Sunday, May 04, 2014

Memories of yuba and more

Prior to going to Japan, I'd never been to Asia, unless you count Israel, which I suppose is like saying (also true) that I've never been to the South, unless you count Florida. What I knew about life in Japan came largely from time spent in Japanese pockets of New York and (far more briefly) San Francisco. In other words, all I knew was that I was very keen on seeing the place. I had very little idea what to expect.

My husband and I just spent nearly two weeks in the country, visiting Kyoto, Takayama, and Tokyo. (Also a half-day in Nara and a couple hours in the Nagoya train station.) After sleeping through much of yesterday, I want to record some of what I saw, while the memory is still fresh. Assorted, somewhat food-centric observations from a newly-suburbanized American below:

-Temples, shrines, deer, snow monkeys, gardens, flowers, bamboo, mountains, streams. I'd expected this trip to be more of the bright lights, big city variety - which it was, for the Tokyo part - but maybe life in the woods has taught me to enjoy nature and quiet? That, or this was all of it so different from anywhere I'd ever been that it felt really (pardon the corniness) magical. Tokyo? Also different, but Shibuya Crossing, the subways, etc. are, for someone used to lots of commuting in NYC, not quite as surprising. And the rush-hour subway? If anything slightly less sardine-packed than the rush-hour 6 train. I was pleased to be in a city, but not as overwhelmed by it as The Western Tourist is expected to be.

-The trains. Oh the trains! Getting home involved NJ Transit's worst performance to date, thus highlighting how fabulous they are in Japan. And the train stations! I had one of the best meals of my life in the Tokyo train station - a salmon and salmon roe rice ball followed by a pain au chocolat. (This was breakfast. I'd be surprised if I can still button any of my pants after this trip.)

-The food in Japan - and you notice this most in the train stations, given the contrast with, ahem, Penn Station - seems to be uniformly excellent, in a way it's really not in the States or, for that matter, in Europe (with the exception of Belgium - thinking now of the Liège train station and its waffles...). I mean, you can have a stellar multicourse Japanese meal from basically any convenience store. There may be nowhere convenient to eat the meal in question - Japan isn't too big on benches - but the food itself is plenty accessible. Along the same lines, you can have a cheap meal on a tourist street and even that will be spectacular - high-quality, etc. - and I'm thinking specifically of a particular bowl of udon noodle soup with yuba I had in Kyoto, after seeing the snow monkeys.

-All kinds of random New York places have Tokyo branches. Dean and Deluca, fair enough (if kind of surprising), and Krispy Kreme (that Penn Station favorite), but Sarabeth's? Doughnut Plant? I saw a (Japanese) man in a kind of run-down market area in a Zabar's hat and had to Google and make sure that this, too, didn't have a branch nearby. I saw him, I might note, at a sashimi place where I was tucking into a rice bowl with something on top that wasn't technically lox but tasted quite like it.

-French bakeries as good as or better than Paris, everywhere. One as good as Invalides next to our Tokyo hotel. This was not planned, I swear. And not super-fancy tearooms or something - regular croissant places. Gontran Cherrier, sigh. Branches of Paris-based shops, and seemingly homegrown versions.

-Vegetables, meanwhile, appear to play a very minor role in Japanese cuisine, at least in terms of percentage of the meal. There are noodles, there's rice, there's fish, occasionally a vegetable or two under lots of batter. A tiny bowl of pickles, a few slivers of scallion. That, or vegetables are just eaten at home, and thus unavailable to tourists.

-Two items are really expensive in Japan: coffee and cheese. Cheese, fair enough, two weeks without (save a couple barely-detectable slices in a sandwich chosen for its vegetable content) probably did me good. But coffee! I'd read a post in 2011 about hip coffee in Tokyo and was like, gosh, I will never in my life see these places, but a girl can dream, and so, upon actually being in Tokyo, I sort of thought, I'd better. Sightseeing, not just a caffeine habit! But coffee in Japan - or at least the parts of it I saw - seems to start at $4 a cup. There are exceptions (including a shockingly good iced latte from a convenience store - as in, with actual ice - that was under $2), but if you want to, for example, sit (which you will if you've been walking all day), you have to pay up. Your best bet? Bridge Café and Ice Cream, where, for $5.50, you can combine dessert and coffee cravings in the form of an affogato. Best part was, I hadn't even looked it up, just stumbled upon it at precisely the moment of kitchewares shopping (it's on that street) when it was most appreciated. Omotesando Koffee, which I had read about, was also excellent, but more limited in the seating department. (Two small benches outside in a pretty but also minute garden.)

-Shopping! My plan had been, within budgetary reason, to buy all the clothes in Japan. I didn't quite do this - I got a formal-occasion dress, and that was it. For various financial and size-related reasons (such as, my feet are too big for the women's shoes of Japan; I'm a 7/5/8 U.S., so there's a good chance yours are as well), I think it might be for the best if I take my style inspiration from things I saw in Japan, while doing the actual shopping/styling of existing wardrobe back home. That, and it turns out I do have a limit when it comes to department-store-shopping, even exciting Japanese department stores. Eventually enough is enough, and I kind of don't care to see what's on the seventh floor of yet another building devoted to the sartorial so-very-now. But I very much want to dress like many of the women I saw, who had this kind of ultra-feminine diaphanous sparkly business-wear thing going on. Always with at least a low heel, and accessories. Actually going to Japan changed my idea of what Japanese style consists of. Which is to say, it of course consists of a range of looks, of which I only saw the smallest %, but there's... I guess a Tokyo equivalent of the Passy or St. Germain women of Paris. This is now the goal; I am also, at the moment, wearing Target sweatpants paired with an L.L. Bean fisherman sweater, so, no promises.

-My window-shopping limit does not extend to kitchenware shops (there's a whole street of them!) or drugstores. Or department store food halls. Or - although these were tougher to locate - regular supermarkets. It still frustrates me that I wasn't able to purchase and bring home the entire contents of this one supermarket in a residential area of Kyoto, one that had this huge tofu section. Didn't end up buying anything there (tofu being, after all, tough to bring home) but oh, what a place!

-Plastic food. Many, many restaurants have plastic models of the food in the window. Very realistic ones, although models of for lack of a better word Western food - main courses, at least - tended to look like vomit. (Stew, tomato sauce...) This seems to be Japan's colorful way around the fact that visitors can't read the script, but there's probably a better explanation. You can also buy the plastic food from wholesale markets as a souvenir, but it's wildly expensive. A shame, too, because there were these models of soba noodles with chopsticks suspended in mid-air.

-The bathrooms! Fancy bidet toilets even in public restrooms. Not just department-store public. (Although one upscale department store's included a poster I probably should have photographed, with intricate instructions on "how to wash your buttocks.") Street-facilities public, too, and at least one temple. Buttons next to the toilet that do everything, even play music. Heated toilet seats. Toilet lids that rise when you enter the bathroom. And - moving beyond the toilet - mirrors that don't fog in the shower, but only partially, where your face is reflected, so it looks like some kind of magic. Special bathroom slippers in public restrooms. You half-expect that there will be a 'full head-to-toe makeover' button in one of these bathrooms, complete with a personal stylist from some Bravo show.

-Masks. Why are maybe a third of people in a crowd at any given time wearing a medical mask? Googling offers an array of answers - everything from germophobia to the mask as something akin to a veil or headphones (i.e. a culturally-specific way of staying private in public). All I know is, when I arrived at Newark Penn Station only to confront what had to be the most intense artificial-butter-popcorn smell ever, I started to wish I'd purchased, as vs. wondered at, that "grapefruit mint" scented one.


Anonymous said...

Another reason to wear a face mask, which has increased in recent years, is pollen(hay fever is on the ruse or getting worse it seems). Yet another--which I haven't been in Japan for since it started hitting the news--is air pollution, stereotypically from China: there are regular reports on when PM2.5 levels are high.

Phoebe said...

Pollen and pollution, not possibilities I'd considered! Whatever the case, I kept wavering between thinking it seemed bizarre and thinking that it *is* kind of disgusting to be on a crowded train, and thus maybe appealing on a visceral level to wear a mask.

FarFromBreton said...

My sister teaches ESOL to teenagers and adults in Boston and once asked a bunch of Korean or Japanese students why so many Asian tourists wore medical masks. They said that sometimes it's to prevent spreading germs if you're sick, or if they hadn't had time to put on makeup that day (back home, and being a group of young women). I'm sure they weren't pulling her leg, but I'm not sure how valid/widespread those reasons are in reality. So there are two more possibilities!

Phoebe said...

Germs make sense, and I did see people coughing into their masks, and in those instances, really appreciated the masks! As for the makeup issue, could be, but it didn't look like more women than men were wearing them.

Britta said...

In China people will wear masks if they're sick, to prevent spreading germs. People will wear masks for pollution, except normal masks don't actually do anything. They can actually make it worse, since they can trap polluted air close to your face. In Beijing, it's more and more common for people to wear masks with filtering capabilities, or depending on the level of pollution, full on gas masks.