Kanda – A Restaurant That’s The Best of the Best, Says the Michelin Guide

2014-09-17 19.31.35Just this week the 2015 Michelin Guide came out and The Japan Times reports that Tokyo has retained its spot as the best city in the world in which to eat.  But back in September, Marc and I celebrated our 20th wedding anniversary, and in lieu of presents, we decided to go experiential, and we made reservations at a restaurant called Kanda.  In the new guide, Kanda is listed as #4 on the list of the twelve best restaurants in Tokyo.  It deserves the rank; it was a food experience like no other I’ve had.

Kanda is located in Moto Azabu just off TV Asahi Dori, near the fire station, if you know Tokyo.  It is on the Michelin guide 2015bottom floor of an apartment building and the sign is out of the way and very unobtrusive.  It is only in Japanese.  If you were not looking for it, you’d never find it.  I did not take photos of the sign, the door or the restaurant in general because they only allow pictures of the actual food.  The restaurant is small and spare, but elegantly decorated.  There is one table in a side room behind a curtain that seats about eight, but the main dining room consists of twelve seats at a bar.  It is done in light wood with bamboo-backed chairs.  The walls have a few small paintings and Japanese sayings in Kanji adorning them, but otherwise the focus really is meant to be on the food, not the place itself.

This is how they serve the sake - on a bed of ice to keep it chilled for us.

This is how they serve the sake – on a bed of ice to keep it chilled for us.

But what food it is!  We had a total of eleven courses.  Remember, each course in Japan is small, a few bites at most.  As is common, we chose the middle course menu and we picked it ahead of time when we made the reservation.  The only menu we ever saw was for drinks, and even that was small in number.

Since we were truly celebrating, we started with a glass of champagne, but that and a small bowl of sake were our only drinks.  We felt it was too important to focus on the taste of the food and did not want alcohol to dull our senses.

Here are the 11 courses:

First course: a mix of fruit and vegetables - mostly fig and onion

First course: a mix of fruit and vegetables – mostly fig and onion

Hamo - lightly cooked. In English it's conger pike.

Hamo – lightly cooked. In English it’s conger pike.

Otoro - fatty tuna - the very best part of the fish.

Otoro – fatty tuna – the very best part of the fish.

Soup with a dumpling made of yuba - skin of the bean curd - with decadent matsutake mushrooms, available only in September and October.

Soup with a dumpling made of yuba – skin of the bean curd – with decadent matsutake mushrooms, available only in September and October.

Anago - eel, perfectly grilled.

Anago – eel, perfectly grilled.

Suzuki fish grilled, but then only the top is gently fried for a mix of textures that melt in your mouth. Surrounded by ginko beans and rinkon - lotus root.

Suzuki fish grilled, but then only the top is gently fried for a mix of textures that melt in your mouth. Surrounded by ginko beans and rinkon – lotus root.

Nasu - eggplant - perfectly grilled and seasoned

Nasu – eggplant – perfectly grilled and seasoned

The most precious, delicious and succulent piece of Japanese beef we have every had or may ever have again.

The most precious, delicious and succulent piece of Japanese beef we have every had or may ever have again.

Rice with egg and nori (seaweed) on top along with more Hamo and pickled chestnut

Rice with egg and nori (seaweed) on top along with more Hamo and pickled chestnut

A sweet taste of pistachio pudding - it tasted like we were eating the nuts, just softened.

A sweet taste of pistachio pudding – it tasted like we were eating the nuts, just softened.

One last tiny taste of sweet - chestnut ice cream - which was the perfect ending to the meal.

One last tiny taste of sweet – chestnut ice cream – which was the perfect ending to the meal.

This was truly the meal of a lifetime – so far at least! It was pricey for sure, but worth every yen for the experience of it.

 

 

 

What a Difference A Year Makes

haircut1Last year at this time I was reeling from the effects of my second chemotherapy.  Now, I’m healthy and happy and grateful for every moment.  I’ve spent the summer relaxing with my kids and various friends and family members, but also doing things that I wasn’t able to do last year.  One example is eating – fresh fruit and veggies were on my no-no list because of the risk of infection from any bacteria.  I have been eating fruit and salad like it’s going out of style. (I had a strawberry and spinach salad with sesame dressing the other day – WOW!)  I have been swimming a few times, which I never did. I also went white water rafting and zip lining in Harper’s Ferry West Virginia with some amazing friends.  The entire time I kept pinching myself – I was just so grateful for the air onhaircut2 my face and being outside and using my body to enjoy myself.  It might sound hokey to you, but I have been focused on appreciating every moment I have.

Today I went to see Nancy Emamian at Images Salon in Chevy Chase, MD.  You might remember that about a year ago, she shaved my head as my hair started to fall out and she made it as lovely and gentle of an experience as possible.  Today I needed a haircut.  We both said a little prayer of thanksgiving as she trimmed my growing mop. She is such a warm and loving person – and a wonderful stylist to boot!  I am thankful to be under her care. Here’s how the hair looks now. Still curly!

What a life!  Enjoy your summer, wherever you are.

Lunch in the Sky

ph6Today my little lunch bunch ate at Kozue, the Japanese restaurant at the top of the Park Hyatt hotel in Shinjuku.  It was a magnificent experience! The entire wall is windows looking out onto the city.  It wasn’t clear enough to see Fuji-san, but from our perch on the 40th floor, we could see straight through to Yokohama to the north.ph1

If the view wasn’t enough, the food was exquisite.  Served by beautiful young women in stunning kimono, the black lacquer bento box practically told a story in its intricate design and contents. The first course was a bit of egg tofu in a soy milk sauce, and a clear miso soup with a dumpling made of flounder, along with a taste of burdock and ginger in it. And then came the big, two-story box.  On the top there was katzuo (bonito) sashimi, and other small delicacies including a tiny squid, a shrimp head, a bit of egg rolled with cheese and a miniscule mound of sauteed spinach.  The bottom layer held some grilled mackerel, simmered vegetables and two small dumplings of shrimp and corn.  We paired it with a decadent glass of

The contents of the bento - both levels.

The contents of the bento – both levels.

Sancerre from the Loire Valley of France.

Mango tart and the sugary-est whipped cream I've ever tasted!

Mango tart and the sugary-est whipped cream I’ve ever tasted!

After we lingered over lunch itself, we repaired to the lounge on the forty-first floor where we had coffee and

dessert.  I chose a mango tart, but one friend had chiffon cake and the other had strawberry ice cream and

Close-up view of the intricate design of delicacies.

Close-up view of the intricate design of delicacies.

raspberry sherbet served in a large martini glass.  In the lounge, which had floor-to-ceiling windows, we were able to see more around the building to various other sites of the city, including all the way toward the Imperial Palace.

It was truly an unbelievable afternoon and I am privileged to have shared it with good friends. This was a celebratory lunch for our last meeting since one member is

Shrimp and corn dumpling

Shrimp and corn dumpling

repatriating shortly.  But if I know us, it’s just for now. As expats know, it’s never goodbye for good – it’s just for now – more of a see you later.  And it’s said with all the love we can muster.

Ask Me About My Bracelets – Alex and Ani

alexandaniIn recent months I’ve been walking around with a little jingle jangle on my wrist.  These bangle bracelets are not just for glamor, though; these bracelets have meaning.

The bracelets themselves are from a company called Alex and Ani.  Popular in the U.S., the company mission embraces values such as mindfulness, positive energy, sustainability and corporate consciousness. They pride themselves on supporting local business and manufacturing in the United States.  Every piece of their jewelry is accompanied by an explanation of its meaning and phrases of empowerment.  It is a great business model to support.

My first bracelet was a birthday gift.  My darling friend Bonnie’s daughter bought it for me.  Bonnie’s birthday is just a few weeks after mine, and Julia (age 15) bought the best friend bracelets for us.  (Bonnie is the friend who managed my cancer care from start to finish, you might remember) I treasure the meaning of the charm, the sentiment behind gift, and most of all, the friendship it represents.

My second bracelet I bought myself in November, just a few weeks after Dr. Siegel pronounced me cured of lymphoma.  It says “Live a Happy Life” on it.  The card it came with says that the bracelet embodies the spirit of courage, appreciation and choice. The full content says,  “Choose kindness, love, and joy.  Live life to the absolute fullest and open your mind up to spontaneous ideas.  Live fearlessly, be optimistic, and become blissfully aware of life’s gifts. Adorn yourself with the Live A Happy Life Charm to acknowledge the blessings in your existence and to be an inspiration to all.”

I don’t know about inspiration, but I do know that I strive to live every day acknowledging my blessings, for they are myriad. The jingle that I wear reminds me all the time that I am loved and even in times of challenge, I am strong and lucky.

So please, next time you see me, ask me about my bracelets; I’m proud to show them to you.

The Treasures of Monzen Nakacho – Fukagawa Fudo-do

monzen 4We took advantage of a sunny day to visit Monzen Nakacho and the Fukagawa Fudo-do (Fukagawa Fudo Temple).  Situated conveniently on the Oedo line, the town itself is a cute, shop-filled place that’s easily navigable by walking.  We visited on the 15th of the month, so we got to see the flea market at Fukugawa Hachiman Shrine, and then ate at a scrumptious soba at a tiny restaurant between the shrine and the huge temple.  The Temple itself is simply humongous, set back majestically from the main road.  What makes this Temple special though, is the sutras read by the colorfully dressed priests in a fury of monzen 1taiko drums and fire.  After a spectacle of color and chanting outside on the stone walkway, visitors, as long as they are respectful and willing to take off their shoes, are invited inside into the main room of the temple where the high priest chants and blesses people as the fire rages behind him and the drums crescendo and lull in rhythmic succession. After the ceremony, we got to walk through the shrine.  We saw the thousands of tiny Buddhas set behind glass and rubbed the ball-like stones beneath them for luck.  Upstairs is a rendition of the shrine trek of the island of Shukoku, where it is said that worshiping is like making the trek itself. The beauty and majesty of the contrasting red and black and crystal monzen 3accents add to the atmosphere of shimmering excitement when combined with the incomparable fire and drumming.  It might be one of my favorite things I’ve done in Tokyo in all the years I’ve lived here.  I’d highly recommend a trip out there.  Enjoy the photos and video.

Hearts in February

hearts1Inspired by my friend Cathy Michaud, I am putting a heart on each of my kids’ doors for every day in February.  On the hearts I write something I love about them. 

As you probably know, I was away from the kids for more than six months due to my successful battle with lymphoma, so I wanted to do something special, something meaningful for them to remind them that I’m here, I’m here to stay and I lohearts2ve them.  Beyond that, though, being away has given me a little distance on the kids and I feel like I’m looking at them with fresh eyes.  These kids are not perfect, not even close!  But for an 11-year-old and a 14-year-old, they’re pretty great people with a myriad of talents, ideas, and activities.  These hearts also serve to remind me of the things that make them special – to me and to others with whom they interact.  And it shows them specifically that they are valued by their dad and me. I continue to be grateful.

The Grace of a Moment

CLately, instead of thinking about big things, I’ve been struck by little ones.  Here are a few examples:

Today Marc and I were driving to Bailey’s school to meet with his counselor.  There’s nothing wrong but this is our first child and we don’t know how to guide him, what he’s capable of doing, and what his options are, ergo, we asked for help.  I was sitting there in the car when it struck me.  It was this feeling of, for lack of a better word, shininess.  The sun was peeking out and burning off the morning fog; we were in one of the most exciting cities in the world; we were about to talk about our young teenager who, as of today, is still one of the “good” kids; and we were together doing all that.  The immediacy of it made me catch my breath a little with the sheer gratitude I felt.

The same thing happened last week.  Marc, the kids and I were sitting together at the dinner table doing nothing special except eating some yummy food when one of the kids brought up the idea of patents and patent protection (Marc is a patent attorney).  A very lively and interesting discussion ensued with the kids asking some very pertinent questions.  While Marc was answering one of these questions, that shiny feeling struck me.  I just sat back for a moment and watched the three of them interact, soaking it in and inking the picture of it in my mind more fully.

Over the weekend, we were out to dinner with some close friends at a wonderful Mexican restaurant in the trendy Marunouchi district of Tokyo. It was my first time venturing out to dinner and taking part in any sort of night life since being back. I had to stop and take a breath from the wonderful realization that struck me – I was sitting there in that hopping joint of a place, having a fantastic mojito, and surrounded by people who care deeply about me. How lucky is that?? (It really was a grand mojito, by the way)

I can list twenty-odd more little tiny events like that over the past week or ten days that have struck me deeply.  They were not moments of deep and lasting meaning.  On the contrary, they were moments of near-meaninglessness.  But they were moments. And they were my moments – little things that were important to me and maybe nobody else.  Two or so weeks ago I was so overwhelmed with the task of getting back to my life that I couldn’t even see these snippets. Progress.

Clearly my gratitude-o-meter is running overtime as I start to feel more and more normal – and get more and more in sync with my general life and the lives of the people around me.

I don’t know how long I’ll feel this stroke of grace, but I do hope it lasts a while.

Clean Bill of Health

CBring out the champagne! Dr. Siegel officially pronounced me to be cancer-free as of last week. There is a lot for which to be thankful this holiday season, and I’m looking forward to starting 2014 with a clean bill of health.

As I celebrate however, I have a lot on my mind.

I have spent the past five months with a singular identity: Cancer Patient. By necessity, I have been dependent on others. But it’s not mere dependency – I haven’t even had to make my own decisions.  Someone else has decided what I eat and where I go, how I get places and my schedule. I have pretty much decided what to wear by myself, but that’s about it.  I fell into the Cancer Patient identity pretty easily – I was too sick to protest.  When I think back on those terrible summer days, I am grateful for the people who took over my life and functions so I could concentrate on simply breathing on some days. Now that I feel well, and the label is gone, I have to re-learn how to be a fully functioning, forty-something adult who is responsible for herself. It feels a bit daunting, though when I think about it rationally, I know I’ll be fine and back to normal in a pretty short time. I do, however, think it will be a new normal. Cancer has changed me in ways I can’t yet imagine as I work to get back to myself. I really hope I will be able to keep the best of the lessons I’ve learned and get the bad stuff out of my head.

The love and support I’ve received in the past five months is overwhelming in its depth and breadth. My friends have taken me into their hearts and their homes in fuller and more meaningful ways than before. My relationships are changed in wonderful, beautiful ways and for that I will forever be grateful. I don’t have to name names; they know who they are.

The singular most important lesson I’ve learned has to do with patience, but it’s really beyond that. I have learned to meet people where they are. I control myself and only myself, and in general other people are most often doing what they feel is right, even if it feels wrong to me. It’s not my business to tell others how to live when all of us are just muddling through, doing the best we can. That alone has made me a calmer person and I hope to keep that lesson handy as I move more and more into the “real” world beyond cancer.

For now, however I have five more weeks until my husband and children meet me in the U.S. To ring in the New Year.  There will be a lot to celebrate when they arrive, and even more when we head back to Tokyo in early January.

There is more writing on this topic to come, but for now I want to thank you for sharing my journey. I’m thankful and grateful for your company. Onward Ho!

I Can Practice Zen Meditation – They Call It “Practice” for a Reason

The Japanese garden outside sojiji.

The Japanese garden outside sojiji.

Recently I had the fortune to visit Soji-ji, the Head Monastery for the Soto Zen Sect of Buddhist Monks and experience Zen Meditation.  Called Zazen in Japanese, this ancient art is about much more than sitting still; it incorporates awareness of the inner and outer world of each person who practices the art.

Our group had arranged for a special lesson and tour in English, and we were met by two Monk trainees, one who spoke mostly Japanese and the other who translated to us.

Zazen has many small rituals associated with it and it is indeed the small rituals that are repeated over and over again that make the entire form come alive as an art and practice.  For

The meditation room - the monks eat, sleep, pray, meditate and live here.

The meditation room – the monks eat, sleep, pray, meditate and live here.

example, we had to fold our hands for walking down the long corridors of the monastery in a particular position – left hand in a fist facing sideways, with the thumb tucked in, and the right hand covering the left.  The monks held their elbows out, and the Westerners tried to follow suit, but often let their elbows drop toward their sides.

Once we entered one of the small meditation rooms, called Sodo, we had to be silent.  Each person stood in front of one pillow, called a Zafu.  The Zafu sat precisely in the center of one tatami mat on a raised platform.  What I didn’t know at the time was that I was sitting in a place of many purposed.  There is a wooden edging around the tatami, about 6 inches wide, and that’s where the monks eat.  They sleep on that tatami mat.  They do their

The Hall of Shining Lights where special ceremonies take place.

The Hall of Shining Lights where special ceremonies take place.

meditation on that tatami mat.  They keep their personal items in two drawers against the wall on that tatami mat.  Everything they own, use or need is in that space – the space of one tatami mat, which is a standard measure in Japan, usually around 1.8 meters x .9 meters (6 feet by 1 foot, approximately). It brings a whole new meaning to simplicity and paring down a life.

Our practice began with turning the Zafu so the words stitched on it faced the

This is one of many long hallways. The monks in training clean the floors by hand without chemicals twice daily as part of their ritual.

This is one of many long hallways. The monks in training clean the floors by hand without chemicals twice daily as part of their ritual.

wall.  Then we bowed to the wall, we bowed to the outside, and then, without putting our feet (remember, you’re barefoot for EVERYTHING in Japan) on the wooden edging, we had to get our bottoms on the Zafu and fold our legs.  No easy feat.  We were taught to fold our legs in a few ways while sitting on the Zafu.  Those wearing a skirt were recommended to sit on their knees, the Zafu placed discreetly under them for a minimum of comfort of those knees.

We then had to turn clockwise to face the wall, keeping the Zafu under us.  We had to fold our hands so the left hand sat in the right hand, thumbs lightly touching, forming a small oval. The monks said a few words about breathing in through the nose and out through the mouth – very very deeply. We were told to sway slightly to find our center of gravity, then make ourselves still. The gong rang three times and that was it – we were meditating.

My first thought was on the fact that my foot was asleep and felt like a small elephant attached to my ankle.  But recently I had been told that I use my shoulders to breathe instead of my stomach, and I concentrated on making my stomach go in and out.

zen kitchen god

Originally from India, this is the Kitchen God, Daikoku Sonten, who is the first to welcome visitors to the monastery.

There was one bit of flagellation in which I did not participate.  The monk called it a hand of Buddha, and there is one monk assigned to walk up and down the row with a stick, tapping and then making a smack on the shoulder of any person who is falling asleep or otherwise not fully engaged.  One can ask for the hand of Buddha to strike by folding ones hands as if in prayer for a moment, if feeling unengaged, and the person next to me did it twice, causing me to jump with the loud smacking sound.  She said it did not hurt, but I didn’t feel the need to ask for this practice.

Within 15 minutes the gong sounded again and we were done with the first round.  We were told to get up very slowly, and we practiced a bit of walking Zazen, hands folded in walking position, walking in a small square taking only half-steps.  We did that for a moment, then followed the whole procedure a second time for a second round of regular Zazen.

The second time was easier – and shorter – than the first.  My feet stayed firmly awake and my mind stayed fully on the breath.

The monks took us on a full tour after the Zazen practice (pictures abound).  There are so many more things to the monastery – the beautiful rooms of the head abbot, the house of Buddha, which we could not enter, and the gongs sounding for the ceremony of bells that we got to witness for just a moment after being told we were very lucky at that moment – most people don’t get to see it.  We just glimpsed it and got a feel of the heavy ritual that imbues Buddhist worship.  I really feel that we saw a lot, but still just touched the tip of the iceberg of what actually goes on and what there is to see.

Here’s what I learned: the whole rigmarole of getting ready for the practice, from folding the hands to enter the room, to making sure the stitching of the Zafu is in the right direction, is part of the practice, and forces one to begin the process of emptying the mind.  If you are focused on very small details, there’s

The main building and entry point of the monastery, Koshakudai. It is build completely of Japanese Cyprus wood.

The main building and entry point of the monastery, Koshakudai. It is build completely of Japanese Cyprus wood.

no room for other thoughts.  Action begets thought.  It’s not about completely emptying the mind; it’s about complete awareness of the mind.  An entering thought should be examined before it’s abandoned.  Concentrate on that throbbing foot.  Thinking about nothing else might make the pain ease.  Then pick another part of the body on which to concentrate.  Relax that part of the body.  Really feel it. Get into it.  Whether it’s your pinky toe or your left hip, actually feeling your body will lead to understanding it.

It’s not perfect, that’s why it’s called practice.  Your mind wanders; your attention deviates.  That’s why it’s called practice – because improvement of mind, body and spirit comes only through practice.

 

 

Why Do The Japanese Love Cherry Blossoms So Much? Finally, A Decent Answer!

hanami1This is a bit of a teaser post because I’m going to send you over to another blog to find the answer, but I promise you, it’s worth the click.

CLICK HERE!

Writer and friend Alice Gordenker has been in Tokyo for quite a long time and has always pondered the question of why the Sakura (cherry blossoms) are such a huge part of Japanese life and lore.  Finally she has discovered a wonderful answer and it will surprise and delight you.

Be sure to check out this post as well as the rest of Ms. Gordenker’s blog, and look for her column in the Japan Times.

Enjoy!