Saturday, January 26, 2019

Nissin Keema Curry Cup Noodle Review

I was pretty excited to try out this keema curry cup of noodles which is a Cup Noodle 45th Anniversary Limited Memorial Item.  Their promo materials indicate that it has a rich aroma of spice and curry soup which melds meat and vegetable umami together along with their mystery nano meat cubes.  I like Japanese curry cup noodles in general, and the regular Nissin Curry Cup Noodle is a favourite of mine.  Awhile back I had the joy of tasting their Butter Chicken Curry Cup Noodle too and it is nice to try out some variety.

Other than keema being an Indian curry, I didn't know much about it and had to do some web searching.  Keema is ground meat and a Keema Curry is ground meat, minced vegetables, curry powder and other spices.  It seems to have intense aromas from the spice mix and the meat blending together.  Japanese curries tend to be more like thick curry stews of veggies and meat so a keema curry is a great fit.
Keema Curry Cup Noodle comes in a very nicely decorated cup.
Background graphics on the cup utilize Indian weaving motifs that give a nice exotic feel to the packaging. The color scheme of the the cup uses a lot of black, brown, dull red, yellow, and there is a bit of blue for delicate highlights. The standard CURRY text from regular Curry Cup Noodle is in its normal bold yellow lettering but the edging is in dark brown.  Keema is in big green lettering to let you know this is different, but the Indian elephant above it that is wearing traditional Indian decorations is a good giveaway too.  A curry boat for pouring curry sauce shows the thanks for 45 years of cup noodle at the top.
The lid of the cup with ingredients and manufacturing information.  They emphasize the nano mystery meat (really a type of ground pork cube).
Front view of the cup.
Some warnings like do not microwave.  Nutritional information showing 17.5 grams of fat, more or less regular cup noodle.
Manufacturing information and allergen info.
The inside of the cup.  You can see plenty of curry roux powders, green onions, red pepper, and the little nano blocks of meat.  Smelled nicely of curry.
I added boiling water, closed the lid for 3 minutes or so, then peeled it off.  The rehydrated curry broth and ingredients actually look pretty nice in this shot.
I stirred it well to make sure all of the curry roux was dissolved.
After re-hydrating, the curry smelled pretty delicious.  Good curry and spice aromas coming from the cup.  The soup is a little darker than their regular curry with a similar thicker consistency, and the noodles look to be roughly the same type as in the regular curry cup noodle.  These noodles are thin in thickness and broad.  A first taste of the curry soup confirmed that there was definitely more spice in this deeper and richer tasting curry.  It wasn't hotter but more intensely flavourful.  The little pieces of ground meat went very nicely with it and this was a very good curry soup.  This is one that I would certainly have again.
Closeup of nano cubes and noodles.

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More cup noodle / instant ramen reviews and Japanese pop culture.

Monday, January 14, 2019

Excerpt: Tokyo Stories - Neko Astray Complete Story

I have been blogging about Tokyo and various aspect of Japanese pop culture for almost a decade at this point.  Japanese pop culture, particularly anime, and my visits to Tokyo have brought a great deal of joy into my life over the years.

I've visited many of the great cities of the world and I personally think Tokyo is the most fun to visit, even without taking into account the vibrant nightlife there.  There is a richness to the environment for things to see and do, food to eat, and the unique atmosphere combining high tech and old tradition.  Having exposure to anime, which are often set in historic, contemporary, or future Japan / Tokyo definitely made my experience deeper and better.  There are not many places like Tokyo that also have a meaningful attachment to it through pop culture.

I finally decided to sit down and write a book about visiting Tokyo for everyone, but also apply a pop culture lens to let them get more out of their experience.  My book emphasizes what to see and do for anyone, but provides a fun context to give more background to any visit.

The heart of the book is composed of four short stories and descriptions of more than fifty key experiences to have in the city.  I actually wrote the short stories to act as easy introductions to the city with each one having a preface explaining terms and references used in the story.  People remember stories so they should be able to learn something about the city and a particular aspect of pop culture as the same time.  By the end of the book a reader should have a good idea about what they would like to see and do, and understand the context of some of the things they will experience.  This is information that supplements any other guidebook or online source of information they will also use to plan their trip.

I hope you can give the book a read and enjoy both the stories and the experiences I write about.

The e-book is now available on Amazon Canada and USA.

An excerpt from the book is below, including the full preface to Neko Astray.

This story introduces some of the basics about trains, Japanese gods, cat cafes, and some Tokyo districts. It is about the journey of a cat and the human that helps her through the mean streets of Tokyo.  Cats are very much loved in Japan and are quite popular in pop culture.  There are cat girls, cat cafes, cat manga, cat islands, lazy cats, cat conductors, lucky cats, etc.  They have been rendered as cute figures in pretty much everything.
  • Buddhist Temple:  Buddhism originates in India, and was imported to Japan from China.  Buddhism co-exists with Shinto in Japan and temple and shrine can exist in the same religious complex.  Buddhism is based on the teachings of Buddha and is about overcoming suffering and the cycle of death and rebirth.  There are many sects and traditions, and it has complex mythologies that include many gods, and guardians.
  • Cat cafe:  A theme cafe where you get to interact with cats while having a coffee or a dessert.
  • Cat shrine:  Tokyo has two famous cat shrines where you can pray for luck from a kitty or for a kitty.  Gotokuji Temple is a Buddhist temple known for its cat shrine that has thousands of lucky cat figurines.  Imado Shrine is the other famous cat shrine that features cat statues and it is known as a shrine for love relationships.  Both shrines have a different origin story for the maneki neko.
  • Conveyor belt sushi restaurant:  Kaiten-zushi or rotation sushi where the plates of sushi are premade and placed on a conveyor belt.  Diners pick the plates they wish to eat and a bill is tallied up from the number and type of plates at the table.
  • Gomenasi:  Go-men-a-sigh.  Sorry.
  • Gyudon:  A beef rice bowl.  Sauteed onions and thin strips of beef in a light sauce on top of steamed rice.
  • Konbini:  A Japanese loan word for convenience.  Convenience stores are everywhere in Japan, and are very common near train stations.  Konbini sell all manner of drinks (including alcohol) and snacks, but are known for their high quality fresh food like tasty onigiri (rice balls), sandwiches, pastries, bento, fried chicken, and other food.  They also stock a good selection of household products, stationary, personal hygiene supplies, and even underwear in their small confines.
  • Konnichiwa: Kon-ni-chi-wa. Informal hello and greeting from mid-morning to early evening.
  • Maneki Neko:  Lucky cat figure or beckoning cat represented by a sitting cat with one paw raised.  Usually it is a white cat with the insides of the ears colored red.  It is often found in homes and business to bring luck.
  • Neko:  Japanese for cat.
  • Onigiri:  Rice balls. Palm-sized balls of rice with a filling and maybe a wrap of dried seaweed.  These are very popular in Japan and are basically their version of a sandwich.  There are dozens of flavors including: tuna and mayo, salted cod roe, grilled salmon, pickled plum, and Japanese pickled vegetables.
  • Shibuya Crossing:  The busiest pedestrian intersection in the world.  It is a scramble crossing where all vehicular traffic stops for pedestrians to scramble through the intersection from all the corners, then the cars take their turns in alternating directions.  The cycle then repeats itself.
  • Shinto:  The native religion in Japan predates Buddhism and has shamanistic elements to it.  It is tightly coupled to nature gods/spirits or kami and all things on earth can have a kami representing them.  All things on earth also have a spirit.  Prayers and offerings to the kami can be for fertility, good harvest, success in business, to luck in love, etc., depending on the kami.  Kami respond to human prayers to influence the natural course of events.  There is a saying that you are born Shinto and die Buddhist.  Shinto Shrines are often family run.
  • Shinto Shrine:  A sacred space that houses the kami it is for.  Entering through the torii gate, often red, means you are entering sacred ground.  There may be guardian spirits represented too.  For example, an Inari or Fox Shrine will have two foxes guarding the approach.  There are often sacred trees and objects associated with shrines. Jinja is the Japanese for shrine.
  • SUICA card:  A SUICA is a smart chip debit card that you preload with cash at the train station ticket machines, and is used to pay for train rides by scanning at the entrance and exit gates.  The card is used in multiple cities and is valid at many retailers in train stations and even at some vending machines.  PASMO is a competitor card with the same benefits.
  • Sushi:  A topping of thinly sliced seafood, omelette, or vegetable is placed on top of a small, palm pressed clump of cooked white rice.  The topping can be cooked or raw.
  • Tendon: A tempura rice bowl.  Tempura in a sauce on top of steamed rice.
  • Tempura:  Battered and deep fried seafood and vegetables.

NEKO ASTRAY - Complete Story Excerpt
by Peter Lok.
Copyright 2018, All rights reserved.

Saturday is supposed to be a day off, but you found yourself at work early to put the finishing touches on a presentation for Monday morning.   At least your boss is also in this morning to do the final review, and you receive a curt but genuine thank you for your hard work.  Done by lunchtime, you decide to grab a quick bite at a tendon restaurant near the office.

You order a bowl of shrimp and vegetable tempura on rice and leave the restaurant in a better mental state and a pleasantly filled stomach.  There’s nothing like crunchy tempura with sweet and savory sauce on warm rice for comfort food, you think to yourself.  Well, maybe beef bowl might be pretty darn good too, or even a …  Stopping this train of thought as it could go on for awhile, you wonder what to do with the rest of your day.

You were supposed to meet up with friends this morning, but you had to cancel that due to work.  Thinking for a moment, you decide to visit a cat café in nearby Shibuya and then do a little shopping.  A ten minute walk through the streets of densely packed office buildings takes you over to Shibuya Crossing.  The sun is shining and the weather is just right, so the day is turning out pretty good.

Shibuya Crossing is famous for its scramble crossing and statue of the loyal dog, Hachiko.  Hachiko was a Shiba Inu who awaited for his master every day after work even after he had passed on, a story that is both touching and tragic.  The statue is also a popular meeting place, often featured in the media along with the scramble crossing behind it.  The Hachiko exit out of the busy Shibuya Train Station is one of the busiest pedestrian crossings in the world with thousands of people trying to cross at once during busy times to get to the popular Shibuya shopping district.

When the light changes you begin to cross the street as part of a wave of pedestrians from the Hachiko corner.  You head towards the glass and steel building with the giant 5 story high TV screen that showed a giant walking dinosaur in the movie Lost in Translation.  Under the screen is a Starbucks where you have taken a break before.  This busy coffee shop provides a third floor view over the crowds of people surging through the intersection.  Your pedestrian wave meets the other crowds from the five other corners of the intersection in the middle of the intersection.  Somehow, everyone dodges by each other without collisions.  You then angle slightly to the left of the TV building to head towards Center Gai, the main street in Shibuya for shopping and entertainment.  Walking in a couple of blocks you turn off the main street onto a smaller side street to see a doorway embedded in the mouth of a giant cartoon cat.

It is Café Nyan de Puff, a café where you can have a drink or a dessert and meet cats up close.  You’ve always liked cats and befriended several neighborhood strays before you moved to Tokyo from your home town.  You’d like to own a cat, but your apartment building prohibits pets, so you come to this café once a week to get your feline fix.

Entering, you are greeted by a waitress who directs you to sit down at any open seat.  The café is an open rectangular space with a hardwood floor and walls decorated in bright, cheery colors with cartoon kitties on the walls.   Small tables and chairs are scattered around the room, which is lined with cat trees and ledges and walkways for the cats to roam on.  The front entrance is at one of the narrow ends with a closed off kitchen area in the back, along with a private cat area for cats to retreat to if they don’t want to be bothered.

After a quick look at the menu on your table, you order a latte, and take a look to see if there are any friendly cats wandering about.  Photos of each cat along with their name and personality are placed along the walls so you can call the kitties by name.  You don’t need the pictures though as you are looking for a particular calico cat named Tama.  She has white, orange, and black fur with a black patch over her left eye.  Last weekend this cat had a very nice session of much petting and purring on your lap.  Tama had just arrived two weeks ago, being adopted by the café from a cat shelter, after being found wandering the streets.  She had a collar with a name, but the tags were missing so she couldn’t be returned to her owner.

All around you are grey cats, white cats, black cats, but you don’t see Tama.  “Where are you, Tama,” you say softly to yourself.  Something is suddenly rubbing against your legs and you look down to see that it is Tama.  She trills and looks up at you.

“Tama!” You exclaim.  “You found me.”  You reach down and pet the cat.  After a moment you sit down at your table and she jumps up into your lap, rubbing her face against your hands.  Both of you are happy to see each other.

Your latte arrives and you have a sip while giving Tama a scratch under the chin which she enjoys.  Many minutes pass and you finish your latte.  This is when you observe that Tama is somewhat distracted, after the initial excitement of being reunited with you.  She keeps looking at the front door, which has a double set of doors to keep the cats in.
It has been almost an hour since you arrived and you flag down the waitress to pay for your drink and the cover charge.  She brings a bill and you pull out some coins to pay.  Tama suddenly jumps off of you and moves to the front of the cafe.  She turns to give you a look and a meow that almost sounds like a goodbye.

A big group of high school girls in their uniforms arrives at the café at that moment.  They are having a very animated discussion, and hold both the inside and outside doors open as they enter.  Tama sees the opening and makes a break for it between the girls.  Dodging between the feet she darts out and runs down the sidewalk.  The girls don’t even notice.

“Tama!” You shout out.  The waitress looks up from dealing with another customer to see the cat escape and exclaims, “oh no!”

“I’ll try to get her,” you reply.  “Thank you,” the waitress replies in a flustered tone.

You manage to squeeze by the students who are clustered around the entrance and look down the sidewalk for the cat.  She has a pretty good head start and is halfway down the block already, trotting quickly towards the main street.  You break into a run to catch up.  Tama seems to hear you approaching and looks back at you, then breaks into a run around the corner of Center Gai in the direction of Shibuya Station.

Arriving at the corner, you frantically peer down the street, trying to spot the cat at the feet of numerous pedestrians.  You just manage to spot a tail disappear behind a sidewalk rack of cosmetics at  a corner drug store.  Dashing to the corner, you see Tama is still well ahead of you, but you swear she is talking to a grey street cat.  The two cats are face to face and the grey cat seems to meow and point its head to the side.

“Tama!” you shout again, slightly out of breath, thinking your office job makes you sit too much.

Tama looks at you again then runs into an alley as fast as her little paws can take her.  The grey cat also takes off in a different direction.  You follow her into the alley past stacks of plastic crates against the walls to see the cat run through the back door of a building.  Arriving at the door, you find out it is the kitchen of a conveyor belt sushi restaurant.

You see the cat heading right for the front door, undistracted by all the raw fish on plates circling the restaurant on the conveyor belt.   She is unnoticed by the diners enjoying their fresh and cheap sushi.  There is hesitation in your step when you enter the restaurant in this unorthodox manner, but you need to follow the cat who has just exited through the automatic doors at the front of the restaurant.

Unlike the cat, you are noticed exiting the kitchen by one of the sushi chefs, who gives a shout of surprise.  Not wanting to explain what you are doing to a man with a sharp fish knife, you call out a quick sorry as you dash to the front door of the restaurant.  A number of the diners look at you curiously as you run through the restaurant.  Exiting the front of the restaurant you see the cat descend some stairs down into the subway.  A quick glance behind you shows that no one is chasing you, thankfully.  This cat seems to really want to go somewhere, you think to yourself.

All the big train stations in Tokyo are multi-level marvels for transportation and shopping.  Shibuya Station is no exception, being a major hub for the Yamanote Line and several other metro train lines.  Train platforms are spread across multiple levels, with below ground and above ground.  The train stations do sprawl out, with passages and entrances extending several blocks away from the station in some cases.  Sometimes you don’t realize the underground mall you are in is actually part of the train station.

Tama is following a smaller passage into a major concourse which has a pretty regular crowd in it for a Saturday afternoon.  The cat sticks close to the walls out of the main flow of pedestrians there.  Most of the passersby don’t notice the small cat amongst them, but there are a few amazed looks when she trots by.

Being safely ahead of you, Tama doesn’t seem overly worried by your trailing presence.  She seems to be looking for landmarks, and is quite deliberate in her movements.  You look at the subway signs suspended from the ceiling and see she is heading towards the Keio-Inokashira Metro Line.  You’re intrigued now as she doesn’t seem to be lost.  You’re unfamiliar with this train line, but you keep following to keep an eye on her.

The cat just walks under the payment gates and down towards the platform.  You have to use your SUICA debit card to get through the gates to keep up with her.

Down on the platform, the cat seems momentarily puzzled, as if she isn’t sure which side of the platform to pick to get the train going in the right direction, something you can sympathize with.  A decision is quickly made and she huddles down under a set of seats, out of the way, and out of sight of any station personnel.  You try to slowly approach the cat but she shifts away from you.  The last thing you want is for the cat to jump onto the tracks so you keep your distance hoping for a better chance to catch her.

Soon enough a train arrives.  The doors open automatically and passengers begin to disembark.  Trains always stop exactly at the same spot and people know where to queue up on either side of each door so a path is left open in the middle for the passengers to easily exit.  Only when all passengers have exited will people begin to board.  When the trains and platforms are wall to wall people at rush hour this is essential to keep the trains running on time.  When the last of the people are boarding, the cat dashes forward onto the train.  You quickly follow and the door chimes warble as the doors close behind you.

Tama seems to be taking in one strange situation after another very well.  She is lucky that it is early afternoon on a weekend so it isn’t too crowded.  The cat walks over to a bank of seats that is mostly unoccupied and hops onto an empty seat.  The few passengers around her and on the opposite bank of seats excitedly comment about the feline suddenly in their midst.  You hear snippets like: “what is a cat doing here”, and “I wonder if it is lost?”  A few snap photos of her with their smartphones and will probably post them on Twitter or Line.  Tama remains calm, but alert, and seems to be watching the train map above each doors, which indicate where the train is currently located and what the next station is.

You keep your distance, but stay close enough to follow her.  Your Saturday has certainly taken an unexpected turn.  Soon enough, six stops later, there is an automated announcement for Shimo-kitazawa Station.  The cat perks up and when the train stops at the station, she hops over to the doors and exits when they open.  You follow behind her and see she is heading to a platform exit.  Off the platform she orients herself again and heads down a passage towards the Odyaku line.  Here, she has to orient herself on the platform and crouches down to wait.

The cat definitely knows you are following her, but is unworried by your presence by now.  You try again to slowly approach her a couple of times while gently calling her name, but she continues to shy away from you.  When the Odyaku train (direction Hadano) arrives, you both get on.

Again, she huddles down in an empty seat where she can watch the door and give perfunctory glances to the other passengers.  The train makes a short trip of three stops to Gotokuji Station when she gets up and hops off again.

The cat walks up off the platform and  heads for a south exit from the station.  Gotokuji Station is a small station that borders on a residential area.  You quickly pass through a commercial district around the train station to find yourself walking down streets with one and two storey houses.  There are very few sidewalks here, instead you find well paved streets with wide shoulders for walking.  Overhead are the ubiquitous concrete power poles strung with their tangled web of wiring connecting houses to telephone, power, and the Internet.

Tama seems more relaxed on these residential streets.  Her pace isn’t as quick and she takes a little more time to look and sniff around at her surroundings.  Another black and white cat on the wall ahead of her warily watches her approach.  Tama meows out to it.  The other cat glances down and gives a couple of meows in reply before looking away.  Tama seems to give another meow of thanks then continues on her way down the street.

This is really strange, you think to yourself.  This is the second time you could swear that the cat asked for directions, but that cannot be.  About seven minutes later you find yourself at the white wall that surrounds a Buddhist temple.  Tama seems to consider jumping the wall, but then decides to walk around for some reason.  It is a good thing as you sure don’t want to climb any walls.  She walks around the east side of the temple grounds to arrive at the main entrance to Gotokuji Temple on the south side.  There is an old wooden gate here with the name of the temple.  Why does the name of the temple sound so familiar?  You do a quick Internet search on your phone and you find out this Buddhist Temple is famous for its “Cat Shrine.”  This temple became prosperous back in the Edo Period because of a white cat who lived there.  This cat saved a feudal lord from a lightning strike by beckoning him to come to the temple during a thunderstorm.  The lord then sponsored the temple out of gratitude and the legend of maneki neko or beckoning cat was born.

Once inside the temple grounds  you see the main hall ahead and follow the cat to the left towards the three story pagoda.  While you walk further into the temple grounds you notice that there are several cats walking in parallel to you, almost as if they are escorts.  You pass the pagoda and end up at a smaller shrine.  This shrine has altars and alcoves full of white beckoning cat statues.  Many have been left as offerings by shrine goers.  Tama sits down in front of a shrine and puts her front paws together as if in prayer.  You quietly watch from a distance for several minutes.

You hear the dull bonging of a temple bell several times and the world seems to blur for a moment.  Blinking several times, you clear your eyes.  While your vision clears, everything seems slightly off color.  I really must be working too hard these days, you think to yourself while rubbing your eyes.

The cat then turns off to the left and begins to walk over to a small shrine building you hadn’t noticed before.  In fact, you were sure there wasn’t a building there before.  There are at least a dozen cats of all colors sitting attentively on both sides of the path observing you.  You follow Tama down the path despite being a weirded out by this.  Ahead, the wooden doors to the building swing open by themselves and a brightness emanates from within.  Tama just walks straight in without hesitation.  Cats are pretty good at sensing danger, and you feel more curiosity than fear, even if you can’t see anything but the light.  After a few moments hesitation, you just head straight in too.

“Welcome,” a gentle female voice speaks out.  You are strangely reassured by this simple greeting.

It is almost as if a fog of light is lifted and you can see again.  Around you, everything is colored in surreally bright colors, with gold and vermillion being predominant.  You are inside a room that is much larger than the building you entered.  You realize you must have passed into the spirit realm, the realm of the kami or gods. 

A petite woman in the white and red robes of a priestess stands in front of you.  She is incredibly cute, has two large white cat ears sticking out of her long, snow white hair.  The ears twitch as she looks at you.

“Hello,” you stammer out.  You’re still stunned by what you are seeing.  You manage a deep bow.  “It is an honor to meet you.”  Is this a kami or a spirit, you are thinking to yourself? 

“It is a pleasure to meet you too,” the cat girl replies with a big smile.  “I’m Kumiko Neko, a guardian of cats.  I would like to thank you for walking Tama here.”

You suddenly realize that Tama is sitting next to you when you hear an affirmative meow.  Looking right at you, she meows again.

Kumiko speaks again.  “Tama was glad you walked with her here to the temple.  She was quite nervous as she didn’t really know the way here.  The city can be a big scary place to a small cat.”

“I’m glad I could help.  I didn’t want anything bad to happen to Tama.”  You are taking this in stride far better than you could have imagined, you think to yourself.  It must be because of the fantasy manga you read.

“That is commendable.  Tama tells me that she is lost and would like to find her way back home to her friend, a little girl named Yui.  She misses sleeping with Yui and is sure that Yui misses her.”

The kami then bends down to talk quietly with Tama who is meowing and bobbing her head excitedly as they speak.  The conversation doesn’t last too long, but it ends with Tama hunched with her head down and paws out front in a gesture of supplication.  Kumiko then performs a series of ritual gestures over Tama.  A glowing compass seems to briefly form in the air above the cat and it points in a particular direction before fading out.

After the ritual, Kumiko rises and turns to you.  “Tama’s story is quite sad.  She was out for a walk in her neighborhood and was too curious.  She hopped onto the back of a delivery truck as something smelled intriguing.  Before she could escape, the door to the truck shut and she found herself in a strange part of Tokyo.  She approached strangers for help, but was chased away, or just played with a little.  Then she hurt her paw while escaping from a dog and was helped by a kindly old man.  The man dropped her at a good animal shelter where she was lucky to end up in the cat cafe.”

“That is sad,” you reply.  “Can you help Tama find her way home?  You must have special powers.”

“We do have special powers, but like many things they are limited in the human world,” Kumiko’s eyes lock onto yours and you feel like she is evaluating you.  “Tama has described where she lives to me, and I have performed a divination.  I believe it is in Yanaka, a good neighborhood for cats.”

“That is a long way from here,” you say, “can you transport Tama magically?”

“If it were only that easy,” Kumiko smiles at you mischievously, “You are my magic.  Can you help Tama to get home?”

“What?!?” you exclaim.  “I can’t.  I’m so sorry.  I wasn’t planning on going all the way out there.  It will take hours.”

“Are you sure?” Kumiko asks in a low tone that carries way more force than it should.  It isn’t threatening, but you pull out your smartphone to check in response.  To your surprise, you have a cell signal and data in the spirit realm.  Accessing the map app you search for Yanaka.

“I guess I was wrong,” you half-mumble out loud.  “It looks like you can take the Odakyu Line all the way to Sendagi Sation and then walk to central Yanaka.  It will only take 50 minutes.”

“Will you reconsider helping Tama?”

“I guess.  She is a nice cat,” your protests are quickly dissolving.  “But Yanaka is still a big place.”

“That I can help with,” Kumiko adds eagerly, “I will ask the crows to guide you, but you must transport Tama there.”

Talking cats, goddesses, and now helpful crows.  This is turning out to be quite a day, you think to yourself.  No one is going to believe this.  You crouch down and pet Tama on the head.  “You lucky kitty,” you say out loud.  “I’m going to take you home.”

Tama seems to understand and begins to rub against you, purring loudly.  You were always a sucker for cats.

“Tama is lucky she befriended a good human like you.”  Kumiko then begins to talk to Tama again.  It sounds like she is asking Tama to describe her home.  Some of the comments you overhear are quite funny.  “No, Tama.  You can’t describe it with smells.  The crows and the human cannot use those senses to help you…  Now what does the house look like? …  Does it have tiles? …  What is in the yard? …”

Finally, Kumiko turns to you again.  “I think we can find the house now.  The crows will wait for you at Sendagi Station.  Follow them.  Tama has promised to be good and will obey your instructions too.  She will understand if you talk to her.”

Kumiko bows her head slightly to you.  “Thank you again for deciding to help Tama.  You are a friend of cats and have my gratitude.  Now you must return to your world.”

Before you can say anything again, there is a bright flash of light.  Slightly disoriented, you find yourself back in the temple grounds at the cat shrine.  There is no sign of the building you entered.  At your feet is Tama who looks up at you and gives a loud meow!

“That was interesting,” you say to no one in particular.  “Okay, Tama, let’s get you home.”  You start walking to the front gate of the temple and Tama walks beside you with her tail held high.

On the way back to the train station you realize that you just cannot bring a cat onto the train.  Tama had been lucky before, but you don’t know if train staff will spot her this time.  You need a disguise or a carrier.   Closer in to the train station you look around for some kind of shop to sell you a small sports bag of some sort.  Eventually, you find a shop.  You have Tama wait outside while you purchase a cheap bag.

In an alley behind the shop, you tell Tama she needs to stay inside the bag for the train trip.  She looks at you and protests with a “mrrowww”.

“I know, Tama.  You don’t like this idea, but it’s safer this way… Please!  I’ll even treat you to some tuna.”

Tama looks at you again, then hops into the bag with another protest meow.

“Thanks, Tama.  Let’s get to the train and go to Yanaka.”  

You leave the bag slightly unzipped so Tama can see out, but no one can see her.  You get through the ticket gate without problem and hop onto the first train out.  The train is busier, but you manage to snag a seat and keep the bag on your lap.  An old lady next to you notices Tama peeking out, even though she is staying quite still, and she just gives you a kind smile.  She must be a cat lover too.  The trip to Sendagi takes about forty minutes and passes uneventfully.  There is the odd “mrrpp” from Tama, and you reassure her that you’re almost there.

You check the time on your phone and see that it is just after three in the afternoon when you arrive at Sendagi.  The afternoon is mostly gone, but you’re actually really glad you’re helping Tama.  Exiting the station you find yourself on a typical Tokyo street surrounded by a number of apartment buildings of ten stories or less.

Orienting yourself on the map app, you figure the way north towards Yanaka Ginza, the main shopping street there.  You see a few crows perched on powerlines, but they don’t seem to be paying you any attention even after you wave to them.  You almost yell out, but then realize you’d probably look like a crazy person.  Walking by a konbini you suddenly realize that you could use a snack and a drink.  The day has been more exhausting than you realized.  Maybe it was the side trip to the spirit realm.

In the convenience store, you have a bit of trouble deciding if you want a juice or another drink as there is large selection to choose from.  You always like tea, so you buy yourself a bottle of cold green tea, a salted cod roe onigiri, a bottle of water, and a can of flaked tuna for Tama.   Outside the store, you let Tama out of the bag.  Tama hops out, stretches, and mews thankfully to you.

“I noticed a park over there, Tama,” you say while pointing down the street.  “Let’s go there and eat.”

Tama gives a small meow of agreement and trots along with you as you cross the street and enter the park.  There are some kids playing on some swings and you take a seat on a bench.  You pop open the can of tuna and put it down for the cat.  You then open your bottle of tea and have a big refreshing swallow.  You begin to open your onigiri.  The rice ball is a triangular puck of rice wrapped in dried seaweed or nori with a salted cod roe filling in the middle.  The packaging is designed to be open in three steps.  The dry nori is kept crisp and away from the moist rice, and unwrapping the onigiri correctly gives you a tasty treat with a crisp outside and a soft inside.  The onigiri is good and you both enjoy a quick meal under the warmth of the afternoon sun.

Tama polishes off her small can of tuna and begins to contentedly groom herself a little.  You guess she hasn’t eaten since early this morning.    “Would like a little water, Tama?” you ask.  Tama looks up at you and mrrps a yes.  You fill the now empty tuna can with water and Tama eagerly laps at it.

After having a good drink, Tama begins to purr and hops up into your lap for a cuddle.  You begin to pet her in long strokes down her back and she head butts your hand a few times in appreciation.  You’re going to miss Tama after this, you think to yourself.  She really is a sweet cat.  Both of you enjoy your time together for awhile before the fluttering of wings attracts your attention.  Tama tenses, ready for fight or flight when she sees the large crow perched on a branch of a tree high above you.

The crow stares right at you and caws loudly.  Around you, you hear dozens of answering caws from other trees.  There is a whole murder of crows in the area.   This even attracts the attention of some of the playing children.  One crow might not be very creepy, but lots of them certainly are.  The crow caws again.  This time Tama meows loudly back.  It is not a hiss, but a response.

The crow flies down from the tree to perch next to you on the top of the bench.  You have never been this close to one before and realize it is actually a fairly large bird.  Crows are smart birds, once said to be messengers of the gods,  and this one seems to be checking you out with its dark beady eyes.

The crow caws again and seems to point a wing in a direction that is not quite towards Yanaka Ginza, but a little south and east of it.  Tama meows in response again and hops off of your lap.  She stares at you, making sure she has your attention before walking in the direction the crow pointed.  You get up, bag your trash, and quickly follow after her.

The crow flies up into the air and perches on a powerline well ahead of you.  Tama continues to follow with you trailing behind her.  You exit out of the east side of the park into an area of two storey homes and small apartments.  Yanaka is an older neighborhood that survived WWII intact.  It has retained much of its character, especially around Yanaka Ginza, the main shopping street.  You have never really visited this area before, but know that it is also famous for its graveyard and the cats in the area.

The residential streets you pass through are mostly empty at the moment, with the odd person out walking or doing a little yard work.  You only see one other cat at a fair distance crossing a road.  The crow stays well ahead of you, perching on various objects while it waits for you to catch up.  After half a dozen blocks, Tama seems to perk up.  She smells the air and seems to recognize scents.  Her tail is straight up in the air as she begins to trot faster.  She turns her head to meow at you, as if to encourage you to follow her.

After another block, she begins to scamper ahead.  She obviously recognizes the area.  She must be close to home, you think.  You run along after the cat.  After turning a corner you find her on a front step of an older two-storey house.  There is big blue awning over a car port with small sedan in it, and a yard with a tiny vegetable garden and plum tree.  The crow flies away at this point with a parting call, obviously feeling its job is done.

Tama is sitting on the cement step and beckons to you with an upraised paw like a lucky cat would.  You look at the family name board on the fence and see it says Tanaka.   There is no gate so you walk up to the front door and ring the doorbell.

There is no answer for what seems like a minute, but then you hear someone opening the inside door.  A lady in her late twenties greets you.  “Konnichiwa,” you both greet each other.   The lady is dressed in a long sleeved sweatshirt and looks as if she were cleaning as she is holding a dusting rag.

“Is this your cat?” you ask, hoping this is the right house.

The lady looks down to see Tama sitting at your feet. “Tama!” she exclaims, “where have you been?”  Turning her head she shouts into the house.  “Yui, Tama has returned!”

There is a happy squeal inside the house and you hear footsteps running down the stairs.  Tama hears the footsteps too and scampers inside, jumping into the arms of a four year old girl.  The two hug each other, with Tama licking Yui’s face fervently.  “Stop, Tama,” Yui protests happily between giggles.

You can see that the mother is also really happy.  “Thank you for returning Tama.  Yui was so sad when Tama didn’t come home three weeks ago.  We searched for her everywhere, but couldn’t find her.  I’m so glad she is okay.”

“I’m glad I could help.  Tama is certainly happy to be home too,” you add.  “She does seem like a sweet cat in the brief time I have known  her.”

The mother then says,  “I hope she was no trouble for you.”

“It was no trouble at all,” you reassure her.

“Where did you find Tama?”

With that question, you suddenly realize that you’re going to have to make up a story for her and possibly the cat café too.  No one is going to believe the real one.   “It is a bit of a story,” you begin.


More stories, tips, and experiences to have in Tokyo in the book!

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Supplements to the Tokyo Intro book
Supplement #1 - Simplified Tokyo Train Map for Tokyo Stories
Supplement #2 - Sights and Experiences Checklist for Tokyo Stories

Sunday, January 13, 2019

My Favourite Anime of 2018

Last year, 2018, turned out to be a pretty darn good year for anime programming.  When I first thought about it, I thought that there were are few good shows, but when I started going back through a list of shows that aired, it turned out to be way better than I thought.  Shows were staggered all the way through the year in the winter, summer, and fall seasons so there was always something good to watch.

My Top Five Shows
This was actually really hard to pick, and the list should probably be a top 10.  I enjoyed a number of these shows immensely, and I guess these were the ones I really looked forward the most to every week
  1. Full Metal Panic! - Invisible Victory. 
    Mecha action from a series I started watching in 2003.  The continuing adventures of Sousuke Sagura and the whole robot arena battle arc was pretty good.
  2. Hanebado!  A badminton anime with real drama. 
    This was actually really good with the character dynamics and I liked the role reversal that happens.
  3. Laid-Back Camp.  Who doesn't like curry cup noodle from episode one?
    I want to go winter camping after watching this show.  It was so relaxing, about good food cooked in the outdoors, and introduced camping in Japan.
  4. March Comes In Like A Lion. 
    The continuing saga of Rei Kiriyama and his friends in the world of professional Go playing.  Love the characters and the bullying arc was really well done.
  5. Rascal Does Not Dream of Bunny Girl Sempai.  
    This show was lots of fun, playing with quantum physics and it reminded me of Haruhi Suzumiya a bit and it was just good to watch.
Great Shows
I have 33 great shows!  This is nuts.  There was an amazing amount of entertaining anime where trading away the hours of your life was totally worthwhile.  Aggretsuko was a fun show about a red panda salary lady who belts out death-metal to relieve stress.  Darling in the FRANXX has interesting mech designs and world building with an intriguing relationship between Hiro and Zero Two.  The show was epic in a Gurren Lagann kind of way.  The time travel esper show, Hinamatsuri, was pretty darn funny with yakuza and interesting bartenders.  Golden Kamuy was a great gold rush adventure in early 20th century Japan.   Goblin Slayer was a good dungeon adventure show in which they kill goblins.   Holmes of Kyoto was a cool show about appraising antiquities in Kyoto and the city is gorgeous too.  Angelmois was another great historical drama with samurai fighting the Mongols who invaded Japan.  Record of Grancrest War could have been a poor game adaptation, but it was so much better than that.  SSS.Gridman was a great Ultraman type story and Attack on Titan finally started wrapping up loose ends.  Hakata Tonkotsu Ramens was a good crime / vigilante series too.  Violet Evergarden was also an amazing character driven show where a child warrior learns about emotions which have been repressed.
  1. A Place Further than the Universe - a top 10 show - could have been top 5.
  2. Aggretsuko
  3. A.I.C.O. -Incarnation
  4. Angolmois: Record of the Mongol Invasion - a top 10.
  5. Attack on Titan
  6. Blame!
  7. Darling in the FRANXX - a top 10?  It had plenty of interesting ideas.
  8. Flavors of Youth
  9. Food Wars! Shokugeki no Soma
  10. Cardcaptor Sakura: Clear Card
  11. Full Metal Panic! - Invisible Victory. A top 5 for me personally.
  12. Goblin Slayer
  13. Golden Kamuy - a possible top 10.
  14. Hanebado! - a top 5.
  15. Hakata Tonkotsu Ramens
  16. Hinamatsuri - a top 10 with some incredibly funny moments and good story arcs.
  17. Holmes of Kyoto
  18. Iroduku: The World in Colors - Iroduku Sekai no Ashita kara- a top 10?
  19. Isekai Izakaya
  20. Kakuriyo - Bed and Breakfast for Spirits
  21. Laid-Back Camp - a top 5.
  22. Legend of the Galactic Heroes
  23. March Comes In Like A Lion - a top 5.
  24. Ms. Koisumi Loves Ramen Noodles
  25. Overlord
  26. Rascal Does Not Dream of Bunny Girl Sempai - a top 5.
  27. Record of Grancrest War
  28. ReLIFE
  29. SSS.GRIDMAN - a top 10?
  30. Sword Art Online - Alicization Arc
  31. That Time I Got Reincarnated as a Slime - a top 10? This show has way more depth than the typical I'm stuck in another world show.
  32. Tsurune - about Japanese bow shooting - a top 10.
  33. Violet Evergarden - a top 10.

Fun Shows
These were shows that I watched for fun and cute, but turned into something better than I expected.  Between the Sky and Sea I almost stopped watching, but the show actually got better as time went on.  It was about space fishing in big orbital tanks which is kind of ridiculous, but the characters and story were actually okay once you decided to just enjoy the ride.  Katana Maidens was good too in a similar way, but was a much more straightforward adventure story. 
  1. Between the Sky and Sea 
  2. Dragon Pilot - Hisone and Masotan
  3. Encouragement of Climb
  4. Harukana Receive
  5. Katana Maidens - Toji No Miko
  6. We Rent Tsukumogami
  7. Today's Menu for the Emiya Family

Runners Up

My biggest disappointment here was the animated Godzilla trilogy of movies.  I love Godzilla, but it was just plain odd, and didn't tell a good story.  There were human refugees in a big colony ship with aliens also fleeing Earth (talk about a complicated situation) and they return thousands of years later.  I mentioned in another post that it would have been easy to kill Godzilla by bombing him from orbit with big rocks, but that would be too easy.  At at least I get what they were trying to do by the end of the final movie and it was ... interesting and different.
  • Double Decker!
  • Godzilla: Planet of the Monsters
  • Gundam Build Divers.  I liked Gundam Build Fighters but I couldn't get into this one.
  • RErideD - Derrida

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Thursday, January 10, 2019

Tasting Marutai Hakata Tonkotsu Ramen and Saga Shio Beef Ramen

I'm on the last two packages of ramen from the Marutai gift box / sampler pack of Kyushu ramen.  It has been pretty fun eating my way around the island via the ramen in the box.  It turns out that the last two packages are really good, and in fact, both are in the top three ramen out of this box for me.  Talk about saving the best for last by accident.
Front of the big Marutai Kyushu box showing all 7 ramen inside.

Marutai Hakata Tonkotsu Ramen
I've tried Hakata tonkotsu style ramen before at the Kyushu Jangara Ramen shop in Harajuku Tokyo.  It was a really good soup that also had a scoop of spicy cod roe on top. The Hakata Tonkotsu Ramen from Marutai is actally really good too!  Not the same as the restaurant version, but this was the second best tonkotsu in the box and it is hard to say if it is second or third in the overall ranking.  The best tonkotsu and best tasting ramen was the Kumamoto Black Garlic Oil Tonkotsu Ramen I tried first from the box (go figure!).
The front of the Hakata Tonkotsu Ramen.  The packaging colour is mainly white, with nice bold black print for the name of the noodles.  The bowl of ramen show a nice creamy broth with a creamy whitish colour that goes well with the packaging design.  Hakata is in the NW corner of the island of Kyushu.
Back of the package with cooking directions.
You get two bundles of noodles, two foil pouches of powdered soup stock, and two satchets of oil/fat/flavouring.  It looks plain, but it turns into something delicious!
 The noodles all cook pretty quickly for these straight bundles of noodles, usually around three minutes.  After cooking the noodles and mixing in the soup powders and ingredients, there was delightful rich aroma to the broth.  The broth felt lightly creamy, had a firm, rich tonokotsu taste that was not overpowering, and it was a delight to the taste buds.  You could do worse at some ramen places in North America.  I actually added slightly less water than they recommended too (about 100 mL less) and maybe that added to the richness in flavour.  I drank all the soup, and the noodles were good with a nice chew.  Between the soup, noodles, and roast chicken this was one tasty bowl of home made noodles.  Second / third place for the tastiest noodles in the box is close call between this and the Saga Beef Ramen reviewed next.  After eating this ramen I wanted to watch the anime Hakata Tonkotsu Ramens which is a crime / thriller with bounty hunters set in the locale.
Finished bowl of noodles.  There is leftover roast chicken and green onions added to it.

Marutai Saga Shio Beef Ramen
This was one of the ramen flavour in the box that attracted my attention right at the start.  Beef flavoured ramen?  I don't see much ramen made with beef bone / broth.  According to the manufacturers website it is a shio (salt + soy) broth that is made from beef bone, veggies, onion extract, and even a bit of flying fish.  The seasoning oil apparently is blended beef tallow with sesame oil to add to the deep flavour in the soup. Saga prefecture is famous for their Saga Gyu (beef) Japanese black cattle.
The front of the package uses a deep goldeny yellow colour scheme to say that the ramen is rich is taste.  The bowl of ramen shown look tasty with a clear, but rich looking broth.  Saga is in the NW corner of the island as shown in red in the map.
Back of the package with cooking instructions.  You might think it is the same for all the packages, but the amount of water to add and the cooking time for the types of noodles does vary from one package to the next.
There is a little extra in this package of ramen.  There are two bundles of noodles, two satchets of beef tallow, two soup powder packets, and two satchets of dried seaweed.
Some Chinese roast pork I got for the ramen.  Nice crispy skin too.
The two assembled bowls of Saga Shio Beef ramen for lunch.
The broth for this bowl of ramen had a nice savoury smell to it that wasn't beefy.  The soup was delicious, not salty, but very flavourful with a hint of beef as an undercurrent to it.  There is some flying fish to add to the umami in this stock, but there was no fishiness like in Nagasaki Agodashi Soy Ramen tasted earlier.  Again, the soup was drunk to the last drop in this one.  The noodles have been very good throughout these packages of ramen and this one also had some noodles with good texture and chew.  I had this ramen with the rest of the roasted chicken and the roasted pork and it was great.
All of these packages of ramen are a poorer if you leave them as just soup and noodles.  Add some meat, vegetables, egg, or other ramen toppings to make them great meals!  This beef shio and the Hakata tonkotsu are pretty much tied for second, with the Nagasaki Agodashi Soy Ramen coming in third behind them I think.  This concludes my dining with this box of ramen from Marutai, and I had a wonderful experience with it.
Closeup of a bowl of ready to eat ramen with seaweed, roast chicken, roast pork, green onions.
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Tasting Marutai Kagoshima Black Pork Tonkotsu Ramen

I'm down to the last three packages of ramen from the Marutai gift box / sampler pack of Kyushu ramen I bought at the supermarket.  Because there is an odd number of ramen inside the box this review is only about one ramen.
Front of the big Marutai Kyushu box showing all 7 ramen inside.
Marutai Kagoshima Black Pork Tonkotsu Ramen
Before I started tasting all of the ramen in this box, I wondered if I would be able to tell the differences between all of the types of soy, shio, and tonkotsu ramen in the box.  I figured that tonkotsu and the other kinds of ramen would definitely taste different, but what about between the types of tonkotsu or shio / soy ramen.  I'm glad to say that you can definitely tell them apart and they have distinct flavours and textures to the noodles and broths.  This is more of that Japanese quality that you kind of learn to expect as the products have to be good.

This black pork tonkotsu ramen is made of a soup stock based on the bones of black pigs from Kagoshima prefecture.  There is supposed to be a hint of the sweet taste of vegetables, and there is even vegetable powder listed in the ingredients.  Kagoshima is famous for its pork and the ingredients also include browned green onions too.

The black color on the front of the package probably represents the black pork, and the color schem with the red bowl and the creamy broth of the soup work quite well together.  Quite pretty.  You can see that is comes from the southern part of Kyushu as the area is in green on the yellow island map.
Back of the package with cooking directions.
You get some powdered soup stock (blue packages), some oil/fat/flavour packets, and a couple of bundles of noodles.
After cooking, the ramen smelled pretty good.  You could tell it was a nice tonkotsu broth. When I tasted the soup I could tell there was some richness and creaminess to it as to be expected for a tonkotsu.  However, it was definitely not as strong or tasty as the Kumamoto Black Garlic Oil Tonkotsu Ramen, the first tonkotsu I had from the box.  The broth was kind of mid-range and milder with the sweetness from the vegetable powder.  The noodles were good and it was a decent soup, but not the one to write home about in this box.
The bowl of ramen with some choy, sliced turkey, green onions, and you can see the flecks of browned green onion in the broth too.
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