Oktoberfest. In May. In Tokyo.

It’s May in Tokyo and naturally, all thoughts turn to… bratwurst and beer.  Right? Isn’t it natural in the spring to think of beer gardens and thick, amber ales?  Oh wait, that’s autumn.  Nevermind.  But never fear, those of you who love this food year-round!  There’s Oktoberfest in May in Tokyo.  It goes on through this Sunday, May 27th in Hibiya Park.

My husband and I stopped in because he works right by Hibiya Park.  We always get a kick out of watching the Japanese take on other cultures.  As usual it was picture-perfect.  The women were perfectly dressed in the poufy dresses and the men had liederhosen.   Many different stands sold many different beers.  There were many different stands for sausages, too.  Bratwurst, sausage, knackwurst – you name it, it was there.

We ended up splitting a sampler for lunch.  In true Japanese style, it was perfectly arranged on a perfect plate with just the right amount of sauerkraut on the side.  We drank beer, of course.  It was all rich and filling and hearty.  It wasn’t quite spring-like, and it was far from the light and refreshing Japanese food to which we are accustomed.  But it was familiar and delicious – savory and satisfying.

We would highly recommend a visit.  There are tables at which to sit, and on a nice day, the park is gorgeous and all decked out for spring with its greenery and flowers.

Here are a few more images for you:

Every plate looked *exactly* like the photo

Foodie Friday – An Extra Posting

Today is a holiday in Japan – it’s A Former Emperor’s Birthday (current Emperor’s birthday is December 23rd) – so Marc and I decided to go out to lunch.  (The kids were in school and Marc’s birthday is tomorrow, so it seemed like good timing!)  We went to a great restaurant in Roppongi Hills called the Hong Kong Kitchen, where they serve Chinese Dim Sum all day.  I really wanted to show you the appetizer that comes with the lunch set menu, which in my mind, Japan-ifies the Chinese food. All of the items were served cold.

From left to right, the items are: 1. Brine-soaked jellyfish cut in strips; 2. strips of cold, salt-marinated chicken; 3. marinated burdock – a root vegetable; 4. cold sauteed Chinese broccoli.

The rest of our lunch consisted of either a fried pork-bun or a spring roll, five yummy dim-sum dumplings, a bit of honey pork on rice and a dish of anan-tofu, a sweet, almond-flavored dessert.  Each dish was tiny, but satisfying.  Yes, my top reason for loving Japan so much has always been the food and it’s no different now than ever.

New Signs at the Grocery Store

I buy a large percentage of my groceries from a Japanese food co-op normally.  The co-op makes everything easy because it’s one stop shopping and it comes with an English list of all the foods. Everything in the catalog lists the origin of the food, which is great because these days, people in Japan need to know where our produce is grown.  We particularly need to know from where the milk originates.  Like all people in Japan right now, we have an idea which prefectures are safe and which are not with regards to possible radiation in the soil or groundwater.

It takes two weeks to start up my co-op again after a prolonged absence like I had recently, so in the meantime, I have been shopping at the international supermarket, where I can read all of the signs.

Here are a few of the new signs at the Nissin, which is my market of choice right now:

One per customer please!

They use Tokyo groundwater for this OJ. I didn't buy it.

I'll buy things that originate in Chiba, pretty much.

This milk is from the northernmost island of Hokkaido - it's fine

For most of the expats, grocery shopping that used to take half an hour suddenly takes half a day by the time we read all of the signs and figure out which prefectures are safe and which are not quite.   The important thing, though, is that we are here.  I am here and I am fine and I am out supporting the local economy the best that I can.
Yes there are a few aftershocks here and there, but nothing intolerable.  The sun is shining and the people in Tokyo are smiling – mostly because it is finally spring. So if this is my biggest hardship, I think I’m in really excellent shape.

Feeding the Brain by Emptying It

On Monday I spent about three hours cooking.  Well, cooking and other household tasks.  In the morning I piddled around trying to write, trying to think.  But thoughts and words eluded me.  Everything has been a muddle for me lately, and I am just starting to straighten things up in my own head.  Between earthquakes and tsunamis, radiation and airplanes, vacation and schooling, there has been quite a bit going on.

Somewhere around noon, I dropped everything else, put a good podcast on my iPod and took a long walk.  Then, after showering, I set to work.  I unloaded the dishwasher and cleaned the breakfast dishes first.  Then I made a tofu dip, which basically consists of cooked carrots, soft tofu, miso, tahini and soy sauce.  Following the dip, I made tofu parmigiana. After browning the big blocks of tofu, I cut it into pieces, and over a low light, I methodically breaded and fried twenty-five slices of it.  Then, after getting all of the pieces onto a huge baking sheet, slathered them with tomato sauce and mozzarella cheese.  After that it was time to clean up the big mess.  In between the cooking, I did two loads of laundry too.  By the time the kids started coming in at about 3:10, I was smiling and ready for them.

All of that work took just under three hours.  The thing that was so great about the afternoon was that my brain was on hold.  I did not think about anything of consequence except food.  Well, food and laundry.  I spent the afternoon helping kids with homework and playing with them.  As dinner time came around, I was able to pop the big baking tray into the oven, boil pasta, steam broccoli and serve a fresh, homemade meal to my family.

I did not do any writing of note on Monday.  But I did feel the sweetest sense of accomplishment.  There will be other days for writing.  Some days emptying the brain of all thought is exactly the right answer.

When is a cake not just a cake?

In Japan, everything has to be wrapped just so.  Recently I bought a small cake – a castera – vanilla/egg cake of Portuguese descent.  It was a gift for a friend.    My friend thought it was a wonderful present and so delightfully wrapped.  So first she unwrapped the outer paper.  Then she undid the inner plastic.  Then she opened the box.  Then she took the paper off the top and bottom of the cake itself.  Then, and only then, was she ready to eat it.  I continue to find it rather ironic that a country which has trouble with trash disposal has such a penchant for wrapping.  All of that paper, plastic and cardboard – a colossal waste.  That is just one example of how almost everything is done in Japan.  Wrapping – it’s what the Japanese live for.

The layers of castera wrapping!

This is not a post about Thanksgiving

Though today is technically Thanksgiving Day in the U.S., as I indicated on Tuesday, it is a non-issue in Japan.  Therefore, to keep my brain off of the thoughts of all of my American friends and family members getting together to eat traditional foods, laugh at each others’ jokes, argue about each others’ politics and watch too much football, I am going to write a short list about the things that I love about Japan.

The things I love about Japan:

  1. The impeccable service – white glove service everywhere from a four-star hotel to a taxi cab to a garbage man.
  2. The scrumptious food – everything from noodle bowls to sushi to authentic French cuisine is made to impossibly high standards
  3. The cordial people – any time you ask a clerk in any store where something is located, he or she will not just tell you, but take you there.  Japanese people are unfailingly polite.
  4. The cleanliness – you could eat off the street in most places.  Enough said.
  5. The authentic food – you can get the best French food, the best Italian food, the best Chinese food – all the chefs study in the places whose food they cook.  Anything worth doing is worth doing well.
  6. The impossible contradictions – a travel writer once called Japan a “2000-year-old woman in a miniskirt.”  That’s the  type of contradiction that allows a centuries-old shrine to remain intact next to a 30-story building.
  7. The crazy system of addresses and streets – okay, I don’t love it, but now that I understand it after 3 years, I can at least appreciate it.  It really is wacky!
  8. The beautiful food – plates are never brought to a table without a stunning presentation.  I constantly have an urge to photograph my food – even just some things in the grocery store are lovely!
  9. Japan post – it’s not expensive and if they say it’s going to get there, then it gets there!
  10. The gasoline filling stations – it’s right out of 1975 Americana, down to the uniformed men hurrying out to help you pull the car to the right spot before they fill your car for you.

So there’s my list of ten things I love about living in Japan.  Writing such a list assuages some of the guilt I feel for not being with my family today and some of the longing I have to be there.  It reminds me that I live in a beautiful country and have wonderful friends and relationships here, personal and professional.  It reminds me that I am happy and thankful to be so.

Ok, so it’s a little bit about Thanksgiving, but only in the sense of giving thanks.  What a country!

Thanksgiving In Japan

This week as Americans across the country are preparing for their regular holiday food-fest of Turkey and all the trimmings, I am not.  Living in Japan has made the completely American holiday a total non-issue for expats.

On Thursday this week, everything will be business-as-usual.  There will be no holiday traffic, no top-of-the-lungs arguments with Aunt Sadie, no debates about canned or whole cranberry sauce, and not even a slap on the wrist as someone picks at the carcass of the bird before it’s served.  Are you seeing a controversial theme in my holiday memories here?

Lest you worry about me, this is not to say that all is lost.

In my little corner of the world, expats do Thanksgiving their own way.  First of all, since Thursday and Friday are both regular work/school days and a big dinner is inconvenient, we do Thanksgiving on Saturday.  One family will play host to five other families.

The food assignments are doled out in a similar fashion to any other family.  I’m bringing appetizers this year, but last year I brought pie.  Whoever is assigned to cranberry sauce gets to decide what type it will be!  The hostess gets the honor of procuring the bird, which is a hefty task.  Luckily there are international supermarkets nearby, because turkey is decidedly not a Japanese item and as such, is not available in Japanese markets.  We’ll have all the trimmings, including pumpkin pie, stuffing, gravy and anything else anyone can think of.  What is great is the mix of traditions.  Everyone tends to request to bring their favorite treasured memory all tied up in the making of the food item.  Most times the hostess acquiesces to the requests.

The family who has the honors this year actually has real, blood-related family visiting from the U.S. so the rest of us will go in and greet this visitor like a long-lost cousin about which we had forgotten.  You see, we have no choice but to be each other’s family.  We are all far from home; we are all far from our comfort zone.  Thanksgiving is not only about the food – but about the combination of food and family.  We are lucky to have each other at this time of year, which I find the hardest of all weeks to be outside of the U.S.

It’s going to be a grand and joyous table for my family this coming Saturday.  And by family, I mean a significant portion of my lovely family of friends, for whom I am grateful.  There is much for which to give thanks.

Happy holiday.


Cold Stone Creamery Tokyo!

This weekend, we took the kids to Cold Stone Creamery in Roppongi Hills, about a 10-minute walk from our house in Azabu Juban.  Even though it’s been there for quite some time now – about four years at least – we had never taken the kids.  There are so many things that are familiar with it, including the logo, the “like-it” and “love-it” sizing, and  the blending in of toppings into the ice cream.  But there are also unfamiliar things that make it uniquely Japanese: the creations are different and they do not have all of the same ice-cream flavors as in the U.S.  Though they have the regular cakes available, the cakes are different too – more in the form of a jelly roll with ice cream in it.  I will say, the funniest and best part of any Cold Stone experience is the singing.  Of course, in the U.S. the servers sing when someone leaves a

A variety of nicely wrapped cakes for sale as a present.

$1 tip.  Here in Japan, partially because there’s no tipping here, they sing while they scoop – no matter what.  The two lovely women sang in English, a tune we knew, and the kids, my husband and I made appropriate appreciation noises.  But we really loved it.  It seemed so genuine.  They wanted to please us, and weren’t just doing anything for the money.  I love the Japanese orientation toward service.  It’s truly lovely.

Regarding the ice-cream product, it’s also different than in the U.S.  The Japanese palate would never withstand the overwhelming sweetness that Americans adore in their ice-cream mix-ins.  So the ice cream itself is not as sweet and the mix-ins are less plentiful, but no less delicious.  Of course their idea of a brownie is again, less sweet than an American idea, but m&m’s are m&m’s for goodness’ sake!

My son, Bailey, loved it - from the first scoop to the song to the eating!

All in all it was a successful and yummy outing.  If you’re in the Roppongi area, I’d highly recommend it for a treat.

Sand anyone??

Literacy is Priceless

No English in sight, but the one on the left is Choco-flakes and the right is Corn Flakes.

The other morning I decided to have cereal for breakfast.  Cereal is not a common breakfast item in Japan, so when I saw the bags of it in my local grocery store, I grabbed them.  Oh, I’m exaggerating a little bit.  If I go to the International Supermarket, which I do rarely, there is a small selection of cereals.  There’s always rice crispies, frosted flakes, and granola.  In the past year, Special K has been available.  These boxes, however, run upwards of $5 for a box a quarter of the size of those available in the U.S. I try to stay out of the wildly overpriced International Supermarkets anyway, of which there are two.

So this particular morning, I opened the bag on the left in the picture above.  I looked inside and a very particular smell came up at me.  Chocolate.  I had bought chocolate cereal.  Me, in all of my attempts at healthy, Japanese-style eating, had bought chocolate cereal.

“Mom, Bailey said, taking the bag from me, “It says ‘choco’ right on there in Katakana.”  Then I showed him the other bag of cereal.  “Corn Flakes,” he assured me.

Hm.  It might be time for Mom to learn to read.

Following Directions

This week I learned something rather important.  I learned the importance of following directions.

It all started with a slab of meat.  Last week was the Jewish New Year – Rosh Hashanah – and in addition to going to the synagogue for services, I planned a big meal for my family and the other two families that make up our big, extended family here in Tokyo.  I bought a huge slab of meat for the occasion.

Before making the actual purchase, however, I had poured over a few cookbooks.  I enjoy cooking enough to have many well-used cookbooks.  The one that most often strikes home is the Paula Deen Country Cookbook.  I bought it when I was at her restaurant in Savannah, Georgia, and it is a signed copy.  It hasn’t failed me yet.

When in Japan, I cannot always procure the exact ingredients that a recipe calls for.  I do my best.  So this recipe called for a round eye roast.  I got a roast, but for all I know it had square eyes or whatever.  It seemed okay, but I’m not a meat expert.   Perhaps if I’m doing this much cooking for this many people, I should become one, for safety’s sake, but as of yet, I’ve relied on my instincts and have not gone too far astray.

When I got home from the store, I re-read the recipe.  It was a simple one.  It called for taking the meat and marinating it in a mixture of burgundy wine and soy sauce.  Now, let’s be perfectly clear.  At the store, I was not able to get burgundy wine.  I could get Bordeaux, or I could get what seemed to be a good, red, French table wine.  I closed my eyes, pointed my finger, and went with the table wine.

The day before the holiday, I pulled the meat out of the freezer, then set it in the fridge to defrost.  By that night, it was most of the way thawed.  I made the mixture of wine and sauce, put the meat in a glass baking dish, then poured the mixture over the meat.  After just looking at it for a few minutes, I put plastic wrap over the dish, put the dish in the fridge and promptly forgot about the whole thing.

I didn’t think about it again until nearly 2pm the next day, well after synagogue and lunch.  The recipe was specific about timing.  The roast should be cooked at 5 minutes per pound, uncovered.  Then, I had to turn the oven off, cover the meat with tin foil and leave it in the oven for another 45 minutes.  After that I could cool it and slice it.

I may have mentioned already that I am not so great with meat.  I can do all right, but I’m no professional.  So I decided to really do it the right way – by the book.  I checked the weight of the meat, calculated the proper time to let it cook and followed the rest of the instructions.

What resulted was a perfectly cooked roast beef with a pink center and hint of sauce-taste on the top.  The wine had steeped all the way through the meat making it soft and succulent.  It was a crowd-pleaser.

Now, several times in the process of this meat, I was tempted to take a short cut.  Did the thing really need to marinate overnight or would it do to throw it in the marinade in the morning?  Did I have to calculate the cooking time or could I just estimate?

But I didn’t. I followed the directions to the letter to the best of my ability, and the result was a perfect piece of meat.

Why am I telling you this and does it at all pertain to writing? I would say absolutely. My mentor professor, Dr. Dulce Gray, and other professors in my life always said that one must know the conventions before breaking them with impunity.  A writer can be certain that when following the rules to the fullest extent he can, the result will be a good piece – it still needs polishing – cutting and serving, if you will, but it will be a good start right out of the oven.  Even experienced writers who break the rules regularly, know this, or are at least aware of it.

It just struck me that the simple act of following directions could impact life, meat, writing, and everything in between.

A happy, healthy, sweet new year to those who celebrate.