32,831 miles later

About eight months ago, we decided to put our regular lives on hold for a brief period and venture out to see the world again. We were heartsick and weary and in desperate need of a break from pretty much everything except each other. So we gave away our chickens, threw a few clothes in a backpack and locked up our house. And thus it happened that on a chilly January day, we left Colorado for Japan.

Garden Snow 01


Tokyo Fuji sunset 01 sml


In Japan, we visited monkeys in hot tubs and worked on farms. We ate ramen and tempura and so many other delicious things. We walked Tokyo and Kyoto and fell deeply, completely in love with a country so strange and different and welcoming and lovely that we cannot wait to return.

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New Zealand

From Japan, we flew to New Zealand. We rented a ragged campervan and drove the length and breadth of the country. We stumbled on an old sheep station and did some stunning walks and learned how macadamia nuts grow. And we discovered that we are perfectly content to live in a campervan…and we plan to do that again soon, too.

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After New Zealand, we were off to southeast Asia. We started in Cambodia with Angkor Wat and we also saw interesting things being made, like incense and rice noodles and tofu. Oh, and it was hot. (At least we thought so until we got to India, where we learned what heat really is.)

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We traveled overland to Vietnam, where we jumped on trains, dodged motorbikes, devoured street food and struggled to learn more about a conflicted country with a conflicted history.

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Then it was time for a brief rest in Thailand; we went to more markets and bicycled through rice paddies and learned how to make handmade paper. We didn’t ride any elephants but we loved our time on the Banana Pancake Trail.

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No matter what, we weren’t ready for the heat and noise and crush and total sensory assault that is India. We’ve never traveled anywhere that we loved and hated in equal measure – sometimes in the exact same moment – and this complicated country has for certain gotten under our skin. We’ll be back here, too, and much better prepared this time.

Madrid palace 01


We flew from India to England, with a brief jaunt to gorgeous Madrid. This is one hell of a city…we miss drinking canas and eating jamón y queso at 2AM with hundreds of other people in the city’s beautiful plazas.

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We finished with some restorative time in the Midlands’ lush, rolling hills, where the innumerable shades of intense green defy belief. Hours of walking with only cows and sheep for company and then perhaps a brief stop at the local pub for a pint of Tiger. It’s not the worst way to spend a day.

Denver Moon


And that brings us to now. We’ve been home for about three weeks and we’re struggling to adjust. This is not the country we left; it has been immensely challenging to reconcile the joy and freedom and lovely people of our travels with the rage and divisiveness and fear currently smothering all of us like a dense fog. But we’re back on our bikes, we’re volunteering on a goat farm and we’ve planted our garden. And this fall, we’ll be out on the road again to search for our farm property in earnest. Thanks for joining us on our travels over these past months and please stay tuned, friends, as our journey has just begun. We’re off to find Quiet Farm.

Scenes from Tokyo

For our final week in Japan, we tackled the world’s largest metropolitan area. Tokyo has 13 million people in its center and about 33 million when the surrounding areas are included. Even with our travel experience in cities like Paris, London and New York, this city is a bit overwhelming. It definitely takes a couple of days to get oriented and to feel comfortable, and even then it can still knock you for six. Below please find some of N’s favorite photos from our week.


Tokyo is an often dizzying mix of ancient and modern.


Shrines and skyscrapers, kimonos and street fashion: a constant study in contrast.


Welcome to one of the world’s most efficient (and clean) public transport systems.


Installed in 1958, Tokyo Tower bested the Eiffel Tower by thirteen meters. One can imagine the French were none too pleased by this.


The legendary Shibuya “scramble crossing,” part one…


…and part two, taken seconds later.


We went to a traditional Shinto wedding! Well, not really. We visited Meiji Shrine on a Saturday and it’s an extremely popular wedding spot. Now N can legitimately claim that he is an international wedding photographer! 


The enormous lantern at Senso-ji Temple.


Even amidst all the chaos and neon, peaceful places exist.


It is virtually impossible to convey the visual impact of Tokyo at night.


A Nissan 2020 concept car in a showroom in Ginza district. The high-end area is famous for new product launches for everything from cars to fashion to electronics. 


Even when Tokyo infuriates, it also manages to delight. These steps at Akasaka Station are actually TV screens with a constantly changing display. Stumbling (sometimes literally) upon public art like this is one of the joys of travel.


Street art on a hotel near Tsukiji Fish Market.


The Rainbow Bridge connects Tokyo and Odaiba and is illuminated in different colors according to season or holiday.


There is actually a pedestrian walkway along the Rainbow Bridge! It takes about thirty minutes to cross the bridge on foot.


Iconic Mount Fuji…with Tokyo’s haze, it’s more difficult to see than one might expect.


N waited for days to take these skyline photos from the SkyDeck at Roppongi Hills. It’s the only observation deck in the city that isn’t enclosed by glass; as such, it’s frequently closed due to high winds. 


And with this, we leave Japan behind. See you in New Zealand!

Temples and shrines

There are few more iconic images of Japan than the ubiquitous temples and shrines found all over the country. Certain places, like Kyoto, have one around every corner, but even in Tokyo’s Blade Runner landscape they turn up in the most unexpected places. The temples are Buddhist and the shrines are Shinto, and in Japan these two primary religions co-exist peacefully. To paraphrase a lovely book I read about pre-Western Japan during our travels, Christianity would have done better here if they’d just installed gorgeous churches next to these temples and shrines. Essentially, these are as much about beauty, calm and aesthetics as they are about religion, and as such everyone is welcome, regardless of their beliefs.


Nonomiya Shrine, Arashiyama.


Matsuo-taisha Shrine, Arashiyama.


Ceremonial sake barrels at Matsuo-taisha Shrine. This shrine is a favorite pilgrimage site for sake brewers to pray for the success of their vintages.


Fushimi Inari-taisha Shrine, Kyoto.


The summit of Fushimi Inari-taisha Shrine.


When you approach a Shinto shrine, you first throw a coin into the offering box. Then you ring a bell like the one above to summon the spirits. Bow twice, clap your hands twice, focus on your prayer in your mind, then bow once more.


Yasaka Shrine, Gion District, Kyoto.


Most of the shrines and temples have gorgeous paper lanterns that are illuminated at night.


Osugi Shrine, Inishiki City, Ibaraki. We were taken to visit this shrine by Mitsuru-san, the owner of our second farmstay.


Though common themes could be seen, all of the shrines and temples we visited had incredibly unique details.


When you enter temple grounds, you wash your hands and rinse out your mouth from a ceremonial fountain.


We frequently came across statues with hand-knitted caps, scarves and cowls. A little research indicated that these are Jizo statues, named for the protector of children; he reverently guides their souls into the afterlife. The statues are placed on temple grounds to honor deceased children.


The main entrance gate at Meiji Shrine in Tokyo. The shrine is in a large leafy park which is a wonderful oasis of green in this frenetic city.


Meiji Shrine, Tokyo. The large drums are used for summoning the spirits.


Ravens aren’t necessarily malevolent in Japanese culture as they are in Western cultures; this bird is guarding wooden prayer placards at Meiji Shrine.

These varied and beautiful sites were such a joy to discover as we traveled around Japan, and their interesting architectural details and rich symbolism made them a highlight of our month there.







Here fishy, fishy


Tsukiji Fish Market is definitely not dressed up to impress tourists.

It’s our last week in Japan and we’re tackling Tokyo, district by district. We woke up at 4AM to jump on the first train out to Tsukiji Fish Market, the largest wholesale seafood market in the world. We opted not to attend the famous tuna auction, mostly because you have to arrive by about 2AM via expensive taxi in order to queue for the limited tickets available to tourists. Even without the tuna auction, though, the market is pretty spectacular.


Please stay out of the way…these guys move fast.


Seafood arrives here from all over the world. Most of the crew starts work between 2 and 3AM each day the market is open.

Tsukiji is made up of two markets – the inner market holds all the wholesale vendors and is off-limits to the public except for between about 5 and 6:30AM for those with tickets to the auction. The outer market is entirely open to the public and contains dozens of small restaurants, plus stalls selling kitchen equipment and other goods.


Stalls selling kitchen equipment and other sundries line the outer market.


Of course you can still smoke here…we’re in Japan.

Make no mistake – this is a working market, and tourists are barely tolerated. The market has closed to tourists entirely on a number of occasions, thanks to safety concerns and complaints from vendors, but is currently open. You’re expected to pay close attention to the carts, forklifts, trucks and other machinery moving at high speed around the market, and basically stay out of the way.


The grittiness of the fish market contrasts with shiny modern skyscrapers.

Tsukiji Market sits on prime Tokyo real estate just outside Ginza, one of the city’s fanciest shopping districts. Land here is more valuable than anywhere else in the world; as such, the market was scheduled to move in November 2016 in preparation for the 2020 Olympics. This was a highly unpopular decision, as many of these stalls (and their inhabitants!) have been in place for decades. In August 2016, the move was postponed; the reclaimed land where the market is to relocate is reportedly heavily polluted, and corruption allegations have been tossed around. Relocating a market of this size is a massive undertaking and it will be interesting to see if and when it actually occurs.



The fish for sale is always presented beautifully, and of course on plenty of fresh ice.

Tsukiji doesn’t just sell fish, though that’s what it’s best known for. There are stands with fruit, vegetables and exotic mushrooms too. Earlier on our trip I commented about the exorbitant cost of fruits and vegetables here; have a close look at the cantaloupes in the photo below – they’re priced at 1800 yen, or about $16 each. And they’re on sale! You can save if you buy the whole box of six for about $87. At a fancy food hall later that day, we saw melons nestled gently into little presentation crates and selling for about $150, and individual strawberries for $5 each. Perfect fruit are a popular gift here.


Want an orange? They’re between $3 and $4.50 each, depending on the variety.


An interesting array of herbs, flowers and other decorative garnishes.


One of the numerous small “restaurants” that line the outer market. You order at the counter on the right from the chef or his assistant, and eat standing at the long table on the left. Dishes are washed in the gutter next to the street, and no, I don’t think the health department is bothered.


Ramen for breakfast on a chilly winter morning? Yes, please.


Indeed we ate ramen, not sushi, at the world’s most famous fish market.


A quiet moment before a busy day.

Commercial fishing is a challenging topic, especially for the Japanese. On one hand, you have cultural traditions formed over countless generations in this island nation. On the other hand, it’s pretty clear that we’re running out of fish. Consider that Tsukiji Market alone handles over 700,000 tons of fish per year. That isn’t even a comprehensible number, but it’s definitely one that won’t continue. Many wholesalers and famous sushi chefs lament that the size and quantity of the tuna has decreased dramatically over the past twenty years; as oceanic pelagics, these fish can’t be farmed as other fish can. By some accounts, over 90% of the world’s fishing stocks are either fished out or nearly so; it’s estimated that at current fishing rates, fish and seafood will be completely gone by 2048.

This isn’t made any easier by the fact that – at least in the U.S. – we’re constantly told to eat more fish to improve our health. The U.S. imports over 90% of its seafood, much of it from highly compromised environments, so while fish may help your heart, eating more of it has an irrevocable environmental and social cost. And how do you even know you’re eating the fish you think you are? Much of it is mislabeled. Like most of our food system, this industry is heavily compromised too.

An issue as complex as the sustainability of modern fishing isn’t going to be solved in one post. But as always, friends, please spend your food dollars wisely and make your fish and seafood choices consciously and carefully.


Easy to find the market with landmarks like this!

Japanese farm life

We spent two weeks volunteering on two very different Japanese farms, one in the wintry valleys of Nagano and one about ninety minutes outside of Tokyo, in the Ibaraki prefecture. We did this through WWOOF, which isn’t well-known in the U.S. but is very popular in much of the rest of the world. Essentially, you work a specified number of hours per day (usually between six and seven, depending on tasks) in exchange for room and board. This is a great way for travelers to get to know a specific area and culture a little better; we obviously hoped to learn a bit more about different ways of farming, too.

Our two farms couldn’t have been more different, and as is the rule with travel in general, sometimes things don’t go exactly as you’d expect. Our first farm was primarily an orchard, with hundreds of apple, pear, plum and persimmon trees. Obviously, in the winter the work has very little to do with fruit. We harvested carrots from underneath the snow, spread rice hulls as mulch in the orchard, and chopped a lot of firewood. Accommodations there were a bit rustic, to be charitable. We slept in an unheated packing shed with a composting toilet (that’s Latin for “hole in the ground”) with no hot water. It was never above 30 degrees there, and we were cold. Really, really cold.


A haiku: “Sunrise in winter. Today I am cold again. Where is my warm coat?”


We harvested well over a thousand pounds of carrots from underneath the snow.


One team pruned the fruit trees, while we followed with a special sealant to paint the pruning cuts so the tree didn’t get infected. 


Thankfully the farm’s chainsaw was very similar to N’s at home. The farmhouse was only heated by a woodburning stove, so they needed lots of firewood. Basically, we were in Little House on the Japanese Prairie.


We filled the crates with rice husks from the pile, then spread the husks in the orchard as mulch. 

Our second farm brought us back to life. We stayed in an incredible traditional Japanese wooden farmhouse, built about thirty years ago from just three trees harvested from the owner’s property.


The entrance to our second farmhouse with traditional Japanese gardens out front.


A rice field on our second farm. We were sort of in the Nebraska of Japan, which is genuinely intended as a compliment. 

Perfect greenhouse-grown eggplants (aubergines, for our British readers) and cherry tomatoes are the farm’s primary cash crop, although they also grow and process a hundred tons of different rice varieties. Our first task each morning was typically to harvest that day’s eggplants (nasu in Japanese), and if you think that’s easy, try harvesting only the eggplants that weigh above 80g. Without weighing them. There was a bit of a learning curve.


One of the eggplant greenhouses. The plants are pruned aggressively to keep them producing consistently for over eight months; the technique was completely different from anything I’d seen before.


Gorgeous Japanese eggplant, or nasu. They’re harvested from the greenhouse every single day to ensure they’re the perfect size.


Our task one morning was to spray the eggplant flowers with pollination liquid, because in winter it’s too cold for the bees to go to work. The liquid is clear, so it’s colored with blue food-grade dye so you can easily see the flowers that have already been sprayed.


One of the tomato greenhouses. All of the tomatoes were indeterminate cherry varieties so they produced for months and months.


Tomatoes were harvested every day too, and we had to be extremely careful to pick only those that were perfectly ripe.


N found this little one on an eggplant branch while weeding the greenhouse. He’s only about an inch and a half or so.

We’re very glad that we got to experience a side of Japan away from the touristy commotion of the big cities, and we learned a lot – especially about how important it is to keep your farm clean, tidy and safe and how to profitably grow and maintain eggplants and tomatoes in greenhouses. And also that we don’t really want to farm in eighteen inches of snow. That knowledge will definitely come with us to Quiet Farm.

Lost in translation

We’ve collected a few amusing signs during our time in Japan. Please know that this is just a bit of gentle humor; no disrespect or mockery is intended. We couldn’t write our own names in Japanese much less an informational sign.


I don’t know what it is, but I want it. Mostly because the workman himself is also handmade.


Drug dealing? Prostitution? Timeshares?


Notice the clarification on the last option. If you like to order your food based on gender, this menu is for you. (I do not think this would go over well in the U.S.)


Very perplexing.


Really, this is good advice no matter where you are.


Remember: dehydration kills. Drink something.


My favorite thus far. 

Monkey hot pot

N was very keen on visiting the famous snow monkeys near Nagano, the site of the 1998 Winter Olympics. We traveled by train from our farm in the little mountains up into the serious mountains where at least a foot of fresh powder had just fallen. This is the largest skiing area in Asia, a network of nineteen different resorts spread over thousands of acres.

Snow monkeys, or more accurately Japanese macaques, are native to Japan and found all over the country, but nowhere do they behave like they do at Jigokudani. During spring, summer and fall, the nomadic monkeys have plenty of food high up the steep forest slopes and are rarely seen, but in winter they’re forced to search harder for sustenance. The park opened in 1964 after a local railway employee started feeding the monkeys in winter.


These monkeys are known for their particular habit of bathing in the natural hot springs that also draw so many visitors to the area. Legend has it that one baby monkey decided to dip a toe into the hot springs and found it very much to his liking. He introduced his family to the wonders of the local onsen and the rest, as they say, is history. Once park rangers figured out that the monkeys would bathe in the hot pools during the winter, they built a small pool along a river with pathways where visitors can observe the monkeys at close range (for a fee, of course).



What makes this place so special is that the monkeys are neither disturbed by nor interested in the human visitors. Visitors are told explicitly not to bring food either for themselves or the monkeys, and as long as that rule is followed the monkeys are perfectly happy to go about their daily activities unfazed by the throngs. Monkeys will walk right by you, sometimes climbing over you if you’re impeding their path, but they’re neither aggressive nor timid. It’s a remarkable experience – as close as possible to actually seeing animals living in their natural habit without the restrictions of a zoo, but safe for both monkeys and humans.



The monkeys have carefully structured family groups and are constantly involved in small skirmishes, foraging and grooming. They also seem to love frolicking in the snow, followed of course by some relaxing hot tubbing. Seeing the monkeys in the hot pools is really funny, if only because they act so human.



The best part about the experience is that while there were hundreds of people there, everyone was extremely respectful. It was very quiet and very peaceful; no one shouted at or harassed or teased the animals, and the pathways weren’t littered with trash. It is the only place in the world where these macaques can be observed so closely, and it was absolutely worth the travel effort to see these fascinating creatures.






Your helpful onsen etiquette guide

While planning our five-month trip (in a ridiculously short period of time) I only researched a few activities for each country, assuming that the rest would take care of itself. In Japan, however, I knew I wanted to visit an onsen, or mineral hot springs.


This cheery Scandinavian fellow greets you at the entrance to the onsen. Why isn’t he Japanese? I have no idea.

The onsen tradition is revered in Japan with hundreds of springs scattered all over. Many are located in scenic areas like the Japanese Alps, and are a natural complement to skiing and other winter activities. Onsens require a bit of introduction, however, especially to Western visitors – and it’s important to understand the etiquette before partaking.

Onsens are separated by gender and are always taken without clothing of any kind. (And they’re often used as company team-building activities! Can you imagine explaining to an American HR department that you’re going naked hot-tubbing with your work colleagues?)


A row of harvested carrots on our farmstay. In the upper left you can see the onsen set high up on the hill. It was about a fifteen-minute walk from our farm straight up the wooden stairs built into the slope.

When you first enter the onsen, you remove your outdoor shoes and put on a pair of slippers. (In all of the places we’ve been thus far in Japan, you never, ever wear your outdoor shoes into a home. I love this.) You buy an entrance ticket – this one cost about $5 – from the vending machine then head to the changing area. All of your clothes and belongings are stowed in lockers, and you enter the central shower area. It’s imperative that everyone is very clean before entering the communal pools; not showering first is a major transgression.


After showering, you can choose from a variety of different pools, depending on the onsen. At this location there were three: a large, warm pool and a hot tub with serious pressure jets, both indoors, and an outdoor pool constructed of rocks that looked over the snow-covered valley. When you move from the indoor to the outdoor pool you just walk – naked as a baby – and once you get past the Western mentality of embarrassment about being completely unclothed amongst strangers, it’s really amazing. The outdoor pool was the hottest and my favorite, because it was absolutely freezing outside and as soon as you got too hot you could sit up on the edge to cool off. I could have stayed there all day.


The view from the balcony; for obvious reasons, I have no photos from inside the onsen.

A couple of interesting notes about onsens: you don’t use the large fluffy beach towels we might use at home. Instead, you can bring (or rent) a small body towel and a face towel. It is incredibly bad manners to put your face towel into the hot water; leave it resting on your head. You can also use the larger towel for modesty as you move from one pool to another, but many guests didn’t bother. Also, most onsens still prohibit any sort of tattoos. Traditionally, tattoos were only for yakuza, or gangsters, and onsens didn’t want this type of clientele. As tourism expands and foreign visitors become more and more important, it seems that the prohibition against tattoos is relaxing slightly, but only if they’re covered with a bandage or patch. Full-sleeve or other extensive tattoos (or piercings) will absolutely get you politely escorted out of an onsen, even if they already let you in.


Steam from one of Yudanaka’s onsens.

Onsens are mostly silent too, a time to sit quietly with your thoughts and enjoy the soothing water. While there were children at the onsen I visited, they were polite and respectful and not splashing around. I heard very little conversation, and that I did hear was in appropriately hushed tones.

We visited the famous snow monkeys at Jigokudani, or Hell’s Valley, and the town we stayed in – Yudanaka – is known for its onsens. Much like Glenwood Springs and Idaho Springs in Colorado, the mineral-rich waters are seen as a cure for just about any physical ailment. Yudanaka has nine special onsens, each with a different mineral composition, located along public streets and marked by numbers. The doors are kept locked and keys can only be obtained by staying at certain ryokans, or traditional inns. Visiting all nine, and collecting a stamp from each to be attached to a special souvenir cloth, is thought to bring good fortune. While out walking we often saw ryokan guests walking from onsen to onsen in their designated yukata robes and wooden slippers. Many of the inns here are well over four hundred years old, and the streets have retained a truly lovely ancient atmosphere.


Ryokan guests en route from one onsen to another.

After a week on the farm of harvesting and sorting carrots, chopping firewood and spreading rice husks in the orchard in bone-chilling temperatures, my two onsen visits were borderline miraculous. If you travel to Japan and have the opportunity to visit an onsen, go! It is a not-to-be-missed experience you won’t find anywhere else. Just get your tattoos removed first.


Yudanaka’s ancient streets.

Want to learn more about the onsen tradition? Go here!

Food for thought


Octopus skewers, Nishiki Market, Kyoto.

Food – ingredients, preparation, presentation – is something I think about far more than the average person. As I’ve mentioned, at home we almost never eat out, both because I love to cook and because I’m often testing recipes or preparing for a class, so I tend to have an excess of food on hand at any given moment. Food obviously plays a huge role in travel, too, and for me that’s both positive and negative. I love tasting unfamiliar ingredients and trying to appreciate a place through its food culture, but the reality is that more often than not restaurant food is disappointing and overpriced – especially when you’re traveling in heavily touristed areas. I know how much I’m overpaying for it and I hate that feeling of being cheated – paying $75 or more for a “nice” meal, only to leave with a bitter taste. It’s tough, though, especially in a country like Japan where everyday communication is delicate at best and a mess of unforeseen land mines at worst, to know where the locals eat. My answer to that, invariably, is “at home.”


Prepared food counter, Nishiki Market, Kyoto.

Other people travel and visit art museums and temples and things. I travel and visit minimarkets and grocery stores, because I think few places tell a country’s story better than where the locals shop for food. I was looking forward to Japan for many reasons, but the food was high on the list. We have a superficial impression of Japanese food in the U.S. – primarily sushi, of course, then perhaps tempura or soba or various tofu dishes. I’m interested not in what people eat when they go out to celebrate a special occasion (do we all eat at The Capital Grille every night? I think not), but what they grab from the store at 5:30 on a Tuesday night after a long day at work.

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Soba noodles with shrimp tempura, Arashiyama.

And I’ll admit – I’ve been really surprised by Japanese food culture, at least what little I’ve seen of it. First and foremost, sugary drinks take a lot of rightful blame as a major source of excess calories in the American diet; we’re now seeing “soda taxes” and other measures designed to curb consumption and hopefully reduce our obesity and diabetes rates. But Japan, which I think many people perceive as one of the healthiest countries in the world (see The Blue Zones) is absolutely covered with drink vending machines. They are everywhere. There are apparently more than 5.5 million machines in this tiny country, while the U.S. has just under 7 million for nearly three times the population and a lot more landmass. While the machines do contain bottled water, they also contain sugared coffee drinks (cold and hot – and that is a miracle in the middle of this damp, frigid winter), sports drinks (the awkwardly-named Pocari Sweat is my favorite), and plenty of other sugary beverages. Clearly, the machines are worth the real estate – so why aren’t the Japanese plunging into a sugar-related health crisis like we are?


Fried snacks, Nishiki Market, Kyoto.

I’ve also been surprised at the amount of refined grains, but that may be because I’m so focused on teaching whole grains at home. Obviously plain white rice is a staple served with every meal; we’re currently on a farm stay and the rice steamer is kept filled with fresh, hot rice for eating at any time of day. But the buns, pastries and breads are all soft, white and sweet – the bread available for our morning toast here is like that super-cheap, super-thick “Texas Toast” we used for French toast as kids. I watched the nine-year-old son eat four pieces slathered with fake butter and jam for his breakfast this morning, and he’s thin as a whippet. So again, I’m observing very high consumption of refined grains – which the body essentially converts to sugar – and yet not observing the expected results.


One of N’s recent lunches, and the only time yet I’ve seen raw vegetables such as lettuce and tomato.

Meals for us have primarily been inexpensive, filling and warming – plenty of ramen, of course, plus other noodle soup variations, but also curry rice and simple “lunch sets,” which usually include miso soup, various pickles and a main such as chicken and rice (photo above). These too have surprised me with the overall lack of vegetables. While there might be a few small dishes of pickled or fermented vegetables, we’ve only once had any served raw – a fresh carrot and daikon salad here at the farm, with a delicious creamy, tangy dressing. There are never any vegetables in the soups or with the meat and rice, certainly nothing like what we’d think of as traditional stir-fry. That said, the Japanese tend to cook more seasonally than we do, and I suspect we’d see a greater variety of raw vegetables during warmer months than in the middle of bleakest winter.


Pickled vegetable selection, Nishiki Market, Kyoto.

In stores, it’s package after package after package. From a thousand varieties of crunchy salty snacks to pre-made sandwiches to “Hot Pockets” to sushi and sashimi, I’ve noticed very little in the way of fresh ingredients designed for preparing meals at home. Fresh fruits and vegetables are almost nowhere to be seen and crazily expensive when found; I bought an apple in downtown Kyoto – one apple – for about $2.50. We’ve walked by a couple of small fruit and veg stands, but literally nothing that would rival your most basic American grocery store produce department with its stunning array of gloriously arranged, perfectly shiny, identically sized out-of-season fruits and vegetables. And yet the farm we’re currently staying on has acres of fruit trees and thousands of apples in cold storage right now, so where are they all going?


The oddest dessert I’ve ever eaten…jellied fruit and red beans with clear gelatinous cubes underneath. Algae? Gelatin? Space-age packing material? Also it came with what I thought was a sauce and may have actually been hand sanitizer. Not dead yet.

So after nearly two weeks of eating and travelling in Japan, I’m left with a mess of contradictions. The diet appears, at least on the surface, to be as unhealthy as ours in the U.S. And yet the people here, at least from my extremely limited research, don’t seem to be plagued by the same health crises. What can we learn from this?

(P.S. Please know that these observations are only based on a few days here in Japan and are in no way intended to represent some sort of serious large-scale sociological study. If anyone has spent time in Japan and has additional insight to share about the food culture, I’d love to hear it!)

Scenes from Kyoto

We’ve spent six days in Kyoto and depart tomorrow for a long day of travel to Matsumoto, where we’ll volunteer on a farm. Below are a few of N’s photos from our first week of travels.


The Fushimi Inari-taisha Shrine is one of Japan’s most photographed sites. Thousands of bright orange shrine gates lead up Mount Inari, about 600 feet above sea level. You can’t tell from this photo, but it was snowing pretty hard on our way up.


Kitsune (Japanese for fox) are one of the most common spirit animals seen at shrines and temples.


Rather moody and dramatic, isn’t it?


“Kimono Forest,” Arashiyama train station. These are tall sealed Plexiglas pillars that contain bolts of fabric traditionally used for kimono. As public art goes, it’s pretty spectacular.


Looking up at the bamboo grove in Arashiyama.


What a difference a day makes…eight inches of snow overnight. And we thought we’d left winter behind.


Snow monkey at Arashiyama Monkey Park. Ironically, the humans are inside the “cage” feeding the wild monkeys on the outside.


Matsuo-taisha Shrine, Arashiyama.


Imperial Palace, Kyoto.


Imperial Palace gardens, Kyoto.


Gion’s famous “red lantern district.”


Gion District in Kyoto is known for its geisha culture. Many visitors pay to rent kimono and dress up like geisha or maiko (apprentice geisha). There are dozens of shops offering kimono plus hair and make-up services. You can identify the tourist geisha because they don’t have on the traditional white make-up and they’re willing to be photographed. Current estimates suggest that there may only be about two hundred true geisha and about one hundred true maiko in all of Japan, though accurate statistics are tough to come by. Can you spot the true geisha in the photo below?