Friday, May 29, 2015

Summer Vacation

I can't believe how quickly the spring has flown by! May has been a wonderful month of warm weather and everything has sprung back into bloom in the city - it's so lush and green right now. Rainy season and then the sweltering summer will be here too soon, but the time is filling up with so many plans that I'm still looking forward to it.

John and I leave tomorrow morning with Raku and her husband for a week long vacation in Cambodia and Vietnam. This will be our first time in Southeast Asia, and I'm really excited for it. We'll be visiting Angkor Wat in Cambodia and then spending the second half of our trip in Hanoi. The weather is supposed to be brutally hot, but I hope that it makes the summer in Japan more bearable in comparison. I'll definitely be blogging all about our trip once we're back.

When we return from Vietnam a friend of ours from high school who currently lives in Kyushu will be in Tokyo, so it will be fun to catch up with her. Then just a week after that John's sister will arrive for her two week visit! After that things will calm down for a little bit, but in August we'll be going back to the US for John's brother's wedding. All of the upcoming visitors and travel are making me giddy with excitement. 

One of my favorite baristas drew a picture of me!

Thursday, May 21, 2015

Why Cupcakes Aren't Popular in Japan

Every so often a cupcake shop will open in Tokyo and then there will be news in the English language media out here that the cupcake craze is finally taking off in Tokyo. But that never really seems to be true. Cake shops are everywhere, but cupcakes are scarce and their quality is generally lacking.

Magnolia bakery opened a branch here last year and while there were long lines and news stories in the beginning it's now possible to walk right in and order while their next door neighbor, Cafe Kaila - which is two years older, still has lines out the door for pancakes.

John and I have tried a few different cupcake places, but we've almost always been disappointed. While they are pretty they're almost always dry and lacking in flavor, and really small for the price. (If you must have a cupcake though Magnolia Bakery is the best of what we've tried.) To my mind cupcakes seem like a perfect match for Japan - they're small, cute, individually sized. Surely if someone could make a good one then they'd go flying off the shelves.

I was talking to a Japanese woman about this a few weeks ago, and she finally solved this mystery for me. She explained that Japanese people don't like buttercream frosting, it's thought of as old-fashioned, inelegant, and cheap. They much prefer fresh whipped cream as a frosting. They're also used to layered cakes that have different fresh fruits and fillings inside. While they don't mind the size of the cupcakes the lack of fillings makes them seem very plain and therefore not worth the price tag. Instead of being adorable treats cupcakes seem to be lacking in all the things a Japanese consumer expects.

It's funny to me because the cakes filled with whipped cream and fruits don't appeal to me at all. To me the whipped topping seems cheap (though I now understand it's not), the cake seems too spongy, and I don't like the texture of the fruit in the middle. I guess for now I'll stick to macarons when I need a small pretty sweet.

If you'd grown up with cakes like these maybe you wouldn't like cupcakes either

Sunday, May 17, 2015

Yakiudon from Japanese Soul Cooking

A couple of days ago I made another recipe from Japanese Soul Cooking. Yakiudon is a stir-fried noodle dish, but unlike the more common yakisoba which uses ramen noodles, this uses the thicker udon noodles.

I scaled the recipe down to a single serving and made it for lunch, so I can only give you my own opinion this time, not John's as well, but he's not the biggest noodle fan, so no loss there. The recipe was very quick and simple to make. From taking the ingredients out of the fridge to sitting down to eat it only took me about fifteen minutes, and that includes taking photos.

As I was cooking I wondered if the recipe would be bland because the list of ingredients is so short: noodles, pork, cabbage, onion, and mushrooms with just a little soy sauce and sake. I did leave out one ingredient - the dried bonito (fish) flakes. I'm not the biggest seafood fan and I didn't know when I would ever use the rest, so I just decided to skip them. I'm sure they just increase the depth of savory flavor in the dish, so if it had been bland it would have been my own fault, but it turns out the recipe still works fine without them.

Much to my delight the noodles weren't bland at all. I think this recipe really encapsulates a lot of the tenants of Japanese cooking: simple fresh ingredients combined to create pleasant and harmonious flavors. All of the ingredients really complimented each other to create a satisfying meal. The portion size is also generous, it's very filling without being too oily or heavy.

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

No strange ingredients this time

Wednesday, May 13, 2015

Where to Get Travel Vaccines in Tokyo

Preparing for our upcoming trip to Cambodia and Vietnam, John and I realized that we needed to update our vaccines. We both needed a Typhoid vaccine, and I needed a Hepatitis A vaccine as well. It turned out to be sort of complicated and expensive, and I contacted a lot of clinics in the process, so I thought I'd share the information I gathered in hopes that it will be useful to other people.

For starters, Japanese National Insurance doesn't cover optional vaccines, and travel vaccines fall into that category, so you'll probably be paying out of pocket. Additionally, Japan doesn't produce a Typhoid vaccine and most Japanese people never get this vaccine even when they travel. If you want this vaccine you will have to find a clinic that imports it, and as far as I can tell Tokyo is the only city in Japan where it is available. 

Hepatitis A is also complicated. In the US (and in Europe as far as I can tell) Hepatitis A requires one vaccine for a year of immunity, and then a booster that will increase immunity for 10+ years. In Japan is is a 3 shot series, generally I think you can travel after the second vaccine and conclude the series later. I was unable to find any information on how the Japanese vaccine interacts with US vaccine.

John ended up getting his at Hiroo Garden Clinic and I got mine at IZ Travel Clinic. The good news is that we both thought these were the most painless shots we'd ever received. They must give some really great training here!

These are the prices for the vaccines that I was quoted at different clinics.

Hiroo Garden Clinic
Typhoid: 10,000 yen
Hep A (Japanese): 10,000 yen (x 3)
Consultation Fee: 3,240 yen, Only charged for a true consultation - they will waive this fee if you receive the vaccines on the same day.

IZ Travel in Shinagawa
Combination Hep A (American)  & Typhoid: 23,750 yen
Consultation Fee: 2,950 yen

King Clinic in Shibuya
Hep A (American): 17,1000 yen
Typhoid: 9,500 yen
Consultation Fee: 4,000 yen

Midtown Clinic
Hep A (Japanese): 8,240 yen (x 3)
Typhoid: 10,800 yen
Consultation Fee: 5,400 yen

Tokyo Medical Clinic
Hep A (Japanese): 10, 260 yen (x 3)
Hep A (American): 15,000 yen
Typhoid: 12,420 yen
New patient consultation fee: 12,000 yen

Thursday, May 7, 2015

I Slept In a Capsule Hotel: Review of the Shinjuku Kuyakushomae Capsule Hotel

While my sister was here one of the things she most wanted to do was stay in a capsule hotel. If you're not familiar with this concept, capsule hotels rent out very small spaces for low prices - generally to people who have stayed out past the last train and need a place to rest for a few hours. I don't think that people in Japan give a lot of thought to it, but in the west is seems very strange and very Japanese.

I was not very enthusiastic about this idea. I thought it would be uncomfortable, possibly dirty or seedy, and it seemed silly to pay to sleep somewhere in Tokyo when I could be in my own bed for free, but Raku got excited about the idea, and together she and Julie talked me into it.

We booked three capsules at the Shinjuku Kuyakushomae Capsule Hotel through If you're looking to book a capsule I found their website to be the most helpful. As a note, many capsule hotels don't offer accommodations for women. Interestingly, I came across several all night spas that offer inexpensive accommodations for women, but not men. The hotel we stayed in only had one floor for women and several for men. Because there are so few that allow women we found that the women's capsules filled up much more quickly. It is my understanding that normally you can just walk into a hotel and rent a capsuel after a late night of drinking, but because it was the height of cherry blossom season and ALL the hotels in the city were booked the capsule hotels booked up as well.

Although I had very low expectations I am happy to report that it was actually a really fun experience, and I would whole-heartedly recommend this hotel to others. Some of the reviews online said it was dirty, uncomfortable, or other bad things, but I thought it was excellent - of course I can only speak to the women's floor.

When we arrived it was really hard to find the entrance. Although there are signs on the building, the entrance is completely hidden. It's on the ground floor of the building with a Hub British Pub in it. If you walk towards the red Chinese restaurant and then look to the left you'll find an elevator that will take you the third floor where the reception desk is. First you deposit your shoes in a locker, much as you would at an onsen, and then head to the front desk where they will keep your key to the shoe locker and provide you with a key to your locker upstairs that corresponds to the number of your capsule. We were also given a special code printed on a piece of paper to gain access to the women's floor. The lockers we were provided with contained a pair of slippers, a set of pajamas, a face towel, and a bath towel - so you really could show up here with nothing at all. The lockers are big enough to hold a purse, hang up a coat, and hold a few things, but they are much too small for a suitcase - if you bring one it will have to sit out in the open. Many people had suitcases and they seemed nervous to leave them out, but the general atmosphere was very respectful and it felt very safe to me. It seemed like we all shared a sense of camaraderie over this strange experience we were having.

The bathrooms had free toothbrushes and toiletries, and all the showers had shampoo and conditioner inside. Even better, they were spotlessly clean. The website shows a really nice communal bath, but it's only for men. The women's floor only has shower stalls.

The capsules themselves look absolutely hilarious, sort of like a hallway filled with ovens stacked two high. They come with a pillow, a duvet, and a shade that pulls down to "close" the capsule. Inside there is a small shelf with a clock and radio built in along with an outlet in case you need to charge your phone. There is also a light switch for the capsule and a tiny TV. I didn't try the TV - it seemed like it would be too loud, but all in all it was much more comfortable than I expected. I could easily sit up without touching the ceiling, and stretch my arms out a fair amount. The mattress wasn't super thick but I didn't find it uncomfortable - though Raku did.

I wasn't sure how well I'd sleep in a capsule, but I never felt claustrophobic or unsafe, and after thoroughly photographing the place I didn't have any trouble falling asleep. While it wasn't silent inside I thought everyone was very conscientious and respectful of not making loud noise. An interesting note about our experience is that because it was peak tourist season most of the guests were not Japanese. About half of the women were white, which I assume is not the norm. In the end, it seemed a lot like staying in the dorm of a hostel, but with a little more privacy and a better story to tell at the end. I'm surprised by how much fun I had, but it was a great experience and I'm glad Julie and Raku convinced me to do it!

The  sneaky entrance, the small blue sign on the left is for the capsule hotel

The hidden elevator 
Am I a huge creeper for taking this photo?

Entrance to the women's floor

Isn't this bathroom spotless?

And super nice showers!

I can't get over how funny they look

Cozy isn't it?

Settling in for the night

Shinjuku Kuyakushomae Hotel
Phone: 03-3232-1110
Location: 1-2-5 Kabukicho, Shinjuku-ku, Tokyo

Monday, May 4, 2015

Happy Golden Week

It's hard to believe that it's already the first week of May. A month ago I was still wearing a winter coat and now the weather is sunny and in the 70's. The beginning of May contains a group of holidays known as Golden Week, and for the first time since we moved here, we aren't losing one to a Saturday. Last Wednesday was a holiday, along with this Monday through Wednesday. Luckily the weather has been great and so far John and I have been really enjoying our extra time together. We've ventured to a few new areas, hit a few old favorites, and celebrated Raku's birthday.

Of course the cats in Ginza wear pearls

Goofing around at Makuhari Beach

Drinks by the water

Fields of flowers at Hitachi Seaside Park

Raku's Birthday Flower Outing

Friday, May 1, 2015

Kyoto Day Three: Fushimi Inari

On our third day in Kyoto Julie and I woke to gray skies and rain. Our plan had been to go to Nara, an area near Kyoto famous for the semi-tame deer, and then possibly stop at Fushimi Inari Taisha before taking the shinkansen back to Tokyo. We bought some rain gear (and umbrella for me, a rain coat for Julie) at a convenience store and ate breakfast while we debated what to do. Finally we decided to see Fushimi Inari first, and decide from there if we wanted to continue on to Nara.

Fushimi Inari is an incredible shrine that I highly recommend. It's famous for the long path of torii gates that wind up through the mountains. Most people don't walk the whole way up, but if you have the time I think it would be amazing. The rain cut down on the crowds, but there were still plenty of people with umbrellas bumping into each other. We got started on our walk up through the gates, and it was almost like an obstacle course with all the umbrellas and people stopping off and on to take pictures backing up the line of people behind them. But to be honest, it's such a beautiful place that for once I didn't really mind the crowds.

At one point Julie and I found a little spot between the two rows of gates to stop and have a little photo shoot without getting in everyone else's way. Eventually we turned around and walked through the rest of the shrine's grounds. It was so peaceful and beautiful with rain drops dripping off the cherry blossoms.

When we left Fushimi Inari we decided not to venture on to Nara. It's a wonderful place, and I'm so sorry that Julie wasn't able to see it, but one of the things Julie was most excited about was feeding and interacting with the deer, and we decided that petting wet deer might be kind of gross. So we headed back to the station, bought our train tickets and some box lunches and headed back to Tokyo.

It wasn't a very long trip, but it was absolutely amazing. Kyoto is such a beautiful place and it was so refreshing to spend so much time outdoors in nature instead of surrounded by buildings. I love Tokyo, and I feel so grateful that I'm able to live here. I'm able to take advantage of so many amazing opportunities, and I have access to just about anything I can imagine, but the longer we stay here the more I realize what an impact growing up in the mountains of North Carolina had on me. Without time in uncrowded green places around I start to go a little crazy. Our time in Kyoto just soothed my soul.

Loving that rain jacket!
The torii gates at Fushimi Inari

Goofing around at Fushimi Inari

Rainy Cherry Blossoms

Cherry trees near the train station
Train station in the country side
The roof of Kyoto Station

Places we went:
Fushimi Inari Taisha

Read about the rest of our trip:
Arashiyama and Kawaramachi
Kiyomizudera, Nanzenji, and The Philosopher's Path