The Best Honeymoon (Part 2)

28 04 2008

I never expected any “perks” as honeymooners but when we were getting our rental car at the airport, I casually mentioned that we had just gotten married, and the guy behind the counter insisted that we “take the Mustang.” Red Mustang convertible, to be more exact. After we checked that our luggage would fit, we were on our way like rock stars. There’s nothing like getting off of a 6-hour flight after being delayed for 3 hours and knowing that you’d be traveling in luxury for the next six days.

Since we were arriving in San Francisco so late, I had booked us into a convenient and inexpensive Best Western in Chinatown. The Flamingo Inn was just what we needed—close to both the airport and the road up to wine country, clean, and only $79 per night. The only downside was that at 1:00 in the morning on a Monday there was nowhere close by to get anything to eat. My husband raided the vending machine as I got myself ready for bed, and we tried sleeping despite our excitement to really get honeymooning the next morning.

After waking up way too early (jet lag and excitement) and being pleasantly surprised by the free breakfast, we hopped in what now is my favorite car and left the city. The strip through Napa Valley was lined with vineyards and wineries. The scenery was too beautiful to be part of the United States, at least any part that I had seen, and we drank it up.

Arriving at Laird Family Estates, our first official winery, I marveled at the bushes of rosemary and lavender that flourished in the temperate climate.

As we waited to meet with a wine maker (we mixed business with pleasure, slightly, for the tax write-offs) the tasting room staff member kept us entertained with the history of the estate and a private tour of the operation. Laird Family Estates, besides making their own wines, is also a custom crush facility where over fifty wine makers can use to produce their wines.

When the wine maker arrived with samples of his wines (as gifts—the second honeymoon perk) he took us to his private barrels in the massive storehouse that stored the vintages many wine makers. We were treated to barrel tastings and an inside look at what happens in the storeroom. This was a unique way to feel like pampered royalty on our honeymoon.


French wine: Montpeyroux

26 04 2008

Imagine if you would a small rural town deep in the heart of France. The road from the highway winds its way to the village, which is set on the crown of a small hill. The houses lining the street are made of stone and look as though they have been here forever. The people bustle by, headed to the market with empty baskets, or coming back with a treasure trove of fresh produce, flowers, poultry, wine, everything that makes life good and livable, the riches of the land to share with a hungry family at home at the family table.

Looking north from the village there are the Massif mountains, and between the village and the mountains are vines-acres and acres of vineyards. Among those vineyards are the vignerons, artisans of untold worth, toiling away in the hot Mediterranean sun, pruning their vines and checking their grapes. They are like artists stretching their canvas and preparing pigments for their paints. Each plot of land is chosen for its soil. Each vine is patiently tended. The earth collects beneath the fingernails of someone deeply connected to the land, the seasons, the passage of time. When autumn comes, they will harvest the grapes, pull them from the stems and crush them, releasing the sweet nectar held within each globe, patiently waiting to be transformed by the artist’s hand. The vigneron will carefully paint their first strokes on their canvas, some bold passes of the brush leaving behind the framework for the art to follow. Every detail is lovingly tended to, patiently addressed by the grower of wine.

For truly, here is not some mechanical production of vinified grapes, not some harsh approach to one of the most delicate balances between art and science. Here are those few who continue to grow wine with their own hands, by their own toil. The families here, from one generation to the next, work to produce what can only be called one of the greatest wines in the world. The vignerons of Montpeyroux produce one of the best wines in all the Coteaux du Languedoc. Its base of Grenache and Syrah, often with Mourvedre and Carignan, adds complex levels to the wine. These winegrowers build a wine inspired by the past, with hundreds of years of experimentation and learning before them, producing robust wines that can stand up to hearty fare, with acids and tannins that add to the quality of the wine and the food. But the people who make Montpeyroux wine also appreciate the heralded future of wine: big berry and rich fruit flavors and aromas.

Pour some out of the bottle and stare at the mesmerizing ruby color of the liquid. Smell the wonderful scents of raspberries and roasted fruits along with clove and laurel, bits of lavender or mint. Every time you raise the glass, a new scent introduces itself gently to your senses. Then the flavor, with the richness and breadth of the liquid on your palate, a bit of soft fruit and spices and herbs, followed by a soft, delicate finish that lingers and invites you to come back for another sip.

Wine from Burgundy is beautiful, but can be rather one-dimensional. It is a versatile wine in the sense that it can pair with many dishes, but the qualities of the wine really are quite similar. Bordeaux has long been heralded as the most amazing source of wine, but the best bottles often require years of careful cellaring before they reach an enjoyable state. Even then, despite a variety of grapes, Bordeaux all too often has the same flavors over and over again.

What is amazing about Montpeyroux, is that each glass of each bottle is its own adventure. Not to imply a lack of consistency, but rather that there is something truly beautiful about the wine here. It’s wild and untamed, and all the more amazing and delicious because of those qualities. Drinking a great Bordeaux or Burgundy can be like watching a tiger in the zoo. The animal is beautiful, powerful, amazing and mesmerizing, but in the wild, the same creature is somehow magnificent, feral, terrible and great all at once. By stepping away from the borders wherein we all feel so comfortable, by taking the bars away from the tiger’s cage, we can truly experience the wild side of wine. True, it takes an adventurous heart to venture into unknown territory, but like the quiet meal at home with family, the rewards that lie waiting in the wild are some of the things that make life worth living.

Ghibli Museum

26 04 2008

“Let’s lose our way together,” I read in the brochure I received at the entrance of the Ghibli Museum in Tokyo, Japan. “There aren’t any set routes that you must follow. You are the one to discover your own way. Those who can lose their way and fully enjoy this space are welcomed at the Museum.”

I decided I would have to remember back to the first time I went to Tokyo with my family, over 20 years ago as an 8-year-old, when I was overwhelmed with every new sight and sensation. I gazed up at the painting on the ceiling of a giant, tangled vine-like beanstalk featuring characters from Ghibli films with a smiling sun in the center and immediately felt the years start to melt away. A group of professional animators called Studio Ghibli created the pastel colored, magical museum in Inokashira Park, Mitaka, a suburb of Tokyo. Hayao Miyazaki, the most well known animator of Ghibli, has produced many of the popular films such as My Neighbor Totoro, Princess Mononoke, and the recent Academy Award winner Spirited Away. Studio Ghibli’s animated features, some of which have American versions, offer adult themes in a form fit for children (and childlike adults). Princess Mononoke voices the importance of nature and protecting the environment and My Neighbor Totoro introduces two young sisters whose mother is sick and are being brought up by their father.

It’s a good thing the museum didn’t exist when I was a child (it opened on October 1, 2001) or I would have begged my parents to take me every day. Children ran amok through the maze-like museum and after I got over the initial shock of being encouraged to act with no inhibitions in a museum, I joined them. My mom and I tried hard to get lost, and eventually did, leaving my father and brother behind to explore on our own, as we peeked behind every door and around every corner. Unfortunately, we couldn’t join in playing on the giant, fuzzy cat bus, one of my favorite characters from My Neighbor Totoro (little tykes only).The Ghibli Museum reveals secrets behind the films by displaying replicas of the animators’ rooms and studios complete with authentic sketches, photo albums, and books, which show works-in-progress and the animators’ inspirations.

Museum goers can see unique, original short animated features from Studio Ghibli in The Saturn Theater. Outside on the roof, accessed only by a winding metal staircase, stands a life-sized statue of a robot from Miyazaki’s futuristic film Laputa: Castle in the Sky (sorry, kids, no climbing allowed).

After running ourselves ragged, my family met at the gift shop where we picked up some souvenirs and then relaxed at the Straw Hat Café. We sat in the shade on the edge of the park and sipped our cold “Lamune,” a very sweet and fizzy drink, before we headed home, ready for a nap, with years stripped from our hearts and weight from our shoulders.

The Best Honeymoon (Part 1)

26 04 2008
It was fairly easy for us to decide on a destination for our honeymoon. We aren’t beach people. I had never really been on a vacation where I didn’t feel compelled to wake up at the crack of dawn and go sightseeing all day. Our time (and money) was limited, and since I had enough frequent flyer miles for one free domestic ticket, that narrowed our options as well.

During the 4 years that we were together, my husband and I had become quite the foodies and wine lovers (he somewhat of a snob and me just really wanting to try as many varieties as I can) so California wine country immediately made the most sense.

I’m a huge planner. My husband isn’t. But because I was so busy planning the wedding, he took charge and took care of all arrangements, except for lodging, which I refused to give up all control of. It was nice not having to worry about reservations and itineraries, although instead I worried that we would get to Sonoma and wander aimlessly, with no maps or plans. But, I decided to give him the benefit of the doubt, and instead of being anal, I would periodically ask casually what he was planning for us.

The wedding happened, and it was more amazing than I ever thought it would be, and the next afternoon we were on our way to California. I had never been so excited for a vacation in my life. Sure, I had been to some amazing places with my family and on my own, and even with my husband, but this was an entirely different vacation. Devoid of any site- seeing pressure and gourmet food around every corner, it was like being royalty for a week.


Urakasumi Junmai

26 04 2008

Ladies and Gentlemen, please let me introduce to you one of my all-time favorite sakes. Urakasumi is an impressive sake, with all the bearings of a classic junmai sake. The aroma is like steamed rice and chestnuts, inviting and comforting. The flavor matches well to the aromas, with a soft wash of rich flavors, but retaining a light feel on the palate. The mouth-feel is very creamy and rounded, feels like sake should be, liquid rice. The finish is fairly lengthy, just long enough to entice you to come back for more. A special note for this particular sake is that the toji uses a proprietary yeast for this brew. This yeast was discovered and can only be used by Urakasumi brewery.

Note: Whenever I can get a hold of it, I will also post information (whatever I can find) regarding the brewing specs of a particular sake. Some folks find this tedious, some swear by it, and some say that ultimately, it doesn’t really matter, because everything is in your personal taste of how you relate to a particular sake.

Grade: Junmaishu
Rice: Manamusume
Seimaibuai: 65%
ABV: 15-16%
SMV: +2.0
Acidity: 1.5
Amino: 1.7

Below is a blurb from the English portion of their website, giving some background and historical flavor to the beloved brewery. It should be noted that matsushima is considered to be one of Japan’s three most famous views, although not as famous as Mt. Fuji, it has inspired many artists, and seemingly, many sake brewers for generations.

“The Urakasumi Sake brewery dates back to the time when the feudal lord of the influential Date clan in northeastern Japan ordered sacred sake to be offered to the gods of Shiogama Shrine in the feudal domain.For more than 280 years since we first produced sake in Shiogama,near beautiful Matushima Bay,our brewery has been one of the leading local sake breweries in the northeastern region.Using mainly choice sake rice grown locally, and with the consummate skill of a Nanbu toji(master brewer),we brew sake that has been described as maboroshi, or dreamy sake.”

Try it out if you get a chance.


26 04 2008

Accurate Blooming Schedule for Ohanami

It’s April in Tokyo and a Domino’s delivery person braves a snowstorm on her bicycle. She expertly weaves in and out of the drunks who crowd the street as they make their way to restrooms or back to their mats in the park. She stops at the edge of the park and makes a quick call on her cell phone. As she scans the crowd, she spots the waving group of merry makers and makes her way over to them, tiptoeing through the plastic tarps that cover the ground like a patchwork quilt.

“Sakura fubuki!” The pizza lovers yell after they settle their bill, as they toast the falling snowy white petals, or cherry blossom snowstorm. It’s good luck if they fall in your cup.

Thousands of people crowd the local park as they celebrate sakura, cherry blossoms, Japan’s official flower which signifies the coming of spring and the beginning of the school and fiscal years. To some Japanese, ohanami viewing parties simply present an excuse to spend an uninhibited weekend picnicking, drinking and singing impromptu karaoke with friends and family.

I took my local train to Kichi-joji, my favorite neighborhood for shopping and socializing, and exited on the park side of the station, which dumped me out onto the normally manageable pedestrian-dominated streets. Today was a different scene altogether. It took thirty minutes to navigate my way through an area that usually takes ten. I even tried my usual shortcuts down unknown alleyways but to no avail. The young and old from every neighboring town had emerged to enjoy the official weekend for ohanami.

As I turned down the street leading to Inokashira-koen, Inokashira Park, I passed vendors selling everything from yaki-tori, barbecued meat and vegetables on skewers, to American-style hot dogs. People were rushing in and out of konbini, convenience stores, to grab bags of chips and bottles of booze. Many stopped at the conveniently located Starbucks for a jolt of caffeine in preparation for the long, and possibly chilly, night ahead.

A successful ohanami requires planning and strategy. Typically, the lowest ranking company workers are sent to the parks with tarps to stake out an area until their colleagues join them later that evening. Partying in shifts is also an option. Night owls will often take over the site of a group that decides to go home at eleven or midnight.

I came at noon to take over the Guarding of the Tarp for our group. A friend of mine had arrived early in the morning to claim a prime spot under the trees, and hopefully, I thought to myself, equidistant to the public restrooms and sources of refreshment. More traditional picnickers cook their own food on portable mini-grills. My friends and I had decided to forgo this custom since none of us had a grill. We had planned a potluck picnic. I came bearing brownies and beer.

Every year at the beginning of sakura season, the sakura-zensen, sakura front line, helps people plan their ohanami celebrations. Maps indicating the dates when trees are expected to bloom are published in newspapers and featured hourly on the news with a specificity that is obsessive in detail. The delicate blossoms only last about a week, very often compared to the life of the ancient samurai who was fully prepared to sacrifice his life at any time for the cause of his master. A brief rain shower could destroy the petals in five minutes so careful scheduling of ohanami is essential.

Soon all of my friends arrived at the park and we settled in for a day of enjoying the beauty of the trees and each other’s company. Because we were quite a motley crew of gaijin, foreigners, Japanese and a mixture of other nationalities, we soon became the center of attention. We joined in singing traditional Japanese drinking songs and popular American ones. We shared corn and tuna fish pizzas and stories about our own cultures, sometimes with someone whose language we did not know and ended up understanding through charades and laughter.

Inokashira-koen is one of the most famous parks for ohanami in Tokyo. Located away from the city center, it has the feel of a small town. Its lake in the center with paddle boats available to rent by the hour allows celebrators a way to view the beautiful trees from a different perspective. The boats pierce through water that is blanketed with petals similar to the way some stagnant ponds are covered with scum and algae.

Besides pizza and beer or barbeque and sake, the culinary choices are endless. At the entrance of the park, the permanent fixtures are a yaki-tori stand, a gelato parlor and an Italian restaurant. Walk a little further and you have your choice of sushi bars, Indian, French and Hungarian cuisine. Combine those with the Starbucks, street vendors and deliverers, and it is impossible, even for the pickiest of eaters, to starve.

My friends and I celebrated all day and into the evening. After the sun went down, the weather turned chilly. It was only the first weekend in April. Our group of ten had grown to one of about twenty huddled together, sharing our small spot on the ground. We had made numerous trips to Starbucks and the konbini for whatever alcohol they had left, which led to bonding in lines at the overcrowded restrooms.

I asked two picnicking, karaoke-ing, sake drinking, celebrating Japanese, husband and wife, Hideo and Rie, what their typical image of celebrating sakura is.

Hideo said, “Drink, drink, drink, and drink – and girl hunting!”

“He is stupid,” said Rie, who summed up the meaning of sakura simply – they are a symbol of a new beginning meant to be shared with friends and family.

If you’re planning a trip to Japan, try to schedule it around the sakura. But check the sakura zen-sen for an accurate blooming schedule.

Tortillas Restaurant Review

26 04 2008

Tuesday night is party night at Tortillas restaurant in Willow Grove, PA. I recently went with a few of my friends and we swore to make it a regular event.

The restaurant is close to almost nothing, except the Willow Grove Mall, and you could zip right by it in your car and realize that you passed it a couple of miles down York Road, but it’s worth the trip to find it.

But on a Tuesday night–$1 Taco Night to be exact–reservations are necessary in this bustling, noisy BYO decorated with so much color and chachky it doesn’t seem to be contained within the tiny space.

Someone brought tequila and another one of us brought beer and right away pitchers of margaritas appeared at either end of our table. Baskets of chips were served next and we hit the all-you-can-eat salsa bar to load up.

The menu is huge, but we focused on the tacos. Included in the $1 deal are:

Made with homemade soft tortillas (flour or corn).Shredded Beef or Chicken $2.45
Crispy or soft tortillas filled with meat, cheese, lettuce, and salsa.
Carne Asada, Grilled Chicken or Carnitas

Soft tortilla (flour or corn) filled with meat and Pico de Gallo
Guacamolé or Bean $2.45
Soft tortilla (flour or corn) with cheese, lettuce, and salsa.
Ensenada Fish $2.95
Soft tortilla filled with crispy fried fish with cabbage, sour cream, and tomatillo sauce.

I chose the shredded beef, shredded chicken, and fish, and they were all mouthwatering. Granted, they may have skimped on the quantity of ingredients due to the special, but I could only eat half of each one and I was full. No one at the table could eat more than three tacos.

The service was slightly off, but who could blame a waitress knowing that her tip waiting on a table of 9 would probably not be worth it. But the atmosphere was so alive and exciting, it didn’t matter that it took us a little bit longer than normal to get our food.

The best part of the evening is when the bill came. After everything was added up, we each only had to pay $8. This is a restaurant that I will return to frequently, especially on Tuesday nights.