Beidaihe and Laolongtou

In June 2005 we visited Beidaihe.  This seaside resort is in the Hebei province on the Bohai Sea coast.  Sea resorts are a bit different in China.  In some ways, the Chinese beach experience is always surprising.  As a personal tribute to my 80s upbringing, I can’t help lying out in the sun.  I do wear sunscreen now, and hats.  In China, no one lays in the sun.  Basically the beach or hotel pool is deserted until around 4:30 when big groups come out to use the facilities.

Women are generally dressed in serious Olympic styled Speedos.  Men too.  Unfortunately this doesn’t bring out the best in either sex at least not to my western sensibilities.  Both men and women may come out with either a swim cap or goggles or both on.  Clothes or a hotel bathrobe may be worn over top along with hotel slippers.  A paper shopping bag, also provided by the hotel may be carried along, I’d seen these bags in the hotel many times and never known what they were for, so that was one mystery solved.

It seems like anyone in a Speedo with get into the water and swim a lap with beautiful strokes then get out of the water to smoke.  This is a stereotype but it is also convenient for us.  We can always get chairs by the pool and generally have a nice quiet beach day.  Around the time Chinese tourists come out, we are ready for cocktails and the bar is conveniently empty.

This resort area was popular for Communist Party summer retreats.  Interestingly signs are in Chinese, Russian, Korean and English.  Apparently even Chairman Mao had a summer resort in the here.  Beidaihe became popular in the 1950s but was generally abandoned by the party in the early 21st century as they worked to establish a more frugal identity.  According the Wikipedia , source of all things, this was also the era when  the the party was working to move away from informal gatherings and more directly to official meetings.

We stayed at the Beidaihe Guesthouse for Diplomatic Missions.  Frankly, the name was the best part of the resort, the name and the fact that is was basically built by edict of Zhao Enlai in 1950.  I guess edicts aren’t the best from a maintenance standpoint.  There was also a strange panda statue in the courtyard. I can’t imagine why I didn’t take a picture of it.

In the way of old Chinese resorts and hotels, the rooms were small and a bit ulitarian but certainly got the job done.  We had an outdoor area where the three of us sat drinking cans of beer and enjoying the seaside air.  It really didn’t seem like anyone else was staying in this resort.

Dean wanted to visit this seaside town.  I wanted to see the end of the Great Wall.  I’m not sure my poor sister was looking forward to this trip, but she went along with it.

It did not begin particularly auspiciously as she and I came to Beijing from Xi’an.  My sister bought almost all mini terracotta warriors produced that year in Xi’an.  I think the actual number was around 50 but the weight of her suitcase suggested more like a thousand.  We struggled with the bag onto the Beidaihe train.  The Beijing train station was always a challenge for us.  Even with assigned seats on the train, the lines are still completely crazy.  I’m certain several people were knocked to the ground by the warrior suitcase.  Finally when we got to the the train someone stepped on my sister’s shoe and it flew under the train.  A tiny man jumped under the train to rescue the show.  My sisters red hair was a real asset, all over China.  I’m pretty sure he would have carried her suitcase if only we had known how to ask.

The train ride was uneventful once we made it out of the station.  Ironically I can really only remember one meal during the whole trip.  One of the streets in the resort area was full of fish shops and restaurants so we decided to stop for lunch.  We picked some shrimp by weight and a few other dishes.  Dean and I felt comfortable with this style since we had done it before in Quingdao and Xiamen.  Since there were three of us we decided to order a large fish.  Once we pointed out the one we wanted, our server literally reached into the tank and pulled it out.  He put it on the scale to be weighed but it was wiggling so much he couldn’t get an accurate weight.

This caused him a bit of distress so he grabbed the fish and threw it to the ground in a great dramatic gesture.  This was a bit surprisng and my sister squawked loudly.  Such squeeling from foreign women led to a bit of a crowd so I was glad when we got back into the restaurant.  The fish was quite a production and we didn’t even like it very much.

From Beidaihe we took a taxi to the great wall site.  Conceptionally, the Ming Dynasty Wall was designed to go from the seashore all the way to the Beijing area.  While it didn’t actually end of working as protection from the Manchurians and Mongolians it is still one of the most amazing sites I’ve ever seen.  I never get tired ot it.  I’ve visited three different Great Wall sites, and made four trips to the Mutianyu section.

Laolongtou is such an interesting section.  In my imagination, I can see the Genghis Kahn’s forces and their horses swimming around the dragon head section of the wall.  It really doesn’t seem like such a hard swim.  Pollution might make it more dangerous now.

This interesting section of the wall was built around 1579.  It was completely destroyed by the Japanese in 1904.  It was rebuilt in the 1980s.  The statues are designed to look like Ming dynasty warriors even though I think they look just like Manchus.

This is a unique and fascinating site.  It shouldn’t be the only part of the wall you visit since an important part of the wall experience is also the dramatic mountain vistas generally viewed from the more traditional tourist spots.  Bedaihe is not China’s best beach town either, but this site is interesting, close to Beijing and very different from other places we traveled.

The thing for me, about this spot is that it is the end of the wall.  You could start a wall walk at this spot and follow it along a map.  The wall doesn’t actually go straight along thousands of miles, and or I might actually try.  But you can start at the very end and walk for a few yards imagining it.

 

Dean and Linda’s Kobe Adventure

Today Dean and I traveled to Kobe, Japan. It is Dean’s first Japanese business trip. We are scheduled to be here for ten days.

Dean’s company is concerned about service interruptions due to the uncertain power situation in Tokyo. This is having a significant impact on employee’s ability to get to and from work. To mitigate the Tokyo risk, some employees are going to Nagasaki and others to Kobe while most remain in Tokyo. Dean was sent to Kobe, so we embarked on our first Japanese adventure outside of Tokyo.

Kobe is centrally located by Nara, Kyoto and Osaka – all places we want to visit. We had several mini-adventures today including the Haneda airport, our first flight in Japan, a new city and some amazing goyza (dumplings) for dinner.

For clarification, we still don’t think Tokyo is a dangerous place to live. The temporary relocation is to accommodate business continuity not because of safety concerns. It is disappointing as we have things to do in our new apartment and now we have to readjust to an adventurous spirit instead of one focused on home. Power cuts have not yet affected our central Tokyo apartment but there are outages and transportation stoppages affecting other employees at Dean’s company. This is especially relevant to the trains. To function, his office needs power to work, trains to bring their employees in etc.

For anyone worried, Kobe is 267 miles south of Tokyo and 364 miles from the Fukashima reactor. This should be good news for anyone worried about radiation. It takes one hour to get fly to Osaka from Tokyo, and another 40 minutes to Kobe.

The only negative I can think of is lack of an iP phone. With our iP phone, I chat away, as long as I want for the cost of a local call. Without it, we are back to international calling or Skype. So, if you want to chat skype me – I even have skype on my cell.

Today, Dean went to the office and I started walking around Kobe. I found hundreds of restaurants. Hundreds. Indian, Indonesian, Thai, Chinese, Belgium, German, Turkish, Russian and more. Then there are the Japanese; Don Don, Sushi, Tonkatsu, Okkaymayi, Steak, Shabu Shabu, Goyza, Curry, Sandwiches, baked goods etc. I’m sure if I could read I would know about even more.

Kobe gives me access to a new city, and lots of other historic and cultural sites. Tomorrow I will start exploring. Thanks again for your thoughts and support – lots of interesting pictures and stories should come from this trip!

One month in Japan

One month in Japan and I have learned the following things

Some of the Hiragana: the Japanese writing system is made up of Hiragana, Katakana and Kanji. For those of you who followed our China adventure, you may know how much I HATED being illiterate there. In Japan I am absolutely determined to learn to read. This is the first step. So far, I can read a few words, like cat, dog, horse and some colors.

Japanese like electronics and high-tech stuff. There needs to be much more information about this for you and much more education about it for me. High-tech is key here. This explains my bathtub, my toilet, my refrigerator, the elaborate fan system and venting in my apartment.

Japanese food is excellent and varied. Yakitori, soba, Udon, Korean BBQ, Tonkatsu, pickles and on and on. One great thing about Japanese foods is that they are generally basically the same. If you buy something with the same name from two different places, it will be pretty much the same. This makes it so much easier to manage.

Japanese tofu, I can’t believe I am back to this. In China, my favorite dish was Mapo Tofu. Pockmarked women’s tofu, with spicy Sichuan peppercorns. But what I have learned here is there are tons of different kinds of tofu and I like them. In fact Dean has been to a tofu restaurant. So far, I prefer grilled tofu – somehow it is grilled, then packaged and sold in the store just like regular tofu. What I need is something like an encyclopedia of tofu. So far, all I have been able to find is a 1970s book with some definitions in it, but maybe I’ll have something when my regular cookbooks come. I’m going to learn all about this miracle bean product.

Japanese snacks are amazing, and delicious and shocking. Doughnuts, rice balls, strawberry flavored Cheetos, plum flavored potato chips, a cold hot dog in a bun from the bakery? You can find it all here.

Sushi. Having our own local place, trying a few others and serving it at home are just the beginning. I’m going to buy a sharkskin grater and grate my own wasabi and after that, who knows? My first sushi class is Monday.

Japanese drinks are a completely untapped area of knowledge. Not just beer, though it is sold with different alcohol contents which are taxed at different rates. Beers are also seasonal, but I don’t quite understand how here. There is also sake, which is as complex as French wines. To add to the complexity there is also Shochu a beverage I really like. It is distilled from barley, sweet potatoes, brown sugar, buckwheat or chestnuts. Generally it is a little stronger than wine, but not as strong as vodka. It is a clear liquor and comes in bottles that seem like sake if you can’t read…much more needed on this. And there are also fruit flavored drinks – like a Japanese wine cooler, grape, lemon and others.

Japanese temples are very interesting. They are complicated, so many details. What does it all mean? I have seen a bean throwing ceremony, some Shinto brides, barrels of ceremonial wine and paper lanterns. Fortunes, wishes and deities. Shinto, Buddhism, and Japanese culture come together – this is something I need to learn about.

Japanese fitness is different. Japanese gyms, at least mine are different form the American type. Even if they have the same equipment inside, they are still different. Hopefully during the time I live here I will figure out how to use the Japanese elliptical and maybe even manage some Japanese yoga. For both of us, the Asia diet is a good one, more walking and smaller portions.

And mascots? Mascots are very popular here. In fact there is a mascot book! So many creatures both real and imagined and they are everywhere. Pink, orange and green seem to be the popular colors. Some are copies of actual animals, others completely imagined. And Sanrio, don’t even get me started on it.

Pink seems to be the color of Japan. So much pink, everywhere. It is the beginning of spring, so cherry and plum blossoms are starting now – both pink. Cherry blossom watching seems to be a pastime. But pink is also acceptable for coats, shoes, all kinds of bags, cars etc. Pink is good. Embrace it.

All these things to learn about, and we haven’t even left Tokyo. In fact we haven’t even wanted to.

Depato

It seems as everyone in Tokyo is as food obsessed as me – now that is really saying something! 

Let’s start with some basics:

Depato = Department Store

Every department store has food/groceries.  I don’t know why all stores in the whole world don’t subscribe to this philosophy.  After all, a girl gets hungry when shopping.  And sometimes loses track of time.  It is so convenient to be able to eat a snack, buy a few ingredients for dinner or even the whole dinner right in the store.  There are two major Depato’s in my neighborhood. 

Mark City is owned by the Shibuya Mark City Company.  It is made up of two buildings and opened in 2000.  This Depato is conveniently located right at Shibuya Station.  You might have seen Scarlett Johansson in the Shibuya crossing in Lost in Translation.  Facebook reports Shibuya is the busiest pedestrian crossing in the world – so I guess there is need for food.  Tokyo Food Show also has a website, which I can’t read full of daily specials, hot topics etc.  Eventually I will conquer enough of this language to read websites!

Tokyo Food show includes lots of stalls selling so many things.  In fact it is basically three stories, top or main level including high-end products and some really excellent tuna.  B1 including a small International Grocery store, large vegetable section and stalls selling lots of stuff and lots of sweets. This was where I found Godiva Chocolate for Dean for Valentine’s Day.  The floor below is additional restuarants. 

Siebo is a Japanese department store which opened in 1949.  There are 16 stores in Japan.  Siebo also owns Muji.  So fall all I have to say about Siebo is that this is the first place I had an impulse food buy in Tokyo.  For about $12 I bought a bottle of unknown sauce just because I tasted it, on tofu.  It was delicious.  Lightly soy, thin in texture and a faint citrus scent/flavor.  So amazing, I did not let a little thing like having no idea what it was stop me from buying it.  Instead I brought it home with great pride and searched my dictionary for at least an hour before giving up about the $12 soy-ish sauce.  I now know it is Ponzu Sauce and I eat it with great regularity myself.  Generally on small pieces of tofu. 

Siebo also has a terrific bakery – as pretty much every depato does, with delicious bread for making grill cheese sandwiches or sending a sandwich to work with a busy husband.

Depato – this is a topic I will be revisiting.   There are more to explore throughout Tokyo and I suspect, in two years I can visit them all.  In fact there is even a website Depacjika.com which is all about department store food halls.  Unfortunately it is in Japanese and I can’t read yet.

 

Tonkatsu

I don’t really recall eating pork chops growing up, and am pretty convinced the first time I ate one was at the sorority house around 1989. They were hard and gray. Therefore I did not like pork chops.

My husband adores pork chops and always wants to cook them or better yet have me cook them. I stuck to my position until he made a delicious, perfectly cooked chop with fresh rosemary. It was life changing as pork chops go.

After a few meals of that amazing chop, he introduced me to another favorite of his – Shake n’ Bake pork chops. Kraft owns this brand, which was apparently created by General Foods in 1963. It was introduced to my life around 1997. Shake n’ Bake, both pork and chicken are some of Dean’s favorites so we eat them at home with regularity.

While living in Shanghai, Dean would get a craving for Shake n’ Bake, I remembered this and brought a couple packages with me to Tokyo.

But while learning about food in Tokyo I came across something interesting, Tonkatsu. Tonkatsu is a deep fried pork cutlet. Fried in the Japanese style it is not as greasy as it sounds, and is breaded in panko. Apparently Tonkatsu is the single most popular type of restaurant in the Tokyo area.

According to Wikipedia, Tonkatsu or Katsu as it was originally called came to Japan in the late 19th century from the European culinary tradition, which was very popular at that time. Probably more like schnitzel or cutlet than Shake n’Bake. It is served on a bed of shredded lettuce/cabbage, with a bowl of rice, miso soup on the side and some Tonkatsu sauce if you want some. Tonkatsu sauce is basically Worcester sauce mixed with ketchup, though it is very popular here and comes bottled on its own.

We ate our first Tonkatsu in a restaurant near the Shibuya train station. It was in Vending Machine restaurant. It was my second time to a vending machine restaurant – I am getting closer and closer to the Jetson’s experience.

This time we did not need as much support as there was a menu with pictures and numbers on the window outside. We looked at the pictures, decided what numbers we wanted, added some yen to the machine and printed out tickets. Then we put the tickets on the counter and waited.

Tea arrived instantly. We both agree that Tonkatsu should be eaten with beer, but we don’t think this restaurant had beer, or any drinks other than tea. No one was drinking anything else, and there was nothing cheap enough to be a drink on the push-button menu.

After about five minutes the Tonkatsu arrived. We should have ordered one, not two. It was two large cutlets on a bed of lettuce/cabbage. Each of us got a bowl of miso soup and a bowl of rice. The pork was delicious, not at all greasy and not like any cutlet or schnitzel I have eaten before.

I still have three packets of Shake n’ Bake in my apartment, but when we run out or maybe even sooner this will be a great solution.

And you thought there was only raw fish in Japan!

Setsubun Day in Tokyo

Setsubun is the day before spring per the Japanese lunar calendar.  This year it took place on February 3.  I went to the Senso-ji Temple in Asakusa to watch the Mame make ceremony. 

Setsubun is a day of ceremonial bean throwing.  Seriously.  It started with a parade led by priests and ministers followed by toshioko and toshionna or people born in the year of the rabbit.

Then a ceremony reciting a sutra and finally the bean ceremony.   The bean ceremony includes filling small boxes with beans, and then a throwing of the beans while yelling “oni wa soto, fuku wa uchi!” or basically, “demons out good luck/happiness come in!”, according to my festival book.  Traditionally the idea what that the beans and yelling would drive away the demon of misfortune.  Then prosperity could enter one’s life.   

Dried soy-beans are the most common type of bean used for Setsubun.  There were so many bags of soy beans available in the stores I am certain there are many acres grown to support this holiday.  There is also a tradition of eating the number beans corresponding to your age – especially if you are 12, 24, 36, 48, 60 or even 72 years old.  All these were born in ox and this year’s festival is especially lucky for them.  If you are an rabbit, maybe you should eat some dried soy beans too. 

Apparently some people, especially children wear masks of either good fortune or demons.  Conceptually this is like “spring-cleaning” your home or New Year’s resolutions.  There are other ceremonies and performances through Japan, some featuring demons or Continue reading

Third day in Tokyo

The third day was the most affected by jet lag.  I was slow getting up, slow eating breakfast and slow at the gym. 

After the gym I was starving, so I ate an apple and a hard boiled egg I saved from breakfast. Then I went out in search of two of the neighborhoods we were considering.  It was nearly impossible to find any of the buildings since I have no idea how to read a Japanese address.  But one was easy to find, since it was right by the subway and big, square and yellow. 

I visited the Shibuya and the Asakusa neighborhoods. Eventually I had walked all I could, and had no idea where I was.  I took the subway home.  The subway is completely amazing.  It is in Japanese, but there is English everywhere.  There are so many lines, but they are color coded and easy to follow.  Sometimes the transfers are long 15-20 minutes walking.  But the trains come very quickly.  I don’t think Japanese really want to sit next to me on the train, but I don’t mind. 

I have not noticed the crowed trains, but apparently they are only really crowded during morning rush hour. 

When I met up with Dean for a drink, I realized I had not eaten lunch.  That is a sure sign of jet lag.  We ate a good dinner of Indian food, which seemed pretty actual except for the saffron Japanese rice it came with.  It was a pretty good match.  On the way out, we did notice that it was possible to order Basmati.  (Japanese rice =$5, Indian rice +10). 

I fell asleep at about 8 PM…

 

Second Day in Tokyo

Work up early, but did sleep all night, which is good.  Ate breakfast on the club floor which included some terrific apple and crab apple juice.  Went to the gym, which really helps my jet-lag.  This was fine except for the fact the elliptical machine had hand bards that were shaped different from what I was used to.  Somehow I hit myself with one causing a large bruise.  After that I switched to biking.  I plan to try to beat that machine again today.

Bad time caused my room to be unavailable due to cleaning when I came back from the gym.  So I grabbed some jeans and went out.  I visited an Indian Spice store nearby the hotel to establish what spices they carried and determine if Basmati Rice was available.  Then on to a book store.  I was excited to see the Michelin Guide for Tokyo available.  Japan has the most stars of any country and I hope to enjoy some of these amazing restaurants while I am here.

The cookbooks are completely amazing.  So many specific pictures and explanations of how to do everything just so.  I MUST learn to read Japanese as quickly as possible.  

By the I was starving again and remembered a sing for a grocery store  below Banana Republic so I went down to the basement.  Not only was there a grocery store but all kinds of small and fast restaurants.  Bento boxes of all kinds, soups, sushi, sandwiches etc.  I came away with about $10 in carry out sushi which was a fine lunch. I must say that the cherry tomatoes on the top of the dish were just delicious. 

Around this time there was an earthquake, but I did not notice.

After lunch I walked around for the rest of the afternoon, just looking at parts of the city.  The subway is so easy here, that once I got tired I just jumped on it and came back to the hotel. 

Dean and I met up for cocktails and then headed out for dinner at a terrific sushi restaurant.

First Day in Tokyo

Left JFK at an 11:30 am flight.  Tried to sleep, watched three movies, ate three meals – each worse than the last, read about Japan. 

Arrived at 3:30 PM on Sunday.  We were through immigration and customs, and had our bags by 4:00, plenty of time to take a shuttle bus to our hotel in Roppongi.  This is a trendy area comprised mainly of hotels and shops from what I can tell. 

By 6:30 we were in our room.  Despite an overwhelming desire for sleep, we showered and went to dinner at a Yakitori restaurant.  It cost $85.  We drank 3 large Asahi beers which cost about $7 each here.  The same beer, imported to China cost about $3 there as I recall.   Yakatori means the food comes on a long stick, grilled over a small charcoal grill.  In Yakatori restaurants, this is generally the main food served. 

Our meal started with chinese broccoli cut small in a sesame based sauce.  Next two skewers of chicken, and two skewers of basil chicken.  The basil chicken appeared to be chicken rolled around basil and sliced to make a pretty circle.  I didn’t like the chicken too much, but the cumin flavor was nice.  There were also skewers of sliced grilled leek.  I don’t think the leek was the type of leek we buy in NY, I think it was more like a giant green onion. 

Also there was a gorgeous giant scallop, cooked gently and served in a light sauce with mushrooms and seaweed.  It was served in a giant shell.  There was some other kind of tentacle added, which was not as good but this was so lovely I should have taken a picture of it. 

Chicken meat balls and pork meat balls were both delicious.  Chicken and beef chunks were good.  Squash, asparagus and okra were excellent. 

Yakatori will become a favorite for us here.  As you can imagine, once we had finished eating we feel straight into bed slept as long as we could.  Awake at 6.