Broken record

Greetings!

We returned from Japan three weeks ago. We loved our two month stay in Fukuoka.  It was everything we dreamed it would be and so much more. We would love to return to Japan for even a longer stay because it was so easy to live there. The cleanliness and the ease of living really impressed us both. We’re toying with the idea of spending more time in Japan next spring, but we’ll have to see. It does put a slight crimp in our budget.  Right now, we have no plans past March. In fact, December and January are wide open with plans to be in Zihuatanejo in February and March.

Eventually we’ll figure out our plans next destination. We don’t feel any sense of urgency, but if we do decide to return to Japan we’ll need to make plane and lodging reservations before cherry blossom season starts.  In the meantime, we’re back enjoying Morelia, Mexico. I’ve written extensively about how much we love this place, and I’m happy to share more.

But before we started our six month stay here, we had a rather harrowing experience upon arrival.

To summarize:

We took a 11:50 PM direct flight to Morelia (3.5 hours) from Oakland, CA and arrived in Mexico at 5:30 AM.  Customs and immigration were a breeze. Usually the line moves rather slowly so we were happily surprised when we got out of the airport quickly. I even got the dreaded red light  (which has only happened one other time).

We took a cab to the main square. That took around 35 minutes and the sun was starting to rise just as we pulled into the main square. We enjoyed some coffee and breakfast. We were scheduled to pick up the keys to our house at 8 AM.  We actually arrived around 8:30 AM to get our keys. Friends were holding them for us since our landlord is in Canada for the next six months.

When we got to our rental house at 8:35 AM, the key would not turn in the lock!  Andy could not get it to work. I told him to be very careful because we didn’t want the key to break off in the lock.  I repeated my concerns at least one other time.

Then this happened…

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The tip of the key broke off in the lock!  Andy fished it out using a paperclip that he found in his bag. It was a miracle. He was able to grab it.

Wifey was not happy at all.  Wifey was exhausted. Wifey wanted sleep!!!  I told Andy, “that’s it,  if we don’t resolve this soon, we’re going to a hotel right now”.  The only reason I didn’t book a hotel was that I didn’t know if we would be able to get early check-in since it was only  9:00 AM . My jet lagged head was achy and I was not in the best mood having slept little on the plane. But I quickly realized this wasn’t the time to fight, this was a time for some fast and furious problem solving.

In quick order, we tried calling our housekeeper who has a spare key but she did not answer.  We then tried walking to a local locksmith two blocks away dragging all our luggage.  His office was closed.  Andy left a message for him in Spanish asking him to call us urgently.

Finally not knowing what else to do, I contacted a friend who owns a fantastic, local bed and breakfast. She told me to come right over and said we could rest at her place.

When we got to her place, she told us she knew the locksmith we had called, but she doubted he would answer an American phone number. She then had her staff  call him from her Mexican phone line.  He picked up on the second ring and  agreed to meet us at her bed and breakfast “very soon”.  Of course, “very soon” in Mexico is different from “very soon” in America. He arrived about two long hours later. He took our broken key and promised to bring us a new one “very soon’.  Andy and I took this opportunity to catch a bit of shut eye on Rose’s huge and very comfortable couch.  Finally, around 3:30 PM,  TEN HOURS after we arrived in Morelia, we got into our house. It was a miserable experience for sure.

Here’s what we’re enjoying about being back in Morelia:

  1. The amazing weather. The days are sunny and warm around 82-85 degrees. The nights are pleasant. Sometimes during the afternoon, horrible thunderstorms roll in, but there has been much less rain than last season.
  2. Our colonial house!  We’ve got a fantastic two bedroom house in the center of town, three blocks from the main cathedral. It’s got an amazing outdoor courtyard and a rooftop with a fantastic sitting area. The rooftop also features a lovely view of a different Morelia cathedral.
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This is the view of a cathedral from our rooftop.

3. The fast paced life here. Concerts, check. Theater events, check. Festivals, yep.

4. The cafe culture. I think the cafe culture in Morelia must be among the finest in the world! Three blocks from our house people sit drinking coffee on the main square and it’s great.  It’s relaxing and the people watching is superb.

5, The ex-pat community. While it’s small, people are very friendly and very welcoming.

6. The fountains and colonial architecture. Simply stunning. Wherever we look we see dancing fountains, and stunning churches.

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Old city center

We have some visitors coming to visit throughout the next six months including my sister, (staying with us) my mom, and my mom’s BFF (staying at their favorite Morelia hotel).  Please give us a shout-out if you want to come visit. We’d love to show you around.

Stacey

 

 

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Two nights in a traditional Japanese ryokan

We just came back from a fantastic stay in Kurokawa, Japan and I thought I would share our experience with you.

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We wore traditional Japanese robes to dinner and in our room.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I had never heard of Kurokawa, Japan until our upstairs neighbor told me that her and her husband just got back. They had a great time so I decided to do a bit more research.It turns out that Kurokawa is one of Japan’s most famous hotsprings towns. And it’s only 2.5 hours away from Fukuoka so we decided to check it out for two nights.

We stayed at a traditional Japanese inn called a ryokan.  We’ve stayed at two other ryokans before but this was our favorite.

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The magic of a Japanese ryokan:

  1. You get to sleep on a futon and experience traditional Japanese hospitality.
  2. Dinner is a traditional multi-course extravagent affair.
  3. They always offer onsite onsen so you can have a nice hotspring experience before bed and when you wake up before breakfast.

This particular onsen town offered an onsen pass where we could go to three different hot springs and soak away. We really enjoyed visiting the other properties and seeing their hotel/onsens.

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The only thing I didn’t like is that our property didn’t have a nice lobby where I could chill with a book. And because they put away the futons during the day, (remember there are no beds) relaxing in the room wasn’t as comfortable as it could have been. There were a few chairs to sit on, but that’s about it.  Andy and I made a make-shift couch using the futons and it was just fine. The town was so beautiful and serene. We took long walks (Andy went hiking too), we ate traditional soba noodles at an amazing soba restaurant, we ate traditional Japanese sweets, we watched some downloaded movies, and we visited other onsens.

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We ate delicious Japanese sweets and drank green tea.

A great stay!

If you get the chance to stay at a traditional ryokan, do it. It was something I will always remember.

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The food was amazing!

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Is Japan an affordable travel destination?

A lot of people have asked me how we can afford to live in Japan so I thought I would write a blog post about some of the average costs here.

First of all,  no matter what people tell you, Japan isn’t as expensive as you would think. It’s just not. It’s cheaper than us living in the San Francisco Bay Area for sure. It’s possible to live here modestly. But it’s not Mexico. And for this reason, Andy and I often can’t believe the vast amount of money we’re spending. We were fully prepared that Japan would cost us more money than Mexico, but still, sometimes we’re in sticker shock.

Here are some frequently incurred expenses.

Coffee

Coffee is expensive here, especially at nice cafes. An average individually brewed cup of coffee runs about $4.00. A fancier coffee drink costs between $4.50 to $5.00 or sometimes even $6.  This probably is just slightly more than the Bay Area, but much, much more expensive than Mexico. In Mexico, a fancy coffee drink costs $2.50 to $3.00, and a regular cup of coffee runs $1.  Andy and I try very hard to not drink coffee out more than once a day.  We don’t like spending $20 a day on just coffee, but occasionally with a cup in the AM and in the late PM  this can happen. The maddening thing about drinking coffee and tea here is that frequently the drinks are served in very, very tiny glasses or they are just filled up 3/4 of the way up. Often we feel like we are getting ripped off.  In Mexico we get huge mugs of coffee.  Here, not so much. And I don’t think I’ve ever had a free refill!  The coffee scene in Japan is really great. It’s hard to not want to buy 3-4 coffees a day! They take their coffee very, very seriously.  In Tokyo, we’ll visit two very famous shops that started in Northern, California, Blue Bottle and Verve.

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This coffee comes from the sake bar right next door to my house. It’s a great place to hangout.

Groceries

Groceries are a mixed bag in Japan. Some things are so freaking cheap I do a happy dance. Others grocery items are sky high.

Here’s what makes me do a grocery happy dance.

Mushrooms- Enoki mushrooms are my favorite. They are usually .60 for a big bunch.
Tofu- A block of tofu is about $1.00 and serves the two of us.
Noodles-Always under $1.00
Salmon-$3 for three nice breakfast portions.
Sashimi- Enough for both of us is $4-$6
Sushi (a large tuna roll with 8 pieces is $4)  An 8 piece set in the grocery store is usually less than $4 and the quality is simply fantastic.
Bento boxes in the grocery store-They run $5 to $8

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Here’s what makes me do a sad dance!

Apples- Sometimes they are $1.50 each unless we find them on sale. Eating apples is a bit of a treat for us.
Avocado- We don’t buy them ever because they are $1.75 for a small one. In Mexico we pay .20 per avocado.
Melons- I don’t know why, but melons are very, very expensive. A small melon can run $15 to $100. We don’t eat melons of any kind.
Vegetables- They seem very, very expensive with the exception of bean sprouts, mushrooms, cucumbers and cabbage (which we eat a lot of).
Cheese- Sometimes we buy processed slices (which we never eat in Mexico) because cheese is outrageously expensive here.  I can’t imagine spending $8 or $9 on a wedge of cheddar or goat cheese.
Peanut Butter- A small jar is $5 or 6!

Restaurant meals

Restaurant meals run all over the place, kind of like in America. In general, medium to high end restaurants cost a LOT more than what we would pay in Mexico. In Mexico, at the fanciest restaurant in Morelia, we’d rarely pay over $25 per person. In Japan, $25 per person will get us a nice and very high-quality meal in a Japanese izakaya (like a Japanese pub) that serves good food. So far, we haven’t been to even one fancy  restaurant this trip because we’d be looking at $150 per person or more just for dinner.

Japanese pubs are my favorite places to eat. They are all over Japan and they always have very large menus where we can always find delicious food. We like them because we can always get sushi, tempura, salads, and Andy can always get some type of meat including chicken skewers and other grilled meat. They also have fantastic selection of sake. They also usually have an all-you-can drink menu for about $30. These all-you-can drink menus are very popular in Japan. We see them at many, many places.  I’ve never tried one because $30 is a lot of money, and I don’t drink very much. But the best part about eating at an izakaya is the people. They are usually just a tiny bit smokey and they rarely have tourists. We always feel warmly welcomed and usually Japanese patrons will try to start conversations with us in broken English. Last week, two men in there 20’s struck up a conversation with us. One asked me, “what do you think of Tramp”?  I must have had a lot of sake by this time because I couldn’t understand what he was asking me. Duh!  This was the third time a Japanese person had asked us about our President.

More about food

Japanese train stations are a great place to eat!  If you go into the basement of large train stations, you’ll find 10-20 modestly priced restaurants with set lunch and dinner options. For $7-9 I can get a lunch with a piece of grilled fish, miso soup, a few pieces of tempura, fresh tofu salad, pickles, green tea and rice. Andy can get a nice lunch also including his favorite, ramen.  Again $15 for a nice lunch for two isn’t that much, but when we are used to $1.00 quesadillas, and $3 breakfasts,  it’s a tough nut to swallow.

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This lovely shrimp tempura and noodle bowl ran us about $7.50.  The noodles were served cold and we really loved it.

 

Transportation

Overall, transportation in Japan is fairly expensive. It’s much, much more expensive than in Mexico. The Fukuoka city bus is $1.00 to $2.50 depending on where we travel. The train is much more expensive. The local train is pricey and the long distance train is pricey. For long distance travel,  I suggest all serious travelers purchase a Japan Rail pass which are an unbelievable value. They are expensive, but worth it. Rail passes must be purchased outside of Japan. You cannot buy them in country.  They are good for 7, 14, and 21 days of travel and have to be used consecutively.  This year we bought a series of passes (two 7 day segments). One we used when my friend Kara came to visit. We used it to travel to Nara, Kyoto, Nagasaki and Hiroshima. The other 7 day pass will be used on our upcoming trip to Tokyo and Osaka.  In addition to train passes good throughout Japan, you can also purchase regional pass. They are cheaper.

The ultimate expense- A Japanese Ryokan

A ryokan is a traditional Japanese inn. It’s a place where travelers can experience Japanese hospitality at its finest.  Usually these establishments are small with 10-20 rooms and often they are located in hot spring areas of Japan. Travelers get to sleep on Japanese futons, (some have Western beds)  lounge around in traditional Japanese clothes and enjoy multi-course Japanese breakfasts and dinners. Sometimes the food is served in-room, but sometimes it’s served in lovely Japanese dining rooms featuring Japanese traditional art. Usually rooms are located facing rivers or facing nature and have small sitting areas. Travelers can sit by the river and drink Japanese tea provided by the ryokan.  Each ryokan also usually has 4-8 different bathing areas (some public and some only for hotel guests)  where one can soak from early morning to the late night time hours. It’s traditional to take at least two soaks a day. One before breakfast and the other before going to sleep.

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This is a sample room at a ryokan. See the cute chairs facing the river? The futons are kept out of site and will be rolled out for sleeping.

Ryokans are expensive. Really expensive. But breakfast and dinner is usually included and experiencing this type of Japanese hospitality can’t be beat.  Andy and I will stay at a ryokan in a hot spring town for two nights soon and I’m excited to do it again. The town is called Kurokawa.

The hot-spring town we will be visiting is on a river. We can buy an onsen pass that will allow us to visit three hot springs and use their bathing facilities. And visitors are encouraged to wear their traditional Japanese yukata while walking through the town. I can’t wait to wear mine!

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I don’t think I’m going to look this cool wearing mine!

I would budget about $300 to $400 a night (which will include an very elaborate traditional Japanese breakfast and dinner) in that price range. Many ryokans run $500 to $800 a night and you do have to shop around a bit to get a good deal, but it’s an experience you’ll never forget.  The hospitality, scenery and food are incredible.

Getting naked with strangers-Part 2

This post is a bit old, but I just proofed it. The second part has an update as of today 4/30/2019.

Today Andy and I got naked with a whole bunch of strangers and it was great fun. In a prior blog post, I’ve blogged about the hot springs culture in Japan and about how there are incredible hot springs all throughout Japan. The Japanese really know how to enjoy a good bath. They consider communal bathing with their children and friends a prime social activity.  It’s not considered weird at all.  It’s a social, relaxing thing to do.  And communal baths are often open until 2 AM or 3 AM.

Fukuoka has many outdoor hot springs called onsens and indoor baths called sentos where people can go to relax and chill. I found an onsen a 30 minute walk from our apartment so we decided to check it out.

When we got there around 2:30 PM, we were surprised at how nice it was. Last week, while on vacation, we went to a basic onsen with no bells or whistles and this place was a lot nicer. And it was packed!  In the lobby area, we noticed people eating snacks (the place had a small restaurant) and other people were lying around in the lobby on tatami mats taking naps and reading the paper. Other people were enjoying the massage chairs.

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Andy went on a hike and got to visit this cool onsen. I wasn’t with him but he said it was great!

 

Score! Because we came so early it was dirt cheap. We paid $4.50 plus a little extra for the towel and washcloth and we then went to our gender segregated areas. Me on the second floor, Andy on the first floor.  I’ve been to many onsens in Japan. It’s quite intimidating at first, but the internet and various onsen videos helped me learn what to do and what not to do. Remember, Japan is a society of a LOT of rules, and it’s important to follow them, especially while taking onsen. So even though I entered this onsen fairly confident, I was a bit nervous just the same. There were not any other foreign visitors, just me.

After putting my clothes into a locker, I went to the wash area. You MUST, MUST, MUST wash really well before entering the hot springs. There were 20 communal washing stalls with tiny stools to soap up.  There was shampoo and body wash provided. I asked a Japanese lady to help me understand which one was body wash and which one was shampoo and conditioner.  Andy said it was indicated on the bottle in English, but I can’t seen anything without my glasses so I needed a bit of help. I had a good cleaning (sitting on a small stool) and then I tossed several buckets of water on my head to rinse off. Then I entered the indoor hot tub area. It was a big area with individual baths for everyone to enjoy.  Perfect temperature! Ah…  After enjoying some bubbles, I went outside and tried the outside baths which were lovely and scenic. There were three outdoor baths. One huge bath built into a rock with a rock bottom, which easily sat 15-20 happy bathers, a very large foot onsen (long and shallow for feet soaking only) and another smaller outdoor bath also set in rocks. There was also a wet steam room and a place outside where a lot of women were lying down on tatami mats just resting. They looked pretty damn comfortable so I lied down too.  I covered up just a little bit out of respect. My top was exposed but my bottom was partially hidden. Public nudity is not a big deal in Japan at all. People were not flaunting their nakedness, but they were not prude about it either. It just seemed really, really chill and very natural.

After about 90 minutes, Andy and I met up in the restaurant and we enjoyed some beverages. Then we used the massage chairs to end our day.  The massage chairs were about $1 for 15 minutes. A real steal!

We’re going to check out more onsen/sentos in Fukuoka for sure, especially since it’s so cheap.  This particular onses is also open until 3 AM (although the price goes up in the evening) so maybe we will pay a late night visit one night.

BEST BUY ON STEROIDS x 10

Yesterday we went to Yodobashi Camera which is a chain store in Japan. We’ve been to Yodobashi Camera before in Osaka and it was great fun so we went again.  I don’t think I can possibly describe it except to say it’s Best Buy on steroids x 10 combined with the largest Target you’ve ever seen in your life, combined with the a gigantic Sporting Goods Store, combined with a gigantic Walmart.  It was five, or maybe even six gigantic floors of fun. It had everything one would need (with the exception of clothes and food staples). In the market for a telescope? Washing machine?  Fridge?  Need a new Iphone or Android?  Camping gear?  Rice cooker?  Robot floor sweeper? Day planner?  Wireless speaker or perhaps  a new watch? Luggage?  It was mind-boggling to see just what they had there.  Furthermore,  they didn’t have a small selection of anything. They had a huge, enormous selections of everything.  Take rice cookers for example, they must have had 75 models of rice cookers ranging in price from $25 to $1,500.

We went to Yodbashi Camera to eat lunch at a sushi restaurant on floor five and it did not disappoint. The fifth floor featured maybe seven or eight high-quality restaurants serving many different types of food.

The sushi restaurant was super fun. We sat in front of IPADS with a touchscreen and ordered sushi in English.  Remember the Jetsons cartoon? That’s what eating sushi at Yodbashi Camera was like. After we ordered, the sushi was delivered to us on a huge track (jetted out from the kitchen) and an electronic sensor made the tray of sushi stop exactly in front of us. Once we took the sushi off the tray, we pressed a flashing button in the Ipad and the sensor moved and jetted the tray back to the kitchen.

If you want to watch a video of the sushi delivery process, you can find it here. Stick with it, it gets off to a slow start.

It came out on a track from the kitchen and an electronic sensor was used to deliver our order right to us.  We were stuffed when we left an it only cost about $23. After we finished lunch, we went to the first floor and found the high-end massage chairs (average price $5,000) and we both had a nice long lie down. There were about 10 chairs and most of them were empty.  We stayed for about 20 minutes. If I were rich, I would immediately go out and buy one of these chairs.  I got quite a good massage and my back and shoulders feel great.

Onsen part 3

Andy and I visited this very, very cool art onsen last week! It was probably the most interesting onsen we’ve ever visited. It wasn’t fancy and it didn’t have any bells and whistles, but we really loved the artwork and the fact that it was decorated in such a cool style. This bath didn’t have any outdoor space but I enjoyed my soak anyway.

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This onsen had great art. Very atypical!

 

Onsen part 4

Today we visited another onsen, but first we went to a festival celebrating tamago, a type of Japanese egg. It was a small festival and it wasn’t anything to write home about. After the festival, we walked across the street to try a new onsen and it was really, really nice. It was very crowded because of the Japanese holiday but people were relaxed and the onsen temperature was nice. Plus, it was raining out so we enjoyed the outdoor hot tubs in the rain. There were a lot of parents who brought their children with them today and it was super cool to see everyone enjoying spending time together in the baths. Everything was segregated by sex, but there was one 4 year old boy with his mom running around.

This onsen had a nice restaurant inside it and a pretty large store where you could buy drinks, snacks and a lot of Japanese gifts. After our onsen, Andy enjoyed some chocolate milk and I ate some strawberries. It was very relaxing.

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Broken Rules

Let me end this post by telling you about two rules Andy and I broke today at the onsen. They were small rules, so it wasn’t a big deal, but Andy and I both chuckled about them when we met up again to enjoy a beverage after our bath.

  1. I entered the onsen lobby and removed my shoes and put them in a shoe locker. This is typical lobby behavior. Then I put on a pair of sandals/slippers to walk around the onsen lobby.  5 seconds later, a staff member came  running after me telling me to take them off.  I’m not exactly sure why, but I surmise they belonged to the staff to either wear outdoors or to wear while cleaning the entry way.  Big mistake on my part. The whole shoe off and shoe changing culture is very difficult to get a handle on if you are not used to it. If you didn’t grow up in Japan or in another Asian country with these practices, it’s hard to comprehend. You are bound to break the shoe rule. The Japanese are used to foreigners making tons of shoe errors, but I really don’t like making them.

The worst shoe error I ever made was in Japan on my second trip here. I was staying at a traditional Japanese hotel and I wore my gym shoes back to my room and walked on a tatami mat (I forgot I even had shoes on) and the staff member at the hotel looked like she was going to pass out when she saw me.  She started staring at my feet and she turned all red. I quickly looked down and then I felt awful. I immediately removed my shoes and bowed like a crazy person to show her how sorry I was.

2. Error two. Before entering the baths and while soaping up, Andy took off his onsen wristband which is basically an electronic bracelet you can use to pay for drinks, food, and other sundries. It’s waterproof, but he decided to take it off anyway.  He left it in the shower area and while in the outdoor bath he remembered it wasn’t on him. He raced back to the area and the man who was showering next to him, had put it aside for him and happily gave it back.

We’ve got about 3.5 weeks left in our Asian adventure.  I will write again soon.

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This photo is from two years ago. We haven’t found a communal foot onsen yet this year.

Enjoy the sensation of umami!

Japanese food rules. We’ve been enjoying such amazing food throughout the country.  Sushi, sashimi, tempura, yakitori (grilled skewers), tofu, pumpkin, strawberries (it’s strawberry season), udon, soba, ramen.  The list goes on and on.  And the bread and French macarons are just to die for!

The Japanese diet is quite varied compared to the Mexican diet. Because I don’t eat meat or chicken,  there’s not a lot for me to eat in Mexico, but here, where fish is a daily staple, it’s just fantastic.  I like salmon and mackerel and they both are very popular here.

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This is one of our favorite Japanese dishes. It’s called Okonomiyaki. It’s kind of like Japanese style pizza. It’s got eggs, cabbage, mayo and scallions. Sometimes it’s got pork and cheese or seafood. It’s cheap, filling and delicious!

A few days ago I was talking to Andy about how much I  love Japanese food. I was explaining  that I don’t know exactly why, but something about the flavor profile of Japanese food really triggers my taste buds and fires my brain receptors. Then I learned about umami.

Basically there are four basic food tastes/profiles we are all familiar with. 

1.Bitter
2. Salty
3. Sweet
4. Sour

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Andy had coffee jello topped with ice cream. I wasn’t a fan. It’s a popular dessert.

Then there’s another, umami. うま味)

It’s the reason why I love Japanese food so much!  Now I get it.

The flavor sensation of umami is very hard to describe, but if I had to give it one word, I’d describe it as savory. It’s often found in broths and stews, but plenty of other foods feature unami flavor profiles.

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These soba noodles came with a soy sauce dipping sauce. They were chewy, cheap and delicious.

Ever have fresh parmesan cheese and fresh tomatoes together. That’s umami!

Here are a few examples of food that feature umami profiles from other cultures:

Japanese: The Japanese add dashi (fish stock)with kombu seaweed and dried bonito flakes to foods. Umami!

Chinese:  Chinese cooking features leeks and cabbage in their chicken soup. Umami!

Italian- Combination of parmesan cheese on tomato sauce with mushrooms.

Mushrooms, truffles, shellfish, all umami!

In Japanese cuisine, I eat umami flavors many times a day. Fish sauce, fermented vegetables, and soy sauces all have umami flavoring, as do the rice crackers I love. I love the savory flavors of all of these foods.

Just a tiny bit of science according to Wikipedia

Umami has a mild but lasting aftertaste associated with salivation and a sensation of furriness on the tongue, stimulating the throat, the roof and the back of the mouth. By itself, umami is not palatable, but it makes a great variety of foods pleasant, especially in the presence of a matching aroma. Like other basic tastes, umami is pleasant only within a relatively narrow concentration.

You can find out more about the science of umami here. 

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Breakfast!

 

 

A lesson in manners

Do foreign people have bad manners in comparision to the Japanese?  Are Americans and Canadians ill-mannered when visiting Japan?  How important are manners in Japanese society and what types of behaviors are foreigners expected to have when visiting Japan?

I’ll answer these pressing questions in this blog post.

Sometimes in the news we hear and read about how Japanese people are worn out by the ill manners of foreign tourists, especially American tourists. In a few selected places (mainly near Kyoto) they won’t allow busloads of foreign tourists to visit one particular temple any longer because they act so disrespectful. And in some restaurants foreigners are not welcome. Although we’ve never been turned away.

Related to uncouth foreign behavior, Airbnb has had a hard time growing in Japan because many Japanese people don’t want to rent to foreign tourists because they are perceived as 1) Being very loud 2) Won’t follow apartment rules including the important custom of not wearing shoes in one’s house  3) Won’t follow strict recycling instructions which are very important in Japan. Fukuoka where we live now is one such city that is strongly restricting Airbnb rentals to foreigners.

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As a tourist coming to Japan you’d better mind your manners because there are  A LOT of things you can and cannot do. Knowing all of the expected rules for acceptable behavior can be daunting to an average traveler, especially travelers from the U.S.

Luckily, there are tons of internet videos and blog posts about how important it is for visitors to understand and respect Japanese customs and although travelers are cut quite a bit of slack, there are still many important rules Japanese people expect foreigners to abide by.  We know a lot of these rules, but we are learning new ones all the time. Here are some of the most important rules visitors are expected to follow:

  1. Do not show any displays of public affection in public!  We never, ever see Japanese youth or young adults kissing and even hugging in public. In Mexico it’s make-out city. Teens and young adults are practically undressing one another. Not so in Japan. There is virtually no public displays of affection between anyone.  Friends don’t hug when greeting one another (they bow) and we’ve yet to see one single kiss. Sometimes we see people holding hands, but it is very rare. Furthermore public displays of affection is really a no-no on trains where it’s considered rude to have an arm around a significant other. Oops. Andy must take note of this one next time.
  2. Do not use your cell phone in public ever but never, ever on a train. We generally do not observe people taking on their cell phones in public. It’s very, very rare. However, we never, ever hear people using their cell phones on the train or bus and we’ve never even heard a phone ring. There are always announcements for people to turn off their ringers the second they get on the train. Trains are quiet beyond belief.  Most people do not even talk, but if they do, it’s in very quiet voices. The same is true for bus travel. It’s strange for us to be surrounded by so much quiet, especially coming from Mexico where it’s so loud.  Travel on public transportation is quiet and calm.
  3.  Do not walk and eat. We rarely see people eating in public while walking. It’s just not done. People sometimes stand out in front of a their local 7-11/Lawsons/Family Mart store and eat a quick snack, but they won’t walk with their food.  The one exception to this rule seems to be ice cream cones.
  4. Do not get your cold germs on other people.  Japanese people who are sick wear masks in public all the time. They consider this polite behavior as to not spread viruses. I have mixed feelings about this. While I appreciate this, it’s off putting to see so many people wearing masks around large cities.  It makes me think that there is an apocalypse coming.
  5. Do not put your chopsticks upright in your bowl of rice. It’s considered very disrespectful and symbolizes death and bad luck. No upright chopsticks!
  6. Do not throw your trash on the ground. Ever.

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I would like to talk about number five in more detail because it deserves more explanation.  Japan is a clean country. It’s mind-boggling clean.  It’s absurdly clean. Sometimes Andy and I will walk for an entire mile without seeing one piece of trash. And remember, Fukuoka has over one million people!  

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What’s even stranger is that there are very, very few garbage cans anywhere. People just carry their own garbage around in small bags and then throw it away at home. Case in point, yesterday Andy and I went to an outdoor food festival for dinner and after we had finished our food, we gathered up our plastic containers and wooden chopsticks to throw away. It was a huge festival!  We could not find a garbage can!  We looked for about 5 minutes walking in two different directions and then just gave up.  We eventually walked another five minutes and Andy found a very overstuffed garbage can. But otherwise, no cans anywhere, yet there was no garbage in sight.

Living without seeing mounds of garbage is such a lovely experience. It makes me feel good to see how much respect people have for their cities and their surroundings. It’s s really a pleasure to walk around.

There are other customs one must learn, but the ones I’ve listed above are certainly the most important. Japan is a culture rooted in respect for one’s community. The good of the community is always stressed, while the rights of individuals are greatly minamlized. It’s very, very different from America.

 

A Korean Bar Story

We’re wandering the streets of Korea with a single-minded purpose. Find some booze and find it fast.  To accomplish this task, we ask our Korean tour guide, twenty-something Amy to assist. You’d think finding an open bar at 5 PM in a city hosting Korea’s largest cherry blossom festival would be an easy task. You’d be wrong.

We’re also walking with our new friend Irene from Sydney, a thirty-something single traveler who like us, signed up for a one-day cherry blossom bus excursion (to two fantastic locations) and another Korean tour guide who seems intent on helping us search out booze.

Bar 1-closed.  Bar 2-closed.  Bar 3-closed. We’re starting to see a pattern here. Finally Amy finds a few restaurants that are open where we can get beers and she leads us in.  Unfortunately, the restaurant is very uninviting and we’re the only people there. We can’t get our drink on there so we tell Amy to keep searching. We’re wandering around Korea looking for an open bar to grab a drink and we can’t find a single open one!  After 20 more minutes of endless searching, we tell a very dejected tour guide that we will  drown our sorrows with a cup of coffee instead.  An hour later, properly buzzed on caffeine we’re on the hunt again after Amy sends us a Whatsapp with another bar suggestion. After a five minute walk, we see it’s shutdown.  Doesn’t anyone drink in Korea?

We trudge on, not willing to accept defeat.  Irene eventually stops someone on the street and uses Google translate to ask him where a bar is.  He walks us down the street 1/4 of a mile. Yes, it’s called Chicago pizza and it’s a big bar. It’s open!!!

After two rounds, we’re sitting at a grilled eel restaurant eating a bunch of Korean side dishes and some smoky delicious grilled spicy eel. We text Amy to let her know and she meets us at the restaurant where we toast on Korean rice wine.  Then we finish our evening watching the night sky light up miles of cherry blossoms.

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Amy was a fantastic tour guide!

I probably won’t ever see Irene again, or our great tour guide, but the memory of us trudging through the streets of  Korea will remain in my memory for a long, long time and this is why I appreciate these special travel moments so much.

We really loved the cherry blossoms in Korea. They were amazing and they gave Japan a real run for its money. Busan had a great city vibe feel.  It reminded me a lot of San Francisco. Great street food culture, good shopping, nice beaches and an active nightlife.  We’re really happy we went.

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Next steps

We came back via a three-hour ferry trip to Fukuoka a few nights ago. Fukuoka has now reached “full bloom” stage so we have to go out and start exploring recommended cherry bloosom  places. Full bloom will only last for 7-10 days and then the leaves will start falling off the trees so we’re sort of in a race to see their plumage. We’ve got about 10 locations to see, some during the day and some at night. There are several places in Fukuoka where the cherry blossoms are lit up at night so we want to make sure we see at least two or three of these locations.  Unfortunately, it’s cold!  Brrrr.   My red Loki travel jacket, is preforming great in this climate and I’m so happy I have it, but still it’s very cold.  We had to both buy a few warm clothes to see us through. And yeah, I’m the only chick wearing sandals, but sometimes I have socks on.

And don’t get me started about how cold it is inside our apartment. I’ve often heard people complain about the poor insulation of Japanese houses and apartments and I couldn’t agree more. We do have heat/air mini-splits (like Mexico) in each room but we’ve been told they are expensive to operate and we pay for heat/air above $80 per month so we’ve been fairly careful.  Drying our laundry is really a big challenge here.  In Mexico our clothes would dry in about 20 minutes, here it’s more like two days.

More to say.  Be in touch soon.