My Eight Month Coma 1

Last week I travelled back in time to Tokyo.  You’re probably thinking that makes no sense because everyone knows that Tokyo is actually 13 hours in the future (from NYC).  Nevertheless, that’s what it felt like.  Or maybe I’ve just been in a really long coma.  Yes, some things had changed (many many friends were missing) but I could easily explain that away – they were off traveling.  What I’m trying to say is that even though its been 8 months since I left Japan, it felt like I woke up from a long sleep and I was right back where I started from.  My 100 words of Japanese returned and came flowing out of my mouth upon arrival at the airport limousine bus counter in Narita airport.  Directions to taxi drivers were a cinch, the staff at the American club welcomed me with open arms and a few shopkeepers in Azabu Juban were friendlier than they would have been to a total American stranger.  I had hoped that my time away would have given me perspective and that returning would give me the closure I really wanted and needed; the figurative final stamp in my passport sending me on my way.  I was too emotional when I left to really process the departure.  This, unfortunately didn’t happen.  There was no perspective, no closure.  I found myself pretending that I still actually lived there.  Looking back on those very very brief 5 nights/4 days, I’d say that I didn’t do anything any differently than I would have if I still lived there (with a few exceptions that I’ll get to later).  I went to the fundraiser of my children’s school, ate ramen (2x), had a foot massage (or 2) went to the supermarket, the American club, had sushi in Tsukiji, went to a shrine sale, took trains, spent the night in a ryokan, saw a fire festival and had a girls night out.  So, you’re starting to get the point, right?  What I did in that short period of time was not a vacation itinerary – it was my plain old vanilla life – or the life I used to lead.  Which was anything but vanilla.  Hence the lack of closure.  But i’ve returned home happy to know that even though I’ve been gone for 8 months my friendships lived on.  We picked right back up where we left off – if anything, I appreciate them more.  And, those exceptions I mentioned earlier… well, lets just say I was fortunate to have an opportunity I won’t ever forget.  I spent those five nights and four days happily ensconced in the MacArthur Suite at the US Ambassador’s residence.  Kisses to John and Susie Roos.  Maybe next time, the coma won’t have to be so long…

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It’s All Relative Reply

Gonpachi - all of us together - a rare event

Gonpachi - all of us together - a rare event

My mom and my step-father came to town last week.  It was their first time in Japan.  I mapped out some favorite spots to take them, keeping in mind that they would be spending two days alone in Kyoto.  I eliminated all visits to shrines and temples while we were together in Tokyo which was a nice opportunity to visit some of the less frequented places.  We managed to fit a lot in.  The first full day it rained and I made a few adjustments to the itinerary and we spent the day at the Odaiba Onsen.  My mom didn’t want to go in the baths but we managed to fill most of the day with other Japanese inspired treats (the flesh eating doctor fish, shiatsu massage, foot baths) while the men enjoyed their time in the bath – Thomas Jr. went for the first time too.  I think he liked it.  We had drinks at the Roppongi Hills Club courtesy of our mutual friends Cliff and Isa and ate a very so-so dinner at Two Rooms in Aoyama.  I think that place looks better than it actually is.  We finished the night up at Bauhaus, a small live music club where supposedly three generations of rockers play together – the grandfather is by far the best.  We hit all the hot spots like the neighborhood ramen shop and the conveyor belt sushi restaurant, we even got to go for our weekly fix of La Jolla Mexican on Sunday night.  Lucky for them, they happened to be here during one of the two Grand Sumo tournaments held in Tokyo each year and we went with all the kids to see the opening day.  I think the adults enjoyed it the most.  Hayden is still convinced that sumo wrestlers are not athletes.  They visited both of the kids schools and were there to cheer on the Mustangs in their first Friday Night Lights of the Varsity Football season.  Tom Sr. was in the booth announcing and Hayden threw a touchdown pass to Thomas and won the game.  We spent a day at Tsukiji, the fish market coupled with Ginza and the Mitsukoshi Department Store food halls.  Even though I warned my mom, she tried the gooey omochi ball and spent a good deal of time dislodging it from her mouth and searching for a garbage can (impossible in Tokyo).  While in the area, we met up with Tom for lunch in Marounouchi on his lunch break.  We shopped and ate and walked in Shimokitazawa, a hip urban part of Tokyo where many college students live.  They have the most interesting little stores.  We visited Ningyocho to buy antique kimono and obis – I bought the most fantastic white wedding kimono.  When the box arrived a few days later Tom gave it a strange look.  Then I explained it was going to be hung on a wall.  I think he thought I was going to wear it.  The thing weighs about ten pounds.  After a busy few days, I put my parents on a bullet train to Kyoto where they celebrated their 30th wedding anniversary.  They overdosed on temples and shrines and Japanese food and were spent by the time they arrived back in Tokyo.  We ended the week eating pizza at Savoy, going to the top of the Mori tower, shopping at Tokyo Hands, “climbing”  Mt. Takao via the funicular to watch the monkeys pick bugs out of each other and then we ate at Ukai Toriyama – an absolute must restaurant stop with visitors.  On their very last night in Japan, we ate at T.Y. Harbor, outside on the water watching the Yakatabune boats cruise by.  Then it was off to late night Karaoke with the Hopkins and the Halls.  Could it get any better than that?

Tasty Tokyo Reply

 

Savoy Pizza in Azabu Juban

Savoy Pizza in Azabu Juban

 

The pickle and dried fish course at Kamiya in Roppongi

The pickle and dried fish course at Kamiya in Roppongi

Foodies around the world know that Tokyo has more Michelin rated restaurants than any other city, but you don’t have to eat high-end to experience the euphoria of sublime food.  $10 and the knowledge of where to go, can bring you pretty close to food heaven.  My father and step-mother visited last week and I chose the places we ate with care.  There was a different place for lunch and dinner and the price and cuisine ranged from under $10 per person to over $100.  We started off the culinary journey with a trip to our local ramen shop.  This is a place that Tom scouted out before I arrived here with the kids.  You slide open the wooden doors, duck under the linen noren curtains and place your 1000 yen note into the vending machine.  Each item on the menu is shown with a photo, a price and the brief description in Japanese.  You make your selection, a coupon pops out along with your change.  You hand the coupon to the man at the counter, sit down at one of the 10 small tables and wait for your bowl of steaming noodles to arrive.  I always choose the ten ten men (which I’m not even sure is the name) but its a bowl of ramen noodles with a peanut flavored spicy broth served with ground pork and fresh spinach.  You eat the noodles with chopsticks and you drink the soup with a big Japanese soup spoon.  And I never forget to order a plate of the fresh gyoza dumplings that I dip into a mixture of soy sauce, white vinegar and spicy hot oil.  Wash it all down with an Asahi or Sapporo Beer and it’s one of the best things around for less than $10.  Sophie has been raving about a pizza place that she went to with a friend’s family and I have tried several times to locate it, to no avail.  But with my parents in tow, we forged ahead, found Savoy Pizzza in Azabu Juban and ate our way through 10 pizzas in less than 1 hour with only 7 people.  The menu was pretty straightforward:  pizza margherita or pizza marinara.  We ordered 8 margarita and were offered two special pizzas that were not on the small menu (margarita with fresh cherry tomatoes).  Each pizza was made in front of us by the young Japanese pizza guy and then he threw a handful of rock salt into the brick oven which sizzled on impact and in went each pie.  Within moments, it was bubbling and oozing and plopped down in front of us.  The restaurant is more of a bar with exactly 9 seats.  We were told we could come for dinner at 6:30 but had to be gone by 7:30.  We ate fast and frantically and were very happy on our way out. Bill for 7 people with a bottle of red wine and several sodas, about $200.  A favorite Japanese cooking style is Teppanyaki.  A very westernized version is Benihana.  In Tokyo, places like Benihana are an insult to Teppanyaki restaurants.  In Tokyo, these dining establishments can charge between $100 and $200 per person and sometimes more.  Obviously, this is not an option for a large hungry family so I asked my friend Donna who has raised 6 kids here where she takes her kids for teppanyaki.  She recommend Panic Cafe.  Panic Cafe is located close to Azabu Juban.  It is located down a long staircase in the basement of an office building.  It also has a counter that seats about 10 with two tables.  Most of the food is cooked in front of you at the grill, but without the fanfare and drama of the typical Benihana.  They have perfected  a dish that is popular in Tokyo called Taco Rice.  The dish consists of rice, beans, meat, cheese, tomatoes and LOVE and when they serve it to you at Panic Cafe, you think you have eaten manna.  My father said it was one of the best things he ate in Tokyo.   Another lunch time found us at Rice Terrace in Nishi Azabu.  A small two storied shuttered house tucked away behind the traffic of the main street.  The red and green curry lunch set is one of my favorites and they serve it with soup, salad and a dessert of rice pudding with coconut milk and sweet potato.  Add a beer and the total for lunch is about $10 per person.  Sushi Sushi Sushi.  You can’t get it any fresher or more authentic.  We ate sushi three times while my dad and stepmother were here: the first time was around 10:45 a.m. after visiting the Tsukiji Fish Market, we stopped in for a tuna lunch set which included all kinds of different grades of tuna in all types of forms (sashimi, sushi, hand rolls…) There are a few famous spots for eating at the fish market but I’m never standing in a line for an hour for lunch and its pretty hard to go wrong anywhere you eat in Tsukiji.  Price for lunch with beer around $12.  The second place we ate sushi was at our favorite kaiten sushi restaurant (or conveyor belt sushi).  On the main strip in Omotesando, there is a little sushi-go-round with about 20 stools and you sit and watch the small plates of sushi come around and your pick up the plates you want to eat.  At the end of the meal, they count the plates and the colors of the plates (the colors designate the price) and you are presented with the bill.  Hayden can eat about 14 plates himself.  At the end of the meal, we had at least 40 plates and the bill was $85 for 7 people – less than $10 per person.  The last sushi meal made up for that one in terms of price!  The night before my dad and step-mother left, we went to Fukuzushi, a sushi restaurant in Roppongi.  We had a combination of raw and cooked food – several orders of cooked yellowtail collar (my step-mother’s favorite) and at least 4 orders of softshell crab along with sushi rolls and sashimi.  The bill that night was over $600 for 7 people.  The food was great but I’m not sure I will be taking the kids there again!  One night we went to Kamiya for dinner.  A small restaurant that seats 10 people upstairs at a communal table and 10 people downstairs in the basement at a counter.  The menu includes several courses and changes each week.  It is presented, hand-written in a book for you to look at.  Since it is all in Japanese, we smiled and gave the book back and told them to just go ahead.  The meal started with a seaweed and raw egg shooter and continued with course after course of sashimi, pickles, dried fish, fried shrimp summer rolls, beef, fish ball soup and probably a few other courses I can’t remember.  The meal ended with a small dish of cherry blossom ice cream.  Most of us tried everything, some dishes were unbelievably good and others more on the interesting side.  Each course is served in a unique piece of hand made pottery and the service is unique.  The restaurant is owned and run by all women, a unique experience in Tokyo.  Dinner costs about $80 per person.  A very nice price for the level of service and the quality of the food.  One day, while visiting the Tokyo-Edo Museum, which happens to be located in the area where the sumo stadium is and the wrestlers live and train, we stopped in for lunch at a restaurant that has served sumo wrestlers chanko nabe for over 100 years.  Chanko Nabe is a big pot with broth and vegetables into which very thin strips of beef are added.  As they quickly cook, you pull them out with chopsticks and spoon some soup and vegetables into your bowl and eat them together.  When the meat has been eaten, they throw in some thick udon noodles to cook with the vegetables and soup.  Its very good, especially on a chilly spring day in March.  A week in Tokyo would not be complete without a tempura meal.  I have never been a fan of tempura.  To me, Tempura was what you ordered in a Japanese restaurant if you didn’t eat sushi.  But in Japan, it is an art form.   Each piece is made individually, in front of you and served one at a time.  The ingredients used vary depending upon what is fresh but when we were there included shrimp, small white fish, eggplant, edamame, mushrooms, asparagus, to name a few.  You are given several dipping options.  One is a bowl of broth at room temperature that you add freshly grated daikon (radish) to.  This cools the tempura and makes it ready to eat.  The other is a good old dish of salt – nothing is better than a fried shrimp dipped in salt!  And freshly squeezed lemon juice which combined with the salt is the perfect addition to the seafood tempura.  We went to Tensei, the only Michelin starred restaurant on the itinerary.  Lunch is a bargain as they serve you the same multi-course meal as they do at dinner except they charge about half at lunch (about $50 per person).  Worth every yen.  Most of the restaurants we went to were Japanese which makes sense as most visitors really want to eat Japanese food when they are only here for a short time.  But I can assure you that you can eat almost any kind of food in this city and most of it is off the charts…When my dad and step-mother left, I went right on a diet.  Visitors can be fattening!

Thanksgiving Tokyo Style 1

dsc02131The last time we lived in Tokyo, Thanksgiving was the hardest holiday for me to celebrate away from home.  I worked then, didn’t have the day off, and to the rest of Japan it was just another day of the week.  All I could think about was what everyone was doing at home.  I pictured my family getting up early to cook and watching the parade while drinking hot chocolate.  There were never any issues, everyone always got along and no one drank too much and said things no one really wanted to hear.   Basically, everyone was together and happy back home in the states and my small family and I were alone and miserable.  This time around, I started planning early hoping that the amount of effort put in would pay off in the end.   The first people I invited were Kyoko and Michael and their daughter Kyla – friends of ours from the last time we lived here.  Next on the list were Isa and Cliff, friends of my Mom and Mark (and now our friends).  And then i couldn’t figure out who to invite next.  So the list kind of stayed that way for at least a month.  Then, while researching an article I am writing about the 60th Anniversary of the Tokyo American Club Womens’ Group, I came across an article written in the 1970’s about American families living in Tokyo, hosting US soldiers stationed at the nearby base for Thanksgiving Dinner.  The light went on.  I would invite soldiers.  I called the President’s office at the club and inquired about the program.  “Oh yes, I remember, we used to do that a long time ago.  That was when there was a big USO presence in Tokyo but they really don’t exist anymore.  That program hasn’t been in place for years.”  Ok, a slight drawback but I was determined to find some soldiers who would enjoy my Thanksgiving Dinner.  Next, I decided to send an email to the Athletic Director of Hayden’s School (The American School in Japan).  Hayden had played football against 5 different bases and I thought he would have a few contacts.  I received the following email response “this is very generous of you. I have copied this e-mail to two colleagues at Yokota air base and Zama army base. I hope they can get back to you with any contact person at their base.”  I waited patiently but heard nothing.  And then, at least three weeks after I started my search, I received a phone call from the Tokyo American Club President’s secretary.  She excitedly explained that they had a call that day from a soldier from Camp Zama asking us if we still did the program where they connected American families with active duty soldiers to share Thanksgiving Dinner.  And that is how I came to find Captain Mark Gross and Sergeant-Major Rick Gonzales.  And as soon as they were added to the invite list, others kept coming until there were 18 of us (12 adults and 6 children).  And our table was full of all our American favorite foods and we laughed and drank and got to know each other better.  Hayden commented on how Captain Gross liked to take out his maps to show everyone where he was stationed and we got to hear the story about how he was wounded last year in Iraq in the neck by bullet fragments (we even got to see the scar)!  Tom made a beautiful toast before we ate about how no matter how anyone at the table feels about the war in Iraq and Afghanistan, we have to support our troops who are fighting for our freedom and the freedom of others.  And how even though we are far from our friends and family, they are far away and in harms way.  One thing I noticed at the end of the evening was how we had 18 people for dinner and there were no issues!  And it wasn’t a fantasy either!!!  

What’s Behind Door Number One? 1

sakaLast year, Tokyo had more Michelin star restaurants than any other city in the world.  As a self-defined foodie you would think i won the lottery moving here.  Actually, its more of a frustrating situation then you would think.  In New York, if you want to go to a fabulous restaurant, you usually have to wake up early and dial furiously one month before the night you want to eat out.  And with any luck, you manage a booking some time during that night (it might be the 5:30 seating but at least you get the reservation).  And when you arrive at the restaurant, you are presented with a detailed menu and a waiter who is just dying to tell you all about the food you are so fortunate enough to be allowed the opportunity to eat.  And then the bill comes and you contemplate if it was actually worth the effort/price, etc… This procedure is pretty standard.  In Tokyo, its not that easy.  There are a few “expat” restaurants around our house that everyone goes to and the menus are in english and there are people who work at those restaurants that speak some english.  Its not uncommon to bump into people we know, even though we’ve only lived here for three months.  Saturday night, we had plans with our friends Libby and Doug to go out for dinner. Libby was pretty busy the week before as she had guests in from the U.S. and i told her i would find a place and make a reservation.   I wanted to break out of the mold and go to a “real” japanese restaurant.  Every day that I walk in Tokyo i pass another restaurant that has a small door that you need to bend to enter.  Usually there are noren (linen curtains) in front of the door and the name of the restaurant is in japanese (usually a mix of kanji and hirogana).  They only seat a handful of people.  My mind starts to fantasize about all the fabulous food that is being served there but only for the people in the know (e.g. the people that can read and speak Japanese).  I just don’t want to think that i am skimming the surface of good food in Tokyo.  I want to eat where the real people eat.  So i started doing some research, reading old Metropolis issues (the english weekly magazine) and looking on the internet and i came up with a small restaurant that wasn’t too far away that was Japanese/French.  I thought the combination would help the transition from a gaijin restaurant to a Japanese.  If it considered itself French in some way, the menu might actually have some French words which would help us figure out what was on the menu.  I couldn’t actually make the reservation myself as that would require the ability to speak Japanese so i asked member services (my new best friends) at the Tokyo American Club to make them for me.  They called me back later that day to say that we had a reservation for 4 at 8pm at HINOTOHITSUJI SAKA.  I emailed LIbby and told her that i made the reservation and we were all set.  Saturday night came and we took a quick cab ride over to the restaurant and it was exactly how i pictured it… down a small dark street, lit from within with a small door that Tom had to bend (and Doug who is 6’4) to get inside.  I was actually very proud of myself at that point.  When i stood upright and surveyed the very brightly lit, very small restaurant that was EMPTY, the pride started to melt into something closer to remorse.  We were welcomed by an older woman and a younger man (who could have been her son).  He quickly brought us menus that were completely in Japanese.  And not the Japanese that Tom can read (hirogana and katakana) but most of it had kanji characters.  One particular one did stand out for Tom – the character that represents a Horse.  We asked for Eigo menus (english) and he quickly shook his head NO.  After some hemming, hawing and teeth sucking, he told us there were three choices.  Horse, Pork or Beef Cheek.  He left us to decide and we all laughed at how it would be pork for 4.  The meal began with a small dish of some type of green grass in salt water.  Crunchy but very earthy tasting.  The next course was shredded radish with shimiji mushrooms served cold.  This course was followed by a clear broth with what looked like gefilte fish floating in it.  It turned out to be very similar to gefilte fish but it was pressed crab.  After the soup, we were served a chicken sausage with shredded cabbage that was actually quite good.  Next up was the pork that was served with root vegetables and a semi-sweet glaze that was also very good.  After the main course, we were served cold soba noodles that you dipped in cold soy broth and when you were finished, you poured hot water into the left over broth and drank it like soup.  At this point, we were hoping there were no more courses but out came the dessert.  It looked very much like coffee ice cream on top of brownie chunks in a custard sauce.  Tom took a big bite and as Doug spooned some into his mouth, Tom warned him not to do it and at the very same moment what Doug put in, Doug took out.  Turns out the brownie chunks were chunks of some sort of hard jelly and the coffee ice cream was tea flavored.  Watching Doug take a big bite excited for the chocolate/coffee dessert and then watching him spit it out, i just couldn’t contain myself and i started laughing so hard that real tears spilled out of my eyes and at that point i just couldn’t stop laughing.  of course all night i had to take the brunt of all their jokes (how from now on libby was going to choose the restaurants, and where exactly had i read about the place).  We were there for over two hours and not another soul walked in the door.  When the bill came, it was close to $200 per couple.  Considering the amount of courses we had, it wasn’t really that expensive (for Tokyo).  But I don’t think i’ll be going back.  Even though it wasn’t the meal I envisioned, i’m not giving up on my exploration of the little doors with the Japanese curtains…