Viking Country 1: The Journey Begins

By the time I got to Sweden, I was feeling much refreshed by my visit to Copenhagen and the chance to spend time with some friends, both old and new. Although Sweden had been experiencing 30ºC + weather through July, when I arrived in August, the regularly scheduled Swedish summer weather had returned: cool and rainy. The locals frequently lamented that I’d “just missed all the nice weather” and I had to reassure them that, no, this wonderful sweater-weather was everything I wanted in life. Plus, the rain was desperately needed after the droughts and wildfires in the country. It felt like I was arriving with the return of life, and the land was celebrating. I am officially in love with fjords and fika. This started as a single post, but Sweden is just to amazing that it’s now 4 parts. Enjoy!


My bus took me to Gothenburg, a city on the south-west end of Sweden. I had a full day there before I was scheduled to pick up my rental car and the local transit pass included unlimited ferry travel, so I opted to spend the day meandering from island to island in the beautiful southern archipelago. The bus system took a little getting used to, but the ferries were actually quite easy to figure out, and since my ticket was unlimited, it didn’t matter too much if I got on the wrong one. I decided to go all the way out to the end of the line at Vrångö and work my way back.

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It was heavenly. I got off the boat at a tiny little dock with one adjacent cafe and set off down a nature trail at once. I was wearing my jeans and a sweater that had spent the entirety of the summer living at the bottom of my back pack. Before coming to Sweden I had almost decided to ship the heavier cool weather clothing back to Korea ahead of me! Plus, the rain stopped for most of the afternoon and left me with a beautiful sunny sky filled with flocks of fluffy clouds. The natural beauty of the tiny island was overwhelming. Although the fjords are stark and do not harbor lush greenery on a large scale, the beautiful detail in the small flowers and lichens that covered every inch of ground that wasn’t sand or solid rock was simply stunning.

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When the path emerged to the seaside again, I sat and watched the beautiful shifting blue-green tones of the ocean beyond the rocks for ages, basking in the wonderful, welcoming cool, clean and beautiful natural world around me. I hadn’t felt so deeply welcomed by a landscape since New Zealand, and it was only my first day!

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When I finished the long and winding trail around half the coast and back up through the little town, I was starting to get hungry and checked the map to see which island would have a good local cuisine type of lunch place. I headed up to Styrsö Bratten but the restaurant I wanted to eat at was closed for a private party. It started to rain, too, so I took a break under a patio while I waited for the next ferry to come take me on.

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I backtracked to Donsö where I was able to find Isbolaget, a local restaurant with some truly superior smoked salmon. Although the fish itself was likely from the Norway side of the water, the smokehouse where it was cooked was just up the road. They offered a sideboard with crisp bread and various spreads as an appetizer. The fish came with fried julienned veggies, roasted potatoes and pickled onions. It was amazing. While I was eating, the chef brought some still-hot-from-the fryer potato chips around to everyone. For dessert I tried Banoffee pie for the first time. I know it’s British and not Swedish, but it was a new experience: toffee, banana cream, and chocolate together? Much better than the traditional American banana cream pie with vanilla cookies.

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After dinner, I walked slowly on my very full tummy back to the ferry terminal and was able to take in the famous little red fishing huts in the golden light of sunset. The only sad part was realizing I’d put down my sweater someplace and never picked it up, so as the sun went down I was actually COLD for the first time all summer.

Road Trip Begins

The next day, I bid farewell to my hosts and headed downtown to pick up my rental to begin my road trip. Of course, when you’re on a deadline is the best time for the weather to act up, right? Loaded down with all my luggage, I battled out the driving rain to catch the buses and trams I needed to pick up my car on time. Why was I so worried about being on time? Surely they would not give my reservation away. No, but the rental office WOULD be closing at 2pm that day, so I couldn’t wait for the rain to stop. Of course, the moment I arrived at the shop, the sun came out, but I couldn’t complain because I knew how badly the country needed the water.20180811_133240

With my brand new hybrid model little red rental car, I hit the road toward my first destination, Vadstena and the castle therein. My decisions about where to stop and what to see in Sweden were more or less determined by what was near the main roads along my chosen route. I drove from Gothenburg to Stockholm via the 40 & E4 south of the lakes, and then back to Gothenburg going around the north side of the lakes. I looked at a lot of driving tour ideas before deciding this was going to be my best bet to get the beautiful natural landscapes that I wanted.

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On my way, the rain came back and I pulled off into a little roadside rest stop to discover to my delight that rest stops in Sweden are NICE. While I was standing around taking photos of the scenery, a young lady stepped out of the little cafe and beckoned me in out of the cold and wet. We chatted for a really long time, and I learned some interesting facts about the culture and culinary traditions in Sweden, most particularly that it’s based on what latitude one is in, since the south of Sweden can support temperate, more mainland European crops and animals, but the land gets less hospitable the farther you go, changing a strong vegetable and beef diet for a fish and dairy diet, to a reindeer and berries diet. It was quite eye-opening to someone like me whose whole knowledge of Swedish food comes from IKEA.

She also told me a little bit about the native people of Sweden who lived in the far north. I had always thought of Sweden as basically European, and also the home of the pasty white viking types, so it was a bit of a shock to realize that there ARE indigenous tribes-people in Sweden. They’re called the Sami, and while they are pasty white, they are very culturally distinct from the mainstream Swedish population which gets it’s culture from Dutch and German immigrants and of course from the Christian conversion which came up from the south and mainland Europe as well. I never went far enough north to encounter any Sami on my trip, but it’s certainly something I’d like to go back and learn more about someday.
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It was like having my own personal Sweden tour and lecture, and I stayed for a couple hours just talking and learning from the very friendly cafe hostess at this rest stop in the middle of nowhere. I finally pried myself away and got back on the road because I wanted to make it to Vadstena before it was too late to see the castle that was the actual goal for sightseeing that day.

I made it to the castle with a little daylight to spare. The cloud cover was still fairly thick, but the rain had receded to the occasional droplet, and I was able to park the car and stroll around the grounds. The castle’s moat connects to the larger lake via a short canal, and locals park their boats not only along that canal, but actually inside the castle moat! I had fun playing with taking photos using the reflection in the beautifully still water, and paused to ask some locals what they were fishing for. It seems the moat is full of crayfish and the right to forage on public lands is strongly protected in Sweden. Locals were out in force with little nets and traps hauling up tasty crustaceans while enjoying the day.

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After a full circuit of the castle, I walked down to the lakeside, and over to the ruins of the abbey. I was simply enchanted by the fact that these old castle ruins were an integral part of modern life. There was a large park where children had spent the day decorating the paths with colored chalk and there were a few shops and restaurants within a short distance from the castle walls. I saw high school students out and about, lounging around with headphones and backpacks, and was pleased to see that there were a good mix of dark skinned hijabis being included by groups of local kids. My hostess in Gothenburg was also hosting a refugee teen-girl who I met briefly, and I’d seen others around the city. Sweden is going through some political disagreements about how to handle refugees, so it was nice to see teenagers playing happily and inclusively in this small town.

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The abbey was closed by the time I got there, but I could still see the outside which included a kind of reconstruction of the original living and working quarters. The walls were all knee-high, but in their original place. It was startling to see how small the space occupied by 60 nuns and 25 monks actually was. In the summer months they might have had the freedom to be outdoors, but the Swedish winters are bitter, and it would have been quite cramped. I was also pleased to see a Pride flag flying in front of the church. July is Pride Month and I’d seen plenty of flags and even some vendors giving Pride discounts throughout my travels in big cities, but to see the rainbow outside this church in this small town was very encouraging. Between this and the refugees being welcomed, it gave me a real reason to reconsider my assumptions about urban vs rural cultures and some solid hope that we can have loving social equality wherever we live.

Plan? What Plan?

I had a plan, of course, but my Airbnb host for that night cancelled rather last minute. I don’t blame them, apparently they had some kind of an accident and had to deal with personal stuff. These are the risks with Airbnb. I found another host in Norrköping at the last minute and pulled in quite late at night. It was like a little piece of my hippie Seattle community had just cloned itself in the middle of my Sweden road trip. My hostess was an artist and her home certainly reflected it. There were sparklies dangling all around the door, gauzy curtains decorating the walls, and for the first time in ages I was somewhere with recycling and compost again! She made me a chamomile and cardamon tea before bed.

Then next morning we had breakfast together and I really enjoyed talking with her. She was surprised to learn that Viking gods had gained popularity in parts of American culture and we compared notes about art culture and liberal politics in our respective countries. Finally she suggested some local stop offs for me to try on my way east: a bronze age rune stone sight and an insanely quaint little town called Soderköpping (pronounced “soda shopping”).

3,000 Year Old Viking Art

The Viking rune stones were there in Norrköping (also pronounced “nor shopping”, I’m still not sure what’s going on with this “k” suddenly sounding like “sh”). It was a little challenging to find since it’s not a tourism hot spot. If you want to find it on Google Maps, it’s Hällristningar. I got a little confused at the turn off from the freeway and ended up at Hällristningsmuseet which is on the opposite side of the main road. Not yet realizing my error, I parked the car and explored the little red houses, my curiosity of the prevalence of this color also rising. It was closed, which I thought at first might be because it was Sunday, but looking closer, it did not look like the museum had been open for a very long time. I also saw no signs at all about runestones.20180812_142634

In desperation, I politely interrupted a group of people walking their dog to ask where the runestones were. They spoke English well but were confused by what I meant by “runestone”, and I tried to explain a bit, and eventually managed to get the impression across, but I was left mystified as to what these stones would be called locally since they’re super common in the Swedish countryside. Plus, my Swedish host who had recommended them to me had used the English “runestone”. In case you’re wondering, Hällristningar just means “rock carving”.

With that minor confusion of locations cleared up, I hopped back in the car and navigated the underpass for the freeway to get to the huge open grassy meadow on the other side, somewhere within lay these wonderful bits of history. It became immediately apparent I was in the right place since the signage was much better here. The rain from the day before had gone away again, and I was in a lush green field with stunning blue skies and enormous white clouds. I could not stop taking pictures and just going “wow” under my breath a lot.20180812_144215

When I reached the rock carvings, they were not what I expected, but were wonderful nonetheless. The rocks were flat in the ground. I had been expecting tall rocks, either glacial boulders left from the last ice age or something like a henge where large rocks were quarried and dragged in. In any case, I expected verticality. These rocks flat on the ground were a new idea. Apparently, archaeologists think that the runes were carved for the gods to see, looking down. I was also expecting actual runes because of my hostess’s chosen description, and instead what I encountered were a series of pictures and symbols.20180812_150052

According to the signs, which were helpfully bilingual, there were more than 650 images spread out on the rocks, most of which were ships, animals, and weapons. I’m glad there were signs because I think I would have been hard pressed to identify quite a few of the images without them. I’m pretty sure the red is a retouching, since I can’t imagine it staying so bright for 3,000 years, but I’m also sure it’s accurate since modern science would be able to detect tiny flecks of color on the stones even with so much weathering.

The Most Famous Ice Cream In Sweden?

Back on the road again, I headed up to Soderköpping. My hostess’s first suggestion had been such a success, I decided to ditch my other plans for the day and follow her advice. This town is beyond quaint and adorable. It’s right on the Gota Canal, which was on my list of things to see. The far bank of the canal is made up of high bluffs, but the town nestles neatly on the waterfront.

I walked around and found a beautiful public park with comfortable hammocks and a tiny outdoor library box so people could read and lounge even if they’d forgotten to bring a book. I took some more photos in the park’s gardens including a very co-operative little ladybug, then had a rest in one of the hammocks enjoying the warm sunshine and cool breeze.

Finally, I headed into the town center to find the town’s most famous stop, the Glassrestaurang Smultronstället. If you want to faint from looking at photos of amazing ice cream concoctions, please follow this link. I didn’t really understand how an ice cream shop could cause so much fuss, but it is a pretty amazing set up. I ordered a moderately sized sundae and it was still three flavors of ice cream plus chocolate mousse, whipped cream, chocolate curls, and passion fruit. I had eaten a healthy breakfast at my Airbnb, and had munched on delicious smoked meats and fresh fruits for lunch on the road, but for dinner, it was all ice cream.20180812_173652

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Chocolate! A Glorious Day in Brussels

I don’t know about you, but the current news cycle has me going back and forth between fiery rage and hide-in-bed anxiety, so I decided to write about something everyone can agree is wonderful: chocolate. Belgium is known for it’s high quality chocolate, despite not being able to grow cocoa, and that’s because it was a Belgian who first perfected the blend of cocoa solids, cocoa butter, sugar, and milk that became the creamy, bitter-sweet confection we are all addicted to today. Naturally, as a lifelong chocoholic, I couldn’t pass up the chance to spend a full day visiting the best that Brussels has to offer. I pulled a basic itinerary from another blogger, and modified it a little to suit my own needs. I also made a couple of extra stops in the days afterward to round out my Belgian Chocolate Experience. Get a napkin, because you may drool.


I’m not going to go into the history of chocolate (it’s fascinating), nor am I going to give detailed information on the chocolate flavor profiles (just as complex as wine). I’m also not going to do a lot of explaining of basic chocolate vocabulary. I think most of you can still enjoy these descriptions without that, but if you are curious to learn more about chocolate, I suggest you check out any of the websites of the chocolateries I visited in Belgium.

After each shop and description of individual candies, I’ve given my rating out of 5 stars and my recommendations for what to try. You can decide which shops are most appealing to you to make your own Brussels chocolate tour. Nearly all of them have multiple locations within a walking radius in Sablon, but those that are a little farther out are well worth the bus ride.20180711_201616

A note about being a tourist: When I read about chocolate touring in Brussels, I was warned that shops did not give out samples, but that single pieces would be about 1-2€. I was prepared for the price of fine chocolate, but I was delighted to find it wasn’t actually true. Nearly every shop I went into was happy to let me try one or more of their flavors if I stopped and talked about it with them. I’m guessing that other tourists have found the shops to be sample stingy because they want to go in and get free chocolate without engaging anyone socially. For me, chatting with the staff was half the joy of this chocolate self-tour! They are friendly and very knowledgeable about the history of chocolate and of their own shop. I also found that most places were very reasonably priced if you were willing to have your pieces in a bag, rather than a fancy box.

Neuhaus

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160 years ago, Jean Neuhaus (depicted in chocolate to the right) discovered the magical combination of ingredients that has lead to every chocolate confection and candy bar you’ve ever enjoyed. His chocolaterie is easily the most famous in the world, and it was my first stop.

Best Truffle in the World: No really, it won the award. It was given to me as a sample. I wouldn’t say it’s the very best chocolate I’ve ever eaten but I think it might be the epitome of “truffle”. The chocolate was not too bitter, not too tart, not too sweet, just the Goldilocks zone of chocolate and cream, dusted with cocoa powder. Simple and elegant.

Irrésistibles Coffee: Everyone in Belgium has ganaches, pralines, and truffles out the wazoo, but Neuhaus is the only place you can find the “Irresistables”. These little triangular gems are made with a base of nougatine (a crispy caramelized sugar), filled with cream or ganache, and enrobed in chocolate. I has the coffee ganache flavor. The coffee is very subtle, the filing is quite smooth, and the nougatine is delightfully crunchy and caramelly.

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Hazelnut Creme Cone: The cones are “just filling”, held together with a gold foil cone instead of a chocolate shell. The hazelnut flavor was creamy and smooth with tiny bits of nut, not too sweet and good balance of chocolate, cream and hazelnut flavors. I could eat a dozen. In fact, I went back another day and got more because these were some of my favorite treats from the whole tour!

4 stars: The cones are tantalizing, and the Irrisistables are so unique. Plus, it is the oldest chocolaterie in the world.

Mary

Mary Delluc was the first female chocolatier in Belgium. She also designed the boxes of silk back in the day, and though they use paper now it’s still her design.

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Champagne Truffle: The champagne flavor is clear and the texture contrast of the brittle chocolate outside and very soft creamy inside is nice. It was a little sweet for my personal tastes.

Earl Grey Ganache: There is no bad chocolate here, but it’s harder to judge the middle players after eating the best. I can’t really taste the bergamot flavor here. It’s a pleasant chocolate, but just chocolate. It’s disappointing because the truffles are good.

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Violet Ganache: The flavor is subtle and the flower is more of an aftertaste. At first I thought it wasn’t there but as the chocolate left my tongue the violet became more obvious. I think violet tastes a bit like bubble gum. I noticed this when I tried violet liquor some time ago. The chocolate is good quality, the ganache is very smooth.

Champagne Rose Truffle: This is made with ruby chocolate, which was just introduced to the chocolate world one year ago in 2017 by Swiss chocolatiers at Barry Callebaut. The champagne flavor comes through strong. The powdered sugar exterior is a bit sweet, but the overall flavor is more mild cleanly chocolate. It was my favorite at this shop.

3 stars: Her chocolates aren’t my favorite, but it’s worth stopping by for the history and the champagne truffles.

Dandoy

Dandoy isn’t a chocolaterie, it’s a waffle shop. Waffles: the other confection Belgium is famous for. I didn’t know, but there are different types of Belgian waffle. I tried the Leige style with stracciatella ice cream. It was more chocolate chip than stracciatella, but still good.

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The waffles are magically caramel on the outside. It’s as if a thin crispy later of sugar was caramelized. On the inside the Leige waffle is dense and bread-like, though think sweet bread like a cinnamon roll. Creamy ice cream is the best topping choice since it breaks up the sugar with fat.

Be careful if you order take out. They’re really serious about it, and won’t let take out orderers sit at the tables outside. If you want a table, you must request a seat and order from your waiter, not from the counter. The cost is the same.

4 stars: You have to try the waffles in Belgium, you might as well go for the famous name.

Chocoholic

I stopped to take pics of the tool shaped chocolate. Found …other… shapes. This shop isn’t anything to write about flavor-wise. The chocolate is mid-range and the flavors are unimaginative. It is purely a novelty shapes shop.

1 star: Don’t bother.

Pierre Marcolini

20180711_144153While I was interrogating the staff about their chocolate it became apparent they were only selling boxes (8 piece minimum). When I asked about the possibility of only buying a few pieces, I was sent upstairs to a little dining area. Although their chocolates focus mainly on single origin, bean to bar flavors, they do have a signature dessert line called the “Desir” which comes in a variety of flavors from white to dark chocolate and passing through a range of fruit and nut compliments.

20180711_170134Desir Noisette: I felt I had died and gone to heaven. The desert starts with a cookie base, followed by a hazelnut mousse filling, the center of which nestled a jewel of  custard and caramel, coated in more chocolate and caramel. 

I talked with the staff about my chocolate loves, and my plans for the day. I told them that chocolate and hazelnut was my all time favorite flavor combination, and the waiter gave me three hazelnut pieces to try. ❤ I don’t know their names, so I can only describe them by shape. 

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Round: The chocolate is very intense and a little bitter. The texture is dense with crunchy bits, probably a praline. 

Square: It is sweet and very crispy. Almost like many thin layers of sugar or dough. The hazelnut flavor is strong, while the chocolate flavor is lighter.

Oval: Similar in intensity and flavor to the square, but with a gooey later of liquid salted caramel in the center. Just what it needed to balance the sweet and crunchy. It is the clear winner.

5 stars: I can’t imagine not liking anything there, but make time to sample a Desir, you will not regret it.

Laurent Gerbaud

20180711_151334This shop is a little far out of the way but it is 100% worth the detour. It is a beans to bar production which means they actually make the chocolate from scratch. Most places buy chocolate from a bulk supplier and then add their own flavors. A few more places in Belgium are moving away from the couverture and into the beans to bar. My top 3 picks in Belgium are all bean to bar makers. Laurent Gerbaud is one of them.

In addition to making their own chocolate, their fillings are incredibly creative and diverse. Most other chocolatiers here have the same flavors, each shop having maybe one or two unique twists, but Laurent Gerbaud goes all over the flavor map! I love it! 

20180711_151022Black Olive Ganache: This award winning flavor was given to me as a sample. I probably wouldn’t have bought it just to find out, but they were excited to show off. It’s not as bad as it sounds. The filling evoked raisin and anise notes as my brain tried to reconcile chocolate and olive. I did have some cognitive dissonance as my palate refused to accept the blend. The second bite was smoother. Since I’m not really a fan of anise or raisin it wasn’t a winner for me, but neither did I feel the need to brush my teeth afterward. It went a long way toward showing me the skill of the makers.

Candied lemon peel: I’m used to candied fruit having more sticky chewy and this one seemed a bit dry for my taste. The lemon flavor is solid, no acidity and not overly sweet, and the chocolate is great, but the texture is a little odd.

Ginger praline: A milk chocolate filling that was light and creamy. There were candied ginger bits for added texture. The gigner was prominent but balanced.

Sesame praline: Stunning! It’s like the best halva in amazing chocolate. I could eat it by the pound. The toasting flavor comes through, there’s a crispy texture from the sugar, and the chocolate just glides in to the mix.

Marzipan: Good crystalized texture, not too sweet, nice blend with the dark, rich chocolate.

Chai ganache: Good balance of flavors, playing well but not overpowering the chocolate. It’s a savory chai which is almost like a sweet curry. I actually thought it WAS the curry at first, but the real curry had more heat.

Curry ganache: Nice spice blend, similar to the chai but with an added bonus of heat. Like everything here it’s well balanced between chocolate and infusion and sweetness.

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5 stars: Even the flavor I would not have imagined was well done. Things that are traditionally sweet are still only lightly sweet. They don’t need to use too much sugar to cover sad flavors because their flavors are amazing! Excellent ganache infusions and a truly magical sesame praline!

Corné Port Royal:

20180711_164350Pistachio Marzipan: So sweet! Even with the dark exterior. The almond flavor was ok, but the pistachio was not noticeable. 

20180711_165054Manon Sucre Vanilla: This shop is famous for inventing this particular confection, although other shops make and sell it now, too. It is so so so sweet. Nougat creme and nuts in white chocolate. It’s like someone took divinity and added white chocolate and whipped cream. Not… bad? Just so much sugar! I think the filling would have been great as a contrast to a dark, bitter exterior but only vanilla and coffee were on offer.

Ganache Violette: I was disillusioned with this shop by the time I tasted this one, and really only did so to compare it to Mary’s violet ganache. Here the chocolate is more tart/citrusy, where Mary is balanced, the ganache is thick where Mary’s is lighter, and although the final taste in Mary’s was more of an after taste, here it feels overpowered by bitter chocolate and extra sugar.

White chocolate speculoos praline: It was better than the Manon and the marzipan, but still quite sweet. Not a unique flavor, so I’d say just try the speculoos praline elsewhere if you’re curious.

1 star: Sugar, sugar, sugar. Seriously, I don’t know how this place is on the famous list. The white and milk chocolates are overly sweet, the special flavors are not present or are overpowered. Disappointing. Skip it.

Mathilde

20180711_183057Another “historical” stop. The dark chocolate here is a little on the fruity/sour side. Some people like that in a dark chocolate, I prefer the earthy flavors. The chocolate squares came with things like pop rocks, m&ms, or artificial fruit flavored dots. The chocolate bonbon balls were uninspired and bland flavors.

 Anywhere but Brussels, I’d call this good mid-range chocolate, but it’s much to expensive for it’s quality. 4.9€ per 100g, and the shop was one of two that had a minimum  I liked the samples but those were simple chocolate squares. I ended up buying more novelty flavors and some of the bonbon balls to fill out the 100g… I was frankly disappointed.

2 stars: Perhaps their liquors, spreads and vinegars are more impressive, but as for chocolate? Skip it.

Elizabeth

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Bay leaf / Laurier groseilles: The flavor is very subtle. The chocolate is dominant, and the filling is very smooth. Overall, it is rich and earthy with a pleasant bitterness.

Black cardamom /ganache cardamone: This one had a strong fruity flavor like berry? No sign of cardamom. It tastes good… but what flavor is it? I should be able to tell.

Jasmine ganache: Why can’t I tell what flavor it is when it’s in my mouth? I know what these things are supposed to taste like. Again more tart and citrusy, maybe a little earthy, but not clearly recognizable as floral.

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Orange Fleur de Sel: It is sweeter with a milk chocolate exterior, less acidic, probably orange peel. I can find the orange but it is very very faint. The fleur de sel is more a suggestion than a flavor. It tastes good, but not especially like what it’s supposed to taste like.

Chocolate truffle (sample): Delicious and rich, it has the perfect sweetness with a light crunch from a layer of cookie.

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Caramel rose / truffon rose: I ate this last and it blew my socks off! Liquid caramel, buttery and with the edge of bitterness that I like in caramels. The rose flavor is prominent and balanced and so easy to find, but it doesn’t hide the richness of the caramel or the chocolate. The dark outside layer is a little on the acidic side but not enough to put me off that amazing filling!

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Lemon meringue (sample): Next to the Elizabeth chocolates is the Elizabeth meringue shop. I’ve had meringues before but never imagined they could be so good. The crispy outside dissolved in my tongue like a cloud and the inside was chewy but light. I don’t think they sell them individually unless you but a huge one. But great to try!

A parade came by while I was inside. The shop woman told me it was Flemish Independence day. They aren’t independent, they just want to be, so they have this event every year to rally support.

4 stars: Worth going if you stick to the truffles and caramel on the chocolate side. Skip the flavored ganaches, but DO make time for the meringues next door.

Benoit Nihant

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While I was chatting up the generous staff at Pierre Marcolini, they recommended another shop that was not on my list. When a quality chocolatier tells you to visit a rival shop, you know you have to go, but it was too far out for me to get to on the same day.

When I finally had time, I hopped on a bus that took me practically to the door and was greeted by a bubbly and kind woman behind the counter. She was blown away that Pierre Marcolini staff had recommended me to go there and happily told me about all the chocolates on offer. It’s beans to bar, and high quality, but as a smaller and younger shop they can’t afford the rent in Sablon yet, which is a tragedy because they are amazing.

She was so excited to share with me, I tried several different flavors before deciding what to do my box with. The minimum is 4 pieces at 5€, but it is so worth it.

Sesame: The balance of flavor chocolate is perfect. The toasted sesame comes through clearly without hiding the chocolate or bring hidden. Just sweet enough, and a good earthy chocolate base.

Strawberry with Sichuan Pepper: I was warned this was sweet, the strawberry is a jelly and the pepper is a ganache infusion. The jelly was very sweet and the pepper and chocolate were both a bit run over. It was a good jelly with amazing fruit flavor and smooth texture but the lady helping me was correct when she said it was sweeter than I was really looking for. She says all the jellies are like this, so I didn’t get any others, although the fig raspberry and pear cardamom both looked intriguing. 

Baracoa from Cuba, Single Origin:  Rich and creamy, it was pushing the tart side  a little but not over the line. These are made with a simple ganache filling to show off the unique flavor of the origins.

Marzipan:  I had a marzipan from the sample dish. It is the best marzipan I have ever put in my face. They use 70% almonds to keep it from being too sweet. In addition to the almond, there are light floral notes and dreamy dark chocolate robe.

I did actually buy some chocolates that day as well. I took away a box with 4 more flavors.20180713_205150Earl Grey Ganache (two lines): This has a beautiful dark chocolate flavor, not acid or sweet, but earthy with a slight astringency from the tea. The bergamot is subtle, but it’s still a delightful piece.

Orange Thyme (orange line): It has abright zest flavor, without being too citrusy. The thyme is subtle but ads depth and range to the flavor I don’t think you’d get with just the orange alone. The chocolate is still amazing.

Cuyagua Village Single Origin from Venezuela (gold line): Just so good. Intense chocolate flavor smooth and clean with a tiny hint towards the fruity but just a whisper to make it interesting. Light and bright, but strong and powerful. The ganache is smooth and dense and helps spread the flavor access the tongue. Much love. Single origin is meant to highlight the unique flavor of a region rather than other ingredients.

4 Spice Praline (silver line): I was told this was classic gingerbread spices. Definitely true. The praline had a nice crunch and crisp with a lovely gingerbread flavor. Not too sweet, beautiful classic chocolate, the spices are there but quiet. It’s a classy candy.

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I loved Benoit Nihant so much that I hunted down their shop in Leige when I was there later in my trip. The weather was so hot that my chocolates melted a bit on the boat ride, so the textures were impacted by that, but it was still a trancendant experience.

Haceinda Single Origin: This one was dark and creamy, fruity without being overly acidic, with a slight spicy finish. Bear in mind, all that complexity comes from the chocolate alone, since there are no fruits or spices added. It’s a little like wine tasting.

Marzipan Pistachio: Since the original was so good, I decided to try the 2.0. It’s still delicious, but a bit sweeter. There is clearly a diffusion or mixture that isn’t all almond, I would not have been able to say it was pistachio if no one told me. Really good marzipan. I think I’ll stick to the original if I ever get another chance.

Peanut Praline: It’s like the most sophisticated peanut butter cup you’ll ever eat. It walks straight up to the edge of burnt sugar, bringing bitter, salty, sweet, and peanut in with the chocolate together with a nice crunch.

Hazelnut Praline: Surprisingly not as good as the peanut. It still has a dark close to burnt caramel in the praline. I can’t tell if the texture was off because of the melting but it seemed a bit more granular than it should be.

Lavender Ganache: Wow! Good lavender flavor without being potpourri. I love florals but balance is hard. I had become disenchanted with the violet ganaches in other shops and interrogated the shop staff mercilessly about this, but they nailed it!

Mint Ganache: This transported me back to my mother’s garden. The mint flavor is so fresh and natural I can taste the green. I believe it must have been made with fresh leaves in the infusion and not an extract.

Lime with Basil: The lime is dominant and reminds me of a lime chiffon or even a key lime pie, more like a creamy pastry lime than a drinks lime. The basil is a bit lost. Like the orange thyme, I think it added depth without drawing attention to itself.

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The staff in both places were pleased to talk endlessly about the chocolates and the shop. In Leige there is also a cafe next to the chocolate shop that sells several chocolate deserts as well as chocolate drinks. I didn’t get a chance to try anything on that side, sadly. I also learned that you don’t actually have to get a box for 5€. If you buy the chocolates in a bag it’s 100g for 9€, which works out to about 15 chocolates, but there is no minimum.

5 stars: I wish everyone on a chocolate tour of Brussels could take a side trip out here or find one of the other 5 stores in Belgium as they are not available anywhere else and are truly a treat worth having. Try anything, but especially the marzipan.

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Finally, I didn’t find this brand in a fancy shop in Sablon, but in nearly every grocery shop in the city. Galler praline bars were definitely a great score. They’re quite affordable and far superior to the average supermarket chocolate bar. Stop in a Del-Haize and grab your favorite flavor.

4 stars: Compared with the very best in Sablon, it might be 3, but taken in the context of the supermarket aisle, it blows away the competition.

Chocolate with Compassion

20180711_185029Chocolate is one of my favorite things on Earth, however it is an industry rife with slavery and abuse. Cocoa only grows in a few places on the planet and those are almost exclusively in 3rd world, developing nations in Central & South America, as well as Africa. Cheap chocolate companies use child labor, forced labor, and under paid labor, putting vulnerable people at risk and taking advantage of the economic disparity between developed and developing nations.

In recent years, more and more fine chocolatiers have become interested in supporting these cocoa farmers by paying a fair price for this very labor intensive product. I often hear excuses about ethical consumerism around the basis of “all the companies do it”, or “how else am I supposed to afford xyz?”, but chocolate is a luxury and there are plenty of companies that source their cocoa responsibly.

Buying ethically sourced chocolate not only feels better, it often tastes better since these companies would not dream of diluting their top dollar cocoa with milk-fat, sugar, paraffin or other additives commonly used by the check-out aisle candy companies.

Please choose one of these the next time you want to indulge. Look for a label: Fair Trade, Fairly Traded, Jane Goodall, Fair for Life, Rainforest Alliance, UTZ. You can see a list of many slavery-free chocolate companies at this website. Small chocolatiers are not listed, so if you have a neighborhood chocolatier, you can always ask them. People who use ethically sourced cocoa are proud to tell you.

Happy eating!


Writing about chocolate has helped take the edge off of the sheer horror that is the US News Cycle this week. I can’t say chocolate makes it all better, but there is a certain amount of truth in J.K. Rowling’s assessment that chocolate helps in the battle against the Dark Arts.  I will treasure this memory for as long as I have taste-buds, and I hope that you didn’t drool too much reading it 😉

Nagoya Castle: Now with 10% more Ninja!

If there is one famous place that exemplifies Nagoya, it is the sprawling grounds of the reconstructed Nagoya Castle. I couldn’t possibly visit Japan’s fourth largest city without spending some time at it’s most famous historical monument! I was hoping to get a sunny day and take some sweeping landscape photos of this majestic structure, but the weather was not on my side. Even without the sun, Nagoya Castle was beautiful, fun and educational to visit. Plus, there were Ninjas!


I woke up Tuesday to the sodden realization that the weather forecast had changed again, and the rain was not going to stop until I was back in Korea. It wasn’t as bad as Monday, however, mostly cloud cover and the occasional sprinkle. I had forgotten my umbrella at the katsu restaurant the night before, but I wasn’t worried since umbrellas are for sale in every subway station and convenience store (right next to a huge steaming pile of foreshadowing).

Golden Bus or Subway?

I looked into the possibility of doing the Golden Tour Bus day pass. The Me-Guru is a kind of hop on hop off bus that runs around the most popular places in Nagoya. You can get a Me-Guru day pass for 500 yen which is great if you are planning to hit up several tourist hot spots in one day. Unfortunately for me, there wasn’t a stop anywhere near my friend’s house, so I was going to have to take the subway at least 2 times (out and back) making the 500 yen ticket less attractive to me. If the Me-Guru isn’t getting you where you want to go, you can also get a city day pass for subways for 740 yen, or subway bus combo for 850 yen.

Nagoya Subway ticket machines

Photo Credit: Nagoya Station.com

The main attraction of the Me-Guru Golden Bus is that it drops you very close to tourist attractions that might otherwise be a hefty walk from the nearest regular bus or subway stop. Atsuta Jingu is very central and easy to access, but the Nagoya Castle and Tokugawa Gardens are rather out of the way. Lucky for me, the Me-Guru bus also offers single ride tickets for 210 yen which you can buy on the bus just like any other city bus. I would recommend the Me-Guru day pass if you happen to be staying anywhere near one of the bus’s stops, however I opted to take the subway (270 yen trip) to Nagoya Castle, then the Me-Guru to Tokugawa (210 yen), and finally the subway again (270 yen) back to my ersatz home base for a grand total of 750 yen.

I mention all this because it’s acutely important to figure out transit in Japan before you go unless you are made of money and time. Since most of us aren’t… Data plans and mobile WiFi hot spots are expensive and not really necessary given the proliferation of free WiFi, but it does mean you can’t to a Google search any time anywhere, you have to find the WiFi first. I like to research my routes over breakfast and take screenshots of the map and directions to reference later when I’m out of WiFi range. So, Tuesday morning, while I was enjoying my “morning service” again, I pulled up a million maps to see where I would go and how far I would have to walk/wait between each one. The public transit options between the Castle and the garden are dreadful. Hence the one stop Me-Guru ride.

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If you don’t plan ahead, you may not know where the next bus stop/subway station you need is (it might not be the one you came out of or the closest one may not go where you want to go). You could find yourself walking farther than you want, which doesn’t sound like much, but we tracked our walking on Sunday and got almost 10 km in one day of aimless tourist meandering. It adds up fast, and while I don’t mind walking for health or enjoyment, I don’t want to waste vacation time and energy walking extra to the bus stop when I could be using it to walk through something cool! Plus, if you suddenly find yourself knackered from unexpected heat, humidity, and ridiculous amounts of walking (this happens to me at least once per vacation), taking a taxi back to your hotel in Japan could cost 50-100$, that’s US dollars, folks. Taxis are EXPENSIVE in Japan. Ubers are not better.

Let Them Eat Gold

From the nearest subway station, the walk into the Castle compound is down a little restaurant corridor that sells everything from Nagoya specialties to the Castle’s very own gold plated ice cream. Yes, gold plated ice cream. It’s not actually very expensive, and it’s highly Instagramable, but I couldn’t bring myself to buy one as I have recently been complaining about the out-of-touch rich people in America eating gold plated tacos while children can’t get fed in school… soooooooo…. no gold ice cream for me.

The ice cream isn’t trying to be Richie Rich, it’s actually meant to imitate the golden tiger-fish that is the symbol of the castle. During my post vacation research phase, I got curious about how they could afford to sell these golden ice creams for 6-9$ a pop, and I discovered that you can buy edible gold sheets for surprisingly cheap. One seller on Amazon is selling 10 sheets for 7$. The gold taco I was upset about? 25,000$… US….At 0.70 per sheet, it may be silly to eat a golden ice cream cone, but it’s not actually Louis XVI levels of decadence and class warfare. Eat the rich.

Fire Bombing Damage

Nagoya Castle is the number one tourist stop in Nagoya and it’s not even finished! Almost everything you see there was destroyed by Americans in WW2 during the fire bombings. A fact the informative signs will not let you forget since everything you read will tell you how the original was destroyed and whether what you’re looking at is a transplant or a reconstruction.

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Traveling around Asia, you inevitably see signs like this because nearly every temple, castle and historical site has been sacked during one war or another. In China and Korea, you find things that were destroyed by the Japanese. In Japan, you find things that were destroyed by the Americans.

The castle and grounds were still heavily under construction during my visit, but I’m told with some degree of excitement by the locals that the reconstruction should be finished this (2018) summer.

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Hommaru Palace

The first sight that greeted me walking in the gate was the tower of Hommaru Palace. The tower is done in a similar style to the main castle, but is much smaller. Once you get around the corner and over the moat, there is a beautiful brand new palace. According to the literature I was given to take home, the Nagoya Castle was declared a National Treasure back in 1930, but sadly destroyed in the 1945 air raids… ok they don’t call out America by name, but we all know. The palace compound has been undergoing reconstruction on and off since 1959, but the Hommaru palace reconstruction only started in 2009!20180508_134013

I am not an architecture buff, but I do enjoy a beautiful building. I especially appreciate that Nagoyans decided to use all traditional materials and craft techniques to remake the structure. It doesn’t just look like the original, it preserves the artistry and history of Japanese culture — not only the woodwork, but also the fittings, metalwork, and paintings. There was an intense research project designed to microscopically and chemically analyze the original scraps that survived the fire bombing (have we mentioned that recently, because Nagoya Castle does not want you to forget) so that the paintings could be replicated as authentically as possible.

Despite the chronic reminders of our history of conflict, the restoration process is fairly interesting. If you want to see more details, they’ve got a lovely website.

As I approached the palace proper, there was a group of Japanese businessmen having a chat in front of a very photogenic area. However, my faith in Japanese politeness was rewarded. As soon as one noticed me holding my camera (phone) nearby, they gestured to the others to move out of the way and we all smiled and bowed to each other before I went on to take the photo. So much politeness!

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Following the path, I noticed an area where a few other visitors were lining up and entering the building so I paused to check it out. The staff were sooooo excited to share with me. They showed me a little video of how to tour the building correctly (no touching, no flash photos, etc) and explained the character in costume stopping all the bad behavior on screen was the father of the famous king who had ruled from this palace and a famous general.

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I was asked to wear my backpack on my front to avoid bumping anything, and all of us were asked to remove our shoes before going inside. Slippers were available, of course, and there were free shoe lockers as well. For an extra 100yen, an audio tour of the palace was availble in several languages. I thought about getting the English one, but it was taking the staff 10+ minutes to set up the couple at the front of the line, and I wasn’t second in line. I decided to risk moving on less informed.

The palace itself is bright and open. Although the day was cloudy, the inside of the palace somehow still managed to feel sunny with the warm wood halls, paper windows, and gold accents. Drifting sock footed through the hallways, I felt a sense of what visiting the royal palace might be like. Everything was hushed and clean. The halls were made of the same pale wood on all 4 sides creating an effect of being inside a tree. Every few meters, the interior hall wall would open up into an opulent room. The 3 visible walls inside each room were covered with the ornate and painstaking replicas of the Edo period paintings.

In practice, each of the rooms would have had a specific ceremonially significant purpose. A room for receiving guests of a certain social standing or another. A room for dining, one for tea, one for drinking sake and listening to music. One room had a fire pit built gracefully into the floor and a hidden vent in the ceiling to carry the smoke of roasting meat and fish up and out. The low wooden bars are just to keep people from walking into it, not an actual part of the function. Indoor fire pit is now added to my list of things I want in my imaginary dream house of the future.

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The palace doesn’t take long to explore and it’s included in the park entry fee. I highly recommend a walk through. On my way out, I ran into the very helpful staffer again. It turns out she had lived in America a while ago and was happy to practice English with me (although I don’t think she really needed “practice”) She told me some more about the restoration process and said I really needed to come back after the construction was complete to see it at it’s best. It made me happy that the people working there take so much pride and interest in the history and culture of the site. Enthusiasm is highly contagious and just talking with her made me more excited to be there.

Surprise! Ninjas!

Just after leaving Hommaru, the path turns a slight corner and suddenly there’s the first real view of the Castle proper. This was the real moment I was sad about the weather. Nagoya Castle is elevated, and huge, so any photo will have plenty of sky in the background. My cloudy, rainy day resulted in a very plain light gray sky instead of a fluffy cloud filled azure backdrop. Is it cheating to use filters?

Did I mention there are ambulatory ninja on the castle grounds? It’s part of a cultural and historical show. According to the ninja website, two words I never thought I would string together in a non-hyperbolic fashion, there are performances every weekend, but weekdays are listed as “hospitality”, a kind of meet and greet.  I was there on a Tuesday, so I only met the two posing for photos and promoting their future shows.

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No Nagoya Castle for Me

Sadly, the castle was closed for the finishing touches of construction, so I couldn’t go inside, but I’ve heard there’s an excellent view from the top. Looking at other people’s photos online, it seems the decoration style is very similar to that of Hommaru palace. The only truly distinctive thing I missed out on seems to be the huge Shachihoko (the tiger fish) that you can sit on and pose with, and the tall geometric stairwell. Next time.

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photo credit: Matcha Magazine

Since the castle proper and some of the other areas were closed off for construction, I was encouraged to wander a little off the beaten path. In addition to stopping for teeny tiny flowers which earned me some very strange looks. (Why is she looking at the grass when the castle is right there?) I also wandered off into a little forest grove filled with large, semi-flat stones. It was not cordoned off, but also not really connected to the main walkway either. After some assistance from the Google oracle, it seems I discovered a stone tomb of unique historical properties.

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I’m still unclear if it’s an original or a replica given the whole bombing debacle, and I don’t know why it was over there all by itself in an extremely unmaintained state in the middle of what were otherwise meticulously maintained grounds. The only informative sign was in Japanese and it mostly focused on the description of the architectural style, geography and time period with no mention as to its context near the castle. Still, it was pretty, and from inside the trees, I got some fun new perspective angles on the castle itself that don’t look identical to every other tourist shot on the web, so yay!

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A large chunk of the grounds were completely blocked off during my visit. I found a few more interesting goodies like ancient gates and the working tea house where you can stop and have a traditional cup of matcha green tea and a sweet. Of course the souvenir shop would never be closed for construction, but I found the gardens to be a bit lackluster, as though they had not been tended to yet this year, so even though they were not blocked off, they weren’t exactly visitor ready.

Samurai and Shachihoko

20180508_131428On my way back toward the main gates, I happened to run into the Samurai. Ninjas AND Samurai. It’s like cosplay meets museum, so very Japanese. Much like the ninja, the Samurai pace the palace grounds daily for photo ops and perform shows on weekends and holidays. My desire to avoid weekend/holiday crowds may have backfired here, but the guys I met were pretty cool nonetheless.

The last important sight before my path led me outward was the Shachihoko – the fish tiger. What’s up with that? Well, it’s a mythological creature that is half fish (specifically a carp) and half tiger. The Japanese characters that make up the name of the creature is also a combination of “fish” and “tiger”. 鯱 (shachi) = 魚 (sakana, fish)+ 虎 (tora, tiger) Some argue that the fish is really an orca because “shachi” also translates as “orca” in Japanese.  I love language.

It’s often put on temples and palaces to ward off fires, but in Nagoya it has become the special symbol of Nagoya Castle due to the two large golden Shachihoko on the roof. Most of the souvenirs, or omiyage, of the castle involve this magical creature in some way, and of course, so does the golden ice cream.

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I do hope that I’ll have the opportunity to return to Nagoya again after the construction is complete. I would not only enjoy seeing the inside of the Castle proper, I suspect I would greatly enjoy the gardens and side buildings that were inaccessible during my visit. What little I could see through the scaffolding looked intriguing. Plus, next time I won’t feel guilty about trying that glittery frozen treat now that I know more about the edible gold market.

Due to the weather, there is no accompanying photo album to this trip, but I hope you’re enjoying the Instagram photos in the mean time. As always, thanks for reading ❤

Oh, and the umbrella foreshadowing? I’m afraid you’ll have to read the next post to find out about that adventure. 🙂

Food of Nagoya: Tebasaki, Hitsumabushi & Kishimen oh my!

I don’t think that I ever truly appreciated food tourism for most of my life. Of course I like to eat locally, to try new foods, to sample the regional cuisine, but I’ve never made it a goal. It was always more of a side quest, a “since I’m here anyway, I might as well”. I thought I was doing quite well given the (not inaccurate) stereotype about American (and British) tourists who like to go to exotic places and then eat familiar foods. I thought my willingness to try was good enough. What did I know?


I have noticed since living in Korea that there is a strong feeling bordering on obsession with the famous foods of any given tourist destination. Not only outside of Korea, but regionally within the country as well. If you go to a certain place, it was taken as given that you MUST get some of the locally famous food. To do otherwise was simply unthinkable.

As my friend and I sat waiting for our food, I shared this observation with her and she made a politely stiffled “wtf whypipo” sound and tried not to look completely aghast. Her family is from Mexico (yes, she’s American) and she explained to me that as a Latina, for her and her family (and her culture as far as she is aware) it’s always about the food. I have to admit, I did feel a little abashed, but I have no reason to cling to my old ideas. I usually enjoy the hell out of eating locally, so why NOT make it part of my to-do list rather than merely adjacent to it?

Tebasaki

20180505_175507Our first famous food sight was Yamachan, a chicken joint that is usually so popular that wait times can be over an hour. Yamachan is famous for chicken wings. Initially, I was very skeptical since I get plenty of chicken in Korea, but when we arrived we were sufficiently early as to be able to get a table. We had to take the smoking section, but it was still clear air when we were seated.

Smoking sections? Yeah, Japan has relegated smoking to a few small designated areas. You can’t just smoke anywhere, even outdoors. There are designated smoking spots with ashtrays. Some are open air, while others are actually a glass booth to protect passersby from the second hand fumes. Since people can’t just step onto the sidewalk for a smoke, restaurants have smoking sections. These are also cordoned off with floor to ceiling walls and sometimes even a double door airlock system to keep the smell from entering the non-smoking section.

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photo credit: Yusuke Kawasaki

Back to the chicken wings. Nagoya is famous for tebasaki, a crispy fried pepper spiced chicken wing. There’s no batter, so the wings are just fried nice and crispy on the outside, but moist on the inside. They are coated with a lightly spicy salt and pepper flavor that was zingy and enjoyable. Plus, each order comes with instructions on how to eat the wings Nagoya style (and get all the meat off in one swipe!). I found later that a lot of people consider these wings to be “quite spicy” so Korean cuisine might have impacted my spice meter, as I only found it pleasantly zingy.

Conveyor Belt Sushi

As we finished our plate of wings, the restaurant was filling up and the smoke was getting thicker so it was time to move on. After the tebasaki appetizer, our main course was to be conveyor belt sushi.

We arrived at Sushiro, the famous 100yen restaurant, only to discover that going to a popular restaurant on a Saturday night that is also a holiday means a long wait. Quelle suprise! The good news was that we’d already had some chicken wings, and it was our first time to catch up since parting ways in February, so the waiting area was just a place to sit down and chat by then.

photo credit: アジロウ

This was a true dollar menu style conveyor belt place. Any dish that came by on a plain yellow plate was up for grabs and only 100 yen. If you wanted something specific, you could use the little computer at each table to place an order. I got some of my favorites (unagi, fatty tuna, salmon roe and more) and proceeded to stuff my face with sushi. It’s amazing to me that even though Korea and Japan are separated by only a narrow strip of ocean and both are heavy seafood consumers, the difference in ingredients and flavors is mind-blowing. Even in Japanese sushi restaurants in Korea, I have trouble finding things like tuna and eel. Salmon roe? Forget about it. I was in sushi heaven until I thought my tummy would explode and then the waitress came by to calculate our bill. She did this by measuring our stack of plates! They don’t even have to count, since each plate is the same height, they just hold up a special ruler and then type up the bill.

Two of us stuffing ourselves was still less than 12$. Japan doesn’t have to be expensive.

Morning Service

20180507_100913Amid the many things that I found to try while in Nagoya is the “morning service”. Many of the cafes around town have begun to offer a light breakfast (egg and toast or ogura toast) for free (“service” in Japanese) with any order of coffee. Sunday morning my friend and I headed over to Komeda Coffee. This cute little coffee shop is a chain restaurant famous for it’s special morning service of thick, fluffy, buttery toast and red bean paste, also known locally as “ogura toast”. While lots of places in east Asia love sweet red bean paste in pastry (I eat it in Korea all the time), Nagoya got famous for ogura toast by adding… wait for it… margarine! The sweet thick red bean spread with creamy salty margarine creates a unique Nagoya flavor that should definitely be on your “to eat” list. Plus, their coffee is pretty good.

In the spirit of being on vacation, and fondly remembering my childhood year in Japan I ordered a “cream coffee”, the picture of which looked like iced coffee with a generous twist of whipped cream on top. Vacation calories don’t count right? When I received my mega sized coffee drink, it turned out not to be whipped cream, but ice cream! Smooth, rich, vanilla soft serve floating on a small iceberg inside the cup. I am especially fond of red bean and cream, so I dolloped some ice cream on my toast for extra decadence. So good. And all for less than a Starbucks’s latte!

I went back to Komeda every morning of my holiday because it was a) close to my friend’s house and the subway, b) very reasonably priced breakfast, and c) SO DELICIOUS! Free WiFi and friendly, patient staff helped a lot, too.

Hitsumabushi

The evening highlight of Sunday was a visit to one of Nagoya’s most famous restaurants, Atsuta Horaiken, to enjoy this local specialty. I know eel isn’t everyone’s cup of tea, but I’ve been in love with Japanese grilled eel since the first time I tried it. It’s flaky, smokey, sweet and savory. It’s everything a grilled fish should be plus some undefinable extra flavor that comes from the eel and it’s special sauce. Unagi sauce is actually sold in stores because it’s such a unique blend. I bought some once to make eel at home and had so much leftover sauce I started eating it with eggs, which turns out to also be good. Anyway, when I found out that one of my favorite Japanese foods was ALSO one of the most famous local dishes of Nagoya, I immediately put it on my to do list.

Bear in mind that Japan was just finishing a holiday weekend on Sunday, so for many folks it was the last fling before going back to work on Monday. To make matters worse, this famous and delicious restaurant doesn’t take reservations on holidays or weekends, it’s first come first serve. We tried to make a reservation for one of the weekdays I was in town, but they were booked solid. Instead we planned to head over about 30 minutes before opening and get a good place in line. When we showed up, the restaurant had workers stationed all the way down to the elevator to show visitors where to go, and very polite hostesses were arranging guests on a looooooong line of chairs in the open space in front of the restaurant.

We were only about 20 people down the line and were honestly quite excited about it, since we were originally prepared to wait an hour or more for a table. Even better, the restaurant started seating people well before the posted opening hours. I’m not sure if it was because of the holiday or because it was the last weekend this particular location would be open before prolonged remodeling. Whatever the reason, we found ourselves playing musical chairs for a remarkably short time. I love the fact that the restaurant had seating in the waiting area. While I think pagers might have been a better way of alerting guests that a table was ready, it was a little exciting to be in line and to shuffle seats every time someone ahead of us went inside.

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photo credit Ray C via TripAdvisor

They also brought us an English language menu while we were waiting so that we could peruse the options, and the hostess did her best to make recommendations and give explanations in English for us as well. I really appreciate this because although my Japanese isn’t half bad, I am terrible at the super polite version of Japanese. Especially fancy shops and restaurants will often use a version of Japanese that is so formal I can’t understand it anymore, and then I just end up feeling embarrassed.

Hitsumabushi is NOT cheap. A single order is almost 40$. Both of us wanted to have some, but we were also eyeing an appetizer on the menu that was tamago (egg) with eel filling. In the end we decided to order the 1 ½ size hitsumabushi and one of the egg eel omelettes to share. The omelette arrived first and was quite delicious. The egg was light and fluffy and the eel inside was rich and savory. I think if it had been my dinner choice I would have been a little sad, but it was a perfect appetizer experience.

Finally, the star of the show arrived. Hitsumabushi is served in a huge wooden bowl with a tray full of fixings. We were issued careful instructions on the proper way to eat this delightful dish. On the surface, it looks like unagi-don, a bowl of rice with eel on top. However, the Nagoya style eel is thinner sliced and has a crispier exterior than regular unagi. Also, it’s not drenched in eel sauce.

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We ate according to the instructions, spooning ¼ of the large bowl’s contents into our smaller personal bowls and eating it plain at first. I was impressed straight away.

20180506_155253Even in normal restaurants, eel is one of the more expensive dishes. I tend to avoid buying it here in Korea because it’s often not prepared well. Nonetheless, it is one of my all time favorite Japanese foods. The “plain” hitsumabushi still had plenty of flavor. Of course the smokey, fishy unique flavor of the eel itself, but also a lighter version of the sauce it’s cooked with, as well as the vinegar in the rice. It had so much of what I look for in a good meal, I instantly knew the price was well worth it.

20180506_160202The second ¼ of the dish is meant to be served with the dry fixings provided in the little side box. In our case, we were given small slices of spring onions, thinly shredded nori (seaweed), and what very well may have been fresh wasabi. Most wasabi in the world is fake, sadly, it’s just green horseradish. Now, I love horseradish too, so that doesn’t usually bother me. I’ve learned a little about fresh wasabi from watching cooking shows and documentaries, but I’ve never had any. When I looked at this wasabi, I noticed the texture was very different from what I’m used to. Instead of a smooth paste, it had little shredded bits of plant matter.

Real wasabi is a root that is grated to get wasabi paste. I thought that the texture could be an indication of fresh grated wasabi. I tasted it on it’s own as well before adding it to my bowl and found that it was lighter, fresher and less “bitey” than what I’m used to in wasabi paste. It didn’t even try to get up my nose. Again, it lines up with everything I’ve read about the flavor of real/fresh wasabi. Excited by this prospect, I added some of each ingredient to my bowl and lightly mixed them together.

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Whatever I thought of the wonderful flavor and texture qualities of the first unaltered bowl were blown straight out of my mind. Everything wonderful about the plain hitsumabushi was suddenly illuminated by fireworks-like bursts of green umami jumping out of the simple yet high quality spices I had added in round two. Sometimes, I go too long between truly spectacular life changing meals. I lose sight of the artistic heights of food that were so poetically expressed by a cartoon rat. Worse, I may even come to look at food as a burden, simply fuel for my body with no other reward, if I am kept in sub-par food land for too long. But then a restaurant like this comes up and gives my taste receptors and limbic system something to scream about and I remember what is possible. This isn’t just food tourism, it’s heaven in a bowl.

20180506_161416Round 3 we were instructed to replicate round 2 and then add broth. I don’t really know how to describe the flavor of the broth. It was also a little smoky, a little umami. I suspected there were some dried shitake involved in the flavor as well as some konbu dashi. It was nice, but for my taste it didn’t really add to the flavors the way that the spices alone had. Additionally, it drastically changed the texture of the dish, turning crispy eel and rice into a wetter soup. It was still delicious, and I’m glad that I was able to try all the different styles of eating hitsumabushi, but I was grateful for that final ¼ serving where we were instructed to return to whichever of the first three we had liked best and do it again!

By the time we finished, I was on an insane food flavor high and I thought my stomach might explode. If this experience sounds like something you want to try, don’t worry, although the Sakae location is closing, there are other branches of Atsuta Horaiken around Nagoya you can visit.

What flavor is that?

Our last stop before going back to the apartment was a kind of bargain grocery store. Advantage of shopping with someone who lives there is that they’ve found and vetted all the cheap places before you got there. My friend was actually just stopping in for some toilet paper, but I decided to wander the candy section to see if I could find some unique chocolates to bring back to friends in Korea. This is more challenging than it sounds since most Japanese brands of candy are sold here in regular shops. What I found was a wall of every flavor of kit-kat imaginable.

I don’t even really like KitKat as a candy bar. It’s always tasted a little like sweet cardboard to me. But the Japanese are obsessed with it. I love finding new flavors of standard “American” candy in other countries. I found the all-caramel milky way in Saudi, I found an infinity of Dove flavors in China, I found the hazelnut Snickers here in Korea (omg like nutella and snickers had a baby, whaaaat?), but Japan has outdone everyone on variations of KitKat.

I have seen several in the past, most notably green tea, and white chocolate raspberry. This wall… had…. everything…. I took photos only of the most bizarre flavors, but there were local apple flavors, Hokkaido creme flavors, 2-3 different versions of redbean including regular and ogura toast at least, but the winners of the unique flavor awards go to: sweet potato, rum raisin, sake (yes the rice wine), and (drumroll please)…. Wasabi.

I have no idea what any of them taste like because they were only sold in huge boxes and I could not really justify spending 8-10$ on a giant box of candy just to know what it tasted like. I promise if I ever see them on sale individually packaged, I’ll report back on the flavor.

What I did buy that evening was no less a flavor twist than green tea flavored Khalua liquor. I found a tiny bottle for 6$ and decided that was a very reasonable price to sample this experimental flavor and get an evening cocktail, too! My first time to have green tea and coffee together was a green tea ice cream affogato at the Boseong tea fields last year. Basically green tea ice cream with a shot of espresso poured over it. It was insanely delicious so I had high hopes for the Khalua. We grabbed some milk at the convenience store and settled in to experiment.

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The actual liquor is not a color/texture that you really think of for drinking. It’s thick and a mixture of dark green and dark brown… yeah… appetizing. I tasted a little straight for science and it was, unsurprisingly, very sweet and very strong. Once we added ice and milk, the liquid became the appealing green color of a green tea latte and the flavors had more room to play. I think a little vodka would have rounded the whole thing off nicely, as it was still very sweet for my tastes even with the milk, but I liked the play of green tea and coffee together.

Kishimen

One of Nagoya’s other famous foods is kishimen. I had heard there was some near Atsuta Jingu but I didn’t realize that it was inside. Following the signs and my nose I discovered a small kitchen and covered picnic table area where the famous soup could be ordered in several styles.

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Side note: It is so important to carry cash in Japan. I don’t even understand how one of the most high tech countries in the world that invented paying for things by tapping your mobile phone on them still has so many places that are cash only, but it does. Temples especially and tourist facilities in general, just about any smaller shop or restaurant (not convenience stores of course, they take cards), and all the machines you use to charge the transit cards also only take cash. It is one of the great mysteries of our age.

I was running low on cash because I’d spend some to make donations earlier in the day, so I was just able to get the basic Miya Kishimen, also the name of the shop, for 650Yen.

Kishimen is similar to udon, but the noodles are wider and flatter than a typical udon noodle. I also found the flavor of the broth to be quite distinct with a very smokey aspect as well as undertones of salty and sour for a very piquant profile. Maybe it was the experience of eating in the picnic pavilion in the middle of the beautiful forest, but I thought the noodles were definitely worth it, far above the average udon eatery. There was a self service tea station with lovely tea, and several signs warning patrons to beware the crows. I assume the greedy little scavengers… I mean clever sacred corvids… will hop over and steal any unattended food. The sign and the crows did little to dispel the vague aura of haunting I was experiencing that day, but I think that just added to the fun.

Miso Katsu

Dinner Monday night was one more Nagoya specialty, Miso Katsu. Katsu is a panko fried pork cutlet that is pervasive throughout Japan. It is also one of 3 Japanese foods that can reliably found at “Japanese” restaurants in Korea, so while I like it fine, I was not initially excited about going out for katsu. But, all of my local food finds so far had been better than expected so I agreed to give it a whirl. My friend got off work and met me down at one of the famous chains, Yabaton.

photo credit: Yabaton via Tabelog

Regular katsu is delicious when cooked well. It’s essentially fried pork, so it is hard to go wrong, but the best versions are very tender cuts of meat and crisp flaky fried exteriors. Bad versions are tough and greasy, obviously. What makes Nagoya’s miso katsu so special is that they pour a red miso sauce over the katsu just before you eat it (so as not to make things soggy). Miso is a common ingredient in Japanese cooking, and most foreigners are at least familiar with Miso soup, which is typically made from white miso. White miso is soy beans fermented with mainly rice. The flavor is fairly light and mild. It’s pleasantly tart and goes well with seaweed and green onions. Red miso on the other hand is made of soy beans fermented with barley or other dark grains. The flavor is quite pungent and may be an acquired taste. It’s not like “stinky cheese” pungent or anything, so don’t be scared to try it, but it is a good deal stronger and darker than what you may have experienced in the past with miso soup.

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The pork at Yabaton is excellent all by itself. Tender and juicy cuts of pork, fried in fluffy panko breadcrumbs with little to no extra grease. When the waiter brought our bowls to the table, he also brought a container of thick, dark red miso sauce which he poured over the katsu with a flourish. I was impressed at how well the flavors went together and how much I enjoyed the red miso. It may be the most unique katsu experience I’ve ever had and I’m so glad I didn’t skip it just because katsu is “common”.

Conbini Food!

Japanese convenience stores are called colloquially by the Japanglish word “conbini” short for “convenience” in a language without “v”s. By my friend’s request I popped into the local convenience store on my last night as her guest to get dinner. When I lived in Yokohama for a summer, I often made meals from the conbini. There’s bento (lunch boxes), onigiri (amazing rice triangles stuffed with yum and wrapped in seaweed), and a plethora of random foods to pick and choose from.

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photo credit: via kamonavi

Conbini food is almost always fresh. It’s a stark contrast to gas station foods in America that are filled with preservatives and have a shelf life sometime past the nuclear apocalypse. You can actually eat healthy from a Japanese convenience store. After days of dining out, my friend was craving a simple salad, a bag of greens costing about a dollar. I had been grabbing onigiri (one of my fav snacks) for lunches and afternoon pick me ups all through the vacation so far, so I looked to see what else was available for eats and I found a conbini food I had entirely forgotten the existence of!

Japanese convenience store food

photo credit: intrepidtravel.com

During my summer stay, I ate these cold noodle bowls ALL THE TIME. It’s in the refrigerated section, and has a plastic bowl with fresh udon noodles and packets of sauces and toppings. Back in 2015 the ones I got had a fresh egg, but the one I found this time had what I think was dehydrated egg? Maybe a new health law? Anyway, I found the flavor that was my favorite and was very excited to get to have it again after almost 3 years. I also got myself a “long day” reward: juice box sake! That’s right, you can buy sake in a cardboard box with a straw. Your inner kindergartner and your outer adult can both be happy as you sip booze from a tiny box.


Travel and food are such a huge part of my life. Although I had previously taken my responsibilities as a food tourist lightly, I’m vowing not to do so in future and thus my summer plans involve ever growing lists of “famous foods” I have to seek out in each place. I’m not turning this into a food blog full time, but I think I’m going to take a cue from Mr. Bourdain and let my belly lead the way in a few more adventures.

In fond memory of Anthony Bourdain, who’s shows about exploration and food contributed to the desire I have to travel and share what I find. Thank you.
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The Foods of Cherry Blossom Season

20160401_141325The last two years of living in Korea has been cherry blossom heaven. I had amazing experiences at the nation’s biggest cherry blossom festival in Jinhae both years (2016, 2017) and didn’t see the same thing twice. When I announced my move to Gyeongju, the museum without walls, everyone said “oh what a beautiful place! you’re going to love the spring”. And I was. I was excited to love spring until it turned out to be the bipolar spring from hell. It’s late April still vacillating back and forth from  10C with rain 30C with sun. Neither the flowers nor I know what to do.

I was so ready for a couple weeks of stunning cherry blossoms and sunny afternoons by the lake and river, but instead I got about two days (both of which I was working during) and then the rain drove all the blossoms away.

Since I couldn’t attend a cherry blossom festival this spring, I’ve decided to focus on the other bounty of cherry blossom season: the themed food and drink. Bearing in mind I’m not in Seoul where the trendy boutique cafes all live, I decided to try and find as many cherry blossom themed consumables as possible in my small town of Gyeongju.

This is by no means a comprehensive list. Every town has a few local variants, and who knows how many tiny cafes and bakeries were selling their own seasonal specials that I never even encountered. Nonetheless, it should be obvious that cherry blossom season isn’t only a feast for the eyes.

Coffee:

2016-04-15 15.45.30Starbucks Cherry Blossom Frappuccino: This one is available in several countries. It’s a seasonal milkshake style beverage. I like that it wasn’t too sweet. I don’t feel like it tastes especially floral, but it’s pink and festive and fun, so why not?
3 stars

Ediya Cherry Blossom Latte: As a result of the Starbucks trend, every other cafe here offers some variation on the cherry blossom latte/frappe. Ediya is probably the most famous, but I found it to taste like strawberry milk. The iced latte version was thicker than flavored milk, but not all the way to frappe/milkshake status.
1 star

Bliss Blooming Latte: The one coffee shop I really wanted to visit this year and didn’t get to try was the cafe Bliss out by Bomun Lake. They have a latte with a “blooming” blossom. A confectionery of some sort that expands in the coffee. No other branch offers this cherry blossom special. I saw the video online and was instantly captivated. However the lake is rather far away and I never made it out there a second time after learning about it. I’ll put it on the list for next year.
(not rated)

Kanu Spring Blend: This is my go to instant coffee brand, a phrase I never would have believed I could have uttered 5 years ago. I admit, I did try it at first because of the ads, but it’s so much better than most of the other packet coffees in Korea that it soon became a staple at my office desk for emergency pick me ups. I was so excited to see it show up in the seasonal line up, but I haven’t seen it in any of Gyeongju’s shops.
(not rated)

Drinks:

20180325_135358Cherry Blossom Soda: GS25 is a major convenience store brand here in Korea and they also have their own line of drinks and snacks. In the spring, they offer a couple of cans decked out in cherry blossom art. The pink can is a bright pink bubbly soda pop that wins hands down for the most floral flavor. It reminded me of drinking sweetened rose or orange blossom drinks in the middle east. I don’t know if it’s made from real cherry blossoms or if they use a more common flower to get the flavor, but it’s legit. My only complaint was that it was so insanely sweet I had to dilute it. I wanted to mix it with gin, but I haven’t found a local supply since moving here. I tried it with water, but that didn’t work well. Finally, I mixed it with milk, Italian soda style, and that was delicious.
4 stars

20180423_200958.jpgCherry Blossom Grape Juice: The green can was actually my favorite drink of the season. Instead of a soda, it’s green grape juice with the same intensely floral flavor as the soda. It doesn’t have the crazy pink dye, or the bubbles. It’s a bit less sweet, and it has some tasty fruit jelly bits in the bottom. It was still strong, but I diluted it with just water and it was perfect. I’m thinking of buying a bunch to stash for the summer.
5 stars

Cherry Blossom Milk: Koreans love flavored milk. Banana is the most popular flavor here, but I’ve seen several others including green grape and apple. While perusing at a local 7-11 I noticed a single serving milk container with pink blossoms on it. Upon closer inspection, it was indeed cherry blossom milk. It wasn’t bad, only mildly too sweet and somewhere between floral and fruity. Worth drinking once, more than once if you love sweet milk.
2 stars

Alcohol:

Hoegaarden Cherry Beer: It’s technically cherry flavored and cherry blossom scented, but it was released seasonally and decorated with pink blossoms. I was expecting it to be similar to a lambic, but it ended up tasting more like a shandy made with cherry-ade. Not too sweet, and certainly not bad.
3 stars

Kirin Sakura Viewing Can: This beer is decorated with the signature unicorn dancing amid the sakura. Kirin is a Japanese beer company and sakura viewing is an important part of spring. The seasonal can is decorated to put you in the mood for spring, but the inside is the same classic Kirin taste. I happen to like Kirin beer, so this wasn’t a big disappointment.
3 stars

Soju: I saw posters around town for soju (the Korean distilled rice wine) that had cherry blossoms on the label, and usually when there’s something on the soju label other than bamboo it signifies flavor, so I was very hopeful when I finally found some. Sadly, it turned out to be regular soju, which I don’t care for as much as the cheongju (like soju, but smoother with less of that nail-polish-remover aftertaste).
1 star

Foods:

20180311_163719.jpgCherry blossom popcorn: GS25 is a chain of local 24 hour convenience stores. The same brand that created my favorite floral soda and juice, as a matter of fact, and they didn’t stop at drinks. Amid the food offerings was a light pink bag of cherry blossom popcorn. This was my first find of the season this year and I wasn’t sure what to make of it. When I opened the bag, I was hit by a powerful and pleasant perfume making it clear that this was not merely pink popcorn, but genuinely floral. It was sweet and tart, with a base coat of kettle corn and a top note of something like Smarties. I didn’t realize at the time, but I suspect it was made with actual cherry blossoms. More later.
4 stars

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Cherry blossom Pepero sticks: By now the world knows Japan’s famous Pocky sticks: crisp shortbread sticks dipped in chocolate and other flavors. When my family lived in Japan in the 80s (yeah… old) the iconic treats weren’t available in the US and I spent years pining for them after we moved back to America. Although Korea has gotten past it’s hatred of all things Japanese enough to import Pocky, they also have their own national brand of the delicious snacks called “Pepero”. There’s even a national holiday for Pepero where all the stores sell huge boxes and decorated gift sets and we all buy and exchange boxes of Pepero. Not Pocky. The Lotte brand of short, double dipped pepero are delicious anyway, but then I spotted this special pink package and had to try it. The first dip was white chocolate and the top coat had the same sweet/tart taste that I’m coming to realize is the ‘authentic’ cherry powder flavor. It was more creamy than sweet, which was refreshing. It’s not going to replace chocolate as my favorite Pepero flavor, but still enjoyable.
3 stars

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Cherry blossom frozen yogurt: Since many coffee shops here are also dessert cafes, it wasn’t only coffee drinks that came in exciting cherry blossom themes. Yogurpresso is a dessert cafe that specializes in, as you can imagine by the name, frozen yogurt and espresso drinks! Unlike American fro-yo, this is quite tart, like actual yogurt instead of ice cream with an identity crisis. The large “blossoms” are crisp meringue and the sprinkles are some kind of candy. It might be one of the preserved cherry blossom additives. I’ve seen them mostly advertised out of Japan. More likely they are random berry flavored sugar bits. However, the little carafe of pink milk down there is the cherry blossom flavor. A tiny pour over to add floral goodness to the sundae. It was tart and refreshing with a variety of flavors and textures to keep it interesting.
4 stars

Cherry blossom pastries & snack cakes:

Once again in a convenience store (they are truly ubiquitous) I found a rack of blossom themed snack cakes. I’m not a huge fan of the packaged pastries here in Korea. Although they are super cheap, they are far inferior to the fresh pastries offered on every other street at the cafe/bakery combos like Tous le Jous and Paris Baguette. I got one bun to try, but it turned out to be strawberry creme. The darker red is red bean (a common bun filling and one I actually quite like), but I prefer my red bean filling with fresh cream. The strawberry was too sweet and there wasn’t anything cherry blossom about it other than the pinkness. The other snack you see here is a variant on the ever present snack cakes. I read this one before grabbing it and it’s also just strawberry and cream cheese. I didn’t bother to buy it after all.
1 star

Festival food:

I didn’t go to any festivals this year, but I decided to throw in my festival food observations from previous years. Every festival in Korea has shaped and colored cotton candy. I’ve seen cartoon charaters, animals, and abstract art created in spun sugar. Cherry blossom festivals of course bring out cherry blossom shaped cotton candy. I didn’t eat any because I figure it’s all cotton candy flavored when we’re talking about festival street carts.
(not rated)

I did eat the cherry blossom fried ice cream at last year’s festival, however. It’s not very pretty, and it’s hard to tell in the paper cup that it is blossom shaped, but you can sort of make out the petals at the top? The best part of this treat is watching them make it. The vendor removes a super frozen blossom of ice cream and dips it in batter before dropping it in boiling oil right before your eyes! When it’s done, the outside is warm and crispy and the inside is cold and creamy. It was vanilla, and I loved it anyway.
4 stars

Honey Butter Cherry Blossom Potato Chips: I was not going to eat this. I saw it early in the season and turned away. This is because when I first arrived in Korea I tried the Honey Butter Chip. I do not know what the obsession with honey butter flavor here is, but you can get WAY too much stuff in honey butter. The problem was it was awful. It was cloyingly sweet and the butter was really potent (maybe because they use French fermented butter?) I was glad to have the experience once, but had no desire to repeat it.

Then I read another blog about Korean snacks and discovered that the limited edition seasonal flavor is actually made with domestic cherry blossoms, harvested from Chilgok County in north Gyeongsang. That’s really close to where I live!Untitled.png

Only 1.4 million bags were released, by the way. That sounds like a lot, but there are more than 51 million people in Korea, soooo I guess we’re sharing. As you can see, the chips are not pink. I’m fine with that since it means no dyes. The smell of cherry blossoms is the first thing that hits you when you open the bag, which is saying something, since potato chips have a fairly strong smell of their own. I tasted a crisp and was pleased to find that the cloying sweetness I’d disliked in my first honey butter experience was dampened significantly by a gentle floral tartness. I became extremely curious at this point. So many of the things I’d tasted had been more tart than floral, and I’d just been assuming it was a matter of artificial flavors, but this was made with real flowers!
4.5 stars

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The Last Word on Cherry Blossom Flavor:

I looked it up, because that’s me. I found that in Japan, there’s an ages old culinary tradition of salt pickling cherry blossoms in plum vinegar. But, Haitai Corp. was very clear about the Korean origin of the flowers they used (equally proud of the French origin of the butter they use, by the way). I broke down and worked on translating the package and ingredients list to try and get more information, but all I could gather was that it’s domestic Korean flowers and not artificial flavors.

My only conclusion is that cherry blossoms are actually tart in taste. This explains why every cherry blossom treat I tried was either a little sour or way too sweet. The flavor has to be treated more like lemon or green plum in contrast to sweeter flowers like jasmine or lavender. Considering how many times I was surprised by sourness, maybe I ate a lot more real cherry blossoms this year than I realized.

Happy spring and happy snacking!

Hello Bohol: Food

My food post has expanded into two more bite-sized posts. In this one, I take a look at the everyday eats, markets, convenience stores, roadside chicken stands, unique food experiences, and lower cost restaurants. Just because it’s not gourmet doesn’t mean it’s not delicious! Interesting foods discovered include: not-milk but still dairy “fresh”, the lakatan banana, mulungway, water buffalo ice-cream, and maja blanca. Hope you’re hungry!


Don’t Drink the Milk

After discovering our limited food options upon arrival, I asked my trip buddy to stop at a store on the way from the airport. The taxi had to take her to a store on Bohol, because there is not a single “grocery store” on the island of Panglao. There are a plethora of tiny marts and open air markets, however. The next morning at breakfast, I noticed that the milk tasted a little odd. Not off, just strange, and I looked at the carton to find out what was going on. It turned out that the “Fresh Milk” for sale in the store was actually a reconstituted combination of milk products. I know that in some island countries, dairy is hard to come by in liquid form, because shipping it over is expensive, so they ship in powder and reconstitute it in local factories for distribution, but this was the first time I’d actually had any. It wasn’t … bad? It just didn’t really taste like milk.

The yogurt also had a slightly terrifying list of ingredients. I’ve tried to get less picky about my food since leaving Seattle, I know lots of places aren’t going to be up to the Bo-bo standards of organic/local/minimal processing, but yogurt has been one of the foods that has more often than not been wonderful, fresh, and local when I travel. It seems despite the huge number of cows I saw on the island, the dairy industry is still a few decades behind. So, no real coffee, and no real milk products… but the seafood, the pork, and the fresh fruit are outta sight.

Markets

20171001_112654.jpgI went to the Alona Market on the first day. It was a permanent structure where things like clothes and gadgets seemed to be on sale, but there were a riot of colored tents and awnings set up outdoors as well where vendors sold everything you could need on the island. Eggs, fish, meat… the smells assured me they were fresh. Fruits and vegetables. An infinity of flip flops and heaps of clothes. Electronics, swimming gear, DVDs, decorations, and although this was clearly a market for locals, there were a few souvenir type things as well. If I were staying long term on the island and needed to cook more than breakfasts or needed to replace a t-shirt or pair of sandals, it would be a great place to know about (especially in the absence of grocery stores), but for time it was mostly a curiosity, a fun thing to see as I explored my holiday surroundings.

On the way over to Chocolate Hills, I took a rest stop at another market in Baclayon, very similar to the Alona market, and got some pastries at a little bake shop. The Bohol pastries aren’t a patch on the Korean ones, but they were fresh and good, and extremely cheap. I never bought only one, but it seemed like one could fill a bag for less than a dollar. And it was nice to have something to munch on when felt hungry. Days later I realized that the market was next to one of the many churches on my to-see list, so I ended up going there more than once.

Sari Sari

This is the basic economic unit of Bohol. They are everywhere. Tiny shacks that sell snacks, drinks, and other things a household might need. It’s almost impossible to tell if they’re open because they have bars and grates on the windows. I had been avoiding them for that reason alone. I didn’t want to stop, get off the bike, walk over, then find out they were closed and try again at the next one. I’d been stopping at larger more obvious shops for snacks and drinks but way out here, I didn’t have the option. I’m also not sure how many of these are simply a shack in someone’s front yard where they sell random stuff to their neighbors.

Post holiday research reveals that these tiny ubiquitous shacks are known as sari sari (Tagalog for “sundry”), that the bars and grating look is normal, that they are generally family owned and operated from the family property, and that they make up 70% of the sale of manufactured consumer food products and account for about 13% of the GDP. They don’t all look like the little roadside shacks, some are larger or in conjunction with other vendors in the market areas. I’m not sure how many sari-sari I shopped at while I was there, but it’s nice to know I was contributing to the local economy when I did.

La Familia

One day of island exploring we found this little gem. It was getting on in the day and the weather in Panglao is hot and humid year round, so we decided it was time to find a place for lunch. After a little bit of being lost looking for a restaurant by sight, we finally consulted Google. It turns out there are a plethora of eateries along the roadside, but it’s hard to tell which ones are convenience stores, or take-aways, or sit down eateries, or even open just by looking while you’re driving by. I love trying local shops and restaurants, but I definitely wanted a sit down place to rest after our morning adventures.

We settled on a place called La Familia on the south end, quite near the church and watchtower. It’s not gourmet, but I ate there more than once because it was good food at a reasonable price, and while not air conditioned, it was comfortable. On my first visit, I got some watermelon juice and had to ask for no sugar. I learned that in the Philippines, all fruit juice will be mixed generously with sugar unless you ask for it not to be. This drink seemed to be fresh watermelon blended with ice into a kind of slushy, and I thought it was wonderful and refreshing without the extra sweetness. I also tried a satay burger, which was a regular hamburger served with satay sauce, and instead of ketchup, the fries came with a kind of sweet chili sauce that I was skeptical of at first, but soon devoured.

The second time I went we were too exhausted and hungry to research restaurant options so we went back to La Familia, knowing it was close to the hotel, good and well priced. I was still in my “try all the Filipino food” phase and after Googling a few new words on the menu, I settled on a chicken Tinola, which is a fairly famous Filipino ginger soup and could readily give pho a run for it’s money as my go to sick soup of preference if it existed where I live. A rich bone broth infused with ginger. My only complaint was that the soup was served so hot I couldn’t just guzzle the broth. I also ordered a club sandwiches for lunch the next day out on the boat.

The third time I popped over to La Familia for a refresher and decided to give the house milkshake a try. I don’t normally go in for banana flavored things. Artificial banana flavor terrifies me and I’m picky enough about real bananas to not risk it if there are options. However, after my run in with the Latakan (explanation further down), I was feeling very optimistic about a banana based drink here in Panglao. Not just a regular banana shake, it was made with graham crumbs and a touch of cinnamon. It was delightful, light, fluffy and a great blend of that creamy banana and other flavors that made me feel like I was drinking a pie.

While I was waiting for my shake, another expat struck up a conversation. I’d almost forgotten how that worked, since this was one of the few occasions on this trip I was on my own. It seems that people in pairs or groups just don’t get approached as much, but I love meeting new people, so I joined him for a chat and learned that he was called Bob, he was from the UK, and that he ran a local bar (the Ging Ging), which I never did get to try out. We talked about how we each came to be living abroad, and then we talked about the best food around. He also shared with me the best places from which to watch the sunset which led me to my second dinner at the Pearl.

Tres Ninas

After getting more accustomed to the bike, I decided to have another stab finding a roadside food stand to take something back to the room. In this endeavor, the night was my friend since only open places were lit up. I pulled into one of the larger lit up areas at what seemed to be a cluster of shops. One was selling meat on a stick, another seemed to be a place to sit and eat with drinks, and a third was selling beautiful rotisserie chickens. In less than two days on the island, I had seen dozens of chickens wandering around. Some totally free, some bound to a tree or hutch by a length of string. Either way, I felt confident the chicken I was looking at was local and free range, with no added hormones or chemicals… it went a long way in making up for the milk.

Tres Ninas is a chain of chicken stands. The one I went to is on the circumferential road on the east side just south of South Palms, but I spotted several others by the same name around the island.

Chocolate Hills

Initially we didn’t think that lunch at a major tourist stop was a good idea. These kinds of restaurants are often over priced and not even very good. Boy howdy I’ve rarely been so happy to be wrong.

Although the service and the food were slow (this is a fact of Bohol that we eventually came to accept, it’s a good idea to get to the restaurant, any restaurant, a good while before you’re too hungry) both turned out to be of excellent quality. Our server happily recommended dishes which turned out to be wonderful. We had bam-i (a kind of noodle dish) and lechon kawali (a crispy fried pork belly), with corn soup, and I had a calamansi iced tea which was strong, sweet and tart. We ate every bite, and it was the perfect amount. The whole lunch was less than 15$ (most of our meals were between 10-15$ for two, a couple splurges were in the 20-25 range. That’s not per person, that’s the whole thing and we ate good food).

The main advantage of the slow lunch service this day was that by the time we were finishing off the last bites, the rain had passed by and the sun had returned. The restaurant has large picture windows, so we watched the progress of the dark clouds the entire time we were eating. It was interesting to see them moving by so quickly.

The Dairy Box

On the way out of the adventure park, where the bumpy dirt road hit the highway, I spotted some signs for ice cream that led us just a few meters down the road to the Dairy Box.

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After my experience with the “fresh” milk the other morning, I wasn’t sure what to expect by way of any place called the Dairy Box, but I stopped to look and discovered to my delight a local sustainable livelihood program participant. The little shop was part of a movement by the government to help local businesses flourish, and so they partnered with nearby farmers to use the milk from the water buffalo nearby. There were signs showcasing the local small farmers and inside there was a plethora of dairy based treats. The ice cream was the main focus, but there were biscuits, milk candy, and snacks as well as flavored milk, yogurt and cheeses. Ok, yes, water buffalo milk, but I assure you it was delicious.

Dumaluan Beach Resort & the Lakatan Banana

There is a little grill and cocktail bar at Dumaluan which makes it especially appealing as a lazy hangout beach. I had made jokes with my sister before going that I would be on a beach with coconut drinks, but somehow I hadn’t had a single coconut based concoction up to this point. When I ordered my simple breakfast at the grill, I also got a coconut smoothie. The breakfast was simple: egg, sausage and rice, but cheap and filling. The smoothie was very clearly made from fresh coconut.

As the day wore on and we continued to nibble on snacks, I tried the fresh fruit plate. Normally I wouldn’t dedicate pages to a fruit place, but it was my first exposure to the unique Philippine banana: the lakatan.

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What I did not know about bananas… and to be honest, I probably still barely know anything. I’m used to the standard grocery store banana: the Cavendish. This type makes up something like 95% of the world’s bananas. I have always preferred to eat bananas when they’re a bright yellow with hints of green at the edges, and no brown at all. Everyone has a preference, but in my house, when the bananas got brown spots it’s time to make banana bread. I have a decades long aversion to golden yellow and brown bananas. I do not enjoy the mushy texture or the sickly sweet flavor at that stage in a Cavendish’s life. But, I do like banana bread, so there’s that. Based on my lifetime of banana monoculture, when I saw this little yellow and brown buddy on the fruit plate I was not at all interested… until it was peeled.

My expectation of a banana, even a very ripe one, is kind of off white inside, not unlike vanilla ice cream. This banana was a much deeper shade of cream, like “french vanilla” ice cream, or even custard. The only other time I’d seen that shade in a banana-like shape was in plantains, but it was clear from the easy peel and the total lack of cooking that this was no plantain. In addition to it’s beautiful color, the flesh of the fruit was bruise free. A Cavendish banana in that stage of ripening could be expected to have a light bruise or two and be very soft, but this banana was in perfect shape and still pleasantly firm. I decided to try a taste and was rewarded with the most and best in all that is banana. It was sweet, but not too sweet, and had little hints of tartness that I crave in my slightly green Cavendishes, but with a bonus creamy texture that I feel unable to describe without referencing dairy products. Why are these amazing fruits not the market standard? Probably something about shipping or they aren’t pretty enough. *sigh. If you’re ever in the Philippines, eat them.

River Cruise Lunch & Maja Blanca

20171006_111213 - CopyIt was not the best meal I had on the trip, but everything was good and it’s a buffet so you can eat as much as you like, as long as you don’t leave food on your plate (they charge 50p for leftovers to discourage food waste).

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I had more delicious pork adobo and an assortment of veggies and side dishes, but the star of the whole show was a little square of heaven called maja blanca. I had never seen or heard of this before, but I put one on my plate anyway, guessing it was a dessert, and so saving it for the end of my meal. It was easily the most amazing coconut cream anything I’ve ever had. So plain and unassuming, it was a white square that jiggled a little, which almost made me leave it behind as I’m not a huge gelatin fan. Instead I got three more squares! It’s just a coconut pudding, it’s thickened with cornstarch instead of gelatin, and maybe that made all the difference? It may also be made with condensed milk in addition to the coconut cream, and has a little sprinkling of toasted coconut on top. 10/10 would eat again.

Nikita’s Coffee Shop and Cafe

It is listed as being Western (esp British) breakfast food, well priced, and close to Alona without being on the main drag. Perfect for an early morning breakfast on my last day.

There’s not really “breakfast food” in Korea. The Koreans eat things like kimbap, or soup and rice, and that’s fine, but sometimes you just miss the heck outta bacon and eggs. I am very nearly ashamed to admit that I get breakfast at McDonald’s here, but it’s that or bus an hour to the expat bars on the beach. Anywho, there I was, enjoying my bacon and eggs and toast and coffee. It was already the fastest restaurant service I’d experienced in Bohol, and I was well satisfied with the price and portions of the morning’s special, when a middle aged British gentleman came out to apologize to me for how long the order had taken. This was David, the owner, and I hurried to reassure him that the wait had hardly been anything at all (especially in comparison to every other restaurant in Bohol). He was only slightly mollified and it was obvious that he felt his short-staffed cafe wasn’t living up to his own personal standards.

We chatted a bit more and he asked me if I’d made it out to the “virgin island” (the name of one of the island tour stops). I hadn’t, nor had I any real plans to because my research on the island hopping tours had turned me off of that option. He then told me that a nearby church runs free shuttle boats out to the island, since it’s a religious monument, and that it was a very lovely half day trip. I was both excited to hear the news, but also a bit sad, since my day plans were already spoken for, and it was my last day. Of course I could have changed, but … well, waterfalls. Plus, I hadn’t really gotten dressed or sun screened for another boat ride that might finish cooking me. The choices we make. Nonetheless, since I also wish I’d found Nikita’s Cafe earlier in my meal options, I can heartily recommend anyone to stop by for a meal and get the details on the free church boat trip.

Be Patient, Be Kind

Every time I said please or thank you with a smile, the people serving me seemed both surprised and happy. It made me think about the way that tourists I’d seen were treating the locals in the service industry. I know in many places I’ve lived that Filipinos are 3rd class workers, given the worst jobs and little to no protections. I thought of the woman I met in the Madina airport, of the nurses in Saudi hospitals who were getting yelled at for doing their jobs. Of the men who do back breaking labor and live in curfew controlled dorms and the women who clean rich people’s homes while trying not to get raped by their teenage sons (or grown fathers). Even expat restaurant owners were being treated with a level of ingratitude by the tourists here, and the locals had it worse, but no one could complain or stop serving because their livelihood depends on visitors.

I try my best to be gracious and polite wherever I can, but it struck me that here in the Philippines, my pleases and thank yous were really truly appreciated by people who were so often being at best tersely given orders and at worst being yelled at or demeaned. I did not find anyone here to be lazy, rude, or anything less than gracious and helpful. There’s no excuse for the way they are treated. Follow the golden rule, be patient, be kind, and enjoy some of the warmest people and best food you can find.


Panglao has an amazing array of food, including gourmet quality restaurants with very low price tags. In part two of Bohol: Food, I’ve compiled all the fancier restaurants I visited, but don’t worry, the dress code is still beach casual. 

Golden Week: Jindo Miracle Sea Parting, Beoseong & Staycations?

The beginning of May where holidays like Labor Day, Buddha’s Day, and Children’s day come close is often referred to as Golden week because of all the days off work/school together. Last year, I got a long weekend and went to the Namhae Anchovy Festival and Taean Tulip Festival. Spring is the time of endless festivals in Korea, and last year I wasn’t able to catch them all. This has been a chance for me to go back and get the highlights I missed last time. Of course the Daegu Lanterns were a part of that, but I also finally made it to the “miraculous” sea parting at Jindo in time to walk across the narrow land bridge that leads to the island of Modo (jokingly now referred to as Mordor after the LOTR movies because the Korean pronunciation is so similar).


Busan to JindoWe set off from Busan (blue dot) in the morning to drive all the way across the southern end of the Korean peninsula to Jindo (red dot). Although Korea is small compared to, say, the US, it was still almost 5 hours of driving with the occasional pit stop. (By the way, in case you’re curious, you can see Daegu on this map as well).  Fortunately, I went with a tour group (my stand by Enjoy Korea) and the bus ride was comfortable. I even got mostly through a Vonnegut audiobook, which is the only way I can consume books on a bus.

The Festival & Traditions

We arrived at the tiny festival grounds in the early afternoon and had the chance to wander around, take in the sights and enjoy the beach. The weather was lovely, and we spent about an hour just sitting in the grass above the sea enjoying some 막걸리 (makgeoli). Although many Korean festivals now have a sameness about them to me, it’s become something to look forward to rather than to be curious about. Favorite festival foods that are hard to find elsewhere, like 동동주 (dong dong ju) or fresh 해물파전 (seafood pajeon). I couldn’t find anyone selling 동동주 in Jindo. Vendors there insisted it was the same as 막걸리, but I didn’t believe them, and did more research. If you’re curious, this blog does a great English language explanation of the two. Koreans also love to invite international vendors to even the smallest festival, and this was no exception. I saw booths selling food from at least 10 other countries, including one doing the cumin spiced mutton skewers from China that I love so much.

20170429_152224The Jindo festival had at least one feature I’ve never seen before: a traditional Korean wrestling ring. A pile of sand was placed in a large circle where two contestants could wrestle in the traditional style. 씨름 (ssireum) is Korea’s wrestling, just like sumo is Japan’s. Each wrestler had a sash of cloth wrapped in a specific pattern around their waist and one thigh. The wrestlers would kneel and lean in to each other for a moment before the bout started to give them a chance to get a good firm grip on the cloth. Then they would stand up together and the referee would call start, whereupon they attempted to dump their opponent in the sand. The holds never changed. Each wrestler maintained their grip on the sashes at the designated waist and thigh position. Working to topple the proponent meant pulling and pushing and moving the center of gravity around. It was different from any other style of wrestling I’ve ever seen. Both men and women participated, though not against each other.

Cultural appropriation or good old fun?

There was also a “festival of color”, similar to Holi Hai. Only, unlike the one at Haeundae beach which was held by the Indian expat community in honor of their holy day, this was a totally Korean run secular affair. I start getting really tangled up in cultural appropriation when two post-colonial cultures are involved. I suspect the Koreans had no real idea about the religious significance and just thought it would attract more tourists. In the end, the only people covered in colored powders were young, party-driven Westerners. As far as I can tell, a group of Koreans cottoned on to the fact that white kids like this dancing with colored powder thing and did it for the fun and the money.

20170429_172837Even more bizarrely, after the color throwing was over, the festival organizers gave each participant a “toga” to wear. The togas were long white robes with red sashes that could have evoked a Roman senate or Jesus. Considering we were about to “part the seas” it was hard not to see it with Judeo-Christian overtones, but the rather drunk person I asked about it just said “toga party!” The entire thing seemed like the festival organizers were trying to find a way to appeal to the expat crowd. I’m glad they had fun, but I would have preferred some more traditional activities, like someone to teach us about collecting clams and seaweed the way the locals were doing as the tide went out. It’s hard to go do local culture festivals when the locals are busy trying to white-wash everything for cash.

The Magic Math of Tides

20170429_175222Finally, the real “reason for the season” was upon us and we muddled our way down the road to the rainbow steps beneath the watchful eye of the grandmother and the tiger. We paused at a bench to don our thigh high rubber boots and got some advice from the locals on how to attach the rubber garters through belt loops to hold up the boots, or failing that, to wrap them tight around our thighs and snap them in place. Thus clad in bright orange and yellow wellies, we made our way down the steps and into the shallow tide pools to wait for the tide to recede.

ModoIf you look at the area on Google Maps you will simply see the beach and the islands, but on Korea’s own Naver Maps, there is a thin line connecting the rainbow steps to the island of Modo. Although this path is only usable twice a year (at most), the Korean map makers consider it important enough to draw in.

The effect is caused by an extreme low tide. Tides are caused by the relative position of the Earth, Moon and Sun and are fairly regular and predictable because astronomy is math. Despite this, I heard no less than five people declare knowingly that “no one could predict” when the low tide would occur. I guess these are the same body of “no ones” that could have known health care is complicated? Science education is important, people. In fact, here’s some now. This cute little website does a basic introduction to tidal prediction methods, with pictures and everything.

laplaceThe history of tidal prediction starts with Kepler (total nobody) in 1609 to theorize that the moon’s gravity caused the ocean tides. He was followed by other such no-ones as Galileo and Newton. It was in 1776 that the first big complex equations came from a man called Laplace. Harmonic analysis was added in the 1860s and polished off by 1921 in the form that Navies all over the world still use today. Although the math hasn’t changed in almost a hundred years, computers make the math easier and the information more widespread so now instead of just ships in harbor– surfers, beachcombers, and clam hunters can go online to see the local low and high tides at their favorite beach.

Tidal harmonics are the reason why low tide gets extra low once or twice a year (if someone reading this is a scientist with a better way of explaining it, PLEASE chime in) All the different factors that affect tides are like a ‘lil wave pattern (think sound amplitude). When the ups and downs of different factors are opposite, they can cancel each other out, but when they align, they can magnify the effect. Because they’re all beating at different tempos, they interact differently over a cycle (year), but in a totally mathematically predictable way, line up all at once and create this “super tide”. Thus it is that the seas part, and we can walk over to the island. Sufficiently advanced math really is indistinguishable from magic.

The Legend of the Tigers

20170429_180517On a more mystical note, the local legend of the tigers explains why there’s a statue of a grandmother and a tiger overlooking the sea. Long long ago, the villagers who lived on Jindo were plagued by man-eating tigers. The whole village packed up and sailed over to the neighboring island of Modo to escape the threat, but one woman was left behind. The woman was Grandmother Bbyong, and she prayed to the Dragon King, the god of the sea, to help her. Finally the Dragon King came to her in a dream and told her he would build a rainbow brigde across the sea for her.  The next day when Bbyong went down to the sea, the waters parted to let her cross and her family came out from Modo to meet her. This also explains the rainbow stairs that lead down to the landbridge, but not why her family couldn’t have just sailed back for her in the first place.

Walk on the Ocean

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Finally, the event saftey team declared it was safe to head out into the water and we began to wade as a huge human conga-line through the shallow waves. I’m told that in some years, the bridge rises completely above the water, and indeed the most famous picture used in every promotional website in Korea is one of a wide and distinct stone pathway through the sea. My experience was a bit more damp.

20170429_183234While math can now easily tell us the time of the lowest tides, it does not yet advance to tell us what the actual lowest level of the water will be. Not that it couldn’t, but there are more variables involved, so it’s not a thing now. While we can say with certainty, the lowest tide of the year on this beach will occur at 18:38 on April 29 (or whatever), we can’t say for sure if that will expose the land bridge or simply be lower than every other tide around it.

20170429_185231We tromped along the path, watching parasailers overhead and rainbow colored lanterns being released in to the air from the beach behind us. It was clear the path was quite narrow because going too far from the group to one side or the other to get a picture resulted in a severe deepening of water level. At the time, my friends and I theorized it might be man-made, or at least man-maintained, however, I have since then found that the build up of rock and sand in this twisty line is a natural result of the currents around the islands.

20170429_184104Before long the golden light of the sunset combined with the swish-swishing of hundreds of feet through water to create a trance-like state. I could not judge how far the island was, nor tell which way the path twisted. The rocks below us rose and fell, bringing the waves treacherously close to the top of my boots and then back down to barely splash over my toes. The whole path is nearly 3km long. I suspect a determined person could make it out to the island and back in the hour or so the path is clear to walk, but I wasn’t racing, and soon we were greeted by the sounds of Korean drums and the distant flags waving as the procession from Modo came out to greet us.

Get Back

Tides are bonkers. When we went to Thor’s Well in Oregon, we had to check the tide charts to see the show, yet practically had to run to get back when the tide turned on us. In New Zealand, my lovely soak in the hot water beach went from peaceful to sea-soaked in minutes. Once the tide is returning, there is not a lot of time to get out of the way before the ocean reclaims what is hers. We had been told, when the big parade starts heading back to Jindo, go with them or you’ll be swimming back.

20170429_191328The walk outward had been slow, trepedatious, as though we were nervous the land could drop away at any moment, but the trip back was much more celebratory as well as much more damp. The parade of drum bangers, cymbal crashers, gong ringers and flag bearers danced merrily in their traditional garb, urging us all back to the larger island of Jindo. Our pace quickened and our legs swung to the rhythm causing much larger splashes. Waves came in from both sides of the path making us nervous, but excited. The water finally breached the top of my boots and sent an icy chill down my shins, but I found I did not mind.

By the time we returned to land, the sun was long gone and we picked our way up the tidal flats to the main road by the bright halogen lights of the festival. Desptite wet knees and sore legs, I felt elated. Participating in huge group rituals does interesting things to the human brain, but a big one is bonding. It raises hormones like oxytocin and dopamine which make you feel good about life and the people around you. I especially like doing them in huge anonymous groups because it fills me with the love and connectedness but there’s no social group to attach it to, so I get this big whole-world love.

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We doffed our boots and made our weary way back to the buses, pausing long enough to scrounge some dinner. Practically everyone fell asleep on the bus ride to our hotel, and I don’t think I stayed concious more than a few minutes after laying down on my little floor mat, content and sleepy and looking forward to the next day’s adventure.

Jimjilbang

Why every white-anglo blogger I’ve read is scared of these is a giant tragedy. I’d say mystery, but I think I understand it. They are terrified of nudity. Prudish Victorian and Puritanical values passed down from our anglo ancestors have made us associate all nudity with sex, which is itself an activity with much shame, blame and whispered scandal about it. But, oh my god, strangers (of the same gender) might see my naked body in a non-sexual context while they are equally naked… this is scary to the anglo-mind.

I too held this prohibition for part of my life. Theater and dance classes took some away, because you can only be so modest while changing in the dressing room. At some time, I fell in with a group of rabid exhibitionists in St. Louis who were often non-sexually naked around each other. I went to public hot springs in the mountains of Washington where total strangers stripped down to soak, but it was never awkward. Over many years of various levels of friendships, intimate relationships, and gym memberships in multi-cultural parts of town, I eventually unhooked my nakedness=sexuality link and can now comfortably enjoy the jimjilbang experience.

This particular morning, at 7am, I headed downstairs to get a bracing shower and some good soaking in after my muscle straining ocean walk and never-as-fun-as-it-looks sleeping on the floor. After washing up in the shower, I got into the mid-warm pool and enjoyed the hard water massages to pound out my stiff back. I graduated up in heat until I was able to get into the super hot pool which was made of an herbal infusion that turned the water a deep smokey topaz black. For the next hour, I bounced between the super hot and super cold, bringing all the inflammation in my unhappy muscles back down and getting me all set for the next adventure. Why anyone would let a little nudity interfere with such glorious bathing, I will never know.

Boseong and the Green Tea

I visited Boseong last winter for a midwinter lights festival. We spent some time in the green tea fields and I was surprised at the time how beautiful they were, even in the bleak austerity of winter. Now at the end of April, I had the chance to see the fields in their spring colors.

20170430_115224Before heading to the fields, we walked up a long road past the area of the light festival where a few wire frames from reindeer and dragons could still be seen. The road up the hill was painted with fun perspective illustrations of a stream, complete with little camera icons to show the best places to stand to see the visual effect. Optical illusions are fun.

20170430_105220At the top of the hill, far beyond the little pagoda that had marked the highest point of the lights, we finally came upon the green tea museum where we were treated to a special showing of the Korean green tea ceremony (complete with English translation by our awesome guide). The ceremony involves a process of several containers: a water pot, a cooling bowl, a tea pot, and the drinking cup. The hot water pot is filled with boiling water, which is then poured into the bowl, and from the bowl into the tea pot and finally into the cups. The instruments are warmed up in this way. Then more boiling water is poured into the cooling bowl. Tea leaves are scooped into the warm but empty tea pot and the ideal temperature water is poured from the bowl over the leaves. While the tea steeps, each cup is emptied of it’s hot water into another bowl on the floor and wiped dry on the outside. The tea is then poured into the pre-warmed cups by pouring only a half a portion into each and the other half in reverse order on the way back. The tea is then served, 4 cups to the guest and one to the host.

20170430_110142The hostess tried to tell us a bit about green tea, red tea and black tea but her translated explainations seemed off to me, since she said it had to do with the age of the leaf when it was picked from the plant. I don’t know if this was her or the translation, but the real story follows: In any country with Chinese roots in it’s culture and language, the three colors of tea are a bit different in meaning that in the West. Red tea is not Rooibos, in fact all three come from the same plant. And it’s not the age of the leaf at picking that determines the difference, but rather the post picking, pre-drying process. (although especially young and tender tea leaves are sometimes referred to as “monkey picked” and do make a delightful tea).

Green tea is picked, cut and dried. It doesn’t stay fresh long (no more than 2 years) so don’t let it sit around in your cupboard forever. 紅茶 Red tea is how Chinese and their linguistic relatives refer to what the British call “black tea” (confusing, yeah?). It is also picked from the same tea plant and cut, but then it is oxidized, which I am not going to try to explain the chemical process of, but you’ve all seen it because rust is what happens when iron oxidizes. Red tea is what happens when tea oxidizes. When the desired level of oxidation is achieved, the tea is dried and the oxidation stops in the absence of moisture. This is your standard English teatime tea and when stored properly stays good for a loooong time (making it ideal for trade and trans continental shipping in the days before FedEx). 黑茶 Black tea is fermented or post-fermented tea that is both oxidized and fermented over a period of months or even years. Pu-erh is the most widely known of these. There is a lot more about tea, but I’m stopping here.

20170430_130215After we conducted our own tea ceremonies, I drifted lazily back down the hill, examining the spring flowers and the grounds that had been lit up beautifully last December. When I finally got back to the tea fields, I took off on the same route I’d walked before and was happily greeted by many blooming apple trees and a small army of busy bees who were so focused on the brief blossoms that they paid no mind to all the humans fussing around. In fact, I think it was the only time I’ve seen Koreans in the presence of a bee not totally freaking out. I guess the selfie with the tree is worth it.

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The tea fields were much more crowded than in the winter, but people were still fairly polite about taking turns at the best view spots. One kind man noticed I had been framing up a photo of an especially stunning tree with the tea as a background when some more photo seekers stepped in front of me. I had been prepared to simply wait them out, but the gentleman spoke to them in Korean and pointed out they were in my way. 감사합니다!

20170430_131911In addition to the blooming fruit trees, there were cascades of purple flowers covering the rocks wherever tea was not growing. It made the whole place feel like a still frame of a rushing river in shades of pink, purple and green. Besides the tourists, there were also tea pickers at work. Each ajuma looking lady had her sun guards on, gloves and a mesh basket to place the leaves. They were not picking the bushes bare, but selecting only some growth. It seemed to me to be the newer, brighter green leaves that they were after, but I couldn’t tell for sure. In the age of automation it was strange to see people picking by hand. I know that it’s still the way for many crops in the world, but sometimes it gets driven home that there’s a human on the other end of my tea or strawberries or carrots, and then I’m carried off by sociological musings on how we came to value people who sit at desks manipulating imaginary money so much more than people who make our food.

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Speaking of food

green-tea-noodles

photo credit: honjatravel

Of course I had to go back to the everything green tea cafe. It was a warm day, and walking for hours in the sun (even with my sunbrella) meant that I was all set to try some cold green tea noodles. Cold noodle soup is one of the best ways to survive the summer in Korea because it’s served with chunks of ice floating in the broth along with the filling noodles and crisp pickled veggies. I managed to pick up a lunch companion from a whole other tour group, too. Boseong was a target of opportunity following the Jindo festival, so multiple tour agencies were out in force.

I pilfered the gift shop for more green tea latte packets that had gone over well as gifts then impulse purchased a bag of green tea caramels to share with my co-teachers too. I think they remind me more of green tea salt water taffy than caramel, but still delicious.

My last treat was over at the ice cream shop. No visit is complete without some green tea ice cream, but this time I opted for the green tea affogato. I have to admit, I did not know what an affogato was before I came to Korea. I guess it’s just not popular in the parts of the US I lived, and I’ve never been to Italy. But it is on the menu of nearly every cafe in Korea. In case you, like me, spent your life in an affogato black hole, it’s a scoop of vanilla gelato (or ice cream) topped with espresso. Yum!

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photo credit: Annemone

I somehow expected the green tea affogato to be vanilla or green tea ice cream topped with a shot of green tea. Makes sense? Not what happened. It was green tea ice cream topped with espresso. Don’t make an ick face. It was insanely delicious. Even one South African girl who hated green tea said that it was nice. I’ve had the tea/coffee blended drink that’s popular in Asia and enjoyed it, so it shouldn’t surprise me that this was delightful, too. Now I’m on the hunt to bring home some green tea ice cream and some espresso to reproduce the experience.

On the way back, I discovered my unintentional link to @shmaymee and her art, bringing the whole weekend around into one small world ride of awesome fun.

Golden Week

This beautiful conflagration of holidays that resulted in me only working 2 days out of 10 during the end of April/beginning of May was the first time in over a year that I spent any real time off just relaxing at home. Of course, some weekends I don’t make it out on an adventure, and some adventures are just going down to the beach for a market or karaoke night. I’m not a non-stop sightseeing extravaganza, but I realized I haven’t had more than one day in a row of slothing at home in over a year. I pounded thru the entire Magician’s trilogy, fixed my friend’s computer, celebrated another friend’s birthday, watched the new Guardians movie and finished Iron Fist. I can’t say I want to binge watch Netflix and read fantasy trilogies with all my free time, but it felt good. I love traveling, but if my latest trip to Thailand taught me anything it’s that rest is important too. Even when my job is easy, it’s not restful and even when my adventures are amazing (or perhaps especially when they are amazing), they are not restful.

Life can be full of wonder or dull as dirt almost no matter where you live (I admit it’s easier to be wonderful when you live in someplace like Busan as opposed to any small town where Wal-Mart is the most interesting store), but I’ve seen so many expats who go abroad and after a year or less they become blasé, falling into habits of the same bar, same hobbies, same expat friends, and no more magic about the experience of living abroad. I saw those people from the very first time I went out and I could NOT understand how it happens. I fought against it and fought hard. I didn’t join the expat gaming group or theater troupe, I spent at least one weekend a month but usually more going out and doing something unique. I sometimes wore myself out doing that. And while I still don’t want to become one of the blasé, I think I’ve come to peace with the idea of a middle ground. So, maybe once or twice a year, in addition to my big out of town adventures, I can have an around the house staycation, too.


Yesterday was the first instance of air conditioning on the bus this year. It heralds the end of so brief spring and the beginning of … the Hot. It will probably be ok for another month, but soon, too soon, the summer will be upon us. Hopefully I’ll get in a few more good adventures before the heat becomes unbearable, but I have at least finally purchased my tickets for the Philippines this October. Whatever else happens, I have that to look forward to. In the mean time, I’ll be pumping out some more of the Malay adventures as the emotional and experiential roller coaster gets revved for some serious ups and downs. Don’t forget to check out all the photos from Jindo and Boseong. Thanks for reading!