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24 posts categorized "Food and Drink"

12/09/2015

My Wonderful Day at Kawagoe

There's nothing more exciting than getting the chance to get up and head out on a sunny Sunday morning and meet up with your friends for a sight-seeing adventure. That is exactly what I did.

The destination was set for Kawagoe and the group that I went with consisted of members of Sophia Communication. SC is a social circle/ school club that brings Japanese and Foreign students together in one space with the intention of exploring different parts of Japan and enjoying various activities together. For the international students, it's usually a chance to practice Japanese. For the Japanese, they get to practice English. In general, it's also a great way to make connections with some amazing people from all over the world.

This was my second time going out on an adventure with the group. And yet, it was composed of people I had never really spoken with before. You see, the club is filled with over one hundred people who don't meet regularly, so it's not always easy to keep track of members. Nevertheless, I had been wanting to go out exploring with them for a while now and believed that it would be a fun and interesting experience.

As per usual, my Japanese was not up to par with most of the other Japanese students. Although I have grown accustomed to speaking Japanese, the issue this time was my lack of vocabulary. Honestly though, that was not an issue. First off, everyone was pretty much napping on the one-hour train ride. Secondly, everyone's speaking level for both Japanese and English varied greatly. So, we were all learning from each other at times.

The real fun began the second we left Kawagoe station. The first thing we did was head to Ko Edo - This was going to be my very first time being there. I'll announce to you now that I am not sure what streets we walked during our journey, but there was a point where you just knew you had arrived in Ko Edo. By the time you turn a corner, you are met with a series of traditional architect, home to several shops and restaurants along either sides of the street.

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People crossed up and down the streets in yukata and fox-spirit ensembles: masks and ears included, and the scent of delicious Japanese sweets made your mouth water. 

We spent the whole day visiting shops and Shinto Shrines in the area. The shops consisted of toys and decorations, as well as many different kinds of Omiyage - Souvenirs. We also stopped at about two smaller Shinto Shrines, our curiosity pulling us in all sorts of directions, before making our way to biggest of them all. At each Shrine, we were able to appreciate just how beautiful and peaceful everything was. We practiced the proper procedure of visiting a Shinto Shrine. First, for purification purposes, you wash your hands and mouth at a fountain that usually stands near the entrance. Using the ladle, you rinse your left hand, then your right, then your mouth, spit out the water and then rinse the ladle with the remaining water before returning it to the fountain. Only afterwards are you able to make your way to the actual shrine. There's also a process for clapping, bowing and praying when approach Shrines. You bow, clap twice, and then bow again. While other members took their time to wander about, we wound up being able to partake in fortune telling and wish making.

With fortune telling, you are able to receive a slip of paper that will tell what kind of luck you are due to receive. If you get unlucky or bad, you’re supposed to tie it onto a piece of pine or a wooden structure with metal wires so that it doesn't attach itself to the bearer. Sometimes, this can be done with strips deeming good luck for an even better chance of the fortune taking place.

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In comparison, the wish making are usually done on Ema, wooden plaques, where the wish is written and then it is able to be hung near the shrine. Both you usually buy, and the tradition is common with Japanese Buddhist temples as well.

While I did not partake this time, I had previously done so in Miyajima and Narita, in which both occasions I had received good fortunes. But, I am saving my wish for when I go to Kyoto.

All in all, I was able to really appreciate Ko-Edo with my group. It was very serene and was a great chance to bond with some unfamiliar faces. We talked to a few merchants, including a seller of Natural Honey and freshly grilled yakitori (chicken on skewers). We also got to Ko Edo's famous sweet potato pastry.

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Ko Edo, for me, is just one of those places you have to see if you ever find yourself in Tokyo. I really wish that I could one day return during a Matsuri, a festival, for they seem lively and fun-filled beyond what I could imagine. Maybe next time?

10/18/2015

Silver Week in Shinjuku

Silver Week (シルバーウィーク Shirubā Wīku) - a string of consecutive holidays in September; more specifically, the string of three Japanese public holidays that followed the weekend.

All of Japan rose up in celebration, especially Tokyo - how lucky could we get?

As fresh new foreign faces to the country, Silver Week was not something any of us were well aware of. I remember a friend, a Japanese local, telling me a bit about it earlier. But it hadn't quite dawned on me, or my friends, until we got off the train in Shinjuku station just how big of a celebration it was.

Just to note, the combining holidays that followed the weekend were "Respect for the Aged Day" (occurs the third Monday of September and, in this case, fell on 9/21), "Autumnal Equinox Day" (9/23), and "Kokumin No Kyujitsu"( Citizens' Holiday - By Japanese law, if there is only one non-holiday in between two public holidays, that day should become an additional holiday, known as a Kokumin no kyūjitsu.) WIKIPEDIA REFERENCE

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Anywho, it was Sunday, September 20th and Shinjuku was packed with locals and tourists, literally flooding the streets! There were a lot of food stalls set up that range from soba-noodles to chicken skewers - I even found an Indian stall where they had Samosas! There were a few other streets blocked off for shopping and food, and I don't think it was limited to Shinjuku either. But because Shinjuku is a pretty busy district, it's great for drawing customers in.

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In order: Nikita, Julie, and Jasmine (Me!)

This was a fabulous opportunity for us to really start practicing our Japanese with the locals. Because we couldn't read the menu, we had to ask them what it was that they were selling. So, we continuously said, "tori niku ga arimasuka" (do you have chicken?), "kore wa nan desuka" (what is this?) and "ikura desuka" (how much does it cost?) and so forth. Language barriers are usually intimidating, but the merchants really appreciated the fact that we tried to speak Japanese - it made the interaction a lot more fun and relaxed.

 Now, I went on this little adventure with other CIEE students with the sole intention of just finding lunch in the middle of a street fair. Boy did we get more than what we bargained for.

After our lunch, we wound up getting a front-row seat to the parade that came through immediately after. So, not only did we come on a good day, we came at the perfect time! Dozens of locals crossed through the streets of Shinjuku, dressed in parade-clothing called はっぴ, pronounced "happi"  while piloting floats and chanting through the streets. I'm sorry to say that I could not quite figure out why the parade was going on except for the fact that it was in celebration of the holiday season. Nevertheless, it was still really fun to watch! ''

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After that, we wound up finding a stage with live music going on.

OK - I'm am one of those peoples who believe 100% that music is something that you can love and appreciate even without understanding the lyrics. This experience was no different.

I was overwhelmed with childish joy as the lead musician sang with an energy that absolutely captivated everyone. You should have seen him, jumping up and down while singing the chorus, blowing into his harmonica and strumming on his guitar  - a real "GENKI" moment.

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(Genki meaning energetic in this case). We also got to a see a second act, a female singer who was performing a tribute to a rather old, yet well-known-to-the-locals, song. Don't ask me what it was because I really can't remember any of the lyrics, but again, it was just so wonderful to be part of it. On some level, it felt like I was back home - I didn't feel like I had to worry about being a foreigner in the middle of a local practice. I felt welcomed and was able to enjoy the festivities because I really appreciate the culture. In the end, that's what it should be about, don't you agree?

Looming Culture Shock

Looming Culture Shock

The past three weeks have demonstrated to me that even the most put-together person can be completely disarmed and left vulnerable by what is known as "Culture Shock" - This is something that happens when you are realize that your culture, your way of doing things, is suddenly no longer the normal way due to the new environment you now find yourself in. As a result, it's necessary to adjust.

Like almost every other person in the CIEE program, I originally thought I was ready to handle whatever was going to be thrown at me the minute I stepped foot onto Japanese soil. I had my goals in mind, I was eager to start school, ready to explore, and so very willing to just immerse myself in the culture and learn as much as possible about this wondrous country. Culture Shock never even registered in my mind as a something that I would struggle with so much.  In this case, all of my planning and preparation should have been categorized as "Easier said than done".

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Shibuya Crossing Chaos

 

I wound up dumb-struck and left in awe at Tokyo's fast-paced society. Even now, sometimes it feels like if I'm not walking like a New Yorker - quick and with gut-determination rooted in every step - then I will be bumped, shoved, and trampled. It's such a commuter-city! Trying to  keep up with the crowds in the train station proved to  be very difficult at first. The crowds all seem to move in waves, especially around the major cities, and trains can get so packed during rush hours that the station officers may even resort to cramming them in all at once - though I haven't had that happen to me, yet - the train schedule is actually very efficient. Oh, and there are even designated female-only cars during those peak hours! How's that for safety?

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The next thing on the Culture Shock menu was adjusting to the difference in food and diet. Cooking dinner for myself was intended to be an easy task, except for the fact that I had no idea what to buy and where to buy it. I had to use the power of Google in order to research some of the brands that I ought to buy. It took me several days to become a decent food shopper, but in that time this is what I learned: Because so much is locally grown here in Japan, it's really inexpensive to buy fruits and vegetables at smaller, local markets, as opposed to the larger grocery stores we are all probably used to back home! And it's only 10 minutes walking distance - everything is meant to be convenient here because of the way the society works. Even convenient stores here carry much more than sodas and snacks. You could literally do all of your grocery shopping at a 7/11 here. This is Culture Shock at its finest - rendering me incapable of providing for myself because I can't properly read the labels on the packages. It takes some getting used to, and a lot of Kanji memorization.

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My first meal: Pork Ramen with Dumplings

 

The first night, I remember trying desperately to order dinner, only to fail miserably because I couldn't read the menu. A couple of the dorm students paired up with the locals who also live in the building and wound up going out for ramen. I don't eat beef, so I had to keep asking "Toriniku? Toriniku?" Meaning "Chicken? Chicken?" If it weren't for the locals, we would have had so much more of an issue trying to order noodles than a Japan-born two-year-old!

Nonetheless, I was not shy about going out for dinner. If you know where to go, you can actually get a whole meal for under 500 yen, (approx. 4.50 USD). And if you want a taste of something traditional and inexpensive, an Izakaya is your best option. It's a small eating establishments that specialize in serving meat and drinks . While the prices can skyrocket, depending on what you order and whether or not there's a seating charge, there are inexpensive izakayas that tend to serve a lot of traditional snacks and skewers that make up a great meal among friends. Every single time, the atmosphere was fun and relaxed, the food great, and the bonding moments absolutely precious. It's funny to think that we don't have anything like that in the states - chain restaurants, sure. But inexpensive sit-downs that border between a pub and restaurant, no.  

Another thing about Tokyo,  Japan, that I find quite different from America are the amount of game centers here! I was talking with a new friend of mind, a Japanese local who had been showing me around town at the time. She called the centers "Pachinkos" and I had no idea what that was, until she started explaining about the games and slot machines. Originally, I thought about an arcade, but it's actually something else entirely.

I wound up learning that Pachinkos are slot machine parlors. Here, the idea of the game is to put little silver balls into the machine and try to win more silver balls by getting them to fall in certain places in the machine, which can then be exchanged for prizes.

However, there are several dozen arcades here in Tokyo that seem to be a popular past time for the locals. Back in the states, it's very rare to try and find game centers now-a-days because Americans make no time for it anymore. Therefore, they wound up shutting down. Similarly, to go to a place in America with slot machines would mean that you would be going to a casino to gamble, and there aren't nearly as many in one state as there are in all of Tokyo, (in my personal opinion, that is.)

Pachinkos and Arcades here though are always crammed pack with people, from teens to elder parents, I've seen them all! Perhaps it's their version of de-stressing from the day, or their own way to bring their inner child to the forefront for a good hour or so, but whatever the case may be, it was all too amazing just to see that video-game culture thriving in the most vintage of all tech-oriented establishments.

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My friends and I were about to go hard-core on Mario-Kart

Honestly, I can go on and on about the differences between my hometown and Japan, but that's not the point of this post. Instead, the point is for me to convey to you how taken aback I was by both the amazing and the frustratingly difficult. It has been no walk in the park, even now 3-weeks in.  I guess when it comes to culture shock, you never know what's going to be the next big difference that you are going to have to adapt to, but adaptability is the key! If not, then you will suffer and loathe your time abroad. It's one thing to know that you are going to have to make some changes in your daily routine, it's another to actually follow through. Nevertheless, bit by bit, I am adjusting and learning as I go - I look forward to what the rest of the semester has in store.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Text Box: My first meal: Pork Ramen with Dumplings

07/15/2015

Discoveries and suggestions

Just like that, and there is only less than a month before I complete my study abroad term in Japan. There was time when I felt a bit homesick, but now I do not want to leave. There are still so many things I want to do here in Japan, yet time is so limited. However, I do not think I will leave Japan with any regrets, because I have spent every moment in Japan very wisely. 

I always have an agenda and plan every day. It was pretty overwhelming to have a mindset of wanting to visit all the places and try all the food in Japan. I cannot go a day without opening my agenda, and looking through to see if there are any open spots for me to fit more places/ restaurants in there. I managed to go to at least one unique town/ spot of Tokyo, or try the food that I haven’t tried before, or go to a restaurant that I cannot find outside of Japan. I am always doing something every day. By doing so, at the end of the day, I feel very satisfied because I don’t want to waste a single moment to explore Japan (mostly Tokyo in my case). Also, by keeping a calendar, it helps me remember the places that I have been to and the things that I did in Japan. I want to forever remember the joy and happiness that I experience daily in Tokyo.

With that being said, I understand how stressful it is to having to keep up with everything, so I am coming up with the list of the places that I have been to, and want to recommend to everyone.

 One life-saving tip: utilize the “save” button on Google Map. Whenever I find a new place, I immediate go to my Google Map, look it up and save the location so I don’t end up forgetting everything, or having a long list untouched.  

There were several great shops which I do not remember the names, but I will try my best to make sure the best places are listed.

Note: I am a big foodie, so most of the places will be restaurants, but food is such a large part of the Japanese culture (especially sweets!). I am not sure about others, but the Japanese food/ sweets give me such a strange feeling of happiness that I don’t think I can find it anywhere else.

Most of these places can be found immediately using just the name on Google Map, so I hope finding these places will not be any problems.

 Restaurant:      

-       Nabezou / Momo Paradise / MK Restaurant (they have many different branches, from Shibuya to Harajuku to Shinjuku)

  • All you can eat for Shabu Shabu (hot pot) and Sukiyaki (special Japanese dish stew served in hot pot style)

-        世界で2番めにおいしいきたてメロンパンアイス in Shibuya

  • The one and only place that sells this unique melon bread filled with ice cream!

-       Soup Stock Tokyo (right outside Sophia in the Atre Building)

  • Famous healthy and delicious soups with a wide variety. They also serve curry and different lunch sets

-       Hatsudai (初代) in Ebisu:

  • White potato cream curry udon (shiroi kare udon)

-       Japanese Ice Ouca in Ebisu

  • In my opinion, has the BEST ice cream with the most unique flavors (4 tea flavors alone, pumpkin, premium milk, different fruits, cream cheese, etc.)

-       Bittersweet Buffet/ Sweet Paradise in Shinjuku/ Ikebukuro/ Shibuya

  • all you can eat Japanese sweets (the crepes and waffles here are amazing), on top of salads, Italian cuisines, drinks, etc.

-       Cosme Juicery in Daikanyama, Shibuya’s Hikarie Building

  • Healthy organic cold-pressed juice/ smoothies

-       SASA Grill Burger in Daikanyama

  • Serve avocado, salmon, mushroom, and all types of unique and delicious burgers with great atmosphere

-       Burn Side Café in Harajuku

  • Soufflé pancakes! One of the best

-       Rainbow Pancake in Harajuku / Honolulu Coffee in Yokohama:

  • Madacamia nut cream pancake

-       Pablo Cheese Tart in Shibuya

  • They have seasonal flavors! This is a great gift to buy and enjoy with host family because only a whole cheese tart is sold here (but it was so good that I could finish the whole thing by myself).

-       Rapoppo in Shinjuku Station/ Shibuya Tokyu Store B1/ Sky Tree:

  • Sweet potato sweets!

-       Bills at Harajuku/ Yokohama:

  •  Hot cakes!

-       Ichiran (一覧)everywhere

  • Known as the best ramen restaurant

-       Harbs in Shibuya/ Shinjuku Lumine Est

  • Mille Crepes with fruits filling- one of the best creations in the sweets industry in my opinion

-       Tsurutotan in Roppongi

  • Authentic and delicious udon. The size of one serving is three times bigger than normal, and the “udon” is all you can eat, so enjoy

-       Ice Monster in Harajuku:

  • Taiwanese ice shave

-       Bake Cheese Tart in Jiyugaoka/ Shinjuku

  • Famous baked cheese tart- there is always a line but it is worth it

-       Quil Fait Bon: fruit tarts

-       Croquant Chou Zakuzaku in Harajuku/ Shinjuku:

  • Premium Milk Ice Cream from Hokkaido and churros with custard filling

-       Pancake House: Dutch pancake

-       Gyukaku (every where): all you can eat yakiniku (Korean BBQ)

-       Croissant Taiyaki

 

Interesting shops to check out:

-       Kiddy Land

-       Tokyu Hands

-       Book Off

-       Troll along Harajuku/ Shimokitazawa for unique cheaper goods

 

Small local towns:

-       Daikanyama

-       Ebisu

-       Shimo kitazawa

-       Kagurazaka

-       Yanaka Ginza

-       Enoshima/ Kamakura

-       Nakano

-       Nakamekuro

-       Jiyugaoka

-       Tsukiji

-       Ameyoko

-       Jimbocho

There are many more places that I want to talk more details about, but I am sure if students take time to explore the local stops on their route home, there will be plenty of hidden gems are waiting to be discovered. 

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-       Soufflé Pancake at Burn Side St. Café

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- Melon Pan Ice (Melon bread filled with ice cream) at世界で2番めにおいしいきたてメロンパンアイス

 

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-       Ice shave at Ice Monster

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-       Premium milk ice cream at Croquant Chou Zakuzaku

 

06/11/2015

The Hidden Gems of Tokyo

Two months have passed by too quickly. Coming to Japan with the mindset of wanting to explore all the renowned places in Japan have given me a lot of pressure. Japan is very “distracting” in a good sense. My “to do/ to go” list have gotten longer every day. Time is limited, yet there are always new places to go to. I have been frantically trying to plan for big trips, and using the rest of my time to go to well-known touristy spots such as Shibuya, Roppongi, Shinjuku, Harajuku, etc. Even though I have enjoyed myself greatly, sometimes I felt exhausted thinking that I have to check off every single thing on my enormous to-do list. Then, I started to pace myself slower, and take time to absorb the little simple moments around me. I am learning to accept the fact that I will never get to eat all the good food in Japan and go to all the fascinating places in Tokyo. However, because of that, I have started to appreciate the normal flow of my daily life, and have discovered various hidden gems locally, which I found to be very precious. That was the moment I realized that with a mixture of famous spots and local places, I can really see the real colors of Tokyo.

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- Brown sugar matcha ice cream, on top of organic matcha ice cream with red beans and matcha jelly - Japanese Ice Ouca, Ebisu

I have accomplished one goal that is to stop at every station along my train route to just explore, sightseeing and get a feel of normal Japanese life. Some of the places that I have come across purely by coincidence are Nakano, Daikanyama, Nakameguro, Ebisu, and Jiyugaoka. Each little town has its own characteristics and I was surprised to find so many popular local spots hidden behind the busy Tokyo life. For example, as written before in my first blog, Nakameguro is one of the most famous sakura flowers viewing spot in Japan. It also has a local shops surrounded the Meguro river, especially the sushi shop with the “dancing chef.” Sushi is not even the best part; one cannot take their eyes away from the chef while he was making the sushi like an art show. It was fantastic.

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- Gyu katsu (Beef Katsu) near Shibuya/ Daikanyama district

In addition, Daikanyama is the neighborhood that is famous for celebrities to reside, which includes varieties of American/ European restaurants and trendy shops. Daikanyama is one the places where I get the sense of modern Japan in an “authentic Japanese” environment, unlike Shibuya or Shinjuku where modernization is overloaded. In Daikanyama, I found a Juicery Kitchen, which sells the healthy cold compressed juice that is good for both the body and soul. I feel so lucky to find such precious shops that I otherwise would have missed out if I neglected the local aspects of Japanese life. 

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- Daikanyama's Cosme Kitchen Juicery (right outside of the station's exit) 

In continuation, in Ebisu, I found Japanese Ice Ouca, where in my opinion, sells the best ice cream including 4 different flavors of Matcha alone. Not only so, there is a famous local curry whipped cream udon, sounds strange, but it was extremely delicious! Looking for unique types of food that I will not be able to find outside Japan is one of my passions, so I was beyond escalated. 

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- Curry Udon with Whipped Cream in Ebisu

Right outside of Nakano station, there is a “Broadway Nakano” shopping street, which reminds me a lot of Ameyoko in Ueno. I found a local restaurant that sells an unagi (eel) bowl for only 500 yen! The quality is equivalent to those at Tsukiji Fish Market. The taste is to die for. There is also a ramen burger restaurant in Nakano, much better than the one I have tried in the United States. This ramen burger does not fall apart when I take the first bite, it stays intact and absorbs all the goodness of the sauce and the meat. I am not a big fan of burgers, but this is exceptional, I can eat it as many ramen burgers as possible, but I need to limit myself if I want to reach my goal of trying more unique food in Japan. 

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- Unagi (eel) bowl and unagiyaki at Nakano

Lastly, Jiyugaoka is a heaven for sweets and bakery, notably the “Bake Shop” and “Jiyugaoka Sweet Forest.” They also have many trendy and local restaurants as well. What makes Jiyugaoka unique is that it has the warm and connected atmosphere, as if all the shops are united to design their decors in some similar way, which gives me some sense of belonging. It feels magical, especially during the evening time, where the lanterns along the streets are brightly lit up.

 Since I stumbled across these places while exploring, they all hold a very special meaning to me, because this part of Tokyo came to me naturally, it makes me feel more much more native and appreciative. I will continue to explore more local places on top of planning out some last minutes trips because time is passing by quickly in a blink, it is unbelievable. I cannot wait for what discoveries I will find next, because in Japan, there are always surprises wherever I go, and they always manage to go beyond my expectation and I am very grateful.  

05/15/2015

WAGYU WONDERLAND

I’ve enthused a lot about food in my previous blog posts, so I suppose it would be fair for one to think that perhaps, the topic might have grown stale to me. However, when it comes to the story I’m about to tell, my mouth still waters each time the images flash through my head: the softest, pinkest slab of beef I’d ever laid eyes upon, softly sizzling on a bed of butter as it slowly but surely approached medium-rare perfection. For those even just slightly familiar with the world of Japanese beef – otherwise referred to as “wagyu” (“wa” meaning “Japanese” and “gyu” meaning “beef”) – Kobe beef may be what you’re thinking of right now. Whilst close, in this blog post, I will be paying homage to what I consider a pretty well-hidden gem in the world of wagyu: Hida Gyu, or “Hida beef.”

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I’ve always been a huge fan of nicely-marbled beef, and to this day, I still sometimes think back to that rush of elation I got the first time I tried Kobe beef. This story takes place a few weeks after that day, after I had returned to Tokyo. It was a day in March; I had an unbearable craving for good beef, but not enough money to take a second trip all the way down south to Kobe. So, what did I do? I turned to the eternally reliable, truest best friend of man: the Internet. Unfortunately, I failed to find a worthy, affordable, and nearby substitute for Kobe beef. I opened up to my friend Lester – who had previously spent 3 years in Japan as part of an English teaching program – about these woes. Lester told me about the town he had been stationed in, a small town somewhere up north of Tokyo in the boonies: Hida Takayama. “It’s got better beef that Kobe,” I remember him saying.

“Ha, better beef than Kobe,” I scoffed at the mere concept. At best, I had been hoping for an only-slightly-disappointing substitute. However, Lester had successfully piqued my interest. I looked up a bus to Hida Takayama (for those already interested, the Willer Express Bus provides a straight shot to the Takayama bus station from downtown Tokyo), packed my bags, and was on my way the following week.

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The prospect of discovering a steak “better than Kobe beef” buzzing amongst my thoughts, it was hard to get any sleep on the 5-hour bus ride. I’d preemptively looked up an affordable Hida beef restaurant – a little mom and pop type shop called “Kyouya –” prior to my departure, and made a dash for it the second I got off the bus. I’d also downloaded the restaurant’s menu in advance, so I wasted little time when it came to place an order.

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Flowery prose do little justice to what I experienced when I took my first bite, so to put it plainly: it was delicious, and yes, Lester had been right all along – it was better than Kobe beef. To me, what makes wagyu a novelty is the softness and savory greasiness of the steaks, and Hida beef proved itself the epitome of such a definition. One pleasant surprise that actually surpassed the beef, however, was how nice the people of Hida were. I’d arrived on a snowy day without an umbrella, and left the beef restaurant with a free one in hand, a present from the owners. The next morning, on my way to the station, I was stopped by an old lady, who thanked me for coming all the way out to Hida.

This is about all there is to this story: really good beef, and really nice people. It was one of my most successful trips, and though I am still being made fun of for having spent over $300 to go get beef, I can proudly say I have no regrets. All I had to do was not eat or leave my room for the three weeks that followed. But other than that, it was a very good experience!

01/17/2015

Celebrating New Year’s in Tokyo: Meiji Shrine

Hello, Hello! 

In case you didn’t know, New Year’s is a very busy and celebratory time of the year for Japan. Many people go home to their families outside of the city to have a family party and welcome in the New Year together. Thousands flock to any of the numerous shrines or temples around their area to bring in the New Year with good luck, and to pray for a prosperous and healthy year for themselves and their loved ones. It’s a touching and wonderful time of year, one I was able to share with my friends in Harajuku of all places!

New Years Meiji Jingo

Here we are walking up to Meiji Jingu! Notice the crowds…

My friends and I decided to bring in the New Year like many of the Japanese do and visited a shrine  to get a fortune for the year, and to wish us luck and good spirits. Specifically, we visited the very famous Meiji Shrine (or Meiji Jingu). On New Year’s Eve, we first set off from our dorm to get some good soba. Soba is traditionally eaten to promote good luck and a long life during this celebration. Luckily, our local train station had recently opened a new soba restaurant and we were able to get deliciously cheap soba to celebrate with.

After eating dinner, we made our way to the next station and boarded the Yamanote train line for Harajuku. Of course, I’m sure a few more hundred people had the same idea, and the trains were very crowded and rowdy. We could tell the excitement for the night was surely building up in the people around us. We managed to struggle through the crowds to get to the temple, and it was amazing! The entrance gate was illuminated nicely, and friendly police officers were escorting the floods of people to the shrine. Before even getting to the shrine, there was what seemed to me to be a huge food market, like at the State Fair. All types of food were offered, from traditional grilled fish stuffed with roe on sticks to Mexican tacos and Greek gyros. The choice of food and snacks was amazing and impressive!

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The choice of food here is glorious.

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Here we have grilled meats and the traditional fish on a stick.

There were plenty of souvenirs to pick up as well in the many gift shops that were open on the shrine grounds. They boasted some of the largest collection of “typical traditional” Japanese gifts I’ve seen since getting here. The options ranged from fans to small wooden toys to mini dolls and Kabuki masks and even purses. They had an adorable Hello Kitty doll in a beautiful kimono for sale that I was very tempted to get.

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Oh, how I wanted this so badly! 

As midnight approached, my friends and I stood in line to get to the actual shrine and pray for the New Year. The line was massive, at least a couple hundred people pouring in from all directions of the shrine. The police had the lines moving very neatly and quickly. Though we waited for over an hour and a half, it passed quickly as sections of people were allowed to go up to the shrine at a time. However, midnight struck while we were in line! It was fun though, since people around us were counting down from the 30-second mark in at least three distinct languages. It was a very powerful and unforgettable moment. By the time we got to the front of the shrine where we could toss our 5 yen coins and make a prayer, it was past midnight, but we were there in the early hours of the New Year, so I believe our luck still counted. Naturally, I prayed for academic success in the upcoming year and the happiness of my friends and family. I could have probably solidified it more if I had gotten one of the nice little charms they were selling right outside of the main shrine building, but I did get a nice fortune for my troubles.

Now, it’s apparently good luck to watch the first sunrise of the New Year, and since the trains to our dorm were closed off, my friends and I decided that it would be best to spend the next 5 hours inside a karaoke place. We took the next train to Shinjuku and did karaoke until 5am! Somehow my voice recovered. It was an amazing time with amazing friends.

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Karaoke! We drank a lot of coffee and melon soda to keep us going until 5am!

We headed back to Harajuku to catch the sunrise, since it was supposed to rise at 6:50ish. We needed food so we went to the local McDonald’s, but unfortunately we ended up staying in there for too long and missed the initial sun-rising. It was such a funny moment; to know that we spent our lucky sunrise hours in a McDonald’s eating 100yen apple pies. I mean, the sun was still rising so I still count it in my head, though one of my friends was crushed!

Overall, it was an amazing experience and I think that going to a shrine like this on New Year’s would definitely be worth the time. It didn’t cost too much, we got great food at the shrine, we sang karaoke for 4 hours straight, and we spent the morning in a McDonald’s. I can’t imagine a better scenario.

Thanks for reading, and may the New Year bring you happiness and good luck! 

Leilani 

CIEE FA14 

Class of 2015

12/14/2014

The Hiroshima Local Specialty: Okonomiyaki

Hi again!

 

During our trip to Hiroshima, we learned not only of the historical importance of the area and its desire for remembrance and peace, but also of its delicious local specialties! Okonomiyaki, or “As-you-like-it (Fried)” is a kind of savory pancake. There are two basic types: “Osaka style” and “Hiroshima style.” The dish bears historical significance; after the atomic bombing of Hiroshima, the area was nearly completely leveled, and not much was left to feed the survivors. By using their creativity and resourcefulness, the people in the area took any flat sheet of metal they could find and transformed it into a grill of sorts. The super heated thin scraps of metal made great substitute grills, and were easy to find and use. Inside Okonomiyaki went anything and everything that was edible, so this provided a good way to feed the recovering, hungry people.

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Okonomiyaki! 

Today, Okonomiyaki is eaten fondly, and is a local specialty that is a “must do” for visitors from all parts of the world. Okonomiyaki features a doughy batter fried lightly on a large heated flat-iron grill, sort of like a Hibachi grill. The cook lays out the batter in pancake sized circles but makes it very thin. From there, depending on what you ordered, different ingredients pile right on top of the frying dough-pancake. The dough isn’t necessarily sweet, but it is very good and light in flavor, similar to a tortilla but more sturdy in texture. It’s very hard to describe, but very delicious! On mine, I ordered the “meat special”, which means that I was given a ton of meat in addition to the heaps upon heaps of lettuce, egg, sprouts, seaweed, even more bacon, sprouts, and a bunch more I can’t remember! It was like magic in front of my eyes as I watched the delicious-ness be created by this local master chef!

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The Master's Grill

After it was all cooked and flipped, the chef pushed the pile of deliciousness over to our edge of the grill, where it stays. The plates we had were very small and were coupled with a pair of chopsticks and a sort of spatula. Using the spatula and chopsticks, I was able to cut my okonomiyaki into fourths like a pie and eat each fourth on my plate individually. It’s an art form that takes careful mastering and a big mess of trial and error before you’re able to eat it! Everyone ordered a different type of okonomiyaki and seeing all the variety really reminds you of the resourcefulness of the people recovering from the war. It’s not only delicious, but extremely filling! After 3/4ths I was struggling, as was everyone else. No wonder this was such a good meal to have!

 Here’s a little video about the cooking of Okonomiyaki:

 

Experiencing this local specialty was not only tasty but a great reminder of the real struggles that the people of Hiroshima faced. What better way to remember the creative resourcefulness than to appreciate and enjoy the now-famous dish? It’s definitely something I’d love to eat again, and something anyone going to Hiroshima should experience at least once!

Hope you enjoyed it, and I really hope you’ll someday get to experience okonomiyaki, too!

Leilani

CIEE FA14

Class of 2015

Sushi Making with CIEE

Sushi Making with CIEE

 

            Sushi is one of my all time favorite foods. It is delicious and healthy, a great combo! CIEE always has great events planned for us, and the most recent one was sushi making. Needless to say, I jumped at the chance to learn how to make authentic Japanese sushi!

 

            I think its safe to say that almost everyone coming to japan knows what sushi is, but there are always a few outliers. Sushi in Japan is considered an art and is treated like one, and, boy, is it a delicious art! We made three types of sushi: hand rolls, regular rolls, and nigiri. If you want to make sushi at home, be sure to buy a bamboo roller/mat for rolling the sushi, all the ingredients, some nori (seaweed), and be sure you know how to make the special rice used for sushi.

 

            I’ll start with my all-time favorite: nigiri, specifically salmon nigiri. Nigiri consist of rice, the fish of choice (in my case salmon), and wasabi. The rice acts like the support, the fish is like the roof and the wasabi acts like the mortar holding the two together. First, you take a decent amount of rice into your hand and mold it into an oval. Next, take the fish and wasabi. On the under side of the fish, place some wasabi so it will help the fish stick to the rice. If you like wasabi and can handle the heat, feel free to add as much as you can take. They may be the easiest to make compared to the hand roll and regular roll, but nigiri is the most satisfying in my opinion.

 

            Next on our list will be the hand roll. The hand roll is just as its name implies: you use your hand to roll it. It’s pretty straight forward, right? So, take the nori and place it in your hand. Next, spread around the rice, but only by the area closest to your thumb and be sure to only spread it into a small square. After this, feel free to put the filling in. It can be whatever you like. After you have added the filling it’s time for the actual rolling. Take the bottom, left hand corner and fold it in a way that the corner meets the top of the nori, making a triangle-like shape. Then, simply role it and you should end up with a cone shape and then you’re finished.

 

            The regular roll can be a little difficult. This is when you use the bamboo mat to roll the sushi. Place the nori on the mat and apply the rice and the filling ingredients. Then, while using the tatami mat, tightly fold the nori in half over your ingredients, applying pleasure. Then, fold it in half again, applying more pressure. The last step is to cut the roll and to eat!

 

            If it weren’t for CIEE I would have never been able to partake in a very rich vein of the Japanese culture. The events that they plan are always very culturally immersing and I would highly recommend attending them. You will see a different facet of Japanese culture through each event that you participate in, a view that you couldn’t get without their help.  Even though you may be busy with other things, I would still urge you to make time for these events. The staff takes time and effort to prepare them and they are wonderfully beneficial. 

Sushi!

12/13/2014

Japanese Festivals: Celebrating Culture and Community

Japan has a lot of Buddhist temples and Shinto shrines throughout almost every city. Besides famous temples and shrines in Kamakura, Harujuku, Nara, etc., you may inadvertently walk by one of the smaller local shrines or temples while you're out exploring. If you do, you can stop to draw your fortune or ring the bell. They are great places to spend a quiet afternoon reading or meditating, and they often have beautiful parks or gardens where people come to relax.  

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Exploring a temple near campus in Asakusa with a fellow CIEE student

Also, since Japan has many holidays, you may run in to a festival at your local shrine or temple. Some of the festivals include ceremonies in which members of the community carry portable shrines (called mikoshi), or push or pull large festival cartsthroughout the surrounding area. You may see one of these ceremonies while out and about; I've seen it in Harujuku, Shibuya, and by my homestay. If you run into a full-blown festival, though, take the time to stop and look around. It some-what resembles a county fair in America with the various food stands, music performances, and massive crowds of people, but it definitely has a very unique feel that you should experience at least once. 

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Festival Cart at the Chichibu Winter Festival

I have accidentally run into several festivals in the three months I've been here. One day I was walking home from the train station and heard loud rock music a few blocks away from my homestay apartment. Later that night my host dad invited me to go to the festival with him. "What festival?" I asked. It turned out the loud rock music I heard on my way home was actually a festival held annually by the local temple. There were stands with great food, games for the kids, and a stage where a famous retired rock guitarist was playing. They even had enormous heaters around the seating area to keep people warm. It was a really fun surprise just down the street.

Just a few weeks ago a Japanese friend invited another CIEE student and I to go see fireworks somewhere down the Seibu subway line. We weren't really sure about the details, but we decided to go. It turned out to be the Chichibu Winter Festival, which is a famous festival that people from all over Japan will travel to see each year. It happens on December 3, and for 3 hours there is on-and-off fireworks, great street food, lots of people, and 6 massive festival carts that different groups of local men pull throughout the city. It's like an American county fair mixed with a parade mixed with the 4th of July. It was a great surprise to be there, and both my CIEE friend and I really enjoyed it. It was really cold out that night, but the warm street food like local style udon and fried beef on a stick helped a lot. It was also really fun to spend the night practicing Japanese with our friend and feeling like a local as we blended with the crowd.

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Fireworks at the Chichibu Winter Festival

Festivals are a great way to mix with locals and to enjoy local food and culture. While you're here in Japan, I recommend visiting many of the different shrines and temples you find in Tokyo and elsewhere, and try to attend a festival at least once! They happen often, and you might just run into one, so join in and have fun!