Hein (fub) wrote,

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Not quite a trip to Japan

Sunday, it was our wedding anniversary. Of course, we could not let this pass unnoticed -- I would make some arrangements for a short trip, and I reserved a room in the hotel Okura in Amsterdam. It's one of those international business hotels -- but this one has Japanese management (or pretends it has), which means that it has a slight Japanese touch.
We arrived around 15:00 (after some slight trouble navigating the narrow streets of Amsterdam), and the Okura proved itself to be, indeed, one of those international business hotels. They're all the same, all over the world: lush carpet on the floor, spacious lobbies, uniformed bellhops and people who insist on speaking English with you, even though you are both Dutch and they know it.
I like to think of us as easy guests: not very demanding, appreciative of the service we receive (because it's not automatically taken for granted), and unconcerned with keeping up appearances -- which means we can talk normally to the staff, and smile and nod at them when they ask us if everything's OK. This laid-back attitude works wonderfully in these kinds of hotels: the staff are not continually on their toes (sometimes they even crack a smile!).

Anyway, after having checked in and reserved for a spot of dinner at the traditional Japanese restaurant Yamazato at the hotel, we hopped into the tram to the city center. There, we visited an English bookshop to get some reading gear -- we emerged with a stack of five books. amongst which was William Gibson's latest, 'Pattern Recognition', partly based on the recommendation of usmu. So far, it hasn't dissapointed!
Anyway, after some meanderings through the city centre, we returned to the hotel room for a bit of chilling and reading.
Then it was time for dinner. The Yamazato is a stylish restaurant, though it sports tables and chairs, not tatami. The waitresses were all in kimono, though -- and these were Japanese waiters and waitresses. We ordered drinks and I eyed the menu warily. I don't like the taste of fish, so most of the Japanese cuisine is a no-go area for me. It all worked out fine when we were in Japan last year, but that was normal 'grub', and not haute cuisine -- as such, I didn't think I'd enjoy eating a menu that was advertised as having 'an excuisite selection of fine sea-food'...
So, we went for the vegetarian menu. Our waitress asked us if we were allergic to anything -- I still don't know whether this was a case of 'we always ask, just in case' or 'you probably chose the vegetarian menu because you're allergic to shellfish or something'.
The food was... excellent. No two ways about it: it was delicious. Japanese cuisine is minimalist: instead of adding rich cream sauces like the French do, the Japanese chefs let each ingredient retain its taste and texture. That lends the food a certain 'pureness'. This also means that most of the food is easily digestable: you have had a good meal, but you're not incapacitated because all of your blood is needed in your stomach to try to digest all of the fat and cream.
The chefs of the Yamazato cook with a concept: apparently the rules of Zen are taken into account, or something. I don't know anything about Zen nutritional rules, but I do recognize excellent food when I get it. It's very hard to describe the experience you get when eating a small morsel of cold spinach laced with bonito flakes, or steamed lotus fruit with sesame paste, or miso with a pinch of green curry, mushrooms and silky tofu. It just all fit together, the individual notes of the ingredients combining into a lushious symphony of taste -- where not one ingredient is overshadowed by any of the others.
Our waitress was a sweet, soft-voiced girl who gradually opened up to us. At first, she sufficed with explaining the courses that she served. But when we had ordered a bottle of mineral water (sake is just not my thing, and wine would have spoiled the pure tastes) and we raised our glasses off the table when she filled them, she recognized that we had some knowledge about the Japanese culture. She explained that we didn't have to hold our hand underneath the glass when lifting it (you only do that with ceramic tea mugs), and later on we had quite a long talk about Japanese cuisine, our trip to Japan a year ago, her life in the Netherlands, etc.
We had originally planned to go catch a movie later that evening, but by the time we were finished with dinner, it was past 22:00. So we spent the rest of the evening in our room, relaxing and reading.

The next day started off with the breakfast buffet at the 'brasserie' -- where the person in charge was, of course, French, because, you know, it's a French brasserie. We had quite a good breakfast, and then we went to the Hermitage Museum in Amsterdam. This is a recently-opened 'dependance' of the museum in St. Petersburg of the same name. It took us some time to find it, but we were not dissapointed. The exhibition was about golden artifacts that had been found in graves from Greek colonists along the shores of the Black Sea, and of Scythes that had been in contact with them. The Greek goldsmiths were masters at their trade, and there were many a fine item of jewelry on display. The exhibit wasn't too big (three floors with three halls each), but it was just right...
Afterwards, we went into the Hortus Botanicus that we had passed on our way to the Hermitage. They had a banner up: 'The Victoria is in bloom!' -- meaning that this was one of the two days that we could catch the Victoria water-lilly in bloom this year. We made a quick tour of the grounds and a slight more thorough tour of the greenhouses, and then left for lunch.

gertvr had posted about Japanese Pancake World, a restaurant specialising in okonomyaki. Basically, these are 'pancakes' filled with various ingredients, with sauces and baked toppings. The chefs were all Dutch, but they had learned from Japanese masters, and special ingredients like mountain potatoes and daikon are imported from Japan (because the dried daikon-powder just doesn't have the same taste as the freshly ground one -- though I doubt I could discern the difference). We had one of the lighter lunch-pancakes (klik had the one with shrimps, I had 'speklapjes'), and it was delicious. But we just couldn't finish our pancakes: it was too much. And these are supposed to be 'lighter'!
In true Japanese fashion, they had a wax model of one of their pancakes on display outside, which attracted a lot of attention from passers-by. Some of them also read the menu or the newspaper article that was pasted on the window -- but apparently the concept was too intimidating for most. Which is a shame, really -- this restaurant and its fare comes recommended! Watch for the bonito flakes, which 'dance' in the hot air as if they're alive!

We still have some funds from our wedding (well, we used that to pay off our loan -- but we still want to spend that amount on something lasting), and we have been thinking about getting a futon bed. (Our current bed belonged to my parents and is quite old: it's the bed I was born in!) Kodama is a furniture maker that specialises in Japanese furniture and thus also in futon beds. It took us some trouble to locate the shop, and we were shown around by a woman who still had the laquer on her fingers. She explained the different models of beds they made and the different types of laquer they used on the wood. Those beds are really something!
However, the shop itself is very small, and they didn't have room to set up a complete bed. But they do have a partnership with Cotton Comfort, which has several of their beds on display and who can also sell the complete package. They were not open that day (monday), but would be open the next from 11:00.

Having concluded our Japanese-themed shopping for that moment, we walked back through some shopping streets and were back at the hotel early enough to do some additional shopping in the shops underneath the Okura. They include such 'international business hotel'-like fare as a hairdresser and beauty-salon and a jewellers, but also Yama food, a Japanese food store. Apart from a sheer endless variety of cup noodles, they also carry lots of different Japanese food stuffs. We stocked up on Pocky, rice-seasonings for onigiri, furikake, bonito flakes and various other things.
Then we went to our room for a short relaxation-period (it's nice to take off your shoes after pounding the pavements all day), and then we went to Kushi-Tei of Tokyo, a jakitori restaurant just across the canal from the Okura hotel. We both ordered a menu and it was delicious -- though the sushi wasn't too good, it was too dry. The waitresses here were unmistakably Dutch and spoke with a thick Amsterdam accent, which diminished the atmosphere a bit ('informal atmosphere' they call it on the website). Certainly more accessible than the Okura restaurants -- and about half as expensive! I tried the green tea ice, on a whim -- when we had it in Kyoto it was decidedly foul-tasting, but this time I was pleasantly surprised.
While we were eating, a man sat down at the table next to ours. He had quite a few questions about the menu, and was busily scribbling in a notebook in between courses. At first we didn't pay too much attention to him (we were listening to the music being played -- we recognized an orchestrated version of the Princess Mononoke theme!), but when it was time for him to pay, he had lots of additional questions which were not immediately relevant to his current situation (he paid by cash and asked if it was possible to pay with PIN, stuff like that). This lead us to conclude that he was a culinary critic, and we informed the staff of that when the man had left. It took them a while to realise what had happened. :)
The evening was, again, spent relaxing and reading.

The next morning, after breakfast, we checked out. The cashier was, for some reason that eludes me, quite nervous. Perhaps he wasn't used to speaking with anyone besides English-speaking, impatient business-men, but his hands were shaking when he handed me the credit-card imprint to sign. He seemed to catch himself smiling at us, and then quickly got his face into a grave expression. I don't know why: I enjoy seeing smiling people, and I enjoy smiling at people when they help me.
Anyway, we left our luggage to the tender care of the congierge and went into town to seek out the futon-sellers.
We arrived on-site too early, so we spent some time looking at design furniture in various shops that had already opened. If/when we get a new house, we want to gradually exchange our collection of hand-me-down furniture into something with a style of our own. We have gotten a few ideas...
Anyway, the futon-store. We tried a few beds, and quickly came to the conclusion that we will not be getting a tatami underlay for the futon: too hard! We're getting old and creaky, apparently... The complete bed does fall within the budget, so if/when we get the/a house, we'll go by there again to order the bed we want! We'll have trouble getting it to Nijmegen, though (our car just isn't made to transport wooden beams of 2m40), but perhaps we can convince klik's father to drive a small rented truck for us...

After that, it was back to the hotel, collect the luggage and off to home!
On one hand, the past two days have been exhausting (a lot of walking around, and the bed at the Okura wasn't too comfortable), on the other they have been entirely relaxing. And we succeeded in keeping to our Japan-theme throughout the three days!

Next year, it'll be klik's turn to arrange something...

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