Posted by: Anna | January 17, 2012

Returning Home

We spent the month of December as nomads, roaming between the homes of friends and family who generously welcomed us (thanks y’all!). It was a whirlwind of catching up and being amazed that people had managed to have birthdays and new babies while we were away. (In my mind, everyone else remained frozen in time while I traveled. Turns out, not the case at all). It was a soft landing to return back to our previous lives.

The soft landing can only last so long, and eventually (January, time of so many new beginnings), it was time for one for us. We gathered our things and moved to Austin, where we know only a few people. I know very little about the city. I don’t know what we are going to do for work. But now that the last box is unpacked (okay, I have one left, but it’s just going to wait for a new burst of motivation), it’s time to address the burning question on everyone’s mind – what are you going to do for work? (Okay, I think it might actually be — when are you going to have babies!?! but I’m not answering that here.)

I haven’t felt ready to write a post wrapping up the trip until tonight, when I poured myself a glass of wine and sat down…and I felt ready. The trip was amazing. Most importantly, I think it gave Tommy and I the chance to really grow as a married couple and learn to work together better, be more patient, and understand each other’s way of communicating better. I cannot articulate very well the changes there, but I can feel them every day.

I think I have become a little gentler on others and myself. I made an unconventional choice, and I feel more openness to others who make unconventional choices. There are a million ways to live, many of which I haven’t chosen yet, but certainly I don’t know the future. I never dreamed I would take a trip for 14 months around the world. I’m sure plenty of people thought me a little crazy and irresponsible. It was the right choice for me. So – whatever to those people. And I am working on being less judgemental of others. We all have our own challenges and rough roads, poor choices and regrets. I don’t need to heap my foolishness or scorn on top of the climb for someone else. Keep yours off mine too. Being out of the loop of gossip within a circle made me appreciate more how very pointless and damaging it all is. I’m sure I’ll slip and I know I already have, but at least I have turned my face toward a different direction.

I have gained peace with less planning. By nature I am such a planner, wanting to research each decision in order to make the right one. Travel doesn’t allow for that, and often surprised us with delights in the least expected ways. I don’t need to make a plan for everything. I can trust that God will carry me forward. Patience.

I place more value on taking care of myself. I am more aware of my need for personal time and more aware of how to fill that time for maximum satisfaction. I am more spritually aware than I would have been attending church and listening to sermons each week (at least that’s how I feel). I can see my perspective a little clearer, and I have more peace with the fog and doubts that travel with me no matter where I go. Experiencing other religions in small ways only enhanced my own relationship with God, as did lots of quiet time away from the hustle and bustle.

I am excited to turn thirty in a few months. My twenties have been filled with surprises — marrying my college sweetheart, living in NYC, working in finance, starting a healthcare business with my Dad, taking a trip around the world….if you had asked me at 18 – not a single one of those would have been in my expectations for my twenties. Without a plan for work or really much else, I’m excited to see what adventures my thirties have in store.

Posted by: Anna | November 30, 2011

Finishing in Style

We’re home!  Sorry for the blog delay – our travelling laptop finally died in Indonesia and since returning home we’ve been lost in a fog of 40-hour travel, jet lag, tearful reunions and then car-buying.  So, while it’s exciting to be home and we’re so focused on looking forward, we’d be remiss to not recount a last bit of Indonesian awesomeness.

Having heard so many wonderful things about Bali, we made a conscious decision in July to finish our trip there.  Even though it made for a screwy routing; look at a globe – we skipped Indonesia between Malaysia and Australia, then went all the way to Japan before backtracking 3,473 miles just to spend 2 weeks in Bali before heading home.  Which made it really disappointing when Anna developed some sort of really nasty stomach illness (Bali Belly) during our first day in Ubud.  She was pretty sick for 6 of the last 9 days, finally getting better in time for one hectic day of shopping in Ubud (imagine that, she feels well enough to shop) and then 2 amazing days at Bali Prime Villas in the beach hideaway of Seminyak.

My aunt, Kita, had been pestering us (Kita does the nicest pestering possible) to accept her offer of a nice hotel stay (her treat!) since India.  Finally, we found the right spot (Bali Prime Villas) and the right situation (end-of-trip celebration) to say yes.  And I couldn’t be happier that we did.  Here are some pictures:

Anna, being excited in our bedroom.

This was the outdoor bathroom. There was an outdoor shower, in addition to the massive tub.

This was the outdoor kitchen and dining room.

And the thing that pushed it over the top: our own private swimming pool.

After 6 days, trapped indoors watching old seasons of House and Chuck on DVD (pirated DVD stores abound in Indonesia), our fancy villa was music to Anna’s eyes.  And after playing fetch for her for 6 days, I was just excited that they had a room service menu.  We made the most of our time – we arrived at the earliest possible check-in time, ate all but one meal room service, got fancy massages and spent most of the day lounging beside our personal pool.  We read, we played cards, we watched Kansas basketball (the only sport I could have talked Anna into) on the large flat screen.  Mostly, we relaxed and soaked in the final hours of our adventure of a lifetime.  Though Seminyak is a beach town, less than 5 km from world-famous Kuta Beach, we only made it to the beach for about an hour.  Both days, we debated taking the free shuttle to the beach for the day and then decided that we had a pretty nice spot already.

When it finally came time to leave, we were relaxed and ready for the 40 hour return trip home.

Posted by: Tommy | November 21, 2011

Weird Advertisements, Take 2

Judging by the number of comments the blog received, our Weird Advertisements post was probably the most popular thing we’ve written over the past 13 months.  The problem with publishing it when we did is that we continued to find fantastic signs that we wanted to share.  So, just before we head home, here’s a final installment of Weird Advertisements from Around the Globe.  And yes, I know some of these aren’t advertisements.

Read More…

Posted by: Tommy | November 18, 2011

Angel Island, Heaven on Earth

With only 15 days in Indonesia before the end of our adventure, we were looking for an amazing experience to end on a high note.  During our last few days in Japan, we floated around a few different options.  We looked at helicopter tours, sky diving packages, fabulous hotels and hot air balloon rides before settling on our inevitable choice – an amazing dive trip.  Indonesia is home to some of the world’s best diving – we’ve read many arguments back and forth debating some of the Indonesian areas vs.  Sipadan, Malaysia (the best place we’ve ever been) as the top dive location in the world.  It was a no-brainer.

We hadn’t planned far enough in advance, so all of the liveaboard boats (well, the ones with acceptable safety records) were full.  There are two famous, world-class diving areas – Komodo and Raja Ampat.  We started researching and quickly found that Raja Ampat was going to cost an arm and a leg if we couldn’t find a liveaboard.  Like, $5,000 for 7 days.  And for $5,000 you get to stay in a thatch hut, sleep under a mosquito net with no electricity on a thin foam mattress, “shower” with a bucket of room-temperature salt water and eat rice and grilled veggies.  And dive 3-4 amazing times per day.  We debated it for a long time – we had roughly that much left in our absolute-maximum budget.  But ultimately, we decided that we couldn’t justify spending that much to toss and turn, sweaty, under a mosquito net.  Maybe in the beginning of our trip, but not now – we’re tired of sweating ourselves to sleep.

And that’s when we found Angel Isle Resort, like a message from heaven.  We actually learned about it from a travel agent we contacted, trying to book a dive boat.  She offered Angel Isle as an alternative way to dive Komodo.  When we started looking at their pictures, then their prices, it was a no brainer.  This was exactly the kind of trip-finishing experience we were looking for, but at a palatable price.   We sent in an email inquiry via their website, which began a 3 day email chain that ended when we bought last-minute flights at the airport and set out for remote Labuan Bajo, Indonesia.  Kath, owner of Angel Island, promised to have a car there to pick us up on arrival.

The car was there (not always the case, we’ve found) and took us straight to a boat.  The boat left immediately, with just us as cargo.  About 45 minutes out to sea, we came upon the tiny island paradise of Angel Island.  There were 7 snorkelers in the water when we arrived, a good sign for the diving to come.  We disembarked from the boat and were greeted by a friendly face, one we’d get used to over the next 4 days.  Staff rushed aboard, grabbing our bags before we could get to them and they disappeared.  The friendly guy (we never did learn his name) took us on a quick tour of the island, showing us the 2 private beaches, the restaurant and culminating with our bungalow, #3.

The interior of bungalow 3.

When we set foot inside our room, it took our breath away.  With apologies to the Alila Goa and the Meriton World Tower in Sydney, Angel Island was the most beautiful place we’ve stayed in the nearly 14 months that we’ve been traveling.  The ceiling, as you can see in the picture, is at least 20 ft. tall at its peak.  Out of the frame is a huge space holding a desk, a wardrobe, a bench seat and a 40″ flat screen with DVD player.  The king-sized bed sits on a raised platform in the middle of the spacious room.  And that’s leaving out the best part – through the door, visible behind the bed, is the bathroom.  Outside, behind a 10 ft. stone privacy wall is the toilet, a vanity with 2 sinks and an outdoor shower.  The weather in Indonesia is warm, so showering outside felt great.

Our bags had apparently raced through a shortcut and arrived before we did.  The friendly guide showed us how to work the TV, DVD player, shower and answered our other questions, then left us alone with instructions to come to the restaurant at 5pm to sign up for diving.   We had about 2 hours to kill, so we read through the hotel booklet, including a menu.  Angel Island is all-inclusive except for alcohol, so you just ask for food when you want it.  I immediately asked for fish cakes.

At 5, we went down to sign up for diving.  We met with Ernest, one of the owners (Kath and Ernest are from northern England and started Angel Island in 2002.  And he informed us that we were, in fact, the only guests at the moment, this being the Komodo rainy season.  Their next scheduled guests would arrive on our departure date, so we’d have the run of the island for our entire time.  And we did – but it didn’t mean they skimped on staff or attention.  We were informed that we could have our meals brought to the room if we’d prefer, rather than eat with the mosquitoes in the restaurant.  So we did.

Room service

The next morning, we got up and went diving with Kath.  Again, we were the only guests, so we had her to ourselves.  We told her about my inability to see a manta ray – Anna has seen 3 this year, but I’m always looking the wrong way and have never seen one.  So she changed our plans on the spot (she’s the boss, so she can do that – not many dive trips are run by the decision-maker) and we headed for a dive site she knew we’d see some mantas.

And we did – 7!, to be exact.

Since it was just us, we don't have pictures of the actual manta we saw. But here's someone else's good manta photo.

We couldn’t believe our luck – but it wasn’t luck, apparently.  Kath had seen 6 at the same site the day before.  Between dives, Ernest (who’s also the chef) had sent along an apple pie for us to snack on.  This is a recurring theme at Angel Island – snack time.  Between dives, a snack.  After the second dive, lunch.  Then, after lunch, another snack.  When you get back to the island, a snack is waiting for you.  I swear, we were eating 6 times per day.  Again, I was in heaven.

Anna on the dive boat with her apple pie.

That night, we ate room service in our room again and watched a movie.  Diving is exhausting!  The next morning, during an enormous breakfast, I brainstormed with Anna, trying to figure out what I wanted to see next.  Since Kath had come through with mantas, I figured she was up for a challenge.  So when she arrived to wrap up breakfast, I jokingly told her that I wanted to see a dugong (manatee).  She scoffed – so I changed my challenge to a whale.

We boarded the boat, surprised to find 4 new divers.  They’d booked a dive trip from the mainland with Reefseekers, Kath and Ernest’s dive shop.  They wouldn’t be staying on the island, but would be diving with us.  I was a bit dismayed – it was nice to dive with just Anna and Kath – until Kath whispered that Ernest would be taking them out so we’d have her to ourselves.  We headed into the northern part of Komodo for about 2 hours before we started putting our gear on.  After we were dressed, Kath took Anna and I aside and started our dive briefing.  Anna’s back was to the water, with Kath and I facing her.  When, all of a sudden, a whale breached the surface, not 30 yards from our boat.  “Shit!” yelled Kath, in her semi-Scottish accent.  “I nearly shit me pants!”.  We were all in awe – the massive mammal was heading straight for our boat.  It was gone before we could blink, emerging a moment later 50 yards on the other side of the boat – it must have gone right under us.  We were nearly to the dive site, but all thoughts of moving on were forgotten.  Kath ordered the boat to turn and follow – we watched the whales – it turns out there were 2 of them – surfacing about 100 yards away, coming up to spout every 2-3 minutes for about 20 minutes.

It's not good, but this is the best I could do. That's part of a whale.

As the whales escaped from sight, Kath turned to me and demanded to know what kind of magic I was working.  I wanted to know the same thing of her – she called the mantas, now the whales?  I was excited for the inevitable manatee sighting.  Of course, that sighting never came.  In 9 years as a dive master at Komodo, Kath and Ernest have seen a dugong a total of twice.  But it didn’t matter – I’ll never forget the humpback whale jumping less than a hundred feet from me.

The dives that day were great – rather than try and get from point A to point B – the usual objective of a dive – Kath was content to just find one area with great marine life and let us swim around there for an hour.  It’s not how I would choose to spend every dive, but it was a nice change.  I’m definitely not doing these dives justice – we were seeing turtles, reef sharks, moray eels, schools of smaller fish, shrimps, lobsters and the occasional octopus.  With only Kath and each other to keep track of, it was very relaxed but filled with great sightings.

That night was more of the same – watching the sunset from our verandah, fleeing inside to our luxurious quarters when the mosquitoes emerged, then calling for a massive room service dinner before falling asleep absurdly early.  Oh, and 4 or 5 snack-times per day.

The sunset from our private beach.

On day 4, we dove again, this time with only 2 of the 4 from yesterday.  Kath had given us the option of going to see the Komodo dragons (Rinca Island is the only place in the world they’re found) and doing some 2nd-class diving or continuing with the great diving of the previous two days.  It was a tough choice, but we opted for the great diving.  In fact, we repeated the manta dive (the other 2 people hadn’t ever seen one) and saw 8 this time.  Another great day – no whales, no manatees but a fitting end to our year full of underwater adventures.

After another room service feast, we slept late on our last morning, refusing to give up our romantic getaway.  We checked out at the last possible moment – the boat was anchored, waiting for us – before heading back to the airport and on to Bali for the last week of the trip.

Angel Island - our own slice of heaven. At least for 4 days.

Posted by: Anna | November 16, 2011

Sayonara Japan

Surprisingly weird, pleasantly polite, with hidden depths to plumb far beyond what I experienced as a tourist, travel in Japan left me hooked. My experience in Japan drew out so many reactions that I am struggling to make this post coherent. Should I write about the hot corn in a can from the ubiquitous vending machines? Perhaps I should mention the insane number of bicycles cruising the sidewalks, but never running over us? I could write a whole post about the food (oh, the food!). The fashion on the street could fill an entire blog (and does, several times over), and I never tired of people watching. It’s so hard to decide.

While Tommy had a hard time restraining himself from blurting out “That’s expensive!” a thousand times a day, I found our budget more reasonable than I expected, similar to what we would spend in any other developed country. Luckily, walking down any random street provided enough fodder for trying to puzzle out Japan — and that’s free.

Every simple activity was a (mostly) delightful adventure in answering the omnipresent question that must hover at the forefront of Japanese thought — “Sure, that is good. But how could it be perfect?”

It could be my inner perfectionist that found a culture that, while foreign on the surface, was actually a familiar comrade. Even the water machine in a casual restaurant automatically dispenses exactly the right ratio of ice and water with a single button. Brilliant! The persistent focus on doing things well is what I naturally expect of the world; I am so often disappointed by the pervasive human error and laziness that clouds everything. But Japan is different, with a high cultural value placed on excellence, in a way that Western countries do not.

Where India, another favorite country of mine from this trip, appeals to the side of my nature that seeks abandoned expression, Japan stands refined and rigid. Entering a restaurant always works exactly the same way – a bright greeting, how many people (to which the patron should respond and hold up the appropriate number of fingers), and then seating. This is followed by a warm, or cool towel, depending on the weather and cuisine. Every time, always with a smile. Fiji (my other ‘top three’ country) charmed me with genuine, casual friendliness, engaging the social, community-valuing part of me. Japan, in contrast, follows an elaborately pre-determined set of social rituals. It’s just different.

Aesthetically, Japan (like India) astounds. The volcanic landscape surrounded by ocean is truly beautiful. Even better, the leaves change in October and November, so that when we visited Shinto temples, we saw them surrounded by flaming red and gold leaves.

Even more enchanting was the artistry in the everyday and the elevated. Eating soba for lunch was more than lunch. The server carefully provided me with an attractively designed brochure that explained the proper method and order for eating my food. As I carefully followed the directions, I felt more connected with Japan. There is something to the ritual that is beautiful and cohesive, elevating the simple to the sublime. Also it was very tasty.

Of course this love letter to Japan avoids some of the uglier aspects – the high suicide rate, the effect of an authoritarian society on individual freedom, the colonial past…but I am just a tourist. Sometimes when I write the wrap up I am transported to fourth grade, when I was assigned Argentina and had to write a paper about everything in Argentina. I feel that I have failed in my wrap up because it is far too narrow and scattered to truly capture an entire country and culture.

I have come to realize that this trip has been more about using different backgrounds to divine my character than using myself to reveal the character of a place. That would be a different trip. The trip is also about fun.

Now for some haiku, in honor of the folks who invented the haiku!

Refined or rigid?

Odd around every corner

Japan enchants me

–Anna

Order reigns supreme

Cleanliness is godliness

Japan is structure.

–Tommy

_________

With dewdrops dripping, 
I wish somehow I could wash 
this perishing world 

–Basho (Japanese poet) putting our silly haikus to shame

Wasabi kit kat - only in Japan! Every area in Japan has their own Kit Kat flavors. I loved hunting them down.

Posted by: Tommy | November 14, 2011

Things That Are the Wrong Size

During this year, we’ve seen a lot of weird things – many of them documented on this blog.  Some of the things we’ve been most amused by during the year are things we’ve come across that are seemingly the wrong size, both big and small.  We don’t have pictures of all of them – the tiny Vietnamese bus sleeper “beds” and the Dairy Queen “Take Home Size” Blizzard, most notably.  But we did manage to get pictures of some of them, so here they are: Read More…

Posted by: Tommy | November 11, 2011

Uniquely Japanese – A Trip to the Maid Cafe

I went, solo, to one of the strangest places I’ve ever been.  Ever.  Not just in Japan. Ever.  A maid cafe.  Anna was at a Starbucks – for some reason she didn’t want to visit Tokyo’s largest discount electronics store with me – so I headed by subway to Akihabara aka Electric Town.  And while I enjoyed Electric Town – trying out 3D TVs, the new Call of Duty and other gizmos I’ve never seen before – the highlight of the trip out there was when I got pulled in to a Maid Cafe.

I did not take this picture, but this IS the same maid who accosted me outside of Electric Town.

As I was leaving Electric Town, I was accosted by an overly-friendly Japanese woman wearing what I took to be a “Sexy French Maid” Halloween costume.  She had a strange way of talking – very bubbly, almost giggling, but yelling at the same time.  So she giggle/yells at me for 30 seconds in Japanese, while I stare at her, uncomprehendingly.  But then she handed me a flier.  It had a picture of food on it – plus pictures of full-grown women in maid outfits, some ice cream and lots of pink hearts and stars.

I was hungry and interested to see a maid cafe – we’d read about them in our guidebook as a Japanese novelty- so I followed the shouting/giggling maid to her diner. After reading about them online, Anna and I both got the impression that the maid cafes were something slightly sexual – maybe fetishy.  But that wasn’t my experience at all.  When I arrived, there were 3 tables of full women, several couples, one family with 2 small children and a grandmother plus a few single men reading comic books or playing on iPhones.

The giggly maid sat me down at a table near the cash register, presumably so she could keep an eye on me.  She didn’t speak any English, so periodically she would shout/giggle a question at me, to which I would just shrug my shoulders.  But she was so friendly about it that it was charming and I felt terrible for not understanding her.

She brought me a menu and I pointed at a meal I’d be willing to eat.  Most of the food offerings consisted of cappuccinos topped with cute designs drawn in chocolate or ice cream sundaes with animal faces stuck to them.  I ordered a very overpriced pork cutlet with rice.  While I waited, I mostly stared at the decor.  Light pink walls, hot pink parquet floors, framed maid costumes and pink hearts everywhere.  The Japanese are obsessed with “cute” and it shows at the maid cafe.   After watching my eyes wander around the restaurant for a few minutes, my maid (the same giggling loud-talker) decided I was bored and needed a magazine.  So she went and got a Japanese magazine for me, written entirely in Japanese.  I browsed for a bit, then returned to watching the goings-on at the cafe.

Every time a new group of customers came in, all of the maids would stop what they were doing, turn to face the door and shout, in a high-pitched squeal, “Ira sshai mase!”  which means hello, but they were VERY enthusiastic about it.  When someone would stand up to leave, one maid would alert the rest with a shout, to which they would all stop what they were doing, turn and face the person leaving a salute, shouting “Arigato gozaimashita!” (Thank you very much).  Then everyone would bow.  And keep bowing, repeatedly, until the customer was out the door.  Since I can’t read Japanese, I watched this odd scene play out 20 times while I sat there.

And it was quickly obvious that my waitress was clearly the most enthusiastic of the 5 maids on duty this day.  She did the most bowing, had the snappiest salute and was frequently the one alerting the other maids to arriving or departing customers.  Most of the time, she was busy zipping around the restaurant, refilling water glasses and taking orders.  Occasionally, she would yell something to the other maids, then show them a stack of the same fliers that she’d handed to me.  Then she’d dart out the door, never failing to return within moments, guiding a new group of accosted diners.

This maid had boundless energy – since I was seated directly next to her perch at the cash register, I got to see her during the brief moments she had nothing to do.  She’d stand in the corner, facing the entire restaurant, bopping her hands and bending her knees in time to the too-loud music playing over the speakers.  Her solo dance would last for less than 15 seconds before she found a glass that was not quite 100% full or a patron that hadn’t been bowed to in over a minute – upon realizing this, she would dart away like a hummingbird, accomplishing her task before returning to stand in front of me and bop again.  At some point, she saw me looking at her, amused.  She took the smile on my face as encouragement (as she should have, it was great) and exaggerated her bopping – for 10 seconds, before she needed to run out again and distribute more fliers.

Four or 5 times, she came over during my waiting/eating to try and start a conversation.  But she still didn’t speak English and I still didn’t speak Japanese, so we didn’t get very far.  She did get very excited (more than she already was) when she saw me wearing my Hiroshima Carp t-shirt, and spoke rapidly in Japanese about the Carp.  I understood Hiroshima in her speech and nodded rapidly to show that I understood at least a little of what she said – she was trying to hard to engage me that I hated to let her fail.  From that point forward, she started calling me Carp-isan.  Adding isan to someone’s name is like saying Mr. – so I was Mr. Carp.

After I finished my cutlet, she tried upselling me on some desserts.  She’d been so sweet I hated to tell her no (but after eating the cutlet, I wasn’t about to pay for more terrible food) so I played up the “I don’t speak Japanese, so I have no idea what you’re trying to tell me right now”.  So I departed the maid cafe, with no pictures (there are signs everywhere reminding you that it costs 500 yen to take a photo) but with a very Japanese-y memory.

Good bye from the maids!

Posted by: Anna | November 10, 2011

Simply a Great Day in Japan

Sometimes a day is just great, full of little surprises and serendipitous twists. Yesterday was one of those days.

We started out with the Japanese breakfast. Full of strange and interesting items, it was an experience all unto itself. Everything was good except the beans in a cup, which have the consistency of spider eggs...

Our first stop was Matsumoto Castle, one of the best preserved samurai castles in Japan. After walking through, (during which time we looked out a window and an entire Japanese tour group started waving enthusiastically at us for about five minutes), we were invited to take a photo with this "samurai". Why? He's just there to take a photo with you, because it's fun. Also note, it's a gorgeous day, weather-wise.

After wandering down the “frog street”, a small shopping street with bright green frogs on the streetlights and frog-themed merchandise in all the shops, we wandered into a sweet shop, hoping it was a cafe. It wasn’t, but instead, the owner showed us through his very old home filled with Japanese antiques, explaining in broken English what each item was. At the end, he showed us his guest book full of photos of (all Japanese) people in his garden. He asked if he could take our picture, and he also printed one out for us. His wife was wrapping sweets in pretty paper, but neither asked us to buy anything or even acknowledged it was a shop at all. An odd but pleasant experience, capped off with much bowing and thanking on both sides.

We finally did find a cafe, where I had a red bean bun and Tommy had a — chocolate cake! We played cards for an hour or so and just appreciated being in Japan.

Next, we rode our (free) bikes to the train station to hop on a train to Hotaka, which happened to be leaving in five minutes. Hotaka is home to a huge wasabi farm. This was our first glimpse of the wasabi farm when we arrived.I had no idea wasabi was grown in wet gravel, which is hand-raked.

 

We both joined the long line for wasabi ice cream. Mmmm...good.

 

Walking back to the train station, we strolled by this beautiful scene.

After the train, we rode our bikes back to the ryokan. For dinner, we ate some delicious ramen (better, so much better than what we think of as ramen). After dinner, we went down for our private bath. The ryokan doesn’t have showers in the rooms; instead, men’s and women’s communal showers / bathing tub (one per sex) are available and shared by all guests. We signed up for a private bathing time, which meant we had our own showers and sit in the big, hot tub. Very relaxing at the end of a sightseeing day.

We finished our evening sipping tea in our tradtional Japanese room, lounging in our robes. Great day!

Posted by: Anna | November 9, 2011

Japanese Cooking Class

Japanese food is probably my favorite food in the world – light, endlessly varied, and elegant. Eating in restaurants in Japan is often a two-for-one deal, offering dinner presented as a small work of art. As I read menus in restaurants, I often do not know what many of the items are, even if the menu is in Japanese. However, I am starting to get the general idea of what is available eating out, but I am (or should I say – was) completely ignorant of what Japanese people eat at home or the underlying fundamentals of Japanese cuisine.

I have learned from taking seven cooking classes in Asia that each Asian cuisine, and probably all, have a few flavors, textures, and techniques that characterize the cuisine, and almost all dishes are variations on those possible combinations. For Japanese food, soy sauce, mirin (sweet sake), seaweed / kelp, fish, and tofu seem to be the underlying ingredients.

I can say this thanks to Ta Ro, my incredibly kind, patient, and knowledgeable teacher. He and his wife teach classes in their beautiful, traditional Japanese home, of which he graciously gave us a tour – an interesting thing to do for its own sake. After being welcomed with tea, we started to cook.

The first thing we learned to make was dashi, Japanese broth. This is a fundamental dish in Japanese cooking, incorporated into almost every soup and many other dishes, including Japanese omelets and stir fries. Dashi is quick and easy, and it can be kept frozen in an ice cube tray for ease.

Dashi

1. Place a generous amount of kombu (dried kelp – interestingly, in Japan there are about six kinds of dried kelp available) into one liter of water.
2. Let it sit for at least 30 minutes to overnight.
3. Heat it for 10 minutes – until it reaches a boil.
4. Add 10 grams of katsuobushi (dried fish flakes). Boil 10 seconds.
5. Turn off heat and allow the broth to sit for 10 minutes.
6. Use a strainer to remove kelp and fish flakes.

Dashi has a fresh, clean smell after it’s been made, a smell I recognize from Japanese food but have never known how to identify. If you don’t want to make dashi, powdered dashi is often available in Asian grocery stores in the USA. Dashi is the base for miso soup, which Ta Ro explained is a Japanese option for using up all the leftover bits of vegetables in the fridge – carrots, onions, mushrooms, etc — it can all go into miso soup. He says his family commonly has miso soup with assorted vegetables for breakfast.

We also learned to make tamago yaki, or Japanese omelet. This is much more elaborate method of making an omelet, yielding a fluffier and lighter texture. You can see Ta Ro uses a special pan.

Ta Ro taught us Nibitashi, a dish that reminds him of home when he is away — a characteristically Japanese home cooked dish. Hmmm…Tommy misses chicken fried steak, I miss bagels – he misses this. No wonder Americans are fatter than Japanese people (in general)!

Nibitashi

100 ml dashi
1 tbsp sake
1/2 tsp soy sauce
pinch salt
1 small bunch enoki mushrooms
1 small handful yuba (tofu skin)

1. Add dashi, sake, soy sauce, and salt to small saucepan and bring to a boil.
2. Add mushrooms and cook for a few minutes until soft. Add yuba and allow to soften. Remove from heat and drain.

The most useful dish for me – as far as something I would make often at home – was goma-ae, a cooked spinach dish. It’s easy, delicious, and would keep in the fridge for all my spinach snacking needs.

Goma-ae

1 small bunch spinach
3/4 tbsp roasted sesame seeds
1/2 tbsp sugar
1 tsp soy sauce

1. Boil spinach for 30 seconds.
2. Place spinach in ice water, then squeeze out excess water.
3. Chop spinach into 1 inch pieces.
4. Stir remaining ingredients together.
5. Toss cooked spinach with dressing.
Serve hot or cold.

Tamago, Nibitashi, and Goma-ae

Luckily for us, I had requested the vegetarian class, three people had requested the chicken class, and one person had requested the kobe beef class. The way Ta Ro does it – we make all three then each eat our own request. I was glad because I got to see all three prepared.

Prior to cooking our main dishes, he brought out the kobe beef certificate showing the cow’s name, birthdate, lineage (back to great grandparents), and nose print (like a fingerprint for a cow, I guess). Kobe beef is highly regulated and raised in a somewhat secretive manner, including classical music, daily massage, and beer (to stimulate the appetite). It’s funny to imagine this cow princess finishing her massage, drinking her beer while serenaded by classical music, then getting the muchies because she’s had so much beer….it’s so Japanese. Beef was introduced to Japan by the West, but of course the Japanese figured out a way to perfect the raising of cattle.

Kobe beef steak - next to it is Australian steak. Notice the difference...

My main dish was tofu, which in Japan is not a replacement for meat, but something viewed as delicious for its own qualities. I enjoyed my shallow fried tofu with a light, gingery sauce. The chicken dish was stir fried chicken with ponzu sauce. But seeing the kobe beef was really interesting – a truly beautiful marbled piece of meat, unlike any other I’ve seen. The guy who had opted for the kobe beef was kind enough to let me try a bite, and it was amazingly good.

Our class finished with a beautiful meal, with all the hallmarks of Japanese food. I especially enjoyed being able to identify the basic components and flavors. We finished with more tea and some small sweets, including a piece of candied pumpkin, which was interesting and tasty. Seasonality is very important in Japanese food, and it shows in every little choice. I was relieved to know that the pressure to present beautiful food is alleviated at home with only your family – Ta Ro admitted that he sometimes eats from a tupperware! (just like me!)

And if you are going to Japan, take Ta Ro’s class — Kyoto Cooking Class. It was awesome!

Posted by: Tommy | November 7, 2011

Carp Win! Carp Win!

One of my biggest regrets about the timing of this trip has been Dallas hosting the World Series (twice), the Superbowl and the NBA finals, all while we’ve been gone (on the plus side, I missed a truly horrific Longhorn season in 2010).  But we finally got to make our own special sports memory by taking in a Japanese baseball game – the Hiroshima Carp vs. the Hanshin Tigers.  It may not compete with the Rangers in the World Series, but it was a lot of fun and very interesting.

When Anna asked me what I wanted to do in Japan, the only things I could come up with were baseball and eating Japanese food.  We’ve been eating plenty of Japanese food, so I got online to find out about a baseball game.  The Japanese season runs a later than MLB, so we were just in time to watch a regular season game.  The obstacle – there are only 12 teams and they are spread out.  We have only 20 days in Japan, so getting to the right city on the right days was a bit challenging.  Eventually, we rearranged our entire plan and took a 7 hour trip from Tokyo to Hiroshima.

Stepping off the train, we were surprised to see hordes of Japanese people, all decked out in red gear bearing the Carp logo.  Carp shirts, Carp hats, Carp thunderstix, Carp scrunchies, Carp totebags full of Carp-logoed fastfood boxes.  We saw a million weird Carp products.  It turns out Mazda Zoom Zoom Stadium (yes, that’s the real name) is located half a mile from the train station and we arrived right at game time.  We couldn’t go that night, but would try for the following afternoon (a Sunday).


One of the strangest Carp-related items in Hiroshima is the omnipresent Carp manhole covers.

After spending the morning at the Peace Park, we headed over to the Zoom Zoom Stadium and got general admission seats.  The cheap seats ($27 for the cheapest ticket – cheap used sarcastically) had us climbing 4 flights of stairs.  But then we got lucky – 3 empty seats in the 2nd row, right behind home plate.  3 seats because an Englishman named Paul who had been on our tour of the Peace Park decided to join us – he spent the entire game confused because he’s from England.

The first thing we noticed was the same thing we’d noticed the night before – everyone was wearing Carp gear.  Even the 20-something Japanese girls wearing mini-skirts and knee high boots topped it off with a Carp jersey.  Everyone has a Carp jersey – except for the Tiger fans from nearby Osaka, a much larger team with a national fan base (think Yankees or Red Sox).  The Tigers fans were dressed even crazier than the Carp fans.  We saw grown men wearing full on baseball uniforms, walking through the crowd.  Jersey, pants, batting gloves, stirrups, etc.  We saw children dressed in bright yellow (Tigers are grey and yellow), tiger-striped kimonos.  They were crazy.

Once the game got started, it was fairly similar to a baseball game in America, with a few notable differences.

The beer vendors don’t carry trays of ice-cold beer.  Instead, they have keg-erator backpacks that dispense tap beer at your seat.  Sweet!

Matt Murton plays for Henshin.  Matt Murton was once on my NL-only fantasy baseball team, until I dropped him 2 weeks later because he’s terrible.  He was challenging for the Japanese League batting title with one game left to play.  After watching one game, Murton’s success doesn’t surprise me.  Balls rarely left the infield. The radar gun was reporting pitches in the low 70′s most of the time.  We didn’t see a single pitch over 150 km/h (90 mph).  The game we attended finished 1-0 Carp, while the Tigers won the next night, 2-0.  You’d think they’d be good at fielding, since they can’t hit.  But there were 3 errors in the game we watched.

Instead of some old guys coming out dragging mats, the infield in Japan is maintained by a ton of younger guys with rakes.  They sprint out after every other inning and precisely rake the infield with small hand rakes.

Even for bad teams, the fans are fired up.  This game was the equivalent of Orioles-Nationals in late September.  The second to last day of the season.  Carp are in 5th pace, 20 games out.  The Tigers in 4th, 15 games back and both are guaranteed to miss the playoffs.  But the visitor’s stands were packed.  Both teams had a brass band, complete with flag-waving supporters.  There were choreographed dances and chanting that everyone seemed to know the words to.  But the Japanese are so polite – you chant when your team is batting.  The Carp fans outnumbered the Tiger fans 10-1, but only the section of Tiger supporters would cheer during their at-bats.  No “DE-Fence” chants here.

Each team has their own 7th inning stretch.  After the Tigers finished batting in the 7th inning, their fans blew up yellow and white balloons and released them into the sky.  Each balloon has a slow-release mechanism on the bottom to keep them flying slowly toward the field for about 20 seconds.  They chant, release the balloons, then it’s the Carp turn to bat.  The children of the Carp fans (this ritual is aimed mostly at children, though a few parents bought and released balloons themselves) got visibly more excited as the Carp headed toward 3 outs in the 7th.  After 2 outs, the Carp 3rd baseman got a hit, delaying the balloon releasing.  We saw 3 kids turn to their parents in disappointment, wanting to hurry up and let them go.

Some things were different, but some were almost the same.  The Carp have their own version of the Phillie Phanatic.

They sell hotdogs and nachos, though there were plenty of fans carrying steaming bowls of udon noodles up the stadium steps.

Anna can’t watch baseball without beer.  That’s a standard caveat before taking her to any baseball game, whether at home or abroad.

And in Japan, just like at home, this is what baseball is mostly about.  Well, this and beer.

Let's go, Carp!

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