05: Deep Fried Shrimp Heads
I still haven't been to an authentic sushi bar yet, but at least
I've now checked off another item from the never-ending list
of obligatory things to do in Japan; last Saturday, I went to an
izakaya with a friend. Doing so alone would not have been very
much fun, not only because the "zaka" of "izakaya" means alcohol
and the whole point of the exercise is getting drunk, but because
like in all self-respecting izakayas the menu is entirely in
hand-written Japanese and hence largely illegible. Not that
random selection could have produced stranger results than what
we ended up eating on purpose...
Dish 1: Kara-age
A cardiologist's wet dream, extremely deep-fried and extremely
tasty chicken. (At least I'm told the millimeter-thick layer of
something white underneath a centimeter of batter and grease
Dish 2: Yakitori
More chicken? Yup, but not just white meat, one skewer had
liver and one had fried chicken cartilage. You know that large
chunk of gristle in the middle of a breast piece? Well, here
they're cut up and roasted. Crunchy, if rather tasteless.
Dish 3: Raw shrimp
Two raw jumbo shrimp, in their shells, lots of wavy legs and
big beady eyes still sticking out. Dip in soy sauce and munch
away, the taste is surprisingly sweet. Better than sushi!
Dish 4: Deep fried shrimp heads
After we had finished our raw shrimp, the waitress came up and
asked if we wanted to fry the rest. Mochiron! And lo, within
a few minutes the same heads appeared on a new plate, coated
with a light layer of batter. I was initially somewhat suspicious
of this extraordinary-looking dish, but was coaxed into nibbling
on a leg, and duly discovered that yes, it does taste exactly
like a potato chip. After surpassing this psychological obstacle
I chowed on down like a praying mantis devouring its mate, in
the process discovering wonderful things about shrimp anatomy like
the fact that its mouth contains lots of extra little legs and
that deep-fried eyes can be quite tasty.
Dish 5: Salad
A perfectly ordinary, if large, bowl of salad. If it contained
sheep testicles or the like they certainly were well disguised.
Dish 6: Sashimi
Raw fish, period. They didn't have meguro (tuna, mmm!), so
we used the random method and ended up with mackarel. Too fishy
for my tastes.
Dish 7: Ochazuke
Somewhat surprisingly the least palatable dish of the lot.
A bowl of rice with green tea poured over it, with seaweed and
assorted goodies sprinkled on top, I found it unpleasantly salty
and the addition of the included dab of wasabi certainly didn't
Of course, this being an izakaya, we didn't just eat: warm sake
was the main drink of the day, but I also sampled nigori-sake,
which is unfiltered white sake that, thanks to the rice floating
around in it, looks much like milk. Still tastes like sake though,
the extra rice just made it smoother. Quite good! And at the end,
having downed a tokkuri or two certainly eased the pain of paying
over 3500 yen (175 FIM) a head for this...
While on the topic of Japanese culinary adventures, I've also
had the chance to try some more traditional dishes. Last week
it was still (barely) hanami season, so I sauntered down to
Ueno park to test out the proverb "Hana yori dango". Typically
terse, the literal meaning "Sweet dumpling over flower" is best
interpreted as "The best part of flower-watching is the food".
The sushi I had that day certainly wasn't -- I chose too hastily
and ended up with unpalatable omelette/fried cabbage/dried tofu (!!!)
sushi, dry and tasteless -- but dango themselves aren't bad.
Dango are puffy/doughy balls of rice (mochi) covered with various
sauces; rice being rather tasteless, the end result tastes exactly
like the sauce, so unsurprisingly I liked the ones with bean
paste and disliked the ones dipped in salty teriyaki sauce (at
least that's what it tasted like).
But even more than raw fish and dancing shrimp, there's one dish
that's still considered the ultimate test for gaijin. Even the
mere word is enough to strike fear into the hearts of those who
don't like Japanese breakfast:
For those lucky souls who don't know, nattoo consists entirely of
fermented soybeans. I spent the princely sum of 100 yen on three
boxes of the stuff, and discovered that nattoo not only looks
like fermented soybeans, smells like fermented soybeans, and
acts like fermented soybeans, but tastes like it too. The beans
are brown and mushy, connected by gluey strands, they emit a
distinctly musty smell, and the general effect is that they've been
sitting around the back of the fridge for a few weeks too long.
The taste is difficult to describe, but it's somewhat bitter,
somewhat sweet, has a distinct side taste of coffee beans, and
if the initial impact doesn't get you the aftertaste will.
Thoughtfully, packets of soy sauce and mustard have been included,
so that you can drown out most of the taste. Even with these
condiments all I can do is quote Mr. Horse: "No sir, I did not
But, nattoo aside, I'm starting to like Japanese breakfast.
A bowl of rice, a bit of fish, some pickles, a bowl of miso soup
and a cup of green tea -- oishii! Heats you up, fills you up
and gets you up and going. Plus it's cheap and fast to prepare,
assuming you have some fish left over. Japanese food preparation
has its dangers though. After N years of using sluggish electric
stoves, getting used to the 0-to-100 Celsius acceleration in 6
seconds provided by gas has taken a while. Once I made the
mistake of heating oil in a poorly cleaned pan for a second too
long -- whoosh, the ominous sizzling turned into a roaring
flame! Fortunately, I managed to remember not to dunk the thing
in water and to instead smother the flames with the cover, and
even the fire alarm was dysfunctional enough not to notice the
Enough about food! Hanami is now over, but I have one anecdote
left. Last week I went to get my Alien Registration (yes sirree,
registered alien #128789081 at your service) and, it being another
warm and sunny day, decided to take a detour and check out the
neighboring Zoujouji temple (near Onarimon-eki, Toei Mita-sen).
Off the beaten track and again ignored by tourist guides,
Zoujouji was in immaculate condition and, while not gigantic,
it was large enough to be tranquil even in the middle of urban Tokyo.
It being early morning on a weekday, the place was deserted by
Japanese standards, and with sakura season just ending the temple
grounds were covered in white cherry petals, like snow but warmer.
The temple was beautiful, a white building glittering in the morning
sun, gold, red and smelling of sweet incense inside. Behind
the temple, there were several small gardens with paths meandering
through them, with statues of Kannon and a stupa scattered on
the hill. A textbook-perfect traditional villa was right next to
the temple, evidently a tea house or something along those lines,
but unfortunately it was closed. A somewhat sadder sight was
the long line of tiny Jizo statues on one edge of the temple ground,
each one equipped with a red cap and bib, holding a brightly-colored
plastic windwheel. Every statue represents a dead child or
aborted fetus, whose soul Jizo is helping in the underworld.
I've now been in Tokyo for over a month, and I mean "been in Tokyo"
quite literally: not once had I strayed outside city limits
(even Kawasaki is firmly within the Tokyo-Yokohama urban sprawl).
So this Sunday I decided I had had enough and decided to go check
out another matsuri, this time on Mt. Takao, one hour from Shinjuku
by Keio line train. Getting there was at least one tenth the fun, as
the announcement read between stations was five times as long as usual
and five times more incomprehensible; only at the last chance
did I understand that they were saying the train is going to split
in two, with the first 6 wagons going to Hachioji (not good) and
the last 4 going to Takaosanguchi (good). But I was in wagon 7,
so no problem. For future reference, a train car is "sharyou".
Ignored by all tourist guides (again), Mt. Takao is a popular
excursion spot for Tokyoites and I can see why. Set in a small
nature conservation park, the area reminded me both of Nuuksio
national park in Helsinki, except that -- being on a mountain
in a far more temperate zone -- it was much more "three-dimensional"
and, well, Japanese-looking. While Nuuksio doesn't have any
monkeys, the mascot of both parks is the flying squirrel, not that
I've even seen any at either. A cable car (470 yen a pop, more
than the express from Shinjuku...) runs up the hill and is well
worth taking, since even with it you'll still get to climb plenty.
The matsuri was rather unremarkable, children dressed in bizarre
flourescent neo-traditional clothing and simulated mountain monks
wearing plastic hats marching around backed by a Western-style
marching band and discordant horn blasts, but the views elsewhere
and the taiko performance at the shrine were extraordinary.
Although everything surrounding the area was covered in the usual
noxious haze of pollution, the mountain was high enough to
have appreciably cleaner air and merely being in an authentic
forest after a month of concrete jungles was amazing.
It being a Sunday, a festival day and a particularly nice, sunny and
warm spring day, I was far from the only person present and there
were even a few gaijin prowling around. While there was the
occasional slight traffic jam, the area was positively deserted
by Japanese standards. While the heavily trafficked "main route"
between the cable car and the highest point on the mountain (only
599m, but you get to climb most of it...) was nice, for me the
best part by far was the way down from the top along Personal
Nature Research Route #6. A leisurely 1.5-hour stroll downhill
(I pity the folks slogging it the other way around!), the path
meandered alongside a river, going down the mountainside and into
a valley. The route is utsukushii, and to make you appreciate
it more, the Tokyo Metropolitan Government has installed signs
explaining everything you want to know and more about wonderful
things like telling apart spider species by looking at the
positions of their eyes.
The primary official attraction of this route was a rather small
waterfall accompanied by a small Shinto shrine, where I once again
arrived at the right time. As opposed to his plastic-hatted
wannabe-colleagues in the parade, a real mountain monk (yamabushi)
was performing his water austerities: clad only in loose,
white clothes, the fellow first dumped two buckets of freezing
water over himself, prayed and bowed to most of the numerous
statues present, then walked over to the waterfall and stood under
it. (Actually, the little crevice he went into was not visible
from the roped-off area we tourists were relegated to, but I doubt
the monk was emitting blood-curdling screams just for the fun of it.)
A bit further on were several caves containing yet more statues
of Jizo, who is technically a Buddhist deity, but is considered such
an amiable character that Shintoists have adopted him. The Buddhists
have done the same for Shinto kami as well, and indeed every single
larger temple has a Shinto shrine in one corner. I think most of
the rest of the world could learn a lesson here.
At any rate, I highly recommend checking out Takao-san and taking
route #6 back to the train station. But don't make the mistake
one lady did: she was gingerly making her way uphill clad in
pumps and an expensive-looking white suit. Bad move. The path
is steep, narrow, muddy, filled with gnarled tree roots and at
one memorable point consists solely of wet stepping stones within
a small stream for several hundred meters. Although I managed
the course in sneakers, next time I'll bring my hiking boots.
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