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.

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!

Magical Thailand

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Copyright : pakhnyushchyy

Last November I traveled to Thailand with an open mind and no set itinerary, and I fell in love with the country. From the island vibes of Koh Samui, to the many temples scattered throughout Chiang Mai, to the metropolitan atmosphere of Bangkok, Thailand far exceeded my expectations.

There was so much to do and see that the ten days which were earmarked for the trip weren’t nearly enough. Yet my friend Sasha and I were ambitious enough to travel to areas in north, south, and central Thailand, and we noticed differences between the areas.

If you like the idea of being on an island, then you might want to consider island hopping, but make sure that you designate most or all of the trip for the islands instead of trying to conquer areas on the mainland as well. Consider visiting Koh Samui, Koh Lanta, Koh Phi Phi, Koh Chang, Phuket, Koh Pha Ngan, Koh Kood, etc.

Here’s a link to an article which describes the Thai islands in a bit more detail: https://www.roughguides.com/article/best-thailand-islands/

When we were on Koh Samui, we drove around the island (which took all of an hour), which was a bit of a challenge since Thai residents drive on the left side of the road, and the traffic is rather haphazard. We spent time on the beach, indulged in fresh seafood, got massages, and relaxed.

After four nights on Koh Samui, it was off to Chiang Mai, where we visited a number of Buddhist temples. As someone who identifies as a Buddhist, I immensely enjoyed honoring the Thai temples and praying to Buddha. Evidently there are over 300 Buddhist temples in Chiang Mai. A word of warning though: Do NOT wear anything with Buddha’s image, such as a t-shirt. Thai people take honoring Buddha very seriously, and if you are seen using Buddha’s image as decoration, you could be arrested and thrown in jail!

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Copyright : Sutichak Yachiangkham

While in Chiang Mai, we also spent a half day at Kanta Elephant Sanctuary, where we fed and bathed the elephants. It was a tremendous experience and one which I highly recommend. Another activity which we found ourselves doing quite a bit of was shopping, which was surprising since shopping isn’t exactly one of my favorite activities. However, it is quite an experience to visit the night markets, not just for the souvenirs, but also for the sensory experience. The sounds, the sights, the aromas of Chiang Mai will surround you in such a way that you won’t mind so much that you are sweating through your clothing in the sweltering humidity and heat.

Last stop was Bangkok, where we spent two nights (“two nights in Bangkok”…I know, it’s supposed to be one night…) consuming fantastic food, visiting more temples, the Golden Palace, and getting fantastic massages at Perception Blind Massage. During the earlier part of our Thailand trip, we had made the mistake of going to two different massage places (one right on the beach while in Koh Samui, and the other in Chiang Mai) which were cheaper, but the masseuses were of questionable skill, and the massages were NOT good. But Perception Blind Massage in Bangkok (800 baht for 60 minutes, which is about $28) and Natural Wing Spa on Koh Samui were exceptional and well worth the extra expense.

A Thailand vacation is very reasonable on the pocketbook, so you will be able to explore the country in many different ways without breaking the bank. Typical dishes in most restaurants run around 50 to 80 baht ($1.70 to $2.70 right now), and a GOOD massage will run about 800 baht ($27). Hotels are also very reasonably priced, with a 5 star hotel in Bangkok averaging about $90 per night.

A Beach Inspired Haven

I’ve had a fixation with beach-themed bathrooms for over a decade now, and love using shells and beach-themed décor as fun accents to remind me of the ocean and the beach. When I moved to a new residence this past January, I decided to really have fun with the beach theme, and I took it to the extreme.

One of the features I have displayed in my bathroom is a collection of clear containers which hold sand and shells from different beaches I have visited.  Included in this collection are sand and shell samples from Hawaii, Costa Rica, Bali, Thailand and the Maldives.  Whenever I look at my collection, I am transported back to those magical destinations which captured my heart and spirit.

Whenever I feel like escaping to an island getaway, but I am stuck in Los Angeles, I’ll take a bubble bath while surrounded by my sand and shell collection, lit candles, and starfish lights.  It’s a wonderful way for me to recharge and to surround myself with reminders of my favorite terrain.  I also love the fact that I finally have a full bathtub in my bathroom after 20 years of having shower stalls.  Whenever my schedule allows, I try to take a relaxing bath, which beats taking a quick shower any day.

Fit on the Fly: How to Work Out While Traveling

Check out this informative article by Sheila Olson of FitSheila.com

image via Pexels

Whether you have to travel for work or you are about to enjoy a vacation, spending time to improve your physical fitness while traveling should fit into your schedule. The more time you take off from your fitness regimen, the harder it will be to bounce back once you settle back into your normal life. That being said, traveling is a great opportunity to switch up your fitness routine and challenge your body to work in a new way. Exercise variety is key when it comes to burning fat and calories while improving other elements such as balance and flexibility.

Check out these tips on ways to incorporate workouts into your travel plans and itinerary so you can stay fit on the fly.

Try Out a Local Class

Boutique fitness studios are popping up everywhere nowadays; surely there are a few not too far from wherever you are staying. Scout out your options and walk in to see if they have any deals for first-time students. Often, these places offer the first class for free or at a discounted rate in hopes of encouraging the person to sign up for more.

When picking out a class to try, always lean toward the beginner’s level, even if you consider yourself fit. The latest fitness crazes always throw in some kind of twist to make them more difficult– like this Dallas studio that has you do basic bootcamp exercises, but on a suspended surfboard. You never know what you are going to get with a new class, so you might as well start out slowly.

Tour the Town

There is always something to explore, no matter where you are. And if there is something to explore, there is a way to do it while also breaking a sweat. If you have time to see the sights wherever you travel, get as much of them in as you can by running, skating, or biking around the area. Not only will you be fitting in a workout, but when you hit the pavement, you get a taste of what life is like for a local.

Even if you don’t have the time to burn running around the city, you can choose to be more active by walking wherever you need to go. While it doesn’t burn many calories, there are still health benefits to walking. Try to get at least 12,000 steps in each day– Plexus recommends tracking them with an app on your smartphone. Be sure to go the extra mile with the little things like taking the stairs instead of an elevator or getting off the subway one stop early if you have the time to stroll.

Eat Right

Diet is just as important as exercise, and don’t let anyone try to tell you differently. If you spend your travel time eating junk, it’s going to come back to haunt you once you are home. Maintaining a wholesome diet while you are on the road is really more important than fitting in exercise. If you walk a lot and eat well, you may lose some of your recent gym gains, but your bounce back will be swift.

● Avoid all processed foods and stick with snacks that are composed of a few ingredients at maximum. Some great options include fruit and nuts.

● Buy groceries and make your food rather than eating at restaurants. Food you make at home tends to have less fat, sugar, and sodium in it. Chefs tend to put those ingredients in their food to make you come back for more.

● If you are flying, bring an empty water bottle with you. Once you are through security, fill it up at the water fountain. Drink plenty of water throughout your trip to prevent dehydration.

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Travel is no excuse to forgo fitness. Stay on top of your workout game by trying a new class and seeing the sights in a way that also breaks a sweat. Also, don’t neglect your diet while you travel. Eating a poor diet makes bouncing back that much more difficult when you get back on your fitness track at home.

Pack Your Meals! Tips On How To Succeed

containers-stacked-for-storageAnyone who knows me well is aware of the fact that I am consistent about packing clean meals and toting them around with me throughout the day. It can be cumbersome to pack food, especially when I know I will be out of the house for most of the day, but by doing so I have peace of mind knowing that I will be able to stay on track with my meal plan no matter what. Competitors and fitness professionals practice this habit and can attest to the power of clean eating in maintaining a sculpted, muscular physique.


However, I realize that many of you who do not compete or have an involvement in fitness may be wondering if there is any point to packing meals if you are an average person. There are a multitude of benefits to be gained from packing meals for the day:

• Portion Control – If you measure and weigh your portions before placing them into containers, you will have full control over your intake.

• Cooking Method – Steaming, baking, boiling, grilling and poaching are easy cooking methods which also enable you to prepare food without adding unnecessary fat.

• Save Money – By purchasing food at the grocery store and preparing it yourself, you will save a significant amount of money.

• Maintain A Low Sodium Diet – Restaurants often add significant amounts of sodium to enhance the flavor of their dishes. If you are trying to keep your sodium intake low, you are better off preparing your own food.

• Accommodate Medical Dietary Restrictions And Food Allergies – Restaurant meals may add ingredients which are forbidden from your meal plan due to medical conditions or food allergies. Instead of taking a risk, you are better off preparing your meals and packing them with you.

When I worked the Arnold Sports Festival Expo in Columbus, Ohio earlier this month, I made sure to drink plenty of water, filling up my one liter container 3 to 4 times each day. I also brought my Hot Logic Mini with me (https://youtu.be/GQltYTRLTC4) and had meals from Icon Meals (https://iconmeals.com/) with me, and I made sure to consume a meal every 3 hours to keep my energy levels up. If you are committed to living a healthy lifestyle, you will find ways to stay in line!

I always recommend tempered glass storage containers over plastic, since heating up ingredients in most plastic containers carries a risk of deranging the plastic and releasing harmful chemicals into the food. I make an exception with BPA-free containers, and recommend the types which have locking lids to prevent leakage of food.
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The BEST meal packing system out there is made by Six Pack Bags:
https://www.sixpackbags.com/bags.html

By adopting the habit of packing your meals, you will be on the road to better health!