Thursday, December 23, 2010


At long last, I was finally able to take my much awaited summer vacation last week. That's right, summer vacation in the middle of December. I'd originally planned to take it in late September but, for a number of reasons (mostly involving anticipated work that never even actually materialized), it kept getting pushed back.

Yuki and I ended up spending the week traveling around Vietnam and Cambodia. I had originally planned to write all about everything we saw and did, but a week is a long time and I don't really feel like writing an epic post. The easiest way to do this is probably for me to split the trip up into chunks for each place we visited and just write a little bit about it. Also, I took over 700 pictures over the course of the week, so I'm only going to post the one's that I like best or are most illustrative. The rest will likely show up on flickr once I manage to work my way through them.

Right, so onto the story. We used Saigon as our central base of operations during the trip. I was told by a number of people before I went that "there's not much to do there, but the food is good". I was pretty skeptical about this at first, but now I have to say that it's not an entirely unfair assessment of the city.

Having been born a generation too late to have witnessed the Vietnam War unfold, the most interesting place for me was the War Remnants Museum, which had some old equipment around the building and a huuuuuge photo gallery inside. War is ugly business to begin with and the Vietnam War was certainly no exception. We also visited the Reunification Palace (formerly know as the Presidential Palace), where the war came to an end when North Vietnamese tanks crashed through the gates and seized power from the South Vietnamese government, but beyond being a historically significant site it wasn't particularly interesting. The half-day side trip to the Cu Chi Tunnels was worthwhile, if only to get an idea of how terrifying jungle warfare must have been.

Aside from that, there is a good bit of beautiful architecture from the country's time as a French colony, but not much else that really stands out. We checked out most of the places listed in our guidebook but weren't terribly impressed.

While I can't really rave about the sightseeing, I can't say enough about the food. From pho to banh xeo to street stalls, there is very little that we tried that wasn't delicious and dirt cheap. Most of our meals cost less than $5 for the two of us, including drinks. Though I found Vietnamese beer to be largely unenjoyable, we drank countless shakes made with fresh fruit and Vietnamese iced coffee will blow your mind. My only regret is not reading up more about Vietnamese food beforehand, as I think it would have made it much easier for us to try an even wider variety of food from street vendors.


One thing that you can't avoid in Saigon is the absolute flood of motor bikes. Forget looking at traffic lights, crossing the street is like a real life game of Frogger. Think you'll play it safe and stick to the sidewalk? Wrongo-pongo! Impatient drivers at the back of the line will often just hop out of the street and zoom up to the front of the line. I'm sure there are traffic laws in Vietnam, it's just that nobody really pays any attention to them.

Saigon was decent enough but it probably wouldn't make it onto my "Favorite Destinations" list. It's worth a couple of days if you're doing the backpack-around-SE Asia thing, but I'm not convinced it alone is a destination. Fortunately for us, we had plenty more on our agenda...

Saturday, November 27, 2010

Getting Out of Town - Mt. Takao

Last autumn, Mike, Yuki, and I went down to Kyoto on a long weekend to check out the beautiful fall colors, but the holiday was on a Tuesday instead of a Monday this year, denying us that extra bit of time to really get out of town. However, Mike set up plans for the Michigan kids to get together on that Tuesday and take a day trip to Mt. Takao, a relatively small mountain about an hour away from Tokyo that he had been to in past falls.

As the date approached, however, I wasn’t sure if I was going to be able to join. I had played soccer on the previous Sunday, the first real exercise I’d had in something like four months, and my body was an absolute wreck. I honestly can’t remember the time I was that sore and even just walking was painful, so the idea of hiking up a mountain didn’t sound too appealing, so I decided I’d see how I felt that morning and make a judgment call.

When I woke up, I felt only slightly better than I had the day before and at first I was planning on sitting it out. But the more I thought about it, the more I became convinced that I would regret not going. I usually work too late Monday through Friday to do anything outside of work and it seemed like a shame to waste a rare day off bumming around indoors, so I decided to suck it up and give it a go.

We all met up outside the train station at the base of the mountain. The morning drizzle had cleared up, leaving a cool but sunny late morning that was strongly reminiscent of Michigan falls. Most people take a cable car part way up, then hike the rest of the way to top, but we took a path less traveled that went all the way up. To be honest, it was a pretty gentle slope and not particularly strenuous until near the very end.


The fall colors weren’t the best, but it was nice just to be out of the city for a bit. The air in Tokyo never strikes me as particularly bad, but the fresh air at Mt. Takao was wonderfully refreshing. It just felt good to breath. The path we took was quiet and not at all crowded (a minor miracle anywhere near Tokyo on a holiday), allowing us to keep a slow pace, enjoying the nature and company.


It’s been getting colder around here lately and probably won’t be long before the idea of spending a day outdoors loses its appeal, so I’m glad we had a chance to get out. The scenery may not have held up to Kyoto’s last year, but it was a great day trip and it’s always a good time when the Michigan kids get together.


Thursday, November 25, 2010

Dive In

After we spent a weekend in Hachijojima last March, I wrote about how Yuki and I had a chance to try scuba diving and really enjoyed ourselves. We sat on the idea of getting proper diving certification for a while but never really did anything about it until Yuki happened to find a place with good reviews that was offering licensing courses for a fairly inexpensive price (more on that in a minute…). Figuring that it would be a fun option to have when we travel, we decided to check it out.


The advertised price at the place was $150, but there were A LOT of strings attached. They really pushed people to buy their own gear (wetsuit, mask, snorkel, etc.), the idea being that owning your own gear would encourage you to stick with the hobby. Honestly, I think it was largely them taking advantage of a common tendency for Japanese people to have a hard time saying no when put on the spot (I had no such issues). If, however, you don’t shell out the $500+ for one of their gear packages, you’d have to pay something like $70 per dive session to rent it (x3 session = +$210). There was also a number of little administrative costs and knick-knicks that they make you buy which add up to another $70-80 or so. All-in-all, the total bill comes out to around $400, which is pretty much what it would cost at most other places in Tokyo anyway, so we figured we’d give it a shot. I wasn’t really thrilled about the way they kept trying to get us to buy things or sign up for stuff (if we’d said “yes” to all the add-ons, we probably would have blown through another $200-300), but they were excellent teachers and took good care of us throughout the process, so if you’ve got the will power to say no to all the selling, it’s not a bad shop to go with.

There are three components to getting your diving license:
(1) A paper test on basic diving technique and safety
(2) Diving practice session in a pool
(3) Diving practice session in open water

The test is easy: if you just read the little book they give you, there’s nothing difficult on it. I used a Japanese book and took the test itself in Japanese and still got something like 95%. To be honest, you could probably pass if you just read the first half of the book and use a little common sense during the test. The pool section is mostly focused on learning how to prepare your equipment and actually trying out the techniques you read about in the book. It’s pretty dry, but it makes everything easier to understand.

The open water diving is about learning to apply the basic techniques in a real life situation and involves four dives split over two days, with an option to split it over two weekends or stay overnight and do it all in one. We opted to stay over and make a weekend out if it.

hdr - morning train to diving

Most diving tours I’ve read about go out early in the morning (though I don’t really know why), and this was no exception. We were on train before 6am in order to make it to the dive shop by 7am, with an hour and a half car ride from their to the diving spot.


Being early November, we were worried that it was going to be pretty cold, but we lucked out and had great weather. After our first two dives Saturday morning, we spent the afternoon lounging around in an onsen up in the mountains, perfect after a morning in the cold Pacific waters. We bummed around in our hotel, a cozy little place literally overlooking the coast, before heading out for dinner.


The coastal area is full of windy roads that snake through the mountains, giving us a great view of the sunset. For dinner, we ate sashimi at a little family run place way up in the mountains. Top class fish at a price you would never see in Tokyo, it was a joy to eat.


The weather wasn’t quite as good the second day, but still decent enough. Two more dives and that was it: licensed scuba divers! Now we can go diving anywhere in the world, something we’ll be taking advantage of on our upcoming trip in a couple of weeks. Can’t wait!


Sunday, October 31, 2010

Before You Even Know It....

Last Thursday was exactly two years from the day I moved to Tokyo. Honestly, when I try to compare now and then, it makes my head spin. So much has changed in that time that it's difficult to put into words. In some ways, my life has become much more complicated than it was in those first few months, when everything was shiny and new. In other ways, it has gotten much simpler in that there's a certain repetition and most weeks end up looking more or less the same.

I'd vaguely been aware that the date was approaching, but it just sort of slipped my mind, something that is happening more frequently as of late. I struggle a bit to keep other things in my head and the days have started to just sort of blend together lately. It all just sort of flies by before I even notice. I feel like I've reached the finish line every time I make it to the weekend, only to realize that I haven't planned a damn thing and am left scrambling to come up with something. Needless to say, a number of them end up feeling wasted. My team leader at work has told me I should take more days off, but the company's vacation policies make it hard to take any meaningful time off, so I just keep grinding it out.

But that's just a bunch of excuses and whining, which I'm sure nobody really wants to hear about. I've got a number of adventures I want to go on in the next twelve months, so I'm just going to focus on making that happen. I need to mix things up a bit and explore. I think it would be good for me.

I'll throw a little food into this post, just so it doesn't end a total rant. The potato wedges were lightly coated with vegetable oil, salt, pepper, and garlic powder and cooked in the same try as the chicken legs, allowing them to turn golden brown as they half baked, half fried in the runoff chicken fat and juices. Freakin delicious. The chicken just got a little salt and pepper, then got baked until the skin was super crispy. The corn soup in the back there is Campbell's from a can. Don't judge me; we all get to cheat every now and then. A bottle of chardonnay to accompany it all made for a satisfying Saturday night dinner. Not a bad way to celebrate a second year.

Baked chicken legs and potato wedges

Thursday, October 28, 2010

It's Never Too Late To Learn

Chili isn't something I ate often growing up and I'm not even sure if my mom ever made it (to be fair, back then I probably would have refused to eat it anyway). As such, I really had no idea what was supposed to go into it or how to make it, but Yuki wanted to have it for dinner, so I decided to see what I could do. I looked at a few recipes online and found that there was pretty much no "standard" basic recipe, so I pretty much just winged it. At first I thought I'd measure the spices I was putting in, but I ended up tinkering with it so much that I just gave up on keeping track. For spices, there was a bunch of chili powder, a health dose of cumin, a fair bit of garlic powder and cayenne pepper, plus dashes of salt, black pepper, and oregano. To give it some mass, I included a pound of ground beef, a diced medium-sized onion and carrot, 1/3 each of yellow and red bell peppers, a can of kidney beans, and two cans of diced tomatoes. Hefty stuff. Mixed together, it was allowed to bubble away gently on the stove for a little over an hour.


Obviously that is far too much chili for two people to eat in one sitting, but we were in luck. Peter Traylor and his girlfriend Mari were passing buy and called to ask if we wanted to meet up. As they hadn't had a proper dinner yet, we invited them over to Yuki's for a light dinner and drinks. I grabbed some Coronas, which went really well with the chili, Yuki picked up some tortilla chips (also not easy to find in Japan) and the four of us spent the evening hanging out together.

Before we new it, it was time for them to catch their last train home, a long long ride out to Moriya. I've gotta give props to Peter for making the haul into to Tokyo to hang out with us as often as he does. It's time consuming as hell and certainly not cheap, but he's always a good sport about it and it's always a better time for having him there.

Sunday, October 17, 2010

Lunch Out - A Nu

Yuki and I like to indulge in a fancy lunch every now and then, as weekend lunch specials offer one of the few bargains to be had in Tokyo. Last weekend, we went to A Nu, a French restaurant in the Hiroo district, to (belatedly) celebrate a year of dating. Their dinner courses start at more than $80/person and go as high as nearly $200, but there lunch course costs less than half of that at $35. Obviously $35 is hardly a cheap lunch and the portions are smaller than at dinner, but the quality is still top notch.

The appetizer (I had a tuna tartar topped with diced apples and celery) was decent enough, but nothing spectacular. I thought the celery overpowered the apple a little and there was a bit too much of both to really let the flavor of the fish come through. Far better was the fact that they provided a constant supply of probably the best baguettes I've tasted in Tokyo. The crust was crackly, the center warm and soft, and there were slices of delicious butter with big flakes of salt on top. I think I ate a loafs worth...

The fish dish was grilled onagadai, a firm white fish, served with an eggplant basil sauce, which looked eerily like baby food but tasted ok, and a really cool foam of basil-infused milk. To be honest, the fish was good enough that I'd been happy to eat it as-is, but the foam made things interesting.

The meat dish, roast duck with a beet sauce was a real winner. The skin was crispy, the meat tender, and the sauce matched it deliciously. Bonus points for presentation, with super thin circles of bright red beets dotting the plate. There was also an onion "sauce" that looked and tasted like they'd just minced up an onion and given it a couple of whirls in a cuisinart: after trying a couple bites, I ignored it and the dish was a billion times better for it.

The desserts were fairly common desserts served in a creative way. In their tiramisu, the mascarpone cheese was solidified like a meringue and floated with little coffee tapioca pearls in a creamy soup that tasted like cream and lady's fingers.

For the Mont Blanc, the cream was also solidified like a meringue and sat on top of a chestnut mousse.

Since we were celebrating (and it was only an extra $5), we decided to get an extra dessert, picking caramel cheesecake with a cognac-orange sorbet. I was surprised by how strong the cognac flavor in the sorbet was, but it balanced the creamy cheese cake, which was excellent on its own as well.

Fancy restaurants rarely serve large portions, but if I just wanted to stuff myself I'd just go grab an $8 bowl of ramen. I go for food made of top quality ingredients combined and prepared in ways I would never have though of myself. In fact, I rarely walk away from one such meal without thinking just how big of a difference good ingredients make. I couldn't care less about eating organic, going local, or whatever other trend is popular at the moment, but knowing how important it is to get the good stuff makes me understand the nuts blowing through half their paycheck at whole foods and farmers markets a little bit more.

Monday, October 11, 2010

Where The Gaijin Roam

In Tokyo, the triangle of Roppongi, Azabu, and Hiroo is home to the vast majority of the Western expat community. Many foreign companies have their offices have their offices in the area and most employees brought in from overseas prefer to live nearby. Most of them speak little to no Japanese at best, but are generally very well paid by their employers, so restaurants and stores are more than willing to accommodate them.

Yuki and I were having lunch in the area this past weekend (more on that in a later post), so we thought we'd walk around and check out the area a bit. There was a mom helping her daughter learn to ride a bike, a cafe with twice as many foreigners as Japanese, and a park full of American and British dads playing sports with their kids.

But the real gaijin jackpot is the National Azabu Supermarket, the single most American place I have ever been in Japan. Many Japanese stores will offer versions of foreign products produced domestically by Japanese brands, but not here. Everything was labeled in English and they had a number of brands you'd find in the US: Tide laundry detergent, SunChips, Tyson chicken. It was a bit nostalgic and I picked up a few things that you rarely see in Japan: hamburger buns (damn do I want a proper burger...), a pie crust (will definitely be making pumpkin pie this fall), and cherry coke (and will probably shell out the ridiculous prices they charge for a pizza around here so I can enjoy the ultimate junk food combination). Honestly, I find myself missing things from back home more and more often these days. It's nice to know that there is a way to get my hands on some of those things.

That night, I cooked up some freakin delicious chili and planned to tie it in with this story. But I got home late tonight after having picked up some beautiful ground Australian beef on the way back from work and I cooked myself a hamburger, using the buns I mentioned earlier.

I won't pretend it was perfect.
It was cooked in a frying pan, not on a grill.
It wasn't medium rare, bordering closer to well done.
It wasn't even that big.

But it tasted like beef should, it was juicy, and it was homemade. I ate it with just ketchup, the way I have for just about every burger I've eaten since I was little. It was magnificent and it made the world seem a little bit more right...

Saturday, October 9, 2010

Facing Up

HDR Kameari Sunrise (10.8.10) v2
I woke up 20 minutes ahead of my alarm on Friday, which is a bit weird considering I worked late Thursday and didn't end up getting to bed until 2am. My room faces East and the sun had just risen enough that it sent a gentle golden light bursting into my room. There were just enough clouds out to make for a good skyline, so I took a few quick pictures and went back to sleep.

I'd love to share more pictures, but today was a gross and rainy day, so I'll tell you a story instead.

I have recently finally started facing up to some of my fears that come from living abroad. When you move to a foreign country, that baseline upon which you go through life shifts. Many things you just assumed to be one way are now completely different. Others are stuff you do when you finish college and set out on your own, difficult enough in your own country and even more so in a foreign one. You have to adapt and learn as you go, and it can be a scary and difficult process.

My biggest step thus far was my trip to the dentist's office today. Despite having lived here for just short of two years, up to this point I had avoided medical services all together. There's just so many things I don't know about. Not understanding what is typical and what to expect is incredibly intimidating for me. But even scarier, especially in regards to health care, is the language gap. My health related vocabulary is so incredibly basic that I'm fairly certain that I wouldn't understand half of what I was told, even more so if anything was out of the ordinary. I've been fortunate enough to have been in at least fair health since moving over and thus not needed to see a doctor. Until today, I had put off visiting a dentist as long as I could, but one of my wisdom teeth starting coming in and, though not at all painful, I figured I should probably have someone take a look at it just in case.

In the end, I went with Nishieifuku Dental Clinic, a dentist on the complete opposite side of Tokyo that is well regard in the expat community. It took me nearly an hour and a half to get there, but it was worth it. The bulk of the communication was done in Japanese (mostly because I kept speaking to them in Japanese), but the peace of mind from knowing that English was always option made life so much easier for me.

I was advised to let the wisdom tooth come in a little more to make it easier to take out, which seems sensible enough to me. I would also like to note that I was complimented by the assistant on the condition of my teeth and that she was surprised to hear that I hadn't been to the dentist for a cleaning in more than two years. It cost me about $35, which doesn't seem unreasonable, though I have absolutely no clue as to how that number was calculated.

Little by little, I'm trying to get past the fear of not knowing. What I'm beginning to realize is that there will always be things I won't fully comprehend, little black boxes that produce results I don't really understand. All I can do is prepare responsibly, give it my best go, and hope for the best. There will probably be times I get burned, but I'm confident that I will be able to get it right most of the time.

Sunday, October 3, 2010

A Little Change of Direction

When I started this blog, I intended for it to purely be a food blog. I was cooking every day, trying new things and putting out some really good stuff, and I just wanted to share it. It also coincided with my growing interest in photography, so it gave me a great way to practice that as well. I enjoyed it a lot and was putting up a post nearly every week.

Fast-foward fifteen months and a lot has changed. At the beginning of April, I moved to a new department and am now work a lot more than before, to the point where I've recently been doing nearly twice as many hours of overtime every month. I'm still stubborn about cooking pretty much every day, but you really don't put too much time and effort into it when you're throwing together dinner at 11pm. As such, you could probably count on one hand the number of meals I cook in a month that I feel are even worth sharing. Late work hours also means I don't have much time to write posts or process pictures to put up, so what few meals I think are blog-worthy rarely actually get written about.

At the same time, I have often let myself get sidetracked away from food and written about trips I've taken. In fact, I would say they are usually some of my better posts. I don't travel often enough to have a travel blog, but I think it makes for good reading and interesting pictures all the same.

I don't want to try to force this blog to be something it's not, so what I've decided is this: I'm not going to limit this blog to food related content. I'm not even going to try to define a theme for this blog. I'm just going to write about interesting things I've seen or done. Sometimes I'm not even going to write at all and just share pictures I've taken that I think are interesting. I won't be trying to chronicle my life, just share a glimpse of the things I enjoy.

So here is a post that has absolutely no food in it all. In fact, the only thing that is only even kind of food related is that one of the pictures was taken at a barbecue (which I don't intend to write about). They're just a few pictures of skylines that I like, plus a first attempt at using a new processing technique.

Beautiful blue skies for a barbecue with the Michigan kids this past weekend

NTT DOCOMO Tower, viewed at sunset from Shinjuku Gyoen

Colorful clouds at sunset, looking East from my room

Ginza at dusk

The new technique I mentioned earlier that I'm trying for the first time is HDR (High Dynamic Range) processing. The idea is that you take the same picture multiple times but at different exposures each time. Shots taken at high exposure will pick up details that would normally get lost in shadows, while low exposure shots will catch details in highlights that would get blown out in a normally picture. You then use some crazy voodoo magic software that takes the best parts from each picture and then combines them into one awesome picture. This time, I only combined two pictures (which aren't even perfectly aligned, but worked out anyways) of the sunrise taken from my room.

The first shot, overexposed sky means the clouds are pretty badly blown out

The second shot, underexposed, gets good detail in the sky, but loses most of the city below in shadows

The combined picture, which has eliminated a lot of the shortcomings from the original shots.
1st HDR Attempt

I've only just dipped my toes into the world of HDR, but I'll write about it again once I've tried my hand at it little more and have a few shots worth showing.