Food of Japan

As a foodie, a big part of my travels are centered around food. Whenever I’m venturing to a new city, I research the restaurant and the food scene more than I research activities to plan and do. Experiencing the local food scene is my favorite way to explore and connect to a new place. Some of the best memories I have accumulated traveling around the world have revolved around coffee shops and little hideaway restaurants.

Whenever I visit a new place, I want to know where the locals eat. I don’t want chain restaurants, and I don’t want tourist traps. I want to be completely pushed out of my comfort zone.

My wish was completely granted in Japan.

Japan pushed the food envelope in more ways than simply trying something new and unfamiliar. It took the entire eating out experience and turned it on it’s head. The variety and availability just on one block in the city of Tokyo forces you to think about your food.  Simply picking a type of cuisine wasn’t narrow enough. You might want ramen, but then you have to ask yourself what type of ramen you want because no two ramen places are the same. One joint might specialize in shellfish based broth while another might focus on burnt broth — yes, burnt, and it’s delicious! And then, of course, you have the sushi scene which is without a doubt the best on the planet. Yes, I said that. I have never had better, fresher sushi than in Japan. It’s everywhere, and it’s available at every price point.  Many times, Isla and I would grab a roll for only $3 at the local market as a late evening meal before heading back to our hotel.

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Isla approves of Ramen

The coffee scene is no exception. Yes, Starbucks has a presence, and there are several Japanese coffee chains, but if you look hard enough, you can find some incredible little coffee shops buried in the sea of concrete.

The culture of eating here is also defined by lines. People wait for their food, actually wait in a line for their food. Sometimes 2 plus hours. Lines out of the door and down the block. The first time we did it, I was in disbelief. I had read that people show up at restaurants, get a number, and then wait in line for their meals, but I didn’t understand how much it was a thing. Here in the states, there are typically the restaurants we know that will have a wait on a Friday/Saturday night, but in Tokyo, Japan these lines were happening everyday, lunch and dinner. I quickly learned that if I wanted to eat at a particular restaurant, I needed to be there right when they opened. The people of Tokyo take their food seriously, so waiting in line for an hour for a great bowl of ramen is nothing to them. It’s all part of the experience. We waited in line for sushi for two hours. Two hours. The entire time we were waiting, I was in denial. I couldn’t believe we were waiting this long for sushi on a Sunday afternoon. But so was everyone else.

The approach to food here is different. For starters, you usually order on a screen of some sort, some places even putting your money in the machine before you order and then having your change spit out at the bottom. It’s nothing like the American way of having a server come to your table, taking your order, and then delivering your bill at the end of the meal. Waiters and waitresses are never tipped in Japan, so the level of service is very different to what most Westerners are used to. They are kind, but they aren’t scrambling all over you or rushing you out hoping to get another table in for another round of 20% tips. It was actually quite refreshing. We could linger as long we wanted at a table, and never felt like we needed to exit at any point because the server was ready for us to be on our way. They didn’t stop refilling our water after we paid because the water pitchers were left on the table from the start of the meal. We had paid  before we had even sat down, so we were left to savor our food rather than be rushed through it. Even at restaurants where we paid at the end, there was never pressure to be on our way. We would simply take our ticket to the cashier by the door and pay whenever we were ready to head out. You are encouraged to linger over every bite of your food here, and this was something I could get behind. Food should be savored not rushed. It’s something we seem to have forgotten in the States. The food is the event.

 

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Spicy Ramen from Ramen Alley

 

FOOD HALLS

The food halls are the best kept secret of the Tokyo food scene. The Food Halls of Tokyo are in a league all on their own. Imagine if Nordstrom and Whole Foods got together and made a food baby. It might come close to a Japanese Food Hall. Nearly every major department store had a enormous food hall spanning multiple floors. They blew my mind. Each food hall was filled with booths with every type of food imaginable. Fish. Vegetables. Fruit. Prepared dishes. French Pastry. Skewers. Chocolates. Ice creams. You could make multiple meals just going from booth to booth. Seriously, if you want to spend an afternoon just wandering food halls and tasting everything imaginable, it’s not a bad way to experience and taste a little bit of everything of the food scene here.

 

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SUSHI

My favorite meal while in Tokyo was at Ginza Kyubey. The sushi was absolutely phenomenal; but watching each piece being handmade made it extra special. What makes Kyubey so special is the experience. It’s a five level restaurant, so most likely you will be lead to your sushi bar by a traditionally dressed Japanese woman up the small elevator. The entire building feels like you’re stepping back in time to the 1930s when the restaurant was founded. We waited in a room that felt like a museum with glass cases filled with Japanese artifacts before we were lead back onto the elevator and lead to our table.  After ordering off the pre-set menu, our sushi chef asked if we had any requests or dislikes. He then proceeded to make each piece of sushi for us according to our specifications. Did we like ginger? Lime? Garlic?  Each piece was mind-blowing. He would tell us if we should add soy sauce or not depending on how he had seasoned the fish. And wasabi was never on the side. If wasabi was a part of the sushi. it was between the rice and the fish, not on top. It was the most personalized meal I’ve ever had in my life.

 

 

I often think back to this meal. as one of the best meals of my life if not the BEST. The chef was an artist, and the rice was his canvas. He created each piece with such precision and passion that inspired me to want to pay more attention to my own cooking back home. Putting so much attention to detail came forth in every bite, so much so that I can almost taste it weeks later. 

We had sushi many more times while on our trip, but this place was the pinnacle. As I said earlier, we frequently picked up $3 rolls from the grocery store, and all of it was delicious, but the experience and taste of Kyubey was the quintessential sushi experience in Tokyo. You would be remiss if you ventured into this city without giving it a try.

 

RAMEN

Truthfully, I hadn’t had much ramen in my life before this trip. In my mind, it was just the packets you can pick up for a $1 in the store, but wow was I blown away by this bowl of noodle goodness. What blew my mind more than anything was the variety of ramen options available. I wasn’t kidding when I said you had to think about your choices. There are so many different types of ramen, you could spend a month just exploring the ramen scene; and even better: despite its cheap price point, it is far from a simple or cheap tasting dish. There is so much flavor in the humble bowls of broth and noodles that I had to stop myself from slurping every ounce of broth.

 

 

My Two favorite Ramen places:

IMG_7131 2Ginza Noodles – specializes in clam based broth; however I ordered the soba noodles, which were chicken-based, and it was phenomenal. There was so much flavor in the broth, the noodles, the accompaniments. I can only imagine what the clam broth tasted like. This place had a long line out of the door for lunch as it was in the popular shopping district of Ginza. I would highly recommend getting there right when it opens if you’re in the area. Also it’s one of the places where you pay and order from the machine in order to get a ticket to then get in line to get a seat. It was a little confusing at first, and no one really spoke English in the restaurant, but after a few rounds of pointing, we figured it out. Ginza is a high-end shopping district, but Ginza Noodles is a small unassuming hole in the wall, so don’t be alarmed by the outside when you stumble upon it. The food is amazing.

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Gogyo Ramen is the home of the burnt miso ramen. It’s mouthwatering. Seriously mouthwatering. I met a friend here, and we were both amazed at the flavor intensity in this bowl of noodle goodness. It was so good, I feel bad my husband never got to taste it. In fact, I feel bad for anyone who hasn’t had the pleasure of slurping down a bowl of Gogyo Ramen. The egg was cooked to perfection and the noodles were the perfect consistency, but the true star is the broth. The dark, rich broth is full of flavor, not a burnt flavor, but just enough past the point of no return that you add a whole other level of flavor, almost like when you brown butter or roast a marshmallow. It adds that extra richness to the broth that other places don’t quite have. This is not where you would go for a light bowl of ramen, this one is heavier and richer, but completely worth the indulgence. The atmosphere is also fun in this ramen joint, and the bathrooms are a little something special. They also have incredible fried chicken and dumplings. We sampled both, and nothing disappointed. Next time I’m in Tokyo, this will be high on my list of restaurants to revisit. Do yourself a favor and give this place a try!

 

TSUKIJI FISH MARKET

I would be remiss if I didn’t talk about Tsukiji Fish Market. It’s without a doubt one of the highlights of Tokyo. If you’ve watched any travel show or food documentary about Tokyo, you’ve most likely seen it in action. It’s rows and rows and rows of some of the strangest food items you may ever see in your life. If you’re one for adventure and enjoy tasting new things, this place is for you.  We sampled eel, salmon, and scallops that were marinated and grilled on a stick right in front of us. While not the most adventurous choice, it was delicious. There were several stands for tamagoyaki (egg omelet) which is very popular to eat on it’s own on a stick. And countless stands of items we couldn’t quite identify.  We’ve been to several food markets around the world, but this one was by far the most adventurous and different one we sampled through.

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All kinds of fish waiting to be grilled. 

JAPANESE GRILL

Have you been to a Japanese Grill in the States where they cook for you at your table? Yeah…well in Japan, there is a grill at your table, but you do the cooking. They bring big platters of beef, veggies, whatever you order, and you are given the sauce and the condiments to make your own BBQ. We went to a Japanese BBQ restaurant that specializes in Wagyu beef, a specialized breed of Japanese cows. It’s better than any filet mignon I’ve ever tasted in my life. The meat is so tender, yet so full of flavor and fat, it just melts in your mouth. I had never had it before, and Samuel kept insisting that we find a good place for a BBQ. I couldn’t understand why he was so eager to cook his own dinner, but after I tasted the first piece of beef off the grill, I completely understood why. Mouthwatering and full of flavor, all of the sauces and condiments seemed irrelevant. A dash of salt was all the meat needed for a perfect bite. Even if you aren’t a big meat eater, you will appreciate the small tender slices of this specialized Japanese cow.

I’m now looking out for restaurants here in the States that serve Wagyu beef because I want to know if I can recreate that moment in Japan. If I happen to find a place, I’ll keep everyone posted.

This is just a small sample of everything we got to try. I barely scratched the surface in the 8 days I was there, but I had countless culinary experiences that I will remember and recount forever. The food in Japan is in one word extraordinary. It’s a must visit destination for every foodie who is looking for a culinary adventure. It pushed me out of my comfort zone more than any other destination has done in recent years, and I’m so glad for everything I tasted along the way.

My 2 year old even approved, and if a toddler gives her thumbs up on anything, you’re good to go. Happy eating on your travels!

~RL

 

 

More to come:

Next up: The Coffee of Japan.

 

Welcome To Japan

I haven’t sat on a cold toilet in 8 days because they simply don’t exist in Tokyo, Japan. In fact, the toilets here are smarter than all of my appliances back home combined. Forget just doing your business and being on your way. Going to the bathroom here is an experience complete with warm seats and control panels on the wall. Also when you exit, you’re instructed to not only wash your hands but gargle with warm water. The Japanese take their bathrooms very seriously – all are spotlessly clean.

The bathrooms are just one small example of how Tokyo as a city surprised me. When traveling, I rarely give thought to a toilet, but in Tokyo the bathrooms were an escape from the madness of this city. It’s almost as if they planned their bathrooms for this exact purpose — an escape.

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Control Panels in the bathroom complete with music for a privacy option

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You can’t prepare for a city like Tokyo, it sweeps you away as soon as you arrive.

Sure you can arrive with your lists of food destinations, must-see sights, and shopping lists, but as soon as you step off the train in the heart of the city, the whole world of Tokyo engulfs you. Life is lived at a different pace here.

For starters, the metropolitan area of Tokyo is one of the most populated places in the world, and immediately you will notice the vast number of people on the trains, in the stations, on the streets, at the restaurants, in the shopping malls. Everywhere buzzes with the energy of the people…but it’s a different type of energy that you may be used to.

The people here move at an incredible speed…they walk fast. Very fast. Everyone is on a mission to be somewhere, do something, yet they quietly make their way there. While Tokyo may be the busiest city I’ve ever experienced, it’s one of the quietest where the people are concerned. You may wait in line for a restaurant for 2 hours or more, but the people do so quietly and orderly. You may crush your way into a train, but people all crush together quietly. Banal chit chat about the situation is no where to be heard. Where a joke might be passed on an American train, there is no joke about being packed liked sardines on a Japanese one. While on Italian trains, Italians may throw their hands up and laugh about the situation, there is no laughter about the lack of room here. On a British train, I’ve heard people complain about the incompetence of the system; there are no such complaints heard. Instead the Japanese simply push their way in, hang on for their life and move on with the movements of the train. They’re a stoic and reserved bunch.

In a restaurant the loudest thing you may hear is the American pop music in the background, the slurping of noodles, or the snapping of a picture. They don’t really chat when they eat, and if they do, it’s in whispers to one another. But they like to take pictures of their food. Snapping and sharing your food experience is very, very important.

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the common 2 hour wait

The food culture in Japan is without a doubt phenomenal. The people here take their food seriously. And with good reason. The scale and availability of amazing food here is unlike any major city I’ve ever been in. Every city block has a variety of fantastic food options with lines out of the door. It’s not uncommon to wait 2+ hours for a great meal if you don’t arrive at the restaurant right when it opens. I waited in numerous lines throughout my time there until I took the opening times seriously. By the end of the trip, I knew if I wanted to save time, I needed to be at the restaurant before it opened with my name on the waiting list. But that’s another thing about Japan that impressed me: locals were willing to wait hours for a good meal, on a weekday, during lunch. They value the quality as well as the experience of their meals, and they are going to share it and spread the word, so restaurants don’t want to disappoint.

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Food as a form of art

The depth of flavor impressed as well as the presentation. Food is presented as an art form. It’s an expression of the people here, their past, their present, their future.

Another thing I wasn’t prepared for was the coffee culture. I expected a society of tea drinkers, both traditional and modern. I thought tea ceremonies would be “the thing to do,” and I expected tea shops on every corner. And yes, there were opportunities for both, but the biggest draw in the caffeinated world was my first love, coffee. Just like their food scene, coffee is a respectable giant here. I flew from the Seattle area, so I’m acquainted with coffee snobs…no shocker, I am a coffee snob. I’m married to someone who can taste every note in a bean, who pours out espresso shots if they’re not properly extracted, and who owns nearly every device known to man to make a cup, a shot, or a gallon of coffee if one so requires it. You can say coffee is a thing in our household. And the coffee of Japan seriously impressed both of us, both their hot espresso extractions as well as their cold brew versions. There were several occasions when I texted my husband at work saying how shocked I was at the quality of coffee I just consumed, and he replying with the fact that he thought he just tasted the best cold brew he had ever had. Both of us were almost in denial…surely a country known for tea couldn’t have this good of a coffee scene…but, yes, it could, and it 100 percent did.

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Tokyo, for its speed and energy, still had moments of unexpected peace all around it. Hidden within the miles and miles of modern concrete blocks were gardens and hidden spaces to reflect and catch your breath. Beautiful attention to detail in every aspect of the layout, architecture, plants, herbs, flowers, and walkways. These hidden places became favorite finds of mine after the crowds of the city became overwhelming after a day of exploring.

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Shinjuku Gyoen National Park provides a startling quiet place to relax 
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a garden at the top of Ginza Six for a moment of reflection before a whirlwind of a day

The size of Tokyo is mind blowing. You can read about it, and you can study maps, but until you walk the streets of the city, you can’t fully grasp the size and sprawl of this place. It goes on and on and on, as well as up. Nearly every block is a little city on its own filled with stores, restaurants, arcades, hotels, and food halls. You could spend one day exploring one block and not try everything that’s available. I’ve walked all over big cities around the world, but this city kicked my walking shoes. One day we walked 17 miles, and didn’t even cover half of the distance I thought we would. Another day we walked 15, another 12, and still we didn’t cover this massive city. The train system is another behemoth you can attempt to conquer but only fail. It’s intense…you have to study the lines intently, the colors of the lines may not be the color of the line at that particular station, and you shouldn’t be surprised if you have to walk half a mile within the station or even  outside the station to change trains because the stations are that big and the lines that extensive.

You can’t prepare for Tokyo, but knowing that going in should allow you to simply enjoy it. Because that’s what you really need to do when you arrive in Tokyo, Japan, you need to simply enjoy every racing moment, the smells, the sounds, the people, the food. You need to walk in ready to let the experience happen instead of trying to force something you think you needs to happen. Trying to time manage every little moment in this city is pointless because it runs on its own speed. What you think will take an hour may take three, so sit back relax and take it all in. Enjoy every thing, especially the food and coffee, that comes your way because it’s going to be something extra special.

 

More to come…

 

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Parenting without Fear

I was terrified of having a baby, but not for the obvious reasons. I wasn’t worried about keeping her alive, her diet, the sleep loss, or her future college choices (and how we would pay for those).

No, I was terrified I wouldn’t be able to travel as much as I like to or stay as active as I always was in my early 20s. I was scared a baby would tie me down. I love to run, hike, explore, and eat my way around the world, and I didn’t see how having Isla would fit into that big picture.

But she had to fit because she was coming, and I couldn’t stop being myself just because I was becoming a mom. I wasn’t going to hole up for the next several years just because we were having a little one. I decided I was going to parent without fear.

Most people described parenthood to me as an expensive deep, dark hole of little freedom, no travel, no fun, no fitness. And with widened eyes, I pledged that wasn’t going to be my attitude.

I wanted having a daughter to be fun. We had made the choice to bring her into the world, so I was going to make the choice for her to enjoy it as much as she possibly could.   I didn’t want her growing up hearing hints that she kept mommy and daddy from doing the things they loved, so I decided before she even arrived that we were going to stay as mobile as we possibly could. I didn’t know what that was going to look like, but I was going to make it happen. I wasn’t going to let fear stop me from living our *dream* life.  And I certainly didn’t want to teach my daughter to let fear run her life.

From day one with her, we’ve pushed our limits with how much we think we are able to do with her, and every time, she’s surprised us. We’ve traveled with her all over the world, and she’s handled it like a champion…and loved it.

On Saturday, she and I went hiking for the first time alone. We usually save our hiking adventures for Samuel, but he had to work on Saturday, so I decided I was going to attempt the hike alone with her. It was a close, easy hike at Twin Falls, so I could just bail at any point if it didn’t go well.  I wanted to see not only how she would do without my husband’s interactions with her, but also how I would do mentally and physically carrying her up and down the trail by myself vs handing her off to Samuel halfway through the trek.  It was a beautiful experience. It pushed me physically, and it was a wonderful bonding experience for the two of us. We “chatted” up the mountain, pointing out leaves, the stream, rocks. She was super interactive and very excited about every aspect of the trek. I came away from the 5 mile adventure energized, both from the hike and the feeling of accomplishment that the two of us were able to go hiking on our own and actually have a great time together.

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By Sunday, my mind was churning with all kinds of new possibilities for potential day hiking trips for us during the week. Mount Rainier National Park kept going through my mind. It’s one of my favorite places to hike, but it’s usually packed on the weekends when we are able to go with Samuel. The trails tend to be overloaded with people, and there’s nothing worse than trying to find a bit of serenity on an overloaded trail; however, if Isla and I could go on a week day, there would be half the people.

But a fearful little voice in the back of my head asked if I were pushing the limit. It was a 2 hour drive there, and any of the hikes I would want to do would be at least 3 to 4 hours, followed by the 2 hour drive home. It would be a long day. It could have potential outstanding rewards, but it could also be full of mishaps. I debated it over and over in my head. There are hundreds of little hikes close to home I could go on, but my mind was pricked with the idea of Rainier. But now that I knew I could handle the hike alone with her, I had to go.

Go big or go home…that stupid motto. I live by that motto.

We left Tuesday morning around 8am and drove to Mt. Rainier. It was a beautiful clear day and the mountain loomed in the distance, calling us. Isla excitedly pointed out mountains and lakes on the drive. Since we moved to Redmond, Washington earlier this year and have been hiking regularly, Isla has become very interested in mountains and bodies of water. She gets excited and points every time she sees one, making my mama and nature heart swell with pride and joy.

I chose to go to Sunrise in the northeastern corner of the park at 6400ft elevation. It is the highest place you can drive in the park to picnic with several trails leading up into the mountains and meadows. It’s a drier and less popular place than Paradise but still packed with beauty. We took Sourdough Ridge Trail to Dege Peak to chase some stunning views for lunch. Isla immediately pointed out the mountain in the distance, and was fascinated by all of the flowers and butterflies on the ridge trail. The final .3 trek up to Dege Peak where it breaks from the ridge was steep and rocky but manageable even with her on my back. As soon as we turned the final corner for the view, I was struck with amazement and yelled to Isla that we were queens of the world. I couldn’t help myself. The 360 degree view from Dege Peak is phenomenal. It takes your breath away the minute you arrive. You realize just how small you are and how big the world is. And who doesn’t need a reality check every now and then? My heart surged with joy. I was so glad I took Isla up there, and I chastised myself for even doubting my wanting to come. It was such a special moment for the two of us that I will cherish for years to come. It was the first time the two of us scaled a peak by ourselves, and I’ll tell her about it over and over again. I’ll tell her about how many butterflies we saw and how many flowers she touched. I’ll tell her how we ate our sandwiches while we took in the view, and she bravely swatted at bees. And I’ll tell her that fear doesn’t have a place when it comes to adventures for the two of us.

 

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What are you fearing as a parent? What are you limiting yourself to with your children because you’re afraid?

It doesn’t have to be something crazy like scaling a mountain…I’ve been pushing the limit for a while now.  It could be something as simple as a family vacation with a longer car drive, or a restaurant outing, or a park outing.

Believe it or not, I used to be fearful of driving in the car with her because she would scream and scream in her car seat. Yes, just running to the grocery store with her gave me anxiety, but then one day I decided that I wasn’t going to let my fear stop me from living out basic simple life chores. Our grocery trips turned into bigger trips. And she finally stopped crying in the car. We overcame the fear and hassle of restaurants, air travel, and long car rides by just doing it. Every time, we tried a little of something, and then we would try more and more until it became second nature to her. Now when Isla sees an airplane in the sky, she points to herself because she wants to get on it. She brings our suitcases out into the kitchen because she wants to go on trips. She loves her hiking backpack. And she actually gets excited by car trips.

Before I had Isla, I had no idea what I was getting into as a parent. No one does. I was scared, scared I wouldn’t be able to go and do, but I couldn’t have been more wrong. The life we’ve made with her is nothing like I originally envisioned, but it has turned into something way more beautiful than I could ever have imagined. I have the best travel buddy. I love watching her explore and conquer new things. I can’t believe how much we are able to do with her just because I dare to ask myself, “why not?”  I’m grateful for every day the Lord has blessed me with her because she’s made life grander. Seeing our adventures through her eyes as made them that much more spectacular. God knew exactly what I needed in a daughter. She’s fearless, full of energy and full of life. She’s up for everything I throw at her, and I’m up for everything she throws at me…(most of the time).

In the last two years, I have done more with Isla than I ever thought was possible. She’s been on 15 or more airplanes. She’s been on bus rides around Spain and boat rides around Venice. She’s played on beaches from Florida to Hawaii. She’s hiked trails and mountains from the United Kingdom to Washington State. She’s paddle boarded, cycled, and ridden a pony in between. And let’s not forget the cross-country road trip (yes, all 3,000 miles) she handled like a boss at 18 months old. She’s done all of this with a giant smile plastered on her face. She may not remember all of this, but I am convinced all of this is impacting her as she is growing up. I truly believe exposing her to so many different things at a young age will encourage her explorer heart and make her a stronger and less fearful adult. So if you think you can’t travel with your little one, think again.

Every time I’ve pushed myself as a parent, it’s made me feel stronger as her mom and as a woman. It’s built confidence in her and myself. I look forward to what the two of us will conquer today, tomorrow, and next week. It’s been an adventure with her, more than I ever dreamed having a child would be.

So mamas (and dads), I encourage you to get out there with your little ones. You can do so much more with them than you realize. Maybe you go try that restaurant you’ve been dying to try, or maybe you plan that trip you’ve been dying to take, or maybe you just go on a nature walk with them and explore your own backyard a little more. The world is yours and teach them that its theirs too. Parent without fear. And by doing so, teach your child how to live without fear. Without fear, who knows what they’ll be able to do in this life.

Never stop exploring,

~RL

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Across the state, across the world

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The vines at Bonair Winery in Zillah, Washington – our favorite wine was their Cabernet Franc

 

Eastern Washington. If you don’t live in the state of Washington, you probably haven’t heard much about it. Washington is known for Seattle, and all that goes with that great city — the coffee, the food, Pike’s Place Market, the Space Needle, the ferries, the music scene, the view of Mt Rainier — but on the other side of the state is a land that is unique and special in it’s own right. The eastern side of Washington is arid and hot with golden brown rolling hills and blue skies that stretch for miles. It’s also wine country. With 200 plus wineries in the area of the Yakima Valley and Walla Walla County, there are countless places to while a weekend away, even with a toddler in tow. Unlike some wine destinations, the Walla Walla region isn’t snooty. Every place we visited was unique and welcoming, all eager to pour a taste of their delicious wines even with our rambunctious toddler in sight.  We found the area to be surprisingly kid friendly. A few of the places we stopped even offered up toys, soccer balls, and/or chalk for drawing to keep the little ones entertained while the adults sipped and savored — Isla wasn’t the only kid spotted on the wine tasting circuit.

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With highways lined with grape vines and fruit orchards, it’s a journey for the eyes as well as the taste buds.

From the Seattle area, it’s roughly a 3 hour drive to Yakima where the wineries and all the fun begins. We chose to stay in Walla Walla, which is roughly another hour east, but beyond the food scene, there isn’t much in the town of Walla Walla itself.  There are plenty of hotels, bed and breakfasts, or Air BNBs in the area to tickle whatever fancy or budget you have.  So pick a spot, any spot, in southeastern Washington, and you’ll be surrounded by delicious wine and food.

We start our tasting journey at the grand estate of Terra Blanca which has an entrance that has yet to be topped in this region. A wisteria-covered walkway leads to a double door fit for a giant. Thankfully the entrance isn’t misleading. The tasting is just as bold as the entrance. We shared a red tasting and were pleasantly surprised by the flavors and boldness of their staples and their blends. Their signature Onyx blend in particular blew Samuel away with its vanilla aftertaste that lingered long after the initial taste. I was drawn to their bold Malbec. We bought a bottle of both 🙂 If you’re a white fan, they do have a mix tasting available.

What makes this place even better is the Vineyard Grill that is open on the weekends from April through October.IMG_3576 The patio seating overlooks the distant red mountains and miles of grape vines. There are worst places to order delicious wood-fired pizzas and salads. You could spend hours here drinking the delicious wine and enjoying multiple courses of delicacies, making this the one and only stop in your wine journey,  but I would recommend jumping back in your car and heading farther east because there is so much more to explore.IMG_3581

From Terra Blanca, we head east on I-182 to US-12. On US-12, you will meet the Columbia River and one of my favorite views of the drive: Wallula Junction where the river curves and is dwarfed by cliffs. Coming back west, the view isn’t as grand so soak it up.

Our next stop is the winery of L’Ecole No. 41 where the venue isn’t quite as grand as Terra Blanca, but the building has history and character. It’s an old school house from 1915 where the floors creak and the windows have waves. It’s a beautiful building and it beckons to be explored. They grow and produce 100% of their own wine, and you can taste it in their product. Their oaky chardonnay stood out for me.

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See that refundable tasting fee??? That’s another great thing about this area: if you buy a bottle, your tasting fee is refunded.

 

Next, we head south of Walla Walla to another one of my favorites, Amavi Cellars. The wine is incredible, especially their Cabernet Franc, but what is wonderful about this place is the view. From their tasting room, you get a chance to soak in the Walla Walla Valley and the Blue Mountains. The staff is lovely, and they also have a cute gift shop with all kinds of fun t-shirts to represent the area.

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The tasting room at Amavi Cellars

 

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Taking a break at Amavi Cellars

There are so many vineyards in this area, you could close your eyes, spin around and start walking toward another vineyard, and most likely have a wonderful tasting experience, but if you are ready to indulge in a culinary delight, drop everything and head to Saffron in downtown Walla Walla. The mediterranean cuisine in this small but beautiful restaurant cannot be beat. We had grilled squid, falafel, cauliflower, tahini and eggplant, and grilled lamb sausages with a side of pita, and every bite was better than the last. As they brought each dish, we couldn’t get over the intensity of the flavor, the freshness of the ingredients, or the attention to detail. Nothing is overlooked. Then when it came to dessert, we simply couldn’t choose, so we ordered the velvety mocha ice-cream for Isla, and we had the Lebanese semolina cake with honey labneh and peaches. We are still talking about it. I would drive back to Walla Walla — yes, the 4 hours back– just to eat this meal again. It was phenomenal.

After this meal, sleep. You need to savor it and dream about it.

The next morning grab lattes and pastries as well as a couple loaves of bread from the Walla Walla Baking Company, locally owned and operated. The pastries are scrumptious and the coffee is Italian, so there’s not much to complain about. Their wheat sourdough is making delicious toast at our breakfast table as I write this, so I definitely recommend checking out the bakery if you’re in the area.

This is when we head back east, (if you have more time, by all means stay and try as many of the unique wineries as you can safely handle) but there are still several delicious places to stop on the way back including the Chukar Cherry headquarters in Prosser, Washington. If you like chocolate, just don’t think about it. You’re stopping. They have all combinations of dried cherries and nuts covered in milk, dark, and white chocolate, as well as some of the best trail mix selections out there. Dried cherries with pistachios, almonds and dark chocolate chunks? Yes, please.

Next head to Silver Lake winery that has a fun venue for adults and children. For parents, this is where you can really take a deep breath and relax. There is a big grassy play area with soccer balls and corn hole with picnic tables for lounging and sipping, and  let’s not forget the view. It’s a stunning picture of the Yakima Valley with miles of grape vines. Just park it here for as long as you need to.

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A great place to end the journey back to the Seattle area (especially on a hot summer day) is at Treveri Cellars. They specialize in sparkling wines, from dry to sweet, white to red, and their tastings are free! You can’t beat that. Delicious sparkling wine for free —  what’s not to love? They also have a grill area where we ordered a delicious burger and fries for lunch.  I particularly fell in love with the Sparkling Riesling and ended up having a glass which was a refreshing end to our 90F+ day!

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Isla wanted mama to have a flower

 

Sadly that’s a wrap on our weekend escape to the Walla Walla and Yakima Valley wine region. It was only a four hour drive across the state, but it truly felt like we were in a different country. At times, it reminded us of Israel or the desert in Arizona, and of course there were many moments when thoughts of Tuscany rolled through our minds. But while Walla Walla Valley may recall these very diverse places, it is still a unique place with its own charm and flavor. I encourage you to take the time to venture down her dusty paths around her vineyards and orchards, sip her wine and taste her fruits because you never know what you might find.

Never stop exploring ~ Happy Travels

~RL

 

 

 

Be Still

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View from Deception Pass Bridge

Over the weekend, the three of us went hiking around Deception Pass State Park on Whidbey Island.  For those of you who haven’t been, it’s a jaw-dropping view when you turn the corner and step out on the bridge. You realize just how small you are staring out over the water. I don’t have a fear of heights, but the drop off this bridge made me hold Isla a little tighter.

After our hike along the Goose Rock Perimeter Trail, we were tired and a little hungry. We were close to getting into our car and driving to our next destination for lunch, but then we saw the beach below the bridge and decided to head down to take a picture or two. We decided to let Isla run free on the beach. Normally, we avoid taking her out of the backpack until we are done for the day but decided to make an exception and give her a little time to burn some energy off post hike.

She ran around, rejoicing at being set free. We took our pictures and checked our watches to see if we were “on schedule” to head back to the car, our minds already moving on to the next stop on our day trip. Isla started throwing pebbles into the water, smiling and giggling at the splash. Samuel skipped rocks across the river, something he probably hasn’t done in years. Isla threw more pebbles in and clapped. Samuel skipped another rock, and she got excited.

We are so used to being run by the clock, it’s hard to turn that notion off, even on the weekends. But watching Isla laugh at the smallest splash of water, suddenly made time slow down. I took a deep breath and felt my muscles relax. The sun came out, and I slipped my jacket off, soaking up the warm rays. Why were we in a hurry? It was Saturday. We technically didn’t have anywhere we were supposed to be. Lunch could wait. And as I was thinking it, Samuel looked up at me and said, “It’s nice that Isla slows us down a little bit. We are actually getting to enjoy this.” He skipped another rock.

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The Bible doesn’t say: “rush and know that I am God.” Psalms 46:10a says, “Be still, and know that I am God.” (ESV)

Be still. Go slowly. Take a breath.

Why do those commands feel so burdensome?

When I’m told to “Be Still,” I feel as if someone is tying my hands down with rope. I’m always wanting to go, go, go; do, do, do; see, see, see. I’m bad at doing anything slowly.

But ultimately when we rush through everything, we are missing out. We are missing out on God’s creations. His moments. His gifts to us.

I have a tendency to rush. And then I married a man who is almost as fast as me. Together, we are always moving, ready for the next challenge, next place, next thing. We’ve never been great at lingering anywhere.

And then we had our daughter.

Having a child slows you down. It’s just a fact. People can tell you that before you have kids, but you don’t really understand to what degree a child slows you down until you’re in the thick of getting them ready for the 2nd or 3rd time in a morning to leave the house. Everything takes longer because you’re managing them as well as yourself. There are diapers, multiple wardrobe changes, snacks, a few tantrums, strollers, more diapers, messes, car seats.

Children don’t rush. They like to meander about, picking up every little flower, rock, or wrapper that catches their attention. Attempting to be in a hurry with a child is a joke, and you’re not the one laughing.

But you know what? I believe children are meant to slow us down. It’s like God knew we would forget to slow down as adults, so he gifted us with tiny humans to remind us to slow down. As hard as it can be at times, it’s a blessing to take a step back from the nonstop rush of adult life and just be still for a moment.

Raising a child absolutely slows you down, but only if you’re doing it right.

 

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This moment on the beach with my daughter was a little reminder. It was God’s way of telling me to slow down. Take it in. Enjoy these moments with her. Stop checking my watch every few minutes, stop checking my phone for directions.

It was a reminder of a truth I hold to, but often forget in the busyness of life: rushing is not conducive to wandering. Wandering requires an artful form of slowing down. To truly wander, I have to take it all in, absorb it, let a place infuse me with its essence.

To truly enjoy it, I have to be still.

 

The Stuff of the American Dream.

We were in our forever home: 5 bedrooms, 12 acres, swimming pool in the backyard, settled down with our 18 month old daughter and our family close by. My husband worked from home at job he had been in for 12 years. We had a routine. We did DIY projects and church on the weekends. We painted bedrooms, hung pictures on the walls, rearranged furniture. Dusted the pictures, cleaned the bathrooms, thought of more projects, cut the grass. We were living the life that most people start planning when they get married, the life that most Americans label as the “American Dream.”

We had moved five times over our 6 years of marriage on our way to this “American Dream,” big moves both across the state of North Carolina and across the country. We had lived in an apartment in downtown Seattle, Washington. We had lived at a beach house in North Carolina. We had lived in the suburbs of Apex, North Carolina. And we were now living in the country in East Bend, North Carolina. We had done it all. Every time we moved, we moved into a bigger place, and naturally accumulated more stuff. We collected more kitchen gear, more books, more furniture, more pictures. And then the baby gear came, and all the toys that followed. And we just had more and more and more stuff.

The funny thing about “stuff” is that you have to tend to it. You obsess over it if you can’t find it, you get upset if it breaks, you get tired of it when its old. Suddenly your “prized” stuff is taking up the space you need for the newer stuff. It’s a never ending cycle. Stuff just takes up your time.

I started asking myself what we were doing with our lives. This endless cycle of maintenance on our “stuff” was leaving me unfulfilled, week after week. I dreamed of traveling and minimalistic living. I dreamed of taking back my weekends and spending them exploring cities, restaurants, museums, hiking with my daughter and showing her the world. I wanted more time to wander. And I wanted to teach her how to both wander  about and wonder at the world. But all of our stuff was in the way.

Parallel to my struggles, my husband was growing restless in his job. Like me, Samuel always needs a mountain to climb, just a different type of mountain. So when a Microsoft recruiter reached out to him asking if he were willing to relocate to Redmond, Washington for a Commercial Software Engineering position, we both jumped at the opportunity.

But what to do with all of our stuff? It wouldn’t/couldn’t fit into the 2 bedroom apartment we would be moving into, close to Samuel’s office. We decided to do something crazy and only move with whatever would fit in the back of Samuel’s truck and buy the minimal furniture we would need in the apartment once we got there. Our haul boiled down to 7 rubbermaid boxes, four suitcases, and a basket of toys and books for Isla. That’s it.

You would think packing for that would be incredibly difficult. It was at first, and then it wasn’t. We walked through each room of our house and asked ourselves what we really needed on a daily basis. It turns out, not that much. We had accumulated so much stuff over the years just because we had an empty space to fill. Now, we were about to have a quarter of that space.

All the random trinkets we had collected seemed pointless. My closet full of clothes and shoes seemed excessive. My bookcases crammed full of books…well, I’m a writer, so we’ll excuse the books. The basement and the garage full of miscellaneous objects suddenly had us scratching our heads. Why did we ever think it was a good idea to buy half of this stuff in the first place? Suddenly all of our glorious “stuff” was just excess. All the furniture and decorations I had spent months hunting for was now going to be left behind…because my giant chesterfield bed wasn’t going to fit in an apartment. And I was weirdly ok with it.

We are now in a 1200 sqft apartment in downtown Redmond which couldn’t be any further from the life we were leading back in East Bend, NC. Our apartment is now “furnished.” We have a table and chairs, a couch, a tv. But our mattress is on the floor and a rubbermaid box is my makeshift nightstand for now. The old me would have panicked and fretted over this for days on end searching for the perfect nightstand or the perfect bed frame, but I’ve already done all that before, and I chose to leave the perfect bed back at our home in East Bend. The new nightstand will come to me, eventually. For now the rubbermaid box does just fine holding my kindle and phone.

 

Don’t get me wrong, I still love my stuff. I miss a lot of my comforts, but I’m also learning I really didn’t need most of it. I thought I did. I thought I needed all 50 or so of the coffee cups I had collected over the years. Turns out, we can get by with just 5 or so. I thought I needed all the stuff in that big house, or I wouldn’t have bought it, but in the end the stuff didn’t make us happy. Samuel and I have learned through many trial and errors in our seven years together that we both value experiences over possessions. It finally took us being overwhelmed and overworked with all of our stuff to decide to put it into practice.

We wonder why we spent so much money over the years on things that are now collecting dust or causing us headaches. Before we ever bought our first house, we had a long conversation about whether we should buy a house and settle down, or if we should live lightly and travel more. We unfortunately chose the safe option and bought a 4 bedroom house that we never needed. Thankfully, it was a good investment, but ultimately, we wish we would have squashed the notion that we had to settle down at that point in our life to chase what we thought was the “American Dream.”

We may have had one version of the “American dream,” but it wasn’t the version for us. Realizing that, we decided to change our course of direction because life is simply too short. More than anything, I wanted to set an example for my daughter to chase what she will eventually dream about. My and Samuel’s dream involves less things and more experiences, especially with our daughter.

Packing up and leaving everything was hard. Even though we wanted this life, it was hard leaving everything behind including both of our families whom we love deeply. But Samuel and I both wanted more by owning less, and Samuel’s new job at Microsoft just so happens to be in one of the coolest parts of the country for those with explorer hearts.  Instead of  being bogged down with house work and yard work and all the work related to our “stuff,” we plan to spend every weekend this summer hiking and exploring the PNW. Throughout the week, Isla and I explore walking trails, coffee shops, bakeries, and her favorite Bubble Tea. IMG_1185

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Hiking Cougar Mountain

We have truly found that having less is more for us. And we’ve discovered that it’s ok to chase a dream that sounds crazy when we said it out loud. Aren’t the crazy dreams always the good ones? The things that scare us the most in life are probably the things we should be doing, right?  That’s all for now. Isla and I have a 3 mile walk to go on because…why not? It’s a beautiful day, and I don’t have a single thing I need to maintain. The sun is shining, and it’s time for exploring, and for me, that’s the ultimate win. That’s my American Dream.

 

 

Why We (Should) Travel.

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Churros on a rainy day in Barcelona

I went to Spain for a churro.

Yes, it’s mostly true. I took an 8 hour plane ride with my 6 month old daughter because I wanted to eat the Spanish version of a doughnut.

Yes, there was the Dali art, the unbelievable Gaudi architecture, the exquisite paella, the delicious sangria, and the stunning sea views, but really I planned a trip to Barcelona because I wanted a churro dipped in chocolate. It seems almost outlandish when I say it, but really why do we travel?

Traveling is not easy. Add a child in the mix, and it’s even more complicated. But despite the early wake ups, the uncomfortable flights, the long layovers, the baggage restrictions, the international customs, and the language barriers, we still do it. Over and over and over again. The time changes, lack of sleep, crammed spaces, and foreign places beckon us from our places of comfort for small things like a churro.

We travel because we are looking for something. An idea, a feeling, an experience. We are looking for something to impact us, to temporarily, if not permanently, change us. We want that something to broaden the scope of who we are as an individual, what we think, and how we live our lives. Sometimes it’s something as important as a human rights situation we can’t understand half a world away, or it’s something as small as a pastry. We travel because we need to go and see and experience these things for ourselves. We realize that life is bigger than our own comfortable box.

Or at least that’s what we should be doing.

I’ve learned a lot about the world from getting out of my comfort zone, and while I haven’t been to nearly as many places as I would like or know a quarter of what there is to know about the world, I can definitely look back and see how travel has reshaped how I think and what I believe as an adult.

I didn’t understand parts of the Israeli-Palestinian politics until I went there myself. I didn’t realize how many children are begging on the streets in Argentina until I visited and walked the streets myself. I didn’t understand how bad the economy was in Italy until I went there myself.  I didn’t understand how native Hawaiians feel about people from the mainland until I went there and asked them myself. I didn’t know how the Czech Republic handles women’s maternity leave and childcare until I went there and talked to parents (spoiler alert: it couldn’t be more different than our own).

And I might have originally went to Barcelona for a pastry but I got a history lesson. Barcelona might be in the country of Spain, but the region of Catalan where the city is located views itself as an independent entity. I didn’t realize just how much so until I spoke to the locals there. When the vote for independence happened later in the year, my heart was with the locals as they marched for their voices to be heard in Madrid. I followed the story closely in the papers and wondered how the people we knew were faring. When the terrorist attack happened on the very street we had walked down with our baby girl, my heart broke for those people, some of the kindest people I’ve ever encountered. Their lives and their trials were real to me because I had been there, I had experienced it myself.

It’s one of the reasons we should travel. We need to see what it’s like for others around the world. We need to walk for a day in someone else’s shoes.

We are so connected to the world now via social media, the internet, and all of our handheld devices that there is a disconnect from the reality that we are all so different. We are able to see pictures and videos from all around the world, and somehow we think we know a place without even visiting. Or we know it’s people. But we can’t. We can’t truly know anywhere until we’ve experienced it firsthand, until we’ve allowed ourselves to be engulfed by the locality of it.

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Months later, I can still taste that delightful churro. Crunchy on the outside and moist on the inside, it was surprisingly not too sweet, and it paired perfectly well with the warm bittersweet dark chocolate we were given for dipping. We stood in the rain under an umbrella indulging in what had driven us across the pond. We might have come for a doughnut but we returned with so much more: a respect for the local history and individuality, the incredible food, and the wonderful hospitality.

I am so thankful for the travels I’ve been on thus far in my life. I’m thankful for the life lessons they’ve taught me, for the people they’ve allowed me to meet.  I look forward now to showing my daughter more of the world, to introducing her to foreign things. I want her to have an understanding of the world not because she read about it in a book or a saw a picture in a magazine but because she experienced someone’s life and story for herself. She needs to tastes the churros.

It’s why I travel.

And why you should travel too.