Sunday, July 25, 2010

Blog Birthday

Today marks exactly one year since I started this blog. Though I still don't think of it as a particularly impressive blog by any means, it has been viewed over 2,000 times by people from 39 countries during that time. Kind of crazy...

Looking back at my first post, it's obvious a lot has changed since I started. For one, the picture I used is so poor it borders on offensive. These days, a shot like that would be deleted before it even got uploaded onto my computer. At the time, I routinely got off work by 7 or 8-ish most days, so I had plenty of time to spend putting together dinner. Obviously work has gotten busier and now getting out of the office before 8pm is a fairly rare event, which has contributed to the significant decline in the number of posts here. I also spend most of my weekends out and about with Yuki, meaning less time gets dedicated to putting together Saturday and Sunday night dinners.

But, if I'm really honest, those are mostly just excuses. I reread that first post and realized the root of the problem is not all that far from what I described as cause of failure for my first blogging attempt: the feeling that every post has to be something epic. I have put together a few posts that I think are outstanding (usually travel related), but it really is unreasonable to expect every entry to be of that caliber. Not every meal is a classic and not every weekend is full of some fabulous adventure. Sometimes you just have to work with what you've got. Jake and Mike's friend Brian, who I met when we all climbed Mt. Fuji together, recently started trying to post a single picture every day on his blog. While I obviously am not about to try to do the same thing with my food, I really like the idea that not everything you do will be a masterpiece, but that doesn't mean it isn't worth sharing.

To be honest, it's been a while since anything particularly impressive has come out of my kitchen. It's ridiculously hot in Japan this summer and I'm still looking for good summertime recipes to help get through it. With a lack of ideas at the moment, I cooked two very ordinary dinners this weekend. The first, General Tso's Chicken, is a dish I've tried on numerous occasions but have never been able to get quite right. To me, it should be sweet and spicy, with a strong kick from the vinegar as well. In Ann Arbor, I loved to get it from Panda House in their lunch special. I know it's hardly authentic Chinese food, but's it's just so freaking good. My rendition once again fell short, I think mostly due to an overuse of soy sauce and a fear of using too much vinegar.

The second dinner was Kung Pao Shrimp, which also failed to impress. Normally, when I want my food to be good and spicy (which is most of the time), I use a generous dose of red chili sauce. This recipe called for 10 dried chilies to provide the heat instead, and for some reason I decided to do as told. I don't know why I thought it would work: cooking dried chilies in oil is essential a very basic way of making chili oil, which I never find to be particularly spicy anyways. The failure of the chilies to make things interesting meant that the sauce was essentially a poorly constructed teriyaki sauce. That's not to say it was bad, but nobody is gonna get patted on the back over this one...

I've got a couple of other recent meals that need writing about in the pipeline, so hopefully it won't be too long until my next post. Thanks to all who have followed this blog for the past year and I hope you continue to enjoy it in the coming year as well!

Monday, July 12, 2010

Rising to the Top

No food again this time, but still an event I feel is definitely worth mentioning. This past weekend, a bunch of Michigan kids from the Tokyo area met up with Jake, another friend from Michigan who has been teaching English in central Japan, and a bunch of his buddies to take on one of Japan's greatest challenges: climbing Mt. Fuji.

The timing for the trip, being right at the heart of the Japanese rainy season, left a lot up to fate but we lucked out and were greeted with beautiful skies when we arrived. The Tokyo crew got to the meeting point a bit early, so we spent some time goofing around.

The girls were cute as usual, while us guys attempted to demonstrate the sexiest way to take oxygen.

My two usual partners in crime along with their key equipment for the climb: Yuki with the oxygen bottle and Mike with his camera!

Absolutely lucked out on the weather. Views from our starting point at the 5th Station, around 2,300 meters above sea-level

We set out around 6pm, our spirits high. The path we were taking went up the south-east side of the mountain, meaning we only caught bits of the sun setting around the side of the mountain. We still got some great shots, but it must have been amazing on the west side!

It's a 9-10hr climb to the top including breaks and we planned to do it without stopping to sleep. Most of the climb isn't terribly difficult terrain, though there are stretches where you do need to use your hands to help climb up the rocks. In fact, it wasn't until around the 8th station, at an altitude of 3,100 meters, that things got tough. And by tough I don't mean "difficult to climb"; the path was not that much different. What was really challenging was the cold. And the crowds. The temperature had dropped down to near freezing-levels and the wind was pretty ferocious. We hadn't counted on it getting that cold and most of us were somewhat under-dressed. To make things worse, the tour groups started coming out. Unlike us, the more common way to climb Mt. Fuji is to go 2/3 of the way up, sleep for a couple of hours in one of the lodges, and the finish off the climb in time for sunrise. As such, the path was almost empty as we made our way up, but in the earliest, coldest hours of the morning began getting bogged down by countless groups of climbers to the point where sometimes all you could do was stand and wait for the line to start moving. On top of that, Yuki was struggling with the altitude and we would occasionally pull over for breaks to try to help her acclimate, but there wasn't much shelter from the wind, so all we could do was bundle up and hunker down as best possible. All in all, it made for a very long and very cold night.

I'm not sure I've ever felt such a base instinctive drive to just survive, which was a bit scary. In many ways, I think it was more demanding emotionally than physically. Nonetheless, our whole group made it to the top and were greeted by a pretty spectacular sunrise.

Personally, the hardest part of the whole thing was getting back down. Make no mistake, it is not an easy climb to the top, but going down takes everything you've done to that point and compounds it. There is a separate path to the bottom which is pretty much a continuous zigzag of loose dirt and stones. I suppose if you were on your own and took more time to rest at the top, you could slalom down it pretty quickly, but after an exhausting all-nighter, it was slow going and absolutely devastating on the knees. To make things worse, every time you get to a ledge with a good vantage down the slope, the zigzag just appears to go on forever. When you get to the point where you had previously thought it was going to end and look down, it just keeps going. Despite the cold and the wind, I never once felt like giving up during the climb, but on the way back down I couldn't stop wishing there was some sort of white flag I could wave and bring it all to an end. It was awful.

We finally reached the bottom around 10am. We were battered and exhaust, but we had conquered Mt. Fuji. I was especially proud of Yuki, who really had a hard time dealing with the high altitude, but fought all the way to the end.

There is a saying that "One who never climbs Mt. Fuji is a fool. One who climbs it twice is twice the fool". I couldn't agree more. By the time we were done it was like going to hell and back, but we also witnessed some amazing views that you simply cannot find anywhere else in Japan. Anyone spending a significant amount of time in Japan owes it to themselves to do it, but once is plenty enough.