Monday, April 30, 2012

A Day In Tokyo: Harajuku and Meiji Shrine

After my friend and I were done in Odaiba, we got back on the train and made our way to Harajuku Station.  Our plan was to make our way down Takeshita Street, check out Omotesando Hills and finish with Meiji Shrine which is basically right next to the station (also on the list was to find somewhere to eat along the way).  I had been to Takeshita Street once a few weeks prior but I didn't have time to walk down the whole thing. That last time had been in the afternoon on a Friday so the street was aleady packed, but this time it was slightly before noon on a Tuesday which allowed for a more leisurely stroll down this Harajuku hot spot.  For a second we considered getting crepes at the infamous Marion Crepes since there was no line (which is a rare event) but we had just had soft serve ice cream back at Odaiba and also we were a little overwhelmed by all the choices at Marion Crepes. 

We continued down Takeshita Street and we also hit Cat Street where we found some really cool shops (one of them had tons of hats).  Then we went into Omotesando Hills where I thought perhaps we could find a place to have lunch. At the time, I didn't know that Omotesando Hills was a super upscale mall, but I soon found out.  Architecturally, it's really cool but shopping-wise, I can't really say....I mean, I don't think I could even afford to buy truffles from the French chocolate store. We took a quick stroll around the top floor where all the restaurants were located but as we didn't feel like spending a small fortune on lunch, we decided to walk around the area and find someplace else.  I think it was fate that as we happened to be crossing a street, I turned my head and recognized the sign for Ichiran Ramen. There were no ifs ands or buts about it, we headed straight there.  My friend loved the "cubicle eating" experience and this time around, since I knew what to expect, I was a bit more adventurous with the customization of my ramen.  In any case, it totally hit the spot.

The great thing about ramen is that even though you're full, it's a pleasant full (not a disgusting I want to vomit kind of full).  It was already late in the afternoon so we made our way to Meiji Shrine which was just a short ways up the road.  Meiji Jingu is a Shinto shrine dedicated to Emperor Meiji and Empress Shoken. It was originally established in 1920 but the original shrine buildings burnt down in 1945.  The buildings that exist today were built in approximately 1958 (see their website for more info on the shrine at Meiji Jingu Website).  The shrine is located in a forest that covers approximately 175 acres and includes over 120,000 trees which were donated by people from all over Japan when the shrine was first established.  It is also consistently listed as one of the top spots to visit in Tokyo, so there is generally always a good amount of foot traffic in and out of the shrine grounds.

Literally as soon as we passed through the Torii gate (the main entrance) of the shrine, there was this really loud rumbling sound which turned out to be thunder.  We looked up and the skies had really darkened so we figured we should probably hurry it up.  Usually visitors come here to take a leisurely stroll through the grounds but the skies were dark and depressing and we didn't want to get caught in the rain so we did a quick tour of the grounds.  I had taken Japanese History in college which was, needless to say, a long time ago, but my memory was definitely refreshed as I read the information they had posted around the grounds on Emperor Meiji and the path the country took during his time as emperor (i.e., the Meiji Restoration).  We also got to see a wedding party right after they finished their ceremony, so that was pretty cool.  I ended my trip to Meiji Jingu by purchasing some charms and then practically sprinting back toward the exit (and Harajuku Station) just as the rain started coming down.

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Sushi Sakura Style

As I mentioned previously, during sakura season (cherry blossom) here in Japan, sakura literally becomes the center of attention in terms of products, flavors, foods, themes and activities.  So when my friend asked me if I was interested in joining her (and her other friends) for a sushi making class in Yokohama with a sakura theme, I thought nothing of it except to say that I would go.  I had never made sushi before so I thought it would be an interesting experience.  I was a little nervous that I would be awful at it - in a conversation with my mom a few days before the class, I told her that my sushi was probably going to come out very ugly.  She asked me why I would say that and my response was "mom, I can't even make nice looking spam musubi." 

A few days before the class, my friend messaged me and told me that I needed to bring with me an apron, a bandana, a dish towel and a container for the finished product. I didn't have an apon or a bandana, and I initially panicked and wondered where I was going to get them, BUT then I realized my favorite place in the world, The Daiso would probably have exactly what I needed. I already had a container and dish towel, but come on, stuff is ONLY 100 yen at The Daiso (plus, it was Hello Kitty AND I also wanted my stuff to be color coordinated in pink, since pink is the color of sakura).

The class was held at a community center in Yokohama in a room that was obviously meant for cooking classes.  We got there a little early and the class before us was just finishing up so we got to see the fruits of their labor - our class was making rolls but their class had made nigiri.  Everyone was really friendly and helped us get the supplies and ingredients we were going to need for our class (bamboo roller, plastic measuring mat, knife, plastic wrap, plastic gloves).  The sushi rice was already made so all we had to do was weigh out exactly how much rice we would need for our individual rolls.

The class started out with everyone going up to the front of the class and watching the teacher do (and simultaneously explain) a few steps.  I thought that having the mirror above the teacher's area was particularly helpful because there would often be people in front of me (and since I'm short, I couldn't exactly see what was going on). As soon as she was done with her explanation, everyone would run back to their stations and do the steps we had just learned.

The instructions given by the teacher were entirely in Japanese, but luckily someone in our group was fluent in Japanese and was able to translate the directions.  Plus, the teachers (and the aides) would go around the room monitoring the progress and assisting those who needed help.  It seemed like one of them was always kind of hovering around our table which I didn't mind at all because I'll be honest, I kind of needed the help (plus a lot of the women in the class seemed like they had already taken these classes before and knew what they were doing).

It was a very cool process though.  To get the rice pink, we used some sort of food coloring that was also cherry blossom flavored (go figure) and the wrap around the roll was tamago (egg) instead of nori.  There was such a feeling of suspense (and for me, anxiety) when you roll the sushi and then cut it in half at which point you find out whether you have the shape/image you were going for, or you just have a blob of rice and vegetables. Mine was somewhere in the middle.  From far away you can kind of tell that it's a cherry blossom tree but I sort of messed up on one part so the trunk didn't turn out as "trunky" as it should've been.  Oh well, at least it wasn't as much of a disaster as I thought it was going to be, and I totally had fun in the process. Next class on my list, making sushi pandas!

Monday, April 23, 2012

To Odaiba And Back

One of the things that has been on my "things I want to do" list was to check out Odaiba, so when another friend of mine came to town recently, I suggested we stop there on our way to Harajuku.  Odaiba is a man made island in Tokyo Bay that has developed into a popular destination amongst locals and tourists. It has a somewhat interesting history -it was originally built in the 1850's for defensive purposes.  Later there were attempts to expand/develop the island but development slowed in the mid 90's and didn't pick up again until the late 90's.  Today, Odaiba is well known for its futuristic look - illustrative of this look is the Fuji Television Building, which is the headquarters of Fuji Television and which some call the landmark of Odaiba.  At the time I didn't know what that crazy boat thing was, but I have since learned it is the Himiko Ferry that travels between Asakusa and Odaiba.

The Rainbow Bridge connects Tokyo and Odaiba, and you can get across the bridge by car, elevated railway system (the Yurikamome line) or by foot.  Since I wasn't about to drive to Tokyo and I didn't really feel like walking across the bridge, we caught the train there (I got the sense that walking across the Rainbow Bridge  just doesn't hold the same appeal as, say walking across the Golden Gate Bridge).  Actually, the Yurikamome Line while technically a train is more like a  monorail and is a fully automated system controlled by computers.

It's evident almost immediately why Odaiba is such a popular destination - there is literally something for everyone here - there are business, hotels, shopping, restaurants, parks, museums and entertainment complexes.  Odaiba has several shopping/entertainment type plazas, but the ones closest to the train station are Aquacity and Decks Tokyo Beach. Since we got there so early, many of the businesses weren't open yet, so we did the tourist thing and took pictures of the Goddess of Democracy statue (basically a replica of the Statue of Liberty), walked down the length of Aquacity and Decks Tokyo Bay and then checked out Odaiba Seaside Park (I think this park goes by other names as well).  It seemed really quiet and peaceful when we were there (although there were tons of people taking pictures of the Goddess of Democracy), but I bet it gets really crowded during the summer. 

Odaiba Seaside Park runs along the water and has a great view of the Rainbow Bridge and the rest of Tokyo. Like I said, I think it goes by other names, and probably some consider it a beach since it does have artificial sand. To give it even more of a beachy feel, there is a "Hawaiian Restaurant and a huge shop where you can rent paddleboards and kayaks.  As we walked along the "beach" portion my friend and I looked at each other and both commented that there's really no way we would ever go in that water (which didn't look as bad as the Ala Wai Canal but, well you get my point).  I have since learned that swimming is not allowed (for obvious reasons such as pollution), but you are allowed to paddleboard and kayak there (hence the shop that rents paddleboards and kayaks).  Personally, I don't think I would risk paddleboarding or kayaking in that water for fear of falling in.

There were other things on our agenda for the day so we headed back to the train station. I definitely plan to come back and check out the museums and other attractions (plus I bet the Rainbow Bridge at night is really pretty).  So stay tuned for Odaiba Part 2 - probably relatively soon since it's approaching that time of year here where getting me to leave my house (and more importantly, the air conditioning in my house) during the day becomes nearly impossible.

Thursday, April 19, 2012

Want Some Tea & Creme Brule With Your Lotion? Try L'Occitane Cafe In Shibuya

As I mentioned in the prevoius blog about ramen, I was in Shibuya a few weeks ago with some friends who were visiting.  My friend Ryan had printed out some travel information, including a list of things that one should check out while in Shibuya.  One of the things on the list was the L'Occitane Cafe. Perhaps you're thinking that L'Occitane is a store that sells body/skin care products and that you've never heard of L'Occitane having a restaurant or serving food?  Well, that's because the L'Occitane Cafe in Shibuya is their only cafe worldwide.  According to the travel guide's description, it's known for its convenient, spacious and relaxing atmosphere and for its "safe" dishes which are made with organic ingredients.  After walking around Shibuya, we had worked back up an appetite (well to be honest, even if I'm full, I can usually always make room for dessert) so we decided to see what all the hype was about.

L'Occitane Cafe occupies the 2nd and 3rd floors directly above the L'Occitane Store which is located at the famed Shibuya Crossing (across from the equally famous Starbucks).  It was definitely a little weird walking through a shop with skincare/beauty products in order to get to a cafe, but whatever, I went with it.  In order to access the stairs to the Cafe, you have to walk through the shop - but now that I'm thinking about it, perhaps that was intentional to get you to stop and look at their products, in which case it's brilliant (and in fact, as we were leaving, someone in our group ended up buying stuff from the shop). 

I will say, the atmosphere really was relaxing and quite spacious (well, for as far as Tokyo establishments go anyway), and it had a great view of the crossing. We had no trouble getting a table (and actually, the entire 3rd floor was empty) but this probably had something to do with the fact that it was during the week and not at a peak eating time. I was under the impression that they only served desserts, but they also serve breakfast (mostly sandwich type things) and lunch.  People at tables around us had ordered real food and everything I saw looked really good.  But we were there for dessert so I didn't bother to look at the food menu too carefully.  Now, the drink/dessert menu was a different story....

The special of the month was creme brule with fruits and ice cream (strawberry) and from the picture it looked delicious, so I knew that's what I was having.  Since I was already having an actual dessert, I decided to go with tea as my drink rather than one of the dessert drinks. No matter though, Ryan ordered the cocounut drink so I got to taste it.  I wouldn't go out of my way to order something coconut, but I have to say, that drink/dessert was really good.  It had coconut ice cream, ice and milk tea, and the combination was delicious (it got better as the ice melted into smaller chunks).  The creme brule was perfect and exactly how I like it; the presentation was impeccable and looked exactly as it did in the picture, which is something I have become accustomed to here in Japan (I'll probably be in for a rude awakening when we move).  I certainly wasn't blown away by this Cafe, but if you're in the area it's a cool spot to chill, grab some dessert and watch all the craziness down below at the crossing.

Friday, April 13, 2012

Adventures in Ramen: Ichiran Ramen in Shibuya

Ramen eating is serious business here in Japan.  It is one of Japan's most well known and popular foods - perhaps even more so than sushi. I love them both, so living in Japan is a dream for me. Before I moved here, one of my besties and I would eat dinner at Goma Tei in Honolulu every chance we got.  I realize now that I was fairly ignorant about ramen and the fact that there are so many different types and different aspects to it.  I'm still no expert, but I feel like I know a little more than I did before.  For example, the different regions in Japan have their own unique ramen style based on the type of soup/broth used (e.g., miso, shoyu, shio).  There's even a whole museum dedicated to ramen in Yokohama, but that's a post for another day (if you're interested, here's the website: Shin-Yokohama Ramen Museum. There are a few things about ramen consumption in Japan that are common to most places: (1) you order by machine: (2) ramen restaurants are generally not meant for socializing; (3) it is perfectly acceptable to slurp your ramen (sometimes it seems like the louder the better). 

I met some friends visiting in Tokyo earlier in the week and the first thing on their list of things they wanted to do was check out Shibuya.  None of us had eaten as of yet so that was our priority upon getting to Shibuya.  Someone found Ichiran Ramen on Tripadvisor and since it had good ratings, we headed there.  However, we almost had a totally different experience because initially we walked into the wrong place (both places had "ichi" in the name) but after looking at the menu above the vending machine, we were pretty sure we were in the wrong spot - this place was very fast foody looking and served what appeared to be more donburi type dishes.  So, after all 5 of us turned around and walked out, I saw another sign with "ichi" in the name and promptly led us down the stairs (I should've known it was downstairs - underground restaurants usually end up being the best ones).

As I mentioned, ordering at ramen establishments takes place by way of a vending machine. Basically you select and pay for all the things you want - i.e., your ramen, extra condiments for your ramen, gyoza perhaps, a drink if they offer them.  Some places will have their menu items listed in Japanese AND English AND/OR will at least have a picture of the item (if not, then you pretty much just guess and hope for the best).  Once you put the correct amount of Yen in the machine, it spits out a ticket which you present when you sit down.  When I first looked at the choices on the machine, I was a little skeptical because there was only one option for ramen (usually, there are at least 2-3 different options), so I wasn't really sure what I was going to get.  As I waited for the rest of the group to finish ordering, I took a peek around the corner to look at the seating area.  What I saw was a row of cubicle looking seating - I had heard about ramen establishments like this where you don't talk to anyone and it's really all about just eating your ramen.  This was clearly a serious ramen joint, so I was excited.

Everything you would need to enjoy this meal is right there in your cubicle area - water dispenser, a pen to complete the customization form and a buzzer to let them know you need something or when you are finished.  As soon as I sat down, I was instructed by the guy on the other side of the counter to complete the form so they could prepare my ramen according to how I wanted it.  The form was pretty intense (thankfully it was in English); it was almost like taking a test except there were really no wrong answers.  Ichiran allows you to customize your ramen based on the following  (1) flavor strength; (2) richness (fat content); (3) amount of garlic; (4) amount of green onions; (5) whether I wanted roast pork in it; (6) how spicy I wanted it; and (7) how hard/soft I wanted the noodles.  Also, I had the option of whether I wanted to add egg,  mushrooms and a variety of other condiments.  After I completed the form, the bamboo shade was dropped to ensure maximum privacy - like I said, this was a serious ramen joint.

As per usual, it only took 10 minutes before my steaming bowl of ramen was put in front of my face. Although we were talking to each other up to this point (and not really abiding by the "don't talk" policy), once our food came, you could hear crickets. So how was it?  I thought it was really yummy and I loved the fact that you could customize the ramen to your specifically tastes (and now I know why there was only one option on the vending machine), BUT I prefer my ramen to have a bigger/thicker piece of pork in it.  Everyone has their own preferences when it comes to ramen and in fact some people that I know (I'm not going to name names ) are very adamant about which restaurant/establishment has the best ramen.  Anyway, back to what I was saying, people have their own preferences based generally on one or more of these : (1) broth; (2) noodles; and (3) meat. Some people may not think the meat is an important part, but I am not one of them. While Ichiran was definitely a winner, unless I happen to be in Tokyo, I'll stick with my hubby's fave down here in Kamakura (we don't know the name because we can't read the kanji).

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Hanami 2012

In case you didn't know, it's sakura (cherry blossom) season in Japan - i.e., that amazing time of year when the country is covered in a sea of pink/white and hanami parties are all the rage.  During this time of year, cherry blossom flavored/themed products are all over the place - lotions, perfume, sake, wine, desserts, tea, etc.  The literal meaning of hanami is "flower viewing," and over time it has come to refer specifically to the Japanese tradition of enjoying the beauty of cherry blossoms.  These days, it also means getting together with your friends in a park or other scenic place (with sakura trees) to eat, drink and be merry.  I wrote a guest blog post on sakura season on the blog Fun, Food & Travel and it can be found here: Springtime In Japan Is A Fabulous Time To Visit .  How good sakura season is and whether you can actually partake in sakura/hanami festivities is all about timing and weather.  From the time the flowers reach full bloom, they only last about a week.  If there's bad weather near the blossoming time, that can also affect the timing and length the sakura are around - for example, last Tuesday we had a typhoon, which could easily have ruined sakura season this year (but it didn't). 

Last Friday I happened to be in Yoyogi Park in Tokyo with my friend.  Yoyogi Park, which is one of the largest parks in Tokyo, has approximately 600 sakura trees throughout. It was still early in the day (not quite noon) but it was great because I got to observe a private hanami party firsthand (and not the crazy loud partying type with tons of people) - I saw a small group of people look for a spot, pick their spot and then set up their blue tarp (during sakura season, the blue tarp is a necessity).  They were dressed in work attire so I'm assuming they were using their lunch break to have a hanami was very endearing! While there are certainly other more scenic spots and spots that have more trees, Yoyogi Park is nonetheless an extremely popular place to have a hanami party. Apparently several thousand people were at Yoyogi Park over the weekend (people were even bussed in).
My other friends and I had also made plans to have an informal hanami party this past Sunday.  We didn't feel like going all the way to Tokyo, so we stayed in the Yokohama area.  We got lucky because it was a beautiful day to have a hanami party - even though it was still in the mid 50s, the sun was shining so it made it feel warmer.  We got off the train and walked through a popular sakura path along a river to get to the subway station in order to catch the train we needed to get to our final destiination.  There were people everywhere and food vendors lining the was almost like a carnival or a fair without any rides (although there were stands which had games for kids).  At first we walked along without buying any food, but as we went along, we just couldn't resist.  It started with someone buying candied strawberries, which then led to the cream filled pancakes, which led to grilled chicken skin, then it was yakisoba, then it was takoyaki (well, you get the point).  By the time we reached the end of the path, we were well stocked with food.

After a short subway ride, we reached our intended park/destination. Again, there were people and blue tarps everywhere (seriously, I think the whole country comes out for sakura season).  I think we were all really hungry because we picked the first open spot we saw, which was on somewhat of a steep incline - but no matter, we ate our lunch and loved it.  After we were done, a chu-hi run was in order, as there was a convenience store right across the street (that's kind of a silly statement since 9 tines out of 10 there will be a convenience store right across the street).  With chu-his in hand, we took a stroll around the park -  there were children playing on the jungle gyms, people flying kites, playing baseball, jumping rope, and generally having a good time.  There was so much energy and laugher everywhere that you really couldn't help but have fun.  We came relatively unprepared, but thanks to our friend Mio who had just met up with us, we were able to set up camp with our own blue tarp. Mio brought more food and I brought some sweets, so we sat down for Round 2.  When it started getting chilly, we packed up and headed for the Taproom, one of our favorite hangouts.  Even though we were all still stuffed from Rounds 1 and 2, the Taproom has awesome beer, barbeque and the best pecan pie....needless to say, we sat down for Round 3.

Thursday, April 5, 2012

Adventures In Furniture: My Trip To IKEA Kohoku

The current state of the guest room
One thing that has been bugging me since we moved into our house is the fact that our guest bedroom remains unfurnished.  Every time I walk past it (which is several times a day since it's across from my bedroom) and see the emptiness and empty boxes littering it, I wince.  Sure, I could just close the door, but I prefer not to do that.The guest bedroom had fallen in terms of priority, but with summer approaching I wanted to clean it up and and make it less of an eyesore. So, after many months, I finally decided I was really going to furnish our guest bedroom with the hope that one day soon we'll actually have some guests to use the new furniture (hint hint to my family and friends). 

I had been periodically checking the NEX furniture store to see if they had anything I liked (and within my budget), but most of their stuff is so big and bulky (or chunky as I like to say).  I knew there was an IKEA in Yokohama and one of my friends that lives down the street just furnished her home with stuff from there so I decided to check it out.  Having lived in Seattle and California, I had shopped at IKEA many times so I knew the drill.  In anticipation of the IKEA shopping experience, I went online and went through the catalog and basically picked out the pieces I wanted to get pending my in person viewing.

That morning I did a few things which I do every morning before I get out of bed - check the weather and the Yen rate.  The weather report said it was going to rain much later in the day and the currency exchange site said the Yen rate was down (or up, depending on how you look at it - all I know is that it was going to cost me more $$ today than the day before).  As soon as I sat down on the train, I pulled out my iphone to check my email and was greeted by an email from Rich forwarding an email from the Base Command notifying us that destructive winds were expected within 12 hours (i.e., a typhoon).  I figured I still had 12 hours, so I continued on to IKEA.  I got off at the Shin-Yokohama station and made my way to the IKEA bus stop (it wasn't hard since there are signs in conspicuous locations throughout the station directing you) - that's right, IKEA has its own bus that takes customers to/from the train station. 

I had barely even gotten into the store when I got another forwarded email from Rich stating that the winds were now expected within 2 hours. Ugh!  But I had come all this way and I was determined to get my furniture.  So I continued on with the intention of just getting what I came for, but if you've ever been through IKEA, you know they make it hard for you to do that by practically forcing you to walk through the showroom.  Of course I'm a sucker and I get sucked in and rather than head straight for what I need, I went through the whole damn store looking at everything (although at the end of the day, I am proud to say I left with exacty what was on my list). 

At first I was nervous about how I was going to get all of my items onto the cart by myself and then try and set up delivery.  Thankfully I found a very friendly staffperson, and with her help and my passable Japanese skills, I was able to get an itemized list of my pieces (with specific aisle and shelf information) and schedule home delivery.  After that, I raced downstairs to pick everything up (except for the bedframe and mattress, which luckily I didn't have to get myself).  Initially I had wanted to grab lunch in the restaurant/cafe and shop around their food store but with the typhoon fast approaching, I decided to get the hell out of Dodge and hightail it home.  By the time I got on the IKEA bus back to the train station, it had already started raining and the trains were packed with people trying to get home.  Even though the train ride home was miserable because we were packed in like sardines, I was happy because I had accomplished my mission (and within the budget my  husband gave me). I also made it home before the crazy winds started (and which kept me up all night irrationally afraid that the windows that didn't have typhoon shutters on them were going to shatter in a million pieces on me while I slept).  Now my impatient self just has to wait until next week before my stuff is delivered.  To be continued....

Wednesday, April 4, 2012

50 Reasons Tokyo Is The World's Greatest City

Ok let me start by saying that the title of this blog post is not something I came up with myself (and it does not even necessarily reflect my own sentiments); it's the title of a CNNGo article I recently came across online.  I found it amusing and I also agreed with a lot of what they said (as much of it applies not only to Tokyo but to much of Japan in general), so I thought I would share it.  The article can be found here in case you want to read the whole thing: 50 reasons why Tokyo is the world's greatest city , but here are a few of the "reasons" I liked the best (or which stood out to me the most).

The world's most sophisticated railways (#1) - I have to say, the train system in Japan is impressive.  There are above ground trains, subways, bullet name it, they have it.  What's more, some of the major stations have all three, so all you have to do is catch an elevator up or down (sometimes way way up or down) if your final destination requires a connection on one of the other rail systems. The sheer number of "lines" and stations (and people all racing to make their train) can be daunting to a traveler that is not used to the system, but think about it this way - if 6 year old children can navigate the railways by themselves (it's quite a common occurrence here to see children riding alone), so can you!

Highway rest stops are destinations (#20) - I laughed when I saw that this was one of the items on the list, because this is one of the things Rich and I commented on the first time we experienced a Japanese rest stop.  I have not been to Umi-hotaru, the rest stop mentioned in the article, but I have been to other rest stops in Japan, and all of them have been way more elaborate than any rest stop I had ever been to before. The first time Rich and I went on a "road trip" here was the end of last summer when we went to an IndyCar race at Motegi Racetrack.  Since Motegi is about a 5 hour drive north from Yokosuka, the MWR bus had to leave base at 5 a.m. (which I thought was ridiculous at the time) in order to make it to the track on time.  After the first 5 minutes on the bus, I promptly fell asleep and was awakened 2.5 hours later when we arrived at the rest stop.  My first thought was:  woah, this is a rest stop?  There was a Starbucks, about 50 vending machines and a restaurant - and everything was really nice (even the bathrooms were ridiculously clean for being a rest stop). 

The next rest stop I encountered was even bigger and nicer - it had even more vending machines, a full blown food court with fast food type stands as well as actual restaurants, a convenience store and specialty stores (in case you forgot to get omiyage from wherever you were coming from).  The thing is that every rest stop I've been to has always been packed with buses, cars and people.  I'm guessing that because people have to drive such far distances to get around, that's the reason Japan has such elaborate rest stops.  Whatever the reason, I think they're great and it makes stopping so much more pleasant.

Bat's what's up (#23) - Omg, before I  moved here, I had no idea there were so many bats around, but I soon found out! Shortly after our furniture and other stuff we had shipped to Japan was delivered to our house (before I arrived in Japan), our friend Bryan helped Rich move some of our furniture into various parts of our house.  One night after I got to Japan, Rich said that Bryan asked if I had met our new pet.  I was confused because we didn't have any pets per se.  He started laughing and said, yeah he wanted to know if you met our pet BAT.  Apparently at around dusk, Bryan was oustide of our house and saw something flying around near the top of the lamp post next to our front deck (fyi, the top of the lamp post is right outside my bedroom window) - at first he thought it was a bird, but then he realized it was a bat.  A few nights later, when we were heading to catch the train, I DID in fact see the bat, which apparently likes our lamp post.  Later, when we were at the train station waiting for the train, I saw tons of bats flying around in the sky - it kinda grossed me out, but at it made me feel better knowing that my house probably isn't the only one with a pet bat. :)  I haven't seen the bat since it's been winter, but now that summer is fast approaching, I'm guessing the bat will make its appearance soon.

Cocktails are maniacally fresh (#46) - See my post about the Pine Sour where I described how they juiced an actual pineapple at our table and then poured it over the Chu Hi (Pine Sour Anyone?)...enough said.