Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Staying Cool in Summer (With Ice Cream)

It's been so hot and humid here in Tokyo lately.  It never ceases to amaze me that a place that can be so humid in the summer can be so dry in the winter (and on an island no less!)  Coming from North Carolina it's not like John and I aren't used to heat and humidity, but it's a different experience without central air and cars.  Of course there are lots of coping mechanisms (that I'll blog about later), but the best one is probably ice cream.  I've been trying out some interesting flavors, so here are my thoughts so far.

Melona Bars



These are without a doubt my new favorite popsicles!  They have a wonderful honeydew flavor, and in such a small size they're only 65 calories each.  I've also had melon popsicles that are icy, but these are a wonderful creamy texture - sort of like a creamsicle (without the vanilla middle).  I believe they're originally Korean, and not always easy to find.  But if you do, they are the BEST!

My mouth is watering

Salt and Litchi Popsicles

There's a popular drink that's salt and lychee flavored.  I thought it was a strange combination, but it actually tastes really nice.  I'm a sucker for anything lychee, and this reminds me a little of a gatorade.  The salt flavor isn't overpowering, and it reminds me of my grandfather putting salt on his watermelon when I was a kid.  It's probably good for rehydrating when you're sweating a lot in summer.




Last week I found a popsicle version of the drink, so of course I had to try it.


The bar is a typical icy popsicle texture on the outside, and then the inside has a crunchy texture, more like a granita.  I've experienced this in other popsicles, so I think it must be a popular popsicle style.  It was good, but not something I would crave on a regular basis.



Ghana Ice Cream Bars

Raku has been on a hunt for ice cream sandwiches, but we can't find them anywhere!  The closest we've gotten is this bizarre hybrid that makes me laugh every time I see it.


Yes, it's exactly what it looks like.  They basically took a bar of vanilla ice cream and dipped two thirds of it in chocolate and nuts, like you might with a regular ice cream bar.  But then they made the last third into an ice cream sandwich.  You have to use the sandwich part as the handle and eat the bar part first or else I guess you could try and hold it inside the wrapper.  It tastes good, but it's a really strange concept.

Seriously, who thought of this?

Super Cups

Regular ice cream is almost exclusively sold in individual cups.  Haagen Dazs makes a ton of flavors, but those are almost $3 per cup (usually about 284 yen).  Super Cups are a more budget friendly option (about 120 yen each), but the flavors are much more limited.  Vanilla is always available, and I believe Matcha is also (not that I want to eat green tea ice cream ever).  But I think there is also always one seasonal flavor.  Right now it's  Mint Chocolate Chip, which is fantastic!  A friend tells me they also have cookies and cream, and cheesecake flavor at different times throughout the year, but she recommends the mint chocolate chip most highly.



Suica and Melon Bars

These are the icy texture melon popsicles I mentioned earlier.  They are incredibly cute, but I don't think the flavor is as good as the Melona.  They each have little rice krispie sort of things to look like seeds.  In the melon bar they are coated in white chocolate and in the suica (watermelon) bar they are coated in milk chocolate.  I think I might have liked them more without the "seeds," but they do add a lot to the appearance.  I've seen combination boxes in the grocery stores, and individual suica bars (but not the green melon ones) in convenience stores.



Monday, July 29, 2013

Japanese Melons

Buying melons back home was pretty simple.  Not only could I read all the labels, I could recognize everything by sight.  If a melon had a shiny dark green rind it was watermelon, if it had a rough textured beige rind it was cantaloupe, if it had a very pale green it was honeydew.  It's not so easy here.  I can read some - but not enough, and what I can read doesn't always make sense.  And melons can't always be identified visually.  There's probably more to figure out, but this is what I've gotten straight so far.

Melon that looks like watermelon is probably watermelon, but if you're in a fancier store (like Preece, not a gift fruit store) it's safest to buy one that's already cut so you can see what you're getting.  I've seen both of these, plus a watermelon rind with a seedless orange melon inside.  Still, watermelon is normally sold in wedges, so this isn't too tricky.


It's when we get to cantaloupe and honeydew that things get trickier.  Both of these seem to have what I think of as cantaloupe rind.  Last week I actually had to buy two melons that were named differently, but essentially identical, just to be sure I had cantaloupe for a recipe.  (Luckily one was 50% off).  So here it is:

This is an アンデス Melon, (Andes Melon) whatever that is.  When I cut it open it turned out to be green inside, but the flavor was pretty similar to a cantaloupe.

アンデス Melon Outside


アンデス Melon Inside

There's another green melon that looks the same that's called a プリンス Melon (Prince Melon).  It is much closer to the flavor a honeydew.

The second melon I bought was called a レッド Melon (Red Melon) on the sticker, and a sign on the shelf had the kanji for red (赤) in the name.  This is the typical cantaloupe that I'm used to.  Incidentally, I just learned from Raku that there's not a Japanese word for the color orange.

レッド Melon Outside

レッド Melon Inside
Speaking of melons, watermelons grown in strange shapes are really popular expensive gifts to give people.  Last week (in the same store that I found the Godzilla Egg) I came across this square watermelon, on sale for roughly $160!


And a couple days later a heart shaped melon:



Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Homesickness

Somedays life is going along normally, and then out of nowhere it hits: homesickness.  I think it's unavoidable, living in a different culture, but it would probably happen even if we were just living in a different region of the US (though probably not as strongly).

Most of the time I'm really happy here.  I'm learning new things, developing new skills, and trying new things all the time, and I find that really stimulating.  Being here has really allowed me to take some risks that I never would have at home.  But last week was a really hard week.  I missed my family, I missed feeling like I belonged, I missed North Carolina.  John got me a new kindle for my birthday, and it nearly put me over the edge because I didn't want anything else in my life to have to change.  (I've since adjusted to the kindle and apologized for acting like a crazy person)

I've found with homesickness that just ignoring it and trying to distract myself isn't really the best policy.  I don't advocate wallowing in it (though I might be guilty of that), but I think it's important to recognize and confront the feelings rather than pretending they're not there.  Only after acknowledging the things I miss and the things that are frustrating me do I find it helpful to focus on the things that I appreciate about being here, remembering happy memories, thinking about what I do enjoy, and recognizing the beauty in my surroundings.

This week I'm feeling a lot more grounded.  It's not that I don't still miss the things I miss, but the pain is less, and I'm able to see the good again.  For example:

Beautiful Night Views

Making Homemade Bellinis

Finding a melon labeled a "Godzilla Egg" (ゴジラたまご) in a fruit store

Sunday, July 21, 2013

Afternoon Tea at The Mandarin Oriental

In continuing celebration of my birthday, Raku and I went to afternoon tea at the Mandarin Oriental on Friday.  It was fantastic!  We read a CNN article about the 5 best afternoon teas in Tokyo, and now we want to try all of them.

When John and I were in Hong Kong we went to tea at the Peninsula, which was great, but I think I enjoyed this one more.  The decor at the Mandarin is a little more asian, and the food isn't served on the typical three tiered tray.  Perhaps the best part is that rather than selecting a tea and being served a pot of it, tea comes by the individual cup so you can try as many as you want, and each comes hot or iced!  The idea of iced tea seemed a little sacrilegious to me, but it was so lovely and refreshing.

By the end of the afternoon we had managed to drink six cups each, three iced and three hot.  The Exotic Orchard and Mandarin Oriental House Blend were my two favorites, but there wasn't a single tea I didn't enjoy.

Iced Tea from the 38th Floor

Tea is served in the Oriental Lounge, which is on the 38th floor.  The whole place is gorgeous, but if you want a window seat you should call ahead for a reservation (Raku did).

Once we had out first cup of tea we were each brought a plate of sandwiches.  Clockwise from the top: Ham, Corn and Coleslaw, Open-faced Peach and Proscuitto, Egg and Cucumber, and Salmon and Cucumber on Brioche.  We both enjoyed the salmon and cucumber the best.

So pretty!

We finished the sandwiches quickly, and truth be told they were my least favorite part.  We ordered more tea, and soon we each received a plate of scones (plain, cranberry, and coconut) served with jam, butter, and the most divine mango cream.

Yum!
After the scones were given a pre-dessert.  It was a little cup of yogurt topped with peach and mint jelly.  It looked beautiful, though I was a little skeptical of the concept, but it was delicious.


After our pre-dessert came real dessert, which was undeniably the main event.  It comes out on a beautiful stand, and it's almost too exquisite to eat (almost!).  And just to be clear, this isn't for sharing - we each got one!

Absolutely Divine
I wanted to take a picture of every single little dessert, but I restrained myself (a little).  Here are some of the best.

Raspberry Cheesecake

Chocolate Mousse with Blueberries

Peach Macaron

We slowly made our way through the desserts, accompanied by many more cups of tea.  We were always presented with the menu before we had finished out current cup, and never lacked for tea.  By the end we were completely full and satisfied.

View from the Bathroom
Before leaving we ducked into the bathroom because it also has an incredible view.  The view from the lounge is of skyscrapers and downtown Tokyo, while the view from the bathroom stretches out into the suburbs forever.  You can see both the Sky Tree and the bay.

Clowning around in the elevator - It's hard living a life of leisure

Tokyo Mandarin Oriental Lounge
Afternoon Tea Hours: 12:00-5:30
Phone: 03-3270-8188
Address: 2-1-1 Nihonbashi Muromachi, Chuo-ku, Tokyo
Map

Read about other Afternoon Teas:
The Palace Hotel Tokyo
The Metropole Hanoi
The Ritz Carlton Tokyo
Tokyo Shangri-La
The Peninsula Hotel
The Mandarin Oriental (second time)
The Park Hyatt Shinjuku
The Four Seasons Marunouchi
Hotel Chinzanso

Thursday, July 18, 2013

How To Eat A Dragon Fruit

Have you ever seen a dragon fruit?  They're beautiful, but completely crazy looking.  I've been interested in them for a while, but I finally bought one this week.

Dragon Fruit

I wasn't sure where to even begin with this fruit, so I looked up a tutorial on the internet.  It's actually pretty simple.  You cut the whole thing in half from top to bottom, and then cut it again, making long thin quarters.  The flesh is white with little black seeds all through it, similar in texture to a kiwi.


Then take each wedge and cut slices through the fruit, but don't cut into the peel.


Much like an avocado, you can then just scoop or peel it out of the skin.  Afterwards, be sure to trim off any pink parts that are left.  It's not healthy to eat to the peel.


Here's the bad news.  The flavor was pretty similar to green beans.  Not exactly the breakfast we were hoping for.  John looked it up later (after supplementing his breakfast with ice cream) and it turns out there are two types of dragon fruit.  The Asian kind is "sweet" (not that we thought so) while the kind that grows in Mexico and South American is sour.  I think ours would have tasted a lot better if it was sour.  Oh well, live and learn.




Tuesday, July 16, 2013

Yoshimi and Filippo's Wedding

Yesterday was quite a day of celebration - Ocean Day (a national holiday), my birthday, and Yoshimi and Filippo's wedding reception all at once.

I've been looking forward to the reception ever since we got the invitation.  As I mentioned before, she and Filippo did the paperwork back in April, so they're already married, but this reception was the big event for Yoshimi.  (The Catholic service in Italy will be the big event for Filippo)

I wasn't sure how the reception would be different from an American wedding, but in many ways it was quite similar.  There was a cocktail reception before the couple made their grand entrance.  They were then seated at the front of the room.  Throughout the evening there were toasts and speeches from as well as a slide show, and a video tribute from Italian friends and family.

Congratulations!

After the food was served, there was an opportunity for everyone to come up and take a photo with the couple and and share good wishes.  Someone sang a song to the couple and Yoshimi's niece and nephew did a little presentation.  Yoshimi's niece was flower girl aged, but rather than wearing a pink or white dress she wore a french maid outfit.

So cute!

The reception was held on Waterline, the floating lounge attached to T.Y. Harbor restaurant.  It was beautiful as the sun went down over the water and every so often another boat would cruise by and the occupants would wave to us.

Shinagawa Canal

At the end of the night there was a receiving line where they gave each guest a gift bag.  They are so thoughtful, they remembered my birthday in spite of the chaos of their own big day and gave me a special birthday present too!

And speaking of birthdays, I had a wonderful birthday brunch with friends on Sunday, and check out this gorgeous cake they got me!  What a great long weekend.

Delicious Raspberry Mousse Cake


Wednesday, July 10, 2013

Ayanokoji Tokyo Labo

This past weekend John and I were shopping on some of the backstreets of Jingumae when we found the most amazing little shop.  It was the sign with a gold coin purse that first caught my eye, but then I saw all the bright, whimsical bags inside.

Ayanokoji, a Kyoto based brand, sells beautiful purses and bags of all sorts, from coin purses and makeup bags to laptop cases and tote bags.  They use the most lovely fabrics and each bag has the signature gold clasp.

Ayanokoji Tokyo Labo

I wanted to buy just about everything they sold, but finally picked out a small makeup bag in a blue floral lace pattern.

New Makeup Bag
It's definitely worth a visit.

Hours: Mon-Sun 10:00-7:00
Phone: 03-6434-5186
Address: 3-28-10 Jingumae, Shibuya-ku, Tokyo

Sunday, July 7, 2013

Tanabata

Today is Tanabata, a celestial summer holiday celebrating the mythical Orihime and Hikoboshi.  The story goes that Orihime (the star Vega) was the daughter of the sky god.  She was a weaver and wove beautiful fabric.  One day she met Hikoboshi,(the star Altair) a cow herd.  They fell madly in love, and began to spend all of their time together.  They were so distracted by each other that they began neglecting their work, angering Orihime's father.  As punishment he created a mighty river to separate them (the Milky Way).  Orihime was devastated, and after much weeping her father finally relented, allowing the lovers to meet on the 7th day of the 7th month each year.

A Tanabata Tree

To celebrate, people also make wishes, writing them on colorful strips of paper and hanging them from bamboo branches.  Raku's building has a Tanabata tree, so we each made wishes this week.

My wish - that my sister can come visit

Speaking of my sister, July 7 is not only Tanabata, it's her birthday.  Happy Birthday Julie!  And speaking of birthdays, check out this hilarious birthday card I just received.

You Feta Have A Gouda Birthday!




Thursday, July 4, 2013

Beating Rainy Season

Rainy season is back.  The skies are grey, the humidity is out of control and it's been raining off and on.  Luckily, I have a new weapon to combat the rain.  The world's cutest rain shoes!  I loved them so much I went ahead and bought two pairs.

Amazing!
I had been thinking that I wanted some rain boots, but with all the heat and humidity they just seemed like they would be too hot and uncomfortable.  These are perfect, looking fun and stylish but totally functional and waterproof.



Free Fish, a Japanese brand that opened in 2009 makes them.  They're completely made out of rubber except for the little embellishments.  A great way to perk up a rainy day.


Tuesday, July 2, 2013

Bear Hug Massage

Over the weekend John and I went to get massages at Bear Hug, one of the most common massage chains I see all over Tokyo. We've both had massages in the US, but this was our first time in Japan.

Bear Hug Massage
At Bear Hug you don't need to schedule and appointment, you can just walk in.  After filling out a form (luckily John could read it) we were each taken back to a massage cubicle.  I say cubicle because the walls didn't go up to the ceiling and I could hear the masseuse next door walking around and talking to John.

The Cubicle
 The biggest surprise for me was the outfit we were each given to wear. I'm used to being told to strip down to my underwear if not being complete nude for a massage, but we were each given a pair of  baggy athletic pants and shirt (red for me, blue for John). At the time I wondered if it was just because my massage was given by a man, but later in the massage there was a part where I sat up and he did some stretches on my arms that no one would do naked.


The Outfit

All in all, it was a pretty strange experience.  It seemed to be expected that the masseuse would never touch my actual skin, so on top of the outfit I was covered in a blanket, and the massage was given through both.  For the most part this was fine (though the constant readjusting of the blanket was distracting), but he did a scalp and face massage, and it was super weird and unpleasant to have my whole head wrapped up in a blanket.  I think he and I were both a little nervous because I didn't speak Japanese, so the whole process wasn't relaxing at all.  I think I left more stressed out that when I came in, and spent most of the massage just wishing it was over.

John on the other hand had a great time.  He said his massage was wonderful - really intense, almost to the point of painful, but that his muscles felt great afterwards (and still do).   He'll probably go back.  I won't.