Thursday, December 31, 2009

Japan 2009: New Year's Eve in Tokyo

This morning three of us woke up around 8:30 and wandered around the main part of Shinjuku. Pretty much everything was closed, but we did eventually find an open restaurant where I had a Japanese style omelet with onions and beef, over a rice bowl. We met up with the rest of our group and visited a huge camera store in Shinjuku to pick up an adapter for one of our computers. (the outlets in our room are two-prong non-grounded, and their adapter is 3 pronged.)

The real adventure of the day was out to Odaiba, a large man-made island built out into Tokyo Bay, which houses some very modern buildings, a huge mall, and a large convention center. The convention center was our goal, as one of the largest manga conventions…I’m going to say in the world…was taking place there. It’s called Comicket, and the coolest feature is the people dressed as anime and manga characters, often called “cosplayers” by the kids. This being Japan, the whole affair was filled to capacity will convention-goers and there was a lot of venting of sexual frustration by way of costuming and hyper sexualized comic books.

Still, it was a unique experience. Afterwards, we went to the big fancy mall on the island, called the Venus center. Picture the Venetian in Las Vegas, minus the fake canals, plus more LED lights and overpriced shops. We did hit up a really delicious Korean barbeque on the top floor, wherein I indulged in a plateful of succulent meats which were promptly grilled and consumed with much relish. Not literally. There was no relish. A little lime juice and garlic perhaps.

We then returned to the hotel room. Tonight we’re going out to a club on the top floor of a mall in Roppongi for New Years. It threatens to be an evening of dance and drink and debauchery, but we’ll see if all those promises are fulfilled.

Tomorrow, as is the tradition in Japan, we are visiting temples. I’ll catch you up later.

Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Japan 2009: Tokyo, the first 2 days

Boy, what a difference several thousand miles of ocean makes.

First, a small philosophical preface to this blog post:

Tokyo is insane. It is a cyclone of color and sound – a whirlwind of input and crushing humanity. It is also full of dichotomies. It is loaded with people who will push past you on the street without a second glance, but while they are serving you are tremendously attentive and accommodating. It's a city of people who are reserved, often oppressively so, but their most popular neighborhoods are bright places that don’t just promote excess; they celebrate and revel in it.

Tokyo is a fascinating city.

Ok, that's done. On to the good stuff. Day 0 we arrived into Tokyo at 4pm and passed through immigration and customs in record time. We met up with the other members of our travel group with zero incident, despite having only the slightest concept of Narita's layout. We took the JR line train into Tokyo around 5pm. The sun was already set by the time we reached Shinjuku-dori and subsequently our hotel rooms. The hotel staff didn't speak much English, but we managed our room situations fairly well. Our hotel room, which I am currently in as I type out this blog entry, is very small. It has 3 beds where 1 would normally be in a Western hotel, the with bathroom, complete with shower and bidet-toilet, is the size of a small closet. There is no air conditioner, and the hotel is set into "winter mode" which means the whole place is about 85 degrees inside. The windows are locked shut, and for the first night, as we were jet lagged and too tired to deal with the language barrier, we slept in the heat. By "Real Day 1" morning I was determined we find a way to cool down the room, but that's another story.

Day 0 we decided to take a small stroll around Shinjuku to find some food, and found a recommended noodle shop nearby, which served fresh made udon and soba soup dishes. As is common in many small restaurants in Tokyo, one orders by looking at an array of plastic versions of the desired food outside of the restaurant, then using a computer system to print and purchase a ticket with the number of the dish you want, which is then given to the chef, who prepares your meal. That first night I had Udon soup with a nice big tempura prawn. It was definitely the best udon i've experienced thus far.

We crashed early that night, determined to take advantage of our jet lag the next morning to take a trip out to Tsukiji market before dawn to catch the early morning craziness. We did, in fact, wake up at 5am with nooooo problem at all (when my alarm went off at 5, we were already quite awake.)

Tsukiji market is a must-see tourist attraction in Tokyo, but more than that, it is a square mile of living, breathing, twitching fish for sale by hundreds of vendors who havve dragged their catch out to sell to the city. We were initially disappointed when we got into the market that the area where all the action was taking place was off-limits for foreigners for the duration of the time we were going to be in Tokyo, but with a small amount of courage and the motivation that we might never get the chance again, we decided to "break the rules" and we snuck into the main market. We were certainly the only westerners there, but the place was such a hive of activity, no one seemed to take notice of us, so we wandered around as we would have done anyway, and were treated with an unbelievable array of huge tuna, octopii, sea urchins, and a thousand other wierd and wonderful things from the sea of Japan. After gathering Japan's fishing intel for an hour or so we decided it was just about time (read: 8am), to get a giant plate of Tsukiji market sushi from one of the nearby restaurants. We went to a small sushi bar which held maybe 18 people maximum, and I got the chef special sushi plate, which basically meant whatever was fresh was breakfast. Everything was profoundly, cosmically, existentially good. I had cod fish roe gunbanzushi, a nori roll with the fatty part of the tuna, and an array of nigiri including Pacific Saury,uni, and a sea eel that was absolutely as fresh as possible and delicious.

With Tsukiji under the belt, we headed for a quick break at the hotel, then back out to walk through one of Tokyo's more famous districts, Shibuya. Shibuya sports the busiest intersection in Tokyo. Picture Time Square, then multiply by 5, then reduce everyone's height by about 5 inches. We did some casual shopping in Shibuya, had a nice Tonkatsu lunch at an eatery, did some more wandering and picture taking, visited a huge 15 story mall filled almost exclusively with women's clothing stores (one of our travel companions is female, and a clothing fanatic), but the rest of us men didn't mind the diversion, as the mall was jam-packed with fashionable and attractive Japanese twenty-somethings. One of our number aptly nicknamed the escalator in the mall the "the magic escalator", as it was always filled with hot eye-candy.

We then continued on to Harajuku avenue, a road that is famous for the fashionable young crowd it draws. In my humble opinion it was not that special, other than the *awesome* food stand we found, that served my new favorite octopus-based snack, takoyaki -- a doughy squid filled dumpling served with bonito shavings and a mayo-like sauce. Oh man. You've no idea. It's heaven in octopus dumpling form. By this point we were all pretty tired of walking, tired of shopping, tired of buying wierd drinks from vending machines, and we returned to Shinjuku.

In Shinjuku we decided to go to a bar in the older part of the neighborhood. We picked the spot blindly, and it turned out to be a dark, fancy little western style bar that served almost exclusively cocktails. I had a small, expensive martini, which my associates had a kamikaze, manhattan, and brandy alexander. The straight liquor drinks at the bar were served with huge spheres of perfectly clear ice. They looked very fancy, but I can't shake the feeling that the bar charged us a "gaijin" tax.

Today, Day 2, started with a Japanese-style breakfast downstairs at one of the restaurants below the hotel. It was.... well... the Japanese aren't particularly famous for breakfast, let me say. Among the offerings were pickled vegetables, flavorless rice porridge, poached egg, smoked salmon (actually quite good, but bony), and my now second most dreaded food, natto. Natto, for the uninitiated, is fermented soy beans, cultured with a bacteria that creates huge strands of very sticky protein. They are bitter and smelly and some people swear by them. They are considered a health food in Japan. Next to Durian, it is the worst flavor I have ever experienced. But hey, I tried it. I'll probably give it another chance...some day. When the memory of the flavor isn't burned so strongly into my brain.

Next we gathered the whole group to travel to the neighborhood of Akihabara (or Akiba). This is the technology sector of Tokyo. The videogame, comic book, dvd, cell phone, and anything other nerdy thing you can think of section. Among the dozens of impossibly loud, visually overloading stores, the most noteworthy was Super Potato (in Japanese, pronounced "Supa-po-tah-toh"). This was a store dedicated to videogames. But not just modern games. All games. Games from the entire history of videogaming in Japan. From Game and Watch, through Famicom and Virtual Boy and Game Gear and every other system you can evoke, all in amazing condition, some in their original boxes, for *pittance*, I got Super Famicom version of Final Fantasy VI in the original (and incredibly superior Japanese) box for 15 dollars.

I also bought some DVDs of a show that's impossible to find in the states. After the excitement of Akiba, we went to dinner in Roppongi, an older neighborhood that's known for its nightlife. The restaurant we chose, called Gonpachi, is the inspiration for the bar in Kill Bill where the Crazy-88 and Uma Thurman duke it out. There I experienced the indisputable king of beefs, the real, award winning beef from the Kobe region of Japan. Kobe beef is richly marbled, smooth and buttery due to a strict diet and massage regimen for the cattle during their raising. We enjoyed this meal in the form of a Korean hot pot rice bowl, which was prepared at our table in molten-hot stone pots.

There are things I've failed to mention in this blog. I didn't talk about playing Street Fighter 4 in 6 story arcade, or the Square-Enix store, or all of the little street food places we tried, or all of the crazy convenience stores and vending machines. Maybe when I have some time when I get back I'll try to report it all. Right now I am a little tired, and tomorrow we're going to a giant cos-play convention thing, a huge park, and an all-night new year's party at a club in Roppongi. Soooo I'm going to go lie down for a bit if you don't mind.

Thanks for reading. More when I get some time to type.

Saturday, December 26, 2009

Hawaii 09: Last Day in Paradise

Today was our last day in Maui. Tomorrow morning we're off at 8:30 to Tokyo by way of Honolulu. We've heard rumors that they're not allowing portable electronics to be used at all on flights coming into the US due to this fresh terror business. Hopefully that doesn't extend to outgoing international flights; otherwise it's going to be a loooooong 9 hour flight.

We got up around 8:00ish and spent the better part of the morning lounging around the pool. The neighborhood here has a really nice hot tub and a pool with an infinity edge that overlooks Wailea beach. It also has a little gym which, believe it or not, I used yesterday because my hips been giving me some grief with all the beach walking. I also decided to do some chest presses, for which I am currently paying for in additional pain.

The only real plan for today was lunch at Mama's Fish House in the town of Pa'ia. And boy what a plan. Mama's, allow me to mention, is not a cheap place to have lunch. The cocktails alone were 16 bucks a piece. Prices aside, Mama's is very famous, highly rated on Zagat, and very nice. It's an open layout, and every menu item not only describes exactly where the fish was caught, but the name of the fisherman who caught it. I had a ceviche appetizer with sashimi-grade mahi served with a coconut sauce in a half-coconut then for an entree I had the Lau-lau platter, a traditional luau mix of maui-maui, salmon, tuna, taro, sweet potato It was served with grilled banana and papaya. Tremendous.

After dinner we attempted to find the "Jaws" surfing competition, which was allegedly down a dirt road outside of Pa'ia. Apparently the dirt road we chose was not the correct one, for at the end there was no surfing competition. There was, however, a shear drop and an amazing view of the northern rocky shore of Maui. We took some pictures and decided to move on to the next stop in our journey. Phil's mother has been searching for Orchids for a few days, and we discovered via google maps an orchid farm that looked promising, so we..attempted to find that down another rough road. No dice. We did find a shanty shack and a really nice private beach. Hopefully Mrs. Katz will find her orchids eventually.

The next stop on our journey was the town of Lahaina, a small strip beach town with little shops, a craft fair, art galleries and the like. It reminded me of the Savannah waterfront, only instead of the Savannah River, it was a Pacific ocean vista. The best feature of the town is the unbelievable Banyan tree in the town center. It looks like a forest. It's one tree. I can't describe how awesome it is.

By far the highlight of the day though was an accident of travel and Elise Katz sharp eyes spotting a whale spout out on the ocean on the return trip from Lahaina.
This happened to coincide with the sunset. And wow, what a show. I took pictures, but I promise you, they do absolutely no justice to the spectacle of nature we witnessed with that sunset. It was profound. Plus, you know, there were some whales.

So that's it. We snacked on some lox and cream cheese on bagels for dinner. Our laundry is doneand our flight is in the morning. The Hawaii portion of the trip draws to a close.

I want to take the opportunity here to thank *profusely* the Katz family for their hospitality and generosity here in Maui. They've been terrific, sharing their home, Mr. Katz tremendous kitchen prowess, and the company of their family friends with me. I had a very memorable trip.

Now, on to Tokyo! Barring any unforeseen setbacks' we'll be meeting the rest of our entourage at Narita airport around 4 pm Tokyo time. Stay tuned!

Friday, December 25, 2009

Hawaii 09: All about food

Day 3 and 4 in Hawaii consisted of bulk grocery shopping, farmer's market fruit eating, grilled Ono (Wahoo), beach lounging, body boarding, hot-tubbing and book reading. I'd like to take this blog entry to talk about a few places I've eaten at since I've been here in Maui:

Jawz Fish Tacos -

Good, inexpensive fish tacos. I had mahi-mahi tacos with cabbage and fresh tropical fruit salsa. they have good portions, and a nice salsa bar. The restaurant has a kitchy hawaiian vibe, but still managed to draw in the locals.

Sorento's on the Beach -

Multiple accolades cover the foyer walls. Service is great and their covered open patio is a fantastic place to watch the sunset while enjoying really nice local fish. The Opakapaka Snapper plate with sausage and clams was terrific, as well the chilled Gazpacho with crab meat and avocado. Service was very attentive and professional. They also serve good Manhattans and have a small wine list by the glass.

Kihei Farmer's Market -

Small farmer's market that focuses on fresh fruit. We had a pre-lunch snack here of fresh papaya and coconut cut straight from the husk. We drank the coconut water and then ate the flesh, which is remarkably milder than the dried fruit most people are used to. We also picked up a bunch of fresh vegetables for dinner.

Dinner a la Frank Katz
Phil's dad grilled up some Teriyaki Ono and used all the produce we purchased from the farmer's market to make a great dinner. The Ono, carrot cucumber and cilantro salad with balsamic vinegar, garlic and Maui onion brussels sprouts and super sweet Maui-grown corn.

Dinner at Tiffany's -

Tiffany's Bar and Grill in Wailuku is a very unassuming bar and pu-pu platter grill. It's more bar than restaurant, but someone in the back really knows what they are doing because the'r huge portion pu-pu dishes are fan-freakin'-tastic. We started with a really nice pickle dish with Kimchee, pickled Daikon radish and pickled maui onion.

Next was a huge collection of main courses -- pulehu steak tips over onions, seafood pancake, mochi-flour breaded chicken (my favorite of the bunch), beef and eggplant, honey walnut shrimp and fried rice with spam and bacon (oh come on, it's a Hawaiian tradition.)

That's it for now. More food later!


Thursday, December 24, 2009

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Hawaii 09: Mid-way through Day 2

We arrived in Maui at 9:00 in the evening. It was basically impossible to see the island until we landed, as we approached from the north of Kahului. When we did land, we were greeted with a sudden rainstorm, which apparently dumped rain for 5 minutes onto the airport, enough to wet some bags on the way through baggage claim, and then gave up. Frank, one of my travel companions father, picked us up from the Maui Kahului airport (OGG) and thus my first memory of Hawaii was born -- the Kahului Safeway. We purchased some breakfast-y stuff -- Cereal, 2% milk from a local dairy, and some fresh strawberries. Oh and of course some 100% Kona coffee. Then we drove down to the house Phil's parents own, midway between Kehei and Wahilea-Makena. It's about half a mile walk down to the beach from their house, but Day 0 was "crash night" and we basically immediately zonked out when we got in.

Day 1 started early, of course, as both us and Phil's parents were on Mountain Time, which is 3 hours later than Hawaii Standard. We were up by 7:00, early enough to, if indirectly, watch as the morning illuminated the western shore of Maui and the smaller and older of Maui's two volcanoes, Mauna Kahalawai. We had breakfast and then took a walk down the west beach, which even early in the morning was beginning to gather a crowd of tourists. The beach and subsequent boardwalk make a path down the shore that encompasses all of the large resort hotels in the area -- the two nicest being the Four Seasons, and the Grand Wailea Resort. We walked around a swanky open mall, enjoyed the large stylized sculptures of Polynesians at the Wailea and saw both an exhibit of glass sculpture and an artist carving an ornate Mermaid out of a very large piece of wood with a dremel tool.

Later we traveled by car out into the town of Kehei for lunch. I had some really good Mahi-mahi soft tacos at the appropriately named Jawz Fish Tacos. After some shopping around we returned to the house, where I crashed for 2 hours of unscheduled exhaustion. (I guess you don't realize how much stress keeps you going until it's blissfully and utterly absent.)

At 5:30 we headed out to a nice beachfront restaurant called Sorento's by the Sea, where Phil's parents treated us to a very nice dinner. I had a gazpacho with fresh crab and avocado and a terrific Snapper dish made with sausage and clams with a fried polenta cake.

Day 2, today, was spent with a very long walk back down the western shore and grocery shopping in Kahului for ingredients for a dinner party Phil's parents are hosting this evening. The most exciting of which is a 5 lb block of ruby red ahi tuna, which I will attempt to steal a chunk of sashimi from before the whole thing gets grilled.

So far the Hawaii portion of this trip has been exactly what I had hoped it would be -- a stress-free, agenda-free lazy preface to the mad rush to see Tokyo and Kyoto in a limited span of time.

Monday, December 21, 2009

Countdown: It's on!

It's a cloudy day in Salt Lake, but we're not supposed to get another winter storm until tomorrow morning. So hopefully the weather will behave for the next 5 hours, as my flight leaves at 3:00. Then it can snow however much it wants.

Forecast for Maui: Sunny for the first 3 days we're there with a high of 80 and a low of 65. Then they're expecting rain for the remainder of our time there. Still, I've been told that, Maui being the tropical paradise that it is, rain happens and it probably won't last all day. Ah well, better than 5 inches of snow.

Forecast for Japan: It's a little far out to be totally predictive thus far. It's probably going to rain some in Tokyo, even though this is technically the dry season. Looking at temperatures in the 50's during the day, and in the high 30's at night, so snow chance is pretty little.

Hank has been loaned out for Christmas with a loving family who will no doubt smother him with affection. Their house is also warmer than my apartment, so chances are he'll be much happier there than if I were sticking around, anyway. Here's hoping some of his old carpet habits have completely died hear me, dog? Treat their house with respect.

Anyway, all packed now, apartment is clean so when I get back I shouldn't be too shocked at my own lifestyle. Camera is locked and loaded, laptop charged, I'm pacing through the apartment with nothing to do, as is the case on any travel day in which I don't leave for the airport at 6 am. T-minus 2 hours until we're at the airport. If we get free wifi on the plane, maybe I'll do another update later.

So. Bon voyage, future self! And farewell, readers, until we meet again halfway across the Pacific.

Saturday, December 19, 2009

Countdown: Two Days

Plane from SLC to LA to Maui in a little less than 48 hours. Wow. Here it comes. :)

I'm knee-deep in packing and tomorrow Hank the Dog will be loaned out to my coworker Dustin and his family for the duration of my trip. I'm sure he'll enjoy the attention from Dustin's three kids.

Anyway, nothing really to report other than that. Nearly there...


Saturday, December 12, 2009

Hawaiian Christmas, Japanese New Year 2009 - Trip Map

I threw together a map to show our travel route for the Hawaii/Japan Super Happy Fun Time Holiday trip. Keep in mind this isn't to scale.

Ryan's Travel Blog

Last time I traveled out of the country, my brief business trip to Canada not withstanding, I created a blog to keep track of my trip, post pictures, et cetera. While the blog was more for my own recording keeping than anything, the few followers I did have expressed how neat it was for them to check occasionally to see what I was doing. And so I've decided repeat the process with the modern twist of bringing a laptop along on my next excursion.

Mark your calendars:

On December 21st, 2009 I'll be leaving the cold winter of Utah for a week trip to Maui, and going straight from Maui to Japan for a two week adventure there. Most of that time will be in the capital city of Tokyo, with a brief 3 day trip to Kyoto and a short journey on the Shinkansen bullet train thrown in for good measure.

I am, as my friends and relatives know, a foodie, and this trip will hopefully be full of wonderful and eye-opening eating experiences, which I will endeavor to catalog as best I can.

Anyway, there's much to do in the week remaining here in the frigid Utah tundra, so stay tuned.

Until then, itterashai, dear readers.

~ Ryan