Ahoy!

Hello dear friends. It has been too long! My confession: I was on holiday in New Zealand for a few weeks and, silly me, I thought I would have oodles of time to post about the crafts I brought with me and the new patterns I’m designing. As it turns out, vacationing is tough work! My days were busy and I returned to Tokyo with all of my projects still unfinished. I realize no one will feel an ounce of sympathy, but I had to plead my case.

We rented a small camper van and drove around NZ’s South Island, stopping at a different gorgeous location each night. We saw seals and penguins and whales, drove through avalanche zones and vineyards, and strategized our stops based on sunrises and sunsets. I learned to appreciate savory pies (steak and peas!) and found a favorite Marlborough sauvi.

New Zealand sceneryI did get to do a bit of knitting. The cliff-sides and river banks dotted with sheep and newborn lambs had me inspired, and I marched straight into the first wool shop I could find for some locally-sourced merino. Cruellas in Nelson set me up with a pattern, yarn and needles, and kindly held my hand the next morning when I returned with many questions.

New Zealand sheepOthers in our party found the sheep inspiring in a different way, and instead sought out the nearest grocer stocking lamb and mint sausages.

On our way back to Tokyo we stopped in Melbourne where I stocked up on Frankie magazines, merino knit jersey from The Fabric Store, and more yarn and patterns from Yarn + Co, a super hip yarn shop in Fitzroy. It was their neon accessories in the window that caught my attention, but the friendly owner, wall of alpaca yarns and huge couch had me there for quite a while.

New Zealand and Melbourne craft-capadesIt was an unforgettable trip. But now that I’m in Tokyo I am happy to be back at work! There are many exciting things happening here — I can’t wait to share them all with you!

We rented our van from Wilderness Motorhomes and had a great experience. I highly recommend them!

Sado in Pictures

Glimpses of my weekend on Sado Island.Shinkansen and coffeethe ferry to Sadoview from the ferryold men and the sea taiko performancethe path to a secret swimming spot on SadoFarewellssunset on the weekendAfter a great time at Earth Celebration last year, we returned to Sado Island for more taiko and sea air. It takes all day to get there from Tokyo — shinkansen to an express train to a ferry — but for me getting there is half the fun. Each night on Sado we climbed the hill next to the harbor and watched the sunset amidst cicadas until the concert drums and night stars took over. During the day we napped in the grass and swam in calm ocean inlets. Ah, Sado.

A Day by the Sea

This weekend I went to Enoshima. I don’t know why it has taken me 3 years to get there; it’s only an hour from Tokyo by train but it feels a world away. I left the city heat behind me and spent an afternoon near the sea with friends. Lovely!

Our objective was to see jellyfish at the aquarium and eat seafood. Perhaps an insensitive combination. A day in EnoshimaThat ray had the most expressive face.(^O^)

We accidentally caught the dolphin show, which was surprisingly entertaining. I usually dislike animal shows but this one was choreographed with dancing, singing, synchronized swimming girls who sat inside big clear balls and were pushed across the water by a false killer whale. Everyone around me was like, “What the hell?” but in a good way.

Dolphins and smiling rays put up a good fight, but the jellyfish fantasy hall was the real shop-stopper. That, and when I caught a seal pooping.Enoshima jellies!An Enoshima sunsetAfter a walk along the small streets of Enoshima to the top of the peak, we were rewarded with a pretty sunset. And back to Tokyo we went.

In With the New: To-Do for 2013

snowy american sunrise

Yesterday I shared last year’s to-do list and how well I did checking things off. It feels good to keep a list and look back a year later, to see how your year changed from the one you had imagined. I might not have accomplished everything on my list, but keeping an eye on it throughout the year gave a good push to keep trying new things.

I’m stepping into this year tentatively, like I am dipping my toes into water — will it be refreshing? Too hot? Will I turn and run and hide under my towel? We shall see. Here is the list for 2013:

Cook 12 new recipes. I am putting this on the list again, even though last year I failed miserably at it. I want to cook more, and if this list gives me even a little bit of encouragement it will be a positive gain. I’d love to learn more traditional Japanese dishes, so perhaps I’ll even treat myself to a cooking class.

Read 8 books. I’m upping the ante from 5 last year. Recommendations?

Visit 6 new places. This is achievable so I’m sticking with it. If I could go anywhere? The mountains of Chile, Alaska, New Zealand. Where might I go? Vietnam, Cambodia, Thailand, or a romp through northern Japan. I’d love to find a hike to a secret little outdoor onsen in the mountains.

Sew 6 new garments. My new sewing hobby has me obsessed. I’d like to learn more skills this year, and make a fitted and lined dress, pants, and a jacket or blazer. I vow to not be afraid to cut into expensive fabrics.

Make a gigantic sashiko art piece. A last-minute addition. Why not?!

Publish something. An article or an encyclopedia (dream big!), it doesn’t matter.

2013? Let’s do this.

Out With the Old: 2012′s To-Dos

明けましておめでとうございます。今年もよろしくお願いします。

Happy New Year, my friends.

I am easing into 2013. My season of travels abroad, visits with friends and family, handmade gifts and home cooked meals is coming to a close, and I am settling in. 2013 promises many challenges and I am gathering the strength to face them.

Last year at this time I made a to-do list. I dislike resolutions, but to-do lists I can handle. Looking back, I feel good about the things I checked off the list. It turns out I cook a lot less than I thought I did but sew quite a bit more. I feel OK with a trade-off like that. Here is my list and how I fared:

Cook 12 new recipes, one per month. Not even close. Though, I probably ate 12 new foods, like natto, coffee jelly, and tom yum. I can’t believe I waited so long for tom yum. What was I thinking?

food

Read 5 books. I remember thinking this was on the low side, that of course I would read more than 5 books in a year. I read 6.

books

Swamplandia! by Karen Russell, Super Sad True Love Story by Gary Shteyngart, Ghostwritten by David Mitchell, The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Diaz, The Pilgrim Hawk: A Love Story by Glenway Wescott, The Middlesteins by Jami Attenberg

Visit 6 new places. Cities or countries, it doesn’t matter. And walk around these places without a map. 

travels

  1. Shiga kogen, Nagano, Japan
  2. Hijiori Onsen, Yamagata, Japan
  3. Kuala Lumpur & Malacca, Malaysia
  4. Singapore
  5. Sado Island, Japan
  6. Okinawa, Japan

Make a quilt for myself, for fun. I did, and it was fun. I also spent a lot of time learning to sew clothing. I made 6 new garments and 4 neckties.

sewing

Have a conversation with a stranger in Japanese. This really reminds me of how little I could, or would, say before I started my Japanese classes. I was a big chicken. Now I am often faced with having to speak Japanese with strangers, and I’m a little less of a chicken.

2012, I think you did alright by me. I visited lovely new places, I ate a lot and spent quality time with quality people, I learned some things, and even found my face on the Internet (like here and here). Nice work, 2012. Now, can you give 2013 the message?

How did your 2012 to-do lists turn out?

Sado

I spent the weekend on Sado Island off the western coast of Honshu. We went for the yearly taiko festival, Earth Celebration, and I expected to see some drum circles, drink some beer and call it a day. I ended up in balloon pants, and it was awesome.

We took an overnight bus from Tokyo to Naoetsu then boarded a ferry to Ogi, a small town on the southern edge of the island. In total the trip took almost 11 hours. I thought the night bus would drain me of every ounce of energy and leave me ruined for the rest of the trip, but in fact, as soon as I arrived in Sado I felt refreshed. The air was clear and people were relaxed — it was the best parts of Japan in vacation mode.

I tagged along on a ride to Skyline Drive and stuck my head out the car window like a golden retriever. To my left was a rocky coastline, to the right, rice fields. The island is mountainous and dramatic, but the water is calm and clear.

We parked along the road and picked our way through rice fields, then the trees, and finally out to a secret swimming cove. The water was an incredible blue-green color, with alternating currents of chilling cold water, then bath-like hot. We jumped from the rocks, and I got a sufficient amount of salt water up my nose.

Sado’s scenery is amazing, but the reason we went was for the taiko. Every year Sado hosts Earth Celebration where Kodo, Japan’s most respected taiko group, presents concerts, workshops, and festival events. Previous to this weekend I had never seen Kodo perform, and in all honestly, hadn’t been that interested in taiko. But as soon as Kodo took the stage I was entranced. Kodo’s style is strong and captivating and musical. And the drums are really big. You not only hear the music, you feel it.

Just before dusk everyone climbs the steep hill to Shiroyama Park and spreads their small tarps on the lawn. The stage was backlit with lightning from the mainland and the sound from the せみ, or cicadas, competed with Kodo for center stage.

After the first concert I went from being an observer to wanting to embrace the experience. I bought baggy pants at the outdoor market near the harbor. I danced samba and cheered on capoeira on the fringe stage. I learned a festival street dance. I ate kakigori and drank Japanese craft beer regardless of the time of day. I went on a kayaking excursion and engaged in a water war with the teenagers in our group. In return, I was soaked from head to toe and had to wrap myself in my sarong which was meant to be my concert blanket.

I’m not sure if it is the festival atmosphere of Earth Celebration, or if people on Sado are just Japanese-nice to an extreme, but everyone I met was genuine and kind and excited that I was there. Their attitudes were contagious and refreshing. After misplacing my swimming suit after that fated kayaking trip, the volunteer at the info office told me, “Don’t worry, we’ll find it. Now go have fun!” OK, if you insist! I did as I was told and a few hours later retrieved my damp suit from her desk, tied up in a small bag. She said, “It’s a little bit disgusting,” but she said it with a smile.

I was sad to leave and am already plotting my return.

I’ll see you again, Sado.

Kodo photos were taken by my friend James Gunsalus. Thanks Jim!

Snowy Yamagata

Lately I’ve been touting the blessings of spring, but deep down, my heart belongs to winter.

A few weeks ago Dan and I took a weekend trip to Hijiori Onsen, a tiny town in the mountains in northwest Japan. We took the Shinkansen to the last stop, then a bus for an hour, and we found snow. A lot of it. 

The morning greeted us with fresh snowfall, so we took stroll through town. It was quiet except for the sound of the river.

I was happy to spend the afternoon at our ryokan, tucked under the kotatsu. Through the window I watched the snow fall and tried to study Japanese, alternating sips of beer and green tea. When I needed a break from kanji, I stitched. Occasionally we raced to the window to glimpse a pair of hawks fishing in the river outside.

Hijiori Onsen is a hot spring resort town, and our ryokan had 3 different baths. Our first afternoon, I had this one to myself. The next morning I sat in a copper tub with the windows open and let snowflakes flutter in.

We stayed two nights, and both dinners were absolute feasts. Regional specialties included beef yakiniku, duck nabe (soup), mountain vegetables, and really good rice. We cooked our beef and duck nabe over a table with coals set inside. On Friday night, dinner ended with a dance. More photos of our two days of kaiseki can be found here on Flickr.

The owners at Yuyado-Motokawarayu ryokan were extremely welcoming. If you get a chance, stop by and say hello.

〒996-0301
山形県最上郡大蔵村南山454-1
TEL:0233-76-2259

Edo Wonderland

I feel a little bit like this today:

I’m not sure if it’s an allergy to the Japanese cedar tree or just a nasty cold, but my dizzy little rear end has been glued to the couch for the past 24 hours. I even missed Japanese class today, which means that though I missed just one day, when I return I’ll be a week behind. They move in warp speed.

But it’s the perfect opportunity to tell you about my trip to Nikko Edomura. Last week my school shuttled everyone up to visit Edo Wonderland, a 1600-1860s era “cultural theme park.”

As is the case for all school trips, the day’s highlight was the least educational component: the Ninja House.

Sorry this photo is fuzzy — there was a lot of balance concentration going on.

Inside, you must shriek with delight. It can’t be helped. Built on the slant of a hill, the interior is all wonky and crooked. It messed with my head so much, I thought the floor was moving.

But it wasn’t all fun and games. I visited the wax museum, where there was a whole lot of this:

And some of this:

And to round out the day, a dancing water show. I have no idea what was happening. It was a rainy day and I was sitting on a tatami mat, so all I could concentrate on were the smell of people’s feet.

The most amusing part about this trip for me was that just 30 minutes away, in the town of Nikko, sit some amazing UNESCO World Heritage sites, Tōshō-gū shrine among them. As in, real Edo-era buildings. (You can read about my first visit to them here.) Yet, our teachers didn’t mention these once. Maybe UNESCO should add a Ninja House.

If you are looking to visit Edo Wonderland, a good video showing what you’re in for can be found here.

Snow Lando

Last weekend I took a break from studying and stitching to find snow.

I found it and then I crunched it under my boots. I rolled around in it. The feeling of snow inside my gloves is like an instant time-machine: back to the yard of my youth, to snow forts and sofas and dishes made of ice, to knocking icicles off the gutter alongside the garage even though I was told they’d stab my eye out, and to the ice rink my dad made that left behind dead grass the following spring and summer. (It was worth it.)

Something about a crisp winter day rejuvenates me. I look good in rosy cheeks.

We spent the weekend in the Southern Alps in Nagano prefecture. I pretend to snowboard, but really I end the weekend with bruised knees and a few good runs under my belt and call it a success. A day of snow sports in Japan always ends visit to an onsen, but you don’t want to see those photos.

Kyoto is for Eaters, Again

As Dan reported, our recent trip to Kyoto was livelier than expected. While wriggling fish haunt his dreams, all I can think about is this:

Parfait perfection.

Maybe we need to look at that again…

This was lunch. I’m not ashamed. I also wasn’t alone — this is what my father-in-law ordered:

We’re like two peas in a pod sweet beans in a parfait.

But let’s back up. After we arrived at Kyoto station, Dan and I used our keen instincts — we found the only restaurant with a line and stood in it — to track down some seasonal soba.

Clockwise from the top left — pickles, tempura mushrooms and green peppers, warabi (a soybean-powder-covered mochi dessert), soba noodle soup with mushrooms, tempura dipping sauce, yuba (tofu skin, a Kyoto specialty), mushroom rice (kinoko takikomi gohan), and more pickles (another Kyoto specialty).

Nishin soba, another Kyoto specialty.

After lunch we went for a hike. At the peak there was a restaurant serving beer and ice cream, of course. What do you think this shop owner’s commute is like?

When you climb a mountain and meet a guy wanting to sell you ice cream, you can’t refuse. This one was kinako.

Our weekend wasn’t all about food, I swear. We did some sightsighing, and a little more sightseeing. And then after an especially rainy afternoon, we found a charming little omurice restaurant. Maybe not the haute Kyoto cuisine my in-laws were expecting, but it was perfectly placed comfort food for a chilly evening.

And, to round out the weekend (and our waistlines), we ended with a trip to Kyoto Ramen Street.

With a belly full of noodles and a cold beer in-hand, we hopped on the shinkansen for a sleepy trip back to Tokyo. Ah, how I love Japan in the fall.