Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Pear picking and dahlia watching...

Asian apple pears are in season right now and I’m working on eating my weight worth of them his fall. I discovered these fruits the September after I had moved to Iwakuni. They are huge, about the size of grapefruits, but so sweet and juicy. I love it when they show up in Iwakuni grocery stores, which started about two weeks ago.

I had the opportunity to go to the Sera area in Hiroshima prefecture (about 2 hours from Iwakuni by Sanyo expressway) yesterday, to not only pick apple pears, but to also enjoy the dahlia flowers that are in bloom right now. The Iwakuni Explorer (otherwise known as Hyla) and I hit the road with a couple of other ladies, Katie and Sue. For your planning purposes, we left at about 8:30 a.m. and returned by 6 p.m.

Our first stop was at Sera Kogen farms (Google maps), which is also where I went to enjoy the tulips earlier this year. In the early summer, Sera Kogen also has sunflowers blooming. The entrance fee is 800 yen, or about $8. Once you’re inside, there are rows and rows of Dahlias to enjoy. There is also a restaurant, a café, and the opportunity to cut your own small dahlias to take home, for 200 yen a stem.

I had never been a flower chaser until I came to Japan. Now I have the urge to take off and see every flower in bloom. Hanami, or sitting around and enjoying flowers, especially cherry blossoms in March, is a longtime Japanese tradition, which I am embracing… in an entirely American way. I travel all around south western Japan in search of the seasons’ blooming flowers. But I’m not much of a sitter, so, instead of serenely picnicking and watching the flowers bloom, I wandered through as many rows of dahlias as I could, taking photos of my favorites. And here they are:

Yes... I did have a lot of favorites. :)

We stopped in the small café in Sera Kogen and drank a 400-yen iced tea in about two gulps. I took home about 1,600 yen in cut flowers, which I clipped myself with clippers and a measuring stick provided by the farm. Once we had gotten our fill of flowers and sun, we headed off to pick pears (called nishi in Japanese) at a location about 15 minutes away from Sera Kogen.

The pear farm store is called Sera Kosui Nouen (Google map) and website. This is where you pay 1,000 yen for all-you-can-eat pear picking (I ate three… that was my lunch) and a mini bus comes and takes you to the orchard, and then brings you back. You also have the opportunity to purchase pears to take home, either small, medium or large basket size. I selected the medium basket for 3,000 yen and got about 15 pears. This is generally cheaper than you can buy them out in town for.

Now, the Japanese don’t just hold the pear and bite in to it, like we do. They use knives to cut a section off, and then eat the section of pear off of the knife. This method does reduce the amount of sticky pear juice on your chin, but, being American and not eating fruit this way, about half of my first pear ended up on the ground as it slipped off of my knife. Quite disappointing since I was hungry and love pears. Luckily, there were a few thousand left for me to pick.

Translation: Large - 4000 yen; Medium, 3,000 yen, and Small, 2500 yen. Yes... I wasted one of my Facebook posts asking what it said.  I thought it would be more profound. 

The entire pear farm staff was friendly. English was limited, but despite our fairly limited Japanese (Hyla can actually manage a conversation in Japanese. So can I, as long as it only includes my saying "Hello" and "Thank you." They were also surprised that we had driven all the way from Iwakuni by ourselves.  Obviously, they haven't heard about Tenaciously Yours and Iwakuni Explorer. ;)
Yes, I came home with a lot of pears. Luckily, my family loves pears, fresh off the tree, or I have a healthy recipe (no guilt!) for pear crunch that is really easy to make.

Jessica’s No-Guilt Pear Crunch

5 cups peeled, diced Asian apple pear
2 Tablespoons Splenda
4 teaspoons brown sugar substitute
¼ cup no trans fat margarine
3/4 cups whole oats (oatmeal - but not instant)
1 teaspoon cinnamon
1 teaspoon nutmeg
1/3 cup crushed nuts (your choice, I use pecans)

Mix diced pears with Splenda and put in an 8-inch baking dish
Mix oats, cinnamon, nutmeg and nuts together in a bowl; mix in the margarine until small clumps form
Sprinkle oat mixture over the apples.
Bake at 375 degrees for 40 minutes.
Serve topped with fat free cool whip

As a bonus offering to you, here is the porta-potty I had to pee in while visiting the orchard. Thank goodness I have mastered using Japanese-style toilets. Yes, it smelled about the way it looks, although the workers get an A for effort... they had an air freshener on a tiny shelf.

After we had eaten our fill of pears in the orchard, and had picked as many pears as we could carry, it was time to board the minibus (which came about every 20 minutes) and head back to the farm’s store where we left the car.

At the store you can buy gift packs of pears, 

... cheap produce (like this spaghetti squash, which I usually pay $9 on base for… it was delicious, too), snacks…

... and live snakes in plastic jugs.

This one cost about $25. I have no idea why they were for sale.
The Sanyo expressway exit is Kochi, the same one you take for the Hiroshima Airport, so plan for between 5,000 and 6,000 yen in tolls round-trip. I also like to stop at the rest stop right before the Kochi exit for some pastries, and then again in Miyajima on the way home, because that is where Starbucks is, not to mention a great view of Miyajima Island.

As an added bonus to the trip, there is a “singing road” on the way to Sera after you get off of the Sanyo. Watch for the sign with musical notes and for blue musical notes on the road. As you drive, the song plays as your tires hit the road, so roll down your windows and enjoy!

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Beer, chopsticks, and Sanyo advice...

It's not often that my travel-adverse spouse is jealous of my day trip adventures around Japan with the ladies. But yesterday morning, he was, indeed, jealous.

Spouse: "So, I see on the calendar you are going on a chopsticks painting trip."
Me: "Yes! And we are having lunch at a brewery."
Spouse: "A brewery?" (there was unusual, genuine interest in his voice)
Me: "Yes. A brewery."
Spouse: "You are going to a brewery on a Monday?"
Me: (Wondering why the day of the week matters) "Yeeeesssss....?"
Spouse: "Without me?"
Me: (Now understanding the problem) "I'll bring you some beer back."
Spouse: "Sold! OK... you may go."
Me: "Like I needed your permission..."

And so, I went.  And with seven other adventurous ladies.

Our teacher was the lady on the left in the front row.
Photo compliments of my friend, Chie, in the top row, behind the teacher.
The agenda for the day was to paint chopsticks and eat a "Viking," or buffet, lunch at a local micro brewery in Yamaguchi City, about an hour and a half from Iwakuni. You can get details about both of the Ouchi Chopsticks Painting at the Yamaguchi Furusato Denshou Centerand the Yamaguchi Narutaki Kogen Brewery, on the Iwakuni Explorer website. There is definitely enough time in one day to do both... as long as you do not miss your exit off of the expressway too many times.

As the Iwakuni Explorer website will mention on the chopsticks post, but I will also emphasize with great vehemence here: DO NOT MISS THE YAMAGUCHI CITY EXIT. Because if you do, it is another 20 minutes until the next exit to turn around and another 20 minutes back to the interchange). And that is if you have a really nice attendant and someone with you who can speak Japanese to tell them you went the wrong way. If you have both of these things, like we did (Thank you, Chie!), then the attendant will open the gate and allow you to turn around without having to pay the extra tolls. Another item to note: If you do miss the Yamaguchi City exit and go to the next one, and are able to turn around and get back on to the expressway, take the fork that says Kitakyushu, not Hiroshima. At the moment you are reading this, this detail will either make no sense, or it will seem counterintuitive. After all, we just came from Iwakuni, which is in the direction of Hiroshima, and the opposite direction from Kitakyushu and we want to go back the way we came... right? Wrong! Take all logic out of your head and just take the fork to Kitakyushu. You will be glad you did! And a third item to note: This is the second time my group has made this error on separate trips. Both times we were using GPS. The GPS may be flawed, delayed... or it could be user error. But we are reasonably intelligent individuals, so I wanted to put that technical-error possibility out there so you will be extra cautious, even when following your Google Maps. Also, plan on about 5,000 yen in tolls round trip (if you don't miss an exit).

OK, with that said, let's get on to the fun stuff.

Fun stuff, as in painting chopsticks with a lacquer made from a plant that is a cousin to poison ivy. Excellent! Extreme Arts and Crafts! We were warned not to get the lacquer on our skin or clothes. It will burn our skin and permanently stain our clothes. Or vice versa... the details are fuzzy. I just heard "poison" and my mind wandered for a bit.

We selected either a pair of traditional red, or less traditional black, chopsticks. I, being less traditional and a big fan of black, selected black. You paint the lacquer on the end in one coat, then add gold foil diamonds and glitter. And you're finished! Seriously. The whole class took about 15 minutes. A perfect Girl Scout trip... except for the poison lacquer, but the affect of that you could get while camping and actually encountering poison ivy, right? There has got to be a badge for Extreme Arts and Crafts. Here's a way to earn it, ladies!

Don't sneeze on the thin, foil gold pieces, we were told. They will scatter everywhere and be charged by the ounce. Just kidding on the being charged... I think.

Me, after licking the end of my chopstick, lightly spearing a gold fleck with it, and then attempting to place it gently on my other chopstick. Once the gold leafing is stuck in the lacquer, you blow the paper off... but away from the trays of foil and glitter, of course. I am not sure who was the lucky one who got sweeping duty that day.

MaryAnn glittering.

My chopsticks are the ones on the left.
Once our group was done, the next group sat down. And then I was able to get some shots of the teaching process.

We had to leave the chopsticks there... because it take three weeks for the lacquer to dry and cure. Wow! They will be mailed to us and we will see them in about a month. The papers stabbed by the chopsticks have our names on them so that when they are shipped to us, we know whose is whose. After all, we won't have seen them for a month and will probably forget what ours looked like. Just FYI, this project cost 860 yen (about $8) and to ship all of the chopsticks to Chie cost 1,000 yen.

By now, after getting lost and potentially poisoned and all, we were hungry... so after about a 15 minute drive, we headed to the brewery. Our GPS led us to this:

And, yes, it was the brewery.

They specialize in four different beers. But more on that in a moment...

Lunch was 1500 to 2000 yen, depending on what you ordered. Each lunch set, either a pasta or meat/fish dish, came with the buffet, and it was all delicious. Except for the coffee Jello... stay away from the brown Jello. Ugh.

Seafood spaghetti
The pilsner
The dessert I am ordering for my meal next time. :)
The brewery also has a small cottage that can be reserved for special events, such as weddings. It was very cute.

If you walk down past and to the right of the cottage, there is a grassy walkway and stairs leading down to a road. Right above and to the right of this road is a waterfall. Very picturesque, although this shot doesn't do it justice.

Once we checked out the waterfall, it was time to head home... and on the way we found a stretch Prius. Thinking like a true American, with our stretch Hummers and stretch limos, I found this to be hilarious! Who would stretch a Prius?! The Japanese, of course! But, then, Chie had to give me a dose of reality - this Prius is actually a funeral car, like a Hearse in the States. Whoops. Well, the dumb American learned something today.

Yes, that is my elbow. Of course I wasn't driving and photographing. I would never do that.

As for the beers, I bought my husband a sampler of all four and, since I don't like beer and do not drink it, here are his unscripted reactions for your consideration:

The Weizen: "It was good. Very good."
The Stout: "I did not like the stout at all. I liked the initial taste, but it had just a horrible after taste to me."
The Pilsner: "It was good." (Me: "Why was it good?" Spouse: *exasperated sigh* "I don't remember, Jessica." i.e.: "I'm done answering all your stupid questions." Until...)
The Pale Ale: "It was phenomenal. Smooth, taste, great finish, no nuttiness or grittiness. Just a clean, really good tasting beer." I'd say this one was his favorite.

Note: I went to the brewery again a few months later. Here is the post with additional details about the brewery.