Ocean View Hot Springs: Getting My Zen On in Luxury

I am buzzing from the hot spring high. Fifteen minutes in the natural, hot, bubbly springs will loosen your muscles, soak away your cares, and force you to let loose. Then you hop out and get right back to the craziness of toddler, baby, and in laws. But it is such a nice way to bond as a family!

Traditional Japanese inns, called ryokans, are clustered throughout the country. Many ryokans also have hot springs, or onsen. The whole family dresses down (or dresses up in my Western view) into ukatas, which are casual cotton kimonos. They are so comfortable that many people sleep in them. There are no shoes allowed in the inn. Everyone wears slippers in the common areas and goes barefoot in the onsen and in their private rooms.

Once you change into your traditional Japanese pajamas, you head to the hot spring. As per my previous post, you get naked with the whole family (usually single gender but not always). You bathe before entering the springs. Today’s bath took place outdoors with an ocean view. Then, you slip into the hot spring and let your body adjust to the heat. Slowly, your body and mind unwinds. I take in the view of the bay and the city lights. Fifteen minutes later, it is time to cool off in the nude in the fresh ocean breeze. If I stay any longer, I run the risk of falling asleep. Then, bathe again. There are usually a variety of spa products to pamper yourself, and of course you can purchase them later if so inspired.

Once double bathed and fully refreshed, it is time for endless food in your room. Ryokans often serve eight to twelve courses, including sushi, wagyu beef (heavily marbleized), and an array of Japanese delicacies. Today we indulged in local, sweet lobster, both grilled and raw sashimi. Another specialty item was steamed abalone. We ate on pillows and a low rise table. It allowed the kids to run around the tatami floor in between courses. Relaxing fun for everyone!

For a little more self-indulgence, I took a nighttime dip in the onsen. Fully relaxed for bed….until my baby screamed for attention. Getting my zen on indeed!

Sashimi

Appetizers
Abalone steaming up!

Eating Like a Local While the Typhoon Rages On

A major typhoon is sweeping through Japan. For three days, torrential downpours and black clouds heave covered our valley. There have been moments of sunny skies to break the gloom. Two nights ago, I became convinced I would be struck by lightening. The clouds were thick and heavy. I could barely see the streetlight right in front of my window. Thunder and lightning shook the house every two minutes. About every ten minutes, I heard the big crackling an death rattling lightning strike. We are surrounded by forest on the backside. It sounded like the trees were getting pounded. Every time he lightning flashed, our whole room lit up. I found myself wanting to crawl into my mom’s bed, until I realized I AM the mom know. Amazingly, my three-year-old never woke up. My baby woke once but was easily calmed by my presence and fell back asleep. Clearly, he couldn’t see the panic on my face in the dark.

During the day, I drive slower than the numerous grandmas here. I am very cautious of rain on windy mountain roads. When the rain pours the hardest, I stop in to the nearest eatery and pig out until the weather calms down. It is for the safety of my children. A bonus is the delight of my tummy and meeting new faces.

Along the back country road, there is a little development. The drive surrounds me in forestry, rolling hills,and vistas of the town and farms below. Rarely, I stumble upon a little eatery. My first thought is where do they get customers? The road feels deserted, as if I am traveling through a fantasy world by myself. I am frequently the only customer at places I stop. I enjoy the intimacy. The shop owners have time to talk with me, whether out of boredom or any real interest in me. They are always surprised to see a foreigner, especially with a baby in tow.

Today, the rain suddenly picked up speed close to home. I pulled into a little cafe run by a local farm. The little house is surrounded by apple trees and blueberry bushes. The windows look out over the uninhabited forest and a lonely log cabin with wild flowers. The kitchen is run by a mother and daughter team while the grandfather comes in and out as he tends the farm. It feels like dining in there home, as multi generations gather in the kitchen for a family meal while I eat next to them in the dining room. The entryway is filled with bags, dolls, tissue holders, and other items hand sewn by the grandmother. It feels more homey than my own home.

My baby crawls around and takes in all the attention. Meanwhile, the daughter serves me hot tea.  While I relax and watch the downpour, I see her dash out into the typhoon rains to a shed. She comes back in, drenched, holding a small bowl. Would you like some blueberries while I cook? Would I ever! I feel guilty that she suffered the rain for me to eat blueberries and savor them even more than usual. The baby ate them right up! He will be quite disappointed when we get back to eating produce in the desert.

Ooiishi! Yummy!

Ooiishi! Yummy!

The restaurant only serves three dishes. One is soba (see my noodle post: https://misomommy.wordpress.com/2014/07/02/noodles-a-japanese-noodle-guide/). Another dish, displayed proudly on a outdoor banner, is grilled rice balls on skewers slathered with a sweet and chunky miso paste.

Miso rice ball skewers

The third dish is called kurumi. I ordered it blindly and then learned about the dish as it arrived. Kurumi looks like white miso soup, but it is actually coarsely ground walnuts boiled in a sweet broth. The soup is topped with two, freshly-grilled mochi squares. The aroma of buttery walnuts and grilled rice filled the air. As I dug in, the mochi softly pulled and stretched. I bit off a piece at a time, chewed the mochi, and drank the soup. In between bites, I looked over the storm and the mountains.

Walnut soup with grilled mochi

Walnut soup with grilled mochi

A chart on how to make Kurumi, mochi walnut soup

A chart on how to make Kurumi, mochi walnut soup

As you can seem the soup came with homemade pickles.  The salt content is lower than commercial pickles  and the experience is crisp, cool, and refreshing. I didn’t think it could get any better, until she brought out local cherries that she had frozen. They were like little cherry Popsicles plucked right from the cherry tree.

Frozen cherries - a refreshing summer treat!

Frozen cherries – a refreshing summer treat!

After a delicious respite, it was time to face the tsunami and drive slowly home.

Wind and rain typhoon-style

Wind and rain typhoon-style

Noodles! A Japanese Noodle Guide

Who doesn’t love a good noodle dish? The Japanese are not alone in their love of elongated carbs, but they may offer the most diversity in noodles per square kilometer or foot. Noodle shops are plentiful, even in the sticks.  Japanese noodle shops worth their salt are also highly specialized. Noodle discovery is not a one-stop experience. You must decide which type of noodle, variety of flavors and specific broth you crave. This post will focus on a general overview of the main Japanese noodles and their popular varieties. It is a practical post for foodies, visits to Japan or authentic Japanese restaurants anywhere, and for cooking at home after a run to the Asian market.

Before I overwhelm you with all the options, I will start with a brief overview of noodle basics and culture in Japan. This will give you enough information to eat any noodle in Japan and avoid any offensive pitfalls. When eating noodles, there are three things to keep in mind that are counter to American culture. First, slurping your noodles is acceptable and often necessary. (Please note this only applies to Asian noodle dishes. Do not slurp your spaghetti in an Italian restaurant in Japan.) Soup noodles are too hot and slippery to eat without slurping. You will be one hot mess, literally, if you don’t slurp. The slurping of others is loud and it may be an unappetizing adjustment to the American ear. Learn to adjust and enjoy your noodles.

The second thing is the placement of your chopsticks and soup spoon when eating noodles. Tap into your inner O.C.D. because the placement of chopsticks is very important in the Japanese culture. This is especially true if you are dining with anyone you want to impress, like a potential in-law, work contact, or cute date. Do not stick your chopsticks or spoon in the bowl between bites.  The image of chopsticks sticking out of the bowl or food is similar to funeral customs and offerings of food to the deceased. It also resembles the incense burned to honor the deceased. Thus, it is inappropriate and offensive to stick your silverware in the bowl. Instead, chopsticks can be placed on a little stand provided or laid across the bowl, so they rest on the rim of the bowl.

Thirdly, you may lift your bowl to drink the soup and even to get the noodles closer to your mouth. While I would avoid doing this in formal settings.

On to the noodles! So just went I thought I knew all the Japanese noodle types, I just discovered a new one. There are a plethora, and each region has its own special style and flavor for noodle dishes.  This post will give you  a general overview of noodle types you can apply in any area of Japan or in Japanese noodle shops in the U.S.

There are four main types of noodle in Japan: somen, soba, udon, and ramen. You can order any type of noodle in a hot soup broth or cold noodles with dipping sauce (zaru style), though the cold version may only be offered in warmer months. Sometimes noodles are available stir-fry style, known as “Yaki” noodle.

Somen noodles are thin white noodles made from wheat. They look similar to spaghetti or angel hair pasta and are similar to thin soup noodles used in Chinese soup noodles. Somen noodles are not typically served in a restaurant exclusively for somen. Rather, somen noodles are incorporated into dishes at Japanese restaurants and are popular in Japanese homes.

Soba noodles are thin buckwheat noodles. The buckwheat gives a slightly nuttier flavor and more nutrition than the other noodle options. Soba noodles are usually a blend of white flour and buckwheat flour, ranging from 20 to 80 percent buckwheat. There are soba noodles made of 100 percent buckwheat, but they are rare and more expensive. You will almost never find them in a soba restaurant. The 100 percent soba noodles are firmer because they are purely whole grain. Most people prefer a blend of flours for a more traditional noodle consistency. Cold soba is delicious and easy for summer months. You simply buy dry soba noodles, zaru soba dipping sauce available in most Asian markets, and ginger or wasabi if you like. Cook the noodles and then rinse with cold water. You can also add a couple ice cubes to really cool them down. Then dip in the sauce and enjoy.  If you eat soba in a restaurant in Japan, look for a place that makes their own soba noodles. They will have a little area with a wood board and rolling pin where they make the noodles.

zaru soba and tempura

Udon noodles are chubby, chewy noodles made from wheat and tapioca flour. They are the most difficult to eat because they are very slippery. Udon is often served with tempura, There is a popular chain restaurant in Japan that makes fresh udon starting at 300 yen (around $3) and the. You walk through a buffet of fried toppings that will quickly inflate the price of your noodles. It is a good option for those on a budget and with self control in the fried buffet temptation line.

Ramen noodles are my personal favorite and I regularly hunt down ramen joints wherever I go , including Los Angeles, Las Vegas, Honolulu, Kyoto, Tokyo, and now the Japanese Alps. I will post more about ramen soon with photos. For now, ramen is a thin yellow wheat noodle served in broth or with a side of broth. There are four main varieties: salt (shio), soy sauce (shoyu), miso (fermented soybean paste) and tonkotsu (a rich broth made from pork bone and pork fat). Ramen shops usually specialize in one of those ramen types but often offer two or more types of ramen. I highly recommend ordering the specialty soup of the shop as quality can vary between the different offerings. More to come soon! Happy eating!

Hokkaido!

In Japan, identity and cache are strongly tied to each region. People are proud of where they are from. People want to know where there food comes from. Regional tourism is big business. Many Japanese travel to other parts of Japan or dream of visiting certain regions. Each region has a reputation for  certain characteristics and personality traits, like people from Osaka are known for being gregarious and funny because of its history as a merchant city long before Japan became more open to foreigners.  Food and drinks vary from different cities and prefectures.  Some products, like certain fish and seafood, are best from a particular region. Anyone heard of. Miyajima Oysters? They are from a small island called Miyajima that is adjacent to Hiroshima. Many other dishes and specialty items, like sake and baked goods, take a variety of forms and flavor depending on where they come from. Soup noodles like ramen are a prime example. The base of the soup (soy sauce, salt, miso, pork bone, black garlicky, etc.), type of noodle (skinny, chubby, straight, curly), and the toppings differ in each region. You can find many restaurants that specialize in cuisine from another region in Japan, kind of like a Texan BBQ restaurant in L.A.

What makes Japan unique? In the U.S., there is some regional variety, like  shrimp and grits in the south and creamy clam chowder in New England. There is a whole subculture about the different ways to make barbecue (Memphis vs.  St. Louis ribs). But Japan has about the same number of prefectures as the U.S.A. has states (47 vs 50) in the same land area as Montana. So imagine driving around a densely populated version of Montana and finding vastly different flavors and ingredients in each town. This will give you an idea of regional food in Japan. It is also a source of more cultural pride and emphasis than in American culture.

I personally have a crush on the food from Hokkaido and I’ve never even been there. Hokkaido is the most northern and the largest prefecture in. Japan.  It is an island separate from the main island of Japan (home to. Tokyo, Kyoto, Nagano, Osaka, and so on). A picture of its outline is below and the icon of its map can be found all over items in a Japanese grocery store. Hokkaido is known for delicious dairy products, premium seafood, and excellent produce. When I shop in the grocery store, I look for this mark of Hokkaido. I will buy items just because they are from Hokkaido and I have not been disappointed.  There are also restaurants and boutique food stores dedicated to Hokkaido food products and I hunt them down whenever I visit Japan.  If you are ever in a Japanese grocery store, look for the map!

Hokkaido

Today I am sharing my newest discovery from Hokkaido. It is a snowy white bun steamed to the texture of a cloud, airy and light. Inside, there is a gush of vanilla bean cream made from the prized Hokkaido milk. Delicious! Japanese sweets are less sweet than American desserts and thus perfect for my palate.

One day I hope to visit Hokkaido and eat delicious food straight from the hills and sea there. In the meantime, I will travel there in my mind with a one-dollar treat straight from my dream spot.  Traveling is a wonderful experience, but it is not always permitted with time and money restraints. We can all get a little taste of somewhere else by trying new foods, reading, meeting new people from other places, and splurging our spare buck on a new treat.  Wherever the day takes you, step a little out of the box and you may find something new in your own backyard, or grocery aisle.