With an average of seven to ten stories filled with clothes, electronics, stationery and kitchen gear, the depato (デパート) are living shrines to Japan’s expert craftsmanship and willingness to pay for luxury goods. Large Japanese train stations usually house at least one department store, because train companies cleverly built their own stores to turn commuters into customers. The Odakyu, Seibu, and Keio stores bear the names of their parent rail lines. Outside the stations, well-respected stores such as Takashimaya, Mitsukoshi, and Isetan offer housewares and cutting-edge fashion, each with subterranean food halls. America has department stores, but not like this. Some of the world’s finest food is housed under Tokyo’s streets.
Posts Tagged ‘Japan’
In the Japanese literary magazine Monkey Business, author Denis Johnson wrote a short piece about growing up in Tokyo. when his father worked for the State Department. Johnson rarely writes about his personal life, so readers will appreciate this insight into the way his childhood shaped his writing:
I’m sure there were many aspects of those early years in Japan that still work themselves out in my writing, but what comes to mind most immediately is the impact I felt from studying the images on Menko cards and on the posters for Japanese films and for Kabuki–the wild, grotesque images of monsters and dramatic figures.
I truly believe that behind the human characters in my work, or within them, is a soul that looks like the Japanese ghosts and monsters that frightened me when I was a child. On days when I stayed late at school on the Washington Heights United States military base, I went home on the local bus that stopped about five blocks from the compound where we lived in Roppongi. I dreaded the experience, because I’d step down from the bus a little after dark, and I’d be forced to walk past a couple phone poles on my way, to which movie posters were affixed. As I approached the posters I’d avert my eyes, but I could never resist–I would turn my gaze on the monsters and let them scare me to the point of trembling.
The funny thing is that when my parents took me to see Kabuki a couple of times, the show wasn’t nearly as scary as the posters were. I felt that, too, when I finally got up the courage to go see one of the movies. I went by myself, and I didn’t expect to survive the experience, I believed I’d be friend to the point of heart failure. But in fact, the images on the screen didn’t flow with gore, and there weren’t a lot of people wandering around headless–nothing so scary as the advertisements….
Three Feet by Six Feet by Three Feet
What sounded like a scream jolted me awake at 5:54 a.m. Less than two feet away, the man in the neighboring capsule had awakened from a nightmare, but the way he followed it with three quick sneezes made me wonder if his cry was actually the first in a series of predawn sneezes. There in my narrow capsule, at the top of two stacked rows of sleepers in a warren of hallways, I rolled on my side, my knees pressed against the tan plastic wall, and squeezed my eyes shut. I couldn’t fall back asleep.
Every sound was magnified in the polite, labored silence of the capsule hotel: a humming fan; a rattling curtain; a strange mechanical whoosh, whoosh. As time passed and the Tokyo sky lightened outside, the sound of rousing sleepers filled the hall. Men cleared their throats. One crinkled a plastic bag. Others coughed and sniffled. When a guest lowered a piece of luggage from his capsule, it hit the carpeted floor with a reverberating thud. This hotel contained 630 capsules spread throughout its many floors in what entomologists might describe as a human hive. In the neighboring cell, a man… Continue Reading
This piece explores the social and economic implications of automating restaurants, and what Americans can learn from Japan’s badass, semi-automated shokkenki restaurants, like the popular chain Matsuya. Here’s the intro:
This spring, at a time when American fast-food workers were marching to demand pay increases, and local governments were voting to raise the minimum wage, the Chili’s restaurant chain installed more than 45,000 tabletop touchscreen devices at 823 of its franchises nationwide. Customers at these locations can now order drinks and dessert directly through monitors, pay without the assistance of a server, play games, and read the digital edition of USA Today. The company has also installed computerized ovens at 1,200 locations. Applebee’s, meanwhile, has announced plans to follow suit with approximately 100,000 tabletop tablets by the end of 2014, while Panera Bread is replacing many registers with self-serve kiosks and adding technology that will allow customers to sit down, enter their orders and table numbers on a smartphone, and have their food delivered to them.
Posted in Music, Travel, tagged essays, Harper's Magazine, Haruki Murakami, Japan, jazz, jazz club, narrative nonfiction, Peter Cat, Portrait in Jazz, Sendagaya, Tokyo on February 10, 2014| 7 Comments »
Before he became a novelist, Haruki Murakami was a jazz fan. He got into it when he was fifteen, after seeing Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers perform in Kobe in January 1964.The lineup that night was of one of the most celebrated in the band’s three decades of existence, featuring Freddie Hubbard on trumpet, Curtis Fuller on trombone, Wayne Shorter on sax, and Cedar Walton on piano. “I had never heard such amazing music,” Murakami later said. “I was hooked.” Ten years later, he postponed his university studies to open a jazz club in suburban Tokyo, naming it Peter Cat, after one of his pets. In 1977, he and his wife, Yoko, moved the club to Tokyo’s central Sendagaya neighborhood, where he wrote his first two novels, which led to later books whose titles referenced doo-wop like the Dells’ “Dance Dance Dance” and jazz tunes like Fuller’s “Five Spot After Dark.” The music equally influenced his writing style, which he sometimes conceived in terms of jazz rhythm, improvisation, and performance. Continue reading here…
Located in New York’s East Village on St. Marks Place, Oh! Taisho gets busy most nights.
A cool, bustling yakitori, they specialize in skewered meats grilled over Binchōtan charcoal. You order by the skewer: chicken gizzard, chicken wing, chicken skin, chicken heart. The menu even lists a “chicken chunks” skewer called yotsumi, though their many offerings have kept me so busy that I’ve never ordered it. Along with offal and other yakitori classics, Oh! Taisho serves ramen, yakisoba, salt grilled mackerel, seaweed salads, ebi shumai, gyoza, tatsuta age, agedashi tofu, a mixed vegetable sauté called yasai itame, and a pork belly and kimchi sauté called buta kimchee, which is a variation of the Korean dish jaeyook bokkeum.
If you like fish and pork, this is your place.
Long and narrow, cramped and loud, Oh! Taisho’s tables are tightly packed. The counter leaves you elbow-to-elbow with strangers. In winter, traffic in and out of the front door blasts you with frigid gusts, and the small wall rack by the prep area overflows with coats. There’s nowhere else to hang them. For lack of better options, women at the counter often set their purses on their laps.
While you eat, the friendly wait staff leans over and around you, yelling to each other in voices as piercing as alarm clocks. From behind the grill, cooks call out finished orders in Japanese, as customers and servers rush perpetually past you, and others scan the perimeter to understand what all the commotion is about. It’s not the kind of place you come to relax. It functions like an izakaya: you order small plates, drink and eat and talk and have fun.
On a recent visit, between eight and ten staff members waited tables, though they moved too fast to get an accurate count. When I asked my waiter what the whole grilled hokke fish tasted like, he said he didn’t like fish. No fish? “No,” he said smiling. “No fish. Shrimp, the squids. But fish—no.”
I started with a kaisou seaweed salad for $5.75. A squeeze of lemon brightens the flavors, offering a nice, light prelude to the meat-fest come.
I followed that with some old favorites: a pork belly skewer, or bara, a shishito pepper skewer, and sasami mentai: a moist hunk of white meat chicken drizzled with bright orange spicy codroe. These cost $1.75, $1.75 and $2.75 respectively.
Despite their name, shishito peppers taste mild—although, for some reason, about one out of ten packs some heat. Dressed only with coarse salt, the little green spears are grilled until a nice dark char marks their sides and the skin melts in your mouth.
The $7 large grilled squid, ika yaki, is the best I’ve ever had. It plumps and turns a lustrous purple when cooked.
I like a little starch with my fish, so I usually order yaki okaka onigiri: a grilled rice ball stuffed with bonito. It’s $3.25. It’s bigger than your fist. Dressed with oil and soy sauce and cooked to a crisp, the outside kernels crunch like corn, while the ones inside remain soft and white. In the center: hot, moist, shredded bonito fish, one of the best flavors on earth. Salty, smoky, rich with umami, a buddy described it as “sea bacon.” Oh! Taisho was the first place I tasted bonito, and it revolutionized my idea of what flavor could be. I now buy bags of shredded bonito to sprinkle on everything from omelets to salads, and to flavor soups.
Don’t let people tell you that all Japanese food is healthy. Oh! Taisho grills greasy seasoned strips of seasoned pork belly and wrap bacon around everything from peppers to scallops, asparagus to enoki mushrooms. They serve sliced roast duck, French fries covered with cheese, and something called chikuwa cheese, which are deep fried surimi tubes filled with dairy.
This mix of fatty and fresh, healthy and decadent, partly explains the crowds. White, black, college kids and businessmen—everyone comes here.
Two couples at a nearby table ordered the $39.50 Party Set: a total of thirty skewers. One man clapped when it arrived, while his wife covered her smile and shook her head at the excess, and maybe at the challenge ahead. “Kampai,” they said, raising sake glasses.
“Order ready!” the staff yells as they try to find counter space to set huge steaming bowls in front of you.
The old wooden counter is resinous and tacky—not dirty, but sticky from lacquer. When you sit there, you can watch cooks chopping, drizzling sauces, garnishing dishes and shaking skillets over bursting flames, laughing and smiling despite the pace and tight quarters. If you sit in front of the grill, you can feel the heat on your forehead. Without room for your bag, you have to set it by your feet. With few places to look, you’re forced to stare at the aluminum foil that covers the grill’s exterior, or to watch neighboring diners stare longingly at the cooks, waiting for their food. Others talk, drink beer. With crowds, it’s not unusual for your food to arrive between five and twenty minutes after ordering.
At the counter, to my right, a Chinese high school girl was on a date with an Indian high school boy. After sitting down he said, “Soy sauce is the real deal.”
She said, “It’s kind average, you know?”
“Okay,” he said, “name a sauce that’s not average then.”
Without hesitation she said, “Worchester.”
“What’s that taste like?”
“I don’t know,” she said.
“You made that up.”
“No, I didn’t. It’s real.”
She proceeded to teach him Chinese mythology and describe which parts of our bodies symbolized good luck, health, wisdom, and so on.
To my left, a Japanese-American NYU student was on a date with white NYU student. She set her strawberry-shaped purse on the counter by the shichimi tōgarashi. “Well,” he said smiling, “I knew I liked teriyaki chicken, but those rice balls—yum! They’re not even balls. They’re spears.”
At the end of the counter, the cook reached inside a refrigerated case and grabbed prepped skewers. His timing was impeccable. With multiple skewers of varying thickness grilling for multiple tables at once, he knew how long to leave each skewer on the grill, when to turn them so they cooked evenly, how to stagger items, all while pulling new tickets from the hanging queue. He read the ticket, removed skewers from the cooler, dipped them in the vat of tare sauce and draped them over the black cauterized grills. As the food sizzled, he glanced at the door and called out orders.
It’s easy to order more food than you can eat.
To keep from ordering the same familiar items, I branched out and tried the grilled skate wing. Dense and chewy like a moist seafood jerky, el hire carries the strong, deep flavor of the ocean. It arrived with a mayo dipping sauce which I skipped in favor of a squeeze of fresh lemon. My suggestion: eat it fast. When it cools, it dries.
The hotate bacon, or bacon-wrapped scallops, delivered the desired hit of fat, salt and seawater.
The chicken skewer with plum sauce arrived moist and fresh.
The soup made from pork stock, filled with rice and topped with scallion and sliced charsu pork, was equal in every way to ramen.
And the quail egg skewer offered texture and flavor in bite-size morsels that left room for more morsels.
‘Taisho’ is the name of a historic period in Japan, defined by the reign of Emperor Taishō, which ran from 1912 to 1926. I can’t explain what that has to do with this yakitori joint.
For booze, they serve beer and sake, and offer unusual sho-chus made from rice and wheat, sweet potato and sesame and one called jougo made from brown sugar ($6 glass, $50 bottle).
Stay a while or eat fast and get out—no one’s going to rush you, but the sight of people constantly asking staff about the wait will make you aware of how in demand your seats are, and might hasten your pace.
While I ate, a Japanese chef and the Indian cook were forcing seafood dishes on a Latino staff member. They had him seated at the counter by the cold case, eating seafood soup and picking at a weekly special: tiny baby horse mackerel, deep fried and seasoned with a hint of curry, called mame aji no karaage fuumi. The man shoved the little fish in his mouth and shook his head. He liked it. The soup, not so much. He pointed at the fried fish and waved to another staffer who was prepping in back. People kept checking on him. The large Japanese chef rubbed his back and poured more beer into his mug. Another prep cook came out to measure how much he’d eaten from the bowl. He must have been new, and they were testing and teasing him.
A young server came over holding a large plastic cup with a red straw. He patted the man’s shoulder. “Avocado milkshake,” he said, “you like that, right?”
“Yeah, yeah,” the man said. He liked it. The kid flashed thumbs up and walked out the front door. Later, a waitress in sweatpants came by and asked him, “Doing okay?” He nodded yes and grinned. He really liked the horse mackerel. When I asked my waiter if he was going to at least try the weekly special, he laughed. “No,” he said, “not for me.”
Posted in Travel, Uncategorized, tagged bibimbap, cha, China, Daechucha, Japan, Japanse tea, jujube, kimchi, Korean tea, Mogwacha, Omijacha, sencha, Seoul, South Korea, Sujeonggwa, tea, Yujacha on May 31, 2013| 7 Comments »
Talk of tea usually revolves around China or Japan. These countries boast innumerable varieties and ancient tea-making traditions. South Korea does, too, yet you hear less if anything about them. What you also don’t hear about are their tisanes.
For a nation the size of Portugal, Korea produces a staggering number of herbal and fruit teas. Pine pollen and honey tea. Ginseng, ginger and jujube tea. Infusions made from roasted corn and Job’s Tears. Such variety makes sense when you consider the richness of their landscape: both hardwood deciduous and coniferous forests filled with fruits, roots, nuts, seeds, blossoms, leaves, herbs and berries. All make appearances in their teas. Occasionally I set aside the sencha and mao feng in order to indulge in Hanguk’s overlooked beverage pleasure dome. To spread the word, I wanted to tell other tea drinkers about Korea’s incredible tisanes and suggest Seoul teashops where travelers can try them. Seoul’s Insadong district offers the best place to start an exploration, because of the neighborhood’s central location, subway service, and the density of teashops and cafés.
As a passionate, daily tea drinker of over twenty years, I’ve tried many of Korea’s tisanes, even though I’ve not yet visited the country. I buy imported bagged and powdered versions, and I’ve made a number myself using fresh ingredients. Here are five different tisanes and a list of Seoul teashops where I’ve never been, but which do serve these teas. One day I’ll hopefully get to drink some of these in Seoul, too.
1) Five Flavors Tea
Omijacha (오미자 차), or “five flavors” tea, at Jidaebang (지대방)
(2F 196-6 Gwanhun-dong, Jongno-gu. Phone: 02-738-5379)
In Korean, cha means ‘tea.’ Although English-speakers frequently use the term ‘tea’ to describe any hot beverage, tea is technically derived from the tea plant, Camellia sinensis. A tisane is an herbal beverage containing no tea. Koreans drink green and black teas, yet the term ‘Korean tea’ usually refers to uncaffeinated, native tisanes as well.
Omijacha is brewed from the berries of the Chinese Schisandra chinensis vine. In traditional Chinese medicine, Schizandra is considered an adaptogen, like ginseng, and restorative, believed to help the heart and kidneys. It’s also said to contain all of the five distinct flavors central to Chinese medicine: salty, sour, pungent, bitter and sweet. Opened in 1982, Jidaebang is one of Insadong’s oldest teashops. They serve omijacha hot on cold days and iced during Seoul’s sweltering summers, sprinkling a few pine nuts on top, which float in an appealing contrast to the bold red tea.
2) Quince Tea
Mogwacha (모과차), or quince tea, at Yetchatjip (옛찻집)
(2F, 196-5 Gwanhun-dong, Jongno-gu. Phone: 02-722-5019, or 02-722-5332)
Mogwa is a Chinese quince which yields a tart, sweet brew reminiscent of citrus. ‘Jip’ means house in Korean, and Yetchajip translates as ‘Old Tea House.’ Insadong has been Seoul’s arts district since the Joseon Dynasty. Hidden within the neighborhood’s maze of bustling streets and alleys, Yetchajip’s building – a hanok, or “traditional house” – was built over 125 years ago, making it Insadong’s oldest teahouse. Although it’s a bit difficult to find, many people considerthis quiet, cluttered shop one of the most peaceful places in Seoul. Light is low. Fountains trickle and candles flicker. Birds chirp from a cage. Tea selection is limited (nine hot and seven cold), but ingredients are high-grade, and. The quince tea might be one of their best sellers. Tea comes with a small plate of traditional snacks, many made from glutinous, sweetened rice.
Here are a few interior photos: http://www.flickr.com/photos/68558939@N00/4245023786/
3) Citron Tea
Yujacha (유자차), or citron tea, at Star Miss Lee Café (별다방 미스리)
(Address TK. Phone: 02-739-0939)
Yuja is a tangy citrus fruit popular in Japan and China. Korean grocers sell this tea in jars, where the fruit is preserved in honey or sugar like marmalade. When people start to develop a cold or sore throat, they often spoon a bit into a mug to treat the symptoms, but nothing compares to fresh versions made in a teahouse.
Star Miss Lee Café sells yujacha and nostalgia. Located on the second floor above a convenience store, it offers games, toys, childhood comfort foods such as dosirak boxed lunches, and tea snacks such as yakgwa, a fried cookie dipped in honey. Patrons can also hang notes from nearly any surface, including an indoor tree. Here is the menu: http://www.missleecafe.com/menu.php Also, some photos: http://www.flickr.com/photos/seoulkorea/4946926893/in/photostream/
4) Jujube Tea
Daechucha (대추차), or jujube tea
Westerners might be shocked to find so much stuff floating in their tea. Blossoms, pine needles, sliced jujube fruit – with so much plant matter floating in the cup, they could mistake it as soup. It’s a problem of texture rather than taste. Western palates are accustomed to clear beverages; we’re only still getting used to tapioca pearls in tea. But the same ingredients that commonly appear in many Korean porridges and desserts also decorate teas such as daechucha.
Daechucha is believed to stimulate your appetite and help you fall asleep. You’ll commonly find jujube teas blended with ginseng, ginger and honey. Fans of herbal liquors such as Chartreuse will enjoy this classic combination. Herby and earthy without being medicinal, it carries a rich taste of earth similar to a roasted beet. Despite how that sounds, it’s surprisingly appealing.
Jujube tea is so popular that it’s sold at most teahouses, so you shouldn’t have much trouble finding a standout version.
5) Persimmon Punch
Sujeonggwa (수정과), or dessert punch, at Banjjakbanjjak Binnaneun
(6 Gwanhun-dong, Jongno-gu. Phone: 02-738-4525)
Koreans drink tisanes for health, but they also drink them for taste. Fortunately, even their healthiest teas are delicious. Sujeonggwa is a dark red brew, sweet enough that it’s called punch. Made from cinnamon, dried persimmons, ginger and peppercorn, it’s commonly garnished with pine nuts and served as dessert. Each ingredient boasts a number of healthful properties, from aiding digestion to increasing circulation. Sujeonggwa is sold commercially in cans, such as the Paldo brand’s popular 8.4oz version. As with jujube tea, sugeonggwa is so widespread that travelers who ask around should easily find a solid teahouse version. From what I can tell, though, there’s a teahouse named Banjjakbanjjak Binnaneun that brews their own sujeonggwa and sells tea serving sets. Another place to get good homemade sujeonggwa is Su Yo Il (수요일).
Perched on the second floor above the main road through Insadong, Su Yo Il means ‘Wednesday.’ Although this café is bit on the pricey side, they often throw a whole persimmon into their sujeonggwa. With such a great view from the window seats, high prices seem worthwhile.
For more info, you can also check out the book Korean Tea Classics, written by Hong Kyeong-Hee (a native Korean, he teaches the Way of Tea at a wing of the Panyaro Institute for the Way of Tea, outside Seoul), and Steven D. Owyoung. Also, check out this this food-focused blog by a vegan named Mipa.