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Goodbye for now, Japan August 14, 2010

Filed under: Colorado,Japan,Travel — laurel @ 10:15 am
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You may have noticed that it’s been a while since I posted anything new. Well, first I was studying for the JLPT (Japanese Language Proficiency Test) in July. After a late night watching World Cup, the test didn’t go so well, but I’ll hold out hope until the results arrive in September. After that I was preparing for the end of the spring school term and then we had less than a week to pack up our whole lives. We shipped most of our stuff by sea on July 29th, cleaned and finished packing what was left on the 30th, and on July 31st we moved out of the apartment and said goodbye to Japan, for now.

I’m still terribly behind on my posts, so I’ll have plenty of Japan and Asia things to write about as I catch up over the next couple of months including the rest of our Kyushu trip, winter vacation in Vietnam and Cambodia, Sapporo Snow Festival, a big around-Japan trip during spring vacation, Golden Week in China, a summertime visit to Kansai and Koya-san, and finally a short trip to Seoul.

Of course I’ll keep posting plenty of recipes too.

So where will I be? Well, we don’t have jobs yet, but unemployed and homeless hasn’t been so bad so far. We’ve had time to relax, eat some good Mexican food (and bad Mexican food), eat Mediterranean/Lebanese food, make Indian food, marvel at the awesome amazing giganticness of the Whole Foods down the street, and do a little shopping to replace our travel-worn clothes. I hope I’ll have plenty of time to read and write (and catch up here) in the next few weeks, too. We’re relaxing at Alex’s sister’s house in Denver now and are hoping to visit Portland soon. After that, who knows?

 

Nagasaki, Unzen, and Shimabara July 20, 2010

Our next stop in Kyushu was Nagasaki. We had a pleasant morning stroll in the Teramachi district.

That’s a big pot! It might be hard to tell from the photo, but you could probably fit about ten of me in this pot. You can see a tiny person wearing a pink shirt in the background, that’s how big this pot is.

After our stroll we headed to Chinatown. We had Nagasaki’s famous “Chinese” noodle dishes, sara udon and champon. The noodle dishes were pretty forgettable, in fact, they seemed to be the same toppings on top of different noodles.

But while we were waiting for seats in the restaurant for lunch, we had some buta-kakuni buns that were very tasty.

The next day we headed out early in the morning to Unzen Onsen. Like Beppu, Unzen also has an area called a “hell,” where sulfurous water and steam bubble from the ground. Most of the hell is pretty dry these days, and crisscrossed with pipes and hoses that siphon the hot water off to the onsen hotels.


a ghostly tree in Unzen

In some spots steam vents out of the ground. Spiky yellow sulfur crystals form around the mouth of the fissure.


A basket of eggs cooks on top of a steam pipe

As at any onsen with a healthy number of tourists, they’ve devised a way to use the onsen’s heat to cook eggs to sell. This pipe basically vents steam directly out of the ground. Top it with a basket of eggs and a towl and you’ve basically got yourself a little egg-oven.

After Unzen we headed to Shimabara, which is just a short bus ride away. Shimabara is known as a city of water, with many famous canals, fountains, and springs. Koi are a famous symbol of the town.

First we enjoyed a lunch of guzoni at Himematsuya. Guzoni is the famous dish of Shimabara, a filling soup made with eel, fu (wheat gluten), kamaboko (fish cake), chikuwa (more fish cake), tamagoyaki (egg), shiitake, hakusai (napa cabbage), lotus root, gobo (burdock), chicken, mitsuba, and of course mochi (those are the white rice cakes on top of the soup in the picture). Mmm… if you find yourself in Shimabara, definitely try some guzoni.

After lunch we walked around to see the sights in Shimabara. First we went to Shimabara castle. Then we went to the city of swimming carp and the Hama-no-kawa spring.


Aren’t these funny looking birds cute?

Interested in Nagasaki, Unzen, and Shimabara? Check it out here: http://www.ngs-kenkanren.com/eng/cs3.html
http://www.city.shimabara.lg.jp/english/003.html

See more from our trip at Alex’s photoblog: Nagasaki and Unzen and Shimabara

 

Ippudo ramen in Hakata June 26, 2010

Filed under: Eating,Japan,Travel — laurel @ 4:10 pm
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Ippudo’s honten kasane aji ramen

After Beppu we were off to Nagasaki, but not before changing trains in Fukuoka/Hakata. It was around dinner time, so we decided to try one more time to find the Ippudo Honten. Ramen is one of my favorite foods when traveling in Japan for many reasons. First of all, it’s hard to mess it up, so wherever you find a ramen shop, you are almost sure to find a good meal. It’s also filling yet affordable. And finally, it’s one of those foods that will be hard to find once we go back to America, so we had better enjoy it while we can. Ippudo is a famous chain of Hakata-style tonkotsu ramen shops, and we often stop in at their Ueno location for lunch when we’re on the way to the airport.

I had read in the Japan Times that the original shop has a honten-only tonkotsu made with additions of caramelized onions and chicken broth that sounded worth searching out.

We already knew where one location in the Tenjin district was, so we stopped in there to get directions to the honten.


the hand-lettered menu


Hakata pork bun: a quick and cheap snack

They directed us a few blocks down the way. We found this location. The long line of guidebook-in-hand customers snaking out the door was a good sign that we were on the right track…

…but the fact that the shop had two stories should have been a dead giveaway that this couldn’t be the original shop! When it was our turn to be seated, the host kindly told us that we were in the wrong place and showed us a small map to the honten that was affixed to the outside wall of the restaurant (but obscured by the long line of customers). The real honten was actually still a block away.


Ippudo Honten

Aha! Finally, we found it on the third try. Of course there was a line here too, and this location was much smaller, so it wasn’t moving as quickly. We were starting to feel pretty hungry, but we were inside soon enough.


bowls waiting to be filled with ramen goodness


help yourself to some pickles


hitokuchi (one bite) gyoza

Of course, we had to get the honten kasane aji ramen since it was what we had come all this way for. We also got an order of hitokuchi gyoza to snack on. The honten kasane aji ramen came topped with not just onions, soft-boiled eggs, nori, and charshu pork slices, but also sliced vegetables, naruto (fish cake) and mini wontons. Don’t make the mistake of ordering your soup and noodles “futsuu” (average); instead I always ask the waiter “osusume wa?” (what do you recommend) and get it that way. This is how I learned to order the noodles on the hard side. The noodles continue to cook in the hot ramen broth, so they’ll be too soft and plump by the time you’re finished if they’re already average to begin with. So what’s the verdict on honten kasane aji ramen? I think it was indisputably worth the trouble.


I love the slogan on the staff T-shirts: your happiness of eating this ramen makes us happy

While you’ll have to go to Hakata to try the honten kasane aji ramen, you can enjoy Ippudo’s other ramens (I recommend the akamaru) here in Gunma at their new(ish) Takasaki location:
群馬県高崎市上大類町809番地1号 | Gunma-ken, Takasaki-shi, Kamioorui-machi 809-1

 

Beppu June 24, 2010


Takegawara Onsen, Beppu

We headed off to Beppu on the Sonic limited express train. The hotel had a nice outdoor onsen on the rooftop so we could enjoy the view of the stars and the hot bath. In the morning we checked out of our hotel and walked along the shore (which was lined with giant concrete erosion control “jacks”) before walking to Takegawara Onsen. Takegawara is a historic onsen that dates back to 1879. There we took a sand bath: you dress in a cotton yukata, lay down in the hot sand, and the bath attendants bury you up to your chin in steaming hot sand. You lay under the sand until you feel just a little bit cooked and just a little bit crushed, before they tell you to wriggle out of the sand and rinse off in the bath. Unfortunately by the time my “bath” was finished, the morning sun was shining right in my eyes, so I had to close them. The feeling is uniquely oppressive yet refreshing.

After the bath we hopped on a bus to see some of Beppu’s famed jigoku (“hells”). The first one we arrived at was Hon-bozu Jigoku (Real Monk’s Hell), which is managed independently of the other hells. The jigoku is named for the hot bubbling mud that resembles a monk’s shaven head, and the historical  handout that we got said that when the geyser first opened up during an earthquake there was a monastery on the site and the monk was tossed into the air by the hot steam (I hope that part is just a legend). In any case, the muddy hills were pretty cool to look at so I would definitely recommend this jigoku.

There was also a spot where volcanic gases vented out from under a rock. Lots of people have left their coins here and the 5 and 10 yen coins turn an impressive shade of violet.

Next we walked downhill to Umi jigoku (Sea Hell). This hell was very popular but also very beautiful. The water is a beautiful aqua shade. There are some torii that lead to a small shrine. Onsen tamago in a basket suspended from a bamboo pole cook in the main pond.


onsen tamago

In addition to the main pond there is a large, emerald green pond. In the pond you can see lotus flowers and giant lily pads which are apparently large enough to float small children on.


Umi Jigoku’s Chinoike

There is also a mini Chinoike (Blood Pond) there. Although it was small, on that day this Chinoike was much more impressive than the real thing.


the real Chinoike

Unfortunately, it was really sunny that day so the jigoku were not at their photogenic best. The steam rising from the ponds was a little thin and a lot of them were just plain old boring. I’d say that Umi Jigoku was the best value and Hon-bozu Jigoku was pretty interesting. Bozu Jigoku, next to Umi Jigoku, was a huge disappointment and hardly seemed worth the 400 yen entrance fee. Shiraike Jigoku was just ok, but might be better on a cooler day. Chinoike Jigoku seems to have potential, but was pretty boring on a sunny day.

Of course our day in Beppu wasn’t all hells an photo-taking. We also stopped to enjoy some snacks. I wanted to try the onsen tamago at Umi Jigoku, but unfortunately they’re sold 5 at a time. I didn’t really want to eat 5 boiled eggs so we had some ice cream and an onsen steamed custard (it was just ok). Outside of Shiraike Jigoku, some vendors were selling eggs cooked with onsen steam by the piece, so we bought some. They were much firmer than the onsen tamago that I’m used to (I suppose that makes sense, steam is hotter than most onsen water) and pretty bouncy (well done). I suppose in the end it’s just a novelty, but it was a pretty tasty snack. We also found a shop selling moromi soft serve. Moromi is a kind of chunky, whole-grained relative of miso that is often used as a vegetable dip. It’s a little sweet and tastes a lot like miso. So how was moromi soft serve? Pretty good, actually.

 

Silver Week in Kyushu: Hakata/Fukuoka June 19, 2010

Filed under: Eating,Four seasons in Japan,Japan,Travel — laurel @ 11:25 pm
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Fukuoka’s yatai street

September in Japan has the public holidays Respect for the Aged Day and the Autumnal Equinox. Respect for the Aged Day always falls on a Monday, while the Autumnal Equinox always falls on September 23rd. If, by a quirk of the calendar, there is only one day in between them, a new holiday called Kokumin-no-hi (People of the Nation’s Day) is created. Well, last year, just such a day occurred. Like Golden Week in the spring, many people used this extra-long holiday (which became known as Silver Week) as an opportunity to travel. We took Thursday and Friday off too and took a whirlwind tour of Kyushu.

First off, we flew into Fukuoka, which is also known as Hakata. They used to be two cities but are now one. It seems that they haven’t been able to settle on a name yet (Officially it’s Fukuoka, but the train station is Hakata). We had an afternoon to see the city before heading off to the hot spring town of Beppu.


A very narrow building along the river

We caught a bus to get to an area called Bayside Place. Wikitravel had recommended it as a good place to go for a date… well, not so much. As far as we could tell it was closed for renovations… or maybe just closed. The Hakata Port Tower is in the same area, so we went up to the top for the view. After enjoying the scenery we came back down and walked back to the downtown area.

Now we were getting hungry. Since we were in the Tenjin area, we stopped into an Ippudo Ramen that we passed, seeing if it was the honten (original store). It was not, so we appeased our stomachs with a Hakata pork bun before heading back out in search of food.


Hakata pork buns


waiting for a seat to open up at a yatai

Hakata/Fukuoka is known for it’s yatai, which are open air food stands like the ones you see at festivals. We went walking along the yatai street at Nakasu looking for something to eat. It was really crowded, so we found one where the wait seemed reasonable and enjoyed a bowl of Tonkotsu ramen. Tonkotsu is Hakata’s famous style of ramen made with a thick, white, pork bone broth, thin noodles, and slices of pork.


tonkotsu ramen

After dinner we went walking through the colorful Canal City shopping center before catching our train.


Canal City


Canal City

See more from Fukuoka at Alex’s photoblog

 

Nakiri-bocho April 20, 2010

Filed under: Cooking,Japan,Travel — laurel @ 10:50 pm
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I picked this bad boy up in Kappabashi last summer. It’s a nakiri-bocho, or vegetable cutting knife. At first, it might not sound so useful because it’s just for cutting vegetables… not as versatile as a chef’s knife. However, I find that I use it almost every night. Vegetables are probably the thing that you cut most, and this knife does it well. It’s super sharp and thin, so you can get nice, even slices. It does a great job cutting crisp vegetables like lotus roots that tend to split when you cut them with a thicker chef’s knife. And the lightness and flat cutting edge allow you to get into a really fast cutting rhythm (just watch your fingers). It really shines when cutting an herb chiffonade or whisper thin rings of green onion. The thin blade, however, means it’s not for cutting really hard things like kabocha or other winter squash. I also reserve this knife just for fruits and vegetables (though I don’t thing the shape would be very good for cutting meat anyways).

Since I only cut fruits and vegetables with it, cleanup is just a quick rinse and dry. Even though it’s “stainless,” it can’t be left sitting around wet or with vegetables stuck on it, as it will rust on the cutting edge. But with just a little care, it stays in fine condition. I also take time to sharpen it on a whetstone occasionally (about once every month or two). A regular high-carbon steel knife will have more of a tendency to rust, so it is even more important to wash and dry it right away after using it.

Another benefit of a nakiri-bocho is that unlike many Japanese knives which have single-edged blades, the nakiri-bocho is sharpened on both sides, so it can be used by both left- and right-handers (which is handy in my kitchen since I’m left-handed and Alex is right handed).

I bought mine at Kama-Asa Shoten in Kappabashi. As a service, they’ll also engrave your name on your knife. My knife is 速月桂樹 (hayai-gekkeiju), which is my last and first name translated into Japanese. My students always get a good laugh when I tell them they can remember my name as hayai-gekkeiju; I suppose the mental image of a branch of laurel running by quickly is pretty funny.

So if you’re looking to add a traditional Japanese knife to your collection, I highly recommend a nakiri-bocho.

 

Tsukiji market tuna auction closed to public until May April 14, 2010

Filed under: Eating,Four seasons in Japan,Japan,Travel — laurel @ 10:57 pm
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Tokyo’s famed Tsukiji Central Wholesale Market, the center of the world’s seafood trade, has closed the famed tuna auctions to tourists until May 8th (see the story in Mainichi Daily News). Although the market has closed the auctions to tourists during the busy New Year’s season, this is the first time that they have been closed outside of that time period. It’s too bad, but on my last visit I did notice that the long lines of (slightly clueless) tourists were in the way and some of the workers at the market seemed frustrated with their mere presence. Of course, this doesn’t mean that the market is completely closed–you can still enjoy a delicious sushi breakfast in the outer market and peruse the shops there. Once the auctions reopen, if you go, stay out of the way of ongoing business, look out for those turret trucks, and don’t touch the fish!


turret truck traffic