Monday, January 30, 2012

Let It Snow, Let It Snow, Let It Snow

I enjoy snowboarding. I do not enjoy the pain that my body is in the next day, but I enjoy snowboarding nonetheless.  When I lived in the Bay Area, I would make my way to Tahoe at least once a season, but since moving back to Hawaii in 2008, I haven't had an opportunity to go snowboarding.  So when some friends invited me to go on a snowboarding trip through our base's MWR, I immediately said I would go.  Our journey started at 2:00 A.M. which is when we arrived on base to meet the buses.  That's right, I said A.M.  Considering that I didn't really get much sleep (between Rich's snoring and me waking up every 15 minutes for fear of missing my alarm), I was curious to see how this day would turn out for me.  At first, my friend Marissa and I were skeptical about whether we were going to get any sleep on the bus ride because it didn't seem like the navy guys on our bus were ever going to shut up.  However, with some not so subtle encouragement over the speakers from our local tour guide (he repeated "be quiet, it's time to go to sleep" at least 3 times), everyone on the bus was sleeping within the hour.  A short 4 and a half hours later and we arrived at Joetsu Kokusai Ski Resort in Niigata, a very large and very popular ski resort in Japan, complete with a 634 room hotel and onsen. 

After getting all of our gear on (seriously took us like an hour), we made our way up the mountain. It was snowing pretty good which meant we were in for some powder.  The first lift took us to the main area where the hotel is located and the second took us up to all the trails.  We immediately noticed that 99% of the people getting off the lifts were going left, so being the daredevils that we are, we decided to go right. Just kidding, we went right after the ski lift guy confirmed that's where the red trail was.  Our first run was awesome - hardly anyone but us, so we were free to swerve and fall without feeling like we were getting in anyone's way.  The best is when a 5-year old kid races past you and looks at you like you're totally in their way. The powder was perfect for falling (and believe me, we all did our share) because it was soft but not so perfect when snow piled up on the board, making it hard to move through dead spots.

When we finally made it to the bottom (seriously took us like an hour), we decided it was time for a break.  And by break I mean it was time for us to eat.  Of course once we finished eating, we all wanted to pass out, but we had to make the most of our time on the slopes so we headed back up.  By now we were in our snowboarding groove, but this run was harder because we were tired, there were more people on the trail and it was snowing harder than before.  We also got hit by an avalanche that resulted from too much snow accumulating on the roof of the building we were sitting in front of.  By the time we realized it was coming, we were hit with a wall of white and I had snow up my nose and in my mouth. Before we started this run, we agreed we would have time for at least 2 more runs.  Somewhere in the middle of this run, someone said "I think this is my last one for the day" to which the rest of us immediately and enthusiastically responded "yeah, me too." Inside I was thinking, I've found the perfect snowboarding buddies!  When we got back down we headed straight for the restaurant where we had coffee (I also convinced two of the others to join me in ordering the dessert platter which was delicious), commisserated with each other about the pain we would each likely be in the next day, expressed appreciation for our Japanese homes and the fact that  they each had a furo, and relaxed until it was time to make the 4 and a half hour ride home.  Ahhh, good times!

So, how did I feel the next day?  Well, let me say this on the subject:  I could barely move and when I did move it was always accompanied by groans, I heated up a frozen pizza for our dinner instead of actually making something, and at 5:00 p.m. my husband told me I look like I should go to bed for the night.  If you ask me, was it worth it?  Hell yes, I can't wait to go again!

Sunday, January 22, 2012

Don Quixote: Madness or Magical Shopping Experience?

I'm a shopper, plain and simple.  And not just for clothes, purses or shoes either.  I mean, I'll shop for almost anything - office supplies, books, kitchen gadgets, bedding, you name it and I'll buy it.  I'm not sure how long into our relationship Rich learned this about me, but I first realized that he
had discovered my penchant for shopping when one day, as a result of me being in a funk and in an effort to cheer me up, he said to me, "Honey, why don't we go to Ala Moana?  You know shopping always cheers you up!"  I'll admit, I was a bit shocked and mildly embarassed by his statement, but also quite impressed with how perceptive he was.  The offer was so endearing that it alone was enough to get me out of my funk (note that I did not say I didn't take him up on his offer).  If you've ever shopped with me, you know that I'm a no nonsense shopper.  I will generally take a quick stroll through the shop and if I don't see anything I want or need, then I'm out. I don't like waiting in lines, I'm not a fan of having to go through piles of stuff to find that one shirt, and stores that have too much stuff or too many people in it give me anxiety.  In sum, I don't do well in places like Ross' or Nordstrom Rack or Costco on the weekends for that matter.

On one of my recent Tokyo trips, we stopped at the Don Quixote store in Akihabara.  Coming from Hawaii, I was familiar with Don Quixote ("DQ"), which has always intrigued me.  Seriously, what do Don Quixote and a blue penguin have to do with each other and more importantly, what do they have to do with Japanese/Asian goods?  According to the DQ Hawaii Website, the answer is: nothing.  The website does, however, state that DQ's three pillars are: convenience, discount and amusement. Let's analyze this:
  • Discount:  I am not yet familiar enough with Japanese prices of specific items, so I can't comment on whether DQ's prices are low enough such that it lives up to this pillar.
  • Convenience:  There are DQs everywhere in Japan, including one about 5 minutes away from my house, which I suppose could support the convenience pillar.  DQ puts themselves out there as a retailer of everything, which would support this pillar if it weren't for the fact that, as discussed below, it could very well take you between an hour to....oh, um, possibly NEVER to find what you are looking for.  Plus, some people don't do well with too many choices - I'm not naming names, but you know who you are. 
  • Amusement:  This particular DQ was 8 floors and as soon as we got off the escalator, I started to feel claustrophobic.  As you can see from the pictures, there's stuff literally piled from the floor to the ceiling and little (to no) rhyme or reason as to where things are located.  In fact, I didn't want to stray too far from my friends for fear of getting lost in an aisle filled with fake eyelashes and never seeing them again.  On balance, I think the hoarder-ish quality about the store combined with its anxiety inducing (mine) environment = not amusing.

Notwithstanding that analysis, I will continue to patronize DQ as they are the only locale that I know of for purchasing certain items, namely this cheese that my friend recently introduced me to and Pareso (lychee liqueur).  Alcohol and know, the important things in life. :)

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

One Fish, Two Fish, Red Fish, Blue Fish

I'm not a huge fish person, but I do love me some Hamachi and Maguro every now and then.  Lately I've been craving sashimi and sushi, two things I don't get to eat on a regular basis because Rich doesn't eat either of them.  So, me being the awesome wife that I am, I took advantage of Rich being sick with a bad cold by leaving him home and heading up to Tsukiji Fish Market with my friends Paul and Mina.  I mean, if you want the best, freshest fish, why mess around right?
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under the creative commons cc-by-sa 3.0 license.
Tsukiji Market, the largest wholesale fish/seafood auction in the world and popular Tokyo tourist spot, made headlines in the Star Advertiser (click here for the full article) earlier this month when a tuna sold for a record $736,000 during the first auction of 2012 (craaaazy).  On a normal day, things are probably less exciting there, but if you hope to catch a glimpse of the real action at the market, you have to get there at the crack of dawn.  Let's be real here, I'm not what you would call a morning person and I can do without being around tons of smelly, bloody fish....I suggested we start our trek from Yokosuka at the more reasonable hour of 9:00 a.m.

We got off the train in the Tsukiji area and, armed with our iphones with gps (not to mention the area maps that are all over the place), we set off to find this famous fish market. It really was quite a sight to see - Paul with his iphone out and us trying to figure out which direction on the real time google map we were heading versus which way we were supposed to be heading.  Several times we turned around mid stride, probably annoying the heck out of the locals walking behind us, but enjoying ourselves nonetheless.  In spite of the directional aids at our disposal, we STILL managed to get a little lost and we ALMOST turned around and left without even getting to the heart of the marketplace.  Luckily we made one last turn which turned out to be the right one.  During our exploration of a very narrow and definitely sketchy corridor, we received an unexpected treat when we came across them making blocks of tamago (yum).

Now came the really hard part....deciding where to eat.  Many of the sushi restaurants in this area are small and have long lines, especially at lunchtime, which by this time it was.  Our initial strategy was to stand in the longest line we could find (about 20 people), our thought being the longer the line, the better the food.  After standing in line for 20 minutes with barely any movement and hunger (mine) really setting in, we agreed to change strategy and found a restaurant with a much shorter line.  Looks can be deceiving though because even though only 2 people were ahead of us, we still waited another 20 minutes.  By the time we got in, I was numb - the weather app on my phone said it was 40 degrees but I swear it was really 25.  Mina and Paul had nigiri sets and I had a tuna/crab don with a side of hamachi and toro nigiri (can't forget about the toro).   Once the food came, all conversation ceased as we savored every delicious bite, silently agreeing that these moments were definitely worth the trip and money. 

When each of us was certain we couldn't possibly eat another bite, we paid our bill and headed out.  We had only taken a few steps out the door when in response to someone asking "so what should we do now?" all three of us immediately agreed that coffee and dessert should be the next item on our agenda.  And with that, we set off to find us a coffee shop and eat more food!

Saturday, January 14, 2012

I Scream, You Scream, We All Scream for Ice Cream!

I love ice cream.  I attribute (or perhaps blame is more accurate) this love to my parents.  When I was a kid, we all felt such a sense of accomplishment when we got my dad to take my mom, brother and I to go get ice cream after dinner.  Whether it was mint chocolate chip from Baskin Robbins or strawberry from Haagen Daas, I was in heaven.  And today, each of the two freezers at  their house has, at all times, no less than five different types/forms of ice cream.  Luckily I married someone whose love for ice cream actually exceeds my own. I'm pretty sure at some point during each of our first five dates we ended up at Cold Stone, and not because of me.  Imagine my delight when I later discovered that my in-laws also love ice cream - wow, we're just an ice cream loving family. Seriously though, if Rich didn't like or couldn't eat ice cream....umm deal breaker!!

Anyway, I discovered this jewel of a place during the height of the Japanese Summer.  July and August are the most miserable months imaginable here.  It's so humid that as soon as you step outside, you're instantly dripping with sweat (attractive, right).  One day, as I waited (and sweated) for Rich to meet me near base, I looked around anxiously for somewhere, ANYWHERE that had air conditioning where I could cool down.  As I stepped into Chateraise, I literally couldn't believe what I was seeing...there before me were rows and rows of different types of ice cream.  From ice cream cups to sandwiches to popsicles to crunch bars to cones, all in a variety of different flavors, there they were waiting to be purchased by me.  One step outside however, and I was hit with the horrific reality that anything taken outside the shop (and which wasn't eaten immediately or wasn't packed in dry ice) would become a gooey mess within seconds.

Cut to today, January 14, where the average temperature here these days is a cool 45 degrees, which means I can buy ice cream from Chateraise and make it home without fear of anything melting.  In fact, as I type this post, I am devouring a strawberry cream bar, one of the 5....alright fine, 10 items we purchased after dinner.  My husband thinks it's hilarious that every time, and tonight is no exception, I try a new ice cream, my response is an emphatic "this is my favorite." Well sorry, I can't help that they're all awesome - and they ARE all my favorite.  So far we've tried the cookies and cream crunch bar, strawberry cream bar and coffee ice cream sandwich (all of which were excellent).  In other words, 3 down, about 50 more to go!!! Mom, Dad, CT Family and anyone else that comes to visit us, rest assured that you too will be able to sample the selection of ice cream that Chateraise has to offer.

Thursday, January 12, 2012

Starting A New Year In Tokyo

It's already almost January 13 here in Japan so I'm a little late with this post...BUT, since I just started this blog, I figure I'm excused. In late November, Rich and I made the decision not to go to Hawaii for Christmas and New Years. This was a big decision for me since I have only been away from home for Christmas one time out of 34 (that's right, I said it, 34!).  Our friends Lori and Eric from SoCal were going to be in Tokyo for New Years so we decided to head up there and spend New Year's Eve with them. Luckily I was able to reserve a room at the hotel they were staying at, which is located in the Shiodome District of Tokyo.  Shiodome, with its amazing skyscrapers and futuristic look, is a recently redeveloped area and one of the more modern areas of Tokyo (it's located close to Ginza and Tsukiji Market).  There is an elevated/above ground walkway that connects the major buildings, and there is also an underground walkway that connects the buildings with the subway station.  As I learned from this trip, many of the hotels in Tokyo start at around the 25th floor and go to the top of the building, while the lower levels house offices and businesses.

On the morning of the 31st, we caught the train from our house to Shiodome Station.  The first thing that struck me when we entered the elevated walkway which would take us to the hotel was that there was no one, and I mean no one was seriously eerie. But once we exited on the 25th floor of our hotel, I was relieved when I saw living, breathing human beings and I was assured that we were not in a scene from "I am Legend" or "The Walking Dead."  After dinner, and in keeping with Japanese tradition, the four of us headed to Zojo-Ji Temple in the Shiba area of Tokyo. I learned from Lori that it is tradition to go to a temple for the countdown to midnight, and that at midnight, everyone releases balloons with their thoughts and wishes for the year.  Zojo-Ji Temple is a popular spot for New Years and is frequently referred to in news articles and reports describing how people from various countries celebrated the new year. We heard that last year, 10,000 people were at Zojo-Ji Temple to ring in the new year.

Enjoying our chu-his on the street
By 10:00 p.m., the streets heading toward the temple were swarming with people.  Since we still had a good 2 hours to go, we decided to stop at the good ole Family Mart (the equivalent of 7-11) to introduce our friends to the miracle that is canned chu-hi (our chu-hi of choice is Strong Zero). There was nowhere to sit, so we took our chu-his and drank them as we walked - at first we were self conscious drinking on the street, but one quick glance around at others (local and foreign) drinking openly put us at ease.  We drew the line at taking our drinks into the temple and made a brief stop to finish our drinks.  We were totally in conversation when this guy comes up to us and practically screams "Gaijin??" at us.  He was obviously a Gaijin himself. which he confirmed by emphatically announcing "I'm Gaijin too!!" He proceeded to say "Don't mind me, I'm just random," to which Lori replied "You ARE random."  After we went back to our conversation (without him), he abruptly turned around and left.  I later admitted to Lori that he creeped me out and I hoped we didn't run into him again.

In front of the Seiko Clock at the temple gate

At 10:50, yes 10:50, the guys went in search of a bathroom.  At first, Lori and I kept ourselves occupied by chatting and catching up, but as it got closer to midnight with no Rich and Eric in sight, we silently seethed thinking to ourselves they BETTER be back by midnight.  At 11:40, I got a text from my husband saying "No way to get through.  I Love You."  In disbelief (and when I say disbelief, I mean we didn't believe they couldn't make it through), Lori and I counted down the new year together and watched in awe as thousands of balloons with wishes attached to them were released at midnight.  Shortly thereafter, we tried to make our way to the exit.  After being pushed, shoved, unintentionally groped, and literally riding a wave of people to get back to the gate, we acknowledged that perhaps we did believe that Rich and Eric couldn't make it through all the people.  All in all, it was a great time and something I'm glad I got to experience!

Happy New Year!!!

2011 was a year of big changes for me - I got married, I moved to another country and I took a leave of absence (well for now anyway) from a career/profession which, including school, I've been involved in for the past eleven years.  While I don't foresee as many big changes this year, I am hopeful that 2012 is going to be a great year too!

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

With Aloha From Japan!

And specifically from Yokosuka!  For those of you that don't know, Rich and I moved here in August 2011 (well he's actually been here since April) and we can't believe how fast the time has flown by.  I mean, it's already 2012!  My good friend Annie has been bugging me for months to start a blog to chronicle our life and adventures abroad, but it's taken me awhile to gather the courage to put myself/ourselves out there.  But with the new year, I've decided to get my act together and really do this.  My hope for this blog is to keep our friends and family updated with our life in Japan AND to keep me occupied for the next 2 and a half years so I don't get too homesick/friendsick/familysick.  Feel free to comment on any posts.  Happy reading!!!