Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Kyoto Food Memories

Okay, I know I'm supposed to be unplugged and drinking coffee in Seattle.

But in anticipation of all the food adventures we're going to have stateside, I started thinking about my favorite food memories from Kyoto during cherry blossom season this year.

For me, experiencing the food of a locale is every bit as important than the sights. Do you agree?

We tried so many great treats, but these are the few that stand out in my mind.

Exhibit A: You're thinking, "What's so great about this one?" It's your average Japanese set lunch of tempura, rice, soba noodles and radish. But let me tell you, when you're cold and hungry, what's better than hot tempura and rice? Those are cold soba though, which I LOVE and can never resist (even on a chilly day). Japanese do cold weather food really well.

Exhibit B: Custard waffle from Honeybee with whipped cream, maple syrup, and coffee bits on top. Honeybee is a Japanese chain restaurant I discovered in Kyoto, and I think (fingers crossed) they are building one right here in Okinawa. Pancake and waffle creations like this are hugely popular in Japan, and there are even combinations like apple and roquefort cheese toppings.

Exhibit C: How could I not share this image with the world? Miso Baked Potato with Mozzarella Cheese and Miso Dipping Sauce. So simple and tasty. It's sort of an Asian take of a potato skin. We're making this one at home.

Recreating food from your travels is a great way to relive a place beyond looking at photographs or reading about it.

What fond food memories do you have of a special trip? Have you ever tried making those dishes at home?

Sunday, April 25, 2010

Waterfalls and Rainbows

We're heading to Seattle this week and spending one night at this waterfall lodge.

Other events on the travel itinerary include some geocaching, Seattle food tours including a special chocolate fantasy excursion, and a trip to Mt Rainier.

I'll be back in a week with photos!

In the meantime, if you're heading to Shanghai any time soon, here's an article I published about shopping hot spots in the dynamic city.

Get out there and explore folks!

Hotel Review: Funky and Unexpected Chateau Marmont

Many many years ago in Alabama, I worked in a cubicle next to a diehard obsessive Keanu Reeves fan.

Not only did she have an homage to him at her work desk, but she and other fan club friends used to stalk him. They regularly made pilgrimages to Los Angeles to watch him perform with his band (is he still in a band, I wonder?). They splurged on a stay at the iconic Chateau Marmont hotel in Hollywood, where he stayed, and hoped for a personal encounter. I think once she actually did corner him alone in an elevator.

And that's how the Chateau Marmont's existence first entered my mind.

Before moving to Japan, Sean and I decided to have a blowout Los Angeles weekend. Looking for a unique hotel, I remembered the Chateau Marmot.

This bizarre castle hotel has been a magnet for celebrities since the 1940s and not for reasons that you'd expect. Some of the famous who have rested there include Humphrey Bogart, Greta Garbo, Grace Kelly, Natalie Wood, and Jim Belushi, who was found dead of a drug overdose in Cottage#2. The many rockers include the likes of Jim Morrison and Led Zeppelin.

Incidentally, we had our own Slash from GunsNRoses encounter in our very first 2 minutes of arriving there. Waiting in line for the valet, a very sleek black Lexus SUV pulled in behind us. All we could see was fiery red hair sitting behind the driver's wheel. Tired of waiting, the hair impatiently honked the horn as loud and long as possible. Who was this rude entitled person?

When we got checked in and sat down for lunch at the outdoor garden cafe, the fiery red hair and family turned up too. The woman with the hair wore a short minidress and 5 inch platform stripper heels. The husband (Slash) had his crazy hair tamed into a ponytail, but he sported plenty of gold jewelry and tattoos. They also had two adorable children with them, who looked completely normal and conservative, even. Just a regular heavy metal family outing for Father's Day.
Our cottage# 83. I like to contemplate which tortured celeb might have stayed here...

You might think given the clientele, hotel amenities and accommodations would be sleek, state of the art, and luxurious. But when we opened our cottage door, we were surprised.
The theme was retro, and I don't mean hip designer retro. I mean my grandmother's house in East LA retro.
Don't get me wrong, I'm not complaining. We liked that the hotel had a homey laid back atmosphere in a glitzy fakey place like LA.
Check out this ancient refrigerator. We expected to find classic glass milk bottles inside.

Still, it was unanticipated that celebrities would be attracted to this kind of hotel. But then we considered that wealthy people ALWAYS have access to the ultra-new and modern. So, maybe this place is more interesting and charming.

The hotel was certainly offbeat. The rooms were a little strange, the service was a little off, and
the nighttime entertainment was, well - wholesome.

I'm sure the walls could talk with all the sordidness that has happened through the decades, but the night we spent there, it was tame. In fact, after a drink or two at the bar, we opted for a late night ping-pong game in the courtyard.
Another unexpected feature of the hotel is that all those ridiculously expensive snacks other hotels tempt you with in your room are all FREE at the Chateau! Our stockpile included chocolate chip cookies and pecan sandies, pistachios, peanuts, pretzels, chips, mints, gummi bears, and Toblerone.

For as much as we paid to stay here, we stocked up for sure.

Have you had any rude or friendly celebrity encounters? Share your story here.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Bargain Kyoto Botanical Gardens

The Kyoto Botanical Gardens are beautiful and a bargain.

I visited with my friend Diana, who flew in from San Diego specifically for cherry blossom season. You can't see her up close, but she was also my partner in crime in the geisha undercover adventure.

Here she is- getting the perfect shot... that group of Japanese women in the background are aghast (Look at that funny foreigner sprawled out on the ground!!!)
I don't remember when I started enjoying gardens so much, but I've come to realize they are an inexpensive way to spend your time on a trip. They are especially handy diversions at the end of your travels when you've already spent all your money. Price of admission was only about $2, and for that meager amount, we were entertained for a couple of hours.

I fell in love with this very romantic sculpture in the park.
and then there were the bright red tulips and a cooling bamboo forest like Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and so many other colorful flowers.
An aspiring photographer, Diana taught me how to adjust the camera settings to take shots of running water. Below is my favorite attempt. Warning: you will probably see lots of pointless running water shots from this point on as I have a new camera trick.
Of course in Japanese botanical gardens, creatively dressed fashion forward children are part of the scenery too...
She has not only cheetah print, but stripes! And that little boy's car helmet is about the cutest thing ever, except I don't really understand why he's wearing a helmet to walk around the gardens.

But most importantly, where can I get that monkey backpack?

How do you spend remaining time on a trip when all the money's gone? Share your budget tips here!

Monday, April 19, 2010

Island Fever in Okinawa

A few weeks back, I mentioned that I was a runner-up in a writing contest.

My article has finally been published on a travel website called Transitions Abroad.

I wrote about my experience of living in Okinawa for the past two years and provided some important links for people who are considering being expats here.

Please check out my article Island Fever in Okinawa here.

Tour Guide Travails

A tour guide for a few months now, I'm slowly becoming seasoned in the profession.

Here's what I've learned so far...

1. First off, there's just no way to know the answer to every possible question a tourist might conjure up to ask:

Why don't they sell Kung Fu Panda stuffed animals here?
Is there a Texas BBQ restaurant on this Edo period shopping street in Japan?
What does pig nose taste like?

2. Then, there's always the chance you never actually make it to your tour destination.

Okinawa has confusing narrow winding streets, so it's easy to get disoriented. I'm ashamed to admit this horror has happened to me TWICE.

No, it's not so fun to be lost out there with a bus load of people. In both cases, we eventually did arrive, but only after major anxiety attacks, which I had to carefully conceal because no one wants to see a tour guide meltdown.

3. Next, there's all kinds of unexpected physical challenges involved.

In my short stint, I have found myself running through an industrial shipyard, ducking and weaving through an obstacle course of cranes, bulldozers, and smoking fishermen to get directions.

I have also worked up a sweat scaling up and down a Shinto shrine repeatedly to chase down a renegade bus driver AND corral people back onto the bus.

4. Finally and here's the best part, there's so many characters on the tours who say the most fascinating things.

You may remember the previous post "If a whale were to attack me today..."

Recently on a salt making expedition, a woman inquired, "How can I stir this solution to the right if I'm left-handed?"

And my favorite this week from a boy, "I'm going to unleash all these snake eggs and cause havoc for everybody on the bus."

What was the best or worst tour you've been on? What happened?

Monday, April 12, 2010

Monkeys Observe Humans Inside Cages and Other Adventures...

Must fuel my monkey fixation.

So last week in Kyoto when I learned of monkeys nearby, there was no question we had to seek them out. We headed to Arashiyama, where atop a small mountain overlooking the city, monkeys roam and look curiously at tourists.

We walked 20 minutes up a mountain path to the Arashiyama Monkey Park, cautiously stepping over monkeys on the trail playing and sunning themselves until we reached the main observation area.
In an amazing turn of events, we humans stood in a cage, sheltered and confined to observe the monkeys while they were free on the outside gazing in at us. It was a strange reversal of perspective, as you can imagine.
Inside the cage we shared a snack of bananas, peanuts, and apples with them. This very clever fellow discovered that he could stockpile peanuts in his mouth.
From inside the cage, I kept trying to get a meaningful photograph that somehow represented our strange human and monkey connection under these bizarre circumstances.

I kept imagining something inspirational like the beautiful and famous Sistine Chapel painting of God and Man reaching for each other.

Instead I got lots of hairy monkey paw pictures like this...
and a few kind of scary ones like this...
But I finally did capture this ambiguous one. Is the monkey offering or taking the peanut?
The Arashiyama monkeys were more aggressive than previous ones we've encountered, which is why we had to stand inside the cage to feed them.

We were also warned not to make eye-contact with them. But I did accidentally find myself in a staring showdown with one. I have to tell you it reminded me of one of those awful Jerry Springer confrontations.

The monkey glared at me directly, expression hardened, chest puffed out, and moved towards me like, "What are you looking at?"

Strangely, I felt my own defiant swell of pride. I eventually did look away, but I have to admit that for a moment I did not want to back down...

Have you ever found yourself in an unlikely confrontation? Perhaps with a child, pizza delivery person, or another unusual participant? Do tell...

Saturday, April 10, 2010

Husband's Famous Words

Another part of the geisha experience was a portrait session in their studio.

They posed us into funny traditional geisha stances. All the while, we held baskets, fans, and umbrellas, tilting and contorting into unnatural positions.

When I showed Sean the portraits, he had exactly three things to say.

1. First and foremost, Sean's response was simply, "Eeeewww!" about the weird white paint on the neck.

2. Next, Sean remarked, "That thing on your back sort of makes you look like a fish."

3. Finally in regards to this portrait, my loving husband's only response was "where are your boobs?"

Ah husbands....

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

I Know How a Celebrity Feels

Okay, it's one of those cheesy experiences.

It's also very touristic and contrived. But it also one of my favorite memories now of Japan.

I'm talking about dressing like a geisha and strolling through historic streets of Kyoto.
So what exactly are geisha?

They are entertainers who practice traditional dancing and singing, play instruments, and engage in witty conversation. Are they really prostitutes underneath it all? It's hard to say. We couldn't find anyone who would describe them that way. Instead think "Courtesan."
While there used to be as many 80,000 geisha slinking around the backstreets and pouring sake for businessmen in Japan, today it is believed there are only about 1000. Moreover, they don't come cheaply. Clients often pay thousands of dollars for a geisha's exclusive entertainment. But more on that later.
So my friend Diana and I decided to enter the mysterious geisha world and find out what it's all about.

Turns out there's a lot of prep work and a certain degree of discomfort. It took almost 45 minutes to get the makeup on and about 15 minutes to put on all the undergarments. I can't even tell you how many pieces and parts are strapped this way and that underneath the kimono. In Diana's case, she was uncomfortable with the heavy wig; As for me, I had a temporary moment of claustrophobia with all the articles on clothing on me.
But we got over that quickly as soon as we hobbled around the streets in our wooden sandals and got a celebrity welcome...
It might have been the novelty of a huge lumbering foreigner dressed up as a geisha, but we were like Moses parting the Red Sea. Crowds split and formed around us. I think about 100 people took our picture. This is what it must feel like to be Angelina Jolie.

And even though now I'm freaked out by the pasty white makeup and pink eyeliner and wonder how I didn't wipe out in those shoes-- at the time, I felt so elegant.
Later that night, as Diana and I were strolling through Gion, we noticed a frenzy of activity outside an expensive club. Right before us, posed two actual real geisha with their group of wealthy businessmen. I mean, look at that one guy on the right. He's wearing an ascot!
Kyoto Travel Tip #2

Overall, dressing like a geisha was so fun. I highly recommend this experience. There are dozens of photography studios in Kyoto offering this service, but we used Maiko Studio Shiki and chose the Maiko Stroll Plan, which included a book of 10 portraits inside the studio and a hour walking around outside. Young girls can also participate and men can dress as samurai.

More geisha stories to come, including what my husband said upon viewing the studio portraits. Men just have a different way with words, I guess...

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

All The Cherry Blossoms You Could Want...

Cherry blossom season in Kyoto is magical- and a little crazy.

All over the city from mid-March to mid-April, the blooms take on the most beautiful range of colors from white to pale and bright pink. The trees look like they are cradling fluffy pockets of snow.

When the wind blows and blossoms flutter to the ground, people stop what they're doing and immerse themselves in the flowery downpour.

As you might imagine, the crowds come out in full force. It's such a festive time and there are so many community events going on at the temples. Ladies wear their finest colorful spring kimono and photographers are everywhere.

The best part is that trees look gorgeous day and night. This particular tree is famous in Kyoto. I captured this image at sunset on our first day.

With the huge influx of people into Kyoto, hotels book up months in advance and can be alarmingly expensive, averaging $150 per person a night. Starting in January, I tried making reservations at half a dozen places to no avail.

I finally found one budget traditional inn, the White Hotel Kyoto with availability. The receptionist sounded completely wacky on the phone and the Trip Advisor Reviews for this inn were dreadful. Basically, they warned "Don't stay here!"

But given the price and time of year, we went for it anyway.

Thankfully, the inn suited us just fine. Yes, the receptionist was completely cuckoo and it was cramped and we slept on tatami mats on traditional Japanese futon. But the price was great at only 4600 yen per person (~$50/night), the location near the train station was excellent, and it did have loads of character.

Traditional Japanese inns require guests to leave their shoes at the front and wear hotel slippers inside. One hilarious particular about this inn were the "special" slippers designated for our humungous foreign feet...
Kyoto Travel Tip #1

The Kyoto White Hotel is a good value during cherry blossom season and the location can't be beat. It's a 3 minute walk from the Kyoto Train, Subway, and Bus Stations with loads of restaurants and bars nearby. Don't be intimidated by the Trip Advisor Reviews, but keep in mind it's a little bit strange...

Loads more pictures and stories to come, including the Blue Eyed Geisha... who do you think that could be? And monkeys too!


Blog Widget by LinkWithin