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red leaves and bright lights

November 17, 2010

Things have been pretty hectic in my little Tokyo bubble for the past week or so. We have been making an admirable effort to continue  on with our lives as usual, but an inordinate amount of time has been spent on the phone to our respective families and trying to finalize our travel plans.

After a lot of thought, stress, weighing of pros and cons, and amazingly no tears, we finally booked and paid for our plane tickets this afternoon. We will be heading to Narita International Airport next Thursday, exactly one week from today, and landing in San Francisco early Thanksgiving morning to stay for a hair under two weeks.

I’d love to say that we made the right decision in the end, but the truth is that neither of the two sets of date we were looking at were ideal, and we are not feeling overwhelmingly confident about our decision. This is the latest we’ve ever booked tickets prior to a visit home, and I’m not sure we are fully mentally prepared for the ordeal of international travel quite yet, but that is a hurdle we will have to deal with when we actually come to it.

On the up side we will be spending Thanksgiving weekend with my family, which is a big plus; and though the change in schedule means that I will be missing the Run for the Cure 5k here in Tokyo this year, I will instead be running the Run Wild for a Child 5k with my oldest and closest (and thus most crazy-making) of friends Alexa on November 28th.

I am trying to not panic at suddenly being a committed ticket holder, and to not think about the rest of the plans that need to be made (such as Eric’s tickets home to Wisconsin, and whether or not I will be accompanying him) until after I get home this evening.

So in the meantime, let’s play catch-up on some of the things that happened while we were scrambling to make our travel plans.

First up, it has finally started feeling like fall around Tokyo.The temperatures are still a bit high for the seasonal average, but we’ve had some cold days mixed in, and the leaves are falling with a vengeance in some parts of the city.

My run last Thursday morning was particularly gorgeous, as the trees bordering the river I run along were a blaze of color, and I stopped quite a few times along the way to snap pictures of the trees and leaves with my iPhone. This was probably the winning shot of the day, for the color contrast. Sometimes my 1.5 year old iPhone does a better job that I would expect of it.

Of course, other times it has some problems with focusing on the right area, which is particularly annoying when it is too bright out to really tell while taking the photos. That would be how I ended up with two almost awesome shots like these:

Either way, the leaves made my run a lot more relaxing and enjoyable than it would have been otherwise. I think my absolute favorite times to run during the year are 1) Sakura week, when the cherry trees are in bloom all along the river and then a few days later when it is literally raining pink petals with each gust of wind (seriously amazing), 2) Fall, when the leaves are changing and falling around (like this week), and 3) the one or two days out of the year when Tokyo is lucky enough to actually have snowfall. Running in the snow is magical.

While the weather and trees have been very Autumn-y his past week, many parts of Tokyo seem ready to move on to winter. On my way to the train after Yoga last week I was surprised to discover that the annual Southern Lights Illumination had been been lit up that very day around Shinjuku Southern Terrace.

Every year through the winter the Southern Terrace near between Shinjuku station’s south exit and Takashimaya Times Square department store is lit up for the holidays. It is a very popular spot for couples and friends to sit and talk while looking at the lights, and is always packed with people taking pictures of the lights.

I only got a few bad iPhone shots because I wasn’t prepared for it, but I would like to go back sometime with Eric, his tripod, and our real cameras to try and get some better ones. It’s a bit hard to tell from the picture, but the one on the right is a fortune telling tree. You stand inside and the lights tell your fortune depending on color. My friend Keiko and I stood inside on Friday evening and our color was blue, which I believe is supposed to signify a strong, steady friendship.

For warmth and comfort, and to use up a bunch of things that needed using up, I made twice baked sweet potatoes for Eric and I one night last week as things were a little crazy.

I love satsuma-imo (you can read more about Japanese sweet potatoes on my friend Jessica’s blog) and most often eat them simply baked and topped with cottage cheese and negi (scallions), but sometimes when I have a little extra time I like to change things up and make them a little more special.

Twice-Baked Sweet Potatoes

    2 medium satsuma-imo or sweet potatoes
    160 g onion
    1/2 tbsp butter or oil
    100 g creamy cottage cheese
    100 g whole non-homogenized milk
    2 cloves garlic
    1/4 tsp nutmeg
    1/4 tsp cayenne pepper
    40g sharp cheese
    salt & black pepper to taste

Poke the sweet potatoes with a fork, and roast at 190°C (375°F) for about an hour until soft. While the potatoes are roasting, chop the onion and garlic and saute in butter or oil until soft and beginning to caramelize. I usually cook at a slightly higher temperature and for less time than required for a true caramelization, but if you have the time then about 30-45m on low is the best way to caramelize your onions.

Once the potatoes are cooked and cool enough to handle, cut them in half and scoop out the flesh into a bowl, being careful to keep the skins intact and leaving just enough flesh for structural integrity. I generally do this while they are still a little too hot, and thus burn myself, even through potholders.

Use a fork or potato masher to break up the sweet potato flesh a bit, then add the milk, cottage cheese, and spices. Mash until the sweet potato mix reaches your preferred level of smoothness (I like mine relatively lump-free, but not quite entirely smooth), then fold in the cooked onions and adjust the salt and black pepper to taste.

Use a spoon to scoop the potato mixture evenly into the waiting potato skins, and place on a lined baking sheet. If you are so inclined, top each sweet potato half with a sprinkling of cheese. A hard, sharp cheese works best here. I opted to use some Old Dutch Master that I got from a specialty import cheese shop in Ikebukuro this time.

Bake for 10 – 15 minutes at 180°C (350°F) or until the cheese is melted and just turning golden and the potatoes are heated through. Makes four half-potato sized servings.

Are the winter decorations up over in your part of the world yet?

4 Comments leave one →
  1. November 19, 2010 8:11 am

    I wish I knew what toys we should be at the race….

    It’s a winter wonderland over here. You know, without the actual snow. Everything is already decorated and lit. Christmas carols. It freaks me out!

    Where did 2010 go??

    • November 19, 2010 3:08 pm

      Seriously. I’m worried I’m not going to be able to come up with something, what with impending travel prep and all. eeek.. not enough tiiiiiime..

      Sunshine City Ikebukuro was suddenly all decked out in Christmas cheer today, too.

  2. November 19, 2010 9:42 am

    Oh happy day!!! This means we all get to look forward to both hardcore 5K pics AND cute baby pics, right? :) I hope the shotgun nature of your travel doesn’t take away from the fun of being home for a few weeks.

    Great photos, too. I love being able to take bloggable pics with my camera. “The best camera is the one you have with you,” right?

    • November 19, 2010 3:12 pm

      Haha.. my 5k pics are going to be SO unglamorous. I don’t know how you managed to look good coming across the finish for your half!

      I’m hoping to get some good baby shots! Here’s hoping get the okay to share them publicly…

      I totally agree on the camera sentiment. Good photos are 90% framing, lighting, a steady hand, and luck.. a fancy camera helps, but is not required. Sometimes having only my iPhone drives me crazy (low lighting and motion shots, anyone? =/) but I’ve taken some really awesome ones under the right conditions, too!

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