A Taste of Sh旬n: River Fish

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Heading to the river to catch unsuspecting river fish (by hand!) has long been a favourite summertime activity in Japan. Other than being a good family-bonding activity while reigniting that long lost hunting instinct in mankind, river fish are also tastiest in summer when their bones are softer.

1) Ayu (sweetfish)

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Grilled salted ayu, or sweetfish, is a staple at summer festival food stalls. When thoroughly grilled, it can be eaten from head to tail. The slightly-bitter intestines lend a nice balance to its sweet flesh, and is safe to eat because river fish only inhabit clean water.

2) Yamame (kind of trout) 

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The yamame is another kind of river fish that inhabits rivers flowing from high mountains, giving rise to its name. 山女. which means mountain lady. This can also be salt grilled, or grilled with miso on a leaf, in Gifu prefecture, where it can be found.

3) Iwana (white spotted char)

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The iwana also inhabits clear rivers and streams, and can be found in places like Kamikochi, sometimes referred to as the Swiss Alps of Japan. You’re unlikely to be able to eat the sashimi of river fish in Tokyo, but if you go to where it is caught, you may be able to.

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Unlike other river fish, the iwana is often used as a flavouring for sake, known as iwana kotsu sake, or literally, iwana bone sake. After grilling, it is dunked in a fish-shaped sake container with warm sake for the fish to impart its char-grilled fragrance and umami of its oil. This is a unique way of consuming sake probably unfamiliar to non-Japanese. You have to try it for yourself to understand why there’s fish in your drink!

 

About Sh旬n:
Shun (旬) translates directly into “season”, but strictly speaking in Japan refers to the ten days in which a food (be it a fruit, vegetable, fish or dish) is deemed to be at its tastiest and best period in which it is to be eaten. 季節(kisetsu), which also translates into “season”, refers to six periods within each season (spring, summer, autumn, winter), according to the solar calendar in which a change in the season is deemed to occur – an indication of the Japanese sensitivity to changes in the weather and climate, and its impact on crops and catches of the day. 「A Taste of Sh旬n」aims to bring you the freshest and best harvests, catches and dishes of the day.

World Heritage (2): Himeji Castle

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Himeji Castle: Japanese castle architecture perfected and preserved

After 5 and a half years of renovations, Himeji Castle reopened to the public in March in blazing white glory, with not just repainted walls and new roof tiles, but even an interactive smartphone application that can guide visitors through its maze-like grounds in English. Like a majestic white heron bird with wings elegantly spread in flight – the source of its other name, White Heron Castle – this stronghold presides over Himeyama hill as a precious surviving symbol of Japan’s warring states era.

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This largest and most visited Japanese castle spans across 107 ha (or around 23 Tokyo Domes) and comprises 82 buildings. This includes complex ramparts, towering earthen walls, and its iconic ivory six-story donjon (central tower) at 46.4 meters tall.

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Two characteristics set this national treasure apart as one of Japan’s first cultural world heritage sites in 1993.

First, it is a wooden masterpiece of world-class magnificence. Its distinctive refined white plaster finish that coats everything from the eaves to the pillars, gives it a white appearance unlike other castles. Some researches speculate this has the purpose of making the tower appear larger and grander, as well as serving as a fire retardant and reinforcement for these easily destructible wooden complexes, combining creative artistry and functionality.

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Second, Himeji Castle is Japan’s best preserved and most complete original castle. While undergoing multiple renovations, its original form has been largely unaltered for over 400 years, making it a relic of incomparable worth. Nowhere else can you walk through such a vast ancient fortress, which tells the tale of Japan’s feudal past through its protective flowing moat waters, steep stone walls, and every turn in its maze-like approach.

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While the pink coloring of cherry blossoms in the spring make for a particularly splendid background, in whatever season you come, you’ll want to make your way up close to the central tower. Just remember to download the new “Himeji Castle Great Discovery Application” for video and photo explanations at eight spots throughout the area, (or for the more traditional, pick up a map at the entrance,) as it is just as easy today for tourists to get lost through this defensive labyrinth as it was for invading enemies years ago!

Himeji Castle in 1993, the year of its UNESCO registration.
Himeji Castle in 1993, the year of its UNESCO registration.

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Access: A 15-min walk from JR Himeji Station (Sanyo Main Line)

Mt. Takao, Tokyo’s Mountain Everyone Can Climb

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Mention Tokyo and psychedelic neon lights, soaring skyscrapers and quirky otaku shops might come to mind, but did you know that Tokyo also has a mountain and a countryside? As someone from the Netherlands – a country with a hill of 300 meters being the highest “mountain” of the country – a real mountain within a city is a fresh concept to say the least.

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Looking at Hachioji city from the top of Mt. Takao


While Mt. Takao’s 600 meter height is nothing to shout about (in Japan at least, though it would be in the Netherlands!) and experienced hikers might yearn for more challenge, Mt. Takao’s densely-wooded environment with picturesque temples on the way is a pleasant and peaceful hike located in one of the largest cities in the world.
While any time of the year is great, I would like to especially recommend autumn, when crimson and gold leaves magnificently color the mountain.

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From Takaosanguchi Station of the Keio Line, all roads lead to Rome, or in this case, the mountain top. There are 3 main hiking courses (with many smaller paths on the way) to take, and a cable car or chair lift can take the less-experienced hiker halfway uphill in a Tokyo minute.

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The full hike takes 1 hour and 30 minutes or more depending on the course of your choice. From the halfway point, expect about 40 minutes of hiking.

Note that in case you decide to enjoy “mountain cuisine” like Takaosan’s famous Tororo Soba on the way or stop by at the Yakuo-in temple (if you do, also check out the Aizendo behind it, which is a small temple that brings luck to your love life!), it will obviously take more time to reach the top.

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Left, Tororo Soba (Buckwheat noodles with grated yam). Right, the Yakuo-in Temple.

The breathtaking view on the mountains (with Mt. Fuji if you’re lucky) and Hachioji (the suburb in which Takaosan is located) from the top is well worth the effort, especially on a clear day. This is also one of the spots from where you can see Diamond Fuji, but only twice a year.
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Mt. Takao

Location: Takaomachi, Hachioji, Tokyo

Access: Takaosanguchi Station (Keio Line)

Editor’s Pick: Top Three “Little Edo” Streets

For a feel of what it was like to live during the Edo era, one can head to an Edo themepark, but why pay an entrance fee when you can still walk along streets almost unchanged since then? Here are three recommended Little Edo streets with kura or warehouse-style buildings for the time-travelling tourist.

1) Kawagoe Koedo, Saitama Prefecture 

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Kawagoe Koedo literally means “Little Edo” in Kawagoe town. This is one of the nearest Little Edo streets from Tokyo, just 30 minutes from Ikebukuro via an Express train. The clock tower in the center of the town called the Toki no Kane (Bell of Time) is the symbol of Kawagoe and harks back to around 40 years ago. Its melodious tone has been recognized as one of the “100 Sound Sceneries of Japan”. It rings four times daily at 6am, noon, 3pm and 6pm.

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The town prides itself on the murasaki imo (purple potato) and you can find various confectionery made of this, such as manjyu and of course, soft-serve ice cream. The Coedo craft beer、which has won several awards globally, is also a must-try.

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Be like a kid in a Show candy shop

For a taste of Showa era nostalgia while in Little Edo, there’s the Dagashi Yokocho (yokocho meaning alley, dagashi referring to sweets made for children) where you can find all sorts of small sweet treats from cigarette-shaped chewing gum, to all sorts of candy imitating “adult food” like grilled eel or pork cutlets.

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Tobacco-free cigarettes to chew on, anyone?

Access: 30 minutes from Ikebukuro on the Tobu Tojo Line Express Train bound for Kawagoe.

 

2) Inuyama Jokamachi, Nagoya Prefecture 

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Inuyama Castle is a small, unassuming castle in Nagoya Prefecture that’s statue belies its historical importance. That aside, there is a charming Edo Street at the jokamachi, which means street leading up to the castle.

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The famous product of the area has to be the world’s longest radish, the moriguchi daikon, which can grow up to 1.9m, or taller than most of the people passing by it on the streets! This radish is sold as a pickle, and that pickled flavour also takes the form of an ice-cream (no surprise there).

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Here, you will find a Showa Yokocho, or Showa Alley, reflecting the nostalgia for that era now past.

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Access: 25 minutes from Nagoya Station on the Meitetsu Line for Inuyama Station, and a ten-minute walk from the station.

 

3) Kurashiki, Okayama Prefecture 

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Kurashiki, which can roughly be translated as “warehouse town”, has a canal area dating back to the Edo era when the city served as a rice distribution center.

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Many of the beautifully-preserved, grey and white-motif warehouses have been given a new lease of life as cafes, fashion boutiques and restaurants, though some old buildings still serve their original purposes as soya sauce retailers and rice wholesalers.

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Kurashiki is popular with Japanese ladies going on joshitabi (ladies’ trip).

 

So signature is the kura-style architecture to the town that even the vending machines blend in!

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Access: 17 minutes from Okayama Station via the Sanyo Honsen bound for Kurashiki Station.

 

Awa Odori: Japan’s Biggest Dance Festival

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“It’s a fool who dances and a fool who watches! If both are fools, you might as well have fun dancing!”

The lyrics to the Awa Odori’s thematic “Fool’s Song” are a fitting invitation to join Japan’s largest dance festival, where it is said that as long as you can raise your hands and move your feet forward you are doing the 400-year-old folk dance.

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Every year on Aug. 12-15, Tokushima city (formerly known as Awa) in Tokushima Prefecture turns into a huge dancing platform. Numerous dancing groups (“ren”) from around the country and even overseas descend upon this usually sleepy small town for this summer matsuri that welcomes the souls of ancestors during the Bon season.

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Men wear what’s called a happi coat, don a headcloth in the stereotypical manner of a thief and dance in exaggerated motions – sometimes the drunk, and sometimes playing the fool, while women cut a much more elegant figure in a yukata and crescent-moon shaped straw hat with graceful rhythmic motions. Selected professional groups perform on elaborate indoor stages during the daytime, and there are temporary outdoor enbujo or performance stages set up throughout the city.

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The highlight of this festival is in the evening when the city center streets start pulsing with thousands of frolicking dancers adorned in colorful yukata uniforms moving as one across parks, closed-down streets and plazas. Feel your pulse raise in tune to the hypnoptic cries of “Erai yatcha erai yatcha yoi-yoi-yoi-yoi!” resounding across the city, accompanied by gongs, beating drums and the tunes of flutes and shamisen.

Choose from paid or free viewing locations to watch and snap this revelry, or several Odori Hiroba (dance plazas) where you can feel the energy as you circle around the dancers up-close, and even an Odori Road along which groups dance their way from stage to stage.

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Yet as the lyrics of the song suggest, the best way to participate in the heated excitement is by taking to the streets yourself and become a dancing “fool”!

Awa Odori

Date: Aug. 12 to Aug. 15, 2016
Location: Dances are performed at various venues including ASTY Tokushima and Tokushima Arts Foundation for Culture.
Time: 11am, 3pm and 7pm (ASTY Tokushima), 11pm, 1:30pm and 4pm (Toushima Arts Foundation for Culture).

Access: JR Tokyo Station to JR Okayama Station via Tokaido Shinkansen, JR Okayama Station to Takamatsu (Kagawa) Station via JR Marine Liner 29, Takamatsu (Kagawa) Station to Tokushima Station via Limited Express Uzushio 13. A 5-min walk from JR Tokushima Station.

Toba: A Small Fisherwoman’s Village

The home of pearls and Ama-zing female divers

Most of our readers have probably never heard of Toba, a small fishing village in Mie Prefecture, not too far from Ise Town.

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The name Mikimoto however, might very well ring a bell.
As the first to ever produce cultivated pearls, Mikimoto is one of the world’s leading pearl manufacturers to this day. Although the company might be based in Ginza, founder Kokichi Mikimoto was born in Toba, and it is here where he succeeded in cultivating pearls back in 1893. To this day, Toba is known as the town of Mikimoto, the town of Japanese pearls.

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The planting and harvesting of these pearls was originally done by Ama, or female divers in white diving suits with a wooden barrel, who plunge into the sea and harvest the ocean’s treasures without any underwater breathing apparatus. Although modern cultivation technology has taken over today, Ama can still be seen at hourly performances at the Mikimoto Pear Island, a museum where you can learn about the history of Mikimoto and pearl cultivation in general.

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In case pearls are beyond your budget, there is another way to enjoy Toba’s shellfish; eating them!

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Toba’s bay is filled with splendid fruits of the sea, ranging from shellfish as oysters and clams to Ise Ebi, or Japanese Spiny Lobster.
While Ama are no longer involved in the cultivation of pearls, they are still active as fishers to this day. As the only country with active skin-diving fishers along with Korea (which has a similar tradition), the Ama deserve to be treated as a unique culture, so let’s hope that there are many new generations of Ama to come.

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At the restaurant street in front of Toba station, there are several casual restaurants where you can try out amazing seafood freshly caught by Ama (or just regular fishermen) for a reasonable price.

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Enjoy the local atmosphere while savoring the freshest clams that take you on a journey to the bottom of Toba’s sea.

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Upper left: Large clams Upper right: Oyster

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Location: Toba, Mie Prefecture

Access from Ise: From Iseshi Station, take the Yamada Line and transfer to the Toba Line at Ujiyamada Station (A 16-min trip).

 

Restaurant Review: Ise Katsura

Divine Dining At The Spiritual Center Of Japan

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Ise Grand Shrine‘s outer shrine (Geku), enshrines Toyouke no Omikami, the goddess of agriculture and industry. She is enshrined here to offer sacred food to Amaterasu, the sun goddess, which is why Toyouke no Omikami is also often referred to as the goddess of food.
Being located on a 5-min walking distance from here, restaurant Ise Katsura, a restaurant of Japanese cuisine especially renowned for its sushi, just has to be divine!

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Its entrance alone already makes it seem like a restaurant for the gods

We ordered a gorgeous seasonal course (a summer course in this case) of 5,000 yen per person that included Japanese classics as sushi, sashimi and tempura of the freshest seasonal ingredients from the region.
For an additional 1,000 yen per person, we savored Ise Ebi, or Japanese Spiny Lobster which was already known as an Ise specialty during the Edo period.
In the old days, it was served either boiled or grilled, but today, a large variety of preparation methods exist.
Our Ise Ebi at Ise Katsura was served as sashimi, yes, raw lobster! It was my first time to eat lobster raw, and it was so fresh from the sea that its legs were still trying to swim on!

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Raw lobster, something you won’t often see outside of Japan!
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Wonderful dishes just came and came
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An assortment of fresh sashimi consisting of tuna, yellowtail, sea bream, octopus and squid
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Tempura of fresh vegetables from the region and chewy shrimp
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These sushi of tuna, conger-eel and flatfish were so delicious they made me detest conveyor belt sushi back in Tokyo which I normally enjoy
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The course ended with a delicate creamy pudding!

In case luxury dining isn’t your thing, Ise Katsura also has a takoyaki stand in front of its restaurant for street food fanatics. Besides from regular flavors, you can also chose for a special Ise Takoyaki sauce only to be found at Ise Katsura!

If you love fresh seafood: ★★★★★
If you are afraid of lobsters that try to swim on table: ★★☆☆☆ (it wasn’t trying that hard)

Restaurant Information

Name: Ise Katsura

Price range: 5,000 – 6,000 yen (dinner)

Location: Honmachi 17-6, Ise, Mie Prefecture

Access: A 3-min walk from Ise Station (JR Sangu Line)

Sun, seafood and soy sauce in Choushi City, Chiba

Often bypassed on the way to Tokyo from Narita airport, Choushi City in the Chiba prefecture (which if you didn’t already know, is where Narita City/Airport is) has lots to offer.

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Inubosaki, the tip of the Choushi peninsular, is where the Japanese go to see the earliest first sunrise of the New Year. But there are plenty of other reasons to visit the fishing and onsen town in Chiba Prefecture all year round – especially for some summer sun, sand and seafood.

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For one, fans of nostalgic retro trains will love the Choushi Dentetsu, or Chouden for short. It’s a quaint two-carriage train that connects the JR Choushi station to Inubousaki and other stations running along the cape.

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The nostalgic Choshi Dentetsu
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The Chouden takes you from Choushi Station to Inubosaki.

There are all-day passes you can buy to take the Chouden to travel to various attractions, such as the fishing market and aquarium. Inubousaki is famed for its lighthouse which is still in use, and recalls the peninsular’s historical importance as a trading port.

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Another attraction next to the lighthouse is the Inubosaki Marine Park of which the highlight is the dolphin show.

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For some reason a baby dinosaur greets you at the entrance of the Marine Park…

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A must-try at Choushi is the maguro, or tuna, freshly brought in from their harbours. There are several seafood restaurants right next to the fish market for you to sample the treasures of the ocean at a reasonable price – compared to Tokyo, which is just two hours away by express train.

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The fact that Chiba is the hometown for most of the famous soy sauce brands in Japan such as Kikkoman and Higeta also complements its seafood scene.

And don’t forget to try the arajiru – or fish stock soup – that is famous in Choushi. All the essence of the day’s catch are extracted into the flavoursome miso-based fish soup.

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Of course, after a good meal, what better way to sit back and digest than in an onsen. There are several onsen hotels and ryokans at Inubousaki where you can stay, or just take a dip for the day. Check out www.choshi-ryokan.jp for information on which hotels offer day-trip onsens.

So next time you are on the way into or out of Japan, don’t forget to explore Chiba Prefecture itself!

World Heritage (1): Shirakami Sanchi

downimage_00000368Shirakami Sanchi: Beech Forest Sanctuary Transcending Time

With its four distinct seasons and deep valuing of tradition, it is no wonder that Japan ranks among the top of the list of countries with numerous natural and cultural UNESCO World Heritage Sites. Recognized as superb scenic and historic areas of “outstanding universal value”, to not be familiar with these locations is to miss the heart of Japan’s beauty. So join WAttention as we introduce you to these 19 registered spots, worthy of sharing with the world.

A visit to Shirakami Sanchi, one of the world’s largest and last remaining primeval beech forests, is like travelling back in time to nature untouched by mankind.

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Sprawling across northwest Akita and southwest Aomori Prefectures, Shirakami Sanchi is an expansive mountain range reaching as high as 1,243 m, split by six rivers, and accented with steep waterfalls, and interlocking deep gorges. Yet its defining characteristic is its vast virgin beech forest, particularly the central area of 16,971 ha, registered as one of Japan’s first natural heritage sites in 1993.

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Though continental glaciation destroyed most of the world’s beech forests, the lack of such devastation in Japan, as well as the Japanese beech’s suppleness and resistance to heavy snowfall has preserved Shirakami Sanchi through the ages. Yet also responsible for the protection of this wildlife refuge are the Japanese people, whose devotion to nature has kept this ecosystem remarkably unmarred by man’s influences. A walk through its lush foliage therefore is like entering a wondrous forest museum, unchanged by time. And only within this pristine woodlands can you get a rare glimpse of over 500 precious plant species, and incredibly endangered animals, including the Japanese serow, golden eagle, and black woodpecker.

A cool trek under the shade of these towering beech trees in the summer months is the best way to explore this wonderland. For a short leisurely stroll, the popular 3 km hike along the gushing Iwaki River to Anmon Falls, a dynamic three-tier waterfall with each precipitous drop higher and more breathtaking than the previous, can be completed in just over an hour.

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Or for a more strenuous sampling of the region’s landmarks, an 8-hour rugged climb to the highest peak, Mt. Shirakamidake, begins at Aoike pond, whose mysterious blue and green hues change throughout the day.

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As such unaltered treasures become more and more scarce, this irreplaceable relic continues to transcend time, testifying not just to the majesty of Japan’s native flora and fauna, but also Japan’s reverent preservation of such splendor.

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Access: A 55-min bus ride from JR Hirosaki Station (JR Ou Main Line) to the Shirakami Sanchi Visitor Center. Get off at Tashiro (Nishimeya-murayakubamae) bus stop.

Read also : Discover the beauty of Northern Tohoku – Part Ⅱ Shirakami Sanchi

Photo Credit: Shirakami Sanchi Visitor Center, Alastair Rae, JNTO

Akafuku, Mochi Heaven

The inside out mochi

It is not exactly known when Akafuku – one of the oldest mochi (Japanese rice cake) brands still going strong today – was founded, but the oldest document referring to its existence dates back to 1707. That alone is already more than 300 years of mochi perfection by this famous Wagashi (Japanese confectionery) brand in Mie Prefecture.

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With its main branch located in Okage-cho near Ise Grand Shrine, Akafuku’s “Akafuku Mochi” is widely renowned as a specialty of the region.
Akafuku Mochi consist of sweet and smooth koshi-an (red bean paste) coated on top of a firm yet soft mochi. The paste is skilfully handpressed on each mochi to create a wavelike shape recalling the ripples on the Isuzu River. This composition is the opposite of your usual Wagashi, which has red bean paste on the inside of the mochi. Therefore, it can be said that Akafuku Mochi is to Wagashi what an inside out roll is to sushi.

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The pattern of three lines (two on the edges, one in the middle) in which the koshi-an is coated, resembles the Isuzu River which streams through Ise, right behind the Akafuku Main Branch.

Although tourists like to purchase Akafuku Mochi as a souvenir,  be sure to give it to your friends quickly as it expires after only two days. Yes, true treats have short lives, and that’s why Akafuku Mochi is best enjoyed at the Akafuku Main Branch itself, where you can sit down and have your mochi with a cup of tea.

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Except from the traditional Akafuku Mochi, you can also order a zenzai (sweet bean soup with a toasted mochi) or a portion of green tea flavor shaved ice with Akafuku mochi hidden under the ice.

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I went for the latter, and immediately found myself in a Japanese sweets paradise, especially once I discovered the mochi on the bottom of my bowl. Cooled down by the shaved ice, the mochi had an extra firmness to it, that satisfied me so much I just couldn’t stop smiling and say to myself: “Yes, this is exactly what a mochi should be”

If you like your mochi very mochi (sticky): ★★★★★

To take home to your friends: ★★☆☆☆ (Makes for a great souvenir, but does not last long enough)

Akafuku Main Branch
Location: Ujinakanokiricho 26, Ise, Mie
Access: 15-min by bus from JR Iseshi Station. A 5-min walk from bus stop Jingukaikan-mae
Price Range at the store: 300 – 600 yen
Souvenir Price Range: 700 – 1500 yen (depending on the amount)

 
Check out other mochi articles >>

Restaurant Train: Rokumon from Nagano to Karuizawa

Some people in Japan are fans of trains. Some are fans of ekiben, which means bento usually bought at train stations to be eaten on the train.

Now, there is a new breed of fans of restaurant trains – a new kind of sightseeing train that is on track for a boom in Japan. Unlike the shinkansen, or bullet railway, these are usually local trains, which means you can actually enjoy the scenery go past slowly your the window. Shinano Railway, based in Nagano Prefecture, starting running the Rokumon Restaurant Train in July last year. (Shinano is the old name for the Nagano Prefecture.)

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Rokumon Restaurant Train pulling into Nagano Station.

In case you were wondering, Rokumon – which literally means six cents – refers to the shape of the family crest of the Sanada Clan. The ochre hue of the train is a reference to the colour of the armour used by Sanada Yukimura, hailed as one of the most brilliant war strategists in the history of Japan’s Warring States Period.

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The train makes several stops along the way, and those passengers who did not opt for the full meal course (which costs 12,800 yen per peron) can get off. One of the stops is the Ueda Station, where the Sanada Clan’s castle is located. The train does slow down when it passes by the castle, but it’s of a rather humble dimension and easy to miss in a blink.

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Train staff welcoming passengers onboard
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What the dining car looks like from the outside
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There are counter seats and table seats for dining.

This is the bar counter from where drinks are served to the diners’ tables.

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And finally, the highlight of the ride, the meal on board. This was the menu of the day. The meal was prepared using local ingredients by a Japanese fine dining restaurant located in Ofuse, one of the smallest towns in the prefecture. Indeed, one of the aims of such dining trains is to promote otherwise little-known towns and their specialty produce.

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The food tastes as good as it looks and you wouldn’t imagine it was prepared on a moving train.

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And this was the dessert of the day – freshly made mochi with matcha!

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To introduce the lesser-known areas along the Shinano Line, the train makes several stops along the way.

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At the first stop, you can buy local onsen manjyu (buns filled with red bean paste) made specially as Rokumon Train souvenirs, and sample onsen tea and coffee (made with onsen water).

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There are also souvenirs available on the train.  P1010162

In one of the three carriages, there is a play area for children. The wooden balls and in fact, the wooden furniture, are all made from trees grown in the Nagano prefecture.

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There’s never a dull moment during the 2 hour ride. Just as you thought all the food has been served, an attendant comes by to distribute souvenir traditional sweets from the local town.

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And as a treat for the eyes, there is the view of Mt Asama along the way.

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And before you know it, you’re at the final stop – Karuizawa.

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This is certainly one trip where it’s as much about the journey as the destination!

For details on Rokumon:

http://www.shinanorailway.co.jp/rokumon/(Japanese only)

 

Ise Grand Shrine: Japan’s Top Power Spot

A Shrine For The Bucket List 

Since days of old, there has been a saying about the Ise Jingu, or Ise Grand Shrine: isshoni ichido wa omairi o, meaning one should worship there at least once in a lifetime. Or, in modern-day speak – a shrine for the bucket list.

 Indeed, since the Edo Period (1603-1868), 1 out of 6 people in Edo (former name for Tokyo) had traveled to Ise at least once. And that was before the days of the Shinkansen (which now takes around 4 hours), when it took 15 days to cover the 470 kilometer distance from Edo to Ise, and the same to return.

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An image of the old day pilgrimages

Consisting of 125 shrines centering around the naikū (“inner shrine”), which is dedicated to the Shinto sun goddess Amaterasu Omikami and the gekū (“outer shrine”), which is dedicated to Toyouke no Omikami, the goddess of agriculture and industry, it reminded me of Cambodia’s temple complex, Ankor Wat, which also has many temples centered around the main temple.

Why is Ise Shingu so sacred? In Nihon Shoki (“The Chronicles of Japan”), Japan’s oldest historiography, dating back to 720 AD, it is written that 2,000 years ago, Amaterasu Omikami descended from the heavens and selected Ise in present-day Mie Prefecture with its abundant and beautiful nature as her place of enshrinement.

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Toyouke no Omikami was enshrined with the purpose to offer sacred food to Amaterasu, which shows how important Amaterasu and the Naiku are to Shinto religion. Naiku is said to be the home shrine for all Japanese, and while the younger generation is losing interest, it is still a once-in-a-lifetime destination to visit for many people of the nation.

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There is a 6-kilometer distance between Naiku and Geku, so be sure to take the local bus unless you want to try out Edo-style pilgrimage, or have a comfortable pair of walking shoes. Both Naiku and Geku are in densely-wooded hills with the Isuzu river coursing through the complexes.

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Next to Naiku is Okage-yokocho, an old-fashioned shopping street with traditional wooden houses that transports one back to the Edo era. 

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The streets are full of charming restaurants, food stalls and souvenir shops. With the broad variety of products available here you might want to call it the Harajuku of ancient times!

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Although I had little time to visit all the other shrines, I did pass a few on the way. Going around town by bicycle and discovering all these gems would be an interesting activity for those who plan to stay in Ise for a longer time. 

Ise Grand Shrine

Location: Ujitachi-cho 1, Ise, Mie

Access to Ise: From Tokyo Station, take the shinkansen to Nagoya, then transfer to the Kintetsu Express and get off at Iseshi Station.

Let’s Talk Subculture Vol.03: The Asia Trend Map

[WAttention X FIELDS Research Institute]
Explore the fascinating world of Japan’s subcultures with insights from the inside

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The Asia Trend Map: Forecasting the spread of subculture

Watch out Naruto! Time-traveling robotic cat Doraemon just might replace you as the most popular manga in Vietnam by this September. That is, at least according to the recently developed Asia Trend Map.

Created by Tokyo University Associate Professor Yutaka Matsuo and his Matsuo Web Laboratory Team, led by Lecturer Kotaro Nakayama, the Asia Trend Map is a website that forecasts the popularity level of over 27,000 anime, manga, and video game titles throughout 12 regions in Asia, and presents this information in an easily comprehendible fashion. Naoki Nonaka (PhD graduate student), who directly operates this website, explained to WAttention specifically how it functions.

First, data is gathered to grasp each region’s consumer needs, trends, and market maturity. Then, web data (Twitter, Wikipedia page edits, etc.) for these anime, manga and video games is collected and analyzed, based on which future trends and consumer tendencies about these titles can be predicted. Each title is assigned not only a current popularity score ranging from 1-100, but also a future score, speculating how hot or cold the title will be in the next half year. This project is done in collaboration with the Ministry of Economy, Trade, and Industry, whose “Cool Japan” initiative seeks to promote the spreading of Japanese contents overseas, including Japanese subculture titles.

Try searching your favorite manga with the Asia Trend Map, and you just might be surprised at the results. For example, though Doraemon ranks towards the top of the list in Thailand and Vietnam, it only achieves a score of 32.6 in nearby Malaysia. Or while hit manga “One Piece” just set the Guinness Record for comic series with the most copies published by a single author, it is not nearly as popular overseas, coming in at a score of less than 50 throughout most of Asia.

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But what would pique the interest of a professor at Japan’s top university to develop algorithms to track these anime, manga and video games? As household names like Pokémon and Super Mario prove, Japan’s cute characters and addictive games are continuing to spread pervasively beyond Japan’s borders. So much so, that a tool is needed to better project and measure consumer trends in the overseas market with regards to Japan’s subculture – a challenge which the Ministry of Economy, Trade, and Industry has sought to deal with. For this purpose, Matsuo’s team has collaborated with the Ministry of Economy, Trade, and Industry’s “Cool Japan” initiative, employing this new method of internet data research to provide such necessary information.

In the next couple months, perhaps Doraemon will indeed slip by Naruto – a young ninja’s coming-of-age-tale – as Vietnam’s top ranking title. Though it might seem unlikely, as this classic cat has been around for so long compared to Naruto, perhaps that’s exactly why a website that can detect such unexpected trends is needed. Having just recently launched, the Asia Trend Map is still a work in progress, aiming to improve and increase its accuracy as a forecasting website. Yet over time, as it continues to fine tune its data gathering and analysis, perhaps it will indeed prove to be a strategic tool for supporting Japan’s subculture sales across the world.

 

Check out the Asia Trend Map for yourself here: http://www.asiatrendmap.jp/en

This article was written with the assistance of Fields Research Institute, which conducts research in entertainment.

Shibamata Street Life

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Where Shitamachi culture is still intact 

Shibamata is the ideal destination for a leisurely trip back in time to Showa-era (mid-1920s to late 1980s) Tokyo. It is one of the few areas in the city where shitamachi (local downtown) culture and atmosphere are still present today.

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Along the sando (a street leading to a temple or shrine) that connects the subway station to the Shibata Taishakuten temple, a great number of nostalgic mom and pop stores as well as street food stalls ideal for window shopping or souvenir hunting can be enjoyed, and during the weekends the streets will be full with locals and domestic tourists alike.

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Be sure to try out the yummy Kusa dango (mugwort flavored sweet rice flour dumplings) at Toraya, which has been a staple store of the area for more than a century!  Toraya is famous for being an important location in popular movie series “Otoko Wa Tsurai Yo”, which mostly takes place in Shibamata.

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Check out the retro toy museum which displays nostalgic toys and candies to unleash the kid in you. It is not a coincidence that this museum is located in Shibamata, as the area and Katsushika Ward in general hosts a great number of toy manufacturers. According to the locals, Katsushika Ward used to have just as many toy and candy stores as there are convenience stores today.

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The Shibamata Taishakuten temple has been described in many classic Japanese literature works, and its authentic atmosphere will more than satisfy your hunger for historical architecture, but those with a more eccentric taste, won’t leave empty handed either.

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Another attraction in Shibamata is the traditional Japanese rowing boat you can take from here to cross the Edogawa river, and the fee is only 100 yen! You wouldn’t say that this boat is part of one of the world’s most modern, efficient and advanced transport systems.  Tokyoites are not just about creating a high-tech city, but value the old and nostalgic just as much, and that’s what’s keeping the city interesting.

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Give Shibamata a chance during your stay in Tokyo, and see how life goes by slowly in this picturesque suburb.

Spot Information

 Spot Name: Shibamata

Location: Shibamata, Katsushika

Access: Shibamata Station (Keisei Line)

Tenjin Matsuri: Osaka’s Festival of Fire and Water

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If you are in Osaka tomorrow, you can catch this rare scene of a women-only contingent carrying a 200kg mikoshi (portable shrine) at the Tenjinbashisuji Shopping Street. This is the lead up to Osaka’s Tenjin Matsuri – one of Japan’s Big Three Festivals along with Kyoto’s Gion Matsuri and Tokyo’s Kanda Matsuri.

Also known as the Festival of Fire and Water, this is like a two-day buffet spread of festivities including a dynamic street parade, rousing water procession and traditional cultural performances on floating stages, topped off with a dazzling fireworks display.

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The actual festival starts from 4am of July 24th at Tenmangu Shrine with drumming and the opening of the shrine gate, and some rites both at the shrine and on a boat on the river. After which, a parade with over 3,000 participants including drummers, paraders dressed as imperial guards on horseback, lion dancers and umbrella twirlers take to the streets from the shrine.

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After the adrenaline-charged and rowdy street procession, viewers can cool off by the river with serene performances of bunraku (traditional puppet theatre) and noh (traditional masked theater) performed on stages on the boats.

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On the second day of this festival, the excitement goes up a few notches as the Land Procession heads out from the Tenmangu Shrine towards the Okawa River.

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The highlight of this festival is no doubt in the evening when the parade transitions from land to river. The Boat Procession comprises around 100 boats for a 7km course over 2-3 hours, and ends with a fireworks display with over 5,000 bursts.

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This all-in-one matsuri which combines the elements of water and fire, day and night, noise and calm is a great way to experience the over-the-top and bigger-and-better spirit of Osaka over two days.

Tenjin Matsuri:

Date: Jul. 24 and 25, 2016
Time: Various events from July 24 4am-7pm, July 25 1:30pm-10:30pm; Land Procession: July 25 3:30pm-5:30pm; Boat Procession: 6pm-9pm; Fireworks Display: 7pm-9pm.
Address: 2-1-8 Tenjinbashi, Kita-ku, Osaka
Access: A 5-min. walk from Osaka Tenmangu Station (JR Tozai Line)

Photo Credit: (C)Osaka Convention & Tourism Bureau, (C)Japan National Tourism Organization

Speedy Sapporo Sightseeing (5): The Green Trail

Hokkaido may be Japan’s largest prefecture but it’s largest city – and capital – Sapporo is easy to get about by foot or public transport. In this 5-part series, WAttention brings you some themed strolls through Sapporo, all within 30-minutes on foot from the train station if all you have to spare is, literally, a couple of hours. 

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Just three blocks from the North Exit of Sapporo Station is the Hokkaido University, a sprawling campus with European-style architecture, a stream running through it and willow trees which will make you forget that you are in Japan.

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During the autumn, it is famous for its 380 m stretch of 70 golden gingko trees. Its poplar avenue is also a popular spot that makes for a pleasant walk.

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Inset: The signature poplar trees of Hokkaido University.

 

You will find both tourists and locals enjoying the picturesque greenery here.

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After your stroll, you can stop by the cafe and souvenir shop by the entrance and have a cuppa under the dappled sunlight terrace.

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The interior of the campus cafe

For some more green therapy, head back to the station and exit from the South this time towards the Old Government Building, also three blocks done the road.

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There is a lovely garden and pond here that you wouldn’t imagine to be in the middle of Sapporo city.

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Here you will also find flowers of the season that makes for a great photo spot.

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This marks the final post of our Speedy Sapporo Sightseeing series. 

 

Restaurant Review: Shinjuku Nakamuraya Manna

A curry love story

Any lover of authentic curry in Japan would have heard of Nakamuraya in Shinjuku, but not all may be aware of the true love story behind the blend of Indian spice and Japanese rice.  

88 years ago, a bakery named Nakamuraya in Shinjuku made a revolutionary move that would change Japanese cuisine forever – that started with giving shelter to an Indian revolutionist who fled to Japan during WWI in 1915. 

This led to authentic Indian curry being introduced to the Japanese public, marking the beginning of what would later become one of Japan’s most beloved soul foods.

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Today, restaurant Manna on the 2nd basement floor of Nakamuraya’s flagship store in Shinjuku is visited by curry lovers from throughout the country and overseas to try Japan’s oldest Indian spices. The restaurant was recently renovated and has enough seats to host over 100 people, but expect to queue nonetheless.

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Coming with Japanese white rice and pickles of cucumber and leek, Nakamuraya’s curry is clearly of Japanese style. However, with authentic Indian spices, the dish manages to maintain its roots as well. The result is a refined curry that is unlike anything else, standing right on the figurative border between Japan and India.

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Indian revolutionist Rash Behari Bose fled to Japan during WW1 in 1915. In Tokyo, Aizo and Kokko Soma gave him shelter at their bakery Nakamuraya for three months.

After the war ended in 1919, Bose returned to Nakamuraya, and married Toshiko, the daughter of the Soma family and helped the family run the bakery. Things seemed to finally have started to look up for Bose, but not for long. In 1925, Toshiko suddenly passed away at the early age of 26.

Without being able to do anything for his beloved wife, Bose decided to help her parents instead as they had been struggling with the bakery since department stores had started to gather in Shinjuku. Bose came up with the idea to attract passers-by with the scent of rich spices from his mother country. It was a huge success, and before he knew it, Indian curry had become Nakamuraya’s new specialty.
While Bose passed away 70 years ago, his warm heart can be felt through Nakamuraya’s nostalgic Indian curry even today.

 Restaurant information:

Name: Shinjuku Nakamuraya Manna

Price range: 1500 – 3000 yen

Location: Shinjuku 3-26-13 Shinjuku Nakamuraya Building B2, Shinjuku, Tokyo

Access: A 2-min walk from Shinjuku Station JR East Exit (JR Lines, Subway Lines, Odakyu Line, Keio Line)

Kichijoji, casual Tokyo

Enjoy Tokyo like a local

Voted as Tokyo’s most livable area for an impressive seven years in a row, Kichijoji is the kind of place you can be your casual self.
The streets are full of cafes, restaurants and shops just like in Shinjuku or Shibuya, but without the hustle and bustle. Instead, the pleasant Inokashira park, which is a popular destination for cherry blossom viewing during spring is on a short walking distance from the station.

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From savoring Tokyo’s most popular menchi-katsu (fried minced meat) to enjoying live performances at homey jazz-kissa (jazz cafes), Kichijoji has something for everyone.
The Sunroad shopping street boasts countless budget stores from drugstores to shoe retailers ideal for (window) shopping. The narrow alleys of Harmonica-cho are a holy ground for those that seek for cozy local restaurants and bars. Chic cafes and fancy shops can be found on the way to Inokashira Park where locals and tourists alike enjoy their day by taking a refreshing stroll.
Whatever your objective may be, Kichijoji has an answer to it.

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For a romantic date, the Inokashira Park offers the opportunity to peddle boats on its central pond. The rental fee for a normal boat is 600 yen, but for an additional 100 yen you can upgrade it to a beautiful swan boat.
A small advise to young gentlemen: don’t be stingy and impress your date by going for the swan boat!

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However, be careful as there are rumors that this date could mean the end of your relationship. Benzaiten, a god enshrined at the nearby shrine apparently gets jealous at all the happy couples once in a while and puts a curse on them! Even if this is pure superstition, is your relationship strong enough to overcome it!?

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The park also has a zoo, where Japan’s oldest and most famous elephant Hanako is comfortably spending the last years of her life after nearly 70 years at zoos in Japan ever since she was sent to Japan at the age of 2 from Thailand as a gift in 1949.

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The Ghibli Museum in Mitaka is directly connected to the Inokashira Park as well, and therefore ideal to combine with a day in Kichijoji. In case you are planning to visit the Ghibli Museum, be sure to reserve tickets before as entrance without a reservation is not possible.

Spot Information

Name: Kichijoji

Access: Kichijoji Station (JR Lines, Inokashira Line) can be reached within 20 minutes by train from Shinjuku or Shibuya

Replica Weapon Warehouse For The Cosplay Warrior

The larger than life “Dragonslayer” sword from video game Berserk.

Though the endless rows of swords along the walls might make you think the owners here are preparing for the next samurai revolution, make no mistake – this fake weapon store is for real.

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Hidden on the third floor just along Akihabara’s main Chuo Street, Busou Shoten is a replica weapon and armory store, carrying everything from ninja shuriken to medieval knight helmets to chainsaws. Whether for decoration or for actual practice fighting, Japanese or Western, historical or fictional, you won’t find a wider selection of model combat tools than here. And yes, as you would expect from a shop in Akihabara, they even have a collection of armaments inspired by anime and video game series, attracting large numbers of otaku and cosplayers (“costume players”) here.

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While certainly many children grow up make believing they’re sword-wielding samurai or gun-slinging cowboys, Japan has taken cosplay to a whole different level. While this is reflected in the growing number of costume stores and regularly occurring cosplay events devoted to dressing up, what motivates so many to get into character?

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At one recent cosplay festival, nearly all the people WAttention interviewed expressed that cosplaying is all about entering the world of their favorite anime, game, or manga series. After watching every episode, reading every series, and even purchasing all the goods they could find, they still wanted to somehow get closer to their beloved fictional character’s world. Hence, they cosplay, pretending to take on the character’s identity.

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Given such a deep enthusiasm, it’s no surprise that these cosplayers would want to get their favorite character’s garb and accessories down to the very last detail. Which is why Busou Shoten is so popular, especially among aspiring ninjas, samurai, and dragon slayers from around Japan.

The “Dominator” gun from anime series Psycho-Pass.

While you will want to check if your country allows the entry of these authentic looking items before purchasing, customers are welcome to come and just admire everything here from King Arthur’s Excalibur to the Dominator gun from hit anime Psycho-Pass. But be careful. The replicas here are so real, they just might inspire the inner cosplay warrior in you! 

The street-level doorway along Chuo Street (left) and entrance on the third floor (right).
The street-level doorway along Chuo Street (left) and entrance on the third floor (right).

Busou Shoten
Hours: Weekdays 11:30am-7:30pm, Weekends & Holidays 11am-7:30pm
Closed: Tuesdays (unless a holiday)
Address: Asano Bldg. 3F, 3-15-7 Soto-Kanda, Chiyoda-ku, Tokyo

A Taste of Sh旬n: Treasures from Miyagi

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This may look like a beating heart ripped out of some deep sea monster’s chest, but it is actually a complete sea creature in itself – known as a sea squirt, or hoya (ホヤ)in Japanese.

In fact, it is a delicacy found mainly in the Sanriku region of Japan (comprising of Aomori, Iwate and Miyagi Prefectures) facing the Pacific Ocean, and it is currently in season. But – should I say – don’t worry, it isn’t commonly seen in areas outside of the Sanriku region. And after the Tohoku earthquake in 2011, production dropped drastically and has only reached levels where there is enough to export as of this season.

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Also called the sea pineapple for its appearance, the taste is anything but fruity and said to be sweet, salty, sour and sharp at the same time – or simply said, tasting of the sea itself.

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Another seasonal delicacy, perhaps more easy to stomach for most, is the ishigaki clam or 石陰貝 (literally, stone shadow cockles) from Miyagi Prefecture. Extremely hard to find in the seabed (and at sushi restaurants outside of Miyagi) production has also just started to recover from the Tohoku earthquake and tsunami.

 

Unlike the strong tasting hoya, this cockle has a delicate sweet taste and a soft, plump texture. This is must-try for any shellfish lover and reason enough to head to Miyagi for (or befriend a fisherman there).

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Treasures from the sea like these brought by time and tide are the simple, yet rare, pleasures of life that not many outside of the region are privy to – but just perhaps, the locals prefer to keep it that way.

 

About Sh旬n:
Shun (旬) translates directly into “season”, but strictly speaking in Japan refers to the ten days in which a food (be it a fruit, vegetable, fish or dish) is deemed to be at its tastiest and best period in which it is to be eaten. 季節(kisetsu), which also translates into “season”, refers to six periods within each season (spring, summer, autumn, winter), according to the solar calendar in which a change in the season is deemed to occur – an indication of the Japanese sensitivity to changes in the weather and climate, and its impact on crops and catches of the day. 「A Taste of Sh旬n」aims to bring you the freshest and best harvests, catches and dishes of the day.

 

Restaurant Review: Kiraku

THE Shibuya Ramen

With more than 100 ramen shops originating from all over the country, Shibuya is like a giant noodle spider web.

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Hidden in the middle of this maze stands Kiraku, a ramen shop that has captured the hearts of countless foodies for over half a century.

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Established in 1953, Kiraku is Shibuya’s longest running ramen shop, and while slight adjustments have been made to keep up with modern times, the characteristics of Kiraku’s soup and noodles have remained mainly unchanged.

Little pieces of fried onion add a special touch to the traditional soy based soup, which veteran Tokyoites will find nostalgic, as a soy based soup stands synonym for the good ol’ Tokyo ramen.

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Those who like some firmness in their noodles, will be happy to know that Kiraku’s thick noodles are a true delight to chew on. Slurping them is recommended, as their smooth texture will easily take along the soup.

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Another thing that hasn’t changed much at Kiraku, is the menu and its prices. A normal ramen bowl can be consumed for a mere 700 yen, and even after adding popular toppings as beansprouts and wonton dumplings you still end under 1,000 yen.

Don’t expect top notch service or fancy interior, as providing a romantic experience is not exactly Kiraku’s priority, and the fact that the shop is located in a shabby street with love hotels on the corner cannot remain unmentioned.
However, if you go to Kiraku with the pure purpose of slurping a yummy bowl of ramen, I can assure that you will leave the shop more than satisfied.

Recommendation rate for ramen addicts: ★★★★☆

Recommendation rate for on a romantic date: ☆☆☆☆☆

Restaurant information:

Name: Kiraku

Price range: 1,000 yen

Location: Dogenzaka 2-17-6, Shibuya

Access: A 5-min walk from Shibuya Station (JR Lines, Ginza Line, Hanzomon Line, Fukutoshin Line, Keio Inokashira Line, Den-en Toshi Line, Toyoko Line)

Learn a Word: お疲れ様です

Be it the language that shapes the culture or the culture that forms the word, learn about Japanese culture through key words used in everyday speech.

お疲れさまです

Pronounced: O tsukare sama desu

Format: honorific prefix + verb + honorific suffix + desu

Meaning: Literally, “it has been tiring on you”, or “you are tired”, conveying your respect for the person’s hard work

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Why we like this word: 

This is said at to colleagues or friends before parting, and implies appreciation and acknowledgement that “It’s been tough/tiring on you, thank you”. There isn’t an 8-syllable phrase in English that conveys the same meaning in such situations. “Bye, see you tomorrow!” doesn’t come close, while making an effort to say “Thanks for today!” would sound weird if you’re seeing the same person for the rest of the working week. “Otsukaremadesu” makes you feel you deserve that after work beer…oh, and did I mention it’s also said in place of “kampai” (cheers) in such sessions?

 お疲れ様です vs ご苦労さまです(gokurosamadesu)

Both convey an appreciation for hard work done, but the latter is mainly used by people who are more senior, such as a boss to juniors. It is not advisable to use this to your boss, teacher or someone higher than you in the chain of command!

Contextually Speaking…

Japanese is a very contextual language. Otsukaresama is a versatile word that can be used in place of the usual Good Morning or Good Afternoon or Welcome Back From A Hard Day Of Sales Pitching.

This is what otsukaresamadesu can mean in various situations:

-When you email colleagues=How are you

-When someone completes a big project=Thank you for your hard work

-When you are passing by in the office=How are you

-When someone resigns=Thank you for working with us

And Otsukaresamadesu for reading this!

 

Picturesque Japan: Yakushima

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A journey to one of the world’s oldest cedar trees

With over 90 percent of Yakushima  covered by mysterious forests, this island to the south of Kagoshima Prefecture can boast of over 1,900 species and subspecies of flora.

But the one tree that it  can be really proud of is what is thought to be the world’s oldest cedar tree.

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This majestic tree is speculated to have looked over the island for between 2,500 and 7,000 years, which is why it is called the Jomonsugi, Jomon referring to Japan’s first era after the stone age and sugi being the Japanese word for cedar tree.

Little wonder then, that Yakushima island became one of Japan’s first World Natural Heritage Site in 1993, along with Shirakami-Sanchi in Aomori and Akita Prefectures.

Despite its age, the Jomonsugi was only discovered in 1966. That may sound like ages ago to some, but would be just like a blink of an eye to this ancient tree.

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Since its discovery, scientists and artists alike have been intrigued by the Jomonsugi and Yakushima, and Ghibli Studios’s epic “Princess Mononoke” comes to mind as a work of art that was inspired by the island’s magical forests.

Scientists speculate that the Jomonsugi and other flora and fauna on the island, somehow managed to survive a giant volcanic eruption of 7,300 years ago, which is said to have dramatically changed greater Kyushu’s vegetation. That could be a valid explanation, as for some reason Yakushima’s nature is significantly different from that of Kyushu.

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Although the island’s population hasn’t changed much over the years, Yakushima has become a popular tourist destination with more and more visitors that come to pay pilgrimage to this ancient tree every year, so don’t expect to be the only visitor. Especially during the Golden Week (a Japanese holiday season in May), up to 1000 people a day come to trek to the Jomonsugi, which is located at 1,280m altitude.

Be prepared for a journey that takes the average walker around 10 hours. It is worth the sweat as you pass myriads of ancient trees in obscure shapes, waterfalls and springs with amazingly clear water, and cute deer and monkeys can be spotted on the way. Still, keep in mind that this course is not recommended for inexperienced hikers.

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The epic journey to this Mother Tree starts with the Anbo Trail, which stretches along a disused railway through the forest.

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The railway first leads you to Kosugidani, a village deep in the mountains that was abandoned in 1970. Now, 45 years later, nature is slowly reclaiming the village with moss and plants growing on remains of buildings and abandoned roof tiles.

After passing Kosugidani, you reach a difficult uphill trek called the Okabu Trail leading directly to the Jomonsugi. The path is often steep, and consists of a mixture of dirt footpaths, boardwalks and wooden steps.

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Nothing beats the sense of accomplishment once you finally reach the Jomonsugi site after all the hard trekking. Leaving an impact just as massive as its trunk’s diameter of of 5m, the Jomonsugi is a sight to behold. Take your time and  be mesmerized by this ancient tree!

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Next in this series: Picturesque Japan: Unkai Terrace

Spot Information

Name: Yakushima

Access: From Kagoshima, 30 minutes by plane, 2 hours by speed boat, 4 hours by ferry.

Jomonsugi trek starting point: Arakawa-tozanguchi (reachable by car or taxi from Ambo Village)

Official Information: http://www.jnto.go.jp/eng/location/rtg/pdf/pg-708.pdf

Speedy Sapporo Sightseeing (4): The Beer & BBQ Trail

Hokkaido may be Japan’s largest prefecture but it’s largest city – and capital – Sapporo is easy to get about by foot or public transport. In this 5-part series, WAttention brings you some themed strolls through Sapporo, all within 30-minutes on foot from the train station if all you have to spare is, literally, a couple of hours. 

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A true brew classic.

 

Mention Sapporo and beer comes to mind. Especially that Sapporo Classic brew that you can only buy in Hokkaido.
Beer brewing started in Sapporo had in 1876 with the aim of boosting the economy under the Meiji Restoration. And today it continues to play that key role as well as lifting the spirits of Japan.

What better way to understand Sapporo and its eponymous tipple than a trip to the Sapporo Beer Museum.

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Hop on to learn about hop!

A 15-minute bus ride from the terminal right outside the train station takes you right to the museum’s doorstep.

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Entrance to the museum is free. Start your tour from the third floor to learn about how Sapporo Breweries first started as Hokkaido Kaitakushi Beer Brewery, the first brewery under governmental management.

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The red star was the symbol of Kaitakushi, or a movement in the Meiji era to development Hokkaido’s economy and exploit its resources. It continues to be the symbol of Sapporo today, only the colour has changed to gold.

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The museum exhibits various old bottle designs, and explains the fermentation and brewing process, as well as the development of the beer industry in Japan.

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Follow the spiral staircase down – don’t worry it’s not that’s you’re not walking straight – and you’re one floor closer to the beer hall where tasting of various brews is available.

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If you follow a free guided tour, the guide will impart the secret to pouring the perfect glass of beer – remember, the golden ratio of foam to beer is 3:7.

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Cheers to a wonderful per-foam-ance!

And finally, what everyone’s been waiting for – the sampling available at the beer hall on the first floor. Try three types of beers for 500 yen (and choose from a cheese or biscuit snack), or sample the original brew from the Meiji era for 200 yen.

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Triple tipple!
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The original economy revitalizing brew, now available at 200 yen.

At the Sapporo Beer Garden located next to the museum, you can go for an outdoor or indoor barbeque, the local version being the “jingiskan”, where marinated lamb meat is grilled over a dome shaped griddle.

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Outdoor beer gardens available during the summer and early autumn.
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The local BBQ: Jingiskan – a unique mix of seasonings that goes well with beer.

And if you like what you’ve tried, you can buy a jingiskan set for the folks back home!

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Take home a jingiskan set as a souvenir

Watch out for the final course in this Speedy Sapporo Sightseeing series: The Green Trail

 

Onsen Oasis: Dogo Onsen

Get spirited away at one of Japan’s oldest hot springs

At Dogo Onsen in Matsuyama City, Ehime Prefecture, you soak in the historic atmosphere just as much as the hot spring itself. While Matsuyama as a whole has become a vibrant, modern city, the Dogo area remains the laid-back hot spring town it has been for over 3,000 years.
It is said to be Japan’s oldest hot spring together with Nanki Shirahama Onsen in Wakayama Prefecture and Arima Onsen in Hyogo Prefecture.

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At Dogo Onsen Honkan

When stepping out of Matsuyama City’s streetcar at Dogo Onsen Station, you make a time slip to the late Meiji Era, with a quaint old Western-influenced station building and a nostalgic locomotive. Here, you can hop on the “Botchan” locomotive named after the novel by Natsume Soseki, who used to frequent the onsen when he was working nearby as a teacher. The foot baths under Japanese parasols at Hojo-en park complete the package for a classic hot spring station.

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Standing in the center of this hot spring town is Dogo Onsen Honkan, which is without a doubt the most imposing public bathhouse I have ever seen. The 1894 wooden architecture, looks gorgeous enough to be mistaken for a small castle.

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Ghibli Studio fans might notice that the building’s facade has a mystic feeling to it similar to that of Aburaya, the bathhouse in “Spirited Away”. This is not a coincidence; Ghibli Studio has acknowledged that Aburaya was roughly modeled on Dogo Onsen Honkan.

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Not only the facades have spirit in common. Much like Aburaya, the inside of Dogo Onsen Honkan is a maze with many different baths and other rooms. The two main baths go by the divine names of “Bath of the gods” and “Bath of the spirits”, but probably the most famous – and at the same time least used – bath has to be the Yushinden, a bath exclusive to the Imperial Family, which can be viewed by guests.

After you’ve had your fill of the bath, wrap yourself up in a yukata and cool-down at the tatami salon with some Japanese tea and dango (a rice-cake sweet), or observe the street view from a private room that novelist Natsume Soseki used to relax in. 

In front of Dogo Onsen Honkan, is a cozy hot spring town where one can walk around in a yukata without standing out from the crowd. Souvenir shops and restaurants fill the nearby shopping arcade, and the Dogo-Biru-Kan serves local brewed beer you won’t easily find in Tokyo, let alone your home country.

dogobeerAnother thing that you might want to note on, is that while the Dogo Onsen Honkan is by far the most popular bathhouse among tourists, locals tend to prefer to soak at the Tsubaki no yu nearby because it is cheaper and less crowded. If the Dogo Onsen Honkan is too full, how about rubbing soap and shoulders with the locals?

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*Click here for an explanation on how to take a Japanese bath for beginners!

Spot Information

Name: Dogo Onsen

Location: Dogomachi 1, Matsuyama, Ehime (Dogo Onsen Station)

Access: From JR Matsuyama Station, take the Jonan Line streetcar for Dogo Onsen Station.

Speedy Sapporo Sightseeing (3): The Seafood Lovers’ Trail

Hokkaido may be Japan’s largest prefecture but it’s largest city – and capital – Sapporo is easy to get about by foot or public transport. In this 5-part series, WAttention brings you some themed strolls through Sapporo, all within 30-minutes on foot from the train station if all you have to spare is, literally, a couple of hours. 

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One can’t leave Sapporo without having feasted on at least one seafood bowl overflowing with slices of freshly-caught and sliced raw fish and a mountain of glistening ikura and uni.

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Sample Hokkaido’s seasonal crabs at the Nijo Fish Market, which is around 10 blocks down the road from Sapporo Station’s South Exit, or an easy 20-minute stroll – with some time to stop and smell the flowers at Odori Park.

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This market is said to have begun when fishermen from Ishikari Bay first started selling their catch there over a century ago during the early Meiji Period.

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Today, due to its central location, it is popular with tourists and locals alike for seafood and souvenirs, somewhat like the Tsukiji outer market but with a much wider variety of crabs, sea urchins and ikura.

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Reward your walk here with a seafood bowl or a freshly roasted sea urchin, and buy some frozen seafood here or do that on your way back to the station at Sato Suisan Honten, which is right in front of the Sapporo Station – and where you will see a lot of local housewives sampling the latest offerings.

 

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Here, you can try their ikura in various original flavours – salt or spicy mentai, instead of just the usual shoyu, as well as all their products – including salmon sausages, seafood pate, roasted fish, etc. They’ll help you ice-pack your seafood souvenirs to last your journey, or if you can’t wait that long, buy a handmade onigiri here or bento for the train or plane ride back!

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Next up in this series: The Beer & BBQ Trail

A nostalgic ride in a modern city

Don’t lose track on Tokyo Toden’s last streetcar

Until the late sixties, Tokyo Toden was one of the most complicated streetcar networks in the world. Streetcar tracks could be seen anywhere in the city much like in my hometown Amsterdam today. In Tokyo Toden’s golden years, close to 100 lines ran through Tokyo on a total of 41 routes.

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Today, Tokyo still boasts one of the (if not, THE) most complicated transport networks in the word, but Toden’s streetcars are hardly part of it anymore.
However, although most tourists are unaware of it, one persistent streetcar refuses to go off tracks, the Arakawa Line to be precise.

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Running from Waseda to Minowabashi, the Arakawa Line is a nostalgic ride through a modern city. While the majority of its 12 kilometer long track covers old-fashioned shitamachi townscapes, it runs right through the hustle and bustle of Ikebukuro and Otsuka as well.

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With interesting stops like Oji and Machiya, the charming Arakawa Line offers enough to keep you busy for at least a day, if not more. Hop on with the one-day economy pass available for 400 yen and venture into a deep Tokyo that is left undiscovered by most tourists.

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Toden Arakawa Line

One-day economy pass fares: 400 yen (adults) 200 yen (children from 6 to 11)
URL: http://www.kotsu.metro.tokyo.jp/eng/services/streetcar.html

Spicy Ramen Walker: Shibuya

WAttention Tokyo’s editor Tor Ching Li went to three popular ramen restaurants and demanded the spiciest they had to offer to gauge how spicy Tokyo’s ramen is to the Singaporean palate.

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Moukotanmen Nakamoto 蒙古タンメン中本

Serving up umakara (spicy but yummy) ramen since 1968, Moukotanmen Nakamoto now has 15 stores throughout Tokyo and is famous amongst ramen-lovers here. I ordered the miso-based Hokyoku Ramen which Nakamoto rates at a spiciness of 9, and upped it to the max of 5 times of that. “Will I die?” I asked staff. “It’s quite spicy,” he said, deadpan. For the full Nakamoto experience, I ordered the mabo tofu and rice set add-on.

The thick, curly noodles went well with the tasty soup – or should I say, gravy. The supposedly spicy mabo tofu was like an almond tofu dessert to me after finishing this!

The fiery red soup stings the nose at first and leaves your lips and tongue (and later, stomach) on fire, but is actually quite tasty and I managed to finish this. This really is quite umakara, and I can see why some people crave this. For Singaporeans who train their heat tolerance regularly with chili padi, this would be a doable (but sweaty) walk in the park. (Warning: Be prepared to feel lightheaded afterwards.)

Ching Li’s Chili Rating: 7/10

Shop Info:

Address: 2-6-17 Dogenzaka Shibuya-ku Tokyo, Toho Cinema Shibuya B2F

Phone: 03-3462-1236

Hours: 11am – 11pm everyday

Website: www.moukotanmen-nakamoto.com (Japanese)

 

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Mount. Chili Powder

Ramen Nagi Butao

Level 1’s spiciness is in the regular mee rebus or mee siam comfort zone. But Level 100 is not food. It’s an experiment on how much chilli powder it takes to absorb a bowl of pork broth. Best avoided unless challenged!

Ching Li’s Chili Rating: Off the scale/Infinte chillis

Shop info:

Address: 1-3-1 Higashi Shibuya-ku, Kaminito Bldg 1F

Phone: 03-3499-0390

Hours: Mon-Sat: 11am – 3am; Sun and national holidays: 11am – 9pm

Website: www.n-nagi.com (Japanese)

 

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No sweat lah

Hokkaido Ramen Santouka

This chain, harking from Hokkaido, also has 2 outlets in Singapore.

Shibuya and Harajuku are the only outlets to offer Akakara Tsukemen, or literally, Red Spicy Tsukemen. The thick noodles are smothered in chilli oil and come with a spicy miso-based dip. This would be a good entry level dish for the heat intolerant – though some may find it a bit lacking in character and taste.

Ching Li’s Chili Rating: 1/10

Shop Info:

Address: 3-13-7, Shibuya, Shibuya-ku, Gojo bldg 1F, Tokyo

Phone: 03-3797-3500

Hours: 11am – 12 midnight everyday

Website: www.santouka.co.jp/en

4 hotel pools in Tokyo to escape the summer heat

Swimming and sunbathing in Tokyo’s concrete jungle

Now that the rainy season has come to an end, the hot and muggy summer is here to stay for the next few months. Escaping the heat by leaving Tokyo for cool summer retreats is one option, but if you will be too busy sight-seeing (or working if you are a permanent resident), we recommend you at least find some time to cool down in one of these Tokyo hotel pools that are open to the public. Keep on making those crawl strokes to burn the calories you gained savoring local cuisine, have a relaxing sunbathing session with a cocktail while gazing at the overwhelming urban landscapes, or have a romantic night swim with magnificent light-ups. It’s up to you.

1. Keio Plaza Hotel Tokyo Sky pool

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Located in the middle of Shinjuku’s skyscraper district, Keio Plaza Hotel Tokyo’s Sky Pool is about as urban as pools get. How about a romantic evening swim with city lights everywhere around you?

Address: Nishi-Shinjuku 2-2-1, Shinjuku, Tokyo
Access: A 1-min walk from Tochomae Station Exit B1 (Toei Oedo Line)
Hours: 9 am – 8 pm
Price Range: 1,200 – 6,000 (See URL for detailed prices)
URL:  http://www.keioplaza.com/facilities/rate_2015.pdf 

2. Tokyo Prince Hotel Garden Pool

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If sunbathing with Tokyo Tower next to you has always been your dream, Tokyo Prince Hotel’s Garden Pool is all you could wish for.

Address: Shiba-koen 3-3-1, Minato, Tokyo
Access: A 1-min walk from Onarimon Station Exit A1 (Toei Mita Line)
Hours: 10 am – 6 pm
Price Range: 6,000 – 10,000
URL:  http://www.princehotels.com/en/tokyo/swimming-pool

3. Hotel East 21 Tokyo Garden Pool

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Swim like a princess (or prince) in Hotel East 21 Tokyo’s gorgeous Garden Pool that is surrounded by a 19th century European style garden.

Address: Toyo 6-3-3, Koto, Tokyo
Access: A 7-min walk from Toyocho Station Exit 1 (Tozai Line)
Hours: 9 am – 6 pm
Price Range: 6,000 – 13,000
URL:  http://www.hotel-east21.co.jp/en/

4. ANA InterContinental Garden Pool

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Not satisfied with your hotel bathtub? How about a swim through ANA InterContinental’s spacious Garden Pool in the midst of Roppongi’s overwhelming skyscrapers and modern architecture?

Address: Akasaka 1-12-33, Minato, Tokyo
Access: A 5-min walk from Roppongi-itchome Station Exit 3 (Namboku Line)
Hours: From June 27 to July 24 and from September 1 to September 30, 8 am – 7 pm. From July 25 to August 31, 8 am – 9 pm
Price Range: 7,000 – 13,000 (See URL for detailed prices)
URL:  http://www.anaintercontinental-tokyo.jp/e/facilities/pool.html

Picturesque Japan: The Tottori Sand Dunes

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Sand, camels, and…a refreshing sea breeze

Surrounded by rippled sand dunes that sparkle with the reflection of the sun, you mount a camel and gaze upon what looks like an oasis in the far distance. Strangely enough though, you are not in a desert. And yes, you are still in Japan.

While featuring practically everything one expects from a desert, the Tottori Sand Dunes fail to officially qualify as one.

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The total size of the Tottori Sand Dunes is about the same as 140 baseball stadiums. That may sound like quite a lot, but unfortunately falls short to qualify as a real desert. The Sahara Desert for example, is 24 times the size of whole Japan!

Everyone knows that deserts are supposed to be dry. This is due to a serious lack of rain and the absence of a sea or river in the area. The Tottori Sand Dunes, however, are located right next to the Japan Sea (yes, that’s the oasis I was talking about)…another fatal flaw in the pursuit of being a true desert-ness. 

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Though the sand may look dry on the surface, if you start digging, you will notice that this is in fact nothing more than some “desert makeup”, as the sand becomes watery after just a few digs. So, point taken, the Tottori Sand Dunes may look like a desert, but only on the surface, literally.

Still, it is easy and a lot of fun to pretend. You get to experience the whole package including camels and an oasis without having to worry about dehydration! And Tottori, which is the least populous prefecture in Japan, can still pride itself on having more sand than any other prefecture in Japan. 

Next in this series: Picturesque Japan: Yakushima

Spot Information

Name: Tottori Sand Dunes

Location: Fukube-cho Yuyama 2164-661, Tottori, Tottori

Access: A 20-min taxi-ride from Tottori Station (JR West).

Café Crawl: Meikyoku Kissa Lion

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A sip of Showa in modern Shibuya

Step inside Meikyoku Kissa Lion, and for a moment you might think you’ve mistakenly entered a church, or an aged music theatre. But at this 89-year old iconic “classical music café”, long-time faithful patrons aren’t just willing to wait quietly for their drip-brewed coffee; some even wait for their favorite seat.

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While coffee and classical music may not seem like the typical combination for a café theme, Tokyo was once filled with these meikyoku kissas (“classical music cafes”). Throughout the Showa era, especially during the 1950s, many would gather at these cafes to enjoy a cup of coffee or tea while listening to a wide collection of classical music records – not so affordable for individuals to purchase back then. And while customers could look forward to requesting their favorite tunes to be played, more than anything they anticipated the dynamic concert-like experience that the custom-made speaker systems offered. Indeed, such high quality sound systems became the bragging points of these meikyoku kissas.

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Originally established in 1926, then rebuilt in 1950 after being burned down during the war, Meikyoku Kissa Lion sits as a landmark along the back alleys of Shibuya’s Dogenzaka as one of Tokyo’s last standing meikyoku kissas. And while it is proud of its gourmet drip coffee, a secret learned three generations ago from London’s Lion Bakery, it is equally as proud of its collection of over 5,000 classical music LPs, streaming throughout the day from its towering custom-built 3D sound system. So much so, that not only are nearly all the plush velvet seats on both floors facing towards the giant mounted wooden speaker cabinets in theater-like fashion, but customers are also asked to keep their voices down, to provide the best possible listening environment.

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Yet in an age when Starbucks-type chains have chased out numerous mom-and-pop cafés, and in a city characterized more by idol bands like AKB-48 than composers Bach and Beethoven, how does Meikyoku Kissa Lion manage to not only retain its loyal customers, but even attract a new generation, like some of the young students from Tokyo University’s nearby Komaba Campus who come early to get the best seats?

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It is because Meikyoku Kissa Lion preserves the nostalgic ambience of the once thriving Showa era meikyoku kissa, nearly extinct in upbeat Shibuya today. From its aging furniture, to its dimly lit chandeliers and chipped wooden pillars, time stands still at Meikyoku Kissa Lion. And beyond its visual appearance, hearing the unique timbre of these classical masterpieces from vinyl records over the large wooden loudspeakers here is an audial experience that Tokyoites continue to seek, whether they come with their favorite book, a sketchpad, or just a pair of listening ears.

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So come and immerse yourself in the antique atmosphere here. While you won’t find any food items other than ice cream on the menu, you will find a wide selection of drinks. For 550 yen, not only can you get a good strong cup of hot coffee, but even more so, a taste of Shibuya’s yesteryear.

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Meikyoku Kissa Lion
Hours: 11:00am – 10:30pm (Last Order 10:20pm)
Address: 2-19-13 Dogenzaka, Shibuya, Tokyo

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A Taste of Sh旬n: Eat The Eel Day

Just surviving on somen, shaved ice or salad when your appetite is suppressed by the hot and humid Japanese summer is bound to leave one listless – which is why the Japanese believe in boosting their stamina a couple of times during the summer with the consumption of eels, or unagi. This special day is called the natsu no doyo no ushi no hi, which falls on July 30.

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Before

While the origin of this “eat the eel” day seems to have stemmed from a clever PR campaign by an unagi restaurant back in the Edo era, the eel has been part of the Japanese diet since the 7th century. And the long, slimy sea creature is indeed packed with protein, Vitamin A, Omega 3 fatty acids, EPA, DHA, etc.

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After

But most importantly, the eel, when prepared by Japanese chefs, tastes heavenly. The fragrance of grilled eel wafting in the air alone is enough for one to eat a bowl of rice with (as some unagi fans say).

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Scratch and sniff

The most common way of preparing the eel is the kabayaki, where the eel is split down the back, as done in Kanto (eastern Japan/Tokyo), or down the belly, as in Kansai (western Japan/Osaka), then skewered and dipped in a sweet soy sauce-based sauce and grilled.

Why this deviation? Splitting the eel down the stomach – akin to seppuku, or the ritual suicide by the samurai – was deemed inauspicious in Edo, or old Tokyo, which was the seat of samurai power. In the merchant city of Osaka, however, it is considered good to “talk with your stomach open” – that is, being frank and straight speaking.

And there is one more polar difference – in Kanto, the unagi is first steamed, then grilled to remove some of the fat for softer flesh. In Kansai, the unagi is not steamed, and hence more fatty and chewy. So now you have an excuse to try the unagidon (eel rice bowl) in both Tokyo and Osaka!

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In Nagoya, a prefecture situated in between these two perpetual rival cities, the unagi is prepared in an even more elaborate way – the hitsumabushi, where the enjoyment of the unagi is tripled by a step-by-step eating process.

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The unagi comes already finely sliced, and is to be first savoured on its own. Then, you add the condiments of wasabi, sliced spring onion and seaweed, and eat it with that accent of flavours.

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Lastly, tea is poured into the bowl for a luxurious ochazuke (or “soaked in tea”) dish. All the essence of eel and condiments combine for a flavoursome punch that, after the first gulp, almost always draws a sigh of contentment from the diner. (Yes, like that sigh of heavenly relief when the Japanese first dip in an onsen…)

And, while not so common, unagi can be eaten as sashimi – sliced finely like the fugu – in Hamamatsu Prefecture which is famous for its unagi production.

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The natural oils of the unagi give its raw flesh an exquisite rich yet clean taste, with a slightly chewy texture not unlike the fugu.

Saving the best for last, one can’t claim to have tasted unagi without also savouring its “kimo”, or liver.  The creamy yet slightly springy texture and mildly bitter aftertaste (that goes well with sake) makes it a much sought-after delicacy – be sure to order this if it’s on the menu as not all restaurants serve it.

So, let the Eat The Eel Day countdown begin!

 

About Sh旬n:
Shun (旬) translates directly into “season,” but strictly speaking in Japan refers to the ten days in which a food (be it a fruit, vegetable, fish or dish) is deemed to be at its tastiest and best period in which it is to be eaten. 季節(kisetsu), which also translates into “season,” refers to six periods within each season (spring, summer, autumn, winter), according to the solar calendar in which a change in the season is deemed to occur – an indication of the Japanese sensitivity to changes in the weather and climate, and its impact on crops and catches of the day. 「A Taste of Sh旬n」aims to bring you the freshest and best harvests, catches and dishes of the day!

 

 

Japan’s No.1 Restaurant As Rated By Local Foodies

“If someone would have told me to dance, I would have probably been spinning around the restaurant like a crazy man”

-a tabelog reviewer lucky enough to have dined at Yanagiya

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Don’t let the unassuming facade of Yanagiya deceive you. Restaurants like these don’t need a signboard – especially when it’s edged out Michelin-starred establishments to clinch the top-spot on the “Japan’s Top 100 restaurants” by Tabelog, Japan’s definitive online restaurant rating community.

tabelogengWhile anyone with an account (you can register for free) can place a review for a restaurant and rate it with 5.0 as the highest score,  Tabelog (食べログ) works out an overall score for each restaurant such that the rating of a foodie with more reviews carries more weight.

So revered is the system that “What’s the tabelog score?” is a common question in Japan when you recommend a restaurant.

With a score of 4.6 points – the highest score ever on tabelog – you know you’re in for a treat at Yanagiya, a restaurant hidden in the deep mountains of Gifu Prefecture that mainly serves wild game caught in the area.

Now, before you pack your stuff and leave for Gifu Prefecture, read on as there are quite a few factors that make Japan’s highest ranked restaurant difficult to approach.

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1. Accessibility 

Yanagiya is located in the mountains of Mizunami City, Gifu Prefecture. Even from Mizunami Station (the most nearby station) a taxi-ride to the restaurant takes 20 minutes.

2. Reservation

This is a reservation-only restaurant. Since a charcoal fire has to be made on the restaurant’s Irori (a traditional Japanese hearth constructed in the floor), reservations can only be made for 4 customers or more.

3. Price Range

Since you are getting Japan’s very best, the prices are not cheap. Expect to spent between 15,000 yen and 20,000 yen per person.

4. Ichigensan Okotowari

This is a Japanese phrase that means “No first time customers”. You need a proper introduction from someone that has been to Yanagiya before to be able to make a reservation.

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Although these factors make one’s chance of actually visiting Yanagiya sound minimum, and you may hate me for it, here’s a spoiler of what you will be missing until you meet someone with the right connections.

The wild game caught varies from day to day, so what you get is a surprise until the day you visit. However, tabelog reviewers all agree on that whatever it might be, it is worth the effort to get there. Here are some examples of what one can expect, with translated comments from tabelog reviewers.

Ayu (鮎、Sweetfish)

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Comment from tabelog: “The soft and full flesh’s elegant savory smell was amazing. Starting with the head, sinking my teeth in this fantastic sweetfish is an experience I will never forget”

Uribo (うり坊, Wild Boar Piglet)

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Comment from tabelog: “Any prejudice of boar meat being tight and having a bad smell will completely disappear once you savor Yanagiya’s wild boar piglet”

Kojika (仔鹿, Venison Loin)

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Comment from tabelog: “While being a juicy, fatty piece of meat, this venison loin was not greasy one bit.”

Koguma (小熊, Young Bear)

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Comment from tabelog: “The flavor that spreads through your mouth like butter when chewing, is so rich in taste you will not want to swallow it.”

Unagi (鰻, Eel)

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Comment from tabelog: “Very rich in taste! Grilled without making it greasy, but powerful nonetheless.”

Kamonabe (鴨鍋, Wild Duck Hot Pot)

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Comment from tabelog: “Just look at it! This duck hot pot with plenty of fresh spring onions. What a perfect combination. This hot pot possesses the power to make anyone happy.”

Excited yet? Allow me to end this article with a sentence by a tabelog reviewer on Yanagiya that had a lasting impression on me.

“If someone would have told me to dance, I would have probably been spinning around the restaurant like a crazy man”

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Spot Information:

Name: Yanagiya

Address: Suecho-mashizume 573-27, Mizunami, Gifu

Access: 20-min by taxi from Mizunami Station (JR Tokaido Chuo-Line)

Price Range: 15,000 – 20,000 yen

Speedy Sapporo Sightseeing (2): The Flower Lovers’ Trail

Hokkaido may be Japan’s largest prefecture but it’s largest city – and capital – Sapporo is easy to get about by foot or public transport. In this 5-part series, WAttention brings you some themed strolls through Sapporo, all within 30-minutes on foot from the train station if all you have to spare is, literally, a couple of hours. 

 

 

Mention Sapporo and the colour white comes to mind – snow, ice sculptures, White Lover cookies and the Maruyama zoo polar bear. But the capital of Hokkaido is equally breathtaking, if not more, when coloured by a palette of flowers.

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The former Hokkaido Government Building, aka “Akarenga”.

Start your floral adventure from the former Hokkaido Government Office Building, fondly called the “Akarenga”, referring to the red brick building. This is just two blocks down from the Sapporo Station.

In the spring, one can see the pastel purple blooms of the lilac, Sapporo’s official tree. In the autumn, there is the chrysanthemum festival, and at other times, you can head to the Odori Park for the blooms of the season.

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The Odori Park stretches across 12 blocks, perpendicular to the Sapporo Station. It starts with the Sapporo TV Station at the Nishi 1-chome grid and goes on to the former Sapporo Court of Appeals, another grand old dame – but I digress from our petaled pals.

From the Akarenga, keep on walking in the southward  from the Sapporo station. Along the way, you may find some lovely flowers lining the pathway.

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Excuse me, but are you Lavendar by any chance?

If you’re lucky, you may find a flower festival or competition going on at the park. From 27 June to 5 July, there was Flower Festa 2015 Sapporo, with various flower displays at the Odori Park.

 

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The Sapporo Star

Look familiar? This arrangement depicts the North Star, which is popularly known as the logo mark of Sapporo Beer, but it is also in the Sapporo City’s official city logo mark, taken from the symbol of the pioneers of the Kitanokuni, or Country in the North. collage-2015-07-09 (2)

 

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So if you don’t have the chance to head to Furano for the lavender fields, you can still enjoy blooms of the season just a a few blocks down the road from Sapporo station – and have time to spare to head to the local crab market for some fresh seafood! But that’s for the next installment of this series.

Next up: Speedy Sapporo Sightseeing (3): The Seafood Lovers’ Trail

 

Nostalgic Pottering in Yanesen Part 2

Shitamachi roaming by bicycle

Last time we left off at the Nennekoya. Get on your tokyobike as it’s time to potter on! (For part 1, see “Nostalgic Pottering in Yanasen Part 1“)

Nezu Shrine

With a history of 1,900 years, the Nezu Shrine is one of Tokyo’s oldest shrines, and perfectly matches the nostalgic color of the neighborhood. We recommend you get off your bicycle here, so that you can enter the shrine and enjoy its garden.

Information:
Location: Nezu 1-28-9, Bunkyo, Tokyo
Hours: 9 am – 5 pm

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Hebimichi

After passing the Nezu Shrine, you will come to a narrow road with many twists, which is called Hebimichi, or Snake Road. But why is it twisted like this? Apparently, the street used to be a river called Aizomegawa. That river is now long gone, but the street takes the exact same shape!

Information:
Location: Yanaka 2, Taito, Tokyo

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Shops near the Aizome Bridge

Keep-on twisting along the snake road which has many fancy shops to check out, and you eventually arrive at an intersection called Aizomebashi, or Aizome bridge, also referring to the river that used to run through here. 
There are 3 shops near this intersection that absolutely burst in character.
Coffee Ranpo’s owner has a love for cats and jazz, and it shows!
Selling beautiful Japanese paper-crafts, Isetatsu has been around since 1864.
Shokichi is the atelier of Mitsuaki Tsuyuki, a talented artist that creates Japanese puppets. How about having a doll of yourself made on order?

Coffee Ranpo

Location: Yanaka 2-9-14, Taito, Tokyo
Hours: 10 am – 8 pm (closed on Mondays)

Isetatsu:

Location: Yanaka 2-18-9, Taito, Tokyo
Hours: 10 am – 6 pm

Shokichi:

Location: Yanaka 3-2-6, Taito, Tokyo
Hours: 10 am – 18 pm (closed on Mondays and Tuesdays)

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Yanaka Ginza

After turning left in front of Yanaka Elementary School, keep going straight and you will arrive at the area’s most famous shopping street, Yanaka Ginza. There is a wide array of local street food (our favorite being Suzuki Niku’s minced cutlets) to try out, and cute shops are at your disposal for window shopping.

Informaiton:
Location: Yanaka 3-8-1, Taito, Tokyo

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Suzuki Niku Minced Cutlets , 200 yen

Like what you see? This was only a glimpse of what Yanesen has to offer. We highly recommend you discover the area on your own pedals!

Speedy Sapporo Sightseeing (1): The Sweets Lovers’ Trail

Hokkaido may be Japan’s largest prefecture but it’s largest city – and capital – Sapporo is easy to get about by foot or public transport. In this 5-part series, WAttention brings you some themed strolls through Sapporo, all within 30-minutes on foot from the train station if all you have to spare is, literally, a couple of hours. 

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Let’s start this series on a sweet note – Hokkaido sweets.

From melt-in-your-mouth cheesecakes, to fresh cream rolled-cakes, cream puffs, luxurious puddings, fruit tarts to any pastry involving red bean paste, Hokkaido is the Disneyland of Desserts.

After all, with a population of over 800,000 cows (or close to the population of San Francisco), Hokkaido is cream of the crop in the field of dairy products in Japan.

Now, leave calorie-counting behind and rejoice in the fact that you can access the following sweet spots without busting the pedometer.

Daimaru at the Sapporo Station 

Directly-connected to Sapporo Station, the Daimaru basement is heaven for those with a sweet tooth and best avoided by those on a diet. Of course, all the heavyweight confectionery brands are here with their light as air puffs and cream cakes. Watch out for the Daimaru-limited edition sweets and the limited edition creation of the season.

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Beware these tempting and taunting deserts lying in the depths of the Daimaru department basement.

Here you’ll also find one of six Kit Kat Boutiques throughout Japan, with a hot favourite being – unsurprisingly – the butter-flavoured Kit Kat. Well, we are in the land of milk and butter!

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Shop Info:
Opening Hours: 10am – 8pm everyday

 

Rokkatei Main Store (Sapporo) 

When you finally manage to emerge from the Daimaru depachika after finally deciding where to spend your cash (and gain your calories), you would easily have spent a good hour. Fortunately, the next must-visit sweet spot-  the Rokkatei Main Store – is just about a 5-minutes’ brisk walk from the station and just opened on July 5th.

From the South exit (where the clock tower is), cross the main road and turn right and you will see at the top of a grey building the words 六花亭, pronounced as “rokkatei” and meaning literally “six flower pavilion”.  When you approach the lobby of the building you will see a large wooden signboard with the household brand name.

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At the ground floor, you will find a shop selling every product made by this confectioner which started from making butter in the 1930s in Tokachi, a place that  – even within Hokkaido – is famous for its dairy products.

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Enter at your own health risk!

This is why Rokkatei is loved by the Japanese for its butter sand – a butter cookie sandwich filled with white chocolate, cream and raisins. The cream is made from 100% Hokkaido butter made by the confectioner itself.

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A must-try classic.

At the shop, you can buy a variety of confectionery by the piece (starting from 40 yen!) and find your favourite one – though with so many to choose from it would be hard to decide! Takeaway cakes are also available at reasonable prices, starting from around 280 yen a piece.

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At the second floor, there is a cafe where you can indulge in original dessert creations.

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But if you can’t wait for a seat, don’t fret – there is a takeaway counter offering takeaway treats such as soft-serve ice cream with a bitter chocolate biscuit topping, or a crispy pastry filled with fresh cream. You can take these away or eat them while standing at several bar tables provided.

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Selling over-the-counter bliss at 260 yen.

Shop Info:

Address: 6-3-3, Kita-4-jonishi, Chuo-ku, Sapporo-shi, Hokkaido
Phone Number: 011-261-6666
Opening Hours: 10am – 8pm
URL: http://www.rokkatei.co.jp.e.sy.hp.transer.com/shop/index.html

Next Up: Strapped for time in Sapporo (2): The Flower Lovers’ Trail

All you love about Japan, in a capsule

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Gachapon Kaikan: the mecca of miniature toy capsules

Perhaps local students lining up outside a store filled with toy vending machines might not warrant a second glance. But when you meet a tourist who crossed an ocean to seek out this small shop, tucked away in an alley off Akihabara’s main thoroughfare, you know this isn’t your typical toy store.

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Welcome to the world of gachapon: plastic spherical cases about 10 cm in diameter, filled with mini figurines, trinkets, and more. These toy capsules get their name from the “gacha gacha” sound made from cranking the machine dials, followed by the pon!” when the capsule drops.

While you can find these machines in supermarkets and stores scattered throughout Japan, Gachapon Kaikan is the mecca of these miniature toy capsules, boasting hundreds of these gachapon machines.

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But why would anyone travel half-way around the world to walk out with a handful of these tiny trinkets?

Painstaking attention to detail. A plethora of cute characters. And of course, a good dose of creative wackiness. After all, aren’t these some of the things we just love about Japan?

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Sure, a cute cat smartphone stand or a miniature rice bowl with shrimp tempura might not be on the top of your omiyage shopping list, but without a trip here, you’d never even know such things existed!

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So for 100-500 yen, enjoy the suspense of picking up a toy that is as fun to purchase as it is to play with. When luggage space is tight (as well as your pocketbook), these brilliantly detailed toys make for a great little souvenir, and you don’t even need to worry about wrapping them!

Akihabara Gachapon Kaikan 
Hours: Mon-Thu 11am – 8pm; Fri, Sat & days before holidays 11am – 10pm; Sun & holidays 11am – 7pm
Address: 3-15-5, Sotokanda, Chiyoda, Tokyo
URL: http://www.akibagacha.com/ (Japanese)

Asagaya Tanabata Festival, larger than life

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How a traditional Chinese festival became Japanese street art

Orihime and Hikoboshi are two lovers that represent the Vega and Altair star respectively. Normally the Milky Way separates them, but only once a year, on the seventh day of the seventh month of the old lunar calendar, they are allowed to be together for a brief time.
In a nutshell, this is the story behind Tanabata, a Japanese festival that originates from the Chinese festival Qixi.
nl20120701In modern Japan, Tanabata is celebrated by hanging wishes on a bamboo tree. These wishes are traditionally written in Tanzaku, a small rectangular paper used for Japanese poetry. Bring a ladder for urgent wishes, as it is said that the higher the wish is hung on the tree, the greater the chance it will come true!
Wishes hanging in a Tanabata bamboo tree usually come in five colors, representing the five basic elements that make up the world according to ancient Chinese philosophy, resulting in beautifully decorated trees that can teach some Christmas trees a lesson or two.


From as early as July 7 to the end of August, various Tanabata festivals are held throughout Japan.
Renowned for its eccentric decorations, the Asagaya Tanabata Festival in Suginami Ward is by far Tokyo’s most famous festival of its kind.
The shopping arcade and other shopping streets near Asagaya Station will be filled with not only decorated bamboo wish trees, but also papier-mâché ornaments that come in the shape of manga characters, sports heroes, fictive space ships and pretty much anything else one can imagine.

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The over-the-topness of these imaginative creations kind of reminded me of Osaka’s larger than life billboards.

What makes this unique form of street art all the more fascinating, is the fact that most of them are creations of local children.
The Asagaya Tanabata Festival boasts a long history, with this year being the 63 time the festival is to be held. Click here for an impressive collection of the 100 most creative ornaments that have been at display throughout the last 60 years. Together with a selection of WAttention’s favorites of the last few years below, they will make you wonder what the festival has in store for us this year.

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Wait, what model is that smartphone?

 

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Not too hard to guess who this is!

 

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The local hall of fame

 

VIPs from overseas


Asagaya Tanabata Festival

Address: Asagaya Minami 1-35-18, Suginami
Access: In front of Asagaya Station (JR Chuo Line)
Period: August 5 – August 9, 2016

Cool Treks Around Tokyo (5): Fukiware no Taki in Gunma Prefecture

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This majestic stretch of interlocking waterfalls is said to be the “Niagara of the Orient”.

Located in Numata City of Gunma Prefecture, the Fukiware no Taki is 7-meters high, 30-meters wide and flows 1.5-km into the Katashina Gorge.

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It was voted as one of Japan’s top 100 waterfalls, and in 1936 was designated as a National Natural Monument.

The months from April to June are when the currents are stronger from the melted snow from the mountains. But the waterfall is equally stunning in the Autumn months, when tinted with the color of fall.

The grand sight can be enjoyed from a hanging bridge or right up close to the roaring gorge. Just don’t lose your balance!

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Access: From Tokyo Station take the JR to Numata Station and catch a 45-min bus headed to Fukiware no Taki.

 

Ukai: A 3-in-1 Truly “U”-nique Experience

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To enjoy Japan’s culture, cuisine and scenery, try a Ukai river cruise.

“Ukai” literally means the rearing of cormorants and refers to a traditional fishing method deploying these long-necked aquatic birds to hunt for river fish.

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While fishing might sound like a boring activity at first, this is anything but that. In fact, it is said that Charlie Chaplin, who visited Nagaragawa River in Gifu prefecture on two occasions to see cormorant fishing, kept on exclaiming “Wonderful!” throughout the spectacle.

The 3-in-1 enjoyment of Ukai

“U” get Cuisine

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Ayu hungry yet?: A full course of sweetfish – salt-baked, sweetly-simmered and fried.

The trip starts with a delicious bento lunch – all featuring salt-roasted ayu (sweetfish), which is the fish that cormorants dive, swallow and spit out (but try not to think about that) – aboard a yakatabune, or a barge-style boat.

“U” get Scenery

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While one can take a yakatabune ride along the Sumidagawa in Tokyo and enjoy the city skyline, these manually-steered barges really belong to a river surrounded by verdant valleys, with the natural background music of river birds singing.

“U” get Culture

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Harking back 1,300 years, Ukai was a fishing technique used in China and Japan.

While once a booming industry, it can only be witnessed in 12 locations in Japan today, from around early summer (June) to late autumn (October).

Up to ten cormorants are strung up and skillfully steered by the cormorant master, and when the hunt begins, he wields a burning metal frame in front of the boat. This is used to scare the river fishes to the surface for the cormorants.

At the clack of wooden blocks, the cormorants dive in unison to swallow as many river fish as they can. The string around the birds’ necks prevents them from swallowing fish like ayu or even the occasional unagi, but they get to keep the smaller fishes.

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Master trainers of cormorants belong to a national agency (the Imperial Household Agency), and an important duty of theirs is to make offerings of small trout to the Emperor.

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With prices ranging from around 2,500 yen to 4,500 yen for this 2-1/2 hour trip, it’s definitely worth making a day trip from the city for.

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Here are the venues where cormorant fishing can be viewed today:

-Nagaragawa, Gifu
-Hijigawa, Aichi
-Mikumagawa, Oita
-Fuefukigawa, Yamanashi
-Kisogawa, Aichi
-Ujigawa, Kyoto
-Yodogawa, Kyoto
-Basengawa, Kyoto
-Aritagawa, Wakayama
-Takatsugawa, Shimane
-Nishikigawa, Yamaguchi
-Chikugogawa, Fukuoka

Restaurant Review: Yasubee

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A tsukemen for everyone

Tsukemen is a relatively new version of Japan’s worldwide popular soul food, ramen.
Ramen noodles are usually served in a hot soup, but tsukemen has soup and noodles served separately. After the noodles are boiled, they are cooled down in cold water to harden them, which results in a chewier texture that would be impossible to realize in a bowl of steaming hot soup.

One of the favorite tsukemen shops of both WAttention’s male and female staff, is Yasubee.

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Yasubee has its main branch in Takadanobaba, but also has 8 other branches throughout Tokyo, and even one in Osaka.

Consisting of meat, fish and vegetable broth, Yasubee’s soup is lighter and healthier than most other tsukemen, which tend to have a very thick and oily soup.
The noodles are on the thick size and have the chewiness you expect from quality tsukemen. Good news for male readers, is that large portions are available for the same price as normal portions!

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This review is based on the Shibuya branch, which is most frequently visited by WAttention’s staff. Queuing is unavoidable but usually pretty smooth as Yasubee is not the kind of place where chitchatting after finishing your meal is normal.
Still, you do see a lot of office ladies slurping away their noodles, which could be either because of the lighter soup or because of the friendly and cheerful male staff. What do you say?

For men that want to eat a lot: ★★★★★

For ladies that want a more healthy tsukemen: ★★★★☆

Restaurant information:

Name: Yasubee

Price range: 760 – 860 yen

Location: Shibuya 3-18 -7, Shibuya (Shibuya Branch); Takadanobaba 1-22-7 (Takadanobaba Branch)

Access: For Shibuya Branch, a 3-min walk from the East Exit of Shibuya Station (JR Lines, Ginza Line, Hanzomon Line, Fukutoshin Line, Keio Inokashira Line, Den-en Toshi Line, Toyoko Line). For Takadanobaba Main Branch, a 2-min walk from Takadanobaba Station (JR Yamanote Line, Tozai Line, Seibu Shinjuku Line)

 

Nostalgic Pottering in Yanesen Part 1

Shitamachi roaming by bicycle

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Don’t worry if you’ve never heard of pottering. It is a so called waseieigo (和製英語), which is a Japanese word created out of one or more English terms. Calling it an English word that only exists in Japan, is another way to explain it.

Pottering (coming from “to potter”) is the same as strolling, except for the fact that it is done on bicycle. While cycling tours can be exhausting and extreme like hiking or trekking, pottering is meant to be relaxing and fun.

Just to make sure you get the idea, left is cycling and right is pottering!

The Yanesen area consists out of three neighborhoods in the Taito and Bunkyo ward, which are Yanaka, Nezu and Sendagi. Whilst being located within short distance from the city center, the area has a charming shitamachi (local downtown) atmosphere, with retro shopping streets, laid back residential areas and myriads of temples and shrines to explore.

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Bicycles can be rented at tokyobike gallery, located on a 6 minute walking distance from Nippori Station. It has the facade of an old Japanese-style house with wooden walls and a slanting roof, but the inside is modern and oshare (fancy). tokyobikes are made with the purpose of city cycling, and you can choose out of 3 different models.

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Location: Yanaka 4-2-39, Taito, Tokyo
Price: 1,000 yen
Hours: 11:00 – 19:00 (Mondays, Tuesdays, Fridays) 11:00 – 18:00 (Weekends, Public Holidays) Closed on Wednesdays and Thursdays

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Without any further ado, let the pottering begin!

Ogyochi

Starting with sweets is unheard of when one goes cycling, but then again, this is pottering, so why not?
Ogyochi serves a yummy Taiwanese jelly type sweet that you can have together with shaved ice in the summer.

Information:
Location: Uenosakuragi 2-11-8, Taito, Tokyo

Hours: 10 am – 6 pm (closed earlier when sold out)

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Ogyochi, 400 yen

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Shitamachi Museum

In the same street as Ogyochi, you will find the Shitamachi Museum, where you can find out how Tokyoites used to go about in older times.

Information:
Location: Yanaka 4-2-39, Taito, Tokyo

Hours: 9:30 am – 4:30 pm (closed on Mondays)

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Yanaka’s Himalayan Cedar Tree

On the corner of a quiet street in Yanaka, next to an old little bakery, stands a giant Himalayan cedar tree!

Information:
Location: Yanaka 1-16-5, Taito, Tokyo

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Nennnekoya

A few blocks further, you will find Nennekoya, a cozy little store/cafe full of cat merchandise, and of course, cats! Finding this store in Yanaka is no surprise, as the neighborhood is known for its many street cats.

Information:
Location: Yanaka 2-1-4 Taito, Tokyo

Hours: 11:30 am – 6:00 pm (Saturdays, Sundays, Public Holidays) 11:00 am – 5 pm (Thursdays, Fridays) closed on Mondays, Tuesdays and Wednesdays

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That’s it for today, but we will be pedaling on in “Nostalgic Pottering in Yanesen Part 2“, so stay tuned!

Summer Illumination at Meguro Gajoen

A display of Japanese lights

Meguro Gajoen is Tokyo’s longest-running wedding venue, and one of the most gorgeous, too. Its resemblance to the bathhouse of Ghibli Studio’s “Spirited Away” has often been pointed out, and we can understand as this Japanese-Western fusion style architecture with exquisite interior feels magical to say the least. With a summer illumination event being held at the venue’s historic building called Hyakudankaidan, it’s time to get spirited away!

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Hyakudankaidan consists of a 99 steps staircase of zelkova tree and 7 Japanese style rooms that formerly functioned as wedding banquets. The walls and ceilings are decorated by a total of 126 traditional Japanese paintings by well-known artists at the time the venue was built in 1935.

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During illumination event “Wa no Akari” from July 1 to August 28, the Hyakudankaidan complex will be illuminated by 12 different types of lights made of traditional Japanese paper such as ukiyo-e (Japanese woodblock prints) lanterns,  furin (summer wind-bells) shaped  lanterns and warrior floats in the fashion of Aomori Prefecture’s famous Nebuta Matsuri.

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As taking pictures is allowed, how about showing up in your yukata?

A summer illumination event alone is innovative enough, but making it indoor and Japanese style is what really catches our attention. We have to give Meguro Gajoen credit for using their historical assets this creatively!

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Meguro Gajoen “Wa no Akari”

Location: Shimo-meguro 1-8-1 Meguro, Tokyo
Access: A 3-min walk from Meguro Station (JR Yamanote Line West Exit, Tokyu Meguro Line, Nanboku Line, Mita Line)
Dates: July 1 – August 28, 2016
Entrance Fee: Adults 1,200 yen, Students 600 yen
Hours: 10am – 6pm (Sunday – Thursday) 10am – 7pm (Fridays, Saturdays)
*Last entry 30 minutes before closing.

Restaurant Review: Ginza Rangetsu

Refined cuisine in Ginza

After WWII, the district of Ginza became Tokyo’s center of modernism. Japanese restaurant Ginza Rangetsu has been part of Ginza since these days, and throughout the last 70 years, the restaurant has become a true Ginza landmark, resembling the area’s glam and glitter by warm hospitality, classic interior and refined cuisine.

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Some say that the key to umami – or deliciousness, is providing quality ingredients even more so than a chef’s abilities.
This is not as simple as it sounds, as it’s not a matter of simply selecting the most expensive ingredients. The different seasons play a significant role in Japanese cuisine, with each ingredient having a specific period in which they are richest in taste. For example, buri, or yellowtail fish is best in the coldest days of the winter, as this is when they lay their eggs which makes them more fatty. In Japanese, this period is called “shun“. A lot of knowledge on when and where to find the best ingredients might be the most important capacity of a master chef, and is what distinguishes a good restaurant from an amazing restaurant. This is also the secret to why Ginza Rangetsu’s Wagyu (Japanese beef) and raw crab taste as gorgeous as they do.

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Ginza Rangetsu mainly focusses on Kaiseki (Japanese style haute cuisine) and nabe (hot pot dishes). Other than the more regular nabe, you might also want to try out the yakishabushabu or sukishabushabu, which are Ginza Rangetsu originals. It is truly a restaurant that keeps renovating its dishes together with time while not forgetting about the essence of washoku, or Japanese cuisine.

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Ginza Rangetsu

Price Range: 1,000 – 2,000 (lunch) 10,000 – 15,000 (dinner)

Location: Matsuya Ginza, Ginza 3-5-8 Chuo, Tokyo

Access: A 2-min walk from Ginza Station Exit 13

URL: http://www.ginza-rangetsu.com/ (Japanese)

A Taste of Sh旬n: Catch Some Sliding Somen

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Where I come from (sunny Singapore), it’s summer all year round, and so even if it’s hot and humid in the hawker center, we don’t think twice about ordering a steaming hot bowl of spicy noodles in soup – and likewise it doesn’t come to mind to order something cold to eat. After all, sweating it out over a bowl of spicy, hot noodles all is part of the “shiok” factor (“shiok” best explained as “very superlatively satisfying”).

So I was initially a bit cool to the idea of eating cold noodles laid over ice and dipped in cold broth – with nothing but condiments such as grated ginger and spring onions to go with it. But there’s something about the Japanese summer heat that makes you crave for something cool to eat, and not just for dessert. So, enter the somen.

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This very thin noodle – hand-pulled to less than 1.3mm in diameter – made from wheat flour are a summer staple as many Japanese find it hard to swallow anything else in the sweltering heat. It’s also relatively easy to prepare as it doesn’t take long to boil these hand-stretched noodles, which glide down your throat easily. The flavoring is simple – the noodles are dipped in a light sauce made from bonito flakes. But the taste can be varied by adjusting the condiments, adding sesame seeds, or even mayonnaise!

Somen slider!

Somen sliders are also a favorite for outdoor summer parties – this is where a bamboo slide is set up, ice cold water is flowed through and the noodles are slid down. It’s then a test of hand-eye-and-hungry stomach coordination as diners scoop up the somen before it glides to the next hungry person with a chopstick. And course, machines have also been made to simulate this swimming somen sensation at home!

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About Sh旬n:

Shun (旬) translates directly into “season”, but strictly speaking in Japan refers to the ten days in which a food (be it a fruit, vegetable, fish or dish) is deemed to be at its tastiest and best period in which it is to be eaten. 季節(kisetsu), which also translates into “season”, refers to six periods within each season (spring, summer, autumn, winter), according to the solar calendar in which a change in the season is deemed to occur – an indication of the Japanese sensitivity to changes in the weather and climate, and its impact on crops and catches of the day.

Tokyo Bay Summer Night Cruise: The Definitive Tokyo Summer Experience

A cruise like a summer festival

The first question I asked myself after taking Tokyo Bay’s summer night cruise (available from July 1 to September 30) as a reporter, was whether or not I would hop on board again if the occasion arises. Without even a moment of doubt, I knew my answer was yes, but why? Follow my experience find out what it is that makes this cruise so special.

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I was lucky enough to hop on Tokyo Bay’s first summer night cruise of the year, and I have to tell you, viewing Tokyo’s dazzling skyline while being surrounded by yukata-clad girls is far from the worst experience I’ve had in Japan.


There’s something about yukata and a night cruise that perfectly match, creating that same sense of Japanese summer as when looking up at fireworks from the Sumidagawa riverbanks or while dancing a traditional Bon dance at a summer festival. The best way to define this cruise therefore might be “A Japanese festival on a ship.”

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Wearing a yukata on this event gives you a discount of 1,000 yen of the total entry fee of 2,600 yen, so don’t be shy to cash in on your cuteness!

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While more than 90 percent of the ladies came in yukata, it did surprise me that not even half of the guys – including myself I have to admit – had the courage to show up in yukata. That needs to change as a yukata looks just as nice on an ikemen (cool guy).

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Point proven?

By the way, guys were quite out numbered, but this was probably because only ladies in yukata where allowed to join the cruise completely free of charge to celebrate the first day, and hopefully we will see more guys in the future (in yukata, of course!).

The giant and luxury ship that usually functions as a passenger ferry to the Izu islands (a group of picturesque islands that are officially part of metropolitan Tokyo) departed Tokyo Bay at  7:15 pm for a ride of 1 hour and 45 minutes.

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Gazing at Tokyo’s towering skyscrapers, massive office buildings, trains passing by on the monorail and cars leaving light trails on the expressway from a romantic cruise-ship at night is overwhelming to say the least.

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With Odaiba’s FCG Building and ferris wheel both colored in gaudy rainbow neon lights coming closer, we passed the Rainbow Bridge after approximately 10 minutes, which was when everybody toasted to Tokyo’s night skyline with Tokyo Tower in the middle while shouting “Yakei ni Kanpai!” (cheers to the night view) as promised.

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By the way, it was only at this point that I learned that no additional fees are necessary for drinks (including beer) as they are included in the price, which makes this night cruise feel almost too cheap to be true, especially if you come in a yukata!

While we continued to make distance from the city, I started feeling cravings for matsuri (festival) delicacies. The wide array of stalls you can find inside the ship have all-time classics as takoyaki and yakisoba as well as kebab and doughnut sticks offering enough choice to satisfy pretty much any soul, and browsing through all these delicacies alone is half the fun!

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Row one from left to right: Takoyaki 400 yen, Cucumber stick 200 yen. Row two from left to right: Seafood Yakisoba 400 yen, Doughnut Stick 200 yen

Heading back to the terrace deck with a boat-shaped takoyaki plate and a beer in my hands, I noticed that the first yukata dancing show had started. From 7:45 pm to the end of the cruise, a total of 3 dancing shows can be enjoyed at terrace deck A.
Guys were cheering at cute yukata girls dancing, kind of in the fashion of an Akihabara idol group. Yes, this cruise is keeping up with today’s “live idol” trend as well!

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The other terrace decks were filled with passengers mingling with each other, toasting on the exciting evening and taking pictures together.

While in Tokyo’s everyday life it can be hard to meet new people, the majority of passengers at this cruise are here with the intention of getting to know you. Although calling it a “nanpa-sen” (a boat to pick up girls) – which some Tokyoites do – is definitely not what this event deserves, I do agree that the cruise is ideal to make new friends. Therefore, I personally prefer calling it the “friend-ship” in the hope that foreign residents and tourists alike may have a blast with the locals at this cruise.

By the time the ship had turned around to head back to the city, I was encircled by a group of great new friends myself too.


Tokyo Bay’s summer night cruise is the definitive way to experience a Japanese summer in Tokyo, and provides the chance to make new friends which can otherwise be hard in the city.

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Tokyo Bay Summer Night Cruise Information

Date: Jul. 1, 2016 – Oct. 10, 2016
Price: Adults 2,600 yen (1,000 yen discount if you come in a yukata excluding Fridays, Saturdays, Sundays and public holidays)  Junior High school and High school Students 1,050 yen Elementary School School Children 550 yen (all tickets include free drinks)
Location: Takeshiba Passenger Ship Terminal
Adress: Kaigan 1-16-3, Minato, Tokyo
Access: A 1-min walk from Takeshiba Station (Yurikamome Line) or an 8-min walk from Hamamatsucho Station (JR Lines)
Reservation: 03-3437-6119 (Reservation in English is possible)

Opinion: Kendo and the 2020 Tokyo Olympics

So, even though the Olympics is to be held in Tokyo in 2020, the most representative of its martial arts, kendo, is not to be added as an Olympic sport. Judo, however, was introduced at the 1964 Olympic Games, which was also the last time the international sporting event was held in Tokyo.

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If kendo, which literally means the way of the sword, is ever to be introduced as an Olympic sport, then surely a Tokyo Olympics would be the best chance to do so. However, the kendo world at large seems split over this prospect – and understandably so.

As someone who practices kendo – and who recently took part in the World Kendo Championships held in Tokyo this June – I agree that kendo is not like any other sport.

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Each kendo match starts and ends with “rei”, or a bow, as a sign of respect to the opponent. This match is Singapore vs Japan in the Quarter Finals of the World Kendo Championship 2015.

For one thing, to show any sign of glee or to do a victory pose or to punch the air and cheer – an understandable natural reaction to a hard-earned point- would result in an immediate cancellation of the point just scored as this shows disrespect to your opponent.

Scoring a point, is also not a straightforward affair. Other than actually hitting the right place (head, hand, torso or neck), the process (showing an active attacking stance), spirit in which the point was scored and follow-through (by showing continued physical and mental alertness – hence, no victory poses) are equally important.

Electronic scoring, as in fencing, or judgement made after watching a video replay, as is now possible in the case of sumo, is not used.

A scene you will never see in a kendo match.

Hence, the fate of the player lies in the hands of the three judges at hand, and their understanding of the game at play. It is not uncommon for players to feel that they lost the match due to nebulous judgement calls, but then the spirit of kendo dictates that one should reflect on how the point you thought you scored just wasn’t good enough.

A revered swordsman in the Edo era – when kendo started its roots – once said, “There is such a thing as an unfathomable victory, but no such thing as an unthinkable loss.” Which means that one should always reflect on one’s losses, and not bask in the glory of a win.

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Kendo is a Japanese martial art that uses a bamboo sword and involves rigorous training geared toward developing both combat technique and character by instilling virtues like courage, honor, etiquette – in a bid to overcome one’s greatest enemy: oneself.

Unlike other martial arts such as judo, one’s grade (or “dan”) is not indicated in any visible way. There is no differentiation by colored belts. How one carries oneself and the maturity of play is the only indication – short of asking one politely, “Excuse me, but may I ask what dan are you?”. (Usually for purposes of standing in line with the more senior person nearer to the higher seat of authority.)

If kendo were to become an Olympic sport, its popularity would rise and more people may take up the sport. But, it could risk declining into just that – a sport, where speed and strength dictate a win, over technique and spirit.

So, the irony will remain, for a long time to come, that kendo is its own greatest enemy to becoming an Olympic sport, yet, it is the one sport left in the world that remains true to the original Olympic spirit of cultivating friendship, respect, solidarity and fair play – and not the pursuit of fame, gold medals or sponsorship deals.

Read also: Five places to enjoy the Olympics in Tokyo before 2020

Picturesque Japan: Engetsu Island

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Japan’s most magical sunset display at Nanki Shirahama

Engetsu Island is a small rock island just off Nanki Shirahama’s coast in Wakayama Prefecture, and it’s almost as if it was created for postcard-perfect photos.

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Nanki Shirahama is a seaside resort with hot springs that look out at white sandy beaches and probably the clearest sea of Japan’s main island. These hot springs are said to be one of Japan’s three oldest hot springs together with Dogo Onsen in Ehime Prefecture and Arima Onsen in Hyogo Prefecture.

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The rock island’s formal name is Takashima, but it is widely known as Engetsuto, which can be literally translated as “round moon island”. This is due to the round-shaped hole in the middle of the island.

To me, Doughnut Island also comes to mind as a valid name, but thankfully it was Japanese politician Masaomi Tsuda’s poem penned in 1887 – in which the island was coined as Engetsu Island – from which the island got its current name, as this is the kind of romantic name it deserves.

With rays of sunlight piercing through the hole, Engetsu Island makes for an incredible sunset display, but here is an impressive collage to convince you that the island looks stunning at any time of the day. Sunset is around 6:30pm in the summer and 4:30pm in the winter.

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Please note that even when the tide is low, walking to the island – which can just about fit into a football pitch – is forbidden because the island is not very stable and sea urchins are lying on the sea-bottom. You might see fishermen at the shore as octopus, squid, crab, sweepers and other fish can be caught.

Since the island’s sandstone rocks have become less stable throughout the years, the island was artificially repaired in 2011 to make it earthquake proof, so hopefully we will be able to enjoy this breathtaking sight for many years to come!

Next in this series: Picturesque Japan: The Tottori Sand Dunes

Spot information:

Name: Nanki Shirahama

Location: Shirahama-cho, Nishimuro-gun, Wakayama
Access: From Tokyo take the Shinkansen and get off at Shirahama Station (around 6 hours from Tokyo, or 2 hours from Shin-Osaka), or take a 1hr 15min plane ride from Haneda Airport to Nanki Shirahama Airport.

Yummy Yaesu Depachika Walkabout

The next time you have some time to spare before your next train or Shinkansen ride at the Tokyo Station – and have already explored most of the Tokyo Station Ichibangai – why not explore the recently-renovated Yaesu Depachika to get a taste of shops old and new?

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Incidentally, Yaesu Depachika (which is a combination of depato – or department store – and chika, meaning basement) celebrates its 50th anniversary this year, and one of the shops there has been in the same shop space for that long!

Liqours Hasegawa 

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Liquors Hasegawa toasts 50 years of selling liqour – specializing in whiskey, with a broad range of single malts – in this underground city. Here you can sample whiskies before you buy them, starting from 100 yen for a small shot.

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It also stocks a wide range of craft beers, including this brewed in Tokyo beer, “Tokyo Blues”, made with water from the Tama River. How’s that for a taste of Tokyo?

Opening Hours: 10am – 8pm daily
URL:  www.liquors-hasegawa.com

Stand-up Dining : Sake or Steak?

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The South Wing is where most of the restaurants are gathered, and caters to a wide range of budgets. There are even a couple of affordable stand-up joints offering a quick drink or cut of steak for hungry shoppers or salarymen on their way home.

New Kids In The Block 

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Bubby’s – Apple pie with a punch!

Bubby’s from New York is famous for its hearty slices of apple pies stuffed with 15 whole apples and cherries from Michigan. Wonder what the folks from Hasegawa might have to say about the Whiskey Apple Pie!

Opening Hours:
Morning 7:30~11:00
Lunch 11:00~16:00
Dinner 16:00~22:30(LO21:30)

Sat./Sun./Hol.
Lunch 9:00~16:00
Dinner 16:00~22:00(LO21:00)

URL: http://www.restaurant-mrs.com/wp/restaurant_bubbys/restaurant_bubbys_child_yaechika

Erick South – Finally, authentic Southern Indian Cuisine!

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If you fancy something spicy, there’s Erick South which dishes up (as far as we could tell, authentic smelling) Southern Indian curry, which is less thick than the northern Indian variety, but not any less tasty. For the summer, you can try the cold tuna curry…(a departure from authentic to the adventurous).

Opening Hours:

Weekdays:
11:00~15:00
15:00~22:00(LO21:30)
Sat./Sun./Hol.
11:00~15:00
15:00~21:30(LO21:00)

URL: http://www.erickcurry.jp/