September 21, 2014: Japan Day #11!

We were standing at the hotel reception, purchasing our tickets for the shuttle bus that would take us to the airport.  The middle-aged Caucasian guy beside us was purchasing a ticket of his own.  “What’s your room number?”asked the staff member.  The guy looked around anxiously, then leaned in conspiratorially and whispered his room number.  “And your name?”requested the staff member.  A couple of furtive glances left and right, and the guy answered: “I don’t want to say out loud.”

Don’t want to say out loud?  Seriously?  Had he recently been featured on a repeat telecast of America’s Most Wanted?  I edged over to get a peek as he signed his name and – HOLY CRAP – I may have misread but I think it said “Beyonce”!

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One of the newest additions to our travel accessories was this handy pocket wifi from Global Advanced Communications. Just go to their website, place an order, give them your dates, and the device will either be waiting for you at the airport upon your arrival or can be delivered to your hotel.  I can’t tell you how awesome it was to not have to worry about roaming fees and have continuous web access.  Before leaving the hotel, we simply put the devices into the self-addressed, stamped envelope provided, dropped it off at the nearest mailbox, and we were done.  Super convenient.  Highly recommended for your next trip.  http://www.globaladvancedcomm.com/pocketwifi.html

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Akemi’s sister, Hiromi, stopped by our hotel room this morning to drop me off a six pack of matcha (ceremonial green tea) of various grades.  When we last visited Japan for Hiromi’s wedding, we met a tea grandmaster who swore by the stuff, maintaining he drank seven cups a day to keep himself fit and mentally alert.  He looked pretty damn spry for an 80-something year old, so I may want to follow his lead.  On the other hand, what do I need to be spry for when I’m 80-something?  I imagine that, by then, it’ll be all fine dining and reading.

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I was disappointed that we’d gone the entire trip without seeing a pug or french bulldog until we met this porky little fellow on our way back to the hotel after today’s soba lunch.  He was a pretty energetic three year old, and just what our Lulu needs – a younger man who can keep up with her.

Since you all mentioned it – yes, I did experience that earthquake the other day.  Sort of.  We were perusing one of the gift shops at Namco Namja town when Akemi asked: “Feel the earthquake?”  “When?”I asked.  “Now,”she said.  And, sure enough, I did feel it – a low, sustained trembling like a massive convoy rumbling by.  It was over in seconds.  Good thing too. I was THIS close from shouting “Every man for himself!” before hurtling the baby strollers blocking the exit and making good my flight to freedom.

And, finally, I should mention the fact that Akemi was stalked by a ghost girl on the subway the other day.  For some reason, this creepy-looking (maybe 3 or 4 year old) kid  just fixated on Akemi and stared at her throughout our ride.  She and her mother disembarked at the same station and then, after we thought we’d lost them, she and her mother doubled back and seemed to follow us out the exit and through Roppongi.  I thought it was hilarious, but Akemi was unnerved until we seemed to lose the kid for good.  But then, as we were walking into the mall (and this Akemi failed to notice and I didn’t want to mention it for fear of creeping her out), a young woman walked past us going the other way and she too gawked at Akemi – and she looked just like a grown-up version of that creepy kid on the subway!  When we went to lunch, I advised Akemi to check under her chair – just in case the ghost girl was in hiding underneath, waiting to surprise her.

About to board!  See you in Vancouver!

September 19, 2014: Japan Day #9!

Today, we had plans to meet up with our friend, Nihei, for a yakitori lunch but, unfortunately, a last minute meeting derailed those yakitori plans – and sent us to Butagumi, my favorite tonkatsu restaurant, instead!

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Tucked away in a little side street in Nishi-Azabu, the rustic restaurant offers varieties of tonkatusu (golden-fried pork cutlets) from all over Japan.

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We started with a double order of the San Mi Ni Pork – sweet, salty, umami and crispy, it goes great with rice.  I’ve been trying to replicate the recipe at home for years now – to no avail.  sad

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We ordered three types of pork.  Surprisingly, the tastiest was this Nattoku-Toni pork from GIFU prefecture.  I say surprising because it was the leanest cut of our three choices – yet proved equally tender and more flavorful.

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The two month aged Himuro-Buta from Gunma (pictured above) and Kashiwa-Gensou Pork from Chiba were also great, all nestled in an exceptionally light panko crusting.

Butagumi: 2-24-9 Nishiazabu, Minato, Tokyo

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Passed this interesting sign outside a restaurant.  Not sure what it means.  Cool down with tempura on hot days?

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These cool state-of-the-art public urinals come with manual water flushing systems and soap dispensers! Took me a while to figure them out.

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Oh.  No.  Wait.

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In preparation for the cold east coast winter, we also got our dogs some down-filled coats as well.

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Then stopped by the baby section of Uniqlo and, for half the price, picked up Jelly a whole new winter wardrobe.

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Interesting metro print ad featuring Kyari Pamyu Pamyu.

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Mecha-gorilla outside a shop in Daikanyama.

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Akemi and her new friend.

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I’ll do the cutest thing on the menu, please.

 1Wow.  Small world.  It’s nice to know that, despite our cultural differences, we are united in our hatred of obnoxious cyclists.

For dinner tonight, I got a recommendation from a foodie forum and made a reservation at Sushiso Masa.  I was expecting a modest, lovely little meal.  Instead, we were treated to a mind-blowing feast featuring some 40+ different pieces of fish served in an unbelievable variety of ways.  Chef Masa kindly took the time to explain (to us, but really to Akemi who translated for me) the various fish, preparations, and his inspired approaches and philosophy.   We had three different sea urchins prepared three different ways, sashimis, nigiris, cookied specialties, arrangements and presentations I’ve never had before.

Some of the visual highlights…

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Spectacular.  This place has earned its spot into regular rotation alongside Sawada, Esquisse, and L’Effervescence.

Sushiso Masa: 4-1-15 Nishiazabu, Minato-ku, Tokyo

 Tonight, I leave you with another video my sister sent me – this one of a snorky Lulu and her toy:

September 18, 2014: Japan Day #8!

I finally hit the wall.  Mark the date and time: September 17th at 7:23 p.m.  That is, officially, when I stopped being hungry.  Yep, I’m done.  At this point, I’m just going to reduce my portions to the point where I can simply wean myself off food.

Today, I met up with my oldest friend from Japan, Moro-san, for a day of strolling, shopping, and – what else? – eating.

We had lunch at L’Osier, one of the city’s most revered French restaurants that reopened last year following a two and a half year renovation.  I arrived early and was promptly greeted by the affable maitre d, Lionel, who gave me a rundown of the restaurant’s history and then, when Moro-san arrived, led us on a tour of the place.  It is impressive.  And so was the meal.  For the most part.

To accommodate guests who would like to snap photos of their food, the restaurant can arrange to have the individual dishes snapped in the kitchen and the photos emailed to guests.  Or, Lionel kindly offered to borrow my smart phone, pop into the kitchen, and snap the pics himself.  I elected to forego the pics on this day but, suffice it to say, they were some of the most artful dishes I’ve ever been served.  We enjoyed abalone, lobster, and a chestnut soup starter that was the star of the meal.

I can’t say enough nice things about Lionel.  I was less enthusiastic with the rest of the servers who promptly forgot us at one point.  Three of them were fawning over the couple at the next table, chatting, pulling their chairs out for them, clearing their tables – while we sat, virtually ignored.

While we were eating, we noticed the waiters wheeling around a candy tray of offerings that would have make Willy Wonka proud.  We were looking forward to checking it out at the end of our lunch.  Unfortunately, the servers were too busy ingratiating themselves to our neighbors that they never bothered to bring it our way.   In fact, even after our fellow diners had left – hell, even after the ENTIRE dining room had cleared out – they STILL didn’t bother to check in on us.  If I hadn’t waved someone down and demanded the bill, I’m convinced they would have left us seated through dinner service.

Again, great food.  But the service will ensure I won’t be making a return visit.

Between lunch and dinner, we tried to work up an appetite by strolling through Omotesando…

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Mmmmm.  Hamburger sushi.

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The Prada Building.  Gorgeous.

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Another interesting-looking building.

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We stopped off at a tiny basement-level bakery, d’un Rareté, owned and operated by a former co-worker who spent two years in France honing his craft.  We picked up a bunch of goodies including some delectable canelés, chocolate brioches, and raspberry-stuffed coronets.  When I mentioned our visit to Akemi she insisted I make a return visit – with her this time.  Not only did the fresh baked goods look amazing, but she ALSO worked with Adachi-san in her Pierre Marcolini days and remembers him fondly as a sweep and supportive co-worker.  So she wants to return the favor and support him in kind.  And I’m happy to do so as well, if it means I can grab another chocolate brioche.

GYBE Bldg. B1F, 5-10-1 Jingu-mae, Shibuya-ku, Tokyo

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http://www.dune-rarete.com/index.php

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Moro-san and I concluded our evening with a very nice dinner at the homey Ristorante Hamasaki.

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And then I caught the metro back to the hotel…

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Where this little surprise was awaiting me, compliments of sis.  A video from home:

September 17, 2014: Japan Day #7!

No.  No!  Day #7?!!!  It’s almost over!  In a matter of days, I’ll be back in Vancouver, scrambling to plan and pack and make my way to Toronto for a seven month stay – one month of advance prep in which we’ll be filling out the director’s schedule, approving designs, hiring DOP’s and editors, start the ball rolling on casting (October), a couple of months of construction on our standing sets (late October through December), prep on our opening two-parter (December), then production itself (early January to May), and the post wrap-up (June-ish?).  I suspect time will fly.  Paul sent me his first draft of episode #5 the other day, and it’s fabulous.  I suggested a few changes (minor) and now look forward to his draft of episode #6 (and Rob and Trevor’s drafts of episodes #7 and #8 respectively).  My draft of episode #9, meanwhile, is already done and waiting to follow suit.

Last night, Akemi and I were greatly looking forward to dinner at Esquisse, one of our very favorite restaurants – and, as always, our old friend Chef Beccat  mightily impressed.  The restaurant holds special significance for us – or, more to the point, its fantastic chef, Lionel Beccat because he was overseeing the kitchen at Michel Troisgros on Akemi and my very first date…five years ago!

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Akemi then.

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And Akemi now (or, more specifically, last night).

Some of the highlights of our fabulous meal…

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Bottled tea: jasmine and green tea.

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The ever affable Chef Lionel Beccat.

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Plump, creamy oyster with lemon gelee and fermented sake foam.

 1Cured toro (tuna belly) with tomato gelee.

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Grilled grouper with lily root puree.

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Spiced lamb with carrot puree.

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Sweet corn polenta with sweet corn soup an orange sorbet.

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The team: Takahashi-san, Beccat-san, and Ogasawara-san (our “sommelier”, not “the alcoholic” as Akemi mistakenly assumed his title to be).

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A tremendous meal.  Highly recommended.  If you’re uncertain about splurging on dinner, opt for lunch.  As Akemi says, it offers “good cost performance.”

This morning, we got up early and hit Tsukiji…

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Akemi picks up some bonito.

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Zoidberg has fallen on hard times since the cancellation of Futurama.

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Wagyu!

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For the bear who has everything…

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Godzilla vs. Girlfriendzilla!

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Tokyo is full of these little shops offering various foodstuffs from dedicated regions of the country.

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Akemi and her buddy take  break.

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Breakingu Bad-o.

And two more terrific meals: sushi at Ichiyanagi and kaiseiki at Uchiyama.  Both great places with wonderful, super-friendly customer service.

I leave you with Ginza at night…

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September 16, 2014: Japan Day #6! I feel like I lost a day!

Seriously.  My vacation is short enough without my misplacing days!

Last night, Akemi and I hit the basement food level of the Mitsukoshi department store where we picked up a variety of tasty treats.

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Tokyo street fashion.  I gotta get me one of those for Toronto.

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Our dinner haul.  My favorite was the cutlet and egg sandwich (the round white thing at the top).  That gang from Maisen sure know their tonkatsu!

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And various desserts including a sweet potato pudding and a chocolate, caramel, and macadamia-studded cake in the shape of a popsicle from Sebastien Bouillet.

I woke up early this morning, hoping to hit the Tsukiji Fish Market for a sushi breakfast but, by the time we were ready to go, we decided it was too late for breakfast – and only slightly too early for lunch.  And so, we caught the metro to Ikebukuro where we met Akemi’s sister, Hiromi, and then headed off to Namco Namja Town in the Sunshine City Mall.

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These silly Tony the Tiger bags were on display at the Hibiya station – retailing for about 22k a pop!  Grrrrrreat for carrying your groceries!  Akemi says he looks like he’s had work done on his face.

We passed a display of the various subway etiquette campaigns over the years.  Some of the highlights:

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Do what exactly?  Try to swim through a door?

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Apparently, the Japanes are notorious for practicing their golf swings with wet umbrellas.

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Yes, at home where your wife and kids can deal with it.

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Okay, I’m going to admit I’ve been guilty of this – practicing my ring routine between stops.

Stop neglecting your facial muscles.  Pick up this ridiculous contraption!

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Finally – Namja Town!

Our first (and, in hindsight, only) stop was Gyoza Stadium, a food park with about a dozen stands each offering numerous gyoza varieties from throughout Japan.  Sadly, some of our favorites from our last visit – the garlic gyozas, the kimchee gyozas, and the ash gyozas – were no longer available as they’re apparently always featuring new gyoza artists.

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We ended up sampling about 15 different types of gyoza.  My favorites were the cheese gyozas and the mentaiko-topped versions.

From there, we headed off to Ice Cream City with its 300+ flavors of ice creams ranging from the bizarre (octopus and curry) to the breathtaking (sake!) – only to discover it no longer existed.  Instead, ice cream city and its 300 flavors have been contracted down to a tiny stand and 30 rotating flavors.  We settled for a fairly unremarkable trio that included a charcoal ice cream that, while dark, really just tasted like vanilla.

To top things off, I lost the bag holding my sun glasses and the chocolates Hiromi had gifted us.  We retraced our steps but came up empty.  If we were anywhere else, I would have shrugged and written them off – but this is Japan and I figured chances were good someone probably turned them into the Lost and Found.  So we check with information and –

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Cha-daa!

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A maid drumming up business for her cafe.

Akemia and Hiromi headed off to Shinjuku to do some shopping and I hopped a metro to Akihabara – got turned around – twice – and by the time I finally made it, I was exhausted.  A little browsing and I headed back to the hotel to gather my strength for tonight BIG dinner!

Today, I leave you with one more subway warning:

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Note the look of sheer terror on the guy’s face.  Woman down!  He hits the button!  The train is coming!  And…?!   AND…?!!!!  Stay tuned!  I’m heading back to the station tomorrow to read the final instalment!

September 14, 2014: Japan Day #4!

On our last night in Osaka, we joined Akemi’s family for dinner at Le Comptoir de Benoit, an Alain Ducasse restaurant on the 33rd floor of the Breeze Building in Nishi-Umeda.  We had counter seats which allowed us an unobstructed view of the open kitchen, allowing us to take in the culinary theatrics while we enjoyed our meal.

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The open kitchen.

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Akemi’s brother (Haruhiko) and sister (Hiromi) ready for some eating action.

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Akemi’s mom and dad – focused!

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A foie gras gelee topped with shaved truffles.  Incredibly aromatic, all of its components melted in your mouth.

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Langoustine and basil spring rolls with a romaine dipping sauce, creme fraiche, and caviar.

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Abalone and escargot with parsley, garlic, and a delicious Japanese green whose name escapes me.  Have never had abalone and escargot together, but they were a perfect combination.  My favorite dish of the night.

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A bouilliabaisse of mussel, clam, octopus, squid, crispy red seabreem, and saffron mashed potatoes.

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Tender duck in porto sauce, beetroot, corn karaage, and a basil and ricotta ravioli with curry oil.

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A raspberry cheesecake served with a side of yogurt sorbet.

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And a few mignardises to end the meal.  That matcha chocolate was delightfully intense.

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The gang with Chef Soshi Ueno.

Chef Ueno thanked us for coming and informed us that, sadly, the restaurant would be shuttering its doors at month’s end.  He has yet to make any decisions on his future but I do hope to track him down, wherever he lands, the next time I’m in town.

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Somebody enjoyed just a little too much champagne.

This morning, we checked out of our hotel (The Intercontinental was fabulous by the way), and took a stroll through the nearby mall where Akemi spotted a Hattendo cream bun stand!

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Under normal circumstances, with lunch a mere hour away, I wouldn’t have snacked…but it was Hattendo cream buns!  With a seasonal chestnut cream flavor!  I took one to go and ate it, surreptitiously, as some Japanese frown upon the consumption of food and drink in public places.

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Mission accomplished, we caught the metro to our lunch destination.

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Since we were traveling off-hours, I got to ride in the famed Women Only compartment where I sprawled out on a chaise longue and was served a cosmopolitan.  The rumors were true!

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We disembarked and I consulted this handy map.  Then, we were on our way…

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We came across this interesting company logo.

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And this even more interesting building face.

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Finally, after Akemi almost got run over by a rogue cyclist, we found the place, Fujiya 1935, so named because it’s been open since 1935.  Its present Chef, Tetsuya Fujiwara, has been running the kitchen for ten years now and has earned the restaurant 3 Michelin stars three years running.

Some of the culinary highlights from our final meal with Akemi’s family on this trip:

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A silky sweet butternut squash soup with grape sorbet.

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Fluffy fresh-baked chestnut bread topped with whipped ricotta.

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Tai (red snapper) sashimi served with a tomato consomme gelee, gingko, basil oil, shiso flowers, olives, and okra flower.  Akemi’s favourite dish.

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Crisp confit ayu (sweetfish) served with a sauce made of river seaweed.

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Pasta with roasted mackerel.

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3 month-aged beef served with a raw porcini sauce and accompaniments.

Unfortunately, we had a shinkasen to catch so we missed dessert which, by all accounts, was spectacular.  Maybe next year!

Back to Tokyo!  We’ll be getting in at around 6:30 p.m.  By the time we check in, it’ll be around 7:30.  Rather than make a reservation somewhere, we’re planning to hit the basement level of the nearby Mitsukoshi Department store which offers several hundred varieties of delicious dining options, from sushi to pork cutlet sandwiches, steamed buns to pastries.

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Finally, if you’re a fan of the Stargate television franchise, you might like to check out this article by long-time Stargate science consultant Mika McKinnon:

http://space.io9.com/cryptography-embedded-in-stargate-universe-is-a-lesson-1634445198/1634612853/+rtgonzalez

Tomorrow, I plan to hit Tsukiji Market for breakfast, peruse Akihabara (Electric Town, Anime Geek Central), and visit my old friends at Ginza’s Pierre Marcolini Cafe, before heading out for our most anticipated meal of this trip: dinner at Esquisse.

September 14, 2014: Japan Day #3 – Tea, Eel, and Leg Cramps!

Last night, I turned in at a nice and early 10:00 p.m.  As a result, I woke up this morning at a less nice and early 3:50 a.m.  I dozed on and off, cobbling together about another hour in catnaps, before sitting bolt upright at 8:15 a.m. with the realization we had a tea ceremony to attend!

Mrs. Aota runs the show!
Mrs. Aota runs the show!

Akemi’s mother teaches tea ceremony and, once a month, hosts a special event for her students.  And the odd daughter-dating foreigner.

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We walked into a vestibule, removed our shoes, then walked through the partition to an adjoining room where Akemi’s brother, Haruhiko, dressed in a men’s kimono, greeted us.   Akemi’s brother is awesome.  Every time I see him, he never patronizes me with that sloooow enunciation usually reserved for equally sloooow foreigners.  Instead, he speaks to me in rapidfire Japanese, no doubt assuming/hoping I’ll eventually learn.  I love his optimism!

So far, so good...
So far, so good…

I was asked to sign my name and, even though I haven’t practiced since last year, I availed myself nicely.

The house is older with a very low ceiling.  According to Akemi, it was designed this way to discourage guests from engaging in sword fights – which is a shame because I was really feeling the urge.  Instead, I kept my head down and said my hello’s to the gathering, then followed everyone to an open garden, donning the world’s most uncomfortable sandals enroute and almost sliding off the stone path into the tiny fish pond.

After crossing the garden, we ducked into another room where ten of us were seated in a semi-circle.  I tried kneeling like everyone else but only lasted some five minutes before my knees gave out.  I opted for the slightly more comfortable but uncomfortable nevertheless cross-legged sit.

Akemi's sister, Hiromi, makes the matcha.
Akemi’s sister, Hiromi, makes the matcha.

Tea ceremonies are surprisingly complex affair and I like to think I did alright for a Canadian who had never taken part in one before.  We were presented with a bowl of wagashi (Japanese rice sweets) and I was instructed to help myself – in very intricate fashion.

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I had to take the chopsticks with my right hand, then adjust them at the midway point with my left hand, then use my right hand to transfer the wagashi to the tiny serving paper I’d been given.

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After eating the wagashi (Akemi informed me I didn’t have to eat everything but I wanted to be extra polite so I ensured there were no leftovers), I was presented with a bowl of matcha (ceremonial green tea).  I had to bow, pick up the bowl with my right hand, set it down in front of me, then set it down to my right, then set it down to my left and exchange bows with the person sitting beside me, then pick up the bowl with my right hand but slip my left hand underneath to support it, then rotate the bowl two or three times (this was a point of some contention), then drink.  Once finished, I rotated the bowl counter-clockwise and set it down.

While we sipped our tea, various antique plates and bowls were passed around for our inspection.  Akemi was understandably anxious every time I picked something up and palpably relieved whenever I’d pass it safely off to my neighbor.

Another round of matcha, then we retreated back through the garden in our unwieldy sandals, and back to the main room where Akemi reconnected with old friends and neighbors while I feigned a rudimentary understanding of the conversation.

While Akemi’s mother, brother and sister greeted the next round of tea ceremony students, Akemi, her father and I went to lunch at Uoi, a popular eel restaurant.  We got there early to beat the line – but had to stand in line anyway because we were TOO early:

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Then took our seats at the counter and enjoyed one of the greatest unagi meals I’ve ever had.

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Apparently, Tokyo and Osaka unagi-yas prepare their eel differently.  One slices from belly to back while the other cuts from back to belly (not sure which).  Also, one steams their eels before grilling (again, not sure which).

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Tasty eel guts!

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Eel-stuffed omelet.

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Sweet eel with rice.

Sadly, no unagi ice cream. sad

After we were done, one of the chefs took us on a little tour of the “unagi room” where they keep all the eels.

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The eel are kept in stacked pails that are continually showered with a steady stream of cold water.

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Who’s hungry?

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Our affable guide, host, and chef.  It was super kind of him to offer to give us the tour.

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On our way back to the hotel, we stop off for a snack.  Pictured: me with my matcha latte and chocolate cream donut.  Not pictured: me after I dribbled matcha latte down the front of my jacket and then inadvertently dusted that with powdered sugar.

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Who wants to ride the Ferris Wheel?  Not me!

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Where Springstreen got his start.

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Whale watching in Osaka.

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Hey, it’s the Lupin live-action movie!  I’ve got to convince Akemi to go with me!

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The breathtaking harrowing view from out hotel.

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The hotel garden.

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Sassy hotel model.

I leave you with this informative tutorial on proper bowing etiquette…

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September 12, 2014: Tokyo Day #2 – More eating, and I take a ride on the shinkansen!

There are three “can’t miss” restaurants I HAVE to visit every time I come to Tokyo.  The first is Sawada sushi – which, sadly, is closed during this two week stay.  The second is Esquisse, a brilliant French restaurant headed by Chef Lionel Beccat – which we’ll be visiting in the coming days.  And the third, is L’Effervesence, with its delightfully inventive menu c/o Chef Shinobu Namae – which I visited last night with my friend Tomomi.

It was a night of consistent culinary highlights.  Among the highlights of the highlights…

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Apple Pie #16 is the sixteenth version of Chef Name’s signature pie inspired by a certain McDonalds menu item.  This version is compromised of foie gras, fig, and a touch of basil.

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In my bid to not go a day without sake, I decided to go with the sake pairing which offered up a wonderful variety ranging from peach sweet to smoky dry.  I was offered my choice of cups to get me started.  I opted for the Mt. Fuji, bottom left.

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With a little Mr. Fuji inside.

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One of the menu items that never changes is this incredible turnip dish.  It’s cooked in a warm bath for 4 hours, then lightly roasted and butter basted.

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The chef chooses lean deer from Hokkaido that is roasted for 10 minutes, then allowed to rest, returned to roast for another 10 minutes, then set aside to rest.  The process is repeated until the eat is perfect, then served – here with local peppers, pumpkin sauce, and a reduction.

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The salad is comprised of 51 fresh, locally-sourced ingredients.  I’m not a big fan of salad but this one was a lot of fun, offering a myriad of complimentary and contrasting flavors and textures.

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My lovely hostess, Tomomi, shows off the Sirene chocolate I brought for her.

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Tonka bean mousse, barley ice cream, and a Chinese fruit – whose name escapes me.

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Our third dessert was a plate of fun mini-bites including a tube of lemon curd I used to spell out my guest’s name.  Impressive, no?

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After the meal, Chef Namae came by to check in with us and see how we’d enjoyed the meal, something he does with EVERY table.  I honestly told him that every meal I’ve had at L’Effervesence has never failed to impress.

By the time we wrapped up, it was almost 11:00 p.m.  Between the sake and the jet-lag, I was thoroughly exhausted, but I decided to forego a cab and walked back to Ometesando Station, then caught the metro back to the hotel.

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Passed by this interesting-looking eatery.  The spicy pad-thai is like a roundhouse kick in the mouth!

By the time I got in, I was ready for bed.  I had a relatively deep sake sleep, punctuated by weird dreams involving the French counryside and brain surgery, then woke up at 7 a.m.  Rather than hit Tsukiji again for breakfast, we packed up, checked out, placed our luggage in storage, then caught the shinkansen (bullet train) to Osaka.  On a Saturday!  On what appears to be a holiday weekend.  We just managed to snagged seat – but, sadly, weren’t able to grab a bento box for the ride.

 Osaka Station was super-busy, crowded and crazier than I’d ever seen Tokyo.  Akemi’s dad suspects it’s because of the many visitors who have taken advantage of the long weekend (Monday is, of course, National Old People’s Day) to visit the new Harry Potter theme park!

No Harry Potter for us though.  After meeting up with Akemi’s dad, we grabbed a quick lunch –

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Sashimi.

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Tempura.

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Stewed fish head.

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And shirasu (that’s what the little fish are called) salad.

Then, for dessert, we met up with Akemi’s friend, Ayaka, for chocolate, chocolate, and more chocolate (and pistachio) at Au Palet d’Or…

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As it turns out, Ayaki is an avid reader of mystery novels (averaging a respectable ten books a month) and so, afterwards, we too a walk down to the nearest bookstore where I bought her…

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The Japanese edition of Gone Girl.  She was super-pleased.

We’re staying at the Intercontinental Hotel in Umeda and it is beautiful…

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Er, interesting art work.

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The room.

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And, to Akemi’s delight, a nice, deep tub.

Akemi and I had dinner reservations at a popular izakaya called Nagahori.  Her dad was hoping to join us as a late addition to our table for two and accompanied us to the restaurant.  Sadly, they weren’t able to accommodate him –

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He was disappointed.

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Akemi took the news a lot better than he did.

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Father and daughter, in happier times (ie. before he received news that he wouldn’t be dining with us).

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Me and my lemurs (?) – also in happier times.

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Okay, enough chit chat.  Time for dinner!

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The hairy crab was, thankfully, a lot less hairy than I feared.

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The sashimi plate.  Ooooh, check out all the sea urchin!

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Steamed abalone with abalone gut sauce.  Highly recommended.

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Deep-fried anago (sea eel) and yuba (tofu skin) – Akemi’s fave.

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Tasty grilled chicken guts!

1And, for dessert: Kasu panna cotta with eggplant ice cream.  I’m a big fan of kasu desserts but have to admit – I’ve never met an eggplant-based dessert I’ve liked.

We caught a cab back to the hotel.  If you ever visit Japan, here’s a word of warning: Learn the Japanese name of your hotel.  Japanese cities are confusing enough as it is and, fully half the time, the cab driver won’t know where he’s going.  Chances are he also won’t know the English name of your hotel.  For instance, in Tokyo, if I tell them my destination is “The Imperial Hotel”, they’l  stare back at me blankly.  But if I tell them I’m going to the “Teikoku Hoteru” (Imperial Hotel in Japanese), I fare much better.  On this night, we told the driver we were going to The Intercontinental Hotel.  He’d apparently never heard of it.  After some discussion with Akemi, he apparently figured it out and got us there in record time.  And by “there”, I mean another hotel.  But close enough.  It was only a five minute walk to our actual hotel from there.

Enroute, we cut through a mall…

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For all your chopstick needs.

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This robot promised to do something cool – and then tried to sell us a phone plan.

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I spotted my old friend Doraemon.  He was obviously drunk (again!) and I tried to take away his bottle booze.  Things got ugly after that.

Tomorrow, we wake up bright and early to go to Akemi’s childhood home (my first visit!) to take part in a tea ceremony.  I’ve been warned I’ll be required to sit cross-legged for twenty minutes or so – something I haven’t done since elementary school.  Wish me luck!

September 12, 2014: Tokyo Day #1 – Guts, Grub, and Garb!

It’s a ten hour flight from Vancouver to Tokyo and I had hoped to sleep through part of it, but just as I was nodding off, about seven hours, I was awakened by one of the entertainment systems malfunctioning, emitting a sound akin to a spoke card’s rat-tat-at.  For about a half an hour.  That’s how long it took them to fix it.  By which point it was all relative because the noise had awakened the baby three seats back and he wailed for the duration of the flight.

So, by the time we got in last night at around 8:00 p.m. Tokyo time (4:00 a.m. PST), I was ready for bed.  But rather than call it a night, we went out for dinner at one of the hotel restaurants, toughed it out, and went to bed at 10:30 p.m.

And so, by 7:00 a.m. this morning, Akemi and I were up and at ’em, determined to pack as much into Day #1 as possible.  This is how we fared…

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Ginza at 7:30 a.m.  I’ve never seen the place so deserted.

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The Wako Building – one of my favorites.

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We walked down to the Tukiji Market for breakfast.  “But, Joe,”you’re undoubtedly asking.  “Isn’t 7:30 a.m. a little early for breakfast?”  Well, not at the Tsukiji Market which actually opens at 4:30 a.m.  Some of the more popular sushi-ya’s have line-ups starting at 5:00 a.m.

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Heading into the Tsukiji Market.

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Akemi did some advance research and wanted to try this little horumon place – horumon being “offal”.  The day’s special was bubbling away in a giant pot and, once you placed your order, a generous portion was spooned over a bowl of rice.  Akemi wasn’t a fan of the elderly woman manning the pot – who wasn’t a fan of having the pot (or, as I discovered) her photo taken owing, I suspect, to her criminal past.

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Gut Bowl.  Despite the fact that Akemi and I were unable to identify anything we were eating, it was pretty good – though a tad underseasoned.

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We parked ourselves at one of the little impromptu communal tables, ate, and then continued our foray.

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That’s a lot of dried squid.   Located a couple of stalls down from the whale bacon.

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And that’s a lot of cod sperm (shirako) – bottom right.

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Akemi lands the catch of the day!

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If I actually lived in Tokyo, I’d be down here all the time.  Of course, if I lived in Tokyo with its high cost of living, I’d probably be doing little more than strolling.

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It never fails.  Every time I visit Tokyo, I’m stopped for one of those man-on-the-street interviews.  I should just move here and become a t.v. personality.  Or convince Ivon to join me and we can be a comedy team: Gaijin and Tonic.

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I had an omelet popsicle.  Perfect for those hot summer days!

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Fresh wasabi.

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This curious culinary creation caught my eye.  It’s a black ash bun stuffed with seafood and topped with fresh sea urchin.  After much dithering, I decided to give it a try…

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And it was delicious!  I’m going back for more tomorrow morning!

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Picked up these cool spaceship cufflinks at the hotel boutique.  I’ll wear them on the first of shooting – sometime in early January.

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Apparently this mascot for the town of Tottori – an emaciated, hunger-ravaged little girl holding a frog – was retired when it was deemed to depressing.

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Curious print ad in the Tokyo subway.  What the hell is going on here?

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I think they missed their stop.

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We had lunch at Tsurutontan, Akemi’s favorite udon restaurant.  Check out my bowl of curry beef udon.  Good thing I didn’t order a double.

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VERY tasty.

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But messy.  Curiously, I was the only one at any of the tables who was given a bib.

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And, for dessert, the udon ice cream.  No, really,  It tasted like very subtle creme fraiche – with bits of udon.

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Then we headed over to Tokyo Midtown for a hot chocolate – and dessert #2.

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I sampled an aged sweet sake.  Intriguing.

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Then stopped by Uniqlo where I purchased some down jackets in preparation for the bitter Toronto winter.  Here’s me modeling one of my buys.

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Kids heading home from school.  I was thinking of picking up one of these uniforms – Gilligan hat, culottes, white athletic socks, and backpacks, and then just blending in.

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Off to Osaka tomorrow to visit Akemi’s family.  Unfortunately, I forgot to bring a tie for the tea ceremony.  Fortunately, I was able to pick one up at a little specialty shop offering various goods from Gun-ma region.  Now having worked in show business as long as I have, I’m not normally star struck but as I was walking out of the shop, I spotted the man (woman?  thing?) himself: Guna-ma chan, the official Gun-ma mascot.

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Who was gracious enough to pose for a photo with Akemi (who was none too shy about waltzing up and striking a pose).

On our way back to the hotel, I received an email from blog frequenter and Tokyo denizen benjamdisco who apparently spotted Akemi and I strolling the streets of Roppongi after his haircut.  He was apparently too shy to say hi  – so, instead, he took some clandestine paparazzi pics:

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While I commended him on his surveillance prowess, I had to admonish him for not saying hi – and potentially joining us for ice cream udon and shopping at Uniqlo.

Finally, I checked in with sis this morning and she reports that the dogs are great.  Jelly has been a little more active of late, Bubba a little more relaxed, and Lulu her usual gassy self.

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Bubba.

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Jelly.

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Lulu.

Dinner tonight, then catching the bullet train to Osaka tomorrow!  My feet hurt already.

August 21, 2014: Jelly update! Japan plans!

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I brought Jelly in to see a specialist last week.  After a careful study of the x-rays and the my old gal, he reversed the initial diagnosis of a separated hip. Apparently, upon closer scrutiny, it looks bad – bad it isn’t THAT bad.  So that was great news.  And then, Tuesday, she was unusually energetic, walking all the way to the corner – and halfway back – before settling down on the grass and insisting I carry her!

1That’s the good news.  The bad news is she apparently has another bladder infection which means she’s back on antibiotics.  But it’s given Akemi the opportunity to buy her some fashionable new duds – including suspenders!

Who wants to hug Poopy, the exhibition mascot?
Who wants to hug Poopy, the exhibition mascot?

I’m researching interesting events in advance of my Japan trip in September and came across this interesting exhibition called “Toilet?!  Human Waste and the Earth’s Future”: http://www.tokyoweekender.com/2014/07/tokyo-museum-opens-a-special-exhibition-featuring-toilets-and-poop/

“If you’re still uncomfortable with the topic after entering the exhibit, a choir of singing toilets with friendly faces on the lids might help soothe your nerves, as well as a series of poop samples from different animals to assure you that you’re not alone in the act. You can also recreate the poop you had this morning with blobs of clay and play games involving a target and a urinal.”

Running until October 3rd!

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Some Japanese-style fast-food to look forward to.  Rice burgers!  https://www.yahoo.com/food/what-the-heck-is-a-rice-burger-95211558931.html

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Meanwhile, this opened in Osaka last month: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/asia/japan/10968074/Harry-Potter-in-Japan-260-million-Wizarding-World-theme-park-opens-in-Osaka.html

I was kind of hoping to take in a Hanshin Tigers home game while in Osaka or check out the Grand Sumo Championship while in Tokyo, but Akemi is balking. sad

Maybe she’d like to check out this place instead: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/asia/japan/11044864/Insect-lovers-swarm-to-a-bug-eating-club-in-Tokyo.html

November 20, 2013: Tokyo Day #15!

This is what I've bee reduced to: whiling away the afternoons in my hotel room eating $3 bananas.
This is what I’ve bee reduced to: whiling away the afternoons in my hotel room eating $3 bananas.

The old adage is true.  You never truly appreciate something until it’s gone.  Like, say, your appetite.  Or even the ability to eat something without having it transform your stomach in a raging maelstrom.  At the beginning of this trip, I was on the top of the world, assuming I’d get to try anything and everything.  The bechamel-laced gratin croquette from Tokyo McDonalds.  The ice cream waffle sandwich from Ginza’s Manneken.  A casual lunch-time visit to Pizza Seirinkan in Naka-Meguro.  I figured there’d be time.  But there wasn’t.  Instead, there was a banana and sliced bread and a manuka honey throat lozenge Akemi picked up at Mitsukoshi department store the other day.

Not even a final drink at Star Bar or a return visit to Butagumi for their delicious braised pork appetizer.

Well, let’s not get ahead of ourselves here.  I don’t fly out until 6:05 p.m. tomorrow evening.  Maybe there’s still hope?

We started our Tokyo trip with lunch at Sawada sushi and ended it with a dinner there.  As always, excellent.  On last night’s visit, we ended up befriending some of our fellow diners and retiring to Star Bar for a nightcap – cocktails for them and a medicinal stomach-settling amaro for me.

New friends!
New friends!

So, we fly back to Vancouver today.  By the time you read this blog entry, Akemi and I will already be thinking about eventually heading to the airport to catch our flight back to Canada.  Unless, of course, you read it much later in which case we’ll already be in the air.

Random shots:

Me in happier, hungrier, more hopeful times at the beginning of my journey.
Me in happier, hungrier, more hopeful times at the beginning of my journey.
The zen garden outside the hotel.  I'm tempted to crawl in and attain some inner peace.  Especially so far as my stomach is concerned.
The zen garden outside the hotel. I’m tempted to crawl in and attain some inner peace by quelling the inner turmoil. In my stomach.
A beautiful day in Ginza
A beautiful day in Ginza
My awesome new t-shirt from that NHK show I don't watch but should.  It look awesome.
My awesome new t-shirt from that NHK show I don’t watch but should. It look awesome.
A pre-wedding snap
A pre-wedding snap
Akemi all dressed up
Akemi all dressed up
The green "health juice" Akemi made me drink.
The green “health juice” Akemi made me drink.
Avoid swimming in this without a certified lifeguard present.
Avoid swimming in this without a certified lifeguard present.
Fresh orange jelly.
Fresh orange jelly.
Tokyo is the worldwide home of individually-wrapped items.  Like, for instance, bananas!
Tokyo is the worldwide home of individually-wrapped items. Like, for instance, bananas!
Warrior woman at the Robot Restaurant
Warrior woman at the Robot Restaurant

Thanks for coming along!

P.S.  I am NOT looking forward to that 90 minute shuttle bus ride to the airport.

November 19, 2013: Tokyo Day #14! Back on the horse! Oden! A return to an old favorite! And, of course, desserts!

I think I actually put on some weight on this trip.  No.  Really.  Upon my arrival in Tokyo, I had a choice between two notches on my belt – the first, a little tight; the second, a little loose.  I opted for the latter and, fourteen days later, that loose notch is actually kind of snug. Wha- happened?!  I thought all the walking I was doing would burn off the extra calories.  Okay, granted, I have been eating a lot – but no more than on previous visits.  I even took a bit of a break today, not so much out of a desire to curtail my culinary spree as it was the fact that I just wasn’t hungry after “the ramen debacle”.  I was up most of the night and into this morning nursing a sore stomach and I simply couldn’t do it today.

But that didn’t stop me from trying.

For lunch, we went out for oden, a traditional Japanese “comfort food” consisting of daikon radish, fish cake, boiled eggs, and konyakku, a flavorless potato noodle with a consistency like jelly.  It’s all served in a dashi broth and is beloved by many here, including Akemi.  Me, not so much, but I didn’t mind.  If Akemi was willing to eat deep-fried pork tonkatsu with me, I was certainly willing to eat a giant steamed radish for her.   True love, huh?

Following the line of customers into the restaurant.  The joint is jumping.
Following the line of customers into the restaurant. The joint is jumping.
Akemi's oden lunch setto, minus the daikon that has yet to arrive.
Akemi’s oden lunch setto, minus the daikon that has yet to arrive.
Karashi, a Japanese mustard that is about a thousand times hotter than what we have back home.  I'm going to have to pick up a jar to bring back with me.
Karashi, a Japanese mustard that is about a thousand times hotter than what we have back home. I’m going to have to pick up a jar to bring back with me.

Otakou: 2-2-3 Nihombashi, Tokyo

After lunch, I was feeling surprisingly “not terrible”, so rather than head back to the hotel, I accompanied Akemi on a stroll through Nihombashi.

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I wonder how hot it gets in there in the summer.
I wonder how hot it gets in there in the summer.

Although I still wasn’t hungry by the time we returned to Ginza, I figured I had to get back on the horse, just like a real athlete plays through pain.  With only days to go before my departure, I have a lot of ground to cover after all!  So we started off easy, sharing a meager two dessert snacks that we picked up at the Peninsula Hotel and brought back to our room:

Chocolate hazelnut cream cake and a mango pudding.
Chocolate hazelnut cream cake and a mango pudding.

One of the desserts Akemi was dying to tru was the famed Peninsula Hotel mango pudding, purportedly THE BEST mango pudding ever. So, I had to try it as well.  And the verdict?  It was pretty damn good mango pudding!  I never thought I’d ever say those words.

1Akemi also surprised me with a box of assorted chocolates from Madame Setsuko, an Osaka legend.  She gifted me a similar box after our first date way back in 2009, dropping them off at my hotel on her way to work the next morning.  Sweet, no?

Well, with time winding down on our trip, we’re making the most of our last few days by paying second visits to some of our favorite haunts. Last night, it was L’Atelier de Joel Robuchon for another excellent dinner:

111Followed by a romantic night-time stroll through Roppongi:

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P.S. In retrospect, that Hattendo fresh cream bun before bedtime was huge mistake.  I was up all night!

November 18, 2013: Tokyo Day #13! The Fine Art of Ramen! H.H. Giger prepares my meal at Chikuyotei! I finally pay the price!

Nobody appreciates the fine arts like I do and it should come as no surprise that there’s nothing I enjoy more than hitting the local museums whenever I visit a foreign city.  Such was the case yesterday when Akemi and I woke up early so that we could catch the bullet train to Yokohama and check out one of its most famous museums: The Shin-Yokohama Raumen Museum.  There, we checked out the masters who dabble in oils, broth, and noodles…

On the shinkasen, headed to Shin-Yokohama
On the shinkansen, headed to Shin-Yokohama

Truth be told, it’s not really much of a museum.  The educational portion is scant, but the hands-on experience is plentiful with a wide variety of ramen to choose from.  The lower level of the museum has been transformed into a latter-day Japan complete with winding back alleys, shuttered old time bars, and numerous ramen-yas.

Night falls on old ramen town...even though it's broad daylight outside.
Night falls on old ramen town…even though it’s broad daylight outside.
The back alleys remind me of some of the old Stargate sets.
The back alleys remind me of some of the old Stargate sets.

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A chart at the entrance gives you a rundown of the dozen or so chefs and their respective ramen.  Then, it’s up to you.  Choose a place and enter your order at the little machine outside the restaurant.  Then, all you have to do is grab a spot in line and wait to be seated.

The choices were overwhelming, so I simply went with what I thought looked good.  We started at a place called Ganja where we ordered…

Thick noodles and a slice of pork...
I had the thick noodles and a slice of pork…
...with spicy broth.
…with spicy broth
While Akemi went with the thin noodles
While Akemi went with the thin noodles
...and the regular broth.
…and the regular broth.

It was, hands down, the best ramen I’ve ever had.  Both broths were incredibly complex, rich with levels of flavor.  The thick slice of pork was incredibly tender, the egg I got with my broth perfectly cooked, and the noodles terrific.  I honestly could have ordered another bowl – not because I was still hungry, but because I didn’t want the meal to end.

We ordered two small bowls so that we could sample some of the other ramens being offered.  The busiest ramen-ya by far was Sumire that had a line-up that snaked around the corner.  We dutifully lined up, placed our order, and gradually inched our way toward the entrance…

Order your ramen here.
Order your ramen here.
I had the miso ramen.
I had the miso ramen.
Akemi's shoyu ramen.
Akemi’s shoyu ramen.

Wow.  And not in a good way.  After Ganja, what a letdown.  My miso ramen was fine but I found Akemi’s shoyu ramen was possessed of an unpleasant, oily flavor.  In fact, both broths were surprisingly oily.

There was a couple standing behind us in line.  She didn’t want ramen but he did.  Unfortunately, the house rules state that everyone taking up table room must order ramen.  So, they compromised.  He sat down and ate his ramen while she stood outside and watched him.  Weird.

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Uncle Charumera, former mascot of an instant noodle company.  And Jim Beam whisky.

We finished up by taking a tour of the “museum” section and shop that offered everything from ramen keychains and chopsticks to your own personalized box of ramen.

Shin-Yokohama Raumen Museum: 2-14-21 Shinyokohama, Kohoku Ward, Yokohama

111We took a little stroll through Shin-Yokohama, then caught the bullet train back to Tokyo where we took an even longer stroll through Tokyo Station.  An unintended one as we got turned around at some point and spent close to an hour trying to find the subway back to our hotel. The place is huge!

1Finally, we made it back!

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LIGHT at the end of the tunnel!

I arrived back  at the hotel to discover a package awaiting me.  It was from Akemi’s mother and it was filled with what I estimate to be about a year’s word of matcha (ceremonial green tea)!  Between this and everything I’m planning to pick up, it looks like I may have to invest in a second suitcase.

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We tried to work off dinner with a walk along Ginza-dori…

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These guys were very popular.
Akemi getting into the Christmas spirit
Akemi getting into the Christmas spirit

For dinner we went to Chikuyotei, one of the country’s oldest unagi restaurants.  It holds special meaning for Akemi because it was a favorite of her grandfather’s who used to take her there when she was young.

Alas, no tables available so we had to settle for floor seating.  And by “floor seating”, I mean we sat on the floor at a low table.  Apparently, this isn’t terribly uncommon in Japan and many Japanese have mastered the art.  I, unfortunately, have not and spent much to the meal shifting uncomfortably between kneeling, sitting cross-legged, and stretching my legs out underneath the table.

We ordered from an English menu that helpfully warned us to “be careful for the eel bones”.  So we were.  As for the meal…

Grilled eel "kabayaki".
Grilled eel “kabayaki”.
The eel guts soup.  From the kitchen of Chef H.R. Giger
The eel guts soup looks like a prop from the last Alien movie.

Another great meal and, I’m sure, very natsukashii for Akemi.

Chikuyotei: 8-14-7 Ginza, Chuo-ku, Tokyo

Well, I think the law of averages has finally caught up with me.  I fear I’ve done in – not by the little aliens in my soup or the countless cream-filled desserts or even the chicken sashimi.  It was the ramen!  I woke up this morning feeling like my stomach has undergone a mochi massage…