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Thursday, April 17, 2014

MUFA Day #11: Kyoto and Il Ghiottone

Human settlements have been found in the Kyoto area going back as far as 35,000 BC, but very little is known before the 6th century AD.  At one time this city was known as Miyako, the name of my hotel, or Meaco.  This was the Imperial capital for more than a millennium, until Tokyo took over in 1869.  Kyoto at one time was on the final list for one of the atomic bombs, but an adjustment was made to Nagasaki, my next stop on this Shinkansen journey.  In general, the city was largely spared from World War II bombings because it was considered to be the intellectual center of Japan.  This was where the protocol on global warming was drawn up in 1997.

While once the largest city in Japan, with slightly less than 1.5 million, it is now #8.  There are 37 institutions of higher education, with Kyoto University #2 to Tokyo University in Japan, and a world ranking of #25.  There are 2,000 temples and 17 locations are on the UNESCO World Heritage Site list.  Kyoto has sister city relationships with Boston, Paris, Florence, Kiev and Xian.

One of the problems I have in Japan is  that some of the better restaurants do not allow ONE PERSON to dine.  I tried to reserve Kitcho Arashiyama, for example, but was rebuffed.  After a series of declines, my concierge, Chieko, finally suggested the best Italian-Japanese fusion establishment in Kyoto for lunch,  Il Ghiottone.  To quote:

Chef Yasuhiro Sasajima virtually invented the category Japanese-Italian. It’s not just that he incorporates traditional Kyoto vegetables in his antipasti, pasta and secundi. More than that, he imbues his cucina with that ineffable kaiseki aesthetic. It’s won him plaudits and Michelin stars.

I walked from the Westin Miyako and took some photos of temples and flowers:


It was a challenge, but I finally found Il Ghiottone, the best Italian restaurant in Kyoto.  I started with a higher form of Prosecco, then, with the meal, had three glasses:  a Japanese Red from Nagano, a Brunello and a Barolo:


The meal started with a sea urchin dish:


Then a caprese of ocellated octopus, with mozzarella cheese and tomato:


A Red Snapper Carpaccio:


Smoked abalone:


Then a sautéed foie gras:


The final entre was an excellent grilled duck from Burgaud:


I'm eating too much, but that protuberance is more the contour of the shirts and shadowing:


The dessert was a melange of berries, cream, cheeses and ice cream:


This will probably be the best lunch I'll have on this trip and might well be my second best Italian meal ever, second to the white truffles risotto I had in Rome.  The Barolo was the best wine, with the Japanese red edging out the Brunello.  The total cost was higher than my hospital bill, explained in the previous posting when you scroll down.

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HAVE YOU EVER BEEN TO A JAPANESE EMERGENCY ROOM?

It was in November of 2012 when I first visited a hospital emergency room.  I then went two more times to Queen's ER, all three for non-lifethreatening ailments:  thumb, fishbone in throat and hand.

Well, I did it again.  I'll post on the best part of the day following this report, but when I returned to my hotel, the Westin Miyako, as I was entering the elevator, the door suddenly closed and abraded my hand.  The wound was superficial, but there was a lot of blood.

Someone on the staff, a Mr. Hamamoto, treated me as best he could and sent me on to the Japanese Red Cross Kyoto Daini Hospital in a taxi.  Got there at 6PM, and there were 25 people waiting.  Turns out that every patient had some family or friend with him, so the line was not too long.  Best as I could tell, I was the only one who showed some bleeding.  However, I noticed that all the hospital staff wore masks, and nearly everyone else did so too.  There must be some fear here in this country that whenever you enter a hospital, wear a mask.

After a 45 minute wait, I was called by a doctor, who did not speak much English and my Japanese was worse.  For some reason, on a computer, he pretty much wanted my life story.  This took at least half an hour.  He then decided that the wound was too significant to just treat, so he sent me on for X-rays.  Four were taken.  If you're adding up the cost, you'll be surprised.  

More waiting, for an X-ray doctor.  Finally, now nearly two hours into my experience here, he said they would have to sew the skin back.  By now there were four doctors looking at the abrasion, and you can add up more charges...but one of them decided, nah, let's just place the skin back on the flesh and cover with a gauze bandage.  One of the doctors then said I needed to have this changed tomorrow in a hospital.  But I was leaving for Nagasaki, so they arranged for one in that city.  I then thought, heck, I'm going back to the Tokyo Westin, skip Nagasaki and Osaka, and contend with a hospital in Tokyo.  

I waited another half an hour for the bill to be tallied, and to my surprise, if not shock, the whole tab was $125.  So with the $27 taxi fares, I just turned in this $142 charge to the Westin Tokyo and Mr. Hamamoto immediately reimbursed this amount.  

In the meantime, the concierge cancelled my hotels in Nagasaki and Osaka, and, after several calls, finally got me back into the Tokyo Westin beginning tomorrow.  There are no rooms available at the hotel on Saturday nights because of weddings.  But since the hotel was responsible for this injury, I guess they felt they had to do something for me.

I was able to somehow take a bath and ordered a curry rice with salad and Kirin beer for my room:


What a day.
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Wednesday, April 16, 2014

JAPAN IS ON THE TIPPING POINT TO DOOM


There is an op ed piece in the International New York Times today by Jochen Bittner (political editor for Die Zeit) entitled "What Germany can teach Japan."  After World War II Germany admitted horrendous faults, took the appropriate humanitarian action, cultivated regional cooperation and became the glue for the European Union.  Japan, on the other hand, is again alienating its neighbors.  On this trip, I've talked to colleagues who now feel uncomfortable about traveling to China and South Korea.

A typical attitudinal problem with Japan is underscored:

When I (Bittner) asked a Japanese official why his government didn’t react to the proposal of President Park Geun-hye of South Korea to set up a committee for jointly developing history schoolbooks, after the Franco-German model, he said Tokyo had “not received any proposal from the Korean government in relation to this issue.” If Germany had waited for a written invitation for reconciliation from France or Poland, my generation would probably still believe that we were surrounded by hereditary enemies.

Here is the key point:  Japan feigns a kind of samurai attitude to ignore the truth, possibly from shame, but certainly too to avoid being faced with further reparation payments.  When it comes to comfort women, the obvious strategy is that if they wait long enough, these sex slaves will all soon die and the problem will safely go away.  In reference to contested territories, the regime of Shinzo Abe is headlong careening towards bypassing the Constitution to better arm the country against those "expansionist tendencies" of China and Russia.  Today, the lead editorial of The Japan Times was entitled:


effectively scolding the government for such reprehensible tactics.  It is terrible enough that the Fukushima nuclear calamity could cost more than $10 trillion, but to further saddle the economy with unnecessary and expensive military expenditures, when the USA provides all the protection necessary, seems senseless.  I guess there is something about national pride that overwhelms logic, for all those islands of contention are essentially without tangible value.

Now, when you add Prime Minister Abe's latest judgement to re-activate idling nuclear power plants, in the face of Fukushima, Hiroshima and Nagasaki, you wonder why the mass populace is mostly silent.  I think I have the answer.  All those fossil and renewable options are so expensive that already existing nuclear power is, really, the best solution today.

Just on the front page headlines today are areas where Japan can improve:
  • Only 14% of scientists in Japan are females, wasting all this talent, and Haruko Obokata's tribulations could well be related to this disproportion:
    • Russia     40%
    • UK          38%
    • USA        34%
  • For the first time, 25% of the population are 65 or older:
    • the percentage will reach 40% in 2060, unless measures are taken
    • total population declined for the third straight year, losing 217,000 people last year, while the 65 and older group jumped by 1.1 million
  • The key to population balance is a more progressive immigration policy.  The USA became what it has become because of migrants, and I'm a good example of a resultant product.  There, however, is a pervading "Japanese Only" attitude in this country.  Whether it's maintaining comfortable uniformity or even in the game of soccer, bigotry is dominant.  There are signs accompanying nationalistic marches indicating Koreans as cockroaches.  Not good.  Less than 2% living here is "alien."  In some ways, one can compare this view to that of U.S. Republicans on immigration, where indicators show definite racism.    Part of this country's success can be traced to this cultural identity.  However, perhaps the time has come to re-examine what should be the future of Japan.
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ROBUCHON'S IN TOKYO

Joel Robuchon, a quarter ago, was named "Chef of the Century," and he is five years younger than me.   He first retired at the age of 50 in 1995, but then decided to open restaurants around the world.  He chaired the latest edition of Larousse Gastromique and operates a dozen restaurants.  His cuisine is, actually retrogressive, harking back to the earlier days of French cooking before nouvelle cuisine took over.  He has accumulated 28 Michelin Stars, five at his Tokyo establishment, which I can see from my room at the Tokyo Westin:


Mayumi and Tadashi Matsunaga joined me for a drink at my Executive Club.  (Two years ago, David Block and I dined at Robuchon's Las Vegas.)  We then went across the street to Robuchon's, a three Michelin Star restaurant on the third floor.  On the second floor is his medium class, Two Star dining floor.  Our 3-Star floor is decorated in black.  Here, we are having a 2007 Chateau Pichon-Longueville Pauillac:


Our dinner began with a white asparagus light foam over orange jelly:


Those sticks of asparagus look real, but that is but a photo.  I might add that just the serving of bread and butter is an event:


Next came red turnip and radish served with a scallop carpaccio and lemon dressing:


What a work of art, and the caviar is Ossetra from Russia.  The pan fried foie gras was accompanied by spring cabbage and bamboo shoots:


However, this was duck liver, not goose, from France, and the quality lacked the sparkle of the best.  A kind of Japanese snapper, Amadai, was the most outstanding dish, for the write-up indicated, cooked with "his" scale over a lily bulb yuzu scented broth.  What this was was a chunk of fish french fried so that the scales were crispy, while the flesh was juicy.  The texture was astonishing:


The main entrée was Spanish roasted pork done teriyaki style with a soft polenta and parmesan cheese accompaniment with an endive salad:


There was a pre-dessert, then the real one, a chestnut parfait with blackcurrent filling, coffee and almond meringue:


We finished with Calvados and expresso:


This will be my best meal on this trip, and certainly the most expensive.  We all then ended the evening at Tadashi's favorite karaoke bar in Roppongi.

For the record, while the evening was most enjoyable, we did discuss a new pathway for the Blue Revolution, with details to hopefully be released in the near future.  President Matsunaga two decades ago was the first, and only, International Professor for the Blue Revolution, when he spent his sabbatical at the University of Hawaii.

Today, I caught the bullet train from Tokyo to Kyoto:


Frankly, I was surprised how clear the scene looks, for there was a very heavy haze, sort of reminiscent of Beijing air pollution.  There were no obvious clouds, but the Sun never shone through.  The Westin Miyako has a shuttle pick-up at Kyoto Station.  On the 25-minute drive to the hotel I noticed cherry blossom trees here and there, but the peak has obviously passed.  View from my room:


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Tuesday, April 15, 2014

TODAY IN JAPAN

My Japan Railway trip to Jindai Botanical Park follows at the end.  I'll begin by summarizing what is happening in Japan today:
  • The Nikkei is tanking, partially as a response to the recent sales tax increase from 5% to 8%, but the problem is deeper (there was a further 50 point drop yesterday, but recovered +87 today):
  • Yikes, the bird flu is here in southern Kyushu.  I was supposed to be in Miyazaki in four days, but decided not to go so far south on the Shinkansen.  In Kumamoto, 112,000 chickens were destroyed, as two farms were suddenly struck by an H5-type Avian Flu Virus.  Authorities have no clue how these birds were infected.  How dangerous is this virus to humans?  Not at all, it turns out, for only birds are affected.  There has never been even one case of avian flu in Japan, ever!  Here are 400 workers culling the flocks.
  • Kyushu Electric's Sendai (I'll be in Sendai in a week, but that is another Sendai, although it is indeed ironic, but my Sendai hotel is located only a few miles from Fukushima, scene of that nuclear catastrophe) nuclear plant in Kagoshima has tentatively been selected as the first to be fast-tracked for re-start, probably in August.  The local populace is rallying for nuclear, as they badly need this economic stimulus.  The two reactors are located right close to the open ocean.
  • I've long been anti-Abe, but here is another reason why.  His energy policy now touts COAL as a desirable fuel for electricity.  Japan has run a trade deficit for 20 consecutive months since the Great Tohoku Earthquake and Tsunami, mainly because of fossil fuel importation, and mouths statements of clean coal to neutralize global warming arguments, while turning its back on the Kyoto Protocol for which it was responsible.  This is part of the tragedy of the Fukushima nuclear disaster.
Jindai Botanical Park is next to Jindai Temple, or Jindaiji, built in 733.  Soba (cold buckwheat noodle) at Yusui is a big attraction.  This was the first botanical park in Tokyo, and is noted for its variety of sakura and giant azalea colony of 12,000 plants, but is also known for dogwood trees, roses, wisteria and irises.  There are 100,000 of them in 4,500 varieties, each identified with a label.  Many endangered species are kept here, where slips can be purchased to take home.  It costs about $5 to enter, $2.50 if you're old.

Well, here are the best of my photos today:


I arranged with Keio Garden Place for a lunch of chu-toro sashimi, sushi and soba.  And…that is not water in what looks like a water bottle.  The cost above, around $50.  I had lunch at the bench to Pearl's right:


I was sitting under budding Wisteria trees.  The back view shows the sculpterer, Bussi, 1961:


"Pearl" is located between two acoustical features.  To the right are chimes that play Japanese music once an hour, while in front are 33 fountains which constantly provide relaxing sounds.  I met with the staff of the garden, and these two ladies promised to seek out the name of the model:


The cherry blossoms were two weeks beyond the peak, but there is so much variety, that the spotted scenes still were spectacular:


The azaleas were at peak:


In case you didn't know, rhododendrons are azaleas.  Ot course, there were many other colors:


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