Sunday, January 24, 2010

Northern Japan Snow Adventure

Niseko. Cone volcano Mount Yotei in background (photo: Business Week)

One of the activities sitting near the top of my "must do" list for my Japan stay was snowboarding the mountains of Hokkaido. I'm actually not much of a snowboarder, but being from Boulder, I couldn't pass up the opportunity to take a break from the concrete and glass canyons of Tokyo and get some fresh mountain air. Throw an active cone volcano (Mount Yotei) into the mix and I was sold. Luckily, it didn't take much to convince Maris either, and so we decided to spend a few days in between Christmas and New Years up north on snowy Hokkaido.

Very cold but very fun!
Hokkaido, among other things, is probably best known for Sapporo beer, tasty taraba crab and snowy winters. Much of the island lies right in the path of Siberian cold fronts that help contribute to Niseko's ranking as the #2 snowiest resort in the world according to Forbes Traveler--average snowfall is 595 inches per season. For our trip in particular, we had a love-hate relationship with the weather: our ski days were met with bone-chilling wind, fog, rain(!), and yes, sweet powdery snow.

It was so cold my snot froze my jacket zipper shut

Our "Australian frat house." Looks nice enough from the outside anyway.

The other rough spot was our accommodations in Niseko, and the blame lies squarely with me. (Perhaps I messed this up enough to get myself permanently relieved from this duty; one can only hope...). The name of our "hotel" was Ramat Niseko, and it was less hotel than Australian frat house (Maris's verdict, not mine). I knew we were in trouble when the owner, Sue, didn't offer us a key to our room. This would later haunt us each night when drunken Australian college kids would barge into our room looking for "the pisser." Oh well. Win some, lose some...

Maris contemplates Yotei-zan

My new Japanese snowboard buddies

Overall, I think skiing and snowboarding with scenic Mount Yotei looming in the background more than made up for the strange sleeping arrangements. Niseko was probably the only chance we'll have to hit the slopes this season. For our singular shot at powdery glory, though, it was quite ideal.

Warming up, Apres ski. Cup of hot chocolate says "Comfortable elegant time". Comfortable elegant time, indeed.

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Breakfast of Champions: 6am Sushi at Tsukiji Fish Market

Checking out the tasty sea critters at Tsukiji

I'm sort of posting events out of order, but I had to tell you about New Years at the Park Hyatt Tokyo while it was still fresh in my mind... Speaking of "fresh," Christmas Eve morning found Maris and me at Tsukiji Fish Market asking ourselves "Are we tough enough for 6am uni (raw sea urchin private parts) and other delectable raw sea critters?" The answer--if that sushi is the world's freshest as of 3am--was a resounding "YES!"

Maris patiently waiting her turn for 6am sushi at Sushi-bun

With over 900 dealers clearing over 2,000 tons of seafood on an area the size of 43 football fields each day, Tsukiji is the world's largest seafood wholesaler. Roughly $6 billion in fresh seafood goes through Tsukiji each year. This includes the sushi-grade tuna sold via those famed auctions--one monster tuna even sold for $175,000 the other day! Seeing our breakfast in its pre-sushi (eg whole form) was a neat experience to say the least.

A grizzled Tsukiji vet getting it done. She was all of 4'8" tall.

It was also quite an experience playing "chicken" with the fed-up-with-it-all middlemen who would speed up and try to hit you in their motorized "fish movers." I don't blame them for viewing tourists with disdain; this is their "office" and here we are, collectively bumbling about touching (but not buying) their product and just generally getting in the way. In fact, from mid-December through January each year tourists are banned from the tuna auctions due to the actions of a few bad actors over the years. The final straw was last winter when a drunken British tourist was caught licking the head of a frozen tuna for that must-have Tsjukiji photo.

"Processing" live eels. These guys are slippery so they nail their heads down. Merry Christmas!

Regardless, I was able to talk Maris out of licking fish parts and together we made it past the gauntlet of sadistic fishmongers on wheels to "see some things we ain't seen before." A top 10 Japan experience for sure!


Tuesday, January 12, 2010

The Meal: New Years Eve at the Park Hyatt Tokyo

View of Tokyo from the 52nd floor of the Park Hyatt Tokyo

I'm back after a few weeks off during the New Year (Shogatsu) holiday, and so I thought I'd start digging myself out of the list of new experiences to write about by starting with New Years Eve at the Park Hyatt Tokyo. (Just a random aside in case you were wondering, yes, the Japanese do celebrate Christmas but it more closely resembles Valentine's Day--no religious connotation, high retail component, couples give each other gifts and go out on romantic dinners).

Tyler and Maris

Maris was visiting me for the holidays, and so I knew I had to find a special way for us to celebrate New Years Eve and ring in the new decade. I was told the acrophobia-inducing views from the bar and restaurant at the Park Hyatt Tokyo were not to be missed. As a huge fan of the movie "Lost in Translation," I knew the Park Hyatt and its New York Bar factored prominently in the story. I was sold.

Dinner was a 5-course French-American-Japanese fusion tour at Chef Nadine Waechter-Moreno's New York Grill. For you fellow foodies out there, here's a rundown of the menu:
  • First course: Taira Scallop Ceviche with Vanilla, Yellowstone River Caviar, Sea Urchin Flan, Sweet & Sour Cucumbers
  • Second course: Foie Gras Terrine with Fruit Chutney, Brioche, Apple Balsamic and Baby Basil
  • Third course: "Quail Cooked Two Ways" - Seared Quail Breast and Quail Consomme, Chick Pea Puree, Kochi Tomato Salsa
  • Fourth course: Grilled Miyazaki Beef Tenderloin and Braised Veal Cheek, Spiced Bread, Winter Truffle and Nut Tapenade, Spaghetti Squash, Truffle Jus
  • Dessert: Bitter Chocolate Fondant, Pineapple Chili Rice Roll with Coconut Sherbet

First course: Taira Scallop Ceviche

Dessert: Chocolate Fondant, Pineapple Chili Rice Roll, Coconut Sherbert

Favorite dish: Grilled Miyazaki beef tenderloin was pure buttery goodness--never had a steak quite this tasty before. Least favorite dish: Foie gras--I get why it's a "delicacy" but I personally can't get into it. Overall, the food was delicious, but not really worth the figurative "dishwashing" I'll be doing the next few weeks to pay the bill...

Really it was the company, the setting and the occasion that all made this an unforgettable experience. Pricey? Yes. Worth it? Absolutely.