Is Thanksgiving Really Two Weeks Away? 2

CIMG1550It’s been way too long since I wrote an entry and I have plenty excuses that I will not bore you with.  I seriously can’t believe Thanksgiving is a week from Thursday.  When we last left off, the girls and I had arrived home from Hawaii and the boys had won their first championship in 26 years.  We didn’t waste any time getting back into the groove after vacation and a few days after getting back I went on an all day hike up and down Mt. Mitake.  It took us a few hours, three trains and a funicular to get to the point on the mountain where we would begin our climb (actually descent).  We spent almost 45 minutes going down at least a thousand root-like steps but were rewarded with a magnificent rock garden path that wound around the mountain for at least another hour.  At the top, there is a beautiful shrine and small ryokans (japanese inns with onsen hot spring baths) that were initially built to house the Japanese who came to the shrine on a religious pilgrimage.  It seemed like a wonderful place to stay but we hiked back down and returned to Tokyo by 7:30 at night.  It was a perfect day.  The girls and I had an opportunity to make our own personal chopsticks out of old baseball bats used by professional players in the Japanese league.  First we were tested on our use of chopsticks (which we were all using incorrectly) and then we cut and sanded our wood and painted our designs.  The ohashi as they are called were taken back to the factory where they will be dipped in lacquer and then returned to us.  I am very excited to carry them around and impress the Japanese when I whip them out when we go for ramen and soba.  Halloween came to Tokyo in a big way in Minato-Ku (the gaigin ghetto and basically the only place to trick or treat) and the girls dressed up and went trick or treating with friends in the neighborhood.  Annie wanted to be an M&M and the costume didn’t exist in Tokyo so I made it from felt with velcro and I sewed the thing myself!  After four kids, it was the first costume I actually made myself.  Pathetic?  Maybe just a little.   Our friends Mona and Gordon threw an over the top Halloween party that caused the police to come twice.  The house was decorated like a movie set and the food was beyond good.  I dressed up as Amy Winehouse and won best costume.  I got a really cute blow up doll as my prize.  For Tom’s birthday I made reservations at the Hyatt Resort in Hakone for a quick overnight.  We left the kids in Tokyo (by themselves!) and took off.  Hakone is a hot springs area where you can see smoke rising around every curve of the mountainous region.  The hotel was what you would envision a Japanese hotel to look like; very zen, very beautiful and very simple (but it was luxurious too).  There was a large fire pit in the lobby with comfy chairs and we got to wear our yukata (robes) with an over yukata (not sure what these are called) in the lobby, at dinner, basically everywhere we went.  It was fabulous.  When we checked in, it was dark and we couldn’t see the view but in the morning we pulled the shades back and the mountains were in our bedroom.  The day was amazing.  We started at the open air museum (the picture above was taken there) and then went to the ropeway which took us to the top of the rim of a volcano where the views of Mt. Fuji and lake Ashi were stunning.  We made the mandatory shrine stop at Hakone Shrine  – there is a beautiful red torii gate in the lake and then had an excellent Italian lunch by the lake.  We made it back in time to have dinner with the kids.  They survived without us and we are going to make sure to do more overnight trips.  They are so invigorating.  The Friday night before the last home football game, my friend Libby and I cooked a ton of food and invited the entire Varsity Football Team over for pasta night.  We went through three huge lasagnas, 6 pounds of ziti, 55 meatballs, 6 garlic breads, 2 huge caesar salads, 60 cupcakes and at least as many oatmeal chocolate chip cookies.  We were able to sit everyone around one big long table and it was a really fun night.  It was nice to finally meet the boys without their helmets on!  After the dinner, Tom referred many many boxing matches (of course Hayden has two sets of gloves he bought in Thailand) and the place got pretty rowdy as you can imagine but no one called the police so that was good.  I’ve been busy leading tours for the American club too.  The first tour I led was to the Mashiko Pottery festival about a 2.5 hour bus trip outside of Tokyo.  There were over 100 potters – totally cool, hip, Japanese women and men who would have been at home in a surf shop if they weren’t potting.  I bought a few treasures and thoroughly enjoyed the day.  The next trip was an overnight to Mikimoto Pearl Island, the wedded rocks and Ise Shrine.  This area is several hours away from Tokyo and is reached via bullet train and local train.  We went to the pearl island where Mikimoto started his cultured pearl business with the amah divers.  These are old women dressed in white linen dresses and hats who dive for pearls and collect them in wooden buckets that float on the water.  Its a pretty crazy thing to watch (check it out on youtube).  We then went to see the Wedded Rocks which are a pair of rocks located by the shore (one is large, the other small) that the Japanese believe represent husband and wife and were the birth of all the islands of Japan.  They are tied together with a thick rope and there is a shrine on land called the Frog Shrine.  We stayed at a Thalasso Therapy resort right on the ocean and had a fabulous french meal.  The next day we had a menu of treatments to choose from, all involving water in some way.  It was so relaxing.  A train ride away in Ise we visited Ise Shrine – the most sacred of all Shinto Shrines in Japan.  Every 20 years, they take down the old shrine and build an identical one right next to it.  People say it is to keep the skill set of the craftsman alive.  We came at a great time as the new one was almost finished and the old one was yet to be destroyed.  It was a lot of see and do in 36 hours but it was fantastic.  Last night I led a yakatabune tour (the japanese junk boat I rented last spring with my friends).  It was a great night – 65 and no wind in Tokyo on November 14th.  You can’t ask for better weather than that.  And then today, to finish off the blog, Tom and I spent the day at Meiji Shrine to watch the 3-5-7 festival.  Each year on this day, the Japanese dress up their children in formal kimono who have turned three, five and seven during the year and bring them to their local shrine to pray for a good life.  Meiji is a very famous shrine and it just happens to be very close to where we live.  We got some great photos and enjoyed another balmy 65 degree fall day.  We’ll be 24 in total for Thanksgiving on the 26th.  I am so happy to have my family all together this year.

What’s Behind Door Number One? 1

sakaLast year, Tokyo had more Michelin star restaurants than any other city in the world.  As a self-defined foodie you would think i won the lottery moving here.  Actually, its more of a frustrating situation then you would think.  In New York, if you want to go to a fabulous restaurant, you usually have to wake up early and dial furiously one month before the night you want to eat out.  And with any luck, you manage a booking some time during that night (it might be the 5:30 seating but at least you get the reservation).  And when you arrive at the restaurant, you are presented with a detailed menu and a waiter who is just dying to tell you all about the food you are so fortunate enough to be allowed the opportunity to eat.  And then the bill comes and you contemplate if it was actually worth the effort/price, etc… This procedure is pretty standard.  In Tokyo, its not that easy.  There are a few “expat” restaurants around our house that everyone goes to and the menus are in english and there are people who work at those restaurants that speak some english.  Its not uncommon to bump into people we know, even though we’ve only lived here for three months.  Saturday night, we had plans with our friends Libby and Doug to go out for dinner. Libby was pretty busy the week before as she had guests in from the U.S. and i told her i would find a place and make a reservation.   I wanted to break out of the mold and go to a “real” japanese restaurant.  Every day that I walk in Tokyo i pass another restaurant that has a small door that you need to bend to enter.  Usually there are noren (linen curtains) in front of the door and the name of the restaurant is in japanese (usually a mix of kanji and hirogana).  They only seat a handful of people.  My mind starts to fantasize about all the fabulous food that is being served there but only for the people in the know (e.g. the people that can read and speak Japanese).  I just don’t want to think that i am skimming the surface of good food in Tokyo.  I want to eat where the real people eat.  So i started doing some research, reading old Metropolis issues (the english weekly magazine) and looking on the internet and i came up with a small restaurant that wasn’t too far away that was Japanese/French.  I thought the combination would help the transition from a gaijin restaurant to a Japanese.  If it considered itself French in some way, the menu might actually have some French words which would help us figure out what was on the menu.  I couldn’t actually make the reservation myself as that would require the ability to speak Japanese so i asked member services (my new best friends) at the Tokyo American Club to make them for me.  They called me back later that day to say that we had a reservation for 4 at 8pm at HINOTOHITSUJI SAKA.  I emailed LIbby and told her that i made the reservation and we were all set.  Saturday night came and we took a quick cab ride over to the restaurant and it was exactly how i pictured it… down a small dark street, lit from within with a small door that Tom had to bend (and Doug who is 6’4) to get inside.  I was actually very proud of myself at that point.  When i stood upright and surveyed the very brightly lit, very small restaurant that was EMPTY, the pride started to melt into something closer to remorse.  We were welcomed by an older woman and a younger man (who could have been her son).  He quickly brought us menus that were completely in Japanese.  And not the Japanese that Tom can read (hirogana and katakana) but most of it had kanji characters.  One particular one did stand out for Tom – the character that represents a Horse.  We asked for Eigo menus (english) and he quickly shook his head NO.  After some hemming, hawing and teeth sucking, he told us there were three choices.  Horse, Pork or Beef Cheek.  He left us to decide and we all laughed at how it would be pork for 4.  The meal began with a small dish of some type of green grass in salt water.  Crunchy but very earthy tasting.  The next course was shredded radish with shimiji mushrooms served cold.  This course was followed by a clear broth with what looked like gefilte fish floating in it.  It turned out to be very similar to gefilte fish but it was pressed crab.  After the soup, we were served a chicken sausage with shredded cabbage that was actually quite good.  Next up was the pork that was served with root vegetables and a semi-sweet glaze that was also very good.  After the main course, we were served cold soba noodles that you dipped in cold soy broth and when you were finished, you poured hot water into the left over broth and drank it like soup.  At this point, we were hoping there were no more courses but out came the dessert.  It looked very much like coffee ice cream on top of brownie chunks in a custard sauce.  Tom took a big bite and as Doug spooned some into his mouth, Tom warned him not to do it and at the very same moment what Doug put in, Doug took out.  Turns out the brownie chunks were chunks of some sort of hard jelly and the coffee ice cream was tea flavored.  Watching Doug take a big bite excited for the chocolate/coffee dessert and then watching him spit it out, i just couldn’t contain myself and i started laughing so hard that real tears spilled out of my eyes and at that point i just couldn’t stop laughing.  of course all night i had to take the brunt of all their jokes (how from now on libby was going to choose the restaurants, and where exactly had i read about the place).  We were there for over two hours and not another soul walked in the door.  When the bill came, it was close to $200 per couple.  Considering the amount of courses we had, it wasn’t really that expensive (for Tokyo).  But I don’t think i’ll be going back.  Even though it wasn’t the meal I envisioned, i’m not giving up on my exploration of the little doors with the Japanese curtains…