Monday, November 21, 2016

March 2016: Joshua Tree

Hello, after a while!  Here continues my pattern of belated posting, in this case with a post that was actually completed months ago and then nearly forgotten.  I don't particularly like the saying "better late than never," but it does seem to hold for my blogging....

Quite a few months back, Andrew and I took a long weekend trip to the desert.  Even though I'd lived in LA for nearly five years, I hadn't yet made it out to Palm Springs or Joshua Tree.  The latter is a popular weekend destination for grad students in my program, some of whom head there on a yearly camping trip, but the timing has never worked out for me.  Andrew had also visited, but was game to go again.  I think my parents and I may actually have driven past the park during a road trip when I was younger, but my memories of that visit are hazy and colored with the "Are we there yet?" question mixed with the feeling of an Academic Decathlon study binder across my lap.  (That was my typical road trip reading when I was in high school.)

My point being, it was high time for me to check out Joshua Tree for myself.  With an experiment-free weekend popping up on our calendars, we booked an Airbnb in nearby Yucca Valley and drove east from LA first thing Saturday morning.

We drove first to Palm Springs, without specific plans other than walking around and getting a feel for this popular vacation destination.  Lunch at a popular local sandwich shop was our first stop, followed by a hat purchase for Andrew (that desert sun is no joke!).  There was an art festival near the southern end of the Main Street, and we browsed some whimsical, Steampunk-ish robot sculptures made from reclaimed junk parts.  Recently I've gotten more interested in art, especially ceramics and paintings, and am proud of our modest collection of pieces that all carry strong personal memories.  After the art festival, we did our due diligence at the ice cream shops along the main drag - a date shake for Andrew from Great Shakes and a pineapple coconut ice cream with Dole Whip for me from Lappert's.  After this, I concluded that pineapple coconut ice cream is simply better when eaten in a tropical place like Hawaii.  Maybe there is a climate-gustatory synergy to ice cream.

Eventually we realized that since we weren't going to lounge by a pool or shop for mid-century furniture, we had more or less exhausted our options in the downtown area.  To be fair, Palm Springs does have a well-known art museum, but we didn't feel like moving our car.  Instead, to kill time, we chose a somewhat random restaurant (called Trio) and had a drink at the bar. Around 4pm a man walked in, sat down next to us, and loudly ordered an entire bottle of Sauvignon Blanc for himself. That, we decided, could be our cue to continue on to Yucca Valley.

Our Airbnb was a tidy and surprisingly spacious bungalow in the backyard of an artist's main home. I really liked the mint green-tiled kitchen and the colorful living room furnishings.  Notably, the neighborhood - mostly single-story homes on large lots - was blissfully quiet, a welcome change from our apartment building's constant background thrumming of air-conditioners and cars with loud overtones of noisy neighbors.

That first night, we had dinner at Sam's Pizza in Joshua Tree.  This is a unique restaurant in that it serves both very good pizza and very good Indian food, making it the only restaurant that I know of to successfully bridge these two culinary genres (there is even a subcategory on the menu for "Indian pizzas") and certainly the only one for hundreds of miles around it.  We went for the Indian food and were enjoyed our okra and spinach/tofu dishes.  Service was quite slow, but I don't think anyone goes out to dinner in Joshua Tree in a hurry.

For our full day in Joshua Tree, we picked up utterly unremarkable sandwiches at a local supermarket (Stater Bros, which had some of the most unflattering fluorescent lighting I have ever seen) and got a reasonably early start into the park.  The land here is immediately jarring and does, in fact, feel like an entirely different planet.  As such, driving within the park is quite fun, as each curve brings into view a new rock formation or expanse of spiky trees.

We chose the Lost Horse Mine trail, which starts at a tiny parking area a little ways off the main road, and takes you to an abandoned silver mine.  The Joshua trees aren't at their densest here, but the scenery is even more interesting for its range of colors and plant life.

The well-maintained trail felt spacious and only lightly trafficked during late morning, with an occasional lizard moseying into the scrub.

Hiking is one of our favorite leisure activities, and when we have the benefit of a quiet trail, I like it even more.  Without other people in sight (most of the time), music, podcasts, or a strict timeline (e.g. we need to make it back to our car in time to get to brunch before it gets too busy!), the experience starts to feel remarkably intimate, and we often find ourselves in surprising conversational territory.  On this day we ended up talking about our projects quite a bit, but without the minutiae or troubleshooting on which we normally focus and fuss over.  Instead, it was with an eye to the larger ideas which get us excited, and which remind us why we keep at this science thing.

After returning to our car, we continued on to Keys View, a lookout at the highest point in the park.  Here we ate our sandwiches and then gazed out at the valley below: Palm Springs and the wind farms near it, the San Andreas Fault, Mt. San Jacinto, Mt. San Gorgonio, the Coachella Valley, and even a tiny glimpse of Mexico.

We slowly drove back out of the park, stopping at one or two rock formations and short nature walks along the way.

Having filled our quota of sun, we drove back to our bungalow and cleaned off the dust clinging to our calves and ankles.   We drank tea while watching some Aziz Ansari stand-up on Netflix.  Then I spent the rest of the afternoon sprawled on the couch, catching up on back issues of The New Yorker - an activity which, to me, feels like the height of leisure, since I normally read each issue in short snippets at the kitchen table, hurried by the usual undercurrent of Grad Student Guilt at not working.

As the sun was setting, we got back in our car and headed a bit north to Pioneertown, a fascinating enclave of an abandoned Old West film set, a couple ranches, some stalwart local residents, and the famed restaurant/music venue Pappy & Harriet's.

The sunset was gorgeous, and made even more perfect by the sight of a couple horses grazing languidly in the twilight.

Andrew had been to Pappy & Harriet's a while back to see The War On Drugs and had camped overnight in the stables.  Concerts here are made even more memorable by the small scale of the venue and the resulting casual proximity to concert attendees.  Andrew recalls his pleasant shock at walking into the concert area and finding himself just feet from one of his favorite bands as they warmed up.

We were there for dinner and the Sunday night house band, which was less impressive than The War On Drugs but still plenty of fun.  A cheerful crowd of people got up to dance, and chairs and bowls of chips were shared freely.  The food (BBQ chicken, ribs, and sides) was tasty, the atmosphere was relaxed, and a good time was had by all.

The next morning, we drove back to LA.  We have realized that with the types of experiments we work on, it's hard to plan vacations longer than three or four days without needing to shut down everything.  (We don't do "staycations" very successfully, since sitting at home means we are physically drawn to our laptops.)  So from time to time, it's wonderful to get up from our desks, temporarily leave the concrete jungle in the rear view mirror, and plunge into the stunningly different.

Monday, August 1, 2016

Winter 2015 Japan trip: Kaiseki lunch at Roan Kikunoi

When we started making plans for this trip, a kaiseki lunch or dinner was one of my gastronomical priorities.  Kyoto is particularly known for its kaiseki restaurants, a considerable number of which have two or three Michelin stars.  All kaiseki meals emphasize seasonal ingredients, artistic presentation, and a standardized series of courses, but the restaurants span a broad range of styles from the very traditional to the innovative or modern.  We chose Roan Kikunoi for its reputation (two Michelin stars and many recent rave reviews), its balance of traditional and modern style, its moderate price point, and the simple fact that we were able to get a reservation there.  Alternatives we considered were the parent restaurant Kikunoi and Kiyamachi Sakuragawa.

Most kaiseki restaurants require that your hotel make the reservation for you, as foreigners can’t book directly.  Andrew emailed our hotel a few weeks ahead (in both English and Japanese!) and they readily responded in English.  When you request the reservation you also choose your price point from the restaurant’s options, and the restaurant will in turn ask about food allergies: no melon for me and no salmon roe (ikura) for my father.  Considerable advance preparation goes into your menu based on your dietary restrictions and the chosen price point, which determines the number of courses and whether any rare or expensive ingredients are used.

The exterior of Roan Kikunoi is elegant but unassuming, facing a narrow street and a small canal, and our table was ready five minutes early.

The table was set with attractively printed menus in both English and Japanese, a welcome guide and souvenir for this adventure.  Two impeccable servers took care of our table and both of them spoke some English.  New utensils and dishware were arranged meticulously in front of us for each course, including beautiful ceramics and lacquer pieces, then removed with equal poise.  The first course was an "aperitif" of sake with yuzu fragrance, presented in tiny iridescent lacquered bowls that I forgot to photograph.

Amuse bouche: Yuba (tofu skin) with pickled and dried sea cucumber.  The gold round at right is the upturned lid for the vessel.

Appetizers (clockwise from top left): Smoked salmon with camellia flower, grey mullet roe rolled in squid, cod roe terrine with broccoli rabe, miso-marinated tofu with pomegranate seeds, sea cucumber and turnip, and lotus root stuffed with fresh mustard.  This was one of the most memorable courses for the stunning clarity of flavors and how they played off of each other, such as the sharpness of mustard blanketed by the crisp sweetness of the lotus root.

Sashimi: Tai (red sea bream) with chrysanthemum petals and fresh wasabi, buri (amberjack) with Kyoto local radish.  Such fresh fish!  The sea bream was translucent and seductively smooth.

Steamed dish: Guji (red tilefish) steamed with grated turnip, wood ear mushroom, lily bulb, Mitsuba (Japanese parsley), fresh uni (sea urchin) scallop, gingko nuts, wasabi.  It looked like the serving vessels were individually steamed after the ingredients were carefully assembled, since they fell apart with a light touch of the spoon.

Hot pot: Duck breast, duck meatballs, Sansho pepper, and green onion in a savory-sweet broth.  Rich but also clean-tasting.

Rice with ikura and Kintoki carrot (a red Japanese varietal) soup, served with pickles and tea.  For my father, the salmon roe in the rice was replaced with carrot.  Needless to say, the rice was perfectly cooked and seasoned.  Elegant simplicity.  There was plenty more rice left in the cooking vessel, so the server formed the leftovers into onigiri (rice balls) for us to take away.

Dessert of persimmon with yuzu sorbet and tea jelly.

After we finished luxuriating over this meal and paid the bill, head chef Yoshihiro Murata himself came out and thanked us.  We told him what a spectacular meal this was, thanked him, and were graciously bowed out of the restaurant.

It has been over seven months, but I still remember the harmonious flavors and textures, as well as the beautiful presentations.  This was absolutely a bucket-list experience and I'm so glad my parents, Andrew and I got to experience it together.

Saturday, July 23, 2016

This November

apolitical (adjective) (definition from Merriam-Webster)
1:  having no interest or involvement in political affairs; also :  having an aversion to politics or political affairs
2:  having no political significance

For much of my life I thought of myself as relatively apolitical, but this has changed over the past few years.  As a loved one recently pointed out to me, it is a privilege to be able to think of oneself as apolitical, for it implies some ability to be detached from - insulated from - the realities and inequities of the world.  I avoid venturing into the morass that is social media politics, and I also intend to keep my blog relatively free of politics.  That does not mean that I do not have strong opinions.

The night that President Barack Obama was elected in 2008 was one of the most memorable of my life.  It was the fall of my junior year.  I was sitting in my dorm room watching the returns on my computer screen and, with my door open, simultaneously hearing the TV coverage being played in the lounge down the hall.  Right after the election was called, I remember the elation that flooded our building and the tears of two black dorm-mates as they ran past cheering, arms around each other.  I remember feeling that this election result was important to them on a level that I myself would never fully understand, but could respect and be grateful for, and that it helped me believe in greater possibilities.  I remember walking into the lounge and standing with my fellow students as the Obama family walked onto the stage in Chicago, an image of solidarity, love, and renewed optimism.  At that moment I realized that this election was perhaps the most important political event that my generation had experienced.  I will miss President and Mrs. Obama very much.

This year's presidential election is the one for which I am most fired up.  As I read the news and hear about all the outrageous statements made by various politicians, I feel nostalgic for the candidacies of Senator John McCain and Governor Mitt Romney.  I re-watch The West Wing and wish that Arnie Vinick was a real person who could run for president.  I vacillate between anger, indignation, and resolve, and even though the political optimism I felt in 2008 is a memory, I still feel hopeful for a better world.

I am proud to be an American citizen who is also a woman, a Chinese-American immigrant and daughter of immigrants, a scientist, and a future physician.  My deep-seated belief is that our country needs a president who is experienced and tough, but compassionate and classy; a president who balances idealism with practicality, and understands the realities of American politics.  We need a president who values the contributions of immigrants in America, and who believes in women's rights, reproductive rights, LGBT rights, high-quality healthcare and education for all, and biomedical and basic science research.

I encourage everyone to think deeply and critically about what is at stake in this election, to partake in civil discourse about our beliefs, to volunteer for the campaign you believe in, and most importantly, to vote on November 8.

Thursday, July 21, 2016

Winter 2015 Japan trip, day 3: Torii, castle, and temple in Kyoto

Saturday, December 26: Full day in Kyoto

Fushimi Inari-taisha is the iconic mountainside shrine with thousands of orange torii gates along the trail.  Inari is the patron spirit of "fertility, rice, tea, sake, agriculture, industry and general prosperity and worldly success" (Wikipedia) and foxes are its messengers, so fox statues and statuettes are everywhere.  Because this is a shrine for business, the torii gates are sponsored by corporations and range in size depending on the size of the donation.

Sponsor information on the backs of the torii

The shrine has its own train stop south of the city center.  Based on our experience, I highly recommend going first thing in the morning (i.e. before 9am) to beat the tourist rush and enjoy a more peaceful trail experience; when we left mid-morning, we saw a stream of tourists entering.  We spent about 1-1/2 hrs there and hiked 2/3 of the way up the mountain on the loop trail.

(by Andrew)
Seen in the window
View from the lookout about 2/3 of the way up
We went up the main path with the most torii gates and then, on the way down, took the less-popular branch of the trail (go to the right side when facing downhill at the main branch point).  This branch also brings you back to the main entrance, but through a more residential area that features hundreds of little shrines with little torii gates, fascinating in their own right.

After returning to the city center, we had enough time left in the morning to visit Nijo Castle, a 17th-century stronghold with large wooden buildings and sprawling grounds.  We weren't able to go inside the buildings on this day, but still enjoyed strolling around the complex.

Main gate
Entrance into inner keep

Inner moat
Around 1:00pm we took a taxi to Roan Kikunoi for a kaiseki lunch, which was incredible and deserves a post of its own.

To walk off the lunch we visited Ginkaku-ji, the temple of the “silver pavilion.”  It is the sister temple to Kinkaku-ji, the famous gold-covered temple usually seen on Kyoto postcards, but more subdued in its beauty.  Andrew thinks that while Kinkaku-ji is the most famous, Ginkaku-ji is perhaps better to visit because of its subtlety, and because the garden is more walkable.  I have only visited the latter, but agree that it was very worthwhile.

Typically meticulous groundskeeping

We were still so full from lunch that we skipped dinner, save for a few bites of onigiri made from the leftover kaiseki rice course.

We didn’t get to but considered: Arashiyama Bamboo Grove

Monday, July 18, 2016

Winter 2015 Japan trip, day 2: Christmas in Kyoto

Kyoto was by far my favorite city during this trip.  This wasn't surprising to me, given what I had read about it before our trip, and how Andrew had fondly described it, but I was still struck by the city's sheer loveliness.  Known for its cultural and historical value as a former imperial capital, Kyoto survived the fire bombings that flattened many other cities during World War II, including Tokyo and Osaka.  (In fact, Kyoto had been on the shortlist of targets for atomic bombings, but Nagasaki was substituted).  As a result, the city is a blend of well-preserved traditional architecture and landscape design with modern Japanse efficiency.

Friday, December 25: Tokyo to Kyoto via bullet train

The train ride on the JR Central Shinkansen Nozomi was about three hours.  The Nozomi Superexpress is the fastest option between the two cities and has an appropriately impressive name, announced mellifluously in the onboard welcome message.  We chose regular-class tickets (not the first-class "green car" service) and had clean, comfortable reclining seats with plenty of legroom, handy purse hooks next to the large picture windows, overhead luggage racks, space for larger luggage at the end of the car, and an adorable refreshments trolley (pushed by a very nice lady) that comes by every 45 minutes or so.  You can have ice cream on the train!  Needless to say, JR Shinkansen has Amtrak beat.

Our hotel in Kyoto was the Hotel Gimmond, a Western-style hotel with an elegant (if dated) lobby.  After dropping our bags and eating a quick onigiri lunch from the adjacent Lawson's, we took a taxi to the Higashiyama district.  This is arguably the most famous sightseeing district in Kyoto, filled with beautiful temples, shrines, and a blend of residential and ryokan/hotel buildings.

Christmas ice creams!

Kiyomizu-dera is a beautiful Buddhist temple with massive wooden buildings, constructed in the 17th century, and an important religious site.  Its wood-beamed construction has zero nails!

(by Andrew)
(by Andrew)

After walking back down the hill slightly and purchasing some shichimi togarashi - a commonly used seven-spice blend - we turned north and stopped in at Inoda Coffee.  This is an old-school establishment with a dark wood-beamed interior. high ceiling, and enormous charm.  White-gloved servers and staff prepare drink orders and precisely de-crust sandwiches in an open kitchen with stainless steel kettles and implements.  Drinks are served in porcelain cups and tall glasses, with a proprietary sugar cube placed on the saucer.  The cafe has a huge window overlooking a small garden.  The one downside is that smoking is allowed inside, but even so, I loved this place.

We continued north and happened upon Kodai-ji temple, which was nearly devoid of other visitors after we walked past the staircase entrance.

The large Zen garden and hillside paths were focal points of the landscaping.

There are many unexpectedly stunning spots in this district.  I could easily have spent more days here.

Other tourists with holiday cheer

Eventually we ended up at the Philosopher’s Path, so named for some (20th century) philosophy professor who would walk along the little canal every day.   Kaze-no-yakata is an old shop located right on the Philosopher's Path and specializes in beautiful round ornaments made of colored thread.  Andrew bought a small trio of these ornaments on one of his previous trips and was pleased to see that the shop was still there this time.

Another shop we particularly liked was Dot Dot Kyoto, which is set out of the way of most tourist traffic and has a slight hipster vibe.

Eventually we got tired of walking, caught a taxi back to our hotel, and walked five minutes to Ippudo Ramen for dinner.  This was so, so good, and made even the "best" ramen in LA seem vastly inferior.  The broth was deliciously but not cloyingly rich, and the perfect balance of savory without being too salty (my primary complaint with ramen in the U.S.).  The restaurant was very busy, but seats opened up quickly, ramen being a high-turnover service.  Our party of four had only a short wait for counter seats.