A Travellerspoint blog

Tokyo, Japan

Tokyo, one of the biggest cities in the world and our last major stop on our circumnavigation trip. Not really a single city, more of a collection of several large cities that have a complex system of public and private rails that all interlink in a seemingly haphazardly fashion. Expensive to travel in and expensive to stay in, Tokyo nonetheless has something for everyone; shopping, nightlife, red light district, anime and food from around the world. We met up with some friends from the US and Britain and hit the town. Unfortunately, they have better cameras than I and many of the photos taken are still with them. I will add them later to the blog once they return stateside. We visited several major shrines such as the Tokugawa family's shrine (the rulers of Japan for about 250 years), as well as the burial sight of the famous 47 Ronin. Ironically, I had just watched the new movie of this tale starring Keane Reeves on the bus ride from Nagoya.

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The area of Asakusa is known for its old temples and major shopping street. Here is a shop that in the early 17th century, invented a now ubiquitious shichimi togarashi. This seven spice blend contains sesame and poppy seeds, orange peel, sansho (berries from the prickly ash tree that cause a numbing and cooling sensation), nori (seaweed), ginger, and dried orange peel. This is the stuff you see on the counter of pretty much every Japanese restaurant. Luckily, they are still in business and I purchased their medium and spicy blends. For a snack we had sweet potatoes (if you have noticed pretty much everyplace has sweet potatoes during this time of year in Japan) that are steamed then covered in honey and sesame seeds. I had left one for the others to try but Stacey ate it all.

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There was also the trip to the artificial island of Odaiba with its model of a Gundam as well as a Mexican festival. This was complete with wrestlers, sombreros, serapes and tequila. I had a empenada that was close to the real thing. For this trip we stuck with local food only but by this time I was really missing Mexican food.

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As for the local food we had ramen of course. The restaurant had several different styles; shoyu, miso, tonkotsu, shio and the elusive tantanmen. This dish is similar to the Taiwan ramen in Nagoya and the dandanmien from Sichuan that I mentioned in the previous post and I was excited to try it out. Unfortunately, this one didn't live up to my expectations as the pork was cubed not minced, cold and not spicy nor tingling from sansho. As for the other types, Tokyo restaurants seem to use a much fishier soup base that can be tasted over the supposedly primary flavor. They did have a tofu desert with sweet potato noodles that was creamy and sweet that was incredibly good. Similar in texture to a custard and had strawberry jam on top. In another restaurant, I had dipping ramen. This is a deconstructed ramen, with everything out of the liquid. Then you have a much more intensively flavored dipping sauce, in these case sesame, that you dip into. The noodles are served cold and is refreshing on a hot day. The serving style is based on that of soba (buckwheat) noodles.

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Posted by CulinarySojourn 20:53 Archived in Japan Comments (0)

Nagoya, Japan

Leaving Ise for Tokyo, we traveled on the Kintetsu railroad to the industrial city of Nagoya. One of the largest cities in Japan, it is famous for sumo, cars and being a transportation hub to get to or from Tokyo. We only had a few hours in the city and once we found the bus stop and stowed our luggage we went in search of some local culinary specialties. On the local tour maps we found two streets titled with enticing names like, "Food Street" and such but to no avail. There was actually no food to be had here. Extending our search, we found tebasaki, or Japanese fried chicken wings. In Japan, the entire wing is fried. This includes the wing tip that has little meat on it but does give more crispy skin and the peppery flavor of the marinade. Another local dish is Taiwan Ramen. Named for a immigrant from Taiwan that invented it in the 70's, this is a spicy version of the ubiquitous noodle dish. Finely ground pork is fried with green onions and bean sprouts with chiles and other spices. Then it is placed on top of ramen in a soy sauce based soup base. Fried garlic chips were served as a garnish. It reminds me of dandanmien, a Sichuan dish from central China. While spicy according to Japanese tastes, it had only a noticeable heat.

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If I had more time in Nagoya, I would also have tried miso-katsu. This is a standard tonkatsu, breaded pork cutlet, but served with a red miso sauce. This is a specialty of the region but being full I had no room left. Instead, I tried to find the castle but with inconsistent signage on the maps and roadways, we made it within four blocks before having to turn back due to time constraints. After we ascended the JR Towers, we saw how close we were.

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Our trip out was on a six hour bus ride. We went to one of the numerous convenience stores and bought drinks and snacks for the trip. Here we found a fruit sandwich. Two slices white bread, with the crusts cut off, with whipped cream and assorted fruit. Odd from an American point of view but it worked.

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The bus had a TV, video games and a pull down cocoon that fitted over your head to block light so you can sleep. Or it would, if we were not giant Americans. The trip itself went quickly and we arrived in Tokyo around 10pm. Here we settled down in a AirB&B we rented and got some rest before tackling Tokyo.

Posted by CulinarySojourn 10:26 Archived in Japan Comments (0)

Ise, Japan

Heading east from Osaka, we traveled to the city of Ise. While relatively unknown outside Japan, it is the location of the major shrines of the indigenous religion of Shinto. The main temple dedicated to the Sun Goddess is here and the Emperor of Japan is believed to be a descendent. Due to its importance it also houses one of the Imperial Regalia, similar to the crown jewels of Britain. Shinto architecture is simple and all of the temples had tall fences built around them. This was one of the few areas that I did not see many fellow foreign tourists. One of the basic tenets of the Shinto religion is cleanliness and this pertains even to the buildings which are rebuilt every few decades. This meant that about a quarter of the buildings were surrounded by scaffolding and could not be seen. Also pictures of the larger shrines is prohibited, although not with signs but some of the priests scolding you if you try.

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In the afternoon we went to the Edo Wonderland Ise Azuchi-Momoyama Bunkamura theme park. Here they recreate a town in the 16th century and have a host of carnival games and shows including a ninja demonstration and haunted houses. These were entertaining, albeit a bit rundown.

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As for afternoon snacks, I had fried chicken skin with a teriyaki sauce and sesame seeds and wasabi soft serve. The chicken skin was served cold unfortunately but was still nice and crispy. They gave you a toothpick to use but they mostly just broke when you tried to stab into the skin. As for the wasabi soft serve it was not what I was expecting. Instead of it mixed into the soft serve like other flavors, it was young shoots of wasabi that was grated and then frozen into a granita. While I was waiting for it to thaw, the soft serve was melting but once I was able to start mixing the flavors it was pretty good. The wasabi would be to much on its own but since it was from younger plants and mixed with dairy you really only got the flavor and not the burn. Most of the time at least.

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For dinner we had some local specialties. Ise noodles are thick, flour noodles in a thick soy and fish sauce. This is topped with green onions, chili powder and tempura bits. The flavors were simple but intense, with the thick noodles giving it a chewy texture and made the overall dish filling. The second dish was the local tuna, dabbed with soy sauce and served atop rice. The fish itself had a deep red color and melted on your tongue.

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Posted by CulinarySojourn 14:23 Archived in Japan Comments (0)

Kyoto, Japan

While my wife and I had previously been to the old capital of Japan, we both felt that it is beautiful enough to go again. There is two main sights that I prefer in Kyoto: Kiyomizu-dera and Kinkakuji. The former is located on the hills to the south east of the city and from the main part you can see much of the city. A group of Japanese students approached us and offered to guide us around in order to practice their English. My first reaction was that it was a scam like in Morocco or Europe but then I remembered we are in Japan. Unfortunately, like the rest of the trip, most of the temple was under construction and covered by scaffolding.

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Kinkakuji is the famous golden pavilion tea house. It is built on a small pond and is one of the top places I have seen in my travels. It is quite a distance from the other main sites in the city and after attempting the several kilometer walk, we finally relented and paid for the bus as we were running out of time. After jostling with the other tourists we managed a few good photos before the mosquitoes drove us off. Of at least me as neither my wife nor Ben seem to get bit while I am around.

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Researching ahead of time for culinary specialties, I did not have much luck in finding any that would work. There is the imperial style dinners for around $100 or more, temple food composed of tofu that we already had back at Mt. Aso or pickles made with the byproducts of sake which doesn't work well in a cookbook as most people can't get that. Oddly enough, my other hobby of watching Japanese animation helped out as I spotted a piece of merchandise. It is a keychain with one of the characters of the show eating local specialties from around Japan. Takoyaki in Osaka, fried shrimp in Nagoya, etc. I didn't recognize the one from Kyoto but after a few Google searches and translation help from my wife, I figured out what it is. It is a square piece of mochi that is filled with a variety of sweet fillings. Chewy, sweet and delicious. I had quite a bit of free samples from the various stores we visited. The best is either the choco-banana or the cinnamon.

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Posted by CulinarySojourn 06:10 Comments (0)

Iga, Japan

With a rail pass good for unlimited travel within five days, we devide to nake the most of it and visit as much of the Kansai area as possible. Deciding to head off the beaten path, we make our way to the end of the line. Iga is famous for one thing: ninjas. The secretive spies and assassins of Japan's bloody civil wars thrived in this region and have been a popular culture icon, along with geisha and samurai. Here we watched a demonstration of various ninja weapons like throwing stars, sickles and swords as well as seeing the inside of a ninja house. This was filled with false walls, hiding spots and escape hatches.

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For culinary specialities, there was only two. Locally produced beef that was far to expensive, around $50, and ninja biscuits. These were similar in taste to the deer biscuits in Nara but sweeter and more dense. They can supposedly last six months and provided all of the nutrition that a ninja needed.

From here, we returned to Osaka to eat and plan our next excursion.

Posted by CulinarySojourn 16:45 Comments (0)

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