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A Wine Lover's Diary, Part 462: Japan, Part 1 (September 23, 2013)

Shinto temple, Tokyo
Shinto temple, Tokyo

Monday, September 16: Up at 4:45 am to get to the airport for a 7:30 am flight to Newark, en route for Tokyo. Barry Chaim picked us up and drove us there, giving us last-minute instructions about our trip that he has arranged. Checking in for our United Airlines flight to Newark, we learn that the flight has left. It was rescheduled an an hour earlier. They said we were sent an email but I don't recall having received it. After much time spent on the phone with Aeroplan, we are rebooked on Air Canada direct to Tokyo which suited us just fine. However, just heard that typhoon Man-yi closed Tokyo airport yesterday!

Tuesday, September 17: After a thirteen-hour flight, we arrived in Tokyo to find little evidence of a typhoon. We cleared immigration and customs remarkably quickly and bought tickets for the limo shuttle to ANA Intercontinental Hotel. Our luggage was efficiently packed onto the bus and the guy came aboard as we were about to leave and bowed to everyone. An hour and fifteen minutes later we arrived at the hotel. We united with our travelling companions, Lola and Bob and Leslie and Jonathon for dinner in one of the hotel's three restaurants, Karin's. We all ordered soup – mine, abalone and dried scallop – and shared portions of steamed prawn and pork dumplings. To bed at 9:30 pm, exhausted.

Wednesday, September 18: Awake at 4 am. Breakfast in the hotel, an amazing array of food. Opted for a Japanese breakfast.

My traditional Japanese breakfast
My traditional Japanese breakfast

Our Tokyo guide Hitomi
Our Tokyo guide Hitomi

This morning, guided by Hitomi, the daughter of Edo's first chef, and Kimio Nonaga, Japan's Iron Chef in 2002, we visited the Tokyo fish market, a vast covered warehouse spreading over 50 acres with more varieties of fish than I have ever seen. Remarkably clean, although you have to be careful of the motorized flatbeds that whizz around the place. Apparently the market is to be torn down to make way for condo development and will be moved to an island off the city. What a shame.

Iron Chef Kimio selecting fish
Iron Chef Kimio selecting fish

Market fishmonger
Market fishmonger

Squid
Squid

Blowfish
Blowfish

Fresh wasabi
Fresh wasabi

Prize tuna
Prize tuna

Deborah posing as a tuna fisher
Deborah posing as a tuna fisher

Deborah stopped in at a pottery store to buy four soup bowls before we went to lunch at noon at a Sushi restaurant in Nihonbashi. Enjoyed a Kirin beer with my sushi.

Kabuki Theatre, Tokyo
Kabuki Theatre, Tokyo

300-year-old fir tree
300-year-old fir tree

After lunch we took taxis to the Hamarikyu Gardens, formerly the falconry grounds of the Shogun until the mid-seventeenth century. We took a boat trip up the Sumida River to Asakusa. All the bridges across the river are painted in different bright colours. A great way to see Tokyo's modern architecture, including the Tree of Life and a huge sculpture that looks like a wayward golden sperm.

Tree of Life building
Tree of Life building

Golden sperm sculpture
Golden sperm sculpture

After the boat trip, we took taxis over to the home of sumo in Ryogoku, a stadium to watch only sumo wrestling for six weeks a year. We were crammed, shoeless, into a 5-by-6-foot space, enclosed by a low railing, sitting on square red mats. The most uncomfortable spectator sport in the world. As it is Japan's national sport, the crowd was the most boisterous and demonstrative I've seen by a Japanese audience, who are usually the most reserved and discreet of individuals. Sumo wrestling is a curious sport, very ritualized, with bouts that last only 10 seconds or less. Contestants bow to each other and go through an elaborate dance, slapping their thighs, squatting and lifting their legs and throwing salt into the circular ring to "purify" it of evil spirits. At the end of the final bout the spectators rose and began hurling their mats at the ring. We thought it was because they were unhappy with the result of the match, but it turns out it's a tradition to chuck your mat at the ring when the tournament is over.

Sumo mural outside stadium
Sumo mural outside stadium

After the sumo wrestling adventure, we cabbed over to Nihonbashi Yukari, to Iron Chef Kimio Nonaga's restaurant for dinner. His family have been purveyors to the Imperial Family for three generations.

At the restaurant, we were joined by Masayuki Suzuki, a friend of Barry's who will be our guide tomorrow. And what a meal, not cheap, but one of the finest dinners I've had. We started with a bottle of local wine, Adega Aruva 2012, which tasted like a blend of Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc and Muscat (the back label was in Japanese).

The first course was a small glass of smoked mozzarella custard, followed by a box with a grass frond laid across the top. Inside were two small pots containing jellyfish and abalone with roasted sesame oil, walnut pate, and on the side, beautifully arranged, a slice of sweet potato, ginkgo nuts and dried fish.

Iron Chef creation
Iron Chef creation

The next course was shiitake mushrooms and pieces of conger eel in a broth served in a pottery teapot with a wedge of lemon and a brush of pine needles wrapped in silver foil stuck into the spout to keep it hot. Masayuki ordered a bottle of Ukari Sake, which we drank at room temperature.

The next course was bonito fish, shrimp, snapper and ark shell with a paste of pickled chrysanthemum petals and shredded daikon and the crunchy, baked head of the shrimp. Next course, leek, tuna, pancake and radish served on a pedestalled plate. Then slivers of waygu beef, followed by Spanish mackerel fish cheeks and rice.

Kimio's rice and fish flake dish
Kimio's rice and fish flake dish

We finished with adzuki bean ice cream with soya bean flower, brown sugar syrup and crunchy toasted rice grains. Altogether a memorable meal.

The traffic in Tokyo is very disciplined and the drivers are very patient. Haven't heard one horn yet – not like China, which is chaotic and dangerous.

Toothpick holder
Toothpick holder

Thursday, September 18: Had a quick breakfast at Starbucks before meeting Masayuki Suzuki for a walking tour of Tokyo. He showed us how to use the subway system, which is immaculately clean and efficient.

We first visited the Yasukuni Shrine, dedicated to the victims of both side of the civil war, and a museum commemorating the fallen in World War II. We walked over to an district that specializes in second-hand books and woodblock prints. At Kimio Koketsu's Ohya-Shobo store we saw prints dating back to the eighteenth century.

Walked up to the Hilltop Hotel for lunch at a tempura restaurant. I had a bowl of rice with tempura-battered shrimps and miso soup with baby clams. Then we took the train to Akihabara to visit an amazing electronics department store on five floors.

MaiDreamin Girl
MaiDreamin Girl

As we were walking around we were accosted on one corner by a girl dressed in a French maid's outfit and carrying a black umbrella to protect herself from the sun. She was handing out leaflets to get you to visit MaiDreamin, where the young girls dress up as French maids and serve you drinks and sing and dance. This, explained Masayuki, was part of the Manga comic book culture of doll-like girls who are as familiar as Disney characters to the young people of Japan. So we decided to check it out. The girl who handed us the flier led us to a building and up some narrow stairs to a room that looked like a junior school room painted in kindergarten colours. Apart from the 1000 yen entrance we had to buy at least two items from the food and drinks menu. We were not allowed to photograph the girls in their short skirts and black stockings but you could choose one with whom we could have your Polaroid photo taken. It was all very weird and vaguely pornographic.

Dinner that evening at the restaurant of Kimio Nogano's brother Jiro in Kagurazaka. It's called an izakaya (sake house), which is in effect a Japanese pub. The difference between this one and others, Barry Chaim emailed me, is that "Jiro is a bit upscale and specializes in robata. Robata is the paddle used to put the food on that the cook passes to you. The cooking is usually done on an open grill. The concept originated in the countryside."

Jiro with gift
Jiro with gift

The menu, which kept on coming: the first dish (cold), a plate consisting of a piece of marinated squash, fish eggs compressed into a short bar, rice roll with fried shrimp, avocado, enoki and oyster mushrooms, seaweed and spinach which we consumed with Reisen Sake. Next, a soup of shiitake mushrooms, conger eel and egg tofu. Followed by raw tuna, amberjack, flounder and bonito flakes.

Jiro with robata dish of eels
Jiro with robata dish of eels

Then came the robata dishes: a skewer of grilled eel in a sweet marinade and green pepper stuffed with gorgonzola. A dish of eggplant with finely chopped chicken in miso, mirin and soy sauce. Then a skewer of grilled chicken dusted with salt and sugar and interspersed with leeks. Next tempura of lotus root, sweet potato, chili pepper and conger eel. Followed by fried fish flakes with rice, pickled daikon and ginger. Ending with miso soup and an ice cream and rice flour dumpling, gelatined agar, molasses syrup and toasted rice kernels. And then tea. Home by 11 pm to pack, as we are leaving early tomorrow.

Friday, September 20: Up at 5:30 am to finish packing and be ready to take taxis to the railway station by 6:45 am. We buy a bento box at the station for breakfast before boarding the Nozomi speed train to Kyoto – a journey of 2 hours and 20 minutes. Manage to sleep for an hour. At Kyoto station we buy another bento box for lunch to be eaten when we reach our destination – a ryokan in Ohara, a half hour taxi-ride from Kyoto.

Bento box selection, Kyoto
Bento box selection, Kyoto

A ryokan is a traditional Japanese inn with tatami-matted floors and sliding door panels – a sort of Japanese B&B. This one, in the hills above Kyoto, is owned by Rieko Nishikawa and her husband Thomas Aoyagi, an ex-Torontonian. Ryokan Seryo, located in front of the Sanzen-in Temple, has been in Rieko's family for six generations and was originally a tea plantation. Our room opens onto an ornamental pond filled with colourful, fat koi that respond to anyone approaching with open mouths.

Seryo Ryokan
Seryo Ryokan

Our room at the ryokan
Our room at the ryokan

Deborah with koi
Deborah with koi

Sanzen-in Temple near our ryokan
Sanzen-in Temple near our ryokan

Water fountain, Ohara
Water fountain, Ohara

Local flora
Local flora

Local flora
Local flora

We went for a walk around the village and then had a hot mineral bath before dinner. The dinner, served at 6 pm, was a traditional kaiseki multi-course banquet, usually part of the tea ceremony. We ordered a bottle of Saint Clair Sauvignon Blanc 2012 from Marlborough. The first course was a tray with an egg-cup of basil-infused sake the colour of pomegranate, a tiny bowl of marinated aubergine, and a plate of raw salmon and squid. Alongside it was an elevated bowl of traditional one-bite morsels of food for the new moon "from the mountain from the village and from the sea" – okra, potato, fish, crystallized lime and an orange ball to represent the moon.

New moon food
New moon food

Bream in yellow bowl
Bream in yellow bowl

This was followed by bream, turnip and tofu in a beautiful yellow bowl. Next, a fresh water fish served on a slate that looked like a sardine stuffed with roe and shaped as if it was swimming in the river.

Freshwater fish
Freshwater fish

Then eel in egg custard followed by shredded chicken and fish salad in a beautifully decorated glass with daikon, cubes of tomato and agar. Next course, tempura of shrimp, squash, green pepper, aubergine and kampio, followed by rice with mushrooms and pickled vegetables and finally miso soup and tea. We were in bed by 8:30 pm!

Tempura
Tempura

 

 

 

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