This continues the story of my Asia expedition begun in An Asian Expedition Part 1: Seoul, Korea.
A little thing? Sure, but it’s only the 2nd or 3rd time in 30 years of flying that I’ve ever been in one of those cushy cabins! The airline upgraded me (I have no idea why) when I got to the gate, so I had more leg room than I am tall, and a reclining seat that would have served as a bed. If only I’d had that on the previous 13-hour trip from Chicago! Talk about pointless luxury for a 90-minute flight!
It was a little decadent to be served orange juice before the flight took off and to watch how attentive the stewardesses were to the businessmen in the front cabin though (they took the suit jacket of the man next to me and hung it somewhere, returning it to him at the end of the flight. Nice.)
After the short plane ride from Seoul, I made it through customs and a 45-minute cab ride without any problems and checked into my hotel just after lunch. It was a hotel in Shibuya, a restaurant and nightlife district of the city. The hotels near the university where I was working that week had been sold out, so I had decided to stay in a spot in a part of the city that sounded like it would be fun in my off-time.
The lobby and adjoining restaurant looked small but nice. My stomach sank, however, when I opened the door to my room at the Tokyu Rei Hotel.
If I’d had sinful space on the flight over (and in my previous hotel), this was the reverse. The room barely could contain the bed and a wall-length shelf that the small flatscreen TV and a bunch of advertising flyers sat on. There was no closet. The window to the street was covered in a wooden “door” that slid open on a track. I immediately opened that for the rest of the trip so I wouldn’t feel claustrophobic. I’ve been in closets bigger than this room. And the bathroom was even worse… the entire thing, floor to ceiling, was covered in hard plastic (do they just hose it down after each guest?) and the toilet was wedged into a corner. Damn. I’ve been in Motel 6’s that were swankier. After the luxurious InterContinental Coex in Seoul, this was… depressing. Especially since I was going to be there four nights. I texted a picture to Geri and she said “it looks like a prison cell.” That’s exactly what it felt like at that moment.
I didn’t have time to stew on it though, because as soon as I unpacked, it was off to a business meeting and subsequent dinner. When I returned to the room a few hours later, it was night, and I quickly changed clothes and went out to explore nearby Shibuya… and my depression at a crappy room faded.
Shibuya Crossing, one of the busiest pedestrian intersections in Tokyo (it’s listed as a “thing to see” on all the tourist lists), was hopping.
Just a block from my hotel, the city was alive with neon and throngs of people. J-pop music blared from giant TV screens on the buildings, and teens and twentysomethings moved in and out of the nearby Taito Arcade next to the big Bic Camera store. I walked a couple blocks and entered a busy pedestrian street that went from restaurant to bar to restaurant to clothing store.
My faith was restored. I may not have gotten the best hotel room, but this was exactly where I wanted to stay. Shibuya is definitely one of the beating hearts of Tokyo.
Smiling, I followed my phone’s GoogleMaps guide until I reached a British pub I’d heard of, The Aldgate, and walked up the stairs to find myself in a classic British-style pub with British bartenders and Bass Ale on tap, as well as some local brews. My first beer in Tokyo was a London Calling cask IPA from local Sankt Gellen Brewery. I settled in with hops and my laptop to catch up on email and Facebook for a couple hours. And had a plate of British chips with malt vinegar. I’d found a comfort refuge spot for the next couple nights!
The next day was a long one, 12+ hours on the clock, but when it was done… we were done! My business in Asia officially ended Friday night around 7 p.m., but my workmate and I had agreed to pay for a couple extra hotel nights on our own, so we were staying until Monday. We actually had Friday night through Monday lunchtime to explore Tokyo. And over the next 60 hours, we covered as much ground as I think humanly possible.
That weekend I bought some nifty cords and an anime doll of hologram star Hatsune Miku in Electric Town, had a decadent steak dinner and visited a microbrew pub in Roppongi, stopped at the inpsiring Meiji Shrine and grounds, hung out in fashionable Harajuku, ate amazing sushi in the Tsukiji Fish Market, snapped photos of the city from the top of the Metropolitan Government Building lookout station in Shinjuku, spent an afternoon around the big Buddhist temple / market area in Asakusa and walked around the grounds of the Imperial Palace (the actual palace was sadly closed). I got to be quite adept at deciphering the Tokyo subway maps and figuring out how to vault from one end of the city to the other using foreign coinage (which was quickly in short supply!).
On Friday night I did some people watching on the crowded streets and had dinner at a small Japanese / Vietnamese restaurant on the second floor of a busy street. It was hard to settle on a restaurant there… many of them are very small, and there were several Korean barbecue places (I’d just come from Korea, and was looking for a more Japanese experience). Plus, many of the restaurants are on the 2nd or 3rd floor of buildings, so it’s hard to tell from wandering the street where to go. If I ever go there again, I will do a lot more Internet stalking to choose my restaurants (though the food that night was good.)
After dinner, we tried to stop by the Aldgate, which was packed, so instead we headed down to the Hobgoblin, another British pub in the area. Sadly, they were out of their flagship Hobgoblin Ale! But their Hobgoblin “light” wasn’t too bad.
HARAJUKU / MEIJI JINGU SHRINE
First stop on Saturday, after an egg sandwich and coffee at a Pronto – a chain of cafes there, was the Meiji Jingu Shinto Shrine.
Just a 15-20 minute walk from our hotel, we cut through Harajuku and stopped at the small Togo Shrine there before heading towards Harajuku Station and the large Yoyogi Park / Meiji Shrine area.
I’ve been curious about Harajuku ever since I heard the Gwen Stefani’s “Harajuku Girls” song.
So it was a kick to finally walk through the street that day and a subsequent night and see some real live Harajuku girls dressing up in wild costumes and parading about. The morning we walked by, there was a line that stretched down a whole block for a fashion store that was about to open with a big sale. Fashion capital, indeed.
Once past Harajuku, the Meiji Jingu Shrine park was thronged with people. We walked around the grounds first which would have been far more impressive if we’d been there in the spring or summer; the area was originally cultivated for a queen, and apparently has flowers everywhere in season. While the trees still had leaves while we were there in January, there were no flowers. Though I did get to kneel and dip my hands in a sacred spring.
The shrine itself was much larger than the one I’d seen in Korea, and had dozens of vendors selling prayer sticks and poems. That was one interesting thing about all of the shrines I visited in Seoul and Tokyo – there were always people selling prayer sticks and satchels that held small prayer scrolls at all of them, no matter how small the venue.
TSUKIJI FISH MARKET
After visiting the gardens and the shrine, we took the Toei Oedo Line train to Tsukiji and walked around the famous wholesale (and retail) fish market of Tokyo.
There were several blocks of vendors, some selling packaged freeze-dried fish goods, others selling fresh, others selling trinkets and kitchen pottery. And interspersed with those were lots of sushi joints.
I’ve enjoyed sushi for quite a while now, but until Tokyo, I had always been a sushi baby — mainly, I’ve always stuck to some kind of roll – my tiny hunk of raw fish always shielded by a blanket of rice and well-seasoned with soy and wasabi. When we finally stopped for lunch at the fish market, I decided to go ahead and get the “large hunks of fish” style sushi. Hunks of fish that sat on rice, sure, but the rice wasn’t going to hide the taste of that fish like a California roll does.
I worried a bit that each different slab of fish was finally going to hit me with a “fishy” taste, but none of them did. The meat was creamy and rich, some lightly seared which gave it a “grilled” flavor, some not. And we were warned to avoid the soy sauce — the sushi chef had already lightly seasoned various types with soy and/or wasabi… and it was true.
The taste was perfectly balanced. Exquisite! I was instantly converted and before we even left the fish market, I was looking forward to having more!
There was a small shrine at the edge of the fish market which we stopped at briefly before heading to the train for our next destination.
It was late afternoon when we left the fish market, but we figured we could get in one more stop before returning to Shibuya. We decided to head to Akihabara, home of Electric Town, a huge shopping district for video games, electronic equipment (I bought a couple ipod/iphone cords and chargers) and anime and manga merch. I figured the place wasn’t going to pull up the carpets at 5 p.m., and I was right — the streets were full of people.
I spent a lot of time in a store with hundreds of anime-oriented figurines and ultimately bought my Hatsune Miku figure there… not realizing at all that she was the representation of one of the most bizarre music phenoms ever — a music company sampled a woman’s voice and used it in music creation software… which has since led to more than 3,500 songs being created using the voice, as well as spawned a 3D holographic character (Hatsune Miku) who has opened for Lady Gaga, and is currently touring North America!?!
My iPod charging cable was dead, so I found a replacement that also serves as a battery pack, which was pretty cool (never had seen one of those before for an old-school iPod.) And I got a fancy recharging cord there for my iPhone while I was at it.
All along the strip of shops, there was J-pop blaring out into the streets, which added to the energy. Usually with female singers, the music was electronic and catchy, and belatedly, I used my Shazzam iPhone app to figure out the name of one of the bands. I wish I’d done that earlier, because there were some crazy catchy songs playing while we were there.
But thanks to Shazzam, I now have a new favorite act — Silent Siren. And the start of a J-Pop Playlist on YouTube!
I stopped at a few anime and electronics shops, and probably could have stayed there looking at all of the neon and dolls and electronics all night…
But after a day of walking for miles, we decided to catch the train back around 7 p.m. so we could eat dinner in Shibuya.
Back at the hotel, I was determined not to wander cluelessly looking for food as we had the night before. The concierge gave me a tip on a good restaurant row, on the 7th floor of the Shibuya Hikarie, a building a couple blocks away, so we stopped in there for dinner and I enjoyed a beef pot and pot stickers with the local Suntory pilsener beer. It hit the spot after a long day!
Way to Play!
One of the cool things I noticed in Japan is that their entertainment centers are on multiple floors. The building across from our hotel had bowling alleys on three floors, plus a couple floors of arcade, a billiard floor and a table tennis floor. Plus Karaoke. It was fun to go up and down the elevator and check out the action on each level!
It was a long day, but I packed a lot of sights into that Saturday! At the end of it all, I stopped back at the Aldgate to refresh my “Western” batteries, and watched a little soccer with a Baird Jack The Ripper IPA.
A View From The Top of Shinjuku
Sunday was slated to be the warmest, sunniest day of my trip through Asia – with temps in the low 50s. So that was the day to head to the Tokyo Metropolitan Government Building, where there is a free observation floor. At first, it appeared that we wouldn’t be able to get in to the building — all the visible access doors were locked. But then after circumnavigating the whole building, we found a sign for the observation deck pointing to a stairwell down. After walking through an underground garage area, we arrived at an elevator to the observatory (travel lesson #1: never give up!)
Visibility was a little hazy, but I had a nice coffee and cake while overlooking the city there. And got a distant view of Mount Fuji!
I also found a Studio Ghibli display at the gift shop there, and broke out the credit card for Shaun. We have watched most of the Studio Ghibli movies of Hayao Miyazaki together, and I’d hoped to go to the Ghibli Museum while in Tokyo (unfortunately for me, it was sold out for the weekend).
After the lookout station, we walked across the bridge to Shinjuku Central Park where a martial arts exhibition was going on.
And found yet another shrine — the Kumano Shrine:
Then it was time to hop the train to our next destination — the old town temple district of Asakusa.
Sensō-ji, Buddhist Temple
While it was a little difficult figuring out the subway system given that most of the signs are in a foreign language, we had our only major subway gaffe of the weekend leaving Shinjuku. First I misread Google Maps and walked past the underground subway station… and then managed to get on a train going the opposite direction. But … this time Google Maps clearly demonstrated my error, and after hopping off the train and walking to the other side of the station, we were at last on our way.
The Asakusa area is right near the Sumido River, and is a major shopping area, as well as the home of one of the more famous Buddhist temples, the Sensoji. Out of the entire week, this turned out to be the most crowded place I went. The street that led to the temple was lined with shops selling all sorts of toys, food and other merchandise, and you could barely move right or left to move towards a shop if you wanted to. The street was a solid mass of people.
The area was filled with old architecture and once inside the temple grounds, there was an avenue of street food vendors. I tried what I later found out
(thanks to Loren Rhoads) was a okonomiyaki, a Japanese pancake omelette that included flour, shredded cabbage, shrimp and pork belly.
I also had some gyoza – Japanese pot stickers.
There was a ceremony going on inside the temple itself, but I braved the throng and got a quick peek at the entryway. The public was not allowed inside the building itself.
There was a group of kids practicing martial arts near a small shrine nearby, as well as a woman showing off a trained monkey!
And who can resist a trained monkey?
On the way back to the train, I bought another Totoro stuffed animal for Shaun (a Miyazaki character) and posed with a welcoming kitty!
For our last night in Tokyo, we decided to visit another nightclub district. After the craziness of the past 36 hours, things turned out to be a bit slow there on a Sunday night. And after searching for a good restaurant, we ended up deciding to see what the Japanese would do with a “Western” steakhouse. Wolfgang’s Steakhouse was definitely the fanciest room and pricetag of any of our meals in Asia… but my lobster bisque and petit filet was definitely good!
After dinner, we walked around the club district a bit, which is filled with Nigerian guys trying to lure men into hostess clubs. It was truly annoying, as they will follow you for over a block, ignoring your increasingly aggravated declarations of “I’m not interested” as they implore you to “just take a look” at their club. After having read about many instances of business men getting a mickey in their drinks and their credit cards charged to the hilt in Roppongi, there was no way I was walking into one even to look.
Instead, I closed the night with a Kanagawa-brewed Brimmer Pale Ale – clean but robust with just the right amount of hop bitterness – at the Two Dogs Taproom, a little microbrew place that obviously caters to Westerners (they had Japanese micros, but also taps from U.S. breweries like Left Hand and signs from Seattle’s Elysian Brewing (where, ironically, I just was a couple months ago!) Had to love their tap wall — which was completely “tiled” in pennies!
Last Look: The Imperial Palace
Monday in Japan was a holiday, so I knew the Imperial Palace was going to be closed, but took the subway there anyway, after a coffee and scone across the street from my hotel. I figured there was bound to be something to see.
For awhile… I feared that I was completely mistaken. While there was a flea market going on at the perimeter of the palace, and a marathon filling much of the sidewalk around the place, the Tokyo Imperial Palace is not one of those palaces that you can see for miles.
For one thing, the place is surrounded by a moat… but there are also hills and hedges and stone walls on either side of the moat. The place is completely shielded unless you can actually gain admittance to the inner grounds. So I never actually saw one inch of the palace itself. I did however, get to see the gardens on the outskirts (which would have been more impressive in the spring or summer, I’m sure). And there was the remains of some old guard posts, as well as a small bamboo garden.
After hanging around the Imperial Palace area for a couple hours, it was time to return to Shibuya. I had just enough time for a last dose of sushi before leaving Japan, and I wasn’t about to miss the chance. I stopped at a “sushi go-round” restaurant, where the chef stands in the middle cutting fish and filling plates that go around a track that runs around the bar where the customers sit. Each plate is color coded, based on the cost of the sushi, and you just keep grabbing plates and eating what you want until you’re done… then the waitress totals up the cost of your stack of plates.
I ate my fill, largely of a nicely wasabi-ed whitefish variety!
And then… it was time to go home. While I hated to leave the throngs and sushi of Shibuya behind, I was more than ready. It was an exceptionally long week. I saw a lot of things, but still only scratched the surface. I loved the politeness and manners of the culture — it’s a small thing, but everywhere I paid with a credit card, it was handed back to me with two hands, as if it were a gift offering. People appeared helpful and friendly, if not well-versed in English. And while our hotel room was not what I had hoped for, the staff at the hotel itself were wonderful – going out of their way to help us with our bags, and taxi and restaurants.
I wish we could have gotten out of the city to places like Kyoto or Mount Fuji… or even poked into Tokyo Disneyland, which I passed on the way to the airport. But I was happy I at least got a couple days to bounce around and see all of the things I did. From the Shibuya to the Fish Market to Harajuku to the Akusa Temple… it was all an excellent adventure. And with a direct flight, that 11-hour flight home seemed like a breeze compared to the 18-hour commute that started the trip to Seoul the week before!
Here are a few more pictures from the trip:
I TRAVEL A LOT for my dayjob, but typically just to domestic cities. Over the past few months, however, due to a special circumstance, I had the opportunity to go to four international locations, the most recent being a trip to Asia, visiting Seoul, Korea and flying from there to Tokyo, Japan. Due to the logistics, I didn’t get nearly as much time to explore Seoul as Tokyo, but what I did see, definitely left me hungry to go back.
Because… The food was amazing!
I’ve had Korean food once or twice before, and been to Japanese steakhouses a few times…. but my main go-to for Asian food has always been Thai. That will definitely expand thanks to this trip!
After an 18-hour commute that began on Sunday (13 hours to Tokyo + layover + a couple hour flight to Seoul), I arrived at my hotel in Seoul late at night on Monday, January 4th. The time difference (15 hours) made things weird the whole trip — I would be having a beer at the end of the night while texting with my wife Geri as she was having breakfast.
I stayed at the Intercontinental Hotel Coex, which is a beautiful, modern facility in a nice shopping district of the city (it’s attached to a ginormous mall). It also gave me my first experience with electronic bidets, which I saw throughout the rest of my trip. There are a lot of clean butts in Asia, apparently. And given the electronic, heated seats, apparently they are clean warm butts!
When I got up on Tuesday, I was able to walk around a large restaurant area adjacent to the hotel and tour a Buddhist Temple that was right across the street, before heading to work for a few hours.
As I’d feared before the trip, the language barrier did make things difficult now and then. While a lot of things had English subtitles, very few people spoke very much English. That made things difficult looking for food — while the air smelled delicious, I didn’t know what or how to order! I looked at restaurant after restaurant, wondering where I should go in.
I finally settled on a decent looking place that had one line of English on the wall outside, so I figured that was a good sign… but it turned out they still didn’t have an English menu. The waitress and I managed to communicate with a lot of hand gestures, and ultimately she brought me a beef rib soup with side dishes of rice, kimchi, freeze dried salted seaweed, onions in garlic sauce, peppers in some kind of white sauce and another spicy vegetable thing which I never was able to identify (wish I could, cuz I finished the bowl). It was an amazing amalgam of tastes, though slightly embarrassing when the waitress had to show me how to eat it — she brought tongs and a pair of table scissors, and demonstrated how to cut the meat off the soup bones (glad she did, because I would have been at a loss of what to do if she’d just dropped scissors on my table and left!) She also brought me a fork, but I left it on the table with disdain – I ate with chopsticks the entire week.
After lunch I walked around a bit more, and ended up stopping into a German place – Oskar Dine & Brew – for a mild IPA since I’d had tea for lunch. Their menu was bizarre – German Spatzle sat right alongside Mongolian chicken! Looked like a good place for Westerners and Europeans to get a little breath of home… sadly I wasn’t there long enough to come back for a meal.
I walked over to the old Buddhist temple after visiting Oskar’s. It was the first time I’d been in a temple (though I would visit a few more in Tokyo in the coming days). I took my shoes off, as is customary, and knelt on a mat to watch part of a Buddhist prayer service. I love the combination of music and meditation, and wish that I could have stayed for the whole thing. And it probably would have helped if I could have understood a word or two. Here’s what it sounded like:
And here are some pix:
That night, my workmate and I returned to the restaurant district I’d been wandering earlier, and enjoyed a Korean barbecue dinner of beef and pork — cooked over coals at our table. We were totally out of our element… the waitress cooked the first part of our meal, before it occurred to me after looking around that nobody else had “help”… they were all cooking their meat themselves. And moments later, the hostess directed us to do just that (“you move, every little bit” she said and pointed… or something like that!) She also showed us how to garnish and “sandwich” the meat using lettuce leaves (warning to fajita eaters — the key with Korean is small… you have to fit the whole lettuce-wrap in your mouth in one bite — no munching it in half or you’ll have slop in your lap!).
In any case, we got with the program, and enjoyed an amazing meal. The meat and sauce they used on it was phenomenal. And the ever-present kimchi was great too.
The next day was an all-day work deal, with a short break before a group dinner. I took the break opportunity to explore the adjoining Coex Mall, which is touted as the largest underground shopping center in Asia. It was large… kind of like wandering around in the subterranean corridors of an airport. There is even an aquarium tucked in down there (though I didn’t go in). I got a kick out of seeing what was familiar… and not familiar… on the bookstore shelves and “bestseller” tables. Apparently there is no bookstore in the world where Stephen King is not on display.
That night we enjoyed a group dinner at a Korean restaurant in a different area of the city, where they cook all sorts of stuff on a communal table. Soju, a rice/wheat-based alcoholic beverage was poured liberally into glasses of light Korean pilsener (a Korean boilermaker!), as one by one, all of the group were called upon to make toasts. Thankfully, no video record exists of mine.
A video record does exist, however, of the chopping and “flaming” of the pork:
And that… pretty much was that! While I wish I could have explored more of Seoul, we left at 6 a.m. the following morning for Tokyo. And that’s a whole other adventure detailed in An Asian Adventure Part 2, Tokyo, Japan.
Here are a few other photos from my brief stay in Seoul.
Now Ziggy really sang, screwed up eyes and screwed down hairdo / Like some cat from Japan / he could lick ’em by smiling / He could leave ’em to hang / Came on so loaded man, well hung and snow white tan.
— David Bowie, “Ziggy Stardust”
David Bowie, dead at 69 from cancer. That was three hours ago now, and I’m writing this 30,000 feet above the ocean, as I listen to ChangesBowie, an album that’s been on my iPod forever. But first, I listened to Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars, the first Bowie album I ever owned. And I’m about to switch over to a live concert of his that I happen to have on the iPod.
Ziggy Stardust was one of those formative, life-changing albums for me. It remains in my Top 100 albums of all time (and ask anyone – I love a lot of albums!) A friend introduced me to it back in freshman year of high school, and I was blown away. I’d heard Bowie on FM radio before that year (1980) but when I sat and listened to that album…. wow. He was edgy. He was pop. He could rock. Bowie could do anything. And over the course of his career… he really did.
I remember renting The Man Who Fell To Earth with that same friend on VHS back in 1980 or 81, and scratching my head and saying wha???? One of these days, I need to watch that movie again. Truth be told, I never became a truly “rabid” Bowie fan — but over the past 30 years I’ve always paid attention to whatever he did. And at this point, I own virtually all of his albums. I actually took my collection of Bowie CDs to a DragonCon a few years ago to use as show-and-tell on a Bowie panel I was on.
Bowie was a chameleon, a man who loved to change. To push the envelope. To try new things. He understood the dangers of complacency. He went from glam to pop when I was in high school, and Let’s Dance is also one of those formative discs for me. During that period he wrote an amazing song for the remake of Cat People, and then turned in a couple great songs as well as a perfect performance as The Goblin King in Labyrinth, one of my favorite movies ever (also starring Jennifer Connelly, right after her lead performance in Argento’s Phenomena.) When I was in college, I had a giant movie poster of him from Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence up in my dorm. He didn’t do the music on that one (though Ryuichi Sakamoto’s theme song to it is one of my favorite movie songs of all time!). I still have that poster tucked away.
His catalog is amazing and while I must admit I couldn’t get into his Tin Machine phase, I love songs from all other phases of his career — my favorites topped with “Heroes,” “Ziggy Stardust,” “Life on Mars?””Golden Years,” “Sound and Vision,” “Rebel Rebel,” “Let’s Dance,” “China Girl,” “Modern Love,””Fashion,” “TVC 15,” “Changes,” “Under Pressure” and his soundtrack singles like “Absolute Beginners,” “Cat People (Putting Out Fires)” and the Labyrinth tracks “Magic Dance” and “Underground.”
There will be millions of words written about Bowie’s career now. And deservedly so. His Sound and Vision touched the lives and colored the experiences of millions. Few have made the impact on pop music and culture that Bowie did. I’m looking forward to hearing his final album, Blackstar, released just a couple days ago on his 69th birthday. His parting gift to the world.
The Man Has Fallen From Earth… but he left behind a treasure for all of us.
Goodbye David Bowie… and thank you for the music, the acting and the artistry.
EVERY YEAR, I cook a ham at some point between Christmas and New Year’s, and then typically use the ham bone for a New Year’s Bean Soup. I fill most of a big soup kettle, and freeze the resulting soup for lunches for the coming cold months.
It’s typically a fly-by-night affair on ingredients, but this year I kept track when I made it yesterday, and my son Shaun chose to finish his bean soup over his cheeseburger last night… so I know this one turned out good.
Typically, I use all dried beans, but this year I only had one “multi-bean” bag, so I tossed in a can of chili beans to make up for the shortfall. I also usually use Ro-Tel diced tomatoes and chilis instead of tomato sauce… but the pantry had sauce and not Ro-Tel… and hey, cooking’s all about using whatcha got! Here’s how you can make this year’s edition of:
Everson Umpteen Bean Soup
Put the beans in your soup pot to soak. This allows them to expand before cooking. Throw away the “bean soup powder” mix that probably came with your dried multi-bean bag. You’ve got all the flavor you need coming from the peppers and ham.
If I’m really organized, I’ll soak the beans overnight, but you can get away with a couple hours in warm water. (Some people boil them and let sit for an hour to speed the process).
Drain and rinse. Return the beans to the pot and add water — I make sure the water level is a couple inches above the top of the beans. Remember it’s easier to add water than to remove it… but you will be steaming water out all day.
Put the heat on low to start simmering the beans.
Add the cans of chili beans and tomato sauce.
Chop and sauté the peppers, onions and garlic until the onions are turning golden in the butter. Add to the pot.
If you are actually using fresh New Mexican chilis, you’ll need to de-skin them because while New Mexican grown pepper “meat” has a taste like no other, Hatch chili skins are tough. Mine had been frozen (I brought a bag of fresh ones back from Santa Fe in my suitcase last year), so I put them in a frying pan with a little water until they were hot and soft, and then scraped out the inner green chili goodness with a knife. I then added all that mushy green to the pot.
Chop the baby carrots up, add to the pot.
Chop up the cilantro and add to the pot.
Sprinkle with chili powder.
Cook all on low to low-medium heat for about 4 hours, stirring every 15-20 minutes. You want to keep the heat low enough so you don’t scorch the bottom or you’ll ruin the whole batch. It helps to have a good soup pot with a heavy bottom vs. the cheap thin ones they sell at some grocery stores. I used a new heavy pot this year, and the cooking process was soooo much nicer. Nothing scorched or stuck to the bottom.
About an hour before the end of the cooking cycle, I will usually skim off some of the fat and water that is sitting on top after a few minutes of non-stirring. Then I remove the ham bone, and chop off any clinging meat. If your ham bone didn’t have quite enough ham left on it, you can also dice up some more ham from your leftovers and toss that in.
I tend to like my soup spicier than everyone else, so after removing the ham bone and stirring, I will siphon some of the soup into another pot. Once I have two pots going, I’ll chop up a jalapeno or two, plus a serrano and habanero pepper, and add those to the batch that I’m going to be eating. Whatever you do, if you have people sensitive to spicy, do NOT cross the stirring spoons over that next final hour of simmering!
Serve with grated quesadilla cheese or colby jack, and a dollop of sour cream!
Makes… a LOT.
On the fiction front, Samhain Publishing released my 4th full-length (and longest) fiction collection late in 2015 — Sacrificing Virgins. I also had new stories appear in Dark Discoveries Magazine and the Eulogies III anthology.
Plus, the German translation of The 13th was released in November, and audiobook editions of Failure and my short stories “Fish Bait” and “Eardrum Buzz” appeared. And a hardcover edition of Violet Eyes was announced from Sinister Grin Press, to be released in 2016.
In February, I was the “Guest Writer” at The Horror Zine, which reprinted my story “After the Fifth Step” and in October, I hosted a blog takeover of the Not Now…Mommy’s Reading web site, and featured author posts and giveaways virtually every day of the month. I kicked it off with a new short story written specifically for the event.
And this fall, I dusted off my Dark Arts Books imprint and released Martin Mundt’s amazing collection Synchronized Sleepwalking, the first original book on the press in four years (I’ve issued some reprints during that period, but this is the first “new” book for Dark Arts since Swallowed By The Cracks.)
All exciting stuff in my fiction world.
There were some dark spots in the fiction landscape this year too; the year started off with the death of Leonard Nimoy, and then in the spring, we lost author Tanith Lee. Then in the summer both horror author Tom Piccirilli and director Wes Craven lost their battles with brain cancer.
And while it wasn’t exactly a “death,” many have speculated it is the start of one. Hopefully not, but my current publisher began implementing some big changes towards the end of 2015, and started November off by firing my longtime editor, Don D’Auria — who was the only reason I (and many of my peers) had signed on with Samhain Publishing. I wrote about my thoughts on that here.
My Main Event of 2015: A New Kitchen
At the start of the year, after a crazy busy 2014, I had hoped that 2015 would be more relaxed, but instead, it ended up being more of a blur than ever. There were a couple reasons for that: more business travel than ever, paired with book events, and in February I was laid up for awhile with minor hernia surgery. But the big thing, the main event that overshadows my year, was a major home renovation. While in 2014, I spent a lot of weeks in the spring cleaning up from a small basement flood and building a custom oak bar in my basement, in 2015, we spent a good chunk of the summer re-habbing our kitchen.
This time around, (unlike the oak bar), I hired someone to do most of the work — I don’t know how to do drywall or lay wood floors, and frankly, I’m not interested in learning. But I did do all of the painting. And between painting walls, ceilings, doors, trim and going shopping for cabinets, floors, faucets, knobs, etc. etc… and packing and later unpacking all of our kitchen stuff — and not having the use of our kitchen for two months — it was like July through September were simply wiped out.
The end result… was totally worth it. When we moved into this house over 8 years ago, we said “we love this place, but the kitchen has got to go.” Then we priced having it done and said, “um…well, the kitchen is going to stay for awhile.” At the time, we didn’t think “awhile” would be 8 years. During those years, I banked almost everything I made on book sales to try to save up for the renovation. We couldn’t afford to redo the kitchen (plus the adjoining/connected laundry area and bathroom) on my dayjob salary, but I hoped that carefully misering book sales revenues would turn the trick.
It took a lot longer than I thought it would, but ultimately… our new kitchen is “the kitchen that books built.” And I gotta tell you — dumping the old kitchen table in favor of an island, plus moving the refrigerator to extend counter space — made a huge difference. I love cooking in this space now. I have more counter space, more cabinets — and even a full pull-out spice rack. It’s a huge upgrade that pays benefits every day. While I had some great book news in 2015, definitely… the biggest, most important thing that happened in my life in 2015 was the kitchen rehab!
Here’s a before and after:
Running Around The World
But as much as I was “inward” focused this year, with the home project, I was also outward-bound. I think I was away from home on business trips more this year than ever. Certainly I went farther away than ever.
I left the country three times, the first time in January, spending a week working in the Bahamas. Then over the next few months I had business trips to New York, Las Vegas and Boston. And then in September I spent almost a week in Belgium, and in November, several days in Barcelona.
All of that was for the dayjob, but in addition, I also did some book-related travel — I spent a couple days in Madison, WI for OddCon in April, a few days in Atlanta for the World Horror Convention in June and in September, Geri and Shaun went with me to Indianapolis for HorrorHound Weekend. That trip was especially fun since we got the chance to see our old neighbors’ new house (they moved out there in the early summer).
In addition, there were weekends that I spent away from home even though I was near home — I had booksigning tables at local SF/H conventions like Flashback Weekend in Rosemont, IL, DanCon in Orland Park, IL, Comicopolis in Lemont, IL and the Oswego, IL Literary Fest. And I had day trips in September/October to hang out at the Chicago Horror Film Festival and the Racine Barnes & Noble Horrorfest.
I was away from home a lot this year! Too much. There have been many great dinners and good conversations, but it’s truly been exhausting.
Overall? Here is the list of places I spent time in outside of Chicago in 2015:
There were a lot of highlights from all those trips, and I wish I would have blogged about all of them (there are lots of posts on Facebook, but those are tough to find after a few months!). I did put together pictorial travelogues from my trips to World Horror Con and the Bahamas, Barcelona and Belgium on my blog though.
On my fiction junkets, I spent lots of time with fellow author friends, including doing a couple of events with W.D. Gagliani and Brian Pinkerton, which was rewarding. Always good to be able to catch up and talk “a little shop” with people you actually connect with on a level deeper than simply existing in the same geography.
And I also got to meet two of my movie director/producer idols at Flashback and HorrorHound — Brian Yuzna and Stuart Gordon, who made classic movies like Re-Animator and Dagon and Society. There is now a double-signed poster of Re-Animator in my basement now to prove it 🙂
What I Wrote
Between the travel and the kitchen rehab, I’m afraid I didn’t get a lot of time for reading and writing this year. I wrote most of a new novel (about 75,000 words) — the sequel to Covenant and Sacrifice, which is tentatively called Redemption at the moment. But that could change. And I wrote a long story for an anthology that takes the prologue to my novel Siren as its jump-off point.
What I Watched
While I didn’t end up reading much in 2015, I did end up watching a lot of movies. I haven’t watched a television series in years, but on weekends, I decompress by watching lots of late-night films. I sat down this week and figured out most of what I actually watched this year, and it’s an interesting list. I saw around 80 films, a quarter of them horror, a quarter of them SF… and a bunch in other genres. My favorites? Alejandro Jodorowsky’s bizarre, avant The Holy Mountain (from 1973), Radley Metzger’s daring and stylish Camille 2000 (from 1969), Alex Garland’s amazing SF film Ex Machina (2015) and the new Mad Max and Hunger Games movies topped my list.
The full list of what I watched this year with ratings is here: http://www.johneverson.com/wordplay/best-movies-i-saw-in-2015/
What I Listened To:
In music, I was excited this year by new Peter Hook-less New Order (Music Complete), Duran Duran (Paper Gods), Chvrches (Every Open Eye) and a-Ha (Cast in Steel) CDs as well as the debuts by Nathaniel Rateliff (Nathaniel Rateliff & The Night Sweats) and Elle King (Love Stuff). I also enjoyed the new Florence + The Machine and Death Cab for Cutie discs.
Looking back on it all, 2015 was a good, if crazy busy year. Maybe I’ll finally catch my breath a little in 2016! But somehow I doubt it. In a couple days I’ll be leaving for a business trip to Seoul and Tokyo. In the next few weeks I need to finally finish that 3rd Covenant novel and move on — I’m hoping to write a new NightWhere novel this year, and I’ve promised to write short stories for a couple of anthologies. And there are some more home renovation projects to come… now that the kitchen is done, the rooms around it look shoddy (natch). So… things are not likely to “slow down” for me in the near future. But life is about building, right, otherwise… you’re decomposing. Here’s to a 2016 with lots of new “constructions.”
Happy New Year!
SO A LOT OF authors this week have been posting their Top 10 lists of Best Books Read in 2015 and I feel like I should follow suit, but honestly… I haven’t read 10 books in the past year. If I posted a Top 5 list, that would probably encompass almost everything I read — kind of pointless to post that. But I do watch a lot of movies. For many years now, every weekend, on Friday and/or Saturday night, I disappear into the basement around 11 p.m. to watch a DVD on the big-screen TV (and yes, always a DVD. I’m a hard-media fan, and I don’t subscribe to any streaming services. If I watch a movie, I have a copy that I can return to. I’m the same way with books, really, not that I’ve been reading much lately.)
So this year I thought… what if I put together a list of my favorite movies watched over the past year? Well… first I’d have to figure out what I watched. I scoured my Amazon and eBay Order lists for purchase dates, as well as skimmed emails to a couple friends that I tend to chat about movies with to see what I’d talked about DVD-wise this year, and I looked at my DVD rack for things I know I watched/filed in the past few months. Anything that was at all questionable didn’t make my list — so I know there were some more movies that I saw this year. I just don’t have a good record. Then I looked up the directors, year released, and assigned off-the-cuff star ratings (questionable, since my memory sucks and many of these were watched months ago). The end result?
I saw at least 78 movies this year, about 10 of them “re-watches” (I just rewatched the whole Star Wars series, so that covers much of that list!) I tend to focus on directors; I was discovering Alejandro Jodorowsky at the beginning of the year, and Radley Metzger more recently, so there are several from each on this list. I was interested to see how my list divided by genre, and while you could argue with my categorization on some (I don’t see World War Z as a horror film so much as an Action film), by my counts, I watched 23 horror movies and 18 Science Fiction films. Then a half dozen each of Arthouse, Kids, Comedy and Action. I was surprised that horror didn’t dominate the list more, but even more surprised to find that none of my 5-star ratings this year went to horror films. Go figure.
Anyway… here’s my list of what I watched and what my favorites were this year. I think I’ll actually keep this spreadsheet going so I have really accurate tracking next year!
|The Holy Mountain||Alejandro Jodorowsky||1973||Arthouse||5|
|Ex Machina||Alex Garland||2015||SF||5|
|Camille 2000||Radley Metzger||1969||Arthouse||5|
|Pitch Perfect||Jason Moore||2012||Comedy||5|
|Spirited Away||Hayao Miyazaki||2001||Kids||5|
|Mad Max: Fury Road||George Miller||2015||SF||5|
|The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part 2||Francis Lawrence||2015||SF||5|
|Firefly: The Complete Series||Joss Whedon||2002||SF||5|
|A Fistful of Dollars||Serio Leone||1964||Western||5|
|The Man From U.N.C.L.E.||Guy Ritchie||2015||Action||4|
|World War Z||Marc Foster||2013||Action / Horror||4|
|Iron Man 3||Shane Black||2013||Action||4|
|Santa Sangre||Alejandro Jodorowsky||1989||Arthouse||4|
|El Topo||Alejandro Jodorowsky||1970||Arthouse||4|
|The Licorice Quartet||Radley Metzger||1970||Arthouse||4|
|St. Vincent||Theodore Melfi||2014||Comedy||4|
|The Grand Budapest Hotel||Wes Anderson||2014||Comedy||4|
|The Theory of Everything||James Marsh||2014||Drama||4|
|Big Eyes||Tim Burton||2014||Drama||4|
|Sugar Cookies||Theodore Gershuny||1973||Erotic Thriller||4|
|Lady in the Water||Ron Howard||2006||Fantasy||4|
|100 Bloody Acres||Cameron Cairnes||2012||Horror||4|
|Deadheads||Brett and Drew Pierce||2011||Horror||4|
|Cemetery Man||Michele Soavi||1994||Horror||4|
|Antichrist||Lars Von Trier||2009||Horror/Drama||4|
|The Spongebob Movie: Sponge Out of Water||Paul Tibbitt||2015||Kids||4|
|Star Wars: The Force Awakens||J.J. Abrams||2015||SF||4|
|Avengers: Age of Ultron||Joss Whedon||2015||SF||4|
|Melancholia||Lars Von Trier||2011||SF/Drama||4|
|The Dance of Reality||Alejandro Jodorowsky||2013||Arthouse||3.5|
|We Are What We Are||Jim Mickle||2013||Horror||3.5|
|The Girl in Room 2A||William L. Rose||1974||Horror||3.5|
|Four Flies on Grey Velvet||Dario Argento||1971||Horror||3.5|
|Ilsa: She Wolf of the S.S.||Don Edmonds||1975||Horror||3.5|
|Prey (Alien Prey)||Norman J. Warren||1981||Horror/SF||3.5|
|Hotel Transylvania 2||Genndy Tartakovsky||2015||Kids||3.5|
|Ender’s Game||Gavin Hood||2013||SF||3.5|
|Jodorowsky’s Dune||Frank Pavich||2013||SF||3.5|
|Sin City: A Dame to Kill for||Frank Miller / Robert Rodriguez||2014||Action / Noir||3.5|
|Get Smart||Peter Segal||2008||Comedy||3|
|Nekromantik||Jorg Buttgereit||1987||Erotic Horror||3|
|Exotic Malice||Joe D’Amato||1980||Erotic Horror||3|
|Sex and Black Magic||Joe D’Amato||1980||Erotic Horror||3|
|The Awful Dr. Orlof||Jess Franco||1962||Horror||3|
|The Playgirls and the Vampire||Piero Regnoli||1960||Horror||3|
|Inside Out||Pete Docter||2015||Kids||3|
|The Peanuts Movie||Steve Martino||2015||Kids||3|
|Under the Skin||Jonathan Glazer||2013||SF||3|
|The Erotic Rites of Frankenstein||Jess Franco||1973||Erotic Horror||2.5|
|Paranormal Activity 3||Heynry Joost, Ariel Schulman||2011||Horror||2.5|
|Nympha||Ivan Zuccon||2007||Erotic Horror||2|
|Paranormal Activity 2||Tod Williams||2010||Horror||2|
|Star Wars 1-6||George Lucas||1977||SF||4|
|Mad Max||George Miller||1980||SF||4|
|Mad Max 2: The Road Warrior||George Miller||1981||SF||4|
LAST MONTH, I had a short trip to Barcelona for business, and while I didn’t get much free time to sight-see, I did discover a couple brewpubs that are must-stops for any beer lover.
I had one afternoon where I was able to take a City Tour Bus around town and at least get a glimpse of what I’d like to see, if I actually was there in the city for a few days on my own time! And I walked around after dusk a couple nights, so I was able to visit a couple of pubs as well as walk through the gothic district, down the famous Las Ramblas strip and around the harbor. Barcelona is definitely a beautiful place with friendly people, amazing architecture and great food that I’d love to return to!
I checked in at a cool boutique hotel on Sunday, November 15, 2015 called Room Mate Pau right near the city center plaza (Placa de Catalunya). The hotel is definitely worth staying in if you’re going to Barcelona – it’s right at the center of things, a couple blocks from Las Ramblas and the gothic quarter. And it had cool room decor:
Thanks to Ben Holbrook’s 10 Craft Beer Bars in Barcelona guide, I picked out a couple places that I wanted to visit ahead of my trip, so I used my little bit of free time there well. I only wish I could have hit more of the places on his list. I had a couple hours free in the afternoon after checking in, so I stopped at one of the pubs on the list right off, the Ale & Hop, which was just a 10-minute walk from my hotel in the gothic quarter. The place had a funky b/w art display on all the walls, and taps featuring microbrews from around Europe.
My first beer in Barcelona was an Omnipollo & Buxton Ice Cream Pale. I was skeptical of pairing vanilla cream with a pale ale, but it was pretty good. And yes… You can taste both vanilla and hops! I tried another IPA there, but the Ice Cream Ale was the most memorable, though I don’t think I’d want to drink two of them in a row.
Proving that the world is, indeed, small, the bartender told me that the previous summer he’d been to Indiana, just an hour or so away from my house, to attend a beer fest there. He fell in love there with Three Floyd’s Brewing, and remembered their Zombie Dust by name!
After my visit to the Ale & Hop, I was back “on the clock” for a few hours, and then once done with work, had my first taste of true Spanish Tapas at the Taverna Del Bisbe. It was a good place right next to the Catedral de Barcelona, and I sampled some prawns, garlic potatoes, peppers, creme brule ice cream… Mmmm!
The following night, after a 14-hour day on the clock, I enjoyed a late (after 10 p.m.!) business dinner at El Nacional, one of several restaurants in a converted old train station. It was an excellent dinner – oxtail stew, tomato-rubbed olive oil bread, fried potatoes, olives and most importantly, a refreshing, golden Estrella Damm lager!
Afterwards, I took my laptop to La Taverna De Barcelona, a little bar near my hotel where a local band was playing an array of pop hits. And… ironically, I happened to be editing a new Siren-spinoff story at a bar that was flanked by… wood-carved sirens. What are the odds? I worked a little bit and enjoyed some popcorn and a refreshing but full-bodied Cruzcampo pils as the band moved from Oasis to Black-Eyed Peas. Life rewards those who live….
On Tuesday, I had the afternoon to roam the city. That’s when I hopped on the “Red Bus” and took an audio-guide tour around the city, catching glimpses of the harbor, retired bullfighting stadium (bullfighting is outlawed there now) and the famous Park Guell.
The tour is a great way to see the city because you can get on and off all day long as long as you retain your ticket. I got off the bus for a while at Park Guell and walked around and had a paella lunch near the park, which had a TV shoot going on for “Emerald City” (helmed by Shaun Cassidy). It was kind of weird to know that former American pop star Shaun Cassidy was filming just a few hundred yards from where I was walking in Spain! Here are a few photos of those things and the city square, Placa de Catalunya, which is right next to where I stayed. The bombings in Paris had happened just a couple days before my trip, and so the Placa had an impromptu memorial set up of hand-drawn prayers and art, which was inspiring to see.
The best thing on the tour that I saw was the beautiful, still under-construction church of lights, Sagrada Família, begun in late 1882 and taken over the following year by the architect Antoni Gaudi. The architect has sites celebrated all over the city, including Park Guell at the top of the hill overlooking the city. The construction on the church continues year by year, based on tourist donations, and is scheduled to be finished in about 10 more years. I spent well over an hour at the church, admiring the amazing streams of colored light and different architecture styles on its various facades. It is truly an architectural work of wonder.
After getting off the bus tour, I walked down Las Ramblas — kind of like the city’s “Times Square.” The boulevard is full of outdoor cafes and tourist trap shops and leads all the way to the harbor. Once there, I stopped at another of the brewpubs mentioned in the Beer Guide — the BlackLab Brewhouse & Kitchen, which is right near the water, and apparently a big hangout for beachgoers.
While I was there, I noticed a stack of beer coasters from Founders Brewing sitting on the bar… when I asked the bartender why they had a Michigan brewery represented (all the beer on tap the night I was there was brewed in Barcelona), he told me that the following day was going to be a special “Founders Takeover” day — they’d be featuring Founders brews on tap all day. I came halfway around the world to find a feature on Michigan craft beer? Weird! Anyway… while I didn’t care for the first couple Black Lab original IPAs I tried (too bitter), their Series X Amarillo IPA was pretty good and had a nice lemony finish.
After Black Lab, I walked into the Gothic district and ate at the amazing Ristorante Les Caracoles. The place looks like nothing from the street — in fact, you can’t even tell it’s a restaurant; all you can see is a long bar. But then, at the end of the bar, you walk down a couple steps, duck your head, and arrive at a hostess stand where you can check in… and eventually be led through the kitchen to a handful of ever-larger rooms beyond. The place was actually huge… but you’d never know it from the front, or even the first room where I sat, next to the kitchen.
I had a great dinner of barbecued rabbit and thin sliced ham… but the best part was dessert – probably the best creme brulee and sweet dessert sherry EVER! My eyes watered, they were both so amazing!
The next day was another long day of work, but that night I enjoyed a final dinner at El Callejón, a little tapas place down down an alley in the gothic district. Potatoes, cheese, steak, risotto and a mojito!
So where does John Everson go for a last spot of writing in a foreign city? Later that night I grabbed my laptop and stopped at The George Payne — the neighborhood Irish bar, of course! The place had a great stained glass window crowned staircase, good music and a warm dark wood vibe. I found a table and tried another local ale — Barcino Raval IPA, which had more of a cider-y finish to it than a bitter hop finish, as I worked on the last edits of my new Siren story.
As always happens in a cozy Irish bar, last call came quickly, and then it was off to pack and get a few hours sleep before the long flight home!
I do hope someday I’ll get the chance to return to Barcelona to wander the narrow alleyways and explore the churches and parks more — I’d love to spend a week there checking out the city… and enjoying its beaches and beer!
I’VE BEEN TRAVELLING a lot for my dayjob lately, which is not terribly unusual… but I am not usually on trips abroad. This fall, however, took me to both Ghent, Belgium and Barcelona, Spain.
While on business trips, I don’t usually have many hours of daylight to “see the sights,” but I do always try to take a couple hours at night to check out the local brewpubs and breweries of the area. And Belgium is known as one of the beer capitals of the world… so I tried to sample as many different brews as I could while I was there.
That said… I’m not personally a fan of the funky taste of Belgium yeast… so it was a challenge to find things that I really enjoyed! I did taste 3 of the 18 certified Abbey ales (Maredsous, Steenbrugge and Tongerlo) and 2 from the six Trappist producers (Chimay and Westmalle) as well as a number of other Belgian beers during the six days I was there.
1) Delirium Tremens
2) Jupiter Blond
3) Maredsous Tripel
4) Brugge Tripel
5) Monk’s Cafe Sour
Other beer mentioned in this blog: Steen Brugge, Tongerlo, Chimay, Westmalle Tripel, Prearis IPA, Gulden Draak, Gruut Amber, Duvel.
But more about those later. (If you just want the “beer tour”, click here.)
A short walking tour of Ghent
I flew from Chicago to Brussels on Saturday, August 29, 2015, and then took a taxi up to Ghent, arriving at my hotel, the Best Western Cour St. Georges, on a picture-perfect, 75-degree sunny Sunday morning. I stayed in the heart of the old city district, so everything within walking distance was beautiful and historic. The Town Hall was a block down the street. Here was the view out of the hotel doorway, and around the block:
(NOTE: click on any of the pictures in this blog to see full-size versions)
Sint Baafskathedraal (St. Bavo’s)
I arrived too early in the day to get into a room, so with the sounds of church bells ringing around town (there are churches on virtually every block there, it seemed!), I took a walk around the city center and had my first meal at Brasserie Agrea (Belgium waffles, of course) and explored the beautiful St. Baafskathedraal, the exterior of which was unfortunately under construction.
There was a sheltered concert pavilion just down the street from the hotel and across the street from St. Nicholas’ Church, where locals took turns playing an outdoor piano. In just a few minutes of standing there, I heard some amazing impromptu classical music played by three different people who just hopped up on the bench from the crowd and started playing. I took a short turn at it myself at one point in the week, when the crowds had thinned!
St. Michael’s Bridge/Graslei
A few blocks away from my hotel was the Leie River, which runs through the center of town and is lined with eateries and cafes, and crossed by a notable bridge, St. Michael’s, from which you look down on the Graslei strip, and have a beautiful view of the famous Ghent towers: Saint Nicholas’ Church, the Belfry and Saint Bavo’s Cathedral.
Gravensteen Castle (Castle of the Counts)
Just down the river was Ghent’s most famous site, Gravensteen Castle, built in 1180 by Philippe d’Alsace, count of Flanders. The castle offers a great audio tour, and perfect views of the city, as well as a small torture chamber museum with a guillotine. So… you know I had to check it out!
My first beer in Belgium:
After walking around for a few hours waiting for the hotel to have beds, I sat down in a restaurant/bar cafe area across from the Castle Gravensteen and tried a Prearis IPA. A refreshing summer ale, it was a faintly grassy, dry beer that betrayed very little overt hops flavor.
I was quickly to learn that Belgium IPAs offer little of the overpowering hops character that American IPAs do… I tasted a couple others that I didn’t write down for this blog, and found none there that had enough flavor to encourage a second try.
On the advice of my waiter, I switched to a Tongerlo Blond, a copper-colored abbey ale. It was a better brew, smooth, with a touch of honey… but still not quite what I was looking for — I didn’t come back to it the rest of the trip.
One thing I learned quickly in Belgium – there is an intense focus there on the beer glass as well as the beer. Every place you eat has a full stock of glasses imprinted with the brews they serve. I did not drink a beer in a restaurant or bar anywhere the week I was in Ghent that did not have the imprint of the appropriate brewery on it.
Once I had finally checked in to my hotel and unpacked on Sunday, I went out to enjoy a couple hours of daylight at the Bierhuis at Het Waterhuis aan de Bierkant by the river. There I had my first Gulden Draak of the trip, a thick, darker ale I discovered several years ago in, of all places, a German bar in Boston.
I did a little writing by the river before dinner, and would come back to Bierhuis several times during my trip — it was a perfect location for writing. At one point, my bartender was singing along to Dolly Parton’s “Jolene” over the radio. Not quite what I expected to hear in Ghent, Belgium!
Dinner that first night was at a great spot on the Graslei next to the river. There I tested a Gruut Amber beer (which had very little taste) and enjoyed an amazing hunk of steak. And the “presentation” was good too:
Housed in a building from the 13th century, it was both a modern and old style experience — exposed brick and beams from the original shell of the building paired with modern floors and fixtures to make a very cool space. I had to try a local dish — the Waterzooi (stew with cuckoo). And I topped it off with a Brugge Tripel, an abbey ale which I enjoyed – probably my favorite Tripel style of the trip, as it didn’t overpower you with Belgium spice notes. Topped it off with some ice cream with vanilla bourbon.
Going Old School… er… Abbey:
I tried a Westmalle Tripel, the oldest and most well-known abbey ale, at ‘T Vosken, an outdoor cafe near the cathedral one night, thinking it would be comparable to the Brugge I’d enjoyed at the dinner at Belga Queen, but instead, the character was very different.
It was fizzy like Duvel, which could be refreshing, but the fruity/spicy character was overpowering for me. To my tastebuds, it was heavily colored with Belgian spice… I was not at all a fan, and honestly almost didn’t finish the glass.
Nope… despite the high marks this one gets on Beer Advocate, Belgium just could not make me a fan of spiced abbey ale!
On the day that I toured the Gravensteen castle, I had a late lunch at ‘T Vosken after working an 8-hour day (we started early) — Belgium chickory stewed with ham in a cheese sauce…with twiced baked potatoes and a Steen Brugge.
It was one of my favorite meals of the trip. The chickory is a local vegetable with the consistency of chopped rhubarb, which was excellent in the cheesy sauce, and the Brugge was good too — not too “yeasted” for me!
It was at a little pub around the corner from my hotel that I discovered my favorite “session” beer of the trip. Ironically, I think it has the local reputation of a Bud or Miller in Belgium – as a light watered down brew.
But I found Jupiter Blond to be a good easy-drinking beer that had far more complex characteristics than its American pilsner counterparts. The most famous beer of its type from Belgium is Stella Artois… but I have a couple bottles of that in my fridge at home… so I didn’t drink any Stella in Ghent. I was most unhappy to discover when I got home that they don’t export Jupiter. Here are a couple shots of that corner bar:
It was towards the end of my trip that I finally tried Delirium Tremens, one of Belgium’s best known exports. While it has that Belgium yeast funk, I found it light and effervescent enough that I enjoyed a couple glasses of it before I left the country… and even bought a sign for my home basement bar. Ironically, this one was quaffed in an Irish bar – The Celtic Towers – on my last night there. Where I also had the worst nachos ever (ew – salsa should not be sweet!).
Breezing through Brussels:
On my one free day while in Belgium, I took the train back down to Brussels, since all I saw of the city coming in was the airport. After walking several blocks through a typical modern city, I arrived at the old city center, where there’s a square called the Grand Place, that is used for various events through the year. There are photos on the web of the place being completely filled with a Flower Carpet, during one periodic festival, that are amazing. However, when I was there… they were constructing dozens of tents.
I found that there was a Belgian Brewers Association museum off the square, so I paid my 5 euros and went in — they had examples of classic brewery equipment and a short film about Belgium’s long history of beer craft (where I learned that people in the Middle Ages were encouraged to drink beer because of the poor quality of the water — the alcohol in the beer made it safer to drink!).
As part of the tour they offered a sample of a light or dark abbey ale. I tried the darker — Maredsous Tripel — and quite enjoyed it… unfortunately, I didn’t see it on the menu at the restaurants near my hotel, so that was the only sample I got. I think it was also the only beer I had in Belgium that was not in an appropriate labeled glass. Instead… it was in a “proud of our beers” Brewery Association glass.
I also found out while watching the association’s film that that Friday, the day I was LEAVING Belgium, was the start of the largest annual tasting festival of beer in the country. That’s what all the tents were that they were setting up in the square. In 48 hours, the square was going to be swarming with beerdrinkers. Believe me when I say, I was really not happy to find that out! I came halfway around the world to find I missed the festival by a day? ;-/
A few blocks away, I saw a store called de Bier Tempel. I figured if there was anyplace I was going to worship while in Belgium, that should be it… so I stopped inside and picked up my Delirium Tremems glass and sign for my home bar.
While in Brussels, I also stopped at the site of the city’s most famous statue — the Manneken Pis (little man pee). Depicting a small boy peeing into a basin, the statue was erected in the early 1600s. There are many versions of the legend behind it — one suggests a young boy awoken by a fire put it out with his urine to prevent a castle from burning. Another suggests that a young boy urinated from a tree on invading troops, who subsequently lost their battle. You can find likenesses of this little guy in just about every tourist stop in Belgium — and when I found a life size one at a waffle shop, well… I had to pose.
One of my last discoveries after returning from Brussels to Ghent, was the Mosquito Coast, a cool little exotic cafe decked out in safari decorations just a few blocks down the street from my hotel. They only had a few beers on tap, but they served a Flemish style Oud Bruin — Monk’s Cafe — the only sour I tried during my week there. It was a beer created by the brewery of Gulden Draak specifically to ship OUT of Belgium — to a Monk’s Cafe in Philadelphia, oddly enough. Supposedly Mosquito Coast was the only place in Ghent that had it on tap. I found it to be the perfect marriage of faintly fruity aftertaste and sour finish. And a few weeks after returning from Belgium, I was excited to find that a Chicago liquor store chain (Binny’s) actually carried it. So there are a couple in my fridge right now!
Sadly… all good things must come to an end, and after six days in Belgium, I left my hotel at 6 a.m., taxied down to Brussels, and hopped a plane home. Despite the amount of pictures I took, I worked long days most of my time there, so I did not get to go inside most of the landmarks. I did see enough to know I’d love to go back… and while it took some dedicated taste-testing, I know what I’ll drink when I do. And I suppose next time… I’ll need to sample some lambics. I didn’t test a single fruit beer while I was there.
Here are a bunch of other pictures from my week in Belgium:
MY FOURTH FULL COLLECTION of short stories, Sacrificing Virgins, is finally on sale today! Some preview copies debuted at the HorrorHound Convention in Indianapolis a few weeks ago, but today is the day you can finally order an e-book or trade paperback copy on all the major bookstore outlets!
If you have enjoyed my fiction (and I’m not sure why you’d be on this mailing list if you haven’t!) please consider taking a minute and ordering a copy today — particularly from Amazon. If a good bunch of my loyal readers on this list order/download the book all on the same day, it will send Sacrificing Virgins up the “horror charts” on Amazon and hopefully lead to more readers discovering it! Let’s make a sacrificial wave!
A great big batch of overdue Sins
My last full-length fiction collection was Needles & Sins, released over eight years ago now, back in 2007, before any of my paperback novels hit bookstores. So… it’s been a long time between collections! Needles gave me artwork that I loved so much it has been incorporated in my website and e-newsletter banners, and I have to say — I love the art on Sacrificing Virgins just as much.
Sacrificing Virgins is also my longest collection of short stories, featuring 25 tales that spotlight all facets of my writing. There are quiet ghost stories, a touch of urban fantasy, a previously unpublished tale of macabre humor, a “gross-out contest” story that I wrote for the World Horror Convention and some more extreme and erotic horror tales. There are “tie-in” stories that are set in the worlds of my novels Siren and NightWhere, as well as the original short story “The Pumpkin Man” which eventually inspired me to write the novel of the same name.
The title story, “Sacrificing Virgins” was originally printed in a limited edition Delirium Books anthology, The Dead Inn, way back in 2001, and “Grandma Wanda’s Belly Jelly” appeared in an ezine back in 1999. Most of these stories, however, come from the past 10 years. Two of them, “Field of Flesh” and “The Hole To China” were first published earlier this year, in the magazine Dark Discoveries and the anthology Eulogies III, respectively. And “Voyeur” originally appeared last summer in the award-winning sf/horror anthology Qualia Nous.
This book also collects most of the tales that were in the now out-of-print mini-collections Creeptych and Deadly Nightlusts, and also finally collects personal favorites like “The Tapping,” “In Memoryum” and “She Found Spring”.
I hope you’ll read and enjoy these tales as much as I enjoyed writing them! Please drop me a note and let me know what you think of the book when you get a chance to read it. I’d love to know what your favorite pieces are.
Here are the links to the book on Amazon, B&N, Kobo and Samhain:
Here’s the stack of copies that appeared on my desk this past week!
MY SIXTH NOVEL, NightWhere, was a Bram Stoker Award finalist in 2012 when it was released, and this week, for the first time since its release, the publisher has put it on sale for just 99 cents! I’m hoping some more people will discover and enjoy this decidedly non-mainstream novel over the next few days while it’s on sale!
You can check it now on Amazon here: http://www.amazon.com/NightWhere-ebook/dp/B0083K12W4/
Readers have called it “50 Shades meets Hellraiser” and reviews said things like:
“NightWhere isn’t for everybody…Think Hellraiser meets Basic Instinct, and you have some idea about the dark contents of this novel. That being said, I loved NightWhere.”
“I can guarantee once you start NightWhere you will not be able to put it down; it sinks its hooks into you and you just have to turn the next page to see what will happen next.”
–Famous Monsters of Filmland
“…extremely well written, providing the kind of reading experience you get from Cormac McCarthy’s The Road or Scott Smith’s The Ruins — relentless in both realism and emotional impact.”
–The Horror Review
“The dialogue is crisp, the plotting is fast-paced — it’s a very confident piece of work, regardless of the subject matter. And is it scary? Yes, at times NightWhere is very scary…because this is a novel that can go anywhere. And it does.”
“NightWhere is a darkly erotic, deeply disturbing and hauntingly engaging tale that took my breath away – literally… This tale of heightened eroticism, degradation, masochism, graphic violence and often horrific imagery is the proverbial scrape across a chalk board or the fingernail stroke down one’s spine that elicits an aching twinge and shudder; and, weirdly, leaves you wanting more. NightWhere may not be ‘hauntingly beautiful’, but it’s a hell of a good read.”
–Dark Haven Book Reviews
Here are the links to Amazon, B&N and Kobo:
Barnes & Noble: http://www.barnesandnoble.com/w/nigh…=9781609286446