Wednesday, March 31, 2010

#19 Food

Food, like the bicycle, is everywhere. But food is not the same in Japan, as many people know. Octopus tentacles cooked in dough (delicious). Pufferfish sashimi with a side of soy sauce and wasabi (also very good). Rotten ("fermented") soy beans (part of my breakfast every day). And if you've only had instant ramen, you are missing out on one of the tastiest (if also very unhealthy) comfort foods. For some reason, Japan has tested the limits of food, and though most countries have their oddities, Japanese people seem to be particularly adept at seeking out the most fascinating ways of eating.

More than this, though, it is the Japanese enjoyment of food that is striking. When I first started watching Japanese television, I was amazed by how many shows there were about food. Of course there are cooking shows, just like in the US, but talk shows invite their guests to sample a dish; game shows, even those that don't revolve around food like Ryori no Tetsujin (or Iron Chef) will include food in the game in some fashion. Travel shows must include local eateries, and often the eatery is more important than the program's destination; sometimes, it is the destination.

And every dish is relished. With the first bite it is "uma'!" or "oishii--honto ni oishii" (both mean "tasty", "delicious"). Faces contorted in the most sublime pleasure. Women titter and blush, while men sit back and let out sighs after each bite.

When I first saw this in the US on Japanese tv there, I thought it was all a show, acting; every one of the people making these comments was a performer of some kind. But then I had my first meal here, and I too was struck by how remarkably tasty it was. I've had mediocre food here before, of course, but I don't remember being shocked at how good something was in the US more than a couple of times, whereas here I have more than once been spirited away by even quite simple fare. I'm not quick to give out compliments, a fault I'm aware of; all the more fantastic, then, is the meal that shortcuts this cynicism and grants me the unwarranted pleasure of expressing the most profound and deeply felt gratitude for good food. It is healing.

I've been introduced to hundreds of dishes, ingredients and ways of cooking here, and it would be pretty dull to list them all, I guess. But I do want to cover at least a couple of themes.

First is ramen. Like I said, if you have only had instant ramen, well, you haven't had ramen at all. Real ramen is just as bad, maybe worse for you, but if you only eat it once in a while, it satisfies like nothing else, in my opinion. There are thousands of variations, but usually there's a chicken stock or pork bone base, wheat noodles, chopped green onions, a mushroom of some kind, and a piece of pork. I'm generally vegetarian these days, but ramen is something I still get cravings for. See the movie Tampopo if you haven't yet, then go to Japan to eat the real thing. Tampopo restaurant in San Francisco's Japan town is pretty good, but not as sublime.

Next is tofu. I know, boring, right? Whatever. The problem with tofu in the US is that it is hard as rubber and couldn't soak up other ingredients if you fired at it with a shot gun. After searching for the hard stuff for about a month here, I got into momen, the slightly firm version. Cooked right, momen is fantastic by itself, but with shiitake mushrooms, a good dashi, maybe some oyster sauce, it is fantastic. And silken tofu, the really soft stuff, is very delicate and perfect with rice and bamboo shoots. Then there's atsuage, fried slabs of the rubbery stuff (you can also get silken tofu atsu age, which makes a nice, tender teriyaki steak). This is the one time I like the rubbery stuff: it's easy to make a taco/burrito filling chopped up and seasoned with some cayenne and cumin.

The next is yuba: I'm not sure how many people are familiar with it, but it is exquisite. I think they sell dried yuba in the US, but the fresh stuff is fantastic. Soy milk is cooked until a film develops; the film is skimmed and served hot, with soy sauce or some other seasoning, or as a wrapping for sushi. The texture is sort of like grilled mozzarella, but the flavor is more subtle.

Finally is the izakaya. I may have talked about it before, but an izakaya is the Japanese version of a bar. Really it is more like a family restaurant, with lots of alcohol. So you eat while you drink, a drape between you and other tables so that you and friends have privacy and can hear each other when you talk, but there is still the atmosphere of a night on the town. Often the food at an izakaya is as good as a regular restaurant, with an a la carte setup. There's no mingling, really, but these days that's not as important as it used to be. A nice place to relax and wind down after 12 hours at work.

I want to say more about food, but I think it's really, in the end, something you have to experience first hand. So try to make it to Tokyo sometime.

Sunday, March 14, 2010

#20 - Bicycles and Transportation

Of course, bicycles are found everywhere, and Japan is not the most bicycle-friendly place in the world. I do, though, think that the situation, at least here in Tokyo, is better than people imagine.

Now, I'm not talking about cycling, about road bikes or mountain bikes. I'm talking about biking in general.

Most of the bikes here are the heavy-duty tanks with a basket on front that are called mamacharis here (by the way, that is mama, for the typical housewife who rides the bikes, often with kids in the basket at the handlebars, to the market; chari is short for charinko, a cutesy word for bicycle). I have one, and all of my Japanese neighbors do, too. I, like my neighbors, use it for local trips, to the supermarket, conbini (convenience store), the dvd rental store, the train station.

It's something I never would have bought in the US, because I didn't see the need: clunky, ugly, heavy, and not particularly well-built. But I will have to get something like it when I get back. I do have a fast bike I use for commuting and exercise, but the mamachari is, like I said before, a tank, as well as a comfort. I'll give you an example of its "tankness": last year, a spoke broke on my commuting bike. I was late for work, and was really feeling energetic, so I decided to continue on and hope I could make it. About thirty minutes later, though, I heard another tinny "thwak", signaling a second broken spoke, and I knew I'd have to lock the bike up and scramble as fast as I could on foot to the train station (I leave early in case I run in to just this sort of problem). Good things come in threes (is that it?) and I broke a spoke on my tank very soon after. I immediately dealt with the commuter spokes, but I didn't really care about the tank; in any case, I suspected the tank could handle it. In truth, a year later I haven't repaired the tank spoke, and it still rides fine.

I mentioned above comfort, and I should probably explain that a bit. I ride my commuter at least three times a week to work. The saddle is up high and hard, the tires are pumped up as far they can go, and I've got clipless pedals; I don't feel comfortable riding it without gloves or a helmet. I usually lock it up, though I don't really need to. In other words, it is a bit of a hassle to ride for short trips. So the tank comes out at night for a trip locally. I would never ride it more than a couple of kilos, but it is set up perfectly for that La-Z-Boy feel: saddle way down and plush, bars bent back easily within reach, and soft tires that absorb every bump. When I ride the bike, even more than when I'm walking, I feel like I'm on a "stroll," waddling from side to side, not really paying attention to where I'm going, maybe even saying howdy to other folks on their charis (not really, but the impulse is there). That's what I mean by comfort.

The charis are built into the transportation system here (unlike the "cycling bikes," unfortunately). Again, this may be specific to Tokyo because the streets are winding and incomprehensible, but because of that winding incomprehensibility, cars usually stay off the back streets and stick to the monstrous-for-Japan-but-still-tiny-for-the-US main streets. So the back streets are left to strolling pedestrians and bicycles. On these back streets, you might forget that you are in the biggest city in the world, with their potted plants and their tottering old grandmas walking with tottering infants and their high-school punks riding side-by-side across the entire street. Bicycles even get to go down most one-way streets the wrong way, legally, with signs and everything to prove it. Oh, and they can ride on the sidewalk, something I avoid with my commuter, but that works well at the slow speed of the tank.

The main streets, of course, are another matter, and I won't deny I hate riding them. However, they beat the crap out of riding on any street in a big city in the US. Basically, it is for one reason: the drivers are polite. I'm not going to go into a big rant here about the idiotic phenomenon of road rage that seems to be an accepted part of life in many other countries because I said I wouldn't complain, but most of the time I can depend on drivers not to try to kill me to get to the next red light in time to stop. They do honk, but the funny thing is, they are usually honking not to tell me to get out of the way, but to make sure I know they are there (it took me a long while and a lot of my own road rage before I understood that). There are exceptions, of course, but most of the time...

Alright, obviously I could go on about the bike business for awhile, but I'll spare you. I'll leave you with this video about a bike park in Chiba (next to Tokyo). I've never been there, though it isn't far away; I may take a look some time before I leave. Anyway, it introduces the automated bike park there, but it also shows some of the everyday lifestyle in Tokyo (well, near Tokyo). Note: it is really, really loud.

Sunday, March 07, 2010

20 or So Things I Like About Japan

For those that haven't heard, I'm moving back to the US in May. Though basically I'm returning because I would have a hard time sponsoring myself to renew my visa, really I feel it's about time to get back and reconnect with friends and family, and so I'm looking forward to my return. On the other hand, I've been here almost four years and I have grown pretty comfortable. There are tradeoffs.

Thinking about leaving, often the first things that come to mind are the things I won't miss. There's no doubt Japan is very different from the US, and the differences can begin to grate, especially on a bad day. There will definitely be things I'll be happy to leave behind. And if you had asked me about a year ago (I don't really know why, but I was pretty burnt out on Japan at the time), I'd have given you a nice lengthy list. Somehow, though, my attitude has mellowed a bit over the past year.

I remember before I came here I read for hours on end the complaints and gripes expatriates had about Japan on various online forums. I knew a bit about Japan even then, so I took some of it with a grain of salt. Still, it did make me a bit apprehensive, and some people held a vehement hatred for Japan and Japanese, a kind of violent racism that I feared might grow in me.

Of course, the greater part of this fear and animosity was due to the ignorance and/or arrogance of the posters on those forums (and the forums are infamous for their nastiness). My experience has shown me that your reaction to a cultural difference is often a choice rather than ingrained, and so it sometimes is possible to accept the culturally alien worst and learn from, or at least have respect for, the culturally alien best.

In any case, I am leaving Japan amicably, and there are things I will miss about the country. As a sort of remembrance of my time here, I wanted to share some of the things I found here that I will find hard to replace in the US. So I've got a bit over 20 things I've come up with that I thought I'd write about over the next few weeks before my return. Many of them I've written about before in other contexts, but this will give me a chance to gather together some general thoughts about these subjects in particular.

Note that these are not directly criticisms of the US or any other country, though some of them are things I would like to see happen in the US. Most of them, though, are just pleasant things that I've found here. Hopefully it will be different from what people normally hear about Japan (there's no entry for the panty-dispensing vending machines everyone always talks about, for example), so that readers might find something new that interests them.