Archive for January, 2014

12/29/2013 – Day 10 in Japan

January 3, 2014 - 11:43 am 1 Comment

We woke up early this morning to go to the famous Nishiki Market near Shijo street. Rich with local foodstuffs and traditional crafts, the market stretched block after block with so much to observe, taste, and enjoy! I didn’t recognize a lot of the foodstuffs sold, but we saw everything from big pots of miso of all different types, pickled vegetables, and raw and roasted fish to raw and steamed mochi, sugar candy with beautiful designs, and my favorite – matcha (green tea) warabi mochi. Grace and I shared a big box of the warabi mochi and relished it completely – if only we can get this in the United States! I love the soft texture that feels like chewing on a cloud, as well as the delicate flavor.

Nishiki is famous for its roasted baby octopus with a quail egg stuffed in the head (served on a stick), but we didn’t eat one this time around since it was too early for food like this. We did eat various desserts, shared an sweet potato and vegetable oden (fish cake base served hot on a stick), and Grace had a stick of marinated raw tuna on a stick. Since this is our last full day in Japan, we also bought a lot of the traditional omiyage for gifts when we get back. Kyoto is famous for its yatsuhashi, a confectionary sweet traditional the region with a glutinous rice flour shell wrapped as a triangle around a flavored paste of some sort, from green tea red bean to cinnamon and yuzu. The overall texture is soft and mochi-like, and absolutely delicious. Grace and I bought quite a few boxes to bring back!

We wandered into the Teramachi district to get a sense of Kyoto’s downtown. Most surprisingly, we saw so many traditional shrines, cemeteries, and temples fully integrated into the modern shotengai (covered shopping area). Literally, just stepping into a nook brings about another world – I’ve never before seen such a melding of old and new within such a small space. Grace and I had a terrific time poking around the shops, many of them dedicated to anime goods, manga, and Japanese pop culture. Grace bought some comics, doujinshi, and other assorted items, while I bought some keychains and cute trinkets. We saw a lot of Free! and Kuroko merchandise in particular, and marked it down on our list of animes to watch when return back home. I haven’t watched anime since freshman year of college – it may be time to re-visit my old comfort activity!

For lunch, Grace spotted an okonomiyaki restaurant on the third floor of a non-descript building! We had a blast eating the delicious octopus pancake and pork and seafood hiroshimayaki! I wish I could okonomiyaki everyday…I love the sauce, the cabbage, the special batter, the flavoring and the bonito flakes, and the interactive nature of smushing the pancake around on the hot table plate and shoveling it with the tiny picks. Despite stuffing ourselves, we somehow managed to find room for a matcha crepe for dessert afterward from a popular stand.

Our host had recommended visiting an onsen (hot springs) at a ryokan in an adjacent town, but given the difficulty of making the trip fit with our limited time, I did my research and found Funaoka Onsen on the outskirts of Kyoto, accessible by public transportation. Grace told me that she did not recommend that I go given the potential severity of the culture shock but I didn’t listen to her…oh how I wish I did!

Funaoka Onsen was listed as the top bath-house in Kyoto by Lonely Planet given its status as one of the oldest bath-houses in operation (over a century in age), and its famous carved wooden panels along the ceiling of the dressing room dating back during the period of the Japanese invasion of Manchuria – as expected, depicting often violent scenes. Funaoka contains an outdoor bath, a sauna, a cypress-wood tub, electric bath, Chinese herbal bath, and a few other small baths as well. Given the old history and traditional feel of the bath, we heard that it’s a favorite haunt of geisha, maiko, yakuza, and others seeking a more historical experience. Given how public bath-houses are an important cultural tradition in Japan, I thought that in theory it would be a great experience…the actual execution of our expedition, however, lets just suffice to say that I am glad that I went to see what it was like, but I will not repeat anything of this sort for the rest of my life.

There is so much hair-splitting etiquette in public bathing that without Grace, I would have been completely lost and likely ejected from the establishment. I think people in Japan are a lot more comfortable with being naked together compared to Americans…I had trouble psychologically getting over this hurdle and spent the entire time completely embarrassed. The baths were all very hot which made me feel very light-headed, and in shifting to the cold bath while outdoors on a 30 degree Fahrenheit day, I caught a cold and caused leg muscle spasms. Meant to be a relaxing experience, typical residents stay about an hour or so (if not more), but we high tailed it out in 10 minutes. I had trouble figuring out how to use the traditional washiki toilet, and couldn’t get the brown herbal bath residue off my skin (alongside the images of the naked old people out of my head). Grace was kind enough to do the “I told you so” routine only once, both of us reeling from the heat and vapors of the bath.

We took the bus back to central Kyoto, and had a soba teishoku at a delicious restaurant. If only I could eat like this everyday – we savored our last dinner in Japan with a lot of gusto. We then went back to the Kyoto Avanti department store to take some more purikura photos to commemorate our trip, as well as eat our dessert together. Grace and I split a mango waffle and green tea cheesecake parfait – alas, we’ll miss Japanese desserts!

With heavy hearts and heavy bags from our souvenir and gift shopping for family and friends, we headed back to our residence in Kyoto. I don’t feel ready to leave – Japan is a magical country to visit and my most favorite “tourist experience” I’ve ever had, ahead of Greece, Italy, Taiwan, Korea, China, England, Scotland, Spain, Portugal, Switzerland, Mexico, and all the other places I’ve ever visited in my lifetime thus far. I love the exotic cityscape, the delicious and reasonably priced set meals and desserts that can be found everywhere and of elevated quality even just stumbling into a random place to eat, the convenience of the trains to see so many cities, the intriguing pop culture and subculture presence, the beautiful historical sights, the omnipresent vibrant shopping arcades, the traditional crafts, the “cute” trinkets sold everywhere from Rilakkuma to Pom Pom Purin, the fashion of the youth and the vertical hair, the anime characters everywhere…all of it! Furthermore, I love spending time with Grace, my dearest sister and best friend in the whole world.

12/28/2013 – Day 9 in Japan

January 3, 2014 - 11:42 am 1 Comment

A picture is worth a thousand words, and to express the serenity, beauty, and sheer grandeur of the sights we saw today, it’s more apt to show with a photo album than with words. Nevertheless, I will try. We woke up early to see Nijo Castle, a UNESCO world heritage site and the residence of Tokugawa Ieyasu, built in 1626. Unfortunately, we only had a chance to see the outer gates since the caste was closed for renovation and re-decorating ahead of the new year.

We returned back to Kyoto central station for a quick breakfast and to meet Erica, one of Grace’s longest-standing friends from when she did a summer abroad in Montreal in high school. Our goal for today: to tackle Kinkakuji, Ryoanji, and Ninnaji Temples in an afternoon.

Kinkakuji in one word – majestic. Translated roughly as “Temple of the Golden Pavillion”, Kinkakuji is a UNESCO world heritage site renowned for its Muromachi period garden design with the original design dating back to 1397. Gold leaf covers the entire three-story pavillion, strategically positioned on an island surrounded by a magnificent Japanese strolling garden. Evidently, the grounds were built on the fundamental principles of the Western Paradise of Buddhist Amida to illustrate the harmony between heaven and earth. With the sky blue and the weather very crisp, it was truly a perfect day to enjoy the walk and marvel at the splendor of the garden. Grace took so many postcard-perfect photos – it takes absolutely no skill to capture a perfect moment because of the breathtaking naturalistic minimalistic setting which belie a painstaking amount of effort to create.

We then took a short walk to Ryoanji Temple, stopping on the way for Kaiten Sushi (conveyor belt sushi), which I love the most. What luck! We stumbled on a great family location, completely mechanized with the added bonus “games” that we could play to win gatcha-pon prizes after eating a certain number of plates. Salmon/avocado/onion, seared salmon with garlic butter, maguro (tuna) in large quantities and in all different shapes, salt and fresh water eel, tender scallops, octopus, crab, grilled mackeral, shrimp tempura…we stuffed ourselves silly while sipping delicious powder tea (which I bought from the restaurant since I enjoyed it so much). At only 100 yen per plate containing two sushi, a fantastically fresh and delicious lunch came out only to be $26 for the three of us. Oh, if only we could find something like this in New York and at this price point for the quality!

Our bellies filled with wonderful sushi, we headed to Ryoanji (Temple of the Dragon at Peace), a UNESCO world heritage site famous for its zen kare-sansui (Japanese rock garden). Built in the 15th century, the temple served as the mausoleum for the late Hosokawa emperors. The famous rock garden was much smaller than I had originally anticipated, spanning a rectangle of 248 square meters with 15 stones of different sizes, composed in five separate groups. The stones are surrounded by white gravel, carefully raked daily by the resident monks. I’m not quite sure what makes the garden so special, but after doing some reading, it seems that scientific analysis shows that the empty space of the garden is implicitly structured to align with the temple’s architecture such that the critical access of symmetry passes close to the center of the main hall. Hence, the implicit structure of the garden appeals to the viewer’s unconscious visual sensitivity to axial-symmetry skeletons of stimulus shapes. This garden has been subject to a lot of academic debate…frankly, from my perspective, it is just a simple and beautiful garden meant to be enjoyed for its simplistic and serene design.

After Ryoanji, we headed to Ninna-ji, which probably ranks last in terms of tourist popularity but in my opinion, was the shining point of the day and one of the most memorable and exciting experiences of our Kyoto trip, far surpassing anything we’ve seen today. Founded in the Heian period around 886, Ninna-ji is a sprawling temple complex filled with things to see and discover, from a gigantic pagoda (the scene for the Kyoto tourist photo of the pagoda surrounded by cherry blossoms), a sakura garden, smaller temples representing architectural styles of different periods, and most importantly, the Goten – the former residence of the head priest. Grace took some spectacularly breath-taking pictures, capturing the elegant wooden covered corridors between interior buildings, detailed painted sliding doors, and the interior rock and pond gardens. Mirroring the style of the imperial palace, wandering the Goten barefoot evoked a strong feeling of tradition. Ninna-ji is a UNESCO World Heritage site, and well worth a visit again, particularly in the spring during the cherry blossom season. Words fail to describe the sense of overwhelming beauty and serenity that we felt.

We then returned to Kyoto station for a green tea parfait with Grace’s friend before parting ways. Grace and I then headed to the Kyoto Avanti department store for some shopping to take advantage of the big holiday sales! Given the exchange rate and the discounts, we bought a lot of wonderful gifts, clothing, and shoes for very cheap. I love the style of the latest Japanese fashion for women so I splurged a bit. We then had dinner in the basement food complex, selecting a really special teishoku restaurant that served healthy set meals, including a ground rice and mountain yam cold sticky soup that evidently is very good for you. I loved the tofu and the pickled vegetables…alas, when I leave Japan, I will miss all this incredible food and the presentation and variety of the teishoku meal!

12/27/2013 – Day 8 in Japan

January 3, 2014 - 11:41 am No Comments

Another early start to the day since we wanted to do some sightseeing in Kyoto before heading off to Kobe. Navigating the bus system, we went to Sanjusangendo Temple, home of the 1001 life-sized statues of the thousand-armed Kannon, the Goddess of Mercy, the majority constructed in the 13th century and created from gold leaf layered on Japanese cypress. The area outside the temple was also the site of the famous duel between Musashi Miyamoto and Yoshioka Denshichiro in 1604.

The overall ambiance is very eerie – in my opinion, a great movie set for a psychological horror film. In front of the Kannon statues, there are 28 life-sized statues of the main Buddhist deities, each frightful in its aggressive stance, incensed facial expression, and clear glass eyes which look like they are constantly glaring. The thousand-armed Kannon are equipped with 11 heads to better the witness the suffering of humanity, and have a thousand arms to better fight the suffering. Although the actual statues only have 42 arms each, we’re supposed to subtract the regular two arms and multiply by the 25 planes of existence to get to the full thousand. We had to take our shoes off at the entrance, and walking through the cold temple towards the gigantic Kannon at the center of the temple, the whole experience felt very mystical. Afterward, we toured the beautiful traditional garden surrounding the temple and took some pictures.

We returned back to the station and had a delicious an-pan, and then lunch at a popular restaurant in the station. For $9, I got tofu and mixed vegetables, udon, rice served with three toppings, and pickled vegetables, all presented beautifully. Grace ate her favorite unagi-don – roast eel in a special bamboo box to make the rice extra flavorful when steamed.

After dropping off Grace’s friend, we headed to the train station to go to Kobe, one of Grace’s favorite weekend haunts during her summer in Himeji – only about one hour away. What a fun shopping city! It’s not a traditional tourist destination, but Kobe is one of the most popular places for people to live. Kobe has all the big stores and chains that Tokyo claims fame to, but none of the crowds. In particular, I loved all the anime/manga stores, as well as the gigantic Book Off in the center shotengai area! We bummed around for two hours exploring the shops, and we even saw our first anime cafe featuring Free! (a popular bishonen anime about a swim team…it’s on my list of things to eventually watch when I get back).

We met Grace’s friend Rie at 3 PM in Umie, one of Kobe’s largest and newest shopping malls. I’m not familiar with Japanese brands, but I picked up a beautifully intricate shirt and a pair of matching cute seal cups. Once we made our loop, we stopped for a tasty cookie shell cream puff before heading out back to the Santomiya area, stopping along the way for souvenir shopping. Rie loves shopping so she took us through alleyways and shortcuts to the best and most popular shopping areas for clothes, accessories, shoes, cute trinkets, and other popular goods among the youth of Japan.

One of Kobe’s most popular tourist destinations is Chinatown. Although limited from an aerial extent (no bigger than the small Washington DC Chinatown), Kobe Chinatown is very clean and manicured, very different from any other Chinatown I’ve ever visited before. All the stores have a shopfront with tasty snacks on sticks that can be bought and then nibbled on while walking, contrary to typical etiquette in Japan. I ate a steamed Chinese leek pork bun, while Rie ate a stick of fried mochi.

It’s hard being an immigrant in Japan – the laws favor citizens for employment and social services, and obtaining citizenship even after being a second or third generation descendant of an immigrant is extraordinarily difficult. Furthermore, even after obtaining citizenship, minorities are often treated as “foreigners” still, and hence many change their last names in an attempt to disguise their background. There’s a whole wikipedia article on xenophobia and ethnic issues in Japan: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ethnic_issues_in_Japan – we’re not seeing it since the country is very friendly to foreign tourists, but I can see how difficult life would be to actually live here. In this regard, I think the US is truly unique in creating a culture that assimilates immigrants and welcomes diversity – there are always exceptions, but it’s truly one of the most open cultures in the world, partially because of its relative youthfulness but also because of its democratic social evolution.

For dinner, we met up with another of Grace’s friends (she has so many and truly possesses a unique ability to make and retain friends for years…) who lives and works in Kobe, and we went to a charming cafe restaurant in one of the basement shopping areas. I tried the curry vegetable soup, which had a really interesting flavor. Akari’s majors in English, so it was a lot of fun chatting with her and hearing about life in Japan. We then finished the day with Puri Kura together to mark today’s outing.

We arrived back in Kyoto quite late and climbed into bed. All in all, a wonderful day! We pack each day with adventures and experiences, but time is flying way too fast. I don’t want to come back so soon – I wish I have more time here!

12/26/2013 – Day 7 in Japan

January 3, 2014 - 11:40 am No Comments

We declared today “Grace and Joyce hangout day”. Waking up slightly later than usual, we took the train for 1.5 hours to Himeji, where Grace studied over the summer. Famous for Himeji Castle, Himeji is a “small big city” according to Grace – the suburbs sprawl far out of the city, but the main street is just one straight path from the train station to the castle. Unfortunately, Himeji castle was under significant restoration – scaffolding covered the entire facade so we couldn’t see the structure. Instead, a box-shaped tent completely shrouded the castle with a terrible print of what we ought to have seen.

We didn’t have an agenda today, nor did we rush. Instead, all I wanted to do was to see where Grace hung out over the summer and do a day “Grace style”, with lots of shopping, eating, and wandering around absorbing the atmosphere. We started off in the central shopping area in a department store called Piore, and then we went to the shotengai (covered shopping area). Unfortunately, it rained the entire day so we tried to stay indoors as much as possible.

Himeji is extremely cheap when compared to Tokyo, and even Kyoto. We started off with a gigantic Katsu set lunch – deep fried pork cutlet in a special flakey batter – for the price of a McDonald’s Big Mac meal in Virginia. Even though we were very full, we went to an Akashiyaki restaurant afterwards to share an akashiyaki (imagine takoyaki but with dashi) set lunch with octopus rice and eight delicious yakis. Then, wandering the streets, we shared a similar dessert to taiyaki with sweet red bean filling but in the shape of a circle. After taking a short walk, we went to Nana’s Green Tea and shared a large green tea parfait, perhaps my favorite dessert since arriving in Japan. Later on, Grace ate a wasabi-pan while I nibbled on a sugar-crusted melon pan. All this food of course came ahead of dinner. It would be unsurprising if I gained 5+ pounds…but the food is completely worth it.

As a general commentary, I love shopping here in Japan – there are just too many wonderful things to look at and buy! Grace knows the best stores and locations for value and quality. I’m probably spending too much money, with the justification that I rarely have a chance to take a vacation like this and that eventually, everything I bought as a gift will be given away. Furthermore, everything here is so cute – from socks and cell phone trinkets all the way to decorative cups and clothing…I simply can’t find things like this in the United States. Both guys and girls like cute things, and men’s fashion is taken more seriously here than anywhere I’ve seen in the world thus far. Anime goods and gatcha-pons (vending machines that deliver small anime trinkets of mixed variety) are ubiquitous…if only the US were like this! Based on the art styles that resonate with us, Grace and I have been writing down the names of potential anime shows to watch for when we get back. Alas, having not really watched much anime since high school, I don’t recognize any of the popular shows other than Utapri, which Grace made me watch a few episodes during Thanksgiving break.

In the evening, we met up with Grace’s Japanese friends from the CLSA program – Naoki, Yuka, Tomi, and Hiroyo joined us for Japanese-style Chinese food. I had fun listening to Grace interact with her friends even though I had no idea what she was saying. Her friends were really nice, and I enjoyed the cultural exchange. Grace had told me so many wonderful stories about her summer and her adventures with her friends so it was meaningful to meet everyone in person. Grace had felt nostalgic throughout the day – I’m glad that she had a chance to come back and see everyone again.

12/25/2013 – Day 6 of Japan

January 3, 2014 - 11:38 am No Comments

Merry Christmas! We woke up bright and early to take the train to Osaka, Grace’s favorite city in the Kansai region. Only 40 minutes away by express train, Osaka is a vibrant, youthful, colorful, and expressive city. People here speak in Kansai-ben, with intonation that sounds much warmer and more casual than Tokyo-speak.

We started off at the famous Osaka-jo Castle, one of the most famous in all of Japan for the role ir played in the unification of Japan during the 16th century of the Azuchi-Momoyama period. Toyotomi Hideyoshi commenced construction of the castle in 1583. He probably represents one of the few examples of social mobility in feudal japan, rising from a lowly peasant’s son to a powerful samurai and kampaku (regent) with his effective political machinations. The castle eventually fell under his son’s rule when the Tokugawa invaded in a legendary battle (the descriptions illustrated that many of the generals and key officials committed suicide afterward – suicide in feudal japan was highly honorable).

We then took the subway to the Shinsaibashi, the main central shopping area. What a fun city! Shotengai (covered shopping areas) abound everywhere, and I enjoyed poking around. When we got to the famous bridge with the Glico man and crazy giant food-stuff storefronts (crab, sushi, octopus, cow…), we took a lot of pictures. Even though all Japanese love their food, Osaka residents take it to the next level. We started off with deliciously fresh and hot takoyaki – tender octopus in a soft batter with a tasty coating of barbeque, sweet mayonnaise, and bonito flakes. Then, we went to have kaiten sushi (conveyor belt sushi). Everything was so cheap! Grace and I had 12 plates in total, including fugu – the poisonous puffer fish if cut improperly. Fugu has such an interesting texture – it doesn’t taste like much, but it has a very soft, watery, yet tender texture – really hard to describe but very delicious with its delicate flavor. It came out to be only $7 per person even though we stuffed ourselves full with lots of sushi, including soft cloud-like raw scallop, seared tuna, seared and marinated salmon, surf clam, octopus, eel, and of course, all the traditional fish pieces. I love the experience of pulling things off the belt – I wish I could eat like this every day….

With our bellies completely stuffed, we headed to Mandarake, one of Grace’s favorite stores, in America-mura (the foreigner district), selling all sorts of anime, manga, idol goods, and other subculture curios. Grace bought some doujinshi and some anime goods, and I enjoyed browsing through all the crazy cosplay outfits.

Looking at trip advisor, the #1 attraction in Osaka is the famous Kaiyukan aquarium, one of the largest public aquariums in the world. I give the aquarium 5 out of 5 stars for content and scale, but barely a 2 out of 5 stars for animal welfare. Since Christmas is a couples’ holiday and the aquarium a popular date location, we had to wait in line for 30 minutes to get in, but it was a pleasant day outside and we enjoyed the architecture and whale illumination on the outside of the building (not to mention people watching and marveling at the crazy gravity-defying hair of the teenage Japanese male). Inside, we followed the guided path, elbowing amorous couples out of the way, to see a huge variety of fish and aquatic flora and fauna. Notably, this aquarium is famous for its whale sharks – we saw two inside a large tank, sharing space with a multitude of stingrays, manta-rays, and smaller sharks. Known for being the largest extant fish species, the whale shark can grow to be over 14 meters and and weigh over 66,000 pounds.

To make the viewing experience more pleasant for visitors, the width of the tank is very limited so the fish have to approach the viewing glass, but the depth can be significant. I felt terrible for the dolphins, seals & sea lions (crammed together into a small tank), and penguins in that order – the aquarium squashed in a sizable number of each in a very limited amount of space. They barely had sufficient space to move without smashing into each other, particularly the dolphins. It was really impressive to see so many animals up close as the high density compelled more of the animals to approach the glass, but I wish that the overall environment was healthier. Don’t even get me started on the touch tank area…there were a dozen penguins just sitting out in a tiny viewing space with their wings clipped. They were completely stationary, unhappy and probably too hot. The touch tank allowed me to feel a slimy manta ray, a spiny leopard ray, and a shark. The rays were huge, perhaps 4 feet in diameter each and stuck in a tiny limited space with shallow water, tons of grasping hands, and too high an animal density for any comfort. One part of me marvels at the opportunity since I’ve never been able to get a chance to touch something so large before (most touch tanks stick to just horseshoe crabs and small boring crustaceans), but the other part of me is astounded that the aquarium can get away with something like this and vehemently opposes some treatment of animals…oh well, not all aquariums have a conservation focus.

We then headed back towards the station area for some dinner, stopping in at the fancy rooftop dining bazaar of the Seitan Department Store. We had odd “western” fusion food my traditional Japanese chanko nabe set meal also contained German sausage. Grace had a hamburger hot plate special, and we then shared a delicious holiday chestnut parfait (the desserts are too amazing here…it’s terrible for me but if I don’t eat them now, when will I get a chance again?).

Tired, we headed home for a good night’s rest. Alas, a conclusion to Christmas – frankly, it doesn’t feel very much like Christmas so I have every intention of celebrating a “proper” Christmas with my family when I get back to the US!

12/24/2013 – Day 5 of Japan

January 3, 2014 - 11:37 am No Comments

Christmas Eve in Japan doesn’t feel as “holiday-like” but we’re still having a blast. Grace and I woke up early to get to Arashi-yama, about 50 minutes away by bus. Similar to Tokyo, Kyoto is not a walkable city and the tourist maps irk me greatly since everything is not drawn to scale – it may look close, but on foot, two shrines seemingly half an inch apart on the map may take nearly 2 hours to walk to.

What a beautiful little town! Arashiyama, nestled at the seat of the mountain, is chock full of shrines, nature walks, old traditional housing (reminds of the Japanese equivalent of the Cotswolds in England), and traditional craft shops. We enjoyed ourselves just wandering around and exploring the area, starting off at the famous Tenryu-ji, a UNESCO world heritage site built in 1334 by Tokugawa Ieyasu. Evidently, the renowned Zen master Muso Soseki designed the garden and pond – as I enjoyed a leisurely stroll, I wrote the following haiku (meter of 5-7-5).

Grace walks without coat
Why does she feel not winter?
I am so freezing

Exiting the shrine to return to the Okochi Sanso village, we found ourselves ensconced in a beautiful bamboo forest, quite similar to the setting and feel of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. In wandering the forest path, one can easily forget the modern day world – imagine thick, densely lush green bamboo stems stretching over 30 meters (98 feet) towards the sky.

We then shopped for some traditional souvenirs in the village, particularly chirimen zaiku crafts – hand-made trinkets constructed from old kimonos. Stopping for lunch, we had a vegetarian tofu set lunch meal at a famous local restaurant, known particularly for its yuba (tofu skin). I love the delicate presentation of the many small dishes; this meal particularly memorable for its inclusion of tofu is so many forms including boiled and served warm with pickled vegetables, tofu ensconced with egg, thin yuba slices in creamy soy milk, tofu salad, tofu ball with vegetables, tofu-based peanut mochi…absolutely delicious. For dessert, I stopped for red-tea frozen yogurt; alas, my waist line must be expanding from all the sweets that I’m eating – fresh cream green tea parfaits, exotic crepes of all types, green tea flavored ice cream, Japanese-style donuts, stuffed Belgian waffles, just to name a few!

With our stomachs satisfied, we went to Iwatayama Monkey Park across the river. After ascending a steep mountain path for twenty minutes, we arrived at the top, exceeding the height of the Kyoto tower! I’ve never seen so many Japanese macaques at once in my entire life!! There were over 170 monkeys clustered together, just taking it easy and relaxing amongst the tourists. I’ve never been so close to monkeys of any kind before – perhaps because of liability issues, we’re not allowed to approach monkeys in the USA, but here, the attendants purposely bring the monkeys close to you for a picture and we’re allowed to just walk up straight to them as close as we want to observe. The monkeys have become quite tame and will sidle straight up, just inches away (the big ones can be scary…they look quite aggressive). Evidently, the red faces and red butts are the result of translucent skin showing the underlying vessels.

We entered into a small shack, bought some prepared monkey snacks, and then fed the monkeys by hand. I really enjoyed the experience of having their small little hands scratch my palm as they picked up the apple pieces. We could see hierarchy at play in which monkeys got the preferred feeding locations; the extremely cute baby monkeys often got chased away by the peevish, belligerent adults. Extremely intelligent, the monkeys would groom each other, play games, and amuse themselves. We had so much fun just watching.

After a precipitous climb down the mountain, we took a bus back to the central Kyoto station to go to Gion, the historical geisha district. We sampled the traditional omiyage of Kyoto (I find the thin mochi-paper stuffed pockets delicious), shopped in a store selling traditional blotting paper (evidently the company dates back to the geisha era), and just enjoyed wandering through the district. Sometimes maiko (geishas in training) will appear on the streets – we didn’t see one today but Grace and I will keep on looking!

We then headed back to Kyoto station for dinner – a traditional soba set. It’s amazing how we just randomly choose places to eat and have never been disappointed. For $12, I got shrimp and vegetable tempura, cold soba, assorted sushi pieces, and pickled vegetables, all displayed very elegantly. We then stepped out into the main train hall to view all the Christmas decorations and to climb to the top of the tower to view the night skyline. It doesn’t feel much like Christmas Eve – even though the streets and stores are replete with Christmas decorations and lights (people even wander around dressed like Santa…), Christmas here is considered more of a “couples” holiday rather than a family event. Moreover, it’s tradition here to eat Christmas KFC…I do miss dad’s turkey and opening presents together under our Christmas tree.

In terms of logistics, we’re staying at a traditional-style Japanese house, conveniently located just one station away from the Kyoto main train station. Even though our room is small (4.5 tatamis in size), the futons are so comfortable and I really like the homestay experience. Our host is really friendly – she’s definitely progressive by Japanese standards, and she speaks really good English which makes communication very easy. One cultural thing of note is that no one locks their door here; the implicit trust between strangers is very high. When we ate at the cake buffet yesterday, people would just leave their purses, wallets, and expensive smartphones just lying on the table. As a New Yorker, I find this really tough to comprehend. Despite not tipping any waiters, we get excellent, 5+ star service. When we buy products, the store clerks bow, speak formally with many honorifics, and take great care in packaging the products carefully. Grace is absolutely right – after being here, it makes service in the US look terrible. Japanese culture has so many hair-splitting etiquette rules; not understanding the language and the culture much, I’m constantly violating “good behavior” to Grace’s consternation and embarrassment. Oh well, I’m trying my best.

We bought 3-day rail passes in anticipation of going to Osaka, Himeji, and Kobe. More to report soon!

12/23/2013 – Day 4 in Japan

January 3, 2014 - 11:34 am No Comments

We woke up bright and early to take the Shinkansen Nozomi line to Kyoto – we covered 476 km in just a little bit over two hours, with maximum speed just north of 300km/hour. I really enjoyed the smooth ride – very economical compared to the Eurostar and extremely comfortable in terms of seating and space. If only we had this type of transit in the US!

Kyoto is extraordinary! Without a doubt, it ranks as one of the top three cities I’ve visited in my life. Shrines, temples, and historic relics litter the city – I took a look at a simple tourist map, and saw dozens of UNESCO World Heritage site markings all over the place. As the ancient capital of Japan, Kyoto has the historical buildings that Tokyo lacks.

We started off at Kiyomizudera Temple, founded in the Heian period in 798 with its present building constructed in 1633 under the directive of Tokugawa Iemetsu. Sitting atop a mountain, the temple is incredibly scenic, with ornate verandas and halls, pagados and curved ceilings all brightly painted…truly extraordinary. We had a spiritual experience in taking a journey to the wishing stone in the basement of the shrine, referred to as the “womb” of the Goddess of Mercy. We took off our shoes and stepped into complete pitch dark (at the borderline of anxiety inducing…), guided only by the prayer beads serving as a railing that took us to the wishing stone. The instructions provided to us: “Return to the womb of the great merciful mother. When you find a light in the dark you will realize you are newborn again. There is a Sanskrit character that symbolized Daizuigu Bosatsu on the stone. Turn around the stone and make a wish.”

Afterward, we went to the famous Jishu shrine, dedicated to Okuninushi, the god of love and matchmaking. We saw the two love stones placed 6 meters across, in which visitors who successfully walked from one stone to the other with their eyes closed get lucky in love (and those who don’t will fail)…frankly, impossible to even attempt given how crowded the shrine was with young couples! Regardless, the view was certainly romantic, nestled into the mountain with beautiful carved shrines and traditional Japanese architecture.

Wanting to make the most of the day, we went to the famous Fushimi Inari-taisha shrine, a Shinto monument to the Kitsune god of rice. What an amazing landmark – words cannot express the sheer amount of amazement I felt in climbing the mountain that contained more than 10,000 red gates and over 32,000 individual sub-shrines! I’ve seen the photographs of these famous consecutive red gates in National Geographic – what an exhilarating experience to make the hike myself, enjoying the crisp mountain air and the monumental scale. I must have walked up thousands of stairs in the process…even though my thighs and knees burned from the physical exertion, this undoubtedly ranks as one of the most incredible things I’ve ever done in my lifetime. We went in the early evening when the sun was just setting – I felt as if we had the entire mountain to ourselves. It took over an hour minutes to walk up the mountain and just as long to get back, and we didn’t even take the long route either. I can’t sufficiently emphasize how magical the entire experience felt – it’s one of those just truly astounding wonders of the world.

Imagine seemingly endless vermilion tori (gate) through a thickly wooded mountain; a shrine complex a world upon its own. Along the 4km path up the mountain, shrine cats abound beside fox statues (often seen with a key in its mouth to indicate access to the rice granary). Evidently, Memories of a Geisha featured a young girl running through these “torii tunnels”, taking advantage of the mystical ambiance. By the time we came down the mountain on the “Buddhist” path (compared to the “Shinto” ascension route), the environment became semi-eerie. Even though it took a lot of effort to climb, I do hope to come back before I leave since it’s just so special.

Grace spent about a week in Kyoto during the summer so she expertly took us around. There’s simply too much to see in Kyoto – even if we tried, we wouldn’t be able to cover all the historical and religious sites in a week! Since we’re also going to visit Osaka, Himeji, and Kobe, we’re mainly going to do the highlights. There are so many local handicrafts and omiyage (special regional delicious treats, often times sweets) – I want to buy a lot of things to take home as well! Throughout the day, I bought traditional arts and crafts of Kyoto, from printed banner cloths to ceramic decorative cups – alas, if only I can take everything home! Tomorrow we look forward to Arashiyama, Monkey Mountain, Gion (the traditional geisha district – perhaps we’ll be able to spot one on the streets!), and a whole heck of a lot more temples, including the resplendent completely gilded in gold leaf Kinkakuji Temple, Nijo-jo castle, and Sanjusangendo Hall (with 1001 life size wooden statues of Kannon, the goddess of Mercy).

For dinner, we went to Sweets Paradise – oh, how I’ve wanted to come here since hearing about Grace’s experience over the summer! Basically, we had 90 full minutes to eat unlimited amounts of tasty cakes and Japanese-Italian spaghetti! There were at least 30 different cakes to choose from, from apple creme brulee and green tea mont blanc to blueberry cream tart and the most heavenly sponge cake, complete with all the fixings imaginable and a large white chocolate fondue fountain about the size of my complete torso. The spaghetti was also incredibly delicious – meat sauce, pesto, tarako (octopus eggs…ugh, didn’t like this one), spinach mushroom, and ham carbonara. The spaghetti had a texture of udon so it tasted really interesting. Furthermore, we had unlimited access to a tea bar with perhaps over 40 different types of special fruit, herbal, and traditional teas. Even though I stuffed my face to the extreme, everyone around me – these tiny Japanese girls, all barely a size 2 – put away perhaps up to double the amount that I ate. While I took a tiny sliver of the best looking cakes, they took chunks the size of their palm. Perhaps good genes that despite all the food eaten in copious quantities, no one here is that large in size?

12/22/2013 – Day 3 in Japan

January 3, 2014 - 11:32 am No Comments

We started off the day bright and early in Ueno, the main museum plaza. With the sun shining and the weather crisp, we really enjoyed our walk through the park to the Tokyo National Museum. Alas, I must admit that after going to the National Palace Museum in Taipei, very few Asian historical “national treasures” can compare in scale. Nevertheless, we found the collection quite extensive. In particular, the extensive Noh mask collection fascinated me – perhaps creepy almost. From Japanese swords from the 13th century and paleolithic relics to curios of the imperial family from the 19th century, the museum had an extensive sampling of art, cultural relics, and historically relevant artifacts.

After the National Museum, we headed to Shibuya – the main youth “hangout area”, similar in feel to Myongdong in Seoul of Ximending in Taipei but much more geographically expansive. We saw the statue of Hachiko, the loyal dog, and the famous Shibuya crossing so often portrayed in anime scenes. The crowds almost became overwhelming in the late afternoon, but that didn’t stop Grace and I from weaving in and out of the famous 109 department store or wandering the crowded pedestrian streets. It’s fascinating to observe the attire and appearance of the shopkeepers, each dressed in almost haute couture outfits, armed with 5”+ inch heels, and dolled up to the extreme with heavy cosmetics, blond-dyed hair, and circle lenses. The shopkeepers all talk with a certain intonation, and resemble living dolls…everyone in Shibuya certainly dresses to impress, and to be honest, I felt downright dowdy.

We stopped for soba at a local restaurant – as a general commentary, the food here is absolutely amazing and very reasonably priced for the quality. Even when we select places at random, we haven’t had a bad meal yet. I have a mental checklist of the foods I want to eat – Tokyo truly is a food lover’s Paradise. Even the bento boxes at the convenience store look delicious! In particular, I really enjoy the food halls in the basement of the department stores, as well as the restaurants in the train station. Grace certainly humored me when at 4 PM, I declared a strong desire for chicken katsu, breaded and fried tender chicken cutlet, as well as the Japanese staple chestnut Mont Blanc cake.

We left Shibuya for Ikkebukuro since we didn’t have sufficient time the first time around to wander and explore. First, we stopped in at the geisen to observe pachinko games in motion, and then we wandered back to otome lane to buy doujinshi (she’s a huge fan of Arashi) and anime goods. We wandered into a gigantic multi-story building dedicated to cosplay, with a crazy assortment of wigs, costumes, props, everything that one can possibly think of…Grace and I couldn’t help but stare.

After we built up an appetite, we went to Saizeriya, a Japanese “family” restaurant chain that serves faux Italian/European food; the name itself evocative of a faux Italian province. The food is quite inexpensive and delicious in its own very odd Japanese-Italian manner that I can’t really properly describe. I had escargot for less than $4, while Grace had a seafood gratin and an unlimited drink bar where she sipped melon and peach soda, among other flavors. Given the atmosphere, the chain was clearly very popular with middle and high school students – to me, a quintessential Tokyo experience for its quirkiness and blatant eccentricity, perhaps Italian in purported objective, but 100% Japanese in its existence.

We rounded out the day back in anime town, in which I bought some mementos and encountered a seedier side to the denizens of the area. All in all, a great conclusion to our Tokyo trip. Tomorrow, we head to the Kansai region and the heart of Japanese culture – Kyoto.

12/21/2013 – Day 2 in Japan

January 3, 2014 - 11:29 am 1 Comment

Our second full day in Tokyo started with a trip to Tsukiji Market, the world’s largest seafood market moving more than 2,400 tons of fresh fish and shellfish daily. Even though we missed the 5 AM maguro (tuna) auction, we still saw plenty of action as wholesalers hawked their fresh goods. While trying to avoid the motorized carts that criss-crossed the floor, I managed to see the largest crab ever (even bigger than the crab that we had at the National Zoo in the invertebrates exhibit), fish of all types (some were still alive and flapping around despite being out of water…kind of cruel), gigantic shellfish (a mussel the size of my head, fresh scallops each the size of my palm), and a peek into the frozen tuna supply chain. Grace and I both felt overwhelmed – the working market certainly did not stop for tourists, and we both felt like frogger as we tried to trapeze the fishy, watery aisles. The fish market is one of Tokyo’s top sights, and it’s just amazing how much seemingly rare bounty from the sea gets transacted each day. It doesn’t seem sustainable sadly…

After leaving the central wholesale market, we explored the adjacent retail stalls nearby, many of which serve delicious fresh delicacies made from their nearby purveyors. We found the lines of the most famous sushi stands quite ridiculous at only 10:30 AM so we decided to snack our way through the market instead. We stopped for some fresh tuna and salt water eel rolls, quail egg onigiri (fondly named bakkudan or “bomb”), sweet egg omelet, and taiyaki, while sipping Calpis soda (say that quickly with Japanese-English pronunciation and the name evokes “cow piss” unfortunately). Before joining with Grace’ friend, we went to the Hanzomen gardens nearby to enjoy highly manicured traditional landscapes – evidently, General Grant had once lived on its premises during one of its ambassadorial missions after the Civil War.

We then met up with Grace’s friend and headed to the greater Ginza area to pick up a free gift from the Tourism department for foreigners, none other than a Arashi hankerchief. Grace’s friend told me that given the cost of a Arashi concert ticket can easily surpass $2,000 for foreign fans trying to buy second-hand. What a crazy industry!

Ginza represents one of the most fashionable, modern shopping plazas in Tokyo. Albeit, as I pretty much work on 5th avenue each day in New York City, the splendor of the big window displays from luxury brands came as less of a surprise. We went into the flagship Sony store where we saw products under development, and then took pictures at the famous Ginza crossing – one of the widest pedestrian crossings I’ve ever seen.

We then headed in the subway towards Akihabara – I’ve always wanted to come here after watching Genshiken in college, a slice-of-life anime about otaku culture in Japan. Also known as electric city, extremely large electronic stores filled the skyline! We went into one of the largest anime/manga stores – nearly nine floors of cramped floor space crammed full of anime goods, posters, manga, DVDs…absolutely beyond imagination and very overwhelming (almost to the point at which I wonder if the building violated a fire hazard of some sorts). Sadly, I don’t recognize many of the character designs anymore – alas, I haven’t had the time to really watch anything since college. We went to the floor mainly targeted for women, and there were all these trinkets featuring the respective bishonen (beautiful boy) of the most popular shows. We went to the floor targeted for guys, and well, some of the items sold were certainly bordering on “embarrassing to let other people know that you own something of this sort.”

We left the store, and then took a break at Mr. Doughnut. Lauren had told me that the doughnuts were very different from that of the US, and having tried them, I’m inclined to respond that they are much crispier with an even buttery texture in the mouth.

Despite the initial reservations of the group, I’ve always wanted to try out a maid cafe since it figured prominently in one of the animes that I enjoyed growing up. We went to a @homecafe, which came highly recommended by our guidebook. Well, it was certainly an interesting experience. Girls were dressed in short, exaggerated poufy maid costumes and head-ruffles complete with circle lenses and exaggerated eye makeup, and the overall ambiance exuded “extreme cuteness”. We ordered omu-rice (omelette rice) that the maid decorated with ketchup into an Arashi symbol upon Grace’s request, and sweet caramel lattes in which the maids used syrup to draw a picture of a cute bunny and dog. For dessert, a pudding was served in which the maid demanded that our group participate in a sequence of “moe moe” hand motions before serving. I had gotten the package deal for Grace, so she went on to the stage to take a picture with one of the maids that she selected from the photo box. All in all, a really weird, Japanese subculture experience – more comfortable than the butler cafe given the casual environment, but still certainly an underlying element of amazement at the sheer “oddness” of the entire establishment. Understandably, we were one of the very few groups of girls attending. I guess the frequent attendees (mostly guys) must enjoy the attention from the cute girls and the experience of being called “master” by the girls, but the cuteness may by still be overwhelming…

We then went back to our host’s place to meet him for dinner. Since he has been very friendly to us significantly beyond our expectations, I wanted to take him out for dinner as a thank-you (and also given Grace a chance to practice Japanese with a local). He chose a really delicious cook-your-own monjayaki/okonomiyaki place in Tsukushima, which actually was an island formed by reclaimed land using earth from the dredging work done in the creation of the Tokyo shipping channel in 1892. We relished the tasty food in the tiny little restaurant – interactive dining at its best!

12/20/2013 – Day 1 in Japan

January 3, 2014 - 11:27 am 1 Comment

I haven’t taken an international full vacation since starting work after graduation. This year, however, I finally squeezed out the time to go on a trip with my sister to Japan! From watching anime in high school to relishing sushi/ramen/soba whenever I can, I’ve always been fascinated by Japanese culture and wanted to experience it firsthand.

The flight was relatively uneventful, and we landed late at night. Rather than do the traditional hotel route, I booked our entire trip with AirBNB host stays with the intention of saving some money with compromising comfort, while also giving Grace a chance to practice her Japanese. (As a side note, Grace’s Japanese language skills are essential. I don’t think anyone here understands me when I try to communicate with them in English…) Our host has been really friendly and helpful – even cooking us breakfast, picking us up from the station, and preparing photo books showing us the easiest way to access transport. Furthermore, the apartment is very clean and comfortable, with a beautiful view of Tokyo SkyTree.

Our day started early with mass confusion concerning the Tokyo subway/train lines. Evidently, given the decision to privatize the system, competing lines overlap each other throughout the central and commuter areas such that our day passes only worked on certain stations. Thinking that the stations ought to not be too far from each other, I made the mistake of convincing Grace to stop at an earlier station so we could take a walk to Meji-Jingu from Shinjiku. It looked only like two subway stations…big mistake…Tokyo is a massive city with very limited named streets and we learned our lesson that we should just go to our point of destination directly.

Nevertheless, by lunchtime, we managed to find ourselves at Marukaku, a wonderfully scenic traditional Japanese restaurant in the heart of Harajuku. Grace and I dined on grilled mackerel, rice, and pickled vegetables as we planned out the rest of our day. We then wandered through the busy streets of Harajuku, going into stores such as “Kiddie Land” (filled with extremely cute toys and trinkets), boutiques of all different styles (Takeshita dori is famous for its subculture bazaar and preponderance of aspiring gothic-Lolitas), department store basement food halls (a visual feast beyond imagination – Grace and I shared a green tea matcha Taiyaki but I saw all these cakes, breads, bento boxes, handcrafted mochi, octopus chips that I wanted to try…), and large Japanese knick-knack chain stores. The sheer amount of consumerism astonishes me – people crowd everywhere and the streets teem over with activity even on a cold, wet dreary day that hailed. Grace had told me about the many delicious desserts in Japan – frankly, it seems contrary that a nation with an average BMI significantly lower than the United States would have bakeries, cake buffets, tonkatsu shops, and crepe stands serving green tea cheesecake and fresh cream all over the place…

We then walked over to see Meji-jingu, Tokyo’s most famous shrine shrouded in the woods – a peaceful haven amidst all the bustle. By pure luck, we made it directly at 2 PM, right in time for the afternoon ritual of “feeding” the gods. We saw the priests strike a gigantic drum, and present their prayers to the Shinto gods. Compared to the shrines I’ve seen in China, Korea, and Taiwan, Meji-jingu manifests a simpler design, all curved wooden roofs without embellishment and open plazas. Constructed in 1920, WWII air strikes destroyed the original shrine, but it was later rebuilt in 1985 to the structure that we see today.

After meandering through the subway system, we exited at Ikkebukuro, a neon-light, youth-centric plaza with large gaming halls, shopping galore, restaurants of all types, among other sights. Grace and I tried the (infamous) puri-kura photo booth machines which automatically enhance the size of one’s eyes (even if you do not want it to). We also shopped around the area, browsing popular local chains such as Tokyu Hands, Daiso, Book-Off, and GU, among others. Notably, Ikkebukuro has a certain section known as “otome” road, which translates very poorly into “pure-hearted maiden” road. Frankly, I’ve never seen such a large collection of manga and anime stores dedicated to female-directed entertainment…most of which, I must admit, is far from being “pure-hearted”.

Grace managed to get us a reservation at Swallowtail, a butler cafe renowned for crafting and defining its sub-culture genre. We both looked upon our reservation with a conflicting combination of trepidation and anticipation. Swallowtail takes the concept of “butler” and “fantasy cosplay” to an extreme. They basically pretend that you are a princess, and serve you as such with plenty of bowing, extremely polite linguistic mannerisms (Grace got a kick out of this…) and references to activities that princesses ought to do, and some very odd behaviors, such as (1) not letting you pour your own tea from the available teapot, (2) butlers dressed fully in white tie with long tails, (3) not letting you carry your own purse into the venue, (4) not letting you pull the plates down from the afternoon tea tower, (5) providing a bell to ring for service and bowing after every action taken, and most oddly, (6) escorting you to the bathroom and back (when I walked back by myself after not understanding the instructions heaped at me in Japanese, I swear one of the butlers nearly jumped/leaped out at me…very weird). It was certainly a combination of awkward and interesting, the type that makes one cringe and smile at the same time. The food was faux European, with some odd amalgamations such as “Turkey Teriyaki Quiche” Normandy-style (what is this?) and Grace’s “strawberry candy tea”, but also some relatively reliable replications of afternoon tea service with sandwiches, scones and clotted cream, cream puffs, and cake, along a decent selection of gourmet international teas.

Personally, I was really surprised at how many individual women came to the establishment alone – in fact, Grace and I coming as a group was the anomaly rather than the norm. I would never do this by myself…it would be just too awkward in this pretend land of self-import. The women dining alone came from all ages and backgrounds, from young girls to middle-aged housewives. The butlers each had hair more vertically enhanced the next – some of them probably were no taller than me in height originally, but may have gained more than half a foot with the help of hair spray or some other product. Yup, sub-culture at its best – impossible to explain, but yet a very profitable niche.

After our time was up (Grace translated our exit to a butler calling us away for a carriage ride), we went to Shinjuku to see the lively night-life. We got lost several times in the process given the confusing layout of the station and sheer size of the area, coupled with narrow twisting alleys. We visually absorbed all the crazed neon lights, the clubs and bars, the ubiquitous Christmas lights in the shopping arcades, and just marveled at the sheer scale of commerciality. If only we each had had three different stomachs to sample all the food! Even the 7-11s sell tasty-looking bento boxes, fresh oden, scrumptious fried meat and fish fillets, and tasty-looking cakes.

Exhausted, we headed back home for some rest and a hot shower. We certainly covered a lot of ground today and ticked off many boxes in the quintessential Tokyo experience…I can’t wait for tomorrow when we visit the fish market!