Friday, October 29, 2010

The Last Day in Mitaka

It has arrived and it's kind of gloomy; the weather and the feeling of leaving Mitaka, Japan, after living here for three months. On top of that there is a Typhoon approaching Tokyo and based on the projected path it will be just offshore around the time my plane is supposed to leave.

Over the last three days I've seen all of my good friends one last time before I go. With my friend from the Keio Plaza Hotel I took a trip to the city of Mito. I had read in the Japanese Times Online that the city paid to produce a movie to try and boost tourism. The movie is about a famous historical event that happened in 1860 at the Sakurada Gate that led into Tokyo Castle. Some master less samurai from the Mito clan assassinated the Tairo, Leader of Japan, Ii Naosuke as he was carried in a palanquin from his mansion nearby, to enter the castle via the Sakurada gate.

After the movie was completed the town converted the life size replica buildings into a museum that provides information regarding the event and also about the making of the movie.

When I read this I put together a plan to first go to central Tokyo and visit the real Sakurada gate which still stands and looks like it would have looked back when the incident occurred. I took some pictures from a number of different angles with the intent of trying to take the same pictures once I visited the museum. The comparisons are on the right side of my blog page at If you aren't reading this post on that site you can go there to see the pictures.

The second part of the plan was to go to the museum and the third part was to go and see the movie which was released about a week earlier. We added a couple of wrinkles to the plan which involved food at both ends.

Before visiting the museum we took a small train from Mito to a port town called, Naka-Minato. We went to eat sushi. I'd mentioned it in a very early post because I had gone there on a previous trip with my son and my friend and the sushi was unbelievably fresh and delicious. For that trip we had planned to go to Mito to visit a famous garden and the Tokugawa museum but one of my friends fellow workers at the Keio Plaza suggested that since we were going to Ibaraki Prefecture (province/state) why not go to Naka-Minato for sushi. This employee is from Ibaraki and very proud of his home prefecture. The sushi alone in Naka-Minato is something to be proud of. He certainly sent us in the right direction; so much so that I wanted to go again.

Before this trip I'd also been told that they are famous in Naka-Minato for placing larger portions of fish on top of the rice so I wanted to check this out as well. The size was noticeably different. It seemed the wasabi was a lot spicier as well.

I stuck to the fish and ate iwashi, aji and sanma sushi and they were all very tasty. My friend commented that I was eating all the blue-skinned fish and that he didn't like the blue-skinned sushi. I mentioned the fish to others the next day and they all commented that I was eating blue-skinned fish. My friend ate a lot of crab and shrimp sushi. It is crab season and there were many kinds available. I'd never seen so much crab at a sushi place before.

After eating we walked around the fish market located just outside the restaurant. I put a couple of pictures over on the right. As you can see there was a lot of crab and this picture only shows one area stacked with them.

We then visited the museum and went to the movie as planned. After we came back to Shinjuku to go and eat the second wrinkle which was Oden. Oden is a selection of stewed items that you can order as one large bowl with multiple ingredients or you can order many small bowls of just one item. Most of the items are vegetables but they served tasty fried chicken livers done in a garlic sauce plus a very good dish of very tender beef tendon.

This Oden restaurant prides itself on its broth which is meant to be consumed (some places you don't drink the broth) and it is great to lift the bowl and sip their broth. Its delicate but had a memorable flavor, part animal part vegetable. We ended the meal with a fried rice dish that had very young iwashi (sardine) fry laced throughout the rice. It was served with a side of broth that you poured over the rice and then drank from the bowl.

It was a perfect day and everything went exactly as planned except we caught an earlier train from Mito and that made us early for Oden so we went to the Keio Plaza and had a drink before returning to the restaurant.

The next day I met my friend whom I first met with his wife in Hawaii. The Tokyo Film Festival had started and there were movies that I wanted to see. This was the second movie I wanted to see, the first was sold out so I didn't get to go. This one was an afternoon show and we met on a cold and rainy day in Roppongi an hour before show time. My luck, when we went to buy tickets this movie was also sold out.

Instead we went to the Mori Arts Museum and saw the exhibit titled, A Sense of Nature. There were some great art works on a huge scale to be seen. It is a contemporary art museum so there were some pretty unusual displays. When you step into the first gallery you are treated to a snow storm. There is a giant (20x10x15 Meter) Plexiglas box filled with white feathers. Two fans are turned on periodically and a snow storm ensues. Then there were videos of scenes around Japan that depicted people connecting with their environments that were very interesting. They were presented on three screens which made a triangle so you watched three different videos with three different themes.

One of them has caused me to set a new goal for a new way to see Tokyo. During the 250 years that the Tokugawa were in power they developed a series of canals that ran through old Edo (Tokyo before the Meiji Restoration). The canals travel deep inland and were used to deliver goods to the increasing population of Edo which had grown to a million people in the 1700s. They were the first transportation system in town and many of them are still used today. The video in question was a series of shots taken from the front of a boat traveling in these canals. In the downtown core it is very dark in the canals because one of the newest transportation systems in Tokyo (trains) runs on platforms built over the original transportation system. The view looking up to the streets was quite interesting. I would like to take a boat ride into the canals and see where you can go in Tokyo on the water.

Then there was a room in which you became an underground being. There was an uneven ceiling that came down to a few feet from the floor in places and there were holes in the ceiling that you could pop up in. When you did you were in a forest with all these trees hanging down from the actual ceiling. Everything was white with some patches of brown but it was interesting to view.

After the museum my friend and I parted and I was off to meet the young lady that works at La Rochelle restaurant. We met at the Hachiko gate of Shibuya Station. The intersection across from the small court in front of the station is the famous intersection that you've probably seen where the streets are empty and then all of a sudden thousands of people cross the street in all different directions.

I stood inside the station entrance watching for my friend and every five minutes thousands of people who had just crossed the intersection came pouring into the station. The problem was that they all had umbrellas and as the first of them arrived they stopped to pull down their umbrellas but the people behind kept coming. Every five minutes I watch this series of collisions.

We were meeting to go to my young friend's uncle's friend's restaurant. This gentleman is the man who had the connection to get us invited to morning sumo practice at the Azumazeki sumo stable. He had suggested to my friend that we come to his restaurant so we did. His izakaya is famous for its chicken and iwashi dishes so that's what we ate. First a giant mug of beer and then the dishes started to arrive. We wanted some iwashi sashimi but the lady of the house said that due to the typhoon no fresh iwashi were delivered to the Tsukiji market that day so we'd better have aji sashimi. It was so tender and fleshy. Dipped in shoyu and wasabi it was perfect for the sweet taste of the fish and the umami of the shoyu.

The most remarkable dishes we ate were one of each of the house specialties. We had a whole iwashi served four ways. It included the deep fried head and the deep fried skeleton of the iwashi. I ate the entire head first. Picture on the right. It was like a mild fish flavored crunchy potato chip. Nothing slimy or gishy, just crunch and flavor. Then we shared pieces of the skeleton. The bones when deep fried become crispy like a cracker and the meat between the bones dries out but has concentrated flavor. They were delicious and I smiled the whole time I munched on them.

The other specialty we had was chicken sashimi. Think about it for a second, its raw chicken breast and it is fantastic. The entire chicken breast is dipped in boiling water for a few seconds so anything on the surface is removed and there is a slight ring of cooked chicken at the edges of each slice. Dipped in shouyu and wasabi and you have something great that you will never get in North America unless you make it yourself.

I had some great food that night and some good sake as well. It was a great second last day even though I didn't get to see a movie.

Today, my last full day, I started organizing the cleanup of the apartment and the organizing for the packing. I walked to my friend from La Rochelle's house and ate lunch and said good bye then came back to finish what needed to be done to the apartment. Later, I ran an errand into Shinjuku to deliver a gift to my friend from the Keio Plaza Hotel and he asked me what I wanted for my last meal on my last full day but I knew he had a suggestion in mind so we went to an izakaya near the train station where the salary men go after work. It was a busy place but there was a table left by the window.

My friend's original intent was for me to try warm sake that had a grilled blowfish fin seeping in it so I said by all means I'd love to try it. It was very good. I thought it would maintain the sake taste but it was really all about the roasted fin. It was like drinking meat but that sounds gross and this was by no means gross. The fact that it was warm and savory made it different but good enough to try again sometime.

First though, it is customary in this establishment to deliver a small glass of beer immediately and free of charge. How civilized is that? Next my friend began to order dishes including oden and a kidney stew. Then small dried then grilled 'sad-eyed' iwashi. They were bursting with flavor from being dried and the grilled effect added another savory aspect to the dish. Some ika (squid) sashimi and then some small deep fried river shrimp sprinkled with salt. It reminded me of popcorn shrimp except that there was significantly more shrimp flavor because in Japan you eat the whole shrimp when they're this size, head and skin and tail.

Following this my friend ordered a small bowl of baby sardines on a ball of ground daikon called shirasu-oroshi. It looks like a pile of shredded white paper and at the end of each shred is a tiny black eyeball. When you sprinkle it with a little shouyu the taste of umami is incredible. Unmistakably fish with the fresh sweet diakon and full mouth flavor.

There was an additional sashimi dish at the beginning that was very tender and tasty but it was from an animal that most North Americas couldn't imagine eating. I'd tried it on a previous trip and wasn't too impressed. That trip my son really enjoyed it. This trip it was very good both times I tried it and it was served in two different ways but both were sashimi.

The finale to the dinner was a plate of fried udon noodles with cabbage, pork, shoga (pickled ginger) and a healthy topping of dry shaved bonito. Japanese meals often end with a starch dish like rice or noodles and this dish had a gentle taste so that you didn't leave with a heavily flavored palate.

My final meal in Japan will be at the airport. It doesn't sound very exciting compared to where I've eaten and what I ate, but they have reasonable food in the airport and it will be Japanese food in Japan.

This is the last post from Japan, that's assuming I don't get waylaid by the typhoon. I will be adding one more post in a few days to wrap things up with regard to the trip and with regard to future plans for Zonajin. For more information about my writing and things Japanese please visit my author page on my publisher's website,

While still on Japanese soil, I thank all my friends who live in this great and pleasant country; new friends made this trip and those I've known for a few years. They made the trip special and allowed me to enter their country on a more intimate basis that I could ever have expected with out their generous guidance.

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