An Incomporable Dining Experience

An oasis in the city

An oasis in the city

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

Tomoko, Marlene, and me enjoying a glass of umeshu, plum wine in our private tatami room.

Tomoko, Marlene, and me enjoying a glass of umeshu, plum wine in our own tatami room.

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

Blossoms peeking out of the snow.

Blossoms peeking out of the snow.

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

The Course Menu we selected.

The Course Menu we selected.

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.

The food:

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The surroundings:

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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.

The Top Ten Things I’ve Missed About Tokyo Now That I’m Back!

vending machine   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.

snapper with a smear of pumpkin puree

snapper with a smear of pumpkin puree

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.

The function arm of my Washlet

The function arm of my Washlet

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!

small portion 1

Sashimi tuna topped with a slice of applewood bacon

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.

Cancer – A Few Silver Linings

CMy husband Marc has taken the kids back to Tokyo to re-start their “real” lives.  Bailey is a freshman at The American School in Japan (ASIJ) and my daughter, Sydney, started middle school, grade six, at Nishimachi International School (NIS).  Both kids have been at their respective schools for a while and I couldn’t bear to take them out of their comfort zones, though I’d much rather have them here with me. (Look for a forthcoming post on the hardest thing I’ve ever done – I’m just not ready to write it yet.) They are for sure in the exact right places for them.

Though this whole cancer thing sucks, I have found a few silver linings to it, and I’m pleased to say that Marc has also found a few here and there. Case in point: the other day he said to me, “Sydney is really fun in the grocery store.”

This is something I knew already.  Sydney is very good at spotting items on the list.  She likes menu planning and then buying the planned ingredients.  She likes finding a new item to try and even feeling produce to check for ripeness.  She’s a good little shopper.  In addition, when we’re in Japan, she likes reading signs, figuring out what things are, and calculating weights and costs in grams and yen.  Her Japanese reading and speaking skills are coming along nicely and the grocery store is good practice.

Marc is also an excellent Japanese reader and speaker, so in addition to all of the fun things about Sydney in the store, he was able to show her certain Kanji symbols and discuss the language issues via food, Sydney’s favorite subject, which made everything more interesting for both of them.  Marc has always enjoyed the kids musical and sporting events, and he and Bailey can discuss fantasy football and other sporting events and issues ad nauseum. However, it has been harder to find things he has is common with our girly-girl and so the grocery experience was great in more ways than one. Marc has been a great dad from day one with our kids, but he has never been the primary caretaker of them; that has been my job, except for a few weekends or a week here or there when I’ve been away.  Now he has stepped up to do it in a big way while I stay in the U.S. for treatment – and is doing a great job of it so far.

So here’s the benefit: some serious dad and kid bonding. If I wasn’t sick, Marc would never have discovered Sydney’s talents in the grocery store. That very same day, the two of them went out to the ever-popular and crowded Azabu Juban festival near our house and had a blast together.  If I was there, I would have gone, and though I really miss being there, I am delighted that my daughter and her dad had the opportunity to experience it together differently from how it would have been if I was there.

We have such great friends in Tokyo that I know Marc is going to have a lot of help with the kids – homework, caretaking, meals, etc – in the next four months while I’m in the U.S. But I also know that he will do a great job with everything himself and he and the kids will forge a new, strong connection that they might otherwise not have done.  For that I am not sorry – it’s a little perk in a hailstorm of sorts. So in the end we will all emerge from the experience hopefully healthy, and in some ways be even better and stronger for it.

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!

How I Found The Spirit of “DanShaRi” – My New, Favorite Japanese Word

dansharipicMy acupuncturist worked her magic on me but kept muttering over and over about how tense I was compared to my session just two weeks prior.  Finally, after the session I told her that we were about to move to a new apartment in Tokyo, and it was just plain stressful.  Adding to the stress was the fact that this would be our first move without babies.  When we moved into our house six years ago, we had small kids – ages 5 and 8.  We had an entire room in the house stuffed with their toys and books.  Being a writer and writing teacher myself, I get very attached to books.  In addition, my mother, a career kindergarten teacher, calls herself Grandma Book, and when she closed her classroom in the U.S. and moved south, she sent five packing cartons full of children’s books.

But fast forward six years with kids ages 11 and 14, and most of the books and toys had to go.  I spent a lot of time on the floor one weekend in early May just going through a lot of books and remembering them.  Crying. Feeling. Mourning a little, even. Some special books, the ones my kids really remembered and loved, they wanted to save and keep on their shelves, and I certainly allowed that.  In the end we had at least ten trash bags of toys to give away and five suitcases full of books to donate.  In my heart, I knew that other kids would be able to love the books and toys as much as my babies and I had loved them, but letting go of them was tough.

That’s when the acupuncturist, listening to my tale of woe, taught me a new Japanese word.  “Dan-sha-ri” she told me.  “That’s what you’re doing: Dan-Sha-Ri”.

She wrote out the Kanji for me, and it’s really three Kanji put together to make up the very connotative word.

Dan the first Kanji, means to refuse.  People are supposed to refuse to collect more THINGS in their life, or refuse to block the flow of their lives with stuff.  Sha means to throw away things – get rid of unnecessary items in the home.  And Ri means to separate – separate what’s actually valuable from your possessions – your stuff is not your life; you and your memories and the people you love are your life.

When put together, the word DanShaRi means to let go of possessions, but also to free yourself from them; to poetically purge what’s cluttering your life and let go of it gracefully.  The result is intended to be a lighter and free-er person.

Yes, I spent some serious time on the floor stressing and crying over my children’s bygone childhood, but I admit now, three weeks later, that I do feel lighter for the exercise of it.  My children are growing into such fine young adults, that I find I don’t need their baby stuff anymore.  I can carry the memory of their babyhood in my head and in a few photo albums without having to carry the actual, physical trappings of that babyhood – which also means that I can fully enjoy the present.

I am grateful to my acupuncturist at Theracua for treating the whole person a few weeks ago, and not just my joints and muscles.  She made the process of DanShaRi in my life a whole lot less stressful and more of a thankful experience.

Sometimes the connotative, on-the-fly nature of Japanese has just the right word for the situation.

blog matsuri pic