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Eat Tokyo

I’m not ゴジラ (aka Godzilla) stomping on buildings and chomping on the chewy denizens fleeing underfoot through the streets of Tokyo.

But I am one to feast on all culinary offerings plucked down in the scant space between my bowl of rice and Yebisu lager. When in Tokyo, feast. I did.

Let’s join hands and skip hungrily among the blurry, uninspired food pornesque photos I display for your indulgence.

Okonomiyaki:  a Japanese savoury pancake containing a variety of ingredients. Okonomi, meaning ‘what you like’, and yaki meaning ‘grilled’ or ‘cooked’.

 

Mix up your ingredients and start cooking!

Mix up your ingredients and start cooking!

Looking good...

Looking good…

Oh yeah! Wait, is that mayonnaise over there?

Oh yeah! Wait, is that mayonnaise over there?

 

Okajoki – Izakaya seafood restaurant: a series of small plates served as courses, the last was a delectable fish.

Nice tofu

Nice tofu

Crab legs, eggplant, edamame. Check.

Crab legs, eggplant, edamame. Check.

Final course!

Final course!

 

Sukiyaki: soup you cook at your table and eat directly from the hot pot.

Let's boil these.

Let’s boil these.

Lots of goodness.

Lots of goodness.

It is on!

It is on!

 

Choco Cro: a chocolate bar cooked inside a croissant!

Chocolate in a croissant. Yes, please.

Chocolate in a croissant. Yes, please.

Choco Cro 2

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Whenever I eat while traveling (a daily occurrence), I feel like I should take photos of the various foods I try.

Why? Well, when I see travel and foodie shows that flaunt their delicious and mouth-watering images like its some kind of food porn, I want to join them.

Yet, despite this, I am always somewhat embarrassed to take the actual photos. I look around to make sure no one is watching (and judging me). Some people are shameless and snap those tasty shots without thought. But not me, I always try for sly and avoid eye contact with anyone in my vicinity at all cost. The flash always gives me away.

Here is a sampling of some of my poor quality, badly lit, guiltily taken food photos over the years that represent categories of sustenance that will surely cause a heart attack. I also threw in some beer and wine shots. Because I can.

I am not responsible for any salivating or queasiness that may result.

Squid ink pasta in Venice

A lunch repast in rural Mali

Mofongo in the Dominican Republic

Okonomiyaki in Japan

Sliders in Washington, D.C.

Cocoa beans in Zanzibar

El Presidente in Dominican Republic

Fish amok in Cambodia

Enjoying a ballgame

Camping with a freeze dried ice cream sandwich

In N Out burger and fries in LA - animal style!

Lots of wine in South Africa

Chicken mole in Mexico

A Jucy Lucy in Minneapolis

Red wine in Northern Virginia

Fuju in Tokyo

Frites drowning in mayonnaise in Amsterdam

Zingerman sandwich in Ann Arbor

Kobe beef in Kobe

Cheese and beer in Seattle

Nasty fruit in Cyprus

Wedding cake in Washington, D.C. (yes, it is)

Ostrich meat balls in Kenya

Bandeja paisa in Colombia

Goose Island beer in Chicago

Burp.

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Once again, I’ve found you. There is no escape from this annually joyous attempt at season greetings. Since you likely have no other distractions; give me your full attention and let’s get down to the business at hand…to put the year that was, 2008, into a little perspective.

I know that the number of Christmas letters you’ve already dismissively wadded up and chucked into the wastebasket, along with all that fruitcake and eggnog you’ve gorged yourself on, will affect your reading of this; so I’ve decided to make it easy for you. First, it’s not a letter at all, it’s an email. No extra energy needs to be expended to get rid of it. Second, it has virtually nothing to do with Christmas. Sure, the title gives you that impression, but it’s really just a dirty* laundry list of all the wackiness that was 2008. Third, stop reading this introduction and get to the good stuff below. Fourth, I try to use simple words for simple folk like you. Sure, this means extra effort on my part, but…wait a minute. Forget it, there will be no pandering to the masses. You get what you get, and like it. Fifth, it is not required reading at all, nor should it be confused with anything relevant and timely that could impact your life in a meaningful way. Sixth, seriously, this intro is over. Get on with it.

Hang gliding (Rio de Janeiro, Brazil)
Let’s get this started off with a bang. You presumably know what hang gliding is. You’ve likely heard about (or been to) Rio. You probably understand the concept of swooping over the tops of high rise hotels. You have it within you to visualize a long, graceful descent onto a white, sandy beach. You are surely capable of wrapping your head around a scene showing a short burst of sprinting with your appointed pilot and glider attached, and a brief, sudden tandem free-fall before catching air and soaring peacefully over every postcard view of Rio you’ve ever seen. Yes? Good job! I’m so proud of you!

The Game of Baseball (Worldwide)
I took in the Japanese version of baseball in Osaka with the Orix Buffaloes playing the Hokkaido Nippon Ham Fighters (sponsored by Nippon Ham). What have they done to our beloved game? Only turned it into an enthusiastic circus of bright colors, silly mascots, and crazy slogans! Case in point, “One heartbeat, close to you”, supposedly will entice you to attend a Buffaloes game. Hmmmm…yes, I see. I also saw home games of the Toronto Blue Jays, the Philadelphia Phillies, and the Washington Nationals. And boy did my heart skip a beat when I discovered $2 Tuesdays in Toronto!

Safari (East Tsavo National Park, Kenya)
Thirty different types of animals participated in my dusty, bouncing, day-long photo shoot. And not a single one smiled. So disappointing. The closest I got to a smile was from six massive lions feasting on succulent buffalo. Oh, and a baby giraffe played coy for the camera until warming up after I offered her the cover of National Geographic. Sucker!

9:30 Club (Northwest, Washington, D.C.)
Definitely the best venue to see a concert in the city (standing room and balconies for 900), I took it upon myself to see all kinds of bands and artists while skipping between the three bars, each with different beer offerings. I witnessed Super Diamond (twice), Sara Bareilles, The Ting Tings, Cut Copy with the Pre-Sets, Hot Chip, Shiny Toy Guns, and Vampire Weekend. Although this may be the first time you’ve heard of some of these, don’t waste this rare opportunity you’ve been granted to expand your horizons. (Hint: iTunes)

Dr. Granville Moore’s (Northeast, Washington, D.C.)
Fancying itself as a Belgium gastro pub, Granville Moore’s dishes fantastic mussels and frites (as seen on the Food Network) and entertains around 60 different Belgium beers before offering them up to eager patrons. This row house turned restaurant is seemingly unfinished on the inside, with exposed dry wall, and flourishes church pews for seats. Not that anyone would notice with a face full of frites and Framboise.

Niagara Falls (Ontario, Canada)
Big and wet. You expected more?

Music
Whatever your taste in music is, remember, this is my list. So when I say that the albums from Sara Bareilles, Vampire Weekend and Coldplay are the ones you should buy (now) and listen to (again, now), then you might want to take heed. Even should you choose to ignore my expert advice, I’ll happily enjoy them without you.

Books
Yes, I read some books, but let’s not dwell on it too much. The two to buy or hold-up the local library for are: “Despite Good Intentions: Why Development Assistance to the Third World Has Failed” by Thomas W. Dichter (the title also acts as a synopsis!) and “The World Without Us” by Alan Weisman (an interesting thought experiment on what would happen to the planet if humans no longer existed – can you guess?).

Movies
Some of the best movies of the year included: “The Dark Knight” (a no-brainer), “Iron Man”, and “The Visitor”.

Food
This world is full of good food and by any means necessary, get these dishes into your salivating piehole as soon as possible! Japanese okonomiyaki (pancakes with plenty of what you like), fugu (poisonous pufferfish), Kobe beef (marbled, mouthwatering meat), Dominican mofongo (puréed plantains with pork), Khmer (Cambodian) fish amok (the name says it all), Brazilian feijoada (sizzling stew with steaming beans, pork and beef), Kenyan ugali (doughy cornmeal), Canadian poutine (frites with fromage and fancy gravy), and British cream tea (tea and scones with clotted cream and jam). Oy!

Cherry blossoms (Kyoto, Japan)
What does strolling along the meditative Philosopher’s path, exploring any of 1,800 temples, jostling through the bustling (bursting?) streets of the Gion district, cramming onto crowded buses, and meandering through countless, breathtaking Japanese gardens all have in common? In early April, you can do none of these things without a pink and white explosion of cherry blossoms (sakura) in every direction. And a vast array of sakura flavored sweets, including the cream puff that explodes pink goo onto your shirt.

Corcovado (Rio de Janeiro, Brazil)
Arms wide for a welcoming embrace, the Christ the Redeemer statue (120 feet high) sits atop the mountain of Corcovado, overlooking Rio and its white beaches. Considered one of the ‘new 7 wonders of the world’, the statue commands your full attention from every angle. Then, inevitably, you have to take time to be distracted by the breathtaking view. But, out of the corner of your eye, Christ is still ready to hug you.

Mt. Misen (Miyajima, Japan)
Any sorry attempt on my part to describe the majestic panorama of sights from the high temples of this island mountaintop, overlooking the red, floating torii gate (considered one of Japan’s three most scenic views) and neighboring islands; and the arduous ascent through primeval forests and fiery cherry blossoms to reach it; and the perfect warm instant noodles and crisp Kirin beer bought from the Mom and Pop café at the summit; would only pale in comparison to the real thing. Sorry to disappoint.

London, England
Over repeated trips to England without giving London its proper due, I finally decided to invest a couple of days to really take LDN in again. First lesson: Use the money you theoretically saved on that cheap hotel with a shared bathroom (60 pounds a night) on a Fuller’s London Pride beer and a greasy order of fish and chips. Then go bankrupt. Second lesson: Go see Monty Python’s Spamalot. Third lesson: Take your iPod and stroll around Hyde Park and The Serpentine lake during sunset. Fourth lesson: The village of Greenwich and the Greenwich Mean Time line is acceptable to visit in the rain.

Pub Quiz Nights (Fado Irish Pub, Washington, D.C.)
A rich winter tradition of pencil in hand, sipping from pints of frothy Guinness, nibbling on corned beef and cabbage, writing down answers to random questions, and handing them in after each round – all with the hope of out-dueling the other, lesser teams for cash money – always ended in tears as we failed to live up to our own hype. Next time…

Flight of the Conchords (Television show)
So ridiculously funny, you will surely snort milk out your nose (even if you’re not drinking any!). The title refers to a very low-rent, no gigs, two shlub band from New Zealand, who, along with their manager, get into random misadventures, and then sing about them. As you decipher the lyrics, and nod your head to the beat, keep an extra pair of underwear handy in case a laughing accident ensues.

Philadelphia, Pennsylvania
I’ve lived on the East Coast now for a few years and only just now made it to Philly. So to make up for lost time, we swaggered into Philly foot loose and fancy free. Philly cheese steaks, a Phillies baseball game (World Series Champs!), Broad Street, pub crawling, cheering on the Kentucky Derby while quaffing mint juleps, and a random Star Wars: Where Science Meets Imagination exhibit and you’ve got yourself a weekend.

Malindi, Kenya
Whether seasick while deep-sea fishing; enjoying a fine meal at the Old Man and The Sea restaurant (Hemingway did not make an appearance); staying at the quiet and cheap Cloud Nine
hotel (not in any guidebook); cooking fresh fish in banana leaves; strolling the seaweed choked beaches; or watching the resilient sailboats, made by the local boys from cast-off detritus (flip-flops for outriggers and plastic bags for sails anyone?), brave the ocean’s wind and waves; Malindi is a worthy place to unwind and pretend the world really is this small.

Temples of Angkor (Cambodia)
The Khmer empire was pretty busy between 850-1200 AD, building temples like they were going out of style. Then most of these temples were abandoned for hundreds of years and they became part of the encroaching jungle. Angkor Wat is by far the largest and most well-known, but it’s the temples of Ta Prohm and Beng Mealea that are among the most amazing. These have been allowed to stay mostly overgrown and ruined. There is a certain amount of peace and awe one feels when traversing over and around the tangled roots of giant fig strangler trees and the tumbled stones and carvings that once were grand galleries and massive buildings of ancient kings. At least it seems that way, if I do say so myself.

Blog
Can’t wait until next Christmas for another injection of insipid, indelible insights? Keep track of all the random hilarity at:
www.jeremybailey.wordpress.com

 

 

Bonus Question! (Guess correctly for a cool prize!)**

How many countries did I visit this year? (Hint: One paragraph lists them all)

* Clean version
** No, not really

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Fugu for Fuji

(Note: I have updated this post, including reformatting the photos and adding in new ones.)

Part 2 of 2

So concludes this sweeping, thrilling tale of an elegantly described vision of Japan. Part 2 finishes the best of Japan. The details are so vivid, only a Jackson Pollock or a Wordle could divert your attention. Let’s get started and finish this.

Fugu

A poisonous puffer fish deserves a modicum of respect in that it has the ability to strike you dead in an instant. Prepared by only the most skilled and trained chefs, fugu cut wrong will end both your culinary and life experiences. A mere nick of an internal organ and the deadly poison seeps into the flesh. Our fugu arrived first as thin slices of sashimi, then as a still writhing plate of fish cuts (no organs). These cuts are cooked at your table in a boiling hot pot with veggies and noodles and then eaten directly from the pot. Tasty yes, but surviving was the best part.

Sashimi

Writhing Fugu

Himeji-jo

One of Japan’s ‘three famous castles,’ sometimes called the White Heron Castle because it’s… well, white. It was used in the The Last Samurai and a few other films. Aside from all that, this castle is every bit the iconic showcase of Japan’s feudal history of shoguns, samurai and battle. You can walk (take off your shoes, put on slippers) past the collection of weapons, over hardwood floors designed to expose creeping ninjas, past hidden compartments for stealth attacks on intruders, all the way to the top and feel almost like you’ve been transported back 400 years. (Heroes joke here.)

Himeji Castle

 

Battle stance

 

Vending machines

Japan has just the right combination of societal conditions that allows such things as vending machines to be integral to its very existence. You can find a random (yes, still working) vending machine on a sleepy, residential street far away from anything. They are found in train stations, malls, bowling alleys, on sidewalks, in parks, in gardens, near temples. There are almost 5.6 million vending machines, or one for every 23 people. In fact, if you go more than two minutes without spotting a vending machine you are no longer in Japan. The most common items are drinks, which includes beer. My favorite was the coffee in a can, your choice of hot or cold.

 

Okonomiyaki

Okonomiyaki basically means ‘grill what you like’. So, as with all Japanese food, eating it is an experience unto itself. It is essentially pancakes filled and covered with all kinds of ingredients; especially veggies, seafood, meat and sometimes noodles, usually with a special sauce. (Some Japanese put mayonnaise on it. Then again those same people put mayonnaise on everything.) Most of the time you get the ingredients and you cook them on the grill at your table, but other times a chef will walk out with a huge sizzling pile of goodness. There are two regional styles vying for your palette’s attention, one from Hiroshima and one from the Osaka area. We tried both styles and they were both damn tasty.

Eating what we like

Osaka style

Hiroshima style

 

Umbrella ella ella ella

At the ‘Karaoke Bar’ in Kobe, Rihanna belted out her velvety smooth rendition of Umbrella in a sound proof room. Oh wait, it was actually three drunken dudes and a Japanese chick singing this, and the dudes sucked. Karaoke bars are the scourge of Japan, but that doesn’t mean you can’t get in there and destroy ear drums!

Karaoke booth

 

Philosopher’s Path, Kyoto

As a learned philosopher myself, I was eager to trek along the same canal that Kitaro Nishida (this is his path after all) would walk on and meditate in its calming solitude. Known as the Tetsugaku-no-michi (philosopher’s walk), it meanders through the northwestern part of Kyoto. The path is lined with cherry trees that snow pink blossoms and a brook that gushes through the stone canal while koi swim about. The two kilometer journey on a crisp April day brings out the zen-like peace only nature and beauty can elicit. Whatever.

Find the path

Sake

You sip it repeatedly from a small choko (cup) or masu (wooden cup) and it will bring you a long ways towards drunk in a hurry. Generally it is rice wine, but as with both beer and wine, this isn’t completely accurate as there are a lot of varieties and ways to brew sake. We visited a sake brewery and had our fair share of samples. Get your own!

Wiener dogs

The Japanese have an unhealthy fascination with miniature dachshunds. Nothing wrong with that per se. It seems everybody has one, usually the long-haired kind, and walks them here or there. We stepped into a pet store and lo and behold! six wiener puppies. All so damn cute!  As a wiener dog owner, this is my kind of place! Yet the situation deteriorated into chaos when a big screen at a train station plaza revealed a frenzy of ads (product still a mystery) with dancing and singing cartoon wiener dogs. You had me at wiener.

Mt. Fuji

As an iconic tribute to the splendor of Japan, Mt. Fuji’s grandeur towers over the landscape with majesty and vigor as its snowy spectacle glistens from the luster of sunbeams. (sigh, did I actually write this tripe? Or even worse, did you actually read it?). We arrived at Lake Kawaguchi one evening and checked into a small, clean hostel with anticipation of great views and photo ops. As we walked around town, took the scenic boat ride, all while fidgeting with our cameras, Mt. Fuji refused to show itself from behind its mask of clouds. The coy bastard. As the afternoon wore on, we were resigned to the reality of a wasted trip. Suddenly just at our lowest, the clouds dissipated and Mt. Fuji stood before us. Quickly we added another 1000 or so postcardesque photos to the world. Oh wait, I feel like I’ve seen this mountain before.

Yes, Mt. Fuji

 

fin

Wordle version

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Where Your Dreams Blow Bigger and Bigger

(Note: I have made some updates to this post, including reformatting the existing photos and adding in some new ones.)

Blow Larger and Larger

Part 1 of 2

Japan holds promise to entertain, enthrall, and overwhelm the senses. From the jostling commuters squeezing on over packed trains, to the memorizing neon lights and TV screens of Shibuya and Ginza, to the temples and grand castles, to the forests and coastlines, to the history and the culture, to the imposing sentinel, Mt. Fuji, standing guard over everything.

I give you the good, the weird and the delicious.

Miyajima

You arrive by ferry and as the island draws near, a tiny, red torii gate grows bigger and bigger beckoning you to enter its rugged land of temples, forests and mountains. Built in the sea, this floating gate and its tableau of the Itsukushima Shrine and pagodas, is considered one of Japan’s top three most scenic sites. Exploring the island leads you to trek around the shops, the cherry trees and the deer that snatch paper from your hands (hide your return ticket!) until you decide to start an ascent on Mt. Misen. The two kilometer path up is two-thirds steps, it is not for the faint of heart, but the view at the top, of the surrounding islands and even the faintly distant torii gate below, is worth every minute of the arduous climb. In all of this, you lose sight of how impressive the torii gate is until the tide goes out and you can muck your way through the sand and brine and experience its sheer mammoth size. It would take four or more people to wrap their arms entirely around one of its red, sea-weed encrusted pillars.

Toilets

If you’re looking to partake in space travel, you could do no worse than a hotel toilet. Much like the cockpit of a space shuttle, they have a mind-boggling array of buttons and gadgets. The sole function of which seems to allow you to adjust the ways and angles to shoot jets of water on (in?) your anus. You could spend your entire lifetime fiddling with the knobs to get the right angle. And frankly, I won’t begrudge you for trying.

Tsujiki fish market, Tokyo

The only accurate word for Tokyo’s largest fish market (and likely the world) is ‘carnage’. Row after row after row of tuna, fugu, sardines, octopus and whatever kind of seafood you can possibly think of, is on display and ready for slicing, dicing and buying. Giant tuna heads are cast off in large metal buckets, while the rest of their frozen carcasses get sawed up for shipping around the city. Motorized carts flit to and fro loading and moving fish around in a mad dash. To not scamper out of the way every few seconds will result in your untimely demise. The sushi in the nearby shops is as fresh as you can get anywhere in the world. Get there early enough (we didn’t) and you can witness the auction where the buyers bid on the freshest and best fish available. It is both overwhelming that that much fish and seafood even exists on earth, but that it happens every day!

Fish heads

Fishy

Somebody’s crabby

Cherry blossoms

If you have ever been to the Tidal Basin in Washington, D.C. during the cherry blossom season, then you may have an inkling of just how beautiful a country is when blanketed in cherry trees inflamed in these pink, rosy flowers. The first couple weeks of April is your only window of opportunity to witness such spectacle. And people come out in droves. Every city has its share of trees, but sections of Tokyo and Kyoto especially stagger the mind. Every temple and garden seems to be designed to flaunt the maximum allowable amount of blossoms.

Nikko in the snow

Nikko, an hour or so by train from Tokyo, has a picturesque and peaceful quality that even postcards cannot capture. It is home to numerous temples and the Shinkyo, a red bridge spanning a frothy river. Most famous for the Toshu-go Shrine, a ridiculously ornate mausoleum, where Tokugawa Ieyasu, the first true shogun, is buried. The shrine’s wood carvings are so detailed and colorful that the monkeys, peacocks and flowers look like they are literally alive. We also hiked all around the city and the temples, in the falling snow, including a random foray to the top of a wooded, snow-covered hill and another hill that offered a waterfall called Jakko Falls, that was so far out-of-the-way, we thought we had found the true end of the world.

Nikko

Snowing!

Colorful

Choco Cro

Light, flakey croissants with different flavors of chocolate bars baked inside, these are simply the start of the crack addiction you always wanted. You cannot eat just one, be it the dark, green tea or banana chocolate flavored. Choco Cro is the name of both the mascot (a dog) and the chain of shops (created at a café called St. Mark’s). If you go to Japan and fail to devour multiple of these addictive and delicious croissants, you have failed. In life and possibly beyond.

Tasty Choco Cro!

Kobe steak, Kobe

Thick and juicy and smothered in grilled onions served on a sizzling platter. Your knife cuts the tender meat like butter and a small taste simply melts on your tongue. Seared and prepared by truly iron chefs, you will not regret spending $70 for this hunk of marbled Kobe beef. Oishii desune! Then open the huge jar on your table and chew on a few antacid tablets they provide so you’ll live to eat another day.

Kobe steak

Biiru

Asahi black beer. Yebisu black beer. Kirin Ichiban beer. Suntory Malt’s beer. True.

Biiru

to be continued…under ‘Fugu for Fuji’

More photos:

Nikko

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