Featured Post

August: The Return of Souls

August is peak summer season in Japan.  We can look forward to some of the most spectacular fireworks displays and festivals in the world, ...

Sea Urchin & Japanese sake


I am writing about sea urchin, the prickly black spiny sea creature that's sweet and creamy to eat.  The Japanese absolutely adore them for their texture and briny goodness.   When sea urchin is paired with a nicely chilled bottle of summer sake, you get the perfect opus.    There are two ways to eat urchin.  First way would be to bake them over heated charcoal; low and slow.   Make sure they are opened up before you bake them.   The natural salts in the sea urchin bake into the meaty parts and give almost a creamy pudding like texture.    You can spoon it right out of the shell and know that this is the only way to really enjoy eating it.  


This trip to Aomori was during what's called " umi-no-hi, or oceans day" a minor holiday on the Japanese calendar.  Almost no Japanese observe this day for its namesake, instead, most families spend time with friends and family, some say it's the start of the beach going season.    For me, this day is the days when I conquered the backbone of Japan, me and my Jukujo would explore local kitchens in search of local seafood delicacies.   The significance of "umi-no-hi" is to enjoy seafood I think, and since it fell on a Monday this year, the time when all fish markets close through-out Japan, I decided to head out to Aomori to another outdoor kitchen - Hachinohe.     Around mid summer ( end of July to beginning of summer) are good seasons for sea urchin.    Farmed and off season sea urchin is not as good as freshly caught sea urchin in its natural nativity.   Seasonality and regionality REALLY does matter!   Sure, the snobs of the West will disagree with me, and it's okay.  Don't listen to them.  Only follow the fat guy who knows where the good food is.  

In the Tohoku region of Japan you can expect to see large crowds gathering around  campsites, parking lots, and grills with fresh seafood spread out.   I returned to one of my favorite sake breweries in this region where I had helped plant and grow many of its sake rice, including several other breweries all over the country.    The caveat to coming out this way is the price for transportation, so if you are on a limited travel budget then avoid express transport.  

Freshly caught sea urchin of the day taste best when its never stored.

Once open take a pair of tweezers and remove the excess fleshy parts surrounding the membrane

Being careful not to hurt your hand

When it comes to when and where to enjoy sea urchin, then I must first say avoid The Kanto ( Tokyo...Yokohama...etc.)   Sea urchin is very delicate and its taste is easily affected by temperature and time limitations.    There are other factors, too, but for some reason the flavor profiles are more pungent and highly undesirable in The Kanto, and maybe in some other regions in Japan.  Storage may be a factor as well.    It's best to enjoy sea urchin from the time its freshly caught, no time should be wasted shipping it.    The fresher the better!

The Japanese soldiers who have followed my blog through the years know how I like it here, and know I like to jump out into the deep with shit.   I couldn't pass up an opportunity to enjoy great sea urchin from the hinterlands of the great North; been doing it for years!    These days been working and pretending to be a salaryman, so have not been blogging enough.  

Now, as for how to properly enjoy eating urchin I would suggest avoiding adding it to anything just yet...   Just eating it as it is should suffice.    Having a chilled freshly pressed sake to refresh the palate would be best for eating sea urchin, not beer.   Beer is for fried foods.   Some would say I'm being pretentious - I am...  I pretense that sake sales suffer in Japan because of a lack of good marketing... Had the sake marketeers been advertising the beautiful balance between seafood and sexy Japanese ladies instead of sissy Japanese ( she-men)  years ago, instead of trying to export it to white people in Europe, the sake market at home would not look so grim.    At least the Kansai region got it right with how it uses television airtime.   

Sea urchin is creamy and smooth - those are nice keywords.  Sake is clean and smooth - good keywords.   There's a sort of feminine balance there that needs to be focused on.    The reason most Japanese don't enjoy its own natural ocean bounty is because of a lack of clever marketing schemes.    Too many goofy queer T.V. talents and not enough men with balls like myself.   It's only me against the Japanese establishment here.  The only pure defender of Japanese sake in the world.   Second way to enjoy it is just to eat it raw.

The Beauty of Shizukuishi!

The month of May is when some breweries plant their rice stalks, so I decided since it was Golden Week to head up to Iwate Prefecture to take part in my bi-annual rice planting work.  I enjoy the manual labor of planting individual seedlings in neat rows two at a time.  It's back breaking work, but it's fun as hell.  Watch the video of the Akita Shinkansen passing by our rice field.  It's so close!

In the picture above is the Akita Shinkansen passing our rice terrace.  So close you could touch it.  People were poking their heads through the window when they saw me, some in awe.  No visit to Japan would be complete without taking part in a rice planting event.   This one was epic.

The rice that was planted is called Miyama Nishiki, a true sakamai ( sake rice) which has been used to make a number of great world-class sake.   Think Nanbu Bijin! ( southern beauty).   This is a very hardy and robust rice grain that has been refined over the years.    First, everybody stands shoulder to shoulder then start.  Each person needs to plant rice seedlings across the whole field.  If you have weak knees or a bad back this work is not for you.  You take 3 seedlings at a time and plant this gently under the soft soil which is composed of chicken manure and fresh mountain water.  It's not smelly at all.  The chickens are fed premium Japanese rice their whole lives.  The whole process from start to finish takes a little over an hour to complete if you have enough people present.  I loved it!

Iwate Prefecture is known for its delicious mountain spring water, wonderful cabbage and blueberries, its amazing sake, incredible natural hot spas, especially the ones high up in the mountains of Iwate.  You must visit this onsen 網張温泉〜 温泉館 薬師の湯〜!  Amiharionsen a 1300-year-old hot spring in the mountains which commands amazing views of QKamura National Park.  In winter you can witness and unforgettable snow scene.   In most picture postcards you'll see Iwate featuring its beautiful mountain ranges with gorgeous snow peaked caps all year round.

The rice this field will yield will be used to make world-class sake and will be sold all over the world, so if you are in Japan during spring, do try it.  No experience in Japan will be complete until you try growing the single most consumed food item in the world, and in Japan you can do it.   Afterwards you can reward yourself in an amazing hot spring.  

Mapping the Country. Saving its Soul.

No.  He and I are not buddies, but I could say we are at least acquaintances.  Every now and then a gentleman will come along and greet me.  He'll ask me the same questions a hundred others like him ask me.  And I'll give the same responses I always give every person like him who asks me.   In other words, I will always be a foreign guest in Japan no matter how long I live here.   And that's okay with me.  I like being a  guest.  

Although this post is not necessarily about this person, but more of a lead up to what I want to blog about.   Mr. B is what I'll call this guy.   Japanese men have a refined dignity about them that they show in how they dress and how they carry themselves.   Most are pleasant and polite with the occasional crazy person sitting somewhere neatly dressed.   Mr. B is an alright guy to me though.

So he stands up out of his chair and opens his jacket to reveal his physically fit midriff to me.   I thought I said Japanese men were dignified...?  He says " look at me! I'm a picture of health and fitness.  All of my life I have worked and been a model citizen in Japan.  I am retired now and am collecting a pension for the rest of my life."   I nod my head and slurp the last remaining Jack n Coke from the straw while making that "slrrrrrrrrp" sound at the end.   I poke the ice with my straw while looking down into the glass.   I glance over at him and said " And..?  How exactly do you want me to respond to that comment?"   The look on his face turns to befuddlement.    He sits back down.

Here in Japan, the Japanese pride themselves on longevity, as you all may know, but they do not put a lot of focus on the here and the now.   They work all of their best years away thinking that life is going to be better after they turn 60 and 70.  They think they'll pack up and tour the world and life will be like a box of chocolates.    "The best years are behind you Mr. B, " I chided back.    Look.  You don't know the future.  It doesn't exist yet, but it's nice you made preparations for it, but what good is it if you left all the most important years behind?  

He orders a 2 finger Jack n Coke.  We toast and he says to me, "  I come to this bar because I feel like I am entering another world.   When I have a chance to use English I feel like I can live vicariously through you; like a mini vacation.   I can speak English and drink American cocktails and escape my world."   I retort, " but Mr. B, you are retired and have all of the pension.  Most of all you are a picture of physical beauty...? Why can't you just up and go see the world right now?"    I guess planning for retirement and actually carrying out those retirement dreams are different...

Mr. B, "  My wife is disabled and I have to take care of her for the rest of my life with my pension.  The only time I can get out of the house for a drink is when she is sleeping under heavy medication."
I was gobsmacked.   His wife became ill recently and all of his retirement plans were dashed.   I wonder if he remembered those precious years when they were young and free?  This is what happens to a lot of pensioners.  It's never like what they say about those ' Golden Years.'   Mr. B's story is the reality for millions of Japanese and it's tough.  

For me personally, I have learned that you have to cherish every single waking day and hour, so after arriving in Japan I decided to map the country, and to showcase the most beautiful aspects here.  I don't rely on the future to bring me my golden years, they are already behind me which brings me to my topic.   Back in 2008, I self-published both of my books.   A big 300 page coffee table book compendium of onsen throughout 80% of Japan and a sake and food pairing guide.    These books sold through Yurindo Bookstores, the second largest in Japan.    Sold out in two weeks.

 The making of this book was an epic journey across most of Japan's pristine onsen reserves from every corner covering 1000s of km across windswept tundra by sea, land, and air.  Along with over a hundred hotel check-ins and campouts.  I met a lot of people on the way and made friendships.   Lasting friendships, even relationships.   I learned a lot from the locals and how they appreciate their life.   I learnt how to revalue life.   This was a golden era for me.  Literally.
 The sake pairing guide was my own collection and has tasting notes for food and sake.   My taste in how I exhibit them is not for everyone, but I have grown up a bit now.  

Even after publishing these books I continued on traveling to the far reaches of this island nation, even southern Europe, and each year became better and better.   Never any problems.   The breath and girth of this country is stunningly beautiful as well as its Jukujo.   The term Jukujo was redefined by me over a decade ago is now mainstream in the Japanese vernacular.  It could be said that I am the godfather of the genre since I am the only person to establish it as mainstream and the only person to ever write on the subject!

Act like a visitor, live like a native is the only way to really experience Japan.   Visitors of today will never see nor witness the Japan I have seen.   Never!  I was around at a time when nudity in onsen among the sexes was normal.  Now girls are scared to look at themselves naked, let alone with their own boyfriends.   One of my female friends ( I have a lot of discussions with many females) about her relationship with her boyfriend.   One of their trips to an onsen was to a 4-star traditional Japanese-inn.   Her bf likes to ' spread the coin' and splurge on expensive accommodation, so he booked a private bath just for the two of them.    She had refused to enter the private bath with him out of shame of her own body!   I said, but he has seen you naked before, why would you be ashamed to be in a bath with him alone?   She said... " I just couldn't.  I would never do that for my boyfriend."

Times have changed here...There's no more innocence.   I've grown old with the old-timers.   I'm at the point now where I am teaching Japanese about Japan, and it's uncomfortable for both me and them.   Literally.  You'll never understand this fact.  I tell you.  

My point, finally, is that you need to act like a visitor, live like a native is the only way to really experience Japan.   You do that by avoiding the tourist traps laid out by overzealous tourism experts.  If everything is written out in English you lose a bit of the challenge and the charm of living here.  Those unmarked footpaths you should take are what's important.  Those tiny little bars where old-timers go is where you should go.   Avoid the gaijin hunters like Mr. B.  He won't forget me.   Follow the path that leads to great Japanese sake, Jukujo, and onsen, I say,  is the only way to experience the real Japan.   The soul of Japan.  In its cuisines.    I can smell the fragrant shampoo in her hair(s) ;) I can see the tiny little plum blossom with a dew drop.  I smell the essence of spring and the green of summer.   I can feel winter's bitter kiss across my frozen cheek bones.  The aromatics of Jukujo permeated through my soul.  

I can see the Japanese national flag fluttering in the crisp cool breeze under a brightly lit baby blue sky.   I can smell the Taiyaki, okonomiyaki, and the takoyaki, in the air.  This is Japan.    This is the only Japan.   Now, I have to go teach Japanese how to be Japanese....sigh;)

To be continued....

Taste of Osaka

Good food can be had just about on every corner of the globe, in Osaka, good in the sense if you love batter fried cakes filled with vegetables and savory flavors.    Whenever I am sent out on assignment to Osaka city, I always spend the entire day walking round town  sampling a variety of food dishes.   In the Japanese language, it's called [ Tabe - aruki ] where you visit different restaurants in the local area.

In the above photo is a dish called [oko-no-miyaki] a savory Japanese pancake made with chopped cabbage, ginger, and whatever other ingredients you can think of, including meats.   I love my batter fried cakes filled with pork and vegetables.   The sauces at the top are a thick sweet soy flavored soysauce, mayo, and dollop of spicy mustard.  Yum.

This one has fatty bacon infused in it with the same vegetable goodness.   For the two photos above, you can find the restaurant next to Abiko Station in Osaka.  The restaurant is called "Okonomiyaki House."

Hachi-maru-hachi is the above photo of a traditional food stall which offers breaded octopus in the shape of a ball; a true favorite of Osaka.    In Japanese, this is called Tako-yaki.   Although these balls are a little heavy on the sauce they offer a glimpse into Osaka's food culture.   To wash it all down I love the apple chu-hi, icy cold.  

Next up is a place called Wanaka ( below pic) 

This is another top fav in Osaka, and honestly, I am sure I could eat here everyday if I could.  Beer and battered octopus pair very nicely together on a winter night.

 Osaka is not only famed for its octopus, but also its fried chicken, and I ate here everyday for dinner. Johnny Karaage!

Need I say more!?


Open tundra; neighing horses; warm rocking carriage cars meandering through  bitter cold  hinterlands along miles and miles of steel tracks cutting through vast windswept snow country - not a soul in sight.   The draw here is the relative quietude of the place.  If moving here, one must think of what benefit there is for old age.   Nothing.  But one must also think about how to earn money.  Nowhere.  One could also think about what's there to do here.  Nothing.  With that said, that's all the more reason to live here.   The routine of waking up in the morning to a typical Japanese breakfast, and then farming the land in order to yield crops.  Raising livestock for milk and dairy and perhaps grooming steers for beef would be the draw.   Your wife could walk around barefoot and pregnant ALL the time.  She never updates her wardrobe, she's a simple girl.   She spends her days making things for me and the kids and organizing meals all day.   I could watch her age with time over lunch, a long thin and fine streak of grey in her hair.  The weather is dry here, so it's never really good for her skin.  It's the little things that matter a lot.   If there's anything to look forward to, it's the delicious meals after working outside in the cold all day.  In the evenings, I always have her beauty to keep me warm; warmed by her bussom.


Follow by Email