Saturday, December 31, 2005

Last day of 2005

I can't believe 2005 is almost over. This year has just flown by. I went to the store earlier to pick up some special food for tomorrow (called osechi). On the way to the supermarket, I didn't see anybody - Tokyo is empty! It is weird. Of course once I got to the store, I found out where they all were ... inside shopping! It was nuts. The stores all close for a few days so I guess everyone was stocking up.

We bought a bunch of different New Year's foods to eat tomorrow. I also picked up some tempura (lightly fried things) to put in our soba tonight. Soba (buckwheat noodles) are eaten in Japan on New Year's Eve. The tempura was basically a bunch of veggies formed into a circle - a common soba topping.

After getting all the groceries home I cooked up the soba. We also had some sashimi - the tuna we bought was delicious, although it didn't look that nice. I have never cut sashimi (raw fish) before (you buy it in a block). I understand why many people do it when it is frozen now. Tuna is very mushy, and just by holding it, you squash it. So my pieces didn't look that nice. Oh well, they tasted good!

Then we watched K1 fighting on tv. Not that exciting. I actually fell asleep. Apparently this is one of the most popular ways to pass the New Year in Japan (watching K1 not sleeping). We had planned on going to Milenario, a big light display up at Tokyo station, but the lights were on from 12 - 3 am, and we just couldn't bring ourselves to go out in the cold at that hour. So our New Year's was very uneventful!

Good bye 2005!

Thursday, December 29, 2005


After spending more that 20 hours finding and restoring data, it looks like I have got most of my pictures back. What a total pain. Unfortunately I lost about 10 Kyoto pics. I also lost a bunch of emails and probably some other data that I haven't thought about *sigh* Serves me right for not doing a backup in a while. I should have backed up immediately after uploading my pictures. Lessons learned:
1. Never buy a Logitech drive - they are complete pieces of garbage
2. Back up your data more than once every couple of weeks

So everyone, go and backup all your files now. Trust me, it will save you hours of frustration in the future.

Wednesday, December 28, 2005

Stupid computer!

Argh! My computer died today. I'm so ticked. I hate my harddrive (this being the harddrive that has been replaced three times). I'm not sure exactly what happened but I had a binary tree error - whatever that is. All I know is that all my data disappeared. Luckily the drive is readable through some disk recovery programs. Disk Warrior can't fix it unfortuantely - that has worked in the past when I have had performance problems or glitches.

Luckily I found another program which does seem to work. Of course it costs a hundred bucks. It appears that Data Rescue is able to find all my lost files. I just have to manually find them and restore them. What a pain in the ass. This wouldn't be such a problem except for the fact that all my Kyoto pics were on that drive... and I haven't had a chance to back them up yet. I am not happy right now. If I don't get my Kyoto pics back I'll die.

Tuesday, December 27, 2005

It is almost the holidays!

Tomorrow is my last "official" day of work. Of course, I'm a work-a-holic so I am not done for the year quite yet - I work all day Thursday and a bit on Friday. I am looking forward to some days off though. It will be nice to laze around and do nothing! I'll have five days to sleep in and rejuvenate. Can't wait!

Monday, December 26, 2005

Flickr photos

I've been playing around with the Flickr site (link to my photos under "Links" on the right) and looking at other people's photos and am amazed at the quality for some of them. They must be professionals in a lot of cases, because the pictures are great. I put all my photos up unedited - there is no Photoshopping, no cropping, nothing. It just takes too much time to adjust all the pics I upload. Even if it is just balancing the colour. However, looking at all the great photos at Flickr I am almost embarrassed into doing it next time!

Sunday, December 25, 2005

Kyoto Day 3

Merry Christmas! It doesn't feel like Christmas here because we are running around sightseeing, and other than a tree in the lobby flanked by a huge floral arrangement, there aren't many xmas decorations.

We slept in a little bit this morning and decided to eat snacks that we had bought for breakfast with some green tea. Then we packed everything up and were off to do our final bit of sightseeing. We left our luggage at the hotel and went across the road to Nijo Castle.

There are actually two castles on the grounds. The main one unfortunately didn't allow photography inside. We took our shoes off and walked in and experienced the nightengale floor. It was built so that it squeaks when someone walks on it, thus alerting people to any intruders. The squeak was really pretty actually and not irritating in the least. It really did sound like birds. Inside there was room after room after room - all with tatami mats. Most of them had golden sliding doors painted with birds or pine trees or whatever. They were simply gorgeous, and I really, really wish photos had been allowed. I would die to have some of them in my house.

After walking through the main castle area we went outside and walked through the garden area. There were lots of pine trees on the grounds. Then we walked into another area that had another castle, but we couldn't go in that one either. From there we walked out over the bridge across the moat and wandered back to the entrance. I was surprised how big the castle grounds were - it took us twenty minutes walking along the moat to get back to the entrance area. (You can see lots of castle photos here)

From the castle we went back to Kiyomizudera temple - not to see the temple itself, but to find Sannenzaka and Ninenzaka which are two streets lined with old Japanese houses which have souvenir shops and stuff. We finally found them down a little sidestreet - no wonder we missed them the first time when it was dark.

At the end of the slopes (zaka means slope or hill in Japanese) we found a little shop that sells laquerware. It was just beautiful and was surprisingly inexpensive. We ended up getting miso bowls and some chopstick with stands as souvenirs. On the way out I saw this absolutely beautiful plate though... and we went back to the cashier and bought two of them two. The plates are just beautiful, and while we will use the soup bowls and chopsticks regularly, I'm going to save those for special occasions. (You can see more pictures of this area here)

After that it was time to go back to the hotel and get our luggage and make our way to the train station to get the shinkansen (bullet train back). Our timing was good because the shuttle to the station came shortly after we picked up our luggage. We had just enough time to buy souvenirs for people back in Tokyo (namely my students) before catching the train. There were no major events on the way home - in fact, both of us fell asleep.

Then as soon as we got home we unpacked all the stuff and pretty much went right to bed. It was a great weekend but tiring! I'm glad that I have finally made it to Kyoto - I've been in Japan long enough! I got to see everything I wanted to as well. There was one thing I would like to see if I ever go back, but it wasn't on my list for this trip. Oh, and if we ever do go back, we are going to go and get some more laquerware from that shop. We are kicking ourselves for not getting 4 of each!

Saturday, December 24, 2005

Kyoto Day 2

We woke up this morning relatively early considering it is Saturday. The hotel is sooo dry - even with the humidifier in the room going full blast all night long, it still hasn't gone over 30% humidity (the minimum setting). The shower felt wonderful this morning - just because it hydrated my nasal passages again.

Anyway, we went downstairs and had breakfast in the cheapest restaurant in the hotel. It was something like 2000 yen a person for breakfast. Yes, that was the cheap one! It was a buffet and they had bacaon and eggs and other stuff. It was ok - not worth 2000 yen though. We both read the paper over our coffees and finally headed out for sightseeing around 11.

Our first stop was Ryoanji, which is the temple that has the most famous zen garden in Japan. There is a huge pond at the temple that has a whole bunch of ducks. Apparently the temple used to be called mandarin duck temple because of all the ducks that visited. It was cold out so the pond was just starting to freeze. We walked along the walkway up to the main temple area, but took a quick detour over a stone bridge out to a small temple on an island in the middle of the lake.

Unfortunately, the wall surrounding the rock garden is under construction, so there is a big white tarpaulin all around the gardin. It kind of distracts from the view. The temple opened another garden that is normally closed though for people to see. The rock garden was pretty much deserted - there were only two other couples there other than us. It was perfect for viewing! While we were looking at the garden, it started to snow and it was sooo peaceful. We sat on the wood balcony of the temple, which had gorgeously painted sliding doors and tatami floors and just contemplated the garden.

After view the garden, we walked through the rest of the complex. Suddenly I saw a white stupa and I was thinking it looked rather Burmese, and low and behold it was. The Burmese had donated it in memorial for all the Japanese who had died during WWII. This was just outside the garden that was specially open during the renovations. The garden wasn't all that exciting - probably looks much better in spring or fall - but it did have good balance with trees and open space. After seeing the garden we walked around the rest of the pond. We saw some more ducks and the lake was starting to freeze up - it was really interesting because it was forming all these circular designs as it froze. (To see pictures of ducks and other parts of the temple, go here)

From Ryoanji we went to Kinkakuji, called the Golden Pavillion in English. We just hopped on the bus and went two stops... and suddenly all the tourists we had excpected at the other temple surrounded us. We walked into the temple entrance, and as we did so, the sun came out. It couldn't have been better timing. We turned around a corner, and BAM there was the Golden Pavillion shining as the sunshine hit it. It was beautiful!

I had seen pictures of it before, but my jaw still dropped. The grounds themselves are also laid out perfectly because it was really easy to take pictures of the temple without getting any people in the photo.

We walked around in awe (and enjoyed the warmth the sun gave!) and took a bunch of photos. I suddenly saw something sitting out on some rocks in the pond surrounding the temple. At first I thought it was a bird, but then though maybe I was seeing things. As it turns out, I was right. There was a beautiful heron standing on one of the rocks... and we were the only people who noticed it!

We followed the path up a bit of a hill which overlooked the temple, and there was a small pond and then further along a tea house and a shrine. We got our fortunes at the shrine. Mine was only so-so. We just tied them onto a piece of string with all the others (you leave it for the gods to take care of your fortune).

All in all, Kinkakuji is an excellent site. It wasn't that expensive admission wise, and it is really well designed. I would definitely recommend seeing it if you have the chance. (To see more photos of Kinkakuji, click here)

From Kinkakuji we hopped on the bus again to Daitokuji which is actually a series of temples in one complex. One of my students had recommended a restaurant here (he is a Kyoto native) that serves shoujin ryori, which is vegetarian temple food. We found the restaurant just outside the temple and were really disappointed to see that it was closed - especially since we had made the trip specifically for that. Since we were already there, we decided to go inside the temple area anyway... and it was free too. Well, lucky thing we did! There is another branch of the restaurant inside and it was open!

The restaurant is called Izusen and the food was amazing! Also much cheaper than last night's kaiseki LOL All of the dishes are served in laquer bowls and presented beautifully. The first course was matcha (tea ceremony tea - thicker than normal green tea) and warabimochi which is a rice dough covered in a flavoured powder. This was followed by plum wine, stewed daikon (Japanese radish) and a vegetable in a creamy tofu sauce. The third course was my favourite - there was a tempura (lightly battered and fried) plum that was soooo delicious. Plums in Japan are usually pickled so they are salty and sour, but this one was very sweet. Yummy! There was also a slice of lotus root, a carved root vegetable (I forget what it was!), mochi (rice dough) on a stick and a small dish of stewed mushrooms.

The fourth course was a piece of vegetable sushi and a soup which had turnip, greens, carrot and tofu. The fifth course was sesami tofu and tofu sashimi (raw tofu). It came with some wasabi set on top of a piece of cucumber and it was hot! The sixth course was mountain pototo, yuba (tofu skin), tofu ball, a mochi flower and snap peas. This was followed by rice with burdock in it and some pickles.

By this time we were already stuffed, but there was more! The eighth course was soup. It had a lovely yuzu (citrus) smell and had broccoli, tofu and a shiitake mushroom in it. The ninth course was tempura - it was beautiful. There was okra, mushroom and I think tofu (I forget and can't tell in the picture - too many things to remember!).

Finally, the tenth course came and it was dessert! It was green tea babaloa (not exactly Japanese) with small bits of orange sherbert and a sector of very sweet orange. We were sooo full afterwards! The food was amazing and all that food was only a few thousand yen each. (You can see pictures of all the courses here)

After eating all of this we waddled through the temple complex and saw two more zen gardens. The first was quite interesting because the temple actually had two gardens. The temple was founded by a man who was originally Buddhist but converted to Christianity later in life. As such, the temple has two gardens - one traditionally zen and one that is zen but the rocks are in the formation of a cross. The zen garden was really neat because the pebbles were raked to look like waves.

After viewing this garden, we saw one more within Daitokuji. The temple actually had several gardens in it - the smallest zen garden as well as a garden showing male/female, positive/negative, etc. in addition to the main large one. It was really interesting to see how the pebbles had been raked underneath the balconies into designs. Great attention to detail! This was my second favourite garden of the day (after Ryoanji). I think I liked this one better than the previous one with a wave-like pattern because these were more geometric in design. Ryoanji just had an incredible peacefulness about it and it seemed to cause internal balance - it was really weird how relaxing and calming it was. So Ryoanji was my favourite overall, but this garden had great patterns in it.

After seeing all of the gardens there were still more temples to see, but we decided to leave and go to another area of town. (You can see all the Daitokuji pics here) Actually, Hiroshi wanted to go home and take a nap, but I had more things I wanted to see, so I dragged him out to Ginkakuji

Ginkakuji is the Silver Pavillion. It was more expensive to enter than the Golden Pavillion, and I walked inside, looked and said "This is crap". Unlike the Golden Pavillion, the Silver Pavillion is not covered in silver leaf. It has two unusual mounds of sand that reflect moonlight, but the gardens and the mounds had been marred by a bird hopping through them and destroying their perfection. (You can see the mounds and more photos here) Hirohsi dragged me up this huge hill, which I wasn't thrilled about, but at the top we at least had a decent view of the temple where I could appreciate the architectural beauty of the building. It still doesn't stand up to the Golden Pavillion though.

By the time we finished walking through the Silver Pavillion it was dusk, so we headed out to Gion in search of Geisha. It took us a while to find "Gion" in the sense of old buildings because the main strip is a modern shopping arcade. We eventually wandered down a side street and found the old buildings, along with a tea shop where we drank more matcha and had some Japanese sweets. It was nice to just warm up! (You can see Gion photos here)

After tea we walked past the kabuki theater and then crossed the river and walked down a street called Pontocho... which was rumoured to be a good place to find Geisha, but we didn't see any. So we froze looking for them and never found any. Oh well. At this point we were so cold, we just wandered on back to the hotel. It was back to the cheapest of the expensive restaurants for dinner again - they had a Christmas buffet on. Actually the buffet wasn't bad, but there were so many screaming children who were all running around, it totally ruined it. Oh well. We went back to the room and drank some champagne and looked at the lights of the castle out our window and had a nice relaxing end to a very long day.

Friday, December 23, 2005

Kyoto Day 1

We got up really early this morning to catch the train to Kyoto. It was really hard to get up - Hiroshi had server trouble and didn't get home until after midnight last night and by the time we got to bed, we only had about 2 hours sleep. Seeing as we normally argue whenever we go somewhere, leaving on 2 hours sleep basically ensured that it would happen again. So the start to the trip wasn't that great. In addition to being snappy at each other, it took forever to get a cab to the station (we had a big suitcase) which meant we were pushing it for getting there on time. We arrived about 5 minutes before the train left though, so all was good.

We got settled on the train and managed to stow our suitcase behind the last row of seats in the train (there is no space for luggage really). Even though the train left before 6 am, it was packed - we weren't able to get seats together. This actually worked out well because we were both mad at each other... so we could sleep and wake up in better moods LOL I didn't sleep so much on the train though. Since it is winter, visibility is quite good and Mt. Fuji is easy to see. We had a great view from the train and I was able to take several pictures. (See more pictures of Mt. Fuji here)

We made it to Nagoya and suddenly things got snowy! It was the first time (other than going to Nagano several years ago) that I have seen snow on the ground in Japan. But then things started to get even snowier... and in fact the train ran into a snow storm. Later we learned that the storm dumped 2 meters overnight in some areas. Since we were the first train of the day, our train went really slowly. I imagine because the tracks weren't clear and hitting a hidden obstacle on the tracks over a hundred km / hour would probably have derailed us. Anyway, it ended up taking an extra hour to get to Kyoto (normally it is just over 3 hours). This is quite unusual in Japan - the trains are never late, and especially not by that much. The snow did finally give me a bit of a Christmas feeling though. This is what it looked like out the window of the train. (For more snowstorm pics, look here)

Once we arrived at Kyoto station, we made our way down to steet level to get our shuttle bus to the hotel. Our timing was perfect because we got it just before it left, so we didn't have to stand around waiting. Surprisingly, there was very little snow in Kyoto, but it was cold outside compared to Tokyo. We arrived at the hotel shortly after and I tried to check in early, but we had to wait until 1. It was just after 11, so we decided to just have lunch at the hotel and lounge around in the lobby instead of going anywhere. We were able to stash our luggage with the concierge though for later.

We hit one of the restaurants for an overpriced lunch and took our time eating and relaxing... and drinking some coffee to wake up. The lunch wasn't that good, but the restaurant had a nice view of a waterfall through some large glass windows. After we finished eating, we hung out in the lobby for about 30 minutes and then checked in. They just gave us the key and took us upstairs - someone had already brought up our luggage from earlier.

The hotel we are staying at is the Zenniku Hotel, which is also known as the ANA Hotel, and is located directly across from Nijo castle. We were totally surprised to get a room facing the castle - when we booked, the travel agent said it was unlikely. So that was a nice surprise. The hotel is supposed to be a four-star hotel, but while the restaurants charge 4 or 5 star prices, it is not a 4 star hotel. The hotel only has like 3 double rooms in the whole hotel - meaning we got two single beds. Kind of kills the romantacism of a weekend away. I had brought my workout clothes to go to the gym, but you had to pay $15 a time to go! I think not. Oh well - the beds were comfortable, the bathroom had excellent amenities (lots of little samples of herbal shampoos and stuff), and we had a good view so nothing to complain about really.

As soon as we got settled Hiroshi decided he needed a "little" nap. This turned into a 2-hour nap. So much for a day of sightseeing LOL He did eventually get up and going and we headed out to Kiyomizudera temple, which is on the east side of town. It turned out to be a great time to go because we got to see the sunset with a great view of Kyoto.

Kiyomizudera is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. It is built into the side of a hill, so the main temple has a series of wood supports (like scaffolding) to hold up decks overlooking the city. There is a spring at the temple which has very pure water. After watching the sunset we went and made our way through the queue to drink some. There were cups attached to long sticks that you held out into water falling from a spout above you into a pool below. After drinking, you returned the cup to a sanitizer and moved on. For me, the water just tasted like metal cup unfortunately. (For more pictures of Kiyomizudera go here)

After walking through the temple compound we walked down the roadway to the temple and checked out all the souvenir and snack shops. As we were going out to dinner, we couldn't sample too many of the snacks, but it was interesting to see them. Then we walked down a big hill, that I thought was in the general direction of an old cobbled street called Sannenzaka, but we got totally turned around. We were supposed to come out near Gion, but ended up a 20 minute walk away from it. There wasn't enough time to go to Gion and make it to dinner on time though, so unfortunately, my quest to get a picture of a geisha was foiled.

We ended up just hopping in a taxi and going to the restaurant. The restaurant is called Hyotei and specializes in kaiseki which is gourmet Japanese food. It is a series of dishes prepared with the best ingredients and served with beautiful presentation. Kaiseki is extremely expensive - this was a once in a lifetime meal for us - so this was our Christmas present to each other.

We pulled up in the cab very early (not good) but a kimono-clad women came rushing out to open the door and to take us to our private tea hut. We walked along a pathway with beautiful gardens and enterred into our room. It was small, but for two people, you don't need a big space. It was decorated like a typical tea house with shoji (paper doors), an alcove with a scroll and seasonal flower arrangement and tatami floors. One thing I didn't think about when making the reservation was that it is cold! They had set up a heater in the room, so we were soon warm, but we couldn't open the shoji to look out on the garden (except for a quick second to take a picture). Seeing as it was dark out, we also couldn't see the garden very well - so my recommendation is go in spring or fall when the weather is comfortable and make a reservation during daylight hours so you can appreciate the garden while you eat. Despite not thinking about these two things, the experience was still great. I have never eaten in a private room before.

We got all settled and our server came in and took our drink order. We got shochu made from potato (you can get shochu made from different things - shochu is just a kind of Japanese liquor). It actually had a cool name - Dream Watcher. I'm not a big fan of shochu, but I can't handle sake (I get sick) and beer seemed a bit low-class for the occassion. The shochu actually grew on me as I continued drinking it though.

Anyway, our server left and we got up and took a bunch of pictures before she came back. It was kind of funny because we were peaking out the windows spying on a group walking by and trying to take pictures of the garden without letting in too much cold air... all the while at the ready to jump back to our places and look like we weren't doing anything. When our server came back with our drinks, she brought our first course which was tai (snapper) sashimi and a kind of herb with crushed pine nuts. The tai was so good - it was nice and firm and fresh.

Our next course was a white miso (unusual) soup with daikon (Japanese radish). This was followed by a mixed plate of appetizer like things.

It had some fish pates, which were really good, and two pieces of sushi. The sushi had a green garnish on top and was then wrapped in a thin film of something so that they didn't fall off. The presentation and attention to detail were amazing. There was also a soft boiled egg. Apparently when the restaurant first opened, eggs were served raw and they were the first to serve them cooked, so they are considered a specialty of the restaurant.

The fourth course was a soup with a few pieces of duck, mountain potato and spinach with yuzu (a citrus fruit) garnish. The yuzu on the potato was delicious. This dish had a great balance of flavours. This was followed by a piece of fish that had an incredibly shiny glaze on it and a piece of turnip carved to look like a flower.

The sixth course was another soup. It had turnip, a bit of carrot and what we though was a fish ball, but it turned out to be quail. This course came with rice and pickles, as well as a pot of tea.

At this point we were starting to get full, but it was time for the first dessert - fruit. We had two slices of pear that had such intense flavour, absolutely delicious. In addition to the pear there were a couple strawberries, and a black bean and some clear jelly as garnish. This would have been enough, but there was one more dessert, the traditional Japanese one. Our server brought in cups of macha (tea ceremony green tea) with a rice and bean dessert. The dessert was a little ball made to look like a snowball - it was amazing. The macha wasn't bitter like I have had before, and I enjoyed it. It prefectly matched the sweetness of the bean paste in the dessert.

And that was the end of the meal. We were totally stuffed! I was surprised because I had read some reviews where people said they were still hungry afterwards. I'm not sure how they could be - there was tons of food. After dinner we just relaxed and drank some tea and enjoyed the ambiance. Our server ordered a taxi for us and then took some pictures of us together (none of which turned out well, so you don't get to see them). When the taxi came, we were escorted through the gardens and got the bowing sendoff.

Overall it was a really nice meal, and everything was presented beautifully and the service was perfect. Eating in a private room was a great experience, as was having a private server. It was a lovely way to start our trip in Kyoto. (You can see pictures of all the courses here)

So that was our first day. We didn't do too much, but it was a great start to our weekend away. Just a couple more things to mention for this entry - one of the first things I noticed in Kyoto is how wide the streets are. It is also a planned city, meaning the streets are parallel and perpendicular to each other. This makes figuring out where you are so much easier. Secondly, I had a horrible time understanding anyone. The dialect is quite different, so even when people repeated things a couple times, I still couldn't get it. I suppose I was surprised that the language was that different.

Thursday, December 22, 2005

I can see you

I found this neat tool that uses Google maps to track where my readers are. If you click on the "Visitor Map via Google" link under the Links section (to the right) you will see a map of the last 20 visitors to my site. I am actually really surprised at where all the hits are coming from.

One little anomaly I found interesting - Windsor, my home town, is actually pinpointed in downtown Detroit. Mom and Dad, guess that means your server isn't even in Canada!

Wednesday, December 21, 2005

Washing Machine Repair Day

The guy came to fix our washing machine today. Actually, it is the dryer part that was broken. There is grit or something in our water (due to the water tank on the top of the building - this is apparently a problem in only 2 areas in Tokyo... mine and the district next to me) which destroys one of the valves. The machine still works, but it just takes forever to dry anything... and since it runs on electricity, the electricity bill over a year will probably be much more than the 10,000 it costs to fix it.

I was a bit worried because I was going to be home by myself and my Japanese is not at the "deal with technicians / repair people and discuss problems" level. The repairman ended up being the same guy that came last time though, so I was relieved - I'm sure he remembered I don't speak much Japanese.

After he finished fixing the machine I offered him tea (as is custom in Japan) and we sat down to chat. This of course is the stressful part for me. After struggling to explain something for a bit, he said it was ok to say it in English. Turns out he speaks near perfect English. DOH! It is just as well that I was forced to try to communicate in Japanese, but why didn't he make it known that he could speak English earlier?? At least we were able to have a real conversation instead of a jolted attempt at communication. So after chatting for about 10 minutes, he was on his way, and my dryer now works in half the time.

Tuesday, December 20, 2005

My Christmas Tree

When I was getting out my xmas table centerpiece, I found some xmas decorations... so I have a tree. Albeit a very, very tiny one! So this is the extent of my xmas decorating this year.

Monday, December 19, 2005

Recipe: Baked Butternut Squash

This is the recipe for the squash I made for my x-mas dinner. It was really sweet and delicious. The recipe serves 8.

1. Split butternut squash and de-seed. Put in glass pan with 1/4 inch water, double cover with saran and microwave for 20 minutes. It is done when it is fork tender.

2. Drain and cool. Scrape off skin.

3. Mash with 1/4 lb of butter and salt and cinnamon to taste. Put in buttered oven dish.

4. Drizzle with a bit of melted butter (I skipped this) and sprinkle with brown sugar or maple syrup (I used maple syrup and it doesn't need much at all - it is naturally sweet).

5. Bake at 350F for 30 minutes until crust forms.

Sunday, December 18, 2005

My first Christmas dinner

So today was the big day - my first Christmas dinner ever! I woke up at 8 am and started cooking. First on the agenda was the pies. Now, the instant pie crust turned out really well. It was so easy... and it tasted much better than the frozen ones anyway. Which makes me wonder why I spent so much darn time wandering around! I made two pies - the first one I had the oven set on the wrong setting (no heat from the bottom) so it turned out a bit funny - wet crust - but the second one turned out absolutely perfect!

Then it was time to do up the potatos and squash. Yes the 900 yen squash. I made up both of them and set them aside to be baked later. Figured they could cook while the turkey was setting.

I should point out that I completely understand why my mom was always tired at Thanksgiving and Christmas - cooking is hard work! And do you know how many time I had to do dishes today?

Ok, everything was moving along, the turkey was being defrosted in the sink, and timing was ok. I made up the stuffing and stuffed the bird. At first I put cheese cloth in the bird because then you can just pull out the stuffing... but it took up so much real estate inside the bird, that it cut down the amount of stuffing I could stuff in by about 50%. So that came out. Stuffing tastes good, so I want as much as possible! I wasn't sure about the stuffing because it was the first time I had made it, and didn't know what it was supposed to feel like. Anyway, here is my turkey inside the oven, with a meat thermometer in the cavity (stuffing) to make sure no one got food poisoning.

So, turkey in oven, it was time to start doing up the hors d'oeuvres. I defrosted the shrimp, arranged the cheese and crackers and did up the prosciutto. Hurray! Finally, it is time to sit down. Just in time for company to arrive. Hiroshi's friend Masaaki came around 6. His other friend Yosuke was due around 7 and the turkey was supposed to be finished at 7:30ish. So things were good.

We sat around and caught up with Masaaki (haven't seen him in ages) and ate the hors d'oeuvres. The jumbo shrimp wasn't so great - I am disappointed. It wasn't very sweet. The proscuitto was delicious though and the cheese was good too. (How can cheese not be good?).

Around 6:30 I went to check the turkey and noticed it wasn't putting out many drippings. My roasting pan was essentially clean on the bottom. Actually, I really went to smell the space between the door and the oven so I could get a good waft of turkey smell! I decided to turn the turkey around because I figured the glass door side of my oven might mean the turkey wouldn't cook evenly (and I could smell it more if I opened the door). Well, the little red pop-up thing was up! My turkey was done! Holy cow! This was not good. Glad I decided to turn it around because otherwise I would have over done it. Here I was, all worried about undercooking the turkey... and I almost over cooked it! According to the 30 minutes per lb rule and all the websites I looked at, my turkey should have taken 4 and a half hours to cook. It was done in only 3!

This of course created great panic. I checked the stuffing thermometer and it was at the right temperature too, so the turkey was ready to come out of the oven... but Yosuke wasn't due for another half an hour! So I kept it in the oven on low and then began to panic because the great timing for the day was now off.

Yosuke came and I whipped the turkey out of the oven and threw the potatos and squash in to cook. Then I had to make up the gravy and the salad... only I didn't have anywhere to do this because people were sitting at the table, and the turkey was sitting on the only counter space that I have. Oh, and I couldn't do the gravy right away because I couldn't transfer the turkey until it had cooled enough. Help! I didn't think about available counter space when I planned out when to cook things! Hiroshi thankfully pulled out the table we have in the entrance to our apartment and wiped it off for me to use. Then I put him to work as the gravy stirrer. Of course he was completely tanked at this point, and getting a drunk person to stir gravy isn't a good idea because I think he was trying to slop more of it out of the pan than mix and thicken.

Anyway, everything eventually got on the table, and was still hot too. Phew! I finally got to use the Christmas centerpiece that I have been saving for six years (I'm not joking, my mom sent it to me my first Christmas in Japan, and I have never lit the candles in it). Everything looked good and my only regret was not having nice dishes (those special dishes come in handy if you are having a dinner party!).

Everybody ate and ate and ate. Boys like turkey. Everything turned out edible so I was happy and overall had a successful Christmas dinner :) So here's the run-down on the food:

Turkey - turned out great, but the bird wasn't that good. A lot of gristly, fatty stuff that you couldn't eat, so not much meat on the bird at all. The breast meat was good though.

Potatos - a big hit! Sour cream in Japan is like fancy restaurant thick stuff so they were a lot more sour than what my mom (Barb) makes. The guys absolutely loved them though and had third helpings.

Squash - this turned out great! It was so sweet! I just put a bit of maple syrup on top, but the squash itself tasted like it had been sweetened. I'll definitely make this again. I'll post the recipe tomorrow.

Stuffing - I don't think I put enough liquid in it because it didn't stick together very well. The bread was starting to go to mush though when I was making it so I stopped adding water... guess it could have used a bit more. Still edible and tasty though!

Gravy - didn't have much fat on the turkey, but I used the broth from boiling the giblets for my gravy. It was really tasty too. Hiroshi wants to know why it wasn't dark like my mom's though. Not sure which mom he is referring to and why my gravy was so pale. It tasted good though.

Ceasar Salad - the olive oil I bought wasn't very good so it gave the dressing a waxy taste. Mom (Rose) makes this best and mine sucked in comparison. The only thing I was disappointed with.

So here is a picture of the table before we started eating - with Masaaki, Yosuke and Hiroshi.

And this is what the table looked like post-feast. You can see the turkey carnage and the picture is a bit blurry because, well, we had all been drinking.

Of course, the menu review wouldn't be complete without dessert...
Pumpkin Pie - awesome. I even whipped up some real whip cream. It was heavenly. And I even have a picture to make you salivate in preparation for your own x-mas feast.

So that was dinner. It turned out great considering how worried I was! (Lisa, all those pics were for you!) Now I have to do all the dishes .... again! Isn't there something about the cook not having to do the dishes? Unfortunately Hiroshi is passed out from either alcohol or turkey sleeping chemical... or both... so I think it is up to me. Maybe I can reward myself with another piece of pumpkin pie...

Saturday, December 17, 2005

The quest for pie crust and my prosciutto deja vu

Tonight after work I ran around trying to find frozen pie crusts. I have come to the conclusion that people must not make pies in Japan because no one had pie crusts ... and I looked at every shop I knew over the course of 3 hours. I eventually just gave up and bought instant pie crust mix. I didn't really want to roll it out because I don't really have space to do it, but I don't have any other options at this point.

At one point in this search across Tokyo I even went into Dean & Deluca on the off chance that they had something - unlikely, yes, but I was desperate. They didn't have pie crust... but they did have prosciutto. So, a quick digression here before carrying on...

A few weeks ago I had this really weird dream. I was shopping for all kinds of things because I was putting on a big dinner, and I happened to be in a specialty store buying crusty bread, cheese, olives, etc. I was at the counter talking to the clerk and noticed the prosciutto... and was talked into buying some. Not wanting to skimp on the ham and appear cheap, I made sure that I had enough for everyone and ended up with a package of ham costing something like $50 ... on top of a hundred bucks of other stuff that I had bought. And I was suddenly worried and upset because the groceries cost so much and I had spent way more than my budget, but I couldn't lose face by telling the nice man at the counter that I couldn't afford the prosciutto.

Ok, so back to Dean & Deluca. I'm talking to the cheese guy about a nice cheese... and look over and see prosciutto... and get talked into buying some... and not wanting to skimp because it was Christmas dinner, I got 2 slices for each of us (8 total)... and ... it came to 2200 yen for those 8 slices. ($22 CDN). And suddenly that dream came back to me full force and freaked me out. Beacuse, what the heck was I doing spending 22 bucks on ham??!! I expected it to be expensive, but not 2200 yen worth! And of course I was too embarrassed to say, "oops, sorry!" Besides, figured it was a special thing and might as well splurge on something. I also found spices on sale while I was there, so I "saved" lots of money when I bought them ;) Anyway, I thought it was quite weird that I ended up having this prosciutto experience extremely similar to what I dreamt just a few weeks ago. (Christmas dinner edit: the proscuitto was awesome and everyone loved it - delicious!)

So, in my three hour quest for pie crust, I ended up with a bunch of cheese, some special crackers, 22 bucks worth or proscuitto and instant pie mix. All this time spent shopping means that we are just cleaning off the table now (Hirohsi needed some prompting to clean his side off) and I won't be able to start cooking tonight. Yikes! This means tomorrow is going to be a day of extreme time management. Speaking of which, my turkey still seems to be rather frozen. Unless there is some miracle defrosting overnight I'm going to have to go with the water dethaw. Things are starting to get stressful...

Friday, December 16, 2005

xmas shopping extravaganza

Today was shopping day for all the xmas dinner food. I went to a specific international food store called Nissin (in Azabu-Juban) because last time I was there they had acorn squash. Well, they didn't have acorn squash today. This of course creates panic because I have to have squash. After wandering around aimlessly in the produce section for several minutes I finally decided on the 900 yen butternut squash... yes, that is like 9 bucks for a squash. I have never cooked butternut squash before - and for 900 yen, it had better be one heck of a yummy super delicious variety.

Then I got to wander around trying to find frozen pie crusts. No luck. This isn't good, because I specifically went there for both of those things. No luck on the pie crusts, so hopefully I can find one somewhere else. I later went to my local grocery stores (all three of them) and none of them had frozen pie crusts either.

Next on my list was seafood sauce for the shrimp ring... and you guessed it. They didn't have that either. After wandering and wandering, it finally dawned on me I should make it myself. Just throw horseradish and ketchup together... of course this depended upon the store actually having horseradish. And, hurray, they did have horse radish. So I'm set in the seafood sauce department.

I then had fun trying to get a roasting pan for my turkey. I didn't measure my oven, or the turkey though, so this was a little difficult. There was an absolutely huge one that was for a western style oven, and would clearly not fit in mine, and a small roasting pan. The small one looked like it was too small so I was searching and searching for a medium-sized one and even got the clerk to help me, but we couldn't find any. I ended up buying the small one... and that was a good decision. The small one fits in my oven exactly - it hits the walls of the oven. The turkey also fits exactly into the pan, so we're good for the turkey roasting dishes.

Anyway, I spent several hours shopping and picking everything up. Christmas dinner is expensive. Especially when you are paying 9 bucks just for the squash. I'm looking forward to making it though. I still can't believe the squash - it was grown in Japan! My turkey only cost 2000 yen. How can one squash be the same price as half my turkey? At least I hadn't had my heart set on turnip - they were 1500 yen for a teeny, tiny small one. Yikes!

Ok, I'll get off the squash rant. The menu for dinner is going to be:
Appetizers - cheese tray, jumbo shrimp ring
Meal - turkey, stuffing, gravy, cranberry sauce, squash, creamy potatos, ceasar salad, rolls w/ butter, beets
Dessert - pumpkin pie with real whip cream and coffee/tea

Of course, I feel like I am missing something (probably the turnip). Not sure what else to add in to the meal though, so I guess that's it!

Turkey times

Thank goodness for double checking. I decided I had better check on the defrost times again for my turkey. When I did this before, the websites all indicated it would take about 12 hours for my turkey to defrost... today... surprise! 48 hours. Seeing as I needed to put the thing in the oven less than 48 hours after I read this, I am a bit worried about my turkey not being defrosted completely. It is in the fridge now though... I might have to resort to water thawing it if it is going to slowly. Hopefully 40 hours or so will be enogh.

Wednesday, December 14, 2005

Thankfully, AR8 is over

... and the Weavers didn't win. What a horrible season. CBS - don't do that again! Please keep the seasons interesting... and give people clues instead of directions... and give them tasks that are challenging rather than have them do things like ride a golf cart. Not much to ask I don't think.

The good news... did you see the previews for the next season? They are coming to Japan! I saw Mt. Fuji and neon. Hurray! Hopefully they haven't filmed here already... maybe I can be a Fern. (Don't understand the reference, you are not a die-hard fan).

Monday, December 12, 2005

Christmas cards!

I have started to get xmas cards. The first one I got was from my sister Sherri (did you do those up at the end of November? You are fast!) more than a week ago.

On Friday I got one from my cousin Lisa... it made noises when I moved it. Now, this creates great worry for anyone on this side of the family because a certain person thinks throwing confetti into cards is great fun... of course, no one else has the same opinion. This is not great fun because you are still finding bits of the damn confetti several months later. How many people do you know that have to open their cards like their is a bomb inside? Thankfully, it was just part of the card that made that confetti-like noise.

The other interesting card I got was from my tailor. I just have to say that to be snobby. Yes, my tailor sent me a card... this would be the guy I went to in Thailand to get some suit jackets made. I thought it was pretty funny. I've never received a card from a service person before. Of course, now I'm a definite repeat customer... I mean you have to go back to the guy who sends you holiday greetings right?

Sunday, December 11, 2005

mmm brownies

I made Hiroshi brownies today (have I told you recently that I love my oven?). Last time we were at CostCo we got a pack of Ghirardelli Double Chocolate brownie mix. All I can say is yum! Unfortunately, I am supposed to be on a diet. Hiroshi has to eat these things fast.... every time I walk past them I get a whiff of chocolate yumminess and I can hardly resist scarfing down another one.

Friday, December 09, 2005

Christmas party

Tonight was my office xmas party. We had it an Italian restaurant and the food was pretty good. They (the restaurant organizers) swapped out coffee and dessert for an extra 30 minutes of drinking though (open bar). I think I'd have prefered the coffee or tea - I don't drink much anymore. Of coure, that didn't stop me from partaking in...well, I lost count.

I didn't win the dinner voucher that I was hoping to get - it would have come in handy for Kyoto! I could say Cal stole it from me, but he won it fair and sqaure in the draw... especially since I won the first prize up for grabs, a 3000 yen prepaid subway card.

After dinner a bunch of us went to karaoke. I haven't been in so long, so was looking forward to it. Actually someone suggested that the party be non-smoking so no one smoked during dinner and none of the karaoke go-ers were smokers so it was a stink-free evening. It was really nice actually. Usually at parties everyone is smoking and you just reek when you get home. (Japan being smokers' heaven)

So a group of us sang until the wee hours of morning. One of the office staff lives in the same area as I do, so she, someone who was crashing at her place, and I all shared a cab home - we left karaoke well after the trains had stopped. Thank goodness I didn't book in Japanese lesson for tomorrow!

I don't know what package we got a karaoke, but it seems like it was a party deal and we ended up getting all kinds of alcohol and snacks. We originally had two rooms and some of us left to catch last train so we moved down to one room. I grabbed their snacks and alcohol to transfer it over to those of us who were staying. I threw mini-champagne bottles in my jacket pocket, grabbed the super-sized bag of Japanese snacks and grabbed the bottle of sho-chu (kind of alcohol). Well, when we got into the cab coming home, I rediscovered the champage bottles. Ooops. So I made out with 2 mini-bottles of Freixnet. I'll bring them down with us when we go to Kyoto and we can have champagne on xmas eve now.

Wednesday, December 07, 2005

Brain exercises for old people

Seniors in Japan are apparently purchasing computers in record numbers so they can play logic puzzles. Supposedly, in an effort to keep their minds fresh, they are playing logic puzzles and just a few minutes of play a day is said to keep your mind in shape. Is this trend happening in North America too?

At the risk of being swatted, I must say that I know some nearing senior people who do play computer games and it doesn't seem to be helping ... I won't name names because then I'll be in real trouble.

Tuesday, December 06, 2005

Sneaky bank

My GST check had the hold removed today according to the date/time stamp in my bank book... of course when I updated my book I also discovered there was a 2000 yen charge. Nice. Thank you for telling me. *rolls eyes* 2000 yen is steep. I would have sent it to Canada to be cashed if I had known - the loss on exchange wouldn't have come anywhwere near 2000 yen. Oh the joys of not being able to communicate in Japanese... otherwise I would have gone to the bank to complain about the charge. As it is, it just isn't worth it. As any foreigner in Japan knows, you just have to resign yourself to being dinged on occassion as part of being here - when you only understand 20% of any conversation, it is part of the learning process I guess.

Sunday, December 04, 2005

Uneventful trip to CostCo

Decided to go out to CostCo today to get xmas cards and a pumpkin pie. I figured I could freeze the pie, and that would save me a lot of time in a couple weeks when I am doing the xmas dinner thing with Hiroshi and his friend Yosuke. Well, they didn't have either one! I was able to get a turkey though - forgot to measure how big my oven is, so might have a wee problem if it is too long or high or something. Ooops. Might prove interesting. It is 9 lbs which should be good for 3 people with lots of leftovers. Yum!

We actually left really early for the first time ever. Usually we don't even arrive out there until after 3 - we had finished shopping and were getting on the train to come home at 3:30, so that was cool. I have discovered that it is less busy earlier in the day, however, you don't really notice it. This is because, while there are fewer carts, there tends to be four kids hanging off each one leaning into the aisle... or chasing each other down the aisles. Too many young kids running around. Later in the day, it just seems to be clueless oba-sans (senior women). Not sure which is worse - children with parents who don't control them, or seniors with no clue how to push a large cart who get easily distracted by low cost items. So while it gave us lots of time to do other stuff for the day, it isn't actually a better CostCo experience earlier in the morning... despite my hopes that it might be!

After CostCo we went to Ebisu, with all of our stuff mind you, to get shoes for Hiroshi. I had promised him we would get some and figured might as well get all our running around done in one shot. I also picked up my xmas postcards - yeah, postcards. I'm sending Japanese New Year's cards as xmas cards this year, because I can't afford 300-400 yen per card. (Cal informs me there are 200 yen cards, but I'm picky about what they look like, and I have never seen 200 yen cards). Since Japan doesn't celebrate Christmas, other than going to KFC and getting a bucket of chicken and eating a white shortcake (no, I'm not kidding), they don't sell cards in packs like they would in North America. CostCo has always had them in the past, so I guess I must have missed them.

Anyway, after doing all that running, we just took a cab home. Too much stuff to carry! And we were zonked! Then I partitioned up all the meat - I hate deskinning the chicken. That has to be the worst job. I would probably pay double if they sold skinned breasts. Well, no I wouldn't because I'm cheap, but I wish I could buy skinned breasts that weren't crazy expensive (like at my supermarket where they want 300 yen for one breast - I can get 2 kg of breasts at CostCo for 700 yen, so there is quite a bit of difference there). Now I'm worn out, so I should be able to go to bed early and sleep well!

Saturday, December 03, 2005

Planning my first xmas dinner

I have decided to make xmas dinner in a couple weeks (weekend before we go to Kyoto). This should be interesting because I have never made xmas dinner before! I have never even roasted a chicken before, let along a turkey. Everyone kind of raises their eyebrows at me when I tell them this, but it's true. My mom always made the holiday meals... and in Canada I was vegetarian. I only stopped being vegetarian when I came to Japan and it is nigh on impossible to eat that way here (they don't think fish is meat... or pork broth... or multitudes of other products comeing from things with faces). Anyway, I never had the opportunity to make meat, other than grilling some salmon on occassion. Remember how excited I was when I made a roast last month?

So, I'm all excited about turkey and stuffing and cranberry sauce... oh yum! Not to mention pumpkin pie. My oven is being put to good use! I haven't figured out what the other dishes are going to be, but really, they are much less important. I just want my apartment to smell of roasting poultry. Excuse me while I drool.

When I was in Canada in June we had xmas in June dinner and it was awesome. I hadn't had turkey in about 3 years (due to not having been home in that time, not having an oven, and there not being that many restaurants that do an xmas dinner here). Anyway, I know remember what turkey tastes like - so I have to have it! I felt jipped at Thanksgiving.

Other than the turkey dinner, I am not doing anything for the holiday. I'm pretty sure I've already mentioned I'm not even putting my tree up. Although I must say all the shops are playing music and are all decorated nicely. This is slighly counteracting the warm weather effect - namely, it doesn't feel like xmas if it is warm outside - but then I think, if I want to see a tree, I should just go and look at some of the huge ones all over the city instead of my rinky dinky 2 footer LOL.

Friday, December 02, 2005

TV roundup

So it is coming to the end of the season with all my shows. Biggest Loser was great. Very inspiration and the competitors look like totally different people! Awesome! Motivates me to get my butt in gear and get to the gym more often.

Amazing Race- the Weavers epitomize everything that disturbs me about organized religion. I believe faith can be a wonderful thing, but there are too many people like the Weavers out there who are hypocritical (and I am not going to say any more) and not enough people who lead by example (my late grandfather being a perfect role-model of the later). Anyway, I don't think I have ever felt this much animosity towards people on television before, and I hope they get eliminated soon. Not that that would improve this season. I seem to remember being disappointed last season and saying I would give the show one more chance. Guess that means I should stop watching. Of course, this season is just so bad, it has to be an anomoly. So, I guess next season will be the test. Please bring back real clues ("go here" is not a clue) and real tasks.

Survivor - not that impressed still. I'll finish the season out, but I'm not sure why all my relatives rave about this show... someone please enlighten me! (ie relatives please post a comment ;) ) The show is entertaining, but it just doesn't grab me and make me wanna cheer if you know what I mean.

Lost - still awesome. Best show on tv. Love it, love it, love it. I don't catch any of the little clues that other people see, but it is still really enjoyable. I like the background into each character. Looks like there won't be any episodes for the rest of December though! Are there xmas specials on every Wednesday or something? Strange that it would go so long without a new episode.