Shichimi – Is it the world’s finest condiment?

Okay, so yeah, I’m putting up two “S” posts. Let me tell you why. I thought about San Antonio first. I love San Antonio, but it’s not something that really inspires me to take to the internets and blow out multiple stanzas of beautiful prose. I grew up in this city, I love this city, but the things I think are the most positive about the city are freaking mundane. There’s no need for me to work too hard to convince you that San Antonio is a great place to be. It’s not New York, or Hong Kong, or any place truly exotic. I mean, it’s certainly a cooler place than Oklahoma City or something. Anyway, back on topic. There is an “S” topic that will inspire me to spew out a vomitous amount of excited jibber jabber. It’s shichimi.

Repeat after me, “SHICHIMI”

Carolyn and I really enjoyed eating in the cheap sukiyas and ramenyas in Japan. Where else could you get a bowl of paper thin beef on rice, or super hearty, fresh ramen noodles for less than $10? No, neither dish is really something that you would get at Le Bernardin or Morimoto, or even freaking Benihana. These are basic, staple meals that keep the stomachs of Japan full. I was listening to a man on NPR’s The Splendid Table talk about Japanese food and how it’s simple and the quality is simply determined by intent. Cheap food in Japan is freaking DELICIOUS. Their intent is to take the utmost pride in what you eat, whether it’s 400 yen or 4,000 yen.

Anyhow, at the cheap Japanese restaurant table you’re likely to find bright pink pickled ginger, a few different dark sauces, definitely shoyuand I’m not really sure but probably also ponzu and a sweetened shoyu. Next to these is a squeeze bottle filled with an orange mystery powder. That’s shichimi, and that my friend, is gold. Your dish of say, sukiyaki will arrive with slightly dry beef, sauteed onions, and rice. It’s up to you to dress it as you wish. I usually add a little shoyu for moisture, a bunch of shichimi for spice and savoriness, and pickled ginger. I learned that by watching the other patrons (when in doubt, copy a local.)

Let me try to describe my first experience with shichimi in a way that doesn’t sound like contrived erotica. I had a bowl of sukiyaki, it was good. I put shichimi on top, and suddenly it had heat, umami, and a curious blend of other flavors that were familiar, but not familiar together. I knew I liked it right away, it was no pain/pleasure thing like assam laksa in Malaysia. It was just good. I had no idea what the powder was, and my knowledge of katakana isn’t good enough to read the label. This was in Osaka, in September, and I was too shy to ask in my poor excuse for Japanese what this magical blend of spice was. Well, when we returned in February to Tokyo, I asked the nice little lady at the sukiya in my most polite and friendly tone of voice while pointing to the bottle, “Onaigashimas? Kore wa desu ka?” And she said shichimi. I looked that up on the internet right away and learned something that made sense in retrospect.

In Japanese shichi means “seven.” Shichimi togarashi means “seven flavor chili pepper.” According to wikipedia, it commonly includes the following seven ingredients:

  • coarse ground red chili pepper
  • ground sansho (click here for an explanation)
  • roasted orange peel (weird flavor that makes sense once you know it’s there)
  • black sesame seed (plainly visible)
  • white sesame seed (plainly visible)
  • hemp seed
  • ground ginger
  • nori

Really, there’s nothing too exotic here, except for maybe the sansho. It’s all about the mix and balance of flavors. Shichimi displays the thing I love the most about Japanese cuisine. Without any truly remarkable ingredients, some soul who was searching for a perfect blend of flavors, spices, textures, and umami. I can’t imagine how long it took them to put the blend together, much less get the proportions right, but whoever it was must have toiled for a significant period of time to make it all work…and boy oh boy, does it work.

To answer my own question, is shichimi the world’s finest condiment? Absolutely yes. I would put this shichimi on everything if I could.

Old churches, temples, and other religious sites

One thing Carolyn and I really enjoy doing when we go places is exploring sights that are a) old, b) free, and c) of a religious nature. Neither of us is very religious, but it’s pretty amazing how good humans are at architecture and engineering when they’re divinely inspired. We’ve wound up exploring the churches of New York City in the midst of a shopping trip. Our day trip to Macau turned into a trail of Catholic churches left by the Portuguese explorers half a millennium ago. I fully expect every stop we make in Europe to include at least one church, and probably more than a few classical era temples, too. For today’s post, I thought it would be cool to compile some pictures of old churches, temples, and other religious sites that we’ve visited over the years.

Mission San Jose - San Antonio, Texas

Mission San Jose, one of Spain’s old missionary outposts from the conquistador days.

The interior of St. Augustine's Church.

The interior of St. Augustine’s Church.

The beautiful interior of St. Laurence's Church

The beautiful interior of St. Laurence’s Church

A golden Buddha statue inside the temple building.

A golden Buddha statue inside the temple building.

Wong Tai Sin Temple, Kowloon, Hong Kong

Wong Tai Sin temple,

 

St. John the Divine - New York

St. John the Divine – New York

 

Macau - St. Dominic's Church

St. Dominic’s Church, smack dab in the middle of the historical district.

Macau - St Laurence Church exterior

The exterior of St. Laurence’s Church.

Macau - Ruins of St Paul's

The Ruins of St. Paul’s Church are Macau’s most iconic site (other than the Grand Lisboa, perhaps).

Macau - Igreja da Se

Inside Igreja da Se

Macau - Inside St Dominics Church

Inside St. Dominic’s.

Wat Chalong Complex

Wat Chalong Complex

Wat Karon, a new temple in Karon.

Wat Karon, a new temple in Karon.

Wat Chalong is a stunningly beautiful temple complex

Wat Chalong is a stunningly beautiful temple complex

Sensoji Temple pagoda

The temple and pagoda at Sensoji are beautiful old structures in a super modern city.

Incense smoke filling the air in Wong Tai Sin temple.

Incense smoke filling the air in Wong Tai Sin temple.

Wong Tai Sin Temple with apartments, Kowloon, Hong Kong

Inside Wong Tai Sin temple.

Kinkakuji Temple - The Golden Pavilion

Why do they call it the Golden Pavilion?

Ginkakuji - The Silver Pavilion

Ginkakuji Temple – the silver pavilion.

Gwanam Temple

One of the oldest temples in Korea, on Mt. Gaya

One of the oldest temples in Korea, on Mt. Gaya

 

Pura Batur - Bali

Pura Batur – Bali

Japan on my mind

Japan’s on my mind today. Our visits to Osaka, Kyoto, and Tokyo opened my eyes to the idea that a place can in fact be just as cool as you think it’s going to be. The super clean streets, the colorful signs, loud music, and glowing neon are all just as you’d imagine they’d be. I guess Japan has always been on my mind, though.

Introduction to Japan: Nintendo

My introduction to Japan as a concept came at the age of six or seven, along with the Christmas gift of a Nintendo Entertainment System. I always thought the people in the games and the streets seemed a little bit strange because they didn’t look like the people and streets at home. Walk around in Japan a bit though and you find that “hey, this is like an HD version of Final Fight. Strange, right? It seems a little dorky, but I’m pretty sure it’s just the general Japanese aesthetic that was wired into my brain by 8-bit game developers years ago that makes Japan seem a little bit familiar.

Geishas at Sensoji Temple - Tokyo, Japan

These ladies train for years to attain perfection at entertainment.

Land of the Rising Sun? Land of the Super-intense people.

One thing I think anyone could admire about Japan is the intensity of its people. Food is basically always delicious. If you go to a ramen-ya with an open kitchen you can see how freaking exacting the chef is when he prepares your $10 bowl of noodles. Go to the Baskin Robbins and watch as the ice-cream guy makes perfect scoops of a flavor for you. Buy a silk-screen print at a temple market, and you’ll see the fastest, nicest, most perfect gift wrapping job you can imagine. In Japan it seems that you run into characters like Jiro from Get Jiro everywhere. People intent  on perfection. This is great news if you love to eat.

tonkatsu ramen with black garlic puree

Perfection in the form of a bowl of noodles: tonkatsu ramen

ikura nigiri

A perfect ikura nigiri.

Oh yeah, also the food.

The food in Japan is an exercise in the perfect balance. Not just flavor, but texture, color, and even temperature. Everything must be served a certain way, and everything is served a certain way. Flavors are at once distinct and delicate, and chefs spend years developing their skills on one razor thin type of food. You can literally taste the pride in the food. Pride tastes good.

It might be a while before we make it back to Japan, but I think Japan will remain on my mind forever. It’s a super interesting country with a great cuisine and the most gentle but intense people I can imagine.

Three Days in Tokyo – Akihabara, Shibuya, and Shinjuku

Geishas at Sensoji Temple - Tokyo, Japan

As we walked towards the subway station we stumbled upon an event with the Tokyo Fire Department and these two Geisha at Sensoji Temple’s main gate.

Our second full day in Tokyo started with some unfinished business. We needed two things, a solar-powered sushi chef bobble head (Yes, for real. Yes, this was for my benefit and not Carolyn’s. Yes, I have a ridiculous huge collection of kitsch. Don’t judge me.) Near the gate of Sensoji temple there was some sort of ruckus, and being the curious nosy busybodies we are we needed to have a look. At the gate was a unite of the Tokyo Fire Department posing behind a banner with two geisha. This time we were ready and had cameras out of bags. Photos ensued. Even in the middle of an open space, these ladies are quite good at avoiding a photo.

Akihabara – because best buy isn’t big enough

Akihabara Electric City prize dispensers - Tokyo, Japan

These cute little surprise-bubble machines lined both sides of an aisle at a shop in Akihabara Electric City.

The first stop of the day was Akihabara Electric City. We didn’t really have any good reason to come here, as there was absolutely no room for any electronics in our bags. The true reason we came here was to experience Tokyo’s premier electronics market. Holy cow. Akihabara does electronics right. We stopped by the wall of quarter-toy machines (except instead of a quarter it was 200 yen, that’s what, $3 or so?) and picked a few machines to get some surprises for our nieces and nephew and my kitsch collection. After a quick look around, it was off to our next stop.

Shibuya, Shi, shi, Shibuya – ROLL CALL!

Shibuya Scramble Crossing - The World Ends With You

The scramble crossing in Shibuya as presented in “The World Ends With You.”

Shibuya scramble crossing - Tokyo, Japan

The Shibuya scramble crossing, where a giant wave of humanity crashes against the storefronts every 20 seconds.

Shibuya - Tokyo, Japan

Shibuya, Tokyo’s fashion district.

Shibuya is a place I was familiar with far before we visited Tokyo as it’s the setting of Square Enix’s The World Ends With You. As you can see from the top picture, they feature the scramble crossing that is kind of the main intersection of the area pretty extensively in the game, in real life it’s pretty similar, just way way way more densely populated. We checked out Shibuya 109 to have a look at some of the hard styling locals of Shibuya, had some nice ice cream, and oh yeah. LUNCH.

Tonkatsu Ramen – the best noodles in asia because I say so.

tonkatsu ramen with black garlic puree

Carolyn decided to fancy up her tonkatsu ramen with a black garlic swirl. It was, of course, delicious.

tonkatsu ramen - Tokyo, Japan

Tonkatsu ramen is probably my favorite Japanese food. It’s thick, hearty, and doesn’t leave you feeling like a total pig (even though you’ve essentially eaten a whole pig in the bowl.)

For lunch we stopped into a ramen-ya in Shibuya that specialized in tonkotsu ramen. I don’t even know how to start to describe tonkatsu ramen and how much I love it, so prepare for word-vomit. Tonkatsu ramen is served in a thick, meaty pork broth that I’m pretty sure has marrow in it somewhere. The flavor is rich, like the creamiest pan gravy you’ve ever tasted. The noodles have a little bit of a chewy texture, and the meat is served falling-apart tender. A bowl of this will set you back about 800 yen, but it’s worth every single solitary individual yen coin to have a bowl of this set down in front of you. A squirt of soy sauce and a little puff of shichimi set the whole thing like a fission reaction of flavor and texture that sends me into umami heaven. End word vomit.

Shinjuku – Skyscrapers and another video game setting

Shinjuku Skyscrapers - Tokyo Japan

The skyscrapers of Shinjuku are some of the tallest buildings in the city.

Kabukicho Gate - Tokyo Japan

We searched for about an hour for this electric gate at the entrance to Kabukicho, the real life counterpart to the fictional Kamurocho from the Yakuza video games.

Shinjuku is an area of skyscrapers, shopping, food, lights, sounds, and entertainment. Our main objective was to visit the Kabukicho area. As with Shibuya, I was already kind of familiar with Kabukicho as it’s the real life counterpart to Sega’s Kamurocho from the Yakuza series. It sparkled just as much as I thought it would. It’s also where we found dinner.

Sushi in Shinjuku, or how to really overdo it.

nigiri zushi platter - tokyo japan

This is what I ordered for dinner. “Oops.”

nigiri zushi - tokyo japan

A close up view of the nigiri platter I ordered in Kabukicho…note the extra uni. Oops.

We found a sushi-ya in Kabukicho and saw that they had an affordable plate of nigiri in the window, so of course sushi was the dinner plan. I really really wanted to be sure to get a piece of uni (sea urchin roe). All of the chefs on television make it look like it’s the best foodgasm you could possibly have, and it was pretty expensive at between 400-500 yen per piece. I had to try it. When we sat down, the menu was conspicuously missing the less expensive order of nigiri I saw in the window. The server came over and showed us how to work the electronic ordering machine, and I had him help me add an uni, because there seemed to be no uni in the picture. A few minutes later a beautiful platter of nigiri arrived, and lo and behold it had TWO pieces of uni. Well, nothing went to waste, and the uni was good. I don’t really think I’m a huge uni lover that will be talking about how amazing it is on TV or anything, but it was pretty good stuff.

Sumida River - Tokyo, Japan

Boat traffic on the Sumida River in Asakusa.

At the end of the day we stopped in for a beer at the Asahi brewery and hung out next to the Sumida River for a while. Cherry blossoms were blooming on the trees behind us (but it was after dark and the camera just wouldn’t catch it right, but it did catch the boat traffic on the river pretty well.

The next morning we packed up, checked out of the Smile Hotel and went out to do just a bit of shopping before our long flight back to New York. Our stay in Tokyo was short, but it was certainly plenty sweet. Tokyo is a delicious, vibrant, and chaotic place to visit and you can’t really do it justice in three days, but if you’ve got a layover you’d be doing yourself a real disservice to just stay in Narita and order room service.

 

 

Three days in Tokyo – Around Asakusa

We woke up nice and refreshed after our long trip from Daegu to Tokyo, and set out to find a nice hot cup of coffee. It wasn’t hard to do. We were both still pretty groggy, as one might expect when they upend their day-night cycle abruptly, so we decided we should see some of the sites nearby and save the subway fares (which can be quite steep in Tokyo) for another day when we had a bit more energy to deal with the hustle and bustle of Tokyo’s busier parts.

Sensoji Temple  lantern

Sensoji Temple is famous for among other things, its large red lanterns.

Sensoji Temple garden

A beautiful Japanese garden at Sensoji Temple.

Sensoji Temple pagoda

The temple and pagoda at Sensoji are beautiful old structures in a super modern city.

It’s a good thing Asakusa has plenty to offer

Luckily, Asakusa has plenty and I mean PLENTY to offer to the serial sightseer. Our first target was Sensoji Temple. This temple was founded about a million and a half years ago by two brothers who netted a giant golden statue of a Bodhisattva whilst fishing in the Sumida River. There’s way more to the story than that, but suffice it to say that it’s either one of the largest or the largest temple in Tokyo and does the most faith-business. It’s also a stunningly beautiful and ancient temple, and the ginormous red lanterns really remind you that you’re in Japan (and that’s a good thing!)

Sukiyaki

Sukiyaki is cheap, fast, and delicious.

What do you mean food is expensive in Japan?

After our visit to the temple we had some muy importante business to take care of, and by business, I mean lunch. We were hungry. On our last visit to Japan we both fell in love with sukiyaki, the paper thin beef served in a savory sauce on rice. It’s simple, and cheap. By the way, people often say that Japan is too expensive to visit and that food is very expensive and all sorts of tripe. Sure, it can be breathtakingly expensive. It can also be cheap and delicious. Sukiyas are a great place to get a meal for less than about $5 US. The beef and rice is great on its own, but the magical element is the shichimi a mix of ground peppers that’s a bit orange in color that makes the dish really take off.

A few minutes later we were in Asakusa station getting the lowdown on the Tokyo train system from the most helpful attendant ever. She pointed out that the places we wanted to see the following day could all be accessed via the Tokyo Metro rail system, and that we could get an all day pass for ¥700. Hell yes, budget! Now, back to the main story.

Tokyo Sky Tree

Looking up at the Tokyo Sky Tree.

Tokyo and Mt Fuji

Mt. Fuji towers above Tokyo.

Getting high in Tokyo

We decided the next stop would be the Tokyo Sky Tree, the second tallest tower in the world (according to the internet) and the highest viewpoint in Tokyo. It was only about a 10 minute walk from where we were staying in Asakusa. At the base of the Sky Tree were some interesting places to shop for all sorts of Japanese memorabilia, and a sushiya I was eyeing up for a quick stop later. The weather was forecast to clear up about two hours from when we arrived, so we checked out the shops, had sakura flavored macarons and coffee,

As promised, the weather cleared up! We paid our ¥2,000 each and rode the crazy fast elevator to the lower viewing deck on the Sky Tree, at around 350 meters. The view was pretty expansive. As the clouds gave way and the sun set, Mount Fuji came into view to remind us how small we were even this high off of the ground and the city began to twinkle and sparkle as darkness set in.

Nigiri zushi

My order of nigiri-zushi. Aesthetically pleasing, non?

ikura nigiri

My favorite piece of sushi, ikura nigiri. The little orbs of salmon egg taste like the best ocean breeze smells.

Sushi. Because, sushi.

We returned to the surface an hour or maybe two hours later, and Carolyn suggested that as I was hungry, and she wasn’t, I should stop in for sushi somewhere. We stopped at the sushiya I spied at the base of the Sky Tree and I had a beautiful plate of nigiri-zushi. As you might expect in Tokyo, it was delicious. Carolyn wanted to do our ceremonial convenience store raid on the way back to the room.

Lawson red chicken

These “RED” chicken nuggets are delicious and cheap. They’re surprisingly…real…and the cheese flavor isn’t bad either.

Tokyo low-brow cuisine

Lawson convenience stores are perhaps my favorite convenience stores to raid. They have really tasty hot foods, interesting snacks, a great section of manga to look at, and everything is reasonably priced. We ended up with some chicken nuggets (because these Japanese chicken nuggets are truly a thing of beauty and taste nothing like you would imagine) and ice cream.

Once we were back in the room, we gorged on our snacks and passed out. Tokyo may never sleep, but we sure as heck did.

Three days in Tokyo – Touchdown

Leaving Korea was a bear. We packed all of our bags, tied up our loose ends, and got our final bills taken care of on our last day at school. I walked out of the front door of the school, unceremoniously, with just a “have a good life” from the administration office and a plane ticket to Tokyo, basically. Once Carolyn got home we headed over to the cafe to check bank accounts and transfer money out of the country, and then had a really nice dinner with our friends. They were kind enough to help us get our bags to the subway station and we headed down to the bus depot to wait for our 1:00am ride to Incheon International Airport.

Overnight bus rides are a two sided sword. They remove the need and cost of a hotel room. They give you a warm (and in Korea probably too warm) place to sleep for a few hours. They scare the crap out of you (sometimes). They make it easy to deal with bags. They’re probably not the best option for a good night’s rest, though. We got to the airport at about 4:40 and couldn’t check in until about six. There was no sleep. We waited with some friends and planned to meet them inside security after check in, but we were in different terminals, so that was that for goodbyes. We had a flight to catch, you know, to take us to Tokyo.

When we arrived at Narita everything worked out as planned. We dropped off our biggest bags at the baggage storage counter, bought tickets on the Sky Access train to Asakusa, and talked to the tourism counter to see what resources they had for us to use. We climbed onto the train and somehow managed to stay awake for the 57 minute ride to Asakusa. When we arrived we found the elevator, tried to orient ourselves, and headed up the street towards the Asakusa Smile Hotel. Check-in was easy and fast, but we were d e a d tired by this point. We barely got the bags in the door of the room before we both passed out on the bed.

We woke up at about 8:30pm, and we were hungry. I stopped at the counter and tried in my best Japanese to ask where the nearest ramen shop was, “Ramen-ya doko desu ka?” and the girl at the counter replied in perfect English (with a California accent) “oh, you want a noodle shop. There’s one down the street.” So we headed out to find this noodle shop that may or may not be open at this time of day. Luckily it was open for business.

Tokyo, Japan: ramen with butter

We didn’t realize we ordered ramen with butter, but hey, what the hell?

Tokyo, Japan: Ramen with onion and corn

This bowl of noodles didn’t have any butter, but it was still 100% delicious.

From our previous visit to Japan, we knew that we should order and pay at the machine at the front of the shop, but we were having a hard time getting the options we wanted to line up. We watched another patron make an order, followed suit, and just randomly selected options, handed our cards to the chef, and waited. It was fun to watch the chef do his thing. Exacting movements, precision everywhere, and a fierce look on the chef himself made me think “yeah, we’re in Japan alright.”  When he brought over the two bowls he said “BUTTER?!” as in “WHO ORDERED THE BUTTER?” We had no idea that we ordered anything with butter, but there was a pat of butter floating in the noodles. It was Carolyn’s as it was a bit spicier. The other bowl was filled with white onion and corn. It was all delicious, and the noodles were nice and fresh. They had a great texture, just slightly chewy, but not underdone. Ramen in Japan will make you rethink the instant noodles you’re familiar with at home, ya know?

Tokyo, Japan: Tokyo Sky Tree.

The Tokyo Sky Tree dominates the skyline of Asakusa.

After dinner we decided to go out for a walk, and found that we had a great view of the Tokyo Sky Tree. The Tokyo Sky Tree is the tallest building in Tokyo, and one of the tallest (if not the tallest) free standing towers in the world. It has a very interesting shape and construction. At night it’s a great sight to see because it’s lit up in colorful lights. While we were in town it was blue and violet, depending on the night. We were still tired, though, and decided to head back towards the Smile Hotel to get some rest so we could enjoy our first full day in Tokyo.

Tokyo, Japan: Asakusa Streets at Night

Asakusa is a bit of a quiet neighborhood, but it lights up at night.

Asakusa seemed pretty quiet, and didn’t have the flashing lights and noise and masses of people that we expected of Tokyo, but there were still plenty of businesses lit up in the dark to feast our eyes upon. After a quiet walk back to the hotel we settled down and slept like the dead for the rest of the night.

 

Where in the world is Carmen SanDiego the primate?

I think it’s been nearly two weeks, maybe more since I’ve updated the blog, and what a whirlwind it’s all been. At the moment I’m sitting in my soon to be mother in law’s living room typing up this short little update on my iPad because my computer is a little too bulky for the living room and power adapters and such need to be changed back to the US configuration. Time is of the essence right now, so the blog has taken a back seat to other important things like acquiring the things we need for the wedding, enjoying being around family, and eating everything that looks delicious. As we’re planning to move to New York this summer, you might imagine our plates are a bit on the full side while we’re here, figuring out where things are and such.

TL;DR: life is a little bit of a mess right now.

What I can tell you about the past couple weeks right now is this:

Less than 12 hours after leaving our jobs in Korea for the last time, we were sitting in Incheon international airport waiting for a flight to Tokyo. We were overjoyed to find that Tokyo’s Narita international airport has baggage storage services, so we only lugged what we really needed into the city, and then spent the rest of the afternoon and evening resting because life after an overnight bus ride is basically crap. We enjoyed the rest of our three day stay in Tokyo, filled up on the delicious foods of Japan, and hopped an Air Canada flight back to New York.

We couldn’t sit next to each other on the long haul from Tokyo to Toronto, which sucked, but going through customs and immigration in Toronto instead of in Houston is a much more pleasant experience, so I guess it’s a good trade. Since arriving in New York we’ve gotten phones, eaten lots of good stuff, visited with family, and done some wedding planning stuff that had to be done. Hopefully tomorrow I’ll find the missing piece of a suit I’ve totally fallen in love with and I’ll have a full set (I got all of the bits I need for the wedding today…just need the matching jacket now.)

Tuesday we are going to fly down to San Antonio to see my family and get ready for the wedding and honeymoon, and I think at that point I’ll be able to go through my photos from Tokyo, write down a decent set of thoughts that are far better organized than this stream of consciousness word vomit, and get back up to speed with more regular posts.

TL;DR: it turns out moving half way around the world will make blogging difficult.