Friday, February 28, 2014

Living in the Present

I was thinking yesterday about how I used to always spend my life thinking about what the next step would be. Freshman year of college I picked out all the classes I wanted to take the whole time I was in college. The summer I worked in Alaska I was wondering what to do the following summer. In Hawaii I was looking for my next job. Then there were the years we were working and hoping to make Japan happen. I'm guilty of doing this in my personal life too. It's not always a bad thing, I'm often prepared or more able to be flexible when plans change because I've already imagined a hundred different alternatives. But being in Japan for an indeterminate amount of time (and trying to be an author) makes a lot of my planning for the future harder.  omeday we'll move somewhere, and my job will be something, and I just don't know. I mean, I'm pretty sure we'll have an oven again, and wherever we live will be bigger than our current apartment, and eventually there will be children. But it's all pretty hazy.

For a long time I was adjusting to all the change associated with moving here and figuring out how to have a mostly normal life. And then once I started feeling settled I started trying to plan what would come after Japan. John and I have some thoughts and dreams, but in a big way those just aren't things we can really know right now.  So now I'm just trying to embrace the here and now. A lot of last year was about learning what Japan was like during the year, getting to know the weather patterns, learning about seasonal events and fun seasonal products. It's sort of strange to be doing it all again for a second time. Now I know that it generally doesn't snow until February, and that green tea and dark chocolate kitkats come out about a month before the sakura start blooming. (I know a lot more useful things too) Things are starting to feel familiar, and that in itself is interesting. I wonder where this blog will go in the next year? I'm sure I'll still be learning and discovering lots of things, but everything won't be new the way it as last year.

But now I'm feeling happy about where I am. I've got a good thing going with writing and friends and John. We're going on vacation tomorrow, and it seems like Spring is starting to arrive. Right now things are looking very bright, and I'm trying to just enjoy that instead of looking further into the future.

Yummy Lunch Date With Raku

Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Bonnat Chocolate

You know, I'm really a small town girl when it comes down to it.  Living in Tokyo is so much fun, and there are a million opportunities, but I am constantly realizing just how much I don't know.  I often make fun of stores that have ridiculous English names, but sometimes I learn that the store is actually some well known designer that I just don't have a clue about (ex: Acne).  In Tokyo you can get brand name anything.  Over Christmas I read an article in the New York Times about chocolate.  A year ago I don't think I knew a single one of the Chocolatiers they mentioned, but now I've heard of more than half of them just from walking past them in Tokyo Midtown (where I love to eat lunch and write) or Omotesando.

Recently Raku and I were in Shirokanedai, and Raku mentioned there was a chocolate shop she wanted to stop in.  It's a small store that has a selection of import foods, but mostly focuses on coffee beans and candy.  They have a whole room (kept at a cooler temperature) devoted to Bonnat chocolate, an artisanal chocolatier that is maybe the oldest family-run one in the world.  At first I wasn't sure I could really bring myself to spend about $12 on one bar of chocolate.  But then I got to thinking, if it's the best in the world, that's really not very expensive at all for a Valentine's present.  And my husband does love fancy things that might be the best in the world.

I got the Apotequil bar, the one recommended in the article.  John really enjoyed it and was kind enough to let me try it too.  The texture was so wonderfully smooth, I can't imagine how much cocoa butter must have been in there, and the flavor was great too.  It was a very fruity complex dark chocolate that was absolutely indulgent to eat.  I'm not experienced enough to claim it's the best in the world, but I'd definitely like to eat some more.

The shop in Shirokanedai is called "& Market" (things like that drive me crazy).  Their address is 5-18-7, Shirokanedai, Minato-ku and this is a link to their website.

Bonnat Chocolate at & Market
Hours: 9:00-9:00
Phone: 03-6450-3903
Address: 5-18-7, Shirokanedai, Minato-ku, Tokyo

Sunday, February 23, 2014

I Can't Eat That!

I try to be an adventurous eater.  I love to cook and I'm always trying to expand my kitchen repertoire. In the last year I've added a couple Indian dishes that I'm really proud of, and I'm trying to expand into Korean food.  I might be late to the game, but these are not foods I ever experienced growing up in Western North Carolina.  Being in Japan has definitely made me branch out and try foods I never would have dreamed of, and I'm proud of that too. (For the record: raw beef - pretty good, octopus - not bad, squid - hate it!) But if I'm being completely honest there's a picky eater inside me and I have to work hard to overcome some of my nervousness about food. Cooking is a really good way for me to do that.  Once I feel like I really understand the food it loses a lot of it's ability to intimidate me, but I've still got areas for improvement.

Eating in Japan was a lot scarier a few years ago when we though that John was allergic to shellfish. I'm not really sure how it happened, but John has either outgrown his allergy or it was just a sensitivity that's gone away, or else he's crazy and it never existed, but he got a blood test a couple years ago to narrow down exactly what he was allergic to, and it turned out to be nothing!  The allergy was never life threatening, but we always worried that the next time he was exposed might be, so it was a huge relief to learn there was nothing to worry about.  Having a food allergy in Japan can be really stressful for a number of reason.  The first is that if you're not very good at Japanese it can be hard to communicate it to others and be confident that you've succeeded.  Another reason is that Japanese restaurants are far less willing to make substitutions to accommodate dietary needs.  Several times John had the really baffling experience of telling someone he was dining with that he couldn't eat shellfish and then being served it anyways, sometimes only discovering this at the end of the meal.  We were so confused!  Did people not understand what shellfish was?  Did they just not care?

John is taking Japanese lessons now, and he thinks he's come upon at least a partial answer.  In Japanese, saying that you can't eat something doesn't mean you physically CAN'T, it means you don't want to.  The people John was telling probably thought that a little bit wouldn't really bother him, as long as it wasn't a prominent part of the meal.  Thank goodness he wasn't really allergic! Now that I think about this, I've been asked questions that I always thought were strange like, "can you drink green tea?"  Of course - why couldn't I?  But those people were probably asking if I would like to. According to John's teacher if you really can't eat something it's important to explain the reason or else it will probably be interpreted as a preference, not a necessity.  In Japanese "allergy"is アレルギー , note that it ends with the "gi" sound, not "ji" as you would pronounce it in English.

In other news, one week from today we'll be in Guam.  I can't wait!

Freshly dyed hair always makes me so happy. 
Blinging out my nails in true Japanese fashion.

Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Afternoon Tea at the Four Seasons Marunouchi

Can you believe how quickly February is flying by?  If you asked, I would always say that February is my least favorite month.  It's the bitter end of winter dragging out, and it always makes me think of gray skies and and the sun setting too early.  But honestly, it's really not such a bad month, it's so short it really doesn't last too long.  And the days are definitely starting to lengthen, when I head home from writing it's only twilight instead of pitch black now.  It's also the only month I've ever known it to snow in Tokyo (not that my experience is very vast), which is fun in the short term.

Raku and I saved our third afternoon tea until February because December was already filled with too much indulgence and January was necessary just to get us back to our regular lifestyle (of both more disciplined writing and eating!)  It's been really fun going to tea once every season though.  I enjoy seeing how the menus reflect what's in season and figuring out which place might be best for each time of year.

This time we selected the Four Seasons because it seemed particularly good for a winter afternoon. They have a creative menu full of comfort foods that aren't the typical afternoon tea fare, like mini-burgers and churros, and they're the only place I know of that offers hot chocolate along with tea.  We'd also heard that they're especially good at the savory foods, instead of the sweet.  I could eat sweets all day long, but Raku has a savory-tooth so this seemed like a tea that would be perfect for her!  We had very high hopes, and maybe that was part of the problem (or maybe we are quickly becoming spoiled snobs,) but we both agreed that this was the most disappointing tea we've been too so far.

Like the Chinzanso all of the food came out at once instead of in courses like the Mandarin Oriental, but instead of the traditional tiered plates it was spread out across the table, which was lovely to look at, but on a more practical level felt a little cramped.  Each of us selected a tea, which is served by the pot. The first pot was slightly larger with about three generous cups in it, and each successive pot (basically a coffee press) had two large cups.  I think the Mandarin has ruined us forever by allowing us to order by the cup, because by the last cup it's definitely over brewed.  I have a higher tolerance for overly-strong tea than Raku, but I have to agree with her that it's frustrating.  The tea selection was a little disappointing as well.  To be fair they did have deliciously rich hot chocolate, and a good coffee selection, but the teas were very standard and not much interested me.  I had pots of darjeeling, rooibos, and lapsang souchong and Raku had earl grey, cherry, and jasmine teas.  I've found that I usually end up enjoying the unusual choices that Raku makes the most, but this time there weren't any crazy teas to pick.  Raku really liked her cherry tea, it was very mild - more cherry scented than flavored, and I liked the smoky lapsang souchong the best.

The food was gorgeous and with so much in front of us we didn't know where to begin, but finally decided to eat the hot food first.  The mini wagyu burger was yummy, but not super special, the snow crab and bechamel quiche was unremarkable, but the pao de queijo tasted very authentic.  Pao de queijos are delicious little bites of bread made from tapioca flour and parmesan cheese.  The tapioca flour gives them a wonderful chewy texture, and these tasted very similar to the ones made by the Brazilian grandmother of the family I used to nanny for.

We had half of dessert next, a green tea and white chocolate cake, a brownie, and a kumquat tart. Neither Raku nor I are crazy about green tea desserts, but this was one of the better ones I've tasted, the brownie was good but surprising - I think there was a lot of orange zest in it, and the kumquat tart was our favorite.  Can you see that the crust is actually a super tiny waffle shell?  The scones came next: vanilla and double chocolate chip.  They were both good, but the chocolate was a bit much (maybe because I was also drinking hot chocolate at the time?).  The vanilla were so buttery they almost tasted like shortbread!

After all that sugar we switched to the "appetizers", a veggie wrap, veggie chips, carrot mousse, and a fruits tomato, mozzarella, and olive skewer.  Speaking of which, have you ever heard of fruits tomatoes?  I thought that was just a silly translation, but Raku explained they're a special type of extra sweet tomato, probably a Japan-only sort of thing.  I've never liked raw tomatoes, but Raku enjoyed both mine and hers, and the mozzarella and olives were great.  The vegetable chips were fun and tasty too.  The carrot mousse was delicious - our favorite from this round for sure.  The veggie wraps were the weakest offereing.  I thought mine was really bland, a disappointment since fresh vegetables are such a rarity here, Raku, on the other hand, thought hers was unpleasantly fishy.

We wrapped up with the second half of dessert, milk tea panna cotta and cinnamon churros with strawberry cream.  Both were good, but sort of unremarkable.  The panna cotta probably would have been better colder, so it might have been a mistake to save it for last.  The churros were nice, but probably more fun to eat than they were delicious.

In general we liked the atmosphere of this place the least.  I will say that the flowers were absolutely gorgeous, they had really nice arrangements of orchids with pussy willow that I really enjoyed, but the view out the windows is mostly of the train tracks around Tokyo station, which is sad because the view from the sitting area is so much nicer.  The service was good, but felt a little awkward and forced.  This is the first place where we've been spoken to in English.  I didn't expect that I would feel this way, but it sort of made every interaction seem a more taxing, like the servers were working extra hard to interact with me.  We probably would have all been more relaxed if it had just been in Japanese.  (As a note, I've always received an English menu and none of these places would be any trouble for a person who only spoke English.)

Four Seasons Marunouchi Afternoon Tea
Hours: M-F 2:00-5:00, S-S 2:30-5:00
Phone: 03-5222-7222
Address: 1-11-1 Marunouchi, Chiyoda-ku, Tokyo

Read about other Afternoon Teas:
The Kahala Resort Honolulu
The Aman Tokyo
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
Hotel Chinzanso
The Mandarin Oriental

Friday, February 14, 2014

Happy Valentine's Day!

It's cold and snowy again in Tokyo, but I feel warm surrounded by love and friendship.  There are days living here that I feel like I might go insane (though I'm sure I'd have days like that no matter where I lived) but there is nowhere I would rather be than right here beside John.  I feel so lucky to have such a wonderful, funny, honest, and sweet (he'd never admit to the last one) person to share my life with.  As long as he was there I think I could probably live anywhere.

I've got some pretty good friends here, as well as friends and family around the world supporting me, all of whom I'm grateful for.  I hope all of you have people in your lives that make life better too!

This morning I made crepes for breakfast, and this afternoon I'm having coffee with Raku and Sarrin. Tonight I think we might mull some wine (Valentines-y and Snowy-weather appropriate!)  Lots of love from me to all of you!

Thursday, February 13, 2014

Around Akasaka

It's warmed up just the tiniest bit, and most of the snow has melted off, but there are still some cute snowmen hanging around.  I ran across this cute little guy wearing an instant ramen bowl as a hat. They're predicting more snow this weekend, so maybe there will be even more snowmen next week. I'm so excited to be on the beach in just a couple weeks!

Life is good in spite of the cold.  Today I saw a couple walking a ton of poodles, and one was being carried in a bag. Maybe he's got a hurt paw?  It's impossible not to smile though when a horde of little dogs goes running past you. Raku and I also got samples of the newest drink that Starbucks will be rolling out on February 15 - the Sakura Latte.  Sakura season is always big at Starbucks, they have limited edition tumblers and drinks that sell out quickly each year.  Last year I tried the sakura white hot chocolate and my eyes almost popped out from a sugar overdose. The sakura latte is a lot more enjoyable, but I suspect a full cup might still be too sweet.  It has the same sakura sprinkles/flakes on top that are really pretty, but they're where a lot of the super sweet flavor comes from.

In other news I made ribs in my slow cooker over the weekend and they were delicious!  It's not easy to find that cut of meat here, but Costco came to the rescue - a whole rack for only 1200 yen!  It easily fed 4 people! I also got some really great chipotle bbq sauce there too.  Honestly, it can be a pain to get there, but having a membership is soooo worth it!  Especially now that I know you can takkyubin (mail) the stuff home.  They'll ship anything that isn't perishable.  Raku and I normally split a huge box, and it only costs about 1000 yen.  Then we can haul more fresh fruit and cheese home with us on the train.

The dog on the right is wearing a sweater with floppy bunny ears on it. 

So pretty, but soooo sweet.

Sunday, February 9, 2014

Snow Adventures

Yesterday Tokyo (and lots of Japan) was hit by a really big snowstorm.  Now, if you're from the Northeast or the Midwest maybe it wouldn't seem like such a big deal, but to someone from the south, and to everyone in Tokyo it was massive.  I've read reports that central Tokyo got 30 cm of snow which is a foot!  I didn't really believe it, but after stomping around on our roof this morning I'm more convinced.

So how did John and I spend our snow day?  Sitting on the couch watching the snow fall and drinking hot chocolate?  Making soup and having a netflix marathon?  Building a snowman in our neighborhood?  Oh no, we were much more foolish than that.  John had read about a liquor store about an hour outside of Tokyo that he wanted to visit.  Have I mentioned that John has become quite the bourbon enthusiast of late?  And we had been planning to go out to it.  We woke up to the falling snow and almost canceled our plans, but John checked the trains and they still seemed to be running on schedule.  We thought it might be nice to see the snow out in the country and take some pretty pictures, so we bundled up (not nearly enough) and headed off.  We made it out to where we were headed in Kanagawa prefecture with no trouble, and then had a freezing cold fifteen minute walk in the gusty snow.  The store itself was a little bit of a letdown, though we did get a nice bottle of champagne on sale.  So we rushed back to the station hoping for, but unable to find, a taxi on the snowy streets.  That's when things got interesting.

We needed to take a local train 3 stops to get on a rapid and then ride back into Tokyo where we could switch to the line that we lived on, but the trains were delayed.  We waited about 15 minutes for our train to show up, but finally it did.  When we got to our connection for the rapid train things really went wrong.  We waited on the snowy platform and finally our late train arrived and we packed onto it, but the doors remained open and the snow kept blowing in.  After standing there for about 20 minutes an announcement was made and everyone began rushing off the train.  We followed the crowd onto another train and waited there, damp and shivering, for what felt like forever.  Thankfully they closed most of the doors, but left a few open for people to keep boarding.  Eventually they made an announcement that we were about to leave, and then nothing happened.  The next announcement informed us that a switch on the tracks was frozen and they were having trouble fixing it.  After another ten or fifteen minutes of waiting we were directed to a third train.  It seemed like everyone in the whole station was directed to this train, and it was more crowded than any train I've ever been on - the yamanote at rush hour is nothing compared to this!  Finally the train departed, and it seemed like everyone was looking up to figure out what line we were on and where we were going.  It seemed like we were only supposed to go four stops and then no one knew what would happen, but when we got there they announced the train would be going farther, and then later announced it would be going all the way to Tokyo.  At that point the whole jam-packed train let our a huge sigh of relief.  It took over two hours, but finally we made it home! 

Today I read that many trains across the country were just canceled and people were stranded in hotels and internet cafes  in lots of rural areas.  We were so lucky to make it home!   First thing I took a hot bath to defrost, and then we ate some dinner.  That's right, we never had lunch during this ordeal and breakfast was only a cup of coffee and some blueberries - not a breakfast of champions!  Then we celebrated being home with our bottle of champagne - even making Bourbon 75s (French 75s with bourbon instead of gin).  Today the sun is out and the snow is starting to melt, but we've learned our lesson, we're staying inside and keeping warm.

Snowy View

Tennis Court Snowmen

Snowy Rooftop

Bourbon 75s

Thursday, February 6, 2014

Milk Jam

I've seen something in the stores before labeled Milk Jam, and always dismissed it as something super gross.  But thanks to a recent post from Smitten Kitchen I learned that's just the English translation of Dulce de Leche.  It's funny how something that sounds so weird in your own language can sound so wonderful in another.  (Maybe this is why when I'm at the salon and my stylist tells me she's just put placenta in my hair I have to resist the urge to scream while she smiles at me like she's just given me a wonderful gift?)

Now that I knew what it was (and having never actually tried Dulce de Leche before) I made sure to pick some up the next time I came across it.  It's pretty good, similar to caramel.  We just had it on cheesecake from 7-Eleven, well I did, John didn't want to try it.  But I'm thinking maybe I need to make crepes soon.

Sunday, February 2, 2014

Good News!

Guess what?  John and I are taking a vacation!  We've had two other attempted trips that have failed (typhoons in Okinawa and a friend's wedding in Thailand that we weren't able to attend) but we're finally going away.  We had some airline miles that were close to expiring, so we picked our destination based on where we had enough to get to and the winner is Guam!   We've even managed to schedule it so that we'll be there for our anniversary! (3 years, can you believe it?)  I don't know very much about what there is to do, but we've book a hotel right on the beach, so that's probably all that matters.   I can't wait to post pictures and tell you all about it in just a month!  It will be strange to be in the U.S. but not really in the U.S.  I hear they have a Kmart, maybe we can pick up a few things we've been missing.

Other than the vacation excitement, things have been going well.  As it always does when I let my guard down, Tokyo has whipped out a few funny surprises for me.  Several nights ago I was walking home and saw a guy that looked like he was walking a tiny dog, but really was pulling along a scrub brush attached to a leash.  I probably made an even bigger spectacle of myself chasing him down to get a good picture, though Raku swears I was discreet.

I also got a snack last week that I thought was just a bread stick. Three bites in, I discovered it was corn bread.  In the most literal sense.  It really wasn't bad though.

Just taking the scrub brush out for it's nightly walk

"Corn Bread"