Friday, April 24, 2009

Props to Cleveland's dining scene

Finding good spots to eat out is always one of my quests when I travel. If you're headed to Cleveland, my hometown, here's a list of hot spots for comfort food mentioned in USA Today from my favorite travel writer. For more deets on Cleveland dining, check out reviews from my friend Michele at Cleveland Foodie.

I’ve been to two of the five reviewed restaurants in the USA Today article just this week. Last night, I went to Melt, one of the restaurants featured in the article, to score the April special: Corny Beast: a corndog version of grilled cheese. Delish! (The photo above is of my favorite monthly special of all time: the Mac n Cheese Melt.) On Tuesday, I had a fantastic roasted red pepper soup at L’Albatros.

Turns out Melt will be opening a second location in Cleveland Heights in the Fall. Can't wait!

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Love Letter to Japan

My favorite new song by The Bird & The Bee...


Sunday, April 19, 2009

5 Most-Visited Museums in the World

My mom just called to say she read an article that listed the five most-visited museums in the world and wanted to know if I've visited them all. Yeppers!

Here's the list:

Louvre in Paris, with 8.5 million visitors (I visited in 2001 and 2008)
British Museum in London, with 5.9 million (2001 and 2008)
National Gallery of Art in Washington, with 4.96 million (last visit was in college)
Tate Modern in London, with 4.95 million (2001)
Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, with 4.82 million (a couple years ago)

I'd also add the Freer Gallery in D.C. (lovely Japanese and American art) and Musee d'Orangerie in Paris (displays Monet's water lilies in a 360-degree-view) to my top personal list.

Thursday, April 16, 2009

Breezin’ thru Philly

Today was a quick day trip to Philly for a presentation I gave at a small conference (on behalf of a client) at Kimmel Center, host of Philly’s orchestra and performing arts. The space is beautiful with lots of natural light and a great decor (check out my pic of a cool, glittery piece representing Monet’s haystacks).

The last time I was in Philly was in 2005 for a fun client product launch held at a cute clothing boutique, Third Street Habit with my friend Michelle. We ate like queens during that trip (no surprise since she pens clevelandfoodie). We dined at Morimoto (amazing sushi, rock shrimp and a funky décor) and Cuba Libre (we tried every flavor of mojitos). Today, I was just able to grab quick bites at random. :(

Since my preso wasn’t until early afternoon, I cabbed it to the Philadelphia Art Museum to hole up in its café with free wi-fi to get some work done. And, of course, to check out the Cezanne & Beyond exhibit over lunch. I didn’t even realize until I got there that the front steps are the ones immortalized in Rocky…duh.

The museum is really impressive, and it was really busy over lunch. It’s huge (twss). I love how it built in architectural elements into the gallery spaces. For example, there was a super cool Japanese teahouse (oh, Japan!), an arch and massive doors from an abbey and even an area that made me feel like I was standing in the middle of a piazza.

The weather was gorgeous today (c’mon Spring!). Too bad I couldn’t stay longer. I could go for some noshing at great dining spots and browsing at galleries and boutiques on Third Street.

Today is my niece’s 1st birthday! Happy birthday, Aly! And, check out my handsome mini-me Justin Timberlake nephew rocking out his Easter basket…

Friday, April 10, 2009

Reflections


I’m four hours into the 13-flight from Tokyo to Newark and reflecting on how to savor details and feelings from this trip. I’d like to prolong what I’ve experienced -- balance, personal growth, contentment, accomplishment, appreciation — so that come Monday after a full work day, these feelings don’t disappear like the cherry blossoms that are falling from the trees.

I’ll miss using chopsticks (even though I STILL don’t hold them properly), making fun of the people on our language tapes with Gina, random acts of kindness (presents!!!!), nods of respect, warm toilet seats, experience meals (shabu shabu, yaki-tori) and cherry blossoms. Thank god it’s getting warmer because walking outside is a beautiful thing!

As a bonus, I hope my Japan adventure has stimulated my motivation to finally finish our Asia-inspired guest room. I’d like to get back in the habit of framing pieces I’ve bought instead of shoving them in a closet until inspiration strikes at a later date. I’ve got a bunch of stuff from my D.C. trip a year ago, Bangkok in the fall and now my Japan souvenirs. Michael’s, here I come!

Ten days for this trip appears to be a perfect length. I’ve had a wonderful time with a great traveling companion, and now I’m ready to go home. I haven’t heard my husband’s voice in 10 days, and that is an eternity. I definitely have a shelf-life when traveling if he’s not with me.

When I told friends and family about my plans to visit Japan, many people wondered what the allure was for me. I hope I’ve helped to give you a flavor of the beauty, tradition and culture that drew me to visit.

Tsukiji fish market

Note to self: don’t plan to get up early to visit the fish market to see 300 lb. tuna the morning after a night of karaoke and sake.

But, I give us props for shuttling out the door by 7:30 a.m. The auction was long over, but we still admired/feared the hustle and bustle of vendors preparing their fresh catches for restaurants all over the city.

Navigating the market was a bit like playing Frogger (see video below)…you zig and zag around the motorized flatbeds zipping down aisles while avoiding splashes of fish water at your feet from vendors emptying coolers.

The stink was detectable immediately upon exiting our subway car. P-U! By the way, Gina and I were packed like sardines on the train. Only the women-only cars (offered during morning rush hour) provided any kind of relief from personal space impositions.

We didn’t stay long at the fish market…the frantic pace and unattractive odor were a bit much for our tired bodies and hungry bellies.

I’ll tell you this: about the only thing I won’t miss from this trip is Japanese breakfasts…your choices: raw egg or omelet. Because I despise breakfast eggs, I’ve relied on granola bars for the past 10 days. C’mon waffles and pancakes!!!


video

Thursday, April 9, 2009

Karaoke!!!

My only regret with the timing of our Japan trip is that I had to miss the Rock Hall inductions on April 4…particularly since I was asked to help coordinate media that night and my favorite travel writer came to town to cover the event. So, Gina and I pledged that we would try karaoke in honor of missing the inductions.

It was so much more fun than I expected! We visited Karaoke Kan, which is the site immortalized in Lost in Translation. You get your own room for karaoke and pay $8 per hour per person…a steal!

Turns out we are TERRIBLE singers. I’d like to believe that lots of sake contributed to our poor skills. We belted out tunes from George Michael, Beyonce, The Cars, Guns n Roses and also tried our hand at a couple Japanese slow sounds when we incorrectly entered digits on the remote for song selections.
We stayed out past midnight, which means we finally acclimated to the time difference. It figures that we head home tomorrow...

Yaki-tori deliciousness

Before our trip, Gina and I made a list of all the different types of Japanese food we wanted to try. Yaki-tori, skewered meat and veggies, was near the top of our list.

While wandering around the Asakusa temple, we found a stand selling buns with veggies and meat inside. We tried a veggie bun—yum—and asked the vendor where we could find a yaki-tori restaurant. He gave us a map all in Japanese and circled a destination.

Amazingly, we found the restaurant by matching up the kanji characters on our map. However, when we went in and greeted everyone with “konbanwa”, we were told, “Nihhon only,” which means Japanese people only. :( Bummer.

So, we headed back to our hotel and asked for a spot that would accept Americans. We found one and had a great time! We were seated around a semi-circle counter with a bunch of other people (we were the only foreigners in the room) and ordered up a storm of food. Initially, our conversation with our server consisted of: “Nani des ka?” (what is that?) followed by “Ikura des ka?” (how much is it?) followed by “hi!” (yes!).

We tried a chicken and sesame version of a corn dog, baked potato, hard-boiled quail egg, pork-wrapped leeks and asparagus, giblets (cucka), and soy beans wrapped in fried bean curd (looked awesome, smelled like feet and tasted cucka). It was another night of two rounds of beers, which again amused our servers. We practiced our Japanese with them and they practiced their English. We showed them pictures from our trip and talked with them about the cities in Japan we visited. It was a great time! That first restaurant didn’t know what it was missing when we were turned away!

Cherry blossoms continued

Since my global phone from work isn’t compatible with Japan’s quad-band network, I’m experiencing connectivity withdrawal. No tweeting, no e-mail, no phone calls.

It hasn’t posed a problem until this morning when I was trying to get a hold of the reporter I was to meet with to clarify where she wanted to meet in the ginormous Mori Tower. I almost ended up missing her because I was using a pay phone to leave messages on her office line and she was calling me on my defunct cell phone, but we were able to get together, so all was well.

Turns out the Mori Tower is also host to a modern art museum on the top floor and the Tokyo City View, so after my meeting, Gina and I experienced both. Ferrari headquarters are based in the tower too, so we saw some sweet rides.

The weather today was in the 70s, so I happily broke out my flip flops to stroll under the cherry blossom groves near the Imperial Palace, which is surrounded by a moat (single, not double like Nijo Castle :)). The gorgeous flowers with the Tokyo skyline in the distance make quite the interesting juxtaposition. We saw more people squatting spots under trees for hanami parties in the evening.

The blossoms are already starting to fall --their bloom time is less than two weeks—so Gina and I nailed our timing for this trip.

In the evening, Gina and I wandered to Asakusa to see the shrine, 5-tiered pagoda and browse the market.

By the way, the women here are all immaculately dressed, and everyone’s in heels, which I can’t understand. Walk the miles of underground tunnels in Tokyo’s subways, and you’ll understand. Check out this map of the subway…it’s insane! However, during our 1.5 days here, Gina and I rode about four different lines.

Wednesday, April 8, 2009

Shabu shabu = yummo yummo

After a three-hour bus ride from Lake Kawaguchiko and a trek through the subway to our hotel with our luggage, Gina and I were STARVING. Yes, imagine that.

We rifled through all my piles of notes for each city on our trip and decided to go to Shabusen in Ginza, a shabu shabu restaurant, which is like a Japanese version of fondue, but with boiling water for cooking thin slices of meats and veggies.

Because the addresses in Tokyo are so jacked up, we gave ourselves a 25 percent chance of actually finding the restaurant.

To our surprise, we found it after only three times of asking for directions along the way. It's on the second floor of a department store, Ginza Core...lots of restaurants in Tokyo are apparently tucked away in stores and office buildings on floors not at ground level.

We were seated at a large round counter with lots of hustle and bustle along with about 15 or so other people. There was a giant meat slicer at the center of the hubbub. Each of us got our own steaming pot of water.

Gina and I ordered a meal that includes two appetizers, thinly sliced beef and pork, veggies, noodles and dessert, a plum in some clear Jell-O type substance. It was so fun!

We got lots of stares for countless breaches of etiquette, I'm sure, but our server was really friendly and completely amused by us. He didn't speak any English, so at times, all I heard was, "sha-ta-ta-ta-ta-ta." During this trip, I've learned that when in doubt, just nod and things usually work out.

Oh...it's worth noting that apparently it's a big deal for two American women to order a second round of beer. There was LOTS of chatter at the counter when we asked for ni (2) more.

Tomorrow, I have a meeting with a reporter for work and then we'll probably visit the Imperial Palace and maybe a shrine or two. We leave Friday for home.

Lake Kawaguchiko & the Itchiku Kubota Museum


We've really been lucking out with our hotel locations and friendly staff. We arrived at our hotel in Lake Kawaguchiko at nightfall, so we weren't able to fully appreciate the glistening lake and glimpses of Mt. Fuji until this morning.

Our hotel staff served as our personal chauffeurs to the Itchiku Kubota Museum and then back to Lake Kawaguchiko Station to catch our bus to Tokyo, which was really convenient.

When I visited San Diego in December, I caught a glimpse of the Itchiku Kubota kimonos as art exhibit, which traveled there and is currently on display in Canton (the only U.S. destinations). At the exhibit, I read about the artist's museum in Japan that married his kimono art with the natural landscape surrounding Mt. Fuji, and it locked down my desire to plan this trip.

The museum is tucked away on a side road off of Lake Kawaguchiko, which is where we stayed last night. You would never know it was there unless you were looking for it.

Once through the front gate, the spectacular site took my breath away. The museum itself blends into the landscape since it's comprised of stone and 1,000-year-old beams formed to make a pyramid-shape building that resembles Mt. Fuji. There are trails in the back that also are home to sculptures and other works the artist collected.

During our visit, we learned that it takes about one year to create each kimono using the intricate tsujigahana knot tying, dyeing and embroidery technique. Kubota finally perfected the technique at age 60, which is an inspiration to any late-blooming artist.

He dreamed of creating 80 kimono that represented the four seasons and the universe, but he died before completing his task. His family has been continuing to create the kimono from his vision.

We loved how many of the kimono were designed to function as pieces of a larger mosaic design of Mt. Fuji. It's really something to see displayed in person (sorry, no photos were permitted). If you haven't visited the exhibit in Canton, yet, go. It's there until late April.

Fuji-san!


We finally got great views of Mt. Fuji today with his glistening peak above Lake Kawaguchiko. All of our shots were taken from moving vehicles...the courtesy car from our hotel on the way to Kawaguchiko Station to head back to Tokyo and then on the bus ride.




Monday, April 6, 2009

Transportation overload

We did it! It took three bus transfers and a lot of pantomiming with our broken Japanese, but we made it from Hakone to Lake Kawaguchiko near Mount Fuji. Here’s a rundown of today’s transportation madness:

--Hike for 30 minutes toward a Mt. Fuji viewing point until we tired
--Ride from hotel chauffeur to mountain train station
--Ride train to cable car station
--Ride cable car up a mountain to the Hakone ropeway station
--Ride ropeway gondola roundtrip and squint for views of Mt. Fuji despite clouds, admire sulfur
vapor rising from Owakudani volcano
--Ride cable car back to trainstation, accept carved mirror gifts from lovely Japanese woman
happy to practice her English and proud of our Japanese speaking skills (???)
--Ride train to station near hotel
--Walk back to hotel
--Ride bus headed toward Gotemba, pass the Hakone Glass Forest, get off at next bus stop and
schlep luggage back to Glass Forest, pass on ride offer from friendly Japanese man
--Continue bus ride to Gotemba, transfer to bus for Kawaguchiko
--Call hotel and speak broken Japanese to secure ride from station (high five after getting to
say“moshi moshi” on the phone…how Japanese greet one another by telephone)
--Ride in hotel van driven by 14-year-old

Whew! Are you dizzy? I sure as hell am. It may just be the after-effect of the onsen bath at our hotel…whole other story.

The Glass Forest was gorgeous…imagine crystals hanging from tree branches like little sparkling flowers. We loved that parts were open air so you could admire the beautiful mountains and springs outside. We ate lunch al fresco in the café and tried not to laugh at the bizareness of a Japanese man singing Italian love songs. No idea about the relevance of hosting this type of Italian museum in Japan, but it was awesome all the same. Too bad we ran out of time to visit the Open Air Museum.

Once we got to our hotel which overlooks Lake Kawaguchiko, one of the Five Finger Lakes near Mt. Fuji, we were starving, so we made reservations for the sushi bar. No one at our hotel speaks English, so the chef brought out the fish he had and we pointed to what we wanted prepared and he told us the name in Japanese. We had tuna and mackerel sashimi and some rolls with a shitload of wasabi that burned my nostrils and eyes. I couldn’t stop laughing when Gina said the Japanese wearing masks (we’ve seen a ton) to prevent allergies from hanami season (cherry blossoms) should just use wasabi to clear out their nasal passages.

Oh, and once the chef served us, he hovered over our table until we started eating, which was unnerving. We told him our sushi was delicious, and he made us another round.

After dinner, we bought beer from the vending machine and tried to sneak it in the onsen (public bath), but then thought better of it.

Tomorrow, we hope to visit the Kubota museum to see seasonal, gorgeous kimono in a breathtaking mountain setting. The exhibit I saw in San Diego in December was the inspiration for taking this trip to Japan. Then, we head to Tokyo.

Fans, mountains & vending-machine beer

This morning Gina and I channeled our inner geisha to create beautiful hand-painted fans with a cherry blossom motif. Since neither of us are practiced in the art of drawing, we relied on existing fan patterns to create our design. Coincidentally, we both selected the same pattern from a couple hundred options despite having very different artistic tastes. Over the course of a couple hours with some guidance from a worker with limited English, we painted our masterpieces, which will be shipped to the U.S. in a month after the skeletons of the fans are attached.

Of note, the Japanese obsession with cleanliness nearly cost Gina her face as we attempted to leave the factory/store. As we “walked” out, we noticed a raised threshold, and I cautioned Gina to step over it, but neglected to caution that the door was glass. KABAM!!! Thankfully, there’s been little noticeable brain damage. (Also, we must note that yesterday, a woman was scrubbing the subway floor tile with a toothbrush-like tool while we stared in amazement.)

We stopped in a mom and pop coffee shop after class to nurse some caffeine along with Gina’s bruised ego. No one spoke a lick of English, but we had the best coffee that was brewed from crazy Bunsen burner devices on the counter. I was very proud that the old woman understood me when I said “oy-shi-katta” (“that was delicious”). However, despite pointing to our hysterical English to Japanese flashcards to indicate we wanted breakfast, we could not score a meal for the life of us. When we inquired about tofu and rice, the friendly man behind the counter said, “See you tomorrow!” ????

So, we walked a minute or so to another “kohi” shop and finally got served. Then we scurried to our inn, grabbed our luggage and hit the subway to Kyoto Station to pick up the shinkansen (bullet train) to Hakone, the most popular destination for natives in the area.

Before our trip, we nabbed a fantastic reservation at the Fujiya Hotel, Japan’s first Western-style resort that was built 130 years ago. To celebrate its anniversary, the hotel has been offering foreigners a bargain room rate.

The scenic bus ride through the mountains from Odawara Station to our hotel was spectacular. Fujiya features a hot spring that actually feeds bath tubs in guest rooms and a picturesque walk on the ground with a koi pond, gardens, waterfalls and the like. And, most importantly, beer vending machines, which is how we stumbled upon Kirin and Suntory beer. I was doing impressions of Bill Murray in Lost in Translation with my Suntory beer endorsement…

Tomorrow we hope to explore the Hakone Open Air Museum and the Hakone Ropeway. Fingers crossed that we make it to Lake Kawaguchiko in the evening after a number of bus exchanges in the mountains.

Ryokan Nakajimaya in Kyoto


Gina-san and I loved the ryokan (pronounced (l’yokan), that we stayed in during our Kyoto visit, which I found through the Welcome Inn Reservation Center when I was investigating accommodation options. It’s centrally located in Kyoto, close to the subway, clean, cute and inexpensive. The owner, Nakajimaya-san, is very kind and full of laughter, and she speaks a little English.

Since it’s a traditional Japanese inn, our room on the second floor (check out the steep stairs) had tatami-mat floors and comfy futons for sleeping. Every night, we received a fresh tin of loose tea and a thermos contraption that spewed out hot water whenever we pressed the button on top, although it didn’t plug in. Not sure if the tea originated from the inn’s small tea garden or not.

On our first night, we had sweet bean paste pastries waiting for us and a small gift, honking big toenail clippers inscribed with the ryokan’s name and phone number. We also were given kimonos to wear to bed, which was fun.

No meals are served. Bathroom and showers (2) are for common use, which never proved to be a problem (there are only seven rooms).

Since the ryokan isn’t listed in guide books, here’s the address, contact info and directions:

Ryokan Nakajimaya
075-351-3886
Bukkoji-agaru, Takakura-dori, Shimogo-ku

Use the south exit from Shijo station on the Karasuma subway line (to your right when you get off the train), which will let you out at the intersection of Karasuma-dori and Shijo-dori. Walk straight out of the exit on Karasuma and then turn right on Shijo. Walk a couple minutes until you see the Louis Vuitton store on your immediate right and make a right onto Takakura. Follow the alley almost to the end (Bukkoji). The inn is on the right.