Tuesday, February 09, 2016

Valentines sweeties for your sweetie

It's still about a week till Valentine's Day but it always seems like a good idea to suggest recipes ahead of time so people can gather ingredients if they need to.

We don't buy stuff clutter crap tangible gifts for Valentine's Day but usually eat something a bit celebratory. Spending decades with your favourite person is worth celebrating! A quick survey in my house suggested a chocolate recipe would be appropriate, so here's a chocolate cheesecake guaranteed to bring a smile to your partner's face:

First, make the base

200 grams plain, sweet biscuits [I like to use Malt or Digestive biscuits]
100 grams butter

Crush the biscuits. Melt the butter and combine well with the crushed biscuits. Press the mixture onto the bottom of a foil-lined springform pan and chill.

Next, make the cheesy topping

250 grams cream cheese
100 grams caster sugar
150 grams chocolate [milk, dark or white]
300 ml pouring cream

Soften the cream cheese a little and beat well. Beat in the sugar. Melt the chocolate over a bowl of hot water or in a microwave. Allow the chocolate to cool slightly, them combine with the cream cheese mixture. Whip the cream. Combine the chocolate and cream mixtures well, and pile on top of the base. Decorate with extra cream, grated chocolate, or fresh fruit. Refrigerate until ready to eat.

So yummy and so easy!

I'm still feeling rather delighted with our recent Japanese holiday, though, so here's a bonus recipe in case you'd like to try something more quirky. Green tea crème brûlée!

1 cup cream
1/4 cup sugar
3 egg yolks
1 tablespoon of Japanese (matcha) green tea powder
4 (extra) tablespoons caster sugar

Place cream and green tea powder in saucepan and bring to boil. Allow to cool for 15 minutes. Whisk egg yolks with sugar. Pour cream mixture into egg mixture and combine well. Pour into four ramekins, place them in a baking dish and add enough cold water to come halfway up the sides of the ramekins. Bake at 160 degrees C for about one hour. Cool at room temperature. Refrigerate until cold. Sprinkle one tablespoon of caster sugar on to top of each custard and grill (or use blowtorch) to heat the sugar until it caramelises. Serve warm or cold.

I don't have a blowtorch  culinary or otherwise  but get
pretty good results by grilling the desserts for about five minutes

We spotted this ad on a Japanese train, surrounded by more
traditional (flowers and chocolates) Valentine's ads.
We interpreted it as 'if you love someone, feed them
broccoli'. Please comment if you know what it really means!

Sunday, February 07, 2016

Thirty-two years (or, is it time for a grown-up gap year?)

My partner calls me Rain Man because of my uncanny knack for remembering dates and doing mental arithmetic. One date that's never slipped my mind is 7 February as it's the anniversary of when I started my first full time job, at the age of 16, in 1984. (Not my choice. I would have preferred to finish school and go on to university, but that option wasn't on the table back then.) The job was a junior role in a chartered accounting firm in provincial New Zealand. Not exactly Bastards Incorporated  I still use that phrase to refer to the Sydney employer I worked for in 1991/2!  but not a very pleasant place to work. So today it's been 32 years since I started working there. Oh my goodness. I can happily report that I've had some much nicer jobs over the years and managed to gather several diverse university qualifications along the journey.

In an interesting twist, last week my current employer announced that it would be discarding several hundred staff over the next two years. Maybe my number is up. I've never really taken a break from the workforce so perhaps it's time to start pondering the idea of a grown-up gap year?

Friday, February 05, 2016

Arigatou gozaimashita and sayonara

Our visit to Japan last month was ... sort of accidental. We'd heard about the Seven Stars in Kyushu, the new-ish luxury train running two- and four-day journeys around the island of Kyushu, and had read that the train was in such demand that you would need to apply multiple times to book a trip on it. So when we applied for the first time in April 2015 we fully expected to be rejected several times before maybe getting on board in 2017 or beyond. Sure enough, we missed out in the first ballot, but then someone cancelled and we were offered their place. So 'maybe we'll go to Japan sometime in the distant future' turned into 'wow! we're off to Japan!' I had no idea what to expect. We don't speak Japanese (apart from a few hastily-acquired 'polite' words) and were unsure how we'd go at navigating, ordering food, buying goods, etc.

We were lucky to have friends to provide tips and (gentle) guidance
My workplace has a long-standing collaboration agreement with Nagoya University and each year we welcome several visitors from there to Canberra. When I mentioned to one of our past visitors that we would be visiting Japan, he invited us to stay at his house! So we did. Our friends very kindly provided tips and suggestions for sightseeing and getting around, and were even able to join us for a few Nagoya attractions and meals out.

(Not) lost in translation
We managed to get by with just a few words of Japanese, and picked up a few more in our travels. Andrew also turned out to have a knack for deciphering signs and symbols. In a spirit of 'better late than never', we're now planning to take a beginner's course in Japanese so we'll be less clueless next time ...

Japan has the best public transport system we've ever encountered
As non-residents of Japan we were able to purchase Japan Rail Passes. These were really handy and excellent value! We used them to catch at least seven Shinkansen ('bullet') trains, two Narita Express trains, and a bunch of local trains. Our Nagoya friends also lent us Manaca smart cards, which we topped up and could then use for local travel in both Nagoya and other cities. Oh, and the trains were clean, safe, comfortable and on time.

... and the best toilets
It was almost a religious experience when I went to use the loo on the Narita Express on our first day. It had a heated seat. On a public toilet on a train! It turned out that heaps of public toilets are similarly luxurious. We've been considering renovating our bathroom and I'm wildly tempted to see if Toto products can be acquired here.

Another cool feature ... some toilets are designed so
you can wash your hands as the cistern refills

I've become a bit obsessed with Japanese pyjamas
Of the six commercial accommodation providers (four hotels, one ryokan, one train) we stayed with, five provided nightwear. Some of these were really well made, stylish and comfortable, and I actually asked at two places (our Kyoto hotel and the ryokan) whether they were available for purchase! They were not, but I wish they had been. I'm now scouring the web to try and find Japanese pyjamas (apparently known as jinbei or samue) to buy as I can imagine them becoming a much-loved wardrobe staple.

It's a clean and safe place to visit
I'm accustomed to feeling a tad anxious when I travel as there's so much that could go wrong. Will we be robbed or scammed or attacked? Will we miss our transport connections or fall down a drain or suffer from a mysterious tropical illness? Will there be a military coup or avalanche? No place is entirely safe and perhaps a frisson of danger makes travel more exciting. But Japan was an easy country to visit and enjoy. It was clean, polite and safe. Thank you, Japan!

Saturday, January 30, 2016

Seven Stars in Kyushu: Day 4

On the fourth and final day or our train trip we attempted to watch the sun rise from Mount Aso, but it was too foggy and grey to see anything!

Brekkie was a buffet at Aso station:

and lunch came in an elegant three-layered bento box:

We spent the rest of the journey gazing wistfully out of the window. It had been a wonderful trip. There was also a farewell function where the crew showed a slide show of our adventures.

A few final thoughts about the train trip ... Andrew and I don't usually eat much seafood or meat, and are particularly skittish about eating raw (or nearly raw) fish or meat. It quickly became obvious that we would need to suspend any food faddishness and just eat everything that was placed in front of us, to enjoy the train experience! Accordingly we've eaten all manner of interesting stuff lately, including sea urchin and mullet roe, eel, octopus, all sorts of raw fish, and chicken sashimi. I should probably also mention that the meals were absolutely huge. I've only posted a few photos from each meal (to avoid overwhelm) but most meals had five, six or seven courses. The drinks also flowed freely if you wanted them to. I especially liked the local rose 'champagne' and plum liqueur.

One of the main purposes of the Seven Stars train trips is to promote the many and varied products of Kyushu, from the crisp and succulent vegetables and fruits, to locally-caught seafood and local meats, to the wine and sake, and of course the hot springs, potteries and glass art. We certainly came away from the trip feeling much more knowledgeable about Kyushu's many delights. The train seems to be a bit of a local celebrity in its own right and received a warm welcome everywhere it went.

The crew on the train were wonderful. Cheerful, tireless, multi-lingual and multi-skilled. They managed to guide tours, wait tables, mix drinks, convert armchairs to beds (and vice versa), interpret and make their guests feel like royalty.

We've heard that, following the success of the wildly-oversubscribed Seven Stars in Kyushu, other regions in Japan are also creating 'cruise trains' to showcase their produce and scenery. I suspect we'll go back one day ...

Friday, January 29, 2016

Seven Stars in Kyushu: Day 3

After our night at the ryokan we travelled to Tenku-no-Mori (a local food restaurant with its own gardens) for lunch:

Back on board the train there was still more food! Some very fancy sweets:

At Sengan-en Gardens, Kagoshima we walked around:

... then had a glass blowing experience! Apparently they'll mail the misshapen glasses we made to us once they've been fired:

Finally, we had a very elegant dinner at Ekken-no-ma at Sengan-en Gardens:

Thursday, January 28, 2016

One night at a ryokan ... turning Japanese?

While the first and third nights of the four-day Seven Stars journey are spent on the train, the second night is spent at a ryokan (traditional Japanese guest house). The train passengers were distributed among two ryokans based, we suspect, on whether or not they could speak Japanese. Of the total 29 passengers on our trip only six of us were not from Japan and there were some English-speaking staff at the place we stayed, Wasurenosato Gajoen.

It was both literally and metaphorically an 'immersion' experience, with a private onsen (hot pool) in our room, and some quintessentially Japanese experiences. That old song Turning Japanese kept going through my mind ...

Green tea on arrival

They provided very comfortable yukata (robes)
and jinbei (pyjamas) for us to wear

Our own personal onsen!

Dinner was humongous and delicious and fresh

The beds were soooo comfortable

Brekkie ... again huuuuuge and delicious

The one that got away ...

What a fabulous experience! We especially enjoyed the onsen, taking four soaks in it in our twenty or so hours in residence there.

Seven Stars in Kyushu: Day 2

Day 2 of the train trip was just as spectacular as Day 1. It started with an early walk around Mimitsu preservation area, where we got to watch the sun rise in the 'land of the rising sun' ...

Brekkie back on the train:

A visit to Aoshima Shrine:

Lunch on the train arrived in a gorgeous bento box ...

... and we tried warm Japanese vodka made from sweet potatoes!

Late in the afternoon we were driven to a ryokan (traditional guest house) for yet another adventure ...

Wednesday, January 27, 2016

Seven Stars in Kyushu: Day 1

On Tuesday 26 January Andrew and I embarked on a four-day train trip around the beautiful island of Kyushu, Japan aboard the Seven Stars (a.k.a. Nanatsuboshi). Highlights of the first day included:

Our sleeper suite:

Lunch on the train:

Walking around snowy Yufuin and Lake Kirin:

French-yet-Japanese themed dinner (with semi-formal dress code!):

and bedtime ...