It’s beginning to look a lot like Kurisumasu

The Japanese, being a seasonal people, really seem to be into Christmas. I was afraid I would call attention to myself with a string of lights in our palm tree and a little Christmas tree on the porch, but I needn’t have feared. One of the people on our street has Santas popping out of his yard like so many gnomes, and a light display that rivals Chevy Chase’s in National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation. This is a man who usually trims his yard with scissors. I was very concerned about his light bill until I saw his strings of lights are solar-powered. Inspired, I got some, too, but it was really mainly because I have no outdoor electrical outlet and was not about to run the light cord through an open window despite my determination to be festive. I have also decorated the inside of the house, with the bookshelf substituting for the hearth. Fortunately Chip is too young to wonder how Santa will get into the house without a chimney.

Ornaments in the window and lights on the bookshelf. Safe? Probably not. Festive? Definitely.

Why the determination to be festive? Usually I am not so thrilled about Christmas and it is Rob who is Tiny Tim to my Scrooge. But he is gone again–if you follow the news of the western Pacific closely you’ll know exactly what he’s doing–and I feel that I should step up in his absence.

Other signs of the season:

  • My neighborhood Starbucks, which made me very sad by not having any pumpkin-flavored things this fall, has come through with the gingerbread latte! It is even more delicious here, I think because their default milk is whole. I’m not going to ask about that, though.
  • If gingerbread lattes aren’t your thing, there are a variety of seasonal drinks now in the vending machines. Corn potage (my guess is some kind of soup in a can), hot lemonade (lovely), hot jasmine tea (lovelier), and something in a can with a stack of pancakes on the outside. I haven’t tried it yet, but I will.
  • Before Rob left again we went to Tokyo for a night. (Chip-chan got babysat and we had a night out. We went and saw the new Harry Potter movie because it was in English. The theater was amazing: it looked like a space ship inside, everyone put away their cell phones and shut up for the duration of the film and then took their trash out afterwards, and two tickets cost over $40–seating was reserved!) Walking around Roppongi we caught the scent of pine and were delighted to see a Christmas tree lot…

    Perhaps you can't see the price tags for 40-50,000 yen. That's like a $500 tree.

  • Boxes are appearing everywhere. Watch out family and friends: you might just be getting Chip mailed to you for Christmas.

I just wrote "Chip" on the custom form. No questions asked.

 

In other Chip news, after almost 18 months of life Chip finally had enough hair for a haircut. He cried the entire haircut, but looks much more respectable without the baby mullet.

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    The President and the soft cream

    U.S. President Barack Obama, center, enjoys

    So, the one thing that we missed while we were in Kyoto was President Obama literally in our backyard. He visited very nearby Kamakura while he was here for the APEC conference in Yokohama, and he even landed his helicopter at Ikego, the Navy housing area just over the mountain from us. Here’s more about his visit from the Mainichi Daily News (which I think translates to the “Everyday” Daily News), from whom I also got the above picture (because I missed actually taking it in real life!).

    Not to get too political, but this visit combined two things of which I am a huge fan: the President and Japanese “soft cream.” Disturbing name, delicious substance. As a Midwesterner, I take my soft serve very seriously and have been delighted to see that the Japanese do the same. Their flavors, however, are not what you find at the DQ: sweet potato, corn, hydrangea, cherry blossom.

    Soft cream stand in Tokyo.

    Apparently Obama enjoyed green tea soft cream. My mother and I sat on that very bench in Kamakura, at the Daibatsu temple, and enjoyed soft serve (blueberry) ourselves last June. This is the second time I have almost had ice cream with the president; when we lived in Alexandria he came to my favorite place, the Dairy Godmother, the day after I had been there. Maybe someday, at some random place in the world (he’s got to go back to Kansas someday, right?), Obama and I will have ice cream at the SAME TIME!

    Blues and Noodles

    Last week my husband came home after two months away. The joyous homecoming, with an anticipated 3-day holiday weekend, was short-lived however, as less than 48 hours later the navy sent him back out again to avoid a “typhoon.” Not all the ships were sent out from Yokosuka, Rob just got lucky. So Chip and I were left alone to face the “typhoon.” I put “typhoon” in quotation marks because I was not impressed. Despite dire warnings issued by the base weather service, the only damage we sustained was Rob’s bike blowing over. Other than that, it was just cold rain as usual.

    There was no way I was staying in the house with a 1-year-old all weekend, “typhoon” or not. I needed some cheering up, and as a long walk on the beach was out of the question, some comfort food was in order. As Japan has no Museum of Macaroni and Cheese or Museum of Bread Pudding, Chip and I went to the next best thing: the Ramen Museum in Yokohama. Yes, a whole museum devoted to noodles!

    The Ramen Museum. And "typhoon."

    Admission was only 300 yen but, as the guide warned me, all adult visitors are expected to buy a large bowl of noodles. No problem. I had no idea what to expect, but Tokyo in a basement was not it. There was a whole neighborhood of Tokyo circa 1958 reproduced underground.

    Behold the City of Noodles.

    Why 1958? According to the website: “Why did we reproduce the year Showa 33 (1958)? The mood from the good old days of Showa fills visitors with nostalgia and an appetite to taste ramen.”

    Nostalgia always does make me hungry. It must have made the citizens of this neighborhood particularly hungry, too, because every shop in it was a ramen restaurant. I certainly hope the denizens of this quarter never had to buy bread, or tea, or clothing, or a broom or something like that.

    Each shop served ramen from a different region of Japan. I wish I could read; all the descriptions were in Japanese. With that obstacle, not to mention Chip doing his best to get lost in the good old days, I simply looked for a restaurant that didn’t have a line and did have a high chair, which are probably not the best criteria for really choosing your ramen. Anyway, bingo, we found one right on the neighborhood square. All the ordering was automated; I recognized the word ramen, 700 yen, on the little ticket dispenser and managed to get that. To my delight, I also recognized gyoza which are these little pan-fried dumplings that I love.

    Chip and I got to sit at the counter and watch them make the ramen, which is fun. The ramen itself was interesting; my best guess is that it was “taiho” ramen from Fukuoka in southern Japan. Wherever it was from certainly reveres the pig. The broth was very pork-y and there were thin slices of pork on top. The noodles were also very thin. It was good, but I like my Hayama miso ramen at my neighborhood noodle shop much better. The gyoza were small and wonderful, and I had to fight Chip for them.

    Please, sir, can I have some more?

    I wish I could have tried more (I have a pretty bottomless capacity for ramen), but Chip-chan was ready to go back to the 21st century. He had a rather spectacular meltdown on the train ride home, but time travel will do that to you.

    And now maybe my husband will come home again, and we will get to have a re-reunion. If not, I always have the noodle shop just down the street.

    Strange Fruit

    Coming back to Hayama I’ve been kind of sad to see that there aren’t many signs of fall that I recognize. The small, semi-tropical trees we have are still pretty green, the rain looks the same all year round, and there aren’t baskets of local apples overflowing at my neighborhood grocery store. Perhaps what is most sad is the absence of pumpkins on porches, or just pumpkins in general. But just when I was about to give up on the spirit of autumn, bam! Little round orange harbingers of fall literally fell into my lap. The other day my neighbor Yoshi brought over a bag of persimmons, which she called kaki, from the tree in her yard. Yoshi admitted that she is not a huge fan of the fruit, and told me to come over and just take as many as I wanted.

    Yoshi's persimmon tree, just behind the kind of dead-looking tree.

    I was thrilled. New fruit! I had never tasted a persimmon before. According to the two cookbooks I consulted, Joy of Cooking and Local Flavors, they usually fall off of the tree quite ripe, so all you have to do is peel them and eat. The cookbooks also told me that I was very fortunate to have ripe persimmons, so with appropriate gratitude I dug into one, and it was pretty good. It wasn’t quite the transcendent experience I had the first time I tasted a mango, but they were very sweet and juicy.

    If I squint, they look almost like little pumpkins.

    So now I have lots of persimmons and I’m not quite sure what to do with them. Anyone have any ideas? Emily? Betsy?

    Cooking with strange vegetables, the sequel

    I really miss summer squash. And winter squash–any kind of squash that the lovely soils of America produce. Here in Japan my squash options are pretty limited. There was what seemed to be an inexplicably short zucchini season last month (doesn’t zucchini season in the States seem to last for years?), and I can get Mexican-grown spaghetti squash at the base commissary, but then I feel guilty about my gargantuan carbon footprint. Otherwise, my squash options at my local grocery store are usually limited to this:

    Behold the Kabocha.

    I think that I remember seeing Kabocha squash in the States, but I certainly didn’t pay any attention to them, distracted as I was by the bounty of familiar squash options. I bought this here for Chip because, no matter the species, he still loves squash puree. I’ll steam it and mash it for him, and sometimes I’ll mix it with applesauce and a little cinnamon. He loves that so much that he usually ends up rubbing it all over his face, as if he’s trying to absorb it as many ways as he possibly can. I’ve also had Kabocha in a tempura version–anything tempura deep-fried is pretty good–but I’ve never made it for myself/forced it on Rob before.

    I was so desperate for squash the other day that I decided to use the Kabocha in one of my favorite recipes that usually calls for butternut squash. I think the Kabocha is starchier and a little sweeter than butternut squash, but it was still good. Should butternut squash vanish from the U.S. of A., and should you find yourself without an oven, you should try this recipe. It is very easy and it has a nice autumnal feel which I welcomed as August seems to stretch on interminably over here. Is is this slow in the States, too?

    (I can’t remember where I found this recipe–I’ve had it forever–so I apologize if I am infringing your copyright.)

    Linguine with Squash, Bacon, and Feta

    4 slices bacon
    1 lb. Kabocha (or butternut) squash
    2 cloves garlic, minced
    1 c. chicken broth
    1 tsp. coarse salt
    2-4 oz. feta, crumbled
    8 oz. linguine
    1 tbsp. olive oil
    Black pepper

    Cook linguine in a large pot, drain it, and return to pot. Cook bacon till crisp, drain, and crumble. In 1 tbsp. of the bacon drippings, saute squash and garlic 3-5 minutes. Stir in broth and salt, cover and simmer 15-20 min. until squash is softened. Add half of the feta and stir well to combine. Add the sauce to the cooked linguine and toss to combine. Dish out servings, drizzle with olive oil, and top with bacon, remaining feta, and black pepper. Serves 2-4.

    Itadakimasu!

    Lazy Bones

    In true summer vacation style, I have been very lazy about many things recently, including updates. Not that I had that much to do in the first place, but I still have a vestigial desire from my teaching days to just stop doing anything come real summer weather. The rainy season is suddenly over here, and it’s like someone just flipped a switch: the air is clear, the sun is bright, and there’s a breeze again in the evenings. It’s hot, but it’s that good kind of summer hot.

    Last week Rob was able to take some leave and, jealous of my recent trip to Hakone without him, wanted to go to the mountains. We stayed in the same place as I did with Mama, but the exciting development this time was that we found the Chip-sized Japanese pajamas. He looked like the cutest little Maoist insurgent you ever saw:

    After several baths and lots of Japanese food (Rob ate sashimi!), we ventured farther afield. Hakone is locally famous for black eggs, and we just had to  see that. The eggs are blackened from hard-boiling in the hot sulfur springs in the mountains. We took another terrifying cable car ride to a mountain called Owakudani, passing over fields of belching yellow pools of molten sulfur. It looked like a cross between Yellowstone and something out of medieval illustration of Dante’s Inferno. At the top we disembarked to the smell of rotten eggs lighting matches. The landscape was otherworldly; the winds were high and blowing thick clouds over the mountain ridges. When the mists parted, one could see steaming yellowish streams wending through scrubby plants and rocks. We took a short hike to the egg-boiling pool, where one could purchase the black eggs. In true Japanese style one cannot purchase one egg, one must purchase a set of five. Fortunately we found some nice Chinese tourists with whom to share. Chip seemed to enjoy his black egg but Rob passed. Somewhat disappointingly, they tasted just like regular hard-boiled eggs.

    See? They're black.

    This contraption conveys the eggs up the mountain for boiling. I guess it beats hauling them up there on one's back.

    This is the view we could have seen, if visibility had been greater than 3 feet.

    After our descent, we went down the mountain to Miyanoshita where we stayed at the Fujiya hotel, something I’d really wanted to do. The Fujiya is a Japanese institution, with buildings dating from 1878, and a long history of hosting relatively famous people. Several buildings make up the complex, and all are in varying states of genteel decay. The Fujiya shows its age a bit, but was still so charming. We stayed in the mod 60s-era “Forest Lodge” (I tried to channel Betty Draper traveling to Japan–after she reconciles with Don of course, not with the guy she ran away with), but there were lots of older Western/Japanese lodge amalgamations, and an annexed old Imperial summer villa that the Americans added to the place while they occupied it in the years after WWII. The best part of the Fujiya was the dining room, where Japanese takes on mid-century French cuisine were served in silent and lovely splendor. My rainbow trout still had its eyes, teeth, and fins, and Rob’s chicken parmesan didn’t actually seem to feature any cheese. They were still great, and even better was the French toast the next morning.

    Dozo!

    The Flower Lodge

    The dining room at the Fujiya.

    A nice escape. Now Rob is back to the 15-hour work days. Another reason I have been distracted recently is the fault of a wonderful book, The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet by David Mitchell. It takes place in turn-of-the-nineteenth-cenutry Nagasaki, where Dutch traders are confined to one small island in the harbor and Japan is still largely closed to foreigners. The details are so vivid and the characters are so real. It is an incredible story.

    I am in love with this book.

    Cooking with strange vegetables

    Last weekend, my Japanese neighbor (who was actually born and raised in Brazil but has come back to the motherland, and who speaks beautiful English) took me to the grocery store. Although I had been many times before, she finally unlocked many mysteries of the Union Motomachi for me. She showed me where the miso was and told me how to make miso soup, she pointed out where the beef ended and the pork started (and very gently told me what I had been buying thinking it was ground beef was actually ground pork…), and best of all she showed me where the ramen kits were. Not Cup o’ Noodles–the Japanese ramen kits have fresh noodles and a soup base, and one adds boiling water and the stuff on top: meat or tofu, sprouts, bamboo shoots, scallions, etc.

    Rob had duty on Wednesday and I made myself a giant bowl of ramen and was a very happy camper. While making ramen for a kit might not count as mastering Japanese cuisine, it was a real boost of self-confidence be able to fix something edible from a package I can’t read.

    By far my neighbor and I spent the most time in the produce section, home of the $30 watermelon and the $5 peach, durians (the spiky fruit that smells like rotting animals), individually wrapped carrots, exquisitely small cucumber and green peppers, edible chrysanthemums, purple sweet potatoes, and this:

    The daikon radish, not actual size. This one measured about 16".

    Perhaps you have already encountered the daikon, but it was new to me. I bought one, though, and to my surprise found a recipe for it in one of my favorite cookbooks: The Rolling Prairie Cookbook. Rolling Prairie full of great recipes for seasonal produce (it was the first proponent of CSAs I ever encountered, and it was published way back in the 90s before CSAs were cool) and as far as I know is only available in Lawrence, KS. So write my Mama if you want one.

    I made this recipe yesterday and had it for dinner. Rob must have known, because he didn’t get home until 8:30 pm and therefore missed the presentation of the Zucchini and Daikon Salad. I felt so sorry for him having to work so late that I just made him a grilled cheese, hold the daikon. Anyway, I thought this was really good and if you find yourself the owner of a daikon, you should try it. The dressing is especially nice and I think could go on any vegetable-y salad.

    This one’s going out to Betsy, my sister-in-law, who has lots of really good recipes for vegetables that I use often on her own website.

    Zucchini and Daikon Salad

    2 small zucchini

    1/2 cucumber, seeded and chopped (or 1 whole Japanese cucumber, no seeding necessary)

    1/2 pound daikon, peeled and thinly sliced

    1 medium bell pepper, chopped

    1 tablespoon soy sauce

    1 teaspoon honey

    2 tablespoons rice vinegar

    1 tablespoon canola oil

    1 tablespoon sesame oil (If you don’t want to buy a whole jar of sesame oil I think that 2 tablespoons of canola oil would work.)

    Cut zucchini in thin slices and blanch in boiling water. “Zucchini should be just barely tender but not limp or soft.” Toss all vegetables together. Whisk remaining ingredients together, pour over vegetables, and toss carefully. Refrigerate for several hours and toss again before serving. Serves 4 to 6, or 1 vegetable widow for several days.

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