Navigating Your ‘Camino’ During this Time of Coronavirus

Laying in my bunk, I feel far from rested. The night before was a chorus of snoring, the coming and going of footsteps, and the tossing and turning of my 50+ roommates. It crescendos with a few early risers packing their bags at first light and yet still I lie here in my bunk trying to mentally prepare myself for the day ahead. My muscles ache, the soles of my feet are tender from the constant pounding on pavement, and my bummed knee is painful and swollen. Worst of all, my mind is racing and I wonder if I’ve gotten myself in too deep. 

Today would be another long day on the trail, over 20 kilometers in mountainous terrain, and I am already only dreaming of being there. “There” being that night’s albergue, or pilgrim hostel, where I will be able to take a quick lukewarm shower, prop up my knee, repair the blisters on my feet, and try to coax myself to sleep amid the noise again. But I know that this isn’t how it’s done; you have put in the work and effort. 

The Camino de Santiago is a religious pilgrimage with routes all over Europe leading to St. James’ tomb in northwestern Spain. There are numerous routes but the primary one is Camino Francés which starts in the French border town of St. Jean Pied de Port in the Pyrenees and makes its way 796 kilometers (495 miles) to Santiago de Compostela. In 2013, my husband and I flew to Spain to hike approximately two weeks on the Camino Francés. It has now been seven years since I was on the Camino, but I often find my mind drifting to those memories, experiences, and lessons. 

Throughout Spain’s State of Alarm, I experienced several mornings similar to the one along the Camino de Santiago. Lying in bed, wondering how I was going to get up and face the day – a day full of unknowns – and I often found myself pulling on the lessons learned over those several weeks on the trail. 

Now I realize that finding parallels in two vastly different experiences sounds slightly absurd. One kept me moving, changing beds every night, and meeting countless people from around the world; the other left me at home alone with only my family members, unable to go on long walks or hikes during the lockdown, and connected to the outside world primarily via screens.  However many of the lessons are still relevant, just with a different context.

One Step Forward. The first lesson is possibly the most important. Taking that first step forward, no matter how little or small. Get out of bed. Pack your bag. Hit the trail. Once up and moving (hobbling?) down the trail, the stiffness in my muscles would begin to fade as did the soreness in my feet. I became more focused, settled into my pace for the day, and reached that day’s destination before nightfall. 

The phrase “one step forward” was heard more times than I can count along the Camino. It was used as a motivator by albergues’ proprietors, nuns and priests, bar owners where you stopped for a café con leche, and fellow pilgrims. Initially it felt clichéd but I began to look forward to it because the general sentiment behind it was of encouragement or motivation. They believed in me, some times more than I believed in myself, that I would make it to Santiago de Compostela by only taking that first step forward. One step, one hundred meters, one kilometer felt so much more manageable than the end goal. 

Many times, throughout the State of Alarm, I’ve had to just remind myself – whether with big or small steps – to just push forward. Find the one task that I could manage that morning and hope that this first task, or step, would keep me moving forward. 

It’s hard – physically and emotionally. On the Camino, my sole task was to get up each morning, pack up and start walking. I only had to worry about my basic necessities of eating, sleeping, and caring for my body, but that didn’t make it easy. There was anger when I slipped on mud during a steep descent and twisted my knee, tears when I realized the Camino I envisioned wasn’t going to happen as I had hoped, excitement as I entered Santiago de Compostela with my fellow pilgrims and sat in front of the huge cathedral realizing this journey was over, reflection during the pilgrims’ mass that culminated my experience, and mourning as I realized that the Camino experience was ending and I now had to return to the real world again. 

There’s no doubt that this pandemic, Spain’s State of Alarm and the following months have been and are hard. We are inherently social and lean on each other for support. We are used to traveling and exploring, especially while being stationed in Southern Spain.  We are used to being selfish in our wants and needs. The State of Alarm has forced us to remove all the outside chatter and focus on two simple tasks – stay home and stay healthy.

Working toward a common goal. Throughout the Camino, everyone was working toward that common goal of reaching St. James’ tomb in Santiago de Compostela’s cathedral. It’s hard to put into words the feeling of all that energy flowing toward one central point. How at each marker, nightly stop, and kilometer, everyone was closer to that goal and excitement was building.

This pandemic has yielded similar feelings of togetherness. Things such as my children’s joy when they produced their “Todo Irá Bien” (everything will be ok) rainbow poster to hang in the window, being able to connect with my family more often since everyone was home at the same time despite a time difference, and the fact that as humanity, we are all working toward that common goal of flattening the curve, protecting those around us, and keeping our community healthy. 

Finding a community. Which brings me to my next lesson, finding community. Community is probably the most contradictory phase given the isolative state of this pandemic. However, a community’s bond is formed through a shared experience, and it would be hard to argue that this pandemic has not been a worldwide experience. On the Camino, the community was formed from fellow pilgrims, albergue owners, restaurants and cafes along the way, and the people who entered and exited the Camino along my path. 

The Coronavirus Camino has been finding my community online through social media, Zoom, texting and calls. It’s been a chance to reignite friendships that have taken the back burner due to the busyness of life, being able to connect with family more frequently, or meeting new friends virtually. During this time, I realized the value of my community and will take these lessons and connections with me and incorporate them into my everyday life from here forward.

It’s lonely. While there were hundreds of other pilgrims on the Camino, I had plenty of moments of quiet time to reflect. I had to turn inward. I had to deal with some unwanted thoughts, feelings and beliefs that I would usually push aside but because no one else was there to deal with those thoughts, it fell to me. 

Throughout the past several months, it’s been weird to only interact with friends via computers and phones, to only interact with my family members on a daily basis, and to know that we really won’t return to the fully social life we had before anytime soon. It has required me to turn inward, find the strength within, look for ways to balance myself, take the time for self-care, and ultimately, reach out for help if needed. 

The power of a “rest day.” After several days on the trail, we usually planned a “rest day.” Typically they coincided with a larger city so the day was filled with sleeping in (in a big comfy hotel bed!), a little sightseeing, taking that midday nap, and probably catching up on laundry or cleaning our gear. That said, I was usually restless by the end of the day, ready to begin moving forward again and catching up with our Camino friends on the trail. 

There were many days throughout the lockdown where I struggled, or felt guilty, for a rest day. In this time where there was no line between work and home life, or personal and family time, a day of rest was what I needed for my body and mind to process everything. Taking a day “off” to linger in bed a bit longer, go on a Netflix binge or finish that book, taking a long walk on the beach; basically anything to recharge my mind, body and soul. Just don’t stay in the rest mode too long! 

It’s ok to be sad. As I approached Santiago de Compostela, I was surprised to feel a sense of sadness come over me, and I was not alone with many of my fellow pilgrims expressing the same sadness. While we were elated to finally reach our destination, we were already beginning to grieve no longer being on the trail and the experiences that come with it. 

Like many, I’ve been saddened by missed vacations or social activities that we’ve had to give up since the pandemic began. Or as we begin to move about more, I find myself missing some of the simplicity of life at home during the lockdown. During these challenging times, it’s ok to be sad. There is a lot of truth in the saying “life’s a journey, not a destination.” This time will be full of emotions as you look back but hopefully you will see the good as much as the bad.  

The Second Camino. The general sentiment along the trail is that upon arriving in Santiago de Compostela, a pilgrim would begin their next Camino. It was rarely more defined, and was simply left for the pilgrim to figure out. For some, it may be a spiritual one, or one spent applying Camino lessons to their everyday life, or for others still, another physical pilgrimage somewhere in the world. That was left up to the individual to figure out. 

While we don’t know what the rest of 2020 will hold for us. I hope that you view this next stage as the next Camino. To remember the knowledge and lessons learned over the past several months, apply them to your current life, and most importantly, take that first step forward. Buen Camino!

Note: This commentary first appeared in Naval Station Rota newspaper, Coastline, on September 24, 2020.

Reverse, reverse

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I feel like I am again apologizing for my absence posting to this blog. I had all intentions to get it up and running again but then we found out we were moving back to Japan. Hence the title “Reverse, reverse.” 🙂

I am a child of the 90s and therefore, Cha Cha Slide was all the rage. I just had that one line on repeat in my head as I went through the motions of cleaning up and passing off job duties, prepping the house for moving, pack out, temporary lodging, flight, getting settled in temp lodging, finding a new house, getting settled, etc. Didn’t I just do this a YEAR ago?!

The upside is we are now back in Japan and here for at least three years! It means I can pick up where I left off with exploring Japanese food and culture, traveling Asia (several countries that I didn’t get to visit on our last stay here), and experiencing Japan through the eyes of my daughter.

xxCourtney

It’s been awhile…

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Exploring central coast California

It’s been awhile, my friends. Too long in fact! Life and daily obligations have a way of sucking you in and next thing you know….weeks have passed, months have passed, and then years. Don’t think that this blog hasn’t crossed my mind or that I didn’t want to write. Life was just crazy, crazy busy.

Since my last post (November 2013? Really??), I found out I was pregnant, started a new job, vacationed stateside, had the baby, made an international move to the United States, started another new job and got settled in our new home/city/life. I like to think I’m flexible and easy-going but there were moments I wondered if we bit off more than I could handle.

Life has begun to settled down…well as much as life does with an 8-month old who crawls and gets into everything! But I hope to get back into the groove of posting, cooking up some of our favorite foods, recreating food memories from abroad and traveling this beautiful country that is my home!

xxCourtney

Food Festa: Nihonbashi Food Tour

On November 1st, I was lucky enough to participate in a Nihonbashi tour focusing on “Umami,” or the fifth taste, that is very common in Japanese. The 90-minute tour included discussion about nori, katsuobushi and dashi, and general panel discussion. It was coordinated by Japan Food Festa as part of a month-long celebration of Japanese food and culture.

I participated in the first tour of the day. We met at Mitsukoshi Department Store, one of the oldest in Japan, in downtown Tokyo. To start the tour, they described the importance of the Nihonbashi bridge (which has a huge highway running above it now so a bit of an eyesore). The bridge dates back to Edo period and this was one of the main merchant areas. Therefore, many of the oldest shops in Tokyo can be found here.

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Freshly grilled nori was served

Our first stop was Yamamoto Noriten shop specializing in nori (seaweed) that was founded in 1849 during the Edo Era. The manager gave a brief presentation about the store and its history. We given samples of nori prior to grilling to get the taste of it. Then the nori was freshly grilled in front of us and we were given another sample. I enjoyed both samples. The first tasted light and “of the sea” while after grilling it, the flavors intensified. The store offers various types of nori for purchase as well as nori crackers and snacks. We sampled a few and I can’t wait to go back and purchase some!

Our second stop was Ninben which specializes in katsuobushi and was founded in 1699. Katsuobushi is the dried tuna that is thinly shaved to put on many Japanese dishes, found in furikake (condiment sprinkled on rice), or a key ingredient in dashi.  The manager gave a presentation on the company and how katsuobushi is made. It’s a detailed process that results in a product that is only 14% water, one of the driest foods in the world. To be honest, it sounded like wood when you tapped it. The manager also demonstrated how they freshly shave the katsuobushi and had other tour participants give it a try. You definitely had to put some muscle in it! Luckily for us, they now have machines that will shave the katsuobushi so all you need to do is open a packet.

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Dashi bar in Ninben store

Attached to the store was a dashi bar. Yes, you heard right. A dashi bar. I made a joke beforehand that we were going to go to a dashi bar to sample and imagine my glee when I got to do just that! We were given the basic katsuobushi dashi to sample. Then we were instructed to add some soy sauce and taste again. Then salt and taste again. With each addition, I felt that the depth of flavors increase.

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Time for some dashi tasting

Once we completed the store visits, we headed back to Mitsukoshi Department store where we were able to view their tea ceremony room. Even with all my tea lessons, this was the first I had seen and/or used a traditional square entrance. The door was so samurais would have to remove their swords prior to entering the tea room and thus everyone became equals. Once in the room, we participated in a panel presentation and a Q&A regarding the products and the flavors of umami.

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To enter the room, you must slide through this tiny door

To conclude, Yukari of Food Sake Tokyo (amazing blog and travel book that is a necessity for any foodie traveling to Tokyo) summed up the tour and experience. She explained that Japan’s traditional washoku cuisine is up for UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage list and should be decided upon in December. If it receives the designation, it will help to preserve this traditional cuisine as well as provide greater options for foreign chefs to come, learn, and work in restaurants specializing in washoku.  Once the presentation was complete, we were given a quick tour of the depachika (basement food floor of most major department stores). It truly is a foodie’s paradise with gorgeous bento boxes, pickles, wagashi, and more.

I want to thank Food Festa for putting on a great tour to delve a deeper into Japanese food and umami. I learned so much during this tour and it has made me more confident in understanding the process behind some of Japan’s most common  ingredients.

Sukiyaki Cooking Class

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Sukiyaki – Japanese one pot meal that are common in the winter

I think fall has skipped Japan all together and we’re heading full-steam into winter. Sad, but true. However, there is some silver lining to winter approaching…sukiyaki!

On Saturday, I headed to Tokyo for a sukiyaki cooking class with my foodie friend. Sukiyaki is hands-down my favorite Japanese winter dish. I’ve tried a few different nabe (hot pot cooked at table) but always finish a meal wishing I had gotten sukiyaki instead. I was sure it was easy to make but sometimes it’s easier to have someone show you the first time.

Buddha Bellies Cooking School has long been one of my favorite Tokyo stops. I routinely check out their website to see what’s happening and what classes I can join. It all started over a year ago when I took the first udon-making class for my birthday. It was a wonderful night spent with our gracious host Ayuko, new friends, and my husband. Those living abroad know how lonely birthdays (or holidays) can be so feeling like you’re with “family” makes it easier.

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My friend prepping the warishita sauce for sukiyaki

But I digress; this post is about sukiyaki and its deliciousness. Ayuko started the class by explaining the basic history behind the dish.  There are different stories on how sukiyaki came about. But the one consistency is that prior to outside influence, the Japanese did not eat much meat. When westerners started coming to Japan in the late 1800s, they wanted beef and the Japanese being unaccustomed to preparing beef would boil it in pots with soy sauce.

The other cultural tidbit that we learned was that there are two types of sukiyaki, Kanto- and Kansai-style. The first major difference is the sauce. The Kanto-version requires warishita sauce to be prepared ahead of time.  For the Kansai-version, it is added after the beef has begun cooking. There is also a variance in sauce flavor. People in the Kanto prefer a saltier version while the Kansai area prefers a sweeter version.

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Beautiful vegetables chopped and ready for sukiyaki

Since we were in Tokyo, we were learning the Kanto-version so first up was making the warishita sauce. The sauce was ridiculously easy to make. We mixed together soy sauce, mirin, sugar, salt, and sake. Brought it all to a boil and allowed it to cook off the alcohol before letting it cool. The sauce actually improves after a few days so make it ahead of time and you minimize prep on the day.

After we had the sauce was complete and cooling, we moved onto the vegetables. We cut and prepped onions, cabbage, carrots, tofu, and mushrooms. We added a hashed “X” on each mushroom which I thought was done for presentation alone but discovered it actually allows more sauce to seep into the mushroom. Yummy!

We also cut the grilled tofu in the traditional way Japanese do which means on your hand. Yes, you heard right! We were both a bit freaked out about cutting our fingers off but in the end, it all worked out well and we had nicely cut tofu.

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Learning to make Japanese omelet

With the sukiyaki platter ready to go, we moved onto our appetizer platter. We made a dish called namasu which is pickled cucumber and wakame seaweed, Japanese egg omelet, and a decorative sushi roll.

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Our teacher Ayuku demonstrating how to make decorative sushi

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Our finished appetizer plate

Then it was time to begin our feast! There is a process to how items are added to the sukiyaki dish. First, we placed a beef fat cube in the pot instead of oil to grease it. Most grocery stores and butcher shops offer beef fat in the meat section. I had always wondered what those white cubes were in the basket and now I know! Then the first round of beef is added with some of the warishita sauce. Only beef is added for the first round is to allow it to further flavor the sauce with its juices.  After we gobbled up the delicious marbled beef, we added more beef, mushrooms, onions, cabbage, grilled tofu, shirataki noodles, and shungiku (garland Chrysanthemum). Let it all cook and then time to eat.

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First into the sukiyaki dish is marbled beef

The traditional way to eat sukiyaki is by dipping it in a raw egg. You break the egg in the bowl provided, whip it, and then dip the beef into it prior to eating. It helps to cool the beef and the egg cooks slightly on the surface. There’s an added richness this way but don’t feel you have to do it. The meat and vegetables were equally delicious without.

I’m so excited to add sukiyaki to my cooking binder as its quick, communal, and the perfect dish for these cold days. What’s your favorite winter dish?

xxCourtney

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Enjoying a crisp sake from Niigata prefecture with our sukiyaki

Happy Japan-niversary!

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Cherry Blossoms in Kyoto

We’ve lived in Japan now for three years. Three years? Really?

Time truly does fly! Three years of exploring this beautiful country which has become our home. Here’s a few things we’ve learned during our time here.

1. Customer service is AMAZING! You are cheerfully greeted as you enter any store. Workers are quick to help you find what you want. And they bow after every purchase. But the best customer service innovation is a buzzer found on the tables of many restaurants Perfect solution for having a waiter there when you need them and no mindless chitchat about how your food tastes when you don’t.

2. I will never learn to read this language. Yes, it’s sad but I’ve just resigned myself to that fact. The challenge is it isn’t one written language but four! You have hiragana, katakana, kanji, and romanji (Japanese words written in Roman alphabet). To be honest, the hiragana, katakana, and romanji would be do-able but kanji is straight memorization…and my brain just shuts down!

3. Homes are fragile. This is possibly one of the few dislikes I have about living in Japan. The homes are cold, cold, cold in the winter because they are built to “breath” during those hot and humid summers. The floors are impossible to keep clean and glossy because even though it’s wood, there is not durable wax to protect it. The redeeming factor is most homes have heated toilet seats. Best invention ever! I want one in my American home.

4. Food is diverse. Most Americans seem to think only of sushi and teppanyaki when it comes to Japanese cuisine. And now, ramen is starting to make a splash! But this is barely scratching the surface of Japanese cuisine. It’s varied and diverse from curry and yakitori to nabe and kaiseki. And once you’re finished sampling Japanese food, you can move onto basically any cuisine in the world. French, Italian, Moroccan, Chinese, American BBQ, or whatever your stomach desires!

This list could go on and on because we are always learning and growing. Living in a foreign culture is not only challenging, but forces you to growing as a person on a daily basis. You have to step outside your comfort zones, embrace the adventure, and make the most of the time you have here. We’ve enjoyed our three years of experiences, the friends we’ve made, and personal growth. Here’s to another two years in the “Land of the Rising Sun”!

Enjoy some photos of our first three years!
xxCourtney

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Day 2 in Japan: Iwakuni’s Kintai-kyo Bridge

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Miyajima Island and its famous floating torii

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Making momiji-manju on Miyajima island with my work group

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Hiking Mt. Fuji with my sister and brother-in-law

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Birthday weekend to the art island of Naoshima

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Festa de Rama with friends

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Cooking class in Kyoto with visiting family

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Backpacking Shikoku with Zion

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Hasu-chan, Iwakuni’s mascot, at a Lotus Root cooking class

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Learning to make a character bento

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Trying cross-country skiing on Nagano’s Olympic course

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Meeting up with old friends from my BGSU years

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Performing tea ceremony

My Birthday Celebration: Eating my way across Tokyo!

Not a traditional post but I know several were following my photos yesterday as I literally ate my way across Tokyo! So here was the rundown of where we ate and my thoughts on each. The pictures are all from my iPhone as I wanted to stay “in the moment” as much as possible (which can sometimes be hard with a dSLR attached to your face).

On our Tokyo Birthday Celebration, the first stop was lunch reservation at Kimono Wine Bar & Grill. I have been dying to check this place out. Not only does the menu look great but they are always hosting themed nights like wine pairings, creatives, movie viewings, and more. I love any place that combines programming with good food! After finally making my way here, I have a feeling this will be a routine stop on our Tokyo trips. They describe it as an “oasis” and I think this is a perfect description. We were in the heart of Tokyo yet the street and neighborhood was laid-back and removed from the daily bustle of one of the world’s largest cities!

I made reservations because I have heard it fills up quickly on the weekends but when we showed up for a late lunch, we were the only ones (a few trickled in afterwards). Not sure if it’s because we visited on one of the few non-holiday weekends in September/October but it gave us the option of eating inside, or on the patio. Since the air has finally begun to cool off, we sat outside and enjoyed the gorgeous weather!

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Spanish cidre for an afternoon lunch on the patio

Now to the food. The food is described as Euro-fusion. We only had the brunch menu, which has been extended to include Saturdays and Sundays till 4PM. The menu offered a diverse blend of American and European style dishes. There was chorizo, eggs benedict, bagels, and burgers to fill your stomach along with special brunch cocktails and an extensive wine and beer list.  I opted for their swordfish “burger” which I have heard great things about. The swordfish was grilled and then topped with a tomato/onion salsa, avocado, and a special Thai-inspired sauce. My husband selected the pulled pork burger with cole slaw. We thoroughly enjoyed both dishes but the dessert was what took the prize for me! When it came to the final decision of making a choice on where to eat, I opted for Kimono Wine Bar & Grill because they mentioned their famous almond cake with brown butter sauce was back on the menu. Hmm…I love almond cakes so I had to try it. Wowser, even my husband was wanting “just one more bite”….

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My swordfish “burger” which I highly recommend

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My husband opted for the pulled pork sandwich which he quickly devoured!

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Almond cake with brown butter sauce. I MUST go back soon for this!

After lunch, we meandered the half kilometer to the National Art Center Tokyo where there’s a special exhibit (through October 2013) on American Pop Art. The admission price was 1500 yen but worth every penny in my eyes. This private collection of John and Kimiko Powers included artwork from all the Pop Art Masters including Andy Warhol and Roy Lichenstein.  No pictures were allowed inside so all you get is this picture of a 3D replica of the 200 Campbell Soup Cans. On a random note, I found it hilarious that the museum’s gift shop was selling actual Campbells’ soup cans for a pretty high price!

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A little slice of Americana

Then it was off to find Sadaharu Aoki patisserie. I discovered him while I was researching for our Paris trip in May. I was intrigued because he was a Japanese man who was told he would never open a French pastry shop. As a dramatic show of defiance, he went to Paris where he opened several shops that were well-received. In recent years, he’s returned to his homeland and opened several shops in Tokyo. We went to the Midtown location since it was the closest. We got the 6-pack macaroon box at a whopping 1840 yen! (As my husband says, I have expensive taste!) We selected the Japanese-inspired macaroons that you typically don’t find elsewhere. Flavors such as matcha (green tea), yuzu (Asian citrus), hoija, black sesame, and wasabi.

We then headed outside to the lawn of Midtown where we enjoyed our macaroons with Spanish cava. Yes, a sparkling wine bar has been set up on the lawn. Do they do this all year round?! I don’t know, but I think it’s a brilliant idea. And for the macaroons, I loved the Asian-flavored combinations but was slightly disappointed with the filling. It was incredibly dense and seemed almost gelatinous to me. My preference is flavored fresh cream fillings. That being said, I will return for the black sesame and yuzu macaroon!

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Birthday girl with macaroons (aka my birthday cake) and cava

After the sugar rush, we were in need of some substantial food so we hopped the train to DevilCraft. It’s a craft beer bar that serves up pizza including Chicago Deep Dish pizza. They recently opened a new location but we went to the original restaurant near Kanda station. The first floor bar has seating for approximately 12 persons in a trendy, albeit tight, space. The restaurant does have two additional floors but all were reserved for Saturday night. We ordered a small Chicago deep dish pizza to share. What came out would be classified as a personal pan pizza by American standards! However, it is deep dish and we had plenty to eat beforehand so we were fine with the smaller portions. Can’t wait to head back here soon with an empty stomach!

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Chicago deep dish pizza in Tokyo

So with that, we decided it was time to leave Tokyo and head back home for the day. It was an absolutely wonderful birthday!  I was so happy to finally get to try these restaurants and stores, however, I may need to be head that way more often because my stomach is growling again…

Courtney

Kabocha Vanilla Chai Ice Cream

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Kabocha Vanilla Chai Ice Cream (and yes, I need to update photos!)

This was a recipe I created a year ago for a Food52 ice cream contest. I surprisingly made it to the semifinals (call it beginner’s luck) but lost out in the final week of voting. That being said, this recipe is killer for fall time. It’s the perfect blend of fall ingredients mixed with those warm flavors of chai tea and vanilla. Enjoy!

Kabocha Vanilla Chai Ice Cream
Adapted from Jeni’s Splendid Ice Cream

Roasted Kabocha Squash
2-3 lb Kabocha squash

Preheat oven to 400 degrees F. Cut the squash in half; remove seeds and membranes. Place cut side down on a baking sheet and roast for 40 minutes until soft when pierce with fork. Let cool slightly. Scoop the flesh into a food processor and puree until completely smooth. Measure out 1 cup of the kabocha puree for the ice cream; reserve the rest of the puree for another use.

Chai Milk Base
1-inch piece fresh ginger, cut into thin rounds
1 cinnamon stick
1 tsp black peppercorns
5 whole cloves
3 cardamom pods
1 vanilla bean, scraped
3 cups whole milk
3 Darjeeling tea bags

Combine first 5 ingredients in medium saucepan. Mash slightly with a wooden spoon. Add in whole milk and place over low heat. Simmer for 20 minutes. Remove from heat and place tea bags in milk mixture. Let steep for 10 minutes. Remove tea bags and strain mixture. Measure 2 cups of the chai milk mixture for recipe; discard remaining milk.

Ice Cream
2 cups chai milk base
1 TBSP plus 1 tsp cornstarch
1 ½ ounces (3 TBSP) cream cheese, softened
1/8 tsp fine sea salt
1 ¼ cups heavy cream
2/3 cups sugar
2 TBSP light corn syrup
1 cup kabocha puree
¼ cup maple syrup

Mix 2 TBSP of chai milk base with cornstarch in a small bowl to make a smooth slurry.

Whisk the cream cheese and salt in a medium bowl until smooth. Add kabocha puree and maple syrup and combine until smooth.

Combine the remaining milk, cream, sugar and corn syrup in a 4-quart saucepan, bring to a rolling boil over medium-high heat and boil for 4 minutes. Remove from the heat and gradually whisk in the cornstarch slurry. Return the mixture to a boil over medium-high heat and cook, stirring until the mixture is slightly thickened, about 1 minute. Remove from heat.

Gradually whisk the hot milk mixture into the cream cheese mixture until smooth. Pour the mixture into a 1-gallon Ziploc freezer bag and submerge the sealed bag in the ice bath. Place ice bath in the refrigerator and leave for at least an hour, or preferably overnight.

Pour the ice cream base into the frozen canister and spin until thick and creamy. Pack the ice cream into a storage container, press the sheet of parchment directly against the surfact, and seal with an airtight lid. Freeze until firm, at least 4 hours.

Kamikochi Backpacking Weekend

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View along the river walk towards our campsite

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Beautiful mountains!

Late September is always a bit of a celebration for my husband and I. In the span of a week, we smash in both birthdays and our anniversary! Sometimes we travel out-of-country (2006: Italy, 2010:  Europe) and other times, we keep it a bit more low-key. This year was one that fell into the latter category. This year’s trip was checking one of my husband’s Japan To-Do’s, Kamikochi. Late September is a perfect time to head into the mountains here in Japan; cool in the evenings and warm during the day.

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The walk from the final hut to our tent camping area

We had heard people rave about Kamikochi but didn’t quite know what to expect. We arrived early on Wednesday and began our 17km hike into our campsite. The initial 11km was a  tree-covered trail with slight rolling hills that followed the river farther into the valley. There were several huts along the way where we were able to stop, use the toilet (several are pay; 100 yen each), buy some snacks or drinks, and more. In early afternoon, we finally made it to an old mountain hut site, Yarasawa, destroyed by an avalanche that is now a tent camping site.

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Our luxury while backpacking is good food

Now there’s one thing you should know about us when we camp. We eat very, very well while we’re out camping. It becomes the biggest luxury on an adventure  where you’re sleeping on the ground, not bathing, and hiking all day long! We have several go-to backpacking recipes but tried out a new concept recipe of an Italian-inspired soup on the first night. Actually, it contained the heaviest items so it needed to be the first to go!

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Filtering fresh mountain water near our campsite

On Day 2, we headed farther up the valley and then straight up the side of the mountains to Yari-ga-take. This mountain is one of the more popular mountains in the park and it shows. At the ridgeline just beside the peak, there is a massive mountain hut containing beds for hundreds of people, a restaurant, shop, and more. The actual peak is a sketchy climb of chains, ropes, and ladders to the top. I’ll admit that it was a peak that Tom claimed, not me. I don’t do ladders…especially when I was having slight vertigo. On the descent, I took the trail straight down and my husband decided to take a ridgeline hike to Tenguhara. We met up at the junction point on the trail where he surprised me with mountain blueberries. Freshly picked with the blue thumb to prove it!

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Hiking up towards Yari-ga-take

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Beautiful mountain valley

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Yari-ga-take peak

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My husband kindly took pictures on his way up Yari-ga-take peak. I hung out at the hut down below!

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Ladders upon ladders to reach the top!

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Two of us in front of Yari-ga-take peak

On Day 3, we packed up camp in our gorgeous little valley and did the 6 km hike back out to Yokoo-Sanso hut area. We set up our campsite, dropped unnecessary gear, and started climbing up a grueling 6km hike into the high mountain valley of Karasawa. The initial 2.5km was a beautiful, slightly uphill hike to a bridge where you crossed the river. It had great rocks to relax on, soak your feet, and sunbathe (we took full advantage of it on the way down). The second part of the hike was up, up, and up. I swear my husband seems to have a thing for intense, heart-pounding hikes!

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Hubby showing off his handpicked Tenguhara blueberries

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Stopping for a picture along the river on our hike back down to Yokoo-Sanso campsite

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Doesn’t everyone use cute bear stickies to mark the route?

When we finally made it to the top after about three hours on the trail, we were rewarded with a wonderful view of the high mountain valley surrounded on three sides by exposed mountains. For being that remote, it sure did have a lot of comforts! We ordered some curry rice and enjoyed it on the roof-top eating area. The hut holds several hundred people so it was equipped with all your basic needs. Water, toilets (western with heated toilet seat), draft beers served up in large glass mugs, plenty of food and snack options, and souvenirs.

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Enjoying the sun and studying the routes out of this high mountain valley

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View from Karasawa mountain hut area

After relaxing a bit, we headed back down towards our campsite. It was our final night in the backcountry (can you really say it’s backcountry when there’s hundreds of others around you?) and we wanted to enjoy our night. We cooked up the last of our food and enjoyed it with some wine from the local hut store. Our campsite had some fun characters so we people-watched, chatted with a mountain guide staying in our camp area, and said “hello/goodbye” with the kids camping next to us.

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Final night on our Kamikochi backpacking experience

On day four, it was just packing up our camp and walking the final 11km back to the bus terminal. We were sad that our time in Kamikochi was ending but SOO excited for a trip to the onsen (public bath) to clean up. We made really good time on the trail back and passed  hundreds of people heading into the park for the long holiday weekend.

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Some monkeys walking the trail with fellow hikers

If you have the opportunity to go to Kamikochi, do it! It was gorgeous and the closest I’ve seen to an American National Park over here. While the peaks and trails aren’t as isolated as in America, it’s a cultural experience to hang out with hundreds of your closest Japanese friends while admiring your beautiful surroundings.

xxCourtney

St. Jean Pied de Port: Gateway to the Camino de Santiago

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View over the countryside surrounding St. Jean Pied de Port

It’s taken me awhile to get to this point in our adventure. It’s probably because in some way, I’m still mourning our time and adventure along the Camino. It has truly been one of the best experiences in my life. We plan to walk again someday. Not sure when…maybe before the next big job move, or maybe after retirement. All we know is we will join our fellow peregrinos on the Camino de Santiago again.

Our journey to St. Jean Pied de Port was a long one! We left San Sebastian early in the morning for Bayonne, France. Upon arrival, we had two hours to explore the city before catching our next train. We wandered past the cathedral and walked inside to find a chapel for St. James. We both lit candles at his alter. Tensions, emotions, and stress were high at this point. We were embarking on one of our dreams, and our only regret from our time in Spain. We just asked to finish.

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Alter within Bayonne’s Cathedral

The small train to St. Jean Pied de Port was packed with pilgrims as we headed to our first stop on the Camino. Age, fitness level, and equipment were as varied as the countries we came from but one thing was constant, the anticipation. The anticipation was palpable as several pilgrims chatted about how long they would walk, why they were walking, and other small talk to kill time. The closer we drew to St. Jean, it increased. People began to fall silent. The shudders of the cameras slowed. People removed their earbuds and turned off their iPods. We all sat transfixed on the mountains and valleys as we inched closer to the village and seemingly farther back in time.

When the doors finally open, hundreds of pilgrims swarmed into the sleepy town of St. Jean. It wasn’t hard to figure out where to go; you only needed to follow the stream of pilgrims as they headed up through the arch and into the inner city. Immediately, I fell in love with this village.

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St. Jean Pied de Port

I have long been a fan of small, mountain towns (the pueblo blancos of southern Spain are some of my favorites) but the timeless feel of this village. Oh my! You suddenly felt as if you were a medieval pilgrim walking the streets, though we are afforded far more comforts today. There’s a surreal feeling about doing something that has been done for hundreds of years. You feel as if the energy of those that walked before you, and those that will come after you, are linked and you’re all connected. This energy breathes a sense of vibrancy, compassion, and camaraderie to the village. The streets were lined with shops selling outdoor gear, the famous pilgrim shells, knick-knack souvenirs, and foot care. In between all the shops were albergues, or pilgrim hostels, hotels, and restaurants.

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Items within the Pilgrims Office in St. Jean Pied de Port

We made our way to the Pilgrims Office where we completed the paperwork, paid our dues, and received the first stamp in our pilgrim’s passport. We were official. We were peregrinos! Our happiness didn’t last for long as we were also informed that the mountain route (also known as Napoleon route) was closed due to snow a few days prior. This is truly the downside of planning outdoor adventures with little room for adjustments; you never know what Mother Nature has in store for you!

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So how do you fully prepare for a hike like this? I was up most of the night pondering that and the thousand other questions racing through my head. Had I trained enough? Was I mentally strong enough to power through those moments of physical and emotional pain? Would I complete my journey? Would it transform me? Nothing was known, or certain, at this time. This was the first and most basic lesson of the Camino for me. Just wake up and put one foot in front of the other. Forward progress, not matter how fast or slow, was all that was needed or required of you.

Join me on my next post where I’ll review our first five days on the trail as we walk from France into Spain, into Pamplona, and through the beautiful countryside leading to Puente la Reina.