Sunday, November 30, 2008

Japan: Culinary Adventures (8): Gyoza

After leaving @home cafe we took the train to the Ikebukuro station, got off and headed for Sunshine 60 (at one time Japan’s tallest building.) Our prior research had convinced us that here was the place for gourmet gyoza. After some directional issues—the object of our search being Gyoza Stadium—we finally ended up in, tah-dah, Namja Town!

Namja Town is apparently an indoor "theme park" with games and such-like. The Namja Town cat mascot is somewhat odd-looking, though I thought that the bow tie was a nice touch. So anyway, located within Namja Town is Gyoza Stadium, a collection of shops selling gyoza (pot stickers.) We didn’t know that you had to pay an admission fee to get in. At least we got a souvenir ticket.

In retrospect, maybe there actually were places with gourmet gyoza there. Unfortunately, by the time we had located this . . . ah, unusual place, we were starting to get really hungry. So we ended up eating somewhere chosen at random.

But the gyoza was good! I know that I ate a lot. Also, the combination of the maid cafe and Namja Town made for a very special experience.

Afterwards we split up, Hali, Maz and Shawna off to take a sushi class, and myself taking the Yamanote Line to Shinbashi for pix.

Photo: Namja Town Mascot—Tokyo, 2008
Scan: Namja Town Admission Ticket

Saturday, November 29, 2008

Japan: Culinary Adventures (7): @Home Café

Well, this experience was sufficiently bizarre that I felt it should have its own blog entry. And though perhaps it wasn’t exactly a "culinary" adventure, yet, @home does present itself as a "café."

After some searching (we had heard about it in California) we found the entry to the @home "maid" café in Akihabara, and then, after some debate—some of us were a little dubious, but Maz was game—went inside and took the elevator to the 7th floor.

Maybe you’ve read about them: all the waitresses are youngish women dressed as maids. Very odd, since there’s nothing risque about the outfits, alas. Male customers are addressed as "shujinsama"—master.

We were required to order something from the café: I had a melon soda, others had iced tea. Our waitress brought us these items, then played a little game with us involving . . . involving . . . um, you know, describing this is going to be a little tedious. Others have been there and have already described it. Why reinvent the wheel?

Luckily, the best was reserved for last: we were each given our own personal "License of Your Majesty," personally inscribed by our waitress on the back. Please see my copy below. The Japanese characters read, "Maikuru goshujinsama 20/10/22." That is to say: "Mike, Honorable Master, Oct 22, 20 [20th year of the current Japanese emperor]."

As if that wasn’t enough, then she added that cute little Hello Kitty emoticon.

Leaving @home, we realized that we were starting to get hungry for some actual lunch.

We decided to head for Gyoza Stadium.

Photo: @Home Café, Akihabara—Tokyo, 2008
Scan: License of Your Majesty from @Home Café

Friday, November 28, 2008

. . . from the archives #30 : Rock & Racetrack—Death Valley, 1977

You arrive at the Racetrack, a dry lake bed in Death Valley, after a car ride of some hours duration. The emptiness is a little unsettling at first.

When it rains the muddy surface becomes slick and slippery—the wind then pushes rocks in straight lines across the lake bed, this accounts for the mini-boulders scattered here and there on the playa. Sometimes they leave grooves in the mud behind them.

Photo: Rock & Racetrack—Death Valley, 1977

Thursday, November 27, 2008


No need to worry! We will not be having turkey this afternoon.

Photo: Turkey at Entrance to Glen Drive Productions—Marin County, 2008

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Leaves, Fence, Persimmons; Cormorant

1) Leaves & fence (first seen here) with persimmons. Woodacre.

2) Cormorant in the canal back of Trader Joe’s. San Rafael.

Photos: Leaves, Fence, Persimmons—Marin County, 2008; Cormorant—San Rafael, 2008

Tuesday, November 25, 2008


We met Shawna and Maz around 10:30 and headed out for the day’s adventure. First, to Shinbashi Station, then onto the renowned Yamanote Line to the equally renowned Akihabara section of Tokyo, otherwise known as Akihabara Denki Gai, or . . . Akihabara Electric Town.

As the group wandered through the maze-like congregation of electronic, camera, and computer stores I tried to keep up with the others, firing the SLR at this and that. I tried to find a digital watch that used Japanese characters, but couldn’t, alas.

Photos: Electronic Store, Akihabara—Tokyo, 2008; Maid, Akihabara—Tokyo, 2008

Monday, November 24, 2008

Japan: Culinary Adventures (6): Tonkatsu

On our arrival night in Tokyo we went with Shawna & Maz to Butagumi, a restaurant specializing in tonkatsu—deep-fried pork cutlets. Butagumi featured pork imported from various regions of Japan and the world, and, as always, the food was excellent. Plus, there was an English menu! One item was described thusly: "Iberico Pig. From Spain. Very famous pork in the world. It grows up eating acorn."

We had taken a subway to the general vicinity of the restaurant, and after some hurried consultations with Mike’s compass, we decided to take a cab. Actually, the cab ride was very interesting, since the driver had to spend about five minutes consulting his onboard GPS unit. He never was able to get us to the exact address, but got us to the general vicinity where we were able to find it without any difficulty. (He ended up charging us a pittance.)

Photos: Tonkatsu—Tokyo, 2008; Cab Ride—Tokyo, 2008; Cab GPS Unit—Tokyo, 2008

Sunday, November 23, 2008

Marin Autumn

In Marin you will not find any of the startling scarlet leaves found on the East Coast (or in Japan), but there is an infinite variety of yellow.

And, as far as autumn images go, funereal lichen-covered trees can be found at any time of year, but I found these particular lichen-covered trees just this week, in autumn. (You can enlarge the photos by clicking on them.)

Photos: Autumn Leaves, San Geronimo Creek—Marin County, 2008; Lichen & Trees—Marin County, 2008

Saturday, November 22, 2008


We traveled to Tokyo via Shinkansen (bullet train) from Nagano. We got into Nagano a little late (train from Matsumoto unaccountably delayed) so had to do one of our by-now-routine scrambles: "Arrive Nagano . . . late! Quick! Up the elevator, across the platform, down the stairs clunking our suitcases, run down the platform to our car, car number 8, which of course is the end car on the shinkansen train."

2 PM: Arrive Tokyo Station. Thence a harrowing struggle (two heavy suitcases) from the shinkansen platform over to the Yamanote Line carrying the suitcases up a flight of steps and thence lugging them on a labyrinthine route (underground!) to our hotel.

Finally—our hotel room on the 33rd floor, featuring a Blade Runnerish view of Tokyo (the Tokyo Tower a prominent landmark.) The fabled metropolis! Whew.

Photos: Sunset—Tokyo, 2008; Night City—Tokyo, 2008; Arriving Park Hotel Basement Entrance—Tokyo, 2008

Friday, November 21, 2008

Autumn Vine

A recent Marin County photo, taken near Tuffy’s stable, with the Olympus C-8080.

In other news, I sold three pix at my second Farmers Market event! Whoa! My booth attracted many avid art collectors, for sure.

Photos: Autumn Vine—Marin County, 2008; Art Connoisseur—Marin County, 2008

Thursday, November 20, 2008

Back to Matsumoto

On the way back from the monkeys we took the same one-track train out of Yudanaka. Once again, the station agent had to work the ticket machine for us. Getting close to Nagano a group of schoolkids boarded the train: we were stared at for a few minutes, then quickly forgotten.

Also seen: agricultural burning which, together with what I assume were inversion conditions, really cut down on visibility in and around Matsumoto. Maybe spring or summer would be better for mountain-viewing?

Photos: Track Out of Yudanaka—Japan, 2008; Schoolkids on Train—Japan, 2008; Burning—Japan, 2008

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

In the Realm of the Snow Monkeys

While planning for our Japan trip, Snow Monkeys were top items on our must-see list. (Snow Monkeys are Japanese Macaques that during the winter relax in onsen—hot springs.)

The interesting thing was that our designated route was chosen before we did any Snow Monkey research. It was therefore fortunate that our stay in Matsumoto made visiting the monkeys into a doable day trip event. (And it did end up taking the entire day.)

Our route was as follows: Japan Railroad from Matsumoto to Nagano. Nippon Dentetsu light rail from Nagano to Yudanaka. Bus from Yudanaka to Kanbayashi Onsen. Hike from Kanbayashi Onsen to Jigokudani Monkey Park.

We basically followed this schedule without any real hitch, except for the not-getting-off-the-bus-at-the-correct-stop issue mentioned earlier, which turned out to be good for photography.

Approaching the Monkey Park elicited the same strange sensation I’ve described before: a place that heretofore only existed in one’s imagination gradually coming into focus. So it was that we found ourselves walking up the road past the high class onsen hotels, seeing the signs pointing the way to the monkey park, hiking through a dark forest and eventually coming to a ramshackle wooden building, paying the entrance fee and entering the domain of the snow monkeys.

We had been worried about sighting monkeys: would they be elusive, hiding in the undergrowth or otherwise unavailable? Well, they were there all right. O yes. I don’t mean that they were aggressive (towards humans, anyway) or in any way annoying. But there were certainly a lot of them running about. I mean, quite a lot. In one case a group of monkeys blocked our trail as they headed for one of the feeding stations.

Photos: Snow Monkey—Japan, 2008; Monkeys on Trail—Japan, 2008; Hali & Monkeys—Japan, 2008

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Japan Autumn

Mostly we didn’t see any real Fall colors. However, on a day trip from Matsumoto to Yudanaka we—fortunately—missed our bus stop and continued up the mountain towards Joshinetsu Kogen National Park. Once we realized our error we got off at a view point and had 10 minutes before the next bus going back down was due to arrive.

10 minutes! I had to work fast . . . there was a thin cloud layer overhead and some very nice autumn colors in view, with scatterings of leafless branches (beeches?). I was able to capture a three-panel panorama (above) now put together in Photoshop.

Later, our hike took us by a number of high-end hotels sporting some delicate maple foliage.

Photos: Autumn Landscape, Joshinetsu Kogen National Park—Japan, 2008; Maple Leaves, Kanbayashi Onsen—Japan, 2008

Monday, November 17, 2008

Clement Street

I visited San Francisco last week to have lunch with Marilyn. We went to one of San Francisco’s generic Chinese restaurants on Clement Street, you know, where you get enormous quantities of food for a pittance.

Afterwards, I brought out the C-8080 and took these photos. Nice color!

Photos: Vegetables, Clement St.—San Francisco, 2008; Church and Branches—San Francisco, 2008

Sunday, November 16, 2008

Daio Wasabi Farm

Wasabi is Japanese horseradish. The last stop on our rural excursion was the Daio Wasabi Farm, an interestingly touristy spot. A touristy spot for the Japanese, that is. (A big parking lot, with lots of tour buses.)

Not exactly what you’d call a culinary experience, though Shawna and I had to get a wasabi ice cream cone. (Luckily, no real wasabi flavor to the ice cream.) It was interesting to see how river water had been diverted into broad gullies where the wasabi was planted.

Photos: Daio Wasabi Farm Sign—Japan, 2008; Wasabi Farm—Japan, 2008

Saturday, November 15, 2008

Japan: Culinary Adventures (5): Soba

Teaching the soba class was the soba sensei, with Maz interpreting. What the sensei’s name was we never found out. His name tag is plainly in view: the first character is "Yama" (mountain.) Unfortunately, I’ve been unable to work out the second character, even with the aid of Nelson’s Character Dictionary.

Since I didn’t take the class myself, I can’t bring back a full report. However, from my observations, it became clear that soba-making is a fairly demanding endeavor, requiring strength and precision.

The dough had to be rolled out to precisely the right flatness, and then cut into precisely equal widths (like matchsticks) utilizing a heavy-duty specialized soba knife.

I can, however, report back that the lunch we had, using the just-made soba noodles, was delicious.

Photos: Soba Sensei—Japan, 2008; Soba Sensei Sweeping Flour—Japan, 2008; Soba Class—Japan, 2008

Friday, November 14, 2008

Hotaka Countryside

All of us took the train from Matsumoto to the small town of Hotaka for a day-long excursion to a more rural part of Japan. After arriving in Hotaka we rented bicycles and soon found ourselves on some narrow roads leading out of town.

Presently we arrived at an isolated soba restaurant, where Shawna, Maz & Hali were to take a soba-making class.

Left to my own devices, I pedaled further into the backroads outside Hotaka. It was an odd sensation: alone, bicycling around in the middle of Japan, past small houses, streams and folks harvesting an abundant persimmon crop.

Photos: Flowers, Streams—Japan, 2008; Harvesting Persimmons—Japan, 2008; Bicycling in Hotaka—Japan, 2008

Thursday, November 13, 2008

The Return of the C-8080

Well, the Olympus E-510 has been sent to Southern California for repair. We’ll see. In the meantime I’ve resurrected my old Olympus "digicam" C-8080. What’s interesting is that this camera seems to take much nicer photos than my just-purchased Canon G9. Now, the G9 is way more compact, so it was invaluable during the Japan trip, but for landscape pix, I think I’d stick with the C-8080.

In other news, my first Farmers Market experience is history. Alas, no sales. Zero, zilch. As a new participant, I’ve been relegated to the Kiddie Ghetto, scene of enormous inflatable Kiddie Fun Enclosures. I must say, they’re very colorful, certainly.

And lots of noise! Kids, babies and air compressors!

Photos: Maple Tree—Marin County, 2008; Slide—Marin County, 2008; Photoshopped Baby—Marin County, 2008

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Japan: Culinary Adventures (4) : Yakiniku

The trip from Kanazawa to the higher elevation city of Matsumoto involved a circuitous railroad trip looping through Nagoya. Of course, there were issues: an odd interlude wherein all passengers were obliged to get up and rotate the seats, and then the by-now obligatory hectic transfer at Nagoya. Luckily we had been cued-in already by Shawna and Maz so an outside observer would have thought that we knew what we were doing.

So our arrival in Matsumoto was late in the afternoon. Fortunately Shawna and Maz had already done some exploring: for dinner we headed to a funky little yakiniku joint. Yakiniku, that is: grilled meat. So we were given plates full of meat to grill, as well as cabbage and onions. And dipping sauce. (Come to think of it, I don't know if we ever did find out the actual name of the restaurant.)

A do-it-yourself affair, bibs optional, with a gas hibachi placed in front of you (in our case, at the counter.) One of the meats was of uncertain origin, untranslatable by Maz. We’ve since come to believe that it was horse meat, as Matsumoto is known for this delicacy.

Photos: Yakiniku Exterior—Matsumoto, 2008; Yakiniku Interior—Matsumoto, 2008; Yakiniku Grill—Matsumoto, 2008

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Japan: Culinary Adventures (3): Musashi

I can’t just skip over Musashi, a nice little restaurant in Kanazawa.

Mie recommended Musashi as a good restaurant within walking distance of the ryokan.

"Ah," I said. "Miyamoto Musashi."

"Yes," she exclaimed. "Miyamoto Musashi!!"

Of course, Miyamoto Musashi, as we all know, was a legendary samurai warrior, made famous by Toshiro Mifune in the great Inagaki trilogy. And I’m sure that we all accept as indisputable fact Musashi’s ability to catch flies with his chopsticks.

I strolled by the restaurant on a sunset pix expedition and ascertained that they had an English menu; then we went back that evening. Hali had been designated as the food adventurer, so she pushed open the door and I followed. We were ushered to a seat at the counter directly in front of a great quantity of sake bottles.

A really nice place! Servings were almost like tapas—that is, small portions covering a variety of the culinary spectrum. My scrawled, indistinct notes only mention that we had, among other things, a shredded radish salad, halibut cheeks and tempura. (Everything we had certainly went well with beer.)

Watching the chefs cook was, probably, the most fun.

Photos: Sake Bottles—Kanazawa, 2008; Chef Cooking, Musashi—Kanazawa, 2008

Monday, November 10, 2008

The Amenities of Civilization

Wherever we stayed in Japan, the bathrooms came with one of these electronic devices (see photo.) Pushing the various buttons located on the side would enable various sprays targeting various areas, if you know what I mean. And I think that you do know what I mean.

And heated seats! Wow! Although in Kanazawa Mie had to help me turn down the heat: it was a little too warm.

How much do these things cost? I want one!

Photo: Toilet—Japan, 2008

Sunday, November 9, 2008

Marin County—Update

OK, so I’ve been back in Marin for a few weeks now. Sorting through my Japan pix is turning out to be a major effort—so far I’ve printed up 10 contact sheets, with 30 images per sheet (after numerous deletions). And that’s just the Kyoto photos!

As I continue to slog through the remainder, I’ll be posting them on the blog, but maybe not every single day.

Also, I’ve been accepted as an artisan at the Marin Farmers Market, showing my work every Sunday. This will enable me to try out various marketing strategies, but will undoubtedly require a great deal of effort.

Alas, my nice little Olympus E-510 has been acting up, switching into "portrait mode" (whatever that is) on its own while I’m in the middle of a shoot. Olympus support doesn’t have any idea as to the cause, so I’ll be sending the camera in for repair.

And, for the final paragraph, a topical update: 88% of the voters in Fairfax voted for Obama! Of course, what I want to know is: who constituted that 12%?

Photo: Leaves, Rain—Marin County, 2008

Saturday, November 8, 2008

Kanazawa II

We walked to the Kenrokuen Garden from our ryokan right by the Kanazawa castle. I returned later in the day to get this sunset shot.

I took advantage of some momentary cloud cover to take this photo of one of the many paths found in Kenrokuen.

Photos: Castle—Kanazawa, 2008; Pathway, Kenrokuen—Kanazawa, 2008