Traveling Vegan in Japan

The vegan lifestyle is new in Japan; vegetarianism is not. Shojin ryori (精進料理) - the vegetarian diet of the Buddhist monks - has been around for centuries in Japan. Japanese cuisine (and markets) are conducive to vegan cooking. (Lots of lovely veggies.) If you are used to fancy vegan fare and need a kitchen, consider renting an apartment. If a microwave will do the trick, you can probably rent one. Budget travelers staying at the nationwide Toyoko Inns will generally find a microwave in the lobby area.

Japanese Nikuman Meat Buns Made Easy

Trees naked of blossoms shivered under gray skies. The steaming hot Japanese nikuman meat buns were a great comfort. And wonderful hand warmers! Soft snow-white bread gave way to slightly spiced pork. Spring seemed an eternity away but the nikuman vanquished winter chills.

In Japan, you know it’s winter when nikuman meat buns appear. Steaming up glass cases are the plump Japanese buns. (There are also buns stuffed with sweet red bean paste, which are scrumptious, too.) Nikuman are basically the Japanese cousin to the Chinese bao.

Seeing snow in Tokyo is rare. (Travel north towards Hokkaido and it’s another story.) As a child happily home from school, I’d turn on the oven. Soon bread was baking.

Currently, I’m In Southern California. Not too much snow. With the perpetual sunshine I’m out a lot. Time is a precious commodity. With a can of Pillsbury Grands, I created timesaving, easy-to-make Japanese nikuman meat buns.

The buns are delicious. The filling I created with chicken meatballs is surprisingly almost identical to Japanese nikuman. The bread shell is not quite as soft as the Japanese bread. Still, the trade off for time is well worth it. If you’re a bread maestro...

St. Patrick’s Day Japanese Noodles

St. Patrick’s Day always brings back fond memories of Boston. One of the largest populations of Irish is in Boston, MA. The luck o’ the Irish has it that Boston is also home to one of the biggest St. Patrick’s Day parades.

Fun fact: Every year my hometown of Tokyo’s St. Patrick’s parade grows larger and more popular, too.

Summers with my mom in Massachusetts were so different from Tokyo where I spent the school year with my father and stepmother. Hot dogs, scrambled eggs and noodle dishes were the dish du jour at Mom’s. Her talents won her tennis trophies from Wimbledon and around the world. Blue ribbons for her culinary skills were never seen. I didn’t mind. Even in Japan, my go-to was ramen noodles if my Dad and stepmother went on date night.

Fun fact: Japanese ramen noodles were more expensive than soba noodles served in restaurants. In 1958, ramen were a luxury item!

Live the Ninja Dream

Nestled in the mountains of Mie Prefecture is Iga Ueno: Home to Japan’s famed ninja. Iga Ueno ninja alongside Shiga Prefecture’s Koga ninja (in Koka) were said to be the stealthiest. Mission impossible? Samurai summoned the Iga ninja and the Koga ninja. 

Arriving at the isolated Ninja Park in Iga Ueno, I wondered if real ninja were hiding. The mountainous town is a trek from Tokyo. Transportation time depends on which trains you catch. Our journey to the ninja town took under two hours. (Thanks to our Japan Rail Pass.) The return from fun with the ninjas, took about 3. However, I’d do it all over again. Yes, the ninja experience was amazing. But, also, the scenery outside the local train was breathtaking. A rushing river sang to the trees and rocks. 

How to Make the Gods Hear Your Prayers : Kyoto's Fushimi Inari Shrine

Defying the evening mist, Kyoto’s Fushimi Inari Shrine stands proud. A blaze of vermilion torii gates parade up a steep slope. Fox statues stare at you. The twisty trail takes you to a breathtaking mountaintop view. A fairyland of lights twinkle magic.

Many an atheist may have become believers at Fushimi Inari Jinja.  (Shrine in Japanese is jinja.) Besides the majestic beauty, the magic is almost palpable. Maybe that’s due to the prayers of the faithful. Or perhaps Inari, Japanese Shinto god of the harvest, blesses the shrine grounds. Could it be the fox statues – messengers of Inari, god of the harvest – come to life and actually deliver good news?

40,000 shrines are dedicated to Inari, the deity of the rice harvest. Fushimi Inari was built in 711 AD as the headquarters. The harvest is, of course, important. But a harvest blessing has blossomed into a metaphor for prosperity. How does one get to a life of riches? In Japan, entrance into an Ivy League university paves the path to success. Entrance exams results are important. So, one of the sub-shrines at Fushimi Inari is dedicated to the deity who helps students. The proper method to make the gods hear your prayers at Shinto shrines is in the short YouTube below.

Japanese Meatballs, #SundaySupper

Cooking Japanese food for a Jersey boy can be challenging. No azuki bean paste. Definitely no dried squid. Classic American chicken and rib roasts were standard fare in my husband, David’s childhood. Fish was the primary protein during my upbringing in Tokyo. Once in a while Japanese tsukune chicken meatballs were served. Familiar flavors of scallions, soy sauce, ginger and garlic accented the Japanese chicken meatballs.

Fellow ASIJ (American School in Japan) teens also munched on the meatballs alongside illegal beers!  (Japanese restaurants are stricter in the millennium about serving only to those who are adults.) After an ASIJ basketball game or theatre rehearsal, we’d go to a yakitori or ramen shop. (Yakitori are bits of chicken skewered on a skinny stick. Think Japanese shish kebab.) Japanese tsukune chicken meatballs are often served at yakitori restaurants.

Japanese Plum Perfection #JapanTravel #ValentineCake

Spring air –
woven moon
and plum sweet

Follow the plum blossom trail in Japan. The five-petaled flower reveals a controversial history. Before the birth of the celebrated cherry blossom parties in Japan, plum blossom viewing soirees were in vogue. With the death of Emperor Uda, however, the revered Japanese plum blossom settled to second place.

More Japanese songs and poetry may star Japan’s cherry blossoms. But, the plum blossoms hold center stage in February and March. Northeast of Tokyo, in Mito (Ibaraki Prefecture) the Kairakuen Garden boasts 3000 plum blossom trees. A festival showcasing the beauties is held from late February to March. Tokyo, Kyoto and Kyushu also have famous spots for plum blossom viewing.

Edamame Waldorf Salad, #SundaySupper

The Maître d’hôtel of New York’s famed Waldorf-Astoria, Oscar Tschirky invented the Waldorf Salad. Oscar’s original 1896 salad had 3 ingredients; apples, mayonnaise and celery. Besides the salad, the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel has a history of celebrity spotting. Marilyn Monroe, Marlon Brando, Winston Churchill, FDR are but a few of the names who signed the Waldorf-Astoria guestbook. Today, everyone from celebrity chef Rachael Ray to reality star Khloe Kardashian to movie stars like Michael J. Fox have made appearances. Wonder if Rachael Ray had the Waldorf Salad for lunch? My first encounter with the Waldorf Salad was at the home of a moneyed family in Tokyo. I was bowled over by the delicious combo of apples, grapes, walnuts, celery and mayo. (The indoor Japanese garden was pretty impressive, too!) The richly varied and creamy salad is indeed a refection of the luxury associated with the Waldorf-Astoria.

This week’s Sunday Supper theme is all about gearing up for romantic dinners for 2. For Valentine’s or any day, you want to serve the best for your beloved, right? Well, I do believe my Edamame Waldorf Salad fits the bill. Inspired by Adriana’s Best Recipes Endive Apple Salad with Walnuts, I tweaked the recipe and created Edamame Waldorf Salad. 

Chase Away the Demons Japanese Setsubun Brownies

Japanese Setsubun is February 3rd  “Demons out, good fortune in!” (Oni wa soto, fuku wa uchi鬼は外福は内) The cry is heard in every corner of Japan.

Japanese children chase demons from the home on Setsubun. How? They chant “Demons out, good fortune in!” by throwing roasted soybeans at a parent wearing a red “oni” mask. The Setsubun mild peanut-tasting beans are then enjoyed. (Usually a child’s age plus one.)

Apparently Japanese Setsubun signals the start of Spring – a time when spirits can easily slip in from other worlds. Setsubun roasted soybeans throwing at the demon-masked parent is the traditional way to clear the home of bad spirits. In Osaka, there is a time-honored tradition of eating uncut sushi hand rolls in silence. To make the sushi magic work, participants must stand facing a lucky direction. The lucky direction changes every year (and is based on a 5-year cycle.) In case you want to try this Osaka foodie tradition in 2017; eat your uncut sushi facing north-north-west. (In 2018, face south-south-east.)

Win Cooking for Jeffrey by Ina Garten #SundaySupper

“Cooking is one of the great gifts you can give to those you love.” ~Ina Garten

Emmy award-winning, New York Times bestselling author and cook, Ina Garten aka the Barefoot Contessa has delivered another sensational read and round of recipes! Cooking for Jeffrey is her latest cookbook. Or shall I say love story interspersed with sensational recipes? The cookbook is dedicated to her brilliant husband, Jeffrey Garten. (Former Dean of the Yale School of Management, White House foreign policy consultant to numerous Presidents, Lehman Brothers Asian Development maestro, and former board member of Toyota…You get the picture.)

In Cooking for Jeffrey, Ina Garten describes the first meeting with her future husband at Dartmouth College. And the awkward first date. She details the wonders of exploring food in France…and cooking in tents! Ina Garten treats us too to insights of moving from her cushy White House job to fame as the Barefoot Contessa.