Konnichiwa! This weekend finds us globetrotting in Japan. In the interest of transparency, I’ll admit upfront that Derek and I both have a longtime interest in Japanese culture. Finding items in our apartment that are either Japanese in origin, about Japanese culture, or inspired by Japan for a cover photo was easy—we may have even missed a few items, but as you can see, there’s plenty in the shot as it is. Even the tatami floor mat and chabudai (the low white table) are inspired by Japanese design.
To start off our globetrot, I tried to replicate a Japanese breakfast as best I could, while keeping it vegetarian, with rice, miso soup with tofu and spinach, pickled cucumbers, and tamagoyaki (a Japanese version of an egg omelette), plus some tea. While plating our breakfasts, it occurred to me that Japanese put a lot of emphasis on food presentation, and that our dish ware was lacking, when it comes to doing a Japanese breakfast justice. But the breakfast was tasty, though some of the components were lukewarm by the time we sat down to eat.
For a charming explanation of the components of a Japanese breakfast, you can check out this video from the YouTube channel Life Where I’m From. (LWIF has a lot of other interesting videos about Japanese culture and places in Japan, so it’s worth taking a look at their other videos as well.)
I went on an errand shortly after breakfast, and soon after I came back, Derek was preparing lunch, a Japanese-style curry. He even mixed together the curry blend. While one might usually associate curries with Indian or Thai cuisines, curry is also quite popular in Japan. Curry powder was most likely introduced to Japan by the British, who had been introduced to the spice blend by India.
In his quest to eat foods that promote longevity (you may recall Derek’s interest in food from the Greek island of Ikaria), Derek has recently taken up cooking foods eaten in the Japanese prefecture of Okinawa for his weekday lunches. Here’s a shot of his lunchbox from this past week. You’ll see a bitter melon and tofu salad, a purple sweet potato, short grain rice (brown), and kale (probably the least Okinawan item, but prepared with tamari and rice vinegar, seasonings commonly used in Japanese cooking). On Saturday he still had some leftovers from his weekday lunch prep, so he finished them as I was eating curry.
After lunch, we watched the Japan episode of Geography Now. While it was entertaining as usual, I have to admit that we didn’t learn as much from the episode as we often do with other countries, but that’s not Geography Now‘s fault; we just happen to be more familiar with Japanese culture than other cultures.
We went on a quick trip to the local food co-op to pick up a few more groceries that I needed for the week ahead. While we were there, Derek went through the store looking for evidence of the impact of Japan on American culture. Here’s a picture of some of the items he spotted.
The full list included shiitake mushrooms, daikon radishes, fuji apples, Japanese sweet potatoes, dried adzuki beans, udon noodles, dried wakame seaweed, teriyaki sauce, silken tofu, ready-to-eat maki rolls, sencha and matcha teas, and some Japanese baked goods hand-made by a local co-op supplier who bakes them in her kitchen.
When we returned, we watched a TEDxSapporo video that featured the shamisen, a three-stringed traditional Japanese instrument, and a shamisen player who hopes to inspire greater appreciation for the instrument both in and outside of Japan. We also nibbled on some Meiji Chocorooms, a Japanese snack that’s part chocolate, part biscuit, and shaped like little mushrooms.
For dinner, we first tried to go to a Japanese restaurant in our neighborhood primarily known for its sushi, but arrived there only to find out that they’ve been closed for most of the month, and won’t reopen until Monday. Luckily, there are other Japanese options in the area, so we were able to walk a little farther and have dinner at Sato. There are very few cuisines where we would be able to find a backup option so quickly–good thing Japanese cuisine is one of them! We shared a natto maki (sushi roll with natto, fermented soybeans) to start.
Derek had gyu-don, a rice dish with sliced beef and a poached egg, while I had a bowl of veggie ramen. The cold weather made our hot dishes seem especially appealing.
For dessert, we split a matcha creme brûlée. While this isn’t a traditional Japanese dessert, we don’t think it would be entirely out of place in a contemporary Japanese restaurant, since there’s a lot of evidence of other cultures influencing Japanese food, like curry as I mentioned earlier.
Back at home, we watched an episode of NHK World’s Hometown Stories series, short documentaries about people’s lives around Japan today. The episode we watched, “Back to Grandma’s Land: Chiemi’s Story,” was about a young woman, Chiemi, who moves from the city to look after her grandmother in her rural village. Cultural differences aside, I think anyone with aging loved ones could relate to this story.
The next morning, we breakfasted on more miso soup, tamagoyaki, rice, pickled cucumbers and tea, before preparing our lunches for the work week ahead. Before I knew it, it was time to make that day’s lunch, and its was my turn to cook. I had found a blog on Japanese vegetarian home cooking, and chose to make two recipes from it: a vegan chicken teriyaki, and a boiled spinach salad with sesame dressing. I’m not sure how closely my teriyaki chicken actually followed the recipe, since I increased the proportions and added a lot of potato starch to hold the mashed soybean mixture together. Derek said it reminded him of the turnip cakes you can get in Chinese dim sum, which I thought was a pretty accurate comparison.
In the afternoon, we watched the 2008 Japanese film Departures, a movie about a young man named Daigo who returns to his hometown after losing his job as a cellist in a Tokyo orchestra, and becomes a nokanshi, a kind of mortician who performs funeral rituals. Like “Chiemi’s Story,” the film was very touching even for us gaijin (non-Japanese) in Buffalo.
For dinner we had more of Derek’s curry, this time with some breaded chicken tenders (real chicken for Derek, soy “chicken” for me–both courtesy of the grocery store freezer section). Since Japanese curry is often eaten with tonkatsu (breaded pork cutlet), we figured breaded chicken wasn’t too far off base. Here’s Derek’s bowl:
Derek made us some mochi, confections made from sweet rice flour, using the microwave.
As we enjoyed our snack, we watched a piece on visiting Okinawa, and then another video about Okinawan street food. The foods featured in both videos aren’t the traditional Okinawan foods that supposedly promote longevity, but the videos were still interesting and gave us a good look at what modern day Okinawa is like.
And then it was Sunday night, and already time for bed! The weekend passed very quickly, and I haven’t even mentioned Japanese cultural elements in Buffalo beyond food. Buffalo has a Japanese garden in Delaware Park, the city’s equivalent of New York City’s Central Park (both Delaware and Central Parks were designed by Frederick Law Olmsted). The Buffalo Japanese Garden exists as a gesture of the sister city relationship between Buffalo and the Japanese city of Kanazawa. Below picture is one that I took of the garden a a few years ago, but you may want to visit this page for some better photos.
We also ride in Japanese-made vehicle everyday during the work week and occasionally on the weekends as well: the Buffalo Metro Rail’s cars were built by the Tokyu Car Corporation of Japan in the early 1980s. And in June, we were lucky to catch a performance by puppet master Koryu Nishikawa V, whom the Japanese government considers a “National Asset of Intangible Folk Culture,” at the central branch of the Buffalo and Erie County Public Library.
As expected, we really enjoyed this globetrot to Japan, and were sad that the weekend was over. We could have easily occupied ourselves for a few more days globetrotting in Japan here in Buffalo. We’re bound to revisit Japan even if it’s not on an official globetrot. So, until then, sayonara!