Thursday, May 31, 2012

Travel Vaccination Article Published in Meet, Plan, Go!

Hello friends! We have been published! We have had the amazing privilege of getting our article on travel immunizations and prescriptions published through Meet, Plan, Go! website on Monday, May 28th, 2012. Meet, Plan, Go! is more than a nationally recognized website providing inspiration and travel advice for anyone interested in taking a career break or extended travel. They offer networking opportunities across the country for like minded individuals to learn from each other. So, we are very honored to have this opportunity to share what we learned during our planning phase. Here is our article titled, 10 Steps to Knowing What Travel Immunizations You Need.

Frijoles, the Tokyo Version of Chipotle

This is how it started.  Mike and I were walking down the street on one of our final days in Tokyo declaring that, "When I land in Atlanta for 2 days before we head to Ecuador, I seriously NEED to get my Chipotle fix".  And that was that.  We continued our walk in the Azabu-Juban area of Tokyo where we were immediately drawn to an Irish pub because they advertised FREE wifi.  Over  ¥900 ($12) Guinness drafts, we caught up on our emails, Facebook, etc. when suddenly, Mike Googles a potential Chipotle-esque restaurant in Tokyo.  At that moment, I 'may' have dived over the table and grabbed his iPhone from him, trying to find the address.  Lo and behold, this place is literally around the corner...maybe 50 feet from where we were sitting!!!

Frijoles was opened in 2009 in a style VERY reminiscent of Chipotle.  According to the blog From Tokyo to the World, "Frijoles is essentially the Japanese local version of America’s Chipotle chain. In fact, it is so very much like Chipotle, down to the decor and the menu, that I wouldn’t be surprised if the owner was breaking several international copyright laws. That is completely fine by me, however, because it’s just what Tokyo needed."  

Mexican food hasn't ever taken off in Japan.  That makes Frijoles extremely helpful for Americans craving a little taste of home.  All 3 locations are concentrated around the areas where expatriates live - Akasaka, Roppongi, and Azabu-Juban.  

The menu is all in English, the servers all speak English, they have unlimited refills on drinks (unheard of in Japan), and they provide napkins (whoa, another Japan first).  

Mike's carnitas tacos looked and tasted almost the same, but less filling for almost $14.  My chicken burrito bowl was about half the portion size (and twice the cost at $12).  The burritos looked about 2/3 the size of what Chipotle serves.  Although most of the ingredients were similar, the rice was not the cilantro rice, and the chicken had a different seasoning.  All the salsas looked the same, including the pico de gallo, corn salsa, tomatillo salsa, and so forth.  

Overall, Frijoles didn't satisfy my Chipotle craving exactly, but if I lived in Tokyo, I would definitely be a regular at this place.  

Map to the Frijoles, Azabu-Juban location.

Saturday, May 26, 2012

Sasebo Burger in Tokyo

Love Japanese food but sometimes, a taste of home is what the doctor ordered. Sasebo Burgers are a special kind of burger since 1950 when an American GI taught some Japanese how to make a real American burger. Typically, a hamburger conjures up an image of a hamburger steak with gravy, in Japan.

A Sasebo burger has the following characteristics. There are several burger joints around Tokyo that serve a burger in this style:

1. Fresh/handmade
2. Use only Japanese beef
3. Soft bun
4. Special mayonnaise with 9 spices
5. High quality egg for the fried egg
6. Cheddar cheese
7. 5 mm cut thick bacon from Kyushu, Japan
8. Lots of veggies (lettuce, tomato, onion)
9. Instructions for eating include pressing the burger down before eating to ensure all the sauce/juices are mixed together and throughout the burger

Friday, May 25, 2012

Day 24: Tamura Sake Brewery

At 190 years old, Tamura Shuzojo (田村酒造所) ( is the oldest sake brewery in the Tokyo area.  It is located approximately 1-hour by train (on Chuo JR line towards Ome), west of Tokyo in a suburb called Fussa.  The Yokota Air Force base is located nearby.  

My (Akiko) dad inquired about visiting the facility, and we were granted a private tour for the 7 of us.  They were very worried about the language barrier, as they do not speak any English, so we reassured them that between me and my dad, we should be able to translate for them.  As it turns out, translating is a tough job, especially when I am also unfamiliar with the process, but I think the group got the general idea!  During the 1-hour tour, we were shown the areas depicted in the diagram below, ending with a tasting, of course...

(The 26 mile aqueduct and Tamura's private intake pump that looks like a fire hydrant)
Since 1822, the Tamura family has been making sake in the Fussa village.  Currently, the 16th generation Tamura is the sake master.  The location of the brewery is largely in part due to the spring water source.  Water from the same well dug 190 years ago is still being used to make the sake.  In fact, their brand name is called Kasen, or 'spring of joy'.  A 26 mile aqueduct diverting water from the Tama River was constructed in 7 months during the Edo Period (1653 AD).  This aqueduct is now a historical site.  This was the main drinking water and water supply for daily living in this region.  33 intake watersheds off of the main aqueduct were created to divert the water through the neighborhoods.  Only 2 of them are privately owned, including the intake that goes to the Tamura property.  In the olden days, this watershed helped turn the watermill used to grind and polish the rice kernels for sake.  

(Old watershed through Tamura's property)

(Former water mill where rice kernels were polished down by the stones)

Albeit the difference in ingredients, the sake brewing process is more similar to beer than wine.  

RICE:  special brown rice for making sake called shuzo kotekimai is larger, stronger, and contains less protein and lipids than rice that is eaten.  The rice is first polished down to remove the outer bran layer to maximize the central, starchy component of the grain called shinpaku.  The amount of the outer layer polished off affects the quality of the sake.  The more polished = higher quality.  Typically, about 30% of the outer layer is removed for sake, but at Tamura Sake Brewery, they usually remove 55% of the bran, and up to 70% for the most premium brands.  

KOJI: The rice is washed, soaked, then steamed.  The steamed rice is then inoculated for 2 days with the mold spore, Aspergillus oryzae, or koji in Japanese.  Unlike beer where the malt naturally has enzymes to convert the starch to sugar (as food for the yeast), rice does not naturally have these enzymes.  The koji spores provide the needed enzymes to convert the rice starch into sugar.  

(original 190 year old brewery building with old wooden beams without nails. No damage from the most recent major earthquake in 2011.)

YEAST: While the koji is working, yeast is added to the koji/rice/water mixture, converting the sugar into alcohol.  This is done over 3 weeks in tanks at a cool temperature.  The premium sakes are deliberately fermented slowly at a very low temperature over a longer period of time (5 weeks).  

PRESSING:  The sake is filtered through a press by removing the solids.  

PASTEURIZATION:  The sake is then pasteurized at 65 degrees Celsius (149 degrees Fahrenheit) and bottled for longer storage.  Unpasteurized sake is called namazake, and should be consumed relatively quickly or else it will spoil.  All sake should be consumed within a year of bottling. It does not age well like wine.

We also took a tour of the grounds full of beautiful trees and plants.  2 very large cedar trees were planted 700-800 years ago, and still serves to keep the brewery building cool from the summer heat.   

At the end, we were able to sample several grades of sake, and of course, we all made purchases!  

If anyone is interested in making a trip to this sake brewery, my suggestion is to have a Japanese speaking person call, make a reservation, and bring along an interpreter.  

(the original well)

Thursday, May 24, 2012

Day 23: Yakatabune (Japanese house boat) Dinner Cruise in Tokyo Bay

After our day trip to Kamakura, we headed towards the north part of Tokyo Bay, where we boarded a Yakatabune (traditional Japanese house boat) dinner cruise down the Sumida River and Tokyo Bay.  Again, our friend, Kaori Takeuchi-San arranged for all this as none of us had done anything like this before.  

Apparently, it is a popular activity, written in in an article titled "Yakatabune: Party Boats Ply the Bay" by Julian Ryall.  There are many companies operating a similar dinner cruise, serving different types of food.  All of them are all-you-can-eat-and-drink (beer/cocktails) for a set price for a 2 - 2.5 hour boat ride.  Many operations charge around ¥10,000 ($125/pp), depending on the type of food served.  Ours was a steal at ¥4900 ($60/pp) through a company called Edo-Mae Kisen, operating near the Shin-Kiba train station.  

Our boat served what is called monjayaki.  It is a communal food that usually includes cabbage, meat, and a loose batter; where everyone cooks and eats monja off of a hot plate; and is a native dish to Tokyo.  Here was our menu (provided in English).  They even gave us cooking instructions in English.

Our first monja course was a little strange for some of us.  It included fish roe and mochi (glutinous rice).  The second monja was a little more palatable with cheese and eggplant as the main items in the batter.  We also ordered a similar dish called okonomiyaki, which is very similar to monjayaki but it is cooked until the batter is firmer.  It is sometimes referred to as a savory Japanese pancake.   We also had yakisoba, or fried noodles.

Everyone's favorite was the shrimp doria, which is a rice dish that tasted like a very creamy, cheesy, risotto!  We ended the night with the chocolate banana dessert cooked on the hot plate, starting with butter, then chopped up bananas, coconut, chocolate, and cornflakes!  

We were pretty busy cooking our own food, but was also able to enjoy the Tokyo skyline at night and the Rainbow Bridge.  Although it was difficult for us westerners to sit on the floor with our legs crossed for over 2 hours, the time flew by really fast, and we recommend this experience to anyone visiting Tokyo.  

Day 23: Kamakura

Kamakura's (鎌倉) close proximity to Tokyo and its historical significance to Japan make this place a popular day visit. Kamakura is located approximately 30 miles southwest from Tokyo on a peninsula, surrounded by mountains on 3 sides and the Sagami Bay on the other - making Kamakura a naturally fortressed city. Now days, there are multiple ways to get there by train. It takes a little more than an hour from Tokyo. The running joke so far has been that no matter where we are going, 'it takes about an hour' to get there. We were blessed to have a personal tour guide, Kaori Takeuchi-san, a personal friend of my parents!

The significance of Kamakura is this. In the 1100s AD, the political center, capital, was in Kyoto. Minamoto no Yoritomo, a shogun of the Minamoto samurai clan, was a fugitive running away from the Taira samurai clan that assassinated much of his family already. However, Yoritomo was able to defeat the powerful Taira samurai clan, thus becoming the founder of the Kamakura shogunate and bringing in the Kamakura Period that lasted 141 years. Kamakura became the political center and Yoritomo, the de facto ruler of Japan, despite the official capital being in Kyoto. As a result, Kamakura enjoyed a certain autonomy from Kyoto, and actually surpassed the capital, politically, culturally, and economically. However, the Kamakura Period came to an end when Imperial loyalists successfully attacked the city in 1333. The downfall of Kamakura led to a more chaotic and violent period in Japan called the Muromachi Period.

Tsurugaoka Hachiman-gū (鶴岡八幡宮) is the most important Shinto shrine in Kamakura. The shrine is dedicated to the the god of warriors - Hachiman. The shrine was originally built in 1063, but Minamoto no Yoritomo moved it to its present location in 1191 after establishing Kamakura to protect him and his de facto government. There are several sub-shrines that make up Tsurugaoka Hachiman-gū. The lower one is called Wakamiya Shrine, while climbing 61 steps up leads us to the Hongū Shrine. Sadly, there was a 1000 year old gingko tree by the stairway that fell on March 10, 2010 after being uprooted by a storm. Both the tree stump and a section of its trunk have been replanted nearby.

A custom at Japanese shrines and temples is to pay a small offering in exchange for a random fortune called Omikuji. The fortune includes blessings and predictions on general matters such as finding a good romantic match, or of health, fortune, life, etc. If the prediction is bad, it is a custom to fold the paper and tie it to a pine tree or wire fence provided at the shrine/temple, hoping that the bad luck will stay with the tree rather than attach itself to the person.

(Mike and Akiko in front of sake barrels, Hachiman-gu shrine, Kamakura)

(Candied fruit sold at the shrine grounds.)

A lovely tree-lined boulevard with lots of shops extends from the shrine all the way to the ocean. It is called Ōji Avenue, Kamakura's main street. We found a small noodle shop to have lunch in, and later, a tea shop for some traditional Japanese dessert called anmitsu. Many dishes in Japan contain rice and/or beans, including this dessert. Anmitsu contains cubes of translucent jelly made from algae or seaweed, a heap of sweet red bean paste (anko), some fruit, occasionally glutinous rice balls (shiratama dango), and sugar syrup (mitsu). We had cream anmitsu, which comes with ice cream!

(Cream anmitsu dessert with green tea ice cream.)

On the other side of Kamakura is the Kōtoku-in (高徳院), a Buddhist temple of the Jōdo-shū sect in the city of Kamakura. The temple is renowned for its "Great Buddha" (大仏 Daibutsu), a monumental outdoor bronze statue of Amida Buddha which is one of the most famous icons of Japan. This bronze statue, that used to be covered in gold leaf overlay, was cast in 1252 AD, but was preceded by a giant wooden Buddha that was destroyed by a storm. The bronze Buddha has been in the open since September 20th, 1498, when a tsunami washed away the building that housed the Buddha. It stands almost 44 feet tall and weighs 121 tons (270,000 pounds).

We were amongst many school children on their field trip. One such group approached Lisa, Amy, Rachel, and Kris as an assignment for their English class. They had a list of questions they had to ask in English, understand the responses in English, then the girls had to provide their signatures and get a photo together. Some of the questions were, "What is your name?", "Where are you from?", "Do you like Kamakura?", "What is your favorite temple?"

After a day in Kamakura, we headed back towards Tokyo Bay for our Yakatabune (traditional Japanese boat) dinner cruise, and yes, that train ride took about an hour. :)

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Day 22: Asakusa and Shinjuku

A 'must-see' for any tourist to Tokyo is a visit to Asakusa, the old-town area where the famous Senso-ji buddhist temple from the 7th century stands, guarded by the large Kaminari-mon (gate)with a very, very large lantern hanging from the center. A 'few' centuries later, Asakusa became the entertainment district during the Edo period, but never regained its significance after the area was destroyed during World War II. What remains is the temple area full of shops selling traditional Japanese items, food, and souvenirs. We were greeted by a steady rainfall, making any outdoor sightseeing a challenge, but we prevailed!

Mike and Akiko in front of the Kaminari-mon (gate).

Shopping in Asakusa! Nakamise-dori.

Streets of Asakusa. Amy getting a fortune at the temple.

Meditating Monk, Asakusa.

To get out of the rain, we headed to Shinjuku (新宿)- a MAJOR commercial and administrative center of Tokyo with the busiest train station in the world. There's enough underground walkways, retail, and restaurants to keep us out of the rain and busy for the next 100 years!

Our first stop? Conveyor belt sushi! Conveyor belt sushi is a popular lunch destination because it's usually relatively inexpensive and fast. It's good for foreigners as well because you can see all of the options moving past you, only selecting what you want. This particular restaurant in Shinjuku called Numazukou, ranked high on lunch conveyor belt sushi places in Tokyo. They did not disappoint!

Numazukou (conveyor-belt) sushi restaurant, Shinjuku. [from left] Mike, Kris, Rachel, Amy, Lisa, Noriko.

Numazukou (conveyor-belt) sushi restaurant, Shinjuku. [from left] Chef preparing a live halibut, flapping around. Various nigiri and rolls.

After a full stomach, it was time for...retail therapy! Akiko's favorite store in Shinjuku is Tokyu Hands, an 8-level store packed full of amazing Japanese ingenuity, gadgetry, design, and products. We never left the Shinjuku train station surroundings, but that was enough to keep us window shopping for HOURS. Every space, nook and cranny is dedicated to retail.

We finally sat down for some cocktails at Mike's favorite little Spanish tapas bar in Shinjuku. It's a great spot for people-watching and commenting on Tokyo fashion. We've sat here many times in the past, always trying to predict the future fashion in the States, based on what we see walking by, and we've usually been correct! So, looks like the 80s theme continues...stirrups and scrunchies are making a come back. Above the knee socks with ultra-minis....

Another favorite Shinjuku spot is the New York Bar on the 54th floor of the Park Hyatt - hotel made famous by Sofia Coppola's movie, Lost In Translation, with Bill Murray and Scarlett Johansson. We like to order some (budget-breaking) cocktails and watch the sunset. For non-hotel guests, there is a steep cover charge after 8pm.

View from the 54th floor of the Park Hyatt. Late afternoon versus after sunset.

Well, that's it for today! Headed to Kamakura to see the big Buddha tomorrow.

Saturday, May 19, 2012

When You Have a Cold in Japan

Visiting a Japanese drugstore is an 'adventure', even for someone like me who is a nurse and can figure things out in Japanese. My prior experience with visiting a drugstore in Japan is rare because my mother was a pharmacist and she had access to all the awesome remedies! Since she passed away, though, we're sort of on our own. Best just to describe your symptoms to the pharmacists behind the counter and ask for a recommendation. Most of them can understand some English.

Here's some helpful information from the blog, Surviving in Japan Without Much Japanese: 7 words to know when you have a cold (in Japan).

After describing our symptoms of a cough/phlegm, we were given this medicine from behind the counter. Fortunately, many of the active ingredients (except for the eastern medicine components) are listed in their generic names, which are universal (except for acetaminophen versus paracetamol, etc.), as written previously in the post, Foreign Equivalents of Over-the-Counter Meds.

Friday, May 18, 2012

Day 18: Sumo Wrestling Explained

Embarrassingly, all I knew about sumo wrestling is that it is this national sport of Japan, my parents watch it on TV, and I remember my dad listening to it on the radio when he drives...which doesn't exactly sustain your interest if you don't know what's going on.  Just imagine listening to NASCAR on the radio.  It's not the same as being there, that's for sure.  So, to better understand and appreciate this ancient sport of sumo, we weren't going to miss this opportunity to go see it for ourselves.  There's only six 15-day tournaments per year, and 3 of them are held outside of Tokyo so it's sheer luck that the Grand Sumo Tournament was going on during our visit.  

Much of the following information can be found through the literature handed out at the tournament, and also through the Japan Sumo Association website: The Beginner's Guide to Sumo.

According to Japanese legend, the very origin of the Japanese race depended on the outcome of a sumo match between the gods.   Apart from the legend, sumo is an ancient sport dating back at least 1500 years where it was a religious ritual dedicated to the gods with prayers for a bountiful harvest.  In the 8th century, sumo wrestling festivals became part of the Imperial Court in Nara, but when a military dictatorship was established in Kamakura, sumo was used militarily.  After peace was restored under the Tokugawa Shogunate in 1603, sumo groups were organized as entertainment and became the national sport of Japan.

The sumo wrestlers belong to a sumo stable, or sumo-beya, where they train and live under the oyakata or stable master (coach).  Currently there are approximately 49 stables.  The wrestler is expected to remain in the same heya until the end of their career.  According to my dad, there are quite a few heyas in the Suginami Ward of Tokyo where we live.

At the Kokugikan, Tokyo. Lower ranked sumo wrestlers stand around the arena.

View of arena, Kokugikan.

The sumo 'stage' is an elevated square made from a special kind of clay and the 15-foot diameter sumo ring, or dohyo, is marked by straw rice bags.  The hard clay surface is covered by a thin later of sand.  A Shinto shrine roof is suspended over the top of the dohyo by cables.

There is a lot of ceremony surrounding a sumo event, but the rules are quite simple.  The wrestler, or rikishi, who touches the ground with any part of his body (e.g. knee, tip of his finger, hair), or puts his toes or heel over the straw circle, loses.  There are no weight classes or limits.  Matches are arranged solely based on prior record and ability so it is possible for a smaller, short guy to be matched with a much larger, tall wrestler.  

According to the Japan Sumo Association (Nikon Sumo Kyokai), there are 800 rikishis of various ranks.  After each tournament, the rankings are revised based upon their performance over the past 15-days.  There are six group rankings.  Maku-uchi group being the  upper division, containing the top 42 rishikis (wrestlers).  The remainder are ranked in the other 5 groups: juryo, makushita, san-dan-me, jo-ni-dan, and jo-no-kuchi.  We noticed quite a few foreign wrestlers from eastern Europe in this upper division.  

One of the maku-uchi division matches.

The top 5 positions within the maku-uchi division are: Yokozuna, Ozeki, Sekiware, Komusubi, and Maegashira.  The Yokozuna top-dog position is earned by winning 2 consecutive tournaments in the Ozeki position, but also proving oneself capable of consistent wins, as well as a person of character worthy of the position, as determined by the Association.  This position is unique in that once a rikishi receives this title, he can never be demoted, even if he cannot defend his record.  Instead, if he continues with a losing streak, he is expected to retire. There have only been 69 Yokozunas in the past 300 years, so they hold on to their title for quite some time.

Photo with a life-size cut out of the current Yokozuna, Hakuho. Also, notice the massive ceremonial braided hemp rope weighing 25 to 35 pounds.

The rikishi's loincloth is called a mawashi. It is made of heavy silk 10 yards long by 2 feet wide.  There are multiple maneuvers and winning strategies by the way a rikishi grips the opponent's mawashi.  One of my dad's favorite sumo wrestler is small-framed but has won many matches with his superior strategy of throwing opponents out of the ring using the mawashi.  During the ceremonies, the rikishis wear kesho-mawashi, or ceremonial aprons made of silk and embroidered with various designs - usually logos of sponsoring organizations.  One wrestler had a kesho-mawashi with Hello Kitty on it! The aprons cost around $5000 each. 

A Hello Kitty kesho-mawashi.

During the 15-day tournament that occurs 6 times a year, each of the rishiki in the top 3 divisions (maku-uchi, juryo, makushita) wrestle once each day. These are the salaried, professional wrestlers.  Matches are determined by their previous day's record, saving the best for last.  

Advertisement of the sponsors that donate prize money for some of the more important bouts. Winner of that particular match wins the prize money.

For each of the division matches, it begins with a ceremonial entrance where the rikishis stand on stage in a circle, facing the crowd in their ceremonial aprons.  Then, for the maku-uchi division matches, the Yokozuna enters the ring to perform a cleansing ritual.  After all the matches are completed for the day, a bow dance ceremony closes the day's events.  

Ceremonial entrance of the maku-uchi division rikishi.

Overall, this was an amazing experience! We recommend attending an event. We saw quite a few foreigners in the audience as well. Our seats in the upper tier were approximately $100/seat. The lower tiers, closer to the dohyo are not seats but sections of tatami mats and the audience sits on traditional zabuton cushions, which can get rather uncomfortable for most westerners not used to sitting on the floor for an extended time. Tickets can be purchased in English at