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Pictures on my Fridge #6 – So many Smiles

yearly bicycle plate, 1986, bern canton

This photograph reminds me of so many happy things at once. Even though it only is a tiny picture, it puts a lot of smiles on my face.

The red, metal plate used to hang on the back of my bike during the year of 1986. It was a mandatory registration of bicycles in Switzerland, and cost 5 Swiss Franks every year to get renewed. Back then this plate didn’t mean much to me. But now it reminds me of how often I used my bike, all the places it took me, how much I loved riding my bike. In 86 my bike was a heavy, dutch, black Raleigh bike. Old fashioned even back then, but I loved it. It was all I had wished for my birthday first and then Christmas in 1980. I named it Sokrates, and I took it everywhere. Or vice versa.

BE stands for Bern, which refers to the canton I grew up and until the age of 18 lived in. Bern is a region with great diversity, and I am a very patriotic “Berner” girl. The canton not only hosts the city of Bern, the capital of Switzerland, which is an incredibly rich in history and beautiful to stroll through. It also consists of the Bernese Alps, rolls over to the hills of Jura, into the mellow and dreamy Emmental. Aaahhh, my Bern. Or, as I like to say: Bärn han i gärn! (I love Bern.)

1986 was a great year for me personally and in every aspect. That year cradles wonderful experiences, relationships, moments, memories and travels.

The little bike is a present my youngest crafted for me. It reminds me of his creativity, spontaneity and genuine love. What ever comes to his mind he will try to express with / in paper, tape, card board and colors. He is a true inspiration and I am that lucky person that always can count with the next surprise.

There’s a lot of red in that picture, and I love red. It energizes me, it strengthens me and it simply makes me happy.

The sushi magnet, even though only partly in the picture, represents serenity. I love to eat sushi, yes and of course and this, by now, you might know. But this magnet stands for more. There is my deep appreciation for Japanese food art in general. My enormous curiosity and attraction to Japan as a country, source of history, society, land of nature, beauty, art and fascinating discipline. When I think of Japan, when I remember moments and travels in and through Japan, I instantly get into a state of energetic calmness. I want to go, I want to create, I want to learn. But I am not nervous, I am very calm and confident.

That’s why I love staring at this little picture.

(Homage to Japan, #3) I have a Dream

wall of wishes at buddhist temple in japan

I have a dream, a fantasy

To help me through reality

And my destination makes it worth the while

Pushing through the darkness still another mile

Even though my reality is not dark at all, these lines from that old song “I have a Dream” by Abba have been following me ever since my latest return from beautiful Japan. Because already on the plane back home a dream started to form and slowly but surely take over my entire mind, the entire time.

I am dreaming of my dream trip: All I need to realize it will be an open end ticket to Tokyo, a Japan Rail Pass that will get me  on all rides of the new Hokuriku Shinkansen (and any non high speed trains thereafter, of course) and a wallet that allows me to reside in a different Ryokan (traditional Japanese hotel with baths, and usually such provided by natural hot springs) every single night. Crazy? No, it’s a dream, and a wonderful one for that matter.

shinkansen, more plane than train

ryokan, bed ready

kaiseki are high end meals consisting of many little plates

The open end ticket to Tokyo does not have to be discussed here. Any one can get it (depending on their amount of money, patience, set or not set travel dates, individual expectations, etc. Getting an open end ticket to Tokyo is not a spectacular undertaking.)

kissing shin

The Hokuriku Shinkansen, though, is a different story. It debuted on March 14, 2015, and runs from Tokyo through mountains of 3,000 meters (9’000 feet), various rural and still very traditional areas, along the Japan Sea to the city of Kanazawa. Roughly spoken, it turns north west from Tokyo and from there in a flat semi circle westbound down again to Kanazawa. It takes travelers through the gorgeous prefectures of Tokyo, Saitama, Gunma, Nagano, Toyama, Ishikawa, Fukui, Gifu, Niigata and Shiga, showing them the slight differences between each.  No wonder it’s called the “Golden Route”: The stops happen at places famous for their (sea)food, gorgeous landscapes and/or various arts and crafts.

sun dawn at the japan sea

rural hokuriku with cut rice fields

Not just because of its maximum speed of 320 km (200 miles) per hour, the Shinkansen is state of the art. On the super cool outside, reminding of an airplane more than a train, a copper colored line on the bright white wagons represents the traditional copper crafts the Hokuriku region is famous for, and the blue one stands for the sky along the railway line. Together they express the fusion of traditional and futuristic, or the future of “wa”- “something Japanese oriented”.

There’s three class levels on this bullet train, featuring new technologies like car vibration detectors, but also automated reclining seats, individual power outlets for every single passenger, etc. The Japan Rail Pass that grants one seats in those luxurious trains functions like a credit card, and gets automatically reloaded when falling under a certain amount. It can not only be used to buy tickets but also to pay for food in train stations – the glorious food of train stations, but more about this later – and the ubiquitous and fascinating vending machines. Just make sure not to get distracted by the vast selection of hot and cold beverages these little refreshment centers offer: The Shinkansen is more accurate than a Swiss watch, and never departs even a second too late. You better be there and ready.

IMG_6066 IMG_6067 IMG_6070

So what about that train station food? Well, it is unlike any other you ever have experienced. Prepared food, yes, but fresh, of local ingredients, in accordance with the seasons and regional traditions. Dislocating from one station to the next, and eat at each single one, a person can discover the local specialties, see what raw goods have their roots in this specific area and surely will enjoy a different and delicious meal at every single place. Brochures of train stations and their foods can be found at each info booth, and people spend a lot of time to pick very consciously which Bento Box (Lunch Box) or single item they will pick once they arrive at their station. The displays of the various kiosks and stores are beautiful and artistic, and clearly based on craftsmanship and pride.

the food selection display at the train station in takasaki

rice cakes, simple and gorgeous

Speaking of stations: The new Hokuriku Shinkansen made big waves even before it started to run. Companies close to Shinkansen stations remodeled their buildings and offices or added museums, and some of those that originally weren’t close to a station moved their quarters in its vicinity. Of course the towns that got blessed with a stop of the bullet train undertook everything possible to impress the travelers (and make them stay). The result are ultra modern, über clean, attractive and interesting train stations. Pretty cool.

one of over 136 exhibits of regional crafts

brand new train station of shinkansen in kawazana, modern meets old

another craft demonstration at the train station in kawazana,

And then, on my dream trip, there will be the Ryokans. Total bliss: Traditional Japanese inns that, for logical reasons, nowadays exist in rural regions much more often than in big cities. When checking in to a Ryokan, be prepared for spacious rooms with sliding doors, tatami mats, futons, and, oh, those fabulous baths – from hot springs, if you picked your place wisely. But even if not, and the bath is prepared with regular water: It still is pretty awesome to be able to take a revitalizing swim at 5 in the morning. Or a calming one just after midnight when you lay on your futon jet lagged and restless. Most all Ryokans give much pride in the food they serve. Incredible breakfasts and dinners consisting of what seems like a little bit of everything. Small portions, meticulous presentation, cleanest, most balanced food, and every single one comes with its own purpose. Pure, divine delight.

sashimi course at kaiseki dinner

perfectly balanced little composition of fish, vegetables and pickles

By now I hope you are able to read my dream: Traveling on a shiny Shinkansen by day, being able to take in the changing landscape while relaxing, but also to do some reading or even checking e-amils, stop for lunch breaks in gorgeous train stations, and finally crash in a Ryokan. Which translates as: Getting welcomed in a more personal and friendly way than in any other hotel. Maybe have tea in the lobby for a start. Then slip out of your shoes in the hallway of your room (which often resembles a suite more than a regular room), drop off the bags and enjoy the freeing feeling. Go enjoy a bath, a long, hot bath. Back to your room, into the Yukata (robe that is suited to be worn publicly), and off to dinner. A lavish dinner, yes, but one that never makes you feel guilty. Then another bath. At least one.

the rooms of ryokans are spacious and feature tatami, futon and sliding doors

slippers to wear in the ryokan room

private onsen in ryokan

But back to those dinners at the Ryokan. What dinners. Kaiseki is their name, and wherever you are and whatever you accept to eat (or not), you will be presented with a long, long, gorgeous series of artful little compositions. There will be fish and snails and seafood in the raw as well as cooked; seasonal vegetables and fruits in the form of pickles, pastes, salads, stews and soups; meats from very lean to very fatty, with or without bone, from totally uncooked to stewed over night. Tea, water, sake, beer. Tofu, often. Rice, always. Miso or some broth based soup always, as well. Lots of beans, usually in transformed ways. Lots of mushrooms, usually just very clean and plain, as they appear in nature. Everything served in tiny portions. The spices are bold yet subtle, the flavors deep yet always balanced. – In other words: The perfect cuisine.

sashimi

mushroom course at kaiseki dinner

squid course

So let’s wrap it up: Luxurious and most efficient way of traveling (Shinkansen), combined with experiencing very populous food throughout the day (Bento and train station food) and then getting the treatment of the spoiled at night (Ryokan, Kaiseki and baths), and repeating this day after day, equals: Best way to explore Japan!

It’s a dream.

I have a dream, a fantasy

To help me through reality

And my destination makes it worth the while

Pushing through the darkness still another mile…

(Photograph #6 and #25, the one of the four Shinkansen facing each other, and the second to last one, the Hokuriku Shinkansen rolling into a station, are courtesy of Keisuke Yamamoto.)

hokuriku shinkansen

artistic presentation of the kaiseki dinner

 

(Homage to Japan, # 1) The Ten Commandments

another world

“By the time you read this, I will be across the big pond.” This is how my very last post on this blog started, many months ago.

So by the time you are reading this, I have just arrived back home, from yet another big trip  across another big pond, and in the opposite direction than that time before. I spent the past two weeks in Japan, a place I first had visited and fallen in love with 25 years ago. This recent trip showed up on my horizon fast, furious and completely unexpected, and of course I was not just beyond excited but mighty curious about how things would be different now, or how not. (Just a hint: They are even better now than what I remembered them from back then. Seriously. Japan is stunningly clean, has beauty and art everywhere, is easily and totally safely accessible, and full of friendly folks. About the food, that glorious food, I will talk – many times on this blog – later.)

soba lunch

This post is the beginning of “Homage to Japan”, a series on Japan and its food, traditions and specialties. The articles will be served in tiny portions or multiple courses, as a one-pot-affair or an elaborate, staged story. Just like the Japanese cuisine shows up on the table, basically, depending on where and what you chose to eat that day. I will weave in other, non Nippon posts, now that I am happily back to blogging again, but please be prepared for some steady and pleasant rains of recounts from the “Land of the Rising Sun”.

As a starter, today, i am presenting you “The Ten Commandments”. This is a simple but functional list of restaurant and food related habits, tips and rules I observed and learned by eating, well… lots of foods in lots of different places (to say the least). Look at it as a pocket sized, basic but practical guide to make most of eating out in tasty Japan. Itadakimas! (Bon appétit!)

seafood bowl Continue reading “(Homage to Japan, # 1) The Ten Commandments” »