June 30, 2008
We bid Jonathan, Tetsuo, and Toshiko farewell and headed back to Tokyo today on the Shinkansen. We were met on the platform at Tokyo Station by a bellman from the Four Seasons Tokyo, who took our bags and lead us on the short walk to the hotel. After a quick check-in and some lunch, I took to the boys to the Pokemon Center a few train stops away while the ladies partook in more retail therapy in Ginza.
The Pokemon Center is heaven for Poke-geeks like Andrew (10) and Michael (7). There was a big store full of everything Pokemon related you could imagine, from cards to video games to candy to nori (dried seaweed sheets cut into Pokemon shapes to put on your rice -- Michael bought some of this) to toys to clothes. They had someone teaching kids how to play the Pokemon trading card game, Pokemon videos playing on the overhead TVs, and rows of Pokemon capsule vending machines enticing the kids (the boys got Pokemon Pez dispensers out of one of the machines.
After they sated their shopping, we went next door to another room where you could play Pokemon Battrio, a video game the kids started playing at the Pokemon Center in Odaiba. You could also play Pokemon Battle Revolution, a Wii game where you use your Nintendo DS' to control your Pokemon; this is cool since your opponent can't see what moves you selected because the UI is on your DS screen.
They also offered a special birthday surprise if you had a Nintendo DS, a Japanese version of Pokemon Diamond or Pearl, and proof it was within a day of your birthday. The boys had their DS', their English copies of Diamond and Pearl, and proof it was within a month of their birthday, but that wasn't good enough. Oh well.
Some sick person planned this section of the Pokemon Center; the sun blazed into the room where the kids were playing Battrio, turning it into a solar cooker. In the focal point of the cooker, they had a cold drink machine selling Pokemon branded soda. Naturally, I bought one to keep me and the kids from catching fire.
June 29, 2008
Although Andrew (10) and I missed a bunch of the major sights in Kyoto yesterday, he felt fine today so we joined in seeing some of the other lovely older parts of town. Unlike the rainy downpours yesterday, today was a lovely, sunny day. In addition to Barbi's nephew Jonathan, we were joined by her aunt Toshiko and her husband Tetsuo, who came up from Kobe to meet Barbi and us. They were super delightful and great tour guides.
We all first set out for Kiyomizu, a gorgeous temple set in the hills. The walk up to the temple area was through a cool pedestrian street lined with restaurants and shops. The area was clearly popular with student groups and tours since it was packed with kids in uniforms and throngs of older tourists. A pair of girls approached Michelle and Kellie to try out their English, asking their workbook questions like "where are you from?" and "do you like Japan?", dutifully writing down the answers as they went.
After we checked out the temple grounds, we walked through the streets nearby toward Gion, the traditionally geisha quarter. This was what we really expected Kyoto to be more like -- quaint Japan with narrow streets and little shops. We even ran into some maiko, apprentice geisha, headed to some assignment I suppose. They were up on their tall geta shoes, so when they went down a flight a stairs, they had to support one another to keep from falling. We then passed through the Yasaka Shrine (you really can't spit without hitting a shrine or temple in Kyoto -- they're as common as Starbucks in Seattle) and then were out onto into the downtown area again. The ladies went shopping; I took the boys to play video games and to grab a tasty sushi snack in the Teramachi Street market-- a series of covered alleys (kind of like the Fremont Street Experience in Las Vegas only much smaller in scale).
Andrew (10) and I are spending the day in our room at the Hyatt Regency Kyoto; he's not feeling well - dehydration or something heat related I think. I've had a lot of time to watch Discovery Channel shows including a good series on Modern Marvels about the cool new buildings in Beijing and my new favorite show, Man vs. Wild. (MM is on Discovery Channel out here, not History Channel like in the US.) I also read a lot, including Andrew's Young Bond books (Double or Die and Blood Fever)-- books about James Bond as a student at Eton -- not a bad rainy day read. The others are out looking at all the shrines and temples in Kyoto, but frankly, it's pouring (and I mean pouring) rain outside, so it's not the worst day to be in the room.
Yesterday, after we got in on the Shinkansen, we met Barbi's cool nephew Jonathan who came up from Miyako (a little Japanese island near Okinawa and home of Japan's best beaches) where he teaches English. Although we were getting around pretty well in Tokyo without any of us being able to speak much Japanese, it was great to have Jonathan's language assistance.
We first went up Kyoto Tower to get a lay of the land. It seems that there was a tower building rush across Japan at some point; there's even an association for city towers in Japan. The tower isn't very nice looking frankly, and it really doesn't blend with the older, more traditional feel of Kyoto.
The tower did, of course, have a nice view though. From this vantage point, it was clear that Kyoto was much smaller than Tokyo, with many temples mixed in with the newer buildings. Apparently, Kyoto wasn't bombed nearly as much as other Japanese cities during WW II, so there were many more old buildings than in Tokyo.
After the tower, we walked to the nearby Higashi Honganji, a Buddhist temple with the largest wooden building in the world; unfortunately, the large building was being renovated so they had built an aluminum building around the building to protect it while they worked on it. Fortunately, we could see the inside plus some other buildings. I loved the sparse design aesthetic - unadorned wood with minimal painting; it's quite different from Chinese temple design.
For dinner, we stuff ourselves at a decent inakaya - basically bar food where you order lots of little dishes like grilled skewers of meat, noodles, sushi, etc. We also ate a lot of mochi, a Japanese glutinously rice dessert that is a Kyoto speciality (this is the first time I've had it stuffed with chocolate and dusted with cinnamon.) Good stuff.
June 28, 2008
Today, we took the Shinkansen (bullet train) to Kyoto. There are several flavors of Shinkansen that run from Tokyo to Kyoto, but of course, if you're going to take the bullet train, you have to take the fastest -- the Series 700 Nozomi. The train left right on time. (Of course. According to Wikipedia, the Shinkansen arrives within six seconds of the scheduled time on average - and that includes natural and human accidents!) The Nozomi can get up to 177 miles per hour in service, although I don't know how fast we really went. The ride was very quiet and extremely smooth; there's virtually no clacking sound like most trains because they weld the tracks together to remove the seams. It's really even nicer than the TGV in France.
June 27, 2008
The restaurant is dark and beautiful with very attentive service from the English-speaking staff. Like other teppanyaki restaurants, guests sit around a bar where the chef grills your food in front of you. However, unlike Americanized Benihana-style teppanyaki, there isn't a cooking "show", so no flaming onion volcanoes or flipping of shrimp heads into the chef's hat (much to the boys' disappointment.)
There were really too many amazing courses to list or show off here, but I'll hit a few of the highlights.
One that we all thought was incredibly delicious and innovative was the sashimi course (below). This lovely box contained (from right to left): caviar, minced chu-toro (fatty tuna), uni (sea urchin), squid (I think), salmon roe, chives, toasted rice balls, nori (seaweed), wasabi sauce (I think), sour cream, and avocado sauce. To eat this, you used the little bamboo paddle and swept across the box, combining bits of the different ingredients and then dipping the mix into the light shoyu sauce. The combination of flavors and textures was insanely great. Even the others who don't normally eat uni and such enjoyed this.
Another great course was this lobster dish. The very sweet tail meat of the Australian lobster was well balanced by the sharp pepper sauce; the cilantro was a nice addition too. This was perfect in its simplicity.
As the chef prepared the star course of the show - the meltingly tender and moaningly delicious Kobe beef for me, great fillet for the others) - we were served little ramekins of mashed potatoes. These already smooth potatoes had a quarter inch of clarified butter on top; we were instructed to mix butter into the potato. The results were almost soup-like; of course, they were rich and scrumptious. The beef, needless to say, was great, served with a choice of sauces, exotic salt, and garam masala - a nice and unusual offering. Kobe beef is the only meal I've ever had where everyone at the table either softly moans or giggles to themselves as they chew. This was no exception. Michael (7) demolished his 50g steak almost instantly.
After dinner, we moved upstairs to this very retro 70's/early 80's lounge for dessert. The centerpiece of the lounge was this incredibly kitschy Dom Perignon stand light with a rotating top. It was kind of fun that they didn't take themselves too seriously. I was too full to eat, so I just had a glass of Suntory Hibiki 17 year Japanese whisky. Lovely stuff.
Obviously, this wasn't a cheap meal, but damn, it was good. Truly a memorable feast.
Today, we made a pilgrimage to Akihabara today, mecca for geeks. In particular I dragged everyone to Yodobashi, the photo giant. While the camera gear was more expensive than I could get at home, they had tons of great accessories like camera bags (you can never have enough camera bags) and my favorite lens cleaning cloth - Microdear (yes, I have a favorite lens cleaning cloth - You can get them at Amazon too.). Since Michael's (7) birthday is coming up, we got him a little digital camera (a slick little black Fujifilm Finepix Z20fd). He's been snapping pix like mad since then.
After Yodobashi, we played some video games (including a cool Gundam game in pods) and headed to Shinjuku to get lunch at Takashimaya Department store and shop some. On the way from the train station to the store, we passed through "Little Seattle" - the row that has our Microsoft Japan sales office, REI, Eddie Bauer, and Starbucks (and now a Krispy Kreme with a huge line out the door). Our tempura lunch at the Tunahachi (a big tempura chain) in the store was nice as was the visit to the legendary food department in the basement of Takashimaya.
The ladies stayed to shop, so I took the boys back to the hotel. We stopped off at the Motoyama Milk Bar for a bit of refreshment; after seeing the name, I had to try it out. It really was a milk bar, serving great milk products like ice cream, milk, panna cotta, and so on (apparently, it's unhomogenized milk from Hokkaido). I had an absolutely lovely Coffee Milk in a cute bottle; it was like a frappuccino done right -- creamy and sweet but not cloying, with great coffee taste. I am dreaming of coffee milk and may have to come back to Japan just to get another one.
June 26, 2008
Today we took the train out to Odaiba, a man-made island in Tokyo filled with shopping malls, museums, a huge Ferris wheel, and such. We wandered around floors of shops, mostly without much luck, although the kids were delighted to find a Toys 'R' Us with a huge Pokemon Center. One of the odd things we saw in the store were live elephant beetles. Apparently, because of the popularity of the video game Mushi King where players battle with giant beetles, Japanese kids are collecting real beetles now.
After the toy store, we spent some time at the Sony showroom playing with their cool toys including the very fun Rolly, a little robot MP3 player that dances to the music; it was a neat way to get hands on with some fun technology. I kind of wonder if Microsoft should do something similar.
For lunch we found a bit of heaven - a ramen "theme park". This was a six of small ramen shops representing different styles from around Japan. There were "Iron Chef" style photos of each of the chefs. There was a hawker outside each shop drawing in customers; once we picked one (Tokyo style) we put money into a machine, pushed the buttons for what we wanted, and got some tickets to hand to staff. The gyoza and ramen were absolutely delicious; the ramen was very different from the Kyushu-style we had at Jangara with dark, rich broth.
Barbi, Kellie, and I decided to take advantage of our jet lag and go to the Tsukiji Fish Market early (5:30am) this morning (this isn't a great place for kids, so Michelle and the boys stayed at the hotel). This is the largest fish market in the world and an amazing scene of commerce and food. I had been to Tsukuji many years ago, but I was excited to come back.
In the intervening years, they have apparently had an influx of tourists getting in the way of operations. As a result, in the tuna auction area, they now have an area blocked off for tourists and rules about flash photography. I've read that they may be closing the whole thing off to tourists; while this makes perfect sense, it would be too bad.
Anyway, the big thing here is the tuna auction where they sell off huge frozen and fresh tuna. The buyers walk around inspecting the fish and then the auctioneer starts the sing-song bidding. In a few seconds, a huge tuna is sold. Click here for an idea of the prices. Beyond the auction area, the place is a maze of shops selling everything seafood related that you can imagine; the shops also cut down the big tuna they just bought for further sale. The auction area and shops are in a huge warehouse known as the inner market.
The outer market is a series of streets and alleys selling more food like pickles, spices, and such as well as cooking supplies like the big knives the guys in the inner market use. There are also crazy good food stalls and restaurants serving the freshest fish from the market. After our tour, we had a bowl of maguro donburi (fresh tuna slices on a bowl of sushi rice) at Kanno, a stall four booths from the corner of Shin Hashi Dori and Harumi Dori (the main intersection near the market). It was super good, with the super fresh tuna and lovely sushi rice. Click here for a good New York Times article on restaurants in the area.
Michael (7) to Andrew (10): "We're not friends. We're brothers."
June 25, 2008
We decided to check out the Omotesando and Harajuku area, starting with the lovely Meiji Shrine area. As explored this huge park, we discovered an extra bonus - the irises were blooming in the garden. While this was lovely, it did mean that the park was flooded with tour buses full of people checking out the flowers.
We then strolled around Takeshita Street (where the cool kids shop), Omotesando Street (where the rich people shop), had a great lunch at Jangara Ramen, took a long exploration of Kiddy Land - a huge toy store - where the boys loaded up on Bakugan, then walked through Aoyoma to get to Shibuya where we saw the big crush at Shibuya crossing, and then went back to the hotel. Whew.
The whole area was pretty cool, even on a Wednesday. The contrasts between the Meiji Shrine, Takeshita, and Omotesando were really striking as we went from serene iris gardens to hip Tokyo youth culture to the elegant "Champs-Elysees" of Tokyo in a few blocks.
For lunch today, we went to Jangara Ramen in Harajuku at the recommendation of my colleague Li. In his mail to me, he said, "...you'll be in pork fat heaven! Some say it's the best in Tokyo, and I can't imagine better tasting ramen."
OMG, he wasn't kidding. Jangara specializes in Kyushu-style ramen. I don't know if I can characterize the differences, but the broth is pork-based (vs. miso or shoyo-based) was perhaps a bit richer than I'm used to, and the pork was cut thick with a luscious cap of fat. The boiled egg on top was soft cooked, and the whole thing was topped with cod roe (lovely). The pickled greens and crushed garlic on the table made the bowl even better. For more, here's Rameniac's description of the style.
You could order one of a couple styles of ramen, each with options A-H which defined the toppings (everything, no egg, etc.) We also had nice gyoza to go with. They had English menus, and the staff was quick and helpful. I slurped down my bowl and ate what the kids' didn't finish from theirs. I was stuffed to the point of pain, but I couldn't stop eating. I'm still silly with the thought of the stuff.
Jangara is a small chain in Tokyo; there are actually two at this location on Omote-sando Dori, located on two floors. They are about a block from the Harajuku JR train station. They were apparently voted best ramen in Tokyo in 2003. I must find who won this year.
June 24, 2008
This evening, we had an early dinner at Inakaya, a robatayaki place here in Roppongi. I had been to the original branch several years ago and was excited to come back. In robatayaki you sit at a U shaped bar with a huge selection of vegetables, meat, and fish before you. You point to things you want and the chefs grill it in front of you. As you order, all of the staff yell out the order in reply, so the place can get pretty raucous (although we were there early, so it was more subdued.)
The chefs pass the food, beer, whatever to you on these 3-4 foot long paddles; these guys are seriously strong. They can hold the paddles up without shaking at all. I'm not sure I could even hold the paddle steady.
The food was simple and very fresh; for instance the prawns (which were the hugest I've ever seen) were still moving on the display tray. The abalone was especially good but the whole snapper was my favorite. They thread a whole fish onto a skewer so the fish is in a S-shape; they rub a little salt on the fins to make them stand out, then they suspend the fish over the heat to cook. When it comes off it looks like it's swimming. The meat was tender and perfectly done.
Anyway, it was a great start to the trip. I'm looking forward to some other great meals...
Greetings from Tokyo! I'm on vacation with the family plus our friends Kellie and Barbi. We're here for ten days in Tokyo and Kyoto; I'm taking the family to Beijing for a few days afterwards. While Michelle and I have each been Tokyo on business before (Michelle was here just two weeks ago!), this is the first time either of us has been here on vacation. It's also the first time the boys have been Asia.
The trip from Seattle to the Grand Hyatt here in Roppongi (a district in Tokyo) was very smooth. Our flight left on time, arrived an hour early, we were right on time for the Narita Express train into town, and we had a smooth check-in. The weather is even sunny and warm.
We had a great dinner (more on that in another post) and are back at the hotel now, fighting to stay awake for a while to get acclimated to the new time zone.
Anyway, stay tuned for more...
June 23, 2008
This is a great video. Where the Hell is Matt?
I've had several people ask how our first camping trip went, so I figured I should post about our experience.
I left work early to get ready for our big boys weekend camping trip at Deception Pass. I did some grocery shopping and made a last minute decision to get a cook stove (a Coleman PerfectFlow InstaStart two burner job -- great decision). I picked the boys up from school and started packing the car. I had too much junk, so I had a bit of last second re-packing to do and we were off. We left Bellevue at 4:30pm on a Friday, headed to Deception Pass. The weather was miserable at home, and we were in continuous rush hour traffic pretty much all the way up past Everett, so we didn't get off to a good start.
However, as we got closer to Deception Pass, both the weather and traffic started clearing; by the time we got to the campground 2.5 hours after we left home, the weather was clear and beautiful. We found our site easily (even though the photo on the Parks website wasn't the right one for our site) and got the tent set up; then I went to get the sleeping bags and realized I had forgotten them at home during my mad repacking. My brain raced through the options - go home and get the bags, sleep on the pads wearing all the clothes we brought, bail on the entire thing... The boys looked on nervously as I sat with my head in my hands. I then realized that we weren't that far from civilization; we piled back into the car, drove to Oak Harbor (nine miles away) and bought three new sleeping bags at the Kmart. We were back in business!
We went and played by the water in the lovely sunset, had our fire complete with hot dogs and s'mores. Actually, Michael (7) cooked chunks of sashimi-grade tuna over the fire because he doesn't like hot dogs. We read ghost stories in the tent and listened to the EA-6Bs and P3s from the nearby Naval Air Station Whidbey Island fly their night missions (the aircraft noise was the only real bummer that night). Fortunately, the heavy rain that night drowned out the noise. :)
It was still raining when we woke up; I rigged a tarp over the picnic table and made coffee for myself as the kids slept in. By the time they woke up, the rain cleared up and didn't rain again. After breakfast, we played on the beach, climbed rocks, messed around with the driftwood, tried to find a geocache, and generally mucked about. The guys both managed to flood both pairs of shoes we brought (including rubber boots), so I had shoes drying by the fire.
Michelle landed from her trip to Tokyo, took a nap, and then came up to join us around dinner time. It was getting a bit nippy, so Michelle decided not the stay the night; Michael decided he wanted to go home too, so it was just me and Andrew (10). We had a great breakfast in the morning (pancakes and bacon -- wow, I forgot what a pain it is to cook bacon in a pan. Oven bacon rules!), packed up camp, and came home.
We all had a great time. The boys were already pestering me to go again, so I think it was a success.
June 21, 2008
I'm one of those people who actually click on ads in Facebook once in a while. An ad just now lead me to Cordarounds, makers of some cool clothes including the Reversible Smoking Jacket -- a corduroy jacket on one side and a crazy silky smoking jacket on the other. I think I'd look ridiculous trying to pull of that look, but I'm sure it would look good on someone.
I love the look of some of the details, but more important, the naming of their stuff is great. We're suffering through feature naming on IE8 right now, so I'm especially aware of feature names. We'd never be able to get away with a feature named "Vagisoft" to describe a soft liner material. Awesome.
June 5, 2008
As I wrote back in January, I resolved to take the boys camping this year and had booked a camp site. The fateful weekend is now here; we leave tomorrow afternoon for our big adventure at Deception Pass State Park. I think I have everything I need and just need to pack now.
We're all pretty excited, but I admit I'm a little nervous about how it will turn out since this is the first time I've ever really camped. Plus, the weather forecast is a little dicey (70% rain, 50% rain, 20% rain for the three days...). I'm sure we'll make it work.
Anyway, see you on the other side...
Now you can have bacon any time, even after the apocalypse. MREDepot.com has canned bacon -- 9 ounces of fully cooked bacon per can, ready to eat, and with a shelf-life of ten years. Certainly a must-have for any well-fed survivalist and fun for the whole family!
Thanks to my colleague, Frank Oliver, for the tip.
June 1, 2008
In Washington state, we have a screwed up system where the state has a monopoly on liquor via the state-owned liquor stores. The one interesting thing about having state-owned stores though is that they are more transparent about their markups and such. (OK, the other interesting thing is that they have the prices and stock of each store online. Too bad their selection is crappy.)
Here's a great page that shows how they price alcohol. I always thought the government took more than their fair share, but I was surprised to see that 75% of the price of a bottle of liquor in Washington goes to Federal and State taxes (50%) plus the Liquor Control Board (25%). The LCB's take is 70% operations and 30% taxes (yay, more taxes!)
In the example below, a $13.65 bottle of liquor only cost the state $3.48; the rest goes to The Man.
Why oh why does the government own liquor stores?!?! How about doing some governing instead...