Summer Snapshots (& More Ice Cream)

Ah, August, that most bittersweet of months. Its early, languid days shimmer with heat and promise, offering the tantalizing prospect of an endless summer. Within weeks, dusk vibrates with the hum of cicadas, hinting at autumn’s inexorable approach. Those days are not far off, but there’s something I’ve been dying to share with you before it’s too late: peach and white miso ice cream. Imagine: creamy, caramelized custard layered atop salty tang, each mouthful tinged with the acidity and fragrance of impossibly ripe peaches. The mood of this ice cream is slow and sensual, like eating peaches licked with sea spray and sand after a leisurely day at the beach. It’s summer in a spoonful, and it’s both as peculiar and delicious as it sounds.

In the spirit of brevity, I’ll leave you with the recipe and some favorite scenes from summers past.

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Shinshū Soba

By now, those of you who know me well (or who read this blog regularly) probably realize that I have a big crush on soba. While some foreigners who live in Japan become obsessed with ramen, ramen, and yet more ramen, I fell hard for soba. Not just any soba, but Shinshū soba (信州そば), which hails from mountainous Nagano prefecture in central Japan. (“Shinshū” refers to Shinano province, Nagano’s former name.) Why soba? It’s not a crowd pleaser like ramen, curry, or other Japanese favorites, perhaps due to its perception as “health food” in the west. While traditionally prepared soba noodles are indeed very healthy (high in protein and fiber, nearly devoid of animal products, and almost always accompanied by some sort of vegetable), this is not why they appeal to me. Rather, I am drawn to the painstaking process and ritual that surrounds their creation, their minimalist presentation, their hand-hewn texture and earthy flavor, and of course the sheer fun of slurping them up.

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A Sort of Sayonara

Ohisashiburi desu! It’s been a while, hasn’t it? It feels good to be back, though in some sense I’m not really back but rather away. Indeed, much has changed since my last post here. On October 24th, I boarded a plane at Tokyo’s Narita airport and bid a very teary farewell to my friends, colleagues, and adopted home for the past two years. Deciding to leave was not easy, and in the process I found myself grappling with many questions of belonging and place. Although my time in Japan was relatively short, much about my personality – and my way of viewing the world – has changed. Japan and the people I met there deepened my appreciation for community, trust, persistence, mutual respect, and teamwork. And although my family and upbringing in America taught me to be receptive of these values, Japan truly instilled them in me.

For now, however, the time has come for me to return to my family and friends in the States and pursue a new path. Please be assured, this does not mean Shichimi will become inactive. Although I will no longer be writing to you from Japan, I plan to continue exploring this marvelous cuisine and culture from afar. So please stay posted for more musings, photos, and recipes, and thanks for reading, as always.

~ Emma

Go West

For a long time, I fantasized about traveling past the sprawling metropolitan areas of Kantō and Kansai to western Japan, which I’d hoped would be less developed than the densely populated and heavily industrialized area I live in north of Tokyo. Perhaps it’s something in my Scandinavian-American blood, this incessant urge to go west and explore unseen lands. (Admittedly, the promise of new and interesting food factored into my thinking as well.) Having already seen two of Japan’s least populous prefectures, Shimane and Tottori, I decided to swing south to the Sanyō coast and travel west along the Seto Inland Sea, which some have called “the Mediterranean of Japan.”

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A Weekend in Akita

I originally wrote this post back in (gasp!) late February. I had planned to post it a few days before the earthquake and then found myself bogged down in work and other obligations. When the earthquake hit, all planned activities, blogging and otherwise, were put on hold. It’s never too late to catch up, right?

The post details a trip I took to visit my friend Charlotte in Akita prefecture. Akita, which is in the Tōhoku region, shares borders with Aomori prefecture to the north, Iwate prefecture to the east, and Yamagata and Miyagi prefectures to the south. (Need to brush up on your Japanese geography? Look no further.) It is a place of rugged beauty, marked by vast rice-producing plains, remote hot springs, and densely wooded mountains. Although Akita was spared the horrific physical damage of the March 11th disaster, its proximity to the affected areas no doubt made the experience feel much closer to home than for those of us in the Tokyo area.

Last Wednesday marked two months since the disaster, so it seems somehow appropriate to post this now, despite the decidedly wintery visuals and subject matter. (I have left it unedited from its original form.) As the disaster fades from public consciousness outside Japan, I urge you to please keep the people of Tōhoku in your thoughts and remind those around you that this humanitarian crisis still deserves the world’s attention and support. Thank you for reading, as always!

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Of things to come…

This is just a quick update to let you all know where I’ve been lately. In mid-February, I spent a lovely weekend with a friend who lives in the snowy depths of Akita prefecture, a place I liken to the Wyoming of Japan. This week, I’ll be exploring and eating my way through Okinawa, which might as well be its own country. Suffice it to say it’s been fascinating to experience the distinct cultures and landscapes of these two regions within such a short period of time.

For now, I’ll leave you with two architectural photos of Akita and Okinawa, respectively. The first is part of an old sake brewery complex in Kazuno, and the second is of a crumbling house I encountered last night on a walk in Naha. (As always, you can check out more photos on my Flickr page.)

Please stay tuned for updates on both trips next week!

Of Solitude and Snow

Every year, I dread the onset of winter’s brief days and deep, dark nights. Yet every year I remember that this season brings its own small pleasures: snowball fights; friendships strengthened over hot tea and homemade bread; standing in silence among sun-dappled snowy pines, drinking in the cold, fresh air. Winter gives us time to be alone with our thoughts, to make good on our promises, to seek out small adventures in the seemingly endless days until spring.

In a recent fit of restlessness, solitude beckoned in the form of a trans-alpine journey. One bitterly cold morning in January, I awoke in the dark, dressed in my warmest layers, gulped some green tea, and hopped on a bus toward the mountains. The only things weighing me down were a small backpack and a camera. My destination: Shirakawa-go (白川郷), whose name literally means “white river village.”

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Thinking of Home, and an Anniversary

Mt. Fuji at sunrise (December 2009)

I’ve thinking a lot lately about the idea of home and how it relates to belonging, to feeling rooted in a place.  It’s been a year since I left New York for Japan.  In that time, I’ve journeyed across this island as well as to more distant lands throughout Asia. Yet the more I travel, the more I long for a stable center, a place where I can return to, a community to contribute to and become a part of. Although the footloose feeling imparted by constant movement is exhilarating, it can also be equally exhausting.  Still, I know that 2011 will bring me to yet unseen corners of Japan (and beyond), and I couldn’t be more excited.

Living here has taught me a thing or two about survival – not in the physical sense, but rather the ability to accept and even welcome a certain degree of emotional vulnerability into everyday life. Last winter, I was a newcomer in a foreign land, unemployed, and very, very cold all the time.  By the time March rolled around, I wasn’t sure why I was in Japan at all.  This winter, I have a job (not to mention wonderful colleagues), a cozy (read: 15 m2) apartment, and most importantly, a small sense of belonging.  I’m still cold much of the time, but there are many other things to be thankful for.

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Vietnamese Greens

By now, those of you who read this blog regularly probably know that I have a thing for vegetables. Let me clarify: when I say vegetables, I don’t mean salad. Salad is well and good, and I enjoy it often enough. But it just doesn’t have the same capacity to excite me as, say, a big plate of roasted kabocha squash and onions spiked with shichimi togarashi, a velvety soup of puréed carrots and leeks, or a tangle of smoky-sweet grilled peppers.

Sometimes I eat so many vegetables that I’m unable to finish my meal, as happened at lunch yesterday. The culprit in this case was a plate of sautéed brussels sprouts, caramelized around the edges and bursting with sweetness. Soon enough, I realized I had little room for the rest of my lunch, including the delicious sour-sweet kumquats that I’ve been popping into my mouth all week. What can I say? The brussels sprouts were good.

In comparison, the vegetable dish I want to tell you about today may seem rather mundane: stir-fried greens. No doubt some of you are thinking, “It’s the week before Christmas, and you’re writing about spinach?” Well, yes and no.

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A few photos of fall

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It’s been nearly a month since my last post. Truthfully, there hasn’t been much time for contemplation or writing. I’ve been rather busy at work in preparation for an upcoming (i.e.: leaving tomorrow!) trip to Vietnam and Cambodia. Cooking has also taken a backseat, hence the lack of recipe posts lately. Most nights, I resort to simple stir-fries, pastas, and rice bowls. Though delicious, they’re not very blog-worthy. (Nor very photogenic. The fluorescent lighting in my apartment certainly doesn’t help matters.)

But enough excuses. I’m here to write!

Despite the silence, I have been eating well lately. The cooler weather has thankfully brought back my appetite for ramen as well as Korean food. I enjoyed an excellent, extremely garlicky meal of the latter with my friend Saori in Shinokubo (Tokyo’s Koreatown). Matusmoto also has its fair share of Korean shops and eateries, one of which Steven and I tried on a particularly chilly, wet day in October. Two words: soondubu jjigae. With clams. Amazing.

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