Sunday, May 8, 2022

When in Taiwan, don't eat as the Japanese


オトナの甘さ - "the sweetness of adults"

What's this? Another blog post so soon after the last one? As a character in a 1930's movie might demand, "Say, what gives?"

What gives is "food". Back in my Taiwan days, I would blog on a seemingly daily basis, giving my NT2 on political issues of the day and sharing news articles on Japan-Taiwan relations, in addition to wholesome family-themed posts focusing on our free time activities, and all the while creating an online journal on my daughter growing up. I also carved out a cyber niche for myself, being the weeb white guy who shared photos of the Japanese language being abused and misused on signs in Taiwan (of which there were/are numerous examples!) For my efforts I was inexplicably recognized a couple of times with a virtual award, though from whom was never quite clearly explained to me (and there was no money included). I also generated controversy and online abuse, receiving angry and hateful comments from those who for unfathomable reasons took offense that I didn't enjoy drinking Taiwan Beer 台灣啤酒 (which I still don't, with some of those critics now extolling the virtues of craft beer in Taiwan). One reader was livid that I had the nerve to suggest that the so-called "hot" Taiwanese singer Jolin Tsai 蔡依林 would go unnoticed on the streets of, say, Shinjuku 新宿 or Dotonbori 道頓堀. Those were the days!

Now I'm older and fatter, and not any wiser, and my blog posts tend to reflect the sedateness of my advancing years. From 164 posts in 2011, I reached out to the online world a paltry 18 times last year, with most of my entries being about travels or major life upheavals. Sure, there's the occasional rant, but for the most part I seem to irk a lot fewer people on Blogger (the same can't be said for Facebook). So why this post? Was there another trip this weekend? Another curmudgeonly and pointless rant? A new medical condition uncovered? No to the first and third. As for the second, please read on...

Occasionally I will come across a Westerner who will make a comment on social media along the lines that Japanese food in Taiwan tastes just as good, or even better, than what you can find in Japan. Yes, that's all. Statements like these don't anger me (different tastes and all that), but it does leave me scratching my scalp (there not being much hair on top) as to why someone would think so. For during the dozen or so years I was living in Taiwan, I can't recall ever having a meal in a Japanese restaurant there that was anything other than mediocre. And I ate 日本料理 a lot during those years, though more for its familiarity than anything else, in much the same way that you eat at McDonald's - the food doesn't taste great but at least you recognize everything. 

Now it might be pointed out that Taipei 台北 has Michelin-starred Japanese restaurants. But I didn't live in Taiwan's capital. I lived in The Real Taiwan™, Taichung 台中 to be exact, with much time also spent in rural Yunlin County 雲林縣. My tax bracket meant I didn't go to upmarket fusion establishments, or to Japanese restaurants located inside five-star hotels. Instead, my gastronomic experiences tended to be limited to those eateries patronized by average Taiwanese folks. And in these diners, no matter what I ordered, something was missing. And that intangible was "flavor".

Virtually every meal I ever had in a Japanese restaurant in Taiwan was bland. Not many people might realize that Japanese cuisine tends to be high in salt, from condiments such as soy sauce to a vast range of salt-preserved foods. This use of salt might be one reason why Japan has the highest rate of stomach cancer in the developed world, but it's also one reason (out of many) why the food tastes oh so good. Taiwanese palates, however, don't seem to appreciate this aspect of the cuisine very much, which might explain why local cooks are reluctant to flavor the food. I was told on more than one occasion by Taiwanese who had traveled to Japan that they preferred the Japanese food they would eat in Taichung to that they had in Tōkyō 東京 or Hokkaidō 北海道 while on vacation, for example, because the taste of the dishes in Japan was "too strong"! My wife, upon returning to Taiwan after spending a year in Yokkaichi 四日市, found it difficult to enjoy dining at Japanese restaurants in the home country because, as she put it, the food on offer was "tasteless". 

And it isn't just taste, or the lack thereof. Take sushi 寿司 and sashimi 刺身, for example. Things might be different at high-end sushi restaurants in Taipei, but in the modest establishments that I patronized in central Taiwan, the sushi would invariably come with far too much wasabi ワサビ, while the sashimi was often served half-frozen! I've actually eaten better at proletarian conveyor belt sushi restaurants 回転寿司店 in the Japanese countryside. Rāmen ラーメン would be prepared with too much oil, and of course not enough salt. And then there's my favorite comfort food, tonkatsu 豚カツ. In Japan, I could look forward to a tasty pork cutlet fried in a light coat of bread crumbs. In Taiwan, the same dish on too many occasions consisted of fatty meat overcooked in too much batter. 

Take a deep breath and relax. I'll be the first to admit my expectations were probably too high. After all, I lived for more than a decade in Tokyo, as well as in Okazaki 岡崎 and Yokkaichi. Due to personal relationships, a lot of time was spent in Kanra 甘楽 (a small town in Gunma Prefecture 群馬県) and Matsumoto 松本 (one of the nicest cities in all of Japan, and home to some of the country's more unusual culinary offerings). In over 30 years of traveling in the Land of the Rising Sun, I have eaten, and eaten well, in restaurants from Hokkaido to Okinawa 沖縄 (I didn't start putting on weight until after moving to Taiwan, thanks to a combination of marriage, domesticity and night markets). Just as it isn't reasonable to expect Chinese food in the U.S. to be on a par with what can be enjoyed in China, it isn't fair to demand the same tastes in Taiwanese Japanese eateries. After all, there are many Taiwanese restaurants 台湾料理店 all over Japan, and having lived in Taiwan, I would never say "Taiwanese food in Japan is just as good, if not better, than in Taiwan". 

For the record, not every meal I've had in Japan has been a pleasurable experience - more than 30 years later, I still don't know if that was a vegetable or a slug that was placed on top of the bowl of noodles I ordered at the ferry terminal in Imabari 今治. And the worst Japanese food I ever had the misfortune of eating in Taiwan was prepared by a Japanese "chef" at a restaurant in central Taichung. It turns out the cook/owner was a retired salaryman サラリーマン with no culinary experience - he opened his establishment after moving to Taichung with his Taiwanese wife following retirement. So much for foodies and the "authenticity" they so crave

In conclusion, there's no conclusion (or point to this post), other than to say "Japanese food is better in Taiwan than in Japan" is like claiming "Ximending 西門町 is more like Shibuya 渋谷 than Shibuya". 

Also, this post gives me an excuse to share some photos from Hana Market, a small Japanese grocery store on the corner of 17th Street NW and U Street NW in Washington, D.C., that Amber and I drove to on this Mother's Day (Shu-E preferred to relax at home):

The store was small and the aisles narrow...:

…but well-stocked with a lot of goodies, like this Anpanman Corn Cream soup:

Not everything came from Japan:

Our haul, not including the onigiri おにぎり we added when our turn came up at the register (and for which the shop is noted). What can you identify?:

Now please don't get me started on those who refer to Shintō shrines 神社 as "temples":

Hoping everyone enjoyed a nice Mother's Day!

Thursday, May 5, 2022

How low can it go?


Actually, that's a question I'd rather not know the answer to. I'm still stinging from the disappointment of my sister having to cancel at the last minute her trip to visit us, due entirely to the three of us somehow managing to contract the coronavirus. She certainly did the prudent thing, and we are planning on driving across the country to her home this summer. Still, it would've been nice to have seen her again, especially as it's been more than two years, and the last time we were together was when I came back from Ethiopia to bury our father. 

So once again the coronavirus wiped out our holiday plans (this all inconveniently coincided with my daughter's spring break from school). I could wallow in this, and also mention how health issues in general have pushed me hopelessly behind my classmates in the Mandarin program, and of how things seem to be going from bad to worse in China, which could make a mess of our planned move, but I won't. After all, the weather is becoming increasingly nicer (天气越来越好), a seasonal change reflected in the varied foliage of the nearby cemetery, where the colors of death and rebirth are currently on display:

With Amber back to full health (she was actually the least obviously affected by COVID-19 - I felt like I had the flu, while Shu-E had all the symptoms of a nasty cold), she was able to join her bandmates at the local farmers market for a well-received Ukraine fundraiser. The band easily exceeded their $500 target for donations - take that you pro-Putin useful idiots!:

April 30, 1975 (my daughter thought 30-4-1975 was a phone number) was the day the Vietnam War ended with the fall of Saigon to the North Vietnamese army. Although I don't read Vietnamese, I have the sense the feeling being conveyed to the South Vietnamese community by the banner at Eden Center is one of sadness (the flag of the former Republic of Vietnam is being flown at half-mast):

On a more positive note (supposedly the overarching tone of this blog post) we attended the McLean Chocolate Festival, where we purchased a few of the specialties on offer:

Amber looking more and more comfortable behind the wheel, though the idea of driving on freeways still fills her with trepidation. In this regard, she's much like her mother, who still is leery of getting on American Interstates because the speeds tend to be much faster than on the national highways in her native Taiwan. The presence of highway patrols also unnerves her:

It seems the local wildlife is starting to reemerge with the onset of spring. In the past few days I've seen rabbits, foxes and snakes while walking around our area. And this scrawny-looking dear, which actually approached me while I was taking my usual morning stroll in the cemetery. I wonder if someone has been feeding it...:

The mural on the wall of a local music store:

A woodpecker hard at work doing whatever it is a woodpecker does:

You may have noticed the photo of some waterfalls at the beginning of this post. The wife had never been to West Virginia (actually she had - we spent a night once at a hotel just inside the Ohio/West Virginia state line when we drove across the U.S. during the summer of 2015), so Shu-E decided a trip there was in order. After doing some research online, she decided we should spend a night at Blackwater Falls State Park, then stop off in Harpers Ferry on our way back to Washington.

The West Virginia countryside is nice to experience; the West Virginia culture not so much. We stopped for lunch at a McDonald's in Moorefield, a town of 2500 just off U.S. Route 48. The dining room was filled with plus-sized white people, many dressed in camo, and one gentleman afflicted with a smaller-than-average penis was carrying a handgun. Judging from all the elderly workers in the restaurant, I would guess many of the young of Moorefield don't stick around after finishing school. Either that, or they're so strung out on meth that their grandparents have to keep working.

Soon after getting back on the road we saw our first Confederate flag (strange, considering West Virginia's origins). And when we reached the state park, these were for sale in the gift shop:

The main draw of the park is of course the falls, which cascade 62 feet (19 meters) at the point where the Blackwater River enters Blackwater Canyon:

The falls are nice, but not spectacular, but seeing as we drove 2½ hours-plus from Falls Church to get there, a lot of photos were taken:

No exaggeration - until we reached Harpers Ferry the following day, during the whole time we were in West Virginia we were the only people wearing masks:

From the falls we drove toward the Pendleton Point Overlook, passing some deer along the way:

The view was impressive:

The building on the other side of the canyon that you can see in the video is where we would spend Saturday night:

On the way to our accommodations, we stopped for another view of the falls, from a different angle:

We also took a walk along the short Davis Trail, only a ½ mile (805 meters) roundtrip:

The girls were trying to determine if the yellowish tinge of the stream was due to discoloration of the water. The conclusion was that it was the result of the streambed sediment:

Another spectacular view was had at Lindy Point. The scenic overlook is 3047 feet (929 meters) in elevation:

We finally checked into the Blackwater Lodge late in the afternoon:

There was yet another viewing platform just behind our room:

While the girls relaxed in the room I took a walk along the Elakala Trail, about a mile (1.61 kilometers) in total length. The waters next to the hotel eventually end up in the river at the bottom of the canyon:

The wife and I both had the beef brisket for dinner. Sitting nearby was a large, bearded gentleman clad in a black T-shirt. The back of his shirt read "My faith", with a drawing of a cross; "My flag", with a banner that wasn't the Stars and Stripes; and "My folk", which fortunately I couldn't make out clearly. I wanted to ask him how he reconciled his Christian faith with his devotion to a country that broke away from the U.S. in order to preserve the institution of slavery, but he seemed like the type who would turn violent once it became apparent he couldn't win a theological debate. 

The following day we would drive by a "Fuck Biden" flag flying from someone's property. Stay classy, Mountain State!:

The view from behind the lodge on Sunday morning:

The same view following breakfast, between breaks in the rain and after a brief hailstorm:

From Blackwater Falls State Park, we made another 2½ hour-drive, this time to Harpers Ferry National Historical Park, located at the point where the Potomac and Shenandoah Rivers meet. I'd done some hiking there (almost passing out in the process, from what I assumed at the time was heat exhaustion, but which I now wonder might have been related to my heart condition), but it was the first time to visit for the girls:

We had lunch at the Rabbit Hole gastropub. The 11-ounce (312 grams) haddock that comprised my fish and chips meal proved a challenge to finish:

This is why I decided to become a father. It's a long-term investment that's starting to pay off now that my daughter can drive:

After lunch we visited some of the local shops, including Tessoterica:

Amber is standing in West Virginia. Behind her and to the left is the state of Maryland; to the right is Virginia:

Harpers Ferry is best known as the place where the abolitionist John Brown raided the Federal arsenal there in an ill-fated attempt to arm slaves and spark an insurrection. This monument marks the site of the original armory:

Waiting for a train at the functioning station. It's possible to take an Amtrak train from Alexandria, Virginia to Harpers Ferry:

A vintage candy store where we spent some cash on future cavities. There were many old, familiar brands, but not my favorite from the 1970's:

A couple of freight trains passed through during our time in Harpers Ferry. My daughter couldn't believe how long the trains were:

Some of the older buildings have been turned into museums:

It's a surprisingly short drive (less than 1½ hours) back to Falls Church, which Amber did, and did very well. 

I'll end this post with some good news and some bad news. First, the good news: the Chinese embassy approved our visas, meaning we'll be traveling to China this summer.

And the bad news: the Chinese embassy approved our visas, meaning we'll be traveling to China this summer.

If you've been following the news about the Omicron outbreaks in Shanghai 上海 and Beijing 北京 (the Chaoyang 朝阳 area, where most of the capital's cases have been detected, is also where we're going to be living), then you know as well as I do that everything is up in the air at this point. We're scheduled to fly from Seattle to Shanghai at the end of July, but if that gets canceled, we may have to travel to China on a charter flight from Washington, D.C. in mid-August. All we can do at this point is wait and see how events transpire, and plan accordingly. 

Or to put it another way, 不以物喜,不以己悲*.

Sorry, but it has to be shared:

*Don't be affected emotionally by what's happening around you.