Archive for May, 2010

May 1st

We just completed an exhilarating week WWOOFing on a family-run rice farm about 90 minutes outside of Osaka, Japan, in a town called Nose (pronounced No-say). (Find out more about WWOOFing in general and WWOOFing in Japan in particular.)

Here’s a glimpse of the farm from a nearby rice field.

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Babs’s old friend from school, Chris, joined us for the week. What a great debut WWOOFING gig!

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It’s spring spring spring, smack in time for the busy rice-planting season. There’s plenty-and-a-half to keep us all out of mischief.

I help our host Shigemi to sow the year’s crop. Shigemi grows about 450kg of rice a year, sells two thirds of it to a network of direct customers, and feeds her family with the rest.

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The rice seedlings are nursed very carefully — after a stint in an incubator, the seedlings bask on the front lawn of the house, periodically covered with tarp to keep out the chilly spring wind and rain. Their growth progress is closely monitored to determine when they are ready for transplanting in the fields.

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Rural Japan, if not the whole country, still assigns many roles by gender. So while everyone pitches in for weeding all around the farm, the boys get assigned a lot more outdoor work while I compile a comprehensive (digital) farm instruction manual for Shigemi’s future WWOOFers.

Babs and Chris help to prepare the rice fields for flooding and planting — clearing weeds and stones, leveling the ground, and unchoking the water channel. Here’s a before-and-after shot. Great work guys!

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They also spend the week assembling a giant weed raker, which — once the seedlings are snugly in the ground — will be pulled through the fields once every three days to up-end new weeds. Shigemi’s very excited about this rake because her farm is transiting towards being fully organic. She’s steadily reduced her use of weedkiller over the last few years, and she says with this rake, she’ll be able to stop using weedkiller completely this year. Huzzah!

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We also learn a great deal about foraging and living off the land. Besides garnishing soups and making salad with wild herbs growing around the farm, tis the season for bamboo shoots, and we get a hands-on lesson on spotting and unearthing them. Unfortunately, wild boars in the area have beaten us to quite a number of the delicious shoots, but we still manage a sackful, including Chris’s whopper!

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Last but certainly not least, we learn 2 traditional rice product recipes that have largely disappeared from modern industrial Japan — amazaki, a fermented rice drink, and a very muscle-intensive yamogi mochi.

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Stay tuned!


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Dear fellow seafood obsessives,

I’ve seen some impressive seafood markets while on the road, but boy, Tusikiji Fish Market in Tokyo takes the fishcake! Remember when I said I’d died and gone to heaven when I stepped into La Boqueria in Barcelona? Well, take that, add the floor space of all of Barcelona’s 39 other municipal food markets, fill it all with just seafood, and there you have Tsukiji’s inner-core wholesale market. (Tsukiji market’s outer ring sells other food and kitchen products). If I died here due to the stray swing of a tuna hook or axe (below), it wouldn’t be a half bad way to go.


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I mentioned earlier that I spent a couple of hours the other morning prowling around the early morning tuna auction. I also trailed the tuna for a bit after they got sold.

The tuna torpedos are transported to their buyers’ stalls and trucks on carts of all shapes and sizes; hand-pulled if it’s just one, motored around if more.


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Sometimes just the one is pre-power-sawed before it gets carted off. Possible beginnings of a Damien Hirst piece?


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Just imagine the fish stock you could make with this monster.


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The route to breakfast at Daiwa Sushi was the ultimate edible aquarium. Here’s an angry looking snow crab.


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And here’s some cracked open sea urchin. At Daiwa, we were served the largest sea urchin nigiri I’d ever seen. This stuff still freaks me out, admittedly, so it was quite the I-can’t-fit-it-in-one-bite-but-don’t-want-to-make-it-last-two dilemma.


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Did you know that the seafood sold at Tsukiji comes from some 60 countries? Yes indeedy. Tsukiji’s tentacles of influence spread far and wide, though in recent years seafood sales have shifted towards direct channels due to improved global telecommunication.

Pop quiz! If you combined all the squid, cuttlefish and octopus sold at Tsukiji in a day, how many tentacles in total would that be? Bonus question: If today represents a 3% drop in volume from last year, how many tentacles were sold in total last year?

Answer: I don’t know, but I sure wish I got taught Math in school this way.


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I also saw shellfish that must have come from Brobdingnag. Each of those mussels(?) clams(?) alien pods(?) (I have no idea, but the 2nd word of the sign reads “mountain”) on the left is larger than my hand. And check out the size of those blood cockles! Almost the size of my fluttering heart.


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Ugly pugly, I know, but it’s just the abalone and sea snail’s attempt at presuading predators that “oh no no no, I’m not delightfully sweet and crunchy and chewy at all”. If you’re grimacing “eeeeew gross”, then their ruse has worked, and I’m as pleased as they — more for me!


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All in all, I’m happy as a clam. Wish you were here!


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Prologue: Babs and Dave, one of Babs’s best mates from school, are both turning 30 this April. About a year ago I pitched to the gang of ’em that Tokyo would be quite the place for the boys to turn 30. The utter fabulousness of the city worked its magic and convinced a group of 6 from the UK, Netherlands and Hong Kong to come join us for various bits of fun in Japan. Wahey!


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Above: Pieces of sushi are hand-made and placed one by one on a wooden board between the diner and the elevated sushi chef, with short intervals in between. This was about as many pieces as I could stand to leave for a sushi group photo before my photographic resolve dissolved


If there is anything better than starting your day in Tokyo with a sushi breakfast at Tsukiji fish market, the big Daddy of all fish markets, it is, as I found out, ending your day there.


7.30am: Breakfast of Champions

My face is pressed up against Daiwa Sushi’s window, to gauge our waiting time. The sushi chef closest to the window half-smiles with pity but gently beckons me to back away from the glass. I do. I pace. I babble semi-deliriously to Babs, Chris and Helen, my breakfast companions. I’ve looked at a lot of tuna through glass today.

A few diners make their way out, but there is the eternity of the next 2 minutes while their spots are cleared and wiped down. I’m hopping on one foot then the other. I wonder if this is how and why so many Japanese people pursue Zen Buddism.

And we’re in! We’re sat as 2 separate pairs at the extreme ends of the L-shaped counter, but no one minds. We didn’t come here for the conversation.

An empty wooden block is placed between each of us and the elevated sushi chef.

“Mix?” he says. We nod.

And so he does, throwing a series of shapes and layers and textures more sublime than the best of my favourite DJs. Maguro (tuna) and ikura (salmon eggs) maki. A fat raw prawn. Ika (squid). And — as my eyebrows jump and my heart stops — toro (already fatty tuna belly) and chu toro (even more fatty tuna belly). This was going to be financial hari-kiri. But what a worthy death.

Babs and I make semi-obscene little noises of profound enjoyment as we chomp down on each piece of sushi. I don’t understand how the 2 American women next to us are managing to carry on a full conversation about something that is not about sushi. Or any kind of conversation at all. No one else is talking. Not the Japanese businessmen, not the other tourists. Only one bald gaijin with his Japanese friend, but at least he’s talking to the chef about the fish, in fluent Japanese. (I don’t know what about, I just hear the key fish words).


6.30am: Gawking At The Goods

We wander through the labyrinth of some 1,700 stalls selling some 450 species of seafood, dodging handpulled and auto carts and forklifts as we go. Separate post to come on this section. Too many photos!


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5.30am: Tiptoeing Around Tuna

We’re prowling about the perimeters of Tsukiji’s famed tuna auction warehouse at the back end of the complex, right on the water. Reports in our group’s array of guide books had been mixed about whether visitors were still banned from the auction room or allowed back in, so we peered through whatever open doors and glass panels we could to try and gauge the situation.


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In quieter sections I would nip in for a few minutes to get a closer look at the proceedings. It’s nowhere near as loud or as boisterous as I thought it would be. I watch buyers peruse rows upon rows of iced-over tuna torpedos, throwing their scythe-like hooks into shortlisted tails, and hacking out a pinch of raw meat to chew on for the all-important taste-test. Pretty pink pieces of tuna on slabs of rice is one thing. But a warehouse full of tuna carcasses does, I admit, conjure images of casualties of war or some other disaster, laid out for identification and burial.

Inevitably a security guard shows up and nudges me back out the door, apologising all the way. I sure am glad this is Japan rather than Germany, where I’ve seen bouncers super-efficiently pitch over-rowdy Oktoberfesters out of beer tents…

Later I find out that unless you’re in a prebooked school group, visitors these days are not allowed into the tuna auction room. Doh!

We finally stumble into the little area where visitors are shepherded into to observe the auction proceedings from a distance. This is just one of many ongoing auctions all along the length of the warehouse (I suspect grouped into tuna-size batches).


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3.30am: Singing in Shinjuku

The group decided that the only way to stay awake for the last hour until it was time to pile into a cab and head east to Tsukiji was to sing at the top of our lungs. Babs scored points for decoding the huge Japanese remote control. Then lost them again as he deliberately experimented with changing the key to a song midway. Three times.

By this time I’m having a splitting headache so right after taking these photos I take a very strategic 30 minute disco nap on the far end of our karaoke room. It made all the difference.

As we leave, Babs and I marvel at all the establishments still open: pachinko bars, karaoke bars, girlie bars, noodle bars, sushi bars, donburi bars, and 24hr internet + magazine + DVD cafes that are a cheap option (compared to taking a taxi home to the suburbs) for partygoers to hang out and nap until the metro system wakes up again. Like New York, this city never sleeps. And as much as I love New York, it’s hard to deny that there’s a lot less trash on the streets and less stress about potentially getting mugged while walking around at night here. I kinda like it that both the police and the yakuza see to that.


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11pm: Boys Just Havana Have Fun

Dave and Colin decide they’re in the mood for cuban cigars, so we take shelter from the cold at Havana Bar somewhere in Shinjuku.

Before that we stumble down into a basement bar called God Bar Jazz, where we’re the only people in there and drinks are horrendously overpriced. The jazz comes from a CD rather than a band (I don’t see any space for any kind of band to perform at the best of times). The bar’s saving grace: chocolate covered potato crisps.


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8.30pm: Shinjuku Shabu-Shabu

The group was in the mood for shabu shabu for dinner. I didn’t have any leads on where to go for this in Shinjuku, so we had to employ our usual “stare at the menu and stick your head in the doorway” method. This wasn’t our luckiest of discoveries. The hotpot was sufficiently tasty but clearly priced for punters more interested in the pretty waitresses in midriffs and miniskirts rather than the food.


3.30pm: Checking Out Cherry Blossoms

We’re in the thick of cherry blossom season, and one of Tokyo’s favourite viewing sites in Ueno Park. There are a couple of fun ways to engage in this breathtakingly beautiful activity (if simply walking under the canopy of a boulevard of cherry trees isn’t thrilling enough for you).

1) Rent a boat at the pond on the south side of the park. The pink swan boats match the cherry blossoms perfectly.


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2) Pack a picnic lunch and mat and spend the afternoon under the blossoms making up haikus.


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1.30pm: Ravishing Ramen

By pure luck we stumble into Kyushu Jangara Ramen right in front of Harajuku metro station for lunch. I find out later that this is one of Tokyo’s most popular ramen purveyors.

The broth (the first thing I always test with any bowl of ramen, I’ve realised) is beautifully rich, and the slabs of meat have their marinade seeped right through. The hard boiled egg has a lovely just slightly runny yolk (think egg fondant), a magic trick all chefs I’ve crossed chopsticks with in Tokyo so far seem to have mastered.


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10.30am: Meetup at the Meiji Shrine

We start the day by walking around the Meiji Shrine gardens.


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Some 3 million people worship at this Shinto spiritual centre of Tokyo during the major holidays. Many buy these 500-yen wooden blocks below to record their wishes and prayers.


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I like this one below.


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And on that fitting note, I bid you and this 22-hour day good morning, and good night. I need a nap.


Daiwa Sushi
Tsukiji Market Building 6
5-2-1 Tsukiji, Chuo-ku, Tokyo
+81 3 3547 6807
(5.30am -1:30pm; closed Sunday)

Kyushu Jangara Ramen
Meiji Jingumae “Harajuku” metro station
Come out of Exit 3, and it’s on the left

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