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A Culinary Guide to Taura, no. 6

This is Ichi no Tori, the yakitori joint par excellence in Funakoshi-cho, on Route 24, just past the train trestle leading to the Keikyu Taura station.

Ichi no Tori is an interesting name for a yakitori place. Ichi is “one” and tori is “bird” or “rooster.” But this is not a normal barnyard rooster (niwatori), it represents one of the 12 zodiac signs (eto in Japanese) that came from China to Japan: rat, ox, tiger, rabbit, dragon, snake, horse, sheep, monkey, rooster, dog, and wild boar. Each zodiac animal represents a year in a twelve-year cycle, a day in a twelve-day cycle, a two-hour period in 24 hours, and also a compass direction. So, for example, our tori represents the hours of 6 to 8 pm. Yakitori bars are drinking establishments, and the ichi no tori (representing 6 to 8 pm) could be loosely interpreted as “happy hour.” Another interesting detail is this kanji looks very similar to the kanji for sake (either the general word for alcohol or Japanese rice “wine”). So, there is a visual pun here, too, for a Japanese person who will see tori as a representation of drinking alcohol, even if that isn’t the exact meaning of the character. Finally, of course, there is the play on “yakitori” (grilled chicken, this tori being a homonym written with a different kanji).

Need I say—I guess I should—that yakitori places serve more than just chicken on skewers? There’s another word, kushiyaki, for non-chicken skewers, but most people understand yakitori-ya to refer to a skewer grill type of place. Yes, mostly they serve chicken and chicken parts, but the skewers often have creative combinations such as grilled vegetables (e.g., tomatoes wrapped with bacon) or tofu, delicious parts of piggies, and sometimes duck or beef. There’s another yakitori place in Funakoshi-cho called Kushi-ichi, which I may report on, if I can drag myself away from Ichi no Tori…

This is Kishinami-san, the chef/owner, who serves ambitiously fine and delicious food (for a yakitori joint). He makes the food a highlight of the experience, instead of relegating his grilled meat to booze absorption.

Pictured above is an appetizer presented to us before we ordered our food: pickled greens wrapped with yuba, kamaboko (steamed fish paste) and cucumber with a saikyo (white, sweet) miso dip, and a stewed sweet potato. The chef has stacks of good ceramics to match plates to food, and the menu is a manageable list of fresh salads, grilled meats, nabe (a few braised pork dishes and chicken hotpot), chicken sashimi, and fried dishes that are—to belabor the point—much better than the basic fried chicken bits you normally get at these places. One memorable dish was slices of renkon (lotus root) stuffed with pounded shrimp paste, fried, and served with green tea salt.

They serve beer and have a selection of shochus (traditional Japanese distilled spirits made from a variety of ingredients), but it’s the sake that I go for. There’s a selection of about six sakes, all of which are respectable names and styles, and not all over-the-top ginjos. They have been featuring, in particular, a local Kanagawa sake (photo below).

The first time I went to Ichi no Tori, I met Taguchi-san, the owner of the sake brewery in Hakone [Hakone? Did I understand him correctly?] that makes an absolutely delicious pure rice sake called Aoi me no samurai (Blue-eyed Samurai), named after William Adams (the inspiration for the Richard Chamberlain character in Shogun). The local connection is that the shogun awarded Adams a fief in Hemi (a five-minute train ride from Keikyu Taura) and an estate in Uraga, a town just south of Yokosuka on the Miura peninsula. Adams was also known as Anjin-sama, Honorable Pilot (as in navigating a ship), and the next station down from Taura is Anjinzuka or “Burial Mound of the Pilot.”

Taguchi-san told me he sells his sake in only three places around Yokosuka—I’m not sure if he meant either retail or in bars, or both—including Ichi no Tori. Aoi me no samurai is a fat, classic sake with a clean rice nose and a slightly sweet, viscous mouthfeel. That first night I enjoyed several glasses under the proud gaze of its maker (although Taguchi-san is not the brewer).

The other day I was telling some new friends about Ichi no Tori, and I said, “They feature a sake I quite like, Aoi me no—”

My friend interrupted, “—Samurai! That’s my favorite! I can’t believe they have that!”

There are seven seats at the bar, and a tatami room in the back for small groups, but it’s a small, intimate place.

The manager/waiter is Saito-san, who is very personable and sweet. We poked our heads in the door the other night and they were fully booked for a party. Saito-san was so pained to turn us away that he gave me a CD of Japanese music as a gift. The next day he called me to apologize again for not being able to welcome us that night, and begged us to return soon.

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A Culinary Guide to Taura, no. 5

Mr. and Mrs. Sekine run a small sakana-ya in Old Taura. They are happy to make recommendations about which fish to use for various recipes, including ceviche (there are many Peruvians in Taura). It’s a great luxury to chat about what would be best to grill, to poach, or for sashimi. They clean and dress the fish right in front of us and ask us if we want the head and bones for stock (well, as they say, for suupu).

Local fishmongers in Japan carry incredibly fresh fish (whole and prepared), along with whole split and lightly air-dried fish (himono). Aji (horse mackerel) or sanma (Pacific saury) himono are wonderful splashed with a bit of sake and grilled under the broiler. Add a bowl of shinmai (newly harvested rice) and some tsukemono (pickles) and we are in heaven at the dinner table.

Japanese fishmongers also have fish for sashimi and various sea products like wakame and other commonly eaten fresh seaweeds. Dried seaweed products like nori and kombu for dashi (stock) are usually sold at dry goods shops.

Here’s Sekine-san dressing a tai (sea bream) for me. There are larger fish markets near us in Zushi and Kamakura, and of course, I can be at the famous Tsukiji market in Tokyo in about an hour on the train, but it’s a pleasant ten minute walk to talk to the Sekines.

A Culinary Guide to Taura, no. 4

The Ryūgetsudō wagashi-ya (Willow Moon Hall Confectioner) is a tiny little place in Funakoshi that often seduces me with the delicious aromas of steaming mochi and bean paste. I can’t say I eat traditional Japanese sweets very often (I’m not much of a Western-style sweets person, either), but I have sampled a good selection of this shop’s goods over the past two years. When one peeks past the inside noren into the back area, one may see (and smell) large stacks of square, wooden steamers billowing with sweet vapors. I don’t know Wagashiya-san‘s (Mr. Japanese Sweets Shop’s) name yet (photo below); he’s so painfully terse, in a shy, yet friendly way, that I can’t quite get conversation going. But he always gives me a big smile AFTER I buy something.

He does make one sweet that I wait for with baited breath: sakuramochi (mochi—sticky rice cake—dyed pink and stuffed with red bean paste, then wrapped with a salted cherry leaf). Sweet and salty together at once, it’s my favorite: I used to make a salt-sweet combo at the movies by pouring a box of Junior Mints over my popcorn. Wagashiya-san will start making these sweets around March, when the cherry trees start to bloom, and I plan on eating quite a few.

If you’ve ever tried Japanese sweets and decided you hated them, please make sure you try several different kinds, and eat them with some high-quality green tea (not that Lipton stuff you buy at the supermarket, fine green tea). Much like a chocolate chip cookie is enhanced by some milk, many, if not most, traditional Japanese sweets are meant to contrast with the bitter leaf taste of green tea.

A Culinary Guide to Taura, no. 3

This fruit and vegetable merchant drives up to an empty lot in Old Taura by the side of Route 16 at random times and on various days of the week. He unloads crates of seasonal produce along with bags of homemade tsukemono (Japanese pickles).

Yesterday, we were walking home with bags of vegetables, so we didn’t need anything, but something made me stop and check what he was offering there by the side of the road. He had plump umeboshi (salted Japanese apricots/plums) that looked good. As I examined the pickled plums, a tiny man with a wizened face got out of his little blue truck and greeted me.

I asked, “Did you make the umeboshi yourself?”
He said, “Yep.”

We each had one at breakfast this morning. They are very very good indeed.

A Culinary Guide to Taura, no. 2

Right after we moved into our house (December 2005), I started exploring on foot the neighborhoods around our house. It was lunchtime and I slid open the door of Yamamoto’s Ramen Shop in the Funakoshi neighborhood of Taura (north). I was hungry and armed with beginner Japanese to do battle with the handwritten menu signs on the walls. The married couple that owns the shop were not annoyingly disconcerted by the appearance of a foreigner. How casual they were, giving me the normal call-out of “Irrashaimase” (Welcome) and then going back to their work.

There were 12 stools around an L-shaped counter, behind which the Yamamotos attended to the vats of boiling water and broth and to the grills for gyoza. A TV at the far end of the counter was tuned to a raucous variety show. Mrs. Yamamoto glanced at me from time to time while she washed some dishes in the sink behind the counter. I was hunched over the menu, mouthing the sounds of the words.

Ramen noodles are yellow wheat noodles of Chinese origin, but ramen is now purely a Japanese dish, reflecting Japanese taste preferences. Yes, the dried noodles are called “ramen” and they are sold in Japanese supermarkets. But real ramen—served in small shops everywhere—is the fast food of Japan: convenient, cheap, and filling. When I go to Yamamoto’s during the day, my fellow customers all wear the jumpsuits of the nearby factory. They come in and order, receive the noodles in less than three or four minutes, eat their hearty lunch in great slurpy bites, and then dash back to work. Ramen is, as a rule, a casual meal. (It also helps cure hangovers.)

Most places serve tremendously large bowls of broth and noodles, so large that even I, a prodigious eater, on occasion cannot finish the bowl. This seems a bizarre contrast to traditional Japanese cuisine, with its small dishes of artfully arranged tidbits. You may try to order a half portion, but not every shop allows this.

Carlos and I were once waiting for a bus to a ryokan in a small town in Yamagata Prefecture, and decided to wait in a ramen shop. It was small and extra steamy inside and the proprietors were holed up behind a strangely hostile elevated serving counter, which allowed us to see only their heads. I was feeling too warm and having difficulty reading the handwritten signs on the walls. (Outside the Tokyo area, new food words start popping up.) The waitress got tired of waiting for me to finish reading, and came out from behind the counter/wall to ask what we wanted. We knew we were going to eat a multi-course, traditional dinner at the ryokan, so we asked for half portions. She looked at us like we were crazy: “No, we don’t have that.” (Cue the Five Easy Pieces.) And so out came giant bowls of noodles and broth, bowls larger than I had ever seen. Both of us having been fully brainwashed in the clean-your-plate cult, we were obliged to conduct a murmured conversation in which we agreed we would eat a modest amount and not finish our food. That settled, when we paid our check, we ignored the looks we got from the waitress after she noticed our still quite full bowls. Two first children, one with Catholic guilt and the other with chronic WASPy anxiety—we’re quite the team. But I digress…

Yamamoto’s serves a workmanlike broth with a choice of soy sauce, salt, or miso taste, along with the most common toppings like sliced roast pork, fermented bamboo pickle, green onion, and bean sprouts. In truth, Yamamoto’s ramen is passable, but I don’t order it much. When I am in a noodle mood, I prefer soba and udon. [Recently in Sapporo, however, I had a miso ramen that blew my mind and made me rethink ramen altogether.] At Yamamoto’s I go for their gyoza, which are made in-house with lots of pork and garlic. My standard order (photo below): 800 yen for two portions of gyoza, a small bowl of rice, a bowl of broth that they always serve me gratis, and a Coke.

Freudians please notice the glass Coke bottle which gives me flashbacks to my grandparents’ hotel in Maine, where every summer I used the vending machine that dispensed those same small bottles. Long after glass bottles were hopelessly old-fashioned and even difficult to find, my grandfather insisted on stocking his machine with them for aesthetic reasons. I feel childishly carefree drinking a Coke and eating gyoza at Yamamoto’s.

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