Monday, August 25, 2014

Germany Austria Vacation

MapIn a great turn of events my parents have agreed to take over our kids for a week in late November allowing Alena and I to take another what we hope to be a great vacation for our eighth wedding anniversary.

We had an approximate plan in our head for a while now, but this week we actually did a good amount of preliminary research and have finalized our core itinerary. After having done that we have booked the plane tickets and our hotels.

We have a pretty good idea of what we want to see at each destination and how we are going to get around. Trains will be the main form of transportation. However we are planning to rent a car for one day and have a side trip as we did in Italy.

It seems that train pass doesn’t make sense for us yet again, as we’ll only be taking the train two times. I looked at approximate pricing of train tickets on the routes that we have to take to make our plan more solid. Same with the car rental.

Now in the coming month we’ll just do a lot of reading to make sure we don’t miss something interesting as well as what food we should try beside the obvious bratwursts and beer. Basically we’re going to start building on our initial plan. One thing that we know we want to try avoid is anything related to World War II. But I think that will be in our minds anyhow throughout this trip.

The short summary of the plan is as follows. We leave on late night of Friday, November 21st. We fly1 to Berlin with a change over in Frankfurt on our way and land on November 22nd. We couldn’t find a decent direct flight. However I finally do get to fly Lufthansa and Boeing 747! We’ll be coming back on Monday, December 1st on a direct flight from Vienna with Austrian Airlines.

We were thinking of which cities to visit and ended up decided not to spread ourselves to thin and limit it to only 3 cities — Berlin, Munich and Vienna. As before we’re going to stay in Hilton hotels. At this point we booked hotels for a combination of points and euros, but by the time November rolls around we plan to have all of them upgraded to points exclusively.

By taking advantage of our Hilton Diamond VIP benefits we expect to get rooms upgraded, access to executive lounges, free breakfast and Internet access.

Our trip will start in Berlin. We’ll spend 3 nights2 in the city. Judging by our Italian vacation the first day we’ll feel very much like zombies, so we’ll just grab some dinner and go to sleep.

Our hotel is located right in the center of the city. Guides suggest that people visit Gendarmenmarkt square and it’s right across the street from us. Brandenburg Gate is also within a walking distance. We also want to visit Fernsehturm — a TV tower built during soviet times. Also we will possibly visit Tiergarten — Berlin’s Central Park. And we will try to climb to the top of Reichstag.

On Tuesday of November 25th we take a train to Munich. We’ll spend 3 nights3 there. In Munich we plan start start with Marienplatz (the main square), climb to the top of the tower at Rathaus (city hall), visit Frauenkirche (Munich’s largest church). We will also try to visit the English Garden and have some beer at the world’s most famous beer hall — Hofbräuhaus am Platzl.

One of our Munich days we’ll dedicate to renting a car and driving south to visit Neuschwanstein and Hohenschwangau castles.

On Friday, November 28th, we will depart to the final stop of our trip — Vienna, Austria. We’ll also spend 3 nights4 here as in the other cities. Our hotel is located right in the city center, so we’ll be mostly walking around without having to use any transportation. We’ll try to visit Hofburg Imperial Palace, 12th century St. Stephen’s Cathedral and we’ll try to climb to the top of one of its towers.

We still need to do a lot of reading about other places that we want to visit in these 3 cities and build out a more detailed plan of getting around the cities and from city to city. We made the reservations in the beginning of April, but still have not made a lot of progress as far as t he exact plan goes. Hopefully it will be another great trip filled with memories.

  1. Round trip tickets came out to $2,155 for the both of us. Very expensive this time around. But we do get to fly Lufthansa and Austrian. []
  2. Hilton Berlin — 60,000 points per night. Expensive! []
  3. Hilton Munich City — 60,000 points and €195 for all 3 nights. []
  4. Hilton Vienna — 48,000 points and €149 for all 3 nights. []

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Thursday, December 6, 2012

10 Years!

Alena and Arosha.Today is a very very big day for me. Exactly 10 years ago I was sitting at home being very nervous in the anticipation of an upcoming date in the evening with a girl that I really liked. As everyone can guess — the date went well. Really well. The girl that was a complete stranger to me on that day is now my closest friend, a wife who I deeply love and a mother of my son.

So many things had to happen and be just right for us to meet and actually to try to get to know each other on that day. I’m oh so thankful to fate for how it all came together. Chudo, I love you so very much! I hope for another 50 years to be as great as the past 10 have been!
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Monday, September 10, 2012

Italy Vacation

ItalyIn light of the fact that our Grand Canyon and Las Vegas vacation fell apart due to the fact that we were unable to obtain a visa for Alena’s sister we decided to stay positive and still plan a vacation even though it was not what we originally hoped for.

We asked my mom if she would still stay with Arosha for the duration of our trip and she very graciously agreed. She has to take time off work herself for us to be able to make this vacation happen so we appreciate this very very much.

We did some initial research and based on this outline we booked the whole trip already. We know the route that we want to take, but now we need to fill in the gaps and build out an exact plan for each destination and means of getting from one place to another — trains and car rental. The list of things that we made certain decisions about and things we know already follows.

On late night of Thursday, November 15th we fly out on a direct flight1 to Rome and will be coming back on Sunday, November 25th on a direct flight from Venice. Thus we’ll be able to have our 6th anniversary dinner in Venice — one of the most romantic places in the world.

We, again, are taking advantage of our Hilton points and our Hilton Diamond VIP status to get the best bang for the buck. Hilton points are better used if they are being spent in one place at once. Since it was not really possible with a trip like this we took an advantage of a new program that Hilton recently introduced — an ability to pay for the room using points and money.

The hotel portion of the trip ended up costing us 215,000 points (free portion) and €428. We’re getting a room upgrade, access to executive lounge, free breakfast and internet as benefits for our Diamond status. If we were to book the same hotels without points it would amount to €1,627 and everything I mentioned above would cost additional money. Needless to say we’re quite happy with how this program has been working out for us.

We will spend 2 nights2 in Rome. We’re assuming that even though we’ll get to Rome somewhere around noon on Friday we will be very tired, so we’re not making any complicated plans for the evening. We’ll do something simple based on how we are feeling. On early Saturday morning we are going to explore the Colosseum and its surrounding, eat lunch and spend the second half of the day exploring Vatican.

On Sunday morning we’re planning to catch a train to Florence where we will spend 3 nights3 and rent a car. We’ll spend one day exploring Florence itself and another day we’ll drive out to Pisa and take a look at its leaning tower and drive through Tuscany back-roads.

On Wednesday, November 21st we leave for Milan. We will spend 2 nights4 there. We will try to make a short stop at Bologna on our way. In Milan we plan to explore a huge Milan Cathedral and go up to its roof. We also would like to explore Lake Como if weather permits it and if we’re in the mood.

And on Friday, November 23rd we’ll drive to our final destination — Venice. We’ll spend 2 more nights5 there, making stops along the way at Verona and Vicenza. We haven’t yet decided where exactly we will have our anniversary dinner, but any place in Venice should be quite romantic. Our final Saturday we’ll dedicate to exploring Venice with Piazza San Marco being one of the main objectives.

As always it sounds like it will be a great vacation, but how and where exactly we’ll end up going we’ll only find out after it’s over. Now we need to start the work on researching our destinations.

Update: We ended up reshuffling the days a bit. Rome and Florence portions stayed exactly the same as listed above. However we spent 1 night in Milan and 3 nights in Venice. We also ended up having enough points to full pay for those 4 nights — 40,000 for Milan and 150,000 for 3 nights in Venice. The final total cost for the hotels came out to €232 and 275,000 points. Points worked out great again. The suite that we stayed in in Venice, for example, would’ve cost $1,100 per night if we didn’t have our points.

  1. Alitalia to Rome and Delta from Venice non stop flights for $886 per person. []
  2. Hilton Garden Inn Rome Claridge — 20,000 points, €56 and taxes per night. []
  3. Hilton Garden Inn Florence Novoli — 15,000 points, €40 and taxes per night. []
  4. Hilton Milan — 40,000 points per night. []
  5. Hilton Molino Stucky Venice — 25,000 points, €98 and taxes per night. []
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Friday, April 13, 2012

Anniversary in Kyoto

One of the wooden wall at Nijo Castle.It has been almost 4 months now since our trip to Japan and yet I keep coming back to it, trying to write more and more about it. As I’ve said many many times before, this vacation of ours was amazing. And even the smallest references to Japan in our everyday lives fill up my heart with warmth. We’ve been to many places there that became special to us and one such place was Kyoto.

Planning


Originally we planned to stay in Osaka and make a couple of day visits to Kyoto. The express train ride was from 15 to 30 minutes long which is much shorter than our ride to Manhattan is. But later on we thought that Kyoto would be a great and very romantic place to spend our anniversary day and night at.

To make it even more special we made a reservation for a stay in Nishiyama Ryokan — a traditional Japanese inn — for the night of November 23rd. The stay also included a traditional Japanese dinner on the eve of 23rd and a breakfast on the morning of 24th. It also happened so that our anniversary of November 23rd fell on the same day as a national holiday in Japan.

Subway station.Our plan was simple — take a bullet train to Kyoto in the morning of the 23rd, buy the daily passes for Kyoto subway and buses and spend 2 days exploring the city with a stay and celebration in the above mentioned ryokan. We had the luxury of leaving all our bags in Osaka at our Hilton hotel, since we had a room there booked and paid for anyhow. And that’s exactly what we did.

Morning


On the early morning of our anniversary day we ate breakfast at our hotel buffet and soon after got on the train the schedule of which we confirmed via Hyperdia website — our JR station in Osaka was right across the street from our hotel.

Nijo Castle grounds.We got slightly confused by the signs at the station, since they were not specifying Kyoto on the train that we were supposed to take. When we asked for confirmation at the entrance booth we were told to take some other train which would get us to Kyoto later than the one we were thinking of taking.

It turned out that the sign at the station was actually specifying the last stop of the train (which makes sense) and Kyoto was one of the stops before that. So we did hop on the train that we planned to take and it worked out just right. In a little more than 20 minutes we were standing at the main Kyoto JR station right in the heart of Kyoto itself.

Inside Kyoto JR station.Our first order of business was to buy our passes for the local trains and buses — JR basically doesn’t have any lines to any of the places that we wanted to visit and we thought that instead of making it hard on ourselves by trying to calculate the cheapest and the correct fare to all the places we wanted to visit we would rather spend a little bit more money and just buy a pair of unlimited passes.

Inside Kyoto JR station.The option that we chose was a 2-day pass covering two main subway lines and most of the city buses for ¥2,000 per person. That came out to about $50 for both of us and gave us the freedom of hopping on as many buses and trains as we wanted.

After spending ¥4,000 on the passes we came to a sad realization that we had about ¥1,000 left. To put that into perspective a can of soda or tea typically costs ¥150. We had dollars, but when in Japan dollars are only good to purchase yen. So we needed to find an exchange place. And from what we read the best place to exchange money was a post office. And to our surprise there was one right outside the station.

Staircase at one of the subway stations.We walked into the post office and asked a man at the counter if they do currency exchanges. He confirmed that typically they do, but today being a holiday the bank portion of the post office was closed. We went back into the station which had a large underground mall inside and tried to find another currency exchange place. It was too early in the morning and all of them were closed. In addition to that at the information desk we were told that chances are that they are closed for the day because of the holiday.

We found an ATM machine and tried using our ATM card, but the machine told us that our bank declined the transaction. We found a couple more — some were in Japanese and we could not use, and the ones that were in English kept saying the same thing as the first one did. It was becoming obvious that we had no way to get money, the entrances to all the places that we wanted to visit are not free and that this “little” debacle might just ruin our day.

Golden Pavilion


Bus to Kinkakuji.We still decided to take our chances that we’ll have enough money and go to Kinkakuji — Golden Pavilion. We needed to go to the northern end of Karasuma subway line which goes right through Kyoto JR station and from there get on the right bus — no direct subway service, hence the need for bus pass. Luckily for us we had it all planned in advance and had detailed directions on how to get there.

On the bus.We went to Kitaoji Station (15 minute ride) and there we asked for direction on how to find the buses. Turned out that there was a bus terminal right at that station and each bus stop had a list of bus numbers and places that the bus stops at — this made things very easy. Soon after we were on a bus where we were pleasantly surprised to learn that each bus stop also has an English name on the sign. Plus it appeared that a most people were going to the same place as we were, so we had no problem getting off at the right stop.

Temple map.And from the stop we just followed all the people to the temple. Funnily enough a number of locals, when spotting us, were instantly pointing out the direction to go to for us even though we weren’t asking. Also there were maps on the way on which the temple was marked by a swastika symbol. In Japan swastika is an ancient sign of the sun and even though there is a lot of bad stigma associated with the symbol in the west it is still widely used in Japan.

Near the entrance to Kinkakuji.When we got to the entrance to the temple grounds we were relieved to find out that the entrance would cost us ¥400 per person or in other words pretty much as much money as we had in our pockets. Also upon getting inside we were surprised by how crowded the place was — tourists from Japan and all over the world. We were having a hard time getting to the fence to see the temple.

Crowd at Kinkakuji.Forget about taking a good photo. Matters were further complicated by all the dark clouds covering the sky which meant that in order for me to take a beautiful photograph I had to rest my camera on something for an HDR burst. However I was lucky enough to find a good place on the wooden fence and as a result I managed to capture the Golden Pavilion and an illusion of tranquility that this place would project if all the people would suddenly disappear.

Golden Pavilion — Kinkakuji.We started walking along the path that would take us through the territory and were soon stopped by a shy Japanese girl (15 years old maybe?) apologizing and asking if she could talk to us. We noticed her nervous classmates nearby and her teacher encouraging her to be brave. Turns out she had a school project where she needed to find foreign tourists and ask them (us) several questions in English.

Kinkakuji.She had a hard time writing down our names, but was happy to find out that we were from New York — a familiar word that she knew how to write. She asked us several more questions and asked to take a photograph with us. We should have asked the same in return, but it didn’t occur to us at the moment.

Here we are.She was very happy and quite relieved that she has completed her project. It seemed that she was the first and the bravest out of her class. I think in their culture it’s a hard barrier to cross — to “bother” somebody. But it was no bother for us and we were glad we could help.

Kinkakuji.After that we covered the whole path rather quickly and decided to leave the temple grounds. If the place would be serene and quite we would probably spend much more time here, but since it was so crowded we decided to get out of the mob of tourists and just walk around city street. Plus there was nothing else we could do since we had no money to get into the next place we wanted to visit anyhow.

Hotel


Russian cartoon character — Cheburashka — seem to have taken over Japan.We spent over an hour walking through the streets. On our way we discovered several small temples, a whole bunch of closed banks, a number of restaurants for which we had no money and even got rejected at a local McDonald’s — they do not take credit cards.

Hirano Shrine.We were getting somewhat tired and hungry, so we decided to get back on the bus and go to our hotel. Remembering how there should be Wi-Fi available I thought that maybe we’ll try to call our bank and ask them to unblock our debit card for us in Japan. The bus took us to the same subway station that we were at when we got here. There we took a train back to the center of the city — the central station called Karasuma Oike. Here we jumped onto another train line called Tozai and went one stop to the east. Our hotel was located two blocks away. Very convenient and right in the center of the city.

Typical Kyoto street. This one leads to our hotel.To get to our hotel we had to walk along a tiny street. There was enough space for a single car to fit and there was no sidewalk — we just had to walk along the road itself. Our hotel was easy to find and even though its entrance had a historically old look the building was quite modern. It was just decorated as an older structure. When inside we were greeted by friendly staff, but we were told that they can keep our bags (we had none), yet check in only happens later in the day — it was still too early.

We asked them about currency exchanges and they gave us map which was listing all the banks in the area, but as with other ones — they were all closed. I got on their Wi-Fi network and tried to dial 1-800 number on the back of my debit card via Skype. That didn’t work. So I called my sister, explained the situation, gave them all my information and asked her fiance to call the bank and to pretend to be me. They were keeping him on hold for a long time and we decided not to wait for it to work out and just went out to explore the area.

Street mall.On the map here we saw a long long street that was covered with a roof and littered with all kinds of shops, restaurants and temples. These malls seems to be a popular type of thing in Japan as we saw these kinds of places in several other cities. We walked there, but our mood was pretty sour by now. We wanted to drink, but couldn’t buy anything, we want to eat, but all the places only took cash and no credit cards. After walking through this mall for some time we were starting to feel down right depressed.

Then we saw a 7-11 with an ATM inside. We decided to try our luck again and see what happens. We were hoping that maybe Lenny was successful by now and managed to get our card unlocked. I inserted my card, entered my pin and requested a withdrawal of ¥10,000. The machine started thinking, dialing and then we heard a magical whirling sound lighting up a feeling of hope in us and then it spit out the money! We were ecstatic. Never before we loved 7-11 as we did at that moment.

Entrance to our ryokan.We took our new found fortune and proceeded to buy some food. Alena got herself some red bean ice-cream which she keeps cursing to this day and I got myself some cross of a bun with meat and a wanton. It was the most delicious wanton-bun thing I ever ate. We got ourselves some juice and tea and were on our way back to the subway station to proceed with our plan. Lenny has saved our day and our anniversary.

Nijo Castle


Gates to the castle. Palace is inside.Nijo Castle was located only 2 subway stops away from ours. It was the first thing that we put on our list of things to see when we were planning our trip since it was so close to our hotel. The hunger was gone, we were “rich” and an ancient castle was awaiting us. We were in a great mood.

Nijo Castle.Nijo Castle itself was built somewhere in early 1600s and is currently designated a UNESCO world heritage site. The castle has several high walls surrounded by moats, multiple ponds and gardens and a large palace which served as the residence and office of the shogun. And visitors were allowed inside the palace.

On one of the guard towers.We were asked to give up our shoes at the entrance and were welcomed inside. There was no photography allowed in there, but it was a very interesting self-guided tour. First thing that we noticed was the sound that the floors make — nightingale floors. When people walk on them they make a high pitched melodic squeaking sound. If we didn’t read about this before we would think that the floors were simply old, but in reality they were specifically designed this way so nobody would be able to approach the shogun without being noticed.

View from the tower.Inside there was a large number of different rooms and each one had its purpose. They had mannequins dressed in kimonos in most of them displaying what normally would be happening — a dinner, a meeting and so on. Shogun was always protected by body guards that were hidden from view behind different kinds of doors and closets. The place was quite huge inside. It took us at least 20 minutes to walk through it.

One of the paths inside the castle grounds.Afterwards we walked around the territory of the castle looking at the gardens, ancient buildings and taking photographs. It was all so interesting and unusual. So many great moments and memories — I can’t say this enough.

Ryokan


The sun was starting to set, we were tired and we were getting ready for our special anniversary dinner — we had to get back to hotel by 7pm — the dinner takes a very long time to prepare and has to be served at a precise time. We got back to subway and soon after we were at our hotel. We were warmly greeted, they showed us around, made some green tea for us and we had our dinner.

Our room at Nishiyama Ryokan.For dinner there were only 2 of us there, we tried a lot of different and unknown things for us, drank some sake and had a great time. The room was very cozy, the breakfast in the morning was equally great and a tea ceremony that they performed for us was very special too. Alena claims that it was the best tea she has ever had a chance to drink, although I myself didn’t like the taste — it was too bitter for me.

I’m running through this part because I’ve already written about the hotel and our dinner in much more detail earlier. I’m really glad that we decided to spend some extra money and book a room here. Maybe it’s not a 100% authentic ancient place, but it was a perfect place for beginners like us.

Tea ceremony.It’s a great tradition that we have — to do something special on each one of our anniversaries and this day is definitely one of the most memorable and unusual days to date.
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Saturday, December 10, 2011

Japanese Food

Plastic dishes.To try actual real Japanese cuisine or rather cuisines was as interesting and as important of an objective for us as visiting ancient Japanese temples and shrines. We knew some facts about Japanese food, but we had more surprises than we expected.

First lunch. Shibuya, Tokyo.For one thing it turns out that all the foods that we have at local Japanese restaurants such as sushi, rolls, tempura, yakitori, soba and so on — in Japan these are all different restaurants specializing in each one of those things. One place does sushi, another does tempura, third does something that we’ve never heard of at all.

We didn’t do much research on food before going — we only had one place that was “must visit” on our list. And that’s the place I will start with.

Sushi & Sushi Dai


Sushi Dai is a tiny “hole in the wall” type of restaurant located on the famous Tsukiji Fish Market in Tokyo. As you can guess by the name — the restaurant specializes in sushi and is considered to be the best sushi restaurant in Japan, which in turn makes it the best sushi place in the world. I’m nowhere near being an expert on sushi, so I don’t know if it is true or not, but I can share my own impressions.

Sushi Dai sign.Having the reputation that it has this little place has a long long line all the time. It opens at 5am along with the market itself and closes before noon. It is said that the earlier you get there in the morning the faster you’re going to get in. It is also said that if the line is too long one might want to try to get into another famous restaurant a couple of doors down called Daiwa Sushi and see if the line is shorter there.

As I’ve mentioned before we really lucked out with our hotel location. The fish market was a 10-15 minute walk from our hotel, so we didn’t have to take subway or anything else to get there. It also happened so that we were still running on New York time. We set the alarm for 6am just in case, but we managed to wake up at 4am on our own — perfect.

Red snapper.Now I want to mention that I’m not the biggest sushi fan in the world by any stretch of imagination and having sushi for breakfast was even stranger. But our hearts were really set on Sushi Dai, in fact so much that we watched a ton of videos on YouTube about people visiting it. One thing that stands out in all the videos is the fact that somewhere in the middle of the course that you’re getting served you get a thing that is clearly moving on top of your rice. That was making me quite nervous.

Another thing about this place is that from everything I’ve read it seems that majority of people have a really hard time finding it on the fish market. And even if you do you must be able to identify it by a sign which is done in the same style as all other restaurants on the market and obviously it is in Japanese. I had the sign printed out, but by the time we got to Japan I had it committed to memory anyhow. I also looked at a lot of satellite photos and maps of the area. I was just hoping that things would look familiar from non-satellite perspective when we actually get there.

Sardine sushi.I’m proud to say that we got to the fish market without making a single wrong turn. And not only that, but we also arrived to Sushi Dai inside the fish market without making a single wrong turn either. One thing was obvious — no need to identify the restaurant by the sign. It was the only place with a line and a long one at that. The time on the clock was 5:40am — we did take our sweet time showering and getting dressed.

I would say there were about 10 couples in front of us. The problem is that the restaurant fits about 10 people (not couples) at a time. We took our place in line — which still was in front of Sushi Dai at the time, but soon after the line grew bigger and eventually extended around the corner of the block.

Our chef at Sushi Dai.Right in front of us was a couple of older people — a Japanese looking man and a very Russian looking woman. It turns out that they live in LA and he travels on business to Japan very often. And when she comes with him they do a mandatory trip to Sushi Dai. A couple of times per trip if they can.

It took us about an hour and 40 minutes of waiting to get in. This couple went in ahead of us and we got in right after them. We ended up sitting next to them too at sushi bar (there are no tables inside) and we kept getting advice on how to properly eat each thing which was helpful.

Miso soup.We knew what we were going to order before we got there. Our choice was an omakase option — which means that it’s up to the chef to pick the best pieces for us — for ¥3,900 ($52) per person. The course consisted of 10 sushi items selected by chef plus 1 item of our choice at the end. It also included Japanese omelet, spectacular miso soup, hot green tea and one roll, but I’m not sure if it was one of the 10 items or not — I lost count.

The chef keeps making sushi pieces in front of you and keeps serving you piece by piece as he goes. The first piece was fatty tuna. I cannot forget its taste to this point. I never really ate sushi pieces in my life. I rarely order rolls with raw fish. Typically it is somewhat chewy, and I don’t enjoy the texture, nor the taste.

Sea urchin — uni.In Sushi Dai we were told to try not to use any soy souse as it kills the taste of the fish. We did as suggested and avoided soy souse except for the things that they said it was OK to use it with. Back to fatty tuna — it basically melted on my tongue. The texture was pleasant and the taste was great. I realized that this type of sushi not only can I eat for breakfast — I’m going to enjoy it too.

After that a couple of other fishes followed which were all great. Than we were served sea urchin (uni) which most people say is pretty disgusting in U.S. It was not bad at all. And somewhere soon after my nemesis has arrived. I saw the chef put some rice into his hand, then a piece of something on top of it, then a hard slap and then he lands it right in front of me on the table. And what do you know? The moving part was no an illusion. It sure is alive.

Red clam — this thing was moving.Good thing I knew this was coming, because if I were not prepared there is a good chance I would lose everything I ate before it. But now I was set on trying it. Not for the taste, but for the experience.

I grabbed it with my hand and stuffed it into my mouth. I didn’t feel any movement, but this thing was like rubber which would squirt out some nasty tasting juice at each bite. I declare it by far the most disgusting thing I have ever eaten. But I was ecstatic nevertheless about the fact that I did not chicken out and went through with it. I was really proud of myself for that. Although I don’t think I will try it ever again. I repeat, ever again.

Roe.After that we had a piece filled with roe, but that’s not a thing you can scare us with. In fact it was much more delicious than the one sold in Russian stores — it was not salty at all. I think it ended up being Alena’s favorite piece.

Either way by the time I ate my last piece I was full. I could eat no more. Alena felt about the same. Overall it was most definitely worth it. The food was great, the soup was great, the tea was great. Even the rice that they use was great. This is the experience that should not be skipped whether you are passionate about sushi or not.

Our chef was great — very friendly and helpful — had no problem explaining to us, dumb tourists, what was what and how it should be eaten and so on. Also most people did not use chopsticks and just used their hand. We did the same.

Rolls and baby shrimp sushi.I have to mention that when we got to the market Daiwa Sushi had no line and you could just come in. When we came out the line to Sushi Dai has gotten even longer. At this point Daiwa Sushi also had a pretty sizable line, but this one consisted mostly of European looking people. Sushi Dai line had mostly Japanese people, but a good number of patient westerners as well.

On a bit of side note — this past weekend we went with Maruks to a local sushi place in Brooklyn. It was supposed to be a good place. Alena and I ordered the same sushi pieces that we ate in Japan to see if there really is a difference. Were we astonished or what by that difference. Local sushi hardly compares. The fish was chewy with a nasty after taste. The rice was stale or something. The only way I could eat these was covering them with ginger and wasabi and dipping them fully into soy souse. So basically quite the opposite of what one is supposed to do.

Possibly fatty tuna sushi.I think I could have been a big sushi fan as well if I had regular access to Sushi Dai though.

Traditional Kaiseki Dinner


Traditional Japanese multi-course dinner.One of the amazing experiences of our trip was a traditional Japanese multi-course dinner at Nishiyama Ryokan in Kyoto. We scheduled it to fall on the eve of November 23rd — our 5th wedding anniversary and it definitely made this date memorable.

Boiling pot at traditional dinner.There were 12 different courses served to us. I can’t really recall all of it — a lot of seafood prepared in different ways, a lot of vegetables, a pair of soups. Not everything was to my taste, but a lot of things were quite delicious. There was some boiling soup prepared right on our table and we were served by a woman in traditional Japanese attire. We also wore kimonos for the dinner which added to the whole experience.

Cooking tofu on the table at traditional breakfast.I would not do this every night, and I probably wouldn’t do it for the food, but the experience itself was really great. We ordered 2 bottles of hot sake which made things even better.

Dinner at ryokan.In the morning we were served a traditional Japanese breakfast which was not any less interesting than the dinner with more boiling stuff on our table. During the breakfast time the dinning room was full of people, but during the dinner we were the only people there so it made it feel like it was our private special evening. It was great.

Breakfast


Not much to say on this topic. As I’ve mentioned before breakfast was included in our hotels for free because of our Diamond VIP status. Both places had a large buffet with a selection of American and Japanese dishes. It was a great way to save time and money and we ate breakfast in our hotels every morning with 2 exceptions — Sushi Dai and traditional Japanese breakfast at our Kyoto ryokan.

Okonomiyaki


Okonomiyaki.Okonomiyaki is dish that originates from the western part of Japan. There are 2 distinct styles — one that is popular in Osaka and another that is popular in Hiroshima. I heard about okonomiyaki before and I’ve read about it and we definitely wanted to try it.

Okonomiyaki dinner.Okonomiyaki is kind of a Japanese omelet. It is made with some special batter and cabbage. You can have it loaded with a lot of different things — ours came with pork and squid. It is often prepared right on your table, which has a grill built in.

Okonomiyaki chef.We asked our chef to make it for us as we had no idea how to make it ourselves. We picked a completely random place that we ran into in some food-court maze in Umeda district of Osaka. I liked it quite a bit, but Alena found it to be just OK. Worth a try anyhow.

Tempura


Tempura in Japanese restaurants is completely different from what we get in ours. If here it is overly greasy and feels extremely unhealthy in Japan it is very light and quite delicious. We ordered a 10 piece tempura course in one of the restaurants near our hotel and came away pretty happy with our dinner.

Tempura.Interesting thing about 95% of Japanese restaurants is the fact that they all have plastic replicas of their dishes displayed in the windows — be it an upscale place or a simple corner place to grab a bite. We as tourist definitely found it very much to our liking — otherwise we would have no idea what to order.

Tonkatsu


Fried pork cutlet dinner.Tonkatsu or at least I think it was Tonkatsu is a Japanese pork cutlet. We weren’t sure what to do with dinner for our first night in Osaka so we went to one of the huge malls at Osaka Station City and picked out a meal by looking at the plastic dishes. It turned out to be very very good.

Bento Boxes


I was familiar with the term bento box before I came to Japan. It’s yet another type of thing that you can order in pretty much any Japanese restaurant in New York. There are different types of bento boxes, but each one consists of many sections filled with different types of food.

Bento box lunch on a bullet train.It is common to see bento box kiosks on JR stations especially in Shinkansen sections. We bought a pair of these for our trip on a bullet train from Tokyo to Osaka. I think the total for a pair was somewhere around ¥2,000 or so which comes out to $27.

Kobe Beef


And for the last, but not least I left Kobe Beef. Anyone who even remotely likes steaks have probably heard of Kobe beef. There are a lot of urban legends floating around about it — these are special cows that are feed with beer and massaged all day long or something along those lines. I’m quite sure that those things are not true, but it sure is famous.

Kobe beef.Now while most of the food in Japan is moderately priced and very comparable to prices of decent restaurants in New York, Kobe beef places in Japan are extremely expensive. In fact they are so expensive that we were considering for 6 nights whether we should visit one or not.

And even if you do want to visit one — they don’t seem to be easy to find. And when you do find them or somebody recommends you go to one you still better make your own research and make sure that in fact they do serve Kobe beef. After doing a bit of research we found a place right across the street from our Hilton hotel in Osaka — a place called Rio.

Teppanyaki.Now because the price was so high we decided that we’ll just go up to them and ask if we can share a meal and to our surprise they had no problems with that. So we made a reservation for Friday night and we kept it.

My biggest fear was that I’m going to get disappointed. Our dinner in the end came out to ¥15,000 which is roughly $210. And that is for a single portion. So back to my biggest fear — I was thinking that it would really suck to pay so much money for a steak that I wouldn’t be able to tell apart from something that would get served in a local Hibachi place in Brooklyn.

Teppanyaki chef preparing Kobe beef.Kobe beef is often served in a teppanyaki style dinner (I always knew this process as hibachi, so I’m not really sure what the difference is). They started with different appetizers, vegetables and so on. They gave us two plates and split everything for us, so we didn’t feel bad at all about splitting a single meal. They made us feel comfortable.

Kobe beef was weighted on a scale in front of us to be exactly 150 grams (as it states in the menu). It turned out to be a bigger piece than we expected. I guess the reason is that it has a lot of fat in it. If you look at the meat you can tell that it looks different. A couple of strands of meat, a couple of strands of fat — like marble.

Kobe beef is almost done.When the meat was cooked and given to us — oh, wow! All the worries about it being “usual” were instantly gone. Had I known all along that it would be as it was we would go to this dinner without the slightest hesitation. The meat just melts away with a slight press of the tongue. I think it was one of the most delicious things I have ever eaten.

The closest thing that I can compare it to is a shish-kebab from a Uzbek restaurant. If you were to take a piece of fat that they typically put on the skewers and a piece of meat and merge them into a single piece you would get something somewhat similar. The fat becomes non-nasty and the meat becomes super soft.

Us visiting Rio teppanyaki to try Kobe beef.We were so happy we decided not to miss this opportunity and go. So not only did Japan ruin sushi for us it ruined steaks as well. How am I supposed to enjoy steak after that? And luckily for us one full course was enough food for 2 of us that we didn’t walk away hungry at all — we were quite satisfied.

Conclusion


What a rich country Japan is. So many things to try, so different from the ones we know. There are many more things that we didn’t have the chance to try in our time there, but I think we did good. Lots of memories, lots of great impressions that will stay with us for a long time.

However I will add that I was very happy to eat a good old American hamburger upon getting back home. I guess you need time to get used to the tastes of things that are so foreign to us.

P.S. A lot of photographs are going to be from iPhone, since we don’t have pictures of all our meals taken with D700.
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Monday, May 23, 2011

Japan Trip

Our planned route.Yesterday we finally did something that we wanted to do for a long long time now — we booked a trip to Japan for our 5th wedding anniversary. My mom graciously agreed to look over Arosha for the duration of our vacation. We expect this to be one of our most unique vacations to this point. We’ve traveled all over U.S., been to Canada, Mexico and even Ukraine. And even though we had many amazing vacations nothing has been as “foreign” to us as Japan will be.

The plan is very simple in theory. Only practice will show how well we’ll fair in the country where we don’t speak the native language. We’re flying1 out on November 18th on a non-stop flight to Tokyo. We’ll spend 2 nights2 there and will catch a bullet train to Osaka where we’ll spend the other 6 nights3 of our vacation. From Osaka we plan to visit Kyoto, Nara, Mount Koya, Kobe and maybe we’ll make a day trip to Hiroshima. We’ll fly back home from Osaka4 on November 27th.

We have managed to cover all our hotel costs with our Hilton points. When you stay a stretch of the time at a single place the price goes down, hence 6 nights in Osaka. Now we need to do a LOT of reading and figuring out when, how and what we’ll do when we’re there. Maybe learn Japanese ahead of the trip?

P.S. Maybe Sasha and Misha will join us. They are researching the prices for hotels now.

  1. American Airlines and Japan Airlines for $2359.20 round trip for the two of us. []
  2. Conrad Tokyo for 100,000 points for 2 nights or $984 per night. []
  3. Hilton Osaka for 157,500 points for 6 nights or $483 per night. []
  4. Plane change in Tokyo, then non-stop flight to NYC. []
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Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Годовщина — Вдогонку

WineХочу добавить пару слов вдогонку по поводу нашего маленького праздника. Идея романтического ужина с вином и свечами (вернее свечкой) ) оказалась весьма удачной. Даня купил вино — Beaujolais Nouveau, которое порекомендовал нам д. Боря, и еду в Сахаре, а я скромно декорировала столик используя подручные материалы. )

Daniel & AlenaПосидели мы очень хорошо — было так уютно рядом с любимым человеком. Мы даже потанцевали немного под какое-то танго… Ароша мирно спал — нам помогла его уложить Данина мама.

Romantic EveningВобщем, вечер лично мне запомнится. Желаю нам еще много-много лет счастья вместе!
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Tuesday, November 23, 2010

4th Anniversary

Our guests.Today is the 4th anniversary of our marriage. I think in the past week or so we have passed another milestone in our lives — we’ve know each other for close to 8 years now and we’ve been married for the longer part of those years than non-married. And yet when we got married we thought we knew each other for eternity. Continue Reading
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Friday, June 5, 2009

Big Island, Hawaii

Satellite image of Hilton resort on Big Island.Alena and I booked our next-next vacation. We’re going to go back to Hawaii for our 3 year wedding anniversary. But if last time we went to Oahu and stayed in Honolulu, this time we’re going to to the Big Island.

We’re going to stay in luxurious Hilton Waikoloa Village resort. And the best part is that we don’t have to pay1 anything for the hotel at all thanks to us being a part of Hilton Honors program.

What we do have to pay2 for is the flight. But flights these days seem to be much cheaper than they were even when we went to Hawaii the first time in 2005. We’re going to rent a car and explore the whole island. I can’t wait to visit Hawaii Volcanoes National Park for example.

This should be a great honeymoon vacation. mrgreen I can’t wait.

  1. We’re staying here for 8 nights. Normally each night runs 40,000 points here, but Gold VIP members get a discount, so we’re spending 235,000. And we have plenty more left for long weekend trips. []
  2. No direct flights, so there is a plane change in LAX. Total cost is going to be $1,782.80 for the 2 of us. The flight is about 13 hours each way. []
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Sunday, December 14, 2008

December Rambling

Raspberry tea — we drank a lot of this in the past 2 weeks.Friday, 11 p.m. Danya and I just finished watching “4400″, and I want to write a couple of words about the last few weeks.

After we got back from the vacation Danya caught a flu somewhere (had 39C fever one day), and was recovering for almost two weeks (he spent the first whole week at home). I was courageously holding up, but also had a mild fewer, running nose and other niceties of being sick for a couple of days. Both of us are much better now.

Last Saturday was the 6th anniversary of our fist date. I keep saying this, but — oh my — time just flies! I still remember how anxiously I was waiting for our 3 months anniversary — for some reason it was always a critical point in my previous dating experience. Now I can only laugh at my naivete. ) I got Danya a pajama pants (stole that idea from him) — or at least I thought that I did. He said that the design is not very attentive to male’s physiology… so now I have another pair at my disposal. He-he. But some other stuff that I got him fits — that made me happy. )

Indian wedding vase hand made by Navajo Indians.Speaking of presents. When we were in Las Cruces, NM, we stopped by the older part of the town to take some pictures. On the side of a little deserted square we walked into a gift shop featuring some Native American pottery. Danya’s parents got us a present for our 2nd wedding anniversary — a very pretty wedding vase, which was made by Dee Nelson of the Tangle Clan of the Navajo Tribe. I really like this vase — both the design and the symbolical meaning. The vase has two necks and one body — it symbolizes two soles coming together and creating a new strong union.

On the other note — the economy seems to be getting worse, and people are worried. The thoughts of job stability cross everybody’s minds, and some of my friends’ friends are getting laid off. I hope that everything will come back to normal sooner rather than later, but in the meantime I am really happy to have a job. ) I got the first-in-my-life bonus today, and even though it is small, I still felt excited about it. )

My friend Gurya sent me an audio book by Василий Аксёнов called “Остров Крым”. I listen to it on my way to and from work. The book was written a while ago (around 30 years if I am not mistaken), and it is some sort of anti-utopia. The emotions this books stirs in me are similar to those that I got from reading “1984″ by George Orwell, although Orwell’s novel IMHO is stronger. Good thing USSR collapsed when it did (I wish it happened earlier). I just hope that future (ha-ha, this word has a strong association with financial derivatives now) will be kind to us all. )
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Thursday, December 6, 2007

Поздравлялки

FlowersЖена – мужу:
- Сегодня годовщина нашей свадьбы…
Муж:
- Ка-а-ак ?!!!!…
Жена:
- Что, забыл!
Муж:
- Нет, просто не верится…

Ну вот ведь любит народ прикалываться над забывчивыми мужьями! А я, наталкиваясь на подобные анекдоты, думаю, что Незабывчивость — это еще одно из многих достоинств моего драгоценного мужа. teeth

Минут 30 назад в дверь позвонили. Даня искренне обеспокоился — кто бы это мог быть? Я, честно говоря, тоже не люблю неожиданные звонки в дверь. Оказывается, это был букет для меня! В честь 5-летия (ой, напечатала, а в голове сразу лозунги коммунистические :oops ) нашего первого свидания. С чем нас и поздравляю! Continue Reading
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Sunday, November 25, 2007

Годовщина

Wedding Anniversary Отмечать годовщину свадьбы мы пошли в тот же ресторан, в котором состоялся свадебный ужин — Luxor Stakehouse. Всё же стейки там ну просто обалденные (даже я, не большой любитель мяса, это признаю). Мы с Данькой заказали шампанское, обменялись нашими новыми кольцами.

Дело в том, что Даньку осенила идея купить что-то памятное на годовщину. Ну, почему бы и не кольца? Мы остановились на 2х одинаковых, относительно недорогих, титановых, с золотой полосочкой. Хотели что-то на них выгравировать, но не нашли где. Данька будет его кольцо носить на смену — обручальное платиновое очень тяжелое, а титан суперлёгкий. А я своё ношу на правой руке — теперь и по американским, и по русским стандартам обручальное кольцо одето на правильном пальце. Continue Reading
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