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15 posts from June 2014

06/23/2014

Hip Cafés and Koffee

Being that Japan has such a strong tea culture, coming here, I was slightly worried that it would be hard to find good coffee.  With the abundance of good coffee and some of the best coffee cafés in the world in New York City and surrounding area, I’ve always been a little spoiled when it comes to coffee, forming me into the not-so-a-typical “coffee snob.” 

            During the first month or so in Japan, I thought I was doomed.  All I found were corporate bulldozers and their sugary coffee creations: Starbucks, Doutor, etc.  This is not the coffee I aimed to drink.  However, after exploring some of the hipper and upcoming areas of Tokyo, I found more and more cool cafés.  Finding these cafés, though, is not always easy. 

            The best area in Tokyo for coffee and café culture is surely the Omote-Sando/Aoyama area.  It’s filled with young Japanese people interested in new and upcoming trends.  The first café I bumped into accidently was called Streamers, and I happened upon it with a friend when we were lost searching for another store.  Located on the back roads of Omote-Sando, this extremely “hipster” café immediately lured us in.  Inside, a large wood table extending through most of the shop offers a relaxed environment, only helped by the comfortable armchairs and couches.  Much of the décor was camouflage print, a major trend right now in Tokyo.  Both the employees and customers exhibited a sense of “hip” and youth that was very refreshing. 

            Upon stepping up to the counter, there were some small treats, including a camouflage donut, flavored with their signature mixture of caramel, matcha (green tea) and chocolate.  There was only one left, so my friend and I had to split that.  The menu was a decent size, with offerings of seasonal drinks and the regular drinks you can find at any good café.  I decided to order my favorite drink, a Gibraltar or Cortado, as this was the way I could truly test how good their coffee was. 

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            It was amazing.  For the first time in Japan, I was completely satisfied with my coffee.  The donut too was delectable, with a surprise chocolate ganache filling.  I’ve gone back many times to do work or hang out, seeing many of the regulars there in this hidden café.

            Omote-Sando must hide their coffee shops, as another hidden shop even further in the back streets of Omote-Sando was shown to me by a friend.  Located in a traditional Japanese style house, Omote-Sando Koffee is the ultimate hipster location for coffee.  A warning though, it may take a while to find, as it is in a residential area with no real landmarks around to distinguish it. 

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            This coffee shop is not a café, but rather a place to simply enjoy an amazing cup of coffee, not a place to sit around and talk or do work.  Outside is small garden featuring maybe four or five small seats, and inside is only the coffee bar where one orders.  It is extremely minimalist: only one man working as the barista, cashier, and everything else, I question as to how he does it.  Behind the bar is the espresso maker, blender, coffee grinder, and ingredients.  The inside has only a bonsai and a few other traditional Japanese decorations, accented by the tatami flooring, dim lighting, and wood-beamed ceilings.  The menu is simple, as you can order anything hot or iced.  The only thing “to stay” is the espresso shot, while everything else comes in a to-go cup. 

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            I decided to order the most popular drink the first time I went: an Iced Cappuccino.  To make it, the barista puts one or two ice cubes, milk, and espresso in a blender, making it frothy and especially creamy.  He pours it in a cup and tops it with cinnamon.  A perfectly sized straw is given, but no lids are available.  I also bought their Kashi, which is the only food offered, and is basically a cubical version of a French Cannale.  I was completely blown away by everything.  It was some of the best coffee I’ve put in my mouth. 

            I’ve returned to this coffee haven many times, trying some more off their menu, including their iced Mochaccino, regular coffee, and their special Bailey’s cappuccino.  I also purchased their coffee beans so I could brew their coffee at home. 

            The next place I stumbled upon was place less hidden away.  An import from France, a café called Coutume in Aoyama immediately lured my friend and I in when we saw the hipster baristas.  When I walked in, the décor was fresh and modern, but was place I’d want to stay a while; it was comfortable.  But the thing I was most blown away by was the Steam-Punk Machine.  A brand new, innovative machine utilizing steam to brew coffee, the Steam-Punk has been something I’ve been craving to try for months, but since I found out about it just days before coming to Japan, I haven’t been able to.  They also had a traditional water drip coffee maker in the corner, slowly brewing some delicious looking coffee.  But I knew this was the perfect opportunity to try the Steam-Punk coffee.

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            The first sip.  Different.  I was not sure what to think. Yet as kept drinking the coffee, I became obsessed.  The Steam-Punk really exhibits all the flavors of the coffee, creating a cup of coffee more exquisite than I’ve ever had before.  I crave this coffee almost everyday.  I’ve yet to try the different food offerings, but they all look delicious, and I will go back soon to do so.   Another plus: this is one of the only cafés in Tokyo with available wi-fi, and you don't even have to sign up first!

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            Café and coffee culture in Japan can be bland if that’s what you make it.  But with a little exploring, you can find amazing places unique to Japan that really make a difference.  Maybe someday, I can have a café of my own in Japan

Tokyo Disney

Who wouldn’t want to go to place where “dreams come true?”  Disney Land is a perfect place for a day off.  Additionally, living only a short thirty-seven minute train ride from the park makes it easy to go whenever we have an urge to go, unlike in the States where it can take hours to get to a Disney Park. 

            My first experience at Tokyo Disney Land was amazing.  I met my friend who attends Keiyo University, and fortunately for me, she is a Disney connoisseur; she planned out exactly where we should go and when, so that we could ride as many rides as possible and see all of the shows. 

            Going on a Sunday, I expected the park to be crowded, not just because it was a weekend and it’s Disney Land, but also because it was Easter Sunday and it’s located in Tokyo, where it’s troublesome to find attractions that are not crowded at all times.  Yet to our delight, we found the park to not be too crowded at all.  I’ve heard stories of lines being over a two hour long wait, yet the longest line we found was one hour. 

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            To my surprise, the entire park was decorated for Easter, with bunny and egg forms of all the Disney characters.  I found out, however, that this was not just for Easter Sunday, but for an entire three month event of Easter celebration. 

            As we went on rides and waited on lines, something curious happened.  Because I am rather tall, especially in Japan (at 6 feet 4 inches or 193 centimeters), while waiting on the lines I was asked to come to a back room where they had “testing cars” and I had to see if I could fit in.  I’ve never “tested” to see if fit on a ride in the United States, yet I have been “too tall” to ride certain rides in certain theme parks. 

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            After being to these secret “testing” rooms, my friend and I were often offered to cut the line and go directly on the ride for having been “burdened” with this test.  I didn’t mind at all, but not waiting on line is just another benefit of being tall. 

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            Tokyo Disney Land is very similar to the layout of Orlando Disney World’s Magic Kingdom.  Almost all the attractions are the same, and the park is organized is basically the same way.  They even have a monorail, like in Orlando, running through the grounds of Disney in Tokyo. 

            Luckily, my friend from Osaka was visiting Disney Land, and invited me to meet her there, so I got to go again.  With the proximity of the park, I was able to easily go after school, and enter at six o’clock for half price.  Unknowingly, I went on the night of the premier of a brand new Disney Show, Once Upon A Time, where Cinderella’s castle was illuminated, and presented an entire show projected on the castle. 

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            Tokyo Disney Land was great, and I can’t wait to go to Tokyo Disney Sea next! 

A Pan-Asian Weekend

Japanese food is some of my favorite food, yet eating it daily can cause cravings for foods of other ethnicities.  Although Tokyo has an abundance of foods from other cultures, the foods are generally “Japanese-ified” or toned to fit Japanese taste, whether that be due to lack of ingredients, use of different cooking styles, or just to make it less spicy.  However, venturing to new parts of Tokyo-area where there are clusters of certain ethnic groups has proven to provide some of the most delicious foods from around the world.  IMG_6653

            The first part of the world we were able to experience was “Little India” located in Nishi-Kasai, a 45 minute train ride from the dorm in which we live.  When we first departed the station, it looked like it could be any stop in Tokyo area.  However, venturing into Nishi-Kasai, the smell of delicious curry began.  We were on a mission to find the recommended restaurants Spice Magic Calcutta, one of which, serving Northern Indian food, is located five minutes walking from the North exit, while the other, serving South Indian cuisine, is located a five minute walk from the South exit of the station; we decided to get Northern Indian cuisine.

            The restaurant was hidden on a side street, yet was easy to find due to the alluring smell flooding the street.  It was beside a few other Indian and South Asian restaurants that looked good as well.  Upon entering the restaurant we were warmly welcomed by the friendly staff.  It was a small restaurant, with a mix of Indian families and locals inside.  I ordered a set that came with Curry Chicken, Chana Masala (a Punjabi dish of chickpeas), Naan bread, a Samosa, Papadum, Aloo Tikki, rice, and a lassi.  I decided to order mine at a spiciness level of 3 out of 4.  We all dug in as soon as our food came.  Personally, after going to other Indian restaurants in Japan, I was not expecting the food to be spicy, as I have order other Indian dishes at the highest level of spiciness, and it was only tinged with spice.  These dishes, however, were spicy and some of the best Indian I’ve had in my life, and I’ve eaten copious amounts of Indian food. 

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            We next went to a small shop of all Indian ingredients, and stocked up so that we can begin to make Indian food at home.  The shopkeeper was extremely nice, and offered us Indian snacks and even made us Masala Chai while were shopping.  We can now soon make some of our favorite Indian dishes together. 

            The next day we headed toward China Town in Yokohama.  After getting of the train, it was a little more obvious that this was China Town as compared to Little India.  There were red gates and lanterns lining the streets, as well as other Chinese symbols in the area.  It was also much bigger than Little India, with seemingly endless restaurants and shops all owned by Chinese immigrants. 

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            It was our goal to eat lots of dumplings, so we went to an all-you-can-eat dim sum restaurant.  We put in our first large order, and kept on ordering.  I think the five of us that went ate twice as much as we should have.  After being so full that we could barely move, we decided it would be a good decision to eat more, so we headed to a Taiwanese “shaved ice cream” and boba store next door, where we ate this famous Taiwanese delicacy in addition to Bubble tea.  This was my first time having shaved ice cream, not to be mistaken for shaved ice, and it is now one of my favorite desserts. 

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            After this Pan-Asian weekend, I thought that I would never want to eat again.  The food was great and authentic.  If you are ever having a craving for Indian or Chinese food, I would definitely recommend visiting these two areas. 

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A performance by a world-famous benshi

During study abroad, I have been setting aside time each week to conduct research for a grant I received from my home school, Hamilton College. In collaboration with a professor from the East Asian Studies department, I am researching a very unique aspect of Japanese culture: benshi and their performance of setsumei

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To provide some historical context, benshi are silent film narrators. That is, they provide the narration, dialogue, inter-titles, and sound effects live alongside a silent film. Benshi are unique to Japan, and arose virtually in tandem with the introduction of the motion picture cinema in Japan. In the early 20th Century, benshi gained a level of popularity rivaling film stars, as people would travel across the country just to watch their favorite benshi perform. Today, as a result of the talkie motion picture (film as we know it), there are only a handful of benshi remaining, and very few Japanese recognize the term. 

It was thus that much more special when Professor Omori and I were able to attend a benshi performance by one of the most famous benshi in the world today, Ms. Midori Sawato. The small Sunny theater in Nippori was only lightly scattered with people, comprised mostly of older couples. Professor Omori and I sat in the back next to the camera, and the show started. 

The first two performances were done by amateur benshi, a young woman and a middle-aged man respectively. Both were quite skilled, but neither seemed to really capture the audience, and some people were falling asleep. Still, it was quite fascinating to observe how well-practiced they were in delivering their lines at precise moments of the film, adding crescendos and staccato to produce unique vocal effects. 

Then Ms. Sawato walked on stage, and everyone sat up a little straighter. A short, older, extremely polite woman, Ms. Sawato wore a tuxedo with a flower, and respectfully introduced the film she would be performing: Mary Pickford’s “Sparrows”--a silent from the 1920s.

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Then, she sat at the podium next to the screen, and unlike the previous benshi who had directed their attention to the screen, the audience, and their notes in a continual loop, she simply faced the screen with her back to the audience. I thought this a bit strange, but given that she had performed hundreds of times for audiences all over the world, I was very excited to discover the reasoning behind this.  

With just the music to accompany it, the film might have been mildly interesting. It was about a young girl (played by Mary Pickford) who is held in captivity along with a group of young orphans by a mean old man, and their eventual escape. What made this film so interesting was Ms. Sawato’s performance. She altered her voice to great lengths, being able to switch from young child to old man in quick succession to perform a brief dialogue. She was perfectly in rhythm with the accompanying orchestral music. Her performance contained so much enthusiasm that I could not help but feel the emotions of the characters: happy when they were happy, frightened when they were frightened. She infused the film with such an amazing level of emotion that by the time her performance was finished, I felt as though I had been transported to another world.  I then began to understand why she faced the screen with her back to the audience: she did not need to face the audience to communicate with us; rather, it was purely through her vocal alterations and inflections that we became so enraptured by the performance. 

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Currently, I am continuing to research the historical context of benshi, why exactly they are distinct to Japan, and the causes for their decline in popularity--among other things. More specifically, I am interested in tackling a very difficult question: how does benshi performance create an idea of what Japan is and what it means to be Japanese? Though I think there are numerous ways of approaching this question, the performance revealed one extremely important aspect about benshi and their art of setsumei: at the heart of their performance is a deep passion that is conveyed to and felt by the audience. That alone, of both benshi and audience having a fun, transformative experience, might well turn out to be an answer. 

1000 miles in one week

Coming up on about a month and a half left in Japan, I have found myself recalling more and more the really unique and special things I have done and encountered while abroad so far, and I always end up thinking about my adventures with my friends during Golden Week. I had actually never heard of Golden Week until the beginning of April, when a friend asked me if I wanted to be part of a group that would be visiting Osaka and Hiroshima. Golden Week is a week-long national break at the beginning of May in which a number of holidays (e.g. the Emperor’s birthday) are celebrated, and company employees and schoolchildren alike are given time off to relax. 

After a midnight bus ride from Tokyo that was a bit extended by holiday traffic, we arrived in Osaka, and checked in at a local capsule hotel. Unlike conventional hotels that consist of rooms with enough space to fit a bed, bathroom, and a place to put your luggage, a capsule hotel is made up of capsules with enough space to lie down and watch a mini television. Predominantly occupied by salarymen and tourists, you start feeling especially sympathetic to the residents at your local animal shelter. 

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The purpose of a capsule hotel is simple: it is just a place to crash. So instead of hanging around, we went out to explore Osaka. 

One way my friends and I came to describe Osaka was by comparing the city to Tokyo: though somewhat dirtier than Tokyo, Osaka felt much more relaxed and less overwhelming. You still had the same deal of blocks and blocks of restaurants and shops lined up and not having a clue which one to walk into, but something about the city just felt like you had much more room to breathe. 

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As Osaka is especially known for takoyaki (octopus balls) and skewers, we tried a few restaurants serving the specialties, and they were delicious. On one occasion, we were sampling the different skewers at a restaurant when one of my friends from China struck up a conversation with the server about Osaka, only to find out that the majority of the servers were also Chinese. Something about this discovery interested me, for I had not truly realized during my time spent so far in Tokyo that indeed, many people from other countries live and work in Japan, are Japanese citizens, that diversity does exist. It was refreshing in a way, showing a deeper level of what Japan is and what being Japanese means. 

The next day, we visited Osaka Castle and climbed to the top to look out upon a breathtaking view of the city. With a well-preserved traditional exterior and grounds, the castle interior had been renovated into a museum, making it oddly enough one of the more tourist-feeling places of the trip. Learning about historical battles inside the castle, walking around the castle grounds, watching a taiko drum performance, and eating okonomiyaki (Japanese savory pancakes) and green tea ice cream--these all made the visit one of my favorite experiences in Japan. We ended the day with a trip to an indoor onsen (public bath), which was extremely relaxing after all of the walking around. 

After an evening bus to Hiroshima, with only a day left on our trip, we decided to visit Miyajima Island and the Peace Memorial. I had heard that Nara (near Kyoto) was famous for its docile deer, but did not know that Miyajima also shared this attraction. Domesticated deer roamed the entire island, walking up to people and bumping into them until they were fed food. We really lucked out on the weather that day, as the ocean was a very light blue and the hills flowed with bright green forests.

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We hiked around the area, exploring local shops and buying gifts for our friends, visited a small temple, and admired the very traditional Japanese architecture. 

After a lunch of fresh tempura udon, we took the ferry back to the mainland and visited the Peace Memorial. The first thing you notice is the decrepit and weathered skeleton of a building, renovated to serve as a reminder of the devastation caused by the first atomic bomb. It was extremely eerie and uncomfortable to stand at almost the exact spot where the bomb was dropped some seventy years prior. What I appreciated most about the Memorial was how it focused its recognition on the victims as individuals and not simply as numbers of casualties. We heard stories of survivors, where people were at the time of the bomb being dropped, the horrific aftermath and effect of radiation even to the present day, and I found myself discovering things I had never learned about in textbooks or history books.

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The museum tour concluded with blank books where visitors could write their signatures to advocate for the complete abolishment of nuclear weapons in the world and express their feelings after their visit. It was truly an unforgettable experience.

After the Memorial, we packed our things and headed to the train station. We ate our last Golden Week dinner at a small restaurant at the station where the waitress confused my bibimbap order with my friend’s order of a sautéed beef set. It turned out to be a really good mistake (at least for me), as it was one of the best meals I have had in Japan, the beef cooked so perfectly...My friend wasn’t too happy when he found out. We took the bus back to Tokyo, jumped onto the metro back to Sophia University, and I got to class just in time to perform my skit for Japanese class.

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In reflection, the trip was exactly what Golden Week should be: a time for relaxation, discovery, learning, eating good food, and having fun with your friends. It is hard to set aside time for those things during our regular busy schedules, which is why I am glad that Japan sets aside a whole week to have fun. 

06/16/2014

Fantasmic!

    I remember spending my childhood dressed up as different Disney characters; first Cinderella, then Megara from Hercules, then Mulan. My mother really likes Disney, so of course I went with my sister to Disney World in Florida during my childhood. However, as I grew older, my affection for Disney outside of the movies began to wane. Last semester I even turned down a trip to Disney World with my family because it conflicted with my first week of my junior year fall semester. However, after I came to Japan, Disney Sea seemed to be on every CIEE student’s mind. Skeptical at first, I was soon convinced that Disney Sea was a place I had to visit during my stay in Tokyo.

    My boyfriend was visiting Tokyo for a week so we decide to find a hotel near Disney Sea and to go and experience the Disney magic. Luckily we happened to pick a hotel that, as we later found out, had a free shuttle bus to the Disney parks! After eating a delicious buffet breakfast (gotta have my morning natto), we set out for Disney Sea.

    I was warned some friends of mine, Disney Sea veterans, that it was important to acquire Fast Passes for major rides such as the Tower of Terror and the Indiana Jones ride. You can only get one pass every two hours so it important to be strategic so that you can ride everything you want to ride. However, because it was a Wednesday and most people had either school or work, the park was not at all crowded and we never had to wait more than 30 minutes for a ride. For Disney theme parks that is rare. One the other hand, many of the rides only lasted a short time. IMG_6568

    After spending a full day at the park, my top rides are as follows. The Indiana Jones Adventure: Legend of the Crystal Skull ride was definitely the best. The ride had the right mix of thrills and plot. Unlike the 20,000 Leagues under the Sea ride that lacked the thrilling ride to go with the beautiful underwater scenery. Second best was the Tower of Terror. Disney World in Florida has a similar ride but the stories are different. In the Japanese version, the owner of the hotel disappears mysteriously after acquiring a mysterious cursed artifact. I found artifact itself quote scary, as the special effects were very good. The dropping elevator was a bit short; it was only about a minute of actual time on the ride. For lunch we made our way to the Mediterranean Harbor area which was styled to the theme of Aladdin. I am pretty sure the park pumps scented air through certain areas because as soon as we got there we smelled delicious curry. My boyfriend got the beef curry and I got the mini curry sampler with chicken, beef, and shrimp curry. Both came with rice and naan. IMG_6569

    My favorite part of the park was the Mermaid Lagoon based on scenes from The Little Mermaid. The building in the area was fashioned after King Triton’s palace. It was beautiful inside with various rides, a few gift shops, and a restaurant. However, it was most beautiful after the sun set. The whole outside of the building lit up in a multitude of colors and sparkles.

    Lastly, before leaving the park, we watched the Fantasmic! Show in the middle of the Harbor. The lights and fireworks were really pretty and the special effects for the monsters and dancers were really skillful. It was easier to see the show because the backdrop was the night sky. It was truly a magical experience. After ten hours and two pairs of mouse ears, I collapsed onto the hotel bed in happy exhaustion, ready for a good night’s sleep. 20140615114833

06/15/2014

The Whimsical Cafes of Tokyo: Kiki’s Delivery Service and Ghibli

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So if you have ever watched Ki-Ki’s delivery service, you’ll know exactly what I ate last week. If you don’t, this is the Herring Pie, a signature dish made in the movie. A tiny cafe called Baby King Kitchen in Koenji recreates the dish for customers. One only has to call a day ahead so they can prepare to make it.

The cafe was located on the second floor of an old building. A small bell on an extremely large string ran all the way up a stair case to the front door of the cafe. When I rang it, a young woman popped her head outside a small window and greeted us to the café. Inside was a random collection of couches and coffee tables. The walls and floor were a rustic fading white. The shelves on the wall had little painted trains and children books were scattered on all the tables. It was very cozy and very cute. Lots of children’s toys and characters were scattered around the place and cute nesting dolls and doughnut pillows were on the couches. There was even a little swing for kids.

When our pie arrived it came with a little Ji Ji mug and JiJi Plushie. Unfortunately we couldn’t keep them L They were only for decorative display. The pie itself was absolutely amazing and had broccoli, cheese, herring, noodles, and potatoes in it. So good! I’ve also posted the original cartoon pie below.

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Ghibli movies are very famous here in Japan, its represent a lot of the Japanese pop culture. So when coming here you will probably find a lot of things Ghibli themed, especially food and souvenirs. I personally came to Japan with only one Ghibli move experience, Kiki’s Delivery Service. I grew up watching the movie with my father and so the pie was like having a big slice of my childhood brought back to me. It wasn’t until I arrived in Japan that I saw a few other Ghibli films with my host mom. Their imagry and whimsical stories are always so exciting and so entertaining. So many of the movies focus on nature and spiritual creatures and are the Japanese versions of fairytales. One of the best parts about anime in general is that many locations in Japan are recreated so readers and viewers and can have their own experience in that location. It makes it very relatable. Before coming to Japan, I highly recommend watching at least a few Ghibli movies because you’ll see references to them everywhere. CIEE also takes a trip to the famous Ghibli museum which is even more fun when you know all the movies beforehand. If you want a taste of japanese culture at home, I definetly reccomend eating some sushi and watching come Ghibli. 

 

The Whimsical Cafes of Tokyo: Cats

It’s June here in Japan and that means rain! Lots and Lots of rain! But for me it means lots and lots of cafes. Tokyo is known for its frivolous and whimsical cafes.  There’s cat cafes, chocolate cafes, maid cafes, butler cafes, Alice in wonderland café, panda cafes, owl cafes, and goat cafes just to name some. I made sure to hold off venturing to these places until the raining season. It’s the perfect time to explore more indoor activities that will lighten my spirits on a dreary day. So starting now I will provide a few of my favorite cafes around Tokyo.  Starting with Cat Cafes. 

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I have visited one cat café and cat house during my stay in Japan. What’s the difference? The Cat Café is an actual café .It serves coffee, tea, food and has relaxing chairs and seating. The one I went to in Shinjuku (キャリコ カフェ) has really good cheesecake, cushiony couches, even a video game area to play games while surrounded by cats. My friends and I spent about an house looking at all the cute purebred cats nap and eat our snacks. By comparison, the cat house was only cats and no café. The one in Ikebukuro (ネコブクロ)  was really well decorated. Everything was modeled like a little town of cats. There was a cat train, a cat city map, and little house rooms that acted as the cat’s personal houses. So cute. Both are great places with really beautiful cats. The cat cafés usually have an hourly rate and fairly overpriced food and drink. The cat house by comparison is a lot cheaper because of it lacks amenities. You can pay about 600yen for one whole day of cats. If you are there for the cats and just the cats, it’s the best place.

I would however warn those wanting to snuggle that there are some rules and unexpected things about going to a cat café. First, these cats get pet, A LOT, every day and all day by random people. Therefor most of them are not going to be the most cuddly and affectionate. They are all well-tempered cats but don’t expect one to want to sit on your lap. You are also not allowed to pick them up out of respect for the cat. The best part about the café is that you can buy food to give the cats which will attract a lot of them. But make sure you are going to be around cats and not just to have one as a cuddle buddy. 

A View of Fuji

One of my biggest goals while in Japan is to climb Mt.Fuji. However, in the two whole months I have lived in Tokyo I hadn’t seen it. I climbed some of the highest mountains in Tokyo, hoping to see the big white giant, but it never happened. It was always too cloudy or too muggy to be visible. There was even a viewing platform on Mt.Ohirayama specifically made for viewing Mt.Fuji (see photo below). Yet I still could not see it. By the end of the second month, I made it my goal to see Mt.Fuji, even if it meant going all the way to its base. 

 

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Lucky for me, I didn’t have to travel that far to see its peak. On a cloudless Sunday I traveled to Kawaguchiko, a large lake at the base of Mt. Fuji. The train to Kawaguchiko was very cool. Unlike most trains, this train had comfy seats that all faced forward. It was perfect for viewing Fuji. After swerving in and out of mountain tunnels and riverside bridges, I saw my first view of Fuji. It’s peak was above the clouds. Perfectly white and absolutely breathtaking, my heart was pounding. It was so much bigger and more grand than I imagined. From the train, you could see farmers working in the rice fields, not even noticing the ginormous beauty lurking behind them. It was amazing. When arriving at Kawaguchiko, you could see the mountain top to bottom.  By the time I reached the start of my hike, there wasn’t a cloud in the sky blocking its view.

In order to get an even better view, my friend and I decided to climb Mt. Kachi Kachi. It was a fairly short and steep hike, but provided the best view of Fuji from the top. At the very peak, there was a spectacular panoramic of the lake and the mountain. Absolutely breathtaking. A note for the lazy travelers, there’s a cable car that goes to the top as well.  IMG_8717

Mt. Kachi Kachi has a very interesting story written on a sign at the top of the mountain. The whole story is fairly long and a bit gruesome, but a shorter more “kids friendly” version is posted on their website. A dog rabbit names Tanuki betrays a farming couple and as revenge, sends a rabbit to seek revenge. The rabbit sets his back on fire. This is why the mountain is called Kachi Kachi because it’s onomatopoeia for fire. A hilarious set of statues sits at the top of Kachi Kachi depicting the story.  IMG_8722

That day was one of my top ten best days in Japan. As much as I enjoy the city, I need my nature break. The raw beauty of Japan is just as amazing as its manmade features. Seeing Mt.Fuji was so humbling and so inspiring, I could see how the Japanese treasure it as one of, if not their best landmark of the country. If you ever come to Japan, you must see Mt.Fuji close up. None of my photos could ever do it justice on how big the mountain actually it. At the end of the day, my friend and I grabbed some My.Fuji Ice Cream (Vanilla on top and blue rose flavored at the bottom) and took the rapid train to Shinjuku back home. It was an absolutely magnificent day. 

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06/11/2014

Pancakes in Japan

I consider okonomiyaki (お好み焼き) and monjayaki  (もんじゃ焼き)  the pancakes of Japan. Okonomiyaki batter is mainly made of flour and shredded cabbage. The other ingredients, such as meat, seafood, seaweed or even cheese, depend on the eater’s preferences. Monjayaki batter is similar to okonomiyaki’s batter. The difference between the two lies primarily in the way the two are cooked; monjayaki is eaten when it is partially cooked, compared to okonomiyaki’s firm, pancake-like form.

Before I started my internship, I had only one class on Wednesdays. On one of those Wednesdays, my three friends and I decided to pick a random restaurant in the tour book for Tokyo, Japan. Luck brought us to go to Sakuratei, a buffet of okonomiyaki and monjayaki, in the backstreets of Harajuku. We took a few wrong turns a couple times before finding the narrow road up to the entrance of Sakuratei. While we wondered around Harajuku, I found this amazingly inspirational graffiti.

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Upon entering Sakuratei, we were immediately impressed by the diversity of art in this Japanese pancake restaurant. There were no walls untouched and no corners uncovered; either a framed drawing or painted mural decorated the entire store. Even the staircase upstairs was decorated along with the walls. This hipster store definitely carried the vibe of Harajuku.

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As this was my first time eating okonomiyaki (お好み焼き) and monjayaki  (もんじゃ焼き), I had to read the instructions carefully before starting. Luckily, my friend already knew how to make it and showed us. We first took the bowl of ingredients given to us and mixed it until the batter was a glop of flour and cabbage and the extra ingredient we added. The picture below has kimchi has the extra ingredient. It was good!

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After mixing it well, we pour out the glop onto the large hot plate. We had to make the glops as round as possible (the waitress came by and helped us with our horrible first batch), letting it fry for about 4-5 minutes per side. After it’s firm, the okonomiyaki is edible. I liked mine a little crispier, so I let it lie a few more seconds.

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As for monjayaki, we had to mix the batter as well, but the batter was much more “liquidity.” According to my friend, eating monjayaki with cheese is the best way to eat it since the gooey cheese and the half-cooked batter match well together. First, you mix and cook the cabbage and a little bit of batter on the hot plate. Then you make a hole with the cooked cabbage and batter. The rest of the batter goes into the hole to cook for about 15 seconds before you mix the batter inside with the wall of cabbage. You cook the final mix for about a minute before you can finally eat it! These take a lot of time and effort to make to be honest, but they’re yummy.

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After eating for about an hour and a half, we also realized that we were soaked in the fried odors for an hour and a half. Sakuratei, however, thought of their customers and provided Febreze!

This meal brought that Wednesday to a wonderful end.