Grilled as you like it

Kappabashi April 30, 2008

Filed under: Cooking,Japan,Travel — laurel @ 7:30 pm
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the evolution of a knife from formless steel to a fine blade, at Tsubaya knife shop in Kappabashi

After Tsukiji, we headed to Kappabashi. Kappabashi is the restaurant supply district in Tokyo; you’ll find it midway between Ueno and Asakusa. T wanted to check out some knife shops that had been recommended to him and I wanted to pick up a suribachi that I’d been eyeing and get a new donabe since my old one (a plain but trusty nabe that we picked up at the mom and pop housewares shop in Maebashi) had suffered an unfortunate end, tumbling off the dish rack onto the floor a few weeks earlier. Kappabashi has a great array of shops selling everything you might need for your kitchen, including kitchen tools, knives, ceramics, cast iron, enamel ware, and plastic food models. It was raining off and on and we were feeling pretty tired, so we didn’t take very many pictures, but I’ll try to get back and put together a really good post about Kappabashi sometime in the next few months.

Niimi kitchenware store has cup and saucer-shaped balconies – the golden kappa of Kappabashi – another Niimi store across the street, topped with a giant chef’s head

T needed a saya for his old knife and a pair of moribashi, so our first stops would be the knife shops. We stopped on the into a few of the enamel shops that sell fancy bento boxes and bowls for miso soup, rice, and side dishes. We went to the shop (whose name I forget) that sells cast iron and knives. They had a good selection of moribashi too. Dad bought a teapot. He didn’t know it at the time, but it was the same one that we have here at our house. I asked where we could find Tsubaya, which T was looking for. The shopkeeper said, “It’s down the street, but you’ll pay 50% more there for the same knife you can buy here.” He took out a knife and showed me. Apparently, many of the shops buy from the same suppliers and have the knives stamped with their shop name so it’s “original.

We headed down the street and back up the other side, stopping at Tsubaya. The first shopkeeper had been right, the knife he showed me was 50% more there, but the Kyocera ceramic knife was less. So I guess you just have to shop around at all the stores if you want to be sure to get the best price. In any case, T was looking for a saya here, not a knife. Next, we headed across the street to Union, where T admired the deba bocho display and I admired the soba knives (not that I actually know how to make soba, so there is really no need for me to own that kind of a knife).

We left and continued walking down the street, but a few stores down T stopped and counted his money, then headed back to Union. While he bought the deba, I headed across the street to buy the donabe that I had seen earlier. After that, we headed back to the cast iron and knife shop and he bought a pair of moribashi. Finally, we stopped into a big shop with a wide selection of western cookware and also a Japanese style section on the second floor in the back. Here I picked up the suribachi that I’d been thinking of since my last trip to Kappabashi. Now I just need to get back to Kusatsu to buy one of those sansho wood surikogi that I saw last time I was there (and they were cheap!). While we were here, T bought a small suribachi that was pretty enough that you could make and serve a small batch of dressing or sauce in it. Dad bought a lovely but expensive copper cup too. Finally we had everything we needed.

T and I stopped back into a couple of the enamel ware shops to consider buying a jubako, but decided against it. Maybe next time. I also looked into a ceramics shop that I’d never noticed on my previous trips to Kappabashi. Perhaps they’re always closed on Sunday, which is when I usually go there. It was unfortunate that I’d already bought a donabe, because they had a lovely maple-patterned one on sale. I just can’t get it out of my mind. Perhaps next time…

Shopping with T in the restaurant supply district was a ton of fun. I definitely don’t feel like a kitchen-obsessed weirdo when we’re together, because he loves knives as much as I love kitchen tools.

My new suribachi – kimchi nabe in the new donabe

For dinner the next night, we took the new donabe for a test drive, making kimchi nabe. It’s plenty large enough, but it did get some kimchi stains. I guess the only way around that problem is to have a dark, reddish-orange donabe…


Tsukiji April 29, 2008

Filed under: Eating,Japan,Travel — laurel @ 10:58 pm
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Morning at Tsukiji fish market

On March 31st we went to Tsukiji’s wholesale fish market. This was the first opportunity that I’ve had to come to Tsukiji because it’s actually closed on Sundays and holidays, which are usually the only time I would be in Tokyo by 5 in the morning. Since we were taking some time off over spring break to spend time with visiting friends and family, we were able to come to Tokyo on Sunday night so that we could visit the market in the morning.

We woke up early and walked to the market, arriving around 5:00 am. It was a cold and rainy morning, but the inner market is covered, so we left our umbrellas at the entrance and entered the market. The first thing we saw were many many doors and just as many signs that read “Do not enter.” There were so many, in fact, that I began to wonder if the whole market had been closed to visitors and I just hadn’t gotten the memo. Three-wheeled, flatbed delivery trucks (see above) whizzed around everywhere, barely missing the stacks of styrofoam fish boxes, other trucks, and me. Finally, we found the visitor area and went inside. The visitor area was a roped-off corridor through the middle of the frozen tuna auction room. The corridor was filled with tourists, mostly foreigners who had come to see the auction, just like us. As the garage door opened and closed to let the wholesale buyers come in and out, tourists would “accidentally” wander in through the open door into the auction area, while those of us who had read the signs were stuck in the tourist corral. Every once in a while, someone would come over and tell the lost tourists to get back to the visitor area, but mostly they just went about their business.

frozen tuna at the auction – auctioneers at work

At 5:30 the auctions began. Each of the auctioneers for the wholesale houses would ring a bell to attract the attention of the buyers. Then he would begin to shout the number of the fish being auctioned and the buying price. The buyers gathered around would bid for the tuna, and soon the auctioneer was on to the next one. Sometimes there were several auctions going on simultaneously for the different auction houses. It must be tough to be a buyer. After the auction concluded, the auctioneer would pack up, and another man would come through with paper tags with the name of each fish’s buyer. He would dip the tag into a bucket of water and throw it onto the frozen fish. The wet tag would then stick to the fish until the buyer came with a dolly or truck to take it away to the inner market.

slicing frozen tuna on a band saw – slicing fresh tuna with a huge knife

After the auction, we headed into the inner market. Here, we probably say every type of seafood that was fit to eat. There were tanks with live fish, and boxes upon boxes of not-live fish. Octopus, shellfish, blowfish, you-name-it. There were also vendors with other foods like produce, tofu, seaweed, bonito, and so on. The corridors in the inner market are narrow, and it’s business, not a tourist attraction for most of the people here, so you really have to watch your step and keep it moving or you’re going to get wet!

T was looking for the Aritsugu knife shop, so we got directions and headed to the outer market, where Aritsugu is located.

T looks for the perfect knife – sharpening the knife – deba bocho

The outer market has many shops and restaurants, and is probably better suited for tourists and casual shoppers than the hectic inner market. There were actually three knife shops, so of course we went to all of them. T finally settled on a 30 cm blue steel yanagiba at Aritsugu. After he picked out the knife, the shopkeeper let him choose the piece of horn that holds the handle firm over the blade. T chose a lovely ivory and brown one. Finally, the shopkeeper sharpened the knife to perfection.

Tsukiji’s outer market

After we finished our shopping, we wanted to have a sushi breakfast, since we’d all heard that Tsukiji offers the best sushi anywhere. Since it was so cold and rainy, we headed right to the first sushi restaurant that we could all sit down at right away. Some of the other shops had lines out the door. The restaurant we picked only offered sets, so I had the ladies set, Alex had the deluxe set, and Dad and T had the chirashi. The fish was deliciously fresh, but the chefs were a bit hurried, so the presentation was nothing special and some of the nigiri had way too much wasabi. I can’t handle too much wasabi, so my sinuses were burning and my eyes were watering as I struggled to chew without letting the wasabi touch my tongue too much. Ouch!

chirashi-zushi with uni, ikura, maguro, firefly squid, tamago, hamachi, saba, and more

Although on a sunny day it would have been nice to wander the market some more, we were getting pretty wet and cold, so we hightailed it back to our hotel for a hot shower and a nap before heading out for the rest of the day.

tamago, ikura nigiri, and firefly squid nigiri

I highly recommend a trip to Tsukiji if you’ll be in Tokyo on a weekday or Saturday early in the morning. If you’ve just arrived in Japan, it will be great fun because you will probably be wide awake from your jet lag at this time anyways. If you go, I recommend getting a map of the outer market (some of the shopkeepers have old ones that they’ll give you for free), it’s in Japanese, but there’s pictures to help you find the shops you’re looking for. Follow the signs (don’t pretend you can’t read English and sneak into the “Do not enter” areas, that’s not polite). And finally, be careful! There’s lots of trucks, dollies, bicycles, and slippery floors around, so watch your step!

For more info, check out the 24 hours at Tsukiji Market website.


Robata Honten April 27, 2008

Filed under: Eating,Japan,Travel — laurel @ 10:22 pm
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inside Robata Honten – fried whole fish with vegetables and apples

We decided to try Robata Honten in Ginza after finding it in the Rough Guide to Japan. We were the first customers in the restaurant when we arrived around 7:00, but the small dining area filled up not long after. The atmosphere was dark and cozy. Not wanting to work to hard trying to read a menu, we ate omakase, chef’s choice. Our meal included a large platter with various salads, vegetables, and seafood, a stew, braised duck with oranges, and a whole fried fish with vegetables and apples (above). After we let the chef know that we had had enough to eat, we were brought not one, but two desserts. The first was a bowl of strawberries and a stiff ume (plum) jelly wrapped in bamboo leaves. You can see in the photo below the pattern of the veins in the leaves becomes embossed into the jelly. Next was (I think) warabi mochi dusted with kinako (ground toasted soybeans). Overall, the meal was a bit expensive (about 20,000 yen for four people including beers), but a fun and tasty experience.

desserts: strawberries with ume jelly – a close-up view of the ume jelly – kinako dusted warabi mochi


Ueno Ramen April 26, 2008

Filed under: Eating,Japan,Travel — laurel @ 7:43 pm
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D wanted to be sure to try some real ramen while he was visiting Japan (none of that instant stuff), so a few hours before it was time to go home, we found a nice little ramen joint in Ueno. I’m pretty sure it’s called Himuro. They serve a Hokkaido style miso ramen, shio ramen, shoyu ramen, and kimchi ramen. That’s the kimchi ramen in the picture above, and miso ramen with extra charshu pork below. It comes with a few slices of char-shu pork, menma (pickled bamboo shoots), sprouts, nori or wakame, and green onions. You can also add a hardboiled egg or a few other toppings for a bit extra. We ordered the miso ramen, kimchi ramen, and some gyoza. The ramen is salty, flavorful, and filling. The hardboiled eggs were a little inconsistent, with one being a bit on the overdone side. We really enjoyed the laid back atmosphere and the friendly staff here too.

On Saturday afternoon, it was hopping, but we liked it so much we came back later with T and my dad on Monday and enjoyed a more leisurely lunch. This time I tried the shio ramen, which was garnished with lots of ground sesame. You can also order any flavor “big size” but I don’t think I would need to since the regular size is pretty filling. After we finished our lunch, T gazed longingly at the giant bowls for the “big size” portions and said, “I think I should have gotten one of those…”

mmm… ramen…


Sakura at Ueno Park

Filed under: Four seasons in Japan,Japan,Travel — laurel @ 12:07 pm
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The spring break wrap-up continues! Since we had many friends visiting, we had several opportunities to see the sakura (cherry blossoms) at Ueno Park since Ueno Station is where we meet people who are coming and going to the airport. Although the cherry blossoms are long gone by now, during spring break they were at their peak. These photos are from March 28th, March 30th, and April 1st. We went to view the blossoms both at night and during the day. The lanes in the park were full of people, and company employees and small groups were seated on tarps on the edges enjoying drinking and picnics. It was the first night of sakura season the first night that we went, so we could here the constant toll of the bell at the shrine above the park as visitors came to make their springtime wishes.

Somei-yoshino sakura – festival vendors in the center of the park – lanterns and blossoms at night

a stone lantern – a torii gate

the Sunday crowds – getting the perfect shot


Kamakura April 23, 2008

March 28th, we went to the Hase area of Kamakura to see the Daibutsu. On our way there, we stopped at Hase-dera. Hase-dera has a beautiful garden and views of the coast and town below. The weather was lovely and we had a wonderful time enjoying the garden and temple grounds. Hase-dera was founded after the famous Hase-dera in Nara. It is said that the tree that the image of Kannon that is housed at Hase-dera in Nara was carved from was so large that a second image of Kannon was carved from it, and tossed into the sea, with the prayer that it would someday return to save humanity. Some years later, it washed ashore at Kamakura, and Hase-dera was founded near that spot.

On the way to the main hall, there is a smaller hall dedicated and garden area dedicated to Jizo. Here we saw the most adorable statues of Jizo.

There are many beautiful flowers blooming in the garden at Hase-dera. Of course, by this point, the cherry blossoms were blooming just about everywhere we went. In fact, this was the official opening day of cherry blossom viewing season in the Tokyo area. Here we also saw a beautiful bi-colored peach blossom. The same tree has branches with white flowers and branches with deep pink flowers.

Next we went to see the Daibutsu (Big Buddha) of Kamakura. The Daibutsu is one of the most popular attractions in Kamakura. The Daibutsu is 12.3 meters tall and is sculpted from bronze. On the wall of the temple is a pair of woven straw sandals that are sized to fit the Great Buddha’s feet. You can get an idea of the scale of the statue by standing next to these huge sandals. You can learn more about Kamakura Daibutsu, Hase-dera, and other sights in Kamakura here.

I stopped on the way to the Daibutsu at a small stand selling niku-man and other Chinese dumplings. The niku-man was 400 yen, which is a bit expensive for these steamed, meat-filled buns, but it was large enough to share, and one of the best ones I’ve had. I highly recommend it. It is the small, Chinese-style building on the left side of the street as you walk toward the Daibutsu.


Keep your friends close, and your tulips closer. April 22, 2008

Filed under: Four seasons in Japan,Japan,Maebashi — laurel @ 10:40 pm
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Here’s a brief interlude from my ongoing “What did I do over spring break” update for some local news. My town of Maebashi has made the news recently, as a flower-chopping bandit has been wreaking havoc on people’s tulips overnight. Here’s the Asahi Shimbun story:

Briefly: 1,900 tulips found chopped off

MAEBASHI–Nearly 1,900 tulips that local residents grew for a festival have been found with their tops chopped off.

In the third case this month, the tops of 65 tulips were cut off near the prefectural government office from late Friday to early Saturday.

On April 9, 1,050 tulips were found cut in flower boxes between JR Maebashi Station and the prefectural government office.

Overnight on April 13-14, 766 tulips in 217 boxes in an area 1 kilometer from the site of the first incident were similarly vandalized.

Apparently, these acts of anti-floral civil disobedience has sparked a spate of copycat crimes in other prefectures. Here’s a link to that story.