Thursday, February 15, 2018

Yogurt Kitkats with Fruit and Nut Topping

There's a new flavor of kitkat out - yogurt with a fruit and nut topping. Based on the packaging, I assume it's for Valentine's and maybe White Day.

In general the kitkats with a topping seem to be premium kitkats, and the flavors are definitely better. I often find that fruit flavored kitkats have an unpleasant artificial sharpness to them. But these were really good. There was a tartness to the yogurt flavor, but not unpleasantly so. And the topping was a mixture of real dried raspberries, cranberries and almonds. I would definitely recommend them.

Monday, February 5, 2018

Hawaiian Sister-Trip

Back in December, my sister and I met up for a week in Hawaii, and it was the best thing ever. I pretty much haven't been able to stop talking about it since. The scenery, the weather, the food, the time with my sister, I couldn't have hoped for more.

Ten years ago I had a summer job in Hawaii, which was an incredible experience. I've been dreaming about going back ever since, but this was my first real opportunity. I was a little nervous, thinking that maybe my memories had grown more rosy as the time passed. What if it wasn't as wonderful as I remembered? But that turned out to be a needless fear.

We spent our first four nights on the north shore and the last three in Waikiki. If you have the chance to go to Hawaii, and you'll be on Oahu, I can't recommend the north shore enough. It requires renting a car, but it's so worth it! And driving around the island is part of the fun. Julie and I were always gaping out the windows at how beautiful everything was, and pulled over more than once just to see a beautiful vista or explore a beach by the side of the road. It's so much calmer than Honolulu - the perfect place to relax and unwind.

I had read that food in Hawaii is kind of overpriced, and not very good. But either we got lucky, or we're not very picky, because almost everything we ate was great. Being on vacation we embraced the spam musubis and turkey sandwiches (a novelty for me coming from Japan) from the convenience stores just as much as we did the fresh fruit and seafood.

After coming back Raku asked me what makes everyone talk about Hawaii like it's the best vacation spot ever, even better than other tropical locations. And I stumbled trying to put an answer into words (it just is, ok?!?) But I think it's a mixture of the intense beauty, the perfect climate, how friendly everyone is, how small and accessible the island is (I assume this is true of the others besides Oahu) and perhaps some special Hawaiian magic. 

So, if you ever have the chance, go! And in the meantime, try not to be annoyed at all the pictures I'm about to post.

First Night on the North Shore: Mokuleia Beach Park
Julie was obsessed with all the chickens

In winter the waves are giant on the north shore

More giant waves
This actually looked a lot better than it tasted 
The water was so rough that the Pipeline Master's surf competition was on hold for days

The Best Sister

It's even pretty when it's stormy

The view from Kualoa Regional Park 

Underwater Coral

Kayaking in Kaneohe Bay
Hanauma Bay

Passion Fruit Acai Bowl
Waikiki at Night

Macadamia nut pavlova with lemon curd and tropical fruit

The pool at the Surfjack Hotel

In my memories the light is always this golden

Tuesday, January 23, 2018

Winter Hibernation

Hello loyal blog readers! I completely disappeared for the last two months, didn't I? I apologize, I'm back, and I've got some good adventures to catch up on.

To begin with, a big snowstorm swept through Tokyo (and the surrounding Kanto area) yesterday. It was beautiful to watch from inside my cozy apartment, but I was glad not to be out in it or needing to take public transportation. I'm sure the trains were snarled up terribly.

The snow is already quickly melting off, but I got a few good photos before it totally disappears. This year is a La Nina year, so it's likely to be snowier than usual. I was becoming skeptical but then yesterday proved me wrong. I'm curious what the rest of winter will be like. The last time we had snow like this was four or five years ago. (And I'll just add that the iPhone 7 camera is much better than the iPhone 5)

For now here are the snow pictures, but more to come soon: travel, afternoon tea, novelty food reviews and more!

It's snowing!!!

Already melting off the next morning

Possibly the cutest snowman ever?

Monday, November 27, 2017

Oedo Onsen Monogatari

Oedo Onsen Monogatari in Odaiba has been described as an onsen theme park. I found that description really off-putting, so for years I avoided going. But this year I finally went with a group of friends, and I actually really enjoyed it.

First things first, it's a little more expensive than other onsen I've visited, and it feels a little less authentic. That said, I didn't think that negatively impacted my experience. This is an excellent option if you don't speak Japanese and/or it's your first time and you don't have anyone with onsen experience to go with. The staff can speak English (and I presume Chinese), and they are good at managing large groups. Tour buses often drop groups off, but it doesn't make the facility seem crowded or slow things down unnecessarily.

When you arrive, you immediately remove your shoes and leave them in a shoe locker. Then you go to the front desk and get a wristband that opens a locker and allows you to charge food, drinks, souvenirs, and various spa treatments to your tab. Next you're issued a yukata (cotton robe) and sent to the changing rooms. This is where things diverge from normal a little bit, though it's not that different from other spa-style onsen.

After changing into your yukata you enter an area that is themed like an old Edo village. It's actually very cute. There are lots of places to eat and buy souvenirs, and from here you can access the spa where you can sign up for different massages and treatments. This entire area is mixed sex, so if you're with a group you can hang out with everyone. Then when you're ready, you can head to the separate baths. In the second locker room you will be given towels, and get yet another locker (there are lots of keys to juggle) to change out of your yukata.

There are a nice variety of indoor and outdoor baths, and it's all very clean and beautiful. I will say that I've been twice now, and each time my skin smelled like chlorine after leaving. I suspect they are treating the water. This is not typical of onsen, but I suspect it is a cleanliness precaution taken because with a high volume of tourists it's possible people will make mistakes with the usual washing procedure. I did not notice any chlorine smell when I was actually in the baths, and I have a very sensitive nose, so I think it's probably quite mild. It shouldn't detract from your experience.

Afterwards you can put your yukata back on and return to the communal area if you'd like to eat, shop or rest more. If you're looking for a place to eat I highly recommend Yamagishi Taishoken. It's a branch of a very famous ramen shop that is credited with creating and popularizing tsukemen (dipping noodles). 

This is a really accessible onsen, and I really appreciate that fact. But if you're looking for something that feels a little more "deep Japan" Sayanodudokoro Onsen, Utsukushinoyu, or Spa EAS might be more what you're looking for.

Oedo Onsen Monogatari
Hours: 11:00 am - 9:00 am, last entry at 7:00 am Mon-Sun
Phone: 03-5500-1126
Address: 2-6-3 Aomi, Koto-ku, Tokyo

Oedo Onsen Monogatari

The Edo style village
Lots of great photo ops

Yamagishi Taishoken Ramen and Tsukemen

The noodles are SO good!

Thursday, November 16, 2017

Five Years in Japan

This past weekend marked our fifth anniversary of moving to Japan. In the space of a single breath I can feel like it was only yesterday that we moved here and also feel like it's been ages that we've been living here. I say that every year, don't I?

I can still remember the days leading up to our move so clearly. Final goodbyes to friends and family members, the chaos and excitement and fear. I still remember eating breakfast in the airport before we boarded our flight. With memories so clear, it's hard to believe so much time has passed.

I remember the early days. When other expats would ask how long I'd been living here I felt so embarrassed that my answer was measured in months rather than years - like I had something to prove. I remember how much every single new thing felt like such an adventure and how heightened my emotions were. It was almost like been a teenager (or maybe a toddler?) again. I remember what a triumph it was to reach our third year here, because I had doubted we would make it through our second.

But now I've built up a history living here. The are so many things I will never forget, like the restaurant I sat in with Raku, drinking at lunch, as we watched the 2016 election returns come in. Or meeting my godson when he was less than a day old. But also small things, like eating udon with Raku every Christmas or the hilariously doomed hikes John and I manage to take ever year to celebrate our wedding anniversary.

I've been cleaning up all the photos on my phone, and coming across so many good memories. So here are just a few to celebrate the last five years.


Tuesday, October 31, 2017

Beppu Getaway

Over the summer I took a short trip to Beppu, a hot spring resort town in Kyushu, with my friend Nicola. I can't believe it's taken me so long to write about it, but it was such a refreshing break from Tokyo. The scenery was beautiful, the food was delicious, and I never say no to a good onsen.

Before we left I had trouble finding very much information about the area in English. My old paper Japan guidebook doesn't even mention the town! I'm going to go a little heavy on details and photos, so brace yourselves. 

The biggest draw in Beppu is definitely the hot springs, and for the most part that means onsen, but there are also jigoku or "hells" - hot springs so hot they are meant to be viewed rather than bathed in. There are 7 jigoku, and you can easily take a bus to all of them, but we had the luxury of renting a car and going at our own pace because Nicola has a Japanese drivers license! Each jigoku charges 400 yen admission, or you can buy a 2000 yen pass that grants admission to all. The entire tour can be done in just a few hours, so I'd recommend doing all of them. If you're pressed for time though, Umi Jigoku and Onishibozu were the two most beautiful in my opinion. Additionally, Oniyama Jigoku breeds crocodiles - apparently they like the hot water - but we found it kind of cramped and depressing. Definitely skippable.

Of course, what I was really excited about were the onsen. But be forewarned, the waters in Beppu are hot! The onsen where we stayed was so hot that neither Nicola or I could actually get in the water. Several Japanese guests looked at us like we were insane as we yelped and leapt out of the water. But they did the same thing when they tried to get in, and then agreed with us that it was shockingly hot. After that experience I decided to go to Hyotan onsen, which is a big onsen complex geared towards tourists. I was excited that it included the chance for a hot sand bath, and because I thought it was most likely to have at least some water that was a tolerable temperature. Good news - I soaked in all the baths, and none of them were too hot for me.

While we were in Beppu we decided to drive out to Yufuin, another hot springs town nearby. I think it has a reputation of being a little fancier and more sophisticated than Beppu. In any case, it was beautiful. It has a main shopping street filled with food and shops like many tourist towns, and if you follow that road far enough it ends at a pretty lake. Yufuin is also known for dairy production, so there are all sorts of ice creams, cheese cakes, and other delicious treats available.

I feel silly admitting this since I've lived in Japan for so long, but this trip was the first time I've ever stayed in a ryokan. A ryokan is a traditional Japanese inn with tatami (woven straw) floors, futon mattresses on the floor, and communal baths. Ryokans can be fabulously luxurious, but ours was definitely no frills. It's also common to eat breakfast and dinner at a ryokan, but we did not. I was surprised by how comfortable the futon was, but this was definitely a place to sleep, not to linger.

Nicola and I were both surprised by the size of Beppu and the main shopping streets. We'd worried there wouldn't be many restaurants, particularly open on Sunday night, but there were plenty of options within a short stroll of our ryokan. Our top recommendations are Genova, an awesome takeout ice cream shop, Torisutei Honten, a yakitori (grilled chicken) restaurant, and Kihei Cafe, an adorable coffee shop with a delicious breakfast. We also had delicious burgers in Yufuin at Yufuin Burger, and you can't go wrong with any of the ice cream in town.

Our little ryokan room

Steam vents and structures are visible throughout Beppu
The grounds of Umi Jigoku

Umi Jigoku

Girls' Trip

Oniishibozu Jigoku

Shiraike Jigoku

Chinoike Jigoku

Tatsumaki Jigoku

Delicious burgers


You can see steam billowing up in the mountains

Cheesecake ice cream

The drive to Yufuin is gorgous

Genova Ice cream
Hours: 3:00-Midnight Mon-Sat, 3:00-10:00 Sun
Phone: 0977-22-6051
Address: 1-10-5 Kitahama, Beppu, Oita

Yufuin Burger
Hours: 11:00-5:30, closed Wednesday
Phone: 0977-85-5220
Address: 3053-4 Yufuincho Kawakami, Yufu, Oita

Torisutei Honten
Phone: 0977-22-3787
Address: 1-15-11 Kitahama, Beppu, Oita

Kihei Cafe
Hours: 8:00-6:00,
Phone: 0977-23-1134
Address: 6-30 Fujimicho, Beppu, Oita

Hyotan Onsen
Admission: 750 yen, sand bath additional 330 yen + towel rental
Hours: 9:00 am - 1:00 am
Phone: 0977-66-0527
Address: 159-2 Kannawa, Beppu, Oita

Nogamihonkan Ryokan
Phone: 0977-22-1334
Address: 1-12-1 Kitahama, Beppu, Oita