Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Things I Love This Week

1. Being able to open our windows! The weather really has cooled down, at least for a few days.

2. The sweet people at Starbucks that draw pictures on my cup every single day.

3. Reading books about writing books.

4. New dresses from Uniqlo.

5. This awesome dog stuffed in a tote bag riding the train.

Saturday, August 23, 2014

Summertime Sadness

When I was a kid I thought summer was the best season. I don't mean it was my favorite, I thought it was a fact that everyone all over the world understood. Maybe it's because there's no summer break to look forward to anymore, or maybe it's how unbearable Tokyo summers are, but I've reversed my opinion completely. Summer is now the season I dread for the rest of the year.

This summer hasn't been quite as awful as last year. Maybe I'm better adjusted, but I think it's actually just been slightly cooler. We're in what I hope is the very worst of it now. This past week has been the hottest week of the summer, and I've been melting. The weather report says there will be some relief next week, but I'm scared to actually believe it. This week I started seeing fall decorations in the stores and fall beer cans, but whoever decided it's time for that is delusional (or maybe just hoping for cooler weather as much as I am?)

Despite my whining, it's not all bad. This year there are frozen chu-hais in pouches sort of like capri suns. Yesterday Raku and I tried the lychee flavor. They have a wonderful slushy consistency and are really refreshing. The alcohol tastes strong, but the flavor is good too. The packaging say's it's 6% alcohol, but they're only 150 milliliters, so you won't get trashed (at least not on one).

We also had some really delicious, if slightly pricy, popsicles at Tokyo Midtown. They're sold at a new stand called Paletas. Raku had the Grape Grape (green grapes frozen in purple grape juice) and I had the White Sangria. They were absolutely gorgeous, and we both agreed the White Sangria was amazing. Raku wasn't crazy about the frozen grape texture (a little mushy), but the apples and orange slice in mine were great, and the popsicle base had a wonderful fruity cinnamon clove flavor. There are a lot of creative and delicious sounding flavors, but don't wait too late in the day or they'll be sold out. They cost 480 yen, which is silly for a popsicle, but they're worth it.  Think of it as five minute $5 vacation.

Best popsicle of my life

Frozen chu-hais = Genius!

If only it were really fall

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Pork Gyoza from Japanese Soul Cooking

I have been craving these gyoza (dumplings) since I first got Japanese Soul Cooking. I wanted to make them immediately, but it seemed a little to cruel to John (not that I was able to wait very long). Here's a sad story, when John and I were in Beijing four years ago he got food poisoning from some dumplings and hasn't been able to eat them since. Luckily those were steamed, and in Japan they're usually fried, so he's been very slowly trying to retrain himself on the fried ones, but the prospect of having them for dinner was not something he was excited about. Because of his lack of enthusiasm I invited Raku to dinner, so at least someone else would be excited. And John was actually a very good sport about eating them.

This recipe did not disappoint! They tasted delicious, they looked beautiful, the directions were clear. I whole-heartedly recommend this recipe. There were only two ingredients that were new to me this time, nira which are garlic chives, and rayu a spicy chili oil. There's actually a recipe in the book to make your own rayu, but honestly it seemed like a better education to go out and find it in my local supermarket. The nira were very easy to find, I've seen them before but thought they were green onions. There were two different types of rayu, one that seemed to be a filtered oil, and one that still had chili flakes in it. I opted for the chili flakes - yum!

The first step involves wringing out as much water as you can from the cabbage, and I was totally shocked how much there was. The recipe says it fills about 50 gyoza, but my tablespoons of filling must have been generous because I only got 38. There are great pictures that show how to crimp the wrapper together, but it still took my hands a while to get the hang of it. The good news is that you don't need to worry, they don't try and come open while cooking, and the frying is so beautiful it disguises any other flaws. Let me warn you though, filling and sealing them up takes a really long time. It's a good activity to do in front of the TV.

I made the gyoza hane (dumplings with wings) which involves mixing a little bit of flour into the water that cooks off, leaving a beautiful crunchy lace behind that connect the dumplings.  A Japanese friend made gyoza for me this way a year ago, and I was so excited when mine came out just like his. The recipe says to drizzle more sesame oil on after they're cooked, but I think they're great as is.

The final product was delicious - crunchy and tender, and bursting with ginger and garlic. When Raku arrived she said it smelled like her grandma's house, which I think is high praise indeed.

Read About Other JSC Recipes:
Oyakodon/Gyudon/Shiso Pasta
Mabo Dofu
Sapporo Soup Curry
Sesame Karaage
Tan Tan Men
Ebi Chili
Japanese Soul Cooking Review

New Ingredients: Nira and Rayu

Waiting to Be Cooked (see how my technique improves?)
Almost Done
Fireworks Beer - So Festive
Look at Those Wings
Yes, Please!

Thursday, August 7, 2014

Afternoon Tea at the Peninsula Hotel Tokyo

My name is Wendy and I'm an afternoon tea addict. A year ago when Raku and I went to afternoon tea for my birthday I don't know if she had any idea what kind of a monster she was unleashing. That day we agreed to go once a season, and recently we planned out our tea schedule for the entire next year! We even contemplated whether we needed to increase the frequency to fit in all the places we want to try. I might need an intervention here, but on second thought, no thanks. I'll just take another cup of tea with cakes and tiny sandwiches please.

This time we went to the Peninsula Hotel for afternoon tea in their lobby lounge. It was a really different experience from most of the others that we've done.  A lot of the afternoon teas here are on a pretty high floor of a sky scrapper (usually between the 30th and 40th floors) but this one was actually on the ground floor. The Hotel Chinzanso was similar, but the area where tea was served was offset from the main lobby. In the Peninsula you're really seated in the lobby, there's a path right through all the seating where guests are walking in and out, and from our table we could see the revolving doors and the check-in desk. At first it felt a little chaotic and distracting, but soon it became really fun. We were lounging and relaxing, but it seemed like we were traveling - maybe not even in Japan anymore. For some reason it made me want to take a long journey on a train.

The food itself was a little less than exciting. I think the Peninsula prides itself on being super traditional, so the cakes and sandwiches were not the most creative or beautiful foods that we've ever had.  It looked like there were multiples of the same cake, but once we tasted them we realized they were different. There were a couple standouts though. Their scones were probably the best I've had in Tokyo, and they served a cold corn soup garnished with a piece of popcorn that was both delicious and whimsical.

We drank our way through as much tea as we could, and found some really great teas, as well as a pretty bad one. Raku is always really good at picking unusual teas that I would never even consider ordering - they usually turn out to be my favorites. But this time her first order was a miss. She got the blueberry green tea and I thought it smelled like pixie sticks, she thought it smelled like a cheap bathroom air freshener. The taste was better than the smell at least, but we wouldn't recommend it. We both enjoyed the Peninsula Tokyo Blend and the Paris tea. Raku's next selection was Chocolate Mint tea, which as usual I didn't expect to like, but it was very good. We both agreed it would be particularly good in cold weather, maybe with a splash of milk? One thing we both appreciated was the tea pot size. They pour exactly two cups, so there's just enough to share and less of it gets over brewed.

In general it was a nice tea, and the atmosphere was a fun change up, but we've gotten pretty spoiled. We agreed that we would both rank this one on the lower middle end of all the teas we've gone to. There's no harm in going to this one, but unless you're a particular Peninsula enthusiast or you want to try ALL of them, you can do better in Tokyo.

Tokyo Peninsula Hotel Afternoon Tea
Hours: 2:30-5:00
Address: 1-8-1 Yurakucho, 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 Mandarin Oriental (second time)
Park Hyatt Shinjuku
The Four Seasons Marunouchi
Hotel Chinzanso
The Mandarin Oriental

Tuesday, August 5, 2014

Laser Hair Removal in Tokyo at Musee Platinum

Have you ever seen the Musee Platinum advertisements on the subway and wondered if their laser hair removal offers are too good to be true? Over a year ago I mentioned that Raku and I were going to try laser hair removal, and I'm only now getting around to writing up the experience. It was really hard to find any information at all in English, and when I searched on line, so much of what I found was for Singapore, not Japan so I hope this will be helpful to other people.

We made our first appointment at a salon called Vitule that was having some enticing special and had high hopes that were quickly dashed. Although Raku had given them advanced warning when she made our appointments they were deeply flustered when we arrived unable to read Japanese and refused to help us with the paper work. After a few awkward moments we were asked to leave pretty rudely. So, don't go there. We did more online research, and finally decided to try again at Musee Platinum - the most common hair removal salon in Japan - this time taking an extra Japanese friend to help with the reading, even though Raku speaks Japanese. At the time they were having a special for unlimited sessions of underarm treatments for 500 yen. Even if it didn't work, what was there to lose?

The initial appointment is simply to do the paperwork, and from there they will schedule the first treatment for a few days later. We were told the sign-up would take about an hour, which we thought was an overestimation, but with all the translation it actually took a little over two hours! Make sure you've got plenty of time when you schedule an appointment. We were given a little orientation and explanation of different packages we could get for different body parts. They use an IPL (intense pulsed light) method that they estimate takes about four full years to fully remove hair. After one year they say the hair will be much thinner and straighter, and after two less than half of the original hair will remain. They schedule treatments three months apart, so you can expect four treatments a year. We were disappointed to hear that it would take so long, but for so little money we decided to try anyways.

When we signed up they were concerned about my hair color and if the treatments would work on me. IPL works by targeting hair follicles that are a different color than the surrounding skin. I assured them that although I dye my hair blonde the natural color is a medium ash brown, and agreed to take the risk. They allow you to cancel at any point and will refund all of your money minus the cost for the sessions you've already received, which seems very fair.

Once we had selected the treatments we wanted to sign up for we were given tablets and left to do the paperwork on our own. You don't have to speak Japanese yourself for the treatments, but it really is essential to have someone come to help if you won't be able to speak and do the paperwork for the initial appointment.

After the sign up we were excited to come back for our first appointments a few days later. When you arrive they'll take you to a little cubicle where you put your belongings in a cabinet and change into their outfits (a tank top for armpits, or a towel wrap thing for legs or bikini treatments). Once you're all done you lie down on the table and they cover your eyes first with a tissue, then a pair of plastic sunglasses, and finally a towel to protect them from the light. It's funny to lie there unable to see anything, and sometimes I couldn't help giggling, which the technicians found hilarious. First they spread an icy cold gel onto your skin (this is where the giggles usually happened) and then they have a device that looks sort of like the handheld scanner at a checkout line, and they zap you about twelve times in each armpit. It's the weirdest feeling, I had worried it would hurt, but it just felt like tiny (cold!) pricks, and I could still see brightness flashing through my very protected eyelids. Even though I couldn't always tell what they were saying the technicians were very helpful getting me to position my arms in the right way or turn slightly if necessary. Afterwards they scrape off the gel and put icepacks on your skin and let you rest for a few minutes to cool the skin further. All in all it's a very quick procedure. They tell you that showers are fine, but no baths for 24 hours and not to visit an onsen for seven days afterwards.

Between one and two weeks after the procedure your hairs are supposed to fall out, and then regrow slightly thinner. The reason the treatments are scheduled so far apart is to allow all the hairs to grow back in. Well, I'm sad to report that after two treatments none of my hair fell out at all.  It seems that my hair is just too light for IPL. Raku on the other hand is having great results. Not every single hair fell out each time, but a lot of them did, and she's noticing a thinning of the hair. I've canceled my contract, and everyone was very understanding and helpful when I did. I was worried they might try to pressure me to stick with it longer, but although they were sad the treatments weren't working they were very supportive of my decision. As a note, if you've signed up for a more expensive contract and you'll be getting a refund they don't give cash, they'll need your bank account info to do a bank transfer.

So, in summary, IPL can work if your hair is dark enough for the treatments, but you'll need to be willing to commit at least a couple of years - possibly more - for major results, and you'll need to have Japanese reading and speaking abilities or assistance to sign up.

I thought I took more pictures, but I just looked through my phone, and I've only got one from the sign up session. These are the tablets we did the paperwork on.

Locations (I used the Omotesando location)

Saturday, August 2, 2014

Bao Bao by Issey Miyaki

My birthday was a couple weeks ago, and while John and I were having drinks to celebrate he admitted that he'd been searching for a bag for me, but hadn't been able to find the perfect one.  After a couple cocktails I told him if he really wanted to buy me a purse, and if he really wanted to spend more than was necessarily responsible he should get me a Bao Bao bag by Issey Miyaki.

Issey Miyaki is one of the big Japanese designers with a lot different stores, but I've been particularly captivated by his Bao Bao bags.  They're fun and futuristic and sort of weird looking, but I've totally fallen for them.  They're made of shiny plasticy-rubber triangles in bright colors connected by a black mesh material to create a really artistic crumple effect.

John tried to take me out that night to get one, but sadly the stores had already closed, so we saved it for the weekend.  They mainly come in square and rectangle shapes, though there are few even more creative shapes like a little balloon looking clutch, and I wasn't sure which one I would want.  I was also a little worried after telling John I wanted one that I wouldn't actually like them in person.  I was worried they might feel weird, that the mesh might make the bag see-through, that there might not be any pockets inside, or that the bags wouldn't really have a bottom which might be annoying.

We went to the Bao Bao inside of Hikarie department store in Shibuya, and after looking at a couple it became clear that I wanted the rectangular shaped bag, even though it was almost twice as expensive.  The square shape, at 25,000 yen, is essentially a tote bag, and like I worried the mesh is unlined making it slightly see through, and there isn't a real bottom to the bag.  It does have one pocket on the inside.  Both shapes come with adjustable straps, so you can control the length.  I prefer the longer length.  The rectangular bag, at 45,000 yen, is totally lined on the inside, has two open pockets on one side and a single pocket on the other, zips closed at the top, and has a foldable bottom so that it can lie flat for storage or be popped out to make a more standard shaped purse. Besides all these advantages that make it worth the higher price, I also preferred the shape on myself when comparing the two in the mirror.

I've had it for a couple weeks now, and I feel so fun and fashionable carrying it around.  I know it's unusual, but I love the unique look!

Yay for Birthday Shopping!
Folded Flat
Bottom Folded Open
A Peek Inside
Out for Coffee