|THE BUDS ARE OUT IN ICHINOSEKI, NORTHEAST JAPAN|
One of my sisters just read that if you spit in temperatures well below zero degrees, it will freeze below it hits the ground. I was in a massive fish freezer at minus 60°C (–76°F) recently, but couldn't very well test that theory in such a hygienic location.
The picture above could be of buds on a plum, cherry or apricot tree in Japan. No one in the group could tell me for sure. No matter; it was pretty and brings me comfort after some of the things I saw on my trip to northeastern Japan.
The visit was quite an experience. As expected, the schedule was packed but it was colder than I thought it would be. Thankfully, it didn't snow as had been forecast. I can't give details here or post any pictures of the places I visited until after my report comes out in print (on March 11, the anniversary of the tsunami), but I can talk about the more light-hearted matter of food.
We get in at Narita in the early morning but it's an almost two-hour bus ride to the hotel in downtown Tokyo. Check-in isn't until the afternoon, so we leave out luggage and walk around the nearby shops to look for a place to eat. We come upon a little place, a working man's joint, where you order and pay through a vending machine, pass the ticket to the man behind the counter, tell him whether you want soba or udon and he prepares the bowl of soupy ramen for you.
|Ramen soup for breakfast|
I made my choice based solely on the picture in the window since everything was in Japanese. I couldn't tell what the garnish on top was but it sure looked good. Turned out it was some sort of omelette, actually more like a puffy pancake, with loads of chopped spring onion (green onion) mixed in. A sprinkling of Japanese chilli flakes on top and I set to it hungrily. It was absolutely delicious. There was no spoon, so I held the bowl in both hands and tipped the last bits of noodles and broth into my mouth.
The mall was already opened by then and I walked around alone while the others shopped. But then I came upon the floor at the Keio Department Store in Shinjuku where they sold all the kitchen stuff and was so amused by all the gadgets and cute kitschy stuff with its ironic appeal that the Japanese are so good at. I got myself a ceramic paring knife and a stove-top sandwich maker, which deserves a blog post all its own!
|Yakitori for lunch|
I wasn't exactly hungry at lunchtime, but since there was still time to kill and we were too tired to walk around some more, we decided to go into a narrow alley between the big shops where there was a row of little eateries offering grilled skewered chicken (yakitori) along with the kidney, liver, gizzard, skin, wing tips, cartilage and some "spare parts" we couldn't identify. We had the skewers in a sauce (top) and cooked with salt. The sides were grilled green beans (delicious), green peppers, pickled bamboo shoots and strips of lotus root and carrot. I wasn't sold on the offal but the actual flesh of the chicken was excellent.
The next morning, we took the bullet train to Sendai and then to Ichinoseki, and hopped on the organiser's bus to their field office. Since the schedule was so packed, we bought our lunches at a Lawson convenience store (love this chain and wished I had had more time so that I could do a whole story on it for my newspaper!) to eat on the bus, while we were given the briefing for the visit at the Kesennuma Fishery Co-operative (with the aforementioned freezer) 1½ hours away. I got a pork teriyaki bento but didn't remember to take pictures of it. It was very good.
|Prawn tempura for dinner|
That night, we had dinner the restaurant of Kura Hotel, where we stayed. We knelt before low tables and experienced Japanese-style dining. Rice is grown in this area and people eat a lot of it here. Although I was hungry, I just couldn't finish the huge portion of rice that came with the deep-fried breaded prawn set. Those were three of the biggest prawns I had seen in a while!
The next morning, we were off to Minami Sanriku by the sea. It's a week shy of seaweed harvesting season, but I was one of the few in the group who had the opportunity to go on a boat to where the seaweed is grown to see how the harvesting is done. Very cold, but what an experience!
|Taste-testing salads and a soup made with fresh seaweed; bottom right: the seaweed tips|
While we were gone, some of the ladies who work in the processing plant had been busy preparing fresh wakame dishes for us, and there were a couple of salads and hot soup waiting when we got back to shore. The salads were pretty simple, dressed with salt, sugar, fresh ginger and vinegar, but so, so delicious. The salad made with the tips of the seaweed (the lighter green one in the top picture) was slightly slimy (like okra), but not at all unpleasant.
|Chicken katsu for lunch|
The last sit-down meal was lunch that day. The meal was pre-ordered for us, but I was not disappointed with the breaded chicken cutlet, served with salad, mayonnaise and tofu soup.
I had my final "meal" in Japan the next morning at the airport – a Green Tea Kit Kat!