Archive for January, 2012

Tokyo Snow-asis

January 28, 2012

On Monday night of this week, it began to snow in Tokyo. By Tuesday morning (Jan. 24), it was four centimeters deep on the ground, and the TV news was describing it as the biggest accumulation Japan’s capital had seen in four years. Hoping to get a few nice nice photos while the snow was fresh, I made a beeline for the Koishikawa Korakuen garden, which as you can see from the above photo is right next to the Tokyo Dome baseball stadium.

The 70,847-square-meter garden (originally much larger) was built by a branch of the Tokugawa family nearly 400 years ago, so Tokyo Dome wasn’t always part of the view. (Click on the picture of the sign at right to read a brief official history.) The buildings below are probably closer to what you would have seen when the Korakuen was new:

There are parts of the garden where modern Tokyo cannot be ignored:

And there are parts where you might forget that you are in a city at all:

Now, nearly a week later, there are still a few scattered patches of dirty ice here and there in Tokyo’s more shaded nooks, but it was melting rapidly even on the morning I took these pictures. In fact, in this video you can actually hear the melting snow dropping from the trees:

A word of warning about that video, by the way: There’s no plot, and nothing happens. It’s just a view.

To view Korakuen in person, exit Korakuen subway station on the Tokyo Dome side, look for this wall to the right of the dome, and follow it a few hundred meters to the entrance

Admission is 300 yen. Official English details here.

Look inside my lucky bag

January 10, 2012

At the beginning of every year, most Japanese retailers sell fukubukuro “lucky bags” filled with excess merchandise they want to unload. Customers can’t see what is inside the bags, but it is generally understood that the price of one bag will be much lower than the ordinary price of its contents. You pays your money and you takes your chances.

You could look at this as a combination of two vices: retail therapy and gambling. Or, if the price isn’t too high, you could look at is as a harmless bit of silly fun.

Over the many New Year’s seasons I have passed in Japan, I have merely looked on at this phenomenon with puzzlement. But this year I actually bought a lucky bag for the first time.

Japan is divided into 47 prefectures, and the governments of most (probably all) of them maintain “antenna shops” in Tokyo that showcase local products and promote tourism. I recently visited the Iwate Prefecture antenna shop in Ginza, hoping to buy a new soy sauce flavored dessert that I had read was being produced in that prefecture. There were none available, but I did see lucky bags on sale.

Ordinarily, I wouldn’t have given the bags a second glance, but Iwate is one the three prefectures hardest hit by last year’s tsunami, which makes me think that buying frivolous Iwate products is a way to do an economic good deed while also being self-indulgent. Besides, the price was amusing and not too high: 2,012 yen.

Although I couldn’t see inside the bags, there was nothing to stop me from picking several of them up one after another to see how heavy they were. The Iwate antenna store sells many types of local sake and microbrew beer, and I was hoping that a heavier bag might indicate some of those goodies inside. Each bag did seem heavy enough to contain at least one can or bottle, but more than that I couldn’t tell. I picked a bag at random and hoped for the best.

In retrospect, since there was no notice prohibiting people below the age of 20 from buying the bags, I was foolish to hope for alcohol. Here’s what I did get:

Top row

A handkerchief with a poem printed on it. The poem is by Kenji Miyazawa (1896-1933), one of the most famous people to come from Iwate.
A bag of rusks – slices of bread baked a second time to become hard and long-lasting. Rusks are a Western invention, used long ago to provision ships, but Japan is the only country I have ever seen them in.
Jajamen – fat udon noodles with chunky, spicy sauce. This bag contains servings for two.

Middle row

“Seagull egg” petit fours – little round cakes with a white chocolate shell and yellow anko filling.
Youkan – a thick, heavy, gelatinous, bean-based confection that in this case has a sesame flavor.
Soba noodles.

Bottom row

Horohorozuke – spicy minced vegetable pickles to put on top of rice.
Pickled wakame seaweed snacks – rubbery and sour.
A mixture of a dozen types of grain, including millet, barley and amaranth, to mix into plain white rice before cooking to make it more interesting.

Was it worth it?

On the one hand, the usual retail prices of these items probably add up to about twice the amount I paid. I do intend to eat and/or share all of the food items shown above. As for the handkerchief, I have a friend may have a bit of an interest in Miyazawa, so I’ll probably give it to that person.

On the other hand, NONE of these items are things I would have chosen to buy if I could have seen them first.

Such is the nature of lucky bags.

Purple potatoes

January 2, 2012

A little over a year ago, I wrote a blog post that mentioned a purple potato salad I had found sold as a dessert item in a supermarket just outside of Tokyo. (See it here.) A little over a month ago, a reader posted a comment asking where he could buy the purple potatoes themselves in Japan.

Ever since then, I’ve had my eye peeled for murasaki imo, as the colorful spuds are called, every time I set foot in a grocery store’s produce section. But I had no luck.

Then, a wise person suggested that I try the basement food halls of the Mitsukoshi Department store in Ginza. Sure enough, there was a specialty produce corner on floor B3 where murasaki imo were avaiable. They were labeled as produce of Chiba Prefecture.

At 100 yen for 100 grams, these are probably the most expensive potatoes I have ever purchased. The two smallest ones, shown here, cost me a total of 403 yen (about U.S.$5.25 or four euros).

If I had been feeling ambitious as well as extravagant, I could have used them to make a colorful bisque, but instead I simply baked them to serve as a side dish to meat.

I have to report that the main pleasure this vegetable offered was visual. The flavor wasn’t too different from that of an ordinary sweet potato. (If anything, it was blander.) I had to load it up with butter, honey and a generous dusting of cinnamon to make it satisfactorily interesting.

Still, if you are having guests over, murasaki imo might make an interesting conversation piece, especially if you serve them in their skins so that the purple color isn’t revealed until your guests cut into them.

Finally, just for the record, I should mention that you can also buy murasaki imo powder online in Japan through sites including Amazon and Rakuten.

A new way to use a yuzu

January 1, 2012

A yuzu is a fragrant Japanese citrus fruit that looks like an orange but has a mild lemon-lime flavor. The one in the photo above is a rather pretty specimen, as yuzu are often lumpy and sometimes oddly shaped.

Bits of the rind are used to flavor the ozoni soup that is traditionally eaten at New Year’s, and yuzu is also used to scent hot baths in this season.

I recently learned a new way to use a yuzu, thanks to Tamako Sakamoto’s “Taste of Home” cooking column in The Daily Yomiuri. Her latest installment includes several yuzu recipes, and the one for yuzu madeleines sounded like something I just had to try.

Here are my results:

The recipe calls for two tablespoons of yuzu juice, but the baseball-sized specimen I used yielded just a little bit less than that amount. (Yuzu are juicy, but less so than other citrus fruits, and they have very large seeds that take up space inside.) I compensated by adding extra grated rind, and the citrus flavor came through loud and clear in the finished product.

Getting the madeleines out of their pans was a little difficult, but this is probably because I didn’t butter the pans before pouring the batter in. Since the batter itself is nearly one-third butter, I thought it wouldn’t be necessary. Live and learn. They still tasted delicious.


(December 2013) This post originally included a link to the recipe on The Daily Yomiuri website. That page is no longer online — and The Daily Yomiuri is now The Japan News — but you can find many of Sakamoto-san’s recipes in her new cookbook, “Cook Japanese with Tamako.” Although yuzu madeleines are not in the book, but there is a recipe for iced yuzu cookies. Find it on amazon here.