Gustatory Challenges In The Land Of The Rising Sun

A lovely sashimi lunch in Tokyo…

The biggest bucket list destination on my list has always been Japan, so when I finally went there in March of this year, I set out to absorb as much of the country as I possibly could, traveling through Northern, Central, and Southern Japan over the course of 14 days.  I had a bit of a concern about encountering odd food items, but since I grew up eating Japanese food, I felt pretty confident that I would fare well through most of the trip.

One of my favorite Japanese food items, umeboshi

There are many Japanese food items which I love to eat, and some of them are comfort foods for me.  Things like manju, chawanmushi, umeboshi onigiri, tsukemono, and just plain old gohan (rice) give me a sense of great joy whenever I eat them, because they take me back to my childhood.  I knew that I could always order my favorite food items without any issues.

Overpriced imported strawberries and tomatoes

One thing I noticed immediately was that the sashimi I ordered in Japan was not only far superior to most of the sashimi I have had in the states, it was also much cheaper.  What would cost me about $25 in the U.S. ran only $11 to $13, and the fish was incredibly fresh and flavorful.  The food items which were outrageously overpriced were imported fruits like baby watermelon ($15), strawberries ($30 for 6 jumbo fruits), tomatoes (also $30 for 6 large fruits), and I wasn’t interested in those items anyway.

I wasn’t about to limit myself to safe food items like sashimi and ramen, but I also had some trepidation about encountering bizarre, Fear Factor type foods. What also added to the challenge was the fact that some restaurants which didn’t give a hoot about gaijin (foreign) customers refused to put out menus in any language other than Japanese.  So I struggled to decipher a few menus while I was in Japan, searching for the kanji and kana I knew, like 肉 (niku, or meat), 魚 (sakana, or fish), ご飯 (gohan, or rice), and 野菜 (yasai, or vegetables).

The first evening I was in Japan, I walked to a quaint little restaurant near the hotel I was staying at in in Ota-ku.  The proprietors were lovely, gracious, spoke a bit of English, and also served a tasty chirashi bowl which I happily devoured.  I was tempted to return to the same restaurant the following night, but I wanted to explore, and ended up in a very bizarre restaurant which featured the first nihongo-only menu.  The instant I walked in, the proprietors and guests all stared at me, making me very uneasy.  At that point though, it was late, I was hungry, and I needed to eat, so I put up with the icy reception.  One table in particular was quite loud, and one middle-aged man clad in manga covered pajama pants was making the most noise at that table.  He kept talking and cackling while taking long drags off his cigarette, creating clouds of off-putting fumes which wafted over to where I was sitting.  There was no way I would have a relaxing evening at this place!

The proprietress handed me a menu and mumbled something very rapidly in Japanese, then shuffled off hurriedly.  I took one look at the menu, took a deep breath, then scanned the menu for kanji I could recognize.  I ended up ordering a bowl of rice, tsukemono, edamame, gyoza, and a whole fish which was so tiny that I had to order 3 more to fill up on the meal.  The food was ordinary, unimpressive, and it was incredibly expensive.  Thank goodness I was leaving for Sendai the following morning!

On March 9th, I took the shinkansen from Haneda Tokyo to Sendai, and once there, I was determined to have a bowl of ramen.  I had fantasized about eating ramen while in Japan, and I wasn’t about to wait any longer.  Luckily, I was able to find a tiny yet popular ramen house in Sendai, and I was rewarded with a spectacular bowl of ramen.

Later that evening, I became hungry again and began to scan the area for a place to have dinner.  My travel companion noticed a restaurant which was perched on the second floor of a building and suggested we try it, so we trekked upstairs for what would become the most bizarre and costly meal of the entire trip.  The menus were only in Japanese, and the waitstaff spoke absolutely no English.  We ended up ordering sake, rice, gyoza, sashimi, chicken skewers, and tsukemono.

The menu at a small restaurant in Sendai

The tsukemono, sashimi, and chicken skewers were not what we were expecting, and our taste buds were definitely offended by the experience.  The tsukemono featured vegetables like eggplant which, in our estimation, does not produce an ideal pickle, due to its mushy texture and bland flavor.  Next was the sashimi, which included some very strange seafood selections which were a very different texture and flavor from what we have enjoyed, even in other restaurants throughout Japan.  Let’s just say there were some neglected morsels of seafood after we relinquished the plate.

Lastly, there were the chicken skewers, which were also quite surprising.  There were eight skewers, but only two had chicken muscle meat, and those two consisted of chicken thigh and not chicken breast.  Two skewers were chicken skin, two were chicken kidney, and two were chicken gizzards.  I was a sport and ate one kidney skewer, but I could not tolerate the gizzards or chicken skin, and my buddy wouldn’t touch any of them.  We learned our lesson from that restaurant and avoided ordering any chicken skewers for the remainder of our trip, because we noticed that all chicken skewer dishes in Japan seemed to include the undesirable organs which we were served while in Sendai.

The next day, I had another bizarre food experience which almost completely turned me off from ikura, or salmon roe.  I visited the Mitsukoshi in Sapporo, and saw numerous vendors selling the bright orange, salty roe which was my grandmother’s favorite.  I alighted upon one vendor whose ikura looked especially fresh, and was offered a sample, which was absolutely divine.  I promptly selected a tray and paid for it, not noticing the mentaiko which was also on the tray.  For those of you who don’t know what mentaiko is, just click here for a description.  Despite the fact that I had only heard about mentaiko, and didn’t know that it was sold with the roe sac.  I quickly found out that it was tough, rubbery, very strong in flavor, and so disgusting that I spat out the first bite, drank a bunch of green tea, then brushed my teeth to get rid of the taste.  They say that people either love or hate mentaiko, and I found out I am definitely a hater!

 

 

ALL The Ramen!

Sendai ramen

As a result of my Japanese heritage, my palate has always been primed for ramen.  I’m not talking about the economical dried version which has become a rescue meal for most monetarily challenged college students (admittedly, I availed myself of this habit when I was a struggling college student and also holding down two jobs).  I’m talking about authentic, Japanese ramen which can be found in ramen houses in Japantown areas around the United States, as well as ramen shops and yatai (stalls) throughout Japan.  A steaming bowl of authentic Japanese ramen is a masterpiece, full of slurpy golden noodles, briny broth, meat, and vegetables, irresistible and unforgettable.

There are over 32,000 ramen houses throughout Japan, and there are enough ramen varieties and regional variations to steep your fascination for this delectable soup.  It is quite common to see long lines of people spilling onto the street in anticipation of a bowl of heaven from the more popular noodle joints.

In the months leading up to my trip to Japan, which took place in March of 2020, ramen was the dish I was the most excited about eating while in my maternal grandparents’ native land.  Even though I am supposed to avoid wheat and eggs, I was NOT about to deprive myself of ramen while in Japan.  I ended up paying the price every single time I consumed a bowl of ramen, developing abdominal cramping within 20 minutes after ingesting each bowl of those incredible noodles.  Then the next day, I was ready to eat more ramen, even though I knew full well that my belly would writhe in digestive protest.

There wasn’t a single bowl of ramen I had while in Japan that was less than spectacular, and I truly got a kick out of the bizarre yet efficient way in which most ramen houses had their patrons order (basically, you order from a station and pay through it as well, without any human interaction).  I was also intrigued by the distinct regional variations which popped up depending on what prefecture I was visiting.  Curious about the main types?  Click here to learn more.

Sapporo Ramen…miso base with ground chicken, crabmeat

I quickly noticed that in Sapporo, miso ramen was featured in many of the ramen-ya.  And before you think it’s just a basic miso, noodle masters add in fresh garlic and ginger and simmer with pork broth for an unbelievably tasty concoction.

Kyoto Ramen

Kyoto Ramen

I had both shoyu ramen (first image above) and miso ramen while in Kyoto, and loved both.  Then as I headed further south, I encountered creamy, extremely flavorful broth.  In Okayama, I encountered a specific type of  tonkotsu style broth, made from slow simmered pork, but with Okayama-specific seasonings.  Delicious.

Okayama ramen

Then I arrived in Kumamoto, my grandmother’s birthplace, and noticed that the ramen houses featured a very milky, rich, flavorful broth which was also made from pork bones for many hours.  Though I am not a big consumer of pork, I was happy to ingest it daily as part of my almost daily ramen indulgence.

Obviously with all the ramen around, I didn’t follow a low carb diet.  In fact, I had rice balls to snack on whenever I rode the shinkansen (bullet train), and I had a devil of a time finding high protein meals or snacks of any kind.  So I just allowed myself to enjoy the constant carb bump for 2 weeks straight. If you ever travel to Japan, don’t deprive yourself of ramen, rice, mochi, manju, and other carb-heavy foods.  You will be moving around so much during the day that you will burn off the carbs pretty steadily.

Finally Going to Japan

source: 123rf
Image ID : 75553096
copyright : Sasin Tipchai

 

Next week I will be in Japan for two weeks, and though it hasn’t quite sunken in yet, I will finally see the country which is responsible for 50% of my DNA makeup and many of the  sensibilities and habits which were instilled in me when I was little.

For over 50 years, my desire to visit Japan was coupled with remorse over even wanting to visit without my mother, since she has never once visited the country from which her parents came.  Even more guilt-inducing was thinking about how in the world I could believe that my diluted, half-Japanese self had any right to visit Japan if my mother never got a chance.   For those of you who are wondering why I am not taking my mother on this trip, she is 87 years old, wheelchair-bound, incontinent, and actually refuses to take any trips anywhere due to her weary, broken state.  I know that she will live vicariously through me, as I retell the stories and experiences which I am about to create on this journey to the motherland.

Over the course of 14 days, I will visit Sapporo, Sendai, Kyoto/Osaka, Nara, Nagoya, Hiroshima, Fukuoka (the prefecture which my grandfather was from), Kumamoto (the prefecture my grandmother was from), Okayama, and Tokyo.  Most of my destinations within the land of the rising sun will be reached via Shinkansen, also known as the bullet train.

Because samurai blood runs deep on my grandfather’s side (we are also ultimately descended from the Imperial Family of Japan), I look forward to seeing the older architecture in some areas, and also plan to visit the cemetery in Fukuoka where some of my ancestors are buried.  But what I look forward to more than anything else while I am in Japan is the FOOD.

Many Japanese foods, like chawanmushi, mochi, takuan, sukiyaki, agedashi, ramen, sashimi, anpan, and manju, are my comfort foods, and since I will have all types of Japanese cuisine available to me to sample for two weeks, I have a feeling my taste buds will be very happy.  I also absolutely adore seafood (perhaps I was a cat in a past life), and will probably be eating it every single day while out there, which is why I will also continue to take chlorella daily to control the mercury levels in my body.

Once I return home, I look forward to creating a blog post in which I discuss my adventures in Japan.  It will truly be a blessing to visit the exquisitely beautiful country within which my family’s roots sit.

Hear About My Travel Promise To Myself On This Toddcast Episode

https://m.soundcloud.com/toddcastpodcast/stacey-naito-ifbb-bikini-pro-made-herself-a-promise-to-travel-every-2-years

Check out this audio clip from a wonderful interview with Todd Hancock on his Toddcast Podcast, in which I talk about the travel promise I made to myself back in 2014. I’ve been keeping that promise and I’m thrilled about it!

My International Travel Promise To Myself

Copyright : Sebastien Decoret

Back in 2014, I made a promise to myself that I would visit a foreign country, preferably one I had not visited before, every even-numbered year. I designated every even year primarily as a means to give myself enough time to prepare my schedule and my finances to be able to travel every other year, and I also chose that interval because I felt a strong itch to visit a foreign country in 2014.

Why was I struck with this idea in 2014? One reason was that I suddenly realized that year that I had not taken a bona fide vacation since 2007. The second and more compelling reason stemmed from deep conversations I had with my dear friend and meditation teacher, who was quickly succumbing to a very aggressive and deadly brain tumor. On more than one occasion during my visits with him, he told me, “Don’t wait to do the things you have always wanted to do, because you might run out of time to do them.”

What Rob told me really got me thinking. I thought of how my mom had a number of big dreams dashed because she had always pushed them to the side, believing that she either didn’t deserve to pursue them, or that her dreams would never come to fruition. For example, she had entertained a strong interest in travel, but she always made excuses for why she couldn’t go on vacations or getaways. In fact, the only “vacations” she ever took were when one of her siblings fell ill or died, and she had to fly to Hawaii to visit. I don’t know about you, but I certainly don’t think such trips should ever count as vacations, especially since they are so emotionally difficult. It’s not like my mom went to Hawaii and had a grand time at the funerals she attended.

Though I had traveled to various destinations for reasons other than the death of a relative, I knew that I had also fallen into a similar trap of making excuses about being too busy to take a vacation. So in the Spring of 2014 I decided to travel to Prague to compete in an IFBB Pro event, and figured that I would also visit Hungary, which was on my bucket list of destinations to visit.

My friend Rob passed away on April 29, 2014. After spending several weeks grieving for him, I decided to act upon my proposed travel plans to Eastern Europe. As I was planning the trip, I realized that since I would be in prep for a bodybuilding show, I wouldn’t be able to enjoy Prague as a vacationing traveler, and also realized that I would only have a couple of days to explore Hungary. I ultimately decided not to compete, and instead booked a 7-day trip to Hungary which I completed in September of 2014.

Hungary turned out to be just as magical as I imagined it to be, and I honestly felt like I was honoring my dearly departed friend Rob when I was there. By an incredible stroke of luck, I was able to travel to Sydney, Australia and Bali the following month. Satisfied with having traveled to 3 new countries, I resolved to go somewhere new in 2016.

In March of 2016, I flew to Costa Rica, adding to my list of foreign destinations and keeping my promise to Rob and myself to travel internationally in an even year. After my Costa Rica trip, I wasn’t able to save money consistently for a trip in 2018, but whenever I had a chance to set something aside, I did.

I’m proud to say that I have fulfilled my promise yet again this year, when I traveled to the Maldives in September, and to Thailand earlier this month. Both trips were absolutely amazing, and I feel spiritually richer because of those experiences. I love the fact that I am able to say that I added six new countries in the last 5 years to my foreign travel roster, and I have every intention of adding to the list in 2020. My goal is to save up for a trip to Japan in 2020, but if I am unable to save enough money to travel to that destination, I will select a more reasonably priced excursion so that I can stay on track with my travel goals.

For those of you who are curious about what foreign countries I have visited, here is the list:

England (1980)
France (1980)
Switzerland (1980)
Italy (1980)
Germany (1980)
Austria (1980)
Greece (1980)
Turkey (1980)
Hungary (2014)
Mexico (1986, 1989, 1992)
Costa Rica (2016)
Australia (Sydney) (2014)
Bali (2014)
Maldives (2018)
Thailand (2018)

It will be exciting to think about what countries I will visit in the future. Some of the countries on my list include: Fiji, Bora Bora, Spain, Egypt, Vietnam, Czech Republic, Finland, Ireland, Scotland, Kenya, New Zealand, Nepal.

For those of you who dream of traveling, but who always seem to find a roadblock when trying to plan a trip, how about setting a similar goal to the one I have set for myself? You would give yourself at least a year to save up money between trips, and you would be able to travel to destinations you’ve always wanted to see.

My Flying Trapeze Experience

I took a flying trapeze class in mid-October at TSNY LA, and absolutely loved the experience. It was the salted caramel pretzel of experiences, frightening and exhilarating and challenging and fun all at the same time. Once I was on the trapeze swing and doing tricks, I felt a complete rush of excitement, but every single time I had to stand on that VERY narrow platform, 20 feet up in the air, the adrenaline would surge through me, and I would feel very nervous. Honestly, standing on the platform was the only negative part of the experience for me! The actual tricks I learned were completely awesome, and I had NO fear while doing them. The competitive spirit in me kicked in, as did my gymnastics background, and I put in 100% effort so that I could kick ass up there. I am proud to say that I did not disappoint myself. In my last trick, I completed a successful catch from a knee hang position on the fly bar, with the catcher on the catch trap (the other bar). What a rush!

Though the experience was supposed to be a bucket list item, I enjoyed the experience so much that I am considering taking regular classes. Call me crazy, but I loved the challenge, and since my body remembered all the childhood tumbles and moves from gymnastics, the kid in me was awakened. Another thing I noticed was that my upper lats were more sore after doing trapeze work than when I hit back day at the gym. I truly enjoyed the new physical challenges and hope that my schedule allows me to fit regular classes in.

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For those of you who want to know more about the flying trapeze, I have copied and pasted the Wikipedia definition here:

The flying trapeze is a specific form of the trapeze in which a performer jumps from a platform with the trapeze so that gravity makes the trapeze swing. Most flying trapeze acts are performed between 20 and 40 feet above the ground.

The performance was invented in 1859 by a Frenchman named Jules Leotard, who connected a bar to some ventilator cords above the swimming pool in his father’s gymnasium in Toulouse, France.

In a traditional flying trapeze act, flyers mount a narrow board (usually by climbing a tall ladder) and take off from the board on the fly bar. The flyer must wait for a call from the catcher to make sure he or she leaves at the correct time. Otherwise, the catcher will not be close enough to the flyer to make a successful catch. The flier then performs one of many aerial tricks and is caught by the catcher, who is swinging from a separate catch bar. Once in the catcher’s hands, the flyer continues to swing and is thrust back toward the fly bar in a maneuver called a “return”. A return could consist of some kind of twist back to the bar, an “angel” (when the catcher holds the flyer by the feet and one arm), or any other trick that a flyer can think of to get back to the bar. Once back to the fly bar, the flyer can return to the board, and another flyer takes a turn.

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Terminology:

Listo/Lista – Ready: Used by the flyer and/or catcher to signify that they are holding the fly bar (for a flyer) or have built enough height in their swing for a catch (for a catcher) and ready to go.

Ready – Used by the catcher to tell the flyer that they should leave the board momentarily. The flyer bends their knees and if executing a one-handed take-off, dips the bar so they can raise it higher when they jump off the board.

Lining Up – Called from the board. When the person working the board for those who have not yet learned to retrieve and serve the bar themselves gives the flyer the fly bar. It really means that the flyer is “lining up” their trick.

Hup – Signal to leave the board and/or the fly bar. Sometimes used by the catcher to tell the flyer to let go after a catch when landing in the net.

First – Usually called by someone pulling safety lines when tricks are being thrown to the net. It is used for front-end tricks to signify getting to the first position.

Final – Also usually called by one pulling safety lines. It is used for front-end tricks to signify getting to the final position.

Gotcha – Some catchers say “Gotcha!” when they catch to signify that they have a good grip on the flyer and that the flyer can let go of the fly bar.

Catch Trap – The trapeze that the catcher swings on.

Fly Bar – The bar the flyer uses.

Apron – The net in front of the catch trap. (The back apron is the net in back of the board.)

Rise/Riser – A narrow board placed on the rungs of the ladder to allow the flyer to take off from a higher point.

Noodle – The long pole used to reach the fly bar when the person working the board cannot reach it normally.

Mount – When the flyer mounts the board after a return.

Return – When the flyer, after a successful catch, manages to return to the fly bar, and often all the way back to the board. In professional shows, the flyers rarely come down from the board.

Grips – Can be gymnastics grips or ones made out of tape. They are used to protect the flyer’s hands.

Chalk – Used by the flyer and catcher to absorb wetness and to reduce sticking to things such as the fly bar.

Force Out – Kicking the legs out at the peak of the flyer’s swing to gain height.

Hollow – Comes right after the force-out. It is basically a neutral position.

Sweep – Comes after “hollow”. Signifies kicking the legs back.

Seven – The last part of a force-out swing. Flyer brings legs in front of them so they will not hit the board.

Cutaway Bar – The bar that the catcher holds when the flyer executes tricks to the catcher such as normal Cutaways and Reverse Knee-Hangs.

Cut (as in Cut Catch) – The flyer is caught in a legs catch and swings out into the apron. On the next swing into the apron, the flyer thrusts their body up, and the catcher lets go of the flyer’s legs and grabs their hands.

Tricks

Below is a list of flying trapeze tricks that can be thrown to a catcher:

Feet Across (a.k.a. “Legs”)
Heels Off
Hocks Off
Splits (Front End/Back End)
Straddle Whip (Front End/Back End)
Whip (Front End/Back End)
Bird’s Nest/Birdie (Front End/Back End)
Shooting Star
Half Turn
Straight Jump
Cut Catch
Uprise Shoot
Forward Over
Forward Under
Double Over
Passing Leap
Piggyback
Pullover Shoot
Reverse Knee Hang
One Knee Hang
Flexus
Somersault
Hocks Salto
Front Hip Circle/Back Hip Circle
Seat Roll/Penny Roll (Full Time/Half Time)
Planche (Front End/Back End)
Pirouette (540)
Layout
One and a half Somersault
Cutaway
Cutaway Half
Cutaway Full
Double Somersault
Double Cutaway
Double Cutaway and a half twist
Double Layout
Full Twisting Double
Double-Double
Triple Somersault
Triple Twisting Double
Full Twisting Triple
Triple Twisting Double
Triple Layout

These are tricks performed bar to bar:

Hocks Off
Splits (Front End/Back End)
Straddle Whip (Front End/Back End)
Whip (Front End/Back End)
Bird’s Nest/Birdie (Front End/Back End)
Half Turn
Straight Jump
Planche (Front End/Back End)
Layout
Double Somersault

These are tricks that can be performed without a catcher:

Salute
Half Turn
Force Out Turn Around
Back Mount
Suicide
Reverse Suicide
Pirouette

Returns:

Half Turn
Flexus
Birdie
Legs (Twist one direction to grab the bar.)
Angel (1 or 2 legs)
Pirouette

TSNY Trapeze Tricks Chart
If you are in the Los Angeles area, and you are interested in taking a flying trapeze class, here are two excellent schools. The first one is the school I went to for my first class, and the second one is the place where I will probably take more classes.

http://losangeles.trapezeschool.com/

http://www.flyingtrapeze.com/