Monday, June 19, 2017

mocha brownies with cafe latte frosting

Taking a break from Japan nostalgia to share these delicious brownies that make for a perfect Ramadan treat. For the last few Ramadans, I've been fortunate enough to either be on break for some part of Ramadan (summer breaks in med school, the break before starting residency), or be on a relatively relaxed work schedule (home before 5, and non-stressful rotations). This usually meant sleeping in as late as possible, and being able to stay up as late as I wanted. However, working through Ramadan this year has been a new challenge. Trying to stay awake after iftaar (dinner where you break fast) at ~8:30pm has been almost impossible. The food coma hits almost instantly, and I usually end up passing out on the couch before 10. After suhoor (the pre-dawn meal which I have to eat before ~5 am), I get to have a quick 45 minute nap before getting up as late as I possibly can to throw on scrubs and make it to the psychiatric ED by 6:45ish for my 12 hour shifts. 12 hour shifts during Ramadan have their negatives and positive(s). The negatives are obvious. The surprising positive has been that the psych ED is so busy that time ends up going by pretty quickly. By the time I deliriously stumble through my front door at 7:30pm, I chill for 30 minutes before H & I start preparing for iftaar (if he's home from work by then).

By day 2 of fasting this Ramadan, the caffeine withdrawal headaches had hit. I hadn't realized my daily caffeine intake had slowly been creeping up before Ramadan. While I have spent a lot of time daydreaming about a cold, smooth iced coffee, these indulgent mocha brownies with cafe latte frosting have hit the spot come iftaar time. Even without the frosting, these brownies are amazing and have a hint of coffee in both the brownie mix and frosting.

Recipe from Just So Tasty, with the following adjustments: instead of using 1 to 1.5 teaspoons of instant coffee granules in the frosting as the recipe suggests, I used about 3 for a stronger coffee flavor. Additionally, I baked the brownies for about 30 minutes (longer than the original recipe recommended).

Friday, June 2, 2017

japan 2017: mt. koya

Day 5:
After leaving the Fushimi Inari Shrine earlier in the morning (click here for more on that trip and our time in Kyoto), we went back to the guesthouse to pick up our bags, and headed to the train station. The majority of the day ended up being dedicated to travelling to Mount Koya, where we would be spending a night at a shukubo (Buddhist temple). Mount Koya is known as the world headquarters of the Shingon sect of Japanese Buddhism, so appropriately, we saw many travelers on the train with us whose trips up to the mountain were more of a pilgrimage. What originally started out as a monastery grew into the town of Koya. Now, the city houses 3,279 people and has a university dedicated to religious studies and over 120 temples. The ride from Kyoto up to the mountain was a long one and took us about 5 hours. We first travelled from Kyoto to Osaka with our JR passes, and then got on the Nankai Electric Railway in Osaka which took us to the base of the mountain. At the base, a cable car slowly took us up the mountain, with a bus taking us to our final destination: Shojoshin-in. The ride offered incredibly beautiful views, with plenty of sakura lining the train tracks. There ended up being a light rain on our trip up and the next morning, making the experience even more serene.

The ride on the Nankai Electric Railway to Mount Koya

View from the bus stop at Shojoshin-in

We arrived to the temple just in time for dinner. Dinner, or shojin ryori, consisted of traditional vegetarian monk cuisine that was prepared by monks. We were so tired afterwards that we ended up going straight to our ryokan and calling it a night. Morning prayer services were at 6:00 AM the next morning, and we were up pretty early before then. We watched the monks complete their morning prayer and I got a chance to take pictures of our ryokan in the daylight, as pictured below.

The front yard of our ryokan

The front of our ryokan, complete with sliding doors

The entryway/hallway

Our traditional bedding which was incredibly comfortable

Day 6:
After observing the monk's morning prayers, we walked around the area outside the guesthouse. Before we left Koya later that morning, I wanted to stop by a cemetery I had read about while doing my research for the trip. With the intermittent rain that morning and a bus route I wasn't too familiar with, I was losing hope that we would be able to find the cemetery and be back at our guesthouse by check out later that morning. To my surprise and excitement, the cemetery ended up being a few minutes away from where we were.

The Okunoin Cemetery is the largest cemetery in Japan. It also happens to be the site of the mausoleum of the founder of Shingon Buddhism, Kobo Daishi. Over 200,000 tombstones line the pathway to the mausoleum at the very end of a 2 km pathway. Because we were in a time crunch, we weren't quite able to make the entire 2 km walk. We stopped roughly halfway and had to walk back to the guesthouse so we could check out on time and make the trip back to our final destination- Tokyo one last time.

The most moss I've ever seen

The cablecar ride back down the mountain

Stay tuned for my fourth and final post in the Japan series- the brief return to Tokyo!

Friday, May 5, 2017

japan 2017: kyoto

Day 3:
We arrived in Kyoto via bullet train early in the afternoon. Fortunately our lodging was less than a 10 minute walk from the train station, so walking around with all our luggage wasn't as painful as it could have been. We stayed at Sanjyotakakura Hibiki Guesthouse both nights we were in Kyoto, and really enjoyed our experience. It was spacious, clean, and we had our own bathroom. Best of all, it was pretty centrally located in terms of being around the things that we wanted to see/do while in Kyoto.

Right outside Sanjyotakakura Hibiki Guesthouse

By the time we dropped off our luggage at the guesthouse and had a second to catch our breath, it was already 3 pm. Since sunset was around 5:30, we had a few decent hours left if we wanted to see anything outside. Most of the indoor things we wanted to experience (mostly museums) closed around 5, so we had to move quick. We headed over to Kyoto Imperial Palace, the former ruling palace of the Emperor of Japan (until the Meiji Restoration in 1869, after which the emperors have stayed in the Tokyo Imperial Palace). Before we went to see the buildings, we walked around Kyoto Gyoen Garden to find even more amazing cherry blossom trees than the ones we had seen in Tokyo. There's definitely a upward trajectory in terms of how amazing the cherry blossom trees were day-by-day on our trip, with the pinnacle being the last day of our trip in Tokyo. But more on that later. The garden here was filled with people picnicking with family and friends under the beautiful, blooming Sakura.

After about 30 minutes of gawking at the gorgeous blooms, we headed over to the palace. Most of the palace was for viewing exclusively from the outside. The palace ended up being a great way to spend the afternoon outdoors and checking one thing off our list.

After heading out of the Imperial Palace, we walked around looking for a coffee shop where we could grab a bite to eat, get some caffeine, and charge our phones. Along the way, we found two shrines, one of which was the Go'o Shrine (which I just now found out is on Atlas Obscura!). We ended the day really early (like in bed by 7pm kind of early) after eating at a cafe we found on our way to the train station. Our goal for the next day was to hit up as many things as we could fit on our list because it would be our last full day in Kyoto.

Day 4:
The next morning, we were up bright and early. Like, I was up at 4 am. We got ready and headed out the door for a full day of things to check off our list. The first stop of the day was our usual breakfast at whatever bakery we found on our way. Next, we hopped on a train and took a ride to one of the sights I was most excited to see and experience on our trip- the Arashiyama Bamboo Grove. We walked along the main road in Arashiyama and over the Togetsu-kyo Bridge, which were filled with tourist shops and stalls. There was a small path off the main road that led to the breathtaking bamboo grove. The walk was incredibly crowded but so worth it. The bamboo towered around and over us, and it was incredible to see how tall the plants were. The photos below let this place speak for itself.

Togetsu-kyo bridge

Arashiyama bamboo grove

After walking out of the bamboo grove, we walked down the main street back to the station for the next part of our itinerary. On the way back, we got distracted over and over again by the small shops that lined the street. One of my favorite shops we found was what appeared to be a store exclusively selling handmade plush/stuffed things (I wish I could find this place on Google Maps so I could link it here). I was mesmerized by the hanging plush mobiles they had throughout an entire half of the store. It was incredible to think these were all handmade (and thus really expensive).

By the time we made it to our next stop, it was already after noon. The next place we visited was Sanjūsangen-dō, a Buddhist temple. This temple was first built in 1164, and rebuilt a century later because of a fire. The temple is known for it's 1000 Kannon statues which were constructed from Japanese cypress and covered in golden leaf. The statues are perfectly arranged in 10 rows and 50 columns, and in the middle is a huge statue of the main deity Sahasrabhuja-arya-avalokiteśvara or the Thousand Armed Kannon. There is absolutely no photography allowed once you are inside the temple out of respect to those praying (but a quick Google image search will reveal how vast this collection of statues is).

Outside a market near our Guesthouse

On our walk to Sanjūsangen-dō

After visiting Sanjūsangen-dō, we stopped at the Kyoto National Museum since it was almost just across the street. Unfortunately, the museum was closed for excavations (we never figured out what was being excavated), so we bought tickets to the small garden area where we could rest for a bit and  plan out the rest of the afternoon/evening. The gloomy clouds overhead eventually prompted us to start the 20 minute walk back to the train station, and had successfully convinced us it was time for a quick afternoon nap back at the Guesthouse. After taking a break at the Guesthouse, we awoke in time to meet up with one of my friends from medical school who happened to be in Japan (more specifically, Kyoto) at the same time as we were. To make things an even odder coincidence, we were staying in the same area of Kyoto and our hotels were hardly a 10 minute walk from each other. The three of us met up for dinner and wandered around Kyoto for a good part of the evening, taking in the sights and intermittently complaining about the woes of residency- a very therapeutic combination.

Day 5:
We packed up and checked out of our Guesthouse early the next morning, leaving our luggage at the front desk because we wanted to stop by one last place on our list before heading to Mount Koya. We spent the morning at Fushimi Inari Shrine (Inari is the Shinto god of rice) with the iconic tunnels of orange torii. After watching a prayer, we walked through some of the tunnels up the mountain. The walk in it's entirety reportedly takes 2-3 hours. While I wish we had the time to complete the hike, we made it through a few of the torii gate tunnels after having to turn around so we could make the next leg of our trip (which took about 4-5 hours). We stopped by our Guesthouse one last time to pick up our luggage, and hopped on another train to make it to Osaka and eventually Mount Koya later that evening.

Stay tuned for my next post covering our time in Mount Koya!

Visitors performing Temizu (hand washing)

Foxes can be found throughout Fushimi Inari

Prayers written on torii

Fresh flowers at a train station on our way to Osaka

Sunday, April 16, 2017

japan 2017: tokyo part I

I've mentioned on the blog before that every now and then, mine and H's schedules align and we are able to plan a trip. It doesn't happen often, and when we do end up with a free weekend, we try to visit family in Houston. However, for the first time since starting residency in July 2016, I had the option of taking a full 5 days off in a row (!!!) while H did not have any major deadlines or commitments. We seized the opportunity and planned a big trip- Japan! We very randomly found a great deal on tickets through Air Canada, and booked the trip in late January. While I know a week in Japan is not nearly enough time and almost not worth the money, we didn't have a way to make the trip longer. The most I can take off with my residency program is 5 work days in a row (and even then, it's only select months I can do that), so if we ever want an extended trip, that's the longest time I'll have. When you don't get many chances to vacation, you take the risk of having a jam-packed and exhausting vacation. Besides, when am I ever not tired? Might as well be tired while experiencing an exciting new culture and country. We spent a total of 1 week in Japan, and of course, I desperately wish we could have stayed much longer. Tip- if you do travel to Japan, plan for atleast a solid 2 weeks. There's just too much to see/do/take in, and you won't be doing the country justice with anything less. That said, here's a diary of our trip- the things we did/saw/loved, foods we ate, and where we stayed! I will be dividing up posts based on the areas we visited- Tokyo, Kyoto, and Mt. Koya.

Day 1:
Our flight landed at Narita International Airport in the afternoon, which had given us the hope that we would be able to get in atleast a late afternoon's worth of exploring near our ryokan. Unfortunately it took way longer than expected to go through customs, get our Japan rail passes, pick up our hotspot wifi, and make it all the way from the airport to near our ryokan (about a 2 hour journey). By the time we made it to our ryokan, we were exhausted and gathered just enough energy to find a random Udon restaurant at 10 pm. After eating dinner, we just headed back to the ryokan and passed out. For our first 2 nights in Tokyo, we stayed at Kimi Ryokan. Neither H nor I have ever stayed in a hostel before, so this was a new experience for both of us. Thankfully it was a positive one! I had been warned that lodging in Tokyo is expensive, and we had decided while planning the trip that we wanted to experience staying at a traditional Japanese inn, or ryokan, atleast once during the trip. Kimi Ryokan ended up being a budget-friendly, traditional, clean, and incredibly comfortable experience.

Day 2:
We were up by about 6 am the next morning and ready to get out and explore. The sun rose around 5:30am during our time in Japan, so it was hard to sleep in in a room without curtains. We quickly got ready and headed out of the ryokan. First stop was breakfast at one of the many bakeries we found throughout our trip. One of my favorite things about our trip was how incredibly convenient, easy to navigate, and clean the train stations were. Public transport in Japan is amazing. All of the train stations we visited had huge shopping centers, restaurants, coffee shops, bakeries, and convenience stores. It was a one-stop place for anything you could ever need. We ducked into the first bakery we saw at Ikebukuro train station, Vie de France. I was mainly drawn to the impressively perfect appearing baked goods lined up in the window. We ate at so many bakeries throughout our trip (my jeans definitely felt tighter by the end) because they were so fresh and convenient. While I would usually seek out highly rated places to eat on vacation, we prioritized seeing and doing as much as we could on this trip, so breakfast everyday was a 20 minute stop at any bakery close by. I obviously had to buy extra baked goods to go for the day in case we weren't close to food. Or because everything just looked too delicious to pass up.

After breakfast, we hopped on a train and headed to Shibuya because I wanted to check out the world's busiest pedestrian crossing. Of course, since it was mid-morning, the street wasn't as packed as usual. Nonetheless, it was an exciting sight.

We then wandered around some shops in the area and soon found our phone batteries were already low thanks to Google Maps. We ducked into a coffee shop and planned the rest of our day as our phones charged and we grabbed some espresso. H and I both really enjoy visiting museums, so we decided to visit The National Art Center of Tokyo to see the Yayoi Kusama exhibit 'My Eternal Soul' and The Ghibli Museum. On our way to The National Art Center, we walked through one of my favorite spontaneous finds of the trip- Aoyama Cemetery. While a cemetery may seem like a strange site to walk through on a vacation, this was the most serene and beautiful cemetery I have ever seen. The headstones were intricate and enormous. I didn't take pictures initially because there were people visiting graves and it just seemed wrong. However, I did capture the first (of many) cherry blossom trees that lined a road in the cemetery (I only took out my camera when I saw others doing the same)!

The first of many, many, many cherry blossom photos 

The National Art Center was a 5 minute walk from the cemetery. While I wish we could have stayed at the museum longer (theme of this entire trip), there was just way too much we wanted to see and do while in Tokyo. We saw just the Kusama exhibit, and it did not let me down.

Walking to the Art Center and the wrapped trees as part of the Kusama exhibit were already getting me excited

Stunning architecture inside The National Art Center of Tokyo

(photography was allowed in part of the exhibit)

After the Art Center, our next planned stop was the Tsukiji Fish Market. Known for being the largest wholesale fish and seafood market in the world and the famous super early morning tuna auctions, this place was a must-see on my list. Unfortunately, we didn't plan ahead of time and realized around 2 pm that the fish market closes at 3:30 pm most days. With it being our last full day in Tokyo, we had to race over to catch the last 30 minutes of the market. Although I'm not a huge fan of raw fish (I only eat cooked sushi, and no way was I going to embarrass myself by even asking for a cooked option while in Japan), fresh sashimi was still something I wanted to see and maybe experience the world's smallest bite of. We made it just in time to catch some of the last fresh tuna sashimi and watch vendors close up for the day.

Giant tuna head

Fresh sashimi (that I only had the smallest bite of)

After the Tsukiji Fish Market, we had just enough time left in the day to head over to the Ghibli museum. By the end of our hour-long journey there, it was starting to get dark and windy. The forecast for the day had called for some rain the evening, so we figured spending time indoors at the museum would have been perfect. We walked through the beautiful Inokashira Park on our way and stopped multiple times to take pictures. The storm clouds had rolled in pretty suddenly which created a grayish-green overcast, and it had started sprinkling before we got to the museum. Following the signs through the park to get to the museum, we eventually saw one that had "reservation only". Exhausted, saddened, and looking to get out of the rain, we begrudgingly started taking our path back through the park to get to the nearest station and head back to the ryokan. We stopped again to take more pictures in the park on our way back, and just stayed long enough for it to start pouring down rain. We ran to the nearest building we could find that was open- an outdoor bathroom. With a few other people who got caught in the downpour, we hid out for about 10 minutes. After the rain let up, we walked over to the nearest restaurant we found and had a quick meal. Then it was back to the ryokan cold, wet, and exhausted.

Day 3:
The next morning, we got up really early and packed up to check out of our ryokan as early as we could. We had our train station bakery breakfast (again) and took a bullet train to Kyoto by mid-morning. We wanted to get to Kyoto as soon as possible so we could catch some outdoor things on our list before sunset. The train ride from Tokyo to Kyoto was 2.5 hours and much more enjoyable than travelling in a plane. It was our first look at Japan outside of the busy city of Tokyo, at it did not disappoint. We even caught a peek at Mount Fiji on the ride. The remainder of our trip was spent in Kyoto and Mt. Koya, with a brief return to Tokyo before heading out. When we came back to Tokyo from Mt. Koya, we had a more clear cut plan of the last things we had to see on our trip before heading back to Dallas. I will be posting more about our stays in Kyoto, Mt. Koya, and a brief Tokyo part 2. Stay tuned!