A Love Letter to Osaka’s Takoyaki

Dear Takoyaki,

I was reminiscing today about our time in Osaka and thinking more about the concept of kuidaore (eating oneself into ruin) – something so many people experience in this culinary city. I was going to write an article about all the reasons we enjoyed Osaka: The massive aquarium with whale sharks,

[ptcPhoto filename=”whaleShark.jpg” title=”Whale shark” caption=”These things are huge” position=”center”]

manta rays,

[ptcPhoto filename=”OsakaManta.jpg” title=”Osaka Manta” caption=”As are these” position=”center”]

and octopus.

[ptcPhoto filename=”OsakaOctopus.jpg” title=”Osaka Octopus” caption=”She was saying hello” position=”center”]

The fabulous neighborhood around Dotonbori Street

[ptcPhoto filename=”Dotonbori.jpg” title=”Dotonbori” caption=” Dotonbori Canal and the Glico Man” position=”center”]

with its giant animatronic crabs.

[ptcPhoto filename=”OsakaCrab.jpg” title=”Osaka Crab” caption=”Kani Doraku crab restaurant” position=”center”]

The grand temples with five-story pagodas,

[ptcPhoto filename=”Shitennoji.jpg” title=”Shitennoji Temple” caption=”Shitennoji, the oldest temple in Japan” position=”center”]

and that ramen shop that was so satisfying on a rainy evening.

[ptcPhoto filename=”OsakaRamen.jpg” title=”Osaka Ramen” caption=”You’ll know the Kinryu Ramen shop by the huge dragon out front.” position=”center”]

I was going to write about the various other “Yakis of Osaka” like yakitori skewers and yakisoba.

[ptcPhoto filename=”Yakisoba.jpg” title=”Yakisoba” caption=”Yakisoba in Dotonbori” position=”center”]

Even okonomiyaki, a savory “as you like it” pancake – delicious with bacon, squid, and green onions – is second only to you, Takoyaki.

[ptcPhoto filename=”Okonomiyaki.jpg” title=”Okonomiyaki” caption=”A decadent okonomiyaki pancake” position=”center”]

Why do I love you so? Let me count the ways.

You don’t play hard to get – I can always find you when I’m looking for you. All I have to do is find a giant octopus perched over a shopfront, and there you are.

[ptcPhoto filename=”ShopFront.jpg” title=”Shop Front” caption=”The mark of a takoyaki place” position=”center”]

It takes mad skills to make you so good, from the pouring of the batter, to the adding of the diced octopus, ginger and onion, to the precisely timed somersault that ensures you’re evenly browned all around.

[ptcPhoto filename=”TakoMaker.jpg” title=”Making Takoyaki” caption=”Getting ready for the first turn” position=”center”]

Do you remember the time I watched you being made? I took a little video to mark the occasion:

And it only costs a few dollars to be with you – it’s not like the aforementioned animatronic crab restaurant where we spent $60 for an appetizer.

After you’re plucked out of your sizzling hot grill dimple, placed into a paper tray nestled alongside seven of your friends, slathered with takoyaki sauce, mayonnaise, and dried fish flakes, you’re just perfect.

[ptcPhoto filename=”Takoyaki.jpg” title=”Takoyaki” caption=”The finished product” position=”center”]

I try to eat you but your molten-hot magma burns my entire mouth. It reminds me that love hurts sometimes, but it’s always worth it in the end.

If I’m going to eat myself into ruin, I want you to be a part of it.

Hope to see you again soon.

&#x2661

Sam

Snapshot Sunday: Star Sand in Okinawa

[ptcPhoto filename=”StarSand640.jpg” title=”Star sand” caption=”Star sand on Taketomi’s Kaiji Beach – Okinawa, Japan” position=”center”]

We spent most of one afternoon searching for this “star sand” on a beach in Taketomi, Okinawa. Each piece consists of the exoskeleton of marine protozoa that once lived on the ocean floor, and measures barely a millimeter across. Sand stars are some of the oldest fossils known to humankind – there is evidence of them dating back 550 million years.

Click here to view a larger, detailed image.

A Night Out, Tokyo Style

After a a very fishy morning‎, we meet up with our new friends Kenta and Ayaka for a night out in Tokyo. We met Kenta one night on a beach in South Korea, and he graciously invited us out while we were in town.

We meet in Akihabara, known as Tokyo’s “Electric Town” for its many arcades, camera stores, computer parts, robotics, and anime. Electronic retailing began in Akihabara just after World War II when a large demand for radios spurred the growth of a black market.

[ptcPhoto filename=”AkihabaraBuilding.jpg” title=”Akihabara” caption=”Buildings in Akihabara” position=”center”]

Aside from the ubiquitous arcades and electronics, the area is also known for its “maid cafés”. These establishments are home to Japanese women dressed up as maids who provide conversation, play games, and serve food and drinks. There are over two hundred maid cafés in Japan, employing not only the traditional french maids, but chubby maids, some dressed as nuns, cross-dressing maids, and those who will offer more “personalized” services – use your imagination here. Upon entering a café they’ll cheerfully call out “Okaerinasai goshujin sama!” – “Welcome home, master!”.

[ptcPhoto filename=”MaidDreamin.jpg” title=”Maid Dreamin” caption=”Maid Dreamin, a popular chain in Akihabara” position=”center”]

Given how many maids work in Akihabara, they are extremely elusive. They don’t like to have their photos taken unless you’re a client, so it’s next to impossible to photograph them on the street.

[ptcPhoto filename=”AkiMaid.jpg” title=”Maid in Akihabara” caption=”You have to be sneaky if you want a photo.” position=”center”]

Kenta knows of a good café so we go in and play some games with a new maid friend. Before long Ayaka and I are encouraged to try on our own maid outfits. We’re shuffled back into a small room with various costumes, none of which seem to be large enough for my western body. I squeeze on a little pink number but the poor girl who’s helping me get dressed can’t zip it up past my ribcage.

I must be turning red because they start reassuring me: “Good body“, they say. “Nice body.” I finally find a costume that fits but it’s more reminiscent of The Wizard of Oz than sexy French maid. Ayaka pulls this off so much better than I do. This is embarrassing.

[ptcPhoto filename=”Dorothy.jpg” title=”Dorothy” caption=”Thankfully Eric loves it when I’m awkward.” position=”center”]

To make myself feel better I make the guys dress up too.

[ptcPhoto filename=”JelminiEars.jpg” title=”Bunny ears” caption=”Jelmini gets the ears” position=”center”]

After our maid time expires we wander around some of the many arcades and computer stores. We also find a huge, multistory sex shop that’s chock-full of fun things.

[ptcPhoto filename=”LipMyStockings.jpg” title=”Rip” caption='”Lip my stockings!”‘ position=”center”]

There’s an extensive clothing selection, and they’ll give you a discount if you agree to try on your new knickers and pose for the camera. Photos of scantily clad penny-wise ladies can be found throughout the shop, illustrating that this tactic really does work.

[ptcPhoto filename=”SexShopModel.jpg” title=”Sex Shop Model” caption=”How badly do you want 20% off?” position=”center”]

Next we meet up with some more friends to watch the fireworks. During the summer there are fireworks around Tokyo every single weekend, but this show is supposed to the biggest and best of the whole year. Unfortunately it rains and the show is canceled after only a few minutes. Undeterred, we find a nearby izakaya and sample Japanese shochu (rice liquor) and tapas.

[ptcPhoto filename=”Izakaya.jpg” title=”Izakaya” caption=”Experiencing the effects of shochu” position=”center”]

To end our very long, hilarious day, we venture into a karaoke establishment. Unlike karaoke (pronounced kah-rah-oh-kay) in the states, Japanese bokkusu provide small rooms for your party instead of making you sing on a stage in front of the whole bar. To say their music selection is impressive would be an understatement.

[ptcPhoto filename=”Karaoke.jpg” title=”Karaoke” caption=”We do have a video, but it’s too embarrassing to share.” position=”center”]

They have every song we can think of! Kenta gets us started with “A Whole New World” from the Aladdin soundtrack, and from there we sing Maroon 5, John Denver, Garth Brooks, Bon Jovi, and even Bohemian Rhapsody by Queen. None of us will be trying out for Idol any time soon. Our final song, of course, is Don’t Stop Believing by Journey. Because there is no better way to end a drunken karaoke session.

Many thanks to Ayaka and Kenta for showing us around Tokyo. We look forward to returning the kindness in the States someday!

A Morning Out, Tokyo Style

The day begins at 3:45 with Eric handing me a packaged 7-Eleven espresso. A quick splash of water to the face, and the three of us stumble out into Tokyo’s early morning mist. We hail a taxi to take us to Sushi Dai, a popular breakfast place near Tokyo’s Tsukiji Fish Market. Sushi for breakfast? Yes, it was Eric’s idea. I’ll know to thank him later, but in the meantime I’m still rubbing the sleep from my eyes and the meter is up around $50. The streets seem strangely empty but it’s no wonder, really. Getting up this early is downright unnatural.

The cabbie drops us at the far side of the market so we wander around a bit before finding the restaurant, meeting an Australian named Cameron along the way. When we arrive the line is already wrapped around the block.

Why, you ask, would people wake up before dawn for dinner food?

[ptcPhoto filename=”DaiLine.jpg” title=”Dai Line” caption=”We’ll be here a while.” position=”right”]

Because Sushi Dai offers an affordable omakase (chef-chosen) meal consisting of the best and freshest fish. They serve fish from the auctions held at dawn each day, perhaps the best fish in the world. So we stand and wait with all the other people who can appreciate a good meal. The restaurant can only seat twelve people at a time, so we wait for over three hours.

All this waiting does give me some time to test out our new macro lens in the nearby market stalls.

[ptcPhoto filename=”MacroGrapes.jpg” title=”Grapes” caption=”Fresh grapes in the market” position=”center”]

We finally get up to the front of the line, and our spirits lift a bit.

[ptcPhoto filename=”AlmostThere.jpg” title=”At the entrance” caption=”Almost there!” position=”center”]

Once inside, we take a seat at the sushi bar and began our culinary journey. The chef places each piece of nigiri on the bar itself next to a little pile of ginger. With each bite he gives us a description and instructions: Either “no soy” or “soy”.

This horse mackerel is particularly photogenic.

[ptcPhoto filename=”Mackarel.jpg” title=”Mackarel” caption=”But only for a moment, and then I eat it.” position=”center”]

Throughout the meal, the people still enduring the wait peek inside to see what’s taking us so long.

[ptcPhoto filename=”WaitingPeople.jpg” title=”Waiting” caption=”You will be handsomely rewarded, my friends.” position=”center”]

Even if I’m still a little grumpy about getting up so early, Sushi Dai breakfast is the freshest sushi we’ve ever had. In terms of omakase, it’s a steal at only ¥3900 ($39) each.

[ptcPhoto filename=”Uni.jpg” title=”Uni” caption=”A lovely piece of uni (sea urchin)” position=”center”]

The hungry people by the door breathe a sigh of relief as we trundle our bloated bellies out of the restaurant. It’s time to burn off our breakfast by exploring the busiest fish market in the world.

As far as fish markets go, Tsukiji tops them all. About five million pounds of seafood find their way through the market every day. This is eleven times the volume of New York City’s Fulton Fish Market, the largest fish market in North America. In terms of dollars, that comes to about $28 million worth of fish! The early morning fish auctions are so popular with tourists that they’ve started limiting the number of people who can visit to 120 a day. It was never meant to be a tourist attraction, after all.

Even so, the proper etiquette for visiting is clearly displayed at the main entrance.

[ptcPhoto filename=”Tsukiji.jpg” title=”Tsukiji Entrance” caption=”Noooo!!!” position=”center”]

It looks like tourists have behaved pretty badly in the past.

[ptcPhoto filename=”SamuraiSword.jpg” title=”Samurai Sword” caption='”Hey dude, let me hold it!”‘ position=”center”]

Once inside we find a frenzy of sea creatures as trucks speed past in every direction. We leap out of the way so we don’t lose our toes and slide around on the slick fish-watery pavement. These guys are working and aren’t slowing down for Looky-Lous.

[ptcPhoto filename=”FishFillet.jpg” title=”Fish Fillet” caption='”Wow! Looks just like a samurai sword!”‘ position=”center”]

Our death-defying meandering takes us through row after row of colorful seafood, and we gain some insight on how the fishmongers do their business.

[ptcPhoto filename=”TsukijiOctopus.jpg” title=”Octopus” caption=”Fresh octopus” position=”center”]

After a while Jelmini pretends he’s fishmonger himself.

[ptcPhoto filename=”JelminiBigFish.jpg” title=”Big Catch” caption=”Watch out for the guns.” position=”center”]

After filleting his imaginary catch, he also delivers it.

[ptcPhoto filename=”JelminiCart.jpg” title=”Fish cart” caption=”Jelmini’s new wheels” position=”center”]

A quick visit to the hotel to wash the fish off my feet (sandals were a poor choice), and it’s time for an evening out with friends – stay tuned for part numero dos!

Snapshot Sunday: Youth Fashion at Yoyogi Park

[ptcPhoto filename=”Decora640.jpg” title=”Decora” caption=”Youth Fashion at Yoyogi Park, Harajuku – Tokyo, Japan” position=”center”]

On Sundays, Tokyo’s Harajuku neighborhood is flooded with extreme Japanese youth fashions. From rockabilly and cosplay to Gothic Lolita and punk, anything goes for “Harajuku Kids”. Bright colors and head to toe accessories characterize the Decora style above.

Click here to view a larger, detailed image.