Monday, August 31, 2009

down California I-5, destination: Hollywood

Onto a new subject! If those of you are still with me, I am now in L.A., affectionately known (to some) as LaLa land. Not to confuse you, the posts from Japan were from last year, and now I am posting in real time. I chose to drive this time, for the experience, the visiting different people, and the drive up highway one on the way back to Sausalito. Yes, I am a California native and have never ever ever ever driven highway one between LA & the northern end of Big Sur.

The drive down was easily accomplished in 6 hours (that even includes a stop for lunch at a very marginal Indian Restaurant (photos to follow). I am so optimistic when it comes to food. The hand painted signs on the highway advertised "healthful Indian food". At least it was a little different than the Carl's Jr., Wendy's and Taco Bell choices at most roadside stops. I entered the air-conditioned "oasis" to fake plants, various hanging glittery decorations, and a large menu board. I quickly scanned the menu, as I didn't want to get too off track from my drive. I chose the Lamb Biriani, the server asked, "Is that all?," as if the $11.75 dish would not be enough to feed my senses. Oh yeah, "and a chai", I responded. A bad Indian soap opera was playing on the T.V. across the room, dubbed with English, and blaring loud enough to distract the 2 other tables of travelers.

The Biriani arrived and was basically a large plate of rice, smattered with a few chunks of braised lamb shoulder. The spice was actually quite right, a little heat, but not too much, but way too little sauce and way too much rice. Now I understand why she asked if that was all I wanted. The chai had not yet arrived and so, in very bad restaurant etiquette (yes, I am a bad girl most of the time), I got up and asked for a Raita to accompany my meal (instead of waiting for the server to come back). the Raita arrived and was even more disappointing than the Biriani, a bowl of thinned yogurt, studded sparingly with shredded raw carrots. Not a cucumber in site. Eeeghads, "please make my chai to go," I asked as she brought me the check and still no chai. The bill was $18.

I was only in there for like 20 minutes, max, which thrilled me to stay on schedule and make it to Hollywood by 3:30 (I left Sausalito at 9:15am). My ride was accompanied by a book on (multiple) CD's: Haruki Murakami's "Kafka on the Shore". I had ordered this CD series through Amazon a few weeks back, and was shocked it came in a large set of 15 CD's about an hour each. Haruki Murakami is my favorite author and I am pleased to say that this book on CD is as captivating as all of his other books that I've read.

I arrived at Ricardo's incredibly hot (90 F) Hollywood apartment at 3:30 on the nose (i'm such a planner!). After about 1/2 hour I motioned for a walk and a beer. We walked the 4 blocks up and around the corner to Sunset Blvd and the Cat & Fiddle Pub which had a nice outdoor courtyard area. If one didn't know it, you could have been in Barcelona, Mexico City or, well, Hollywood.

I'm surprised that the air is so clear here in Hollywood, as the fire up in the Northeastern part of LA county is burning out of control. Here's to prayers and luck to all the firefighters (including a good friend of mine, I'm sure) for a break in this stifling weather.

Now off to our friend Joe's house in West Hollywood for a little cold wine and cheese, and then to La Mozza Pizzeria for dinner.

My last 24 hours, Chicken Teriyaki and harried shopping

I was sad to leave Kyoto. Do you ever have that feeling of wanting just a few more minutes, a few last stores to open their doors to you, a few more hours to explore that corner of town that you just barely caught a glimpse of? There is a racing of the heart and a quickening of the breath and an overall heightening of the senses that comes with that feeling.

As I made my way to the Chicken Teriyaki cooking class, a light rain began to fall. Everything was timed just so. Do the cooking class, go back to the hotel and gather my luggage, jump into a taxi and make it to the train by 1 pm. The bullet train ride to Tokyo is only about 3 hours. Time enough to perhaps do a little more shopping around Tokyo before departing to the states the next morning, as I wanted to make it back to that print shop in Akasuka.
I arrived at the tall narrow apartment building that housed the small Women's Association of Kyoto (WAK). I was instructed to go to the 5th floor this time, to a small apartment where my cooking instructor, Akiko, eagerly awaited me at the door. I had chosen this class as a contrast to my other, more formal, cooking classes in Tokyo. This was Japanese home cooking and I was happy I made the effort to experience what people eat on a day to day basis.

The small kitchen and dining table were what one would expect of a modest apartment in Kyoto. Nothing fancy, yet all of the necessary items layed out. We were to make Teriyaki chicken (using the thigh), miso soup, and a wilted cabbage salad with miso and mustard dressing.
Akiko and I started right in, scoring the chicken skin and marinating it in a small amount of soy sauce and sake (regular sake, no sweet cooking sake, or Mirin). We set out to make the miso soup next using kombu seaweed and bonito flakes for the broth. This was very familiar to me and she was sort of impressed at my adeptness with japanese ingredients. We used a fine mesh strainer to dissolve white miso into the broth (to eliminate any solids and have a smooth final product). White miso is generally only used for New Year's Day Miso Soup, as it is the unaged variety and symbolizes the start of the new year. It was June, but we used it anyway.

After we finished the soup, we started in on the wilted salad. It was a wonderful little salad, with rehydrated shiitake mushrooms, wilted greens (like a hearty spinach or baby bok choy). We made a dressing of japanese mustard (comes in a little tube, which I picked up later at a department store in Tokyo), and miso mixed with a little Mirin. This dressing was exactly the dressing I had on the Octopus salad at Yoshida Sanso a few days prior. It was exciting to learn this simple but tasty dish, unlike any I've had in the U.S.

the Teriyaki was simple but very delicious, combining equal parts sake, mirin, soy sauce, sugar and water. The chicken was browned, skin side down, then flipped over and the lid put on to assure cooking through. In the last few minutes, the sauce mixture was poured over and allowed to evaporate, caramelize. It was delicious. Served with some rice and sauteed whole green onions.

Very productive class!
I made it back to Tokyo and my convenient hotel room across the street from the Shinagawa Station. I literally dropped my bags, grabbed my purse, and jump straight back onto the subway to the print shop in Akasuka. Damn, they are closed on Mondays! I jumped back onto the subway and got off at Roppongi hills to find a few things I had seen on my first days there. Back at my hotel I opted for a simple spagetti ala roma dinner at the street level restaurant (what is it with me and hotel restaurant spagetti??) I passed out, setting my alarm for early, to make it to the print shop which I dutifully did, bought up those ones I had been eye-ing, and then to the basement department store to snatch up rice candies, mochi, mustards and a beautiful bento of black cod that I ate in the airport while waiting for my plane to board. My luggage was 50 pounds overweight!!!! which i had to pay an extra $100 for. LOL

Oh Japan, how I will miss you.

Sunday, August 30, 2009

Arashiyama and the Golden Pavilion

Yesterday was my last full day in Kyoto. I had a lot to see and do, as I had yet to explore the west side of town. I went to Nishiki-dori, the equivalent of a farmer's market except without the produce. Fresh barbequed eel, blocks of dried Bonito (for making Dashi), every type of pickle imaginable, fish, yakitori, rice crackers, seaweeds, cookware etc are for sale. Not quite as rustic as the tsukiji fish market in Tokyo, but quite picturesque (as you will see). I had to prevent myself from buying up all kinds of stuff, as I had a full day planned without a stop off at the hotel to drop stuff. Hence, some items will have to remain in photos!

I then made my way on the not so easy train system here to Arashiyama. Those are the hills opposite to Higashiyama in Kyoto. Kyoto is flat plain surrounded by hills/mountains to the north, east and west. Apparently Higashiyama means "eastern mountain" so you would think that Arashi would mean western (yama means mountain), but it doesn't...

Arashiyama was one of the more picturesque places I've been to inJjapan thus far! I can't believe i waited until the last day to go there (had no idea what i was missing). Beautiful temples and gardens and bamboo forests. They even have a place you can see the monkeys in the hills. It is the japan of woodblock prints. A wide river cuts through with a bamboo forest and other trees lining the banks. It was quite beautiful. On my way toward the temples , this group of sightseers were passing me, and from the crowd a woman came running over to me. "Hi," she said, "Do you remember me?" She was quite animated and excited to see me. Despite being Japanese her english was perfect. She was familiar but I had to search my memory bank (it had been a long 2 weeks, lots of people and sights crammed in). OHHHH, she was my translator for the first japanese cooking class I took in Tokyo! Tomoko-san, of course I remembered her. How odd and coincidental to see her all the way in the hills of Kyoto! Again, what a small "world"!

I digress...After finding and making my way through the bamboo forest, i ended up in a neighborhood that was quite exclusive and private looking. If I ever found myself relocating to Kyoto, I think Arashiyama would suit me just fine. (even the train station was the cutest thing you've ever seen). I wandered around, bought a couple of things (!?) and it was now 2:00 pm, I needed to eat. I meandered down the main street (pretty touristy) and saw this cool looking restaurant, very modern, done in cast cement or stone. It was pretty unusual to see this, as most buildings in Japan are made of wood. It was a small Unagi restaurant. As I waited for a spot at the shared tables, I perused the English menu, which consisted mostly of different sized Unagi-dons. When I finally sat down I struck up a conversation with some of the other people at the table. Little did I know (and lucky that I was) this restaurant turned out to be one of the most exclusive Unagi restaurants in all of Kyoto. (I have been so lucky with my food choices) The Unagi we get in the states is from Taiwan (did you know that?). The better restaurants here use their local Unagi. The price tag is high for Japanese Unagi. My little Unagi donburi was about U.S. $17. (and that was for the small size). But, its not everyday I am eating local Unagi!

Full, fatter and happy, I found the bus stop and made my way up to Kinkokuji Temple, where the famed "gold shrine" is. Wowee, what a beautiful setting as you will see from the photos (you would never know there were hundreds of tourists behind me taking the same photo...) It really is decorated in gold leaf!

Then i walked, yes walked, almost all the way back to my hotel (took about 3 hours). I was bushed!!!!!! However, had to eat (again), so i went out to an Italian place where i watched a pizzaiolo make a very authentic tasting margherita pizza. It looked just like a wood burning oven (same shape and door mechanism etc) and he used it as one, rotating the pizza, picking it up to crisp the crust on top. However, the oven was gas powered, with the jets shooting up in the rear.

I have to sign off and get ready to check out. On my way out of Kyoto, I am taking a last minute Chicken Teriyaki course here from a housewife through the Women's Association of Kyoto. The lady in the office is a wacko, but I am hoping the grandma chef is good!

Saturday, August 29, 2009


On my last entry I think i spoke of going to Nara the following day with Atsuko. It was a beautiful 1 hour train ride and the town was quaint with an old merchant house area. They have one of the largest Buddhas in Japan in the temple on the hill. Tame deer beg you for treats which they sell as "deer biscuits". The town of Nara seems to be against cigarette smoking in public, as their are signs posted around and people around town hand out little tissue packets with the universal circle slash cigarette and cartoon characters of deer. A lot of these towns are into textiles and nice cottons and washclothes, towels etc. it is hard not to just buy it all up (but managed to a little). We walked around the temple and had a great and simple lunch of soba with mackeral and pickles. There was a light rain falling when Atsuko left to catch her train; I stayed behind to poke around the shops a bit more.

On my way to the train station an hour or two later, I stopped in a convenience store to buy some water and one of those fabulous B12/caffeine drinks I had come to love. I was in line and there were some Japanese people in front of me trying to communicate in English. I heard the lady ask for "Mentos" (those weird little soft mint candies they have back in the states). I laughed a little to myself (but slightly outloud) and she turned around and to my surprise, it was a Canadian tourist from Vancouver, B.C. who I had met a few days earlier in an exclusive tea shop a few blocks from my hotel in Kyoto.

It truly is a small world.

Yoshida Sanso

I had lunch at an exclusive Ryokan yesterday: Ryokan Yoshida Sanso, perched on beautiful Yoshidayama ("mount" Yoshida) in north eastern Kyoto. This place was recommended to me by Hiromi and Dan, as they had stayed there last year. It was a traditional Kaiseki lunch, beautifully prepared and delicious. I wrote down all the dishes and ingredients that I could identify,( but now can't find the paper in all of my notes!). A few of remembrance: A very seasonal green that had been blanched and tossed with fresh octopus with a mustard-miso dressing (which I learned to make later!), delicious nigiri sushi (pictured) with other bite sized morsels - the most delicious hard boiled egg with black tobiko, Miso soup, chawanmushi, cold soba, rice (of course at the end, when I was stuffed), all washed down with delicious and not too sweet plum wine. It was splendid (about 8 courses in all). The bill was about $85 USD and well worth the experience. On the way out, I picked up some lovely sauces and other foodstuffs for sale in the reception area, as this Ryokan is known throughout Japan for its fine cuisine.

The setting was upstairs in a room overlooking the trees (I was by myself). The building consisted of several closed rooms. You never saw any of the other guests or service staff besides your own attendant. It was very quiet except for the mild storm that was blowing outside. Very peaceful and self reflective, as my solo meals have become here in this country where I don't know a soul and don't speak the language. The feeling of the room reminded me of the "treehouse" in the front room upstairs at Chez Panisse. This was compounded by the fact that it was a little stormy and rainy outside, and the trees were blowing against the windows. However, despite being rainy, it was still warm and not unpleasant to walk. It is funny that again, I thought this was just a hop skip and a jump from my hotel. Somehow my instincts (or experience by this time) must have kicked in, because as I exited my hotel to make my way up the hill, I encountered a taxi and without hesitation, jumped in. Let's just say that the walk down the hill back to my hotel took me over two hours! I'm glad i didn't keep them waiting (as they didn't even ask me my name when I arrived, they knew exactly who i was - well, I had made a reservation online a month earlier).

I wandered around shopping for the rest of the afternoon. I'm not the biggest shopper, but somehow being here has changed that (for now). I think it is motivated by wanting to bring back a little piece of Japan to each and every one of you (well, most of you...).
Plus, the design and quality here is unsurpassed (probably). Maybe i'm just in love...

I went to Osaka for a fun Izakaya style dinner (sort of like robata grill style) with Liz' (from South) friend Eduardo's friend Atsuko (a friend of a friend of a friend!). I discovered that Liz and Eduardo had both lived here about 10 years ago. We had a really nice time; she speaks perfect english, having lived in Vancouver for a year while in high school. We discovered we are almost exactly the same age; she is older by 7 days... She is taking me sightseeing to Nara in a couple of days.

lunch at Carre' de M in Gion District, Kyoto

About my lunch at Carre' de M:

I arrived for my reservation and without asking, they knew exactly who I was. I followed the man upstairs to a small, modern and sort of plain looking dining room, decorated in yellows and apricots and whites. Of course, they had the westernized napkins for the lap. I really wasn't in the mood for wine, but ordered a Vouvray anyway to get into the spirit of the meal. You see, I had woken up on the wrong side of the bed and was in a gruff mood. Yes, it is possible to be in a bad mood on vacation for no apparent reason.

In the hallway at the top of the stairs, there was a window overseeing the bustling kitchen which was a nice site on the way back down to the bathroom. Something I've failed to mention are the bathroom slippers that are waiting for you inside the bathroom door at every decent establishment. First, you are required to remove your shoes upon entering the establishment (and any possibility of "height" and leg length!). You dine in one set of slippers and then when using the bathroom, you carefully step out of one and into the other, without mixing up the bathroom slippers and the room slippers (does that make sense?) For example, one would never remove the slippers from the bathroom, put them on, and then enter the bathroom. NO NO NO You become adept at stepping out of your slippers backward into the bathroom (so your regular slippers are perfectly positioned for when you are finished doing your business). It is quite different and one gets the hang of it pretty quickly (when in Rome...)

The meal was in multiple courses, which I paired next with a nice red Burgundy (name escaping me). Please don't be disappointed that I don't remember any details of the actual dishes in the meal itself, save for the amazing dried soy sauce crystals, positioned in a beautiful little pile on the wide rim of a plate of sashimi. You see, I must admit, I am writing this post way past the fact, as I realized later that in my ramblings I forgot to mention the actual lunch portion of my experience at Carre' de M. After lunch which did provide a bit of an attitude adjustment, I adjourned downstairs to pay my bill and that Mabuchi-san for the hospitality. He met me at the small bar and insisted I take one of his specialty "rolled" cakes with me. The cake was literally that, a vanilla sponge cake rolled with Chantilly cream, full sized, enough for a family of 8 with leftovers. He stuffed my hand with business cards (to bring back to Bruce-san) and a small jar of something black that he said he makes there in the restaurant. We parted ways after a nice photo in front of the restaurant. I made my way back to my hotel to dutifully put my jelly roll into the small refrigerator in my room. In reverence to Mabuchi-san and his welcoming and jolly personality, I edged away at this monstrosity with my tea for the next 4 mornings in a row.

First full day in Kyoto

I never made it to the medicinal herb town up in the mountains yesterday; found out it takes about 2 hours on the train, and there is so much to see here in town that I opted not to go.

I've been walking a lot! Kyoto is a very spread out city. In many ways, it seems more westernized than Tokyo, or maybe I'm just more used to being in Japan. When looking at the map, it seems like a "no brainer" to walk about 10 blocks to check something out. There is so much to look at while walking the 10 blocks. However, Kyoto's blocks are seriously NYC sized blocks. I finally am succombing to the subway system a little today... The subway system is not as extensive as in Tokyo. I discovered that because Kyoto is such an old city (1300 years old or something along those lines), that they don't like to do a lot of digging.
The rivers wind their way through town here and there, especially on the East side of town. It is quite charming and they are clean and clear. The other day I walked to the Gion district (which looked like a hop, skip and jump from my hotel, but it took about an hour or so to get there). The Gion is where the Geishas and Maiko (apprentice Geishas) entertain their clients. Consequently, there are a lot of exclusive restaurants dotted amongst the old wooden buildings. The streets are narrow and it looks very much like "old Japan" (as if I know...). Bruce Hill's friend (and former colleague from the Osaka Hilton many years ago) has a French-Japanese fusion restaurant there (not sure if that is how he would describe it), so I thought i'd try to find it. Turns out, I am pretty good and finding places - the old "follow your nose" has been working out splendidly. As I meandered around the gorgeous Gion district, its narrow streets winding this way and that, I turned a corner and looked up. There was the sign: Carre' de M (Bruce's friend's name is Mabuchi-san, hence the "M"). Anyway, right at that moment a rotund man in a nice suit entered the front door, i knew immediately it was the "Mabuchi-san" from his cartoon images on the website ( I hurried in to catch him and chatted with him for a couple of minutes (it was around noon and he was late for work!). He was very warm and welcoming, and I decided to make a reservation to have lunch there the following day.

I have discovered that lunch at these exclusive restaurants is the way to go without breaking the bank and still have time to walk around and walk things off. (for example, lunch starts at $40 and dinner starts at $100 at Carre de M). I know, some of you (Dad!) think I'm nuts for opting to pay those prices for food. But remember, this isn't just any food, I'm hand selecting my restaurants and when am I going to be back in Kyoto? (all of my hard work selling food is now being spent on food.... such is my life (even at home in Sausalito).

After I left Mabuchi-san's place I wandered around the Gion, toward the temples and found an exclusive prix fixe "sushi" restaurant. The sushi was good (no wasabi or soy served with sushi in Kyoto) but the real amazing dish was the simmered eggplant with a roasted local pepper (sort of like a serrano) perched atop. It also had a little daikon-roshi (grated daikon with soy and green onions). It was very tasty! (I can see where David Vardy gets his inspiration). I was served azuki bean stuffed mochi for dessert. The mochi was coated in powdered green tea (matcha). It was the softest, most delicious mochi i've ever had.

I wandered around the temples of the Higashiyama area of town for the rest of that day. About 8 hours of walking in all...

Thursday, August 27, 2009

Leaving Takayama, first night in Kyoto...

I'm on the train waiting to leave Takayama Station en route to Kyoto. There are not many baggage areas on these trains. Mine are stowed in the next car. Most folks in Japan are totally trustworthy. People aren’t in their shops when you come in (they are in their house in the back) and they don’t look suspicious when they do come out from behind the curtain…

Also, yesterday the carp in the river near the temple all gathered around, with their cute mouths gaping open, thinking I had food. They didn’t care what nationality I was, I was human and I probably had some sort of something for them. I was sad that I didn’t.

the next morning...

I can't sleep past 6:30 to save my life! i'm going to try to go running here in a little bit - Kyoto has a nice river that cuts right down the middle of town with walking paths along either either side. After i got to my hotel late yesterday afternoon, and checking emails and my computer (i dropped it!) iIwas starving and stupidly (but deliriously low blood sugar) ate some pasta bolognese in the hotel restaurant. What was i thinking? (pasta and wine was what i wanted and didn't want to search around town in a low blood sugar delirious state). After dealing with balancing the blood sugar, I then wandered north of my hotel, within a block were awesome looking places (some very expensive, some reasonable). Oh well there are more meals to be had for sure. I wandered across the river and found myself standing outside a little "diner" where about a dozen 75- 85 year old women were taking turns doing karaoke. It was hilarious (i clapped from outside and they laughed). In a few steps I spotted a wine and sake shop. (they are into their wine here). The proprietors didn't speak any english but i managed to ask them where i could find a wine bar and they showed me on a map. it was only about 3 blocks away but on an alley, called wine bar mago ( It was very nice (french style) with 7 seats at the bar and a little room at the end of the bar with about 10 seats (3 tables or so). All decorated in french style but sort of modernish (but with a "Renoir" of course). I may never have found this place on my own. No english, but i did manage to get out of the sommelier that he came to San Francisco for research last year, was in SF for one night and Calistoga for 2. (3 days total). They had Ravenswood Zinfandel on the menu for $90! And a 1999 (?) maybe younger Opus One for $450 (and many french wines). I had a little cheese plate which was quite nice. The kitchen was the size of my bathroom (maybe smaller) with room for about 2 people to stand (think studio apartment kitchen with the dishwasher in the living room). It was very chic with leather curtains which were fashioned like the strips of plastic used in walk-ins to keep the cold in. The nice bartender showed me the "private dining room" downstairs, which smelled of the houseboats (basement-ey). Very nice, i gave them one of Marcelo's Quintessa cards (would fit in nicely on their list).

Today I will venture into the northern kyoto mountains to find the village that processes medicinal herbs and has a hot spring. Apparently all the food they cook in the village is done with the medicinal herbs. We'll see. then this afternoon i guess i should dutifully go check out a shrine or something (i haven't even done that once yet - bad nipponphile I am).

Tidbits about japan: Most restaurants do not serve napkins with the meal, they give you the warm cloth to clean your hands before you eat (sometimes), (but you aren't supposed to wipe your mouth with it while you are eating). You will not find a napkin on a table except in nice restaurants (i.e. wine bar mentioned above). Yes, the toilets are hi tech (i'm not sure i'm into the heated toilet seat). yeah, bidet and all, water from all angles if you like. If you want more rice, you leave a bite in the bottom of the bowl. If you are done, you eat every grain.

Everyone is very helpful here, even with no English, we manage to communicate.

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

More Hida Takayama

Takayama is a very sweet town, quaint (as you will see in the pictures). The call it little Kyoto - I guess how Kyoto used to be (but hard to imagine that because Kyoto is a sprawling city). There were surprisingly very sophisticated restaurants and shops there. The area sort of looked like some of the towns leading up to Lake Tahoe (with some bamboo stands thrown in for authenticity). The specialty is Hida Beef, very marbled, like Kobe but I think tastier. Melt in your mouth good. To recap, I stayed one night at a not so great hotel that had a very high quality onsen (hot spring) bath on the ground floor. This made up for the smoky room and 1970's decor and not so hospitable staff (seemed like they catered to China tour groups). Anyway, I took 3 baths and was only there for one night (one before dinner, one after dinner, and one in the morning). The quality of the shampoos etc were top notch (a little detail some of you may appreciate). Anyhoo, of course I made some onsen faux pas' (plural) such as thinking the line of slippers at the entrance was for us to use (since their was a shoe rack on the opposite side of the room where i removed my shoes). So there i was, walking around in the slippers, and the attendant kept trying to figure out where I got them (from my room?) and she put them in the locker room. then i figured out that they were someone else's slippers (belonging to the hotel, but worn to the onsen by a guest). hahahaha. that's when i just chalk it up to dumb american or something along those lines (don't worry, not giving us a bad name or anything). Good thing i had been to Kabuki hot springs in SF, as onsen etiquette is a little different than one may think.

I had a great hida beef dinner and tried to communicate for a while with the couple who owned the restaurant. for the most part, not much english was spoken in Takayama. They served me their local cold sake in a cup the size of a tea cup (large), and, of course i had two (there was a lot of food to wash down, you know). I wandered the streets, like a ghost town at night (sunday night) and found a little french cafe where i had a beer and made friends (nice locals). the owner spent a year in paris and you would never know you weren't in a french cafe except there were very few people in there and the toilet pipes were decidedly japanese (see picture). I promised to go by Masai-san's yakitori ya the next day.

I know some of you have seen the japanese movie "water under red bridge" (hiromi, david, rebecca...) - i have become convinced that Hida takayama is where it was filmed! (although, on further research it is not true...) However, it looks exactly like in the movie. i will rent it when i return.. those of you who haven't seen it, you should, as it is very trippy and okay, has a sexual theme.

I changed to the coveted Ryokan the next day (couldn't get two nights there). It was amazing. 3 beautiful baths to choose from; one housed in an old storage house (but completely redone) top class. again, i took 3 baths in 12 hours or so (one before dinner, one after dinner, and one in the morning). you could say i was squeeky clean while in Takayama!!! For those of you not schooled in onsen; it is not really taking a bath in the literal sense, as you bathe before you go in. it is just a really clean natural spring hot tub (and not "just" a hot tub, believe me you, gorgeous natural rock, views, clean). I was served dinner from 6:30 - 9:00. About 12 courses (i kid you not). i was so full, i couldn't eat any of the rice or udon which they brought near the end. The Hida beef course was served raw with a grill that sits atop a ceramic vessel with charcoal in the bottom. i can't wait to buy one of these when i get back (i think i've seen them in japantown) now that i know what they are for. that was totally amazing, grill your own seared rare served with ponzu sauce!!!! you may be thinking right now that i'm a little too much of a food aholic and that is okay because it is true true true.

i was comatose when i left the dinner (but it ended with amazing 13 layer crepe layered with pastry/custard creme). (and some fruit)

i passed out after the onsen.

The same grill apparatus was used the next day with my snack before the train. the local specialty which i had to try is called hoba-miso.. It is black miso that is sweetened with sugar and sake. it is served on a magnolia leaf that is sitting atop the grill. Mushrooms and green onions are put on that, then whatever it is you are grilling is placed next to it. In this case, it was more hida beef (hahahahaha) i'm not kidding, cut into slices and grilled and you mix all the miso, onions and maitake mushrooms together and eat it with the beef. Okay, i'm definitely importing that dish to the states!!!!! I was able to procure some local miso from the "farmer's market" outside of my Ryokan this morning. Boy, what a varied mix of stuff I am putting into my luggage!

I had a final coffee at Cafe Flore where i dropped off a Pizzeria Picco T-shirt for Masa (as a thank you for the magazines), before the driver (in a western style old huge mercedes) dropped me at the station.

More in the next post from Kyoto.

Hida Takayama

In Takayama since yesterday around 1 pm.

Yesterday was a funny/weird day kind of (or at least it started out that way). A beautiful 4.5 hour train ride from Tokyo to here (about 2 hours to Nagoya, and 2.5 hours to Takayama). It was painless, not long and beautiful scenery. My damn camera ran out of battery (from all the “filming” the day before at the soba class), so I took as many pictures as I could with my camera phone, however, any pictures from a fast moving train are going to be sort of compromised.

The mountainous region I traveled through was amazing as it reminded me of childhood trips with my friend tracy woods up to her parent’s cabin near lake arrowhead. Small towns you could tell had snow just a month ago. Of course, there are no rice fields near lake arrowhead, nor are their stands of cypress and other trees that are definitely coniferous forest mixed with annual flowering trees, lots of greenery and a rapidly flowing river (when I say rapidly, I mean nice rapids!)

Takayama (my destination) is a town known for its sake breweries, eel, a sanyo miso (dark miso paste spread on a magnolia leaf) haven’t had a chance to try this yet…there are also beer breweries and last but definitely not least, this whole area is known for its traditional woodworking, something that attracted me here in the first place.

So, I digress; the train arrived around 1:05 pm to slightly spitting rain. I gathered my things and made it out to the taxi stand “takayama green hotel” I said to the driver (I may have even said Hote-ru). He basically denied me a ride, saying “no money” which gave me the impression the hotel was closer to the train station than I had anticipated. So, a bit disgruntled, (plus, had somewhat woke up on the wrong side of the bed that morning, heightened by the fact that my alarm mode was on silent and so I awoke a half hour after my intended time. ) Oh, and to get things off even more on the wrong foot, in my eagerness to jump on my train back in Tokyo, I got on the train that arrived 2 minutes before my train, and instead of looking at my watch and checking the name of the train, I jumped right on. It wasn’t until we were pulling out of the station, when the conductor was announcing we were on the express to “shin Osaka” that I got a little panicky. “oh fuck,’ I thought. Then my survival mode kicked in and I quickly made friends with a Japanese business man who talked to the ticket taker. I was able to change trains in yokohama, a short trip away. Whew, that was close (as trains to takayama aren’t super frequent, plus, it was Sunday).

Okay, back to takayama and the rude taxi stand. I set off down the street with my giant suitcase (on wheels, thank god) and within 2 minutes it was spitting rain, you know, not pouring, not misting, but just kind of spitting; the kind of rain that if you were walking it in for ½ hour you might get soaked. Instead, very inconvenient and also, I was still cursing the mean taxi driver. I had to ask for directions and found out my hotel was another 10 minute walk. Fuck that fucking taxi driver. Motherfucker! Not the best impression of takayama so far!!!

Anyhoo, got to the hotel before checkin. They were kind enough to hold my bags for a few hours, and I was paranoid about my laptop for the first time on the trip. I was untrustworthy for the first time on this trip! Weird. This was caused by the busloads of Chinese? Tourists that were entering the lobby. Why the fuck did I choose this place? The pictures of the onsen there lured me in. the hotel had clearly been renovated, in 1979! The staff was wearing polyester circa 1975! Eeks. Anyhoo, I dropped my luggage and then did a reconnasance mission downtown and around (dutifully stopping at the ryokan I was staying at the next night, to make sure they had my reservation and have something to look) forward to. I got yelled at on a loud speaker from a police office because I jay walked unknowingly right in front of him (and I think I scared him, perhaps he almost hit me?) (still getting used to looking for cars on the right instead of the left) (thanks dad for pointing that out!) he reprimanded me (in Japanese of course) from his roof mounted speaker, still spouting shit at me as he rolled down the street. Geez’ not off to a good start here!

The “downtown” area is super cute in takayama. Rows of traditional merchant houses with the businesses in front, houses in the next room behind the business and above. I walked around for a few hours.

I know some of you have seen the japanese movie “water under red bridge”. It is a great movie with a definite sexual undertone (or overtone, as it isn’t subtle at all), about a guy who goes to visit a town where his recently deceased boss or sensei or something told him to go; to a print shop to visit an old lady who the boss used to know. Well, he gets to the town in pouring rain (a little precursor) and finds the shop (on the river next to the red bridge) and is greeted by a young woman. They end up hooking up and I don’t want to give away the good part, let’s just say, I can’t wait to rent it when I get back home, because I am sure this bridge and setting is where it was filmed!!!!

Anyhoo, I went back to the hotel at checkin time and I think insulted them (my third faux pas?) by telling them I wouldn’t be using the dinner that was included in my room (as they handed me the coupons). I had to explain I wanted to go into town and sample the local fare since I would be eating at the ryokan the following night and…

Anyhoo, decided to relax in the onsen at the hotel. The onsen was awesome! It had 4 tubs (and there was another onsen in another area I didn’t make it to). But again, number 4 faux pas. I removed my shoes when I got into the spa area (as required) and there were shoe racks. Over by the area with no shoes were slippers lined up, all ready to wear, so I slipped a pair on and wore them into the hot tub area (unbeknownst to me, they were a guests slipper’s). oops. Of course the Hitler like spa lady was trying to explain to me in Japanese that I shouldn’t have the slippers in the spa area (and she was also trying to explain to me that she didn’t know why I should have those slippers anyway???))) I figured it out when I exited the spa…okay, let’s just call this whole experience a learning curve with absolutely no English speaker whatsoever!!! It was sort of funny and this was a time when I could just say, I’m a fucking dumb American and proud of it, motherfucker!!! Ha ha ha ha just kidding.

I figured out later that the room I was staying in (smoking room, yuckola) and very outdate d)had all the accoutrements for taking a tub. They were in the closed dresser drawers of the room, the yukuta (robe) etc. but I didn’t know and used some (extra) from the end of the hall. (I don’t think I have ever opened a dresser drawer in a hotel room, do people actually put their clothes in there?) There was no obi (belt) so I just held it together. There is a jacket like thing that goes over the robe for when it is cold. I used one that was too small (maybe a child size) and I just know that the lobby people were snickering behind my back (as I would have been too, but I just had to get back to the awesome tubs after dinner, so I had no shame).
Reflecting back on this I am laughing my head off to tears right now because of how lame-o and retarded I was. Oh well, can you just see me having to navigate through the lobby, no tie on my robe, with a jacket that was 8 sizes too small! Must have been such a sight (and I haven’t mentioned anyting about the fact that everyone else seemed to have all the supplies at their fingertips and were wearing it well!!!

Anyhoo, all worry was gone when I entered the tubs, I even liked their shampoo.

I went into town for dinner. I had my heart (no pun intended) set on Hida beef, a local specialty which looked amazing, very kobe like if not more marbled. (perhaps that was what I was viewing in Tokyo?) there were only a few places open on a Sunday night (and sort of set widely apart, on alleyways etc). I selected one that looked more down to earth, not gimmicky. I was the only diner. I chose the $36 dinner set. The steak was the best I’ve had. I’m not kidding. It was seared to rare (although I chose medium rare but at this point who cares). The interesting this is that the chef had a technique for dipping the steak in teriyaki sauce every 30 seconds or so (to just kind of barely caramelize the surface, bringing the flames to the sugar and fat of course). This is how it turned out so yummy and rare. Melt in your mouth. I want to say it was sirloin as most places around town were serving that and fillet. The owners didn’t speak a lick of English, but I still managed to “chat it up” with them over a few glasses (vats) of local, Takayama cold sake. In S.F., you get maybe 4 oz. top of sake when you order a cold sake. In Japan, you get a large tea cup size (maybe 8 oz). It is very shocking at first (I’m not complaining). After I rolled out of there, I happened upon a french style café named Café’ Flore and stopped in for a beer (there was no one on the streets and spent a major amount of time taking cool pictures (we’ll see how cool they really are when I download them). I ended up talking with Masai and Chi, a boyfriend/girlfriend duo that were very nice (well, Masai was doing all the talking, Chi was tolerating him). Anyhoo, he took me down the street to see his bar that is now closed (not enough business) but that he will reopen. It looked very cool design. It is called Aru. He was really into san Francisco, Janis Joplin (and shocked at my name) and also height ashbury and the carpenters. Yes, the carpenters (which were playing the whole time I was in there). It was very funny. But the shop owner, Hiroshi Alice, had lived in Paris for a year and did a very nice job reproducing that feel there in Takayama. Not the only French place in town by the way. I had a couple of beers with them and Masai (please call me “Masa”) drew me a map to a Yakitori-ya where he would be working the following day.

I meandered back to the hotel, back to the Onsen (which is when I made the fashion faux pas). I couldn’t wait to get out of that hotel but took advantage of the bath in the morning also (as it was quite nice) (nicer than kabuki springs or on par at least). Okay, 3 baths in less than 12 hours, let’s just say I’m squeaky clean.

I walked around town the next day, dropping my luggage at the hotel, foregoing the touristy places, and instead, finding nice handmade shops etc. The reputed furniture museum turned out to be a high end designer showroom (sort of weird). I went to a place for lunch with a large sculpted eel out front (to take in the local specialty, unagi kabayaki (bbq/teriyaki eel). Delicious and had some Korikori beer (local Takayama brew). It is unfortunate that I don’t think I will be bringing any Takayama sake or beer with me back to SF, as it is becoming cumbersome to travel with so much stuff (which is accumulating). After lunch, more walking around the back streets which are the best shops (away from the touristas). Lacquerware is also a local specialty. I made my way to masa’s Yakitori-ya via very backalley route, where a local lady pointed to a path straight up the side of a hill, meandering between people’s backyards. (oops, I guess it really was inside that giant park on the hill). There I was (not in tennis shoes) hiking as if I were in the Marin Headlands or something, in my Paolo sandals. Ha ha ha ha. I did shortly thereafter find Masa and his mother’s shop. He sat me down and proceeded to place five different dishes in front of me: grilled squid (v. fresh and soft), simmered daikon, mugwort mochi all with a thick miso sauce. Also some mochi balls grilled with soy and sake brushed on. Then the crowning glory, chicken yakitori, the best I have ever had. I was not even hungry as I had just eaten the eel about 1.5 hours before. Shoot, I can’t be impolite. I ate it anyway (and it was tasty, so not hard). Masai was cleaning the mats they use for people to have picnics on (too hard to explain here). His mother’s shop is on the grounds of a temple so a lot of tourists come there). Anyhoo, he said he had a present for me, and presented me with 3 cooking magazine from a few years back. How nice!!! I was immediately bummed I didn’t have anything for him (but may drop something by his friends bar tomorrow on my way out of town). I politely made my way out of there, as I still needed to check into my ryokan, and shop for more local treasures, as I may not make it back here for a long while.

Soba making

Had my soba making class today - wowee, how cool was that.

Spent the morning in Harajuku - a nice shopping district with a fair amount of western stores (designers, Banana Republic, Gap...) mixed in with the modernized Japanese places. It is very modern, clean, a wide boulevard with a beautiful park and shrine at the top. I went to the ukiyo-e museum which was I have to say, pretty mediocre. We get the honor of seeing a lot of the great woodblock prints in the states, so I think i'm a little spoiled. However, there was a great store in the basement selling furoshiki (fabric to wrap things in). Nice fabrics - spent some money in there! Then made my way over to Asakusa (across town) to take my soba making class with "sobaliers" (sort of like sommelier...) haha
But, on the way i had to eat something, so i stopped in a Ramen-ya and had the best pork ramen i have ever eaten. My translator (who i met up with a little later), told me that place is how they make ramen in the north of japan. Also, Ramen has a lot of fat (which you can tell by my pictures has started catching up with me). (sorry to bring that up again, but I am a little reality checked by viewing all my pics!!) The pork is practically like pork belly - which really isn't a problem for me at all, but would be a problem for a lot of Americans I think. Anyhoo, I chose the one with the pork and leeks on top. The leeks were tossed in a sesame soy
mixture before topping the soup which added a tasty element.

Anyhoo, after filling up on Ramen, I made my way around the block to the soba class at a very old soba restaurant called Soba Shonin. It was very interesting, as there were about 5 students of the soba class watching me. If i were shy, this would have been a problem. (good thing that ain't the case). Again, I was the only student. I felt so honored and it was very detailed in the way we rolled out the dough. The knife and technique for hand cutting the noodles is something I've never seen before. The knife was very heavy and involved a block of wood on top of the folded dough and a cutting and pushing back of the piece of wood motion to create a space to cut. Cutting soba is very specific, it is supposed to be exactly square. Each soba restaurant has its own specifications for the width. The width at soba shonin was 1.8 mm. (we didn't measure). The interesting thing is that the cutting is a very zen like movement. You could be very impatient (who, moi?) and it reminded me of when i took japanese woodworking and my instructor saying that sharpening your tools gets rid of the monkey mind (repetitive motion is head clearing and meditative at the same time) - if you know what you are doing... I got videos on my little digital camera to show the technique.

We then adjourned to lunch (geez', i know, it was about two hours after the ramen) and i have to say, i could barely eat anything. The instructor gave me two plates, one of his soba and one of mine (as we made them side by side). His was obviously more uniform but I thought i did a pretty damn good job!!! I love the tools. It was cold soba by the way which was told to me that after you dip and eat the soba, you pour the water it was cooked in (where all the nutrients have leached out) into the dipping bowl and then drink that. That was definitely new information. He then brought me out a bowl of hot soba noodles so i could see the difference (i really only took a few bites of this, as my appetite was just not happening). (it was good though, of course). Then, he asked us if we wanted his special chawanmushi!! Geez' we had to say yes because how could you not! For those of you who aren't familiar with this dish, chawanmushi is a savory egg custard made with broth and vegetables and usually a shrimp or two. This one was interesting because there were housemade fresh udon noodles in the bottom. Needless to say I may need to skip a few meals (maybe...). I wished my stomach was as endless as my appetite!

After class I decided to walk around a little, to the local shrine which they shut right before I got all the way up the steps (it had started to rain). I was late because i got caught up in a paper store that had very reasonably priced original woodblock prints (yes, i bought a few!!) I also stopped into a spa like place that did footbaths and massages. They were booked for massages but i had an awesome 20 minute footbath while sitting on a temperpedic seat pillow and inhaling oxygen which they bring right up to your face. i probably needed it! The girl was so nice that she offered me a energy drink called "fine" (the only english word). it was awesome tasting and is somewhat pharmaceutical. it is probably loaded with caffeine or something cuz' it did the job (although maybe b12 but who can read labels in kanji? - what i don't know won't hurt me).

I liked the stuff so much that i found some in my local hotel pharmacy and will be taking it with me tomorrow for my 5 hour train ride past Mt. Fuji (i hope so much that the rain clears the view) and up to Hida Takayama in the Japan Alps!!! Two days doing hot springs and staying at a traditional japanese ryokan (where they have hot springs, baths and serve you dinner in your room). It is called Ryokan Hiranoya you can check it out on the web. looks nice!!! i will probably not write again until i get to kyoto on tuesday.