What Is a Sushi Mensch?

Full-on squid over rice, handmade by Yasuda-San

Full-on squid over rice, handmade by Yasuda-San

A few weeks ago I had the privilege of going to Shushi Bar Yasuda in Minami Aoyama, in Tokyo.  Friends of ours were able to get the reservation only because we booked early, and we felt lucky to be able to get in. Chef and owner Naomichi Yasuda, had come straight from his New York establishment last year to return to the country of his birth and astound customers with his attention and taste.

Yasuda-san opened Sushi Yasuda in New York City’s Midtown in 1999 with two partners.  The press on their website  is unbelievable, with the top ratings from The New York Times, Zagat, and Martha Stewart.  Food and Wine and even The Wall Street Journal paint glowing reviews of the quality of the food, the service, the atmosphere and even the owners of the place.

We managed to get reservations at Sushi Bar Yasuda in Tokyo on a Saturday night, which was impressive because the place is small, typically Japanese, with a bar of eight seats and two tables, which seat only 6 more.

I have had fresh and wonderful sushi in Japan in the past ten years, but each

Yasuda-san himself!

Yasuda-san himself!

singular flavor and mouth sensation at this place made me feel like we were having a creative meal of exquisite taste.

Our course included several different fish, prepared in mostly nigiri style, over rice:

  • Steelhead salmon
  • Cherry trout from Aomori prefecture
  • Amberjack
  • Shima aji
  • Buri Yellowtail
  • Maguro (Tuna)
  • Hotate (Scallop)
  • Ayu trout (only in Japan)

Each piece has its own bit of wasabi, if it’s supposed to have wasabi.  Otherwise it is meant to be left to the taste the chef commands. We were allowed a tiny bit of soy sauce, but only the slightest bit so it wouldn’t interrupt the taste of the fish.

The piece de resistance, however, was the uni, or sea urchin.  I don’t normally prefer it.  I find that it often tastes “fishy” and the slimy sort of texture turns me off.  But the course had been so wonderful up to that point that I couldn’t say no to trying the uni.

yasuda uni

The uni was delectable!

I couldn’t believe it – for the first time, I loved uni.  Yasuda-san served it with a dab of Sardinian crystal salt and just a hint of citrus.  The taste sort of exploded into a sweet goodness in my mouth.

Yasuda-san is expecting a visit this spring from Anthony Bourdain of the TV show “No Reservations” – they are foodie buddies.  Bourdain will probably feature the new Tokyo shop on the show.

A consummate New Yorker, even though he’s thoroughly Japanese, Yasuda-san greeted us with a cheery “hello” in English, and then chatted away to us as he prepared our dishes.  Having had many Jewish customers in New York, he referred to himself as the “Sushi Mensch” – Mensch being the Yiddish word for Man, but with the cultural connotation of a good man, one who is upstanding and follows through on his obligations.  Indeed, Yasuda-san is a Mensch of the first order.

Sushi Bar Yasuda is a wonderful, experiential dining event.  I can’t wait to go back.

Japanese Efficiency – At The Salon!!

The incredible Aiko-san, massaging my right hand while I clumsily take a bad picture with my left. She is more beautiful in person.

The incredible Aiko-san, massaging my right hand while I clumsily take a bad picture with my left. She is more beautiful in person.

In my limited salon experience, when you get your hair cut, you get your hair cut.  When you get a massage,  you get a massage.  At my mom’s salon in Florida,  hair coloring is separate from cutting, even! (But we wouldn’t know about that – we’re natural blondes, right Mom?)

This separation of services is not the case in Japan, I have come to find out.  Today as I (ahem) had my hair  cut and colored, my favorite stylist, Takano-san (at May’s Garden Spa in Roppongi Hills – go there – it’s amazing) told me they were having a special on hand and forearm massages and if I wanted to do it, the esthetician  would come right over.  The price was right and I was curious, so why not?  I am hooked.  It was unbelievable.

While I was waiting with the color on, Aiko-san massaged my right hand and arm, starting with a hot towel, going through the massage with cream, and finishing with a “pack-u” – or what I would call a “mask” for my hand. Right as she got the mask on, however, it was time for me to get a shampoo to rinse out the color.  As we all know, hair coloring waits for no man – or woman – or hand massage. But that didn’t faze Aiko-san.  She just rolled her little cart over to the sink where I was getting rinsed, and she started on my left hand.

Yes, that’s right. I got that fabulous head massage and shampoo combination about which I constantly rave, AND the hand and forearm massage  at the SAME TIME.

At one point the shampoo man was massaging my temples and Aiko-san was massaging my left palm.  Bliss.  Purse bliss.

Just as the hot towel went on my forehead and then under the back of my neck as usual, Aiko-san finished applying the mask to my left hand.  So I had to get up (shakily) and walk back to the haircut chair with my hands raised. As soon as I was seated and Takano-san was ready to cut my hair, Aiko-san was right there removing the hand mask and then applying moisturizer before finishing it off.

I understand this was a special treat and not something I can have regularly.  I am very privileged to do these things, lest you think I take it for granted.  But I do think it’s simply brilliant to have salon services put together so nicely.  It saves time for the customer and I’m sure it makes the salon work more efficiently.  What a day.  I’m just going to appreciate it for what it is: Japanese work flow at its best.

The World Baseball Classic – Japanese Style!

Before the game, they played the Japanese National Anthem as well as the one from the Netherlands.

Before the game, they played the Japanese National Anthem as well as the one from the Netherlands.

The World Baseball Classic (WBC) is in full swing!  Sometimes described as the “World Cup of Baseball” the WBC is a double-elimination tournament played by the major league teams of countries around the world.  It was played in 2006 and 2009, and then, due to dropping baseball from the Olympics, the organizers determined that it would be played every four years, hence the 2013 tournament.

Japan was the winner of both the 2006 and 2009 classics, and is doing well in its bracket this year as well.  However, they did struggle a little against the Netherlands, and they still have a number of semifinal matches to go in San Francisco next week and the week after.  Their arch-rival, Cuba, was surprisingly defeated by the Netherlands in a win-or-go-home match over last weekend.

The Japan National Team played its games at the Tokyo Dome, and we had the opportunity to attend a game.  I have written extensively about baseball in the past, so you don’t really need to see photos again of the cute beer girls circulating through the stands or hear how the Japanese cheer in unison, not individually.  However, there are a few items of interest that are different.  Some of them are because it’s the Tokyo Dome and not Jingu Stadium, where normally see the Yakult Swallows play and some things are different because it’s the WBC, not a regular season game.

As we entered the Dome, there was staff on hand giving each person a sandwich bag. Every single person through the door had to put their cell phone into the baggie and have it out as they walked in past security or submitted to a white-glove bag check.  Why a plastic bag?  I’m not sure.  It seemed to be necessary for the phones to be seen as we went in, but I’m unclear on why.

Twice during the game there was an important announcement:  “ATTENTION PLEASE: IN CASE OF AN EARTHQUAKE PLEASE DO NOT PANIC AND RUN. THE TOKYO DOME IS BUILT TO WITHSTAND EARTHQUAKES AND YOU WILL BE SAFE.”  Somehow it didn’t make me feel all that safe – it put the idea of an earthquake while in a crowded place into my head where it wasn’t a thought before.  I am 100% certain that if there had been a quake, the Japanese people would have waited and sat still. The foreigners would have run for the door.

Unlike at the regular season Japanese ball games, there was  an American-style 7th inning stretch, complete with the song “Take Me Out To The Ballgame” sung by the announcer. He was a good sport, if not a great vocalist.  It was nostalgic.  Not too many Japanese knew the words to sing, however, and they weren’t displayed on the big screen, so it was up to the foreigners to belt it out as loudly as possible!

Here’s a photo of the fantastic scotches, bourbons, sakes and other upscale drinks available at a regular food stand.  In the US, the good stuff is reserved for the club level!

baseball scotch

And here’s a photo of stadium food being eaten by businessmen in black suits with chopsticks. Uniformity is crucial.  Not everyone looked like that, of course, but businessmen are identifiable.  Stadium food with chopsticks never fails to crack me up.  They have chicken nuggets and fries, and I’m sure I could probably find a  hotdog-like item if I worked at it, but in general Japanese stadium food is eaten with chopsticks.

baseball chopsticks

And last but not least, there’s the cleanup.  Someone on our row spilled some beer and magically a Tokyo Dome staff member appeared with paper towels and a trash bag, not leaving until everything was clean and dry.  When it was clear that the family behind us left for good after the 5th inning, another staff member appeared with a big bag and picked up their trash, wiping down the seats carefully as well.  Can you see that happening at Camden Yards or Fenway Park?

baseball cleanup

All in all it was a great night out at the ballgame!  We will be watching in the next few weeks to see who wins the title.  This game was not an elimination game, but rather a game to see who would get a number one and who would get a number two seed in the semifinal matches in the U.S. next week.  But I’m sure that the fans in San Francisco, no matter which game they’re watching, won’t have an experience precisely like mine.

 

Japanese Efficiency – In a Parking Lot

parking lot bike manLast week my husband and I went apartment hunting. Our house is being sold and our landlord will not be renewing our lease in June. So we have intermittently been going out with a realtor to see what’s available.

The realtor always drives us to places and makes both of us sit in the back seat, chauffeur-style. It’s formal and not altogether comfortable, but neither my husband nor I have the temerity to mess with custom in this case.  At one high rise building in Nishi Azabu, we went down under the building into the parking lot and the realtor asked the attendant where to park precisely, since he was showing one of the available apartments. Instead of telling us, the guy hopped on a nearby bicycle, and let us down two floors and across the third to find the realtor space.  From the point of view of the rear of the car, it was hysterical to see this little man, probably in his late fifties or early sixties, bearing down, speeding down the ramps and zipping around the corners, ahead of parking lot bike man 2the car.

Parking-bike-man pointed out the spot, bowed deeply as the realtor started turning the car to fit into the space, and then in a flash, he was off again, back up the ramp to his station by the parking entrance.

He was so zippy that the photos are terrible, but they’re the best I could do.  This is Japanese kindness and efficiency all rolled into one neat package – on wheels.

The Second Anniversary of The Tohoku Earthquake and Tsunami

charmworks1It seems like the earthquake and tsunami of March 11, 2011 was a long time ago, and chronologically, I guess it was.  Here in Japan, however, the events of the day are still in the front of our minds, brought to the fore with just the slightest whiff of reminder.  Many people across the country are still affected by the events of the day, and many people are still working hard to repair and rebuild those affected areas, as they will be doing for a long time to come, still.

One such young woman who is working on rebuilding is Sohpia Slater.  I had the privilege of interviewing her recently and she speaks with the wisdom and foresight of someone well beyond her years.  Sophia is sixteen and a junior at the American School in Japan.  She started the charity “Charmworks” that you can find here.  Twice a month, she and various people around Tokyo get together to paint charms made from the roof tiles salvaged from a fishing village in the Tohoku region called Funakoshi.

You can read more about my talk with the delightful Ms. Slater on the site A Hopeful Sign.  All money she receives from charmworks2the sale of the charms goes back to the people of Funakoshi so they can rebuild their industry and lives.

As a note, in addition to starting Charmworks and being a good student, Ms. Slater is a rather insightful young lady.  She has a lot of good ideas about the notion of recovery as it encompasses both physical and emotional healing, and how the two go hand in hand.  You can read more about that in her blog posting in the Huffington Post.

The young Ms. Slater’s work is one example of the dedicated men and women across Japan who are working to rebuild the once beautiful seaside towns in the Tohoku region.  Please consider buying a charm from her, or continuing to support Japan in some way.  We live in a 24-hour news cycle these days, and one crisis tends to give way to the next.  But people continue to suffer long after the reporters are gone and the initial sensation is over.  We should always remember.

 

Hina Matsuri – The Take-Down

The Complete Hina Matsuri Display at the Nishimachi International School

The Complete Hina Matsuri Display at the Nishimachi International School

Every February, many families and public places across Japan erect elaborate displays of the Emperor’s court in honor of Hina Matsuri, or Girls’ Day – celebrated on March 3rd.  These displays, which originated in the Heian Period (794-1185 AD) in Japan’s history, are often multi-tiered and intricate representations of the entire court, from the traditional 5 musicians, to the

Some other intricacies of the display, which at Nishimachi is nearly 100 years old.

Some other intricacies of the display, which at Nishimachi is nearly 100 years old.

tiny little representations of the royal table complete with festival treats such as Hina Arare (sweet little rice crackers) or chirashizushi (mixed fish over rice).

Members of the royal court

Members of the royal court

Though the displays can be enjoyed across the country for most of the month of February, it is imperative that they all be taken down by March 4th, or the superstition says that the girls of the house will marry late, or won’t marry well, or something of that nature.  Taking all of the intricate little pieces down and putting them away in the proper boxes for storage for a year is quite a feat.  Every little hat has to be wrapped; each doll perfectly preserved, and every bit of teensy tableware stored.  It’s quite an undertaking.  Just when you think you have everything wrapped, then all the small boxes have to be put neatly in bigger boxes for storage – don’t forget that space is at a major premium in Japan, so everything has to be as compact as possible.

Here are a few photos of the disassembling of the Hina Matsuri display yesterday at the Nishimachi International School.

Intricate packing of each little piece.

Intricate packing of each little piece.

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The puzzle of fitting little boxes into one big one!

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The whole stand has to come down and be put away.

Every little hat and sword and accessory from the display gets wrapped with the utmost care!

Every little hat and sword and accessory from the display gets put away carefully!

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The little things they use to protect the dolls from bugs for a year.

The little things they use to protect the dolls from bugs for a year.

Ready for storage until February 2014!

Ready for storage until February 2014!

 

Coming to Tokyo: Students from The Asian University for Women

AUW logo with clear backgroundBeyond being the first regional liberal arts institution in Southern Asia, the Asian University for Women is a place where women from across the region can go to learn, share ideas, and get a superior education so they can follow their own dreams, whether they lead out into the world, or back to their villages.  The school, located in Chittagong, Bangladesh, has programs in art, history, literature and any other program they would find at any top-notch university across the globe.  The former first lady of Great Britain, Cherie Blair, is the Chancellor of the University and the current first lady of Japan, Akie Abe, has recently signed on as a Patron of the school.

Why am I telling you this?  I mention it because on March 20th, people in Tokyo will have the singular experience to meet two girls who attend this amazing school.

The AUW Japan Support Group will screen the film “Peace Unveiled” part of the American PBS Series “Women, War and Peace.”  The segment is about the process of peace in Afghanistan and how women played, and continue to play a key role in the making of a modern day nation.  In addition to the film, the two girls, who will travel all the way to Tokyo from Bangladesh to tell their stories, will speak, along with the Vice-Chancellor of the school, Ms. Fahima Aziz.  One of the girls is originally from Afghanistan and is prepared to speak about the actual situation on the ground.

Here is a Facebook listing of the event: https://www.facebook.com/events/335839793194270/?fref=ts

This is not the first time the Japan Support Committee has held an event here in Tokyo – we did one in 2010 where I had the privilege of spending time with the two young women from Bangladesh.  Here’s the story on my last meeting with AUW students and the joy it brought: http://aimeeweinstein.blogspot.jp/2010/04/beyond-writing-education.html

If you live in Tokyo, please consider attending the event.  It’s a national holiday in Japan, and so we’re having the screening in the late afternoon to accommodate holiday revelry and the need to go to work the following day.  For more information you can reply here, or email Katsuki Sakai, at katsuki.sakai@asian-university.org.

I can promise you that seeing the film and hearing these girls speak in person will be an experience you will never forget.

Tokyo in the Morning – on A Hopeful Sign

If you haven’t seen it already, please go to the website of A Hopeful Sign and check out not only my latest post, but also the posts of other wonderful writers who believe in strong, positive messages.

My latest piece is about sunrise – morning – in Tokyo and the beauty therein.  Here’s the text, but please do go to the website to see with the pictures and in context of the site.

Tokyo at Sunrise

Some people might think I’m crazy, but my favorite time to hit the streets to exercise is 5:30am.  I have always been a morning person, (ask my friends whom I would drive crazy when we were teens – I was 20 before I was willing to see the midnight screening of the “Rocky Horror Picture Show” due to my early morning habits) but here in Tokyo, the mornings take on a whole new beauty.

Tokyo, like a woman readying herself for a night out, changes its tenor as the sun goes down.  It goes from a mild-mannered city of black-suited, white-shirted businessmen with practiced business acumen, to a place of alcohol-driven, late-night revelry.  The change-over is particularly vivid as the sun comes up again, which in February, is right around the time I’m outside taking my morning constitutional run/walk.  Unlike New York City, the trains stop for five hours or so right around midnight, and because of that, there are many bars and restaurants are open until 5am, so at 5:30 am, so at that time, the businessmen who missed the last trains home to the suburbs are spilling out of the bars and into the streets to go home for a shower and a nap before heading back into the city to do it all over again.  While I don’t live in an area that is particularly famous for its night-life, I do live near an area like that, and it’s always interesting to see swaying men and heel-tottering women in rumpled clothing and half-closed eyes making for the subway stations.

Beyond that, however, in my residential area, the 5:30 hour is a time when the mama-sans and papa-sans are up, bustling about and getting things ready for the day.  Often, especially the morning after some sort of storm, I see earnest men and women out on stoops or even on patches of sidewalks with little brooms and dustpans, sweeping up the debris of the night to start fresh with the sunrise. Every person takes responsibility for their little patch of heaven in the city – for keeping it clean and tidy, and fit for the entry of the Emperor, just in case. I see a few kids, some as young as 9 or 10, coming out of apartment buildings headed to schools outside the city that specialize in certain areas of interest and therefore require long commutes. The children, whatever the age, have a common look of eternal weariness along with dogged determination, a mix common to Japanese faces.

Tokyo Tower Photo credit: Robert Scott Laddish

The Tokyo Tower, something that used to be the tallest structure in Japan until last May when the Sky Tree opened, is often in my view and I can see the last remnants of its overnight lights as the sun makes its steady ascent over the horizon.  The streetlights flicker and die slowly in my city, so that darkness never fully encompasses the scenery.  The quality of the dusk or the moment before the sun makes it searing entry on the landscape are always bathed in a quality of ease, of buoyant expectation, as if something new is bound to happen with the change of light.

I suppose these things could happen in any city, at any time.  But I’m not in any city at any time – I’m in Tokyo at sunrise and I enjoy all the gifts the bustling metropolis has to give me.  I get back to my house before 6:30am, which is when the true waking of the city starts; when I’m more certain that the people I see are beginning their day rather than ending it, and I too, shower and dress and get ready for the adventures ahead.  The freshness of the city is my reward for meeting the dawn as it arrives and it starts my day with the joy of gratitude.

The Beauty of Japanese Textiles

2013-02-22 21.51.32In the days of ancient Tokyo, all the way through the 1950’s, kimono dying factories lined the banks of the Myoshoji River in the areas of Nakai and Ochiai.   Yearly since 2009 the residents of these parts of the city have commemorated the rich history by creating a gallery of Kimono cloth and noren, stringing beautifully painted cloth along the river and throughout the streets. Noren are the cloths that hang outside of businesses in Japan in front of the entry doors.  Shopkeepers and restaurant owners put them out at the start of the business day and pull them in when the day is done. Calling the festival Some-no-Komichi, in addition to just showing beautifully dyed and painted cloth, the city opens the gym of the local elementary school to let people dye or paint their own cloths.  The gym is also a gallery of stunningly painted kimono and obi with descriptions of the artists and their techniques.  With the bright sunshine and lovely breeze leafing through the cloth, we could feel the echos of ancient times as we wandered the streets of Nakai. Enjoy the photos from the day.

The dyed cloth strung along the river

The dyed cloth strung along the river

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A description of the dying processes

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More cloth along the river

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One of the 90 or so noren we saw in shop windows in the city.

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Another example of a hand-painted noren

This man is a local artist; he is carving a woodblock to make woodblock prints.

This man is a local artist; he is carving a block of wood to make woodblock prints.

Sake Served Beautifully

sakeThis is not tea; this is how they serve sake at a wonderful restaurant called Mon Cher Ton Ton in Roppongi.  It’s a teppanyaki restaurant, so the entire meal is prepared on the grill in front of the diners.  We normally order a set that includes a salad, a succulent steak and prawns that the chef puts on the grill live. It’s wild to watch the seconds of squirming before they finally succumb but I have learned to hide my eyes.  After the prawns are cooked, we get to eat the body and tail while the chef re-grills the heads, seasons them and serves them separately. Delicious! A month ago my cousins were visiting from New York and they loved the meal from the salad start to the garlic-rice finish. But Susan did look at me and say, “Oh my goodness, I just ate a shrimp head!”  The rest of us had a good giggle over it.

Mon Cher Ton Ton is one of those special places in Tokyo where every detail is taken into account, right down to keeping the sake cold.  If you look carefully, you can see the middle of the “pot” is full of ice.  Japanese people take the alcohol seriously and great service is a hallmark of the culture.  Put together, the service of alcohol is always carefully considered and beautiful. At the restaurant, every few minutes a server added a tiny bit of sake to our tiny, little cups so we lost track of precisely how much we were drinking, a common problem in the Tokyo restaurant scene.  But if we have to get a little tipsy over dinner, certainly it’s fun to do it with such a lovely vessel for the alcohol.