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Kawasaki and Yokohama, Japan

Dec 7 – 15

My friends Chika and Shinsuke (who I met first in Austin) live in Kawasaki and so I made plans to meet up with them. They met me at the train station and showed me the way to their lovely house. They were the sweetest hosts I could ever have asked for and I ended up staying an entire week. Chika was off work while I was there and she spent a lot of time showing me around and answering all my questions about Japanese cooking and culture. Chika used to be a midwife and she will be returning to her job soon. When I asked her if she has delivered a lot of babies, she just shrugged and said “Not so many. Maybe 200.”

The hospitality of Japanese people truly is amazing. I arrived in the evening and almost immediately after we got to the house, Chika ran a nice, hot bath and sprinkled in what she referred to as “onsen powder.” She has a drawer with many different types of onsen powder – some for sore muscles, others for skin. She told me I looked tired (which I was) and so the one she used that night was for fatigue.

This was my first experience taking a bath in Japan (aside from the public bath in Kyoto). Most bathrooms had these large, deep tubs and they looked very inviting in the cold weather. But since I was usually staying in guesthouses and hostels, it didn’t make much sense to hang out in the bathtub while other people were probably waiting for a shower. Japanese bathtubs are another interesting technological marvel that the Japanese have gotten exactly right. You set the temperature to your liking (in Chika’s case 43 degrees celcius), the bath fills up automatically, and then a little song plays, followed by a cute woman’s voice announcing that your bathtub is ready. The temperature is always regulated so there’s none of this adjusting between hot and cold faucets while dipping your hand in the water to test it out. Japanese families typically fill up the bathtub only once each night. And just like in the public baths, you scrub your body before soaking. Remember not to pull the plug out afterwards, because other people will be using the same bath water after you. This nice, warm bath turned out to be the routine every night while I stayed with them and they usually invited me to take the first bath.

Not only is Chika the perfect hostess, but she’s also the perfect wife. She wakes up at 6 every morning to make breakfast for her husband and to prepare his lunch box for work. She also cooks amazing dinners in the evening and has everything ready by the time he comes home. In Japan, people tend to work much later than they do in America. While we complain about our 9-5 jobs, it’s not uncommon for people in Japan to work from 8 to 8. And as soon as Shinsuke would walk in the door, Chika would be laying all the food out on the table.

Anyway, I loved joining Chika in the kitchen and learning all about Japanese cooking. Once she understood that I was truly interested in learning about preparing the food, she explained each of the steps as she was doing them and even let me make the miso soup. When making miso soup, you should only add the the miso paste after the burner has been turned off. Otherwise, I was told it tastes funny.

Chika normally cooks with meat, fish broth, and bonito flakes…but while I was there, she cooked with lots of vegetables and used kombu (seaweed) powder as a seasoning instead. Mirin, sake, soy sauce, and sugar are also common seasonings in Japanese recipes.

We had amazing meals every night. Miso soup and glutinous rice are important staples and are often present at every meal (even breakfast), and sea vegetables and pickles (basically pickled anything – daikon, cucumbers, eggplant) are also very popular. Japanese people like to separate their food and they pay strict attention to detail and aesthetics. A meal consists of many different side dishes that compliment each other, each laid out in its own serving bowl, and everyone uses their chopsticks to grab a little bit of food from each plate. This communal style of eating is typical of Japan and they think the American way of eating (where each person has their own large plate with a serving of each thing already on it) is very antisocial and isolating. I would say I have to agree….but I still think the Japanese way creates a lot of unnecessary dishes to wash at the end of the night.

Chika introduced me to many vegetables I’d never tried before and even though she doesn’t eat vegan normally, she helped show me that Japanese vegan cuisine has a lot of variety, color, and flavor. Here is some of the delicious food she taught me how to make.

As much as I loved eating Japanese food, I didn’t want them to have to cook for me all the time. So some of the nights, I made dinner for them. I tried to pick things that might be new and interesting to them, but not so different that they wouldn’t like it. One night I made potato soup (with lots of onions, garlic, and carrots), french bread with a basil tomato spread, and salad (with spinach, peppers, broccoli, and tofu simmered in a sauce of soy sauce, sesame seeds, garlic, chili, and sugar). Japanese people typically eat soft tofu and they often eat it raw with just a little bit of soy sauce and green onions sprinkled on top. So Chika was really amused at seeing someone fry up tofu the way I was. She was also amused at seeing the mountains of minced garlic I was throwing into everything.

Another night I made tofu migas, mexican-style rice, refried pinto beans, palm heart and avocado salad, and pico de gallo. My attempt to recreate vegan Tex-Mex food in Japan turned out to be a fun project, as I had to march all over Tokyo to find the ingredients. Luckily I already had the pinto beans (when I told Sarah from the WFC in Hiroshima about my plans to make Mexican food for my Japanese friends, she gave me her dried pinto beans in the spirit of spreading the culinary delights of other cultures). My first attempt at finding cilantro failed miserably. I proudly brought my purchase back to the house, only for Chika to analyze it and say “I don’t know the name of this is in English, but it isn’t cilantro.” She was right. It looked like cilantro, but tasted more like a Japanese version of parsley. My second attempt was a success. I happened across a giant food market under a subway stop specializing in foreign foods, and there I was able to aquire my cilantro and something close to a lemon (but it was much larger and had tons of seeds). I also proudly found my way to a South American grocery store by scribbling a vague address down on my notebook and taking a series of trains to get there. It was a very small store located up several flights of stairs in a tall building, but I managed to buy canned palm hearts, corn tortillas, and salsa. I also made my own flour tortillas, which were good, but they tasted more like Indian chapati than tortillas.

I was a little worried that a family used to seaweed and miso soup at every meal would not be very excited about my creations, but they seemed to really like what I made. And Chika was taking notes so she can recreate the recipes when I’m gone (just like I was doing with her recipes). Cute.

Sometimes Chika and I combined forces and made funny lunches from random leftovers we had at the house. I had some leftover potato flakes that I had been wanting to use up, so I mixed them with some veggies and spices to make potato patties. Chika made rice balls, soup, salad, and green tea. The result was a weird meal that contained elements of Japanese cooking, plus the goulash that I’m so prone to making.

Many of the days I stayed with them, I took day trips into Tokyo (more on this in another post). They live about 40 minutes from Tokyo and you take a series of train rides to get there. Chika was so worried that I would be lost and she spent a lot of time going over maps and printouts with me and writing detailed step by step instructions. With all of her help, I was able to easily find my way to the places I wanted to go.

One of the days we went to Yokohama to walk around downtown and see the waterfront.

We also visited the Sankeien Garden in Yokohama. It was really pretty, but I could see that it would be much more beautiful in the spring (as many of the flowering plants had long since lost their flowers).

I found this pretty cat in the garden and wished I could stuff him in my backpack to be my traveling buddy. But I don’t like he’d like the idea very much. He’d probably be more comfortable in a Japanese garden.

For lunch, we ate at a macrobiotic restaurant that Chika read about in a magazine. The macrobiotic diet concept started in Japan and it consists of locally grown whole grains, nuts, seeds, vegetables (with an emphasis on sea vegetables), and fruit, combined according to yin yang principles. I was interested in seeing how Japanese macrobiotic food differs from that of the US. From eating at a macrobiotic restaurant in Austin, I know that nightshades are generally avoided, so I was surprised to see that some of the menu items at this place included tomatoes, eggplants, and peppers.

My last few days in Kawasaki, I felt a bit under the weather (not surprising considering that I haven’t given myself many days to rest the past 3 months). I decided this would be my time. So I spent one day lazing around the house and uploading pictures. Another day was spent riding bikes with Chika.

We went to the grocery store and she pointed out all the foods I had been asking questions about (like konnyaku, shirataki, dango, and fu).

And then we went to both amazing floors of the 100 Yen shop (basically like the $1 store). How could you resist going into a store that has posters all over with so many cute little animals?

Along with the most amazing socks and stationary, here are some other things you can buy at the 100 Yen Shop.

One of my last nights in Kawasaki, Shinsuke took us to an izakaya, a traditional Japanese bar that also serves food. This was probably one of the highlights for me, as I never would have found a place like this without them. We took the elevator inside a tall building and the bar (I can’t remember the name, but I’ll find out) was tucked away at the very top.

This bar was very fancy and intimate, with pretty mood lighting and individual cubicles with short tables that you sit around on cushions. The waiters tap on the wooden doors when they approach your table and slide them to bring your food and drinks.

We even had our own escape equipment, as we were very high up.

First we ordered sake. You can order it hot or cold and with varying degrees of sweet or bitter.

And you order all the food yourself by selecting it from a computer screen. Isn’t that fancy?

Shinsuke got a little carried away and ordered lots and lots of food. It went like this: “Have you tried soba before? No?!? Ok. We’ll get one of those.” then… “Have you tried yuba before? No?!? Well you have to try that before leaving Japan. Ok. We’ll get one of those.” This went on and on until we had tried just about every veggie friendly thing on the menu (and it was a very large menu).

Most izakayas serve lots of meat, but this one (while it did have meat), specialized in tofu and soy products.

All the tofu was homemade and amazingly fresh. The waitress shows up with a big cheesecloth covered box and scoops some out for you. We tried a few different varieties.

It looks a bit like ice cream and caramel, but nope – it’s tofu and soy sauce.

By the time we left for the evening, we had accumulated quite a large assortment of dishes and plates. Shinsuke refused to let me pitch in on the bill because he said it was meant to be a celebration of my time in Japan.

I really hope they’ll return to Austin, but it sounds like they don’t plan to relocate for a while. When I come back to Japan (“when,” not “if”), I will come bearing big boxes of presents for them. I made them some dinners, brought them a few small gifts, and gave Chika some coins from the countries I visited so far to add to her collection…but I feel like that isn’t enough. I really enjoyed my time with them and feel privileged that they let me take over their computer room for an entire week, not to mention that they helped me out in any way they possibly could.

Notes:

  • Members of the train crew roam the aisles with carts carrying snacks and drinks for sale. These people are always cute women dressed like airplane stewardesses and they smile and bow when they enter and exit your train car.

  • You’ll see many no smoking signs in Japan (especially in public parks and near temples). But…you can smoke in designated train cars. Once I got stuck in the smoking car because all the other reserved seats were full. It is no fun to spend 2 hours in a closed compartment with people all around you blowing puffs of smoke in your direction.

  • Bikes are so prevalent in Japan that parking is sometimes an issue. For this reason, many places have rows and rows of locking bike racks (which are basically like large parking lots for bikes). You clip your bike into the rack and it automatically locks. Be sure to remember your number because when you’re ready to get your bike out, you pay the machine and your designated rack automatically unlocks for you to take your bike out.

  • Japan’s recycling rules are generally very specific and complicated. And it doesn’t help that each area of Japan has its own unique set of rules.

  • While recycling is big here, so is excessive packaging. If you buy a garlic or tomato or pepper or banana, it will come wrapped in its own individual plastic bag. And because everyone in Japan seems to be on the go, disposable bento boxes are available at every convenience store and they all use lots of plastic wrap and Styrofoam.

  • Its interesting that while you hardly ever see trash on the streets, you’ll have a really hard time finding a trash can anywhere in Japan. I’ve searched all over public train stations and parks and there is hardly ever a place to put your trash. I guess people just hang on to it until they get home. I asked several people why trash cans are so rare and these two reasons seemed to be the most common responses. Both make a little bit of sense, but I still think it’s weird not to have trash cans. It’s best to always carry a plastic bag with you.
  1. Crows are quite common in Japan and they like to rummage through trash. If trash was left out on the streets, it would attract more crows which are loud, dirty, and considered to be a public nuisance (kinda like the grackle situation in Austin).

  2. Since the Subway Sarin Incident, when terrorists boarded subway lines in Tokyo and emitted sarin gas hidden in plastic bags and newspapers, killing over a dozen people and injuring thousands, trashcans were removed to reduce the number of places people could hide toxic gases.

  • When you’re paying for something (for example at the cashier in a restaurant or a store), you always put your money on a tray rather than handing it directly to the person. I’m assuming this is because Japanese currency includes so many coins and it’s easier to count them out this way. But even if your check turns out to only require bills, just place your payment on the tray. People get flustered when you don’t.
  • I thought Australians were crazy about their flavored milk, but Japanese are really into flavored SOY milk! They have all kinds of flavors – from sweet azuki bean, to red potato, to banana, to green tea, to black sesame. I tried lots of them and I think they all taste good…but vaguely of peanut butter. I wonder if it’s all the same milk, but just in different packaging.

  • Many ATMs in Japan don’t take foreign ATM cards, so be sure to plan ahead. Seven Bank (at 711 stores), Citibank, and the post office ATMs generally do.
  • Japanese girls have a very distinct style of dress. If they aren’t wearing layers upon layers of frumpy, colorful clothes (as they do on some streets in Harajuku, Tokyo and Shinsaibashi, Osaka) they are typically dressed really fancy. The trend appears to be tall black books or pointy high heels with leggings and leg warmers, extremely short skirts (even when it’s freezing outside), leather designer purses, and either sleek, long black coats or puffy coats with fake fur hoods.

While the frumpy look is probably more my style, I definitely don’t fit in either category with my current traveler gear.

  • I’m obviously not an expert in Japanese, but I heard that the traditional word for wife literally means “inside the house” and the word for husband means “master.” I don’t know if these words are still typically used today, but I’ll look into it.
  • Japanese TV is certainly interesting, as there are always variety shows (often including game shows and short, comedic skits) playing at any given time.

  • Bagels seem to be catching on at some bakeries in Japan (although they add their own unique touches). I wish we had soy milk and edamame bagels in the US.

  • This guy is a popular cartoon character in Japan. I think he’s scary, but kids like him.

  • This is a creepy sign saying you should not practice massage without a license.

  • Chestnuts are very popular in Japan. They’re often cooked into glutinous rice. Around Christmas, you can buy freshly roasted chestnuts at train stations and they give you your own cute chestnut cracker.

  • Party costumes are sold all over the place. After walking into store after store and seeing these same hooded unitards in every solid color imaginable, you’d think this is an immensely popular item. But I haven’t seen anyone on the street wearing them. Maybe the problem is that these “party costumes” are only worn by guests at parties and I haven’t yet attended a Japanese party? I don’t really know….but I definitely started to wonder who actually wears these things.

But then I watched a Japanese variety show with Chika and Shinsuke and there you go – Party Costumes!!! Yay! I don’t know what the skit was about, but that certainly looks like a fun party!

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4 Comments

  1. You are just the best at this!! I love every word….

  2. Grandma

     /  January 15, 2009

    WONDERFUL TIME! Wish I could have gone there and seen things that Jeff saw. Waiting anxiously for your next blog.
    Love you heaps!

  3. Lela

     /  January 15, 2009

    Hi there! It was fun to read about your attempts to make Mexican (or Tex-Mex) food in Japan. I made Mexican while I was in India and it almost worked, only the beans and the hot sauce still tasted like they were Indian food. Can’t wait for your next post.

  4. thanks for that mate! awesome idea and thoroughly interesting read. ive been trying to convince my boys that we should have a proper curry night in instead of going out every week, and actually did it last week. effin great success it was, i tell you! i found a tasty korma and a few others from this wicked curry recipes site, and even makde the naan meself too! who said guys cant cook!

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