30 Sep

Sake Tasting In Takayama

Takayama, JapanSunny afternoon to fill? Check.

Quaint, riverside, neighbourhood filled with sake breweries? Consider it filled.

Tucked amongst the craft makers, souvenir shops, and tea houses in Takayama are numerous sake breweries. In winter, when sake brewing is underway, it is possible to tour the breweries and learn some of the secrets to this ancient craft. Being as it was summer when we visited we had to make do with tasting the fruits of last years labour. Oh, the hardship.

Seeking out the hanging cedar balls indicating sake availability, we wandered the towns streets looking for tastings. Some breweries offer free tastings; good for the wallet but not as relaxed as when we paid a small fee to enjoy the small glasses in the tasting room where we could take our time and not feel pressured to purchase.

Takayama, JapanSake is all about the water (pure, fresh, and directly from the mountains here), the rice (polished down to its starchy essence), and the koji (the mold that converts the starch to sugar so the yeast can convert it to alcohol).

There are various grades and styles of sake but, quite frankly, I found them all to be quite similar. When tasting side by side I could taste subtle differences in sweetness, dryness, and fruitiness but, when simply enjoying a glass with a meal, each one tasted pretty much like the last. I enjoyed them all, don’t get me wrong, but I think I was expecting the range of flavours found in wine and beer.

Some of the places we visited were more than 300 years old. In Canada we’re lucky to find a place that’s been around 50 years!

Takayama, JapanThere were large, formal, tasting rooms in the bigger breweries.

Takayama, JapanOthers were small, family run places where we could hear the kids playing in the back room.

Takayama, Japan

Takayama, JapanThis one had a beautiful courtyard great for people watching.

Takayama, Japan

All were worth the time spent on a sunny, relaxed, afternoon.

 

24 Sep

Ten Types Of Ramen To Try On Your Next Japan Visit

When visiting a place I never try to find the ‘best of’ food.

I don’t need to find the best sushi in all of Tokyo; it’s likely that any sushi I have here will be better than any I have ever tasted. No need to battle the crowds, pay the ‘best of’ prices, or spend tons of time searching out the teeny, tiny, joint; I can just go downstairs from our apartment and walk into any place to get the best Japanese food I know.

What I do like to do is find a representative food and try it over and over and over again. Is it the same everywhere or are there regional differences in flavouring, spicing, and technique? Does it make a difference if I have it as ‘street food’ or in a restaurant? How does it differ from the version I can find at home?

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In Greece we sampled calamari across the many different islands we visited. In Germany of course it was the beer and pretzels. Nepalese eat dal baat every day; it may be the same basic ingredients every day but there were small differences in flavour from region to region. Kebap in Turkey seemed to be the same everywhere, and ceviche in Peru depended on what seafood was available.

Here in Japan we knew it would be ramen; we even practiced our slurping at home to get ready!  Simple ingredients (broth, noodles, pork, bean sprouts, corn, bamboo shoots, green onions and sometimes egg) are combined in a variety of ways that keep us coming back for more. We’ve found at least 10 types!

  1. Simple Pork Ramen. This was the very first bowl of ramen on our very first day in Japan. We stopped in a small, family run, shop while meandering through a neighbourhood in Tokyo. The pork broth was nice and light, the chashu (roasted pork) wasn’t too fatty, and the noodles were nicely cooked. We were hooked! Ramen
  2. Wonton Ramen. I didn’t know that wontons could be part of ramen but I guess seeing as the whole dish is from China originally I shouldn’t have been surprised. This was one of our favorites – the broth was light and a touch salty and the chashu was the best we’ve had; it was like the rich end of  a pork roast.Ramen
  3. Rich Pork Ramen. I separate this one out because it was completely different than the earlier pork versions we’d had. Mike, who pointed us to this joint, described the broth as being made from a whole pig being cooked for hours and hours. It was rich beyond belief – thick and fatty and porky. So good that I forgot to take a picture before it was gone.Ramen
  4. Fast Food Ramen. This was the most disappointing of them all. There must have been 10 ramen places on this department store floor; all of the type where you choose and pay through a vending machine before heading inside. We thought that ‘King of Ramen’ must be the best so we fumbled through the vending machine process and went inside. The place was okay but the ramen sucked. The ‘broth’ was more like a gravy and was too salty for me – I don’t even remember the chashu – just that I couldn’t drink enough beer to finish the bowl. Our only ramen fail.Ramen
  5. Miso Ramen. I really like this one – it is, as the name suggests, made with a miso broth rather than pork broth. This in no way means it is vegetarian though as I’m pretty sure it’s a pork based broth with miso in it for flavouring – plus there was still some healthy chunks of chashu in there. It was slightly salty and had great unami, or mouth feel.Ramen
  6. Fish Broth Ramen. Another one I was not expecting and had never heard of. This small shop in Hiroshima served only fish based broth, either with soy added or not. Everything else about it was familiar; noodles, chashu, bamboo shoots, nori. The plain fish broth one was a little too ‘fishy’ but when combined with light soy sauce it was an interesting twist.
    Ramen
  7. White Leek Ramen. A pared down, lighter,  version with shaved white leek on top. The leeks add a great onion flavour to the broth and help to cut the richness of the chashu. One of my favorites.Ramen
  8. Garlic Ramen. At this small shop in Takayama there was a bowl of peeled garlic on the table along with a grater; a do-it-yourself seasoning kit.Ramen
  9. Ham and Egg Ramen? Perhaps our lack of language means that we actually ordered this version, or maybe this is just how this railway station makes their ramen, but ham (although a laudable pork product) is no substitute for chashu in ramen. It was not a memorable version other than for this oversight.Ramen
  10. Shio Ramen. I wasn’t sure we were going to see this version and then today, on almost our last day, it appeared on the English menu we were given. Shio means salt; it was a very lightly salted broth with a pork back flavor – the shio broth completely enhanced the flavours of everything else in the soup and ended up being Jason’s favorite ramen.Ramen

Who knew there could be so many different varieties of a basic noodle soup? I think this is one dish that I would never get tired of.

What about you? Do you try the same food over and over again to see how it changes?

17 Sep

Peace, Quiet, and Contemplation in Koya-san

Bidding the city goodbye at the Hashimoto train station we head into the hills toward Koya-san.

Winding its way through the small, but steep, slopes covered with cedar, pine, and bamboo, the train slowly empties at each station until it is just us, one other tourist couple, and a few old men on their way to the temples.

Switching to a cable car we quickly realize just how steep these hillsides are as we are winched straight up the side of one to the Koya-san bus station where a final bus ride will make its way through the mountains like an amusement park ride.

I have already confessed that, although I thought I would learn a tremendous amount about Buddhism and Shintoism on this trip, I have actually found that I am, at best, an interested observer. It is perhaps surprising then that we have come here, to one of the most important Buddhist areas in the country, to stay in a temple and take part in a morning ceremony. And that I loved it.

Shojoshin-in is a beautiful temple. Wood floors polished by centuries of feet shuffling over them, paper paneled walls, and tatami mats add to the atmospheric experience. It is quiet and serene; yet my imagination gets the best of me and I can easily see ninjas running loose on the roof and through the inner garden. I take note to sleep with one eye open lest one should drop in on us in the dead of night.

Shojoshin-in Koya-san

Shojoshin-in Koya-san

Shojoshin-in Koya-san

Shojoshin-in Koya-san

The only other reason we have come here is to wander through the cemetery at the doorstep. Set amongst cedar trees hundreds and hundreds of years old are thousands of grave markers and shrines, the oldest one dating back to 997. It is a contemplative walk up to the Toro-do, or Lantern Hall. We walk, and talk of our future plans; of moving away, of being more sure now than ever, of feeling so far away from home, of liking it.

Incense and the droning melody of a chanting monk hang in the air as we climb the stairs of the main hall. We sit and watch, and listen, under the light of hundreds of lanterns before turning back through the forest as dusk sets in.

Koya-san

Koya-san

Koya-san

Koya-san

Dinner is a private affair. We are shown to our own tatami mat dining room and opt to leave the sliding screens open so we can have a view of the pond and can hear the trickling water as we eat. It is simple, and beautiful, and delicious.

Shojoshin-in, Koya-san

Bath time is a public, and naked, affair. We bathe immediately after dinner hoping that the other guests are still dining and we can bathe alone. Our plan works and we are each able to enjoy the large, wooden, tub privately. It is quiet, warm, and relaxing.

Bed time is early. My self imposed technology retreat means I can catch up on the book I’ve been reading, enjoy some green tea, and relax in the alcove of our room over looking the garden before crawling into the warm futon and duvet bed for the night.

Shojoshin-in, Koya-san

Morning is marked by the gonging of a bell at 5:45. We hurriedly dress and find our way to the main hall by following the sounds of monks chanting. We watch and listen, mesmerized by the sounds of the voices, and bells, and cymbals, until we are invited to take part by adding incense flakes to the burner at the foot of the shrine.

After breakfast we take another walk through the cemetery and find we have it almost all to ourselves. The morning sun is peaking through the trees and there is nothing but peace and quiet.

Koya-san

Koya-san

Perfect.

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I’m posting pictures of our Japan trip everyday to the OneGiantStep Facebook page. Come on over, give us a Like, and have a look at what we’ve been up to every day!

13 Sep

Temple Hopping and Simple Beauty in Kyoto

We have spent a blissful week in Kyoto roaming from temple to temple, wandering the meandering back streets on our bikes, and trying as many different foods as we can.

I have learned a few things although not at all what I expected:

  • I expected to learn about Japanese history. Instead I learned that, although I appreciate the depth of history here I am not interested in studying it. At some point old is just old, and really old is really old. As a Canadian old is in the 200 year range, here we’re talking centuries and centuries – it gets a little lost on me.
  • I expected to learn about Buddhism and Shintoism and their relation to each other. Instead I learned that I truly am an atheist and I don’t understand monotheistic Christianity so how would I ever understand the non-theistic Buddhism or the animistic every-rock-tree-and-animal-is-a-spirit Shintoism?
  • I expected to try lots of different foods, to take fabulous photos of our meals, and be able to report about how fabulous it all is. We have, indeed, tried lots of different foods but I learned that I suck at food photography and lack the poetic description that would accompany the amazing photos I can’t take. This, I suppose, is why I am not a food blogger.
  • I expected to see beauty here, and there is plenty, although I have learned that most of the cities are concrete block jungles. The beauty is hidden away in the details of the old, traditional homes and buildings, in small private gardens, and behind temple walls. It’s not hard to find though.

It is a place best told about in pictures.

Kyoto Golden Pavilion

Kinkaku-ji (Golden Pavilion)

Kyoto Arashiyama

Arashiyama District

Ponto-cho Dori Kyoto

Ponto-cho Dori Near Gion

Kyoto Fushimi Inari Shrine

Fushimi Inari Shrine

Kyoto Koto-in Temple

Koto-in Temple

Kyoto Otagi Nenbutsu-ji Temple

Otagi Nenbutsu-ji Temple

Kyoto

I don’t remember where this was!

Kyoto Ginkakuji Temple (Silver Pavilion)

Ginkakuji Temple (Silver Pavilion)

Kyoto Arashiyama Garden

Arashiyama District Garden

Kyoto Honen-In Temple

Honen-In Temple

Kyoto Nanzenji Temple

Nanzenji Temple

Kyoto Honen-In Temple

Honen-In Temple Grounds

Kyoto Geiko (Geisha)

The ultimate in grace and beauty, we glimpse a Geiko (Geisha) in Gion.

 

10 Sep

Getting Comfortable in Kyoto

Kamo Cottage, KyotoIt’s a delicate balance when looking for a place to stay when travelling. Cost vs convenience. In the middle of the action vs out of the way and quiet. Hostel vs hotel.

For us, lately, we have been drawn to apartments.

I remember when I first realized that renting short term apartment was an option for travellers. What?! We can rent an apartment? In a regular neighbourhood? Where there are regular restaurants, grocery stores, and pubs? Where we can pretend like we live here? Sold! Ever since then, as we learn to travel slower, we look to add apartments to the mix of accommodations.

Just like when looking for any accommodation, there is a set of criteria we use to help us find an apartment:

  • We like to have a sitting area. It can be an studio apartment but should at least have a table that we can sit at.
  • We may not actually cook but we want the option to make a meal if we want to so it should have a kitchen. We usually eat breakfast ‘at home’ in the morning so like to be able to make coffee and have a fridge to keep milk and beer cold.
  • It should have shops and restaurants nearby. We don’t want to have to go into town to grab a bite – we want to eat in the neighbourhood.
  • It should be near public transportation. We like being out in regular neighbourhoods but still want to be able to get to the sights. Bus, train, or subway should be within a 15 minute walk.
  • It should have wifi internet connection.

In Kyoto we found Kamo Cottage(I will write a more detailed post later about how we find apartments and guesthouses.)

Nestled on the banks of the Kamo-gawa river this little cottage is at the back of Mike and Yuko’s family home. A small, studio space with a loft for sleeping, it has everything we need to enjoy our week in Kyoto.

There is a small kitchen area with a fridge to keep my milk and beer cold.

Kamo Cottage, Kyoto

A comfy couch and coffee table to enjoy the morning.

Kamo Cottage, KyotoAnd the loft sleeping space is plenty comfortable.

Kamo Cottage, KyotoUsing the bikes that come with the apartment was our favorite way to get around. We meandered through endless neighbourhood streets making our way to all the temples and shrines and then stopped at local izakayas for dinner on our way home. It’s true that, outside of the real tourist areas, there is not much English spoken but a smile and an adventurous spirit got us by every time.

Kamo Cottage, KyotoWe were lucky this time also as Mike is a fellow traveler who arrived in Japan many years ago and never left. He told us of his secret spots in Kyoto (the ramen shop was amazing!) and provided insight into Japanese culture and tradition.

Once again getting an apartment proved well worth it and, since we are looking for a new home, we truly did pretend like we lived here.

08 Sep

A Cooking Experience In Kyoto

It seems that, so far, our time in Japan has been spent exploring and enjoying endless temples and shrines or seeking out and eating some of the best food in the world. We exist mostly in a relaxed, zen state with full bellies. Perfection.

Food in Kyoto is an art form. Tremendous attention is paid to seasonal ingredients, preparation, and presentation. We joined Emi from Uzuki Cooking School to learn more about Japanese cuisine and to create some of the regional dishes ourselves.

The space is small, and intimate, and perfect. We have taken classes in other places and often end up in a commercial looking space with 12 or more other participants. Here it’s just us and Emi in her small, perfectly arranged kitchen.

Emi has thoughtfully constructed an Early Autumn Bento Boxed Meal menu for us that would be perfect for taking to the park for a picnic once the heat of summer finally dies down and the fall colours touch the maple trees in the area.

Bento BoxWe start with a glass of ruby coloured shiso juice and get a sense of how the evening will unfold as Emi explains about its ingredients and preparation; red shiso leaves are boiled with sugar and rice wine vinegar to produce the syrup which is then combined with ice and water for serving. It is light, slightly sweet, and a perfect beginning to our lesson.

Arranged on the table, and around the kitchen, are the vegetables, utensils and implements we will use to create our bento boxes. Eggplant, shitake mushrooms, green beans, wasabi and figs share space with soy sauce, mirin, rice wine vinegar, and ‘cooking’ sake. The fish and beef are being kept cool in the refrigerator.

Uzuki Cooking SchoolThere are the bento boxes we will place our finished dishes (a beautiful, red, lacquered version and a more rustic bamboo version), chopsticks, various small plates and dishes, and a selection of graters and rasps.

Uzuki Cooking SchoolWe quickly get started and move as gracefully as possible under Emi’s careful direction. There are marinades to be made, mushrooms to be stuffed, beef to be rolled, salads to be prepared, and eggs to be transformed into fluffy, rolled omelettes.

Emi works to make sure that we each have something to do and that everything that needs to be done is attended to. She stops regularly to explain about an ingredient, or a preparation, or the history of a dish often referring to a glossary of terms she has provided us or to a Japanese food dictionary to ensure that we understand.

Uzuki Cooking SchoolIt’s a fabulous evening of learning, conversation, and food that results in a great bento box meal shared with Emi’s home made ume-shu, a Japanese apricot/plum wine that she tells us many Japanese wives prepare, each thinking theirs to be the best. Emi’s was delicious; light and fruity without being too sweet. The perfect ending to a great evening.

Uzuki Cooking SchoolHere are the dishes that we prepared:

Grilled Fish With Sansho

We used buri; a firm fish with a fabulous pinky, red flesh. Sansho berries are look like green peppercorns but have an earthy, citrusy flavour and a numbing, tingly, effect on the tongue. Marinated in soy, mirin, sake and sugar and then grilled, the fish ends up caramelized and tasty.

Uzuki Cooking SchoolBeef Roll With Gobo, Green Beans, and Carrots

Despite all the press that Kobe beef gets, Japanese don’t normally sit down to a steak dinner. These beef rolls are a perfect way to enjoy steak without having to haul out the barbeque. Blanched carrots, green beans and gobo (burdock root) are rolled in super-thin sheets of beef and then quickly pan seared with a sauce of soy, mirin and sugar. Cut into pieces they resemble beef sushi rolls.

Fried Eggplant With Shiromiso and Akamiso Sauce

Deep fried eggplant is the perfect delivery system for the quiet flavours of miso. Shiro, or white, miso is a specialty of the Kyoto region; it has a delicate, smooth, flavor. Aka, or dark, miso has a stronger, saltier flavour with malty undertones.

Dashimaki

Dashimaki is the special Kyoto version of tamagoyaki, the eggroll we’ve all seen in sushi places. Eggs are combined with dashi stock, mirin and light soy sauce and then cooked into a rolled omelette. This was my favorite part; using a special pan we simultaneously created and rolled the omelette. It ends up fluffy and almost smoky flavoured from the dashi.

Uzuki Cooking School

Deep Fried Stuffed Shitake Mushrooms

Stuffed with a mixture of finely chopped prawns and ginger, the shitake mushrooms are then deep fried. The resulting sweet, gingery bites are squeezed with yuzu (similar to a small lime) before serving.

Simmered Yuba

When I was a kid my mum would make rice pudding in the oven; we would all fight over the chewy, sweet, milky skin that would form on top. Yuba is the skin that is formed on the top of simmering soymilk. I don’t know if Japanese kids fight over it like we did – I doubt it as yuba seems to be a much more refined part of Japanese cuisine. Here it is rolled up and simmered in a dashi broth.

Autumn Salad With Creamy Sesame Sauce

Fresh figs and mitsuba (almost like flat leaf parsley) are served with a dressing made of sesame paste, dashi broth, mirin and soy. A light, refreshing, salad to accompany the bento.

If you are in the Kyoto area, and are at all interested in the local cuisine, you should definitely connect up with Emi. She can work with you to fit any dietary restrictions or preferences and will give you a window into the amazing world of Japanese food. You can reach her at KyotoUzuki.com

Thank you Emi for such a wonderful evening; it was a pleasure to be a guest in your home.

Uzuki Cooking School

02 Sep

Tokyo Feels Like An Old Friend

Walking the narrow streets and alleyways near our tiny Tokyo apartment I am filled with a sense of comfort and familiarity.

The air is warm and humid even at this late hour. The smoke from yakitori stands beckons me, filling my nose with the aroma of chicken and pork. As the doors to izakayas and sushi joints are drawn open I can hear the call of those behind the counter welcoming the new guests or wishing those leaving a good evening.

Tokyo Street Scene

I cannot understand a word that is said. And I love it.

We are outside of the hustle and bustle of downtown Tokyo; 20 minutes down a local train line where we can feel the ebb and flow of a real neighbourhood. In the morning school girls make their way to the high school down the street as salary men and office girls head the other way toward the train station. In the evening the flow is reversed and those yakitori stands, izakayas and sushi joints fill with men and women grabbing a quick meal on their way home.

Tokyo's Nishi-Ogikubo Train Station

I love the closeness of the streets; it feels cocooning and welcoming. I love that the mix of pedestrians, bicycles, cars, scooters, buses and trucks all organically weave together on the narrow roadways. I love that, although we are clearly different, the formality and politeness of Japan dictates that we are not stared at but, should we need help, someone will help us immediately.

Tokyo's Nishi-Ogikubo Neighborhood

It is quiet. Thirty six million people live in Tokyo – that is the entire population of Canada – and yet Jason and I can walk down the street and have a quiet conversation. And yet it is not quiet. We had an evening in an izakaya where raucous laughter spilled out into the alley and we were drawn in by the possibility of a good time – we were not disappointed.

Tokyo's Nishi-Ogikubo NeighborhoodThe food is familiar, and yet different. We enjoy a lot of Asian and Japanese food at home but here we are not sure of how it all works. There are particular places to go for particular types of food and we haven’t figured it all out yet. For now we stumble about, probably breaking as many rules as we are following, happy to take it as it comes.

Tokyo Ramen ShopTokyo feels like an old friend. I am loving being back in Asia.