Sunday, October 26, 2014

How to Ship to an AFO or FPO from Japan

I have a friend who was recently deployed and I wanted to send her a postcard. This was the first time I've ever sent mail to an FPO, and if you've never seen one they're not much more than a combination of letters and numbers, with no country listed.

I started wondering if I would even be able to send something from Japan. It seemed likely that the people in the post office would look at me like I was crazy and ask what country I was trying to mail it to, and then I wouldn't know enough words to try and explain. I did a quick google search and found some websites that claimed mail to APOs and FPOs can only be sent by the USPS, but then I found a page (in English and Japanese) on the Japan Post website assuring that they could send postcards, letter, and small packages to both. 

With the website in Japanese ready on my phone and prepared to tell them "Beikoku Guntai" (American Military) if I was asked any questions, I went to the post office ready to make a fool of myself. But it was the simplest thing ever. The lady at the desk didn't even bat an eye and clearly knew what an FPO was. It cost the exact same amount as mailing a postcard to the US, and was perfectly easy. I know this isn't likely to be a common question for expats living in Japan, but I wanted to share my experience since I found conflicting information before I tried it myself.

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Pumpkin Pudding Kit Kats

It took forever, but it is finally, really fall!  The weather is getting cool, the humidity is dropping, the first hints of changing leaves are starting to show up, and when it isn't raining the sky is turning that wonderful deep autumn blue. We've been sleeping with our windows open for the last couple weeks and really enjoying the fresh cool air.

It's been a while since I've posted any interesting kit kat flavors, I think there are less available in the summer (and I also hate every fruit flavor I've ever tried, so I've gotten lazy about buying those) but I recently came across some pumpkin pudding flavored kit kats in the grocery store. It seems like pumpkin spice is taking over everything back in the US, but it's different here. In the US it seems pumpkin spice actually means cinnamon and nutmeg flavor, and here they mean the real pumpkin, and actually they mean kabocha which is a squash shaped like a pumpkin with green skin and orange flesh.

The kabocha makes for a pretty terrifying looking jack-o-lantern on the packaging, made creepier by the pudding filling, which to me looks more like a lot of melted cheese. Ick. But the kit kats taste pretty good - the creamy flavors are always better than the fruit flavors. The pumpkin flavor isn't very discernible, it honestly tastes more like vanilla pudding, but I like them.

Sunday, October 19, 2014

Omurice from Japanese Soul Cooking

On Friday night I tried another recipe from Japanese Soul Cooking. This one was for Omurice, an omelet filled with fried rice. I'd never eaten omurice before, so I needed more knowledgable reviewers, luckily Raku and Leo came to the rescue.

To make the fried rice you start out by frying carrots, onions, and chicken, and then simmering them in a sauce made of chicken broth and ketchup. This recipe called for half a cup of ketchup, and I have to admit I was a little grossed out when I measured it. Once it thickens you mix in the rice and peas. Then it's just a matter of making the omelets. The recipe itself was very simple and easy to follow and I didn't have to buy any unfamiliar ingredients.

So here are my thoughts. It was hard to get all the filling inside the omelet neatly! When I put 1/4 of the filling into an individual omelet it seemed impossible, and the results aren't that pretty. Additionally, the consensus seemed to be that there was too much rice to egg in the ratio. I wonder if a) American eggs are larger than Japanese eggs (probably, yes) b) a larger frying pan would have given me more surface area to fill with rice without making the egg too thin (again, probably yes.) If you're concerned about presentation than be aware that trying to do any cutesy decorations can take an ominous turn when your medium is ketchup. I tried to draw a stick figure girl on Raku's omelet, and it seriously looked like a murder victim. (Note: the recipe did not recommend ketchup art, it's just something I have seen before and wanted to try)

Raku and Leo were very kind and said they liked the omurice, but they might have just been being nice. Everyone did agree that the egg to rice ratio was off. John was conspicuously silent, but he doesn't like omurice. And I thought the filling was too sweet. I like ketchup on my eggs, but this was just too much. I think a little less ketchup and a little more salt (maybe garlic salt?) would be more to my liking.

Read about other JSC recipes:
Oyakodon/Gyudon/Shiso Pasta
Mabo Dofu
Sapporo Soup Curry
Sesame Karaage
Tan Tan Men
Pork Gyoza
Ebi Chili
Japanese Soul Cooking Review

Showing off my new apron from Karuizawa  
That's a lot of ketchup!
Mixing in the rice
Overstuffed omelets
I'm no artist, but why do these look so evil?

Sunday, October 5, 2014

Karuizawa a.k.a. Heaven

A couple of weekends ago John and I went to Karuizawa with Raku and Leo for a little weekend escape. Karuizawa is a small mountain town in Nagano prefecture, popular for escaping the Tokyo heat in summer and skiing in the winter. Only a little more than an hour away from Tokyo by bullet train, it feels like a completely different world. John and I were surprised by how much it reminded us of the town we grew up in, in North Carolina and Leo said the same about his New England hometown. I think we must all be starved for nature.

I had high hopes for the trip, and I was worried they were so high I would end up being disappointed, but instead they were far exceeded! Karuizawa is lush and green with fresh smelling mountain air, full of adorable shops and delicious restaurants.  Our first morning there it was so cold we could see our breath as we wandered up and down the main shopping street, and there were already a few leaves turning colors!

During the days we walked up and down Ginza Dori, the main shopping street, munching on snacks, stopping for hot drinks, and picking up souvenirs. Just past the end of Ginza Dori is the Shaw Memorial Church built in the 1800's by a missionary. From there we had planned to rent bikes and go to Shiraito Falls, but then we discovered it was nearly 20 kilometers away, so we changed our plans. Instead we went to Kumoba Lake which is a about a twenty minute walk from the main street, mostly down gravel roads. The lake is small, but there is beautiful foliage,  ducks swimming, and a pleasant path to stroll around. As a note, the path is much too narrow for bicycles. It was so refreshing to walk past giant trees and enjoy the stillness of the forest! 

There is also a huge outlet mall in Karuizawa right across from the train station, and about a 20 minute walk from Kyu-Karuizawa, the heart of the town. We found some surprisingly good deals there, bought some warmer clothes since the weather was so cool, and had the best soft-serve ice cream of our lives at the Godiva outlet.

In fact, all the food we ate that weekend was delicious too. Raku and I went up early on Friday with the luggage and John and Leo joined us after work, eating dinner on the train. On our first night Raku and I went to Kastanie Rotisserie, which is not far from the station and the outlets, and shared a ton of delicious food including a salad with mustard vinaigrette, roast chicken, and chocolate and apple tarts. For dinner on Saturday night we made reservations for dinner at the Mampei Hotel, the fanciest hotel in town where John Lennon and Yoko Ono used to stay. The meal was a splurge, but we had the multi-course set menu and enjoyed it immensely. The dining room is enormous with very high ceilings, and an old-school glamour that reminded me of summer camp for very rich adults (and maybe Dirty Dancing.)

In the mornings we stopped at Asanoya, a bakery on Ginza Dori for wonderful treats. I particularly recommend their bacon bread, but you probably can't go wrong no matter what you order. On Saturday we had lunch at Wakadori, a yakitori place just off of Ginza dori. Their yakitori don (grilled chicken on a bowl of rice) was fantastic, and their chicken katsudon (fried chicken cutlet on rice) was also good. For our final meal before leaving we ate at Kawakami-an, a modern soba restaurant. The tempura soba comes with the biggest shrimp I have ever seen (heads and tails still on!), the hot and cold soba were both delicious, and Leo ordered soba with a walnut dipping sauce that was unusual but delicious as well - sort of like a very mild peanut sauce. I would wholeheartedly recommend each of these restaurants to anyone visiting Karuizawa.

We stayed at the Art Hotel Folon in Kyu-Karuizawa, which was a convenient three minute walk from Ginza dori. By "art hotel" they seem to mean interesting wall paper and tiled kitchens, but we found the rooms to be clean and very acceptable, and the owner was quite friendly. Some rooms allow pets, and there are vending machines that dispense water, tea, and also alcohol! The rooms include kitchens (mini-fridge, microwave, stove, sink) but only coffee cups are provided, so if you intend to use them you would need to bring dishes. There is also a 5% discount for paying in cash. If you find yourself needing an ATM, there is a post office on Ginza Dori that is open even on Saturdays and Sundays.

The whole trip was magical, and I can't say enough good things about Karuizawa. If you need an escape from city living this is the perfect place for fresh air, lots of trees, beautiful mountains, good shopping, and delicious food!  Now brace yourself for way too many pictures.

Mountain Sunset
Shaw Memorial Church

Kumoba Lake

First Fall Leaves
Ginza Dori
Yummy Eats!