Making My Own Yuba in Nikko!

I'm not sure why, but this is one of my most memorable experiences of 2013. In early summer, I was part of an English-language-learning bus tour that went to Nikko, and our first stop was a little shop on the side of the highway.

Actually, it was next to a factory that produces yuba. Step inside, and you can learn a bit about yuba and how it's made.

So, what is yuba? The simple answer is: tofu skin. My first impression upon hearing about yuba was that it sounded unpleasant, and I was fairly apprehensive about trying it. If you've had tofu before, you know it has almost no flavor of its own, so it's served with sauces and other edibles. But I had never heard about tofu skin. Would it be chewy? Crunchy? Does it have a flavor?
 Well, let's make some and find out! Start with a pot of liquid tofu - soy milk. It's heated to near boiling, and to speed the creation of a skin it is fanned quickly.
 To pull off the skin, a toothpick is inserted in one corner of the pan and dragged across the top to the opposite corner.
 Then, the skin (nama-yuba) is lifted out. In factories, a horizontal rod is lifted out from the center of the pan to make sheets instead of pulling the skin by hand.
 Like tofu and soy milk, it has almost no taste. A small bit of sauce is added for flavor. With a slightly rubber texture it resembles some cheeses and I enjoyed the taste. While yuba is very similar to tofu in texture and flavor, it isn't actually tofu because of the way it is prepared.
 If you really love yuba, you can buy it fresh-frozen from the factory. Usually Japanese stores like this selling cold goods will pack them in special bags and use ice packs to keep it cool, especially in summer. In Nikko, yuba is usually rolled into fat logs while Kyoto's yuba is kept flat.
From the yuba factory we went to Nikko, where we had a large lunch with several yuba and tofu dishes included. I think I liked everything you see here! There's yuba ramen, yuba soba, yuba with noodles, yuba ice cream...

It's not too difficult to make yuba at home and recipes can be found all over the internet. After making it, yuba can be fried or served in a bunch of other dishes. There are shops all over Nikko where you can try yuba and probably see it being made, and maybe make it yourself! And you can buy yuba to use in your own dishes at home - water can be added to dried yuba to make it "normal" again.

2013 in Review and My Goals for 2014: Less Chaos, More Kanji

What a year.

Where my 2012 was about travel, 2013 seems to have been about experience. I did plenty of sightseeing, but I spent less time at museums and more time really getting to know a lot about Japan.
In my post about goals for 2013, I started by mentioning that I wanted to see more of Japan. Well, I did. I "did" Kansai (Kyoto, Osaka, and Kobe), Sapporo, Matsumoto and Nagano, Matsushima and the rest of the Tohoku region, and Nagoya again. I visited a bunch of new baseball stadiums, including the remaining seven home stadiums for the NPB teams. I went to many more amusement parks, and rode my 100th roller coaster in Japan.
I didn't take a trip every month. I still want to go to Okinawa, Shikoku, and Kanazawa. I want to return to Matsushima, Nagoya, Kansai, and Nikko. There are another 100 coasters in Japan to ride and lots of baseball to see.
In 2014, I expect to return to South Korea, hopefully take more overseas trips - Hong Kong, Singapore, Thailand, and Vietnam are on my shortlist - and I plan to take some more long-weekend trips for more sightseeing around Japan. I also expect to go back to the US for New Years next year (I have a full week off).
My second goal for 2013 was to try more Japanese food. I did pretty good with this. I had my first real sushi and sashimi, tried more ramen variations, and sampled some of the local specialties. I ate fugu! Japanese food is fairly mild and I've liked almost everything I've tried, though I don't like seaweed, especially in nori form - the dark green paper-like wrapping found on sushi rolls and onigiri (rice balls). I might eventually develop a taste for it, though I don't see it happening anytime soon. I also don't care for the chewiness of octopus in takoyaki, though the taste is fantastic. I'll probably give it a third (final) try before dismissing it for good. The best food in Japan seems to be the unhealthy stuff - curry, sweets and fried food are fantastic! My favorite is kushikatsu, fried food, like chicken, beef, and cheese, on sticks served with a sauce, as seen in the photo above.
As for cooking more at home, I didn't do too well with this. Changing requirements at work has left me fairly tired and I get home later at night - both causing me to lose interest in doing anything more than putting something in the microwave. I am eating healthier though, as I'm paying more attention to my diet. I hope to cook more at home next year.
I wanted to post more this year. I had 124 posts in 2012, and only 89 (this will be number 90) in 2013. I had a good run while I posted about last year's Taiwan trip. But getting in a reliable posting rhythm has proven to be quite difficult. Again, I hope to post more next year, as I have plenty of travel and experiences to write about from 2013. I have noticed that I have readers - it seems that my travel posts are quite popular with people who must be researching for their vacations. (Thank you for reading!)
I renewed my contract for 2014, so I'm in Japan for at least another year. But again I have to decide what to do next. After being here for two years, I can even more confidently say that I enjoy living in Japan. I could certainly settle down here forever. There's also a lot that I really want to do and experience and that I miss in America. Again I face a big decision. I suppose it all depends on how things go for the next six months...

However, I have two resolutions for this year: lose weight (I have about 30 pounds to go - I've lost about 20 in the past 2 years including 10 in the past few months since changing my diet), and learn Japanese. I have a specific goal that I have already begun studying for: pass the JLPT N5 test. It's supposed to be pretty easy, and it's entirely possible I'll be ready for it in only a couple months. It involves knowing hiragana, katakana, about 100 kanji characters, and about 800 vocabulary words, in addition to some grammar, expressions, and listening skills.
Here's to another great year in the Land of the Rising Sun!

A brief stop at Kegon Waterfall in Nikko

 Nikko is one of the most popular cultural destinations in Japan. It's a couple hours from Tokyo by train but is a completely different world, set in the mountains and full of old temples and natural beauty.

Up a windy mountain road, you'll come to Kegon Waterfall.
 The waterfall's entrance is near the top of the mountain along the windy road, but after buying your admission ticket you take an elevator down the cliff (inside the mountain) to a viewing area across from the falls themselves. You can see the falls from a free observation deck higher up the mountain, but the best views are from below.
 It's quite beautiful, and when the skies are clear I'm sure it's even nicer. The fall is a popular destination in autumn, when surrounding trees are changing color adding some variety to the surrounding foliage. Also, the waterfall freezes completely in the winter, which should be pretty cool as well.

Kegon Waterfall is 100 meters high, and is considered one of Japan's three most beautiful waterfalls.
As with all "important" and well-known sites in Japan, the waterfall is fairly crowded, though in the afternoon you should be able to get a good view on one of the two viewing levels. And while the falls are beautiful, know that there is pretty much nothing else to do at the falls themselves. Most people will probably be in and out in about 30 minutes to an hour, depending on how long the wait is for the elevators.

The elevators to the lower observation deck are open from 8 AM to 5 PM, with a 530-yen admission fee. Access is best by bus from the Nikko train stations (JR or Tobu), and takes about 50 minutes - get off at the Chuzenjiko Onsen stop.

The one-way ride is a steep 1100 yen, though a 2-day bus pass is 2000 yen. A great half-day-or-longer trip would add the hike through Senjogohara Marshland, as the bus that stops at the waterfall continues on to Yumoto Onsen (a good starting point for the long hike).

Note that a pass that goes all the way to Yumoto Onsen will probably be more expensive, though my 4400-yen pass included round trip transportation from Asakusa and four days of bus and train rides around Nikko. Details about different pass options can be found at Japan-Guide's website.

And speaking of multi-day passes at Nikko, I think it's easy to spend at least three days there visiting the shrines and temples, natural sights like Senjogohara and Kegon, and the two "theme parks" in Kinugawa. Those looking to relax and take things slower or enjoy the hot springs will easily spend 4-5 days in the area!

Meanwhile, somewhere in Osaka...

I was wandering the streets of Osaka earlier this year and I came across an office building with an interesting sign out front.

It's good that Japan realizes that its residents have a problem, and that 12 Step Programs and Alcoholics Anonymous-style groups have been established to address the addiction Japanese people have to Starbucks coffee. There are over 1000 Starbucks in Japan now. 

It's only a matter of time before more of these support centers are opened in other parts of Japan, and perhaps it will open centers for other addictions as well - small cute things, high heels, and cheesy variety shows on TV.

OK, so this is probably just a regional or national office. But you gotta love the implications! And this is probably not an only-in-Japan thing, but I saw it first here! (P.S., I like Starbucks coffee drinks.)

Today Is Closed

Today is closed.

I'm not sure if tomorrow will happen or not either.

But we'll be waiting for you next time.

This sign was seen outside a bar in Shinkoshigaya a while back, though I think they just use the same sign every time they close because I remember seeing it at least a couple more times in the past few months. I recently found out there are a few foreign-run (British/Scottish) bars/pubs in the area, and I might visit them sometime in the near future.

It's been over a week since my last post, but I continue to go through busy times. Despite "not doing anything" this weekend, I did quite a lot of personal stuff - cleaning, errands, etc. And I just spent the last couple of hours or so sorting through the past year's photos so I can upload and post more about my travels. I hope to start that this week.

Saturday is a holiday here, so I'm taking a weekend trip to Matsumoto. I've been looking forward to it for the past two months (since returning from Sapporo)! We also have some changes at work - my foreign coworker of the past 18 months is leaving on Friday, though she'll be teaching at another school nearby in a couple weeks.

Anyway, for friends and family, things are rolling along here in some way or another...

Until next time!

"Only in Japan" - Booksellers in Shinjuku

Do you like reading Japanese books and magazines, but don't want to pay off-the-rack store prices? Well, reading material in Japan can be expensive, but I'm not sure I'd resort to this.

The guy in the jeans is a bookseller. Sort of. Usually, when someone is finished with their cheaper book or magazine, they'll leave it on the train or throw it in the trash. These books end up in the hands of resellers, who I'm sure get books from other sources as well, and then sell them on the street.

In Shinjuku especially, the reading material tends to be more adult in nature. This guy seems to be quite organized, with several actual boxes and a makeshift table. I wonder about the legality of this, but at least the guy is taking something perfectly useful and putting it back into circulation.

I will mention that there are actual used bookstores in Japan, most notably BookOff. Normal reading material is usually pretty cheap at BookOff, and I've bought a few used books from stores here just as I did in America. In general, used or outdated goods are frowned upon here - there are a handful of secondhand shops but they can be hard to find.

But buying used pornography on the street from a homeless man is just freaky.

That said, this may be considered an "Only in Japan" occurrence, but there are similar situations in America - I can easily think of at least one flea market in the San Francisco area that is known for having found and stolen goods, and you haven't experienced New York or Atlanta until a guy comes into your subway car, opens a big duffle bag, and announces he has movies to sell. Not to mention all the homeless guys in America begging for spare change, and the guys on the sidewalk along Mission Street with their curbside "sales" of goods probably stolen from a nearby car or from a stolen backpack..

Maybe next time I'll buy a magazine just for the experience. On second thought, no.

A Chiba Lotte Marines Game at QVC Marine Field

Baseball season is over on both sides of the Pacific, but that doesn't mean I can't post about my favorite pastime.

The first game I was able to go to this year was an early-summer match in Chiba. I attended the game with friends and their families.
The stadium sits next to the bay, a long way from the station. You can expect to walk for about 15 minutes or so. Along the way you'll pass some places to eat, a small team souvenir store fairly close to the station, and at least one convenience store. There are buses to get you to the park, too.

It officially opened in 1990 with a Madonna concert (thanks, Wikipedia) but the Marines didn't move in until 1992.
 Across from the stadium, in the plaza, is a building that I'll visit at the end of the post. Or you can enlarge the photo and ruin the suspense.
 Despite the scary-looking skies, it stayed dry the entire game. The stadium has a circular shape, though it has multi-level seating only in the infield.
 The outfield has a big wall and some outfield seating along with the giant scoreboard.
 The stadium seats 30,000, and it was pretty full by mid-game (here you see first pitch).
 Like most NPB stadiums, you can bring your own food and drink. They didn't check us for bottles or cans on my visit, though if they saw you with a bottle they'd make you get a cup. You see, you can't bring in bottles or cans, and instead they give you a paper cup to pour your beverage in.

Anyway, the food selection inside the stadium didn't seem too nice, but there are a bunch of food trucks and stands in the plaza out front. We got our hands or tickets stamped,  and I was able to get a kebab sandwich that was pretty good - there are other selections as well! Also in the plaza is a monument with hand prints of several former Marines.
 So, you remember that building across from the stadium? It holds the main team store and the Marines Museum. What I thought at first was a small collection of exhibits turned out to be so much more.
 In the entrance was a bunch of memorabilia and this giant autographed ball.
 A trophy from years past.
 More trophies.
 Game-used spikes.
 Exhibits on successful players and years.
 In the back, on the first floor, there are some stadium-like areas to play around in. Here you can stand in the batter's box. Nothing really happens, but it's a good photo op.
 See a real locker. Those things are pretty big!
 This locker has uniforms and game memorabilia from the WBC.
 There's an outfield wall at the same height - kids were jumping to try to touch the top, though it isn't so high... not like the hefty bag in Minneapolis. The old ball/strike/out sign randomly cycles through various combinations.
 After you finish playing around here, head upstairs for some legacy and vintage artifacts.
 The team's history starts in 1950 as the Mainichi Orions.
 You can see old photos, programs, and memorabilia.
 The throwback uniforms are pretty cool.
 The upstairs serves as a sort of Hall of Fame too.
1974 is one of four years when the Marines won the Japan Series (the others being 1950, 2005, and 2010).
 The Marines (Orions) won the Pacific League pennant in 1960 and 1970, and have won various other awards (First Half or Second Half champions, for example).
 I'm not sure what the significance of this exact jersey is (it probably belonged to Bobby Valentine) but the Marines seem to have actually worn pink jerseys at some point.
 There is a collection of autographed balls near the end...
So we'll close with one of the greatest foreigners in NPB - Bobby Valentine, who led the Marines to a Japan Series title in 2005.

The stadium isn't too hard to get to from Tokyo Station - a couple lines go direct in 40-50 minutes. I'd like to visit again for the museum and to explore the stadium a bit more. Since I went with friends, I'm not sure I was able to get a great idea of all the Marines have to offer, though I had a great time.

A Chilly Trip to Tokyo Summerland

Go west. If you're looking for amusement parks in the Tokyo area, the surviving ones seem to all be west of the city center. Some may be northwest like Toshimaen, others southwest like Yokohama CosmoWorld, but the east side just doesn't have much to offer. Sure, straight north is Tobu Zoo and Asakusa's Hanayashiki Park is on the eastern side of the city, but they have other attractions that draw the crowds (animals and history, respectively). That might be due to the existence of a certain mouse on the eastern side of Tokyo, though I'm sure weather and traffic patterns (including train lines) make a difference.
 Head west a little bit on a train and grab a bus, and you can go to Tokyo Summerland. The blue and red letters above the second floor of the entrance building announce that you've arrived. The building holds the massive indoor water park too.
 That park is called Adventure Dome, and as you see it has a large wave pool and some slides in the distance. Outside are a few more slides as well, though they are closed at this time of year. The indoor park is heated, and I'm sure the water is too. I visited last November on a chilly afternoon and it was quite warm and humid inside.
 A few small dry attractions are housed here as well, including this little safari train. The area next to the entrance has a lot of merchandise space, including swimwear and supplies for the water park, as well as some food choices.
 Heading out back you come across a selection of rides. Here's a freefall and a flat ride.
 There's a small carousel.
 This is one of those fast spinny rides that are just painful for me.
 Do you want to play a game? There are a few carnival-like games somewhere around here, I'm sure.
 The swinging pirate ship was fairly popular. There are some mazes and other attractions in the park, too.
 But I'm here for the coaster.
 Hm. It looked better from farther away. Is this a bad sign? The theme park area was pretty empty, though as soon as I got in line a bunch of other people joined me and we ended up with pretty close to a full train.
 It's an old looping coaster and it isn't very big. It looked pretty old, too, to go with the rest of the park. I'm not sure how much they've put into the rides in the past few years. It's a big difference compared to the water park.
 It was getting dark out, but you can still see how grimy (moldy?) the tracks look.
 There's a little corkscrew loop after the loop too, by the way. I'm not exactly sure what the house is for in the middle of the park right next to the coaster. Does someone live there?
 Here's a better view of the layout from the Ferris wheel.
 Another brave group of riders head up the hill..
 And through the loop they go! It wasn't a horrible coaster, but despite having an all-you-can-ride ticket I didn't go for a second spin. I ended up trying several of the other attractions, and went on the drop ride three or four times - yes, the painfully rough drop ride was better than the coaster.
 Here's a view of most of the park - it sits on the east side of a mountain so the sun sets sooner here than the neighboring valley - not the ideal place for a theme park with water rides.
 Here's a zoomed view of the indoor water park building and the drop ride.
 And another view of the free fall ride... normal exposure...
...and here is a longer exposure.

The water park was pretty crowded on a Sunday late afternoon but as I mentioned the rides part of the park wasn't. I could walk on to all the rides. Summerland felt almost abandoned, similar to many of the theme parks around the country. Several were built when times were good and money flowed like water from a hot spring, but financial issues have closed several parks and left most of the rest barely hanging on. Disney and Universal Studios certainly haven't helped things either. I really can't think of any truly new coasters in Japan outside of Disney, Universal, and Fuji Q.

A quick check of the Roller Coaster Database shows that no new coasters opened in Japan this year; two kids coasters and a replacement coaster (which is pretty good) for Joypolis opened last year, and only one new coaster is mentioned for next year, though it could be really fun.

Water Adventure Tokyo Summerland (even the water park comes first in the name now) is open from March through November with varied hours, and is closed one or two days a week in the spring and fall. Admission for adults starts at 2000 yen, with a free pass for the rides adding an additional 1000 yen; prices are higher in the summer when the outdoor water attractions are open. It's a 40 minute train ride from Shinjuku Station to Hajima Station, then another 10 minutes to Akigawa Station. Finally, a 10 minute bus will take you right to the park's front door.