Archive | July, 2013

Mt. Fuji: Seeing God in the Mountains

30 Jul

I have a complete obsession with mountains. I am fairly certain this stems from growing up in the utterly flat prairie land that is Illinois. Even Wisconsin’s beautiful rolling hills captivate me. But mountains.

Oh, mountains.
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Ever since I went to Honduras in high school, I’ve always seen God in the mountains. They’re breathtakingly beautiful, impossibly tall, and impossibly there. How did they get there? Yes, on one level I understand the geology and what-not. But they’re just…there. And it’s wonderful. I can stand on one and look down and see the rest of creation, and it’s just a powerful experience. So going to Mt. Fuji, the tallest (and most iconic) mountain (volcano) in Japan, and now a UNESCO World Heritage site, was pretty amazing.

We haven’t been able to see Fujisan since we’ve been here. Summer means hazy here, and there is rarely a day when the distance isn’t obscured with clouds. Bummer. So we went there instead. But…it was still covered in clouds, even though we were only a few miles away from it.

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So then, we went there.
We took a bus up to the fifth station – one of several “bases” that climbers can start out from. You can climb the entire thing, but a lot of people choose to start about halfway up the mountain – it will still take about a day to climb to the top from the fifth station.
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We looked around here – there was a shrine, tons of gift shops, and great spots to see the summit. We picked a trail that wasn’t a main one to go up the mountain and it was absolutely beautiful.

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The trail was a widely varied terrain. I never really thought the mountain would be made of lava rocks…but duh, of course it is. It’s still deemed an active volcano, even though it hasn’t erupted since the 1700s.
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I was in the cloud!

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Tiny pine cones!

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All the branches were stretched away from the mountain.

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The summit doesn’t look too far away…but don’t let the skewed perspective fool you.

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This was really cool, but it wasn’t really put in to perspective until we got to our hotel on one of the five Fuji lakes. We stayed on Lake Kawaguchiko, the most developed of the five.
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This was the clearest view of the mountain we ever got. It was evening, and we looked out the window of our room and we were greeted with this beautiful, amazing view. We got so lucky to see this, since the next day the mountain was completely shrouded in clouds, even when we took a little trip out into the middle of the lake, where they say you can get a complete reflection. I was a bit bummed, but still so glad we got to see it. We were on that mountain! it’s incredible to think about it. It was definitely one of the best experiences we have had so far.

 

Exploring Japan: experiencing the country

23 Jul

Last weekend, we had one of the best day trips we have had so far. We went to a tiny little island right off the coast, about an hour away from our apartment. We’ve been to Enoshima before (see my post here for more on that cool beach town), but we hadn’t walked over the bridge to the island yet.

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As you can see, this is a very small island, which made it easy for us to explore it from top to bottom and coast to coast.

The coolest part about this trip was how much culture we were able to experience in one go. Brent and I have talked about not feeling like we’re in another country during the week. He rides the train to work, works on his research at Nissan pretty much on his own, and I’m here in the apartment working by myself, only venturing out to go to the store – which is an experience in itself but is still a mundane, day-to-day task.

The weekends are when we really get to see the country and experience the culture and sights. Enoshima Island actually has a ton to offer despite being so tiny. The coolest part, to me anyways, was The Legend of Enoshima:
“Once upon a time, a fearful dragon with five heads lived in the bottomless lake in Fukasawa, Kamakura, and tormented the villagers. People were scared and called this land “Child Death Over The Mountain” and they sacrificed their children to the dragon. One day, thick clouds rose up in the offering, far south the area, and a strong earthquake shook the earth for days. When the earthquake stopped, a heavenly maiden appeared. When the clouds cleared, an island appeared at the surface. It is said that this island is Enoshima. The dragon, attracted to the beautiful heavenly maiden, proposed marriage to her, but she didn’t say yes. She wouldn’t accept the proposal until the dragon stopped its evildoing. It is said that the dragon mended its ways and finally gained her hand. People say the heavenly maiden in this legend is the goddess Benzaiten, who is worshipped on Enoshima island.” (via sign in the cave)

As you look up the island, there are a few different shrines, some to Benzaiten, some to other goddesses, and you can walk from the bottom to the top of the island to see them.

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But there was also the geography of the island. We don’t really understand how volcanoes and earthquakes work to create land masses, but this one was really interesting. There are flat rocks that extend out of the island, so instead of beaches, people fish on and lay out on the rocks when the tide is low. There were mini ecosystems full of tiny sea creatures that we were a bit obsessed with, and we looked out at the sea for a long time.
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We climbed the Sea Candle, a very tall observation tower, and it was pretty breathtaking. But! I’m still bummed we’re here during the hazy season. We would’ve been able to see Mt. Fuji had it been good visibility.

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This was definitely one of the days we really felt like we were in a different, new, exciting place!

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You know you’re by the ocean when you can just scoop up some shells and grill them up.

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What Do We Eat?!

16 Jul

This post is obviously, based on the title, focused on our food.

People have been asking us what we eat here. Brent’s colleagues were surprised to hear I cook every day, but that’s mainly because we’re often nervous to go out to eat! It’s rare to find a restaurant that has a menu with photos we can point to, or any English on the menu at all. This makes it tough!

I do cook, though, almost every night. The grocery store is so close (about 2 blocks away) and I’m very comfortable shopping there. Sometimes it’s a lot of guesswork, but I’ve been able to get everything I need. I’ve definitely had to tweak my cooking, since our kitchen is so tiny and our cookware is very limited, and the ingredients I’m used to being able to get easily and cheaply are either missing or pretty expensive (mostly fruit! it’s like a few dollars for one apple, or about 5 for a small package of pineapple or watermelon). But, the store has a wide variety and a great prepared food section. Super fresh sushi, fresh tempura, and other prepared dishes are always available and super super cheap. That’s always a fun choice for us to try a bunch of stuff!

 

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Mostly, though, I cook dishes inspired by what I can find. We’re obviously eating a lot of rice. You know you’ve been in an Asian country for a while when you actually start craving plain white sticky rice! I make noodles, too. I’ve been making yakisoba every week, and I’ll post a recipe for that soon. I’ll have to say, I’m getting pretty good at using chopsticks.

I try to make some American dishes, like sandwiches, salads, etc. It can be tough to find what I really want…so we’re having some cravings! We had to make a McDonald’s trip to satisfy our sandwich/beef craving the other day – beef is also very pricy here, since they have such a limited space for farming. I really miss my oven…If you know me, you know I’m always using my oven, and I miss baking and even making simple things like pizza. But, we’re still eating some great food!

fresh, local ingredients!

fresh, local ingredients!

I make salmon every week. Salmon is so cheap here, and the best salmon I’ve ever eaten! I can get a large filet for less than $5 and it’s extremely high in quality. It makes me and Brent super happy! The citrus fruit above is yuzu, a Japanese citrus fruit that tastes like a grapefruit/lemon/tangerine mix, almost like a non-bitter grapefruit and is super delicious. A young guy came up to our porch and sold us the yuzu!

I’m including a recipe here for some really really easy teriyaki. I make us salmon teriyaki every week, and you can use salmon, chicken, or any protein. I got this recipe from justhungry.com, a Japanese-based food blog with some pretty authentic recipes. I hope you try this, because it will give you a good idea of what we’re eating here!
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Simple Teriyaki
Ingredients:
3 Tablespoons mirin (Japanese sweet rice wine, you should be able to find this at an Asian market or the ethnic section of your grocery store)
2-3 Tablespoons soy sauce – I always use low-sodium, so you can adjust this to taste
1-2 Tablespoons white sugar
optional: minced garlic, minced ginger
Protein of choice: my instructions will be for salmon or fish, but you can adjust this to fit your protein.

Mix sauce ingredients together and set aside. Heat a small amount of oil over medium high heat. Heat till hot (but not smoking) and sear both sides of your salmon, about 2 minutes on each side (or until a nice brown color appears). Pour sauce over salmon and turn down heat to medium. The key to teriyaki is turning the meat frequently to coat the meat in the sauce. The sauce will thicken up and caramelize, due to the sugar and mirin. So, flip fish (carefully), or protein, frequently until cooked. If your protein cooks faster than your sauce reduces, you can remove the protein so it won’t overcook and continue to simmer the sauce until it thickens, and it will thicken as it cools.

That’s it! Serve this by pouring more sauce over top. I serve this with stir-fried vegetables and a nice bowl of white sticky rice.

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Travels: Kamakura

8 Jul

This weekend we got to do some heavy sight seeing, all with the help of Brent’s boss, who took along his family too. We went to Kamakura, an area very close to Enoshima, where we went the previous weekend. Kamakura is known for its abundance of temples and shrines. To get here, we had to take our usual train, meet our guides, and switch trains. We had to go on an older train line, and at one point we were on the street with the other cars!

First, we went to see the Great Buddha.

Scale view of the Great Buddha.

Scale view of the Great Buddha.

In front of the buddha

In front of the Buddha

beautiful patina

beautiful patina

full view

This site really had an impression on me.

This site really had an impression on me.

This impressive buddha is known as the Kamakura Daibutsu. Its construction began in 1252 and its construction technique was fairly new and innovative. It used to be covered in gold and housed in it’s own temple. The temple was destroyed in the 1300s by storms.

Next, we went to Tsurugaoka Hachimangu, one of the most important and famous shrines in Kamakura.

Tsurugaoka Hachimangu

Tsurugaoka Hachimangu

This is a shrine dedicated to Hachiman, and was founded by Minamoto Yoriyoshi. It was founded in 1063 and moved to this site in 1180. This was a very bright, colorful, and cheerful shrine, much different than what we saw that day.

Traditional Wedding

Traditional Wedding

There was a couple getting married! It was a traditional Japanese ceremony right in the middle of tourists and sight seers.

We moved on to see some temples. Temples are much more subdued and serious, focused on nature and is often still used in some capacity. The ones we saw were used in Zen training. There were several buildings in each site.

This one is the Kencho-ji temple, and it is one of the five great Zen temples in Kamakura. Zen monks are still trained here today

The front gate to the temple

The front gate to the temple

Starving Buddha

Starving Buddha

The final one we saw was probably the most “zen” in feeling. It was up high in the hills and was a sprawling area with several buildings, and lots of stairs to climb. Tons of hydrangeas were everywhere, and it was very serene and beautiful.
It is called Engaku-ji and it is the head temple of the Engaku sect of Zen.

Traditional Japanese Garden

Traditional Japanese Garden

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On the pamphlet was this quote, which I think sums up the whole experience of seeing the temples:

“The fact that we are living here, now, in the present – this is the true meaning of the existence of Buddha. Nothing is more precious than this. How marvelous this is! How important this is to realize from the bottom of one’s heart! This is the way in which all of us, each in our own fashion, will awaken to the truth and each live, in our own way, a cheerful and happy life. This is the teaching of Zen.”

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This was a packed day, and it helped Brent and I understand the source of some traditions and way of life the Japanese people still carry on today. It was beautiful and serene, and even though I was soaking in sweat, I managed to not get crabby and truly enjoy this rich cultural experience.

Travels: Enoshima

8 Jul

We took our first unaided, unguided trip last weekend. I really wanted to go to the aquarium I saw when we were in Tokyo the previous weekend, but getting to and around Tokyo can be a bit tricky (since Tokyo is SO HUGE, and we can’t really read signs). So Brent did some digging and found a closer, easier to find aquarium to please my fish-viewing cravings.

This map shows the general area where we are, and have traveled so far. We live in the Sagami-ono area, and this post is about Enoshima, on the coast.

our local area- where we live, where we've gone, and where we plan to go

our local area- where we live, where we’ve gone, and where we plan to go

Side note: Brent is like…a master traveler. He has been able to find every place we’ve wanted to go just by looking at maps and schedules. It’s absolutely stress free for me to travel with him – we never get lost and we’re always there on time. It’s great. (and those of you who know me well know that I have a poor sense of direction and map-reading.)

Anyways- We really had no idea where we were going and I was so excited when we got there that it was right on the beach! I didn’t think I’d get a chance to see a beach while we were here, so that alone was worth the train ride.

Enoshima Island - a small island off the coast (view from the aquarium)

Enoshima Island – a small island off the coast (view from the aquarium)

The aquarium was pretty cool. It was based on all the sea-life present in the area around the aquarium (Sagami Bay).

Big tank with all the local seal life

Big tank with all the local seal life

They have a famous jellyfish display that shows up in a lot of dramas and comedies in Japanese television/movies, we’re told. It was my favorite part!

One of the many species of jelly fish on display

One of the many species of jelly fish on display

Brent feeling a few small sharks in the touch tank

Brent feeling a few small sharks in the touch tank

The best part about this trip was just being by the ocean. The area we were was a typical beach town, and reminded me a lot of being in California. The beach was a very large public beach with tons of surfers catching waves. It isn’t really “beach” season yet, so it wasn’t very crowded.

mountain view from the beach

mountain view from the beach

Apparently, on high-visibility days, you can see Mt. Fuji very well from here – unfortunately summer is very poor for that!

We found a very tasty Italian restaurant and finally got what we’d been craving: pizza!

Pizza time!

Pizza time!

We went back Sunday for a relaxing beach day. We aren’t really beach people…so this was kind of a short beach day. We did dig up a starfish, caught some rays, and a bird almost took my finger with the cookie it stole out of my hand. Literally snatched a cookie right out of my hand, and I never saw it coming! Apparently, it was a black kite, which resembles a small hawk. Crazy.

cookie snatcher

cookie snatchers