Saturday, August 27, 2011

Sapporo's Yummy Night In and Wet Night Out

7th August, 2010 - Well, after all that shopping earlier in the day, we were well primed for a quick dinner before heading out for the night. Okaasan had made a fairly typical meal for us - simple but delicious. We had a chicken meatball soup... (above).

 Some tempura beans from T-chan's auntie's garden... very fresh and delicious way of eating them.

And we also had some baked Hokke, a fish (related to mackerel) that you'll find up to the north of Japan... and especially Hokkaido. This is often written as Hoke in english, and shouldn't be confused with Hoki which is a more common fish (especially around Australia and New Zealand). The fish itself is quite nice, a firm white fish meat that is very nice no matter how you cook it.

After having eaten dinner, T-chan and I went out... and I have to admit, we don't get much of a chance to do that enough these days. The outing of choice? To go see a movie ("Inception" - don't forget this was last year) down at the Sapporo Cinema Frontier at the JR Tower, Sapporo Station. Going to the cinema isn't cheap in Japan... the normal price is 1800yen per adult (about 22.50AUD) - or down to 1000yen for children. It used to be that going to the cinema was cheap in Australia, but those days are gone. We often pay about 18AUD these days wonder the cinema is struggling these days.

Now in Australia we tend to have one cheap day per week (here it's "tight-arse tuesday")... but things are a little more complicated in Japan:
  • First day of the month
  • Menzudei (wednesday special for males only)
  • Ladies Day (thursday special - you guessed it, for femails only)
  • Late screenings (after 8pm) 
  • Mornings during the week 
  • Over 50s - 1000yen
Very complicated indeed... and whilst we caught the 8:30 session (ok, we're tight), and even though it was a Saturday night there really weren't that many people there. Still, we enjoyed our date out, and we enjoyed Inception. Not quite as cerebral as I was lead to believe, but still a good movie with plenty of action with the Kubrik-esque style. As for the movie-going experience, it was quite enjoyable, and JR Tower's a convenient place to watch a movie. Strange to go to Japan to watch a Hollywood movie.

On the way home the weather took a turn for the worse. Summer time in Japan is synonymous with rain, and whilst less so in Hokkaido it was still pretty bad. We thought we could out-walk it from the subway line... alas with only one umbrella (which T-chan had except for this photo when we got back home), we were always going to struggle. I can't remember the last time I got this wet.... actually, this is most probably why I don't (as a habit) enter wet t-shirt competitions. Good taste and possibly local laws prevent it. Or at least should.

Next time we'll definitely taxi it back!

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

The Food Chain... Shopping at a Sapporo Supermarket

7th August, 2010 - Well, this is the third and final in my sequence of eating and shopping in a typical Sapporo shopping centre. Here we step where only about a million people a day dare to step. Inside a Sapporo Supermarket. Now to be honest I've not spent a lot of time in supermarkets outside Hokkaido, so I don't know if there's many differences. As you might expect, differences are pretty obvious when you compare with  a typical Aussie supermarket. Yes - prices in yen is a bit of an obvious one.  But also, the big obvious one is to see the extent to which seafood replaces red-meats.

It's when you see huge freezer section after section filled with all manner of seafood delights that you appreciate just how dependent Japan is on the ocean for it's food.

And the range is quite impressive too... we're not talking fish, squid, prawns, lobster and maybe baby octopii... but a whole range of different beasties - many of which I've never seen before. Certainly not here in Australia. One of the more unusual things you find are Ascidians, or known as hoya (ホヤ) in Japanese - these are more colloquially known as sea-squirts.

Of course, there's not just whole fish for sale... you can even buy them disassembled! I have to admit not the most attractive (or appetizing) to my eyes, but still, to a country that lives of fish stock, you can't go passed some yummy fish-bits.

And it's not only seafood that you can buy - I mean, an entire isle of free-made sushi packs - and pretty cheap too! I can't actually recall us ever buying pre-made supermarket sushi, but it's definitely a convenient lunchtime or quick dinner option.

I guess this is the part of the post where I say that it's actually - despite general belief - quite cheap to eat in  Japan. In fact, T-chan was quite amazed when she first came to Australia as to how expensive food shopping was here. That's only got worse here of late with the huge spike in fruit and veg prices after the spate of disasters in Australia.

Here's a wider look at just a small part of fresh-seafood section...  It's huge, and just goes on and on.

The other area that tends to be bigger is the dairy food section - at least here in Sapporo. Milk is prevalent here, and I have to say it's delicious... one of the reasons why Hokkaido soft-serve ice-cream is loved by many. And for a city that has so much snow in winter, it's amazing how much ice-cream is consumed.

And strangely enough, the red-meat section is quite a good distance away from this seafood section (actually it's with the veg - but I'm not sure if you can read anything into that or not). I know Aussie beef is seen as a bit of a cheap-meat in Japan. Comparatively so at least. Here's some good Aussie Beef... 780 yen per 400 grams (or about 25 AUD per kg)
This price is not that far from the price we pay here in Australia for a good scotch fillet steak in the supermarket... and you'd pay about 15AUD per kg for the same "sizzle" thinly sliced meat. Although Aussie shops tend to look for leaner beef in these health conscious times. So red-meat is definitely not cheap in Japan.

Now this is where we do a return to stereo-type. Fresh seasonal fruit is where a lot of people get the impression of it being ridiculously priced in Japan. For example, a box of 6 peaches comes to a cheap 1980yen - or 25AUD. That's a little on the pricey side, even if they are individually wrapped and boxed.

Watermelons were not that bad... 1580yen each (or just under 20 AUD).

Ok - this is more expensive...3980yen (50AUD) melons... at least their local Hokkaido produce (though for that price, I might have wanted them to have been flown in from somewhere a bit exotic).

But by the time we get to cantaloupes (or rockmelons as they're known in Australia), you start getting a little about 5,800yen (72.50AUD). That's starting to get a little pricey indeed. 

And these are just ordinary supermarket prices. You can spend much more than that... such as shown here for 42,000yen (525AUD) or the record for two Yubari melons that went for 2.5 million yen (just over 31,000AUD) for the first pair of the season. Now why is it that the Japanese are willing to pay this much for fruit? The odd thing is that in Japan, people don't pay that sort of money for fruit to eat for themselves. No - they buy expensive fruits as gifts for family, friends or associates. And there's nothing that says I love you than buying your beloved a pair of $30,000 melons!

Interesting but almost unrelated fact:
Yubari is a small city of about 12-13,000 people to the east of Sapporo - but out in the middle of no-where. It is now famous for at least two things - it's ultra-expensive melons, and it's monumental debt. It certainly needs all the help it can get, as the city (an ex mining town) went into complete bankruptcy in 2007 under extreme debt incurred from national government borrowing to build up the city. Like many places in Japan during the late 80's and early 90's, they thought that lending vast monies from the government to build subsidised amusement parks (and other attractions) would inspire local industry. Instead, it progressively impoverished much of the Japan's rural areas that had succumbed to the loans.

Actually Yubari is sort of well know for a third thing... having the youngest mayor, Naomichi Suzuki aged only 30 years of age. Having fallen into bankruptcy, the city of Yubari was the centre of considerable remedial action by the central government. Suzuki was part of that Tokyo-led government intervention for two years, when he decided he'd try his luck at politics. He won the mayoral position in April 2011 - the youngest mayor in Japan in the most financially struggling municipality with the most expensive melons. Interesting combo.

So - whilst in the West we see mega-expensive fruits for sale in Japan and wonder at the meaning of it all, there is a sort of sense to it... but that doesn't mean that the Western media don't go crazy every time they see these high prices. It's always good to reinforce a stereotype after all - and the one which shows Japan as being mega-expensive is a good one. On the whole, my experience is that there are many fresh vegetables that are cheaper in Japan - and seafood is a no-brainer. You just have to be wise in shopping, and avoid the trophy fruit abd vegetables.

Now melons aren't the only form of gift-giving, and I think that I will end here. The perfect gift for all occasions.  A beer pack. I'll just put my order in for a slab of Sapporo Draft shall I? Now, what's the occasion? Well, it is after 6pm somewhere... isn't it (ok... I don't mean to sound like a complete slosh here).

My final advice... when travelling to Japan, don't be afraid to venture into a supermarket. It may not be the first thing that you'll think of when you're planning your holiday. But it tells you a lot about the common things, and the points of difference between two places.

PS - it was most probably a bit silly me taking so many photos in the supermarket... and I'm surprised I wasn't told not to. Still, I'm glad that I could show a bit of what it's like to shop like a normal person rather than as a tourist.

Friday, August 19, 2011

Other Food Findings... A Story on Filling Your Stomach Through Your Eyes

7th August, 2010 - Continuing our adventures in the local Aeon shopping centre... there's one thing that I that I do love about Japan. The range of food places that you can find. And one of my favourite foods is Yakitori. Ok - when I think yakitori-ya, I'm normally thinking a dingy dive somewhere in a side street somewhere, or a seedy place filled with cigarette smoke and the smell of beer. But there's also a very refined version of these stores - very family friendly.

And whilst they may lack a slight texture (not to mention palpable ambience), they're a good place to grab a bite to eat during the day. I love the boys expression above... reminds me of the stereotypical dog staring at through the butchers window - unable to get what he most desires. Aren't we all a bit like that?... the grass is greener on the other side, the taste sweeter beyond the glass?

The other thing I love about Japanese food are the bakeries. Now a lot of people don't get Japanese baked goods, but for me they're brilliant. Not too sweet (unlike most similar places here in Australia), and always a great variety of flavours (some of which are a little weird), and shapes. And comparatively cheap.

I know I often sound like a paid advertisement for Japan - and I'm sure that many people that have moved to Japan have well-and-truly got over the whole difference-thang.... but for me I'm still a convert. I still remember from my first trip back in 2003 being totally blown away by the breads that you could buy. I especially love the thick sliced breads that look and feel more like wheaten cloud pillows than bread. And I'm also a big fan of the corn-oil margarines... very tasty - though I admit to having no idea how (un)healthy they are. And don't care.

Now this bakery, the Bread Factory, is not necessarily a favourite amongst our family, but it's got a good range of foods. Part of me wonders about the hygiene aspects of having all this food out in baskets, and sometimes Japan can be a complete bucket-load of contradictions (as compared to the individually wrapped biscuits that are every where).

The other thing you'll find an abundance of is kawaii, cute foods. Panda anyone? Coming from Adelaide (who are current custodians of Funi and Wang Wang) I should be upset by this blatant attack on all that is good and true about Panda-hood... but for the life of me, I just want to bite their heads off. The cake ones that is.... (lick lips)... honest.

Kameron (カメロン) anyone?... but before you answer... whilst kame is turtle, this means Cameron. I don't like it when my food has a name. A person's name that is. Even at 140 yen.

I much prefer generically named things - like donuts. Hmmm - getting hungry. And that's after a HUGE meal of KFC tonight. Ok - so obviously healthy diet is not top on my list of priorities at the moment.

Speaking of KFC (actually that's not a bad segue to this photo), the other thing that Japan has a love for is the Colonel in drag. Ok - it may not be a woman's drag, but it's not unusual to see the man in all manner of dress. Any occasion is good enough to put him in a coat, armour, or bear suit. Sometimes a happi coat is enough to get the message across that whilst he's sporting the appearance of a white colonial plantation owner, he's just as comfortable in the local digs.

Monday, August 15, 2011

Food Faux Pas... Or Just Faux Parfait?

7th August, 2010 - My family had popped into one of the Aeon shopping centres in Sapporo, and were thinking about having lunch - and that's always a pleasant though at times confusing task. Always so many options - especially when you stand outside a row of shops each with their foods on display. And it got me thinking of why is it that Japan seems to be largely unique in this tradition. And reminds me of when I first came to Japan, in 2003, and didn't have any idea about anything. It's embarrassing, but I didn't know it was all fake. At least most of it is... I can still recall going past one little cafe which had some pasta dishes out... and T-chan was explaining to me that it was all fake. To prove it she stuck her finger in the dish to show it was plastic. It turned out to be real... oops. Now that's embarrassing - a food faux pas? Maybe, but it's also a rare exception.

Most cafes have displays out the front, which are known as shokuhin sanpuru or food samples. They pretty well tell you all there is to know about the dish, and are a god-send for foreigners who are unfamiliar with Japanese (or Japanese food for that matter). Though most make ordering easy, some can also be a little harder to interpret  such as spicy hot (karai) foods.

It always amazed me how much attention to detail there was in these food displays. Most of them literally look good enough to eat. All they need is to invent the perpetual smell, and it would be perfect. But one question kept coming into my head - why? Was this really about making foreigners lives that much easier? Actually, it's quite an interesting tale; which I can't hope to justice - but will try. [Note: the best sources of info I found on the net was from an Asahi Shimbun article by Chisato Yokota, a really good post by Steve Edwards on SeekJapan, a great newsletter from Yoko Howes , and an interesting expose by Japan Times by Yoko Hani - drop us a line if you know of others].

Now the story goes something like this, the practice of creating fake or display foods originally started around 1917 in Tokyo, with the fake foods being created out of wax. By the mid 1920's these wax creations were being used by a restaurant as a means of cooking up some extra business (bad pun I know). Apparently, it worked. Then along comes the manufacturing entrepeneur Ryuzo Iwasaki, who developed a technique for producing fake omuraisu in Osaka in 1932. Strangely he had been initially attracted by the anatomical models that were being made from wax around that time... I'm just wondering how differently things would have turned out if he'd remained fascinated by the anatomical models - choosing doctors by the organs they displayed out the front of their surgeries? Er... food was definitely a good commercial move Ryuzo! Indeed, the popularity of food displays is often attributed to the sudden influx of foreign foods into Japan, and the need for a universal language... the WYSIWYG of the early twentieth century. That may or may not be true, but I don't think that it's something that modern day Japanese would give a second's thought to.

It was a great success, and started the Iwasaki fake food company. From those humble beginnings it turned into an industry worth billions of yen per yer. With cash in pocket, Ryuzo returned to his hometown of Gujo in Gifu prefecture; where a significant gathering of fake food companies have been established. The question remains - why? And more importantly, why don't other cultures use the same methods? According to one Japanese writer, Nose Yasunobum, this comes from a Japanese trait to eat first with the eyes... the reality however is that if you were to ask most Japanese why, they would shrug their shoulders as if you were asking why the sky is blue. Whatever reason, it is now a cultural norm - and one which is convenient for so many travellers to Japan.

It's hard to conceive of just how many of these displays are made - I mean after all, the sheer number of restaurants/cafes in Sapporo alone are countless... then if you consider the main cities of Tokyo, Osaka and Nagoya - it's hard not so see how big the industry has become. Yet for all of that, this food is designed to achieve one thing only. To make the shops food look more appetising than anything else you're going to see. I guess it's also somewhat of a status symbol... the nicer the displays, the nicer the impression of the shop. Of course, if the food doesn't taste as good as the advertisement looked...that's a different story. And yes, over-sell definitely occurs in the food-display business as well. But that's a testament to the power of suggestion, and the desire of the normal punter to want to believe in finding the perfect hamubagu, tonkatsu, omuraisu or parfait. Don't we all deep down want that?

Apparently these faux food displays are not only used in shop-fronts, but also in advertising... as they allow a higher degree of photographic freedom and "consistency". They don't melt. Not the best advertisement I would think if people realised that the fake version looked better than the real thing. The thing is, that these fake foods often have to be assembled with the same sorts of skills and techniques as the real things... and often the best makers have strong cooking backgrounds as well.

You can buy fake food displays off-the-shelf (see below), but the best ones are customised in terms of how the shop actually makes it's food, from the dishes, to the ingredients and style employed. This starts with moulds being made of actual dishes produced by the shop... though how this happens without the food turning into indistinguishable mush is a trade secret. We know that silicone is an important step - but the more important part is the artistry in the painting, glazing and especially in the manufacturing of those semi-transparent ingredients. This not only adds to the time taken to develop, but also means that it's harder to change your menu at the drop of a hat. It also means that the displays are going to cost a whole heap more. Indeed a shop can spend many 1000's of dollars on complete menu display.

Now many people that travel to Japan end up wanting to see if they can get their hands on examples of these faux foods - as they tend to make for quirky souvenirs. Now I've not personally done this, but the best place to find these goods is in the area known as Kappabashi-dori, or more commonly Kitchen Town - in Tokyo. This is often said to be accessed from the Asakusa area, but can also be reached from Ueno (see below). But be prepared - whilst I've not been there myself, I understand that it's pretty awesome in a non-eating sense. Not only will you find an almost infinite variety (ok - infinite may be stretching it) of goods/utensils used in the restaurant trade, you'll also find the shokuhin sanpuru. Though it doesn't come cheap - and indeed you might end up paying far more for the sample than you would for a plate of the real food. You can expect to pay around the 800-1000 yen mark for the simplest/smallest of food displays (and here I'm talking key-chain size). For more substantial dishes you could be looking at over 6000yen per dish. If you've still got a hankering, you can check out some very nice images of fake food displays over at TokyoTimes.

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At the end of the day - there's little value in trying too hard to dissect the cultural histories that generated this famous food tradition in Japan. Instead, we should just be thankful that it has held firm against the constant threat of homogeneous globalisation. Indeed, the Japanese are exporting the idea to Korea and China. I wonder how many decades it would take before it reaches the shores of Australia. Hopefully not too many...

If you want to see more, please check out this LuStation YouTube segment on the fake food industry in Japan:
(Source: LuStation, used with permission)

It may take a bit of getting used to - and some might be worried at the faux pas in confusing the fake from the real thing... but for me, it's about making the dining experience as much about engaging both the eyes, mind, tongue into a truly complete experience. And there can be nothing embarrassing or socially awkward about that. Can there?

This is one of my entries for the August 2010 edition of the JFesta theme-based blog. Whilst it may not be "edible" in terms of food - anyone that has travelled to Japan would know that it an essential part of the Japanese eating experience. Stay tuned however, as I'm also about to post on a typical supermarket experience (in Sapporo at least)... another important part of any food experience.

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Fireworks are a Family Affair

August 6th, 2010 - Summer, in Japan is a time for fireworks (as I've mentioned before). And coming from Australia, where fireworks are typically not a home-based experience, we made the most of it. L-kun loved them... and was always wanting to go out to light a few more of an evening.

I guess that whilst fireworks are synonymous with summer, family is just as important a connection. There may be a good many years, and a great many kilometres separating them most of the year; but it's great to see Okaasan and L-kun sharing these important moments of Japanese family culture together.

Of course, always take care when using fireworks.... but enjoy them while you can!

Saturday, August 6, 2011

Shiroi Koibito Park - Enough Toys To Make Your Eyes Pop

6th August, 2010 - Now I've posted previously about the outside of Shiroi Koibito Park, or what is perhaps better known as the Ishiya Chocolate Factory... and you might think a post about the inside of said chocolate factory would involve a lot of photos of factory floors and some gratuitous chocolate fountain type Willy-Wonkerness. But no... we didn't pay the 600yen for the factory tour (as I'm sure we'll come back here again). Instead we had a look around the rest of the free stuff inside.

Actually, the insides are a real surprise. Not least of all due to the decidedly non-chocolately nature of it. I mean, what does a plastic horse have to do with chocolate? Not a great deal (unless I have been seriously mislead about where chocolate comes from....eeewwwwggghh).

And as for Pinocchio... well L-kun was introduced to him for the first time... and something tells me about L-kun's body-language that he wasn't exactly ecstatic to make his acquaintance.

But to move the tone of the post up a bit, the interior of the building is beautifully detailed. I have to say, it's a treat just walking around here.

And I suppose it's just a continuation of the magical quality of the outside park, that the inside should be so sumptuously appointed.

And of course - one of the main puposes of the inside is to show of the assorted foods that can be purchased. And it's surprisingly more than just the "chocolate" biscuits that they're famous for. Hmm - it's morning here as  I write this (back in Adelaide), but I'm getting hungry all over again. 

Excuse me whilst I indulge in some gratuitous food porn...  And yes, you can sit down here in a very nice cafe and have full-blown meals.

But the real surprise is upstairs...

For reasons that escape me, Shiroi Koibito Park is home to one of the old best toy collections I've ever seen. Most of the toys are of the old-style tin variety - but there's such a variety you'll find something that's familiar to you. I'm not sure if all of these toys were popular in Japan, but most of the toys seem to originate from the US or UK. 

I'm not sure if this is sporting the original flags, but it kinda feels like a foreboding of things to come (seen retrospectively). 

I won't write much here, as I'm not that familiar with the vintages or the makers of these toys... but I just love looking at these. There's something so beautiful about both the attention to detail - but the economy of production.

There's just something about the lovely designs, and the beautiful painting - which I'm assuming was largely done by hand. Even where the paint has seen better days, it reflects many years of play, perhaps being passed down from father to son... I would prefer to think of it like that than simply bubble-wrapped in a collectors crate somewhere. At least here, they're on display for everyone to enjoy. 

Nowadways we just get the same old mass-produced commercial crap for childrens toys. If I had a chance (and I could trust L-kun not to smash them to bits) I'd love him to play with these sorts of toys. But there's also a lot of "character-based" toys here as well... including of course the home-grown characters such as "Atomu", known widely in the West as Astro-Boy. There's a wide range of different versions of Atomu, across a wide variety of eras.

Tetsuwan Atomu was first produced in the early 50's, post WWII, when there was a serious look at the role of integration of technology with humanity, and the ability for science to capture the essence of being human, the robot boy. It's part fable, part allegory that has captivated the world for over half a century.

Seeya Atomu.... 

There's also a large number of Western (and decidedly non-Western interpretations) such as good ol' Superman. Actually, the kewpie supreman - looks just a little less like superman as compared to super-rounded. Looks like he's been getting into a few too many super-snacks!

Speaking of kewpie dolls, there's a fine collection here as well. Kewpie dolls hold a special place in Japanese culture, if for no other reason than they adorn the Kewpie (QP) mayonnaise  that is famous in Japan. And indeed you can't avoid kewpie dolls if you go into any Japanese tourist-type shop... as they are ubiquitous and normally decked out in the local iconography.

There's a range of other traditional toys... many Japanese, and a few of slightly more European origins... 

There's also a number of old-style toys that - well, I guess there's only one way to say it - are just a little creepy. 

I'm not sure that I'd be buying any watermelon from these fine chaps... 

And some are just the sort of thing that you don't really expect ever to see again... 

Betty Boop was just a little before my time, but it's actually kinda interesting how a 1930's American cartoon character could quite possibly have fit quite nicely into current day Japanese character design. 

Finally, there's also a bit of a modern take on Terminator-style sculpture to be found... a little out of character for the rest of the museum, but kinda interesting none-the-less. The perfect example of recycling for art's sake... 

So there we are - that's the Toy Museum in Shiroi Koibito Park, at the Ishiya Chocolate Factory. I spent quite a bit of time here (though I suspect that T-chan was not quite as interested as I). I hope you enjoyed having a look around, and don't forget, this part of the Factory is free, and if you're a little boy or a boy at heart, there's lots of  interesting exhibits to enjoy (though it's all in Japanese unfortunately). It may be a little strange, but I think it does fit into the overall theme of a child's magical domain... even if this part is more for the older (middle-aged) children.

And... er... don't forget to stock up on Ishiya's famous Shiroi Koibito while you're there!