Came back from Czech Republic, and one night I was snuggling with gG on our couch when I heard a big noise outside on my front porch. Guess who I found watching the street for us from our front porch.
September went by so quickly as we were going through lots of changes in our lives. Yep, my hubby got a job offer in Czech Republic. He spent most of his time this summer working as a consultant for a company in a town called Brno, and they decided to offer him a job.
Brno is the second biggest city in Czech Republic, and it is rather closer to Vienna than to Prague. I have never been to the part of Europe in my life, so I decided to hop on a plane and check it out before he signs the offer letter. Hey... I have to like that place before committing myself to move there :)
Brno was indeed a beautiful city. The center of city is very small. You can basically walk from end to end in 30 mins or less. That's one thing that I loved about the town. It reminded me of my hometown Shizuoka in a way.
Another thing was the cleaness of the town. Streets were clean, buildings were old but very clean, and people were so behaved. It might be the influence from the communist time, but there seems to be enough of everything but not too much of everything.
Here are some pictures from Brno city.
I have been living in LA for almost 10 years, but I never went into the building called Little Tokyo Galleria Market. The building is semi empty but has several stores including Utsuwa no Yakata, discount shop, and several Japanese restaurants. The grocery store there turned into a Korean store, but you can still get lots of Japanese items in there, too.
Anyway, the purpose of this trip was to look for some souvenirs we will take to Czech Republic. We used to go to a store called "Wabi Sabi" which used to be in West Hollywood whenever we wanted to get something nice from Japan. They eventually moved to Santa Monica, but I heard they closed off. Too bad. We really liked the lacquer dishes and trays they had.
So, I did some search and found this place called "Utsuwa no Yakata." The store got variety of tableware and other cool stuff like "noren" and handmade artwork. They also had a set that you can use to do tea ceremony. Believe it or not, I used to do tea, meaning I learned Sado - how to serve tea in a traditional ceremonial way when I was in Junior High School (okay, long time ago). The tea served in Sado is differnt from the tea you are used to drink at the American sushi places. It is called Matcha, and it is finely powdered. The store sold everything you need for Sado including Matcha!
If you are looking for Japanese style tableware, I would definitely recommend this place.
Okay, this is the special long weekend for most people. For me, it is just another day. I was not feeling that well, but I wanted to do something fun with my hubby and gG. So, we decided to do a picnic in our backyard.
Luckily the temperature was not too high and it was almost perfect for eating out and sleeping out. Yes, we ended up spending the whole afternoon on the grass eating, chatting, drinking (water! but could had been wine), reading, and napping. gG basically loved just hanging out with us.
gG also enjoyed a couple of spoonful of ice cream.
The sun was shining through our trees around 4pm. I felt the departure of summer and arrival of autumn.
Kaiseki Ryori (meal) is an multi-course Japanese cusine consisting of a number of small dishes. Since Aug 16 was my father's birthday, we went to eat mini-Kaiseki for dinner in Shizuoka. Why mini? Nope we didn't lose our appetites. We decided to go with the mini course, as my father eats like a bird. And we didn't want to eat different dishes on his birthday :-) Overall, we were satisfied with the quantity as well as the quality.
Kaiseki uses fresh seasonal ingredients, and the dishes are presented so that you can feel the season by looking at them, too. Each dish is simply seasoned, so that you can enjoy the pure palate of each ingredient, and presented beautifully in nice dinnerware. Kaiseki is vegetarian in origin, but modern Kaiseki meals may include meat and seafood.
The mini course started out with appetizers in five different small dishes. The menu said 8 ingredients, and as you can see in each individual dish, some of them contained several ingredients.
And then, you were served a soup with simple broth probably made with bonito and Konbu. It looked very pretty and tasted very easy on your palate.
Then we were given a choice between steak and sashimi. All but my father chose steak. The servings were so tiny that I would imagine most American would be surprised.
Then for the fried course, you are given a choice between Sakura-ebi (cherry shrimp) Kakiage (mixed tempura), and Shrimp Shinjo-age. All of us chose Kakiage, as Sakura-ebi is a noted Shizuoka delicacy.
After all that, you get to choose between steam rice topped with Maguro (tuna) sashimi, or with Ikura (salmon roe). My father and I chose Maguro, and my sister, my neices, and Bob chose Ikura. I forgot to take pictures :-(
And finally your choice of desert was served. I got a mousse with Matcha, and some got sherbet or fruit.
All in all, this meal was very good on both eyes and tummy! And, I was happy to see my father being happy to see all of us together dining with him.
I must say that Japanese people cannot live without Onsen (hot spring). During the vacation time, Japanese travelers typically stay at Ryokan (inn) with Onsen. It is a way to relax and be rejuvenated.
Since another purpose of our trip to Japan was to celebrate my father's birthday, we took him to an Onsen while we were in Kumamoto. We picked an area called Kurokawa, a very famous Onsen place in Kumamoto.
The Ryokan (Inn) where we stayed was called "Shinmeikan." Originally we wanted to stay at another Ryokan, but it was all booked even 2 months in advance. However, we were very pleased with "Shinmeikan." Most Ryokan have several soaking pools as did Shinmeikan. It had two outside baths called Roten (one coed, and one private), two cave baths (one for men, one for women), and two inside baths (one for men, one for women). I didn't have the guts to go into the Roten with men in the same bath, so my hubby and I rented the Roten for our private use. Roten is great, as you can feel the nature around you on your flesh. I'd rather bathe by myself, but hey being with hubby was also okay :-)
Another thing to enjoy at Ryokan is the cuisine. People typically check in around 3pm and take a dip in Onsen before dinner (maybe having one or two beers or sake before dinner, too), and then enjoy a huge dinner. The dinner at Shimeikan was also huge but great. It started out with small dishes with veggies, tofu, and Sashimi (raw fish), and Basashi (raw horse meat - Kumamoto's famous delicacy).
Then more dishes such as grilled fish, grilled meat, soup, and Tempura were served. I forgot what else, but we had A LOT of food.
I hope my dad enjoyed our birthay present.
The reason why we went to Kumamoto this time was to see my father's sisters who are 101, 95, and 86 years old. My father had 9 siblings (10 including my father), but most of them have passed away. The 101 year old aunt is Aunt Teiko, the oldest girl of the ten children. There were two more brothers above her. One of them died when he was very young, and the other one lived a good life in Tokyo but didn't live as long as Aunt Teiko. Aunt Teiko is into making Japanese dolls. She made about 100 of them, but she has given a number away to many people, and in fact we were given a cute doll during this trip. She has a hearing problem, but other than that she seems to be perfectly healthy and her brain is working like a 60 year old.
The 95 year old aunt is Aunt Mikiko. She has been studying and teaching Ikebana for many years, and about three years ago she became a Iemoto (head master) of Kodo-ryu. Kodo-ryu is a school that is established during the year of 1716 to 1804. Unlike other Ikebana, it does not use the "kenzan" which is typically used to hold the bottom of flowers and twigs to arrange them.
The 86 year old aunt is Aunt Tayoko. She was a teacher of Japanese dance, but about two years ago, she and her husband got into an accident (and soon after that her husband unfortunately passed away because of it), and she doesn't seem to be teaching any more. She comes across to me as a most caring person.
While I was in Kumamoto, we had a chance to visit kofun (ancient tombs). There are many in Kumamoto, but we chose to go to the ones in Tamana city, as it was only a 45 min. drive from Kumamoto city.
Before going we did some research on the net, so we knew which kofun we wanted to visit, but we didn't realize that they were completely closed off from the public for preservation purposes. We called Tamana City Hall and asked how we could see inside the kofun. They told us to call the Tamana History Museum. So we did. The person who answered the phone was very nice, but he needed to stick with the rule which is to go through the school board. He asked us to get permission from the school board, but then when I mentioned that we were visiting Kumamoto for a short period of time and had to go back to the States, he invited us over to the museum and told us that we could join a private tour which happened to be scheduled for that afternoon. We were very lucky! We drove down to the museum right away.
Mr. Araki, the man on the phone, was waiting for us outside of the museum (in the very hot and humid weather!!). I had forgotten such a spirit of hospitality. We felt very welcomed. We went in and said hi to some of the museum staf and those who would join the tour. We had about an hour till the tour, so we decided to explore the museum. The museum was incredibly great. It contained all kinds of information about the kofun that we would go to see. It gave us good information prior to visiting the kofun.
The first kofun we visited was called Taibo Kofun. We enjoyed strolling along the scenic country road to get there. It was extremely hot that day, but I certainly enjoyed the scenery.
Taibo Kofun is said to have been built in the 6th century. The outside is about 43 meters long, the inside about 6 meters long. The inside is divided into three rooms, but you can only see a little bit of them as the entrance is securely sealed with a heavy-duty glass window. There are triangular patterns of blue and red on the wall. The museum had some items found in the tomb such as a gold earring, pearls, and weapons.
The next kofuns we visited were called Eianji Higashi (East) and Nishi (West) Kofun. Unfortunately they were doing some testing on Nishi Kofun, so we only got to see the inside of Higashi Kofun. They are both built side by side. It looks like the east one was built first in the 6th century and the west one right after that. They were both discovered long before the researchers got to them, so all of the items perhaps buried with the body were all gone. What's amazing about the Higashi Kofun is the patterns on the wall painted with red. You can see triangles, circles, ship-like figures, and a horse-like figure. One of the cicles even has the dripping of red ink, which I heard is very rare.
The tour was supposed to end there, but we were pretty excited and decided to go further into the mountain side to see more kofun. Yay! The area we headed for is called Ishinuki. The first one we went to see had an array of 48 tombs on the side of a rock cliff. The cliff is about 300 meters long and 7 meters high. The entrance to each tomb is trapezoid-shaped that are doubled or tripled. Inside, you see carved knives and other weapons on the side wall.
We also visited another kofun in Ishinuki which has a figure of Kannon carved into the wall. This area had three tombs in a row, and the middle one had the Kannon figure in the center of the wall as you go in.
So, that was the end of the tour. It was very educational and fun. Thanks to the director of Tamana History Museum for allowing us to be on the tour, and thanks to Mr. Araki, and Ms. Matsunaga, who guided us through the tombs! Both Mr. Araki and Ms. Matsunaga were experts on kofun, and we were very lucky to have them as tour guides. Although the outside temperature was probably way above 100F and very humid, we enjoyed every single moment of the tour.
We made a quick trip to my father's birthplace called Kumamoto during our trip to Japan recently. Kumamoto is located on the southern island of Japan. It is famous for many things, and Mount Aso is definitely one of them.
Mount Aso is the largest active volcano in Japan, which rises to 1592 m above sea level. There are several craters, holes formed by various eruptions. You can go up to see one of the craters by car.
It was very windy that day, but we managed to peek into the crator. It had a pool of water of a beautiful emerald green color, which was pretty much covered by steam coming from the water most of the time. I heard the the temparature of the water is around 50-60 centigrade, which is quite a bit hotter than the normal Japanese bath. The water is heated by the volcano gas. The fact that it has a pool of water seemed to mean that the volcano is very active, and when the water changes its color to black, the eruption occurs in the crator.
Aso weather is pretty unique, as it got nice when you go down the mountain but it was very windy, cloudy, and foggy as we went up. Here is the photo of a very cozy family of "red cows."