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Busan, South Korea

June 21st, 2017 No comments

Last weekend we did a quick trip to Busan to eat, drink, and break up our routine.  We accomplished all of the above, and learned a little about another part of Korea in the process.

We took just an hour flight over the Sea of Japan on Jin Air, a low-cost carrier out of Korea that we had never tried before.  They were pretty casual – the flight attendants wore golf shirts and tight jeans – but the price was right and we were completely satisfied.  

Once we arrived at Busan airport, it was an easy transfer to the train and subway systems, and there was no need for a car.  It is nice traveling in Asia and not having to worry about fighting traffic.  

One thing we noticed right away is that there wasn’t very much English around.  In Seoul there is a lot of English – signs, menus,  train schedules, everything.  Although it wasn’t completely absent, there was a sharp drop in the number of English words that we saw.  Everything was in Hangul, and since I have only been studying it for a couple of weeks it took a long time to read everything.  Even after reading it, I didn’t know very much Korean vocabulary, so it wasn’t that helpful.  Luckily the little  it of Korean that we did know was enough when combined with English keywords.  At one place we even were able to use Japanese to order, which was a first for our travels.

Our primary goal of the trip was to eat lots of delicious food, and we got right down to it.  Kuniko had spent a long time researching the most interesting foods and restaurants to try, and she had programmed everything into her smartphone so she guided us around the city effortlessly from one gourmet stop to the next.  

We had lots of great food and it would take too long to describe all of it, but some of our favorite dishes were the “mandu”, the Korean version of gyoza.  We had three different versions, all delicious.  One version was made up of tiny bite-sized dumplings that were boiled and splashed with sesame oil, and another were giant sized dumplings, about half the size of my fist, with perfectly balanced flavor.  The last version were more traditionally sized, but they were filled with glass noodles instead of meat, and some vegetables and spices to liven them up. All of them were great, and I think I liked the mandu the best of the trip.  

We also had a lot of noodles this trip.  The clear glass noodles seemed to be the most popular, although we saw other kinds as well.  We had our noodles mainly cold to fit the warm weather outside.  I was a little surprised that the noodles weren’t as spicy or garlicky as I had expected – but we were always able to add our own spices to liven them up even more.  One shopkeeper grew frustrated watching Kuniko stirring the noodles and took the bowl back from her, took it aside, and stirred it “correctly” for us.  She tasted a noodle from our bowl to make sure it was good, and then gave it back to us.  

Our last meal of Saturday night was outside at a food stand that was set up along a busy street.  The street was lined with food stands like these, with comfortable seats around the outside and a stainless steel bar to lean on while you ate.  The weather was perfect for outdoor dining, and watching people walk by while enjoying a bottle of Soju.   

There were two cooks at our food stand, but one of them spoke Japanese and we were able to order various foods.  We had fried egg, egg with sausage, pork and kimchi stir-fry, and a little plate of fruit “on the house”. We also ordered some octopus at the end of the meal, and we were surprised when the entire octopus arrived steamed at our table.  The staff gave me a pair of scissors and a plastic glove, and told me to get to work cutting it up.   I did my best, and left the head behind, knowing that was where all the yucky stuff lay in wait.  With the octopus came two different dipping sauces, and we really liked one made simply with sesame oil, garlic, and lots of salt.  

After a while the staff noticed that I hadn’t cut up the head so she walked over and started cutting it.  Just as she did she must have hit a pocket of octopus brains under pressure, and it sprayed a significant amount of goo onto her own blouse.  I was glad I hadn’t done it myself!

We over-ordered a little bit, but I think we just didn’t understand how much food was in each dish.  The portion size was quite large, and there was no warning from the staff that maybe we wouldn’t be able to finish everything.  Of course, we had been eating all day before arriving so maybe that had something to do with it.  We finally had to give up. The staff gave us a little grief for leaving a few pieces of octopus behind (especially since one staff was wearing a lot of our octopus innards on her shirt), but we settled up and left.  They overcharged us quite a bit (perhaps to cover the blouse cleaning bill?) but we were happy with the experience and dragged ourselves to our hotel to sleep off the big day.

A very impressive feature of Busan is its beaches.  We visited two, one larger and more famous, another smaller and more picturesque.  Both had clean white sand, plenty of space for everyone, and clear, clean water.  It was something I didn’t expect, and therefore was a pleasant surprise.  We walked around the beaches taking pictures and enjoying the fresh air for a long time.  One beach had a compressed air hose system set up to blow off the sand from your feet instead of using a water shower.  Very nice idea!

We also spent time walking through the street markets of Busan. There are some big “official” markets, filled with every sort of local meat, vegetable, tofu, fish cake, and spice that you could imagine.  Near our hotel was one that I thought was quite large, at least six square city blocks, but later we found another that made up almost an entire town, with shops focusing on clothes, seafood, and toys for kids.  Outside of these big markets were small stands set up just about anywhere on the street, and operated by entrepreneurs who were looking to make a quick buck.  The idea of selling stuff on the street was big in Busan, and it seemed like everyone was doing it.  

On the second day we walked through a huge fish market, and enjoyed seeing all the different sorts of fish on display.  Despite being an enormous market we could kind of understand that there was a limited selection of fish – and different shops were selling the same kinds of things.  I didn’t understand how you could have ten shops in a row selling the same dried fish for the same prices, but here they were.  Mysterious!

Our last meal in Busan was at a grilled meat restaurant. It took a while to find one since we were in the neighborhood of the fish market and most people came there to eat fish, not beef.  Eventually we found one, and had a really nice brunch of rib meat grilled with garlic and then wrapped in lettuce with spicy vegetables and ssamjan. The staff at the restaurant stayed at our table most of the time and cooked and distributed our food.  She was an older lady who knew that we didn’t understand her but didn’t seem to mind.  An old guy suddenly came into the restaurant with an empty cup and tried to get us to give him beer, but our helpful lady chased him away. With crab soup, and bowl of cold noodles in sweet and spicy sauce, and two big cold beers, we were in heaven.

We headed off to the airport afterwards, but due to some kind of technical misunderstanding with our reservation we had an extra couple of hours at the airport to kill.  Of course, we continued to eat and drink.  We had a cream puff stuffed with ice cream and sprinkled with green tea powder, a shaved ice dessert with mango, apple and cheesecake on top of ice and ice cream with condensed milk over the top, and we even sat outside on a patio on the rooftop and drank cold beer to kill some time.  The airport was great for hanging out and doing nothing, and soon enough it was time to catch our flight.

The whole trip was great, and just what we needed to refresh ourselves a little bit the rest of June and most of July.  I don’t know if we’ll be back soon, but Busan was just what we needed at just the right time.

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The Midpoint

June 16th, 2017 No comments

This time of year is usually pretty quiet for us.  We are working through a long stretch without any long holidays, and I sometimes feel a little burned out with my schedule of classes and endless stream of students.  There are ten weeks without any special holidays between early May and mid-July, and they can sometimes feel like a slog.

To avoid the sloggy feeling, we scheduled various events on the weekends to keep things fresh.  We hit a couple of beer festivals with Yoshi and Mamiko.  We have gone out for dinner at some restaurants and held cooking parties at home trying to make the dinner of our dreams.  

This coming weekend is the midpoint of the slog, so we’ve scheduled a weekend trip to Busan, South Korea.  We originally had hoped to head to Taiwan during this weekend, but we came across some dirt cheap tickets to Busan and we had to jump.  It’ll be our first time to the city, and our goals are strictly gastronomical. 

I don’t think there is a lot of culinary variety between Busan and Seoul, but we’ll keep our eyes open and we’ll be trying everything we can.  I’ll try to remember to take a picture of it before we scarf it down!

Once we get back we’ll be on the other side of the hump and then we’ve got plenty more upcoming travel.  We will be heading to California in July, then in August to Georgia, Armenia, and Dubai.  Finally we booked our winter trip and we’ll spend 10 days in Egypt in December and January. 

Lots of good things to look forward to lately.  Can’t wait to document all this when we get back! 

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Home Cooked Dinner, Bill and Yuko’s, The Witness

May 22nd, 2017 No comments

Friday night I got home and had almost two hours to cook up something good for dinner.  Here’s how it shook out:

I started with two pork steaks.  The steaks were a little on the pricey side for the size, but they come from Okinawa pigs, and they were very pleasantly marbled with fat and very tender.  I rubbed them with a salty BBQ rub that I got as a present from my parents way back when, and then let them sit while I worked on the veggies. 

I chopped up five onions, and got them started on carmelizing.  A little later I dropped in some cut shiitake mushrooms and let everything cook together slowly over the next hour or so.  On another burner I threw some purple and green asparagus stalks into a sizzling hot stainless steel pan, seared them for a few minutes, and then braised them in chicken stock and butter to finish them off.

I gave the pork steaks a similar treatment, this time with the cast iron skillet, and once they were nicely browned on the outside I put them in the oven to cook the rest of the way through.

The last step was to grate some Gruyeres cheese over the carmelized onions and mushrooms and then I served everything with a bottle of Spanish monastrell that we have been wanting to try.  Kuniko got home, and we dug right in.  I was pretty pleased with the dinner.

Saturday I took it easy in the daytime, doing laundry and chores around the house, and Kuniko made it home from work a little earlier than she expected so we could even squeeze in an afternoon nap.  

In the evening we went over to Bill and Yuko’s place, just on the other side of town.  It was our first time to visit, and we liked their apartment.  They had done a lot of remodeling so it didn’t look anything like other apartments I have seen in Japan.  We talked and caught up on things, and had a nice Cajun-style pasta sauce with fettuccini noodles a fresh Asian salad with those crispy little noodles that I remember from my childhood (the Chung-King brand?).  They really did a great job with their hospitality and we had a nice evening with them.

Sunday we walked out to sit on the beach for a while, did some shopping on the way home, and I finally finished the game that we’ve both been obsessing over lately, a puzzle game called “The Witness”.  It starts out as a simple line puzzle, and then gradually expands more and more into a mysterious island filled with secrets.  With hundreds and hundreds of puzzles it was keeping us busy for a long time, and I still think that I probably only finished 75% of the game, but it was immensely more satisfying than shooting zombies or other mindless nonsense.  I usually prefer mindless games to blow off stress and relax, but The Witness was relaxing in its own way.  Highly recommended. 

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May 15th, 2017 No comments

It has been a little while since I’ve written anything on the blog, so I better get back to it.  The weather here in Japan has shifted to a very comfortable sunny pattern, and that means we’ve been active outside and trying to get in as much fun as we can before the rainy season and the heat comes.

Most days we follow a pattern where we eat healthy vegetarian soups and salads on the weekdays, and then eat other things we’re craving on the weekends.  On Sundays Kuniko has been making up these great soups – tomatoes, beans, lots of celery, maitake mushrooms, framed around a browned onion base.  With a big pot of soup in the fridge we can eat all week on about 2000 yen.

The weekends are for trying new things.  Last Friday night after work I tried to pan sear some salmon filets, and served them on a bed of green mung beans, mushrooms and onions.  It turned out nicer than I expected.  I usually avoid cooking fish inside the house because I’m worried about the smell and the cleanup, but this method worked out fine.  

Also this past weekend we spent some time exploring Osaka.  I had to go pick up some new glasses in Kobe, and since Kuniko was working that day I just continued into Osaka and killed a couple of hours drinking Fat Tire on draft at Craft Beer Bud.  Once we got together we went off to try burgers at Critterburger near Shinsaibashi.

We don’t spend a lot of time in Osaka because of the crowds, but I’m trying to get out there more often to explore.  Critterburger was located in a slightly upscale, younger neighborhood.  We sat outside and enjoyed the great weather.  My burger was great – a spinach and bacon burger, and together with a glass of cheap red wine it hit the spot.  


After the burger we put on some serious mileage walking around to various places in Osaka.  We walked to Ura-Namba to visit the strange building with no name packed with restaurants and we had a small plate of appetizers and a glass of sparkling wine. From there we walked all the way back to Umeda via Orange Street and Fukushima.  Orange Street was a stylish modern street with many cafes and fashion shops, and the Fukushima area has apparently been evolving into a more hip dining area over the past few years.  We liked Fukushima, and we found an alley full of restaurants with outdoor seating, almost like you’d find in Europe.  Unfortunately by the time we happened to walk by the places were packed with people, and so we marked the area as a place to go back to someday.

We ended up at nearly 30,000 steps for one day of walking, so Sunday was more relaxed at home with Kuniko on a baking blitz, and me trying to solve the puzzles of “The Witness”, a unique video game that we’ve been hooked on recently.

So all is well in our neck of the woods – just staying healthy, happy, and hungry.

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Chef

April 21st, 2017 No comments

This weekend we have plans to rewatch an old favorite of ours, the movie “Chef”.  It is a fun movie if you haven’t seen it, and we enjoy it mainly because it causes us to become ravenously hungry.  

This time in preparation I’m defrosting a pork shoulder to roast and make into Cuban sandwiches, trying to follow the recipe from the movie as best as I can.  There may be some grilled cheese sandwiches involved, too, depending on how out of hand the drinking gets.

In addition, we’re planning on a Saturday morning trip into Kobe to try an early opening sandwich place (open at 7 am, serving beer, too!). I’m not shy about having beer for breakfast, and it will give us something to do while we wait for the farmer’s market to open at 9 am.  

I also made a purchase of rennet and some citric acid, so I may try to up my cheese game and move to the next stage with some more varieties of cheese.  It has been fun to experiment with cheeesemaking at home, and I’ve been using the Okinawan cheeses that we recently bought as inspiration.  

Like most every weekend, we’ll be concentrating our enjoyment around food.  Since I was a kid food has been one of the cornerstones of conversation in our family, and it hasn’t stopped since moving to Japan.    This year I have been pursuing my passion a little more deeply when it comes to food, and we’ll see where that leads down the road.  

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Mt. St. Mushroom

April 10th, 2017 No comments

The meal began with a dream of mushrooms. I had some old dehydrated morel mushrooms in the pantry, and I wanted to use them up. But morel mushrooms, as delicious as they are, do not a meal make. My idea was to buy lots of different varieties and have sort of a mushroom tasting, either as individual varieties or all together.

It was off to the store, and over two days I accumulated quite a selection. First there were two bags of white, slightly dirty button mushrooms saved from the discount tray on a late night return after drinking too much. There was also a small pack of fresh shiitakes, a tight clump of brown shimeji mushrooms, and finally a flat cluster of maitake mushrooms from the local grocery store.

Kuniko was a key player in providing the more obscure ones. She brought home a package of mature hiratake mushrooms, with silver-grey topped caps the color of old nickels. And she also produced what turned out to be the highlight: a small basket of kakinokitake that smelled of fruity perfume right out of the package and colored bright orange like the persimmon it is named for.

I rehydrated the morels, dusted them in flour, and fried them in salty butter in our heavy iron skillet. The texture of the fried morels was unique to me, firm but not quite crunchy, with a rich mushroom taste that was carried even further when accented with butter. They served as our appetizer while I assembled the rest of the ‘shrooms.

The skillet was put back into use, first by sautéing several smashed cloves of garlic in a puddle of olive oil, then accommodating the rest of the mushrooms, six kinds in all, as I dropped orphaned parts of each cluster into the heat making a haphazard mix. Eventually all the mushrooms made it into the skillet, forming a kind of uncooked mushroom mountain that was initially frightening to behold.

With time the mushrooms began to release water and absorb oil, and the aromas of earth, garlic and a surprising fruity note from kakinokitake mixed and filled the kitchen. With so many varieties in the same pan it was hard to know when the best time was to finish the sauté, but the good thing about mushrooms is that with so much water trapped inside their cellular structure, there is a lot of room for error.

In the end the dish was delicious. The flavors and textures of individual varieties of mushroom could be experienced by picking them out with a fork, and the sauce that coated every member of our mushroom army served to unite them all into a satisfactory whole. The real revelation was the orange kakinokitake that contributed an unexpected fruitiness that survived the forced assimilation of so many disparate flavors in the fry pan. We’ve had this kind of mushroom before in our nabe during winter months, but I was impressed that it worked so well in the sauté.

So we sipped our Spanish Garnacha from Alto Moncayo, enjoyed our fungal feast, and that set the tone for our weekend.

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A New Experience 

April 10th, 2017 No comments

I love cheese.  

Growing up in Sonoma Valley I have had a lot of opportunities to eat cheese.  My family would drive 15 minutes into Sonoma, go to Vella’s Cheese off the plaza, and I would beg for some small sample while my parents did the purchasing.  On the plaza and in Shone’s grocery store Sonoma Cheese Factory kept us in Colby, Pepper Jack, Habanero Cheese, Garlic Cheese, and plenty of others over the years.

My tastes run beyond California cheese, as well.  I sat with my father and uncle in the village of Cheddar, England, and had a firm ripe block of cheese straight from the source – and learned what real Cheddar tastes like.   My wife and I ate an unhealthy amount of smooth Gruyeres cheese in the little Swiss town of the same name, and toured the cheese factory nearby to see the process.  And I think I’ll never forget digging into the center of a life-changing Azeitao cheese with our port wine while sitting on the banks of the Douro River in Porto, Portugal. 

I’ve had a lot of cheeses in my life, but I have never actually made cheese.   Yesterday I finally did.

The desire to make cheese could come from a lot of different places. I suppose it could be for financial reasons.  Here in Japan cheese (called “Natural Cheese” in Japanese) is very expensive and still a luxury item.  For other people, maybe they want to make cheese to express their creativity and perhaps someday I’ll get there.  But for me, I wanted to make cheese to see the science in action.

For the past few years I have been really into reading about food science, especially from the pages of “On Food and Cooking” by Harold McGee.  One of the first chapters is on cheese, and he goes into (literally) microscopic detail on the how’s and why’s – fascinating stuff.  Eventually I figured that if people a thousand years ago could make cheese, why shouldn’t I give it a go?

Sunday morning I found myself up early, so I started making a simple ricotta.  The day before I had bought two liters of whole milk at the store, and it served its purpose just fine.  I added some acid (in the form of vinegar) heated it while stirring constantly, and after about ten minutes it clotted up and I could see the “curds and whey” for myself.

I separated the curds, dumped the whey, and started squeezing the moisture out of the curds.  It was my first time, and I think I may have squeezed out a little too much – the next time I’ll be a little more gentle because I prefer a moister ricotta.  

In the interest of science and comparison I also tried a recipe found online that described a five-minute ricotta in the microwave.  It worked out pretty well too, although I think the first batch I made would scale more easily to accommodate bigger batches.  

After completion and the cleanup I felt a bit of satisfaction – the kind that comes from creation.  We ate cheese for dinner, spread on good French bread with some herbs and salami.  The cheese was a pile of crumbles, a little dry, with a salty milky creaminess that balanced nicely with the flaky French bread. We branded the experiment a qualified success, with lots of improvement ideas for the next time. 

So what’s next?  My curiousity is piqued, so I’ll do more research into other types of cheese and how to make them, and think about whether I want to try aging cheese.  I have a decent place to age them – upstairs in our wine cellar – but I would have to give up some space dedicated to wine, and that would be a great sacrifice for an oenophile like myself.

So, great fun, and I’m looking forward to the next time to make more.  If I could just find someone with a goat or an ewe here in Japan…

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Okinawa

April 3rd, 2017 No comments

You can find pictures from our trip here.

Since we both wrapped up our school terms at the end of March, I was looking for some kind of trip to really create a border between the past term and the next one.  At first we looked into the usual culinary meccas of Hong Kong and Taiwan, but for some reason the plane ticket prices were much higher than normal. Perhaps we weren’t the only ones feeling like we needed a change of scenery.

As it turned out, Okinawa was a reasonable alternative. As illogical as it sounds, Japanese domestic trips (by plane) on the weekends tend to be more expensive than international ones.  Since we were taking a few days off in the middle of the week it was cheaper than the international destinations, so we went with it.  Kuniko found us a hotel and a rental car, and we flew out of Kobe for a two hour shot into Naha.  

The flight was easy, although it felt a little strange to leave the passports at home.  Once we arrived in Naha we could immediately feel the warmer temperature, and I had to pack away my top two layers of clothing and go in just a T-shirt.

Transportation from the airport into the city was simple based on a monorail system.  One end of the line was the airport, and on the other end was Shuri Castle, the big cutural sightseeing draw in Naha.  The price was pretty reasonable for the monorail, and it only took about 20 minutes or so to get to the castle.  

We were in Okinawa for three days, and the weather was very clear and sunny during the first half of our stay, and cloudy with occasional sprinkles during the second half.  That reallly worked out for us because we did all the sightseeing we wanted to do during the first half of the visit anyway, 

Besides the castle in Naha, there were some dark alleys, hidden shops and lively markets to explore.  The backstreets led us to some great food, interesting pictures, and strange people.  We found our favorite restaurant of the trip somewhere back there, and everything was so jumbled and temporary feeling that I couldn’t find the name of the place written anywhere.  We’d walk through an abandoned warehouse converted into smaller shop spaces, and then it would open up into a small open bar with patrons downing awamori and laughing loudly on the road to drunken oblivion.  We tried to take the opportunity to join them.

As you could probably guess, we were really focused on activities gastronomical during this trip, so we tried to eat as many different kinds of local foods as we could.  There are a lot of delicious and unique foods in Okinawa, and until this trip I have been limited to sampling them in Okinawan restaurants around Kansai.  We ate almost exclusively Okinawan foods while we were there in a bid to try new things and also to avoid stuff that is easy enough for us to get around our neighborhood.  One unexpected difficulty was ordering – even Japanese people from other islands didn’t know the names of the dishes and what they contained, so we often had to ask our servers and cooks for information.  Everyone was happy to explain things to us, though.

The big draw in Okinawa is pork. There are pork dishes everywhere and the specific kind of pork, called “Agu”, is apparently special to the island.  The Agu pork is smaller and supposedly “sweeter” and I can at least attest to the great flavor.  We had many braised pork dishes, including Soki soba, Soki on its own, also salt pork, and Agu sausage.  We even had some spam –  I hope that it was pork.  The dish I really liked was fu-champu, which is the lighter-than-air fu stir fried into vegetables and served hot and flavorful.  We often eat goya-champu but this was a pleasant variation that was also on the healthier side.  We ate well during the trip, and I have the photos to prove it.

Despite all the delicious traditional foods we ate, we did notice a lot of steakhouses, which may have been an influence from America.  It seemed like every block had a steakhouse on it, and judging from the prices on the menus we saw outside I thought they were seriously overpriced.  

Our trip was not limited to the city of Naha.  On the second day we rented a car and drove north to the Churaumi Aquarium, located on the west edge of the north part of Okinawa island.  It was an easy 90-minute drive along the expressway.  The car rental for the day was only about 3500 yen, and Kuniko handled the little kei-car well enough, despite the tiny engine under the hood.

Churaumi Aquarium sits on a huge piece of oceanfront land, and it took a long time to walk from the parking area to the aquarium itself.  I have been spoiled for aquariums in my life, but I have to say that Churaumi is right up there with the Monterey Bay Aquarium in terms of quality and diversity. We really enjoyed the exhibit with the whale sharks, a scary looking shark take full of hungry inmates, and the smaller tanks with more colorful (and equally dangerous) occupants.  Outside we saw the sea turtles swimming in lazy circles in their tank, and we could walk down to the beach and enjoy the sand and surf for a while.  

I had heard that the water in Okinawa was clear, and it certainly was.  You could see a good distance down into the water and it would be ideal for scuba and snorkeling if you had the time and equipment.  The sand was also gorgeous – like pale beige sugar – and there was a minimum of kelp and other undesirables mucking up the beaches.  

After the aquarium we drove through Yagaji island to get to Kouri island.  We stopped at a cheesy tourist trap sightseeing tower, but quickly left and finished a drive around the island to see Heart Rock and some other coastal scenery. From there we made a slow journey back south, stopping for a view of the cliffs at Manza Cape, and then finally returning our rental car in Naha in the early afternoon. 

Our last day was spent eating, shopping, staying under the umbrella now and then, and really just trying to squeeze the last bit of enjoyment out of the trip. Our souvenir hunt turned into Mission Impossible at one point – we had seen something we wanted but finding it again among the sea of similar-looking souvenir shops was an ordeal. 

I think we really enjoyed the weekend, but I’m not sure if we’ll be frequent visitors to Okinawa in the future.  I would really like to come again and visit some of the more remote islands to the south, and maybe enjoy some water sports and privacy, but we’ll wait a while and see how that goes.  

All in all a great little weekend getaway, and I think we’ll be in great mental condition going into the new term.

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The Tadas Return

March 27th, 2017 No comments

At the end of last year we accepted an invitation to have lunch at the Tada family residence in Suzurandai.  We really enjoyed our time there, eating delicious handmade sushi, and playing with their kids.  The Tadas are really friendly, laid back people.  Naturally we invited them to our place, and they came over on Sunday last weekend to take us up on the offer.

We love to host people for lunch and dinner, and so almost a month before we started to think about a menu.  Something for kids, something American, something easy for us to do on Sunday morning.  We ended up serving several kinds of sausages grilled outside on our BBQ, Kuniko made two beautiful Cobb salads, four plates of appetizers (Spanish croquettes, pinxtos, frittata, roasted potatoes with rosemary, and then I made a big dish of very cheesy mac-and-cheese.  It seemed like everything was a hit with the adults and the kids, so we called it a success.

During our lunch conversation Mrs. Tada confessed that she doesn’t enjoy cooking very much, which was almost shocking for people like us who revere cooking as something close to a religion.  They do enjoy traveling overseas, and they told us that they’d be heading to Malaysia soon for a short holiday with their kids and their own parents.  

It was a really fun lunch.  The kids had lots of energy after eating, so we played Uno, Jenga, and even got some time in playing video games and fighting giant robot dinosaurs.

We were a little tired out after hosting the kids, but we still had enough energy to clean up and graze on leftovers afterwards.  Kuniko went the extra mile with cooking and clean up and really made the party go smoothly.  We are getting better and better at hosting – it is threatening to become one of our hobbies – and we’re already setting our minds to the next guests in April.

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A Rollercoaster of Emotions at a Steak House

March 27th, 2017 No comments

Friday night after work I went into Sannomiya to meet Kuniko and try a couple of restaurants that we have had our eye on.  

The first place with a pinxtos place, along the same street in Motomachi as Bo Tambourine, a pretty good American food restaurant.  The pinxtos place was very small, and operated by a couple – the Japanese husband cooked in the back room and spoke Spanish with his Spanish wife, who spoke perfect Japanese to their customers.  The system was a little unusual – you went to a buffet area, selected a tab of paper from a small basket in front of the pinxtos you wanted to eat, and then handed the paper to the staff – who plated the food and brought it over to you.  They had a small selection of about ten different pinxtos to choose from, and wine by the glass was limited to three reds and three whites.  Luckily both the food and the wine were excellent, and the service was top notch.  

I’m not sure that it was worth the money – I think of pinxtos as something you snack on while casually sipping wine and talking before you move on to somewhere else for dinner. However we enjoyed the experience, and we may try it again someday. 

Our main event was a place that is popular in Kobe for their meat.  It is hard to make a niche for yourself in Kobe when you are competing with all the Kobe beef places at the high end and yakiniku places at the middle to lower end.  This place was called Gallo, and as soon as we walked in I loved the atmosphere.  It is a tiny place, decorated in solid dark wood not unlike a British pub.  We had a counter seat at a beautiful bar, and as soon as we got our coats sorted out they handed us the menu.  

I thought we’d have some time to think about the menu but the waitress started pushing us hard to order soon, because the meat would take a while and we had better get in our order now.  The way she handled it made it seem like we had done something wrong – isn’t it her job to make us comfortable?  We hurriedly reviewed the menu and picked two selections: 100 grams of aged sirloin, and a 100 grams of roasted beef shoulder.  The idea was to try a little of several things and share.  We also ordered a mixed appetizer plate to keep us busy during the long wait, and I ordered a bottle of red wine – a Spanish monster that turned out to be a good match with the beef.  The manager of the place handled the wine recommendation and pouring perfectly.

The big appetizer plate arrived and it was enormous.  We had ordered the smaller appetizer plate but there was enough food here to feed us and a few friends if we had brought them along.  There were big cuts of roast beef, pickled vegetables, terrines, salad, smoked duck, and some others I can’t recall.  It really hit the spot.  I was starting to think that we’d discovered our new favorite restaurant.

Our meat showed up soon after, and it looked great.  It wasn’t exactly grilled – sort of roasted and fried.  The outside of our meats looked great, the meat inside was rare to medium rare, but overall it didn’t impress.  Too oily for my taste, but maybe that was just the cuts that we had selected. Like Kuniko said, we could do better at home (and we have in the past).  Later I watched the cook frying up the meat in an iron skillet – there was a lot of oil and he ladled the hot oil over the top of the meat to sort of deep fry it.  

So the meat was acceptable but not really our style, and we ended on a note of slight disappointment.  So close, but not quite what we had hoped for.  We paid the bill and hit the road, with the taste of delicious Spanish wine helping to ease the blow as we walked back to the train station.

On our way back we made a final (and perhaps ill-advised) stop at a curious restaurant.  We saw it out of the corner of our eye as we walked near the train tracks.  It had a long, dimly lit hallway to a smoky room lit with fluorescent lights.  There were a few people eating at a stainless steel counter, and it had a really weird vibe.  We had to go check it out.

Drawn more for the atmosphere than the food we checked the menu as an afterthought in the hallway, and it was apparently a HORUMON restaurant.  A week ago I had the upscale version of offal, and this place was on the low end of the offal spectrum.  The vey low end.

We were led to a table by a large young woman with a scowl on her face.  The other customers didn’t look up from their meals and the older cooks and staff didn’t look up either.  The smoke we saw from outside came from the frying of meats and organs on big steel plates behind the counter.

The room was very long and narrow, and the back wasn’t well lit and was full of broken refrigeration equipment and tables and chairs pushed out of the way.  We sat at a table on dark green plastic cushioned seats, so low that my knees were higher than my waist.  

The waitress brought some tea for us and took our order, but the look she gave us was clear.  Kuniko said it best, “it looked like she wanted to tell us that we don’t belong here.”
It was true – we were still wearing suits from our work and eating our third meal of the night and happy and cheerful from a bottle and a half of wine, and a lot of the people there looked like they could barely afford the bowl of food in front of them.     

We soaked in the atmosphere, I ate a small bowl of handmade noodles in a broth that could have used a little more salt, and Kuniko had a bowl of rice with mixed vegetables and small strips of beef.  We split a cold beer with the meal, and then got  out of there fairly quickly.  

Another interesting night in Kobe – we’ve had a lot of those recently!

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Weekend Catch Up

March 21st, 2017 No comments

This past weekend was one of the three day variety, and I managed to pack in plenty of activities, most of them revolving around food.  

Friday night after work I attended a small party with three people that I know from work.  Two of them were my students, and one was not, but all of them were eager to go out after work and blow off some steam.  

The original reason to have the party was that the party organizer, one of my students, couldn’t believe that I had never really tried what they call “HORUMON” in Japanese.  What it is actually is beef offal, which is not my favorite.  He insisted that I join him for a dinner, and he was hoping to see me suffer through a meal full of disgusting raw organs. To be honest, I was fully expecting to as well.  But he made the mistake of taking me to a really nice restaurant that served HORUMON in a Korean style, which made things much better.

First, most of the offal came grilled on skewers, just like yakitori.  If you didn’t know that it was beef anus, you probably would eat it without hesitation and ask for seconds.  I knew it was beef anus, but I ate it anyway.  

Most of the food we had was pretty standard in the HORUMON world.  We ate several different stomachs of beef including the bumpy and slightly grotesque “sanmai”. The sanmai was served raw, along with beef heart and pancreas.  The saving grace here was the sauce – lots of spicy Korean sauce, sesame oil and salt.  

Our host and organizer, Mr. Morimoto, was a little disappointed that I seemed to be liking everything.  He started ordering more and more things, consulting with the other guests in Japanese (because he thinks I can’t understand it) and specifically looking for something that would gross me out.  The closest I came was beef liver, but since it was grilled I had no problem.  

After dinner Mr. Morimoto and I had some gyoza together and some more beers, and I went home a little later (and drunker) than I expected.  

Saturday night we had Bill and Yuko over for dinner.  Bill is a resident inspector who works at Kawasaki.  He acts as the eyes and ears of the customer during day to day activities while in production.  He has been doing this kind of job for a long time, and he has lots of good stories.  Bill and I have gone out to dinner a few times and been to a few standing bars.  It was the first time to have him over to our place.  We talked with his wife, Yuko, who doesn’t speak much English, and separately we talked with Bill, who doesn’t speak much Japanese.  It was interesting to hear about their life together from two different points of view.  They are both really nice people, and they seemed to like the burritos, salsa and guacamole that we served.  They live in the same town, ten minutes walk from our place in Okubo, so it was easy for them to stroll back without having to worry about a train.

Sunday we decided to stay in most of the day.  We did a little grocery shopping, but mostly lounged at home.  We booked some travel for this summer, which was a big relief.  It’ll be fun to work on the details later.  For dinner I grilled up some monster burgers.  Kuniko had found a source for some large size hamburger buns, and so we did a test run.  They turned out nicely – but I was plenty full after that monster burger.  I guess my stomach isn’t as big as it used to be.


Finally, on Monday we took a little walk in the morning, and then celebrated White Day a little late.  White Day is actually on March 14th, but since we were both busy on that day I instead decided to celebrate it on a day that we could both enjoy it.  We had a small chocolate cake from Demel and a Blanc de Blancs champagne from Gremillet.  I was trying to replicate the same feeling we had when we ate chocolate cake and drank champagne back when we visited Demel in Vienna last summer.  

We also watched “An Officer and a Gentleman” starring a very young Richard Gere, and I could really feel the culture differences over the years. Maybe it is combined with living outside America for so long, but the movie was full of “WTF?” moments for both of us.  Still, it was free to watch so no worries.

Finally, Kuniko got in the kitchen for some therapeutic cooking on Monday and made a big pot of vegetable soup for our dinners this week, and also made a Cobb salad as a test run for next week.  We had the salad for dinner and it seemed pretty good.  We’ll serve it to the Tada family next week when they come over for lunch.

All in all another great weekend.  I like the three day weekends a lot – I wish we had more of them during the year!   

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Oh Yeah, What We Ate

March 2nd, 2017 No comments

The weekend is drawing near and I still haven’t blogged about our last weekend.  There were some events worth sharing, mainly about what we ate.  

Since our weekday menus are generally pre-determined (vegetable and soy based nabe with kimchi on the side) we tend to let loose gastronomically on the weekends.  

Last Friday morning before I work, I put a piece of chicken breast and a piece of pork lean shoulder into a marinade of shio koji, garlic and ginger.  What’s shio koji, you ask.  It is my new favorite marinade ingredient.  I learned about shio koji from an article on koji in Cook’s Science available here. It told all about how someone took koji (already popular for the fermentation of sake and miso) and adapted it for use in the layman’ kitchen.  As someone who is always interested in fermentation science and how it might benefit my stomach, I was interested to try.  Apparently shio koji is a little difficult to find in regular supermarkets in the USA, but I was pleased to find many varieties easily available at our local corner grocery store.  The secret of shio koji was out a long time ago in Japan.  

On the website they described a recipe for using shio koji to make fried chicken, but I didn’t really want to deep fry anything.  Instead I settled for a 10 hour marinade, and then pan fried the meats in a stainless steel skillet, and then finished them in the oven.  Just for fun, I did a side by side comparison with another version – this time only a 30 minute marinade and using grain mustard instead of garlic ginger.  

One thing you have to be careful about is that the shio koji has a little bit of sugar in it, so when cooking on the skillet the sugar will brown and eventually blacken, so I did a two step cooking method using the oven.  I was surprised how quick the shio koji marinade made the searing, and the surface of the meats browned really quickly – even the 30 minute marinade cooked right up.  

The end result was a side by side comparison with a bottle of red wine and a green salad.  We had fun comparing the two marinades, and I think we agreed that the longer marinade was better.  The shio koji imparts a kind of mysterious fruitiness to the aroma of the meats – another layer of flavor that went well with our wine and green salad.  

So I’ll be eager to drag out the BBQ soon when the weather warms up and try more marinade variations based on shio koji.  The experiments will continue!

Saturday night we ate gyoza and a kind of bok choi stir fry, alongside shio koji pickled carrots and cucumbers, so we were on a serious garlic kick.  Luckily we both had Sunday off to let the odor get through our systems.

Sunday morning I woke up with a soreness in my right ankle.  I hadn’t done anything that would have caused it, except for maybe too much exercise on the exercise bike lately, so I made an effort to keep the weight off of it and I hobbled around the house resting it.  

We had originally planned to take a train in to Kobe to mail off a package and then do some shopping for bread and meat, and so we changed the plan to drive to Kobe instead.  I was able to rest my ankle most of the time, with only a little hobbling between stores.  

This time we went to a bakery in Ashiya that makes some great rolls that we often can enjoy during our dinners at Anonyme.  The bakery is called Biobrot, and the baker studied in Germany so there is a big influence of dark breads, nuts and rye in the mix.  We went kind of nuts buying all sorts of different kinds of breads, and the service was excellent.  The staff recommended several kinds to try since we were focused on dark breads, and the shop was filling up quickly.  We bought a ton of stuff and took it home.  While we were in the neighborhood we also stopped at the butcher down the road.     The service there is a little snooty but the meat selection is top notch.  We had been there before and liked what we had.  This time we got a selection of meats, three kinds of salads, and some smoked roasted beef to make the most luxurious lunch sandwiches I’ve ever taken to work.

Despite my bum ankle the day was a success, and I spent the rest of the day with Kuniko at home, sipping Prosecco, and resting up.  

My ankle still isn’t fully recovered, so I’m abstaining from the exercise bike until things get better.  Until then, lots of stretches, rubs, and walking gingerly.  It ain’t easy getting old!

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Rock Star Life

February 20th, 2017 No comments

We’re pretty sure that our livers and stomachs wouldn’t survive a rock and roll lifestyle.

Our limit was reached after only four days.

Last night we wrapped up Kuniko’s four day birthday celebration extravaganza.  It was fun – don’t get me wrong – but we had just a simple salad for dinner last night and it was so good.  Sometimes simple is best.

Friday night I met Kuniko after work and we hit a small bistro near her workplace that served some pretty good food (foie gras, cumin carrots, mint couscous) and reasonably priced wine by the glass.  We stayed for just a quick drink and then walked a ways to go to our dinner place, a French restaurant that Kuniko had found online.  I don’t remember the name now, but it was a nice enough place.  With a nice bottle of Chateauneuf du Pape we enjoyed a big salad of cilantro and mozzarella cheese, laced with peanut oil, a bit of lemon juice, and Parmesan cheese.  After the salad we had oysters in a basil garlic sauce, and then we finished with two smoked and roasted lamb chops that were perfectly cooked.  Yum!

Saturday in the daytime we took care of our car inspection (every two years it is required by Japanese law) and then we headed out to Kobe to meet Yoshi, Mamiko and Akita.  Together we celebrated both Kuniko’s birthday and also Akira’s acceptance to his top choice of high schools.  Akira’s request was to hit a bunch of different restaurants to try different foods, so we guided them to some of our favorites: lobster rolls at Luke’s, burgers and ribs at Bo Tambourine, four kinds of shorompo at our favorite grouchy Taiwanese place, champagne and cheese at Reims, and what turned out to be almost a full dinner at a new place called Istanbul Cafe, which was selected more for the decor than the menu.  What a night – I was completely full by the end of it and was dying for exercise afterwards.  We walked under the train overpass towards Kobe station, passing lots of shuttered shops and the occasional open bar and nightclub.  I was just happy to get another 3000 steps in.  Yoshi, Mamiko and Akira were fun to party with, and I’m afraid that we’ve set Akira on a gourmet road that he’ll have to follow the rest of his life.  He’ll never be able to go back to boring food again.

For Kuniko’s birthday on Sunday we went over to visit her folks, who seemed to be doing better and better.  We came back and opened up some Spanish cheeses and a bottle of champagne that I got for Kuniko’s birthday present, and we relaxed in the afternoon.  The aforementioned salad came afterwards, and we ended the weekend without overstuffed stomachs.  

The next birthday celebration will probably be more relaxed and less calorie-intensive, but we had a really good time.  Now, back to work!

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Seventeen

February 17th, 2017 No comments

We kicked off our four-day birthday celebration extravaganza for Kuniko last night.  

It all started with Kuniko’s (as well as my) first ever K-pop concert.  After work we met in Sannomiya for a quick sashimi dinner, and then caught a train to Port Island to see the teen singing group “Seventeen” performing at World Memorial Hall.  The place was sold out (capacity of 8,000) and I think I was the only male paying customer.

Just joking – we did walk past a guy once or twice on the way to our seats.  But I think the other 7,998 people were young women, mainly high school and college aged.  I didn’t mind – I’m used to being a minority here in Japan anyway – and it turned out to be a spectacle that I will remember for a long time.  I’ll never forgot the long, long lines of around a hundred women waiting to use the bathroom, and the men’s bathrooms sitting there open and empty.  

Almost every one of those 8,000 people held a modified flashlight, so that they could wave them in time with the music.  We neglected to buy one for ourselves, so we ended up enjoying the concert as individuals rather than as a group.  The lights had a cool effect when the overhead lights were cut for the show.  Kind of like stars across the sky – each star clutched by a breathless love-struck teenage girl.

The show itself was very well done.  We sat above and to the left of the main stage, so most of the time we were close to the action.  The performers were not shy about lip syncing – most of the chorus and lead vocals were piped in through the audio system, but the boys danced like crazy.  I could see why the lip sync was necessary because I’m sure they could barely breathe after dancing for two hours like maniacs.  

The stage was also set up so that it could rise and float over the audience, bringing the talent to the people in the back of the stadium and sharing the love.  It was the first time I had seen something like that, although I haven’t been to many arena concerts lately and I’m sure they have been doing something like it since Motley Crue in the 1980s.  It was cool to see, and luckily nobody fell off the giant moving platform floating through the starry sky.

After a big concert I expect that the speakers will cause a little bit of hearing loss, but it turned out that the speakers were the least of my worries – I was surrounded by nearly 8,000 screaming teenage girls and that was what caused the real damage.  It felt like Ed Sullivan and the Beatles out there.  

Kuniko and I both really enjoyed the show (probably for different reasons) and we left right after the last song before the encore, ensuring that we could catch a train off Port Island without any hassle.  Success!

To celebrate and recap the concert we decided to go visit a new brewpub that opened up in Sannomiya (actually Ninomiya) called “In Tha House Brewing”.  We liked the pictures on the website and they made their own beer, so it was a natural destination for us.  The location was interesting – it was down an old shopping street that was mainly shuttered now, and they must have gotten a great deal on rent because there was nothing else nearby.

Inside the interior reminded me a little bit of the brewpubs around San Diego – lots of wood, stainless steel and spot lighting.  We ordered four of the six beers on tap, and shared them between us for evaluation.  

The good news was that they had a couple of really well made beers – a White IPA that I really liked, and a pale ale that was quite tasty as well.  One beer, called Funk Ale, was just that – it tasted one dimensional and unfinished.  It is a new place, so I could excuse a bad beer now and then, but it was a little disappointing that they thought they could sell it to customers.  

The real bad news was the prices, the food, and the furniture.  The furniture we sat on was cheap plastic and it felt like it.  I don’t mind sitting on cheap plastic seats when I am eating street food in Thailand, but when I am paying premium prices for homemade craft beer in upscale Kobe?  The beers were priced on the high side – we chose a 300 mL size (they called it “medium”) and we paid around 600 yen a glass.  A pint glass was around 1000 yen, so that is a lot to spend for a beer place with no reputation at the moment.  

Finally the food was really disappointing. We only ordered two dishes so I can’t judge the whole menu, but we had fish and chips that ended up being two small pieces of overfried fish and a couple of potato wedges that were underwhelming, and we also ordered a Caesar salad that was just a few pieces of iceberg lettuce, a dollop of bottled Caesar salad dressing, and some shaved Parmesan cheese on top.  Some black pepper? An egg? A little bacon?  One tiny anchovy? Sorry, nowhere in sight.  

So we were pretty disappointed overall and I doubt we’ll go back.  Maybe we set our standards too high, but that’s the way it goes when you try new places.  Sometimes you win and sometimes you eat iceberg.

Next on our four-day birthday celebration extravaganza is dinner in Osaka after work tonight.  Kuniko selected a restaurant for dinner and so after work I’ll meet her in Osaka and we’ll try to find a new favorite restaurant.  Let the celebration continue!

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Reconnections and Missed Opportunities

February 14th, 2017 No comments

On Sunday Kuniko and I shared a day off together.  There was brisk, cold weather and the threat of afternoon snow, but looking out the window in the morning we could see nothing but sunshine and blue sky.

We decided to take a long walk from Okubo to Akashi.  We used to do this almost weekly when the weather was warmer, and it was nice to get out there and do it again.  The beach was peaceful, and we walked at a slightly faster than normal pace to try to burn calories from our high calorie dinner (chicken and morel mushrooms in a cream sherry sauce) from Saturday night.

Two hours of walking in beautiful weather gives us plenty of time to catch up and talk about the past, present and future. I hope we get back into this routine from this spring.

In Akashi we went to check out the newly constructed station-front building and shopping.  It mainly consists of a big bookstore, the city library (moved from the park, I presume) and lots of medical offices.  The area around Akashi station has improved quite a bit.

A winter or two ago we once did this same walk, and then we warmed up in a tiny izakaya drinking sake and eating grilled fish surrounded by old guys.  We did a similar thing this time, finding a restaurant that was open in the new building, and we ordered chunks of yellowtail simmered in a soy sauce broth, some oden, and we split a mini bottle of hot sake.  

There were a lot of other restaurants around in the new building, so we also stopped at a Taiwanese restaurant.  They served us some spicy noodles (with almost no soup, which we prefer), a rice dish with vegetables, beef and rice noodles that had been braised in a spicy rich sauce that hit the spot.  We also had some shorompo, but unfortunately they weren’t so great. 

While we ate Taiwanese food Kuniko noticed that the name of the new sushi restaurant across from us had a familiar name.  The master of the sushi restaurant came out and hung up his noren, and we recognized him.  It was the same underground sushi restaurant that we used to visit so long ago with Mr. Komori.  It had been ages since we had visited the restaurant, partly because he had to close temporarily for the construction of the building we were currently eating in.  The construction took more than a year.  

The sushi master recognized us as we waved through the window and smiled, and so we decided to drop in.  We didn’t have any stomach space for sushi, but we wanted to say hello.

Inside the new sushi restaurant was laid out exactly like the previous one, just much cleaner and newer.  The sushi master looked the same as always, his wife was also the same as ever, and they smiled and greeted us like lost children.  He said that business was going well in the new location, they had been open since December, and he was happy with the place.  We promised that we’d come back for dinner sometime soon.

Then he said something shocking, that completely caught us off guard.  He said that he hadn’t seen us in a long time, since before Mr. Komori died.  

What?

Turns out, Mr. Komori had died almost two years ago.  The sushi master thought that it was some kind of cancer, maybe in the stomach.  He was surprised that we didn’t know, and we were so shocked it took a while to process the information.  The last time I had talked to Mr. Komori we had made the usual promises to get together again soon for drinks and sushi, but I couldn’t believe that it was more than two years ago.  I couldn’t believe that he had died. 


Mr. Komori played the ocarina at our wedding, hosted my family for a New Year party where we made soba noodles and gyoza, he took me around Hyogo showing me his hometown festival, introduced me to restaurants all over Akashi, and was always so kind and full of humor.  

It was kind of a double shock – I was shocked that he had suddenly died and also shocked that I had let time slip by unnoticed and missed out on a chance to spend time with him. 

Kuniko and I took the train back to Okubo, and we hugged each other over and over.  I was thinking about how soon you can lose touch with someone once you get caught up in the grind of working every day.  Unfortunately I won’t get a chance to reconnect with Mr. Komori, but I’ll do my best to stay in touch with the friends I have.  Time is limited and getting more precious for us each day.  Sunday we got a brutal reminder of that, and we’ll try to take it to heart.

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