Thursday, January 30, 2014

January Thaw

From facebook it seems like the whole United States is one giant ice cube, but we've had a little thaw here in Tokyo this week.  I'm sure before I know it the weather will be frigid again, but I'm enjoying it while it lasts.  Last night John and I even went up and had a drink on the roof!  Of course we wore coats and gloves and only lasted about fifteen minutes, but it was really nice.  I love being up on our roof.  You can look out at almost the whole city, but being so high up it it feels like you can see forever. It's easier to breathe up there, and it's so quiet! 

Our neighborhood is usually quiet, but a building is going up next door to us, and the taller it gets the closer the construction noise gets to our windows.  It's not bad, but it's nice when it ends in the evenings.

This afternoon I'm going to try to make cookies in my fish oven.  I can't believe it's taken me over a year to even attempt this, but it's a complicated little contraption.  I can't read all of the controls, and those that I can aren't all that helpful.  The biggest problem is that I can't really control the exact temperature, so it's like a game of figuring out if bread toasts better on the pizza or the gratin setting, etc. Do you think cookies bake better at the "whole fish" or "piece of a fish" setting?  Maybe those don't even have different temperatures, just different time settings.  Who knows?  It will probably be a disaster, but I'll post an update if they turn out.  (Update: total disaster, as expected.)

Construction Out My Window
View From The Roof

Saturday, January 25, 2014

Pretty Fingernails

Japanese girls have the fanciest fingernails I have ever seen.  I'm always checking out other peoples hands on the subway to see what the latest looks are.  Gel manicures have been popular for a while, but they don't stop at fun colors, it's pretty common to see nails that have been bedazzled with little gems or pearls (fake, obviously) or charms even.  Sometimes I wonder how ladies are even able to use their phones with such blinged out nails.

With all the fanciness going on around me I've been keeping my nails painted most of the time, but I only recently ventured into territory any more exciting than that.  My nails are pretty weak so I haven't wanted to try a gel manicure, I'm pretty sure my nails would be destroyed!  Plus it's a lot more money than painting them myself.  But I recently found a really beautiful set of sparkly blue nail polish stickers.  You know, those strips that you peel off and stick onto your nails?  I'd heard good things, but never tried them.  So I bought these stickers, but before using them I thought I'd do a trail run with a set I'd gotten for free in a magazine.  If I was going to ruin them, I wanted to do it with a set I didn't care so much about.

The way it works is you peel off the polish and apply it to the bare nail, starting from the cuticle and smoothing it down the nail.  At the end you fold the strip down and file it away.  I read online that to smooth out any air bubbles and to help them stick you can blast them with a hair dryer for a few seconds afterwards. Easy, right?  Sort of.  They actually go onto the nail pretty easily.  I thought it would be more difficult, but that wasn't the problem at all.  Filing them off was. It was hard to get the file to tear through the sticker, and then it left the end a little ragged.  The first set I did  evened out a lot during the first day, but the second set is still pretty rough.  I found the hair dryer helped a lot with air bubbles on the first round, but on the second I didn't really have any to worry about.   After I put them on I was worried they would immediately peel off, but the first set held really well!  Eventually the pattern started to flake off but the white layer stayed attached to my nails.  The problem was taking them off.  Maybe the Japanese ones are different, but polish remover didn't dissolve them, and eventually I had to peel them off.  The only problem was they tore off the top layer of my nails!  Ick!  I did a lot of googling and can't find any other accounts of this.  I do have really weak nails - maybe they're the weakest in the world.  Or maybe the hair dryer made them stick too well?  I don't know.  I was hesitant to do the second set after that, so after giving my nails a couple weeks to recover I did the second set with Raku.  She did hers on bare nails, but I put on a base coat of polish first to make removal easier.  Now I'm having the complete opposite problem.  They're trying to peel off all the time, but Raku reports the same problem so I don't think it's the nail polish.  Either way, they're cute but I don't think these will last more than a few days.  They're a fun idea, but maybe more trouble than they're worth.

In other news, Strawberry Sandwiches are back at 7-Eleven!  It seems they have a blueberry sandwich this year as well, which I haven't tried yet but appears to be blueberry jam and cream cheese.

Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Kobe Beef at Kaiseki 511

Back in December, before one of my friends moved back to the US, Raku and I went out with her for a lunch of Kobe beef at Kaiseki 511.  Kristen chose the place, but it was super convenient right in our backyard of Akasaka.  The number 511 in the name supposedly comes from the grain of fat in the meat, sort of like thread count in sheets perhaps?

We were lured in by their reasonably priced lunch sets, which start as low as 1500 yen, but even a pretty fancy lunch was only priced at 3800 yen.  We had a reservation for 12:30 but by the time we arrived they had sold out of all the sets we had planned on ordering!  We were pretty disappointed and spent a while deciding what to do.  We were offered another set which wasn't on the menu that cost 4700 yen.  Ultimately Kristen chose that set since it was her last chance to try Kobe beef, while Raku and I opted for less pricy Japanese beef sets.  I was a little skeptical of the upsell, but after some discussion we decided that they probably have a limited amount of Kobe beef that they're willing to sell at such a great price per day and they were probably actually measuring and calculating what they had left in the kitchen when they offered the off-menu option.  If you're going here make sure your reservation is for early or plan on spending more.

When our food came out we were all delighted.  Kristen had an enormous grin on her face all through lunch and seemed to think the meal was well worth the money.  Raku and I spent far less, but were equally pleased with our food.  Raku ordered the tenderloin and I ordered the sirloin, but we split them both so we could compare.  True to its name, the tenderloin was incredibly tender and less fatty than the sirloin.  I usually prefer a less fatty meat, but in this case I really enjoyed the "chew" of the sirloin, the tenderloin was almost too tender.  Raku also preferred the sirloin, and says that she normally does.

Besides the actual meat, our meals were identical.  They came out on lovely trays with miso soup, salad, rice, pickles, a soy sauce foam to put on the steak and a pineapple jelly for dessert.  The meat itself came with a small piece of cheesy potato gratin and vegetables that were buttery and delicious from sitting under the meat.  The meal was extremely satisfying without leaving us feeling unpleasantly full. Despite the rough start to the meal we were all very pleased with the place and I would wholeheartedly recommend it anyone wanting to try Kobe beef, or just looking for a delicious and reasonably priced steak at lunchtime, as long as you know you need arrive early.  There's even a handy link on their website to make reservations online so you don't have to worry about making a call in Japanese.

Fun note, I used this lunch as "research" and based a scene in my book on it.  My life is pretty great, isn't it?

Hours:11:30-2:00, last order 2:00, 6:00-11:00, last order 10:00, closed Sundays and holidays
Phone: 03-6685-0511
Address:4-3-28 Akasaka, Minato-ku, Tokyo

Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Spa EAS in Yokohama

I mentioned the other day that John and I were going to the spa in Yokohama. I was sure that I'd written about it before, but I can't find anything about it on my blog, so let me correct that! Sadly I couldn't take any pictures there (get ready for a text heavy post). But their floor guide has lots of great pictures. 

Spa EAS is a really fantastic spa in Yokohama that I've been to three times now. They have a number of saunas and steam rooms including one really amazing room where a person pours a bunch of herbs and water over the hot rocks and then beats the air with a towel to raise the temperature and humidity. You're only allowed to be in for 8 minutes because they raise the temperature to 70 c (that's 158 f!) I never knew I could sweat so much, but it feels amazing! Once you've enjoyed all the saunas on the top two floors there are a bunch of different baths including salty mineral water, sparkling water, several temperatures of hot water, and ice water accessible through the locker rooms. There are a couple of steam rooms inside the bathing area, but the other saunas are co-ed, except for a small ladies area on the 7th floor. I've been twice with a group of female friends and once with John, and I really enjoyed both experiences.

Reading katakana is helpful, and kanji would be even more helpful, but even if you can't read or speak that doesn't mean a visit would be out of the question, it will just take a little preparation beforehand. I've never heard anyone speak English there, and there are only a few English signs (and I've actually never seen another foreigner there) but this place is too great to miss!  The spa is a quick walk from the West Exit of JR Yokohama Station or Exit 9 of the Metro, on the 4th floor of a big complex that also has a bowling alley and a Pasela karaoke.  You'll need to take off your shoes at the entrance and put them in a locker before going to the front desk. At the front desk they will give you a wrist band that opens your locker and can charge any purchases for the rest of the day, including the drink machines. After getting your wrist band walk up the stairs to the 5th floor. At the desk you can pick your spa clothes (there are two choices for ladies and one for men) and a get floor guide brochure. Just point to the color and tell them what size (I was comfortable in an M). They'll give you a bag with your outfit, a big towel, and a small towel. Once you've got your bag you can go in the locker rooms to get changed. The wrist band you got on the 4th floor has a number on it - that's your assigned locker, and it's magnetic - just push it against the little gray button and your locker should pop right open. (That took me waaaaay too long to figure out). Once you've changed you're ready to go enjoy yourself on the sixth and seventh floors. The floor guide will show pictures of the different steam rooms, relaxation rooms, and other services so you should be able to find your way around even if you can't read. I like to bring a kindle or my phone inside my bag to read in the relaxation rooms. A lot of people bring their towels to lie on in the saunas too.

The really hot sauna on the 6th floor happens on the hour, usually at 12:00, 1:00, 2:00, and 4:00. It's important to get in line about 20 minutes beforehand because it's really popular and it fills up super fast. People will just sit on the floor waiting until they let you in. If you can read Japanese you can check out the schedule to pick which hour sounds best (they have different essential oils like herbs, orange, bergamot etc.) but if you can't, don't worry. Just pick a time and be sure to get in line early.

There are a number of restaurants that serve noodles and curries as well as a juice and smoothie bar, and also places that do massages, facials, acupuncture, and aromatherapy. Obviously you have to pay for all of that, but you can just charge it to your wristband. There are also lots of drink machines and an ice cream vending machine. I've never tried any of the extra services, but John got a massage and he was really happy with it. All the signs are in Japanese, but if you look at their website with google translate ahead of time you should be able to figure out what you want.

Once you're done with the saunas you can enjoy all the different baths. The first time I went I was really nervous about the whole naked thing, but everyone else acts like it's completely normal, and I promise that after a minute or two you'll adjust. If you've never been to an onsen before you leave your big towel in the cubbies just before the baths and bring your little towel with you. You can hold it in front of you to cover up the most important bits if you want. It's important to shower (thoroughly) at the little booths before getting in the water. If your hair is long you can get a hair tie at the same place you get your spa clothes. Most people keep their little towels folded up on the top of their heads while they're soaking in the water.  They have lots of hairdryers and fun face products you can try, so you leave looking at least as nice as you did when you arrived. At the end turn your clothes and towels back in where you got them, and then take your wristband down to the 4th floor to pay.

The normal price is 2600 yen (200 yen upcharge on holidays) but every Tuesday is Ladies Day, and then it's only 1600 yen as long as you're in a group. If you go by yourself they only give you 500 yen off. Friday is men's day, but as far as I can tell it's just a free drink, not reduced admission. 

Whew!  If you've made it this far, thanks for sticking with me. I realize I wrote a ton and went really in depth with the details. It's the sort of place that might be intimidating without knowing what to expect ahead of time or being able to communicate very well, but I've just had such a great experience here, and I hope other people can too.

Hours:10:30 am - 9:00 am
Phone: 04-5290-2080
Address: 2-2-1 Kitasaiwai, Nishi-ku, Yokohama, Kanagawa

Looking for Other Onsen?
Utsukushi no Yu in Takaido

Sunday, January 12, 2014

Back in the Swing of Things

I haven't been very good about blogging so far this month, have I? Now that the New Year's holidays are over it's been back to regular life - John going to work and me back to my daily working out and writing routine. It's been hard to get back into the swing of things though. I just want to go fun places or watch TV curled up under warm blankets all the time.

But just because it's been back to reality doesn't mean we haven't done anything fun. John's birthday was this week and I made him a really awesome chocolate stout cake (if I do say so myself) decorated with edible gold (and for the careful observer, the exact same candles that I used on his cake last year). We also had some weird "champagne" (and I use that term loosely).  Around New Year's a lot of stores sell fukubukuro - or "Lucky Bags" that have unknown contents in them. There are some variations where you actually do know what you're getting, or you at least know the possibilities are. We did one where we bought mystery bottles of wine and the one John picked was this bright blue drink that is less alcoholic, but "based on" champagne whatever that means. The flavor was a little earthy which was jarring - with such a bright color I kept expecting it to taste like a blue raspberry slushy or something.

Speaking of weird things, I also tried a new weird snack food this week. After Raku and I tried the Sausage Doritos and the Fried Chicken Cheetos I was really excited when I found a bag of Camembert Doritos to buy her! But we tried that last night and they were terrible. Seriously, if you ever see them do yourself a favor and walk away. When we opened the bag the smell was really strong, in an unpleasant stinky cheese way. And the taste was just bizarre. They were really sweet! There must be at least as much sugar as weird cheese flavoring in them. With all the other novelty chips we've at least managed to finish the bag even if we wouldn't buy another, but with these we threw them out after one bite each.

Tomorrow is Coming of Age Day, so it's a three day weekend. I think we might celebrate by going to the spa in Yokohama. John's never been but I think it will be the perfect way to relax on a cold winter day.

Friday, January 3, 2014

Masamoto Tsukiji Knives

For Christmas this year John bought me two Japanese knives.  To be honest, I cook all the time and I've known for a while that the knives we have are pretty dull, but I didn't really know very much about good knives.  When John told me he wanted to take me to pick some out I nearly panicked because I wasn't sure I would know what to look for or even be able to appreciate such high quality knives.  So I took a while to do my research and get used to the idea, but when we finally went I was so excited!

What I learned is that Japanese knives are some of the sharpest in the world.  They're made in the same style as swords, and the steel they use can be sharpened to an exceptionally sharp blade, though it does make the knife a little more brittle.  You probably don't want to go hacking away at bones with these. Originally I assumed that Kappabashi would be the place to go, but the store I settled on is in Tsukiji, where the fish market is.  While Masamoto Tsukiji does sell knives for use at home, a great many of their knives are meant for restaurants and sushi chefs.

I chose a 210 mm gyuto knife, essentially an 8 1/2 in chef's knife, and a 120 mm knife for smaller jobs. The store sells both stainless steel and carbon steel, and I chose stainless which sacrifices only a small amount of sharpness for much more durability.  Even though they're stainless it's important to wash and dry them immediately after use, especially when chopping salty or acidic foods, something I've never actually been careful about before.  One of the most special things about these knives is that they will engrave your name in the knife, right there on the spot.  With the stainless steel blades they can only put it in the bolster, but with the carbon steel they can carve it right into the blade.  

I was a little nervous that it would be hard to get the knives, or that the proprietors would be annoyed to be selling to what would probably look like just another tourist.  They're craftsmen who have been doing this for hundreds of years after all.  But I was pleasantly surprised!  Everyone in the store was very kind and helpful, even joking around and making small talk with John in simple Japanese.  We saw a number of other tourists in the store, both American and Korean, and they were able to communicate in limited English phrases.  If you plan on asking lots of questions or asking for much guidance it would help to speak Japanese, but by looking at their website (with google translate) beforehand you should be able to get a good idea of what you want before going in.  This link goes straight to their stainless steal knives meant for home use.

Now that I've had the knives for about a week I have to say I'm in love.  Cutting everything is so fun! And so easy!  Honestly I want to say that cutting through potatoes or carrots or onions is like cutting through butter, but I tested it, and it's actually easier (if we're talking about cold butter, at least).

Hours: 6:00-3:00, closed Sundays and holidays
Phone: 03-3541-7155
Address: 4-9-9 Tsukiji, Chuo-ku, Tokyo