Thursday, December 31, 2009

The Year in Review

And so another year comes to a close.

We've been to Vermont. Ohio. Japan.

I discovered Sichuan food. And Korean.

Paul ran the Baltimore Marathon. I went to my high school reunion.

Our cat Will passed away. And then Grace died too.

And, of course, I discovered even more of New York. Its culture. Its cupcakes. Its characters. Its rats.

What will 2010 bring? More rats, that's for sure. Other than that, I guess we'll just have to wait and see.

Happy New Year.

Monday, December 28, 2009

Diane's Top Books of 2009

The New York Times earlier this month released it's 10 Best Books of 2009.

I've read my usual 96 books this year (exactly 8 per month), but none of those 10 were on my list.

Oh well. In honor of the Times' annual list, I've made my own list of 10: my favorite 5 books I read this year (no matter what year they were published), plus 5 more special awards.

Drum roll please:

My Top 5 Books of 2009:

1. "Norwegian Wood" by Haruki Murakami. This book catapulted up to my #2 favorite book of all time (after "Pride and Prejudice"), and I've read about one Murakami book a month since I was introduced to him in August. It's a short, fast read, and one that'll stick with you long after you're done.

2. "Pride and Prejudice and Zombies" by Seth Grahame-Smith. If you love Jane Austen's original, you'll find this extremely witty. And if you can't stand Pride and Prejudice, you'll still find this funny. Now I can't wait for the movie.

3. "Olive Kitteridge" by Elizabeth Strout. After I read this winner of the 2009 Pulitzer for fiction, I immediately read Strout's earlier books. Simple yet descriptive style. I didn't particularly like Olive, but I wanted to read more about her and her neighbors.

4. "The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle" by Haruki Murakami. This was my first Murakami book, recommended by a co-worker. Now at least three other co-workers have read it or are in the process of doing so. It's long, but it's worth it. I don't know how he comes up with stories like this. I call it Japanese magical realism.

5. "The Shadow of the Wind" by Carlos Ruiz Zafon. Murder. Romance. Spain. Books. Who could ask for more?

The Book That Was Just as Boring as It Sounds Award:
"Franklin Pierce" by Roy Franklin Nichols. I know more about Pierce's cabinet than I ever wanted to know. Much more.

The Most Childish Book Award:
"The End" by Lemony Snicket. I'm no book snob! I finished A Series of Unfortunate Events this year.

Best Nonfiction Award:
That's a tough one. Who made these categories, anyway? I guess I would have to go with "The Omnivore's Dilemma" by Michael Pollan, simply because it made my think more about what and how I eat. I had no idea my system was so full of corn.

The Book That Made Me Respect Its Subject Much More Award:
"Millard Fillmore" by Robert J. Rayback. He's rated as one of the worst presidents, but I think he's underrated as a person. I had no idea he was so instrumental in the history of Buffalo-- and it seems like he was a pretty nice guy, too.

The Book With the Best Quote Award:
"Is He Popenjoy?" by Anthony Trollope. The quote: "When grown people play at being children, it is apt to be dangerous."

Thursday, December 24, 2009

The Joys of Flying with the Japanese

I've never flown on a holiday before.

If all goes well, I'll be in Columbus tonight in time for a late supper. If all goes badly, I'll be one of those stranded passengers bad-mouthing the airlines on the 11 o'clock news.

I'm nervous about the lines and delays, but I'm excited, too. I like to fly. And I especially like to fly Delta, which passes out delicious Biscoff cookies instead of puny bags of peanuts. Oh, and since it's just a puddle-jumper that flies from New York to Columbus, I get a window/aisle seat. The best.

I was not so lucky flying to and from Japan. On the way there, I had the middle seat in the middle section of the row, and Paul was three seats over and across the aisle. I'd never spent 14 hours being able to see but not speak to him. On the way back, we got to sit next to each other, but he was the one blessed with the aisle seat.

We flew a Japanese airline, ANA, which was a good choice. Vacation seemed to start as soon as we boarded the plane since the announcements were first in Japanese and then in English. And the flight attendants bowed, just as they did in Japan itself.

The food wasn't half bad (noodles, curry rice, scallops), and the green tea was plentiful. We got warm towels to wipe our hands before every meal. I'd like to see United match that.

I got called "madam" twice by a flight attendant on the way home.

Best of all, the immigration line when we got back to the States was extremely short since American citizens had a special line, and our full flight was almost all Japanese.

But ANA didn't have Biscoff cookies.

Merry Christmas!

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

My Home for the Holidays

It's a blessing and a curse to be in New York City during the holidays.

On the one hand, the city is sparkling with lights and holiday markets. On the other hand, I'm 500 miles away from my family and most of my friends, and I don't have room for a Christmas tree.

For the third December in a row, I've stuffed the curio in the corner of the living room with all of our Christmas ornaments, and decorated the top with gold garland and a red ribbon. Before Paul carted them off to Ohio on Saturday, I nicely arranged the wrapped presents at the bottom just as if the cabinet were a fresh spruce.

Christmas ornaments in wine glasses and antique cups

The travel ornament shelf-- from red gate (Japan) to blue coaster (Milwaukee)

To go home for the holidays now, I have to take vacation days. This is something I never, ever had to do in Ohio. It was convenient if I took off a day or two around Christmas (especially if it was in the middle of the week and we planned to go to Defiance), but it wasn't absolutely necessary. I even worked one Thanksgiving morning and spent the rest of the day with Paul's family. No big deal.

Now -- especially this year, since I'm flying -- I'm much more weather dependent. I'm flying to Columbus on Christmas Eve and praying that this year's ration of flight delays was met with the hordes of stranded passengers during Saturday's snowstorm. Wish me luck.

Sunday, December 20, 2009

The Weather Outside Is Frightful

Brooklyn and all of New York saw its first major snowfall of the year yesterday-- and by far the biggest snowstorm I've seen since we moved here more than two years ago.

The flakes started falling about noon Saturday, just before Paul embarked on his 12-hour drive to Ohio (I'll meet him there on Christmas Eve). But the snow didn't keep me home-bound, although perhaps it should have. A friend planned an outing to a bowling alley in Williamsburg long before the storm was predicted, so out I went.

Brooklyn Bowl: The biggest indoor space I've ever seen in the borough.

The snow was simply annoying when I left the apartment- a dusting on the sidewalks, but nothing to get worked up about. But by the wee hours of Sunday morning, the snowfall and drifts meant it was impossible to walk outside without looking like an enthusiastic member of the marching band, knees up to your chest with every step.

Luckily, a friend with a Jeep gave me a ride home before dropping off two others. And even better, they waited to make sure I could get into my apartment before taking off. I couldn't. The downstairs door was frozen shut. With a well-placed kicked, Alex opened the door.

I haven't left the apartment today, and I don't plan to. From our living room window, I can tell the sidewalks and streets are clear, but there's still some nasty drifts, and I can hear the cars kick up the slush. I doesn't take long for snow to get ugly.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Bargain Shopping for the Holidays in New York

Sure, New York has the Rockefeller Center Christmas tree.

But you can see some pretty lights without the crowds (and with some better deals) at Century 21.

Century 21 is New York City's answer to Filene's Basement, only better. Well-known brands at such deep discounts means there are as many tourists there as locals. Luckily, I'm close to both the Brooklyn and Manhattan locations-- one is about six blocks from our apartment, the other is less than two blocks from my office.

Whenever anyone says shopping in New York is expensive, all I have to do is point to Century 21. It's not Prada or Tiffany's, but it does have an excellent shoe selection and a coat department I could spend all day in.

And at Christmastime, it's even better-- at least at the Manhattan store. It's decked out in red bulbs and flashing white lights that make me feel festive and looser with the pocketbook. At least that's what they're hoping.

Monday, December 14, 2009

Japan: Final Thoughts & Photos

Paul and I at Hiroshima Castle

We've been home nearly a full two weeks now, but it took half of that time just to get over the jet lag. In Japan, the time difference made us get up early -- the first morning there, at 5 a.m. Back in New York, I'd start to crash about 2 in the afternoon.

The 14-hour time difference was killer, but it did make me think. Of course, I've long understood the reasoning behind "it's 5 o'clock somewhere," but this trip really brought the meaning home to me. My world revolves around me. But even in my deepest sleep, someone somewhere is awaking for work, eating their lunch, and, yes, going out for a few drinks.

And so the world gets smaller.

This'll be my last post about Japan. I promise. I think. If you're not my mom or dad, thanks for putting up with them and reading along. And if you are my mom or dad, by this time you must be used to putting up with me, so thank you for reading along.

To close, a few final photos that didn't seem to fit anywhere else:

Tokyo: Ueno Park

Miyajima: The World's Largest Rice Spoon!

Tokyo: Shibuya- The World's Busiest Intersection

Tokyo: Ebisu

Kyoto: Paul After Our First Ride on a Shinkansen (Bullet Train)

Mt. Fuji from the Airplane, Hiroshima to Tokyo

Tokyo: I Saw Tanuki on My Very First Day!

Sunday, December 13, 2009

An Obsession with Japanese Vending Machines

I just told Paul that I was in the process of writing a post about the vending machines of Japan, and I asked if he had anything to add.

"Just that they're awesome," he replied, pausing for a beat before adding that the rest of the world should aspire to Japan's level of accessibility and convenience.

There's no doubt that the vending machines in Japan are both accessible and convenient. You could be in seemingly the remotest part of town, and you'd still be a stone's throw from a vending machine-- or more likely, a row of vending machines.

Japan's vending machines aren't like those in America. Japan has so many more options. Cold drinks, hot drinks, coffee, even beer ... how can you ever choose? So at first Paul stuck with the tried and true: an all-American Coca-Cola.

It didn't take long to branch out. Our hotel had a short hallway filled with soup, pop and beer available for a few coins.

He didn't get the soup.

And, of course, Paul had to sample the coffee purely because it was endorsed by Tommy Lee Jones. Says Paul: "I'll now know him as the "Boss" forevermore. He's an example to salarymen everywhere."

There was more fun to come. In Kyoto, Paul got the side-eye from three teens or twenty-somethings when he paused to take a photo of a vending machine selling batteries.

And in Hiroshima, Joe introduced Paul to two more drinks. One literally had hunks of grape gelatin inside, and you had to shake the can before consuming. Another was a red bean soup-drink, with big globs of the beans inside. Paul thought it was disgusting, but I thought it was rather tasty. Although it was annoying to get those last few beans through the lip of the can.

Still, we weren't even close to sampling everything Japan's vending machine's had to offer. Who doesn't want "50 lemons' worth of Vitamin C in every can"?

Saturday, December 12, 2009

Okonomiyaki and Other Food I Can't Pronounce

I acquired my love of sushi and tempura years ago. In fact, Paul and I went to a sushi restaurant on our first date, so it always brings back good memories.

But girl cannot live on sushi alone, even in Japan. I tried tons of food that I'd never had before, and only a little that I will never try again.

First of all, a sight I came to love in Japan:

Soft serve ice cream! These giant cones seemed to be everywhere. And as you can see, they generally weren't advertising vanilla, strawberry or chocolate. My favorite was the green tea soft serve. I've had regular green tea ice cream once at a Thai place in our neighborhood, but it wasn't the same. This was much sweeter.

Paul liked the black sesame soft serve, which I thought tasted absolutely disgusting. The purple potato flavor wasn't bad, though.

Purple potato (left) and black sesame ice cream

Ice cream shops were far from the only places that served green tea-flavored concoctions. Green tea in Japan is like water in the U.S.-- it was automatically served at almost every meal. I came to look forward to it -- especially my morning cup at our hotel in Tokyo.

So needless to say, if I saw something green tea flavored, I was bound to try it. My favorite: Japanese dumplings made from rice flour and green tea (at least that's what the English sign said). Unfortunately, Paul liked them too, so I had to share.

One morning in Kyoto we picked up breakfast at the train station at a place that looked like the Japanese version of Au Bon Pain. Our meal:

My green tea pastry was filled with cream. Paul's pastry was filled with a hot dog. This seemed to be popular. Even McDonald's was advertising a "McHotDog MegaSausage."

In Hiroshima, I knew I had to have a Momiji Manju, a specialty of the area. It's basically a maple leaf-shaped cookie-cake filled with any number of flavors. I tried the green tea there, and the chocolate and red bean paste ones at home. All equally tasty.

Red bean paste was an unexpectedly delicious dessert. Vastly underused in America, I think.

Other surprises: my love of eel. Yummy! And miso soup for breakfast: Much more satisfying than plain old cereal. Oh- and fried oysters. I had those twice. And actually, I didn't think the squid was so bad either.

Squid on a stick.

Most of the time we knew what we were eating-- fish, rice, soba, udon. Needless to say, my chopsticks skills have vastly improved. At least most of the food makes it to my mouth instead of dropping on the table. But there's still a lot of food dropped on the table. Sigh.

Sometimes we had no idea what we were eating until it was half gone. Paul chose something that looked like a savory donut at a street stand in Tokyo. It ended up having a hard-boiled egg inside.

And sometimes we only kind of knew what we were getting ourselves into.

One of my favorite meals of our entire trip came on our very last night. Gail and Joe took us to an okonomiyaki restaurant. Joe said this literally translates to "as-you-like-it pancake." An English menu we saw earlier in the trip took liberties and called it Japanese pizza. Whatever. It's terrific.

We sat right at the grill where the cook combined noodles, lots of cabbage, bacon, some spices, ingredients like cheese and corn and who knows what else. The finished meal was scooped into a personal pan (others eat it off the grill) and topped with some sort of barbecue sauce-- deep-dish Chicago pizza, Hiroshima style.

I didn't get any photos, but this site has a good description of how it's made, with pictures. I've since found out that several restaurants in New York serve it, so I'll definitely be doing a taste test.

Like usual, the food and drink was one of our vacation highlights. We had sushi at two conveyor-belt restaurants, yakitori, sake, and even fermented soybeans.

Fermented soybeans: One of the things I will not be trying again.

Friday, December 11, 2009

The Brighter Side of Hiroshima

Hiroshima was far from all doom and gloom. On our second and final full day there, Gail and Joe showed us some of the prettiest spots we'd seen throughout our entire trip.

First stop: Miyajima. After we got home, I read that Miyajima literally means "shrine-island," and no wonder. The island is famous throughout the country for the Itsukushima Shrine and the giant gate that are in the middle of the water during high tide and are surrounded by sand at low tide.

We took the ferry to the island, and Joe instructed us on where to stand for the best views and photos.

When we exited onto the island, I found out what else Miyajima is known for-- it's tame deer.

I got some more pictures of the gate at high tide, and then we went exploring. We walked through the shrine, ate (more Miyajima specialties-- oysters and a type of cream-filled cookie-cake in the shape of a maple leaf) and explored.

Paul, me, Gail and Joe

By then it was low tide. The water had nearly receded around the gate, so we climbed down a few steps and joined dozens of others to get a closer look.

Gail, Joe and Paul

On our way back to Gail and Joe's apartment, we made a stop a Mitaki, an absolutely beautiful temple and park. The leaves were changing, and it seemed to be full of surprises at every turn. Buddhas with red bibs and caps. Memorials to atomic bomb victims. Statues. Waterfalls. When it didn't feel like Japan, it almost felt like Tennessee.

Gail and Joe also introduced us to some great food. More about that -- and everything else we ate in Japan -- tomorrow.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Hiroshima and the Atomic Bomb

I can't remember exactly when I first read the book "Hiroshima" by John Hersey, but I think it must have been in my early teens.

So it's been about 15 years, but the images Hersey painted of the dying -- and even of the survivors -- of the first atomic bomb have haunted me ever since. I knew even then that if I ever visited Japan, I would have to visit Hiroshima.

So it was very convenient that our friends Gail and Joe were placed in the city as English teachers more than two years ago. I worked with Gail for four years at the Springfield News-Sun, and she's basically the reason we planned this whole trip to Japan to begin with. Not only did Gail and Joe give us a place to crash the three nights we spent in Hiroshima, but they acted as tour guide and gave us tons of suggestions of things to see in Kyoto.

We arrived in Hiroshima late on Saturday, so we didn't see much of the city until Sunday. The first stops: everything "peace."

Peace Bell

Peace Memorial Park (Atomic Bomb Dome in background)

Peace Memorial Museum

It was an appropriately gray and dreary day for such an outing, but the museum was nonetheless fascinating. I've long been interested in World War II, probably because of my Dad's tendency to watch everything war-related on the History Channel. Hearing the German on those shows was one reason that I wanted to learn the language-- I wanted to know exactly what the bad guys were saying. (The other reason: I loved "The Sound of Music." If there would've have been a musical about an Asian soprano nun who basically adopts a choir, maybe I would've majored in Japanese instead.)

I reread "Hiroshima" a week or two before we left on vacation, and I'm glad I did. I was prepared for the displays of burned clothing, stopped watches, and charred artifacts. I knew about the diseases the bomb caused, but that didn't make looking at the images any easier. Still, it was an interesting and surprisingly well-rounded look at the bomb and its impact on the city. And it even included a shout-out to Springfield for hosting an exhibit on the bomb sometime since 2007.

Of course, we also saw the Atomic Bomb Dome, the shell of a government building that was nearly directly under the epicenter of the bombing.

It was a somber first impression of Hiroshima, but it was a visit that's been 15 years in the making.


Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...