Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Nagano Weekend- Ogawayama and Matsumoto Castle

Last week, I looked at my schedule and thought, "Wait a minute…"  On Friday, I had nothing scheduled and nothing pressing was due.  So, I decided to take a three-day weekend!  SMS and I had been talking about rock climbing and how happy it makes him so we decided to take a trip.  He was in charge of the climbing and I was in charge of the camping organization.

So, I went into the tatami room closet and pulled out everything I needed for an awesome car camping weekend: sleeping pads, sleeping bags, little camping pillows, tarp, tent, stadium chairs, foldable table and grill.  We also went shopping and bought some delicious food, along with ice for the cooler.  The menu included beef lettuce wraps, eggs, PB&J and grilled cheese sandwiches.  We also brought curry along but didn't end up eating it.

Friday morning, I went into work really early to participate in the "Moto Run," which is a monthly command run.  I hadn't done it until Friday, which may seem like a strange time to decide to start but this month, the Officers were in charge so I had to show up and represent.  While it was more of a jog than a run, it was fun mostly due to the cadence callers.  I want to learn some good cadences now!

I answered a few emails and then headed home around 8 after making sure my leave chit was submitted.  SMS and I packed up the car and we were off before 10.

The drive up was about 4 hours.  We headed North past Yokohama then made a left West just outside of Shibuya.  There was some traffic in Tokyo, which led to an inadvertent adventure when Google Maps asked if we wanted a re-route.  I pushed the accept button and while I think we saved time, I also think we went down streets that were never meant to be streets!  We went on some side roads near Umegaoka-eki and they were so narrow and full of people.  It was nerve-wracking driving although I was only the passenger at that point!  The neighborhood looked really cool though and SMS and I want to head back and explore.  We will definitely take the train though!
Yes, this hot dog is wrapped in an American Flag.  It was right next to the dessert
stand with "Let It Go" from Frozen on repeat
Once we headed West on the Expressway, the cityscape quickly yielded to beautiful green hills.  We stopped at a rest stop for lunch.  It was packed.  We took a few pictures, but I always want to be careful about taking too many pictures of strangers.  Next, we got off the Expressway and headed to the campsite on some rural roads- they were paved but lots of tractors.  We made a brief stop at a momo (peach) stand and bought two delicious white peaches.
We pulled up to the camp ground and pulled our ticket from the machine, which raised the gate.  For some reason, the gates were on the "American" side of the road, but the rest of the road was driven on the "Japanese/British" side.  We found a gorgeous campsite and set up our gear.  We went on a hike near the large creek to check out some climbing for the next day.  The creek was fun to cross with lots of stepping stones although I have become more hesitant in my old age!  The rock looked great- granite, sticky and lots of features and we were excited for the next morning.
From L to R: First campsite, The Jerks <:(, Second Campsite
Dinner featured delicious beef lettuce wraps.  We went to bed pretty early and then were woken up by a large group of young Tokyo-ites who pulled into the campground in the middle of the night, set up their tents all around us and then sat around the campfire drinking sake until 4.  I was so mad.  There was so much room and they had to set up there?!?!  *Grumble, grumble, get off my lawn!*  They weren't yelling but it was pretty rude and I forgot my earplugs.  As they were wrapping it up, I heard one ask, "Nan-ji ka?"roughly, what time is it.  I wanted to yell out, "4, you *%&$#^*&%!" but I decided that would not make me a good ambassador for my country.

Left: Our rock climbing route, Top Right: Panorama Trail View, Bottom Right: SMS before entering the creek
Saturday was climbing day!  I felt pretty rested despite the ok sleep.  After breakfast, SMS and I headed to the rock.  We met a really nice guy who had visited the US several times for extended periods so he told us a lot about the routes.  We found one of the best in the area and climbed it- SMS led and I followed.  My climb was not pretty.  I am really out of practice and, I hate to admit it, not as strong as last year, whah!  I'm glad I went because I'm motivated to work on a better fitness routine but it was humbling.  I tore up my hands pretty well so I belayed SMS on another pitch.  By that point, the rock was pretty crowded so we headed back down for an early lunch.  Afterwards, we decided to do other outdoorsy things so we played in the creek (freezing!) and went on a hike.  The Panorama trail was absolutely beautiful.  It was about 2-2.5 miles and led to a breathtaking vista (as the name would imply, otherwise that would be a mean joke!).  We opted for Gruyere, tomato and avocado grilled cheese for dinner and it was delicious!  Maybe I'll work on my car camping/glamping cookbook next!
L: Creek R: SMS in our campsite
After dinner, we headed to the onsen.  For Y400, we got to shower and bathe in the ryokan's onsen.  Yes, there's a ryoken on the campground, too.  I imagine a stay is pretty reasonably priced since a fair amount of the facilities are open to campers for a small fee.  Now seems like a good time to go into the campground amenities.  There was a building with flush toilets, a building with pit toilets that actually smelled better than the flush toilet building, a hot shower building, a large kitchen trough-like sink for dishes, many fire rings and a small convenience store in the ryokan lobby.  There we bought our guidebooks.  There are also hibachi grills to rent,  along with charcoal and wood to buy.  My cooking repertoire is going to expand, I can feel it!

That night we had much better sleep since it was cooler and the whole campground was quiet by 10.  *Grumble, grumble!*  We had actually switched sites to be further away from the loud group and the parking lot, which did help but I think it was the Japanese courtesy towards the group that led to the rule following.  The campsite parking lot was full that night, compared to the night before when there were 8 cars, max.
So many cows!

On Sunday, SMS and I were feeling a little lazy so we decided to sightsee rather than force outdoor adventure.  I had read about Matsumoto Castle, which was about 2 hours away.  We ate breakfast, packed up our bags and headed off.  On our way out, we stopped at the cow field I noticed on the drive in.  There were several hay bales with the cutest anime cows printed.  I took several pictures.  We also went into the little market, which was a dairy store attached to a full-sized dairy.  We bought cheese and a small yogurt drink.  Both were delicious!
1. Left: SMS and I with some rando who wandered into the picture, ha ha 2. Right: Matsumoto

We arrived in Matsumoto, parked and walked to the castle.  Just outside the gate was a tent set up by the ALSA Goodwill Association with a banner saying, "Free English Tours."  We decided to go for it and had a great tour by Tadasi-san.  He was very knowledgeable and it was fun to have a deeper explanation of the castle's history.  One of the more fascinating aspects was his explanation of several stories contained within a large mural painting on display.  From the mid-far right going clockwise, the storyline of an entire battle, complete with heroes, legends, victory and defeat was all contained within this one painting.  It was fascinating.  Tadasi-san learned about it after watching an art history documentary on Japanese National Television.
Left: Another view of Matsumoto, Right: SMS, Tadasi and I
We also learned that the castles in Japan are ranked based on the amount of reconstruction.  Matsumoto castle is one of the four castles that are National Treasures because they have minimal restoration.  Matsumoto is also the oldest castle in Japan, built in 2 years (!) in 1853.  We also learned about the history of guns in Japan (also contained within the painting) as well as the architecture, complete with the strong belief in shrines, charms and spirits to protect building from fire.  There are shrines within the building and the wooden building have these fantasy creatures from Japan, half-fish half-dragon that are on the roof.  They are supposed to be able to hold a vast amount of water which they can then spray on the building.

After the tour, we bade Tadasi farewell and had a soba noodle lunch before hitting the road, along with everyone else heading back to Tokyo.  After crawling in traffic near Odawara, we decided to brave the coastal route because we figured nothing could be slower than the highway back to Tokyo.  Fortunately, we were right and the road was surprisingly empty.  We stopped at Cantina for Neapolitan pizza and a Caesar salad.  It was delicious.  Then we hopped on the expressway home, unpacked the things that would otherwise smell if left in the car and called it a day.

It was a great weekend!  I really want to go back and I've already started prelim planning for a group trip over Labor Day.  We'll see what comes up between now and then, but if it works out, it'll be so much fun!

Monday, July 21, 2014

Mellow July

SMS in the Class B Finals
 SMS and I have had some pretty mellow weekends lately, which has been really nice.  Well, I should say that my weekends have been pretty mellow.  SMS has been busy.  Two weekends ago he had two photo shoots that took up his whole day.  Last Sunday, he competed in a bouldering competition at a local gym.  Gamba!  He was subarashi and did really well.  I was really proud of him and I was his #1 fan.
That evening, we hung out with two of our San Diego friends in Yokohama.  We ate at a Scandinavian place that I'd like to go back to and order the variety plate and several smoorebrods.  Maybe I should just learn how to make them- I think of several lunches I had in Denmark with very fond memories, especially at Ida Davidsen and the restaurant at Kronborg Castle.  Yum, yum, yum!  We ended up having a very leisurely dinner since we were trying to wait out a rainstorm.  It was a great night, even if we didn't get a chance to see the Yokohama fireworks.

Backtracking to Saturday, we went to Kamiooka and browsed through a camera store, had very expensive tea (oops, but still, it was just tea so it wasn't too bad) and then went to a mid-afternoon party at one of the anesthesiologist's house.  It was a really fun get-together and we ended up staying 4 hours.  Don't worry, other people did too!  It was great company and a lot of good conversation.  By the end, SMS and I were ready to leave but as SMS said, "Not overly ready to leave."

We've also had some pretty good local meals.  Sitar is becoming our go-to Indian restaurant.  It's about half-way between our place and the train station.  The dal is delicious- very savory and rich without being overly creamy.  The curries are really tasty- we've had the dal mutton, sag paneer, butter chicken and chicken keema.  We talk to the waiter and cook in a nice Jinglish mixture and we (unfortunately for their business) tend to have the place to ourselves.   The spice intensity can heat up quickly but "normal" seems to be working out for us lately.
Two mediums make a large!

SMS and I finally made it to Amiyaki-Tei Yakiniku together.  I had been twice before, but together, we had only been to Kalbi House.  Amiyaki is a little cheaper and delicious.  We had great meat, fried veggies and the best beer deal in Japan.  We each ordered a large and the woman comes to our table with four large glasses.  Well, they were actually "mediums" and according to her, "Two mediums, one large!"  They were out of large mugs so I think the math worked out in our favor.
Delicious Soup
Nope, nope, nope.

We also made it back to Hamakura, which has significantly upped the ante on their "Aigo no menu."  There are beautiful pictures and multiple pages.  I ordered "the popular set" which consisted of a whole fish (dead) arched on the plate surrounded by sashimi and sushi from that very same fish.  Once I was done, the owner took the fish away and 10 minutes later, came back with the fish chopped up in several pieces and stewed in miso broth.  Yum!  I most definitely did not eat the eyeballs, but almost everything else was fair game.
Part of Bird's Nest beautiful kitchen

Finally, today we had the set lunch at the "Bird's Nest Restaurant." I had heard a lot about it from the XO's wife and I've really wanted to try it.  Well, while we were on our way to Pepper Lunch, we decided to walk one more block and try it out.  For Y800, we had a delicious set lunch with rich miso soup, tuna bowl for SMS and fried fish for me (slight mistake, I didn't read closely enough but it was good) and unlimited oolong tea.  I definitely want to go back, not just for the awesome lunch but to also try the set course dinner.

Friday, July 11, 2014

Fourth of July and Local Notes

SMS and I had a fun party for the 4th of July.  The base was having fireworks and we knew we'd have a great view from our balcony.  I cooked up a taco bar fiesta (chicken tinga, oven-fried carnitas, potato/egg/olive) and we had several friends over.  We had so much fun.  I feel really lucky that we've met such a great group of people and so quickly too.  We hung out, watched fireworks and played Cards Against Humanity.

July has been going well.  The hydrangeas are gorgeous, although the bloom season is almost complete.  The weather is starting to become very humid so I will soon start a hair products search for anti-humidity/frizz (fascinating, right?)

SMS and I went to LaLaPort, a mall up in Yokohama.  The clothing stores here are great for thin people and SMS had some really nice finds.  He looks very stylish and is a true ikemen!  In order to make sure he is able to fit in his thin clothes, we decided to eat a macadamia nut waffle.  It was delicious!  I love the Hawaiian restaurants in Japan- the food is superb!

Finally, here's a picture of our favorite yakitori place just outside our train station Horinouchi.  The yakitori is delicious and the people there, both owners and patrons, are really nice.
I'll take all of them!

Wednesday, July 9, 2014

Misawa Wrap-Up

After a great weekend, SMS and I left Misawa on Monday.  It's been a couple of weeks since I've been in Misawa so I wanted to write a few last notes, even if it's slightly disjointed.

*The weekend was made infinitely better by not staying in the Misawa Inn.  We stayed at a family's house while they were away and it was so nice to be in a home, even if it wasn't our home.
Takara Sushi.  Do you see the shrimp on the left.  Yeeks.

*During the week prior, we had some pretty good meals.  Thunder ramen was delicious.  We also went to Takara sushi, known locally by Americans as "Fear Factor Sushi" since they serve live shrimp sushi.  That did not appeal to me but someone I know was more adventurous and ate it.  Sagoy!  The sushi that I did eat was awesome and so fresh.  It was terrific!  There were aquariums in the store so I got to look at future dinners while eating my own.  Slightly disconcerting since I'm definitely a "fish and meat come from Styrofoam containers" type of person but I got over it since we went back twice!

*During the week, we went to the Misawa Aviation and Science Museum.  Misawa is very proud of that the Miss Vedol left from Misawa Beach on the trip to Washington, the first trans-Pacific flight.  SMS said it's because nothing has happened in Misawa since then (1931) and I'm inclined to agree.
Left: Pneumatic Tube/Top Right: Clearly, I think I'm in the Danger Zone/Bottom Right: Big Kid!

The museum was SO cool.  We were the only two people in there for most of our time, which seems so weird to me because it's American Summer Vacation and it seems like the perfect place for kids to explore and play, especially around the display planes outside that you can enter.  I found a big kid in one of the cockpits.

There were also a lot of interesting interactive science exhibits.  We flew a flight simulator.  We went in a pneumatic tube and got tossed around on an air column (we were strapped in seats, not free-floating like Charlie and his Grandfather in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory).  There was also a lens exhibit, sound tube, moon walk and helicopter steering ride. There was also a full-size impression device that I don't know the name of but it's a large version of the desk toy where you place your hands against blunt needle-like pins and it makes an impression of your hand.

*On the way home, we stopped at Ramen Alley in Tokyo Station.  We went to Honda, a shoyu-based ramen restaurant.  So, at this point, I've been to three of the ten ramen shops in Ramen Alley.  I'm not dying to try more, but if we are there, it would be fun to try a new one each time.  The reason I'm not dying to do it is that ramen isn't exactly good for the waistline.  I used to hear about people gaining weight when stationed in Japan and I didn't understand how that could happen in the land of sushi.  Well, even though I haven't gained weight, I understand how it's very easy because it's also the land of katsu, amazing pastries, ramen and all delicious fried things.

Tuesday, July 8, 2014

Misawa Weekend- Ryosendo Cave and Kitayamazaki Coast

Cement Factory- those sinks are for sale!
Sunday was a pretty epic road trip around the Aomori Prefecture.  We started with a quick trip to the cement factory, a collection of shops on the grounds of a former cement factory.  It's a huge used goods store and some of the finds are pretty awesome. The kitchenware store has everything you need to set up your own noodle or takoyaki stand.  I'm not sure if the equipment works but it was pretty tempting!  Alternate career, here I come!  There were also many statues, books, magazines and furniture.

Seafood for sale
Creative Display

Next was lunch at Hasshoku Center, informally known as the Hachinohe Fish Market.  We went to a restaurant with delicious sushi followed by a walk through the market.  It was awesome.  There were many vendors, including produce, meat and lots and lots of fish.  It was bustling and some of the seafood was unfamiliar in appearance to me.
Grill area and people waiting with their trays of food

The coolest part of the market was a section with many small charcoal grill coals where you could cook and eat your purchases.  Argh!  I was so full from lunch but it looked so cool!  People had shrimp, whole fish, oysters and scallops to grill.   Mmmmm, hopefully someday.  Even if I don't go back, I'm definitely hitting up the local Yokosuka oyster grill shacks next Spring.

Admiring Ryosendo Cave, picture by SMS
Then we piled into the car and drove down to Ryusendo cave.  It's a huge limestone cave with about 700 of its 5000 meters opened to the public.  There are three lakes and the blue water is so amazing, still and deep.  There are suspended lights in the water that provide hauntingly beautiful illumination.  Apart from the lakes, the other amazing thing was the huge staircase within the cave that brought us from the surface of the lake to about 35 m above.  I never thought I would have a fear of heights in a cave!  Actually, it wasn't the heights so much as the steepness of the staircase.

After admiring and walking through the cave complex, we headed back to the car and drove off to the East coast of Japan.  It's part of Rikuchukaigan National Park but we were specifically heading to the sea cliffs of Kitayamazaki Coast.  The park seemed closed apart from a busy construction crew but we headed out to the first and second (of three) lookouts.  It was totally gorgeous and I really wanted to walk down 530 stairs to the beach, but SMS pointed out that it was close to dinner and that there would also be 530 stairs to walk up.  I still felt up for it until halfway back from the second lookout along the fairly level stairs to the first viewpoint and then I decided I was weak from hunger.  So, no beach for either of us!

The coast drive itself was eerie and spectacular.  A lot of the coastline was devastated by the 2011 tsunami and now there are several industrial construction sites fortifying the coast with sea-walls, lock-type walls to regulate water levels and huge shoreline concrete reinforcements that look like a giant's set of jacks. It was Sunday and there was no activity so combined with the fog, it felt very other-wordly, abandoned and even post-apocalyptic.  I sense a new setting for the next successful dystopian young adult series!

We started to head home and ate at an Italian restaurant that was ok.  It fit the bill- food + now.  We had wanted to see the Kuji cliffs and the Japanese women Ama divers but we ran out of time.  It was a very full day!

Friday, July 4, 2014

Aomori Weekend- Oirase Gorge

I feel the weekend made the whole trip worth it.  Don't get me wrong, the professional satisfaction is great, yeah, yeah, yeah, but it was really nice to see a different part of Japan while I stayed up North for my Monday clinic/post-op follow-ups.

On Saturday, SMS and I headed out to Oirase Gorge.  It's a 5 mile trail along Oirase stream between Yakeyama and Lake Towada.  Lake Towada is a huge caldera lake in the Aomori prefecture and Oirase stream is its only drainage stream/river.  The gorge is heavily wooded and very pretty.  I suspect that the most spectacular time to see it is in the Fall with the colorful foliage, but it was really nice for a Summer outing too.
Walking Map

My hiking companion- this cute guy is on every trail post sign!
We parked at the Yakeyama bus stop, where there was a small market and a pizza/salad place across the street.  I believe the name is Stone Oven Restaurant, which fits.  It's in North Village and also has a small gear store on the second floor.  We ate lunch and it was awesome!  There was a pizza and salad buffet.  The Neopolitan pizzas were small and tasty but where I really loaded up was at the salad bar.  There were so many yummy, fresh veggies.  Some were straight from their garden.  My favorites were the fresh peas and the sesame-seed glazed kabocha squash.  Delicious!

After fortifying ourselves, we hiked up the trail to the Oirase Stream Tourist Center.  We "spoke" with the Japanese version of Silent Bob.  Although we asked for directions in (admittedly poor Japanese), he didn't really talk back.  He pointed at a schematic map but that's all we had to go off of.  While SMS and I might not be the best Japanese speakers, we can usually figure out what people are saying.  Unfortunately in this situation, to paraphrase Allison Krauss, "You say it best when you say nothing at all" was not the case here.  SMS and I promptly hiked a mile down a different trail until we came across a sign in English that taunted us with its "You are here" dot for where we were was not where we wanted to be.

So, we back-tracked to the tourist center and hiked up towards the lake.  It was a nice level trail that was mostly along the river.  The road follows the river and the path sometimes let out onto the side of the road for a little ways.  I would call it the shoulder, but the road was really narrow and shared among cars, buses, bikers and hikers along certain parts.
Kumoi Waterfall
The main draw is the waterfalls.  They were really beautiful and everything was just so green and lush. In retrospect, most of the highlights are between Soube and the lake so starting at Yakeyama isn't mandatory but we were happy.
Choshi Ootaki Waterfall
Due to our inadvertent detour, we were a little behind schedule to catch the last bus so we ran for about 1/3 of the trail.  It actually made for beautiful trail running and I would highly recommend it as a running route, but maybe without a big backpack.  Due to our time constraints, we had planned on a hike one-way, bus back and it was actually a great way to do it.  On the JR bus back (Y630 between Lake Towada and Yakeyama), there was a Japanese/English audio recording that pointed out all the main waterfalls.  The driver even had certain set stopping points along the way.

Lake Towada
We headed back to Misawa and went to Kaminarido (aka Thunder Ramen) for dinner.  I had a delicious BBQ pork black ramen bowl.  The BBQ pork does not taste like BBQ sauce, but is a thicker slice of pork.  The black ramen is a sesame seed broth with burnt garlic oil/paste.  It is not the most subtle broth in the world but it is absolutely delicious and perfect after a day of hiking.

Wednesday, July 2, 2014

Misawa TDY

SMS and I went to Misawa Air Force Base last week so that I could see an ENT clinic and perform some surgeries.  Professionally, it was a nice trip.  It's a remote little place but people are very collegial. I saw a lot of consults and performed 8 small procedures- 6 tubes, 1 tube removal and 1 turbinate reduction.  So, it wasn't a week that will be featured on the hit show, "The Glamorous Lives of ENT Surgeons," but it was nice to help out and address a big backlog.

Misawa is always described as so far from Yokosuka, but it was only 5 hours away by train and Shinkansen.  SMS and I were burdened down with two suitcases, one exclusively dedicated to medical equipment and home sleep study machines.  Unfortunately, the seats on the Shin were sold out but we were lucky enough (ha, ha) to get standing seats.  The standing seats are assigned between specific cars and while it wasn't terrible, it was definitely not great.  Standing that long on a train isn't much fun and I couldn't even act like a kid and sit on the floor because it was covered in freshly spilled beer.  (Hey!  Not ours!  It was there when we got on!).
When we arrived in Hachinohe, we went to a restaurant in the train station for dinner.  We said, in our finest Japanese, "We'll have the most expensive set on the menu!!"  Well, what really happened is we saw the food the people next to us had and ordered their set, the Aomori set.  While it was the most expensive set on the menu, it was totally awesome!  There was miso soup, rice, pickled vegetables, salmon roe, fish and a cool scallop shell on a sterno cooking stove with the most delicious seafood soup.  Yum!  It hit the spot and since the most expensive item on the menu was still only Y2000, we thought it was totally worth it.

We got to the Misawa Inn, which smelled really badly.  I voted for moldy while SMS voted for old throw-up on the carpet.  Either way, it was definitely the low of the week.  Things picked up on the weekend when we stayed in the orthopedic surgeon's house after he left town for his own TDY.

The rest of the visit can pretty much be summarized in two posts: Misawa Eats and Aomori Weekend since the highlights of the trip focus on what we ate and what we did over the weekend we were there. Coming soon!