Last year my husband and I took a trip to Japan and had a thrilling 3 weeks there. We visited Kyoto and stayed at a traditional ryokan, (inn). Staying in the ryokan was an amazing/overwhelming experience that included getting naked in public (a story for another day), a 12-course dinner, beautiful sites and a traditional Japanese breakfast. We ate numerous meals, but the ryokan was the most interesting. The hubs and I visited the Otagi Nenbutsu-ji temple, which is a buddhist temple with over 1,000 quirky and interesting statues. We LOVED it! The statues were placed in 1981, so they aren’t particularly ancient, but they are still wonderful.I was especially happy to find a statue holding a camera. A kindred spirit!After site seeing we had a lovely experience at the ryokan and the next morning we were given the choice of a ‘western’ or ‘japanese’ breakfast. We laughed at the stupid westerners that couldn’t handle a Japanese breakfast and promptly opted for the most traditional breakfast possible! It seemed like a great idea until we sat down to the table and had NO idea what were were about to eat. I love trying new things, but this was definitely out of my comfort zone. You know that experience you have when you got to a fancy restaurant and suddenly realize there is much more cutlery than you are know what to do with. Why are there 4 forks, what is this mini plate for, am I supposed to use the small spoon for dessert, soup… ? This was just a taste of what it was like to eat traditional japanese breakfast. There were so many plates and ornate boxes with little treasures inside. I didn’t what was garnishment or food. At one point I managed to ask what to do with this cup of liquid only to discover it was just a cup of tea, which was the only thing I knew what to do with. It was beautiful and amazing, but we had no idea what were eating and what sauce went with what. A lot of it was delicious, but a lot of it we weren’t sure about. This could have been because we were pairing sauces with the wrong food. I did recognize rice, soy sauce, fish (pretty sure) and maybe.. tofu. The service was impeccable. Though the employees didn’t speak English, and we struggled with awful Japanese, they still took care of our every need and made it a great experience for us. The view was so beautiful it was surreal. Boats floated by and I kept feeling like I’d fallen into a movie. It was one of the highlights of our trip!We were awkward and confused, but I would do it again in a heartbeat.
While I was visiting Kyoto I had the pleasure of staying at the Sakura Terrace. There were many great amenities at the hotel, not the least was a free happy hour where guests got a free cocktail of choice each evening.
My plan was to try a different cocktail on each of our 4 nights at the hotel and on the very first night I got a violet sake cocktail. I LOVED it!! I’d never even thought of making a cocktail with sake, but it was delicious, perfectly balanced, refreshing and beautiful (I am a sucker for pretty libations). On the second night I got the violet sake again. By the third night both my husband and I got the violet sake and by the end of the trip I had never branched out. When we got back to the states I make it my mission to create my own violet sake. For months I played with various sakes, syrups and sodas to create the best possible drink. It was a fun project and my husband especially enjoyed the position of official cocktail tester. So here is the recipe!1 oz Monin Violet Syrup
2 oz Nigori Sake
3 oz La Croix Lime flavored sparkling water
Mix syrup and sake. Add water and ice and stir. Enjoy simple perfection!
You may have noticed the uniformed little ladies gripping the rim of the glass. They were vending machine purchases. One of the many things that I loved about Japan was the large amount of toy machines that contained the most bizarre little toys. For 1 or 2 yen you could buy the craziest figurines and I bought many of them. Far more than is acceptable for a full grown adult, but they were so interesting!! They had machines that sold nothing but old men sitting on benches, peeing dogs and even cute animals made into foods, such as a puppy made into a hamburger. You can see what I’m talking about on the far right below. I bough my flexible little ladies, a squat toilet, a woman serving sake, but the weirdest machine I bought is below!How weird is that!!! It is a baby head with an alien inside. I didn’t have any coins when I spotted it so I dragged my husband into a cafe to get change so I could buy it! The best 2 yen I’ve ever spent!
On my recent trip to Japan, I visited the village of Tanabe specifically to tour the shinto shrine of Kumano Hongū Taisha. As we walked up the 158 steps to the shrine we noticed many people carrying tiny, white packages covered in red writing. We finally asked a woman what was in the package and she told us they were umes, a fruit similar to plums. She enthusiastically explained that the temple was having a ume festival at that very moment and directed us to a table covered with the packages. We noticed a crowd gathering at the entrance of the shrine so we walked over to investigate. To our delight there was an elaborate ceremony going on to kick-off umeshu or ume wine season. In the states we call umeshu plum wine, but apparently this is a misnomer. Umes are similar to plums, but not actually plums. Here is a diagram explaining.
We respectfully stayed in the back of the shrine watching the festivities, but I suppose our obvious tourist appearance made us stick out and several people came up to us to ask where we were from and if we were enjoying the ceremony. This drew more attention to us and a short time later two Japanese news stations came over with cameras and started interviewing our friends, Matthieu and Barbara, who speak Japanese. My husband and I were pretty glad to not be able to speak Japanese in that moment. My interview would have been sad and short, “hello”, “I’m sorry” and “thank-you very much”.Unfortunately our lack of speaking/understand Japanese did not help us escape media coverage. We soon found ourselves being handed boxes of umes and through gesturing were asked to join the ceremony by pouring the fruit into a large bucket. We stood in a long line of people solemnly pouring boxes of plums, that aren’t really plums, into a container as cameras and microphones captured every moment. As I stood in line, acutely aware of the cameras focusing on me, I wondered why I had worn such an ugly shirt that day and why hadn’t I bothered to slap a little bit of lip gloss on. The day before, when there was no national coverage of my vacation, I was so pulled together. Jeez. Despite my nerves and insecurities I was quite honored to be asked to participate in such a formal ceremony. I managed to get my umes in the container without tripping over myself or spilling any on the ground. After successfully placing the umes into the barrel (under the scrutiny of spectators and cameras) we receded to the back corner of the shrine to watch the rest of the festival. Many people spoke, which of course I couldn’t understand and men in suits lined up and poured alcohol over the umes and carried leaf covered branches into the shrine. There was even a beautiful dance performed by two women in kimonos and headdresses. They danced with bells, making them ring only at specific moments. I had no idea what was going on, but despite this it was stunning and I actually felt moved by the elegance of it all. Toward the end of the ceremony the head priest of the shrine brought us gifts for attending the ceremony. I couldn’t believe it! At this point I desperately wanted to be able to speak Japanese to so I could fully express my gratitude. I bowed and say “Doumo arigatou gozaimasu” over and over, but that didn’t quite convey my gratitude at people’s amazing generosity and kindness. The ceremony ended with everyone toasting with a small glass of plum wine. I learned that Japanese for ‘Cheers’ is ‘Kanpai’ which literally means empty cup.A baby at the festival over indulged and passed out. Ha ha! Just kidding. She was playing with an empty cup and fell asleep, but I thought it was a funny picture.
Later that evening we enjoyed a glass of the wine in our hostel. Kanpai!!When I got home to the states I bought some umeshu at the grocery story. It made me all weepy and nostalgic for Japan. It is delicious and if you haven’t tried it I highly recommend giving it a go, especially the Choya brand. Their website has many delicious cocktails to make with it, though I like it just straight and chilled.
I have been a bad blogger and not posted in over a month. I know, I know I’m breaking the first rule of blogging, post consistently, but I swear I have a good excuse! My husband and I spent the last three weeks in Japan and we have been far too busy site seeing, eating new foods, getting lost, struggling to communicate, and changing our world views to bother with blogging.
The trip was an amazing adventure, especially ordering food with a VERY limited understanding of Japanese and only pictures or plastic displays of fake food to guide us. Despite our limitations, we loved (almost) everything we ate. Of course I was a total tourist and took photos of most of my dishes.
Most of the time we had no idea what we were eating. This was the ‘light’ vegetarian lunch on our excursion to Mt. Fuji. They brought us a tray covered with tiny bites of food we did not recognize. Our lunch conversation went something like this:
Olivier: What do you think this is?
Me: … eggplant … maybe.
Olivier: Do you think it is a mushroom or something?
Me: Well just try it and see.
Olivier: You try it.
Me: You try it first.
Olivier puts the unidentified object in his mouth and slowly chews.
Olivier: I still have no idea.
Me: What do you think this sauce goes with?
Olivier: Maybe the pepper?
Me: Which thing is the pepper!?
It was fun though!
When in doubt go with noodles! I really tried to make a point to eat lots of different foods while in Japan, but the noodles were so delicious that I kept on ordering them!
There were numerous varieties and each time I ordered a noodle dish it was a different experience. I even got pretty proficient eating them with chopsticks.
The gyoza or pan fried dumplings were heavenly. They were much lighter and tastier than American version, pot-stickers. I’ve been craving them since I’ve been back. Guess I’ll have to learn how to make them. Sushi from a sushi-go-round!! The sushi was delicious, but I especially love the process of looking at all the little plates of fish float by you on a conveyor belt and deciding what you want. There was the added element of suspense when you saw something you wanted on the opposite end of the restaurant and you had to wonder if you would get it or another patron would snatch it up before it made it to you.
The color of the plate determines the price of the sushi. So smart!
As you can see we tried lots of different things! This was for 4 people though, not just me.
We did eat a ‘western breakfast’ several times, which were delicious. But we never really got the hang of eating eggs with chopsticks.
If you get really desperate for a hot meal on the go there are vending machines that dispense fried food. We never got this desperate.
Every dish we ate was well prepared and presented. Even the little mom and pop shops, fast food restaurants and the 7/11 the food was pretty good food.