Saturday, February 26, 2011

Niseko Snow

The snow in Niseko is amazing. Even compared to other parts of Hokkaido. You really have to see it to believe it. Due to Niseko's relative proximity to Siberia, the area gets enormous snow falls every year. I heard that there has been less snow than usual this year. Could have fooled me.

Admittedly, some of these drifts are the result of snowplowing. But there was a lot of snow to plow to begin with. The weather in Niseko is very changeable. It can shift every ten minutes from cloudy (and precipitating) to sunny and then back again.

I particularly like the way the snow accumulates on roofs around town.

A public toilet resembling a church.

Igloo wannabes.

Though it looks like a thick layer of frosting, this snow is heavy enough to seriously maim or injure.

This is how they make those straight snow walls.

One day I took a snow shoe trek to see Hangetsuko a half-moon shaped, frozen lake inside a crater.

This is the view of the lake from the top of the crater.

This is a view of a massive snow clump in a tree overhead.

After sliding down the crater's precipitous side on our bottoms, we reached the lake.

We walked out onto the middle of the lake and had a little picnic of tea and pound cake. Very civilized.

As seen from our window, Mount Youtei in all its snow-covered glory.

Giant Toads Arrive in Moto Azabu

Its practically biblical out there! Though we had a spell of cold, rainy days, I think it is safe to say that the weather in Tokyo is hovering between winter and spring. If the local toad population could voice their opinion I am sure they would agree. But as the saying goes, action speaks louder than words.

Giant toads are out in record numbers. Right here. Smack dab in the middle of the city. The other night I was about to pull into our garage but a mother and son were standing in the street, inadvertently blocking my path. A bit odd. As I neared the duo, I realized they were trying to coax a large toad to the curb. Good on them.

The following evening, Eve came home and reported that she and a friend spotted a toad at the edge of the street. Later, when we went out with Pippi, we stopped to investigate the scene but no toads in sight. Towards the end of our walk, that changed.

First there was the toad near Step Park. This not-so-little guy (about the size of a baseball) was at the edge of the road, one leg extended and not budging, as you can see in the photo below. At first, we feared it was injured or worse. But I thought I detected a heart beat. We prodded gently with the edge of a shoe in the hopes that we could convince him or her to get out of danger but, of course, this one had to be the stubborn type. Or maybe it was scared and hoped we would just get off his/her horned back. So we crossed our fingers and continued on our way while marveling at not one, but two toads, in one day.

When we entered the final stretch of our journey, we heard a distinct noise. It sounded like throaty chirping -- not quite dainty enough to be a bird but not quite husky enough for a toad. Or so I fleetingly thought. Within a few seconds we found the source: five, no make that six, toads cavorting in the puddles that dot an empty lot nearby. Hopping around and jumping on each others' backs, they looked, and sounded, as happy as can be.

What is inspiring all these amphibious creatures to show their leathery, little faces right now? I think they are a few hops ahead of us lowly humans. My guess is that they portend the coming of spring. But I'm not sure where they are coming from. The remains of a small pond called Gameike are close but I have not actually seen this body of water (such as it is) so this is pure speculation. Yet, where there is one hidden water source, there might be others that are equally hospitable breeding grounds for these cheerful critters.

Thursday, February 24, 2011

My First Igloo

Well, not really. It seems that every year a new igloo freezes up in Niseko. They are a marvel. Can anyone build an ice house? Is any empty lot fair game? How long does it take? I wonder ... I should have asked ...

Located on a quiet, side street, this one houses an ice bar. Isn't this a cool photo with the snow streaking down? A furry (fake) door invites patrons. Inside, there are no chairs (who would want to sit?) but a big bar fills the center of the one-room establishment. They seemed to have about four or five different beverages on offer. Actually, it was not as cold inside as I expected. I suppose those ice bricks really do retain heat. There were no takers the evening we stopped by, but the night was still young.

As you can see, the cathedral roof is supported by broken-arched ribs. I imagine there must be some kind of membrane webbing in between to keep the snow in place but don't hold me to this.

The decor consists of rainbow colored lights encased behind the translucent bricks that constantly segue from one hue to the next. Very mesmerizing.

Saturday, February 19, 2011

Food Highlights from Niseko

I love taking pictures of foods that we eat. Maybe if things don't work out in architecture, I should consider a career in food photography. The following selection is from our recent trip to Niseko. Though these images might lead you to suspect that all we did was eat dessert, we did ingest from every food group.

Japan's best downhill ski venue, Niseko, is located on the island of Hokkaido. The snow here is unparalleled but the locally grown (and produced) food is pretty good too. We make it a point to visit at least once a year. If Gunma and Niigata are Japan's rice bowl, then Hokkaido, which is covered with vast fields and large farms, is the country's bread basket. And no one knows better how to champion those local goods than those merchants who are trying to turn Niseko into the Aspen of Asia.

Most days I like to start with Sekka's All-Day Porridge: Japanese oatmeal topped with sliced bananas, slivered almonds and a dollop of fruit compote. The Hokkaido milk and the berry syrup are welcome but totally unessential so I usually leave them off.

Whole dried salmon. Not my idea of fun but I had never seen a entire dried fish like this hence the picture.

Falafel Salad from Sekka. This was an interesting riff on that Middle Eastern classic. The falafel themselves were slightly oblong and not overly crisp or greasy. Short on garlic (fine with me), they were more mildly flavored than the usual. The lemon tahini dressing was quite piquant and there were some unexpected, but not unwelcome, tastes mixed in with the vegetable. In addition to garden variety lettuce, the salad was laden with tomato chunks, lots of avocado, fresh mint sprigs, cilantro, scallion greens and some other growie that I could not identify. I picked out the red onions.

Mini Tomato Bottle. Isn't this an adorable juice bottle? I like the hour glass shape, the tidy little handle and the no-nonsense label depicting a solo tomato. Direct and to the point. I am not entirely sure how to interpret the name. Is the juice made from mini tomatoes? Does it refer to the bottle's petite size? Unlike the usual bottled fare, the flavor was quite authentic. Surprisingly, Abby, our resident tomato queen, did not really cotton to it.

Pizza at Yummy's. I apologize for the partial photo. It is hard to hold hungry skiers back from freshly baked pizza. It is not the best pizza by a long shot but the flaky crust definitely delivers. And they do not skimp on cheese either.

Yummy's Chocolate Chip Cookies. We knew before we even placed our order that there was no way these biscuits could compare to Abby's homemade treats but we still had to give them a go. Crispy (not a desirable trait in a chocolate chip cookie) and lacking in vanilla (also a bad move), they were more like sugar cookies sparsely accompanied by chocolate chunks. Part of the reason I wanted this cookie was because I like the combination of the round shape and the square chocolate bits. You have to admit, this cookie has eye-appeal. And once you accept its flaws, or accept that it isn't really a chocolate chip cookie at all, it is not a total disappointment.

Dried asparagus. Who knew? Turns out asparagus is quite tasty when dried. Lightly salted, these airy stalks still have the flavor essence of asparagus. And they look great too.

Eve's Caramel Milk. Thank you, Sekka. Warm milk served in a glass topped with a drizzle of caramel sauce. Beautiful presentation but they really should make their own syrup. Hershey's just doesn't cut it. I suppose the squeeze bottle is good for creating decorative designs.

Potato Bread with Olive Oil and Dukka. This alone makes the trip worth it. We love Sekka's potato bread. Soft and slightly doughy, it is the perfect medium for the high quality oil and the housemade herb - finely chopped nut garnish. I could eat it with a spoon. In fact, sometimes, in the privacy of my own kitchen, I do.

Seven Textures of Chocolate. This is one of Sekka's signature desserts. If you count the powdered bits and the molten, white chocolate filling inside the brownie there are, indeed, seven different chocolate renditions. I really like the idea of exploring the texture of a single food item. This dessert really showcases chocolate's versatility: from slimy cubes of pudding on the side to the brittle sheet covering the moist brownie.

Hazelnut Semifreddo. Sekka's other signature dessert. This one is even better than its chocolate flavored cousin. Frozen hazelnut mousse layered with crisp sheets of caramel ... how can you top that ???

JoJo's Raspberry and White Chocolate Scone. Hearty, robust fare, this pastry is not for the faint-hearted. Not overly sweet and perhaps a little too bready, it must have been made by some Aussie trained baker. A Japanese person would go for something a little more dainty. I especially like the recycled newspaper wrapping. I wonder if they chose The Japan Times just for us?

Sea Bass at The Barn. Topped with toasted bread crumbs and bottomed with local potato puree, this got raves from our entire table.

Sekka's Vegetable Frittata. Laden with local vegetables, including erengi mushrooms, baby potatoes and corn kernels, this is a marvelous dish. The toasted rye bread on the side brought back memories of the Rosen's rye with (caraway) seeds from my Chicago childhood. Now that's a high compliment.

JoJo's Adventure Bar. Eating this bar truly was an adventure. The bottom layer is densely packed with oats and coconut. On top of that is a thick layer of gooey caramel followed by a satisfyingly thick coating of chocolate. This triple-deckered treat is a winner. I wonder how I can get the recipe ...