Food & Cooking · Seen/Heard/Tried · Tried

Chocolate tasting

Years ago we went to the Museu de la Xocolata in Barcelona, a small piece of heaven where your tickets are chocolate bars and your taste buds fill with delight. The chocolate museum has all kinds of activities and opportunities for tastings, and it was there that I had my first ever experience with thick, rich, decadent Spanish hot chocolate. Tasting the drink was like falling in love.

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Falling in love is what enjoying really good chocolate is supposed to feel like, according to Simran Sethi, host of my newest podcast obsession, The Slow Melt. In her podcast, she also says awesome things about being your own sexiest sweetheart, and buying the good chocolate for you. And while I love that sentiment and am most certainly not opposed to buying myself chocolate, I did have to buy some good stuff for Chad on Valentine’s Day (I just forced him to share with me 😉 ).

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We’ve been doing a lot of chocolate tasting lately, especially since I received The Chocolate Tasting Kit for Christmas. I am already starting to see differences in chocolates as we try them, and have also learned a lot about how to taste chocolate and how it’s made. Pairing the kit with The Slow Melt, I’ve been gaining a lot of knowledge about chocolate, and I can’t wait to start working with specific coffee pairings as my palate develops! My favorite recent chocolate tasting? Black Salt Dulce de Leche Bonbons from Vosges Haut Chocolat. 62% dark chocolate sprinkled with black sea salt crystals = something I could melt into my chair over.

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If you can’t get your hands on some good chocolate as soon as your taste buds would like, get some eye candy by checking out The Slow Melt’s Instagram, and enjoy some sweet listening by subscribing to the podcast!

Have you tried any wonderful chocolates lately? Please do share your favorites!

xx Caitlyn

PS: can you imagine being gifted Vosges Haut Chocolat’s Travel the World through Chocolate Steam Trunk!? A most indulgent, luxurious gift if there ever was one!

Reviews · Seen/Heard/Tried

Uncle Goose Japanese Blocks

Sometimes you learn that super cool places exist right in your own area after months of living there and not knowing about them. We discovered such a place in Grand Rapids, Michigan, yesterday after receiving a very special gift for Lillian. The place is called Uncle Goose, and the gift was a set of beautiful Japanese blocks.

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These blocks are just awesome. They include bits of all three systems of writing in Japanese as well as English translations. There are animals on one side of each block, and on another side there is a chrysanthemum pattern from a fabric designed in the 1800’s. The blocks not only look beautiful, but they feel pleasing to hold as well. Moreover, they are responsibly and sustainably made, and are printed using child-safe inks so I don’t have to worry about them going in Lily’s mouth.

I was so shocked that it is possible to find blocks that have Japanese and English on them handmade in the states, let alone in West Michigan, but Uncle Goose actually makes sets of blocks in many languages, ranging from Korean to Polish (23 languages are available total, to date!). They also craft other wonderful sets, like one with bugs and another with nursery rhymes (I’d love to get those for Lillian one day, too!).
uncle-goose-japanese-blocksLillian’s gift of Uncle Goose blocks will be a treasure for years to come. Chad seems to think they are a sign we should actively teach Japanese to Lillian and then move back to Japan, but I’m not so sure about all of that 😉 Anyway, Uncle Goose is based in Grand Rapids but sells their blocks in 6 out of 7 continents worldwide. Check out their website and drool over these blocks (like I mentioned, you can literally drool over them and you’ll be a-okay!).

Have you found any fun places in your area lately? Thanks for letting me share!
xx Caitlyn

Pregnancy · Seen/Heard/Tried · Tried

5 helpful things in late pregnancy (with links!)

There are many articles and blog posts that give advice on helpful things to do during pregnancy, but since each person is different I thought one more from me couldn’t hurt 🙂 These are some things I did, especially during late pregnancy, and how they worked out for me.

5HelpfulThingstoTryinLatePregnancy1. Prenatal exercise– every day in the last two months or so of pregnancy, I walked between one to two hours. I didn’t worry too much about how far I walked because (especially toward the last few weeks/days) I thought it was better to just try my best and get outside.

I also did yoga several times a week. I started with Prenatal Yoga with Adriene, but to be honest, I found it wasn’t challenging enough during the first two trimesters and not stimulating enough during the third (okay, I’ll just say it: I was so bored with it!). Instead, in the third trimester I switched to this free video called Yoga for Birth Preparation. I found this video not only relaxing, but informative. For each step, you are told why you are doing what you’re doing. Having that understanding really helped me to know what sorts of techniques I could apply during labor (which I mentioned briefly in Lillian’s birth story).

The Yoga for Birth Preparation video uses some really nice, calming music. I wrote to the  producers of the video and asked about the music, and they kindly and quickly replied: the music is by Benjy Wetheimer, from his album Anjali. I downloaded it off of Amazon, and though I didn’t end up listening to it during labor, I think the album will still be nice to listen to while doing some yoga independently now.

Lastly, I frequently did squats. I figure that even if you don’t have much time, you can squeeze in this awesome 5-minute squat video. When I had Lily, the nurses said they were amazed at how strong I could push, and I like to think keeping up with squats helped. It also helped with a lot of other issues some women have (I never once had pee accidents from laughing/sneezing, etc.)!

2. Relaxed– I took loads of baths and used a lot of face masks. In Japan there are some really great, inexpensive face masks available, and that’s something I’ll really miss back home! In the last few weeks of pregnancy my lower back hurt a lot and my hips just killed, so having a sweet husband give me massages really helped, too. I give Chad extra props because giving someone a massage while she’s lying on her side because of a huge belly has got to be difficult! I also took some naps, but to be honest, I should’ve slept more! I sort of felt guilty about sleeping, like I should be doing more with my time, but now I know that 1) I had such difficulty sleeping from being physically uncomfortable that I should’ve tried as much as possible, and 2) I dream of being able to get that kind of sleep now that we’ve got a newborn! (Well, day dream, anyway haha)

3. Prepared my hospital bag and “survival stations”– For the most part, I prepared my hospital bag according to the lists provided by my hospitals (both St Luke’s and Aiiku had pretty much the same list). I did bring my Kindle as well, but I personally felt too tired to read. Television might have been nice, but I didn’t watch it because I had a shared room and didn’t want to disturb the other mommies (plus it was Japanese television, anyway, which might’ve been too overwhelming at that point). In the rare times I had my hands free I was usually sleeping or eating or showering, but I suppose it was better to have options available rather than not just in case.

I also made “survival stations” for when I got home based on articles like this one. Because in Japan you stay in the hospital for about 5 days after giving birth, I didn’t end up using the bathroom basket much. I also didn’t use the padsicles I prepped because by the time I got home there was no need. The breastfeeding basket was also unnecessary, perhaps because our apartment is so small that the few things I needed (lanisoh, water, snacks etc.) were always within reach right next to any diapering needs. I suppose it depends on the person, and I guess in the end it was nice to be over prepared rather than under, but really the only basket I’ve needed has been the one with diapers, wipes, a thermometer, gas drops, and burp towels. I also put a little bag in the basket with bath time stuff (baby soap, lotion & oil, q-tips, etc.) because there was extra space.

Ultimately so much of what you prep for the hospital & home is dependent on your hospital stay and the layout of your home/what will be convenient and necessary for you. And in my case, I couldn’t really know about what I really needed until I actually experienced my hospital stay/homecoming! My main point here is that you may feel like you should be going crazy preparing things, but it might be better to focus more on relaxing! We were super minimal about a lot (especially buying things because we knew we were going to move back to Michigan again soon), and everything worked itself out.

4. Read & used a pregnancy app– Like many soon-to-be mommies, I read a lot of articles online, but I also enjoyed reading The Taboo Secrets of Pregnancy and The Girlfriend’s Guide to Pregnancy. Of course The Mayo Clinic Guide to a Healthy Pregnancy was good to have on hand as well! Reading these books was especially helpful to me living so far away from family and friends.

I also used this Pregnancy+ iPhone app. I liked the app for its updates and for tracking things, but was a little bummed when a few months in I got the surprise notification that I would have to pay $4.99 to continue using what I thought was a free app. At that point I didn’t want to start anew and re-enter data, so I just paid for it (I’d love to hear about your favorite pregnancy app if you have one!).

5. Joined a pregnancy group– joining the Tokyo Pregnancy Group proved immensely useful. The ladies in the group were able to give me great advice, especially when we had to switch hospitals! I never really made many friends in Tokyo aside from a few coworkers (most of whom never had children), so having a support group was invaluable. The only downside was that the meetings were always held on weekday afternoons, so I was only able to attend one meeting once I started maternity leave. I think a lot about my pregnancy would have been easier had I been able to make friends with some other mommies (or better yet, had I been in my home country!). Reaching out to others who are going through or have gone through pregnancy is so important!  Chad and me at a ramen shop about a week before my due date.  

I hope sharing some of my experiences in trying to prepare myself during pregnancy were helpful to you, and would love to hear about what worked/didn’t work for you!

xx Caitlyn

Food & Cooking · Reviews · Seen/Heard/Tried · Tried

Tsuta Ramen: the first ever ramen shop to receive a Michelin Star

Ever since we heard the news about Tsuta Ramen shop receiving a Michelin Star, we knew we had to give it a try. Our first attempt was one Friday after work, when we learned that the shop closes at 4:00 PM. Yeah, what? Chad called to confirm the shop was really already closed for the night to learn that not only are the hours incredibly limited (11:00 AM-4:00 PM), but that you have to get a placeholder ticket by 10:30 or 11:00 in the morning in order to get a bowl as well.
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Last Monday, Chad decided to take off the upcoming Wednesday from work to surprise me and go with me to Tsuta during the limited open hours. Much to our dismay, after getting the day-off request approved, he discovered Tsuta is closed on Wednesdays! Strike two!
IMG_3995Fortunately for us, now Chad is on vacation, so yesterday (Tuesday) we were able to scurry down toward Sugamo Station to get a ticket from Tsuta. We got there around 10:15, and were able to get tickets to reserve a spot for eating around 3:00. Unfortunately, all that was on offer for the day was Tsuta’s miso ramen, which I was especially bummed about because I tend to go for shoyu (soy based) or shio (salt based) ramen. Of course, that didn’t change our minds about giving the shop a try!
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Approaching the shop, you are greeted with several signs explaining the placeholder tickets. The tickets are color-coded, and the time you arrive to get a ticket determines the time you can come back to eat.
IMG_3999If you’re on a Tsuta ramen mission, don’t go sit in line to get your placeholder ticket! Open the door to talk to someone–if there is a line of people outside, they are already waiting for their dining time slot!
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You are advised to arrive a half an hour or so before your time slot, and if you miss your time or lose your ticket, you forfeit the 1000 yen deposit you give for your placeholder ticket.
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Once we got our placeholder tickets, we had to decide how to spend the next several hours. We came up with a few really nice ideas, which I’ll share in a future post. For now, the important thing to know is that if you’re in town to try Tsuta ramen, you really have to plan a day around it. We recommend going to the shop for a placeholder ticket around 7:30 or 8:00 AM to ensure you can have a bigger selection of ramen dishes, and so that you can get a more convenient time than we did.       IMG_4053Around 2:15 or so we came back to Tsuta Ramen and joined a line of several other customers. We slowly moved forward in the queue until we were welcomed inside and given our deposits back so we could chose our ramen. We had three choices: normal miso ramen, miso ramen with egg, and miso ramen with extra chicken. We chose the latter two options (which came to exactly 2000 yen total), and then continued to wait in the indoor line for seats to open up. IMG_4054We were pretty excited when our ramen was served. We were ready for new flavors–we’d never had chickpeas, sliced onions or chicken in our ramen before. IMG_4055 IMG_4056A good egg is usually a huge indication of my overall rating when it comes to ramen: it shouldn’t be completely hard boiled, but the yolk should be slightly cooked. My egg was spot-on. I liked the noodles, too, but sometimes the texture was a little grainy for me. I couldn’t tell whether that sensation was from the soba noodles themselves, or from the noodles being coated in miso broth. The ramen didn’t disappoint, but I would personally like to go back and try a bowl of the shoyu ramen. IMG_4057
Tsuta’s miso ramen is not my favorite ramen in Japan, but that could just be due to my lack of enthusiasm for miso based-ramen. Chad was quite impressed, so we’ll have to do some future investigation next time we can plan around Tsuta’s rather inconvenient hours. Either way, I’m glad we got a chance to try it! For information on hours and days in which Tsuta is open, click here.

Take care!
xx Caitlyn

Food & Cooking · Learning · Seen/Heard/Tried

Wasanbon Workshop

Photo 10-25-15, 1 11 10 PMLast weekend I had the chance to attend a workshop making a special type of wagashi, or Japanese confectionary, called wasanbon. This particular type of wagashi is sadly becoming a disappearing art. One reason is because the primary ingredient is a special sugar (also called wasanbon) that is harvested in a cooler climate than other sugars, and takes a lot of work to refine. This high-grade sugar is quite light, and has buttery, honey notes that can’t be found in other sugars. Because of the special care in harvesting the sugar, it is quite expensive.
Photo 10-25-15, 12 02 39 PMLike the sugar itself, wasanbon molds are quite pricey. According to the workshop teacher, there is only one craftsman left in Japan making the wasanbon molds, and just the circular one pictured above on the far left costs over 30,000 yen (so just under $300 USD). On the bright side, you can find similar molds for about 3000 yen (or around $30 USD) at places like Kappabashi Dori, but the material and degree of craftsmanship will most likely be different.
Photo 10-25-15, 12 20 33 PMBefore we began trying to make our own wasanbon, our teacher and other workshop leaders taught us how to make little origami boxes to put our finished confectioneries in.  (If you’re interested, you can find instructions for the style box we made here.)
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Next, our teacher began to mix the ingredients, which were super simple: wasanbon sugar, a teeny bit of water, and a teeny bit of liquid sugar. The liquid sugar, our teacher explained, makes the shaping process easier for beginners but isn’t absolutely necessary. She added a very small amount of pink dye as well, noting that if the end color is not subtle, wasanbon can quickly end up looking cheap. Once the mixture reached a texture similar to the beginning stages of a crumbly flour, we sifted it–first by tapping the edges of the sifter and then by pressing the remaining mixture through with our hands.
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Next we pressed the mixture into a mold as tightly as possible. We scraped off the top so everything was even, and then tapped at the top layer of the mold to release half of each sweet. Lastly, we carefully flipped the mold and tapped as necessary to get pretty little roses to drop out.
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Flipping the mold was a little stressful, but on the bright side, the mold can always be repacked to try again (whereas if you add too much liquid to your wasanbon in the mixing stages, you can easily ruin everything–an expensive mistake!).
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We also tried using a bird mold, which I totally thought was some sort of fish at first (don’t tell). Photo 10-25-15, 1 07 55 PM
Finally, we got to try our creations. Our teacher instructed us to place a wasanbon on our tongue and just let it melt. The wasanbon initially felt light on the tongue, yet thick like frosting. The complexity continued as it melted, giving a distinct sweet flavor that vanished too quickly to hold on to. Photo 10-25-15, 1 09 43 PM
I really learned a lot from the wasanbon workshop, and hope I get a chance to attend workshops teaching other wagashi styles before we leave Japan again!

Have you tried making anything new lately?
xx Caitlyn

Seen/Heard/Tried · Summer Bucket List · Travel · Tried

Summer Bucket List recap

Now that we’re several days into fall I think it’s time for an update/recap on my Summer Bucket List for this year!

  1. Read at least three books [√] — Check out this Bookspiration post to learn more!
  2. Do yoga at least 4 times a week [X] —  I thought I was going to be one of those glowing, energetic pregnant women–HA! But I have been walking every day, and I try and squeeze in yoga and other exercise when I’m not dead from work.
  3.  Celebrate our 7th anniversary [√] — We went to Hakone and really enjoyed the Open Air Museum (read more here).
  4. Try paper quilling [√] — I made a pretty sunflower card and really enjoyed the craft (see my card here)!
  5. Eat s’mores [X] — You know, I didn’t get around to s’mores this summer. I did, however, enjoy a lot of early-released fall treats, so I think I made up for it!
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    Left: sweet potato Kit Kats and chestnut flavored taiyaki; Right: chestnut flavored soft oreos, pumpkin flavored Kit Kats, and sweet potato chips. You can heat up both the types of kit kats. I didn’t try them warm, but they were yummy as is!
  6. Go swimming [√] — I was lucky to go swimming in a hotel pool during our Thailand trip, and then again at Shirahama Beach with Chad and his brother Quint.
    IMG_2974Chad and Quint running into the gorgeous water.
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    Beautiful mermen!
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    Baby bump at 22 weeks (about two weeks ago, and already looking small to me!)
  7. Make a hot air balloon craft [X] — I had all the best intentions, really. But I’ll be working on an easy one this week.
  8. Try kirigami [X] — Once again, good intentions on this one. It’s been moved to my Fall Bucket List, though!
  9. Go to Studio Ghibli [X] — Oh my goodness you guys. It is impossible to get tickets on weekends or on any other days we have off. I will keep trying again and again until we leave Tokyo!
  10. Enjoy kakigori (Japanese shaved ice) [√] — I had some lovely strawberry milk kakigori after visiting Sandanbeki Caves with Chad and Quint.
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                                           Above: One view from the caves.
    The “milk” was actually sweetened condensed milk. Mmmmmmm….!
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    I also tried a totally different version of shaved ice in Thailand called “Ruam-mit.” My Thai friend says that means “mixing everything together.” Below you can see the stand with choices you can make for your own bowl, and then the four different bowls we sampled with our friends. We liked the ones with coconut milk the best!IMG_2769
  11. Go on a picnic [√] — we went on several 🙂
  12. Have a fancy night dressed up around town [√] — Um, do you remember when we went to Chez Olivier? We actually went back again when Quint was here, too. Still drooling at the thought of both visits….
  13. Do at least 3 Writing Prompts [X] — I did one writing prompt, and really didn’t like it. Time got in the way of trying for another two.
  14. See fireworks [√/X] — So I didn’t actually see live fireworks, but I did do a really cool craft with my students. Here’s the link on pinterest!
  15. Do pirikura [√] — As you know from my last post, I totally got down with this one and used it as a baby announcement!

All in all I’d say I gave this year’s bucket list a pretty good go, especially considering I was primarily in my first trimester for a good chunk of it! My fall bucket list is ready now, too, so I’ll be sharing that soon!

What are some fun things you did this summer?
xxCaitlyn

Food & Cooking · Seen/Heard/Tried · Summer Bucket List · Tried

French Restaurant Chez Olivier

On my Summer Bucket List (and bucket lists past, for that matter), when I wrote “fancy night around town,” I generally meant that I wanted to dress up for no reason at all and do ordinary things–just for fun. But as I was researching dinners for our anniversary weekend, I came across a perfect reason for dressing up and NOT doing an ordinary thing: Michelin Star-Rated restaurant Chez Olivier.

After perusing the bilingual website and reading about Chef Olivier’s history and approach to his restaurant, I was especially intrigued by the presentation of the meals in the pictures, and at how the menu is always changing with the season based on what is available. Ever since watching The Hundred Foot Journey (a great movie, if you haven’t seen it!),  I’ve been curious about restaurants with the coveted Michelin Star, so I have to admit that was part of my reasoning for wanting to go, too. Since we went to Hakone on our anniversary weekend, this weekend was our chance to visit Chez Olivier with a Saturday night reservation for 6:30.IMG_2324Weeeee! I was so excited! IMG_2325Here is our table set for two before the meal began. This was the stage at which we learned our first lesson: be sure to specify you want TAP water if all you want to drink is water. The waitress (who was truly quite friendly) opened a bottle of Evian with a charge of 1100 yen and I think our hearts broke a bit with each pour. IMG_2326We chose a dinner course with a starter, main and dessert. Before the starter there was a little complimentary appetizer of bread with bits of bacon and other flavors, a drop of soup, and a mussel with hazelnut and herb butter on salt. The waitress recommended we start with the soup (which was on the spoon in the middle), and it ended up being a delightful surprise. We wondered how it could be soup when it looked like a little mound of cheese or something, but upon putting it in our mouths, it burst open and filled our palette with really smooth flavor. So sorry I can’t remember more about the description of each item on this plate as she just told us briefly as it was served. The mussel was my favorite little bite. IMG_2327Next came our appetizers. I chose the Gazpacho jelly with mozzarella, tomatoes, shrimp, and avocado, and it was just fabulous. The little swirls of green were the avocado, which really smoothed out the tanginess of the soup. We were also served complimentary bread (warmed) with fresh-made Hokkaido butter. We may have eaten nearly all of that butter by the end of the meal because it was so creamy yet light, and I have no shame about the matter at all. IMG_2328Sorry this picture is blurry, but this was Chad’s appetizer: Pressed chicken meat, rhubarb, acidulated red onions, and cooking juice. He gave me a bite, and his was also quite nice. IMG_2330Next up was our main course, and both of us chose the roasted duckling fillet with cherry sauce and a creamy polenta. (Chad paired his with a nice red wine.) The duckling was imported from France and was just divine with the cherry sauce. And the polenta! It just melted in our mouths. Absolutely delicious. IMG_2331At this point, depending on how you look at it, we learned our second lesson of the night. We were brought a cheese platter and asked if we’d like some cheese. Chad chose a really nice blue cheese, and I chose Gorgonzola. Our slices were served with a bit of dried fig and a couple drops of balsamic vinegar. The lesson? Each serving added 800 yen each to our bill! On the bright side, we definitely enjoyed the cheese. IMG_2332Next up was a complimentary pre-dessert of assorted cheesecakes. There was rare cheesecake, some cheesecake ice cream with a small bit of lime zest, a raspberry cheesecake, passion fruit sauce, and a couple other little logs of cheesecake. Each bite was soooooo delightful. If only I could just send you a bite or two! IMG_2333Next was our dessert. Both of us chose the Creamy Chocolate ”Caramelia,” mascarpone and maple syrup espuma (a gourmet foam or whip), crispy praline,  and milk ice-cream dessert. IMG_2334The dessert was layered, and I enjoyed trying each layer individually, and then altogether.  IMG_2335See the layers? Don’t you just want to dive in and disappear into chocolate caramel heaven? IMG_2336Before our meal was complete, we were given two cannelés to share, a small sweet which actually originated in Olivier’s hometown of Bordeaux. The outside was crisp and honeyed, and the inside was soft and spongey with egg and rum-flavored crumb.

Overall, our experience at Chez Olivier was delightful. The courses themselves were 4800 yen each, but with the added expenses of the Evian water, Chad’s glass of wine, the cheese and a 10% service charge, we felt a sad little pang when receiving the bill. BUT! Here’s what we thought as we left: we learned a bit about dining fancy, we had an amazing time (we were there for about 2 1/2 hours talking and dining), and the food was just awesome. The staff was pretty friendly and helpful, and the atmosphere was nice. We definitely enjoyed our time, and will be trying more fancy places once in a while in the future.

Have you eaten anything amazing lately?

xx Caitlyn