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My First Spring Break (Mexico!)

29 Mar

Guys! I went to Mexico for a week, and it wasn’t snowing there! I didn’t have to wear a coat or boots or anything! (well, I did wear something…but it was far far less than usual)

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We went to Puerta Vallarta with my parents and brother to a super beautiful resort. This area of Mexico is just gorgeous, with the mountains surrounding a bay, it’s all just so pretty. And we always feel really safe in this part of the country, which is nice because it means we can go exploring a little bit.
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Margaritas, obviously.

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Dad loves mom.

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I’m so short.

This was Brent’s first time in Mexico, and I was excited to share it with him. I’d been to this area twice before, so I really wanted him to see the things I had told him about. Here are the highlights: We went on a cool boat ride to a little “private” beach. Private, because it wasn’t open to the public. You had to buy tickets to go there – so fancy!

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On the boat!

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Mom “found” a starfish! I can’t believe she actually held it.

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The boys paddle boarding

Brent and I took a tour of the city and surrounding areas, something I had done before with my family. It was all of our favorite thing from the trip, so I really wanted to do it again! There is a small walking tour of the downtown area of Puerta Vallarta.

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Our Lady of Guadalupe Parish in downtown Puerta Vallarta.

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The boardwalk is full of statues and art pieces. This piece is the symbol of the city.

There’s a huge “handicraft” market, basically a tourist mecca with basically anything you could ever want made in Mexico. Beautiful ceramics and hand blown glass, blankets, clothing, shoes, vanilla, etc., as well as the little junky trinkets and shot glasses and other mass-marketed things. I wasn’t really in the mood to barter or get ripped off, and neither one of us really needed anything. All I wanted was this super high quality vanilla that we had bought from this market a few years back. I grabbed it, got a decent deal, and we headed over to a really cute little cafe and people watched.

From there, we headed up to the mountains, where we learned a lot about the city and how it came to be a tourist destination. Basically, it all comes down to Elizabeth Taylor’s affair with some movie star…I am not totally sure but the scandal brought attention to the city in the late 1960s and then Nixon came and visited…and boom, on the map.

A really unique part of this tour is that we get to stop at a traditional tequila distillery. It was a 3-generation family business that hand make severything, from cooking the agave in big fire pits, using a donkey to crush it into juice, and distilling it in small batches in copper stills, to developing their own flavored and aged tequilas. Last time I didn’t partake in the free samples…but I sure did this time!

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They have a citrus flavor, almond flavor, and a coffee-vanilla-chocolate flavor. They were so good. like…so good. Brent had to get a picture of me taking my first official shot! (Long story, but I don’t like when people tell me what to do, i.e.: “You HAVE to take a shot.” so I don’t take shots on principle…and I’m stubborn). Anyways. They also have a reposado tequila, or “rested” which means it was in the barrel for less than 8 months. The anejo tequila is rested for at least 18 months, and was smooth and slightly sweet. The family reserve was the best thing ever – smooth, sweet, and smoky, but very pricy. We bought the anejo, which was still expensive…but worth it!

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Obviously there was the beach and ocean, but I’m so fair (and so is Brent) and I get very grumpy when I’m hot. I need shade at all times or I fry. I used spf 50 all week. I still got sun burned.

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But I’ll gladly take that over boots, down jackets, mittens, and having the heat on, all things that happened this week at home. So. Over. It.

I’m happy to be home, though. I missed my kitties!

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Holiday Adventures (AKA: Photo dump)

3 Jan

Hi! I hope everyone had a nice holiday season, and got a bit of  a break from your hectic schedules.

Brent and I did a lot of visiting and traveling, hauling the kitties with us to stay at Brent’s parent’s house and seeing lots of relatives. We are pretty blessed to have such great families and friends and I’m so glad we got to see a lot of them!

Here’s about 100000 pictures I took. It’s a shame not to share them, so be prepared for a long picture post.

Minnesota: Christmas
We had a “Cookie day” a few days before Christmas. For once ,I didn’t actually bake anything. My mom (of all people!) mixed up a really tasty sugar cookie dough, and we store bought gingerbread cookie dough. Brent helped roll and cut out shapes (I have no patience…) and we invited people over to decorate.

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Here’s a small sampling of my cousins.

Then, there was Christmas and other things that go along with that. Nothing too exciting to report! We got more things than we needed – we’re still spoiled.

Case in point, our 1 day trip to NYC.
We didn’t really have a plan…at all. This made for a lot of wandering around, which was pretty fun. We happened to walk past one of my favorite things in the city: Trinity Church. I’ve been to NY a couple times before and have only walked past this ancient church and the cool cemetery attached to it. I longed to go in, since I love old old things, but we never had time. Not this time!
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The gravestone above is the oldest in the cemetery. It was put there before the church existed, in the mid 1600s, and still stands. You can actually still be buried in this cemetery if you have the right connections.

We were centered mostly around Times Square and that area, walking around Broadway and other famous locales.
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If I had been on this trip alone, I would have TOTALLY gone to see Richard III and Twelfth Night. Richard III is my favorite Shakespeare play…but alas I’m the only lit nerd in our group. I would have also gone to the American Indian Museum near Wall Street, the only free museum in the city. I’m also the only one who likes museums.  Maybe next time!

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After this little trip, we drove to Brent’s parent’s for the rest of our little vacation. We were glad the cats had a place to stay, and they loved their new big place to explore. (and their grandparents! hehe)
We do a lot of relaxing there, which is so nice when neither one of us has work to do.
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Squirrels! Dogs! So many new things!

 

 

 

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All three cats were napping with Sherri.

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Family picture with wiggly participants
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We also got to go out for New Year’s Eve and got to dress up. Brent got to wear his suit…it was a big deal. One of our dear friends goes to school in this town, so we were able to meet up with him and had a nice night out. I had the best cocktail of my life (pineapple upside down cake!) and my feet almost froze off.

That’s about it. I did get to peek at some vintage recipes from Brent’s grandpa, something I’m very excited about – look for some of those to come in 2014, along with more posts from me. A resolution of sorts.

Happy New Year, all!

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

We Made It! First Week In Japan

19 Jun

Well, after one week, I think we’re almost all settled in. Traveling here was quite the trip, and we almost didn’t even live in Thursday and skipped right into Friday. It was pretty weird. But overall, we made it here without a hitch. Will virtually zero Japanese, we’ve been able to get around the airport (which, to its credit, has a lot of signs in English and a great information counter with English speaking services), get our apartment, grocery shop and buy everything we need, and Brent is traveling via train and bus to work every day.

But how did we get here? Well, we left on Wednesday and flew to San Diego and waited for our connection to Japan. We got lucky, so we were told, because we got to fly in the new 787, or “Dreamliner,” a humongous plane that I certainly did not expect to be as giant as it was. I’ve only flown on normal planes for no more than about four hours…so this 10 hour flight and behemoth of a plane was quite the treat.

Glimpse of the plane

Glimpse of the plane

This was just our section…there was an entire “first class/ business class” in front of us, and an entire section behind us. It had four seats in the middle rows and two seats across on the sides. Basically, it was huge. and fancy!

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There was a screen in front of every seat, with a remote control on one side and a game controller on the other. You could watch a bunch of movies, shows, play games… it was crazy! I got to watch that weirdly violent Hansel and Gretel movie, as well as the classic Annie Hall. Brent played a video game and basically slept the entire time when they weren’t feeding us…which was half the time. They stuffed us with (really good) food!

Brent got a "special" meal - low sodium. and special treatment from the flight attendants!

Brent got a “special” meal – low sodium. and special treatment from the flight attendants!

Muchin'

Muchin’

This is so. much. food. and this doesn't show the ice cream they gave us later!

This is so. much. food. and this doesn’t show the ice cream they gave us later!

Showing off my chopstick skills with some watermelon

Showing off my chopstick skills with some watermelon

I’ve never been on a flight where the flight attendants were actually attentive. They offered us as many drinks and snacks as we wanted, were heating up baby bottles for people, helping people get luggage down, just anything you wanted! They were so sweet. We got to try some Japanese beer (they were really excited that we wanted to try it) and were always offering us more. We felt pretty special.

So we landed and then had to exchange money and find out how to get to our hotel – both of which Brent handled fabulously.

We headed to the Hilton near the airport, and then basically fell asleep at 7pm. I was up for about 24 hours and only “lived” for a few hours in Thursday before falling asleep and waking up on Friday!

Friday was busy. We had to wake up super early to go back to the hotel and catch a bus to Yokohama so we could get our keys. The man who worked with us actually drove us to our apartment (about an hour), and one of Brent’s colleagues met us in our town and took us to lunch, which was our first official meal in Japan. Brent then went to check out the train/ bus situation and get a tour at his work, while I was left to set up our apartment.

kitchenette

kitchenette

From the sleeping loft

From the sleeping loft

We have 2 futon mattresses up in a little cozy loft space, like a tree house hangout.

from the sliding door

from the sliding door

microwave/fridge/bathroom door.

microwave/fridge/bathroom door.

I love our little apartment. It’s cozy and cute, and only a block away from the shopping center which is obviously my hot-spot.

We will be exploring more soon, and a few people have offered to take us around and show us some good “touristy” spots near our home. More to come really soon – including some recipes and food pics!