Saturday, May 23, 2015

Reasons you should visit Japan this year

1. Logistics:

From Australia, Japan is very easy to get to. The flight time from Sydney is less than driving Sydney to Brisbane. The best flight out is QF21, which leaves in the evening and gets you in to Narita (Tokyo) at about 6am. I'm not a fan of Jetstar so, as far as possible, we fly into Narita on Qantas. Even though we are usually heading to Osaka, where the Jetstar flights arrive, I would prefer to take the Shinkansen on arrival rather than sit in Cairns for 3 hours... Full disclosure, we are usually travelling on staff travel, but it doesn't change my choice. If I were paying real ticket prices, I wouldn't hesitate to fly with JAL (have done in the past), or ANA. 

 It's so, so easy to get around once you're there. Usually we get a JR Pass, but when you cost things out individually, there's probably not a huge advantage unless you plan to take a lot of shinkansen trips. The trains run on time, and even if you're heading deep into the middle of nowhere, the logistics are easy. We visited Kamikochi last year and I was so nervous about the train and bus connections, but it was seamless.
Kamikochi express from Matsumoto
Hotel rooms are tiny, but immaculate. And for a comparable business-style hotel, chains like Dormy Inn and Toyoko Inn are much, much cheaper than in Australia. Plus, depending on where you are, many of them have an onsen. In three days while we were in Nagano, I went onsen-mad, and had 5 baths in a 36-hour window. It was amazing, and I have never been more clean or chilled out. 

Plus, so many cities have public bicycle hire (not necessarily designed for people who are 5ft7, but still...)
Public green bikes "machi-nori" - Kanazawa
Chauffeur red bikes "dog bikes" - Okayama

2. Nature, scenery, generally awesome things:

It's absolutely beautiful once you head out of the cities. I mean, the city has its charm, but given the chance, I would much rather soak my toes in a public footbath, breathing in some crisp mountain air. 

Yudanaka - Nagano Prefecture
There is nothing nicer, NOTHING, than soaking your feet in super hot, super clean spring water after you have been walking all day. It even feels nice to put your boots back on because your skin goes all tingly and fresh. More. I want MORE. 

There are unexpectedly wonderful things tucked in pockets and corners. It could be nature, it could be the built world, it doesn't really matter, there will be something to see anywhere you go. 

Ojizō-sama - Yudanaka
Komainu (狛犬・胡麻犬) - Osaka
Yayoi Kusama's "The Visionary Flowers" - Matsumoto
上高地, Kamikōchi - Nagano Prefecture
Jigokudani Monkey Park 地獄谷野猿公苑 - Nagano Prefecture
厳島神社 Itsukushima-jinja - Miyajima (World Heritage Site)
大仏 Daibutsu - Kamakura
Kinkaku-ji 金閣寺The Golden Pavilion - Kyoto (World Heritage Site)
Some autumn leaves - Jigokudani - Nagano Prefecture
Jigokudani Monkey Park 地獄谷野猿公苑 - Nagano Prefecture
Kenroku-en 兼六園, Six Attributes Garden - Kanazawa 

Kiyomizu-dera 清水寺 Kyoto (World Heritage Site) - and some high school students on an excursion... on a Saturday... posing with a professional photographer!
Kiyomizu-dera 清水寺 Kyoto 
上高地, Kamikōchi - Nagano Prefecture
And there's so much room for activities!

Experiencing craft - Hida Takayama Craft Experience Center. Right up the road from Hida Takayama Teddy Bear Eco Village. What could be wrong?
Bizen Pottery Craft Center - inside a castle - Okayama

3. Eating

The food is never boring, although as a somewhat cautious eater, I've had a few too many accidental encounters with chicken ass and various things with very odd textures than I care to recall. Never eat oden. 

Negima Yakitori - the most delicious of the yakitori (chicken ass, and chicken gizzard being the least delicious...) - I think this place was in Shinsaibashi. Wherever it was, the food was so yummy that we had dinner there two nights in a row.
Daikichi - somewhere in Osaka
Beef tongue - Matsumoto
At least it's always beautifully presented... - Ryokan Biyunoyado - Yadanaka
Okonomiyaki - Osaka 
We are spoiled because we have friends in Osaka who indulge our love of sukiyaki, every single time. 
I've never quite understood why people complain that Japan is expensive. The food is excellent and super cheap, unless you want to eat in fancy hotel restaurants, but why bother when everything else is so delicious. Even Wagyu and Hida beef can be found for reasonable prices, but you just have to remember that it's quality over quantity. And when you eat really high quality Japanese beef, any concern you felt about the price will melt just as smoothly as marbled wagyu fat.

4. Summary

You should visit Japan. If not this year, then at least once in your life. Soon. But don't be surprised if you find that once it not enough. 

Monday, March 30, 2015

Some people never learn

Looking back through a scrap book from 2007, I came across the following annotation: 'note to self - if you cycle 50 km in a day, your ass will never forgive you'. 

Self! Why did you not remind me of that note before I undertook an ill-advised 55 km bike ride last week, without the aid of padded pants?!  WHY. 

In 2007, we set out on 3-speed cruisers, sans helmet and possibly wearing sandals, with a sandwich each and a plan to keep riding until we felt like turning around. On the flat, sunny Swedish island Gotland, we made it 50 km without a care in the world. We picnicked in the shade of an old church and collected fossilised coral on a pristine white rocky beach. It was tranquil. I distinctly recall cycling along a narrow road, the yellow fields of stretching out as far as we could see, and we kept shouting back at each other, "it's just SO BEAUTIFUL".

That's why I thought that the 55 km final stage of New Zealand's Alps to Ocean (the A2O for those who talk the talk), Duntroon to Oamaru, would be ok. I mean, I'd done a ride that big before. And we are of intermediate fitness. We ride to the beach on the weekends. 

A family friend who complete the entire 312 km ride a couple of weeks earlier said of stage 8, "it's.... interesting". Stupidly, I assumed he meant the scenery. Of course, the scenery was amazing, but taken as a whole, 7.5 hours of riding into a strong headwind, most often through a trail surface best described as 'large white rocks and pebbles mixed with sand and molasses', sweet jeebus that was difficult. Interesting, to say the least. 

We forgot the map, which was fine in the sense that the A2O is very well sign-posted throughout, but the challenging nature of the trail surface, combined with the fact that huge tracts of stage 8 are up hill, we had no idea how fast we were moving, and accordingly, no clue how far we had to go. At lunchtime we glimpsed, on the very far-off horizon, the ocean, and the knowledge that we were supposed to meet it before dawn the following morning was almost enough to do me in. 

At that point, my quads were already super fatigued and my sitting bones were screaming. The track was so bumpy in places that my Fitbit registered 22,000 steps.

When a farmer who stopped to ask if we were lost, on learning that we were headed for Oamaru, stated in wonder, "You're gonna get there before nightfall? He hehe hehehe..." I was tempted to throw myself in the back of his ute with the dogs and beg him to take us home. In fact, later, on joining a main-ish farm road, we were passed by many 4WDs and utes, and I began to fantasise that one of them would take pity on us, pull over, and drive us to Oamaru. I even figured out how they would fit two large mountain bikes in the back cab of a 4WD as well as two people.

The nice lady who we passed at the 6.5 hour mark noted, rightly, that it was hard going with the wind. In fact, the wind was so strong at that point that, on a steep section of sealed road, we had to pedal. Down hill.
When I gasped at her, "How much further until the ocean?" she replied, "Not far, about 10're almost there, but there's a bit of a climb coming, and then it undulates a bit". She was lying about the distance but not about the elevation.

Anyway, we made it. We ate wood-fired pizza and drank excellent beer at Scott's Brewing Co. The lovely motel where we stayed, Highfield Mews, had a large spa bath in which I almost fell asleep. There was a sense of achievement. And although the next day was spent largely in the car, both of us exclaimed loudly anytime any kind of sitting, or change of seated position, was required.

Did it. Never need to do it again. 

Sunday, March 08, 2015

Friendship and a wedding.

I went to a wedding recently which was also attended by a group of my most wonderful friends from school. It really drove home how lonely I sometimes feel in this big anonymous city. And also how awesome my friends are.

But the point of this is not to be maudlin, it is simply to share some lovely photos.

The church pews all had a little glass bottle with a freesia and a white lisianthus
I loved the flowers so, so much! The bouquets had garden roses, freesias, hypericum berries, lisianthus and little daisies. I think the purple filler is limonium....could be very wrong though!

There were little pots of honey to take home. I saw a number of people take multiples...
The reception was low key, with little bottles and mason jars, and paper garlands strung up all around. 

The cake was made by the mother of the bride (and maybe the groom too,  I wasn't quite sure), and was simple but very pretty. One layer was some kind of chocolate and the other white chocolate and citrus. Usually I'm not a fan of white chocolate, but this one was something else, especially mixed with cream cheese buttercream. 
Yup. Awesome. 

Saturday, March 07, 2015

On hobbies. Particularly, sewing.

I love sewing, mainly because my ego gets really inflated when someone compliments me on my outfit and I'm like, "oh... this, yah, I made big deal", and then the person is incredibly impressed at my amazing skills and general awesomeness.  Like I said, no big deal.

But at some point in the last couple of years, like many other things, my hobby fell by the wayside.

I can identify a number of major factors in the demise:
  1. Every time I would sew something, I would follow the pattern measurements to a tee, and so if the pattern said I was a 18, I would cut am 18, vanity sizing be damned. Every single damn thing I made was too big. You know what, fuck vogue and McCall patterns, their sizing is a lie. Don't trust the measurements! *
  2. I am lazy. And I procrastinate. It's hard to justify sewing on the weekend when you have a 5000 word essay to write from scratch due on Monday. 
  3. I was getting progressively fatter, and I didn't want the sizing to be an actual accurate reflection.... 
  4. Sometimes you just have to spend the weekend watching a season of Friday night lights or the west wing. 
  5. Mental health greatly impacts upon my ability to get out of bed on the weekend. And it's hard to sew from underneath a blanket. 
  6. Clutter. Fuck loads of it. I need someone to come to my house and throw things out. All of the things. 
As a consequence of my hiatus, when I pulled my sewing machine out last weekend to alter a shirt which is now too big, it was covered in dusty grime. I cleaned that shit off, but now I feel like a bad person because everyone knows that dust inside a sewing machine can only mean certain death. Something like that, anyway.

Also, I always take shortcuts when I'm sewing and so made the darts in the shirt too deep. Consequently, it still doesn't fit because now it's too small. It's slippery fabric, so I figure it will be easier to loose 2 more kg than unpick it and start again.

I have some time to burn this weekend, and some readings I need to be doing, so...Behold, I made cover for my Janome DC2050. It's the most popular entry level Janome model, apparently. One of the ways they make it affordable is to not include a cover...
Some advice: buy packs of patterned tea towels from Bed Bath n Table. They have so many great patterns, and at easter, their range of rabbit themed napery is so vast it is almost overwhelming. You can use all of those adorable rabbit-themed pieces of fabric to sew rabbit-themed assorted fantastic objects. Some of the tea towels are pre-embroidered, so if you sew something using the decorated bit (see above, and below), it will appear that you are especially skilled and crafty.

This cover was supposed to have a little opening in the top for access to the carry handle. I measured, and traced, and drew up a pattern. But somehow I totally, completely fucked up the measurements anyway. So it's just a cover. Nothing fancy. It's not quilted or anything (I saw some really fancy patterns on the interwebs) because its primary purpose is to look good and stop dusty grime from getting in the innards.

Perhaps next weekend I will tackle something more adventurous, like a cover for my overlocker or my KitchenAid. I'm all out of TV episodes at the moment anyway. 

*I found out today, from the internets, that for American patterns such as Vogue and McCalls, you are supposed to use the upper bust measurement. My mind is blown, and I wish someone had told me that four years ago. 

Wednesday, February 11, 2015

Are you an Australian child of the 80s?

I have never had a conversation with anyone born in Australia in the 80s who is unable to complete the following sentence:

"I had the xxxx cake. "

In different offices of colleagues from very varied background, in other countries, among my older brother's friends and younger friends' siblings, the Australian Women's Weekly Birthday Cake Cookbook is a unifying factor. The tie that binds us, no matter how unlikely.

By the way, if  you attempted to fill in the blank with "rocket ship", then you are clearly lying. No one's mum made the rocket ship. You are done here*

The vintage edition of the Birthday Cake Cookbook, from a time when popcorn (rubber ducky, page 38), potato chips (rubber ducky again... no one I know ever had the rubber ducky), lime jelly crystals (the swimming pool, page 23), and a small piece of coloured cardboard (crawly caterpillar, page 46), were normal cake ingredients, has sold more than half a million copies since it was published in 1980.

 Just so we're clear, the 1980 version is the only version worth mentioning here. The updated "Kid's Birthday Cakes" is a pathetic imitation of the original. 

I definitely recall having the following cakes, many of which were made by my grandmother (with whom I share my birthday and my affinity for cake decorating:
  • Piano - 1991. I remember being so embarrassed that the party bags contained things like pens and paper clips rather than lollies.
  • Swimming pool (mum definitely made that one, because I remember it testing her patience greatly...) - I don't recall the year, but I know that my birthday party was at the Pine Forest and the jelly didn't set properly.
  • Little piggy - possibly 1990. All I remember is mum making the marshmallow flowers, which, incidentally, are super easy to make but look as though you put in a lot of effort.
  • Lucy ladybird - we camped in the back yard and my little friends were mean to me. So, you know, a normal day.
  • Maypole - my grandmother made this one, and we were at our now-defunct beach house. She used little tiny people and wrapped them in ribbon for clothes. I don't think my cake was covered in green-dyed coconut grass though.
  • Dolly Varden - could have been 1992. My party was in the garage. The cake was piped all over, like the icecream version and dancing girl, and came complete with dismembered doll. The doll body must have been covered in fondant or royal icing, because I remember gnawing the hard icing off after the fact.
My brother and I attempted to recreate the magic for my nephew's 1st birthday. You need a very big cake board...

Hilariously, my brother thought that it would be possible to ice the thing with a sort of foodie ganache which was liquid, because they wanted to avoid "that sickly-sweet butter cream". Hah. Hahahaha. The structural integrity of these things depends on butter cream.

Yup. Nailed it.

*Originally I asserted that no one's mum made the castle, but my over-achieving colleague informed me that in fact, her mum made the castle and that "it's not that hard". It is, after all, made of a square cake with some upturned ice-cream cones.... to my 10-year-old self, the magic seemed much greater...