Grilled as you like it

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

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


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


Daigaku Imo November 25, 2009

Filed under: Cooking,Four seasons in Japan,Japan,recipes — laurel @ 8:34 pm
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What’s for dinner tonight? Well, it’s fall, so I’ve been getting lots of vegetables from teachers who have big gardens or small farms. I got some sweet potatoes last week, so I thought we should have daigaku imo with dinner (along with a grilled hokke, rice, and salad).

While the recipe on Just Hungry looks delicious, I can’t be bothered to deep fry at home, so I really liked the look of the recipe at Food Lover’s Guide to Tokyo. It was really easy- just chop up a large sweet potato, put it in a frying pan with the rest of the ingredients and cook it until the water’s gone and the sugar makes a nice syrup. Then sprinkle with sesame seeds.


Japanese food in the news November 18, 2009

Filed under: Eating,Four seasons in Japan,Japan — laurel @ 11:21 pm
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I stumbled across some interesting articles about Japanese food while reading the newspaper today. The first was an article about the reduction of next year’s Atlantic bluefin tuna quota by 40% in an effort to save the species from overfishing. I was surprised to read that Japan has stockpiled 24,600 tons of frozen bluefin tuna, which is nearly double next year’s scheduled catch of Atlantic bluefin. Based on the numbers in the article, it sounds like this means that the country has about a year’s supply of tuna on ice (as Pacific bluefin make up the other half).

I try to avoid eating bluefin most of the time myself, but it’s amazing to me that with the species facing such hard times every sushi shop in town is still able to offer a plate of hon-maguro or otoro for just a few hundred yen. It just doesn’t compute.

Read more at Asahi Shimbun: 2010 Atlantic tuna quota slashed 40%

The other article was about growing imports of that seasonal fall specialty mushroom, the matsutake. According to the article some imported matsutake can rival the quality of domestic mushrooms for a much lower price. Perhaps I should check them out. I’ve heard that you can find these mushrooms growing wild in Colorado too, so maybe I can make a hobby of it after I go home too. 🙂

Foreign growers cash in on demand for ‘matsutake’

Writing about Japanese food in the news reminds me that I also have yet to post this article from the Japan Times about Elizabeth Andoh and her upcoming book Kansha: Celebrating Japan’s Vegetarian Traditions.

Key ingredient in Japanese cuisine found in the mind


The fruits of our labors October 22, 2008

Grapes (clockwise from top): red Aki Queen (Autumn Queen), purple izumi-nishiki, green beni-fuji, black kyoho. There’s not really anything in this picture to give you a sense of the size of them; that’s a pretty big basket though. For an idea of how big they are, check out the picture of the Takatsuma variety at the bottom of this post.

A few weeks ago, we went back to Noriko’s grape farm in Yoshioka. I had hoped to see the greenhouse a riot of different colored and shaped grapes; lovely clusters hanging from the gnarled vines. I was surprised to see that many of the vines were bare except for their green leaves. Of course! I realized, each of the varieties ripens in succession, which allows for a long harvest season. The vines that were bearing fruit had little white paper umbrellas draped over each perfect bunch, so instead of vines laden with fruit, there were vines dotted with paper umbrellas. We wandered into the greenhouse, passing the already harvested vines on our way to the far corner of the greenhouse, where the grapes that I had pruned earlier in the season were growing. Finally we found them: one paper umbrella with ローレル written in black marker on it. There it was, my bunch of grapes. I peeked under the paper hat: they were giant, nearly black, and very round. I clipped my grapes from the vine and held them up proudly.

On our way back to the entrance we saw Yoshi’s mom, who was working at the grape farm that day. “Beni-fuji” she said, popping grapes off of a bunch and into our hands. The green grapes were sweet and delicious. Baby Shoma stretched out his hands for a grape. Into his mouth it went, as he stretched out his hands for another.

At the farm: kyoho grapes under their kasa | grapes for sale

Back by the seating and sales area, we trimmed the stem on my bunch of grapes and wrapped them in a special bag just for grapes. We taped on a label “Izumi-nishiki.” I was surprised to learn that the Izumi-nishiki grapes are sold for 2000 yen a kilogram! Wow!

Then our friend Tomomi bought some grapes to send to her family. While she filled out the forms for delivery, we sat at the table and watched Shoma play. Noriko brought over some grapes for us to eat. Shoma saw the grapes and opened his palms for one after another. He loved the grapes, though it seemed like some of the bigger ones would barely fit into his mouth. We snacked on the black Kyoho and red Aki Queen.

The Aki Queen were delicious, so I decided to buy a bunch. “Are you sure?” Noriko and Yoshi’s mom asked, “They’re too expensive.” But I like to support local farmers, especially since they’re our friends. “Of course,” I said. Later, as we were preparing to leave our friends tucked more bunches of grapes into our bags. Later still, Tomomi traded my one bunch for her two, saying, “I can get them anytime.”

So after our trip to the farm, we made our way home with not one, but four bunches of lovely grapes to try.

All of the grapes were very good, with different flavors, but my favorite was the Izumi-nishiki, which had a lovely flavor and good balance of sweet and sour. The grapes had a firm texture (which I really like-I can’t stand mushy fruit) and the largest ones were nearly the size of ping-pong balls. My second favorite were the red Aki Queens. They had a more tart and tangy flavor and was really firm. Beni-fuji was sweet and juicy, but a little softer. The kyoho were similar to the Izumi-nishiki, but with less punch: they were good, but next to the others, they just couldn’t compare.

Last week Tomomi brought us another late-season variety to try: Takatsuma. These ones were also very tasty, not to mention huge! I love the beautiful garnet color too.

Takatsuma grapes. I held them to give a sense of the size of the grapes. Instead of making the grapes look big, it seems like they make my hands look small. Trust me, those are my hands, not tiny baby hands; those grapes are huge! Aren’t they beautiful?

Copyright 2008 LMS