my own devices, I forget to take pictures, because there isn’t a single one on my phone for the remainder of the day until I reunited with Leigh.

After not making it to an arcade in Osaka, I headed for the Round One arcade near Ikebukuro station. This is a building with ten floors of various forms of entertainment, but I was only interested in the fifth floor – rhythm games! Turns out, there’s a lot of new ones since I last played DDR and Rock Band on the regular, and they’re a lot of fun.

There were also some terrifyingly good teenagers playing, but I didn’t bother them, and they didn’t laugh at me, so it all worked out.

I then wandered over to the Sunshine City Mall to check out the world’s largest gachapon store.  Gachapon are machines that sell you a plastic capsule with a toy in it.  A given machine will be dedicated to a theme, like “Dinosaurs”, or “Moomin,” or “Midcentury Danish Furniture.”

You think I’m making that last one up, don’t you?

I swear I am not making that one up.

At any rate, at the world’s largest gachapon store, there were several THOUSAND of these machines, and people wandering around sticking money into them to get plastic toys, and then going over to tables to look at what they got, and then going back to get more plastic toys, ad infinitum.

Tokyo is kind of the final boss of late stage consumerism.

After that, it was lunch time, and the department store on the east side of the station had a food hall, but also a roof garden where you could EAT the food hall food.  I settled on a chicken karaage bento, but the clerk insisted on “omikase” – picking out the BEST chicken bento for me, in her considered judgement.  Who was I to argue?

Took the bento up to the roof, where there were also a number of small food stalls including one selling Cornish pasties. (!?!)

After lunch, I bonked around a bit more looking for geocaches and was eventually joined by Leigh, since the first day of the conference was only a half day.  We went down to Shibuya to look at the famous “scramble” street crossing, and this is where I can finally break up the wall of text with some pictures.

Oh, sorry, did you want a picture of the crossing itself?  Sorry, too hot.  Here’s a parfait.  You can sort of see the crossing in the background.

We then wandered over to see what else there is to see in Shibuya.  There’s this, in a park built OVER the train tracks.

Doraemon sculpture
That’s Doraemon!  According to Wikipedia, Doraemon is “an earless robotic cat who travels back in time from the 22nd century to aid a boy named Nobita Nobi.”

Okay then!

Then we went to an art gallery in the basement of a Diesel store, which I’m going to let speak for itself, because it was AWESOME.
Dan with art

Leigh with art

We wandered around a bit more, and managed to run into friends in an art gallery on the 6th floor of a nearby high-rise.  Running into friends at a tourist destination is one thing, but running into them at a weird art gallery was even LESS likely. Small world, I suppose.

There was also a nice view of the sunset over the scramble crossing from there.

Sunset over Shibuya
And here’s what it looks like while waiting to cross at ground level.
Scramble crossing from ground level.
For dinner, we decided to do the quintessential tourist thing of going for conveyor belt sushi.  (Apparently non-tourists ALSO do this, but probably not right in the heart of Shibuya.)  It is just as silly as you’d expect, but the sushi quality is still pretty darn good, given the circumstances.  Better than most neighborhood sushi joints in Vancouver, which is not a slouch in the sushi department.
Sushi on a conveyor belt
In addition to taking stuff off the belt, you can make special requests of the chefs.  I ordered a taco.

Sorry, I ordered “tako”, which is Japanese for octopus.

The final damage:
Empty sushi plates

And this pile of plates is how you are billed – the attendant comes around, counts up your empty plates, and gives you the total.  Which, for this stack of plates, came out to less than 30 dollars.  It’s an insanely good deal.

And with that, it was time to head back to the hotel.