Archive for June, 2012

We only had three days in Tokyo, so we had to make the most of this electrifying city. To write the end before the beginning, we can sum it up by saying we left Tokyo with a strong desire to return. In the first part of this series, we will share with you the incredible food scene we experienced in Tokyo. Part II will delve into our exploration of some of the city’s sights and neighborhoods.

From Sea to Table

Do you ever wonder where that little piece of tuna you’re eating came from? While it’s hard to know for certain, there is a pretty good chance it passed through the Tsukiji Fish Market in Tokyo, the largest fish market in the world. The action starts early here, with fish auctions for the high-end catches running from 5am to 7am. We arrived around 6:30am and dove right into the chaos that consumes the heart of the market.

Early morning hours at the Tsukiji fish market

This is not your typical neighborhood fish market; Tsukiji is home to fishermen who are selling massive quantities of fish to wholesalers. According to Wikipedia, over 400 types of seafood are sold at Tsukiji on any given day. If it lives in the sea and can be eaten, it’s sold at Tsukiji Fish Market.

Ominously glowing pieces of tuna. Aren’t they stunning?

One of the many species of octopi on sale at Tsukiji

Aside from the extra large bivalves and colorful octopi, we were most impressed by the humongous tuna that we saw. Workers handled these whole frozen tuna with hooks and gloves, maneuvering them from the ground to counter tops. There, they are cut in half using band saws and then into smaller pieces by knives that looked more like swords.

HUGE tuna fish

Tuna handler in action – hopping over his group’s share of tuna and in between table saws

You do not want to get between this guy and his tuna. “Call that a knife?” This is a real knife, Mr. Crocodile Dundee.

Hop on the Sushi Train

Although a novelty in the States, sushi train restaurants are not so uncommon in Japan. Excited to try some of the fish we saw at Tsukiji the day before, we headed out to dinner at a sushi go-round in the Asakusa neighborhood.

Watching our dinner circle round as we waited in line with anticipation, our appetites growing by the second

We enjoyed some of our favorites, such as Hamachi (yellow tail) and Aji (mackerel) and also tried a few new things, including abalone and crab miso soup.

Fatty tuna roll with green onion

Octopus sushi

After the waiter tallied up our tower of plates, which ranged from 180-700 Yen/plate, and added in our sake, the bill came to about $50 USD. Not exactly a cheap meal, but compared to a sushi dinner for two at home, it was a steal. Well worth the dent to our backpackers’ budget!

We did so much damage…

Dinner, Tatami-Style

Many fantastic restaurants in Tokyo are very unassuming. There is little to no signage out front, and you often do not even realize they are there. We were intrigued by a certain restaurant near our hostel. Each day during lunch, we noticed a line of people that stretched down the block, but in the evening it was hard to tell if the place was even open. The front doors were shut, and the building had no windows. After two days of walking past with our curiosity teeming, we finally gave in and slowly opened one of the sliding wooden doors to take a peek.

Amy getting comfortable on the tatami floor

Inside, we found several tables of people sitting on tatami mats and enjoying traditional Japanese cuisine. The menu wasn’t well translated, so we did what we normally do in that type of situation – we smiled and pointed to the dish that everyone else was eating. Turns out the dish is called “Dozeu-nabe” (this website describes the dish pretty well). The dish was composed of small river fish that had first been cooked in sake and then transferred to a shallow metal dish. The fish then simmered over hot coals with green onions and fermented soy sauce on top.

The preparation method softens the fish so that they can be consumed whole, bones and all.

Mike digging into the dozeu-nabe

When the waitress first brought the dish to our table, our faces must have looked hilarious, as it didn’t look too appetizing. She graciously showed us how to properly prepare it. Halfway through the meal, she stopped by to tell us that one of the cooks was very impressed after observing our chopstick skills and Japanese dining manners. We always try to be culturally conscious travelers, and it was nice to hear that our efforts are appreciated! In the end, we could not have been more satisfied. Dozeu-nabe is delicious, and we were thrilled at the authenticity of dinner that evening.

Hibernating in the Sake Dens

Visiting an izakaya (sake den) was on our must-do list upon arriving in Tokyo. These Japanese style pubs are where the locals relax, loosen their ties after work, and often get helped out the door by a waiter as they stumble with an arm over their friend’s shoulder.

Hanging sake bottles mark the entrance to an izakaya in the Shibuya area

Following our tatami-style dinner, we made our way to a nearby izakaya that served up delicious tapas (for lack of a better word), meat skewers and generous glasses of sake.

The good stuff

The other good stuff

After six large cups of refreshing cold sake, a sampling of pork temple and chicken liver, and some great people watching, we were set for the night and made our walk home with nothing but smiles on our faces.

We call this ‘the sake glow’

The good thing about spending at least three days in a city is that it gives you the opportunity to truly experience the local cuisine by eating  nine solid meals. Between our tatami dinner, visit to the fish market, sake den experience, and many more meals, which we did not include in this post, we felt as though we had a good grip on the Tokyo food scene. As we mentioned, we left Tokyo wanting to see and taste more, and we will certainly be back someday.


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Going Back to Work

Don’t worry, our trip around the world isn’t over yet! We just had some business to take care of in Yokohama, and our return to work was only temporary. It had been six months since we last set foot in a working environment (sob story, we know), but to be honest, we were a little anxious about going back to work. In true business traveler fashion, we took the Shinkansen high-speed train from Kyoto after sightseeing there for a week. You have to have a job to take this train, as the two hour ride costs nearly $150/ticket!

The Shinkansen (a.k.a. bullet train) that we rode from Kyoto to Yokohama reached speeds over 300km/hr!

When we arrived in Yokohama, we traded in our backpacker wardrobe for business attire and prepared ourselves for four days “on the clock.” Spending several hours ironing clothes is not our idea of a fun first night in a new city, but getting dressed up in clean, pressed business attire actually felt quite refreshing. When you’ve been living out of a backpack for months on end, new clothes feel like a new car.

First day back at work!

We were in town for the 10th Annual ISSCR Stem Cell Research Convention, which brought together researchers from around the globe. We were working as private contractors manning the booth for Novus Biologicals, Amy’s former employer in Colorado. Our job was to let researchers know about antibodies and other related products that may be useful to their stem cell studies. Amy has worked numerous such conventions in the past; for Mike it was a brand new experience. He got a crash course in antibodies before arriving in Japan and did a stellar job with his science lingo. Thank you, Novus, for the opportunity to work ISSCR!

Mike helping out a curious researcher

The Novus booth was our home for four days in Yokohama.

The event took place at the PACIFICO Yokohama. This convention center is situated along the water and near some great restaurants and parks in Yokohama. We were lucky enough to have a bit of time to sightsee before and after ISSCR.

The PACIFICO Yokohama on one of the few sunny, rain-free days during ISSCR

This amusement park is situated right next to the convention center, which made it easy for us to take a roller coaster ride before the first day of the show!

View of the skyline from Yamashita Park

Our hotel was located just a few blocks from Chinatown, one of the largest of its kind in the world, which provided for some great people watching and delicious meals, and the hectic vibe actually brought us back to our recent travels in China.

The East Gate to Yokohama’s Chinatown

We seem to be ending all of our posts recently by talking about food, so we may as well keep with the trend. No business trip is complete without a fancy business dinner. We enjoyed an incredible Kyoto-style dinner one night with Amy’s former boss and a Japanese distributor. With ten courses, three types of sake and good conversation, it was a real treat to say the least.

2nd Course: squid, pike and sashimi served on ice.

All in all, going back to work went very smoothly. It was a good reminder of the hard work we did to make our dream of traveling the world come true. So for now, it’s back to life on the road and doing the work that we love, blogging about our travels. Who knows what the future will hold; we are focusing on living life in the present.

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One of the first things that any traveler will notice about Kyoto is that there appears to be a temple or shrine on nearly every block. That may be a bit of an exaggeration, but Kyoto’s reputation as the home of traditional Japanese culture is well deserved. Once the Imperial Capital of Japan, Kyoto is now a modern city where the traditions of the past live on. In the midst of crowded, multiple-story malls, you will find a number of women shopping in traditional Japanese Kimonos, and when you exit the mall, you are likely to find monks worshiping at a temple just around the corner.

Kimonos are a common sight in Kyoto.

We spent our week in Kyoto visiting only a handful of the many temples and shrines, but the ones we did visit were magnificent. From the moment we set foot in Japan, we were truly humbled by the kindness and respect that people show one another. Even those who have never traveled abroad would feel safe and welcome in Japan. Nonetheless, it was helpful to have a Japanese-speaking guide to get an insider’s perspective on the culture of Japan. Our friend, Patricia, who lives and works in the Shiga Prefecture, met us in town one day to show us around to Kinkaku-ji (The Golden Temple) and Fushimi Inari Shrine. It made the experience that much more authentic.

Enjoying a tasty tempura and noodle lunch in Kyoto with Patricia. Thanks for a fun day!

Kyoto’s Golden Temple

The temple is coated in gold leaf, similar to the dome on the capital building in Denver.

The gates of Fushimi Inari Shrine wound on and on for miles. Each one varies in size and bears the name of the individual or group that purchased it.

The foremost structure at Fushimi Inari Shrine.

Before walking through the network of orange gates at Fushimi Inari, Patricia convinced us to dress up in traditional garb at a kimono vendor’s stall. We had no intention of purchasing kimonos, but after we got all decked out, the thought crossed our minds. While they would have been fun Halloween costumes, we eventually realized that they would have collected dust 99% of the time.

Dress up time

Another highlight of our visit to Kyoto was our trip to Arashiyama. We learned about this neighborhood of town from our hostel’s “things to do” board. At a first glance, it seemed like nothing more than something to do on a rainy day; however, it turned out to be one of our favorite places in Kyoto. The paths that make their way through the area are canopied by a forest of bamboo.

Seemingly endless grove of bamboo trees.

The trees towered so high that they drooped over the path to create a natural canopy.

Last but not least…the food. A post on The Chamborres Expedition is not a post without writing about the cuisine of a city. We took a suggestion from a friend and sought out a grocery store located in the basement of a department store. We know that doesn’t sound like an exciting culinary adventure, but trust us, some of the best and most affordable sushi in the world can be found in such places. We scoped out our dinner selection early one morning, but lucked out by returning after 6:00PM when much of the sashimi was marked down 20 and 30 percent. No one wants day old sushi.

Sushi, anyone?

Everything in Japan is an art form, even the desserts. We were continually impressed by the presentation of products in the artisan sweet shops. The colors, textures and designs are a treat to the eye.  Having only known the deliciousness of mochi from home, we were amazed by the taste and freshness of the ones in Kyoto. At over 150 yen/piece, they are not cheap, but they are an incredibly delicate and subtle way to end a meal.

Hand-made mochi at Nishiki Market

Funky see-through mochi

Yesterday, we overheard another traveler saying, “I am so happy, it was something I have always wanted to do.” That is exactly how we felt when we arrived in Kyoto. We have always wanted to visit Japan, and exploring Kyoto was the perfect way to start our visit. It allowed us to see the temples of old, experience the food of today, and get a glimpse of the trends of tomorrow that awaited us in Tokyo.

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It has been a while since our last post. The reason? We have been bumming around on the beaches of Busan, South Korea for the past eight days.

Before getting into our fun in the sun, we’ll take you back to our last moments in China. On our final night in Beijing, we liberated ourselves of the massive Lonely Planet China guidebook we had purchased and felt a great weight off our shoulders (both literally and metaphorically). Guidebooks can be a double-edged sword; they provide you with valuable information and are a one-stop shop for planning a trip, but they also leave you feeling like you have to see and do everything. We now know 100% that we prefer to travel without them.

When all was said and done, we spent five weeks maneuvering the crowds, traffic and tourist hotspots of eight different Chinese cities. Don’t get us wrong, we loved China, it’s just that we were ready to plant ourselves in one place for a while. Simply stepping out of the airport in Busan had a very calming effect. People formed lines, cars stopped at cross walks, streets were clean and tidy and everything just seemed so smooth and orderly.

Our little paradise in South Korea – Haeundae Beach

We knew that Busan was a city with some nice beaches, but to our surprise, there was an international sand festival taking place at Haeundae Beach, just minutes from our hostel.  When it comes to de-stressing and just having fun, there are few things better than an ocean side festival.

These guys make it look easy.

Incredible 3D sand sculpture

We got inspired to create our own work of art. It was so much fun to play in the sand that day. Quite a few people even stopped to take photos of it, which made us feel like we were part of the festival. The sad part is how sore we were the next day, and for several days after.

Amy working on Mrs. Scraggle Tooth

Don’t ask us what it is…we have no clue.

At first, we had considered taking a train up to Seoul for a few days or setting off for some hiking in the nearby mountains; but, in the end our desire to just max on the beach prevailed.  We decided that we could still experience many great aspects of Korean life, namely the food, without trekking very far. We had only to walk two minutes from our hostel to Haeundae Market to find many of the nation’s culinary delights. After just a day, this market became one of our favorite markets in the world.

Our favorite little street in Busan

This lady served up the tasty tempura snacks day and night.

The amount of different sea creatures available at Haeundae Market is incredible.

The combination of fresh seafood, delicious vegetables, hole-in-the-wall restaurants, street food and shops was perfect. We ate everything from kimchi dumplings, to sushi rolls, to tempura . One night, we even ate a meal that included 11 different types of sashimi: two species of eel, sea snails, crab, sea squirt, shrimp, sea cucumber, three unknown types of delicious sliced fish, and a whole grilled fish.

Amazing spread of “hue” (pronounced hway), which is Korean sushi, and more!

If seafood isn’t your thing, South Korea has you covered too. Enter Korean Barbecue. These great restaurants are perfect for dining as a couple or with a group of friends.  A charcoal pit in the middle of the table allows you to grill up your own meat while you enjoy bottomless side dishes of kimchi and vegetables.

Koreans are very methodical eaters. Everything has to be prepared just so, each item paired with its particular garnish. We definitely mixed it up at the Korean BBQ and some people looked at us funny. One couple even stopped us mid-meal, to show us how it was done.

Man and grill. Need we say more?

One of our friends from DU is living and teaching English in South Korea, and we had a blast hanging out, getting the inside scoop on the country, and visiting her middle school class (more on that in a future post). Thanks again Danielle for a great time!

Enjoying laughs with friends old and new.

As if a week of maxing on the beach, grubbing tasty Korean food and hanging out with friends wasn’t enough, viewing the Venus Transit across the sun was icing on the cake. The view of this rare astronomical event was said to be the best in this region of the world. Foolishly we tried to look at the sun using only two pairs of sunglasses. Epic fail. But we were lucky enough to run into a group of local physics students who had telescopes set up on the beach. Win!

Mike scoping the awesome view of Venus crossing the sun. Guess we’ll have to wait until 2117 to see it again.

There it is!

We didn’t have a guidebook when we got to Korea, nor had we done much planning beyond booking a hostel, so we really didn’t know what to expect from Busan. Half the beauty of traveling is making it up as you go, this time things went our way and we couldn’t have picked a better time to be there.

So where are we now?  We managed to peel ourselves off of the beach in order to fly to Japan today. We’ll spend a few days in Kyoto before heading off to work.  You’re eyes are not deceiving you; yes, for the first time in over six months we will be getting paid. We’re heading to Yokahama to work a booth at a stem cell research conference called ISSCR for Amy’s previous employer. It will good to hang up our travel gear for a bit and get back in touch with our professional selves. Not to mention it will be nice to see our bank account increase instead of decrease for a change!

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