Sprout, Chihuly, & Strawberry Mochi

The long awaited visit from the Jager family had arrived and the forecast was severe thunderstorms all day. We had planned to bring Derek’s parents to the Chicago Botanic Garden first thing in the morning and then spend the afternoon in Mitsuwa Marketplace. Cal and Sawako had loved hearing of our Japanese grocery adventure that we discovered a few months ago and wanted to see it for themselves. We just couldn’t bear the thought of trekking through the gardens in the pouring rain, especially during a thunderstorm or tornado watch. So our revised itinerary was a series of indoor activities with the same intentions of admiring exotic plants and perusing the aisles of authentic Japanese products. 

The parents met us in downtown Valparaiso after the Friday work day. The skies were cloudy but the rain had stopped so we walked from the library to our favorite restaurant, Meditrina Market Cafe, where Sawako told the waitress that she could eat this meal every day! We enjoyed an appetizer of roasted eggplant crostini and falafel with chicken shawarma. Delicious and fulfilling, we walked off dinner at the library garden and the Ogden Botanical Gardens in Valpo. Sprout sniffed the newcomers at our apartment, making a friendship with Mom while we watched “Ramenheads.” Sprout loves playing with Sawako!

I made my famous pancakes the next morning with bananas and maple syrup before we hit the road for the Garfield Park Conservatory. The conservatory is just six miles west of Millennium Park in the heart of Chicago. We arrived about a half hour early for our timed entry as a buffer for the travel time on the toll road with storms and traffic. This was one of the nicest greenhouses we have ever visited with well-maintained plants that were labeled and arranged beautifully. We entered in small groups to maintain distance but could walk through the rooms at our own pace. 

The indoor temperature was warm yet comfortable and not overly humid with each greenhouse designated to its own botanical environment such as palms, aroids, or a desert climate. Derek mentioned that the fern room was like stepping into Jurassic Park with mosses creeping up rock faces, and vibrant green blades draped over our heads as we walked around our swampy surroundings. To our pleasant surprise we saw the “Persian Lily Pads,” a glass installation created by the famous Dale Chihuly,  interwoven in the aroid room as if they rose out of the water with the plants around them. 

We had a short window of time to walk part of the outdoor gardens while the weather took a break before its next showering. The demonstration garden was the most impressive garden for me to see the flowers, herbs, fruits, and vegetables from raised beds. I liked seeing how the gardeners created ways to secure tomatoes and save space within a small area.

The next stop was the day’s main event: Mitsuwa Marketplace, the largest Japanese supermarket in the United States. We went to the food court first where I stood in a line that wrapped around the corner for a bowl of Miso Ramen from Santouka while Derek reserved a table and the parents picked out their food. It’s never a good idea to shop on an empty stomach! After lunch, Sawako wanted to look through the books at Kinokuniya and Derek picked up some new origami paper. Cal found Kanji stamps of English names but all of our names were sold out.

The tour of Mitsuwa was an exciting but somewhat overwhelming process. Sawako said that groceries are never this large in Japan and Mitsuwa must have been ten times bigger than the store they shop at in Grand Rapids, so it was a lot to take in. I pushed the cart while we looked through each aisle as the parents spotted old favorites and introduced new ones to Derek and I. We enjoyed a few treats afterwards of mochi and sushi on the way to Tensuke Market, a much smaller Japanese grocery with more authentic products that the parents introduced to us. Sawako gifted us with some Dorayaki because we had never tried it and had just finished watching a film about a Dorayaki shop.

While we weren’t able to see the Chicago Botanic Garden this time, it was a wonderful road trip to spend family time together. Derek and I took an hour today to visit the Valpo Art Festival before settling in for the afternoon. I have been sipping my matcha blueberry lemon tea as I write this nostalgic story while Derek folds new origami sculptures for his collection, presenting each one to me with glee.

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