Kappabashi, Kitchen Town (合羽橋)

May 24, 2012


My last day in Tokyo dawned hot and dry.  I thanked my generous host Hitomi profusely and headed out for some errands.  I stashed my bags in a coin locker at a central station and headed out for Kappabashi, known as “Kitchen Town” for its profusion of shops for restaurants and kitchens.  I was on a mission for my friend Andy to find him a knife.

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Meyers Race 2011

October 2, 2011

The race season at the Inverness Yacht Club extended into the autumn in 2011, giving us races with just enough wind for Mark Darley and I to be consistently competitive, coming in first or second in most races before corrected time.  Joining Ross Valley Crossfit gave me enough strength to wrangle the various spinnaker lines on his Johnson 18, resulting in a fall sailing season with rainbows marking the end of our races.

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Hello from Kokubunji, Tokyo, Japan!

A few days after graduation, I wandered into the Japan office of the MIT International Science and Technology Initiative (MISTI).  I wasn’t really expecting anything to come of the meeting, but a few weeks later I received an email from an aerodynamics researcher at the Japanese Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA, sort of the Japanese equivalent to NASA) offering me a six-week unpaid internship outside of Tōkyō.  I’ll be working on a project that has the ultimate goal of preventing icing on airplanes,which means doing more “fundamental research” into supercold water and luminescent coatings.  MISTI generously offered to cover airfare and a small stipend for living; my mom’s friend Sayoko Kinoshita arranged for me to stay with her friend Takako a few train stops away from the JAXA office; and I suddenly found myself trying to read subway signs in Tōkyō and wondering what exactly I’d gotten myself into for a month and a half.

Sayoko picked me up at the Haneda airport at 5 am on Thursday when I arrived, then dropped me off at Tōkyō Station so I wouldn’t have to switch trains twice while hauling bags laden with gifts and food.  The train system here is easy to navigate for us gajin with limited Japanese reading comprehension: stops are announced in Japanese and English, and the signs are in kanji, hiragana, and English.  Reading hiragana, the Japanese syllabary for native words, as well as katakana, the syllabary for words of foreign origin, makes life a lot easier around here. Kanji, on the other hand?  My goal is to learn one or two per day in terms of reading and writing, and maybe even the stroke order.

Takako picked me up in her car and we drove to her home in Fujimoto, a neighborhood of Kokubunji City, which is part of the Tōkyō prefecture.  The streets are narrow and there are trees everywhere: persimmon, oranges, magnolia, loquat, apple… it’s astoundingly verdant and leafy compared to the dry expanses of Northern California and the Middle East.  Alas, figs (and just about most things) are four times more expensive here than they are in Jerusalem or San Francisco or Boston.

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Food, fruit, and small things

The last few days of staying in the Hebrew University dorms mostly involved wandering around Jerusalem in search of last-minute souvenirs and procrastinating on packing up our apartments. Ben and Alex invited the students to join us for dinner one evening, so with six or so students in tow we headed off along Jaffa Street in search of a meal. We stumbled across a Chinese restaurant (the Mandarin) and proceeded to teach several of our students how to eat with chopsticks. The menu was in both Hebrew and English, with one very bad pun.

Mein Course

Eugene ordered entirely in Chinese, resulting in some dishes that I’d never seen before (chicken with candied pecans and vegetables in a flour shell?). After mandating that all of our students speak in English all summer, it was fascinating to watch our pupils’ expressions as someone carried on a conversation in a language they could not understand at all.

The final night in the dorms, Anna and I decided to create a feast of our remaining foods. We had both stoves in two apartments going, and wound up with Moroccan lentils, corn fritters, garlic Swiss chard, polenta, pasta sauce, pasta, sauteed onions, sauteed mushrooms, and fresh dates with quiona for desert. Yum!

MEET: The Last Supper

The next morning, I woke up early and made omelets for my fellow instructors who were also awake and packing. We managed to get everything out of the dorms on time, then we packed up the vans and dropped off at the MEET office armloads of linens and kitchen supplies. Thank you MEET for giving us things to sleep on and cook with (though not at the same time!).

I spent the next three days near Jerusalem visiting with the parents of a friend from MIT. First off, it’s incredible that you can pick up any one of seven cell phone carriers from three different territories/countries.

Which carrier would you like today?

Despite it being a very hot August, the grape arbors, and loquat, olive, and pomegranate trees were very verdant and some were burgeoning with fruit.

Verdant garden


Grape arbor

The chili peppers were also beginning to ripen.


The figs here are incredible. As soon as they begin to split their skin, you know they are ripe. Oh, to have a fig.

Fruits from the vine

We visited one home that had an early copy of the Communist Manifesto in Arabic.

Communist Manifesto in Arabic

I then went to Mishmar Ayalon to stay with my cousins on a moshav, a small agricultural community with a little less of a socialist streak than the kibbutzim: land is owned individually, and not everyone is involved with agriculture. They too had a fig tree which was readily climbable. Oh, glorious figs. (Their passion fruit tree was just starting to mature, resulting in slightly tart fruit.)

My cousin then took me to Mini Israel, which is like a model village but has miniature versions of major landmarks of the region. Some favorites included the Baha’i Gardens, complete with the staircases and red-roofed houses of the surrounding German Quarter of Haifa.

Mini Bahá'í Gardens

The gardener is a nephew of my cousin, and had studied in Holland how to grow bonsai trees. When the nephew tried to introduce the Dutch techniques to the Middle East, the trees wound up growing too big due to the abundance of sunlight! He was eventually successful in growing tiny plants at Mini Israel: a tiny pomegranate tree had perfectly small fruits and flowers.

Bonsai Pomegranate

The Basilica of the Annunciation had the architectural details down, but didn’t have the wonderful murals and mosaics of the original.

Mini Basilica of the Annunciation

The Dome of the Rock was very impressive, and even had a small Mount of Olives behind it.

Mini Dome of the Rock

At the Western Wall (Kotel), you could leave notes and someone would transport them to the actual wall.

Mini Western Wall

There was even a small version of the ruins at Caesarea.

Mini Caesarea

MEET did a great job of showing us the area from north to south in six weeks, and it was wonderful to see a concise summary of our travels in one place.

And so ends my updates about MEET. I loved exploring the Middle East both gastronomically and geographically, but I especially loved teaching the brilliant, creative, and very adult students that compose the program. Thank you to everyone who made this summer incredible!

Sounds of Thursday

We returned to the apartments tonight to the sound of wedding celebration fireworks and the evening call to prayer from East Jerusalem, Shu’afat, and beyond. The fireworks have continued for the last two hours, as have the prayers sung out from the minarets.

In the midst of this cacophony, Shiri and I decided to make something with the vast quantity of lentils that I acquired last week and eventually settled on this recipe (though only the soup part). We didn’t have fennel, ginger, cinnamon, saffron, parsley, bay leaves, sugar, or chickpeas, but the stew turned out pretty fabulously. I know what I’m having for breakfast tomorrow! I’ve never had standby dinner plans beyond “steam chard; cook rice; heat chicken sausages”, so it’s incredibly satisfying to find robust recipes that can be easily made night after night.

The next culinary goal is handmade tortillas, perhaps for a Mexican-inspired birthday meal on Sunday (we’ll see how perky the instructor team is after returning from four-wheeling around the Negev Desert all weekend). We’re doing pretty well without an oven, though I’d be curious to hear thoughts on no-bake dessert recipes.

While browsing the store tonight for chicken and watermelon tonight, Shiri and I encountered a display of my favorite local snack: Bamba (בַּמְבָּה‎; corn poofs that look like large Cheetos, except flavored with peanut butter instead of cheese). Not only did they have the chocolate nougat-filled Bamba that my students had brought to MEET today, but also halva (חלבה)-filled Bamba. Sababa! Will we be able to find strawberry-flavored Bamba (“Red Bamba”) before we leave in a few weeks? Stay tuned for more…

North: Akko, Haifa, Nazareth

Bright and early Friday morning the instructors rolled out of bed and loaded into the vans for a tour of the northern areas: Akko/Acre, Haifa, Nazareth, and the Galilee. Our first stop was along Route 6 to pick up our tour guide, recommended by the fellow who showed us around Old Jaffa the other weekend.  We then proceeded to drive across the rolling hills of the north toward the Lebanese border.

Lebanese Border

While we were taking in the view and learning about the history of the conflict with Lebanon and the Bedouins, several IDF vehicles pulled up, some with machine gun turrets. Just business as usual around here.  Strange to think that some of our students could be doing this in a year or two. They asked us not to take photos of them, so we complied (they were armed!).

Cow jam

On the way back from the lookout, we encountered a traffic jam. Ben managed to capture the moment, complete with my driving the van surrounded by cows.

South from the border with Lebanon

We then retraced our steps and headed toward the sea to the coastal border with Lebanon at a place called Rosh HaNikra, the only non-sandy bit of coastline in the area. The coast was just as warm as Jerusalem, but strikingly more humid.

Rosh Hanikra rocks

Rosh HaNikra has these incredible white cliffs studded with bits of flint. We took a cable car down the cliff to an old railbed that once ran along the coast.

A tunnel had been dug to accommodate the train through the cliffs, and apparently in this process a number of natural grottoes had been discovered, extending far back into the cliffs.

Reflecting blue sea; illuminated red rocks

Inside the grottoes

Looking out from a grotto

Inside the grottoes it was much cooler, but still incredibly humid. The caves were packed with other tourists snapping photos of the turquoise green water rushing in and out of the clefts in the rock. Think Carlsbad Caverns meets the Mediterranean.  I’d love to try kayaking through here at low tide, or even SCUBA diving here!

Flint embedded in the cliffs

Elephant Rock

We emerged from the grottoes to see waves crashing against the cliffs in the strong daylight.

Proto Grottoes

Smaller grottoes inhabited by pigeons could be seen forming in the cliff faces.

Strange fruit at Rosh HaNikra

We took the cable car back up the cliff and encountered a fruit vendor selling lychee, passion fruit, figs, and a very strange tropical fruit that looked more like a fish than a fruit. It had a texture like aloe, bright magenta pulp, and big black seeds. The folks at the local kibbutz who grow these fruits pollinate them by hand at night.

Jezzar Pasha Mosque

Our next stop was the ancient town of Akko/Acre (inhabited for approximately 10,000 years), including the beautiful Mosque of Jezzar Pasha built by the Ottoman Empire there. While putting on scarves and coverups before entering the mosque, I asked the attendant if I needed something to cover my knees since I was wearing shorts. He pointed at the scarves and skirts, responding, “These are only for ladies, not for men.” I guess the short hair signals “MALE” despite the other visual and auditory clues I provide?  Amusement aside, this is the first time I’ve passed as male since I was once bundled head to toe in ski gear in elementary school.

The mosque was beautiful: calligraphy, marble, granite, stained glass, and a gorgeous dome. Outside, the gardens were blooming with plumeria, hibiscus, and roses.

Change in Acco


We continued on through Akko, seeing graffiti (perhaps Paul the Octopus?) and blue doors (to ward off evil spirits, as is common in areas once inhabited by the Greeks) everywhere.

Driving into Akko was pure madness.  The narrow streets are hardly wide enough to deal with one car, much less our huge van and whatever other lunatic hurdling past us at maximum warp in the opposite direction.  The heat was starting to get to me, so I was quite exhausted by the time we rolled into town and I was faced with navigating through a number of hairy situations on blind 90˚ turns in the middle of the Old City as we tried to find parking for both vehicles.  When we finally found a spot and I had pulled in the mirrors, Talya remarked, “you’re such a calm driver!”

Palace ruins in Acco

At the waterfront, we saw the remnants of a palace that used to have a chamber for sea water to flow under its floors.

Cliff Jumping 1

Cliff Jumping 2

Cliff Jumping 3

Cliff Jumping 4

Further down the wharf we encountered boys jumping off the wall (30 or 40 feet high and almost 30 feet wide; survived bombardment by Napoleon’s armies) into the sea. I had half a mind to join them, but the tour guide kept saying, “yela! yela!” (let’s go, let’s go!) so I moseyed onward.

Baha'i Gardens

We drove back south to Haifa to see the Baha’i Gardens that take up most of the slant height of Mount Carmel.

Haifa from the Baha'i Gardens

Haifa is a blue collar port city with Druze, Muslims, Christians, and Jews living side by side. There’s even a Google office here!

Engagement photo shoot

She matches the petunias

A photographer was in the garden with a couple, taking what I can only assume were engagement shots. Her dress was stunning: backless with sheer fabric studded with gemstones. Amazing. She blended in perfectly among the petunias. If I had been the photographer, I’d have waited for later in the summer when the light was lower to do the shots.

Templar's Church, Mount Carmel

Back up Mount Carmel (where the prophet Elijah once squared off against a pagan prophet) we saw a church built by Templars at the end of the Crusades.

View from the Baha'i Gardens on Mount Carmel

We returned to the Baha’i Gardens, but this time from above (900′ higher). The view, as usual, was incredible. The large white building in the center left is used for storing flour shipped in from the rest of the world.

Sunset from French Carmel

We drove further down to Carmel on the coast and went to the beach as the sun was setting. I waded out into the water to enjoy the last minutes of daylight as Orbital’s “Halcyon + On + On” wafted over the waves from the beach restaurant.

Sunrise from Carmel

In the morning I was treated to this view of pink-tinged clouds rising above houses on top of the cliff near our youth hostel.


We left for Nazareth and went to the Basilica of the Annunciation. A statue of Mary was surrounded by a labyrinth with Platonic solids in its corners.


The church itself was built in the 1960s, but managed to be very tasteful and architecturally interesting.  Several grottoes were preserved to the side of the church, including one known as “The Virgin’s Kitchen”.

Inside the Basilica

Built to resemble a lily (representing Mary’s purity), the church had two levels, the lower one encompassing a grotto.  Inside the lower level, a mass was being conducted in Spanish.

Upstairs at the Basilica

The upper level had an opening (to the left in this image) down to the lower level and the grotto as well as numerous mosaic murals commemorating the angel Gabriel’s telling Mary the good news, and of the Madonna and Child. I walked past a tour group from Spain standing beneath the Spanish mosaic and singing hymns. The artistic styles were all very different, yet it was beautiful to see such interesting variations on a theme.

Madonna and Child from Japan


Madonna and Gabriel from the Philippines


Madonna from Nazareth


Mural from Thailand


After leaving Nazareth, getting stuck in some awful traffic, and navigating the highways of the north, we met up with the rest of the group at the Jordan River for an afternoon of kayaking. The Galilee/Golan was less humid than the coast, but was it ever hot. Eric and I commandeered an inflatable kayak and began to paddle down the gentle river, passing by banks filled with families grilling food, smoking hookah, and listening to music. We joined swimmers in splashing one another and even discovered a rope swing. The cold river water was quite the delightful shock as we took turns jumping into the river. Running the rapids resulted in a few splashes, and we even decided to take one backwards in the kayak. Totally worth the three hour drive home.

This week we have a day away from MEET due to it being the Ninth of Av.  We’re taking this as an opportunity to catch up on work, sleep, and cooking.  Last night I made a chicken-lemon-cilantro stew with tomato and vegetables (based on this recipe).  While the store had neither salsa nor lime juice, I think the stew turned out pretty well: not very heavy, and with plenty of flavor.

Tomorrow our students are participating in MEET’s “Apprentice” program: they get to help a startup develop business plans.  Yohanan, MEET alum extraordinaire and MEET’s transportation coordinator, has opened a juice bar with MEET’s student relations manager Mustafa and the two want to double their revenue.  Our students tomorrow get to come with suggestions on how to increase the customer base for the juice stand, and we’re really looking forward to seeing what ideas they generate.