Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Garlic Growing Fine...So Far

I've never grown garlic in this temperature zone before, so I really don't feel like I know what I'm doing. Heck, I've never grown ANYTHING in this temperature zone before, so it's all new. Anyway, I planted the garlic in late fall in two places in my garden. The main bed is mulched with plastic in rows of four by about eleven. The remaining cloves I tucked in my little rebel bed along the wall. (See last photo.)

The wall bed is mulched with leaves not so subtly nipped from the neighbors last fall on burnables day, skeletons of last year's basil, and a small hit of chicken manure. I am not a big fan of plastic mulch, but the dearth of natural materials to be had is daunting.

At home I used mulch to keep weeds down and the ground moist, but here I've seen it's value for those reasons and more. The wind as it whips across the farm and over Tokyo is most impressive, and not just in typhoon season. I see great gobs of topsoil flying away sometimes as we're working, so I've decided to give in to the plastic for now. I'm also experimenting with NOT weeding the paths. Fukuoka in The One Straw Revolution worked with his "weeds", and I thought perhaps I should give it a go, too. I've "mowed" them a couple times to keep them from going to seed, and used their bits for a top layer of mulch in the wall bed. I'm hoping all of these efforts will help hold the soil down in high winds and heavy rains, and in the case of the wall bed, feed the soil, too. I'm a little concerned the weeds are robbing my garlic of nutrients, but it's a bit of a rock and a hard place.

Now, it's a waiting game to see what will happen. Some suggest waiting until the bottom three leaves yellow and die off before digging the garlic. I've decided to leave those that look particularly healthy and happy - thick stems with green leaves - and dig those that look less robust - thin stems with sad leaves. Eventually, I'll find out what I should expect and when to harvest.

Sunday, April 25, 2010

Seedling Update and Beginnings of the Green Curtain

The kale and zucchini seedlings are well underway, and the Brandywines are just beginning to unfurl their first set of true leaves. Shee-chan recommended I set the zuch's outside for more light (a bit leggy) and hardening off, so everyone's out sunning themselves at the moment. Thursday is meant to be lovely and some of them will move into the garden then.

It's a busy time in our apartment-greenhouse. I just potted up some morning glories, cardinal climbers, and cucumbers. I technically don't have room for everything in the garden (the old my-eyes-are-bigger-than-the-rows syndrome), but my justification is that I'm giving serious thought to making a green curtain or two.

A green curtain is, well, a "curtain" made out of vining plants. The idea is that as the vines grow they shade windows and walls keeping the interior cool. Companies, government offices, schools, and individuals make use of green curtains here to keep out some of the blistering summer heat. Our neighbor down the way uses goya - Okinawan bitter melon - for one of her walls, which makes it edible, too. (I'm planning to use the cucumber seedlings.) The morning glories are inspired by a house on a bike path just north of us. They have what can only be described as a massive wave of morning glories that is simply stunning running from the ground to the roof. I'm adding cardinal climber just because it reminds me of home.

Our apartment is southern facing with full-on exposure to the east and west. While we love the sunshine, the heat can be a bit much. We don't like to use the air conditioner, but in Tokyo's heat and humidity we sometimes feel like we don't have much of a choice. A green curtain - one in the front to shade the wall and one in the back to shield our living/dining area - made from cucumber vines might get us some tasty pickles AND cool us down a bit in the process.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Bike Touring in Kawaguchiko

(Second in a series about Do-it-yourself tourism!)

It goes without saying that the Fuji Five Lakes in Yamanashi Prefecture are a popular tourist destination in Japan. Mount Fuji, visible from as far away as Tokyo and Yokohama, dominates the landscape and is a magnet for visitors. With plenty to do all year round, it's an easy hop from Tokyo and makes for a simple do-it-yourself green vacation.

Impressions of Kawaguchiko and Surrounds from the Seat of a Bike
Eager to get out and about, we rented bikes from our hostel and went straight to Lake Kawaguchi to begin the 26 km loop. Within moments we spotted Mount Fuji, rising in all his snowy shouldered glory just to the south. Trees were giving serious thought to blooming, but holding back a bit in the chill wind, and bits of snow huddled next to the bike path in a few places. Herb and rose gardens dotted the shore and looked as though they were mustering up the strength for another year of beautiful blooms and bounty.

On the Eastern shoreline, we decided to warm up a bit and check out the art museum. Home to a small but nice collection of Fuji-focused art works and gifts, we enjoyed the art and the mountain in all seasons and throughout history. A number of very cute little cafes also dotted the path as we moved northward along the shore, offering tasty treats and terrific views of the mountain.

The Natural Living Center had me nearly leaping from my bike. Fronted by massive lavender beds, the Center offered up some local wares - sake and wine, to be sure - but the little gem that I know I'll be coming back for are the jam-making classes. The area sports a number of berry patches - many right along the shore of the lake - giving up tasty blueberries and strawberries - all of which are perfect for making jam. A number of other classes offer visitors the chance to make their own soba or crafts, too!

Just around the corner, we found the Oishi Tumugi Traditional Workshop. They offer classes on weaving and herbal dying as well as a window into the wonders of hand silk production and weaving. Four local artists work the looms and offer demonstrations of how silk fabric is made - from the worm to the kimono - that is utterly fascinating. Since we were there in the off-season we got a short, personal tour complete with demonstration.

Hearty sunshine beckoned us to extend our tour up a rather steep hill, around a corner, and through a tunnel to Lake Saiko. Another of the Fuji Five Lakes, Saiko is smaller with a quieter, more intimate feel than Kawaguchiko. Outdoor opportunities abound (including an annual 10k run and marathon) and a small handful cafes and onsens offer refreshment for weary feet and bones.

Thinking of going?
Kawaguchiko is an easy and direct bus ride (low carbon footprint!) from Tokyo's Shinjuku Station. Renting a bicycle is highly recommended for moving about the area in a fun, energy-efficient way, and most hotels and hostels in the area offer them.

Monday, April 19, 2010

Everyday Gardens Up and Growing!

I might be mad to do this, but I've created another blog just dedicated to the little gardens I see in my wanderings. Tokyo (and Japan in general for that matter) is astonishingly full of small gardens. And when I say gardens I'm talking mostly about the homemade ones that range in size from one little pot on a balcony or stoop to rows and rows of pots carefully arranged in front of a house or business.

Everyday Gardens is mostly photo-based, and is where I'll share the spots I see tucked away hopefully as soon as I see them. I also plan to share photos from some past trips, too, as I've got so many stashed away!

Friday, April 16, 2010

Budding Blueberries

At the farm there's a sweet little blueberry patch on the southern end of what at the moment are cabbage fields. Last year they produced some super scrumptious berries, and as we walked by the patch this year we saw that the bushes were in flower.

Mulched in the fall with old basil plants and sunflower stalks, the plants seem quite content. A recent trimming of old branches ensures that energy will be put into new growth and berries bursting with flavor. My mouth is watering even now.

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Zucchini Seedlings Going Strong

These little guys just got rolling, and are enjoying the view from our windowsill for the moment. (Still a bit too chilly here to let them roam free in the garden.) It's a new variety - white patty pan - that I've never tried to grow or eat before, but I thought the farmers would get a kick out of them. I keep thinking they'll be awesome in a pesto-zucchini soup that I don't have the recipe for any more.

(Kale and Brandywine seedlings underway, too, by the way.)

Monday, April 12, 2010

Rainy Morning Marmalade

A pot of marmalade bubbles away on the stove filling the apartment with a bright tangy smell this morning. We spent Saturday helping prepare this year's eggplant field for planting later this month, and one of our take-home prizes was a big bag of mikan. (As was a lovely bamboo shoot, a.k.a. takenoko.) Big, bright, and round these are some of the last ones for the year. They made a lovely marmalade last year that we savored on fresh bread and in cups of tea.

Growing just behind the farmhouse the mikan is one of an assortment of trees, shrubs, and plants that could still feed an extended family year round. The farmstead inventory includes (but is probably not limited to) two kinds of kaki (persimmon), a kinkan bush (tiny, tiny edible orange eaten whole), yuzu and ume (plum) trees, at least one green tea bush with ginger (myoga) at its feet, a healthy stand of bamboo, a few wild vegetables such as fukinoto and warabi, and green and red shiso sprouting just about everywhere imaginable. Chestnut (kuri) and gingko orchards round the edges of the fields, and provide a little something extra for the larder.

The recipe is, as she states on her blog, more of a formula than a recipe. I like it because it's flexible and easy on the sugar. Well, and because it makes a super-tasty marmalade, of course! Perfect work for a wet Spring morning.

Thursday, April 8, 2010

Scrumptious Fungus with Matt Demmon

Matt Demmon over at Little House Farm is once again offering his most-fascinating mushroom class. Learn how to grow and get tips on preserving and cooking up your own delicious fungi, and enter a world of tasty beauty with Matt as your guide.

To whet your appetite, read my interview with Matt from last year and then check out his mouth-watering recipe below!

Backyard Mushrooming
Sunday, April 11th
12pm - 3pm
Little House Farm
$50 for class; $70 to take home your own log
Call Matt at 734-255-2783 or email to register
Hurry! Class size is limited.

Quick and Easy Mushrooms with Cream Sauce ala Little House Farm

8 oz. fresh mushrooms or 2 oz. dried mushrooms (reconstituted in water first)
1/2 of a small onion
3 tablespoons of butter
2 tablespoons of flour (can be a combination of millet, amaranth, buckwheat and/or teff for those hankering after gluten-free)
1 cup milk or half and half
Salt and pepper to taste
Pasta of your choice

Saute the mushrooms in the butter for about five minutes, and then add the onion. Continue sauteing until the onion is golden brown. Stir in the flour and continue stirring until the flour smells roasted and changes color. Add the milk or half and half while stirring constantly until it comes to a simmer and begins to thicken. Salt and pepper to taste and serve over a pasta of your choice.

Monday, April 5, 2010

Do-It-Yourself Eco-Tourism in Kawaguchiko

Eco or green vacations are popular and an excellent idea, but they can be expensive and sometimes intimidating to sort out on a budget in a foreign country. We've tried our hand at a few different green trips since coming to Japan, and have learned a great deal in the past year. (We lean toward cheap and green in life in general, so we automatically transferred these same concepts to trip planning.) Also, we often find that inexpensive travel is much more interesting, green, and adventurous than something with a high price tag.

Our first green vacation was helping rethatch a roof in Nagano Prefecture, followed by camping in Hokkaido, and then WOOFing on Shikouku Island. Each was a little different than the last - a guided volunteer trip to farm labor - but all were fun and fantastic learning experiences. We do tend to take the slow route, get dirty, lost, and eat at places where we can't quite read the menu or exactly understand what the cook is telling us, but we love it!

With a bit of a lull in activity at the farm and the university, we decided to visit the Fuji Five Lakes, specifically Kawaguchiko. As one of the main tourist destinations always discussed, we thought an exploratory trip for future visitors would be a good idea. The bus ride was short (under two hours) and direct. The climbing season for Mount Fuji won't open until July, and we assumed it wouldn't be super bustling. Plus, some friends highly recommended the local specialty - houtou (pronounced hoe-toe) udon - if we went, and that pretty much sealed the deal. With our mouths already watering, we hit the road.

Now, traveling by bus is perhaps not the most romantic way to go, but in Japan buses tend to be quite comfortable. Seat backs come equipped with small tables, drink holders, and a place to hang a coat or bag. And, for someone 180 cm tall, there's a fair amount of leg room, too. Bathrooms are quite tidy and often decked out with a lovely bouquet of artificial flowers. And it's mass transit, for heaven's sake! Sit back, feel a little eco, and enjoy the ride. (*Please note that on this particular bus from Tokyo's Shinjuku station to Kawaguchiko there was no bathroom, so plan to appropriately dehydrate yourself.)

We looked for a locally owned hostel that would let us cook a meal or two and offered morning coffee. A grocery store just up the road was an added bonus, and we noticed a number of fruit stands that would allow for rich foraging of locally grown fruits and vegetables once the season got rolling. A wonderful feature of Yamanashi Prefecture are the abundance of wineries, which made for an excellent beverage selection.

Another advantage of this hostel was an option to rent bicycles. Bicycles are one of the best ways to do an overview of an area and get farther afield cheaply and quickly than is possible on foot. Stopping for a picture, examining something more closely, exploring a roadside shrine, or pausing for a snack is easy on a bike. Faster than on foot but still able to interact with people and the place, we can't recommend this kind of travel enough.

We also liked that the hostel encouraged energy conservation through signs, staff behavior, and good use of fluorescent lightbulbs and motion sensitive lights. Recycling and garbage sorting were also de-rigueur.

Here's our list for traveling light on the Earth:

- Choose locally owned hostels, hotels, and restaurants. Sure, the food at the chain is well-known and cheap, but it's not doing much for the local economy. We often ask hostel staff or grocery store clerks where they eat, which results in great places a bit off the map and in a good price range. Supporting local economies is good, responsible tourism and often results in a highly satisfied tummy as well.

- Look for seasonal foods and specialties of the area. This goes hand in hand with choosing local businesses - area farms and orchards are about as local as one can get - and supporting a local sake brewery or winery really isn't that difficult, is it?

- Visit local museums and natural points of interest. Doing both of these augments an understanding of the place you are visiting and the culture indigenous to it. Find out what's special about where you are and celebrate it.

- Use eco-friendly transportation whenever possible. We often move about on foot, bicycle, bus, or train (and once by ferry!) when traveling here in Japan. Flying is a big carbon and fuel sponge, so look for a means of getting about with a smaller footprint. More often than not the slower (and usually cheaper options) afford a more intimate view and experience of the place.

- Consider taking your own chopsticks. Not a bad idea for everyday anyway, but on vacation these can be a lifesaver. When getting bento from the supermarket or eating at a local restaurant, you're more than ready when the dish arrives. Plus, it saves on trees!

- Stay at a place where you can do a little cooking. Popular in America now, food tourism is also part of the fun in Japan. but if you're traveling on a tight budget, check out the offerings in the local supermarket.

More Green Travel Resources
If a guided tour is really your thing, then check out One Life Japan (the organization we went with for the thatched roof project) for tailor-made biking, camping, and hiking adventures that are breathtaking.

Check out the list of offerings for Japan at Responsible Travel. Responsible Travel also offers some very thoughtful articles about what it means to travel responsibly as well as a handy check list. For even more information about eco-tourism options in Japan, visit Ecotour Comprehensive.

The Guardian UK green travel website offers a compendium of resources and listings not only for England but the world over for green travel. It also includes all types of travel and accommodations, information on what to look for, and ideas for making your own green trips.

Thursday, April 1, 2010

Ivan Ramen

Inspired by the double whammy of a recent Frugal Traveler story and a yuzu ramen trip to Ebisu, we thought we'd try another. A sunny Saturday put us on our bikes for a 45-minute ride to Ivan Ramen over in Rokakouen. A non-descript little place on the corner of a little shopping street and a major road it would be easy to miss. But we'll attest it's well worth looking for. The long line of people patiently waiting not only marked the spot, but signified that something special awaited those who finally made it to one of the ten or so stools strung a long the L-shpaed counter.

Ivan himself hopped out to say hello to folks in the line, and spent some time talking with us about his ramen and his story. Always mad about food and curious, he worked as a chef for a number of years in New York City before moving to Tokyo with his wife and family. After trying a couple different food ventures, Ivan turned his culinary hand to ramen. A quinticesential Japanese dish (borrowed from China then reworked), no other foreigner was making it. (How quinticessential? The variety of Japanese ramen is so immense that it even warrants a museum.) Most foreigners would shy away from trying to make this most Japanese of dishes for the Japanese, but not Ivan. A noodle man as well as a self-confessed Japan-o-phile, Ivan thought he would give it a go. He's not looked back since.

The menu holds some of the standard - shio (salt) and shoyu (soy-sauce) - ramens as well as tsukamens (ramen with sauce on the side for dipping) and mezemens (ramen with less broth and more noodle), but Ivan has created some of his own concoctions as well. Unable to resist his mouth-watering descriptions of the dishes, we ordered a mezemen of tomato, eggplant, and garlic simmered until the flavors melded perfectly. Topped off with fine threads of chilli it was a spicy bowl of perfectly al dente noodles that just looking at it warmed you up.

My goma chilli (sesame seed and chilli) tsukamen came with some of the loveliest noodles I've had yet in a ramen shop. I couldn't eat my perfectly al dente rye noodles (usually they're wheat) or the sauce quite fast enough. (I seriously think I may have splashed my countermates as I eagerly slurped.) I really wanted to just drink down the sauce, but managed to control myself.

Ivan takes great pride in his ramen - from noodle to broth - as well he should. Beginning with quality ingredients purchased as locally as possible - meat from the little shop across the way, vegetables and soy from around the corner - he churns out an everyman's dinner fit for a king and not more than 1,000 yen a bowl. Using a combination of chicken and pork fat he renders himself Ivan creates something that couldn't exactly be called health food, but that leaves the diner feeling good and satisfied at the end.

"Ramen is not ramen without a healthy dose of fat. If that makes you uncomfortable, then eat something else," says Ivan.

Ivan's eyes lit up when I mentioned how much I enjoyed the noodles, clearly taking great pleasure in his creation. The challenge of combining flours, rolling techniques, and recipes is for him as much about craft as it is about flavor and texture. He loves devising something tasty and satisfying for his customers to enjoy, and that keeps them coming back again and again. The noodle is the other half of his ramen equation.

"Many ramen shops don't pride themselves on noddles, but on their soup. To me, making a memorable noodle is as important as a memorable soup," said Ivan.

And it's about his customers. Keeping them happy and intrigued with his food while still experimenting with flavors and combinations is his pleasure and his challenge. "The barometer is is it tasty enough? I want my customers leaving here saying, 'That's the best noodle I've ever had.' and they do."

What I found most appealing about Ivan's ramen (other than the noodles) was the philosophy behind it. "Slow food...fast" is his mantra, and the idea that "...fast food doesn't have to be junk." Ivan's commitment to creating the best ramen he can for his customers - ramen kodawari - means combining his experience and talent with his love of food, Japan itself, and ramen and bringing all of that to bear in each bowl. Traditionally a 'fast' food in Japan, Ivan takes the time to build a mouthwatering bowl of comfort from the best raw materials he can find. Watching him work behind the counter - tasting the broth, arranging the chillis and sliced onions, and gauging each customers reaction as they take that first slurp - made it clear that this was more than just noodles and broth with a bit of pork thrown in for good measure. It was craftsmanship.

Worlds of Flavor Invitation
The skill and passion Ivan puts in every steaming bowl has resulted in recognition beyond the line outside his shop. Invited to participate in the Culinary Institute of America's 13th Annual Worlds of Flavor International Conference and Festival this year as a Japanese chef he is brimming with joy. The event, considered to be one of the premier events of the food world, brings chefs, food critics, and foodies of all types together for three days of intense learning, tasting, and talk. The theme for this year? Japan: Flavors of Culture.

"I'm very passionate, and I'm the only one (foreigner) doing this stuff. I'm bilingual culinarily and linguistically. I'm very happy and very honored on three levels. I'm an American making ramen, affiliated with Japan, and an alumni," said Ivan.

Restaurant Details
Ivan Ramen
3-24-7 Minamikarasuyama
Setagaya-ku, Tokyo
Rokakouen Station (North exit) on the Keio-honsen line.