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Today was quiet by design. I have been exhausted and feeling run down the last few days. I went to bed early and got up around 730. I ate a quick breakfast of yogurt and Japanese “granola.” I went to the gym to run for a bit, did what lifting I could. A hotel with a gym is a luxury in Japan, we are staying in a very nice hotel, but the gym is very small. There are a three treadmills, a two bikes, and two ellipticals. A machine for bench pressing, a machine for leg extensions, and an ab machine.
After showering, packing up, and checking out, we walked around downtown Utsunomiya a bit. We went to the main temple in town, which has a huge set of stairs leading up to the top. There were several vendors and people looking for donations in the square down below. There was an animal rescue organization with dogs out for people to pet. They were very friendly. I took a picture of two of them and a Japanese man came running over yelling something. I thought maybe I upset him by taking pictures, but he ran back to his bag and grabbed a pair of reindeer antlers, put them on the dog and wanted me to take a picture. Of course, I did and thanked him very much! Things in Japan always have to be dressed up and presented in some way.
We climbed up to the temple. It was small but beautiful. The temples in Japan seem to be a sanctuary for birds because they are really the only places in the city with a decent number of trees. The birds were out singing in full force since it was a warm and sunny day. We didn’t spend long at the temple, many of them are similar; if you’ve seen one, you’ve seen most. I founding it interesting/sad that even in the temple, Japan’s most sacred ground, there are vending machines. That didn’t stop me from buying my favorite lemon and honey tea.
After the temple we went to an outdoor mall with many shops, both local and chains. It was similar to Easton in Columbus, except the walk ways have a very high glass cover. We saw the usual stores selling dried goods, snacks, and clothing. One had dried octopus on a stick (bleck!), as well the tiny dried fish that were on my broccoli yesterday (gag!). I’ve been doing well with the fish smell, but I think I’ve had enough, I couldn’t take much more today. We walked around looking for a decent place to eat. I was still hoping to find a good ramen shop, but we had no luck.
In the mall, there was a woman on the street performing with a monkey. It was quite an impressive display. He acted just like a little person, walking on two legs the entire time. He pretended to listen as she whispered in his ear and then whispered back in her ear. He walked on this hands, and jumped a huge gap (a good 10 feet) between two sets of stairs. He would land on his hands and walk down the stairs.
In one of the stores, they had fresh produce in gift boxes. Some of the prices were insane. The most expensive I saw was a cantaloupe for 15,750 yen, about $189 USD! It better be one hell of a melon for that kind of price.
We ended up walking back to the train station by our hotel and going to the food court. We found an Udon noodle place that made the noodles fresh in the shop. It had a long line so we figured it would be good. I got the torotama udon – regular udon noodles, a poached egg, some type of white “dipping sauce.” I also got a piece of deep fried sweet potato and a serving of rice wrapped in seaweed. The potato and rice were both excellent. The Udon was pretty good, but I’m just not much of a soup/noodle guy.
We went back to the hotel and picked up our suitcases. From there it was back to the station to board the bullet train to Omiya. In Omiya, we transferred to Kawagoe and checked into our hotel. I spent about two hours doing Christmas shopping. We met in the hotel at 6, with plans to go to Oatman’s because we were craving burgers. Unfortunately, Oatman’s was closed for a private party. We ended at a Korean BBQ place, which was good. They had an interesting suit of classical style armor (reproduction I’m sure) on display. They gave us candy and gum after the meal, I got a piece of hard blueberry candy that was very good, and some “dry” gum. Not sure I want to find out what the “wet” gum is.
Rescued Pups looking for donations at the temple
Owner rushed over when he saw I was taking a picture
Xmas in Japan
Utsunomiya Temple Stairs
Main Gate from Top
Washing Fountain In Use
Saying a Prayer
Temples have beautiful trees
Hidden Away in a Shrine
Prayer Bell – Get the God’s Attention
Notice the Paper Lanterns
Guard Dog? Not sure why they are here
But they both wanted to play; One had ball, other stick
Even the temples have vending machines…
Would you care for some dry Octopus on a stick?
Want some fish with your nuts?
This Monkey was doing a show, see the video below.
The Monkey again
Don’t spoil your dinner with these treats
Whole Dried Fish, put them on broccoli for a lovely dish!
This is pretty cheap for strawberries and a melon!
This watermelon is 25 USD
This is a very special melon, $189 USD! A bargain!
Udon Noodle with Friend Sweet potato and rice for lunch
Today our Japanese friend took us out to Mashiko to try our hand at traditional Japanese pottery. Mashiko is an area of Japan that is famous for pottery; it is located close to the large city of Utsunomiya where we are currently staying. For breakfast, I was planning to go down to the grocery store and get some yogurt and granola, but the store did not open until 10 am. I was stuck with getting the hotel’s free breakfast. There was a choice between two Japanese breakfasts and a “western” style. One Japanese style consisted of a bake fish and a bowl of soup, the other was three different soups.
I of course opted for the western style, not being a fan of fish or Japanese soups. The western style consisted of runny scrambled eggs, three slices of salted meat (salami?), two croissant rolls, a small bowl of soup, yogurt with cornflakes, and the world’s smallest hash brown. The eggs were acceptable, but tasted like they might be powdered. The hash brown was okay, but gone in two bites. The meat was questionable; I ate one slice and declined the rest. The yogurt in Japan is very sour; if you get it make sure you mix something sweet with it. I mixed in the jam for my croissants and it was not bad. Soup was bleck.
Our friend picked us up at 10 am, and we drove to his house. The ride was enjoyable because it took us through many small parts of Utsunomiya, and into the surrounding countryside. The countryside was cool, many small old houses, winding roads, small plots of trees and bamboo, and rice patties or other fields anywhere there was usable land. Our friend’s house was large for Japanese houses, and he had a garage, which is very rare. He proudly showed us his garage filled with his toys – three motorcycles, a scooter, a snowboard, and tools. His house was beautiful from the outside; I really like the more modern architecture here. Unfortunately, we did not get to see the inside. His family (wife and three daughters) came out to meet us, and joined us for the rest of the day.
We followed our friend’s wife since her vehicle (Honda Stepwgn) had navigation. I think the Stepwgn would do very well in the US. It is a tall van/SUV style car similar to the Honda Element. We had some trouble getting to the restaurant for lunch, as no one knew exactly where it was. It was up a very large hill and our friend’s wife was worried her car would not make it. At little encouragement from her husband and we were at the top without problem. The restaurant was tucked away back in the woods. It was a very beautiful multi-level building with lots of windows and blond wood. I think my wife would have loved it.
We ordered our meal; the main dish came with a small buffet bar we were permitted to visit once. We went and filled our plates. I was excited to see tofu, real salad, and broccoli, which I love and haven’t had since leaving the states. I filled up my plate with broccoli; I was pumped. I also got some potato salad and salmon salad. Back at the table, I dug in. The potato salad was very good, the salad excellent. I dove into the broccoli, and was disappointed to notice a fishy flavor. I took another bite to make sure I didn’t get some salmon or something mixed in. Nope, definitely the broccoli. I took a closer look at it, and noticed the “shredded veggies” I thought were mixed in were actually whole tiny fish! This really freaked me out for some reason. I thought I was going to lose it at the table. I’m not sure why it freaked me out so much, the taste wasn’t that bad, just the concept of eating an entire little fish without realizing it caught me off guard. I did not want to finish the rest of my broccoli, but I had filled about half my plate with it. Childhood memories of being forced to eat scalloped potatoes flashed through my mind. I didn’t want to offend or stick out, so I forced myself to polish off the rest of it.
Our main course arrived and was beautifully presented. I was a wee bit concerned how I was going to eat a pork chop with chopsticks, but as I tried to pick up the patty it was obvious it would not be a problem. The pork chop was so tender I was able to pick it apart with my chopsticks. The meat was delicious, definitely the best pork chop I have ever had. I wish I knew how they got it so tender and perfectly cooked. There were more assorted veggies and salad with the chop, also good.
After lunch, we visited the small bakery in the restaurant. It smelled awesome. Inside I saw some muffins with mushrooms baked into the top! If I wasn’t so stuffed from lunch I would have bought one. I didn’t think to take a picture.
We left the restaurant and made our way to the pottery section of town. This was not easy task due to the small gravel winding roads. The navigation system apparently was not accurate and we ended up behind some apartments, stared at by an old woman. We made our way back out to the street and found the pottery area nearby. There was a small food market with some interesting fruits and mushrooms. I tried samples of various Japanese pickles, a Japanese pear, and a persimmon.
There was a lot of beautiful handmade pottery. Everything you could want: rice bowls, regular bowls, plates, cups, teapots, sake sets, etc. If it wasn’t impossible to get a set home without a large hassle, I definitely would have bought some. We made our way to the place that you can try your hand at Japanese style pottery. We opted to only paint some items rather than spin them ourselves due to the restricted time and cost. We had fun decorating our items, but were told we would have to wait a month to pick them up because the kiln was all backed up. Luckily, our Japanese friend will be travelling to the US in February and promised to bring them for us.
We looked around a few more shops, which had some interesting Japanese antiques and more pottery. There were tons of tanuki around! Tanuki is a type of raccoon dog, and is a symbol of either good fortune or fertility, depending on who you ask, in Japan. There are many legends associated with tanuki, he is a mythical creature that likes to play tricks on humans. He is able to shape shift and sing songs. Wikipedia says tanuki must have the following characterists:
The legendary tanuki has eight special traits that bring good fortune, possibly created to coincide to the Hachi symbol (meaning ‘eight’) often found on the sake bottles the statues hold. The eight traits are:
-a hat to be ready to protect against trouble or bad weather;
-big eyes to perceive the environment and help make good decisions;
-a sake bottle that represents virtue;
-a big tail that provides steadiness and strength until success is achieved;
-over-sized testicles that symbolize financial luck;
-a promissory note that represents trust or confidence;
-a big belly that symbolizes bold and calm decisiveness; and
-a friendly smile
Sounds just like me!
After our pottery adventure, we climbed back into the car to go back to our hotel. On the way back our friend asked if we had time to go to the game center. We did, so we stopped at his favorite place on the way back to our hotel. It was not what I was expecting. I was thinking it would be like an American arcade. It was similar, but also had slot machines, all types of claw machines, and other random games of chance. They had some cool interactive card games. Players would place their playing cards on the table and the game can sense what the card is and what properties it has; The cards are moved around to fight battles. Claw machines are very popular in Japan. They seem to be addicted to them, even though you rarely see people winning. I picked a game I knew I could win at since some of the items were hanging over the edge. I won serve pieces out of the machine, the particular one I played was for Japanese candy. When I won, a Japanese girl dressed in a “sexy Santa” costume came running over yelling and clapping for me and gave me a bag to hold my goods, and give us all high fives! The bag reads, “Caught it cause I didn’t give up on it!” In other words, I pumped all my money into the machine until I won!
For dinner, I wanted to try some authentic Japanese ramen. I asked our friend where I could find some, and he pointed out a place on the way back to the hotel. I later walked back to the restaurant. It was pretty fancy inside so I asked to see a menu before being seated. There was no ramen on the menu! I asked the host if they had ramen and he flat out said no. I guess my friend was mistaken, or I went to the wrong place.
No worries, I walked down the street and stopped in a small shop that had some decent looking dishes on the picture menu. I ordered what I thought was going to be a tofu curry. The dish was definitely not a curry, but it was good. In Japan, there is a spice used in some dishes, I do not know what it is, but has a lemon piney taste and makes your mouth tingle. This dish was very heavy on it, my I thought my tongue might run right out of my mouth by the end of the meal. It was also served with a soup, which I didn’t care for.
After dinner, I walked back to a shopping center near our hotel call La La Square. I explored the stores and didn’t find much new; many capsule machines, electronic stores, clothing, restaurants, etc. I did see some type of relaxation pod. I wish was able to ask the store workers what exactly it did. I went back to the hotel to relax for the rest of the evening, sans pod.
Japanese Western Breakfast
Our Friend’s House
Notice the Fishy Broccoli!
The beautiful restaurant
Japanese Love Boxy Cars
Me and the Giant Tanuki
I always wanted to ride a fish while reading a book
Work today involved meetings in the morning to discuss a design change, then over to the Proving Grounds for quality meeting. I didn’t get to see much of the Proving Grounds due to our schedule, but it was still interesting. I got to ride on one of the straight away tracks and see a few of the other tracks. We saw several interesting new cars driving around. On the high-speed loop we could hear an incredible machine whining through gears like nobody’s business, but were unable to get a glimpse. The entire ring is surrounded by very tall (maybe 15-20 feet?) shrubs to keep prying eyes out.
Lunch was Japanese style fried chicken chunklets again, with a cabbage salad. Today’s twist, the chicken was covered in egg salad! Different but good, but I’m sick of fried foods. There was a cabbage and seaweed soup, which was okay. A pasta salad in a mayo style sauce, some kind of greens in a vinegarish sauce, and the usual rice.
We took a taxi home from work today because the traffic looked absolutely terrible. We told the cabbie that shortcut was okay. He took us down many back roads and allies. The cabbie was probably late fifties or early sixties, however he drove like a teenager who just gotten the keys to dad’s car. We were flying around curves and darting out into traffic. He gunned the engine anytime he had the chance. I’m certain my wife would have gotten car sick had she been along for the ride. It took about 35 minutes for us to get to the hotel, probably would have taken 1.5 hours on the bus. Cost was 4930 yen (58.88 USD).
One of our native Japanese coworkers/friends promised to take us out to dinner. He picked us up at 7 in his Honda Vamos. He apologized for the small size of his car, we said it is no problem. His car is actually relatively big for a Japanese car. We three American’s fit without too much trouble, my knees were in the dash, but it was not so bad. He had a manual transmission and explained to us that Japan actually has two different licenses, one for manual and one for automatic. The automatic is what most people have because it is cheaper and easier to get.
He drove us to his favorite Okonomiyaki restaurant. Okonomiyaki is typically described as a Japanese pancake, however it is closer to an American quiche. It is similar to yakiniku in that you cook it at your table, only it is on a hot griddle instead of a coal-fired grill. He ordered us medium marbled beef and pork (which ended up similar to bacon), as well as two different types of salad, an appetizer, and two Okonomiyaki bowls.
The beef and bacon were both flavored with some type of sweet soy sauce and had an excellent flavor. Both were very succulent and we were able to cook them exactly how we wanted.
One salad was similar to western, was large leafy greens with sliced yellow peppers, and sliced diakon. I don’t typically like the diakon, however in its raw sliced form was actually pretty good. It is usually served as mush and flavored. The dressing was light and mild, I think a type of soy sauce. The second salad was a bit more interesting. It had some type of bean sprout, miscellaneous small greens, and what appeared to be pasta. Our Japanese friend would not tell us what it was until after we had tried it. We all tried it and agreed it was good (it was). Grinning like a small child who just pulled one over on mom, he told us the “pasta” in the salad was intestine; I do not know what type. Even though it was good, I couldn’t bring myself to have seconds.
For the appetizer, again he refused to tell us what it was until we all tried it. All three of us thought it should have been cooked on the griddle before eating, but he insisted no. We tried it, none of us particularly cared for it. Robert liked the taste but not the flavor, Matt and I did not like either. It was fishy, incredibly slimy, and very chewy. It was a very strange combination of slimy and chewy that did not work for me at all. I came close to spitting it out, but did not want to offend our host. I swallowed it down with some Chuhai. After we all tried it, he told us it was raw octopus, one of his favorites.
Chuhai is an alcoholic fruit drink in Japan that is made from Shochu, soda water, and fruit juice. Shochu is popular liquor drink in Japan. It is similar to vodka, except it can be made from sweet potatoes, rice, or sugar cane; sometimes it is made or mixed with fruits or other flavoring. I tried a lime Chuhai and one with a Japanese critus that I cannot recall the name. Both were very good and had not alcohol taste. One could easily drink many of them and be drunk before you know it. Later in the night I tried Shochu (served over ice) that was mixed with tantaka flavoring. I’m not sure what exactly tantaka flavor is, he told me the English translation, but I cannot remember. The taste is kind of pine like with a hint of lemon balm.
The Okonomiyaki bowls where assorted greens, rice, a raw egg, spices; one had beef and the other shrimp. He mixed the bowls up and them poured them on the griddle. He let them cook for a bit then flipped them and let them cook some more. After it was cooked he brushed on “bullfrog” sauce, I’m not sure of the exact Japanese spelling, and sprinkled them with dried fish flakes. The bullfrog sauce like a sweet American BBQ sauce crossed with a soy sauce. After he covered the pancake in fish flakes we watched them dance. The fish flakes are so lightweight that the heat from the food/griddle makes them move around and dance. It looks like your food is crawling over the griddle. It continues to do this for a few minutes, even after being transferred to your plate. It do not seem right and was very surreal. There is a video embedded below, but unfortunately, due to YouTube down sampling you do not get the true effect. I liked both dishes (beef and shrimp) very much, even though I do not care for fish or shrimp.
After Okonomiyaki, we crossed the street to a small restaurant/lounge/bar. We were seated in an area that was a hybrid of US and Japanese traditional style seating. The room was sunken and you sat on a common bench with a further sunken floor, so you it was easy to sit cross-legged or with your legs down. We were surrounded on both sides by tables of girls in their early 20s. They stared and giggled at us most of the time. Our host ordered us several dishes and more drinks. He ordered chicken, which was similar to prosciutto. It was uncooked and salted, and smoked. We were all hesitant to try it. I tried a small piece and so did Matt, Robert refused. I did not care for it, it really tasted how you would imagine raw chicken tastes. I hope I don’t get sick and die. He also ordered us some yakitori, again he insisted we try before he told us what it was. The first was okay, but fatty tasting. The second I did not care for, it tasted of blood so I guessed it was kidney or heart. The first was chicken hip, the second was heart. Think I’ll pass if ever offered again.
Today was a quiet day in Utsunomiya. We had to ride a bus to work, as the facility is outside the city a good bit. We got on the bus at 7 am (right on time, as always). The drive to work took approximately 55 minutes. We only travelled maybe 15 miles, but the traffic was bumper to bumper the entire way. I was told this is always the case. The lights are not timed to allow traffic to flow at a good clip. We were passed by bicycles, scooters, and motorcycles the entire ride.
We arrived at the facility, which houses the main R&D branch for my company. The facility is enormous. I mean big, really really big. I found it interesting that parking was not really an issue. There were several large parking garages on the campus. There was a parking lot exclusively for two wheel vehicles. One side for bicycles, stacked two high. The other side is for motorcycles and scooters.
Utsunomiya was very close to the Great East Japan Earthquake (9.0 magnitude) that hit in 2011. Most of the buildings had already been repaired, but the severely damaged buildings were still being fixed. In some areas there are people working at desks in the hallways with power and network cables strewn across the hall because their normal office space is still under construction. The main cafeteria was destroyed and is being remodeled. We went up to the nicer cafeteria, which had just completed construction. It was beautiful. Without a doubt, the best cafeteria I have ever seen at a company. Two walls were floor to ceiling windows with an awesome view of the surrounding mountains. Everything was very sleek and modern, with complementary (but terrible) coffee to boot. Japan is not good at coffee. We had a meeting in the cafeteria in the morning, and stayed for lunch.
Lunch in the nice cafeteria was expensive, but probably be best food I’ve had in Japan. There was a cream potato chowder that was excellent, grilled steak bits (tough), grilled wide noodles, grilled onions, grill asparagus, grill potatoes, rice, and REAL SALAD! The salad made me very happy, I had been craving one for at least a week. It was small, but Oishii (Japanese for delicious). There was also grilled beef patty was filled with a cream cheese. It was unusually, but good. Cost was 900 yen (10.80 USD)
After lunch, we had a meeting with battery experts and were able to tour many of the test labs. I was able to see a lot of equipment I was familiar with from previous jobs, however it was virtually brand new, I’m guessing because the old equipment was destroyed in the earthquake. It was nice to see all the technologies and met the designers behind our vehicle design.
For dinner we went to “chicken taco” as my companions call it, because we can’t pronounce the Japanese name and their main dish is chicken tacos. I of course had to get the chicken tacos. I was surprised when it came out that it was real chicken breast, which is very unusual for Japan. Japanese people like fatty meat. They seems to be much more concerned with the texture of food rather than the taste. The chicken tacos were served with a house made salsa with kiwis and a block of cream cheese. They were good. They had a bottle of pure MSG that can be sprinkled on your food like salt. I tasted, it was very strong and unusual taste. I had a good laugh at some of the menu items which included “cacktails” and friend chicken with bone.
On the way back to the hotel, we passed the singing gyouza. Since Utsunomiya is famous for gyouza there is a statue made out of Ohya-shi stone, but we are unsure why it is a person that appears to be singing. The Utsunomiya area is the only place in the world with Ohya-shi stone, which is volcanic in nature. The stone is beautiful, a tan color with a slight gold hue and little dark bronze pockets. It is
Oh man, I forgot to mention that last night when eating yakiniku, the Japanese member insisted we try diaphragm. I believe it was from cow. It looked bad when it came out, but the taste was very good. It was very fatty and kind of chewy, but the flavor was excellent.
For lunch today I had one of the Japanese dishes, it was again fried chicken, but not like yesterday’s chunks. It was okay, but I am getting tired of fried foods. We also had rice, cold mashed potatoes, some green mixed with daikon in a peanut sauce, and seaweed soup. The potatoes and greens were both good, the soup was not.
We left work around 330 because we had to catch a train to Utsunomiya. We rode the train back from work to Hon-Kawagoe, picked up our luggage, which we checked at the front desk that morning, and rushed off to Kawagoe (different train station). It was a very brisk walk has we only had a few minutes to get to the station, get our ticket, and make it to the train platform. It involved going up a large flight of stairs into the station (while dragging our suitcases), getting a ticket and through the turnsytles and down another flight of stairs to the train platform. We made it with about a minute to spare.
We rode that train to Omiya, where we got off, and then had to buy another ticket to get on the bullet train to Utsunomiya. After purchasing our tickets, it was another walk up a very, very large flight of stairs to the train platform. If you ever visit Japan and plan to visit multiple cities, make sure you pack light. Many train stations have large flights of stairs and no or limited elevators/escalators. You often cannot afford to wait on them if you are trying to catch a specific train. The trains do not wait for you. They are famous for being incredibly punctual, and they are.
The bullet train was a cool experience. Americans should be jealous of it, we could never have something so nice. There are many things here in Japan that simply would not work in the US. The trains use Philips and flat head screws for everything, have real fabric seats, and exposed florescent light bulbs; all of these things would be disassembled, shredded and broken in the US. People are very polite when they are travelling on the trains. We take the train every day, at least twice a day. People turn their phones on silent and do not answer when on the train. Conversations are kept very quiet between the people involved. I have only heard a phone ring once while on the train and it was quickly silenced.
Anyway, back to the bullet train. When pulling into the station, it is very sleek and beautiful machine, and very quiet. You only hear a whoosh of air and a few squeals as the brakes activate. The train has two seats on the left side of the cabin and three on the right. They are very cushy and comfortable. The cabin is very quiet while the train is running. It took us a little over 20 minutes to reach our destination, approximately 50 miles away.
The Utsunomiya train station is very large; it has many restaurants and stores in it. There is an entrance directly to a shopping mall. Our hotel, Hotel R-Metz is just a few minutes’ walk down from the station. The R-Metz is very nice, very modern. Unfortunately, for our first two nights they only had smoking rooms available, so we will be stinky. For dinner, we want to a gyouza shop in the hotel. Utsunomiya is known for their gyouza, it is believed to be where the dish originated. The shop in our hotel is the most famous and best in Japan. It was very good and I ate too much. Notice in the photos, the size of the water (the coin in the photo is about the size of a quarter), and the size of the “salad.” I was impressed by the ice cubes in the water. They were nearly perfect rectangles and crystal clear. We joked that they may be hand craved like everything else in Japan.
Our hotel has coin laundry, so I have no need to wander the streets for hours asking random people where I can wash my dirties! The cost is 300 yen (about 3.60USD) to wash and 100 yen for 30 minutes in the dryer (1.20USD, took two cycles). The soap is included and already piped into the machine. We were a little confused, the pictures on the machine say to put your money in, push a button, then load your clothes. We put our money in, and water started spraying into the tub, so we hit the button and the water stopped. We are unclear as to why this is, however we loaded and closed the lid and the water spray started again. Not sure what the deal is, but our clothes came out clean!