Monday, October 18, 2010

History, More Food and Fishing

First, a little writing news update: The Great Falls Tribune published an article about my book, A Wind In Montana, in their October 18th issue. If you are interested you can read it at

It was kind of exciting for me to get the email from them telling me they had published the story. It isn't really a review since they don't offer an evaluation.

Back in Japan, I spent an amazing day with my friends, the couple we met in Hawaii. Together we usually plan to go to a park or museum and then try some new style of Japanese food. This time we planned to eat Teppanyaki and go to the Edo/Tokyo museum. First we went for lunch.

Teppanyaki in North America is an entertaining way to eat. You sit around the iron cooking surface (Teppan) and watch as the chef prepares your food. The chefs are skilled in the art of juggling, continually flipping and spinning their cooking utensils creating a constant racket in the process. In a crowded restaurant the din can be deafening.

The show continues with a series of the same jokes you've heard in other Teppanyaki restaurants where square cut zucchini are introduced as Japanese French Fries and bean sprouts as Japanese Spaghetti. Then if there are children in your group (and Teppanyaki is a great meal to take kids to, it keeps them entertained) the chef stacks the concentric circles of onions into a mountain structure, sprays oil into it the dims the lighting and starts the oil on fire. The old volcano trick.

After that you get the Carnival game of flipping shrimp and catching them in your mouth. If you are successful with a catch a spray of sake comes your way and you get splashed all over your face. When that stuff is all over and done with you get to eat some pretty tasty food. Like I said, in North America Teppanyaki is entertainment, all about the show.

In Japan, Teppanyaki is a serious cuisine. I ate it once in Kyoto where everything is serious and I thought maybe it was a Kyoto thing but when we ate Teppanyaki in Kichijoji the chef was equally serious about the food he was preparing. The results of his efforts were delicious and it is worth the experience to compare the In-Japan-Style with what happens in North America.

The restaurant we were in offered a French Teppanyaki set meal that included foie gras but, I wanted the Japanese Teppanyaki. For a starter we had sashimi of ika (squid). Tender, soft, tasty with a ground ginger accompaniment that let us know we were in for some delicate flavoring techniques. Next, hotate (scallop) and small white fish. Both had a nice browned crust and when dipped in salt or shoyu they were sweet and savory.

The Japanese set meal was a surf and turf plan but after this first fish course we were served a small green salad. The salad dressing in Teppanyaki restaurants in North America is a tangy dressing with a fruity element to it, this one we hand in Japan could also be described that way but it had more of the fruit but also goma (sesame) blended with it. It does well as a palate cleanser.

After the salad we were served a small lobster tail at the front and centered of a white plate. The tail was behind the lobster meat which was sitting on a bed of freshly steamed spinach. A rich lobster sauce was spooned over the lobster and it tasted great with the tender spinach as well.

The turf portion of the meal was Wagyu beef. If you haven't seen Wagyu beef it is rippled with fat, almost fifty-fifty fat versus meat and I've seen it with more fat than that. It is extremely expensive beef. I wouldn't buy it very often because of the price and the fat content but it is worth tasting more than once. I've mentioned before that I am not a fan of fat on meat but I placed my reserve aside so that I could enjoy the flavor of the Wagyu. It is a mild beef flavor but unmistakably beef. Juicy doesn't even come anywhere close to a ballpark full of hints or clues as to how to describe the texture but neither does greasy. There is plenty of moisture released by the ever so soft meat but it doesn't coat your mouth leaving you with a slick that you want to cut through with a drink or piece of bread. Instead you take your time and enjoy the flavor. You don't get a giant portion like you would in North America and you don't need it, so chew slowly, let it fill your mouth getting to all the flavor savoring areas you have within. Experience it, you'll be rewarded with one of the best beef tastes you will ever receive from this ingredient that we expect to taste the same every time we eat it.

Desert was served in a different room. This happens at La Rochelle as well and I've never been through the change of location for desert process before eating at La Rochelle. Maybe I haven't been around enough but it's kind of a nice touch. Kind of like they're saying, "We have a special treat for you in the next room." Now you're all excited and can't wait to see what they've done for you.

It was raspberry sorbet with a small cookie. It refreshed the mouth and went great with a rich cup of coffee. This is where the bill was presented so I guess they like to keep the business end of the experience away from the artistic end.

After lunch we went to the Edo/Tokyo museum. One half of the exhibition is dedicated to Edo, that is Tokyo before the modern era, and the other half is dedicated to Tokyo as it developed into the modern city of today. It is an interesting exhibit and the experience is enhanced by having some prior knowledge of those times. The museum also has two sections that are revolving exhibits so there is something new each time I go.

This time there was a themed exhibit dedicated to the Sumida River which runs through Tokyo. There were pictures and numerous Ukiyo-e (Japanese Woodblock Prints) depicting scenes of activities that did and still do take place along the banks of the river. I'm a big fan of Ukiyo-e and own a number of them so the exhibit was very interesting for me.

The first Ukiyo-e I ever purchased was a hundred and ten year old triptych that depicted a scene in the life of a samurai. When my friends whom I was with at the museum this day visited my home in Arizona earlier in the year they recognized the print. It turns out that the artist was my friend's relative from about one-hundred and twenty years earlier. When we visited his home earlier on this trip he showed us some scrolls that his relative had created and some other works by some of his relative's trainees. As he showed us these prints his daughter sat there flabbergasted discovering the artwork and history of her long ago and talented relative. She hadn't known of these valuable prints that were in the house she grew up in.

The second special section of the museum was dedicated to some historical artifacts related to the Tokugawa Shogunate which ruled Japan for over two hundred and fifty years. The title of Shogun was handed down to 14 heirs during that time. The first three have considerable history written about them. The final Shogun as well but the ones in between are hard to learn about in the English language. It is the history of the first Shogun that James Clavel's novel, Shogun, loosely parallels. His protagonist was named Toranaga.

The Tokugawa are another subject that I have studied and am very interested in so the day was a special treat all day long and it didn't end after we had spent five and a half hours walking through the museum.

The museum is located in Ryogoku, next to the Kokugikan sumo stadium so when it was time to eat dinner we of course went for Chankonabe, the sumo wrestler's stew that I wrote about in an earlier blog. This night we went to the restaurant called Terao which is named for the former sekiwake who is currently the Oyakata (Head Coach) of the Shikoroyama sumo stable. This is the sumo stable that my favorite wrestler, Homasho, belongs to and we chose it by chance.

We had a miso based chankonabe which only went to prove that chankonabe comes in many different flavors and so far I haven't found one that wasn't delicious. When we chose our chankonabe, the waitress looked at me then looked at my friends and asked them a question. It turns out the only protein in the chankonabe we had chosen was iwashi (sardine) meatballs and she was concerned about whether or not I could handle it. I was proud of myself because I had understood the jist of her question when she asked in Japanese.

It was a long and enjoyable day that flew by because of the interesting things we saw and ate together. The challenge of communicating when none of us spoke the other's language well, added to the enjoyment. When I think about how much time we spent together and were able to understand each other's comments, it makes me glad I'm learning the language.

The next day I slept in because that night I was meeting my friend from La Rochelle at 10:00 pm to go night fishing.

You know that the fishing was good when all you talk about is the fish that you caught. When you talk about the wonderful experience of seeing a new and beautiful part of the country in perfect weather with soft warm wind blowing surrounded by scenic coastal views along the Pacific Ocean, you know that you got skunked. My friend and I did but, our guide and knowledgeable fisherman managed to catch three fish.

One was extremely poisonous. Our expert insisted that we stay away from it while he handled it with a pair of pliers until he freed the hook and put it back in the water. It was about eight inches long and had a big mouth with stripes along its side. Now that I think about it I forgot to ask what type of fish it was. It had poison in either quills or in the surface slime covering its body but I never found out for sure. A picture is on the right side of the blog page at If you aren't reading at that site and want to see it you can check it out there.

Aside from the poisonous fish I have to tell you that the night fishing process is a little dangerous. Our expert insisted that we wear life jackets since we would be perched eight feet above the water on rocky outcroppings extending out into the sea in the dark. No argument here. Top that off with the fact that the rocks had been eroded unevenly so that you had to watch your step, there was no level ground to speak of, with very little light and you realized you have to stay alert when fishing at night. We had head lamps that we turned on when we needed to bait a hook but it was best to leave the lights out and let your night vision take over.

I thought I felt a couple of nibbles at the end of my line but it turns out that only meant I had place my bait well enough for the small shrimp to stay on the hook during the short flight into the choppy water where it tried to attract something that would be pretty tasty later. Obviously most of the little crustaceans didn't make and therefore provided a meal to a fish for nothing while I stood it the warm breeze under the picturesque lighthouse breathing in the scents of the ocean while occasionally staring up at the millions of stars shining in the clear sky above, thinking, I'd do this expecting no reward of fish just for the chance to be in the moment. More proof that I got skunked.

My friend started the journey by cracking a prescient joke related to how beautiful the night was. He said, "No wind, no rain…" and then added, "no fish."

We fished until the sun came up and then made or way home. We managed to get into the middle of the rush hour from Yokohama but when we got to Shinagawa we decided to have a coffee and sit out the craziness for awhile. It was 7:30 AM by this time and as we stood in line waiting to order coffee the counter person poured two mugs of beer and put them on a tray. They looked nice and cold and frothy just like I like to drink them. Two older ladies picked up the tray and disappeared to one of the sitting areas. We had our coffee then took a local train that was slower but less crowded.

They insisted that I take the other two fish home which I did and as soon as I arrived I gutted and filleted them. I had to get the guts and heads out into the garbage and it was past pickup time on smelly garbage day. If I didn't get them out they would be stinking the place up for another three days.

That night I fried the fish in a little olive oil and at the end sprinkled it with shoyu. There's nothing like extremely fresh fish, especially when you know where and when it was caught. It wasn't enough fish to justify the amount of time and money we spent to get it but it was an experience most travelers to Japan won't get. Getting fish was secondary when you think about it, if I want fresh fish its available in almost every store in Japan. It was the act of planning and executing the trip that made it special. Of course this is what all the fishermen who get skunked like to tell you. I'm so lucky that I have friends who invite me to go on these excursions. My only regret is that I didn't have one of those beers at 7:30 in the morning and sit and drink it with the two older ladies.

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