From A Foodie: Tasting Japan & Its Shokunin Spirit

Although my two months in Japan were ostensibly for Summer School (note the emphasis on my liberal arts education), with the overarching agenda of weight loss (refer to my birthday post: From 20-year-old Me, With Love), it was in truth spent on eating, diligent planning of where to eat, and lovingly documenting every piece of food that went into my stomach. It was a glorious two months in a land that worshipped food as much as I did. I present to you the best food I’ve eaten—sadly, not an inexhaustible list and very much narrow in scope as I don’t eat raw fish (no sushi/sashimi etc.! I hear your cry of ‘travesty!!!’)—in Japan, with most of the places in Kyoto (which was where I was predominantly located). Some brief thoughts on the shokunin spirit at the end.

Dessert

Tokyo

  • Asakusa Suzukien Nanaya Gelato

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Eaten on my first full day in Japan, this was the unforeseen beginning of my two-month-long obsession with matcha ice cream. Located on a street behind the famous Sensōji Temple, this shop is famous for having the richest matcha gelato in the world (see the round blob below). It was overwhelmingly bitter (considering the fact that I have a huge sweet tooth) and I immediately wished that I had gone for one of the lower levels instead of the highest out of the seven levels of matcha. Instead, I took over my dad’s Hojicha (roasted green tea) and level 1 matcha gelato cup—it was heavenly.

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  • Dominique Ansel Bakery Omotesando Store

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Tucked in an alleyway behind Omotesando, the zelkova tree-lined avenue leading to Meiji Shrine, this bakery is slick, modern, with incredibly photogenic pastries. While everything looks pretty, the best of the bunch is the Tokyo-exclusive Paris-Tokyo Matcha Passionfruit Cake (top left), which tastes as good as it looks—it’s a spin on the classic Paris-Brest with passionfruit curd and matcha ganache. Other innovations include the Frozen S’mores which are burned before you as they are being served.

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Osaka

  • The Wizarding World of Harry Potter, Universal Studios Japan

Butterbeer is a must-have! With a sweet, creamy layer of foam above the carbonated, bubbly drink (non-alcoholic), it tasted like an interesting mix of foam milk soda and butterscotch macchiato. The amber color (resembling beer) is beautiful, the mug is a souvenir to keep, and the taste is smooth. It also magically cured my motion sickness after the Final Fantasy XR Ride with the virtual reality headset.

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  • World’s Second Best Freshly Baked Melonpan Ice Dotonbori

Located in Dōtonbori, Osaka’s over-the-top food/entertainment/shopping district, the name of the food truck caught my eye: why proclaim itself as the world’s second best? (And, honestly, who’s the first??) The melon-pan was still warm and crispy, with a subtle sweetness, which lightened the richness of the vanilla ice cream. It was a larger, fatter version of Singapore’s iconic ice cream sandwich, and no less delicious. More points for the experience (rarely did I see melon-pan sold with ice cream throughout the rest of the trip) than for the actual taste.

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Kyoto

  • Kyo Cafe 

This cafe is operated by KYOBAUM, a famous brand of baumkuchen (a layered sponge cake, resembling a tree with concentric rings). The matcha and vanilla soft serve rests on several small, chewy pieces of baumkuchen (made with Uji green tea and soy milk). The sprinkled powder on top is a nice finishing touch. If you’re shopping along Shijo Avenue in Gion and need a pick-me-up, go for this different spin on soft serve.

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  • Gelato Pique Cafe Bio Concept

Since I was passing through Kyoto Station every day on my commute to school, I spent a lot of time exploring all the underground (and overhead) malls connected to the sprawling transportation hub. This newly opened cafe in the basement of the CUBE caught my eye due to its bright, minimalistic interior. I ordered a Rouge Smoothie and an assorted gelato set (I chose chocolate, matcha, and pistachio), which was surprisingly good with its granola bits and a butter cookie. It lasted me for more than an hour on my Kindle, reading Yuko Ogasawara’s Office Ladies and Salaried Men. ^_^

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  • Sir Thomas Lipton

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My absolute favorite dessert place. ❤ The white peach tart (pictured above) was love at first bite. I went back three more times—twice with friends and one last time by myself—to eat it. Everything else on the menu, from matcha tiramisu to matcha kakigōri (shaved ice) to hibiscus black milk tea was delectable. The pot of tea, however, was not a standout.

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  • Arashiyama Obuu

What a blessing on any swelteringly hot, sticky day. My friend and I ventured into Arashiyama (with its famous bamboo forests, scenic railways, and picturesque temples) on a 40 degree Celcius afternoon—the whole time, we were immersed in an inescapable outdoor sauna. After lining up for half an hour, we got seats by the counter facing the Togetsukyo Bridge. This was the only time I tried a Hojicha parfait throughout this trip. The slightly bitter, roasted taste of the ice cream perfectly complemented the doses of matcha.

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The tea room of this breathtakingly gorgeous museum (an architectural feat nestled in the mountains) offers a tasty Anmitsu. With natural sunlight streaming through the glass ceilings and metal beams, both this space and the food are meant to present a harmonious blend of natural beauty, architecture, art and food—this museum’s object, after all, is to use art (in its broadest sense) to bring about a religious experience. Founded by the Shinji Shumeikai religious organization, even the culinary experience of the museum’s restaurants adheres to its philosophy. This dessert item utilizes ingredients produced by the Shumei Natural Agriculture approach, free of any additives such as fertilizers and agrochemicals. The azuki beans are boiled to a soft texture while the round balls made of mochi rice flour are chewy and the matcha ice cream cold and soothing. Almost a transformative experience, but not quite yet.

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  • Ito Kyuemon Uji Honten

My host family brought me to this traditional tea-maker shop, now famous for its parfaits. Absolute matcha heaven! Although everyone at the table ordered a parfait, I really couldn’t help but order the matcha cheesecake option with the Hojicha jelly (because it looked so pretty on the menu). The chilled Hojicha jelly was bouncy and slightly bitter even after honey is poured, but it lightened the palate between bites of a rich, creamy cheesecake. I happily bought several boxes of matcha goods—sandwich cookies, chocolate, and warabimochi—from the shop before we left.

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  • Saryo Suisen

Best parfait. With matcha waffle roll, dorayaki (red bean pancake), azuki paste, dango (sweet dumplings), mochi, cookie, baumkuchen, and jelly decorating the matcha soft serve, eating this parfait was like unearthing a seemingly bottomless treasure chest. I choose to disregard the number of calories contained in this beauty.

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***

Okonomiyaki

Tokyo 

  1. Asakusa Okonomiyaki Sometaro

Delicious beyond words. Definitely make a trip here if you’re in Asakusa. This Japanese-style savory pancake is called okonomiyaki (literally ‘grill as you like’), with flour, eggs, tempura scraps (tenkasu), cabbage and some form of protein. The final pancake is topped with a variety of condiments like okonomiyaki sauce, Japanese mayonnaise, dried seaweed, and dried bonito flakes. Seated on tatami mats around an iron griddle on the tabletop, everything is do-it-yourself (we also asked the friendly staff to help us flip the pancake). The rustic interior is charming.

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***

Unagi

Nagoya

  1. Atsuta Horaiken Main Restaurant

THE BEST UNADON I’VE EATEN IN MY LIFE. Nagoya’s hitsumabashi (hitsu = ‘wooden rice bowl’ and mabushi = ‘to scatter’) style entails eating the unagi in four steps: as it is; garnished with the served condiments such as spring onions, nori seaweed, pickles and wasabi (I gave wasabi a pass); mixed with lightly-flavored broth or tea; and lastly, whichever of the three ways one prefers. It was such an interesting way to eat unagi, apportioning the eel out of the bowl, but then I gave up halfway through since the second way was so delicious. Also, I recommend ordering the Umaki (omelet-wrapped eel) as a starter.

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***

Tempura

Nara

  • Tendon Makino

Golden, crispy, melt-in-your-mouth kind of buttery goodness. The huge bowl includes a generous assortment of tempura—conger eel, shrimp, egg with a soft center, green pepper, enoki mushrooms, seaweed, squid, and scallops all coated in a thick batter—overflowing above the rice (a second smaller bowl is used as a lid to keep the tempura from falling off). The order is done on the spot, so everything is fresh and piping hot. Incredibly, despite how unhealthy this looks, there was no oily aftertaste. Honestly, the best tendon I’ve had.

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Kyoto

  • Yoshikawa Tempura

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Compared to the tendon at Makino, this restaurant offers tempura almost as an artisanal experience—the batter is light, each item barely dipped into a cauldron of oil by the skilled chef before it is expertly placed onto the plate before my eyes. Consuming each item in the nine-course meal—two prawns, one fish and six vegetables—was a savor of the ingredient, the natural flavor brought out by the tempura coating. The different kinds of salt, dipping sauce and the slice of lemon also offered diverse ways to experiment with taste. So, so delicate.

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***

Wagyu

Kyoto

  • Hafuu Honten

I regretted going for the teriyaki sauce option, but it did not detract that much from the quality of the beef. I ordered the fillet steak medium to well-done, and it still retained its juicy texture, which was impressive. Slightly overrated as one of the best places for wagyu beef in Kyoto, but I can imagine how much better the steak would have been without the teriyaki sauce.

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  • Teppanyaki Gozanbo

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In terms of overall atmosphere, my best meal in Japan. On the fifteenth floor of Hotel Granvia, the restaurant had a gorgeous view of the mountains, the Kyoto Tower, and the city skyline. The chef prepares the meal from scratch before you—from preparing the raw ingredient to the final plate presentation. The eight-course meal hit all the right notes—particular highlights were the teppan-grilled fish with Manganji pepper puree and the dessert (coconut ice cream with passionfruit puree).

The beef cubes literally melted in my mouth. I used to read descriptions like this and immediately label them as hyperbole, but the beef actually did melt in the literal sense of the word! It was buttery, fatty in all the right amounts, freshly seared, and absolutely heavenly when dabbed with salt and eaten with garlic chips. Typing this right now at 10PM makes me so incredibly hungry. 😓 This is the kind of meal that compels you to close your eyes to etch the taste in your mind.

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***

Takoyaki

Osaka

  • Takoyaki Juhachiban Dotonbori

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Best Takoyaki I’ve eaten. Due to the constant line before the stall and the huge volume of orders, everything is made on the spot with a flurry of hands at almost inhuman speed. With crispy tempura scraps in the flour-based batter, the crunch in my mouth as I tried to eat each ball without burning my mouth was a great respite.

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***

Throughout all of these culinary experiences, as I traveled from Tokyo to Nagoya to Osaka to Kyoto, what struck me most was the level of devotion and diligence that goes into the craft of cooking—from roadside stalls to rustic inns to air-conditioned cafes to modern restaurants. What I deeply admire is not only the exquisite precision of its artisanal chefs or the decades spent specializing in a single category of food by generations in a family, but also the smiling salesperson painstakingly wrapping up my cake with an ice pack, the scruffy boy making Takoyaki in the hot sun with a tireless smile on his face, and the many other anonymous faces that deeply moved me with their immense sense of pride in feeding my stomach and delighting my palate.

The Japanese word shokunin is defined by both Japanese and Japanese-English dictionaries as ‘craftsman’ or ‘artisan,’ but such a literal description does not fully express the deeper meaning. The Japanese apprentice is taught that shokunin means not only having technical skills, but also implies an attitude and social consciousness. … The shokunin has a social obligation to work his/her best for the general welfare of the people. This obligation is both spiritual and material, in that no matter what it is, the shokunin’s responsibility is to fulfill the requirement.

— Tasio Odate

I was at first surprised and then intrigued by this shokunin spirit that surfaced in the most mundane of interactions and at places where I least expected to find craftsmanship (to put it bluntly). This assiduous focus on the smallest, most trivial of details and a relentless pursuit of perfection while cooking the same dish, preparing the same takeaway box, or even doing the same singular action at the grill over and over again moves me. I can’t begin to fathom what drives their dedication to this ‘craft’—or what many might not even perceive to be a craft—when I find myself faltering in persisting in a habit after mere days. There’s something special about each of these meals that I’ve eaten in Japan that has moved me beyond its sensory aspects. From my perspective, each of these meals is a singular life experience. Yet, for them, I am but only one customer in a sea of consumers who have come and gone. But, somehow, driven by perhaps what Odate calls a spiritual and material obligation, they hold themselves up to an invisible bar that cannot be found on such a wide scale in any other country I’ve been to.

I think that’s what lies at the heart of Japan for me this summer, beyond its cuisine, the earthquake and the flooding, the heat, its shrines and temples, its quaint alleyways and wooden buildings, its punctuality and the efficient transportation system. Amongst its people, are millions of dedicated shokunin, who are unnamed but not unnoticed.

Lots of love,

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[Story] 7-Eleven: A Summertime Romance?

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When she trudges home that night, it’s forty minutes later, after two transits and twelve stations. She is about to turn left, head down the bridge, cross the crossing under a flickering street lamp and follow that path she has walked for twenty-one days when she notices the 7-Eleven store. Undimmed, the fluorescent white from its windows beams steadfast into the night’s dark canopy. The orange, green, white and red stripes wrapping around its boxy edges are cheery, like a loud invitation to wandering souls. A stop for replenishing. A sanctuary for the untethered. Pre-packaged warmth, microwaved sentiment and cold douses of refreshment are for sale.

She pauses. On a night like this, hungry from dieting and exhausted from interaction, in a mood that can only be called ‘sunset’, the too pristine, uncomfortably synthetic, universally bright convenience store she has seen hundreds of times over in three continents suddenly looks welcoming.

The bell rings overhead when she walks in and a male voice intones a greeting. She moves briskly down the aisles. No one else bothers her after that initial welcome. Packets of food stare dully at her. The undemanding isolation of this shopping process ought to comfort her, but she feels a darkness descend. Whatever she has come to find, there is nothing here but the overwhelming urge to leave. She gives the fridge before her a perfunctory flick, chooses a small carton of strawberry milk and strides to the check-out counter.

There are a few prolonged beats of silence after the milk is scanned as she fishes out the coins from her pockets. She heaps the fistful of pennies and dimes onto the small tray, forming a tiny, tumbling glossy hill.

Sorry, sorry, she says, flustered, fingers clumsily picking out the unnecessary coins. Her head is bent in concentration because, after three weeks in this city, she still has trouble telling the coins apart. The cashier’s fingers enter into her vision, swift and practiced.

She’s pulling back her hand when her little finger and his index finger accidentally touch.

When she glances up, the cashier is blushing. He is slender but not skinny, with a buzz cut, a slightly tanned face, cat-like eyes, and an inscrutable countenance behind the practiced smile. Yet, as he blushes, his eyes crinkle and the banal demeanor ripples. She holds back a laugh. A sunrise, suddenly. Arigatō gozaimasu, she says. And unlike the other thirty-five times that she has said it today, she means it.

He stares at her and then, the blush recedes before he nods politely and recites the ritualized thanks, eyes unblinking and his role reassumed.

When the automatic door closes behind her, she eyes herself from torso to toe. She’s dressed in a baggy t-shirt and shorts, with sore feet clad in dusty sandals. Altogether unremarkable. She considers it for a moment and then sips her strawberry milk before turning left.

***

She goes through the same routine with him the next few times she visits the store on different days, at 11:07PM, 8:13PM and 8:30PM. She even feels something close to disappointment (but not quite yet) once at 3:23PM when it’s a glum-looking middle-aged man with an oily forehead who gives her change while cheerlessly smiling and bidding her thank-you. She doesn’t have time to stop by the 7-Eleven in the next three days. Serendipity, she thinks. And then she kills the thought.

On June 24, 2018, at 10:58PM, the local train pulls up at this nondescript station, twenty-seven people disembark and stream out through the gates. One of them feels her bloated stomach from a dinner of kishikatsu, furrows her brows almost imperceptibly and then gravitates towards the brightly-lit convenience store—standing like a beacon in the roiling silence of the night.

She feels his eyes on her the moment she enters the empty store. Did she imagine the swallow in his voice? The staple greeting sounds different to her. Her footsteps grow lighter. She doesn’t bother to think why she loiters at the central aisle in full view of the check-out counter as she blithely scans the fridge. The strawberry milk has grown on her, and she carefully picks one up after scrutinizing the expiry dates.

His lips twitch when he sees her in front of the counter.

After reading aloud the payment amount in his hackneyed intonation, she does not expect him to say anything (the sonata he performs has three movements: he announces the amount he has received from her; there is a lull, followed by a clear statement of the change amount; then, it all culminates in the dramatic thank-you—his unvarying finale).

In silence, she searches her skirt pocket for coins.

Strawberry milk again, he says slowly in English. His voice, stripped of the affected intonation, is unexpectedly boyish.

She freezes for a moment before hiding a smile.

Your English is good, she comments, looking up.

I’m having an English test. Tomorrow. he says, as he respectfully receives her handful of coins.

Daigaku? she casually asks. Her summer program classes take place at a private university a few subway stops down from Kyoto station.

High school, he corrects her in English. He meets her eyes steadily when he says those two words.

She tries to hide her surprise. You’re younger than me, she thinks.

I’m older than you. That’s what she says.

Really? he replies nonchalantly.

He thanks her as usual when she turns to leave, but before she’s out of the door, she hears him speak into the air behind her, Goodnight.

***

She comes back again the next day and the next. Ever since that first off-script conversation they had, a tacit agreement has been reached. He no longer bothers performing his sonata.

Not strawberry milk? he asks when she places a cup of yogurt on the cashier counter. She wishes she could have bought the strawberry milk but she doesn’t have enough coins with her after using them daily at the store. She thinks his English has gotten significantly better since she first remembered his face two weeks ago.

ī e, yōguruto tai, she replies. So has her Japanese.

He watches her empty the handful of coins from a pouch and blinks.

He suddenly bends down behind the counter and surfaces a few seconds later. There’s a dollar in his outstretched, sweaty palm.

You drop this? he says, slightly stumbling over these three words.

She is first confused. No, I didn’t— Oh, she says, oh.

When he gestures at the fridge, she floats there and back, a carton of strawberry milk in her grasp. She doesn’t even remember to check the expiry date.

***

So they keep talking—a few words here, a few words there. She mostly never lingers for too long. He never asks her to stay. Sometimes, there’s another customer and then, he gives her a shrug from behind the counter and she hears herself humming as she crosses the crossing.

Sometimes he tells her about this girl in his class he finds cute, or the Germany World Cup match he streamed on his phone. She would lean against the counter, sipping her strawberry milk.

Once in a while, in that winding two months, she watches a World Cup match with him on his cracked phone screen after he is off-duty, the phone propped up by two boxes of sour gummies between them on an unused countertop. He would pass her candy and recycle the wrappers. She would find herself stepping across the threshold into darkness hours later, the convenience store light a halo behind her silhouette.

***

She tells him that the date of her departure flight is near.

He just tilts his head.

I’ll send you off at the station, he finally says. It’s right beside the store, I can sneak out for a few minutes.

***

On the flight, she wonders what the past two months meant. She wonders about the first feather-like brush, the once-stale sonata, the coins passed between them and the blurry-eyed World Cup matches. She wonders how she ever thought to look up that day, from the isolation and her sunset, to glimpse a human face.

One person wanders, as she did. But two people are always going somewhere. She doesn’t know the route they treaded or the destination they wanted to reach. When he had leaned in beside the gantry to whisper ‘mata ne’, so close as if to kiss her, she had stuffed a carton of strawberry milk in his hands and pivoted on her luggage, darting into the station.

Moments later, he would have seen what she had written on the side of the carton and he would have smiled. He would.

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When In Kyoto ≧◡≦

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With the most adorable Sae-chan ❤

Kyoto is one-hour strolls along train tracks, washed-out pink carpets hanging on strings, bottles of sake behind second-storey windows, two scrawny girls trying to catch a pale yellow butterfly with a net, watery rice paddies beside a parking lot full of Toyotas & Hondas. Kyoto is that moment my hair almost rustles as my bones quiver with the ground, with the rumble of the passing train across a few thin walls. The train tracks are embedded in a sea of rocks, streaming to where the horizon meets the sky—so clean yet intense that, despite all differences, it’s almost reminiscent of the sixth station scene in Spirited Away.

sixth station vsixth station

Kyoto is light grey sheets of rain on wooden houses, bright red gates before tiled rooftops, the simultaneous terror and wonder of Yayoi Kusama’s black dots in an endless space of yellow, the swish of the obi in a maiko’s (apprentice geisha) kimono in spotlight, the cool softness and stickiness of mochi against a parched tongue, and the heavenly pleasure of matcha ice-cream in all possible weathers and places. It’s touching a love rock in aged temples and above waterfalls, and trying but failing to touch a deer grazing freely in the precincts of Nara.

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Kyoto is spending buckets of coins at a game arcade with a six-year-old, a thirteen-year-old and a fifteen-year-old, in a ruthless game of air hockey, in deceptively promising claw machines that cheated my feelings (I swear, it’s rigged), in the pew-pew sounds of Jackpot, in the vortex of Coin Pusher which sucked all our money away, in the tiny space of Purikura photo booths (the photos help you discover new levels of cuteness that you never know existed within your features), in the din, the clamor, the furrowed brows and upturned mouths.

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Kyoto is waking up earlier than I ever did since college, at 7.30am every morning, being greeted in a cascade of murmurs of ohayo gozaimasu, being ushered out of the house with itterashai and welcomed back with okaeri. It’s the simple warmth of daily dinners, eating at a table of more than three, of strangers who now seem to be almost like another family.

Kyoto is the daily routine of three-hour classes—one on East Asian religions, one on inequality in contemporary Japan—in a cool, white classroom. It’s venturing in underground malls, running down alleyways in the rain and tasting food samples with newfound friends. It’s everyone in the photo below. 😊

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It’s also my first experience of an earthquake. Fingers crossed for the days to come.

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Little Princess, Sae-chan~ 💓

Praying, with love,

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