Friday, December 19, 2014

Kaiseki and Japanese tea gathering in Durham, NC (United States)

For one reason or another, Japan had never quite made it to the top of our "To Visit List." A couple of wonderful, traditional experiences we had locally though just tipped the scales heavily on the side of Go, Go, Go.

Years ago we tried out a very nondescript Japanese restaurant in a strip mall near our then-apartment. The sushi was fine but mostly unremarkable with the usual Americanized fare. The only reason it stuck in the memory was my silent judging of the boisterous group at the next table over: chatty, middle-aged moms in schlumpy clothes who I imagined would balk at chicken with bones or a shrimp in its shell. Imagine my surprise when they enthusiastically ordered the most adventurous selections on the menu! The lesson from judging these books by their covers continues to ring in my head and still has power to humble the hater in me.

Fast forward to our return to North Carolina, and we see the same place -Yamazushi - has been accruing "Best of" awards left and right. Curious, a little digging revealed that a life-threatening illness convinced the owners to overhaul the entire operation and focus on the food they wanted to make: kaiseki. This ancient Japanese tradition is a multi-course meal, originating with Zen monks and, over time, formalized into haute cuisine fit for an emperor. A kaiseki meal can incorporate a dozen or more courses, often small and balanced for taste, texture, and appearance.

It was extraordinary. Autumn appeared as a persimmon and seaweed salad in a cup fashioned out of the fruit and an elegant soup with Japanese matsutake mushrooms - at an average of $90/kg, an ingredient I'd never imagined seeing outside of Iron Chef - served in a teapot. Each course gave us a new favorite. Scallop coated in crunchy rice crackers. A strange forest of carved vegetables with bluefin tuna belly that tasted weirdly like organ meat. A revelation of lightly charred Alaskan black cod that had marinated in white miso for days. And uni! Someone once prefaced our introduction to raw sea urchin as "like when a big wave smacks you down at the beach, and you come up with a mouthful of sand and water." About right at the time. At Yamazushi, however, the uni was a fleeting, creamy custard wonder that made us regret slurping it down.

The food wasn't the only marvel in the restaurant. The ambiance was more akin to a spa, quiet and soothing. During the 3 hour meal, the wait staff was courteous and attentive without being intrusive, even going so far as to ask if we would enjoy a break between courses. We did. Each dish and paired sake was personally described by the owner, and each course arrived on unique pottery thrown by the chef!

Loving attention to detail and appreciation of the seasons were also themes we saw in a traditional Japanese tea gathering (not a ceremony, as we learned is a bit of a mistranslation). Practitioners of the Chado, or way of tea, from the Urasenke family tradition host a monthly gathering at the Sarah P. Duke Gardens. It takes place in a Japanese tea house constructed a few years ago in the traditional 4.5 tatami mat style amid the already fine Asiatic Arboretum. We were guided to the waiting bench, where the host, enveloped in a brilliant orange kimono accenting the surrounding fall foliage, welcomed us. Walking down a tranquil, winding path encourages guests to leave behind worries and stresses. Our other host demonstrated the purifying of hands, and we all followed suit, scooping cool water and rinsing each hand, then the scoop and handle a little awkwardly.

The entrance to the actual tea house requires bending and crawling through a small door so that everyone must enter as equals... and cannot fit through with their swords, a point of significance in Japan's warring past. Everything from the sweets to the tea utensils to the poetry on the hanging scroll are thoughtfully selected by the host to highlight the season. The exquisite care taken is observable in the tea-making itself with how the napkin is gracefully folded, how the tea is offered and accepted, and how the bowls are held and turned. Most of the action takes place in silence. One would think the formality could be a strain. We found, on the contrary, that it was quite peaceful. How rare is it, in these modern times, for all of you, in such an intimate setting, to focus solely on watching one person perform their art? A truly lovely experience... only interrupted by the pins and needles building up in our legs. I guess we need to work on our own serenity!  

Sunday, December 7, 2014

Lake Placid and the Adirondack Mountains, NY (United States)

The snarl of Montreal weekend traffic was tremendous with construction and poorly signed detours. The drive down south, surprising to me, gave way to stretches of farmland unbroken but for the occasional cluster of grain silos, not unlike the American Midwest. Re-entering the country, we didn't talk a specific game plan beforehand. The border agent was perplexed at our itinerary (yes, we live in the U.S.; no, we flew into Canada; yes, we are driving back in; etc), and nervous answers interrupting each other didn't really help. Despite all our travels, having both been on temporary visa status in foreign countries and subject to the whim of immigration officials always puts us on edge. We'd make terrible drug mules!

The wedding of Pepper's uncle brought us just in time to witness the final blaze of autumnal glory in the Adirondack Mountains. The mountains are unconnected to any other chain, and instead, rise in an eroded dome of 46 peaks in northeastern New York. The "High Peaks" are very popular with outdoorsmen/women with many eager to join the Forty Sixers club of those who've summitted the lot. We opted for the much visited Mount Jo. Even at 7:30 am, we were lucky to snag one of the last spots in the car park next to the lodge and trailhead. Latecomers were relegated to the overflow lot, adding another 1.5 miles to their hike along a narrow shoulder of not terribly scenic and very busy road. The route to the summit itself passes the nature museum and continues on the Indian Pass Trail, skirting the shore line of serene Heart Lake. We went for the short but steep trail on the way up, clambering over boulders and ascending 710 feet with a noticeable temperature change. The reward was the view from the top, offering a sweeping panorama of the High Peaks. Coming from North Carolina, where the fall foliage in our mountains is nothing to be sneezed at, I have to admit autumn color in the Adirondacks is something special. The rich reds and oranges of the temperate forest intermingle with the blue and grey greens of spruce and pine in what is the southernmost distribution of boreal forest in North America. Here and there the brilliant mosaic is set off by the white bark of paper birches with occasional gusts of wind disturbing the little, yellowing leaves in twinkling, gold shimmers.

Our base in the region was Lake Placid. It is most famous for hosting the 1980 Winter Olympics, where American underdogs beat the Soviet team in a Cold War victory and went on to win hockey gold in a story known as the "Miracle on Ice." The Olympic Training Center still caters to sledding and skating hopefuls, and with the zoom lens of our camera, we could just about pick out the ski jumpers on top of the 90 and 120 meter towers. Sans snow, apparently these competitors in the national championships have some sort of dry slope technology on which to land, but man, the rug burn if you catch an edge! Yikes!

The village is quite charming with the cafes, bars, and little souvenir shops typical of many ski towns. But oddly enough, the lake that most of the village wraps around is not Lake Placid itself, but smaller Mirror Lake. Despite the bracing temperatures, we hopped into a couple of kayaks to paddle around the tranquil waters. We did get a chance to see the actual Lake Placid, located on the northern edge of the village, for the lakeside wedding. The happy couple even had the eponymous adirondack chairs for guests to sign as a creative alternative for a guestbook!