Chopsticks Travels, Part II

IMG_0012Tokyo – such a small name for such a massive city. I wasn’t sure what to expect during our visit in the metropolis with a population of 30 million. Yes, you read that right.

Senso-ji Temple in Tokyo's Asakusa district

Senso-ji Temple in Tokyo’s Asakusa district

Tokyo has the world’s largest metropolitan population, which can be an intimidating thought for first-time visitors like me. That’s why I pondered a number of thoughts during our eleven hour flight from Los Angeles:

Would it be noisy, dirty, visually “scarred” as big cities can be?

Would there be anything soft, beautiful about it?

Would the people be friendly or keep to themselves, not wanting to be bothered by tourists?

I’m happy to report I was shocked at how unlike a big city Tokyo feels. There were indeed people everywhere, but the Japanese

Naomi and Christian hanging out

Naomi and Christian hanging out

are generally quiet, respectful people so it didn’t feel like we were surrounded by the masses. Plus it is super clean. Translation: it didn’t have that odeur de grande ville I’ve become familiar with on my travels to New York City. And the people were definitely friendly, especially Dale’s host sisters and brother-in-law, who were kind enough to let us stay at their apartment.

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The pond at Ueno Park, by the Ueno train station

His sister, Naomi, had a great time strapping our then six-month-old baby Christian to her with the Ergobaby carrier and toting him around the city. She got quite the looks and comments, I’m sure.

As for the softer side of Tokyo, we enjoyed some couple time in Ueno Park, which was originally part of the Kaneiji Temple. Although the park has museums, a zoo, and is one of Tokyo’s most popular spring cherry blossom spots (which we missed since we were there in May), we chose to relax on a bench by the large pond while watching birds frolic and eating tasty sweets from a nearby bakery.

We were also treated to blooming azaleas throughout the city. The vibrant pink and purple flowers surprised us most places we went, including at Senso-ji, Tokyo’s oldest temple. It was nice to know Mother Nature still went about business as usual despite the throngs of people passing by her creations each day.

Tokyo was a surprisingly lovely city we hope to visit again soon . . . maybe next spring. And it’s never too early to make plans for the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, so start practicing with those chopsticks.

 

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Chopstick Travels, Part I

Last May, we flew to southern Japan after spending some time in Tokyo. Our accommodation was a traditional Japanese house attached to a 100-year-old Zen Buddist Temple of which my husband Dale’s host father, Mr. Michihiro Takebayashi, is the retired priest. The instant his host mother, Mrs. Takiko Takebayashi, saw little six-month-old Christian, she whisked him into the house while we followed Mr. Takebayashi around the temple so he could light incense to celebrate our arrival. And so began our four days in a remote paradise called Amakusa.

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The temple where we stayed

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Christian after his first flight – Los Angeles to Tokyo. He wasn’t lucky enough to get his own seat, but he did get to sleep in a bassinet.

A lot of our time in Amakusa involved trying traditional Japanese foods, which, if you’ve ever been to Japan, you know can be an interesting adventure . The first morning, though, Mrs. Takebayashi served a Western breakfast of toast, eggs, ham, and other standard foods because she was concerned about my willingness to eat a traditional breakfast. Being uncertain about my proficiency with chopsticks, she also provided cutlery. By our third morning, Dale convinced her I was up for the challenge, so we enjoyed salted salmon, pickled ginger, salad, seaweed, and miso soup while dazzling her with our chopstick skills. This food combination sounds bizarre for first thing in the morning, but it actually works!

One evening Mr. and Mrs. Takebayashi treated us to dinner at a Japanese fish restaurant. These restaurants are rare because you don’t order from a menu; you receive what the chef chooses to prepare. For our experience, this included sashimi, a whole baked fish for each person with the head and tail still intact, sea urchin, and numerous other delicacies. It was initially a bit unnerving to see parts of my meal staring back at me, but I managed to pull through, eating everything placed in front of me. True, raw squid will never make it on my list of favorite foods, but the rest of the offerings were delicious and unique.

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Azaleas, azaleas, and more azaleas. Beautiful!

We also found a restaurant that served okonomiyaki, a savory “pancake” we cooked on a grill at our table. We selected tuna, cheese, bacon, and kimchi (Korean-style fermented vegetables) to be mixed with the batter, then topped the finished product with fish flakes and mayonnaise. It was a like a massive tuna patty with other things thrown in. I loved it and wished my stomach was large enough to eat the entire pancake.

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Savory pancakes for lunch? Dinner? Snack? Oh yeah!

IMG_0134On a non-food note, one day we dropped Christian off at the daycare operated by Dale’s host family so they could watch him while we went sightseeing. Our day outing involved taking the car on a ferry from Oniike to Kuchinotsu, then driving to Unzen, one of Japan’s most active and dangerous volcanoes. A short hike rewarded us with views of a new mountain created when the volcano erupted in 1991. We did not realize we would also be treated to a dazzling display of wild azaleas in bloom up the mountainside. The color was so astounding, it looked as though it was painted.

We purchased some fried octopus balls (“takoyaki”) to munch on during the hike, but should not have bothered. We were offered dried apples and Japanese chocolates by people along the trail who were thrilled to see Americans hiking beside them.

The egg. The pits.

The egg. The pits.

We ended our day by walking through sulfur pits where we purchased hard boiled eggs cooked in the pits, and relaxed in a traditional onsen, a hot spring with water naturally heated by local volcanic activity. There are specific steps you must follow to use the springs, as illustrated on a sign for visitors. This includes, among other things, sitting on short stools to clean yourself before entering the spring and rinsing off afterwards, not taking wet towels into the changing area, and not wearing clothes in the spring. I know I accidentally violated at least two of the rules, but lucky for me, I wasn’t tossed out.

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The volcano without its top since it was blown off

We’re hoping to return to Japan next spring to enjoy more time with Dale’s host parents who are eager to immerse Christian in the Japanese culture so he can speak the language with Dale. I’m not sure if I’m up for the challenge of tackling the language, but that’s okay. My boys can translate for me!

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With Dale’s host parents at the temple

When spicy just don’t cut it

After a seven month hiatus spent working on my mystery novel, the time has come to return to the world of blogging. Admittedly, some final editing remains to be done on my book, but I could wait no longer to return. I’ve missed sharing our travel adventures, my “I’m newly married and loving it” cooking creations, and the random funniness that life brings.

And so here I am, and there you are – united again.

When spicy just don’t cut it

Our meal on the fourteen hour train ride from Bangkok to Chiang Mai

Our meal on the fourteen hour train ride from Bangkok to Chiang Mai

Thailand = spicy food, right? Not if you’re Dale and Heather Harshman, the apparent heat experts of Escondido, California.

When we arrived in Thailand this past May for two weeks of eating pleasure and a few aggressive Thai massages, our taste buds were prepared to be smokin’ hot during most meals. Within the first twenty-four hours in Bangkok, we realized our journey to hot heaven would be more challenging than we envisioned. The food at most places we ate at throughout the country ranked a three on the heat factor, maybe a four at times.

We were devastated.

And so we got strategic. “Let’s eat in the non-touristy areas,” Dale suggested. “Find a hole in the wall and tell them we want it hot.”

It didn’t work.

“We need to find restaurants that have big pots of food out front from which everyone gets served so we know the locals are eating the same thing,” Dale said.

It didn’t work.

“We need to become Thai,” I suggested.

It didn’t work for a number of reasons.

And so we settled in to a low heat Thai vacation during which we looked forward to having smokin’ hot taste buds again when we returned home. Next time we go to Thailand, we’re taking a bottle of Tabasco.

Failed heat seeking mission #2

Failed heat seeking mission #2