Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Linda & Rip Take on Japan! Day 6: Kyoto, Shin-Yokohama, Tokyo

Last day in Kyoto, whah!  We got up, packed up and left the machiya after a light breakfast.  We took a cab to Kyoto Station, where we locked up our suitcases so we could go explore unencumbered.  I took extra care to note where the bags were.  I'm so glad because when coming back that afternoon,  I realized how huge that station is!

We took the train to the Arashiyama District, on the Western Edge of the City.  After walking from the train station, we entered the bamboo forest.  The breeze through bamboo is one of the most soothing sounds.  Not a wind rattling the trunks, but a breeze through the leaves sounds like the most gentle, feathery exhale.  
We <3 bamboo!
We walked through the bamboo grove and went to the Okochi Sanso Villa.  He was a famous early Japanese movie star.  He was committed to Zen principles and traditional gardening and the grounds of the villa are completely spectacular.  It was the most expensive entry of the sites we visited in Kyoto (Y1000/each), but completely worth it.  I had never been before and I'm so glad we went.  This was another Rip request since he had researched some gardens beforehand.
Gorgeous view from the small tea pavilion (SMS)
After we strolled the Villa grounds, we went to my favorite washi paper shop where I might have spent a bit too long in, per SMS.  Then we headed over to another favorite temple (ok, ok, I have three favorite temples in Kyoto), Gio-ji.  Although it's very small, the central moss garden with the trees and small brook is one of the most serenity-evoking places I've ever been. The moss was beautiful and vibrant.  I could have stayed there for at least an hour.

Gorgeous Gio-ji

I love this place!
But, it was time to move on.  We had important things to do like get to the Raumen Museum in Shin-Yokohama!  Sagoy!  This was a must-do for SMS.  So, we picked up our bags from the station lockers, hopped on the Shin and went to get some ramen for dinner.  No pictures from the Raumen Museum, but we had a great time and ate delicious noodles, including the vegetarian broth from the temporary German-themed shop.

After dinner, we headed to the New Sanno.  We arrived and were ready to crash but alas!  I had pulled a dumb bunny move and made the reservations for the 14-16th, not the 15-17th.  I couldn't believe I made such a rookie trip planning move.  Fortunately, the New Sanno saved the day and got us rooms for the night.  The next morning, they were even able to extend our rooms for one more night so it was almost like things went according to plan.  Almost.

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Takuma Restaurant, Kyoto

Two nights before our amazing dinner, while wandering the Gion District along the banks of the Shirakawa River, SMS spotted the scene below across the water...

The restaurant looked awesome and instantly, we all knew we wanted to eat there.  We found the front entrance and tried to get in but it is reservation-only.  Saddened but not defeated, we trudged away to the lamb shop to plot our next step.  Ok, ok, that sounds much more nefarious than it was.  I had grabbed a business card at the restaurant, which was exclusively in Kanji.  I emailed it to the caretaker of our Machiya and asked him to make a reservation.  Voila!  We were in!

The restaurant was Takuna, a restaurant specializing in an amazing sushi and vegetable heavy meal presented in multiple courses.  The chef:diner ratio was about 1:1.  There were a few chefs who spoke passable English and their information greatly enhanced our experience.

The happy dining crew, before we've even started to feast!

The chefs took our picture before we even started our meal, which was nice since they were busy prepping!  The menus in front of us had the Kanji to an old Kyoto drinking song on it.  Although she's not in the picture, the woman to Rip's right was a lovely Japanese woman out celebrating with her husband.  They were first-time grandparents and they were out celebrating even though on a day-to-day basis, the woman explained, "We go like this! *makes repetitive fist bumping gestures* Always fighting!"  She was really great in describing some of the courses that were a little harder to figure out.  It also made the dining experience a little more communal in feeling.

Linda took pictures of all the courses while I took furious notes.
1. Plate of assorted bite-size treats: roasted ginan (gingko nuts), tofu, a gelatin mixed greens cube, pickled onions and the world's most perfect potato chip
2. Amazingly delicious sashimi with Shoyu foam.  It was awesome!  Soy sauce foam, so light on the fish.  Delectable!
3. Broth-based soup with mushrooms and white fish.  It was in a larger, almost tea-pot like container and the broth was poured out into a tiny cup
4. Sawara (Spanish Mackerel) with daikon
5. Steamed vegetables
6. Tempura- lotus, pepper, fish
7. Sushi with a vinegar sauce that shredded ginger was stirred into (Demonstrated by Rip's dining partner)
8.Tofu wrapped unagi in a miso-broth soup
9. Iribancha (smoked tea), rice, dark miso soup and pickles
10. Dessert plate: Apple slice, Persimmon slice, squash ice cream (YUM! For real), cake and kochi
[Two women next to me ordered the other set and seemed to have more sashimi, a small fish speared on a small wooden skewer and cooked whole, and a shabu-shabu course]

At the end of the meal we saw the sagi, or lonely bird sitting outside the window.  It was hard to tell if it was hungrily looking in or down at the water.  Probably in.

Reading the list above, some of the descriptions are very basic but the dishes were spectacular.  The vegetables were delicious and able to stand on their own as courses.  The fish was perfectly cooked.  The sawara was cooked on little skewers on a charcoal grill right in front of us, impeccably timed to correspond with our being ready for the next course.  Yum, yum!

There were two set courses to choose from and we chose the less expensive option.  It wasn't inexpensive, just less expensive but we thought it was worth every penny.  Not only was the food exquisite, but the two hour production that we got to watch as we ate the results was really incredible to observe.

Linda & Rip Take On Japan! Day 5: Kyoto, cont...

Tom Sawyer in Japan!
We woke up to clearing skies after the heavy rain from the night before.  We were pretty excited to see more of beautiful Kyoto!  I walked down the street past the onsen. I discovered Boulangerie Tom Sawyer, a cute little bakery with delicious pastries.  I guess the name makes a little sense when I think that Mark Twain liked Paris but it was a funny name for a bakery deep inside one of Kyoto's old neighborhoods.  I bought pastries for the group and then headed into FamilyMart, our local coffee shop on this trip.  There I ran into someone who looked vaguely familiar…oh, it's Rip!  We walked back to the house and partook in a delicious breakfast.
By the Silver Temple (SMS)

What industrious gardeners! (SMS)
We took a cab over to Ginkakuji, the Silver Temple.  The temple, wood not silver, sits by a small pond next to a raked gravel garden of Mt. Fuji and ocean waves.  The grounds of the Silver Temple are some of the best in Kyoto.  We climbed the stone stairs (more stairs!) through the gardens of trees and shrubs with their roots bathed in a gorgeous, heterogeneous moss blanket.  The moss was vibrant and stunning after all the rain. It's amazing how meticulously cared for the gardens are.  Ginkakuji and Ryoan-ji are my co-favorite temples in Kyoto.
Touching the love stone at Kizumizu.  I have SMS- I win!!!! (SMS)

Drinking the fresh water- to health! (SMS' Dad)
Next, we went to Kiyomizu Dera.  The cab let us off at the base of Kiyomizu-michi, a shopping street leading up to the temple.  We looked in a few shops along the way.  Linda and Rip ended up buying a gorgeous pottery bowl, while I bought a few decorations from the Kyoto Chirimen Craft Museum.  It's actually a shop specializing in chirimen crafts, made of a specially-weaved fabric that creates a lot of texture.  I bought a Fall and Christmas decoration that I'm pretty excited about.  It takes me one step closer towards my ultimate dream of seasonal decorating to the point where I have turkey-shaped salad plates from Williams-Sonoma!  (I realize this is a weirdly specific goal.  To make it more universal, just picture wanting to chant around a bonfire, "Mar-THA, Mar-THA!")

Kiyomizu itself was ok.  There was a lot of construction so it wasn't as harmonious as when I visited it in 2008.  I'm sure it will look gorgeous in a few weeks when they open the veranda at night with floodlights illuminating the foliage below but for a standard itinerary, I would rank other places above it.  One highlight was that I did walk the 10m between the two love rocks.  SMS was my trusty guide!
My new favorite market! (SMS)
Then, we were off to Nishiki Market.  I hadn't heard of it until yesterday night when we were watching Ep. 8 of The Mind of a Chef.  In the episode, David Chang shops in the market as part of the trip to his Kyoto, a culinary inspiration.  Rip saw it and said, "I want to go there."  Done!  We tried to time it with lunch and walking among the vendors definitely whet our appetites.  It was really cool and a very serendipitous discovery.

In the Tunnel of Torii (SMS)

The handsome photographer in front of the lens!
After lunch, we headed to the JR station to head out to Fushimi Inari, a shrine consisting of thousands of orange torii gates along a hilly walking path.  I had never been but always wanted to go- this was the second new-to-me site in one day!  We arrived and walked up to the temple on its impressively large stone staircase.  Then we hiked for a bit up the hill, marveling at the sheer number and subsequent beauty of the orange torii.  Occasionally, an older stone torii would be interjected in the riot of orange.  After our mini-hike, we took the train back to Kyoto and headed to the house.  There we got ready for the most incredible dinner at Takuma, a restaurant SMS had spotted the night before.  It was so amazing, it deserves its own post!

Monday, October 13, 2014

Linda & Rip Take On Japan, Day 4: Kyoto (cont...)

Maple Leaves and reflection at the Ryoan-ji Lake.
Our first full day in Kyoto coincided with the arrival of rain from the remnants of typhoon Vongfong. Fortunately, the rain held off until early afternoon and we made the most of our morning.  It was another early start and this time, we were powered by Japanese pastries- soy-dusted donuts, sweet potato donuts, etc.  I switched up the itinerary a bit and instead of going to Nijo Castle first, we decided to go to some temples and gardens since it wasn't raining.  It had rained overnight so I thought the gardens would be especially verdant.
Looking good, feeling Zen! (SMS)

Rip and I, walking around Ryoan-ji (SMS)
 First, we went to Ryoan-ji.  This is one of my favorite temples in Kyoto.  The main feature of the temple is the Philosopher's Garden, a rock garden consisting of 15 rocks in a gravel bed.  The existential crisis that this garden provokes is that, no matter where you sit, you can only see 14 of the rocks at any given time.  Although the temple is cool, I think the surrounding gardens are the highlight of the site.  The grounds are absolutely beautiful and meticulously groomed gardens and a gorgeous lake.  In the Spring, there are gorgeous, overhanging wisteria trellises.

Yay, family portrait! (SMS)
After strolling through the gardens, we went to the nearby Kinkaku-ji.  Here, the main attraction is definitely the gorgeous, gold-leaf covered temple.  It's a beautiful building and quite striking against the vivid green of the landscape.  The lake is also its own rock garden with views designed to inspire contemplation.
Amazing coffee stop, right by Kinkaku-ji. (SMS)

Nijo Castle (SMS)
After the two temples, we headed over to Nijo Castle as we could tell our luck with the rain holding off was about to run out.  There, we walked through the outer Ninomaru Palace with the famous nightingale floors.  The uguisu-bari corridors are designed so that the floorboards rub against spikes underneath that create a nightingale bird sound to warn of intruders.  It seems to be especially squeaky if a person is trying to be quiet!  We also saw the room where the shogun period ended with the signing of power back to the emperor.
Nijo Castle entrance bridge. (SMS)

We had our umbrellas with us so we walked around the palace grounds and over to the staircase that let us scale the large guard wall.  Then it was time for lunch!  We went to the Iyemon Salon restaurant, where I had been during my parents' visit.  They had excellent lunch sets.  SMS was the winner with the mackerel set.  I had a tasty curry and Linda and Rip had the beef stew.

Afterwards, we headed back to the Machiya to hang out and relax.  The rain was coming down pretty hard and we only ventured out for dinner.  We went to a nearby izakaya where SMS showed off his mastery of navigating a menu written only in Japanese.  He did great, we all ate and everyone was very happy!
All pictures in this post by SMS!

Sunday, October 12, 2014

Linda & Rip Take On Japan! Day 3: Kyoto

The next day, we went to brunch at the Officer's Club on base.  There we met up with one of the general surgeons and her parents.  She was actually roommates with SMS' sister in medical school so she and the Schlockers go way back.  It was serendipitous that the parents could meet up again and everyone could catch up.

Unfortunately, this was the morning I figured out that I had no idea where my id card was.  After lots of searching in multiple places over the last few days, the best idea I can come up with was that I had it in my pocket at Narita and in the midst of running (literally) like a madwoman (figuratively), the card inched its way out of my pocket.  *Sad trombone!*
Our Machiya! (SMS)
After brunch, we got a ride to Yokosuka-chuo, went to Shin-Yokohama via Yokohama and headed down to Kyoto on the Shinkansen.  It was a smooth ride and the whole trip takes about 3:15 from base all the way to Kyoto main station.  We took the bus to the upper Northwest in the Nishijin district where we had booked a Machiya, or traditional Japanese house.  It was very cool.  Tsutaya-san showed us the house and some of the workings (lights, hot water, etc).  The stairs were very steep but we all navigated them like champs.  There was a sitting area, enclosed small garden with a porch that led to the bathroom, a kitchen, dining room table and two upstairs bedrooms.  One had some room while the other just barely fit two futons.  We loved it and I would highly recommend it unless someone had balance issues.  I also would not rent it in Winter because I think it would be terribly cold and potentially uncomfortable.

That night, we went to the Gion district and walked around.  We ate at a little restaurant we came across that only served New Zealand lamb dishes.  We had a lovely meal in the cute, small dining room and spoke with a customer who taught physiology at UCSB from 1979-1981.

We walked around a few more allies, bought some ice cream and then hopped back on the bus to the Machiya.  We all crashed almost as soon as we got there.  Another successful, full day!

Saturday, October 11, 2014

Linda & Rip Take On Japan, Day 2: Kamakura

On Saturday, I woke up around 7:30 to find that everyone was already up, even SMS!  His clock reset after a recent rock-climbing trip so he got up with the sun which is definitely not his usual M.O.  We had coffee and a Spanish-style omelet before heading out to Kamakura for our first full vacation day.

Kamakura is awesome.  It is a town with a long, complex history that includes being a seat of power in Japan during the Kamakura period, c1200-1333.  There are many temples throughout but for the casual tourist, there's definitely a set path to see the highlights.  The reason I mention this is one time I followed a guidebook in Kita-Kamakura to see the important Shinto shrines and…well, it wasn't that big of a highlight to me.
Making noodles! (SMS)
We took the JR line to Kamakura Station and took the East Exit.  To the left of the station is the beginning of a cool, pedestrian-only shopping street, Komachi Dori.  There are several awesome shops and restaurants along this route, including my favorite Washi paper store, several gorgeous textile stores featuring the seasonal tengui cloths, and SMS' favorite soba shop Nakamura-an.  At the washi paper store, I bought a 2015 letterpress calendar and a book on making Japanese dolls from washi paper.  New projects, coming up!  We were going to stop by the soba shop for lunch but it was a little too close to breakfast for three people in our group (SMS was ready to go!) so we went to Tsurugaoka Hachimangu shrine first.
Family Portrait in front of the sake barrels. (SMS)
The shrine was built by the first Kamakura shogun Yoritomo Minamoto.  The grounds are huge and overlooks the main street which is lined with sakura trees almost to the beach.  It's very picturesque and impressive and we toured the shrine and grounds.  From the temple, we walked down the main street Wakamiya Oji before cutting in back in to reach Komachi Dori.  Before we did that though, we meandered through a few back alleys that were super cute with some very popular restaurants (aka, lines out the door).  As a note to my future self, the entrance to the alleyway is on the left just past the croquette stand.
The lovely bride and groom at a wedding! (SMS)
Then, it was time for lunch!  We went to Nakamura-en and ordered up the soba.  The noodles are freshly-made.  While waiting in line, people watch the noodle chef go through his intricate process of rolling, folding and cutting the dough.  It's pretty amazing and I really wish I ate a lot of pasta because I would love to buy a noodle knife!
The classic Kamakura picture! (SMS)
The soba was delicious and Linda and Rip navigated the chopsticks like champions.  Once we were fortified, we took the Enoden Electric Line to Hase and went to the Daibutsu, or Great Buddha.  It's a huge bronze Buddha dating back to 1263.  A temple had previously been on the grounds but had been washed away by a tsunami in 1305.  The statue is incredibly impressive and the day was so beautiful that it was really a perfect sight.
I'm hiding in the bamboo!  Can you see me?

Next, we took a coffee (me) and gelato (everyone) break.  It was the perfect pick-me-up!  After we felt revived, we went to the Hase Kannon temple where we climbed the stairs to the 9m high Goddess of Mercy statue.  I don't think her mercy extends towards sparing travelers from stairs in Japan- they're everywhere!  We also saw the area with hundreds of Jizo statues, in addition to the Benten-Kutsu, a cave with Benten and her fellow goddesses.   Benten is the goddess of feminine beauty and wealth.  Hmmmm, maybe that will be my next internet pseudonym!

After that, we headed back to Yokosuka.  I thought we were going to rest at home for a bit, but Linda and Rip were holding strong.  We went to the Mercure hotel where there's a great happy hour from 1730-1830 on the 19th floor restaurant.  Everything on their happy hours menu is Y300 and that includes wine, beer, sparkling wine, basic mixed drinks and several tapas.  Sagoy!

After drinks, we headed to Hananoya, a favorite Yokosuka restaurant for SMS and I.  It is an incredibly delicious French restaurant.  Linda and I had green salads, which were tasty and although we waited awhile for our main course, it was worth it!  Linda and I had amazing lamb chops, SMS had Beef Bourgnone and Rip had duck.  All of the dishes were amazing and what really set the dishes apart were the incredible reductions that were served to accompany the meat.  Delicious!

After that dinner, we were ready for bed!  We took a cab back to the house and crashed.  We had to rest up because the next day, we were on the move!

All photos in this post by SMS!

Friday, October 10, 2014

Linda & Rip Take on Japan! Day 1: Arrival & Yokosuka

So happy!  (SMS Photo)
SMS and I continue to have action-packed lives because this past week, we've been enjoying the company of his parents here in Japan!  We were so excited that they were coming to visit and the entire trip was amazing.  I'm going to space out my recaps since we did a lot.

Rip and Linda arrived on Friday afternoon.  SMS had a model audition so I drove to Narita Airport to pick them up.  Every bus trip I've taken has taken between 1 3/4- 2 hours.  This time, it took me a little over 3 due to a terrible traffic accident where a little Japanese zoom-zoom car decided to make out with the median barrier.  That did not go so well for the car, since the front hood was crumpled all the way into the front seats.  The wall appeared relatively unscathed.

In addition, my best friend Siri (not!), took me on a 15 minute detour because despite the presence of a map app, she has a terrible sense of direction and she can't read Kanji.  So, yeah, borderline worthless.

Anyway, I whine about all this to tell you why I was 45 minutes late picking up Linda and Rip, which was really 75 minutes late since they arrived early.  Gah!  Fortunately, they were the picture of equinimity (I was, to put it mildly, not) when I found them in Terminal 1.  This was especially impressive after their long flight.  We went downstairs to the JR ticket office to exchange their JR vouchers for actual passes.  As a FYI, you can exchange the vouchers at the airport but pick a different day to have the passes actually activate.

We piled in the car, people and luggage to head back to Yokosuka.  SMS met us there after his model audition which sounds like it went well although no final word has come back yet.  It's pretty funny that my Southern California husband might be adding actor/model on his resume thanks to Japan, rather than LA!  We went out to Hamakura for dinner and had sushi, tofu (me), tuna bowl (SMS) and salad for the table.  It was delicious and we pushed Linda and Rip to their jet lag limits.  We got home and everyone slept through the night.  Hooray for avoiding the 3-5 a.m. wide-awake thanks to jet lag!