Art and Artisans in Akihabara

akihabara1In an area of Tokyo mostly known for its electronics, it was a real treat to find 2k540 Aki-Oka Artisan, a large warehouse-type structure located under the tracks near Akihabara and full of shop after shop of beautiful works of art.  My friend Jill and I set out to find it on a rainy Tuesday and the whole day turned out to be a treat for the senses.

The concept itself is from the JR East Company and according to CNN, the name comes from the 2.54km it takes to get to Tokyo Station and it’s location between Akihabara and Okachimachi stations.  Jill and I took the Yamanote line to get there, but we realized that the walk to get there from the Akihabara station on the Hibiya Line can be much simpler depending on where you start, so that’s how we got home.

As we walked toward the art center from the station, we ran into a fantastic shop calakihabara5led Chabara that seems to have every Japanese food curiosity in the country.  It even has a sake tasting table and all different types of sauces and tsukemono, pickles.  Of course what fascinated us was the tasting bar for the flavored nut snacks – they came in 20 different flavors, from honey to wasabi to cherry and we tried many of them.

Unfortunately you can’t take pictures along most of the lane of 2k540, but the entire lane is lined akihabara3with storefronts of every type of Japanese are imaginable.  There are several shops of ceramics, many of hand-dyed cloth, and quite a number of shops showing jewelry all hand made.  My favorite place was the umbrella shop.  The entire shop was full of handmade umbrellas in every color of the rainbow.  I have a few special occasions coming up and I found one shop that specializes in wedding gifts – personalized, of course.

There were only two small cafes in the entire place, which is almost as long as an American football field, and we did not eat in them.  But rest assured, they looked funky and interesting.  On our random Tuesday, the place was mostly empty, but I imagine it would be quite busy on the weekend.

2k540 Aki Oka Artisan is an oasis of calm and beauty in the midst of the craziness that is Akihabara. If you need any type of gift, I’d highly recommend a trip.

Elevator Beauties

elevator3There are many things about Japan that remain decidedly “old school”.  Takashimaya Department store in the Nihonbashi district of Tokyo is a bastion of such tradition from last century, with its ubiquitous flower elevator2arrangements, gilt elevators and omnipresent staff.  The elevators themselves are perfectly modern but they have beautful touches of bygone eras.  Chief among those touches is the concept of the elevator girl.  She is immaculately dressed in a uniform complete with the pillbox hat. She has to manually close the bars before the official elevator door will close.  She uses a lever to stop and start the elevator.  She steps out on the floors to announce where the elevator is and where it is headed, along with what is located on that particular floor.  It is truly a gorgeous throwback and a sight to behold.  I highly recommend a trip to Takashimaya’s flagship store in Nihonbashi – go ride the elevator.

What Are You Doing?

cooking 1Sometimes people have asked me what I’m doing with my time since being diagnosed with cancer.  I must admit that some days it takes a lot of energy to simply exist.  Luckily those days are few, and when they happen (predictably on days 5-8 after a chemo treatment) I just stare at reruns of “NCIS” without even seeing them.  However, I do get out to see friends, to go shopping, to have a meal, on almost every other day of the treatment cycle.  Even if I’m feeling blue or tired, I force myself out for a little while every day.  I’ve also learned to force myself to go out walking on days when I feel okay and the weather is good.  (My definition of “bad” weather has expanded to include high humidity however – sweating never feels good, but feels particularly yucky on a covered, yet bald head.)  So I am out a lot.

One thing I have always loved doing is cooking.  I find that it’s the one thing that completely empties my brain of all other tasks and trials.  It’s not that I find it relaxing, but I can’t multitask when I do it.  I have to concentrate on the task at hand or risk making a mistake that ruins the dish.  I also find it tremendously satisfying to make things that other people get to eat. When someone I love pronounces a dish I’ve made as yummy, it’s the highest form of flattery and satisfaction to me.

Recently, since feeling even better, I’ve done more cooking.  I made a Japanese dish, beef wrapped sauteed vegetables, for Ellie and Steve – one that I learned at a cooking class I took in April.  It wasn’t perfect because I couldn’t find thin enough beef, like that used to make shabu-shabu, which I would have bought in cooking 2Tokyo.  I found thin beef, but I should have pounded it thinner.  That’s okay – it was still yummy, even if it didn’t look as perfect as I wanted it to.

Then, this week, I took it upon myself to make a full meal including dessert.  I had been having conversations with my friends Maxine and Bonnie (separately, I might add) about cooking and how seldom people cook from scratch anymore.  True foodies cook from scratch though, and I do like to consider myself a foodie, not just a gourmand! No one has time, and convenience foods are so readily available that many people rely on them exclusively in the U.S.  Cooking and eating are such arts and the preparation of a meal takes a lot of time that most working people don’t have anymore.  But time is one thing of which I have in abundance right now.

I went to the grocery store last Tuesday and slowly gathered ingredients.  I then spent upwards of three  or four hours in the kitchen and later tried not to feel disappointed as the meal was consumed in ten minutes.  Ellie and Steve are a pleasure to cook for, though.  They appreciate each flavor and are generous with compliments.  I didn’t care how long the meal took to make – the looks on their faces as they enjoyed it was more than compensatory.

My only food restriction from the cancer treatment is that I can’t eat fresh fruits and vegetables – nothing raw.  The doctors are afraid that if there’s one bit of bacteria that’s not washed off properly, then I might get sick in my immune-suppressed state.  Getting sick when one is immune-suppressed is dangerous.  So I can eat whatever I want – as long as it’s COOKED.

I made a Food Network shrimp dish for a main course.  Craving tomatoes and berries, I made a caprese salad with roasted tomatoes a la the Barefoot Contessa.  I also made ricotta cheese toast with caramelized tomatoes from Martha Stewart.  For dessert, also from Martha Stewart, we had blueberry and strawberry scones with cream cheese whipped cream.

Cooking is a great way to spend my time as I go through the treatments.  It occupies my time, empties my brain and delights my tummy.  So that’s what I’ve been doing.

Storage: An Interesting Grocery Conundrum

harris teeterThis is the advertisement in the Wednesday “Food” section of The Washington Post from Harris Teeter, a local grocery store.  The point of it is that the store is looking out for the economic health of its customers and giving away items for free – albeit with a purchase.  If a customer was going to buy one box of triscuit crackers, why not buy two  – and then the store will GIVE him three more boxes for free.  As Americans we are all accustomed to this type of pitch.  There’s even an acronym for it in its purest form: BOGO – buy one; get one.  This however, goes over the top – B2G3?

As someone who has been living in Japan for quite a long time, it’s not just the health concern that gets me – as in, beyond having a party, who the heck is going to eat all of those hotdogs before their shelf (or freezer) life expires??  But it’s also the space.  Buy two CASES of Pepsi, each of which contains 12 cans of cola, and then get another three cases, 36 more cans, for free.  I can’t think of anyone I know in Japan who has storage for 60 cans of soda.  I guess many Americans do have that type of storage in closet or basement, but people in Japan, especially Tokyo, do not. Japanese kitchens are smaller in general, have smaller cabinets and significantly smaller refrigerators than American kitchens. It has become fascinating to me what people in the U.S. actually keep in their cupboards.  There’s a lot of “stuff” in there that people don’t even remember they have.

I do not mean to criticize – just remark. I can hardly criticize – I used to do it myself!  I’ve just gotten way away from it in the past 6+ years of living outside of the U.S.  If you can store all of that stuff, then you are lucky to have the space.  It’s just really interesting to this American girl who has moved away from it all.

What Can You Do With Leftover Frying Oil?

When frying in oil, the question of what to do with the leftover frying oil is always a problem.  It can’t be just thrown down the sink without dire consequences to the plumbing.  It also can’t be thrown in the trash because of it soaking through everything and hurting the garbage process.  A lot of people bag the oil and freeze it to throw away later, which works, whether in the sink or the trash.  But then one has old oil in the freezer until remembering to throw it away.

The Japanese have a great product they use after frying, however.  It’s called katameru tenpuru. Here’s a picture of it in the box.

cooking oil 2It’s little crystals that you sprinkle on the pan with the oil still in it – and slightly hot.  You wait a little while – less than an hour – and the whole thing is solidified.  I used a spatula to take it out of the pan and simply flip it, pancake style – into the trash, where it’s completely safe.

Perhaps they have this product in other places and cooking oil 1I just haven’t seen it.  I think this is completely ingenious, and it makes frying a breeze.  I don’t do a ton of frying, but the Japanese have some terrific and light recipes for a fast fry that require oil.  I’ve tried a few and been frustrated afterward with the cleanup of the experience even though the food came out just great.  No more frustration with this product around!

Where Can You Find The Fake Food in the Window?

kappabashi7Any restaurant in Tokyo might owe its existence, at least its accoutrements, to Kappabashi.  Kappabashi is an area of Tokyo between Ueno and Asakusa that is dedicated completely to the restaurant business, comprising hundreds of stores selling everything from knives to pots to dishware and flatware, and everything in between.  There are even stores that sell restaurant decorations, cold cases, and tables and chairs as well as signs. While the stores sell mostly to restaurants, they’re happy to have any regular person as a customer, too.

However, a big part of the charm of Kappabashi is finally solving the mystery of the plastic food that so many Japanese restaurants proudly display in their windows.  Kappabashi has shop after shop of fake food for sale – plastic versions of main dishes, side dishes and desserts, ranging from pasta, to soba, to meats to crepes.  It’s a wonderland of plastic food!



Those cases above are full of sandwiches – all fake.  Restauranteurs can buy the entire sandwich or its component parts to show customers what is available at their establishment.





This one above is one of my favorites – look at all of that marbleized and FAKE beef.  I don’t like my beef like that in real life and I definitely don’t like it in plastic.  However, if I owned a teppanyaki or shabu shabu restaurant in Japan, I would want to show my customers how wonderful my beef is – and this is how the Japanese love their beef.  Also, check out that sushi. Every possible shape, fish and form is available in plastic, so the sushi shops can display the very best outside in their windows.





This one above is so interesting – fruits and desserts – all plastic.  What I didn’t count on is the high price.  One of those parfaits was 5,000 JPY – upwards of $50!  The restaurant owners have to be careful and creative when choosing what t0 display.

There are stores dedicated to throw-away packaging!

There are stores dedicated to throw-away packaging!


This particular shop had everything – and I mean everything – one might need in a kitchen to cook with. Stainless steel pots, copper pots, bamboo steamers, spatulas, and whisks, just to name a few items.

Shop after shop full of dishes for every type of restaurant or occasion.

Shop after shop full of dishes for every type of restaurant or occasion.

You have to imagine block after block of these stores.  Some were fancy and some were casual.  Some were expensive and some were less so. (Nothing is cheap in Tokyo) We walked down one side of the street and back up the other side.  It was something else.  If you have any cooking inclination at all,  I’d highly recommend a trip to Kappabashi.



From Siem Reap to Phnom Penh – in Twenty Seconds or Less

The Palace

The Palace

The last stop on our way too short, Southeast Asian extravaganza was Phnom Penh.  But before enjoying the city, first we had to get there.

It’s about 300 km from Siem Reap to Phnom Penh, and so many people take the short, 30-minute flight. But since we hadn’t seen anything of the countryside, and I didn’t want to deal with another airport (and I was being cheap), we decided to hire a car and driver to take us south along Highway 6, a road that has only been open for 5 or so years. This was not a decision lightly taken.  We read a lot about the car and driver system in a few guidebooks and on TripAdvisor.  The hotel in Siem Reap wouldn’t allow us to hire a small car, preferring that we rent a very large van at a very large expense, and recommended that we go into town to a travel agency and arrange the rental ourselves.  We were a little nervous, but the agency was right on a main market street in downtown Siem Reap, and they were enthralled with our white faces.  They were so eager to please!  Within ten minutes they had arranged for the car to pick us up at our hotel at 8:30 in the morning and drive the 5 or so hours to Phnom Penh.  They kept assuring us it would be fine, and the driver spoke English, so no worries.

As promised the driver was right on time, but he spoke not a lick of English.  That didn’t bother us really, and we managed to get all of our stuff in the small trunk. The kids and I squeezed into the back seat, and Marc sat next to the driver and we were off.

Within ten minutes we had to stop on the side of the road.  The driver stuttered “wait a minute,” jumped out of the car, and gave some money to a guy standing by.  We have no idea what transpired between them, but we do know that we were traveling at high speeds for the next 4 hours and passing car after car, with zero police consequence.  You do the math.

It should have taken 5 or more hours to make that trip and we did it in four and a half including a stop for gasoline.  It’s a small road – one lane each direction. But lanes are just suggestions in most of Southeast Asia, and we passed many buses and trucks – and cars. Not a single vehicle passed us.  This guy aimed for speed, and speedy he was.  I didn’t look, and Marc, from the front seat, said it was impressive.

I did look out the side window, however, and saw shack after shack, followed by a market, followed by huge tracts of empty land.  Since it is dry season in Cambodia, everything had a thin layer of fine dirt over it.  I’m not sure how to express the enormity of the poverty.

Phnom Penh is a city of over two million people, and has had huge growth in the past two years with population increasing more than 25%.  It is fast becoming an international city after the big set-backs of the 70’s and 80’s.

In Phnom Penh, we stayed at the amazingly fabulous La Maison D’Ambre, a small, boutique hotel near Wat Phnom, not far from the 2013-03-26 10.17.25center of the city. Instead of room numbers, each suite has a name and it beautifully designed and appointed.

We only had a day and a half in the city, the capital of Cambodia.  We went to the Palace, which also houses the exquisite silver pagoda.  We were allowed to take photos only on the outside. We saw the National Museum and all of its Khmer treasures.

We had to stop and shop at the Russian market, where we drove hard bargains, but had to walk away from a few things when vendors wouldn’t meet our price.  We also had to walk away from the food section of the market – we just couldn’t stomach the smell. Cambodian food has some pretty strong smells that overwhelm all of the senses. I’m loathe to qualify them as good or bad – just strong, overpowering the entire area.

2013-03-26 21.44.01We also shopped in a more couture manner at Ambre, home of the best dress designer in the world, Romyda Keth.  I have several of her dresses, and it was an honor to meet her in person. She even made the dress I wore for my son’s bar mitzvah.

Of course we ate more Khmer food – Luk Lok, A Mok, and other enchanting tastes for lunch and dinner both days we were there. We couldn’t get enough of it. We even ate a little bit in the airport!

Leaving from the airport in Phnom Phen on late Wednesday afternoon was quite sad. We had a wonderful few days of vacation.


National Azabu Renovations

Normally if a supermarket renovates its interior, I wouldn’t take enough notice of it to write a whole blog post about it, but this is different.  National Azabu is a fixture in the expat community of Tokyo and in 2011, it closed, razed to the ground, and rebuilt.  It just opened in August 2012.  So why, less than 3 months later, is it closing for a couple of days for renovation?  The answer is to respond to client demand.  The people who shop there have been complaining that the new layout is confusing and not intuitive.  It’s difficult getting through the aisles.  So people complained and the “powers that be” are responding.

But there’s more.  The supermarket is closing in part for two days to re-vamp the whole thing, and they’re so concerned about it that they’re offering a special sale to make it up to customers.  In addition, the postcard I got in the mail announcing the disruption in service has a little man on it who I am positive is looking down at the ground saying “gomen nassai” – apologizing.

This is yet another thing I love about Japan.  Customer service second to none.

In Ginza, When is a Mannequin not a Mannequin?

This was the window of Furla, the upscale Italian handbag shop in Ginza two weeks ago.  There was a crowd of people around it!  I peered through the throng just staring at the window, and then, lo and behold, the mannequin moved.  It seems that Furla had hired live women – models – to show off their handbags.

There were four women in total, each more beautiful and still than the last.  When they moved, it was just a slight position change so that shoppers wondered if it had happened or if the window was playing tricks on them.

I didn’t watch for too long, but it was just so fun and interesting – and wildly creative.  I wonder how many more bags Furla sold that they might otherwise not have.


The Same, Yet Different

A few weeks ago I was in the U.S. celebrating my grandmother’s 90th birthday.  When I’m there, I like to stock up on things I don’t get in Japan – a few things like my hair products, some American-style medications, and some paper goods.  I thought it would be a good idea to go to Costco near my parents’ house to get the stuff.  My mom thought it was a great idea and gave me a few things to pick up while I was there.  There were a total of perhaps ten items on the list – not very many at all for a Costco trip.

I got there and managed to maneuver my dad’s little convertible into a  parking spot far from the building.  I noticed that people tended to hang around cars parked close to the entrance that might be leaving in hopes of snagging their parking spots once they left and to me, that’s a waste of time, so I just parked pretty far and walked right inside.

Once inside I took a deep breath.  I do go to Costco in Japan, but only about once every six or eight weeks or so.  And like most things that are in both the U.S. and Japan, the Japanese version is slightly different from the American version.  For example, the American ceilings  are much higher, the whole place has bigger square footage, and it’s noisy.  In Japan, it’s quieter, but more crowded.  I know that doesn’t seem to make sense, but somehow there can be crowds and quiet at the same time here; Japanese are pretty quiet people. Well, the Costco in Boynton Beach Florida was nothing like my Costco in Kawasaki, Japan.

I got about halfway through the list and couldn’t find the batteries my mother needed.  I couldn’t find the tissues either.  It seemed like a huge trek to go back to the other side of the building to look on the right side when I was already all the way to the left.  There was music playing in the background and a ton of people talking loudly.  The worst part of going back to the U.S., I find, is how many conversations I can overhear.  I don’t speak enough Japanese to always understand everything around me, so I often live inside my own head.  All the noise is incredibly distracting.

What did I do? I panicked.  I found it hard to breathe.  I trembled.  I fumbled for my phone and dialed my parents’ house.  “Mom, I can’t do it!” I cried, rooted to the spot.

My mom, to her credit, just went with it.  “Just drop everything and come home.  We’ll go back together tomorrow,” she said.  She encouraged me to just take a deep breath and get out.

Well, that did it.  I hung up the phone and took a deep breath.  Right then, a Costco employee walked right past me and I flagged him down.  Bless him, when I asked him for the 3 items still on my list, he just took me to find all 3.  With every item on the list ticked off, I braved the check-out lines.  Of course the check-out lines were no mean feat; they are never fun.  But I closed my ears and just waited until my turn.  Luckily they had self-checkout, a great invention that has not yet made it to Japan.  Those lines are always shorter.  I was out in record time and at my parents’ house not long after.

My mom was surprised that I was able to get all of the items after all.  I told her it was a matter of self-management, and not panicking.  Japan and the U.S. are different, even when the store name is the same.  No reason to panic.