My favorite aspect of Hong Kong was also the biggest surprise: the amazing street art adorning building all over our neighborhood. We rented a studio on U Lam Terrace in a somewhat pretentious/chic area called PoHo (from nearby Po Hing Fong).
As soon as we started walking we saw amazing murals and street art on every block. It made getting lost in the maze of streets and stairs so much more interesting! I’ll let the photos tell the story.
I arrived in Hong Kong with high expectations of delicious food, and Hong Kong delivered! Our first night we enjoyed an amazing Nepali meal in our neighborhood. Many of Yokohama’s Indian restaurants are actually operated by Nepali nationals, and I wish some of the dishes we had in Hong Kong appeared in Japan more often instead of the parade of mediocre curries.
Our second night we tried French fusion dim sum. We loved the setting and beautiful presentation while appreciating the novel twist on traditional dim sum, but we both agreed that it wasn’t our best meal. Foie gras in a dumpling….not so much.
Another night we grabbed a bite at a restaurant near a street market. We sat at long, communal tables and heeded our neighbors’ recommendations.
For our final night’s meal, we sought out a Michelin recommended hole-in-the-wall. The rather utilitarian ambiance and entirely Chinese clientele foretold a great meal. And it was!
Like many Asian cities, Hong Kong features several street markets, night markets, and “antiques” rows featuring loads of colorful baubles and trinkets to tempt the eye. We wandered and picked up a few treasures.
Our hands-down favorite shop was right in our neighborhood, and I lost count of how many times we popped in. Every surface was covered with both Western and Chinese vintage records, eyeglasses, cameras, toys, and more.
Last week Cy and I headed to Hong Kong for spring break. We ate amazing food. We saw cool stuff. We climbed. So. Many. Stairs.
Here’s the first report: views!
The Hong Kong Museum of History provided and excellent overview of the many people who have occupied Hong Kong over the centuries. I loved the vivid displays that recounted Hong Kong’s fascinating and turbulent history. The United Kingdom officially handed control of Hong Kong back to China in 1997, and the museum’s displays abruptly stopped at this point in time. Because apparently no history happened since then….? Still, I really enjoyed what I saw and learned.
We ventured out on the Star Ferry across Victoria Harbor one day….
…then braved the crowds to ride the Victoria Peak Tram to stroll wooded paths and catch the views from the top.
And the stairs. So many stairs! Streets abruptly became flights of stairs, and we were so grateful that our visit wasn’t in the steamy summer months as we climbed them every day.
We stopped by Hong Kong’s most famous temple, Man Mo…and were extremely underwhelmed. “Hong Kongers are not a religious lot,” our guidebook drily noted. No kidding! I can think of a dozen temples and shrines within five minutes of our house in Yokohama with more to offer.
Last weekend Mark and I donned the tux and gown and headed over to our club, the Yokohama Country and Athletic Club (YC&AC) for Burns Night. What’s Burns Night, you ask? I hadn’t heard of it myself until moving to Yokohama. So let’s start with a little background….
Robert Burns was a Scottish poet (“Oh my luve’s like a red, red rose….”) and his birthday falls on January 25. So on the weekend nearest that, Scots around the world gather to toast ole’ Rabbie with whiskey, haggis, Highland dancing, and bagpipes. Kilts are encouraged and black tie tolerated if your man doesn’t feel like baring the legs in late January. YC&AC’s first members included plenty of Scots, so Burns Night has enjoyed a spot on the YC&AC social calendar since the club’s founding in 1868. YC&AC calls its celebration the oldest Burns Night in Japan.
I suspected Scots outside of Scotland tend to celebrate Burns Night more than those living in the home country. My Scottish friend Jason confirmed this. Picture a watered down Groundskeeper Willie accent from The Simpsons when you read this next part: “Mostly awld faaahrts in cloobs git togather far it.” Meanwhile my friend Iain–born in Scotland, reared in Canada, and both a wearer of kilt and player of bagpipes–disagreed, stating that plenty of people in Scotland, both young and old, raise a glass to Dear Rabbie.
The evening includes a series of toasts and speeches, and Mark played an important role as the Whisky Bearer during the procession of the haggis. Moments before the procession began, Mark sprinted over with an important assignment for me. As the master of ceremonies stabs the haggis, a women is supposed to scream loudly. Was I willing? As if he had to ask! I warned Iain who sat directly in front of me, then let out a blood-curdling shriek as knife and haggis became one.
Mark joined the procession of the haggis bearing a bottle of liquid gold, and even remembered his response to the question, “And to whom do you toast?”. “To the piper!”, he declared.
Highland dancing was tons of fun. The dances have names that sound incredibly dirty and hilarious after a few glasses, such as Strip the Willow, Highland Fling, and Threesome Reel.
We ate. We drank. We danced. We selfie-ed with the bagpipers. A smashing evening all around!
I’m on the Shinkansen with the boy, headed for a ski weekend in Niigata prefecture with my friend Caroline and her family. It’s my third visit to Bears House, a lovely hotel right on the slopes of Ishiuchi Maruyama ski resort. So by now I have the drill down of getting there: local train to Tokyo station, arriving early enough (about 40 minutes) to buy a bento dinner for the 75 minute Shinkansen bullet train ride.
I think you all know where this is going.
So I met Caroline on the platform of our local station, Yamate. We expected a 50 minute, no transfer ride to Tokyo Station. About halfway there the train stopped right after the first car entered Kamata station.
We sat there for about ten minutes with periodic announcements in Japanese. After a bit people started getting up and heading toward the front of the train to get off, and we followed. When I saw that one car made it into the station, I assumed the worst: that someone jumped in front of the train. Unfortunately this is a fairly common occurrence in Japan. But when I didn’t see a white fabric barrier erected at the front of the train I figured it was something else. The JR East status website quickly listed “unidentifiable noise” as the cause of the delay. If it were a jumper then the status would reference personal injury.
The plan was to get off the train and somehow magically make it to Tokyo Station in time for our Shinkansen.
And on the platform in Kamata Station, our guardian angel appeared: Katayama-San, the neighbor of our drum teacher, Marcos. Katayama-san and I have exchanged friendly waves and genial small talk and appeared together in music recitals for three years. Caroline’s family also takes lessons from Marcos, so Katayama-San knew all of us.
Because the universe had my back today, Katayama-san was taking a group of boys to the same ski resort, and riding on the same Shinkansen. He and Caroline were even in the same car.
So he said, “Follow me!”. And we did. We sprinted about a kilometer from one station to another and hopped on a Keikyu train, then got off at Shinagawa and stuffed onto an overcapacity, rush hour Yamanote train, where there may or may not have been train pushers at work based on the crush that climbed aboard at every station.
We arrived at Tokyo Station with six minutes to make it on the train. We ran from one platform to the next and made it with two minutes to spare.
We absolutely would not have made it without Katayama-san’s help. Given the train delays we could use our tickets for the next Shinkansen, but we would likely end up standing the whole way.
With the whole 40-minutes-to-buy-bento-dinner thing out the window, I settled in with the snacks I packed: beer and blondies.
When I went back to deliver beer and blondies to Katayama-san and Caroline and her crew, I found Caroline dispensing her dinner/snacks in a method familiar to every parent of more than one child: counting out potato chips/crisps one by one to each of her three children.
We arrive at Echigo Yuzawa in 30 minutes. I really, really hope the bento stands are still selling dinner when we arrive.
After a fantastic five days on Kauai, we hopped on a one-hour flight to the Big Island of Hawaii. We started in Kona, the city on the perpetually-sunny western coast famous for its coffee, sunsets, and Ironman competition.
Mark’s youngest brother Marshall moved to Hawaii this summer from Washington state. Though he now lives in Hilo on the Big Island’s rainy eastern coast, he lived in Kona for several years. He drove over to meet us, and we enjoyed a sunset visit to one of his favorite surfing beaches.
The next day we headed out to a nearby exotic animal rescue, Three Ring Ranch. The caretaker Ann Goody told us about her resident zebra, monkeys, birds, turtles, bison, and other animals. While she spoke she noticed cues from one of the monkeys, then declared that the monkey chose Marshall as his special friend. So Marshall followed Ann’s instructions, greeting the monkey with the appropriate lack of eye contact, handshake, and so on. She said that the monkey will remember Marshall as one of his chosen friends even if he waits a few years to visit again.
After a great weekend in Kona, we drove across the island to Hilo.
In December 2016 we visited Hawaii and rented a house in Vacationland, a community of (surprise!) mostly vacation homes. When Kilauea erupted and the lava started flowing in May of 2018, I quickly learned that Vacationland lay in Lava Zone 1 as designated by the U.S. Geological Survey, making it the most vulnerable area to lava-related annihilation. Unfortunately the lava flowed exactly as USGS predicted, wiping out hundreds of homes. I was surprised to hear that most of those homes had no homeowners’ insurance because the risk of lava damage was so high.
The following map shows the extent of the lava flow, as well as points along our visit. The location of our 2016 rental house is marked with a yellow star.
We drove as far as we could down Government Beach Access Road, just to the right of the bright blue star in the photo above. The road ended abruptly at a wall of lava, so we parked and joined our fellow lava tourists already on the rocks. We followed a slightly crushed-down path marked by shells and coral left behind by previous visitors.
As soon as we climbed up the lava, I swallowed hard and blinked back tears. It was impossible to forget the hundreds of houses entombed under this unfathomable blanket of rock. The house where we celebrated Christmas, the legendary Champagne Pond and Kapoho Tide Pools where we snorkeled. All of it just gone.
I can’t even begin to explain the power and sheer vastness of the lava field before us. The lava radiated heat as we walked across it. At first I assumed the black surface simply absorbed the sun’s heat, but then I started passing blasts of warm air from below. A physical geographer who worked with the evacuation told us that the lava would stay hot for at least two years.
So remember that map above? Go ahead, scroll up. We parked at the blue star, then climbed across the tiniest little corner of the lava field to the road to Cape Kumukahi, immediately under the green star. We scrambled for a solid 15-20 minutes each way across that tiny corner of the lava field. I can’t even comprehend just how much hardened lava came from the Kilauea eruption, and how little of it we could see from our vantage point.
Steam vents in the distance perked away.
We headed back to the car and drove around to the southern edge of the lava field for our next stop. Along the way we drove over metal plates on the road just outside Leilani Estates, another subdivision affected by the lava flow. Before the lava started flowing in May 2018, cracks and steam in the road appeared right before fissures in Leilani Estates opened up. Road crews quickly patched up the cracks with those metal plates, and steam vents still bubble away along the side of the road even now. Crazy.
While the road outside Leilani Estates “only” cracked, other roads were completely covered by lava. As soon as the lava cooled enough for road crews to get out there, the crews poured asphalt on the lava and reopened the road. We drove over those new roads on our way to our next stop, Isaac Hale Park.
We arrived at Isaac Hale Park, a state park that both survived the lava flow and experience some incredible changes. The park’s boat ramp used to lead to open water, as boat ramps do. The lava flow cut off the boat ramp from the ocean, so now that ramp leads to a pool of water completely isolated from the ocean. Signs warn swimmers to stay out of the water because the lack of ocean access means that the stagnant water harbors high bacteria counts. People splashed away anyway. Ew.
In addition to a new, bacteria-filled swimming hole, the lava created a new black sand beach.
After enjoying the rather aggressive surf there, we headed out for another, older black sand beach, Kehena. Marshall warned us in advance of its clothing-optional reputation. Hence the from-a-distance or thisclose photos that follow. Because, you know. Nekkid people.
Our last night, Marshall took us to a famous weekly night market in Kalapana called Uncle Robert’s. With food, crafts for sale, and music, it reminded me of a Hawaiian mashup of an Asian street/night market and a weekend street market in the US. The weekly market takes place every Wednesday, and it’s the social focal point for the eastern half of the Big Island. Most people within an hour’s drive come several times per month.
In 2016 we went to Hawaii and really loved our time there. Traveling to Hawaii is much easier from Japan than from Washington DC, so we decided to visit Hawaii again before leaving Japan. Mark’s youngest brother Marshall moved to Hawaii this year, so that made our decision easy.
We started on the island of Kauai, where we enjoyed a visit to Waimea Canyon…
Last week my friend Miho invited me to join her on a hike to Mount Takao, a popular hiking destination on the outskirts of Tokyo. I eagerly agreed to join her, since previous attempts to hike Mount Takao got rained out. So on a beautiful Friday morning Miho and another friend Svitlana picked me up, and we set off.
I really enjoy visiting sites with Japanese friends. When it’s just my immediate family, I spend a lot of time figuring things out on my own as I drag the four of us out and about. Though it’s gotten easier the longer we have lived here, speaking only a little Japanese and reading almost nothing means that I spend a lot of time flying blind. So I happily settled in to the outing while Miho decided our route and explained things as we went.
We started our day with a visit to the 599 Takao Museum, which gets its name from Mount Takao’s elevation of 599 meters (1965 feet). It’s easily the nicest nature museum I have ever visited. Though the building looks rather unremarkable from the outside, the stunning, airy interior features open spaces, lots of light, and gorgeous displays that highlight the flora and fauna of Mount Takao. We checked out the stuffed animals, insects, plants–and poops. Then we set out for the trailhead.
Miho decided on a rather rugged route that gained elevation quickly. We started our hike and quickly shed layers as we climbed stairs, enjoyed the autumn colors, and dodged trail obstacles and other hikers.
Whew, she made it! Svitlana conquers a path-blocking tree like a pro
I noticed the distinctive mountain fashion that afflicts hikers and climbers all over world. In Japan, fashionably dressed female hikers pride themselves to be yama garu, or mountain girls. We saw plenty of examples of the highest in mountain fashion, both on the women and the men.
Eventually we reached the summit, where we were met with the well-earned, peaceful isolation of a strenuous climb.
We immediately faced hundreds of visitors who reached the summit via cable car. I was stunned by the size of the crowds considering it was a weekday. I can only imagine the mayhem on a weekend.
As for lunch, never mind handfuls of trail mix or packed lunches. We had our choice of restaurants, then settled on ramen.
Our lunch spot, and the delicious dango roasting out front
After lunch we visited a cluster of shrines. Miho explained the intricacies of each feature, whether the worshipers asked for love, or good health, or fortune. Luckily we happened upon a procession of priests headed for…actually I have no idea where they were heading. I happened to stand right in front of them as they started their procession, and no one cleared their path. They simply charged ahead, knowing that the crowd would part. And we did.
Once we passed the queue for the cable car ride down, the crowds eased. Instead of the morning’s rugged climb over dirt paths, we opted for a quick descent down a steep paved road.
Victorious after our hike, we celebrated with mochi and green tea along the shopping street at the trailhead–then headed home.
Tessa has joined a drama program in Tokyo. So cool! Less cool is getting her there and back, since the program runs from 9AM to 1PM every Sunday until April. The commute involves roughly 75 minutes and three trains, or one hour and two trains if the trailing parent takes pity and drives the commuters to a slightly more convenient station. Eventually we hope that she will take the train there herself, but for now a parent accompanies her.
So this week was my turn! I was excited at the thought of four hours to roam free. But I quickly learned that Sunday morning activities in Tokyo proved harder to find than I expected. Most museums and even large stores open around 11AM. Mark googled “things to do in Tokyo on a Sunday morning” and the number one answer was “sleep in.”
So I dropped Tessa off at 9AM and returned to the subway. After a coffee and newspaper interlude to await my first stop’s 10AM opening, I headed to the Mori Art Museum in Roppongi Hills. Admission included two exhibits, Fujiko Fujio: The Exhibition and Catastrophe and the Power of Art. I visited Fujiko Fujio first and learned that FF is the pen name of a manga writing duo. I didn’t recognize A, the primary character featured in these exhibits. Later I learned that the duo created Doraemon, who I know. [And did you know that Doraemon is a cat-shaped robot? I didn’t until I learned that in Japanese class!]
I wandered the Tokyo View floor of the museum, with the exhibits displayed before floor-to-ceiling windows that offered amazing views of Tokyo. On a clear day you can see all the way to Mount Fuji 97 km (about 60 miles) away, but not with today’s hazy skies.
This next artwork proved quite popular with the crowd. What appears as a black canvas in regular light reveals its image with the flash of a smartphone.
Next I headed up to the Catastrophe exhibit. Not surprisingly the exhibit focused on Japan-centered disasters, such as the earthquakes in Kobe (1995) and Sendai (2011). But the exhibit also featured other works, including images of war zones from around the world and 9/11 related art from New York.
The final room featured a large installation by Yoko Ono. Guests are handed shoe covers and a small tray with smeary Cray-Pas crayons (remember those?), then invited to write on any surface he or she can reach. The most common theme, hands down? Love.
After my dose of culture, it was time to go shopping! I headed for Omotesando, a fancy shopping area in Harajuku. After some obligatory photos in the mirrored entry of Tokyu Plaza…..
….I headed straight to the Onitsuka Tiger flagship store. After rockin’ a pair of silver Mexico 66 kicks for over two years, I was dangerously close to actually blowing a hole through the soles. I seriously got my money’s worth! I briefly checked out the fancy/artsy/not-for-sale shoes on display, mulled my viable options, then decided to replace my silver pair with the same thing. I already own another pair of yellow and black Tigers, so sticking with the silver pair seemed wise.
And just like that, four hours flew by! I headed back to pick up Tessa, and we grabbed a quick lunch of soba noodles for her and soba and tempura set lunch for me. Then it was back to Yokohama, only to repeat the drill next Sunday.
One of our favorite meals out is shabu shabu, a style of Japanese hotpot. In a shabu shabu restaurant, a pot of broth simmers on a tabletop burner and the diner cooks his or her own meat, veggies, noodles, and tofu in said pot. The name shabu shabu is onomatopoeia for swish swish, the purported sound of swirling meat in the cooking liquid.
A split shabu shabu pot is pretty common, with two sections for two different broths. Our local shabu shabu joint called Dontei offers several choice of broth. We’re fans of the spicy one, and not so much fans of the “delicate” (bland) broth, which consists of water with a single piece of konbu seaweed inside. After the spicy broth our second choice is a salty/sweet liquid that’s actually used for sukiyaki. To Americans sukiyaki looks a lot like shabu shabu, but there are a few subtle differences: sukiyaki meat is slightly thicker than shabu shabu, and the meat is usually dipped in lightly beaten raw egg just before eating. Also, the most important difference: Dontei won’t let you get spicy shabu shabu broth and sukiyaki broth in the same pot, even in different sections. So after our last visit, we decided that it was time to make shabu shabu at home, on our terms.
First, I set out to buy the special equipment. I picked up a tabletop burner fueled by cans of liquid propane gas at the hardware store, Konan [in Honmoku Front shopping center, same building as Sanwa grocery store]. These burners are available at any hardware store in Japan, plus several larger grocery stores. In the US, Asian markets like HMart sell them. I paid about 2000 yen for the burner, or around $18 USD.
The LPG cans are available everywhere: hardware stores, grocery stores, and even 100 yen stores like Daiso. And yes, they’re really called My Bombe.
And how about this awesome split pan!
I agonized over this purchase for a while before committing. Do I really need a pan for only one thing? Yes, yes I do. I went with the slightly fancier version from Aeon department store (sort of like the Japanese Macy’s). The absolute cheapest pots have a curved metal divider welded into place, and every review on Amazon Japan mentioned leaks between the two sections. The cast version that I bought was around 4000 yen, or about $37 USD. The cheaper, welded version wasn’t that much cheaper at 3000 yen, or $28 USD.
Then I assembled my ingredients.
For the spicy stock: chicken stock, gochujang pepper paste, and miso.
For the sukiyaki stock: sake (酒), mirin (みりん), soy sauce (しょゆ), and sugar.
Two different kinds of noodles: kanzashi (かんざし), a hand-cut udon wheat noodle with thicker ends; and harusame (はるさめ), glass noodles made from starch and water.
Thinly sliced beef and pork; in a Japanese grocery store look for しゃぶしゃぶ (shabu shabu) on the label.
I found sesame shabu sauce (goma shabu, ごましゃぶ）and yuzu shabu sauce（pon shabu, ぽんしゃぶ）in the condiments aisle.
I also cubed up firm (momen, もめん）tofu, which sadly did not rate its own photo.
And finally, the veggie platter: enoki mushrooms, carrots cut into thin diagonals, sliced cabbage, and mizuna chopped into 3 inch (10 cm) pieces.
So here are all of the components, ready to cook!
I’ll admit that it’s a lot of work to get all of this together, especially the first time. But now that we’ve done it a few times at home, it’s actually a pretty quick meal to pull together. It helps that I always have ingredients like chicken stock, soy sauce, mirin, sake, miso, and gochujang on hand. So a quick stop at the grocery store for meat and a few veggies means a little chopping, and dinner is ready to go.
As we pull the cooked meat, veggies, and tofu out of the broth we use a bowl of cooked rice to catch the juices. Then it’s a quick dip in shabu sauce.