Lake Shikotsu

As mentioned in the previous post, after liming in Sapporo for a night, we were ready for the real adventure – two nights at the Marukoma Onsen hotel at Lake Shikotsu, and a kayaking trip on the lake.

The area that comprises the Shikotsu-Toya National Park is very volcanic, and the two lakes are calderas, meaning they were formed by the collapse of a volcano following an eruption. Indeed all along the lake front you can see the sand is black.

What is special about Marukoma Onsen is that it is one of the few places in Japan that has a genuine open-air onsen spring flowing directly into the lake. Over the decades the residents of the area moved the stones to trap the mineral water and turn part of the river bed into a pool deep enough to sit down in and have a good soak. The water level rises and falls with the lake. And with no neighbours around – the hotel is literally at the end of the road – you don’t ever have to worry about anyone seeing you in your naked glory.

onsen

The lakeside onsen

onsen - 2

View from the bedroom

onsen - 1

So damn happy to be there! And, ready to eat.

After an amazing dinner of local specialties served in our tatami room, we then went to onsen, and when we came back everything had been cleared away and our futons put out for the night. Gotta love Japanese service, it’s amazing.

Next day we headed out to explore the nearby village and the Shikotsuko Visitor Center, a tiny area with some restaurants and cafes, and activities such as bike and boat rentals. We took The Kid on the glass bottom boat which was all right, but in a volcanic lake there isn’t exactly a lot to see under the water other than some fish. But, it was definitely a child-friendly activity.

onsen - 3onsen - 4

Following this, we drove to the other side of the lake to meet up with the kayaking guides of the Otaki Outdoor Adventures, and this was definitely the highlight of the trip. The lake has incredible clarity – number one in all of Japan and at times it looks as though the kayaks are not even touching the water. The weather was perfect and the wind was low so it was smooth sailing. The guides also took us over the dropoff, where suddenly the water gets so deep and the most incredible blue colour that I’ve never seen before.

onsen - 5

Good use of the paddle

onsen - 7

The floating kayak

onsen - 8

onsen - 6

And the happy guides. Wouldn’t you be happy if this was your job?

We also stopped twice on the shore to stretch our legs along the lakefront and admire the view. On the ground next to the river we could see deer prints and rabbit prints in the sand. Very cool! We also saw four deer during the drive home. But thankfully no bears which, no doubt, are plentiful in this area.

We were all incredibly sad to leave the warm, soul soothing waters of the onsen, and the stunning blue sky on Hokkaido, and return to Hong Kong. But, that is life I suppose. For sure Hokkaido is a place I am dying to explore more of, as soon as possible.

Advertisements

Eat me!

One of the things that I made sure to bring with me from Japan was all of my super cute amazing tools for making bento – lunch boxes – because I knew it would not be available in Hong Kong. Thankfully in Japan they are a dime a dozen, and every dollar store sells them.

So how to make kawaii bento? It doesn’t take much fancy ingredients; the trick is in turning something ordinary, like a carrot, into something cute, like a heart. A lot of times I think kids also want something small and bite sized for their tiny fingers instead of something big and messy, so cute little bites seem to do the trick.

Here are some of the easy and fast things I like to put in The Kid’s obento:

  1. Carrot hearts – slice the carrots and use a heart-shaped cookie cutter to punch out the shape
  2. Big eyed shrimp – I bought frozen shrimp, pan fried it, and stuck the eye picks in the top

  3. Three little bears – Slice a pice of Spam and use a bear-shaped cookie cutter to punch the shape (you can use any shape, really). Place the bears on a bed of rice (let the rice cool though)

  4. Edamame – Out of the pod though in the pod is OK too
  5. Rabbit/Bear Eggs – Put a hard boiled egg (peeled) into a plastic egg mold to get a cute shape/face, in this case a rabbit

  6. Silicone cups of salad – Tiny tomatoes, cucumbers, broccoli, whatever kid likes
  7. Pan fried dumplings – If your kids does like them, that is
  8. Sandwiches – But using a Hello Kitty bread stamp. You can put anything inside – ham and cheese, or honey and PB

     

    I know exactly what you are going to say……

time

But really, it does not take long! The ingredients are simple enough – rice or pasta, some kind of meat, kid’s favorite veggies or fruits, eggs, cheese, easy right? And no lie, every single day my kid comes home with a 100% empty lunch box. So why not put in a little bit more creativity to encourage kids to eat? A plain old sandwich and an apple every day is pretty dreadful. Really, this cute shit is pretty easy once you get the hang of it and I think worth the effort, because what is the use of your child coming home every day with a half eaten lunch box?

However…. making this stuff may not be so easy if you don’t have the required tools.

So, if anyone out there is interested in embracing the concept of cute obento, I have a specific limited time offer.

I will gladly send you a package of stuff through the mail in exchange for a few packages of Chief Brand Curry Powder, because my stocks are running low and I cannot make curry out of anything else.

Whose interested?

image_b7e6af26-50aa-4580-9e55-4e615fff60be_250x

 

 

 

Springtime in Sapporo

It is May in the city of Sapporo, the capital of Hokkaido, Japan’s second largest island. Often referred to as ‘Japan’s Wild North’, the name is well deserved, because although it has a lot of space, Hokkaido remains largely underdeveloped. Just outside the city centre, bears and deer roam free, and within an hour’s drive or train ride you can be in a totally rural setting, with lakes, active volcanoes, and snow capped mountains.

sapporo - 6.jpg

A wild north it is indeed, and most people come here in the winter to enjoy the popular Snow Festival, and skiing on what is considered some of the best snow and powder in the world. (Being a Trini girl, I’m not sure exactly what that means, because I’d hate to think what would happen if I ever strapped skis to my feet, but it has made Hokkaido world famous.)

Being the tail end of spring, our plan was to rent a car and go explore Lake Shikotsu, about an hour’s drive from Sapporo, and stay in an onsen hotel right by one of Japan’s most active volcanoes.

But first we spent some time in the city, which turned out to be a surprisingly beautiful place, with tree-lined avenues, parks, and an almost Vancouver-like view of mountains every time you look down a road. It was easy to get around, people were helpful and friendly, and many places had English menus – all things that are hard to find in Japan. Unfortunately, the first day was quite rainy and cloudy.

sapporo - 2.jpg

sapporo - 1.jpg

We stayed in the popular Susukino area, which is an ‘entertainment district’  (i.e. red light district), with loads of izakaya, bars and restaurants. We also went through the long Tanukikoji Shopping Arcade, which was mostly full of overpriced souvenirs, but fun to see anyway.

sapporo - 3.jpg

Another thing that was good to do on a rainy day was to stroll through the Nijo Market where they serve seafood so fresh that you can literally point at, say, some oysters or scallops, and then the auntie will pluck them out, put them on a dish for you, and you can sit on the tiny chairs on the sidewalk to eat them with chopsticks. The Chinese tourists were really going full on about this.

sapporo - 5.jpg

sapporo - 4.jpg

The next day in Sapporo I also did some obligatory touristy things, such as the Mt Moiwa ropeway – a cable car just on the western edge of downtown that takes you up a beautiful mountain to give you a view of the city. From the top you can see the Sea of Japan, nearby volcanoes, and all of Sapporo. My goal was to take the cable car to the top and then walk down on the foot path, but it was closed that day. FOR BEARS. No lie!

sapporo - 7.jpg

sapporo - 8.jpg

Last on the list of touristy things to do was the Maruyama Zoo, which proved to be like all other zoos: mostly sad and depressing. We didn’t spend so much time at the zoo but the Maruyama Park was stunning. Everything was in full bloom, schools were on field trips, little groups of old ladies and gents were foraging in the forest for wild mushrooms and edible greens. The cherry blossoms were still blooming and though the peak was over it was still beautiful.

sapporo - 9.jpg

sapporo - 11.jpg

sapporo - 10.jpg

How lucky I think the people of Sapporo are to have a vibrant city centre, but also so much incredible nature all around. In Tokyo you can sit on a train for two hours and literally STILL be inside the city – it’s that big. But Sapporo seems like a wonderful place to live.

Up next – the trip to Lake Shikotsu

Two days in Kyoto (a.k.a Why are there so many goddam people here??)

The friend who I was travelling with is a teacher, so unfortunately she is stuck travelling during the peak times of school holidays. Osaka had been kind of busy, but nothing like what we encountered in Kyoto. Not only was it school holidays in Hong Kong, but it was a week of national holidays in mainland China, and it seemed like the entire population of Beijing was in Kyoto at the same time as us.

After the chilled out, laid back vibe of Osaka, in contrast Kyoto seemed stuffy, self important, and stand-offish. I suppose being Japan’s capital for over 1,000 years gives you some sense of entitlement, but we were not prepared for incredibly overpriced restaurants, bars that charge you a fee just to sit down and demand that you order X amount of drinks and X amount of dishes, and mostly a cold, slightly snobbish kind of attitude.

Being the second most popular city in Japan other than Tokyo (yay Tokyo!), but ten times smaller in terms of population, perhaps Kyoto is just a bit overwhelmed with all the attention, and hasn’t figured out exactly how to deal with this massive, never ending influx of tourists. Everywhere we went we saw foreigners. Every train was full of foreigners too, which would never happen in Tokyo, being such a huge city. There were signs in English everywhere, which was helpful, but weird. But also a sense of stress, that people were being forced to face the plague of locusts. Even the magazine in our hotel had a page warning people against chasing geisha through Gion to take pictures and harassing them.

We were therefore lucky, after taking the train from Osaka to Kyoto, to go to one of the most popular sights in Kyoto, and not be overrun with tourists. Looking back, it is likely that if we went in the morning, it would have been flooded with people. Anyway, we went to the Fushimi Inari Shrine that afternoon, and it was without a doubt the highlight of my experience in Kyoto.

DSCF3743

DSCF3739

Fushimi Inari Taisha is famous for being a very unique attraction in Japan, in that it has hundreds and hundreds of orange torii winding up through the mountain on what is actually a two-hour hike (we only walked for perhaps an hour before getting tired and sitting down in a mountain retreat for a cold Sapporo). Torii are the gates that serve as the entrance to a Shinto shrine, and symbolically indicates the passing into a sacred area. The torii at Fushimi Inari were apparently donated by local merchants, and the columns carry their names, dates, and even prayers.

DSCF3741

It has become a real icon of Japan, and yes there were lots of people there taking pictures, and even girls (and guys) renting out kimono to pose for pictures in the orange gates. But it wasn’t completely overrun with people, and we were able to take our time and enjoy it.

DSCF3747

Quiet guest house about a third of the way up the mountain. Good place to sit and chill out.

This was the exact opposite of what we encountered on day two when we rented bicycles and went around the city on two wheels, only to be confronted by what seemed like millions of tourists coming off of millions of tour buses. It also didn’t help that it was raining, so the rent-a-bike was a bit of a bust, and not worth doing unless you have a clear day.

When we got to our first destination, the Kiyomizu Dera temple, we had to get off the bikes and squeeze our way between the buses just to get to the entrance, and then pay to park, and then go with the crowds through what I imagine are normally quite beautiful, peaceful, scenic little roads that lead into the temple. But all we saw were tour guide flags, yellow caps of school trips, and zillions of tourists, mostly from mainland China, many of them dressed up in fancy kimono for pictures. It took forever to walk through the throngs. But we did, and we got ‘The Picture’ that everyone takes of Kiyomizu Dera.

DSCF3769

Was it worth it? Perhaps in off-season it might have been. But after that experience of being so overrun by tour buses, we were completely turned off. Laura described it as being ‘underwhelmed’. Kyoto is touted as the ‘City of Temples’ and the map we’d gotten from the rent-a-bike company had routes to get to all of them. But being so soured by the rain and the crowds, we decided actually not to go to the other temples, and therefore did not see 99% of the famous sights of Kyoto.

DSCF3773

A claustrophobe’s worst nightmare

Instead, we got the hell away from Kiyomizu Dera, and biked it over to an indoor attraction suitable for a rainy day – the Teramachi and Shinkyogoku shopping arcades, which are covered, and good for wandering around for an hour or two. Right in the middle of the city, it was busy, but not overrun with tour buses. What was cool was that every block or so, you’d come across a tiny temple, and there were dozens of them.

Later that day when the weather cleared up a bit, we cycled to Gion, the famous ‘geisha district’. And did we see a geisha? Yes, we did! We did not, however, chase her like a papparazzi, respecting the wishes of the local community. In fact, it was such a fleeting moment we didn’t even have enough time to take our the cameras.

We were just wandering through the quiet streets, looking at the wooden merchant houses and the traditional architecture, when suddenly, through the light drizzle, a door slid open, and a geisha emerged, right in front of us. She quickly scurried up the road, and I took a good look at her kimono, the elaborate hairdo, the white paint on the back of her neck, and then, in an instant, she was gone, like an apparition. I think in a way it was better to just take in the moment rather than to be obsessed with snapping a shot of her. And hopefully she was grateful for a moment of peace, without long lenses and flash photography.

As previously mentioned, Kyoto was a little bit stuffy, at least in comparison to Osaka. We did not feel particularly welcome at the restaurants even though they immediately presented English menus to us. On the contrary, it felt more like, ‘Oh god, it’s another goddam gaijin coming inside.’ I almost prefer the fear that people in Tokyo tend to give off when confronted with a foreigner, or the blasé whatever shrug of easy-going Osaka people… at least you know it’s authentic! Perhaps I am not explaining it very well.

Anyway, Kyoto….. well….. seems like an awful thing to say about one of the most important cities in Japan and the home of so, so many UNESCO World Heritage Sites… but… meh. Perhaps it would have been better if we’d been during a quieter time. But still, I’d choose Osaka over Kyoto any day. 

DSCF3761

Two days in Osaka – The pumped up KIX

For our sixth wedding anniversary, my husband gave me the best present ever — he buggered off and took The Child with him to visit his family in Tokyo, giving me four precious days of complete freedom to go on a trip to Osaka and Kyoto with my long time travel buddy and old time Trini friend, Laura. We’d have two days in each of the most popular cities in Kansai, and then I’d take the bullet train up to Tokyo to fly back all together.

Oh the luxury, of having total and absolute freedom of movement, of time, of liming and drinking sake in tiny bars without thinking, ‘I better go home because I have to wake up at 6am’. Instead of the daily routine of childcare and school drops and coaxing a small child to eat, my brain and soul and body returned to those days when I woke up, consulted a map, and determined what interesting thing I was going to do that day. Joy of joys! I’d waited a long time for this.

After a quick and relatively painless flight on low cost carrier HK Express, we arrived in Osaka (airport code KIX) and headed to our destination for the next two nights, Namba. What a perfect area to stay, with everything was right outside our door and many attractions were within walking distance. Bars, restaurants, pachinko, shopping, street markets, temples, you name it, you got it. The hotel, Le Botejour Namba Annex, was dingy and small, but the location made up for it. (Plus, it was cheap. Which leaves more money for sake and shopping.)

After checking in, we dumped our bags and headed out the door. Night time was falling and the brights lights of Namba were coming up. We wandered around the shopping arcades, taking in the sights and sounds, and just when we could walk no more we were somehow inexplicably drawn into a little hole in the wall bar with a sign promising draft beer for ¥100 (under US $1). After parting with a few of our ¥100 coins, we found a tasty little izakaya, filled up on some Kansai cuisine, and stumbled back to the hotel to get some rest.

When we awoke in the morning, Namba was a ghost town in recovery after the previous night’s indulgences. We barely found anything open to serve us breakfast, and wandered around for ages trying to find something decent to eat. The normally raucous Dotonbori area was subdued, closed up, and empty. We finally gave in and decided to have some coffee and onigiri from the Family Mart (which is not a bad way to start the day, if you ask me).

DSCF3662

Quiet street in Dotonbori….. 8.30 am

DSCF3666

By dusk this bridge would have a long line of tourists queueing up for takoyaki, one of the most famous dishes of Osaka

DSCF3725

And at night, it all came alive along the river

In terms of tourist attractions, we did the obligatory stop at Osaka Castle (my advice: don’t bother to pay to go inside unless you really want to see the view from the top, which isn’t that amazing anyways). But mostly we just hung around Namba and Umeda, enjoying the vibes.

DSCF3675

The moat around Osaka Castle

DSCF3693

Castle against an incredible sky

I’ve heard people say that Osaka is ‘just another big city’, but I found it a really charming and interesting place that I’d definitely go back to. I liked how within the busy entertainment district, you could turn down a tiny alley and find a quiet little temple, with big yellow lanterns and the smell of incense in the air. I liked that it was a LOT smaller than Tokyo — we were never on the train for more than 20 minutes, whereas in Tokyo you can be on the train for 90 minutes and still not cross the city.

DSCF3660

Lovely old architecture hiding in Namba

Most of all, I liked how Osaka people were cool, easy going, and not afraid of foreigners. On our second and last night, in one of the above-mentioned tiny alleyways that we wandered down, we found a miniscule nomiya (drinking spot) with only five bar stools and one friendly lady manning the bar. We squeezed in, ducking through the wooden doors, and got cosy. She took good care of us, doling out generous amounts of masu-zake (where they put the glass inside a square cup and let it overflow as they pour), feeding us whatever she was cooking (the healthiest bar food ever — spinach with sesame) and engaging us in conversation. This would be a big contrast to what we experienced when we arrived in Kyoto.  But more on that later.

DSCF3707

Walking around in Hozenji Yokocho

Anyway, Osaka gets two big thumbs up from me. And even for a short trip of just two days, it was very, very fun.

Next — rubbing shoulders with all of mainland China in Kyoto. Read on for part two. 





Date night in Tokyo

Tokyo is a city that has more Michelin stars than anywhere else on the planet, and its restaurants are known for using the best quality ingredients and having an almost insane dedication to perfection, both in terms of flavour, presentation, and service.

However, when given the opportunity to leave The Child with her doting grandmother for a night to go out on the town with The Husband, we don’t go to one of the three-star establishments that have made Tokyo the capital of gastronomy.

Instead we head to a tiny little hole in the wall in Ueno, where thirsty, smoking salarymen who probably should be at work can be found sitting on plastic beer crates at 10am, drinking Hoppy mixed with shoju, and eating the grilled innards of a variety of hoofed animals. If I had to think of a comparison to a place in Trinidad, it would probably be Smokey and Bunty’s, but with food.

What, doesn’t sound like a very romantic date night to you?

Indeed the first time I went to Daitoryo, I was slightly offended. The place is small — only eight stools inside flanking the kitchen, and maybe ten seats outside — and being directly under the train tracks, you hear a constant ba-dunk-a-dunk of trains passing overhead. Almost everyone is smoking and if you’re lucky to get a seat at an outside table you can expect to be elbow-to-elbow with some drunkard next to you, who just might try to chat you up in English, or perhaps offer you something from their own plate.

But what Daitoryo may lack in class, cleanliness, or service, it makes up for in food, and if you give it a chance you’ll see that the general dodgyness of the place is what gives it a very unique character. The three sweaty, grungy men working the grill don’t have time for the typical excessive pleasantries that greet you in your average Japanese restaurant. If you want something, you have to shout to them what you want. And I imagine that in a country like Japan, where society is so strict about what kind of behaviour is acceptable, a place like Daitoryo gives you the chance to let your hair down, and let your guard down too.

I first went to Daitoryo almost ten years ago, when I was just an innocent young girl teaching English in Japan. At the time there were almost no foreigners going to Daitoryo and nothing was in English. Now, I suppose it is catching on as a good place to go and eat, and much to my surprise they now have a crudely translated menu, which lists what seem to be the things that gaijin most often would order.

If you happen to be with a Japanese person, and if you have an iron stomach, you can try a lot more interesting things that are not on the English menu, such as motsu which is a sort of stew of cow stomach, or kusaya which is a highly fermented fish. Both of these dishes could burn the hair out of your nostrils if you give them a sniff. And you better hope the person next to you doesn’t order them.

As for me, I stick to a few of my safe and well known favourites — tsukune (minced chicken), shishitou (grilled peppers), negi (leek), and chicken. Oh yes, and nori cheese is good too, especially if you’re drinking cold beer. And I am of course always drinking cold beer.

To get to Daitoryo, you can go out either the Central or the Shinobazu Gate. Both gates exit on to a huge road with the train tracks above your head. Cross the road and you’ll see a UNIQLO shop on the corner. Go down that alley, walk all the way down, and when the alley ends at a T-junction you’ll see a tiny bar with a green awning on your left. That, my friends, is Daitoryo.

See the UNIQLO across the street? Go down that alley

When the alley stops, look for the green awning on the left

Ta-daa! You’ve reached Daitoryo

Once Upon a Time in Tokyo

Tokyo is not a particularly pretty place. It consists of miles and miles and miles of prefabricated houses, stretching as far as the eye can see, on a mostly flat area of land. The urban sprawl never seems to end. Certain areas of course have great character — Shinjuku, Shibuya, Ueno, and what not — but if you were expecting to see something beautiful and traditional out of the set of ‘Memoirs of a Geisha’, then you better go to Kyoto instead.

There’s a very simple reason for this: most of Tokyo was razed to the ground in a fiery hell during the tragic bombings of World War II. And with most houses back then being built of wood, it didn’t take long for the majority of the city to burn down, destroying architecture, neighborhoods, and local character. What replaced it was most westernised housing, and drab urban areas.

However, there is one area that managed to survive the destruction of WW2 — and it happens to be in Saitama! So perhaps I was a bit too harsh on poor old Saitama after all.

If you want to see what Tokyo looked like once upon a time, all you have to do is go to Kawagoe. Here you will find an area often referred to as Little Edo, with beautiful old merchant houses, and traditional architecture that once abounded. It is often quite a strange contradiction to see these old Edo-period buildings, flanked by modern highrises, such as in the picture below.

DSCN4240 DSCN4244 DSCN4250 DSCN4271 DSCN4272 DSCN4275 DSCN4276

Of course, it’s not all completely traditional, not anymore… there are a few shops that sell new, funky, trendy items. Such as, Kimono Kitty.

DSCN4241

If you want to go to Kawagoe just to walk around and take pictures, good luck. The main road where all the traditional merchant houses are happens to be the busiest street in town, so it’s constantly full of cars. If you want to try to get a shot of the buildings without a Prius in front of them, try to stand up by the traffic lights, and wait for the cars to stop to get a good shot. I went on a Wednesday morning, and still had to deal with the endless stream of cars passing by. I can’t quite figure out why they haven’t made the entire strip into a pedestrian zone for tourists.

Be sure to check out Penny Candy Lane, or Kashiya Yokocho, which has lots of lovely shops selling little treats and sweets and crackers and what not. Very yummy. Makes a good souvenir too.

Getting around Kawagoe is quite easy, as there are thankfully signs leading you to where you want to go, so it’s hard to get lost. JapanGuide website has a good explanation of how to get there. To check train times, check the very useful Hyperdia website for a point to point search of train lines.

Kawagoe is a place that is dear to my heart, because when I had first arrived in Tokyo as an English teacher, all the way back in 2006, and was living on my own for the very first time, in a country far, far away from my homeland, I decided to go to Kawagoe for the annual Kawagoe Matsuri, or Kawagoe Festival. I checked the train lines, hopped on the Seibu Shinjuku line, and managed to get myself to Kawagoe without getting lost. As a reward, I was treated to one of the most amazing festivals I’ve ever seen. It takes place every October so if you have the chance, don’t miss out on Kawagoe Matsuri.

 

Three Things to do in Saitama, Japan

If Tokyo is the hot blooded, sexy, pulsating supermodel of Japan, Saitama is its buck-toothed, slightly chubby, less attractive sister. Saitama is the neighboring prefecture to Tokyo and largely an industrial area, full of factories making gum and car parts, and mile after mile of second hand car dealerships. It’s flat, mostly lacking in character, and it’s a place we go to twice a year, because it’s where the in-laws live.

It might sound like a harsh criticism but even my husband agrees (and says it all the time), going to Saitama is pretty depressing. There isn’t much to do and it’s largely a commuter town due to its cheap rent and proximity to Tokyo. A lot of shops and restaurants are closed, and the ones that are open have no customers. We saw a sign up advertising a 3LDK (that’s three bedrooms, plus dining room and kitchen) right next to Shin-Sayama Station for just over US $100,000. In downtown Tokyo, by contrast, a 3LDK would cost at least a cool USD 1 million.

When in Saitama we stay in an area called Sayama. The nearest train station is Shin-Sayama, on the Seibu Shinjuku line. And there are three neat things about the town, that I’m glad to share with you today.

  1. HAMAZUSHI – If you love sushi but don’t have buckets of money to eat in a fancy restaurant, then Hamazushi with its ‘conveyor belt’ of rotating sushi is a life saver. And trust me, it is absolutely delicious. Every standard dish is just 105 yen (under US $1) and the menu is very varied. Best of all, for hapless gaijin like me, the electronic menu is in English – a rarity in Japan! You just use the electronic menu to choose whatever food you want to eat, and seconds later it comes whizzing down the belt, alerting you that your selected dish is about to arrive.How to get there – From Shin-Sayama station go out the North Exit, and walk down the main shopping street playing spooky music until you reach a ‘T’ at the end of the road. You’ll see a huge PC DEPOT with a Hard Off and Book Off straight ahead of you. Turn left, and walk just under 10 minutes. You’ll find Hamazushi on your left, just after a katsudon place.20141114_142400
  2. HARD OFF – Who doesn’t love a bargain? And thankfully in Japan, second hand stuff is in excellent quality and good brand names too. Every time I go to Sayama I have to go to Hard Off, just to look around. You can stock up your entire kitchen with beautiful Japanese tableware, or buy super cheap baby clothes. Furniture, sporting goods, shoes, bags, you name it, they’ve got it, and it’s damn cheap.
  3. SAYAMA ZOO – If you’ve got kids (or even one kid, like I do), a trip to Sayama Zoo is a fun way to spend a few hours. Feed the ducks, pet the goats, watch the guinea pigs get a manicure, and observe the red bottoms in the monkey enclosure. The zoo had a few school buses there that day but otherwise it was quiet and empty. I believe it was also only 200 yen!DSCN4166

See? It’s not all doom and gloom in Saitama. It might not be the most exciting place in Japan, but at least you’re not that far from all the action downtown!

Spirited Away in Gunma

You get this spooky feeling sometimes in Japan once you get out of the big cities and into the countryside. The Japanese countryside, with its traditional style wooden farmhouses and picture perfect rice paddies, is incredibly beautiful and scenic, but it doesn’t take long to realise that something is missing from the picture — people. It’s like a ghost town, or a movie set, everywhere you look. Driving through the streets, no people. Walking down the road, no people. And if you do see any people, they are almost certainly over the age of 60.

Japan’s steadily declining birth rate coupled with the continued migration to cities means that many areas are suffering from depopulation. Recent surveys have found very scary statistics. Within 50 years, Japan will lose 30% of its population. Within 25 years, one in three people will be over the age of 65. Young people are simply not dating and getting married and making babies, and those who do are only having one due to the high cost of raising a child. More and more towns are being abandoned by young people, leaving elegant rural homes behind for the comfort and opportunity offered by life in the big city. It kind of reminds me of that movie, Children of Men.

We were up in Gunma prefecture for the weekend to go soak our bodies and souls in onsen or mineral hot springs. Just under two hours from Tokyo, Gunma is an easy trip away from the city, and a great place to go to see the autumn leaves changing into vibrant reds and oranges.

DSCN3980

On the way there, we stopped at a Michi no Eki, or Roadside Station, to have a quick soba lunch and stretch our legs. My father-in-law, who knows the area, insisted I try my hand at making soba; a demonstration offered by the restaurants to lure in customers. A soft spoken woman showed us how to mix the buckwheat flour, knead it, roll it out, and cut into noodles. Then, our slightly wonky looking noodles were cooked and served to us.

The making...

The making…

DSCN3947

And the eating

Next to the Michi no Eki was Takumi no Sato, a historic little village that lies along the original road that once connected Gunma to Niigata, the Mikuni Kaido, hundreds of years ago. Merchants would pass through the village, and stay the night in one of the local inns before carrying on the next day. For 600 years it was a hub of arts and crafts, particularly silk. Today, many of the shops offer the chance to try making soba, paper (washi), and pottery.

DSCN4036

DSCN4031 DSCN4054

DSCN3984

DSCN4029

With the opening of the train line, traffic through this area went into great decline, a legacy which continues today. Most of the local shops were closed when we were there, and the few that were open were silent. Inside usually was an old granny or grandpa, selling their handmade crafts, but I wonder how many sales they make on a typical day, and if it is enough to support them. If there were a dozen tourists walking around, that was plenty. As we were leaving the area, a tour bus pulled in, and deposited a gaggle of grey and purple haired senior citizens — the only ones these days who have time and money to go sightseeing in the middle of the week.

We stayed overnight at the beautiful Sarugakyo Life Care onsen, which in addition to the standard onsen hotel also has one private wood cabin with its own little onsen inside, up on the second floor in the open air. Hot mineral water, cool mountain air, and a cold beer in hand? I was in heaven.

DSCN3970

The private cabin

DSCN3949 DSCN3952

That evening after taking onsen, we slipped on yukata robes and geta, the strange sandals that you’d think you’d never be able to walk on, but are surprisingly comfortable, even if you do have to take tiny little geisha-like steps. Dinner was served in the main building of the onsen in the communal dining room (which again, was full of old people). They presented local delicacies including inago, a dish of fried crickets in a hot, sweet soy sauce, which I thought was not bad at all. Mostly just crunchy and salty, and if you ask me, if you deep free anything and throw in a little sugar and salt, it’s gotta be tasty.

DSCN4013 DSCN4024

Upon our arrival to the wood cabin we found our futons had been laid out for us, along with more towels for further onsen enjoyment. We watched live sumo on TV and drank cold Kirin, until it was time to go to sleep. The following morning was another ridiculously amazing breakfast, before we headed back to Tokyo.

I don’t know what Japan will do about its quickly emptying towns, and I don’t know who will take care of the elderly folks who will soon outnumber the young able-bodied people. In a country which is notoriously closed off to foreigners and wary of immigrants, they have a serious problem on their hands. If our short visit to Gunma was anything to go by, it’s only a matter of time before more and more of these beautiful towns are left empty, as young people get spirited away…

DSCN3985

The youngest person in town

A rare look inside Japan’s Imperial Palace

On my recent trip to Tokyo, I happened to be there for what is literally a once-in-a-lifetime event — the opening of the grounds of the Imperial Palace in Tokyo, where the Japanese Royal Family lives. The occasion was the Emperor’s 80th birthday, and for five days only, the gardens and surrounding areas of the Palace would be opened to the public. I say this is a once-in-a-lifetime event because, according to my husband, the Palace grounds are never, ever opened, and because it could be decades before the grounds were opened again.

This explained why there were so many old people about. Well, this also had to do with the fact that we went on a Friday morning when most young people were out at their various forms of remunerative drudgery. But it was mostly because the older generations in Japan grew up in a time when the Royal Family was sacred; direct descendants from God. That all changed after Japan’s defeat in World War II, when the US forced the Royal Family to denounce their divinity and say that they were just normal human beings. Nonetheless, the older folks in Japan still have a lot of reverence for the Royal Family, much as I imagine the older Brits have for the Queen.

The grounds themselves were beautiful in their own demure, quiet Japanese way. No big pomp and circumstance, like in the overly ornate and overblown Forbidden Palace in Beijing. Just a huge stone wall to keep out invaders, perfectly manicured laws, and a handful of small lakes and gardens, with plain wooden benches, and little else.

 

The moat surrounding the palace, and the entrance gate

The moat surrounding the palace, and the entrance gate

DSCN2258

Just making sure they’re still strong

DSCN2276

Sakura in bloom

DSCN2261

Old vs New in Tokyo

DSCN2302

Lookout tower on a hill

DSCN2314

 

A great opportunity indeed and how lucky we were to get to see cherry blossoms by the Imperial Palace on a perfect spring day in Tokyo! It doesn’t get much better than that. Except maybe sitting under the cherry blossom trees with a cold beer, but alas, hanami parties were not allowed.

If you’re in Tokyo and want to see the Imperial Palace, you may not be able to go inside the premises the way we were, but certain parts of the Palace grounds and gardens are open to the public.

There is a very helpful article on Japan Guide about when and how to plan your visit to the Palace.

Tokyo Abloom

The path and the road were covered with a layer of blossoms that were everywhere fluttering down, dying at the moment of their greatest beauty.

The General spoke quietly, as much to himself as to Nicholai. ‘We have been fortunate. We have enjoyed the three best days of the cherry blossoms. The day of promise, when they are not yet perfect. The perfect day of enchantment. And today they are already past their prime. So this is the day of memory. The saddest day of the three… but the richest.’

Shibumi, by Trevanian, 1979

If you happen to be in Japan at the very moment when the sakura, or cherry blossoms, have reached their peak, then you are indeed very fortunate. What is the magic in the sakura? Is it the intensity of the flowers, the different shades of pink, the way it creates a ceiling of petals above your head? In Trinidad & Tobago we have beautiful flowers blooming, such as the Poui trees, and while people may take notice, few regard it as a special event. But in Japan, sakura is an event that is celebrated and welcomed by all. Perhaps because it heralds in the spring, after months of cold, dark winter. Perhaps because you can sit outside, underneath the trees, and feel the warmth of the sun again, and drink a cold beer and enjoy that feeling of freedom and well being. Perhaps it is because this celebration of life, of warmth, of colour, of beauty, is so short lived. In the park, you can see some sakura finally reaching full bloom, while others just a few yards away are stark and bare, having already shed their flowers to the ground. It happens quickly. The rivers become full of dead petals, the water a sea of white flowers. On this day, the ‘third day’ that Trevanian described above, when the wind blows, the air fills with petals, like a light snow fall. This is what I believe people like the best – the realisation and understanding that this beauty, and this life that we have, is short lived, and after a riotous, vigorous bloom, everything returns to its bare bones.

 

Image

ImageImageImageImage

Faster than a speeding bullet – Japan’s shinkansen

Would it sound bad if I said that my first trip on Japan’s bullet train was a bit…. meh? I wasn’t disappointed, I just wasn’t that amazingly impressed. I’m not sure what I was expecting — perhaps it is all the hype about the shinkansen (that’s Japanese for bullet train), the pride that the Japanese take in it, the reputation of being super fast, super efficient, and super sleek. Well, I hope I don’t offend anyone when I say yeah, the bullet train is cool, but to be honest, I didn’t quite see what all the fuss is about.

YES, it is insanely fast, so fast that your ears often pop, even though you are not in the air. YES, it the busiest high speed train in the world, and YES it has transported almost five BILLION passengers since it was launched. These are all impressive. But, I have to say, it is…. well… it’s just a train. Is that terrible? Maybe I was expecting… I dunno…. super comfy vibrating seats and robots that push carts through the aisle selling ice cold Asahi beer. But instead what I found was just a train, albeit an incredibly fast one. Oh well. Sorry Japan.

shinkansen

In Tokyo Station, ready to go

Anyway, so I took the bullet train and headed south out of Tokyo the other day, with baby in tow. We bought our eki-ben (station lunch box), which is a must for the trip, and travelled like a speeding bullet to Okayama to visit a friend of mine who used to be my neighbour in Tokyo and now lives there. I’ve hardly travelled at all outside of the Tokyo area, despite many trips to Japan. I guess it is easy to get stuck in the action of the biggest city in the world, so I was looking forward to seeing a different part of Japan.

We zipped past Yokohama, and then in the blink of an eye we were zooming through Nagoya, then Kyoto, then Osaka, and a little under three hours later, I had travelled a whopping 676km to reach Okayama. (Okay, yeah, that’s pretty impressive, I have to admit. Fine!)  From Okayama, I switched to the local line, and went a few stops to Kurashiki, where I’d be staying for two nights.

okayama

 

I didn’t have that much time in Kurashiki itself, but I did get to visit its most famous tourist area, called Bikan. It’s a very well preserved part of town with an interesting mix of traditional Japanese architecture, white-walled shophouses, narrow cobble-stoned streets, and a pretty little canal. There weren’t that many tourists, so it was easy to amble around and sample some of the local snackies that were on sale. I also was lucky enough to have a couple on their wedding day turn around and flash me a peace sign!

DSCF2617

17th century merchant home

DSCF2621

Beautiful fall foliage by the canal

DSCF2626

Tourists taking a ride

DSCF2640

Sweet of them! Congratulations to the bride and groom!

DSCF2644

Lots… and lots… of old assed domestic tourists. I swear going to Japan is like being on the set of ‘Children of Men’

写真 4

Eating dango (roasted rice balls) with my friend’s two little dudes

But boy, I have to say, travelling alone with a baby can be hard. She is an amazingly good traveller, but she is getting HEAVY! I love the Baby Bjorn, but it is almost time to retire it and find a bigger carrier. After a few days of going around town with her strapped to my body, my shoulders were killing me.

Ah, that’s what they should have on the bullet train. Robots that give massages. Now THAT would be super impressive.

Okinawa — the caribbean side of japan

When you think of Japan, do you think mega cities, crowded trains, teenage kids in freaky costumes, black-suited salarymen, serene temples, sushi restaurants, geishas in kimonos? For the most part, this is all true, this is the Japan that most people know around the world. But I was pleased to find that if you head south — way, way south — you get to Japan’s backwaters, a set of tiny islands so far from the mainland that it’s hard to believe it is part of Japan at all. I’m talking Okinawa, “the tropical side of Japan”.

Now, anybody who knows me knows I love Japan. I think it is a fabulous country. But I am also a Caribbean woman, which means that I also need sand between my toes, a glass of rum under a coconut tree, warm sun and bright blue skies. So what could be better than Okinawa! A place that looks more like Hawaii than Tokyo. A place where you are just as likely to find a reggae bar as a karaoke bar. A place where people have tans, wear flower-pattern shirts and flip flops, and go to the beach on Sundays. A Caribbean Japan? Who knew such a thing existed! And why did it take me so long to go there?

The ‘ferry pier’ at Minna-jima

So here’s a brief history of Okinawa: in a nutshell, it was never part of Japan at all. It was the Kingdom of the Ryukyus, a completely independent territory that had nothing to do with mainland Japan and in fact was geographically closer to Taiwan and China than Japan. The people are ethnically different and speak their own language. Both China and Japan had been eyeing Okinawa for some time due to its strategic location. The Kingdom of the Ryukyus was taken over by Japan in the late 1800s, which led to the suppression of the locals and a loss of sovereignty. Things got a whole lot worse during World War II when Japan fought the US, and during the Battle of Okinawa, some 100,000 locals were killed, both by Japanese and American troops. After the atomic bombings in Japan, which brought an abrupt end to WWII, Okinawa then switched hands and became a US territory. The military moved in, and didn’t officially ‘return’ Okinawa to Japan until the 1970s. But with Japan and the US now ‘at peace’, Okinawa remained a prime location for US military bases, and to this day, the locals are still trying to get the bases off of the island once and for all.

SPAM — a leftover from American culture and very popular on the island

But as is the case with many beautiful places with nothing but beaches (except for Trinidad, which has OIL), there is little local economy in Okinawa, and the US pays Japan a heck of a lot of money to keep some 30,000 troops there to keep their eye on China, Korea, and the other neighbors. Okinawa mostly relies on tourism and the bases and is technically speaking the poorest prefecture of Japan in terms of salaries. The locals, however, seem to have a nice quality of life. While their mainland counterparts are jumping in front of the 8 am bullet train because they can’t take the stress of working for a Japanese corporation anymore, the Okinawans have blue skies, clean oceans, big houses, and what seems to be a great lifestyle. In fact many people leave the mega cities of Osaka and Tokyo to find a quieter, happier life in Okinawa, even if it means being a bit poorer.

Naha is the capital city of Okinawa, a bustling little place full of hotels, restaurants, bars, shopping, and what not. On Sunday the famous Kokusai Dori (International Street) becomes a pedestrian zone with lots of shops selling local handicrafts, pottery, Okinawan clothing, everything.

Sunday shopping in Heiwa-Dori

Cheeeese! Oki Ham!

They sure do love pork here… even pork face!

Goya condoms! What they call goya, Trinis call ‘carraili’

Lucky for me, I also know a Trini living in Okinawa, teaching English with the JET program. She’s been there for two years and is staying for a third, which should be sign that she likes it there, a lot. Always nice to have a local show you around! We drove around town, visited some local sites, and even happened upon a summer festival. Was great to tour around with Sarah.

De Trinis posin’ at de gate by de Shuri Castle an’ ting

Ancient castle of the King of the Ryukyus, before it got invaded again, and again

Traditional dance

So how to get to Okinawa? There are loads and loads of domestic flights from Japan, as well as from some locations in China, such as Beijing and Shanghai, plus from nearby Taiwan. Lucky for me, Okinawa being so far south is only 2 hours from Hong Kong on Hong Kong Airlines with daily flights. In fact … I am very tempted to just move to Okinawa and done the talk!!!

The True Story of the Shit Slinger

I’m sitting here in a hotel in Narita, the town next to Tokyo’s international airport, and looking out the window below brings back memories of what has to be the craziest and most mental thing that has ever happened to me while traveling. And that story — a true story, let me assure you — is what I would like to share with you today.

The year was 2006, and armed with a degree in English and a teaching certificate I had just snagged a teaching job in Tokyo, the biggest city in the world, a city that has more than the entire population of Canada. As you can imagine I was beyond stoked to go and see what far out things I would find in the far east. It was the beginning of the adventure of a lifetime.

Myself and three other teachers who had just arrived in Tokyo were put up in the school’s guest house for a week to attend teacher training and orientation before going off to our respective schools. The other teachers were really friendly, Tim from Australia, Chris from America, and Peter from England, and we were getting along just fine. We went out together to try sushi, drank some Japanese beer, and were all in all just excited to be there in Japan for the first time.

Then the the last guy in the group arrived. From the moment he shook my hand, I could tell he was not quite right in the head. You know when you look in someone’s eyes and you can just see right away that something in there is a bit off? They say the eyes are the windows to the soul, and I didn’t like the look of this guy’s soul at all, so I just kept my distance, and made sure to lock my bedroom door that night when I went to sleep.

A few hours later, I awoke to hear a strange noise. It sounded like a moaning, a deep groan of despair or pain. I got up, and put my ear to the door, thinking perhaps someone had been injured. The moaning was coming from downstairs. Then the moaning turned into a screaming, shouting, and banging. It sounded like somebody was throwing themselves against the walls. And in Japanese houses, with thin walls, I felt the walls moving, even upstairs.

My first thought, as a woman (and the only woman in the house), is of course that this crazy man is going to come upstairs and try to rape me. My heart started racing, trying to think of what to do, how to deal with this situation. I looked around my room — I had no tools, nothing I could use as a weapon, nothing, nothing, nothing. I had no idea what to do.

Just then I heard a light knock on my door, and it was two of the other teachers, Tim and Peter. They both looked freaked out, and they came into my room and quickly locked the door.

“That new guy, he’s freaking out downstairs,” Tim whispered. “What the hell do we do?”

Peter looked terrified. “What if he’s is a psycho killer? What if he is nuts and he tries to come up here for us?”

Now imagine, the three of us had literally arrived in Japan 48 hours earlier and were totally and completely vulnerable. We didn’t speak any Japanese, we didn’t have a cell phone, we didn’t know anybody, we didn’t exactly know where we were in terms of a map or an address, we didn’t even know the emergency numbers for the police or ambulance, and we were trapped in a house with a madman going on a rampage downstairs.

And to top it all off, the only land line in the house was downstairs. In the living room. With the crazy guy.

Meanwhile, the moaning was getting louder, and he started screaming all kinds of obscenities and nonsense, banging into the walls, slamming the door over and over again. We had to do something.

I opened the window, and looked at how far we were from the ground. In Japan, people sleep on thin mattresses called ‘futons’. I had an idea for an escape.

“Okay, here’s what we do,” I said. “Get all the futons, we throw them out the window, and jump out and run to the station to go get help.”

We all looked at each other — it was crazy, but what else could we do? We had to get out of the house before the situation escalated and the guy came up to attack us.

Before we could start tossing the futons out, a miracle happened. One of the foreign managers from the school who lived next door to the guest house was coming home. Salvation! Somebody to save us!

“JON!” we called out to him. Jon looked around and finally looked up to see the three of us at the window. Just then, he must have heard the screaming and shouting in the living room.

“What the hell is going on?” he asked.

“Jon, get some help. The teacher who arrived today is going insane downstairs and we’re trapped up here. Call the owner of the school, call them and bring some help. We don’t know what to do!”

He immediately whipped out his cell phone and made some calls, cautiously peeking in to the living room window to try to see what the crazy guy was doing.

“Okay just hang on, help is coming in about 15 minutes. Pack a bag, and be ready for when the car arrives.”

I was glad help was coming, but 15 minutes? What if he comes up here with a knife and tries to kill us? We didn’t even have any furniture to put behind the door to make a barricade!

Suddenly, we realized it had all gone quiet downstairs. The moaning and groaning had stopped. No more throwing of bodies against the walls. We sat, and listened carefully. All we could hear were the summer cicadas and crickets.

Jon looked back up at us, and slowly went around the house to the front door, and took a peek inside. His mouth hung open in shock, and then he suddenly burst out laughing and couldn’t stop.

“What? What’s going on? Is he dead?” I asked.

“Oh man… you guys better come down here and get outside now… it looks like he’s sleeping!”

Quickly we went back to our rooms to pack a bag, and together crept downstairs. Down in the living room we found the crazy guy. But he wasn’t just sleeping… he was spread out on the floor, butt naked, wearing nothing but a doped up expression on his face.

Then, we smelt it. I looked to my right, and saw the couch was soaking wet. He had pissed all over it and all over the floor.

“Holy shit, you have to see this,” Tim said, standing by the bathroom. We all went over. There were shit stains all over the room. All in the bathtub, all along the walls of the shower, all over the mirror. We stood there, gaping in disbelief at what he had done.

The owner of the school finally arrived, and walked in to the house and stopped dead in his tracks, looking around, trying to comprehend what had happened.

“Come, you guys, come with me,” he said, ushering us out the door. “You’re staying in my house tonight. We’ll take care of this… mess. Don’t worry.” We took one last look at the sleeping, naked shit-stained psycho on the floor, and left the house.

We never saw the Shit-Slinger again, because we spent the next day sightseeing in Narita and exploring the town’s many temples while the owner of the school made him clean up the house, pack his suitcases, and get back on the next flight back to the US. It turned out that he had been taking medication for some kind of mental illness, and failed to tell the school about his condition. Apparently that night, before his psychotic episode, he had been drinking in some local Japanese restaurant, and the owners had to kick him out when he started taking off his shirt. The owner of the school made sure he went through immigration, and sent him off, hopefully never to return to Japan.

So that was probably a really shitty way to start off my adventure in Japan (pun intended), and at the time it was terrifying, but now of course I can look back on it and laugh at what happened. Japan attracts a lot of weird people and I suppose in every bunch there’s got to be one bad egg. I guess the moral of this story is, you just never know what is going to happen when you step out of your comfort zone and venture out for foreign lands. And you might have to deal with some crazy shit sometimes. But in the end, what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger. And certainly makes for a good story.

.

Hooray! We didn't get killed! Me and Matt at a temple in Narita

Lost in translation (or just really weirdly written)

Japan is a country full of smokers and quite lax rules about smoking. For example, you can smoke in every restaurant — even fast food joints like KFC and McDonalds. There are smoking rooms in the stations on open platforms and smoking areas at waiting spots. You can buy cigarettes from vending machines pretty much everywhere. And not those crappy cigarette packs showing premature babies and gum disease, no way man, they don’t believe in that kind of thing.

In such a smoker-friendly country, the government doesn’t seem to be launching any vigorous anti-smoking campaigns to get people to quit. Instead, in true Japanese style, they have a long running campaign to get people to be more polite about smoking!

Some ministry somewhere (health??) is on a campaign to get people to be more aware of their cigarettes and their smoke and for years have been running these silly posters where a little cartoon smoker is blissfully unaware of how his smoke affects others. I always take pictures of these posters because the English is so damn weird. Check them out for yourself:

I don't know about you, but paintbrushes are my favorite tool when scolding adults

Ahhh! Oh my god! A cigarette being tossed from a car! Terror!!

Maybe he was waving at you because he wants a cigarette!

 

Gotta love it, the whole concern about always being polite. Fantastic.

.

Sleeping on the train in Japan

Sleeping on the train in Japan. Why is it such a popular/normal/acceptable thing to do?

The family that naps together...

Everybody sleeps on trains in Japan. Old people, young people, business people, students. It seems to be something that is conditioned into them, that when you get a seat on the train, it’s sleepy time. Time to catch up on some zzzs. Time for a cat nap. Or time to sleep off a bit of the booze before getting home. And why not? The train is ridiculously silent (talking on phones is strictly not allowed), the seats are cushioned AND heated in the winter (warm butt = sleepy time), and chances are they may have a good hour or more before arriving at their destination. In fact, every time I go out, I budget at least an hour to get there by train. And I live in the middle of the city!

As I might have hinted before, Tokyo is a f***ing massive city. I don’t know any other way to say it. It’s mind bogglingly big and it takes forever to get around. For example, going from the west side of Tokyo to the east side of Tokyo — and to still be within city lines — can take up to three hours on the train. Three hours! Just to cross the city! You could drive all the way across Trinidad in three hours!

But I’m not sure which is worse… millions of hours spent on a train, or millions of hours spent in traffic? Every year the traffic in Trinidad seems to get worse and worse. And ironically enough, in Trinidad, the reason why there is such a ridiculous, never ending traffic crisis is because of ‘roll-on roll-off’ second hand cars imported from Japan by the hundreds of thousands. Personally, I would choose the train over traffic, and I guess in a way I have. I haven’t driven a car (or owned a car) since I left Trinidad some five years ago. You simply don’t need a car in these big Asian cities because public transport is amazing.

Tokyo has the population of Canada, over 30 million inhabitants, and obviously no one wants 30 million cars on the road. So they have gone to great lengths to make sure you are always close to a bus stop, and that the buses go to all the train stations, and in general it works. Except for when you barely manage to get the last train home, and the damn bus stops at midnight and you have to walk home drunk, but that’s another story. And I have to admit, walking to and from the stations, and running for trains, and climbing up millions of steps, is great exercise.

Here are the other things that Japanese people like to do on trains, other than sleep:
1. send text messages (no talking allowed on trains)
2. apply make-up, especially eyelash curlers, for some reason
3. read
4. vomit (Friday nights, especially)
5. look at porn

Really, lots of people read porn. See?

Oh baby.... yeah....

Aren’t trains in Japan great?
.
.
.

Moshi moshi? Is anyone there?

I have a confession to make — sometimes I don’t answer the phone. Not because I am afraid of stalkers, or because I am too busy making love or something, no it is because of a much simpler reason. My Japanese sucks!

So I can speak a little bit of Japanese, and read a little bit, but when I say ‘little’, I mean it. Generally I suck.

If I am home alone, I don’t answer the phone. If I pick up the phone and say ‘moshi moshi?’ — which is the Japanese greeting on the phone — and someone immediately starts speaking to me in rapid Japanese, I freeze. I don’t know what to say or do. Once I told the person to please hold on for a second, and then in a moment of panic, I hung up the her.  Terrible, I know. But how was that conversation going to end?  Like a farmer putting a lame horse out of its misery, I simply put down the phone.

See, the thing is I can have some basic conversations with people, I can get around, I can order in restaurants, I can ask directions, read a menu, and usually follow a conversation when friends are talking, even though I don’t catch 100% of it. But say the phone rings, and it is the electricity company, and they want to ask me something, I have no clue what on earth they are saying! I don’t know enough vocabulary to have that kind of conversation. So why bother to answer the phone? It can only end in disaster.

I usually don’t answer the door bell either. We live on the 3rd floor, and have an intercom downstairs by the entrance. Once, when I was feeling brave, I answered the intercom bell, picked up the phone, and listened. I had no clue what the guy was saying but I told him to come upstairs anyway, thinking perhaps it was the post office. When I opened the door and he saw I was a foreigner, oh the shock on the poor boy’s face! I think he was a political campaigner or something, he had a stack of flyers in his hand. We went through the whole ‘I’m sorry I don’t speak much Japanese’ routine, which is a sentence I have perfected by now, and he went on his way. But in all truth, why answer the door anyway? If it is the post office, they will put a note in the mailbox. Anyone else is probably going to engage me in a conversation that I won’t understand anyhow. So, like an ostrich hiding its head in the sand, I simply don’t answer.

Sorry delivery people, I don’t mean to waste your time. I’m just too shy, and I don’t speak your language well enough!

 

Happy Feet

As you may have heard, Japanese people are very serious about cleanliness. In the movie ‘The Last Samurai’, when Tom Cruise gets captured and taken to the village, he makes a big faux pas by walking into the house wearing his dirty muddy boots, and quickly learns one of the most basic ground rules of Japanese culture — you never, ever, wear shoes inside.

Nope, you don’t wear shoes — you wear slippers! And lots of them!

Allow me to explain.

When I come home, I remove my ‘outside shoes’ at the door, and put on my ‘inside slippers’.

First set of slippers

Then, inside the house, of course you do normal housey things, like liming in the living room and drinking wine. These slippers are fine for this purpose.

However, if I need to go outside onto the balcony, I remove these slippers, and put on these ‘balcony slippers’, which are only ever used for the brief moments when I step outside to hang up laundry. These balcony slippers, since they have been outside and are dirty, must never come inside. They have been banished to the balcony to live a life of isolation.

Second set of slippers

 

Then, when it comes time to cook, it’s time to change slippers again. These are the ‘kitchen slippers’ which are used just for cooking, since oil and food and bits and pieces of edible things fall on the kitchen floor during the cooking process, and you would not want to drag all that crap all over your beautiful clean tatami floors, now would you?

Third set of slippers

 

But wait, there’s more! You’d think by now we would have covered all the basics — indoor slippers, outside balcony slippers, and kitchen slippers. Let us not forget the bathroom slippers!

Fourth set of slippers

 

You put these plastic bootie thingies on your feet when you go into the shower room to clean or prepare the bath. They are actually to protect you from getting your feet wet. No, you don’t have to wear these in to the bath. What, are you crazy? That would just be ridiculous!

Actually, there should be one more in this set of slippers — toilet slippers to wear in the pee-pee room. In hotels and restaurants, there is ALWAYS a specific set of toilet slippers which you must put on. And rightfully so. Would you want to step in some drunk dude’s shake-off? No, didn’t think so!

If you think all these various use-specific slippers are a bit weird, I can tell you about one slipper that is even weirder — the gym slipper. Since gyms are indoors, you are not allowed to wear your favourite Nike running shoes inside if you’ve been wearing them outside. So most people wear either slippers in the gym, or change into ‘indoor gym running shoes’ which have literally never touched the filthy ground outside. I once saw a dude on the treadmill running in his socks! Guess he forgot his indoor running shoes at home?

Anyway, I for one like the shoe rules, and have been implementing it for years. When you think about how much nasty crap you walk around in all day, why would you ever bring that into your house? Now when I go home to visit Trinidad, I always have a pair of indoor slippers, and I am sure my family thinks I am barking mad.

But I don’t mind. I have happy feet. Happy, and clean.

10 Pictures of Tokyo

The old saying goes that a picture says a thousand words, so I’m going to save myself the hassle of actually writing a thousand words and just show you some pictures instead!

10 shots of this week in Tokyo…

Name Fail

Old paper umbrellas

Homeless people in Yoyogi Park -- the equivalent of squatting in Central Park in Manhattan -- and surprisingly nobody evicts them!

Grumpy stone statue

Big bottle of sake -- twice the size of a bottle of beer

Dude reading porn on the train

Woman in kimono taking pictures of boyfriend

A grown man wearing a sweater with a hood that has EARS! Like a bear!

Ahhh! It's gonna bite me!

So the tall tool in the middle with the curve at the top is apparently a traditional weapon used to keep samurai far enough away from you that they would not be able to stab you with their sword!

.

.

The most famous cat in Asia

 

If you’ve ever been inside a Chinese grocery, or a Chinatown, or any Asian country for that matter, you may have noticed a little cat statue with an upraised paw, beckoning you inside. Some are small, some are big, some have mechanical arms to make the arm move up and down. The basic premise is that the ‘lucky cat’ will bring good customers in to your business, and bring money in to your pockets. People have lucky cat keychains, lucky cat stickers, and lucky cat key straps that dangle from their phones.

There are lots of various stories about the origin of the lucky cat, but in fact it comes from Japan, and is known as Maneki Neko, which translates into ‘Inviting Cat’, but as it is such a popular figure all over Asia, many believe it to be Chinese, not Japanese.

I recently learned that the so-called ‘birthplace’ of the Maneki Neko is right in the town where I live, so I hopped on the train the other day to head to Gotokuji Temple, and see for myself.

.

 

There were only a handful of people visiting the temple that day, but as I stood there admiring the pagoda a group of three older gentlemen approached, walking with what seemed to be a very enthusiastic temple guide. The guide was holding a folder of close up pictures of features of the pagoda, and they asked me if I could speak Japanese. ‘Just a little!’ I replied. So I joined the group and the guide pointed out the original wooden statue of the cat, hidden carefully up by the roof.

.

Sorry for the lame zoom. I had the small camera with me, not the big one.

Anyways, the story goes like this…

A long time ago, this area of Tokyo was countryside, and Gotokuji Temple was relatively poor and humble. The priest who worked at the temple had a cat, Tama-chan, which he loved dearly, and shared all his food with. One day, the priest fell ill, and he said to Tama-chan, if you are grateful for all that I’ve shared with you in the past, please go out and bring us some luck. So, Tama-chan went out.

Later that day, the priest heard a noise outside the temple. In his weakened state he went outside, and saw four finely-dressed samurai warriors. They said to the priest that they were heading back to the castle when they came across the cat sitting in the middle of the road, raising its paw at them, beckoning them to come. They were so amazed by the cat that they followed it, and it led them to the temple. The priest invited them in and served them tea.

Just then, out of the blue, a huge thunderstorm hit, with lightning striking everywhere. The warriors were so grateful to have somewhere safe and dry to stay during the storm. One of the warriors turned out to be a famous feudal lord, and to show his gratitude to the humble priest, he decided to become a sponsor for the temple.

When Tama-chan died, the priest made a statue of the cat to commemorate the luck that it had brought to the temple. The people in the neighborhood, who knew of the story, began visiting the shrine, hoping to also get some good fortune. Soon they began selling small statues of Tama for the townspeople to buy as good luck charms. And today, the Maneki Neko is a ubiquitous symbol of good fortune all over Asia.

(A special thanks to my husband, who translated the story for me from the Gotokuji Temple official website)

Hundreds of maneki neko outside the shrine, given as offerings

Maneki neko 'ema', for writing prayers (on the back of the tablet)

 

Freaky.... I think they want to keeeeel me

 

 

How to get to Gotokuji Temple

You have two options: –

1. The recommended route is to take the Den-en-toshi line from Shibuya to Sangenjaya, and then change to the Setagaya Line. This is a really cute route because the street car winds through the tiny streets. Get off at Miyanosaka station, cross the train tracks on your right, and the temple is just up ahead on the left. Just look for a huge wooded compound; that will be the cemetery attached to the temple.

2. The other route is to take the Odakyu line to Gotokuji Station, but apparently it is a longer walk.

Is Colonel Sanders Actually Santa In Disguise?

Last night for Christmas Eve I went with a friend for Korean food. Yes, Korean food on Christmas Eve in Tokyo, and no, it’s not some kind of weird tradition to eat bibimbap on Christmas Eve. In fact, it’s quite the opposite. We walked past a few KFCs last night en route to the restaurant and the place was jam packed with people, mostly young couples out on a date.

So who takes their date to a KFC fast food joint on Christmas Eve in Tokyo, and more importantly, why? According to my friend, it’s been that way since she was a child. “Kentucky for Christmas” is a well known slogan from an obviously successful advertising campaign over 30 years ago. In fact, KFC is synonymous with Christmas lunch/dinner. While in the Western world a baked whole chicken or turkey is traditional, in Japan very few people have ovens so baking a turkey is out of the question. After all, this is a land of rice and fish, not bread and ham.

Perhaps it’s not that hard to make the jump from Colonel Sanders to Santa. Let’s look at their similarities:

COLONEL SANDERS:

Old white guy

White beard and mustache

Glasses

Jolly old fellow

Delivers delicious deep fried chicken to hungry families

SANTA:

Old white guy

White beard and mustache

Glasses

Jolly old fellow

Delivers presents on Christmas Day to good little boys and girls

Maybe it’s not that different? Substitute ‘presents’ for ‘chicken’ and voila! Colonel Sanders becomes Santa! It’s simplicity is brilliant. I’m not which advertising company came up with ‘Kentucky for Christmas’ all those decades ago, but it has certainly stuck, and obviously this is a Japanese Christmas Tradition that will be around for more decades to come!