Thursday, October 30, 2014

Hawaii and Japan, 2014 - 10/30 - Day 14 - Golden Temples, Zen Gardens, Imperial Houses, and Some Manga

That view of Kinkaku-ji that everyone has a shot of.
There are a few temples in the Kyoto area that are sort of out of the way of the rest of the scene, and one of them is a near-critical visit - Kinkaku-ji temple, the golden pavilion, was originally a retirement villa for a Shogun (well, according to a Spanish tour guide we eavesdropped on, it was originally a small village which was then 'appropriated' by the shogunate into a retirement villa.) His son converted it into a Buddhist temple after his father's death. Like most extremely old buildings (this one dates back to 1397) Kinkaku-ji was once burned to the ground and a new one was constructed in 1955. It was faithfully reconstructed aside from the fact that the new architects thought it needed a little more bling, so instead of just the top floor of the pavilion being leafed in gold they just went ahead and did the whole shebang, inside and out. The inside is sadly inaccessible to the public, but we did see some photos.
We took a peaceful stroll along with several thousand other tourists through the grounds of Kinkaku-ji. There was a little tea house here where we stopped and had some matcha. Neither of us are particularly fond of matcha, but the novelty of the idea of having some tea at a temple struck us, so we went ahead with it anyway. Having lightly refueled, we exited the grounds to walk a mile to the other out-of-the-way sight in northwest Kyoto, Ryoan-ji.
Ryoan-ji is a temple complex of the Rinzai school, and the zen garden there, with its fifteen perfectly positioned rocks amidst a field of combed pebbles, is a famous icon of Kyoto. The zen garden is surprisingly small, and you view it from a platform within the main temple building, so you can't get particularly close to it. The grounds of the complex were almost more striking than the zen garden itself, with a large lake surrounded by maple trees and copses of spruce and willow. 
Kyoto Imperial Palace main building
A 25 minute bus ride returned us to the area near our apartment, which also happens to be the location of the old Imperial castle. Kyoto Imperial Palace was the seat of the emperor of Japan for upwards of 1000 years before it was moved to Tokyo in the later part of the 19th century. In one of those the serendipitous travel coincidences that sometimes occur, we had come to visit the Imperial Palace on the first open day of the Fall season, which means we didn't have to go apply to get access to the palace area, it was open to everyone. On the one hand, cool, we didn't have to show our passports and fill out paperwork to get in. On the other, there was a swarm of tourists who all wanted in on the first open day, so we shared the experience with the unwashed masses. The grounds of the Imperial Palace are expansive, and the inner gardens and buildings are impressive as well. It occurs to me as a write this that my readers are probably tired of hearing "impressive" and "beautiful" as descriptors for everything in Kyoto...but seriously, I'd be spending a lot of time with a thesaurus trying to come up with unique adjectives for the same effect. Everything is just freaking amazing, ok? Go see it.
After the Imperial Palace, we had a hankerin' for some noodles. It so happened that we were in the apartment's neighborhood, and we had a pretty thorough food recommendation list for the area from our host. It also so happened that our host's wife's family runs a noodle shop in the area. Oh cool, we thought, we can visit a little cafe run by locals. It turns out that our host's wife's family runs are pretty epic Kyoto institutional restaurant called Honke Owariya, which has been around for more than 500 years and has four locations in the Kyoto area.
Rikyu Soba with fried gluten cakes
We dined upon Nishin-boni, smoked herring filets simmered in sweet soy. Sean had the house soup with soba noodles, leeks and a poached egg, and I had Rikyu soba, made with fried wheat gluten cakes, yuzu citrus peel and the same house broth. For dessert, Sean had Tokoro Ten, which are glass-like jelly noodles that are more or less flavorless, but in this case served with sweet vinegar and, of all things, spicy yellow mustard. I had warabi-mochi, which are sweet dumplings made from bracken root and dusted with roasted buckwheat. The dumplings were pretty much like mochi, but the buckwheat dust had a sort of unpleasant gritty mouth feel. Eh, at least I tried it.
A few blocks away from the restaurant was the Kyoto International Manga museum, our next stop. Aside from informative exhibits about what Manga *is*, the museum is a living repository of manga books, and seemed more useful as a place one holds a membership and goes to as a library. There were 3 floors of manga, mostly in Japanese but several in other languages as well, in the extensive collection. There was also a gallery for a new anime that is going to be released in January of 2015 called "Fleet Girls" which judging from the illustrations and the short promo video, is light on story and big on hot chicks with guns and anchors and fighter planes attached to them in various ways. We weren't that impressed with 'Fleet Girls'.
Afterward, we returned to the apartment for a few minutes, then went out to downtown Kyoto, where we walked around the shops. We were originally going to Nishiki market, which is a food and kitchen supply area, but it closed at 5 o'clock, so the whole place was forbidding metal rolling doors and unlit signs. Right around the corner though was the main shopping district, and we walked through there for about an hour and a half before losing steam. Our last gasp of the day was to visit a Japanese bookstore, where we headed immediately to the ages 0-3 section. Sean picked up a book about a little girl going on her first errand, to get some milk for her mother, and on our way out we saw the Japanese version of the first Harry Potter book, so I bought that to add to the many other versions of Harry Potter I have in my library at home.
On our way back to the apartment we got some take-out from a crappy little fast-food place called Hotto Motto, where I got a Japanese curry with tonkatsu, and Sean had a fried chicken donburri rice bowl. Tomorrow we check out of our apartment in Kyoto. We will spend most of the day trying to see some of the things we missed over the last few days, and then we'll head over to Nara for a taste of ever older Japan.

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Hawaii and Japan, 2014 - 10/29 - Day 13 - Kyoto Temple Run, Part 1

Breakfast at the Ryokan
Breakfast at the Ryokan was another impressive affair, served in our rooms by our private attendant. There was smoked grilled fish, tea with salted apricot (a tradition of the ryokan), little baby whole sardines with grated radish, pickled vegetables, miso soup, and a citrus scented chawanmushi, which is a type of mild egg custard.
After we checked out of the Ryokan we took the subway to the airBnB where we'll spend the last few nights of our stay in Kyoto.  The place we are staying appears to be a converted office building. It's a studio with a relatively large living space and a big Turkish looking tent over the beds. The host calls this room the "cocoon room." Very arty.
After re-settling in our new place, we decided to have a light lunch by heading to a bakery nearby. We bought some various pastry filled with various things, and then went out to discover how to use the bus system in Kyoto. It turned out to be relatively simple - if one is planning to use the bus more than twice, it behooves the person to buy a day bus pass, which allows them to hop on and off the bus any number of times over the course of a single day. You buy the bus passes at local convenience stores.
Half the day was already burned, but we headed out to Southern Higashiyama, the district in Kyoto with the highest concentration of tourist attractions. This is the primary Kyoto Temple run. The whole thing is about 11 kilometers of walking through hilly and often winding stone roads and walkways, but we only did half of it today, starting at the southernmost attraction, Kiyomizu-dera.
Kiyomizu-dera means 'pure water temple' and is a large Buddhist temple built atop a mountain spring. It is impressive not only because of its size, but due to the nature of the construction of the temple. which is partially built out onto large scaffolding overlooking the spring itself. Part of the temple was sadly under construction, so it wasn't as striking as it could have been, with half of the buildings covered with construction tarps.
Love Shrine at Kiyumizu Dera
One of the must-do's at Kiyumizu is to walk the Tainai-meguri path, a pitch-black walkway under the shrine with a beaded line that you have to hold onto to keep from getting hopelessly lost in the darkness. The path is a symbolic rebirth through the birthing bits of Daizuigu Bosatsu, a Bodhisattva who grants wishes. You wander down the dark canal, leaving your physical form behind you, enter into a dimly lit alcove where a spinning stone sits, presumably representing your new, soon-to-be-reborn egg-self. You touch the egg, wish for something hopefully less shallow than a new car or a puppy or whatever, and then continue to follow the line and are reborn into the world, bursting forth into new light and life.
Yeah, that's what was supposed to happen. What ended up happening for me is I got halfway down the proverbial vagina, touched the stone, got totally disoriented and wound up working my way back up the wrong passage and getting almost totally back to the beginning before realizing what I was doing was against the natural flow...coincidence? I suspect not, Bodhisattva.
Anyway, we made our way through the symbolic vagina eventually, and wandered about the temple grounds some more, stopping at the true love shrine where lovers come to pray for strong relationships, and skipped out on drinking the purifying waters of the spring because there was a huge line, and we were pretty sure that even if the spring water was pure, those cups everyone was using to drink from it had a cumulative million lips upon them that day alone.
A stroll down Ishibei-koji
Once again, in an effort to summarize, I'm not going to talk about everything we did today. It was a long walk and we saw so many gorgeous temples and shrines it's difficult to separate them in my head. We saw a huge necropolis, a gorgeous old Kyoto street called Ishibei-koji, the shrine of a wealthy family called Kodai-ji, which we caught right at the magic hour and I practically burned out my camera taking pictures. We walked through some parks, ate ice cream with yuzu marmalade, and I was just thoroughly re-enchanted with the Kyoto shrine district. It really is something special.
That night we returned to Gion, to a restaurant called Gion Manzara, which is a bar that also serves food called izakaya, which is a lot like Japanese tapas, food made to be eaten while drinking. They make their own sake at Gion Manzara, and we consumed much of it, all the while enjoying various dishes like stewed simmered pumpkin, boiled eel with sansho leaves, sashimi style seared wagyu, and my first taste of fresh matsutake mushrooms, the flavor of which, to be honest, was a little like wet paper. I mean there was a layer of complexity to it that was enjoyable...I just wish the water paper taste was a little less pronounced.
I actually had a moral dilemma at the restaurant, possibly one of my first when deciding whether I was going to order something. They had whale sashimi on the menu, and whale is one of those things that you're not likely to come across very often. There *are* sustainable and 'reasonably' ethical whale hunting practices out there, but it was impossible to know how this particular whale was fished, so I opted out of trying it. As much as I love trying new things, I guess I have some lines, and I've had it drilled into me for a so long that whale fishing is brutal and horrible, that it's hard to separate that from the experience of eating it. So no whale for now. Maybe some day the opportunity will arise for me to try some that I know has been fished ethically...or as ethically as anything else in that vein.
Tomorrow we try to finish the temple run and check out central Kyoto and the Imperial palace as well. We've got all of today and part of tomorrow to wind up Kyoto. To be honest I wish he had at least another day here, but we didn't want to miss Nara and Osaka, so sacrifices had to be made. Anyway, onward!

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Hawaii and Japan, 2014 - 10/28 - Day 12 - In Shinkansen and Onsen

The Nozomi line is the fastest of the Shinkansen,
for the time being...
Today we left the comfort of our Tokyo home away from home and headed off to Kyoto via the Shinkansen bullet train. We used the Nozomi line, the fastest of the three Shinkansen varieties, which had us to Kyoto in about two hours of zooming through the Kansai landscape, which shifted from city to hills, to mountains, and then eventually back to city.
Kyoto is tiny compared to Tokyo; there are only about 1.5 million people in the city, but the fun part about Kyoto is the juxtaposition of old and new that you see everywhere. I'll elucidate more tomorrow, when we actually tour the city more thoroughly.
For now, we exited Kyoto station and stored our bags in lockers outside the station, then proceeded to Kyoto Tower to get a bird's eye view of the area and get our bearings. Kyoto Tower is a very 1960's spaceship-like structure atop the Kyoto Hotel. It was designed for the 1964 Summer Olympics, though didn't actually complete construction until late that year, and has been a controversial point in modern Kyoto history ever since. It certainly feels out of place in the city of shrines, but it does provide a nice view, and one can even see the city of Osaka in the southwestern distance from the top.
We had lunch at one of the restaurants in Osaka station, part of the restaurant section called "EAT PARADISE." The actual restaurant we ate at was called 'Sarai' and it served varieties of Okonomiyaki. Okonomiyaki is a dish made popular in the Osaka area and its name translates to "grilled whatever you want." It's like a giant pancake made with rice flour, grated yam, dashi, eggs and lots of cabbage, then topped with bacon or squid or "whatever you want." Different varieties top that off with different types of sauces.
I had a Kyotenyaki, which is a variety topped with mayonnaise and radish sprouts - the salad pizza of Okonomiyaki, and Sean had a Negiyaki, which was more omelette style with lots of fried leeks. We also had some thin friend tofu pieces. The tofu in Kyoto is very renowned. They attribute its quality to the water in the area, which is very rich in minerals, hence all the onsens.
Room in Ryokan Seikoro in Kyoto
Speaking of onsens, the main attraction of the day was that we stayed in a ryokan! A ryokan is a traditional Japanese inns that became popular in the Edo period. Ryokans feature tatami-mat rooms, public, a usually gender separated ofuro (bath) and all the sliding rice paper doors and yukatas one could ever wish for. You go to a ryokan for service, which is top notch. Meals are served to you privately in your rooms, and at least once dinner consists of the famous kaiseki dining experience.
Before we settled into our elaborate dinner, we had a few hours to burn, so we decided to take a night stroll around the Gion neighborhood. Gion is the old entertainment district, and it is where the geisha tradition is still at its strongest. Geisha are female performers, they are artists and dancers and entertainers formost, and they are very respected in the area. Kyoto is the only area of Japan where Geisha training is allowed to begin before the age of eighteen, and some geisha begin their training as early as 15.
We walked around Gion, taking in the architecture, the lighting, the mix of locals and vacationers, then we took a shortcut through the Kenin-ji temple grounds to get home. Walking through the grounds at night was pretty cool. It was very satisfying seeing the old temple roofs illuminated by moonlight. On our way back we also discovered a museum dedicated to Ukiyo, or "floating world" paintings. We didn't go in, but the sign on the door said something like "Opens when I wake up, closes when I have to sleep. Sometimes I shut the doors when I've had enough." Charming.
After we returned to the ryokan we gave the baths our first go. Like I said, the baths at an onsen are communal, and any kind of bathing suit is strictly forbidden as the Japanese people consider this to be dirtying the purity of the water. The process is to shower before getting in, soak for a while, shower again, resoak, and then dry off. The water is usually wicked hot, around 110-115 degrees, though this particular one wasn't too bad. We had a nice soak, then returned to our rooms for the main event of the evening - kaiseki.
Kaiseki with nine courses at Ryokan Seikoro
Are you comfortable? I'm going to talk a little bit about kaiseki. Modern kaiseki is a fusion of four Japanese cuisine traditions: imperial court cuisine, Buddhist temple cuisine samurai cuisine and the tea ceremony, which originates in the 15th century. It is a style of serving small individual dishes over several courses, each carefully balanced and seasonally sourced. The kaiseki provided by our Ryokan, Seikoro, was ten dishes (plus lots of little pickled things all over the place. I won't describe each course here, but there was a salad, a sort of...antipasto, a sashimi plate, a soup, a grilled fish course, a consumme, a sweet and sour seafood dish, a tempura set, a third soup, and a dessert. The collage of all the courses (not including the comsumme, which I ate without remember to take a picture), is around here somewhere. Everything was wonderful, and its been the highlight of the trip for me so far.
After dinner, it is appropriate to have a second soak in the baths which the staff prepare your room for the evening, by removing the table and placing out the futons. I had never slept in a true ground-level futon before, certainly not on a tatami mat floor. I was expecting to be quite uncomfortable, but aside from the temperature of the room being a little cold (our fault really, the heaters were very strong and we didn't want to run them), it was actually a pretty comfortable night's sleep.
Tomorrow is our first walking day in Kyoto, and it's going to be a long one. We're planning on checking in at our airBnB around 11:00, then doing as much of sight-seeing of the southern part of town as we can. Stay tuned.

Monday, October 27, 2014

Hawaii and Japan, 2014 - 10/27 - Day 11 - Lots of Nerdy Stuff

We had three distinct goals for today, two of which were food related. The goals were: pancakes, Akihabara, and American hamburgers. 
Number one, since 2013 pancakes have become very trendy in Tokyo, and we wanted to see what the fuss was about, so we headed to a neighborhood adjacent to Ebisu, to a restaurant called Clover Pancake House that was recommended on Time Out Japan's list of "Tokyo's Best Pancakes." As it turned out, they didn't open until 11am (why a pancake house isn't open for breakfast baffles me, but I'm a stranger in a strange land, afterall.)
In the 45 minutes we had to burn, we walked back to Ebisu to visit their small shrine, took some arty photographs, aimless roamed the streets for a few minutes, then headed back to the pancake cafe.
Autumn Pancakes at Clover Pancake House -
Pumpkin custard, chestnuts and apples
Sean opted for some strawberry pancakes, while I got a full breakfast set which included an omelette, done in the typical Japanese way with ketchup drizzled all over what is essentially runny scrambled eggs in a thin protective outer layer. It also had a piece of sausage, a strip of British-style bacon and a little salad. I opted for their autumnal pancake, which looked super sweet but ended up being mild and I very much enjoyed it - it was two pancakes (they use rice flour so the pancakes are quite fluffy), stuffed with sliced chestnuts and baked apples, with a light pumpkin custard over the top.
Elevensies complete, we took the cryptic Tokyo subway lines across town to Akihabara, a neighborhood most otaku will be familiar with, as it is one big technology laden, video game playing, maid cafe having nerdgasm for blocks upon blocks. The noise and visual stimulus level in Akihabara, especially if you go into one of the several arcades, is overwhelming. Barkers shout out advertisements on the street, televisions blare out tv ads everwhere, pachinko parlors pachink, and arcades pour out the ebullient chirping of a hundred dissonant game jingles all at once. My only fixed destination in all of this madness was the vintage videogame store Super Potato, just off the main road. 
Super Potato is full of stuff like this.
It is three stories tall, and its filled to the brim with games from old famicom, super famicom, game boy, Sega master system, calecovision, and every other obscure japanese gaming console made in the last 30 years. Last time I was here I picked up an unopened copy of the original Final Fantasy VI for super famicom with the beautiful original box art. This time I just bought a Black Mages CD and called it a day. 
We also stopped by the Sega arcade, where I spent half an hour playing Street Fighter 3 and remembering how bad I was at it ...I could never get that parry system down right, then we watched some people playing rhythm games. There was a high school aged guy there (keep in mind this was like 2pm on a Monday), who was playing a game where you had to move your hands over a circular screen and tap around the edge of the machine as the notes pulsed outward. He was wearing gloves, gloves that it looked like he wore specifically to play this game, that's how much he played it.
We roamed around Akihabara for several hours, then I decided to seek out the new Square Enix store. The last time I came to Tokyo, they had a storefront outside of Akiba, where we were staying. Now they had moved it to be outside the Square Enix offices in Shinjuku, so we subwayed out in that direction. The new store is called ARTNIA, and it looks like a giant egg, plonked in a square outside of the huge office building that houses their mother company.
I thought this crystal might contain the
Dragoon job, but all I got was Tourist
The store is actually pretty small - just a little cafe and gift shop - but it has a pretty cool back room that houses a bunch of character figurines and an art installment made to look like one of the big crystals from the Final Fantasy series. They were also decked out in Halloween themed decorations, and had an amusing sign out front that read "Happy Halloween!" and then had a bunch of "lorem ipsum" fake Latin underneath it. I bought a stuffed Cactaur for my rearview mirror and squealed over the figures and baubles for a few minutes.
The next food goal of the day was  to have a burger in Tokyo, and we were recommended a place in Harajuku called "The Great Burger," which is a restaurant that is California themed, and promises the "absolute American experience." Why American hamburgers? Because you've got to see how other people perceive your culture, right? What's the point of going abroad if not to adjust your lenses. I got another seasonal offering, because what is more American than a hamburger with kabocha pumpkin, gorgonzola cheese and walnuts? Sean opted for a more traditional bacon cheeseburger, though it is noteworthy that once again, it was the British-style bacon they used, not the American fatback sort. Certainly compared to the last burger I had in Tokyo, which was at a chain called Mos Burger four years ago, this was a much better experience. They don't have everything precisely authentic, but isn't that part of the charm?
We returned to the apartment to finish up laundry, pack and rest up. Tomorrow we check out of this airBnB and head out to Kyoto on the Shinkansen, where we'll be staying at a Ryokan for one night.
Did contain enough Sansho to kill a small horse
This ramen introduced me to the wonders
of Sansho pepper
Oh, right! We did have one more food experience today. It was late by our standards, after we had mostly packed up, we were a little hungry so we went out to a Hong Kong style noodle house just down the road. I got a bowl of Ramen (which is Chinese inspired, afterall) and for some reason decided I was going to order the spicy variety. They use, as the one English language reviewer on Foursquare offered, "enough sansho to kill a small horse." Sansho is a type of peppercorn that is related to Sichuan pepper and has a strong numbing effect on the mouth - it was quite powerful. It was also quite delicious and while the heat lingered, it wasn't at all unpleasant.
Anyway, that's it! Until tomorrow (or possibly the next day, not sure what my internet is going to look like tomorrow at the ryokan.)

Sunday, October 26, 2014

Hawaii and Japan, 2014 - 10/26 - Day 10 - An Imperial Shrine, A Trendy Avenue, and A Faithful Dog

Sanma no Shioyaki - Salt Grilled Saury
Our first stop this morning took us along from Aoyama station, down a wooded avenue called the Icho-namiki, which is lined with beautiful Ginko trees. The trees are famous for turning bright yellow in the Autumn, but we caught them a few weeks too early and they were just barely turning to a light yellowish green. However, we ran into some food stalls on the way through, and one of them had something I'd been hoping to find on this trip - Sanma no shioyaki, or Salt grilled saury on a stick.
Saury is a small, sardine-like fish prized for its bitter innards. You eat it more or less whole, right off the stick, though I found the rib bones and the skull to be a bit too tough to actually eat. The rest of it however was really yummy, including those bitter innards, which were a striking contrast to the rest of the mild fish.
Our destination was the largest Imperial shrine in Tokyo, Meiji-Jingu. Meiji-jingu is a shrine dedicated to emperor Meiji and his wife, Empress Shōkan. The original shrine was destroyed in the bombing of Tokyo and a new one was built in its place in 1958. The grounds are big and beautiful. Last time I was here, it was for New Year's, and there was a huge line of people that filled the path to the main building. This time, the temple grounds were blessedly clear. There were a few weddings going on, as quiet and austere as funerals at least during the part we witnessed - joke about marriage goes here. Also, and we weren't sure whether this was something special or whether it happens every Sunday, but there were a lot of people who had their kids dressed up in full kimonos to visit the shrine. Or maybe they were yukatas? I have trouble discerning the difference.
An austere wedding procession at Meiji-jingu shrine
After the main temple we paid the 500 yen a piece to walk around the gardens and visit Kiyomasa's Well, which is, according to countless blogs online, a popular "power spot" where guests can experience "positive energy." It is a very regulated power spot, as We waited in a short line and a guard barked requests to the visitors to stand in certain places. We were guided to stand on a pair of stones and look into the well. I can't speak for the positive energy, but the well itself is a natural swell spring surrounded by a metal ring and is visually underwhelming.
We had scheduled this part of our trip for Sunday because Yoyogi park, our next destination, is one of the places the hip kids in Tokyo hang out, and they do so en masse on Sundays. When we arrived however, there were signs saying that there was some sort of "emergency response" going on in the park, and that it was closed until further notice. Phooey.
Luckily the next spot on our self-guided tour was right next door - Harajuku. Harajuku is a fashionable district in Tokyo focused around youth culture and style. There are a lot of clothing stores featuring a wide range of styles, from gothic to punk to American street fashion, and lots of trendy restaurants and street carts.
Takeshita Avenue in Harajuku,
on a Sunday
We started are exploration into Harajuku on the narrow Takeshita avenue. (Yeah, yeah, it's only funny once, get it out of the way.) The avenue has a sort of sloping bowl shape, and standing at the top of it allows the tourist (every damn tourist, including us) to get a shot of the whole street, which straddles two major intersections.
I would be remiss in my duties as a food blogger if I didn't mention the crepe shops. Crepes, though they are not as big a thing as they were a few years ago the last time I was here, are a very popular street treat, especially in the Harajuku area. They do not mess around with crepes in this country - you can get a crepe piled with 3 completely unrelated desserts, all jammed together in a doughy shell. A popular topping on crepes is cheesecake - whole wedges of cheesecake, right inside the crepe.
For my part, I had a crepe with green tea ice cream, mochi balls, chestnuts and whipped cream, and Sean had one stuffed with cheesecake, whipped cream and caramel. Neither were particularly spectacular, but there was a crepery every 10 feet on Takeshita avenue, so maybe we picked a bad one. It sure seemed popular enough though. I'm told that the latest craze with the kids now is fancy pancakes. We'll try to get to that some time during this trip.
After Takeshita, we rounded the corner onto Harajuku avenue, where the street was blocked off in preparation for a Halloween parade. Despite our crepe sidequest, we were still in search of food, and our AirBnB hosts had recommended a gyoza place in Harajuku as a popular new watering hole. The name of the restaurant translated elegantly as "Harajuku Gyoza House" and we had one set of traditional fried dumplings and one set of a steamed ginger and onion variety. To be honest, trendy as the place may be, the dumplings were good, but they weren't spectacular.
On our way back to the station to our next destination we caught the end of Halloween costume parade thing. It was mostly kids and their parents. There were a few noteworthy costumes including a sort of terrifying Simpsons family, and even though they weren't in the parade, we saw a couple dressed up as Dr. Krieger and his holographic girlfriend from Archer. That made my day.
The famous statue of Hachiko
 at Shibuya Station
After Harajuku we took the subway to Shibuya crossing, one of the largest pedestrian intersections in the world, it is known as a pedestrian scramble crossing, in which there is a signal dedicated to walking traffic, which inundates the whole intersection at once in all directions.
Near the intersection is the famous statue of Hachikō the dog. Hachikō  was an Akita who famously waited for his master's arrival every day at Shibuya station, until one day the master died in 1925, and Hachikō continued to wait for him for eight years, until his own death. He became a symbol of fidelity in Japan, and a bronze statue was erected to him at Shibuya station in 1934 (it was later melted down for the war effort, and a new one was placed in the same location in 1948.)
Shibuya is another insane shopping and business district, and we stopped into at least one noteworthy store, Yamanote camera, which is a tech shop with floors upon floors of electronics. It is a visually overwhelming store, with banners and advertisements and barkers advertising individual products.
The Japanese seem to have a thing for quacky beauty devices, as evidenced by this particular gem we came across in Yamanote camera - it's a face firmer, and the method of activation is to put the device in your mouth, at which point it begins flapping up and down, and you clench for dear life as the thing tries to wrest itself out of your jaw. This, in turn, firms your chin. There were lots of things like this, and floors upon floors that we didn't even look at.
The last stop of the evening was Shinjuku, the central business district, where we went directly to the central park. We wandered around a bit, but to be honest were were both wiped out at this point, so our hearts weren't really in it. After a few minutes, we gave up and went back to the apartment.
Yakiniku on the grill
Dinner that night was at a Yakiniku bar, local to the flat. Yakiniku is grilled meats, served on a hibachi style grill, at the table. We were brave ordered an mix, which was supposed to consist of intestine, heart and other sundry bits. There was no heart. I know heart when I taste it; its a lot like chewing a rubber band. The other bits were fatty and flavorful. We also had a big chunk of marinated skirt steak, which, while good, was tough to eat because of all the connective tissue.
Home base and rest. Tomorrow we're going to Akihabara, the tech district, and then we're going to wing the rest of the day.

Saturday, October 25, 2014

Hawaii and Japan, 2014 - 10/25 - Day 9 - Tsukiji Market, Ginza, Senso-ji and Kitchen Town

There are two optimal times to go to Tsukiji Market, the worlds largest fish market, located at the docks in Tokyo - time one is 3:00am. This is for insane people want to see the tuna auctions at 5:00am. I consider myself a massive foodie, but I'm not dragging my ass out of bed at 3:00am to wait in line for two hours to watch people shout numbers at fish, however massive they may be. The second time is 8:30 - that's when the wholesale section of the market opens to tourists. That one was good enough for me.
Tsukiji Hongan-ji Interior
We arrived around 7:45, well before the wholesale market opened to the public, so we detoured to a nearby Buddhist temple named Tsukiji Honganji. The temple was created by the architect Ito Chuta, a professor at Tokyo University in 1934 after the original temple fell victim to the 1923 Kanto earthquake. It features an Indian motif and a very large open shrine in the interior. I verified that it was acceptable to take pictures and we got a few good panoramas of the interior, then returned to our Tsukiji endeavours.
Tsukiji is a living marketplace. There are 3 major areas - the vegetable market, which serves as on of Tokyo's major farmer's markets, the outer market, which also houses all the little sushi bars and prepared food vendors, and in wholesale area, which is where all the buying and selling of whole and live seafood goes on. This is where all the photo ops are.
Shellfish Vendor at Tsukiji Market
We spent about an hour and a half dodging carts and sellers in the aisles of the wholesale market, watching crabs writh about, huge tuna steaks being hacked apart with massive swords, and an endless parade of the sea's bounty to take home and presumably eat. The aisles of Tsukiji are very narrow, and you're sharing them with people doing business. The vendors are not always tolerant of tourists who aren't buying, and we were shooed out of the way several times, but that's the price of admission really. No big deal.
The second part of Tsukiji is my favorite part - the eating sushi for breakfast part. This portion of the program is technically two parts. Taken out of order here for comic value, they are - the eating of the sushi part, and the waiting in line to get into the sushi bar part. Upon a recommendation from a friend of ours, we decided to wait for a very small bar called Sushi-bun. As is the trend for us finding anything in Japan, we circled around our goal for about half an hour before finally realizing where it was, but in this case that realization only came after we sat in line for *another* sushi bar for half an hour before realizing were were in the wrong line - presumably the the bar we would have been going to there was also very good, as the line was around the corner, but we were intent on this particular bar, so we walked away from our prime spot in line much to everyone's surprise, and went to go wait in another, slightly shorter line a few stalls down.
While we waited in that line, one of the hostesses brought us barley tea, which tastes a lot like watered-down postum. The restaurant only served eight customers at a time, and their system of serving customers is interesting. They fill the bar to capacity (eight, as I said) and allow the entire group to eat their meal to completion, then they dismiss the whole group all at once, fill the restaurant again, lather-rinse-repeat.
The sushi was transcendent - It might have been better than my last time eating sushi at Tsukiji. We were first served tamago in a block which was warm and sweet. Sushi bars are often very proud of their tamago, and this one certainly had reason to be. We were then given a range of different tunas, nigiri style, from the bright red lean akami, to the rich, nearly disintegrating otoro. We also had red ebi, mackerel, scallop, hotategai (arcshell, one of my bucket list sushi items!) and anago (sea eel) which is pretty tough to come by in the states. There was also a miso soup with baby clams which was delcious, though the tiny clams, which came still attached to their shells, were a little challenging to pick out with the chopsticks. Everything was just wonderful - another one to recommend.
Hama Rikyu Park
After Tsukiji we needed a small break from the throngs of humanity, so we walked about a half mile to the Hama Rikyu gardens, which are nestled next to Tokyo's inner harbor and the Shimdome business district. There were forested paths, long bridges straddling reflecting ponds and full of ducks and fish, and several couples taking wedding pictures in traditional Japanese wedding costume. Very peaceful. There were also these huge rooks all over the place, with easily 4 foot wing-spans and menacing caws. I got a hopefully cool picture of one in a stand-off with one of the garden's cats.
We filled up on peace and tranquility and girded ourselves for the next part of our trip, Ginza crossing. Ginza is the glamorous shopping district of Tokyo, filled with department stores, boutique shops and restaurants. The main walking street is Ginza Showa Dori, and it is closed to cars on the weekends so pedestrians can have free reign of the shopping area. Ginza is sparklingly clean and modern, and even though it took us 20 minutes to figure out how to get to the street level from the subway station, it was a brief but interesting glimpse into the upscale shopping culture of Tokyo. We didn't linger though. We weren't really in shopping mode at this point. Ginza was only a stop-over point for our second major tourist destination of the day, Asakusa.
Ah, sweet Tako. You are particularly wonderful
in yaki form.
Asakusa has two major draws - the Nakamise shopping arcade and Senso-ji temple. The shopping arcade is a huge touristy shopping area where one can buy all manner of Japan-themed knick-knacks, folding fans, kimodos and what-nots. There's also lots and lots of street food vendors, and it is here, right outside Senso-ji temple, where I managed to have my first takoyaki of the trip.
Takoyaki!Ah, takoyaki. My sweet octopus dumplings. How do I love thee? I love thee with bonito shavings and tenkasu and green onion. I love thee with takoyaki sauce and mayonnaise and aonori. To be honest, the takoyaki I had outside of Senso-ji really wasn't all that great, but no one wants to hear that in a travel blog, right? I'm sure I'll have more takoyaki experiences to share later. I've got like nine days left on this trip.
We walked around Senso-ji, under the huge red paper lantern, and watched, but didn't participate, in all of the trappings of the temple grounds - fortune paper readings, incense purification, dropping coins into the large prayer request bins while the Buddhist monks in their screened-in area prayed in their droning chant. I got a few pictures of the shrine and the huge pagoda, then we started making our way to the other feature of this area, Kappabashi - kitchen town.
The big paper lanterns at Senso-ji in Asakasa
Kitchen town seems like it was made for us. It is shop after shop of kitchen supply stores of every make and mode - from stores specializing in bowls to rice cookers to clap boards, cutting boards and knives. This is also the place all the restaurants purchase their window display food, which anyone who has visited Japan knows, are made of plastic. The plastic food stores. I made it my mission to heavily augment my fridge magnet collection (which currently consists of a single set of plastic nigiri) with several more additions, so I bought a fake takoyaki, a gyoza, a cracked quail egg, a tiny toasted onigiri, a tuna nigiri, a mackerel nigiri and an octopus nigiri for my collection. Such joy.
We were wiped out at this point, each of us had more than 20k steps already and it was only 4:30. We decided to head back to the apartment and have a little rest before dinner. A little rest before dinner turned into a several hour nap, that my body forced upon me, and by the time I was up, Sean had no inclination to go out to eat either, so I went out and grabbed some steam buns from a little food stall, a bottle of shochu (rice spirits, like sake but with closer to 30% abv instead of sake's 12-15%.) I watched some more cosmically bizarre Japanese tv and fell asleep.
Tomorrow threatens to be a little rainy, but we're headed to Akihabara, Harajuku, Shibuya and Shinjuku.

Friday, October 24, 2014

Hawaii and Japan, 2014 - 10/24 - Day 8 - Planes, Trains and Plum Wine

There was a child on the airplane on the plane ride from Honolulu to Tokyo that screamed like sitting in that seat was the worst form of torture - like there was nothing in the whole universe more horrifying to him than being right there, right at that moment. Considering he was probably two years old, maybe that was true. There was no bag drama this time, no fuel pumping nightmare, just a long uncomfortable plane ride with screaming.
We did get a few meals on the plane and they weren't disgusting. Pork katsu with rice and curry. Also a fair amount of sake and coffee. Because mixing uppers and downers is just the best.
We arrived in Narita airport and passed through immigrations and custom with no resistance, and were dumped into a very nearly empty Narita airport. We bought tickets on the Narita Express, which for people with foreign passports costs only 1500 yen (about $15.00) headed in towards Tokyo. The train ride into the city is a fun transition from rice farming land to old suburb (Chiba) to big city. Tokyo station is a maze of platforms stacked on top of each other, but the signage is pretty clear. We happened to hit the station at around 4:30, right before rush hour, and it was already starting to get a crazy, with businessmen running about in suits, American military personnel headed back to the bases, and the usual cocktail of humanity that fills the central metro station of any big city.
Sean braving the streets of Mita
Our initial plan was to spend an hour around Tokyo station, since we assumed we'd be getting in around 3:00 and we weren't due to meet our airBnB hosts until 5:30, but we ended up arriving at Tokyo central at closer to 4:15, so instead we hopped off the train and searched for a ticket machine to buy single tickets to Tamachi station. Once we figured out the fare system it was pretty easy to get what we needed, though I did almost lose my ticket and would have had to buy another to get out of the station. I managed to find it, lodged between some bills, while I was searching for cash to pay the attendant for a new one.
The neighborhood we are staying in is called Mita, and it's just south of Tokyo tower. Our apartment is owned by a really nice couple named Nikolas and Kenji, and Nikolas very generously met us on a small break from work to let us into the place. It's small, of course, but it has everything we need, including an intelligent toilet that opens up when you enter the bathroom, plays music while you do your business, warms your seat, showers, deodorizes and dries all the bits. It's the sort of toilet you hope to get to experience on a trip to Japan.
One of the things I've been looking forward to when I arrived in Japan was having a jar of my favorite cheap-ass convenience store beverage, Choya plum wine. It's super sweet, has two plums rehydrated in the wine, and comes in a little glass jar with a pull top lid. It's horrible, its almost everything I usually dislike in an alcoholic beverage, and for some reason I love it.
Tokyo Tower at Night
We bought a bunch of cheap snacks from the convenience store, things that Sean was able to loosely translate enough to determine they weren't fish eyes or whatever, and we went back to the apartment to gorge upon them and watch cryptic, bizarre Japanese TV for an hour.
We were both jetlagged but determined to stay up long enough to at least partially offset the time difference. We went out on an unstructured walk towards Tokyo tower, detoured toward Roppongi, and ended up walking around a neighborhood called Azabu-juban. It's famous for a summer food festival that's held every August for two days and is one of Tokyo's largest festivals. The neighborhood itself is a cobbled mixture of shops and residences that sees a lot of foot traffic. It used to house a natural onsen, but it was paved over and turned into a car park in 2009. Azabu-Juban is locaed near Roppongi and a lot of ex-pats, particularly French ex-pats, seemed to hang around there.
A few miles later, I was walking around in a fog, so we returned to the apartment and decided to go to bed early anyway. We're going to take advantage of the jet lag to visit Tsukiji market tomorrow morning, one of the highlights of my previous visit to Tokyo. Hopefully it's still as awesome.

Hawaii and Japan, 2014 - 10/22 - Day 7 - Snorkeling and Prix Fixe

Hanauma Bay from the Park Entrance
Last night I expressed some trepidation about going snorkeling. I was already a little sunburned and since our trip is still two weeks from completion I didn't particularly want to be miserable for a week of it. After expressing my concerns on Facebook, the great enabler of our time, I had enough encouraging remarks  the next morning to decide it was worth the risk, so we went out and bought SPF 100 sunscreen, which I didn't even know was a thing, and drove out to Hanauma Bay.
Hanauma Bay is a tuff ring, a land feature formed by the an explosive interaction of magma and water. Erosion eventually formed the resulting beautiful half-moon bay. The  the water is warm and clear and plenty of coral has grown up in the shielded waters. Several varieties of colorful fish make it their home.
Sean bought us waterproof cases for our iPhones so we could take pictures. It was a little terrifying immersing my brand new iPhone 6 into the ocean, but the cases held up just fine. In any rate there's a warranty protecting the phone from water damage as a result of the case not working, though I did have flashing images of trying to survive Tokyo without google maps. I guess technically we did that last time I was in Japan, but I'm sort of dependent on my internet access for this trip, as I haven't done a lot of pre-planning.
The Wide Eyed Ryan is an invasive species to the area
So we went snorkeling. The water was clear, though my mask insisted on fogging up every few minutes. The water was calm, though we did get pulled around the reef from time to time by cross currents and it rained on us a few times, which not altogether an unpleasant sensation when you're more or less submerged in water anyway. I am notorious for having a very sensitive inner ear, which makes roller-coasters a nightmare for me, but I managed a few hours in the water with one break before the motion finally got to me and we had to bring it in. The snorkeling was beautiful, though the reef itself wasn't as dramatic as the snorkeling I've done in the Caribbean, the scenery and density of sea life made up for the lackluster of the reef itself. I'm glad we commited to going.
Waterlogged and worn, we returned to the hotel and separated out the things we planned on shipping back to the states and the things that would continue on with us to Japan the next day. We UPS'd one of the suitcases back with our suits, dress shoes and beach clothes, which they did without a box. Apparently it's not that not unusual. Hopefully when we get back it'll be there more or less intact...
Our true last meal in Honolulu, and indeed Hawaii, was at an upscale Hawaiian establishment called Alan Wong's Restaurant. Alan Wong is one of the original founders of "Hawaiian Regional Cuisine", a fusion style developed by Wong and eleven other chefs including Sam Choy and Peter Merriman and his restaurant in Honolulu is world-renowned. It's even been featured on No Reservations, one of my favorite food shows.
We did not skimp on this meal. We opted for the nine-course Chef's Tasting Menu with wine pairings and while I won't describe every course here, I will highlight a few favorites...
They started us off with an ice-cold shot of pure passionfruit juice, simple and tart - nothing added, then immediately served a tasting of a few selections of local butter, salted and unsalted, which persisted through the rest of the courses along with french rolls. The meal was over two hours long, so we had ample time to finish the butters.
The first protein course, a seared ahi with paddlefish caviar, marks the first time I can remember having high-quality caviar and actually being able to taste it. It was very enjoyable! Not nearly as salty as the typical store-bought stuff.
The Not-really poutine with Unagi Jam at
Alan Wong's
The next particularly memorable dish was their take on "poutine" which was really nothing of the sort. It was a fois gras mousse with a sweet unagi jam served over a pile of french bread matchsticks. It was clever presentation and, even though I feel guilty about it, fois gras is just so damn good.
The other dish that is really worth writing about here was the Patagonia Toothfish, served in a Nitsuke broth. This dramatic dish is served in a bowl covered by a thin sticky layer or rice paper, which they pour the broth over. They make a small hole in the paper and allow the broth to drizzle down into the fish, which is warmed over a tea candle. Showiness aside, this was one of the most subtly complex dishes of the night. The flavors were soft and sweet and layered, and I really enjoyed it. Toothfish is a variety of sea bass that is sustainably farmed, so it does not suffer the same overfishing as the typical Chilean variety.
That dish was served with "Mizbasho," a sake created specifically for Wong's restaurant, a form of sake called Junmai Ginjo, which is made using traditional tools and fermented at colder temperatures with 60% polished (milled) rice. The result is a silky smooth, slightly sweet cold sake that I was really impressed with.
The final dish of the night was a Lilikoi White-chocolate Mousse served with cubes of locally grown fruits and an awesome honey goat-cheese sorbet. That was served with a Muscato wine which I didn't find repelent, as I have with almost every other Muscato I've ever tried.
Dinner was exquisite, and if you happen to find yourself in Honolulu with money burning a hole in your pocket or don't mind taking out a small loan to have an exceptional meal, I definitely recommend Alan Wong's Chef's Tasting Menu. I'm sure the other dishes at the restaurant are all quite good, but that tasting menu was something special.
After dinner we took a taxi back to the hotel. Originally we had walked to the restaurant, which was about a mile away from the hotel, but after nine courses with a wine pairing for each one, neither of us felt particularly like walking home, plus we had to repack for the flight tomorrow. We leave at 11 am from Honolulu and expect to arrive in Tokyo at 2pm the following day (the flight is seven hours and we gain a day.)

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Hawaii and Japan, 2014 - 10/21 - Day 6 - Diamond Head and Udon

It turns out that Hanauma Bay, the place at which we were going to snorkel today, is closed on Tuesdays. This forced us to switch a few things around, though our overall itinerary for Honolulu remained the same. Instead of going to Hanauma, we decided to take today to hike Diamond Head, one of the most popular trails in the area.
View from Outrigger Waikiki's Hula Grill, overlooking
Waikiki Beach
The first thing we did was go out to breakfast, this time at the tragically named Hula Grill, which is connected to the Outrigger Waikiki hotel. They use locally farmed eggs and had a few selections I was interested in trying. I ordered the eggs benedict with Portuguese sausage. It also had spattering of passionfruit salsa on it because I think there's some sort of state-governed mandate that every dish in Hawaii contain either passionfruit, coconut, macadamia nuts or mahi-mahi. Sean had a breakfast burrito with the same sausage. The whole experience was so-so, though the restaurant did have a nice view of Waikiki Beach and wasn't obscenely expensive.
After breakfast we drove out to the Diamond Head crater (it's volcanic, not meteoric) and started our hike around noon. The trail is fairly gentle throughout the whole hike, though the actual path is rocky and eroded. There are a few dramatic staircases and even a ladder at one point, but for the most part, Diamond Head is easily climbable and the pay-off is definitely worth it. I was rather surprised however at the number of people choosing to do the hike in flip-flops. Some of the women we saw were even wearing sun-dresses. Folly. 
From the Summit of Diamond Head hike,
looking down at Waikiki to the North
From the summit of the Diamond Head hike, looking down at Waikiki to the northFrom the promontory at Diamond Head you can see all of Waikiki and it was a beautiful day to do it - lots of big fluffy clouds, brilliant and sunny, a breeze in the air. This was the weather we had been hoping for in Maui. We took a few photos at the summit and did the return hike. My Fitbit reported that by the end we had hiked up about 45 floors from start to finish.
By the time we returned to the hotel it was about 2:00, and I went out to buy some mixers while Sean had a rest. I stopped by another coffee shop on the way, a place called Island Vintage Coffee, where I got an iced Kona which, to be honest, was only ok. The place seemed to be more popular for its fruit and yogurt bowls than for coffee.
After I returned, we went out to Waikiki beach for our first swim of our entire stay in Hawaii (I know, I know, we're ridiculous.) The water was perfectly aquamarine and while the beach was crowded, it was still a lot of fun. I've been basting myself liberally with SPF 30 every day, and I still feel destined for a sunburn...and tomorrow we go snorkeling, one of the most sun-burny activity there is. Hopefully I'll be slathered with enough sunscreen to prevent it, but I have my doubts.
Curry Udon and all the fixin's at Murakame Udon in Waikiki
From the beach we went into the Apple store to lust over the new 27" retina iMacs, then we went back to the hotel and changed for dinner. Even though we're going to Japan in a few days, eating Japanese food in Hawaii is practically unavoidable, so we embraced the inevitability today and went to a noodle bar called Makurame Udon. I had a curry udon piled with tempura - squid, sweet potato, pumpkin and fish cake. Sean had an Otama bowl, which was an udon soup with a meaty sauce and poached egg, also full of tempura. It was a great price, and pretty decent food. I'd recommend it if you're in Waikiki.
Afterward we retired to the hotel. We have to be up fairly early tomorrow as we not only want to do the snorkeling thing, but we also have to ship a box back to Salt Lake City with all the clothes we are not taking with us to Japan, including our suits. Then we have dinner tomorrow night at the very fancy Alan Wong's.
Oh boy, stay tuned, readers!

Hawaii and Japan, 2014 - 10/20 - Day 5 - Octagonal Churches, Gas Stations, and Squid Ink

Our last partial day in Maui we had breakfast at the Kea Lani restaurant at the Fairmont hotel in Wailea. Sean opted for the breakfast buffet, but I'd reached my tolerance level for buffet style food (which is pretty near zero) so I went with a potato hash made with Hawaiian style cured beef. All and all the breakfast was pretty disappointing. It was no where near the quality and service of the Ka'ana Kitchen from earlier in the week and was similarly spendy.
Holy Ghost Church, Kula, Maui
Afterwards, since we had several hours before our flight, we headed up into the "high country" part of Maui, where we stopped by the Church of the Holy Ghost Catholic mission in the very little town of Kula. The church was built in 1894 by father James Beissel, for Portuguese immigrants who were working the sugar plantations nearby. The wikipedia page on the church says that it 'may be the only historic octagonal building in Hawaii,' so I guess its got that going for it. It's also got an amazing view of the western side of the island.
After the church, we drove through the 'cowboy' town of Makawao. Google maps took us on a slight detour here and we got to see a lot of houses where the locals actually live, but the main draw of Makawao is their quaint downtown, with all sorts of out-of-place high end shops and the standard set of ice cream stalls and t-shirt stores. We were running out of time, so we just drove through and returned to Kahului.
The last interaction we had in Kahului, pre-airport, was at a Tesoro station, where we went to fill up the car before returning it to the rental center. I'm reluctant to even write this down because the entire interaction made me feel like an idiot. The configuration of the gas pumps at said Tesoro was the same as any other gas station. You pull up, you select your payment method, you flip up the lever of the grade of gasoline you want, and you proceed to fill your tank and move on with your life. I'd like, if you'll humor me, to re-enact the interaction that occurred between me and the attendant over the intercom.
Attendant: "Excuse me, you have to prepay that pump unless you have a card."
Me: "Ok, I have a card. I'll just run it."
[At this point the machine says 'Please Wait' for about 3 minutes.]
Attendant: "You need to flip the lever up to use the pump."
Me: "I have flipped the lever up."
Attendant: "You have to flip it up but not back down again. Just leave it up."
Me: "I didn't flip it back down again. I know how to use a gas pump; I've been doing it for more than twenty years."
Attendant: "Slide your card please."
Me: "I can't slide my card. The screen says 'Please Wait.'
[At this point, Sean brings my card into the station, where the attendant holds onto it while I try to decrypt her witch-machine. I'm getting looks from other customers now in the vein of 'how the hell does this guy not know how to use a gas pump?']
Attendant: "Ok, I've unlocked the pump."
[Pump does nothing.]
Me: "Am I on candid camera?"
Attendant: "We'll just start over."
Through some combination of arcane ritual and dark sorcery, I eventually got the fucking gas in the car, and then as we were driving away one of the other customers flagged us down to inform us we had left the gas cap open and I felt like even more of an idiot. When it rains it pours.
That afternoon we said aloha to Maui and headed out to say aloha to Oahu instead. What we thought would be a fairly painless air taxi ride from one island to another turned a bit more stressful when about twenty minutes before our scheduled departure Sean realized that he didn't have his rolling bag. There were a few minutes of panic (though both of us handled it remarkably well considering our penchants for dramatic response.) It turns out he had left the bag when we went to get coffee after passing through security and someone had turned it in to lost and found. Sean had to go back through security again to retrieve it, but we made the flight just fine.
The flight itself from Maui to Honolulu is comically short. We never even leveled off before we were beginning our initial descent in the the Honolulu area. We gathered our goods, picked up our awful, kind of dirty rental car from Hertz, and set out for our hotel on Waikiki Beach. Honolulu is a pretty big city. Considering its on an island, its pretty spread out. It also is most densely concentrated near the southern shorelines and drops off pretty dramatically as it sprawls up the mountainside to the north.
The view from our balcony in Honolulu was a bit lest
captivating than in Maui
We are staying at a hotel right along the main shopping area of Waikiki beach. There are a few miles of very pricey boutiques here - Dior, Coach, Chanel, Jimmy Choo, etc.
We spent several minutes wandering around trying to find a restaurant to go to. I had scheduled some reservations at some really awesome looking places for the next few days, but nothing was available for tonight so we decided to wing it. Eventually we stumbled on a high-rated Italian restaurant named Aracino, and boy am I glad we did.
We were seated immediately, even though the restaurant was quite busy. Their menu was in both English and Japanese, and it did seem like the place was very popular with Japanese tourists. They had some exciting things on the menu and none of them were disappointing.
I admit I look silly eating squid ink pastaI had an antipesti plate with little hawaiian tomato caprese, prosciutto wrapped papaya and a grapefruit and shrimp salad, followed by a main course of spaghetti al nero di seppia - which translates to spaghetti with black of squid, or less literally - squid ink pasta. While it looks a bit terrifying (a black mass of noodles and calamari rings) it is really spectacularly good. Sean had another pasta, this one made with sea urchin roe, which was also stellar. We finished off the meal sharing a pana cotta with fresh fruit and each had a shot of frozen lemoncello.
Afterward we walked back home and spent the rest of the evening watching Captain America: Winter Soldier. Fun movie, made no sense at all, but who cares.
Tomorrow we're going to breakfast at a place called Hula Grill, and then hopefully snorkeling at a famous nature preserve on the island. Until then!

Monday, October 20, 2014

Hawaii and Japan, 2014 - 10/19 - Day 4 - See Fish, Eat Fish.

Statuary at Humuhumunukunukuapa'a Restaurant at the
Grand Wailea
Post wedding day. Surprisingly, neither of us were hungover, probably because of the inordinate amount dancing that took place the night before. The sky was once again a cloudy, windy, drizzly affair as the hurricane had left us a parting gift on its way back out into the Pacific.
Originally today was going to be snorkeling on Molokini bay, but they called a few days before to cancel. We had then planned to hike long the large volcanic crater in the middle of the island and potentially see the sunset from there...but the national parks were all closed due to the storm and there was so much cloud cover we weren't going to get a sunset.
So we sat over our brunch plates at the last hurrah of the wedding, gave our last well-wishes to the bride and groom, and formed a loose plan between a group of seven of us to find something to do in our last full day in Maui.
We eventually settled on the Maui Ocean Center, an aquarium where we could see all the exotic and colorful fishes we weren't going to be able to see in the wild because of the wild's fickle wildness. Five of us packed into one of the rental cars with two more in another (they had to potentially bail early to catch their plane) and we drove out to the northwest part of the island.
There was a second moment of indecision when we actually arrived at the Maui Ocean Center due to the sticker shock of entry fees. We stood outside the door, wondering if we could potentially find something else to do that didn't cost as much as a month of car insurance, but concluded that because of the storm we weren't going to have many options, so we sucked it up and paid their island tax.
A tour group was coming into the aquarium at the same time as us, and one of the cashiers decided her routine for convincing the long line of aged tourists to spend more money was to sell them on audio tours. Her schtick was, in its entirety, to repeat "audio guides, three dollars, very helpful" with a loud, unmodulated intonation, over and over again, even when the line wasn't progressing. We had the pleasure of hearing her unfortunate pitch phrase about fifty times before we cleared through the front entrance and were ushered over for our forced souvenir photo. 
Da Fishes in the Maui Ocean Center
The aquarium itself was a so-so affair, but we did get to see a few things I'd never seen before, like the absurd unicorn fishes, which looks the world like a tank full of Fyvush Finkels. The sea turtles were also charming with their little paddle feet. The aquarium had a marine mammal exhibit which featured not a single actual animal, and a walk-through glass tunnel area, which featured a lot of little animals -- the screeching, smelly human kind. Still, it wasn't a bad aquarium, just small for the cost.
I have a tendency, and I think it's shared with a lot of my friends, to get really hungry after going to zoos and aquariums. I think that's natural. You see a bunch of edible things just out of reach, taunting you with their hidden meats, and the dark primal part of you demands reparation for its patience. We did a little research and found a little dive sushi bar about thirty minutes away with good reviews, so we decided to check out "Miso Phat Sushi."
I know. Bear with me.
The restaurant was in the back of an apartment complex, with limited, tiny parking spaces. We all piled out of the car to allow the driver to actually squeeze into the space, and then all piled into the very small restaurant, where we took up nearly half the of space with our party of seven. I had the salmon poke bowl (I also made far too many pokéball jokes during lunch. My friends are very patient.) I also had a kampyo roll, which is made from a kind of sweetened squash and was a nice surprise. Sean got a natto roll, which was not a nice surprise, at least for me. 
I am proud of my palate. It is my most finely tuned sense by far and are very few foods I can not derive some sort of pleasure from the eating thereof. I understand that taste is very subjective, but I just can't find the appeal of natto.
Natto is a fermented soy bean dish, often served for breakfast in Japan. The fermentation process causes the proteins in the soy beans to construct long sticky strands of...protein goo, so when you eat natto, the beans stick together by tendrils of snotty gunk. It smells sharp and earthy, like ripe cheese, and that profile persists in its flavor, which to me is reminiscent of the less enjoyable parts of blue cheese. I like a stinky cheese as much as the next guy...probably a deal more than the next guy...but the context of the cheesy flavor in natto just puts me right off. In short, there are a multitude of other things I'd rather have in my sushi.
Go, Pokebowl!
The ahi poke bowl (poke-bowl! Gotta eat it all!) itself was wonderful. The fish was super-fresh and the rice had a nice sprinkling of furikake seasoning on it. The avocado was fresh and fruity. It was a winner. We were all pretty satisfied with that little dive sushi bar. I'd recommend giving it a try if you're ever in Maui. Miso Phat. Try to remember the name, I know its a tough one.
The next step on our day trip was to head to the shopping town of Lahaina. Lahaina has a main road with an expanse of little shops and galleries, and since we couldn't do nature stuff, we decided on doing consumer stuff instead.
We went to a bunch of galleries and shops selling tchotchkes, posters and artwork, but the highlight of the stroll for me was discovering the surreal art of  Vladimir Kush.
Kush is a self described "metaphorical realist" and his work is strongly influenced by Dali and Bosche. He works in oils and has a bold, precise and colorful style that while aesthetically beautiful, also plays with the grotesque. I love it, and I encourage you to look him and his work up.
The last food adventure of the day was a visit to Ululani's Shave Ice stall. I've never really understood the appeal of shave ice. It's predominantly sugar water, a glorified sno-cone, but I gritted my teeth and went along with everyone and was actually pleasantly surprised by the experience. Unlike sno-cones, the shaved ice had an the actual consistency of snow. There were no huge bits of grainy ice in it. The sugar syrup was definitely presant, but along with that was a nice natural tasting flavor (I had coconut). The best part though was the sweetened condensed milk topper and the small scoop of coconut ice cream that rested at the bottom of the cone, so let's be honest, the most enjoyable features of the shave ice was everything but the shave ice. Still, it was acceptable.
You and Me and a Banyan Tree
The last stop of the day was to see the massive banyan tree that dwells in a park in Lahaina. It is the oldest tree in Maui, and is so massive it looks like its own little forest. Banyan trees have a complex root system that creates sub-trunks that appear for all the world like separate trees, but the whole thing is one organism. It was dark under the giant tree, and a cacophony of hidden birds threatened to rain their vengeance down upon us at any moment, but other than the nearly overpowering smell of ammonia, they left us alone. We took some pictures, glared at the people ignoring the "no climb, no swing" sign and hanging off the branches, paid our respects to nature's splendour, and took off back home.
Tonight is laundry and preparing for our flight tomorrow to Oahu, where we'll spend a few days exploring the city and hopefully attending a few hikes. Tomorrow threatens to be a beautiful day in Maui, so it's a shame we're going to have to leave her at the height of her glory, but we've got lots of places to see on this trip, so onward!

Sunday, October 19, 2014

Hawaii and Japan, 2014 - 10/18 - Day 3 - Weddings 'n Such

Wedding day. When we woke up it was raining again, though hurricane Ana turned out to be less of a menace and more a nuisance. The ceremony wasn't scheduled to start until 4pm, but with the rain and the threat of a hurricane, we decided to stick around the Wailea/Kehei area.
Spam Musubi at Da Kitchen
Even though it was raining, we got it in our heads to walk three miles for an early lunch to a local restaurant called "Da Kitchen", which specializes in Hawaiian street-food sort of dishes. We grabbed the umbrellas and headed out, quickly discovering that the sidewalk on the main road we had chosen rather inconveniently disappeared about half a mile into the walk, so we had to walk along the side of the road for a while, the memorial flower arrangements of people that had allegedly died on the roadside taunting us with imagined tales of pedestrians that had decided to do this very thing.
We obviously survived the walk and made it to "Da Kitchen." It was located in a strip mall alongside the souvenir shops, ice-cream parlors and surf rental shops ubiquitous to beach towns.
Spam Musubi - note the elegant presentation.I ordered spam musubi, a dumpling called mandoo (they were gyoza), and a monstrous-looking local dish called a 'Loco Moco.' It was all served to us "plate lunch" style on sytrofoam plates, with the traditional modern Hawaiian side-dishes of white rice and macaroni salad. How it came to pass that the Hawaiians chose two starchy sides as their complimenta for everything is a little bit of a mystery, but historians claim that it has its origins in both the Japanese bento box and the decidedly American influence that came with the US military's co-opting of Oahu as an important Naval base and bringing with them all the diner food they missed from home.
The Loco Moco is one of those diner gems as well. There's nothing exotic about it - a hamburger steak, smothered in onions and brown gravy, with two eggs on top. No tropical island influence, no local ingredient swap that makes it unique. Just a salisbury steak with eggs. *shrug*
The spam musubi, however, is sort of fascinating, even though the version of it we got at 'Da Kitchen' was less than wonderful. Musubi is a modified form of onigiri, a typical Japanese snack composed of a ball of rice, often filled with umeboshi plum or some fish, but in Hawaii, spam musubi is king. Spam is another one of those American military delights that settled itself into the Hawaiian culture and is now inextricable. I actually quite like spam musubi. The spam is fried in the oval-form shape of its container, giving it a slightly unnatural quality, but its usually garnished with ponzo sauce and wrapped in nori, and the effect is surprisingly pallatable.
On our walk back we decided to take a shortcut through some side-streets instead of walking through the South Kihei Road death zone. We managed to take a few wrong turns and walked about a half mile out of our way before realizing that the path we were taking was never going to get us back to the condo. We followed Google Maps through a small maze of little streets only to discover that it was leading is right through a private road - one that was marked off with barricades and signs saying 'No Trespassing' and all that. Well were were both a little impatient because of the rain and the bad guidance from technology, so we walked through the no trespassing zone anyway. I wish there was a cool story here but it was an uneventful thirty feet and I never once got the feeling of a sniper bead being drawn on us or anything.
Bride and her Father entering the Chapel at
the Grand Wailea
The second half of the day was spent at the Katz-Mulvey ceremony. I got to wear my beautiful hand-made suit for the first time in public, which was an admittedly prideful moment. The wedding itself was in the chapel at the Grand Wailea, and the weather managed to behave itself the entire time, so the wedding party was able to traverse the non-sheltered areas of the hotel grounds without having people constantly holding umbrellas over them. The ceremony was short and well-executed, but it was so efficient that there was a gap of about 45 minutes that was supposed to be filled with the photographer taking pictures of the guests, and it ended about two minutes after the first group photo.
Went to the chapel. Went to get married.I was asked by Phil to be the Master of Ceremonies at the reception and my first responsibility was to get the guests from the chapel to the reception hall...but I was supposed to be doing that at 5:30, and it was 4:45 when the wedding group was unfettered from the photographer and all looking at me to direct them where to go. I decided to walk them over early. There was no sense in having everyone standing around outside with the threat of a hurricane, so we moved the whole group, one elevator load at a time, up to the reception, where they were then informed that it wasn't starting yet and they dispersed anyway. Shit. One MC responsibility failed.
Luckily Mary Ann, the wedding planner, runs a pretty tight ship and she got things pulled together quickly, and the reception started half an hour ahead of schedule. My other responsibilities as MC were to gameshow host style announce the wedding party as they officially joined the reception, tell people when they were supposed to speak (and to keep the microphone close to their mouth), and to announce the official dances and "moments" of the reception like the cutting of the cake.
Of course, I totally over-stressed about these responsibilities and made a much bigger deal out of it than it actually was, but once said responsibilities were complete, the reception for me was all martinis and dancing. Lots and lots of dancing. Sean and I got a lot of compliments on our blues dancing form.
Tomorrow is our last full day in Maui. We've got a wedding brunch to go to, then the rest of the day is ours. We're hoping to do something with my friends that are also visiting for the wedding, weather permitting that there is anything for us to do.
Until next time.