We opted out of the 5AM tuna auction, instead heading to the Tsukiji fish market after the bustle of the wholesale event subsided.
Throngs of tourists from all over the world purchased overpriced raw fish–often grossly overpriced–from the vendors and restaurants in the sprawling outer market that surrounds the more famous indoor wholesale section.
One of our favorite sections of the outer market was the specialty vendors like these selling one item like bonito or dried seafood products cured in sake lees.
If you want to see the wholesale section in action, tuna auction or not, try to get there around 6AM or at least before 8AM, when things do start to shut down. By 9 or 10, the market is in clean-up mode.
Unless you’ve never had good sushi in your life, we do not recommend waiting for hours in line with the other tourists for the restaurants surrounding the market. A mere glance at these restaurants, with their conspicuous lack of local patrons and staid-looking sushi sets, will tell the more seasoned eater that there are better places to go in this fish-friendly city. But visiting the market itself is a true treat and can inspire appreciation for the massive amount of work that goes into that next piece of nigiri you nibble.
We expected Japan’s complex and diverse food culture, modern conveniences, Hello Kitty, polite social norms, and ubiquitous robots. But the following things came as a bit of a surprise:
There are no trash bins, but streets are spotless. You are expected to carry garbage with you in your pockets or bags until the appropriate time.
You never need to worry about going to the bathroom. There are sparkling clean toilets everywhere, and fancy washlet toilets in most places. I have concluded Japan has the most convenient and clean toilets anywhere in the world.
Tank tops are not a thing, neither men nor women bear shoulders.
Socks are a thing, even with thongs, for which special socks with a separate big toe have been designed for both men and women.
Tattoos are not a thing. Seniors in particular find tattoos taboo, but even hip young people aren’t sporting body art trends.
Cosplay really is a thing, and young men and women go the distance dressing up like comic book characters.
Public bath houses (onsen) are not just about taking a soak in hot springs. Onsen are where many people take care of their personal grooming. You will see women shaving and washing their hair in the public bath house facilities, which are usually larger and more modern than the bathrooms in their own homes.
Snack food is elevated to an art form. The array of snacks and junk foods vary from province to province, depending on local ingredients and trends. Far beyond seasoned nuts and chips, Japanese junk food can range from sugar and sesame-coated softshell crabs to crunchy corn covered in matcha and dark chocolate. The best thing is that sampling is usually an option in the stores that sell regional food items.
Except for craft beer, Japan is relatively inexpensive. Along the same lines as North America, Japan is not nearly as expensive as its reputation. We splurged a few times at ryokans and one kaiseki meal, but regular daily food items are inexpensive except for craft beer, which is as expensive as Norway and Australia.
What about you–what did you find most surprising about Japan?
It takes years of training, a lifetime of commitment, a bellyfull of emptiness. That’s what it takes to eat a healthy bowl of real Japanese ramen.
Choose your own adventure.
Like adult coloring books, only edible.
Turn and face the change, tsukemen. Look at the thick on them noodles!
Top 5 Ramen of Japan:
Kikanbo Spicy Ramen (カラシビ味噌らー麺 鬼金棒)! Loved everything about this ramen! It’s the bees’ knees. The boss hoss. And word up–they have a Tsukemen-only joint next door! I mean, they take their shit so seriously that they won’t even serve the ramen and tsukemen in the same place even though they are right next door. Ordering here is a cinch–machine–items are listed in English and easy to spot the obviously awesome diablo devil’s heat maximum numby-spicy broth. It was full-on flavor, banking not only on chili but on the love of my tongue’s life, Sichuan peppercorn (albeit the Japanese one called sansho ((did you know it existed?)). And if you dig deeper, of course you will, you find that even if you had ordered “mild,” you would have encountered one of the most sublime, deep, and unctuous bowls you had ever encountered. This is not a place that relies on salt for flavor. The depth of the broth comes from a finely honed recipe that a better blogger might have asked about in journalistic fashion. And the toppings, noodles? Both memorable, particularly the chashu, which to be fair cannot even be called chashu because we saw the rib chef carve the meat off of a rack of spareribs in front of our very eyes. The result would make a BBQ master blush. That we did not return here is testimony to our endless curiosity about the world of ramen. I’m sure we’ll be back, and as this was a standout among standouts, I highly urge anyone reading this to visit Kikanbo Spicy Ramen when in Tokyo, if you like spicy ramen. So good I forgot to take a picture.
Ryushukin (龍旗信 なんば店). If you’re in Osaka and you love trying new ramen, go here. I would never in a million years believed that I would dig this sort of ramen, where they take a hand blender to what is basically schmaltz and whiz it about until its foamy and white and plop it into an already rich broth filled with fatty goodness, but I did. I have to admit that I almost went back for a second bowl even though we were in Osaka for only 3 days. That’s saying a lot.
Afuri (原宿). Afuri was recommended by a friend who said, “I don’t normally eat ramen, but when I do, I eat Afuri.” I considered what he said and decided to give it a go. People who don’t normally like ramen probably don’t have the same taste as I do. Then again, the whole point of a ramenadventure is to try new flavors. So Afuri it was, and Afuri delivered me a bowl of cold yuzu ramen, their summer special. You can maybe catch a glimpse of it here on their menu page, it’s called the “Summer Limited Edition Cold Yuzu Shio” ramen. Note they have one of the best-known vegan ramens in town, which I would love to try on a later date. Josh ordered the regular shio ramen. Comparing the two at the restaurant, I much preferred Josh’s at the time. I still did not like my pork product, which was hammy and firm and nothing like the chashu that I adore. And yet, looking back on the gamut of ramen we sampled on our trip to Japan, the cold yuzu ramen was a real standout. The flavors–how can you beat yuzu in a race? So I’ll leave it at this: “I don’t normally eat cold yuzu ramen in the summer, but when I do, I eat Afuri.”
Rokurinsha (六厘舍). Our first tsukemen! So yeah, take our opinion at face value. But I have a few things I’d like to say, honestly. One is that I didn’t understand the tsukemen while I was eating it. Second is that I couldn’t stop thinking about it after I was eating it. Taken together, I’d have to say this is one of the most memorable dishes I ate in Japan. I found myself seeking out tsukemen as soon as we returned to Vancouver (a venture that was successful and deserves to be written about in its own right at a later date). Now I realize that tsukemen is an art form. The chef reduces a ramen broth to its core components, in this case adding a kajillion types of seaflavors. I could not bring myself to add water and down the broth as many do when their noodles have been noshed, but when I return to Tokyo station I will hopefully be hungry enough to do so.
Nagi Golden Gai. (すごい煮干ラーメン凪 新宿ゴールデン街店 本館). We hit up the Golden Gai, a notorious nightlife district, on a dull midweek evening. Nary a drink in hand, we sauntered on up to the Nagi restaurant and two other tourist couples were in line. Bad sign, I thought. A half-hour later, awaiting our ramen, I felt happy we had chosen Nagi. We had what might have been our only female ramen chef throughout our trip.
We also received a curious, overwhelmingly fishy bowl that tasted like the ocean herself puked in a bowl and served it up, with noodles. Whose to argue with that? What’s even cooler is the “Propiro” noodle–maybe the only easter egg you’ll ever find in a real Japanese ramen.
Worth a mention is the only ramen in Japan I created but did not eat: The Momofuku Ramen Instant Ramen Museum “My Cup Noodle!” The museum on the outskirts of Osaka is a great visit for kids. It was fun to design my own cup and formulate my own recipe.
So what is ramen in Japan really like? The answer is: fun.
Being in Cuba may awaken in you strange sensations. None of the typical things you feel when traveling, such as awe or wonder. Instead, you may feel a combination of compassion and despair that creates something akin to numbness. It resembles the symptoms of shock.
Before I go on: I’m from Miami. I have Cuban family. I grew up eating plátanos, palomilla steak, and ropa vieja in Hialeah. Going to Cuba was no small decision. Some of my friends and family members disapproved. I used to think they were stupid. I’ve been to Russia. Vietnam. China. How bad could it be? Canadians go there all the time…
At First Glance
It’s not easy to read when you get off the airplane. It doesn’t speak to you right away. I expected many more government propaganda signs. The only ones I see are faded. It doesn’t look different from any other run-down communist country. Dilapidated buildings, stray dogs. It looks like any other tropical country too. Swaying palm trees and the smell of burning foliage and trash on the street. Donkey carts, horns, and the occasional fruit cart. Nothing we haven’t seen, heard, or smelled before.
People smile, people frown. People fix things. I don’t see a socialist utopia or a debacle. And for the first few hours, I’m thinking all the things I heard were overblown. And then I tried to buy a bottle of water.
To the guest house owner: “Where can I buy water?”
“I don’t know. You can try the cafeteria over there.” Points. We go to the cafeteria. All they got is a 250ml bottle. OK for now but the tap water is no good. A few sips won’t kill you, but not to guzzle straight for 3 weeks. It took us days, literally, to find a store that sold big bottles of water.
If you’re criticizing me by now, if you think I’m blowing it out of proportion, it’s probably because all you saw was Old Havana. And maybe Trinidad.
Your sink probably had a tap, too.
In Old Havana everything presents itself with a semblance of normalcy. Now I know it’s all a fucking facade. All those whining Cubans-in-exile in Miami I used to think were a bunch of Republican numnuts, well, now I just want to give them all a hug.
I spoke with the owners of our casa particular, who, like most other Cubans we spoke with, opened up instantly when speaking about politics and the bloqueo. They are not afraid to speak, which I guess is a little surprising. Many cried when they spoke of their sons, daughters, moms, dads, aunts, uncles, and brothers who left the country, some actually by one of those crazy dinghies you read about, and never came back.
In addition, you and your kids have little to strive for. No matter how hard you work, you can’t accomplish anything. Sure you get free education and health care, but what else? On Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, Cubans don’t get very far.
Yes, the people are “resourceful,” “resilient” and all those other clichéd words used to describe Cubans. What do you expect? Why do people think being resourceful and resilient is something uniquely Cuban? What else are they gonna do? Have you never been to India? Go anywhere with real poverty and you will see resilience and resourcefulness. So shut up and get real. The thing with Cuba is, it didn’t have to be this way and it doesn’t have to be this way. They know it, we know it. Their free health care and education allows the government to stand on a moral high ground, but if you have half a brain, you can see that high ground is built on a crumbling foundation. It’s not working, it never did work.
Nowhere else in the Caribbean save for a few choice spots like Puerto Rico has so much lingering evidence of urban colonial life. It is gorgeous, the architecture. During our 2 week road trip we visited a half-dozen cities and large towns, all of which boast European-style town squares several centuries old. Evidence of former wealth was everywhere. And THAT, my friends, is what makes Cuba so frustrating. Cuba without the revolution would have been the richest place in the Caribbean and could very well help to promote economic growth throughout the region. Instead, it’s a place where you can’t buy water, toothpaste, or toilet paper. And the peasants the revolution was supposed to help? Ahhhahahahah, that’s funny.
You can buy rum. Very easily. And cheaply, even the proletariat can afford it. Oh and you can now surf the Internet, in those lovely old town squares. That is cool.
I’m not going to say that it’s all bad. We enjoyed ourselves. We learned a lot. We drank rum almost every day, often with locals in city squares. The music is good, the art is colorful. We ate well–stone crabs, whole fish, lobster. Our rental car never broke down (it was Chinese, BTW). We went to one beach near Cienfuegos, which was one of my favorite cities.
I would go back. I will go back. Cuba was one of the most difficult trips I’ve taken, but I’m glad I went. You will be too. But if you’re afraid of “The Americans” coming and “ruining” Cuba, please stay home. You suck if you actually believe that white privileged propaganda of yours. Go because you want to open your heart and mind.
We visited in January-February of 2016. We rented a car in Havana and drove to:
And a few other places en route. We stayed the private bnb-style places called casas particulares. At the time of our trip, AirBnB was not available to non-American travelers, making it very difficult to make bookings. Now, I think that has changed and if so, you will have a much easier time than we did.
If you need any tips about where to stay or eat, or what to see, please feel free to message me and I will help as best I can.
If you go…
Why not book an Arts Encounters tour? This Miami-based company offers exclusive art-focused itineraries of Havana. They will get you into galleries and venues that you can’t typically visit, allowing you to get under the pulse of change.
Cultivating a home base for two years has been rewarding, but the universe is calling, like the blossom calls the bee. It’s time to hit the road. After returning from Japan this June, we will pack our things and go.
Coincidentally, a friend sent me this poem today, Walt Whitman’s “Song of the Open Road.” I’m sure all travelers can relate to the spirit of this passage, the energy that drives us to experiment and never stay still. To relish in our restlessness. The entire poem has 14 more stanzas, this is just the first. You can read the entire thing here.
Afoot and light-hearted I take to the open road,
Healthy, free, the world before me,
The long brown path before me leading wherever I choose.
Henceforth I ask not good-fortune, I myself am good-fortune,
Henceforth I whimper no more, postpone no more, need nothing,
Done with indoor complaints, libraries, querulous criticisms,
Strong and content I travel the open road.
The earth, that is sufficient,
I do not want the constellations any nearer,
I know they are very well where they are,
I know they suffice for those who belong to them.
(Still here I carry my old delicious burdens,
I carry them, men and women, I carry them with me wherever I go,
I swear it is impossible for me to get rid of them,
I am fill’d with them, and I will fill them in return.)
222 Brazilian craft breweries and 1469 of their beers entered this year’s Concurso Brasiliero de Cervejas.
Remarkably, the craft breweries in Brazil are home-grown, not created or sustained by expats. This is unusual for a new beer country.
The top craft breweries in Brazil are already good enough to compete in the local marketplace. Many are getting a foot in by making collaboration beers with international brands like Evil Twin.
Only a few breweries have “sold out” to large companies or conglomerates, and the scene retains a grassroots and authentic feel.
The best brewers are making cutting-edge beer styles, including sours of all types and barrel-aged beers. Some are starting to experiment with uncommon historical styles like grodziskie.
A large number of brewers are successfully featuring indigenous fruits and herbs, including those you find in the Amazon. They show respect for their terroir, and the resulting beers are often unique and exciting.
Likewise, many brewers are capitalizing on the unique qualities of Brazilian woods for barrel projects. Cachaça barrels are imparting unusual flavors to the beers they hold, and are a welcome change of pace from Bourbon barrels.
The biggest challenge to craft brewers seems to be supply chain, especially acquiring desirable/trending hops. This is bound to remain a problem for a few more years and until South American countries start developing and growing their own hops.
In the meantime, brewers are realizing that there is a lot more to good beer than hop bombs.
A few breweries to look for: Tupiniquim, Heilege, Bodebrown, Swamp, and Invicta.
Brazil has brewing history, as towns in the south of the country like Blumenau were originally settled by Germans in the 19th century.
The future of Brazilian beer is bright.
Brazil has one of Latin America’s only dedicated brewing universities in Blumenau.
Bodebrown is the only known craft brewery that has its own brewing school.
Notwithstanding friends and family, this is our second house sitting gig. It basically involves taking care of a house and usually pets + plants, and instead of payment you get a free place to stay.
While there are many obvious benefits to house sitting, after our experiences, I think the drawbacks outweigh them and I’m not so sure we will be doing this as regularly as I first thought when I found out this was a “thing.”
For one, I don’t like staying in other people’s houses, period. I don’t even like it when I know the people. With house sitting the people are away, so at least I have privacy, but being surrounded by other people’s junk is annoying even when they’re not around. The house we are currently in is cluttered, and so was the previous.
Second, house sitting is more work than I thought. One of the cats we are watching here is a needy motherfucker who screams and scratches on the bedroom door EVERY SINGLE MORNING from before dawn and if you don’t wake up and not only feed it but give it attention, it will NEVER SHUT UP. We had full disclosure, the ladies told us about the cat, but reading about it in an email and actually living it every day are two totally different things.
Another drawback we learned on our first housesitting gig on Bainbridge Island, when the owner decided to return from her camping trip early. Things like that can happen, and because it’s their house and you didn’t pay rent, you don’t have any real rights.
I’m grateful that we tried out housesitting, and I’m happy to be in Sydney, but overall we ended up spending heaps of money coming down to Australia that we would not have spent otherwise. It seemed like a good idea at the time.