Wednesday 30 April 2014

Sumo food - Chanko nabe

Sumo wrestling as most of you would know is Japan's national sport.  It is no longer the most popular having been overtaken by baseball and football (or soccer depending on what part of the world you are from).  It is a sport rich in tradition and dates back approximately 1,500 years.  It has it's beginnings in religion, originally being a religious ceremony in the Shinto religion.  Also, as you may know, sumo wrestlers are pretty big guys, and the training that they go through each day is incredibly tiring, so these big boys need a lot of energy and that's where chanko nabe comes into the picture!

There is no fixed recipe when it comes to chanko nabe, it traditionally uses whatever ingredients are available.  It is typically high in protein, nutritious, easy to prepare and inexpensive, and therefore is perfect for stable masters to use to feed hungry sumo wrestlers!

A good number of retired sumo wrestlers open chanko nabe restaurants after they retire.  For a long time I have wanted to go to one and try chanko nabe, but not knowing how to read a lot of Japanese, I knew that I would probably never be able to understand the menus (sumo is sport that is rich in tradition and that tradition is held in high regard, so I knew that most chanko nabe restaurants would hold on to that tradition and therefore use a lot of traditional Chinese characters on their menus).  A friend of mine, Masa, knew about this and offered to take me to a chanko nabe restaurant that he knew of.  It is located in the district of Ginza so I made my way by train to Ginza to meet Masa.  The restaurant he had chosen was called Tamakairiki and is owned by a former Sumo wrestler who had the same name during his competition days.

Stepping inside the restaurant, you are left in no doubt as to the history and the theme of the restaurant as there is a mini sumo wrestling ring just inside the front door.

I felt like stripping down to my loincloth and challenging Masa, but being Japanese, he probably has better sumo technique than I do so I decided not to.

We were taken to our table with a view by our waiter and we sat down down and took in the view that also included the beautiful Kabukiza (traditional Japanese theatre) across the road.

I let Masa do the ordering as the menu was all in Japanese!  He ordered a few dishes to start with and a couple of beers to go with them.

Some of you may know the rules of sumo wrestling and some won't.  There are basically two ways to win a fight.  The first is to force the other sumo out of the ring.  The second is to make any part of your opponents body (apart from their feet) touch the ground.  There is one element of chanko nabe that is related to this second method of victory.  Masa told me that historically, chicken was the only meat used in chanko nabe (and still is during tournament times) as it is the only animal out of the major sources of meat in Japan that stands on two legs!  I found this incredibly interesting!

Soon the appetisers were brought out and included cucumber with a miso paste for dipping (the contrast of the crisp juiciness of the cucumber and the saltiness of the miso was nice), tsukune (minced chicken balls with a miso sauce and vegetables) and some yakitori (grilled chicken on a stick).

They were quickly polished off and then then centrepiece arrived.

The chanko nabe that we chose was made of a miso base soup and the other ingredients were pork, shrimp, scallops, onion, mushrooms, cabbage, tofu and minced chicken balls.   All that was needed was to turn on the heat and let it start cooking.

Stir occasionally and pretty soon it is ready to be eaten!

Conversation came to a standstill at this point as we all got busy eating like the hungry little sumo's we were!

At the end of the meal (or at what I thought was the end of the meal!) you are left with a pot of soup.  Masa looked at the menu and asked if I wanted to have udon noodles, soba noodles or rice to finish the meal with.  I requested rice and pretty soon a big bowl of rice came and it was tipped into the soup and the heat was turned on again.  Masa explained that the meal was only half finished and that we still had to enjoy the rest of the soup, now containing all of the flavours of the meat, seafood and vegetables that had been cooked in it!

The resulting dish was a porridge like dish that tasted so good!!

What an amazing meal!  I certainly felt I had a stomach the size of a sumo, but it was seriously delicious.

Masa said that he wanted to go to another place called "Bunka Yokocho" (Bunka Alley).  Now Masa reads my blog and knows about my fascination with small alleyways and to tell you the truth, I was intrigued by what we were about to see.

We got into a taxi and about 5 minutes later jumped out of the taxi again and started walking down a side street.

Soon we started walking under the train line (anyone who has read my post about Koenji will know about the treasures that can be found under train lines!)

Suddnely Masa turned a corner and started walking down this......

As you can clearly see, it is so small that three people walking side-by-side would not fit down here!!  It was amazing!  And there were restaurants down here!!

We walked out of the other side and I asked Masa to promise to bring me back here another time!

We finished our night at a busy standing bar in Ginza on Corridor Dori (Corridor Street), a nice way to finish a nice night!

This post doesn't finish here, however.  As I said, I got Masa to promise to take me back to Bunka Alley, and two weeks later we returned!

So, the concept behind Bunka Alley is that you can walk into any of the 10 - 15 izakayas (Japanese style restaurants) and there are no walls separating them!  You can order from the menu of any of the izakayas and the staff of the one that you are seated in will take your money down to the other place, place your order and pay for you.  When the food is ready, the staff from the other izakaya will then bring the food to your table at the place that you are seated in!  Fantastic!!  So how do you choose which one to sit in?  Easy, do what we did and find the one with the cutest waitress, and there's your selection!!

We walked inside, and what do you know, most of the menu had English translations!

The inside was nice,

as was the cute waitress who was the deciding factor about which izakaya to enter!  In this photo you can see through about 4 different izakayas.

So we ordered the lotus root with mustard,

some gyoza,

and some chicken with garlic and scallions.

We did also order some crispy, juicy fried chicken, but I was so busy enjoying it that I forgot to take a photo!

So, all up, a couple of uniquely Japanese dining experiences.  The food was good, the company was great, and if you have a chance to try chanko nabe or wish to visit Bunka Alley, I can definitely recommend both of them!

My great thanks to Masa for taking me to both places.  I definitely enjoyed both places!

Thanks for reading, and I hope you enjoyed it as much as I enjoyed being there, and hopefully it gave you a couple of ideas for when you visit Japan

See you next time! 

Monday 7 April 2014

A weekend in the mountains - Takayama and Shirakawa-go (part 3)

This is part 3 of a blog series about Hida Takayama and Shirakawago.  You can find part 1 here and part 2 here.  Sorry this next part has taken a while to appear, but work has been pretty busy recently.  Here it is.

So I woke up the next morning to beautiful skies and crisp, clear winter air.  The snow had stopped but it was still piled high everywhere.  After having a bite to eat for breakfast I stepped outside ready to have a better look around Takayama.  Just around the corner from the hotel was a nice Temple.

The place looked absolutely magical covered in snow.

As with a lot of Temples in Japan, this one had a nice pagoda.

Just after taking this photo a huge heap of snow slipped off of the top of the pagoda and came thundering to the ground.  The two ladies in the picture moved so fast that I think Usain Bolt's claim to being the fastest human on earth might have come under threat!!

I didn't stay at the Temple too long as I had a lot to explore.  Continuing on down the street I saw this sign.

I thought that if the owners took the time to tell me how good their coffee is, I was going to find out so I went inside and the lovely owner not only made me coffee but also gave me a couple of tips for places to look at.  She said that just down the road by the river there was a morning market happening so I thanked her and wandered off in the direction of the river enjoying the very good, no, excellent coffee she had made me.  

As I said in part 1 of this trip, Hida beef is very famous and soooo delicious.  I found a butcher's shop that I really wanted to go into but didn't.  I can tell, however, that the owner must really love his job!!

I eventually arrived at the river

and then also found the market.

The market was still going strong and the street was lined on one side with stalls

and normal shops on the other.

There were so many stalls selling a variety of things from crafts

to Japanese pickles,

and mushrooms.

I saw this little place that was selling Hida beef on a stick and local beer so I decided that it was probably 5pm somewhere in the world so it was okay for me to have a beer......

If beef could ever be described as decadent, then it is this beef!!  Awesome!!

Reaching the end of the market I continued on as I had spied a shrine gate nearby.  Reaching it, it stood proudly straddling the road.

I walked under the gate and in the direction of the shrine, entering an old part of town.  Hida Takayama has preserved sections of the city in the approximately 200 year old Edo period, and this was the reason I had wanted to visit Takayama!

Simply stunning!  I love this style of architecture, and thankfully places like Takayama and Shibamata have preserved areas such as these so that we can still enjoy them in the 21st century.

I even found a ramen shop amongst the old buildings.  It was, unfortunately, not yet open.....

I reached the shrine and the staff had been out early to clear away the snow.

The usual lion-like creature standing guard at the entrance to the shrine was being forced to withstand the elements too......

Just like the cat on the street last night, he was doing his best not to let the conditions get to him.

Inside, the shrine looked glorious covered in snow.  Again, as a guy who comes from a place where it gets as high as 47 degrees celcius in summer and averages 15 degrees celcius in winter, sights like these are really special and unlike anything I have seen in Australia.

Although I can't help but feel that the lion we saw earlier might have been looking in envy at this horse......

I decided to leave the shrine and head back out to the streets and continued wandering through more of the preserved areas.

Takayama also is well known for sake brewing and I the breweries are recognisable by the big balls sitting above the doors to the buildings.  You can actually go on tours through some of them and then do tasting at the end.  I am pretty sure the tours are only in Japanese, but there is tasting!!  I didn't go on a tour as I wanted to spend my time walking around the streets.

Next, I just happened to stumble upon another street stall selling more heaven on a stick..........Hida beef!!  I had to have some......

Now I was getting into some of the really nice old streets, and I wasn't the only one exploring!

I'll let the pictures tell the story.....

The previous night, as I wrote about in the last post, I had been to a little bar that I had read about online, but I had to follow my phone GPS to find the place.  So I was walking around the streets of Takayama at 9pm head down following my GPS when I suddenly stopped and looked around and found myself, all alone, no-one else around, on a street that looked like this one.....

The street was dusted with snow and I just looked around in pure wonderment.  The thought that ran through my head was "Where am I..........?".  The street lights were very dim and I felt like I had stepped into a time warp and had slipped back in time 200 years!  I almost expected a samurai to jump out of the shadows.  It was a very surreal but incredibly enjoyable moment!

Another thing that Takayama is known for is Takayama ramen which has a soup base made of soy sauce and fishy bonito.  It is not my favourite kind of ramen, but it is nice to have occasionally as it is a lighter taste than my usual tonkotsu (pork) and miso ramen.  So, of course, I found a ramen shop and went inside to try some!

It was indeed good, but it was getting late and I had to make my way back to the hotel to get ready to catch the bus back to Tokyo.  On the way back I crossed back over the bridge crossing the river and saw this guy........

I don't know either!!

There was one more thing I wanted to check out before leaving.  At a couple of places in Takayama there are little foot hot springs along the street.  I had to check them out, so I went off and found one of them.

Very nice, and very relaxing!

Getting to the bus station I discovered that when it snows, it is not all fun and games.  Looking at the monitor showing the bus departure times, I found out that my bus back to Tokyo had been cancelled!!  I went to the counter to check with the staff and they confirmed that it had been cancelled!  I had to work in Tokyo the next day!!  

Thinking quickly, I decided that I could catch a bus to Nagoya and then switch to the train and get to Tokyo.  I asked the staff and they looked at me very apologetically and told me that the tickets for that bus were sold out.......  Okay, I then decided I could catch the bus to Kyoto or Osaka and then switch to the train.  As I asked the staff, they shook their heads and said "sold out".

I ran to the train station and asked the ticket counter staff if they had any tickets for Tokyo.  He checked his computer................and yes, they did have a few left, so I bought a ticket and, luckily, was able to make it back to Tokyo.  I did think, however, that if you had to be stuck somewhere for a night, Takayama wasn't a bad place to be stuck!!

So that's it for Hida Takayama and Shirakawa-go.  Sorry it took so long to get these posted.  I do have another couple of short ones ready to write.  Feel free to follow the blog.  All you need to do is put your email into the "Follow by Email" section down the right side of the page.  You will be notified automatically when I put up a new post.

Thanks for reading, and see you again soon.