March 25, 2015

We found the million dollar bathroom!

  By now you all know of my love for Japanese bathrooms, so when I heard that the Meguro Gajoen Hotel had a million dollar bathroom, I HAD to check it out!

 Here is the beautiful entrance, so far so good!

Once inside the sliding doors, we were met with gorgeous murals, inlaid with pearly accents. 

Upon entering the ladies room, we found ourselves in a traditional Japanese wonderland, complete with a vermillion bridge and a koi pond.

The ceiling was a stunning gold, adorned with very intricately detailed fans.

The window frames were finely carved Japanese woodwork.

There were separate powder rooms, with a mirror, sink and chair.

Also a bench for waiting....or perhaps meditation? Haha!

And last but not least, the stalls. 

 The doors were beautiful red lacquer, with pearl inlays. 

The toilet, however, was a bit of a let down. I guess I was expecting more of a grand throne, after all of the build up. But the critical factor was met... the heated seat! (You have no idea the joy it brings me to sit on a warm seat, especially on a cold day. I sincerely hope you all have that pleasure someday!)

The million dollar bathroom did not disappoint! Now for a look at the rest of this unique hotel. 

 Huge murals of raised wood figures lined the hallways.  

I wish the depth showed up better, the murals were quite beautiful. 

There was a large indoor atrium in the center of the hotel. Of course, it was manicured to perfection, in true Japanese fashion. 

The indoor atrium also opened to an outdoor area, which served as the "view" for the restaurant. 

We always love a good koi pond! 


The water ran through the hotel too, koi and everything! Beautiful!

Every year on March 3, the Japanese celebrate hinamatsuri, or Girl's Day. It is customary to display certain dolls in your home, thought to take away bad spirits from your daughters. Girl's Day is also a time to pray for happiness and prosperity for your daughters (but remove your decorations by March 4, or your daughters will marry late!). Coincidentally, the hotel was also having a special doll exhibit for Girl's Day, perfect timing!  

The hotel collection had dolls from all over the country, some were quite old. Unfortunately, we were not allowed to take photos inside, but this display sat outside the exhibit as an example. The dolls, and even the props,  are always displayed in this specific order and have specific meanings. The top being the Emperor and Empress, moving down to the lowest tier, for the "drinkers." (The drinkers? We noticed during the exhibit that the three dolls on the bottom always had silly expressions or props. When I researched further, those dolls are the "emotional drinker", the "cantankerous drinker" and the "merry drinker." Haha! Well? Which one are you?) 

Also popular are these colorful, quilted doll mobiles, called, tsurushi kazari. I've seen these in traditional Japanese stores, but now that I know their purpose, I'll definitely be making a purchase!

The doll exhibit was held in the only remaining part of the original hotel structure, which was built in 1931. We ascended the "100 step" staircase (yes, they were actually numbered), to the traditional banquet rooms, which were ornately, and beautifully decorated. I wish I could have taken pictures!

***An interesting side note: The hotel was occupied by the U.S. Marines during WWII, in order for the area to escape bomb damage, thereby saving an important cultural asset of Japan.

This was the perfect adventure for a cold day. The million dollar bathroom was amazing, but spending Girl's Day, with my girls, in the heart of Tokyo, was truly priceless!

March 11, 2015

Honoi home cooking class- delicious!

We spent our last day in Vietnam at the Hanoi Home Cooking class, to learn more about the local cuisine in a hands-on way. We were greeted at our hotel and taken to the class by our host, Lily.  

The class was out of the hustle and bustle of the city and it was nice to see another area of Hanoi. We enjoyed the view of the river and the banana tree!

We began with some hot Vietnamese tea, while Lily explained some local customs and also went over our itinerary.

This basket, insulated with straw, was how tea was traditionally kept warm in Vietnam. 

Our first order of business, was to learn a few words and phrases in Vietnamese. We were supposed to buy our ingredients for the day at the local market, and we needed to know what to say. Ella loved this! 

Our transportation to the market.

The girls picked out some Vietnamese apples for dessert. They had the same texture as an apple, but with a pit like an apricot. Interesting.

There was quite a bit of produce on our list, this man was very helpful. Ella really enjoyed using her newfound Vietnamese skills to place the order.

We bought a rice dessert to try, similar to Japanese mochi. It was basically a chewy rice paste formed into a ball and filled with a sweet sugary substance. Mochi is just not my favorite thing, and especially doesn't qualify as dessert, to me! (This was our darling guide, Lily.)

Chicken was next on the list. Being in another country opened my eyes to meat handling. Meat was always just sitting out, on display, never refrigerated.  Lily said that they butcher the animal in the morning and bring the meat, fresh each day, to the market to sell.

And- GASP- the dog counter! Yes, DOG! Eva had a hard time looking at this one. We were told that dog is a very popular meat to eat at the end of the lunar month, because it brings good luck. Matt was intrigued, so we bought some for him to try. As for me? No thanks! Lily also assured us that these were dogs raised on a farm for this purpose, not pets, but I was still picturing Rover!

After we purchased all of our ingredients, it was time to start cooking! 

The girls were very eager and anxious to help. 

First up, vegetable spring rolls. There was lots of mincing to do!

That's quite a cleaver for a six year old! Sometimes you just have to go with the flow... 

One final mix before we started to wrap our spring rolls. 

We gained a new appreciation for uniformly wrapped spring rolls, it was difficult! But we all got better with more practice.

Lily's assistant then steamed and fried our spring rolls.

I really loved how the onions, shallots, and ginger were roasted over a flame, before being added to our chicken stock for the pho ga (chicken noodle soup). We also toasted cinnamon sticks, cardamom, and anise, before before adding them to the simmering broth,  as well. This step really added so much depth of flavor to the broth. 

Ella is working on a caramel sauce for the pork. I have become a new fan of cooking chopsticks!

We made a salad from banana flower. I had never seen nor heard of this, but it is the flower that blossoms at the end of a banana bunch, and is actually considered a vegetable. We purchased this, already cut, from the market because the flesh needs to soak a bit before eating.

We then added some star fruit, and some other shredded veggies. Oh, to have this variety of fresh produce on a regular basis!

And the finished product, topped with some red chili dressing, peanuts and sesame seeds. Scrumptious! I think this salad was my favorite dish.

Thankfully, our spring rolls looked a lot more uniform after the frying.

We made a dipping sauce/salad dressing, with rice vinegar, chilies, garlic, lime juice, fish sauce and a little raw sugar.

This was a very interesting recipe; ground beef and veggies, wrapped around a stalk of lemongrass, then steamed and fried. You eat the meat off of the stalk, like a corndog. The lemongrass really lent a fabulous flavor to the meat.

Next up, the popular dish, pho ga, A.K.A., chicken noodle soup. The broth had an amazing flavor and you could definitely taste the subtlety of the toasted cinnamon and cardamom.

We also made pork with caramel sauce. This dish included pork chunks, quail eggs and thick slices of fresh coconut, simmered in a caramel sugar sauce. (The coconut pieces are the orange strips.) Amazing!

And, last but not least.....sautéed dog. I was not planning to try it, but Matt did, then Ella wanted to, then Eva wanted to, so I felt the pressure. I could not be the only one in my family who did not try it! And actually, if I didn't know that it was dog meat, it probably would've been okay. The flavor and texture were very beef-like, but I could not get past that one bite.

Edible vegetable garnishment is popular here (we saw this a lot in Thailand, too). I decided to give it a try, using a tomato. Any guesses which one was mine? I think I have more practicing to do. 

Such a wonderful feast! And the fresh ingredients, to make all of these recipes, cost  the equivalent of $25 (US). Amazing!

We left our class absolutely stuffed, and headed back down the long alleyway to find a cab.

The girls enjoyed watching the traffic on our cab ride back to the hotel. (Cab's in this part of the world almost never have usable seat belts, so you just say a quick prayer and hope for the best!)

Our last order of business for the day was to find Café Giang, known for originating the popular, "egg coffee". Lily was kind enough to show us the way there and we said our goodbyes. We just loved her!

The café was packed with tiny stools and lots of locals.

The egg coffee was quite interesting. It is traditionally made with coffee, whipped with sweetened condensed milk, egg yolks and sugar, and has a frothy custard-like consistency that you eat with a spoon. (The girls had egg hot chocolate, which was also quite good.) The flavor has been likened to  "liquid tiramisu", and I could see why! Also, the coffee cups were served in a bowl of hot water to keep the temperature of the coffee warm. Delicious!

After our dessert break, we walked the old town area. I couldn't get over the wires everywhere!

And Ho Chi Minh's mausoleum was our last stop of a jam-packed trip to Vietnam.

Wow! What an amazing adventure this was. Vietnam is a beautiful country with a rich culture, and tons of history. Now for the long flight home.... Ella spent most of our travel time studying and practicing Vietnamese. She is very proud to have mastered counting to ten. 

And poor Eva caught some type of travel bug on our last night in Hanoi. She spent most of the evening hugging the toilet. Matt told her that she is now a "seasoned world traveler," due to the stomach bug. I think that is a title she would rather have done without. Poor kid!