Saturday, April 29, 2017

Asia Mega Tour II - The Trip Home

Our flight home didn't leave until 7 PM so we had some time to kill in Tokyo yet. We went out shopping for various things that children had requested. Unfortunately the Japan they evidently visited or bought things from was an alternative universe from the one we were in. We dutifully showed pictures to various staff at our hotel and at stores only to be met with stares and typically polite Japanese regret that they couldn't help us. At the hotel they even called around to a number of stores for one particular food item with no success. That used up most of our free time.

We were at one of the department stores on this search and I used my new found knowledge to buy some sashimi. Wife wanted Japanese fried chicken and there was a place right next to our hotel. They were cool with me eating my sashimi while Wife ate her chicken. Then we picked up our bags, caught a cab to the train station, took the train to Narita airport. We turned in our IC Suica cards without problem. Actually I had made a mistake and put both our train rides to Narita on one card and didn't have enough to get out but the automatic 'card recharge machine' was down. So they waved us through. This was picked up when I turned in the cards. But then they didn't charge us for it anyway!

We hung out in the ANA business class lounge. Not as good as Singapore Airlines or EVA by far though the guy making sushi, who was a character, gave me an extra piece because I was willing to use my five word/phrases of Japanese with him.

The flight to LA was totally uneventful. We stayed at a hotel very near the airport. We had our traditional first sticker shock meal back in the US where our 10 inch pizza, shared salad and two glasses of wine matched the most expensive meal we ate in two months in Asia.

The next day it was home to Albuquerque where instead of sun and blue skies it has been snowing and highs in the 40's!

We have this process of coming home down to a science. The jet lag has been managed to a minimum. Wife has about two days to catch up on accounting and stuff. I already had my business meetings set up before we ever arrived. It hardly felt like we had left.

We are so incredibly lucky and grateful to have the ability and the wherewithal to do what we do. The traditional postmortem of the trip will be in the next day or so.

It was really, really, really fabulous.

Friday, April 28, 2017

Asia Mega Tour II - Finale, Search for the One True Ramen

With a single day left on two month tour, we were exploring our options within the Tokyo area. I wanted to see some water and had suggested visiting Yokohama, only 30 minutes by train from Shinjuku. As I researched I came across something that struck my eye...the Shin-Yokohama Ramen Museum! What was this? Going to the museum's site I found out a lot about ramen and the fact that the museum's key feature was subsidiary branches of multiple top flight ramen places from around the country representing the best of their regional styles. This led to more research on my part and my finally understanding the component parts of ramen and the wide range of regional variations.

This led to THE QUEST. The Quest for the One True Ramen.

Some history...remember back to our trip beginnings. We were in the south/west of Japan on the island of Kyushu in the cities of Kagoshima and Fukuoka. We'd had all kinds of issues finding food we liked but our fall back was ramen. It was rich, meaty, and had all the flavor points we were looking for. Fast forward to being in Taiwan. It was our last night there and there was a Japanese ramen place in the train station next to our hotel. The ramen there was 'Tokyo style'. That didn't mean much to us but we were very disappointed when our bowls came with a heaping pile bonito flakes on them giving the ramen a distinctly fishy flavor. We didn't think much about this until we finally made our way to Tokyo. Our first meal was ramen and it was nothing like what we'd had when we were down south. The broth was very fishy and they put a dollop of salted fish in oil on top of the bowl. We were very disappointed and feared to try ramen again.

But my research showed the types of ramen, their use of different broth components, flavoring components (called 'tare' it is a strong flavor on the bottom of the bowl), noodle types, noodle length of cooking time, and additions. And I found OUR ramen, the ramen of the south, the ramen of Kyushu, the TONKATSU RAMEN based on a rich pork bone broth and no fish!!!!!  Lo and behold at the Shin-Yokohama Ramen Museum was a place offering the very ramen we sought! The quest began.

First it is necessary to go to Yokohama
Yokohama is a city of 3 million that is part of the 35 million person Tokyo metropolitan area
Compared to the intensity of the areas of Tokyo we'd been in to date, it was an island of calm.

Yokohama struck us as a particularly attractive and photogenic city
Upon our arriving we went from the main train station to a development next door (almost always the case with Japanese train stations from our limited observation)
We noted this mural
 Yokohama was the major port of entry into Japan after it was opened up in the mid-19th century 
This mural has scenes depicting that era

Next we took a water taxi to another part of the city which gave us great views of the city 
The weather was glorious and the inner photographer freshly blooded from his recent workshop came forth
Study of Yokohama Harbor on a Rising Sun Theme

Study of Yokohama Harbor without Rising Sun

ARG what is this we spy?
Our nemesis - The Cruise Ship
Actually they all seemed to be in places other than Yokohama today
Into the lovely bay side park

Statue notable for something but I forgot to write it down
Hopefully Wife puts it on her blog
Photographer's study of other photographers

Then we went to what was reputed to be Japan's largest Chinatown
There a slew of school children in uniform
Some kind of end of year field trip we suspect

By this time a number of hours had passed and we were getting tired and hungry
We wanted Japanese fried chicken but this was the kingdom of steamed buns and there was none to be found
Wife wisely recognizing the infamous de-I family hunger crabs made a command decision to buy some recognizable spring rolls which we wolfed down

Next we needed to get to a particular train station to get to Shin-Yokohama, a suburb around Shinkasen train station (not the same as the regular station) where the museum is located
Now the quest truly began
Train station
So close looking on the map
So NOT close by way of the feet and attempts to navigate with map and google
But despite the long, hot walk there were still pictures to be taken

And what is this?
Why I believe it is monument in homage to the veritable ramen noodle itself
At last we reached our goal 
Arriving at Shin-Yokohama a Japanese gentleman struck up a conversation with us in English
(very unusual)
He had a warm spot for Americans based on working there
He walked us to the museum

Ah the splendor of it

Inside the museum (which had a steep discounts for seniors thank you - the first and only we'd seen in Asia) - it was laid out as 1950's Tokyo would look like

After some searching, we find our place
Further frustration trying to figure out the system for buying tickets from the machine (too the right) for getting what we wanted
But ultimately the price
Gad it was good
Delicious rich pork broth, crispy fried garlic over the top, highly seasoned pork meat, and NO fish
With extra meat it was $9
I was in heaven 😇
So let us say goodbye to our quest with one last
Feral bikes clearly are a big problem in Yokohama

Wednesday, April 26, 2017

Asia Mega Tour II - Food Tour Japan

With only days left to the mega tour, we had booked a food tour with the company, Culinary Backstreets. We had used these folks for a tour in Istanbul and had had a marvelous experience with our visiting far more of the city than we would have otherwise and learning much beyond food. We were supposed to take a tour with them last year in Shanghai but we had to cancel because of our Vietnam food poisoning. So we were really looking forward to this one in Tokyo.

Our tour took us to two areas of the Tokyo region - Shibuya, the home of the ultra-hip, ultra-chic and then to Kichijoji, a smaller town in the Tokyo Metro area that represents a more laid back lifestyle. Our leader, Noam, an American from San Diego who is married to a Japanese woman and has lived in Japan for 14 years, wanted to give us a taste of the high end Japan and the Japan of every day. 

We also got a lot of food history in. It turns out that many of the foods we associate with Japan come from elsewhere or are relatively recent inventions.

We started off with sushi
We then went through the basement of a large famous department store
We found out that just about every major department store has a food that provides regular groceries, ready to eat food, and gift food. Who knew? No one told me this before going to Japan. This would have changed our eating in the country substantially. We found that this store had a huge sushi and sashimi selection.
Fresh wasabi root...very hard to find
In addition to the regular food, there was food for gifts
Gift giving is a big thing in Japan and they tend to use food as apartments are small and people don't want more things.
So let's say you have a need to by de-I a gift
How about some beautifully perfect, wonderfully packaged mangoes?
Very nice...only $162
What you say that you want to show de-I respect but has a tad lower sticker price
How about some perfect cherries?
A steal at $97
But no. You want to show de-I the respect he truly deserves
How about some melons?
$233 worth of melons buys you a lot of de-I appreciation.
Want to give some great looking sushi?
This sushi packaging one some kind of award for design

Beautiful cut up fruit cups
And a sponge cake whose roots are Portuguese
Then we took the train to Kichijoji
This mural is in the Shibuya Station. Looks Mexican doesn't it
Turns out that this was done by Japanese artist for a Mexican hotel that went belly up before it could  be installed
In Kichijoji, this sign which means nothing in the context of our story

A key market street in the town
Here our goal is minced meat cutlets
Not croquettes
Not Beef cutlet on a stick or pork cutlet on a stick
No Minced Beef Cutlet
There was a long line
They were making them in droves and we stood in line for a while to get them
The finished product
Need some primo meat while you're waiting?
While our minced beef cutlet costs about $2, the meat above costs between $40 and $100 a pound
Enjoying Minced Beef Cutlet goodness
Then on to the artisanal rice cracker shop
Three generations now in the family
The current matriarch 
The current maestro
At his work
Samples of their wares
A good luck piece over the door to the small workplace in back of the store
They buy this from a local temple each year
Next up 
Takoyaki! Octopus Balls!
Who knew that Japan was a major player in the maintenance of octopus fertility?
Japan makes millions and millions of Takoyaki a year
Many of these never make it to the creatures but are shunted aside for food,
Takoyaki production line
Happy octopus ball making guy
Next it was off to a yakatori place
Food on a stick!
We tried all kinds of things including heart, liver and tongue
Boo no chicken skin available today :(
Our group looking very happy sitting traditionally on the floor
We weren't
Even the younger ones were in agony by the time we were done
Next off to a traditional Japanese drinking establishment
An Izakaya where you drink and eat small bits of food
One happy, one not
Mr. F (an Italian working in London) has taken a food challenge from me 
Wife has not
Mmmmm guts
Stewed offal
It was actually really tasty and not chewy or off flavored
Bitter Melon on a stick
A bit...well bitter
As we were drinking and eating away, some candid shots
A customer across the way giving us a toast
It is so interesting to see the behavior of Japanese when they are letting their hair down whether as tourists on the train as we saw earlier or at an izakaya
The lovely Ms. K, an American from Chicago now working in London

After almost 7 hours of activity we took the train back to Shinjuku