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5 posts from November 2011

11/30/2011

Miyajima Trip

    Hey everyone! As you all may already know, or maybe not, CIEE students had an amazing group trip this weekend where we experienced both Hiroshima and Miyajima in just three short days. Both locations were beautiful and Hiroshima itself was both interesting and insightful as we were allowed to tour the Hiroshima Peace museum, visit the peace park, view the A-bomb Dome and attend a guest lecture by a Hibakushiya (Atomic bomb survivor). As the Hiroshima part of our trip (and pics) were already covered in another blog post by my good friend Jennifer, I would like to try and cover more details about our experience in Miyajima.

IMG_3055    (View of the Tori gate from inside Itsukushima Shrine)

    Miyajima is a small island located less than an hour away from Hiroshima and takes about 10-15 minutes by boat to reach. Miyajima is also known as shrine island as it's most recognizable feature is the large red tori gate greeting visitors and marking the symbolic and sacred entrance into a Shinto ground of worship. Itsukushima shrine in Miyajima is mainly built on top of the water much like how the famous red gate is built above water as well.

IMG_3045(A man painting a view of Itsukushima shrine)

    We arrived at Miyajima around nine in the morning and were given a tour of Itsukushima Shrine and some brochures of main attractions beforehand so many of us were already pumped and super excited to explore. Aside from the stunning shrines, Miyajima also offered beautiful autumn views of crimson leaves and natural scenes in Momijidani park.

IMG_3111(Picture taken in Momijidani Park)

    Another interesting tidbit about Miyajima is the numerous wild deer that roam the island. Most of them have gotten used to tourists and so many of the deer casually walk up to sniff and eat paper/clothes of passersby. One of the students in our group learned this lesson when a part of his map was eaten by a deer as he was attempting to take a photo of said deer.

IMG_3093(Is an adorable deer but will eat your money if he could)

       We were only given a little more than an hour to explore Miyajima after our tour of the shrine and trip by cable cars up to the top of Mt. Misen. However, Miyajima is also famous for its succulent oysters and momijimanjus, which are maple leaf shaped cakes normally filled with azuki or red bean paste but can be found filled with anything from chestnut cream to cheese as well, momijimanjus are commonly brought back by tourists as gifts for friends and family. Because I am a huge glutton (or inner fatty) the short time and numerous opportunities to eat genuinely unique and mouth watering food propelled me to try to eat as many different variations of Miyajima foods as I could in under an hour...and eat I did.

Below is  collection of all the foods I managed to sample while on our Miyajima trip!!!

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(Freshly roasted chestnuts)

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(Steam/grilled oysters!)

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(Fried oysters that were worth burning my mouth for!!)

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(Momijimanjus hot off the machine/press)

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(FRIED! Momijimanjus, this one was azuki filled and was even TASTIER than the original as it was fried!!)

IMG_3139(What better to eat than okonomiyaki on a stick for people on the go!?)

    As I ran out of time to take pictures last minute some of the foods not pictured that I sampled were baked sweet potato with vanilla soft serve ice cream!

    By the end of our day at Miyajima I was immensely content with all the wondrous places we were able to visit and see and definitely all the superb food I was able to eat along the way. Both mentally, physically and emotionally I was beyond content. Of course my only regret was not getting enough time to visit the famed crafts district of Miyajima or the aquarium.

    Not as important as the prior regret but a regret related to my gluttony my only other regret was, of course, that I was unable to eat and slowly enjoy more than one share of each of these various types of delicacies offered on Miyajima (please forgive my gluttonous ways). Overall though, I was indeed very satisfied, to say the least, with our day trip to Miyajima and overall our weekend trip in general. I am very much looking forward to experiencing and sharing about the winter and Christmas seasons of the year in Japan. Until then stay warm!

11/29/2011

Happy Hiroshima Weekend!

This past weekend, the CIEE kids and I had the awesome opportunity to go to Hiroshima for the weekend. It is probably one of the best events by far. It was a fun-filled weekend with lots of cultural learning and was thoroughly enjoyable. It was really nice to get away from the modern city-ness of Tokyo and go to Hiroshima. Hiroshima IS a city, but is somewhat more laid-back and more "comfortable" than Tokyo. It was absolutely beautiful and a weekend in Hiroshima really just is not enough. 

We went to the Peace Memorial Museum the morning after arriving in Hiroshima. There was a lot to see and quite emotional. What was most surprising was how objective all the information and retelling of the story of Hiroshima was. After all, it is called the "Peace" Memorial Museum for a reason. Growing up with an American education, all you hear about is the "American's" telling of the story of the bombing of Hiroshima. Therefore, it was really such a great opportunity to be able to see the story told from the other side, especially for such a historic event as this. 

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These are 3D miniature models of the before and after the bombing. When you see the extent of the damage like this, it really puts the events of that day into perspective.

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The photo below is one of the exhibits that I could not forget. It says at the bottom: "A dragonfly flitted in front of me and stopped on a fence. I stood up, took my cap in my hands, and was about to catch the dragonfly when…" It was quite an emotional piece. 

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One of my personal highlights of the weekend trip, and the #1 thing I looked forward to the most, leading up to the Hiroshima weekend was: OKONOMIYAKI. Not just any okonomiyaki, but HIROSHIMA style. For those who do not know, okonomiyaki is a kind of Japanese omelette pancake, if you will, with various types of ingredients depending on what type of okonomiyaki you are making. The typical okonomyaki will always be made of eggs, cabbage, bacon, and some other [stuff]. But what is special about Hiroshima okonomiyaki is that they put noodles in their okonomiyaki and are supposed to be absolutely AWESOME-tasting. I think the photo below says it all.Mmmmm  =) Goodness. 

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Miyajima Island was phenomenal as well. Everything about it was beautiful and peaceful. The below photos are some of the highlights from the day spent at Miyajima. 

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This is the Japanese torii (red entrance gate) at the Itsukushima Shrine, which is a Shinto shrine.  

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This is just one of the many views into the shrine.

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The beautiful leaves that grow here during this time of the year are quite famous for the natural beauty. A lot of souvenirs are often made in the shape of these leaves, whether it be phone charms or cake. 

All in all, I wish I had more time, especially at Miyajima Island. There's just so much to see and so little time. I will definitely come back to visit Hiroshima the next time I get a chance. Until next time, folks. 

11/24/2011

Happy Thanksgiving!

This isn'y very Japanese (clearly), but I thought it would be appropriate to write about this wonderful day! A day of fabulous cooking and stupendously delicious food. Turkey, mashed potatoes, stuffing, corn, toast, cranberry sauce, pumpkin pie, cornbread...mmmm. 

It is that wonderful time of the year again, for those who are in the States. My family never really celebrated a traditional American Thanksgiving because my family is from Taiwan. Thus, we would have hotpot instead of turkey. Yes. No turkey. It's complete blasphemy, I know.  

No worries though, I did have the benefit of being invited to friends' houses for Thanksgiving on a few occasions and I was very grateful for that. I hope everyone will have an excellent fun-filled day of cooking and eating fantastical food. More importantly, being grateful for family, friends, life, and all the good things in life. And don't forget to be grateful for the bad because they taught you about the good and to appreciate it more. 

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Fortunate for the American kids, the international student club at Sophia University, SISEC, organized a Thanksgiving event. Since Thanksgiving is an American holiday and (obviously) not celebrated in Japan, we held it a couple weeks early on a Sunday, rather than on a weekday during school. It was the most interesting and fun experience by far. Not only were there Americans who signed up for the event, but German, French, Chinese, and of course the main population: the Japanese. It was a very multi-cultural experience to celebrate Thanksgiving with such a diverse group. 

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But the cooking was the most fun. I am continually very impressed by the organization and effort the club puts into their events. Every member who attended was assigned to a group to cook 2-3 dishes. Luckily, there weren't any fires or burning down the building --> always a plus. 

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On the menu (from what I can remember): clam chowder, some other delicious vegetable soup, pumpkin pie, stuffing, asparagus wrapped in bacon, spinach dip w/ bread, sauteed carrots, german/french-style pizza, mashed potatoes, hamburger patties, chocolate chip cookies, THREE TURKEYS (for around ~50 people?!?!), and more! 

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Once we were all done throwing flour at each other's faces and flinging carrot peels...I mean, after we finished COOKING, we all ate to our heart's content. I really wish I had more room in my stomach for the awesomely DELICIOUS pumpkin pie that my group made. It is definitely was one of my favorites.  I was actually quite impressed by the groups in charge of the 3 turkeys and stuffing. The turkeys came out quite excellent, indeed! I would have more! 

This was my plate and the EPIC-looking pumpkin pie my group made: (my slice of pumpkin pie came later, mwahaha, you have to save the best for last!)

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Again, hope you all have a wonderful and phenomenal-food-filled day! And hopefully have as much fun as I did on this day =). 

 

11/23/2011

Getting your coffee fix in Japan

Starbucks, Tully's, Excelsior Caffé, Beck's...the list of chain coffee shops in Japan goes on and on. Add that to the many kinds of canned coffee and espresso variants lining conbini and vending machine shelves and you would probably agree that there certainly isn't a shortage of coffee available in Japan. At first glance the experience seems to parallel what one might expect in America, but I've found that the slight differences make for an interesting twist on coffee culture in Japan.

Like their American counterparts, Japanese coffee drinkers seem to differentiate between drinking with a purpose and for pleasure. For those times when a caffeine boost after an all-nighter is necessary to keep you going, coffee is just as much a quick-fix in Japan as anywhere else. The aforementioned grab-and-go coffee is readily available in bottle, can, and even jelly forms (trust me, look it up), sold at conbini both hot and cold, and is also dispensed at vending machines that can be found on almost major street or cramped alleyway in Tokyo. On Sophia University's campus, there are also vending machines that brew a variety of delicious blends of instant cup coffee (again, available hot and cold). One of the most surprising things to me when I first got here was to see names like "Suntory" and "Kirin" associated with these pre-packaged coffee brands. I would never associate a name like "Budweiser" with a decent brand of canned coffee. Still, I have to admit that Japanese beverage makers (as I call them, since they don't especially restrict themselves to alcoholic drinks) certainly have done well expanding their market shares. I can easily imagine the average businessman buying "Boss Coffee" (or Bosu, Suntory's well-known coffee brand) early in the morning, and then winding down at the end of a long day with least one glass of Suntory " The Premium Malts" beer.

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 Certainly conbini and vending machines are more...well, convenient than going into a coffee shop in many cases. But I am more inclined to want my coffee to be (reasonably) freshly brewed, and handed to me in that classic cardboard "Solo" lookalike cup by a barista across a cafe counter. Although this type of pre-packaged coffee is relatively available in the U.S. (I'm thinking of Starbucks' refrigerated "frappacinos"), it never seemed to me that it was as popular an option for Americans. After all, there isn't really much of a difference in the pricing, at least as far as I can remember, and the quality is pretty different to say the least.

That's not the case in Japan. Can coffees and espressos runs anywhere between ¥110 to about ¥200, which  at current exchange rates is about $1.50 to $2.50, whereas a small cup of regular, no-frills drip coffee at a major coffee chain like Excelsior can run you from ¥200 to over ¥300. I was honestly a bit shocked. No wonder people go for the cans despite the small size -- the cheap alternative allows consumers to get their fix while enjoying some of the more "exotic" varieties like caramel lattés that, while priced similarly to Japanese drip coffee in the U.S., would be much more expensive at a coffee shop. Of course, Japan is a country that relies a great deal on imports, and coffee is no different; but I was still amazed at the price of a simple cup of small, regular coffee. That's not to mention that the sizing of those cups are far smaller than what one might consider "normal" in America. If you are looking to buy your coffee in Japan brewed for you right there, expect that even the large (which could run you close to ¥450-500) will only come up to an American medium in many cases. To be sure, coffee prices are hiked up everywhere: Starbucks in Japan is just as overpriced as Starbucks in America is. But the lousy exchange rate doesn't really help that, either.

That being said, I find the other side of Japanese coffee experience, the café culture, to be pretty appealing. It's clear from the pricing of food and drink alike, as well as the atmosphere of relaxation and socializing cultivated in even the chain cafés, that this is something of an everyday luxury, perhaps even more so than in America. In addition, the local, independent cafe may perhaps be more associated with the U.S., but I'm pleased to say it exists in even in a country with as many convenience and chain stores as Japan.

The first independent coffee shop I visited was the "Label Café" in Azabujuban, within walking distance of Tokyo Tower. After doing a bit of reading up on the place, it seems that it's owned and operated by a small design group called "Label Creators" that makes clothing and furniture, with other projects to boot. Label Creators seem to have another restaurant in Osaka, as well; perhaps they aren't quite so small after all.

The café' itself is what caught my eye: on a whim, I walked up a side street in Azabujuban and happened upon the three floor building. After looking at the menu outside and taking note of it, I walked on, meaning to return later that day to scope it out. Unfortunately I was too late that day (it closes rather early, around 5 pm), and so I came back the next day in the hopes that I would find my first favorite coffee haunt in Tokyo.

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Even  from the outside of the building, one gets the sense that this is a place where people are meant to sit down and relax for awhile. Just to the left of the door is a bench sitting in front of an ivy-covered fence that practically begs you to stop and rest a few minutes. The bikes resting there gave me the impression that this is a place for locals, and one that people willingly go out of their way to visit on their day off.

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The inside of the Label Café certainly looks like it was the brainchild of a modern design company. The entryway gives one the sensation of having entered a house, and the stairway to the right seems relatively plain, leading to a small library/gallery on the second floor (the third was closed off, and I received weird looks from café staff even when I climbed up to the library). However, look to the left as you enter, and you encounter the small "store," where you can buy clothing and other products made by Label Creators. From there, you enter the café/restaurant itself (the building serves as an Italian cuisine place, as well), a long room with a bar that commands attention from guests. The café also serves beer and wine, so in that sense the "baristas" here might actually deserve the title.

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I chose one of the tables near the doorway and ordered a café au lait (seeing as how it was only an extra ¥50 apart from the regular coffee at ¥650, I felt I should just bite the bullet and really have the café experience). I took an instant liking to the furniture, which is apparently produced by Label Creators as well. The chair I sat in is oriented in such a way that one must sit at a diagonal angle: perhaps not the most comfortable of seats, but worth trying out. Getting to use furniture designed by the owners of a café itself was an interesting experience that for me has so far been unique to the Label.

I wish I could speak better for the coffee itself. My café au lait was a little bit too milky for my taste, and rather small for having paid around $8-9 (big surprise). Perhaps the most enjoyable thing about my expensive drink was appreciating the ceramic ware it was served in. Having come from a tea ceremony demonstration earlier that day, it would seem a fitting consistency in Japanese culture if one would appreciate the sugar cup just as much as the coffee itself (I would mention the mug, but it wasn't really anything special). Of course, I may just be trying to make myself feel better for having spent so much on an unsatisfying cup of coffee. 

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The rest of the menu looked to be interesting, so perhaps the Label Café deserves another look. Apart from the furniture, I discovered another few cool cafés I mean to visit in the future thanks to some of the coffee shop guides the Label has set out as free reading material. If you're looking for more than just a cup of coffee in a shop, then the Label Café may hold some interest for you.

The second independent shop I went to was a bit different in tone from the first. I sought out Café Hinata-ya after my host sister recommended it as a good place to spend some time studying. After arriving at Ochanomizu station, its almost a straight-shot down a street until one comes to the point of a triangular building. The Café is on the fourth floor, and the sign is easy to miss unless you are looking for it. After entering through a small side door and walking up a steep, cramped staircase, one comes to the entrance itself. Café Hinata-ya is a very cozy setting, more familiar where the Label was sophisticated. Used books and magazines are tidily stacked on bookshelves and an assortment of knick- nacks line the space beneath windows that wrap around the room and afford a nice view of the city streets below. Its a really pleasant place, and I have to admit that I was more comfortable spending an hour there than I would have been at the Label Café. It felt more like I'd been invited into someone's apartment rather than a coffee shop.

Amongst the other things that made my experience at Hinata-ya more enjoyable were the expansive menu, the welcoming staff, and the face that the place was full (but not packed) of regulars who seemed to be enjoying themselves. Certainly the drink deserves a mention, too: I ordered a really nice, rich café mocha, which cost around ¥600.  Once again, the size wasn't as large as I would have hoped for, but you learn to appreciate the amount you get pretty quickly here (or I suppose you don't go to cafés). Unfortunately the one thing I didn't feel comfortable enough to do was to take a few pictures, so I don't have any of the inside of the place itself; but check the website (linked above) for an idea of what it looks like.

Ultimately, if you are interested in checking out the coffee scene in Tokyo, from what I've experienced thus far, I would say it's best not to expect too much for your money and to take the time out to enjoy whatever you get. Sit a minute, bring some work or a book, and stay awhile. As (comparatively) cheap as coffee is in America, I sometimes find it all too easy to guzzle down what I've ordered; but in a country where imports like coffee are considered more along the lines of everyday luxury, its best to try a different way of approaching the way you think about it. Who knows: maybe I'll learn to appreciate my coffee a little more in the future.

11/18/2011

7-5-3 Celebration

    According to Japan National Tourism Organization's description, 七-五-三 (shichi-go-san) or 7-5-3 is a ceremonial visit paid by parents and children to their tutelary shrines to offer gratitude for the healthy growth of their children. Celebrations are carried out on November 15th for boys who reach the age of 3 or 5, or for girls who turn 3 or 7 years old. The custom is for the children to dress in their best clothes, and to carry Chitose-ame which are long thin candy sticks colored in red and white, believed to bring good luck. I had the wonderful opportunity to accompany my host mom and her son's family as they celebrated her three year old granddaughter's 7-5-3 at Meiji Jingu shrine.

    November 15th was a Tuesday and luckily I had a long break between my morning class and late afternoon classes to meet up with my host mom for the big day ahead. I left Sophia campus after my morning class and headed straight to Shinjuku by subway. I live with just my host mother normally and so this was also my first time meeting her son, his wife and her granddaughters whom I hear many stories about. We all had a nice and filling Obento lunch at the top of Isetan department store before heading for the shrine.

IMG_2658(Unagi (eel) and chicken boxed lunch with egg and vegetable sides)

    Although it was a regular weekday, with many people still at work or school, Meiji Jingu shrine was bustling with activity that day. There were many adorable children dressed up and running around with their family for the celebration. There was also more tourists than usual at the shrine whom could be seen eagerly snapping up photos of the cute children as they passed by. Many parents (usually mothers only) were dressed up in kimono as well alongside their children. Some even wore matching hairstyles and kimonos! Because Meiji Jingu shrine is quite large, it took us about 15 minutes or more to travel by foot from Harajuku station to the inner grounds of the temple for the ceremony.

    During the ceremony parents and their children sat down in seiza or the traditional formal way of sitting (on your knees with your feet tucked beneath you) as we listened to prayers and chantings performed by priests and a dance performed by the priestesses; after the ritual adults were offered a small saucer of Nihonshu on their way out and so I also received a saucer and had my first taste of fine sake in Japan. Pictures were not allowed inside the temple during the blessing and purification ritual. However afterwards we gathered up and took group photos at various places around the temple.

IMG_2666(A group photo of my host mom, her family and I; posing for a photo at Meiji Jingu)

    As we were exiting the area after the ritual my host mom pointed out to me a traditional wedding ceremony also taking place at the time. Luckily I already had my camera out and so I quickly joined alongside many other tourists and took a few photos of this beautiful bride on her big day. Many on lookers and photo takers were scrambling to get their cameras out, into position and out of the way of the the procession as quickly as possible which was also amusing to watch.

IMG_2700(Picture of a traditional wedding taking place at Meiji Jingu)

    Overall I had a great time with my host mom and her son's family and was really glad I had the opportunity to attend and witness such a notable and unique tradition in Japanese culture. By the end of it I didn't feel as guilty taking photos of other families and their children as I did initially as my host mom was also doing the same along our way back to the station. I guess no one can quite resist taking photos of all the adorable children on their big day.

IMG_2715(A boy playing around in his formal clothes on 7-5-3)

    I leave you all with an adorable shot of a boy in his 7-5-3 clothes. It is already late November and the weather has finally started to act more like autumn as it slowly turns colder everyday in Japan. The autumn leaves are finally turning redder in hue as everyone starts looking forward to maple leaf viewing in Japan. Stay warm and until next time!