Friday, September 25, 2009

"Fish" Adventures and Hakone

I woke up fully rested and ready to start the day around 3am.

Preferring to keep Jen as a friend for the next 9 days, I waited until 5:45am to poke her and hiss, "Hey Jen. It's a quarter to 6. Can we wake up now?"

Because she is a morning person and also wonderful, Jen popped right up and attempted an energetic, "Sure!" before I turned on the fluorescent light and blinded our sleep-sticky eyes.

We'd wanted to get up early since we were headed to the Tsukiji fish market for a sushi breakfast; something Jen had wanted to try now that she was traveling with an adventurous eater. I was happy to not be the one planning everything and readily agreed, despite an uneasy, jet lagged stomach. We threw on some clothes and headed out the door. On our way to the train station, I caught sight of the golden poo atop the Asahi brewery building and snapped a photo for Andy (who is as mystified by the Japanese obsession with golden poo as I).

We were early enough (and conveniently at the end of a subway line) that we missed quite a bit of the commuter rush. We did get to see the strange and extremely orderly lines of people waiting for the trains.

That's the Japanese rail system for you. Not only are the trains ALWAYS, and I mean ALWAYS on time, they also stop in the exact same place so the lines are directly in front of the doors. I'd seen the videos of the people pushing onto the train like cattle, but didn't witness any of that firsthand. Everyone was very polite and orderly in their little lines and would even wait for the next train if one was too crowded! I've seen much worse after Cubs games and Lollapalooza in Chicago, so this was positively peaceful for me.

We walked around outside the fish market, my stomach a little queasy from the jet lag and weird eating schedule, but I powered through the fishy odors and we settled on a semi-popular and clean-looking sushi stall.

We reviewed the pictures and Jen went with a safe looking tuna and salmon sashimi combo. Feeling adventurous, I went with what looked like pieces of tuna with jalapeno and a fried egg on top. I think the egg and jalapenos are what sold me. Damn my love of Mexican breakfast foods!

If you're in my network of friends on a well known social networking site, you already know how this ends. For everyone else, The food came and I was a little confused by what was put in front of me. I'd had plenty of tuna before, and it never looked quite like this. It was lighter pink and had a weird, filmy coating on it. I mixed up the egg and took a bite.

This was not fish.

At least no fish I'd ever tasted before. I questioned Jen, and as she examined my bowl, she got a strange look on her face.

"I think it's chicken," she said.

"Um, excuse me? I thought this was a sushi restaurant!"

"Well, it is raw," she said.

Apparently, raw chicken with an egg on top (the whole family together again) is a semi-popular dish in Japan. The good friend that she is, Jenn tried it as well, thinking she might be able to eat it and trade her safe tuna and salmon sashimi for my bowl of salmonella. Alas, one bite is all she got down before pushing it away in disgust.

I went in one more time and needed a big gulp of miso soup to keep the second swallow from going in reverse.

Defeated, I ordered a bowl of tuna and salmon for myself since I knew my chopsticks weren't going anywhere near that chicken again.

Much better.

After our raw breakfast, we wandered around the stalls. I saw the "dried fish parts" Jen's always telling me about.

Apparently they're like bacon bits or croutons over there. Need a little something added to your meal? Dried fish parts!

If you look closely, you can see these are actually tiny dried fish. You can see their little eyes. I had some of these buggers cooked into some rice in Tahara.

It was not my favorite.

With the morning commute almost over and full of fish, we headed back to the trains to start our day trip out to Hakone. We enjoyed a variety of transportation including this train that crept up the mountain at about 10mph with a crazy amount of switchbacks, the view getting better the more we climbed.

Before getting on, though, we took a break and went to the Hakone Begonia garden to experience their onsen. While buying our pass inside, the woman wanted to MAKE SURE we knew that we knew we'd have to be naked to experience the hot springs. Apparently not all gaijin are so gung-ho about stripping down for a communal bath as I was.

No photos, of course, but wading in the steamy pools set in the mountainside with jungle-like trees all around us was definitely an amazing experience. I felt relaxed and refreshed after an hour of leisurely moving from pool to pool.

After all that hot water, I was a little dehydrated, so I had to perk up with some awesome ice cream back at the train station. It was the creamiest vanilla I've ever had--made with the cream from Hokkaidō cows.


Up the mountain we went!

We stopped for lunch at Gora before heading on up the funicular.

Yes, you read that correctly, Gyoza Center. With more types of gyoza than I could count and the home of the best and only crab gyoza I've ever tasted.

I could've eaten 4 plates of those suckers. Such a nice change from the raw chicken and sushi I'd fed my stomach that morning.

From there we were headed up the funicular. "Fun" is right there in the name, so how can it not be?

I'll tell you how. When you're sitting knee to knee with a teenage couple who can't keep their hands off each other and apparently forgot to use deodorant that morning. Then the window-locked funicular isn't so much fun as it is a suffocating box of humanity and body odor.

The views from the top were worth the short, uncomfortable ride.

After wandering about, we headed on to our next mildly-claustrophobic mode of transportation, the gondola! Hooray!

We rode up and over the mountains, swaying with the wind and entering into an area full of sulfur springs. The familiar smell of rotten eggs made me smile and Jenny's nose scrunch in disgust.

Not as pretty as the ones I'd just seen in Yellowstone--these springs were more "apocalyptic" than "prismatic".

You can buy magic eggs that are hardboiled in the springs, too. They're supposed to give you longer life and turn black during cooking from some sort of reaction with the sulfur. My stomach was still doing some flip-flops from the time traveling flight and raw food from the morning, so we passed. Even though Hello Kitty seriously wanted us to buy them.

It was pretty hazy and cloudy at this point in the day which meant bad news for our chances of seeing Mt. Fuji. Jen's still never seen it and has been dubbed "Cloudwoman" by her Japanese friends for all her bad luck. I didn't mind since we still got some pretty spectacular views from the cable car.

She cheered up a bit when she saw that our next mode of transportation around Hakone was going to be by pirate ship.

Try to ignore the guy behind us totally photobombing the shot.

There was a Japanese pirate, too, but you had to pay to have your photo taken with him and his beard was so sad, it looked like an old afro wig he taped to his face. Not very authentic.

The clouds were plentiful, so we didn't see Fuji, but they did make for some pretty cool photos.

After the boat, it was starting to get dark, and we were facing a 2-hour trip by bus and train back, so we hit the road.

We stopped off in Shinjuku to grab some dinner and see what we could see before heading back. Luckily, I got to see Tommy Lee Jones stumping for a local coffee drink.

Oh crazy celebrity Japanese advertisements, I don't understand you at all, but love you all the same.

Japanese people really respond to neon apparently. This is what I figured Tokyo would look like.

We eventually found a place with Japanese curry which was on my list of foods to try. (Yes, there was a list. And it may have had over 10 different items on it. And I may have hit almost all of them. Hold your applause, please.)

Jenny also added some tempura to my plate since she was a little hungry after eating a crazy bastardization of a bagel earlier in the day.

Everything was DEE-licious, though I was pretty hungry, so that might've skewed my experience slightly.

The jet lag was hitting me pretty hard at that point, so we decided to go home and rest up for a full day in Tokyo the next day.

If you guessed that I slept through the night finally? You'd be wrong.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Taking on Tokyo

I was a little nervous when heading out for my 13 hour flight last Saturday. I'd gotten up early, seen Andy off to the airport for his flight to Cleveland for another bachelor extravaganza and ridden the bike for 90 minutes to try and wear myself out so I could fall asleep at about 6:00pm.

Boarding the plane, I found my window seat and was happy to see the small (score!) Japanese man who would be my seatmate. He didn't speak English as far as I could tell, which was fine by me. I like a neighbor who is content to listen to the "Smooth" radio station and silently stare at the seat in front of him.

The Ambien prescribed by my doctor worked it's magic and after watching The Proposal (If you've seen the previews, you've seen the movie.) and an in-flight dinner that included sushi I was too nervous to eat, I was unconscious for a good 7 hours. Sleeping pills on airplanes are so much fun. Go to sleep not long after take off, wake up just before arrival. It's like teleporting!

I cleared customs and after taking a medical mask and a flyer on swine flu, I changed my dollars into yen and snuck up on Jen who was waiting for me at the other international arrivals exit. She gave me my own swine flu mask so I could fit in around the city.
I was totally smiling with my eyes. (And if you get that reference, we can be friends forever.)

Traveling through the very clean and awesomely organized train system, was fun. I think they'd be pretty easy for most Americans to figure out. Plus, I didn't see nearly as many crazy people hanging out on them as I had in Europe or Chicago. Japan must have an insanity detector in their ticket machines. One more victory for Japanese technology!

See the guy in the background with the mask? Told ya I'd fit in.

After a couple transfers, we arrived in Asakusa and our ryokan for the next three nights.

Jenny had stayed at this and other ryokans before, so she was prepared for the tatami floors and futons, but I was not. I kept forgetting to take off my shoes and used the down blanket as a cushion rather than cover since the floors in Japan are just as hard as they are in America.

After settling in (re: throwing my suitcase in the room), we headed out to find some food, but not before I checked out the bathrooms and Japan's legendary toilets.

This one was pretty tame and while I didn't try any of the buttons for fear I'd shoot myself through the ceiling, I found the heated seat was quite nice on chilly mornings.

In the streets of Asakusa, Jenny let me in on her secret ability to sniff out quality restaurants wherever she may be. This came in handy quite a few times on the trip.

After perusing many storefronts filled with plastic models of the food served within, we settled on a ramen shop where I could learn to slurp my noodles like a true Japanese girl should. (Full, detailed post on all food in Japan is coming, don't worry.)

See how much better Jenny looks than me? She's had 2 years of practice! I kept breathing in too much air and giving myself the hiccups.

Full of noodles, wontons, soup and shu mai, we set out to explore the temple down the street and the park next to it. I give you Sensō-ji... or at least the gate leading into it.

The temple was closed, but everything was lit up so we could take photos.

Pagoda. I have no idea what these are for and neither did Jenny, but it didn't stop me from asking her.

We walked through the gardens next to the temple which had paths lined with hand-painted lanterns.

And I saw my first Buddha!

It was the first of many, many Buddhas, but I was pretty psyched.

We wandered around through the streets some more until finding an ice cream shop that included spinach and beer in its flavor selection. We settled on Japanese pumpkin for Jen and Earl Grey Tea for me.

We chose wisely. After agreeing to come back for the beer ice cream at a later date, we headed home so I could finally get some sleep. I was super tired and ready to collapse on the floor, snug in my futon until the next morning.

Or until 3am...

which is what actually happened.

Adventures in breakfast at the Tsukiji fish market (see that word FISH? Remember that.) and a day trip to Hakone awaited us.

Monday, September 21, 2009

Welcomed Home!

After a 12 hour flight back, I walked off the airplane to find Andy waiting for me with these

and these!

We also saw Eliza Dushku, but I'm pretty sure he didn't arrange for that.

Long night of unpacking, cheesecake brownie eating, storytelling and lots of television ahead!

Friday, September 11, 2009


Finally accepting the fact that I'm getting on a plane to Japan tomorrow.

A little weirded out by how fast it snuck up on me, but totally psyched for an amazing adventure with Jen.

I've been packed for 2 days and even though my bag's only 3/4 full, I'm making a vow to take out three things once I get home.

The two packages of Starburst to give out as omiyage and the 4 travel packs of tissues for crazy Japanese toilets are non-negotiable.

I'm already feeling a bit homesick before even leaving--my face buried in Milo's fur a little longer than normal this morning. The trip out and the trip back are usually the only times I feel this way. In between I'm usually too busy taking photos, wandering and being perhaps a bit too aggressive in my enthusiasm for adventure.

I've got my sleeping pill handy for the 13 hour flight, so I'm pretty much set. Well, as ready as I can be for not knowing a word of the language or skimming through some travel books from the library. See you in 10 days!

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Corn, Sweet Corn

When Chicago's weather took a turn for the 60's, I momentarily retreated into my soup-making ways and caramelized a pot of onions, threw in some wine, beef and chicken stock, threw in some toasted bread and broiled some cheese on top. I react in strange and delicious ways to changes in the weather, I'll admit.

My first batch of french onion soup actually went over quite well and the four custard dishes I bought at the outlet stores were officially deemed "useful" rather than "frivolous". (Soon to be "sublime" after I get around to America's Test Kitchen's chocolate souffle!)

The unbelievably simple recipe for the soup was borrowed from The Pioneer Woman. Go try it if you're feeling a little down about Fall's early onset.

This week I was determined to get my hands on some sweet corn since I all but missed the season last year. Luckily, our CSA supplied us with 5 ears and some killer tomatoes. Right around the same time, my much adored, Smitten Kitchen posted a recipe for tomato corn pie.

I was sold, but when I scrolled down to the ingredients, the 1/3 cup mayonnaise gave me pause. Yep, I've never baked a pie in my life and the one thing I worried about is one of the most common ingredients in American refrigerators.

I'm not sure what it is about mayonnaise. The texture, the color (or lack thereof), or the creamy tanginess that puts me off. My most memorable and horrific "dare" from childhood sleepovers was when my sister and her friend tried to get me to eat a pretzel dipped in mayonnaise. It may sound harmless, but choking on that gloppy, creamy mess haunted my taste buds for years. I've only recently been able to take a light smear of mayo on sandwiches.

I pushed through my fear, having cooked with mayo recently and finding it palatable when masked by a list of other ingredients.

Using a food processor to make the dough and Andy to help chop, slice and dice, we put this baby together in under an hour. Luckily we'd seen Alton Brown peeling tomatoes the night before on Good Eats, so sailing into that uncharted territory went incredibly smoothly.

Andy gave this a solid B and I'd go with a B+, though we both had seconds. It tasted a bit too acidic to me, and I would reduce the lemon juice if making it again. Trying it the next day afer reheating in the toaster oven, though, I'd rate it as an A- or a solid A. The flavors blended much better after sitting overnight and the weird acidity I experienced was gone. I did peel, seed and squeeze the excess juice from our tomatoes because I don't like a soggy bottom crust, which worked well.

I'd make this again, but would probably play around with the filling a bit more. The buttery, biscuit pie crust was amazing, with Andy and I fighting for last bites of the crust. If you've got the ingredients in season (read: right now!), it's a great one to try.

Tomato Corn Pie
2 cups all-purpose flour
1 tablespoon baking powder
1 3/4 teaspoons salt, divided
3/4 stick (6 tablespoons or 3 ounces) cold unsalted butter, cut into 1/2-inch cubes, plus 2 teaspoons melted
3/4 cup whole milk
1/3 cup mayonnaise
2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice (I'd use just one if serving immediately)
1 3/4 pounds beefsteak tomatoes
1 1/2 cups corn (from about 3-4 ears), coarsely chopped, divided
2 tablespoons finely chopped basil, divided
1 tablespoon finely chopped chives, divided
1/4 teaspoon black pepper, divided
7ounces coarsely grated sharp Cheddar (1 3/4 cups), divided

Whisk together flour, baking powder, and 3/4 tsp salt in a bowl, then blend in cold butter (3/4 stick) with your fingertips or a pastry blender (or in the food processor) until it resembles coarse meal. Add milk, stirring until mixture just forms a dough, then gather into a ball.

Divide dough in half and roll out one piece on a well-floured counter or between two sheets of plastic wrap into a 12-inch round (about an 1/8 inch thick). Transfer it into a 9-inch pie plate and gently unfold and center it or, if you’re using the plastic warp method, remove top sheet of plastic wrap, then lift dough using bottom sheet of plastic wrap and invert into pie plate. Pat the dough in with your fingers trim any overhang.

Preheat oven to 400°F with rack in middle, and put the second half of the dough in the refrigerator until you’re ready to use it. Whisk together mayonnaise and lemon juice.

Cut an X in bottom of each tomato and blanch in a large pot of boiling water 15 seconds. Immediately transfer with a slotted spoon to an ice bath to cool. Peel tomatoes, then slice crosswise 1/4 inch thick and, if desired (for a non-slimy bottom crust), gently remove seeds and extra juices. Arrange half of tomatoes in crust, overlapping, and sprinkle with half of corn, one tablespoon basil, 1/2 tablespoon chives, 1/2 teaspoon salt, 1/8 teaspoon pepper and one cup of grated cheese. Repeat layering with remaining tomatoes, corn, basil, chives, salt, and pepper. Pour lemon mayonnaise over filling and sprinkle with remaining cheese.

Roll out remaining piece of dough into a 12-inch round in same manner, then fit over filling, folding overhang under edge of bottom crust and pinching edge, decoratively if you must, to seal. Cut 4 steam vents in top crust and brush crust with melted butter (2 teaspoons). Bake pie until crust is golden and filling is bubbling, 30 to 35 minutes, then cool on a rack. Serve warm or at room temperature.

Do ahead (which I recommend): Pie can be baked 1 day ahead and chilled. Reheat in a 350°F oven until warm, about 30 minutes.