Saturday, 4 October 2014

Yokohama, City of Gaijin (Fri 19th)

Yokohama is a port town with a unique feeling compared to most cities in Japan. During the Meiji period it was a place that houses foreigners resulting in a China district and European district and was where the British ambassador lived. Even now the China Town and European district are popular tourist destinations and there are still a lot of foreigners living there. It’s also a lot greener than a lot of other Japanese cities I've been to.

When I’d been to Yokohama in the past my friend and I walked all over the place all day. Wes, Gabe and I were absolutely dead from the previous week that we decided to get the train over to the China Town area on the other side of town rather than walking from Yokohama station itself.

China Town is an interesting area with a very different feel to most China Town’s I’ve been to. It’s mostly restaurants or gift shops with lots of nikuman stands outside. It defiantly has a touristy feel to it but you can also tell the behind it all a lot of Chinese people do actually live there. We didn’t spend long in China Town, just enough to try the nikuman and wander through the area a bit.

We then went to the European style district on the other side of the highway. It starts with a highstreet similar to the ones you’d find in the UK. We walked up the hill past the Western style cemetery and checked out the English houses and rose gardens. From up there you can get a great view of Yokohama port and Tokyo in the distance.

I then wanted to go on the ferris wheel but that would have been another 2mile walk so after getting to the bottom of the hill we got the underground over to the nearest station to the fair they have in the middle of the port. The ferris wheel at Yokohama is pretty famous and has a massive clock on the side. It takes you up really high and you can see the whole city even better than the viewpoint on the hill. I think it cost 700yen to go on, which Gabe didn’t go on. He also didn’t go on the bright pink roller coaster afterwards. It’s a cool little park but not worth spending that much time or money on. When we were there it was practically dead apart from a few other people.

It wasn’t even that late at that point in the day so we decided to have sushi in Shijuku and worked our way back to Tokyo. I still don’t get Shinjuku station at all, it’s a very big and confusing station and although Gabe had been there many times we still got lost exiting round the wrong side of the station. But we walked above ground to the front of the station and managed to find the sushi place Wes ad seen before. It was good sushi. It wasn’t a chain like most we’d been to and was a tiny hole in the wall place, but the fish was fresh and good quality. The waitress was being annoying though hovering over our shoulders, but we ignored her as Gabe kept ordering more. The salmon and the eel were fantastic.

Once again we decided to kill time in Shinjuku and Gabe and Wes wanted to check out the Uniqulo and the Biku Camera. I played around with some electric dictionaries but really couldn’t decide on what to get at it turned out the nice ones were a lot more expensive than I’d budgeted for.

I think it got pretty late after that so we just grabbed konbini dinners and headed back to the apartment to start packing for Kyoto!

Tuesday, 23 September 2014

Disney Laaaaand + Engagement (Thurs 18th)

Before we had left for Japan I had bought tickets for me, Wes and Gabe for Tokyo Disney Sea! It was a surprise for Wes (Gabe paid me back the money) because we both love Disney and why not if we were in Tokyo? Unfortunately you can only buy tickets for one of the parks, if you want both you need to go on multiple days (and after being there I see why). I had chosen Disney Sea after talking with my friend because apparently the main park was just like Disneyland Paris, and Disney Sea has difference rides and areas and stuff. I had imagined it to be a big aquarium, but actually it was just like the other park with different areas, but these areas were more sea themed, and the park itself is on the sea with walls all around it.

The entrance is Mediterranean themed with a large lake in the middle and behind that a big fake volcano which is Nemo (Journey to the Centre of the Earth/Bottom of the Sea) themed. Then behind that are Aztec, Middle East/Aladdin, and Little Mermaid themed areas. We began by heading anti-clockwise to the Journey to the Centre of the Earth ride which was supposed to be fantastic. And it was! Very similar to Thunder Mountain at Disney Land Paris, but different. That and the queue was just over an hour long (like most of the lines for rides).

Then we headed over to Agrabar and went on an Aladdin themed merry-go-round very similar to the one in Paris but is double decker and plays Aladdin songs (which of course we sang along to). Even their restaurants were themed and we had curry in the Agrabar Market which was expensive with not much meat and no vegetables, but it was better than some of the food I’ve had in the park in Paris and probably slightly better priced (only about 1000yen/£7.50).

We ducked into a kiddy ride that’s like Pirates of the Caribbean where you go around in a boat but the story was about Alibaba and was probably aimed at 10year olds and under and very cheesy. Wes and I then went on a roller coaster called Raging Spirits which Gabe skipped out on because fast coasters with loops make him sick. It was pretty good although once again the fast pass people being let ahead of us was getting very annoying, especially because it was hot and tiring standing around all day.

We decided to explore Atlantis next, which I thought was just a castle but when you went in it took you underground (or under the sea because it was all under water themed) where it had more rides and a big restaurant and shop! We went on the Whirling Rapids (Tea Cups) and found shiny stuff in the shop.

Food stands around the park only seem to sell one item at a time, which meant that we kept running into popcorn stands but ones that were weird flavours like jalapeno and cheese or corn pottage flavour :P I was craving some caramel flavour so after locating it on the map we moved round to the front of the park where the caramel popcorn was. I made the guys wait for me to nom my popcorn which was lucky because just as I finished a spontaneous performance popped up which involved a foreigner and a Japanese guy playing music on a big bin and some pots and pans. It was great fun. I love the little details and the fact that you never know what you’re going to run into next!

Next on the agenda was the Toy Story shooting gallery next to the Haunted Hotel ride (the same in Disney Studios in Paris). But the line took over an hour and a half! It was so frustrating because as soon as fast pass people turned up they were let in! I was very tired and grumpy towards the end, but the ride was almost worth it. It was a 3D shooting gallery and I beat Wes’ score, but Gabe thrashed us both :P

Gabe wanted to head over to the castle in the centre of the park (which is in front of the volcano) next. It’s was a big medieval castle rather than a themed princess castle like the main parks. You could explore this one and it had different rooms which educated people about the explorers of the medieval times.

It was dark by that point and we made it up to the tallest tower on the castle. There was music in the park so Wes and I started dancing which scared off the Japanese people (hahaha PDAs). We’d been playing eye spy earlier during some of the queues and Wes started is up again with “eye spy my little eye, something beginning with R”
“Roller Coaster?”
“Rower” (Tower)
“That isn’t even a word”
“Raero-plane” (aeroplane)
“Now you’re just making things up”
“Is it on the castle or in the park?”
“On the castle”
“Is it on one of us or on the castle?”
“On me”
And the he got down on one knee and took out a ring.

At that point things got pretty blurry because I’d started to tear up and it was dark so I couldn’t see anything. I managed a “I’m leaking” before Wes had to hug me. Then I had to remind him that he hadn’t even asked yet and he finally asked “Will you marry me?” to which I said “Yes” of course ^-^

So although I kept breaking down for the next 20mins we were engaged and told Gabe (who had sneakily snuck off when we were dancing) the good news. We got some pictures taken in the really cool star room because we hadn’t got any pictures of the actual proposal.

To say I was physically and mentally exhausted would be an understatement, and I still can’t believe it really happened. But it had and the night still wasn’t over! We ran around the park a little more and then returned to our tower to watch the lights show, which it turns out is aimed at the entrance so we were on completely the wrong side. But it was still a really cool show and very entertaining. Because the trains would be manic we killed another 30mins exploring the castle and a boat before heading back. We just grabbed some snacks for dinner from the conbini before we all collapsed in our beds.

BTW Thanks Alex for helping Wes with the ring size. Apparently you were the only person who had an idea that this was going to happen. Wes, you are a wonderful sneaky, sneaky ninja for keeping this a secret for a year.

Sunday, 21 September 2014

Lazy Day Lacking Sumo (Wed 17th)

Despite the fact that Josh was meant to be leaving later in the evening Wes and him had decided to get up at 6:30am to head over to get Sumo tickets for the day. The thing about Sumo tickets is you can book them in advance, and they’re really expensive, or you can buy them on the day which are the cheapest very back row of the hall. But the problem is is that these start selling at 8:30 in the morning and then sell out really quickly. The other problem with these is the morning fights are rookies and aren’t as good as the ones you see on TV (which Wes told me). The one good thing about the Sumo tickets is that there isn’t a specific time, just a specific day. So you can spend all day in the hall watching the Sumo, and you’re allowed to leave and re-entre once. Which is what Wes and Josh did so they could try the food the Sumo wrestlers eat which is a tomato ramen that is supposed to build up stamina.
Harajuku has some weird shops (that's a mannequin)

While this was going on Gabe and I just washed a bunch of our clothes and then headed over to Harajuku which I really wanted to see. We knew Wes would be back about 3:30 so spent a good 3 hours in Harajuku. I found a thrift shop at the very end of the shopping street which I’d been to 3 years before, and even better, they’d expanded their stock to include second-hand kimono and obi which were all clearly labelled what was men’s and what the difference between the difference types was!

I like shopping in Harajuku, mostly because once you get off the main street you get all the more interesting, alternative shops with the Lolita, visual-kei/punk clothes, as well as some fun toys/merchandise. I actually ended up getting a hat and some fake glasses, and Gabe got a bunch of Totoro stuff for his mum.

When we got back to the apartment we didn’t have to wait long for Wes to show up because it turned out that he’d left the Sumo early because the more advanced fighters were turning up later on after 4pm and Josh needed to go to Narita airport. But he’d killed some time in Shinjuku because there were camera shops there he had wanted to see. But exploring a place when you don’t know it well or don’t know what to see is a bit difficult and Shinjuku (especially its station) is massive and a bit overwhelming. So all 3 of us went back to Shinjuku and spent the evening there looking at electric stores (I got a case for my 3DS) and wandered around a bit. Shinjuku isn’t the most exciting of places, I’d describe it as a very grey area and not a place you want to be too late at night.

But if you are in Shinjuku you should try the 11th floor of one of the department stores where there is the most amazing okonomiyaki resturant ever! They can cook it for you or you cook it for yourself in front of you  and the trick is to cook it for 4mins with a lid on top, flip it and cook it for another 4mins with the lid. Then flip and add mayo, sauce, nori and bonita. Omnomnomnomnom soooo gooood!

Saturday, 20 September 2014

Horse Archery (Tues 16th - Kamakura)

Because yesterday had been a late start and we’d missed Sumo tickets we decided to get up early to head over to Kamakura, which is an hour south of Tokyo. This meant we got the trains at rush-hour which wasn’t as bad as people think (with the crowded trains and people being pushed on), but that was probably because we were moving out of the city rather than into it.

We were heading to Kamakura because Josh had found they were showing Yabusame, the Japanese archery on horseback. But this wasn’t starting until 1pm and we’d arrived at about 9am. Luckily there’s a surprisingly large amount of things to do in Kamakura, unfortunately this also meant more walking. So we walked over to the Daibutsu (large Buddha) they have, buying some traditional salt difuku (which was ok) on the way, and almost saw an 11 headed Kannon but decided for time to skip it. The Daibutsu was pretty cool but not as impressive as the one in Nara. You could pay an extra 20yen to go inside and it was like being in a warm iron bull because it was so hot outside.

Despite the hot weather we decided to go on an adventure over the mountain (hill by American standards) to get to the money washing shrine on the other side. It was a surprising tough climb which was mostly due to the hot weather. Also the mountain was covered in spiders which Wes made friends with. And we ran into a few suzumebachi (Japanese hornet) which scared the crap out of Stacey.

The temple on the other side was an interesting one, the idea was that you buy a basket to wash your yen in which blesses the money and doubles it in the future. As Wes and Josh were saying, it makes money, just for the people at the shrine rather than the money washers. We didn’t wash any money but I did take pictures and buy two omamori (charms) one for general and the other for money.

It was almost 1pm at that point so we headed out of the hills and back into town, which had increased in tourists, to the main shrine where the Yabusame was being held. We found one really, really good spot but this old Japanese man complained to the shrine people that the crowd we were part of was blocking his view and we weren’t in a designated area. The shrine people were forced to take us to another area where we could see but it was still a dick move from the old man. Jokes on him though, not everyone came with us and a lot of people just stepped over the barrier, hopefully squishing the little old grump.

Our new spot was still pretty good. We were in the shade and could see the third target. It took an hour after the event started to actually start because there was an introduction in both Japanese and English. But there weren’t any speakers where we were so we couldn’t hear anything. But once they started it was really, really good.

The riders were dressed in full traditional dress, they had to ride from one end of the dirt track to the other shooting at 3 targets along the way. Some rode faster than others but the faster ones often missed some of the targets. We could tell when they’d started because we could hear the clickclickclickclickclick of DSLRs going crazy. But after the first set there was a 10min break and about ¼ of the people left! Including a lot of the media people, which was weird. The whole thing was only an hour long and finished at 3pm and both mine and Wes’ cameras died just after, which was lucky.

On the way back we stopped off to try the local specialty, sweet potato croquettes which were bright purple on the inside but really, really hot and probably not the best idea on such a hot day.

We decided to head back into Tokyo for dinner and went to Akihabara again because Josh wanted to have more of a wander. We ended up having curry at a family restaurant and killed time (or “crushed time” in Japanese) looking around the shops.

Friday, 19 September 2014

Walking All Over the East (Monday 15th - Asakusa)

Sumo wrestler wearing a kimono with kitties
It was Monday today but really, really felt like we’d been here for almost a week already. We went over to Ryogoku where the Sumo tournament has just started. The plan was that some people wanted to get cheap tickets which are only sold on the day buuuut we got there at about 11 and all the tickets were sold out. So Wes and Josh decided to get up early on the Wednesday (because we’re at Kamakura tomorrow) before Josh leaves on Wednesday.

We decided then to walk down the river to Asakusa stopping off at a pretty Japanese garden on the way. Asakusa is where the newly built Sky Tower is (but we didn’t go up) and the famous Kaminari-mon (gate) and shrine. And because it was a holiday for the Japanese (3 day weekend) it was VERY busy. We managed to squeeze through the shops between the gate and the shrine to find this one particular spice shop which was the original location of a spice and Josh loves. Which Josh, Stacey and Wes were looking at spices though me, Gabe and Ben were wandering outside and spotted an old man carrying a fluffy sausage dog in a holder, its legs dangling down either side and the old man gently swung the bag as he walked. Ban actually ran over to take a photo (I’ll post it when I can get a copy).

The seven spices shop
We meandered back to the shrine to check it and some of the (very expensive low quality touristy) shops out, and stopped off at a very popular ice cream and melon-pan stand. All of us got melon-pan (bread baked with a cookie top) which was massive, warm and squishy, but Stacey decided to get cheese flavoured ice-cream… :P It was ok, just really, really weird.

I did an omikuji, a fortune, next at the shrine and got pretty good fortune. Not amazing but not terrible either, it was funny how accurate it seemed to be. But that’s how fortunes are meant to be (accurate no matter who you are because of the vague writing).

We decided to take the 40min walk from the shrine over Ueno part to Nippori which was where friends had told me about Nippori Textile Street. The walk took a little longer because we stopped in a shop that sells plastic food, and we got distracted walking through Ueno Park and the cemetery. Which was spooky and awesome at the same time. I was worried we’d get shouted at for walking through it but there was a security guard on a bike who just didn’t care. As we left the cemetery an old lady told us to be careful which was creepy…

It seems like every time we've walked between places we’ve stumbled across interesting things that we would have missed if we’d gone by train. Although it is extremely tiring walking everywhere all day for 3days+ in a row.

Nippori Textile Street was pretty awesome but it was late in the day and a lot of them were closed. There were lots of second-hand kimono shops and leather shops, but none that had the strips of kimono fabric I was looking for. But I got some for a friend and a Japanese tapestry for myself so I was happy.

We’d promised Ben that we’d have all-you-can-eat sweets at Sweets Paradise (somewhere we went often at Uni in Osaka) so headed over to Shibuya. I had to ask the tourist information where a football shop was for Ben and it was right next to Sweets Paradise! So after Ben and Wes bought football scarfs we pigged out on cake and sweets and hot chocolate for over an hour. It felt like we needed to be rolled out. It was a good day.

Sunday, 14 September 2014

Dying of Cold (First 3 Days in Tokyo)

It is day 3 of the holiday and everyone has arrived and lots of things have already been done! I arrived Friday morning to find the airline hadn’t put my suitcase on the plane when I connecting in Amsterdam. Well damn. So I make my way to meet up with Ben, Stacey and Josh, but because customs was easy we met up earlier than planned. Ben was wearing a weird bamboo hat he’d bought in the countryside…

It was baking (mostly due to humidity) but we decide on eating hot ramen anyway. It was sooo good and I probably needed to eat something. After that we got the train to Shinjuku because I couldn’t check into my apartment and because I had a brain fail and thought Shinjuku was Shibuya. But because we had ran into a uniqulo I got something to change into for the next day (the airline has given me $50 per day for missing luggage). We then gave up on exploring Shinjuku and decided to walk to my apartment, which getting distracted by a taiko drum arcade game... We also think we wandered into the red light district as there were a lot of host and hostess clubs (it was the middle of the day so they were all closed…I think…)

After I checked in we decided to check out Ikebukuro and “Otome Road” the street for fangirls, which consists of butler cafes, cosplay stores, and manga and doujinshi stores. Ben’s friend has requested a gift from Japan and said “surprise me” so we tried to help him find something in Otome Road, but did not succeed. I have also been challenged by a friend to find Hanbei and Yukimura (Sengoku BASARA) BL pairing but we did not succeed in Otome Road…

Wes arrived late that evening so although I was full and tired from jetlag and sushi dinner I zombie over to Haneda airport and take Wes back to the apartment.

Day 2 starts at 5:30am because of the early Japanese sunrise and white curtains. I also have a earache but think that’s because I was forced to wear my glasses which I don’t normally do. But because we woke up early we decide to walk the 20mins to the next station over where the others are staying and change what I got at Uniqulo for something else (because the size was wrong).

The shop doesn’t open until 10am though (Japanese shops tend to open late and stay open late), we went to a cheap import store and got drinks and some small items. After the Uniqulo opens though I’m able to get a top and return the item I got before. We then gate crash Ben, Josh and Stacey’s hostel and steal their internet (because ours is really, really bad which is why I’m uploading photos later!).

The sightseeing began with a trip to Sangakuji where the 47 ronin are buried/enshrines (which is pretty cool). This one mon (family crest) jumps out at me from some of the graves and statues (which I saw twice more today) which is of two hawk feathers crossed over. (I just looked this up to briefly, it’s called the Takanoha but I need to look into it’s connection with the 47 Ronin later).

I had arranged to meet up with a Japanese friend from Gaidai called Shizuka, but the others wanted to go see Zojoji which was a 40min walk from Sangakuji because some shoguns were buried there. I left the party at that point to go meet Shizuka at Odaiba, a big island in Tokyo Bay that has some malls with cool shops and the 1/1 scale Gundam model. When I arrive there’s a Mexican festival going on so Shizuka and I grab some food and chat while we wait for the others, who then also need to grab food and stuff when they arrive! So it isn’t until about 2pm the we wander off to check out the Gundam. Josh surprised Stacey as well by proposing to her under the statue using a gummy ring (even though they’ve already been married for 9 years. The gummy ring is a reference to the last time they were in Japan together in high-school).

We then check out the Gundam model exhibit on the 7th floor of the department store but Shizuka and I were so tired we accidentally fall asleep outside it while sitting down. We decided to get caffeine and sugar in the form of cola before heading off to check out the 3rd department store which has Lego Land and some very stereotypical Japanese tourist shops. It gets pretty late at that point and after munching on some okonomiyaki (and me falling asleep at the table), we head back. But on the way the NHK building in Odaiba starts to light up and play music so we watched that before going back. Gabe arrived at our place late that evening though

Day 3 (today) I woke up tired and achy and snotty and just blaaarrrrggg. The combination of lack of sleep and jet-lag and possibly don’t drinking much water in the humid hot weather, mean I had a cold. Wes and Gabe, bless them, went out and got be some medicine and food, and combined with a 30min nap while they were out, meant I recovered some HP and was able to shower and get ready. The rest of the day was fine though as I drank whenever my throat was dry and ate snacks and took the medicine with every meal. I WISH THE UK HAD JAPANESE COLD MEDICINE! It’s seriously amazing stuff that works sooo much better than the UK’s ones.

So once I’d recovered a bit we met up with people at Jimbocho, an area that has the second-hand book district, but not many people were interested in that so we went to Yasakuni shrine instead. There was even a flea market at the shrine (which we didn’t expect) and I found a kimono with the Takanoha crest on that I’d seen the other day (I also saw it in the shrine). One weird thing though was the number of old military uniforms being sold at the flea market, but I suppose most people who go to Yasakuni do so to pray to family or people in general who have died in wars in the past, so they would have an interest in uniforms maybe?

We then walked all the way to Akihabara and spent the rest of the afternoon and evening there. It was surprisingly tiring going shopping and up and down stairs looking at all the shiny things. I ended up getting a stupid amount of small phone charm figurines from gashapon machines (they were so cheap though). Aaaaand then everything went downhill when I found two relatively cheap figurines that I may have spent a lot of money on… It was a good haul, although I don’t plan to spend any more money in Tokyo expect on food and transport.

We finished off with tonkotsu for dinner and split the group into arcade people (me, Gabe, Ben) and karaoke people (Wes, Max, Josh and Stacey). I still have my cold but fingers crossed the medicine works tomorrow and all will be well.

Sunday, 7 September 2014

Reunion Trip to Japan 2014

In 2010-2011 I went to Kansai Gaidai in Osaka for my year abroad in university. While there I met some amazing people from all over the world (mostly the US) who have been great friends despite the long distance. Last year we decided to arrange a reunion in Japan because so many people were out there already and the rest of us wanting to visit. (Although the original plan was that I'd already be living there). So with the help of the wonderful Gabe we arranged a week in Kyoto with some people from Gaidai. Sadly not everyone could make it.

Wes and I also took this opportunity to visit Tokyo (which he's never seen) and see friends of his who have been travelling around the world for the last 6 months (who has a blog about his travels and food call Culinary Sojourn).  So it will be the two of us, and his best friends Josh, Ben (who have been travelling) and Stacey (Josh's wife), as well as Gabe.

This is happening this Thursday which is crazy because I'm also moving to London on Tuesday in preparation for my MA in Japanese Translation which starts the Monday after I get back!

This is the first time I am going to Japan for pure holiday purposes rather than for study or work and I hope to post regular brief updates of our 2 week adventure as they happen. At the same time I hope to be doing some posts on Japanese culture, language and a guide to visiting Japan for 2 weeks called Japan Hacks on my Japanese Language site Japanese Talk Online.

As a quick introduction this is our rough plan for the next two week!


Thurs 11th - [Ben, Josh and Stacy arrives (pm)]
Fri 12th - [Jenn arrives (am)] MEIJI SHRINE & HARAJUKU & SHINJUKU - Wes arrives (10pm)
Sat 13th - ZOJOJI and SENGAKUJI and TOKYO TOWER (am) ODAIBA (pm) - Gabe arrives (pm)
Sun 14th - JIMBOCHO book district and MUSIC INSTURMENT AVENUE (am) en-route to AKIHABARA (pm)
Mon 15th - GHIBLI MUSEUM (am?) & IKEBUKURO (pm)
Tue 16th - KAMAKURA
Wed 17th - YOKOHAMA [Ben, Josh and Stacy Leave]
Thurs 18th - a surprise day
Fri 19th - NIPPORI Textile Town (am) & ASAKUSA & SKY TREE (Asakusa Eel for dinner)
Sat 20th - [Jenn, Wes and Gabe head to Kyoto on the bullet train]


Sat 20th - Everyone arrives [check in 4pm]
Sun 21st - TOJI flea market and FUSHIMI INARI and TOFUKUJI TEMPLE (and surrounding temples)
Mon 22nd - From KINKAKUJI down the Philiosophers Path (visiting shrines on the way) to KYOMIZUDERA finishing in GION.
Tue 23rd - KANSAI GAIDAI (am) and OSAKA shopping and dinner (pm)
Wed 24th - NARA
Thurs 25th - (Imperial Palaz Photoshoot day!) NIJO Castle, TOEI KYOTO STUDIO PARK and KARAOKE PM
Sat 27th - KOBE (some people leave Sat)
Sun 28th - Everyone Leaves