Archive for September, 2013

Tokyo snapshot

September 24, 2013

Harumi Grand water

The Harumi Grand Hotel in Chuo Ward is right next to (perhaps even within) the area that will become the Olympic Village for the 2020 Tokyo Games.

End of the line for Narita’s hovershuttle

September 18, 2013

AAAAA hovershuttle

If ever you’ve flown to or from Japan via Narita Airport’s Terminal 2, you may have had the chance to ride on the shuttle seen in this photo. But you probably won’t get that chance again. The Yomiuri Shimbun reports via The Japan News that this connection between the main and satellite buildings will be shut down this month, after 20 years of operation. (Read the story here.)

I always enjoyed riding it. It operates something like a funicular railway in that its two separate cars are attached to a loop of cable that shuffles them back and forth between the endpoints of its very short route. But I was amazed to learn from the article that the cars have no wheels. They hover on a cushion of air!

Moreover, according to Wikipedia, “The system is made by Nippon Otis Elevator…It is technically (and legally) not a railway, but a horizontal elevator.”

I’ve gone from thinking of the shuttle as cute to thinking of it as totally awesome. But I have no business at the airport this month, so I’ll never see it again.

Around Japan in 47 curries: Yamanashi fruit

September 16, 2013

Yamanashi fruit 001

This is Part 14 of a 47-part series of almost-weekly blog posts looking at curries from each of Japan’s 47 prefectures.

If you climbed the southern slope of Mt. Fuji, you’d be in coastal Shizuoka Prefecture, home to the sardine curry I blogged about earlier. Then, if you descended the northern slope of Mt. Fuji, you’d be in landlocked Yamanashi Prefecture, where you could sample curry made with fruit.

Yamanashi map by Lincun via Wikimedia Commons

Yamanashi map by Lincun via Wikimedia Commons

Yamanashi, west of Tokyo, is a mountainous prefecture. In addition to half of Mt. Fuji, it is home to a dozen peaks more than 2,500 meters tall. Many Japanese people find the pronunciation of its name mildly amusing because “Yama nashi” sounds like a patently untrue statement: “There are no mountains.”

The name is written with the kanji characters 山梨, which mean “mountain pear.” This too is rather odd. Although Yamanashi is famous for fruit, nashi pears are not one of its top crops. (According to the prefectural government, the name’s origins are unknown.)

Grapes and wine are Yamanashi’s most famous products. The cultivation of grapes dates back about 1,300 years, apparently beginning with a monk who had a vision of Buddha holding a bunch of them. Wine production didn’t get started until the 1868-1912 Meiji era, but there are now more than 80 wineries in the prefecture, making about 40 percent of Japan’s domestic wine.

In 2007, the prefecture was No. 1 in grape production, at 51,400 tons, well ahead of second-place Nagano with 30,700. It was also first in peaches (54,100 tons, ahead of then second-place Fukushima at 27,800) and plums (6,660, ahead of second-place Wakayama at 3,280).

While driving through Yamanashi Prefecture a couple of weeks ago, I picked up some grape and peach curries at a highway rest stop. Here they are side by side in one bowl after I brought them home:


They both had a low-to-medium level of spiciness, along with a weak sweet flavor. The sweetness was slightly more noticeable in the grape curry than the peach. The peach curry contained one impressively large chunk of fruit along with smaller fragments.


As big as the peach piece looked, it was so thoroughly cooked that it dissolved to nothingness the instant I put it in my mouth. Neither it nor the curry it was in tasted particularly fruity. (Last week’s Tottori nashi pear curry was a big winner in that regard.)


The grape curry was slightly sweeter, and it contained two whole grapes. Because they were still in their skins, they held their shape and texture much better than the peach did. This added some textural variety, but in terms of flavor neither of these curries was especially exciting or interesting.

Japanese wordplay: Sweet snack

September 14, 2013


This photo shows the lid of a container of Japanese junk food whose name is a delightfully awful pun. Do you get it?

If not, here are some clues.

First, sugar is a major ingredient. It is represented in Japanese by the character 糖 tou, which is prominently featured on the label. This character never appears on its own (as far as I know). But it is part of many common compound words. For example:

砂糖 satou (literally, sand sugar) is ordinary table sugar.
乳糖 nyutou (milk sugar) is lactose.
果糖 katou (fruit sugar) is fructose.
黒糖 kokutou (black sugar) is an extra-dark brown sugar commonly associated with Okinawa.
花林糖 karintou (flower woods sugar) is a poetically named fried snack, more commonly written かりんとう and usually flavored with black or brown sugar. (It’s not the snack shown in the photo, however.)
If you eat too much sugar, you may end up with 糖尿病 tounyoubyou (sugar urine disease), or diabetes. So you might want to look for products that are labeled 低糖 teitou (reduced sugar).

I think that’s enough talk about sugar for now. So, let’s turn to another common junk food ingredient: potatoes.

The basic Japanese word for potato is 芋 imo, often written as いも or イモ. This word can stand on its own, but also appears in a variety of compounds. For example:

里芋 sato imo (village potato) is a taro.
サツマイモ satsuma imo is a sweet potato. It is named after a place – the Satsuma domain in southern Kyushu, where it was first commonly grown.
ジャガイモ jaga imo is a common white potato. It is said to be named after a place even further south – Java – apparently because it first arrived in Japan aboard Dutch ships that sailed via Indonesia.
長芋 nagaimo (long potato) is a Japanese root vegetable similar to jicama in terms of its pale, bland and crunchy flesh, although its shape is long rather than round and its juice is viscous.

However, there is also a Japanese word for potato that comes from English: ポテト poteto. At any casual dining establishment in Japan, you are likely to find ポテトフライ poteto-furai, or French fries, somewhere on the menu.


And now you can see that the snack in the photo does resemble French fries. And its punny name is … PoteTOU.

Get it now?

The full wording on the lid reads: “A marvelous meeting of sweet and salty flavors: PoteTOU. A potato sweet that tastes like black sugar karintou.”

I bought this product because I found the name irresistible. But I only ate a couple of pieces because I don’t want to get 糖尿病.

Tokyo snapshot

September 11, 2013


Ultraman Dyna stands guard outside the Sunshine City shopping center on a recent rainy night in Ikebukuro.

Around Japan in 47 curries: Tottori nashi pear

September 7, 2013
This is what a nashi pear looks like. (The one shown here is from Chiba Prefecture.),

Here is what a nashi pear looks like. (This one is from Chiba Prefecture.)

This is Part 13 of a 47-part series of almost-weekly blog posts looking at curries from each of Japan’s 47 prefectures.

One day in 1989, someone brought some nashi pears the office where I was working. They sliced them up and passed them around on little plates. I had just begun living in Japan and had never seen or heard of nashi. The first thing I noticed was that these pears weren’t pear-shaped. They were big and round. The second thing I noticed was that they were some of the most delicious fruit I had ever eaten.

The texture was remarkable. The pale flesh was about as hard as that of a Red Delicious apple, and even more crisp. But it was packed with a seemingly impossible volume of clear, sweet juice. How so much liquid could some out of something so solid was a wonderful paradox. And after eating it, my mouth felt clean and refreshed. I was blown away.

If only people in America knew about these, I thought, they would be hugely popular there.

ghost-dvd-cover-artA year later, in 1990, I went to the theater to see the movie “Ghost.” Patrick Swayze plays a murder victim, and Demi Moore plays his grieving girlfriend. The villain who arranged the murder wants to find out how much she knows, so he sets out to seduce her. In the most shocking scene I saw on film that year, the actor Tony Goldwyn pulled out a crumpled paper bag and presented Demi Moore with some delectable “Japanese apple pears” – a rare, expensive and little-known treat in America, a gift meant to show his generosity and savoir-faire.

I was aghast. My beloved nashi had been introduced to the American public at last – but as a tool of seduction in the hands of a cold-blooded killer. Oh, the injustice! They might as well have taken those pears, chopped them into tiny pieces and made them into curry!

Well, 23 years later, I have learned that someone did just that.


Map by Lincun via Wikimedia Commons

This week’s curry comes from Tottori Prefecture, which is perhaps most famous for sand. The Tottori Sakyu sand dunes, 16 kilometers long and two kilometers wide, are one of the weirder bits of Japan’s geography. They’re also the place where the famous 1964 movie “Woman in the Dunes” was filmed.

So far in this blog series, I have tasted curries made with cheese, olives, mackerel, strawberries and horse meat. Almost anything can be made into curry in Japan, and I’ll try almost any Japanese curry. But even in Tottori, there is no sand curry. Good thing, too, or I might feel obliged.

However, they do grow nashi pears there. In particular, they have one nashi tree with especially good pears that was found growing wild in 1904. It was named “Nijuu Seiki Nashi,” which literally means 20th-century pear. This tree and its many offspring produce pears that Tottori is quite proud of, as evidenced by this promotional website and the fact that they actually built a Tottori pear museum.

Tottori nashi 001And of course, there is Tottori 20th-century pear curry. Nashi is the first listed ingredient, but a parenthetical note advises that only 60 percent of it is the 20th-century variety. This is followed by sautéed onions, curry roux, fond de veau and ground meat. It is labeled as being mild enough to eat for breakfast, and that is when I tried it. It was very nice.

The soft bits of minced fruit and firmer bits of well-cooked ground meat gave it an interesting pebbly texture that went well with tender grains of rice. I surmised that the meat might be pork, knowing how that particular meat is often prepared with fruit. But the ingredient list identified it as a beef-pork mixture. It was definitely sweet, but not in such a way that the flavor shouted, “Nashi!” If I’d been tasting this blind, I might have guessed it was made with green apples that had mellowed in cooking. On a more personal note, the particular sweetness of this curry brought up memories of being a little kid pulling out the insides of honeysuckle flowers to taste of the drop of nectar in each one.

It was a very pleasant breakfast indeed.


Birth of a Japanese tornado?

September 4, 2013

Storm wide

“Tornado” in Japanese is 竜巻 tatsumaki, written with a pair of characters that can be read to mean “spinning dragon.”

The other day, I may have photographed a dragon’s egg.

At 1:14 on Monday, September 3, I stepped out the front door of my apartment in Kawaguchi, a northern suburb of Tokyo, and saw an unusual cloud formation on the eastern horizon.

My friend Bill Hark is a veteran storm chaser in the United States. (You can visit his website here and see a short documentary in which he appears here.) This looked like the sort of cloud that might interest him. So, I took two quick photos to send him and then went about my day, running several errands in an area to the west of where I live.

Storm close

Late that evening, I learned that a tornado had hit the town of Koshigaya about 45 minutes after I took the photos. Here’s one view of what the tornado looked like:

You can see more dramatic footage here and some of the damage it did here. You can read about it here. More than 60 people were injured, but fortunately no one was killed.

Unfortunately, it wasn’t until a day later that it occurred to me that since Koshigaya is northeast of Kawaguchi, the cloud formation I had photographed might be related to the tornado. It was just south of Koshigaya when I took the pictures, but the storm’s path moved to the northeast.

When I consulted Bill by e-mail, he said, “The formation is a towering cumulus that appears to be on its way to becoming a storm. I don’t know if it became ‘the storm,’ but I think there is a strong possibility.”

He also suggested that I send the photos to the Japan Meteorological Agency. I have done so. Whether the photos show “the storm” or not, I hope their researchers find them to be of some use.