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!


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”….


My swordfish “burger” which I highly recommend


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


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!


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!


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!


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…


Kabocha Vanilla Chai Ice Cream


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


View along the river walk towards our campsite


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.


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.


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!


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!


Hiking up towards Yari-ga-take


Beautiful mountain valley


Yari-ga-take peak


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


Ladders upon ladders to reach the top!


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!


Hubby showing off his handpicked Tenguhara blueberries


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


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.


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


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.


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.


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.


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


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.


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.


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.


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!



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.

Rosewater Lemonade

I posted awhile back about a weekend with friends (see post here) and included this recipe. However, I felt that it got hidden in the weekend activities that it didn’t get to truly shine. And you need to remember this recipe because it’s that delicious!

This recipe is elegent, but insanely easy to make. And the rosewater…wow! It adds an exotic taste that usually blows everyone away.

I think this is a simple way to dress up a basic lemonade for an upcoming brunch, baby shower, or dinner party.



Rosewater Lemonade
inspired by bills restaurant

1 cup freshly squeezed lemon juice (approx. 5-6)
3 cups water
½ TBSP rosewater
Simple syrup, to taste

Simple Syrup
1/3 cup water
1/3 cup sugar

To make simple syrup, place water and sugar in pan on stove top. Bring to a slight boil until all sugar has dissolved. Cool.

Squeeze lemons, strain out pulp, and place in pitcher. Add water and rosewater. Mix well and add as much simple syrup as desired. I typically like tart lemonade but I find with the rosewater, a sweeter lemonade works better. Add ice and lemon slices for garnish. Enjoy!

Note: The lemonade gets better after it’s been able to chill for several hours to let the flavors infuse. Chill for at least 4 hours prior to serving; preferably overnight.

We’re so done, Fuji!


Mt. Fuji from the parking lot on Saturday morning. Within the hour, we were unable to see it and the parking lot had clouds rolling through it.

That’s it! I’m done!

We attempted another summit this past weekend on Mt. Fuji. She’s been angry this year. Like real angry! (All the extra climbers due to its new status as UNESCO World Heritage site??) As most mountains go, the weather is hard to predict and can change quickly. This year has just been particularly bad on Fuji. I swear that most friends have reported windy, wet, and white-out fog for the majority of the summer. It’s not exactly a pleasant hike on the best days; add in less-than-ideal conditions and it can become downright miserable.

This climb was my first attempt at night. I really wanted a gorgeous sunrise from the top of the mountain. After about 4 hours hiking in the dark with headlamps, we reached station 9…in rain, howling winds, and freezing cold. We huddled along a wall that blocked the wind as we discussed our plan. On our current pace, we would reach the top in an hour, or by 3 AM. There was no way, we’d be able to hang out at the top for the 2+ hours until the sun would rise. And that’s IF we could even see anything!

So with that, we parted ways with our friends. They headed to the top because they needed to conquer Fuji. My husband and I headed back down since we’ve been to the summit before. The plan was to meet at our car later in the morning. Heading down earlier would also mean that we could get some sleep in the car before the drive back home.

We hiked back down to a lower spot where we were out of the clouds and wedged ourselves between some rocks to make some tea and instant ramen. Fighting through fatigue and the cold, I sat in awe of our view. At this level, the night sky was clear with twinkling stars. More stars than I’ve seen in years! Down below, the cities were gorgeously lit up and lining the lakes which mirrored back a brilliant crescent moon. The hot, salty ramen and green tea was just the icing to that beautiful view. The tea warmed my frozen, gloved hands. The salty broth of the ramen gave me the energy to continue pushing on.


Morning light on Mt. Fuji.
Taken with my iPhone

We continued down and were nearing station 6 when the early dawn light started to peek around the sides of Mt. Fuji. At times, we were still above the lower clouds which captured the light to make an absolutely breath-taking view. The quiet of the mountain as it basked in the early morning light was inspiring. I just wish it had been like this the entire time!

This hike was possibly the hardest attempt up Fuji. It’s usually an early, and long, day but night hike took it to a whole other level. The exhaustion added with my apparent limited depth perception when using a headlamp made for a slow, slow descent. I had hoped this would “check” the box to seeing the sunrise from the top of Mt. Fuji but guess she had other plans. I think in the future, I will just resign myself to hiking another peak to get views OF Fuji and not FROM Fuji.


View from Station 6 on the descent.
Taken with my iPhone

Final tally: Mt. Fuji –  2  & Courtney – 3.   So with that Mt. Fuji, we’re done!