kyoto – day 1 (the eastern side)

Sometime after I got back from Okinawa, I decided I needed to go to Kyoto. And since this past weekend was our conference weekend for my church (meaning I didn’t need to lead the music), I decided it would be a perfect weekend to go. I booked a ryokan (a TripAdvisor recommendation) and bought my ticket (or what I thought was my ticket) for the Shinkansen. I decided I’d head down early-ish (not too early, though) Saturday morning and back Sunday night. It was a perfect plan. Except that I got to the train station later than I’d planned and, as it turned out, had only paid for my reserve seat, not the actual ticket. Thankfully, there are trains every 10 minutes, so I was able to get on one about an hour later (I needed a window seat, thus the wait).

And the window seat proved worth the wait…

Instagram shot of Fuji-san…I’m pretty much in love with this photo
nice camera on crappy settings…maybe if I edit it?

So,  I arrived in Kyoto and took a taxi to the very lovely Gion Maifukan to drop off my stuff before heading out to find some food and start touristing. The super nice desk staff gave me maps and directions and I was off.

I had a lovely lunch (I love udon noodles soooo much!) followed by a lovely treat and a Japanese treat shop (recommended by one of the managers I support at work and conveniently close to where I was staying) of this crazy cold noodles that you dip in this black, treacly goodness called kuzukiri. Amazing!

Udon served cold with dipping sauce and amazing tempura

kuzukiri

After eating, I hopped on the bus up to the Silver Temple: Ginkaku-ji. It’s in the northwest corner of the city and there’s a path you can follow that leads back to where I was staying with several templs along the way, so I decided to start there. But, before I got to the temple, I had to snap a shot of these pedi-cabs powered by humans running while wearing ninja shoes. Kind of awesome. Talk about a great way to keep in shape!

Well, the Ginkaku-ji (or Temple of the Silver Pavilion as it’s called in English) was incredible. I knew at once that I had made the right choice by coming to Kyoto and doing it before things got too crowded. The fall (which happens mid-November) is amazing and it draws huge crowds. So, while I would love to see Kyoto in its full autumn splendor, I was happy to not be contending with crowds any bigger than what was there last weekend.

Proof of the craziness that Japanese women inflict upon themselves
The street that leads up to the temple…can you imagine what it would be like more crowded than this?

I then started walking down the Philosopher’s Walk, but found myself quickly at another temple, Honen-in. This one much smaller, but beautiful in a very quiet way.

And then it was back down the path. I understand why philosophers would have walked along this particular way. It’s so quiet and peaceful and the perfect combination of water, trees, views, and light. I could have walked along the path all day and then some.

This moth/bee thing was crazy, so of course I needed a photo.

Just a fish swimming upstream…

My last temple stop of the day was Eikan-do.

And with this, the temples began to shut their gates.

So, still being quite a trek from my little Japanese inn, I found the bus and rode it back to my part of town. At this point, my room was ready and I took a much needed break on my very comfortable futon.

And then I headed out to find dinner, but first I had to capture proof that I can be a cute tourist.

Unfortunately, I didn’t get any shots of my lovely dinner. I found this great little teppanyaki place (Japanese style, not American) and had a lovely noodle dishes and a very dry ginger ale. A perfect end to a close to pretty amazing day. Up next…day two!

a little (or a lot really) more okinawa

So, the main reason I went to Okinawa was to dive. But, as I got there a little earlier than I needed to and you can’t fly within 24 hours of your last dive, I did squeeze in some other activities. And I even managed to put some makeup on…once.

But before I can even get to Okinawa, let’s discuss my little oversight when booking my flight. I went for cheap, and thus ended up on a 6:00 am flight from Narita. Now, in NY, a 6:00 am flight is not a big deal. You can take the subway, or the bus, or hop in a cab for a max of $60. In Tokyo, there is no bus or cab early enough to get you to Narita at 6:00am, let alone by 6:00am. And a cab ride? Around $200. So, upon realizing this two days before my departure, I had to book a hotel by the airport.

Freak rainstorm hit while I enjoyed a little pit stop to visit my friend Chelsea. Note to all: always carry an umbrella in Tokyo if you’re not going to check the weather.

Professing a cheap price and airport shuttle, I booked a two star hotel. Well, two star was probably a little generous. This picture illustrates pretty sell what the rest of the experience was like. On top of which, oh, no airport shuttle before 6:30 am. What the what? But at least it was only a $25 cab ride… But hey, it was a bed for a few hours of sleep and a quick trip to the airport. And the combined cost of the hotel and the cab…less than half what the cab ride would have been. How ridiculous is that?

So, after my flight, I had a few hours to kill in Naha (the “big” city where the airport is) before I needed to hop on the bus to head north, so I decided to go see this castle at the end of the monorail line. It had some amazing views and was a good little excursion. In addition to that, I got to see a little dance performance and just enjoy seeing a new city. It’s so different from Tokyo. Much more Hawaii feeling…but older and a little more Asian (but only a little).

And then it was time to take the bus and head to the American Village to meet Jan, the dive dude. He was much younger than I expected, but super nice (as stated before–not sure why I didn’t take a photo with him) and I was just so happy to be getting back in the ocean with a tank strapped to my back.

We went for two dives over these beautiful soft coral reefs. Visibility was not great, but given that there was a typhoon just four days earlier, that was to be expected. It was still incredible. I’ve never seen that much soft coral before. And so many beautiful fish. I was also reminded how much I don’t love beach entry diving…but also how quick it is. One of my favorite things was that Jan had this new type of BC, at least new to me. They are super stripped down and have a heavy plate on the back so it’s a lot easier to hover and achieve neutral buoyancy. Also, the don’t make you feel quite so think and stay-puffy. Yes, that’s a technical term.

Jan loaded up lots of tanks for all of our dives over the next two days. That’s a lot of air.

After those first two dives, Jan drove me up to the pension (like a cheap B&B) where he’d made me a reservation for two nights. The cutest little house in the world with the nicest woman…who spoke no English. It was fantastic. He also showed me where a couple of restaurants were for dinner just a short walk from the pension.

After Jan dropped me off and I got settled, I headed to the restaurant he called “authentic Okinawan cuisine” which also had live music happening. It was so great. The food was delicious (I was introduced to taco rice) and the music was so fun and the people were so friendly. I was the only white girl in the whole place.

Great light fixtures
Rocks and grass (fake of course) on the ceiling. So funky.
Okinawa is all about the pig…
Including pig ears. Can you see them? Hint, they’re super thin slices.
Super fun singers! See video below. The song is one you hear all over Okinawa.

The next day was all about diving. It started with a very Japanese breakfast (of which I tried a little of everything…pickled plums are something I will never have again, and marinated seaweed I can live without, as well. The pineapple, however, was amazing!

Jan picked me up and we headed to the dock to meet a number of other divers. We were going out for three boat dives. I was so excited. And it was incredible (the photos of the actual dive were already posted in my dive post).

Between dives we got off the boat and had some lunch. I couldn’t resist a wander over to the beach and this Shisa was just calling out to me to take his photo. So cute! (Click the link for the story…it’s pretty cool and they are all over Okinawa and Kyoto (as I found out this weekend).

Shisa

I wish I’d had my own underwater camera to take on the boat because the views were amazing, but it was way to wet for anything that wasn’t water proof. The dives were all great and it was fun to have lots of company on the boat (not that I could understand most of them, except for Jan and the couple that was diving with us). There was a group of underwater photographers and it was cool to see them get all set up under the water for photo shoots of various things. In addition to that, I got to do my first hole and tunnel diving. I don’t think cave diving is in my future…but holes and tunnels are pretty amazing.

I got back to the pension completed exhausted, lightly sun-kissed, and super salty–basically in the best state one can be in. I fell into bed knowing, but only after telling the pension lady (I don’t know what you call her) that I would need to have breakfast at 7am. We had an early start to go diving with the whale sharks.

And that experience is one I will remember for the rest of my life. Swimming with such a huge animal and being able to reach out and pet it. Seriously incredible.

After that, the diving was done so there would be time for the nitrogen build up in my blood to release prior to getting on a plane. It’s one of my favorite things about destination diving. You have to take the last day and relax. And relax I did.

I decided to spend my last night at more of a beach hotel than a budget pension. Granted, it wasn’t super luxurious, but with views like this and a location on the beach, who needs uberluxe? I spent the afternoon laying out and walking along the beach. It was just lovely.

When that was done, I needed to figure out what to do for dinner (the hotel restaurant left a little to be desired) and I was ready to put on real clothes and some makeup. So, I got dressed and headed down the road on a lovely walk during which I got to watch the sunset and stop as often as I wanted.

By the time I finally got to a any kind of civilization, I’d walked about two miles, but it was totally worth it, especially because it was this place we’d driven by four times in the past two days and it was this great touristy place with an awesome shop and several restaurants. Think Dole Plantation in Hawaii..but instead of pineapple, they had all of these purple potato treats (an Okinawan thing). I enjoyed yakiniku (Japanese version of Korean bbq) for dinner and then shopped my little heart out. It was a perfect last night in Okinawa.

Me and a giant tart

Monday morning I took a nice long walk on the beach and saw some fun creatures and collected some shells.

The I packed up and headed to the bus stop to get back down to the airport, stick my bags in a locker, and go do a little more damage in Naha. I was hoping to get a few more things for the nieces and nephews and I still needed to get my bowl. Naha actually has an entire pottery district, but I wasn’t sure I’d be able to find it in time, so I headed to the main tourist drag and figured I’d find something there. I ended up missing my stop, which put me right in the neighborhood for the pottery district and I found these amazing ramen bowls. (Shown back at my apartment with delicious, homemade tonkatsu.)

I also got to see some awesome t-shirts (among lots of other shopping).

Rad Wimps. Japanese translation for Hipster.

And I ended up getting so much stuff I had to buy a new, awesome bag to get it all home in.

One of my nieces is going to be super excited about this…

I would love to say that the rest of the trip was uneventful, but that would be a lie. Nothing major. Just a piece of luggage stuck on the baggage carousel with no one able to figure out how to get it unstuck and the rest of stuck waiting for baggage for about 30 minutes. But, considering what an amazing vacation it was, small price to pay.

The end. Up next…Kyoto.

korean food

Two weeks later… In case you thought this whole Asian experience is just fun and games, it’s not. I am here to work and work has been busy and I’ve been exhausted. So, back to Korea (which I can’t believe was two weeks ago)…

I became a huge fan of Korean food after having it all of two times in NYC, so I was super excited to actually go to Korea and try the food there. (If you ever make it to NYC…you know, since Korea might not be the top of your travel list, pay a visit to Koreatown. Worth it.)
I had a list of foods to try. Sadly I didn’t get to all of them. But I did try some I didn’t know about. Amazing. Enjoy!
Wood coals all ready to go for my delicious galbi. This place was recommended by one of my apps…it was amazing.
Meat cooking… I don’t think I could ever be a vegetarian.

And cooked. All the little dishes are various forms of vegetables, most pickled, including kimchi–a Korean specialty.
This was the display outside a “restaurant” where I did not eat. The vat in the back with the red soup in it was some sort of soup (duh)…and it just didn’t look super sanitary. I also found it funny that they cover their fake food in plastic wrap. I’m assuming it’s fake anyway…
While I’m all for street food, this assortment of meats and fish sitting out in the open (not especially cold) air for who knows how long didn’t work for me either. 

And then I came across fried dough with veggies and noodles inside (they had a bulgogi one, but they were out of it by that point in the evening). It was delicious. But since when is anything wrapped in dough and fried not delicious.
This is possibly my favorite street in Seoul (of the ones I was on). It’s this great little tourist trap with all sorts of shops, restaurants, and street vendors. I might have spent half of a day there.

The Korean version of ebelskiver filled with red bean paste. I didn’t have any (not a huge bean paste fan), but it was super fun to watch this woman work at lightening speed making them. 

These are little pillows made out of super fine threads of sugar (floss) and filled with nut mixture. The video below shows the people making them. Kind of fun.  I actually only had one of these after I got back (I bought some at the airport to take back to my coworkers) because I wasn’t super excited about eating them. But I should have been because they were good. And I bet they were even better fresh.

There were lots of waffle places around. Not sure why. But I finally broke down and had one because they just looked too good. And they were good! 

Yeah. More fried dough. This one was filled with a brown sugar and almond concoction. Koreans like to fry things.

Ginormous dumplings. Again with the frying.

Just in case you need to get your drink on without missing a beat. Yes, plastic bags. Keepin’ it classy Korean style.

Another little ebelskiver thing happening…only this one was automated. Super old school technology…and totally effective. 

These are a sort of ice-cream cone. They had them hanging here and then you waited in line to have one filled with soft-serve. I also didn’t try this (there’s only so much a girl can eat in a day), but they looked awesome.

Bibimpap. Recommended by several people and a first for me. It’s this rice and veggie concoction that comes in this iron bowl, still sizzling.

cooking again

When I moved here, I decided I was going to really commit to observing Sunday as a religious day of rest, per my religion. In New York, I wasn’t super, well, religious about this. But I know I’m a happier person when I actually make Sunday a break from the every day. Plus, I figured it would be good to have one day when I wasn’t eating out. And so, after the first week (I am realistic in my goals…I arrived on Saturday at 5 pm), I have been very committed to this. This meant I was actually going to have to cook again…at least if I was going to eat real food.

The first thing I did was figure out how to use my Japanese rice maker that has no English on it anywhere. And while we’re on the topic of rice, can we just all acknowledge that Japanese rice is better? I know most of you haven’t actually had rice in Japan, but I’m telling you, it’s amazing. So good, in fact, that I’ll be hauling a two-kilo bag home for my sister in November because she likes rice even more than I do. Moving on…

I figured out the rice and just started with something basic. I absolutely love to bake, but cooking is a whole different ball game. It’s not that I don’t enjoy it, but it’s more about speed than precision and I was made just the opposite. Even when I’m making savory things, everything I’m good at is something you put together and bake (swiss cheese chicken, leg of lamb, lasagna, Thanksgiving turkey…yes, my repertoire is weird) or something that requires people to cook their own food (fondue, raclette, paninis), so actual cooking without a recipe…not my strength.

Well, apparently, basic was a good place to start because it was delicious.  It might also help that I think the Japanese have much less tolerance for mediocrity (yeah, that’s right, I’m calling most Americans mediocre) when it comes to food. They are definitely quality over quantity.

So, this was a good start. But then, a couple of weeks ago, I was at my friend Holly’s house for dinner and she had made tonkatsu (this delicious breaded pork amazingness that I’d had one at a restaurant) using chicken instead of pork and it was so good. As good as the restaurant’s, in fact (you know, if the pork had been chicken…). And Holly also informed me, by showing it to me, that you can purchase tonkatsu sauce in the grocery store. It is available in the US, as well.  
Restaurant version

Well, that inspired me to branch out a little and try a fancier stir fry. It turned out quite nicely (I used squash instead of carrot and overcooked that slightly, but otherwise, it was delicious). That’s what I struggle with the most…getting all of the components of a meal hot, cooked, and ready at the same time. Baking is soooooo much easier.

And then I was at Holly’s again, to babysit while she and her husband went out on a date (maybe their first one sans baby since moving to Japan?), and she had made another delicious meal. This time it was gyudon, this super yummy beef on rice thing (bottom right) along with no-bake cookies (and they had a DDP for me, which is not an easy thing to find in this country, a cute baby, and Hulu Plus–if you want me to babysit for you, it doesn’t require much to make me happy).

Side note – I kind of love Mindy Kaling’s new show.
I know the gyudon may not be much to look at, but let me assure you it was unbelievable. I might have considered licking the frying pan. I didn’t, although I’m sure none of you would have been surprised if I had with only a baby to witness it. In any case, this convinced me to do two things. The first? To attempt making tonkatsu (it seemed easier than gyudon). The second? To buy a Japanese cook book. 

So, on Saturday while out and about with another friend, Erika, we found a bookstore and she, being Japanese, helped me find a really good cookbook. We went to a huge store in this lovely part of town, had dessert (it has a restaurant in it), and then wandered over to the cookbook section and found a few books in English. I’m super excited to try so many of the recipes. Unfortunately, the only recipe not in the book I chose was gyudon (it might have been in another book by the same woman and I might have taken pictures of the recipe…it makes me feel better to know I found almost the same one online when I got home that night).

And on Sunday, I made tonkatsu using pork. I didn’t follow the recipe in the book (here’s one from the Food Network if you want to try it). I just did what Holly did and it was incredible. Hot and crispy on the outside, tender and juicy on the inside. The only difference between this and the restaurant in terms of the cooking was that I pan fried, while traditionally it’s deep fried. My Japanese teacher, Sawaki-sensie, also informed me that it is typically served with cabbage. Next time. That said, it was still so delicious and how delectable does it look on a bed of oh-so-delicious sticky?

The best part about this goal to not go out to eat on Sundays (or shop, etc, etc) is that this cooking thing is now spilling over into my weekday life, too. Part of it is that some night’s I’m just so exhausted that the thought of having to use my brain enough to try and order food in Japanese is too much to handle. But the other part is that I’m not so overwhelmed by it anymore. Oh, and knowing that, if I leave my dishes in the sink all week (rinsed, of course), on Friday the cleaning lady will do them. Yeah, my life is pretty awesome. Now, don’t you wish you lived here so I could invite you over for dinner?

even i have limits

So, I have always been one who believes in trying everything at least once (well, when it comes to food). I don’t like everything I’ve ever tried, but I am willing to try it. Yesterday tested my commitment to this belief. Maybe not more than ever (the caterpillar on my mission was by far the craziest thing I’ve ever tried), but it was quite the adventure.

I decided that I would head down to the Tsukiji Fish Market yesterday morning. The goal was to get down there in time for the auction that happens at the butt crack of dawn…but that didn’t happen. So I headed down a little later to see it (get the lay of the land for when I do have the motivation to get up at 3:30 am to head down) and to get some of the freshest sushi in the world.

This is a long row of restaurants next to the actual market. The ones with sushi have lines.  The others, not so much.

I waited in line a LONG time for this sushi, so I was hoping it was going to be worth it. And worth it, it was! Seriously, the sushi was amazing. So delicious. That said, when I was still in line (staring in the window) I saw one of the sushi chefs put this piece of nigiri in front of a customer and it moved. Yes, it MOVED. I knew I was going to eat it because, well, that’s just what I do. But I was kind of nervous about it.

All of those umbrellas? People in line for one of the sushi places. My line looked about the same. Totally worth it!

The itty-bitty sushi place where I ate. This is where I first saw the clam. Notice that it’s so small, there’s a shelf above divers’ heads for their bags. Even tighter than in NY

Anyway, I finally got seated and waited with anticipation for the piece of super fresh clam. However, before we got to that, I had a piece of sea urchin. Let me tell you, if you are going to venture into sushi for the first time (or you’re a “California Roll” type), DO NOT get sea urchin. The flavor is fine, but the texture? So nasty. And this coming from the girl who has eaten a caterpillar.

So, after I got through the sea urchin, I was just waiting for the clam. Everything else was delicious, but I was slightly preoccupied with thoughts of the clam. Oh, and being told when I could and couldn’t use soy sauce. These sushi chefs? Super nice, but very serious about their sushi. And then the clam came. Unfortunately, I didn’t have my iPhone ready to go for the video, even though I’d been thinking about it constantly since I’d seen it. Fortunately, it was so good that I felt just fine about ordering a second piece. Amazing! (Watch the lower left side of the piece…you may have to watch a couple of times to catch it.)

But the really adventurous eating came later, at the yakitori place my friend (yes, I have some friends!!!) and I went to for dinner. Yakitori, for those who don’t know, is a kind of Japanese bbq (small little skewers of assorted meats and vegetables). It’s fairly straight forward. There are some adventurous types of fish and parts of chicken you can order, but everything is cooked (and seriously delicious). Note to self: when you think something’s safe, think again.

So, when this little bowl was put in front of me full, you can understand why I was slightly shocked (and nervous) about trying it:

Fish heads, fish heads…

Yeah…so all those little silver/black specks. Eyes. Eyes on little fish. Eyes staring at me. They kind of look more like worms with eyes to me. Somehow I stomached it (the flavor was fine–once I poured some soy sauce on it–and underneath was a big things of very mild, shredded daikon), but I don’t know that I will be doing that one again. Seriously, it was a little much. Even for me. In fact, looking at this picture kind of makes me feel uncomfortable.

I’m not sure how much more adventurous I will be able to get. Not that there aren’t more things to try, but seriously, I feel like I’ve reached my limit.

For those of you with more normal palettes, please know that there is a lot of really good, very normal food in Japan. You do not (I repeat, Rae, do not) have to be an adventurous eater to enjoy Japan. Like tonight, I’m going to my friend’s apartment (yes, that’s TWO! friends) for dinner and we’re having tankatsu (delicious, breaded pork…only she’s making chicken) and rice. Very basic. Very good.