Monday, December 15, 2014

Lake Yamanaka Fuji-san weekend

This past weekend, SMS and I headed out to the Fuji Five Lakes region to explore a new area and, in SMS' case, take beautiful pictures of Mt. Fuji (Fuji-san).  We were going to go to Tokyo but we decided to branch out and see someplace new.  Of course, we've seen Mt. Fuji a lot (and even hiked it) but it was very beautiful to see it from the shores and hills around Lake Yamanaka.
It IS shaped like a whale!
 Lake Yamanaka is the highest of the Five Lakes and is shaped like a blue whale!  This makes for some very nice anime cartoons.  It seemed similar to Big Bear Lake, CA in that it appears to be a Summer playground but there are things to do all year-round.

I went to the office holiday party on Friday afternoon, which was a nice gathering featuring lots of cookies.  Although I had fun, I wanted to get out of there to hit the road!  SMS and I left the apartment around 4 p.m. and apart from a small amount of traffic east of Yokohama, we were in the clear.
My new favorite chair! It may not be much to look at but it's awesome!
We checked into Yamanouchi Guest House on the south shore of the lake.  It was a nice hotel with tatami mat rooms, shared bathrooms and the hottest onsen I have ever been in.  It was a painful experience but I did feel squeaky clean afterwards!  The air temperature was cold in most of the rooms but the heater in our room was efficient and we were quickly toasty.
Other highlights of the hotel included an old chair that had two black knobs that acted as massagers- I loved it and want one!   The innkeeper was a spry old lady who spoke only a few English words but we managed to get by with our Japanese.  Although she seemed to think my Japanese comprehension was way better than it was- maybe I should stop nodding so much.  She cooked breakfast every morning, which was kind of a strange creation.  There would be an egg (cold fried egg day 1 and cold Japanese omelet day 2), salad with mayonnaise on the cucumber, deli meat slices, hot dog, thick cold bacon, rolls, yogurt and soup.  So there was a ton of food but it was a funny hybrid breakfast.  I'm always grateful for food but maybe it was too early and I couldn't completely embrace the concept of an early, Japanese/Western brunch plate.
View from our room!
After breakfast, we hopped in the car to explore the area.  Although there seems to be a great, although slightly infrequent bus system, we were happy to have our car since it gave us more flexibility and shelter from the cold!  Also, despite the picture on the booking website, the hotel was actually on the South shore nearest to Fuji so although we had a great view of Fuji from our room, we had to drive to the other side of the lake in order to get the lake and Fuji-san in the same picture.
So blessed!
First, we drove to Fujiyoshida, which was the traditional starting point for pilgrims trekking up Fuji-san via the Yoshida trail.  We pulled into a little shopping area/rest stop where there were several small stores and, on the left side, several spigots tapping the Mt. Fuji water, "blessings of Mt. Fuji."  SMS and I each filled up our Nalgene bottles.  The scene was pretty crazy as there were people there filling dozens of bottles, each 2-20 gallons.  I'm guessing it was for commercial use but it was pretty impressive how dedicated people were to stocking up on the water.
First, find this market (near Fuji-Q).  Next, eat tacos.
We drove around for a bit trying to find the torii gate that one can drive through (no luck).  Then we went over towards Fuji-Q Amusement Park to find a hiking trail, also unsuccessful.  But, we walked past a small food truck that looked like it was selling little Fuji cakes.  Then I noticed it was called Tacodor with a little Chili anime drawing and I thought, "Isn't that weird that a Fuji cake stand is in a taco cart?"  Well, it was also a taco cart!  The fairly young guy inside had been to Mexico and learned how to make tacos.  SMS ordered a delicious, chorizo-like taco that came 2 to an order on small corn tortillas.  It was so good!  We also had Fuji cakes for dessert and they were also awesome.  It was a great serendipitous find and the best Mexican food (and cheapest!) we've had in Japan so far (ok, ok, it's not like we came expecting great Mexican food but it's nice when we find it!).
This was an amazing hike!
At this point, SMS was getting antsy about going for a hike.  We decided to head back to Lake Yamanaka since the panoramas were likely prettier since the area was less developed.  We hiked up Mt. Hirao, part of the larger Mt. Ohira hiking course.  We parked in the town of Hirano off the 413, just down the street from the Ishiwarinoyu onsen.  It wasn't too long of a hike (but don't worry Mom and Dad, like many places in Japan there were still lots of stairs!) and the summit vista was breath-taking.

After the hike, we went to the photo spot for SMS to set up.  He had a clear view of Fuji-san and it really happy with his photography set-up there.  Apparently we were really lucky because the innkeeper said that Fuji had been obscured for the last 4 weeks.  Hooray for perfectly timed trips!

We warmed up with an early dinner of Yoshida udon, the traditional pilgrim's meal.  The udon is characterized as "thick and chewy" and the noodles are a little more flat and wide than regular udon.  It was considered a purifying food (white noodles, clear broth).  It was tasty, especially with the addition of kobocha squash.

That night, we decided that we would go back to the photo spot in the morning to take advantage of the "alarm clock filter," aka, the beautiful light at sunset.  Sunday came and it was cold, but SMS had another great photo session.  I took some pretty pictures of a swan that swam towards us although I started to get scared as it got really close.  I know that sounds ridiculous but after seeing geese attacks in Newport, RI, bigger birds scare me!  (God forbid I ever see an emu or ostrich!).
A foot onsen at a museum- brilliant!  See all the people coming in to join me?
We headed South towards Hakone and went to the Open Air Museum.  I was so happy!  I went so many times last tour and I hadn't been yet this time.  I was excited to show it off to SMS.  Old favorites were there, although the fried egg had moved locations.  It seemed a little smaller than I remembered, which was strange because that usually happens to things I remember from childhood, not adulthood.  Also, can I just say that a foot onsen at a museum is an amazing idea?!  When your feet get tired and achy at a museum, refresh them with a hot soak and carry on!  Sagoy!

On the way home, we stopped at Ebina SA, "The World's Best Rest Stop," as proclaimed by SMS.  We shared a nikuman (Chinese steamed bun), dumplings, a sushi rice bowl and an affogato.  Eclectic but all of it was wonderful.  There was no traffic on the way back and we hung out at home for the rest of the afternoon/evening.  It was a wonderful mini-holiday and I had a great time.  Next up, Christmas decorating and shopping!

Sunday, December 7, 2014

Dinner and Derby

Well, my workweek usually starts off pretty light and then accelerates to Friday.  This week, I had interesting clinics, a few intratympanic membrane injections (boo, sudden sensorineural hearing loss!) and a complex OR case on Thursday that went really well.  My OR patient was someone I knew from several years ago (acquaintance level) and while that extra fact made me a little nervous, the procedure went smoothly and was uncomplicated.  Yay!

On Wednesday, SMS and I went to derby practice followed by a late dinner at Pizza & Pancake in Zushi.  We split a Caesar Salad followed by a pizza each although we had some leftovers.  I ordered a pizza with cheese, miso-marinated ground meat and eggplant.  SMS got a Neapolitan pizza.  Both were delicious!

On Friday, we met up with a couple for dinner in Yokohama.  SMS knows the husband through his photography network and we both met his wife for the first time.  They were fun to hang out with since SMS and Gabe talked about photography.  Gabe also talked about working at a bilingual Japanese pre-school and a little bit about his life as a chef.  We had a great time and I loved the restaurant!

We went to Charcoal Grill Green, Gabe's choice.  I had no strong feelings either way although I wasn't overly impressed by the name.  There are actually three restaurants of the same name in three nearby neighborhoods; we went to Bashamichi.  The restaurant has several rustic appearing tables and a counter space.  It is cozy and awesome.  It seems that there is always one English-speaking waiter and there was a bilingual menu.

SMS and I shared local vegetables (including watermelon radish!) with a anchovy/garlic tapenade.  It was delicious although maybe not a first date dish for all you young lovebirds out there.  Gabe and Kristen shared a grilled Caesar salad.  I had a daily special for my entree- char-grilled salmon on a bed of clam risotto served with grilled root vegetables.  The salmon piece was on the small side, but perfectly cooked and the risotto was heavenly.  SMS and Gabe both ordered the char-grilled BBQ pork with wasabi coleslaw.  The pork seemed to be a delicious pork belly and the wasabi coleslaw was a revelation.  There was a nice underlying bite but nothing overwhelming.  It added a layer of complexity to what is normally a very ordinary side.  Kristen ordered char-grilled pepperoni pizza, which got good reviews from the rest of the table although I didn't try any.

At a restaurant this good, I felt we had to get dessert to cap it off!  Gabe and Kristen shared a chocolate mousse while SMS and I shared the daily homemade chestnut (kori or marron) ice cream.  There were huge chunks of chestnut held together by the background of ice cream.  It was delicious! I also had a coffee, which I like with dessert even though I occasionally pay for it at bedtime.

Afterwards, we decided to grab a drink at Antenna America, a bar specializing in American (and mostly West Coast) microbrews.  The pours are a little less than a pint and the atmosphere is nice.  We hung out a bit before heading back to Yokosuka.
Scoring is serious business!
Saturday, I hung out around the house while SMS went climbing with a new rock climbing partner we met at Thanksgiving.  That afternoon, we went to Ikego to watch a roller derby bout.  SMS and I ended up score-keeping which was fun, especially once we got the hang of it.  I'll be honest, I may have been looking at the wrong team for the first two jams, ha ha.  After the bout, we headed over to Hiyama and had salmon fish 'n'chips at Gazebo.  The salmon was delicious and the fries (with malt vinegar ) were awesome.  I think in the future I will be a little more of a fish 'n' chips purist and go with the flounder or mahi mahi.  At this restaurant, we had a salad instead of dessert.  Go us!

On Sunday, we had a lazy morning followed by a SMS photo extravaganza.  He had two back-to-back photo shoots followed by a photography class for me and our friend Jen.  I learned a little bit about my camera and then took Jen's sons out the playground while SMS and Jen worked on photographing for Jen's Etsy products.  This evening, I cooked from my Jerusalem cookbook- "Turkey & Zucchini burgers with green onion & cumin."  It's served with a sour cream and sumac sauce, except I used zitar instead of sumac and chicken instead of turkey.  It was a hit and I have a few more recipes from the cookbook planned.

Saturday, November 29, 2014

30 Hours in Kyoto, Part II

On Saturday morning, we "slept in" until 8:15 and by 9, we were pretty much ready to go.  The morning was drizzly so we headed over to Kyoto Station to lock up our bags.  We grabbed much-needed cups of coffee and then took a taxi to Nijo Castle.  Nijo is my go-to drizzly day destination since the inside tour of the Ninomaru castle takes awhile and is the site of the famous Nightingale Floors, which give melodic warning sounds to detect murderous intruders (quite the juxtaposition, n'est pas?).

We wandered the castle then went outside to the gardens.  There, you can go up to the base of the castle and look under the floorboards to see the crossed iron pieces that rub against the wood to make the noise.  SMS noted that it seemed strange to have such an intricate security idea for the inside when the outside seemed to be dubiously protected via walls and windows made of paper.  This seems like an excellent point and no one in the group had enough knowledge of Japanese fortifications to help reconcile that seeming discrepancy.  Anyway, things to ponder!

After Nijo Castle, we headed over to Nishiki Market.  Before wandering the market, we waited in line for Gogyo ramen, which I found via a Kyoto Taxi Driver's blog.  I highly recommend checking out the link because there are several seemingly awesome restaurant recommendations complete with address cards that a visitor can show the taxi driver.  While SMS and Blake held our place in line, Marissa and I walked into the market to sample pickles and buy sweets.  A winning combination!  I bought a packet of sweets for the MLC/secretary at work that made our restaurant reservations the night before.  The shop keeper asked where we were from and he was very sweet!  He explained that one of the sweets names meant "Bright light through the dew" and his English was charming.  It wasn't the best English, but it's way better than my Japanese and it was so nice of him to talk to us.

After about 10 minutes, I got a text from SMS to "Come back."  We were seated shortly thereafter and we quickly ordered lunch.  Blake, SMS and I had the miso-charred ramen which was phenomenal!  On top of being delicious, we were all pretty hungry and it was the best thing we'd eaten in awhile.  Marissa avoids wheat so she had a tasty rice bowl and bought a couple of snacks in the market, where
 we wandered after lunch.  There are so many samples there and the variety of booths, stalls and shops is so cool!  I'm really happy I got to see it again!
Taiko drumming in the arcade
Next, we walked along a covered pedestrian mall street with a stop in a video arcade where Blake and Marissa were excellent video game Taiko drummers!  Then we stopped for coffee at an Italian place along one of the canals and it was a very picturesque place for a needed pick-me-up.  Even though we had a.m. coffee, the cups are small in Japan!
Our coffee stop!

On the rock bridge across the Kamo River
SMS, rock jumping instead of rock climbing!
It was starting to get late, so we hailed a cab for the remaining 2 miles we had to get to the Silver Temple.  The grounds were absolutely beautiful. There were leaves on the ground but they didn't obscure the moss in the same way that Gio-ji had.  It was difficult to take pictures because it was getting dark but I have a lot of mental snapshots.
Silver Temple Tea House, with some filters to lighten it up
Afterwards, we quickly went behind the temple to check out the trailhead for a hike Marissa had researched.  It looked like a great gravel trail and something I would definitely be interested in if we had more time.  The trailhead had a map showing that it leads up to the "Dai" symbol that is burned during August festivals before continuing up to a 496 meter mountain top.  It's accessible by turning left just before the staircase to the Silver Temple Entrance, making the first right and then walking straight uphill to a carpark with vending machines.  At that point, the street turns into the gravel path and the trailhead sign is to the walker's right.  I don't think I'll ever get a chance to do it, but it looked pretty cool.

We cabbed it back to Kyoto-eki where SMS and I bought salads for dinner in the Itsen food basement.  The food basement has gift-type food on level B1F and prepared foods and a small grocery on B2F.  It is so crowded and so bustling, I highly recommend checking it out even if you're not trying to purchase a train meal!

After that, we got our bags out of the locker, walked Marissa and Blake to the taxi stand and said our good-byes.  Although it was sad, I was overwhelmingly happy that this trip had worked out and we were so lucky to see such great friends, even for a short time.  SMS and I bought our Shin tickets home for the 1845 train and we were back in the house by 10.  Amazing!

Friday, November 28, 2014

30 Hours in Kyoto!

Bamboo Forest, Arashiyama
Sagoy!  I am very impressed with SMS and I!  Two weeks ago, my friend Marissa wrote to me to let me know that she and her husband were going to Kyoto.  We worked it out so that we could meet up so SMS and I headed off to Kyoto for what ended up being a 30 hour trip.  Although that sounds short, we had the most amazing time catching up with friends and seeing a lot of Kyoto!

On Saturday, SMS and I left the house at 7:50.  We took the train to Shin-Yokohama where we caught the Nozomi Shinkansen down to Kyoto.  We arrive at 11:40 and took a taxi over to the apartment.  I found the listing on and I highly recommend the place. It was a cute, minimalist apartment with two bedrooms, 1 toilet and 1 shower room (these are most often separated in Japan housing).  It would be a great place to base a longer trip to Kyoto, but SMS and I were limited by prior commitments we had in Yokosuka on Sunday.

SMS, Marissa, Blake and I met at the apartment and dropped off our bags.  The weather was much better than the forecast so I switched plans and we headed to Arashiyama.  I had originally planned to go on Saturday but since the weather was so good and everything in Arashiyama is outside, we decided to head West.

Since the overall trip was pretty short, we took taxis almost everywhere.  The buses aren't bad, especially for the central and east parts of the city, but for four people, a cab was only slightly more expensive than subway and train fare.  We were dropped off along the river near the Togetsukyo bridge, or "Moon Crossing Bridge."  While we were in the cab, we listened to a podcast and we all felt very knowledgable!

Before heading off on our Arashiyama trek, we stopped for a heavy snack.  SMS was hungry and ordered ramen for lunch.  Blake and I ordered croquettes for a snack.  I didn't want to have too large of a lunch since we were going to have a great dinner later that night.
After eating, we headed to the Bamboo Forest.  There, I saw one of the highlights of the trip.  There was an older man very seriously playing "Greensleeves" on a wind instrument held to his nose- a nose flute!  It was pretty amazing and I have pictures to prove it!  Don't worried, I gave him a tip- fair's fair.
At the Villa, aka my Vacation Home!
After that excitement, I recovered from my near-swoon and we toured the gardens of Okochi-Sanso Villa.  It was breath-taking.  The entrance is a bit pricy at Y1000/person, but with the awesome current exchange rate, who cares!  Plus, it really is breath-taking and I highly recommend it!  This site in particular made me so happy we were in Kyoto.  When we toured with SMS' parents, I made a mental note that I wanted to come back for the Fall Foilage but it probably wouldn't have happened since there are so many other places I want to see.  Fortunately though, our friends' visit lured us down there and it was so worth it!

I took a lot of pictures at the Villa and was so impressed by the vivid Fall colors. Afterwards, we went to my favorite washi shop and headed to Gio-ji.  This was the only disappointment of the trip because I was so excited to show off my favorite temple but it's gorgeous carpet of moss was covered with leaves.  Nooooooo!  It was still beautiful and worth seeing, but I was a little non-plussed.  Marissa tried to cheer me up, which was sweet and sort of funny because it really wasn't that big a deal.  It's just I had really built it up and with the Fall leaves, the main attraction (for me) was mostly obscured.
Gio-ji, covered in leaves <:o(
After Gio-ji, we started back in the direction of the train station.  We wanted to maximize our time in Kyoto so we decided to see the Kinkakuji (Golden Temple).  On our way to the station (to catch another cab), we walked through the grounds of Seiryo-ji, which caught our eye mainly for the impressive wooden gate and main building.
Kinkakuji and our new friends!
We then quickly caught a cab and went to Kinkakuji just in time for sunset.  It was very beautiful and we got some nice couple shots.  We also had a photo with several Japanese school girls.  I thought they initially only wanted Blake in the photo but then we were all invited in!

We went home and got ready for dinner.  We went back to Takuma, our favorite restaurant from last time.  This time we had table seating instead of counter seating so we lost a little bit of the showmanship aspect, but the food was just as delicious.  Although there were some variation on the specifics, the courses were the same as our last visit.

We walked home through Gion, which was beautiful.  On the way home, we walked through the Kennin-ji grounds, which were beautifully lit.  It started to sprinkle so our walk ended at the perfect time since we were nearly home by that point.

That was the first half of the trip, just under 12 hours in Kyoto.  Isn't it amazing how much can be seen while on vacation?!  I wish work life felt that efficient sometimes!

Thursday, November 27, 2014

Happy Thanksgiving!

Thanksgiving 2014 was awesome!  Although I didn't hit up 3 dinners like I did last year, SMS was here which made for a perfect Thanksgiving. We have so much to be thankful for and it was really a perfect day. 
Fuji-san wants in on the party!
I started off with a 5 mile run, which felt pretty good. I'm trying to be a little more consistent with my working out and a little bit of pre-Thanksgiving cardio never hurts. Plus, SMS and I are traveling Friday and Saturday and we're packing light (aka, no workout clothes!).
So, the main event of the day was Turkey Time, hosted by our good friends Zac and Emily. I think I've mentioned before on this blog but we have found such a wonderful group of friends here in Japan. It seemed that all of us were in town for this holiday (not always the case for long weekends), so we converged on Z&E's house for an epic Thanksgiving dinner. 
Sides and apps, just waiting for the bird!
SMS and I brought cranberry sauce, Kentucky bourbon sweet potatoes, Brussels sprouts in hazelnut butter, a chocolate mousse in phyllo crust (thanks Martha!) and very dense but tasty pretzel Parker House rolls. The spread is above and it was awesome!  Rolls, stuffing (2), green bean casserole (2), mashed potatoes, more cranberry sauce and buffalo chicken meatballs. 

The Turkeys were fried and delicious!  There was also a ham but I didn't have any. There were about 20 people and so much food. We went around the room and we all said things we were grateful, which was pretty sweet but not overly sappy. 
Desserts featuring the 2014 Pie-Off!
Speaking of very sweet though, the amount of desserts was insane. I had a brief few minutes of being overly full after I drank a big glass of water but I recovered. While I was inside hanging out, SMS was outside totally dominating bocce ball. What a ringer and hidden talent!

The desserts included pies (pumpkin, cherry, chocolate phyllo, apple, pecan), pumpkin cheesecake, banana-peanut butter pudding and bread pudding. My favorites were the cherry pie by Emily and the Martha dessert I made. It was delicious but hard to serve so it won't be a go-to for me, but it was tasty and different so it was a winner for me. 

The night ended with a totally early 20s move by Carl convincing Adam that 6 people plus a dog could fit into Adam & Jen's little Japanese car. While we may have taken 5 years off the life of the car, it worked!  SMS and I got a ride home and it was a great end to the night. 

Monday, November 24, 2014

Roller Derby Weekend, aka Sore!

Yokota Hanger 15

A roller derby camp was offered in Yokota last weekend and SMS and I decided we wanted to go. I figure that if I'm going to commit to roller derby, I need to jump start my skill set!

On Saturday, I woke up early and headed to Yokota. SMS had two photo shoots so he was going to train up later in the day and attend the second day of camp.  There was a fair bit of traffic and I arrived shortly after warm-up.  We went through a lot of drills that day and although I was one of the newest players there, I didn't feel completely over my head. Close, though!

SMS arrived later that evening and we went to Banzai Burrito.  We had quesadillas that were pretty good but would not be mistaken for SoCal Mexican food!

Sunday was a huge derby day- 0900-1830. I participated in my first scrimmage which was a sensory overload but a lot of fun. By the end, I was a little sore but I really had a nice time.  It was a total immersion experience!  We drove two of the women home to Ikego after a nice dinner at Chillis.  I had the quesadilla firecracker salad and it was pretty good!  I slept like a rock that night and wasn't exactly jumping out of bed the next morning for work.  It was more like very slow-moving and creaky!

SMS, gearing up!

Friday, November 21, 2014

'Till November!

I had a pretty good week!  I was on call and it was really quiet until Friday afternoon (of course), but even that wasn't too bad.  I did miss out on going to a medical conference in Tokyo but I was really mostly excited about the sashimi after the presentations so maybe I'll treat myself sometime this weekend and feel like I still got what I wanted!

There were a few interesting patients in clinic and I had a full OR day on Thursday.  I had some interesting cases and it was great to be back in the OR. I always hesitate to go into more detail on the blog because even if they are the most de-identified stories in the world, there's still something vaguely unprofessional-ish about it.  I think that's especially true since I work in a relatively small community.

SMS has had a busy photography week and taken some beautiful pictures.  He's so talented and he always finds little take-away points from each session, which I think is really cute.  I think it's an attractive quality when someone can do a great job but still be open to things that can be improved.

Tomorrow, I'm off to Yokota to Roller Derby Camp!  SMS will join me Saturday evening since we're staying up there for Sunday's session.  He had a prior photo shoot scheduled so he decided to forego the Saturday session.

Coming up: Thanksgiving (yay!) at our friends' house with a big group; a two-day trip to Kyoto to meet up with Marissa and Blake; a work holiday party; a weekend in Tokyo; Christmas and call; and a trip to Mt. Tremblant to see my family and ring in the New Year!!  

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