Saturday, September 29, 2007

Gastronomic Adventures Part One

I'm in Heaven. Not the heaven of blue skies, warm days, sweet smelling air and a gallery of nature's finest art, but Gastronomic Heaven. Day One in Tokyo and my palate is already on Cloud Nine.

Tokyo has got to be the best food city in the world. You can get ANYTHING and find the best of it all. But for me, it's the simple, down home flavors that make my DNA dance a watusi.

Even here, in the 'burbs where my mother lives, there are little neighborhood restaurants, as unpretentious as East LA taquerias, that have will make me sigh with contentment. Like the little soba shop I stumbled into for lunch.

It was just a neighborhood soba shop. When I walked in, a little old man, probably the owner's father, was loading up the rack on his scooter with steaming bowls of soba for a local delivery. Hmmm. Probably not the best place for soba, I thought, but their outdoor sign for "handmade green tea soba, ¥750" drew me in.

Wow! I had to slowly chew every mouthful to savor each bite. Mmmmm. You just can't get good soba outside of Japan. REAL soba is nothing like the dried soba they sell in US supermarkets. The handmade stuff is labor intensive but divine and I was surprised that this little shop had the Real Stuff. In downtown Tokyo, you can go to famous soba restaurants where they'll give you a scant tray of soba that can cost you an arm and a leg. Honmura An, a multi-generational soba restaurant had a place in New York but I heard they closed shop. I guess most Americans couldn't understand how anyone would want to give up body parts for a little tray of cold noodles. But if I'm away from the Real Stuff for too long, I could and would give up not only an arm but maybe both legs!

And then, walking back, I passed a Tofu Shop. The kind where the owners get up at 4 AM to start steaming the soybeans to make fresh tofu for housewives who'll come in at 6 AM to buy it for their morning miso.

Soy. Let me tell you about SOY. It's the most amazing bean. Over the centuries, the Japanese love affair of this lowly legume has turned out a thousand different shapes, textures, flavors. From lovely yose-tofu, as silky, soft and fluffy as the breasts of Ruben's women, to natto, those fermented beans as stinky, slimy and rotten as Shrek's toe jam (but oh-so-tasty in a way that only those who love ripe, smelly cheeses understand.) In between, there is sliced and fried abura-age that you can stew, stir fry, or fill with meat/rice/vegetables; atsu-age, a thicker kind of fried tofu that's great on the grill; ganmodoki, savory balls of tofu; chewy koya-dofu, frozen and reconstituted… Oh, I could go on and on. And then, with each soy product, there are a million different ways you can cook it. And that's just tofu products! There's edamame that's not frozen and flown in from Taiwan, thousands of different kinds of soy sauce, miso of many colors, and, of course, plain soy beans cooked like…well, beans.

I go crazy trying to choose, but end up buying a soft tofu made of green soy beans and a bag of little fried tofu balls. If they had been fresh out of the fryer, they never would have made it home -- I would have gobbled them up like taquitos.

Tonight, my brother is hosting dinner. He's quite the angler, and a chef. He'll spend a long time honing his knives, then be all stressed out while he prepares the sashimi but I know it'll be a spread of all the wonderful things from the ocean fit for a Mermaid Queen.

Friday, September 28, 2007


I don't know why I'm not packing a suitcase full of contraband. They NEVER check my bags at Narita anymore. Never. There used to be a time when they ALWAYS checked. Very Thoroughly. As in squeezing toothpaste, opening jars of jam.

Now, no matter where I'm coming from, they just look at my passport and thank me. (US Customs Officers could learn a thing or two about good manners from the Japanese Customs Officers!) Several decades of Being Thoroughly Checked has made me dress rather conservatively when crossing borders, and I thought that had something to do with the friendliness of the Customs people in recent years, but today, I could have had dreadlocks, tattoos, pierced nipples --showing! -- and still would not have had even a single raised eyebrow. Because -- I realized today -- to the Customs Officer, I am an Obasan. They look in my passport, see my date of birth and whammo! The magic's all there. To the officers, I am nothing if not one of those fearless and fearsome middle-aged Japanese women.

Clerks and CEOs alike quiver. Media execs pander. School children cower. And surly teenagers give them plenty of elbow room, lest a sharp bony one jab them in the solar plexus. The Obasan will chase muggers, lecture mass murderers. They are invincible! But definitely not invisible. They are world travelers and while the Single Obasan may choose to travel alone, most of the married Obasan will travel with their Oba-pals. If you thought one Obasan was scary, wait til you encounter a pack of them!

You see them everywhere: cackling up a storm in the economy cabin (Obasan are way too practical to throw money away on business class, but will happily be upgraded gratis and then try to get all their buddies into the cabin;) arguing in Japanese with confused French waiters; telling the Hong Kong street vendors who have been shouting "Yasui yo! (It's cheap!)" that the watches maybe yasui but are actually takai for a fake Rolex.

Obasan don't complain much. They don't have to -- they rarely give in. A force to be contended with, they were given the nickname "Obatarian" as if they were some kind of alien space monster. (Maybe they are!) It makes me smile to think that I have such a powerful disguise at my disposal!

Now that I know this, I'm going to use it more. Like, all the time? But if you wear a disguise long enough, does it become you?


Right now, some of you might be thinking of rounding up a small army of Obasan to be your "mule" operation. Don't bother. Obasan are Righteous. They don't like cheaters and smuggling is cheating. They're also conscious of health -- both human and environmental -- and a true Obasan is an avid recycler. She'll wear the same outfits until the styles have gone out and come back in.

The Customs Officers may label every Japanese woman over 40 an "obasan," but true Obasan are actually a dying breed. Literally! The baby boom generation produced a fair few, but most Obasan, the kind that I am talking about, grew up during World War 2, came of age during Japan's defeat and its reconstruction. When they were kids, they lived on rice gruel until even rice became a coveted luxury. After the war, they were sprayed with DDT by the American Occupation Forces. They've seen world turmoil, corrupt politicians, economic booms, bubbles and collapses. All the follies of MEN. They took it all in.

Yoko Ono, although from a completely different background, is of that generation and Obasan are just a frumpier, monolingual version of Yoko-san. I always thought she had a lot in common with my mother who is two years older than Yoko. I saw her perform a couple of times -- once in the 70's during her hiatus from John, then again in the 90's when she played at a small club in Tokyo. She was looking real good in a black tank top and cropped hair but my male colleagues were shuddering.

"She's too scary," they said. Perhaps it was the thought of their own mother wailing away on stage that scared them, but their comments made me grateful that I was a woman. Not much scares us. I can't think of a "type" of man that would scare me, the way that Obasan scare Japanese men. Not only are we the tougher sex but have Great Unseen Powers from Planet Obataria! So be afraid. Be very afraid.

Thursday, September 27, 2007


American Airlines, Flight 169. It's a brand new Boeing 777 and still smells good. The seats are larger, too. There are nine seats in a row where there are normally ten, though you can tell by the cabin dividers that the aircraft itself is being made for the old ten-in-a-row configuration. Thank you, American Airlines!

The bummer is no free booze and Barbie doll-sized meals. Funny how the meal sizes on flights have shrunk in reverse proportion to restaurant meals. Domestic flights no longer serve (free) meals and their boxed offerings are horrible, chemical laden atrocities that I would only eat on Day 3 of stranded starvation after a plane wreck. (That's probably the WORST time to eat something like that, too!) I took a plastic bag of apples and pears and ate them all. The lady across the aisle had something that looked like a kind of yogurt drink. How she was able to smuggle that in, I don't know, but shame on the security staff at LAX! It could have been poison gas!

I decided to let them take away my plastic or Styrofoam cup after each serving. Normally, I have to insist on reusing it and then hear flight attendants say, in the patronizing way of day care staff and nurses, "It's okay, hon, we'll bring you a fresh cup" and then you have to start arguing about the atrocious amount of trash generated with every flight. As if the fuel consumption weren't bad enough. But this time, I was too tired and decided early in the flight that I'm just not going to push it this time. I found that I could actually push aside thoughts of ecological disaster and just chill out, but then, I started feeling guilty that I was such a wimp. Big Dog is never weak that way. He'll stand up for what he believes is right. I back down too easily because most things aren't worth the aggravation. I seem to be super sensitive to aggravation these days. It makes my stomach ache.

Will there be much aggravation at the end of this flight? We'll see.

Friday, September 21, 2007

Taking Off Deadbolts

It's Family Weekend at Dog Family Central -- the Patriarch's 90th, other birthdays, a wedding... We blew into Lancaster on Wednesday afternoon, with windstorm sweeping the Antelope Valley into a dusty haze. 70 pounds of apples weighing down the truck kept it from flying off to Barstow.

I've never been much of a family person. First, I grew up far away from my aunts, uncles and grandparents for most of my life. When we moved back to Japan, I discovered that my mother was not much of a family person, either. Family gatherings were wrought with stress and booby traps, many situations in which she could be criticized, many landmines to have to tiptoe around and so after my father passed away, only a few years after the move, we rarely saw our relatives.

"Family" is the first relationship in our lives. It's where everything begins and ends. I think it defines how you are at any human relationship. If you are not good at family relationships, you are probably not good at other relationships, either. I have hundreds of acquaintances but very few real friends -- no matter how close I get, I find myself keeping a distance with everyone. Even with Big Dog, many rooms in my heart are off limits whether he knows it or not. In fact, so much so that you couldn't even find the disguised doors!

"No Trespassing! Violators will be prosecuted!"

One of my best friends who extremely close to her family is tireless at keeping friendships alive . I am terrible at it. She is my oldest friend, and I am sure it's all because she's so good at maintaining relationships.

But this is my Year of Other Families. I've been warmly welcomed into not only the Dog Family, but my Ranch Family and the long lost Idaho Family, too. It's strange and wonderful. It's making me unlock some of my doors. Or at least take some deadbolts off.

Monday, September 17, 2007


" I wanna know where the water was coming from. You really can't leave us like this, you know," emailed Roberto a few days ago from Guadalajara.

I think he was referring to last month's trenching project.

Roberto never used his first name when I met him in Tokyo more than a quarter century ago. He made everyone call him by the first syllable of his last name. I might have secretly called him "Bob" just because he hated it so much. After living in Central America for a couple of years now, not only has he picked up on his first name again, but added an "o" along with a string of seemingly random saints.

The Japanese believe that your name determines who you are. People are changing the reading or writing of their names all the time in the hopes that the change will "open" their fortune. Most, like Roberto, do this unofficially. I haven't seen him since his Tokyo Days and am curious to see if his "name change" has had an effect on his fortune, personality, life and world outlook.

Don Roberto, are you really interested in my utilities problems? Or was that email just a request for more excruciatingly mundane details of my Ranch Life?

The short answer to the most recent trenching project is: I don't know. After a week or so, no more water. There are many mysteries in a place like this. We only recently discovered a water pipe coming out at our creek! It might have remained a mystery except the former caretaker was able to tell us, "Oh, I put that in just in case we ever needed to draw water from the creek."

We rebuilt the rock retaining wall and are trying not to wonder too much about "where the water was coming from." More details? You'll have to wait. I am leaving the ranch today, heading south to LA and then, in about 10 days, west to the Far East.

Thursday, September 13, 2007

Feels Like Fall

I don't know about other bloggers, but I usually write my entries off-line. It's been a frustrating kind of week for all internet activities -- for some reason, I've had no connection or Really…Painfully…………slow…………….connections. Guess it shouldn't have been a surprise to open my blog.doc and find only:

11 September

It's only two days ago but I don't remember it at all. My short-term memory was always unreliable anyway. Right now, I am imagining that when I typed the date, I probably got online, finally, and in my elation, thought I would write something, but before I did, I lost the connection.

Just as well. The internet can suck up so much of your time and I have less of it than usual. There are Big Family Events coming up next week that I need to make some artwork for, I finally booked my flight back to Tokyo during yesterday's brief moment of connectivity and I need to prep for that, and we are in the early stages of ranch wrap-up.

Though it's still warm and sunny and wonderful here in Central California, it's starting to feel like fall at the ranch. There are literally tons of apples -- bigger and better and fewer, thank god, than last year --plus quite a few different kinds of pears, the sunflowers are going to seed and the ‘mums are starting to bloom.

Miguel's dad is a landscape construction guy and he and his team have been rebuilding flower boxes and retaining walls since last Friday.

"Look, Felix's guys have cement and a cement mixer. I think we'd be stupid not to do the posts while they've got that going," Big Dog said at the beginning of the week. There were a couple of fence posts that needed to be put in and we were going to hire a handyman to do it. But now, there was a mysterious new equation: Felix's guys have cement = Bad Dog has to (gets to?) dig some post holes.

Not having the right tools, I used my weed “claw” and an empty tuna can (!) The claw loosened the very hard, clay dirt and the can was for scooping it out.

"We're out-Amishing the Amish!" Big Dog laughed, impressed with my tuna can solution. I laughed then, too, but not that night when I had major lower back pain.

"I'm gonna get a medical marijuana license!" I swore yesterday, to anyone who'd listen (Magique, Pooka, Tanzer, Patches, Scruffy, the chickens…) and pampered myself by spending most of the day canning plum sauce, plum jam and applesauce instead of hunched over in the dirt.

But today, I was once again hunched over, filling cracks in our cement walkway "while we have Felix's cement" and I am swearing about my back again. Time to do something about it!

Friday, September 07, 2007


I've been enjoying a non-blogging week. (Sorry to make you come here for nothing the last few days!) Mostly because it was Birthday Week. Or maybe I should say WeekS.

Big Dog and I are both Virgos. In fact, our birthdays are only 2 days apart. The strange thing about Virgos is that they tend to find other Virgos. They also make a Big Deal about it. I've never met a Virgo who didn't think that she/he was somehow special because of that. We think we're great. Everyone else probably thinks we're anal-retentive Nazis. Maybe that's why only BD and I can stand each other!

You are the logical type and hate disorder. This nit-picking is sickening to your friends. You are cold and unemotional. Virgos make good bus drivers and pimps.

That was part of an email joke circulating several years ago, describing the characteristics of different Zodiac signs. I found an abbreviated version here.

I am sure I have more non-Virgo friends, but I seem to remember the Virgo birthdays more and in the last couple of weeks have sent out greetings to my former radio colleague, my best friend in Tokyo another friend of 35 years... Big Dog's friend came over to spend his 60th birthday with us, Horse Girl turned 16 on the day she got back from Iceland… the list goes on. And in the madness, I quietly greeted another milestone.

Saturday, September 01, 2007

Tori! Tori! Tori!

That was the Japanese title for Hitchcock's Birds. One "Tori!" wouldn't have been enough. Maybe it was a pun on the distributor's part. The birds in that movie were enough like the dive bombers at Pearl Harbor for a title that sort of played on Tora! Tora! Tora!

Here, at the ranch, the Dive Bombers are the loud and aggressive blue jays and the strangely communal crows.


"We're having chicken," I stage whisper to the turkey silhouettes. The family hangs around our house more these days. The babies are growing and are beginning to make short leaps, all flapping wings and windmilling feet. I'm sorry to see White Kid has a limp. Two Tone is doing fine, however, as are the seven Brown Ones.

As I grill a couple of chicken breasts for dinner (Jack Daniel's BBQ sauce on one, my own yakitori sauce on the other), they are huddled together on their favorite oak limb. It's already dark so I can only see their shadows -- mom's long neck and tiny head, shadows of her chicks all around her like a big black petticoat.

I feel bad grilling bird meat in front of them, but they seem pretty oblivious to it all as they digest their dinner of tasty, tender shoots, flowers, little bugs and the dizzyingly sweet grapes.

And for no particular reason, here's Bad Dog's 10 second Yakitori Sauce: soy sauce, grated ginger, pinch of sugar and vodka (haha! Gotta get your booze in any decent sauce! Normally, it would be sake. Or shochu. Wimps and teetotalers can use mirin.) A variation would be to add garlic and/or sesame oil and/or some kind of chili pepper sauce. Go easy on the soy. If it's not too salty, you can marinate your chicken in it 30 min - 1 hour before grilling. Otherwise, just baste as you grill.