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Monday, July 28, 2008


The French are both exotic and fascinating.

Matching Japanese style purse and shoes in a kimono shopI went to Japan Center ( this weekend on a sort of reconnaissance mission, primarily aimed at figuring out what I will need to recognize at Japanese supermarkets when I have a chance to visit Japan later this year.

My ideal would be an arrangement like Steven and I had in Paris: I was inexplicably familiar with two major Parisian gourmet food stores prior to our arrival in Paris, and insisted upon visiting them early in our trip. During the visit, I stocked up on all sorts of treats, from juices and fruit soft drinks to roasted eggplant spreads, olives, and chocolate bars. After a long day of sightseeing, when we had already eaten out twice during the day and I just wanted to have a bath and relax, we would pick up a fresh loaf of bread from a bakery (or, if he wouldn't sit still, I would send Steven out to procure a loaf), and we would sit in our room and enjoy a sort of gourmet picnic dinner in our bathrobes. We always had the makings of a light meal, complete with a tasty beverage, bread spreads, snacks, and dessert.

It was luxurious. Especially as a respite from all of the smokers we encountered in restaurants. I would love to have a similar set-up while we are staying in Kyoto.

Back in 1992, I hadn't been so good at fancy advanced food planning, and so I had several minor disasters, generally associated with eating things that made me sick because they weren't vegetarian. There was the elaborate crab and sashimi meal in Sendai, which, while lovely to look at and surely a tribute to my bravery, made my stomach make crying sounds through much of the night, and made me quite queasy. There was the rahmen restaurant, which made me very sick because it had some sort of pork broth (and not a miso broth, or even a miso-and-fish broth, which would not have harmed me so very much). Luckily, I only ate a small amount of that. And there were those breakfasts at some of the youth hostels that involved whole smoked fish, soup, and rice. I remember nibbling on the side of a fish briefly, as it stared up at me with its dried, vacant eyes... [sound of sobbing] I had quite a bit of soup and rice that morning. And tea. So very much tea.

There were a wide range of meals that worked out a bit better. The meals from the faux-German/French bakery in Kyoto worked out well. One oddity: a potato salad sandwich!! It was a sweet roll with a scoop of potato salad in the middle (the kind with mayo and sweet peppers). I had many of those, along with pastries. There was the Indian place in an underground mall in Osaka, with unusual naan and tasty, not-the-Indian-I-know veggie entrees, where I blissfully ate my fill. (Ordering Indian food in English in Japan is... tricky.) There was the pizza place in Kobe, where I believe I managed to avoid corn pizza. There was the "Italian" place in Nara, which... was completely unique, and had me picking sliced cold cuts off of my plate of spaghetti. There was the fabulous odofu meal with my pen friend and her associates... And there were a few meals when I ate ebi tempura in train stations, or okinomiyaki (which I couldn't actually eat, as I quickly learned), or even "lunch" at an American chain ice cream shop, just because I was sure I couldn't do better. That was when I could still digest shrimp. I'm reasonably certain I can't do that now.


Japanese foreign design booksMy first stop was Kinokuniya Books, which always has a fabulous selection of culturally significant products. The fashion magazines adorned with all of those non-Japanese models are really peculiar!!

There were a variety of photo books about French style, showing French people at home, with their modern French furniture, wearing French sweaters, eating French food... There was a sort of documentary/lifestyle combination approach, where I was supposed to be fascinated by the way the French lived... But I really couldn't see it. I loved Paris, but... It wasn't all that exotic to me. But it is to someone. Which is nice, I suppose.

There was a book about Danish "love apartments," which I was hoping about some sort of "love-hotel"-type fetish I was heretofore unaware of, but it was really just a book of photos of small apartments that couples share. (Say it with me: awwwwww.)

There were a series of design books containing paper/textile pattern sample, which were very interesting, especially the ones that purported to be "Japanese" or "Scandinavian," but which could really have been produced anywhere. Those books came with CDs of the patterns as both PDFs and JPEGs: you could print the patterns out using a color printer onto paper or 'inkjet' fabric, and then use the small prints for craft projects around the house.

Both the bookstore and the Kinokuniya Gift stationery shop had large displays of "Japanese wrapping cloths," plus books on how to use them to wrap various objects in a Japanese style. (I was tempted to buy some, before remembering that I don't really wrap things, and that I am, in fact, going to Japan later this year, and will probably have a wider selection there.)

The bookstore had a dining guide that covered Osaka, Kyoto, and Kobe: it listed hundreds of restaurants, literally hundreds... But could only come up with five in the entire region that were vegetarian friendly. None appeared to be in Kyoto.



I had lunch at Mifune ( so I wouldn't hit the grocery store hungry. I had a delicious platter of zaru cha soba: buckwheat noodles with green tea added to them, which was served with a dipping sauce, green onions, grated radish, wasabi, and green tea. I also ordered something I had thought was sacrilegious: flavored sake. Lychee sake was on the menu. I love lychee; I love sake. How could this be wrong?

Aside from the oddity of having anything at Mifune arrive in a martini glass, it was a really good choice: it tasted REALLY good. I don't know what brand it was; I don't know where it came from; but it was really yummy. As yummy as soju drinks I have with lychee in them. I may have to find some of this bottled, somewhere.


Then came the grocery store. I knew it wasn't a gourmet place, I knew it wouldn't be like the snooty Paris places I had been to for gourmet goodies for our hotel room. But... It was still rather distressing, how un-veg-oriented the place was. Fish, fish, fish... Japan is an island with a seafaring culture, and it shows in the incredible range of things that have fish in them. Golly. I picked up a range of fresh things from the deli area, most of which were seaweed, a range of pickles (I LOVE picked daikon radish!), some steamed veggies, a package of organic nama (raw) miso (without fish added), some packages of seaweed specifically to add to miso soup, some organic edamame (frozen), a bunch of different types of mochi (sweet glutinous rice desserts, generally filled with bean paste), some Pocky sticks, some cookies, a few rice crackers, fried tofu (also organic)...

The reception at home for these items was wary. Some of these items will not be finished. I think some of my strategy in Japan, when faced with smaller supermarkets or convenience stores, will be to stock up on drinks (especially soy milk, when available - I will have to keep note of the characters before heading over), fresh fruit, and non-shrimp crackers (I can re-learn the character for ebi, and thus remember to avoid it).

I'm also hoping that good advance research will tip me off as to where I can buy things that will hold us through the night on those evenings when we don't have the energy to go out to eat.

But I have high hopes that one of Japan's centers for "shojin" vegetarian cuisine can deliver some spectacular meals. My fear is that we will go broke getting them, considering both the weakness of the dollar and the price of meals at Buddhist shrines.

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posted by Arlene (Beth)12:10 AM

Saturday, June 30, 2007

  Fresh lychees! My officemate recently brought in a bag of fresh lychees, and I got jealous: why don't I live near a shop that sells fresh lychee?

My local green grocer, just 4 blocks from my house, put out a box of lychee this weekend. Of course.

I bought about 20, and now want to go back for more. They're perhaps the only fruit I've tasted that is completely identical to the canned version of themselves. Even fresh, they are tender and taste like they've been boiled in light syrup.


posted by Arlene (Beth)10:55 PM

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