#CatTravels: Five days in Tokyo

By March 15, 2017 #BabyFox, #CatTravels, Food

The idea of traveling with a newborn had never sounded appealing.

I imagined having to walk up and down the narrow airplane aisles, cradling a screaming baby and apologizing to a very annoyed coach class.

But my husband was going to Japan to speak at FoodEx, a huge trade show for the food and beverage industry, and invited me to tag along.

With the baby.

Hmm.

Landon would be almost four months old. We’d be there in March, when the temperatures would hover around the 40s. I would be back at work part time.

Did I mention I’d be traveling with an infant?

It had been four years since I’d been to Japan. And this might be my last international trip for awhile, until Landon gets a little older and can actually appreciate it.

So I said yes. Sure. Why not.

The deal was, though, I’d take my mom with me. I needed someone to help while my husband worked. I couldn’t (wouldn’t) travel with Landon alone.

Traveling with a baby wasn’t going to be easy. (I’ll blog about this later.) We already knew this. So we planned on just five days in Tokyo, with the option — maybe — of spending the day somewhere outside of the city. Maybe Kyoto. Maybe Kamakura. We’d just see how it went.

I’m not going to lie: it was challenging, even with a perfectly behaved baby. (Which he was.) We were back at our hotel in the afternoon and rarely ventured out at night. Still, we managed to pack in a lot of great experiences — it was my mom’s first time to Japan — in less than a week.

Here are some of the highlights:

Staying in Shinjuku

On the recommendation of a friend who travels to Tokyo several times a year, we booked a room at the Hotel Sunroute Plaza Shinjuku, which is just a couple of blocks away from Shinjuku Station, the busiest transportation hub in the world used by more than 3 million people a day. (It’s hard to imagine, but it’s true.) I liked the convenient location, the proximity to restaurants and a big shopping complex, and the fact that every floor had coin-operated laundry facilities. This is huge if you’re trying to pack light.

Shinjuku, itself, isn’t the most attractive ward of Tokyo. It’s busy, crowded and, in some parts, dirty. It’s the administrative seat for the government of Tokyo — but it also boasts Kabukicho, Tokyo’s red-light district. The Don Quijote there is practically a sex shop!

The basement floor of Takashimaya Department Store boasts a variety of food items, including this vendor selling all sorts of ume.


It’s always fun to see the expensive fruits sold at these department stores.


Takashimaya Times Squares has a Tokyu Hands, my favorite lifestyle store in Japan.

You can spend an entire day at Shinjuku Station — and not go anywhere! A new shopping mall called NEWoMan opened recently, with a mix of boutiques, restaurants, cafés and bakeries. And near the station’s south exit is Takashimaya Times Square, a combination of the famous Takashimaya Department Store and a mall. Takashimaya has 15 floors, including the popular food basement common to all Japanese department stores. We found — and ate — ume, waffles, tempura, chocolates, even dessert vinegar. (Yes, flavored vinegar you sip.)

There’s even a Tokyu Hands here, my all-time favorite shop in Tokyo. This chain focuses on hobbies, home improvement and lifestyle products. I could spend all day browsing the interesting kitchen utensils and mechanical pencils. Seriously.

Mister Donut

You can’t visit Tokyo without visiting a Mister Donut.

Trust me. You’ll go once — and you’ll make a point to go back every single time you’re in Japan. Maybe every single day you’re there. (I’ve actually done that.)

Mister Donut is a donut chain that started in the United States in 1956 and is now headquartered in Japan, where it has more than 1,300 stores. The signature doughnut here is the pon de ringu, a ring-shaped mochi doughnut that’s super soft and topped with a sugary glaze. (Some are creme-filled, too.) But honestly, the plain glazed yeast and old-fashioned doughnuts are incredible.

We walked a mile from our hotel in 45-degree weather just for a doughnut. OK, six of them.

Quick Stop at Joshuya

Inside Joshuya, a fishing store in Shibuya

We had a couple of hours to kill before my husband had to go to a meeting in Ginza, so we caught the metro to Shibuya to browse Joshuya, a three-story fishing shop. If you love fishing — saltwater, fly fishing, freshwater — you’ll love this store, which sells everything from rods to crab traps to lures to fishing vests. I mean, whatever you need — or never thought you needed — you can find here.

Sensō-ji and Nakamise-dori

I’m not a huge fan of temples, personally, but I do love the shops that lead up to many of the temples in Tokyo.

For example, Asakusa is home to Tokyo’s oldest temple, Sensō-ji, and it’s a quick 20-minute train ride from Shinjuku. (As opposed to a three-hour trip on the shinkansen to Kyoto.) The temple grounds are beautiful and picturesque. But I love the lively Nakamise-dori that approaches the temple. The 80-plus shops here sell everything from furoshiki (traditional Japanese cloth wrap) to freshly made senbei.

Agemanju is the specialty here.


Inside an agemanju.

The speciality here, though, is the agemanju, or deep-fried manju. Manju are small, round, steamed cakes with a sweet filling, often anko (red bean paste). The cakes here are coated in a tempura batter and deep-fried, giving it a nice, crunchy texture. While anko is the most common (and popular) filling, you can get these filled with seseame, matcha, kabocha pumpkin, sweet potato and custard. They cost about 100 to 150 yen (or around $1.25 each).

Ginza on Sunday

Sunday morning in Ginza.

If you’re in Tokyo on a Sunday, this is the day you should hit the shopping district of Ginza.

The main street — Chuo — is closed to vehicles on Sundays, turning the street into one big sidewalk for shoppers. We leisurely strolled down the main drag, wandering into some of the area’s popular shops including Mitsukoshi Department Store and UNIQLO. Though it was crowded, it didn’t feel that way because of all walking space. I wouldn’t venture here on any other day.

Kappabashi-dori

Halfway between Ueno and Asakusa is Kappabashi-dori, or Kitchen Town. This area is populated with shops that supply Tokyo’s restaurant trade, selling knives, kitchen utensils, rice bowls, furniture, ovens and the plastic display food you see in nearly every restaurant window.

Plastic food FTW!

What you won’t find? Tourists.

Ueno’s Ameya Yokocho

It’s fun to walk around the market streets in Tokyo, particularly Ameya Yokocho (or Ameyoko) right outside Ueno Station. It runs about half a mile along the tracks of the Yamanote Line, the former site of a black market for American goods. Today, there are stalls — and hawkers — selling backpacks, perfume, running shoes, watches, toys, fresh fruit, spices and candy. There are restaurants here, too.

I love fresh fruit on sticks!


These special manju filled with lima bean paste are only found here.

My mom enjoyed browsing the shops here, buying dried scallops from a vendor who reduced the price by $10 USD. He said he had just harvested the scallops the day before. Right. And dried them in a day. OK. Sure. (She bought a bag, anyway.)

See the Sakura

Cherry blossom trees bloom starting from the end or March through early May in Japan. I didn’t think we’d see any — until we walked through the 133-acre Ueno Park and saw some early-blooming trees! We really lucked out.

In Japan, there’s a traditional custom called hanami, the viewing of the transient beauty of the sakura flowers. In modern times, this custom is celebrated by having an outdoor party or picnic beneath the cherry blossom trees. Paper lanterns are hung at this park during the height of the sakura season. These picnics involve eating, drinking and playing music. It was too cold for us to even sit for longer than 10 minutes here. We admired the trees, then prompted hailed a cab and headed back to the hotel.

Eat Monjayaki

My husband spent the last year traveling to Japan for work. And every time he’s been there, he’s had monjayaki.

Monjayaki — or monja — is a type of Japanese pan-fried batter very similar to okonomiyaki. Various chopped ingredients — onions, seafood, cabbage, carrots, chicken — are fried on a grill then mixed with a kind of gravy and often topped with cheese. You eat directly from the grill using small spatulas. The best parts are the crispy bits that caramelize. It’s a very interactive way to eat.

Kamakura

It was too hard lugging around a stroller, wearing a 20-pound infant and trying to find warm places to feed him that we decided to ditch plans to travel to Kyoto and spend the day in the charming coastal town of Kamakura.

Kamakura, in Kanagawa Prefecture, is about an hour train ride from Shinjuku. It was the former de facto capital of Japan as the seat of the Shogunate and the Regency during the Kamakura Period. It boasts a lot of beautiful and important temples — but that’s not why we were there.

I wanted to take my mom to Komachi-dori, a street that runs from Kamakura Station to Kamakura Hachiman-gu. This street market is lined with more than 250 restaurants, boutiques, cafés and stores selling souvenirs.

We ate everything on this street, from croquettes (shown here) to meat pies.


Beautifully packaged dried fruits.

Tsukiji Fish Market

The iconic Tsukiji Fish Market was supposed to move in 2016 to Toyosu in preparation for the 2020 Summer Olympics. But so far, it’s still in its original location, walking distance from Ginza. (The surrounding retail market, though, is supposed to stay.) The market is the biggest wholesale fish and seafood market in the world, believe it or not, and the public is welcome to view the early-morning auction (limited attendance) or browse the market itself (opens after 10 a.m.).

My mom wasn’t that interested in the actual fish market, but she really enjoyed the shops and restaurants that surround it. There were stalls selling knives, dried seafood, spices, teas, fresh produce and hot foods.

Fresh wasabi — something you can’t find in Hawai‘i.


There are sushi restaurants serving the freshest seafood — with lines in the early morning!


This stand sells freshly made ramen.


Ramen!

The highlight for me was eating at my favorite tachigui, or stand-up ramen shop, here. I love the bright and light dashi, house-made noodles and meaty char siu.

Plus, it was cold. So a hot bowl of ramen really hit the spot.

It wasn’t the easiest trip, with lugging diapers and formula and a stroller strapped to my shoulder. The city is full of stairs and narrow alleys, making it challenging to get around. But still, despite all that, we managed to pack in a lot of fun experiences in just a few days.

Too bad Landon won’t remember any of it.

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Three months in and I’m still learning

By February 27, 2017 #BabyFox

The advice I heard the most is this: “Enjoy every moment. It goes by fast.”

Funny. I want it to go by fast.

I can’t wait for this little guy to be big enough to go surfing with me, to hike with us and spot his first ‘apapane, to help me bake sugar cookies, to pick out his own books at the bookstore, to jump in my arms and hug me until I can’t breathe. (My husband would like him to change his own diaper; that would definitely be nice.)

Sure, I’ve enjoyed moments during these first three months. But they’re moments. He sleeps a lot — which, I’m not going to lie, is really nice — and, for the first few weeks, he wasn’t quite aware of what was happening around him. His world was very, very small, his sight limited to shapes and light.

Now, though, he looks at me, responds to my smile, reaches for his toys, listens as I read him books, even laughs when Indy licks his ears. It makes all the sleepless nights and zombie days so worthwhile.

Still. I want him to grow up.

It’s interesting, though, how much has changed in such a short amount of time. Every week he’s different, he’s older, he learns something new. This week, for example, he found his thumb. Next week, who knows!

And we’ve changed, too, and we’re constantly learning something new. This week, I learned that preschools are expensive (like, $1,000 a month) and some are already filled in two years. (I was told I should have applied when I was pregnant. That’s insane.) I’ve also learned that not all children’s books are created equal; some are actually lame. And I’ve learned that babies — or, at least mine — love techno music. Just trust me on that.

But there’s a lot I still need to learn — or accept.

I’m still struggling with this new lifestyle. I can’t just hit the surf in the morning or meet up with friends — not without securing childcare in advance or packing a diaper bag full of emergency items including a change of clothes for me. (Yes, poop happens.) I’m watching friends on Facebook travel to exotic places or writing books or saving monk seals. Not me. I’m wiping butts (at least a cute one) and wondering when the last time it was that I shaved my legs. Or where my razor is.

But it’ll come. The adjustment, the change, the acceptance that life will forever be different. Better.

Maybe I’ll learn that next month.

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Dentists: A Love Story

By February 14, 2017 Musings

No one believes me when I tell them that I actually enjoy going to the dentist.

No, I don’t have perfect teeth — I spent 11 months in braces and have more fillings than I’d like to admit — and I only floss when I have something stuck between my teeth.

I’m no poster child for dentistry.

But I do enjoy the experience of going to the dentist.

It helps that my dentist — I’ll call him Dr. H — is great. He’s efficient, gentle, quick and calm — important traits in anyone wielding extracting forceps. He doesn’t ask me complicated questions when there’s a suction hose stuck in my mouth. And he always explains what he’s doing before he does it. There’s no mystery.

I haven’t always had great experiences in the dentist chair. When I was younger, I went to a dentist that I swear would fall asleep mid-way through cleaning. When he would numb my gums, I wouldn’t be able to feel my legs. And he wasn’t gentle. I would taste blood for hours.

Still, I’ve always looked forward to regular cleanings. It’s like a spa day for your mouth. Your teeth are scraped, flossed, cleaned and polished, all in less than an hour. You can recline, listen to Shaina Twain, stare out at the Ko‘olau Mountains, in air conditioning, with no access to email or text messages. It’s like a vacation. (Especially when you have a newborn at home.)

And you can even learn something. The other day I discovered that lidocaine replaced Novocain years ago — and both taste awful and you shouldn’t swallow either. Or that gold crowns last longer than porcelain crowns and cost way less.

I learned that last part the other day, when I found out I had to replace an existing crown with a new one.

I really didn’t want to get a gold crown, even though it would be far back in my mouth and out of sight. Just the idea I’d have a gold crown in there, it just didn’t sit right with me. Teeth should be white, not reflective. But I could barely stomach paying the $600 it would cost for a gold crown, let alone three times that for a cosmetic porcelain one.

It had been awhile since I had to go the dentist for more than a routine cleaning. I had forgotten about the thin needle that delivers the lidocaine in my gums, feeling it thread through my flesh. Or that strange bubble gum taste in my mouth from whatever it was Dr. H smeared on them first.

I had forgotten how the drilling felt like a mini table saw in my mouth, like little construction workers were in there building a deck. Or the smell of something burning — maybe my flesh! — not dissimliar to a soldering iron. Or how my tongue, with a mind of its own, always wants to touch one of these tools. Stay back! I cry out in my head. You’ll regret it!

Or the Vaseline in the corner of my mouth keeping my skin there from cracking.

Or the strong desire to swallow, knowing full well you’ll be ingesting particles of bone.

Or the fear you feel when the dentist says, “OK, we didn’t numb this part, so it might hurt a little.”

I started to tense up. I know this because Dr. H said, “Relax your jaw.” And also because I had pressed my thumb nail so deep into my arm I had broken skin.

He talked about his 5-month-old grandson who’s already rolling over and eating solid food. He gave me suggestions on educational baby-friendly videos I could show my 11-week-old son. He chatted about how we use too many antibacterial products and that’s not good.

I stared out the window at the mountains, green from the thunderous rain that came down the other day. My mouth was so dry it felt like the insides would break apart. Somehow, there were four instruments in my mouth at once, including four hands. And the lidocaine was starting to wear off.

And yet, I could still think of worse places I could be.

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It actually does get better

By February 6, 2017 Musings

I’m sitting here typing while my little 9-week-old is staring at a plastic turtle filled with colorful beads.

He can sit here long enough for me to wash dishes, fold laundry, Swiffer the living room, scarf a milkshake and browse YouTube for different ways to use a ring sling. (This is exactly what I did today.)

I couldn’t have even imagined this would be possible last month.

Last month, if you recall, I was a mess. I felt defeated and helpless. I never thought I’d get three straight hours of sleep ever again. And I certainly didn’t think my baby would occupy himself long enough for me to get anything done.

While I didn’t believe it at first, I’m happy to report that yes, it does get easier.

A week into his second month, my baby is alert and responsive, he’s interested in the world around him, he actually looks at me (and not just my boobs… boys…) and — the best part — smiles. Oh, those smiles are such sweet rewards for weeks of no sleep, painful nipples and feeling like I’m trapped in this house.

Part of the change is biological: He’s older, his body is growing, his brain is developing. His digestion system seems to be working much better. (No more writhing and suffering.) He can entertain himself. He looks at and responds to us. All this makes a huge difference.

And the other part is us: We’re finally getting it. We’ve learned his different cries. We’ve figured out that babies needs to nap regularly. And we stopped stressing about the little stuff. He wants to sleep in the Fisher-Price Rock ‘N Play sleeper? Let him! He needs to be carried a little longer before going to bed? Go ahead!

Every parent, every expert, every website, every book advises something — and it’s all over the place: Don’t rock your baby to sleep. You can’t spoil a baby. Breast is best. A fed baby is a happy baby. Feed on demand. Put your baby on a schedule. Don’t use a pacifier. Use a pacifier. It’s confusing and overwhelming, especially for a desperate, hopeless new parent.

And, like I did to get pregnant, I tried everything. I tried feeding on demand. (It didn’t work because I wasn’t napping him at all.) I swaddled. (That worked, but the Halo Sleepsack Swaddle didn’t.) We used a co-sleeper, then a bassinet, then a crib — all in the same week! I sampled different formulas, different bottles, different breast pumps. I have every kind of pacifier ever invented. I browsed more parenting websites and message boards than I knew existed. I called and texted every mother I knew, begging for help and advice, sometimes at 1 in the morning. And every single one responded — they’ve been here before, too — with very helpful suggestions, always ending with something along the lines of, “This worked for me, but it may not work for you” and “Good luck!”

Mothers know. No matter what you do, what you read, what you try, you will never know what’ll work. And what works with one child may not work — maybe almost never work — with another. So, basically, you’re screwed.

It’s like we’re raising this kid using trial-by-error — and, in a lot of ways, we are.

And it’s OK.

We still have a lot more to learn — like how to get him to sleep through the night. (He slept for five straight hours last night, so that’s progress!) And we still have moments of frustration, when we can’t figure out what he wants or needs. But, for the most part, we’re getting better at sticking to a schedule, getting him to sleep on his own and managing life with three hours of sleep.

And when I start to feel like life as I knew it is completely over, he smiles at me and I remember: a new life has only just begun.

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Motherhood: The struggle is real

By December 30, 2016 #BabyFox, Musings

It’s 2 a.m. and, for the last hour, I’ve been trying to settle a one-month-old who can’t seem to get comfortable. He’s scrunching and stretching, his face is turning a bright red, he’s crying and rooting and can’t stop fidgeting. He won’t take a bottle, he doesn’t need his diaper changed, he’s downright revolting. I haven’t slept — literally — in days. I haven’t left the house in a week. I can’t remember what the sun feels like.

Welcome to the rude awakening that’s called motherhood.

This is the part no one tells you about. How you’ll never have time for a shower. How you’ll walk around like a zombie for a month because you’re feeding a baby every two hours. How your refrigerator will only have condiments and beer — not the fresh veggies and pre-made meals you thought you’d be eating. How your body will hurt in places you never thought possible — like your nipples.

I knew that being a parent wasn’t going to be easy. And, despite the warnings from been-there-done-that friends, nothing could have prepared me for what I’m going through right now. My fantasies of peaceful, early-morning feedings where we’d listen to classical music — great for the baby’s brain! — and strengthen our bond while breastfeeding were quickly replaced by the reality of an inconsolable baby painfully clamping onto my raw boob while I struggle to comprehend whatever informercial is on TV. It’s not pretty.

Every day I feel like a total failure at this. Whenever the baby cries, whenever I open the fridge and see nothing to eat, whenever I look in the mirror and see a bleary-eyed, pasty-skinned, brain-dead version of myself. All that circulates in my head is, How do women do this? And more than once?

I’m no schlep. I can usually deal with high levels of stress, juggling multiple tasks while making sure the house is clean, there’s food on the table, the bills are paid and the dogs are walked. I do that and still manage to read books and get eight hours of sleep!

I figured adding a newborn to the mix would just be another thing to juggle.

That was my first mistake.

First of all, you can’t juggle a baby (figuratively or literally). The baby takes over everything. All those other things you juggled — work, laundry, Pilates, hanging out with friends — no longer exist. This newborn assumes every aspect of your life. You won’t leave your living room, dirty clothes will pile up, you may not shower for days. Your life will revolve around dirty diapers, sterilizing bottles and pumping breast milk. You’ll never be more interested in the color of poop and the conversion from milliliters to ounces in your life.

As much as I’ve been through — from working in stressful newsrooms to enduring a difficult pregnancy that had me sidelined for months — I never felt as defeated as I have in the past month. I can’t understand why it’s so hard for me, why other women seem to have no problem raising a newborn (so much so they have MORE), why I can’t seem to get a handle on this. What’s wrong with me? I’ve always been able to manage so much — multiple jobs, workouts, lunches with girlfriends, birthdays, family dinners, cooking, cleaning, blogging, volunteering — why was this so hard?

My body isn’t producing the amount of breast milk my friends did. (I have two girlfriends who had to buy refrigerators just to store their extra milk.) Because of my baby’s sensitivity to lactose, I’ve had to supplement with formula, a practice that has been wrongfully shamed in the past few decades, making me feel even more like a failure. I’m still recovering from a C-section and can’t hit the surf or gym like many moms can. And forget trying to scrapbook the experience; I’m lucky I brush my teeth!

I kept wondering if it’s just me. I desperately search online for confirmation of the opposite, hoping to commiserate with the frustration of other women who feel like they’re failing at this. I can’t be alone.

And — thankfully — I’m not.

While it seems like raising a newborn is some kind of ethereal, magical experience — especially on Instagram, which I had been trying to avoid — I’m here to say it’s not. It’s full of spit-up and poop-splosions. It’s the only thing in my life that has literally brought me to my knees in tears. It’s beyond humbling; it straight-up destroys you.

I feel so defeated, so hopeless, as I struggle to comfort this clearly uncomfortable baby. I can’t imagine ever getting through this stage, though I know — people keep telling me — that it gets better, it gets easier, I’ll actually sleep again. I just can’t fathom it.

But when he does finally fall asleep, cradled in my arms, and the house is quiet and the dogs are curled up on the couch with me, there is a kind of peace that washes over me, a feeling that it’s possible I’ll get through this.

But do this all over again with another baby? Ask me when I get four hours of sleep.

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