Let’s Eat Junk Food: Taco Rice

In earlier installments of Let’s Eat Junk Food, we sampled Doritos, Oreos, and McDonalds. Today we venture into new waters: the Okinawan version of American (ish) food.

When we visited Okinawa last October I noticed taco rice on many restaurant menus. About 0.3 seconds of pondering led to correct assumptions about the dishes origins: lots of American military personnel on Okinawa, lots of taco rice near military bases, no tortillas available but lots of rice, etc. A quick Interwebs search confirmed these hunches–and also led to a brief existential crisis that taco rice of all things has its own Wikipedia page but I don’t?!? But I digress.

So taco rice is A Thing in Okinawa. Imagine a taco salad served on a bed of rice instead of a tortilla bowl and you have the idea: rice, taco-seasoned ground beef, lettuce, tomatoes, shredded cheese, and “hot” sauce.

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The Actually Tasty Version, no Taco Rice box involved

Several weeks ago I noticed taco rice in the grocery store here in Yokohama and decided to pick up a box. Tonight we cracked it open. Spoiler alert: it sucked. Like, bad.

But let’s not get ahead of ourselves.

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Here’s the box. Cute, right? Love those girls in sassy (where are those dresses from?) dresses! I assumed that the package contained seasoning packets to add to cooked ground beef, so I  turned to the back of the box looking for how many grams of meat and how many milliliters of water to add. That’s weird, I thought–no mention of how much meat to brown. No problem, I’m sure that my pound of ground turkey is fine. OK! So what does Google Translate give me as cooking directions? “Put packet of taco stool in boiled boiling water for five minutes.” Ha ha, Google Translate! Taco stool–good one!!!

I think you know where this is going.

So after five minutes in a boiled boiling water bath I opened the packet to find this.

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O.

M.

G.

It’s actually taco stool.

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Always keep Emergency Taco Seasoning on hand. And Emergency Beer.

Mark suggested that I just dump it into the browned turkey meat. No way, I declared. Thankfully I had plenty of taco seasoning on hand (emergency taco seasoning, as it were) so I just mixed up the meat, finished the rest of the toppings, and tried to make the kids taste the taco stool.

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Tessa refused.

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Cy considered it, while Ruby’s all “Heeey, watcha got there?!?”.

I bravely tasted it, but only with an emergency beer in hand. It didn’t help, because taco stool sucks even with emergency beer.

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Cy tasted it after all. You see the result.

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Mark tasted it before i had my phone out, which totally didn’t count.

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Me: But you need to try it again because I didn’t have my phone ready!
Mark: No.
Me: But if it wasn’t documented by an iPhone then it didn’t really happen.
Mark: No.

So there you have it. Good riddance, taco rice from a box.

The Beautiful Woman Discount, or Shopping at the Machida Shrine Sale

Flea markets exist around the world; in Japan these markets are called shrine sales and take place at (surprise!) shrines on a regular schedule. Last week I decided to check out the goods at the Kanagawa Tenmangu Shrine Sale, more commonly known as the Machida shrine sale after the nearby neighborhood and train station. It’s usually held on the first of the month, except when it’s not. So check the schedule before heading out.

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I arrived by train with a group of veteran shrine sale goers and started wandering. I did my first lap of the stalls, assessing the selection and general prices, making mental notes on what to come back for, and deciding whether or not I considered the prices fair. I’m not much of a haggler. Some people love it, but I don’t. When I see a price I just think whether or not that item is worth that price to me, and I don’t really care about getting the absolute lowest price possible. If it’s more than I want to pay then I just walk away.

I came with three things on my shopping list: ikebana containers, both low and high-sided; kokeshi dolls; and a kimono or two.

Ikebana containers proved surprisingly difficult to find. You would think that any flea market would have lots of kinds of ceramics, but the ikebana vases were few in number, not terribly attractive, and surprisingly expensive. I did find one dish that I liked, and it only cost 1000 yen (around $8.50 USD).

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My first ikebana container purchase
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Vintage kokeshi dolls; prices in this selection range from 200 to 1500 yen each (about $1.50 to $12 USD)

Kokeshi dolls proved much easier to find. Shortly after moving to Japan I heard other moms talking about collecting kokeshi dolls, and at first I didn’t really see the appeal. I only saw the contemporary, somewhat garish ones like this and didn’t care for them. Then I started noticing vintage kokeshi dolls with their natural wood colors. As I visited expat friends in their homes I saw lovely arrangements of kokeshi dolls on mantles and imagined how nice that would look in our sealed fireplaces in our Washington, DC house. So I set out to buy my first round and had no trouble scoring this collection below.

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My first few kokeshi dolls, around 500 yen each ($4.50 USD)

On the train ride to the market, my friend Marie-Claire told me to smile when I shop. “It’s the Beautiful Woman Discount!”, she declared. I looked at her skeptically, but guess who benefitted from said BWD on her first purchase. I chose four kokeshi dolls and showed them to the vendor for the total price. They were marked between 300 and 700 yen each, and the fair price I had in mind was roughly 500 yen a piece. So when he said 2500 yen for four dolls I first thought, meh, a little high, but I do have a really big doll in there. So I started getting out my money without saying anything and the vendor quickly said a few words in Japanese which included kirei (beautiful) and the new price of 2000 yen. So apparently he’s even a worse haggler than I am. He spoke only in Japanese and I understood the prices he gave as well as his compliment–so perhaps that very rudimentary Japanese comprehension helped too.

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The kimono shopping proved a little more daunting simply because there were so many choices. I settled on a table that had an assortment for 1000 yen and found this beauty. It’s a gorgeous, slippery silk and feels just incredible–definitely worth 1000 yen to me, if not more.

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My first kimono purchase, as modeled by the Lovely and Talented Tessa. I love the red edges!

I saw a scrum of Japanese women elbowing their way through the huge pile of kimono pictured below, but I felt too intimidated to join in.

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The scary Giant Pile of Kimonos that this blogger lacked the fortitude to tackle

Then I saw a smaller pile in a different area and stepped up. This green kimono with a Japanese maple motif immediately caught my eye, so I pulled it out and asked the price. “hyaku [100] yen ,” the vendor replied in Japanese. I looked at the silk kimono and repeated, “hyaku yen?” several times. 100 yen is about 85 cents US; you can’t even buy a bottle of water for 100 yen. It’s also silk, though a slightly coarser texture than the other one that I bought.

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This random assortment of sacred-ish objects jumped out at me immediately. Polacy! Who sees why?

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Here’s a close-up. That’s right: Our Lady of Częstochowa visits shrine sales too!

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Back to School! But First, a Few Last Ski Thoughts About the Ice Village

We returned from our Hokkaido ski trip on Sunday evening, and we all returned to the work-school routine the next day. So here are a few final thoughts and photos from our first ski adventure to Hokkaido.

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Pausing at the top of the mountain for a roasted marshmallow break

In my last post I mentioned an ice village. I saw this on the website and didn’t expect much. Then we showed up to see said ice village. I was floored.

Each shop within the ice village consisted of ice block walls with a canvas roof. About half of the shops were look-at places: ice florist, ice haute couture, and so on. The rest sold fondue, adult beverages, and souvenirs. We didn’t stop to partake in any drinks or snacks–because it was absolutely freezing. Like, FREEZING freezing, and well below. Even with Arctic grade parkas I don’t know how the staff members did it.

The kids and Mark enjoyed the ice slide, while I enjoyed watching them ricochet around the sides of the chute. We thought that Mark would go the fastest since he weighs the most, but he almost got stuck because of his jeans–apparently denim and ice aren’t a terribly fast combination. We watched one girl in slick nylon ski pants bounce around like a pinball and shoot over the pile of snow acting as a bumper.

Yay, winter! We had a blast and hope to return to Tomamu.

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The skating rink with the Ice Village behind it
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A solid ice chapel hosts weddings

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A bridal gown at the Haute Couture shop–just in case you need fresh material for your nightmares
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The Ice Bar, complete with solid ice serving “glasses”

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Giant marshmallows on a stick are a Thing here, and genius considering that marshmallows cost pretty much nothing
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Cy blurs by on the ice slide
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The Ghost of Tessa tries out the ice slide

That Famous Hokkaido Ski  Destination, His Hobo Romani Resort

Ok, so we’re actually at Hoshino Tomamu resort, but autocorrect struck and gave me an awesome blog post headline to boot!

The view of Tomamu Resort from the top of the mountain

As loyal readers may recall, early last ski season we headed to the famous slopes of Hakuba, home of the 1998 Winter Olympic Games. What we didn’t realize until it was too late is that Hakuba doesn’t usually have reliable snow until some time in January. Hence our need to ride the gondola high enough up the mountain to find snow, followed by a gondola ride back down at the end of the day. 

This year I knew better. We will still return to Hakuba in February for a long weekend, but this early in the season I now know to head north. Way, way north.

Walkways connecting buildings are A Thing here. Also Tessa was feeling grumpy, in case you couldn’t tell

I started asking around for suggested destinations within Hokkaido, Japan’s northernmost island. My friend Hiro suggested Hoshino Tomamu Resort. He explained that it was built in the early 80s right before the Japanese real estate bubble burst. I have since learned that no new ski resorts were built in Japan since then, and frankly that explains a lot about the outdated infrastructure that we have seen at pretty much every Japanese ski resort. 
It doesn’t take a degree in architecture to say, “Yep, that’s 1983 alright.”
 

The window outside our ski locker: an extreme example, but Yuck
“Japan’s largest wave pool!”

Tomamu bills itself as a family resort with lots of amenities to interest non-skiers as well. At most ski resorts in Japan this means a discounted lift ticket that lets non-skiers ride the lifts up to meet their skiing loved ones for lunch at the mountaintop cafe, but not much more. Tomamu does that and more–such as ski coasters, which are basically tricked out sleds that look really cool in theory but pretty ridiculous on the slopes. We’ve also enjoyed the pool (“Japan’s largest wave pool!”) and onsen outdoor bath. The Ice Village sounded twee but ended up so spectacular that it will get its own post. 

Cy falls off a bench, just because

The skiing is pretty good too, though admittedly nothing like the Olympic caliber of Hakuba and similar areas. 


The downside of the resort setting is that, well, it’s a resort. We’re a captive audience to whatever dining choices and activities the resort chooses to present. The food is pretty good but not great, and expensive. But we’re enjoying it for our visit, even if we’re not likely to return. 

Can someone please explain the appeal of tree skiing? Because I look at this and see Death and Massive Head Trauma

Flying the 優しい Skies

Today we set out for a ski weekend in Hokkaido on our first conventional domestic flight within Japan. I say conventional because in October we flew to Okinawa on a low cost carrier called Peach Airlines that was so low cost that we didn’t even use a regular airport terminal, but rather a cargo terminal with air conditioning. 


Today we headed for Haneda airport to catch an All Nippon Airways flight to Hokkaido, the northernmost island of Japan. Most of you likely know that Japan is very train-y, and you can get pretty much anywhere by rail–even the airports. That said we usually drive because training with four people and a mountain of ski luggage is a hassle. Unfortunately parking at the airport was completely booked and taking no more reservations as of a few days ago–so train it was. 

The biggest hurdle was getting to the station from our house. It’s a not-terrible 15 minute walk from our house to Negishi Station–not terrible when you’re just carrying a bag or briefcase, that is. We live partway up a giant hill, so that means 187 stairs between us and the station level, which is less fun with multiple 35 lb. duffles of ski gear. So Mark drove us and the luggage to the station, drove home to park the car, then walked back to the station. 

After about one hour, three trains (one “bonus” train when we got on in the wrong direction at one point), and 500 yen (about $4.50 USD)–we finally arrived at the airport. 

We checked in at the counter, where no one checked our IDs–standard for domestic Japanese travel. Mark mentioned that he met an American who makes a point of using a fake name and buying airline tickets in cash, just because he can. I’ll let you fine readers contemplate the security implications of that for a moment…

Good food at U.S. airports happens by chance; great food at Japanese airports is the norm. After check-in we headed for the food court and checked out the usual offerings: ramen, sushi, Korean, Thai (uncommon in town, but always at the airport food courts), and burgers. Tessa and I decided to try a burger. 

I’m sure that many of you are judging right now. *I’m* judging right now. But as soon as Tessa suggested the burger I realized that I hadn’t ordered a burger in a restaurant since moving to Japan over a year ago. The bun looked good so I gave it a go. 

It was ok. 

Wielding those chopsticks like a pro!

Cy stuck with his standby, ramen. Mark had a savory Korean pancake that’s called chijimi in Japanese, buchimgae in Korean. It’s a street food staple and totally delicious. 

Mark definitely scored the most delicious lunch

After lunch we flew 90 minutes to Sapporo and arrived at New Chitose Airport. The languages on the signs in the terminal reflect the nationalities that pass through the most: Japanese, English, Chinese, Korean–and Russian! Hokkaido is way up there. 

Mark and the kids consider the udon and ikura choices
Before our two hour bus ride to our rental, we stopped for another round of snacks. The kids ate ikura (salmon roe) bowls at an eat-while-standing restaurant, while I picked up a convenience store meal: onigiri (rice ball wrapped in roasted seaweed) with shrimp and mayo inside, pineapple, Pringles, and chocolate almonds for dessert. My feast cost a whopping 670 yen, or about $5.50 USD. Also Mark got a beer for the bus ride because he loves me. 


We’re on the bus now. It’s snowy! So excited.