New Year’s Eve in Kuala Lumpur

Another morning, another run to the Lot10 food court. Most food courts have just 10-20 shops, but this one had 40-50 different places, all close together for easy access. One shop we noticed yesterday had a huge line of Chinese people waiting, so this morning I went there first and got a good position at the front of the line. The dish was worth it, too – Duck Egg Fried Kuey Tow – flat noodles mixed with duck egg and vegetables and cooked up in a big iron wok with plenty of hot sauce. Kuniko picked up some beef noodles, which were also awesome. And we also got a few more custard buns. 

We did a little more poking around the area of the park and Kuala Lumpur Convention Center, checked out the twin towers gift shop to see if they had any stupendous ornaments for our tree, and then ended up at a shopping center restaurant called Madame Kwan’s for a traditional Malaysian lunch.  This time we had fruit rojack topped with soft shell crab, a fairly good beef rending, and a steamed fish cake wrapped in a banana leaf called otak otak. We weren’t a big fan of the fruit rojack, but the crab on the top was great! We also really enjoyed the fish cake – I think it would see well in Japan. For dessert we ordered a shaved ice sort of dish with beans, tea jelly and a big dollop of durian on top. I liked everything but the durian – but Kuniko had no trouble and ate it all. 

With our shopping pretty much out of the way, we retreated to our hotel room to relax. The fridge was stocked with a couple bottles of sparkling wine, we had snacks, and so it was just time to wait for midnight. We spent most of the time napping, using the big bathtub, and snacking, until finally it got close to twelve o’clock. The park underneath the tower had some sort of concert going on, and even from where we were we could hear the music. More people gathered under the Petronas Towers and when midnight hit they let loose with some serious fireworks. The fireworks mainly exploded at about our height, between our hotel and the towers beyond the park. It made for some dramatic viewing, and it was a big payoff to the end of 2019. 

We slept in the next day and then headed off to the airport, catching a flight out of Kuala Lumpur in the early afternoon and arriving around 9:30 pm in Japan. We barely caught the bus from the airport to Kobe, and ended up arriving at home a little after 11 pm. The colder weather was a shock – back to electric blankets and long underwear. It was another great trip – we were never bored and ate so much good food. I don’t think we’ll forget this winter holiday for a long time. 

Welcome to Traders Hotel

The next morning we followed through on our promise and went straight away to the Lot10 food court, and enjoyed wandering the relatively uncrowded area looking at all the food options on display. We decided on a steamed Chinese rice crepe, rice and braised pork wrapped in a banana leaf, and some more salted egg custard buns because we just couldn’t get enough. 

We checked out of our hotel, and caught a Grab to our last hotel of the trip, the Traders Hotel. Kuniko had booked this hotel back in Christmas 2018 while we were staying with Mark and Susan in Tampa, and she did a great job. The room was large, luxurious, and from the 14th floor had a dramatic facing view of the Petronas Towers and KLCC Park below them. This was our first time to get a look at the landmark towers since being in Malaysia, and they are pretty dramatic. 

For fun we went up to the top floor (floor 33) to check out the swimming pool and sky bar. The pool was an indoor pool and quite small – but unfortunately it was not available for guests due to some sort of technical problem. We settled for cocktails from the sky bar and sat next to the pool enjoying a slightly higher view of downtown KL. The pool area and bar were remarkably empty – it was just us, the pool maintenance staff, and a group of women posing for their Instagram next to the windows. There were advertisements for a countdown party the next day, with “platinum” tables available for big money (5 bottles of champagne and 5 bottles of whisky included!) and interesting celebrities and DJs. We’ll stick to our own room, thanks. 

Later in the afternoon we went out by train to Kampun Baru, a kind of local’s street food area. We walked through what seemed like a regular neighborhood street, but the front yard of each house had been converted into open air food stands and restaurants. Things were kind of quiet when we walked through, so we kept going, finding lots of backstreets and several fruit markets and even a big butcher’s market area where they were busy cutting up chickens and fish. Eventually we found our way to Kuniko’s target restaurant, called Limapulo. It was a stylish place with both indoor and outdoor seating, and it was easy to take a table outside under an arbor and order up some good food. We started with juices – I had lychee and Kuniko had carrot – and then an appetizer which was like a flat egg omelet, called telur cincaluk. We followed it up with a bowl of nyona-style Malaysian noodles, this time with a thick soup broth that reminded me of Japanese miso ramen. We also had a plate full of tiny thin noodles – with egg, cabbage and spices. These noodles had a coconut spice flavor that I couldn’t get enough of. 

On our way back we passed through a big Aeon market – a Japanese company that is looking to make inroads into Southeast Asia. The mall was pretty empty though, and I don’t think it has a good long term outlook. Back in Kampun Baru Kuniko bought a mango susu – blended frozen mango, with a little juice and then big chunks of fresh mango on top – it was outstanding. 

Finally, we returned to the area of our hotel and did some shopping at a nearby market (called “Cold Storage”) that was really busy. Tomorrow is New Year’s Eve, and it seemed like people were getting ready to party. 

Back in Kuala Lumpur

Using Uber we ordered a (very) early pickup at our hotel to take us to the airport for our flight back to Kuala Lumpur. The drive was smooth and as we passed the bus terminal we saw that the stands and markets around it were absolutely hopping with people at 4 am in the morning. Apparently it is a good idea to stock up on supplies before riding a long distance bus out of town. The airport had three security checks before we even arrived (we handed our passports through the window to the armed soldiers) and then we had to go through the rest of normal security inside the airport. The airport itself was pretty quiet, although not well-organized – one security guy told me to go, at the same time another one told me to stop. Surrounded by salespeople sleeping in their shops, we had a breakfast of quiche Lorraine and some coffee to wake up. After a long wait for the final security check we finished boarding, and enjoyed another great meal on Sri Lankan airlines. 

It seemed like a very short three hours and we arrived back at the same Kuala Lumpur terminal that we had left a couple of days ago. We still had great memories of those salted egg custard buns from Din Tai Fung and so we made a special trip back up to the departures area to have some more. 

We chose a bowl of spicy noodles with wonton from the menu, and then two orders (8 buns!) of salted egg custard buns. The way the ordering system works in the restaurant is that you check off what you want from a paper list, and then the staff comes and gets the list and later returns with your food. We were really excited to eat more custard buns – really, really excited. The noodles arrived first and they were really good – served as dry noodles but with plenty of spice and heat to make it interesting. The staff arrived and stacked up two baskets full of buns, and when we took the cover off the basket a cloud of steam escaped, and there they were – eight little buns of joy. I happily took the first one and bit into it and– what the hell? I got a mouthful of yam paste. 

Oh, no! It turns out we marked the wrong spot on the sheet, and now we had eight buns of sweet yam paste instead of what we really wanted to eat. Yam paste is not bad – but it isn’t something that will shake your soul like salted egg custard. So after the tears of laughter/shock/grief ended, we got to work eating eight yam paste buns. And then we ordered (correctly, this time) 8 salted egg custard buns and ate those too. Sometimes it takes a little extra work to get what you want, and we paid the price. What was supposed to be a snack became a big meal, and I think the staff understood what happened and were giggling to themselves as we dug deep to finish those yam paste buns. 

After the meal we were able to catch a Grab to our hotel for that night. Grab is a useful application in Malaysia for ride hailing, and it seemed hugely popular. It was cheaper than taking the train, although you are paying a less obvious cost in CO2 impact and pollution. The prices were unbelievably cheap (unsustainably cheap, I thought), so it makes a good system for a tourist to get around. When Kuniko set up the application on our first day in Malaysia, she had to look into the camera of her smartphone and slowly nod her head so they could take a clear picture for the driver to identify her for pickup. So it was an odd situation to be standing in the hotel lobby nodding sagely at your smartphone in the hopes of catching a ride. 

We stayed at a different hotel on our return – just for one night – with a comfortable (king-size?) bed and a great location right next to the street food market area of Bukit Bintang. In the early evening we walked over to the Jalan Alor area, a place that we had visited before in the morning. Last time we visited things were closed up but in the evening it was a completely different feeling. All the food stands were opened up, with plenty of tables available for diners to sit on the street and enjoy the atmosphere. We started with 10 satay skewers – a mixture of lamb, chicken and beef skewers with the critical peanut sauce on the side. Beer here was very expensive – almost the same price as in Japan, but I guess that is to be expected in a street food market in a Muslim country. We were lucky to get alcohol at all. 

The satay stimulated our appetite so we went down the street trying other things – gyoza, dried glazed salami, roast pork, and at one restaurant we had two big plates of vegetable stir fries to get a little green into us. Our seat at the last restaurant was out on the edge of the street, so it was perfect for people-watching. There were a lot of foreigners like us, a grievously burned man begging for change, an armless man was singing songs from a microphone he had set up on the street, and a tiny lady in a wheelchair had a karaoke speaker mounted and she crooned as she slowly rolled down the busy lane. Next to us a group of three teenagers grabbed a table and proceeded to bask in the attention they were getting by smoking and drinking mysterious beverages in clear plastic cups. The staff of our restaurant clearly didn’t like them being there, but the teenagers didn’t mind – they stayed glued to their smartphones trying to look cool. 

On our way back from the bustling market we stopped in at the basement of the Lot10 shopping mall. The food court was huge – all focused on Malaysian and other Asian dishes. We decided right then that we’d definitely come back once we had space in our stomachs. Kuniko bought some melting peanut candy from a Chinese shop on the way out, and with that we called it a day and headed back to our hotel. 

Colombo, Sri Lanka Day Two

The next morning we got out of bed a little later than usual, still sleepy from the nightclub noise above us. We got ready and went out to catch an elevator to the ground floor. We pushed the elevator call button and the door opened right away, and there was a guy just standing in there alone. It caught everyone by surprise, and the guy just nodded at us and said he didn’t mind going down. He got off in the lobby with us and started talking to the staff so we weren’t sure if he worked there or not – but it was a weird situation. 

Our plan for the morning was to take advantage of the lack of direct sunlight and try to walk out to see the Red Mosque. It wasn’t far from our hotel, and with the sun still not quite rising it was a very comfortable walk for us. We passed a dingier side of the city, with dogs sleeping alone on the streets, some shops opened but most closed and locked down. After a wrong turn we passed by a fish market that looked industrial, run-down, and not the least bit sanitary. At last we reached the area of the mosque, and found it surrounded on all sides by buildings making it very difficult to take a picture of the very striking colors and architecture. The streets were almost empty, so it was easy to walk around, and we noticed that the opening time of the mosque for visitors was 9:30 am, so we had some time to kill before being allowed in. 

For breakfast we went to a nearby restaurant that we had researched the day before, open at 6:00 am and serving locals lots of traditional Sri Lankan foods. When we arrived they were slapping around the roti in the front of the shop, which was a very good sign for us. The back of the restaurant was a seat yourself system, and nobody spoke English. Luckily there was a big menu on the wall with pictures and the names of the dishes written in English, so we managed to order some food in this way. Our waiter had no idea what we were talking about but he did know one English word, “egg”. Thankfully some customers helped us out by translating, and we ended up with a breakfast of egg hoppers, and plate of egg kottu, and a bottle of Coke for me with a straw that was too short, making me really do some creative moves with my tongue to get any product out of the bottle. The food here was excellent, so good that we wanted to take some to go. This turned out to be a real fiasco, though, as we tried to order things based on the name and the picture, having no idea of the scale of the photo. We ask for two of something and he says no – you have to order ten. We order two of something and he says that is way too much for two people. Total confusion, but we finally left with a big bag of food and took it back to the hotel to eat. There we discovered two huge loaves of pittu (coconut rolls) which was one and a half too much for us. Also we got 10 string hoppers which was the perfect amount, and two small bowls of curry with an egg in each one. All that food, including what we ate back at the restaurant, for the price of about $3 USD. 

After a little break in the hotel room we went back out, hoping to catch a tuk-tuk to see a couple of nearby Hindu temples that are popular sightseeing spots in the area. There was a tuk-tuk waiting right outside our hotel, but he tried hard to get us to book a city tour with him for the whole day. When we asked how much to go just to the temple, he quoted a price that was triple what longer rides had cost the day before. We smiled and said no thanks, then left to find a tuk-tuk farther away from the hotel. The next price was half of what the other guy had said, so it pays to shop around. Actually, I don’t mind paying the higher price – it was still cheap – but the principle of ripping people off because you can just rubbed me the wrong way. 

We arrived at the temple in just a few minutes. The Gangaramaya Temple is an odd collection of buildings housing a wide variety of religious artifacts, Buddha statues, and texts. It is sort of a collection of things more than one organized temple but it was definitely worth the visit. On the grounds we found a mystical tree looking like something out of a comic book, a collection of old cars donated by wealthy patrons (including a Rolls Royce), a hand operated elevator, and a mysterious spaceship-like shrine flanked by Buddha statues. It was fun to poke around. 

Just a short walk away was Beira Lake and on the water connected by a bridge you could visit the Seema Malaka Temple and enjoy views of the modern city architecture and the ancient religious statues. We also made the walk over to “Gallery Island” which was less impressive and seemed to be a refuge for couples looking to enjoy a little privacy while courting. As we walked around the lake we saw two guys sitting and talking, with a tiny monkey sitting next to them – I guess monkeys are no big deal around here but it certainly would have made me uncomfortable. 

Our next plan was to take a tuk-tuk back to the Red Mosque – it had been closed in the morning when we walked there and we were hoping to get a look inside. After flagging down another tuk-tuk we had to repeatedly refuse his offers for a city tour, or to go to a jewelry shop. Our driver asked about Kuniko’s country, and then said, “Ah, Japanese ladies have an open heart,” – whatever that meant. 

The second time we arrived at the Red Mosque, the neighborhood was very lively. Cars, people, wild dogs and total chaos. It felt like walking through Bangalore when we were in India – too many people doing too many things all at the same time. Unfortunately the gate of the Red Mosque was still locked up despite being past the opening time. A guy nearby said that maybe soon somebody would come open the gates, but it was too hot and crowded to wait in front. We found some refuge at a corner store, eating a few fried snacks with two tiny Sprites, and chatting with the staff. I think for some people they were eager to practice using English, or else eager to be seen by others chatting with foreigners. Anyway, after an awkward conversation or two we left but the mosque was still locked up. We decided to give up on our plan to visit, and had to be satisfied with some photos from outside. 

We went back to the hotel area to get away from all the people for a bit, and drank some beer to clear our dry throats. Riding around in tuk-tuks is a good way to inhale a lot of fumes in a short time. While drinking beers we watched a guy with his four girlfriends (?) sitting across from us, taking endless selfies and chatting. Cute! We did some shopping at a local grocery store, and discovered that one of the drinks we had purchased – it seemed to be a strawberry tropical drink – was actually the concentrated syrup of a strawberry tropical drink. No wonder the price was ten times higher than the other drinks we bought! 

For a late lunch/early dinner we headed back to Galle Street to try to find a chain restaurant that was recommended for traditional Sri Lankan food. Unfortunately they closed their kitchen after lunch, and it was too early to open the kitchen for dinner. We were pretty hungry, though, so we caught another tuk-tuk, and asked the driver to take us to one other restaurant I wanted to try. The driver knew the place right away, and while taking us there he tried to talk us into going to a jewelry store after we eat dinner. We politely declined, but he explained that by taking us there he would receive a coupon for 5 liters of fuel for his tuk-tuk, which was worth about 1000 Sri Lankan rupees (about $6 USD). These kind of kickback schemes are pretty common on tourist routes, and we again declined – I’d rather use my time to enjoy our stay. The guy whined a bit, and kept mentioning the 1000 rupees – making it seem like we were the ones taking 1000 rupees out of his pocket. Again, this is the wrong approach if you want to get extra money (at least for us) and we paid the regular fare only and he left us at the restaurant with a very disappointed look on his face. 

Upali’s restaurant turned out to be a big hit. First, they had air conditioning, which felt great after zooming around the city in heat all day. The restaurant was laid out like a family restaurant, with foreigners like us seated in one area and locals in another – it took me a while to realize that probably only some waiters spoke English so the English-speaking ones were assigned to our area. They had a huge menu of Sri Lankan dishes, and I wished I had taken a picture of it. The dishes were laid out with a few short sentences in English explaining each one, and we wanted to try everything. We narrowed it down to a few, and the cheerful waiter took our order with a friendly Indian-style headshake to indicate that everything was A-OK. 

While sipping fruit juices through paper straws we waited for our food and saw that our poor waiter was covering a lot of tables. People seemed to be waiting a long time, asking him detailed questions about dishes on the menu and the ingredients, making the waiter sign their phone into the restaurant’s WiFi – the poor guy had to do everything for a busy room of customers. But for some reason our food came promptly while others were still waiting, and the waiter gave us a big smile that made me think that maybe he had expedited our order somehow. 

The food was excellent – a rich mutton curry (we paid extra for no bones), two paratha (toasted golden brown with melted cheese and onions inside, Upali’s chicken kottu, and a dish of Sri Lankan noodles (which were cut short – almost like a long pilaf, and had a delicious red chilli sauce and peppers in oil). It was a lot of food for two people, and even sitting in the air conditioned restaurant I built up a lot of sweat as my body was processing all these spicy peppers. So delicious! 

After “lunch/dinner” we took a tuk-tuk back to the beach area, and found that it was quite crowded. Perhaps our timing wasn’t right the night before, but this time we found many families out at the beach enjoying the cool breeze, flying kites, and eating food from little temporary convenience stores set up along the pathway. As we walked a guy paced us from behind and then started talking to us. Immediately I wonder what he is selling, and as it turned out he knew of a special festival happening tonight where we could see an elephant covered in jewels, and by the way did we know there was a famous jewelry store nearby? It was hard to lose him since we were on foot, but eventually we escaped. 

Along with the big crowds of people we saw big crowds of police and soldiers, heavily armed. Every time we walked by police or soldiers they always smiled and nodded at us, and I could tell the government was very concerned about the effect of terror attacks on tourism. If we asked the soldiers to give us a lift to our hotel I’m sure they’d have been happy to do it. As we walked back north toward our hotel it was nice moment with the sun starting to go down on our left over the ocean, and we thought it might be nice to find a hotel with a view of the beach and sunset to sit and have a cocktail. As it turned out, the nearest hotel that fit the bill was the Shangri-La – one of the hotels that was targeted during the Easter terror attacks. Apparently a suicide bomber had lined up for Easter breakfast with the other guests and managed to kill quite a few people. 

Other than the security checkpoint in front of the hotel (cameras built into the ground to check under cars, and a bomb sniffing dog who didn’t mind posing for photos with local children) the Shangri-La shows no signs of any kind of attack. We walked into the lavish reception area, and it was easy to get a couple of seats outside, despite our casual attire. The staff served me a smoked whiskey sour and Kuniko and I sat and watched the sun slowly descend through the clouds towards the ocean. We didn’t make a dent in the bowl of cashews as our stomachs were still full. We had a nice quiet moment on the patio not far from where terrorists had committed their horrors. Things there aren’t completely back to normal – but they are close. If they can continue to prevent extremism, recovery will not be so far away. 

Welcome to Colombo, Sri Lanka

On Friday, December 27th we checked out early from our hotel to catch a ride on the shuttlebus to KL Sentral station in order to catch the train back to the airport. The shuttle went ahead and took us to the station directly, apparently the driver didn’t expect anyone else crazy enough to check out at 4:30 in the morning. We used a different terminal at Kuala Lumpur International Airport this time, and discovered there was a Din Tai Fung restaurant just outside of security. Taiwan’s most famous restaurant chain (according to me), we went for the no-pork xiao long bao (in Malaysia only they are made with chicken instead of the usual pork). They also had mini salted egg custard buns, so we ordered four of those. They were the best custard buns ever – I’ve tried them wherever I find them and these were so good. We couldn’t forget how good they were and later it led to an interesting story on our return to Malaysia. 

Our flight was on Sri Lankan airlines, and it was only three and a half hours to Colombo. Even so they served an in-flight meal that was quite good – satay and rice. The Sri Lankan airline meals were some of the best we’ve ever had on a plane… certainly not boring and sometimes quite spicy and exotic. 

Once we arrived at Colombo airport we lined up to get our free (for a limited time only) visa on arrival, and then lined up again for immigration. The lines were not very organized, and some people were pushing to get a better position – patience was wearing a little thin at Colombo airport. Once we cleared immigration and customs I changed some money, ordered up an Uber using the free airport WiFi, and followed the application’s instructions to meet our driver out front. However, once we left the airport and arrived at the front of the arrivals area the free WiFi was out of range. Our driver didn’t show up, and unfortunately armed soldiers were posted to make sure that nobody went back inside the airport. One nice soldier let me walk a little ways into the airport garden to catch the edge of the WiFi envelope, and with that connection I could follow up with the driver and expedite his arrival. He arrived in a tiny Suzuki Alto, and the little car barely made it into town carrying the three of us plus our suitcase. 

It was a little far to get into the center of Colombo, and we could tell immediately that the driving and traffic was much closer to India than Malaysia. It was everyone for themselves out there, driving in the center of two lanes, squeezing into tight spaces and the almost constant use of the horn. I’m glad I wasn’t driving! Eventually the driver found our hotel, and Uber turned out to be a very cost effective way to get from the airport to the city. We stayed at the Fairway Colombo hotel, and it was a smaller hotel in a great location right near a restaurant that we wanted to try in the Old Dutch Hospital area. The hotel was clean, although it did have a fresh paint kind of chemical smell on our floor. The area around the hotel was sort of a tourist zone, so the prices were higher and the touts were kept away (somehow) at a certain distance. Once we left the invisible envelope we were targeted as fair game by taxi and tuk-tuk drivers. 

Eager to explore, we started walking around the hotel area and soon discovered that it was way too hot in the sun to do any real walking. We always prefer walking but the scale of the city and the distances were just too great to manage in the middle of the hot, humid weather. So we took the first of many tuk-tuks to get from the hotel area to the south along the very busy Galle Street. We picked a shopping mall as a destination, and the driver offered to stay and wait for us free of charge. We said we didn’t need him and went inside to do some shopping. 

Sri Lanka’s economy depends a lot on tourism, and they certainly took a hit after the terror attacks on Easter. There were far fewer tourists in town and that meant that extra attention was paid to us and people quoted exorbitant rates to try to rip us off. In the stores and restaurants prices were clearly posted, but each tuk-tuk ride was another negotiation, and only later did we discover that the Uber application lets you hail tuk-tuks as well as cars (thereby avoiding price haggling). Still, each tuk-tuk ride was extremely cheap, and even the most outlandish price quoted worked out to about a $5 ride. 

At the shopping mall we found a good supermarket with plenty of unique things. For example, I bought a bottle of woodapple (a local fruit that has a very mysterious taste) nectar. We stocked up on other goods – local teas, snacks and candies that we wanted to try. Downstairs was a food court, looking like a scene from the seventies with the brown and yellow color scheme. 

Eventually we wrapped up our shopping and caught a tuk-tuk back towards our hotel. The driver had a hard time understanding my pronunciation of our hotel area name, and quoted a price that was about half what we paid to get to the shopping center. It turned out that he had thought we’d go somewhere closer but was so nice he was ready to eat the difference in cost. I paid him the full amount, though – why haggle over a price that amounts to a bottle of soda back in Japan? 

We had a couple of Lion beers (not Tiger) at a bar near our hotel, and a small snack to tide us over until our dinner reservation. Purposely we were trying to build up our appetite for our restaurant reservation at Ministry of Crab. I had heard that they served great chilli crab and since we both love crab we thought it would be interesting to get Sri Lanka’s take on it. They were just steps away from our hotel so we were really looking forward to it. 

When we arrived in the evening they led us to our table inside the stylish restaurant, and we ordered some drinks, a giant shrimp and a large crab. You order the shellfish by size, and you can also choose the sauce. We had garlic chilli sauce for the shrimp and then the traditional chilli sauce only for the crab. I had some coconut water to drink, Kuniko had lime juice served with two test tubes of sugar on the side to adjust the flavor. Our appetizers weren’t so special – the avocado crab salad was just a half an avocado with some crab salad spooned into it – but the crab itself was worth the visit. Although it was a bit overpriced, we enjoyed cracking open the pieces and sucking out all the meat, and we used a plate of bread chunks to soak up the spicy chilli sauce and oil – it was a messy good time. 

After dinner the sun was safely down, so we walked to the beach to see what that area was like. Even though it was dark it was still hot and humid. The beach was pretty quiet and fairly dark, so we decided to play it safe and head back to the hotel. We were pretty tired from the early wake up that morning, so we crashed out but were soon awoken by the floor above us, which was the hotel night club. Every chair scraping on the floor was right above our heads, and the thumping dance music kept us from dropping deeply into sleep. They didn’t stop until around 3 am (which I think is pretty standard for nightclubs, after all) and then we could finally get some rest. 

Winter Holiday – Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia

Since last winter in Florida when Kuniko made a one-year-in-advance reservation for a special room in a special place, our winter travel had been determined. We knew we’d be in Kuala Lumpur during the New Year’s Eve countdown, and then we kind of built out our plan from there. We wanted to focus on eating great food, especially street food, and learn a lot more about Malaysian food culture. But ten days in Malaysia seemed like a little too long, so we looked at other destinations and wavered between Myanmar and Sri Lanka. Sri Lanka experienced a terror attack on Easter 2019, so for a while we switched to Myanmar, but in the end the safety situation improved enough that we felt comfortable switching back to Sri Lanka at the last minute. We focused on relaxing and eating during this trip, so sightseeing became an optional activity. That worked out for the best as the tropical weather was pretty hot unless you were in the shade. 

As usual, things were pretty busy at home leading up to the trip. Shipping off Christmas packages, wrapping up work projects, attending year-end parties with friends and coworkers, and on top of that we were just worn out from the last four solid months of hard work since our last vacation. As it worked out we finished up everything and had a couple of days to spare before our flight left Japan, so we took some slow time – cleaning up the house, organizing and packing, and even met some stormtroopers at a screening of the new Star Wars movie on the morning of our flight out. 

We caught an overnight flight on Air Asia X, and the timing worked out well as we just planned on sleeping the whole time anyway. The plane arrived at about 4:30 am at Kuala Lumpur International Airport Terminal 2 – a fairly new terminal built just for Air Asia. After smooth immigration and customs procedures we carted our suitcase down a floor to pick up a SIM card for my phone. Now that we’re using unlocked iPhones it was surprisingly cheap to rent a SIM card and have internet access in Kuala Lumpur. It cost only about $12 USD for 15 days of internet, so that made the rest of the trip that much easier. 

From the train station we used the convenient (although slightly expensive) high speed train link to the center of town. It took about 25 minutes to KL Sentral station, and then we walked right outside to find a hotel shuttle pickup location. Apparently we had just missed our shuttlebus, so we had to wait about 20 minutes for it to arrive. The area around KL Sentral is packed with tall buildings, most of them hotels, and in the distant dark morning sky we could see several towers illuminated. Near the shuttle stop there were lots of taxi cabs and drivers, but they weren’t very aggressive with us when they learned that we were using the shuttle. We sat on a bench in the comfortably warm weather and enjoyed the calm of waiting. Down the way there were people sleeping on the sidewalk, and during the trip we saw some homeless people now and then in Kuala Lumpur – just lying on the ground to conserve energy in the hot weather of the afternoons. 

When our shuttle arrived and took us the 5 minutes or so to our hotel, the Hotel Majestic, we were arriving much too early for a check-in. The staff did the paperwork for us in advance, took our suitcase, and so we decided to go out exploring in the early morning, and possibly find some breakfast. 

Walking around Kuala Lumpur turned out to be more difficult than we expected. It is a big, growing city, and it has grown dependent on motor vehicles, with some diverse rail services available as well. The city was not designed for pedestrians, and even though places we wanted to visit were close by, the heavy traffic, lack of walkways and sidewalks, and the fact that cars often just ignored stop lights when the drivers felt that it was safe enough. 

On the first morning we took some wrong turns in order to figure out the lay of the land, and so it was an indirect journey to get to Chinatown, where we thought we could get some breakfast. The path from our hotel to Chinatown went through a dangerous intersection with cars that hopefully stopped at red lights, over a river, through an area under construction, and then through a pedestrian walkway that had been converted into a homeless hangout. This was the quickest way to get to where we wanted to go on foot, and despite the occasional bad smell around the homeless area it was perfectly safe and easy to use, once discovered. 

Chinatown was just opening up for the day, so we walked around until we found a small area where a food cart appeared to be evolving into a permanent restaurant. In the back there was a guy selling fresh fruit juices, and we had our first delicious taste of Chinese Malaysian food. We ordered most of our noodles dry, and watched the guy throwing together the meal into chipped plastic dishes that looked like they’d been in use since the 70’s. The atmosphere was a perfect start to our eating adventure. 

We made our way slowly back to the hotel, starting to get a feel for the amount of caution necessary to walk around the backstreets as tourists, and keeping our eyes open to all the strange, interesting and occasionally shocking sights of a developing country. Kuala Lumpur was in an odd phase – growing fast but still full of old areas and showing some growing pains. There were many mysterious moments – one day we found an unexplained line of people waiting for something (I’d guess more than 500 people) near the bus terminal. Another day we were surprised by a solar eclipse that we weren’t aware of. The day became dark and everyone started looking up. There was a lot to wonder at during our stay in “KL”. 

Walking into our hotel was a little like going back in time. The theme of the hotel was a throwback to the days of British Malaya in the 1800’s. The doormen wore pith helmets and white uniforms featuring shorts and long white socks. The bar menu featured authentic (?) historical cocktails of the era (sometimes strong, sometimes watery, but always accompanied by addictive peanuts) and there was high tea in the orchid room, a marble bar, a “secret bar”, a gentlemen’s smoking room (smoking jackets provided), and an overall sort of strange historical/previously oppressed vibe. The oddest thing was that the hotel had mostly foreigners staying, mostly British (I think) and they could be found in the smoking rooms and bars swapping stories of the old days in Eton and Cambridge. 

Once you mentally wrapped your head around that, the hotel was clean, luxurious, and extremely well-staffed with polite people who did whatever they could to make you more comfortable. We returned from Chinatown with plenty of time to kill before check-in, but the staff offered us a table and served us coffee and orange juice (which I don’t think we actually had to pay for) until they opened up a room for us early. The room was spacious with a big bed and overhead frame (for the mosquito nets?) and a central bathtub in the restroom with a TV built into the wall so you could really relax during your soak. We made use of the facilities, including the large swimming pool, and it turned out to be a good place to decompress from our working life and switch into vacation mode. 

So we settled into a nice routine – sleep as much as we like, eat as much as we like, then repeat. I did manage a visit to the Islamic Art Museum, near our hotel, and Kuniko and I both enjoyed visiting the National Mosque, also nearby. We took a train ride out of town (a sign prohibited eating, drinking, and mysteriously titled “indecent behavior”) to visit the Batu Caves, which was high on my list of things to do in Malaysia. The colorful Hindu shrines and steps leading up to the caves really draw the eye. There were 272 steps to the top, and Kuniko did a great job overcoming her fear of falling and making it to the top and back with me. There was a loud concert of Hindi music being played at full volume inside the huge cave, with chickens walking between water drops here and there. 

During the first third of our trip we spent most of our time eating, looking for things to eat, and thinking about what to eat next. Before coming to Malaysia my only experience with Malaysian food was a dish bought at Kuala Lumpur airport years ago that contained a metal shaving – not the best of first impressions. But this time we delved deeper into the food culture, and it was diverse, very affordable and some of the best food we’ve had in Asia. 

Food in Malaysia often comes from one of three backgrounds – Malay traditional, Chinese Malay and Indian Malay. We were able to get a good sampling of all three, but there are also influences from Indonesia (satay, for example) and western and Thai as well. For the most part the Malay and Indian foods were oriented around rice or roti, and the Chinese around noodles. 

We ate a lot of Chinese Malay food – beef noodles, fried duck egg with flat noodles, steamed dim sum, and plenty of vegetable stir fries. Chinatown was built on these kinds of dishes and you could spend a lot of time trying different varieties. They also used pork without any restrictions in Chinese Malay food, so that further widened the options available to us. In Bukit Bintang we ate at Dragon View restaurant – but they forgot our order because they were so busy. The food there was good but not great, the main attraction was the cold beer served on a hot day. There were lots of food options in Chinatown but sometimes they were hard to find, because in the afternoon everyone set up shops selling cheap clothes and trinkets. It takes a little courage to walk down a dark and dirty alley, but occasionally you’ll be rewarded with good food – one stall had too old men serving up food and joking with each customer. We had a bowl of braised pork and some great tofu and fish cake there. We walked down a back street and found people selling electronic parts and junk stripped from equipment and felt pretty foreign as we passed  people sitting on blankets struggling to get by selling this stuff. So sometimes you had to get past the junk shops to find the food, but for the most part, Chinese Malay food was the easiest kind of food to find around Kuala Lumpur. 

For Indian Malay food we went into the Little India neighborhood near KL Sentral station, and we weren’t disappointed. The vibe of the area felt just like a big city in India, with beat-heavy Indian music pumping out of shops and bright colorful fabrics on display everywhere, and big elephant fountain as a centerpiece of the neighborhood. We tried a buffet-style Indian restaurant there, serving up our own plate and selecting foods and curries. The selection was vast and nothing had names on it – you just had to take a chance. We ordered a lassi to drink, and really enjoyed the food (they even gave us a fork to eat with). The downside was when it was time to pay, and the guy asked us, “What did you eat?” Hmm – this and that, and two spoonfuls of this sauce kind of thing… He just charged us 10 ringgit (about $2) and let us go. Another great Indian place was Mansion Tea Stall – a little hole in the wall place serving great roti. We had some communication issues ordering but the roti was so good. The cook was working the roti over the stove, whirling it around his wrists to slap it against the hot steel plate, over and over, then fluffing it into a pile before chopping it up. In most of the restaurants we visited we were the only tourists, so we got a lot of attention. 

For Malay traditional food we found a couple of restaurants that fit the bill. At a slightly touristy place called Old China Café we had some great beef rending and also nasi lemak complete with rice tinged blue with ground pea flowers. Our waiter joked that Tiger beer was actually “Lion”, but later we found actual Lion beer in Sri Lanka. Next door we ate at a restaurant catering to locals with menu items that sort of combined the three food cultures, and had a very unique roti jala – a kind of net looking cake that is dipped into spicy curries by hand. We also had assam laksa there, but it was a little fishier tasting than I had expected. Later during our return to Malaysia at the New Year we were able to try even more traditional Malaysian dishes. 

The culinary high point was getting a ride to a night market in the south part of town to eat more street food. The market was once a week, and stretched out over two kilometers. We arrived early but it quickly got crowded and nearly out of hand. The space for walking was tight, there were no trash cans to dispose of your wrappers and cups, and the sheer volume and variety of foods was overwhelming. We tried some great foods here – dim sum (black pepper shumai was a highlight), a neon colored citrus jelly drink that was tasty and had a very natural taste despite the color, stir fried lamb chunks (still on the bone), satay sticks (mind-blowingly delicious with the peanut sauce), and a pancake wrapped up like a burrito with spicy sauce, cabbage, fried crisps and egg inside. One guy was grilling giant penis-like mushrooms, and leering at the cute girls walking by as he worked. Great food here – our only problem was that we couldn’t get rid of the paper and sticks remaining from the food, and we weren’t willing to litter. Next time we’ll bring our own plastic bag for trash. The traffic and crowds soon became too much for even the two kilometer stretch, and we managed to find a Grab (a ride hailing service) and we left. Not five minutes later a huge rainstorm let loose over the city, and I hate the think what had happened to all those people back at the open air night market. 

After several days of eating, relaxing and exploring, we decided to go through with our plan to visit Sri Lanka for a few days. There was no terror attack during Christmas (the last one was on Easter so we were a little concerned), so we packed up our stuff and headed back to the airport for a three and half hour flight to Colombo, Sri Lanka. 

Something New in the Kitchen

We had a diverse range of good food this weekend, mainly homemade. Every weekend we eat well, but for some reason this past weekend stood out as especially good.

Saturday morning we went into Kobe to visit “The Cheese Guy” – John Davis, who came out from Okinawa to promote his cheeses at a weekend cheese exhibition along the Motomachi shopping street.

It was our first time to meet John face to face, after having ordered cheeses from him so many times over the years. We let us taste a few cheeses that we didn’t recognize, including a sort of fermented 2 year old cheese paste that was fruity and intense.

John was clearly passionate about cheese and it was nice to borrow him a little bit and peruse his wares. Apparently it was his first time to Kobe, and we hoped that he’d do well. Even early in the morning there were crowds in the shopping street so I’m guessing he’ll be busy. Although Kuniko pointed out that mostly people were lining up for samples rather than purchasing cheese.

Something else that Kuniko said was interesting – two years ago while traveling in Okinawa we sort of stumbled on John’s cheese being sold in a department store and we bought a chunk to take back to our hotel for immediate consumption. After that we got in touch with him and he’s been keeping us in cheese these past couple of years. Interesting to think how things would be different if we didn’t notice his cheese on the shelf of that department store that night.

After bothering John for a while and buying some cheeses to take home we went out to get some lunch. We were aiming for soup dumplings, but found a new Northern Chinese restaurant open in Motomachi that caught our eye. Inside we ordered some boiled dumplings, but unfortunately the pork buns listed on the menu weren’t ready yet. While we waited for the soup dumplings the owner was aggressively touting the quality of his food, speaking flawless Japanese and also Chinese to his wife, who was putting together the dumplings. He was a bit too talkative for us but the dumplings turned out to be tasty enough.

Next stop was Shorondayo – our current favorite soup dumpling place. We know exactly what we want when we go there, soup dumplings and beer. We ordered two baskets of dumplings and a bottle of beer to share. The dumplings there are homemade and really tasty – just the right amount of soup and great texture of the wrappers.

There was a group of three customers next to us eating through a whole course, and when they got to the end of their meal the wife running the place sent out three plates of free almond tofu for dessert. In the tiny restaurant of only three tables the older lady loudly proclaimed that she likes customers that spend money – she hates stingy people, and so the desserts were on the house. I wasn’t sure if she was referring to us with the “stingy” comment but it was a funny moment. Even a grouchy owner isn’t going to stop us from soup dumpling nirvana.

Back in Okubo we did a little grocery shopping, and I bought a freshly caught squid from the fish market. We were planning on doing a wine tasting of Italian wines from the Liguria region, which is known for the friggitorie that serve up fried seafood in shops under Cinque Terre. I was hoping to try to clean and cut up a squid for the first time, and then fry it up as calamari.

The process was a little tricky, but having done it once I think it’ll be easier to do in the future. One surprise for me was that I didn’t know squids have a backbone. It was strange to pull an oblong bone out of the back of the squid – for some reason I guess I was picturing jellyfish more than anything. There was also a virtually endless amount of squid ink which I was careful to keep off my clothes. Finally I chopped up the edible parts of the squid and then dredged them in corn grits and flour, and gave them a quick fry in olive oil and neutral sesame oil. They turned out pretty good, although it took far longer to process and cook the squid than it took to eat it. Combined with a tomato and basil salad it went perfectly with the three wines that we tasted, and I hope someday we have the chance to visit that area and eat and drink more.

On Sunday Kuniko was working, so I was in the kitchen making more Indian food. I marinated and grilled some chicken for my second attempt at tandoori chicken tikka, and then I converted some leftover mashed potatoes into a turmeric and onion laced filling for dosas. The dosa batter had taken a long time to grind up and ferment, and to be honest the batter was not very delicious before cooking, but once I heated it on a crepe pan and got it crispy it was really, really good. We had dosas for the first time at Vishnu Moola’s house in Bangalore, and this was a pretty close approximation. I have enough batter for an army, so we’ll give it another go tonight.

So lots of new experiences this weekend. Kuniko has no more days off until we fly out on December 23rd to Kuala Lumpur, so I think we’ll be slightly less ambitious in the kitchen for a while.

Seasonal Tastes

Now we are pretty deep into autumn, and that means some opportunities to try some new foods.

Of course we have been looking forward to oyster season, and last Sunday we took a one hour road trip to the coast to buy some. We ended up with 3 kilograms of oysters in the shell. The season is early so the oysters were a little smaller than usual, but the guy selling the oysters said that they’ll just get bigger from here on out.

For fun we’ve been trying different kinds of apples lately. I haven’t really paid much attention to the varieties of apples that I eat to be honest – red or green was as detailed as I ever really got. But I guess part of paying more attention to the food we cook and eat has been learning about different varieties.

In Japan, there are quite a few kinds of apples available, and we’ve discovered two kinds that we really like – Shinano, and Ourin. The Shinano apples we have had are a golden red color, large and perfectly formed with a nice balance of sweet and acidic. The texture is also crisp but not too crunchy, and I’ve never liked softer apples. In contrast the Ourin is a golden green color, with a crisp texture and a rich appley perfume that calls to mind apple pies and strudels. These apples aren’t too expensive, about 100 yen per apple, but they pack a lot of flavor for the money. Yum!

Autumn Rush

It has been some time since I’ve posted – we’ve been pretty busy!

The beginning of October means new courses and new students for me, and there is an initial busy period while new students focus on getting used to speaking English so much.

I’ve got a full plate of classes – a weekly class for new employees (six classes of four students each), a twice-a-month class for the new production workers (65 students in one class – wow!), twice weekly classes for thirteen individual students, a weekly business negotiation course for four students, and then an after work/before work special casual conversation session for however many students decide to show up twice a week.

So, very busy. That makes free time precious, and at work most of my extra time goes into lesson planning and preparing materials. It is busy now and will continue to be busy right up until we leave in December for our next trip.

Kuniko is also busy, and she often has to work one or two days on the weekends. Luckily she can get other days off in exchange, but we have odd schedules now and that makes the time that we can spend together more fun.

We have been continuing to hold wine tastings through the regions of Italy, and a few weeks ago we tasted one of the more famous (and expensive) regions – Piemonte. We found some really interesting wines this time and one in particular that we’ll remember the rest of our lives… so I can see why the region we were tasting gets so much attention. Next time we’ll move to the more affordable wine region of Liguria.

Also we’ve been cooking different culture’s dishes each month. In October we cooked Korean food and we certainly improved our skills making kimpa, chapche, chijimi, kimchi, namul, and bossam. This month we’ve switched to Indian food, and so far we made two chutneys (peanut cilantro, and coconut spice), a pumpkin masala, potato turmeric masala, toasted chanai dal, and a beautifully creamy split uraad dal that really made me understand Indian comfort food. We’ll see what dishes we can come up with next.

The cooking different culture thing has been good to push my skills a little, and also to learn more about the food cultures and techniques of different countries. We are only scratching the surface of each culture, but I think we can come back and hit beyond the highlights in the future.

So with all this going on, Christmas shopping in the background, and getting ready for some holiday parties with friends and neighbors, we have (literally) a lot on our plates.

Hope to have more time after the first of the year, but we’ll see if things settle down. Anything could happen!

My First NHL Goal

This is a tale from a long time ago – back around the year 2000 when I lived in San Jose with Sara, while working for several soon-to-be-extinct web companies.

Sara had started a concierge company to service startups around Silicon Valley, and part of her investment was buying season tickets to the San Jose Sharks NHL hockey team. We were already fans, so when she couldn’t use the season tickets for clients we got the chance to go and enjoy the games.

It was the first time for me to have a season ticket to any sports team, so it was a completely new experience. We saw the same people at the games, had access to special lounges, and one perk was that season ticket holders were tapped to volunteer at team promotional events, which brings me to today’s topic.

Every year the Sharks held a fan thank you event in their arena. The fans pay some fee and they come in and have a chance to join a long queue and meet their favorite players. There were some other attractions and drawings, and volunteers from among the season ticket holders were pressed into service to help out. Sara and I were happy to volunteer.

On the day of the event we arrived and were assigned In the morning to help manage the meet-and-greet autograph lines. My job was to stand next to some of the players sitting at a table and watch the fans to make sure that they didn’t wear out their welcome. The idea was that the line had to keep moving at a certain pace, so I would be the bad guy to ask people to wrap it up and move along. As a fan you’d hate to have the player you idolize tell you, “Great, now can you leave, please?” That job was left to the anonymous volunteer who had very little at stake. It was a really good idea. The players understood the arrangement and would give me a glance or a wink when they wanted me to move in, and surprisingly the fans took my hints quickly and moved on. Easy job, and it was fun to stand next to the players and overhear their side conversations.

In the afternoon after a lunch break the organizers mixed up the assignments, and I was sent onto the ice of the arena, to handle a booth set up so that fans could pay for the opportunity to take a shot on a real NHL goalie. My job was to take the tickets from the fans, set up the shot, and make sure the goalie had everything he needed.

The goalie I worked with was my favorite: Steve Shields (what a great name for a goalie!) At that time he was the backup goalie for the Sharks, and I liked him because he had recently been acquired from my other favorite team, the Buffalo Sabres. I was awestruck when he skated out and started to do warmup stretches in full gear in front of the net a couple feet away from me. Nobody else was on the ice but me and him.

There is something about standing next to an actual living, breathing professional athlete in the context of where they work. It seemed like he was a 3D person in a 2D world. It wasn’t just that he was on skates and wearing bulky pads that made Steve Shields seem larger – there is a self-confidence and professional aura that sports players, celebrities, and movie stars have, especially when doing what they are professionally paid to do.

A little nervously I went up and introduced myself and explained my function in this event. He answered in grunts that may have been from his stretches rather than any form of communication, but I figured this wasn’t the start of a deep relationship and I went back to my position to wait for the gates to open and more importantly stay out of his way.

Once the fans started streaming in, people quickly made their way down to the ice. Some had paid extra to shoot on goal, most were there just to be close to the Shark’s goalie. A large group of people gathered to watch, and I noticed there was a large part of the audience made up of beautiful young women, ooh-ing and aah-ing. Some of these ladies gave me things, which surprised me until they indicated that they wanted me to pass the presents on to Steve Shields, who accepted the gifts wordlessly and made a little pile behind the net. This was before selfies and smartphones but I don’t remember many people taking pictures at the event.

I set up the puck, gave a borrowed hockey stick to the eager fan in exchange for their ticket, and then they usually said something quickly to Steve before taking a whack at the puck. The goalie usually just nodded at whatever they said, easily blocked their shot, and tapped the puck back over to me – all in one smooth economic motion designed to ensure he didn’t injure himself outside of a real game.

In contrast to the other players that I had stood next to in the morning Shields was not very friendly. He didn’t talk to any fans, he didn’t really talk to me, and I got the vibe that he was stuck doing this event against his will. He blocked every shot taken on him, except for when little kids came up and then he did his best to let the shot trickle into the net. He may not have been happy to be there, but he did everything that he was supposed to do, and the fans kept lining up, and before I knew it the event was over.

As the last fans were ushered away by security, I realized that this was as close as I’d ever get in my life to shooting on a professional goalie. Steve was still in the net doing post-exercise stretches, and I was standing right there. I had the borrowed stick in one hand, and the puck and a handful of tickets in the other. So I did what seemed natural to me – I dropped the puck in front of me, put the stick on the ice, and flicked the puck over Steve Shield’s left shoulder and into the net.

Steve Shields looked up from his stretches, the puck already past him, and suddenly sprang to a standing position, facing me. He looked straight at me with that scary painted hockey mask. I didn’t move. Slowly he shook his head and without looking reached back behind him with his goalkeeper stick, retrieved the puck, and sent it out of the net (and away from me).

There was an awkward silence as he stood there facing me, in full uniform, while I stood there looking back (probably with my mouth hanging open) wondering if I had pissed him off.

But then he skated towards me, tapped the side of my leg with his stick, and said “Thanks” before skating off towards the dressing room.

I learned that day that goalies (at least the ones that I have worked with) are extremely serious about protecting the goal, even when they aren’t in a game and that maybe I had broken an unwritten hockey rule.

So that was how I scored a goal on a (unaware) NHL goalie, learned a little lesson on the rules of fair play, and had a glimpse of the parts of a pro athlete’s life that you rarely get to see.

But I can truthfully say that still, to this day, no NHL goalie has managed to block a shot by me. I think it’ll probably stay that way.

Hot Weekend

For a while there it seemed like the summer was over, but unfortunately the heat is still here. We thought we could escape it by leaving for a few weeks, but no luck.

Kuniko and I are off today and tomorrow, and so we are focused on staying indoors and cooking some good food. A typhoon is expected to miss us on Sunday, so maybe it is for the best to just take it easy and depend on our air conditioner.

Singapore and Home

We awoke to the sound of sea gulls squawking outside. I realized that during this trip we were never far from the ocean and the sound of sea gulls had been following us around. We checked out of our last hotel and made a somewhat morose trip to the train station for the last time. We were both thinking of heading back to the sweltering heat of Japanese summer. Our phones showed us the high temperatures there, a typhoon had come through (we were happy to find out later that it didn’t cause any damage to our neighborhood), and leaving all this free air conditioning behind seemed like a bad idea. Our summer trips are something we look forward to all year long, and it is always a little sad to wrap them up.

At Amsterdam Schiphol airport we got checked in right away, and even found some individually wrapped stroopwaffels to take back for students. We bought a few goodies for the plane ride, and then caught a late morning flight to Singapore on Singapore Airlines. I took full advantage of the video system and watched five or six movies and the 13 hours just flew by.

In Singapore we went ahead and waited an hour to get through immigration, entered the country officially, and then went to the Jewel area. Although we were there very early we could see they spent a lot of money on the space. There was a two part dramatic waterfall in the center, surrounded by shops, restaurants, and a small jungle of real plants growing in a greenhouse-like environment.

We eased the shock of going back to Asia by having a small dim sum breakfast at a Chinese restaurant. We ate spicy noodles (dry – no soup), boiled nuts and even a couple of charcoal black salted egg buns. Back inside security we ate some laska and a lotus bun, and then started to get really sleepy waiting for our final flight. We were like zombies in the lounge drifting in and out of sleep, and then it was time to go home to Osaka.

Once we arrive at Kansai Airport they open the plane door, and when you walk out of the plane you get that first blast of summer humidity in the boarding gate tunnel – then you know it is for real. We came back to our home late but the house was fine, the garden was a little scorched but basically alive, and we prepared to go back to work on Monday.

Before our trip we wondered if there was going to be any problems – any trouble that we’d have to overcome during the journey. I’m happy to report that other than an imaginary hotel room invasion and some slightly wet jeans it went just fine. We traveled through countries that are easy to deal with.

Now we’re starting to consider next year’s destinations, and looking forward to a trip to Malaysia and perhaps Sri Lanka in December. We love going on trips, but doing the planning and imagining the places you could go is a lot of fun too.

Thanks for following along on this adventure!

Gouda and The Hague

We got up a little earlier than usual, showered, and were out the door by 7 am. Today we had plans to do some traveling around the country to see more than just Amsterdam. First stop was the train station, and we were able to use the (cheaper) e-tickets that we downloaded the previous night to get through the gates. We caught a “Sprinter” class train to take us out of town towards the much smaller town of Gouda. I wanted to visit Gouda because previously we had visited some cheese towns (Cheddar, Gruyeres) and it is fun to eat lots of cheese directly from the source.

The train wasn’t so crowded since we were traveling in the opposite direction of the commute. All the announcements were only in Dutch, but there was a video screen so we could figure out where we were. Once we got outside the city limits, the train passed more and more pastures. The farther we went the more sheep, cows, and windmills started to show up. The pastures were often divided by narrow waterways instead of fences, so if the animals felt brave enough to swim they could move on to greener pastures, I guess. About 45 minutes after leaving Amsterdam we got off the train at Gouda station. The timing here was important because I had read that there is a cheese market held every Thursday at 10 am, and it can get quite crowded. Originally I had considered sleeping overnight in Gouda before the market, but later I was glad that we didn’t.

The town of Gouda is built in kind of circle with a central church in the middle, similar to many European small towns. The train station is along the outer ring of the circle, and our destination was along the main street right in the center of town. Hanging above the main street were decorative plastic wheels of cheese – a little hint into what we were getting into. We reached the central square, and despite the threatening clouds there were some tents being set up and some food stands getting ready to serve, so we had come to right place. At the center of the square was the town church, and it was quite dramatically designed with an interesting castle-like structure, red and white painted window shutters, and some huge flags waving from one side. Surrounding the church was the town square with lots of touristy shops similar to what you’d find around the Sonoma Plaza.

We walked around the square, had a small cheese waffle to warm up, and dodged rain showers when they came. Each spell of rain didn’t last long, and in between we walked to other parts of town to see a church or a windmill here and there. Eventually it came closer to the market time, so we wandered back to the square and found a long row of cheese wheels set out on boards in front of the church, covered with plastic sheets to keep them dry. By now the stands selling cheese were open, but they weren’t giving out samples – just selling cheese wedges or small wheels. I was hoping to try more things, but it seemed like these cheeses were similar to the ones we had been sampling (extensively) back in Amsterdam.

The opening of the cheese market was signaled by the appearance of some beautiful black horses drawing a few wagons, an old guy wearing a completely yellow suit, some other old guys wearing blue jackets, and some old guys wearing white aprons. In addition there were a couple of young women wearing Dutch clogs and traditional clothing. The old guy in the yellow suit turned out to be the emcee, and he went through the introductions in 4-5 languages, so the intro took a while. Then the old men in blue jackets each lined up in front of a pile of cheese wheels across from an old man in a white apron. The faces of the old guys gave away the game – some of them looked slightly hungover but all of them looked like they do this every week and there is very little at stake. Each pair were supposedly buyer (the man in blue) and seller (the main in the white apron), and they met and negotiated the price of the cheese (of course in Dutch so I’m not sure what was said). The negotiation included a ritual of slapping hands, which was about the only thing we could understand, and they just did it over and over again – perhaps coming closer to an agreeable price?

Quickly I (and I’m sure the rest of the growing audience) realized that this is not a real market but kind of a dramatization, and that we were watching a show, and it got old quickly. The market was a means to attract tourism to the town, and these old guys were doing their civic duty by playing the parts.

So the market wasn’t a big deal for me and Kuniko and I started to look for a source of cheese, and a lot of it. The sellers weren’t interested in giving out samples, and I asked one seller where I could go if I wanted to try a lot of cheese – was there a restaurant somewhere? A cheese shop? Their response: “I don’t know”. The square was filling up with a remarkable amount of people (they must have been coming in by the busload) so there seemed to be plenty of demand.

We did a quick perusal of the restaurants around the square and did find one that had a lot of cheese on the menu. We sat together on one side of a table under an umbrella – the other side was slightly exposed to the rain that was still falling now and then. I ordered what was called a “Gouda 12 o’clock” which included Gouda soup, eggs with Gouda on toast, and Gouda croquettes. Kuniko ordered a Gouda cheese sandwich but we somehow received a toasted cheese panini by mistake – we didn’t notice until it was too late and ate it anyway. My meal was pretty tasty, but I was hoping the town of Gouda would provide a better way to eat an insane amount of cheese while we were there.

One minor disaster occurred while I went inside the restaurant to pay the bill after our meal. Someone came to sit at the table behind ours, so Kuniko thoughtfully moved and sat at the seat on the other side of our table to give them more space to sit. When I came back after paying the bill Kuniko stood up and we left, and we noticed that Kuniko’s jeans had adsorbed quite a bit of water from the wet seat she had briefly occupied. Thankfully because of the rain it was hard for people to notice that Kuniko was sporting a big wet spot on the seat of her pants.

Things improved dramatically when we stopped at a Flying Tiger store on the way out of town. There we finally found the crayfish cocktail napkins that had been eluding us since Iceland. A big burden was off my shoulders at that point.

Back to the train station, and we caught a short train ride (using a discarded newspaper as an absorbent seat for Kuniko) to visit The Hague, called Den Haag in Dutch. I had often heard of the city in the context of the United Nations, and since it was so close we thought it might be a nice way to spend the afternoon. The Hague had a completely different feel from Amsterdam. Amsterdam felt loose and young and a little wild, while The Hague was more clean, straight-laced and dignified somehow. The streets here were much wider and easier to walk, since there aren’t as many canals to work around.

We started with a visit to the Mauritshuis Art Museum. We bought tickets easily and then went inside the beautifully decorated building. The way it was designed was like you were visiting the house of a rich uncle and checking out his art collection. The interior was a central staircase with marble steps, and walls tastefully decorated in a Victorian style with rich shades of red and blue to go with the dark wood panels and floors. The collection itself was impressive with the centerpiece being “Girl with a Pearl Earring” by Johannes Vermeer. Surprisingly there weren’t that many people in the room checking out the original, so we could get close and admire it at our leisure.

At the time of our visit there was a class of schoolkids learning about art, and their teacher was quizzing them on the art that was on the wall while they answered and asked questions. It looked like the best art class ever. At the end we walked through the souvenir shop, and they had plenty of really goofy/playful souvenirs for sale. We managed to avoid doing any shopping there.

We took a break after the museum to sit outside on a square and have a glass of wine. The weather here was more sunny than rainy, but rain did occasionally fall. The server at the restaurant we visited was the nicest guy – I felt like the quality of service was really high in our experience on this trip. People are very friendly, and it is not because they are angling for a tip.

From there we walked quite a ways to go see the Peace Palace. It is a dramatic palace housing the International Court of Justice, among some other organizations. The entrance was a little hard to find, and believe it or not we walked almost completely around it before arriving at the front gate. When we arrived the sign said that admission was free, however they weren’t letting anyone in at that time. Rather than wait around for an undetermined time we moved on – so much to see!

We tried to visit one more palace closer to the city center, Noordeinde Palace, but due to security or bad directions we couldn’t access the central area to see the front of the building, only the back. I think we probably made a wrong turn in there somewhere. The palace is the home of some Dutch royalty, so it might be hidden for a reason.

On the way back to the train station we avoided a sudden rain squall by ducking into a French fries place. French fries were recommended as a traditional Dutch food, and we had ours with a healthy dose of curry sauce. They were so delicious! I was going to skip the fries because I thought they aren’t so different than fries in any other country but they were cooked perfectly and the curry sauce really balanced with the soft potato filling. Wow!

Once the rain subsided we continued on, walking through big city parks on wide walking lanes, with historic streetcars rolling by now and then. It was a quiet city, but quite large and very comfortable. I’m glad we visited it to really understand the contrast with Amsterdam. I’d recommend using a car or public transport in a city as big as The Hague, though.

We took a train back to Amsterdam, and then walked all the way back to the restaurant where we started, Lotti’s in the basement of the Hotel Hoxton. We knew it was a good place to hang out and we wanted to have our last meal in the Netherlands be a good one. We ordered a bowl of smoked eggplant dip, a loaf of nut-encrusted sourdough bread, another platter of cheese, and several big glasses of beer. While we ate we talked about our impressions of the cities and countries that we had visited this time. It is always amazing to think about how long ago it was when we first started the trip, and we had fond memories of that first pub back in Dublin when we were so exhausted we could barely stand. At the end of the dinner I had a glass of port to continue the celebratory mood.

Back at the hotel we did some packing, choosing the stuff to bring back and the stuff to throw away, and got ready to head to Asia early the next morning.

Amsterdam – Day 2

Just like other summer trips, we’ve been doing a lot of walking. Towards the end of the trip we can start to feel it in our legs, and today we decided to sleep in and enjoy the big comfortable hotel bed a little bit longer. Our goal today was to try out some Dutch sweets so we anticipated a high calorie morning.

We started with a cup of coffee at a café called “Brasil”. Our original plan was to go to another place but it turned out they were filming a TV commercial inside so we had to go to our backup coffee shop. We were killing time until a stroopwaffel store opened up at 10 am. To use up more time we went to the local Albert Heijn supermarket to do some shopping for souvenirs and there we found one of the traditional sweets we wanted to try, the formidable boschball, which was basically a giant chocolate-covered creampuff. With a couple of boschballs in our grocery bag we went back to the stroopwaffel place and ate a freshly baked one prepared by the friendly lady working there. She didn’t mind letting us in a little early, and we had some more coffee with the intensely sweet but very delicious warm stroopwaffel. For added decadence we asked her to paint some Nutella on one side – wow! We brought our boschballs back to the hotel and ate them there while planning the rest of our day. I thought the boschball was a little too sweet for my taste – but I don’t think they are the kind of desserts that you eat every day. At this point I think we had already hit our daily recommended calories.

To burn some of those calories we decided to walk around town some more. We started at the somewhat disappointing Amsterdam Cheese Museum. Again, I was hoping for some education but instead we found a cheese shop with a small basement lined with some old cheesemaking equipment and some broken video screens that apparently were supposed to provide the educational info. We left a little disappointed, and then started a long circuitous route to the southeast and then northwest. We stopped for brunch at a little café. They had draft beer taps prominently displayed at the bar, but unfortunately they only served bottled beer. Kuniko got stuck with a bottle of Heineken, which even in Amsterdam tasted pretty much like Heineken anywhere else. We ordered some light food (Kuniko: lentil salad with parmesan cheese, avocado and poached egg, Bryan: panini sandwich with fontina cheese and prosciutto). While we waited for our food a mini-van pulled up outside, and a small group of Korean people got out. There were two cameramen, two make-up artists, and two or three VIPs. Don’t know who they were, but they did some shopping and the other staff had to wait around a bit. They ended up eating at our café, and I watched the makeup artists working on the VIPs while they waited for their lunch. Weird!

I was feeling pretty blissed out – sipping beer in the morning and riding a sugar high in a beautiful city far from the broiling Japanese summer. After brunch we walked a little more through the parts of Amsterdam we hadn’t visited yet. We saw a couple of historic drawbridges while hearing the bells of nearby churches, visited a local bakery and had a sausage roll served by a polite young man who looked excited to be able to use English with us. Our walking course ended near the northeastern part of Amsterdam at the only windmill inside the city. We were there to see the windmill, but also conveniently (and probably not coincidentally) there is a local microbrewery right next to it, so you can sit outside drinking local beers while contemplating the giant old windmill.

Crossing the street to the brewery we had to be careful of bicycles. One bicycle passed in front of us as we were about to cross and we held up just in time. The very attractive rider with blue hair looked at us and smiled as we stayed out of her way. An old lady crossed the street behind us carrying a poop-shaped pillow. We were in an interesting neighborhood.

The brewery we visited, Brouweri ‘T IJ, opened at 2 pm, and we arrived a few minutes early. There was quite a few other people waiting for it to open, sitting at picnic tables outside under an arbor of vines for shade. I noticed that next door was a brewpub (not a brewery) that was open earlier, to scavenge customers of the microbrewery who arrived too early. Once the brewery opened at 2 pm, there was a bit of a scramble as people lined up to get drinks and the bartenders poured as fast as they could to meet demand. There was even some pushing and cutting among the customers – they were serious about their beer. We ordered a tasting flight of five beers, and also a pint of IPA made with mosaic hops. All the beers were OK, although a little thin. The standout beer was a brown ale called “Colorado” that was really tasty.

After enjoying our beer we walked back towards the train station, walking on the waterfront and enjoying the views of the city. Again, beautiful architecture in both modern buildings and the classical-style buildings. Especially interesting was the Maritime Museum that was built on the water shaped like the prow of a sinking ship. I also was interested in a Chinese restaurant built on its own island in the harbor – to get there you needed to find a water taxi. It was a three story building in the Chinese style, and for some reason reminded me of the James Bond movies.

When we reached the train station we looked into buying train tickets for our trip to Gouda and The Hague the next day. The tickets seemed really expensive, so we checked on buying them online. Downloading e-tickets turned out to be much cheaper, so we decided to follow that course instead. For dinner we made it an eat-in at the hotel night. At the supermarket we bought all the stuff we’d been drooling over – goat cheese with coriander, roasted ham, herb crackers, a salad of grilled vegetables and sun-dried tomatoes, and another salad with kebab meat, couscous and cucumbers. Along with two local beers and some prosecco we partied in our room and enjoyed an evening in.

Amsterdam, Netherlands

Amsterdam is not an easy to city to walk around. First, the canals line most of the streets so as long as you are walking north and south it is not a problem. Traveling east or west means finding a bridge and so it takes a bit longer. In addition, Amsterdam also uses the bike lane system, so you need always be aware of bikes passing and to make sure you don’t accidentally step in front of one.

However, walking the city provides for some beautiful sights. I took so many pictures of the canals and the narrow houses lining the streets, and occasionally we’d discover some ancient gothic church or very modern design studio that really stood out.

We started our sightseeing tour by walking all the way to the south, towards the museum district and flower market. We didn’t have any plans to enter any museums but just to walk around the area. The first museum you see when you arrive is the Rijksmuseum which straddles a bike lane and pedestrian path. It is a very large building, housing various works including quite a bit of Rembrandt. Beyond that is the Van Gogh museum, and other smaller museums nestled among gardens and parks. The garden behind the Rjiksmuseum is especially creepy – there were little pillars with bronzed body parts, giant spiders, and creepy stainless steel beehives hanging from trees. Don’t visit at night! We also made an early visit to the flower market which was only just starting to open. The tulip season is over by summertime, but somehow they dug up some flowers to sell to the tourists. I was surprised to see they were even selling marijuana seed kits to take home.

At one point we were heading north to see a particular church – and we had to cross a busy street. There was construction going on nearby, and a big truck was blocking the crosswalk so you had to peek around the truck to see whether the light was green or red. We peeked around, saw green, and started to cross, but less than two seconds later the light changed to red. The crossing lights in Amsterdam don’t blink a warning – they just instantly change to red. Lesson learned but at the wrong time – Kuniko was a little ahead of me and caught flat footed in the middle lane as a big dumptruck revved up its engine and turned into the street aiming right for us. I’ll never forget Kuniko’s reaction – she froze, kind of crouched, and threw her hands out in both directions as if saying “Which direction should I go?” Luckily the driver stopped his truck and allowed us to live – but we learned a hard lesson about crossing the street in Amsterdam.

Since we survived a near-death experience we decided to go celebrate life by eating breakfast. We found a little café that had outdoor seating on a busy intersection, and we sat outside sipping our coffees. Each coffee was served with a little miniature stroopwaffel (two thin waffles sandwiching a layer of caramel syrup – apparently a famous product of the Netherlands). I ordered some eggs and avocado on toast, and Kuniko had a big omelet, and we chewed our food happily, watched people walking by on the way to work, and considered the fragility of life.

It was getting close to check out time back at our tiny hotel, so we made the trek back to the room, packed up and checked out at the little bar counter in the lobby. It was a ten minute walk or so to our next hotel – the Inntel Hotel – which we’d use for the last three nights remaining in our summer trip. Fortunately the hotel was a really nice one, and our room was quite large. This was a nice upgrade to the rooms we’d stayed in so far, and a nice way to end the trip.

After settling in we left to go out and find some lunch. I had read online about a food hall (called FoodHallen) and it was also recommended by a friend who had visited Amsterdam the previous week for the Pride festival. We walked across town to find it, and it turned out to be pretty nice. We’d seen a similar food hall in Prague during previous trips, and apparently it is a popular trend. The fall was filled with small restaurants, serving international foods. When we visit a new city we try to focus on local foods – so most of the foods in the food hall were a little different from what we wanted to eat. It felt strange to go to the Netherlands and eat Mexican food, pizza, or sushi. There was one stand featuring bitterballen with different kinds of filling. We ordered some with meat filling, and some with truffle cream. Also we had some truffle mayo on the side, just in case we weren’t getting enough truffle in our diet. Together with two local beers they went down nicely.

After this very light lunch we got the bright idea to go cheese tasting. There are a ton of cheese shops around the city – mainly branches of Old Amsterdam, Henri Willig, and then some generic cheese companies selling various brands of cheese. We started at Old Amsterdam, and at each store they had samples of cheese out in front of the wedges they were selling. Right away we noticed that the cheeses they were selling were about triple the price of the same cheese we had found the previous night at the local supermarket, so we were there just for tasting. Unfortunately, there wasn’t much in the way of education in the shops. I wanted to learn more about what makes their particular cheese products special. The staff I talked to were a little grouchy and I think they were shell-shocked from dealing with so many tourists all day. Still, it was fun to try to varieties of cheese that we hadn’t seen before – Old Amsterdam makes a creamy goat cheese that was tasty.

Nearby we found a Flying Tiger store, but again we couldn’t find Kuniko’s crayfish cocktail napkins. I really blew it in Reykjavik, didn’t I? As we left Flying Tiger a sudden rainstorm came through. We were dealing with these storms the whole time we were in the Netherlands. The rain would come, stay for 5-10 minutes, and then disappear and we’d get sun. We decided to wait out the rain sipping red wine at a table with a big umbrella, and it was a nice little break.

At breakfast we had been served coffee with a little mini individually wrapped stroopwaffel, and we thought that it was a perfect size for a souvenir to take back to our students. We shopped around for some to bring back to Japan, but mainly in Amsterdam they sold stroopwaffels in large sizes, about 8 to a pack. We have way too many students and not enough suitcase space to bring back those, so our long search began to find the source of the mini-stroopwaffel.

For dinner that night we found a restaurant serving local food in a little bit of a touristy part of town. Finding local food is surprisingly difficult – there were an inordinate amount of shops run by Middle Easterners selling pizza/doner kebab/steaks/ribs. It was like a template – these restaurants always served the same things at the same prices. But the place we found had a local dish called stamppot (mashed potatoes mixed with sausage and topped with a meatball). I ordered chicken skewers with a satay peanut sauce, and it was delicious and very refreshing. This was the first time we’d eaten chicken in almost two weeks. There is an Indonesian connection in Amsterdam because Indonesia was originally colonized by the Dutch and a fair amount of culture was transferred between them, and I often saw satay dishes on menus. Anyway, that was my rationalization for eating a slightly Asian dish in the Netherlands.

We walked from the restaurant up through the wild district, with clouds of marijuana smoke coming from various “coffeehouses” and went to check out the Waag, an old building that used to serve as the city gate of Amsterdam. Nearby there was a pretty large historic church, surrounded on all sides by the red light district. We found a place with outside dining to have a couple glasses of wine and realized we were surrounded on all sides by buildings that had big windows in the front, and a red light over each one of them. We were there early and most of the windows were dark, but as we left a few windows were occupied with (somewhat scary looking) women wearing only underwear and leering at passersby.

Suddenly we got caught in another flash rainstorm, so we made a dash for the nearest convenience store for supplies, and then went back to our nice big comfortable hotel room to call it a night. 35,000 steps – another big hiking day.