Archive for July, 2012

Funky Lunch at Issen Yoshoku

Monday, July 30th, 2012


Noontime on a hot and sultry summer day can be pretty quiet in Japan, especially in the posh Gion district of traditional Kyoto.  Growing in hunger, and torn between pricey and confusing traditional restaurants, not all of which were open, and Lawsons, we walked past Issen Yoshoku’s slightly naughty statue several times before deciding to give it a go.


Visible from the street, a sort of short order chef was busily and singly handedly cracking eggs over a sort of omelet sitting on pancakes on a griddle. It turned out to be a dish called okonomiyaki, which was developed about a century ago, apparently to take advantage of the newly introduced western-style wheat flour.    The price was right, and having a single entry on the menu simplified the ordering process greatly.


Although the statue of a dog pulling down a boy’s pants, prominently and memorably displayed on the restaurant’s exterior should have clued us in, it turned out to be a bit kitschier and droll than we’d expected.


Creepy kimonoed manikins were sitting at some of the tables, funny pictures were on the wall, and an entire miniature village was in a display case.


Right above our table was a large display of ema, the wooden plaques that are often seen hanging in Shinto shrines with prayers or wishes painted on them.  These were a little bawdier than the ones we’d seen at the shrines (sort of a Shinto version of saucy seaside postcards).


We polished off our pancakes, had a Kirin..or two, waved goodbye to the staff, and headed back out into the Kyoto heat.

Kinkaku-ji Golden Pavilion

Sunday, July 29th, 2012


Elizabeth and I spent a rainy afternoon visiting one of Kyoto’s most popular tourist attractions, the Zen Buddhist site  where the Golden Pavilion (金閣, kinkaku?) is located.  Nor originally built as a religious structure, the top 2 floors of this stunningly beautiful lakeside building are covered in gold leaf.


Originally a secular building, it was purchased and occupied by the shogun Ashikaga Yoshimitsu during the 14th century, and at his request, was dedicated to the Zen Buddhists after his death. 


The original pavilion was burned down in 1950 by a novice monk, and the current structure, which may have a bit more bling than the original, was reconstructed in 1955. Even on such a wet day, it is a very crowded site, as photographers jostle for a tourist-free shot.  Tripods are strictly and expressly forbidden everywhere on the grounds.


Elizabeth and I spent most of our visit wandering around the gardens, which can only be described as harmonious. The lakeside position of the pavilion is a perfect way to maximize the impact of the gold.


While obviously, much of the landscaping is designed to accommodate the pavilion, the garden is quite large, offering more subtle pleasures that were maybe even enhanced by the somewhat moody mist, with the rainfall increasing the saturation of the greens and browns.


Considered to epitomize the minimalist garden aesthetic of the Muromachi Period (1337 to 1573), the garden unfolds in a series of tableaus as the visitor strolls along a winding stone path.


Visitors leave by descending a long, stone inlaid stairway.  No longer narrow or winding, yet still attractive, it leads directly to the real world.

Morning in Kyoto

Friday, July 27th, 2012


Elizabeth and I spent our first morning in Kyoto exploring the Nishiki-koji Market. Narrow streets roofed over to form protected market places are hardly unusual in Japan, but Kyoto’s historic market is renowned for its local foods and Japanese goods.


Dozens of little shops sell food, clothing, and gifts.  I must have spent 20 minutes in Aritsugu, a four and a half century old maker of knives and cutlery.  Cabinets were stuffed full of expensive handmade cooking and utility knives, and the clerks quickly but carefully used huge grinding wheels and Japanese whetstones to put a razor edge on machete-sized blades.

Our purchases at the chopstick store

One store specialized in chopsticks, so we treated ourselves and Kirk to a nice set, separately choosing sticks, wooden boxes, and ceramic stands, which the clerk wrapped into 3 gift bags.


Kyoto specializes in preserved foods, and we saw all kinds of colorful and unusual pickles and salted fish.


Several of the side streets had also been turned into indoor malls, although they weren’t as consistently upscale as Nishiki-koji.  There were some very nice restaurants with lovely displays of fake food.


I wandered around a cramped store that was a lot like an American Dollar General.


A huge arcade had nothing but claw crane machines, with cabinets filled with plush toys, and plastic characters from anime and manga.


I stopped into a large store that sold nothing but manga, Japanese graphic novels, and bought 3 different ones for Kirk.

Construction Completed

Thursday, July 26th, 2012


Almost exactly 1 year after the start of construction, Sam the Builder has finished work on our cabin.  He’s backfilled behind the cement wall, leveling the ground in front of the main cabin door, and leaving enough space to turn around a car. While Elizabeth and I were in Japan, the insect netting went up on the porch.  The cabin has been screened, stained, caulked, chinked, and connected, and is essentially complete.

The heat and drought has ensured that Elizabeth’s new lawn hasn’t taken over the level patch in front of the cabin, although an inch and a quarter of rain last week seemed to help green things up a bit.  The shady location, deep basement, and log walls kept things cool, even during a heat wave in the mid-90s.  While the insect netting does slow down the breeze slightly, a pair of ceiling fans on the porch keeps everyone cool, and the porch is turning into a nice evening spot to listen to frogs and crickets without having to battle moths and beetles.  


[If you want to see all the entries for the cabin building project, they start here. The next Building the Cabin entry is The Long Wait for the Internet.]

Tuna Auction

Monday, July 16th, 2012

Moving Tuna Taking advantage of our circadian rhythms, Elizabeth and I arrived at the Tsukiji Fish Market just before 5am, which was just early enough to get us into the second and final tour of the daily tuna auction. After a 45 minute wait, we donned blue vests, walked through the busy traffic, and were directed into an observation area in a huge room, filled with deep frozen tuna.


All of the tuna had been prepped for the auction with a several different paint and paper labels.  Most interesting was a deep cut just above the tail, used by the buyers to inspect the quality of the fish. A series of boot-clad fish assessors, each with a wooden-handled metal hook, examined the fish meat in the cut, often shining a flash light on it, and sometimes smelling or tasting it.

Evaluating Tuna

Some of the inspectors also checked out a slot, apparently where the entrails were removed.

Tuna Auction

The auctions took place in a rolling fashion, moving across the floor from group of fish to group of fish.  As the auctioneer got closer to the groups of fish near us, buyers, with numbered tags on their hats, started congregating at the tail end of a group of fish.  Some guys continued checking out the frozen tuna right up until the auction started.

Auctioneer and Bidders

A stool was set up so the auctioneer could see the bidders.  Although he used different syllables and sounds than an American auctioneer would use, it was the same sort of verbal deluge of enthusiasm that you’d expect, so it was immediately clear to me and Elizabeth that the auction had started.


In short order, 10 tuna were individually auctioned off as the buyers raised their hands to indicate that they wanted a particular tuna at a particular price.

Making notes

An assistant kept track of who bought which fish, marking them after the auction by sticking pieces of paper to the frozen fish with a bit of water. Soon after the auction, porters used metal hooks to hoist the individual tuna onto hand carts, or electric carts.  Most of the fish were then butchered in the market with big band saws and were either sold at booths within the market, or were trucked away by wholesalers or large institutional buyers.

Moving tuna after the auction

Apparently, the market has had an off again/on again relationship with tourists, who wander around, slowing down the busy traffic, without actually buying much.  As a compromise, two tours of the tuna auction are offered every morning before 6am, but the main market isn’t open to visitors until 9am.

Breakfast restaurant

We wandered around at the booths that were open around the edges, mostly selling vegetables, but there were also booths with scales, knives, seaweed, and rice.  We chose a restaurant that wasn’t too crowded and an early breakfast of sashimi.

Takenoko-zoku Rockabilly Dancers

Monday, July 16th, 2012


With sharply pointed shoes and elaborate pompadours, the Rockabilly dancers in Yoyogi Park are a strangely compelling Japanese tribute to an imagined American past. The takenoko-zoku (bamboo shoot kids) began their unusual hobby in the 1980s, and  these no-longer-kids are the original costume players in a part of Tokyo characterized by sartorial make believe.


Positioning their amplifiers, coolers, and chairs at the main park entrance, close to Harajuku Station, three rival ‘gangs’ setup up shop last Sunday afternoon. The Strangers (Greaser on the Road), the Street Rockers, and the Harajuku Lebels (get it?) competed and cooperated to bring three slightly different interpretations of the American rock & roll era to this popular park.


The Lebels, with their leather jackets, black wife beaters, and tightly pointed shoes, layers of duct tape suggesting years of street dancing, were the edgiest.

Hawaiian Shirt

The Street Rockers, with Oloha shirts and a girlie dress, were a bit more clean cut.


The sunglassed Strangers had the most elaborately greased hair styles.


Swaying and kicking to recordings of American rock music, and Japanese tribute rock, the three gangs took overlapping turns strutting their swing stuff in an elvishistic frenzy.


Part performance, part competition, and significantly self-indulgent, the performances attract a large crowd of onlookers.

Enthusiastic fanrs

One old geezer in traditional garb spent hours gently rocking to the rockers. I have to believe that he’s a regular.

One of the many trophy dogs in the park doesn't know what to make of the Lebels

Taking long breaks between sets, the rockabillies changed their clothing over the course of the afternoon, with the Street Rockers shedding their Hawaiian shirts.


And the Lebels eventually going topless.


Between Dances

Additional images can be found in my Rockabilly Dancers photo gallery.