I had the fortune to attend a cooking lesson of sorts from internationally acclaimed chef Hiroshi Nagashima, the head chef at Shisui in Tsukiji. If you’ve ever wondered about how the Japanese learn to decorate their plates of food so beautifully, look no further. Nagashima sensei showed our group how to push a carving knife delicately into a carrot slice on an angle to create a flower and to cut a notch out of a slice of daikon to make a butterfly’s wings. He made frogs out of cucumbers and a beautiful basket out of a huge slice of daikon that he patiently cut around until it was translucent and then rolled back up to form the inside of the basket. His hands patiently formed each creation, slowly and gently rounding the cucumber to form the back of the frog. His knives were sharpened to a fine point and edge and he wielded them expertly in ways that I couldn’t begin to replicate. Included in the cost of the lesson was a bento lunch for each participant – photo of the gorgeous and delicious creations below.
Aquavit, a fixture in the New York restaurant scene since the late 80’s, opened in Stockholm and Tokyo in 2008. The restaurant spoils diners with its fusion of traditional Scandinavian fare with Japanese-style presentation and flair. The restaurant itself, located in Kita Aoyama, is a showplace of Scandinavian furniture and decor, which creates an ambiance of warmth throughout the dining experience. The wait staff was skilled in white-glove service, and was omnipresent without being overbearing. The dinner was a bit pricey, but considering what we ate and the way it was presented, we felt it was well worth the expenditure.
We ordered the tasting menu, listed here with a few of the photos:
CHEF’S NORDIC TASTING
We ended up with a dessert sampler that included a little bit of all of several types of berries and sorbets, accompanied by a bit of strawberry nougat.
We paired the entire thing with a rich Oregon Pinot Noir, which added a deep finish to each of the dishes. If you are in need of a beautiful restaurant that takes its food seriously, then consider Aquavit as your top choice for dining.
My daughter, Sydney, has lived all but three of her eleven years in Tokyo and considers herself very Japanese. Almost daily this is reflected in the lunch she brings to school from home. Many days our wonderful nanny, Minnie, makes Sydney’s lunch, but over the years, the two of them have learned to create beautiful obento lunches together. Here is yesterday’s example: It’s little sausages over rice, with each sausage cut to look like an octopus. Proper Japanese mums would put seaweed “eyes” on each one, but I’m not that detailed. The top box is full of finely sliced cucumbers. And it all fits together like a little puzzle in the little Japanese box. Tabemasho! Let’s eat!
Tofu-ya Ukai, housed on what used to be a sake brewery, sits on a huge parcel of beautifully landscaped land right in the center of Tokyo below the specter of the Tokyo Tower. Rather than one dining room, the restaurant has 50 private tatami rooms, all done zashiki style – meaning spare and beautiful, with exposed beams, tatami floors and genuine beauty all around. Though diners must sit on the floor, removing their shoes first, there is a foot-well so no one has to fold their legs unnecessarily. All of the servers and hosts are clad in kimono and skilled in the art of fine service. The food is done kaiseki style, consisting of multiple courses mostly comprised of fish and tofu.
Today was an exceptional day to go to Tofu-ya Ukai because Tokyo had the largest snowstorm of the past 40 years just this past weekend and the juxtaposition of the lingering
snow with the persistent blossoms painted an extraordinary picture of Mother Nature’s joy – or sense of humor, depending on your view of the situation.
We had a menu of eight courses – only in Japan can eight courses be small enough to just be a taste of everything yet big enough for diners to feel full and not overstuffed. Each course seemed to linger and depend on the one coming up in that the quality and complexity of the courses created a crescendo of taste
and texture. The fried tofu had a satisfying crunch, while still being smooth. The sashimi and other prepared fish exploded in a bloom of freshness. Everything was presented with grace and beauty, from the pouring of the sake, to the dishing out of the soy milk with two perfect pieces of tofu floating in it. The mixture of seasonal: tastes, sweet and savory, salty and fruity, all combined to make an exquisite dining experience.
The pictures barely do it justice – the food or the surroundings.
After lunch, Marlene, Tomoko and I took a short walk through the Japanese gardens where we
saw the small out-building where chefs were hard at work frying tofu, as well as plants, rocks and lanterns that traditionally make up a Japanese garden.
It was a beautiful day.
As usual when I teach, I hope my students learn as much from me as I do from them. Last week, the first draft of their essays was due. Most of these kids are either in a home-stay situation or in a dorm, neither of which allows much access to a printer, so they ran to the computer center at school to print out their essays. However, a few of the students had their essays ready, so I asked them about their method of printing. It turns out that the convenience stores, which are omnipresent in Tokyo, have a system called NetPrint.
The first step is to pick your favorite brand of convenience store – most likely the one closest to your house. Then go on their website, which will be only in Japanese, to sign up for a NetPrint account. Once you are signed up, you can upload whatever type of document you want to the site and in return, you will get a confirmation ID.
Then you can go to any convenience store at which you have signed up for an account. So if you’ve signed up for the Lawsons account because it’s closest to your house, you can use the Lawsons store right by your office or school as well. It’s only one program for every branch of the shop.
The NetPrint machines in the shops often speak a little English on their touch-screens. All you have to do is enter your confirmation number and the document you’ve uploaded will print. You can’t edit from the convenience store machine, but you can change some formatting. If you don’t upload the document, but have it on a USB key in PDF format, that’s okay too. You can’t print a .doc or .xls, but you can print a PDF from the key.
You pay right at the machine, inserting coins as needed. It’s 10 yen ($.10) per page for black and white, 20 yen ($.20) per page for color.
To my students, I say sorry – no more excuses for an unprinted essay. To everyone else, I say, geez, I love this city. What a system!
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.
I’ve been away from Japan for seven months in order to take chemotherapy for lymphoma. Now that I have a clean bill of health, I’m back with my family in our adopted home of Tokyo Japan. (More on reacquainting and other issues on another day…) Here are the top ten things I’ve missed about Japan and am joyfully rediscovering daily:
10 – Walking everywhere I have barely used the car since being here and my new friend FitBit tells me that I’m taking about 10,000 steps daily – in my regular life, without embarking on an exercise program just yet.
9 – Cleanliness Everything is Tokyo is shiny clean, no mean feat in one of the most populous cities in the world. People don’t litter. Being neat and clean is a matter of pride, so that every shopkeeper is responsible for his front sidewalk and sweeps and cleans it regularly. People carry their trash until they find bins. It’s amazing.
8. Polite People Everyone says excuse me and speaks quietly. Japanese people are polite, orderly and quiet in general. Yes, I’m generalizing – but that’s the cultural norm with individual instances of the opposite characteristics happening rarely.
7. Timeliness In general, people show up when they’re supposed to. Things – events – start on time. The trains, with rare exception, run on time. I never wait more than ten minutes for a doctor. It’s amazing.
6. Pomp and Ceremony In Tokyo, things are marked by great displays of ceremony. We were at the Grand Sumo tournament last weekend and we decided it’s as much about the show as it is about the wrestling. Walking out of the arena afterward, there was a drummer high in a watch tower, beating out the rhythm signaling the end of the day’s matches. Ritual. Ceremony. Expectation.
5. Heated toilets with various functions A serious luxury. Amazing stuff. In the dead of winter there’s nothing as comforting as a warm toilet seat and I missed it.
4. Shrines, randomly placed with various events at them We were walking out of the subway at Azabu Juban station on Sunday and the shrine next door to the station, the one with the beautiful torii gate and streamers, had a festival going on with amazing drummers and dancing. It was unpredictable and beautiful and placed right in the center of the city. Beautiful and unexpected and appreciated.
3.Vending Machines They’re omnipresent and sell everything from shoelaces to soda to sake. Drinks can be warm or cold in the same machine. Quite extraordinary and handy.
2. Small Portions of Food in Restaurants The portions aren’t overly small, they’re just reasonable for a meal for one human. It’s quite the opposite of the US where I almost always took home half my meal. Some people eat double portions!
1. The Unbelievably Delicious Food From sushi, to noodles to French food to pizza, there’s no better place to eat than Tokyo. Tokyo has more Michelin stars and more Michelin starred restaurants than Paris. Come here for a truly incomparable eating experience.