Birthday weekend, Part 2: Napa!

After sleeping soundly in the guesthouse’s comfortable beds, we woke up to celebrate my birthday!  SMS and I were up first so we headed to Bouchon Bakery for pastries.  We ordered a delicious assortment including a croissant, almond croissant, chocolate almond croissant and pain au chocolat.  In order to disrupt the theme, we also ordered two cinnamon donuts that came with the hole.  Both were delicious.  The cake texture was incredibly perfect- I’ve never had a donut like it!

We brought the pastries back to the house where we ate and got ready for our day of strenuous wine glass lifting.  Our first appointment was at Schramsberg Vineyards for some sparkling wine, which seemed like the only civilized option that early in the morning!  But before the tasting comes the tour, which was excellent.  Rimpel gave us an overview of the winery’s history, including the role Schramsberg sparkling wine has had in international-US affairs and State Dinners.  After that, it was time to tour the cave!

Rows and rows of champagne- what a lovely sight!  See the pickax marks on the upper left?

The first 1/6 mile of the cave was hand-cut by Chinese workers who were out of work after building the trans-Continental railroad.  The pick-ax marks are still there!  It reminded me of the cave system in Yokosuka.  The caves were pretty awesome, especially now that they’ve been expanded and hold millions of bottles of sparkling wine!

Rimpel reviewed the champagne making process, which is pretty cool.  First, the wine is made similar to any winery.  Then there’s a secondary fermentation that happens within the bottle when sugar, yeast and wine are added.  The bottle is capped with a beer bottle top and left to age fo
r several years.  Prior to bottling, the bottles are inverted and twisted in huge holding racks by “riddlers” over the course of a few weeks to get the yeast to settle out right above the cap.  At the end, the neck is placed in glycol to freeze the neck, the cap is removed, the ice plug shoots out and a cork/cage are placed.  The process was fascinating and Rimpel explained it really well.

Happy frog in the Schramsberg pond!

After all that walking through the caves, it was time for the tasting!  We went into a small dining room and had two Blanc de Blanc, one Blanc de Noir and one Rose. They were all fantastic.  A nice surprise was the J. Davies cabernet sauvignon in the middle.  It was surprisingly delicious.  It was full-bodied and really, really smooth.  I loved it!  Mom signed up for the wine club and I don’t know, I may soon be joining her!  (Oh wait, I just did!)

After our fantastic tour, we walked through the gardens which were really beautiful.  Napa in the Spring on a sunny day is absolutely gorgeous.  Then we headed into Yountville where I had bought tickets for the Taste of Yountville event.  The event went from 12-5 and featured a lot of different restaurants and local wineries.  There was also a tour of the French Laundry gardens, which three of the four of us liked (Dad!).  We had a great time walking up and down the street, grabbing our bites to eat such as shrimp and grits, mini-slider and ribs while washing it down with multiple wine tastings.  I think it would have been dangerous if we spent all afternoon there!

View from the Far Niente’s main house balcony

Instead of spending all afternoon in Yountville, I kept an appointment I had made at Far Niente for 2 o’clock.  SMS and I are Nickel & Nickel members, mostly for the complimentary tastings!  Ok, ok, the wine is good too.  But the tastings are so expensive that by joining the wine club, it almost comes out even between the shipment costs and the complimentary tasting benefit.  Since SMS and I had been to Nickel & Nickel before, we wanted to try Far Niente.

Far Niente Caves.  Old vs new label on the right.

Our Uber drive out there was great because I got some awesome insights as to when you do and do not want someone throwing up in your car.  I would have thought you’d never want someone to throw up in your car but how wrong I was.  Cornell taught me that you get reimbursed $400 by Uber and the place he uses to clean it up only charges $160.  So on a slow night, it really helps you come out ahead.  I said I’d be tempted to buy fake throw-up.  He said he’s thought the same thing but that the last rider gets charged so someone would probably complain.

Tasting time!

The tour was also amazing.  Reed walked us through the winery and described the process.  We also walked through the caves, which were among the first in Napa.  The caves were really cool although different in appearance than Schramsberg.   In the caves, we went into the wine library which was an awesome sight.  I wanted a bigger bag so I could sneak a bottle away.  I kid, I kid (mostly).

The car barn and a view of the main building

The tasting was great.  The highlight for me was trying Dolce, an incredible dessert wine that I have a bottle of but never tried.  It is so sweet and delicious!  We also had two chardonnays and two cabernet sauvignons.  The wines were paired with excellent cheeses and really, it was completely delightful.  The balcony door was open, the breeze blew through and the whole scene was so idyllic.

After Far Niente, we headed back to Yountville via Uber.  We caught the last hour of the festival and we had a great time.  Then it was back to the house to relax until dinner.

Dinner was at Ad Hoc, a Thomas Keller restaurant.  It was nice to have a birthday dinner in such a quintessential Yountville restaurant.  The short ribs supplement and cheese course were definitely on point.  The salad and dessert were also pretty good. The service and ambiance left a little to be desired but no matter, with great food and great company, it was an awesome end to a great birthday.

We got home around 10 and even though we wanted to build a fire, we were done!  We all went to bed, looking forward to more weekend adventures the next day!

Napa Wine Tasting Day!


The Fab Four at Jericho Canyon
We woke up and rolled straight out of bed to an awesome breakfast!  Our B&B Wine Way Inn features a great breakfast spread every morning.  We had a dutch pancake in a castiron pan, blueberry muffins, yogurt and granola, roasted peaches and French-press coffee.  Yum!
After breakfast, I went into town to  pick up some picnic treats and fill up the car.  Don the Driver came over shortly thereafter and we were off to the tastings!
Another shot of Jericho Canyon
Our first stop was Jericho Canyon.  It’s a small, family-owned winery that cultivates 40 of its 100+ acres.   We met our guide Brittany and headed up the hill to view the spectacular view from the top.  The vineyards were a gorgeous green and golden hills, trees, scattered buildings, cliffs and vineyards made for a very picturesque viewing point.  We took in the view for a bit while Brittany explained some of the history of the place.  Then we headed back down and into the cave where we looked at all the barrels before sitting down to a tasting.  There were some great reds and we all liked the wines a lot.  The tour was just the four of us and it was really awesome to have such a focused experience.
Nickel and Nickel Barn
We had to go a little earlier than we would have liked but we were heading down the road to Nickel & Nickel, a single-vineyard per wine winery that SMS and I really enjoyed a bottle from recently during a fancy celebration dinner.  We arrived a few minutes late but we joined the group in the parlor of the main house and listened to the rest of the overview.  We toured the grounds and saw several restored barns that had been brought in from other parts of the US.  We walked past the equipment used in the production process before ending up in the barrel cellar, which is different than a barrel cave even though they look about the same inside. I think it has to do with whether it’s dug into the ground vs. a hillside.
Then we went into the dining room and had a wonderful tasting of 4 cabernet sauvignons and 1 pinot noir along with 3 delicious cheeses.  The wines were exquisite and we had a really great time.  I joined the wine club a few days prior, mostly to offset the cost of the tastings but after the tasting, I’m really looking forward to the wine now too!
The porch of Venge
After Nickel & Nickel, we headed to our picnic lunch, which we had in a park in Calistoga.  Then we went to our last vineyard of the day, Venge.  Venge had a beautiful porch overlooking the vineyard and we had a nice time kicking back and enjoying the wine.  Our pourer was a pretty funny guy, some of it unintentional on his part.  Some his adjectives weren’t the best (“disgustingly big”) and he sort of botched the story about the wine being named in honor of the owner’s dead dog.  I referred to it as Dead Dog Wine from then on out, which I think was missing the point.
Afterwards, we returned back to the B&B.  We stopped in at the Tank tasting room so SMS could try out the pinball.  Then we had a glass of wine back at the inn before heading to JoLe for dinner, which was another hit!  I had scallops with grits and okra, which was pretty delicious.  We headed home after sharing dessert and wishing Linda a Happy Birthday one more time.  It was a great day and we really had such a great time!

Day 8: Sayonara, *sniff!*

Whah!  The vacation was awesome but too short.  I love hanging out with Mom and Dad but now it was time for them to go to DC.  I was very sad to see them go!

They took the Airport Limousine bus to Narita.  Their JR passes had expired and the bus is super convenient since it was waiting outside the hotel and took them straight to the airport.  There were no train transfers to navigate with luggage during Tokyo rush hour.  That is a huge plus!  We had bought the tickets at the New Sanno front desk and I highly recommend that method of travel.  It’s also more reliable than the train since bad weather seems to greatly impact the schedule.  Even high winds cause delays.

They took the 0730 bus which was the perfect time for them based on their flights.  We said our good-byes.  While it was sad, it was such an amazing vacation that I carried over that residual happiness. My vacation was complete.

Then I headed into work for the afternoon.  Next exciting event on the horizon?  SMS’ triumphant return to Japan!!!!

Day 7: Kamakura and Tokyo

The good weather was back!  Not to be too boring in talking about the weather but it is so much nicer to be a tourist on a sunny day!  This was our last full day (v. sad) and we took a day trip to Kamakura.  We were supposed to go the day prior but I thought Kamakura would be way more attractive on a nicer day.


After sleeping in, we headed off to Kamakura via Subway and JR.  We arrived at the main station and walked up my favorite pedestrian shopping street, Komachi-dori.  We had a delicious croquette and soft ice cream on our walk.  Rose joined us for an hour as we looked around the Tsurugaoka Hachiman-gu Shrine.  Then we walked down Wakamiya-oji, the main thoroughfare.  It is pretty but especially gorgeous during the Sakura (cherry blossoms).  I felt that many places show off the sakura in their tourist pictures, which after awhile feels like a taunt, “Too bad you weren’t here last month.  It was really beautiful!”

Then it was time for lunch.  We finally went to a sushi-go-round, which was high on Mom’s to-do list.  We tried searching for the one she had been to last time but were unsuccessful.  We went to one on Komachi-dori and it was tasty.  It also had cooked shrimp sushi, which Mom really likes so it all worked out.

Two wise men: One reached Enlightenment, one has a Japan Rail Pass

Then we took the Enoshima Electric Railway to see the Kamakura Daibutsu.  It seems like an almost mandatory stop when touring Kamakura.  We were all a little wiped from a long but fun week of travel so we skipped the Hasedera, which is definitely worth seeing but sometimes, enough is enough.  We headed back to Tokyo to prepare for Robot Restaurant!

Words fail.

We went to the 8:20 show and it blew my expectations out of the water.  It was totally kitschy, ridiculous and AWESOME!  Afterwards, we stopped in the Shinjuku Station mall for some food and then headed over to the Mado Lounge for drinks.  This was the one disappointment of the trip because it closed at 10:30 and we got there at 10:50.  Big boo!  I was sad, but I had never expected a bar to be closed that early.  It usually isn’t but Golden Week hours had kicked in.  Bad sagoy:(

Anyway, we recovered nicely and went to a wine bar near the hotel.  Hooray for resiliency!  Then it was off to bed.


Day 6: Tokyo

This was our one day of bad weather.  The day before there was some rain, but the heaviest was while we were on the train.  Not today!  We got soaked but we didn’t let it stop us!

Start and end of the Cruise: Hama Rikyu (right) and Asakusa pier (left), with view of SKYTREE and the Asahi building

 After sleeping in, we headed downstairs for an American breakfast at the New Sanno.  It was delicious.  After we (over-)fortified ourselves, we headed out into the elements (so brave, ha ha).  First, we went to  the Hama Rikyu gardens, an old imperial duck hunting grounds now turned city park.  It’s very beautiful with lakes, gardens and a tea house.  It’s a funny incongruity to see such a beautiful garden flanked by skyscrapers on three sides (the fourth side is the Sumida River).  We were there to catch the Sumida River Boat Cruise.  There were two signs with different times and fortunately I listened to Dad (hi Dad!) and we caught the 10:00 boat up the river towards Asakusa.  The boat first stopped at Hinode Pier, which would be the place to catch it if you didn’t want to pay the garden entrance fee (only Y300, as are many historical tourist destinations in Japan).

Then we went up the river for a 40 minute cruise where we saw 13 architecturally different bridges, the sumo stadium (Ryogoku) and finally, Asakusa pier.  It’s a really nice, mellow way to see Tokyo from a different vantage point.

Sensoji Temple and Pagoda.  Not many pictures were taken today.

Asakusa was where we got soaked.  We walked up the Nakamise and bought some yummy rice cracker streets.  Then we went into the main building of the Sensoji temple, a famous Buddhist temple.  There’s an Old Edo feel to the area and in sunny weather, it’s delightful.  We made a dash for the train station in a (futile) effort to stay dry.  We took the train to Ometasando and ate in the cute, French-themed food court.  Then we walked down Ometasando-dori and admired the modern architecture.  We tried to find a wine bar Mom and I had been to last time but time passes and 6 years later, the wine bar was no more.  We strolled along the main Harajuku street which was interesting but a little sad since Mom was unable to find a Hello Kitty iPhone case for her iPhone 4 (single tear).  We tried hard though!

Seen around Tokyo: Mixed message gnomes (smiley face, wait, what are the gesturing?), dog boutique with gross dog and “cute outfit,” donuts in bags because that’s where they belong and a baseball poster made out of flowers

Then, it was off to the New Sanno to dry off.  That night, we went to Pizzeria Sole y Lune and had some delicious pizza right near the hotel.  Then it was off to bed!


Day 5: Nara

I woke up and was pleasantly surprised that my feet were still attached to my body.  I thought I had walked them off the day before but nope!  There they were, ready for another day!

On my “To Do Next Time” List

The weather, which had been amazing, was now starting to turn a bit.  It was cloudy with some drizzle but off we went to Nara after a little sleeping in (for Mom and Dad).  I walked around the neighborhood of our hotel in search of breakfast.  I found the Inoda coffee shop, which is quite famous but didn’t seem to have take-away.  It was a coffee restaurant.  I appreciate the dedication to the full-imersion coffee experience but that wasn’t what I was looking for that morning.  I walked passed a huge queue of people waiting for an Impressionist exhibit at the museum to open.  Impressionism- worldwide appeal.  After the line, I came upon Paul, a nice coffee shop/bakery that apparently has forty branches worldwide.  They had awesome coffee and croissants.  Yum, yum, yum!

Rock Garden- do you see the smiley face we painted on one?

Mom and I really wanted to see Ryoan-ji, a Zen temple with a famous 25 m x 10 m fifteen rock garden that is an object of meditation.  From any vantage, you can only see 14 of the 15 rocks.  There’s a small replica that is present for blind people to feel out but thanks to Mom and I, they think there are only 14 rocks!  Ha, ha!  Stealing rocks to trick blind people- so funny! [Just kidding!]

Ryoan-ji grounds

While the rock garden and temple are really cool, what Mom and I had both forgotten is that the grounds are absolutely gorgeous!  This temple was at the top of our favorites list.  We walked around the small lake and admired the irises, the beautiful residence, the trees- it was so tranquil and beautiful.  I highly recommend a visit here!

Next, we took a taxi to Kyoto main station and then the JR train to Nara.  At the station, we went to bus stop #1 and caught the bus to the main park Nara koen that has most of the main attractions.  I recommend the bus since it cuts off a mile walk and since we were already getting plenty of exercise, it was welcome!

CW from top left: Southern Gate, Daibutsuden, Daibutsuden and Deer outside the Gate

First, we saw the mangy Sika deer *ahem* messengers of the gods, per Shinto.  Bring some food.  Then those messengers will be all over you!  We walked towards Todaiji, a Buddhist temple dating back to the 1200s when Nara was the first capital of Japan.  We entered through the huge Southern Gate with the two huge statues of the Nio on either side.  The main building is the Daibutsuden which houses the Nara Daibutsu, or Nara Giant Buddha.  The wooden structure is said to be the world’s largest wooden building and it is very impressive.  The Great Buddha inside is the world’s largest statue of the Buddha Birushana, a 500-ton bronze statue that is 49.1 m tall!  Inside to the right of the Buddha is a wooden pillar with a hole in it.  If you can crawl through it, good things will happen to you.  Various sources say you’ll reach enlightenment in this lifetime, you’ll be in good health, you’ll have good luck, etc. I don’t know other than there was a huge line of Japanese school kids getting pushed/pulled through so fast it reminded me of the Santa Claus scene from The Christmas Story.

The Big Buddha and assembly lines to get kids through the lucky column 

Katsuga Shrine with a Deer Warning sign thrown in 

Then we walked uphill (yay!  More hills!) towards the Kasuga Shrine, a famous Shinto shrine where we were actually lucky enough to see a Shinto ceremony in progress.  There were several men chanting and playing traditional instruments while 4 priests prayed in the middle of the room.  It was really cool and we felt like it was a serendipitous highlight.  There was also some beautiful wisteria on the grounds and we took a few pictures.

Lantern Forest (not the official name)

Then it was back down the hill through the Kasugayama Primeval Forest and the 3000 stone lanterns.  It was very serene and beautiful.  Then we waited in the rain (with umbrellas) for our bus, hopped on the train and headed to Tokyo.

We checked in late to the New Sanno.  Mom and Dad loved the hotel.  It is spacious and really nice.  They had been expecting Hale Koa level of amenities and it is definitely a step up from that but at half the price of other Tokyo hotels.  Score!

Shibuya crosswalk

We at a hodgepodge dinner of sandwiches and then Dad and I headed out for a quick visit to the Shibuya crosswalk with all the bright lights and teems of people.  Then it was off to bed.

Oyasumi nasai!

Day 4: Kyoto

Matsuda-san, pointing out his name on the temple donor wall

 Day 4 was a nice day because we left the tour guiding to someone else.  My XO and his awesome wife highly recommended 松田 和久 (Kazuhusa Matsuda) of Meet Us Kyoto as a tour guide.  He’s a retired banker.  He used to be the Kyoto Branch manager for a large Japanese bank.  For five years, he gave tours on the weekends only and kept it a secret from work.  Now he’s retired from banking but gives several tours a month, depending on how busy the tourist season is.

The main gate and aqueduct of Nanzen-ji

We met him at 0900 in the lobby of the hotel and had a cup of coffee before heading out.  The plan for the day was exploring the Eastern part of Kyoto by following the Philosopher’s Walk.  After that, we were going to go to Daitokuji, a complex of several smaller sub-temples.  Next, we were invited to a tea ceremony hosted by Matsuda-san’s wife and finally, we would get a tour of Nijo castle.  What a jam packed, awesome itinerary!

Nanzen-ji aqueduct

We took the subway from our hotel to the start of the Philosopher’s Walk.  There, we saw Nanzen-ji, an old Buddhist temple.  There was a really neat large wooden gate.  We explored the ground, including the European-inspired aqueducts.  We walked to the top and it was really beautiful and serene with the sound of flowing water.

Small shrine (Rokan-ji) along our walk with animal guardians.

Rokan-ji with the shiny copper roof and animal guardian.

We headed down the path for about a mile, and then went uphill to take a course parallel to the Philosopher’s Walk that was less touristy and had several cool temples.  We saw a neat temple (Rokan-ji, based on the map photo I took) with several animal guardian statues.  Matsuda-san actually donated to the temple to help replace the copper roof.  He thought it was “too shiny” but that it would fade over time.

Entrance to Honen-in
Gardens of Honen-in

Then, we walked some more (theme of the day) to Honen-in, with a beautiful garden and small lake.  There was also a small raked sand garden that was very tranquil.  Finally, we approached the end of the Walk at the Ginkaku-ji, or Silver Temple.  We loved this temple!  It was styled as a tea house and not silver, in fact, since the patron ran out of money before silver leaf could be applied.  The gardens are what completely captivated us though.  They were so gorgeous.  There was some mild drizzle that day which really made the green moss especially vibrant.

Sand Garden at Ginkaku-ji

Silver Temple (Ginkaku-ji) and grounds

After the walk, we headed to Daitokuji.  First, we had lunch at a yummy soba-ya.  While we were eating, I looked up and saw that Matsuda-san was profusely sweating.  I was nervous since he had said he was feeling under the weather that day.  He said he was fine and later, explained that he thought that’s when his fever broke because he felt much better!  He said, “Soba is my medicine!”


Daitokuji has lots of sub-temples and Matsuda-san brought us to his favorite, Koto-in.  There is a beautiful tea house with tatami mats and gorgeous moss garden.  Inside, there’s a lamp that marks the gravesite of the patron.  A back corner of the lamp is missing because the master liked the lamp so much, he damaged it rather than give it to a higher up that had requested it!  It sort of looked like every other stone lamp we had seen and when asked what was special about it, Matsuda-san said “It has a beautiful shape.”

Now, THESE are some lamps!

Next, we went to Matsuda-san’s house where his wife Noboku hosted a tea ceremony.  We were very nervous since we didn’t know what to and right before she gave Dad the tea cup (he was first, ha ha!), she let us know that the cup was a 400-year old antique.  Fortunately, none of us chipped or broke it!  Phew!

Nijo Gate and the source of the Nightingale Floor sound

Finally, we headed to Nijo Castle.  Two really cool things I learned is one, the hall that shows the feudal lords gathering is actually the room where the Shogun received and handed back power to the emperor (the two events were separated by several centuries).  It was amazing to see the room that had so much history, which was now filled with feudal lord mannequins.  Two, I saw how the Nightingale floors make the sound, with two metal spikes at the edge of several floorboards.  
It was a great day and we were pretty pooped.  Still, we found the energy to go to Gion Corner to watch a cultural show.  It’s a little cheesy, but it’s cool in that it shows dancing Maiko, which we wouldn’t otherwise be able to see.  We ended with dinner at Iyemon salon, a restaurant right next to our hotel.  It was delicious!  They had a nice mix of Japanese food and some Western dishes for some comfort.  We had an awesome grilled tofu dish that was sort of pizza-like, a seafood pasta gratin, grilled ginger pork and two orders of assorted tempura.  We had a wonderful dinner and then headed off to bed.