Thursday, December 10, 2009

A new adventure is about to begin

Well, it's been several months since we returned from South Korea and Japan. I have retained most of the language fragments we hurriedly crammed into my poor gaijin head, but sadly the memory of the food is best found via photographs. A sorry substitute for the real thing. It's time to bring my taste buds back to life.

Each Tuesday in 2010, Tavis and I will randomly select one restaurant out of a list of 52 that I am in the process of compiling. These range from French bistros to Mexican holes-in-the-wall to New American cuisine, most in the mid-range prices but some higher end as well. San Antonio is not in the top 10 cities nationwide as far as cuisine, but I'll surely be doing my best to find the chicken nuggets in the rough. To keep my mind sharp and my tongue sharper, I'd love to document each week's experience here. Who knows, it may lead to a sweet job offer as Anthony Bourdain's sidekick!

Join me, won't you?

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Our final day

It's been a long, long road--okay, it's only been three weeks. But we have certainly broken much new ground (and bruised many feet) since mid-July, and finally our time overseas is coming to a conclusion.

So how does Megan choose to go out? With a bang, of course. More of a culinary explosion, really. Let's recap, shall we?

Last night I said we MUST experience Kobe beef while we're in Japan. It is imperative. I'm sure that there are many restaurants that prepare Kobe in Tokyo, but my Tokyo Encounter only mentioned it in one restaurant's description: Seryna, which is in the Roppongi district. (The "least Japanese part of Japan," according to the guide. Full of nightclubs, shopping, a mall which is a completely sustainable life force unto itself. It was neat.) Vin Chou, the French fusion yakitori restaurant we'd visited in my last blog, was listed in the same price range as Seryna so I wasn't overly concerned.


For one thing, Seryna apparently occupies its entire building. Like, multiple floors going up. We're met by a maitre d' who escorts us to our seat adjacent to a pretty rock garden diorama and then we are waited on by geisha-esque girls with immaculate grace and graciousness. If this wasn't enough of a blaring red siren, one look at the menu provided the final push into alarm. Courses for one starting at about $80. Nothing of inferior quality--the best crab, the best tuna, the best beef. Enter the Kobe. Available as a carpaccio appetizer for $50, in shabu-shabu (essentially soup in which you cook your meat) for $140, or cooked on a STONE brought from a northern part of Japan for $150.

Well, you're only in Tokyo once.

I ordered the Toro sashimi. ($60.) Toro is the most tender part of tuna. It was so pale pink and buttery, absolutely exquisite. Alternated between plain, dipped in soy sauce and grazed in wasabi for very different experiences. I was already doing the happy food dance.

But it was rather overshadowed by the sight of our geisha laying thin strips of fat-laced beef on a smooth slab of superheated granite, barely needing a minute to rest before she slid them loose with her chopsticks and flipped them. She arranged pairs of the steak artfully and presented them to us with two different "steak sauces" for dipping--one tomato based, one soy based. Wowee. This steak was so full of flavor and juice and richness. It was a 180 g portion split between us, which I eyeballed as approximately 6 oz each? Not much, in other words. You'd never know it from how delicious and satisfying that meat was. There was no question of hitting up a McD's after THIS meal.

I can't overemphasize how much the atmosphere enhanced the meal. The geisha were immaculate and though we were the ones being served, we felt nothing but respect for THEM. A crystal glass of some iced honey liqueor was brought to each of us before our meal, and cups of hot tea provided throughout. We were one of very few occupants and the air felt...reverent. It made each bite contain a sense of communion. Just absolutely lovely.

Anyway, good eats. I will cheerfully go back to eating my dad or my husband's grilled steaks, but I am definitely glad that we experienced that calibre of Japanese haute cuisine.

Today, we found our way to the Meguro Parasitological Museum for funsies. It was too tiny and too untranslated to really capitalize on the oogy factor, much to my disappointment. A long hike later, we are lost and hop on a transfer line to get back to our hotel. On our way, the Shibuya sub station's "food court" catches my attention. Oh my GOSH, such a buffet! No Sbarros here, that's for sure. This is obviously a place that people come to pick up food for home and parties. Bento ("lunchboxes" filled with artfully arranged snacky treats), boxes of sushi and sashimi shaped into flowers and designs, each of the colors blending with the rest, different combinations of salads and cold cuts. Just fascinating.

So I finally got my unagi (eel) sashimi. It was GOOD. Also a bento of dumplings and potstickers and tempura-fried treats and a shrimp ball.

Tonight, I plan to watch as Tavis packs the last couple of items that he hasn't already packed as I've been typing, and if we recover from stuffing ourselves on subway "fast food," then we may make our way back to Akiyoshi for more skewers of grilled chicken. It's a sad day when I'm looking forward to eating my fruits and veggies again. Oh well, making the most of today!

Rosie and James got back to Korea successfully so we are going to duplicate the train route they took. We will be back before 6pm Wednesday evening! Mass uploading of pics and revision of blog will commence.

I'll save final words for later. This isn't really a goodbye. Just a....good eats.

Sunday, August 2, 2009

Good eats, mild let-downs

The past couple of days have been a bit more low-key on the energy-o-meter. Something about walking for 4 hours a day sort of took it out on my ankles, so we've been treading trodden trails and reprioritizing our restaurant "must eats." Yesterday scored a culinary victory for us but a couple of disappointments as well.

Disappointment #1: Harajuku. Sunday is supposed to be the big "all the cosplay, gothic lolita, punk rebels, Jpop, and all other flavors of non-conformity fun come out to play" day. Unfortunately, it was raining all day so all we got to experience was a river of umbrellas in the tightly-packed alleyways. Not so much with the eye candy, alas. We are heading back out there with Rosie and James this morning--it won't be as large-scale as yesterday should have been, but we ought to be able to see SOMEthing.

Disappointment #2: DDR. If any of you reading this are not aware, Tavis and I are big enjoyers of the video game series Dance Dance Revolution. If the name is not a clear enough indication, it came from Japan, so we were looking forward to finding a video arcade in Tokyo and playing it in its country of origin with many of the ridiculously talented otaku (nerds) to be found here.

We searched about 3 arcades in varying regions before we found an employee who knew of a place that had a DDR machine. Seriously. This is like, last year's game or something, and nobody plays it anymore! There was one lonely little DDR board set up in the corner, with no crowd at all. We played a couple of rounds but it felt sort of surreptitious and unrewarding, no hecklers or admirers or even observers amidst the action in the arcade. Sigh. Always sad to find out you just Aren't That Cool.

Anyway, back to happier things: eats! We went to Vin Chou, a french fusion yakitori place recommended in my Lonely Planet. It was by far the easiest place to find out of all the restaurants so far. Hurray! We might actually be getting the hang of this place!

Tavis ordered the prix fixe menu, which included:

  • An appetizer of potato salad (ha!) and a quarter of a cabbage to cleanse the palate in between courses of greasy meat. Sadly, this was just about the most vegetables I've eaten here.
  • Quail. Very good, not charred beyond flavor like most of the quail I've had
  • Skewer of duck. Also very delicious. I do so love duck.
  • Skewer of chicken livers. My first livers! I loved them. Tavis didn't care for the consistency.
  • Skewer of chicken gizzards. Flip the roles; I hated the consistency and found the flavor so-so, but Tavis thought they were great.
  • Dish of pickled vegetables, including red bell pepper, lotus root and cauliflower. Mehh.
  • Bress chicken thigh. Bress is apparently a region in France known for their great chickens. This was a great chicken. Wish there'd been more.
  • Skewer of asparagus rolled in pork rib. Very tasty!
  • Chicken soup. Strangely, this might have been my favorite flavor of the night. They spent a lot of time developing the flavors in the little sake glass of stock. It was fabulous.

To that, I added:

  • Skewer of grilled quail eggs. I actually have never eaten a quail egg before. This was probably not the best way to try them. The flavor was okay. Grilling made the outside a very strange, rubbery texture.
  • Cheese plate. We had a yummy brie, a very nice spicy blue that was thankfully lacking in sourness, and a tasty hard cheese that I suspect was mimolette because it was bright orange. But I'm still definitely no expert in fromagerie.
  • Foie gras in a teriyaki sauce. Again, Tavis didn't care for the texture but I liked it quite well. Not my favorite thing and I probably wouldn't order it again. Much to the relief of the collective outrage assembled. Yes, I eat foie gras. There's a special level of hell (probably like B.1 or something, you have to take a separate elevator to get to it) for people like me. They probably fill a small room with irate noisy geese and push me in. Anyway, I digress.

It was a great meal and I enjoyed the progression. But Tavis and I agreed that if we were just craving a good, tasty meal, we would go back to Akiyoshi, the first yakitori place, and spend 1/4 of the money for as much flavor and probably more enjoyment. And larger portions. Ah well, a good experience all the same.

A culinary side note: the big dessert thing here in Tokyo are crepes. Like, crepes stuffed with a variety of sweet things and rolled up like a waffle cone. The kids here go NUTS for them and these creperies are everywhere with their big beautiful plastic models of every possibly combination of flavors. They tend to have:

  • A layer of fluff, such as whipped cream, custard or ice cream
  • A layer of fruit, such as strawberries, bananas or apples
  • A layer of cake, such as chocolate cake or cheesecake
  • Additional drizzles of chocolate or caramel

Insert the happiest heart attack here. And also, WHY do we not have these things in the States? We clearly are way too fat as a nation to need them....but that sure wouldn't stop us from eating the heck out of them! So I dreamed the other night that I bought a shack with the intentions of turning it into a creperie. Check back in in a few years to see if my dreams become a reality.

Last but not least, our shopping adventures. Minimal, really--we've bought a bunch of souvenirs and our kimonos are lovely and authentic, so we've been toning it down on the expenditures. But we found a place called Tokyu Hands which has several branches and encompasses about 7 floors per branch. Think of it like one part Home Depot, one part World Market. Anyway we found some neat wall art there. And on the 8th floor, they had a cat cafe set up. Pets aren't very common, what with the limited living conditions and all, so there are cafes with tons of cats where people pay to come in and snuggle. This one looked really cool and had lots of interactive walkways and stairs on the walls and hideyholes for the cats to enjoy, but dealing with the crowd of exuberant kids was probably more than most cats would care for. It made me sad and lonesome for my pups. (Also I saw a cat with a white 0 on her sides and it made me miss my Flannel very much.)

Should've put that higher, don't want to end on a sad note! Oh. Rosie and James decided to stay in Hamamatsu another night last night and so are getting into town....right about now, actually. They should be at our hotel in half an hour and then we will venture forth and have more adventures in Harajuku and a nice lunch before they have to get to Narita and fly back home. It's been great visiting with them. Hopefully we have more culinary win to speak of at the end of the day--Tavis and I are hunting down a place that serves Kobe beef. Noms await!

Friday, July 31, 2009

Where the streets have no name

Our past two days in Tokyo have followed somewhat of a pattern:

  • we get up
  • eat breakfast either in the cafe downstairs (a mostly Western style buffet with a few unusual offerings like salmon) or from munchies we picked up from a convenience store
  • I pick a location to visit that day, as suggested by my Lonely Planet Tokyo Encounter
  • we figure out the intricate route of trains and transfers necessary to get there
  • we spend the morning at that location. The first day it was Shibuya, one of the major shopping areas where young people congregate to blow cash and be seen. Yesterday it was Harajuku....for much of the same reason. We lunch somewhere during this trip.
  • we get exhausted and come back to the hotel to rest for a couple of hours in the heat of the day
  • in the evening, we select a restaurant out of the Lonely Planet, figure out the convoluted subway system once more, and have an adventure in that district trying to find the restaurant in question

The first night was pretty straightforward. I selected the restaurant Komagata Dozeu in the Akasuka neighborhood, and while it was about a 30 minute walk from our rail stop (we purchased the cheapest 1-day unlimited pass, which basically lets us make a circle around Central Tokyo, but is missing many of the non-JR-run lines. So we adjust. And walk. And walk.), it was along the road to which we emerged from the station and we had landmarks to let us know if we were close and when we had gone too far. So we found it with minimal difficulty and enjoyed an amazing dinner.

Dozeu, as in Komagata Dozeu, are eel-like river fish. They are the specialty here and almost everything on the menu was dozeu cooked in various fashions. We had dozeu simmered in rice wine and reheated on a hibachi in front of us with green onions in a special soy sauce, and then we had grilled dozeu. Tavis very understandably was not able to tap into his inner Andrew Zimmern, and seeing a pot of little eely fish with their heads peering reproachfully at him was a little more than he had an appetite for. However, the grilled dozeu were headless and he nommed them quite happily. I loved them all--they were tender and tasty, not fishy at all. I'm such an indiscriminate carnivore. Sake and beer in abundance made the walk home seem much faster than the walk to the restaurant.

Last night proved a bit more of an adventure. This was only ironic because I had picked this restaurant, a yakitori joint (grilled chicken on a stick), based on how close it was to our rail station. However, it was not on a major street. It was down a cluster of small streets with no landmarks and not much context. And here we come to the basic problem with Tokyo.


Unless it is a major street or highway, none of the streets are named. Not just alleyways. Like, my entire subdivision would be anonymous. The address of the place we tried to go, Akiyoshi, was 3-30-4 Nishi-Ikebukuro, Toshima-ku. This translates to "in the Toshima ward (whatever THAT is), go to the neighborhood of Nishi-Ikebukuro and find the 3rd group of blocks, go to block 30 in that group, and you have about a 4% chance of finding the restaurant you`re looking for."

Even the locals got very confused. They had to divine our path in a cup of tea leaves to help us get there. Okay, they pulled out a map, but it was practically divination with as many people as it took to even get us in the right cluster of buildings. After that, we were on our own and it was only because Tavis kept looking for the kanji translation of the restaurant--of COURSE it couldn`t be one of the restaurants with Romaji (Romanized) signs out front, that would be too easy!--that we found the place at all. Until then, we got a good look at the very interesting, very sleazy Ikebukuro district.

However, we both agreed that the yakitori was worth the extravagant amount of trouble it put us through. OMG so good. We got skewers of beef tongue, some other beef deepfried with onions, grilled chicken with green onions, and the juiciest, fattiest teriyaki chicken imaginable. I could have sat there and ordered more all night. The place was absolutely packed, so if you come here, leave early enough in the afternoon to compensate for the frustrated wandering you are bound to experience.

So that's been the memorable eats. The shopping has been pretty fantastic too, if only for the eye candy every which way. The Harajuku district is especially vibrant on Sundays when all the social butterflies come out to frolic, but there were still plenty of people on display down the alleys and in the Vivienne Westwood-esque stores overflowing with frilly maid outfits, lacy corsets and punk paraphernalia. Kitsch doesn't come close. Not even remotely. But they sure do have fun!

Some store names of note, just from a 3rd-grade-humor standpoint:

  • Nudy Boy
  • Bruce Pee
  • Freak Shop
  • Candy Stripper
  • Snoberry (probably Snow Berry but I hear Snobbery)

I must also say that my total of International Lush Stores is up to 2! Yep my Lushdar led me to both of the Tokyo branches of Lush. I'm just that awesome. And addicted. But mostly awesome.

No agenda yet today. Back to the rail map I go....

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Tokyo! or, Hurray, an actual bed!!!

Note to all travelers who are on the same level of neurosis as me: plan where you're going, how you're going to get there, what you're going to do once you're there, and where you're staying there. It makes all the difference between "want to KILL" trips and "doin mah happy travel dance" trips. Today was a happy travel dance day.

Astonishingly, everything went according to plan for getting from Koyasan to Tokyo, even though it took from 9am to 4pm to do it, with only one stop for bathroom and lunch (at a cafe--Tavis got a "hamburger carbonara," strange combination, but they do love their hamburgers, hold everything but meat patty, and their carbonara. I got two "sandwiches," actually wrapped in something like a pita or tortilla but not really either. One sausage and one "ethnic chicken." They also like spicy mayonnaise here. And a blood orange juice) and now I've backtracked to the beginning of this sentence and find that it was actually finished. Long trip. But at the end of the day, Tokyo!

We are staying at the Hotel Mystays Ochanomizu/Akihabara (the last two are the approximate neighborhoods encompassing this hotel). I loved the authenticity and atmosphere of the machiya in Kyoto and wouldn't do it any other way--but oh gawd is it nice to have an actual bed. Not a bedroll on a woven floor, as my hips constantly remind me. And a shower. With hot water. And a bathroom I'm not sharing with anyone but my husband. Really, the simple pleasures of life.

The staff here speak English very well and are very friendly and accommodating. I am so glad to know that we don't have to worry about luggage or transporting from one city to another for the rest of our trip. We have laundry, ice, breakfast (for $10 each, yeesh...the lengths I go to for my greasy sausage and pastry fix. I just can't work up excitement for sushi breakfast), and best of all for me, rentable laptops! Hence the slew of updates. Sadly, everything on the computer is in Japanese so I have yet to figure out how to upload my camera's new batch of pictures from Japan. When I do, I shall be sure to revise the past couple blogs, so quitcher whining.

A confession: I might could've put myself in a bit of a corner. When trying to find a prospective restaurant in the area, I check the menu they often provide outside the door along with plastic models of the food or pictures of the food (often less appealing than the plastic representations). If the menu has no English on it, I get a little panicky and don't want to eat there because I don't know how I'll order. But if the menu has English, I get snooty and don't want to eat there because I suspect it's too touristy and isn't "what the locals eat." It doesn't leave me with a lot of options, I glumly realized at dinnertime tonight.

So we ignored my irrationality and went to the first place that we saw an empty table or two within. Turned out, it was a Chinese restaurant. Lots of small plates of food; we ordered a few by pointing at pictures. After nibbling the morsels--giant potstickers, delicious barbequed pork, and strangely tasty shredded beef and salad with spicy mayo "burgers" on puffy donut-ish bread--we realized we were still hungry. But for what? I tried in vain to pantomime "pick your favorite" to our waitress, who got frustrated and tried to get someone else to help us. Who also didn't speak English. At this point, two Japanese girls around our age who'd been sitting at the table adjacent asked us, "You want her to recommend something?" and then asked her that very question for us. (Ended up being roast chicken; the dark meat and the skin was great, very sweet and flavorful; the white meat too dry for my tastes.)

And then we just chatted! Their English was perfect and they were friendly and wanted to answer all our questions about how to say things (like "what is your recommendation?" and "could I get a doggy bag?") as well as must-see/must-eat places around Tokyo. And I think perhaps one little hole was poked in my "fear of the unknown" dam.

Thank you, kindness of strangers.

Koyasan, or Why Megan Doesn't Like Tourist Traps

Why DOESN'T Megan like tourist traps? I still am not totally sure.

Getting to Koyasan (which is a mountain bestrewn with temples, shrines, pagodas, mausoleums, monuments and guesthouses, and also named a UNESCO treasure or something) was part of the problem. From our machiya in Kyoto, we taxied to the train station, took a train to Osaka, took another train to Shin-Imumiya, took another train to another city, then to an express line through the mountain, then to the railcar up the winding path through the mountain, then a bus down the winding road through the mountain..........all lugging two large suitcases. It was near nightmarish, which could have been prevented by a) researching all the stops on our route and how much time we had to get from point to point, and b) packing lighter. Did I mention pack light? I mean pack light. I don't know what else we really could've done; we are carrying around a ton of souvenirs as well as two kimono sets. Suitcases are sorta necessary right now. Anyway, I was super stressed upon arrival.

Koyasan is, as described above, essentially a hive of monkery. (Side note: if anyone knows of a hive of monkeys, please forward this information on to me at your earliest convenience.) There are about 100 guesthouses which are temples with traditional Japanese rooms available to rent by the night at about $100 per person. English is spoken well enough to get you what you need. You get two vegetarian meals--which were absolutely beautiful and way more food and variety than I expected, but not necessarily....good.--and you can get up and pray and drink tea with the monks at 6am. Ours also had a bath house for the women and one for the men; I was a dirty dirty girl and skipped it. Everything is green and verdant and the air is fresh--though thin due to the altitude--and the temples/shrines/pagodas/halls/houses/etc/etc/etc are marvels of Japanese art and architecture.

So what's not to love? I dunno. To me, it felt very...unauthentic. Contrived. Like because I was surrounded by beautiful nature and shrine after shrine of happy monks, I was supposed to have A Significant Experience. The shops around town were all full of cutesy or Significant, overpriced knickknacks and there were too many white people. This was supposed to be MY secret find where I could sneak in with the truly Significant Experiencers. Gahhh.

Fortunately my husband is often much smarter than his wife and he had an amazing time, complete with a renewed sense of balance and purpose. I'm gonna draw on his face in marker while he's sleeping.

Kyoto part 2: The adventures and the almost-adventures

So in our two full days in Kyoto, we had very little by way of a schedule. Mostly a "hmm, let's walk around and see what's neat and do that, and see what's tasty and eat that." It wouldn't work for me in most places, but Kyoto was so laidback, well-organized and just plain enjoyable that it worked quite well here.

Initial impressions:

  • It's not nearly as tall as South Korea was. Of course there are tall business buildings but the majority of the buildings are 2 stories. This really surprised me since I thought land was basically as expensive due to scarcity and difficulty building around the mountainous terrain as Korea.
  • However, the buildings have much more character, generally speaking. Most streets we walked through had at least one shrine (Shinto) or temple (Buddhist), and while the colors tend to earth tone, the architecture of the ceilings and signs and gardens really make each street uniquely beautiful.
  • So friendly, so clean. We didn't get any sort of response from the many foreigners we saw, unlike in South Korea where we started conversations with quite a few foreigners that seemed glad to see a fellow whitey. I wonder if they feel more at home here and thus don't feel the need to form connections simply based on the chance that we speak English. But the Kyotans were very friendly and in every restaurant we visited, they were more than willing to help us order and make sure we enjoyed ourselves.
  • Wah no more magpies. Instead, we have crows. Big black raucous crows like Vicious wears on his shoulder in Cowboy Bebop. I prefer the 'pies, meself.
  • Rainy season, yes indeed. It rained off and on throughout our stay. When it wasn't raining, it was extremely hot and muggy. If you come here, start your day early and plan to camp somewhere for most of the day until the sun goes down around 5pm (so early! Darn lack of daylight savings'.) and you can venture back out.
  • The subway system is very logical, cheap (an all-day pass for approx $6) and easy to navigate. Taxis aren't ridiculous but not really necessary. Pack light--little did I know what good advice this was, but I learned quickly.
  • General niceties go a long way. Bow to everyone. Sumimasen - excuse me. Arigato - thank you. Onegai - please. We gave a gift of local sweets to our machiya hostess and she was delighted and gave us gifts too (beer miso for the boys and rice face mask stuff for the girls). Always remove shoes before entering a house. Opt to be the polite foreigner, not the boisterous foreigner. (One of us is having some trouble with this part.)
  • Ohmygosh, are these some fashion-forward girls! I have no idea how many hours a day they spend doing their hair, makeup, clothes, shoes and accessories, but my hat's off to them. (I'm not wearing a hat currently, and if I were it wouldn't be nearly as kawaii as the hat that THEY would be wearing, but the intention is there.) I also feel very bad for their feet. It's about equal to the envy I have of their footwear.

After getting the lay of the land, we intended to do a couple of things. Some of them we actually got around to doing. Others....not so much.

Almost adventure #1: walking the Philosopher's Path. This is a long and very beautiful walk that gives you a great view of several shrines. We had walked a pretty long time just to get here, so by the time we reached it, we meandered a bit.....and then followed the path of many philosophers and decided that food was more important.

Almost adventure #2: the Imperial Palace. Again, we'd walked extensively before getting here, so by the time we arrived and saw that we had to get a pass to walk through, we went "mehh" and strolled through the Imperial park on the way out.

Actual adventure! Tavis and I bought kimonos! Well, yukata, which are the more casual, cotton/linen style that many women wear around town just cuz. We both got fitted and picked out lovely sets of yukata and obi. I am so so so happy with mine, and Tavis looks quite dashing. (I can tell he's itching to a) accessorize, preferably with a sword, and b) throw many Asian-themed dinner parties so he has an occasion to wear it.)

Actual adventure #2! We had our first authentic Japanese noodles. We had udon, which are the thick wheat noodles; ours were in a broth just made for slurping with green onions on top. Quite satisfying. Afterwards, we ventured next door to a dessert shop because of their ridiculous, garish and absolutely delectable plastic parfait models. May I just say, if any country does over-the-top better, I should not care to see it. James had a coffee jelly parfait and Tavis and I split a strawberry/chocolate one, which also had layers of mango and cherries.

Oh, two notes of interest to my video game brethren:

  • Tanooki, as in Tanooki Mario from Super Mario Bros 3? He's a trickster/magician deity! He is a raccoon dog and there are statues to him everywhere on the street and in restaurants.
  • Kirin, as in the Kirin esper from FF3, appears to be some sort of flaming gazelle/goat/deer thingy. I don't know anything about him except that he's a popular beer brand. Oh yeah, beer is sold in vending machines here and is pretty cheap.

That's all I got for now!

Yatta! Kyoto, part one....

Or Kyoto: The Good, the Bad and the Ugly.

The good: we got here! We made it from Daejeon to taxi to train to bus to plane to train #2 to taxi #2 to the machiya, which is the guesthouse we reserved for the four of us.

The bad: halfway through "train #2," I got whomped by a migraine. My first in months, I might add. Love that timing. Nothing like my first sights of my most hero-worshipped country, as viewed through tunnel vision and a haze of "oh god kill me NAO pls kthx." Fortunately, with time, meds and TLC by my Rosiebuddy, I recovered by night.

The ugly: I felt like I've reverted to a second, even more incredibly awkward adolescence! As many tall young Japanese kids as I see wandering around, the architecture was not designed with us in mind. I just couldn't seem to keep from tripping, flailing my hands into inconveniently placed objects like antique tea sets or, yanno, WALLS, or bashing my head on ceiling protrudences. Smashing a just-barely-post-migraine head = epic fail.

And the amazing, since I really can't leave on a negative: everything else! The machiya itself is such a charming, historical artifact and just looking around at the care and tradition in all the tiny details--the tatami floors, sliding doors, bedrolls, low tables, fans and art decorating the walls and what I can really only describe as an Asian nativity on the table, deep cast iron wells of tubs, and an amazingly gracious hostess who speaks much better English than she says she does--I can't believe we're getting such a deal. It's $200 a night for the four of us to share this house all to ourselves. Easily worth 2-3 times that for the experience. I would recommend it to absolutely anyone traveling to Kyoto. <3 <3 <3

We had the elegant beauty of shrines and the geisha district on one side of our alley, and the bustle of a hip, electric shopping and dining district on the other.

So this is where we stayed for three wonderful nights. During this time, we ventured out on many adventures, some of which we completed and some of which took unexpected turns for incompletion. I'm going to separate that into another post for brevity's sake, so let me just close by saying again...


Friday, July 24, 2009

Our last day in Daejeon...


Also wah, we are back in the City of Elusive Internet, so no pics at this time.

Tomorrow we leave for Pusan, which is on the southern coast of South Korea. From there, we fly to Osaka! And from there we take the train (probably a bullet train, vroom!) to Kyoto until the 28th. Then Tokyo until we leave on the 5th. Rosie and James are diverging from our path in the middle; they will start with us in Kyoto, detour for a couple days in Hamamatsu where our friends Marcus and Yuko live, and then rejoin us back in Tokyo on Sunday the....*checks dates* 2nd.

Still on track with our budget, fortunately. As of right now we're not planning to buy a JRail pass, preferring to be frugal with our train transportation. However, I'm thinking about Tokyo in particular and how best to get around there at least cost, and I may change my mind yet again.

So! Enough of the mundane details; let's recap our adventures from the past couple of days. As we were departing Seoul, we passed a pavilion with many people dressed in traditional Korean attire sitting around. They ushered us in pretty eagerly, so we shrugged and came on inside (removing our shoes first, of course). Turns out this was a sort of educational center and we were the brand new, very surprised students of a tea ceremony!

One lady in particular took us under her wing and showed us

  • how to sit on the mats
  • how to hold the tea cup (balanced on the middle fingers of your left hand and cupped with an L-shaped right hand),
  • how to make little sweet treats by pressing a ball of colored honey and bean curd into a wooden mold (it came out looking like little buttons)
  • how men kneel with their left hand on top of the right and women with their right hand on top of their left (and why)
  • how to sip tea three times--once for sky, once for earth and once for people
It was such a beautiful and unexpected interlude. We were all just shocked and delighted with how friendly and patient these ladies were, and the customs they imparted. They did not let us take their picture but we did get one of the four of us kneeling after the ceremony. Which I can't upload right now. Sorry to be a tease.

That wasn't our only unexpected encounter with friendly Koreans. Tavis, Rosie and I ventured forth at about 2:15 for lunch. This is sort of a problem because the entire country eats from noon until 1pm. The first couple of places we tried were already closed! How dare we get a late start on the day? Silly foreigners. Anyway, we reached this other restaurant that Rosie had tried previously and were welcomed so warmly by the hostess that I thought Rosie had known her for years. We had plate after plate of food:
  • two different types of mandu (yay Mom, I got my yaki mandu!)
  • a giant dish of cheese ramen, dok (tubes of the ubiquitous bean curd with a texture much like gnocchi) and slices of fish cake. Sounds wonky but tastes good.
  • a plate of their small yellow melon and slices of tomato
  • bowls of soup
Guess how much it cost. Just guess. Okay, not you, Mom and Dan, I already told you. It cost $8 for all of that. I'm telling you, this place has taught me that I am not to be trusted on a cruise--all that cheap food, my tummy is going to need its own plane ticket home. It's so worth it. (I am also packing on muscle in the thighs from biking around, so hey, there's that.) The hostess and her son (who teaches at a martial arts studio in Austin--small world!) were very friendly and chatted with us throughout our meal. So gracious.

After lunch, we went out to visit James and Rosie's garden plot, where they have some herbs and veggies. The heavy rain didn't do them any favors, sadly. However, on our way out, this group of three middle-aged Korean men sitting out and drinking soju for their afternoon break saw us and called for us to join them. We kept up a decent conversation--Rosie speaking her Korean, Tavis pantomiming and me smiling and nodding--over slices of fresh watermelon and tomato from their garden and cups of soju. I have been very fortunate to see only the generosity and kindness to foreigners; Rosie says there are some people, usually older people, who are distrustful or contemptuous of Westerners but I'm glad to have been exposed to none of that.

Today, while the boys played basketball and worked out, Rosie and I went to a sauna. Such a relaxing experience. You shower first, then you have your choices of cold, cool (with various types of massage jets) and the spiral of increasingly hot tubs. You also have the steam rooms, and these were exquisite--the walls and ceiling were completely studded in smooth semi-precious stones. Carnelian, jasper, lapis, aventurine, and chunks of raw amethyst on the ceiling. It was breathtaking; fortunately they pumped oxygen into the room so I got over it pretty quickly.

Totally mellow now. We have tentative meal and snack plans for this evening but I think it's going to be pretty low-key. Japan is going to be a big investment of energy and money. I very much hope to find an internet cafe close to each place we're staying to update further, but in the event that I don't....

Mehh. Insert profound summation of the peace and pleasure that we've found here. :)

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

The advantage of being married to an extroverted American.... that I don't get selected to join the cast of "JUMP" onstage for a demonstration of martial arts to determine "who is the master?"

The disadvantage is that my extroverted American husband does.

JUMP is a Korean "comic martial arts performance," which basically means they act out a story using very little language--handy, since the audience was mostly Korean but this is apparently a major tourist perk--and incredible demonstrations of acrobatics, martial arts and slapstick humor. We were all laughing and oooooooohing constantly throughout the show.

Yes, I have had Van Halen stuck in my head for the past couple of days. Gomen, gomen.

However, there is a place in the show for a person to be selected from the audience. And last night that person was, of course, Tavis. *sigh* He had already been involved earlier in the show; the "narrator," a little old man, asked Tavis to help him to the stage, and as Tavis got up to do so, the old man snuck into his seat next to me. He offered Tavis a piece of candy to leave, and Tavis (the eternal cheeseball) played along and said "Nope. TWO pieces of candy!" And then, upon receiving his candy, walked to the back of the auditorium and "disappeared" behind the back row. I don't think they counted on landing the one person in the audience who commits just as much as the actors do.

Regardless, we think that since he played along so well, he was the one selected for the second event. The story is centered around one family of martial artists who all train and live together; in the second scene they are competing with one another to see "who is the master?" However, the master may be found among the audience! They cowered in fear when they saw Tavis, asked where he was from, and dragged him up to stage. The first round, "Drunken Uncle" came at Tavis with a (slow-mo) punch and Tavis blocked it. The second round, Drunken Uncle did a forward somersault/backward somersault combo. Tavis, after playing to the Grandpa and audience for comedic effect, did a very nice job of replicating. (I am by this point thinking of nothing but Zoolander--"first model walks; second model duplicates, then elaborates.") After this, the family swarmed Tavis for a patdown and found that he was carrying an axe, a knife, and other assorted weapons. They all cowered in fear and ushered him off the stage with much laughter and appreciation by all.

It was just hilarious. My face was of course beet red, but I could not have wished for a better time.

Before that, the group of us were in Itaewon, doing some window shopping and getting massages. Tavis was unfortunately brutalized there and has a bruisy back today from his "deep tissue" torture. I had a much better time, fortunately. My legs and feet are still sore today from the amount of walking we've been doing, but that's no big deal.

Yes, I got a massage in Itaewon. Keep yer innuendo to yerself.

After the massage, we are walking on air. It looks like brick, but that's just because of the pollution.

A perfect pagoda.

I'm sure he's of some historical significance. I just love how dynamic his expression is.

I somehow don't think that jelly and coffee is going to be a big hit in the US. But everywhere you go, there are jelly drinks, or drinks with pulpy fruit mashed in. It's hard to explain unless you're a zombie and are familiar with a nice tasty mushy brain. They really are quite delicious if you can embrace the squishy.

Insadong, the "arts and crafts" community was next in our afternoon. We picked up some neat souvenirs and a nice wall hanging for our house, and then had dinner at another barbecue house where we had a room to ourselves with the low table and mats to sit upon. I liked this dining experience the least, actually--just not as many astounding flavors as we'd had in our other places. Still very pretty.

Neat lamps for sale in a ridiculously expensive store with ridiculously beautiful things, especially the textiles. Ties for $70, scarves for $110, normal-sheet-of-paper-sized silk wall hangings for even more than that. Wah for pretty things that I can't have.

Ceiling of a building in Insadong. Very neat.

I think this is a ceiling too, but for the life of me I can't remember which way it's oriented.

View of the layers of stores.

Us at the restaurant. Not pictured: numb feet.

Jo is such a wonderful hostess. We're so fortunate that our good friends have good friends.

Today we are getting started bright and early. As usual. Whyyyyy can't we sleep in?!

Cuteness part 1.

Cuteness part 2. My sleeping mask is awesome, don't lie.

We are heading back to Daejeon; should be there in time for lunch. Our travel plans have changed somewhat--we just found out that procrastinating on buying our ferry tickets to Japan was probably not the best move, and the ferry we want doesn't run on the day we'd planned to leave. So we're flying from Pusan (South Korea) to Osaka (Japan), which will cost a bit more but fortunately Rosie's travel agent got us a discount and this will really save time in transit. Hurray!

Anyway we're in Daejeon for another couple of days; we fly out to Japan on the 25th. Plenty to do and eat before then--I am really mad at myself for missing all the street food! It almost all smells amazing, with the notable exception of the stirfried larvae which stink up the whole street. Those aren't on my "must nom" list, obviously. I just hope the stars align to where we are walking down a street NOT after having just eaten.

That's all for now! If you didn't read the comment, Rob (Tavis's dad) mentioned that this blog is the #1 English hit for "Kundori Daejeon" on Google, so woot woot for my moment of celebrity. :)

Monday, July 20, 2009

Random impressions of South Korea

Random thoughts, pictures and impressions.

  • It costs Rosie $7 a day in gas to get to and from her school.
  • To pay for a product or service, offer the money in your right hand with your left hand supporting your arm. This is respectful.
  • In Seoul, it is common for teenage girls to get "calf reduction" surgery as a gift from their parents. They actually remove part of the calf muscle to make the leg look sleeker and more attractive. I am now surreptitiously peeking at legs and wondering, "are those real? Or reduced?"
  • There are very very few red or blue cars. There are also no pickup trucks. There are a disproportionately large number of cars in a color I affectionately refer to as "70's Wasabi."

  • With the exception of the ridiculous feasts (the neo-historical complex in Daejeon and the Nepalese restaurant in Seoul), none of our meals here have cost more than $10/person. Yet land is so expensive that in parking garages, they often have rotating setups like this. You park your car on the lift and they rotate it around. All I can think about is Super Mario World, trying to jump on the Koopa Kids' heads.

  • Food is just weird. Nuff said.

Why octopus flavored potato chips?! Why?!

Beautiful and delicious donut products. Usually filled with cream or chocolate. The kolache is amazing, too. "Paris Baguette"s are everywhere.

  • If it's in English, it's probably wrong.

Things I don't like about Korea:
  • they don't have single use paper towels in public restrooms; they have cloth hand towels. I can't imagine how unsanitary those are.
  • NOBODY covers their mouth to cough or sneeze. They don't want to get their hands dirty.
  • Driving. Aggression is the only rule that's obeyed and I am really astonished I haven't been involved in a collision yet. Red lights are mostly treated as stop signs--or pause signs. If you want to turn left (through oncoming traffic), you pretty much do it regardless of what the traffic lights say. I'd be on Adderal and Xanax all day just to commute. Sorry, Mom, I know this is the last thing you'd want to hear! At least we do a big chunk of our transportation on bike, which is really much safer--the only thing to worry about are soft, tender pedestrians. :)

Seoul far, seoul good. See how I changed it up there?


We are in Seoul for a couple of days, visiting R&J's friends Rob and Jo. Not that this could POSSIBLY get confusing. Yesterday we toured the Seoul National University where Rob and Jo teach, and then had an amazing Nepalese dinner at "Everest." I didn't bring my camera to that event, sadly, but Indian food doesn't really photograph very well. Lots of earth tones and goo. Yes, that's my official stance. Anyway, we had another feast of many things of which I never remembered the name but loved every bite.

Soccer players at SNU.

Sculpture graveyard by the art building.

Today we are visiting Itaewan, seeing the show "JUMP," getting massages and undoubtedly eating many more amazing meals. I'm not being blase, I just am not 100% aware of our order of operations today. One thing about Seoul, getting to and from places is a major commitment. To get to our restaurant last night, we took a bus to a sub station and then walked several blocks after that. I can quite easily see how frustrating this would be to a person living here.

The day before yesterday, we were planning to go to the mud festival, you may recall. Well, it didn't happen. We got on the highway and promptly got lost. Not uncommon with ambiguous signs IN ANOTHER LANGUAGE. So after a couple hours of wandering aimlessly, nomming kimbop and drinkable yogurt, and singing along with the iPod, we came back to Daejeon and instead took a tour of Rosie's campus.

We then went to Manin-san, or Mount Manin, which is adjacent. Immensely beautiful mountain trails, most of which was divided into a "regular" trail and a red clay trail where you can walk barefoot. Which I did until I stepped on a rock and hurt my foot. Of course.

I have the best friends in the world. This is an accurate sample slice of them.

James's album cover shot.

Yep we walked up these stairs. And more stairs. And more stairs.

You of course realize that if I'm doing anything on this trip, it's stuffing my face.

Barefoot in the clay.

Who scared, you scared?!

Tavis as Spiderman.

Check out that view.

Yes, that does say that this is a "placenta chamber." Apparently it's the thing to do for Korean royalty.


Beautiful stream, which was partially diverted into a pool to wash feet off. Do not stick your feet directly into the stream or an elderly Korean man will appear out of nowhere to scold you and then show you what to do, silly foreigner!

Frog next to where we washed our feet after the clay path.

Rosie: "Accio red clay ball!"

This is a "couple tower," where couples can attach a padlock with their names/initials/anniversary date/other significant message marked on it. It shows undying love. Or possession. Which is 9/10 of love. No wait, that's law. Nevermind.

Statue hilarity.

As we were leaving, we saw these guys. The yellow one is Kundori, the Daejeon city mascot. Not pictured: Triceratops. Yes, there was a Triceratops statue next to these two. Why? I have no idea.

After this amazing walk, we stopped by this complex of restaurants and museums constructed by this family who had millions of dollars to spend creating authentic replicas of old Korean architecture. See for yourself.

Amazing view 1.

Amazing view 2.

Anyway, after touring around here, the smell of barbecue had sufficiently wooed us and we stayed for dinner. And I am so glad we did. This was a feast, pure and simple. We ordered:

  • bi bim bop, which is like a mix of rice and veggies and mushrooms and a fried egg. It often includes meat but we order it without for James. He didn't care for this particular one but I liked it; it tasted like sesame oil and woodsy and smoky.
  • hemul pacheon, a potato pancake filled with squid and green onions which is about the size and thickness of a medium pizza, sliced into squares to be dipped into sesame oil. Ohmygoodness, SO GOOD.
  • bulgogi like you've never seen it before. Huge trough of beef, at least four kinds of mushrooms, incredibly moist and juicy and flavorful rice noodles, assorted veggies, and an octopus because why not? All swimming in sauce.
  • a pot of dongdongju, the 2nd-most-distilled version of soju (like sake). Very clean, light, sweet and left me with no hangover the next morning, amazingly!
  • plus more side dishes and random "compliments of the chef" dishes than an army could eat.
This was just impossibly good. And all of that for about $65 total. There is nothing like it.

For reference, this is bi bim bop. This one is plastic. The ones you eat are not.

Hemul pacheon

Random tasties they brought us just cuz. Some creamy shrimp, and above is some sweet potato with other veggies.

Bulgogi. See what I mean? And the side dishes everywhere!

Saturday, July 18, 2009

Won for the money, two for the show....yeah, I'm starting to disgust myself

This will be brief because I went back and made the last entry more thorough, so I have little to talk about yet. I SHOULD be uploading pictures, we only have 130 of them so far, but I don't want to hold everyone back from the day.

Again, up at 6am. Did yoga with Rosie while the boys worked out at the gym. They've been going every day, and yesterday they played basketball as well. Tavis says the people here are so pleasant to play with--they enjoy the game, they're non-competitive in the extreme and compliment each other unequivocally on good plays and good tries alike. The definition of "sportsmanlike." So he was a happy camper.

And before you say anything, nooooo it wasn't just because we're so much taller than everyone. That's somewhat of a myth, really. The size difference is not all that noticeable among our age group. Go figure. (I did get called a model yesterday by a shopkeeper, which was nice, but she also wanted my money so I'm not putting that much stock in it.)

Today, the weather is beautiful and sunny for the first day since we've arrived, so we are rescheduling our abandoned trip to the mud festival after all! Hurray! There will definitely be pics and posts post-mud.

Thank you to those of you on my facebook who posted birthday wishes! It was lovely. Really, we are both so absolutely content to be here with our friends, enjoying this beautiful city, delicious food, and the daily variety of activities. I am so very glad we came.

Happy birthday to me! Or: if it's so won, why does it feel so right?

Edited with pictures!

Yes, the "won" puns are likely to continue until we're ensconced in Japan, at which point I shall cheerfully transition into "yen" puns.

Before I get into today--yayyyy birthday!--I have to finish our adventures from yesterday! So when we left our heroes, we had enjoyed a lovely morning. The lovely continued with lunch at a kimchi jjig (chee-gay), which serves communal troughs of soup with a ridiculous number of side dishes. Very nice location; we removed our shoes at the entrance and knelt/sat on woven mats as we shared our meal. The sense of communion was lovely and the food was spicy and delicious.


In South Korea, it is known that Foreigners Like Eggs. So this place gave us a whole plate of fried eggs to eat with our meal.

Afterwards, we ventured out into the elements (it IS monsoon season and rainy quite frequently) and explored a farmer's market. It was on a MUCH larger scale than I originally pictured. Got some fantastic shots of bins of all sorts of fish, rays, crustaceans, and other oddities, as well as some neat mushrooms, giraffe-striped gourds, little yellow melons and more. Familiar fruit is very expensive, like cherries and peaches. Bananas and kiwis were reasonable.

Crazy fish pt 1

Crazy fish pt 2


I have NO idea what these are.


That evening, we ate "siesta burgers" at a beautiful little art cafe downtown. Renaissance-esque art covered the walls, and the floor outside was glass peeking down at an underground botanical garden. Very neat! The burgers themselves were, as with the "Italian" food before, Western food with a twist. The sauces really made it work--some sort of sweet soy on top and a spicy mayonnaise below. Tasty treat.

Ooh ambience.

Nomburger. This picture doesn't accurately show the hugeness of it. Meers burgers got nothin on this!

And then Harry Potter! Nuff said. Oh wait--at the concession stand, you can get popcorn, nachos, or squid with peanut butter. Yes, I'm being serious.

Now onto today, and what a great birthday it's been! We started the day off with a bike ride through a park by the river--side note, I have become fairly non-incompetent on the bike over the last two days! And have the sore butt to prove it--which culminated in a breakfast of crepes prepared by Rosie and me.

Rosie does the messaround!

Who says you can't find cheese in Korea?

Proof that I do in fact bike around!

What's up, handsome?

Pretty water wheel in a pond.

So pretty.

They have exercise stations set up all along this garden. An active Korea is a healthy Korea!

Men being manly. Nothin to see here.

Whew! I'm exhausted.

We then moved on to shopping...and shopping, and shopping, and shopping. Our mark was left on

  • a mall. Ohhh the food court--conveyor belts of sushi, bean curd molded and colored into beautiful cakes, Black Uncle cheesecakes, and such pretty dimsum! And a LUSH!!!! Which sold the same things as the Lushes in the states, sadly, and for a higher price.
  • A series of street markets. Think Times Square and Mexico smooshed together. Pet store after pet store. Rosie got attacked by a monkey. Kids serenaded us with karaoke from the second floor.
  • The underground market, which sells approximately the same goods as above-ground for lower prices.
  • More farmers' markets, with all the previous days' food experiences plus more street food, house wares, and clothing, including traditional Korean garb worn at weddings. Rosie says nowadays they will wear it for part of the ceremony and then change into more Western dress.
Me in Daejeon Lush!

Street view of a shopping district.

So many tiny fluffy puppies. It makes me sad and aww at the same time.

Rosie versus the evil monkey! My thought process was something like "hmm, I should probably help her....nah, I'll take pictures of this moment!"

Engrish is awesome. This shirt says "Flying Away: Every hour, every day, I will pray, I have one day to fly." We've seen many many MANY unintentional funnies.

City at night.

To cool down, we visited a coffee shop and played board games with other ex-pats while smoking hookahs (blech) and drinking tea and coffee products (blech). The company is nice. I lose at games. Mehh!

Dinner: Korean barbeque. Amazingly delicious, and again the feeling of communion, sharing a meal and bamboo liquor with my friends. Then dessert at The Chocolate, a cafe where we split fondue with fruit and hot cocoa.

Fallin in love is like falling in love is like barbeque....

The day was complete.