Japan

Just home from an epic three-generation family ramble through the Ancestral Homeland. Organized by my mom, 19 of us–aunts, uncles, cousins, grandparents, friends–started in the hectic frenzy of Tokyo and made our way by bus, car, foot and bullet train on through Nagoya, Kyoto, Miyajima (pictured above) and Hiroshima. What an experience. The country mice from Bainbridge were blown away by the sheer volume of humanity, pace and size of Tokyo (below). And we found quiet, gorgeous settings more like home as well, in Miyajima, Kyoto, and other places along the way.

Too many individual experiences to list, but visits to the Tsukiji Fish Market in Tokyo and Nishiki Market in Kyoto, making okonomiyaki (a kind of savory Japanese crepe-omelet sort of thing) in Hiroshima, hiking up Monkey Mountain to commune with our more distant relatives, a whitewater boat trip, and watching Skyla shopping for a kimono with my mom, all stand out. We also spent a great day fishing the saltwater flats east of Nagoya (more on that in a coming post) with our friend Hisashi Suzuki.

For me, though, it was the day-to-day excellence of the food that really blew my mind. From high-end sushi (above) to the greatest katsu in the world, to simple bowls of ramen in a back alley of Shibuya (below), everything we ate ranged from great to excellent to top-10-meal-of-all-time status. In spite of averaging about 15,000 steps per day in hot, humid weather, I gained seven pounds in 15 days!

But even more than the sights, and yes, even more than the food, was the experience of watching my mom introduce her grandchildren to Japan (that’s the three of them settling into the bullet train for a 170mph cruise to Nagoya). And the time we spent traveling together with friends and family. I think we all made a lot of lifetime memories. Thanks, Mom!

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New Year’s Feast

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We had a mouth-watering Japanese New Year feast, or oshogatsu, at my mom’s house to kick off 2014. And what a feast it was! Of course, it took my mom the better part of three days to cook it all, with a little assistance from us on the morning of, but the result is a meal we’ll all remember for a long time.

These foods are a combination of unbelievably delicious flavors, along with traditional symbolic meanings of good health, long life, fertility, fortune, etc for the coming year. If the symbolic results are doled out based on quantity consumed, I think I’m in for a great year. Some of my favorites pictured here are chawan mushi, a light, silky seafood custard with shiitake mushrooms (potentially one of the three best things you can ever eat), cucumber sunomono with fresh octopus in a light rice vinegar dressing, inari sushi packed with soy-seasoned chicken, toasted sesame seeds, shittakes and rice in a tofu skin, nigiri sushi featuring tuna, yellowtail, shrimp and other treats, kimpira gobo–an earthy, seasoned dish of burdock root, fresh Dungeness crab… My uncle took one bite of inari sushi, made according to his mother’s recipe, and closed his eyes, saying, This tastes like I’m sixteen again.

So…mix all the fantastic flavors with nostalgia, tradition, symbolism, and well…it’s easy to get carried away. Half way through the meal I realized I didn’t have any pictures, and I jumped up and snapped the one above, showing our half-eaten meal. Then I sat back down and ate another four helpings of everything. Mom topped it all off with her mother’s brown-sugar-crumble-topped apple pie. Not exactly an old Japanese tradition, but rather one from just our own family. Thank you, Mom.  I can’t think of anything better. Happy New Year!