Thursday, July 24, 2014

[travels] Japan Winter Travel 2013 -- Itinerary

Japan is one of my favorite places in the world. When I heard my brother was planning to go, I bought my plane ticket on a whim. Since I had purchased a JR Rail Pass for two weeks, I knew I had to make good use of it! Prior to the trip, I figured out what major cities I wanted to visit so at the very least I knew what city I would be in every day. I jotted down a few vague ideas in my 'notes' app on my phone about specific places I wanted to check out... but nothing too comprehensive. I ended up figuring out most of my activities on the fly by using Time Out Tokyo and my phone web browser while walking around aimlessly.  If you are travelling over the New Year's holiday, be sure to book your 'reserved seating' train tickets 2 weeks in advance if possible... practically everyone in Japan is travelling home to celebrate the new year.



Day 1 (in the air)

  • SFO to Tokyo flight... watched the Life of Pi movie and screamed at the part when the tiger jumped out of the tented area on the boat, startling my neighbors on the plane.


Day 2 (Tokyo)

  • Arrived to Tokyo, met a few interesting plane mates including a shoe designer and a girl named Eriko, that looked like a real-life anime character. She was adorable!
  • Picked up and activated my 14 day JR Rail Pass at Airport and navigated my way (got lost) to the hostel.
  • Activated my mobile hotspot upon arriving to the hostel and was determined to find ramen.
  • First bowl of tonkotsu ramen at Kagetsu (10 minute walk from the hostel)
  • Lodging: Khaosan Tokyo Ninja Hostel -- small dorm rooms, but fantastic common areas!




Day 3 (Tokyo)

  • Woke up bright and early to see the Meiji Jingu and followed a friendly exchange student to pay respects to the Hachiko Dog statue in Shibuya. Read his story...it will move you!!
  • Explored Tokyo with my sweet friend Akira, whom I had met in college during her exchange program.
  • Shibuya D47 Museum - revolving exhibition themes that represent Japan’s 47 prefectures. I highly recommend this if you want a cultural deep-diving experience.
  • Roppongi Hills: an impressive 54 story tower with an observation deck, the Mori Art Museum, a giant spider called "Maman" by French artist Louise Bourgeoise,  luxury shopping, and dining.
  • Katsu donburi for dinner
  • Lodging: Khaosan Tokyo Ninja Hostel





Day 4 (Nagasaki)

  • Tokyo to Osaka station to meet up with my brother, then onward to Nagasaki
  • We bought the ever-famous castella sponge cake and wandered into Suwa Shrine as the sun set.
  • It was Christmas day, and all the rage is to eat fried chicken...we stopped by a KFC store that was teeming with people to see if we could get a few drumsticks. The wait was an hour and a half! We ended up getting curry for dinner, and ordered two pieces dripping with oily Christmas cheer.
  • A sweet potato truck made it's way down our street with a strange 'sweet potato song' projecting from loudspeakers. We stopped to buy some, despite still being stuffed from dinner. I took two bites and retired to bed-- full, happy, and dead tired.
  • Lodging: Nagasaki International Hostel Akari, a homey and wonderful experience in a tatami room run by a cute family.



Day 5 (Nagasaki / Fukuoka)

  • Breakfast at Yoshinoya (a huge gyudon chain) and had a bowl of negi gyudon.
  • Nagasaki Ropeway to Mount Inasa
  • Visited Nagasaki Atomic Bomb museum and memorial. A somber but moving experience.
  • We were also told we had to try some Champon too. I had the seafood deluxe champon, and it blew me out of the water! Noodles were amazing, seafood perfectly cooked, and the broth was delicious.
  • Nagasaki to Fukuoka
  • Wandered around confused, in search of tempting noodles. Spotted steaming dumplings and stopped on a bench to eat a few.
  • Consumed ramen and gyoza at a tiny Ramen-ya, complete with a grumpy and austere ramen cook. I've noticed "American" gyoza is much larger than gyoza in Japan. Bigger does not mean better.
  • Lodging: Fukuoka Hana Hostel - mini "hotel" style room equipped with a TV, desk, and bathroom. Located smack dab in the middle of a busy shopping arcade.



Day 6 (Fukuoka / Osaka)

  • Explored the outdoor market in search of some fresh mentaiko (spicy marinated roe). I ended up purchasing some chirashi from one of the vendors for breakfast.
  • Wandered through the Canal City Hakata mall to wait for the famous Ramen Stadium to open for lunch.. so many choices, but we had to go with Hakata ramen. Had a blast playing pachinko-esque arcade games.. not sure how it all worked, but it was fun!
  • A life changing event: Hakata Ramen and a bowl of mentaiko over rice.
  • Fukuoka to Osaka
  • Takoyaki (octopus snack) time!
  • Dinner a humongous "sushi robot boat" restaurant. Pick up your sushi from the automated sushi conveyor belt or order specialties off of a touch screen. Every 10 plates eaten earns you a chance at winning a mini toy. Why don't we have this back home?
  • Lodging: Obachan’s House (grandma's house)




Day 7 (Kobe)

  • Osaka to Kobe to meet up with Takahito, a friend I met in college during his study abroad program.
  • Wonton soup at a popular noodle street vendor
  • A specialized gyoza restaurant, is this real life? Shiso gyoza with a plum sauce.... yes!
  • Hung out at a magic show venue, got a great demonstration, and practiced my broken Japanese.
  • The only kobe beef item I ate was a croquette. I don't think I ate a real meal on this day.
  • Visited Takahito's friend's bar for drinks and took the train back to Osaka.
  • Got lost for an hour in the late into the night because Apple maps is the worst. Destitute, confused, and frozen, I made a final try by mapping Obachan's address using Google maps... BINGO!
  • Lodging: Obachan’s House




Day 8 (Kyoto)

  • Osaka to Kyoto 
  • Visited the Fushimi Inari Shrine and hiked all the way to the top...please advise against bringing your heaviest backpack...because I did it, and it was not fun. On the upside, we did meet the cutest stray cat in the forest.
  • Street vendor takoyaki break.
  • Dinner at a buffet displaying authentic Japanese food. Not among my favorites, probably because I'd rather just have noodles, but I was able to try a lot of different dishes.
  • Lodging: Jam Hostel Kyoto Gion -- The room was basic and tiny, but the superb location in the Gion district made it well worth it. Also, the owners operate a sake bar so it's a great place to do some sake sampling.



Day 9 (Kyoto / Osaka)

  • Explored the Gion district and ate some street Mitarashi dango for breakfast .
  • Egg flower udon soup for lunch.
  • Waited in line for an hour to experience the infamous Tsujiri Honten, for the best matcha ice cream parfait ever.
  • Udon Noodle History Museum, and ate udon at their restaurant for an early dinner. I had to! They featured udon styles from all over the country.
  • Attempted to visit several museums only to find out they were closed for the New Year's holiday... but it was a nice walk anyways.
  • Kyoto to Osaka
  • Chirashi bento for dinner.
  • Lodging: Obachan’s House



Day 10 (Wakayama)

  • Osaka to Wakayama to visit Tama the Station Master Cat ... I pressed my face against Tama's viewing window to get as close to her as possible. She's a lovely calico and she has an even better story about becoming a station master.
  • Rode a strawberry AND Tama the cat themed train. My life is now complete.
  • Wakayama ramen for lunch.
  • New Year's Eve visit to Kimiidera temple, and got my "temple passport" book signed by a monk. Watched the last sunset of 2013 at the temple...it was magnificent.
  • Zaru soba and negitoro-don for dinner.
  • Lodging: Obachan’s House




Day 11 (Osaka)

  • Rang in the New Year by visiting the Fujiidera temple, and collected another signature for my "temple passport" book.
  • Tried my very first osechi ryori (traditional Japanese New Year's food)...and LOVED IT!
  • Went to the Osaka Aquarium and ogled at the jellies and well-manicured exhibits.
  • Sukiyaki feast at Obachan's house.... she special-ordered the marbled beef sent from the heavens. Enough said.
  • Lodging: Obachan’s House



Day 12 (Osaka / Tokyo)

  • Okonomiyaki for lunch -- Hiroshima style (with noodles in the middle) was my favorite
  • Osaka to Tokyo
  • Chirashi for dinner at a tiny restaurant run by a darling family spanning 3 generations.
  • Lodging: Khaosan World Asakusa Hostel - a new, clean hostel with large dorm rooms and a big common area.



Day 13 (Tokyo)

  • I got up at 5 AM to visit Tsukiji fish market, but it was closed for the holidays. There is a lovely shrine called the Namiyoke Inari Shrine right next to the fish market. I purchased a very special wooden dragon charm here.
  • Stopped by the Tsukiji Hongan-ji because it was nearby and it was an enormously intriguing building.
  • Wandered around until I realized I could catch the first act of kabuki theater (and afford it!) at the Kabukiza Theater.
  • Sushi at Sushizanmai for lunch... burned my hand because I couldn't figure out how to operate the personal hot water tap for my tea. The elderly man next to me couldn't stop laughing. Glad someone had fun!
  • Charlie Brown exhibit in Roppongi at the Mori Art Museum
  • Ebisu Beer Museum -- also closed for the holidays, but it was an interesting area to walk around
  • Nabemono for dinner -- I found this bland and quite possibly the only Japanese noodle dish I've ever eaten that I don't particularly like.
  • Night out at Club Camelot which played an interesting assortment of hip hop and Taylor Swift.
  • Inhaled a bowl of ramen at 4 AM with my eyes half closed. Caught the train back to the hostel at 5 AM. By the way, "going out" in Japan means you party from midnight (last train) to the first train at 5 AM.
  • Lodging: Khaosan World Asakusa Hostel



Day 14 (Tokyo / Homeward)

  • Spicy kimchi gyudon hangover breakfast at Matsuya (a big gyudon chain).
  • Asakusa to visit the Sensoji Temple and watch an impromptu monkey show among the Japanese children. This area is PACKED with people! You can barely move around.
  • Masudaya Toy Exhibit-- an impressive collection of Masudaya's vintage metal toys through the ages.
  • Wandered through the Tokyo station museum gallery and enjoyed it's extensive collection of fossils. 
  • Sushi for dinner in the company of a cheerful elderly man and a talented sushi chef.
  • One last look of Tokyo-- at the Akihabara station.
  • Tokyo to SFO (I had a midnight flight).


This was one amazing trip! Travelling alone or with one other person gives you the freedom to do whatever you want, whenever you want, on a whim. I highly recommend Japan as a safe place for any female traveler and noodle enthusiast. Going over the New Year's holiday did prove to be difficult because many museums close down, however visiting the temples during this time is an ethereal experience. Have you traveled Japan? What are your favorite eats and places?

Are you preparing for your trip? See my packing list of must-haves!










Monday, July 21, 2014

[travels]: Japan Winter Travel 2013 -- Packing List

All this ramen talk makes me yearn for Japan...  Last December on a whim, I bought a ticket to Tokyo to travel solo and then meet up with my brother to explore Kyushu.  I had a little over 2 weeks to figure out my entire itinerary and packing list.  It was extremely difficult to figure out what to pack, because Japanese people are very fashionable, the cold winter wear wear in my closet was not fashionable, and I wanted to fit everything into a carry-on suitcase and backpack.  I saved precious room by wearing the larger items during transit (i.e. the wool coat and boots).  Try to pack light especially if you are traveling around.... you don't want to lug a heavy suitcase around a train station!

12 Days in Tokyo, Osaka, Kyoto, Nagasaki, Fukuoka, and Kobe.
Nagasaki Atomic Bomb Museum

At the top of Mount Inasa, using the Nagasaki Ropeway


Electronics:

Shoes:
  • Tom's hemp botas shoe (fleece lined hemp sneakers)
  • Brown riding boots

Bottoms:
  • 1 blue skinny jean
  • 1 grey skinny jean
  • 2 fleece lined tights  **I wore tights underneath my pants every day**

Tops:
  • Wool coat
  • Black Denali Northface fleece
  • 2 Sweaters, orange and grey
  • 2 long sleeve shirts, white and red
  • 1 thick 3/4 sleeve shirt
  • Black 3/4 sleeve jacket
  • Black sleeveless top
  • 3 camisoles 

Miscellaneous:
  • JR Rail Pass, good for 2 weeks to ride the bullet train all over Japan -- well worth the money!!!
  • Grey fleece-lined headband (Target)
  • 2 pairs of touch-phone sensitive gloves (Target)
  • 2 infinity scarves - brown and black   **So wonderful for warmth!**
  • Small cross body bag
  • 2 pendant necklaces


Sensoji, Asakusa Kannon Temple


See the full itinerary of this spectacular trip!


Wednesday, July 16, 2014

[eats] Ramen Festival Guide 2014, San Francisco

The Ramen Yokocho Association is putting together "Ramen Street" in San Francisco's Japantown this weekend, and of course I have to go... This event has been on my calendar for weeks, and quite frankly I salivate at the very thought of ramen ever since I ate my way through Japan 7 months ago.  Actually, I've loved ramen since childhood when I was introduced to the instant packets at the tender age of 6.  Real ramen is drastically different though, and it's a remarkable combination of savory, slurpy, and smoothness.

The event features 6 different ramen vendors, serving up all sorts of delicious broths including tonkatsu, miso, shoyu, and even a ramen burger.  That's right, a ramen burger with a crispy noodle bun!  Just a little information nugget-- Keizo of Go Ramen stakes his claim on inventing the first ramen burger.





The line up for July 19-20, 2014 in SF:

  1. Monta Japanese Noodle House serving Tonkotsu Ramen
  2. Men Oh serving Tokushima Ramen
  3. Fujin Ramen serving the Miso Ramen Burger
  4. Tatsunoya serving Tonkotsu Ramen
  5. Mattou Seimen serving Black Shoyu Ramen and Spicy Ramen
  6. Horaiya serving Miso Ramen and Spicy Miso Ramen


Here's the lowdown on each vendor:

Monta Japanese Noodle House

  • Has 2 locations--  both in Las Vegas, Nevada
  • Menu offers Tonkatsu, Shoyu, Tonkotsu-Shoyu, and Miso broth
  • Solid 4 stars on Yelp
  • Serves "Kurume" style ramen, which is original tonkatsu ramen made from pork bones and imported soy sauce, served with thin noodles


Men Oh 

  • Based in Tokushima, Shikoku
  • 12 locations in Japan
  • 3.5 stars on Yelp 
  • Has 2 locations in Northern California -- Union City and San Francisco
  • Serves "Tokushima" style ramen, known for it's rich and savory pork based broth
  • Menu offers Tokushima , Tokushima Tonkotsu, Spicy Tonkotsu, Chicken Shoyu, Tonkotsu Miso, Men Oh Deluxe, and Teppan Yakimeshi (this sounds excellent)
Teppan Yakimeshi


Fujin Ramen

  • 1 location in Southern California -- West Covina
  • 3.5 stars on Yelp
  • Serves "Tokyo Tonkotsu" style ramen
  • Menu offers Shio/Shoyu, Tomato/Clam, Miso, Negi-Miso, Miso Corn, Chashu Trio, Ton-Toro Chashu Men, Spicy Champon, Spicy Tsuke-men, Hakata Tonkotsu ramen


Tatsunoya 

  • Hails from Kyushu, Japan.. for reals... they make trips out to the United States every once in awhile.
  • By the way, Kyushu is the mecca of Tonkotsu (pork based) broth
  • Makes annual appearance at the Mitsuwa Japanese grocery store in Torrance, California
  • Blogged about by Go Ramen by Keizo
  • Influenced by "Hakata and Kurume" styles.... which means pork, pork, and more pork based broth!


Mattou Seimen

  • From Japan
  • Rumors of delicious Szcheuan style Black Mapo ramen served in the April 2014 Yokocho Festival in LA.
  • Read on about the LA Yokocho Festival here and this recap too


Horaiya

  • From Japan
  • Rumors of miso based broth with wontons.... wontons?!
  • Read more about this blogger's recap of the Yokocho Festival 2014 here


As for me?  My list includes Tatsunoya, Mattou Seimen, and Horaiya.  Stay tuned for a blog update on this long awaited meal!

----Update----


The Tatsunoya line was the most popular by a landslide.....the people at the front of the  line had been there since 7:00 am.  That's some noodle devotion!  Men Oh appeared to have generated quite a buzz as well, with another long line (but not quite as long as Tatsunoya).  I arrived at 10:00 am and was able to get into the Mattou Seimen line for the black Shoyu ramen and got my ramen by 10:50 am.  I saw an old friend in line for Mattou's spicy ramen, and we agreed to trade 2 bowls to get some variety.



The verdict? 
  • Come for the experience of attending a ramen festival, but don't expect top notch ramen.  
  • Mattou's shoyu broth was mediocre (initially bland but tasted better after 20 minutes), chashu was thinly sliced and cooked brilliantly
  • Mattou's spicy broth was flavorful and worth trying-- noodles were thick and chewy
  •  If you are serious about trying ramen within a reasonable wait time, plan to come early!  
  • Divide and conquer with friends-- split off in different lines and swap bowls 



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Monday, July 14, 2014

[diy] Photobooth Props

With the proliferation of the wedding photobooth, having customized props is a 'Must Have' for any event!  This is a quick and easy project.



Supplies (Michael's craft store)

  • Wooden letter "D" and "M"
  • Wooden cup cutout
  • Metallic Spray Paint - Brass Gold 
  • Recollections brand Black Sticker Letters 
  • Mod podge (optional)


Follow the instructions on the spray can-- evenly spray your cut outs gold.  It's always better to do many light passes and multiple coats to prevent runny paint.

The bride wanted to make sure her guests were using their special hashtag for the wedding.  The #fongers photobooth prop was a HIT and used by most of the guests!

Using basic black sticker letters, embellish your props as you see fit!  If you are worried about the stickers peeling, you can always finish the piece with a layer of mod podge to seal it all in.





For more Gold Spray Paint Projects......see these:

Spray Painting Weeknight Hack...in Gold


Friday, July 11, 2014

[diy] Spray Painting Weeknight Hack... in Gold

I've had a can of brass gold spray paint in my possession for awhile now, and there are just so many fun projects to use it for!  The possibilities really are endless... this weeknight hack began after I received a West Elm bedspread I had ordered during one of their  sales.  The guest room previously had a dark and (bit gloomy) bedspread that had come from my fiance's apartment a few years ago... Giving some TLC to this guest room has been on my 2014 goal list. 




After dressing the bed and letting the quality assurance crew (Loki and Gizmo) test the tensile strength of the fabric, I scanned the room to see if there were any other opportunities to re-vamp.... bingo!  I was already using / had all of these materials on hand.  Here were a few I narrowed in on.

- Desk accent vase
- Pen Holder
- Desk Handles


Remember to tape off areas you do not want to paint over.  I find that leaving a clear top portion adds a nice element of interest to the piece.  Use an old cardboard box... to contain the paint. I ended up using the shipping box the bedspread came in :)

Spray painting tip:  It is always better to make light, small passes so prevent dripping.  I did one coat before dinner, and one coat after dinner.  Boom!





This desk went from a ho-hum stock look, to a piece with some allure!




Of course, a matching pen holder is in order too....


I used the larger vase to hold various desk knick knacks on the top shelf of the desk.  Cheers to weeknight projects and instant gratification!! 






Monday, July 7, 2014

[musings]: Baby Shower Themes that are Delicate and Delightful

Once again I find myself in the throes of baby shower planning for my dear cousin, and I couldn't be happier.  Our world is full of creative talents that simply make my heart soar.  I found these themes particularly exciting and thought I must share them with you:

"Floral and Fauna" themes with silly gold animals, moose shapes, and imperfectly frosted cakes...
By Kelli Murray -- simply heartwarming!


Or how about this light fox themed birthday party?  Subtle nods to our friend the fox, but not overwhelming....  this is a great approach.

From the talented Alex Michele, and featured on 100 layercakelet

This theme evokes a smile as soon as you hear it: "Twinkle Twinkle Little Star"... and my imagination runs wild!  Think of all the soft champagne glitter projects, satin ribbon, and pillowed cotton....!

Shannon Rocha featured on Hostess with the Mostess


I used to love playing "market" as a young girl.  Can you imagine a fresh marketplace theme?  Maybe playing with a farmers market look by using galvanized buckets, wooden crates, and chalkboard signs?

Thank you for sharing, Kojo-designs!

My shower decor plans aren't solidified quite yet, but I'm thinking of going with a slumber, snoozey, dreamland theme, complete with golden "Z"'s, as a nod to baby Zoe's name.  Stay tuned for more planning, pictures, and projects!


Sunday, July 6, 2014

[celebrates] Bachelorette Party Cocktail - The Paloma

For my sister's bachelorette party, we took a trip to Cancun for an amazing 4 day weekend of all inclusive fine dining, yummy drinks, pristine white sand, and clear blue ocean water.  While we were there, we soon discovered an AMAZING drink called the Paloma.  I have never been much of a tequila drinker, but this drink had me converted!

It's light, has subtle grapefruit tones, and fizzy... PERFECT!!



Ingredients:
  • 2 oz. Don Julio Blanco Tequila 
  • 6 oz. Grapefruit soda  **Squirt soda and Grapefruit Juice works too**
  • Squirt of lime juice
  • Pinch of salt for rimming (optional)