Monday, off to Kyoto

We are off for 5 days in Kyoto, but first some memories of the last few days.

Wednesday morning Saori brought Komonos fou us to try, worn most often for special occasions and festivals. I think we look great. We spent the day shopping, mostly at Shimboco Station, the largest in Tokyo. It is hard to believe how big it is, and the size of the shopping mall, bigger than anything in Seattle – all of the big names in fashion are here. We ate lunch in one of the food courts, common in basements of train stations and malls.

After lunch we went to the 45th floor of the Tokyo Government building, there is an observation level, and a cafe. So views of cloudy Tokyo and iced tea for the heat.


The heat and the along was taking a toll, so we called it a day, tomorrow would be a grand adventure. Saori and Digaro were taking us to some limestone caves.

We drove for a couple of hours out of Tokyo, after Saori welcomed us in our room with a Matcha ceremony. Matcha is ground green tea, that is whipped to a froth and drank out of bowls, a new favorite for me. Pictures say it best for the caves.


It was so good to get out into the mountains, small village – certainly not a place many tourists are able to see.

Saturday we went to Odawara castle, a quick ride on the high speed Shinkansen bullet-train. Lunch of raw fish, well at least for me and Saori, Tricia had tempura.


Good trip, more to come

 

Tokyo, off to a grand start 

Thursday morning, Tokyo. We arrived Monday and our friend Saori welcomed us at the airport. We picked up our Japan Rail pass, smooth as it could be, found our Pocket WiFi, then headed for the Narita Express.
Narita Airport is almost 90 minutes from Tokyo, it was worth the ride, we saw our first rice paddies and a lot of the countryside. The weather matched the forecast, hot and humid, but really it did not bother us much at all. It took us only 20 hours from the time Uber picked us up at home until we arrived at the Hotel Niwa. We rode in a car, a bus, light rail, airplane, train, and subway. A quick change of clothes, brushed our teeth, then off to meet Saori’s parents for dinner.

We have looked forward to meeting them for some time, Saori has become such a part of our life since she lived with us seven years ago. They took us to a Japanese BBQ in the Tokyo Dome City Hotel, for you Mariners fans, Ichiro played there. We had the meal I had a been waiting for, thin sliced meats, vegetables, all self-cooked on your individual BBQ at the table. 

Tuesday, in typical brilliance, we picked the hottest, most humid day of the week to walk 20,000 Fitbit steps. The plan was to visit the Imperial Garden and Palace, but it was closed, so we walked to Ginza. Ginza is like Rodeo Drive in Beverly Hills, lots of nice things, but even with the Yen as favorable as it is for us now, really expensive.

The Kaguruzaka neighborhood hosts the French embassy, we found a restaurant owned by a Frenchman, with French food. The menu was in Japanese and French, so we had little trouble, the service was great. I know, we are in Japan, but French food was just too enticing.

Wednesday was wonderful, spent the morning at Koishikawa Korakuen Gardens. They were built in 1629, and are one of only two Edo period Gardens in Tokyo. Edo was the original name for Tokyo, it was during this period in the 1600’s when Tokyo grew to become one of the largest cities in the world. 

There is a huge pond, with a series of canals. The 2nd Lord built a rice paddy so his royal born wife could learn of the struggles and hardship that the farmers endured.

For lunch we went back to the Tokyo Dome City Hotel, it is very upscale, with nice restaurants. This time we opted for the Tempura. We were attended to by 4 people, a server, and three tempura chefs. They brought six or seven courses, it was peaceful and quiet, and cool, the heat and humidity were in good form.

That night we met up with Rebeca, our niece. She has been here for almost a year attending Waseda University. We had a fabulous time touring her school, drinking peach iced tea at a student cafe, wandering through the gardens. She took us to a shrine and a temple on our way to Korean BBQ. (Kansas and Texas think they are the centers of BBQ, nope these folks beat them to it by centuries) I have been to Korean BBQ, but this one was so different, it was really casual, kind of an industrial retro decor, we sat on stools, while the staff cooked. You take the grilled meat, add a few condiments and it’s all wrapped in lettuce leaves, a Korean taco.

So far a wonderful time, we are learning to like this country, the people have been so accommodating, the crowds that we were warned about have never materialized, even in the heart of the city. It is a big city, but Barcelona on the Ramblas is more intense, Hong Kong is more crowded, we are looking forward today to more new experiences, Saori joins us again in a couple of hours and we are off.

“With a flair for old romantic to the Orient he flew” – Off to Tokyo


After months of waiting, our trip to Japan, postponed from April to July, due to our flooded basement, has begun. Uber to the park and ride, bus to Seattle, Sound Transit Light rail to the airport, TSA Pre-check, and we are in the Delta Crown Club, sipping Moët. Thanks to my life of air travel we fly business class on the 10 hour flight – good food and service await, the seats recline flat so sleep is possible. When we land Saori, our friend and former exchange student will welcome us at Narita airport. Did I mention we are excited?

Japan – a prepared adventure

Delta 167, Sunday July 17, 2016 – Non-stop Seattle to Tokyo’s Narita airport. Hotels in Tokyo and Kyoto are booked, house and cat-sitter all arranged, we are set. That is really all we have planned, no detailed itineraries, not much in the way of “must see.”I will readily acknowledge that our approach to travel is not for everyone, yet I encourage folks to give it a try. Three components: Spontaneous plan, Light packing, Technical Logistics.

We arrive on Monday, mid-afternoon. Saori, our Japanese daughter, is going to welcome us at the airport, assist in picking up Wi-Fi hub at airport, then navigating us on the Narita Express to our hotel. Then we will take her to dinner. That is about the extent of our definite plans. The rest is pretty much make it up as we go. There are only two things I specifically want to do, Odawara Castle, and a train that goes near Mt. Fuji. We will work these out when we are there.

Readers of my blog know that “tourists must see” lists don’t do a lot for me. Beyond that we have learned that all of the research in advance helps, yet when you get to the place you are going it looks different, strict agendas made 10,000 miles away are restrictive. Then there is the physical demands, some days we feel like doing nothing. I remember afternoons in Bruges, sitting by the fire at Rembrandt’s, reading and snacking for hours, one of my best memories of Belgium; you don’t really plan for that kind of day, they happen if you let them.

Luberon is a small village in Provence, France. On our first visit to Provence, Tricia was not feeling well one evening, I went down to the bar in the hotel to let her sleep. As normal I struck up a conversation with a local. She told me that Luberon was not to be missed. The next day we headed for Luberon, I had a Croque Monsieur at an outside café, we bought local pottery from the shop with the blue doors in this painting. The joy of spontaneity.

The second important consideration is light packing. We will go to Japan for 17 days, and we will each have a carry-on size roller, plus a small carry on. This is so important. You are flexible if you need to take trains, navigate stairs. And you are not burdened with stuff. I know it is often repeated but it’s true, the longer you travel the lighter you pack. Set out what you think you need to take then cut it down, then do it again. Light packing means flexibility, and that adds to the spontaneity. I must admit that when I see couples travel with two huge cases I really wonder what they are taking and how much they will use. One exception, when we have gone places where hiking is on the agenda we take a larger case, boots and packs do take up space.

The one place I do spend time planning is the technical details. This includes maps, plugs and chargers, Wi-Fi, and a few miscellaneous goodies.

Maps are a big thing for me, first I love them, but I really like to be able to find my way around. With a WiFi hub Google maps navigating works on iPhone or iPad. I also use Maps-2-go, they are offline, and since the GPS works on my phone even if not connected to phone service, it will find you on their maps. Maps-2-go also has great place to store lists of sights, restaurants, etc.. So with these two in place you are ready. Google also allows you to download maps for offline use, along with stored favorites.

If I need directions to a hotel, or for driving, I do turn-by-turn maps of directions before the trip. These are stored in an offline notebook on Evernote, a bit of redundancy I know but it’s comforting when in a strange town and you need to find your hotel. With Google street view you can take pictures of the area around your hotel to help you spot it when on the ground. This helped us in Barcelona and in Provence.

It is obvious, but worth reminding, that you need adapters and chargers for all your electrical stuff. Thankfully unless you have really old electrical items most are already 110/220V so you don’t need a converter. Take more than one adapter, they are small and you probably will want to charge phone and iPad at same time.

I travel for pleasure with only iPad, it does all I need and is lighter than computer. iPad and iPhone pretty much take care of everything from music to navigation. A Bluetooth speaker brings music into room, Google Translate app (different than the online translate) is brilliant as it will capture the text of a sign or menus and translate, no internet needed.

 Couple of things I carry, a real tea cup, and immersion heater- tea in the morning is important so I make it possible most everyplace. Along with that an acrylic wine glass, wine and beer just don’t work out of the placid stuff at hotels.

Travel should be a prepared adventure, take what you need, resources for what you will need, and the curiosity to let each day unfold as it will. Bonnet voyage.

A Japanese gem in Torrence

Sometimes sheer luck brings us a gem in the midst of a otherwise less than non-descript travel day, a reminder that it is always worth it to travel and explore.
Today was my first time on JetBlue, my fourth flight in four days. You don’t expect a lot on discount airlines, and JetBlue lived up to that nicely. The Airbus was old, I have not been on a plane that old in some time, the attendant was so pleasant, he spoke Spanish to the elderly lady sitting next to me. But JetBlue is air travel at its most basic. Southwest may be discount air, but they do have a lot more class. 
I needed a treat, not something I thought I would find in Torrence, CA. This is an industrial area, headquarters for Toyota and some other big companies. My best hope was a sports bar with a game on and something deep fried. 

Thanks to Yelp I found Bistro Beaux, sounds French, it’s Japanese. Really small, industrial-modern decor, textured concrete walls, cyclone fence used as accents. When I went in, I was the only Caucasion in the room, a good sign. 

The bartender was a real pro, when he was not mixing or serving he was carving a spherical ice cube, chipping away with a Japanese knife, creating a perfect 4” ball. The food was not the stereotypical Japanese fare.

I started with Sauted Cod with a lemon butter and caper sauce. Cooked to perfection, the fish flaked without being mushy, the sign of an expert in the kitchen. The lemon and capers enhanced the fish, not overpowering. 

Having a weakness for Uni (sea urchin), the Eryngii Mushrooms Sauted with sea urchin was obviously next. I have never had sautéed Uni. When I have sushi, I usually have Uni with a raw quail egg for desert, so sautéed was intriguing. The Uni actually had just a hint of crisp, the Eryngii sautéed yet firm, with some delightful sauce and the Uni strips, wonderful.

This was the gem I needed to remind me why it’s worth it to travel, these surprises crop up when your least expect it, and deposite experiences and memories for the future.

Las Vegas, I won!

Thank you Las Vegas, I think I figured it out. What happens in Vegas, stays in Vegas – perfect, as there is nothing here I would want to take with me. Sitting in the noisy Southwest Airline concourse, eating a mediocre overpriced meal, something started to make sense – what makes me a bit different as a traveler and travel blogger.canstockphoto4511009-650x487

First of all, I don’t like Las Vegas, nothing about it has any attraction. The casinos are noisy, this place is decadent, being polite about it. Superficial would describe most everything, and so many people are here looking for some kind of fun, but it does not seem to work. If you ever get here, go down to the registration desk of the hotel in the morning, watch the people checking out, they are exhausted, and if you eavesdrop you will find many are hungover, not to mention that when they talk to each other it is about how much money they lost, or how drunk they got.

I am sure I am leaving myself open to all those who go there, “just for the shows and the food.” Yet when there are so many places to eat wonderful food, without having to traverse the profane, why would I want to. I would much rather drive through Sonoma to end up at the French Laundry, than face the crowd on the Strip to get to Keller’s Bouchon in Vegas. And most of the promotions for the shows appear to be produced by the same folks that gave Las Vegas the moniker of “Sin City,” do I really need to see all that?

When I meet people on my international travels they talk about wanting to come to the USA, and go to Vegas, I beg them to see the rest of the country, Vegas is not what we are, or at least I hope not.

When I travel I want to get away from the crowds, the Eiffel Tower was a disappointment to me because of the crowds. I love Paris, London, and Barcelona, but I go out of my way to find the quiet places and I shy away from the touristy. The best times are when we hire (rent) a car and then head for some remote village. Restaurants in a foreign language, with no English translation are the best. I want to blend in.

I want to go where the local people go. Yes, I do enjoy a high end restaurant, but because I like it not because it is THE place to go. Yet, there is something about a dive bar that never loses its attraction. There is this little place in Salem, Oregon called The Extra Point, a dive bar for sure. But always friendly bartenders, and they have Wimpy Burger night, and Taco Tuesday, old pool tables and darts.

Traveling with a checklist of places to see really does not move me. I honestly think I could go to Rome and never see the Coliseum and be just fine with that. A question I ponder is, “How long do you have to stand in front of some iconic location to say you have seen it?” The real question for me is how do you experience it? Many folks walk through Notre Dame in Paris, they saw it, me, I sat in a pew and prayed.

This is most likely why tours are not a big attraction. We have gone on only one in our life, in Bruges, it was a rainy day, we were bored. Thankfully it was a small tour, with an emphasis on history; enjoyable for sure. Yet when planning other trips we rarely consider tours, discovery and exploration are better.

Having identified all of this I need to be clear that I pass no judgement on those who like tours, tourist sights, and Vegas, it is just that they are not me.

I prefer a glass of wine and my sketch pad at a winery over a wine tasting. I prefer a good meal with Tricia at a small café (Marianna’s in Gourds, France) over a chain, or an all you can eat buffet. We spend as much time planning where to eat as we do what to see. Picnics with local confections are a priority. Local food is a doorway to the heart of a location, I want that.

A ramble through a Scottish countryside, or along a canal ending with dinner at a British pub is perfect. Quality over quantity, quaint over extravagant, quiet over a crowd, discovery over a fixed-itinerary – places that are sketch-worthy, voila, that’s it.

So I get it, I want to travel and write about places that move me to get out my sketch pad. I want to eat food at places that give me a glimpse into the spirit of a place. TheWinesketcher, off on another adventure, it can never be too soon. Thank you Vegas, I did win.

 

To the far side of the state


Sometimes the best therapy in the world is a road stretching out in front of you. The last month we waited for our new townhouse to close, the month before that we waited for the sale of our house of 16 years to close, the four and a half months before that we endure a flooded basement and the restoration work it brought.  
I must interrupt this to put in a plug for the best realtor there is, Kim Tornow. We could never have made it as easily as we did without her expert advice and attention to detail, thank you Kim.

We signed the-closing papers this morning, with our bags in the car. Now it is off to Prosser, WA to visit a new winery, Wit Cellars. It is the work of some friends, with a great track record in the wine world. Gina is meeting us at the tasting room, we get a private tasting, pick up our Founders club shipment, then off to a great meal to celebrate.

My stress level goes down with each passing mile, the warm Eastern Washington sun beats in the window, Earl Klugh and his guitar completing the prescription; restoration is well underway.

Brimmer & Heeltap, a new favorite

My short list of favorite restaurants is a moving target. Sunday we found a new contender, Brimmer & Heeltap, in Seattle. Yes that is the real name, not sure the history but do plan to find out as there is another visit already on the radar.
Small, intimate, rustic, and fresco dining, everything it takes for a perfect environment. Jen, the owner and founder got it right. Her bio says she knows the industry, but her real talent is that she is the perfect hostess, we felt like family, no more than that, we knew we were welcome and valued.
One of the tests of a stellar resturantuar is the ability to extend your passion through your staff, our server Lauren, matched Jen’s sense of hospitality. She is an artist, and took time to show us some of her work, which I find amazing, as well as she took an interest in my sketches. 

In the end of course it is about the food, and we were impressed.

Of course started with bubbles, and to go with them we had Tapioca Puff Chips, with chili-lime sauce. They could sell these by the bag and I would give up potato chips for a long time. Light, a bit picante, with the promised lime – my kind of snack.

Tricia ordered the scallops, not a big surprise. They came with a Poblano Aioli, but not just a glob of mayonnaise – the aioli was applied with air injected, making it light and airy, amazing.

My steak, well I don’t remember one that I have enjoyed more, it appeared to be a fillet mignon, cooked perfect, with sautéed oyster mushrooms and micro greens on the side. Thank you Lauren and Jen, we will be back, soon, Saturday I think.

Getting through the chaos-food, wine, friends, and Tricia

Taking a break this morning to reflect on the things that get me through the challenges. I have been on over 20 flights in the last 11 weeks, thankfully none this last week. On the week-ends we pretend to be contractors, doing the repair work left us by our anniversary week-end flood in December – Wainscoting, painting, repairing sheetrock, installing a cabinet, ceramic tile, etc.

IMG_1947Two weeks ago I was in the Holiday Inn next to Disney, in Anaheim. It is a short walk to Downtown Disney, and Catal Restaurant. Upstairs at Catal is a quiet oasis in the chaos. A glass of wine, bacon wrapped dates, calamari, and of course pen, ink, and paint, made for a nice break from the travel.
IMG_1948The next week I had Asian Meatballs and broccoli, in Sirachi sauce at Niki and Joe’s in Newberg. We finished the evening with a we dram of Laphroaig, and my first game of Catan. I slept well on the hide-a-bed, visited by Nuli, their way too cute kitten.

Last weekend Tim came up, a good excuse to put the construction on hold, and instead too much food, some good discussions, and a bit of guitars and singing.

Thursday night of this week Tricia and I went to Daniels for Happy Hour. Just what we needed before this weekend of the final push in the basement.

These breaks make it possible to go on, food and friends have always been part of what we humans need for rejuvenation in the midst of challenges. I am so grateful.