April 30, 2008

The unexpected overages of vacation

So, we're back.

The bathroom scale is, as I like to call it, wrong, again. See, I'm over my 10 lb. range. So, we'll be feasting on vegetable-heavy soups for a few weeks 'til I'm back in the happy zone and the scale gets right. But really, if you don't gain weight on vacation, you didn't do it properly -- that's what I always say.

I expected the weight overage. What I didn't expect were the other kinds.

I just finished entering my mileage into my running log and I was shocked to realize that the week of the marathon, thanks to all of the tourist walking, I put 53 miles on my feet. Since I started religiously keeping track of my mileage in 2004, I've NEVER done more than 50 miles in a week. In fact, I've done only 5 weeks over 40 miles in that time, and none of them were weeks when I did marathons (you know, when I was supposed to be tapering). So yeah, just another reason to consider a marathon run on vacation as an experience and nothing where you should be shooting for a PR.

If you are like us, when you vacation you walk EVERYWHERE. It's just the best way to get to know a city, the countryside, and the world. Plus, it's relaxing. But, apparently, it can add up, even when you think you aren't running as much as you should be.

Also, there's another hilarious story about unexpected overage from our trip that hails from our last night in Taipei. We were tired from a day of much walking: first from our hotel, to eat delicious xiao long bao at Din Tai Fung, then to see and make a small offering at the Longshan Temple, and then getting lost on our way to The Royal Bali Health Center on Kunming St. where, I had the best 90 minute whole body massage of my entire life.

This amazing massage was followed by a 40 minute reflexology treatment, which hurt, but did my marathon-battered feet and calves a world of good. I suspect I will spend the rest of my life in search of a massage to rival this one. The therapist spoke no English, and me, no Mandarin, so I couldn't even gather what style of massage it was, where he trained, how I could seek it out again, or anything -- it resembled the (now) second best massage of my life (floor shiatsu, from a very stereotypical Japanese man in Playa del Carmen, of all places) in many ways, but was on a table, involved just as much stretching, as well as adjustments, and more active massage and not just pressure points, plus it was through pajama like shorts and a wrap as well as a sheet, and he clearly had freedom to modify because he focused on my post-marathon IT bands instinctively, spending more time on my left, which, historically is my tighter side. Oh, my legs were so much better after he was done. Heaven, I tell you.

And, the institution did not appear to accept tips, which, sadly, I hope I correctly interepreted, because damn, if anyone's massage services were ever worth a huge tip, it was my buddy therapist #10, whose card I have, whose name I repeated when he gave it to me, but have since lost (and, of course, it's written in Hanzi on his card, so I couldn't tell you his name if I tried).

Anyways, after the full day of walking, we planned to do an easy quick dinner, close to our hotel, so we could return to the room, pack up, and sleep before getting into a cab by 6 AM to begin the long multi-modal trip home consisting of a cab ride to Taipei airport, a 3-hour 737 to Narita, a bus between terminal 2 and terminal 1 of Narita (that comes only once an HOUR between 1 pm and 2 pm! Japan, why hast thou and thy perfect efficiency forsaken me? I was so confused!), people movers, a stop at the connections desk in terminal 1 to check into our flight to SFO, a 9+ hour 747 to SFO, immigration, baggage claim, customs, bart to millbrae, caltrain, and then a 1.5 mile walk with our rolling luggage home. And, of course, to further fuck us up, despite the passed time and 3 meals, given the time change, technically, we arrived home 6 hours after we left the hotel in Taipei and just in time for lunch.

Life, however, had other plans for our night than the mellow early to bed option.

We ended up choosing a teppanyaki joint within walking distance of the hotel, and we were seated at one of the grills next to an empty seat with its own bottle of wine, and a woman and man enjoying teppanyaki. E surreptitiously pointed to the empty seat whispering in my ear, "I wonder who the tough guy is who ordered his own bottle of wine to go along with his tea?"

Later, tough guy came and sat at the grill, briefly joining the other two. They conversed in Mandarin. E and I conversed in English. It became apparent that the other man (the non-1-bottle-wonder) was an American-style speaker of English, but also spoke Mandarin. At one point, it became apparent that he was trying to explain my shirt to them (an inside joke T-shirt from law school designed by the lovely A).

I leaned in to laugh with E about being in a foreign country and being identified as foreigners, where they think they can talk about you without you knowing. But you always know, even if you don't speak the language. We smiled. We enjoyed our meal. I made some disparaging comments about my horrid soup and sent it back only 1/4 eaten (for me, a rarity), but I complimented the gorgeous dishes (Noritake, I was later informed).

Eventually, Mr. 1-man-wine-bottle left again, for the third or fourth time (I presumed he was a chain-smoker) and in his absence, the American-speaking man finally addressed us. We introduced ourselves to him and his female friend. We talked about the food. We talked about our common experiences -- his as an immigrant American educated in our country, ours as natural born citizens. They seemed shocked that we opted to come to Taipei on vacation (not business), and even more shocked that we found it more comfortable, culturally, than Japan. Finally, they were embarrassed when we offered to explain my shirt...

And then, sake arrived. It turned out that Mr. 1-man-wine-bottle owned the restaurant. You can imagine where this goes....

Thankfully, no one heard (or was rude enough to point out) my disparaging comments about the soup, and, when the American asked before the sake arrived and we knew that his friend owned the joint, I had truthfully reviewed the rest of the meal (and the gorgeous dishes) with honest appreciation. Boy, when he told me that he was best friends with Mr. 1-man-bottle-owner, and that the gorgeous woman to his left was the owner's wife, with a B.A. from University of Toronto and, thus, more than fluent in English, it sure made me think about how open I am with my review of food when I eat out and glad that the food in this joint was relatively good. It had, before that moment, honestly never occurred to me that I could be eating next to the owner of a restaurant, or his wife and best friend from childhood.

Over the next two hours, we chatted about Taiwan politics, evolution of the relationship with China, our impressions of Taipei, their upcoming visit to California -- all while the four of us (without Mr. wine-owner) shared 3 small bottles of sake on the house, including the last one, served over my objections, but much to the pleasure of E when the owner offered it with a smile as his "best stuff, gold label." During this time, the owner finished his first bottle of wine all to himself and then, much to our surprise, opened and finished bottle 2 solo as well. Finally, just before midnight, we watched him close up shop and following their lead, we left the mall where the restaurant was located through the service entrance, which involved us going through the men's restroom when Mr. 2-bottles thought it would be a good idea for him to just stop in and, you know, use the facilities. What the hell? We were very confused. Was this actually the way to the exit or just some elaborate joke that was being played on us?

But no, apparently, culturally, it's just fine to meet people, treat them to sake, invite them into your restaurant's restroom, pee within earshot of your wife and the female guest, and then heard them into your car. We could not turn down his offer to drive us to our hotel because the only way to leave was through the garage (or so we were told, and as visitors who don't know cultural norms and can't read, or speak, what did we know?). Thankfully, our hotel was across the street.

If the sake and wine-soaked stories are to be believed, they will all be here in California (meeting up again all the way from Taipei and Florida for the American) in 2 weeks. If they reach out to us, I suspect we will be hosting them to a long dinner and more amusing cross-cultural conversation and entirely too much alcohol. Stay tuned for more stories...

Truly, it's random experiences like these that are the types of things that make me travel. I think, in some ways, I learned more about Taiwanese culture, American culture, myself, the concept of the idea of "foreign" and humanity, and just how wacky the world can be with that one experience than I had in the entire year prior.

But, in hindsight, the funniest thing to me, was that during the whole interchange, I thought we could leave at any time. I was scared E's eagerness to accept the offered gifts of more sake were rude. I kept trying to thank the owner and be sure that no one thought we were overstepping our bounds, in typical American fashion. It seemed to me, that the wife and friend wanted to go, and that our acceptance of offered gifts might be impeding their departure. It was only after we left that I realized that after we paid the bill, the staff shut down the restaurant. For the next two hours, we really were there as guests, and sort of kidnapped, trapped, at the will of the owner of the restaurant, because the mall was closed, the lights were out, and there was no way to get out without the authorized access key, which, of course, we did not have.

Needless to say, the extra sake and awake hours did not help with the next day's early flight. But then again, it was worth it for the story and I'd do it again in a heartbeat.

Cheers to unexpected travel overage in all of its forms.

April 23, 2008

Things we will miss

Tomorrow is our last day in the country of Japan.

Technically, we've already waded away from the waters of Mainland Japan and, what feels to me, towards home by visiting the champuru island of Okinawa (I suspect this has more to do with the demographic of the bay area than any actual shared culture between the two melting pots, but I digress...).

I started to make a mental list of things I would miss because I can't get them at home and, if I could, would import. Then, I recruited E. Together, we came up with this list, in rough order of how much we will miss them:

10. Tiny dishes, ornately prepared. Never again will I ever encounter so many tiny dishes to present one meal. Of this, I am almost certain. Yesterday, for Japanese breakfast, E and I were presented with 12 small and unique (even our respective similar shapes had different designs) dishes on a deep maroon circular platter (with an edge flattened to line up with the table), plus a blue and white tea cup on a saucer with shiso tea and a glass water cup. The amount of time and effort that must go into the presentation of the minutiae of food is overwhelming. We were not stuffed. We ate it all and were pleasantly full and ready to snack again before dinner.

9. Pickles. You never know what you'll get soaked in vinegar in a little tiny dish on the side of one of your courses. But they're all good. Yes, we have a japanese grocery store nearby. We can get many of these there, I'm sure. But the variety and ubiquity is what I'll miss.

8. Pre-warmed toilet seats. Especially when you get up in the middle of the night. I mean, if you're going to be all energy consumptive, do it in a way that *matters.* Fucking brilliant. The pre-flushing noises to cover your business, on the other hand, just make me laugh.

7. Getto herb tea. This one is all mine -- E couldn't care less. Apparently, it's an Okinawan root related to ginger and not common in mainland Japan, so the likelihood of me finding it at home is quite low. Bummer. I love this stuff. That being said, the herbal teas I've had in Japan have been the best I've ever had and when I get home I may just start experimenting until I find something close to my favorite.

6. The option of entering the thankyou-loop. It's so funny to realize that you could just keep thanking the people who thank you, that they'd thank you back, and then... amusement available at every turn. Typically, we refrain, but occasionally, who could resist?

5. French pastries. I'm not sure why, but you can get much better quality French pastries in Japan, and here, in Okinawa, than you can in San Francisco. The default croissants at the train stations and breakfast shops are flakier, better, more frequently available, and much closer to their French counterparts than they are at home. A quick chat with our French waiter today confirmed it for us. He used to run a French restaurant in Tokyo and claimed that the pastry chef next to his old restaurant made the *best* mont-blanc in the world. The Japanese, he admits, do a very good job of making French delicacies. That's quite an endorsement from a Frenchman!

4. Japanese confections. Mochi and azuki-based sweets are my favorites, but I've loved most everything I've tried (including some delicious soba-based sweets). In Kyoto, which specializes in many of the types I love the most, E finally learned to pull me from the shops before I could purchase yet *ANOTHER* mochi-wrapped snack.

3. Okinawan Beef. We didn't make it to Kobe, nor did we purchase any of the super-expensive famous beef you read about on this trip. But, last night, we had Okinawan tenderloin at the teppanyaki place, and DAMN! When it came out we were impressed. So perfectly marbled. Thin white lines of saturated fat, just waiting to be seared to rare perfection on the 200C grill by a skilled local chef who added nothing but butter to the grill and salt and pepper to the meat. Both E and I agreed -- it was in contention for some of the best beef we've ever eaten in our lives.

2. Picture-ramen. How could you not love a method of food where you match up the plastic food price with the price on the machine, put in money, and then hope that the food you will be served will be more appetizing than the plastic? In all machine-cases, for us, it has been a cheap and delicious success. One time, at an actual counter, where we payed a human, I enjoyed my meal, but E informed me that he thought the ramen back home was better...

1. Cheap, ridiculously fresh Kaiten Zushi. Sure, it's kitschy, and not the true artisan experience. But it's better than anything you can get at home for the price. However, much to the disappointment of those who insist that travel is required for an authentic experience, at least on the freshness side of things, after doing a 5-sushi meal survey (including the obligatory Zushi-bar non-kaiten Tsukiji experience), we've decided we can get sushi of this quality and freshness at home, within walking distance of our house, in a restaurant where everyone speaks Japanese except us (and the lone Mexican waiter who speaks significantly more Japanese words than either of us do). But, in exchange, it's twice or three times as expensive and there's no rotating conveyor belt of happiness, you have to order it, which means we get worse service since at home than in Japan where the good stuff just gets made and goes on the belt and we can take it by sight, since at home we'd have to know enough to order it.

So... it looks like we'll miss the food the most. Shocking.

April 22, 2008

Nascient Thoughts From Japan

I have been making my way through a complicated culture, a language of which I maybe know 100 words, and one of the most complex social hierarchies in the world for almost two weeks now.

I have also been devouring the books on Japan and Japanese culture that I bought.

Combined, they have very much helped to put my life in perspective.

E asked me if I was going to blog about the crazy as he likes to call the daily wackiness we encounter and try to comprehend as we bumble our way through this society.

I explained that I did not feel up to the task.

How could I possibly explain what it is like for one born-and-bred and another adopted Californian to find themselves at one of the most beautiful, tranquil, amazing beach resorts in the world and then to realize that the couple in the room next to you are wearing wetsuits in their private jacuzzi. Guess we probably shouldn't hop in to our private jaccuzzi naked, huh?

How could I possibly do justice to the obviously sincere and amazing desire to help of the hotel guest services manager and my feeling of gratitude toward him and the eye-doctor he took me to (not to mention all of his waiting patients) who did their part to make sure I could have a "testu-rensu" that worked so I could run my marathon.

What about the random questioning from the police in the train station? The adorable old couple who ran the Nagano restaurant where we ate lunch, who made me write my name for them so they could make a sign and cheer for me at the marathon?

What about the rows of open-backed urinals (nothing but running shorts with straddled legs) and during the race, the lines of men, openly pissing off the road in full view, in a culture that, by all other measures, is so much more modest than ours?

And finally, how could I possibly give voice to what it was like to be such a visual minority that I am judged in every minute as an outsider, and people register surprise and usually gratitude when I speak even broken, miniscule, miserable excuses for their language.

In Egypt, as a woman, I was invisible. My status, especially if I wore a scarf an appropriate clothing, was one of sort-of belonging to a class within Egypt's greater society, even if I didn't like the class to which I was relegated. If I spoke the language it was attributed to the male with whom I traveled.

But here. Here. I exist. Women play a very gender-defined role, and there is much to think about that is wrapped up in that, but they all know (as do I) that am so different from that role. And they don't hate me for it or think of me as a non-person (although they probably do think of me as "foreigner"). They just recognize it for what it is and treat me according to their understanding of it, which generally, isn't that far off. They assume I speak no Japanese (not far from the truth). They assume E & I are American, which, conveniently, we are. And, they assume we don't fit. They expect us to fuck up. They expect us to behave like outsiders. They laugh. They smile. For the most part, they are nice.

Many of my day-to-day thoughts in life before this trip had been directed toward fitting in, structuring my life and my career such that they made sense within the greater cultural structures within which I must move.

Briefly living amongst and reading about this amazingly strong and distinct culture makes that analysis much more vibrant and interesting. After this trip, I suspect I will be more comfortable with my lack of ability to conform to what I perceive to be the dominant cultural overtones where I spend much of my time. Oddly, I have been more comfortable here, where everyone treats me as if I am different than I have been at home as of late. So perhaps I need to stop trying to be anything other than different and start trying to be more of myself.

After all, if there is one thing I have learned on this trip, it is that I come from a culture where it is not explicitly expected of me, even as an insider, to conform. Given that it is available to me, I might as well take advantage of that benefit, non?
Delicious Slime

Last night, for the first time in a long time, I enjoyed a meal where I couldn't identify many of the things I was eating.

While E, predictable Japanese eater that he is, opted for the Sushi set meal (His grand total for the trip thus far is 5 sushi meals, which sounds like he has exercised restraint. But, there are also 5 meals of ramen in the mix for both of us, so he's really just splitting his preferences unless I drag him somewhere where one of those is not an option.)

I went the adventurous route, and chose the ryukuan ryouri, a multicourse meal of traditional foods from the island of Okinawa. The meal focused on local ingredients, but was prepared with obvious influences from its complicated history of trade, war, and power relations with its larger neighbors (Japan, China, Thailand) resulting in a unique cuisine.

The first course appeared to be pickled greens on top of pigs ears on the side of some slimy textured blocks of deliciousness (some pickled root vegetables, some cubes resembling aspic). One cube, in one course, appeared to be some sort of textured root, but when I bit into it, was a tender, cold pork preparation that was unlike anything I'd every tasted -- amazing. Even E was impressed, and this is a boy who is picky about his swine.

Slime, in one form or another, was the base of most of the courses, including a gooey broth over fish, and a delicious slurpy, slimy, slightly spicey goo-based seaweed and rice soup that reminded me, vaguely, of a few of the ochazukes I'd sampled in mainland japan.

You'd think that slimy dessert would be hard to do well, but they pulled it off -- a starchy poi-like pudding with tapioca balls and a yellow jello-like substance that seemed to have the same flavor as the juice they served us at our arrival (Shekwasha, I believe) over fresh fruit. I was in heaven. Light. Acidic. Starchy. And nowhere to be found any cloying sweetness. Now that's how I like to end a meal!

After all of the carefully presented courses, I found myself pleasantly filled, and very healthy. It is widely reported (but I couldn't find a source) that Okinawa has the highest number of centagenarians, per capita.

Perhaps we all need a little more delicious slime in our diet.

Update: I found this link to help identify some of my meal. I am certain that one of the courses was some delicious tofuyo in a slightly spicy broth-sauce, I was trying to place its cheesy-like texture and flavor while eating it, so I was happy to learn what it was.

April 20, 2008

Lessons from the Nagano Marathon

My sore legs and tight shoulders conspired to wake me at 5AM this morning. Yesterday, you see, I ran the Nagano marathon. Slowly. And I got one of the worst sunburns I've had in quite some time.

I really should have reset my expectations for my performance earlier than I did (somewhere around mile 18). I certainly had enough reasons to think it might not go exactly as I had hoped.

First, two weeks prior to the race, there was the amazing weekend of wine and food, where I ate and drank with abandon and managed to put my long run on hold 'til the next week. That alone should have let me know where my focus lied. But no, I held on to the dream of the potential that my earlier training had created.

Also, as I mentioned, I've never gained weight while training for a marathon. Now, this time, I've done more speed training, and it certainly did change the structure of my leg muscle, so I attributed the majority of the weight gain to muscle. But, extra weight is extra weight for 26.2 miles, and I knew that. I just chose to ignore it. Well, until the reality oh-so-pleasantly set in on the second day of the trip when I squatted and ripped the inner thigh of one of my favorite pairs of jeans.

Originally, we planned to fly to japan, go to nagano, do the marathon and then take the remainder of our trip. That would have been preferable, from a training perspective. But, Golden Week would have been in the way and that increased to price of the vacation to an unreasonable level. So, we decided to arrive earlier and spend about 9 days in Japan before the race.

On the long run before the race, where I was scheduled to do an easy 8 miler, I found myself in Tokyo (not a very running-friendly city), and it was raining. I went to the hotel's gym to find that there were 2 treadmills and a long line of westerners waiting to use them. I didn't want to schedule the entire day around my run -- I was on vacation. So, we walked and toured much of tokyo, and I told myself that 10 miles of walking is just as good as 8 miles of running.

Over the next week, I comforted myself with alternating theories about each day's sight-seeing walks, namely that either (a) the walking was just as good as a day of scheduled rest and shouldn't affect my taper, or (b) the walking could replace the day's run. Yes, I now see the flaw in that logic.

One day 3 of the trip, I ripped my right contact. I cannot run in my glasses. Perhaps this was a sign that I should give up on the race? Oh, no. Not me. Instead, I called guest services, and between their best english and my best Pimsleur japanese and wild gesticulations, I magically found myself in an eye doctor's office, whereupon I was given a "testu rensu" (test lens). It worked!

Let's see, what else? Oh yes, my fuel belt grew some scary mold during the trip, so I wouldn't be having it on the race. I didn't pack any fuel and couldn't acquire any in Japan, so I'd be eating whatever they gave me on the race (cut up bananas, which worked perfectly, actually).

And, I forgot that I acquired a nasty cold on day 2 of the trip that I managed to fight off before the race with the help of an OTC combo including phenylpronanalomine (why-oh-why did the US ban this stuff? So wonderful!!). Sure, you can't get psuedoephedrine here at all, but who cares with the Phen of Fen-Phen at your disposal?

The weather forecast on the day of the race, of course, called for rain on the day of the marathon, and I hadn't packed any water-resistant running clothes. Still, not to be discouraged, I thought, better cold than hot! I also didn't bother to put sunscreen on my chest and shoulders.

The morning of the race, it was beautiful. Cloudy, slightly cool, but nowhere near the predicted 45F. Silently, myself and approximately 8,000 very serious japanese people (okay, so there were 150 foreign runners) walked to the starting line. Apparently, they thought a 20 minute walk from the train to the start was a reasonable thing to do before a marathon. What's an extra mile?

The first several miles went wonderfully. Faster than I expected. Easy. E cheered me on around mile 3 and was surprised at my pace.

Ganbate! Ganba-des! Fight-Go!

I remembered the lessons from my last marathon, and forced myself to take walk breaks, to slow down, to save some energy for the finish. But, it wasn't until mile 18 or so when I realized I should have reset my expectations entirely.

I was not in anywhere near the shape I needed to be in to hit my goal time. Plus, the promised rain had turned into gorgeous sun, and there was no shade on the course. I slowed further, took more walk breaks, and was very conscientious about throwing water on myself and drinking fluids.

At Km 32, I made a deal with myself. Run 1 Km, walk a minute, 10 times and you'll be done. And, that is what I did. Slowly, but surely.

I crossed the finish line about 10 minutes before the absolute cut-off time I gave E -- as in, if I'm not there by then something went very wrong. But, thankfully, nothing was wrong except my unrealistic expectations...

Overall, it was a wonderful experience, and by going slowly I was able to experience it more fully. Plus, now that I see the extent of my sunburn, I suspect I could have gotten into some serious trouble if I had tried to go faster.

Hindsight, friends. Don't try to run a PR on your first international marathon. Just do it for the experience, which will be amazing.

April 14, 2008

Observations from Japan #1

1. Damn. I really could use some lessons in manners. Everyone is SO SO SO SO SO nice here. Seriously. It's enough to make me re-evaluate how I treat strangers, my friends, and family. Definitely something to think about.

2. Cultural hegemony is the norm here. Even when people are trying to be different they do it in a way that fits in. It makes me, as a foreigner, feel very different, but also, amusingly, free, as if they know I couldn't possibly fit in because it's much too complicated for me to do it properly, so why should I try. In every other culture where I've been a tourist, I've always tried to fit in. Here, I feel very forgiven from the get go for my failure to do so and an encouragement to be myself.

3. Women often choose the non-pants option, even when it is freezing and/or raining outside, and the full separate leg-covering options would seem to make sense. Outside of the business districts, you see more women in pants, but they tend to be sturdy motherly types. Very few young women, or even professional women, wear pants. Instead, it's skirts and lots of hose and tights and sturdy, nurse-like, shoes. Younger women are quite fond of the knee socks and short skirts, or knee socks and short shorts options. This is surreal, if you are me, and freezing in your jeans. Why on earth would you choose to expose raw flesh between your hips and knees in this weather? And yet, they do. And they look at me and don't think, hey, those jeans look warm. Or if they do, they still wear the knee-highs, and you know I'm not the first women in jeans without a skirt over them (a popular option) they've ever seen.

3. For good cheap eats, head to the basement. At least in Shinjuku. Lucky_girl, her parents, E & I enjoyed drinks at the top of the hotel from Lost in Translation, but we didn't want to pay the Hyatt tax on meals. Lucky for us, the basement of the Park Hyatt tower was full of budget food, including the home-made udon shop where we ended up and had fabulous full set meals for under 1,000 yen each (approx $10). E's an addict and claims that he will only eat in the basement. We went on a tour of many local skyscraper basements today. We've scoped out some winners for the future.

4. Picture menus, like the kind I used to make fun of, at Denny's are about the greatest thing in the world when you don't speak much (or any) of the language. Speaking of which, Royal Host is one of the few places where you can find a Western breakfast in Tokyo that isn't priced well over 2,000 yen per person. We're fans.

5. Bacon in Japan is thinner than in the U.S. This also means it is easier to wrap around cherry tomatoes, stick on a skewer, and grill. Brilliant!!!! (As an aside, I Can't wait to get home and plant our summer foods!)

6. Asking for "fuel" in the Addidas Ginza store when you realize that you don't have Gu, or Cliff bars, or anything of that ilk is bound to get you into a hilarious Japan-glish confused conversation. I don't think this is much of a running town. Outside, we've seen all of one runner in Japan since we've been here, and we've spent most of our time walking, often on runnable trails. I will note, however, that when it rains, the walkways here are very slippery. Also, I was not thrilled to find myself fighting with the other jet-lagged early-rising westerners for the two treadmills in the exercise room at our very large hotel (2 skycrapers, 35+ floors each) -- for comparison, they have 3 err...equestrian exercise machines.

7. Today, we missed the entrance to the 6 story sex toy store because, as E said, I think we just missed the entrance because we were too busy discussing gender roles in Japan. Head. Exploding. From. Irony. Must. Seek. Ramen.

More to come.

April 6, 2008

Zazu, Michael Mina, (and Cyrus, vicariously)

Friday night, after fighting the traffic from Silicon Valley to Sonoma County, we had a delicious meal at Zazu, thanks to the recommendation of R's little bro, an up-and-coming sous-chef in the area, who acted as our culinary and wine guide for the weekend via cell phone.

We were meeting up with a hard-core group of east-coast visitors who'd been living in a rented house in Healdsburg and had been wine-tasting and restaurant hopping for 2-days straight by the time we arrived, so we deferred to them on the bottle of Brogan Cellars Pinot Noir to start.

Light, bright fruit, and playful on the palate, it was an excellent way for a group of 6 to wait for their table at the bar with nothing but bread. Plus, as we were sitting there, we could look straight into the kitchen, which caused D & C to point and say, That's totally Zoi from top chef.

It was. She even came out to say hi to the table during our meal, and she was quite gracious and nice. Given my recent exposure to Kaki's fame, I was doubly impressed with Zoi's presence and obvious sincere gratitude to her patrons.

Once seated, we enjoyed the antipasto plate that, in truth, was the star of the evening -- home-cured meats (including a paprika-spiced salumi that was to die for)... cheeses galore... olives... mmmm... what's not to like? We washed these treats down with a lovely Barbera and listened to the visiting group's tales of their amazing visit to Cyrus, which, according to some, is properly receiving better reviews than the French Laundry these days.

And, in keeping with the theme of the weekend, while we were close to satiated after the first course, we powered through entrees and desserts to fill out the evening (and our bellies). In an acknowledgment that it would be next to impossible to find a wine that would match the table's homey comfort food entree selections of steak, ribs, duck, and lemon asparagus ricotta lasagna we left ourselves in our server's hands and enjoyed a pleasantly versatile (if a bit hot for a pinot noir) Emeritus.

Saturday, after a day of wine-tasting and a picnic, we rounded up the troops to drive to San Francisco to check into our hotel, relax, and prepare for the final meal of the trip at Michael Mina.

But, somehow, one of the east-coast visitors made us stop at In-n-out on the way to the city. That's right! You're only in Norcal once every 4 or 5 years. Why not? So, of course, despite living here, and being full to a ridiculous level, I had fries. And they were good...

As for Michael Mina, I must say, I was pleasantly surprised. I'd heard mixed reviews, and in particular, I'd heard that many people felt it was overpriced and that the food really wasn't the star of the show, that rather it was about ambiance, tourists being able to say that they had been there, and the caché.

According to our visitors, Little-R was right, when he said that he expected Cyrus to out-perform Michael Mina. They said it did. But really, that's nothing to cry about. If people in Sonoma are arguing about whether Cyrus is out-performing French Laundry right now, and if you throw in price as a factor, and trust the descriptions from our visitors (Best meal of my life, I hate fancy restaurants and I felt welcome, plus it was some of the best food I've ever eaten..., they brought a whole plate of sweetbreads for me when I jokingly mentioned that I was disappointed with the few that were on my entrée -- and they only charged me $15 for it...) I would not be surprised that Cyrus is outperforming FL according to some -- with arguably equally caliber food, amazing service, and more flexible options for appetite and timing, all for less than a luxury car-payment... Let's just say Cyrus is very high on our to-visit list now.

Standing on its own, however, Michael Mina is no slouch. It is at the same price-point as my least favorite Michelin Two-Star Manresa, and better than Manresa in every way that I care about. In fact, it's definitely on the short list of best high-end restaurant meals I've ever enjoyed.

The service was slightly more stiff than I prefer, but given the location, I can understand that my more relaxed preferences may not be the same as the majority of their clientele, and I can not fault their execution -- it was precisely timed, knowledgeable, and polite.

The location is amazing (something locals may run the risk of forgetting): it's in a gorgeous historic hotel facing Union Square.

The wine list is extensive, and the servers and sommellier are knowledgeable, kind, and willing to recommend (politely) their preferences, even when they may be less expensive than the bottle you suggested. Specifically, the sommellier recommended we go with a lower priced Merry Edwards Pinot Noir than the one we had selected, and the table enjoyed two bottles of his recommendation (the 2005 Sonoma Coast Pinot Noir) with joy (although I opted for white wine by the glass to pair with my very light fish-based meal selection, I tasted the Merry Edwards and found it to be lightly earthy-on-the-nose, light balanced fruit, and a pleasure to drink that would have been wonderful with the majority of the table's selections).

The trio approach to serving food is fun. I liked the idea of three variations on a common theme all in one plate. I've seen it done occasionally on some menus, but I've never seen an entire menu based on the concept (with a few classic options for those who wanted to opt out). I found it clever, and I know it takes more time and effort to do 3 well-prepared approaches to an ingredient than 1, so I also found it technically impressive, and a great way to educate my palate about variety in food.

The trio welcome platter was an excellent way to start a meal. And the pinnacle of the triangle immediately focused the group on a lively conversation -- it was a small cup of uni panna cotta, topped with uni suspended in a gelée, and a sprinkling of dried seaweed and toasted rice pearls. Immediately, people had opinions. Many people made a face at the strong flavors. I found it to be one of the best flavor/texture combinations I've ever had. And, I was very impressed with the bold move of offering fish-pudding to start. That takes confidence!

Perhaps part of the reason I loved my meal was that I was in the mood for something lighter and I went the fish route. I have since learned that Mina's rise to excellence was partially as the co-founder and conceptual developer of Aqua, so perhaps my desire for seafood was a wonderful coincidence.

Regardless of why or how it ended up in front of me, the tropical crudo trio was one of the best (if not the best) preparations of raw fish I have ever enjoyed. The fluke, well, I didn't expect to be wowed, but I was. Kampachi, I expected to adore, and I did. But, in particular, I was amazed at how much I enjoyed the spanish mackerel, which typically, I avoid in sashimi form, due to what I perceive to be its overly fishy flavor. The quality of all three types of fish was divinely fresh, the servings were larger than I would have expected, and each collection of 3-4 slices was perfectly plated on a 3-grooved long plate, with gorgeous mini-cubes of the selected accoutrements and colorful glazes of sauces below, that when eaten together in the same bite with the fishes made me *very* pleased.

I very much enjoyed my salted, seared, and poached presentations of cod as the second course as well. And the white burgundy the server selected for my pairing was one of the best flavor pairings between wine and food I've ever had.

The cheese plate was amazing, as evidenced by my ability to eat all of the cheese and many of the selected side-flavor presentations despite my need for perfect posture due to the expansion in my belly from the day's picnic, wine-tasting, in-n-out, not to mention my growing self-preservation sense that after the last 36 hours, I should really avoid all food.

All-in-all, I was very impressed with the restaurant, the service, the food, the wine, the location, and, how they handled our large party of 7. All courses were served French-style at exactly two perfectly timed moments (women, then men). Dishes were cleared unobtrusively. Wine was poured appropriately and politely. They added a gratuity of 20% to the bill, which while some may find presumptuous, in our case was somewhat of a blessing because it effectively killed all discussion of gratuity (unlike the occasional discussion that an added tip on top of 18.5% for the group can incite) -- because the service had been impeccable for 3.25 hours, we were more than happy to pay 20% and no one felt the need to ask if the others were tipping more. And, they accepted 4 credit cards and divided the bill into 1/7, 2/7, 2/7, and 2/7 without a lifted eyebrow.
Sonoma Wine -- Hanna, Stryker, and Verité

Hanna was just as beautiful, but less impressive than last time. They have a low $5 tasting fee (refunded with purchase), which is nice. But, I had my heart set on buying their reserve Sauvignon Blanc, and they no longer make it. So, I was sad.

Their larger production wines are solid, and reasonably priced for the region. But, overall, they have moved away from some of the smaller production wines I loved them for and even at the winery, it feels much more like a solid business winery (nothing wrong with that) than a local operation.

Their standard sauvingnon blanc is, as always, a great pleasure to drink, but at $18/bottle, it's not a fabulous value (just a good one), so we bought a couple of bottles, but on our next visit, we may skip them, since we can get it at Safeway (and I will the next time I feel like rewarding myself). Their Bismark reds are good, so we bought one or two bottles, but we left much more in love with the setting and the pictures we took than the wine.

From there, we headed to Stryker to eat our lunch in what has to be one of the most beautiful picnic settings in the world. Our visiting friends had purchased quite a selection of cured meets, cheeses, breads, and tabouleh, so we feasted in grand style with a glass of the 2004 Stryker Rockpile Merlot (at $36 plus a discount for a promotion, this wine was quite a value -- and we brought another bottle home to lay down).

And finally, thanks to little-R's recommendation, we found ourselves at Verité for one of the best wine-tasting experiences I've ever had. We were greeted by a friendly Wine Educator (how cool is that title?) who explained the layout of the winery and the grapes used to make the wine before she escorted our group of 12 to a formal dining-room like setting where we learned she was an advanced somellier who would be leading us on a wine-class-like tasting through the 6 pre-poured glasses of heaven for 90 minutes.

At $25 to taste, it was not cheap. But, I've paid $80 for similar-length wine-tasting classes taught by professionals with her credentials, and she conveyed just as much useful knowledge as they did during those courses.

Unlike many wineries, Verité does not refund your tasting fee with purchase. However, their wines are amazing and their price point is quite high. During the class, you taste and could finish six 1/2 glasses of their great Bordeaux-style stuff while you are walked through comparisons between what is in front of you and the various styles in Bordeaux that the winemaker/vigneron is trying to achieve.

The discussion made me nostalgic for my days in La Rive Gauche when I first learned to drink wine. How spoiled I was...

Given the nostalgia, I was a marked sucker, and while I didn't fall prey to the aged offerings, I did buy the most expensive bottle of wine I've ever purchased. But, it was heavenly now, and the older versions had aged so wonderfully, that I felt compelled to act and store it for a special occasion. Perhaps our 5th wedding anniversary.

Plus, I did the math and determined that given what the sell the bottles for, the value of the tasting in the glasses was way more than the nominal fee they charge (as in, to buy the bottles and replicate the tasting for 12 would have cost $75.83 per person). And, on our exit, the wine educator gave us 4 half-bottles of wine to enjoy when we reached our hotel, which had they been for sale in 1/2 bottle units, would have cost at least $250.

So, upon leaving, I didn't feel like I'd been swindled into spending entirely too much on wine. Rather, I was giddy and filled with expectation of great things to come. So yeah. Verité winery. An amazing local Bordeaux-inspired experience. And it's cheaper than going to France...
Can't move...digesting

We just got back from a ridiculous Sonoma food and wine weekend, and I'm finally almost done reading the appropriately titled, The Man Who Ate Everything.

I'll break the rehash of the amazing weekend into mini-posts, but suffice it to say, my priorities are thus: When Sonoma with out-of-town guests goes up against marathon training, Sonoma wins.

Saturday's long run of 12 miles did not happen. Not Saturday. Not this morning. And, despite my opting out of drinks at the bar this afternoon, not even this evening, because while I had hoped I could fit it in before nightfall, I'm still too full to run.

So, now I'm looking forward to tonight's healthy recovery of yoga and maybe some broth, followed by early sleep and 12 miles of running at sunrise, before my 8 AM conference call.

Then several days of light food, easy runs, and preparation for the big trip, where we'll be heading to a country that coined the word Kuiadore, roughly translated as To ruin oneself with food, or eating to surfeited collapse.

Right up our alley.

April 4, 2008

Feminist Soba

Lately, I've really been struggling with womens' role in the business and legal worlds and sexism.

Also, I've made some amazing meals.

If no other good comes of these struggles (which, I must admit, despite torturing E with my descriptions of why I think it is important for womens' issues to be addressed I've managed to neither fully convince he nor myself...),

At least there was the good soba discovery....

Feisty Soba

-3 bundles of single-serving soba
-1-2 Tbsp red curry paste
-3-4 Tbsp fish sauce
-3-4 Tbsp soy sauce
-1 head garlic, minced
-1 bag haricots verts (12-14 oz.), frozen
-sesame oil

1. Heat wok to high, add sesame oil. Watch smoke. Realize that you knew sesame was a medium heat oil and feel embarrassed. Turn heat to medium and remove wok from heat, swirl 'til it stops smoking. Add tons and tons (1 head?) of minced garlic to the wok and toss fervently. (While no one is looking, boil some water and boil the soba. Drain the soba quickly and rinse under cold water as soon as it is al dente. Chop into 2 inch pieces with kitchen scissors).

2. Add 1 bag frozen haricots verts (each haricot can be chopped into two or three pieces if you like) to the wok.

3. Stir fry the beans, garlic and oil on the wok and discuss.

4. Add fish sauce, thai curry paste and soba....

5. What's not to like....(except burnt toasts, but we wouldn't dare...)

April 2, 2008

April Fool's

Toasts for soup? Or charcoal? You decide: