Thursday, June 15, 2017

My Trip to Japan!!

So, I know it has been quite a while since I posted a new blog but life just kind of runs away from you sometimes. I don't like to make excuses for not meeting my goals but sometimes you have to prioritize the things that are important in your life. For me, this blog isn't more core focus but more of a means to express myself. That being said, let's talk about Japan!!

I have wanted to go to Japan for several years now and am happy to finally say I was provided an opportunity to do it. I am incredibly fortunate that I was able to combine a work trip to China with a side trip to Japan to make my trip more affordable. The biggest hurdle with international travel is just how expensive flights are. If you are flexible with your travel times you may be able to find cheap airfare. I also found a very reasonably priced airbnb in Ikebukuro to stay in for a total of $550 a week including a portable wi-fi. This was my first international trip that I haven't done as a coordinated group of some kind. I was really nervous about doing it and fortunately my mom met me in Japan and was with me the whole week so I wasn't alone. Now that I have been there once, I would not hesitate to go back again by myself.

Day 1 - Airport to the AirBnb

O boy, I was not prepared for this one. I had map printed out and all kind of directions but I still managed to get on the wrong train. Fortunately everyone can pretty much speak enough English to help you out or gesture in a way that I was able to understand the meaning. Once I figured out my train issue, I was also lugging around two rolling suitcases on packed Japanese trains at 10 pm on a Saturday night. Not my best idea. The trains were just packed with people going out for the night and here are me and my mom, obviously foreigners, with 4 rolling suitcases. It was really awkward and I felt really bad for taking up so much space but no one really seemed to care and a few people even started conversation with us. We finally arrived at the Ikebukuro station and then attempted to follow the airbnb directions to get from the station to the actual apartment. Needless to say they weren't very clear and I ended up being lost. Fortunately someone stopped to help us. He walked us about 2 blocks to make sure we found where we needed to go. This was a common concurrence in Japan. People would go out of their way to make sure you figured out where you needed to go. The airbnb itself was nothing special but after a 2 hour trek from the airport all I wanted to do was sleep. It was from what I am told a normal size Japanese apartment. It had a small sink, one electric burner and maybe 2 cabinets for a "kitchen", the shower was a step up into the room shower with a really small but tall tub that was hard for me to get in and out of and I am young. My mom had a lot of issues getting in and out because she has joint issues but we made due. The room part was big enough for a full size bend and a futon with a tiny desk in the corner. It was fine for a week but with 2 people and 4 suitcases there was literally no room. I have no idea how people live for long periods of time in something that small. My college dorm room was bigger I at least had a closet there and a community bathroom with a bigger vanity. I am sure that is just my american privilege talking because I am just not used to it but I don't think I could ever be able to live in an apartment that small. I really enjoy cooking and I have no idea how to cook with only one burner. I really understand why everyone goes out to socialize.

Day 2 - Wander around Ikebukuro

After the night before, I wanted a day off from the trains. I had made up a small map of the surrounding area of the apartment with points of interest on it. The first place I had to go was the Pokemon Center in Sunshine city. I spent probably a good hour wandering around the store clutching all the things I could carry to buy. It was a Sunday so it was very, very busy and many items were selling out. I managed to get a bunch of cute stuff and even a few gacha from the ditto series. After I finished geeking out, we had lunch at a tempura restaurant in the mall that had a delicious vegetable and shrimp tempura with rice and sauce with a side of udon noodles. Afterwards I checked out the sunshine city aquarium. I was really surprised with how large it is considering it is part of a mall. Part of the exhibits are on the roof as well which I found odd but it was nice to see some external enclosures for the animals. For dinner, I had some ramen from a small restaurant that I call the "anti-social ramen restaurant". It was one where each seat is in it's own cubicle and they have a small window to the kitchen that they use to serve your food. Once your food is brought they close the curtain and you eat in a cubicle. I liked it because it was nice to feel like you had a bit of privacy in such a busy city but it is not a good place to eat if you want to socialize. But, the ramen was AMAZING. I could go back and just eat ramen for a week.

Day 3 - Tsukiji Fish Market

So I managed to get my GPS working and used google maps to get around the remainder of the week with the portable wi-fi. The train was actually very easy to follow once you figured out the platforms. All the signs are in English and they announce each stop in both English and Japanese. I did purchase a Pasmo reloadable transit card so that helped a ton with tickets. You just tap it on the machine and it automatically tells you how much you have left. For the whole week I think I spent $30 on train fare. Most rides were between $2-$3. The fish market was a really cool experience. Of course it is full of locals and tourists alike but it is a very unique place to see and buy all kinds of odd foods and gifts. I ended up having freeze dried fruit, ice cream, and sushi. I didn't go early to see the tuna auction but some of the sushi restaurants displayed the heads of the tunas they bought outside their store to show how good their sushi is. I personally prefer salmon to tuna but in Japan it is so fresh I couldn't even tell I was eating fish. Once you leave the main market area, there are still more shops that have similar items at a bit cheaper prices. I was able to find all kinds of ceramic bowls, chopsticks, tea sets, tea, snacks, and random other gifts for people at home. 

The sushi was just incredible. I like american sushi and I was fully prepared to eat sushi in japan and then never be able to eat it at home again. If you can separate the two in your mind and just accept that they are different, it is ok. I was able to come home and still enjoy rolls but I am not sure I will be able to order nigiri anymore in the states. I had fatty tuna, salmon, egg, and a salmon roll. It was just so heavenly. Japanese sushi really focuses on the texture of the fish. The flavors in the rolls are delicate and not over the top like American sushi is. American sushi is good in it's own right but it focuses more on flavors and hiding the fish instead of making it the focus. Again, I had accepted that they are just different so I've managed to keep my Friday night sushi tradition alive but I would kill for some Japanese salmon again. 

The fish are actually swimming behind the chefs at this restaurant. I almost felt guilty eating it.

After sushi, I tried to go to the imperial gardens but they are apparently closed on Mondays. So we headed back to Ikebukuro and found a park full of stray cats. Someone was caring for them but they didn't seem to belong to anyone. I forgot what I had for dinner and I have no picture of it. It may have been ramen round 2 or something from the mall.

Day 4 - Mt Fuji and Hakone

So today is the day that I got horribly sick. I am sure I caught some kind of virus from traveling and it usually always shows up a few days after I get home because I am usually only gone a week but since I was already in China the week prior I just had to get sick on my vacation. I wasn't stomach sick but I had horrible congestion and a slight temperature. I am kind of glad that this was they I had planned a day trip to Mt. Fuji so I didn't have to do anything other than get to the bus station. What was horrible about it is that I get motion sickness and being in a hot bus for over 2 hours, going up a curving mountain road just made me miserable. I felt nauseous and really sick. Once I got to station 5 on Mt Fuji I felt much better. I was able to breathe the fresh mountain air and take in the sights. We only got 30 minutes though which for me was way too rushed. I was barely able to use the bathroom, take a couple photos, and buy my sister a shot glass. Then it was back on the bus for lunch. We ate at an amusement park at the bottom of Mt Fuji and had Hoto a traditional noodle soup dish. It was comforting to have Japanese chicken soup essentially when I wasn't feeling well. After lunch I didn't feel nauseous anymore but still had a headache. I managed the bus ride to Hakone where we took a ferry and then a lift ride up to the top of Hakone. There was a temple that I was barely able to run to to take a picture and run back down before our bus left. I did snag another ice cream though. We took a bullet train from Hakone back to Tokyo which was pretty cool. I had been on them before in China so it wasn't a new experience for me. By the time we got back I was so tired we just ate at the convenience store and went to bed. It was actually really good. I had a breaded pork loin with pasta in an oil and herb sauce. I was able to sleep pretty well considering I was so tired.

Day 5 - Papering in Ginza :D

So today was probably one of my favorite days because I got my hair done at Salon Nalu. Some people think I'm weird for wanting to go to a salon outside my home country but I had seen so many Japanese foreign youtubers go here that I wanted to go. The prices are equivalent to what I would have paid in the US and I didn't have to tip on top of the cost so it was actually probably cheaper. Originally I wanted to color, straighten, and get extensions but my hair dresser said my hair would have gotten ruined from the bleach and the straightening treatment together so I opted for no color. It took about 3 and half hours to do the straightening treatment and put in the extensions but it was so worth it. I am writing this about 2 weeks after and I still love my hair. It looks so good and really has minimal maintenance to keep it styled. I keep my hair straight and only wash it once a week with paraben free shampoo. I don't really do anything different to it other than how I have to wash and dry it after the shower. I use more heat protectant products on the extensions to keep them nice. I honestly have no idea what brand of hair it is but I'll do a full review of those later. After the hair appointment I had lunch at an amazing gyoza restaurant. It wasn't busy because it was almost 3 at this point which was nice. After lunch, I wandered through the Meiji Shrine. It was so quiet and different than the bustling city surrounding it. I forgot I was in a city. I wanted to see the iris garden but it was closed by the time I got there. I came back the next day though so I still got to go. After the shrine I think I had repeat "anti-social" ramen.

Day 6 - Akihabara, Harajuku, Shibuya

Today was the day I finally got my delicious ramen from Mutekiya! They open at 10:30 and I arrived at about 10:45. I only had to wait 20 minutes to get inside but it was so delicious. Normally every other day I tried to go the line was down the street (well over an hour wait) so I jumped at the chance to go first thing in the morning. I am not sure it is worth waiting that long for but it is some damn good ramen. Today was supposed to be the owl cafe but I managed to go to the wrong one. I thought I was supposed to go to the one in Harajuku but the one I actually needed to go to was in Akihabara which is 30 minutes away. Needless to say by the time I got there it was 30 minutes after my start time and we couldn't get in once the owls were brought out. They were also booked up for the next 5 days so I didn't get to go. :( This was pretty much the only set back on my trip so I am a bit upset about it but I got over it.  After not being able to get in, we went back to Harajuku/Shibuya area and saw the irises that I missed the day before. They weren't quite in full bloom yet but some were starting to bloom. I also went to the Shibuya crossing. It is a pretty famous pedestrian crossing that is in several movies. I thought it was going to be bigger than it was but it wasn't anything super spectacular. I was able to spot a farfetc'd on my pokemon tracker but I didn't get there in time to catch it. Dinner was curry! It was pretty good even if it looks like poop.

Day 7 - More fish market and Robot Restaurant!!

So today was kind of just a freebie all over day. I didn't have anything specific planned until evening so we went back to the fish market for more sushi and to buy some more gifts. I also ended up back at the pokemon center to get the Eevee gachapon. I spent about $50 and bought 20 capsules but I got one full set of the Eevees!! Robot Restaurant was the big show to go see in Tokyo so I figured a Friday night would be best. Prior to the show, you sit in a lounge area with a band and a full bar. I am not sure how expensive drinks are because the ticket I purchased came with one drink and that was all I needed. They had a full selection of beer, wine, and mixed drinks. The show itself was pretty crazy. I had seen videos of it before but nothing is quite like seeing it in person. I have attached a video link to the youtube video I put together from the show!

Day 8 - Today was my last full day in Japan. It was bittersweet and unfortunately it makes me kind of crabby. We were finally able to go to the imperial gardens which were pretty nice. They had a nice koi pond and their irises were in full bloom when we went. For lunch I had Kobe beef steak from Gyu-an. It was $100 a person but it was so good. I would say it is worth the price to experience at least once. I wouldn't be spending that regularly on a meal but for a once in a lifetime experience I would. The beef was so tender and juicy. After lunch I had to repack my whole suitcase to make sure all my stuff would fit. It didn't end up taking as long as I anticipated but it was nice to just relax for a few. Dinner was pretty underwhelming. We tried a cook your own food type of restaurant but the staff didn't really speak English which was pretty surprising considering almost everyone else did. I don't fault them for the language barrier though what I fault them for is that they didn't seem to really care if we were enjoying our meal. The didn't offer any suggestions on what to order or be available to order more. I know you are supposed to wave them down but it was hard to get their attention. The food was good but there wasn't enough and it was over priced. We paid almost $60 and still went to McDonald's after to get actual food. Needless to say I wouldn't recommend the restaurant to foreigners unless someone knows what they are ordering. I had a better experience in the same type of restaurant in Chicago. The good part of dinner is that a Farfet'd finally spawned near me and I was able to catch it. 

Day 9 - Basically we just got up and walked to a nearby hotel that had a shuttle to the airport. A taxi would have cost over $100 and the shuttle was only $30. There was no way I was going to take the train again with our luggage. We left at about 7 am on a Sunday so it wouldn't have been busy but they were just too heavy. After a 13 hour flight home, I managed to get home in one piece. I slept the whole day like an idiot and then couldn't sleep at night but now almost two weeks later I am finally back to normal. If you enjoyed the blog let me know! If you want more specifics I'd be happy to answer any questions!!

- Basic B

Monday, March 20, 2017

Going pseudo-vegan (You can't take my sushi from me!)

So as I am still working on losing weight and incorporating more plant based food in my life, I have decided to try some vegan recipes to help get some more variety in my life. I can only eat raw fruit and microwaved vegetables for so long before I lose my freaking mind. I have a few recipes that I have tried so far and I was pleasantly surprised that they weren't that bad. I could definitely tell what I was eating was healthy but it didn't make me hate myself as much as eating a dry ass salad or a microwaved bowl of green beans.

Now, before everyone freaks out that I am not really going vegan you are absolutely right. I am trying these recipes for the health benefits and potential to help me reach my weight loss goals while keeping my mental sanity mainly intact. My goal is to consume 75 - 90% of my total food in plant form. I traditionally enjoy pasta, diary (especially cheese), and most meats. When I do eat meat, I try to eat meat that is cooked in a healthy-ish manner. For example, grilled or pan seared chicken, grilled or pan seared lean beef, sushi in nigiri form, etc. I really do love dairy and meat and I can't really see myself ever feeling like I could go full blown vegan. I work in the food industry and I know first hand where my meat comes from. While I am an animal lover, I still feel that animals grown for the purpose of food for humans can have a healthy happy life. If those animals didn't have a purpose, they wouldn't exist at all. (Not saying cows and pigs wouldn't exist but they would not be any where near the number that exist today.) I completely understand why some people are vegan for ethical reasons, but for me this just isn't why I want to do this and why I am not fully committing to a 100% vegan diet. So that being said, let me share the few recipes I have tried recently!

The Vegan Buddha Bowl from - (gluten free, vegan) 

This was not difficult to make and I actually really liked it. I did leave out the avocado because I just don't like it and I was trying to get this recipe to about 300 calories a bowl. The chickpeas have a really nice flavor when roasted and when mixed into the quinoa makes the dish more satisfying. The recipe makes WAY more sauce than you need but I am not sure if there is a way to cut that down a bit and still be able to blend it properly. I did not care for the raw greens. I would recommend sauteing some kale, spinach, or Swiss chard to make the dish go better. I don't like hot lettuce that isn't intended to be hot. Overall, I did like it and would make it again with some tweaks. 8/10 - would eat this again. 

Creamy Vegan Lemon Pepper Pasta from - Blissful Basil (Gluten Free, Vegan) 

So for a vegan alfredo this tasted pretty good. It wasn't cheesy tasting at all but was creamy. The only weird ingredient in this was nutritional yeast flakes but you can get them at whole foods in bulk so you don't have to spend $13 for a jar if you just want to try it. The pasta that I used was gluten free linguine from bionaturae. I found this brand at whole foods and it actually does taste like traditional pasta. The texture is not weird either. My only criticism of this dish is that 6 cloves of garlic is just WAY too much. I should have cut it down to 3 or 4. I have a feeling it has such a high level of garlic to give it some kind of flavor. If it wasn't for the garlic this dish would be pretty bland. This ended up making 4 servings at about 525 calories. (the pasta accounted for 400 of the calories) The other problem I had with this dish is that after about 3 hours I was hungry again and had a second serving. I still wasn't very satisfied after I finished it because I was missing that cream flavor from real dairy. I am just starting to get used to vegan food though so this could also be part of my adjustment period. 8/10 would eat again (sauce) pasta was 10/10. If you told me it was gluten free i probably wouldn't believe you. 

Banana Bread Mini Muffins from - Goodful (Absolutely NOT vegan but vegetarian) 

So I know these aren't technically vegan (contains egg, yogurt, honey??) but they are so good I had to share the recipe. The secret is to use really really REALLY ripe bananas. They hide the whole wheat flour taste and keep the muffins super moist. When I make this recipe I stir 1/2 cup of mini semi-sweet morsels into the batter. It also makes what I would consider 14 normal sized muffins. They look mini in the picture but they bake up as a normal sized muffin. The American gigantor muffins I see at pastry shops is not a normal serving. Sorry. I am not sure if you could replace the eggs and yogurt for maybe apple sauce or almond milk or something but I like the recipe enough to leave it as is. Each muffin is only 150 calories if you make 14. 10/10 I have made these every Sunday for the last 3 weeks and eat one everyday for breakfast. 

*** updated***

Spicy Kimchi Quinoa Bowl - simplyquinoa (can be vegan if you leave out the egg) 

So... Let me tell you about this fucking recipe. My house smelled SO FUCKING GOOD. Like omg I walked into Chinese food heaven. It legit smelled like real fried rice in my house. I was so excited to eat this and it looked so good. I was ready to demolish a whole bowl of this shit, and then I tasted it. Now I am not sure if it was the taste or the texture or what was going on but I couldn't get myself to stomach more than half a portion... It was crunchy and a little spicy but not too hot, the oil was there to give it some body, the kale might have been a bit too crunchy but ugh. I don't know, I even added the egg to try to get it to taste better but I couldn't get through it. I have never eaten kimchi before but it is well hidden in this dish and pretty much just adds some spice and some crunch. It reminded me of the cabbage you get in Panda Express noodles or other asian dishes. I don't think it was the kimchi but I honestly just don't know. I was so underwhelmed after how fucking delicious my house smelled after making it. Needless to say I ate half a bag of chips after this meal because I was fucking starving. 2/10 - I might eat it again if I was dying and had nothing else to eat. 

Veggie Burger Patties - Casey Jade

So I hate beans and most veggie burger patties use beans as a base. This recipe uses chickpeas which I actually like. While this recipe definitely isn't something I would put on a bun with ketchup and mustard, it was actually really really good. It reminded me of falafel but baked so it is way healthier. I also made some homemade guacamole to top it with and counter the somewhat dry texture. I highly recommend this recipe if you want a veggie burger that isn't beans. I mean chickpeas are technically beans but to me they aren't "normal" beans. Each patty is about 140 calories. You need a food processor to make this but other than that it was really easy. You just cut everything up and blend it. It took 10 minutes extra to bake than the recipe states but my patties were kind of thick. 9/10 - I will eat these again but definitely need guac. 

Vegan Buffalo Chickpea and Artichoke Taquitos with "ranch" - Veggie Inspired

So I actually got this recipe from an episode of J & J's Kitchen from youtube. These were really good but damn were they a pain in the ass to make. Part of the recipe calls for a butternut "cheese" sauce that requires you to peel a squash. Have you ever tried to peel a fucking squash? Like fuck, worst prep experience of my fucking life. I'm surprised I still have fingers. This meal is 3 recipes in one. I had extra "cheese" sauce that I actually ate the next day over noodles which I'll talk about next. The ranch sauce was easy to make. Just throw that shit in a blender and boom done. I thought it had a bit too much cumin so next time I won't add as much. So my batch of taquitos made 16 and they were not pretty. I used way too much filling per shell and it kind of exploded everywhere. I had to eat it with a fork and knife but they tasted damn good. I recommend using the full 1/2 cup of hot sauce. I was really surprised how filling these were. I had enough calories to eat 4 but I could only eat 3. The sauce makes a difference too. Each of my taquitos with ranch sauce were about 130 calories. (I used white corn tortillas.) 9/10 - fulfills buffalo needs. 

Butternut Squash Mac sauce - Veggie Inspired

So this was extra sauce from making the above taquitos. I didn't want it to go to waste and mac and cheese is one of my favorite foods. I was dying to try a vegan version. I was also going to eat every inch of that fucking squash I peeled because fuck you squash. So. being a hard core midwest carbo loading dairy loving person here is my humble opinion of this vegan mac and cheese. It honestly wasn't bad. It had a nice creamy texture and good flavor. It definitely was NOT a cheese flavor but it tasted good. It did smell like mustard but surprisingly didn't taste like it. (there is mustard in the recipe) I could see myself eating this again for sure. It had a comfort food feel to it. I ate ancient grains elbows with it for that gluten free life. It wasn't really low calorie because of the pasta but when you want a gluten free vegan carby meal this is a good choice. What I will say is that it does not reheat well at all. The noodles turned to mush. I highly recommend only cooking enough noodles as you plan on eating and store the extra sauce separate in the fridge. 9/10 - it's not mac and cheese but it's still pretty good. 

These are the few recipes I have tried so far but I plan to keep trying new options. If you have any favorite recipes please share! 

- Basic B