Sunday, October 19, 2014

Yokosuka Amazing Race!!

I typed and typed and my fingers fell off!  Just kidding!  But those recaps were pretty long!  I love looking back on the travelogues though so it's totally worth it.
Our team Monster Mash!  Ok, not the best name but it was close to Halloween!

So, the day after Rip and Linda left, SMS and I joined our two friends Liz and Carl to participate in the Yokosuka Amazing Race as the winningest team that ever won.  It started at 9 and we raced around base until 1:15 until the final challenge in which we took part!  Yes!  There were 16 teams divided into two divisions and we won our division.  There were several challenges throughout base and we ran back and forth across base like a bunch of idiots winners.  I thought it would be cheesy but it was actually so much fun and I really liked our team.  We also trash-talked with our friends' team so that was also fun.  They were very grumpy that they were l-o-s-e-r-s!  (As you can see, I'm a really good winner).

So, the final challenge was dressing in a sumo suit, spinning around, doing jumping jacks, tossing a beanbag into a trash can, doing the Macarena and running back to the starting point.  Did you follow that?  No matter, we barely did either but we did really well.  Carl was the anchor man and had to do one more challenge which was to shake pingpong balls out of a box tied to his sumo suit.  There was one ball that was very stubborn but was finally freed. We ran to the winners circle where we were pronounced, "WINNERS!!!!"
Winners!

We won a LOT of prizes, which was unexpected and pretty awesome.  One prize we're really looking forward to redeeming is the tickets to the Japan-New Zealand rugby game.  I think the seats are REALLY good based on the numbers next to the kanji I can't read but I will keep you posted!

This post was brought to you by the word winner.

Also, here's a link to an AFN video about the race.  Someone you know may be interviewed!!!

Not me, but I like her regal air!  Photo by the talented SMS!
After the Amazing Race, SMS and I followed up with a busy Sunday.  No rest for the weary!  First, we went to a surprise birthday party for our friend Don.  It was fun to hang out with a big group of friends and eat cake!  We had to leave on the early side because SMS had a photo shoot.  I was his assistant and held the reflector.  I had a fun time seeing him in action and some of his shots were absolutely gorgeous.  Afterwards, we headed over to Ikego for Jenn's (not-surprise) birthday dinner.  It was an Italian feast at the Hazletts' and we were well-fed and in good company.  It was a really nice weekend- a little busier than I would have intended after a week of traveling Japan but it was…amazing!

Friday, October 17, 2014

Linda & Rip Take on Japan! Day 8: Sayonara :(

My shot of SMS in the Park last December
The day started off with delicious Italian coffee (several steps up from FamilyMart!), pastries from Boulangerie Burdigala and breakfast in my favorite Tokyo Park, Arisugawa.  SMS has taken some beautiful photos here.  It's so tranquil and beautiful.  

Outside the Meiji Shrine Torii gate. (SMS)
After breakfast, we parted ways.  Linda stayed behind to have a relaxing morning while Rip, SMS and I took a tour of all the closed parks in the city.  First, we went to the East Gardens of the Imperial Palace, which are closed Monday and Friday.  Great.  Then we went to Yoyogi Park.  That too is closed since it was the epicenter of the first domestic outbreak of Dengue Fever in over 40 years.  All of the mosquitos have been fumigated to kingdom-come at this point but still, the park is closed.  Strangely, the park and shrine next to it are open even though I think the mosquitos probably cross the area pretty freely.  But that's where we went!  We walked through the forest to Meiji Shrine in order to squeeze in one last shrine on the trip.  I wouldn't want Rip to feel like he had missed out!  On the way in and out, we saw many old cars lining up for a road race/parade(?).  It was a little hard to tell but it was incredible how old some of the cars were!

Then, we walked around Harajuku before we headed back to the hotel to get lunch, grab our bags and head to Haneda.  Haneda was on our way home so SMS and I took Rip and Linda there.  Also, if anything happened, they didn't have cell phones so we felt better seeing them off. 

After they left, SMS and I headed home.  *sniff*

Thursday, October 16, 2014

Linda & Rip Take On Japan! Day 7: Tokyo

Hey-o!  Are you still hanging with me after this major trip re-cap?  Well, this one will be a lot shorter since I actually didn't go exploring with the group.  I went to work instead. I know!  Where are my priorities?!  Well, unfortunately, the other ENT was out that week as well so one of us had to go in and represent!  I had an interesting clinic and got a new id card.  I was dreading getting a new id card since the process has been a big hassle in the past.  I dislike getting heckled about how I'm a bad officer for losing my id card.  As if I wanted to lose my id, you know, just that little piece of plastic with a bad picture, my name and my social security number.  You know, no big deal in this age of identity theft. *eyeroll*  Anyway, enough about traumas in the past because this experience was actually fairly smooth with not a heckle to be found.  I have my new id!  Different picture although same level of bad-pictureness.
Tokyo Tower (SMS)

SMS and crew did an impressive one day tour of Tokyo.  First, they went to Tsukiji Market.  They didn't want to wake up at 0300 for the auction but they got to see the morning bustle.  Then they toured the Hamariku Gardens before heading to the dock within the park to take the Asakusa River Cruise.  They toured Asakusa, which included a close-up of the "Golden Poo" sculpture on top of the Asahi Beer Building.  Then they went up the Nakamise shopping street leading to the Sensoji temple. This was followed by a sushi lunch, trip up the Tokyo Tower and a walk through Roppongi back to the hotel.
La Butero, a wonderful fallback option (SMS)
We met up for dinner and after the sad discovery that Pizzeria Sol y Luna was now closed (to be replaced by a Little Pie Co store- dessert pies, not pizza pies), we somewhat recovered and went to La Butero Restaurant.  It was a lovely Italian place in a converted greenhouse.  The atmosphere was lovely and we had a great dinner.  We shared a bottle of the house Chianti, had delicious salads and had a few delicious main courses.  I had pappardelle with rabbit ragu, SMS had a gorgonzola sauce pasta dish and Rip & Linda shared a lasagna dish.  They were all really good and my pasta craving was satisfied.
These facial expressions should ease your mind if you were worried that any of the above
people might turn into a Pachinko addict.
We left the restaurant and passed a Pachinko parlor.  I had never been and we all decided to try it out. It was loud, smoky and visually overwhelming- sagoy!  But it was really cool to be in there.  An attendant kept his eye on us and gave us a English "How-To" guide which was nice but not completely helpful since there seem to be different buttons on different consoles.  We played for a bit and then collected our winnings.  We had a Y600 credit (down from a Y1000 start) so SMS bought us waters and snacks.  It was definitely an interesting experience and probably an OTO (one time only).

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!
Nishiki
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!