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New guy trying out at the front counter October 30, 2008

Posted by hslu in My Restaurant.
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Today (Wednesday) was my day of work. Both lunch and dinner shifts.

A new guy, Mr. Zhang Li Ming, showed up around noon asking to fill a full-time position at the front counter. I had placed a classified ad on Chinese World Journal looking for a full-or part-time counter assistance. The ad runs 7 days and costs $49. When I placed the ad, I was told that we can not specify the gender of the applicants. I actually wanted a female applicant but got a guy. Well.

He had talked to Raymond on Tuesday before and Raymond asked him to come today if he is interested. I had him changed into our uniform and put him to work with the others. We’ll try him out for 2 weeks and then decide whether to keep him or continue our search.

I told him that the most important things about working here are:

1. Treat our customers politely and with a smile.

2. Work well with other employees inside the counter and in the kitchen.

I told him that i want everyone working here be happy and without back stabbing or bad mouth others. I hope he got the message. Every time when we had to find a new employee, either a chef or a counter helper, it always takes some time to find the right one. I told him that We’ll give him 2 weeks and see how good a person he is.

He came to the US a month ago and currently lives with his cousin near Jin Shan (金山 a Chinese grocery store) in Annandale. He had learned English in China but I don;t know how fast he can catch up with the duties.

He doesn’t have a car so he had to take bus to and from work. That’s a difficult position to be in. I am not sure he’ll stay here very long though.

We’ll see.

Our 6-Day Kanto Tour (関東六日游) 10/3 – 10/8/2008 – Imperial Palace and Asakusa 金龍山淺草寺 October 30, 2008

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Our 6-Day Kanto Tour (関東六日游) 10/3 – 10/8/2008 – Imperial Palace and Asakusa 金龍山淺草寺

Tuesday, 10/7/2008 – Imperial Palace and Asakusa 金龍山淺草寺 Sensō-ji

Imperial Palace

Imperial Palace was boring to me. It was just like another castle that we have visited before and we had to walk half a mile or so because the bus can’t drive up to the gate. We couldn’t get into the Palace either because it is for the Imperial family only. The Palace is open for public only two days a year. In any case, the whole thing about the royal family didn’t interest me but Yuri did tell us a few stories about the Crown Prince and his wife and daughter which was quite sad. Yuri said that the Crown Prince had asked her, a diplomat working in the Ministry of Foreign Affair, to marry him three times before she finally said yes because she knew this would be a difficult role to fill by an outsider. She was born into the family of a judge who was Japanese’s ambassador to the United Nations, received a degree in Economics from Harvard and has also educated in Oxford. However, she is a commoner who is not supposed to married into the Imperial family, just like the wife of the reigning Emperor, mother of the Crown Prince. She had suffered greatly from the governing council which has ultimate power over the entire Imperial family matters and from her late father-in-law, the previous Emperor before he died in 1989.

The engagement and marriage of the crown Prince and his wife had to be approved by the governing council which also put on many limitations on the Crown Prince and the Princess. For instance, she wasn’t allowed to pursuit her diplomat career and had to stay inside the Imperial Palace all the time. To make the matter worse, she wasn’t able to give birth to a boy. The stress resulted in her sickness through a stress-induced depression just like her mother-in-law who is also from a common family.  Because she wasn’t bale to have a son, the Japanese Parliament had considered making changes in Japanese’s law to allow their daughter to eventually take over the position of the Emperor. A panel ultimately approved the change and the former popular Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi had agreed to submit a bill to the parliament. But the proposal was put on back burner because the wife of Crown Prince’s younger brother had given birth to a son in September 2006.Yuri seemed relieved for the Crown Princess and her daughter because this opened the door to allow her to leave the Imperial Palace and the control of the government council. it was apparent to me that this was a very serious matter for Japanese but I would rather go some where else where it is fun.

Asakusa 金龍山淺草寺 Sensō-ji

My desire was answered when we arrived Asakusa which is in the heart of Tokyo.

The moment I stepped into this place I said to myself: “I’ve been here before.” It was almost 22 years ago when we visited Tokyo for the first time. Back then, Jing Jing, that’s what we call Jennifer, was a 5 year-old girl and Xiao Bao, that what we call Kevin, our son, was still a baby. We were on our way to Taiwan and we stopped over at Tokyo for a short vacation. The place looked just like it was back then. The street was filled with tourists and stores on both side of the street had many Japanese items for sale.
The place we were visiting this Tuesday morning is called “金龍山浅 Sen 草 So 寺 Ji”, a very famous temple in Tokyo. The original temple was built almost 1,400 years ago when a couple of fishermen caught a very small “观音Guan Yin” statue, also known as Goddess of Mercy, when they were fishing in a river near by. The locals then built a small temple to house the statue and this was how the oldest temple in Tokyo, 浅草寺, got started. Unfortunately the temple was burned down many times over the years until 德川家康 (Tokugawa Ieyasu) the founder and first shogun of the Tokugawa shogunate of Japan, rebuilt it in the 1600’s and made it a place of worship for the Shogun family and for people of Japan. During WWII, the temple was heavily bombed and destroyed. The current temple, about 3 times bigger in size, was rebuilt in the 1960’s after WWII, according to Yuri. The smaller temple, 浅草神社 Asakusa Shrine, the one for the Tokugawa family, is to of the right of the 金龍山浅草寺. The 浅草寺 Sensō-ji is a very popular place to worship for Japanese people and it attracts almost 30 million visitors every year.
Before visiting the temple, we had to make a detour to a department store 3 blocks away called 松屋百貨店 to check out their fruit vinegar supplies. We did the 酢 trick and was shown to the shelf in the back of the food court in the basement. Unfortunately, they didn’t have much in stock either. We left disappointed and then went back to the temple.
The entrance of the temple is 雷门 (Thunder Gate.) From there, a 1,000′-long street called 仲见世通 (You can see the street sign in this picture. It is a little to the right of my head and a little above Maria’s head too) takes the tourists through a gate called 寶藏門 (Treasure gate) to the main temple, the 浅草寺. The temple is majestic, peaceful and beautiful. We first followed the Japanese tradition of cleaning our body and soul before entering the temple. This was done at a small shack not too far away from the temple where there was running water at all times. We used a small ladle to get some water from the sink, wash our left hands and then wash our right hands. We then used the ladle to put some water on our palm and drink it. We then went into the temple, stand in front of the Guan Yin status, cleared our thoughts and prayed that our loved one be safe and healthy. We also offered a small amount of money as a form of respect to this holy place.

The outline of the temple is graceful but it doesn’t have small statues and sculptures on the roof like many Chinese temples do. To the left of the temple is a 5-level pagoda called 五重塔 . The construction style of both buildings must have been influenced by Chinese culture over the centuries because they look like many temples and pagodas in China.
浅草神社 Asakusa Shrine was hiding behind a line of small trees to the right of the main temple. It is much smaller in size and looked old and needed some maintenance. When we were there, we only saw a few tourists stopping by to pay their respect. I guess it has lost its glory and has been forgotten by most Japanese people. We took a look of the inside of the shrine and got out of there soon. On the way out, Maria saw a small cat, much like our cat, sleeping under the feet of a lion status to the left of the shrine. She took some pictures of the cat and called me to take a look. I also took some pictures and surprisingly our interests in it didn’t even wake it up. It must be a good day to take an afternoon nap: the sun was out, the temperature was in the mid 80’s, calm and the statue, a bit warm to the touch after baking in the sun, provided the much needed shadow. So cute! We wondered what happen to our cat that is under the care of Maria’s brother. We hope it has plenty to eat and does not miss us too much.

After paying our respect to Guan Yin, it was time to check out 仲见世通.

仲见世通 Nakamise Dori is about 30′ wide and is lined with some 60 stores on both sides of the street selling popular items and food to tourists. 仲见世通 has many stores selling 人形燒, Japanese art works, baby dolls, deep-fried red bean mantou, 米果煎餅 baked rice and fruit cakes, 和服 Kimono﹐招財貓 Musashiya (money cat,) 羊羹 (popular Japanese Red Bean Jelly), dried seaweeds, ¥100 store, and a Starbucks.There is another street perpendicular to 仲见世通 called 新仲见世通 (The new 仲见世通.) Although this street is relatively new, it was also filled with stores and tourists. 新仲见世通 was a little different; it was filled with artists displaying their skills and selling their finished art works; calligraphy, sculptures, painting, knifes, ink stones, etc. Many people stopped by and talked to the artists about their work and the art. I liked the stall where an old Japanese gentleman was displaying his products: 日本武士刀 Katana. He had many display and was making a small dagger when I stopped by. Several people was watching him with and he apparently enjoyed the attention.

I have always liked places such as this: people from all walks of life from different parts of the world, stores big and small selling local stuff to willing tourists, restaurants advertising food I never had before, happy young couples chuckling, talking and checking out menus and artificial food for lunch or dinner, tourists taking pictures of their loved ones, pretty young girls with wonderful smile posing for their boy friends, young boys trying so hard to please their girl friends, children holding ice cream, candies or cakes in their hands showing a satisfied smile on their faces, parents, while keeping an eye on their small children, looking for deals to buy for their kids, older folks closely watching over their grand kids and, last but not the least, salesmen and saleswomen giving all they have trying to attract your attention. Occasionally, if you are lucky, you may get a free sample or two to try before you dole out that cash in your pocket. Here I was with Maria walking among the tourists, watching their faces, sharing their happiness, enjoying the laughter in the air and treasuring the chance of being here. Why not leave your headache and work behind, enjoy yourselves while you can, and immersing yourself in a happy and joyful surrounding. Life is too short to get too uptight about it. This is also 潇洒, I guess. In any case, who cares! As long as we have a good time, I’ll worry about other things when I have to.
We didn’t buy any stuff because we still have many days of travel ahead of us and we didn’t want to haul that extra weight with us for 10 more days. However, we couldn’t resist the lure of 人形燒, bought a small package from the store recommended by Yuri, ate a few and 逛逛 until it was about time to have our lunch.
We had two lunch options and we have already decided our choices the day before so that the restaurants could get ready for us. The two options were 藏 and 麻鳥.

藏 is a high class traditional Japanese restaurant just one block from where all the activities were. Yuri said that their sushi is top class and very fresh. Their tofu is super soft and tasting. Although the word classic got my attention, we decided to try something new at 麻鳥 because we have already had a few meals of sushi since we came to Japan.

麻鳥 is a block away from 藏. It is famous for their Japanese style 釜飯 in this tourist hot spot. 釜飯 is rice cooked inside an aluminum pot which was then covered with shrimp, meat, sauce and vegetables. Before we entered the restaurant, Yuri got us together in front of the small two-story restaurant and told us the proper etiquette of this place:

1.  Our dinning room was upstairs and we had to sit on tatami. However the restaurant let their guests sit with their legs stretched in a 2 ½’ opening beneath the small knee-high table.

2.  We should remove our shoes first before entering and put them in the small steel cabinet by the entrance. Walked into the restaurant with our socks on or bare-footed. And DON’T TAKE the KEYS or the hostess would yell at you.

3.  We will first have our soup and then the rice will be served in time.

4.  After finishing your meal, put on your shoes and leave.

As promised,  釜飯 came out on a small wooden stand with a heavy wooden cover on top. The 6″ OD and 8″ tall aluminum pot looked just like what I used to see in Taiwan when I was a little kid, except smaller. Back then, many Taiwanese families and night market vendors used this style aluminum pot (Of course much bigger; more like 14″ to 18″ round and 16″ to 18″ tall) to cook rice and all kind of stews. The 釜飯 pot was covered by a much too thick wooden cover which also looked like what I used to see in Taiwan. Since Taiwan was occupied by Japan for 50 some years before it was returned to China in 1946 after WWII, it wasn’t surprising that Taiwanese adopted this cooking utensil from Japan. And I am sure it was still used in the rural parts of Taiwan until this date.

We sat at our small tables and enjoyed the meal. Yuri waited until we all have been taken of. She then disappeared from the upstairs dinning room and had her meal with the bus drive downstairs.
The rice was steamy, warm, soft and fluffy with a hint of caramelized smell because some rice at the bottom of the pot was browned during the cooking process. We call that 鍋巴. On top of the rice were a couple of large shrimp (size 20 -25), a few slices of meat and some vegetable. Along with 釜飯 were a bloc of tofu about 2.5″ square on a piece of banana leaf in a bamboo basket which was served cold with its own sides and sauce, a cup of miso soup, xiao cai and a cup of tea. All were nicely done and very tasty. But we didn’t eat the shrimp because of its high cholesterol content. We only had a taste of the meat but didn’t finish that either.

The next stop after Asakusa 金龍山淺草寺 was Ginza, downtown Tokyo. Twenty-two years ago, I booked a hotel room in  Ginza for our short stay in Tokyo. I knew Ginza was expensive but I wanted to stay there just for the sake of having stayed there. When we stopped by the front counter of the hotel, we were told that each room was big enough for 2 persons only. And a baby counted as one person. No exceptions! We ended up staying at two separate rooms for two nights at about $200 per night. $200 didn’t sound much now. But, that was 22 years ago and I just started working as a young engineer. No savings, two small kids, a wife, two car loans and a huge mortgage! I knew that Japan was expensive back then because Japanese stock market and Tokyo’s real estate market were the envy of the entire world including the US and Ginza was the center of everything luxury. Maybe the streets in Ginza were paved with gold and the place was shinning and bright with all the reflection from the yellow metal. No kidding, I experienced that first hand and paid dearly for it. Well, I asked for it. I got it. No one else to blame but me!

This time around, we would not stay here but will stopped by a restaurant for dinner. Shabu-Shabu, here we come!

Our 6-Day Kanto Tour (関東六日游) 10/3 – 10/8/2008 – Tokyo 東京 October 28, 2008

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Our 6-Day Kanto Tour (関東六日游) 10/3 – 10/8/2008 – Tokyo 東京

Tuesday, 10/7/2008 – Tokyo 東京

  • There were three restaurants in Keio Plaza where we could have our breakfast:
  1. Jurin: American style breakfast;
  2. Glass Court: A mixed Japanese and Western Breakfast buffet; and
  3. Kagari: Japanese style breakfast.
  • We chose the Glass Court based on Yuri’s recommendation and we weren’t disappointed. Although we had the usual American and Japanese breakfast stuff, all selections were fresh and inviting. Orange juice was fresh. Over easy egg (1 to share between us) was cooked just the way it should be. We mostly ate Japanese stuff and skipped the greasier and not-so-healthy foods like bacon, sausages, harsh brown (not good at all. Kind like under-cooked on purpose,) hot cakes (For reasons I couldn’t figure out. The hot cakes were not as fluffy and soft as the ones we could get from IHOP or Silver Dinner,) and scrambled eggs (Again, it looked watery just like what we had at Narita Hilton.)
  • In order to try as many items as we could, many times Maria and I shared an items and then decided whether to go for more or not. To my surprise, there was  纳豆   “Na Dou” again. I carefully opened the package, added just about 1/3 of the pre-packaged soy sauce into the container, and slowly stirred the contents around until it was thoroughly mixed. I then ate it with the warm, smooth xi fan while trying to get rid of the strings at all times. Well, it wasn’t bad at all the second time around. I offered some to Maria and she took it with “xi fan” and I didn’t see the funny face like she did the first time. I guess it was acceptable after the initial shock 2 days ago.
  • We finished the breakfast, got our luggage, returned the key to the front desk (Yuri said if we don’t she would get charged ¥5 for each one not returned,) and got on the bus which was at the front door waiting for us. Today, we sat towards the end of the bus so other people could go to the front. Today, we’ll visit a few popular spots in Tokyo. The sky was clear. The temperature was a little bit on the high side: 84 to 86 oF since we needed to walk around a bit.
  • Our first stop was Meiji Shrine (明治神宮) which was only 15 minutes away. Emperor Meiji (明治天皇,) according to Yuri, has been a much respected Emperor and a source of pride for Japanese even until this date. He, with the support of some territorial lords and samurais, initiated a series of rules and proclamations which led to the abolishment of Tokugawa shogunate (徳川幕府 which controlled Japan for 260 years) by force, elimination of the four social classes, reclamation of the political and military power to the royal family (in name only) and their supporters, establishment of land reforms and the acceleration of industrialization in Japan. This was called 明治維新 which I vaguely remember reading that when I was in high school. Of course, I didn’t remember any detail at all but knew it had done something significant to change a closed and backward Japan to a new world power in the early 20th century. The Tokugawa shogunate (徳川幕府) was somewhat familiar to me (albeit superficially at most) because of all the samurai movies I have watched. This includes those by Toshiro Mifune (三 船 敏 郎) and Shintaro Katsu (勝 新太郎) who played Zatoichi (座頭市) as a blind samurai in 26 movies. While Yuri was talking, I thought that while 明治維新 lift Japan to a military power house in the early 20th century, it also led to their aggression towards China, Taiwan and Korea. Of course, this aggression ultimately resulted in the occupation of Taiwan by Japan, 芦沟桥事变 or the so-called “七七事变” on July 7, 1937 in northern China and Pearl Harbor in 1941 in the US. It of course also resulted in Japan’s total defeat after 8 years of savage war with China and 4 years of war with the US. How strange an event in the history of Japan, as important as it was in the history of Japan could have such a strong impact on so many lives around the world for so many years.
  • Meiji Shrine is a beautiful place. The 大鳥居 at the entrance is the largest and tallest wooden 鳥居 in Japan. The two huge posts actually came from a 1,500 year-old 檜樹 from Taiwan’s 阿里山 “ah li shan,” according to Yuri. It took three of us (me and two kids in the group) to circle it around with our hands fully extended. The place is surrounded by trees and the path way to the Shrine is covered with small pebbles. Yuri told us this was because the royal family was afraid of Ninja and pebbles on the road would provide forward warnings to the protectors.
  • Many people left wishes on wooden planks and this one caught my attention. I wished she can find a good husband, save enough money and buy a big house soon.
  • Another interesting display was near the half way point to the Shrine. This was a more recent happening, Yuri told us: many sake companies offered their sakes to show their respect to the Emperor. It is also a good form of advertising as well. On the other side of this is a wooden frame about the same size as this one. It has many wooden barrels with Japanese wines made from red and white grapes. I didn’t take a picture of it because Japanese wines industry is still in their infancy. Japan’s cold weather may not be the best place for grape growing. At least, not yet.
  • We stayed at the Shrine for about 45 minutes and I took the chance to take several pictures of Maria. She was very willing as my model; smiling and happy. She had worked very hard ever since we had kids about 27 years ago.  After we moved to Northern Virginia, she did it again; sometimes 6 or 7 days a week in the first few years. Now that we have time and means to take vacations, I am sure she liked it. I am glad we did too. Besides, we have to do it when we are physically capable because vacation is demanding and physically challenging at times.
  • After Meiji Shrine, we took the bus to our next destination: Asakusa 淺草. It should be a fun afternoon. I couldn’t wait.

Our 6-Day Kanto Tour (関東六日游) 10/3 – 10/8/2008 – Shinjuku新宿 October 28, 2008

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Monday, 10/6/2008 – Shinjuku, 新宿

  • Shinjuku is probably the most emblematic city for the modern day Tokyo. The area has numerous  shops for all kinds of electronic gadgets, computers and camera, department stores, restaurants big and small, fashion shops (most of them were more expensive than what we can get from the US,) hotels and Tokyo’s government center. Shinjuku is famous for its train Station which is the busiest train station in the world: it served an average of 3.64 million passengers every day in 2007. Yuri said her daughter (now in her 30’s) used to tell her (while in school) that the train was so crowded she usually couldn’t reach the floor while on the train.
  • We would stay at The Keio Plaza tonight. The 3-star hotel is one of the busiest and largest hotels in Tokyo. It is conveniently located in the heart of Shinjuku. Tonight we would be on our own after checking into the hotel.
  • Our bus arrived at the Keio Plaza a little pass 4 PM. Yuri had already called ahead and the hotel had a young staff welcome us as we walked in. He had already prepared our keys and we didn’t even have to drag our luggage around. All would be taken care of by the hotel staff. Although the hotel was a bit old, it didn’t show judging by the appearance of the lobby. The huge lobby was very busy with many tourists just like us walking around in the lobby. The young hotel staff was very efficient and we got our key right away. We went upstairs to our room and our luggage arrived shortly after as promised. After a brief stay, we met Yuri and other tourists in the lobby because Yuri wanted to take us on a walking tour: telling us where to buy what and where to eat what. She gave us a map listing the places to go and eat. She also told us where not to go too.
  • We walked for half an hour or so passing many places including a few department stores (They were huge; 8 floors or higher,) many types of restaurants, drugstore (Daikoku Drug which sells medicines, drinks and cosmetics at very reasonable prices. Yuri said that this is where Japanese shop,) a couple of convenient stores (Lawson; kind like 7-11 which opens 24/7,) Yodobashi (Games and Toys), Bic Camera, Sakuraya (Huge, many floors selling electronic gadgets, computers and camera.)
  • We also past by many restaurants: Ramen (日高屋﹐山頭火 and 京都屋,) a Soba House, 陳麻飯 (擔擔面 & 麻婆飯 Dan Dan Mien & Ma Po Fan,) 牛角炭火燒肉, C&C Curry House, an Italian place, 新宿ねぎし (some kind of Korean style roast beef and noodle place I think), a Sushi Bar (魚河岸日本一) and 天婦羅っな八 (Tempura.)
  • The sushi bar 魚河岸日本一is a small sushi restaurant which has no seats or tables. All it has is a L-Shape counter that is at most 12″ wide and about 15′ long. According to Yuri, the place is busy at any time of the day. It is standing room only and it can only accommodate about 10 people at a time. It was crowded when we passed by with Yuri and later on by ourselves. There were 3 or 4 sushi chefs working behind the counter. Too bad, we couldn’t try it because we already had ramen and didn’t have the stomach for any more sushi. Besides the store didn’t have slots open for us. Maybe next time.
  • We parted company with Yuri and other tourists around 5:30 PM. The sky was getting dark and we were on our own now. I have heard of ramen a long time ago and knew it was very popular in Japan almost to the cult level. I have already decided to try ramen tonight when we were walking around with Yuri. She showed us 3 places and we ended up chose らーめん「山頭火」which is on the 7th floor of the Mylord Department store. But we had to 逛逛 guang guang first. Ramen had to wait.
  • As we walked around, there were many people at street corners, mostly young students, passing out small packages of tissues, flyers for restaurants and other stuff. We must have received 10 packages of napkins within half an hour when we were on our own. We rushed through a couple of train station exits and they were both crowded with people anxious to go home after a day’s hard work.
  • We stopped by 3 Department Stores (高島高島無Takashimaya, 京王百貨and Mylord.) They were all very expensive. All have two or three floors dedicated to ready-to-eat food, food court and restaurants. We also checked out Hands (東急) which sells all kind of utensils and hard-to-find gadgets for kitchen (right next to高島無 with 5 or 6 floors at least,) Sakuraya, and Daikoku Drug, the cosmetics place.
  • The first place we went to was Takashimaya Department store. It is an upscale store with as many as 15 floors of all kinds of stuff. It also has 3 floors set aside for restaurants (upper floors) and fast food joints in the basement. We wanted to check out fruit vinegars for our daughter, Jennifer. We didn’t know how to say vinegar in Japanese and young girls at the Information desk could not read English. Maria got smart and wrote a Chinese word 酢 for them. They immediately knew what we were looking for. The store had many kinds of fruit-flavored 酢 at about $15 to $20 a bottle. Since we couldn’t remember the brand name she wanted we decided to some at other stores later. We then went to 京王百貨 and Mylord but both store didn’t have as good selection as those at Takashimaya. The clothes, cosmetics, handbags were very expensive and we quickly got out to look for other things. One thing I noticed while in these stores was the young girls and professional Japanese women were all dressed in name-branded dresses and many carried name-brand hand bags. They were busy checking out items in the counters, talking to clerks abut their selections, checking out clothes that look like the ones from the fashion magazines and many carried several shopping bags with stuff inside. It was as if they were born to shop. I said to myself: Today is Monday. This place must be filled with customers on weekends. In the basement many stores were selling ready-to-eat items such as sushi, meat balls, tofu, fried rice, vegetables, cookies, and cakes. They were all carefully prepared and beautifully presented. Yuri said that many Japanese house wives come to here near closing time to get better deals. We saw lines of peoples 10 to 15 deep waiting to buy various items on sale. We lined up like the others and got a bag of cookies. It has beautiful package and tasted very creamy and sweet. The food was so inviting we decided to buy some later after we had ramen.
  • Sakuraya was huge with many floors of every kind of new gadgets. Computers were at least 2 times as expensive as we could buy on Internet in the US. PS3’s and iPods were equally expensive. Cameras were the same way. There were however many young students (boys and girls) checking on new and advanced gadgets, reading books and magazines, trying out computers big and small. it appeared to me that iPods were the most popular items because many people congregated at that counter. We stopped for about 10 minutes and got out safely without spending a dime. It was simply too expensive to buy anything here.
  • Maria bought some stuff from Daikoku Drug which was on the 2nd floor of a corner building. According to Yuri, this is the place to buy cosmetics because it was much cheaper compared to what you can buy from the Department stores. By now, it was about time for dinner.
  • 山頭火拉麺らーめん(ramen) is on the 7th floor of the Mylord building which also has an exit for the Shinjuku train station. The restaurant is small; an L-shaped counter with about 8 seats and a few tables near the entrance with about 15 seats. We had to wait for about 5 minutes to get a seat at the counter after a group of office workers finished their meals. Three or four high school students in their blue uniforms were waiting before us. They got a table. Behind the counter, there were 3 workers including a beautiful young female student (late teens) who was helping out with side works and was kind of under the supervision of an older male worker who is in his 30’s. None of them looked like the owner though. They were all very efficient at what they do.
  • Ramen 拉麺 is basically a noodle soup dish. The noodle is kind of yellowish in color. Yuri told us that we needed to order the kind with 白湯 (white broth) and asked them not to make it too salty. I found out that there are four types of Ramen depending on its soup base. They are:
    o Shoyu Ramen: Brown, transparent, soya sauce based soup.
    o Miso Ramen: Brown, non-transparent, miso based soup.
    o Shio Ramen: Transparent, salt based soup.
    o Tonkotsu Ramen: White, milky, pork based soup.
  • We ordered the白湯 “bai tang” ramen (Tonkotsu) and some xiao cai. The colorful menu showed us what kind of ramen we should order. The young guy next to us also ordered Tonkotsu and was enjoying himself with a light noise. I never saw him raised his head while eating. He left shortly after he finished his meal. The ramen was about ¥850 or so, quite reasonable considering high rent in the middle of Tokyo. The ramen was great! The chicken and pork bone broth looked like milk. It was thick, tasty, smooth and full of flavor. I could even smell and taste the bones marrow in there. It was not salty either even though there was some mild fish taste in the soup. The noodle was chewy (Q); the meat was tender and most importantly not over-cooked. The meat tasted kind like the meat in 梅菜扣肉: deep-fried first then slow cooked with veggies over low heat for a long time. The seaweed and green onion complemented the thick and heavy soup very nicely. Yuri told us that we need to make some noise while eating ramen. It is considered polite to do so because you are telling the chef this is great stuff. If you don’t, the chef will stare at you and wonder if there is something wrong about his dish. We politely made some noise like what was instructed but didn’t make it too loud to embarrass ourselves.
  • According to the web site, 山頭火 has 53 store in every region of Japan and oversea: China, Hong Kong, California, New Jersey, and Singapore.
  • The Japanese beer in front of us looked so inviting but we didn’t buy any because we wanted to save some appetite and space for some ready-made food from the grocery store at the basement of Mylord. The food court/grocery store occupied the entire basement and it had about 30 to 40 stalls selling many kinds of food items: fresh and packaged meat, sushi, cakes, cookies, vegetables, fresh produce, fruits, cooked food and many others. They looked so good and so tempting, we bought some and took them back to the hotel.
  • We also bought some sweet stuff as desserts. We then stopped by Lawson and grabbed a couple of beers which was only 3 blocks from the hotel. In our hotel room on the 12th floor, we took our time trying out different stuff, drinking beer, enjoying the night view of Shinjuku skyline and watching Japanese TV programs. It was so relaxing and fun; very different from what we used to do whenever we visited a new city: going to top-rated restaurants where we easily could spend anywhere from $100 to $500 for a meal. I guess you can call that vacation too, albeit a very expensive one on the meal along. This was nice too: two people side by side enjoying each other’s company, trying out food we never had before and watching shows on TV which we couldn’t understand at all. What a night in such a colorful city. I’ll do it again any time. I guess one could call this ” 潇洒 ” or “随缘.”
  • We would get up early for breakfast. Tomorrow would be our last full day in Japan.

Our 6-Day Kanto Tour (関東六日游) 10/3 – 10/8/2008; Hakone 箱根 October 26, 2008

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Our 6-Day Kanto Tour (関東六日游) 10/3 – 10/8/2008

Monday, 10/6/2008 – Hakone 箱根

  • Breakfast was at the Hotel New Akao. It wasn’t as plentiful as the one at Hilton Narita but it was nice. As our bus leaving the hotel, the owner, a guy in his 40’s, stood in the light rain in front of the hotel entrance, waved goodbye to us until the bus pulled up a small hill, turned around a corner and disappeared from his sight. That last at least 45 seconds. Yuri asked us to wave back too so that she won’t be the only one waving back to him. This left a deep impression on me and that is probably why Japanese are successful in many things they do.
  • Hakone 箱根 is about 20 miles Northwest of Atami but it took us about an hour to get there because the mountain road between two cities was mostly narrow and winding through the mountain. We sat at the second row on the bus because Maria might get dizzy and she may even barf when traveling on a winding road. We sat close to Yuri and had a good time listening to her stories. This highway was a section of a very important road: the Tōkaidō (東海道, East Sea Road)during the famous Edo period (江戸時代1603 to 1868.) It connected Edo (modern-day Tokyo) and Kyoto. We had a glance of the remnant of a small section of the Tōkaidō but it was mostly covered by trees. Hakone was the 10th station of the Tōkaidō. The place we visited yesterday, Odawara, was the 9th station. There were a total of 53 stations. The road was a popular topic of artists and I guess that many of them may have been shown in various samurai movies.

  • Hakone 箱根 is located near the southern tip of Lake Ashi 蘆之湖. We arrived at Moto Hakone Ko 元箱根港 just in time for the 9:45 AM pirate ship ride. There we boarded one of two pirate ship and took the 20 minute ride to Togendai Harbor 桃原台港 near the north end of the Lake. The lake ride was supposed to be one the highlights of the Kanto tour because we could see Mountain Fuji in front of us if the sky was clear. Since the sky was cloudy and it rained the entire morning, we didn’t see a thing. Suffice to say we could image the scenery: tranquil lake water, light breeze in our hairs, dark mountain in front of us, the red-colored 鳥居 (Bird House) of 箱根神社 (Hakone Shrine) to the right and Mountain Fuji with its famous white top in the far ground. Since we wasn’t lucky enough to see the real thing, we had to take solace from Yuri’s rationalization that only about 5% of the tours she led had a chance to see this beautiful picture in person. The rest of us just have to resort to pictures on the Internet.
  • The pirate ship is fairly big which may be able to take up to 250 tourists. It has three levels. We went all the way to the top level and stayed there enough time to take a look of the lake and mountain. On the second level, there were several monitors which showed the real time position of the ship n the lake. GPS system at work.
  • Yuri also told us that 鳥居 (Bird rest) is made from wood and typically painted in red color. Some also come in black. T is called 鳥居 because birds like to rest on it. It is also the entrance of shrines in Japan.
  • We arrived at the Togendai 桃原台港 and took the aerial tram (Hakone Ropeway), passed Ubako (姥子) and got off at the 2nd stop: Owakudani (大涌谷) about half way to the top of Mt. Kami 神山; one of many mountains in Mount Hakone. Below us was the Owakudani Valley (a crater created about 3000 years ago by volcano activities in the region.) We got off at tram station and took the tram (It can take 12 to 15 people each) for about 10 minutes. Again, if the sky was clear we could see Mt. Fuji along the way to the top.
  • After getting off the tram, we then had to climb a steep and rocky path for almost 5 minutes to the end of the path where steam and smoke were coming out of the rock all over the place. There was little vegetation near the top and the entire place looked quite ugly. No wonder the Japanese called it Da Di Yu 大地獄 (Big hell.) Worse then that, the smell was almost unbearable: there were hydrochloric acid vapor and hydrogen sulfide in the air and we had to take deep breaths when the wind was on our backs. It has a small shack selling the famous black eggs (黒玉子) which were cooked directly in the thermal spring. We saw a worker lower a steel basket of eggs into the bubbling, soy milk-colored thermal spring. He then took out another basket which had about 15 dark-colored eggs. Maria got 2 eggs from a fellow tourist (We had to buy 6 at a time for about $5 US dollars.) The skin wasn’t as dark as those in the picture. It was kind of dark gray instead. We each had one but didn’t eat the egg yolk. It tasted just like any hot-boiled egg. Nothing special. Yuri had told us that everyone had to have one because it will add 7 years to our lives. If we have two, they would keep us living 14 years longer. But if we have three, our cholesterol level would be too high and we might get high blood pressure or heart attack.
  • We walked down the mountain path and the bus was already there waiting for us.
  • We then stopped by at a local hotel for lunch. The place is famous for its Japanese buffet with a French twist. The presentations were very pretty: The food are dedicated prepared. There were many types of appetizers all in small quantities but But I didn’t even remember the name or location. The next stop was Shinjuku, Tokyo about 2 hours away depending on the traffic.

Our 6-Day Kantō Tour (関東六日游) 10/3 – 10/8/2008; Atami 熱海 October 25, 2008

Posted by hslu in Travel.
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Sunday Evening, 10/5/2008 – Atami 熱海

  • Atami 熱海 was about 45 minute bus ride from Odawara 小田原 at the northern end of the Izu Peninsula. We arrived at Atami a little pass 4 in the afternoon. The sky was getting cloudier and it was about to rain. As our bus entering Atami and approaching Hotel New Akao, we were told that the hotel had already arranged for a musician playing traditional Japanese music to welcome us. After that, we would visit the beautiful Japanese garden next to the hotel which the hotel owners had cultivated for generations. She informed us that we would dress in Japanese style bath rob for a formal 会席料理 dinner at 6:30. After dinner, we would Karaoke to celebrate the occasion. She also asked us to pay attention when entering into the bath house: 頼朝 is for men and 政子is for women. In addition, it was essential that we cleaned ourselves first using a small hand towel and top quality lotions provided by the hotel before entering the bath pool; this is called 泡湯. Lastly don’t look embarrassed; just undress yourself (everything), take the hand towel, clean every inch of your body and act like you have done this many times. Do not look around because nobody will notice your presence at all. Of course, it was easily said than done. I wasn’t planning to do it anyway. I wasn’t going to be naked in front of other men. No way. For tonight, we would sleep on tatami and the maid would prepare our bed when we were having our dinner. Good. I would go to the dinning room, enjoy our formal dinner, watch other people sing, retire to our room, watch TV, play Sudoku and sleep. Good planning. Maria wanted to 泡湯. That would be fine for me because I’d have the TV for myself. Atami 熱海 was about 45 minute bus ride from Odawara 小田原 at the northern end of the Izu Peninsula. We arrived at Atami a little pass 4 in the afternoon. The sky was getting cloudier and it was about to rain. As our bus entering Atami and approaching Hotel New Akao, we were told that the hotel had already arranged for a musician playing traditional Japanese music to welcome us. After that, we would visit the beautiful Japanese garden next to the hotel which the hotel owners had cultivated for generations. She informed us that we would dress in Japanese style bath rob for a formal 会席料理 dinner at 6:30. After dinner, we would Karaoke to celebrate the occasion. She also asked us to pay attention when entering into the bath house: 頼朝 is for men and 政子is for women. In addition, it was essential that we cleaned ourselves first using a small hand towel and top quality lotions provided by the hotel before entering the bath pool; this is called 泡湯. Lastly don’t look embarrassed; just undress yourself (everything), take the hand towel, clean every inch of your body and act like you have done this many times. Do not look around because nobody will notice your presence at all. Of course, it was easily said than done. I wasn’t planning to do it anyway. I wasn’t going to be naked in front of other men. No way. For tonight, we would sleep on tatami and the maid would prepare our bed when we were having our dinner. Good. I would go to the dinning room, enjoy our formal dinner, watch other people sing, retire to our room, watch TV, play Sudoku and sleep. Good planning. Maria wanted to 泡湯. That would be fine for me because I’d have the TV for myself.
  • Atami is a small coastal town along the Pacific Ocean. Its scenery was stunning and breath-taking even under a cloudy sky: small mountains to the west, rugged coastal lines with old pine trees, endless waves pounding the rock islands formed during centuries of volcano activities, and wide open Pacific Ocean to the east. Picture perfect!
  • Atami has been a hot spring paradise for at least 1,000 years. The area became even more famous when the noted Japanese Nobel Prize novelist Kawabata Yasunari 川端康成dramatized the short romance between a young, lonely and introspective high school student from an upper class school in Tokyo (the author himself) and a traveling dancer in his 1926 novel “The Izu Dancer” 伊豆的舞孃. He was on a holiday hiking in the Izu Peninsular. She was a young dancer traveling with her family around the country entertaining crowds for a living. The difference in social classes in pre-war Japan between the two young lovers guaranteed a sad ending after a few days of soul searching and self-awareness on the part of the young student. After the novel came out and especially after Yasunari won the Nobel Prize in 1968, rich politicians, businessmen, and royalties from the upper classes in Tokyo flocked the area in search for a nice vacation and maybe some romance too. The common men would be the envy of his co-workers and neighbors for weeks if he could save enough money to have a few days off here with his family. Nowadays, it will be too expensive to vacation here. Many Japanese vacation in foreign countries such as Hawaii, Bali, Taiwan and Southeast Asian countries because it is cheaper. Today, Atami and other cities in the Izu Peninsular have lost the honor as the top destination for family vacation. Area hotels such as Hotel New Akao cater to tourists like us to keep the place going and they are willing to take good care of us.

  • The Japanese garden is a multi-level garden constructed along the side of the cliff which also houses the hotel. We quickly toured the beautiful garden because a light rain had started. We took a few pictures, enjoyed the open sea and caught a slight breeze in our hairs. I guessed that we were really on vacation now. We then retired into our room, changed into bath rob as instructed (folding the right flap under the left flap. Not the other way around.), and sip the local tea provided by the hotel.
  • The formal 会席料理dinner started at 6:30 PM. We all sat on tatami and had a small, low table in front of us. The food on the table looked very inviting. But we couldn’t start yet because we had to introduce ourselves. I was the first one to start. In all we had about 10 families and all from the US. After the waitresses lighted up our hot pot, we started to enjoy our dinner. In addition, we had at least 3 more dishes delivered to our table and the whole dinner took about 2 hours to finish. We had shabu-shabu, sashimi, miso soup, seaweed and vegetable salad, some kind of tofu and meat dish, tempura, a whole fish, some 醬菜, rice, Japanese tea and tea ice cream as dessert. The presentation was great but the food is not as good as I liked. The fish was not deep-fried but tender. The hot pot was good but the meat got over-cooked after my karaoke performance. Sashimi again was very fresh. I guess Japanese know how to serve sashimi. I was told that the entire dinner would cost ¥9,000 which was about $85 per person at about ¥102/US Dollar. I bet that Signet Tour got a discount. Otherwise, it would be too expensive to eat this meal.
  • While everyone was eating, Yuri started the karaoke machine, passed out a 3″ thick song book and asked people to volunteer to be the first to sign. I got a book too because Maria and I sat at the head of the first row of tables. Since no one was volunteering, I ended up as the first one to sing at the request of Yuri. I also wanted to break the ice since no one else was willing to do it. I sang 忘情水 “wang qing shui” which I knew very well. I thought I did a good job to get everyone interested. Other people followed; 2 young guys in their 30’s who were with their wives, a doctor in the field of internal medicine. The second song I sang was 蕭灑走一回 “xiao sa zou yi hui” which means life is short; why don’t you live your live without caring too much about small things and worrying too much about the consequence. • Yuri sang a Japanese song for us. It sounded like a love song. Her voice was excellent, her skill was good, the music was beautiful but I didn’t know the meaning of the words. Yuri asked my help to sign another song to keep the karaoke going. I politely declined saying that others should get the chance to show off themselves. I asked other people to join us and another person agreed and sang “何日君再來 “He ri jun zhai lai”. However, he did a terrible job. In the end there were only five of us, all guys, who were brave enough to sign in front of the group.
  • Soon, we had to stop because Yuri had to pick up three other people at the railroad station because their flight to Tokyo was delayed. Too bad that we had to stop. Otherwise, I would sing another song: 家後 “jia hou”. It is a Taiwanese song which literarily means “back of the house.” This is a Taiwanese term which means “wife” because in a traditional Taiwanese family, the wife is always in the back of the house taking care of the family and her husband; cooking, cleaning, washing and eating after everyone has eaten. The lyric is beautiful and both Maria and I like it a lot.
  • After dinner, we wondered around the hotel, looked at a shop in the lobby of the hotel, listen to the music by another musician and checked out the public bath pools: the 頼朝の湯 and 政子の湯. Maria said that she wanted to go and encouraged me to do the same. I hesitated and said that if I can do it with her in private, then I’d go now. But, I said to myself, maybe I should go just for the sake of been there, done that. We agreed to go after 11:00 when few people would be there and I won’t be as embarrassed.
  • At 8:30 PM, there was a show in the hotel lobby pr3esenting Japanese’s way to prepare 麻糬 Mochi. Maria and I went there a bit late because we didn’t know exactly where it was to be held. Many guests were already there when we got there. Some guests were invited to practice the technique. I got up there to and I had picture to show it. It was quite fun but the host wasn’t going to give me have all the fun. At the end we got a little sample with peanut powder. It was good and fun. Too bad, we didn’t get the kind with 紅豆沙 “hong dou sha” inside. That would be even better. Ha!
  • We went back to the room around 9. It would be at least 2 hours before the bath time. We watched some TV and did some Sudoku. By ten O’clock, I decided to get it over with. Maria and I took out hand towel, put the bath towel around our necks just like the Japanese did, wore 拖鞋 “tuo xie” and took elevator to the basement of the hotel.
  • There were two bath pools for men and two for women: an indoor large pool (about 30′ x 50′ in size) and an outdoor smaller one about 10′ x 20′. I chose the smaller one simply because we were only 5′ away from the sea and I could literally smell the sea while taking the bath. Maria went for the smaller outdoor one too:
  • 露天風呂頼朝の湯 for me and 露天風呂政子の湯 for her. As I waked in, there was another person there. He was about to finish and was getting ready to leave. I was very glad that I didn’t have to undress in front of a lot of people. I put my rob, slippers and bath towel in the steel storage bin, locked the bin and wrapped the key on my left wrist as instructed by Yuri. I didn’t wash myself like described by Yuri using three different bath lotions and jell: one for hair, one for face and one for body because I was afraid someone might come in. I quickly washed myself and walked into the pool as the other guy opened the wooden door and left the pool. By now, I was the only one there. It was of course dark outside. I could hear wave pounding the wall on the other side. I could smell the sea as I sat in the pool which wasn’t very warm. How lucky! I said to myself: I have the outdoor bath pool all by myself. I’d call this exceptionally good timing! Soon, my sole ownership was halted as another person walked in. A middle aged man. We sat on the far sides of the pool not saying anything to each other; not even a hello or hi! After about 3 or 4 minutes, two other people walked in. Now four is a crowd. The other two persons were friends and they were chatting in Japanese. After another minute or two, I walked out of the bath pool, opened the locked bin, dried myself and put on my rob and slipper, I opened the wooden door and walked out of the pool house. I’ve done it and it wasn’t that bad after all. But I am not sure I will do it again unless it is with Maria only.
  • I wondered around the basement waiting for Maria to come out. She was apparently enjoying herself because I waited for at least 20 minutes: listening to a woman in her 30’s talking about her and her daughter to the other woman who was also in her 30’s, watching some guys playing ping pong on the first floor, watching a little TV nearby, and checked out food court and three small restaurants just around the corner of the 露天風呂頼朝の湯. I decided to get some money so that we could get something to eat and drink some beer after Maria finished her bath. I went upstairs and got some money. By the time I came back to the basement, she was still in the 露天風呂政子の湯. Must be nice to be able to enjoy herself without much regard to the other women there. I guessed this was 蕭灑 too.
  • She finally got out; refreshed and warm. I asked her how it was. She said that she liked it and she would go back there in the morning. She also said that there were other women in the bath pool while she was there. We walked to the small food court, picked the restaurant in the middle and sat at the counter. A woman in her late 40 or early 50’s was the owner I guess. We ordered some Edamame, roasted squid, and Asahi beer. We watched the woman preparing the Edamame. The squid was prepared by another restaurant. We took out time eating and drinking and went to our room near 1 in the morning. Tatami bed was prepared while we were at dinner. The bed spread was soft and the sheet and cover was clean. Everything was nicely done: the hotel, the room, the view, the formal dinner, the hot spring bath, and sea breeze. One thing that dented our vacation spirit was that the entire evening and the next morning were cloudy and raining occasionally. We weren’t able to watch the sun rise which we were told is gorgeous.
  • Early next morning, Maria woke up around 4:30 or so and went to 露天風呂政子の湯 again. She got back after 30 to 40 minutes. She said that by the time she got to the bath house, there were many other women enjoying the bath already. I instead enjoyed my beauty sleep and dreamed about what I would do if the bath house had many people there at the time when I was naked. Ah! May be next time. Maybe I’ll request a hotel with a private bath house instead. Come to think about it, the one which allows swimming trunk will be okay with me. I am not that picky; you know.
  • We’d spend the next day at Fuji-Hakone National Park visiting Owakudani Valley, Riding a pirate ship at Lake Ashi and taking the aerial lift at Hakone Ropeway to a hot spring, and then spent the evening in Shinjuku in Tokyo. We would stay at the Keio Plaza, one of the busiest hotels in Tokyo.

Credit card terminal October 25, 2008

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Got a new credit card terminal from MerchantPRO on Wednesday, 10/22. The sales man was Eric and the guy  who installed the terminal was Gary. She is the manager of the company. Not sure what position Eric holds with the company though. When it was first set up, everything was okay. The new terminal was faster then what we had and should speed up the settlement process at the end of the day. In addition, I should be able to save about $120 – $150 per month. This doesn’t sound much but if we have to make this much money we have to do about $500 more business a month. In time like now (DOW has dropped 45% from recent high), $150 is $150.

On Wednesday evening after close, I tried to settle, called Batch with this terminal, but got disconnected after it tried to dial the server. I thought the server was busy and I tried again. It got disconnected again. I tried a few more times but they were all disconnedted.

I called the customer service right away but the guy wasn’t a lot of help and our phone connection was disconnected. Bad sign.

I called again and got this guy who wasn’t sure what the problem either but suspected that the data file was too large for the telephone line to handle. However, he was able to force settle for me on his end and suggested that I batch twice everyday.

Thursday morning, Raymond called and said that the terminal wasn’t able to carry out the credit card transactions. I asked him to call the service desk. I didn’t know whether he called or not but apparently the problem was fixed when Maria and I stopped by the restaurant around 2 that afternoon. Another bad sign.

I asked Raymond to do a batch job around 3PM and it and it was okay with 66 records. Around 9:40 PM, Raymond called again with a bad news: the batched job got disconnected again. I told him to let me taking care of the problem tomorrow.

I called the service desk and talked to a guy who said that the problem was with the splitter I had on the line (sharing the line with the fax machine.)  I took it out and the result was the same. He then said that the problem was with the phone line being a digital line (for Internet, DSL, etc.) and asked me to check with the phone company.

I called Eric and Gary but got a machine (sounds like a home phone.)

I called Verizon and got transferred from NJ to VA and got the answer: all three lines are analog. I called MerchantPRO again and got this lady on the phone: she wasn’t any help to me either and said that the terminal can only handle 50 transactions at a time. But I told her that I did 66 yesterday. Apparently she wasn’t smart/experienced enough to solve the problem. She was however able to give another phone number to reach the agent.

I called again and got Gary on the line. I told him that his terminal gave me nothing but trouble and I let him know that I wasn’t pleased at all. He said he’ll take care of the problem for me and will stop by with a new terminal on Monday.

In the mean time, I have to batch every 25 to 30 transactions just to prevent the problem from happenning again. I’ll wait until Monday.

Hope this is worthy of my pain and agony because I am supposed to go with them for 4 years.

Our 6-Day Kantō Tour (関東六日游) 10/3 – 10/8/2008; kamakura 鎌倉 October 23, 2008

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Sunday Morning, 10/5/2008 – Umihotaru 海螢島 (Sea Firefly), kamakura 鎌倉市and Odawara 小田原

  • The breakfast was overwhelming; so many selections and so much food. We got up early and the place was already filled with people.
  • We had: western omelet, fruit, bread with butter and jelly, xi fan, various Xiao Cai, scrambled egg, sausage, bacon, ham, hot cakes, coffee and orange juice. We both made several trips to the food counter probably because the Japanese dinner we had last night wasn’t big enough.
  • It was very filling to say the least. However, the sausage tasted kind like hot dog. Bacon still had a lot of fat in it. It seemed that they only dipped it in hot water without browning it on a grill. The ham tasted like salami. And the scrambled egg was watery, slightly buttery but under-cooked. This is just how the Japanese (and Chinese too) hotel preparing their scrambled egg. Fruit was fresh and plentiful. However, they didn’t have mango or papaya. Maybe I was asking too much.
  • The most unusual Xiao Cai was Nattō (なっとう or 納豆). I took it out of curiosity because I wanted to try what ordinary Japanese eat at breakfast. Am I surprised! It was fermented soybeans in a sealed paper container about 3 oz. in size. As I opened the seal, I first encountered a very unusual strong smell; kind like blue cheese with some black Chinese rice vinegar. The container also had 2 small packages: soy sauce and something else. I added the soy sauce but didn’t bother to check out the other package. The soybeans all had a thin coating of mold on the outside. As I tried to pick it up, it had these endless strings that looked just like spider web. I had to make an effort (like using my fingers and napkins) to get rid of the strings from my lips and chopsticks. The soybean was slightly salty (from the soy sauce), soft and somewhat tasteless; probably because I was mentally trying to block the taste from overwhelming my taste buds. I guess you have to like it to eat it. For me, it is something new for the first time. Later, our tour guide 佐藤由理 Yuri told us that it is very healthy and beneficial to our health and is very popular in the eastern regions of Japan like Kantō. For a closer look of 納豆, check http://tw.youtube.com/watch?v=T_u63CwsdMA
  • More about our tour guide in a later write up.

    • We left the Hilton around 8:30 and rode the bus to our first stop: 海螢島 (Umi-hotaru (sea Firefly) in the middle of the Tokyo Bay. It is an artificial island (人工岛) about an hour-drive from the Narita airport. This is a popular tourist stop on the Tokyo Bay Aqua Line Highway/Tunnel (东京湾横断道路.) Two things that immediately caught my eyes were a full tray of steaming 肉包子and the display of a 14-meter diameter drill plate of the tunneling device. We didn’t buy any 肉包子but took some pictures of the drill plate. The entire highway/tunnel took 31 years to complete (1966 – 1997) at a cost of one trillion 440 billion 日元, about $8.6 billion US dollar back then. The square steamers are unique and sturdy

    • Our next stop is 鎌倉市 (kamakura). Kamakura is famous for its wood carvings and 醃菜 or 漬物...The streets we visited in front of the Tsurugaoka Hachimangu Shrine鶴岡八幡宮has many stores displaying the traditional 鎌倉彫. They are all very beautiful but extremely expensive. This pair of chopsticks made from 銀杏(Ginkgo biloba) will set you back about $18. They do come with a pretty box though. As for the 漬物, a store recommended by our tour guide is called 味くらbut they don’t give out samples. Here are some pictures to give you some ideas of what I am talking about.

  • Tsurugaoka Hachimangu Shrin 鶴岡八幡宮is a beautiful Shrine and one of the major attractions here. After we toured the Shrine like everyone else, we saw a newly wed couple in traditional Japanese wedding dress (Note that the bride was dressed in white symbolizing purity) walking from the Dance Palace (舞殿, The first building in the background.) where they probably had their wedding there. I wish I could have some in my pond.Another thing that worth mention is the lotus ponds which has hundreds of lotus plants with huge leaves (at least twice the size of my lotus leaves in my fish pond.) Many of them are probably been there for a long time.
  • · Wakamiya Oji Street 若宮大路 The approach (about 12’ wide) to the Shrine is lined with two rows of about 150 hundred cherry trees each. On the outside of the Wakamiya Oji are streets for cars and pedestrians. This is one of the Japan’s 100 most beautiful streets. Too bad this was not late March when cherry blossom should be at its peak. A Japanese girl dressed in traditional Kimono was also spotted in the crowd. A group of young girls in uniform took their stroll along the Wakamiya Oji after school. They were talking and smiling as if tomorrow (Monday) has no school. Yuri told us that during the weeks of cherry blossom, many companies take turns to have hanami (cherry blossom viewing parties) along the Wakamiya Oji Street under the blooming trees; drinking, eating, talking and partying all day long. Cherry blossom (Sakura) is Japan’s unofficial national flower (Chrysanthemum is Japan’s official national flower.) According to Yuri, the Japanese people have profound respect and deep affection for the cherry blossom because of its beauty while blooming and its falling pedals with such grace while still in its height of beauty. This is probably why many older generation of Japanese give their best and sometimes lives to the companies they work for; often exceeding 80 hours a week. However, the younger generations are not as dedicated as their parents though.

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      Kamachi Dori is a busy shopping street to the west of Wakamiya Oji Street. It has many shops and restaurants and filled with tourists like us. The shops sell all kind of Japanese food, cookies, ice creams (some in purple color which come from purple yam), 人形燒 , 漬物, 和洋菓子, 日本酒, and鎌倉彫. I wish I had more time to逛逛. It was really a lot of fun. We didn’t buy anything because we were about to have lunch at神明丁 Soba House.

    • Our lunch was at the 80-year old SOBA HOUSE神明丁 on Kamachi Dori. We had 饅魚套餐Eel on Rice and Soba with some Sashimi. The eel was not fishy at all but the soba was kind salty. Unlike most Chinese noodle soups which come out hot and steamy, Japanese soba soup is warm and the broth is clear. Yuri had previously warned us about the Soba so that we just ate the Soba noodle but no the soup. The presentation was nice and they were very efficiency serving the group of about 30 people. Apparently they have done it many times.  Yuri and our bus driver ate at a different dinning room away from us. But she was very kind and took care all of us before having her lunch
  • Our next stop was the kamakura Daibutsu, 鎌倉 or the Great Buddha in 鎌倉. 鎌倉 is the second largest bronze Buddha in Japan which was originally built in 1252. It used to be in a wooden temple which was washed away during a Tsunami in the 15th century. Ever since then it was outside It has a remarkable face: gentle, kind, loving and all caring. If you take a closer look of the head of the Buddha you can see the head was re-attached right above the nose because the top half of the Buddha was damaged during the earthquake in 1923. This Buddha is even bigger than Taiwan’s 彰化大佛 which is made of concrete. Every time when I am at a Buddha statue, I feel at easy and peaceful probably because I was growing up near Tai Zhong’s “Bao Jue Si” where our family used to go a lot after my grandma died when I was 10.
  • Another interesting sight was a pair of extremely large straw slippers. It is about 5’ long and 2 – 3’ wide; It looks just like what I used to see in Taiwan when I was a little kid. Many farmers wore straw slippers like that when they bought fresh produces to our local market for sale in the morning.

  • From Tsurugaoka Hachimangu Shrine鶴岡八幡宮, we took bus to the near by Odawara 小田原 visiting the famous Odawara Castle小田原城堡. The castle is made out of stone blocks and is inside a “hu cheng he” 護城河; a 15’-wide 8’-deep channel filled with water to protect the castle. The symbol of the castle is天守閣 which is sitting at the top of a small hill. We had to walk uphill for about 5 minutes and went through several heavy doors (at least 5’ thick and 12’ tall) to reach the base of the building. The inside of the building has been converted into a museum displaying weapons and relics of the warring period around 15 and 16 centuries. As we walk to the top of the castle, I kept thinking about those poor souls who under their master’s order to protect or capture the castle as illustrated in many samurai movies. It would be a tough and long fight to take over the castle and no doubt many people died in the process. It is such a strong contrast to the graceful building that’s in front of us. We stayed here for about an hour and then took the bus to the place where we would stay for the night; Atami 热海. The Chinese name literally translates into “Hot Sea.” It is a popular tourist place for relaxing in hot springs.

Our 6-Day Kantō Tour (関東六日游) 10/3 – 10/8/2008; Narita Hilton October 21, 2008

Posted by hslu in Travel.
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10/3 – 10/4/2008

  • The company that organizes the tour is called Signet Tours – 超值旅游. They have offices in San Francisco and LAX. We heard of them from Therese Lai who had gone to a Japanese tour about a year ago. She highly recommended the company to us and that’s the primary reason we chose Signet. All trips were booked through a local Chinese travel agent in Vienna, VA.
  • We had originally selected the 8-day Thailand tour but due to political unrest in Bangkok, we decided to change to the 6-day Kanto tour at the last minute. As we traveled in Japan, the political unrest in Thailand was still developing woith no sign of stopping.
  • The tour is 6 days but we actually stayed in Japan for 4 nights. The first day was in flight from SFO to Tokyo. We first stayed in SFO and spent 3 nights with Xiao Bao; our son who works in San Francisco.
  • From SFO to NRT via All Nippon Airway (ANA). ANA is a well-run airline with nice service at the ticket counter and in flight.
  • Free movies, games, short videos were available and the controller was easy to use. We had dinner within an hour and half after taking off. Even their airline food is not too bad. Free champagne, wine and sake in the Economy class too.
  • Arrived at the Narita Airport (成田機場) on time and after a short search found our tour guide with a few others tourists from the US.
  • We exchanged US dollar into Japanese yen at the airport @ 102.4 Yen/US dollar. Good rate considering the exchange rate was as low as 99.6 yen/dollar just a couple of days ago.
  • We stayed at the Narita Hilton and had dinner there. We chose the Japanese style dinner (日式套餐) at the Matsukaze (松風宴會廳). The other choice was a Chinese dinner at the nearby Baien restaurant (梅園.) Here is what we had at the Matsukaze:
    • Salmon Sashimi and Grapefruit
    • Tempura (炸天羅婦) or Glazed Pork (東坡肉) as the main dish.
    • Grilled fish; Japanese style;日式烤魚.
    • Egg custard, Japanese style; 日式蒸蛋.
    • 醬菜
    • 白飯
    • Miso soup (味噌), and
    • 日本茶
  • The dinner was quite nice; light but tasty. It tasted great probably because we were on vacation; relaxed and really taking our time. Sashimi was fresh. Tempura was crispy. Grilled fish wasn’t smelly. And the miso soup wasn’t salty at all. The rice was white, warm, soft and moist; just like the way it should be. It is slightly sticky yet every grain is separated. No clumps. No cold spot. A very good start.
  • The Chinese option would get 海鮮麵﹐水餃, 春卷和榨菜. Dessert was杏仁豆腐;. Nothing to get excited about.
  • There was also a vegetarian option which looked quite nice on paper:
    • 辣炒茄子﹐炒青菜和小甜菰豆腐湯 etc. (Chinese)
    • 生蒟蒻, 白煮青菜﹐煎豆腐﹐炸蔬菜 etc. (Japanese)
  • Unfortunately, we had nothing to do after dinner and there was only that much to see at the hotel. We returned to the room and watched TV. There were only a few channels and mostly were Japanese. We ended up doing Sudoku instead.
  • I stated on the survey form at the end of the tour that it would be nice to have an option to go out for a short tour of the area on the first night of the tour. There is a shopping area near by and a temple about ½ hour drive away. Maybe the city is too small to have any night market here.
  • It will be a lot better if the first night of the tour was in Tokyo. I guess the selection of Narita Hilton for our first and last nights of the tour was its close proximity to the airport; about 15 minutes away. It is probably much cheaper too.

Hello world! October 21, 2008

Posted by hslu in My Restaurant.
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