Apr 28, 2014

Meiji Jingu - Tokyo, Japan

On our first rainy and overcast morning in Tokyo, we visited Meiji Jingu in Shibuya. This Shinto shrine is dedicated to the Emperor and Empress Meiji. The original complex was built in 1920, but like many landmarks in Japan, it was destroyed during World War II and later rebuilt.

Marking the entrance to the shrine complex is a huge torii gate made of cypress.

Lanterns line the forested path to the main shrine area. Upon reaching this point, it is easy to forget that we had just been in a huge crowd of jostling people a few minutes ago outside Harajuku station.

Along the pathway, you come across of wall of sake barrels, which were donated to the shrine.

As we approached the main shrine area, there was water trough where we could purify ourselves. 

The process consists of using a ladle to take a small amount of water from the trough, pouring some water over one hand on to the ground, switching the ladle into your other hand and pouring water over your other hand.  

Besides a few large tour groups, the central shrine area was very peaceful. There were vendors selling amulets for various things such as good health, good grades, and safe travel. 

Prayers could be written on wooden tablets and hung on a rack outside. 

Prayers written in many languages

For Raisin Bread and myself, this was the first opportunity we had to visit a Shinto shrine and made for the perfect start of our first day in Japan!

Apr 21, 2014

Dotonbori (Osaka, Japan)

Dōtonbori is a popular food and tourist destination in Osaka. It is composed of one street that runs parallel to the Dōtonbori canal.

At night, the street is lit up with bright neon signs. Over the first few days of our trip, the weather was not very pleasant, with showers and rain lasting all day, but that did not stop us from visiting this must see nightlife district.

One of Dōtonbori's landmarks is the giant Glico running man sign overlooking the canal.

But there are plenty of other neon advertisements to catch the eye.

Sea of transparent plastic umbrellas. They are very popular in Japan!

Dōtonbori canal

Another Dōtonbori landmark is the ultra creepy Kuidaore clown. The literal translation of kuidaore is "to eat oneself bankrupt." Did I mention that Osaka is a food obsessed city? Dōtonbori gives visitors plenty of opportunities to maybe not eat oneself bankrupt but surely to eat oneself silly.

The restaurants in Dōtonbori seem to be in competition for having the biggest, loudest, wackiest signs and storefronts. From giant pieces of sushi to huge mechanical moving crabs, restaurants try hard to grab your attention and add to the ambiance of this destination.

Giant blowfish 

After all of this visual stimulation, we needed to try some of the local eats. I have been dying to try takoyaki for a while now. They are wheat flour balls, filled with pieces of octopus and slathered with mayonnaise, brown takoyaki sauce and bonito shavings. I couldn't find the stall that was on my list so I just headed to the shop with the giant octopus out front.

Fresh takoyaki was being prepared before our eyes. Unfortunately, I did not enjoy them. I was not expecting them to be a big blob of mush on the inside.

It's takoyaki time!


We also decided to grab some sushi from one of the many Ganko Sushi locations in the area. I had the tuna combination and it was not the best. Looked like we were 0 for 2 in dining selections for the night.

Ganko Sushi

In addition to loads of eateries, there are arcades and retail spots to assist you with parting with your money. We loved visiting the arcades and watching the locals play these games of dancing, drumming, pattern matching, guitar playing and more with gusto. The dancing was the best of all though!

Mike and Sulley crane game

We also ventured into a pachinko parlor for a brief visit while we were there. Pachinko is a gambling game that looks similar to a pinball machine. The parlors are so loud! And I do not get what the attraction is at all. They seem to serve the same purpose as slot machines do in the States.

Dōtonbori tickles all of the senses with its bright lights, interesting eats and buzzing sounds. 

Apr 18, 2014

Cherry Blossom Season in Japan

Raisin Bread and I just returned from an amazing 16-day trip to beautiful Japan! When we booked our trip last November, we were hoping that our time in Japan would coincidence with the peak cherry blossom bloom in at least one of the cities we would be visiting. Lucky for us, we got to see cherry blossoms almost everywhere we went.

Cherry blossoms in Nara

Locals and tourists alike took time to admire the sakura blossoms. Symbolically, the blossoms represent the transience of life. They are stunningly beautiful but last a very short time.

After a few days of rain in Tokyo, many of the fragile blossoms fell from their branches.

Sakura season is celebrated throughout Japan through hanami (flower viewing) picnics. I loved that throngs of people were out enjoying themselves in the gorgeous weather with friends, food and booze. There did not appear to be any open bottle laws in Japan, and yet, somehow there was also no vomit, public urination or litter. I'm quite sure that we, Americans, could not manage this.

Hanami in Osaka-Jo-Koen (Osaka Castle Park)

Cherry blossoms at Osaka Castle

Cherry blossom trees in Nara

Japan celebrates seasonality in many ways including in their food. We found the theme of cherry blossoms incorporated in subtle ways into many dishes we had. Cherry blossom branches were used as garnish and menu items were updated to be pink.

We saw these cherry blossoms for sale. I'm not sure what they were but they sure look pretty.

We also came upon this sweets shop in Ginza and purchased some of the cherry blossom themed sweets. They included a pickled cherry blossom flower on top of a mochi-like pastry and wrapped in a pickled cherry blossom leaf.

The weeping cherry blossoms were my favorite to look at. They are so gorgeous.

The Philosophers' Pathway in Kyoto

I am so glad that we got to see Japan at one of its most beautiful times of the year!

Apr 8, 2014

CityZen (Washington, DC)

Raisin Bread and I did something we normally never do. We had a weeknight date night! *gasp* It was quite a feat for these old farts. We met up after work at the beautiful Mandarin Oriental Hotel to dine at CityZen.  

CityZen offers three ways to dine: 1) a six course Chef's Tasting Menu for $120, 2) a six course Chef's Vegetarian Tasting Menu for $110 or 3) a four course menu, where you get to choose from a selection for each course, for $90.

I went with the Chef's Tasting Menu.

Due to his dietary restrictions, Raisin Bread decided on the four course menu. 

We were both served different amuse bouche, the contents of which I cannot recall.

My amuse bouche

Raisin Bread's amuse bouche

Before our first course, we got to pick from three different types of breads. I am a carb fiend so I just wanted to keep asking for more bread, but refrained.

First Course: Shaved Green Radish and Baby Carrot Salad with marinated yama imo, takenoko, ginko nuts and dashi gelee

The flavors of the vegetables were very subtle, but the dashi gelee was very tasty, still subtle and not too salty.

Appetizer Course for Raisin Bread: Sheepsmilk Ricotta and Spinach Stuffed Crepes with piquillo pepper jam, globe artichoke mouse and Nicoise olive syrup

Our server was very meticulous in finding out from the kitchen whether or not Raisin Bread could eat the dishes he picked. She spent a while going through almost every single menu item with us. When she didn't know the answer, she went to the kitchen to ask and returned right away to let us know how the answer might sway his decisions. She was great and very mindful and aware of our meal progression. Plus, she was super nice.

The appetizer Raisin Bread wound up getting was from the Chef's Vegetarian Tasting Menu, as it was one of the only appetizers he could eat. It wound up not being his favorite course.

Second Course: Kendall Farms Creme Fraiche Pierogi with cured Skuna Bay salmon and smoked sea trout emulsion

I loved this. It was so rich and fatty. The pierogi was nice and crispy, and the salmon was firm and not super salty.

Because I had two more courses than Raisin Bread, he did not have anything to eat during those times. Our server noticed that we were sharing our food, so the busser brought us an extra place setting for Raisin Bread to use when our courses did not overlap. Very thoughtful!

Fish Course for Raisin Bread: Sauteed Filet of John Dory with black trumpet mushrooms, salsify puree and tarragon coulis

This was by far his favorite course.

Third Course: Poached Moulard Duck Foie Gras with Kanagy Farm shoat stuffed savoy cabbage

I usually don't order foie gras unless it is on a tasting menu because I often do not like the way it is cooked. This foie dish was amazing though. It was so tender and maintained its richness. I also enjoyed the accompaniments.

Fourth Course: Vanilla Braised Maine Lobster with Anson Mills grit cake, fennel, toasted pistachio, poached apricots and Cognac sauce

This was an interesting way to present lobster. The vanilla was a bit too much for me, but I liked the apricots and pistachio, and of course, the lobster was perfectly cooked.

For our meat course, we were presented with a little box of Parker House rolls. 

They are so adorable and buttery, as well as lightly sprinkled with salt. They are tiny enough to eat in one bite. Yummy!

Fifth Course: Pan Roasted Prime Virginia Beef Strip Loin with red flannel hash and Frankie's original horseradish soubise

Look at that pink meat. So pretty. While there was nothing wrong with my meat dish, I didn't find it too be all that special.

Meat Course for Raisin Bread: Kanagy Farms Shoat Loin with Darden ham wrapped baked endive, glazed baby carrots and tellicherry pepper mornay

I had to ask the server what shoat is. We learned that it is a piglet. I found the loin along with the carrots to be nicely done, but the ham was way salty for me. 

Intermezzo: Pineapple sorbet

We both received the same intermezzo. It was refreshing and a little tart, which was perfect between our heavy meat and heavy dessert courses.

Coffee service 

We received these shortbread cookies with our coffee service. 

Sixth Course: Chocolate Napoleon with blood orange ganache, whipped Bahibe chocolate and salted caramel ice cream

If I were choosing on my own, I probably would not have selected this dessert. My favorite part of the dessert wound up being the salted caramel ice cream and the cookie bits beneath it.

Dessert for Raisin Bread: CityZen Sopaipillas with golden angels sourwood honey mousse, finger limes, honeyed almonds and cinnamon ice cream

I'm addicted to sopaipillas and thought this was a nice way to elevate them.

As if that was not enough, we received a few more treats before we left. Our petit fours were nougat bars, macarons and ginger pate de fruits. 

Our dining experience at CityZen was delightful. The courses were flavorful, creative and beautiful to look at. The service was exceptional. I am really glad we had a chance to dine here.

I think we will be needing to scale back on the insanely high-end dining experiences for the remainder of the year though!

Mandarin Oriental Hotel
1330 Maryland Avenue, SW
Washington, DC 20024