Friday, July 25, 2014

Okay, so maybe Seattle's not that bad (even if it is still weird)


Okay, so my last post might have been kind of a rant.  Maybe a tad negative about the city I chose to move to of my own free will.  And I suspect you might be wondering whether I've thrown in the towel (or expired from heat exhaustion in my bed).  

The good news is that shortly after my rant, a cold front moved in and the weather has been cloudy and rainy, with temperatures down in the 50s and 60s, ever since.  Sometimes I want to complain about the fact that I'm wearing pants and sweaters in the middle of July, but then I look at the thermostat in my apartment and it's a perfectly reasonable 73 degrees -- and the complaint sort of dies away faintly.  Because at this point I will take sleep over warm sunny days.

And with sleep comes a happier mental and emotional state.  One that is able to appreciate how Seattle's famous Pike Place Market has an outpost market in the courtyard in front of my office building every Thursday, making it possible for me to buy gorgeous, giant handmade bouquets like this for only seven dollars.  

Lilies, dahlias, zinnias and purple spiky things.
I couldn't resist!
Don't get me wrong, though.  Just because I'm in a better mood and have fresh flowers on my table doesn't mean that Seattle still isn't a totally weird place.  I mean, seriously people, in what other city do men (and believe it or not I use the plural for a reason) think that this haircut is okay?  (And how is it that these guys have spouses or partners or at the very minimum walking companions when the rest of us don't?)

And if you think that is weird, you should have seen the guy who was walking his pet snake on the sidewalk in front of my apartment building.  

The moral of this story is that I need to get better at surreptitious photography so that I can share more of these friends with you.

Thursday, July 17, 2014

I'm trying really hard not to hate living in Seattle right now

Okay, so I move to Seattle in the springtime when it's raining all the time and I'm criticized for using an umbrella.  Because why use a device that was invented -- and used by the rest of the civilized world -- to stay dry when you can just be damp all the time?  "Don't worry," said everyone, "you'll get used to it, and the summers are great!"

Now it's summer and everyone's walking around congratulating themselves and saying, "See? What did we tell you?  Isn't this the best thing ever?"  And I respond politely and say something like, "Well, it's certainly better than the rain!" or "I'm loving this sunshine!" but you know what I'm really thinking deep down inside?  NO, THIS IS NOT THE BEST THING EVER!  It's the middle of July and the high temperatures still barely break 80 degrees during the day, and even when they do, the warmth is only in the sun: sit for five minutes in the shade and you'll get hypothermia if you aren't wearing a sweatshirt.  

And then -- THEN! -- after spending your so-called "beautiful summer day" wondering if you're ever going to feel warm again in this life, you go home and discover that your apartment is 30 degrees warmer than it is outside!  Don't believe me?  Consider my current thermostat reading:

That's right -- it's 87 degrees in my apartment right now on a night when it will drop to 57 degrees outside.  And no, because of the stupid design of the windows, which generate zero circulation, the apartment won't get cooler as the night progresses: the temperature in this apartment hasn't fallen below 86 degrees since I got home from Japan almost two weeks ago.  I'm not even exaggerating for the blog.  I spend all day long freezing at work, and then I come home and spend all night sweating in bed unable to sleep.

I mention this situation to everyone in Seattle, including my landlord:  "Oh, apartments in Seattle don't have air conditioning."  Why not?  "Because you don't need it here!"  Um, what part of my apartment is nearing 90 degrees makes you think that I don't need air conditioning?  "Well, okay, you might want air conditioning once or twice a year, but you really don't need it."  

Which is total B.S. because I've wanted air conditioning every day for the last two weeks, and we've still got a lot of summer left!  So either people don't know how to count, or they think that wanting air conditioning continuously throughout the entire summer counts as wanting it only once.  And obviously I'm not the only one who thinks it's hot enough for air conditioning!  I went to Target today to buy some fans and discovered that their entire inventory is sold out and has been for days.  Why?  Because all the Seattleites who pretend that you don't need air conditioning here actually want air conditioning and are just as hot and sweaty as I am!  For crying out loud!

Seriously, Seattle, why do you hate modern technology and advanced civilization so much?  We can get the most pretentious coffee in the world and outdoor gear that is engineered to within an inch of your life, but we can't use freaking umbrellas or air conditioning or windows that open wide enough to ventilate?  This is no way to live.


Saturday, July 12, 2014

The Hike: Mount Si, followed by Seattle's Dragonfest

It finally feels like summer in Seattle!  The days are long, the skies perfectly clear and sunny, and plenty of things happening.

I had originally planned to spend the weekend Getting Things Done.  You know, because now that I'm back from vacation it's time to be a responsible grown-up and actually take all that stuff that's been sitting in my trunk for the past two months to Goodwill.  

But then some friends called to see if I wanted to go hiking with them, and a colleague asked if I wanted to go to the Night Market at Chinatown's Dragonfest tonight.  And as much of a fan as I am of Getting Things Done, it seemed like "yes" was the obvious right answer to both of these questions.

So I set my alarm for 6am (a.k.a. the crack of dawn on a weekend) and an hour later I was on my way to Mount Si.  It's a shortish (3900 ft) peak in the Cascades not far from downtown Seattle.  The trail's about 8 miles round trip, and it rises pretty steeply in certain parts.  

Given the proximity to the city, the trail was pretty crowded.  I felt like we were constantly dodging trail runners who weren't so worried about normal trail etiquette.  But the woods were really lovely. 


I've never seen so many wildflowers before!  They don't all show up
in this photo, but the meadows almost felt like English gardens with
all the Indian Paintbrush, Lupine and so many other flowers.
And the view from the top was fantastic.  I'd never seen such a clear view of the Cascades before.   

Off in the distance, sitting massive on the horizon, the 14,409-foot cone of Mount Rainier.  Someday I'm going to need to climb that mountain, too.


This is me at the summit, which was a sheer, pointy crag that you had to scramble up.
It was pretty precarious, and the flies super irritating, but such good views!
We got back from the hike mid-afternoon, whereupon I fell asleep on the couch (you can blame the hike; also the fact that temps in my apartment are currently hovering just under 90 degrees -- whoever decided that you don't need air conditioning in Seattle ought to be shot), then took a shower and headed out to meet Antonio and Yvonne for Chinatown's Dragonfest.

The gateway into Chinatown
I didn't know much about Dragonfest, but I learned that it's a two-day summer festival celebrating the Asian communities in Seattle.  The largest communities are Chinese and Vietnamese, followed by Japanese and Korean.  The food stalls all looked amazing and offered things I'd just seen in the past couple of weeks in Japan and Korea.  Unfortunately, the lines were so long that we didn't actually get to try much of it.  We did manage to score a Japanese fish-waffle, though (which I'd seen but not tried in Japan).

In Japan this would have been filled with sweet
red bean paste.  Here, because it's Seattle,
it was filled with bacon.
While we were standing in line for the fish waffles, we ran into Miss China-Seattle, a guy who runs operations at the local Chinese TV station, and a few of their friends.  Since Yvonne does public relations for the City of Seattle, she knew these celebrities -- they started talking and before we knew it, we were invited to join them for dinner at one of the Chinese restaurants around the corner.  Our new acquaintances' VIP passes helped us get past the lines and into a large round table in the back.  They ordered for the table (it helps to be able to speak Chinese!), and we enjoyed a delicious and abundant dinner.

Monday, July 7, 2014

Finishing up Japan

Okay, I've finished writing up the rest of our stay in Japan.  I've slotted the posts in where they fit chronologically, so if you're interested in seeing the photos or reading the stories, check out the links below.

Mount Fuji
Fushimi Inari
Nijo Castle

Sunday, July 6, 2014

Another food tour! (It just doesn't stop...)

Because Amanda and I apparently can't go more than 24 hours without eating delicious food, and to avoid going into withdrawal after two weeks of such good food in Japan and Korea, we spent the bulk of this afternoon on a gourmet food tour through downtown Seattle.  Run by Savor Seattle, this "walking culinary tour" is one of several descendants of the company's original tour of the famous Pike Place Market.  According to Tripadvisor, these tours are the No. 1 thing to do in Seattle.

This is Nick, our guide.
Super gregarious and obviously very into food, he was a natural at this.

We met our guide, Nick, and fellow gourmands (all from Texas except for one North Carolinian) at the Yellow Leaf Cupcake Co., which is just down the street from where I live (I've actually walked past the shop many times, only I never thought to stop).  After Nick had finished his prefatory tour-guide remarks (stay together, have fun), the shop's owner came out with several trays of tiny cupcakes, which we tasted while he gave us background on the shop.

The "pancakes" cupcake: A pancake-like cake topped with maple flavored
icing and candied bacon.  It's actually been recognized as the best pancake
in the state of Washington. 
The tomato soup cupcake:  A cake made from tomato soup, topped with
chocolate ganache, chocolate icing, and sprinkles.
(It tasted nothing like tomato soup.)

The cupcakes were very good, most notably because of the frosting.  The owner explained that most cupcake shops use American butter frosting (a confection of butter and sugar, very easy and inexpensive to make), but Yellow Leaf uses Italian butter frosting.  This type of frosting is egg-white-based and is very tricky to make.  The reason for the difference?  If you're going to pay for a "gourmet" cupcake, you should get something that you can't (or aren't likely to) make on your own.

Next place on the list:  Serious Pie, for some of Tom Douglas's famous pizza.  Tom Douglas is Seattle's resident super-star chef, with a national profile and lots of restaurants around town.

Margarita pizza (tomatoes, buffalo mozzarella and basil)
Roasted mushroom and truffle cheese

I've eaten at other Tom Douglas restaurants but had avoided the pizza shop (there's one across the street from my office) because of its reputation for extravagant pricing, but this was sufficiently good that I'm now rethinking that policy.  I particularly liked the simple, fresh flavors of the margarita pizza.

Moving on, we found ourselves near the north end of Pike Place Market at a place called Cutter's Crabhouse.

I never would have come here on my own, because it looks like one of the neighborhood's myriad tourist-trap restaurants that serve over-priced, mediocre food.  Apparently that's what this restaurant used to be until the current chef took over and started churning out some top-notch new dishes, including giant prawn stuffed with Dungeness crab.

After enjoying the crab and prawns, we walked back out into the sunshine and into the boisterousness that is Pike Place Market.  By this time everyone but me was complaining of the heat and humidity ("what a scorcher!" was a favorite phrase).  I, on the other hand, was loving the weather and only wished it were warmer.  I mean, a sunny day in the high 70s with a light breeze is very near perfect -- almost summer; definitely not a scorcher. 


We soon came to a tiny little shop called La Buona Tavola (The Good Table, in Italian) that specialized in all sorts of delicacies.  We spent most of our time focusing on the truffle oils (not surprising, since the owner's sister married into an Italian truffle-hunting family) and then moved on to sample some of their other offerings, such as balsamic vinegar, pesto sauce, apple curd and bourbon salted caramel.  (Everything in this shop was fantastic; we came back here right after the tour ended so that Amanda could load up on things to take home.)

White truffle oil with potato-leek soup
Simple basil pesto (left) and a red sauce made of peppers and eggplant (right)

Leaving the Italian gourmet behind us, we walked around the corner to the Steelhead Diner.  The hostess greeted us and ushered us past the main dining room, through the kitchen (where we high-fived the chef and a handful of servers), and into a secluded back room where a large table had been set for our group.  On the menu for this location:  clam chowder!  Probably the best clam chowder I've had -- it wasn't the thick goupy stuff I'm used to; all very fresh and light.

Clam chowder with razor clams

Our next stop was at The Pike Pub & Brewery. The beer drinkers among us were treated to samples of some of the special beers that are micro-brewed on site. The rest of us enjoyed apple cider made from local apples and sausage and bread that each had beer as part of their ingredients.  I didn't love the beer bread, but I did think the sausage/mustard combination was very tasty.

Leaving the brewery behind, we made our way to Von's Gustobistro, where we enjoyed a salmon cake (think crab cake, but with salmon) and some local "dry" soda.  Others in the group raved about the salmon cake, but I only thought it so-so.  (Maybe I'm not the right audience for this type of thing, though, because I was never a huge fan of the famous crab cakes of the Mid-Atlantic either.)

King salmon cake with aioli
Finally, after a short walk up a hill, we landed at Gelatiamo.

As you might suspect of a place with such a name, this place specialized in gelato and sorbets.  We had vanilla gelato (fantastic) and pineapple sorbet (meh).  Nick explained that the difference between ice cream and gelato is that gelato uses milk instead of cream and so is less fattening and doesn't need to be kept quite as cold.  As for sorbetto, it's only water, fruit juice and sugar -- or, as Nick put it, "it's the celery of ice cream."

I admit I started this food tour with some skepticism as to how good it would be.  I mean, I would expect a good food tour in Vietnam and Japan, but Seattle?  Turns out, yes!  Nick was a fantastic food guide, providing all sorts of interesting commentary and background about the food we were eating, the restaurants/chefs that made it, and the history of the city.  We ate some really great things, and I'm definitely planning to go back to some of those places.  Most of all, it helped me see Seattle through the enthusiastic eyes of both the eager tourists (our fellow eaters were, to use a bad pun, eating everything up) and the proud local guide who thinks that Seattle is one of the best food cities on the planet.  It made me more hopeful that it'll be a good place to live after all.

Home again

When we flew to Seoul two weeks ago, I realized with a twinge of regret that we were spending the longest day of the year in an airplane.  Not only that, but because we were flying west, we were essentially losing most of the following day, too.  No summer barbecues or other celebration of the extra hours of midsummer daylight; when we got back we'd already be on the downhill slide toward winter darkness.

But here's a great quirk of trans-Pacific travel:  When you come back, you win all that lost time back. We flew out of Tokyo at 5:10pm on Saturday, July 5, and landed in Seattle at 2:30pm that same day -- which is totally crazy.  It's as if the intervening flights (about 10 hours to Vancouver, then 35 minutes to Seattle) never happened and we got two bonus hours.  As far as I'm concerned, that's time travel!

Not that we're throwing any belated midsummer celebrations.  Although Amanda will stay here on my couch for another couple of days, the vacation (for me) is over.  So I've spent the afternoon unpacking and doing laundry.  At some point, I'll sit down and go through my email inboxes and figure out which start-of-the-month bills need to be paid.

There's my now-empty suitcase,
stowed in the storage unit until next time.

This is my first time returning from a big trip to a city other than Washington, DC, and I admit it feels, well, odd.  It doesn't feel at all like coming home.  I miss the familiarity of the DC airports and the prettiness of northern Virginia.  I miss feeling excited about seeing my friends again.  And (perhaps most of all right now), I miss the summer heat -- I loved walking out of the plane into the warm, humid heat of the mid-Atlantic summer; today I stepped off the plane and had to pull on a sweatshirt because it was so cold.  I'm sure I'll get used to Seattle weather eventually, but for now, I miss that other version of summer.

I'm also noticing the differences between the things I loved in Tokyo and the things that Seattle could improve on.  The three things that jumped out at me between landing at the airport and entering my apartment:
  • The Tokyo restrooms are spotless, private (floor to ceiling stalls), and convenient (heated seats, amenities for hanging up things you might be carrying, such as your umbrella, a bag, or a baby).  American restrooms are dirty, non-private and have no convenient amenities.
  • The Tokyoites were almost universally well-dressed and look relatively fit; it's as though the entire city got the memo on how to take care of themselves.  (Moreover, it's as if I were the one who had written the memo: The color palette and styles were exactly what I would -- and did! -- wear.)  Here in Seattle, the number of people one sees who are ill-kempt, poorly dressed and/or overweight is depressing.  (For example, it is depressing to me to be able to walk through a public space -- such as the Seattle airport -- counting the number of plus-sized teenagers wearing their baggy sweatshirts or tee-shirts with expressly anti-exercise, pro-laziness slogans.  Seriously, why do so many American's think that's okay?)
  • In Tokyo we didn't see many signs of poverty or mental illness.  Here, the parks are filled with vagrants and each busy street corner comes with its own sign-toting beggar.  
But I have good things to say, too!  As much as I loved Japan, there are great things here that I'm excited to get back to.  The first two things that come to mind are (1) the total absence here of knobby yellow tiles in public floors and sidewalks (glory be!), and (2) the enormous variety of food flavors in the US.  Japanese food is delicious and I love it, but after two weeks I began to feel a certain monotony in the overall flavor palate -- I wanted something that didn't have seaweed, fish, rice or soy in it.  So it was with great delight that, as we got further from Tokyo, we were able to order other types of food:

Thai basil chicken with rice noodles
Hamburger with bacon and Monterey Jack cheese and side salad
Chicken shawarma with grilled tomatoes, notions and peppers

This trip was a good one, and I'd love to go back and spend more time in Japan.  But for now I'm really happy to be back in the place that I'm trying to call home.  With this trip finished, I now have a long, uninterrupted stretch of Seattle-time in front of me.  I'm hoping to use that time to continue to settle in, buy a house, make more friends, etc., so that the next time I return from a long trip, it really will feel like coming home.

Saturday, July 5, 2014

Tokyo (last day) - Tokyo National Museum

Our last day in Tokyo was rainy and gray.  We packed our bags, but our flight wasn't until 7:00 pm.  What to do until then?

Well, first thing:  breakfast at Denny's.  You might wonder why we would choose for our last meal in the food Mecca that is Tokyo an American chain that we would never eat at back home (I probably haven't eaten at a Denny's since early college days).  The reason is simple enough:  American food is currently all the rage in Tokyo, and Denny's seems to be profiting nicely from that cultural phenomenon.  They're everywhere!  And unlike in the States, Denny's doesn't stick to the low-rent neighborhoods, either.  This Denny's was right across the street from our hotel in the chic and affluent Ginza neighborhood, nestled amongst the Michelin-starred restaurants and artsy boutiques.  We decided to give it a try.


Scrambled eggs with salad, sausage and bacon, with a side of pancakes.

The verdict?  Food quality was about the same as in the States, but the portion sizes were smaller and the prices probably lower.  Also, I don't recall ever seeing a fresh avocado and nut smoothie option on American menus.

Feeling energized after our American breakfast, we set out to visit the Tokyo National Museum.  Might as well see some art and stuff before we leave, right?


On our way to the Museum's main entrance, we were stopped by two boys (with their mothers and teacher in tow) who were looking for foreigners to practice their English with.  They were bashful and nervous and earnest and totally adorable as they "interviewed" us using rehearsed questions and prompt cards.  They asked us where we were from, what sports we liked, our favorite foods.  And they even took questions from us (they both liked watching soccer and baseball, though apparently were less fond of playing).

When they ran out of questions, we wished them good luck and went inside the museum in search of kimonos . . .


. . . ukiyo-e (the famous Japanese wood-block prints), which also conveniently demonstrated women actually wearing the kimonos.



After the kimono and ukiyo-e galleries came the costumes for the Noh theatre (Noh is one of the traditional forms of theatre in Japan, characterized by brightly colored, lavish costumes).




Then we left the textiles wing altogether and found the hardware -- or should I say hardwear?  These were the collections of samurai armor.



As our time drew to a close and we needed to think about catching the train out to the airport, we passed through the gift shop.  Amanda made some last-minute purchases and inspired me to make a couple of my own.   I have no idea where I'll hang them, but they'll add a nice Japanese flair among the artworks I've purchased on other foreign travels.

This is a copy of "Sanbaso Dance played by a Boy", a ukiyo-e
by the 18th Century artist Suzuki Harunobu.  The copy was made by
hand using all the traditional methods and pigments.
I don't actually know anything about this painting of cranes (all the
explanatory materials were in Japanese), but I liked the lines.