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Tales (and pictures!) of trips in Japan


Palladion
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So I've lived in the Tokyo area for the past 9 months, but managed to not have all that much to do with the city.

But recently I've become very interested in food and cooking, which lead me here to egullet (did a google search for cantonese style char siu bao and ended up reading an extremely interesting discussion about dim.

Anyway, thanks to Torakris's helpful sticky posts about buying food in Japan, I visited Ameyoko-cho last weekend. It was fun, interesting, and useful, as I was able to find lots of stuff that I had not had a source for previously. Based on that good experience, I decided to check out a bunch of Tokyo's market and shopping areas.

First stop: Tsukiji Fish Market. Didn't go for the early-morning experience, ended up arriving around 9:00 or so. It wasn't what I was expecting -- I don't know what I was expecting, but I know that wasn't it. Still, it was fun. Besides for seafood in various forms, one of the big street foods that I noticed was the sweet rolled egg omelette things (called dashi-maki tamago, acording to one paper that I have here). There must have been at least 4 different stores selling the stuff. I tried a small sample at one of the shops; it was wonderful, fresh, hot, airy, and sweet. Easily the best one I've had yet. Now that I mention it, though, all of the other ones that I've eaten may have been either in school lunch or at parties with the other teachers from school (either way, the food kinda sits there for a while).

Also noticed another snack, it was a sweetened black been, I think, either in a pale white (sugar?) coating or green powder (tea?) coating. The name had three kanji, and the last one was 黒, but I forgot to write down the rest of it. They were interesting, but not interesting enough for me to buy a package of the stuff; they were quite expensive. I don't think I saw this particular item at Ameyoko-cho.

Took the subway to Ginza, just for a quick look around. Didn't stay long.

Next headed out to Asakusa. It's not a food market, but has a bunch of shops in one area. Anyway, I had never been there before, so I decided to check it out. It was really touristy; lots of the shops were overly gaudy. There were a lot of places selling food. I saw a lot of dango and freshly grilled rice crakers.

Saw a snack there that I hadn't seen before. It was okoshi, a sweet, puffed rice cookie that looks a lot like a small rice krispie treat (though without the marshmello). I really liked the ones that had peanut mixed in. If I wasn't on a diet, I probably would have bought a package for further "study". There were a number of shops selling this.

There were a lot of freestanding stalls selling the typical festival foods (yakisoba, yakitori, okonomiyaki, and takoyaki) around the big shrine. I've never been to Asakusa before, so I didn't know if this was an everyday thing, or something setup for a particular reason.

Then I walked from Asakusa to Kappabashi, the restaraunt supply district. I was looking for a new chef's knife (I bought a somewhat cheap one from the local home center back when I first arrived in Japan, and it's just not good enough given the amount that I use it). Took me a while to find a few specialty knife stores, but I eventually found a few (they were off the main road).

I talked to a salesman in one of them for a while. His first recomendation was a Y4000 or so Misono. I played around with it and the nearby ones for a while, but decided to do a bit more research on the internet before making a purchase. My Japanese isn't nearly good enough to have a good discussion about knives, and I'd rather not buy another stopgap knife that I'll use for half a year and then upgrade from.

I was also looking to see if I could find a cheap bamboo steamer (for cooking the aforementioned char siu bao) but I didn't see anything promising.

Finally, I walked from Kappabashi to Ueno, and visited Ameyoko-cho again. Didn't buy anything, but walked around the place again. Street foods were the same as the previous week: lots of stalls selling roasted chestnuts, and also a number of shops selling fresh fruit on sticks (pineapple, melon, and strawberries). Two stands were selling what looked kind of like miniature okonomiyakis that were cooked in something like (or perhaps it was) an imagawayaki mold.

I'll probably hit the Asakusa-Kappabashi-Ueno route again next weekend, after going to the Thai Food Festival. Mostly to go to Kappabashi and buy a knife (also want to pick up a suribachi).

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About those beans you were describing, were they possibly the black bean variety of amanattou? 甘納豆 ?

Did they look like this:

http://www.okashikan.com/shoping/nakamuraya.html

I love these, they are too expensive to actually buy but I snack on them every time I see samples, I really like the ones made with the big white beans...

Kristin Wagner, aka "torakris"

 

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Yeah, I think they're the same thing. I liked them quite a bit, but, as you say, they are rather expensive, too expensive for me to actually buy.

Thanks for figuring out what I was talking about from my really vague description.

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I was also looking to see if I could find a cheap bamboo steamer (for cooking the aforementioned char siu bao) but I didn't see anything promising.

Palladion,

For the best deal on bamboo steamers head to Yokohama's Chinatown. Actually, pretty much anything to do with Chinese cooking can be found cheaply there. Besides my bamboo steamers, I bought a contraption that allows the steamers to be used on top of any sized pot or pan available- it's like a big flat lid with a wide hole in the middle that you place on top of a pot, then put the steamer on.

Two stands were selling what looked kind of like miniature okonomiyakis that were cooked in something like (or perhaps it was) an imagawayaki mold.

This sounds like "Osaka-yaki". It seems to be only available in Tokyo, which makes the name a bit of a mystery.

My eGullet foodblog: Spring in Tokyo

My regular blog: Blue Lotus

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This sounds like "Osaka-yaki". It seems to be only available in Tokyo, which makes the name a bit of a mystery.

That should be "Osaka-yaki"! Thanks, smallworld.

http://www.geocities.co.jp/Bookend/1036/ennichi/osaka9.html

According to several sites, it is a specialty of Tokyo, and in Osaka, there are no such things as Osaka-yaki.

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tokyo is delicious!

i have been wandering around for a few days now with not a shred of japanese in my repertoire, but i have eaten remarkably well. i had lunch at miyako zushi yesterday- unbelievably good. unagi at obana. the french pastries are awesome (i love boulangerie burdigala in hiro-o and the macarons at l'atelier joel robuchon) and i have been inhaling senbeh and karinte (sp?) like they are going out of style- all in the name of looking for a better product, of course. any sweets flavored with matcha or sakura or black sesame are taken under careful consideration. i am even snacking well- bentos and apples the size of small children. i visited a couple of depachikas and found that there were very few samples offered, but no matter; street food in tokyo is great and i was able to console myself each time with a delectable treat. fortunately it is frowned upon to eat in public so i have had to restrain myself somewhat; otherwise i am sure i would be eating much more- and much more frequently. i am probably one of the first people to gain a pound a day while visiting japan, but there you have it.

in a moment of desperation, i gulped down sea salt gerato in an alleyway yesterday. :wub:

at some point today i will wander over to yoyogi park for the thai food festival. tonight i will have kobe beef for the first time... still haven't decided between shabu-shabu, sukiyaki and teppan-yaki but i am leaning towards the latter. i leave for kyoto in a couple of days and look forward to a good kaiseki meal there.

anyway, my question is: i have honestly seen more delicious food here than i can wrap my greedy little eyes around. i wisely brought a small empty duffel bag with me to fill with good to bring home, but i am totally overwhelmed.

so, what are some good food gifts and where can i get them? i just don't have any idea where to start. suggestions?

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Food gifts...I'm assuming this is for people who don't normally cook Japanese style?

At Narita Airport there's a store which sells brightly colored candies shaped like sushi, vegetables etc, and molded rice flour and sugar "rakugan" candies in pastel flower and leaf shapes. I think there's a store in both terminals. Those are light weight, easy to get through customs, and pretty. I like them, but they are very mild flavored, and not everybody likes them.

Kyoto is the best place to buy rakugan though, and also the hard, sweet "kawara-senbei" (roof-tile senbei, flavored with cinnamon and dark sugar) that come in small curved rectangles about the color of gingerbread also make good gifts. The mini-sized ones especially don't shatter in your luggage as easily as ordinary senbei. Kyoto also sells round hard candies flavored with cinnamon (nikki, clear or light brown), black sugar (kuro-zatou, dark brown), peppermint (hakka, clear) and sometimes ginger (shouga, light brown). Old-fashioned Meitan Plum Candy (Meitan Doroppu) seem to be easier to find in Kyoto too. Made with plum extract and brown sugar, they look like this

Salted double cherryblossoms are another Kyoto specialty, though you should find the small jars in supermarkets too (usually with the teas, as a blossom is often dropped into a cup of green tea or hot water). They keep for ever.

At supermarkets and corner convenience stores look for tubes of Koohii Beat (chocolate coated coffee beans), and small packs of Apollo Choco (strawberry and brown chocolates shaped like Apollo spacecraft), handy for small gifts. Koala March (koala shaped chocolate-filled snacks) are always popular with kids when I take them, plus all the seasonal candy/choc bars with wild names.

How about drinking snacks like shredded dried squid (saki-ika) or sliced smoked squid (ika no kunsei)? Peanuts coated with spicy batters, especially wasabi (horseradish) - these can be found somewhere near the dried squid in supermarkets.

If you don't mind glass, you can buy small bottles of (expensive) specialty soy sauces in department stores. These are used for sashimi etc, not for cooking with.

Got that duffel filled up yet?

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i visited a couple of depachikas and found that there were very few samples offered

I'm terribly sorry about my misinformation, but believe me, I was born in Tokyo and was there until 1992, but things must have changed since then. They used to offer me more than you could imagine, trying to sell their products, which I used to find rather irritating.

Af for food gifts, I guess you have already visited one or two supermarkets and 100-yen shops. Haven't you find any interesting items there?

In Japan, we say, "Miyagemono ni umai mono nashi", 土産物にうまいものなし, which literally means, "There are no delicious things among souveniers".

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street food in tokyo is great and i was able to console myself each time with a delectable treat. fortunately it is frowned upon to eat in public so i have had to restrain myself somewhat; otherwise i am sure i would be eating much more- and much more frequently.

Don't worry too much about the eating in public thing. Actually, in entertainment or tourist districts, or during festivals, it's guite acceptable to eat street food out in public. It is street food, after all.

And hey, you're a foreigner and not really expected to follow the rules anyway.

If you do want to be a bit less conspicuous, make sure what you eat on the street was actually bought on the street (a box of tako-yaki is fine, a complete bento isn't), and stand still while you eat it rather than walking around. And stuff you can eat with your hands or with a toothpick is more 'streety' than stuff you need chopsticks for.

As for souviners, the candy/confection suggestions are great. If you have a chance to visit an old-fashioned 'dagashi-ya' (a shop that sells candies, snacks and small toys to kids) you should find some unique treasures. In Shinjuku there is a dagashi-ya in the basement of Studio Alta, accross from the east exit of Shinjuku station (Alta is a famous place and you can find it easily by asking anyone on the street).

The candies that come in realistic fruit shapes or that look like bento or plates of sushi are always big hits. Also, old-fashioned 'kintaro-ame' are good- they are made in long rolls and are cut into rounds, revealing faces or other designs.

From depa-chika, sembei in tin boxes make sturdy souviners. Amoung the many varieties, the ones that are made with whole shrimp make beautiful gifts for the slightly adventurous.

If you can stand the weight, 'ramune' in plastic bottles are great. (Ramune is that slightly fizzy lemon-aide like drink sold at festivals and tourist spots- it comes in a unique bottle with a marble in the top part, has to be dramitically popped open, and can only be drunk if the marble is in the correct position. Fun!) The plastic bottles are only slightly less impressive then the glass ones and are great for kid's souviners.

My eGullet foodblog: Spring in Tokyo

My regular blog: Blue Lotus

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wow- thank you all so much for all the great input. this trip to tokyo is seriously benefitting from the help i've gotten from egulleteers.

had matcha-sake creme brulee this afternoon at the hilton, by the way. wish i could bring some of that with me! i am really looking forward to looking for stuff to bring back.

i'm sure that i'll be able to find somewhere to deposit whatever doesn't make it into that duffel bag...

thanks again, guys!

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What about knives? My cousin the merchant marine is great about picking up nice gifts as he rides around on his giant ship (ro-ro) and one of the best things he has shown up with recently was a set of chef's knives (brand undetermined-in Japanese-I need to photo and post for translation). He said that he spent roughly $100 US each on them and they are just wonderful (except the handles are eventually going to collapse, but not anytime soon and not at all if my wife will stop sticking them in the dishwasher :shock::angry: ). These knives are far superior to anything I have (except my carbon Sabatiers that are going on 30 years of age-still going strong though :wub: ) and hold an edge pretty well.

Brooks Hamaker, aka "Mayhaw Man"

There's a train everyday, leaving either way...

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My friends always appreciate mochi. I've bought this kind made by monks. It's wrapped in some type of leaf. And is BEAUTIFUL looking.

It dosen't keep though. You gotta pass it out and make sure people eat it fast.

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Some results of a quick Google search:

1. Okonomiyaki no moto お好み焼きの素 (flour with special ingredients, used to make Japanese pizza) and sauce

2. Sweets such as chocolate and Glico グリコ candies

3. Yakiniku no moto 焼肉の素 (sauce used to grill meat)

You can get them from any supermarket and 100-yen shop.

4. Pokemon cards (not food)

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The best souvenir you could bring back would be yuzu-koshou! :biggrin:

This is a wonderful paste made of green chile and yuzu (a citrus fruit), it is a wonderfully spicy condiment that can be used from anything from soups to fried chicken, to dressings and is a wonderful topping on cold tofu.

Kristin Wagner, aka "torakris"

 

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Took me a while to find a few specialty knife stores, but I eventually found a few (they were off the main road).

For knives, I highly recommend Union Commerce Co., Ltd. It is on one of the side streets, with a suit of armor on the sidewalk in front of their shop.

Great selection, (much more than appears on their website), great prices, and they speak English!

Nishi-Asakusa 2-22-6. Taito-ku

Tel (03)3845-4040

Union Commerce Co., Ltd. (Kappabashi Knife Shop)

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Took me a while to find a few specialty knife stores, but I eventually found a few (they were off the main road).

For knives, I highly recommend Union Commerce Co., Ltd. It is on one of the side streets, with a suit of armor on the sidewalk in front of their shop.

Great selection, (much more than appears on their website), great prices, and they speak English!

Nishi-Asakusa 2-22-6. Taito-ku

Tel (03)3845-4040

Union Commerce Co., Ltd. (Kappabashi Knife Shop)

That actually is the place that I stopped in that weekend, and I stopped in again before heading to the Thai Food Fesitval. I ended up buying a 24cm Sugimoto knife. I really wanted to like the Globals, given their good reputation here, but I ended up not liking the all-metal handles that they have.

I definitely agree with the recommendation. Almost all of the shop's knives are in open display cases, so you can just pick one up and see how it feels in your hand without having to ask the salesperson. However, no one there seemed to speak English (I went on Saturdays both times; that might have something to do with it). But the salesperson that I talked to was very patient and helpful, and tried to explain everything to me in simple Japanese. I'll have to go back at some point soon to pick up a steel and a waterstone; I did not want to walk around the Thai Food Festival for 7 hours with a waterstone in my bag!

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I’ve just returned home after ten days in Japan. Oishii…

A quick introduction, before I launch into it: I speak no Japanese. None. I recently went to Mexico without knowing how to speak a shred of Spanish, but found it fairly easy to improvise using a combination of my familiarity with Latin and emphatic body language. Communication isn't quite so easy for a foreigner in Japan, but I found people to be extremely courteous and accommodating despite the fact that I continually made a gaijin rube of myself, dropping sushi rice in my shoyu and getting stuck in the rain repeatedly without an umbrella. For the most part, I was politely ignored, which worked out great.

A little about me: I’m 23 years old and female. I was born in New York to a Lebanese-Bostonian mother and an Emirati father. I spent my childhood in the United Arab Emirates, scarfing down grilled sardines at the dinner table while my macrobiotic vegan mother and unapologetic carnivore father tried to seduce me with platters of brown rice or goat brains (I’ve always been more of a fish eyeball girl myself). Other favorites included eel, raw kibbeh and steak fat. I was sixteen when I accidentally ate pork for the first time; it was so good that I burst into tears. I have a B.A. in Art, but should really have a degree in New Haven pizza, since that’s where my head was most of the time I was supposed to be cranking out photographs. I have lived in Santa Fe for three years, and I’m ten weeks away from my M.S. in Oriental Medicine. Red or green, I love ‘em both.

I was on my own for the most part, but I visited for a couple of days with an old colleague who is currently starting his acupuncture apprenticeship in Tokyo. He’s gaijin, too, but he speaks Japanese.

And he likes food, too, but not as much as I do.

The first day, I wandered through Hiro-o, hungrily sniffing my way through a couple of patisseries before deciding on Boulangerie Burdigala, where a beacon of warm croissants glowed in a window display. Giddy, elated and jetlagged, I filled my tray with croustillant croissants, quiche legumes, frangipane and honey danishes, tarte aux pommes, chocolate almond croissants, raisin bread filled with cream cheese, florentines and a small but delectable apricot tart.

While paying, I noticed a basket of unfortunate-looking mashed potato and bacon foccaccia sandwiches, which invited the first of many bewildered musings on Japanese interpretations of Western food.

Fortunately, eating in public isn’t something people do in Japan. Otherwise, I’d most likely have relished my bounty on the curb outside the place. I didn’t like Kobeya baked goods at all, but I found another patisserie whose name I have forgotten (turquoise and yellow awning, two words, at least one of which begins with the letter ‘p’? ) that I liked.

I stopped at Meida-Ya on my way to visit my friend and picked up Fuji and Mutsu apples the size of babies, loquats and figs from Nagasaki, and a small container of black sesame ice cream. I threw in a few cucumbers as an afterthought, and because cucumbers were made for slathering with rich, dark miso. I found two wagashi-yas and ogled the selection of namagashi. I ended up with anko-filled sakura (cherry blossom) mochi, ankoro (mochi rice cake filled with sweetened azuki beans), kusa-mochi (made with mugwort) and daifuku (mochi rice cake filled with anko) from one shop, and moist, fresh matcha manju (sweetened bun of leavened flour and powdered green tea, stuffed with sweetened azuki beans) wrapped in bamboo leaves, along with a bag of huge, dark and knotted karinto (soy flour biscuits fried in sesame oil and glazed with caramelized brown rock sugar) at the other. May 5th was Children’s Day and the sweet shops were selling lots of kashiwa-mochi wrapped in oak leaves. I also stopped at a senbei shop in search of salty-sweet senbei (I adore the combination of sweet mochi and the salty leaf in which it is wrapped), made an educated guess, and settled on five humongous crackers whose surfaces were auspiciously gleaming with a shoyu glaze and sparkling with granulated sugar. That evening, my friend turned me on to chilled mugicha, and I can proudly declare that I now have a frosty pitcher of it in my fridge that I plan on refreshing several time a day, forever.

On a walk from Hiro-o to Shinjuku the next day, I stopped for semi-portable chow at Earth-Health-Family (“organic!”) and grabbed a few mini-bentos; eggplant blanketed in a pork and tempeh sauce, kinpira gobo (burdock root salad-- who doesn’t adore its toothsome woodiness?), hijiki salad, cucumbers and wakame marinated in rice vinaigrette. I also brake for dumplings; more specifically, the irresistible aroma of Chinese chives and the holy trinity of garlic, ginger and scallion, so I picked up a few plump, succulent gyoza from a street cart vendor and ambled on. I stopped at Natural Lawson for sea salt gelato (actually, the label read “sea sart gerato”) and lotus root chips.

The next morning, I walked from Shinjuku to Roppongi; a winsome endeavor that left me feeling charged and very light on my feet, a rare and regrettable state which was corrected when I spied L’Atelier Joel Robuchon in the View Tower and gleefully bought myself a basketful of pastries to scarf in alleyways and Zen gardens and parks en route to Asakusa. The macarons were particularly delectable, though they are decidedly fragile and don’t take well to being in handbags, as it turns out. I made it over to Miyako Sushi near Asakusa for an early lunch. The place is tiny, and there were just three people running it; the sushi master, the waitress (his wife, I believe) and the much younger assistant chef (their son?). The lunch menu gives diners the option of choosing between five different sized edomae (nigiri) sushi flights, and I ordered the largest: 17 pieces, and a bottle of chilled daiginjo. The sake was brought to my table in seconds along with tiny plates of sweet, browned tamago (egg) and baby marinated tako (octopus). The sushi master came over to my table holding a huge wooden tray on which he had placed the seventeen pieces of fish that were about to become my lunch. I was given a tour, so to speak, of the different types of fish I was soon to enjoy. Some that I remember include aji (horse mackerel), anago (saltwater conger eel), awabi (abalone), katsuo (bonito), otoro, toro, chutoro (medium fatty tuna, my favorite cut of tuna), salmon, hamachi, more tamago and tako, hamo (pike conger), and smelt. The most crackingly stupendous raw fish I’d ever had, hands down. I sat glued to my chair, chuckling listlessly and reeling from the sake and the quantity of food I had just consumed. Great stuff.

I spent the afternoon scoping out Kappabashi Dori. I’m glad there isn’t anything like it here in NM; kitchenware amusement parks are insurmountably challenging danger zones for folks like me. My pulse quickens. The blinking starts. I could’ve blown my entire budget in an hour if I hadn’t been overwhelmed and paralyzed into indifference.

Later, I stopped at the Hilton in Shinjuku to make a phone call, and decided to have tea at the Marble Lounge, which is in the lobby. The cafe was hosting its daily “Crème Brulee and Fruit Tart Buffet” and although I would normally run far, far away from any all-you-can-eat function, I was too tired to move on. And I was hungry. The matcha-sake crème brulee was good if a little rich, but the hazelnut crème brulee was awful, as was the Orange-Windex Sponge and the Would-You-Like-Some-Gluten-In-That-Apple-Cake. The bread and butter pudding was mostly butter, which was, unfortunately, mostly salted. The apple crumble was okay, but chock-full of raisins (yeah, yeah, the raisin thing). The only ice cream flavor on the menu was rum raisin (did I miss something?) and all the tarts were identical in crust and frangipane filling; only the fruit toppings varied. And the requisite inch of mucilaginous glaze was everywhere. Tragic, but I guess that’s what I get for taking tea in a hotel lobby.

I knew that I wanted to experience kaiseki-ryori (classic Japanese haute cuisine evolved from tea ceremony) while in Kyoto, along with yudofu and ramen. I had my kaiseki meal at Hyotei, which is where Jeffrey Steingarten had the kaiseki meal he wrote about in Kyoto Cuisine (The Man Who Ate Everything). Steingarten ate there at the same time of the year over a decade ago, and I was surprised to find that my meal varied only slightly from the one he describes. Since only fresh, seasonal ingredients are used in a kaiseki meal, I suppose that this explains most of the similarities and/or parallels. It was raining lightly when I arrived and I was led through the garden to a four hundred year old tearoom lined with tatami mats. I thought that the dampness brought out more of that “hamster cage” odor from the mats, which I actually appreciate.

I was served seven courses, with the order of the meal following the traditional sequence of courses defined by cooking technique; beginning with zensai (appetizers), suimono (clear soup), and sashimi and moving into yakimono (grilled) and/or mushimonto (steamed) and nimono (simmered) and then on to agemono (fried) and rice and sunomono (pickled) and cooked vegetables (aemono), traditionally ended with tea and dessert. Everything about the meal was thoughtfully considered, beautifully orchestrated, and flawlessly executed. The presentation was exquisite, but best of all it was lots of fun.

I was started off with a cup of sencha and a warm towel, and then ordered daiginjo when I was offered a choice between sake and beer.

The first course, presented on a bright lapis-colored plate shaped like a flower, was tai (bream) sashimi; three overlapping slices on an edible leaf, with the delicious pine bark patterned skin attached. A tangle of green pea shoots, a baby cucumber still with its brilliant, edible yellow flower and a delicate, pale lavender shoot of myoga (Japanese wild ginger) were perched alongside. Next came a light dashi in which floated a silky rectangle of yomogi (mugwort) tofu studded with black sesame and a pea-sized dab of wasabi. The broth was brimming with junsai (water shield), which are gelatinous little pods that burst in the mouth and taste pleasantly of pond scum. Their texture is one of the most interesting I have ever experienced, with a mouthfeel that compelled me to emit a few childish giggles as they burst and popped.

Next came more fish, rolled this time and filled with uni and abalone, and poached in a sweet white miso broth which contained a few strips of yuzu zest and three decorative rings of unidentifiable green vegetable that looked like olives and tasted of nothing.

This was followed by a tai chimaki, which is a sort of Japanese tamale of non-glutinous rice rolled, along with the raw fish, into a cone and wrapped in a bamboo leaf. Each of the four corners of the tray that held the chimaki carried its own treasure; three bright, tempura-fried fava beans, a sweet. tender morsel of the much-loved and highly coveted hamo (pike conger), a halved boiled egg with a creamy, liquescent yolk, and a translucent slice of yuzu sandwiched by two thin slices of Japanese mackerel.

The next course was a bowl of grass-green matcha congee in which rested a tangle of fresh yuba and about a teaspoonful of a coral-hued and mild-mannered ama ebi (sweet shrimp) paste. What made this dish extraordinary was the undeniably potent whiff of yuzu that hits as soon as the lid is lifted from the bowl but doesn’t seem to interfere with the subtle flavors of the other ingredients. This was followed by panfried suzuki (sea bass) with a few springs of something that reminded me vaguely of dill. After this, I was poured a cup of hojibancha (a Kyoto specialty) and served a dark miso soup with five short celery sticks and a single fern-like vegetable hiding in its depths (gotta love dark miso soup for that reason alone), warmly spicy myoga-infused rice and two kinds of pickle; one of shiso and cucumber and the other of enoki and tiny silver fish. Dessert followed; some sort of broken jelly in which two ambrosial slices of strawberry and two of grapefruit were suspended. This was garnished with a single candied black bean, and followed by usa-cha (thin whipped green tea) and a lavender-tipped mochi sweet filled with smooth white bean paste.

The next thing I really wanted to eat was tofu. Determined to avoid desecrating the memory of the previous night’s kaiseki meal by having burnt coffee for breakfast, I ignored my throbbing caffeine-deprivation headache, drank four cups of sencha and another of konbu-cha, and then went to the old tofu house Tousuiro for an early kaiseki-style tofu lunch. The lunch menu consists of five set courses:

The first course, as with the first course served at the kaiseki meal the night before, was served in a brilliant lapis blue dish shaped like a flower. I really wanted to ask more questions about this, but the language barrier made this nearly impossible. The dish held a cube of raw tofu topped with the merest smear of wasabi on a scant splash of shoyu. This was followed by cold yuba served over crushed ice, with shiso and ginger and ponzu dipping sauce. Next came a cavernous bowl filled with scoops of oboro tofu under a tangle of shoga, egg strands and scallions. It was garnished with shiso leaves, a single tiny prawn and a maple leaf perched on top to symbolize the season. The oboro tofu was a revelation; rich, almost eggy, with the texture of a barely set custard or flan. This was followed by two meltingly warm, charred, miso-slathered slabs of grilled skewered tofu. Both the white and the dark miso were bright and sweet. This was followed by three perfectly golden pieces of tempura; a tiny eggplant, a strip of green chile, and a pillowy, nori-wrapped cube of tofu. This came with cumin salt for sprinkling over, but no dipping sauce. The meal ended with two pieces of inari sushi- the best I’ve ever had- and a bowl of dashi with inari curls and a single mouthful of savory, soft tofu at the bottom. Dessert was a small scoop of musk melon- tofu sherbet. Lots of steaming hot hojicha.

Afterwards, at the Nishiki-ichiba market, I enjoyed sahleb (ground orchid root) ice cream from a Turkish vendor, yokan, and fragrant, freshly baked kawara-senbei, but hated mitarashi-dango (rice flour dumplings). I saw a lot of food-on-a-stick, which I thought was odd considering the fact that nobody in Japan eats on the run.

I gorged on soft-serve matcha-aisu and three kinds of roasted chestnuts, and bought a few unctuous fillets of my beloved unagi (in different marinades), which I packed with dry ice. Thus sated, I headed towards the hills surrounding Nanzenji.

After hiking between temples, I started off again in search of a place to sit and have a drink. I was thirsty for cold sake when I stumbled into Okariba, but after chatting with the chef/owner for a bit and learning that he is keen on hunting and fishing, and forages for and kills just about everything he serves, I asked to be fed and gladly went along with whatever he dished up. Admittedly, some of it, like the candied bees and grasshoppers, didn’t do much for me, even before the novelty had worn off.

It’s a textural thing, I guess.

The horse sashimi was pretty standard izakaya fare. Ditto the chicken sashimi, even the venison. But poached bear butt? This was served draped in thin, pink, overlapping slices beneath a mountain of scallions and drenched in a bracing, lemony soy sauce. The house specialty is barbequed inoshishi (wild boar), and it’s just awesome. His marinades and sauces are, I think, what really set his food apart; I must have tasted seven different kinds of miso alone that night, and each was more robust and piquant than the next. Hoba miso was one of the great highlights of the meal. A sun-dried magnolia leaf is spread with miso, heaped with three kinds of mushrooms and chopped leeks or scallions, and transported to cook over a charcoal pit in the center of the table. It’s ready when it begins to bubble and is unbelievably delicious heaped on the nori-wrapped grilled mochi and the grilled o-nigiri.

Fresh ayu (river sweetfish, not unlike trout) was grilled to perfection. A massive salad loomed over all of it; mountains of shaved lettuce dressed with shoyu, whole cucumbers with an utterly amazing dark miso, tomatoes with homemade mayonnaise. I was brought a glass of well-chilled homemade ume-shu for dessert- by far the best I’ve ever had.

In the morning, I picked up some warm anpan at a bakery and a miniature container of ogura bean ice cream at a natural foods store, found an inconspicuous bench, and constructed a Kyoto-style version of my favorite Sicilian breakfast. For lunch, I had yudofu near Sagano, then reluctantly ambled in the direction of the train station to catch the train back to Tokyo. Standing motionless in Kyoto means watching its rhythmic and gentle fanning.

I was completely enchanted by it.

Next mission: Kobe beef. I had been looking forward to this moment for a long time, but I’d come across a lot of conflicting advice on where to go. The restaurant that Mitchell Davis recommends, Shima, no longer exists. In the end, I decided on Seryna’s Mon Cher Ton Ton for my steak.

My meal began with an amuse of venus clams, and the first course was teppan-grilled scallops, nicely browned and caramelized on one side and served with anchovy butter, and one gigantic shrimp, which was pretty unhappy about the hot grill; why don’t people just deliver a mercifully quick stab to the throat immediately before cooking instead of entertaining this unnecessarily brutish ritual? Makes no sense to me. The shell of the shrimp was flattened and fried until deeply savory and crispy enough to eat. Then, abalone, followed by seared katsuo with scallions and afterwards, salad; a julienne of raw vegetables in a soy ginger dressing. The chef asked if I wanted garlic with my steak, and I answered yes, knowing it would be roasted and sauteed separately and then served alongside and not on the steak (medium-rare, of course). He let me have a long look at the super top sirloin steak before slapping it onto the grill. I ended up with ten thin pieces of steak that seemed as though they were melting as fast as I could eat them. The fat from the seak was trimmed off and fried into cracklings alongside the steak. As for condiments, I was given three small plates; one contained salt for the cracklings, and the others contained shoyu with chopped raw onion and a sweet almond shoyu.

I get the whole “foie-gras of beef” thing now. The meat is remarkable: velvety, buttery, delicate, even- but incomparably lusty, beefy, rich and robust at the same time. And the cracklings were soulfully good.

This was followed by cold dashi with noodles and Seryna’s marvelous garlic rice, which is basically a lot of chopped garlic, quickly sauteed and then improved upon by the addition of a generous fistful of those ubiquitous tiny dried fish that snake around on hot rice (and, as it turns out, on a hot grill). Cooked rice is added, then the lot of it is nicely browned on the grill, seasoned, and given a healthy drizzle of sweet soy sauce.

The next day, I hit Mitsukoshi in Ginza. The spread was dizzying. I moved slowly. For those of you that live in Tokyo, get down there and visit the sweet potato lady near the Italian yogurt and ice cream station. I wish I knew what these heavenly treats are called; sweet potatoes cut thick like steak fries, fried in sesame oil like karinto and coated with several layers of caramelized brown rock sugar and black sesame seeds. The insides are magically transformed into a satiny, starchy custard and the texture is sublime. Her other treats include sweet potato matcha cake and various kinds of sweet potato karinto, some hot and fresh, other packaged and made with purple sweet potatoes or colored with seaweed extract.

And the Satie chocolates at the counter where everyone walking by is encouraged to have a taste? Wow. The whole place dazzled. I’ve never seen such beautiful, artful sweets before. I hadn’t realized how tired I had grown with the ubiquitous plastic displays of white, pink and green daifuku with the wet looking anko filling peeking out like an angry cyclops.

Hmm, namagashi: I loved the fudgy, dense resilience of mochi sweets as long as the portions were small enough (has anyone seen those sakura mochi the size of tennis balls? Eek!), but my distaste for gelatinous foods had me drawing the line at plenty of other Japanese sweets. The worst, however, were the ones that rudely masquerade as delicious chocolate truffles when in fact they are squidgy, flimsy, formless little rice flour blobs, coated in an astringent, parched brown soy flour (I think but I don’t know for sure). I liked one or two varieties of yokan that I tried (steamed chestnut, and a gorgeous marbled matcha/ogura), but some of the ice cream sundaes I saw people eating looked downright harrowing, with their dango balls and anmitsu and matcha syrup and sweetened condensed milk and shaved ice. Also, the upright cream-filled crepes that the young girls appear to go nuts for looked pretty, er… intense.

In Shinjuku, I made it to Mitsukoshi, Isetan and Takashimaya Times Square in Shinjuku. I visited the dagashi-ya in the basement of Studio Alta and realized, once again, that I don’t much care for junk food but I do love the packaging.

I cruised down to the hopping, bustling Mikuni’s at Tokyo Station for kaiten sushi (Mikuni’s Sushi Train), mostly because I was curious and needing to take a long but purposeful walk. In addition to the rotating temptations (which begin to develop an unappealing dullness and pallor their third time around), there is an a la carte menu for those who like their nigiri sushi to really glisten. Diners also get a choice between the foie gras bowl, which comes with salad greens and enoki mushrooms, or chirashi sushi with toro. The spicy seafood roll was butter-rich, made with smoked whitefish and plenty of garlic and mayonnaise. Some really top katsuo, as well.

My last meal in Tokyo was at an izakaya; Alambique in Hiro-o. As usual, I started my meal with a few icy glasses of daiginjo, then slowly shifted focus; octopus and avocado in a sharp wasabi dressing, Sanuki udon noodles dressed in cod roe, topped with kimchee and nori (this was divine; I ordered seconds), spicy harusame (thin, transparent Indonesian-style gelatin bean noodles) wrapped in lettuce leaves, a salad of mixed greens and fresh tofu in a the brightest, most engaging soy dressing I’ve ever had (it was so good, in fact, that I was unable to stop eating it, and ordered thirds), yudofu, “Korean-style” okonomiyaki, a slippery Okinawan stir-fry with bean sprouts, and a hotpot of short-necked clams and mizuna.

There were so many things I didn’t have a chance to try, like nishin-soba and ramen at Kyohei in Kyoto, monja-yaki, shabu-shabu, sukiyaki, yakitori, and nabe. I went to the 5th Annual Thai Food Festival at Yoyogi Park, but really wasn’t into the crowds, so I turned on my heels and left.

I realized that franchises aren’t necessarily a bad thing in Japan. Umenohana, Tousuiro, Seryna, Boulangerie Burdigala… all these places have several locations and the food is still good. This gives me hope, or destroys all hope. I haven’t decided.

Another issue for me was that cafes and markets open seriously late in the morning. Being made to wait until 9 am for a cup of coffee or something other than soba to eat is a cruel hardship to endure, but it did compel me to break my addiction to coffee (well, temporarily). I loved that every hotel room comes equipped with an electric kettle for tea. Besides, what’s up with all of the nasty coffee out there? Doutor, Veloce, Excelsior- all awful. Segafreddo makes a passable espresso, however, as does Café du Pres.

What did I bring back with me? Let me assure you that the empty duffel bag I had the foresight to bring along was packed. Ocha in all its many varied and wonderful forms: matcha, sencha, hojicha, gyokuro, hojibancha, mugicha, kukicha.

Fresh wasabi tubers wrapped in wet newspaper (these will keep for a couple of weeks in my fridge).

Yuzu-koshou, furikake, different kinds of senbei in my carry-on bag.

Bonito and other dried fish, bamboo leaves, pickles and other toppings for chirashi-sushi, all conveniently sealed in plastic. Candied black beans, umeboshi, matcha soba, matcha chocolates (these look like Andes mints covered with a fine dusting of matcha and turned out to be scrumptious; wish I’d brought more), Yoku Moku cookies and biscuits (because they are so overpriced in the States), Pierre Herme macarons, chocolates from La Maison du Chocolat, jams from Fauchon, one bottle of daiginjo and one of ume-shu.

I had a great time and can’t wait to go back.

Thanks for the suggestions, everyone; I would've been lost without the information I found here.

________________________________________________________________________

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Wow!

You ate all of that food in only 10 days!! :shock:

incredible report

The sweet potatoes you talk about (thickly sliced, deep-fried and coatd with a sugar sryupy like topping) are calle daigaku-imo and when you can get them freshly made they can really blow your socks off. :biggrin:

Kristin Wagner, aka "torakris"

 

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What a wonderful report!

For those of you that live in Tokyo, get down there and visit the sweet potato lady near the Italian yogurt and ice cream station. I wish I knew what these heavenly treats are called; sweet potatoes cut thick like steak fries, fried in sesame oil like karinto and coated with several layers of caramelized brown rock sugar and black sesame seeds. The insides are magically transformed into a satiny, starchy custard and the texture is sublime.

Like Torakris said, this is a version of daigaku-imo.

I hope this doesn't disillusion you, but that 'sweet potato lady' was likely just some part-time employee of a national chain. The shop is called 'Imo-ya Kuromon'

http://www.shirohato.com/kuromon/index.htm and they sell 'Karitto-shittori Daigaku-imo'. Compared to regular daigaku-imo, theirs is crunchier with less (or none? can't remember) syrup.

Rapoppo, another sweet-potato chain owned by the same company, does 'China Potato', a simliar version covered with sliced almonds.

I realized that franchises aren’t necessarily a bad thing in Japan. Umenohana, Tousuiro, Seryna, Boulangerie Burdigala… all these places have several locations and the food is still good. This gives me hope, or destroys all hope. I haven’t decided.

Let it give you hope! Somehow the Japanese have no problem thinking- and proving- that perfection and consistency are totally compatible.

There are bad chains, of course, with Kobe-ya being a good example, but I can think of so many good ones- like Kuromon and Rapoppo above.

My eGullet foodblog: Spring in Tokyo

My regular blog: Blue Lotus

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Like Torakris said, this is a version of daigaku-imo.

I hope this doesn't disillusion you, but that 'sweet potato lady' was likely just some part-time employee of a national chain. The shop is called 'Imo-ya Kuromon'

Oh, I already knew that. I meant 'sweet-potato' lady rather than sweet 'potato lady' ... :smile:

And Torakris, they were hot and fresh... she also had thinner, crispy ones out for sampling, but they didn't thrill me. The texture just wasn't all that interesting and there wasn't enough surface area to carry that wonderful, crunchy caramelized crust...

Damn! They were tasty.

I can't say it loudly enough: I love Japanese food!

edit to fix a spelling error. Yeah, I cracked open that bottle of daiginjo and my reflexes are a little slow. hehe.

Edited by Verjuice (log)
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unagi at obana

I failed to notice this!!!

I took my family to Obana today (Minami-senju - get off the train, weave your way along the north side of the JR tracks back toward Tokyo, along the little road that has a temple on the left and a graveyard on the right, past a couple of business hotels, to a place that looks like a well-to-do private house with an inexplicable flag in the garden. If you're lucky, you don't have to wait..it was rainy, cold, and early today, so we waltzed straight on in, and I ordered the una-juu before my husband realized that 2,500 yen per unajuu, unadorned, was the CHEAPEST unagi on the menu.

Haven't been there for nearly 20 years, but I always planned to take my family one day. I used to set out from near Oji station with friends on a summer afternoon, and we would walk slowly eastward until we arrived at Obana around sundown, and settled down to wait our turn on the benches outside the restaurant.

It hasn't changed. The eel is still very soft, the tare much less intrusive than the rank and file unagi tare, the rice soft but not mushy (steamed, not boiled). It was good. My kids were almost reconciled to the various disappointments of the day (the nearby aviation high school was just too good to be true, but it doesn't take out-of-area students, our local festival was cancelled and kids lost the opportunity to busk for a little pocket money...), and I enjoyed reliving a few memories.

Verjuice, what did you have at Obana?

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  • 4 months later...

I've reviewed and renamed the pictures I took -- that definitely jogged my memories of some of the specific details of the event.

It was still raining when I originally planned at 9:00 in the morning, when I had orginally planned on departing. If you missed the drama from before the event, a typhoon struck Japan on Saturday, and the weather all weekend was pretty much terrible. Monday, when I went to the fair, was but a brief reprieve from the rains -- it began raining again sometime this (Tuesday) morning, and has been raining on and off (but mostly on) all day long.

But. on Monday, the rains were letting up, and the forecast had predicted partly cloudy weather, so I remained hopeful. Around 10:00 the rains had all but stopped, and I grabbed my things and began the journey to Kappabashi.

Took a bus and the Tokyo subway. The route was uneventful, and I arrived at Tawaramachi Station at 10:50 or so. It had stopped raining.

Tawaramachi Station is very small train station, serving only one line; it has two or three exits. I did not notice any particularly large number of people travelling from the station to Kappabashi at the same time that I was.

The Kappabashi street was, of course, off limits to traffic during the festival.

The word festival was appropriate, I suppose, though the event didn't seem particularly festive. Perhaps it was the weather; everyone there had been subjected to rain and wind for the previous couple of days.

Mostly, though, festival was as advertised: most of the shops had their various wares for sale on wagons out on the sidewalks right next to their stores. I windoer if preparations would have been more elaborate had we not been struck by Typhoon #22.

Here's something representative of the event. A small store has set up some bins and a wagon selling fake food:

gallery_17485_219_1097581077.jpg

After walking a block or so down the road (Tawaramachi Station is at one of the ends of the road) I came upon a group performing taiko, traditional Japanese drumming. The acoustics of taiko in the middle of a long street lined completely with fairly tall buildings was quite astounding, and produced a thunderous echo.

gallery_17485_219_1097581113.jpg

Honestly, the taiko was one of the few set events to the festival, and it was probably the highlight of my visit.

Next I happened past the first food vendor. Many of the food vendors at the fair were simply employees of a particular store, who had been set up with a small and simple workplace to cook up some simple fare. Such as this one, selling frankfurters (on a stick, of course) and jyagabattaa (potatoes and butter):

gallery_17485_219_1097581127.jpg

Some enterprising shop set up a coffee shop out near an intersection:

gallery_17485_219_1097581139.jpg

A couple other food vendors were next. These seemed to be unconnected with any particular area store, and were probably from some restaurant from elsewhere in Tokyo. The first of these was selling steamed Chinese food, such as dumplings and siu gyoza. I bought a packet of glutinous rice with various savories, wrapped up in a big green leaf and steamed. I can never remember what they are called.

The second was a African curry joint. I think. I tried to get fried plantains and beans, but they were out. I settled for bean curry and naan, which was less than impressive.

gallery_17485_219_1097581151.jpg

gallery_17485_219_1097581164.jpg

There were some vendors selling Japanese foods as well. Besides for one industrious group selling lots of takoyaki and yakisoba, there were a few lesser seen items for sale. The first of these is daigaku imo (literally, university potato), sweet potato that was been cooked in oil and then covered with hot sugar syrup.

The second is a fishball soup.

http://forums.egullet.org/uploads/10975811..._1097581176.jpg

http://forums.egullet.org/uploads/10975811..._1097581271.jpg

A couple shots of stores, just to give a general idea of the area to people who haven't seen it.

gallery_17485_219_1097581213.jpg

gallery_17485_219_1097581227.jpg

gallery_17485_219_1097581248.jpg

It took me a few seconds to figure out what that last store was selling. They specialize, of course, in glass display cases.

Besides the taiko drumming (which was repeated a few other times during the festival), the other major planned event for the day was a series of performances by some brass bands from some of the local elementary schools. They played the typical Japanese elementary school songs: Saints go Marching, and the theme from My Neighbor Totoro (an animated movie) and the like. They also played a version of SMAP's Sekai ni hitosu dake no hana, which I try to avoid when I can.

(Though the one I truly can't figure out is when a local elementary school band was playing the tune from John Brown's Body / The Battle Hymn of the Republic. :blink: That was definitely not something that I expected to hear in Japan)

I ended up leaving the event around 2:00, I think. Besides browsing and shopping, there wasn't much to do, and as I've been there a few times in the last few months, I was mostly interested in the stalls and the street-based sales.

I didn't see any samples of pizza. I saw, in fact, no pizza at all.

I bought a wok, and a package of kitchen towels. And a wooden spoon. I tried to buy some spices, as they were being sold very cheaply, but a horde of Japanese women who also wanted cheap spices managed to keep me at bay long enough for me to decide to find easier pickings elsewhere.

On the way to my next destination in Tokyo, I happened to make a transfer at Mitsukoshimae station. As I was walking inside the station to the connecting line, I saw some advertisements and realized that the station was connected to the Mituskoshi Nihonbashihonten (Mitsukoshi's main store, in Nihonbashi). I had heard good things about it, and had some extra time, so I wandered into the depachika (the basement level used or food items). It was huge, and filled with fancy treats. It was also filled with people, due to the day being a public holliday.

It was truly big. The area for sweets alone rivalled my local supermarket in size. My memories of it are a clutter, owing the the throning masses of people, and the wide variety of things to see, smell, and tase. Two things manage to cut through the mess in my mind. The first was a wine seminar, conducted by a Frenchman. It was translated into Japanese, of course, and I managed to understand very, very little of either the French or the Japanese.

The other item that sticks out in my memory was a small truffle that I received as a sample from one of the stalls in the sweets area. Cool, semisweet chocolate ganache dusted with cocoa. I wish I had one (or more) right now.

Getting back to the Kappabashi festival. I think it's a good time to visit Kappabashi if you don't go there semi-regularly. I don't think it's really worth more than three hours, unless you're really into shopping, which is made is frustrated by the unceasing crowds. For shopping inside the stores themselves, you're probably better off just going on a regularly day (but not Sunday, as most of the stores are closed).

For more pictures, or for larger versions of the ones here, go to my webpage

-------

Alex Parker

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Thank you for the excellent report and pictures. And very sorry to have flaked out on you like that.

Did you get the imression that the food stalls (the ones obviously connect to the stores, at least) were set up to show off the equipment? Or just a money maker, or to add to the festival feeling?

My eGullet foodblog: Spring in Tokyo

My regular blog: Blue Lotus

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Did you get the imression that the food stalls (the ones obviously connect to the stores, at least) were set up to show off the equipment? Or just a money maker, or to add to the festival feeling?

Hmm, there were a variety of different types of vendors. I'll run through what I can remember:

The most obvious equipment demo were the various (probably saw 4 or 5 of them) popcorn machine setups, where they were just giving away small cups of popcorn.

Most of the small food sellers that seemed to be connected to stores didn't appear to be demonstrating any particular equipment. I believe they were just there for the profit (they probably realized the blatantly obvious, that there are basically no restaurants in the area, and there would be a lot of hungry people in the area). These were all very simple setups: most of them were nothing more than a small work area and a heating surface of some type (teppan for the frankfurters and jyagabataa, a litle crockpot for curry rice).

The only major vendor that also seemed to be doing some form of equipment show-off was the coffee vendor. It was set up by a beverage equipment dealer, and they also had a little cafe setup going, and were selling different types of hot coffee.

The restaurant supply stores that dealt with food also had a few samples going, mostly ready made curries-in-pouches.

I just remembered, there was another complicated setup at the festival: a group making onigiri and the like with rice made in a couple of portable, gas-heated kamas. They were out of product pretty much every time I stopped by their stall.

-------

Alex Parker

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