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The Onsen & Contrast Showers

Typically in North America when getting to know a friend of the same sex you would say “Hey, let’s go for a coffee sometime.” In Japan I have found within the first week of meeting same-sex friends you end up more or less saying “Hey, let’s get naked and hang out in an onsen!”.

Japan sits on several unstable fault lines, while this makes the country susceptible to frequent earthquakes it brings one of the volcanic islands best amenities available – The Onsen. Onsen (温泉) is a Japanese term for hot spring. These hot pools of water have a few rules to them that the locals are accustomed to but to a foreigner it’s a learning process and extremely worthwhile.  You can find these onsens everywhere, from hotels or small hole in the wall family run onsens to beautiful spa-like buildings and many you can hike to that are natural pools.  Each paid hot spring is a different price averaging ¥500 (roughly $6.05). All you really need is a towel or an “onsen towel” which is as big as a hand towel and the only thing you are allowed to bring into an onsen. First thing you will learn is there are separate male and female hot springs in the same location, very few are co-ed.   The colour that represents males is black and female, red.  Once you enter the change room there is a wall of baskets to put your clothes in with a vanity mirror and hair dryers for when you are done.  There is no clothing or bathing suits allowed in the onsen, leave your undergarments and ego in the change room. 

A glass door separates you and the hot spring, when entering you get a whoosh of hot steamy air that immediately starts to raise your body temperature- a plesent thing when you are naked. Each onsen has it’s own earthy sulfur-like smell that you instinctually breath in deeply. There are usually showers located near or beside the pools, all open to each other and sit side by side. It is not custom to stand in these showers, in fact the shower heads are about chest high.  Each shower station is equipped with a small stool to sit on, a bucket to wash your face with and a removable shower head and a mirror in front of you.  You are allowed to bring a shower caddy in with you if soap is not provided. It is very important that you wash yourself thoroughly, as the hot springs are meant for soaking only, not cleaning. This showering time is great for a westerner to get used to the whole naked environment and ease into being comfortable hanging out buck naked with friends or family.  It makes for some interesting conversations but oddly connects you in an unsexual way to the people you share this experience with, almost like you are exposing yourself completely, have nowhere to hide your insecurities and allows you to be comfortable in your own skin. A powerful unspoken lesson of the onsen.

All of these onsens are completely different in design, some are concrete square pools, some have beautiful laid stone and the older ones are wooden – all of which are only knee deep.  If you were to sit on the bottom it comes up to your chin. Most of them have a spout where the water trickles in like a small waterfall which adds to the meditative ambiance.  Once you dip your fully naked body into the massive hot pool (they all range in temperature, but are usually very hot) you can’t help but make this sigh of total relaxation, feeling your muscles, aches and pains melt away. Known as healing water, every onsen has a different mineral content which is why they are seen for healing different ailments. Once in the onsen, the peaceful environment makes conversation slow and words are instinctually spoken softly. If you are lucky enough to find an outdoor pool this only adds to the serenity – especially in the winter if it is snowing.  There are monkeys from Japan called Japanese Macaque or The Snow Monkeys that live in several natural hot springs. These wise looking monkeys are a truly beautiful sight to be seen and have a pretty epic life.

My favourite onsens provide a cold pool to dip into, this sounds terrible after thinking of melting away in a hot spring but makes the whole experience adds the benefit of hot-cold therapy.  The benefits of cold thermogenesis include reducing inflammation, boosting fat loss and helps the body recover faster. This month instead of leaving you with a recipe I will give you the challenge of trying a contrast shower after your regular shower, let cold water fall over your collar bones and over your back and shoulders, then switching it back to hot and repeating one more time ending on the cold shower.  You may think I’m crazy giving you a challenge like this in the winter months but opposite to what you think, the cold water will actually activate your body’s thermostat stoking your metabolism leaving your body warm in the end!

After your onsen experience there are cold and hot teas available and some places cook hard boiled eggs in the hot spring which you enjoy in a lounge room where you sit on the floor. Slowly your friends trickle out of the change room in their own pace. Much like after a good massage, the onsen experience leaves you with a sleepy state of bliss, hitting the pillow and melting into a good night’s sleep.  I can’t bring an onsen to you, but I can simulate the same beneficial experience of the hot and cold therapy that they provide. Enjoy this simple and quick way to boost your health in the shower.                 

The Contrast Shower

  • 5 minutes “regular” hot shower followed by this contrast shower:
  • 10 second cold shower on the front (aimed at the collar bones)
  • 10 seconds cold shower on the back (aimed at the back of the shoulders)
  • 30 seconds hot shower (aimed at the collar bones)
  • 30 seconds hot shower (aimed at the back of the shoulders)
  • 10 second cold shower on the front (aimed at the collar bones)
  • 10 seconds cold shower on the back (aimed at the back of the shoulders)
  • Always end on cold!

Some of the benefits of contract showers include:

  • Improves circulation and improves recovery time from training.
  • Activates brown fat (good fat - generates heat and stokes your metabolism) that helps burn up white fat (“bad” fat - just plain old adipose tissue)
  • Brown fat is a heat-generating type of fat that burns energy instead of storing it, acting more like muscle than fat. Research has shown that brown fat can be activated to burn more fat by cooling your body.
  • Brown fat is mostly located on the upper back and neck, and on your chest above your clavicle. - Aim so the water hits those parts of your body
  • Improves immune system function, benefits testosterone, and more

For more information and research on the contract shower a great resource is Shawn Stevenson’s podcast The Model Health Show, featured as the #1 Health and the #1 Fitness & Nutrition podcast on iTunes.

Okonomiyaki

The season here in Hakuba, Nagano Japan had a very slow start.  Some of the town elders have said it’s the worst they have ever seen.  Now after Fernie’s dry season last year I started to think James and I had some bad karma or something. Then slowly day by day (and I mean slowly) the snow started accumulating.  Like Mother Nature was trying to teach me a very valuable lesson about patience and appreciation for what we have.  Day by day the grass slowly disappeared, the brown coloured town turned white and the snowbanks got a tiny bit bigger than the day before. New ski runs started to open, new chairlifts woke from their extra-long summer slumber.  Skis in the lift lines got fatter and the stance on the snowboards moved back to keep the ever patient shredders afloat on the long awaited Japan powder or as it’s often referred to as Japow.  This slow and steady shift of seasons has made our pace of life peaceful and relaxing. I have opened books that have waited months to devour my imagination again and after eating some local ethnic cuisine I decided to make my own version of them, one of my favourite being Okonomiyaki. 

Everybody loves having breakfast for dinner, Instead of the normal bacon, eggs and pancakes we are going to spice it up a little, Japanese style.  I ‘m pleased to introduce you to Okonomiyaki, pronounced Oh-kon-o-mi-ya-ki. It is a Japanese savory pancake or a cabbage pancake.  I realize that doesn’t really sell it unless you love cabbage, but I assure you, we Canadians are truly missing out.  This dish has two sauces; mayonnaise and this sweet and savory okonomiyaki sauce, a Japanese BBQ sauce, a combination that sounds so bizarre but is actually the perfect finishing touch to this dish.  Don’t knock it before you try it, it’s one of those dishes that people fall in love with in Japan. These delish pancakes are a work of art when they are done. Typically the two sauces are drizzled in a crisscross design and then topped with bonito flakes (fish flakes) and parsley.  The bonito flakes dance back and forth as they are exposed to heat – very magical but these are hard to find in Canada so I left them out. 
The name Okonomiyaki is derived from the word okonomi, meaning "what you like" or "what you want", and yaki meaning "grilled" or "cooked". This dish is most popular with the Kansai or Hiroshima regions, western part of the main island of Japan, but is widely available throughout the country. 
Each prefecture has their own spin on it with different toppings or batters, most likely due to the different varieties of vegetables/ meat grown/raised in that particular area.  
Typically in restaurants you are given all the raw ingredients and you make it just as you like it on these special hot plates built right into the table. I’m especially keen for interactive food so it’s great for large groups and perfect for even the pickiest of eaters. You can really be adventurous with this recipe and add whatever veg you like – I see it like an elaborate omelet.  As long as the egg binds the vegetables together, you win!  This is my very own spin on Okonomiyaki – replacing most of the flour with winter vegetables.  If you make too many – they freeze well and can be baked at 350 in an oven or thrown in a toaster oven as a quick bite.  Enjoy and most importantly have fun making and eating it!

Find this and other great articles in the Fernie Fix Magazine!

Okonomiyaki

  • 8 eggs
  • 2/3 cup gluten free or whole wheat flour
  • 7 cups shredded cabbage
  • 1 cup thinly sliced kale
  • ½ cup thinly grated carrot
  • 2 green onions finely chopped
  • ½ cup kimchi* (a Korean spicy picked cabbage)
  • 1/3 cup shredded cheddar cheese (optional but delightful)
  • 8 sulfite free or locally sourced bacon strips, cut in half to make 16 slices altogether (optional)
  • Mayonnaise, Veganaise or avocado with sea salt (for topping)

Okonomiyaki Sauce (you can sub with a sweet BBQ sauce)

  • 3 Tbsp organic ketchup
  • 1 Tbsp Worcestershire sauce
  • 1 tsp soy sauce
  • 1 Tbsp maple syrup
  • 1 tsp Dijon mustard
  • ¼ tsp onion powder

Beat eggs together in a small bowl. In another large bowl place all sliced vegetables with kimchi and cheese.  Add the eggs and flour to the vegetables and mix until a batter is formed. The consistency of the batter is like egg coated vegetables, the veggies being the star of the dish.  You can adjust the batter if necessary adding more egg and flour until you meet the described consistency.  If you are going to add your own veg stick to the ratios in the recipe.

Heat oil in a large pan or griddle over medium heat. Using a soup ladle, scoop a small pancake size out and place it on the pan.  Take a spatula and pressing on the top, spread the pancake to ¾ of a inch thick – the trick is to get them thin to all the veggies and egg cook through but not too thin so you end up making a ton. Place two slices of bacon on top of each pancake.  Let the pancakes cook for approximately 5 minutes each side, if it starts burning your pan is too hot.

Remove when the vegetable pancake is cooked through and each side is golden brown and the bacon cooked.

Pour the sauce on top like you would maple syrup on a pancake and top with a dollop of mayonnaise or avocado with sea salt.  Have fun making designs on top!

*You can find Kimchi in the produce section typically near the Asian vegetables. 

Onigiri – Japanese Rice Sandwiches

We are settled down in the mountain town of Hakuba, a small town in the Nagano prefecture on the Western side of Japan. I wasn’t expecting the alpine to be similar to the Canadian Rockies, but there are times where you swear you are in Fernie.  Happo-One, pronounced hap-po o-nay (means 8 ridges) is the closest ski resort to us and is known as the competition venue for the 1998 Olympic Winter Games Nagano. I can’t believe it was 18 years ago now!

Along with history and beautiful mountains there is the amazing culture and food of Japan.  A typical grocery store experience here in Hakuba, Japan can be so interesting or completely overwhelming for a gaijin (foreigner).  Once you get past the jingles that play throughout the store that shouts the specials in a repetitive catchy songs – much like our commercial jingles that we all know like U-ni-ted Furniture Ware-house (do do), or Da da da da da I’m loving it, however these ones are on repeat and in each isle.  I imagine the cashiers and staff there have mastered a meditative state of blocking them out so they don’t go crazy.  SO, beyond all the jingles…the layout of the grocery store is the same, but everything is different.  For instance, there is a produce section but there is 15 different types of mushrooms, bamboo, lotus root and tons of leafy greens that you have never seen before. There is a meat section full of amazing sushi grade fish, and the animal meat is cut in all different ways for different dishes.  The center isles are for packaged goods and that is where the real trouble comes, for the one reason is it’s all in Japanese lettering called kanji, hiragana or katacana…all of them being very hard for a foreigner to read.  It is just easier to go by the little photos on the package, and if there is no photos, well then you are out of luck. A small but rewarding triumph is coming home with a grocery bag full of new things and they all taste good.  The biggest fail for me so far was me thinking a package was kimchi and it was really squid guts! Surprisingly the flavour was quite good, but the texture was too similar to rubber that I couldn’t eat the whole package. I also went to buy coconut milk and soy milk because I am lactose intolerant and I ended up getting coffee flavoured soy milk and coconut milk that tasted like pina colada mix.  A few of the biggest wins – that could easily been fails - have been picked vegetables, umeboshi (salty/sour plums), naato (fermented soy beans) and bento!

Bento (弁当) is a very popular single portion take-out or packed meal.  I am in love with the widely accessible onigiri which is a stuffed rice ball shaped into a triangle and wrapped in nori (seaweed paper) a fancy way of saying a Japanese rice sandwich.  While the Japanese typically fills the onigiri with a salty ingredient like pickled vegetables, salty/sour plums, sea vegetables or salty fish, I prefer a more western spin of sustainable salmon with mayonnaise or avocado, almond butter and jam or even leftovers like chicken, curry or slated edamame. The trick to these little rice balls when you buy them from the store is opening them!  It’s quite ingenious actually – the nori doesn’t touch the rice in the packaging until you open it, so it doesn’t get soggy.  It takes a few times of opening the little suckers to finally get it. These onigiri bento snacks are sold in every corner store and grocery store!  So in the spirit of trying new things I decided to make my own.

Find this and other great articles in the Fernie Fix Magazine!

Onigiri – Japanese Rice Sandwiches

  • 1 cup brown or white sushi rice, rinsed and cooked to manufactures instructions
  • 2 Tbsp apple cider vinegar (containing mother) or rice vinegar
  • ½ Tbsp organic cane sugar or coconut sugar
  • ½ tsp sea salt
  • Nori sheets (seaweed paper), cut into long rectangular pieces.

Your choice of fillings:

  • Salmon & avocado/mayo
  • Almond butter & jam
  • Salted edamame beans
  • Any sandwich fillings!
  1. Prepare sushi rice by following manufactures instructions. (If you want to use short grain brown rice in a rice cooker use 3 parts water to 1 part rice.)
  2. Whisk the vinegar, sugar and salt in a bowl.  Once rice is prepared drizzle vinegar mixture over rice while hot and stir with a wooden or plastic spatula (important: do not use metal, it will react with the rice).
  3. Prepare your fillings.
  4. Fill another small bowl with water.
  5. Dip your hands into the water, coating them so they don’t stick to the rice.
  6. Take a handful of rice and form into a bowl like shape.  Take 2 Tbsp of your filling and place into the rice bowl. Dip your hands again in the water bowl and place another small bit of rice on top of the filling to seal it shut.
  7. Shape rice into a triangle or whatever shape you would like. You can sprinkle the outside with sesame seeds or hemp seeds.
  8. If you are going to eat them right away, wrap the outside with a long rectangle piece of nori.  If you are packing these for lunch, wrap the rice triangle with plastic wrap and then wrap with nori when you are ready to eat them.
  9. These also freeze very well! Enjoy! 

Holiday Cranberry Vinaigrette & Cranberry Salsa

The last month has been a full-on whirlwind for me.  Out of the blue, my husband and I decided to pack a suitcase, leave the cat with family and go on an adventure! We are extremely excited and grateful we made the decision to move to Japan for the winter of 2015/16.  In fact, as you are reading this we will already be nestled in the town of Hakuba! Although this is our second time living and working in Japan, this only makes us more excited to go back and fall in love with the culture, massive amounts of powder and of course (if you know me by now) the food!

A perfect day in Japan for me is skiing bottomless powder to the point of wobbly legs, then heading into the lodge for a steaming hot bowl of ramen … I am stoked to share with you the tastiest and downright bizarre foods Japan has to offer within the next 6 months!

One thing that I remember from the last Christmas I spent in Niseko, a small ski town in Hokkaido (the northernmost of Japan’s main islands) is that Christmas is not a national holiday. In fact, it’s more like Valentines day where Christmas eve is a date night for couples.  Being a very festive person, I missed the gatherings with flavours and foods of the west.  So, this time around I was extremely excited to make these recipes for my column so I could give the holiday’s some homage. 

The western Christmas holidays, in fact all of December, is a time where you have a full calendar and with that, a full mind and belly.  Instead of more heavy meals and snacks, I wanted to keep it light so I chose to showcase the humble cranberry for it’s tart-sweetness, affordability and their antioxidant packed punch.  These recipes are potluck approved, orphan-Christmas approved and of course family approved.  They not only taste great but bring so much holiday colour to the table.

Your plate is not the only thing I want to keep light this Christmas. The most important thing to do this busy western holiday season is to slow down and breath. Stop, collaborate and glisten! Take a moment, and be with it. A practice in our house is when we sit down to eat together we take 3 slow deep breaths, this brings us into this moment, away from cell phones, things we need to do and expectations we need to meet. I call it a practice because it is something I constantly have to work on in order to make it a habit. These 3 little breaths are a powerful tool to signal your body it’s time to rest and digest.  Digest food or the moment, whatever it may be.  Take in all that is going on around you and be grateful that you are (hopefully) in the beautiful city of Fernie surrounded by family, friends and if none of those…then the mountains.

From the mountains of Japan, Happy Holidays and bring the breath of gratitude to your table.

Find this and other great articles in the Fernie Fix Magazine!

Festive Salad

  • 8 cups romaine lettuce, washed and chopped
  • 4-5 leaves lacinato kale, chopped very finely
  • ¼ cup pumpkin seeds
  • ½ cup pomegranate seeds
  • Slivered toasted almonds
  • Holiday Cranberry Vinaigrette

Holiday Cranberry Vinaigrette

Yields approximately ¾ cup

  • Heaping ½ cup fresh or frozen cranberries
  • 3 Tbsp apple cider vinegar
  • 2 Tbsp maple syrup, or adjust to taste
  • 1 tsp Dijon mustard
  • 1/3 cup fresh or bottled orange juice
  • 2 Tbsp extra virgin olive oil
  • ¼ tsp kosher salt, or to taste
  • Freshly ground black pepper

Place cranberries, maple syrup and apple cider vinegar in a pot over medium heat until the cranberries burst, about 7-10 minutes.

Remove from heat.

Add remaining ingredients to a high-powered blender and pour in cranberry mixture.

Blend until smooth.

Pour into air-tight glass jar and place in the fridge to cool.

Double recipe for a dinner party.

Keeps in fridge for up to 5-7 days.

Cranberry Salsa

Yields approximately 3 cups

  • 1 bag cranberries
  • ½ large red pepper
  • ¼ large green pepper
  • 1 granny smith apple
  • 1/8 medium red onion
  • ¼ jalapeno, deseeded
  • 3 Tbsp chopped cilantro
  • 1/3 cup raw cane sugar
  • 1 teaspoon lemon juice
  • 1/3 cup fresh or bottled orange juice
  • ¼ jalapeno, seeded (optional – great if you love spice)

Roughly chop the apple, red onion, peppers, and jalapeno into large pieces and place in the food processor.

Add the whole bag of cranberries to the food processor.

Pulse until salsa-like consistency is reached, do not over process.

Transfer salsa to a bowl and add the sugar, lemon juice, orange juice, and cilantro and toss to combine.

Serve with organic corn tortilla chips or crackers and warm brie cheese or goat cheese.

Best if chilled overnight prior to serving so that the flavors can combine.

The adventure begins.

We have a 6 hour layover in the international terminal of the Vancouver Airport, so I am taking in all that is around me.  Such diverse people watching, it’s gold! I am also loving that I can listen and understand most of the conversations, announcements and writing here in my home country.  In a little less than 12 hours we will arrive in Tokyo and that comfortable world is about to change.  It was 5 years ago that I was last in Japan, so much has changed in those years, I’m a different person – I can’t wait to see how I have evolved as a traveler and what experiences that will attract. 

This was a VERY last minute change for us.  It was only a month ago that we decided to pack up all of our belongings and head to Japan for another winter season.  In that month we have done A LOT! It’s not until I’m sitting here that everything is finally coming together and that we’re moving to Japan!!!

We are staying in Tokyo tonight. Tokyo. Awesome.