The Adventure to Sendai

As charming and picturesque as Aomori Prefecture has been these past few weeks, the need to hit the road for another grand adventure set in last weekend… again. Lately it feels as if there is no distance too long to drive for yet another new experience… or for Christmas shopping! We chose Sendai as last weekend’s prime adventure location for a variety of reasons, primarily because it is home to the Pokemon Center for the whole of Touhoku Region (shameless nerds ;D). Other factors that led to this decision: a) it’s south of the great cold in Aomori Prefecture, b) it’s the largest city in Touhoku, c) Sendai’s weather forecast balanced out at 0 degrees Celsius during the daytime (we were at -6 degrees Celsius up in Aomori).

With the best of company that any driver could desire, an ETA of four hours, snowy roads, and the navigation demon worshipped as  Siri, I think Sendai is going to be one of my more favorite road trips for 2014. I probably spent half my paycheck in gifts, tolls, and food but it was worth every last yen.

Things to prepare in advance if you are contemplating a spur of the moment trip to Sendai:

  • Tolls: ~11,000 yen round trip
  • Hotels: ~7,500 yen per night, breakfast included (the cheapest hostel is about ~2,000 yen)
  • Pokemon center: 10,000 – 20,000 yen, depending on number of gifts you will buy for friends and family (or yourself)
  • Shopping center: ~20,000 yen for gifts for friends and family (including omiyage)
  • Food: depends on your style! Cheapest will be convenience store purchase. Sit down restaurants and bakeries are slightly more expensive but more delicious alternatives.
  • Parking: fills up fast and it’s not going to be cheap. Plan to spend anywhere from 2,000 to 3,000 yen in parking for the day.

Illumination fills the streets as the spirit of Christmas spreads across the nation; everything – from snowflakes patterns and globes made from lights to glowing orbs and icicles – can be found adorning shops, alleys, and department stores. Driving around the city is quite the experience as well: like every other highly densely populated location on the planet, Sendai is a pain to navigate simply because it’s so crowded (frighteningly enough, it didn’t have nearly as many people as Tokyo) and lacked cheap parking lots. We did not use mass transport that day as everything we needed or wanted to see was located within easy walking distance of the mall’s parking lot (Parco Mall, in case anyone wanted to know where they could hit two birds – Starbucks and Pokemon Center – in one go).

Childhood dreams aside, Pokemon Center was a blast! Despite having lived in Tokyo for a year, I never once stepped inside (a travesty, I know) but hopefully I will soon be able to remedy that (should New Year’s plans go through accordingly); I’m not as big a fan of the show or games as I was at age 8 but I’m still not too old to admit that there was a definite electric shock of 懐かしい feels that went through my spine as soon as I entered. Never before – or ever again, I suspect – will I ever be able to knock out so much Christmas shopping in a single aisle of a single store in a single anywhere. Huzzah!

And now to the interesting tale of the tomato cube lunch from Gontran Cherrier. It’s literally a cube of bread stuffed with mozzarella cheese and tomatoes. They are extremely satisfying to eat, delicious, and interesting. Kim and I probably ate more bread (two muffins, a cube of tomato and cheese per person, quiche, coffee rolls, and a berry tart) in that one meal than at any other time… ever. I have now made it my life’s mission to apprentice at this bakery sometime in the future. The meal in the cube practically sealed the deal for me 😉

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One final note before closing: the people of Sendai are always going somewhere. This place, though not quite as busy as Tokyo, is definitely a breeding ground for go-getters. The relaxed inaka lifestyle is nowhere to be found but it makes for an upbeat cross city journey. You’re more likely to see the latest fashions being paraded by members of both sexes than you would in the inaka towns since people actually doll themselves up for a day or night out in the city. That being said, bring your most comfortable pair of shoes because the sales are on and the stakes are high!

Breakfast with Chopin + Vegetable Frittata Recipe

breakfastwithchopin

This morning hour is dedicated to the delightful music of Frederick Chopin and a simple vegetable fritatta recipe adapted from the more traditional tortilla española. The most classic of breakfast foods with one of the most romantic composers makes for a perfect rainy morning. For me, classical music has always been a source of great comfort: it’s what is left after there are no more words in any language to describe the strong emotions that remain. Compositions are moments frozen in time and immortalized in written form that bridge the gap between the past and present. It’s quite sad that most people think of classical music as dull… at one point this music was quite revolutionary and exciting! It was fresh, bold and daring!

As a musician and amateur composer, I can’t help but feel connected to the composer as well as to all the other musicians who have played the same piece, whether I perform it myself or listen to it for the first time. The same can be said of any music, really, though for me I feel that connection more strongly in classical music. Perhaps it’s because as a classical music enthusiast it’s so rare as it is to find someone as excited as I am about this genre… we’re a dying breed.

As for cooking, though, the technological revolution in mass communication has made it even easier in the past few decades alone to disseminate a world of culture and tradition with a few clicks of a mouse. Someone’s authentic Italian, passed-down-through-the-generations recipe for Spaghetti Bolognese might end up on my dinner table here in Japan one night. Metaphors and poetics aside, it is quite beautiful to feel that human link and know that somewhere out there someone might just be serving your version of apple tarts for a dinner party and so on, that a little bit of you could touch someone else’s life if even for a moment 😉

Here’s to good food, good music, and to the human connection! Cheers!

SIMPLE VEGETABLE FRITTATA

INGREDIENTS
3 eggs
4 small potatoes, sliced into thin rounds (with or without skins)
1/2 small onion, chopped
1/2 clove garlic, chopped
One small bunch of kinoko mushrooms, chopped
Olive oil
Dried rosemary for seasoning
Salt and pepper to taste
(Optional: 1/2 cup cheddar cheese for garnish; Julienne bell pepper slices; sun dried tomato; fresh basil, chopped)

DIRECTIONS
1. Heat the olive oil. Fry the potato slices in batches until they turn gold. Salt and season well on both sides as you fry, make sure they are well cooked through before transfering the fried potatoes to a separate plate and pat dry the oil off. Take three eggs, beat them well to form egg mixture. Add a dash of black pepper for seasoning and some salt to taste. Keep on standby in the fridge.

2. Once completely done with frying, the next step is to heat the garlic, onion, and mushroom until soft but not completely cooked through. At this point, quickly arrange the potato slices in scalloped tiers.

3. Pour the egg mixture over potatoes. Make sure to tilt the pan so that an even coating will cover the potato tiers. Cover the pan and cook on high for five to ten minutes. Flip the frittata face down to brown the top. This should take about three to four minutes. Use your spatula to gently push down against pan.

4. Transfer to plate, face up, and serve immediately. Goes well with home made tomato salsa or creamy guacamole (neither of which I made this time around but it tastes amazing on its own as well). The optional veggies all taste so well when combined in this recipe but I don’t have access to them at the moment. Living in a small town has its down sides: fruits and vegetables are not always available as consistently as they are in markets in bigger cities, where demand pushes availability.

frittatanflowers

The Aomori Blues, Part II

Summer time in Japan is unlike any other in the world. This is a time for hanabi (fireworks) and yukata (summer version of the kimono)… and of course matsuri!

Matsuri can occur at any time of the year (for example, Hokkaidou is famous for its winter Yuki Matsuri, or Snow Festival) but for Aomori, the time to come is generally in the summer. The best part: anyone can participate in matsuri! So long as you have the appropriate wear, of course.

Up above you’ll find two example of matsuri-wear, both known as yukata although they serve different functions. The first two are a front and backside shot of summer yukata, which I borrowed from Mina who was also kind enough to help me into it. Yukata can be put on in one of two ways: alone and with great difficulty or with friends who will help you get the job done faster but with more fun! If you don’t want to participate in the local matsuri but would like to experience wearing the traditional Japanese summer wear, there are a stores in larger cities that rent out yukata for a couple of hours at a time. They also help with the dressing and undressing but yukata can be quite cheap to purchase plus make great souvenirs from a trip abroad. Ultimately it’s up to you though they are by no means mandatory to wear if your plan is just to attend as a bystander.

The third picture, however, is of a shorter yukata that is mandatory for participation in the Nebuta Matsuri. Dressed participants will join in, jumping and dancing rhythmically to the chant of: ‘Rasse-ra! Rasse-ra!” Although it’s difficult to see in the third picture, there are small bells attached to the costume. According to popular legend, if all your bells fall off during the dancing then that is very lucky. The only way to make the bells fall? Dancing even harder, of course! Frenzied dancers are oftentimes encircled by their peers as the chant climaxes ever louder and more excited until it finally dwindles down. One of the new JETs had the honor of experiencing this and we were surprised at the extent to which her energy infected the group. Japanese people are almost always excited to find that foreigners love and are more than willing to participate in their culture if only given a chance.

So what goes down at a matsuri? Pretty much the same eat, drink, and party-esque atmosphere that you can find the world over. Amazing street food stalls line the roads, Nebuta floats are dragged through the blood/sweat/tears of children and adults alike, and of course where there’s a party, there will be alcohol.

I apologize for the video. My phone wasn’t sending the important files so you only really get a concise sense of the crazy-ness of matsuri time. It’s actually a quite vibrant and exciting time to be in Japan. Not going to lie though: it’s as humid as the first eight circles of Hell and no joke about it. The further north you go, the shorter the amount of time that the region remains humid. In Tokyo, the humidity levels begin to kick in around late May to early June and only dissipate with the autumn season, which begins around mid October. According to my boss, Shinbori-san, Aomori only really experiences three weeks worth of humidity. On the downside, it gets cold fast… in late September. From there the inevitable but sure progression of autumn to winter commences at an alarming rate. The fact that I’m from California seems to have gone around town at 299,792,458 m/s. It seems as if the first thing people ask me, after inquiring how well I like the region, is this: “So for winter… will you be okay?”

And that, ladies and gentlemen, is the nice way of saying: “You are oh so very screwed, my friend.” Because in Aomori, winter isn’t coming… it’s arrived before you know it! Take that George R.R. Martin! 😉

Finally we have the absolute most adorable airport mascot in the world: IGUBE THE SEA CUCUMBER! I think he might a bit of a celebrity (similar to Little Sebastian from Parks and Recreation) because my JET colleagues freaked out in the same way the citizens of Pawnee flipped a table over their favorite miniature horse ❤ To be fair, he is this pudgy little sea cucumber with tiny arms and no legs: what’s not to love?! ^-^