Autumn Colors at Mount Takao

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.

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The slightly boring exterior of the 599 Takao Museum….

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.

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….led to a stunning, airy interior

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.

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Here we go! All smiles at the trailhead

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.

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Yama Garu, or mountain girls, in their hiking finery

Eventually we reached the summit, where we were met with the well-earned, peaceful isolation of a strenuous climb.

Kidding!

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So much for a peaceful summit experience. And are those….vending machines, on top of a mountain? Of course they are, because we’re in Japan.
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Still smiling at the summit

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.

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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.

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Sunday Morning in Tokyo: Museums, Shoe Shopping, and Food

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.”

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Mori Tower, with The Mori Art Museum on its top floors

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!]

IMG_0539IMG_0531IMG_0532IMG_0536I 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.

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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.

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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.

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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…..

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….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.

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I already own the yellow pair shown along the wall; since I don’t really wear yellow clothing, yellow sneakers have proven far more versatile than I would have guessed
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I ended up buying the silver pair in the back
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So fancy! But alas, not for sale
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Can’t buy these either

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.

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Swish Swish: Making Shabu Shabu for Dinner, At Home

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.

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Sukiyaki broth and spicy shabu broth—in the same pan!!

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.

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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!

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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.

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For the sukiyaki stock: sake (酒), mirin (みりん), soy sauce (しょゆ), and sugar.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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So here are all of the components, ready to cook!

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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.

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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.

Followed by lots of dishwashing.

 

The “Are You Really in Japan?” Stuff: Middle School Volleyball

Living in Japan for three years, we have had a lot of amazing experiences that we would never have done if we were still in DC. Like visiting Vietnam, Cambodia, South Korea, and Taiwan. Or skiing Olympic venues, just a few hours’ drive from our house.

But sometimes, having school-age kids means doing school-age-kid stuff, like middle school sports. Some things have a uniquely Japanese flair–like bowing to your opponents before and after the match–but for the most part school sports are the same whether I’m sitting in a gym in Yokohama or in the Washington, DC suburbs.

Like last year, Tessa is playing volleyball for her school’s team, Saint Maur International School. Here on the international school circuit, middle school girls’ volleyball has A, B, and C teams, with A team featuring the best players, usually eighth graders. In most schools this means tryouts and actual selection; since Saint Maur is a small-ish international school, returning players (seventh graders) are automatically on A team, along with a few first-timers (also seventh graders) to fill out the roster. There are just enough players to field two teams, while most other schools have three teams with lots of subs. So basically Saint Maur loses a lot builds lots of character during games.

So the other week Tessa and her teammates went into their matches against cross-town rival Yokohama International School (YIS) expecting to lose big. And while they did lose two of three matches, they totally–and I mean, TOTALLY–hung in there. The A team girls lost those two matches by only two points, and they even pulled ahead from time to time. And the girls were so excited! They were absolutely contenders the whole time, and they couldn’t stop grinning.

And I’m going to brag here a bit–Tessa had some absolutely killer serves. I don’t know where she gets it, since me and ball sports don’t really get along, and Mark’s athletic career reflects swimming, water polo, and triathlon. Right as she hits the ball she gets this fierce scowl on her face, then sends a bullet over (though sometimes into) the net.

A disclaimer about the photos below: I have been a soccermomphotographer for years, and I’m totally spoiled by taking action shots outdoors. Fast moving thing indoors–not so easy. I’ll try and do better. And obviously buying a fancy new lens will make everything better….

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Walking the 800-Year-Old Asaina Pass into Japan’s Ancient Capital, Kamakura

We’re back in Japan! The weather has been absolutely glorious the last few days.  So instead of hiding from the heat in the air-conditioned indoors, I cajoled the family into a hike along Asaina Kiridoshi, one of the mountain pass entrances into the city of Kamakura. Loyal martayaki readers may recall previous visits to Kamakura for temples and hiking.

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Kamakura was the most populated area of Japan in the 12th and 13th centuries, making it Japan’s de facto capital from 1192 to 1333 CE. It’s an oceanfront town surrounded on the other three sides by mountains. “Natural fortress” seems a bit of an understatement.

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As the sign at the Asaina Pass entrance so helpfully explains:

Asaina Kiridoshi is one of seven opening passes of Kamakura. This pass leads to Mutsuura, an important port supporting the logistics of the capital Kamakura during the Kamakura period. 

Under the direction of Yasutoki Hojo, the regent of the Kamakura Shogunate Government, the construction work took place in 1241. It underwent numerous repairs since then.

Wear good shoes, I told everyone. The trail is wet and muddy in spots.

Not at the height of summer, Mark replied. It hasn’t rained in ages.

This bold proclamation in our forested setting reminds of a joke: If a trees falls in the forest, and there’s no one there to hear it, is the husband still wrong?

Mark was definitely wrong.

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Thankfully the mud and shallow spring waters washing over the path proved quite manageable. We hiked up and down the gentle slopes, admiring the carved cliffsides and marveling at the stones that paved the road in places. A side trail led us to the lovely Kumano Shrine.

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Many descriptions call this trail a sunken road, so I expected something rather flat and, you know, road-like. It was in some places, but I was surprised to find some sections requiring actual scrambling up rocks. We managed just fine in running shoes, hiking boots, and overall 21st century attire. But I couldn’t even imagine crossing the steep sections with animals or a wagon, as ancient visitors likely did–never mind attempting said journey wearing the attire and especially footwear of the 13th century.

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The trail is a straight out-and-back, so we could have started at either end. I decided to start on the Yokohama end so we would end our hike at the entrance to Kamakura itself. Given the increasingly beautiful scenery along the route and waterfall finale, I’d say that we chose well.

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After reaching the actual end of the road, we turned around and headed back to the car, ready to enjoy another Japanese tradition: lunch from Seven Eleven.

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Access:

For the ultimate Entering Kamakura Experience, start your hike at the Asaina Pass Kanazawa Entrance (〒236-0034 Kanagawa-ken, Yokohama-shi, Kanazawa-ku, Asahinachō, 朝比奈町545) and finish at the Asaina Pass Juniso Entrance ().

By public transit, to Kanazawa (Yokohama) entrance:

Take the Keikyu Line south to Kanazawa Hakkei station. Catch the 08 bus bound for Ofuna and get off the bus at Asahina bus stop. Continue walking in the same direction as the bus and turn left at the first road, where you’ll see a sign for Asaina Pass.

By car, to Kanazawa (Yokohama) entrance:

Definitely, definitely start at the Kanazawa (Yokohama) entrance instead of the Juniso (Kamakura) entrance; that way you’ll avoid the typical heavy traffic heading from the Yokohama-Yokosuka Road toward Kamakura proper.

Set your navigation system for the Seven Eleven at 459-1 Asahinachō, Kanazawa-ku, Yokohama-shi, Kanagawa-ken 236-0034. You will find a tiny paid parking lot called Time Parking (not the better known Times Parking) directly across the street from Seven Eleven; it’s not on Google maps.

After parking, cross to the Seven Eleven side of the road and backtrack along the main road that you drove in on. Continue for a few hundred meters until you see a sign on the left pointing you to Asaina Pass.

MariCAR! Go Karting on the Streets of Tokyo

We’re in the US for our annual family visit until mid-August, so I’m taking the chance to catch up on some recent experiences in Japan that I didn’t blog about at the time. First up: MariCAR go karts, that tourist and gaijin (foreigner) rite of passage.

My friend Nina came for a visit in May, her second time in Japan. I told her about MariCAR go karting, and she was all over it. So on a balmy Saturday night in May Nina, my friend Caroline, and I headed down to MariCAR’s Akihabara location, driver licenses in hand [scroll to the end for details on that].

We chose our costumes….IMG_9320

…and our rides.

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The streets will be closed to traffic, right?, asked Nina.

Nope, I replied.

Silence.

OK then!

….and off we went.

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The streets were definitely, absolutely *not* closed to other cars. There were moments of sheer panic and a whole lot of How Is This Possibly Legal.

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We zipped. We zoomed. We waved and posed for the photos of passers-by. These go karts have been around for a while, so I assumed that most Tokyoites were Over It. But apparently not!

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After two hours of fun we headed back to the garage, where we posed for one final, triumphant shot of our own….

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…and one with the next crew, a group of Korean students decked out in their superhero and Japanese schoolgirl finery.

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Pro Tips!!

Location and Time

MariCAR has several locations, and each one has its own website–and in English! I chose a two hour tour in Akihabara starting around 5PM, assuming that we would see some cool neon as dusk settled in. And we did! By the end of our tour it got a little dark and slightly scary to drive, so if I do it again I will definitely aim for finishing before sunset like we did.

For you Yokohama locals, MariCAR now has a Yokohama location. Find details on their Facebook page.

Driver License

You absolutely must have a license that is valid for driving a car on Japanese roads. The exact requirements vary depending on what country issued your driver license, so check the MariCAR website for the exact specifications. If you are a foreigner visiting Japan then the easiest is probably getting an International Driving Permit–but you have to get it before leaving your home country.

Tour Guide

Book a guide! Even if you know the streets of Tokyo well, you probably don’t know them well behind the wheel of a stinky, 49.3 cc engine vehicle. Focusing on driving and occasionally, you know, looking around took most of my focus. I can’t imagine paying attention to navigating as well.

Our booking did not come with a guide automatically, but thankfully the other two people on our tour booked the guide. We paid a little extra and joined them, and I’m so glad we did.

Another friend booked through the same company a few weeks later and her tour guide was included. So check to make sure you have a guide when you book.

MORI Building Digital Art Museum

Last week my friend Mani and I took our kids to the latest must-see in Tokyo, the MORI Building Digital Art Museum in Odaiba, Tokyo. It’s the newest exhibition from teamLab, and a permanent installation. The museum fills 10,000 square meters (!), projecting trippy light shows onto mostly black surfaces while piping in a Cirque de Soleil soundtrack.

We wandered. We played. It was awesome! The photos and videos speak for themselves, so let’s just go straight to those.

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Some pro tips if you plan to visit the Tokyo exhibition:

  • Buy your tickets ahead of time! You will be turned away if you show up without tickets; we saw it happen. Right now tickets are selling out about two weeks in advance, and they release more tickets every few weeks. So check the website for MORI Digital Museum online tickets sales early and often.
  • Eat before you go in. There is no cafe or gift shop of any kind, and you’ll spend 2-3 hours on your feet in very crowded spaces.
  • Don’t wear a skirt; some exhibits include mirrored floors. There are loaner skirts (ick) outside the exhibitions in case you forget.
  • Don’t wear open toed shoes or you’ll be sent to the rental shoe (BLEEH!!) counter. There are a lot of stairs and uneven surfaces, so solid footing is essential.

teamLab also has exhibitions in Singapore, Paris, Helsinki, and other cities in Japan, so check out the teamLab exhibition listing in case you happen anywhere near those cities.

 

Let’s Make Booze: My First Attempt at Umeshu, Japanese Plum Wine

When I was a kid in 1980s Chicago, my social world revolved around other Polish-Americans. Yes, I went to Catholic school with “other” Catholic kids–some Italian, and mostly Irish. But outside of school our family did Polish school and scouting on Saturdays, and Polish folk dancing on Wednesdays, and weekend gatherings at home of fellow Polish-Americans scattered all over the suburbs. While the kids got into all kinds of trouble without adult supervision, the adults talked, and laughed, and cried, and drank. Oftentimes the drink included homemade wines from cherry, plum, you name it. I remember adults politely accepting the smallest glass possible while grimacing.

Homemade plum wine did not look very tasty.

So when I heard that making homemade plum wine is A Thing in Japan, my first thought was not exactly, I need me some of that. I lived my first two and half years in Japan while observing jars of murky wine in other people’s kitchens, and I was totally fine with not trying it.

Then last winter Mark and I gathered at our friends’ home for dinner. Our hostess Mani–who is amazing, and funny, and an incredible cook–offered us umeshu, her homemade plum wine. In any other case I would take a polite sip. But with Mani offering, I eagerly took a glass.

Umeshu is delicious.

I made a mental note to find out the recipe the next time ume season rolled around in early summer, then promptly forgot. But. But! Mani put her very easy recipe on Facebook, and I dove in. So here it is!

Basically, you go to any grocery store in June and look for this display:

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A typical umeshu display in any Japanese grocery store in June

You’ll find an assortment of glass jars, a 1 kg bag of green ume plums, a 1.8L container of shochu white liquor (35% alcohol), and a 1kg bag of rock crystal sugar. The basic recipe is–wait for it–put everything in a jar and check in 3-6 months.

So I changed it up a little, of course. Per Mani’s suggestion I sterilized the jars. When I can fruit or jams in pint (about 500ml) or quart (about 1L) jars, sterilizing is easy–I just boil them in water, submerged. This giant, 5L jar didn’t even fit in my oven, so I washed the jars in hot, soapy water and steamed them over a pot of boiling water for several minutes.

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Sterilizing away!

Then I decided to cut the sugar a bit. Online recipes called for either equal amount of sugar and ume by weight, or half as much sugar as ume. I split the middle and did 1 kg ume, 750 grams sugar. I loaded the ume and sugar in layers, then poured my 1.8L of shochu clear liquor over the top. And that’s pretty much it.

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Ingredients assembled? Check!
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Layering my ume and sugar, with a bonus star anise peeking through

Because I’m an overachiever I decided to make one batch plain and a second batch flavored. Thinking of pears poached in red wine with cinnamon and star anise, I decided that star anise would taste lovely with plums. I had no idea of how much star anise to add, so I went with 4-5 stars’ worth.

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Going fancy with star anise

My umeshu is brewing away in the closet under the stairs–the closest I can find to cool and dark in a house with no insulation, never mind a basement.

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Star anise umeshu on the left; plain on the right

I’ll check it in three months’ time, then again in six months. Stay tuned!

The Ocha no Sato Tea Museum, Plus a Detour to Shizuoka’s Questionable District

After exhausting Shizuoka’s offerings, we hit the road for the Ocha no Sato Tea Museum about 40 minutes away.

We paid a typical admission fee of 300 yen (about $2.80 USD) per person. I don’t know how Japanese museums manage, charging so little. The building looked brand new, and there was staff everywhere.

We wandered the exhibits, sampled some tea, strolled the Japanese garden, and of course visited the gift shop. Green tea ice cream is definitely A Thing in Japan, and the gift shop didn’t disappoint.

I expected the museum to overlook sprawling tea plantations, and it sort of did. We saw several adjacent tea fields, but the relatively flat elevation meant few stunning vistas. Apparently the surrounding hills offered such views, but we were content with what we saw on the road.

After leaving the tea museum we headed back to Shizuoka to grab some lunch and wait for the car. Somehow we found ourselves in a highly questionable neighborhood that featured lots of gentlemen’s clubs, bars, and a mind boggling number of karaoke joints. Everything was shuttered, opening late afternoon. Thanks to the magic of The Google we quickly found our way out of there and back to a respectable lunch place.

Here’s the new top! We’re on our way home now.

We hoped that the heavy cloud cover from this morning had lightened up enough to give a Mount Fuji sendoff on our drive home. And we got it!

Until next time, Fuji-san!

We Really Tried to Enjoy the Sites of Shizuoka

So the Miata is at the shop, and we have a loaner car and six hours to kill. The Lonely Planet Japan guidebook doesn’t even list Shizuoka at all, and we quickly learned why. The Toro Ruins looked interesting enough, but alas–closed on Mondays. Same with the Shizuoka City Museum of Art.

So at the recommendation of the repair shop owner, we willed our way to the water.

Ok. So that filled about 15 minutes.

I asked the shop owner about the tea plantation at Kanaya, Ocha no Sato. Japan’s largest tea plantation, the Interwebs tells me! Hm, very far, says Shop Owner-san. Forty minutes!

Considering that we exhausted the charms of Shizuoka city by 10:30AM, we decided to go for it.

Arriving at tea plantation shortly.