Motobushido: Swords and Static

Motobushido coverWe played Motobushido (Alliterated  Games) today and it was a blast. First, the group at the table was in the right mood and everyone played their character beautifully. In descending order of precedence, we had:

  • Edmund as the Sensei (game-master);
  • Jacob playing the Taicho (pack leader), Haruna Tar-Face;
  • Fish playing the Shigaka (historian/chronicler), Nobuyoki;
  • Kit playing the Kusawake (scout), Shiro;
  • Matt playing the Migi Ude (enforcer), Haachi; and
  • Me playing the Shinmai (recruit), Michiko.

Everyone was so much fun, knew their chanbara tropes, and was a cooperative story game player. That doesn’t mean we didn’t have conflicts among the party — on the contrary, we had dramatic confrontations, but because the players wanted to bring twists, not because we were at odds as players. Everyone was delightfully wicked about needling each other’s motobushi and reviving old grudges. I would have loved to play a continuing series with this pack.

The setting is somewhat inspired by Apocalypse World;

In this game, your group will play a pack of motorcycle-riding samurai – motobushi – in the days after a great war ravaged the land. You were soldiers in that war, but your side ultimately lost. The how and why of what has come before are all up to you. You will work as a group to define your own aspects of that war, including any cross-genre story elements your group desires. You will then play out the lives of these motobushi as they travel around in a world which largely rejects their ideals, and tell the stories of their trials and adventures, their wins and their losses, and their inevitable grim fates.

MotobushiLike in AW, a lot of the characters’ and setting’s history is created by the players. You don’t use dice but two decks of playing cards, one for the Sensei and one for the players. Most actions can be merely narrated; you only use the cards when it’s time to take risks (“Gambit”) or fight (“Duels.”) At first, the system is disorienting for those of us used to dice; it looks like no other role-playing game I can think of.

Of all the RPGs I’ve played that used standard playing cards to resolve actions, this has the most enjoyable, tactical and interesting system. It blows the ones in Hillfolk/DramaSystem or Prime Time Adventures out of the water, for example. It’s not just a matter of having more cards, or higher cards; a lot of strategy can go into deciding when to escalate or concede, in order to save an advantage for later.

I’ll try to write more at some point when I have time, but I really enjoyed this game.

[Edit: Edmund posted a much more comprehensive review, from his perspective as GM.]

Sushi From Heaven: Hanazen

Hanazen - ChirashiFriday was my first pay day in my new job, and Edmund and I wanted to celebrate. In fact, we’d had to reschedule several times and were overdue for a night of fine dining with our friends Steve and Dorene so we’d agreed to go out for sushi celebration. At the very last minute, though, we ended up changing location to avoid having to drive across one of the Bay Area bridges at rush hour in wretched weather. In a fit of inspiration, Dorene suggested Hanazen in Orinda, which Edmund and I could take a BART train to and Steve and Dorene could easily drive to.

I don’t often give 5 stars but Hanazen earned it. One of a kind, artisanal preparation of lovely fresh ingredients, creating complex, nuanced flavours. Eating there for the first time requires a certain dose of humility and appreciation for art. This was more upscale, smaller, and altogether refined than the place we were originally going to eat at. I’ve been in many nice, pleasant sushi places but it had been a long time since I had been in a top-notch place where everything is about creating art, not about delivering a product. I say “art” as a compliment, not sarcasm: the art of a perfect balance of flavours, aromas, colours, shapes, and textures.

The Restaurant

I’d read the Yelp reviews, especially the negative ones (I always do) before trying this place. I “get” what the negative reviewers were unhappy with, but I think they missed the spirit and quality of this place.  For context, understand that this place is owned by a husband and wife who are chef and host—Kenji and Coco Horikawa—with no other personnel, and could seat 17 people at a time if it was jammed packed with no room to move. You go there for an evening of slowly savouring little bites of heaven and good conversation, not to have a well-timed meal before going to the Shakespeare play or the movies.

Most of the condiments, pickles, sauces, infused salts, and garnishes used in preparing the dishes are made by the chef himself rather than store-bought. This means that every element is so good it can be savoured on its own, but together they build these lovely complex flavours that unfold slowly as you eat. The sake menu is also diverse and offers a range of flavours as wide as any sommelier’s choice of wines in a fine French restaurant.

Service: The service started out formal and I understand why it seemed distant to some Yelp commenters. But as soon as we showed that we were interested, not too vain to receive pointers on how to appreciate the food and drinks, and happy to learn about the preparation details, we felt our host and server, Coco Horikawa, warm up to us. The service was attentive and helpful throughout the meal.

Freshness and Choice: This is the very opposite experience of chain restaurants where you can find everything everywhere, but of mediocre quality and always the same; it’s the one-of-a-kind experience that will be a little different every time. So no long menu with dozens of wacky Americanized rolls, just a solid core list and a board with a generous list of the current delicacies. Coco Horikawa is a sake expert, and Chef Kenji Horikawa’s speciality is kaiseki, a method of cooking that marks the seasons in Japan. Let them guide you to what’s good and fresh today, and works well together.

Price: Just think why your run-of-the-mill sushi bar is cheaper: made faster, with cheaper, store-bought ingredients and using shortcuts like big piggish rolls instead of nigiri pieces. Let’s not mince words, Hanazen is expensive for regular people on regular salaries—the kind of place we can only eat at for a special celebration. But it’s priced correctly for the value, quality, care, and work involved.

Reservations: It’s clear that every spot is marked “reserved” all the time. I believe the owners prefer to work by reservation only so they can pace the work and plan the ingredients accordingly. If you want to sit at the counter, mention that when you make your reservation.

Wheelchair access: Although Yelp says there is no wheelchair access, they actually put down a ramp in advance if you mention this in your reservation. However, don’t expect that anyone will have time to stop preparing or serving food to take care of this if you don’t mention it ahead of time.

What We Tried

We ordered “family style,” sharing all the dishes. We abandoned ourselves to the good judgement of the chef by ordering the Chef’s Choice for one plate of sushi, one of chirashi, and one of sashimi. We also tried some rolls (Dragon roll, tempura roll, and one maki with the chef’s own home-pickled kampyo.) Among the “small plates” listed on the board, we tried the grilled pike and the miso cod, sunomono, and probably something else I’m forgetting right now.

We also tried the saké sampler, with three very different drinks: if memory serves, a “manly,” sober Junmai; a complex Junmai Ginjo evoking aromas of melon, and a fruity, cheerful, complex and over-the-top Junmai Daiginjo (I hope I’m remembering them right, I should have taken notes.)

Something memorable for me: I usually find ikura (big pearly fish roe) completely uninteresting, but Chef Kenji marinates the ikura and gives it a superb, citrus-y flavour. Heck, a benchmark for Japanese restaurants: even the rice itself was lovely.

Photo taken from Foodio54 because we forgot to photograph most of our dishes, we just dove in. Used without permission, no copyright challenge intended.

Great Film Directors: Akira Kurosawa

Seven Samurai poster

Another of those memes on Facebook, just a little thing to get people talking about their favourite directors and pay homage. Dominick DiGregorio assigned me Akira Kurosawa, that’s a true friend!

So four things I have to say: (1) Akira Kurosawa was a master of his art, incredibly creative and perfectionist, who influenced the film medium so much that every time I (re-)watch one of his movies I feel I’m understanding more about the development of cinema in the mid-to-late 20th century. (2) He made 30 movies and I have not seen nearly enough of them. (3) Every one I’ve seen, though, has been well worth it. (4) My favourite is Seven Samurai (1954), it’s one of those movies which I never get tired of, along with Casablanca, Amadeus, or The Good, The Bad and the Ugly.