Summer With A Bang! – Top 3 Fireworks Festivals in Japan 2016

Summertime in Japan isn’t complete without watermelons, shaved ice, wind chimes, mosquito coils and last but not least, fireworks of massive proportions!

It’s a great reason to put on a summer yukata, throng the streets and look up into the night sky for an hour or two.

Here are some of the top few heart-stopping, jaw-dropping fireworks festivals in Japan.

The Oomagari no Hanabi All Japan Fireworks Competition
Daisen City, Akita Prefecture

– Japan’s No. 1 Fireworks Competition –

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With an ideal backdrop of two mountains and a riverfront, Oomagari is where top firework technicians stage their best musical fireworks show to compete for the coveted Prime Minister’s Award for fireworks. Now into its 106th year, this offers one of the widest starmine displays.

Event information:

No. of fireworks: 15,000 – 20,000
No. of spectators: 80,000
Date: August 27, 2016
Time: Day fireworks: 5:30pm~  Night fireworks: 6:50pm~
Access: Take the Shinkansen from Tokyo Station to Oomagari Station, 30 minutes’ walk from the station to the venue.

Nagaoka Matsuri Great Fireworks Festival
Nagaoka City, Niigata Prefecture

– Historic Fireworks –

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The fireworks festival here has a painful past – August 1 was when Nagaoka City was practically razed to the ground during a World War II air-raid 71 years ago. These shells are launched in commemoration of the lives lost then, and a celebration of recovery.

Event information:

No. of fireworks: 20,000
No. of spectators: 960,000
Date: August 2 and 3, 2016
Time: 7:20pm – 9:15pm
Access:  Take the Shinkansen from Tokyo Station to JR Nagaoka Station, and walk for 30 minutes, or take the shuttle bus from the station.

 

Suwa Lake Fireworks Festival
Suwa City, Nagano Prefecture

– Fireworks Frenzy –

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The Suwa Lake Fireworks Festival boasts the most number of fireworks for such displays. Surrounded by mountains, the display is particularly dynamic in terms of sound. The 2km-long water starmine here is another treat for the senses.

Event information:

No. of fireworks: 40,000
No. of spectators: 500,000
Date: August 15, 2016
Time: 7pm onwards
Access: Take the JR Chuo Main Line to Kami Suwa Station then walk for 8 minutes from the Kami Suwako West Exit

For more festivals in & around Tokyo: July 2016 Fireworks Festivals Schedule – In & Around Tokyo

Chichibu Soul Food & Shrine Tour

Just 90 minutes by train from Tokyo lies the bucolic town of Chichibu, that with its abundant nature consisting of mountains and rivers, makes for a pleasant day trip to escape the hustle and bustle of life in the metropolis.

One of the best ways to get to know a city is by its local cuisine. In Chichibu, Miso Potatoes are the soul food of the locals.

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Miso potato, a Chichibu soul food.

Potatoes are dipped in tempura batter and fried, then dressed with a sweet and salty miso sauce. Locals eat this around once a week, either buying them from the supermarket or making them at home.

Chichibu townsfolk love their miso, and are also famous for their miso marinated pork. Misoyaki butadon, or grilled miso marinated pork slices on rice, is a must-try while there.

As Chichibu is not a rice-growing region, it is famous for its soba, and there are many soba shops in town. At some soba shops you can even find the yakimiso butadon on the menu, so you can try both local specialties in one sitting.

If you are lucky, you may find stalls selling wild honey – with a bee or two soaked in the honey jar! These honey combs are harvested from the forests of Chichibu, and eating the bees is said to boost your body’s vitality!

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Honey bees in honey, a Chichibu specialty.

Chichubu Town is very walkable, so it is recommended to walk off your lunch by heading to the historical “powerspot”, the Chichibu Shrine, which was established hundreds of years ago and is one of the oldest shrines in the Kanto region.

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The many carvings on the shrine pavilion recall the World Heritage Site of the Nikko Toshogu Shrine in Tochigi Prefecture.

The shrine pavilion was reconstructed under the orders of Tokugawa Ieyasu, the first Shogun of the Edo era. And a famous sculptor at the time, Hidari Jingoro, who worked on the Nikko Toshogu Shrine also worked on this shrine, incorporating the same techniques and style – even parodying the famous “See No Evil, Speak No Evil, Hear No Evil” monkeys with a trio that are depicted with their eyes, ears and mouth wide open!

 

 

 

 

What’s Up With Wabi Sabi?

In pursuit of Japanese Imperfection

Not to be confused with the tear-inducing Japanese mustard wasabi, wabi sabi is a Japanese term that encompasses a profound concept of beauty in imperfection. That doesn’t mean, though, that everything imperfect is beautiful. Simply explained, the imperfection has to reflect the transience of life, futility of mankind and suffering that comes with existence. In other words, a tear-inducing nature of a more poignant kind.

Wabi sabi stems from the Buddhist concept of impermanence, suffering and emptiness, and is evident in all aspects of Japanese aesthetics, from the tea ceremony to temples, art and architecture.

A famous example is the Kinkakuji (Golden Temple) and Ginkakuji (Silver Temple) in Kyoto. While the Kinkakuji is glorious in gold, the Ginkakuji is a subdued in hues of white and dark brown – a stark contrast to its glittering golden counterpart and resembling nothing like its name suggests. Both structures were originally built to serve as a place of peaceful retreat for the ruling shogun. It is said that Ashikaga Yoshimasa, the shogun for whom it was built, was deeply interested in Sado (or the Japanese Tea Ceremony) and Zen Buddhism and had no plans for the Kinkakuji to be plastered with silver leaves – unlike his grandfather, Ashikaga Yoshimitsu, who commissioned the Ginkakuji.

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The Kinkakuji, resplendent in gold, vs the Ginkakuji, subdued and dark brown.

The Kinkakuji is often cited as an example of wabi sabi in architecture, and in fact, people who subscribe to the belief of wabi sabi are likely to prefer to the understated elegance of the Kinkakuji to the grandiose Ginkakuji.

For something to be wabi sabi, it must evoke in the viewer a sense of sadness, loneliness, haplessness, regret etc. in response to the recognition of something looking decrepit, incomplete, forsaken or in a state of decline.

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A good seasonal example would be the sakura. These beautiful delicate pink blossoms, said to represent the spirit of Japan, are a fine example of wabi sabi. While breathtakingly beautiful in full bloom, this prime period is extremely short-lived and a few gusts of spring winds can easily leave a tree bare by the end of the day. Yet, part of what makes the sakura special and so precious to the Japanese is its transience. The life of samurai in the past was likened to that of the sakura – to live and die in honor and glory, to value a life led to the full, brief as it may be. The carpet of scattered heart-shaped petals of the sakura on the roadsides or pathways was said to resemble the bodies of samurai who had given their lives in battle.

In fact, closely-linked to the life of the samurai is the tea ceremony, where people from all walks of life would gather in the same hut for a cup of tea. Sado is steeped in wabi sabi, from the plain and bare appearance of the tea hut, to the tea ceremony pottery, which always bears a mark of imperfection – such as a chip on the bottom or a bump on the side – and this is a crucial part of the appreciation in a tea ceremony.

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And it is this appreciation of things as they are – as they are born, made or have come to be – that enables one to see beauty in imperfection, to take quiet joy in a withered tree, cloudy day or dry field.

So, next time try taking things with a swab of wabi-sabi and you may find your life richer for it.

 

 

 

 

Discover Drinking Alleys In Japan (II): Neighborhood Yokochos

Almost every area has its own yokocho for locals to gather and unwind. Here are some other alleyways with character worth stopping by.

1) Asakusa Hoppy Dori 

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Hoppy has a reputation as being the mixer of choice of the older generation, and for good reason—it was created in their younger days as a cheaper alternative to beer, to be mixed with stronger liquor such as shochu. In this alleyway, you can even find “draft” hoppy. The specialty here is “motsu stew”, or a hearty dish made from pig or cow innards, vegetables and konjac.

Access: 3-min. walk from Metro Asakusa Station

2) Amazake Yokocho 

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Unlike the other alleyways that come alive at sunset, this 400m alleyway is more of a daytime place with a refined Shitamachi (old downtown) feel of the Edo era and famous for its amazake, or sweet non-alcoholic rice wine, and taiyaki baked pastry from a 99-year-old shop.

Access: 2-min from the Metro Ningyocho Station

3) Harmonica Yokocho 

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Formerly an underground flea market that sprung up in the early post-war period some 70 years ago, this is lined with small shops and bars just like the holes on a harmonica mouthpiece. While some of the tenants date way back, this area is now popular with the younger crowd for its trendy standing bars and hip restaurants.

Access: 2-mins walk from East Exit of Kichojoji Station

 

4) Koenji Gado-shita

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This is known as the alley for aspiring musicians and to support these struggling artistes are cheap bars, pubs and shops selling used CDs, musical instruments and clothes. Hang out with the lively crowd here under the tracks on the west side of Koenji Station. A must try is the “Gyoza for zero Yen” at Tachibana gyoza restaurant where you get a sizeable free gyoza portion with every drink ordered.

Access: 2-mins walk from JR Koenji Station

Coming Of Age Day

seinen3In Japan, one is considered an adult at the age of 20 and a national holiday – called Coming of Age Day (成年の日, seinen no hi) – is designated on the second Monday of January to celebrate this milestone event. This is a great opportunity to see a rainbow spectrum of traditionally-dressed men and ladies walking around town.

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Eligible residents receive an invitation card by the local government, informing them of the designated celebration venue. The actual event consists of a congratulatory speech and presentation of a  commemorative gift to the newly initiated adults .

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Ladies wear a furisode, or a type of kimono with long sleeves that drape down, while men either wear a traditional dark kimono with hakama or a suit and tie.

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In Japan, 20 is the legal age for smoking and drinking….

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…and the newly initiated adults usually celebrate this day by going out for a drinking party!

 

 

 

A Taste Of Sh旬n: Anglerfish Hotpot

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Say Ahh..nkou!

The ankou, or anglerfish, is one of those grotesque deep sea creatures (not unlike the hoya) that one wouldn’t fathom putting in one’s mouth. But the ankou is a winter delicacy that many Japanese look forward to eating, usually in the form of a hotpot. It is popular with the ladies for its reputed high collagen content in its gelatinous skin.

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The springy flesh of the anglerfish – similar to that of the fugu, or puffer fish – makes it suitable to be boiled in a hotpot. The ankou nabe (anglerfish hotpot) is usually flavored with a miso-based soup with the ankou liver mixed in with a splash of sake.

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The ankou liver – or ankimo – is known as the “foie gras of the ocean” for its rich taste and smooth texture.
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In fact, all parts of the ankou can be eaten, from head to tail. Due to the slimy nature of the skin, it is sliced and gutted while hung. This is a much anticipated spectacle, like that of a tuna cutting show.

There is a saying that “Fugu in the West, Anglerfish in the East”. Ooarai in Ibaraki Prefecture is famous for its catchment of anglerfish, and there’s even an Anglerfish Hotpot Festival every November. So don’t forget to try the ankou while it’s in season from December to February!

About Shun:
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.

 

Discover Drinking Alleys In Japan (I) : The “Yamanote Yokochos”

 

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Yokocho in Japanese literally means “side alley” and usually refers to a small, winding smoky lane that leads you into another realm of Tokyo where grit rules over grids.

While popular as tourist spots today, these clusters sprung up randomly in the ashes of post-War Japan as black markets or unlicensed bars and businesses. Its role, however, remains the same—as a place to either lose, find or just be yourself off the mainstream hustle and bustle of life.

The Way of the Yokocho 

Entering a drinking hole along the yokocho for the first time can be daunting, especially if you don’t speak Japanese. Fortunately, some shops in the bigger yokochos have English and Chinese menus. Otherwise, following these simple rules will help make your experience enjoyable.

  1. Always order a drink or more to go with your food
  2. Don’t invade the counter space of the person next to you
  3. Don’t linger after finishing your food—bar hop to the next stop!
  4. Do bring enough cash to pay, credit cards are often not accepted

YAMANOTE YOKOCHOS 

Check out these famous yokochos along the Yamanote Line, all within close walking distance from the station. Discover the different character, flavors and scents of each alleyway.

1) Ebisu Yokocho

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This yokocho is unique for being indoors and hence, sanitized. Opened in 2008 after renovating an old apartment block, it maintains the alleyway feel of being cramped, or cozy, with a good mix of 21 food stalls. The crowd here has a higher proportion of expatriates, and is perhaps reflected in the choice of stalls which includes a couple of wine bars – one even selling Iberico ham!

Access: 2-min. walk from JR Ebisu Station East Exit, or the Hibiya Line Ebisu Exit

2) Ameyayokocho (Ameyoko)

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Ameyoko is thought to have its roots as a black market after World War II, where “ame” – standing either for candy or American goods – was sold here when such goods were scarce. Today, this 500m long street is packed chock-a-block with shops selling everything from snow crabs to candy and snacks, bags, clothes, shoes and exotic foreign foods. The alleyways off this alleyway house a maze of izakayas which start from as early as 10am.

Access: 1-min walk from JR Ueno Station Chuo Exit

3) Shimbashi Gado-shita 

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Located near the central business district, this stretch of watering holes under the train tracks is the big brother of drinking alleys and known as the “salaryman’s heaven” where tired men in dark suits go to knock back a swig or two over a couple of skewers on the way back from work, or to unwind on a Friday night with colleagues.

Access: 2-min. walk from Karasumori Exit of JR Shimbashi Station

 

 

 

4) Omoide Yokocho 
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Take a walk down “Memory Lane” (Omoide Yokocho) which lies in the shadows of Shinjuku’s skyscrapers. Numerous izakayas and bars line this winding back alley where stalls selling grilled cow and pig innards (motsuyaki) emerged in the post-war days when flour was scarce. Today, about one-third of the nearly 60 shops here still dish out this soul food. Salarymen can also be spotted queuing up for their favorite soba shop or yakitori joint. Pull up a bar stool, grab some skewers, and soak in the retro atmosphere here while creating some new memories of your own!

Access: 1-min. walk from JR Shinjuku Station East Exit. URL: http://www.shinjuku-omoide.com/english/index.html

 

5) Nonbei Yokocho 

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Tucked away from the Shibuya crossing crowd and fancy fashion malls is Nonbei Yokocho (literally, “Drunkard’s Alley”) that still offers a glimpse of 1950s Shibuya, when shops were low-rise and had wooden structures. Take a reminiscent stroll through this 36-eatery-lined alleyway and you’ll understand why some tourists might mistake this for time-travel theme park.

Access: 4-min. walk from JR Shibuya Station Hachiko Exit.

URL: http://nonbei.tokyo

 

 

A Taste of Sh旬n: Christmas, A Time For…Fried Chicken?

For most part of the world that celebrates Christmas, a roast turkey is the main star of the Christmas meal. But in Japan, Christmas means a bucket of Kentucky Fried Chicken.

KFC

 

There are various theories as to how this tradition came about – either from a very successful marketing campaign by KFC years back, an innate Japanese preference for all things smaller and more compact (stemming from a perception that bigger objects tend to taste bland with a less refined taste), or even perhaps the uncanny resemblance between Colonel Sanders and Santa Claus…

KFC-Japanese-Christmas-Christmas-Chicken-Shop
Ho,ho,ho…goes Colonel Sanders, laughing all the way to the bank.

Orders are taken for the KFC bucket around two weeks before Christmas. And, in a bid to get a piece of the Christmas pie, convenience stores and supermarkets have also started frying up chickens in zest.

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If you don’t want to queue at KFC, just head to the combini.
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7-11 (left) and Circle K Sunkus amost those joining the fowl play.

So, if you haven’t already placed your KFC orders and don’t fancy a long wait for fast food, you know where to go for your Christmas Fried Chicken. Or, you could just go cold turkey.

Here’s wishing all our readers a Merry Christmas!

 

Low on Cost, High on Design

Introducing the new LCC Terminal at Narita

Running to catch your plane at the new budget terminal at Narita will be a breeze – after all, the terminal which opened this April is designed around a running track.

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With 2 distinct track designs; the blue track for departures and the red track for arrivals; it currently serves 12 domestic routes and 7 international ones, plied by Vanilla Air, Jetstar Japan, Spring Japan and Jeju Air. 

 

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And if the simple yet stylish look of the terminal reminds you of designer label MUJI, that’s because all the furniture is from minimalist MUJI. The furniture is also traveler friendly – cushioned benches without cold metal armrests getting in the way of the weary traveler’s rest. 

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One thing to note, though, is that unlike Terminal 1 and 2, there is no direct access by train, so you’ll have to allow time to take the shuttle bus to the budget terminal from Terminal 2. Or if you don’t have much luggage, it’s a 500m walk. 

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While the international gates are connected directly to the main terminal building, you’ll have to cross a bridge 15m off the ground to get to the domestic gates, but this walk makes for a great photo opportunity of the runway and the docked planes.

 

Assuming that you have more budget for shopping – having saved on your airfare – there is no lack of shops at this terminal, with shops lining the 680m international gates and a café there as well. There is also a bookshop, convenience store, and shops run by Vanilla Air and Jetstar Japan selling original goods. 

 

Pix5For those catching early flights, the budget terminal boasts the largest airport food court in Japan with over 400 seats open from 4am, with 7 stalls such as Nagasaki Champon Ringer Hut, Botejyu, Freshness burger, udon and sushi to name a few. The food court itself is accessible 24 hours a day for travelers to lounge around.

 

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So are you tempted to take a trip from the running track to the runway yet?

 

Photos courtesy of Narita International Airport Corporation.

Fun Dining in Ikebukuro

Game for a Japan-only dining experience?

In addition to the regular tourist must-eat menu of sushi, ramen and tempura, why not go for a unique dining experience that will allow you to get a taste of Japan’s traditional martial art, kendo ( the ‘way of the sword’) or Japanese pro-wrestling? Or get a taste of Japanese “kyushoku” (school meals) and fulfil your dream of eating snacks for your main meal at a restaurant specializing in dagashi, or snacks that all Japanese grew up munching on.

Get into the kendo spirit

This bar transposes the way of the sword, or kendo, into its operations. Its name “Zanshin” refers to an important state of mind in kendo where the practitioner does not lower his guard even after scoring a point in a match.
When the bar is open, the shop hangs a sign saying “keiko (practice) is ongoing”. Of course, the players here are swigging beer or alcohol instead of swinging bamboo swords. There’s a full set of kendo armour on display and the plasma screen here shows kendo matches. There’s even a kendo goods retail corner for players to stock up or for people inspired to start kendo!

 

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Shop info:
Zanshin Ikebukuro Japanese Sports Bar
Address: 2-26-10 Actiole Minami Ikebukuro 3F, Toshimaku, Tokyo
Tel: 050-5570-4898 (reservations)
03-6907-0310 (enquiries)
Hours: Mon-Sat: 5pm – 12pm; Sun & Public Holidays: 4pm ? 11pm
Mon-Fri: 11:30am – 2pm
Fill up on nostalgia here

Ever wondered what school meals in Japan taste like? Or ever wanted to pig out on snacks instead of a proper meal when you were a kid? Now, you can fulfil both these desires here at the Dagashi Bar. School meal staples such as ‘soft noodles’ and curry, or fried bread with various fillings and coatings are recreated as in the good ol’ days, and over 100 types of both old and new dagashi (Japanese snacks) are available here. The snacks are also incorporated in its main menu, such as in okonomiyaki, pizza, salad or tempura.

 

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Shop info:
Dagashi Bar
Address: 1-13-7 Ebisu, Shibuya-ku, Tokyo
Tel: 03-5458-5150
Hours: Mon-Sat: 6pm – 4:30am
Sun & Public Holidays: 5pm – 12pm

 

Hearty menu that packs a punch

This is a showa-styled bar that serves up supersized portions of food fit for a pro-wrestler while airing wrestling videos. Apparently TV dinners in the showa era consisted of a staple of pro-wrestling at 8pm on Friday nights. Expect super long sausages, towering stacks of onion rings and a giant rack of ribs (called ‘Antonio Ribs’). As the name suggests, this chain is opened by Antonio Inoki, who was a former professional wrestler and politician. Dishes here are named after his signature wrestling moves, you can buy his originally-produced sake and there’s even a museum in the restaurant where you can learn about his past glory. You don’t have to be a fan to enjoy this place, just a sense of fun!

 

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Shop info:
Antonio Inoki Food Business Project
Address: 5-17-13 Shinjuku OW Bldg 7F
Tel: 03-5155-7680
Hours: Mon-Thurs, Sun: 5pm ? 2am; Fri, Sat, eve of Public Holiday: 5pm – 3am

A Yen for cheap clothing

Whoever still thinks Tokyo is expensive should go to Notoya in Itabashiku

Nevermind the cheaper yen, prices at Notoya have always been rock bottom – and we’re talking a yen for cheap clothing, literally!

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Tokyoites living in other wards have been known to go all the way to Shimo Akatsuka in Itabashi ward to shop at this establishment.

Founded by a former clothing wholesaler some 50 years ago, this shop attracts around 1,500 customers a day on average and over 2,000 customers a day during the weekends and holidays.

Shopping here is like a treasure hunt ? you never know what gems you may find.
This is a good place to buy super cheap basics such as socks and stockings for under a 100 yen, and 100 yen T-shirts are a staple here.

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For 500 yen, you can get a branded item at just a fraction of its listed price elsewhere.
And if you’re lucky you may be at the store just as it holds it one yen time-limited sale!

How can Notoya afford to keep its prices so low? The key can be said to be volume and variety. Goods here move fast, meaning that new stock comes in frequently, so you continue to indulge in a fast fashion lifestyle!

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The customer base here varies from young ladies to mothers shopping for their children. Bags together with bedding and baby clothing can be found on the second floor. Children’s clothing is big business here as fast fashion is a good fit for children who seemingly outgrow their clothes overnight!

Shop info:

Address:
〒175-0092
2-2-6 Akatsuka Shinmachi Itabashiku Tokyo
TEL: 03-3939-0860
Hours: 10am – 8pm (Closed Tues)

Getting Wifi in Japan can be SIMple

Comparing 4 prepaid SIM cards for tourists in Japan

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One of the first things that everyone does upon touchdown (other than releasing their seatbeat) after a flight, is to turn on their mobile phones – and then try to latch onto free Wifi to update their online status on Facebook, Twitter, Google+  or to message their safe arrival on Watsapp, Line or WeChat, etc.

 

And as free Wifi isn’t that common throughout Japan yet, your best bet would be to get a data SIM card for convenient and reliable Wifi access. While renting a mobile router was the only option until recently, the good news is more carriers such as NTT and Softbank have started to offer data-only SIM cards targeting tourists.

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Broadly speaking, there are 2 options when it comes to getting a data only SIM card – those you order in advance (which can be picked up at the airport, your hotel or a specified address in Japan), and those that you can buy in the airport/department stores in Japan.

And within that differentiation, another two options: a SIM card that needs online activation (ie: you need to hunt for free Wifi first) or one that doesn’t.

Data SIM cards that do not require online activation are recommended over those that do. After all, if online access were so easily available why would there be a need for data SIM cards in the first place?

So-net (http://www.so-net.ne.jp/prepaid/en/index.html) offers LTE SIM cards at major airports such as Narita, Haneda and Kansai International Airport to name a few, as well as some retail outlets.

 

Others such as Iijmio’s (https://t.iijmio.jp/en/index.html) Japan Travel SIM card are available at Bic Camera or at Blue Sky, the airport convenience store, for example.

eConnect (https://www.econnectjapan.com/products/sim/) can be ordered online and delivered to a specified address in Japan, as well as b-mobile (http://www.bmobile.ne.jp/english/).

I found eConnect the most convenient as it did not require online activation. However, it’s not the cheapest option, and you have to pay for the delivery fee. But, it’s probably worth the peace of mind.

All SIM cards will require you to set up the Access Point Name in order to get a Wifi signal.

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Once the APN information data is entered correctly, the Wifi sign will magically appear and your social network signal flickers back to life! And with all that settled, you can finally focus on your vacation and on not checking your office email. 😉

 

Here’s a comparison table of the above-mentioned SIM cards.

             
  Prepaid SIM Card brand b-mobile Visitor SIM eConnect Japan Japan Travel Sim powered by iijmio Prepaid LTE SIM  
  Carrier NTTCommunications NTT Communications IIJ so-net  
  Sales Points Online Online Bic Camera, Blue Sky Narita Airport, Kansai International Airport, Shinchitose Airport, etc  
  Online Activation No No No Yes  
  Voice/Data Data Data Data Data  
  Duration Data: 1 GB (until limit reached) 3GB for 30 days 2GB for 3 months 1GB, or 2.2GB for 30 days; 3GB for 60 days  
  Cost 3,686 yen 3,780 yen Open Price 3,000 yen (1G) 4,000 yen (2.2GB) 5,000 yen (3GB)  

 

Diamond Fuji – The best free sight in Tokyo

The only catch is…you can only catch it twice a year!

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The only catch is…you can only catch it twice a year!

The only sight more spectacular than Mount Fuji on a clear, cloudless day is a view of “Diamond” Mount Fuji, preferably also on a clear, cloudless day.

This term refers to a phenomenon which occurs twice a year, when the sun is aligned with Japan’s highest mountain, resulting in a glorious moment during sunrise or sunset when dazzling rays of light seem to be erupting from the peak of Mount Fuji.

One of the best places to catch this view for free is the Tokyo Metropolitan Government Office Observatory. If you missed the earlier sighting on Feb 2, you can catch it from there next on Nov 10.

Info:
Tokyo Metropolitan Government Office Observatory
Address: Tokyo Metropolitan Government Building No.1, 2-8-1 Nishi-Shinjuku, Shinjuku-ku, Tokyo
South Observation Deck: 9:30 a.m. – 5:00 p.m. (until 10:30 p.m. on the 2nd and 4th Monday of each month)
North Observation Deck: 9:30 a.m. – 10:30 p.m.

Let’s Talk Subculture Vol.01: Otome Road

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

What You Oughta’ Know About Otome Road – Mecca of the FUJOSHI 腐女子

In a nutshell: Otome Road is to the Fujoshi what Akihabara is to the Otaku.

It’s the Yin to the Yang of Otaku culture (though some may argue that Akihabara-loving Otaku also includes those of the fairer sex).

First things first, fujo…what?

If that didn’t make any sense to you, fret not. The term Fujoshi isn’t as well-known as Otaku, which has elbowed its way into the Oxford dictionary to refer to a person obsessed with a certain (sub) culture, often to the detriment of their social skills.

So why should you care about this breed of beings, the Fujoshi? Because this is a global trend that taps into and reflects the psyche of nearly half of the world’s population, and is the sort of thing that once one is made aware of, can change the way you see everything. Yes, just like the blue pill and the red pill in the Matrix. So are you ready to enter this new dimension?

What is Fujoshi?

This literally means “rotten female(s)” and was a term slapped on women who drew or read manga portraying two male leads in a romantic relationship, which comes under the genre of “Boys’ Love”, or BL. This genre exists in some form all over the world, not just in Japan.

But one unique feature about BL is that it is written and drawn by women, for women. This is available in the form of specialized magazines and single-book publications, and quite often self-published spin-offs called Dojinshi. In fact, BL-type fan fiction makes up quite a majority of Dojinshi.

Now, why would any heterosexual woman be interested in two men in love or making love? Understandably the idea would make the general public somewhat squirmish.

But you’ll find that most of the Fujoshi paying pilgrimage at “Otome Road” — a nickname for a 200 meter-odd stretch of road in East Ikebukuro – are just regular romantics who desire a few things that only the BL genre seems to be able to fulfil.

WAttention’s Tor Ching Li spoke with two BL experts, BL researcher Junko Kaneda (42 years old) and freelance essayist Iku Okada (35 years old) on why Fujoshi love Boys’ Love.

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Why girls love Boys’ Love

Both Kaneda and Okada started off as fans of shonen manga (young boys’ comics), that are usually either sports or action-based, compared to shojo manga (young girls’ comics) which broadly speaking focuses on saccharine sweet, pre-teen heroines.

At the age of 9, Okada accidentally bought a fan fiction version of a manga series she was following, “Saint Seiya”, and her eyes were opened wide to the world of BL where the male protagonist’s obsession with defeating his opponent crosses the lines from hate to love…

“If you think about it, the strong feelings that the hero has towards his nemesis – constantly thinking of what he is doing and how to bend him to submission – is quite similar to the emotions of love,” said Okada.

BL explores the fantasy that the male protagonist’s hatred actually stems from a forbidden love for his nemesis – which is quite a deep hypothesis, psychologically speaking!

For Okada, even buddy couplings like Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson or rivals like Batman and the Joker are interpreted as having romantic undercurrents.

“It’s another layer of enjoyment,” she says.

Today’s BL genre started off as fan fiction of shonen manga in which such sports rivalry or battles is a major theme.

“Usually you only see the characters fighting or playing sports, don’t you want to see them in other situations such as having a meal, going on a hot spring trip or at least wearing other clothes?” said Okada.

For Kaneda, her preference stems from being able to see two male characters together – without clothes.

“Simply put, I love the male form,” said the straight-talking Kaneda.

In that sense, BL offers twice the value in that respect compared to regular couples, indeed.

Men adopting a submissive position

But the physical aspect of BL aside, there is also the psychological realm of BL – it is a relationship that women will never be able to experience for themselves or imagine themselves in, hence it remains a complete and perfect world of fantasy to be enjoyed voyeuristically.

Take, for example, one of Kaneda’s favourite BL which depicts a salaryman in his 50s is pinned down by the sexual advances of his young male subordinate.

“BL gives women the chance to see men in a submissive state, being the one to say ‘No! Stop! It’s embarrassing…’ or be pleasured, instead of the normal manga when men are the one taking the lead and proving their manhood – even if in real life, they don’t quite do so!” says Kaneda.

In a male-dominated world – and society like Japan – this twist will give most ladies some pleasure.

And therein lies the key to why girls love Boys’ Love: A world removed from reality where anything is possible, and love is as free and freewheeling as their fantasies.

Is 801 (yaoi) the same as BL?

Now that you know the basics of BL, some of you may have heard of such material being referred to as “yaoi” overseas. This term stems from the phrase used to criticize to fiction writing, “yama nashi, ochi nashi, imi nashi”, or no climax (“yama” or mountain in Japanese), no punch line or point (“ochi”) and no meaning (“imi”). The abbreviation of this word grouping can be represented by the numbers 801 that sound like the first syllable of each of these words, which is why if you see a shop or café in Ikebukuro with 801 on the signboard, it’s probably a BL-related business.

In the late 70s, female manga artists of dojinshi – who would be labelled Fujoshi – were criticized as producing manga that was poorly constructed with no climax, no point and no meaning – but in self-deprecating humour the BL circle adapted this term as a reference for their genre.

Indeed, there is a difference between yaoi and BL that even many self-proclaimed Fujoshi are not aware of. Yaoi actually refers to an often more sexually explicit spinoff of a mainstream manga series, while BL is a story featuring original characters which is often a single book, not a series.

It is common for yaoi dojinshi to get spotted by publication companies who then commission them to author BL, and some of them even move on to mainstream manga from there – one such example is hit manga artist Yoshinaga Fumi who started off self-publishing BL Dojinshi and now has some of her works licensed internationally.

And so both yaoi and BL have evolved to be properly constructed stories for a discerning audience in a competitive BL market, where budding dojinshi can even publish their work online for free viewing.

Nevertheless, if you find the distinction between yaoi and BL confusing, don’t worry; no-one will blink an eyelid if you use the terms interchangeably as they are all drawn by women, for women’s enjoyment.

 

Profiles:

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Kaneda Junko

Sociologist and researcher in yaoi, BL and dojinshi. Born in 1973 in Toyama Prefecture. Graduated from Tokyo University’s Faculty of Law, and enrolled in the Faculty of Literature. Withdrew from the Tokyo University Graduate School of Humanities and Social Sciences with doctoral credits. Conducts research in yaoi from the perspective of gender studies and sociology.

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Okada Iku

Essayist, Editor.

Born in Tokyo, 1980. Authored “Haji no Oii Jinsei (Mine Has Been a Life of Much Margin)” and a regular on TV news program “Toku-Dane!” (The Scoops) as a commentator.

http://okadaic.net/

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

What’s in a Sakura Hotpot? A horse, of course!

Well, a horse of course…

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Well, a horse of course…

Amongst the many delicacies (or some would say, strange) foods that is eaten Japan, is horse meat, otherwise known as ‘sakura’. This moniker probably comes from the bright red colour of the flesh.

A full course of horse?

While some cultures may balk at the thought of eating a creature as handsome as the horse, here in Japan it is gaining popularity even amongst the ladies as a ‘beauty food’ for being low in fat, high in protein and iron – and great in taste.

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Kyushu and Nagano prefectures are famous for their horse meat production and cuisine. Specialty horse meat restaurants such as Bakurou have also galloped onto the scene in Tokyo as well, offering horse meat hotpots (sakura hotpots), sashimi, yakiniku and innards as well.

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Caption: Horse yakiniku

As in most foods in Japan, the best way to eat horse meat is raw. The sakura sashimi is dipped in soy sauce and grated ginger or garlic, as you prefer. How does it taste like? The texture (depending on the part) is firm and it’s probably best described as a clean, fresh taste.

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Horse innards stew is also a popular dish at izakayas. It’s been one of the signature dishes at大統領(Daitouryou)izakaya at Ueno for decades, which specializes in grilled innards on sticks – speaking of innards…but that’s another story!

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Horse innards stew

 

WANTED: Used In Japan Goods

Why tourists are now first in line to bag second-hand branded goods in Japan

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Why tourists are now first in line to bag second-hand branded goods in Japan

The secret is out – Japan is the place to buy first rate second-hand branded goods. And the Chinese are already flocking in to get their hands on the best bargains – especially bags.

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Let’s face it. Japan has a branded bag fetish. Though Japan has a population half that of the United States, Japan has twice the number of branded bag retail shops compared to the U.S.

As with the emphasis on seasonal foods, fashion goes out of season quickly here, and so many branded bags end up in second-hand shops even though they’ve only been used a few times. Secondhand shops for more common items are often called ‘recycle shops’, so you can shop on the pretext of saving the earth!

Here we’ll introduce a few second-hand branded goods shops in major shopping areas in Tokyo.

 

SHINJUKU

Komehyo takes up 8-storeys in Shinjuku with one whole floor dedicated to branded bags, from Hermes, Louis Vuitton, Chanel, Gucci, and Prada? you name it, they have it. This is the largest second-hand department store in Japan and is listed on the Tokyo Stock Exchange.

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IKEBUKURO

Daikokuya is also a nationwide chain of second-hand department stores. In Ikebukuro alone, there are 5 outlets. Here, you can get a Prada bag for around half price!

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GINZA

These second-hand shops are even springing up in glitzy Ginza! In fact, Rokoshira is based in Ginza and offers the branded goods you can find along Ginza at a fraction of the price.

 

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So, are you ready to for some environmentally-friendly shopping today?

Shop Information:

Name: Komehyo
Location: 3-5-6 Shinjuku, Shinjuku-ku, Tokyo
Hours: 1pm – 9pm, closed first Wednesday of every month
Website: http://www.komehyo.co.jp/store/shinjuku/shinjuku_f05

 

Name: Daikokuya
Location: Several throughout Ikebukuro, Tokyo
Hours: Depends on store
Website: http://www.e-daikoku.com/
Name: Rokushira
Location: Asano 3rd Blgd B1F-2F 2-4-19 Ginza, Chuo-ku, Tokyo
Hours: 11am ? 8pm
Website: http://rokoshira.jp/

 

A day out at Tokyo Station

Experience Tokyo and more at Tokyo Station itself

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Experience Tokyo and more at Tokyo Station itself

Tokyo station is a starting point for many a Shinkansen train journey by the foreign traveler, but the station – which celebrates it centenary this year – is also worth setting aside time for a visit by itself even if you aren’t train bound anywhere.

Needless to say the facade of the station is grandiose – after a 50 billion yen renovation that spanned 5 and a half years – but the shops inside give a quick taste of the modernity and quirkiness of Tokyo and Japanese culture as a whole.

Ramen Street

For ramen lovers, Tokyo Ramen Street boasts a collection of 8 famed ramen stalls in Tokyo, with various bases from shio, shoyu, fish, to pork broth and even cow’s tongue ramen.

The ramen street has been attracting long queues since Day 1, and if you are pressed for time, this is a good place to try several types of ramen in one place!

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Tokyo Okashi Land

This is first such concept shop of its kind in Japan ? a gathering of antennae shops of Japan’s three most famous confectionary and snack makers: Calbee, Glico and Morinaga. These shops offer Tokyo Station limited edition snacks, as well as the chance to eat freshly-fried Calbee potato chips, potato chip sundaes, freshly-made Glico chocolate confectionary and recipes on how to use Morinaga snacks in various recipes. Leave calorie counting at the entrance!

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Tokyo Character Street

26 specialty shops selling character goods from popular manga, such as Naruto or One Piece at the Jump Shop, or from TV shows from various broadcast stations are gathered here. Of course, you can find shops selling a broad range of all-time favourites such as Hello Kitty goods, Rilakkuma, Pikachu and Ultraman, as well as Kabuki goods for fans of Japanese theatre.

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Tokyome+

On the first floor of the Yaesu North exit, Tokyome+ is any tourists’ dream collection of Tokyo’s best omiyage. Here you can find anything from regular favourites such as Tokyo Banana and newly popular confectionary such as rusks or caramel rolls, and traditional delicacies such as sushi and stewed foods eaten since the Edo era.

Even if you’re not catching a train, do not fret. Entry into the station is possible if you buy a station entry ticket at 140 yen.

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Address:Tokyo Ichibangai, B1, Tokyo Station Yaesu Central Exit, B1

Photo source: Tokyo Station Corporation

Taste all of Japan in Ginza

Antenna Shops offer a glimpse into Japan’s regional culture and cuisine

Antenna Shops offer a glimpse into Japan’s regional culture and cuisine

Ginza isn’t all about flashy fashion outlets and the latest gizmos ? it’s also attracted a cluster of regional retail outlets, known as antenna shops, where tourists and Tokyoites alike can get a taste of what the culture and cuisine is like from as far south as Okinawa to Hokkaido in the north, and plenty of prefectures in between.

Why not explore Japan through these antennas?

Osaka Hyakkaten

This showa-feel retro retail shop has an eat-in corner where you can try the Osaka staple of takoyaki or butaman (steamed pork bun), and sells over 600 quirky items reflecting Osaka’s offbeat sense of humour.

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Address: Chiyoda-ku, Yurakucho 2-10-1, Tokyo Kotsu Kaikan 1F
Tel: 03-5220-1333
Hours: 10:00 – 22:00

Tokushima and Kagawa Tomoni Ichiba

This is within the Tokyo Kotsu Kaikan, which houses several antennae shops. Here you can get try authentic sanuki udon from Kagawa, Tokushima ramen and sudachi, or a local type of lime.

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Address: Chiyoda-ku, Yurakucho 2-10-1, Tokyo Kotsu Kaikan 1F
Tel: 03-6269-9688
Hours: 10:30 – 19:30

Iki Iki Toyama Kan 

Even if you can’t get a ticket on the Hokuriku Shinkansen to Toyama, you can get a taste of Toyama’s specialties such as the white shrimp and sweet shrimp, firefly squid and honey here.
This stocks over 800 items including the region’s famous masu (trout) sushi.
An on-site sushi master will whip up whatever seasonal specialty the prefecture has to offer.Nearest stn: Yurakucho. Open daily, 10am-7pm. http://toyamakan.jp

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Address: Chiyoda-ku, Yurakucho 2-10-1, Tokyo Kotsu Kaikan B1
Tel: 03-3231-5032
Hours: 10:00 – 19:00

Iwate Ginza Plaza

Support Tohoku’s recovery from the 2011 earthquake by shopping here. This is a relatively large scale store with over 1,500 items and even a Koiwa ice cream corner.
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Address: Chuo-ku, Ginza 5-15-1, Nankai Tokyo Bldg. 1F
Tel: 03-3254-8282
Hours: 10:30 ? 19:00

Gunma-chan Chi

Get your hands on nutritious egoma (sesame) sauce here or local snack, yaki manjyu (roasted buns).

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Address: Chuo-ku, Ginza 5-13-19, Duplex Ginza Tower 5/13
Tel: 03-3546-8511

Oishii Yamagata Plaza

Other than selling local sake, fruits and vegetables, this antenna shop uses Yamagata’s products in an Italian restaurant San Del Delo that it operates on premise, run by star chef Masayuki Okusa.

Address: Chuo-ku, Ginza 1-5-10, Ginza First Five Bldg.
Tel: 03-5250-1752
Hours: 10:00 ? 20:00

Ginza Kumamoto Kan

Kumamoto is famous for prefectural mascot Kumamon, and you can expect to find lots of Kumamon goods here. Over 1,000 items such as fruits, vegetables, seafood and meats from Kumamoto can be found here, and you can enjoy them with Kumamoto shochu at a bar on the second floor. You can also try basashi (horsemeat) here. (Pix 8)

Address: Chuo-ku, Ginza 5-3-16
Tel: 03-3572-1261
Hours: 11:00 ? 20:00
ASOBI Bar 17:00 ? 20:00

Marugoto Kochi
Kochi is known for its sake and sake-drinking culture. Enjoy the sake with seafood from the Seto Inland Sea at a restaurant on the 2nd floor.

Address: Chuo-ku, Ginza 1-3-13, Ri-burekkusu Tower
Tel: 03-3538-4351
Hours vary (Pix 9)

Okinawa Ginza Washita Shop
This stocks an impressive array of Okinawan produce, and selection of awamori in the basement, as well as and fresh produce such as goya or bittergourd.

Address: Chuo-ku, Ginza 1-3-9, Maruito Ginza Bldg.
Tel: 03-3535-6991
Hours: 10:30 ? 20:00
(Pix 10)

Hokkaido Dosanko Plaza
This faces the Yurakucho station and sells Hokkaido’s famous dairy and dry products. Indulge in an ice cream or potato croquette here.

Address: Chiyoda-ku, Yurakucho 2-10-1, Tokyo Kotsu Kaikan L1
Hours: 10am-7pm hours
(Pix 11)

Photo source: various sites

Stand up for cheap, fast and good food!

Food

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While walking and eating, or even walking and drinking, was frowned on in Japan just 20 years ago, now, standing while eating is something people queue up for! And we’re not just talking about the salaryman staple of standup soba. From sushi, steak, yakiniku to even Italian and French cuisine, Japanese restaurants are packing in the crowds by throwing out the chairs!

So why would anyone stand in a queue, only to stand again inside the shop? Well, thinking on one’s feet, the answer is: good, fast and cheap food.
The steak chain, Ikinari Steak (which means ‘suddenly steak’), has expanded rapidly since opening in Ginza in December 2013.

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You choose your cut of meat, which is priced from 5.5 yen per gram, which means you can get a 300gram slab of sizzling steak on a hotplate for just 1,650 yen.

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Standing sushi has been around longer, and is still popular as a choice in between conveyor belt and real sit down, itamae sushi.

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Meat lovers will be happy to know that there’s also standing yakiniku to choose from, so now you can stand and cook your own meal!

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As most customers leave after finishing their meal, these standing dining establishments can afford to charge lower prices for higher customer traffic. Which explains why this trend has spread to almost every cuisine – including Italian and French!

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In fact, ‘Ore no French’ (which translates literally into ‘My French’) was listed in the Michelin Guide Tokyo 2015 ? after all, it’s chefs hail from Michelin-starred restaurants. And ‘Ore no Kappou’, also in Ginza, now gives you the option of enjoying fine Japanese cuisine dining without burning a hole in your pocket. 

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So, don’t stand on ceremony, come check out these establishments!

 

Restaurant information:
Name: Ikinari Steak
Price range: $$
Location: Various locations throughout Tokyo
Website: http://ikinaristeak.com/

 

Name: Ore no French Ginza
Price range: $$
Location: 8-7-9 Ginza, Chuo-ku, Tokyo
Website: http://www.oreno.co.jp/en/restaurant/

 

Name: Ore no Kappou
Price range: $$
Location: 1F, 8-8-17 Ginza, Chuo-ku, Tokyo
Website: http://hitosara.com/0006018359/ (Japanese)

 

 

Do the “Hell Tour” at Beppu Onsen

Beppu in Oita Prefecture is probably the most famous onsen resort in Japan, producing the most hot spring water than any other area. The type of hot spring water varies on the location of the onsen, such as whether it is near the sea or the mountain.

Other than soaking in a hot spring, a popular activity is to do the Jigoku Meguri, or Hell Tour. There are a total of 8 Hell Hot Springs in an array of colors, but there probably isn’t a need to visit all of them unless you prefer to watch animals in hot springs than dip in one yourself. Here is a selection of six of them.

LAKE OF BLOOD 

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The high temperature of the hot spring water here (about 78 degrees) and the resulting volume of iron oxide and magnesium oxide in the water gives it its blood red colour.

SEA OF HELL

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Formed from a volcanic explosion around 1,200 years ago, this hot spring is nearly 98 degrees Celsius and the high content of radium iron sulphate gives the water its turquoise color.

SHAVEN MONK’S HEAD HELL 

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The bubbles forming in this hot spring of grey mud are said to look like the shaven head of  a monk. As the water temperature here hits around 99 degrees Celsius, dipping in this onsen is not advised, however, a foot bath facility is available on premise. There’s also a public bath next door with various pools to dip in.

WHITE POND HELL 

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This steaming milky white hot spring lake is surrounded by a Japanese garden and has an aquarium with rare tropical fish such as the man-eating piranha.

TORNADO HELL 

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This geyser erupts every 30-40 minutes for up to 10 minutes at a time, reaching around 50m in height.

MONSTER MOUNTAIN HELL 

 

 

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Over 80 crocodiles and alligators inhabit this hot spring which was the first hot spring facility to rear crocodiles over 90 years ago.

 

 

 

A Taste of Sh旬n: Feeling Crabby?

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Clockwise from left: hairy crab, taraba crab and the snow crab

Crab season is officially here, with the start of the snow crab fishing season beginning off the Sea of Japan last week. The snow crab, or zuwaigani, is a much-loved winter delicacy by the Japanese. Other popular types of crabs include the hairy crab and taraba crab. The season lasts till around March next year.

AS SASHIMI

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Snow crab sashimi (left) and taraba crab sashimi (right)

As with all things fresh in Japan, snow crab is best savored raw with soy sauce or ponzu (a citrus-based sauce). However, as crab has to be handled very carefully in order to be served raw, this is not always available at restaurants.

BOILED IN A HOTPOT

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Another popular way is to boil the crabs in a hotpot, either on its own or as part of a mixed hotpot, which will lend a sweetness to the resulting broth.

GRILLED

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For many, the aroma of grilled crab wafting in the air is irresistible. As the crab meat is already flavorsome, no additional sauce or seasoning is necessary. Just enjoy the natural juices of this tasty crustacean!

SHABU-SHABU

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Another popular way is to briefly blanch the snow crab legs in hot soup in shabu-shabu style.

CRAB MISO 

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While the flesh of the crab is tasty, many a crab fan will tell you that the best part of the crab lies in its “miso”, or a greyish-green mix paste which is a mix of internal organs. It has a creamy texture and flavor perhaps best described as close to that of uni (sea urchin).

 

MISO SAKE 

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To round off the crab feast, pouring hot sake into the crab shell to result in a complex flavorsome brew is a must try! Boiling the sake in the shell crab to extract more of the essence of the crab and miso is highly recommended.

About Shun:
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.

 

Hokkaido By Rail and Car Day 5 : Feasting at Furano

Hokkaido, Japan’s second largest island, is also referred to as the “The Big Land in the North” by the locals. Blessed with picturesque nature and bounty from the sea and land, it is a favorite getaway destination for the Japanese and tourists alike. WAttention flew in to Sapporo and did a 5D4N rail and rental car tour through the big land. Follow our trip and train details here!  

FURANO MARCHE 

marche

Furano is well-loved for its wine and cheese. Just a 10min drive from the Furano Prince Hotel is the Furano Marche, where you can find a vast array of Furano fresh produce, such as the various types of potatoes (fresh or boiled and flavored with butter and vacuum packed), souvenirs, food as well as handicraft.

JAM AND THE ANPANMAN AT THE ROKUGOU VIEWING PLATFORM 

 

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After stocking up on souvenirs, we headed to the Kyohsai Farm’s Furano Jam Garden around a 20 min drive away at the base of the Rokugou Viewing Platform. This viewing platform is very popular in the summer months as a place to view fields of lavender. At the jam store, you can try 35 types of jam, many of which are only available here, such as haskap berry jam and pumpkin jam. Right next door is the Anpanman Shop, which stocks a whole array of Anpanman toys, books and snacks, with an Anpanman gallery on the second floor, where if you are lucky, you can even meet Anpanman for a handshake and photo. It is the only Anpanman shop in the whole Japan to have been operated directly by the creator of Anpanman, Takashi Yanase.

 

FURANO OMUCURRY 

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Furano Omurice at Natulux Hotel

Furano Omucurry, or short for omurice curry, is the soul food of Furano–which is also known as the bellybutton of Hokkaido for being right in the middle of the island. It has to meet 6 criteria to be called Furano Omurice, such as using local vegetables, eggs, cheese or wine, serve a local beverage or Furano milk, make sure the cost is kept within 1,000 yen (excluding tax) and display the Omucurry Flag. Each restaurant offers a unique interpretation of the dish. A must try the next time you are in Hokkaido! We tried the omucurry at Natulux Hotel, which is just 3min by car from the Marche.

WINE, CHEESE AND DESSERT

wineWithin close driving distance is the Chateau Furano, Furano cheese factory and Campana della Vigna Rokatei. Sample Furano wine and pure grape juice here…

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Try five kinds of cheese and butter here such as wine flavored cheese and squid ink cheese, or try  your hand at making cheese, bread or pizza here.

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Rokatei is a confectionery maker from Furano, and is a popular choice for souvenirs. It recently opened a store and eat-in cafe in Furano with a stunning view of rolling vineyards. The ice cream Another must-try sweet treat is “Santa’s beard”, which is another Furano creation of half a melon topped with a tower of soft serve ice cream.

Having feasted on the best of Furano classics, we drove to Asahikawa whereby we then took the train, L’EX Super Kamui No.38 back to Sapporo, before taking a plane back to Tokyo, already missing the vast space and fresh foods of Hokkaido.

Here’s the rest of the series:
Hokkaido By Rail & Car: Day 1,2 – Sapporo, Lake Toyako
Hokkaido By Rail and Car: Day 3 – Kamikawa, Sounkyo
Hokkaido By Rail and Car Day 4: Biei and Furano

Hokkaido By Rail and Car Day 4: Biei and Furano

Hokkaido, Japan’s second largest island, is also referred to as the “The Big Land in the North” by the locals. Blessed with picturesque nature and bounty from the sea and land, it is a favorite getaway destination for the Japanese and tourists alike. WAttention flew in to Sapporo and did a 5D4N rail and rental car tour through the big land. Follow our trip and train details here!  

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0840h Leave Sounkyo Onsen by local bus
0915h Arrive Kamikawa Station
0925h Leave Kamikawa on L’EX Okhotsk No.2 for Asahikawa
1010 Arrive Asahikawa Station
1030 30 min drive from Asahikawa to Biei

BIEI, LAND OF ROLLING HILLS AND FAMOUS TREES

秋の丘(11月上旬)

Biei’s rolling hills and fields of patchwork colors (depending on the crop of the season) makes it a picturesque place to drive through and almost transports you to an English or European countryside.

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Some of its famous trees include the Ken and Mary Tree, a poplar tree that became popular after it was used as a location for a Nissan Skyline commercial in the early 1970s, and the Parent and Child Trees, though the “child” tree in the middle was recently blown away by strong winds, leaving the parents behind (bottom right of the photo collage).

PICNIC LUNCH

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Picnic is the name of a cosy little cafe that serves soup, burgers and sandwiches for eat-in or takeaway, perfect for an outdoors picnic in summer or autumn!

AOIKE (BLUE POND)

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After lunch, WAttention headed to the Blue Pond, around 20 minute’s drive from the Biei Station. This pond is naturally blue due to the natural minerals dissolved in the water. It is actually part of an erosion control systme to prevent damage to Biei in the event of an eruption by Mount Tokachidake nearby.

WINE DINNER AT FURANO

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Around 45 minutes’ drive from Biei, is the city of Furano, which is famous for its wine and cheese production. Furano Wine House, located atop a hill, offers a great night view to go with fine food, from steak to deer meat, and pizza made with Furano White Cheese.

NINGURU TERRACE AT FURANO PRINCE HOTEL

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Ninguru Terrace is a quaint little village of boutique shops housed in cottages, and makes for a particularly pleasant stroll when colored by autumn foliage or covered in snow. Enjoy the scent of the surrounding pine trees as well for a truly sensory walk.

 

Stay tuned for the final leg, Day 5 where we try Furano’s soul food, Omurice Curry, and sweets!

Here’s the rest of the series:
Hokkaido By Rail & Car: Day 1,2 – Sapporo, Lake Toyako
Hokkaido By Rail and Car: Day 3 – Kamikawa, Sounkyo
Hokkaido By Rail and Car Day 5 : Feasting at Furano

Hokkaido By Rail and Car: Day 3 – Kamikawa, Sounkyo

Hokkaido, Japan’s second largest island, is also referred to as the “The Big Land in the North” by the locals. Blessed with picturesque nature and bounty from the sea and land, it is a favorite getaway destination for the Japanese and tourists alike. WAttention flew in to Sapporo and did a 5D4N rail and rental car tour through the big land. Follow our trip and train details here!  

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L’EX Okhotsk No.2

Day 3:
7:21 Board the L’EX Okhotsk from Kamikawa Station
9:41 Arrive Kamikawa Station

BEAR PARK AND ICE PAVILION

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Feed the bears and experience minus 21 degrees all in one venue!

Bears roam freely on some mountains in Hokkaido, but you don’t have to head to the deep forests to see one. In fact, you can see 12 huge bears at the Asahikawa Bear Park at the Daisetsu Mori-no-Garden and watch how they try to charm you for cookies (provided by the park). After that, find out why the bears decide to hibernate in the Hokkaido winters by entering the Ice Pavilion, literally the coolest entertainment place in Japan with temperatures going below minus degrees Celsius.
Around 15 minutes by car from the station.

LUNCH @ FRATELLO DI MIKUNI

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Set lunch at Mikuni, a fine dining restaurant by Mikuni Kiyomi

Within walking distance from the Daisetsu Mori-no-Garden, is a fine dining restaurant with a view of the Daisetsuzan Mountain Valley, run by renowned chef, Mikuni Kiyomi, who is also known as the Food Ambassador of Hokkaido.  Enjoy the tastiest food of the season here at prices that won’t break the bank!

KURODAKE ROPEWAY 

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Autumn foliage from the ropeway

Mt. Kurodake is the highest peak in the Daisetsuzan National Park at 1,984m and is easily accessible by ropeway which leads to the 5th Station halfway up to the peak. From there, one can take a chairlift further up to the 7th Station. The view of the carpet of autumn foliage on the dramatic mountain ranges is simply stunning.
Around 30 minutes by car from Fratello Di Mikuni.

GINGA WATERFALL AND RYUSEI WATERFALL

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Two minutes’ drive from the ropeway are two waterfalls around 80m high, with water that comes from melted mountain snow. Ginga (silver river)  is meant to be a “female” waterfall for the way it falls in several strands and Ryusei (meteor) is thought to be a “male” waterfall for its powerful straight stream.

SOUNKYO ONSEN

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What better way to end the day than to soak in an outdoor hot spring, with autumn foliage and the background soundtrack of the gushing river?

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And the onsen experience of course wouldn’t be complete without a kaiseki meal featuring foods of the season such as river fish!

DAY 4 brings us to Furano!

Here’s the rest of the series:
Hokkaido By Rail & Car: Day 1,2 – Sapporo, Lake Toyako
Hokkaido By Rail and Car Day 4: Biei and Furano
Hokkaido By Rail and Car Day 5 : Feasting at Furano

Hokkaido By Rail & Car: Day 1,2 – Sapporo, Lake Toyako –

Hokkaido, Japan’s second largest island, is also referred to as the “The Big Land in the North” by the locals. Blessed with picturesque nature and bounty from the sea and land, it is a favorite getaway destination for the Japanese and tourists alike. WAttention flew in to Sapporo and did a 5D4N rail and rental car tour through the big land. Follow our trip and train details here!  

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L’EX Hokuto No.12

Day 1:
14:48  Board Rapid Airport No. 147, alight at Minami Shin Chitose at 14:51
15:05  Board L’EX Hokuto No.12
16:25 Arrive Lake Toya Station
Rent a car from the station to Toyako Onsen, 15 mins by car

LAKE TOYA ONSEN

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View of Lake Toya from Toya Manseikaku Hotel. In the distance is Mt Yotei.

Lake Toya is one of the biggest lakes in Japan and is a popular onsen resort. It offers views of Mt Yotei, which is fondly known as Hokkaido’s Mt. Fuji for its symmetry.

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View of the fireworks from a cruiseship

Fireworks are held every night on the lake in front of the various hotels lining the lake. In fact, Lake Toya has the longest running fireworks festival, running from April to October.

Mt Usu Ropeway

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View from Mt Usu

Just a 15-min car ride from Lake Toya is the 733-m high Mt. Usu, one of the most active volcanoes in Japan. It erupted four times in the past century, and Mt Usu is a result of one of the eruptions. The G8 Summit was held near here in 2008.

DRIVE FROM LAKE TOYA TO NISEKO

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Lunch at Niseko

 

The ski resort of Niseko is a scenic 2 hour’s drive from Lake Toya, and we had lunch at Niseko Prativo, a semi-buffet style restaurant that boasts a salad bar serving vegetables grown in Hokkaido, and milk from the next-door award-winning dairy farm. From the restaurant you can get a view of Mt Yotei as well. The milk pudding, cheesecake and yogurt drink here were also divine! Not to mention the cheese tarts at Takahashi’s Dairy Farm next door.

SEGWAY

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Segway tour

Now, what better way to work off those lunch calories than to hop on a segway? WAttention explored the surrounding area on these cool segways.

 

After that, we drove back to Sapporo for the night.

Stay tuned for Day 3: Autumn leaves at Sounkyo Onsen, minus 21 degrees Celsius Ice Pavilion, and more!

Here’s the rest of the series:
Hokkaido By Rail and Car: Day 3 – Kamikawa, Sounkyo
Hokkaido By Rail and Car Day 4: Biei and Furano
Hokkaido By Rail and Car Day 5 : Feasting at Furano

 

Nagoya Tastes: Miso and More

 

 

Nagoya is a treasure chest of street food and has a unique food culture from that of Tokyo and Osaka, the other two major cities it is sandwiched between and often bypassed for. Just coming here for a gastronomic adventure is worth the trip itself!

MISO CUTLETS

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Nagoya is famous for its miso food culture. The dominant type of miso used is 八丁味噌, or hachomiso, which is a miso with a sweet and nutty taste. This is used as a seasoning for all sorts of food, such as oden, and most famously on its pork cutlets as miso cutlets.

SEKAI NO YAMACHAN

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Sekai No Yamachan, or literally, Yamachan of the World, is a popular restaurant chain specializing in Nagoya dishes, and famous for its spicy and crispy chicken wings. There are 75 branches within Japan, with 37 in Aichi prefecture and 17 in Tokyo. You can also eat other Nagoya specialties here such as kishimen.

KISHIMEN

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This is a broad and flat noodle with a broth that is not as soy sauce heavy as the Kanto style and not as light as the Kansai style. Its smooth and chewy texture makes it a tactile treat.

MORNING 

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“Morning” in Japan refers to breakfast, and the most famous component of breakfast in Nagoya is the red bean paste toast served with a dollop of butter. Try this melting blend of east meeting west here!

 

 

 

A Taste of Sh旬n: Nuts Over Ginko

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Come autumn, the leaves of the ginko tree, also known as a the maidenhair tree and the city tree of Tokyo, turn a bright yellow and the tree starts to bear fruit. While the view of a yellow canopy of ginko trees against a clear blue sky is breathtakingly beautiful, the stench of squished ginko nuts can take your breath away in another sense.

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That said, ginko nut hunters come out during this season to gather these nuts off the ground and wash off the skin, in pursuit of the nut inside which has a bitter sweet taste, making it perfect for frying or baking. The ginko nut is also known for its health properties such as lowering cholesterol levels. Often found in chawanmushi (steamed egg), the ginko nut is also often eaten on its own.

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Grilled ginko nuts with salt are a popular item at izakayas as a healthy snack with beer. The texture is slightly firmer than that of a boiled potato and has a slightly bitter aftertaste.

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Fried ginko nuts are also sold off the shelves at supermarkets or convenience store as a snack for the health conscious.

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And last but not least, another popular way of eating ginko is to of course, to steam it with rice.

Nagoya Sights (1): Castles and Ferris Wheels

 

 

Situated between the popular tourist cities of Tokyo and Osaka, Nagoya is often left out of the “Golden Route” from Tokyo heading to Kansai. However, this third largest city in Japan has lots to offer from history to food and sights.

For a start, it boasts famous castles and Ferris Wheels, and we’re not talking about a theme park!

NAGOYA CASTLE

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Famous for its kinshachi, or golden dolphins which are recognized as a lucky charm, the Nagoya castle was built by the first shogun Ieyasu Tokugawa. Along with Kumamoto Castle and Osaka Castle, this is one of Japan’s most famous castles. The kinshachi is typical of the spirit of Nagoya, which places emphasis on lavish appearances.

INUYAMA CASTLE

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This unassuming little castle on a hill, more specifically, Inuyama, is recognized as a national treasure for its historical value. First built in 1440, it is the oldest wooden castle tower in Japan and one of only twelve original castles remaining from the feudal age, having withstood many wars and natural disasters. Inuyama is around 30 minutes from Nagoya city by express train.

SKY [email protected] SAKAE 

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Not many places can you find a 42m diameter Ferris Wheel attached to a shopping mall. Hop onto one of the capsules for a 15m ride that will give you great views of the grid streets of Nagoya.

 

 

Matsumoto Must-Go Day Trips

Matsumoto City is probably most well-known overseas for its historic castle, the Matsumoto Castle, which is over 400 years old and a National Treasure of Japan. Nagano’s second largest city also has lots else to offer, which WAttention will introduce in this 4-part Matsumoto Must sightseeing series. 

MOUNT NORIKURA 

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Around an hour and 15 minutes by bus and train from Matsumoto lies one of Japan’s 100 famous mountains, Mount Norikura, which is the third tallest peak of the Northern Japan Alps at 3,026m. It is a popular destination for enjoying the autumn colors and a popular way to enjoy the mountain is by taking the bus to the summit and walking down to the next bus stop.

NARAIJUKU POST TOWN 

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The wooden “post town” or accommodation in the Kiso Valley for weary travelers who walked thousands of miles between the trade route of Kyoto to Edo continues to provide accommodation for those looking to travel back in time to 200 years ago. Some of the buildings now sell traditional snacks such as oyaki or souvenirs. The houses are built at an angle to each other and not flushed in a line so that all the houses are visible in a row. Just 45 minutes west of Matsumoto by the JR Chuo Line.

 

KAMIKOCHI HIGHLAND

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Known as the Swiss Alps of Japan for its picturesque mountain scenery, Kamikochi is 51km west of Matsumoto and has hiking trails of various levels, the shortest of which can be completed in an hour. Come here for fresh alpine air and river fish. Or stay overnight at some of the accommodation available at this national park and try some river fish, such as ayu or iwana. Private cars are not allowed to drive into the park, but there are buses and taxis that ply there.

 

A Taste of Sh旬n: Say Cheese To Persimmon

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Persimmons, or kaki (柿), and pumpkins are the signature orange foods of autumn. From September till around December, persimmon trees can be seen ablaze with the orange fruit.

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The flesh tastes mildly sweet, and depending on how ripe it is, ranges from a crunch to jelly-like texture.

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In the rural areas, it is common to see strings of persimmon being hung up to dry. This heightens the sweetness of the persimmon, and gives it a more chewy texture.

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More recently, dried persimmon has also been used to make sweets and desserts, most popularly with cream cheese which compliments its taste–much like how cheese goes with other dried fruits such as apricot.

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Persimmon leaves, known for their anti-oxidant and anti-bacterial qualities, have also been used to wrap sushi and lend some fragrance to the rice and raw fish.

 

 

Matsumoto Must See Sights

Matsumoto City is probably most well-known overseas for its historic castle, the Matsumoto Castle, which is over 400 years old and a National Treasure of Japan. Nagano’s second largest city also has lots else to offer, which WAttention will introduce in this 4-part Matsumoto Must sightseeing series. 

 

MATSUMOTO CASTLE

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This is Japan’s oldest surviving castle at over 400 years old, and one of the five castles to be declared a National Treasure along with Himeji Castle, Hikone Castle, Inuyama Castle and Matsue Castle.  This is a flatland castle–that is, not built on a hilltop–making it an easy 15-minute walk from the Matsumoto Train Station. Its black exterior against the backdrop of the Japanese Alps and surrounding moat makes it particularly picturesque, especially during the cherry blossom season.

NAWATE DORI SHOPPING STREET

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Just across from the Matsumoto Castle is this quaint shopping street along the Metoba river that used to separate the Samurai residences from the common folk. The river here used to be inhabited by frogs–hence its dominant frog theme and even a temple dedicated to a frog. Pick up a taiyaki to eat while strolling for souvenirs here.

MATSUMOTO MUSEUM OF ART

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The world’s most popular artist in 2014, (by an American survey of museum attendance) avant-garde pop artist Kusama Yayoi was born in Matsumoto in 1929 and her works are now on permanent display at the Matsumoto Museum of Art. Polka dots are her signature motif, and her works are said to have influenced her contemporaries such as Andy Warhol. Walk into the fascinating world of art installations by Japan’s most prominent and prolific contemporary artist here. A special exhibition of her works will be on display until the end of June 2016.

WATERING HOLES (of various sorts)

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Matsumoto is blessed with several natural spring water sources sprinkled all over town, which have been used by the townsfolk since the Edo era for consumption or putting out fires. Get a taste of fresh mineral water–each water source has a slightly different taste!

 

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Matsumoto also boasts a thriving bar culture for watering holes of a different sort. Main Bar Coat has over 300 types of Scotch and Japanese whiskies and is a must-visit for any fan of whiskey.

 

NAKAMACHI DORI STREET

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Black and white traditional warehouses make up the Nakamachi Area, and these buildings have been converted into bars (such as Main Bar Coat), cafes, souvenir shops and restaurants, making for an atmospheric stroll.

 

 

Matsumoto Must Try Delicacies

Matsumoto City is probably most well-known overseas for its historic castle, the Matsumoto Castle, which is over 400 years old and a National Treasure of Japan. Nagano’s second largest city also has lots else to offer, which WAttention will introduce in this 4-part Matsumoto Must sightseeing series. 

 

 

MUST TRY DELICACIES 

Ask any Japanese and they will tell you that Nagano Prefecture is famous for soba, horse meat, bee larvae and grasshoppers–not all in one dish, of course!

Matsumoto has a unique local soba of its own, called Toji Soba, which literally means “dipping soba into soup”–or how the soba is eaten. Cold soba is given a dip in hot dashi broth, shabu shabu style, and then eaten with the soup which has pork, mushrooms, mountain vegetables and fried oily tofu as ingredients.

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In Japan, horse meat sashimi is commonly eaten in Nagano Prefecture and Kumamoto Prefecture. Like beef, there are various cuts of different fat marbling. Horse meat has been gaining popularity in Japan for being low in fat and high in protein.

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Bee larve is known to be rich in protein. The taste and texture is perhaps best described as similar to a dried natto. These little bugs are understandably hard to harvest and hence don’t come cheap! The color variation indicates the stage of the larvae’s maturity–the darker, the closer it was to becoming a busy bee.

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Grasshoppers are flavored tsukudani-style, ie. with soy sauce, mirin and sake–with a nice crunch. Good with sake!

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The region has also developed its own breed of salmon, Shinshu salmon–a crossbreed of two trouts to result in a fish rich in oil content. This is only available at restaurants in Nagano.

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Now, for more common local soul food, there is yuba (tofu skin)…

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Rich and creamy tofu skin!

…and for something a bit more hearty, the sanzoku (literally meaning Mountain Thief) fried chicken cutlet.

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Now, do you feel like you could eat a horse?

A Taste of Sh旬n: Ode to Oden!

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O, Oden!

For the past three days, I’ve had oden for lunch. Oden, for the uninitiated, is a staple winter dish in Japan that comprises fishcakes, tofu, radish, konjac, boiled eggs , kelp and anything that can a) soak up the flavor of the  broth, or b) contribute to the flavor of the broth or both.

With the weather getting cooler in Japan past mid-autumn, oden stalls can be seen in combini (convenience shops) throughout Japan.

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You pick whichever morsel you fancy, pour in the soup and pay at the counter, where you’ll be asked if you’d like miso sauce, Japanese mustard or yuzu kosho (yuzu pepper paste) as a condiment.

People from different regions of Japan have different condiments of choice: for example, if you are from Nagoya which has a strong miso-culture you’d definitely choose miso to go with your oden.

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Toyama Oden, where kelp is a topping

 

In Toyama prefecture, where kelp is heavily consumed, shredded kelp is commonly added as a topping.

 

Coming from Singapore, the dish reminded me of something we have back home called Yong Tau Fu, which means stuffed tofu–but various vegetables, not just tofu, are also stuffed with fish paste, and lots of other ingredients including fishcakes are also available for the picking.

 

 

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That said, the sight of floating white marshmallow-like things in the soup did seem rather strange to me–these white fluffy things being the “hanpen”, made basically from whipped fish paste and egg white.

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Shizuoka Prefecture is famous for its “black hanpen”, which is darker because it uses fish like mackerel and sardines rather than cod for the fish paste.

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So, the next time you are in a convenience store or izakaya, don’t forget to give these steamy morsels a try!

About Shun:
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.

 

Matsumoto Must Try Street Eats!

Matsumoto City is probably most well-known overseas for its historic castle, the Matsumoto Castle, which is over 400 years old and a National Treasure of Japan. Nagano’s second largest city also has lots else to offer, which WAttention will introduce in this 4-part Matsumoto Must sightseeing series. 

 

MUST TRY STREET EATS 

1) Oyaki おやき

These baked buns are a specialty of the Nagano prefecture. They are traditionally filled with savory stuffings such as picked Nozawana vegetables, miso pickled eggplants or shredded radish and baked over a big hot plate, hence its name Oyaki, which means “something baked”. You can find these sold almost anywhere in the prefecture. These come from Naraijuku Post Town, an hour’s local train ride from Matsumoto City.

 

2) Taiyaki たいやき

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It’s always a good sign when you see locals frequenting a shop, and this little taiyaki shop, Taiyaki Furusato, located at Nawate Dori Shopping Street along the Metobagawa river had a steady stream of locals taking home boxes of this griddled pastry with red bean filling. Crispy and not too sweet, this is perfect for have as a street snack while checking out the shops along Nawate Dori.

 

3) Goheimochi 五平餅


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This is a variation of the usual round mochi or dango (rice dumpling) which is chewy and made of rice flour. The goheimochi (which literally means Five Flat Mochi, though as you can see, it does not refer to the number of mochi) is made from coarsely crushed rice that is molded onto a stick and grilled. So it is slightly crisp to the bite with the texture of rice grains remaining. The sauce is made from sesame – sometimes more than one type of sesame – soy sauce and/or miso.

 

Next up, Matsumoto Must Try Local Gourmet: Horse meat, Grasshoppers and Baby Bees

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So hungry you could eat a horse? Well, Matsumoto is the right place for you!

 

 

A Taste of Sh旬n: Nuts over Chestnuts

The slightly acrid smell of roasting chestnuts in the air is one of the fixtures of autumn in Japan, and heading to the countryside for some chestnut picking is one of the popular autumn activities for Japanese.

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The chestnuts fall to the ground and split when ripe, and the seeds inside are pickled from their spiky shell.

One of the most common way to enjoy these mildly sweet nuts is by roasting them over charcoal, and you can often see street stalls selling these by the roadside. Those from the Tanba region in the north of Kyoto are particularly famed for being big and perfectly shaped, as well as for their sweetness. These used to be presented as offerings to the Emperor and Shogun over 1,000 years ago.

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Another favorite way to enjoy these nuts is to boil them with rice, for kurimeshi (chestnut rice).

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The taste and texture of chestnuts also makes them perfect for use in desserts.

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You will see mont blancs (a sponge cake dressed in chestnut cream and topped with a candied chestnut or marron glace) being offered in most patisseries.

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In wagashi shops, or Japanese confectionery shops, you will see the kurikinton — a chestnut-shaped wagashi made of chestnut paste and sugar.

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And of course, don’t miss out on the seasonal limited editions of classic souvenir snacks, such as Iwate Prefecture’s Kamome no Tamago (Seagull’s Eggs) with chestnut paste inside!

About Shun:
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.

 

Why Cushions Fly In A Sumo Match

There’s always some form of heckling or booing that goes on at live sports matches when players don’t perform, especially with sports like soccer, when empty cans and trash are thrown at the field. But the traditional Japanese sport of sumo wrestling may actually top the charts with the usually reserved and law-abiding spectators getting up and flinging their seats–or rather, cushions–at the under-performing rikishi (sumo wrestlers), with the cushions often not reaching the dohyo (wrestling ring) but hitting some other angry spectator on the head!

How did such public outbursts of anger become acceptable in the context of a sumo match? This tradition of cascading cushions is said to have roots in the Meiji era when personal items would be thrown onto the dohyo to congratulate and reward the winner. This was banned when the Ryogoku Kokugikan opened in 1909, so it is thought that spectators stopped throwing their personal items, but the next available thing in reach–their seat cushions. So cushion throwing can either be congratulatory or derogatory–depending on the context.

The bottom line is, Yokozunas–the highest ranking players–are not supposed to lose matches. In fact, in the sumo world, Yokozumas are expected to retire if they lose a tournament, which consists of several rounds of matches played over several days. For practical reasons of comfort (as the Yokozuna match is always the last one), cushion throwing is usually saved for the last match.

 

 

A Taste of Sh旬n: Matsutake Mushrooms

Matsutake-Nagano2The world’s most expensive funghi is the matsutake mushroom, or literally “pine mushroom”, costing up to US$2,000 per kilogram.

Found at the foot of pine trees, Japan’s answer to the black truffle sprouts during autumn.

The earthy, pungent taste of the matsutake is used to flavour rice and soups.

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The Tamba region in Kyoto is most famous for its production.images (1)

And in some places you can even try matsutake shochu!

Learn a Word: Japanese Animal Sounds

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.

 動物の鳴き声

Japanese animal sounds can be quite different from how other cultures perceive them to be. Here are a few of them, along with the names of the animals in Japanese, and their English versions. Unlike the various descriptions that can be found in English, the sound an animal makes is usually uniform in Japanese.

Fox きつね (kitsune)

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The cry of a fox is described as “kon kon” (こんこん).
English equivalent: gekkering, barking, purring, wailing

 

Chick ひよこ (hiyoko)

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Chicks are thought to make a sound like “piyo piyo” (ぴよぴよ).
English equivalent: cheep, peep, chirp

 

Monkey さる (saru)

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Japanese monkeys go “ki ki” (きいきい)
English equivalent: chatter, gibber, whoop, screech

 

Frog かえる (kaeru)

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The noise of a frog is described as “kero kero” (けろけろ).
English equivalent: croak, ribbit

 

Horse うま(uma)

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Horses go “hihiin” (ひひいん).
English equivalent: neigh, snort, whinny

 

 

Picture Perfect Oirase Keiryu in Aomori

Ashura no Nagare, a photo spot representative of Oirase Keiyu.

The Oirase Keiryu has to be one of the most photographed and photogenic streams in Japan. And for good reason – even if you’re not a professional photographer and the only camera you’ve ever touched is on your smartphone, your photograph will look screensaver-worthy.

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The play of dappled sunlight on the gushing and frothy stream framed by fifty shades of green here – actually it could be 300 shades, as there are that many different types of moss alone – makes it photographic from any angle.

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The flow of the mountain stream is especially rapid during the summer months when water from melted snow flows into this tributary that then flows into Lake Towada, around 14km away from the start of the Oirase River.

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There are several waterfalls along the way, with the widest and most dynamic being the Choushi Waterfall at 20m, located where the Oirase stream begins its flow from the Towada Lake.

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Towada Lake is the largest caldera lake in Honshu, or the main island of Japan, and is also a popular spot for photographers.

Gorgeous in green, the Oirase stream and Towada Lake area – which has designated as a Place of Scenic Beauty and Natural Monuments – is also alluring when azure with autumn colors come October.

ACCESS: JR Tohoku buses run from Aomori Train Station via Oirase Stream to Towada Lake.

 

 

 

A Taste of Sh旬n: Sanma-time in Autumn

The end of summer brings about the season for the similar-sounding “sanma” – or Pacific Saury. But it’s name in Japanese characters, 秋刀魚, means literally “autumn sword fish”, and the aroma of salted, grilled sanma wafting in the air heralds the arrival of autumn and the start of a season loved for its delicious harvests from the land and sea.

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Sanma sushi

Indeed, the southward migration from the northern Pacific Ocean towards Japan at the end of summer is eagerly anticipated by fans, who can’t wait to relive the taste of what could be Japan’s favorite seasonal fish – best savored raw, of course, to enjoy its freshness and natural oils.

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Every September, there will be a Meguro Sanma Festival where the fish is grilled over charcoal and given out to everyone in the line for free! In early Autumn, sanma contains the most oil – almost 20% of its body content – and hence makes for a very good grill, crispy on the outside and juicy inside.

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The sanma used to be a humble fish for the locals as it used to be hauled in abundance and full of tiny bones, but there is a famous tale about the Emperor who got so hungry on a hunting trip that when he smelled grilled sanma in the air he asked his servant to bring him that tasty morsel. When the royal kitchen tried to replicate the taste, they removed the bones and did so many intricate seasonings to the fish that it tasted nothing like the manna from heaven the Emperor tasted on that fateful day. And so, he declared that sanma is only delicious in Meguro!

Grilled or raw, the sanma is no doubt the fish of autumn!

About Shun:
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.

 

Top 3 Autumn Leaf Viewing Spots in Japan

As sweltering summer turns to autumn, leaves take on an amber hue starting from the mountains in Hokkaido and spreading southwards. Here are three top spots where Japanese people go koyo (autumn leaf) hunting! 

Arashiyama, Kyoto 嵐山-京都 

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Sagano Scenic Railway
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Tofukuji Temple, famous for its Togetsukyo, a popular lookout point for autumn foliage.

Best Time To Go: Late Nov to early Dec

Travel Tip: There are many ways to enjoy the brilliant autumn foliage in this area at the western outskirts of Kyoto. The vista from Tofukuji’s Tsutenbashi Bridge (aptly nicknamed the “Tsuten Koyo”) is so breathtaking that one can lose track of time – and number of photos photos taken at Kyoto’s oldest and largest temple.  Or, enjoy a nostalgic train ride via the Sagano Scenic Railway.

Access for Sagano Scenic Railway: From Tokyo Station take the Shinkansen to Kyoto Station and change to the JR Sagano Line to Arashiyama station.

Access for Tofukuji Shrine: From Tokyo Station, take the Shinkansen to Kyoto, change to the Nara line and get off at Tofukuji Station.

 

Nikko, Tochigi 日光-栃木 

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Ryuzu Waterfall

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Best Time To Go: Early Oct to early Nov

Travel Tip: Due to the wide range of elevation, the koyo season spreads over a longer period here. Ryuzu (“Dragonhead”) Waterfall is one of the first spots to colour. See the UNESCO World Heritage Site Toshogu Shrine, where the first shogun of the Tokugawa shogunate Ieyasu Tokugawa is enshrined, in its autumn glory.

Access: From Tokyo Station, take the Tohoku Shinkansen to Utsunomiya, change to the JR Nikko Line to get to Nikko Station.

 

Mt Hakkoda, Aomori Prefecture 八甲田山、青森県 

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Hakkoda Ropeway
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Mt Hakkoda

Best Time To Go: Late Sept to early Oct

Travel Tip: Take panoramic photos of Mt Hakkoda’s autumn colours from above via a ropeway that leads to one of its volcanic peaks 1,324m from sea level.

Access: From Tokyo Station take the Shinkansen to Shin-Aomori, then transfer to JR Ou Line to Aomori Station. Take the JR Bus headed for Lake Towada and get off at the Hakkoda Ropeway Station bus stop.

 

 

 

 

 

A Taste of Sh旬n: Power of Shijimi

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For many Japanese, summer brings to mind the eating of unagi, or eel, on designated days called Doyo no Ushi no Hi, in the hopes of beating summer fatigue with nutrition from the unagi. But there are some people who shun the (expensive) eel for the humble shijimi (freshwater clam), calling these appointed days the Doyo no Shijimi instead.

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In fact, eating these tiny clams in the summer makes more sense as, unlike the eel which is at its fattiest in the winter, the shijimi is at its plumpest from around July till August during its spawning season.  The shijimi is known to be rich in ornithine, which helps to purge toxins from the liver – hence salarymen can be seen slurping shijimi soup when they have a hangover from the previous night’s drinking session.

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Hangover cure, shijimi soup

The shijimi also comes into season in the winter, when the cold waters makes its flesh firmer and sweeter. Unlike other clams that are found in the ocean, the shijimi can only survive in estuaries that are a mix of sea water and freshwater.

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Shimane Prefecture’s Shinjiko Lake produces the most shijimi in Japan. This lake contains a slight amount of sodium in its water, making it a suitable habitat for the shijimi. These crustaceans are added to the local ramen as a topping and its flavors extracted for the soup stock, making this ramen the perfect way to round off a night of drinking.

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It is also often boiled together with rice or thrown into pastas.


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And for those who are a bit more adventurous, there is even shijimi curry, a local dish from Shimane!

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About Shun:
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.

Learn a Word: Yochi-yochi & more – Japanese Onomatopoeia (I)

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.

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Gitaigo, or words that mimic an emotion, situation or state

In Japan, it is common to hear people using sounds to express their feelings or emotions, such as “ira ira suru” when irritated, or “pika pika” to describe a shiny object. To the untrained ear, these may seem like random sounds out of a Japanese anime, but these onomatopoeia are what breathe life into the language. Probably no other language has more words that mimic sounds of animate and inanimate objects and various states of conditions of the world. Grasping the meaning and use of these words is a fun and effective way to add color to any conversation. See how many of the following you can guess the meaning of right!

わくわく Waku-waku 

Used as a verb to express uncontainable excitement or anticipation for something

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Ooh can’t wait for payday!

もやもや Moya-moya

Used as a verb to describe a foggy room, cloudy memory or an overcast mood

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Gaah!!!

いらいら Ira-ira

Used as a verb to express a feeling of frustration and irritation towards something or someone

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Grrrr…

ピカピカ Pika-pika

Used as an adjective to describe a state of reflective shininess of something, such as a polished surface or a bald head

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よちよち Yochi-yochi

Used as an adjective to describe the way babies walk, or rather, toddle, in an unstable manner

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Feet…wobbly…can’t walk straight….

 

Editor’s note: Watch out for the next installment on Giongo, or words that mimic sounds made by animate or inanimate objects!

 

 

 

A Taste of Sh旬n: Time for Tokoroten

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As hot and humid days continues to suppress appetites in what may sometimes seem like a never-ending summer in Japan, cooling, light and slurp-easy foods like the tokoroten provide gastronomic relief.

This is perhaps best described as a jelly-like noodle, made from seaweed and usually eaten with a mix of sweet vinegar and soy sauce, with a sprinkling of seaweed, sesame and Japanese mustard for a refreshing slurp. It can also be eaten sweet with black honey.

 

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Tokoroten in its seaweed stage

After the seaweed has been dissolved in water and congealed into a jelly form, it is pressed out into noodle form.

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Unlike gelatin desserts, the tokoroten has a firmer texture. It is eaten as a summer snack, though as it practically 90% water, it is popular as a diet food as well, used to replace carbohydrate-rich noodles such as udon.

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It’s unique production method of being pressed out via a block device has made it a sort of cultural icon, even replicated in quirky souvenirs. So the next time you spot this at a souvenir shop, you’ll know what it is!

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About Shun:
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.

Bite Into Japan’s Best Burgers At Hakodate’s Lucky Pierrot

 

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Japan’s best local buns: Lucky Pierrot’s Chinese Chicken Burger, 390 yen

Hakodate in Hokkaido may be famous for its fresh seafood and salt-based ramen but it also boasts what has been voted as Japan’s “Best Local Burger” in  a Nikkei survey. And 1.8 million customers a year can’t be wrong.

In fact, their 17 stores are almost always packed, with locals and tourists alike queuing for a taste of what can only be found in Hakodate.

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Funky facades are Lucky Pierrot’s Trademark

This local burger chain started in 1987, and soon became a hit for their Chinese Chicken Burger (featured in the photo above), which consists of juicy fried chicken with a hint of ginger and drizzled with a sweet and slightly spicy sauce.

Since then, their menu has expanded to include other originals such as:

Squid Burger, as Hakodate is famous for its squid

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The Foot-Long Burger, limited to 20 a day:

 

 

 

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Scallop Burger, a result of a customer contest:
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Genghis Khan Burger, the taste of Hokkaido:

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Hakodate Snow Burger:

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As well as curries…

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Pasta…

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And what some claim to be Hokkaido’s bests Omurice, or omelette rice:

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All featuring the much-loved Chinese Chicken.

 

Each restaurant interior is distinct and overflowing with as much character as the quirky storefront murals, and each store has a slightly different menu.

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Soul food for the locals.

 

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The first Lucky Pierrot store, located near the Hakodate Bay Area.
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A newer store near the Hakodate Bay Area.
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The Chinese Chicken Burger looks set to take the top seat for a long time.

Lucky Pierrot is such an institution that it even has its own array of souvenirs for tourists to take home, from canned sodas, to chips and of course, t-shirts.

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One reason for the queue is that the food here is prepared upon order, using fresh ingredients. To avoid waiting, one is advised to call beforehand to place your order and come to pick it up. Don’t bother testing your luck, as there’s almost always a queue!

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URL: http://luckypierrot.jp/ (Japanese only)

 

 

A Taste of Sh旬n: For Sake’s Goodness

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Sake, or Japanese rice wine, is a must-try for tourists to Japan, and highly recommended as your drink of choice to go with sushi. Sake can be drunk hot, lukewarm, at room temperature or cold – the last being recommended for the hot summer weather.

Like wine, there are dry and sweet types of sake. But the focus of this piece is on the containers that sake is served in, such as in the picture above.

First time drinkers of sake may be confused as to why there is a container under the sake glass filled with more sake, and a bit puzzled as to how to approach this two-tiered drink.

The square box below is called a masu, and while some are laquered, some retain the natural grain of the wood they are made from. Masu made of hinoki (Japanese cypress) are popular for the fragrance it lends to the sake it is filled with.

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Now, impress the locals by drinking the Matryoshka of sake (in the first picture above) the proper way, which is to take a big sip of sake from the glass cup, then pour the sake in the masu into the glass – not so complicated!

In Kochi Prefecture in the Shikoku Area, where the most sake is drunk per resident in the whole of Japan, special sake cups called bekohai are used.

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They either come in shapes that don’t allow you to put the cup down on the table as it will topple over and spill any sake you try to leave behind, or have a hole that you have to cover with your finger until you finish all its contents.

These conniving cups also come in a deceptively harmless shape such as the sorakyu, which also cannot be put down on the table without toppling over.

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Drinking sake in Japan can be a duel between you and your sake container to see which topples over first, but in any case, sake remains a masu try drink during your trip.

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.

 

 

 

A Taste of Sh旬n: Secrets Of The Uni-verse

Uni, or the sea urchin, is one of those love it or hate it foods. Given its spiky and explosive mine-like appearance, one has to wonder what was going through the mind of the first person who decided to try and eat it.

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Probably something along the lines of: something so well-armored must be trying to protect something very precious inside, let’s find out what!

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Plainly speaking, what the inside consists of is mainly the sea urchin’s gonads – precious to the uni in its own universe of course, and now, also to the growing number of fans of uni throughout Japan, and the world.

The summer months from May to August, before spawning season, is when the uni is at its creamiest and tastiest, with the Bafun Uni being the most famous and expensive type in Japan.

Now,”Bafun” literally means “horse dung” – which is probably what the uni’s appearance reminded some people of. While fresh and good uni tastes sweet and creamy, not-so-fresh and not-so-good uni could potentially bring to mind the unmentionable. So if the uni facing  you looks dry and listless, it is best avoided, as it will probably taste like it looks.

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Uni-ted as one bowl!

Uni can be enjoyed in various ways – uni fans fantasize of devouring uni rice bowls, while those who just want a taste of it can try it in sushi form.

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In the Sanriku region of Tohoku in the northeast of Japan, uni is often baked in a clam shell. Whereas in Hokkaido, you will see uni being grilled in its own shell.

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Ready to conquer the uni-verse?

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In Aomori, uni is put in a clear broth, together with slices of abalone, in a traditional dish caled “Ichigo Ni”, which literally means boiled strawberry. Apparently the cloudy appearance the soup took on when the uni was added reminded people of strawberries in the morning mist.

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And to end off your journey of the uni-verse, why not try uni-meshi, which means uni rice and is rice that has been cooked together with uni.

 

Aomori Nebuta Festival: Week Long Street Party

Every night this week till Friday, the sleepy streets of Aomori city roar into life with the chants of “ra-se-ra, ra-se-ra, ra-se-ra-se-ra-se-ra!” and thousands of feet spring off the ground as they dance to the rousing beat of drums – all because the nebuta are in town.

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In fact, the festival from over 400 years ago has its roots in chasing away sleepiness, as farmers of old believed that they were haunted by a sleep demon especially while busy mid-summer season, and so started a festival called “nemu-nagashi” to drive away sleepiness (or “nemu”).

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Nebuta now refers to giant lantern floats of around 7m tall, which are made of delicate washi paper plastered on a metal and bamboo frame. These are manually pushed around the route by participants, and ardent fans of the parade (and floats) can be heard shouting “kochi muite!”, which means “look over here!”. If the shouts are passionate enough, the float leader will signal for the float to face that side of the crowd, resulting in even higher pitched screams and squeals.

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Around a hundred “haneto” dancers wearing woven straw hats decorated with flowers lead the way of each nebuta, shouting “ra-se-ra, ra-se-ra!” to the crowds, who resound with the chorus “ra-se-ra-se-ra-se-ra!”, reminding one of a school sports event – except everyone is cheering for the same team.

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Anyone can take part in the parade, as long as you wear the haneto outfit, and are ready to shout and dance for the two-hour length of the parade. The haneto also carry with them lots of bells which are thrown out to delight the audience.

In the local dialect, participation in the festival is inquired using the verb haneru, as in “Are you going to haneru today?”, which was derived from the Japanese spelling of the haneto costume and the verb haneru which means to “jump”.

Drummers keep the beat of the parade throughout, and one’s heart can’t help but race at the uniform sound of the contingents of drummers spread out between the nebuta.

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During the nebuta season from Aug 2-7, do not be surprised to see fierce-looking goldfish hanging around everywhere, from shops to the train station and along the streets. This is the official nebuta mascot of the festival – the kingyo nebuta, or literally, goldfish nebuta.

The festival, which was designated as an Important Intangible Folk Cultural Property in 1980, attracts the most tourists of any of the country’s nebuta festivals, and is counted among the three largest festivals in the Tohoku region.

This is definitely one festival for the bucket list, so catch it while you can!

Location: Aomori City, Aomori Prefecture
Dates: Aug. 1 – Aug. 7, 2016
Hours: 6pm – 9pm (Aug. 1), 7:10pm – 9pm (Aug. 2 to 6), 1pm – 3pm, 7:15pm – 9pm (Aug. 7)

Themed Izakayas To Experience Japanese Culture

It’s all about theme-work! 

Experiencing Japanese summer is not complete without going to themed restaurants and Izakaya (bars). Savory food and refreshing drinks are alluring to start with, but these venues offer great entertainment such as a theatrical display of the past, sumo wrestling matches and shamisen performances.

2) Ikedaya Hana no Mai, Kyoto

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For a feel of history, head to Ikedaya, run by the Mai izakaya chain. This is at the location of the original Ikedaya Ryokan where the Ikedaya Affair took place. This was an armed encounter, nearing the end of the tumultuous warring states era, between masterless samurai employed by the Choshu (now Yamaguchi Prefecture) and Tosa (now Kochi Prefecture) clans and the Shinsengumi, or the shogun’s special police force in Kyoto.

Recreating the interior of the ryokan from around 150 years ago, there are various photo spots for fans of the Shinsengumi.

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Address: Sanjo Kawaramachi, Higashi Iri Nakajima-cho, Nakagyo-ku, Kyoto, Kyoto Prefecture,
82 Salwa Sanjo building

 

3) Hana no Mai, Ryogoku

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Believe it or not, this is the inside of an izakaya, located at Ryogoku district where the sumo stadium is. From 7pm almost everyday, various events are held such as sumo matches by former sumo professionals, shamisen performances (a three-stringed instrument) and taiko performances.

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A summer dance event held around the sumo ring.

And of course, don’t forget to try the staple diet of champions – chanko! This is basically a hotpot of crab, chicken, pork, fish vegetables – pretty much anything edible goes into it.

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Address: Yokoami 1-3-20Sumida-ku, Tokyo

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.

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.

 

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!

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)

 

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. 

 

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.

 

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!

 

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

 

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

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

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!

 

 

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

 

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

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

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.

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

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/

Cool Treks Around Tokyo (4): Oirase Keiryu in Aomori Prefecture

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The Oirase Stream trail, which runs for 14km from Nenokuchi at Lake Towada, is a surreal setting of endless gushing and gurgling streams that course over moss-covered boulders, through an emerald green forest of ferns, Japanese beech and oaks. This scenery is particularly gorgeous, no pun intended, at the Oirase Gorge.

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The boardwalk along the stream is named Bakufu Kaido, or “Waterfall Road”, aptly so for the many waterfalls roaring along this route. Popular scenic spots include the Choshi Otaki Waterfall, Ashuranonagare and Kumoinotaki Waterfall.

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It’s also a good excuse to try the new “long-nosed” Hayabusa Shinkansen which connects Tokyo to Shin-Aomori in a mere 3 hours and 10 minutes.

Access: From Tokyo Station take the Shinkansen to Hachinohe Station, and a bus to the Towada Lake Area

Last Cool Trek: Fukiware no Taki in Gunma Prefecture

 

The Japan Subculture Cheat Sheet

From Atom Boy to Akihabara – everything you need to know about Subculture in Japan

 

It’s not too far off to say that every Japanese grows up on a diet of anime and manga, differing in just a matter of degree – and whether one grows out of it. Indeed, it would be hard to find any Japanese who has not heard of Doraemon, One Piece or Studio Ghibli. With such anime as a common reference for society here, why is it still called a “sub” culture, and how did cutesy characters, spaceships and Godzilla get so mainstream? WAttention spoke with up-and-coming Japanese pop culture critique Uno Tsunehiro, for a brief history of subculture in Japan.

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Godzilla and Post-War Catharsis

Godzilla, the giant radiation-breathing reptile, rampaged onto the scene prior to anime in the early 1950s. It comes under the genre of a special effects production and was a reflection of post-war Japan in its Cold War tensions and atomic age anxieties. “Since direct reference to the war was taboo, Godzilla served to do that,” said Uno, who’s also chief editor of a current affairs magazine “Planets”.

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From Manga to “TV Manga” 

At around the same time, the “god of manga” Osamu Tezuka started “story manga”, or manga with richer story lines and character development, making manga not just entertainment for children but across all ages as well. In 1966, Tezuka created the first animated TV series of his monthly manga, “Astro Boy” or “Tetsuwon Atom”. Uno says anime was then referred to as “TV Manga”, and due to high production costs, animation was limited to use of still frames and emphasis was placed on the plot instead. “Astro Boy” dealt with very poignant issues, such as death, loss and acceptance – the anime is about a flying robot created to replace the son of a scientist, who died in a car accident, and his adventures and relationships in the human world.

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Manga’s popularity gained speed and by the 70’s, manga appeared not just in monthly magazines, but took the form of weekly manga magazine instead.

 Anime and Akihabara Boom

According to Uno, Tetsuwan Atom was the first anime boom, followed by Space Battleship Yamato in the 70’s and Mobile Suit Gundam in the 80’s, and Evangelion in the 90’s. In a natural evolution, manga progressed from the page to the screen and into real life via merchandising. All sorts of posters, toys and trinkets are made to allow fans to identify themselves by the manga or anime that they identify with. Plastic models of Battleship Yamato and Gundam characters are still coveted by otakus today in Akihabara. The word “otaku” (literally, “homebody” but referring to hard core fans of anime/subculture) was coined in the 1980s – in a derogatory manner. But now, otakus declare their existence with pride, with female otakus arguing that the term isn’t gender specific.

With the advent of the internet in the late 1990s, Japanese anime exploded to worldwide popularity, and so did Akihabara, the mecca for anime and manga fans. “2005 to 2006 can be said to be when the Akihabara Boom started,” said Uno.

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No Longer a “Sub” culture?

So why are anime and manga are still referred to as a subculture, rather than being part of Japan’s culture?

“For the older generation, anime and manga will be deemed to be a subculture. But gradually, there will be nothing to stop anime and manga from being accepted as a main culture. And then, anime and manga won’t be so ‘cool’ anymore,” said Uno.

Ok, So What’s Next?

Live Idols is where the next Subculture boom lies, Uno predicts. The Live Idols concept started gained popularity from the year 2000, with the original 48-member idol girl group AKB 48 making its debut in 2005. Unlike mainstream TV idols, these Live Idols perform at a regular venue, gaining a local fan base. The concept behind Live Idols is “idols you can meet” – indeed, handshake sessions are a key part of a Live Idol’s existence, and their handshake count would put most politicians to shame. CD releases come with lottery tickets for a chance to attend a “handshake event” to meet members.

So, after quick rundown on the evolution of Japanese subculture, are you ready to unleash you inner otaku yet?

Cool Treks Around Tokyo (3): Oze National Park in Gunma Prefecture

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This sprawling marshland at 760 hectares is well-loved for its charming wooden boardwalk paths through seemingly endless carpets of flora and fauna. The ‘mizubasho,’ or Japanese skunk cabbage, and ‘nikko-kisuge’ (yellow alpine lily) are the signature blossoms here, though there is no lack of other rare mountain foilage at this strictly protected national park.

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Visitors even have to brush their boots against a special carpet before entering to prevent the introduction of non-native plants to this almost pristine park. At some 1,700m above sea level, it’s also Japan’s highest moor. Oze is made up of the Ozegahara moor, Ozenuma lake and surrounding mountains.

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Trekkers are in close proximity here as there is just one path, with one lane for each direction. Nevertheless, as can be expected of Japan, trekkers are thoughtful and there is often what seems to be a greeting competition to see who can “Konnichiwa” the oncoming trekker first.

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The climb to the wooden path involves descending a few flights of steps, which makes this slightly more challenging amongst the treks mentioned. But come here once, and you’ll be back for moor, so to speak.

Access: From Tokyo Station take a JR train to Numata Station, change to an express bus to Oshimizu station.

Next cool trek: Oirase Keiryu in Aomori Prefecture

 

A Taste of Sh旬n: Much Ado About Mochi

Cooled Mitarashi Dango

Recently, a major convenience store chain in Japan came up with a summer version of dango (mochi, or rice cakes, usually on a stick) meant to be eaten cooled. Presumably this is to make the sticky rice ball palatable even on hot and humid days when one’s appetite for heavy or sticky foods like mochi is somewhat suppressed.

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Summer food or not, the humble mochi, or rice cake, is integral to Japanese culture. Freshly-pound mochi is made on special occasions such as New Year’s Day and on festivals.

But there is one place in Japan where freshly-pound mochi continues to prevail in daily meals, and where convenient store mochis or microwave mochis are probably frowned upon – Ichinoseki City in Iwate Prefecture.

Here, mochi is eaten as a complete meal, not as a teatime or road stall snack. This traditional mochi meal is called the Mochi Honzen, and consists of bite-sized mochi in nine guises – covered in grated radish (a palate cleanser), drenched in red bean sauce, smothered in edamame paste, buried under walnut cream, undetectable via black sesame sauce, stuck with natto, another kind of sesame paste, rolled in grated ginger and finally, piled with prawns. To wash this down, there is mochi soup. They taste better then they sound, trust me.

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A complete mochi meal – too mochi to handle?

In Japan, mochi is eaten on major milestones of one’s life – weddings, funerals, festivals and such. Traditionally, there is even a mochi calendar when mochi making is mandated.

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A mochi calendar

As an ending note, people in Ichinoseki love their mochi so much that even a gaping gorge (the Genbikei) won’t get in the way of mochi delivery from the shop across!

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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.

Picturesque Japan: Feel the suspense in the air with this bridge walk

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Like a crossing out of an Indiana Jones movie, this primitive bridge made out of vines can be found hanging over a roaring river in the Iya region of Tokushima Prefecture, and is a popular summer trek for adventurous nature lovers.

The Iya no Kazura Bashi was built by samurai who escaped into this area over 800 years ago with the intent of it being easily cut to prevent pursuers from crossing. It is now designated as a national important tangible cultural asset – and you’ll be relieved to know the 45 meters long and 2 meters wide bridge is completely replaced every three years to ensure its sturdiness.

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That said, it will still take some courage to cross this bridge when you reach it as each step is shaky and rocky. Look down, and you can see the river coursing through some 15-m below!

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Next in this series: Picturesque Japan: The Great Seto Bridge

Spot information

Name: Iya-no-Kazura Bashi
Address: 162-2 Nishiiyayamamura Zentoku, Miyoshi-shi, Tokushima Prefecture
Access: Fly into Tokushima, then take the Shikoku Kotsu Bus from JR Oboke Stn, bound for either Kazura Bashi or Kubo, get off at Kazura Bashi Bus stop and walk 5 minutes to Iya-no-Kazura Bashi.

Hiraizumi: Representing Heaven on Earth

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Hiraizumi, created as a Buddhist heaven on earth over 1,000 years ago, celebrates its third year as a World Heritage site this June. Its temples, gardens and buildings were recognized as a rare example of a cultural legacy that is deeply permeated with a universal longing for peace – but its roots lie in a land ravaged by war.

The UNESCO recognition also came at a poignant time for Iwate Prefecture, which was hard hit by the Tohoku earthquake in March 2011, where thousands of lives were lost. This is the first such UNESCO site in the Tohoku area and the 16th in Japan.

Hiraizumi was founded by the Oshu Fujiwara clan in a bid to fulfill their longing for permanent peace and the achievement of the ideal Buddhist territory.

The dramatic rise and fall of the city – once said to rival Kyoto – within a 100 years inspired the famous haiku master Matsuo Basho to compose several now classic haikus after he visited the remains of Hiraizumi town.

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Famous haiku master, Matsuo Basho , on visiting the ruins of Hiraizumi, penned: Ah! Summer grass! All that remains/Of the warriors’ dreams.

So, just what does this heaven on earth comprise of? It consist of five designated sites, the Konjiki-do (Golden Hall) within Chusonji Temple, Motsuji Temple, the remains of Kanjizaiō-in and Muryoko-in and Mt. Kinkeisan. Here, we will introduce Chusonji and Motsuji, and Mt. Kinkeisan.

Chusonji Temple

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This is the cornerstone of the UNESCO designated sites. A climb up the Tsukimi-zaka Slope lined with 300- to 400-year-old cedar trees will bring you to the Konjiki-do (Golden Hall) portion of Chusonji Temple. This is the only temple remaining from the 12th century and was built by the founder of Hiraizumi, Fujiwara no Kiyohira to memorialize all living things that died in Tohoku during the power struggle from which he emerged victorious from.

The gold-gilded Konjiki-do within the temple was built as a mausoleum and contains the mummies of four generations of the founding Fujiwara clan.

Motsuji Temple

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The main attraction here is the picture perfect and expansive Jodo garden which has stood for some 800 years. The Buddhist philosophy of Jodo states that it is “expansive without end and everything there is beautiful”. The garden here was created to depict the scenery described in the sutra using the Heian era garden landscaping technique. The center piece here is the Oizumi ga Ike, a pond measuring 180m in the east-west direction.

Mt. Kinkeisan

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This 98.6m high mount located between Chosonji and Motsuji is said to have a golden chicken and rooster, after which it is named, buried at its peak as protectors of the city. When the famous haiku master Matsuo Basho visited Hiraizumi, he sadly remarked that only Mt. Kinkeisan retains its formed after the surrounding temples and buildings were razed to the ground.

Access: Take JR Tohoku Shinkansen from Tokyo Station to Ichinoseki Station (2 hr. 33 min.)

Cool Treks Around Tokyo (2): Goshikinuma in Fukushima Prefecture

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Here you can row a pleasure boat in one of the largest lakes in the 800m high Bandai Highlands, Lake Hibara, before embarking on a 3.6km route through the cluster of lakes at Goshiki-numa Park nearby.

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This natural wonder was formed when Mount Bandai erupted on July 15th, 1988. The main lakes in this park are called Akanuma, Bentennuma, Rurinuma, Aonuma and Bishamonnuma. The park is a must-see spot in the Bandai Highlands region.

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Minerals from this devastating eruption tints each of these lakes a different hue, ranging from emerald green to cobalt blue to reddish green, the color of which fluctuates throughout the year according to the weather. The easy trek can be completed in around an hour.

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Access: From Tokyo Station take the Shinkansen to Kooriyama Station (1 hr 20 mins), change to the JR Banetsu Nishi Line to Inawashiroko Station (35mins) then take the local bus to Ura Bandai.

Next cool trek: Oze National Park in Gunma Prefecture

A Taste of Sh旬n: Serious about shirasu

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This small fry is not to be trifled with.

The shirasu, or whitebait of sardines, is serious business in Japan. Once the annual fishing ban from January to March is lifted, both fishermen and fish lovers flock to the sea to haul in and eat up hoards of this little translucent fish.

When the weather starts getting warm enough to start heading to the seaside, is when Tokyoites start craving for bowls of shirasu.

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Usually eaten raw or boiled, the shirasu has a delicate taste of the sea that is best brought out with soy sauce and grated ginger. Don’t worry, it doesn’t taste fishy – in fact, some may challenge the fact that its raw version has any taste at all! Eaten fresh and raw, the sublime taste of the shirasu and its smooth texture that slides down your throat can be addictive.

Many shirasu addicts make an early summer trip out of town to nearby Enoshima in Kanagawa Prefecture to slurp up whole schools of this fish, and to snap some pictures of the hydrangea in bloom along the way.

The first time I ate shirasu was at Kamakura, but I must confess it was by accident – I mistook it for a chirashi don (mixed sashimi rice bowl) – but it turned out to be a very pleasant error which I was happy to erase any trace of!

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You can try the raw shirasu rice bowl, boiled shirasu rice bowl, mixed raw/boiled shirasu rice bowl, shirasu ramen, shirasu soba, shirasu pizza/pasta etc…and so far the closest state it has gotten to a dessert is a shirasu waffle. Would you like fries with that?

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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.

3 Lovely Lavender Spots Around Tokyo

Updated: 2017

Even if you’re not headed to Hokkaido around July-August, there are plenty of places around Tokyo where you can get your fill of purple fields and natural aromatherapy – and the season is just starting! Here’s a list of 3 spots in the Kanto area.

1) Tambara Lavender Park, Gunma Prefecture 

Here you can escape the summer heat at 1,300m above sea level and enjoy 5 hectares of 50,000 lavender bushes of 4 varieties.  There’s a viewing deck from where you can get a view of rolling fields of lavender, and live demonstration of the lavender oil extraction process.

Information:
Period: Jun. 25 – Sep. 4, 2016
Time: 8:30am-5pm
Access: Take the Shinkansen from Tokyo to JR Numata Station, and change to a bus headed for Tanbara

2) Lake Kawaguchiko, Yamanashi Prefecture 

The Ooishi Park at Lake Kawaguchiko is where you can get a photo of lavender fields with Mt. Fuji in the background. The annual Kawaguchiko Lavender Festival is held both here and at Yagisaki Park from mid-June to mid-July, to celebrate the blossoming of 100,000 lavender bushes in all.lavander-spot-japan

Information: 

Kawaguchiko Lavender Festival
Period: Jun. 17 – Jul. 10, 2016 at Yagisaki Park
Jun. 17 – Jul. 18, 2016 at Ooishi Park
Access: From Lake Kawaguchiko take a Saiko shuttlebus to Yagisaki Park/Ooishi Park

3) Arakogawa Park, Aichi Prefecture 

This is the largest lavender field in Nagoya City, with 3,000 bushes and over 20 varieties – from deep purple to lighter hues – lining the river banks of Arako for 1 kilometer. The lavender festival here starts from early June.

Information: 
Date: Jun. 11 – 19, 2016
Access: From Nagoya City take the Aonami Line to Arakogawa Park and walk for 3 minutes
Hours: 9am – 4;30pm

Read also: A Lavender lover’s wonderland for fragrant fields in the heart of Hokkaido

Hidden gems of Sugamo, the ‘Harajuku for obasans’

This street could hold the secret to Japanese ‘obasans’’ longevity

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This street could hold the secret to Japanese obasans’ longevity

Sugamo is known affectionately amongst the locals as the ‘Harajuku for obasans’, or aunties. It’s not as flashy or famous, but oozes character and confidence from the many hidden gems it has to offer ? from food, shopping, sights and even an onsen. This area makes for an enjoyable day-trip, if you’d like a change from cosplay spotting and futuristic fashion at Harajuku.

Simply replace Takeshitadori with Jizodori Shopping Street, crepes with shiodaifuku (salted red bean mochi) and gothic girls with fake eyelashes with genki obasans wearing sun-visors and forearm covers, and you’re in obasan playland!

Sugamo is the pacesetter when it comes to red hot underwear ? Maruji is the original maker of ‘aka pants’, or red pants, that is traditionally worn on one’s 60th birthday for good luck and health. It now offers a whole range of products for tourists such as a Hello Kitty range ? probably not just for those in their 60s!

 

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One can’t go to Sugamo and not try the shiodaifuku, or salted red bean mochi ? a delicious balance of savoury and sweet in a chewy mochi. This is a favourite teatime snack for the obasans to have over the freshest gossip in town. Mizuno is said to be the originator of this mochi.

 

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Any shop that can survive in a street where the clientele are demanding obasans has to be good at what it’s doing. And Tokiwa Shokudo, a heartland canteen-like establishment, has not only been able to survive but also set up another branch in Sugamo. Head there for a variety of seasonal soul food at great value prices. 

 

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If you’re in town on the 4th, 14th or 24th of that month, there’s even more reason to head to Sugamo as a street festival is held on these dates. You can buy bargain items and local snacks at street stalls that will be lined up along the Jizodori Shopping Street. 

 

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And after all that walking, shopping and eating, why not end the day at a nearby onsen? Sakura Onsen, complete with restaurants and relaxation lounges, is just an 8-minute walk from the Sugamo station, and there’s also a free shuttle bus from the station.

So go compare for yourself how the buzz at Sugamo compared to Harajuku!

Cool Summer Treks Around Tokyo (1): Kamikochi in Nagano Prefecture

With the mercury rising in the concrete jungle of Tokyo, it’s definitely time to drop a few degrees Celsius by taking a hike somewhere in the lush, green hills of Japan.

And while the average tourist may not think of going beyond Roppongi Hills or Omotesando Hills as ‘cool’ places to hang out, we’re talking about national treasures that have become regular pilgrimage sites for trekking aficionados in the know.

In this 4-part series, WAttention will walk you through some of the best highland treks just a few hours out of Tokyo for your fill of negative ions and positive sentiments!

Kamikochi in Nagano Prefecture 

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Coined the “Japanese Alps” since 1877 when the breathtaking beauty of the snow-capped Nagano mountain range was discovered by early English explorers, a trip to Kamikochi will leave you in awe of the picture perfect setting—and the convenience of omiyage shops, onsens, ice cream and croquette stalls 1,500m above sea level.

But not to worry, while the shops and facilities are sufficient, the area is not touristy and far from overdeveloped, with just around half a dozen hotels. Private cars are also banned from Kamikochi, in favor of buses or taxis.

Three hours will be sufficient to cover around half of the mostly flat 15km trekking route at a leisurely pace. Geographically, Kamikochi is basically a long plateau in the Azusa River Valley, surrounded by dramatic mountains starting from 2,455m in height.

Recommended for beginners is a start from the turquoise Taisho Pond to Kappabashi Bridge, a suspension bridge where you’ll find cafes, restaurants and cafes nearby for a lunch break. Abundent birch trees add to the alpine feel.

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Kappabashi Bridge, a suspension bridge across the Azusa River, is the main landmark here, and a popular photo spot. In fact, so stunning is the scenery that you’ll find an artist there that has dedicated his life to painting that vista of Kamikochi.

Another attraction is the Imperial Hotel Kamikochi, of the prestigious Imperial Hotel chain, which was previously owned and partly funded by the imperial family. Designed like an alpine resort, sipping a spot of tea at the hotel café is on the wishlist of many a sophisticated Japanese lady. Which just goes to show how Kamikochi is a hiking trek fit for royalty.

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Access: From Shinjuku Station take the JR Chuo Honsen Limited Express “Azusa” (2hours 40minutes) to Matsumoto Station, then take the local bus or taxi to Kamikochi

Next cool trek: Goshikinuma Lake in Fukushima Prefecture

 

Feng Shui City, Edo

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Edo is the old name of the city now called Tokyo. It is a historic name, rather like Lutecia for Paris or Constantinople for Istanbul. It is a little known fact that Edo was one of the biggest cities in the world in the 18th Century. While Edo had a population of one million, London had 700,000 and Paris just 500,000. Edo was renamed Tokyo when the Tokugawa dynasty fell in 1867 after 300 years of reign. Today, the population of Tokyo prefecture has reached 13 million, growing to 16 million during the working day. So what makes Edo/Tokyo this vibrant and successful?

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After the Battle of Sekigahara, the most successful territorial Lord Ieyasu Tokugawa was appointed Shogun by the Emperor.
He immediately made plans to build a new capital in Edo. Until then, the capital of Japan had always been in the west of the country, apart from rather brief spell during the Kamakura period. At that time, Edo was a just a deserted fishing village when Ieyasu chose it.
It seems that one of the reasons Ieyasu chose Edo was its favorable situation according to Feng Shui. From the ancient times, the Japanese believed East is the direction where new energy is born, as it is the direction where the sun rises. Another key factor was Mt. Fuji, which had been worshipped as a divinity, and was long-regarded as a source of positive ‘Qi’.
Combining the power of the East with the Qi from Mt.Fuji, Ieyasu imagined Edo flourishing.

First, Ieyasu established Edo castle as the center of his new capital. Then he began a huge project to build a canal network around it. He even relocated Tonegawa (Tone river) which opened into Tokyo bay, to pour emerge at the Pacific, mainly to allow the plan of the city to take a lucky form according to Feng Shui.This construction project lasted for 60 years. To fund this project, Ieyasu mobilized all territorial lords to contribute. This monumental effort built the infrastructure of the city, which supported the Tokugawa dynasty. This is why Edo is said to be a Feng Shui city.

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Upon building this grand design, Ieyasu got to know a very trusted Feng Shui master, priest Tenkai, who belonged to the Tendai clan of Buddhism. He advised Ieyasu to build Kanei-ji (Kanei Temple) and Hie Jinja (Hie Shrine) to guard the two “Kimon (bad directions)” to protect Edo. After the death of Ieyasu, Tenkai chose Nikko (now a popular tourist destination) as a place to deify Ieyasu, and he built Nikko Tosho-gu. Nikko sits almost exactly north of Tokyo, which is the direction of the North Star, which symbolizes the ruler of the universe. Thus, Ieyasu became the eternal deified ruler of Edo.