Archive for the ‘Sightseeing’ Category

Around Japan in 47 curries: Fukushima fire curry

August 24, 2017

This is Part 17 of a 47-part series of occasional blog posts looking at curries from each of Japan’s 47 prefectures.

Fukushima Prefecture has a long history of recovering from geological disasters. Some of those disasters can be remembered through local curries.

Since the latest and most terrible of these disasters – the 2011 earthquake, tsunami, nuclear meltdown and mass evacuation – I have visited the prefecture at least four times. No, I didn’t visit the ruined nuclear power plant. But as I will explain further down in this post, knowledge of its existence didn’t deter me from eating several local curries. Two of those curries are marketed with images of fire.

Ukiyo-e print by Tankei depicting the Eruption of Mount Bandai, 1888 (via Wikimedia Commons)

The first curry commemorates the July 15, 1888, eruption of Mt. Bandai, a volcano near the center of the 13,780-square-kilometer prefecture. The mountain had been a smooth, Fuji-like cone before it suddenly exploded due to a buildup of underground steam. The blast – which went largely sideways rather than up, similar to the explosion of Mt. St. Helens in the United States a century later  – left behind an irregularly shaped mountain with four separate peaks. According to the Japan Meteorological Agency,  the explosion could be heard from a distance of 50 to 100 kilometers, an avalanche of debris buried five towns and 11 villages, and ash fell from the sky along the coast of the Pacific Ocean, about 90 kilometers away. At least 461 people died.

Did I say there’s a curry that commemorates this event? Perhaps I should have said there’s a curry that cashes in on it. The design on the box of “Mt. Bandai Great Eruption Curry” is not exactly reverent. But I bought it in a souvenir shop at the foot of the still-active volcano. The people who live and work in such an area are entitled to a bit of gallows humor, especially more than a century later.

The back of the box includes warnings that children, pregnant women, and those with weak stomachs or high blood pressure should eat this lava-like curry with caution, if at all. So naturally, I was expecting something super-hot. As it says on the label: 超辛 chou-kara.

Unfortunately, all I can say about this curry is that it was hot. It wasn’t pleasantly peppery, like Kagawa Prefecture’s olive curry.  Nor was it masochistically thrilling, like Miyazaki Prefecture’s jet-fuel curry. It was just plain hot. I was disappointed by its lack of complexity, but if simple hotness is what you’re after, this curry is for you.


By Lincun via Wikimedia Commons

The next disaster occurred in the late 1960s. The coal mining industry in Iwaki, a coastal city in the southeast corner of the prefecture, had gone into decline due to Japan’s growing use of oil. The local mining company tried to diversify into tourism. It created a hot spring resort called the Joban Hawaiian Center, now Spa Resort Hawaiians. According to a Yomiuri Shimbun interview with an executive of the resort, disaster ironically struck when the mine then hit an underground body of water and flooded, forcing it to shut down a decade ahead of schedule.

A major attraction of the resort was its hula dancing shows, put on by women from the miners’ families. Their story was even turned into a popular 2006 movie, “Hula Girls.”

Everyone knows about the third big disaster – or set of disasters – to hit Fukushima Prefecture. On March 11, 2011, a huge earthquake set off a massive tsunami that ravaged the coast, killed thousands of people, and damaged the Fukushima No. 1 power plant, leading to meltdowns in three of its reactors. The meltdowns prompted large-scale evacuations that themselves have been blamed for many additional deaths.

In addition to the cost in human lives, the tsunami devastated local economies up and down the coast – but especially in Fukushima, where fears of radiation kept tourists away and drove down sales of agricultural products.

About two years after the disaster, I made a minor contribution to the prefecture’s economic recovery by visiting Spa Resort Hawaiians. I soaked in a large rotenburo outdoor bath, I went down the many water slides again and again (a feat made possible by the lines still being so short at that time because people were staying away) and of course I took in the hula show. I was pleased to see that the hula girls are now joined by hula boys, who stunt-dance with flaming torches.

Finally, I bought omiyage souvenirs to bring back to Tokyo and share with my coworkers. This is standard etiquette for Japanese travelers, and omiyage is almost always some edible specialty from the place you visited. But would my coworkers want to eat food from Fukushima? And could I be sure that it was safe enough for me to offer it to them with a clear conscience? There was a lot of doubt in the air at that time, so I split the difference and picked up a couple of boxes of Hawaiian Host chocolate-covered macadamia nuts. They clearly weren’t made in Fukushima, but at least I was leaving some money in Fukushima to get them.

Since then, I have become much more sanguine about food from Fukushima. I’ve been following the news, and I have yet to read even one credible report of any dangerously radioactive food reaching the retail market. Not one. Moreover, Japan’s standards about radioactivity in food are now ridiculously strict.

The United States allows up to 1,200 becquerels of radioactive cesium in food. The European Union allows levels ranging from 400 to 1,250, depending on the food category. Japan allows just 10 to 100. This means that if a food item exceeded the Japanese limit by 500 percent, it would still be less than half as radioactive as some foods that would be perfectly legal to sell in the United States or Europe. (Details here.)

To look at it another way, the following chart from Japan’s Consumer Affairs Agency shows that eating a whole kilogram of food with cesium at the 100-becquerel level would expose you to less than 2 percent of the radiation you’d get just by sitting in an airplane on a flight from Tokyo to New York.

Radiation chart

So, just as I am not afraid to eat spicy food, I am not afraid to eat food from Fukushima. When I came across some Hula Girl curry at a Fukushima antenna shop in Tokyo recently, I didn’t hesitate to buy it and try it.

I’m happy to report that the “fire beef” curry, with a torch-twirling hula boy in the corner of the box, is much more interesting to ingest than the Bandai lava curry. This curry is quite hot, but with more varied flavors also making themselves known. It’s tomatoey with faint hints of fruit. It’s hotness seemed jalapeno-esque, with a little sweetness to it, even though jalapenos are not on the ingredient list. The ingredients begin with beef (ground, rather than the chunks I’d hoped for, but it’s definitely in there), followed by onions, flour, curry roux, sugar, tomato paste, salt, curry powder, onion powder, beef extract, togarashi hot pepper, coconut milk powder, mango chutney, pineapple puree, garlic, and garam masala, ending with the usual inescapable colorings and such. Good stuff, over all.

Dancing with a flaming torch is scary. Eating Fukushima curry is not.

Tokyo: City of Azaleas

May 18, 2014
Near Tokyo Station

Near Tokyo Station

Azaleas are the most underappreciated flowers in Tokyo. For the past several weeks, they’ve been bursting out all over the city, but hardly anyone pays them any mind. Azaleas have a tough act to follow, as they come into bloom not long after the cherry blossom season has ended.

Gotanda, Shinagawa Ward

Gotanda, Shinagawa Ward

When the last of the sakura cherry petals have blown away, Tokyoites may think they are “done” with flowers for the year. Maybe they fail to notice the azaleas all around them because the flowers literally keep a low profile, growing mostly below eye level.

Komagome Station on the Yamanote Line, Toshima Ward

Komagome Station on the Yamanote Line, Toshima Ward

But for me, azaleas’ humility is part of their appeal. Cherry trees are aloof, appearing almost exclusively in parks or along riverbanks. Azaleas are more active participants in the everyday life of the city, crowding alongside major traffic arteries, wandering down little side streets and even pressing up against busy rail lines.

Gotanda, Shinagawa Ward

Gotanda, Shinagawa Ward

Cherry blossoms are prized for their delicacy and fleetingness. But azaleas should be admired for their durability. Twice in the past few weeks there have been heavy rain storms that I thought must spell the end for this year’s blossoms. Although many have indeed wilted or been beaten to the ground, I keep stumbling across azalea bushes filled with flowers that look as fresh as ever.

Otemachi, Chiyoda Ward

Otemachi, Chiyoda Ward

Azaleas show that one can be both beautiful and strong. But even the hardiest flowers don’t last forever. The photos in this blog post range from three days old to three weeks, and I think the end of this year’s azalea season may be nearly upon us at last.

Shiba, Minato Ward

Shiba, Minato Ward

Cherry blossoms are iconic for Japan. But for more of its time and over most of its space, Tokyo is really a city of azaleas.

Gotanda, Shinagawa Ward

Gotanda, Shinagawa Ward

Don’t miss them next year.

Otemachi, Chiyoda Ward

Otemachi, Chiyoda Ward

Around Japan in 47 curries: Nagano souvenirs

October 28, 2013
Kamikochi: A cool, quiet retreat in Nagano Prefecture

Kamikochi: A cool, quiet retreat in Nagano Prefecture

This is Part 15 of a 47-part series of occasional blog posts looking at curries from each of Japan’s 47 prefectures.

Late October has been pleasantly cool in Tokyo this year. This comes as a relief after a scorching summer of record-breaking heat — including temperatures above 30 C (86 F) well into October.

In August, I dealt with this by doing what heat-averse Tokyoites have done for many years. I escaped to Nagano Prefecture for a weekend.

Nagano Prefecture map by Lincun via Wikimedia Commons

Nagano Prefecture map by Lincun via Wikimedia Commons

Though it is nearly on the same latitude as Tokyo, Nagano’s elevation is much higher, making it a natural summer retreat. It’s also known for skiing; the Winter Olympics were held there in 1998.

The most popular summer resort area is Karuizawa, where then Crown Prince Akihito first met his future wife, now Empress Michiko, while playing tennis in 1957. It’s also where John Lennon and Yoko Ono used to go to relax in the 1970s.

But on my own latest trip to Nagano, I visited a less crowded destination: the Kamikochi valley.

Matsumoto Castle

Matsumoto Castle

There is no rail service to Kamikochi, so getting there requires a long drive by bus or car from Tokyo to Matsumoto, a city famous for its “black crow” castle.

From there, you drive upstream along the Azusa River as it snakes ever higher into the mountains. Visitors pass several dams owned by TEPCO, even driving over the top of one of them, and go through more tunnels than I could count.

Finally, there comes a point at which you can drive no further. The road goes on, but private cars are prohibited. To preserve the beauty and tranquility of the valley, only buses and taxis are allowed to drive beyond a certain point, and there’s a long stretch of the valley even beyond that, which can only be accessed by hikers. There are a number of campgrounds and small hotels scattered along the river, most of them well hidden by the trees. Here’s what it looks like…

AAA rocks

AAA cloud

AAA forest light

AAA water

In addition to such soothing scenes, the air was clean and refreshing, and the place was nearly silent. Too cool for the shrilling cicadas that occupied Tokyo at the time, the valley had a low-key soundtrack dominated by the river gurgling over rocks and the susurration of the wind in the trees, punctuated only by the occasional quack of a river duck.

It also had a souvenir shop where I bought two different Nagano curries.

Nagano meat curries 001

Like neighboring Yamanashi, Nagano is a big producer of fruit. The prefecture is especially proud of its apples, which are often used (usually in pureed form) to sweeten curries. But instead of apple curry, I bought some beef curry made with the meat of apple-fed cows. While I was at it, I also got some curry made with yeast-fed Nagano pork.

curry NaganoThe beef curry came in a dark sauce with a ketchuppy demiglace flavor that was slightly spicy, slightly sweet and not terribly interesting. The pork curry was much better, although not spicy at all. It had a very umami flavor and a luscious creamy fatty mouthfeel. A big chunk of soft fat undoubtedly contributed to that effect, but there was only a little actual meat. In fact, there didn’t seem to be anything special about the meat in either of these curries. Still, of the two, the pork is the one I’d be happier to eat again.

By the way, if you’d like to see a little more of Kamikochi, check out the post about the valley’s Myojin-ike pond over at The Lobster Dance.

Psst! Wanna buy a swamp?

May 1, 2011

Tokyo Electric Power Company is looking to sell off some assets to help pay for the array of expensive problems it has faced since its Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant went haywire after being hit by the March 11 tsunami. Those assets include a beautiful tract of alpine marshland in Oze National Park.

I visited that park last year. In the photo above, I am standing next to a sign at one of the entrances. The kanji characters for “Tokyo Electric Power” are carved into the wood next to my hip.

According to an article in The Daily Yomiuri (which you can read here), TEPCO owns about 16,000 hectares, or about 40 percent of the park. For the nonmetrically inclined, that’s 40,000 acres or 62 square miles.

If you wonder why a power company would own land in a national park in the first place, read the article.

If you wonder what an alpine marsh looks like, scroll down for more photos.

The park’s infrastructure, to the extent that I saw it, was admirably minimal. Its main feature was a two-lane wooden boardwalk that was just big enough for people to walk single-file in each direction. This made wide areas accessible to visitors who are willing and able to hike a good distance while also minimizing the impact of those visitors on what seemed to be a delicate environment.

But the very factors that make Oze an attractive place to visit also make it an unattractive place to buy. As a practical matter, to “develop” this kind of land would be to destroy it. As a legal matter, its status as part of a national park means that many types of development would be prohibited – and rightly so.

Still, if you happen to have a few billion yen to spare, it really is a beautiful piece of property…