Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Giving A Little Cheek

I'll get to food later, but there's other things I'd like to write about first.

What I am about to say is not easy to put into words but it has been very much on my mind recently, so I’m just going to toss it out there. I think Japan is starting to lose a bit of its magic to me.

Before I came here, and even for a good while after arriving, I felt like this was the place for me; that this was were I needed to be in the world. Recently, and especially in the last few weeks, however, I have started to feel that I could be perfectly ok living somewhere else. That maybe I would be better off somewhere else. (My mom will probably do a little dance when she reads those words)

I’ve tried to write out an explanation several times, but my thoughts just come out in a jumble. It’s not just work (though it certainly doesn’t help), there’s much more to it than that. I’ve thought about this a lot recently and obviously still have much more thinking left to do in order to get sort this out.

On a lighter note, the cherry blossoms were in bloom in Tokyo for the past few weeks and I managed to get out and enjoy them a bit. This past weekend aside, the weather has been really cold and overcast, which is hardly ideal weather for enjoying the flowers, but warm clothes and good company go a long way to overcome that. Here are some of my favorite pictures:

And finally, the food. Japanese grocery stores pretty much all carry the exact same cuts of meat and it can be quite difficult to find anything other than the standards. So when I decided I wanted to have a go at cooking pork cheek, I had my work cut out for me. To be fair, it's hardly a typical cut of meat, but I looked all over the place with no luck. Finally, I tried a small South East Asian market in Ueno that I go to from time to time where you can buy all sorts of crazy stuff. In one of the corners is a butcher who sells just about any part of chickens, pigs and cows anyone would ever want to eat (and more that you'd probably prefer to avoid), from basics like chicken breasts and pork tenderloin to the more rare such as cow intestines and blocks of blood. I asked for two cheeks at about $1.25 per 100g, thinking one per person would be a reasonable amount. It came out to a little less than a pound, so less than $5 and the guy toss in a few extra chunks for free. Not bad at all.

I'd read that the best way to cook them was a low, slow braise but couldn't find many recipes, so I just tossed them in a pot with chicken broth, soy sauce, chinese rice wine, a splash of vinegar, a few pinches of brown sugar, a couple of dried chilis and smashed garlic cloves, and a sprinkle of cinnamon. Normally when I do a braise at my place I'll let it go for at least 3 hrs, but that's because I don't pay my utilities bill and don't mind eating dinner at 10pm. This time, however, we were hoping to eat by 8pm plus Yuki has to pay the gas bill for her stove, so I only left it for an hour and a half this time. As it turns out, that was plenty of time and it was soft enough to cut with chopsticks. Freaking awesome. In Japan, the braising meat of choice is usually pork belly, but the amount of fat there is just ridiculous. It just seems wrong to make your main course out of anything that is 2/3 fat... I'm not trying to say pork cheeks are super lean or anything, but they're certainly miles better and, in my opinion taste twice as good anyway. The braising liquid was too delicious to waste and meat + rice hardly constitutes a balanced meal, so I stir fried up some veggies on the side as well, thickening the braising liquid to make the sauce.

Melt-in-your-mouth pork, a little salty, a little sweet. Good stuff. I just wish I had time to cook like this more often...

Saturday, April 3, 2010

Weekend Getaway - Hachijojima

A couple weeks back we had a 3 day weekend, so Yuki and I decided to get out of town for a couple days. We'd actually hoped to go overseas, but tickets to just about everywhere were significantly more expensive than usual. As a compromise, we stayed domestic but went to Hachijojima, an island roughly 200 miles off the coast of Japan.

There are two ways on and off the island: by boat or by plane (actually, helicopter is a third choice, though not particularly realistic). The boat ride takes around 10 hrs, with just one boat in and one boat out each day. The one from Tokyo to Hachijojima departs at midnight and arrives a little before 10am the following morning, so we left on Friday night so that we could get started first thing Saturday morning. For the return leg, we took the plane, which is just a 45 min flight.

Hachijojima is essentially two volcanos that popped up close enough to merge together. The city itself is nestled into the valley between them. By no means should it be mistaken for a resort town; it is mostly residential and definitely not the second-home-on-a-semitropical-island type. In fact, it has no sandy beaches and much of the island is fairly run down. But the nature is pretty good, so we can put that aside.

Just using google earth, it was pretty hard to get a sense of what the terrain was like. Roads ring the two mountains, so we thought at the least we could cruise along those and enjoy the coast line. As it turns out, pretty much everyone rents a car when they visit, which makes sense since a car costs $40/day there and we paid $35 to rent two bikes for a day (not that there was much choice: neither of us has a Japanese driver's license). Let me make this very clear: this island is not bike friendly. AT ALL.

Our first goal was to make our way up one of the mountains. In hindsight (and probably common sense too), trying to go up a mountain on a bike is borderline stupid. We probably ended up walking more than riding. Cars flew by us, with at least a grin on their faces, if not open laughter. I'm sure they were thinking "Those poor stupid bastards", and I can hardly blame them. Still, we stuck with it and, little by little, the town in the valley got smaller and smaller below us.

Most of the way up the mountain, there is a field where they raise cows. What idiot thought it was a good idea to raise cows on a mountain, I don't know. But Yuki really wanted to see them, so we went. These weren't the kind of cows that produce Kobe beef; no beer or massages for these guys. They were just regular old cows that happened to be on a mountain. Their milk is supposed to be really good but I tried it and can assure you it tastes like milk, nothing special. Maybe I missed something...

I had wanted to go up to the caldera at the top of the mountain, but we were pretty much dead already and there was no way we were going to make it the rest of the way. I guess it's something to save for next time. This map gives a pretty good idea of just how far we had gone (we were with the cows).

Making our way up the mountain had be torturous, but going back down was absolutely incredible. The hills were so steep we had to ride the brakes just to keep under control. The sun was out, the weather was warm, and we were flying. I'd rank it in my top 5 best things since coming to Japan, no joke.

Once we finally reached the bottom, we cruised along the coast for a couple of miles. There was almost nobody else around and the scenery was beautiful. There wasn't anything particularly stunning about it, it was just all very calming.

After a long and tiring day out, we finally made it back to our hotel. Actually, hotel probably isn't the right word to describe it, but it wasn't really a resort either. It was sort of like a really large house, with several private rooms, a shared bathroom, and a big dining room. On Hachijojima, almost anywhere you stay provides breakfast and dinner (probably because there aren't many restaurants to go to otherwise). The place we stayed was run by a middle aged man who cooked up a pretty respectable dinner as well. He was also a diver and pictures he had taken while out diving were placed all over the dining room.

A crazy storm hit on the morning of the second day, which would have been awful except that we had reservations for a diving course, one of the few things that you could do given the weather. Though the storm whipped up the sand a bit and limited our visibility a little, it was really quite cool. I enjoyed it enough that I'm actually considering going out and getting the full diving certification some time...

The weather cleared up shortly after we finished diving and it was pretty clear for the rest of the day. We hopped on a bus (there is one route, with one bus per hour, and costs as much as a trip all the way across Tokyo) and headed to the other side of the island to soak in the hot springs a bit. Afterwords, we were checking out some of the local landmarks, one of which is by far the coolest hot spring I have ever seen. It's owned by the local government and is coed, so you wear a swimsuit in it (unfortunately Yuki had forgot hers at the hotel, so we just looked). The awesome thing about it was the location; it's pretty much on the side of a cliff, with waterfalls falling to either side of it. Mind you, they aren't big huge roaring waterfalls, just little gentle ones, but the sound of falling water adds a whole new level of relaxation to the hot spring experience.

Not far from the hot spring was a waterfall that showed up on several of the guide booklets, so we thought we'd check that out too. To get to it, we had to hike on a winding trail a good ways off the road, but again were greated by more great nature. Again, nothing jaw dropping or anything like that, just natural, beautiful, and calming.

To keep things interesting, we'd booked a different place to stay for the second night and arrived just before dusk. Because of the storm, the morning flights and the boat line to the island for the day had been cancelled. Our room was supposed to be on the inland side of the hotel facing the mountain, but we suspect that they had some better rooms that were no longer filled since their occupants couldn't make it to the island. Which would explain how instead we ended up with a corner room with a view of the ocean. 50 ft from our window. Score.

We were on the morning flight back to Tokyo, but we woke up to catch the sunrise (our room faced East) and walk around a bit. One of the coolest things about the hotel was a path that lead right down to the water. There was a little bench there to sit and just take it all in.

I managed to catch a couple more pictures of the island from the plane as we were taking off as well.

Our two days on Hachijojima involved a lot of walking/hiking/biking and were pretty tiring physically, but it was nice to get out of Tokyo and enjoy a little nature. It helps calm me down, reflect, and put things in perspective.