New Neighborhood = New Food!

We made it into our new apartment!  I’ll provide the full tour later, but I can give you a few tidbits now:

  • We have an automatic flush toilet.  I thought those were just for restaurants and airports, but apparently not.
  • I’m really glad we decided against a queen sized bed (it wouldn’t have fit).
  • “Blank slate” is an understatement.
  • Red bean paste waffles and a shop dedicated to kaleidoscopes are just steps from the front door.

But one of the most exciting things about my day was lunch.  I picked up a quick bento box lunch at the nearby grocery store while I waited for our mattress to be delivered, and it was the most delicious thing!  Maybe it’s just that everything tastes better when you are eating off the floor, but I thought it was worth sharing.  Here is a sneak peek of the apartment with my picnic lunch:

That is right, I also picked all of the other important things — toilet paper, rice crackers and iced coffee.  But back to my bento…

It may not look like much in its little foam container, but it had a surprise in store.  The grocery store had probably 12 different options, and I chose this one because of what I thought was a panko-fried shrimp hiding there in the top right corner.  You can’t go wrong with fried shrimp (except when you can, ahem).  But after I bit into it, I discovered it was actually Japan’s version of the crab cake!

Eastern Shore, eat your heart out.  It also had a little crab claw sticking out, like a dainty little crab cake handle.

Of course I did what any self-respecting girl in my situation should do, I cracked that little claw open and sucked all the delicious crab meat right on out.  My mother-in-law and her Maryland roots would be proud.

Because I know some of you are wondering, I’ve taken my best guess at what else was in my lunch:

And (almost) everything was tasty, particularly the sweet potato and pickle combo.  Who would of thought?!  I have to admit, I skipped the mystery cube and carrot — sorry Japan, not even you can get me to like carrots.

With that, I must unpack (again – this is the 3rd time in 3 months, for those of you who are counting).  Saké Puppets will be offline for a few days until Internet service is up in our new apartment, so in the meantime, send us your comments!  We love to hear from you!

I’ll Pass on the Cheese, Please

Today I took a walk to find our new apartment.  Yes, that is correct — we signed the lease contract yesterday, and I couldn’t remember where the apartment was, what the neighborhood was like, or even what most of the apartment itself looked like.  My notes from our days of apartment hunting said “Nice closets!” and I guess that was enough to convince me it was a place worth living in.  I have been surprisingly nonchalant about committing to something so big, which is pretty uncharacteristic of my designy personality.  But I guess that is what happens when you see 20+ apartments in 3 days in a massive city, and just need a place to live.

After I found our apartment (and was satisfied with what I found), I wandered over to Hiro-o, the neighborhood next door.  I was surprised to find Hiro-o had an international grocery store near the subway station.  I went in looking to pick up some sushi for dinner, but got annoyed because all they had was Sargento shredded cheese.

I might have to consider this tiny event a major milestone.  Don’t get me wrong, cheese, I miss you, but sushi, you are so much better right now.

Where Is Pancakes House?

Sometimes a man just needs some pancakes.

We’ve been in Japan for three weeks, which really isn’t long enough to start getting cravings for American food. What have you gone three weeks without eating? Probably a lot of things. Probably most things.

But still, sometimes it’s nice to know that a comfort food is available to you. We’ve had trouble finding breakfast joints. Sure, onigiri is lovely in the morning, but once in a while I need pancakes and eggs.

Japan, being the space- and time-efficient place that it is, up and combined the two:

Okonomiyaki is often prepared on a hot grill at your table. A batter of eggs, flour, cabbage, and every fish and crustacean from the sea, okonomiyaki is basically a catch-all omelet, but sort of like a pancake, except when it’s like pizza. Phew.

Being the daring sorts that we are, we spotted a sign for an okonimiyaki restaurant and wandered up to its third floor location. Please take a moment to congratulate us. So far, unless I can see right into a restaurant from the ground floor, I don’t bother going in. I’m illiterate in the language, so who knows what I’ll get into. Call me a coward, but at least I won’t accidentally walk into an all-you-can-eat raw horse buffet.

But okonomiyaki! It is lovely and full of toppings. A sweetish BBQ sauce, shredded nori, scallions, bonito flakes (which dance around when exposed to heat), and mayonnaise.

I may have been the sort of person who once turned his nose to mayo, but now I’m on board. I guess Japan is giving me some perspective on what’s really important about my country. U-S-A! MAY-O-NNAISE!

With all the toppings and ingredients and foreign language (to me) and train tracks outside the window and the manga convention downstairs and the holy-cow-we’re-really-living-in-another-country-no-fooling, I noticed that okonomiyaki tasted surprisingly…familiar.

Not familiar like, “Oh, I had this at the Stop ‘N Save just the other day,” but rather, all the flavors just seemed to come together like something a boy from central PA is used to.

This, of course, is mayonnaise:

Tea for Three

We have a friend in town for a visit, which has been a great excuse to check out some of the guidebook sites we haven’t yet seen.

Hama Rikyū Teien is within walking distance of our current apartment, and is a pleasant diversion from Tokyo’s humid June weather.  Now a public garden, the area was owned by a feudal lord during the Edo period (1603 to 1868) and served as duck hunting grounds for the shogunate.  It opened to the public in 1946, and includes a flower field with blooms for every season, a saltwater tidal pond with floating tea house, and a 300-year-old pine tree.

While we wandered through the gardens, we came across a bride and groom in traditional kimono having their pictures taken.  It was amazing to think that we were in the center of the city.

Matcha (Japanese green tea) and sweets in the tea house were our aim, so we wandered over the bridge and inside for some welcome shade.

Tea was served in the style of a traditional Japanese tea ceremony, which I hadn’t yet tried for fear I would make an offensive mistake.  The casual atmosphere of the tea house was a great place to try it for the first time.  As we sat on our knees on the tatami mat, kind women in kimono smiled, brought out our tea, and then slipped us each a cheat sheet.

Sweets are eaten first, placed with the paper in your left hand while you use the wooden skewer in your right to swiftly cut it into pieces.  It was just the right amount of sweet.  Then on to the matcha.  Place the bowl in left hand, then turn it clockwise 3 times, so to display the fancy design of your bowl outward.  Three sips is all you get, leaving as little foam as possible.  A slurp is always polite.

I was a little worried I was going to scald my tongue, but by the time I got to my tea it was just the right temperature. I should have known — a few centuries of practice, and the Japanese have their tea to perfection.

Turkish Delights

Not all things in Tokyo are kawaii (adorable cuteness in Japanese pop culture), but let’s face it, many are just too lovable and awesome not to mention.  Like Namja Town.  Dan and I accidentally stumbled upon this gyoza and ice cream nirvana, and were simultaneously bewildered and amazed with what we found.  (By the way, if you follow the links and are confused, have no fear — you are in good company.  I still feel that way.)   Namja Town is a food theme park, where you can try gyoza (dumplings) from different parts of Japan, and visit an ice cream museum full of flavors you never wanted to know existed, including…

Turkish tea ice cream, in a cone, dressed up like a Turkish man.  It was also served by a (seemingly) Turkish man, who twirled it upside down before handing it over, making all the teenage girls in line shriek with delight.  Please take note of the licorice scarf, my favorite part.  This little man didn’t stand a chance.

A Man in Japan Named Dan

While the lovely Ang regales you with tales of embroidery floss and chicken chitlins, I’ve been stuck at my desk (which also serves as our dining room table, ironing board, craft bench, and La-Z-Boy). Someone has to bring home all those delicious chitlins.

But I hope to occasionally make an appearance here, offering to you the blog equivalent of “Gee, look at that!” I do not pretend to have any expertise in the latest of Tokyo awesomeness. I call it a good day if I can determine, when offered something, if I’m supposed eat it, wipe my hands with it, or attach it as a charm to my cellphone.

That said, Tokyo is in the future in every sense of the word, or at least in a few senses of the word. How many senses of the word are there? Hmm, philosophers to your battle stations! So perhaps you will be amused by what you see through my astigmatic eyes. Or perhaps not!

I realize my slovenly presence on this delightful, charming blog may be a bit jarring, but I promise to tuck in my shirt and run a comb through my hair before stepping through these doors.

First up, packaging:

One of the things I heard about Japan before I arrived was the excessive amount of packaging that is used. And so far, we’ve seen a lot of that to be true. Individually packaged bananas, bags and cup trays for a takeout coffee, etc. Now, as an American, I can’t take a stance of environmental righteousness. We have temperature-controlled outdoor stadiums. Still, a banana has packaging built right into it. It’s cool. Leave it be, Japan.

But packaging can also be brilliant. I start many mornings with onigiri, a triangle of rice about the size of a hockey puck, filled with fish, or vegetable, and then wrapped in nori (toasted seaweed, for the savages in the room). To keep the nori crisp and dry, the packaging prevents the rice from touching the nori until you open it, even though the nori is already wrapped around the rice. I won’t get in to the specifics because it will require a rudimentary understanding of the scientific method, which I don’t possess, but please take my word that it is awesome and the future.

On pins and needles for pins and needles

I hit the jackpot.

For the past week I halfheartedly sought out craft shops.  A few were smaller than I expected, and I was starting to loose a little faith in Japan’s craft craziness.  Then I found Okadaya in Shinjuku — 2 buildings with 7 floors each of so many crafts I didn’t quite know what to do with myself.  Some of the highlights:

The first photo shows one shelf of my favorite fabric, Liberty of London.  This is the usual selection you’ll find at a fabric store in the US, and Okadaya had at least 8 more shelves like this one.  The wall of embroidery floss was amazing.  The store was too small for me to get far enough from the wall to take it all in with my camera.  And finally, I discovered an entire level dedicated to craft books.  An entire level!

I showed incredible restraint, and left with just a few treasures:

First I found 刺し子 (sashiko, literally meaning “little stabs”), a Japanese style of embroidery.  I had read about this at Purl, and am excited to finally try it.  I also picked up a few squares of some great linen, which might find a home in my kitchen somehow.

As excited as I am about Okadaya, my next find was even greater.  Just 3 doors down, I stumbled into this place:

A tiny shop dedicated to nothing else but sewing machines!  It was a really small space, but probably had over 50 different machines on display.  I’ve been shopping for one (obviously) and have even learned how to ask a salesperson where to find them, so I was super pumped to find this little gem.  I definitely did not leave empty-handed…

TA DA!  I am pretty excited about my Brother ELU52.  It is a small machine with basic functions, but it will keep me busy while I’m here in Japan.  Good thing I already know how to work the little guy:

You should see the instruction booklet…

Victory!

Really exciting stuff happened today at lunch.  Dan and I (ok, it was mostly Dan) successfully ordered food for the first time.  All by ourselves!  Woohoo!  No pointing, or guessing, or hoping that whatever we end up with isn’t still moving.  That’s right, we read the menu, recited what we wanted, and actually received what we expected.  It was a big deal.

And then went home and had a victory meal.

“Like it, like it! Love love love!”

Last night Dan and I explored the northern part of Tokyo, beginning our promenade at the Nippori station in search of Fabric Town.  WHOA.  This place is my dream come true — fabric store upon notion shop upon specialty lace shop upon fabric store line a full city block; I vow to visit again with a better purpose and more projects in mind.

From there, we walked south to Ueno Park, famous for its springtime cherry blossoms and home to the Tokyo National Museum, The National Science Museum and The National Museum of Western Art.  Because it was getting dark, we decided to visit the museums another day and instead wandered to the Ueno station area, looking for dinner.  Under the train tracks, the nightlife was starting to get loud, and we found 大統領 (Daitouryou, or President) a bumpin’ little izakaya (bar that serves food) and had to stop.  There were no English menus or photos in sight, but the smells of the grill drew us in.

With tables spilling out onto the alley, smoke and beer and grilled meats aplenty, shouting patrons trying to converse over the rattle of the train above, Dan and I sat down and realized our task ahead — that we would actually have to order something.  Our method of choice thus far has been to blindly point at the menu, hope for a few winners, or at the very least for something identifiable.  In the super-packed restaurant, we were seated in a booth with another couple, and I’m sure my panic-stricken face was enough to clue them into our situation.  Tomo and Nana became fast friends as they helped us order (though I realized a language barrier still existed when we ended up with a plate of assorted grilled chicken innards, the house specialty, which surprisingly I enjoyed) and introduced us to shōchū (Japanese liquor tasting sort of like vodka).  I followed Nana’s lead and drank my shōchū with sour lemon soda.  Dan and Tomo drank their sweet potato shōchū (mojōchū) straight up.

As it turns out, Tomo and Nana were from an area an hour outside of Tokyo and were spending the day in the city.  They practiced their English, and we recited the few words we know in Japanese.  But really, our communication consisted of mostly hand waving, laughing and crazy gestures.  “What do you plan to do in Honolulu?”  Nana pretends to swim, and we all laugh.  “What sort of work do you do?”  Dan pretends to type on a keyboard, and again, laughter.  They recommend we visit Tokyo Disney Resort and Nana shrieks “Like it, like it! Love, love, love!” It was easy to see why we became such easy friends.

Well, that and the shōchū.