Thursday, June 30, 2011

To Nasu with the Iinumas

Today I utilized my last day of my JR Pass to reserve a seat on the Narita Express Shinkansen. This bullet train is so super fast and you wouldn't know it bc the ride is so smooth. To give you an idea, the ride to Kyoto the other day took a little over 2 hrs on the regular Shinkansen - not even the fastest option. By car, that distance takes 8 hrs. Yeah. That's fast. Seriously fast. Take that, Amtrak!

I had onigiri for brekkie :) I love that I can eat rice for breakfast here!

The Iinumas' flight was delayed 1.5 hrs bc there were turtles on the runway!

I met them at the arrival gate at Narita and though I thought the kids would be tired from the long ride from NY, they were boisterous as always :)

We drove up to Nasu and passed fallow land on farms that we speculate will not be able to harvest or sell their crops this season due to the radiation in the soil. Though the water supplies have been tested and declared safe, the radiation falling from the rain is still harming vegetation and the animals dependent on it, such as livestock. I've been told that cattle farms are keeping their cows off the grass and feeding them imported hay.

After a few short stops, we arrived at Kaz's parents house in Nasu. They are so generously opening up their homes to us as our host family in both here and Sendai, where they also have a summer home.

Here is the beautiful view from my room's window. Going to sleep to the ribbetting of froggies and waking up to the chirping of morning birdies has been really wonderful.

After we settled in, we had a really healthy and refreshing somen dinner. I added it to my 'must make' list ... :) And cherries - my fav! - for dessert!

Kaz's mom makes fresh bread every night!! She is a wizard in the kitchen!

And Kaz's dad makes real green tea every night as well! He's also so handy and such a great craftsman. He's made so many things in his toolshed for practical needs around the house, like a breadbox for slicing bread - I wish I could stay longer and learn from them both!

Good night, from Nasu!

Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Culture Day!

We started the day with tsukiji Part II. We tried to go to a different sushi place but the line was too long.

But good fresh sushi is great no matter what!

After our sushi breakfast I hopped on the JR and headed to the Edo-Japan Museum. I was fortunate enough to catch an English guided tour with just one other Australian visitor - so it was like a private 2.5 hr tour :)

Since nothing from the Edo period exists today, this museum was full of exquisite models of their city, livelihood, and lifestyle. Each of the figurines below were about 3 cm tall and every single one was unique! Amazing! The artists worked very closely with the historians to depict an accurate illustration of Edo street life.

There were 4 distinct social classes (Samurai, peasants, craftsmen, merchants) ruled by shoguns, and life was peaceful and people enjoyed leisurely life. One fun thing I learned was that since the homes were mainly made of wood, fire was a frequent battle and firemen were really admired for their courage and strength. Their coats were white on the outside with elaborate embroidery of dragons and tigers on the inside. Once the fire was put out, they flipped their coats inside out and paraded the streets while being showered with cheers :)

Living quarters of the working class was simple but very efficient. Even during the Edo period, sewer systems and water canals were well planned throughout the city. All children were provided with standard education and with hard work, anyone could move up through social classes.

I wasn't able to watch a live kabuki show, but here was a great model. The tour guide took us into their 'backstage' area and we were even able to see and play the kabuki instruments.

Here is a picture with my tour guide, who turned out to be an alum of Bryn Mawr College's Japanese sister school, Tsuda College. Interestingly, during the industrial revolution, Japan sent 4 women ages 7-14 to the U.S.A. to study abroad. One of those women studied at BMC and came back to model Tsuda College after BMC. We still have very strong ties with Tsuda today!

Since I won't have a chance to attend a sumo match during my visit, I decided to check out the museum instead ...

And watch it on their TV haha. These guys may look fat, but they are pure diesel!

I headed to Asakusa and had a yoshoku (western Japanese food) lunch with Tomoko.

Markie - I had to try the curry to make sure it wasn't as good as yours!

Tomoko had the Napoleon Spaghetti and taught me how to make it as well :)

After lunch, we snapped some photos at the Kaminarimon Gate (biggest lantern of all time!) on the way to Senso-Ji temple. Again, I was disappointed that there was no explanation of what was written on the lantern or what it symbolized... Sad!

Then we took the ferry cruise over to Oedo...

... to relax at the onsen (hot springs)!

You get kicked out if you have tattoos! (Sorry, Kimch! No dice.)

We were having so much fun, we totally lost track of time and so we rushed to have a yakitori (chicken skewer) dinner with Ryuzo, Ski, and Miki! And I tried raw chicken!! Add it to my crazy eats list!

We were all so tired we forgot to take a group picture :( but R&T, hopefully I'll see you in NY in the fall! :) thanks for a wonderful visit, everyone!

Why Things in Japan Makes Sense

There are some things in Japan that I hope become globally adopted one day.

1. Baby seats inside bathroom stalls.

This is genius.

2. Shelves above the chaos of dining patrons to safely stow bags and belongings.

3. Markers on the platform that indicate where subway doors should and will and actually do open. Note: The latter is the most important.

4. Water faucets at the dining table at restaurants. C'mon, that's awesome.

5. Walking path for the blind - e.v.e.r.y. where.

6. Airport employees that wave to you when your plane pulls away from the terminal. It makes you seriously want to come back!

7. English, Korean, and Chinese translations on every sign, street/location marker, public notice, and most importantly - warning sign, throughout the city. Great.

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Day of Rest

Today I hung out with Sakura and went to Shibuya to buy a new SD card.

For dinner, Miki and Ski took me to a really yummy ramen place in Akasaka. Where I had a new type of ramen from the southern Japan region that I've never had before. The broth was thick and salty and the pork was so tender! Mark - Ski claims this ramen is better than the place with the library dividers!

Ready to eat!

Yummy! The egg is to die for. Hard boiled, slightly marinaded, with a soft and slightly runny yolk inside... I think I could eat a carton of just the eggs alone... This ramen also had a dollop of spicy seasoned roe (pink thing below). Was so good in the ramen!

All gone!! (Ok fine - Thats not my bowl, it's ski's. But I got close!)

Smile, Ski!

Ok... I just wanted to share that though this country may only have 3 options for cereal, entire aisles of convenience stores are dedicated to ramens of all shapes, sizes, and flavors! Sodium heaven!

In case anyone is curious, probably just my mom, here is where I've been sleeping in Tokyo!

Just a few more days left in Tokyo before I head to Nasu!

Monday, June 27, 2011

Kyoto Excursion

Early in the morning, Miki, Tomoko, and I headed out to Tokyo station to spend the day in Kyoto.

If I hadn't fallen asleep, maybe I could have seen Fuji Mountain.

But I ate this delicious bento box and fell asleep haha.

As soon as we arrived at Kyoto Station,

...we started eating! Shrimp mochi bread! Kyoto is known for their famous shrines, temples, sweets, and food.

Our first stop was to Sanjusangendo (aka "33 spaces bw columns") Temple. The original temple was lost in a fire but was reconstructed in 1266. The temple hall was built in the Wayo style architecture.

The main hall is full of 1001 golden statues who protect the Buddhist deity, Kannon, a national treasure. Each statue was modeled the same but slightly different from one another since they were each made by different artists as part of the renovation project. The big statues represent various gods for rain, wind, harvests, etc. They were so ornate and delicate! I was really amazed that they have been so well maintained over 700 years!

Only thing was that they were really scary looking and mostly angry or threatening... I like Jesus because he's always smiling and often holds fluffy sheep and usually looks like he wants to hug the viewer not kill them. Haha.

After sweating our butts off in the temple hall, we headed to Kawamami in Gion for a kaiseki lunch. Kyoto is known for their fresh vegetables and ingredients and their distinguished haute cuisine. Kaiseki is a tasting menu meal of small intricate dishes made with precise techniques and delicate craftsmanship.

Watching the preparation and presentation of each course was just amazing. This was not just a meal, it was watching edible art being created. The colors, exact balanced portions of ingredients, placement, and even delivery to each patron... Just beautiful. And of course every bite was a fun combination of textures, tastes, and flavors. Just splendid... What a treat!

This region is known of 'hamo' fish during the month of June. Traditionally, you must eat it when it is in season! We had in sushi style, simmered in broths, and even grilled and served with their local giant eggplant (below). Hamo is actually not extremely favorable alone, but it is fluffy and can be used as a base to be seasoned in many different ways.

Another seasonal fish is called 'ayu' and is typically served fried whole to be eaten entirely; head, tail, bones and all!

The beauty in traditional Japanese meals is that you don't feel like a fat overstuffed slob at the end of the meal. It is just right :) so with a fulfilled smile and belly, we headed to Kiyomizu Temple to see the temples built amazingly on a mountain cliff.

I'm not sure what this is really for, but I like my interpretation...

Miki said if any of drew bad fortunes I will need to be commissioned to pray a counter prayer to override it. Haha. Happy to! But we all drew wooden sticks for our fortunes and were all destined for good luck this year!

I wish there were more explanations of what we were seeing and what their belief system was about ... I'm sad to say that I wasn't even sure if it was Shintoism or buddhism.

One very popular shrine was the 'Cupid Shrine'. Many a women, but sadly not a lot of men up there haha.

Afterwards, we stopped by a little mountain bistro for some shaved green tea ice and a nice cold cup of beer. Ahhh! Just what we needed.

Honestly, we just didn't have enough energy or strength in the heat and humidity to make it to Nijo Castle or Kinkakuji Temple (the gold temple). It will just have to wait until next time. So, we walked around the town and popped into little shops here and there to pick up a few souvenirs.

And then headed to dinner! Another tasting menu, but of the fried sorts: kushikatsu. 14 different types of fried yumminess on skewers. Can't go wrong there!


Well earned after a day of splendid fun with the girls :)

Thanks for showing me around and taking me to Kyoto Tomoko and Miki!