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Heading back to work after time off is always hard, and leaves us anxiously checking the calendar for our next three day weekend.  The two weeks following New Years are tough to get through, but thankfully we reach a Federal Holiday commemorating Dr. King, providing a much needed break for all government employees come mid-January.  With both of us working long hours, we found ourselves desperately needing a weekend getaway.  The local travel agency on base offered a special to the west coast of Japan to visit the castle town of Kanazawa, famous for seafood, the gold leaf industry, and home to one of the top 3 most beautiful Japanese Gardens.

We put AJ in the kennel, picked up our train passes, and enjoyed a mix of Shinkansen and reserved local trains through the mountains west of Tokyo, and on to the Sea of Japan. We rode the train through the snow belt, enjoying fresh bento boxes and watching excited, tipsy snowboarders get off the train into a winter wonderland.  While our home near Tokyo does not get much snow, the surrounding country gets blanketed.  Much of Japan is truly a winter sports paradise, but we noticed stacks of wood logs and very steep roofs everywhere, indicative of how hard it really is to live there.


I had seen the Sea of Japan while on my emergency shelter/evacuation trip around the country after the March 11 earthquake, and had seen what looked like interesting villages.  Over the past year, I had been wanting to go back with Angela to visit, so we used this as an opportunity to visit the West Coast.  We got off at JR Kanazawa station and grabbed a taxi to our hotel in the inner city.  The west coast of Japan, far from Tokyo and Kyoto, sees less foreign tourists, but we were excited to visit the old, independent samurai town.  Kanazawa was the seat of a powerful Samurai clan, who maintained as much independence from the Shogun as possible, fearing his domain would be split and divided to diminish his power.  What we discovered for the next few days was a city built for defense, but that provided many luxuries for those the defenses protected.


We expected snow on the ground, but luckily it was just warm enough to melt the recent snow fall.  Kanazawa is famous for its rain and snowfall, and has developed ways to protect trees and bushes from the weight of heavy snow.  A majority of trees we saw were protected by a simple rope system which would break up the snow, saving the plant from damage.  In fact, this is what Kanazawa is famous for, and tour guides always include a picture or two of these tree pyramids. I assume they remove the contraptions in the summer, so it must be a painstaking process.  But in Japan, this really does not surprise us.

Our hotel was in the historic city center, and we headed off on foot to explore, coming across a unique shrine with a bell tower, reminiscent of western architecture.  The shrine, originally funded by the local daimyo, had relocated near the castle in the late 1800s after the Meiji restoration, and like much of Japan was suddenly curious for western ideas and thoughts.  In Kanazawa, that meant building a bell tower near their largest shrine based on European and American designs.  Stained glass was incorporated, giving the shrine an odd feeling of being in old Europe.

After visiting the shrine we walked along an old samurai neighborhood with traditional mansions and walls lining the streets. Restored mainly for tourists, we enjoyed the walk through old Japan, something more difficult where we live due to the massive modernization following the Pacific War’s destructive conclusion.  Though we looked for the famous local seafood, we stumbled upon spicy curry, which is always a good pick on a cold day.


The next day we enjoyed a good morning of sleeping in and enjoying matcha lattes from Starbucks before heading into the cold rain to explore the famed Kenrokuen Gardens.  Walking towards the garden, we came across a truly unique experience.  We noticed an old looking shrine near the garden on fire, so decided to check it out.  It turns out the shrine was hosting another New Year’s event, in which people burn whatever possessions from 2011 they wish (mainly house decorations and home shrines, including images of bunnies from the year of the rabbit).  Locals would drive up, get out of their car, walk to the fire and throw out 2011. And in Japan, 2011 deserves to be burned away.


It really started to rain and got cold when we walked into the garden. Good thing we had hot hand pads in our shoes and on our backs to warm up our kidneys!  The garden was a private domain for the samurai lord and his guests until the late 1800s, which is amazing as the garden was truly remarkable with everything you would imagine a Japanese garden would have.  The garden’s picture spot is a stone lantern overlooking a man-made koi pond.  This lantern is unique due to its longer than normal stand, and is prominent in every advertisement of the area.


Tired of getting wet, we took a break inside a restored tea house in the garden and enjoyed matcha and sweets on tatami mats listening to the rain in a remarkable experience.  The rain actually let up and we decided to explore the old castle grounds.  Walking up through the outer gate, we expected to pay an entrance fee when a local retiree took pity on the wet foreigners and gave us a private tour of the castle park.

Our new personal tour guide spoke good English and was overjoyed to show us the renovations being done to turn the park into a full blown tourist attraction.  He walked us through a fully rebuilt defensive gate and showed us all the different techniques of how unique this castle was compared to others (all Japanese towns say theirs is most unique), but we did learn a lot about castle construction.  After a great private tour we finally sat down to dinner. We chose a quiet place near the castle that treated us very well, serving mochi udon and tempura.


After dinner we explored a famous geisha district north of the city that remains intact.  We enjoyed the stone streets and wooden homes, but remembered from Kyoto that it is hard to see a Geisha at work without going into the expensive establishments.  We woke up the next day with one goal: to find and tour a famous Buddhist temple nearby labeled as the “Ninja-Dera.”


The Ninja temple has no actual connection to ancient ninja assassins, but was built by the local daimyo as further protection against a potential invading Shogun intent to fully subjugate the realm.  The paranoid local lord helped fund this Buddhist temple on the outskirts of town to delay and warn of an attacking force. The building defied many edicts from the Shogun, and included many trap doors and hidden pitfalls for unsuspecting invaders (why an invading samurai army would attack a Buddhist temple and not just go around it was beyond me).

The temple was beautiful, and we could follow the tour though it was given all in Japanese.  The creepiest part was a suicide room, with doors that could not be opened from the inside once closed.  If a samurai failed he could go in there and would commit seppuku, or starve to death, in any case dying for failing.


Our trip over, we headed to the train station early to enjoy sushi salads and grab train alcohol.  Japan’s infrastructure is built to get you anywhere without driving, so we enjoyed a few drinks while looking at dozens of snow covered peaks on one side of the train and the Sea of Japan on the other.  All in all a great weekend away to recharge.

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While we have greatly come to enjoy green tea since moving to Japan, we realized we didn’t really know anything about it.  So in an effort to educate ourselves, we visited a green tea plantation in Shizuoka prefecture, an area that produces 40% of Japan’s green tea.  Unfortunately, the tour did not teach us much about green tea, but we did get to pick our own tea leaves!

(If it wasn’t raining, we were supposed to wear these to pick the green tea. But it was raining…)

It was a rainy and yucky day, but despite the weather, the fields of green tea were still beautiful.  I didn’t even realize green tea grew on regular looking bushes (that were perfectly crafted into rounded rows, of course). The first leaves of the spring are the most expensive, supposedly providing for the finest of green tea, and we were lucky enough to visit during the first harvest.  Apparently, green tea connoisseurs will pay almost $100 a cup to enjoy the first leaves of the season, artfully hand ground into a fine tea.  I guess green tea is a bit like fine wine, though I’m not sure I will ever be a connoisseur.

After the factory tour, our guide instructed us on how to properly pick tea leaves.  We learned to pick the top four leaves, and the guides spent a significant amount of time explaining this to us.  I think there must have been something lost in translation, because he seemed to be doing a lot of talking, and all I got out of it was we were supposed to be picking the top four leaves.  Finally we headed outside and began to pick.  The rain discouraged us from picking a lot, and I wish we had picked a bit more than we did.  It wasn’t nearly as exciting as picking other things, because unlike picking fruit, you weren’t enticed to eat the sweet delicacies as you picked.  Although they did encourage us to eat a leaf off of the bush and James did.  He said it tasted just like a regular leaf.  I believed him and declined the opportunity to eat a green tea leaf right off of the bush.

After ten minutes in the rain, we headed back inside with our little bags of green tea leaves to learn about the process of turning those leaves into green tea.  We were given an awesome cup of green tea and a sheet of paper with directions on how to make it at home.  That was the extent of our education on green tea making, but we did go home and give it a try.

We bought sushi roll mats, and equipped with our directions, we began steaming the leaves.  After a good steaming, we ground/kneaded them in the sushi rolls for a few minutes until they started crumbling.  Between each kneading (three total) we put the leaves back on the stove to dry them out.  This took about 30 minutes per cup of tea, but I think it was worth it.

Steam, knead, dry, knead, dry, knead, dry….TEA!  We burned our first batch, but the second batch turned out great!  There is something special about drinking an amazing cup of green tea with the satisfaction of knowing that you picked the leaves and made the tea yourself.

Homebrewers across the world search for exotic and odd ingredients to distinguish their beers for both fun and competition.  Big breweries tend to shy away from innovations, preferring simple and cheap ingredients to reproduce the same tasting product at different locations for mass consumption.  Micro-breweries are in somewhat of a golden age in the US right now, and are making headways in Asia as well.  Dogfishead Brewery in Delaware often uses unique ingredients in their brews, but have a knack for balance and a keen understanding of the American palate.  Well, in Japan, there is a nationalist attitude insinuating that anything Japanese is genuinely unique and can be used in virtually any situation.  Wasabi leaves and green tea leaves are two common cash crops with dozens of uses in Japan.  Green Tea is world known for a variety of health improvements, and wasabi is commonly associated with sushi but is found in a host of other products.   There is no doubt in the usefulness and greatness of wasabi and green tea… but not a main ingredient in beer.  Recently we purchased a few bottles of wasabi and green tea beers from Shizuoka prefecture, which is known to grow both in abundance.

Wasabi beer tastes like you would imagine… a bland base beer that washes down with a wasabi harsh aftertaste and not at all refreshing.  Green Tea beer was drinkable, but left your mouth dry like drinking plain unsweetened matcha… again, not a flavor one desires in beer.  But the adventure was worth it!  Though not all have failed at using these ingredients,  Baird Beer, a Japan based microbrewery, joined forces with one of the world’s finest craft breweries in Stone Beer from San Diego, CA to create a Green Tea IPA.  So far I have heard of it only available in America, but am on the lookout for it here!

When I first arrived in the land of the rising sun, I wasn’t a huge fan of green tea.  I didn’t even know what matcha was, but I didn’t particularly like it.  Matcha is a finely ground, frothy green tea used in tea ceremonies in Japan.  After living here (and drinking green tea) I can confidently say that green tea is an acquired taste.  A few months ago, I could barely drink it, and now I find myself having green tea cravings. Especially matcha cravings! Anytime we travel, I try to order matcha for dessert, or visit a tea house to enjoy that bitter leaf.  Matcha is usually served on a lacquer platter, accompanied by a traditional Japanese sweet that frequently represents the season.  During the spring, tea will often be served with a cherry blossom shaped sweet, and in the fall, usually a maple leaf.  Each tea house serves the sweet differently, and I appreciate the slight differences.  Two of my favorite places to drink green tea in Japan are the Nakajima tea house in Tokyo and the Hokoku-ji Temple in Kamakura.  The Nakajima tea house in Tokyo is famous because Emperor Meiji drank tea with Ulysses S. Grant here in 1879.  The tea house is beautifully set on a pond, surrounded by the concrete jungle of Tokyo.  The Hokoku-ji Temple in Kamakura is fondly called the bamboo forest, and here you can enjoy your green tea peacefully surrounded by bamboo trees.  I will say that I do I have a hard time drinking the tea in three sips, as is proper, and instead choose to enjoy every last sip (which is usually about 10 for me!).  How can you fully enjoy matcha in three sips?  I guess I need to take a class on the tea ceremony to understand.  And green tea is not limited to tea houses and travel destinations, but can be found in your local Starbucks and in green tea flavored treats.   I am addicted to the matcha latte at Starbucks.  And at the local grocery store I find myself buying green tea latte packets to enjoy at home.   I have recently found the matcha green tea kit kat, and green tea oreos!  And did I mention how much I love green tea ice-cream?? Green tea is literally everywhere in Japan, and I am excited I have fallen in love with it.

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