Friday, January 30, 2009

Everyday Food Porn -- Part I

This is the first thing I ate when I got back to Japan. It's a bento (弁当) I bought at Tokyo Station (東京駅).

Each city's main train station sells special bento -- ekiben (駅弁). Since Tokyo Station is the terminal for multpile lines of bullet trains, you can imagine it's ekiben heaven. Everybody grabs one on the way to the platform.

I had my eye on one of those daily special ekiben but it was way too big to carry. My hands were full with cat and cat paraphernalia so I settled on the smaller, old school makunouchi bento (幕の内). It's got grilled salted salmon, some simmered veggies and pickles. The rice in bento often has a red pickled plum right in the middle; it's supposed to remind you of the Japanese flag. When I dug in, I thought to myself,
you're gonna eat really well for the forseeable future!

A bowl of udon in light broth. A bowl of rice with
tempura and sauce. Some pickles. (天丼セット) Simple. Cheap. And amazingly good, especially in winter.

What kind of tempura can you see? I see eggplant (なす), pumpkin (かぼちゃ), shrimp (えび), and Japanese whiting (きす). What? It's a finger-sized white fish perfect for frying.

The afternoon selection
at a bakery
called Pure Dough!
That exclamation point
is not mine;
it belongs to
the name of the shop.

I love going to the fish markets here.
This one thinks he is Steve McQueen.
Make a break for it, guys!

I'm on housework duty for the time being, which means my biggest responsibility is dinner. So far, no disasters. Actually, Yuki made most of the first night's dinner. I took care of last night's.

Miso soup. (Y)

Stir-fried pork belly and cabbage. (Y)

Stir-fried Manila clams with spring onions (me)

This kind of fish is called shiroguchi (しろぐち) or ishimochi (いしもち) in Japanese. It took a bit of googling to find its English name because the poor thing doesn't have a wikipedia page in either English or Japanese...yet.

Anyway, in English you can call it...drumroll...silver jewfish.

Yeah, it needs a better tag. Someone should recommend a rapper name for it.

How do you eat it?

You grill it. And then eat it with some Thai sweet chilli sauce.

Don't forget a veggie dish: bean sprouts with two kinds of mushrooms, enoki (えのき) and shimeji (しめじ).

All this stuff came from the food court at this monster shopping mall in Kameda, Niigata. The place is not yet two years old so everything was super clean.

Ramen (ラーメン) in a soup made from chicken stock. And pot stickers (餃子). The pot stickers are kinda big. I like my Japanese pot stickers small and my Chinese pot stickers oversized.

Picky? Hell yeah!

Curry rice. Bowl of udon with seaweed (わかめうどん). Squid tentacle tenpura (イカゲソ).
Yes, that is a lot of food, expecially for just $7.

I don't go to Micky Dee's in the US on moral grounds but in Japan, I don't mind because the ground has changed.

Yet, I still have standards. I eat just the teriyaki burger.

Thursday, January 29, 2009


Yes, it does exist. And I had forgotten all about it.

Three things you should know about winter in Niigata City:

• the snow here is wet and clumps easily, good for making snowballs

• nobody shovels the sidewalk but when they do shovel, they don't shovel the corner so you walk on solid groud for about 10 seconds and then you end up on treacherous terrain when you want to cross the street. This city, like many in Japan, is filled with the elderly. Why don't they rise up and demand that the city (and its people) shovel the sidewalks?

• you can see lots of rice fields covered in snow

One more point -- and it doesn't necessarily have anything to do with winter. I am really paranoid about getting hit by a car. Because (1) traffic moves in the opposite direction here and (2) there are no sidealks on the side streets. In Dance, Dance, Dance, one of the characters, who happens to be an ex-pat living in Japan, gets hit by a car and dies because he's used to looking left first instead of looking right. That's the word that constantly appears in neon in my mind's eye when I am walking on the street -- RIGHT! That, and Why don't they shovel?

See? No sidewalk.

Ponzu can fly

It didn't start off well.

The night before the flight, I called United to make sure they knew the cat was coming. She would have to travel in the cargo bay since her carrying case was too big for the cabin. No problem. Actually, it looks like pets are not allowed in the cabin on flights to Japan. Oh? It's gonna cost you $210. Right.

At the check-in counter on the day of the flight, we ended up with a staffer who acted like she had never dealth with boarding a pet before. No problem; we had three hours before takeoff. She slooowly checked the reservation, caaaaarefully looked up the price and...what's this? "It's $85 for the cat in the cargo bay."

Of course it is. I paid and then the supervisor came over, took one look at Ponzu's carrying case, and says the cat can't go into cargo. You see, the case used clasps as fasteners, not screws. It's not secure enough for the cargo bay. Of course nobody I had talked to (not the woman on the phone the night before, not the staffer checking us in) knew about screws vs. clasps.

OK. Time for Plan B.

"We'll have to sell you a soft-shell carrying case and you can take your cat on board with you." Hey, Plan B sounded even better. Wait, I thought cats weren't allowed in the cabin on flights to Japan. So, three people got on the computer to find the purchase price for the new case. I looked down at Ponzu, who was not amused being stuck in a rectangular prison. You've got a whole 24 hours of that coming, I thought to myself.

Finally, they found it: $64.95. I paid and the staffer disappeared to retrieve Ponzu's new case. She returned 25 minutes later with the case (a clock on the internet explained that in 25 minutes, in a country with good food and bad infrastructure, a group of hard-working schoolchildren with nimble fingers would have been able to make five of those cases) and my nickel in change. More fussing with the reservation: tags were removed, replaced with new tags. How about the old case? I wanted to take it with me so I asked for it to be checked as luggage. They didn't charge me but made me sign a waiver because it wasn't properly packed (?).

Finally, after about 90 minutes, I was ready to go to security. At security, they asked me to take the cat out and hold it while I walked through the metal detector. The women awwwwed at Ponzu while the cat struggled to get free. The idiots in charge of the conveyor belt flipped her case over, spilling cat food and ice (the vet's suggestion for a long flight) all over the place. So, picture me: shoeless, holding the squirming cat, trying to get the cat food separated from the ice, listening to a lame apology from one security guard, answering another security guard's question about the cat's nail clippers...

With about 20 minutes to go, I got to the gate and thought maybe they would let me board early on account of Ponzu. Instead, they pulled me aside because I didn't have a receipt for the cat (remember, $85). At first, I thought they were trying to tell me the cat needed a boarding pass. But no, it was a receipt they wanted to see. Receipt? No, the lady never gave it to me. Really? Yes, she had to switch the cat from checked luggage to cabin and when she did that, she never gave me the receipt. We'll have to track it down for you sir. Blah. Blah. Blah. She left already? Blah. Blah. Blah. No, the gentleman said he never received it from you. Blah. Blah. Blah. You need to speak to her, sir.

Listen, remember you told me you had to cancel her check-in status? Then, you ripped up this card and made a new one but you never gave me a copy.
I did, sir.
No, you didn't.
Please check, because I did.
I have checked. You didn't give me a copy.
I don't know what to say to you, sir.
OK. I just want to get the cat on the plane. Do I have to pay again? Do I have to come back out to you? Whatever it is, just tell me what I need to do.
You don't have to pay, sir. It is recorded in the computer. You just don't have a receipt.
So I can get on the plane?
Yes, you can get on the plane. I just want you to understand that I gave you the --

At the end of the day, I didn't really care if it had been her mistake or mine (but, you know, it was her mistake, Your Honor), I just wanted to get on the plane with the cat. A basis tenet of customer service is be aware of what concerns your customer the most. At almost every point of the check-in process, United had failed miserably. They spent 20 times more time looking at their computer screens and walking around looking for supervisors than they did assuring me that they would get my cat on the plane. They never said to me, "We'll get this straightened out. We'll get your cat on the plane."

Instead, I heard:
How much is a case? $45? I thought it was $65.
ten minutes of click click click

Why doesn't anybody know about the carrying case regulations?

I just want you to understand that I gave you the --

So, the moral of the story is that nobody at United knows what's going on with pets on flights.

Travel wasn't agreeable with Ponzu but she didn't make a big fuss. I checked on her every hour or so, stratching her head and making sure she knew I was there.

At Narita, the Animal Quarantine people did everything the United people didn't. All those forms I filled out and faxed greased the wheels perfectly. We were in and out of the office in 20 minutes, just enough time for the lady to gasp at how...chubby...Ponzu was when I took her out of her prison.

On the bullet train, it cost 270¥ (about $3) for the cat to ride two hours to Niigata. Once she arrived, she could eat and drink for the first time in about 24 hours. She seems to like the apartment (it has pet doors and a better view) but the cold weather doesn't seem to agree with her. With me either, but it's hard to argue with nature.