June 30, 2010

three months in kyoto

About a month ago from now, we left Kyoto after spending three months in the magnificent old capital of Japan. While it was not meant to be a real 'vacation' for us, three months were far too short for me to really settle in a new place; from the beginning it was always meant to be a short-term stay, and that made me realize that I would always be more of a visitor than a resident. Essentially, I was little more than a tourist - only it was a rather long 'trip' and I still had to do my day job (and chores) at home in our small apartment.

Such a mindset, I think, heavily influenced how I spent my time there, as well as how I saw the place through my camera; I tried to go out and explore as much as I could - just like when I'm in my travels (normally I'd spend most of the day working at home and hardly go out back in Tokyo where I'm from). But at the same time I didn't go to typical sightseeing spots too much, but instead walked around town and checked out things like small shops and cafes, some touristy but many not. It helped that I had visited Kyoto numerous times before and had done many, if not all, of the "must-see" temples and gardens (for which I have some photos from my visits in the past few years here); so I didn't feel a need to run around for such touristy places. That's except, well, my obsessive tour across the city in chase of cherry blossoms in April, but that's another story.

The results were a huge pile of pictures that is a mixture of some travel photos and everyday sort of food shots. It has taken (and still is taking) me longer than I'd like to admit to organize these images for my blogs, but I've managed to put together a set of photos from some of my most memorable moments during the three months that I thought I'd share with you.

Some of them have already appeared in my past posts here, but most are not. Some happen to be from well-known tourist spots and/or some big festivals, but many were taken on a random small street on a random day, and even more were from small cafes around town. I tried not to include too many of cherry blossoms, but there are still plenty in the mix; after all, sakura was a major part of my stay in the city that is considered one of the greatest places to enjoy the short-lived flowers that is a synonym of the Japanese spring.

So if you have a moment to spare, come and join me to re-live my time through snapshots. A three months' stay may not have been long enough for me to really 'live' in Kyoto, but I certainly lived it. It could have been the best three months that I've ever spent, and I still think a lot about it, and miss it dearly. I hope I'll get another chance to go back for more than just a few days. The city has so much to see and experience.

And most importantly, I was blessed to have some of the loveliest people around me. Thanks so much for all of you who shared some of your time in Kyoto with me - without you, my days in Kyoto would never have been such a fun. Thanks also to the people of Kyoto for allowing me to wander about and get a taste of living there. Thank you, Kyoto! -cx

* Slideshow: three months in Kyoto

June 22, 2010

strawberries and some thoughts

This year's crop of strawberries from a tiny corner of the vegetable patches at my mother's in Nagano; irregular in size and shape, but aren't they so adorable?

In Tokyo, "new season" strawberries these days hit the store shelves at the end of November. Yes, you read it right: November. They seem to arrive earlier and earlier every year, and now they are "at their peak" in late December to February, then start to disappear slowly until there are only a few punnets of them seen at the fresh produce section of the stores, which would be around late April. By mid May or so, you don't really see them much - and even when you do, they somewhat lack an appeal; compared to all the typically large and plump, glamorous berries you earlier in the season, strawberries in May just don't attract my attention. Maybe it's just me, but still.

But up in the high-altitude countryside just about (give or take) 100 miles north of Tokyo, things can be different. Here I was happy to find fresh strawberries, still holding their place at the stores, and most of them locally-grown (i.e. in the Prefecture of Nagano). They are often small and may not be sweet like candy but are pleasantly sweet with a hint of tartness, making them perfect for snacking.

That strawberries are around till late (or later than they usually are in Tokyo) means you can have them with other early-summer fruits, like peaches. I have always thought strawberries should go well with peaches, but in Tokyo, by the time many stone fruits arrive, (good) strawberries would mostly be gone. So I was excited to be able to come home with both strawberries and peaches, even though the latter might have been a bit too early in the season (they are in their prime in July and August).

And there was another thing (or two) that made me really happy in Nagano:

Rhubarb! It's a true hard-to-find item in Tokyo (and probably most part of Japan), and one that you see is mostly, if not always, imported. And very expensive. And Nagano happens to be one of the few rhubarb producer in the country, perhaps even the largest of them; starting in late May or so, you can find handsome stalks of rhubarb at some of well-stocked supermarket, and increasingly more so at small "farmer's markets" (stores that carry produce delivered directly from local farmers).

As for gooseberries, they are even harder to come by in Tokyo; the only time I've ever seen them, it was in the dead of winter, imported all the way from New Zealand. A few years back I had a big longing for these tart green berries, and a blogger friend of mine remembered that and sent me a box of them in the following summer, from the northernmost part of the main island of Japan where she lived (and still lives); I've heard that gooseberries are relatively common in the cooler northern part of the country. They are around only for a short period of time, and this was my first time ever seeing them in Nagano. Imagine my excitement when I found them this past weekend when we were out shopping.

So that day, I came home with two large bunches of rhubarb, a couple of peaches, two packs each of strawberries and gooseberries, and a pack each of dark and pink cherries, thinking about what I would do with them.

And this is what appeared on the table in the following morning on Monday; ricotta pancakes with strawberries and peaches - along with a simple rhubarb and gooseberry preserve to top yogurt (home-made, by the way, courtesy of my mother).

To celebrate the sweet and succulent early summer fruits, I wanted something really light and simple to go with them, more on the fluffy side than the crunchy or crisp. This led me to pancakes rather than my usual picks like crumbles and scones. Fluffy pancakes served with juicy fruits, don't they sound perfect together?

Well, perfect if not for one major problem: I'm hopeless at making pancakes. Or anything that's made on a skillet/griddle/frying pan, as I rambled on a few months back. But my determination to have fluffy pancakes and fruits for breakfast was strong enough to give me a kick in the back and make me pick up a pan for once.

And how did my ambitious breakfast project fare? Well, sadly not too well.

I fried six or seven pancakes and none came out of the pan looking as good as I had wished for them to. I almost decided not to mention the recipe I used, out of fear you might compare my humble specimens to their textbook-perfect pancakes (ugh), but I am anyways, because the recipe did produce truly light and fluffy pancakes.

I'd looked up several different recipes online for ricotta pancakes, and many seemed to be similar in that they tell you to separate eggs and whip the whites, and to add lemon to the batter. Although my pancakes failed to look pretty, they still turn out light and fluffy to my great excitement, and a hint of lemon was just what you'd need to perk up the barely-sweet cakes.

Here, a heap of fresh strawberries (some cut and tossed in sugar and Kirsch, some simply cut, and yet some more left whole) and a few slices of a white peach complemented the light-as-air pancakes beautifully, just as I'd hoped. I also served a spoonful or so of ricotta cheese alongside, which added a subtle tang to my fluffy and juicy breakfast plate. Together with a finishing touch of confectioner's sugar on top, all these topping also served to cover up most of my less-than-perfect pancakes, helping them manage to look OK-ish (I think). So I consider my effort and courage as having been paid off.

So all things considered, I was pretty happy with myself, I must say, and as I fed myself with more of fresh strawberries, I was reminded that it was the first day of the Wimbledon Championships...

For many years I have been an on-and-off tennis fan, but Wimbledon holds a special place in my heart, especially since my first ever visit to the ground back in 2006. I had to miss all the matches that day due to the rain and my lack of time, but at least I didn't miss a few of Wimbledon staples: Strawberries and Cream and Champagne!

So with my mind adrift over the far land of England, I treated myself to a cup of Strawberries and Cream, which essentially is just fresh strawberries tossed in sugar and served with a pour of cream. I chose to add a dash of Kirsch to the berries (well, I was out of Champagne or any booze, so had to somehow make up for the lack of alcohol, you know) but otherwise left it simple, just as it should be. Only thing was, I used heavy cream (with a fat content of 35%) rather than single cream (18-20%) that they use for this dessert in England, thus my version ended up tasting heavier than the real stuff.

Other than that, it was as close as I could get to Wimbledon - and maybe a few hours spent in front of TV at odd hours. Hopefully with a glass of Champagne in my hand, even. I love early summer nights.

June 17, 2010

hello monsoon

yes it's that time of the year again; the month-long monsoon has officially arrived. well, so they say - every year they (the national meteorological agency? not sure really...) "declare" the start of the rainy season, and they did so a few days ago for tokyo and most other areas of the country. then we've had this wonderfully sunny and dry weather (with occasional showers, admittedly, but briefly), with the temperatures hitting over 80F/30C. well hello, monsoon?

having left kyoto at the end of may (and spent a few days in tokyo), i've been retreating in nagano, in a quaint japanese countryside in the mountains. as far as the weather goes, it's been fabulous; mostly sunny and warm, not as humid as it often gets down in tokyo, and still pleasantly cool in the evening. i've also been spoiled with the abundance of good food, especially fresh vegetables and fruits, which are mostly locally-grown.

despite being surrounded by the great nature and food, i haven't been taking too many picture of any of it (except for a few home-made desserts, which i should write about soon-ish). it's partly because the fact that i stayed here a few summers ago and took a load of photos then (you can see them here) - so i felt like i shouldn't have to go over everything again. or maybe the fact that i have waaaaaaay too many photos from kyoto that i want to take care of first (working on that!). but it's mostly down to this: i haven't been out and about much, being plain busy (and lazy). yeah it's a shame, i know.

so here are some of the few snaps that i've managed to shoot over these past few weeks. some landscapes, some food, mostly outdoors. i hope these can give you a glimpse of what i have up here - just a every day stuff and nothing special, but all the same it's very special to me, if that makes any sense.

- rice paddies

- fresh milk and berry-yogurt gelato

- a view of mountains through thick trees

- a quiet hilltop road

- a simple lunch of onigiri (rice balls) to feed a hungry bunch

- crumble with season's fruits for breakfast

- at dawn

- ice cream in the sun

- after the rain

- an afternoon drink followed by a nap...

well i've said there hasn't been much rain, but apparently it's coming; the 7-day forecasts say we are having rain for the next seven days and possibly longer. which makes me wish i had gone out more and taken more pictures while the sun was out and shining. oh well, i'll now just try and make it through the month of rain while wishing for the sun to come out every now and then. well hello, monsoon!