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5 posts from January 2012

01/23/2012

Some Days Well Spent in Fukuoka

Hello again! I'm back as promised with an overview of my trip to Fukuoka, the largest city in Kyushu, the third largest main island of Japan. If you are so inclined, you can read a bit about how I got there by looking back at my post on the seishun 18 ticket, a great opportunity to see Japan on the cheap. In short, I spent about day and a half travelling by local train from Tokyo to Hakata, the main JR station in Fukuoka, making some stopovers in Fukuyama (unintentionally) and Hiroshima (intentionally). That I enjoyed the journey in hindsight is a certainty, and although I would say that some boredom along the way is to be expected, I wouldn't hesitate in recommending it to anyone.

But enough about the journey -- on to the destination! I arrived in Fukuoka on the evening of December 27th, in time to catch the Christmas, winter and pre-New Year's festivities and light displays spread around the city. Walking out of Hakata station for the first time, I saw what might have been my personal favorite light displays of the season. Right away I got the impression that I had come to a pretty cosmopolitan place.

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After spending some time appreciating the light display, I started to make my way towards Nakasu, another part of town where my hostel was located (somewhere). As I walked along one of the main streets, Canal City, a mall that has made Fukuoka a major shopping destination, came into view. I can't say that I am a fan of malls in general, but this one is worth taking the time to explore. In my opinion its really very attractive, and you can tell that the designers put a lot of thought into the way that customers would interact with the layout itself. As the name implies, there is a sort of canal that runs through one part of the mall, very close to an ampitheater-like open area and a walk that runs along the water's edge. Even though I wasn't the least bit interested in going shopping at a mall during my time in Fukuoka, I found myself returning to Canal City at least two more times for the sheer novelty of it. Even if you don't buy a single thing, walking around this mall is entertaining in its own right.

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After coming out on the other side of Canal City, I found that I was near a bridge that would take me from the Hakata side of town to Nakasu. As I crossed the river, I came to understand why Fukuoka is a canal city in its own right. At night the water comes alive with reflections of the city lights around it, as riverboats cruise slowly up and down the river. If I ever get a chance to go back, I'll be sure to take one of those night cruises!

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After a long day of travel and even some brief sightseeing, I checked into my hostel and got some rest. Even though I had taken the trip solo, I was really pleasantly surprised to discover some fast friends in my fellow guests. After a breakfast of chocolate chip pancakes the next morning, a few of us decided that we would go sightseeing around the city together. With a list of places we wanted to go in mind, we set off on foot for the nearby "Acros" building, another landmark of sorts for Fukuoka. 

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Hostel Friends

Acros Fukuoka is a combination of many things -- government offices, a performance hall, and an observatory, but it is best known for its rooftop step garden. We went on a Wednesday, and apparently the observatory is closed except for weekends, so we decided to enjoy garden walk instead. I had expected the weather to be a bit warmer in Fukuoka, being farther south than Tokyo, but surprisingly it wasn't. Still, it was a nice day, the garden was still relatively green, and several flowers were in bloom. The Acros step garden is certainly a a Fukuoka-exclusive experience, and a great free view of the city.

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View from the top of the garden

Next, I and one of my hostel friends hopped on a city bus to get a different view of the city from Fukuoka tower, the second tallest tower in Japan (after Tokyo Tower, although it is soon to be bumped down to third with the opening of the Sky Tree). After entering the tower, we paid a reduced price (the "foreigner" discount) and ascended to the top. It certainly earns its name as the tallest seaside tower in Japan, with spectacular 360 degree views of the city and ocean, complete with directions and distances to cities across the sea (such as Pusan in Korea and Hong Kong). After taking in the city from its highest vantage point, we walked over to the Yahoo! Dome, home to this past year's Japanese baseball major league champs, the Softbank Hawks. Nearby is Hawks town, a small mall that is presumably packed during the regular season and on game days, but looked to be doing a brisk business nonetheless.

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Later that afternoon, we found ourselves walking through Ohori park, known for its running track and island in the middle of the large lake at its center. One understands almost immediately what makes this park such a popular spot for Fukuokans to spend time, particularly on days where the weather was as nice as it was then. Aside from its beauty, there is a theater in the park where performances are put on, as well as the ruins of an old castle, which we decided to visit after walking from one end of the park to the other across.

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 The occasional dog-shaving can be taken in at Ohori, as well

Next, we moved on to the ruins of the former castle, which are essentially an extension of the park itself. I found it to be an oddly quieting experience; apparently the castle's past is shrouded in mystery, and nobody is quite sure what it looked like. The foundation remains, and the top of the former battlements afforded us our third view of Fukuoka's skyline for the day, right as sunset began to come upon the city.

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Another view of Ohori park

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Finally, we returned to Nakasu for some dinner, looking forward to sampling some of Fukuoka's local fare. I would be remiss if I did not mention yatai, which are essentially food stalls, but that are a yearround tradition in Fukuoka rather than the exclusive domain of festivals or other kinds of events. They can be found along various streets and crowding corners around the city, but the most famous ones are supposedly located in Nakasu. The bridge I crossed on my first day was very close to some of the more attractive ones that line the side of the canal. Yatai stands are typically only open during the nighttime, and so if you pass by that way around 10 o'clock at night, you are almost certain to see groups of impatient diners waiting to enter the slightly cramped (perhaps "friendly" or "cozy" are better words, for that is more of the feeling) tents for a snack or meal.

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Fukuoka is known for its tonkatsu ramen, chinese-style noodles in a thick (and somewhat strong-smelling) pork-based broth, and that is one of the more popular dishes served in yatai around the city. Another is mentaiko, fish eggs that are made into what I can only describe as spicy sausage-like packages (in a process I don't think I want to learn about) that are used in various local dishes, although they can be found in Tokyo as well. I was glad that I got the opportunity to try both of them in Fukuoka myself, especially being in one of the yatai stands that a local friend of mine living in Tokyo brought me to. It was great to sit amongst other locals and to get a real sense of what Fukuokan's are like: I have to agree with my friend that they seem light humored and friendly, yet hardworking and perserverant. Apparently many of Tokyo's top celebrities come from Fukuoka, which impressed on me how great their drive for success is. Sitting down to a meal with them was a certainly a great experience I won't forget soon.  

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mentaiko wrapped in egg

Looking back now, it seems amazing to me that I was able to fit as much in to this trip as I did; for being rather short, I felt that I covered a fair amount of ground in Fukuoka, and I certainly want to go back to get another look. I am very intersted in spending more time in Kyushu, and as the self-proclaimed "gateway" to the island, I felt that Fukuoka was a good place to start my wanderings outside of Honshu. Of the more useful things I learned, traveling solo does not necessarily always mean that you will be exploring a new place by yourself; although it can seem daunting, more often than not if you simply go a bit out of your way to establish some relationships with fellow sightseers, particularly those in your hostel or hotel, you are sure to make a friend. After all, nothing brings people together like a joint goals, and I found that sightseeing is definitely one of them. I'm looking forward to more such trips in the future, and I can only hope they are as pleasantly surprising as my last one to Fukuoka was.

Thanks for reading this semester, and please check back soon for more!


visiting kyoto

Being a lover of all things green-tea/matcha-flavored, I was in absolute heaven when I went down to the Kansai region, especially in Kyoto. I stayed at a friend's place in Osaka and visited Kyoto on one of those days. My friend took me to a Buddhist temple called Kiyomizu-dera. To get to this temple, you pass through this road that is lined with endless shops filled with food, souvenirs, and handcrafted goods. The atmosphere bustled with excitement and the smell of outrageously awesome-smelling sweets. I swear I had never seen so much matcha-flavored food in my life. Smelling the scent in the atmosphere was enough to make my mouth water. Mmmm….anyway…moving on from my unhealthy obsession (YET healthy) obsession with green tea….

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The first thing I had was matcha-man, which is basically green-tea flavored buns. They were absolutely delicious! I would have another…but there was too much to try on this bustling street. 

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This was dessert (before dinner, of course! That's how it is supposed to be done). This was beyond delicious. It is quite an elaborate ice cream cone. There is matcha ice cream, with white and match  mochi, and red-bean paste, another one of my favorite things. This was just heaven in a cone! Really. 

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This was, of course, my favorite store of all the shops on this street. They had quite a bit of traditional snacks stamped or shaped in the form of Hello Kitty. I mean…it really does NOT get better than that. Come on…I was tempted to buy it all, but I restrained myself. It was quite difficult. 

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This is the Kiyomizu-dera, a Buddhist temple in Kyoto. It was absolutely beautiful and probably my favorite of all the shrines and temples I have gone to. I'm not sure why. Maybe it was the breathtaking view you had from the temple and just the spectacular surroundings. See for your yourself! 

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This is the view from the veranda of the temple. The view of Kyoto is just…totemo sugoi! (excellent, basically, duh). 

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This is the view OF the veranda from the other side…to show you how crowded it gets at this temple.  It attracts a lot of visitors. 

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My favorite part of the Kiyomizu complex is probably the Jishu Jinja (shrine). And apparently it is the #1 tourist spot, which I guess makes sense if you take a look at how crowded it was from the picture of the veranda above. The Jishu Jinja is a love or matchmaking shrine, which makes it very interesting. 

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There were 2 "love stones". It is just as the sign says: if you can walk from one stone to the other with your eyes closed, you'll find love. If you get help, you will need help in order to find love. Something like that. An interesting concept. I thought it was cute. Many people just touched the stone, as if they will give them good luck in love. No cheating! You can't just touch it and not do the challenge of walking blind! There are no shortcuts when it comes to finding love. (Too cheesy? Perhaps. Oh well). 

I would highly recommend coming to visit the Kiyomizu-dera if you are in Tokyo. I think girls would especially love visiting the Jishu-Jinja for that "love thing". They have really adorable and famous omamori sold here, so I suggest buying that if you come. Everyone needs luck when it comes to love, right right? 

Okay, enough of that lovey-dovey business. That pretty much concludes my trip to Kyoto. It was less than a day and I realized that it was simply not enough. I had so much to explore. I did not even have sufficient time to browse all the shops that I wanted to look at along the way. Next time I come back, I will extend my stay for at least 3 days I think. It was nice to visit Kyoto and get away from the bustling chaos of Tokyo city life. And more green-tea than you can ever want! Go! 

01/22/2012

End of Semester Post in Moriya

Hello again everyone! Recently I was invited to revisit my host mom's son's soba shop in Moriya which is in Ibaraki, Japan. She decided that since finals were coming up soon and that since my imminent departure date was getting closer and closer that we would have a going away celebration there. I previously told her about my seijinshiki (coming of age day) in Shinjuku and how wonderful everyone's kimonos were and my slight disappointment at being unable to purchase or rent an affordable one for the occasion. Hence I was really grateful that my host mom decided to surprise and make up for my seijinshiki by borrowing her mother's old wedding Kimono and invited a Kimino store friend to help me dress up in it and take pictures while we were in Moriya.

Most people I've known who have worn a kimono before often told me that wearing one often got uncomfortable after a while because of how tight the middle obi part often is. However I wasn't so much bothered by it as much as I was bothered by my inability to walk as fast or sit down and get up without effort! However being able to see and be in the process of having a kimono put on me and the numerous layers and accessories underneath was very interesting and fun to watch.

Ki01(Me wearing Host mom's mother's wedding Kimono from the Taisho Era)

Here is a frontal view of the kimono. The sleeves were a tad short due to my height however it was still a very beautiful and unique looking Kimono. I was told that this Kimono was made around the Taisho era (early 1900's) and that the embroidery and designs were well made and unique compared to Kimono made nowadays.

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(A view of the back with the obi tied)

I first visited Moriya in late September where it was oddly still warm and very reminiscent of summer at the time. It was hot that day as well as beautiful but also filled with mosquitoes waiting to ambush people near trees! This weekend was completely opposite in terms of weather, it was definitely a cold winter afternoon and to top it off it rained the whole day. Since I am from Oregon where it rains frequently it didn't bother me as much and actually reminded me a bit of home.

There was a new years drinking party at the time and I was introduced to many of my host mom's nephew's high school friends. I had a wonderful time meeting new people and catching up with some others that I haven't been able to talk to since my last visit. Also I was able to finally try some of the soba made by her son that I was unable to try last time because it sold out in the afternoon. From this experience I got to find out that I definitely enjoy cold soba more than warm and overall the soba he made was super delicious! 

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(Soba made by host mom's son)

During dinner I got treated to some oyakodonburi (chicken and egg over rice) which I have heard a lot about before coming to Japan but never actually had the pleasures of trying.

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(Oyakodonburi!)

This was also really tasty and now I will be on the lookout for it when I go to other restaurants or even Japanese restaurants in the US as well. After dinner I was delighted and surprised with a strawberry cake in to commemorate my coming of age day (which is 20 years old)!

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(Strawberry cake, my favorite!)

This will be my last post of the semester, regrettably I am only a semester long student and will be returning at the end of this semester which is early February (coming up too soon!). I am glad and grateful that I had such a wonderful host mother and met so many kind and helpful people since coming to Japan. I think I will miss the people here the most but I have also made many wonderful memories to remember for a long time.

It has been a lot of fun blogging and sharing about some of my experiences and opinions while studying in Tokyo. It has  has also been really fun reading some of the encouraging comments left by readers as well! In hindsight I am glad I overcame my fear of blogging and am glad I decided to go on ahead with it. It definitely made exploring and taking pictures (especially with regards to food) even more enjoyable and meaningful for me. With about 2 weeks left in Tokyo, after finals this coming week I plan to do some more exploration and eating around in Tokyo before I am due back in the states. I plan and hope to make the most of my short time left in Japan. Thank you for reading!

 

 

01/19/2012

presenting...an epic movie trailer!

Well, maybe it is not so "epic", but rather it is pretending to be. =)

This past Wednesday was the end-of-semester celebration. We were all divided into groups to present certain topics of our experience here in Japan. I decided it would be fun to make some kind of video compilation from various videos that others and I have recorded over the past semester, for my group's presentation. 

The result? An attempt to make this past semester look like an up and coming "epic" movie! (Ha). I have uploaded it to YouTube, so I hope you all enjoy! 

P.S. The celebration was very bittersweet, but a lot of fun and fantastic. Everyone's presentation was absolutely great and entertaining and got to love the great food that was served there as well! A lot of great memories have been made this past semester and it is great thanks to everyone at CIEE for making it possible!!! Thank you!

 

 

 

01/16/2012

Some of my food adventures in Tokyo

Happy 2012, it's hard for me to believe it is already the middle of January. Time really goes by quickly especially in the last month of the semester in addition to the scrambling to buy, eat and do as many things one can  before departure. Also with the customary final's stress creeping up on everyone the last week of my semester in Tokyo is even more dreaded and seemingly ominous.

One of the things I find myself doing a lot more here in Tokyo than in the United States...is that I am almost ALWAYS taking pictures of my food no matter where I go. I was never this camera/food crazy before, but there is just so many options on top of all the delicious looking food here that it is hard not to want a photo to remember it forever after you've already eaten it. Also in a city where food is slightly more expensive than average and you want to stay in budget (unless you live off combinis) taking photos makes shelling out for the experience even more worthwhile--for me anyway. Which is why I will talk about some of the foods I've eaten that I have really enjoyed thus far.

The first thing I must list is Miso ramen, I have always enjoyed eating noodles be it soba, udon, ramen, spaghetti etc. However, miso ramen instantly became my all time favorite when I started venturing into ramen stores in Tokyo. I usually like saltier and stronger tasting foods and although  miso soup itself is lighter in comparison to its ramen version it has always been a favorite easy to make soup of mine and I could not pass up trying its alternative. I have  heard of miso ramen but never had the opportunity to truly try the dish back at home in Oregon where Pho restaurants far outnumbered ramen shops in terms of asian noodle type cuisines. When you love miso ramen, there are literally hundreds of ramen shops to try while in Tokyo. Prices ranging anywhere from 500-1000 yen a bowl. Because I am not a seasoned ramen expert I turned towards the internet and recommendations by Japanese friends for my miso ramen experiences.

IMG_3336(Miso Ramen with egg and Nori near Koenji station)

Truly both beautiful to look at and scrumptious as well. Koenji's miso ramen was relatively affordable and a good size at around 500 yen. This shop was recommended by a Japanese friend after a game of futsal. Near Ichigaya station there is also a miso ramen shop that had decent reviews on both a Japanese food review site and an english one. The broth here was slightly thicker and saltier as the miso taste (and paste mixture) was heavier but not so overwhelming that it overpowered the whole dish.

IMG_3971(Miso ramen at Ichigaya)

Another food item I have been wanting to try and eventually did was anmitsu. Anmitsu is a traditional Japanese dessert comprising of small white jelly cubes made from seaweed and juice. Usually they come served with anko (red bean paste) and seasonal fruit as well as a small pot of sweet black syrup.

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Anmitsu near Iidabashi)

I love fruit and anko so this was a nice experience for me. The jelly itself was not very sweet at all and almost lacked any taste by itself. It is also harder and less jello texture than I initially was expecting. Hence the syrup was a nice pairing to go along with it. Needless to say this was interesting but not exactly my favorite dessert I had in Japan, still nice to finally find out and have though!

Buffets (or vikings as they call it in Japanese) are my all time favorite places to visit and eat at in Japan. There are, as I mentioned in my first post, cake buffets in Japan. As a huge sweets lover this fascinating concept was hard to pass up and was definitely a love at first sight/bite. I have been to three different cake buffet places by now and my all time favorite is still Bitter Sweets in Shinjuku, they have the best selection of cakes as well as waffles and crepes, a nice interior design, and various teas to choose from.

IMG_4654(Berry waffle and mixed fruit crepe both with strawberry ice cream)

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(My first plate of cake that day)

Other types of all you can eat that you can find easily anywhere in Japan is Sukiyaki, Nabe and Shabu Shabu for those of us who crave and love the idea of different kinds of all you can eat beef, pork, tofu and vegetables simmered in various types of flavor based soups. Since my family is from Taiwan and hot pot is something I super look forward to eating every time I head back. Hence nabe and shabu shabu are both very similar to hot pot in that you simmer meats and veggies in a soup base or plain soup and use dipping sauces after its cooked they didn't super wow me aside from my craving for it, this doesn't mean I loved either less even though I have just had it similarities my entire life! Hence sukiyaki was the one out of the three that was truly a new experience for me which I loved! You use a shallower pot than either of the above two and the soup base is normally sake, soy sauce, sugar and water. Hence there is no dipping sauce needed as the stuff all comes out nice and flavorful. The only dipping sauce provided is raw egg which some (like me) prefer not to eat, however I have heard it is very very good eaten this way as well.

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(Kimchi based shabu shabu)

In addition there are also many all you can eat yakiniku places (grilled meat) where you may have all you can eat beef, pork and chicken brought to you so that you may grill and enjoy at your own pace alongside your hungry party.

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(Maple cream pancakes)

Again I am a huge sucker for desserts and pancakes are one of my favorite breakfast items. I miss being able to make my own and so I have researched and been wanting to visit a particular pancake chain (named Pancake Days) for weeks. I was lucky enough to stumble past one on our way to the Ghibli museum and was overjoyed that some other students were willing to eat there together as well!

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(Christmas special pancake platter)

There are numerous coffee shops here that also occasionally sell fruit parfaits and even premium fruit stores (such as Takano) that have a dedicated cafe just for fruit parfaits and desserts as well as places that specialize in just green teas and tea flavored parfaits. Near Tokyo Dome just inside Tokyo Dome City there is a nice green tea shop that sells matcha parfaits alongside there green tea.

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(Matcha parfait next to seasonal strawberry parfait)

I had the matcha parfait to the left. It was very strong in matcha flavor not the weak light stuff you sometimes get in matcha desserts or Kit-Kats which was nice in a parfait such as this. It came with matcha gelato slushie at the bottom, mochi, anko, a frosted cereal flake layer, green tea ice cream and cubed mochi covered in kinako (toasted soy) topped with whipped cream and green tea sauce.

Sadly, due to the current terrible exchange rates (ie. super weak dollar) many students have has to set themselves personal monthly budgets in terms of food as well. And because I am especially determined ( or super stubborn) I stick to this budget as close as I can. I am not going to lie and say I have never skipped come meals occasionally just to hit this goal. However, on the weekends I reward my good efforts, aside from shopping, by going to buffets and various other food places. I feel less guilty if its once a week as opposed to 4 days a week.

Also because I love food/cake and there is just so many different choices within choices here. There are way more photos of food and places I have taken that are not posted in fear that I will flood this whole page with just food photos. As I am nearing the end of my short semester in Japan I am more determined to revisit all the foods and places I enjoyed as well as hit up new places I have been wanting to eat at and not yet done so. Stay warm and see hope to see you in my last post coming up!