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November 30, 2005

Much respect due to the hawkers and vendors

Currently about 5pm, Wednesday, November 30th, in Kuala Lumpur.

Imagine this: pick a dish that you know how to make pretty well. Design and possibly build your own cart for the express purpose of cooking that one item. Buy your ingredients. Stake out your spot. Cook it each day. Hang up your sign amongst dozens or a hundred competitors. Sell it for the thinnest of margins. Refine your recipe. Make a living. Repeat each day.

Or, choose some produce that you'd like to sell. Stake out your spot. Display your produce amongst dozens or a hundred competitors. Sell it for the thinnest of margins. Make a living. Repeat each day.

There's something pretty great in all of that, as hard as it must be to do. I know I couldn't do it.

I spent the morning at Pasar Chow Kit, where fresh produce and meat/chicken/fish are sold. I believe the area is mostly Malay and Indonesian, so the selection is geared accordingly. I wanted to check it out since it's less familiar than the Chinese or Indian products and produce that are fairly well represented in Los Angeles. There are quite a few food stands as well. One stand had little pandan semi-circular puffs which started my day. These were 3 puffs for RM 1.00 or about $0.25US.

The paths are quite narrow, and the by now mostly familiar items seem to be at just about every other stall. Some of the more exotic items were fresh turmeric leaves, torch ginger buds, daun salam (a form of cassia leaf), petai (aka stinkbeans), and a local nut which I believe is buah keluak [corrected]. The quality of fruit appears to be very high, somewhat less so for vegetables. There is no refrigeration or ice for fresh meats or seafood. Water is splashed to keep things glistening. A brief downpour created a short burst of activity as vendors scrambled to cover their fruit and produce.

I admit, it's sometimes hard to watch how meats and fish are handled, but I try to keep an open mind.

I had a Malaysian style rice plate for lunch - I got to choose from about 18 items, including various pickles, fish and chicken dishes (some saucy, some dry), veggie stews, etc, accompanied by fresh sambal. RM5.00 or about $1.25US. [This type of meal is called nasi kampung, which is the Malay style of rice plate. Kampung means village]

November 29, 2005


Currently 7:05pm, Tuesday, November 29th in Kuala Lumpur.

If you are ever in Kuala Lumpur, and are intending to travel onward to India, and have gone to the India High Commission (embassy) but missed the hours for the passport services, then go back the next day during the proper hours, have all your paperwork filled out completely, and have your three passport photos, pay for all the proper copies, then wait in line patiently, with the fees ready in ringgit, then come up to the man with the impressive white handlebar mustache, beware: he may fuck up your plans.

Or at least, he fucked up my plans.

I'm not really sure why. I heard him saying to other people that they could come pick up their passports on Friday. One was a cute girl, and another was a Swedish businessman. But when I got to the window, he said, "You know, it will take 3-4 days." I said, "That's fine, Friday, then." Then he saw that my intended arrival in India is January 3rd. I think this is when the bureaucratic instinct to reduce work for oneself kicked in. He said, "No, it is not possible. Wednesday at the earliest. You should apply for visa at your next destination." and pushed all my paperwork back to me.

I tried to discuss it, but he stonewalled me.

Luckily, I have enough time in other places to get the visa. But I'm pretty steamed. Smug little man in a small job.

I hope someone sneaks into his house and shaves off his mustache.

On a less aggravating note, my stomach is feeling stronger today, so I'll be trying out a few hawker stands on Jalan Alor, which is right near my guesthouse.

November 28, 2005

Solitude is good...

...especially when the interlopers are insects. Just two little waterbug things, but I'll pass, thank you. I moved to a newly renovated place called Number Eight Guesthouse, near Times Square and the Bukit Bintang shopping area. The guesthouse is quite stylish - somebody's been reading Wallpaper* - it's very designer-ey, very clean, on a good street, and RM85.00/night which is about US$22.36/night.

Last night after arriving, I met up with some great people from eGullet who took me out to a nyonya place outside the city, then we browsed a night market and they even helped me scope out potential hotels. Such hospitality!! This is only the second of this type that I've been to, so I'd hesitate to draw any comparisons yet, except that it was quite tasty. Of course I have lots of photos, but I'm not sure when I'll be able to post them.

The main agenda item for today, now that I've found a place to stay, is to get over to the Indian embassy and submit my visa application. It takes 3-4 days here, which is no great savings over the 5 days it would take in Bangkok, but I feel like I've spent enough time in BKK and would rather park here for a bit.

I'm meeting the eG folks for dinner again tonight, and will probably make arrangements for a day trip down to Melaka (Malacca), which was one of the primary cities for the spice trade.

November 27, 2005

En route to Kuala Lumpur

Currently about 8:30am, on Sunday, November 27th

Singapore has been a whirlwind. I'm here for just less than 48 hours, so it really feels like I've barely seen anything, even though I've done a fair bit of eating. The other night we had gong gong (sea snails?), la-la (local clams), blood cockles (those same blood clams in Japan, but smaller), ocean crayfish (like a slipper lobster), and a few other things to round out the table. Yesterday for lunch we had nasi padang, which is similar to nasi kandar, the Malaysian rice plate, but nasi padang is the Indonesian version. Both are excellent. Last night we had a banquet at a Chinese restaurant on the East Coast, and they brought out dish after dish of seafood, most in the spicier style of the area, including chilli crab, black pepper crab, lobster tails, a special deep fried duck and a bunch of other stuff. Along the way, I've had chendol (a shaved ice dessert with coconut milk, red bean, sweet noodles, etc), curry puff, ham chen pi (Chinese "donuts") and Hainanese Chicken Rice, a dish which is all about the rice, not the chicken. I definitely would like to come back to Singapore, although it seems to be hard to do it on the cheap. Hawker food is of course reasonable, but accomodation and transport would be the major expense. I'm staying in a hotel at a discount, but in roaming around I haven't seen guesthouses or more modest hotels. But then again, we're right in town off Orchard Road.

I'm about to leave Singapore to go to Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. It's a nice coach, so it should be fairly comfortable 4-5 hour trip. The ticket costs S$55.00, which is approximately $32.00US.

I'm meeting up with some folks from eG tonight, and I'm going to extend a few days in KL to try and get some travel visas ready for Vietnam and India. I'm hoping it will be easier to do in KL than in Bangkok, where it takes 5 days to get a visa for India.

November 24, 2005

Thanksgiving Dinner in Penang


Please correct me if I don't have the names right. Starting at the top, fried oysters (in eggs, with chili sauce), pork and chicken satay with peanut sauce, duck noodle soup, char kway teaw, and beef noodle soup with beef balls, and in the center, wan ton mee.

Happy Thanksgiving!


Currently about 11:30am, 24th of November in Penang, Malaysia

Happy Thanksgiving.

I have a renewed appreciation for the opportunities I have received and those still ahead of me, my supportive family, and the many friends I am fortunate to have. I am grateful.

Somebody save me a little turkey, ham and stuffing, would ya?

Last night my buddy took me to a nyonya place called Hot Wok which I enjoyed, then a roadside tea house/Internet cafe/snack stand for a pulled tea.

This morning I got up at 7:30am to partake in the complimentary breakfast buffet in the hotel, walk around in the street market and also explore the wet market down a few blocks from there. I feel very comfortable here in Penang.

November 22, 2005

Penang, Pearl of the Orient

Currently it's about 6pm, 22nd of November, in Penang, Malaysia.

I took AirAsia to Penang at 7:25am. So I got out of the hotel at 5am. Let me tell you, it's easy to get around Bangkok at that time of the morning! Unfortunately it's still quite far from the guesthouse to the airport. It took about 30 minutes by cab, all told, whereas it usually takes over an hour or even more during rush hour.

AirAsia is a budget carrier, only booking over the Internet, and so the airfare is quite reasonable, however with few amenites. They do offer a menu of snacks to buy, and of course, I'm a sucker for this sort of thing.


Starting on the left, that's sweetened green tea with honey, salmon spread with crackers, and Knorr's Instant Cup Jook (I guess Cup O' Jook is probably trademarked by the Cup O' Noodle people.) These tea drinks are everywhere, especially Japan and Thailand so far, so I've had a bunch of those. The salmon I bought as more of a goof than anything, and it wasn't great - just salmon, mayo, some waterchestnut for texture and I think some sweet pickle relish. But it is a product of Thailand or at least packed in Thailand, and I wouldn't normally think of salmon and Thailand at all. As for the jook (congee, or rice soup) I had some real hope it would be at least passable, but the rice was too fine for my taste, it was runny, and the spongy "chicken"bits took it down a few notches. I guess I should have tried the instant Tom Kha Gai soup instead, but I thought I had better odds of the jook being good. Oh well. Total was 170 Thai baht or $4.25US.

It's a little overcast and gloomy today, but about 83F and comfortably humid. My buddy made reservations for me at the Cititel Penang, so I finally have a chance to break out my AC travel adapter kit and wireless card. It's rated four star (not sure by whom), so it's plush compared to what I have been staying in, although about 6 times as much per night. Still pretty reasonable, all plushness considered. By the time I got settled, I was ready for another snack.

Right across the street is a 24 hour Malay/Indian place called Jaya that called to me right away. I don't know how it compares to other places around here, but it had a steady stream of locals and it looked promising. They cook to order in the back, but all the action is at this table up front. I think this is sometimes called the banana leaf style of eating, or rice plate. [clarification: this is a nasi kandar place, which is muslim Indian. Banana leaf usually means Southern Indian, like from Tamil-nadu, Kerala, etc] A counterman starts with steamed rice on the plate, then the customer chooses from what's available. A thin sauce that goes over all the rice is also chosen. The red chunk is a piece of fish, I guess like tandoori. Then I got a chicken stew (I think there was turmeric, garlic, clove, some cardomom and a few other things in it) and some green beans. With a bottle of water it was RM 7.80 or about $2.00US. I'm not sure how you could beat that for value. I'm pretty sure I'll end up there again before I leave.


Also nearby are two street corners of ad hoc mini-food courts where Chinese food is served from carts lining the street. They offer such as roast duck over rice, yam rice, Hokkien noodles, Hainanese Chicken Rice, etc and customers sit on the inside of the ring. I may hit some of those as well. I also stopped at a convenience store and picked up some interesting drinks.

By the way, if you're ever in a situation like I am in this hotel where you're composing a long email or blog entry in IE or Netscape or Opera, and the Internet access is on a timeclock rather than flat rate, here's a trick. You can economize your time by getting to the new entry page (or webmail new message page), stop the clock, then compose the entry, so that the clock isn't running during the time you taptaptap, umm, maybe, nah that's dumb, retype, etc. the way I do. Then just turn the clock back on before you send or submit the page. That's because the WorldWide Web is setup as a client/server scheme, where the client sends a page request blahblahblah.

Another way to do it would be to compose your text in MS Word, then start the clock, get to the page and copy and paste the text into the webpage. BTW, the access here is RM 20 or around $5US for 24 metered hours.

Off to Malaysia & Singapore

Currently about 12:30am, Tuesday, November 22nd in Bangkok

Early Tuesday morning, I'm flying off to Penang, Malaysia for a few days to meet up with an old college buddy and to try to learn about and sample the food of the area. From there, we're headed to his hometown of Singapore for a few days, then I'm back on my own to Kuala Lumpur for a couple of days, then back to Thailand to see Chiang Mai, in the North. I have some blog entries already written, but the Internet cafe I normally use (they let me connect my own laptop) closes at midnight, and I ran a little late.

Okay, so I had another Thai massage - let's just say the extra 30 minutes of foot massage was a good choice. Then I had a late dinner. Thus the lack of rich media postination. But I'll post those as soon as I can, depending on the Internet access there.

I had planned to try and get my India visa paperwork started, but obviously I need my passport to travel, so I'll have to take care of that when I come back to BKK.

For you Americans, Happy Thanksgiving! Have some turkey and all the fixin's for me. Some dark meat and some white. No pumpkin pie, though. Pecan, if you have it.

November 20, 2005

Back from the Jungle

Okay, it's not exactly the Jungle. Maybe the jungle with a small "j". Jet's dad is developing a piece of land into a adventure/ecotourism destination.

He calls it Wiman (vee-mahn) in Thai, meaning Heaven. It's waywayway back in the backcountry, West Northwest of Bangkok.



But more on that later. I realized I haven't covered any food for Thailand yet, so I'll start with the most recent and work backwards. I'm lucky that my gracious host for the last week or so loves food and is a professional cook himself, so he knows where to find good food, and can translate and answer my questions.

At Wiman, there's a woman who cooked 2 hot meals per day for us. Very unassuming, but that lady can cook. We ate our meals on some tree stumps under a big tree, with some boards made into a table. That grin on my face is because this is the first meal dining al jungle-o. 100% kickass!


The first meal was comprised of fish steaks, simply fried, to be eaten with a fish sauce/chili/shallot dip, in back a chicken soup with sawtooth (also called culantro or rau ram), green beans with pork, fresh chili paste and hot basil. She's got great timing with the fish, as it was crispy on the outside, but still moist inside. Whether intentional or not, fish for this type of dish is often fried until it's tough as cardboard, and I think it's better this way. The cooked sawtooth in the soup mellows out that sometimes harsh flavor it can have and actually gets a little sweet. The pork and green beans was quite good, although I think it could benefit from parcooking the beans.


We also had this Burmese style chicken curry. Nicely spiced, and a bit lighter on the kefir lime, which works for me, as I think it is too prominent for my taste in some dishes. This was one of my favorites. Note that it's mostly the ends of the drumsticks and so on. Not much meat on the chickens.


I missed taking a shot of the first lunch but I remember there was a dish with pork and tiny eggplants, and tom yum soup with chicken. The second dinner in the jungle consisted of hot and sour fish soup (tom yum soup with fish), to the left is pork larb, the little bowl is salted, fermented fish paste, both to be eaten with the green beans, raw cabbage and blanched cabbage, and fish cake fritters. She adjusted the broth for the soup to be lighter in flavor to not overpower the fish. She apologized for the larb being too sour, but I enjoyed it. The fish paste is probably a bit too fishy for most people, but it's a lot like shiokara in Japan - fermented squid ...errr... innards. Not that that's going to convince anyone.


The other lunch consisted of an omelet with shallots and I think a touch of fish sauce. The other dishes are made with a type of venison in the area - the strips are seasoned with fish sauce and some soy, I think - very lean and well done, but a very light game flavor, almost like farmed boar. I thought the soup made with the bony parts was more successful since the meat was tender, and enhanced by the shallots and some galanga, I believe.


We headed back toward his house near the border, and I contemplated buying a house on the lake.


There are a few of these fishing villages where people live on the water. It's relatively recent that these houses are here, as this is actually a reservoir created by a dam about 27 years ago. The flooded area used to be inhabited, so people had to pick up and move whole villages, schools, temples, etc. Except these guys, I guess. I'm jealous - he lives on the lake and has satellite TV. I live in a regular apartment and I have cable. Damn.

Currently about 8:30pm, Sunday, November 20 in Bangkok

I'm only planning on being in Bangkok for 2 nights, so I decided to splurge and spend 440 baht per night on a room in a guesthouse - $11US. Really all I wanted was an electrical outlet so I could compose blog entries to cut down the time I'm paying for Internet access (30 baht/hour, or $0.75US/hour). This room is so much better - in better condition, newer everything, decent furniture, full bedding, and a private bathroom - the other room was 200 baht for an old bed, and having to share a bathroom with a whole floor. I'm ridiculous, because I got into trying to compare prices in baht - this place is more than twice as much as the first guesthouse, and I stayed there for 6 days. Lesson learned: don't be a cheapskate, pay the extra $6US.

November 14, 2005

In case you thought I was in Pacoima...


This Buddha is about 40 meters tall. From this picture, my neck would be about 20 meters wide. Note to self, take more than one shot...

Currently 5:55pm, Monday, November 14th.

I just added new entries for shopping at Doguya-suji in Osaka having dinner at Gyoza Stadium and my day in Kyoto.

I had a nice meal last night with Jet's peeps at a restaurant on the river. I'm leaving Bangkok tomorrow morning for an area outside of Kanchanaburi, Thailand. I'm told it's near the Three Pagodas and the Bridge on the Kwai River. There won't be any Internet access out there, so I'll just blog to myself for a few days. After that, Penang, Singapore and Kuala Lumpur.

November 13, 2005

I thought this was the dry season...


Currently 5:37pm on Sunday afternoon in Bangkok.

The sky blessed us with probably over an inch of rain in about a 2 hour period.

Earlier, I was fortunate to have been guided around Chatuchak Market, the largest market in Asia, with over 15,000 vendors. They have everything from handicrafts to flatware to bronze statues. Gigantic.

Tonight, I'm having dinner with friends and relations of my business partner, Jet.

I also created an entry for my first evening in Osaka.

November 12, 2005

A word about chronology

It seems that I'm making two types of entries - brief ones that are entered on the fly, and longer ones that are created later, with pictures and descriptions. What I think makes sense is to insert the entries where they belong in time, instead of when I got around to creating the entry. So the quick entries will have their real timestamp, like 8:17am, and the inserted ones will be an arbitrary timestamp, like 9:00pm - whatever it takes to put the entries in order. Forgive me if I jump back and forth between the present and past tense.

Unfortunately, this means that until I catch up, new entries may occur further down on the page, or even directly to an archive page. I'll put in links in to make it easier to find entries as I create them.

For example, I just posted Day 2 from the Tsukiji Fish Market. Warning: lots of photos. Also, I added some linkage to discussion of my monjyayaki dinner on November 5th.

As you were.

Had some kinks worked out...

Currently 10:10am on Saturday in Bankok.

I had my first Thai massage ever. Let me specify, a legitimate, theraputic massage. The young massuese was petite, but had strong hands and knew how to use her weight for pressure. I have a new appreciation for elbows. For 180 baht for an hour ($4.50US), I can definitely incorporate that into my budget every few days...

Off to explore the neighborhood and some temples and monasteries nearby. There are tons of tour buses about, so I may change plans to avoid crowds.

November 11, 2005

It's a wonder

Currently 11:46pm on Friday night in Bangkok.

It's a wonder that things get done in Bangkok. Or actually, it's a wonder that anything gets done after 10am. At least today, it seemed to be pretty calm until then. I had a nice breakfast of pork over rice with Chinese greens at a street stand. Besides being boiled, it looked safe because it had just been made, and it was soft and glistening. Then I walked down the street and got some tiny pancakes, blini sized, but I think they have fruit pulp mixed in the batter, kind of orangey-yellow, but I couldn't pick out the specific fruit. They're addictive!!

A few loosely threaded ideas - I haven't run into any food that's too spicy yet. Thais seem to be identifying me as a Japanese national, and many start speaking Japanese to me right off. They're surprised when I'm not, and they're doubly surprised when I put on extra chili and vinegar or roasted chili flake on my food, since the Japanese idea of spicyness doesn't even register at the bottom of the Thai scale.

Just to keep things interesting, I decided to change my standard goatee to a variation I like to call "The Spaniard" which has the mustache with moderately downturned ends, but separated from the chin rather than connected like the goatee. It just reminds me of musketeering and swordfights and Inigo Montoya and...

[adding in, for the sake of comedy:
I forgot to specify earlier, when you say it, it should be the Ehs-paniard, as if you were from Ehs-pain. And now Thais definitely think I'm either Thai or Lao. Another opportunity for one of my favorite links. ~Tad]

I finally got my BlackBerry to work, and I also have a phone to use here at a much better rate. The international roaming rate for a phone call on my BlackBerry is $1.50 per minute. By comparison, the other phone is 5 baht per minute, which is 12.5 cents per minute. The place I went to get it is called MBK, a giant indoor bazaar/mall monstrosity. One floor is pretty much all cell phones, with at least a hundred different booths, and several larger stores, all selling the same stuff, mostly Nokia by a wide margin, and interestingly, used phones are commonly available. I guess people trade in when they upgrade, unlike the US where there's not much to do with an old phone but donate it to a charity. BTW, all my text messages and email on the BlackBerry are included in a flat rate which I've already paid for, so feel free to contact me by text, email or IM.

The band in the club next door just finished a 15 minute jam on the JJ Cale classic, "Cocaine" (Eric Clapton made a well known cover of it as well).

Sorry about the lack of pictures - my guesthouse room doesn't have an electrical outlet, and it would take too long to compose it all while at the Internet cafe. I'll figure something out soon. I'll say that it's definitely easier to find Internet access here than in Tokyo. There are four cafes in a two block stretch. I guess if the Internet is an equalizing force, less developed countries get more benefits from using the Internet than more developed countries. Plus, this area is full of backpackers who need to keep in touch.

November 10, 2005

Passage to Bangkok

Currently 9:37pm in Bangkok.

Safe and sweaty in Bangkok. Thankfully it has cooled off a bit since sundown, but still quite humid. Of course, I had to find an air-conditioned room. I'm in a backpacker area near Kao San Road, which means there are probably as many foreigners as Thais. I probably won't stay here very long. Off to look for a phone card and food.


Currently 1:18am in Tokyo.

I'm packing up and headed for Bangkok early tomorrow morning. I accomplished a lot while I've been here, despite floundering around with a toddler's level of spoken Japanese and having no reading ability at all. I didn't get to eat around as much as I had wanted. But even so, Japan has been revelation after revelation, and I've only seen a tiny bit of it. I hope to return soon.

By the way, in my limited anecdotal experience, the Japanese seem to have a much higher incidence of facial moles than what I'm used to. Moley-moley-moley-moley-moley-moley-moley-moley-moley-moley.

November 09, 2005

Make it a good one

Currently 8am in Tokyo.

It's my last full day in Japan today. I'm going back to Kappabashi to buy more gear, then also to Matsuzakaya department store for the depachika (food basement - usually very boutique-y) and a blow out dinner tonight.

November 08, 2005

Back in Kanto

Currently 11:23pm in Tokyo.

After spending the day in Kyoto, I took the bullet train back into Tokyo. Really dog tired - I did a lot of walking and rushing around today. BTW, Kanto is the region including Tokyo to the North, and Kansai is the term for the area in the South including Osaka, Kyoto, Nara, etc. The way I understand it, beyond geography, the terms are sometimes used to imply various things about food, lifestyle, etc, but I don't pretend to know what all they are.

Daytripping Kyoto

Another day, another three onigiri from the free breakfast buffet.


Omiyage is a cultural practice of bringing the specialties of an area back as a gift or souvenir. Of course, the Japanese have elevated it to a level of ingrained social obligation - meaning it's big business. I forgot to take a shot of the Osaka and Kyoto stations, which both had elaborate areas of prepared foods, all nicely packaged, and suitable for omiyage giving. This one is mochi, azuki beans, and candied chestnut.


Instead of staying in Osaka, which I could have easily and happily done, I decided to zip over to Kyoto for the afternoon.


Coming soon to a McDonalds near you - Filet O' Shrimp


A statue in the garden of the Kyoto National Museum or the Kyoto Museum - can't remember which.


Kyoto was the seat of power for a period, so the architecture reflects strength and impressive scale.



Coincidentally, I unknowingly visited the temple that inspired the Kammondo in Ueno Park. This is the Sanjusangen-do Temple in Kyoto.


A Japanese pine trained in the the bonsai manner.


Requisite jackass tourist picture


To show you what a buffoon I am, I had no idea what was inside the building, and I almost didn't go in. Words aren't adequate, but essentially, there are hundreds of life size brass Buddhas, all individually cast and intricately decorated, along with statues of the gods of the Buddhist pantheon. Their relationships to the original Indian gods are all outlined. The scale of the building and the making of the Buddhas is truly awe inspiring. No photos can be taken in the building, but I'm sure you can find better pictures than these.

Back to food: A quick spin through a different Takashimaya gourmet basement, and I ended up with this.


Inside were some fried doughballs with curry filling or stew filling. Essentially like Armenian bouregs, but tiny and not spicy.

Nearby is the Nishiki market, or Nishikiichiba.


Big ol' matsutake mushrooms


Your basic bean specialist


The Japanese appreciate more of the chicken than just the breast, thigh, leg, and wing. This butcher cuts like they do in a yakitoriya, a specialty grilled chicken shop. So they have the gizzards, the hearts, the necks, the oyster (that tiny knob of meat near the thigh), the chest cartillage (the little triangle thingies) and the knees - all available for purchase separately.


prasantrin had lived in Kyoto and recommended this restaurant, Katsukura. It was hard to find, even though it's right off the main street, next door to a Lipton Tea shop.


It's simple, but really pleasant inside. This is the communal table downstairs.


They specialize in tonkatsu, breaded pork cutlet. You choose what type and size of pork you would like. The other components of the set are all-ru you can eat-u. This includes rice with barley, finely shredded cabbage, which they provide yuzu dressing for, and the base for the sesame dressing. The tiny mortar (suribachi) has sesame in it, and you grind it to your liking, then add the dressing base. They serve the tonkatsu on a tiny rack so that it doesn't get soggy while you're eating. All this for about $12US. Great value. I would eat here all the time if I could. Seriously, one of my favorite meals on the trip so far. Just simple and done perfectly.


Next time, I'd spend more time in Kansai than in Tokyo, and more time outside the big cities if I can.

And the Winner is...

Currently around 8am in Osaka.

After months of learning about knives and looking around Tokyo for 5 days, I finally decided on this knife, which I purchased in Osaka yesterday:


For the curious, it's made by Ichimonji Chuki which only sells out of this shop in Doguya-suji and on the web in Japanese. It's a yanagiba for sashimi, 300mm (11.7 inches, or 10 sun by Japanese measurements). It's made out of blue steel #1 (aoko), in the honkasumi method. The handle is octagonal rather than the traditional asymetric shape, and made out of kokutan wood (ebony). I decided to get a plain saya (scabbard) and stain it to match later. I thought about getting the mirror polished finish, but decided against it because this knife will discolor over time, and it's not a showpiece - it'll be my workhorse knife for fish. The next step up would have been for sumingashi, or ink pattern (damascus), which is pretty, but not any improvement in performance. Yen for yen, it wasn't the deal of the century, but more than fair for a manufacturer of this level. I've looked at a lot of knives over the last few days, and this one had all the specs I wanted and just felt right.

Now I just have to work to be worthy of it.

I had intended to go to Gifu/Seki today to see a cutlery museum, but after several people talked about Kyoto, I'm going there for most of the day instead. It won't be enough to do it any justice, but I definitely like the Kansai area a lot (Osaka, Kyoto and Nara) so it will be like scouting for next time.

November 07, 2005

Gyoza Stadium

I met up with prasantrin from eG for dinner. She suggested the Gyoza Stadium, which is a gyoza themed food court - all gyoza, all the time. The Japanese, being very hierarchially minded, have compiled and categorized all the many variations of the gyoza, and put them head to head in a gyoza deathmatch. Or something.

We agreed that a sampling from as many vendors as possible was the best route, so she took one side and I took the other. Here's what we came up with, clockwise from upper left: sudachi citrus, sea salt and pepper with gyoza, pizza gyoza with tomato sauce and cheese, panfried gyoza with two sauces, miso and yakisoba (?), crispy gyoza with yuzu-koshou, gyoza with crusty crepe effect and chili sauce, and SE Asian style gyoza with lettuce leaf wrap.

I think the sudachi and yuzu-koshou versions were our favorites. The others were quite serviceable, however, the pizza gyoza almost made prasantrin rethink her "Cheese makes anything better rule." Almost.


About to dig in, and all smiles.


The Japanese, having a fascination with the absurd charitably described as Fellini-esque, have found a mascot for the gyoza stadium.

Yes, those are animal paw mittens and two suction cup banner antennae stuck on his bald head.

The Japanese are well aware of their skin tone.


prasantrin, thanks for meeting me on such short notice and for choosing the gyoza stadium. You certainly know your stuff!

Doguya-suji in Osaka

I didn't take many pictures today because I spent several hours working out the knife purchase at Ichimonji Chuki. But here are a few:

From the Takashimaya depachika (gourmet basement). Some pastries from Chef Wada, whose picture looked familiar to me, probably from Iron Chef or Dotchi Cooking Show. This is a roll made from french bread, with an almond paste filling. Note the spike details, some of which had broken off by the time I ate it. But every piece in the store is picture perfect - quality control in the extreme.


A cream puff (the Japanese borrow the French term chou puff, dropping the x from choux) filled with tiramisu cream. Excellent texture on the puff itself, as it had some sugar crust. The cream didn't taste much of chocolate, espresso or mascarpone, but it was still enjoyable as lightly sweetened whipped cream.


Two "danishes" - one was a fig with lavender flowers and the other was mixed nuts. The lavender was pleasantly floral but not overpowering. I thought I tasted azuki bean in the mixed nut one, but it was more likely candied chestnuts. But it worked when I thought it was azuki bean (and I don't usually like azuki beans), so perhaps it could be an interesting crosscultural pastry. By the way, I only ate half of each of these and ate the second half the next day.


Here's the obligatory picture of the entrance to the Doguya-suji street. It's a North-South street that is one block East of the Takashimaya department store.


Some of their examples of their engraving.


Some of their upper end samples. As much as I love the look of the sakimaru tako (the one with the rounded tip that looks like a samurai sword), a slicing motion didn't seem that comfortable.


An interesting cleaver - those relief parts are actually cut away completely.


I believe this one was about $4000US.



Currently 10:37am, Monday, November 7th.

On Sunday, I took the shinkansen (bullet train) to Osaka. I'm staying at the Toyoko Inn, which is perfect for me. It's a style of hotel called a business hotel - small rooms, quite economical, but targeted toward business customers - there's Internet in the room, a coin laundry in the lobby, and it's located close to subway lines.

Today I'm off to Doguya-suji, the restaurant supply area of Osaka.

I hope to catch up with posting pix tonight.

November 06, 2005

Osaka - Bankrupted by Gluttony

No, I'm not bankrupt yet. Apparently the Japanese refer to Osaka residents as those who would go bankrupt for the love of food - or something like that. The term is kuiadore. I think it can also sometimes mean "all-ru you can eat-u". But the way the lady at the hotel described it, it can also be like a restaurant crawl - going from place to place, sorta like a tapas evening.

Anyway, here's where she sent me - the Namba area of Osaka.


It's pretty obsessive and decadent. This was a Sunday night before a regular workday. About half of the places are open to midnight, a quarter are open until 3am, and the last quarter are open from 5pm to 5am or 24hours a day. And there are hundreds of restaurants. Doesn't hurt that the girlie bars are right nearby, too.


For you cat people out there, a completely out of context and inexplicable display of cat figurines in a restaurant window.


But back to food: supposedly one of the specialties attributed to the Kansai region is tofu and related products. This restaurant is called Toromuro or something like that. I'll check and correct the name later. It's a very simple but stylish restaurant on the second floor. In the US, being on the second floor is often thought to be bad for business, but in many areas, restaurants are located in less than ideal spots and seem to do just fine. They have a 12 taste lunch special which I wanted, but they wouldn't do at night, so I asked the waitress to choose three of their best dishes. This is an excellent rendition of buta kakuni, pork belly braised in soy and mirin. And you know me and the pork...especially pork belly.


Housemade soft tofu with sea salt and ponzu. Creamy and mild. Served warm.


This is a modern play on a classic Japanese comfort food called ochazuke. It's normally steamed rice, with tea added to it, and you might have some pickles or something. Superbasic. Say if you're sick, or you have grumbly tummy, you might just have this instead of a full meal. Here they've used superpremium rice, cooked it over a burner rather than an electric rice cooker so that it has the roasty flavor, added some yuba strips (tofu "skin") for texture, hidden away in there are some Sichuan peppercorns, aka huajiao, added the tea, with mitsuba (Japanese crunchy parsley) and nori garnish. Sichuan peppers are related to Japanese sanshou peppercorns, but are stronger and have a very particular citrusy flavor and cause a numbing sensation. The Chinese refer to it as "ma" or numbing hot, rather than "la" which is spicy hot. In any event, I thought it was a pretty clever interpretation (in that the huajiao are way outside the box for something that is supposed to be mild, bland, and settling) and tasty to boot.


This is the next restaurant, which showed some promise due to their sake selection. It was called something close to Dynamic Meda. Also on the second floor of a different building.


Sichuan style tebasaki (chicken wings) weren't very spicy, but had good flavor.


This looked good in the picture book, and the waiter recommended it. Crab is one of the specialties of the area, so I thought it would be like crab dynamite with the tomalley and whatnot. Nope. Bummer. It tasted like cream sauce out of an envelope, with elbow macaroni and corn in it, some crab mixed in, and browned on top. Or I imagine what Stouffer's Low Cal Alfredo sauce would taste like. Ungood. Ill conceived.


And some fried smelt, full of roe. Good, but I had hit the wall.


This little stand was doing steady business all night, crushing the competitor right next to it, so I had to get an order of takoyaki. It's a dish originally from this region, but now available in most parts of Japan, as I understand it. They use these dimpled pans (like aebleskiver pans), and use a thin, savory pancake type batter, then bits of octopus are put in each one, and they either flip the whole line into a new set of dimples, or they manually flip them with these tiny icepicks. Same method as making mooncakes with the azuki beans inside.


Topped with a sweet soy-based glaze and shaved bonito. It's not really my thing, but about as good as sweet and savory octopus pancake balls are gonna get, I guess...


I'm not holding this up as the pinnacle of Kansai food, but it's defintely worth seeing and trying a few places. Scenes like this are supposedly what inspired the look of the movie Bladerunner.


Finally, this one's for the ladies - a subway train car for women only. Don't wanna be in the same car with drunk leches late at night? This car is all estrogen, all the time. I only saw this in Osaka.


November 05, 2005


After years of reading her posts, I had the good fortune to meet up with torakris from eGullet for dinner. We decided on a monjya-yaki place in the trendy Harajuku area of Tokyo. Here's the Monjyayaki thread on eG.

And an additional photo of the entryway of the restaurant, in case anyone wants to try and find it.


Tsukiji Fish Market, Day 2

This is in the group of vendors away from the wholesale part of the market - this is where the public might come to shop since things are packaged more conveniently, they're in a more manageable size, rather than at the wholesale area, which is just the fish in crude form.

Pickles, we got pickles.


Yeah, more pickles, same shop.


I'm guessing this is something like shiokara (fermented, spiced squid), but I'm not sure, because it costs too much. This jar is about 5 ounces for $48.39US.


I couldn't resist having some sizzling hot kabayaki eel for breakfast. Yummy delicious.


Really big tiger shrimp, probably almost 8 ounces each, with the head on.


Heading back into the wholesale part of the market again. These little flatbed trucks are the vehicle of choice in the market. It's actually a three wheeler - the wheel for steering is directly connected by vertical column to the wheel that steers (no gearing, I don't think - one to one steering). The throttle is in the same shape as the steering wheel, and is omni directional - so any pressure on the throttle will move it, meaning that it can be steered and throttled with one hand. They're really maneuverable, accelerate fast and stop on a dime, since they drive right through the narrow paths of the market itself and also to the merchants outside the market. It's also performs well at avoiding tourists in the way. Note also the mountain of used styrofoam.


Live suppon turtles

I'd call this a red stickfish, but I don't know if that's correct.


In Japanese, I found out these are called akanai, I'm guessing they're also called blood clams. Apparently they can be dangerous if they come from warm waters, but I have to say I wanted to just eat these right out of the shell. No sushi place had them, so they may not be edible raw.


Lots of yellowtail on this day, hardly any on the first day.


Cleaning out the "sawdust".


In Hawai`i these are called kawakawa, a type of small tuna.


Sea cucumber, or namako in Japanese.

Very alive sea scallops, clapping and splashing.


Although octopus (tako) in a sushi restaurant usually means the legs, the heads (or domes as Steve likes to call them) are also edible. These might be going off to be made into a dried snack.


At first I thought this was bloodline from maguro, but as I think about it, it's probably whale.


Another guess - I'm thinking whale. There were some other stalls that had it sliced paper thin, fanned out, and vacuum sealed like prosciutto. But the marbling looks remarkably like otoro or wagyu beef.


Animal or vegetable? No idea.


After all of that, I was hungry!! There are certain places that are just stoopid crowded, so I went to some of the lesser known places. This one is called Sushi Bentomi.


This is the omakase set, including scallop, akagai clam, fluke, flounder, bonito, chutoro, uni, ikura, tamago, ebi and shaku.


That uni was damn good, so I had another one with some okay otoro. If I recall correctly, the total was about 4300 yen, or $36.52US.


If you're a cook and you get to go to Japan, you simply must go to Tsukiji Fish Market. On the one hand, it's inspiring to see such incredible ingredients. On the other hand, there's the dark side as well, which is that it's reminiscent of a slaughterhouse. But as Thomas Keller relays in his rabbit story, you have to use that to demand the best from yourself, to pay proper respect to the ingredients, who gave of themselves. Or I suppose had it taken from them.

November 04, 2005

Around Ueno, Tokyo

I stayed at the Kinuya Hotel in the Ueno area, sort of by default. Recently, a guy who goes by sizzleteeth on eGullet had come to Tokyo, he's also a cook, and he also went to Kappabashi. So I kinda glommed on since I figured it would be a convenient. It is ridiculously convenient, being literally across the street from the Keisei line Ueno station. That station is in the ground below Ueno Park, a local landmark. This first picture is the monument in the plaza of the park, next to the police substation. It's actually taken Saturday morning at about 6:30am, whereas the rest of these are from the Friday afternoon at about 5:30pm.


This is a little temple called Kiyomizu Kannon-do at Ueno Park.



A rare Japanese PDA...


It's an old, hilly park, so there are lots of steps. There's another side where caricaturists, calligraphers, fortune tellers, and so forth set up little tables.


I'm not sure if it's park of the same park, but there's a large pond filled with lotus. I'd guess it's many acres in size - maybe 10 acres - and in urban Tokyo! The hotel is that leftmost building visible here.


Motorcycle parking


Tsukiji Fish Market, Day 1

After getting a late start due to lack of funds due to lack of banking due to lack of workday, I figured out how to get to the fish market off the Hibiya metro line. The building is somewhat curved, and it's so large that it looks like a matte painting shot in the movies, where it goes off into infinity with full detail, but it really is just that big. I'd guess about 400 yards or so just for this building, then the produce and shops are in separate buildings nearby.


I have a ton of shots, but I'll just run through the most interesting stuff.

The ground was paved for traction.


The suckers of this octopus leg were almost 2 inches in diameter, and the leg at the thickest point was almost 5 inches in diameter. It was fresh enough that it still was responding to touch, when a buyer checked it.


I believe this is called pen shell, which is more or less an enormous mussel, but only the adductor is eaten, like a scallop.


I guess tuna cheeks up to a certain size are sold separately. Larger heads usually are intact.


Is anyone familiar with this fish?


Apparently, there are many grades of uni sea urchin.


This blade is about 6 feet long, and is flexible. The sheath is homemade, out of cardboard, paper and tape.


While many stalls have band saws to trim the loins, some places still use hand tools like this axe.


A sanitation inspector at work. One thing that I had noticed by this point is that there is no bad fishy smell here, only the clean, oceany smell. It doesn't seem possible, just because there are fish parts here and there, fish blood being washed away, and tanks overflowing. The only place I noticed the bad smell was in one section of the parking lot.


There are several types of large blades for cutting tuna, and this is the heavy and very thick one for cutting whole loins into large chunks.


This is a bluefin tuna head, I'd guess the fish was about 400 pounds.




Is this shirako? Can anyone translate? Is it a great deal? Why the exclams??


Live abalone and squid are stored together in this tank.


This is called shaku in Japanese, which seems to be related to lobster, but it has a purple-ish cast rather than red. It has a dense, medium fine texture, but lean, and somewhat sweet. [I believe this is a form of mantis shrimp]


When breaking down a large tuna, it's cut into four long quarter sections from head to tail. When working along the skeleton, a knife about 30 inches long is used to make guide cuts, then the six or seven foot long flexible knife is placed in the cut and worked back and forth by at least two men, sort of like lumberjacks.


I left the market to finally get some cash at a bank. This is above the building housing the smaller vendors.


A selection of magurokiri (tuna knives) from the manufacturer called Aritsugu.


There was some sort of open house/festival going on called Uogashi Yokocho. I have no idea if this meant that it was busier than usual, but some of the lines for certain sushi joints were amazing. Some were 50 people or more, but the frontage is so narrow (about 10 feet), and they don't block the next door restaurant, so they zigzag the line back on itself. Plus, they run motorcarts and bikes through the aisles as well, so people pack themselves in pretty good.

I'm going back on Saturday, so I went to some of the less busy places to actually eat. The first stop was Ryuzushi (continued...)
[edit to add in exterior shot]

(...continued) for the Ran sushi set (iwashi, ebi with the head, akagai clam, ika, otoro, a snapper, sea eel and tuna roll). The eel was a bit waterlogged and mushy.


I augmented it with shaku, uni, and iwashi. One thing different is that nigiri are single pieces, not two per order as in most places the US.


While it was tasty, I felt there was a certain rustic-ness or impreciseness to Ryuzushi that was somewhat disappointing. I'm all for amazing fish in a divey setting, but in this case it didn't really work as well for me. All in, about ¥4,800, or about $41.40.

The second stop was Sushi Zanmai. It's a big place, fairly plush and modern, but still good fish at a tremendous value. And Kirin on tap! Here's the assorted sushi lunch special, which included marinated fish, shrimp head miso soup, a salad and green tea. The sushi included really excellent salmon, chutoro, ikura and okra with plum paste.


I also got kohada (gizzard shad) and uni.


All in, with a beer, ¥2,809, or about $24.22.

So how was it? Naturally, the fish was very fresh and of high quality. Sushi Zanmai offered much better value overall, for a similar quality of fish, IMHO. Certainly an equivalent meal in Los Angeles would probably be at least twice as much, respectively, and you'd still be hard pressed to match the quality, and certain items just wouldn't be available at all, like the shaku. I'm going back Saturday to try more sushi joints.

November 03, 2005

You know what happens when you assume...

Currently 7am in Tokyo.

I had planned to take the first train at 5 am to go to the Tsukiji Wholesale Fish Market, but I realized that I didn't even have enough cash to buy the ticket, so I slept in 'til 6am. Being a holiday yesterday, I couldn't go to a bank. I haven't had much luck with the ATM's either, none of which seem to take any of my cards. Bank ATM's seem to be closed between 9pm and 6am, so I guess I'll find out.

There are far fewer Internet cafes and hotspots than I had imagined as well. I spent all yesterday lugging around the laptop expecting to find some. Not today. Could just be this area, but I'm not sure. There's a lot of gaming and pachinko slots around, but only two Internet lounges, which were pay by the hour and didn't accept credit cards.

Also, my BlackBerry doesn't find any networks, so that's been a craw-sticker. Good thing I gave up information technology... my good computer mojo might be gone.

I had a good run.

November 02, 2005


This is a Buddhist temple, called a hongwanji, tucked into the neighborhood near Kappabashi. It has a presence in the area because it's so large and distinctive that it can be seen through the side streets for quite a large radius. On the way back to the hotel, I decided to walk by it and take a few pictures.


As I was walking closer to get more shots of the compound, this man was letting his son drive in the open lot, and totally spontaneously, he started hamming it up.


Just a great moment of unbridled, uninhibited glee.

It's not everyday you see a halberdier...

At first, I saw these guys in hopi coats unloading a bamboo ladder. But I got that weird feeling like something was about to happen, so I went by to check it out. As I got closer, there were probably about 300 people in full Japanese medieval regalia. For the most part, they were really high quality costumes, close to museum quality. As Rich looked up for me, November 3 is called Culture Day in Japan.

By the way, the pictures look sorta overexposed because I didn't notice that I hadn't changed the settings on the camera from earlier.


This little guy especially, has the best expressions.


It was as if a parade was being held just for me, in honor of my first full day in Japan.


Insert cheap line here about Japan being a complex juxtaposition of modern and ancient blahblahblah...


The most feared of the warriors were the personal pan pizza delivery battalion.


Also feared to a lesser extent were the guys with the velvet covered sticks.




It took a long time for the parade to actually begin. Note the drum in the outfit, presumably used to sound the triplets of a horse's gait. These guys ran out of enthusiasm before the parade started, so no cloppity-clop from them.


At this point, I switched to a video camera, and someday I'll capture it and put it here. It's pretty cool.

It was such a surreal thing to observe. No one ever challenged me or talked to me. People were playing tennis next to them. They all just acted like they do this all the time. I can just hear, "Honey, I can't pick up the kids from judo practice because I have a historical reenactment today." "Again?!?"

Scouting Kappabashi

Kappabashi is a shopping district specializing in restaurant equipment and supplies. My purpose there for the first day was to familiarize myself with the area, what's available, start to get a sense for what things cost, especially with regard to knives and specialty cooking gadgets.


Since the Japanese tend to be early risers, I thought it odd that many of the places were closed, but I just plowed ahead. This shop featuring knives and various grills began business in 1920, I believe.


These are brands that are heated on a stove or with a special tool, then used to mark things like Japanese omelettes, buns, etc.



Got bowls?


This is the "hammer" and mortar used in the traditional method of making mochi.


With certain things, I'm methodical, with other things, not so much. In this case, I had my system working, and I went all the way down one side of the street, and was about to turn back along the other side, when I saw...

National Holiday?!?

Currently almost 5pm Tokyo time.

I hate showing my ignorant traveler side, but uhhhh, it's some kind of national holiday today. Not knowing this, I headed over to Kappabashi, the restaurant district, which is only two stops over on the Ginza line from where I am.

I figured something was up when it was 9am and the only places open were convenience stores - and I've always heard that the Japanese tend to start their day early. Then 10am came and a few shops opened up, but at least half were closed. Luckily for me, the two of the larger knife stores in the area were open today. Besides eating, buying pro quality knives is the reason for this leg of the trip. Today was a scouting day anyway, just getting familiar with the area and figuring out what things cost, etc. Actual purchasing will be another day.

The holiday would also explain the other happening today, which won't play well without pictures, so y'all will just have to wait for it!! Ooooh! Suspense!

It was overcast almost all day today, but being here is just amazing. I'm getting by with the few words and phrases of I know in Japanese, watching and copying other people, assuming meaning by context, etc.


And so it begins. I am on the ground in Tokyo, posting from a terminal in the hotel. Will try to find a Internet connection in the morning. I had a plush flight on Singapore Air (highly recommended!)and smooth transport via train to the Ueno area, and the hotel is literally across the street from the station exit.

Local time is about 8:30pm, 17 hours ahead of PST.

So far, so good!

November 01, 2005

Time to go!!

As you can see, despite running on only a few hours of sleep for each of the past few days, I'm ready to get underway. With only carry-on-able items, some might call that traveling light, but isn't. It's more electronics and guidebooks than anything else, and it weighs a ton. Two and a half months living out of a small rolling case and a backpack - do you think I can do it??


Kelly, thanks for the ride and for taking the photo!

I won't be seeing Playa Del Rey and Dockweiler Beach for a few months. Kevo's house is in there somewhere...


Better than pretzels.


Singapore Airlines lived up to their reputation. It's civilized air travel.


Metal utensils in coach! Free movies on your own screen! Good food! Lemme tell you, they accomplish something in flight that a lot of restaurants can't get right on the ground -serving hot food hot, cold food cold, with warm bread and soft butter.


The second meal was also a hot meal ・not a tired old croissant sandwich that you have to pay $6.00 for. Seafood fried rice, including shrimp that were not overcooked.


Chasing the sunset across the Pacific, it seemed like it stayed lit until we slowed down and began the descent for Tokyo.