I could feel the seasons changing a few months ago. As Libby will attest, I am of a particular sensitivity to cold weather; my hands, feed, neck, and ears will numb and chill in even modest fall breezes. In many cases, Libby’s bare hands have been warmer than mine bundled in wool gloves for several minutes. Unfortunately for me, a good third of Japan’s year is this precise degree of cold. From even late October, the season has changed beyond desirable warmth, which wouldn’t return even until late next March
So, what do you do? Well, the first thing you do is change what you eat. Gone are the niku jagas, Sobas, and bbq chicken of the summer; it’s Ramen, Chili and Hot Pots now! Warm and hearty, that’s how we’re keeping it. We were able to upgrade our smaller pot to a much larger and nicer model, in which I have slow cooked a few chilis. Libby still isn’t super keen on it, but I love it; it lasts several days, and boy with Japanese rice plus a slice of melter cheese, this stuff just kills it. We even managed to pick up some Japanese Jalapeno peppers from an international market at the end of the season, which gave one of my batches a fantastic kick.
The other major upgrade was buying our own electric hot pan. This has been a god send; hot pot is the easiest, most flexible, and perfect under the weather dinner! Cut some veggies, buy sliced meats, make some sides, and sit down. Clean up is simple, too. There’s a great amount of variability to it; we’ve had everything from duck meat balls, to pork, to chicken. We also experiment with different sauces, garnishes, and veggie combos. It’s amazing how simple and delicious it is. I realize Libby and the Tang family has been doing this for ages, but for me, as a regular course meal, it’s a new experience, and I definitely love it.
Aside from the minor changes of daily life, we’ve also now experienced a few holidays and trips since we last talked.
First off, Halloween. Halloween in Tokyo is basically a series of large impromptu street parties, with a healthy mix of professional cos-players mixed with the more playful, less serious attires. There’s really no Trick or Treat here, but oddly there is alot of Halloween candy and decorations. I gather that most of the kids are given special events in their schools that allow them to simulate the costume + candy festivities we may be familiar with.
As for me and Libby, we took to the streets in our respective monkey and vampire costumes, and checked out the Ikebukuro area. Man was it packed FULL of professional costumes. A lot of them, a LOT of them were anime cosplay types, but there were still quite a few more traditional themes. There were also a large number of Pokemon Go inspired costumes, including the ubiquitous Poke Stop sign guy. We got our fill of watching other people before chilling out.
Shortly after Halloween, we took a trip to revisit Akita, our favorite city of the north west coast. We previously stayed in Akita during the summer and saw one the festival of lanterns there. We liked it so much, we decided to come back for winter! Before arriving, however, we did stop by an Onsen hotel along the coast east of Nigata city. We had reserved a really nice special room with another 懐石 kaiseki dinner (fancy Japanese multi-course meal). When we arrived, it was calm and beautiful outside. We watched the sunset over the ocean and enjoyed our small personal 露天風呂 rotenburo bath (an outside bath). Unfortunately, things were not to remain so peaceful. As we finally made our way into the dining hall for dinner, a massive storm struck! Massively heavy winds, thunderous lightning, and drenching rain pounded the roof. Our dinner was more than once interrupted by extraordinary sounds of the outdoors. Honestly, it was pretty funny while we ate, so we didn’t mind. But when we returned to our room, it was a bit more uncomfortable for me. Things would seem to calm down, but then heavy thunder and winds would sudden pick up again. Go figure, we had this wonderful onsen hotel, but it was storming so much that it was too uncomfortable to actually take a bath!
Anyways, we then took another nice train up the coast and arrived in Akita. The city was really nice, even in the winter. We ate nice food, visited the massive Don Quijote, and visited some really interested art museums. Apparently the art school at Akita is of international fame, and thus the art museums themselves were also quite nice. Our favorite set involved a series of paintings and related writings about the story of 3 blind women who traveled along the Japanese mountain trails during the winter. The colors and mood really captured the dual freezing hostility of their travels and the warm respite of arriving at the next inn.
While in the Akita area, we also visited a very famous park with one of the world’s deepest fresh water lakes, and more interestingly also an old Samurai village nearby. The best part of the village was that the various 2, 3 hundred year old residences had been restored and were open for viewing. But most beautiful wasn’t the houses themselves, but the meticulous Japanese gardens that each house kept. Libby got several pictures, which I think, tell the story better than I could in words. The other interesting part of that trip was us finding a super old famous 醤油 soy sauce distillery. The inside featured samples of various bases, sauces, dashis, and pickled vegetables.
As fall came into full swing, we took yet another vacation to Nikko to see the changing fall colors of Japan. Our hostel was pretty amusing, a mix of other foreign visitors hosted by an almost comical hippie outdoorsman. Nikko itself is gorgeous any time of year, but the brilliant reds, oranges, and yellows of the autumn splashes really caught me off guard. We were also extraordinarily lucky. Thanks to the pattern of increasingly warm autumns in Japan, the trees were changing a week later than they usually do, which meant they were the most ripe colors possible by the time we arrived. It also meant that the major wave of Japanese visitors had already arrived the previous weekend expecting to see the colors, so our trip was not nearly as congested as it could have been.
Anyone who’s been to Nikko can attest to how gorgeous the area is, how accessible and comfortable the trails are, and how surprisingly cheap the whole experience can be. I highly recommend it to anyone visiting Japan on a short schedule who wants to see some unique natural beauty of the country.
Since then, we hadn’t taken major trips, but we did celebrate two major holidays. Thanksgiving was a small but enjoyable affair; we met up with our friend JT and managed to have an “all you can eat traditional Thanksgiving dinner”, which to our joy, was true to its word. Turkey was good meat, and the vegetable and side dishes fantastic as well. We got our fill stuffed with little complaints. Christmas was smaller and simpler still. It felt that we may have even downgraded from Thanksgiving, at least in the “class” of our dinner lol. As many of you probably already know by now, we made true to our American roots and ordered out KFC chicken, plus a small cake. Satisfaction was had.
This year has really been an adventure. I am truthfully grateful to so many people, friends and family, who have supported me and Libby in spite of our absurd decision to move half way across the globe. We’re both very happy with our time and enjoying ourselves greatly, even in spite of the troubles that we have overcome. New Years Eve is all that remains of this year, one last day. Our small little town has a traditional mochi festival to strike the hour of 12, so we’ll plan to join in that. Other than that, I’ve little to say for now. See you guys on the other side of 2017!!!
Fall just seemed to come and go, like it usually does. Just as I pull out my long sleeve shirts, I have to pull out the rest of my large sweaters and giant jacket for winter. And again, I’m sweating on the train, with my layers and the hot air conditioner blowing. I can never win!
Both of our trips to Nikko and Akita were really nice. My camera came back full of pictures of the leaves changing colors. For our Nikko hostel, it was strange and fun to see other non-Japanese again. *Gasp* Foreigners! So loud! So much giddier! But I was glad to see that there were other immigrants trying to make it here, doing the English teaching thing. We even got to check out some of the sites together as a group, which is a nice change of pace than the usual two of us. I even got to sit on the ground of a van again, just like during the large family reunions of my childhood where we just kept sticking people into a mini van!
Akita has a really nice atmosphere. It feels relaxing, artsy, and the city has a lot of charm. Our trip was full of baths! We took the shinkansen (bullet train) a number of towns over to Tazawako, which has the deepest lake in Japan that we were able to bus around, and is surrounded by natural hot spring resorts. We went to Tsurunoyu, which is well known open air onsen with milky white sulfur smelling water. It was soooooo cold undressing and trying to soap and scrub yourself. But it would be sooo nice once you sprinted and dunked into the hot water bath. The smell was only mild and relaxing. Specks of snow would come down from the mountain and melt before it reached the ground, making it pretty magical. We also tried out the mixed gender bath. The bath had a secret “princesses only” passageway for ladies so they could kneel and keep their goods private as they got into the bath. Once I crabwalked through the passage and into the bath I had walked into a sausage party. Other lady customers would inspect the bath and turn around when they saw all the mens in the bath. Everybody was quite respectful though, covering themselves as they moved and playing with the rocks on the bottom of the pool. After bath time, we went back to downtown Akita and we had some of the best chicken ever! Zach wasn’t so sure about it when I mentioned that we were eating at a chicken restaurant (cause who really thinks of chicken?). He was thinking of cheese ramen for dinner. But once we had our first bites we were sold! This was a chicken that went down clawing and bawk-bawk-bawk-ing as it went down, really tender and super chicken flavor. We later learned that it’s a special Akita chicken breed, the hinai-jidori, called by at least one person the “kobe beef of chicken”. Looking back at our surprising chicken dinner and baths literally for days, Akita was one of our best mini vacations!
In addition to eating cake and KFC, we also went to Tokyo Disneyland with JT and his friend Karen for some Christmas magic. We got to go on the Pooh’s honey hunt ride (the best!), Space Mountain for my first time, Monsters Inc flashlight ride, Nightmare Before Christmas Haunted Mansion, watch a bunch of Christmas-themed parades, and eat exclusive Star Wars ice cream. While maybe it didn’t feel like Christmas at home, I feel lucky for the fun we were able to have and to be with good company too (and we got to creep in the Emperor’s backyard! On his birthday >:D)!
(Hopefully) happy new year! See you soon!