HESO Magazine

Photography, Music, Film, Hitchhiking, Craft Beer – Cultural Pugilist

Category: Japan (Page 1 of 7)

The Nature of Wabi-Sabi I

The Nature of Wabi-Sabi I

“In the Perfected Mahayana – everything, every speck of dust even, can be seen as conditioned arising. Thus even in a hair there are innumerable golden lions.”- Tractate of the Golden Lion — Fazang

My friend Tomohiro once asked me why I was living in Japan, “You not married, don’t have girlfriend, not getting paid shit-ton cash like finance assholes, have no real prospects, kind of smell bad…so why you come to Japan…for the sushi?”

“Tomo, I’m seeking satori…duh.”

“You drink too much beer for satori. Even you run bar you drink all the profit, so why you wanna be Buddhist?”

Actually I get this question a lot. Japanese people are curious about an outsider’s views on what makes Japan attractive. Occasionally whomever it is I’m talking to continues the conversation with another whopper of a mystical/metaphysical/meaning-of-life type of question like, “Can you use chopsticks?” or “Wow, you sure are good at using chopsticks!”

I nod imbecilically and smile, saying, “Chinese food everywhere in America!” while adding, “Oscar Wilde said that when given a choice between going to heaven and attending a lecture on heaven, an American would attend the lecture. Because quoting Oscar Wilde to people, especially in Japanese, gets awkward quickly, the subject changes rather quickly as well.

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Sushi American Style

Sushi American Style

Saucy and Deep-fried, that’s how I like my sushi.

Sushi’s expensive, so I look for something filling, like the Colossal Roll.

I don’t like the taste of seaweed, and they don’t have soy wrappers here–I don’t know why–so I get the inside-out caterpillar: lots of avocado!

— Typical statements heard at sushi bars all over the United States.

The fact that sushi is considered by many to be a “health food” makes one think about the current state of health in the U.S. Supposing that rice and fish–buried as they are in deep-fried, oil-soaked batter and spicy mayo–are healthier than hormone-filled CAFO-lot raised beef burgers is not completely crazy, especially if it’s the average American middle class citizen making the assumption. Consumers are seeking new food choices and quality appears to be chief among desires. Yet as the desire for better food makes economic headway in the market, we must also look to biological reasons as to why a cuisine as simple and delicious as Japanese style sushi got Turduckened into Franken-roll Sushi American Style.

Sushi American Style

Anago Nigiri - Simmered Sea Eel on Sushi Rice with Ginger Shoot

Anago Nigiri – Simmered Sea Eel on Sushi Rice with Ginger Shoot

Japanese style sushi is all about the fish. Less about roll-sushi and more about nigiri. Forget the overbearing sauce and taste the subtle flavors of vinegar and fresh raw fish, be they the upfront oily aji to the smooth, buttery sake or the creamy, oleaginous maguro or even the slightly sweet ama-ebi and anago, there are a vast frontier of undiscovered tastes within the world of Japanese sushi, each so exquisitely slight that to oversauce, or in the case of much of the rest of the world–to freeze anything that is harvested from the sea–is to destroy that delicate polish from a discerning palate.

In its own inverse way to the American version, it too is about size. But rather than an 8-piece roll deep-fried and doused in syrupy soy-based sauce, Japanese style sushi, what is called Nigiri-zushi, is really about the process of enjoying life’s small pleasures to the fullest.

Sushi American Style

Bitchin’ Roll – King Crab, Avocado & Cream Cheese – Deep Fried

Bitchin Roll – Deep Fried Sushi

The western most sushi restaurant in North America, Harbor Sushi combines the best of traditional Japanese sushi & pub food with an American edge. The Bitchin Roll–with fresh Alaskan King Crab, avocado, cream cheese rolled up, tempura fried, and topped with a sweet Unagi sauce–is a great example of that.

But let’s not misunderstand what’s going on. We are taking very delicate fresh seafood ingredients, wrapping them up in flavored rice and seaweed, slathering them in a tempura style batter, and deep frying them in 350 degree vegetable oil for 2.5 minutes until the cream cheese starts to melt. I didn’t actually eat one until I was pretty much black out drunk. By that time it was cold. But I ate three. Three Rolls. COld. Semi-soggy. They were still awesome. I did feel guilty the next day when I managed to remember it all.

To be clear, this style of “sushi” represents a kind of life that, despite my past, I no longer lead, so it is hard to come to grips with the shear sales that deep fried sushi generates. My purer inner self wants to take it off the menu and offer a crispy autumn leaf and barley tea instead with a dry winter twig for teeth cleaning. I cannot fathom the kind of person who goes into a sushi restaurant–sober mind you–and orders something like this willingly, thinking that they are getting anything like a traditional sushi experience. But maybe that’s the secret. It’s nothing like traditional. An even if it were, 1) they wouldn’t know and 2) they probably wouldn’t like it at all…So fuck it, enjoy.

Hitchhiking in Japan - Beautiful Strangers

Hitchhiking in Japan – Beautiful Strangers

Summer in Japan means hitting the festival circuit. The best way to do this is gliding along in the cool comfort of the air-conditioned shinkansen, then taxi-ing to the local Four Seasons and hanging out by the poolside bar for an hour or so, before eventually being whisked past security backstage to listen to the band in their chill room. But if you’re not doing as well under Abe-Nomics as the news says you should be, then you might consider doing the pilgrim’s trail. Become a watarimono (渡り者) — be the wanderer. Which is easy since you’re unemployed. One of the best things about being funemployed and hitchhiking in Japan is meeting people. Meeting people offers an opportunity to explore deeper within the human psyche, but also means plenty of ride opportunities for the adventurous hitchhiker to see the undiscovered country. Here are a few things to keep in mind if you should choose to go the road (more or) less traveled.

Hitchhiking in Japan – Beautiful Strangers

The first rule in hitchhiking is that there are no rules. Approaching the road with a concrete set of values is the same as being a rigid oak tree during a typhoon: you end up lying prone and wet on the side of the road (Don’t Panic! Bring a towel, just in case).

Tokyo is exciting and glittery and full of great people, but it’s a big city, and as big cities go they are pretty much the same all across the world. Like Mary Schmich famously said, “Live in New York City once, but leave before it makes you hard. Live in Northern California once, but leave before it makes you soft. Travel.” So, leave behind the shambles of a hard winter and travel, expand outward into the countryside, not expecting anything at all.

It’s at these times, when you least expect it, as they say, that things tend to happen. You wander around nameless back country roads surrounded by rice paddies. Exhausted by the heat, you seek solace in things. You go into strange cafes and order something you have never tried before. You wander into antique shops and peruse the esoterica of different cultures and ages. You open doors to restaurants you can’t read the name of and eat and drink strange and delicious things. You meet people. The inevitable eye contact, the nod and smile. No expectations.

Let’s just have a drink together and you can tell me all about this place you call your town. Ok?

Ok.

By the way, I’m doing this project, do you mind if I take your photo…? I hope you don’t mind.

Well…

Don’t worry about it…this light is very flattering.

If you insist.

I insist we get some sushi and beers.

Yes, let’s.

Or something like that. You talk and drink and eat. But sometimes it goes further. There is an intimacy that can arise between strangers that is so sincere and open as to restore your faith in humanity over nothing more than edamame & Sapporo drafts. Granting personal access to yourself gives you access to these beautiful strangers and the secrets of their own weird trips. They open up, they smile and act coy, they hide and seek, they pose and croon in awe, they trust you and open up their humanity and you reciprocate. All you do is try to show that honest power inherent in every molecular flicker of energy swirling around the galaxy trying to make sense of all the infinite range of motion in life. You do your best.

No expectations.

Part of the Hitchhiking Japan Series. Read more here:

Hitting the Tokaido Road

Hitchhiking Japan – Hitting the Road

Hitchhiking Japan – Hitting the Tokaido Road

Hitchhiking Japan – Hitting the Tokaido Road

Hitchhiking Japan – Hitting the Tokaido Road is easier with cardboard signs

It has to be said that spring is one of the best times to travel in Japan. April and May when the trees are in bloom and the weather is fine, hitting the road is like a dream come true. Setting out on a trip, everyone has high hopes for what will come. Why else would you go? But hitchhiking is not your average trip. And as the sun so surely sets in the west, the most concrete of plans is sure to change. Truth is, like a Woody Allen comedy of errors, after a while you’re ready for the unexpected. Expectations lower as they are thwarted time and again by numerous unforeseen obstructions: the weather, foreign language mishaps, untimely construction delays. Once you step outside the strictly regulated system society has put in place in the best interest of all, you become an anomaly, a joke– a circus freak. On average you will be laughed, stared and pointed at, and arbitrarily discounted, turned away and possibly even injured at worst. Best case scenario — you get a ride from a kindly stranger for a little while. The unexpected becomes the norm, the best you can hope to expect. The person or people who help you along the way are the exception rather than the rule, and in doing so are themselves living vicariously through you. But that’s where the fun lays: being the one with nothing to lose and everything to gain.

Day One:

Hitchhiking Japan – Hitting the Tokaido Road

Hitchhiking is about resilience, resourcefulness and rebounding from failure

It starts with failure, quicker than usual. Woke up late…Missed the first train…Got off at the wrong stop…Couldn’t find the Parking Area…Wandered around a shitty little nowhere town in sweltering heat wasting the day. This time the attitude is wrong from the beginning and it’s easy to see early on that it’ll take a massive ego blow to balance the weight of immediate miscalculation. Worse even, this is hubris. Why am I missing the point of the trip – which is that The Trip is the Journey, not the Destination. This is whatever power that is – Siva comes to mind – laughing and smashing the D.I.Y. arrogance of malappropriate certitude. But at least this too, as with all things, will dull with time, albeit with a fatter asterisk than usual. It must be noted that, though it does count toward character building, this does not feel like an auspicious beginning. Thank the gods I am unemployed.

As it turned out, it was the wandering of the outskirts of a lonely little outlet mall (Japan, stop carbon-copying America!) in ex-urban Tokyo for two hours vainly trying to penetrate the military grade fencing surrounding the Highway Interchange onramp toll area, that convinced me I was actually on the right track. Maybe not literally the right road, but I had the right idea: I gave up. Giving up the physical reality of my psychological projections made me realize that my expectations needed to be adjusted way down. Why beat myself up myself over nothing? Why all the crazy made-up monologues in my head driving me onward? Empty the head and be free to get truly lost.

I turned and padded my way back the two kilometers to the train station in the late afternoon Saturday sunlight ignoring all the imaginary tssking from the indifferent drivers and their would be disappointment. Not this day. I decided that would punish myself by alternating exercise and beer until the next day’s dawn when I would drop the images of myself a fully fanned peacock, a stag in rut, a panther in the Jacaranda trees at sunrise, undeniable, ineffable, impeccable to the future, naysayers powerless to dissuade my mounting of the road, my hunt of covering more than the 1000 kilometers from Tokyo to Kyoto and from Kyoto to beyond, hopefully some of it actually along the old Tokaido road.

But that's where the fun lays: being the one with nothing to lose and everything to gain. Click To Tweet

Hitchhiking Japan – Hitting the Tokaido Road

Hitchhiking Japan – Hitting the Road

It is almost impossible to leave Tokyo – so brightly does the night sparkle with distractions

Pre-dawn Tokyo. The last shambles of drunk office workers fall out of shuttering bars in rumpled suits as the first trains of the day begin to rumble out of their caves. It is a magical gravity that keeps the bowlegged drunks from toppling from platform to tracks. Early as it is the Tokyu Den-en-toshi line from Shibuya is not so crowded and I find a seat as it rises southwesterly from the subterranean depths to run through the city surface. Movement makes the passing buildings more interesting, but the first smattering of light does little for the colorless avenues populated by more than the standard allotment of ill-lit grey Tokyo suburbia and banal corrugated office space. The dreary facades, like the ear-splitting mosquito buzz slicing apart the neon-tinged silence of the early morning, do serve a purpose, I still have no idea as to what.

As the crowd thins from business people and school children to shopping cart grannies and bored retirees a silence pervades and sleepy heads sway in time with the lurching of the train. I laugh to myself that the quickest way to hitchhike out of Tokyo is to take the train. The best place to catch a ride is where the drivers are, and that is Service Areas (サービスエリア, SA) or Parking Areas (PA) on the large toll expressways or Kōsokudōro (高速道路). As it is almost impossible to get a ride to these parking areas, so you take a train to the station closest to a PA, walk from the bustling station area along the busy streets which eventually give way to hills of suburban homes and flats of pastoral rice paddies. The walk–silently informing you on basic Japanese civic planning– is otherwise peaceful if you let it be. Pay no mind to the oversize vehicles speeding along undersize roadways, nor the huge electrical transformers overhead, they mean you no harm.

Transferring at Nagatsuta to the Yokohama line and arriving at Takaichiba Station, set out northeast and eventually you have to cross a river and go under the Tomei Expressway overpass. You will end up walking along the north side of the expressway which abuts a neighborhood that seems to come to a deadend just before reaching a pedestrian staircase that crosses over the expressway. Continuing in the same direction the road winds right as Kitahassaku Park rises along the rear parking / delivery area for the large Family Mart shopping / dining mall. Though there is a fence, there should be an gate, which if not open, is easily traversed and leads to the sidewalk toward the shopping center and voila you are on the PA!

Grab some goodies and supplies at the Family Mart (if you haven’t already brought enough to see you through) and start making your sign. Did you bring a your copy of Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance? What about a map? A big permanent marker? If not, buy one here and ask the clerk for a sizable piece of cardboard, which might draw questionable stares, but most will point you toward a large pile on the side of the store. Putting a far off final destination may land you a lucky ride but will more than likely exclude you from the majority of the drivers that are only going part of the way toward Kyoto, Osaka, Kobe and beyond Kansai. Unless you are an expert in Japanese calligraphy, asking the convenience store clerk to aid you in kindly writing the kanji for your final destination will likely be the easiest way to accomplish the task of attracting attention to your journey’s desires. In order to get the highest number of rides possible (thus increasing opportunity for great experiences), it’s a good idea to write something like “日本語できます!” “Can Speak Japanese!” This will cause a lot of curious drivers to pull up and ask you where you’re going, as well as giving you an opportunity to approve the ride from outside the car. It’s a long ride to Kyoto, but if you start early, it can be fun to break up the day with multiple drivers. Keeping in mind that success is only partially measured in reaching the final destination, as well as how the ride goes along the way, can play a large part in determining where you land.

Resources:

Hitchwiki – International Hitchhiking Information Hub
Hyperdia – National Train Schedule
The Temple Guy’s Walk on the Tokaido

Part of the Hitchhiking Japan Series. Read more here:

Hitchhiking in Japan – Beautiful Strangers

Honke Owariya - Best Soba in Kyōto

Honke Owariya – Best Soba in Kyōto

The Soba War

Honke Owariya - Best Soba in Kyōto

A Slice of Seasonal Heaven – Roasted Duck (鴨せいろ)

Visualize if you will, a spry young man in his work kimono, made of an easy to clean light fabric, walking down the dirt-paved roads of the old capital Kyōto to the clickety-clackety of hundreds of Japanese sandal-wearing passers-by as they go about their daily business. He smiles and nods to his acquaintances while the deciduous trees rain orange and red fires of leaves all around. With a wave of the hand, a quick konnichiwa to his neighbors, and a right turn past the entrance curtains our man enters his shop. A small storefront with a tiny garden pond to the left and a backroom for kneading, mixing and baking makes up the modest shop, all separated by the thinnest of rice-paper shoji sliding doors, yet somehow keeping the cool autumn breeze from disturbing the still sun-dappled air of the fine-milled flours and powdered sugars floating like benevolent ancestral ghosts around the confectionery. The year is 1465 in Nakagyo-ward, just south of the grounds of the Emperor’s palace, and you have entered Honke Owariya, which although new, has quickly become one of the favored shops of the imperial family. Sadly the Ōnin War, which will begin in just two short years and will last ten, destroys most of the city, scatters the population, and renders the emperor powerless: not exactly auspicious timing.

Maybe our man hides out until after the war, all the while perfecting his deliciously sweet an (餡) paste, the emperor’s favorite mochi (餅) and the traditional jellies of tokoro ten (ところ天). Maybe an influential member of the emperor’s cortege comes calling telling you His Highness really loves simple fare, like Soba and should you decide to take advantage of the large natural water table upon which the city lies (thanks to its beneficial situation in the Yamashiro basin of the Tanba Highlands) to extend your talented hand into making the best dashi soup stock around, your legacy might still be around in the year 2000. Thankfully that or something like that is exactly what happened, which is why we still have Honke Owariya, arguably the oldest restaurant in Kyōto- which would likely make it the oldest in Japan- 544 years later.

Honke Owariya - Best Soba in Kyōto

Monks always say: 壊れてもいないものを直すべからず (If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it).

When you are invited by the family to stay at the restaurant itself, and they casually drop that it was established in 1465, your mind begins to go numb. These kinds of numbers don’t mean anything to Americans. 544 years of uninterrupted service means that they had already been serving soba for more than 300 years by the time the thirteen British colonies got off their lazy arses and decided to unify into the U.S.A. The soup I was slurping was older than my own country’s constitution, and much more delicious, which made me wonder, 1) just exactly who are these soba-mongers? and 2) what’s the difference between their product and the stuff you buy at the store?

That first talented young patisserie chef who came from Nagoya along with some members of the imperial family, worked hard to turn the shop from strictly sweets to the soba du jour. Generally considered an everyman’s dish, fit for laymen as well as for a king- the initial proprietor Denzaemon (でんざえもん)- as has been named every master behind the Owariya (尾張屋) symbol- has passed down the recipe alongside the name from father to son since the end of the Muromachi and into the Edo period, until today. While the building itself has changed over that time, the shop has been located on the same soil- despite war, fire, and other misfortunes which prevailed upon a Japan still searching for its national identity during the violence of the 15-19th centuries- since 1465. Only open for lunch, the current establishment- a multi-leveled wooden building which can seat over 50 guests comfortably, and located down a sleepy side-street near the Karasuma-Oike subway station- has been in use since the early part of last century, the 1920s or 30s. Barring another civil war, a massive fire, an earthquake of great magnitude, a genealogical dry spell or any other potential disaster already having occurred in the storied history of Kyōto (Mothra’s Revenge perhaps?), the current incarnation could be around for another five hundred years.

Honke Owariya – Best Soba in Kyōto

Honke Owariya - Best Soba in Kyōto

As an apprentice this is as grandiose as his day gets

But what exactly is soba? According to Owariya, soba “are thin grey noodles made from sobako, or buckwheat flour.” Depending on which area of Japan you live, they range in percentages of purity from 100% juu-wari inaka-soba (Nagano) to mixtures containing various wild mountain yams, green tea and even mugwort. It ranges from the traditional kaiseki-esque 500 + year-old stuff of Owariya (who do an excellent sobazushi by the way) all the way to small shacks serving bowls of the stuff as fast, cheap food for businessmen who don’t have five minutes to sit. Despite sounding a bit mundane, soba has become by far my favorite Japanese food, so much so that I still slurp up the thick dark buckwheaty goodness of sansai-soba (country veggie) at the standing fast food noodle joint in Matsumoto whenever I head back that way. How, you ask, is it so highly favored among the blue bloods, the proletariat and, of course, foreigners like myself? Despite the ancient mama-san trying to hurry you up to free space for the next customer in line, the important thing is to go slow. In order to be able to appreciate the finer subtleties amidst a symphony of salaryman slurps, you have got to eat it often and eat a lot of it. Which shouldn’t prove a problem, as according to a new study published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition eating buckwheat, has been linked to protection against atherosclerosis, ischemic stroke, diabetes, insulin resistance, obesity, and premature death. Another benefit would be eating the 100% juu-wari soba for people with wheat allergies (it’s a fruit seed, which does not contain protein glutens). Ok, enough with the history and the health benefits, we get it already, so what, it’s good for you and allergy freaks can eat it too…can we see what’s all the fuss at Owariya?

Honke Owariya - Best Soba in Kyōto

Kamo Seiro (鴨せいろ) – Autumn Duck in fish stock

Duck is as seasonal as it gets in the old capital. At Owariya talk around the green tea cooler has it that the cook hunts the birds himself. True or not, this dish, Kamo Seiro (warm soba noodles with warm roasted duck in warm tsuyu dipping sauce), a close relative to Kamo Nanban (warm soba noodles with leeks), another Kyōto autumn / winter favorite, is masterful. Something about the autumn air and the changing colors makes people, especially Japanese people, and even more especially Kyōtoans, long for a taste of the season, and not being especially close to any seaside the people of the Imperial City generally agree: what does that better than roast duck? The crispy skin is like the falling leaves crunched underfoot as you walk in the chill dusk evening toward your lady friend’s house, the centimeter thick layer of beautifully textured fat redolent of the bearskin rug before the hearth of the roaring fire which throws flame light on the open bottle of vintage old world Pinot noir said lady friend is holding, and finally past the skin and beneath the fat comes the tender flesh, reminiscent of the autumnal elements, of the mingling of fire and air, and as you bite down and union is achieved, you taste the fine seiro fish stock now with a hint of oaky barbecue added as ballast and realizing that this meal too, perfectly balanced as it is by the light buckwheat noodles awash in their own sobayu, like others, will pass, you slow down. Taking your time now, you look out the window and watch the people passing and the wind blowing the leaves to that far off sea. Things inevitably change, but thankfully some things do not.

Fugu Tempura Tacos

Fugu Tempura Tacos

Raw Fugu - Blowfish - Babies

Raw Fugu – Blowfish – Babies

Retro/Proto-grading on homegrown rockets of herbal bliss, somewhere in the precarious balance between taste bud ecstasy and practical applications of time and space, is where reside my abilities to create, implement and cook up recipes of a questionable kind of originality. I’m in no way saying here that Everything Has Been Done where food is concerned, but damn if the French didn’t do most of it by the 18th Century. The haute cuisine stuff anyway. The other good stuff (Central/South American, North/Central African, Indian/Nepali, Chinese/Korean, Vietnamese all on its own) has its place in any kitchen, but what of creativity? Where does my addled 21st-century California Mind come into play here? What of taking convention a bit further? What of thinly-sliced Gravlax over a fresh, well-chilled Gado-gado? What of the high risk of failure? Where do your basic mirepoix and bechamel sauces belong among today’s Asian-savvy line cooks? What of living on the fringe of the culinary universe, always just one misguided pinch of fennel from falling off into the bland, over-processed ether? What of the beautiful fusion known as le métissage gastronomique?

If living in Japan has taught me anything, it’s that the Japanese love – LOVE – fried food. Forget the fact that the Macrobiotic diet originated in Japan, and the world tends to think of the Japanese as being one of the healthiest races around, tonkatsu (fried pork cutlet), karaage (fried chicken), ebi furai (fried shrimp) age-dash-dofu (fried whole tofu), gyōza (dumplings), inarizushi (sushi rice in fried tofu pouches), natsumaki (Summer rolls) and especially tempura are the current staples of daily Japanese cuisine. So representative of this land of borrowed culture, the Japanese word Tempura is actually Portugese (tempero – referring to the fried fish the Portugese Missionaries ate in the time of Lent – ad tempora quadragesimae) in origin.

Light and crispy, a Tempura Party is fun and tasty

Light and crispy, a Tempura Party is fun and tasty

In all fairness, 天ぷら Tempura – lighter and crisper than most other deep fried foods – was mastered here and not in Portugal, just as sushi – originally hailing from southeast Asia & China – came to be the world famous Japanese food it is now, here. I myself have developed a taste for tempura, though usually from my own kitchen (that or one particular yatai, or food stall, I know of), where I know how – and how long – the oil is used. I also happen to have once lived at the south end of the Kanmon Straight – the border between the islands of Kyushu & Honshu – the most ubiquitious feral beds of fugu (puffer or blowfish) in the world. While fugu is well known as an extremely poisonous fish (the liver, ovaries and skin contain the neurotoxin tetrodotoxin, 1200 times more toxic than cyanide), it’s also one of the blandest. Regardless, plates of thinly sliced fugu sashimi can exceed a hundred dollars, often due to the exaggerated allure of completely conscious asphyxiation a missliced torafugu liver will produce in the consumer.

I myself have no fear of a pufferfish-induced death, due in part to the rigorous 3-year training course expectant chefs have to undergo here, as well as the secret inner knowledge that no fish will be the one to introduce me to my maker (octopuses, squid and sharks, on the other hand, aren’t fish). But I also have no clear desire to eat the little blow-daddy just because it’s there, especially not for these prices, yet I do have easy access to the stuff, so…Maybe you can see the neurotransmitters doing their thing, synapses creating new bridges, serotonin cocktails passing around. So, me and my cooking cohort (what I call my cock) decide it’s high time to fuse some boring fugu with some tempura batter, fry on high for a few minutes and, combining with a few other simple flavors, create new gastronomic worlds the physical laws for remain undefinable.

Eh Voila - Fugu Tempura Tacos

Eh Voila – Fugu Tempura Tacos

I give you Tempura Fugu Tacos. Now the thing about tempura batter is it should be mixed with equal parts ice cold soda water and egg yolks (2 is good), stirred rapidly with chopsticks for only a short time in order to preserve the lumpy quality characteristic to tempura. So, after heating your wok full of an oil with a high smoking point- sesame, peanut or vegetable (or even a mixture thereof)- oil to 190°F, cutting the fugu into chunks, prepare your batter mixture. When the batter floats the oil is ready to go, though you don’t want to fry too much as once as the oil temperature will drop too low, screwing the Kitchen Adonis image your drooling audience has of you all to hell. Take out of oil after 2-3 minutes and nicely golden, resting on a paper towel for a bit to soak up excess oil. Salt it! Of course you’ve already made your red onion, tomato, pepper based pico de gallo, cut the avocado into long green quarter moons, and been heating your corn tortillas all the while, right? So, once your tempura‘s done and dried a bit, throw it on that tortilla, adding the previously mentioned accoutrements and get to eating while it’s still hot.

Beer’s good. So’s horchata. So’s mojitos.

Ginkaku-ji - The Silver Pavilion

Ginkaku-ji – The Silver Pavilion

Ginkaku-ji (銀閣寺) has so many names it’s best to keep it simple. Translated as Temple of the Silver Pavilion, it makes more sense once you know its official name: Jishō-ji (慈照寺) or the Temple of Shining Mercy. Because for one, where’s this so-called Ginkaku-ji – The Silver Pavilion? you may wonder to yourself as you stroll through the serpentine garden pathways. The two-story building located at the far end of the labrynth dedicated to Kannon, the Japanese version of the East Asian deity of mercy, …well, looks brown to me…but maybe it’s one big zen koan–find the silver lining within, not without, right?.

Located off the Philosopher’s Path in the Sakyō ward of Kyōto, it remains one of the best examples of harmonious confluence of natural and manmade elements. It didn’t start out with much harmony though, for although Higashiyama culture begins wafting the essence of wabi-sabi throughout the country during the Ashikaga reign of the late 15th and 16th centuries, developing chadō (Japanese tea ceremony), ikebana (flower arranging), noh drama, and sumi-e ink painting, this era is also known as the Sengoku Jidai — the Warring States Period — of the Muromachi era. And while this pristine sanctuary was being constructed on the still hot ashes of another garden villa, all hell was breaking loose outside.

The Ōnin war

'Squirrel on a Bamboo Stalk', Bearing the Signature & Seal of Sôami

‘Squirrel on a Bamboo Stalk’, Bearing the Signature & Seal of Sôami

Coming after the powerful Kamakura and preceding the Ieyasu ruling clans, the Ashikaga clan was the middle child of the Shogun rulers in medieval Japan, ruling from roughly the 14th – 16th centuries. Throughout the 250-year reign of the 15 shogun, the rulers depended more on the loyalty of the local lords than on military power, and thus were soon exposed as a kind of paper tiger that could not do much if you, say, didn’t pay your taxes. The first hundred years or so see the flowering of Kyōto amidst the rise of the Samurai and the Rinzai form of Zen Buddhism. It is during this time of general peace (and approaching discord) that much of the system of art that Japan is so well-known for was formalized.

The Ōnin War (1467–1477), a dispute brought on by the question of who would succeed the aging Yoshimasa, was most actively waged by the Hosokawa family and its allies, who favored Yoshimasa’s brother Yoshimi, against the Yamana family, who supported the current shogun’s suddenly-born male heir. Sounds like a goddamned soap opera, but unlike good melodrama, where are all the women? There had to have been a few devious and deadly femme fatalia pulling the strings behind the screen. Nothing here but rich old cranks who dig getting high on green tea and raking rocks and completely ignoring the thousands dying all around. Although fighting in Kyōto lasted for only 11 years, the conflict, for all intents and purposes, destroyed Kyōto, ruined the Ashikaga clan, and ignited the slow-burning and widespread revolt which would spread to outlying provinces, lasting for a hundred years, eventually bringing about Oda Nobunaga’s brutal unification.

Portrait of an Escapist

While others in Kyōto mastered Soba and the city burned, Yoshimasa practiced the fine art of tea ceremony, continuing plans for creating a retirement villa and gardens. So enamored was he of his grandfather’s Kinkaku-ji (Temple of the Golden Pavilion) and the gardens of Saiho-ji (Koke-dera) designed by Musō Soseki, Yoshimasa made the garden landscape of the grounds a priority above all else. He commissioned the artist Sōami to design the Ginsadan, the Sea of Silver Sand, the rock garden, with its now infamous cone of sand which is said to symbolize Mount Fuji. Nōami, the grandfather of Sōami, imparted his knowledge of the fledgling Zen priest practice of the wabi-cha style of tea ceremony to Murata Jukō. Murata is alleged to have been under the employ of Yoshimasa around this time. When finished around 1490, this villa would eventually be built on the remains of his brother Yoshimi’s temple-residence Jodai-ji. Except for his desire that Ginkaku-ji become a Buddhist temple associated with the Shokoku-ji branch of Rinzai Zen on his death, Yoshimasa was completely oblivious to all except for simplistic beauty of rocks and tea.

But the war had its annoyances as well. Despite his intention to cover the main structure with a distinctive silver-foil overlay, the way his grandfather had done with gold leaf on the nearby Ginkaku-ji, the war delayed the work so long that Yoshimasa died before its realization. Amidst political intrigue, of course. The current brown facade of the structure is likely to be the same as when Yoshimasa himself last saw it. Despite his initial desires to beautify it with silver leaf, he probably came to the realization that such decadence in war time was not just wasteful, but unwise, with a secondary benefit of being “unfinished”, illustrating one of the aspects of wabi-sabi perfectly if not a bit ironically.

Ginkaku-ji - The Silver PavilionDespite the temple remaining quite unfinished, in 1485 Yoshimasa became a Buddhist monk and took the name Jishō. It is said that he passed his days sitting in contemplation in the Dojinsai tea room in his Hall of the Eastern Quest (Tōgudō), taking tea with the key figures in the development of tea culture. Situated as it is at the far end of the Hōjō, it demands perhaps the most excellent view of the garden path, the various waterways and the growing moss that must have reminded him of better, more peaceful days, even as the war waged on around him, and enveloped more and more of Japan. During his reign as Shogun, Yoshimasa may have funded and formalized a large part of the traditional culture by which Japan came to fame, yet he was an administrative nightmare.

Nightmare perhaps, but fascinating to live in such a fiery time, and to be at the center of it all, yet instead of addressing it head on and jumping into the war, Yoshimasa got Zen and zoned out. Maybe somewhere in all of the daily manicuring of those beautifully raked rocks he knew that his legacy would outlive him–that despite the fragmented and bloody society that threatened to tear itself apart before his eyes, Japan would survive, and thrive even, and in that new land of the rising sun, would find hidden strength in the quietude and solemn ritual of the simple, imperfect art of brewing, serving, and enjoying tea within the confines of perhaps one of the most perfectly polished contemplative rock gardens ever conceived.

Homeless Makeover of Miyashita Park

Homeless Makeover of Miyashita Park

Miyashita Park, depending on your point of view, is an emerald oasis in the midst of a concrete desert blooming in the most crowded mile in the human world, Shibuya Crossing. One of the few green spaces within the city center, Miyashita is a microcosm of the larger setting of Tokyo. Built in the 30s as a ground level park lined with trees and actual green grass, it follows the Saikyo and Yamanote train lines in a narrow strip along Meiji Dori. The current incarnation of the “park” was a prototypical example of Futuristic Tokyo remodeling a city for the 1964 Olympic games, with little input from the public. In one fell swoop the city ok’d turning Shibuya River into a drainage conduit, and the park was redeveloped on man-made land above a new parking lot just behind the infamous Nonbeiyokocho, Drunkard’s Alley. Removed from ground level and public sightline, once the 90s recession hit, the disenfranchised real estate speculators turned homeless who couldn’t pay back the usurious rates the yakuza offered loans at moved into their own penthouse walkup. Talk about prime location.

But it started well before that. Even as early as the late 60s, activists on both the left and the right used the park as a starting point for marches and protests, while locals who frequented Miyashita said that undesirables were beginning to occupy its steps and bathrooms, leaving them feeling unsafe in their own neighborhood. Once the park became the crux of a superficial battle for old Tokyo to keep its traditional ways versus the new age of Times Square-like remodeling in Japanese society, the larger question of what is public space left the public out of picture. To some, who would say that with Yoyogi Park and Meiji Shrine just north, and picturesque Shinjuku Gyoen Garden and the manicured grounds of Akasaka palace beyond that, there is plenty of “green space” available, what does the public want with a relatively unimportant little strip of land filled with rats, roaches and homeless drunks on top of a parking lot?

Homeless Makeover of Miyashita Park

Homeless Makeover of Miyashita Park

STOP: Opposition to the Nikization of Miyashita Park (from Irregular Rhythm Asylum)

Others might counter that since the Meiji-dori entrance to this green space has long been the gathering point for local protests and grass roots activists, and that the park belongs to everyone–including the j-pop dance teams rehearsing choreography, embarrassed rockabilly greasers not ready for the Yoyogi spotlight, as well as scores of Rojousha or “road people” that populate its narrow boundary–not just whomever can pay the 200 yen to skate or climb the rock wall that local council members helped facilitate through their neighborhood beautification program sponsored by Nike Japan. Peter Shimokawa from The Coalition to Protect Miyashita Park from Becoming Nike Park wrote in Open Letter: Park Development Threatens Local Community that, “though Miyashita Park is publicly owned by the Shibuya Ward, local residents were not involved in the negotiations of this project. Rather, only the head of the Shibuya Ward and a few local congressional members made the deal with NIKE Japan, without consultation with either residents or the local congressional assembly. The project will transform Miyashita Park from a public space, available to all, to a private, consumer-oriented space.”

The public space was co-opted by Shibuya Ward at the behest of greater Tokyo Prefecture during the preparation for the 1964 Olympics. It was transformed from a public to consumer-oriented space at that time. If you consider that everyone has not only the right, but the duty to defend it from private takeover, isn’t it a bit late? Unless, consumer-oriented space is exactly what most everyone wants. Looking at the layout of Miyashita Park, it could be said that it finally conceptually matches Tokyo as the vast urban sea of concrete and glass built during this formative period. The romantic notion of cherry trees decorating simple pastures of green alongside any number of tiny waterway veins lining the greater Tokyo basin is a delusion, as that too is a mere false construction of an imaginary past. Now–beyond the rock wall–there is a futsal pitch and a skate park over which elms shade the multitudes of both young and old who come here to play, exercise and escape the megalopolis surrounding them.

Similar to other public works projects ostensibly meant to benefit the citizenry–the covering of Tokyo’s waterways as well as a designation of no-homeless zone–converting Miyashita from a public to a commercial site would seem to benefit a only relatively small percentage of the population: those interested in activities Nike deems shoe-worthy: footballing, rock-climbing and skating. The question is, is that good or bad? And according to and for whom? It is undeniable that since the renovation, the park is more crowded, the Futsal pitch lined with professionally clad players and spectators, the rockwall seething with anxious queuers, and the skatepark brimming with both young and old skaters. The park has become a gathering place for youth to partake in activities not related to sliding, swinging, or spinning. People have returned. It seems the park is, once again, in bloom. Even if it is a bit contrived and covered in bits of day-glo colored plastic.

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Homeless Makeover of Miyashita Park

Miyashita Park Bike Tunnel circa 2007

Personally, I have history here. The first time I came to Tokyo in 2000 a group of pale-faced graduates and I walked from Shibuya station to Shinjuku through Harajuku’s Neko-dori, and never have I been so inundated with garish signage and obnoxious visual noise as in these few miles. After finally finding an okonomiyaki place and navigating the menu, we walked back the same route and as we approached the intersection where Neko-dori meets Meiji-dori and the train tracks cross the road, I saw a man lying on a piece of cardboard on the sidewalk near some stairs that led up to the overcross, and just beyond were a grove of trees. Noticing the stairs I led the pack of us up to the park and as we walked through the dimly lit grounds, our clamorous voices quieted to whispers. The interior was dark, a shadowy shanty town of cardboard houses covered in blue tarps, both small and large with locking doors and curtained windows, even space for their shoes just outside. These, along with two-man dome tents and other more coffin-like creations, lined the various nooks of the park, the luckier of the squatters filling them out with patio areas complete with plastic chairs, tables covered in beer and sake one-cups, and even gas powered barbeques. We passed piles of garbage loosely collected in plastic convenience store bags overflowing from the unattended trash cans, where ravens and rats openly competed for bits of instant noodle and old onigiri. Noticing the perimeter of the park was cordoned off with fencing, our crew grew silent as we shuffled through what seemed more and more like a kind of prison. One girl approached a clothesline with hundreds of translucent plastic umbrellas hanging and touching one, made a joke that if we were ever caught in the rain…when suddenly a machinegun of angry Japanese emanated from some dark corner of the bushes, saying roughly, “Get the fuck away from my umbrellas you stupid foreigner!” Smiles faded into fearful looks as the neon glow from adjacent restaurants glittered in our eyes. We quickly and quietly exited the park, coming out into Nonbeiyokochou, the tiny conglomeration of old-Edo style restaurants and bars populated with a contrasting cast of well-heeled salarymen and stylish young people eating and drinking, shouting and laughing, smoking and putting the night cap on yet another day. Just steps from the one another, two distinctive worlds co-existing, both pretending the other wasn’t there.

Homeless Makeover of Miyashita Park

Salarymen Tippling in Shibuya’s Nonbeiyokocho

Years later, I moved to Tokyo and Nonbeiyokocho became my second home. I worked as bartender in one of the same tiny establishments for more than a year and became one of the home crew, so to speak. It didn’t take long before I grew immune to the “neighbors upstairs” and came to understand how the locals view them as invisible. “Shogganai ne…” everyone would agree if it ever happened to be brought up. As a member of the itinerant “Tokyo Beats” joke photo crew, I used the park as an ad-hoc photo studio background on numerous occasions, after which we would drink numerous cans of Asahi Super Dry whilst fixing the world’s problems in its comforting environs. I came to find it as cozy, and despite the wafting odor of the accumulated garbage piles on especially humid days, I would stroll end to end in a comfortable escape from the manic and vapid consumerism of Shibuya whenever I could.

I myself have always had moments of inner dilemma with homelessness, the intractable problems created by modern society and the detritus of super-capitalism. Despite the luxury lavished on the few, some make it and some don’t, while most just struggle to make it day to day. That pragmatic, socializing voice in my head, warned me, “If you don’t keep up, that’ll be you screaming at some young lady about your umbrella collection from your cardboard condo!” Scary as that may sound, I have courted the thought as well, foolishly romantic as it may be, to chuck it all–the job, the apartment, the rent, the clothes, the bank account, the iPhone, the social security card, the internet, the media, TV, movies, marriage, kids, vacation, school, doctors–all of it, to go and be Rip Van Winkle somewhere in the unpopulated foothills and forget the absurd nonsense of modern life. But I don’t. Not many do. Certainly not by choice. Mostly because it wouldn’t be all that romantic–what with police persecution, social stigma, and the ever-shrinking area of land that is free, or public, space. Taking that final step scares me. Mostly because I don’t feel I have the specific strength of character to look into the faces of most everyone without self-pity, or shame, or not being able to hold eye contact. A thing which is not as inherently important, and my even be insulting, in Asia, but after sitting down with some of the same guys living in Miyashita park, and having some beers together, when they want to hammer something home–to be understood–they do it, they hold your eye. That, and they almost all say the same thing: they’re not from Tokyo.

“I’m not from Kanto, none that I know here are.” says one man, ashing his Mild 7 smoke into the park’s dirt floor. Kyushu, Kansai, and Tohoku-bred sons (and to a lesser extent, daughters) line the narrow lane where they are allowed to sleep. Which is no longer in the park itself, but below in the thin strip of land between the concrete exterior of the parking garage and the railing demarcating the uncovered motorcycle/bicycle parking in the alley behind Meiji-Dori. “Things happen. Time passes. I was unlucky. I have money now, but I choose to live here. Why not?” Some nod, others merely me, distrusting me for my interest in them, and my foreignness. They are at heart, still Japanese, and nurse a healthy skepticism of all things outsider. And being from a country of roughly 90% homogeneity, they could easily blend in to the monotonous crowd of black- and grey-clad salary-folk daily scurrying throughout the Shibuya station tableau. In some respect, this homelessness–or antagonism toward being easily labeled–is a more longterm form than the other more straightforward form of public protest, a modern kind of civil disobedience, for a society that disdains full frontal confrontation.

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Homeless Makeover of Miyashita Park

Old & New – Miyashita Nike Park Triptych

The headline reads: Politician Creates Commercial Venture On Public Site With Major Corporation – Does Not Consult Public. That in itself does not seem very new or controversial, to Japan or any other Super-Capitalistic Society. The fact is that space is limited in a market-based world economy, and as the homeless are seen as non-economic contributors to society (they don’t have much in the way of lobbyists, advocates-excepting the excellent Sanya-based NPO Sanyukai, or marketing campaigns), they get pushed to the red edges of the ledger, a fact with which we have all learned to live. But on an island whose capital city fringe grows ever more crowded, as the distinction between the legislative branch and the corporate world becomes more and more blurry, the deep pulse of humanity’s desire to benefit all becomes clouded over by fiscal goals to benefit the ultra-rich corporate minority and bury the mistakes of the past. So Miyashita Park becomes Miyashita Nike Park (although the change never officially took place, it remains the de facto name) and the blue tarp cardboard dwellers get moved to a neat row along the bike park below. For now. What happens to them when the municipality begins work on renovating the nearby Yoyogi National Stadium in preparation for the Handball Finals at the 2020 Olympics? Pass legislation funding the expansion of train lines, stations, expressways and stadium compounds. Attach discretionary funding to hire more police. Begin food program to round up homeless and ship to Gunkanshima. Produce Reality TV Show where homeless people battle for stash of Sake One Cups titled: Road People Battle Royale. In a mechanical commercial society of spiritless automatons where building Babel TV Towers (Skytree) and Olympic handball courts take precedence over providing sustenance to its totality of citizens, the question remains, is that what we want?

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