Blaise the Baker IN JAPAN!


Guess what!? “Blaise the Baker” is IN JAPAN!!! My cookbook can be seen right in front of the famous Daibutsu (Big Buddha) in Kamakura! How fabulous is that!? Shoutout and special thanks to SARAH HODGE from http://bundtlust.com Love “Blaise the Baker” and the GLOBAL posts! So exciting! ❤️🌏

Blaise 

International Flavor – Foods of Japan

Several months ago, with the help and encouragement of my friend, Sarah Hodge, I launched a new feature on my blog called “International Flavor”. I wanted Japan to be my first area of exploration and I knew exactly who to go to for this culture. She’s not only studied the culture, but has lived it for years.

This posting is a revised and updated version of the popular orginal posting that appeared awhile back. This revised and updated version is now the only version on my site, and exclusive to “Blaise the Baker”. 

Hello Sarah! Thank you so much for agreeing to do this interview with me. Let’s get started. Tell me a little about yourself…

  Making Japanese-style rolled omelette in a traditional Kyoto townhouse

I have always been fascinated by other cultures and languages as far back as I can remember. I grew up in Michigan and I had several Japanese neighbors and many Japanese classmates in elementary school. I started studying Japanese in the fifth grade, and studied French, Spanish and Japanese throughout high school and college. Languages have always been something at which I excelled. After obtaining my master’s in TESOL (Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages) in 2006, I became a full-time ESL/EFL instructor and have had the chance to travel the world for both work and pleasure. In December 2015, I finally had the chance to relocate to eastern Japan to teach English for 3-5 years.

In my spare time, I take cooking classes, collect cookbooks (over 400!) and am a blogger (I’m a member of NetGalley and Blogging for Books) and Amazon.com Top Reviewer specializing in cookbook reviews. I launched my blog Bundt Lust and social media tie-ins on Pinterest, Twitter, and Instagram as a place to collect and share my hundreds of cookbook reviews and to network with a wider audience of fellow collectors and foodies. I occasionally write guest reviews for various websites including Mediterranean Living and Kosher Eye. I am also a top reviewer on TripAdvisor, where I have reviewed dozens of hotels and attractions around Japan as well as answered travel questions in the Japan forum.

How did you end up in Japan? What part(s) of Japan did you live? 

Living and working in Japan has been a dream of mine since my first introduction to Japanese language and culture in the fifth grade. I had applied and was accepted to the JET Programme in 2006, but ended up working for a language institute instead. In late 2010, I was selected to teach English for six months in a small town near Nagoya in Central Japan. I was responsible for developing and delivering English instruction to nearly 200 Japanese students. I would travel almost every weekend and visited numerous cities including Nagoya, Inuyama, Kyoto (six times!), Nara, Osaka (twice), Hiroshima, Miyajima, Takayama, Shirakawago, Toba, Futami, and Tokyo. In December 2015, I accepted a full-time teaching position in Kanagawa, Japan (about 2 hours south of Tokyo), which is where I currently live and will be located for the next several years.

How long were you there? 

I was in Central Japan for six months (December 2010 – May 2011) and recently relocated to Eastern Japan, which is where I will be living for the next 3-5 years.

Tell me about your food experience there…

Japanese food has fascinated me since my first okonomiyaki (cabbage pancake) in fifth grade. I had taken numerous general cooking classes before going to Japan, but didn’t really have any books or background on traditional Japanese food. Soon after arriving in Japan, I had the chance to participate in the traditional pounding of New Year’s rice cakes (mochi) with the school staff.

In my free time, I research and take cooking classes around Japan. To date, I’ve taken six classes in Kyoto, Osaka, Komaki, and Tokyo focusing on homestyle Kyoto cuisine (obanzai), Buddhist vegan temple cuisine, festival dishes, and traditional Japanese sweets (wagashi), and am signed up for several others with my mentor Elizabeth Andoh’s “A Taste of Culture” school in Tokyo and a wonderful startup called Tadaku that pairs home chefs from around the globe with Japanese learners (although the service is targeted at Japanese, many of the classes are taught in English). I recently started a Facebook group for those in Japan who are interested in learning more about Japanese food culture, how to use particular local ingredients, take cooking classes together or how to find / translate items at the grocery store.

  My chirashizushi (topped with salmon roe) and “pom pom” sushi at Komaki International Association’s cooking class

In addition to cooking classes, I had the chance to visit the morning markets at Takayama and Nishiki market in Kyoto; both were fabulous experiences! Because I am so interested in cooking and food, many of the “souvenirs” I purchase for myself are food-related, including a set of high-quality vegetable cutters from the prized Aritsugu (a Kyoto / Tokyo knife shop that has been in continuous operation since the 1560s), a steamer basket, chopsticks, a traditional wooden pestle (surikogi), a cast-iron Japanese rectangular omelet pan, and several cookbooks. I even purchased food-themed origami kits (sushi and cakes) and erasers as gifts for fellow foodies! Due to the expense of shipping internationally, I purchased many ceramic serving pieces (including chawanmushi cups) from Korin.com after returning to the US.

What do they have there that you can’t find here in the US? 

Much like the Greeks and their wild greens (horta), the Japanese value sansai, or mountain vegetables including knotweed, shoots, and ferns, and place a great deal of emphasis on seasonal produce. Elizabeth Andoh took us to a grocery store and showed us the various types of fresh vegetables that had just been harvested, along with tips for preparing them. It is also easy to find fresh herbs like sansho and mitsuba and veggies like myoga (young ginger buds), takenoko (young bamboo shoots), renkon (lotus root), Japanese sweet potatoes and gobo (burdock); there really are no close substitutes for flavor or texture. During cherry blossom season, you’ll see many dishes featuring salted preserved cherry blossoms and leaves, which you can also buy in specialty shops. Japan is also crazy for limited-edition treats such as Kit Kats in unusual flavors, and is constantly introducing limited edition runs of chocolates, sodas, etc. (This year saw Sakura Pepsi and sake Kit Kats; other Japanese flavors have included salted watermelon Pepsi, Pepsi-flavored Doritos, etc.). Novelty sells!

Does the US have a “twisted” version of what Japanese food is / tastes like?

The most obvious starting point would be sushi. In Japan, sushi refers to vinaigered rice (“su” means vinegar) and can include cooked or raw ingredients; raw fish served without rice is referred to as sashimi. Sushi is served in a variety of formats including makizushi (thin cylinders), futomaki, temaki (rolled like an ice cream cone), chirashizushi (ingredients scattered or layered, popular for Hina Matsuri (Girls’ Day Festival), temarizushi, and oshizushi, pressed sushi from Osaka.

Japanese sushi and sashimi are relatively simple: the emphasis is on the quality of the fish and the skill of the sushi chef. The idea is to let the flavor shine through without overseasoning or too many ingredients. American sushi, on the other hand, tends to be much higher in fat and calories, may frequently include fried elements, include some form of dairy (cream cheese, mayo, sauce), possibly avocado, and layers together multiple ingredients and contrasting textures. Many of the “Americanized” sushi rolls (spider roll, California roll, Philadelphia roll, dynamite roll, etc.) are totally foreign in Japan, although American-style sushi can be found. Vegetarian / vegan sushi is also starting to take off; at least one large Japanese chain is now offering gorgeous vegetable sushi. I will also be featuring the upcoming “Vegetable Sushi Cookbook” by Izumi Shoji on my blog in April; Shoji-san is a very popular vegetarian blogger with multiple cookbooks to her name, but this will be her first published in English.

Another big difference is noodles. Sure, any American college student has likely eaten dirt-cheap instant ramen. Japanese-style ramen shops with homemade noodles are popping up around the US, but there are a wealth of handmade noodles in Japan, from udon (chewy, thick wheat noodles) and nutty soba (buckwheat noodles, especially good cold with a citrus dipping sauce) to thin, delicate somen. Noodles are truly an art form in Japan. And don’t be afraid to slurp when eating noodles; it’s actually expected to show that you are enjoying the dish!

There is also a large difference in table manners; for example, Americans tend to pour soy sauce over rice, which is not done in Japan (instead, you are given a small dish for dipping your rice into). It’s not polite to slather your sashimi/sushi with wasabi (especially not in front of the sushi chef!), nor should you eat pickled ginger and fish in the same bite (it’s there as a palate cleanser). A lot of Japanese table etiquette, particularly that involving chopsticks, has its roots in funerary traditions; for example, you should never stick your chopsticks upright in a bowl of rice, or pass food using chopsticks; this is how cremated bones are handled at Buddhist funerals. (To pick up food from a communal platter, turn your chopsticks around and use the wide end to pick up an item and put it on your plate.)

What were some of your favorite dishes while in Japan?
I’ve been vegetarian / pescetarian for over a decade; modern Japanese cuisine is not terribly vegetarian/vegan-friendly with one notable exception: shojin ryori. Literally “devotion cuisine,” shojin ryori is the vegan diet of Zen (and other Buddhist sect) monks. In Zen Buddhist tradition, no animal products are allowed, including fish stock (dashi). Japanese shojin ryori is based on balance; each meal must have five cooking methods (raw, simmered, grilled, deep-fried and steamed), five flavors (bitter, sour, sweet, salty, mild and hot), and five colors (red, white, black, green, and yellow). Tofu products such as yuba and various preparations of tofu (freeze-dried, deep-fried, etc.) and gluten (fu) play central roles.

I enjoy cooking shojin ryori at home; the absolute book on the topic is the out-of-print “Good Food from a Japanese Temple” (also published in paperback as “The Heart of Zen Cuisine”) by Soei Yoneda. 2014 also saw “Shojin Ryori” by Danny Chu; Chef Chu studied shojin ryori in Kyoto before returning to his native Singapore to open a popup shojin ryori restaurant, and “Shojin Ryori” won a Best in the World Gourmand Cookbook Award in 2015.

One of the reasons I love cooking shojin ryori is the act of preparing and cooking ingredients is in itself an act of meditation and the opportunity to slow down, focus, and express gratitude and appreciation. Another excellent book on the topic is Elizabeth Andoh’s “Kansha.” In 2011 shortly after the 3/11 earthquake and tsunami, I had the opportunity to spend a day cooking with Elizabeth at her home in Osaka preparing beautiful and delicious vegan dishes with roots in traditional Japanese temple cuisine.

Although some ingredients will be difficult (if not impossible) to find in the US, there are plenty of wonderful shojin ryori dishes and magic that can be worked with everyday ingredients, so don’t let that discourage you from attempting to make these dishes at home!

  Vegan Buddhist temple cuisine at Shigetsu, Tenryuji (Arashiyama)

Another thing I love about Japan is the huge range of pickles (tsukemono); my friend Nancy Singleton Hachisu published the excellent “Preserving the Japanese Way” last year (one of my top cookbooks of 2015) that will help American home cooks make the most of this ancient tradition. There are dozens of types of Japanese pickles using rice bran, salt, sake lees, and vinegar. Any department store or market will be sure to have multiple pickle vendors with samples fanned out like gorgeous bits of stained glass; some of my favorites are shibazuke (cucumbers pickled in shiso leaves, which gives them a red color), takuan (pickled daikon), and eggplant.

Pickle samples at Nishiki market in Kyoto:  

What were some of your least favorite dishes while in Japan? 

Konnyaku, hands down. It is a chewy, gelatinous byproduct of the konnyaku plant that is used in oden and various veggie dishes (is it also used to produce low-cal shirataki noodles). I admit to not loving natto (fermented soybeans that are sticky and stringy, served with a packet of mustard). I am not a fan of slimy or squishy textures, so next to konnyaku, I was not fond of junsai (even though it is expensive/considered a delicacy) or sea urchin (which was served in my “vegetarian” kaiseki ryori in Kyoto).

There are also regional specialties like fried crickets (inago) and basashi (horse sushi), but these tend to be geographically limited and more like a rite of passage. (Most of my Japanese students first asked me if I could eat with chopsticks. The second question was whether I’d had basashi 😉 And yes, you will find whale and dolphin meat in stores if you look for it, but it seems to be more popular with the older generation.

What culinary customs did the Japanese have that we might not know about in the United States? 

Much of Japanese cuisine was strongly influenced by Buddhism. The old capital of Kyoto had thousands of Buddhist temples and along with Koyasan, is the epicenter of shojin ryori; Kyoto is still famous for the high quality of its tofu products.

Americans have generally only seen perhaps three or four types of block tofu in the US, but there are dozens in Japan, each with a unique purpose. Yuba, dried tofu “skin,” is used as a wrapper (but it must be softened / rehydrated first), koyadofu, freeze-dried tofu, is simmered and used in soups, inari / abura age are deep fried tofu pouches to hold rice, okara (the pulp used from making soymilk/tofu, etc.) can be used in desserts and breads. Soy is also used in kinako (toasted soy powder used to garnish sweets like dango and mochi) and miso, fermented soybean paste best known as soup but which also makes a stellar marinade for fish. And black soy beans stewed in brown sugar syrup are a traditional New Year’s food that represent a wish for good health and hard work in the coming year. Tofu restaurants can be found in Kyoto and Nara that will allow you to sample numerous preparations of tofu products.

A favorite drinking spot equivalent to bar food is the izakaya, or pub. There you’ll find snacks and nibbles (a bit like tapas) that pair well with beer and sake; nothing too fancy, but a great place to kick back with friends. Dishes range from boiled salted soybeans in the pod (edamame) to various preparations of seafood, meats, and fried foods (tempura, cutlets, fried chicken). An excellent cookbook on the subject is “Izakaya: The Japanese Pub Cookbook.”by Mark Robinson.

I love the elaborate depachika (department store food halls; the name is a combination of “depato,” meaning department store, and “chika”, meaning basement) in the basement of upscale department stores like Takashimaya; two whole floors of specialty imports, gourmet restaurants, and the most exquisite confections and upscale food gifts you can imagine with price tags to match! It’s like an indoor market featuring the best of seasonal and regional foods, prepared foods, and international foods. Showcases of famous brands of Western and Japanese treats, French macarons, imported chocolates for Valentine’s Day, elaborate bento boxes, prepared foods sold by weight, pungent rice bran pickles, you name it, you’ll find it there.

Another Japanese custom that I love is omiyage, or food souvenirs. In Japan, you are obligated to buy souvenirs for coworkers and superiors on your travels, and this extends to food. Every train station and shop carries some sort of beautifully packaged local food product (frequently sweets) that you purchase and take back to the office. It’s a wonderful way to offer your friends and family back home a taste of Japan. Narita airport is well-stocked with every conceivable variety of food gift, including the always-popular flavored Kit Kats from Japan, which come in dozens of unique regional flavors ranging from Okinawan sweet potato, azuki bean, and cherry blossom to corn and salted watermelon (the latest is sake Kit Kats, which are proving hugely popular!).

Did anything surprise you about the food?

The one thing that honestly surprised me was how pervasive American fast food / dietary influence is. In the traditional Japanese diet, dairy and meat was virtually nonexistent. Today you’ll find dozens of varieties of yogurt, cheese, and deep-fried meats at Japanese grocery stores and convenience stores; sometimes it can be difficult to find “traditional” Japanese food in Japan! I loved that in Kyoto, upscale hotels included several options with the room rate for breakfast, including a soy-based traditional Japanese breakfast served in a very traditional dining room. Also, Kyoto is famous for two major contributions to Japanese food; kaiseki, very elegant meals originally part of the tea ceremony, and shojin ryori, Buddhist vegan temple cuisine. I found kaiseki to be beautiful but rather bland (you can expect to spend about $100 on a kaiseki dinner in Kyoto; mine was included as part of my package at a ryokan, a traditional Japanese inn) and enjoyed shojin ryori much more.

More and more aspects of Japanese culture are becoming popular in the US; a prime example is bento boxes. A bento-box (or o-bento in Japanese) can range from a simple compartmentalized lunch / dinner composed of rice, veggies, and fish / protein, to an elaborate scene containing popular anime or cartoon characters (“kyaraben”). Elements such as pressed hard-boiled eggs, stamps, and special accessories are used to make decorative (and tasty) lunches. In the last several years, it seems like there has been an explosion of English-language websites and online stores catering to bento box enthusiasts. Foreign bento aficionados have created some truly spectacular bento art! A good place to start is Just Bento (www.justbento.com); two websites I shop from for bento boxes and accessories are Bento & Co. (www.bentoandco.com) and Japonmania (www.japonmania.com). One of the premier bento box makers is Hakoya; if you want to be super-traditional and money is no object, opt for a wooden bento box.

What is the typical “eating” day like in Japan? Here in America we have breakfast, lunch and dinner. Was it similar there?

The structure is largely the same. However, I much prefer Japanese breakfasts to American ones. A traditional Japanese breakfast consists of Japanese-style omelet, grilled fish, rice, pickles, and miso soup. I also enjoyed trying some of the regional specialties like hoba miso (food slathered with miso paste and grilled/served on a magnolia leaf).

  A typical Japanese breakfast for one as served at a Kyoto ryokan

At more upscale hotels you will frequently find (green) salad bars as part of the breakfast buffet. You do see “American-style” breakfasts at hotels, but it pales in comparison to the Japanese offerings! Traditional Japanese cuisine was based around vegetables and seafood and tended to be low in fat, but in the last fifty years or so, fried products and lots of meat have become the norm (deep-fried pork cutlet, beef, chicken, etc.). Japanese convenience stores (“conbini”) are quick places to grab a snack, from prepackaged onigiri and noodles to deep-fried dishes and limited edition treats (Japanese 7-Elevens are notorious for this; see a good article from Bon Appetit here: http://www.bonappetit.com/restaurants-travel/city-guides/article/what-to-eat-for-lunch-at-7-eleven-in-japan)

What were the desserts in Japan like? 

Traditional Japanese desserts, wagashi, have a long history as part of the tea ceremony. There are various types of wagashi, including higashi (pressed sugar sweets that mimic the current season), jellies (yokan), and monaka, intricate pressed rice cookies filled with bean paste.

In December 2015 I had the chance to take a hands-on wagashi class in Kyoto at a confectionary shop with a history that goes back centuries; the lesson (taught in Japanese by a master) taught my small group to make three traditional sweets served during the tea ceremony. Japanese wagashi are generally gluten-free and made from several types of rice flour, sugars, and sweetened bean paste. The intense sweetness is cut by the bitterness of matcha; traditionally you eat the sweet first, then drink the matcha.

Most home cooks / housewives do not make wagashi, but purchase them from specialty shops. One simple dessert that can be made at home is mochi, a rice flour dumpling that is boiled then served with red bean paste. Mochi is also a traditional food at New Year’s; I participated in a New Year’s rice pounding (mochitsuki) on base with our school staff. There is also a type of square dried mochi that is served with red bean soup.  

Other traditional Japanese sweets include taiyaki, fish-shaped pancakes filled with bean paste, green tea soft-serve and ice cream, tea-infused chiffon cakes, and fancy roll cakes (one of the more prolific Japanese authors, Junko, recently released her first roll cake cookbook in English, Deco Cakes)

Modern Japanese desserts tend to favor French patisserie quite heavily (it is common for Japanese pastry chefs to train in France), so you see lots of Japanese patisseries and offshoots of French patisseries such as Maison Kayser, Pierre Herme and Fauchon across Japan. Other notable examples include Henri Charpentier and Sadaharu Aoki in Tokyo.

 French-style pastries for sale in Kyoto, December 2015

This style is so popular that you can find Japanese bakeries around the globe that specialize in French pastry with Japanese twists (green tea, black sesame, sweet potato, red bean, etc.). If you are interested in learning to make Japanese French-style pastries at home, I highly recommend Okashi and Tanoshii as well as last year’s excellent “Kyotofu” (which I named one of my top cookbooks of 2015); it blends Japanese flavors like yuzu (citrus), black sesame, green tea and toasted soybean powder with American desserts such as cheesecake, brownies, and cookies to surprising (and delicious!) effect.

Baking at home is also very popular with Japanese women; go to any department store, Loft or Tokyu Hands and you’ll find a mind-boggling assortment of bakeware and kitchenware, including many novelty items. However, most Japanese houses and apartment still do not have ovens, or if they do, it is a combination microwave / oven that does not bake evenly / effectively. American-style ovens are few and far between, so leave your bulky Bundt pans at home if you plan on moving to Japan!

Did they have snack foods in Japan? Describe.

I love the assortment of snack foods in Japan, which run the gamut from sweetened beans (amanatto) and edamame to shrimp-flavored chips, flavored rice crackers (senbei), pizza flavored pretzel sticks, and novelty items influenced by western cuisine. Some of my favorites are the street foods that pop up around temples and shrines, including mitarashi dango (grilled rice dumplings basted in soy sauce, a specialty of Takayama in the Japan Alps) and fried foods on a stick, which gives it an air rather like an American state fair.

Did you pick up any recipes / cookbooks from your stay there?

I did purchase a few cookbooks in Japanese (one on baked goods made with squash and sweet potatoes, and a children’s book about the different types of wagashi) during my first stay in Japan in 2011. My collection is currently around 30 books, including recent releases like “Shoku Iku” (released in the US as Healthy Japanese Cooking). I also have copies of recipes from the six hands-on cooking classes I took. I ordered my copy of Elizabeth Andoh’s “Kansha” and took the book with me to her class in Osaka.

Anything else you would like to add that we haven’t discussed? 

If you are fortunate to visit / live / work in Japan, by all means immerse yourself in local culture: participate in local festivals, try local foods, visit local museums and shrines, and definitely take advantage of any hotels with onsens (hot spring baths). The Japanese are very generous with their time and are very happy when a foreigner takes an interest in their culture! Also, gift-giving is very ingrained in Japanese culture and you will likely be presented with small gifts; I always keep some small made-in-the-US souvenirs from my hometown on hand just in case.

I’m more than happy to try and answer any questions on Japanese cooking or food culture at bundtlust@gmail.com; if I’m not able to answer it (and I’m no expert by any means, just a passionate foodie with a deep interest in Japanese culture!), I’ll be more than happy to pass it along to my fellow friends and Japanese cookbook authors and get back to you.

There are several excellent websites devoted to Japanese cooking; one of my favorites is Gabi Greve’s “Washoku” group and blog: http://washokufood.blogspot.jp/. Another great resource is Ochikeron’s “Create Eat Happy” blog (http://createeathappy.blogspot.jp/) and cookbook, and RunnyRunny999’s YouTube channel: https://www.youtube.com/user/runnyrunny999. And for a taste of Japanese wackiness, don’t miss Cooking With Dog hosted by Francis!

Itadakimasu!

Recommended Japanese cookbooks:

I probably have 30-40 Japanese cookbooks (in English and Japanese) focusing on a variety of Japanese homestyle cuisines, shojin ryori, and desserts; you can find the full list at my Amazon store and more of my Japanese cookbook reviews on my blog Bundt Lust.

Elizabeth Andoh: Washoku and its vegan companion Kansha; free recipes and tips are available on the companion websites http://www.washokucooking.com/ and http://www.kanshacooking.com/. Andoh-san will also send autographed bookplates that match both books. The Taste of Culture campus is in Tokyo and offers a variety of workshops: http://www.tasteofculture.com/ Also be sure to sign up for her excellent newsletters.

Japanese Farm Food, Nancy Singleton Hachisu. A beautiful look at traditional rural life and foodways with gorgeous photographs.

Preserving the Japanese Way: Traditions of Salting, Fermenting, and Pickling for the Modern Kitchen, Nancy Singleton Hachisu. A fantastic introduction to the wide range of traditional Japanese pickles, which use a variety of preserving agents (rice bran, vinegar, sake lees, etc.); she also adapts these techniques and ingredients for American kitchens and palates.

Donabe, Naoko Takei Moore. A great introduction to the donabe, the versatile clay oven used to braise, steam, bake, etc. (there are different types of donabe depending on the function). Classic-style donabe includes various hot pots, salted kombu and ginger rice, salmon and hijiki rice, English peas and yuba, green tea rice balls, azuki sticky rice, and crab dashi. Some of my favorites are featured in the steamer chapter (savory steamed soy custard with saikyo miso sauce, steamed black cod in fermented black bean sauce, green tea steam cake) and the tagine chapter (sizzling tofu and mushrooms in miso sauce, steam-roasted fingerling potatoes, steam-fried vegetables with creamy sesame-tofu dipping sauce, crunchy lotus root in black vinegar sauce).

The Sushi Experience, Hiroko Shimbo.

Just Bento, Makiko (Maki) Itoh. Containing recipes from Maki’s “Just Bento” website, this is a treasure trove of base recipes, variations, and sample menus that will keep you happily preparing bento boxes for many months to come! This has more practical, down-to-earth presentations than the labor-intensive kyaraben bento, making it an excellent choice for grownups and older kids/teens.

Shojin Ryori, Danny Chu. Danny studied shojin ryori in Japan before bringing it to Singapore through Enso Kitchen. He has a wonderful overview of shojin ryori at http://www.ensokitchen.com/background.htm

Okashi: Sweet Treats Made with Love, Keiko Ishida. A wonderful glimpse into popular Japanese baking that combines French and American influences with traditional Japanese flavors (green tea, red bean, black sesame, sweet potato, etc.).

Just One Cookbook (www.justonecookbook.com), YouTube channel: https://www.youtube.com/user/justonecookbook 

My go-to soundtrack for Japanese cooking: 

Dinner Classics: The Japanese Album (CBS Masterworks).

This gorgeous update on traditional Japanese melodies features flute by Jean-Pierre Rampal, violin by Isaac Stern, and cello by Yo-Yo Ma along with Japanese-inspired recipes by Martha Stewart.

Recommended cooking classes:

Kyoto:

Haru Cooking Class Taro-san is the consummate ambassador for Kyoto and Japanese cuisine; he went to school in the US and speaks beautiful English. Classes are held in his traditional Kyoto townhouse (machiya). His wife and daughter are frequent helpers. Taro is extremely accommodating and happy to customize the menu to meet your interests / dietary needs: http://www.kyoto-cooking-class.com/

Uzuki Japanese Cooking Emi is a wonderful guide through the world of Kyoto homestyle cuisine; classes are held in her home and you truly feel like part of her family. http://www.kyotouzuki.com/

WA Experience KAFU:

I was lucky that I signed up at the very last minute (only a couple of days before I left for Kyoto!!), and was still able to register for a fantastic autumn menu that happened to be completely vegetarian! I also was the only student, had a fantastic instructor, and the class was held in a gorgeous traditional townhouse that had been lovingly restored.

Cooking

Tokyo:

A Taste of Culture

Cookbook author and cultural ambassador Elizabeth Andoh offers half- and multi-day intensive workshops at her Taste of Culture school in Tokyo. Andoh-san is an excellent instructor with a wealth of knowledge about ingredients, kitchen culture, and historical perspective. Hands-on classes range from Japanese pickles to seafood, holiday foods, traditional washoku and vegan cuisine. Payment must be made in advance, and it is best to book as far ahead as possible. http://www.tasteofculture.com/taste-of-culture-programs.php

Japanese tableware, kitchenware and knives:

http://www.korin.com

One absolute must-do splurge in Kyoto: 

Shiraume, the top-rated ryokan on TripAdvisor (see my review here: http://bit.ly/1rrnegG). A former teahouse with a history that dates back centuries, expect to spend $250 a night and up (add an extra $100 per night if you will have the kaiseki ryori dinner). Some rooms have private tubs; for smaller rooms like the one I stayed in, you can reserve one of two natural hinoki (cypress) tubs. The ryokan only has six rooms and books up many months in advance, so book as early as possible. Truly an unforgettable experience in the heart of Gion: http://www.shiraume-kyoto.jp/en/

  Exterior of Shiraume

Shoutout and special thanks to Sarah Hodge! Be sure to check her out on social media and the Internet under “BundtLust”.