Kyoto is for Eaters

Kyoto is so beautiful it almost makes me mad.

But since we’re being totally honest with each other, I’ll admit I was the most excited by this sight:

Black sesame and honey ice cream. With a gingersnap spoon. I shoved it into everyone’s face, insisting they must try the Most Delicious Ice Cream Combo, until I realized that meant less for me. So I sneaked away to lick my cone clean in the dark shadows of a shrine.

We opted for the kaiseki meal in our ryokan, which meant dinner while wearing our pajamas and yukata (cotton robes). While our server delicately described the seasonal components and zen balance of each dish, I was busy taking photos and so I had no idea what I was eating. Vegetable or fish? Who cares! It’s boiled!

It was great, but it made my mouth tired.

Our ryokan also served us breakfast, with amazing little pillow-like cubes of tofu.

I love Japanese breakfasts. I’ll take some rice and grilled fish over an omelet any day.

On our way out of town we stopped for lunch at Katsukura, a tonkatsu (fried pork) restaurant in Kyoto Station.

The sorta-trendy restaurant serves you sesame seeds with a small mortar and pestle, to grind and add sauce to for dipping. I did it wrong. Who knew you could be so uncouth at a fried meat restaurant?

In case anyone is curious we stayed at the lovely, not-too-fancy Ryokan Motonago. The tonkatsu restaurant is located in the JR Kyoto Station, The Cube, 11F (above Isetan).

A Weekend in Pictures

Hello! I’m back, at least physically if not-quite mentally. We spent the weekend with friends in Aichi prefecture, and it was fantastic.  Here’s a look at our weekend and some of the reasons I love summer in Japan.

We started the weekend with a proper lunch, prepared in Nagoya’s hitsumabushi 櫃まぶし style.

The evening found us in yukata 浴衣 at the Nagoya Castle summer night festival.

Mmm, cream puff.

Sunday meant a trip to Gifu for a river swim.

Then a post-swim hike.

Back in Kisogawa, as we waited for the hanabi 花火, the sunset almost outdid the fireworks show.

After some of the best fireworks I`ve seen (according to our friend, the display was 1/6th as big as others), it was off to an onsen. It rained a bit as we sat in an outdoor pool, cooling our faces. That night, curled up on the tatami mat, I never slept so well.

Soba School

While in Nagano Prefecture a few weeks ago, we learned how to make soba noodles from scratch. I’m not going to provide commentary, so you’ll have the same semi-clueless, watch-and-mimic experience as me:

Got it? Now time to eat!  They cooked up our noodles while we headed downstairs to the restaurant.

A satisfying feast.

Food Porn, Nagoya Edition

This past spring Dan and I spent a weekend in Aichi Prefecture with a friend to visit her family. It was one of the best weekends I’ve had in Japan. We visited Inuyama Castle during its springtime festival and watched the candle-covered wood carts creak through town, visited temples and an outdoor onsen, took in cherry blossoms along the river, and spent time with some wonderful people. And we ate a lot of food.

It was my first Shinkansen trip. So awesome. If you listen closely, you can hear Dan clapping and giggling like a 10 year old as the train approaches. OK, back to the food.

Because of the festival, Inuyama’s streets were lined with food carts. We started slowly with curry-filled croquettes, fresh from the fryer.

A shrimp pancake. Because why not.

Grilled miso-dipped mochi. And a feisty raccoon flag. This area of Japan is known for its miso, so the local specialties have a rich flavor, which I loved. I even liked it in the sweets.

Noodles for lunch, with more miso and yep, that’s a raw egg.

For dinner we had grilled eel, which might be my new favorite food.  I try not to think about this when I’m eating it.

On Day 2 we were too busy eating to snap photos, and all I caught was our tea-time snack of grilled mochi in warm red bean…soup? broth? Who knows, but redbeansoupbroth was niiice.

A train trip wouldn’t be complete without a beer for the road. This was a local brew. Our friend’s mother then sent us home with a huge bag of goodies — cake, a pomelo, strawberry-filled mochi, tea, and a ton of snacks. She must be related to my mother-in-law.

Such a lovely weekend.

I Know

I know there must be a connection that can be made between the fragile situation in Japan and these precarious, lantern-covered wooden floats that lumber through the streets, pushed and pulled by a community, urged on by the chants and music from those too small to help.

But what do I know? We ooh, and ahh, and are happy to be at our first matsuri in a new Japan.

Don’t hate me because it’s beautiful.

Dan and I just returned from a 2 week vacation in Indonesia.  I know that no one actually wants to hear about a happy couple honeymooning at the beach, so I’ll spare you the details.

Though, I can’t help but share a few lessons learned —

1. Outdoor bathrooms seem like a good idea, until it is pouring rain and you are suffering from food poisoning because you were an idiot and had local ice in your your beach-side sunset cocktail.

2. When a guidebook says a city is “hard to love,” believe it.  Travel writers are adventurous, capable folks, so when they say Jakarta is a tough place to really like, you probably won’t be able to prove them wrong with 24 magical hours.  Especially when you decide to stay at a hotel where bomb-sniffing dogs check your handbag before you enter the lobby and your taxi-driver gets a pat-down.

3. Don’t sit next to small children when taking a boat across open water. It is not going to end well for them, and thus, you.

All said, it was a great trip and the parts of Indonesia we saw were absolutely beautiful.  We flew into Bali where we spent a few days in Ubud amidst rice paddies, then went north to the mountains where we stayed in Munduk and, after the power went out, watched the most amazing thunderstorm from our hut’s balcony.   We took a boat to the neighboring island of Gili Trawangan where we had the beach to ourselves.  We spent a few nights on the southern coast of Lombok, where we saw amazing coastal scenery and because of a room snafu, had a private swimming pool.  It was an accident, but it was awesome.  There may have been canon balls and underwater handstands.  On our way home we stopped in Jakarta for a night, experienced the great wonder that is Jakarta’s traffic (though a 2 hour taxi ride only cost us $12), and hopped a red-eye back to Tokyo.

In all honestly, I would love to share photos but we took more than I can safely download to my computer without it crashing (1000+).  Though, OK, I did manage to snap a few with my point-and-shoot.  Maybe just one beach photo…

I ain’t foolin — we really had the beach to ourselves, which I guess isn’t such a big deal when you’re on an island and there is so much of it to go around.  This beach in particular is slated for development, so it won’t look like this in another 10 years.

Vacationland, I miss you already.

A Tourist in Familiar Lands

Is there really a difference between being a visitor to a place and being dubbed a tourist?  Perhaps.  I know many people who dislike being pegged as tourists, but in Tokyo I can’t help but look like one all the time.  I sometimes even use it to my advantage. People are happy to help you find your way, the next train, or the best dish at a restaurant.  In Japan especially, a crowd usually forms for a reason, because the site or snack being ogled is worth it.  That being said, when I visit many cities in the US, I try to blend in, go off the beaten track, and look as little like a tourist as possible.  Why I make a distinction, I’m not really sure.

Dan and I spent last week on a whirlwind trip through San Francisco and Washington, DC.  A business trip for him, I was lucky to be footloose and fancy free in two of my favorite cities.

In San Francisco my days were filled with friends and their favorite haunts, and I spent my time eating and drinking in good company.  Not once did I set foot in a museum (gasp!).  During this trip I finally felt like I was getting to know SF like a local.  Well, as much as possible when taking taxis to our swanky hotel on Nob Hill so as to avoid the steep climb…

Then it was off to DC for the second half of the week, where I hit more tourist sites than I did when I actually lived there.  Taking in the Smithsonian Renwick Gallery for the first time (shame on me, that place was great!) was one of the highlights, as was the updated Asia and elephant trails at the Zoo and the Rally to Restore Sanity at the National Mall.

Since for me travel is really about food, I’ll share my week in meals: huevos rancheros (just 30 minutes after we stepped off the plane), delicious puerto rican pollo al horno, scones du jour (ginger, lemon, pear, blackberry), tacos and more tacos, Blue Bottle coffee, visits to Arizmendi bakery, the Ferry Building and Tartine, deep-dish and wood-fired pizzas, egg scramble and grits, Taylor’s pastini salad, some of the best baba ghannouge I’ve ever had, and maybe I shouldn’t admit this, but oh-so-lovely California and Virginia wines were consumed, uh, probably every day.

For those who are counting, I had pie three times (apple 1, pumpkin 2).  If you include pizza, you can up that six.  I also had four scones and one cheese & berry danish.  They aren’t really pie, but they count for their buttery pastry goodness.

So what does it mean to be a tourist, anyway?  Last week I found myself acting more like a tourist in DC, a city I know well and lived in for years, while in San Francisco, where I’ve spent a total of 6 days, I flitted from cafe to bakery to hair salon like I owned the place.  Sure, maybe a visit to Alcatraz would have enriched my experience in San Francisco.  Right, sort of like a visit to DC’s Air & Space Museum on a Saturday afternoon (for those of you not in-the-know, that would be a death sentence.  NASM be crazy full of strollers.  You’ll certainly lose a toe).

So what really helps you get to know a place?  Personally, I think it’s in the tacos and cheese grits.

The Day Korea Broke Me

It’s pretty obvious that we love food.  We’ve been in Tokyo almost 4 months now, and I’m still not sick of Japanese food.  In fact, I crave it.  I will try (almost) anything once, and even if I don’t care for a particular dish or cuisine, I can usually still appreciate its existence.  And so, while on a recent trip to Korea I was excited to see what it had to offer my gullet.  When I asked a friend who recently visited Korea what she thought of the food, she replied, “A whole lot of spicy and raw.”  No problem, I thought.  I like both those things, so I was excited for a Korea Food Adventure.

Our first night in Jeju, we went after an island specialty — grilled black boar.  We were told that the pork came from the restaurant’s neighbor, which I believed, since we ate in a big tent over grills made from barrels.  Never mind that the old guy running the place was flirting with me, he’d never make a story like that up, right?

You see all the fat?  That’s right, we ate it.  They poured beer into that little cup and we used it as a dipping sauce.  And my friend was right, there was also a lot of spicy and raw, in the form of banchan (side dishes, including kimchi).

Our second night we tried another island specialty, hairtail fish stew (after a false start, which included a search for pheasant, a deserted hunting club, and a very scenic cab ride).  The giant clay pot of fish and potatoes was delicious (I think Dan licked that pot clean), though the rest of the spread looked suspiciously similar… spicy and raw.

Night #3 sent us to another outdoor restaurant (that’s island life, I guess) with more grilled meats and more, that’s right, spicy and raw.

Dan is only slightly bothered by the fact that I keep cutting off his head in these photos, in favor of the food:

Then it was off to Seoul, and on our first night I made the ultimate mistake — I picked a restaurant out of my guidebook and we took a taxi across town looking for it, only to discover it was no longer there.  Thankfully a very friendly salaryman took pity on us and led us to one of his favorite places instead.  I was looking forward to trying something different — not all Korean food is cooked at the table, right?  True, boribap was prepared in a location different from my table and was very tasty, though it was still very meaty, and very spi… well, you know.

On my last day in Seoul the weather was looking a little iffy (thanks, Typhoon Kompasu) and I’d had three straight days of museums and markets, so I decided to take a break from all that darn culture and went to N Seoul Tower, a bonafide tourist attraction that promises great views of the city. Well, it wasn’t exactly a clear day:

And that’s when I broke down and ordered the 4 course set lunch at an Italian restaurant in the tower.

It was either that or more spicy and raw, and I just couldn’t do it again.  So I did what I try never to do when on vacation — eat at tourist spots, eat cuisine that isn’t local, and eat gigantic expensive set meals by myself.

Damn you, spicy and raw.

So OK, we did have one awesome night of non-spicy and non-raw foods, a meal eaten entirely at street carts.  I feel like I wouldn’t do Seoul food (heh) justice if I didn’t show you these:

Clockwise, that’s a pronto pup with french fries fried directly into the batter, a doughnut cart, my doughnut of choice filled with black sesame and brown sugar, bindaetteok (mung bean pancake), and the night market where said pancake was consumed.

Typhoons and Waterfalls

We’re back!  Dan and I had a great week in South Korea, despite Typhoon Kompasu and all the rain (we’re talking rain every day — I guess it’s goodbye rainy season and hello typhoon season).  Though I hardly thought about crafts while we were away, and am now overwhelmed by the hundreds of kanji flashcards waiting for review, I thought I’d share a few photos.

Our first stop was Jeju Island for a mini beach vacation.

The daily rain showers produced some pretty sweet waterfalls.  Eongtto only shows its face about 50 days a year — lucky us!

Jeongbang falls directly into the sea, and makes the whole area cool and misty.

While walking along Jungmun Beach near our hotel, we discovered yet another.  Just a small trickling stream the day before, I think this was my favorite.  No one else was around, and we could get really close.

Jeju Island was full of other wonderful things — delicious wild boar grilled table-side, fresh tangerine juice, beautiful ocean views, a Harry Potter movie on TV… and though it’s always a little sad to leave a vacation behind, I was pretty happy to discover that our return to Tokyo felt like home.

Nikkō

Have no fear, folks — no talk of afterbirth today, just pretty pretty pictures.

A few weeks ago we took our first day trip out of the city to Nikkō.  Tokyo was experiencing its hot, sticky, rainy season and Nikkō was cool and so very pleasant, so we congratulated ourselves on our good timing.

Two hours north of Tokyo by train, Nikkō (日光市, meaning “sunshine”) is home to the World Heritage-listed Tōshō-gū shrine. We were looking for both culture and trees, so it was the perfect destination for us.  We picked up some bentos at the train station, and off we went.

Let us begin with a little history (because it’s fun!): when the first shogun Tokugawa Ieyasu died in 1616, construction began on a shrine and mausoleum to honor him. Ieyasu’s grandson, Tokugawa Iemitsu, declared that it should be the most splendid and impressive shrine ever built, and that the feudal lords, or daimyō, should pay for it (in order to prevent them from acquiring too much money of their own, you see?  Smart grandson!).

Artisans from all over Japan were brought in, and for two years some 15,000 of them worked on the shrine.  I think my guidebook describes it best with, “Almost anything that can be decorated is.” Gaudy or gorgeous, either way, it’s pretty awesome.



We went to Nikkō in search of culture and trees, but what we really found was a crowd.  Tōshō-gū was packed full of tourists and school children, and we spent a lot of time trying to keep either ahead of or behind them.  Despite the awesomeness, it wasn’t long before we decided we’d had enough of Tōshō-gū shrine and went looking for something else.  Tōshō-gū shrine is the big attraction in Nikkō, but we’d heard nearby Taiyūin-byō shrine was worth the visit.

Some more background (and more fun!): Taiyūin-byō shrine was finished in 1653, and is the mausoleum for Tokugawa Iemitsu — that’s right, the grandson.  Iemitsu turned out to be an extremely powerful shogun — he was the one responsible for closing Japan to foreign commerce, isolating it from the rest of the world for almost 200 years.  So he got a pretty impressive shrine as well.

The shrine built for Iemitsu feels like the antithesis of his grandfather’s.  Where Tōshō-gū is flashy, Taiyūin-byō is serene, set back amongst the cedar trees where it blends in with the landscape.


I fell in love with these lanterns.  There must have been hundreds of them scattered throughout both shrines, though the ones at Taiyūin-byō were more eerie, all covered in moss.


Nikko has been considered a holy place for over 1,200 years, when as legend has it, the Buddhist priest Shōdō Shōnin was helped across the river by two snakes who appeared and formed a bridge, then vanished.  The red Shin-kyō bridge marks the spot.

Walking back to the train station along this river was a refreshing end to our day — the water was so cold we could feel a rush of cool air go by as you stood next to it.  The scene was completely lovely, and we stood there for a long time.

For those interested, we took the Tobu line from Asakusa station using the Nikko World Heritage Pass.