Hotaru Ika and Kanazawa

SMS and I headed to the West Coast (Best Coast!) of Japan this past weekend.  I had to travel the next week to a couple of clinics so we decided to build on the trip.  We each had a specific place we wanted to see on the West Coast.  SMS wanted to see the famous Hotaru-Ika (Firefly squid) along the Toyama Bay coast.  I really wanted to see Kanazawa after hearing rave reviews about it several years ago when Brady and Ed visited.  There is also a really good “36 Hours in…” article on Kanazawa so I had a few places in mind.

The extension opened up 3.14.15…now that’s a way to celebrate Pi Day! (Japainrailpass.com)

We left Friday afternoon and took the new Shinkansen to Toyama. The new route extended the Nagano Shinkansen beyond Nagano all the way to Kanazawa.  This extension connects Tokyo and Kanazawa directly so it takes only 2.5 hours!  Before, the trip required a transfer at Kyoto or Nagoya and took a little over 5 hours.  Anyway, we were very excited and took the Shin to Toyama, followed by a local JR train to Uozu.  We had eaten on the train so we checked into the hotel, dropped off our bags and decided to walk to the beach.

Interestingly, our hotel seemed to be in the Red Light district of Uozu since there were several clubs with prostitutes milling about outside.  But it’s Japan so it felt very safe.  After one of the prostitutes unsuccessfully called after three guys, she called out a very friendly “Kombanwa” to SMS and I.  Not exactly knowing what to do, I decided to be polite and say “Kombanwa!” back.
Screen shot for Firefly Squid, apparently mostly for eating, not seeing!  I ate a marinated one for breakfast and almost threw up.  The two pictures on the bottom (center and right) are the most common (and really only) pics on the web, in both Japanese and English searches. This is a screen shot from a Google search.

Anyway, we walked to the shore and found that there was very little beach.  It was mostly a concrete barrier seawall and nary a firefly squid in sight!  Boo hoo! We walked along but the picture that was so beautiful on the internet never materialized before our eyes.  At the same time, I had low expectations because the picture, while spectacular, was really the only one found in the web searches. I feel that if it was common, there would be a lot more photos since there are so many photographers in Japan that would flock to a place like this.

Submerged sugi roots- part of the museum is under the current sea level!

The next day, we decided that we would max out our tourist experience in Uozu so we went to the drowned forest museum.  When they built the harbor, they came across the submerged root structure of an ancient 2000 year old Japanese cedar (sugi) forest.  Honestly, it sounds like they made lemons out of lemonade since it would probably be pretty annoying to come across a bunch of roots when trying to dredge a commercial port. So, they made it a tourist attraction!

At the museum, we saw two short movies which showed off two of the three tourist draws of Toyama Bay.  One is the Drowned Forest, and two is the Spring “mirage” where the interface of different thermal air gradients creates a shoreline mirage.  The movies had beautiful cinematography and highlighted the beauty of the area, which was cool since we were there on a gray, foggy day.
I look how the squid feels, I think!
SMS, science guy!

After the cedar forest, we travelled to Namerika to the Firefly Squid museum, the third attraction of Toyama Bay.  We left our bags with a tourism board lady at the station (yay!) and walked straight out the railway station about 10 minutes down the road. The museum was pretty cool.  The highlight was the Hotaru Ika show.  We went into a small auditorium where, after a short movie, the lights went out and we shook a net holding very lethargic squid. In response to the stimulation, they glowed!  We saw the luminescent Hotaru Ika!  Hooray!

Sign at the museum.  Don’t worry, SMS and I were in no danger of breaking this rule!

By the way, in terms of experiencing the Hotaru Ika as gustatory delicacies, SMS and I were a little more successful.  At the hotel breakfast, there were little plates of the squid marinated in a miso sauce.  I tried one but it was way too early for that type of culinary Fear Factor.  I wanted to spit it out but I persevered.  The thing that got me is the body part has a lot of squishy stuff that, to me, also tasted a bit off.  So between the texture and the taste, I was over it shortly after I began.  At the firefly museum, we had Squid tempura rice bowls for lunch.  I was sort of scarred and only ate the legs so my lunch was on the teeny side.  SMS ate them and thought they were good but after those two meals, we felt we had been adventurous enough!

Restored outer wall of the Kanazawa castle

Then, it was off to Kanazawa.  We checked in and walked to the castle grounds.  It was a beautiful night and the outer walls that remain are quite pretty.  After sunset, we went to a restaurant in a pretty cool area.  The food was good but it wasn’t my favorite restaurant in Japan.  Oh well, win some, lose some.  Also, it definitely wasn’t as bad as my restaurant choice in Nagano.

Neighborhood temple near the castle grounds

We went to bed for our exciting next day plans- the NINJA temple and the Kenkuen garden.

Midweek Tokyo Vacation: Shibuya, Ramen Alley, Ueno

Day 3 of our mini-vacation!  We started off at The City Bakery.  We were a little earlier than the day before and ended up with an Egg Benedict each. Success!  It was a perfectly poached egg served on a whole, unsliced English muffin.  It was pretty delicious although the ham/bacon was a little thicker than I like on my perfect version of Egg Benedict but seriously, a minor quibble!
Next, we headed to Shibuya where SMS dropped off film and showed off various cool skyscrapers.  He wanted to take me to the Nikon showroom but it was closed for the Japanese holiday, which had been the day before.  National Foundation Day, Feb 11 for those who want to keep track.
After Shibuya, we headed to Tokyo Station and went to Ramen Alley (Yaesu South Exit).  SMS’ favorite is Honda, so we sat down and tucked into a delicious bowl of soup before heading to Ueno Station to the Tokyo Metropolitan Art Museum located in Ueno Park.
We saw the Neo-Impressionism Exhibit that was spectacular.  Seriously, it’s one of my favorite art exhibitions I’ve seen.  It was really well-curated and the chronologic sequence and flow and evolution of the style was clearly conveyed.  I like Georges Seurat and Paul Signac, the later of whom had several works displayed from 1884-early 1900s and the progression into an early Fauvism was apparent. I would like to go back one more time before it closes but we’ll see.  There’s so much to do in Japan!
CW from Top Left: Shibuya, Reflecting Globe outside Museum, Arisugawa Park

After the museum, we headed back to Hiro-o to pick up the car so we could go back to the film shop and pick up SMS’ epic Mt Fuji print.  Before we got into the car, we took a brief stroll in my favorite nearby park, Arisugawa.  Although it’s currently not in its prettiest season, it was still very pleasant.

We picked up SMS’s print (it is FANTASTIC!) and headed out to dinner.  We ended up going to Pizza & Pancake in Zushi after unsuccessfully trying to go to Cactus Burrito (it was closed).

And that was our trip!  It was so much fun and so wonderful to explore Tokyo with SMS.  We saw new neighborhoods and had so many new adventures together, it felt very epic!

30 Hours in Kyoto!

Bamboo Forest, Arashiyama

Sagoy!  I am very impressed with SMS and I!  Two weeks ago, my friend Marissa wrote to me to let me know that she and her husband were going to Kyoto.  We worked it out so that we could meet up so SMS and I headed off to Kyoto for what ended up being a 30 hour trip.  Although that sounds short, we had the most amazing time catching up with friends and seeing a lot of Kyoto!

On Saturday, SMS and I left the house at 7:50.  We took the train to Shin-Yokohama where we caught the Nozomi Shinkansen down to Kyoto.  We arrive at 11:40 and took a taxi over to the apartment.  I found the listing on Airbnb.com and I highly recommend the place. It was a cute, minimalist apartment with two bedrooms, 1 toilet and 1 shower room (these are most often separated in Japan housing).  It would be a great place to base a longer trip to Kyoto, but SMS and I were limited by prior commitments we had in Yokosuka on Sunday.

SMS, Marissa, Blake and I met at the apartment and dropped off our bags.  The weather was much better than the forecast so I switched plans and we headed to Arashiyama.  I had originally planned to go on Saturday but since the weather was so good and everything in Arashiyama is outside, we decided to head West.

Since the overall trip was pretty short, we took taxis almost everywhere.  The buses aren’t bad, especially for the central and east parts of the city, but for four people, a cab was only slightly more expensive than subway and train fare.  We were dropped off along the river near the Togetsukyo bridge, or “Moon Crossing Bridge.”  While we were in the cab, we listened to a podcast and we all felt very knowledgable!

Before heading off on our Arashiyama trek, we stopped for a heavy snack.  SMS was hungry and ordered ramen for lunch.  Blake and I ordered croquettes for a snack.  I didn’t want to have too large of a lunch since we were going to have a great dinner later that night.

Subarashi!

After eating, we headed to the Bamboo Forest.  There, I saw one of the highlights of the trip.  There was an older man very seriously playing “Greensleeves” on a wind instrument held to his nose- a nose flute!  It was pretty amazing and I have pictures to prove it!  Don’t worried, I gave him a tip- fair’s fair.

At the Villa, aka my Vacation Home!

After that excitement, I recovered from my near-swoon and we toured the gardens of Okochi-Sanso Villa.  It was breath-taking.  The entrance is a bit pricy at Y1000/person, but with the awesome current exchange rate, who cares!  Plus, it really is breath-taking and I highly recommend it!  This site in particular made me so happy we were in Kyoto.  When we toured with SMS’ parents, I made a mental note that I wanted to come back for the Fall Foilage but it probably wouldn’t have happened since there are so many other places I want to see.  Fortunately though, our friends’ visit lured us down there and it was so worth it!

I took a lot of pictures at the Villa and was so impressed by the vivid Fall colors. Afterwards, we went to my favorite washi shop and headed to Gio-ji.  This was the only disappointment of the trip because I was so excited to show off my favorite temple but it’s gorgeous carpet of moss was covered with leaves.  Nooooooo!  It was still beautiful and worth seeing, but I was a little non-plussed.  Marissa tried to cheer me up, which was sweet and sort of funny because it really wasn’t that big a deal.  It’s just I had really built it up and with the Fall leaves, the main attraction (for me) was mostly obscured.

Gio-ji, covered in leaves <:o(

After Gio-ji, we started back in the direction of the train station.  We wanted to maximize our time in Kyoto so we decided to see the Kinkakuji (Golden Temple).  On our way to the station (to catch another cab), we walked through the grounds of Seiryo-ji, which caught our eye mainly for the impressive wooden gate and main building.

Kinkakuji and our new friends!

We then quickly caught a cab and went to Kinkakuji just in time for sunset.  It was very beautiful and we got some nice couple shots.  We also had a photo with several Japanese school girls.  I thought they initially only wanted Blake in the photo but then we were all invited in!

We went home and got ready for dinner.  We went back to Takuma, our favorite restaurant from last time.  This time we had table seating instead of counter seating so we lost a little bit of the showmanship aspect, but the food was just as delicious.  Although there were some variation on the specifics, the courses were the same as our last visit.

We walked home through Gion, which was beautiful.  On the way home, we walked through the Kennin-ji grounds, which were beautifully lit.  It started to sprinkle so our walk ended at the perfect time since we were nearly home by that point.

That was the first half of the trip, just under 12 hours in Kyoto.  Isn’t it amazing how much can be seen while on vacation?!  I wish work life felt that efficient sometimes!

Misawa TDY

SMS and I went to Misawa Air Force Base last week so that I could see an ENT clinic and perform some surgeries.  Professionally, it was a nice trip.  It’s a remote little place but people are very collegial. I saw a lot of consults and performed 8 small procedures- 6 tubes, 1 tube removal and 1 turbinate reduction.  So, it wasn’t a week that will be featured on the hit show, “The Glamorous Lives of ENT Surgeons,” but it was nice to help out and address a big backlog.

Misawa is always described as so far from Yokosuka, but it was only 5 hours away by train and Shinkansen.  SMS and I were burdened down with two suitcases, one exclusively dedicated to medical equipment and home sleep study machines.  Unfortunately, the seats on the Shin were sold out but we were lucky enough (ha, ha) to get standing seats.  The standing seats are assigned between specific cars and while it wasn’t terrible, it was definitely not great.  Standing that long on a train isn’t much fun and I couldn’t even act like a kid and sit on the floor because it was covered in freshly spilled beer.  (Hey!  Not ours!  It was there when we got on!).

When we arrived in Hachinohe, we went to a restaurant in the train station for dinner.  We said, in our finest Japanese, “We’ll have the most expensive set on the menu!!”  Well, what really happened is we saw the food the people next to us had and ordered their set, the Aomori set.  While it was the most expensive set on the menu, it was totally awesome!  There was miso soup, rice, pickled vegetables, salmon roe, fish and a cool scallop shell on a sterno cooking stove with the most delicious seafood soup.  Yum!  It hit the spot and since the most expensive item on the menu was still only Y2000, we thought it was totally worth it.

We got to the Misawa Inn, which smelled really badly.  I voted for moldy while SMS voted for old throw-up on the carpet.  Either way, it was definitely the low of the week.  Things picked up on the weekend when we stayed in the orthopedic surgeon’s house after he left town for his own TDY.

The rest of the visit can pretty much be summarized in two posts: Misawa Eats and Aomori Weekend since the highlights of the trip focus on what we ate and what we did over the weekend we were there. Coming soon!

Yokosuka Weekend

SMS and I had a pretty mellow weekend.  Since last weekend was busy and we have lots of plans for next weekend, a quiet weekend at home was great.

Interior of Snug Stay Door.  Very comfortable!
Hawaiian Magazines and the bar.

On Friday, we went to Snug Stay Door, a restaurant fairly close to our house.  It is a really cute place decked out in lots of Hawaiian kitsch.  It’s a really comfortable environment, more coffee-shop than restaurant, but the food is incredible.  SMS had been once before and raved about the food.  I ordered the avocado cheeseburger.  Despite being on the diet menu, it was absolutely delicious.  Ok, just kidding about the diet menu, but it is true that it was delectable!  The toppings included mayonnaise, lettuce (oh thank goodness!), tomato, cheese, perfectly ripe avocado.  The bun was perfectly toasted and the burger was great.  On the side, there were perfect little potato wedges.  It was awesome!

SMS had the poke loco moco.  It was a rice bowl with tuna sashimi, a soft-boiled egg and seaweed sprinkles.  It was also tasty.  We split a Hilo Hawaii ice cream that had a little freezer burn and was just ok (but come on, it was still ice cream!).  Overall, the meal was amazing and we will definitely be back!

Wide-angle view of Kannonzaki Beach with the Rest House in the background (right)

Lighthouse and Rest House more visible.  If we were driving, we would have made a right
at the light by the rest house and then parked in the lot on the left.

Concrete Swimming Island.  No diving!  The water is only waist-deep.

 On Saturday, we had a mellow morning and an almost-as-mellow afternoon.  We biked down towards Kannonzaki Park.  We walked around the little pier, the beach and back up into the forest for a bit, aka until the uphill started and laziness kicked in!  I figured out that the Kannonzaki Rest House was where we should have made the right and parked when we went to the giant slide.  I took a picture for reference.

It’s hydrangea season!

After that, we headed out to Ikego because SMS had his first family photo shoot.  I wasn’t there but the photos look amazing and SMS was really happy with how it went!  Sagoy!  While SMS was busy, I hung out at Melinda’s house with Amanda and Melinda. It was a lot of fun to hang out with friends with Orange is the New Black on in the background.  SMS came over and we stayed for dinner, including a delicious berry pie, before heading home.

On Sunday, I cleaned around the house, studied Japanese, cooked up a storm and went into the hospital a few times.  Yes that’s right, a call day that I actually had to work!  SMS and I also went grocery shopping and went to Pepper Lunch for…lunch.  It’s like bibimbap except that the order comes out on a hot, flat, cast-iron plate with raw meat and rice that quickly cooks.  It’s delicious!

Giant Slides and Japanese Grills!

This weekend was filled with local mini-adventures, really good food and fun times with friends.  The weekend started a little early since SMS and I went out to lunch on Friday.  We went out to the 16 and I decided I wanted to try the famous Katsu place.  I had heard about it when I was on the Kitty Hawk but I had never been able to find it.  This always annoyed me since I knew it was on the base side of the street between the two gates and there aren’t that many buildings located there.  Anyway, it’s a very small storefront with a wooden sign over the door and if it’s open, you’ll see a three-paneled green door hanging and a small spider plant out front.  Well, Friday we were in luck!

It was worth the wait, although katsu isn’t going to become a frequent eats!

When we sat down, we waited.  And waited some more.  Finally, we put our order in once he asked.  I had heard that the shop moves at the chef’s pace and it’s all true.  When we initially sat down, we thought we’d split a plate but by the time the food was ready about 50 minutes later, we were so hungry and each wolfed down our own separate place.  SMS and I both had the tonkatsu (breaded and fried pork cutlet) and it was delicious!

I went back to work way later than I meant to so I ended up staying late to make up the work.  I would have stayed later but then the network went down completely.  Well, I guess that was that.  I texted SMS to tell him I was on my way.  He was out at the yakitori place near our local train station and he asked me to join him.  When I went in, I saw that he had made friends with four Japanese construction workers who were very into arm-wrestling.  They were really nice and we had fun talking to them and a really nice lady next to our group.  SMS and I really intrigued them because I don’t think many white people go in there.  Although everyone was super-nice, it’s definitely a Nihongo-only place so you need at least survival Japanese+ to navigate.  Sometimes it’s funny to me when I’m in a place near Yokosuka and people are surprised to see an American.  My life is so base-focused that I think, “Well, there’s sort of a base nearby” but really, the base isn’t all that big relative to the overall population density so sometimes, we’re a novelty even if the base “Little America” atmosphere feels so close.

Zushi Beach

On Saturday, we met up with a bunch of friends in Ikego (Japanese side) for brunch, BBQ and beach.  We had delicious crepes (savory and sweet), yummy turkey burgers and condensed milk-filled strawberries.  Yum!  After lots of food, we got in our bathing suits (great timing!) and headed to the beach.  The water was so warm!  It was several degrees warmer already than San Diego at the height of Summer.  I am definitely ok with that!

The Start!

Today, we hung out in the morning and cleaned up the apartment.  We aim for cleaning it every week and, apart from travel, we’ve been pretty consistent.  This afternoon, we went out to Kannonzaki Park with Rose and her two kids and played on the various playgrounds sprinkled through the park.  The highlight was the huge roller slide where we really gained some speed. We used our new favorite Japanese purchase, the plastic slide sheets to help us go faster.  After sliding, we went to Rose’s where we had delicious carnitas for dinner.  Yum, yum, yum!

Kannonzaki Park.  We parked at the parking on the bottom left, I would recommend
the Yokosuka Art Museum, center and slightly right.

Oh yeah!  We almost had a near disaster at Kannonzaki.  We parked in the lot and came back around 6:15 and the gates were closed and a note in Japanese on the windshield.  OH NO!  Fortunately, one of the gates was unlocked so we opened it and shut it behind us but we were nervous.  Note for next time- the parking lots close at 5!  Also, we went all the way around the point to where the rest station with the Italian restaurant was but it would be much, much closer to park at the Yokosuka Art museum.  The walk was lovely but the distance added up by the end of the day.  It’s a huge park!

So, that was the weekend!  Not too much out-of-the-ordinary is planned for this week at work.  Paperwork, clinic, OR and a host nation emergency medicine conference on Friday.  Should be fun!

Takatori-yama Climbing

Looking back, I cannot believe how much we did in a three-day weekend.  It was awesome to explore locally and have such a good time.   On Monday, we drove to Ikego and hiked to Takatori-yama, a rock climbing location we went to last December.  The hike is beautiful.  It starts off through the woods and then up many stone stairs to a small temple.  The temple is serene and beautiful with the tori gate, main building, bell structure and Jinz-o statues.  We pressed on.

Since we are expert hikers, we realized that we had taken a wrong turn when we were walking back down the (little) mountain.  Things look a lot different when trees have leaves on them in May vs bare in Dec!  So, we back-tracked and were also helped out by a Japanese guy singing in the forest.  No, he didn’t sing the directions to us (that would have been awesome!), but he cut off his singing when he saw our (ok, ok, fine, SMS’) giant pack and asked us if we were going to Takatori-yama and then gave us directions.
Bear right at this sign, not left

 We climbed for a couple of hours.  I am very rusty and the rock is kind of difficult for me.  It’s basically tightly pressed sand that starts to disintegrate and embed sharp little sand particles into my out-of-practice, non-calloused hands.  Ouch.  I am not the biggest fan of rock climbing hurting so it was a pretty light, get-back–into-it-slowly type of day for me.

Looking good, SMS!
After climbing, we called our friend Melinda and headed out near Enoshima to get breakfast at bills’.  We had heard a lot about it and so had everyone else.  The wait was two hours and even though it looked delicious, we needed food about 5 minutes ago at that point.  Part of that is my fault since we got 10 minutes lost while driving.  So we went to a little pizza place that was very oishii and all was right with the world again.
That night, we went out to dinner with two really good friends from San Diego.  I’m so happy they’re both here!  We went out to a little izakaya by their house and had a great time.  I feel so lucky to have great friends here so quickly.  In San Diego, it took me awhile to get settled in and if it took me too long here, it would be time for us to move again!