Sunday, August 8, 2010

Always Something New - Sometimes Something Amazing

The main Japanese television network has been showing a new historical drama every year for at least the past 50 years. My friend and I are watching each weekly episode of this year’s presentation. She watches the most current episode when it is first broadcast in Japan and I get it about 14 weeks later on TVJapan in Arizona. The lag is due to the subtitling process. Of course I’m missing the episodes while I’m away but they are available on the internet.

My friend asked me to attend a picture exhibition in downtown Tokyo that was dedicated to the main actor in the series so we met yesterday to see the show. It wasn’t much more than about 30 pictures of the same guy and took us about 15 minutes to view. So now what?

Well, she told me there was a summer dance festival in the town of Naka-Meguro which is another district in Tokyo so we took off on the subway and when we arrived we could hear drums beating and some chanting. We followed the sounds and discovered some dance groups performing in front of a building. The groups consisted of dancers of all ages and a band playing traditional Japanese instruments. It was great.

I love the sound of the Japanese flute with its haunting high notes joined by the samisen and its slightly loose atonal sound. They always sound like the strings need to be tightened. Add in a number of taiko drums of various sizes and you have yourself a show. But this was just the warm up. There was a parade of these groups and more, scheduled to start at 6:30.

We decided to stick around so we went to a bar and had a beer and a plate of grilled vegetables with a swiss cheese dip. The vegetables were tasty (pumpkin, green beans, taro root, potatoes, lotus root and even a brussel sprout) and the beer was refreshing. At 6:30 we made our way to the parade and ended up watching about 20 dance groups with their bands march down the street. We stayed for 2 hours enjoying the energy of the bands and of course the people watching was excellent as well.

These summer Matsuri Festivals are a big deal to the community. The streets were crowded and all the restaurants were full. Whole families, including dogs (plenty of dogs) walked up and down the streets and every one was smiling and moving with the beat of the group that was going by. There were food vendors on the street and people carried cardboard boats filled with takoyaki (batter balls with a piece of octopus in the middle), yakitori ( grilled chicken on a stick), buns, fried gyoza (Japanese dumplings) and a number of other things I wanted to try but couldn’t because we were going out for dinner after.

One thing I noticed that I hadn’t seen before in Japan was beer vendors on the street and people actually walking down the street drinking beer. It is generally considered rude to eat or drink anything on the streets. I remember my other friend getting a little angry on a train one time when some school boys opened their lunch kits and took out a snack and ate it.

The entire area of Naka-Meguro was in high spirits and you couldn’t help but enjoy yourself surrounded by people who were having a great time. I was amazed that we stood and watched as long as we did. I would have enjoyed going to one of the bars in the area to have a few drinks with the locals but we were going to dinner back in downtown Tokyo.

My friend’s father’s cousin’s wife’s brother (not a joke) owns a restaurant near Tokyo Station. It features Okinawan and Chinese cuisine. The Okinawan angle caught my interest. Off we went and we found the place easily. The building address system in Tokyo is not very straight forward and people who live here have difficulty getting to the right place. My friend kept bringing up maps on her telephone and downtown Tokyo has maps all over the place. The problem is that when you find the ‘You are here’ location you can’t figure out where that is either.

Once we were at the restaurant we ordered drinks. I had some sake from Okinawa; tasty but extremely powerful at 30% alcohol. I only had one. It is served with a side of water and I found it more like a whiskey than sake. I could feel alcohol vapors rising up in my sinuses but it had a smooth finish.

For appetizers we ordered a dish called umi bu dou, which is an Okinawan seaweed that grows near hot water vents in the seas around Okinawa. It was a shining emerald green string with hundreds of shiny green balls slightly larger than caviar. I thought it was some kind of fish egg strand but it is all vegetable. You dip it in Shoyu sauce and pop it in your mouth and then it starts popping right back at you. Each little bead that you crunch pops between your teeth followed by the salty Shoyu taste. When eaten without the Shoyu it has a mild green sea flavor. A real fun food to eat, I smiled with every bite.

Then a dish that consisted of bitter melon (looks like a cucumber with warts), tofu, scrambled egg and… the waiter said, Luncheon Meat. I asked, Spam? He said, Yes. This is an Okinawan dish and it was terrific. The bitter melon had a definite tang to it. It was the first time for me to eat it. Every thing else on the plate added up to a well balance, light dish.

We finished with a plate of stir-fried soba noodles with sardines. A great finish with plenty of flavor and the chef knew exactly how to cook the noodles. The texture of the dish was great and then you got a strong hit of sardine. Not like the salty oiled up stuff with grimy bones that you get in a can but soft fried meat with that good savory fish taste.

That was a great day in Japan.

In the middle of writing this blog entry I had to leave to meet my friend from the Keio Plaza Hotel. We were going to an area three train stops west of Mitaka to see a Japanese house museum. They moved all of these old historical houses to this park to preserve them. In 2008 we had gone to a house museum in Kawasaki with my son so we thought we’d check out a similar attraction.

There was one very large house that had belonged to a high profile political figure from the 1920s and 30s. The information outside told of how this person had been assassinated in one of the rooms on the second floor by an army office in 1936 who was enraged by the government policies at the time. My friend told me that the politician’s last words were, “If you will just listen to me I think you will understand.” But the military man had his own agenda and shot the politician.

I remembered the incident from a book I had read called, The Pacific War, which is about the war that started in the 20s and ended with the end of World War II. The interesting thing about the book is that it is written from the Japanese point of view of what went on in the Pacific.

Now here I was about to enter this house where this incident I’d read about took place.

But that’s not the amazing thing in this blog entry. When we got to our station we had to take a bus to get to the museum. There are bus stations outside of most train stations in Japan so we walked out front and on the far side of the street there were post signs to mark bus pickup zones numbered 1 through 3 and on our side of the street there were posts marked 5 through 9. You guessed it, we wanted bus number 4.

We asked three people in the street and a bus driver where to catch bus number 4 and couldn’t get a clear answer. We walked up one side of the street and back down the other then back up again. It’s still hot with high humidity in Tokyo by the way.

We were standing outside of a restaurant that didn’t look open but we tried the door and it opened so we went in. There was no one to greet us and my friend called out but nobody came. We turned to go and then this well dressed older lady came out and asked what we wanted. My friend asked if she knew where the bus station was for bus number 4. She immediately started yelling to the people in the back. One fella came running out but he wasn’t the guy she was calling and after a few more yells the one she wanted showed up.

The next thing you know we were on the street with the guy who knows buses pointing in both directions because there were actually 2 buses that would get us to the museum. The new bus, which stopped just outside the restaurant, would drop us where we would have a ten minute walk to the museum and the number 4 bus was a ten minute walk from where we were but would drop us in front of the museum. We decide on the new bus and then we were told it doesn’t run very often so come inside and have some tea.

Inside the guy who knows buses grabbed two chairs from the restaurant and placed them by the front door so we could see our bus arrive while the lady, who was with us every moment, poured us a cup of coffee. She began talking to my friend in very fast Japanese so I couldn’t understand much but I did hear the word kuruma which means car, and then my friend says that she’s offered to have one of her employees drive us to the museum.

I’ve always heard that Japanese people will go out of their way to help you but this was extreme. My friend said he’d never seen this level of assistance develop from a request for directions.

We decided we would go back to her restaurant after the museum to have an early dinner and to thank her again.

The lady had told my friend that she saw me, a foreigner, in her restaurant and she wanted to help. She had traveled the world about six years ago and had been to the United States a number of times.

When we arrived back at her restaurant she was sitting at a large table at the back of the restaurant with five other older ladies. She got up to greet us and yelled for the guy who knows buses to get us some tea. The next thing we heard was the five ladies singing some traditional Japanese songs.

The lady who owned the restaurant came to our table and told us she had just received some lamb from Iceland and she said it was very good. Besides, she likes lamb and thought we would like it too.

The lamb meal came with some side dishes and you’re not going to believe this but the first one was bitter melon, tofu, scrambled eggs and not Spam but strips of ham but essentially the dish I had enjoyed the night before. I said I’d just had the dish and she said it was from Okinawa.

Her version was equally impressive but her bitter melon wasn’t as bitter and her scrambled eggs reminded me of the scrambled eggs you have some days when they have the perfect taste of yolk and whites and fried in butter flavor with a slight burned edge to them. My friend and I raved about them and she told us she grew the melons and has chickens that produce about 200 eggs a day for her so they were fresh.

In the back ground the little old ladies started singing again in soft little old lady voices.

How can this get any better? Next the lamb chops arrived with a bowl of miso soup. The soup was great, I would have liked more. The lamb chops were cooked perfect, were juicy and tender and had extraordinary flavor.

How can this get better? The guy who knows buses came by and dropped us each a plate of fried fish. Three small filets fried in panko with a wedge of lemon. Delicious and by this time my friend was full and I ate one of his pieces of fish. We didn’t put too much effort into finding out what type of fish it was.

The little old ladies were singing again.

How can this get any better? After the fish the lady came out of the kitchen with two to-go bags in which she had whipped up another order of the bitter melon and scrambled egg dish because we were so beside ourselves with glee about it. The guy who knows buses homed in on us and dropped of a plate of sliced water melon which he told us the lady had said to take from the middle of the melon.

More little old lady singing.

We were impressed if you hadn’t noticed. My friend says to me, “I guess we should have asked how much the lamb was.” He went on to say that the restaurant advertises itself as a One-Coin restaurant which means that nothing on the menu costs more than 500 Yen, the largest coin in Japanese money. We then looked at the menu and nothing was more than 500 Yen, about $6.

How can this get any better? One more time the guy who knows buses cruised by our table and this time he says to my friend, “The lady says your meal is on the house.”

We tried to pay but she wasn’t having it.

I don’t remember ever being treated so kindly and generously by a stranger. All we did was ask for directions to the number 4 bus but, I’m not surprised to find this overly generous behavior from some one in Japan.

The train station is Musashi-Koganei. It is three stops west of Mitaka on the Chou Line. From Shinjuku it takes about 20 minutes. Turn left when you leave the station and walk past the buses for about 3 blocks and cross the main street. The name of the restaurant is Salt (but I didn’t see it printed anywhere). It has a half-round glass and chrome sliding door and it says, Restaurant (in katakana) above the door.

I don’t know if you’ll get the same service we did but I’m sure you will be treated right and the food’s fantastic. I’m going back and the next time I’m paying.

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