Sunday, July 12, 2015

[celebrates] Vietnamese Engagement Ceremony - Lễ Đám Hỏi

Celebrating life events is something I just love to do!  I've always felt that if you have the bandwidth to recognize cultural traditions through celebrations, you should absolutely go for it.  As a first generation Vietnamese American, I'm the first to admit that some of my traditions aren't quite "by the book".  Often times my family's customs have become adaptations that mesh both cultures together.  Either way, we always figure out a way to have a bash that nods to our heritage and brings our family and friends together.  Here is a peek into my Vietnamese Engagement Ceremony, known as Lễ Đám Hỏi.  This special moment was captured by our photographer, Susannah Gill.

A few months prior to the event, I took down Ao Dai (Vietnamese dress) measurements for my bridesmaids, fiancé, and myself.  My mom coordinated with a family friend living in Vietnam to select the fabric and find a seamstress to make the outfits.  I created an inspiration document with plenty of pictures, examples, crossed my fingers, and hoped for the best!  Several months later, we got the ao dais’ back and tried them on.  Much to my amazement, the measurements (except for one pant error) seemed to work out really well!  I created a PDF document that I would be happy to email to you if you ever need to submit measurements.

The air was abuzz with excitement as my bridesmaids and I get ready for the ceremony.  Our friends and family pitched in to help with the set up of furniture, cook, and even create lovely flower arrangements.  My brother’s cat Squid sat comfortably in the room with all of the girls and he made himself a little nest on top of one of the ao dais. 

Red and gold are considered lucky colors, and our engagement ceremony was rightfully decorated in that theme.  Our altar held incense, flowers, and symbolic offerings of food.  My fiancé and I also happen to be born as dragons in the same zodiac year.  In Vietnamese culture, dragons are particularly coveted because children born as so are supposedly wise and lucky.  You might notice my fiancé and I are wearing coordinating dragon ao dais (courtesy of a very excited Momma Le) for this very reason.

As the bride to be, I took my post tucked away in the back bedroom.  My parents and grandma took their positions in the living room, right near the front door to welcome the groom’s family and guests inside.  My procession of bridesmaids and family lined up on the steps near the front door.  My fiance’s procession of groomsmen, friends, and family lined up on the sidewalk, carrying symbolic gifts of dowry on trays with decorated red silk overlays.  The other party guests stood outside, anticipating the curious spectacle of our modern American approach to this antiquated Vietnamese ritual. 

The fiance’s procession initiated the ceremony by walking single file from the sidewalk to our doorway and lining up next to the corresponding person from my side.  My younger cousin stood awaiting his cue, lighter in hand next to a string of Vietnamese firecrackers waiting for both parties to pass the trays.  Once both lines were in sync, the groom’s side passed the trays over to the bride’s side to represent the passing of the dowry from one family to another.  The firecrackers were lit, and the next 60 seconds were filled with an ear-splitting, slightly dangerous, red-paper-flying, experience that made eyes water and ears covered. 

Once the guests were squeezed inside of the house, my mother and sister presented me to my fiance.  My uncle spoke lovely words welcoming the guests, introduced the family members on each side, and we began lighting incense and bowing to pay respect to our deceased ancestors.  It is customary for parents of the bride or groom to gift the bride-to-be with a personal effect, such as a necklace, bracelet, or pair of earrings.  My mother in law adorned me with darling red studs that matched perfectly with my ao dai.  This was such an emotional moment for the two of us!  I let out a few happy tears and we hugged tightly with huge smiles on our faces. The tea ceremony quickly followed suit, and my fiancé and I poured tea for our honored elders and parents.

The ceremony wrapped up with a few more words of thanks from my dad.  It felt so wonderful sharing this piece of my tradition with my fiancé and his family.  All of the work we had put into planning, creating ao dais, and coordinating details was well worth it… I was elated.  We spent the rest of the afternoon enjoying Vietnamese food and each other’s companies. 

(Drool-worthy) Buffet Menu
  • Lotus Root Salad with Jelly Fish, Shrimp, and Pork - Gỏi Ngó Sen tôm, thịt, sứa
  • Spring Rolls - Gỏi cuốn
  • Egg Rolls (Shrimp, Vegetarian) - Chả giò tôm thịt - Chả giò chay
  • Steamed Rice Flour Cakes with Shrimp - Bánh bèo
  • Grilled Lemon Grass Chicken - Gà nướng xả 
  • Vegetable fried rice - Cơm chiên
  • Mushroom and Vegetable Stir Fry - Món Xào Chay
  • Asparagus Crab Soup - Súp Măng Cua
  • Crispy Roast Pork - Heo Quay
  • Steamed bun - Bánh bao
  • Red Sticky Rice - Xôi gấc
  • Sweet Dessert Soup / Pudding - Chè
  • Pandan Jelly and Mung Bean Cake - Bánh Xu Xê

Sunday, May 24, 2015

[travels] Tokyo and Ghibli Museum

Leaving Obachan's house was bittersweet.  We said our goodbyes, squeezed hands, and murmured words in broken Japanese.  She saw us out to the gate of her home, and watched as we rolled our suitcases down the street until she could see us no more.  I hope by some chance of fate, I make my way back to Osaka this year to slurp up sukiyaki in the warmth of her home.  Thoughts of obachan's home conjures cravings of Yamachan's takoyaki.  There is a location right outside of the Tennoji station that we pass through to get to the Osaka station.

Takoyaki at Yamachan's is insanely delicious.  Their variety is lightly crisped with a molten lava hot doughy interior.  They sell their house sauce inside, and I always contemplate buying it.  Alas, there is no takoyaki I could ever recreate that would be worthy of Yamachan's sauce.  So I never buy sauce, and leave the place with a revered memory.  Sarah and I continued on our trek back to Tokyo-- the very last part of our trip.

The snow fell with a quiet ease, masterfully over the landscape.  Our shinkansen glided along without any hesitation or notice for the weather outside.  Sarah and I were stuck in the smoking car section and once again I found myself double wrapping my scarf over my mouth and nose.  It's always during this part of the trip, when you finally have some time for contemplation that the reality of going home sets in.  I begin to wonder how everyone is doing back home, mentally add items to my to-do list, and a mild panic usually sets in.  There were still far too many meals left uneaten.  So little time, what to do?

We settled into a lovely AirBnB apartment in Shibuya, off of the Meguro station.  With no time to waste, Sarah and I went to Ginza to check out a ramen bowl exhibition and see if we could find a few displays of festive holiday lighting.  The exhibition was intriguing; various Japanese artists were tapped to design a bowl and soup spoon that resonated with their emotions towards ramen.  It was interesting to find how deep rooted these feelings were-- warmth, comfort, community, and more.  Some bowls were whimsical, while others were precisely designed as beautiful vessels for this beloved meal.

Predictably, we found ourselves perched on stools in a narrow Ramen-ya just a few hours later in Shibuya.  It was a lean operation- just one waiter/host/bus boy jovially calling out to customers, whisking bowls to and fro, and doing it all with a huge smile on his face.  The ramen cook moved endlessly as he poured broth, drained noodles, and chopped toppings.  The back of his shirt said, "No Noodles, No Life".  I couldn't agree more.

The next morning we arose eagerly to live out our last full day in Japan.  Sarah and I went to the Ebisu station to see if any of the delicious shops (specifically the La Robuchon Boutique) for some pastries, but our effort were to no avail.  It was simply too early and nothing was open until 9:30am.  Luckily we were in the best part of the world for food scavenging, and it wasn't long before we were contently rubbing our stomachs after slurping hearty bowls of udon.  I opted for a curious bowl with white and pink noodles with a serious heaping of garlic/chili/mystery/pork sauce scoop on top.  It was so early at this point, we even managed to squeeze in a trip to the Meiji-Jingu, which was crowded beyond belief.  I bought myself a ram keepsake from the temple that now lives on my bedside table. We were now ready for the Ghibli Museum.

If you're interested in going to the museum, you must know that tickets are typically bought well in advance by several weeks or months.  We didn't go this route, but had found last minute tickets through an amazing site called Voyagin.  There are some additional surcharges and fees associated with delivery, but it was well worth it for Sarah and I to squeeze in this much-desired excursion.  I'm a fan of Ghibli movies, my fascination started in elementary school after seeing Totoro for the first time, then grew as I subsequently watched it every other day after school with my best friend.  From there, my Japanese language class in middle school filled in the blanks with a few more movies, and my adoration officially took off.  If you are even the slightest Miyazaki or Studio Ghibli fan, you must come to this museum.  It's beyond incredible.

The museum was designed by Hayao Miyazaki himself, and it transports you into a creative dimension with tiny unique details.  There are stained glass character images, ceiling paintings, curious wood etchings, with every detail painstakingly arranged in its place.  Every room tells a story, whether it's the creation of a certain character, the inspiration for a storyboard, or just whimsical fun with a massive cat bus play pen for toddlers.  Seeing familiar characters in the museum lit up my heart.  Traces of Hayao's sketches were found throughout the rooms.  His talent left me speechless.  We explored every nook and cranny, even taking delight in having a snack at the cafe to see what it would look like inside.  I couldn't have imagined a better way to spend my last full day in Japan.

It was still a 15-10 minutes walk from the museum to the train station so we decided to have dinner in Mitaka.  Our time in the country was growing scarce so we were trying to be selective about what we ate.  A casual yakitori stop called out to me with it's hoard of guests standing at the small bar in front of the grisly cooks flipping, saucing, and grilling skewers of meat and vegetables.  It was lively, warm, and chaotic... I managed to sandwich myself between a few people and order some liver.  A friendly local struck up conversation with us and even had us try his drink and heckled the cook when my order didn't come fast enough.  This was street food at it's finest.  My liver yakitori was perfectly cooked with crisp edges, lightly seasoned, and searing hot.

 Sarah and I pinpointed an izakaya that had a steady flow of guests and plenty of seating for dinner.  We ordered our drinks and got a spread of items that sounded enticing; from saba sashimi to stir fried octopus, and a few cucumber sticks with miso.  I people watched for some felt nice to just sit in the warmth with no particular agenda over a mug of beer and good food.  Sarah and I travelled back to our apartment in Meguro, stopping often along the way to buy souvenirs.  I couldn't stop rambling about squeezing in “just one more meal” that day, and so several hours later we stopped into another izakaya for a late night fix.  That bowl of ramen and negi skewer sent me into a blissful sleep... rambling resolved.

There was only one thing I wanted to do for our last several hours in Japan, and it was to eat tsukemen at Rokurinsha in the Tokyo Station.  Sarah got to choose the rest of the day and led us to the lovely Shinjuku National Garden.  The scenery was just breathtaking- frozen blades of grass, still water reflecting the beauty around it, tiny bridges with intricate detail, and tiny flowers defying the cold winter air.  We stopped into a small building for traditional green tea and cake served by an adorable woman in a yukata.  Groups of photography students and individual painters quietly went about their arts, soaking in the calmness around them.  We found the old emperor’s lake-side villa and wandered in to gaze at the very same scene he must have taken in so long ago.

After the park, we went to the Tokyo Station in search of Ramen Street, buried underground but certainly not shy of visitors.  I had my eyes set on Rokurinsha because Jun's mom had recommended it and Chef David Chang had also visited the site with Peter Meehan in the show Mind of a Chef. I HAD to slurp my last bowl of ramen there.  The queue took about 50 minutes, and then I was in ramen heaven.  This was my first time having tsukemen (dipping ramen) and it was even better than I could have ever imagined.  The noodles were thick and springy, the dipping tare was intensely flavorful with only a hint of vinegar. I couldn't stop uttering words of amazement between bites, even choking for a while when food went down the wrong tube from eating too fast.  

After this meal, we passed a bit of time with more souvenir shopping and then went back to Ebisu to get our hands on some Robuchon pastries, which we achieved with success this time around.  Good lord, that cream puff.  The visit to the Ebisu station was followed by some light shopping, packing, and then a final sushi snack at a restaurant off of our beloved Meguro station in Tokyo.  With a long sigh, we were off to the airport.  Every step of the familiar feeling of rolling my suitcase across the smooth airport tile prepared me for my destination home.  I looked around and said my silent goodbyes to the country that I hold so dear.   This little adventure was over for now.  

Thursday, May 7, 2015

[eats] Sukiyaki Recipe

I obsess so much over sukiyaki that it only makes sense that I have a post on it.  Nami, the author of JustOneCookbook already has a lovely sukiyaki recipe.  I made some slight modifications, but she pretty much nails it on the head.  The recipe below is a combination of my experience at Obachan's house and Nami's from JustOneBookbook.

Sukiyaki is fun when you get a group of people together.  Just make sure everyone is seated within arms reach of the hotpot.  Use two burners and pots if you have a larger group! 

Serves 6 really hungry people, or 8 mildly hungry people

Feel free to adjust the ingredients depending on your group's preference.  Just make sure you have a variety of mushrooms, cabbage, noodles, and onions.  You just can't go wrong with sukiyaki!  I'll often cut extra amounts of vegetables to use just in case the group is gobbling it all up.  Extras can be easily saved for another meal.  Frozen udon also comes in multiple packs, so if anyone is still hungry at the end you can throw in extra noodles.

3 packages Enoki Mushrooms
5-8 Shiitake Mushrooms, sliced into .5" pieces
1 package Maitake Mushrooms
1 package Hiratake (also known as oyster mushrooms)
1-2 Napa Cabbages, sliced into 1.5" pieces
1-2 Carrots, sliced in .25" rounds
1-2 packages of Frozen Udon Noodles
1-2 packages of Shirataki Noodlesj (brown or white, doesn't matter)
1-2 packages of Broiled Tofu, cubed in 1-2" pieces
1-2 bundles of Tokyo Negi (giant Japanese green onion), sliced
4 lbs. of Kobe Beef (or best thin sliced meat you are willing to buy, my rule of thumb is .6-.7 pounds per person)
1 dozen Cage Free, Organic, Pasture Eggs (typically from the farmer's market or reputable food store.  They cost around $9 for the entire dozen)

**A special note about the eggs**
American eggs are not as high quality and salmonella-free as the ones in Japan.  You need to buy eggs that are PASTURED (chickens are allowed to roam in a pasture freely).  Empowered Sustenance breaks this raw egg deal down perfectly.  Organic and cage free eggs do not equate to pastured eggs.  More information can also be found on SafeEggs.

Sukiyaki Sauce 
If you want to make your own, use Nami's recipe
Sukiyaki Tare (I like using the pre-made version, you should be able to search for "sukiyaki sauce" or "tare" in any Japanese grocery store)
2 Cups of Water on hand

Iwatani Butane Portable Stove
Extra butane gas canisters (they are MUCH cheaper at the grocery store... only $2 or so)
Tongs/Long Chopsticks

Recommended Japanese Grocery Stores 

  1. Wash and chop all of the vegetables/tofu as specified on ingredient list.
  2. Arrange ingredients on a plate so they are easily accessible next to the stove.  
  3. Rinse the shirataki noodles in a colandar under cold running water for 3 minutes to remove the strange "fishy" smell.
  4. Remember to place the frozen udon out on the table so you don't need to get up to retrieve it later on. 
  5. Open the beef packaging and arrange the meat on a plate if you wish (not necessary).
  6. Each place setting should have a bowl, high quality raw egg, and chopsticks.
  7. The portable stove should be set up in the center of the table within arm's reach for everyone.  Keep the sukiyaki tare, water cup, and tongs/long chopsticks right next to it. You may want to appoint a designated "cook" or two to be in charge of adding ingredients into the sukiyaki pot.
  8. Everyone should crack their raw egg into their bowls and beat to get the yolk thoroughly mixed.  This will be another part of your "sukiyaki sauce".
  9. Turn the heat on medium-high and place several pieces of beef in to get the pan started.  
  10. Once there is a bit of natural oil/fat on the pan (sometimes people add a spot of vegetable oil), you can add in large handfuls of vegetables, tofu, and shirataki noodles.
  11. Liberally squirt the sukiyaki sauce in and taste as you go.
  12. The vegetables will cook down and yield water, but you can add it a few small pours of water whenever the broth gets low.
  13. Grab small pieces of vegetables and meat for yourself, dip into your raw egg, and pop it in your mouth!  This might be hard for some to wrap their heads around, but the raw egg makes a huge difference.  Its amazing, you should really try it.
  14. Eat and encourage others to chow down once the ingredients are cooked.  This is a continuous process of eating and adding ingredients.  It's best not to overcook the meat, so leave an empty plate out for the cooked pieces.
  15. Once everyone's eating pace starts slowing down, the vegetables have dwindled, and the broth is strong and flavorful, add the frozen udon into the pot.
  16. Enjoy the intermingled flavors of the sukiyaki pot over a bowl of udon!     
So what is the verdict? Do you love sukiyaki as much as I do?                                                                                                                 

Monday, May 4, 2015

[travels] Nara and Osaka, Japan in the Winter

Blue-hued dreams are sure to follow after any night of Mermaid Coin Pushing Games.  Sarah and I left Kobe to meet up with her friend Mika from college at the Osaka station.  Mika and her husband chose a lovely restaurant that served an Asian fusion variety.  As usual, I was immediately drawn to the entree with the runny egg.  Needless to say, I was not disappointed.

Our next stop was Nara, a land famous for its abundance of friendly (and respectful) deer.  These deer are motivated by thin wafers you can buy from vendors for 250 yen.  If you have wafers in your possession, don't expect to have one second alone.  They will gently nudge you and tug at loose ends of clothing until you give them a piece.  Hold a wafer in front of them and they will bow humbly before you.  They run freely in the foregrounds of the Todai-ji temple, eagerly moving from one visitor to another.

Visiting the Todai-ji is a double whammy bonus.  You get to see the biggest buddha statue in Japan AND immerse yourself in herds of adorable deer.  What's more, this temple is wooden and simply breathtaking.  Do touch the enormous rough doors and soak in the entire experience.  Inside you will most certainly gawk at the looming statues that are impressively decorated with carved details.  Ah yes, and have I mentioned the curious rectangular cut out in one of the giant pillars?  People line up to take their chances at squeezing themselves through this hole.  Of course, I had to do this for myself.

After we left the temple, we were headed to Jun's Obachan's (grandmother) house in the suburbs of Osaka, off of the Fujidera station.  It was evening at this time, and people were abuzz with excitement for New Year’s, which was happening in just a few short hours.  As usual, we sought out noodles for dinner and this night's meal truly hit the spot.  I had soba noodles accompanied by a stewed pork broth that was rich and salty.  It was the perfect meal to round out 2014 and I felt complete knowing I had started my year in Japan and was ending it in the same place.  

The walk from the train station to Obachan's house is one of my favorite paths.  We passed through a small shopping arcade, tiny neighborhood eateries, mini shrines, and zig zagged through the quiet suburbs of Osaka.  Everything is immaculate, all is serene, and you can't help but wonder about the families that live behind the warmly lit window panes.  People in Japan take such pride in their homes and they hang special New Year's ornaments on their doors.  The occasional cat runs across the street, well-fed with round anime-like eyes.  We tumbled into Obachan's house and headed straight for the one heated room in the house.  I always sigh with relief when I put my feet under the heated table and blanket as my body defrosts from the cold walk.  We dozed off for a short while, then woke up to head to the temple to ring in the New Year.

Luckily, Obachan lives relatively close to a large shrine and the Fujidera Temple.  We decided to visit the shrine, which was still packed with people.  Sarah, Jun, and I took our spots in line and waited for our turn to walk in an infinite pattern through the straw loop.  We shuffled forward as we mixed within the crowd to light incense and pray at the front of the altar.  The smell of incense wove it's way deep within the fibers of my clothing.  Kind temple folk offered small cups of sake for warmth in preparation for the frigid walk home.  I fell into my warm futon surrounded by the smell of the temple in my hair, clothes, and on my skin.  

I woke up the next morning to the sound of Obachan scuttling back and forth through the hallway and kitchen.  She was preparing for our first meal of the year, which was a massive osechi.  Osechi's look like intricate bento boxes with many sections for tiny delicacies.  I've been told you are supposed to try and eat a piece from every section to represent good fortune for the new year.  The most popular item is the kuromame, which is a sweet black soy bean.  These are absolutely delicious... ours were even topped with gold flakes.  Obachan is really an ace grandma.  We sat around the heated table and ate with Jun's family until we were rendered into a food-coma zombie state.  I willed my stomach to grow larger to accommodate one of each piece, but it would go no further.  

We sat, talked, and rubbed our bulging bellies until things felt slightly less uncomfortable.  Sarah and I convinced Jun that we needed to head to an arcade to relive the amazing mermaid coin pushing game night.  Bundled up once more, we walked through the suburbs of Osaka in search of a game arcade that was nowhere to be found.  Our 20 minute walk quickly turned into 40 minutes, with several loops back to the same area.  There were only a handful of people out and about, and asking for directions was exceedingly difficult.  I was a few steps away from throwing a hissy fit, but we found the Sega arcade at last.  No mermaid game here, but we enjoyed burning our coins with a pushing game of another variety.  This one let you load up a handful of tokens and spin knobs to rapid fire them.

We left as the last of the sunlight was fading from the skies and tiny snowflakes fell from above.  My scarf was triple wrapped around my neck so only my eyes were exposed.  It was cold as hell on this New Year's day.  We sought refuge back in Obachan's warm living room and stretched out, recanting our story of getting lost for an hour to the arcade.  Jun's uncle found this to be quite amusing.  Our next meal was already underway-- heaps of vegetables were shuttled from the kitchen to the living room table.  I was giddy with anticipation for my favorite Japanese meal of all time... sukiyaki at Obachan's house. 

The sound of the sizzling meat is how sukiyaki starts off.  Then add the heaps of enoki, napa cabbage, the vegetable medley, and tare (see my recipe)  Break the beautiful raw egg into your bowl and swirl it around while keeping a close eye on the hot pot.  You wouldn't want your perfectly marbled Kobe beef to overcook now, do you?  I was so excited for Sarah to experience this meal... because it was the perfect way to celebrate New Year's.  Spectacular food and family in a warm home.  Eating that sukiyaki transports me to another dimension of umami heaven.  This is the part of Japan I cherish, and will always think about on the first day of a New Year.  

Saturday, April 11, 2015

[travels] Kyoto and Kobe, Japan in the Winter

I woke up smelling the scent of the tatami mats intermingled with the clean cotton of my futon.  My jet lag was gone and I had slept comfortably through the night.  I could already hear sounds of the shopkeepers opening up their stalls and setting up for the day's business in the shopping arcade below.  Today was going to be a busy day for Sarah and I.  We were planning on meeting up with my brother Jun, who was coming from Osaka.  Kyoto called out to us, just begging to be explored.

Day 3
The Kyoto Station puts every American airport to shame.  It's a modern colossal station spaceship, complete with it's own ramen floor, multiple shopping malls, vast ranges of dining, and meticulously clean, of course.  We purchased a Kyoto day bus and subway pass for 1200 yen, which would allow us to travel throughout the city to see every attraction that piqued our interests.  Sarah and I wandered through the station and settled down for breakfast in a cozy cafe.  Literally cozy-- they had baskets with a throw blankets underneath every chair.  I had a Kujo green onion and chicken sandwich, which was a regional special.  The kujo negi is a traditional Kyoto vegetable, known for its soft texture, slightly sweet, and mild flavor.

We made a sad attempt at trying to meet Jun at the platform as nice Japanese friends might do, but failed epically.  In hindsight, the enormous Kyoto station wasn't the best place for us to try this.  Nevertheless, we had our passes in hand and plotted our path to the ever-famous Kinkaku-ji, or the "Golden Pavillion".  You must know there is also the Ginkaku-ji, the "Silver Pavillion" that is nowhere near as impressive as it's golden counterpart.  With limited time in Kyoto, I would recommend the kinkaku-ji for it's stunning photo opportunities and uniqueness.  Brace yourself for hoards of people taking pictures as soon as you enter the property.  We asked a delightful elderly gentleman to take a picture of our little group.  He had never used an iphone before, and after our request, I came away with ten photo bursts of our feet, torsos, and our smiling faces.

Our next destination was Arashiyama Park on the northwest border of Kyoto.  We were lured by the promise of lovely bamboo forests, and especially the Iwatayama Monkey Park.  I am something of an animal-encounter-fanatic, and I never turn down the opportunity to get close to a wild mammal.  The Arashiyama area seemed to have a different vibe of it's own.  Restaurants and souvenir shops were lined along the Hozu River, packed with tourists looking for a place to rest or re-group.  We breezed through the Tenryu-ji temple to get to the bamboo forest on the outer border.  It wasn't necessary to go through the temple to get to the forest, but it was a nice walk that I highly recommend.  The bamboo forest walk itself was a short windy path surrounded by vibrant stalks shooting up into the sky.  This was a popular destination, so beware that it's exceedingly difficult to snap pictures without getting another person in it.

By this time, it was late afternoon and sunset was imminent.  A small panic started to build inside my stomach... we hadn't gone to the Iwatayama Monkey Park yet.  Our leisurely pace quickened to a determined stride, because we still had a bit of ground to cover.  We went over the Togetsukyo bridge onto the other side, and located the unassuming monkey park entrance ticket booth.  By this time, we were practically running.  The hike to the summit of monkeys was no joke, it was a grueling 30 minutes of steep switchback trails.  We were peeling off our scarves, coats, sweaters, and I sincerely broke a sweat along that hike.  There were a few encouraging facts along the way, but no monkey sightings unless you got to the very top.  It all happened very quickly-- we went from seeing no monkeys to many shrieking monkeys swiping snacks from each other and demanding treats from the humans.  I found a comfortable spot on the ground next to a fire the groundskeeper had outside to keep the monkeys warm.  It was an ideal spot, as I found myself within 3 feet of monkeys the entire time.  Particularly one, that I affectionately called Momo.

We stayed for as long as we could, but the light of day had diminished and we needed to make our way back down the mountain.  Sight-seeing was temporarily over, so the pursuit of ramen naturally transcended the agenda.  Jun's mom recommended a ramen-ya known for it's exceptionally clear, yet flavorful broth.  Ino-Ichi ramen was located several streets off the bustle of Gion on the lower level of a commercial building.  It only had a handful of small tables inside with a small bar, and a line had already begun building outside.  The wait was well worth it, and we got a seat at the bar with a full view into the kitchen.  I couldn't take my eyes off of the cook as he labored over the assembly of toppings, even using tiny tongs to gently place the Wagyu beef on the surface.  God, it was good.

Jun jokes that Japanese girls have expanded stomachs because they are constantly eating.  I believe this is a true condition, as I too gain a Japanese girl sized stomach by my third day in Japan.  There is always room to eat more delicious food.  We walked back into Gion to introduce Sarah to Tsujiri Honten, famous for it's green tea concoctions of sips and sweets.  Last year, Jun and I had to wait in line for an hour to get a table.  For some reason on this evening, the gates of heaven opened up and there was no wait.  We enjoyed two parfaits and basked in the warmth of the restaurant, letting moments of weariness seep in.  Gion is a wonderful place to buy souvenirs, and I made sure to pick up several boxes of tea from the tsujiri honten store on my way out.  I still enjoy my genmaicha tea on the occasional Saturday morning when my heart yearns for Japan.  The night was rounded out with a visit to the Jam Hostel Sake Bar, where I had stayed the previous year.  They had an impressive collection of curated Sake from each region of Japan, and the owner dutifully explained the origin of each drink.  I mulled over my yuzu sake and gave in to the beckoning of sleep.

Day 4

It was another beautiful morning in Kyoto.  The sound coming from the shopping arcade was already familiar to my ears.  We set out to explore new territory and temper the grumble of my Japanese girl stomach in the Nishiki Ichiba market.  This was not just an ordinary shopping arcade, this was a mecca of ingredients, supplies, and street food.  This was a place that made you wish you had eyes in the back of your head, just so you could take in all of the sights around you.  Come hungry with an open mind and you will not be disappointed.  Follow the local eating etiquette-- pull off to the side to snack, do not eat while walking.  Only misinformed foreigners do that.  I may or may not have been guilty of this act.

We got sidetracked for a moment by a large crowd outside of a pub and got reigned into watching a New Year's mochi pounding ritual.  Lucky Jun got to take part in it while I snapped an obscene amount of pictures.  Our next stop was Fushimi Inari, known to many foreigners as the "red gate shrine".  Photo opportunities are fantastic here (if you can get an angle without people).  Note the many guardian foxes here that don red scarves.  Most excellent.

Kyoto's natural well water is the ideal component for making the perfect tofu.  Tofu making requires lots of water, and Kyoto's soft water makes for creamy and smooth tofu.  Even if you aren't a tofu aficionado, you ought to try some there.  Sarah and I found a restaurant in the Kyoto station that served nothing but tofu, transformed in many ways.  There was a queue in front despite it being late in the afternoon, so I had a feeling this meal would be good.  The variety was remarkable-- silken tofu soups, yakitori-style skewers, and even green tea pudding.  I don't even think you can find this kind of restaurant any where in America... even if you did, the tofu quality would not match Kyoto's. Following this lovely meal, we ventured to our next destination, Kobe.

I have mixed feelings about Kobe.  It feels juxtaposed between times and cultures, not quite Japanese but you can't place a finger on it.  It's a hodge-podge kind of place-- strong Chinese influence, modern structures, and quite frankly, not a lot to do.  We explored around the Sannomiya area, which had "China Town" area, high rise buildings, and Harborland all within a reasonable walking distance.  I had visited a friend in Kobe last year and I felt that I had already seen almost everything the city had to offer.  Sarah and I got in late evening, so we went to China Town to see what delectable snacks awaited us.  Street food vendors called out to us, each one claiming their pork belly bun was better than the rest.  It felt like deja vu walking down this little street-- almost everyone was selling the same thing.  We had a few small items, but I was discontent with my meal.  Note: stick to Japanese food in Japan. 

As we wandered through the streets of Kobe, we made an important discovery.  Gudetama, a cranky runny cartoon egg, who became a beloved mascot for the duration of the trip. Our hostel was located near a giant arcade and pachinko building.  I've now realized that we must have stayed in a seedy area if we were surrounded by pachinko parlors.  Sarah and I ducked in to see what we could play.  We discovered the bowling alley on the top floor, and bought ourselves a frame in broken Japanese and lot of pantomiming.  The shoe distribution system was impressive... there was an entire wall broken into sections of shoe sizes.  We found our shoe sizes (did some conversion on google) and pressed a massive round button that deposited our shoes down a chute.  I was blown away by this bowling shoe vending machine. 
The next hour and half spent at this arcade ranks at the top of my fondest trip memories.  4 words: Mermaid Coin Pushing Game.  1500 yen at this arcade bought us two hefty baskets of game coins...and our choice of a cutesy anime character folder as a bonus.  I'd never had so many coins in my possession... it was sheer madness.  The mass felt like 7 pounds.  We were drawn into like moths to a light bulb by an enormous, brilliantly blue, shiny, noisy mermaid machine belting exciting phrases and high-pitched melodies.  Like a toddler tasting pop rocks for the first time, the experience was truly invigorating.  We plopped down on the bench and didn't move for the next hour and half until the coins were depleted.  Magical treasure chests opened up, rubber gems swirled around and dished out bonus coins.  Elderly locals came and went all around us like a time-lapse montage in a movie.  

I could have stayed on that bench pushing coins until the cows came home.