Outside Lands 2018

26 Sep

This year we went to Outside Lands again. We decided to take it easy this time and not get too close to the stages, which was fine because there weren’t many must-see acts for us.

Here we are with the Ranger Dave statue:
MVIMG_20180812_125355(I wonder where they keep him the rest of the year)

Friday

James said his favourite part of the festival was seeing the comedy shows. We went on Friday afternoon because there weren’t any music acts we were interested in. The comedians we saw were really funny and we got great seats without having to wait too long – like 4th row near the middle!

Waiting outside:
IMG_20180810_154740And inside the tent:
MVIMG_20180810_160356We also saw some improv later that day, with Paul Scheer and Phil LaMarr which was pretty funny.

Something else we quite enjoyed was the Chase Sapphire Lounge. If you had one of their Sapphire credit cards you could go in and hang out inside or on their rooftop deck. Can you spot James?IMG_20180810_143821There were drinks, snacks and chargers inside, and the roof had a pretty good view of the Panhandle Stage:IMG_20180810_142338Also the lounge had the best toilets at the festival (I would walk across the park so I could use their toilets instead of the gross portaloos).

We also wandered into the cocktail section, where the cocktails were overpriced and unimpressive, but we did see this colourful statue:
IMG_20180810_184938We also saw Beck, which was a good show. I really like the hill to the side of the Twin Peaks stage because you get a decent view but still have a ton of elbow room. =)IMG_20180810_212702

Saturday

The line to get in on Saturday was pretty intense – I think it took over 30 minutes to get to the front and through security. IMG_20180811_155740The main act James was interested in was Chvrches and we broke our “don’t get too close to the stage” rule for them.IMG_20180811_165652Even though James liked the upcoming acts, he wasn’t interested enough to brave the crush of the crowd, so we retreated to a hill where we could sit down on our blanket without getting jostled around.

We did see some weird clouds above the stage. I’ve never seen weird, smudgy clouds like that before, and James and I were quite mesmirised.IMG_20180810_192723

Sunday

On Sunday we arrived much earlier so we could avoid the entrance crowd. =) We set up our blanket on the same hill spot and just camped there all day because we are old and lazy.

I did nick off to the Gastro Magic stage to watch members of Portugal. The Man make sausages.
IMG_20180812_153306(Two of them are on the stage and the rest of the band are to the left).

Then afterwards I hung around to see the Bounce and Beignets show because I was hoping to score some free beignets (which I did – I caught one of the many beignets they chucked into the crowd!)

The beignets were from Brenda’s, and here is the eponymous Brenda, making it rain with powdered sugar.IMG_20180812_164724(This was the most star-struck I was all weekend)

They also handed out King cake, and I managed to get a slice. =) I held it carefully in my hand until after the show, then scuttled back to James to share it with him.

Here it is, and here I am, all covered in victory sugar.
MVIMG_20180812_170131You might be able to tell from the photos, but the Sunday was actually quite foggy and chilly. We huddled in our blankets to watch Portugal. The Man and Janelle Monae. James  likes Janelle Monae but he’s already seen her perform this year (at a private Google concert /sigh) so he didn’t care about getting close.

This was the view James had at his work concert:

Burst_Cover_GIF_Action_20180531214655.gif

And this was our view: =P
MVIMG_20180812_165811We skipped Janet Jackson because neither of us are super into her and we didn’t want to get caught in the Uber surge at the end of the night.

There were fewer must-see acts for us this year, but that just meant we had a more relaxing time – though it’s still quite tiring going for three days in a row! But it was OK because James took the following Monday off and we just chilled at home with the cats, like the boring oldies we truly are. =)

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Souvenirs from Japan!

18 Sep

We bought a ton of stuff while we were in Japan. Behold!
IMG_20180711_144001I love the clothes we got. I purchased some super comfortable, super soft lounge pants from Muji. And on the other end of the spectrum, a Junya Watanabe top with spiky shoulders – which I still haven’t worn because I live in jeans-and-hoodie-SF, but it makes me happy every time I see it.

My absolute favourite souvenirs were our Fuji walking sticks, which Clever James managed to mount vertically:
IMG_20180725_194157The souvenirs I bought that I use the most are my Totoro watering can, hojicha tea (I’ve already run out and repurchased more), and my Muji diffuser. I bought hinoki and yuzu oils to use in the diffuser and every time I smell them I’m reminded of Japan. =)

I also use my tea cups a ton (left is from the Pokemon store and right has etched icons representing the different Japanese prefectures): IMG_20180711_140914And of course, James has very quickly gone through the booze he brought back from Japan. It’s virtually impossible to get aged whiskey so he quickly gave up on that dream, but he brought back some non-aged whiskey, some gin, and sakura blossom and green tea flavoured liquors.

James’ favourite thing he bought was a handmade Japanese paring knife engraved with his name. It is super sharp and he uses it to cut fruit for his cocktails. =) IMG_20180711_134842 (1)For our friends we bought a billion flavours of Kit Kats: MVIMG_20180711_122610There were some very Japanese flavours like Tokyo Banana, sake, green tea and wasabi, and also some weird flavours like red bean dessert and rum and raisin.

We also brought back a ton of instant ramen:IMG_20180711_122740They are collaborations between 7/11 and the chefs from Tsuta and Nakiryu (the first and second ramen restaurants in Japan to get a Michellin Star). The Nakiryu one was definitely reminiscent of the meal we had!

We found out afterwards that a lot of people bringing back ramen have had it confiscated by US customs, but nobody stopped us, so I guess we got lucky! Especially since it was such a pain lugging it around the airport.

Our (possibly contraband) ramen haul:
IMG_20180711_122903James bought the cats lots of little plush toys, and for Mouse we bought an assortment of stylish gachapon hats.

Orange: 00007IMG_00007_BURST20180711135414_COVERWhite teddy bear: IMG_20180711_135908And a communist hat. We’d been hoping for the Uncle Sam hat, but at least this was the second best one: MVIMG_20180711_140101Also we bought some fancy fruit/vegetable plates. We haven’t used them yet but I think they’re really cute (plus they were super cheap – something like $2 each).
MVIMG_20180711_130337This was our loot from the Pokemon store (though the plush Mimikyu is for Cat):
IMG_20180711_125745And this is my favourite of the windchimes we bought at the Hozuki-Ichi festival. It has a plush cherry flower on it and makes the loveliest tinkling sound.MVIMG_20180711_124808And finally, this was the extra bag we ended up buying in shame because we’d picked up too many souvenirs.MVIMG_20180711_131145It packs flat but expands into a giant piece of luggage. It’s sturdy, but there’s no padding so we just chucked our dirty clothes in there and put the more fragile items in our suitcases and carry-ons.

We were quite pleased with it because we’d had a similar (though not quite as dire) situation in Seoul, so we figured we’d just bring this bag with us on our future travels.

So yeah, that was our haul from Japan! Next time I want to get more hats for Mouse, more hojicha, maybe a nice teapot, and of course some more snacks. =D

Den Tokyo

13 Sep

While we were in Tokyo we had a ton of great meals but the most memorable (and expensive!) one was our dinner at Den. Den has two Michelin stars and is a modern take on traditional Japanese Kaiseki cuisine.

It was also a pain in the butt to get reservations for – their website says you have to call them, so I tried for several nights but their phone was always engaged. Then I read online that someone had just emailed them and that had worked, so I tried that and success!

We arrived a little bit early so waited outside for them to open (later, our waitress told us this area is also used for employee dinners when the weather is good).
IMG_20180707_181428These charming little guys welcomed us into the restaurant:
IMG_20180707_212120We started off with a glass of welcome sake and Den’s version of monaka, which is a traditional Japanese sweet made with bean paste. Monaka is normally a dessert, but Den had made a fruit and foie gras-filled version for our first course.
MVIMG_20180707_183913It was delicious, and the packaging was so cute!MVIMG_20180707_183812 That pig is a traditional mosquito repellent in Japan. This is the one that Den had outside:
IMG_20180707_212100The next course was a kind of refreshing vegetable jelly that we partially self-assembled:
20180829_150123-ANIMATION.gifOur waitress said that they picked plants from around Mt Fuji to go in this jelly:IMG_20180707_184848The taste and presentation of every course was beautiful. Even the plates were stunning:IMG_20180707_185521Our next course was Dentucky Fried Chicken! This is James with his Dentucky box – and the Den owner/chef: IMG_20180707_185948The box was actually super elaborate. There was a picture of the chef’s pet dog Puchi and a list of restaurants that Den has collaborated with.

Also the fried chicken wasn’t actually chicken – it was rice with a mix of other ingredients that I can’t remember (the exact mix differs depending on seasonality). In the background you can see a hand-drawn Australian flag they’d made for us. =) IMG_20180707_190217think this was tuna:MVIMG_20180707_191303The chefs let James go into the kitchen to take a photo of our next fish course getting blackened: IMG_20180707_191145 It was perfect (and again, check out the beautiful plates):IMG_20180707_192051Pretty much all the plates were either antiques or custom made for Den.

And OMG this fantastic salad. MVIMG_20180707_193307Our waitress said it had something crazy like 27 different vegetables in it. The tomato was spectacular and the corn was, I swear to God, the sweetest, juiciest corn I’ve ever had. James and I both had a fun time hunting around for the different ingredients.

My carrot had little heart eyes. =) IMG_20180707_193410Also I should mention that as we were eating, James was getting sake pairings, each of which came in a different, intriguing-looking cup.
MVIMG_20180707_194046 This white cup was very pretty and delicate, and almost seemed to glow:MVIMG_20180707_195939This one was James’ favourite:IMG_20180707_185423Anyway, our next course was beef cooked over rice so the melting fat would infuse the rice: IMG_20180707_200926Our traditional rice dishes, served with pickled vegetables and broth:MVIMG_20180707_201622Dessert was fresh fruit with some sort of jelly:
IMG_20180707_203930It was a really fun, fantastic meal. =) Our waitress spoke english natively which was a great help in explaining all the dishes to us, and the chef was a crack up – he’d strike a pose whenever he saw me taking a photo of the kitchen:
IMG_20180707_200655_1Our waitress explained that this pillar was signed by visiting chefs: IMG_20180707_211619And that Puchi the dog (remember? From the Dentucky Fried Chicken box) was sleeping inside the restaurant!

His snooze location turned out to be right behind this Puchi shrine:
IMG_20180707_204248Hello Puchi!MVIMG_20180707_210057Our waitress told us that Puchi has a “dad-like” palate and his favourite foods are nachos and beer. Puchi could also do this crowd-pleasing trick:

Puchi liked me so they let me cuddle him for aaages even though he was clearly very sleepy:
IMG_20180707_205423 The waitresses called us his new mum and dad and I guess Puchi started to get a bit worried at that: MVIMG_20180707_205433But then real dad came back and it was OK:
IMG_20180707_210014 One last photo Japanese-style:IMG_20180707_205943And that was our dinner at Den! It was an amazing night of modern Japanese cuisine and traditional Japanese hospitality. I’d highly recommend it if you’re in Tokyo for a really fun, memorable evening.

Up Mt Fuji Again and More Tokyo

7 Sep

Day 19: Low Key Fuji Day

We slept in that morning, then rolled out of bed to head to Shin Udon. It was very popular (another one of those tiny restaurants with a well-managed queue) and it was bloody fantastic.

This was my carbonara-style udon with bacon tempura:
IMG_20180709_123305And James’ more traditional udon with a deep fried egg:00000XTR_00000_BURST20180709123345-ANIMATIONThe udon was made on-site and the texture was absolutely perfect. A great, carby start to our Fuji day!

We did some brief board game shopping and picked up a support brace for my knee, which had started to play up from all the walking. Then we had a nap and rested up for the hike.

There was a cool orange moon when we started our hike. Unfortunately this is the best photo I managed to get of it:
MVIMG_20180710_014321We were both kind of nervous because we’d been walking an average of 10km a day in the heat/humidity for 2.5 weeks and were definitely starting to feel it. We’d walk up stairs at the train station and need to rest our legs so we were pretty sure 1400+ vertical feet in high altitude was going to be a pain.

As it turned out, we’d worried for no reason. Even though we were a lot more fatigued, we were actually significantly faster this time around (like 1.5-2 hours faster). Mentally, it also felt a lot easier – I guess because we recognised landmarks and knew when we were getting close to a rest stop. Plus we started seeing large tour groups who had stayed the night at the huts and were getting ready to start, so we would just keep going so we didn’t get stuck behind them.

The second hike made us realise how unusually windy the first hike had been – at the time we’d just thought getting blown around was normal. The hike was much easier without the wind constantly fighting us.

It took us 4.5 hours to get to the summit, and we arrived around 2:30am. It wasn’t as uncomfortable as last time since it wasn’t raining and windy, though it was still quite cold when we weren’t moving. But still! We’d made it! =)

Day 20: Descending Fuji, Cocktails and Effective Prayer

Sunrise was supposed to be 4:30am so we sat there for awhile. We’d expected to take much longer and were actually pretty pleased with ourselves. I had a lot of time to think about how wonderful James was for climbing Fuji twice for me, and James had a lot of time to feel miserable and quietly huff oxygen from his bottle.

As we waited, we could see a steady stream of headlamps and flashlights coming up the path. It was early in the season but quite busy since there was a one day window between a typhoon and a storm where you could climb, and obviously everybody had gone on that day.

The crowd near us:
IMG_20180710_035625James and I huddled for warmth and waited for the sun to rise. The dawn sky was like this for a long time:
MVIMG_20180710_034841 (1)More so than our previous end-point at 3450 meters, at the 3776 meter summit we really did get a sense that we were on top of the world (or at least Japan). IMG_20180710_040127The clouds underneath us looked like waves:
IMG_20180710_041441 Welcome to the land of the rising sun:
IMG_20180710_044447After sunrise we checked out the crater and hung out a bit on the summit. Unfortunately they weren’t doing the summit stamp that day so despite our best efforts our sticks would remain unfinished.

Oh well. The important thing is that we got to the top. =)
MVIMG_20180710_050833 (1)Much like our ascent, the descent was much easier than last time since it wasn’t windy and raining. We also weren’t bitterly disappointed so I guess it was easier mentally too.

The volcanic gravel made the walk down quite slippery and we saw several people fall over (and almost fell several times ourselves). At least the views were nice: IMG_20180710_051600We got back with plenty of time to spare, and picked up some souvenirs while we waited for the first bus back at 10am.

If you hike Fuji I’d definitely recommend booking a seat in advance because the line for tickets was really long. People with confirmed tickets were guaranteed their seats and everyone else was first come first served (bearing in mind that the Shinjuku buses only came hourly and when I checked on the day they were full until 1pm). There was a line of 50+ people who all looked hot, tired and stressed, which is not the way you want to end your Fuji trip!
IMG_20180710_100820We showered once we got back to the hotel, but instead of napping like last time we had a katsu curry lunch then celebratory cocktails at Gen Yamamoto. MVIMG_20180710_155440
The drinks were great – very fruity and some unusual combinations (like peach and wasabi!) I liked that they were low-alcohol because that way we could try a lot without worrying about getting plastered in the afternoon.

Afterwards we went to Senso-Ji Temple for the Hozuki-Ichi festival. If you recall, we’d already been to Senso-Ji, but since we were in Japan on the 10th (we were originally not going to be) we definitely had to go again, since there is a belief that praying once on July 10th is equivalent to 46,000 prayers on other days.

There were stalls selling ornamental cherry pods and wind chimes (perhaps also 46,000 times as effective if purchased on this day?) with tons of Japanese people buying them.IMG_20180710_170949Obviously we couldn’t bring the plants home but we bought a couple of wind chimes.

Nakamise street was also very crowded and decorated with hozuki foliage: IMG_20180710_173914On July 9 and 10 they had these charms on the temple to ward off lightning:
IMG_20180710_171438 Which you could purchase as omamori, but only on those days:IMG_20180711_125104It was very hot and crowded but I enjoyed seeing a tiny slice of Japanese life at that festival. =)

In the evening we went shopping for last minute souvenirs (primarily booze) and encountered some more fun gachapon.

Animals refusing to face us:IMG_20180710_203036 Tiny safes:IMG_20180710_203033Day 21: Time to Head Home

We spent the morning packing, which actually took a lot longer than we expected – I hadn’t realised we’d bought so much stuff (which will be in its own separate post)!IMG_20180711_103845 (1)From the door: our Fuji walking sticks, the two suitcases we originally brought, a giant shopping bag full of snack souvenirs, an extra piece of luggage we purchased in Japan, another giant shopping bag with snacks and ramen, and our carry on backpack.

(When we were waiting for the airport shuttle, a family of four had a similar amount of luggage to us and I was so embarrassed).

We arrived with plenty of time at the airport and did some duty free shopping to use up the rest of our yen before heading to the ANA lounge. In the lobby they had a model plane signed by the Star Wars cast:IMG_20180711_150758One of the actual Star Wars planes we saw outside: MVIMG_20180711_161853The ANA lounge was pretty cool. They had the usual comfy chairs/wifi/pre-cooked food/booze, but also a noodle bar with various meals cooked to order:IMG_20180711_154551And even a sake bar:
IMG_20180711_161359There was also a beer-pouring robot that James saw but inexplicably didn’t take a photo of. =/

And then it was time to get on the plane and go back to San Francisco.
IMG_20180711_163333Bye Japan! We can’t wait to see you again!

Back to (the) Tokyo Part 3

30 Aug

Day 15: Ramen, Pokemon and Ninjas

That morning we got up early to wait in line for ramen at Nakiryu, which (along with Tsuta) is a one-Michelin starred-ramen restaurant in Tokyo that only costs $10-15 a meal. We arrived over an hour before it opened on a rainy weekday and we were 5th and 6th in line.

Waiting in line was a surprisingly non-terrible experience. We chatted to some Americans near us, and it was interesting seeing how many people joined the queue and when. This was the line just before Nakiryu opened (bearing in mind that there are only 10 seats inside):IMG_20180705_111828They handed out menus shortly before the restaurant opened, and James used ours to help him order at the ramen machine.IMG_20180705_113508After he paid at the machine he gave the receipts to the guy behind the counter. That’s how you order at all Michelin restaurants, right?

James got the signature tantanmen (a sesame/red pepper ramen) with thick slices of braised pork, soy-dipped egg and shrimp wontons:MVIMG_20180705_114909I ordered the sanramen (hot and sour ramen) with the egg and regular pork.
MVIMG_20180705_114848We each strongly preferred our own ramen but I have to admit that James’ thick-sliced pork was insane.  

The kitchen worked in complete silence, which was impressive but a little unsettling. Also it wasn’t a leisurely meal – like at every popular ramen joint in Tokyo we had to eat quickly so the people behind us could get in. People didn’t really talk, and mainly all you could hear was the sound of cooking and customers appreciatively slurping ramen.

It was really, really delicious though, and definitely worth doing just for the novelty of having a cheapo Michelin starred meal. That thick-cut pork, OMG.

After our early lunch we walked to the Pokemon Megastore in Ikebukuro. We got a bit lost in the shopping center and had to ask for directions, but looking back we probably should have been able to figure it out for ourselves:MVIMG_20180705_142145 A wall of pokemon:IMG_20180705_123526 Here we are with some old favourites:IMG_20180705_124433(Yes I am aware that I should have been peeking over James’ other shoulder. It bugs me a lot).

It was fun walking around and looking at all the cool merchandise and peeking at what other people had put in their baskets (mostly plushies).

This is Pikachu wearing the skins of his defeated enemies: IMG_20180705_124724I spent a lot of the time messaging Cat, asking which pokemon were which. She answered my questions very patiently but eventually sent back an exasperated “OMG why are you even in the pokemon store if you don’t know anything about pokemon??”

James was very excited by these pokeballs with mystery pokemon inside. He bought two, hoping for either Pikachu and Eevee. He got … Pikachu and Eevee! What a lucky cricket:
IMG_20180705_141751I was also sucked into trying my luck with these cool tins. I bought four and only got one repeat (which was the awesome one in the bottom left so I’m OK with that):IMG_20180705_135814I bought a Mimikyu soft toy for Cat and some more snacks that came in decorative tins.

After we checked out, James (and several other guys) got super distracted by these pokemon gachapon:
IMG_20180705_140821Once again James got the exact gachapon he was after. Perhaps he does have the luck of the nine-tailed fox after all!

We did some random shopping afterwards, where James was entranced with this nesting Totoro toy:
Totoro We also found more cat hat gachapon! Flowers: IMG_20180705_155941And what I assume are Valentine’s Day hats:
IMG_20180705_155927I was also happy because we found a squeeze toy I was hunting! I saw these at Tokyu Hands in Shibuya and fell in love with the eggplant one but they didn’t have any for sale. =( Fortunately they were available at the Ikebukuro location:IMG_20180705_161349 (1)(There’s a gap at the back because I snagged the last eggplant before taking the photo).

When I first saw it I went from “hah, that eggplant is really dumb – I wonder what it feels like” to “OMG I must have it”. It is tactilely delightful.

It was a wonderful afternoon full of gachapon and eggplant luck.

In the evening we went to a ninja restaurant in Asakusa. It was super cheesy but also super fun. This was James at our table in the ninja village:
IMG_20180705_192446The dishes were a mixture of ninja-themed and just ninja-named. James ordered the set course which came with several ninja-themed dishes, like these shuriken crackers:IMG_20180705_194027I asked our waiter what meal had the coolest presentation and he recommended this ninja chicken:

=D

They had an awesome “ninja magician” come by and do sleight of hand tricks. The table next to us also had a magician so we got to see multiple magic tricks.

At the end of the night they gave us a complimentary snow frog dessert to celebrate our 10th anniversary. =)
MVIMG_20180705_213257(A month early, but we figured it counted because the whole trip was basically our anniversary gift to each other!)

Afterwards we headed to Bar Benfiddich. It’s supposed to be one of the best bars in Asia, and is one of those places where the bartender makes you a drink based on your flavour preferences.

James and the owner/bartender, Hiroyasu Kayama:IMG_20180706_010028We were at the counter so were able to chat a bit, and found out that his apprentice/assistant was entering a cocktail competition in Yokohama. We ended up talking to Miyoshi for ages about cocktail-making, and she told us about the preparation involved for the competition. Something that totally blew our minds was that in Japan, artistry (or, what Google translated as “beautiful movement”) is an important part of bartending. All the bartenders we saw were dressed in suits and moved very precisely when measuring, pouring, and creating cocktails. And of course, there’s the Japanese Hard Shake, which is very cool to watch. Movement/artistry is much less of a priority in the US, where bartenders – even high-end ones – are quite casual.

We asked Miyoshi to make her competition cocktail for us (which she had to get the owner’s permission to do):
IMG_20180706_003324 It was called Fleur de Soie, and had lavender and fresh lime juice, and it was very tasty, refreshing and not too floral. I looked up the competition results later – she didn’t win. =(

It was a really memorable night and I enjoyed learning a bit more about Japanese cocktail-making. I think it was my favourite of the bars we went to in Japan (James also enjoyed it but preferred High Five in Ginza and the Ritz-Carlton bar in Kyoto).

Day 16: Art and Baseball

The next morning we lined up at Narikura to try what is almost unanimously agreed-on as the best tonkatsu in Tokyo. This time we only had to arrive ~40 minutes early to get into the first seating. It was a promising sign that most people in the line were Japanese.

James ordered the Kiramugi and I ordered the snow-aged pork. The quality of the pork was amazing – mine was more tender but James’ had the better flavour.
IMG_20180706_112220I think Narikura was noticeably superior to even a good tonkatsu place like Maisen. But the wait at Maisen was much shorter, and I don’t know if I’m enough of a tonkatsu connoisseur to make it worth the wait. I was glad we tried it though!

After lunch we took a train to the Yayoi Kusama Museum. I’d booked tickets a couple of months in advance and, like the Ghibli Museum tickets, they sell out very quickly.

The highlight was definitely the pumpkin infinity room; also known by its full name: Pumpkins Screaming about Love Beyond Infinity.
MVIMG_20180706_141220It was really interesting – an employee would let just you/your group into the room, and you had it to yourselves for two minutes. The exhibit itself was very small, but the angle of the mirrors made it look like a huge field of pumpkins. The museum was very popular, so it was nice to have that intimate experience with just me, James and infinite glowing pumpkins (screaming about love).

We wanted to go in again but when we exited there were already 10+ people waiting. We hadn’t had to wait at all for our turn – I guess we’d gotten there at the perfect time. Oh well.

We continued on to the rooftop pumpkin, which was the other part of the museum where you were allowed to take photographs:
MVIMG_20180706_141610It was a very small museum. We spent about 30-40 minutes there and that was with backtracking and looking at some of the paintings twice. I felt like it was worth the $9 we paid – especially for the pumpkin room! – but much more than that would have felt like a bit of a rip-off.

We had an afternoon break and then went to Tokyo Dome to watch a baseball game.MVIMG_20180706_181913We had several friends recommend seeing a Japanese baseball game and I’d definitely agree it’s a must-do. Japanese baseball is sooo much more interesting than American baseball. The fans are much more interactive – they had synchronised flag-waving, individual chants for different players, and even a brass band!

We went in barracking for the Yomiuri Giants (since they’re the closest thing to the San Francisco Giants) but were won over by the superior chants of the Hiroshima Carp. MVIMG_20180706_195519The game itself wasn’t that exciting (poor James was in a line for the bathroom for the sole home run that was hit) but the enthusiasm from the crowd was infectious and it was fun chanting along with them.

Day 17: Harajuku

We had deliberately saved Harajuku for one of the last days of our trip in case I went crazy and bought a ton of stuff.

I managed to restrain myself, but did buy an awesome Junya Watanabe top at a fancy consignment store. Look how much room there is inside! That’s how you can tell it’s posh.
IMG_20180707_115906We really enjoyed (well, as much as you can “enjoy” it given the heat) strolling around Cat street and the surrounding area.

This is James wondering why I made him go up the stairs for this photo:
MVIMG_20180707_134914_1Some of the stores had really interesting interiors:
MVIMG_20180707_112914(And they all had air conditioning so it was always a relief to go inside).

Even the exterior of some of the buildings was unusual. The one was half-building, half-vase! MVIMG_20180707_113822A guy walking down the street looked to see what we were admiring, then also started taking photos. =)

We also braved Takeshita street, but it was insanely crowded and the stores were a lot more cutesy, which isn’t really my style. I do want to go back for some jiggly pancakes one day though!

After our afternoon of shopping we had dinner at Den, which has two Michelin stars (though a lot pricier than Nakiryu!) and is based on traditional Japanese cuisine but with a fun, modern interpretation. I’ll make a separate post about it because it’s quite photo heavy. It was quite difficult to get a reservation, but totally worth it, and the meal was one of our highlights in Japan. =)

Day 18: Studio Ghibli and Steak

We started off the day with more conveyor belt sushi. Breakfast of champions!
MVIMG_20180708_115210I followed this man and his cat down the streets of Shibuya until James got me back on route:MVIMG_20180708_122804To get on a train to head to the Ghibli Museum. It wasn’t as cute as a little Tokyo shoulder cat, but it was pretty cute:
IMG_20180708_133357We weren’t allowed to take photos indoors, which was actually a really good policy because the museum was already very busy and if we’d had to wait for everyone to take photos it would have been even worse.

We could take photos outdoors though. This was the staircase to the roof:MVIMG_20180708_135318Which was where the Iron Giant lived:
MVIMG_20180708_135604We also explored the (very crowded!) gift shop and a very detailed special exhibit about the different ways food is depicted in Studio Ghibli films. Also we saw a short film about a little caterpillar in a special cinema there which was pretty fun.

Then we walked back to the station to go to Steakhouse Satou where we had a fabulous Matsusaka steak dinner. Matsusaka beef is like Kobe beef but more well-known in Japan than internationally.

The beef before cooking:
IMG_20180708_163727And after:
MVIMG_20180708_165058It was melt-in-your-mouth tender and amazing. 

Steakhouse Satou is also well-known for its Matsusaka beef croquettes, which they sell at their stall downstairs. There was a huge line, but it moved quickly. IMG_20180708_171604We were quite full from our steaks but managed to make room for a single croquette between us. The croquette was really, really good – for sure worth getting if you’re in the area and don’t quite have the budget for steak.
IMG_20180708_172931
We had an early night, making sure to get plenty of rest for the next day, which was going to be our second (and final) attempt to get to the top of Mt Fuji.

Back to Tokyo and Up (Most of) Mount Fuji

19 Aug

Day 12: Japanese Whiskey and Tokyo

In the morning we took a train to Yamazaki to tour the Suntory whiskey distillery. We had to book quite far in advance but this tour was one of the few things in Japan that James really wanted to do.
IMG_20180702_093323Even a month in advance, only the morning slot was left, so 10am whiskey it was! We explored the museum while we waited for the tour to begin.
IMG_20180702_093613 There was information about the history of the company and also whiskeys in various states of aging:IMG_20180702_094242The distillery tour was in Japanese but they gave us headphones so we were able to follow along with the audio tour.

This room was very hot and yeasty. There was a reason that all the stills were different sizes but neither James nor I can remember why. Clearly we retained a lot of information from the tour.
IMG_20180702_101028 (1)This was the room where they aged the whiskey in barrels. I don’t like the taste of scotch but this room smelled wonderful – like we were in a forest.
MVIMG_20180702_102408The tour concluded with some whiskey tastings.
IMG_20180702_103822It was quite an elaborate set-up – there were snacks, overhead slides and a little reference guide. It also confirmed for me that I just don’t like whiskey and I gave half my tastings to James. (Then later one of the tour guides came around and was impressed that I’d managed to finish all of my whiskey and I awkwardly went along with it).

There was also a paid tasting room that had a much larger selection. It was packed – though I think we got unlucky because there was a big tour group there. This was the bar:IMG_20180702_120244And the menu:MVIMG_20180702_112716James tasted six (I think) whiskeys, including the super old/rare ones. He said they were very smooth but overall he prefers Scottish whiskey.

We also stopped by the gift shop but it was lame and had the same un-aged whiskeys you can find in the US or at any 7/11 in Japan. The tour and tasting room were really fun though and I’d definitely recommend them as a mini day-trip from Kyoto or Osaka.

Afterwards we took a train to Kyoto and then the Shinkansen back to Tokyo. We bought some food at the train station to eat on our trip.

This one was so pretty – like unwrapping a little present. =)
IMG_20180702_130552When we arrived in Tokyo we stashed our luggage in one of the station lockers and went to VR Zone in Shinjuku where we played VR Mario Kart.IMG_20180702_161347We could pick up bananas and shells with our hands and throw them at our opponents and the whole thing was really immersive. It had a big catch-up system so it didn’t feel like a lot of skill was necessarily involved but it was still fun.

We played 3 other games and they were various shades of OK – Mario Kart was the clear star. VR makes me a bit nauseous so I was quite happy to limit ourselves to 4.

We retrieved our luggage and checked into the Sunroute Plaza Shinjuku, where they had the cousin of Haku-chan (the sake-recommending robot) on staff:
MVIMG_20180710_183331For dinner we went to a place that is known for its deep-fried gyoza:
MVIMG_20180702_203018 And its katsu gyoza: MVIMG_20180702_202503They were tasty but the regular fried gyoza were the best. We both wished we’d just gotten one or two of the novelty kind and more of the fried gyoza.

Day 13: Google and Fuji

We took it easy this day because we had plans to climb Fuji overnight. We headed to Roppongi to check out the Google office since several friends who have worked there told us it has an amazing view. We were hoping to be able to see Fuji but unfortunately it wasn’t clear enough. =(

At one of the cafes I ordered a peach soda with basil and cider jelly (and my name in Japanese I think!)
IMG_20180703_092125I was intrigued by the Ramune soda bagel:MVIMG_20180703_094432But I should have gone with one of the croissants because the bagel was disgusting. I felt bad not finishing it but it was by far the worst thing I ate in Japan.

This was one of the microkitchens:
MVIMG_20180703_100422They had a lot of Japanese snacks, and we grabbed a couple of the onigiri for our Fuji hike.IMG_20180703_100550There were also these adorable lollies! MVIMG_20180703_101647James and the Oreo Android being dynamic together:
IMG_20180703_101606We did some light shopping, grabbed lunch, then had a fortifying afternoon nap at our hotel. The hotel was really conveniently located – a 5 minute walk from Shinjuku station and and also the Shinjuku Expressway Bus Terminal to go to Mt Fuji.

We took the latest bus to the Mt Fuji Suburu Line 5th Station. There was only one store open at that time, so we bought some wooden walking sticks and started our hike a bit past 10pm.

Day 14: Fuji!

Hiking Mt Fuji overnight is called “bullet climbing” and generally not recommended. The way that most people climb Fuji is to start during the day, climb until they reach one of the mountain huts, stay there overnight, then climb again in the early morning to reach the summit by sunrise. Bullet climbing is starting in the evening and climbing throughout the night.

James and I opted to bullet climb because we really didn’t want to hike in the heat and also didn’t want to pay $70 each for a sleeping bag in a shared room at a mountain hut. It was fine. The only tricky part was the altitude, which affected James a lot more than it did me (which we expected, because he gets headaches on top of Mammoth at 11k feet).

But anyway, we were fairly well-prepared with warm layers, headlamps, and plenty of food and water. We hiked throughout the night, starting from 2800 meters (9186 feet) at the 5th Station.

We were really glad we brought our headlamps since it was dark on the trail.
MVIMG_20180703_222612You can see the shadow of James’ head on the sign post. Even before I remembered taking this photo I saw it and was like “hey, that shadow looks a lot like James’ head!”

There were several stations where we would briefly rest and get our walking sticks stamped (well, branded really). The early stamps cost 300 yen but prices went up the higher we climbed. Also some stations had multiple stamps so it ended up costing quite a bit!MVIMG_20180703_234154James and I agreed that the beginning of the hike was the hardest mentally because it was the longest stretch without a break. Later on it was steeper but there were more stations to stop at for breaks. Which was good because James had a headache and nausea from the altitude. He’s not a complainer so the fact that he even said anything meant it was pretty bad.

By the time we got to the 8th station area it was starting to get really windy, and any time we stopped walking we would instantly feel the cold. The wind forecast had been fine when we checked earlier that day, but we talked to a Canadian guy who was worried because he said the forecast was getting worse and worse.

We got to Goraikou (the final mountain hut) a bit before 3pm. It was really howling by this point and the ranger told everyone we were better off staying where we were for the sunrise because it was even windier and more overcast at the summit. We decided to take temporary shelter inside the mountain hut then continue to the top after sunrise.

Here we are inside the hut around 3:30am.IMG_20180704_034708Unfortunately the wind got even worse, and when we tried to go up the ranger said that they were no longer allowing people to summit because it was too dangerous (later we found out that Typhoon Prapiroon had just hit). IMG_20180704_041751 (1)I was so bummed. Climbing Fuji was the only reason we’d gone to Japan in the summer and we were so, so close! If we’d known that resting meant we couldn’t get to the summit we would have just kept going. When we got back to the 5th Station we talked to some people who had gotten to the summit and they said it was really awful. Apparently they couldn’t see anything and it was raining, cold, so windy that people were getting blown around, and everyone descended as quickly as they could after sunrise. But at least they got there!

And it’s not like our sunrise view was any better:
IMG_20180704_041806 We hung around for ages, hoping the wind would die down and the ranger would let us up. But no luck. =(

On the plus side, while we were waiting the clouds cleared and revealed this spectacular view: MVIMG_20180704_043433-PANO (1)Isn’t that cloud amazing?? I looked it up afterwards and it’s a lenticular cloud caused by some combination of the mountain, wind and air temperature. At the time I was so disappointed we hadn’t gotten to the summit that it didn’t register how fortunate we were to see that gorgeous view. I’m really glad we took photos!
IMG_20180704_050429Eventually we gave up and started the descent, and it was raining and windy pretty much the whole way down. A couple of times there’d be a huge gust of wind and we’d have to plant our walking sticks and hunker down so we didn’t get blown off the mountain.

We didn’t have waterproof layers on our bottom halves so got soaked (top halves were dry though!). Combined with the disappointment of not summiting, the descent and the long (damp) wait for the bus was a completely miserable experience.

We took the bus back and walked back to our hotel – thank goodness for that 5 minute commute because we were seriously gross. We showered and had a post-Fuji nap before grabbing some conveyor belt sushi for an early dinner.IMG_20180704_190050We were very pleased with the conveyor belt sushi. Obviously restaurant sushi was better, but this was cheap, decent, quick, and a fun novelty.

Then we went to a bar called Whales of August which made movie-inspired drinks, some which were kind of meh and some which were very creative.

Tangled:
MVIMG_20180704_195557 Totoro!MVIMG_20180704_201830Even the drinks with beautiful presentation weren’t great-tasting though. We’d pretty much exclusively been drinking at high-end cocktail bars in Japan and it was a stark contrast.

We did some shopping, then wandered over to check out the Shibuya crossing intersection. Honestly I don’t get why it’s a tourist attraction except maybe for people who’ve never been to a big city before. It’s a big, multi-directional crossing. Cool?

Since we were in the area we also stopped by the Hachiko statue:IMG_20180704_223334 (1)When we went back to our hotel I got all sad again about not summiting Fuji. It was the only reason we’d come during the summer (we both hate hot weather) and not getting to the top felt like a failure. Normally we would have tried again another trip but neither of us wanted to go to Japan in summer again.

We checked the forecast for our remaining days in Japan but the typhoon meant that it was raining and windy the whole time, and the only day it looked possible was our departure day – and that day was a tiny window sandwiched between two storms. So even if we changed our flights, if the first storm went longer than expected or the second storm arrived earlier, we’d be SOL again.

Plus it was the end of a long holiday with a lot of walking in very hot/humid weather so we were both tired, James already had a ton of people booking meetings with him as soon as he got back, we’d be sacrificing really great flatbed seats on our return trip with the possibility that we’d have to fly economy, and it would cost around 1k to rebook our flights/hotels/Fuji buses/the catsitter. James hated the hike since he’d had a headache and nausea for much of it (and had carried all our stuff because of my herniated disc) and pointed out that we had pretty much climbed Fuji, and the last few hundred meters didn’t make a difference except in my head.

Basically, there were a ton of practical/financial/logistical reasons I should have accepted that we weren’t going to summit Mt Fuji, and the only reason to try again was that I really, really wanted to.

You can see where this is all going. (Yes, I am aware that I’m incredibly spoiled)
IMG_20180704_043946See you soon, Fuji-san!

Nara, Osaka and Kobe

8 Aug

Day 9: Nara

In the morning we opted for the Western breakfast at the hotel and enjoyed eggs benedict, fresh fruit, charcuterie, and a selection of pastries from Pierre Hermes:
MVIMG_20180629_084111We went back to our room to finish packing, then had an early lunch at Tempura Mizuki, conveniently located in the hotel. We’d had delicious, cheap tempura in Tokyo and wanted to compare it to fancy, Michelin star tempura.
IMG_20180629_123642All my other experiences have been closer to the heavily battered, comfort food end of the spectrum so I really enjoyed seeing what high end tempura was like.

Our seafood and vegetables before they were battered and fried:IMG_20180629_115007The batter was soooo light. It was quite a thin layer and applied with a brush. The tempura wasn’t greasy at all – after the chef fried each item he’d set it down on some blotting paper which seemed mainly decorative because there were no excess oil drips.

Look at our huge, beautiful scallops!
IMG_20180629_120433After eating his scallops James was very pleased and gave them what I assume has to be his highest praise: “I think Kyoto and Mouse would really like this”.

The chef recommended different salts for different tempura. The options were matcha salt, seaweed salt, lake salt and Kyoto pepper salt.
IMG_20180629_114030I was curious what $21-a-glass tea tasted like so I ordered the Royal Blue Tea. It tasted like tea.IMG_20180629_114325It was a wonderful lunch with wonderful service. Though the service was actually more attentive than I’m comfortable with – for instance, when we left the chef and waitress escorted us to the door to say goodbye and stayed there as we walked up the stairs. IMG_20180627_070222When we got to the top I looked back and they were still there. Holy crap.

After we checked out we took the train to Nara, where of course we went to the deer park. It was initially quite disappointing because the deer weren’t very interested in us. Cat will be able to vouch that I sent her a series of panicked texts asking where to find the deer biscuit vendors.

Here’s a picture of me trying to be friends with a bunch of deer who did not give a shit:
IMG_20180629_151115 But that all changed once we found the deer biscuits. Suddenly everyone wanted hang out with Kaye.IMG_20180629_152911It was kind of unsettling how aggressive the deer were for food. And it wasn’t just food – this deer snatched the paper biscuit wrapper away:
IMG_20180629_153105 (1)Right before this photo this deer nibbled my top and left a slobbery combination of drool and biscuits on me. MVIMG_20180629_160424 (1)We ended up making pretty good friends with them though. We had something they wanted (deer biscuits) and they had something we wanted (deer selfies):IMG_20180629_161213Photos with our dear (deer) friends:MVIMG_20180629_161245I remembered reading somewhere that some of the Nara deer would bow at you to get deer biscuits. So I randomly tried it and got followed around by a herd of bowing deer. Some of them would just kind of roll their heads around but a couple were quite good at it.UfCz9if - ImgurSo well-mannered!

Needless to say, the biscuit ladies made many yen from us that day.

We also went to the Great Buddha Hall in Todaiji Temple to see this enormous bronze Buddha. It was quite spectacular and definitely worth the entry fee:
IMG_20180629_164848
Inside the hall was a pillar with a hole the same size as the giant Budda’s nostril. Apparently if you can pass through that hole it’s a sign you will attain enlightenment in your next life.

Here is a picture of James failing to reach enlightenment:
IMG_20180629_165904Back outside the temple, James found a deer licking its friend and threatened to join in. Look how sick of their shit that middle deer is.
IMG_20180629_170709We were just about to leave when it started raining heavily so instead we decided to head under cover. The park (which had been quite crowded) cleared out almost completely and we got to see the deer walking around looking for shelter.

This guy walked up and joined us.IMG_20180629_171000 And we all sat there together, waiting for the rain to pass.IMG_20180629_171141 (1)Once it had died down we said goodbye to the deer and headed to Osaka to check into our hotel and grab dinner.

We put our names down at a popular chicken restaurant called Ikkaku and had a bit of a wander around downtown Osaka.

Apparently this running man sign is a famous landmark.
IMG_20180629_201939Ikkaku is famous for a dish called “old chicken” but we both preferred the texture and flavour of the “young chicken”. The old chicken was more intensely chicken-tasting but it was also quite tough, whereas the young chicken was fall-apart tender.

There was a sign on the wall which had a cartoon man making this pose.
IMG_20180629_205903But I forgot to take a photo so now it’s just a weird photo of James.

Day 10: Osaka

We went to Kuromon market as soon as it opened. The first thing we ordered was this beautiful salmon, tuna and roe bowl:
MVIMG_20180630_092124It was so cheap and tasty! I never stopped being impressed by the enormous salmon roe in Japan.

James also scouted out this awesome soft shell crab burger: IMG_20180630_095629We also bought an $8 peach because (much like the $21-a-glass tea) I was curious what an $8 peach tasted like. IMG_20180630_100922They cut it up for me and it was very peachy and nice. Not orders of magnitude nicer than the <$1 peaches I’ve eaten though.

Before we left I bought some oversized scallops grilled with butter soy sauce:
IMG_20180630_103325 It was delicious: IMG_20180630_104040I was pretty full by that point but I still regret not getting this sea urchin:
IMG_20180630_103158It was really heating up by this time, but we didn’t have a ton of time in Osaka so had to power through. We visited a shrine shaped like a lion’s head:
MVIMG_20180630_112507 Then went to a knife shop where James bought a handmade paring knife. He tried out a bunch of different knives and this one was his favourite:IMG_20180711_134842The store engraved it with his name in Japanese and showed him how to keep it sharp. It is his favourite thing he bought in Japan and he babies it like crazy.

In the evening we had a takoyaki snack:
IMG_20180630_201419Then headed to Ajinoya, a popular okonomiyaki restaurant that’s known for having a lighter batter than most okonomiyaki: IMG_20180630_205150That picture only shows half of the queue – there was a second queue across the street so as to not block the street or neighbouring businesses. The double queue was quite common for popular restaurants in Japan and they were all very good about actively managing it and making sure people didn’t accidentally cut the line,

Our okonomiyaki on the grill:
MVIMG_20180630_215735After dinner we walked back to the hotel to crash for the night.

Day 11: Kobe

In the morning we took a train to Kobe to visit the Hakutsuru sake distillery. They had a free self-guided tour where we learned about the history of sake and the sake-making process. It was a nice, informative way to spend an hour or so.
IMG_20180701_093757The free tour included four tastings at the end, which was pretty generous! Also in the gift shop we met Haku-chan, a sake-recommending robot. IMG_20180701_101717Then we continued to downtown Kobe to meet up with Haruka and Noah for lunch. We had more okonomiyaki:IMG_20180701_124757We’d brought them some snacks from the US but they surprised us with gifts of their own! Haruka gave me a beautiful hair tie that she’d made herself, and Noah also gave us some handmade presents:
IMG_20180808_120338The thing on the top left is a little game where you pick one of the coloured paper bits and unwind it to get a little prize. Cute! And he also made us little paper birds with our (and his) names on them. I’ve never had a kid make me anything before – I actually teared up a little.

But yeah, it was really nice chatting to Haruka and catching up over lunch. We grabbed dessert (mainly for Noah, who has a huge sweet tooth) and parted ways at the train station.MVIMG_20180701_153645Then we were on our way to Kobe Animal Kingdom! It originally wasn’t on our itinerary but we decided to go at the last minute since we were in the area.

I’m really glad we did because they had capybaras! For 100 yen you could buy leaves or kibble to feed them.
IMG_20180701_162610They were very chill. Though unlike the deer of Nara, as soon as we ran out of leaves they lost interest very quickly.

I was excited about the capybara and he was mildly excited about the leaf.IMG_20180701_163308I like to think he just told me a wonderful joke.
IMG_20180701_163310There were other animals at the Animal Kingdom. Some of them were in enclosures like a zoo but others were fairly free range. Outside we hung out with (and fed) kangaroos.
MVIMG_20180701_171404 If you’re curious what an alpaca looks like right before it spits at you this is it: MVIMG_20180701_170104Terrifying.

Inside we saw a cool sloth. He moved so slowly (slothfully, even) and was so chill.
IMG_20180701_172603After Animal Kingdom closed we took the train back to Osaka and ate some katsu curry for dinner -it was under $10 each and incredibly satisfying. James thought it was one of the best meals we had in Japan.
IMG_20180701_191253(Though really, pretty much every meal we had in Japan was amazing).

We didn’t spend a super long time in Osaka proper, but unlike Tokyo and Kyoto there wasn’t a ton we wanted to see, so we were quite happy just eating at random places and using it as a base for day trips. Though, like pretty much everywhere else, Osaka is probably best experienced when not 30C+ and humid. Maybe next time!