A Nice Rice

A few weeks ago we received a package of rice from a friend who lives and farms on Sado Island.

We met Matt when we went to Sado for the taiko drum extravaganza we attended in August. He was an amazing tour guide, showed us around the island and even revealed a few secret swimming spots. I left Sado with an incredible fondness for the place, thanks to Matt. He and his wife are rice farmers, and their region has a reputation for producing some of the best rice in Japan.

Rice is rice, you say? Oh no, my friends! It most certainly is not. Get that Uncle Ben’s Minute Rice business out of my kitchen this instant.

I used to dislike rice. I thought it was dry and boring, because usually it was. After we moved to Japan my friend Saki slowly showed me the way to rice nirvana. She brought us to rice restaurants. She emailed me instructions on how to gently wash and then rinse and then soak my rice before cooking. She was sneaky but persistent in her teachings. Maybe because she had tasted my very first attempt at onigiri and couldn’t bear the thought of me torturing any more rice.

I still have no idea what makes good rice good, but I know it when I taste it. It sticks but isn’t too sticky. It’s floral and eaten alone, not hidden under heaps of curry or meat. It is usually white, but not a crazy bleached white, more of a pearl white with hints of purple or yellow. It looks and smells like a plant because it is.

If given a choice between rice or noodles, I’ll go for the rice. A bold claim, I know.

Check out Daruma An Farms for some damn fine island rice.


It has been 2 days since the earthquake struck Japan.

Tokyo is somber.  Things here are mostly fine — there was little damage and much of city life has resumed.  Around Azabu Juban trains are running, restaurants and shops are open, and people are walking about.  Twitter reports from around the city reveal similar scenes.

Dan and I have been out walking, but haven’t strayed far from home.  The aftershocks continue, and though the tremors aren’t as big as they were yesterday, I still don’t have any desire to get on a train.

We stopped at the grocery store mostly because we felt we should, but I didn’t know what to buy.  Yesterday eggs and bananas were out, today our nearest grocer was lacking toilet paper, milk, and leafy greens.  I bought a few onigiri from a nearby conbini and felt satisfied in my preparedness.

The grocery stores were bustling but restaurants were not.  We went out for Chinese food and had the restaurant to ourselves.  I half-joked that we should eat out while we can, and save the veggies at home for the coming days.  The truth is, I’m not sure what to expect this week.  Authorities say Tokyo will intermittently be without power and are asking everyone to conserve electricity.  Prime Minister Kan said in a televised press conference that this is the worst disaster to hit Japan since WWII.  Dan and I shut off our heat and are snuggling around a shared lamp.  They’re asking us to prepare for scheduled power outages, but I’m not certain what that means.  We’re making some rice to stash in the fridge, we’ve got food and water.  Being without a television for a while will probably do me some good.

In the past 48 hours I’ve become a total news junkie.  In addition to my Twitter feed, which is in constant refresh on my phone, I’ve had email and Facebook, online news channels, and NHK TV at my fingertips.  Though, the images of devastation and the anxiety of another tremor are starting to wear me out.  (Mom, look away…)  The Japan Meteorological Agency said there is a 70 percent chance of another earthquake greater than magnitude 7 occurring within the next three days, and then 50 percent chance in the 3 days after that.  I feel safe in my apartment and with Tokyo’s resources at the ready, but anticipation of a tremor rattles my nerves.  You know that feeling you get when you step off a treadmill?  Or, when you are sitting in a restaurant and the subway rumbles beneath you?  Or when you stand up too fast and feel a little light-headed?  That’s how the aftershocks feel, and they’ve been pretty constant since Friday.  I’ve been calling it The Weeble-Wobbles.  Not dangerous, just… weird.

The news crack has provided some unbelievable images.  Like this one, where you can view before and after photos of some of the areas affected by tsunami.  Or this crazy video.  (Mom, stop worrying — that’s not where I am.)

Japan is in the midst of a major crisis, and I’m in the midst of Japan.  Though Tokyo is pretty much back on its feet, my heart aches for Northern Japan and the devastation they face.  It is difficult to know what to do or how to help.  It is easy to sit at home, watch the news, wait for more sways.

Food Porn

In preparation for the Azabu Juban Noryo festival happening in our neighborhood this weekend, where I plan to eat my way from street-to-street for 3 straight days, I thought I’d clear some space on my camera and share a few food pics I’ve had in the vault.  I’m not sure our hurry-and-take-the-photo-so-I-can-shove-this-in-my-mouth photography really deserves the label “food porn,” but in any case, I thought these few photos were worth sharing.  Itadakimasu! *

A few weeks back, I was wandering the streets of Kappabashi (the kitchenware district, this site does a great job of describing it) and it was sooo hot and I was sooo hungry.  I stepped into the only restaurant I could find, where, alas, there was no English to be had, so I ordered the daily special, which was a gigantic plate of tempura.  Luck be a fried shrimp! (Two actually, along with mushrooms, okra, eggplant, and shiso.  This meal was also served with rice, soup, pickles and tea.  Oofdah.)

Dan and I discovered this place while wandering the streets of Shimokitazawa, a hip neighborhood of Tokyo that has been compared to Williamsburg in NYC.  May I present a ball of rice wrapped in bacon (!), sort of like a meat version of onigiri.  I may have put mayonnaise on mine.

Last weekend we found the ramen shop Gogyo, where the ramen is served black!  I had the kogashi shoyu, Dan went for the kogashi miso.  Both were “burnt” ramen, and I’m not sure how they got it that way, but the open kitchen had big flames and the ramen had that delicious almost-burnt, grilled-meat flavor.  We’re definitely going back for the black (alliteration is irresistible!).

Tokyo summers — the bad part is that it’s hot, the good part is that there is kakigori, a shaved-ice mound of sweet deliciousness much like the slushie I wrote about a few weeks ago. Kakigori is seasonal, so I plan to eat as much as I can in the next month.

I went for red bean and green tea, and Dan had fresh strawberry with a sweetened condensed milk glaze. These poor guys really didn’t stand a chance.

There you have it.  Don’t get me wrong, we eat a lot of weird and perhaps not-so-good things too (including the random mystery vegetables I try to cook at home), but those aren’t as fun to share.  Or are they?

* Your language lesson for the day: Itadakimasu いただきます roughly means “I humbly receive,” and is a traditional greeting before a meal.

Tsukiji, say what?

One of the best things I’ve done in Tokyo thus far is visit the Tsukiji fish market.   Officially called the Tokyo Metropolitan Central Wholesale Market, Tsukiji (pronounced “skee-gee”) is where 2,000 tons of seafood come into Japan every day.  Did you get that?  Every day!  With the auctions beginning at 5:00 am, I dragged my feet a bit in getting around to visit here — I thought, if this place requires me getting up so dang early, it better be worth it.  Since I had a friend visiting who was up at the crack of dawn with a bit of jet-lag, it seemed as good a time as any.  With iced coffee and onigiri in hand, we set off soon after the subway started running.

A gigantic warehouse complex packed full of tiny stalls where wholesale vendors peddle their goods, the market is not for the faint of heart.  We picked our way through the skinny walkways, trying to avoid the remains of who-knows-what at our feet.  The place was busy and packed so full of people doing their daily business that it felt like a place we really shouldn’t be.  But one of the great things about visiting Tsukiji is that you get to see the real deal.  No one asked us to leave, and a few men in rubber boots even nodded or smiled at us as we passed.  Fish flop at every corner, or are gutted and sitting on styrofoam platters.  Every sort of sea creature is for sale, some still alive, all packed on ice or in huge plastic tubs.  One live shrimp jumped out of its bucket as we walked by, and at one point I’m pretty sure I was fish-slapped by a stray in a passing tank.  Water mixed with fish guts sloshed around the floor.

The market was almost chaotic, but perfectly orchestrated.  By far the loudest place I’ve found in Tokyo, people shout and little three-wheeled motorized carts speed by (seriously, they are fast), but everyone is respectful and no one crashes and everything moves together in unison.  It was really amazing and beautiful to watch, despite the glassy eyeballs staring up at me from the styrofoam.

Then we found the tuna.  Tuna is a big deal in Japan, and once I saw them at Tsukiji I understood why.  I was mesmerized by them.  They are as big as me and flash frozen, so the giant fish literally look like ghosts.  They’re stacked on palettes, driven around by carts, sent through table saws, and hacked up for sale.  Their insides have a deep red color unlike any other fish in the market (they’re warm blooded!), and create a dramatic contrast to the other fish in mostly whites and grays.  A slab of tuna looks like a juicy t-bone steak, and could cost you $50 or more.  I watched the bright white and red tuna parts being carted around the market and was incredibly moved.  I actually felt haunted by them.

After learning that bluefin tuna is seriously endangered, Dan and I have tried to stop eating it, a difficult undertaking while living in Japan.  I’m still not quite sure what I was feeling at Tsukiji, I suppose simultaneous awe and heartbreak.  It is a very weird feeling, and I remain conflicted.  Tsukiji is an amazing place to experience, but part of what makes it so is exactly the thing it hurts.

In case any readers wander upon this post and want to visit Tsukiji, the closest subway station is Tsukiji-Shijo on the Odeo line, though it seems the Tsukiji stop on the Hibiya line works as well.  If you want to make it in time for the fish auctions at 5 am, you’ll have to take a taxi or walk.

Also, if you’d like more information on the peril of the bluefin tuna, there’s a hefty yet worthwhile article here.

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.