Thursday, August 30, 2012

Specially selected

Kamenoko Tawashi

Getting away from food for the moment, perhaps my earliest encounter with a Japanese "meibutsu", is a very ordinary thing. It's a humble pot scrubber with a tortoise logo. Kamenoko Tawashi - literally "young tortoise scourer" has been around for over 100 years, but I first heard of it through the awesome Osaka band, Shonen Knife. See, I'm a true child of the '90s. Their song "Tortoise brand pot cleaner, specially selected pot cleaner, the best pot cleaner in the world is specially selected tortoise brand..." is so inane, but it stuck in my head. So when I saw the real thing, I had to get it. It's great that such an ordinary item can take me back to those days of Stone's Ginger Wine, The Big Day Out and the old Century Tavern on George & Liverpool Sts in Sydney. And at only 315 yen it would make a very cheap souvenir! It's wonderful in its simplicity - the bristles, made of coconut fibre, are finer and more flexible than cheaper versions, it's bound with rope and finished off with a wire hanger. The packaging  hasn't changed much in about 100 years, except it's plastic now. It can't be improved. It just is, the best pot cleaner in the world.

The packaging 

It does what it says on the tin.

Here's a link to the company's website: kamenoko-tawashi. They're based near Itabashi Tokyo, so you could say this is a meibutsu of North Tokyo. If you want to hear the Shonen Knife song (the English version; there's also an original Japanese version on the Burning Farm EP), here it is: Shonen Knife Let's Knife

Earlier packaging, from the company website.

They now also make a questionable range of 'cute' animals. I think I'll pass.

The band that started it all.

Wednesday, August 22, 2012


The full squid

One of the things I love about train stations in Japan, is they often have promotions by far-flung regions to promote their cuisine and attractions. This week, my local station has a stall from Morimachi, near Hakodate, in Hokkaido. I've always wanted to visit Hakodate, but I had never heard of Morimachi.

Looking at pictures, it doesn't seem to have a whole lot to offer, but it's on Uchiura Bay, with the twin peaks of Mt Komagatake behind it (come to think of it, the town does look quite a bit like the  "Twin Peaks"of David Lynch's imagination. I wonder if they have a Log Lady?).

The main street

Mt Komagatake

But wait, it does have one very special claim to fame: Ikameshi; whole squid, stuffed with rice and simmered in a sweet soy sauce. Apparently, it was invented in 1941 and became a popular bento for people passing through Hakodate on the train.

I had never tried it, but my husband had been waxing nostalgic about ikameshi recently, and asked me if I knew how to make it. In theory, yes... I've made the Italian version, calamari ripieni, with lots of garlic and tomato, but stuffing small squid with mochi rice seemed a bit fiddly and the combination of soy sauce and hot squid flesh makes an overpowering aroma when cooking, which has always put me off. However, if you want an easy guide to making ikameshi, I recommend "Cooking With Dog" - our host dog, Francis, wears a very jaunty green hat in this one! Here's a link to the video: Cooking with Dog Ikameshi

So, if you don't have the patience for cleaning and stuffing squid, just buy them! These ikameshi cost Y500 for two, which was plenty for 2 people with a few side dishes.

On first inspection, they didn't look very appetising, but after heating (you can put them in the microwave for a minute) and slicing into 1cm thick pieces, they were pretty tasty. I still prefer the Italian version, but I might try making ikameshi some time.

It even says "Morimachi meisan" - Morimachi local specialty; in case you weren't sure.

They don't look so appetising like this...

Sliced up: much better. They were firm, but not chewy; just right.

On the company's website you can buy funky ikameshi key chains. Hope they don't smell like ikameshi!

Wednesday, August 1, 2012

Nice package!


It's been too hot to travel much recently, so I cheated, and visited the Kotsu Kaikan building in front of Yurakucho station. It has a bunch of shops dedicated to different regions of Japan. The biggest is the Hokkaido shop, which has a very popular Hokkaido Soft Cream stand, but I followed the sweet scent of barbecue sauce and found the Osaka shop, where you can buy freshly made okonomiyaki and takoyaki. I've been to Osaka a few times, and it has a great Showa-era atmosphere, especially in the area around Dotombori. You've probably seen the famous Glico neon sign, Kuidaore Taro-kun (the slightly spooky clown fellow with a drum), and the giant crab, not to mention Osaka's retro Tsutenkaku tower.

Retro Osaka

Osaka is famous for its food ("Kuidaore" basically means "live to eat"), but today, it was the packaging that really got my attention. First up, we have Taro-kun starring in his own dessert: "Cui-daore Taro Pudding". The packaging design reminds me of French illustrator Alain Gree's work - very cute, 1960s style. Inside, you'll find 3 rather small puddings (basically creme caramel), packaged with Taro-kun's stripy hat and his face, each with a different expression. You also get a sachet of caramel sauce and a sachet of yummy, crunchy toffee to approximate the experience of eating creme brulee. At Y1,050 it's a bit expensive (the puddings are seriously small!), but they'd make a great gift for a design fan. They're made by Dojima Sweets. Check out the website for a very cute animation of the puddings:

Inside: the spooky face contains instructions, the sauce and the crunch.

I now have 3 very small hats, about the right size to perch on a cat's head.

The next item is Marufuku Coffee, from Osaka Sennichimae. The coffee shop has been around since 1934, and you can visit the original shop, just near Nambu station. They claim to have a "secret brewing method", but it's basically a nice, rich, drip coffee. I'm not sure why, but the Kansai area seems to be really good for coffee. Kyoto also has great coffee brands like Ogawa and Inoda coffee. If anyone knows about the history of Kansai's coffee culture, I'd love to know! I think I need to do another trip to Kyoto sometime, just to check out all the awesome cafes. Marufuku Coffee has a great logo - like the coffee shop, it seems unchanged since the 1930s. You can find some nice vintage images and a list of all the Marufuku branches on their website:

The original staff

Founder Sadao Ibuki

The original shop, which hasn't really changed

Marufuku ground coffee, perfect for filters.

Finally, I had to pick up a bottle of this "Daikoku Sauce". You can get sauce for okonomiyaki and takoyaki, but I decided on yakisoba sauce. Daikokuya has been making these rich, piquant, typically Osaka style sauces since 1923. According to their website, they're "obsessed" with sauce! It's a popular brand at a lot of local restaurants, too. Yes, it's delicious, and inexpensive (like most things in Osaka), but I couldn't resist the trademark, which is Daikoku, the jolly god of wealth and also god of the kitchen. Osaka folks are renowned for their skills at making money and love of food, so it seems a very appropriate symbol. Here is the Daikokuya website:

Rich, dark, sweet and salty... it's Osaka in a bottle!