Calories Do Count

LOVE Hong Kong street food no matter the calories
LOVE Hong Kong street food no matter the calories

Someone once joked that he actually enjoyed eating airline food because up in the air the calories didn’t count. Wouldn’t that be nice if it were true?

High on my list of favorite things about travel is eating. I enjoy getting a break from meal planning, cooking, and cleaning up, but I also love finding great new places to eat, and getting to try out a region’s cuisine including sampling the street fare whenever I can.

It’s very easy for me to overeat when I travel, and as I’ve gotten older I’ve had to develop strategies so that I come home at least weighing the same as I did before I left, if not less. These days I eat what I want when I’m on the road, but I eat less and budget my calories. I’m careful about what I choose to eat, and make sure I get plenty of exercise. I don’t travel somewhere else to eat fast foods or things I can find here at home, so avoid those places (the exception is to get a Teriyaki McBurger and maybe a yogurt shake at McDonald’s in Japan). I want to eat what I can’t get here!

Breakfast! It's always hard to choose from all the beautiful offerings.
Breakfast! It’s always hard to choose from all the beautiful offerings.

My favorite travel breakfast these days is a pastry (muffin, roll, toast or such) and coffee. Sometimes I’ll upgrade to a latte, but I usually try to save those for an afternoon break, and not every day. I’ll always have fresh fruit too if it’s available. Japan has the most incredible bakeries – they give Paris a run for its money – and it’s easy and affordable to stop off and pick up something for breakfast, or to put aside for the next day. I also adore Eggs Benedict in any form, but they are a special treat these days, and only if I can share the order with someone else.

When I’m on the road I try to make lunch my biggest meal of the day. Not only does lunch typically cost less than dinner (sometimes there can be several dollars difference for the same menu item depending on whether it’s being served for lunch or dinner), but eating more at lunch still gives me time to burn some of the calories I consume. My preferred dinner is typically something light, like a sandwich, or in Japan, sushi or a bowl of noodles. I stick with water for my beverage most of the time, although I do like a cocktail or some wine once in a while. The calories from those though can add up fast.

Crepes are my favorite sweet treat in Japan these days. So many delicious varieties!
Crepes are my favorite sweet treat in Japan these days. So many delicious varieties!

As I’ve written before, I am not big on sweets, but it’s easy for me to be swayed when I’m traveling. Sometimes I can snag a bite from Brett or the girls, but usually I just have a cup of coffee. Starbucks are ubiquitous in Japan, and they have different Frappuchino specialty flavors than the U.S., things like matcha brownie or sakura, delicious Japanese cherry flavor.  One of the hidden blessings of eating in Japan though is that portion sizes are usually smaller than what we get here in the States, so I can order my own dessert or sweet snack and not overindulge. Their sweets are also much less “sweet” than what we eat here in the U.S. and don’t contain as much sugar.

Getting enough exercise is critical, and most places we’ve visited have thankfully required a LOT of walking. We hiked all over the Grand Canyon and Sedona when we were there recently, and I usually always lose weight when I visit Japan because I have to walk so much, whether it’s down to the corner to catch a cab, or to a bus stop or train station. There are always lots and lots of stairs to climb up and down there as well (people don’t often just stand on escalators but climb up and down them as they move). When you get off the train or bus somewhere, or out of a cab, there’s always more walking to do, as there is when you visit any historical site. The same was true on visits to Hong Kong, Beijing and other cities in China.

While I love the serendipity of discovering a good restaurant or snack bar or such, these days it’s easy and fun to research restaurants before you depart. Sites like TripAdvisor, Yelp, and others rate restaurants and offer reviews, and you can often read menus as well. These are especially helpful if you are on a special diet or are vegetarian or vegan. I usually head off with a list of restaurants and/or dishes I’d like to try. I also ask locals for their favorite places to eat while we’re visiting and have gotten fantastic tips about places I wouldn’t have known about or tried otherwise.

Whatever I eat when I’m traveling, whether I’m up in the air or down on the ground, those calories do count. I treat them like money in a checking account, spending them carefully, and replenishing my account whenever I can with exercise. Splurges are allowed and encouraged if they’re done judiciously.

OK, now I’m hungry!

Postcard From: Fushimi Inari-Taisha

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Although I made many, many trips to Kyoto during my college overseas study tour and during our two navy tours in Japan, I had not only never visited the Fushimi Inari-Taisha, it had never even appeared on my radar of places to see in Kyoto. It wasn’t until I got active on Pinterest, and pictures of the vermillion tunnels of torii gates kept appearing over and over that I became more curious, and decided that on our 2015 visit to the city I would not miss visiting this shrine.

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Torii gate at the entrance to Fushimi Inari-Taisha
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Fox statue guarding the entrance to the shrine. Smaller fox statues can be found throughout the shrine.

Fushimi Inari-Taisha is the head shrine of the Shinto kami Inari, god of prosperity, worldly success and industry, and of fertility, rice, sake and tea. Inari is also the patron of merchants and businessmen. The thousands of torii gates (in Japanese, torii literally means ‘bird perch’) located in the shrine were each donated by businesses as offerings to Inari. Statues and images of foxes can also be seen throughout the shrine as fox (kitsune) are considered to be messengers to the gods. They are often seen with a key in their mouth, indicating their mythical role as keeper of the rice granary.

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The main shrine. Visitors are lined up to make offerings.
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Main shrine roof detail and lanterns.

The girls and I set out for the shrine on our last morning in Kyoto. Located on the south side of the city, on the side of Mt. Inari, it was easy to find, only a short trip by train from Kyoto station.

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Torii are engraved with the name of the business that made the donation.
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A smaller shrine area located midway through the grounds.
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Fox ema left at one of the smaller shrine areas. The ema cost around 300 yen ($3) – the purchaser draws on a face, then writes a prayer request on the back (for examination success, sports win, good job, etc.)

After entering the shrine, we hiked through the vermillion tunnels for well over an hour, weaving our way up and over hills and through the forest. The immense number of torii massed together is almost overwhelming, and yet the tunnels beckon you to walk through and follow their turns and twists to see where they lead. Just when you start to feel like you could get lost, there you are back at a familiar spot. And, throughout the shrine are located smaller shrines and rest areas where you can sit and have a snack, or write your prayer request on the back of a fox ema (small wooden plaques). Unfortunately, because we needed to leave in order to to catch our train back to Tokyo, we missed hiking through the last great tunnel located at the back of the shrine.

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WenYu enjoys some hot, freshly made takoyaki.
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YaYu enjoys a skewer of grilled pork – she said it was the most delicious thing she ate in Japan!

The shrine is a popular destination for Japanese tourists, and as is typical at many shrines, when you leave you enter a street of souvenir shops and food stalls. We stood in line to enjoy some Japanese street food: a version of takoyaki (round pancakes with octopus and herbs) and some skewers of grilled pork.

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In the Shinto religion, torii mark the transition between sacred and profane space. Walking through the tunnels does indeed give a sense of the divine, of being in a very special place.

I can’t believe it took me so long to visit this beautiful shrine, but it was definitely worth the wait. Fushimi Inari-Taisha is a fascinating combination of energy, beauty, and mystery (I would love to walk through the tunnels at dusk!), and has earned a permanent place on my must-visit list whenever I next visit Kyoto.