Monday, May 30, 2011

... Will be back...

We are heading off to see more family today (and thus not sure if I can hop onto their internet), so it may be 1-2 days before I can post anything new. I am so behind in my blogging- it's been difficult to find the time to blog at night. I will, however, get all my posts done (I know I'm on Day 9 when I should be on Day 17 today) before I leave Japan. This week we're not traveling as much throughout Japan- more traveling between my uncle Hiroshi's home in Tsurumaki, my aunt Echan's home in Yamanashi, and then back to Nakano (Tokyo) to my sister's. I'll have more down time to get caught up on blogging, and will be posting blogs as I finish them throughout the week. Thus, my hope is that I'll post several days' worth of blog posts in 1 day on a daily basis this week.

I can't believe today is Day 17, and we're in our 3rd (and final) week here in Japan. Darin and I both feel the time has flown by, yet we still have so much left we want to do. Today, we are off to Yamanashi (near Mt. Fuji) to visit with my aunt Echan and my cousin Ayumi, and then returning back to Tsurumaki to stay with family again. Lots of traveling, but looking forward to more fun.

We had a typhoon come to Japan a few days ago, but luckily it diverted before it came to Tokyo (which it normally does). Yesterday was breezy and partly cloudy, but still a nice day. This morning, it is now 5:10am and the sun is out with very few clouds and it's beautiful outside. My favorite part- no humidity (yet), which makes walking around everywhere more enjoyable since that is all we do here.

Until then, さよなら (sayonara, good-bye)!

Sara & Darin より (from)

Sunday, May 29, 2011

Shellac: 14-Day Update

This is a 14-day update of the Shellac manicure I got before leaving for Japan. (The 7-day Shellac update is located here.)

There are still no chips, cracks, or smudges on these nails- and believe me, these hands have been through constant packing, hitting, typing, and digging through purses and bags. The nail polish is still shiny.

What I am seeing, however, is the nail growth (which is to be expected). I am definitely glad I went with a lighter color so the nail polish/nail growth isn't so obvious.

I am also starting to see the nail polish at the ends of my nails starting to vanish- almost kind of like "shrinkage". While there may be no cracks or chips, my natural ends of my nails are starting to show through.

Overall, I am really happy with the Shellac manicure, and I think I may be able to go another full week before I take the nail polish off. I love that my nails are so hard and no matter what I am doing with my hands, I don't need to worry about chipping my nail polish or breaking my nails.

The first few days, I was nervous and tried to prevent using my fingers at all for fear that they'd still chip, but by day 3 and nothing wrong, I completely forgot about the manicure, and they still looked great.

Day 7 (Sat 5/21)- Nakano area, Visiting family in Tsurumaki

Today would've been the end of our 1st week in Japan, and the combination of lack of sleep and being constantly on the go, we decided to just relax in the morning. I had taken a sleep-aid the evening before and I slept for 7-8 hours (score!). While I was able to sleep with the assistance of a sleep-aid, it was replaced with lethargic behavior and grogginess. Despite sincere efforts to be productive, I could barely move my body off the ground. Next time, I guess I'll just take 1/2 the dose... Regardless, Darin and I made breakfast for Naomi and Adrian- we served Japanese breakfast sausage, Japanese bacon (which is sliced SO thin), egg, Japanese bread with preserves, and some tea. It was delicious (but, I forgot to take pictures...)

We planned to meet with Naomi after she finished work at 2pm in the Nakano area. We took the train to Nakano, hopped on a bus, and met her near the bus station. We went back to the Muji store (I am loving this store!) to pick up some more travel products for our upcoming trip tomorrow. We also picked up some Japanese cake for our family get together that evening, and also had our first taiyaki, which is a Japanese fish-shaped (though not fish-flavored) cake. Taiyaki is made with pancake or waffle batter and placed into a fish-shaped mold on each side, the filling is inserted, and then the mold is closed. It is then cooked on each side until golden brown. I got azuki bean (red bean paste) filling, and Darin opted for the custard filling.

Here is my azuki bean filling

Darin got the custard filling

He was also excited about the 150ml Coke can he found in a vending machine

We only had a few hours to run errands in Nakano before we had to run back home, grab our gifts for our Tsurumaki family, and hop back on the train to visit the family. Tsurumaki is 1.5 hours away from Tokyo by train, and it is where I spent every summer going to school from June-August (actually, I went to school June-July, and then had the month of August as my "summer break"). My grandparents retired there after living in Tokyo for years, and I created many memories living there every summer since I was a child. It has been ~14 years since I've been back, and now my uncle, aunt, and their 17yo son live with my grandfather (who is now 90yo).

On our way into Tsurumaki, we had a transfer at Shinjuku station and Naomi introduced us to Choco Cro

Here is a close-up of the packaging

They serve a variety of drinks, soda, and pastries, but we purchased the chocolate-filled croissant. It was OMG delicious- even more so since it was fresh and still warm

Here is some chocolate oozing out

I love chocolate-filled croissants, but some places really skimp on the amount of chocolate but not Choco Cro. The croissant was super flaky too. We thought it was only in Shinjuku, but it is a chain located throughout Japan. Definitely need to try this again.

When we got to Tsurumaki, it was only a 10 minute walk from the station to their home. It was so great to see everyone again! We are very close to my mother's side of the family despite being so far away from them. They made a huge dinner for us, and it was- by far- one of the best dinners we've had since we've been here.

Lots of tempura- Battered and deep-fried vegetables and seafood. Here, there is kabocha (Japanese pumpkin), Mushroom, Asparagus, Mixed veggies, and Shrimp

This is a close-up of kabocha

Tempura dipping sauce- Soy sauce-based with grated daikon (Japanese horseradish) and grated shouga (ginger)

Tofu with bonito (fish flakes) and grated ginger. Tofu normally comes in blocks, but my uncle put them into round molds to make them into individual portions

Side salad with white asparagus, Japanese bacon, corn, and broccoli

Various salad dressings- Caesar, Potato, and Herb & Lemon

My favorite- Sashimi!! The fish was so fresh- it has been the best sashimi we've had since we've been here

Raw aji fish with vinegar

Otsukemono (Japanese picked vegetables)- takuan, cucumbers, and carrots. There is otsukemono at every meal here

Shirasu- Baby sardines. First time I've ever had them

Darin sniffing his sake

Darin and my uncle Hiroshi

Kanpai! (Cheers!)

Here are some of the cake samples Naomi picked up for the gathering at Maplies Bakery (located at Shinjuku station, also located near Choco Cro):
Cheese Souffle cake

Other cakes- some of them looked toppled because it accidentally got turned upside-down during the train ride. Regardless, they were delicious

My Tsurumaki family (except my grandfather- he went to bed already):
From Left to Right: Sumiyo (aunt), Naomi (sister), Hiroshi (uncle), Adrian (Naomi's fiance), Masato (17-yo cousin), Darin, me

The ladies: Sumiyo, Echan (aunt), Naomi, me

The guys: Darin, Masato, Hiroshi, and Adrian

We were celebrating Adrian's and my aunt Echan's birthdays

We had a great time, and before we knew it, it was 10:30pm, and we found out we would miss the last train from Shinjuku back to Nakanoshimbashi station (we ended up taking a taxi).
Looking forward to seeing them again in 2 weeks.

Saturday, May 28, 2011

Day 6 (Friday 5/20)- Ghibli Museum, Satou Restaurant, Ginza, and visiting old friends

We came home the night before tired and with sore feet (well Darin anyways since I was in a wheelchair for the past few days at Disney), so I purposely kept our morning free Friday 5/20. Darin and I were planning to make dinner this evening so Naomi wrote out a couple of different grocery stores in the area to see what was available and create a menu from there.

I perused through my cooking blog to get some ideas (while Darin shouted out his favorites I could make for everyone), but it was one ingredient after another we couldn't find in Japanese grocery stores. No feta cheese, no cream cheese with chives, cheese in general was extremely expensive, and so on... We finally decided on some classic spaghetti and meatballs with homemade red wine marinara sauce.

We had pre-ordered our Ghibli Museum tickets earlier in the week and had them for a 2pm time slot today. We knew we wanted to eat at this specific steak restaurant we had read about on this blog. He was ooh-ing and ahh-ing its praises so much we wanted to give it a try. As we were packing up our day packs for the day, we felt... a shake. The house was rattling, the mirrors were moving, and I could see the door had a tremor. It only lasted about 10 seconds, but it felt longer. For us, it was an eye-opener, but for Adrian, it was no big deal (as he and Naomi had been experiencing the after shocks multiple times a day beforehand). Shocked but ok, we left our home at 10am and went to several grocery stores to ensure they had the necessary ingredients to make the meatballs. Once we knew we had everything, we boarded the train for Kichijoji station (1 stop before Ghibli Museum's Mitaka station).

Once we got off the train, we saw an alley full of restaurants and shops.

The alleyway was so narrow, yet there were cars going in both directions, including city buses

Seriously, it was so narrow that buses and cars were going into the pedestrian walkway zones to get through

Unfortunately, the blogger didn't know where he was going to find Satou restaurant, but had an image of the storefront (from the internet) and randomly came across it while he was sightseeing. I, too, only had an image from what I saw on the web and his blog, and had no idea where to go. After walking around aimlessly for 10 minutes, we decided to just forget it and go to Tokyu department store and eat around there since we needed to leave within the next hour to get on the train to go to Mitaka station.

But then, I saw it- the infamous red/black storefront that read "SATOU". We were overjoyed!

However, we also saw a HUGE LONG LINE from the restaurant. The other blogger mentioned that the restaurant was very tiny and to not be surprised if there was a long line/wait to get in.

Darin and I waited in line patiently. I checked my watch- time was 12:15pm. We needed to leave by 1:30pm to get to Ghibli in time- there was no way we would get through this line in time and then have time to eat on top of that. I decided to go to the front of the line just to see how many people were ahead of us... only to realize that the long line was for Satou's takeout food. The restaurant was located to the RIGHT of the take-out food line, and that line wasn't very long. Darin and I scurried over to the restaurant/dining line. Luckily, we were able to be seated in the next 15 minutes.
The dining area is on the 2nd floor, and there were some seriously steep stairs to get up there

Once we got to the top of the stairs, we realized just how tiny the restaurant was. There were only (5) 2-person tables and a counter that could seat 7-8 people.

I took a few pictures of the chefs preparing guests' entrees.

While we were waiting in line, the host showed us an English menu. The lunch sets cost around 1500-2000 yen ($18-$24), and it included salad, miso soup, rice, tsukemono (Japanese pickled vegetables), bean sprouts/carrot side, and the steak (120g). Although this restaurant is known for its Matsuzaka Beef, it cost 10,000 yen ($122) for 200g, and we decided to just stick with the "Satou Special" for 1500 yen instead. I was already nervous about eating it since I don't care for beef, but the blogger's review was so positive I wanted to give it a try.

Here is the salad

Bowl of white rice

The steak came with 2 dipping sauces

Disclaimer: The following 4 photos are from Vancouver Sushi's blog. Darin took some great appetizing photos of our dishes and it went to internet no-where land.

Here is our complete meal set (though he got a much larger steak than we had)

Here is a picture of how the steak was seared. All steak is seared medium-rare, and it was cooked to perfection

Picture of miso soup- Eh, it was ok. Nothing to write home about

This picture- albeit a bit blurry- shows you the medium-rare cooked steak

Recap: I don't like steak (despite eating them at some of Cincinnati's famous steakhouses), and this beef literally melted in our mouths. It was so good. Like OMG good. I savored each and every piece that hit my tongue. Darin is still talking about this lunch. If every steak could taste like this, I would've converted by now. When we get back to Tokyo, we are going to go back and eat here again- next week.

Steak House Satou (サトウ吉祥寺店)
Tokyo (Kichijoji), Japan
1-1-8 Kichijoji-Honcho, Musashino-shi

As we were leaving (right at 1:30pm), there was still a long wait outside for take-out orders. I took a quick picture of what was selling that was so popular- Tonkatsu (Japanese pork cutlet) and Hirekatsu (Japanese pork tenderloin cutlet) and Beef balls (to name a few)

Since we knew we wanted to go back, I looked around the area and took some pictures.
Here is a close-up of the storefront logo:

There is an outdoor shopping complex and we first entered through here- McDonald's on the right, and a place that sells Shiseido on the left

At this "intersection", make a LEFT to go towards the blue flags that say "E"

At a cross-section in the "E" shopping area, look for the Satou restaurant storefront logo (red/black) near the Daiyagai sign:

... Or look for a long line and/or the smell of beef guide you in the right direction. It is a restaurant not worth to be missed.

Next stop: Ghibli Museum!!!
For those who aren't familiar with the Ghibli Museum, it is based on the famous Hayao Miyazaki's reknown manga films. I grew up watching his films in Japanese- a few of my favorites include My Neighbor Totoro, Kiki's Delivery Service, Grave of the Fireflies, and Spirited Away (I purchased all of my DVDs on Amazon years ago).

We took the train from Kichijoji station (with full bellies) and took it 1 station away to Mitaka station. Make sure to take the minami (South) exit to head to Ghibli Museum- it is the exit to your far left as you exit the station.

Go down the stairs, and you'll see the bus depot- if you plan to take the Ghibli bus, you'll catch it there.
If you plan to walk, just take the walkway ahead (there were several walkways in front of us, and it was the middle one, I think? Just ask the bus attendant at the bus depot).

We decided to walk (15-20 minutes away), and it was such a lovely and easy walk. The sidewalks were adorned with trees (thus blocking out the sun's rays), and it was really relaxing and beautiful.

The walk is pretty straightforward- you walk until you hit a deadend, and then you make a right turn. Every time we started questioning- "are we going the right way?"- we saw a Ghibli Museum street sign that confirmed our direction

As we got closer, Totoro started appearing on the signs

... And there were shoe signs on the ground, confirming that we were heading in the right direction

We turned at the dead end, and kept walking straight, and I hadn't seen a sign in a bit, so I turned to Darin and in a frustrated voice asked- "I don't think we're going the right way". I busted out my map (from the Studio Ghibli website), and when I looked to our left- there it was. We were RIGHT across from the entrance of the museum

Here is what the entrance into the front of the museum looks like:

Can you spot the Totoros on top of the Ghibli Museum sign?

Once you go past through the museum gates, this is what you see:

Posing in front of Totoro!

OMG, he is just so cute

This is where the picture taking ends (no photography inside the museum), but it was completely worth the ¥1,000 pp ($12) we paid. Even Darin, who hadn't watched a Miyazaki film, thoroughly enjoyed the museum.

While these pictures aren't my own, it gives you some idea of the neat exhibits within this museum.
Here is what you see when you first enter the museum

The first room was our favorite, as it shows a lot of the various illusions of manga (Japanese comics). It explains the origins of animation, and shows you the immense behind-the-scenes work (from art, story boards, color options, etc) to produce a Miyazaki film.

This illusion uses strobe lighting- and while the circular round with the doves painted on it spins around, the strobe lighting effect makes it look like the doves are actually fluttering all around him

This one was our favorite one- again, another strobe light effect. A whole bunch of models all attached around a pole in the center, spinning quickly around it. Each model was right in line with the next, so when a strobe light that was timed to hit each model exactly as the next one was in front of the viewer, it created the illusion of animation. There were animations of a bat flying, a Totoro jumping with an umbrella, Mei jumping rope, a running catbus, someone on a unicycle...

Here is a replica of an animator's desk

We also saw a short Miyazaki film called the "Egg Princess". The movie tickets handed to us had a small replica clip of an actual Miyazaki film

Here is what the theater looked like

Based on Miyazaki's famous My Neighbor Totoro film, there was a children's Nekobus (Catbus) featured on the film on the 3rd floor... sorry, it was only for children (though I was insanely jealous

Note- Studio Ghibli announced they will have an adult catbus display starting June 2011...
Anyways, there were lot of displays of mock-up animator studios, and the whole area was covered in animator's original sketches and drawings, as well as what they used as inspiration pieces to get their creative juices flowing.

After visiting the museum, Darin and I decided to grab a quick drink and dessert at the Straw Hat Cafe

You had the option of eating outdoors (great weather we had that day), but we chose to eat indoors because we wanted some cake and I wanted to try their foamed coffee.
I don't drink coffee, but I had heard and seen the "coffee art" at the Straw Hat Cafe that I wanted to try it. (We were able to take pictures of the food in the Cafe, and luckily got counter seats so we could take lots of pictures of them making food.)
Here is the server pouring in the foamed milk into my coffee cup

Here he is dipping his brush into a bowl of chocolate to begin making the coffee art

So pretty!

I love it...

Making the signature "straw"

My coffee!

Sorry, one last picture

Darin ordered the fresh mandarin juice. And there are no ordinary straws here- all straws are actually... real authentic straws

We also ordered the strawberry shortcake cake- I loved Darin (Darin thought it was meh)

Naturally, topped with a Totoro flag

Here was another fruit parfait the server was making- doesn't it look delicious?

I originally wanted to order their "Fruit Sandwich of your Dreams", but they were completely sold out (it was around 3:30pm)- I found this suggestion based on Jacqui's blog. This is a sandwich made largely of whipped cream and sliced fresh fruit. Maybe next time...
The food was good (not awesome), but we wanted to experience it and get things we normally couldn't order in the US. This is all from memory (so not sure if it's exactly correct), but the cake was ¥790 ($10), the coffee was ¥490 ($6), and the fresh mandarin juice was ¥500 ($6), so an order total of ¥1,780 ($22)- a little pricey for 2 drinks and a piece of cake, but the experience of eating there was worth it for first-timers like us.
Since we were planning to meet my sister in Ginza around 5pm, we didn't get a chance to explore the outdoor garden at the Ghibli Museum, but I guess we missed seeing the huge robot from Laputa: Castle in the Sky movie

Tips for the Ghibli Museum- You can't go in and purchase tickets at the door- you must get your tickets in advance at a Lawson store using their automated Loppi machine. Once you place your order at a Loppi machine, a receipt-looking slip comes out and you hand it to the cashier (within 30 mins of ordering), and he'll exchange it for your actual Ghibli Museum tickets. The museum also only allows you to go in at specific times: 10am, 12pm, 2pm, and 4pm (they close at 6pm, I believe). So not only do you need to specify what day you're going, you need to specify the entrance time as well. The tickets are ¥1,000 each, and we stayed there for 2-2.5 hours (including cafe time for 30 mins). Here is Studio Ghibli Museum's website in English for more info.

Once we walked back to the Mitaka train station, we headed to Ginza to do some shopping with my sister Naomi.

Darin wanted to pick up some cards for his upcoming TX trip, so she took us to this awesome stationery store called Itoya in Ginza
Here is the first floor of Itoya- it was full of cards (beautiful cards too), wrapping paper, and all sorts of stationery

I thought this "paper and pen holder" was so cute

How cute (and mini) are these post-it notes?

Sushi magnets!

We also stopped at a store called "Toy Park"- there were multiple floors just full of Japanese toys- many I've never seen in the US. Here is Darin wearing a hat to replicate a sumo head

Apparently these characters are hugely popular in Japan, but they looked kind of creepy to me

On a side note, Naomi wanted to check out the local Abercrombie store on the main strip. As we approached the store, I noticed there were 2 guys (wearing the exact same outfit) standing outside the store. Then when we walked inside, a cute Japanese girl had a camera, and we turned out and saw a half-naked guy. Apparently, they were taking pictures of female customers with the "model". Ummmm, whaaat? We politely declined, and started going upstairs. This store had 11 (!!) floors, and even included an elevator. On every floor level, there was a female and male co-worker and all they were doing was dancing to the music. And they all wore the exact same outfit. All the female workers had on the same white short-sleeved top and short denim shorts, while the males wore this checked blue/white collared shirt with their sleeves rolled up, denim jeans (same denim wash), and flip flops. It was... eery.

On our way home, we stopped by the local grocery store, picked up the items we needed to make for dinner, and headed home. I wanted to stop by our next door neighbor- Iida-san (Mrs. Iida). I have known her ever since I was a baby and living in Japan, and I've met both of her daughters numerous times (but it has been a long time).
Her daughter Miyuki and her husband now live in the same home as her mother (Iida-san), as it is customary in Japan to have one of your children move back in with you as you age. We ended up staying for an hour catching up, eating, and talking- it was so fun, and they are such nice, lovely people.
My sister Naomi (in the grey/white top), Darin, and myself. Miyuki (the daughter) is on the bottom left corner wearing the black top, and Iida-san is on the right.

Here is another picture but it includes Miyuki's husband in the bottom left-hand corner. After seeing this picture, we all laughed at how large Iida-san's face looks in here

We had dinner together with Adrian (after he got home from work at 10pm), and then eventually fell asleep. I have been having the hardest time sleeping since I've arrived in Japan. I tend to fall asleep around 11:30pm/12am midnight, but then I wake up between 3-4am and can't fall back asleep. I'm usually pretty tired mid-day, but don't want to take a nap (and really don't have the opportunity to since we're usually out and about). After a full week of only sleeping 3-4 hours a night, I finally decided to get a sleeping aid. I took one tonight, and (finally) got 7-8 hours of sleep, waking up at 7:30am the following morning.