Monday, November 30, 2009

So Much to Eat, So Little Time

“Oh, I could never live there, I can’t imagine eating raw fish.” This is what I hear quite often when I tell people (mainly from the US or continental Europe) that I live in Japan.

So what’s up with this raw fish bit? Do these people really think that here in Japan all we ever consume is sushi and sashimi? And the answer unfortunately is - yes, they do think that.

Sadly, whenever Japanese cuisine is mentioned, raw fish is the first thing (and sometimes the only thing) that immediately comes people's minds. Granted, not to everybody’s mind, but to a surprising number of people nevertheless.


Soba noodles - no raw fish here, but still as Japanese as... well... raw fish.

Which, if you ask me, is quite dumb. It’s like thinking that all Americans ever eat are hamburgers, Germans – sauerkraut and sausages, and Russians – borscht. And everybody knows that’s simply not true. In addition to hamburgers, Americans love their hotdogs, Germans – black forest cake and beer, and Russians – pierogis and vodka. And the same is true about Japan. We like and consume all sorts of food over here, including everything that has been mentioned above. Yes, even hotdogs and black forest cake, though not necessarily at the same time.


A bowl of hand-made ramen at Omiya ramen shop in Utsunomiya

In fact, the sheer variety of food in Japan can be mind boggling. You’d need several lifetimes to try and sample everything that this country has to offer in the culinary department. And that’s just the Japanese cuisine. Then there’s French, German, Italian, Chinese, Brazilian, Indian, Iranian Korean and scores more.

Korean bbq

I luvs me some good Korean bbq.

What? Too high-brow for you. No worries. There’s more fast food here than you could ever think possible. There’s even a kebab joint (halal at that!) and a taco stand in our provincial town.

Halal kebab

Ali Kabab in Utsunomiya, cheap and tasty.

Actually, it helps to think of Japan as one huge izakaya (pub). Food is plentiful, yummy and for the most part cheap. Yes, cheap. Don’t listen to those who tell you stories about just how expensive food in Japan is. Just because they spent 10 dollars for a glass of orange juice at their Roppongi hotel doesn’t make them experts on prices in this country. Though it does make them experts on how not to travel and spend money, that’s for sure.

Bday dinner

Kaiseki bento (takeout kaiseki) - yep, there's raw fish in here, too.

In reality, Japan has plenty of eating options for every budget and taste. My budget is rather tight and my taste – not too picky. But because I’m lazy by nature, I don’t like to cook. In most other countries I lived in, this was a tough combination. Normally, eating out, or buying ready-made food was more expensive than cooking at home. Not so in Japan. If you factor in the time it takes to make a meal from scratch, water, gas, and then still deal with cleaning up afterwards, it makes more sense to just outsource the cooking to your local supermarket, especially after 6PM (look for discount stickers).

First dinner at new place

Discounted supermarket bento (from Otani)

Let them do the slaving over a hot stove bit. I’d rather just eat. Which is what I frequently do. And then have my husband clean up. Because every man should learn how to sort plastic for recycling from burnable trash, right?

Sunday, November 22, 2009

I "heart" konbinis

Two words for you: convenience stores. Actually, only one word if you say it in Engrish (or Japanese – depending how you look at it) – konbini.

Family mart

Japan does them like nobody else. They’re everywhere, easy to get to, sell all sorts of stuff, they're clean, efficient, and well, convenient. Konbinis were the one thing about Japan I missed the most when living on the northern outskirts of Europe.

But they’re not just simple convenience stores. They’re conveniently convenient stores, too. And not just when it comes to melon bread and adult manga. Want to pay your car insurance and electric bill? No problem, you can do it at your local Lawson.

Lawson 2

Want to shop on-line but don’t have a credit card? Or have a foreign credit card and don’t want to get whacked with massive currency exchange fees? No worries, you can still shop on-line and then pay for the goods at a convenience store. That’s how I bought my new MacBook – paid for it at 7-Eleven.


Want to withdraw money but can’t find an ATM that would accept your foreign bank card and there’s no post office around? Just head to the nearest 7-Eleven. Their ATMs do what many Japanese banks’ ATMs are unable to do – process a transaction on a foreign bank card.


We have two konbinis within 300 meters of our apartment building. One is a Lawson’s and the other 7-Eleven. There’s a Sunkus just a few minutes further up the road and a Family Mart, if you decide to walk in the opposite direction.

Daily yamazaki

Not every konbini is open 24/7 (regardless of what some misguided visitors may tell you), but most open early and stay open until late. A huge contrast to a certain European city where the only thing still open around midnight was one lonely gas station.

And now, if you excuse me, it’s time for my late night walk to Lawson’s to get me some caramel ice cream. See you later!

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Utsunomiya Gyoza Matsuri 2009

Last weekend (yes, I’m writing about it only now, bugger off) we had a gyoza festival (gyoza matsuri, 餃子祭り) in our town.

For the uninitiated – what’s gyoza? A dumpling by any other name. Sort of Japanese pierogis. Eaten in pretty much the same way – steamed or fried. But when pierogis can come with sweet filling (yea, even blueberry cheese – barf!), gyoza is strictly savory – meat (mostly pork), cabbage, garlic and what not. I normally cook mine like this: dump a bunch of frozen gyoza in a skillet, add some water, cover and simmer until all the water is gone. Then splash some sesame oil and fry until they stick to the pan. I like to sprinkle sesame seeds on mine during this step. Serve with a dipping sauce. If you can’t find ready-made gyoza dipping sauce, just add some lemon juice to normal soy sauce and voila. Your gyoza is ready. Just had some last night, in fact, slightly burned, because my husband was cooking.

So yes, this lowly dumpling has its own festival in Utsunomiya. Why? You see, Utsunomiya fancies itself as a “gyoza city”, which is apparently supposed to be famous for its dumplings. But as with a lot of other things in Japan, it’s just a story made up by a local tourist board, because, after all, a city must be famous for something. Anything. So for Utsunomiya gyoza it was.

The city fathers even decided that the dumpling deserved a statue in its honor. So yes, we have a gyoza sculpture (represented as a woman, of course, because if a male was to be depicted as a pudgy lump of dough filled with garlic, with crooked breasts no less, I’m sure there would be an outcry from the penis endowed part of the population.) The gyoza statue turned out so fugly, however, that the only acceptable location for it was in front of the train station, under a pedestrian walkway, discreetly hidden from most passersby by rows of buses.

Gyoza statue

Very soon the city fathers realized that gyoza was not the way to go, and set their eyes on something much more refined, like cocktails and jazz. Yes, Utsunomiya, the city for cocktails and jazz. Sophisticated nightlife and music and Utsunomiya in the same sentence. LOL. Yes, I hear you laugh. But that’s OK, I’m laughing, too.

The city fathers should have stuck with gyoza, if you ask me. Fortunately, many of Utsunomiya’s eating establishments have and that’s how the gyoza festival came to pass.

Fest sign

So, how do you celebrate a dumpling? By eating it, of course. In three different places in the city center (one of them right smack by the Futara shrine) the local purveyors of doughy goodness stuffed with cabbage and pork set up their stands. The average wait to get your fill of gyoza was 30 minutes, though at Min-Min (apparently the best gyoza outfit of them all, though I would certainly beg to differ) it was over an hour.

Min min stand 1

We chose a less famous gyoza shop, waited our half an hour and then dug in. How fast can you consume 12 dumplings? (There was a limit of 3 dishes per person, 4 dumplings in each dish for 100 yen). Well, it depends on how hungry you are and we very purposely skipped lunch that day.

Gyoza stand

Apart from gyoza, there was the usual hodge-podge of street food – anything from Indian curries to kebab. There was live music, a win-a-car contest from a local radio station, stuff for kids to do and other things I paid absolutely no attention to. Because that’s not why you go to a gyoza festival for. You go there to stuff your face silly with slightly burned dumplings.

Kebab stand
I've had their kebab before and it's actually pretty decent.

And as the kebab and gyoza were decent, the live music was dreadful. The band couldn't quite decide whether their inspiration was Native American or West African.
Band color
But hey, you can't say that provincial Japan isn't all multi-culti and stuff. :)

Saturday, November 7, 2009

Mashiko Pottery Festival - November Edition

Version:1.0 Last Tuesday we had a public holiday, something that one of my charges so inventively described in Engrish as “bunka no day”. Gotta hand it to that 5 year old, did the best he could, which is a lot better than most adults could manage in this country. But, I’m not here to rant about English (or lack thereof) in Japan, because that’s something as obvious as the sun rising every day.

So, instead, let’s talk about this mysterious “bunka no day”, which translated to proper English is simply “culture day.” For most people here it was just another day off work. When asked about the significance of “culture” in the name, my Japanese coworkers simply shrugged and said, “shopping?”

But I wanted real culture, and by god (or a higher power of your choice), I was gonna get it.

You see, the great thing about Japan is that there is always a local festival going on somewhere, pretty much every weekend of the year. And non-weekend public holidays are no different.

The festival we went to on Tuesday also happened to be very conveniently located in the nearby town of Mashiko. I’ve written about Mashiko before. And I’ve been to Mashiko before. But never during its semi-annual pottery shindig.

Mashiko street

Now, I’m not a fan of pottery, ceramics, whatnot. I’m perfectly happy with cheap and tacky dishes from a 100 yen shop. So it amazes me to no end that people are actually willing to pay thousands of yen (hundreds of dollars) for stuff that looks absolutely unremarkable and very frequently – downright ugly and crude. Of course, there are exceptions, but during my visit to Mashiko they were hard to find.

Euan craig
Euan Craig is happy, the Pottery Festival was a success, he said on his blog. His stuff is fabulous, and if I were independently rich, I'd definitely buy it.

Out of the hundreds of pottery stalls that were lining the streets and parks and every other available surface, I can honestly say I liked only three. One artsy-shmansy Clive Barkerish inspired (or so it looked to me) work by Hinotama. And two very functional selections by Euan Craig, a professional Aussie potter who’s settled in Mashiko (ridiculously expensive) and Genevieve Navarre, a French woman who’s been living in Japan for over 20 years (just expensive). And isn’t it odd that the two functional ones I liked just happen to be made by foreigners? Hmmm… Interesting…

Hinotama sign
Hinotama, on the other hand, is totally from another planet, if not from another universe.

Ceramics 2
But he was selling. The stuff wasn't cheap at all, but boy, was it selling...

Diseased neko
This is his take on maneki neko, I guess.

But that’s Mashiko for you. The local potters there only really have two chances a year to sell their works to the public, and hence the prices reflect that fact. And because pottery snobs (like my mother in law, for example) actually buy the stuff (about 20 dollars for a set of chopstick resters, anyone?), then I guess everybody is happy.

Now, for the practical bits:

There are two Pottery Festivals in Mashiko, one in May and one in November (normally around November 3rd). Mashiko Tourist Association will always know the exact dates, alas, as most things in Japan, their website is in Japanese only. I guess even with all the foreign potters living in their town, they haven’t figured that foreigners may want to visit the place as well. No wonder that ceramics and pottery themed tours from the US don’t include Mashiko in their itineraries.

Getting to Mashiko is more or less easy. It’s one of the stops on the Moka railway. And if you want, you can even travel there in style – the original choochoo steam engine does stop there en route from Shimodate to Motegi. I wrote about it here.

And now, if you excuse me, I have a gyoza festival to attend. Now, that’s what I call culture!

PS. More photos from Mashiko here and here.