Tuesday, February 17, 2015

Weekend Update

Did anyone watch the 40th Anniversary of SNL show last weekend?  I did not but I saw the Celebrity Jeopardy skit, which was pretty awesome.  I heard it's available on Hulu+ but I'm not going to go out of my way to watch the rest of it.

On Friday, I stayed late at work catching up on TTDs (things to do) and completing a Patient Quality and Safety online course.  I wasn't thrilled at being mandated to do it since I've felt inundated with training lately but it was a pretty good course.  I got home pretty late that night.  SMS spent the day at the International Camera Expo in Yokohama with one of our friends and had an awesome time.

Saturday was Valentine's Day.  Yay!  We kept it mellow this year- although SMS had big plans, they were put on hold since I had to start my call this weekend rather than the next week due to my colleague's early delivery.  Congratulations to her and her beautiful new daughter!

For lunch, we walked to Snug Stay Door as a well-earned treat after super-cleaning the house.  I had an awesome avocado cheeseburger and SMS had the poke loco moco.  It was delicious and we were so hungry by that point so it hit the spot!

That night, we went up to Charcoal Grill Green and had a delicious feast!  We sat at the counter and it was really cool to watch the two cooks.  Everything that is cooked (apart from some pre-prepped veggie mashes, etc) is done on a large central grill.  It's not green, but I didn't realize that it was the only cooking method used.  We feasted on oysters, grilled Caesar salad, grilled lamb and pulled pork quesidilla.  Everything was delicious and we were so happy!
12 people maxed out our seating capacity!
On Sunday, SMS went to a photo shoot while I went shopping for food and got slammed by the ER.  It seems like a run-on sentence but it really happened in that order.  Ice cream was melting in our car as I completed back-to-back admissions.  It was all salvageable but the cooking timeline was pretty crunched.  The party was for Mardi Gras and I was making gumbo and red beans and rice.  Fortunately, the gumbo still turned out really well and I was super happy.  I forgot to add the shrimp but I don't think anyone noticed.  We had a great group of people, delicious food brought by several guests and an awesome Cards Against Humanity game.

Monday was a mellow day.  SMS and I went for a walk along the seawall.  I had cleaned up the night before but my day was thrown off by a late bedtime (0100) and a 0500 wake-up call from the ER for a consult.  I was so tired!  I'm out of practice with the late-nights and early wake-ups!

Thursday, February 12, 2015

Midweek Tokyo Vacation: Shibuya, Ramen Alley, Ueno

Day 3 of our mini-vacation!  We started off at The City Bakery.  We were a little earlier than the day before and ended up with an Egg Benedict each. Success!  It was a perfectly poached egg served on a whole, unsliced English muffin.  It was pretty delicious although the ham/bacon was a little thicker than I like on my perfect version of Egg Benedict but seriously, a minor quibble!

Next, we headed to Shibuya where SMS dropped off film and showed off various cool skyscrapers.  He wanted to take me to the Nikon showroom but it was closed for the Japanese holiday, which had been the day before.  National Foundation Day, Feb 11 for those who want to keep track.  

After Shibuya, we headed to Tokyo Station and went to Ramen Alley (Yaesu South Exit).  SMS' favorite is Honda, so we sat down and tucked into a delicious bowl of soup before heading to Ueno Station to the Tokyo Metropolitan Art Museum located in Ueno Park.

We saw the Neo-Impressionism Exhibit that was spectacular.  Seriously, it's one of my favorite art exhibitions I've seen.  It was really well-curated and the chronologic sequence and flow and evolution of the style was clearly conveyed.  I like Georges Seurat and Paul Signac, the later of whom had several works displayed from 1884-early 1900s and the progression into an early Fauvism was apparent. I would like to go back one more time before it closes but we'll see.  There's so much to do in Japan!

CW from Top Left: Shibuya, Reflecting Globe outside Museum, Arisugawa Park
After the museum, we headed back to Hiro-o to pick up the car so we could go back to the film shop and pick up SMS' epic Mt Fuji print.  Before we got into the car, we took a brief stroll in my favorite nearby park, Arisugawa.  Although it's currently not in its prettiest season, it was still very pleasant.

We picked up SMS's print (it is FANTASTIC!) and headed out to dinner.  We ended up going to Pizza & Pancake in Zushi after unsuccessfully trying to go to Cactus Burrito (it was closed).

And that was our trip!  It was so much fun and so wonderful to explore Tokyo with SMS.  We saw new neighborhoods and had so many new adventures together, it felt very epic!

Wednesday, February 11, 2015

Midweek Tokyo Vacation: Yanaka and Odaiba

I officially love local area stay-cations.  Maybe I'm using the word a little too fluidly since we did go to another city and stay in a hotel, but it's nice to see such amazing sights and sites without requiring a plane or Shinkansen ride!

Day 2 started off with a delicious breakfast at The City Bakery, a cafe SMS and I passed on our walk from Shibuya to Hiro-o the night before.  They had just sold out of the Eggs Benedict so we settled for second-best with assorted pastries and delicious coffee.  Yum!  I had a Baker's Muffin, a sort-of Monkey Bread-style muffin and a pain au chocolate.  SMS had a Cookies and Cream Stick and a Croque Monsieur.  I just asked him to remind me about the name of the C&C stick and he said, "Delicious is what it was called."  He's right.  Everything was awesome.  I'm very sad that my old favorite bakery in Hiro-o Burdigala has now been supplanted from its former ichiban status but life goes on.  I do think that the pain au chocolat may still be slightly better at Burdigala but SMS thinks that's crazy talk.

In our carb-loaded haze, we headed off to Yanaka, in the Northwest of Tokyo.  We followed a "Tokyo Stroll" recommended by a slightly older version of Fodor's that I was given the last time I was here.  In the Edo Period, a fair number of temples were moved to this area and they survived both the Great Kanto earthquake of 1923 and the Tokyo Firebombings in WWII better than other areas.  It was a quiet, delightful walk and we had the best time.
Top: SMS in action, bottom L: Seated Buddha seen through the gate R: monk entering side building
First, we went to Tennoji Temple.  There are beautiful temple buildings, a seated bronze Buddha from the 1690s and bronze Jizo statue, guardian of children's spirits.  It was a beautiful day and such a tranquil space.  SMS took a cute picture of the resident cat that was napping in the sun.  I took a cute picture of SMS taking his cute picture!
Left: Seated Buddha Right: Jizo, with young school children in uniform in base relief
Tokugawa Shogunate Plot Area and nearby blooming Plum Tree
Next, we walked through the Yanaka Cemetery.  SMS took a few photos at the Tokugawa plot area, where there was a small temple.  Next, we walked to the foundation remains of the Tennoji Temple's Five-Story Pagoda that was burned down by arson in 1957.  I took pictures of the signs because in so many places, temples have burned down but I've never seen photo-documentation before.


We briefly stopped by the Kannonji Temple, where we saw the small pavilion dedicated to the 47 masterless Samurai who avenged their master's death and then committed Seppuku.  This apparently is the plot for a popular Kabuki play.  Not quite my response when I change bosses but still, an interesting monument.
Left: SMS and a temple wall from the 1200s Right: Street in Yanaka
Next, we went to the highlight of our Yanaka Day: the Asakura Museum of Sculpture, Taito.  Asakura Fumio (1883-1964) was a gifted artist and designed his own studio and home.  It is now a museum and really an incredible place.  The modern, black facade that houses the studio and the bulk of the displayed sculptures yields to a very traditionally designed Japanese-style home in the back.  It's huge!  The house is three stories with several rooms. There is a large rooftop garden with a nice view of the surrounding neighborhood.  The center is a courtyard with a rock garden and small pools designed with five large rocks to represent Confucian ideals.

I highly recommend a visit for several reasons.  First, the sculptures are absolutely beautiful.  What most impressed me was how he could show the age of a person through his/her skin and wrinkles.  It was so delicately wrought, even in such a seemingly rigid medium as sculpture.  His busts and full-size figure works were amazing.  He also had several sculptures of his beloved dog Star and several of his housecats that were perfectly proportioned.

A second reason to visit is that the house is very beautiful and a gorgeous example of traditional Japanese architecture.  It's very soothing to walk around a centrally designed house with an calming courtyard garden and cool tatami under my feet.  The Fodor's guide said that the house wasn't worth much time but SMS and I strongly disagree!

A surreptitious photo from the rooftop garden.  No photos were allowed inside the museum.  Sads.
SMS walked from the museum to Yanaka Ginza, a pedestrian-only, uncovered shopping street.  There were lots of tempting tasty snacks for sale such as croquettes, squid crackers and savory crepe-like pancakes.  The shops were also very cute, ranging from food stands to crafts.  We were starting to speed up our day a little by this point so I would love to go back and stroll a little more leisurely.

Sights we saw on the way to Yanaka Ginza included Tabisurumishinten, a small craft store with a very nice young artist who was selling his book covers, cards and assorted fabrics designed with his hand drawings of cute animals.  There was also a small temple just before the shopping arcade started, but we didn't see any signs.
Small, unnamed (to us) temple; cute shopping cats!  Yanaka loves its cats!
Our final Yanaka stop was the Nezu Shrine, built in 1706.  It was a gorgeous.  My favorite part was the area that looked like a miniaturized Fushimi Inari with many orange torii gates.  It would be a great place for a photo shoot!  There was also a small pond and a pretty temple although SMS was trying to  hurry me along/losing patience at this point since we wanted to get to Odaiba for sunset shots.

Top: Nezu Entrance Left: SMS looking more Zen than he felt Right: Small Stream
We headed over to Odaiba where SMS spent awhile setting up and taking multiple pictures of the Rainbow Bridge at sunset.  It was very cool because the Tokyo Tower was also visible and the light kept changing not just from the sun, but also the lights on the bridge and tower.  I've seen his negatives and the best one is currently being scanned.  He definitely had another winner of a photo session!

Top Left: So that's where the Statue of Liberty went! Top Right: Tidepool, Bottom: Rainbow Bridge, slightly
higher vantage point than where SMS set up his camera
Finally, we had a delicious dinner at Mamma Luisa's Table.  It is a great restaurant in Ebisu.  The ambiance was great.  The decor was nice and the patrons very eclectic.  There were English speakers and Japanese and the owner was conversant in several languages.  He's from Florence originally and the food was a standout.  We were so hungry when we got there but it was worth it- even SMS said so and he hates pushing into the hangry territory!  We had an assorted bruschetta plate, an amazing orange/beet/mozzarella salad, a tagliatelle dish with pork ragout/cauliflower/Brussel sprouts and a pillow-like gnocchi dish that was the best gnocchi I've ever had.  I highly recommend the place and I hope to go back soon.

Tuesday, February 10, 2015

Midweek Tokyo Vacation: Shimokitazawa and Shibuya

After Sapporo, I was still on leave so SMS and I decided to have a fun Tokyo mid-week vacation.  Tokyo is nearby but far enough that I can't really go there when I'm on call.  I made reservations at the New Sanno and we were set.  Before heading up to Tokyo though, I saw a notice on a local Facebook group page letting people know that there was a bento class that morning at a local coffee shop.  I signed SMS and I up.  We quickly packed and headed out the door to the Mikasa Cafe!

The instructor was a noted Kyaraben, or character bento box, creator.  It was a little difficult to tell how high-profile she is- is she the Japanese Julia Child or just a friend of the English translator who's active in the local community?  It didn't really matter because she was really nice and very talented.  The project for the day was rice balls decorated like Spiderman.  This was achieved with rice mixed with ketchup, seaweed cut into lines and processed cheese cut-outs for eyes.  It was a lot of fun to play with our food so creatively!
Left: The apprentice bento artist Right: Our finished creations!
SMS and I stayed for lunch afterwards since the cafe was hosting the event to boost their business.  I had a delicious Navy Curry and learned that Yokosuka Navy Curry has been made for over 100 years.  There are very specifics rules on how to make the curry and what can be in it.  The JSDF eats curry every Friday! SMS had a tasty all-beef hot dog.  

After lunch, we drove up to the New Sanno, parked and checked in.  Then it was off to a new neighborhood for us, Shimokitazawa.  It's a neighborhood 4 minutes by express train from Shibuya.  It is a very cool neighborhood in a seemingly hipster way.  There are a lot of vintage shops, vinyl record stores, small craft shops and lots of bars and restaurants.  

SMS ordered a delicious banana pudding crepe from a crepe stand with a lot of old-school Disney knick-knacks.  The store apparently well-known although there does not appear to be a sign or a name.  One blog I read talked about the crazy crepe lady with one eye.  That may be true since something seemed off, but I can't verify the missing eye.  There was a line when we arrived and for good reason.  The crepes are freshly made and well-stuffed with delicious add-ins!

We wandered through some of the stores.  My favorite was Simple Song, a leather workshop where the guy makes everything in his little studio right there in the neighborhood.  I didn't see anything I needed to buy, although there were certainly things I wanted!  

Finally, we had dinner at the Vizz Cafe, a bar/lounge with super comfortable leather couches and chairs.  The venue allows smoking and it does smell a little but since it was empty when we arrived it was tolerable.  It was so much fun to sit in deeply recessed leather "womb chairs."  The food was pretty good.  We had our second attempt at taco rice.  It wasn't quite as sloppy joe-flavored as our last one but it still wasn't very spicy.  I think I may give up on the dish though it might be fun to experiment at home. 
CW from top left: flowers outside a market, SMS ordering his crepe, the crepe stand (right), Vizz Cafe couches, Vizz
Cafe leather womb chair, Tokyo is everyone's!
We took the train to Shibuya and got off to see the Hachiko statue.  Hatchiko was a loyal Akita dog who always met his owner at the Shibuya station.  One day, the owner suffered a stroke and died away from home but Hatchiko didn't get the memo.  For over 9 years (1925-1934), Hachiko would wait every day for his master's train.  The story is in popular consciousness now and is a symbol of loyalty.  I took a picture of the statue and in researching a little more about the story, found out that the exact spot where he would wait is commemorated with two bronze paw prints.  I must find them! It sounds so cute!

Left: Shibuya Crossing Right: Hatchiko!
After taking a picture of Hatchiko, we wandered around Shibuya.  We stopped for an after-dinner snack at Shibuya Fromage, a delicious counter wine/cheese/sake/beer restaurant open from 1700-0500.  Sagoy!  I know where I will spend my late nights in Tokyo waiting for the trains to re-open now!  SMS and I split a Sakura goat cheese from Hokkaido and Epoisse cheese, a delightful, slightly stinky French cheese.

We walked back to the New Sanno from Shibuya and discovered some new finds in a different area of Hiro-o from the one we knew (which was basically between Hiro-o station and the New Sanno).  We found the City Bakery, which we planned on getting breakfast at the very next morning!

Monday, February 9, 2015

Local fun in Hayama!

SMS and I had a fun day exploring in Hayama.  We decided to have a progressive dinner, similar to progressive parties where you have one course at each house and move on.
Daisy's, my new favorite coffee shop!
First, we started at Daisy's Cafe, a cute cafe right on the water in Kamakura.  They had a great coffee and sweets menu.  Their dinner menu looked good too.  My favorite part was the sunset view, closely followed by the super cute decor and ambiance of the place.  SMS had coffee and I had a half-sized acai bowl with a cocoa coffee that was delicious.  I think it was delicious thanks to the lightly sweetened whipped cream!  It was the perfect snack since I had a very light lunch and needed a little carry-over to dinner time.

Afterwards, we went to Venus Cafe, which we had seen several times and knew only as the "Tex-Mex" place, since that's the most eye-catching sign from the road.  It was a nice location with great window seats but the food left something to be desired.  The chill beef taco tasted like a Sloppy Joe rather than taco meat.  It wasn't bad, it just wasn't what we were looking for.  Who knows, maybe we know nothing about Tex-Mex and Texans would think it's the cat's meow!  We did have some tasty nachos but those were just ok too.  Maybe the food suffered in comparison to our recent Cactus Burrito visit but considering how many other awesome places are around (like my new favorite Daisy's!), I don't think we'll go back.

Finally, we picked up dessert in Hayama at Sweet Taste.  They have wakanapai pies, which are crisp pastry dough that they fill with a sweet cream once a customer has placed the order.  They're like Hawaiian cannolis!

Otaru In Pictures!

An amazing trip deserves amazing pictures.  SMS took some great photos while we were in Sapporo, including a tripod-dependent session in Otaru.  I'm married to such a talented man!

So happy!

Otaru lanterns!

Close-up, candle-lit snow lanterns

The photographer in front of the lens

Smaller! Cuter!

Our awesome group!

I carry you in my heart!



Sapporo Snow Festival/Yuki Matsuri!

Odori Park at Night
This past weekend, SMS and I went to Sapporo to see the Snow Festival.  It's funny that Snow Festival 2015 is here because I remember writing to my co-worker in Summer 2013 to divvy up the 2014 and 2015 trips so that each of us could go during our tour here.  I waited until 2015 since SMS would be here.  As the date approached, SMS was a little more enthusiastic than I was but I soon warmed up to the idea (ha, ha) because it seemed pretty awesome.  I've never been to a festival celebrating a season with huge, transient works of art whether it's in the Summer with sand castles or Winter with snow/ice sculptures.  It's an amazing tribute to the process of making art and the act of experiencing it as a duality of a finite object and lasting memory.

After sleeping in a bit on Friday and going for a run, SMS and I headed out to the airport.  We arrived at our hotel around 5:15 and met up with our friends for dinner at 5:30.  We took a taxi over to the Sapporo Beer Garden, which is about 2 miles from Odori Park. Note that it is not the Sapporo Beer Factory- I know that doesn't make sense but trust me, it's a rookie mistake which I may have made circa 2007.

We ended up being a group of six and ordered up Jinhisukan, otherwise known as Genghis Khan.  It's a delicious dish of lamb and veggies cooked on a large cast-iron dome grill.   Unlike some lamb dishes, it's most delicious when cooked to crispiness.  When we arrived, we were given plastic bags to place our coats in to shield them from carrying away too much of a lamb flavor from the smoke, but we still smelled like second-hand lamb for most of the evening.  This was not a bad thing!

Afterwards, we cabbed it back to Odori Park and walked all 11 blocks to see the snow sculptures.  The most famous one from this festival seems to be the Star Wars montage, a 50-feet tall, 3,500 ton snow Star Wars-themed Mt Rushmore.  It attracted huge crowds and we were part of it!  We saw the light/audio show that went along with it and it was pretty impressive.  We also saw a huge model of a Manilla cathedral and a beautiful model of the Kasuga Taisha shrine in Nara.  More information on the sculptures can be found at this Odori Park link.  It was really impressive and we had a great time although we were cold by the end.
AWESOME breakfast!
On Saturday, five of us headed for some delicious Hokkaido seafood for brunch.  SMS sat that one out since he hadn't been feeling well since dinner the night before.  I had a famous uni/king crab/salmon roe rice bowl.  It was so good!  This dish is a modification of the famous uni-ikura don.  We went to Ohiso, a small shop behind the Nijo fish market.  The owner was so nice and really helpful.  There was a great English menu and we got by with our Japanese although really, the pictures and the resulting food were more than enough for awesome communication!  Although there are several restaurants that are similar in the surrounding block, we were so glad we went to Ohiso!
Otaru!
SMS and I had a low-key afternoon while he rested up.  We left for Sapporo station to head to Otaru, a small town with a famous lantern festival, Otaru Yuki Akari no Michi.  We wanted to get there for some golden hour/sunset shots and we're so glad we did.  The festival is in two locations, both straight down the street from the train station entrance/exit.  We headed down to the canal, bypassing the Temiyasen Kaijo area with its snow sculptures for the moment.  The festival workers were busy lighting the candles and stringing the lanterns into the water.  It was beautiful the whole time but the lighting contrasts as the sun went down were gorgeous.  SMS got some awesome pictures and I got some ok-replicas from my little iPhone.

Our friends met up with us at 5:15 and we walked along the canal and took pictures.  We got a group shot in a candlelit heart, as well as some couple shots.  After walking along the small section of canal with the lanterns, it was time for dinner.  It took a little while to find a place but we ultimately had a delicious sushi meal at a restaurant near the station.  By the time we were done, the candles were blown out along the Temiyasen Kaijo, but we walked through it anyway, including a small snow maze.  It was very cool.
Pancakes, delicious pancakes!
Afterwards, we headed home and parted ways.  The next morning, four of us met up and decided that pancakes, not uni-dons, sounded awesome.  We searched for a pancake cafe I had found on Google and, very luckily, we stumbled upon a poster for it that told us where to go.  10 minutes later, we were seated at the J.S. Pancake Cafe in the East JR Tower Building, 3F.  It was amazing and totally hit the spot.  Jeff, Stacie and I shared the chocolate strawberry, lemon ricotta and strawberry mille-feuille pancakes.  We each had a different favorite; mine was the mille-feuille with its crunchy inner layers.  Afterwards, we parted ways as Jeff and Stacie were off to Niseko for skiing.

Ice Sculptures in Susukino- note the fish in ice in the left pictures!
SMS and I toured around the city.  We tried to go to the Mt. Moiwa ropeway but it was closed for winds and "bad view."  We wandered around the ice festival in the Susukino section and that was really cool.  The ice sculptures were amazingly intricate.  There were also a few displays with fish frozen into the ice blocks!
Rainy day in Odori!  Bears do not like rain!  I, however, like king crab on a stick!
At this point, it should be noted that it was raining with varying intensity throughout the day.  Fortunately, we had our waterproof ski gear so we were ok but the rain was destroying the ice and snow, especially the snow.  We went to the International Competition section and several of the snow sculptures had collapsed.  The larger mega-sculptures were still holding strong- I hope they continued to through the night!  We went to Park Air and saw a snowboard demonstration.  Finally, we went to the Beer Museum and had a highly educational experience- we decided we like Sapporo Black Label best!
Our favorite subway warning sign
Then it was off to the airport where we had a final Hokkaido treat- soft serve ice cream at the Hokkaido Milk Bar!  After dessert, we lounged in the Star Alliance lounge (yay for gold status!) and then got on our flight home.  It was a great weekend and I'm so glad I got to experience the festival I'd heard so much about.
SMS' new tomodachi!