Moving into a new place is always a matter of adapting to your new space, developing new habits and losing old ones. For example, I’m learning to take my shoes off at the door and strictly within the gekkan area, and learning more slowly to keep my slippers on and transfer neatly between the two.

I’m learning to work in a kitchen with no oven, only a microwave, a hot plate, and a rice cooker. The strangest thing I’ve noticed is my use of chopsticks. Without intending to go native with my cutlery, I’ve ended up using them almost exclusively.

Of course, I have a full set of western cutlery, it was one of the first things I bought. I even use the spoons for yoghurt. However, I’ve found that chopsticks are just really convenient for everything else. It’s easy to delicately pick up food one-handed while surfing the interwebz with the other, without the risk of a minor slip spilling the whole lot. They’re also incredibly easy to clean.

I don’t want to make a big deal of cutlery, but it’s just crossed my mind that I haven’t picked up a fork in weeks.


Japanese Bars

The bar scene in Britain isn’t big. I’ve heard through popular culture that you can socialise and even find hookups in bars, but my experience in Britain has generally been that you go for a drink with people you already know, and only introduce yourself to strangers after having your inhibitions severely inhibited. It still feels reminiscent of Jane Austen’s day, when among the monied classes it was a major faux pas to meet a stranger without a third party mediating the introduction.

I’ve twice found myself talking to strangers in bars within two weeks of coming to Japan. Not because it’s easier to introduce oneself to strangers, although that also seems true, but because small independent bars seem to be more common here. One I visited was attached to a hostel I stayed in, and another was also run by its owner. I think that’s the difference between Japan and Britain. There are more bars in Japan which are small businesses, operated by their owners. This makes them more engaged with their regulars, allowing for camaraderie between patrons rather than just within preexisting social groups. There are also lots of very small bars, where the space makes it difficult not to engage with other patrons.

Enough sociology though. I’ve had a lot of fun visiting a few small bars while knowing few or no people there and attempting to communicate with people. Beyond the major tourist areas, outside whose bounds I now live, there are lots of people who speak very little English, and my google translate history grows every time I have a drink. Perhaps it’s because I’m foreigner, or perhaps because I’m sitting at the bar, but people try to talk to me and I try to talk back.

In the first case, I was invited by my host, who owned the bar, and was quickly included in the company.

In the second I was introduced to a regular by a friend of a friend, so I was not totally unconnected in either case.

Nonetheless, I’ve felt included in the group, despite the communication gap, by virtue of drinking in the same venue, while In Britain I’ve never found a bar or pub, especially in a city, where whole groups open up to strangers.


Japanese Cooking?

Based on a discussion with some of my students, I’ve tried a Japanese style dish. The format is similar to curry, in that you boil vegetables, stock, and optionally meat together, then eat it with rice.

The difference is that instead of curry powder or stock, you use miso paste and soy sauce to add taste. My students also said I should sweeten it with sugar, but I don’t have any. They also said to add sake, but again I don’t have any so I’m using shochu instead.

So in a little water I’m boiling some curry type vegetables, in this case yams, carrots, and onions, all diced. Mixed in some miso and soy sauce, and I’m poaching a couple eggs as well for extra calories. Fried thinly sliced meat in miso paste and soy sauce to top it off.

Served on a base of rice with pickled shallots and kimchi (spicy Korean sauerkraut) to add a bit of sourness.


Yakiniku and Rice

This is an attempt at what I’ll call fusion cookery. I won’t claim it’s Japanese, but it’s inspired by some of the meals I’ve had in restaurants and izakaya. A regular feature is a rice bowl separate from the distinguishing, tasty bit of the meal, which could be any kind of meat or vegetable. Diners are able to combine these parts as they wish.

I’ve used thinly sliced pork chops (the closest thing I’ve seen to bacon), and spiced and diced chicken plus an egg. I haven’t properly sorted out my cupboards yet, so it’s all fried in olive oil with a bit of white miso and curry stock to add a bit to the taste.

The rice is seasoned with soy sauce and topped with pickled shallots (to add some sourness) and green onion, which was fried with the meat.

The seasoning is probably way off what a Japanese chef would do, but the format is similar. Meat + rice, a simple way of making something very edible. Eaten with shochu, very tasty and easy meal.

As to the rice, I cooked it in a rice cooker, which is the best thing since sliced bread. In fact, I think it’s time to start saying that things are the best thing since rice cookers.

You’ve heard of sake, and you think it means “rice wine.” When you come to Japan, the definition changes. Sake (酒) usually just means alcohol. If you ask for sake at a bar, the barkeep is going to ask what kind.

Cherry Shochu, accompanied by rice and various meats.

I’ve just tried another kind of 酒, called shochu. Shochu is made from sweet potatoes of all things. It turns out to be about as sweet as rice wine, but it’s 20% to 35% alcohol, instead of 10% to 15%. Sold in, apparently, 1.8 litre tetra packs. Yeah, seriously, 1.8 litre. Can kind of taste the sweet potato, maybe even the cherry brewed into this one, but it mostly feels like drinking strong rice wine.

On balance it’s alright, but doesn’t come near to beating amazake.

Most of my meals these days look something like this, but usually only one kind of meat and less exciting rice, as well as some kind of fried vegetable to accompany the meat.



Kyoto, Wednesday, Jan 29th 2020.

You may be wondering what you’re looking at, and why there’s a raw egg.

This is sukiyaki, a dish you, or a waitress, cooks at your table. In this case it was DIY. The dish comes all laid out in a pot on a gas stove, and takes a few minutes to cook. The picture doesn’t show the big blob of stock (sweet and miso flavoured) under all those vegetables, which will shortly melt and boil and start cooking everything else.

Then you get the fun bit. Once you make sure the meat has cooked in the stock, it becomes very fragile and easy to pull apart with chopsticks.

Having beaten the raw egg, you use it as a dip for the meat, and it’s delicious. The egg combines nicely with the flavour of the stock. They nicely provided some extra meat so I could repeat the process several times. The stock pervaded everything else in the pot, and whiskey turned out to be a good choice to offset the sweet taste of the meal. All in all, it was quite fun watching my meal cook itself.

As to the egg, a local told me recently that raw eggs feature frequently in Japanese cooking, and that she would quite happily eat a raw egg with soy sauce. I’m not convinced yet, but enough sukiyaki and I might come around.