Saturday, September 24, 2016

Eating with Shino and Shigeru in Tokyo

EatWith operates in 200 cities in 50 countries of the world. It is a way of connecting travellers with "real" people in their own homes over a shared meal. Shino and Shigeru operate the only EatWith program in Japan so we felt very lucky to be able to enjoy the experience of sharing a meal with them last night (our last night in Japan).

Shino gave us very specific instructions on how to meet up with her at 6.00pm at Meguro Station on the Yamanote Line (easy for us as our hotel is very close to Hamamatsucho Station on the Yamanote Line).

Japan's oldest (and most expensive) supermarket chain (Artre) has a store at Meguro Station where Shino and Shigeru do most of their shopping. So Shino took us down to the fresh food level where she showed us some of the beautiful produce that will form part of our meal tonight, including potato jelly (with no calories!).......
There was ginger root and ginger flowers, lotus root, wasabi, all sorts of unfamiliar looking root vegetables - all beautiful quality. The seafood selection was amazing - all very glistening fresh - and being individually filleted as needed..... Shino said the the fish would only be a few hours (at the most) out of the water!
 Lots of different types of fish roe (some of it spicy - Korean style)....
 Fresh sushi (Nigiri - hand pressed) of unbelievable quality.......
 ...and in another section of the supermarket - beautiful sweet confections - all reflecting the season (Autumn in the northern hemisphere).
Then it was a short walk from the station to Shino and Shigeru's house in Shinagawa-ku. Land in Tokyo is in very short supply so Shino and Shigeru are very fortunate to own a 50 square metre block of land in this inner part of the city. Residences can only use 60% of the land so their 3 story house can only have a 30 square metre footprint.
On to dinner......first job was to grate the fresh wasabi...using a special copper grater. Shino said this was a job for the men!
 ...but women do a great job too....
 ......then we learnt more about the ingredients we'll use to make our sushi (special leaves, prawns & wasabi mayonnaise, tuna flakes, spicy fish roe, mackerel and ginger flower, avocado, cucumber, egg, fermented soy beans, plum pickle and beautiful fermented brown sushi rice with seaweed whichtakes 2 days of special treatment to prepare!)...
 This is how I made mine (only half rice so we would not make them too big)...
 ....and this is Rob's......
Then we learnt some knife skills in preparing the thin slices of raw fish for the nigiri - hand pressed sushi.....
 There is a special way of doing it so we don't "hurt the fish - ouch"!
 ...and a special way of cutting the sushi rolls so they look perfect!

Then we learnt the correct way to lay out the plates and chopsticks (there are strict rules for all this).
Shigeru had been to the Tsukiji Fish Market earlier in the day and bought these sea bass fish heads (a real delicacy apparently) so he could grill them for us as part of our meal tonight.
The flesh of the head was very delicate cooked this way. Shino said the best part was the flesh around the eye! Luckily they were served with the eye facing the plate.
Sake tasting was also a part of the feast! We all liked the plum flavoured sake (served as an aperitif). The very special Dassai 39 sake (with a strong licorice/aniseed taste) was a real taste sensation too. Shino said it is very hard to get in Japan as it mainly goes into the export market.
More dishes cooked by Shigeru....... an anchovy gratin (anchovies bought fresh from the Tsukiji Market too) and a root vegetable stew - delicious...... + Shino's special red + white miso soup.
 There was dessert too...... black  sesame tofu with roasted soy bean powder....
 and sweet potato with citrus marmalade........
There were sake soaked marshmallows too - a wonderful foil for the sweet  potato! 

Another lovely part of the meal was the conversation around the table. Our group included Max and Laura from Barcelona - we were all a well travelled lot (including Shino and Shigeru who had spent 3 years living in New York) so there was lots we could all talk about. Max and Laura were a lovely young couple too. Max is an endocrinologist and Laura is a neurologist so it was also interesting to hear their perspective about health care in Spain (among other things).
This proved to be a fabulous and special way to celebrate our last night in this wonderful country.

However before signing off from Japan I feel I need to mention a couple of other things that have made our stay here so memorable. We need to talk about the toilets: always immaculate no matter if it's a railway station or a hotel room - and so high tech and hygienic - why can't the rest of the world have toilets like this (combination bidet/toilet often with seat cleaners/heaters, auto flush, dryers and sometimes sound effects)? .........
 ...and our wonderful Japan Rail Pass...there isn't a better feeling than being able to use this pass to travel all over Japan (and within most cities) anytime /anywhere...and love the way most of the rail attendants give you a little bow when you present it to them.....

This is a wonderful country to visit...

Friday, September 23, 2016

Takayama

We got going early this morning to catch the train at 8.48am from Kanazawa through to Takayama (via a stop and change of train at Toyama). We pulled into Takayama at 11.30am, about 6 minutes late, which made all of us feel like we should be changing our watches because trains in Japan are usually NEVER late.

Takayama is a smallish city in the mountainous Hida region. It looks like it would be almost in the geographic centre of the island of Honshu - about 3 hours by fast train NW of Tokyo. On the way here, once we were past Toyama the countryside became a lot more interesting to our eyes, lots of mountains, carefully tended farmland and small picturesque villages - a lot of rice growing too.

We dropped off our bags at the Best Western near Takayama station and we set out to explore what looked like the smallest city we've visited in Japan so far. During feudal times (especially the Edo period) Takayama gained importance as a source of high quality timber and fine wood craftsmen. As a consequence the city enjoyed a good deal of prosperity in those times.  Those amazing wood working skills and fine eye for detail and aesthetics are still very evident in many of the older private houses, tea houses, merchant buildings and temples of Takayama to this day.



We found a wonderful French boulangerie not far up the main street - and remembered we hadn't had any lunch...
Rob caught me as I was eating a piece of his baguette (still warm from the oven). I also tried some of Maxie's almond croissant - which I think was the best I've ever eaten (and I do know my almond croissants!).

The plastic bag I am carrying contains a vintage kimono (yukata actually) that I bought for 100 Yen (that is about $1.20) today in Takayama. It has 2 tiny holes in it but I am overall thrilled with it. Maxie has also bought  2 yukatas from the same shop (she spent about $8).
After this we went our separate ways for the afternoon. Maxie and Rod wanted to explore the streets of the  extensive old town district and their distinctive heritage houses and Rob and I were hoping to find the Higashiyama walking course on the high ridge on the East of the city.


We soon found ourselves in the historic Higashiyama district where many temples were established during the Edo period, much as they were in Kyoto. It was very quiet and peaceful up here, in contrast to all the buzz in the old town below.

 There were large graveyards attached to many of the temples too.....





Eventually we made our way back down to the old town through some more contemporary suburban areas....
 ......back to the beautiful streets of the heritage area of Takayama.......

 ...where we stopped for tea at a teahouse that has been in operation since 1833.......

 A beautiful experience!
 The Hida region is famous for its beef, tempura, wild mountain vegetables and its soba noodles as well as its wood artistry. We had dinner at this fourth generation soba noodle restaurant tonight. 
Hand made soba noodles, lots of different mushroom varieties (many of which I've never tried before)...asparagus and snow pea and seaweed - all in a delicious broth - a most delicate and satisfying meal - full of amazing flavours and textures. 
We all love Takayama and want to spend longer here (maybe next time!)