Sunday, October 25, 2009

Ultimo post sul Giappone—dal Canada!

Hi everyone! You thought I was lost forever? No. However, I am thinking I should change the title of this blog. I'm not in the US anymore! I moved to Canada about a month ago with Matt.

I have now a job in Montreal. After a lot of struggle and indecision, I opted for this job over a few other offers I had, and here we are! I actually really love this new job and I'm immensely happy Matt was able to join me. So, so far so good. But, winter time has not arrived yet. We are still enjoying the last beautiful Fall days and I do want to take some pictures before it's too late and all the colorful leaves are gone.

However, before I tell you about our new life, the cross-country move, and my summer trip to Italy after Japan, I want to write the last post about Japan, which will tell you about our last day and a half in Japan, discuss Japanese home food and a summary about what we've learned about biking in Japan.

So, let's get started.

The morning before we left Kyoto, we biked through the temple area. We managed to see one of the biggest Shinto shrines:
.. And did a quick run through the Philosopher's walk, where all the most beautiful temples are. We saw some of them from outside, but unfortunately didn't have time to go inside. However, we met a really nice old guy, who kept trying to show us something in the small canals that border the walk. It took us a while to figure out what he wanted us to see: little frogs! We met him again later, showing the frogs to a kid.
This is actually the last picture we took in Japan, showing a little sign of friendliness between cultures and generations.

In a hurry, we biked back to Kyoto station, bagged up the bikes, and got onto the Shinkansen. We thought that would have been our last time with the bikes, as Matt found two buyers on the (English) craigslist who were willing to buy them from us at our arrival in Tokyo. However, one of the buyers flaked out, and we were left with Matt's bike. Luckily we found a hotel with internet, and emailed one of the previously interested, who agreed to take the bike.

We managed to enjoy at least some of our last day in Tokyo. We took a walk downtown, and saw a South Indian restaurant that attracted us. Without even realizing it, we were missing spicy food! This Japanese Indian restaurant turned out to be fantastic. We had some amazing idlis made with semolina flour and raisin, and one of the best lamb curries we ever tasted. Again, Japan food really never disappoints, whatever cuisine one wants to try. (Though in this case there were at least Indians in the kitchen.)

Our last evening in Tokyo was quite nice too. We found a little park in the heart of downtown, and sat on a bench there for a while. We were surrounded by trees and a little further, tall skyscrapers. In the middle of Tokyo, it was quiet.

The day after, we sold the last bike about half an hour before we left for the airport. Thanks, craigslist! The flight back went smoothly, and in less than 10 hours we were back to California.

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Japanese home food
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As you know, we got to know many really nice Japanese families, either through the Japan Cycling website, or thanks to Matt's interest in katsuobushi. All the people we met showed us what Japanese hospitality is—not only did they share their house with us, but they made us feel part of their family. They showed us around, helped us find bikes, brought us to restaurants, chatted with us, introduced us to their friends, even played videogames with us and their children . . . and of course, prepared food for and with us.

Our first night in Japan (my birthday), we were hosted at Yukiko and Carlos'. I was so impressed that Yukiko had organized a cooking lesson for me! Every month she and a friend were taught one meal, and she planned it this month to coincide with our stay.

So here we are, four women preparing food.
The first dish was cold oden, with chicken meatballs, seaweed, tomatoes, wax gourd, konnyaku, and quail eggs. I was in charge of the meatballs.
Here the chef cools down the carefully arranged soup in ice water.
And the final result:
We mentioned konnyaku already in this post. This soup was deliciously refreshing—but we were told that it can be made warm, too, for wintertime.

The second dish we made was a stir-fry with pork, pumpkin, and green and red peppers.

And finally, there were two amazingly good side dishes:

Rice with shiso and ume, and dashi with myoga. The shiso-ume rice has since then become one of our treats. We made it many times in Berkeley (after buying a shiso plant), and we were very sad we hadn't seen any shiso here in Montreal. However, happy times will be back, as we just found both shiso and ume yesterday. :)

The myoga dashi was oishi too. This was our first time seeing a Japanese person making dashi, so we discovered here the technique of dissolving the two miso pastes (red and white) in a spoon with some broth before putting them in the soup. But as you already know, we would have learned a lot more about how to make miso soup in a few more days. Matt will post about our dashi lesson soon.

This joyful meal including an unexpected Japanese cooking lesson was a perfect birthday gift for me.

The second night at Yukiko's, we made some Italian food in exchange. We made some tomato-shrimp spaghetti, and a pumpkin-sausage rice, which were very much appreciated. Matt prepared also his really good fried sweet potato and salami appetizer (I will describe it in another post). However, we realized that the salami we were able to find was not as acidic and flavorful as the one we used to get in Berkeley. Good salami and chocolate are some of the few things that we couldn't find in Japan.

This meal was served with a good Italian wine that was brought by neighbor Pierre. We were joined by Yukiko's husband Carlos, and Masa, another friend from the Tokyo Great City Tour, who had been with us in the morning. If you check out the 'about us' section of their website, you can find pictures and some details about Yukiko, Carlos, and Masa.

On the third night, we were hosted by Yoko and Hideo at Yokohama. After bringing us around all afternoon to find our bikes, Yoko prepared dinner for us too!

She explained that the day after was going to be 'eel day' in Japan. This is apparently an excuse to allow people to eat a eel in summer time, which is normally to be avoided, as eel is very fatty and caloric, better suited to sustain people in wintertime. But the Japanese love eel, so this is a welcome occasion. She prepared 'three way eel', which is broiled eel eaten either with plain rice, or with rice and some toppings such as green onions and ume, or eel with these toppings and dashi.
The most complete 'third way' was our favorite:
The eel was served together with a special dashi with clams:
This dashi was made with miso paste from Nagoya which is particularly dark and flavorful.

My contribution to the meal was peperoni con bagna cauda.
I thought this would have been a novelty for Yoko and Hideo, but I was totally wrong! Not only did they know the dish, they even knew the Piemontese name for the the garlicky sauce, and they prepared it for themselves many times!

The day after, Yoko prepared a typical Japanese breakfast for us:
The central dish is a baked fish (we had this and some salmon), and it is surrounded by steamed rice, mountain potatoes with ume and sesame seeds, natto and a miso soup with sprouts. This is a traditional breakfast, but we were told that most people nowadays simply eat a bread and drink coffee.

If you are curious, mountain potatoes are a slimy type of yam, often eaten grated on top of soba noodles. Matt had them in this version when we ate our second dinner with Iwao. Natto are fermented soy beans, to be eaten with rice, which can be found also in Japanese restaurants in the US (not sure about Canada yet). They are also slimy and they have a strong, acquired taste that not even all Japanese like, so our hosts were quite surprised that we liked them.

This was a delicious and healthy way to start our day. Yoko prepared also some ume onigiri and gave us some sweet bread that sustained us during our trip to Izumo.

In Izumo, as you know, we met our friends Hiromi and Haruo, the owners of the e-dashi store that Matt ordered katsuobushi from.

We started our day in Izumo having breakfast with them. They brought us at a nice, French-Japanese breakfast place, where we had one of the best French toasts ever: light and fluffy, and not overly sweet or cinnamony!
As we would have found out later, Japanese are great chefs no matter what style of food they are making. Their really good results are the outcome of a deep study of the cuisine they are reproducing, and their additions are often quite nice, such as this green side salad and the piece of watermelon.

After the visit to the Izumo Taisha and to their store, Hiromi and Haruo brought us for lunch at a Tempura-Ya owned by a friend of theirs. We asked them to order for us, and we had a delicious shrimp and a vegetable tempura. Here they are at the restaurant, before the tempura was served.
The climax of the day was the dashi lesson that we received in the afternoon.

We were to leave after that, but a really strong rain convinced to stay. And what a gift that rain was! We would have missed a third delicious home-made dinner, and an unforgettable evening.

For dinner, Hiromi and Haruo wanted us to try two foods we hadn't had yet: okonomiyaki and hand-rolled sushi.

Haruo cooked a traditional okonomiyaki for us, with cabbage and pork.
While Haruo was making okonomiyaki, we were helping the kids practice some English—which started working when Matt discovered some common vocabulary in American basketball. I'm happy at least he knew something about it. Then the younger child brought out an electronic device to show us, some combination of camera and portable computer. He showed how to distort the video of his dad cooking and, later, his face.

Between this and their microwaves (select any temperature!), we saw in Japan tomorrow's technology today.

Back to the food, the okonomiyaki looked and were good.
We described okonomiyaki in another post, when we tried one in its home city of Osaka.

Hand-rolled sushi is a convenient way to have sushi at home. A dish containing all the fillings brought to the table:
Here we have a tuna salad, surrounded by tamago (Japanese rolled sweet omelette), yellowtail, salmon, cucumber, shrimp and shiso. There was another dish with eel, a big bowl of rice (cooked in dashi), and a plate with crispy seaweed. Everybody picks a piece of seaweed, spreads a thin layer of rice on it, and adds the desired toppings. I learned a lot looking at the children, real experts. Tuna salad and shiso went nicely together, as well as cucumber and salmon, for example. We really enjoyed both the okonomiyaki and the sushi. The warm and cheerful company made us feel at home.

Afer dinner, we were brought upstairs, in the large tatami room of their hundred-year-old house.
One thinks of these rooms as a static setting for Zen-like serenity, but of course, when real people live there, they do real people things. In this case, playing video games. We sat down on the tatamis and proceeded to play Wii Mario Cart against players from other countries. Matt shamed Japan with his poor showing, but then the kids took over, and executed a thrilling come-from-behind victory.

And here is a group portrait.

So this was our last experience of home-made food. We do hope we can go back to Japan and visit some of these people again, and some of the families we missed.

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Meeting Japanese people and sharing a bit of their lives was probably the best experience we had in Japan. What else did we learn from this trip, and what would we repeat or avoid if we went for another bike tour of this beautiful country? Here is a short list of our dos and don'ts.
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Pack light. We made quite a few people jealous at the airport, when they saw us with just two small backpacks and couldn't believe we had been there for so long. Pack just a couple of T-shirts, possibly made of some quick drying material, few socks and underwears, a sweater. We brought biking shoes but ended up using them rarely.

Bring a Japanese-English dictionary. This was extremely useful. We had also a phrasebook that turned out to be less useful, especially after we lost it.

Try to learn some Japanese before going. We knew very few sentences, some of them completely useless. Pimsleur's dialogue patterns—such as "You speak very good Japanese!", followed by the modest "Thanks, but I'm not skilled yet"—did not happen as advertised. However, what little we did learn gave us some ear for the language, which was probably better than nothing. We promise to learn more before going back.

Go to smaller cities in areas such as Western Japan if you want to learn some Japanese. In Tokyo, Osaka and Kyoto, most people will know some English.

Go to tourist offices to find inexpensive accomodations.
These are usually located close to train stations, and you will most likely find somebody who speaks some English or at least has a computer that you can use google translate with. They will ask you for how much you want to spend, and whatever you say will most likely be precisely what they'll find.

Buy the cheap plastic bags at a hardware store to carry your bike on the trains. They are easier to use than the expensive sturdier bags you can buy at specialized sport stores, and about 10 times cheaper. You probably don't need to keep the bag after the trip, so the cheap ones (~$3) are perfectly fine. You can see here that we fell into the trap of buying one expensive bag, but ended up preferring the cheaper one—the bike was a lot easier to pack into that.

Organize so that you can be hosted by some Japanese families, or at least meet with some locals.

Be open to what happens. A biking trip cannot be planned in detail, especially in an unknown country. So, be prepared to be ok if you have to spend more time than intended somewhere, or stop earlier than you thought if it rains or the distance turns out to be longer than you predicted.

Talk to people. No matter how little Japanese you know and English they know, you will always be able to strike up some interesting form of communication. These encounters will remain in your memory better than many temples.


Don't try to buy or sell used bikes in Japan. It really doesn't work very well. That's what we did, but we ended up using up a lot of precious time. Japanese really don't have a second hand market (this is an interesting cultural phenomenon by itself), so there's no active equivalent of craigslist, and the resale value of anything you buy in a store, used or not, will be about half of what you spent on it. Thanks to Yoko, we found a store in Yokohama that sold us the used bikes you saw here, for ~$300 each. But we lost about a day and a half doing this, and then we spent many more hours trying to sell them, as explained earlier. The whole process was very stressful and not to be recommended. Probably best to bring your own bike, and suck up the expense for the delivery. That's what we'll do next time, or, now that we know some people, we may try to see if we can arrange some ad-hoc renting for the time we're there. This time, we couldn't find a place that would rent bikes for a week or so.

Don't go to Japan during the rainy season. We were told that the rainy season would be over on July 15th, which was only partially true. In western Japan, it stops later. It's not as predictable as they would have you believe ("Rainy season will stop next Tuesday!"). However, probably better to go towards the end of the rainy season rather than in full summertime, when the heat would be unbearable.

Don't exchange food with your chopsticks. This gesture is used only during funerals, when the bones are passed from one person to the other using chopsticks. The same ceremony is not appropriate for noodles, no matter how undercooked.


Simona Carini said...

Very interesting that they knew about bagna cauda. I am sure that prospective visitors to Japan will appreciate your list of what to do and what to avoid.

My Mind's Eye said...

Hi Marta,
I'm so glad to see you back on line and look forward to continue to read about your life in Canada. Since we last spoke I have joined the world of bloggers. I have lots of friends who blog about their pets so Madi and watched and read for sometime until we figured out what it was all about. We went live June 25. Sometime check us out.

My Mind's Eye said...

PS did I sign the last post...
Marco came in to ask me something and I hit send...
Madi and Mom is Cecilia NCSU

Anonymous said...

i love japan too!i have been to japan 6th!I love it! Very creative!That's actually really cool.


chemcookit said...

Hi Simona, glad you found the post interesting!

Hi Cecilia, good to see your blog online!

Hi Penny! I google translated your message and I think I understood it means something like 'Thank you for sharing your article to share, please come visit my blog' -- I tried the links below but I just got to a blog portal, not to any specific blog.. which one is yours?
Anyway, I'm glad you liked this post!