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(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

 

Home, Swiss Home

on the road again, with bag and coffee

By the time you read this, I will be across the big pond. Far away from where my every day happens, on vacation, back in sweet Switzerland. Home, Swiss Home.

I might be sitting outside a chalet, surrounded by bright white, squeaky snow, enjoying a Caffe Fertig (black coffee with a good splash of an herb or fruit brandy, depending on the region). Or taking it easy inside a chalet, reading or watching the snow flakes dancing, or baking or eating something freshly baked. I might be talking to a sweet sheep, or tasting the even sweeter cheese that was made of its milk.

finest pastry shop in Switzerland

 

Sculpture in the Zurich train station

I might be on a train to Spain for the day (and maybe the next), I might be cooking with friends or for friends or both. I might be biting into the most fabulous bread I bit into since my last stay in Switzerland. I might be doing nothing, or a little bit of desk work, or a lot of looking into the air. Hiking for sure, skiing perhaps, drinking tea with my Mom, knitting, strolling the markets, showing the boys my favorite hiding places. Or book stores, museums, food spots and architecture. I might be surprising some friends in cheese at their production or selling places. Sharing stories, memories, laughter and food. Enjoying a Fondue. Or eating a Crème-Schnitte (the best ever, and probably original, version of a Napoléon). Or Düri Bohne (dried green beans). My aunts Suure Mocke (wine marinated roast), hopefully. Or get spoiled by our Chef friends.

pastry cone and soup, fine dining

Breakfast in Switzerland, traditional

There might be other things, new things (and foods) I will be detecting. There’s always so much to do and try and taste. There is never enough time. Never.

But I will share with you every thing – every bite and place and sip and find – after my return. So I say “ciao” for now. Enjoy the Holidays, the celebrations and all that comes with them, to the fullest! Be merry and happy, and keep your full belly at all times!

I will be doing just the same. Home, Swiss Home.

morning vie over Seeland,

No Rules Fish & Seafood Soup

Fish & Seafood Soup in the bowlThere’s six people, five males, four persons who drive, three different schools, two parents and one bunny who rule this house. There’s also countless passions, many tasks, several jobs, few clubs and one business that influence all of us and our lives together daily. In relation to our meals – around which not only my thoughts and dreams usually float around here – this often translates into suppers that can be served in stages and taste as great at 10pm, when the last one comes home, as they did four hours earlier, when the first one sat down to eat.

One of our favorite such dishes has turned out to be a Fish & Seafood Soup. It is flexible and a little different, yet vibrant and rich in flavors each time, and most every time we serve it, at least one of us claims that it never has tasted as good as in the current version. Not following any set rules keeps this dish interesting and perhaps even is the main reason that we never get tired of it.

The instant we decide that dinner will be “The Soup”, as we refer to it, we immediately also agree if it will be “the clear” or “the tomato” one. The latter one contains tomato paste and fresh or canned tomatoes, and it is the one we usually prefer. (Unless there is a specific ingredient we want to incorporate and highlight, like we once did with saffron.) Fish and seafood wise we often choose fresh product that is quick to handle (shrimp, fish fillet, etc.) and, I admit, I admit, retreat to the monger’s frozen case for the items that require more elaborate prep (and he already has done for us – mussels, clams, octopus, etc. Hey, it’s an anti hectic dish, after all). Any combination of creatures has proven to be possible and delicious here, really. As for the vegetables, we like to add chopped onions and garlic, cut up a few potatoes, sometimes peppers, fennel or leeks. Herbs, fresh or dried ones in the form of a bouquet garni, usually are part of the mix as well. As is broth and, always, a little wine (white or red, depending on what’s on hand. Or what we are trying to find an excuse to open for…)

Besides the fact that it is simple and satisfying, doesn’t cause much prep nor clean up work and tastes even better when reheated a day or two later (please, make a mental note that there never is too much of it), “The Soup” offers one more very pleasant aspect: The longer it cooks, the better it tastes – and the longer and more deliciously it smells. The flavors just seem to melt into each other, deeper and deeper. The texture becomes smoother, thicker, more soothing, the chunks turn more tender over time. So don’t even try to stay under six hours! On the other hand, you can leave this soup on the stove for a whole day without having to worry about it. As long as the happy party gets a stir every hour or so, it will behave very well. – And so will the ones who sit down to supper that night. No matter how many there are.

eating the fish & seafood soup

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Swiss Kiss #4 – Rösti

cooked rosti

Rösti just has to be the most Swiss of all Swiss dishes. – It is not tied to a season as for instance Fondue (melted cheese) or strawberries with the insanely sweet cream from Gruyère are. It is not as expensive as is Zürcher Geschnetzeltes (strips of veal and kidney, served in a creamy sauce with mushrooms). It is not limited to a region like Luganighe (pork sausages) are to Ticino. It is never as time consuming as are Capuns (chard leaves with a filling of cured meats from the region, served with a rich cream sauce) or Pizzoccheri (hand cut pasta made of spelt flour, mixed up with greens, squash and/or meat, plus cheese).

And certainly no other dish lends its name to express an unofficial yet mentality wise very much existing division of the country: The so called Röstigraben (Rösti ditch) separates the vast eastern and central (Swiss German) part of Switzerland from the one to the west of Bern, a much smaller area in which people speak French. The Easterners always blamed the Westerners to be more French than Swiss – and used a dish to state the difference between the two regions: True Swiss eat Rösti. And halfway ones don’t. (So, and this now is official: Even tiny countries have their inner, little battles.)

Historically, Rösti is connected to the Bern canton, an area widely populated by farmers and mainly living of agriculture. Until this day the potato cake – what Rösti basically is – remains a popular breakfast on farms, where the workers eat it after a first round on the field or in the barn. And not only in Bern. Nowadays Rosti is cooked all over the place – including western Switzerland.

A plain Rösti usually stands as an accompaniment to some other foods. Classic partners are Bratwurst with an onion gravy, grilled Cervelats, blood and liver sausage, or chunky apple sauce. Often Rösti simply is topped with an egg sunny side up (or two), and served together with a salad. One or two easy additions can turn Rösti into a full and satisfying meal. Bacon cubes, grated cheese, onions or julienned vegetables* can be added to the potatoes. Or the finished Rosti can be covered with slices of cheese and broiled in the oven. – There’s no limits when it comes to Rösti. And not even the Röstigraben can change this…

potatoes, resting for roesti

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Swiss Kiss #3 – Drei Königs Kuchen (Three Kings Cake)

Three kings cake

January 6 is known as Three Kings Day in Switzerland (and other European countries like France, Spain, Italy, Austria, Germany and Great Britain for example). Nothing special happens on that day though, really – it is a common work and school day. Nothing except the Three Kings Cake. And this happens big time. About 1.5 Million cakes were sold last year; considering that each cake consists of usually 9 ball shaped pieces and Switzerland counts just shy over 8 million inhabitants this means that every single person in Switzerland eat at least one piece of cake. And some eat more. Each single person. At least one piece. Of one specific cake. Not bad.

The Three Kings Cake is a feathery light, yeast based and slightly sweet cake. It is shaped like a flower with a center piece a bit larger than the usually eight round “petals” around it. Some versions contain soaked golden raisins. The top is basted with egg yolk and then sprinkled with shaved almonds and coarse sugar.

The name of the Three Kings Cake is misleading in more than one way – at least to me. Personally this pastry reminds me of a bread more than a cake. (If you have read my former post, Swiss Kiss#2 – Zuepfe you will notice the close similarity between the two doughs. The Three King one is just a bit fluffier and lighter than the Zuepfe one.) But maybe the pretty shape and sweet toppings turned it from a bread into cake. Oh well, why bother. It tastes good and that is all that counts.

The name Three Kings is related to the christian story of the three wise men who brought presents to the new born Jesus. It shows the mix up between pagan and biblical happenings – just like with some traditions around Easter, Christmas or All Saints. Nowadays it is believed that the Three Kings Day has its roots in the old Roman days when every year after the winter seeds were put into the soil, the farmers celebrated in honor of Saturn, the god of agriculture. The slaves were invited to this event and for once counted as much as the bosses. Sometimes the roles even changed: A drawing determined one person who for the duration of the celebration could be the ruler whom all others had to obey.

King for 3 Kings Cake

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