Tokyo: The Real Magic Kingdom

Can it be gainsaid that Tokyo is the most magical place on earth? I should think not, but I recognize this is a matter of opinion, and others might have a different view of “most magical,” or even of what qualifies as “magical” in the first place. Disneyland calls itself the “Magic Kingdom,” at least implying that it has some claim to “most magical.” But in what respect is the manufactured Disney experience “magic,” if I may put the question to the Walt Disney Corporation? I concede Disneyland could be “magical” for at least some small children, but I imagine an adult might use other words to describe it. “Exhausting” and “expensive” come to mind. I’ve never been to Disneyland—or even wanted to go, for that matter—so I’m not exactly an authority. It’s an educated guess on my part, but I think the odds are good I’m in the ballpark.

Tokyo Scenes. Clockwise from upper left. (1) Hedgehog Paradise, Asakusa; (2) Fuji-san from Tokyo Sky Tree; (3) Mameshiba Cafe; (4) Habushu, awamori-based Okinawan pit viper liqueur; (5) Yoyogi Koen; (6) Hachiko (yes the actual one) stuffed in a museum.

Tokyo Foods. (1) Spicy yuzu-chintan ramen; (2) Monjayaki; (3) Umibudo; (4) Japanese Denny’s

One thing I can say with some assurance is that the Magic Kingdom does not enable its visitors to eat a dozen pieces of toro, for less than $30, twenty-four hours a day. If this was Tokyo’s only attraction, it would, in my view, give the city a reasonable claim to ''magical” status. And surely the kid’s pancake set at any of hundreds of Tokyo Denny’s is more kawaii than any comparable breakfast entree at a Disney theme park. Now consider the fact that in Tokyo, at certain cafes, a hedgehog will be delivered to you with your coffee, so you can spend time together while enjoying your drink. I suppose this is as it should be. Why, after all, can’t I rent a hedgehog as a beverage accompaniment here in our California metropolis? No doubt our public health authorities wouldn’t be as sanguine about the whole thing as their Japanese counterparts. Perhaps they should revise their crabbed view of what constitutes a sanitary beverage experience. Until they do (i.e., never), one must make haste to Edo to satisfy the innate human need for hedgehog companionship in a public eating establishment.

Tokyo Sky Tree. Four views.

The same can be said for the many species of animal cafe found in Tokyo. Owls, falcons, reptiles and now—eureka!!—mameshiba cafes! What is this, you ask, and why am I so excited about it? Mame is Japanese for “bean,” so these are “bean shibas”—miniature shiba inu dogs. When planning our trip last month, we naturally settled on the mameshiba cafe as our chosen pet cafe destination, what with the obvious business nexus and all. It’s not like we have some unmet need to spend time surrounded by Japanese dogs. There are, after all, two of them under my feet as I type; my life is lived in a shiba cafe of sorts, albeit one where I’m responsible for cleaning up the dog hair at the end of the day. Of course, our shibas are not mame, and we are cognizant of the inverse relationship between size and cuteness, so the mameshiba cafe had the potential to unlock new levels of dog experience.

Mameshiba Cafe. Doggie diapers, dog staff, and Shiba Ramen.

Miscellaneous Japan. Clockwise from upper left: (1) Sake sake sake; (2) Street-facing tank at fugu (puffer fish) specialty restaurant, Asakusa; (3) Oshiri Tantei, aka Detective Butt, hugely popular children’s book series; (4) Wagyu yakiniku restaurant, Asakusa.

In planning the trip, we assumed we’d only have time to visit one pet cafe. By happenstance, we ended up visiting three. The hedgehog cafe was on a main street two blocks from our hotel in Asakusa, and was ideally positioned when we needed and afternoon pick-me-up of caffeine and sugary drinks. And there was an owl cafe underneath the mameshiba cafe, and discount tickets for the former came with tickets to the latter. Of course I wanted to see owls again. I’ve chronicled the owl cafe phenomenon here before (magical!), although I now have a concern over the wild proliferation of Tokyo owl cafes since our first visit to one in 2015. Owl-sploitation may be on the rise. The original cafe we visited (Fukuro no Mise) appeared to take really good care of the owls, with three handlers present and mediating all customer-owl contact. This time, the cafe was operated by a single cashier sitting at an entry kiosk, with the owls attached to isolated perches along the route through a sort of forest trail setting. Several of the owls were not comfortable with human contact, which isn’t surprising given that visitors are left half-unsupervised as they wander the trail. Who knows what people do to them, or how they’re treated after hours. We left feeling a bit sad and uneasy about the whole thing. This owl cafe (and I assume many similar copycat cafes) was definitely not magical, although I’d gladly go back to one where the animals are treated well.

Sushizanmai. I love this chain of sushi restaurants in Tokyo. At least some are open 24 hours a day, and the quality control is excellent. The “Magurozanmai” costs 3000 yen—that’s only $27 with current exchange rates!

The mameshiba cafe was a decidedly happier place. A “dog staff” of twelve, the youngest ones wearing doggie diapers, roamed around, played, and snoozed—the kinds of things dogs do. There was plenty of human staff, and the setup left little risk of customer mistreatment of the dogs. Almost all the dogs were females, sensibly, because the last thing anybody needs in a small, crowded room is a dominance contest between testosterone-addled males. The dogs may be mame, but sharp teeth are sharp teeth.

Now just to be clear, our time in Tokyo was not all animal cafes, but when you’re with a six-year-old, choices have to be made. Other such choices included soft serve ice cream (aka sofuto kuriimu) at least once a day and, with great sadness, turning away from the Vermeer exhibition in Ueno Park. If you’ve ever seen a Vermeer in person, you understand my disappointment. On the other hand, we only noticed the Vermeer event en route to the National Museum of Nature and Science, which is a world-class science museum. Astoundingly, it had a floor dedicated entirely to chemistry including—much to my delight—exhibits on stereochemistry and atomic orbitals!

Chemistry. Clockwise from upper left: (1) Stereochemistry - enantiomers; (2) carbon fullerene; (3) periodic table; (4) atomic orbitals.

Kindergartner in Tokyo. Ice cream, hedgehogs, and endless places to make a face.

Japan Tour 2018! Wine, Whisky, and Angry Birds Pop!

According to the flight monitor, we’re at 33,000 feet, six hours to the west of San Francisco. The fasten seatbelt sign is on. I just declined United’s in-flight meal service, except for the after-dinner ice cream, an Asahi, and a club soda. Why disturb the memory of the fabulous crispy tonkatsu and shrimp fry setto I ate at Narita? Why, for that matter, disturb my digestive system? That’s not to say I didn’t eat United’s food on the way to Tokyo—I did—but at this point I feel like it can only lead to regret. Here’s to hoping our bag of accumulated snacks gets me through to SFO. We do need to finish that bag of Japanese smoked bacon before we go through customs, after all. I really want to say no to the breakfast service when the time comes.

Is it worth taking a Xanax and trying to knock myself out for a few hours? Or will well-timed interruptions from the kindergartener in the next seat keep me hovering in a miserable purgatory, simultaneously too on edge to sleep and too tired to entertain myself. I’ll give it a half hour and see how things sort themselves out. This is only the second time I’ve opened my computer in over a week. The first effort ended abruptly when the company-issued security software prevented me from accessing a Japanese home wireless network. I took it as a sign to stay the fuck away from the computer for a few days. After all, I could still keep track of developments in Trump’s America from my iPhone. Mercifully, nothing particularly newsworthy happened in my absence; the post-midterms indictment parade is still a matter of speculation. The exception being those horrific fires in California, and the toxic smoke they dumped on the Bay Area for over a week. Finally (!) it rained the other day and cleared the air. With the Thanksgiving holiday, work email traffic was minimal; nothing requiring my immediate attention. As it should be.

My iPhone, nonetheless, was a busy place. Lots of pictures to take and lots of instagramming to do, with all things Japanese being on-theme for each of my various accounts. I had to make up for lost time, having done a particularly poor job keeping up this year. And I spent a stupid amount of downtime playing Angry Birds Pop—which is going to get deleted upon return to regular life. I got addicted to that game once before and had to delete it, then I had the bright idea to reinstall it after I got a new phone last month. Clearly I haven’t learned an appropriate level of self-control since last time.

Some time has passed. I tried to take a nap, sitting in the middle seat between Hiroko’s reading light and Cato watching a movie. Turning away from the light, I left my face exposed to intermittent tweaking by that infuriating little imp. I went in for subdued electronica—Boards of Canada’s Tomorrow’s Harvest—it has a melancholy and scratchy vibe, so I’d hoped it would do the trick. Maybe that album is too unsettling for sleep music. It should be obvious from the cover, how it shows San Francisco in a way that seems to anticipate the California wildfires. I don’t know. I should have gone for my default sleep inducer, Charlton Griffin’s dusty, British reading of Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire—preferably one of those many endless, obscenely arcane chapters about the military capabilities of the ancient Goths, or the development of Christian theology in the Fourth Century. Try staying awake during one of those and let me know how it works out. These, of course, are to be contrasted with anything about feeding Christians to bears (or insert carnivore of choice) or the political moment of Diocletian (“that artful prince”), setting aside the tedious passage about his reformation of the civil service. That bit has proved too much for even me to handle. Anyway, I regret not taking the Xanax.

I digress. This trip to Japan was our first real vacation in two years, and it was a welcome holiday. It was also a good deal of hard work, trotting around a rambunctious six-year-old, keeping him well-fed and entertained. Hiroko wanted to take him to meet her parents in person, which we can all agree is a noble objective. It was also a big success—including a tri-generational road trip to a ryokan (Japanese hotel) & onsen (hot spring) in grandpa’s hometown in Yamanashi Prefecture. In Yamanashi, we saw many old people. We also saw Uncle Kiyoshi’s shiba inu gobble up half a pile of his own shit, eagerly and decisively, before we intervened and stopped him from completing the meal. Cato was as delighted by this scene of excretory carnage as we were horrified by the spectacle of a shiba (of all dogs!) doing something so filthy. No kisses from Pochi, I’m afraid.

We did get a full day of adult time up there, though, leaving Cato, Jiji, and Baba to fend for themselves at the hotel while we visited a Japanese winery and took a tour of Suntory’s Hakushu Distillery. As for the wine, we only recently became aware that Japan even has a wine industry. They specialize in a white wine grape called koshu. The winery we visited—Grace Wine (a mythological reference, it turns out, to the Three Graces)—makes superb wine. We learned all about the terroir reflected in their various products, checked out a vineyard, and did a tasting. Our favorite was an oak-barrel-aged white wine that I dearly hope we can find a way to import to the U.S. The Periodic Table needs some wine on the menu, and we’ve wanted to fill that slot with some Japanese wine. 

The Hakushu tour was amazing, and I’d recommend it to anyone with an interest in whisky, if you’re willing to make the trek up to the Japan Alps to do it. It’s a couple hours by train from Tokyo, although it’s a popular tour and you have to book a slot at least a few weeks in advance.  The distillery is set in a forested bird sanctuary at the foot of some 9000-foot peaks, and you can visit the well-curated Museum of Whisky while you’re there. The tour itself walks you through the whisky-making process, from the wort production to the massive pot stills where they do the double distillation. Then you take a shuttle to one of the whisky aging facilities—a cavernous building housing a staggering number of barrels, the air so heavy with whisky vapor that those of sensitive constitution are advised to wait outside.

Notwithstanding the fact that Hakushu has seventeen of these buildings, their whisky is in such short supply that there was none to buy in the gift shop!  You can, however, buy Makers Mark or Jim Beam, those venerable brands having been acquired by Suntory a few years ago. But if you’re into Beam, you can save your purchase for Safeway, and instead buy a package of the (delicious) whisky pairing chocolates.  The event concludes with a guided sit-down tasting (with snacks!) and instructions on making the perfect whisky highball. Well, it does so long as you are not a woman who is pregnant or nursing. In a remarkably unapologetic display of paternalism, such guests are given juice in lieu of whisky. Not being pregnant or nursing women, we drank up everything at the tasting and then paid a post-tasting visit to Bar Hakushu and did a flight of Suntory’s long-aged whiskies—21-year Hibiki, 18-year Yamazaki, 18-year Hakushu, and 17-year Chita. Spectacular.

But that’s only part of our trip! Next time we’re off to Tokyo, stopping at a parade of animal cafes and filling our mouths with toro!

Learning the Sake ABCs at Japan's Oldest Brewery

Let's learn about sake. Are you ready? I am. I'm also interested in drinking some, but that's beside the point. I have a beer in my hand, so I'll have to give myself a raincheck, for at least the next half hour.

I'm going to go through the sake-brewing process, from start to finish, with a case study based on our trip last fall to Kenbishi, Japan's oldest sake brand. Kenbishi, located west of Osaka in Hyogo Prefecture, has been brewing sake since 1505. The name Kenbishi means "sword diamond," and they've used the same iconic sword-diamond logo for hundreds of years. You can actually see it in some old Edo-period woodblock prints, like the famous Utamaro print below, now at the New York Met.. This is sake with history, a classic brand paired with centuries of technical expertise. The product itself is bold and distinctive, and made a real impression on me even before our trip there. 

Kenbishi's current owners--the fourth family to own the brewery--are dedicated stewards of a half-millennium tradition. Masataka and Noriko Shirakashi generously spent four hours with us, giving us a private step-by-step, room-by-room tour of the entire sake-making process, followed by a sake tasting. It was an incredible experience, and a surprisingly intimate one. We learned a ton, not only about how sake is made, but also about how well it pairs with Western foods like cured meats and cheeses. Because they let us bring our camera along for the tour, we have a great photo record to accompany the sake story, and hopefully make it easier to follow.

Sake Brewing Basics

Before we enter the kura (sake brewery), let's make sure we understand some basic sake principles. Sake is a drink made by fermenting rice, which has been milled to remove the outer layers. The fermentation process used to make sake is known as "double-parallel" fermentation. This means two types of fermentation are necessary to make sake, and they happen in the same pot at the same time. First, the starches in rice must be converted into simple sugars. This process is carried out by a fungus, known as koji. Second, as with other alcoholic beverages, yeast (also a fungus) is used to convert sugars to ethanol. 

The end product results from controlling an astounding number of variables: the variety of rice, the amount of rice milled, the rice cooking process, the rice moisture content, the species of koji and yeast used, the quality of the water, filtration, pasteurization, aging, and much more. The dedication to the craft, the attention to detail at every step in the process, is the hallmark of sake-making. At Kenbishi, the commitment to traditional methods is on full display. Instead of using synthetic, off-the-shelf ropes for its sake barrels, Kenbishi makes its own ropes in-house. It still manufactures its own rice-steaming barrels and wooden warming elements, just as it has for hundreds of years. No corners are cut, the commitment to the craft drives every step of the process.  

We visited Kenbishi's primary kura, one of four. Incredibly, Kenbishi saw huge damage in the 1995 Kobe earthquake. At that time, they had eight kuras. Only one survived. A devastating loss, and one that could easily spell the end for a business. But with 500 years of tradition, the strength of its brand, and the quality of its product, Kenbishi pulled itself up and rebuilt. Today it is thriving. Across four brewing sites, Kenbishi has about sixty permanent employees. During the winter months, peak brewing season, that number doubles with the addition of seasonal workers. 

Rice Milling

The first step in making sake is milling the rice down to its starchy core. The milling strips the outer layers, which contain proteins, fats, and other impurities that can compromise the taste of the final product. The process is performed using a milling machine like the one shown below. The powdered outer layers are not discarded; they are used in various cooking applications, for livestock feed, etc. 

If you've seen the terms ginjo or daiginjo on a menu, they are indicators of the percentage of rice milled.  Ginjo means the sake uses rice milled to at least 60% of its original volume; daiginjo to at least 50%. Often sake is referred to as being "premium" the closer it gets to a daiginjo. The important thing to understand, though, is that this doesn't mean a daiginjo sake is better, or that you'll like it more. It just means (a) it costs more to make because less of the rice grain is used, and (b) it's likely to have a cleaner taste with more of the grain's outer impurity-containing layers having been removed.  In other words, ginjo and daiginjo refer to manufacturing styles (and, relatedly, Japanese regulatory and labeling distinctions) rather than to the rank of the sake.

Kenbishi only mills its rice to a bit over 70% of its original volume, and the sake has a big, complex taste. They adjust the exact milling rate each year to make the best use of the rice harvested that year.

Rice Steaming

Once the rice is milled to the desired level, it has to be steamed. Remarkable care is taken to control the steaming process, because the ultimate moisture content imparted to the rice is critical for the success of subsequent fermentation processes. Kenbishi, with its focus on traditional methods, steams rice using large cedar barrels, called koshiki.  They believe the wooden koshiki is a superior vessel, because it prevents condensation and absorbs excess water.  They steam their rice in the very early morning, to take advantage of cold air coming down from the nearby mountains. It helps with temperature control. 

Amazingly, Kenbishi's wooden koshiki are all made by an in-house craftsman, using traditional methods. This particular craftsman is the only person alive today with the know-how to make these things. As it turns out, he's quite old, so for the past five years, he has been training others at Kenbishi to carry on this craft tradition after he's gone. Now Kenbishi is in a position to keep its historical brewing methods alive into the future.


Once the rice is cooked, a portion is used to make koji. This is done in a special room, which feels a lot like a sauna or a steam room. It's essentially a huge cedar box, kept at elevated temperature and humidity. The brewers begin the process by working the koji spores into the rice by hand. This painstaking manual procedure is necessary to achieve uniform coverage across all grains of rice. The rice is then placed into little open cedar boxes, which are moved around the room four times a day for 4-5 days. This constant rotation is necessary to make sure all the grains of rice are exposed to the same environmental conditions, to promote uniform koji growth. When the growing process is complete, the koji rice is set aside for use in the fermentation tank. 

Somewhat surprisingly, we were allowed into the koji room during our tour. It was steamy in there, and you get the sense of how demanding it must be for the brewers to spend so much time in this hot space working around the clock to assure optimal distribution and growth of the koji fungus. We were invited to touch and taste the finished koji rice. You can see in the picture how the look of the rice has changed; it appears to be covered in a matte-opaque white material, and has become a bit clumpy. The taste was pleasant, sort of sweet, and the texture a bit chewy. 

Yeast Starter

The next step is to make the yeast starter, also known as shubo. This is the first step that makes it clear alcohol is being brewed. The yeast starter is an oatmeal-like concoction of steamed rice, koji rice, and water, in which yeast propagates. This is where parallel fermentation takes place: the koji is breaking down the rice, converting the starch to sugar, while the yeast is simultaneously taking the koji-produced sugar and converting it to alcohol.  

At Kenbishi, the preparation of the yeast starter takes about a month. Most other breweries do it in about half the time because, unlike Kenbishi, they physically mash the rice during the fermentation process, exposing the interior of the grain to the koji enzymes. The process involves a traditional method of slow, indirect heating, using wooden jugs periodically filled with boiling water. Once again, Kenbishi is uniquely traditional here, because they employ the only craftsman in Japan who can still make these wooden jugs.

From a scientific perspective, a lot of cool stuff is happening in the yeast starter, which I'll write about in detail later. 

Fermentation Mash

When the yeast starter is complete, it is time for bulk fermentation. Now the process moves to significantly larger tanks, into which yeast starter, koji, steamed rice, and water are added in three intervals over a four-day period. The reason for the intervals is that the transfer to a bigger vessel with more surface area puts stress on the yeast, which need time to adjust to changed environmental conditions. The moromi mash is kept in the tank for about three weeks. At this point, it's time for final processing.

Finishing the Sake

With fermentation complete, the mash is filtered to remove residual solid particulates. There are a number of ways to perform the filtration; Kenbishi uses the press filtration machine in the image below. Be aware, though, that not all sake is filtered to clearness. You may have encountered niigori sake, which is cloudy as a result of filtration using a coarser mesh.  

Following filtration, the sake is pasteurized. Not only does this heating process kill bacteria, it stops enzymatic activity in the sake, which helps stabilize product quality. Some breweries also filter their products over charcoal, which helps remove organic impurities and clear up the sake's color. Finally, Kenbishi transfers the sake to large tanks, where they age it before bottling. Their popular kuromatsu product is aged for less than a year, but they have another product that's aged for up to fifteen years.  

So now we've gone through the entire sake-making process. It's safe to say the main contours of the process at Kenbishi are representative of how sake is made generally. The steps always include rice milling and steaming, the preparation of koji, and then the yeast starter, before moving on to bulk fermentation. The fine details of an individual brewery's processes, combined with variations in rice, water, microbes, etc., together contribute to each sake's unique characteristics. There are obviously more subtleties to Kenbishi's process, which are too detailed to go into here.   

Sake Tasting, With a Surprise

After our tour, we sat down with the Shirakashis for a sake tasting. We tried six products, each aged for different periods of time. Only a couple of them (kuromatsu and kuromatsu mizuho) are available in the U.S. Kenbishi's basic product, kuromatsu, is a bold, rich drink, but it was the lightest sake we tried. Most striking was a sake that had been aged for more than five years, taking on a golden hue and delivering a powerful sensory experience. Not quite a brandy or a liqueur, but trending in that direction relative to most sake out there.  

The most eye-opening part of our tasting was that Kenbishi paired its sake with Western foods--blue cheese, Camembert, prosciutto--in addition to some Japanese items, like pickled sea urchin and fermented squid (ika no shiokara). All of these cured or fermented high-umami foods paired well with Kenbishi's strong sake, with the richest sake pairing best with the richest foods, the blue cheese and the sea urchin.

The point is that Kenbishi chooses to showcase its products in an international context, drawing on food pairings best suited to the sake, and disregarding the artificial barrier between this Japanese drink and Western cuisine. Kenbishi is being forward thinking here. It realizes, as a matter of business, that the future of sake is a global one. At the same time the Japanese sake industry sees a shrinking market at home, sake is starting to gain a foothold in the uncharted West, with Americans and Europeans starting to drink it more seriously.  Perhaps not surprisingly, we just saw Shirakashi-san at the JFC sake expo in the Bay Area last month, and his Facebook feed says he's been in LA and Italy in the weeks since then.

Kenbishi reveres tradition when it comes to making its product, but it's positioning itself at the vanguard of sake's big extraterritorial expansion. For both of these things, we tip our hats and raise our glasses. Kanpai!    

What We Ate in Japan

On Shiba Ramen's trip to Japan last month, we had some memorable meals in Tokyo and Kyoto, and I gave myself free rein to act like a food fanatic, taking pictures of most things we ate. Sushi, ramen, tonkatsu, gyoza, cod sperm, raw chicken, and even Denny's. This is as close as I'm ever going to get to being an online food commentator. Please enjoy the photos! 

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Tokyo and the East

Tokyo. I can never get enough of that place. Repeat: never. If you've been, you know what I'm talking about. If you haven't, scroll down and you'll understand. Tokyo is a giant of a city in every respect. But despite its size, intimate scenes of nature and even of urbanity are around every corner. Its food is the best in the world, its gardens unparalleled. Oh, and make no mistake, it's crazy. Teeming streets and cultural oddities abound. 

Last month, we spent 48 high-intensity hours in Tokyo. We ate fabulously (without breaking the bank), visited glorious urban parks (Hama-rikyu Gardens and Shibakoen), strolled through the crowded streets of Ginza, Kabuki-cho, and Harakjuku, went shopping for restaurant supplies in Kappabashi and for Japanese finery in Tokyo Midtown, and spent an absolutely insane evening at the Robot Restaurant. In Tokyo, there is sushi for breakfast, and it is good.  

Hama-rikyu Gardens.  Once the private preserve of the Tokugawa shoguns.

Ginza architecture.

Oguni jinja. Hamamatsu, Shizuoka. Hiroko's hometown and our first stop in Japan before Kyoto and Tokyo. 

Hama-rikyu Gardens


Robot Restaurant.

Hama-rikyu Gardens