Monday, December 27, 2010

Birthdays and Issho Mochi... Hopefully You Won't See This Dish on Iron Chef.

24th May, 2008 - It was a big day... actually, this was my last day in Japan for this my fifth trip, and it was L-kun's 1st birthday to boot. Whilst I was about to leave Japan, T-chan and L-kun would stay on a few more weeks to spend quality time with her parents. It was a somewhat bittersweet birthday celebration.

But let's talk about a particular Japanese tradition that's related to first birthdays; known as issho mochi. The first thing to know is that it involves mochi (see exhibit A below)... for those that don't know mochi is a very traditional rice cake made by pounding a glutinous rice down to an even more glutinous paste which is formed into a large flat cake shapes. In this particular (somewhat bizarre) tradition, the issho mochi weighs around 2 kg in total. Now what, pray tell would one do with 2 kg of rice cakes?

Well... first birthdays were very important in Japanese culture, and hence worthy of special attention. Now issho means 1 shō, where shō is an old volume metric equalling 1.8 litres (approximately). Stick with me here, as you never know when that will come in handy - say if you end up going back in time to feudal Japan, for instance, or if you're buying sake, which still comes in measurements of shō to this day. For that matter, the common rice-cooker cup size is 1 gō, where 10 gō equals 1 shō. Sayonara Metric System. When you convert volumes of mochi to weight, it comes out to 1 shō weighs about 2 kg. I didn't say this was going to be easy, did I...

   Now 1 shō is pronounced issho; and it's just that ishho also sounds like (drum roll) "a whole lifetime" in Japanese (by that I mean they are homophones... two different words that have the same sound). Now how the Japanese managed to link all of these things together to come up with a first birthday tradition really beats me. I suspect however that it came down to a very industrious young mochi seller somewhere that had a good sense of occasion. Still, however it happened, the Japanese have linked the 2kg chunk of mochi to wishing their children to have a life time of good luck; a lifetime of never having to go hungry.

So... how does this relate to the tradition? Well, clearly when you combine a 1year old baby with 1 shō of mochi you equal lots of laughs, some tears, and lots of happy mochi sellers. And the best way of combining them is by getting your child to carry the mochi. Yes. Carry. 2kg of processed rice. Ok... they may need some help... enter the bib... this used to be a wrapping cloth (furoshiki) in olden times, but you can't say that they Japanese don't move with the times.

Wearing the appropriate clothing (and disregarding any apparent OH&S implications) the child is weighted down front and back with the huge rice cakes. Ganbatte L-kun (good luck)!

Somewhat surprisingly, L-kun took it all in his stead... and didn't cry at all. He even managed a few steps (but considering this is all he could managed even without the mochi this was quite an achievement)... before retiring to a more sensible posture. Sitting on his bottom.

And the end result was 1 slightly bewildered child, 2 very happy grandparents, and about 2kg of mochi that was not going to get any tastier the longer L-kun wore it. Having said that the mochi was edible (of course), and was indeed eaten. As this was my last full day in Japan however, my contribution to the whole eating thing was sadly limited to a very nice breakfast the following day.

L-kun did eventually succumb to the effects of mochi exertion, and retired for a small nap. I wonder what he was dreaming of? Most probably about all the ways that he could pay back Mum and Dad when he gets into a retirement home.

With the formalities over however, the last night party started. In typical fashion, our last meal was a sushi and sashimi... and even my favourite yakitori. There was also a liberal supply of Australian wine involved as well. It's always difficult leaving Japan... not least because my stomach is normally about 2-3 kg heavier. And that's just from the meal on the last night.

L-kun eventually awoke from his late afternoon nap to enjoy (somewhat sleepily) his own special baby cake. Yes, it's a cake designed to be able to be eaten by babies. Now... I have to admit that the decoration most probably could have been improved a little... and I suspect it looks like something I had decorated. (unfortunately as T-chan and I get to a ripe old age, our food will start to progressively resemble the same sort of thing).

But it apparently hit the spot... going by his smiles. Perhaps because there was no mochi in sight. We had a great night, and L-kun discovered just what a good idea it was to have birthdays in Japan. Lots of presents to be had, and lots of spoiling. And why not... Happy Birthday L-kun!

And a Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year to all of you reading this in 2010!

Monday, December 20, 2010

Inspector B, and the Case of the Baby-Faced MOS Burglar

23rd, May, 2008 - It was a strange kind of crazy that brought me to this city park on this cold May day... an anonymous tip and a whole bagful of trouble later and I was about to make the biggest collar of my crime fighting career. Baby-L, as he was known to the seedy underbelly of Sapporo, was about to meet his maker. Literally.

His first mistake was stopping off to smell the flowers...

"Gotcha, Baby-L... reach for the sky. Your days of filling up diapers with ill-gotten gain has come to an end... and the streets of Sapporo will be smelling the sweeter for it"

"Alright, copper, you got the drop on me... but ya got nothin' on me, see. So here's what I'm gonna do..." and he proceeded to tell me exactly what he was going to do, and how he was going to do it. He even drew some crude crayon drawings to illustrate it for me as well. He wasn't known as the baby-faced-silent (and not so silent) assassin without good reason. But he had not taken into account one small detail. My nose for trouble.

...And he had been stinking of comeuppance. Yes, he'd made one mistake that day... he just couldn't resist the sweet teriyaki flavour of the MOS Burger. I had heard from my snitch where Baby-L's favourite joint was. Sapporo. Downtown. With the help of Google StreetView, we had set up our web... and had waited for our fly to get the munchies for yummy burger.

Cleverly disguised as a somewhat ill-fashioned tourist, I had carefully observed Baby-L casing the joint. He looked pretty casual as he sucked on his camera case, but I knew that behind that lovable cuddly exterior beat the heart of a true hamburger-holic. Before I could yell, "Inai Inai Baa", he had cleaned the joint out of burgers and had made his way to Odori Kouen... little suspecting that he had been followed all the way.

After a short, somewhat violent struggle...the great Baby-L was apprehended. After quick search of his person (you don't want to know where I had to search), the evidence was located. How ironic; Capone had his tax evasion, and Baby-L had his hamburger addiction.

"This is it, Baby-L... or whatever your real name is. Two hot MOS Burgers will be enough to send you off to the Big House" (where no doubt we'll buy some yummy dinner for tonight... yes that's the name of one of the supermarkets).

"Yes, your love affair with the juicy, flavoursome freshness of the MOS has finally been your un-doing. You'll be staying behind wraps for quite some time"  (or at least until we get you back home, that is).

And so, as legend would have it, the infamous Baby-L was taken down by Inspector B. And even today, the Mountain-Ocean-Sun (MOS) Burger is one of Japan's best-loved burger joints, and in fact is second only to the mega-conglomerate of McDonalds in the fast food stakes in Japan. Their slogan is "Making People Happy Through Food"... which is good, because they wouldn't be making people happy through fast service and full stomachs. They pride themselves on their freshness, so that does tend to mean that everything is made when you order and not before. What a novel idea. Unfortunately for a hungry Aussie lad, their serving size is pretty petite even for Japanese standards. 

They're famous for their hamburgers (which are actually on a rice-flour bun, and some of them at least are made from Tasmanian Beef... Tasmania being part, admittedly a small, funny shaped part, of Australia) - but they also do a number of other foods.

Their menu includes the following (at least in Sapporo)... which is just the start... check out here for their full hamburger menu.

The MOS Burger

Hamburger with "Demi" sauce 
Cheese Hamburger
Southern Vegetable Burger (actually not vegetarian as far as I can see)
Teriyaki Chicken Burger
Prawn (Shrimp) Burger
Fish Burger

T-chan swears by them as being the best hamburger you can buy. Me, well I'm not that clued in when it comes to hamburger quality. The ingredients are very tasty, and yes the meat is mouth watering. So, yes they're fresh... but for me a hamburger is also about giving into a bit of naughtiness (like Baby-L), and I'm not sure I want to have a healthy and fresh burger when I can have something that's going to make me feel I've done something ever so slightly wrong.

Still - if you're in Japan then you MUST try MOS Burgers. Just look for the big M sign. No.. the other Big M sign...

Note: for the record, no babies consumed hamburgers during the making of this post.

Saturday, December 18, 2010

For Relaxing Times, It's Jingisukan Time....

22nd May, 2008 - It's MEAT-EATING TIME.... ok, I wouldn't win any awards for subtlety or sensitivity (especially to the vegetarians out there)... but let's face it. It's hard to dress this wolf up in lamb's clothing... coz if you did, you'd just end up eating wolf as well.

This post is about one of my all time favourite eating experiences in Sapporo. Jingisukan. BBQ Sheep. I've talked a LOT about this (from way back on my first trip to Sapporo). And indeed... if you check out my other Adelaide Blog, Raising Adelaide, you'll find a how-to guide to cooking Jingisukan (T-chan-style).

The place I'll talk about is known as the Sapporo Beer Museum, or the Sapporo Beer Garden... and it's a Sapporo "Must-Do Experience"... but I have to say that it's not that easy to get to. The map below shows it's location relative to Sapporo Station.

View Larger Map

According to the Sapporo Beer Garden website itself, the best ways to get there are:

Subway:Toho Subway Line, get off at "Higashikuyakusho Mae" and walk 10 min.

Bus: Take the Chuo Bus Factory Line (Kan 88) and get off at Sapporo Beer Garden, about a 1 min. walk from there.

I suspect the best way to get there is by car, with a designated driver... but that's not very practical for most visitors to Sapporo.

Actually, it breaks my heart a little bit now when I come here as in the last 7 years, the lovely grounds that surrounded it have made way for a giant shopping centre. The original building remains intact (on the right of picture below), but much of the ambiance has gone. Still, the real story is on the inside.
Sapporo Beer Museum care of Google StreetView

Once you're through the doors however, it's full steam ahead. A typical Jingisukan meal costs about 3,500-3,700 yen per person... including an all-you-can-drink-in-100-mins drinks option. Jingisukan, at least in Sapporo is typically a mutton-based BBQ... where mutton is older sheep that have lived a long and happy life... they also offer seafood and pork based versions... but for me it's mutton or it's just not Jingisukan.

You'll first be brought to your table and given both an apron AND a plastic bag (the bag is for you to put any jackets in to avoid them smelling of... well...sheep). The Jingisukan is cook-your-own style eating, so you might need to ask for some help with the basics to get you started. It's pretty simple though. First things first is heat up the "hat" hotplate and then melt a wad of lard till it's nice an sizzly... then add the meat (here they came as mutton rounds).

Around the base of the hot plate go the vegetables, that sort of stew in all the juices... and when I say juices, I'm including the quite intoxicating vapours that envelop the BBQ and you. Or was that intoxication from the beer? Actually, just to show that there's more than one way to BBQ a sheep, the style of Jingisukan here is to use a dipping sauce for the flavour. The way we do it at home is to marinate the meat first. Also we use lamb rather than mutton.  

You know it's a small world when you come to Sapporo to eat Australian sheep on a BBQ. And for those kiwi's out there, you can even buy New Zealand meat as well... of course to the Japanese, this typically represents the cheaper (and of course inferior) meat. Enough said on that though.

And beer is something that you're never far from in the Sapporo Beer Garden. The hall is huge, and there's a beautiful atmosphere to it. I've not actually (strange as this may seem) been to the beer museum itself, but it's apparently quite good as well. I'm quite partial to the Yebisu dark beer, and also the Classic Sapporo Beer... and the best of both worlds is known as the "half and half"... no prizes for guessing what that means.

So with a final kampai!, I wish you a happy weekend, and if you're in or around Sapporo, please give Jingisukan a try. It's a great social event to come to have Jingisukan (even for lunch like we did on this day), but leave plenty of room for the BBQ, the beer, and lots of good hearty cheer. And for those of you that aren't in Sapporo, pop on over to my other site to see the magic behind the scenes

By the way... Sapporo Beer Garden is almost always busy, so if you can... make a booking before you go.

Thursday, December 16, 2010

A Walk On Sapporo's Wild(ish) Side

21st May, 2008 - Not every day is going out to somewhere exotic or romantic... sometimes in a family, you just want to go for a nice walk, and spend some time together. This was just such a day. We decided to walk around a little with L-kun...and here are a couple of shots of some typical Sapporo houses and gardens in Spring. Note he distinctive sloped roof... that's a pretty common design here in Sapporo to prevent the build up of snow. Not that we need worry about that at this time of the year!

Sapporo is a fairly wild location... it's not that far before you end up against the untamed mountains. Ok.. that might be a bit of an exaggeration, but these are wild mountains. Have to be a little careful with bears, and rusty bikes... and very big voracious weeds.

The mountains of Sapporo are not the typical snow-capped craggy mountains, but they have a much more "warm" feel about them. It's strange, but I am always reminded of the hills back home in Adelaide when I see them (and vice versa). They're like Sapporo's security blanket.

But the one thing that is certain about Sapporo (indeed - likely all of Japan)... come Spring, it's very green and fertile looking. It's like it's always sporting a 3-day growth.

And at the end of a nice long walk, what better way of finishing up than having a yummy lunch at Bikkuri Donkey (which I've posted about many times before... here, and here and even here). These restaurants are pretty common in Sapporo, and whilst they may not win any awards for culinary delights, they are a good meaty easy meal out.
Biccuri Donkey - Care of Google StreetView
And meaty was the word of the day... today I tried the curry version... L-kun wasn't quite into the whole hamburger steak. All the more for us.

And I also made one very BIG mistake. Somehow, I managed to order the zero alcohol beer. Yes... that's right. Zero alcohol beer. That's not really my idea of a beer at all...and indeed, it tasted rather like a not-so-tasty soft-drink. Now in Japan, there's a zero tolerance of alcohol and driving. In theory this means that if you've got any alcohol in your blood, you can be fined heavily if pulled over. Indeed, not only you, but everyone in the car with you. Seems fair?.... or not. Still, as a result, there's been a fairly big market in zero alcohol beers. Today however, I ordered another REAL beer.

Interestingly enough, once when we went to a Sento (public hot baths), we discovered that the zero alcohol beer that Otousan was drinking was actually made here in Adelaide... but that you could not buy that beer here in Australia. Very strange. The other thing I was going to say is that I can't vouch for this 100%, but anecdotally I've heard that it's unusual to have your blood checked for alcohol. Clearly, they operate on a completely different set of rules (and budgetary measures) here in Japan.

Saturday, December 11, 2010

Modes of Transport... Doraemon to Pooh to First Steps

19th May, 2008 - It was rapidly approach L-kun's 1st birthday... and this post is a parent's indulgence... so please bare with me. Today I wanted to talk about a small matter of defying gravity... and the wonder that is vertical movement. It's something that we often take for granted, unless we've had a few too many to drink (a real possibility for many of us as Christmas - and the end of year - looms up before us).

Japan, in many ways is a children's paradise. Not only are parents spoiling their children but grandparents are also taking on a lot of those parenting duties as well (i.e. spoiling the children even more). Not far from our house, there is an Aeon shopping centre... one of our usual haunts when staying at home in Sapporo. And as most parents know, taking babies/toddlers around shopping can be a draining experience. One of the solutions that the Aeon store provides, free of charge, is a range of trendy baby-cars.

L-kun's favourite's were Doraemon, Anpanman and Pooh-san (Winnie the Pooh). It was particularly great for us as we hadn't brought a stroller with us to Japan - and it was great for the L-kun as he had lots to distract himself with. As L-kun had not started walking as yet, anything that kept us moving that didn't involve us carrying him was a blessing. But more on L-kun's vertical movement challenge shortly.

I'm sure that sometimes L-kun was just a little concerned that there was something wrong with the car's mechanical soundness. It often seemed not to go where he wanted... TURN LEFT YOU INFERNAL MACHINE... THE TOYS ARE TO THE LEFT!...  THE LEFT, I SAY!

As I mentioned above, L-kun had not started walking as yet. Something that his parents (reads mostly Daddy) were a little stressed about. Why... well, I guess I'm just naturally one of those anxious parents. I mean, wouldn't it be good if there was a fixed schedule for these things... like car services.

Anyhow... back at home, we had been trying a new mode of training for L-kun... Pooh movement. Ah... perhaps an unfortunate choice of words. One of L-kun's favourite toys at home was his Winnie-the-Pooh car (a present from Ojiichan and Obaachan). We had thought that it was good for him to go driving around the house, but it turned out to be a better walking support than anything else.

One day we had discovered that it made a very versatile Zimmer frame (for supported walking). Ok - it wasn't perfect... holding on to the back kind of reduced options for steering, and it sort of lacked any effective brakes at all (bar falling on one's bottom).... this was not necessarily a good design feature when combined with wheels that allowed uncontrolled forward movement a very likely reality. Hence the Mummy-Safety-Net in the photos below. From that time on, he was a keen Pooh-walker. Up and down the lounge room, L-kun would be walking AND smiling.... proud of his Pooh mobility.

And around he'd go... up and down...down and up...up and around, around and down... 

That is, until Pooh technical difficulties finally brought his adventure to an end... apparently the turbo charger had quit on his Pooh-car, and the suspension was completely shot too. 

And when, at the end of the day, you've run out of support. Then there's nothing left but to take matters into your own hands... or should that be feet?

Now for a brief aside... on our annual trips to Japan, it's common for T-chan to go earlier or stay later... to spend time with her parents without having to worry about Ben-chan. This trip was no different, and as a result I was going to be coming home alone earlier... leaving L-kun and T-chan in Japan for quite a few weeks. In truth - I had been quite anxious that I would miss L-kun's first steps. Three days before his 1st birthday, and 4 days before I was due to leave Japan... L-kun did his first steps. First one foot... and then the other. They weren't many, but they were his first.

It may be easy to think of this blog as being just our holiday snaps... and, in truth, I guess it is. But it's also more than that. Intertwined within these holiday moments in Japan, our real life is played out, sometimes painfully upon that international stage. The sadness of possibly missing out on the magic moments of your child's life are one of the consequences of having a slightly complex family arrangement. For the most part we accept the compromises that we need to make... for the rewards are always larger than the inconvenience. Sometimes you have to wonder about whether all of those compromises are really worth it. Luckily this was one compromise I didn't feel any regret over.

I was so happy to have been there to see his first steps. Thank you L-kun. Right on schedule...

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Sapporo Art Park - What Better Place to Park Your Art?

18th May, 2008 - After going to Takino Reien (cemetery), we stopped off at the Sapporo Art Park. This is a park dedicated...well... you know what it's dedicated to. Art. The park was opened in 1986, and whilst most of the park's 40 hectares is free, the 7.5 hectare Sculpture Garden requires a ticket (around 600-700 yen per adult).

Below shows the road from (A) Takino Reien to (B) Sapporo Art Park, and finally to (C) Sapporo Station.
View Larger Map

The Art Park has a number of features, but the Sculpture Garden is perhaps the one most widely enjoyed. The garden is an open art-space in which is placed 74 separate art-works . The sculptures in the permanent exhibition are scattered throughout the park which is accessed via walkways that meander through the grassed hillsides and forests.

The sculptures are largely abstract in nature, and sometimes they appear as somewhat bizarre additions to the scenery. 

Other times they seem to hark back to ancient times... Stonehenge apparently a common motif in and around Takino (or more specifically Minami Ku)

A haircut anyone?

There was also more traditional forms of sculpture...

And in places, why you just didn't know where to look.... ?;-)

Er... L-kun... wait till you get a little bit older... then Mummy and Daddy can explain it all... though I'm not entirely sure I can explain the bizzaro triangular Ménage à trois. Mummy... can you help?

Not all of the sculpture is that serious either... some of it is quite whimsical.

Of course, it's not all about the exploits of human-kind... the Art Park is at the end of the day, also a park by itself. And whilst it may not have breath-taking scenery per se, it's nonetheless a really scenic way to spend an afternoon.

Anyway - now for my slight diversion into the wonders of leaves... I love em, and love photographing the interplay of light and leaf.

...Leaf interlude is over...

Aat the end of the day, however, this park is about art most of all... and some of the artworks are truly substantial.

One of the more interesting, and possibly disturbing art-pieces is a giant hollow cone... a pyramid placed at the end of a row of fountains... and on the inside of the pyramid, deep down behind a thick glass plate is a huge piece of ice. Permanently frozen in place. If that were not strange enough, the geometry of the sculpture is such that when you go in there.... well.... I'll leave that to your imagination.

Of course for L-kun, the most fun can be had by just getting out of the stroller and going for a crawl in the grass. And you never know what you might find there....

I'm not sure if L-kun was having some kind of womb-flashback when we saw this... but the temptation of seeing L-kun reaching the summit was almost too much to resist. Luckily for everyone... we did resist however.

It was a good afternoon walking through the Sapporo Art Park, and whilst we didn't get to go through any where near the whole park, we know that there's plenty more to see. They often run art classes here (perhaps not the typical touristy thing to do), and there's also the Museum of Contemporary Art on the grounds. Either way - if you get a chance, and you want to have a break from a hectic trip... then it's a definitely an easy-going relaxing option or a diversion if you're particularly inspired by novel art galleries (but be prepared for a small commute if you don't have access to a car).