More Adventures in Baking, the Lemon Tart Edition

On Saturday night Mark and I set out to a small party at our friends’ house, and I offered to bring a lemon tart. Friday night I started gathering the ingredients and realized that I didn’t have enough all purpose flour. Of course I noticed this after I came home from my bi-weekly trip to the commissary (the grocery store on base), where I paused in front of the flour but kept walking because I thought I had plenty.

I did not–so that meant buying flour in a Japanese grocery store.

In Japan, baking is more of a hobby than the staple it is in the U.S. Grocery stores here carry some baking items like flour, sugar, baking powder, and chocolate chips, but the selection is typically small, variable–and always well hidden. I headed to my local grocery store and started wandering the aisles until I found something that looked like flour. I bought this.


The drawings of cakes and cookies on the bag tipped me off that I was heading in the right direction, and a quick Google Translate confirmed that I had flour of some kind. Good enough.

After I got home I went online to figure out what kind of flour I bought. I had heard that Japanese flour comes in many more varieties than in the U.S., and that what’s labeled all purpose here is higher in protein/gluten than back home.

A quick aside about gluten. Poor gluten gets a bad rap these days, but it’s simply the protein in wheat and some other grains that gives baked goods their structure. There’s nothing inherently evil or unhealthy about gluten itself, unless you’re allergic or sensitive to it. For most people, gluten is not a thing to avoid like cholesterol or sodium.

Soft flours like cake flour contain relatively low amounts of gluten, like 8% or so. Imagine a homemade birthday cake made with cake flour–the crumb is fine and well, crumbly. By contrast, hard flour’s gluten content is higher at around 12-14%. Picture a slice of artisanal bread made from bread flour, which is a hard flour. The structure is open and looks almost like a sponge thanks to the higher protein/gluten content. American all purpose flour sits right in the middle, around 10% protein content.

So back to my bag of Japanese flour. I assumed I had something harder (higher in gluten) than American all purpose, but I actually picked up cake flour. So that meant that if I wanted it to perform like all purpose flour then I needed to add some protein.

I needed twelve ounces of all purpose flour, and I had only 4.5 ounces. So I decided to add two ounces of American whole wheat flour, then top it off with the Japanese cake flour. I didn’t bother calculating ratios of different flours to get the protein content right or anything. For one thing, I didn’t know the protein content of the actual bag I bought–just a general range from the Interwebs. And for another thing, I was feeling lazy.

So I mixed up my pâte sablée recipe from cooking school and got this. You can see the flecks of whole wheat flour, but otherwise it looks pretty much like usual.


Then I rolled it out into my tart pan…

IMG_3273 2

….and loaded it up with parchment and dried beans as weights to blind bake the crust. Blind baking simply means baking the empty tart shell without filling. Here it is after blind baking.


You’ll notice that the crust shrank a little bit. Unbaked the crust was flush with the top of the pan, but after baking the top of the shell is rather low relative to the pan’s top edge. While not terrible, it’s a little more shrinkage than usual.

I cooked the lemon curd on the stove, then poured it into the cooled tart shell.


I left my cake carrier back in the U.S., so I jury rigged a carrier from a plastic bowl from the 100 yen store and set out on foot. The tart got a little jostled en route, but judging from the number of champagne corks that popped by the time we got to dessert I wasn’t too worried that anyone would judge the tart’s appearance.

The verdict? Very little remained, and one French friend declared, “This tastes just like a French lemon tart!”. High praise indeed–I’ll take it!


BTW here’s what the genkan (sunken foyer) looks like at a house party in Japan. There’s no point in wearing fancy shoes if you ditch them at the door anyway!




A Morning Stroll in the Neighborhood Cemetery

On weekend mornings, Mark ventures out on long walks with our pup Ruby. Recently he discovered a huge cemetery about 20 minutes away and invited me to join him and Ruby. Because who doesn’t love to visit cemeteries!



I have always found cemeteries fascinating. As a child we lived in the outer suburbs of Chicago, and a small pioneer cemetery called Cady Cemetery was tucked away beside a main road. I remember looking at the dates from the 19th century and imagining settlers and cabins on the same land where suburban houses now sit. In Washington DC we joined our fellow dog-walking denizens of Capitol Hill at Congressional Cemetery.

Here in Yokohama, we have noticed small cemeteries with perhaps ten or fewer graves tucked in between houses scattered throughout the neighborhood. By contrast, Negishi Cemetery holds thousands of graves.


Wooden boards called sotoba stand in racks built into every grave. These boards include the name of the deceased, and mourners place sotoba on graves during the interment and later memorial services.


We noticed red lettering on many graves and later learned that these indicate family members who are still alive. For simplicity’s sake all of the grave marker’s engraving is done at once, and the red ink is removed as family members are interred.




Just Throw Away By Hardened Cooking Oil!

You Americans out there think you recycle your trash; I assure you that you do not. The Japanese Seriously, No Kidding RECYCLE.

Take the disposal of cooking oil after deep frying. In the U.S. I would save an empty glass jar or plastic bottle and pour the oil into that, then throw it in the regular trash. I can’t do that here in Japan, because you absolutely do not throw plastic or glass into regular trash (called Burnables)–ever. So what to do with several cups of used cooking oil?


Enter oil hardening powder.

I heard of this powder from the hivemind that is Yokohama Mommas–it’s a Facebook group that is the local version of Moms on the Hill, for you DC readers out there. I bought a package of said powder at the 100 yen store (naturally). Here’s what it looks like.


The instructions read to stir the powder into hot oil, stir until dissolved, and allow to cool and harden for 20-50 minutes.

Here’s my skillet before.


And after hardening.


Now I can scrape the hardened oil into regular trash (Burnables). One thing I didn’t think of until after pouring in the powder–what’s in this, anyway? Google Translate assure that there are plant-based ingredients, but do I have to wash the skillet with soap? It’s a seasoned cast iron pan, and I usually pour off the oil and wipe it out with a paper towel. I asked this question to Yokohama Mommas and await the reply.

The title of this post comes from Google Translate’s version of said powder, in case you’re wondering. Yes, it’s worth a chuckle–but at least I can tell what it means, which is good enough for me. I can only imagine what I’m actually saying in Japanese most of the time that I try….

Visiting the Onsen, or The Best Apres-Ski Ever

School and work resumed this week but fond memories of last week’s ski trip live on; I’ll post a few final thoughts from our ski trip over the coming days.

Our hotel included a traditional onsen, or public bath. Plenty of ski accommodations around the world include hot tubs for soaking tired bodies after a day on the slopes–but an onsen is so much more. Operators of Western-style hot tubs treat the water heavily with chlorine, knowing that their patrons will heave their smelly bodies into the hot tub without rinsing off first. Onsen patrons know to wash thoroughly first–and actually follow the rules!

Just like public baths in other cultures, onsens originated with one simple intention: to give residents of homes without running water the chance to bathe regularly. The rise of Buddhism in Japan in the sixth century AD added an element of ritual cleansing and purification to the practice, and you can reach more about the onsen’s history in Japan here. Long after the ubiquity of running water in homes, onsens remain a strong tradition in Japan.

While only higher-end hotels in the U.S. typically feature spas, even economy Japanese hotels and campgrounds often include an onsen. Our first onsen experience last autumn was at Oonoji, a campground near Mount Fuji.

The gold standard is the geothermal onsen, where the spring water bubbles from the earth at the perfect temperature. Most onsens in rural settings use local spring water but some heat the water as needed.

If you search for images of onsens online, you will likely see spectacular results like this:

Shirahone Onsen
Shirahone Onsen geothermal bathing spa pools

Images by

Our hotel’s onsen was a little more humble and resembled this one–very clean but more utilitarian than luxurious:

This photo of Yarimikan is courtesy of TripAdvisor

Public onsens separate the facilities by gender. The few onsens that I have visited have fixed, separate facilities for men and women, but some older onsens may have only one facility with hours designated for each gender. The hours may switch each day; for instance, the noon to 4PM slot may be men only on Monday and women only on Tuesday.

Some facilities also offer private onsens for rent, giving families the chance to soak as one squabbling crowd. Kidding! Though not really. The thought of my kids harassing each other non-stop while naked would totally suck the zen right out of the moment–but to each his own!

Foreigners often fear the first onsen experience as a series of faux pas waiting to happen; I know I did. Four consecutive days of onsen visits helped me get over my fears.

The onsen is split into two basic areas: dry and wet. You remove your shoes just prior to the dry area and claim a basket or locker for your clothes and the big towel that you will use later to dry off. Then you get naked. But hang on to your wash towel, also known as a modesty towel. The towel is just long enough to cover the ladies from mid-chest to mid-thigh; the men hold said towel in front, crotch-high.

The wet area sits behind sliding doors and consists of a series of wash stations with the following items at each: a small stool, a shallow bucket for mixing up soapy water and pouring over your body, a hand held sprayer, a faucet that points straight down to fill your shallow bucket, and an assortment of body soap, shampoo, and conditioner. Just beyond the wash stations sits the warm bath itself. Many onsens include both indoor and outdoor pools. The pool’s water is untreated and contains no added chemicals of any kind. Instead guests must wash themselves thoroughly–and I mean thoroughly–to keep the water clean.

After repeated onsen visits, I realized that a typical onsen visit was regulated by a few basic rules. The rules took very little time to master; that’s when I started noticing onsen habits that make you look like you know what you’re doing.

The Rules

-Get Naked
No clothes, swim suits, or even shower shoes. Get totally, completely naked except for the aforementioned modesty towel.

-Wash everything
Shampoo your hair, and scrub down everything with that modesty towel and soapy water. Rinse really, really thoroughly so no soap residue remains.

-Gently enter the pool
No splashing, diving, or breaching whale imitations.

-Never dip your wash towel into the pool
You got that towel soapy, so keep it out of the water! Many people put their towel on top of their heads, though it’s also OK to set the towel on the pool’s edge.

-No tattoos
In Japan only prisoners and yakuza (organized crime) sport tattoos, so no ink of any kind is permitted–even for foreigners. If you have a small tattoo then you may get away with a small waterproof bandage, but any tattoos that are too big to cover mean that you need to pony up for a private onsen.

And that’s pretty much it for the rules. So what makes you look like an onsen pro?

The Habits

-Put up your hair
Even though you shampooed that hair thoroughly, put up long hair in a clip or elastic to keep it out of the water.

-Dump shallow bucketfuls of water over your body
This helps warm up your body gradually and acclimate to the warm water of the soaking pool. Also you look like you know what you’re doing as you heave buckets of water around.

-Keep track of that wash station hose
A loose hose will flail around as soon as water starts running through it. Don’t be that person–and take it from someone who was That Person. At least no one else was around to witness my stupidity. Also, when you’re spraying, make sure that the hose is always pointing down so you don’t spray the person across from you. This happened to me, only I was the sprayee and not the sprayer.

And that’s it! So if you ever find yourself with the chance to visit an onsen–go for it!

Just watch that hose.



The Beer Token and Beer Vending Machines

In the late 1990s I spent five months in Sasebo, Japan when I was forward-deployed with the U.S. Navy. I was an officer in charge of an LCAC (hovercraft) detachment, and my fellow officer in charge spent several years in Japan on a previous tour. He was a great resource for important tips about visiting Japan–like ordering beer. 

Back then a basic beer typically cost around 500 yen, which also happens to be the largest denomination of Japanese coins. Hence the natural nickname for a 500 yen coin: the beer token. 

 When I saw a 500 yen coin again this past August I immediately blurted out, “Hey, it’s a beer token!”. Unfortunately I did this in front of the kids, and they seized on it and they kept calling the coins beer tokens for a few weeks. 

Another beer related memory: the ever-present vending machines that dispensed sodas, both hot and cold cans of coffee and tea–and beer. These vending machines sat on street corners and in train stations with no restrictions on who could buy from them. At the time I could not imagine such accessibility to coin op beer in the U.S.

When we arrived in Japan in August I noticed that the vending machines of drinks were just as common as 18 years ago but without beer. Until this week, at Hotel Hakuba!  And look what still costs only one beer token.   

Day 2: Snow! 

This morning we awoke to flurries.  The gorgeous, crisp mountains that we saw for the last two days disappeared behind a wall of grey. That could only mean one thing: snow! We ate a quick breakfast and headed back to the same resort as yesterday, Happo.

Tessa asked to go to ski school, so we dropped her off. Then Mark, Cy and I headed up the mountain with Yokohama friends who also happened to ski in Hakuba at the same time. Cy was beside himself to learn that one of his closest friends from school was coming here at the same time, and all kids and adults enjoyed the company.

  Our hunch about the snow was right. The flurries at the hotel quickly picked up as we gained altitude. Hard snow fell all day, at times in near whiteout conditions. We all placed bets on how much snow fell at the peak today; tomorrow morning we see who was right!

 It’s nighttime now and light flurries continue. Tomorrow’s forecast calls for more snow as we embark on our last ski day before heading home. 

Day 1: Happoone, or Whitetail with an Alpine View

Four resorts offer skiing in the Hakuba valley; today we tried the largest and most famous, called Happoone (pronounced ha po oh neh) or Happo for short. Happo hosted the alpine events at the 1998 Nagano Winter Olympics, so we scoped out the trail map beforehand and got excited.  

Then we arrived and saw this.

Which modified the trail map to this.

Note the very limited Open Area near the top

“There’s snow at the the top!” we were assured. So off we went.

We climbed aboard our first gondola ride ever and headed uphill. As we climbed in elevation the trees quickly turned snowy; the snow at the peak (1831 m, 6007 ft) looked much better than at the bottom of the mountain (760 m, 2493 ft).  
The rather limited list of available trails meant for fairly crowded slopes. Our fellow skiers hailed mostly from Australia and China; we heard no other American accents.

 After two hours of skiing we decided to grab a bite: tonkatsu pork and curry for Mark and Cy, chicken and rice for Tessa, and a salmon and rice bowl for me. It was easily the best meal I’ve ever eaten on a ski slope.

Marta’s salmon and rice bowl


Cy digs in to one of his new favorites, Japanese-style curry

After a few hours of skiing we realized that the ski runs were so short that they resembled the abbreviated runs we know from the mediocre ski resorts near Washington DC, Liberty and Whitetail–though with admittedly better alpine views. And better snow, even if there wasn’t much more of it.

Cy falling down for no apparent reason, a recurring theme of the day


Another recurring theme: Mark helping one child or the other into skis

At the end of our ski day we experienced another first: riding the chair lift down to the bottom since the lower trials were closed.

Someone is Done.


We have two more days of skiing on our trip; tomorrow we’ll likely try another resort, just because we can.

Road Trip! The Japanese Rest Stop

On the road! We left this morning for our ski trip to Hakuba. Two hours in we felt peckish and stopped for a bite at a favorite spot: the highway rest stop.   

  The typical American rest stop includes fast food, bad coffee, doughnuts, dodgy souvenirs, and maybe one mediocre sit-down restaurant like Denny’s or Perkins. 

 Japanese rest stops don’t do dodgy anything. Our lunch choices today included ramen ordered from a ticket booth, a sit down restaurant with proper food, and a bakery. Souvenirs and beautifully wrapped food gifts rounded out the selections. Let’s not forget the cleanest bathrooms you’ll ever see–with heated toilet seats, natch.  

Bathroom at the Four Seasons? Nope. Just a Japanese rest stop.

We opted for the sit down restaurant and enjoyed ramen, tonkatsu pork, and karaage fried chicken.  


Back on the road!

Hakuba, Here We Come!

It’s go time.

IMG_3055Tomorrow, we hit the road not-very-early and head for Hakuba, a ski village about four hours drive away. Hakuba lies in the greater Nagano area, site of the 1998 Winter Olympics. On Wednesday we will ski at Happo-One, a resort that hosted several events at those winter games. Fun fact: it’s pronounced Ha-po-oh-nay, and not Ha-po-[one]. My fellow expat mom Debra pointed this one out to me, preemptively. Thanks, Debra!IMG_3056

The Nissan Cube doesn’t quite hold four people plus requisite gear, so we rented an awesome/hideous minivan from base. Mark and the kids drove it home this afternoon. The initial assessment from the ten year old, with no editing whatsoever: “It smells like someone farted in it about seven thousand times.” Can’t wait!

Just in case you were how a picture taken in the dark with an iPhone looks

Tonight we load the car; tomorrow we drop Ruby at the dog hotel and hit the road.

The snow is allegedly terrible. We are from the Mid-Atlantic states of the U.S., so this is not new to us. Nor do we care, because we have packed beer. And wine.

IMG_3052Updates to follow!