Saturday, March 31, 2012

Ichiro And The Seattle Mariners Come To Tokyo

Baseball is huge in Japan...I mean HUGE.  Sometimes when I'm watching Japanese cable, baseball games are on like 5 channels (and there aren't even that many baseball teams here).  I definitely wouldn't call myself a baseball fan (unlike my hubby who has the Boston B tattooed on his leg), but I've been known to go to a game or two when I lived in Seattle and The Bay Area because in my opinion, baseball is a sport better watched live.  So when Rich asked if I wanted to go to the Mariners/A's game (which also happened to be MLB Opening Day for the 2012 season) at the Tokyo Dome with some friends, I said I was in!

We left Yokosuka around 4:00 in the afternoon and really lucked out with all of our train rides by getting seats (seriously, getting a seat on a train between here and Tokyo is a really big thing for me since it can really change the whole mood of the trip for me).  We arrived in the Tokyo Dome vicinity about an hour and a half before the game and instead of going right in, we decided to grub at Bubba Gump's.  The food was good and my shrimpin dippin broth hit the spot, but eating at U.S. chains here can be very pricey.  So, a lot of shrimp and A LOT less money later, we headed for the Tokyo Dome.

I had been to the Tokyo Dome before (for the Orchid Festival), so I knew that it was nice a place.  Personally, I am a fan of any indoor arena, particularly in the winter or summer.  I am not so sure whether I will be accompanying Rich to baseball games in Yokohama, especially during the summer (the stadium is outdoors and I've heard the seats are really small).  Tokyo Dome was Japan's first indoor stadium and is home to the Yomiuri Giants baseball team.  It is part of Tokyo Dome City which I discussed in a bit more detail in a previous blog post, Orchids, Orchids and More Orchids.

We got to our seats right before the game started, so we missed the opening/pre-game ceremony which was somewhat special because it featured the U.S. Army band and a video tribute to three heroes of the March 11 tragedy.  This was also a special game for the Japanese because their own Ichiro Suzuki of the Seattle Mariners was coming home (I'll come back to this issue in a bit).  Once we were seated, I was able to take everything in.  Thanks to our friend Andy who got the tickets for us, our seats were amazing - I think that was the closest I've ever been at any sporting event (I even saw myself on the big screen).  Getting tickets to big sporting events like this in Japan can be a somewhat painful experience for foreigners, but luckily we have friends that speak/read Japanese.  For this game, Andy had to go to the convenience store and enter some sort of a lottery to get tickets (max was 4 tickets). 

As the game began, the beer girls entered the arena from various locations.  You can always see them from wherever you are in the arena, because most of them wear fluorescent colored uniforms.  As one girl passed me (I was sitting on the aisle), I asked Rich if he thought I could be a beer girl - his response to me was "I'm not really sure, that keg looks really heavy; didn't you see her sweating?"  Anyway, all in all it was a great time (very different from sporting events in the U.S.) - everything was just so much orderly than I was used to and the fans are so respectful.  I think that if Ichiro weren't there, there would've been a lot less cheering (at some points you would think you were at the symphony rather than a baseball game cause it was so quiet). I also couldn't believe it when I didn't have to wait in line to go to the bathroom OR to get something from the concession stand.

The game itself was overall not that exciting (although apparently it got good after we left), but each and every time Ichiro was at bat, a billion flashes went off and as the night went on (and the beer girls came around more), the cheering got louder. I know that there has been some criticism about having Opening Day in Tokyo (for a variety of reasons) but I thought it was awesome.  I could be saying that just because I live in Japan now, but I also thought it was really great for the Japanese people to be able to see Ichiro play at home (he's seriously like a god here).  I don't know if this is how all games are in Japan, but no one left early.  It was tied at the bottom of the 9th and we still had a long train ride home, so Rich and I took off and it was a good decision on our part because getting home was a breeze.  Getting home at midnight and having to wake up early the next morning for work, not so much fun - for Rich that is (not me since I'm still playing the part of housewife), but in the end it was worth it. :)

Monday, March 26, 2012

March Madne$$ in Las Vegas - Part 2

Instead of giving a recap the rest of our March Madness 2012 trip, for this post I decided to list a few of the things that, in my opinion, are worth checking out when in Vegas (these are in no particular order).  However, I just realized that we did most of what's on this list on our March Madne$$ 2012 trip, so in a way it actually IS a recap of our trip!

1.  The Fountains at Bellagio:  In my opinion, the water show at the Fountains of Bellagio is a must see at least once.  Seeing it at the end of the movie Oceans Eleven is not the same as seeing it up close and personal. Watching it during the day is nice, but I would hold out for a night show because the lights really make a difference. I remember one trip a bunch of us were staying at NYNY.  One night we were headed to Pure at Caesar's Palace and one of my friends (a guy) insisted that we walk instead of cab it.  It was fine for the first 5 minutes until the girls realized we were wearing heels and then the whining started and it was all downhill after that.  By chance, just as we reached the Bellagio Fountains, the music and the water show started, causing us to stop and enjoy the show.  At the risk of sounding corny, it was totally magical and improved our moods immensely (and for a few seconds, we forgot about the pain our feet were in).

2.  The Cosmopolitan Hotel:  Just when you think Vegas can't get any more "over the top" they do something to make you reconsider that thought.  In this case, that "something" happens to be The Cosmopolitan Hotel, which opened in December 2010.  Everything about this hotel is over the top, but I love it.  Seriously, how can you not love the outrageously extravagant chandelier in the center of the hotel (one of these days I'll get around to having a ridiculously expensive cocktail at one of those bars the chandelier surrounds).  Seriously though, even just walking through here, you feel like you should be wearing a suit and/or fancy dress.  When we were here last July (sort of as a joint bachelor/ette party), our friends took us to dinner at STK at The Cosmo.  It's definitely pricey (but what steakhouse isn't), but worth it - if you decide to try it, I highly recommend the skirt steak.

3.  The Banana Cream Pie at Emeril's at the MGM:  I'm going to start out by saying that the gumbo and the chowder at Emeril's, which Rich and I usually have as our first course, are very good.  However, the real reason that we keep going back to Emeril's is for the banana cream pie.  No matter how stuffed we are, we always have room for dessert at Emeril's - although how full we are dictates whether we share a piece or order our own.  What sets this version apart from other banana cream pies is that there's more banana and less cream (and the cream in this pie is thicker, which I like).  Trust me, it's a winner!

4.  The Michael Jackson Impersonator at New York New York:  When we were in Vegas in November last year, NYNY was promoting Michael Jackson the Immortal show, a Cirque du Soleil show that highlights the music, dance and message of Michael Jackson.  In order to promote the show, they had the Michael Jackson impersonator come out every few hours and perform a compilation of MJ hits.  In addition to the music, you could always tell when he was performing because all you can hear is screaming.  This past trip we found him still performing -if you're in the area, definitely check him out!

5.  Minus 5 Ice Bar at the Monte Carlo Hotel:  On our bachelor/ette trip, my friends took me to Minus 5 Ice Bar.  Everything in Minus 5 is made of ice, including the glass your drink is served in.  There are different packages, but we got the $50 which got us a deluxe parka, furry boots and one drink. After drinking from the ice glass, I swore I would never drink from a regular glass again (that didn't last long).  Despite the parka, it's still really cold so we only lasted about half an hour in there (I'm not sure how people stay in ice hotels).  If you're looking for something different but still fun, this is for you.

6.  Bobby Flay's Mesa Grill at Caesar's Palace:  Rich and I are avid Food Network viewers and we especially like Bobby Flay, so naturally we've added Mesa Grill to our list of Vegas dining spots.  In fact, it's become a tradition for us to have our last dinner here. This is a Bobby Flay restaurant, so if you don't like spice, it might not be for you. Tip 1: make a reservation.  Tip 2:  the bread basket is pheonomenal, but try not to fill up on it or you'll ruin your appetite.  Tip 3: Pork tenderloin - do it!  On this last trip, there were 7 of us and 5 out of the 7 diners ordered the pork tenderloin (because no one wanted to share theirs).

Saturday, March 24, 2012

March Madne$$ in Las Vegas - Part 1

Since I'm from Hawaii, it's only fitting that I do my part and perpetuate the sterotype that everyone from Hawaii loves Las Vegas.  The first time I went to Vegas I was about 6 years old, although I don't remember much except for being locked in the hotel room with my cousins because there was a bad lightning storm; oh, and also because we were kids (this trip was way before Vegas launched their "family" marketing campaign). I started going to Vegas more frequently when I lived in the Bay Area, as it was so easy and relatively inexpensive to hop on a quick flight there for the weekend.

Over the years, there has definitely been a shift in the agenda/itinerary of my trips - in the past, it used to be more about clubbing and the pool; nowadays I'm all about eating good food, getting pampered at the spa and shopping.  Las Vegas will always hold a special place in my heart though, because so many good memories have been made here for me (including the lesser known fact that Rich and I got married here months before our big Hawaii wedding).  Anyway, Rich and I just got back from our 2nd annual March Madness trip to Las Vegas with some of our friends from Hawaii, and as usual, we had a blast.  

The first week/end of March Madness is a special time of year in Las Vegas - there's the start of the tournament, St. Patty's Day usually falls somewhere during this time, and for some colleges, it's spring break.  Needless to say, this particular week/end attracts a wide variety of people.  This year we arrived on Wedensday afternoon which we've decided is ideal because it gives us time to check in, pick up the basketball sheet from the Sports book and relax a little.  We always stay at the MGM Grand, which is currently undergoing renovations, and were interested to see what their highly publicized "new rooms" looked like.  From the moment we stepped off the elevators, the transformation was clear.  The decor in the common areas and the rooms was a lot more modern and sophisticated.  Personally, I really liked the color choices and I especially like the remote control blinds (and blackout shade, which is essential to getting any sleep in Vegas). 

Rich and I are totally creatures of habit and generally follow the same schedule while we're in Vegas (even down to what we order at restaurants).   Breakfast (or lunch, depending on what time we roll out of our room) is usually at Studio Cafe and is generally by ourselves because everyone wakes up at different times based on what time they end up going to sleep (if at all).   I always have orange juice, yogurt/granola with fresh berries and a bagel - I like to get in at least one healthy meal a day.  For our first dinner, we chose The Grand Wok at MGM, which serves Chinese food and sushi.  The calamari is definitely a must, as is the sweet and sour chicken, mongolian beef and honey walnut shrimp.  Despite the fact that I live in the sushi capital of the world, I also wanted some sushi, so I ordered the Red Dragon Roll which has spicy tuna, shrimp tempura, cucumber and unagi sauce - yum!  I also recommend getting a pot of jasmine tea to go with the meal.

The next day we were up early to hit the Sports Book and wait for our other friends to arrive.  After taking care of business and getting our friends checked in, we hit Fat Tuesdays for a few yard dogs (I refrained because it was only 11 in the morning, still a little too early for me).  Some other stuff happened during the day that I can't remember, but after a late dinner at Wolfgang Pucks, we met up with our friends at Tabu Ultra Lounge (don't ask me what an ultra lounge is, cause I don't know) where we had a table with bottle service waiting for us. I had only been to Tabu once before, but since Studio 54 was closed for renovations,  it was a lot more crowded than usual, which made me happy I had thought ahead and called to reserve a table.  Oh who am I kidding, these days I won't go to a club or "ultra lounge" without getting bottle service - seriously, why wait in line, pay a cover and then wait in line again for drinks?   After a fabulous time at Tabu, it was time to call it a night (or in this case early morning) and see what the next day had in store for us!

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Out And About In Roppongi

Every big city has an area (or areas) that's known for it's nightlife - in Honolulu it's Waikiki, in San Francisco it's North Beach (or SoMA or the Marina or...), and in Tokyo, it's Roppongi.  Everyone that lives in or near Tokyo has heard of Roppongi and it's repuation for being a somewhat risque area.  Roppongi is interesting because it is home to several foreign embassies, the swanky Roppongi Hills "city" and a ton of nightclubs and bars. With respect to the nightlife aspect, Wikipedia describes it this way: "'[t]he area features numerous bars, night clubs, strip clubs, restaurants, hostess clubs, cabarets, and other forms of entertainment.  Among the expatriate community, the area tends to be favored by business people, students, and off-duty US military personnel" (so basically what you're saying Wikipedia, is that you'll always find a lot of foreigners in this area). 

This Wikipedia image is from the user Chris 73 and is freely available
at //
under the creative commons cc-by-sa 3.0 license.

After living in Japan for seven months, I can FINALLY say I've been to Roppongi...well, sort of.  Since I live about a 70 minute train ride away from Tokyo, anytime I go out at night I have to be mindful of the train schedule and make sure I don't miss the last train(s) back to Yokosuka, including the transfers I have to make.  The alternatives to this are to either get a hotel room OR stay out all night and catch the first train in the morning, which is at around 5:00 a.m. (apparently this second option is a really common thing to do).  I've heard that people who who miss the last train will hang out at an all night internet cafe until the first train (and by hang out I mean pay for internet time and take a nap at the computer).  Well on this outing, I didn't have a hotel room and since I actually had to be awake at a decent hour the next day, I already knew it was going to be an early night for me.

Two of my friends that grew up in Tokyo were in town for the weekend for a bachelorette/birthday party, and the plan was for me to meet up with them at Zara in Roppongi Hills.  Since I was going without Rich, I was a little nervous about the whole train situation but I managed to make it to Roppongi with plenty of time to spare.  Everytime I visit a new area in Tokyo, I always feel like a kid in a candy shop.  My arrival in Roppongi was particularly memorable - after taking what seemed like five different escalators up, I finally emerged from the underground subway to bright lights, tall buildings and tons of people out and about (heading to who knows where).  I didn't really know where I was or what direction I was supposed to head in, so as discreetly as possible, I pulled out my iphone, clicked on the map and walked a little bit to see where I was on the map (I have no idea how people got around before iphones and gps).  I ended up getting to Roppongi Hills early because I had given myself lots of time just in case I missed a connecting train (which luckily I didn't), so I decided to walk around Roppongi Hills to kill some time.  It is literally a city within a city, and it has it all- offices, theater, apartments, restaurants, a shopping center, an art museum, the Grand Hyatt Tokyo.  As I made my way back to Zara, I made a mental note that I must come back soon and fully explore it. 

From Zara we headed to our dinner destination, which was a lounge/restaurant/bar called Console. It was a quaint little spot with a loungey vibe.  There was one actual table that I saw in the place, but otherwise it was all couches and comfy chairs.  They seated us in a room off to the side that could be closed off from the rest of the space if need be but which still allowed you to see what was going on in the other areas.  It worked out well because there was no one else in the entire place while we were there and the area that we had was conducive to an intimate gathering (in this case, old friends catching up).  Our reservation included a set menu and all you can drink for 2 hours (for 5000 Yen).  The food was good (or I could've just been really hungry); we had a cru de te followed by a salad, french fries, and then pasta.  Dessert was a birthday cake, and rather than cut it up and serve on plates, we ended up just digging into the whole cake with our forks and passing it around to each other (not very classy, but it definitely made it more fun).  Overall I think everyone liked the place except for the fact that they didn't have ketchup, tobasco or crown royal (which is what the bachelorette/birthday girl wanted to drink).

As it got later and later, I kept my eye on the time and eventually I said goodnight to the girls (who were off to do the real celebrating), giving me lots of time to find my way back to the train station.  The train was totally packed from Tokyo all the way to Yokosuka (anyone who knows Japanese trains at rush hour knows that packed really means packed), but luckily I had gotten on at the very first stop and was able to get a seat.  Funny that in addition to before work and after work during the week, midnight on the weekends is also considered rush hour on the Tokyo trains!  All in all it was a great time - I successfully made it to/from Tokyo at night by myself, I got to see a new part of Tokyo, I got to try a new restaurant, AND I got to see old friends and meet new ones.

Thursday, March 8, 2012

Eating Out In Japan: Plastic Food

I love going out to eat.  Rich and I usually eat at home during the week but when the weekend comes, I'm all about going out to eat.  When I found out we were definitely moving to Japan, I was really excited by the thought of all the new restaurants I would be able to try and all the yummy food I was going to enjoy (so far, I have not been disappointed).  At first I was nervous about eating in local restaurants: how would I know how/when to order, would I be able to communicate, how would I know what to order.  Thinking about the first time Rich and I ate at a local restaurant makes me laugh because we were so serious about it.  After we were seated, and not wanting to look like idiots, we spent at least 10 minutes in silence, carefully observing what everyone else was doing and how they were ordering.  This is how we first learned about the buzzer system I referenced in the post "Things About Living In Japan That Make Me Happy". Thankfully everything went smoothly and we're now old pros at eating out (well, for the most part anyway). :) 

Many restaurants that get a lot of foreigners tend to have English menus (or at least parts will be in English). But if not, don't worry, all you have to do is look for the plastic food display case to determine what type of food the restaurant serves and what to order.  When I really started exploring and searching for new restaurants to try, one of the first things I noticed was the display cases with plastic/model food that a large majority of restaurants seemed to have (keep in mind that I'm referring to the more casual restaurants; I don't think you'll find a plastic food display at Gordon Ramsay's at the Conrad Hilton in Tokyo).

Besides having a tendency to make a person hungry, these plastic food displays can also be incredibly helpful. For example, if you happen to be in a shopping complex or at a food court (where there are several restaurants in a row) and you don't know what you want to eat, taking a quick glance at the plastic food displays each restaurant has definitely helps those that are more visually inclined decide what/where they want to eat.  Also, if the menu is not in English, the handy dandy plastic food display can help you decide what you should order.  In theory, it also helps speed up the ordering process once inside the restaurant, because presumably the customer has looked at the display and has already made a decision as to what he/she wants to eat (unless of course you're my husband who changes his mind at least 5 times before we actually order).

Since I'm a curious person, I did some research into the origin and evolution of Japanese plastic food  The first Japanese fake food models were made in 1917 and were first used by restaurants starting in approximately 1926.  The original models were made out of wax and were intended to be used as a marketing tool because Japanese like to see the end product.  In fact, someone wrote a book which is devoted entirely to the subject of plastic food - in particular, it explores the psychological structure unique to the Japanese and which brought about the plastic food culture.

Apparently, over time, the plastic food business has become a billion dollar industry in Japan and the making of the plastic food has actually become an art form (there are even regular competitions that are held).  Each restaurant's items are custom made for that particular restaurant with an emphasis on making the model look as authentic as possible. I learned that the fake ingredients are often chopped up in a manner similar to how the real dishes are prepared in order to make the model more authetic. I'm here to tell you that the models really DO look like the dish you are served. There's one particular display that I pass a lot and I often wondered if the real salad actually looked like the display because the display just looked so perfect (see the chef salad on the left side of the pictue).  One day I was in the mood for a salad so I decided to order the display salad.  Lo and behold, the salad I was served looked EXACTLY like the display - all the ingredients were perfectly lined up in exactly the order shown in the display.  That taught me to never doubt a plastic food display again!

Thursday, March 1, 2012

A Little More Insulation Please

Last night as per usual, I woke up in the middle of the night to use the bathroom
(sorry if that's TMI), and as I was in the bathroom freezing (and silently cursing myself for forgetting to turn the toilet seat heater on before bed), I wondered: why are Japanese homes so poorly insulated? The question was timely, since the bathroom in Japanese homes is generally much colder than the rest of the house, and generally doesn't have any type of heating unit (although some people I know take their kerosene heater in there to warm it up before/during use).  Our bathroom has an overhead body dryer which we use as a heater, but it really only heats the area directly under it. Anyway, as I returned to my warm bed and went back to sleep, I sort of forgot about my question but I was reminded of it today due to the fact that it's essentially 30 degrees and snowing outside and I am a virtual prisoner in my living room (the only place in the house where it's nice and warm). 

It is fairly well known that home insulation in Japanese homes is poor (in older homes it is almost non-existent). Central air/heat is a foreign concept here, and you will rarely, if ever, find double-paned windows in homes.  I can understand the lack of insulation in older homes, but the lack of insulation in newer homes is a mystery, and not just to me - it is the subject of many articles and blog posts, but there is no consensus as to why this is the case.  For me, the lack of double-paned windows is especially problematic. In my bedroom, the headboard is in front of a large window, and at night, even with the heat on, the door closed and the curtains drawn, I can still feel the cold air blowing onto my face. From the brief internet research I've done to help me with this post,  I've learned of several inexpensive and common ways to minimize the problem - i.e., bubble wrap, japanese tape around the metal frames, and clear insulation sheets, all of which I plan to try out next year.  Winter 2012-2013, you're going down!

So, how are Japanese homes heated?  Our home has an A/C/Heater wall unit in every room (except the hallways and bathrooms).  These units use electricity (and a lot of it) and do an ok job of heating the room.  Our landlord also provided us with gas heaters for every room (there is a special gas outlet in each room), which we prefer because they heat an area faster than the wall unit.  Some people also use kerosene heaters which I've heard are the best in terms of heat and also price. We don't use kerosene heaters because it's kind of a pain to get the kerosene (and transport it home) and also we don't really have anywhere to store it.  Although sometimes, for the reason I describe below, I'm tempted to start using our kerosene heater in the hallway. None of these heating methods is perfect and they all have their advantages/disadvantages so I guess it's basically just a personal choice.

The reason I say I'm being kept a virtual prisoner in my living room is because it's the warmest spot in the house at the moment.  In order to cut down on our utility bills, we keep all the heaters in the house off except for the one in the living room/dining room/kitchen area (otherwise known in Japan as "LDK").  To keep that area warm, we also shut the sliding glass door.  The effect of keeping the door closed + no heating in the hallways mean that once you step outside the LDK area, it's almost as if you're standing outside the house, that's how cold it is.  When either of us has to do something outside the LDK area (like laundry or go upstairs or even use the bathroom), there's always a verbal "brrrr" that comes out of our mouth followed by the sound of running to quickly do whatever it was that needed to be done so we can get back to the warmth of the LDK.  This occurs in spite of the fact that I'm usually always bundled up clothing wise (on an average day I'll be wearing one, maybe two long sleeve shirts, athletic pants, furry socks and my house slippers).  Sounds silly, but it's the reality of Japanese living in the winter. And for a girl from Hawaii where it's almost always "80 degrees and partly sunny," these winters can be mighty brutal.