Let’s Talk Subculture Vol. 17: Scenes From Wonder Festival 2016 Winter

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Explore the fascinating world of Japan’s subcultures with insights from the inside

An Otaku dream come true

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In most countries, figurines and plastic toys are for kids, but not in Japan, where it’s serious adult business.

On February 7, WAttention attended Wonder Festival 2016 Winter, an event at which both amateur and professional creators showcase their self-produced figurines. Eight halls of Makuhari Messe – Chiba’s largest convention center – were filled with figurines from Japanese anime, manga and video games, and for each model on display, at least 10 otaku could be seen examining these figurines so precious to them.

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Nowhere else in the world do you see this many adults queue for a manga or anime figurines, and that is what makes Japan fascinating and special. Even if figurines or plastic models aren’t quite your thing, a peak at this show will have you respect Japan’s dedication and love towards craftsmanship, a national trait that lives on today even if the focus is shifting from traditional crafts to otaku goods.

Without any further ado, let’s have a look around at this overwhelming event!

 

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This impressive Godzilla model takes over Wonder Festival…and your wallet if you plan to buy it!

 

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As you can see, Godzilla was not the only scary thing at Wonder Festival.
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Look, even the dealer at this booth…!

 

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OK, let’s get back to kawaii. How about these Japanese “idolls”?
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Anime figurines in flamboyant Chinese dresses

 

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Russian president in judo wear…also cute?

 

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Alice from Alice in Wonderland, but anime style. Of course, with a shotgun in her hands.

 

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Some figurines from video games you might know. From left to right: Kizuki Kokone from Phoenix Wright: Attorney Ace, Solaire of Astora from Dark Souls, and Megaman, or Rockman as he is known in Japan from the Megaman series.

 

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Let’s end this article with a cosplay girl buying a giant purple-haired head…

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

Top 6 Must Try Unique Japanese Breads

Japan’s food culture might be best known for rice and noodles, but did you know that bread, or pan was already common in the early years of the Meiji era (1868 – 1912) ? So widespread is the love for bread, that even noodles are used as a filling for buns!
While first introduced by the Portuguese in the 16th century, bread did not become mainstream in Japan until the 19th century. Throughout the last 100 years, Japanese bread has evolved in its own way, with a great amount of unique types of buns and sandwiches that will surprise if you thought that Japanese food is only about sushi, tempura and ramen. Especially kashipan, or sweet buns, have truly become a distinct genre and could be considered by some as the best thing since, well, sliced bread!

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Here are 6 buns and sandwiches you won’t see back home (except at a Japanese bakery)!

1. Anpan
Anko, or red bean paste was already used in Japanese confectionery long before bread became mainstream. It is therefore no surprise that Japan’s first sweet bun was anpan, introduced by bakery Kimuraya in 1874. This is still a favorite among the locals.
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2. Melon Pan
Melon pan is a sweet bun made with a crispy cookie dough. Despite its name, it’s not melon flavored. It’s not certain why this bun is called a melon pan, but its similar appearance is pretty suspicious!
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3. Yakisoba Pan
Fried noodles in a hot-dog bun might sound weird to most cultures, but in Japan this is a classic. In the fifties, bakery Nozawaya sold hot-dog buns and yakisoba noodles separately until one of their customers asked to put the noodles inside the bun. The combination became an instant hit.
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4. Curry Pan
Curry pan was invented in the early 20th century as a combination between the two most popular western foods in Japan at the time, curry and fried pork cutlets. Curry is wrapped in a dough coated in bread crumbs, which is then deep fried like pork cutlets instead of being baked.
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5. Cornet
Cornet is a horn shaped bread with a hole in the middle which is filled mostly with custard cream or chocolate. The filling is only added after the Cornet is baked, which keeps the filling fresh.
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6. Katsu sandwich
Tonkatsu, or fried pork cutlets as a sandwich! In the thirties, Tonkatsu restaurant Isen came with the idea of putting their tonkatsu in sandwiches to prevent Geisha from getting their mouth dirty with crumbs or sauce.
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Restaurant Review: Moeginomura ROCK

This curry will rock your world!

Bacon and runny eggs and butter may sound like a typical American breakfast but these are the toppings to Rock’s unique curry.

Practically every Japanese household or restaurant that serves curry has its own secret recipe. Some stew bananas, apples or chocolate for a sugar and spice curry, others add a touch of red wine, soy sauce or even bonito shavings. Toppings can be anything betweeen natto, cheese and fried pork cutlets. Japan’s competition in curry is so high it is probably only second to India.

Still, it is safe to say that Brewpub Restaurant ROCK’s version of Japanese style curry can count itself among the true curry elites.

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Brewpub Restaurant ROCK is located within Moeginomura, a pleasant area with picturesque gardens, restaurants, cafes and shops located in Hokuto City, Yamanashi Prefecture. The area makes for the perfect setting for a European mountain village postcard, except for the fact that it is located on the other side of the planet.
In the middle of this setting, ROCKS’s old-fashioned American saloon style architecture creates a remarkable juxtaposition between European and American architecture in Japan!

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Before I start talking about the curry, it cannot go without mentioning that ROCK is also famous for its craftbeer brand, TOUCHDOWN.
TOUCHDOWN has 5 different flavors as well as lager brewed beer and has won the prize of “Best beer of Asia” at the World Beer Awards of 2014.

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ROCK’s curry is so beloved that it would be hard to find a local that never gets cravings for it. It has a history of over 40 years, and while maintaining its roots, it has continued to evolve and capture the hearts of young and old.

The curry’s roux is on the thick side, tastes sweet but has a spicy and slightly sour fragrance at the same time.
Spices and ingredients stewed to create this roux are a company secret, but the slight sourness made me speculate that TOUCHDOWN beer could have been used as seasoning to add a special final touch.

The toppings play a role just as significant as the roux in ROCK’s curry, so let’s have a closer look. You will first notice the giant lump of juicy bacon which has been a trademark ever since ROCK originally opened in 1971, but that’s just beginning of this richly topped curry. A soft-boiled egg (or onsen egg in Japanese as it is boiled at the same temperature of hot spring water) is placed on top of the bacon so that the egg yolk may drip over it later on.

imagesWhat might be even more important, is the raisin butter you seen in front of the bacon. Mix this melting morsel with the roux for a sweet, rich taste that really distinguishes it from other Japanese curries.

While the dish might appear to be voluminous, note that half of it consists of fresh vegetables that come from nearby farms. The pickles on the right edge are capsicum, a vegetable rarely pickled in Japanese cuisine or even in general.

Altogether ROCK’s beef curry makes for a unique curry that is hard to compete with. Those that seek for even more satisfaction can add toppings as an extra slice of bacon or fried sausages.

 

Degree in which the curry stands out from its competitors: ★★★★☆

Degree in which the restaurant’s facade stands out from its surrounding: ★★★★★

Important Message:
In the early morning of Aug. 8, 2016, fire broke out in Moeginomura ROCK, causing heavy damage to the building. Excluding Rock, all the other buildings in Moeginomura were not affected and are operating as normal. No word yet on what may have started the fire and there is no definite date yet on when they will resume its business, but according to their website, Rock will definitely re-open. We do hope that they re-open quickly and we can once again enjoy their iconic curry.

UPDATE: Starting September 17, Moeginomura finished setting up a provisional kitchen and are currently re-opened for business. Even though the seating is still outdoors under a tent, we are glad to be able to once again savor the flavors unique to this beloved (and resilient!) restaurant.

ROCK

Price Range: 1,000 – 2,000

Hours: 10 am – 11:30 pm

Location: Kiyosato 3545 Moeginomura, Takanecho, Hokuto, Yamanashi  山梨県北杜市高根町清里3545 萌木の村

Access: 10-min walk from Kiyosato Station (JR Koumi Line)

Let’s Talk Subculture Vol. 16 Takadanobaba Game Center Mikado: Tokyo’s Empire of Retro Video Games

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Explore the fascinating world of Japan’s subcultures with insights from the inside

Insert coin to relive childhood

outrunDue to its unassuming façade, Mikado could easily go unnoticed by even a seasoned gamer. This video game arcade, or ge-sen (an abbreviation of game center) in Japanese, is located not in the otaku heaven of Akihabara, but tucked on a small street of Takadanobaba, a student quarter in Shinjuku Ward along the Yamanote Line. Tourists won’t likely visit the area without a special reason, but for gamers there is plenty of reason as Mikado will be like a tour through their childhood.

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During the eighties and nineties, video game arcades were stuff of the future, but now with the advent of advanced home consoles they have become a phenomenon of the past. Outside of Japan, they are pretty much extinct, and even the ge-sen here are becoming an endangered species. The few major ones that are left, owe their life not to fighting and shooting games, but to the UFO catchers and purikura booths that attract families and couples.

“When I was young, video game arcades were dark, smoky halls where young guys would hang out after school to play the newest video games. Now, games are played on smartphone devices and arcades have become family entertainment” says Mikado owner Minoru Ikeda with a sad smile on his face.

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A quick look around at the two-story Mikado, which probably has the most CRT screens put together in one space in Tokyo, makes it easy to understand that it is a recreation of the video game arcades Ikeda remembers from his childhood. From SEGA’s 1985 classic shooting game Space Harrier to Capcom’s legendary fighter Street Fighter II that still has a following more than 20 years after its release, Mikado is like a museum that showcases the golden days of Japanese video games. With a total of more than 200 machines, even games that were quickly forgotten after their original release finally get their well-deserved lot here at Mikado.

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It is not just the nostalgia that brings gamers to Mikado. For many now forgotten games, Mikado is the only place where competitive players can still find a good opponent, which is why so many players from all over the world make their pilgrimage to this holy ground of vintage video games. The special events and tournaments held on daily basis keep things active, and make this recreation of an old-style video game arcade one that not only has the games of the good old days, but also captures the lively energy and tension that was present in video game arcades back then.

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“My next dream is to develop an original game for Mikado. By making it only playable here, it could become a new reason for people to visit.”

Ikeda’s plan would indeed make for an interesting type of exclusivity. Ideas like this add a layer of personality to Mikado that make it a very special place.
A visit will make you recall the fun and adrenalin rush of jostling elbows with your opponent seated next to you, rather than some faceless online game user on some other part of the planet.
Game Center Takadanobaba Mikado

Address: Takadanobaba 4-5-10, Shinjuku, Tokyo
Access: 1-min walk from Takadanobaba Station (JR Yamanote Line, Tozai Line, Seibu Shinjuku Line
Hours: 10am – 12am
URL: http://mi-ka-do.net/baba/ (Japanese)

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

Tohoku Secluded Hot Springs: Lamp no Yado Aoni Onsen

Away from modern life

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Quality hot spring are scattered throughout the mountainous Aomori Prefecture, but for the most authentic experience, head over to Lamp no Yado Aoni Onsen. The writer of this article has been to many different hot springs throughout Japan, but calls this the real deal.

That doesn’t mean it has the most gorgeous looking bath or spectacular ryokan attached to it, but actually kind of the opposite…hear me out!

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Located along Aoni Valley deep in the mountains of Aomori, every twist your bus or car makes up to the mountain, is a step away from modern society. It was only the beginning of the winter during my visit, but thick snow had already piled up so much it wasn’t hard to believe that Aomori is the snowiest city on earth.

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While too white to be true during winter, nature brings much more to these mountains than just snow. During autumn, the area is known for its golden foliage, and expect lots of fresh verdure as well as bright hydrangea flowers during the summer. The ryokan itself is surrounded by some sakura trees which are usually in full blossom during May, a bit later than in most other parts of Japan because of the long winters.

The moment you arrive at Lamp no Yado, which translates itself as “Inn of Lamps”, you will realize that you have come to a true mountain retreat completely surrounded by nature.

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Heading inside the ryokan, you make a slip in time to a more traditional Japan, completely untouched by the invasion of convenience stores and hamburgers. Electricity here is scarce and the whole ryokan is lit only by oil lamps, which add an authentic touch to the Japanese style rooms.

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Expect no power sockets in your room, but consider it a small price you pay to experience something truly unique.

The mountain vegetables and freshwater fish make for a divine, healthy meal that will allow one to appreciate the blessings of nature.

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Dinner at Lamp no Yado

The fish are grilled on an irori, a traditional Japanese hearth, which together with the tatami mats, a Japanese wooden table and your yukata (the kimono you wear at the inn), create an atmosphere that is about as Japanese as it gets.

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Lamp no Yado comes with a total of 4 different baths. One of these baths is a rotenburo, or open-door bath. The lukewarm water allows one to stay in for a long time without getting too hot. Ladies should note that this bath is gender free, which was more common in the old days in Japan. Special ladies only hours are available from 11am to 12pm and from 5pm to 6pm.

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Lamp no Yado’s open-door bath

The other 3 inside baths each look at the scenery from a different angle. The scent of the large wooden tubs add a lovely fragrance to the hot water. Ladies can feel at ease as men and women go in separate baths here.

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Lamp no Yado’s indoor bath

According to the owner, the natural hot spring water here is not only good for the body, but also has the power to “make a love that has cooled down hot again”. I believe that it is not only the water, but the unforgettable experience Aoni Onsen Lamp no Yado provides as a whole, that brings the romantic inside one. While its inconvenient location and lack of electricity make it a destination that is certainly not for everyone, if you appreciate a truly secluded hot spring far away from the hustle and bustle of modern society, this is one of the best mountain retreats to forget about the stress and worries that come with modern life. A relaxing soak in the middle of nature together with the precious people in your life next to you here, will be a lifetime memory for sure.

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Let’s Talk Subculture Vol. 14 Yoshitaka Amano Exhibition in Tokyo

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Explore the fascinating world of Japan’s subcultures with insights from the inside

From fine art to Final Fantasy

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Video game and anime illustrations as well as fine art by Yoshitaka Amano are exhibited at “A Yoshitaka Amano Exhibition – the fantasy evolves” at the Yurakucho Asahi Gallery in Tokyo until March 8.

Yoshitaka Amano (March 26, 1952) is a worldwide acclaimed Japanese artist that started his career as an illustrator at animation studio Tatsunoko Production at the age of 15 in 1967. Abroad, he is best known for the character design and package illustrations of Square Enix’s popular RPG series Final Fantasy.

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Other famous works Amano was involved in include anime series Sience Ninja Team Gachaman and Time Bokan as well as book illustrations for Japanese best sellers as The Guin Saga and Vampire Hunter D. His fine art, like the colorful pop art style Candy Girls for example – paintings of android girls based on Tokyo’s youth Amano sees on the street – have received great reactions at exhibitions in both New York and Paris.

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From January 29 to March 8, more than 100 works by Amano are exhibited at the Yurakucho Asahi Gallery in Tokyo. The exhibition is titled “A Yoshitaka Amano Exhibition – the fantasy evolves”, and is mainly focused on his video game and anime works. Final Fantasy fans will be able to enjoy a great amount of illustrations of the series as well as all the franchise’s package designs showcased in chronological order. Illustrations by Amano on music legend David Bowie are also exhibited for the first time in Japan.

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As there are still a few days left, those interested are highly recommended to come and visit this remarkable exhibition by one of Japan’s greatest illustrators of all time!

A Yoshitaka Amano Exhibition – the fantasy evolves
Venue: Yurakucho 2-5-1 Yurakucho Marion 11F Yurakucho Asahi Gallery
Period: January 29 – March 8
Price: 1,000 yen for adults, 900 yen for students, 800 yen for high school students and adults above 65 years old, free for junior high-school students and below
URL: http://www.amano-exhibition.jp/ (Japanese)

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

Let’s Talk Subculture Vol. 13 Japanese Subculture as Seen by Foreign Artists

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Explore the fascinating world of Japan’s subcultures with insights from the inside

Interview with David OReilly and Caleb Wood

1. Caleb Wood  and David OReilly
Caleb Wood (left) and David OReilly (right)

Japanese anime, manga and video games have great followings in the west, but how do western creators look at such Japanese contents?
At GEORAMA 2016 – an animation festival held mainly in Shibuya and Koenji from February 2 to 23 – animated films from throughout the world were brought together. WAttention was on site, and had the chance to interview two worldwide acclaimed artists, David OReilly and Caleb Wood.

David OReilly is a self-taught Irish 3D animation film maker and game developer based in Los Angeles. At the festival, his short films “Please Say Something”, “External World” and “THE HORSE RAISED BY SPHERES” were shown in Japanese cinema. Many of his works capture modern pop culture in a satirical way, but also have something genuine and emotional about them. He is also responsible for animating a scene in “her”, the 2013 movie directed by Spike Jonze. In 2014, OReilly created “Mountain”, a game best described as a mountain simulator. This was his first achievement as an independent game developer.

2. 共通画像-“Please Say Something” David OReilly Animation
“Please Say Something” David OReilly Animation

Caleb Wood is an independent American animation artist based in New York. After graduating from Rhode Island School of Design in 2011, he has been active as a freelance animation artist. “Little Wild”, “Totem” and “Goodbye Rabbit, Hop Hop” are some of his best known works. His works are abstract and generally have no narrative. It is the animation itself, the movement and the sound that tell the story. At GEORAMA 2016, he drew a live animation by painting on a wall, a unique method not seen before.

3. “Totem” Caleb Wood
“Totem” Caleb Wood

Japan, a country of contrasts

WAttention: What are your impressions of Japan?

Caleb Wood: My first visit in 2013 was a transition to a totally different culture. I was here for JAPIC AAIR, a residency program in Tokyo for foreign animation artists. I had three months to stay in Tokyo and made a film. During my stay, I visited Yoyogi Park every day and would just sit down and draw. “Goodbye Rabbit, Hop Hop” is the short film I made in this period. It incorporates the experience of getting out of the city and being enclosed by nature. I wanted to express the freedom you feel when entering the park. I also recorded the sounds here. Some of it is very urban and industrial, while the more natural sounds were recorded in Yoyogi Park.

4.  “Goodbye Rabbit, Hop Hop” Caleb Wood
“Goodbye Rabbit, Hop Hop” Caleb Wood

Caleb Wood: I have really fond memories of staying in Tokyo, and coming back here now 3 years later feels like coming back to an old house. There’s definitely a lot of nostalgia to it for me.

5.
WAttention:
How about you, David?

David OReilly:
There are many things I find inspiring here. Japan is a country of contrasts. There is a different way of looking at the world here, probably because it is an island. Island cultures tend to have their own unique eco-systems of culture. The first thing I really loved about Japan was the psychedelic music of the seventies. J.A Seazer for example, made a lot of incredible compositions. He was also responsible for a lot of music in the films of director Shuji Terayama. It was truly a revolutionary art movement at the time, and it was amazing to see how much emotion they put in their work. It has aggression and beauty at the same time, and is a great example of the contrasts that exist in Japanese culture. The people here are very polite and reserved, yet produce very extreme and strong culture.

WAttention: Do you feel that this is because the society here can be very strict? That the Japanese have a stronger will to put their emotion into their creations as they aren’t allowed to do so in everyday life?

David OReilly: Yes, I think so. Everybody is human and there are always going to be emotions escaping somehow. The people here are generally less extraverted than in the west, but what they want to say is often expressed in their art. It is very easy to say that for example the Soviet Union was evil and bad, but at the same time, it did produce Tarkovsky, one of the greatest artists of the last century.

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The sense of timing in Japanese anime

WAttention: What do you think about Japanese anime?

Caleb Wood: I find the sense of timing very interesting. American animations have all become very similar to each other. People expect the same thing regarding how stories are told and how scenes should be animated. Japanese animation feels more unfamiliar and opens the mind. This is especially so for independent work, but even the bigger works – say Ghibli Studios – also have their own specific timing.

WAttention: We feel that the movement and sound in your works, especially “Little Wild”, have things in common with Ghibli Studios. Were you influenced by them?

Caleb Wood: Not the background scenery or story, but definitely the movement. A Japanese animator I especially respect is Shinya Ohira. He is a freelance animator that does scenes for many major Japanese animation studios. If there is a scene in a Japanese anime you find especially spectacular, there’s a pretty big chance it was done by him.

7.  “Little Wild” Caleb Wood
“Little Wild” Caleb Wood

Wattention: Are there any other Japanese animators or directors you like?

Caleb Wood: Although very different from my own approach, I think that the editing of Satoshi Kon, the director of “Millennium Actress” and “Paprika” is amazing. His works are really more like film than animation.

Japanese games, looking forward and backward

WAttention: How about other mediums than animation. David, you developed “Mountain”, an indie game in 2014. Are there any Japanese video games you grew up with?

8. “Mountain” David OReilly
“Mountain” David OReilly

David OReilly: Definitely. Growing up playing Japanese video games and at the same time watching old cartoons, reading comics and watching European and Asian cinema are the biggest components of influences for my works. Although I was not allowed to play that many video games, I endlessly played Super Mario Land on the Gameboy in my early years. When Final Fantasy VII came out, I was about 12, and the game totally got into my imagination. It was a huge leap of technology back then.

WAttention: What are you expecting from the upcoming Final Fantasy VII remake?

David OReilly: It’s a really unusual time in culture where classics are constantly being remade. As a creator you always want to go to the source and see what the magic is. I will definitely play the remake because it will be a chance to revisit my childhood. That being said, I cannot think of a remake that is better than the original. When something original is made, it has a quantity of experimentation going on and looks forward, while a remake is obviously a process of looking back.

It required a Japanese mind to make the purest thing

WAttention: Are there any more recent Japanese games you enjoy playing?

David OReilly: Dark Souls is one of my favorite series today. When I first played it, I totally hated it. It was way too masochistic and unbelievably hard. But once I understood how the game develops it took over my head. It’s a very pure game experience that makes you feel like you are in a dream. The feeling, the tone, how the characters interact is mindless and possessed in a zombie like way. The world looks realistic, but it is so abstract. It gave me a feeling I have never felt before. The environment is what you are experiencing, much more so than the narrative.
The game is a western RPG, but it required a Japanese mind to make the purest thing. It is very interesting to see how Japanese creators absorb ideas from other cultures.
Also, just by playing the first few hours of Metal Gear Solid V made me feel like there’s no reason to ever make an action movie again. The game does everything an action movie does, only 10 times better!

9.

Dancing and experimenting

WAttention: I would like to end this interview by talking a bit about how the two of you work. What is most important for you as an artist?

Caleb Wood: When creating, there’s not something in specific I’m conscious about. I don’t really have a plan either. I just let the drawings become what they want to become and do what the animations tell me. It’s kind of like dancing. The narrative comes naturally through the movement.

10. “Goodbye Rabbit, Hop Hop” Caleb Wood
“Goodbye Rabbit, Hop Hop” Caleb Wood

David OReilly: When I try to make something, I want to do something new and see where it goes. We tend to be amazed and inspired by new things and they change the way we see the world. If I do a new project, it’s always because I want to learn something new and grow my technical knowledge. To make a project interesting I have to learn new things. Doing new things is always risky, but without it a project is not as exciting.

11. “External World” David OReilly Animation
“External World” David OReilly Animation

WAttention: Thank you both for your time!

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

Let’s Talk Subculture Vol. 12 International Robot Sumo Tournament 2015

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Explore the fascinating world of Japan’s subcultures with insights from the inside

Battle of the little giants

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You have probably heard of Ryogoku Kokugikan, Tokyo’s sumo stadium where many prestigious sumo wrestlers have stood in the ring since 1985.

However, on December 13, 2015, two robots face each other in a small sumo ring, with their creators standing on both sides. The tension and pressure can be felt just by looking at them.

“Hakkeyoi! Nokotta!” the referee shouts – just like in real sumo – and marks the start of the match. And then, the moment of truth. The two robots bump into each other with great speed. Their creators shout at them as if they are giving instructions to a real wrestler. One of the two robots gets hit, and flies off the ring. Excited cheering, shouting, screaming. A true sensation it is.


As the name suggests, Robot Sumo is about two robots fighting each other in a ring, but there is a lot more to it than just that. To qualify, robots cannot weigh more than 3kg or be wider than 20cm, but there are no restrictions for their height. That means that within these restrictions, participants are completely free in how they create their robot and what material they use doing so. You will notice how there is a certain strategy behind each robot’s design.

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Some robots are simply built to push their opponent off the ring with pure strength, while others are designed to use the opponent’s force and toss away incoming robots. The great amount of different tactics and movements make each bout exciting and spectacular to watch, and sometimes really does remind of actual sumo wrestling.

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The All Japan Robot Sumo Tournament has been held annually since 1989, with Ryogoku Kokugikan as its venue. Since 2014, the International Robot Sumo Tournament is also held on the same day, which means that Japanese participants have a handicap as they fight two tournaments in a row, if their robots have any energy left at all.

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Robot Sumo has two main categories: Self Operating Robots and Radio-Controlled Robots.

Self-Operating Robots have multiple tactic patterns programmed by their participants. The pattern is decided before each bout. During the fight, robots rely purely on their artificial intelligence; all participants can do now is observe the fate that awaits their beloved creations. However, as two bouts have to be won to be victorious, tactic patterns can be changed for each stand-alone bout, resulting in different outcomes for the same match-up.

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Radio-controlled robots fight as their participants instruct. Every single movement is controlled by a remote control that will remind you of miniature model race cars.

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While from a technical perspective, robots battling with artificial intelligence might sound more impressive, bouts by radio controlled robots are usually more fast and spectacular as the outcome can be changed due to a wise move with the blink of an eye, always keeping observers on the edge of their seats.

In 2015, the tournament was held on December 13. The finals of the International Robot Sumo Tournament for the Self-Operating Robots category ended in a tie between a robot from Turkey and one from Romania. The winning Japanese Self-Operating Robot of the national tournament that day, was disqualified during the international tournament as it damaged the ring during battle.

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The winner of both the national and international Radio-Controlled Robots tournament was MTY- Hakuro, a robot from Kagawa Prefecture controlled by two high-school students. Tossing one robot after the other out of the ring as if it was nothing, they left 43 robots from 15 different countries behind. With sumo wrestlers of foreign origin dominating the last decade, seeing a victorious Japanese (robot) wrestler at Ryogoku Kokugikan was a nostalgic sight indeed.

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

Let’s Talk Subculture Vol. 11 The past and present of Japanese video games

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Explore the fascinating world of Japan’s subcultures with insights from the inside

An Interview with Koji Igarashi

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If you are in your twenties or thirties and are a fan of Japanese video games, there is a pretty big chance you grew up spending hours on end in the dark world of Castlevania, one of Konami’s most iconic franchises. Now, you can look forward to reliving the magic with a new game by former Castlevania key creator and gaming world legend, Koji Igarashi (fondly known as IGA)’s latest project, called Bloodstained: Ritual of the Night. So eager were IGA’s fans to bring this fantasy world to fruition that it only took only 4 hours to reach the base goal of 500,000 US dollars on KICKSTARTER, one of the world’s biggest crowdfunding platforms. And only to think that this was just the beginning!

WAttention had the honor to interview IGA himself, and asked him about his new project, his masterpieces of the past, and the current state of the Japanese video game industry in general.

On Castlevania: 

“Castlevania is a gothic horror themed side-scroller (a 2D video game viewed from a side-view camera angle in which a character moves from one side to the other) in which the main character uses a whip as the main weapon to fight against Dracula and his army of mummy men, werewolfs and other characters that will remind you of B horror movies” IGA explains.

Although IGA is not the father of the Castlevania franchise which started in 1986, the first entry he worked on in 1997 “Castlevania: Symphony of the Night” was a revolutionary title that to this day is widely seen as not only the best entry in the franchise, but also as one of the best video games ever released for the original Sony Playstation.

In a time in which 3D video games came to rise due to new powerful hardware, IGA and his team had the guts to stick with 2D and revolutionized the side-scrolling genre by making it non-linear and adding elements of exploration and backtracking. While IGA humbly mentions Nintendo’s Super Metroid as an earlier game with similar features, it cannot be denied that IGA further expanded the concept by introducing experience points and magic, concepts borrowed from RPGs (role playing games), hence making the game more accessible for the less skilled gamer.

Much like IGA himself, a great number of famous Japanese video game creators from companies as SEGA, Konami, Capcom and Square Enix have gone their own ways in the last decade. We asked IGA why he thinks so many creators have left their companies.

“Video-game companies cannot accept new ideas as easily as before. Production costs are becoming higher as technology advances while sales are getting worse largely due to the rise of smartphone devices. Testing new grounds has become much more risky than before, forcing companies to play it safe by releasing titles of tested formulas for already existing franchises, leaving creators little to no freedom”

On Bloodstained: Ritual of the Night

Bloodstained: Ritual of the Night will be the first title of IGA’s new studio ArtPlay. The project is partially funded through KICKSTARTER. With over 5.5 million US dollars funded by over 64 thousands backers, IGA’s project ranks in as the 11th best funded project and second best funded video game ever on KICKSTARTER.

“Bloodstained: Ritual of the Night” is currently in development for Steam (PC/Mac/Linux), GOG.com (PC/Mac/Linux), XBOX One, Playstation 4, Wii U, and PS Vita and is scheduled for a 2017 release.

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“As Bloodstained is partly funded by my fans, I want to give them the type of experience they have been waiting for. Still, while creating a game that will feel familiar, I am hoping to try new things as well. Also, given the fact that this is a new franchise, the story and setting will add a fresh touch to the game too.”

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On the future of the game industry: 

With even world-wide acclaimed video game creators as IGA having a hard time finding publishers to fund their projects, how do new talents bring their ideas to the world? Luckily, there is a new movement called indie games, which are video games created by independent developers. While the production costs for big titles are higher than ever, modern developing software has made the programming of video games more convenient and less expensive, allowing young creators to independently create and present their own video games.

“The difference between my project and indie games is that there is an existing fan base for my project. I have to make sure that those fans will be satisfied with my game, but an indie developer is completely free in what he wants to make, limited only by his own imagination.” says IGA, indicating that he does not see himself as an indie developer.
He does state that the marketing for his current project is significantly different from that of a traditional video game, and that as his own boss, he does possess similar freedom as an indie developer.

“I think that there are two types of creators. The creator that makes something completely new and the creator that perfects an already existing concept or genre. I happen to be the latter one, but for creators that want to bring something completely new to the world, video game companies aren’t as tolerant as in the old days. Luckily, they can show their projects as indie games, which is why I feel great potential towards this new branch of our industry”

While Japan is still a bit behind the west when it comes to indie games, the market is gradually growing. IGA was a speaker at 2015’s Bitsummit, an indie game festival in Kyoto that was held for the third time on July 11 and 12.

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IGA was pleasantly surprised by the scale and popularity of the event. Indeed, with more than 80 developing teams showcasing their projects and over 4,500 visitors, the Japanese indie game industry is definitely growing, and hopefully we will soon see young Japanese creators once again captivate the world with their fresh ideas like IGA did nearly two decades ago.

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

Let’s Talk Subculture Vol. 10 Subculture Events

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

On a subculture journey with CoFesta’s Ambassadors

Fancy attending the AnimeJapan exposition next March and playing a part in promoting Japanese visual media such as animation, games, manga and film? You can, by applying to become a CoFesta Ambassador.

CoFesta, or  the Japan International Contents Festival, is an ongoing project aimed at promoting Japanese games, animation, manga, characters, broadcast, music and film. CoFesta Ambassadors are foreigners mostly living in Japan that are fans of such genres who participate in related events and help to promote an appreciation of such visual media. Currently, a total of around 200 ambassadors from a total of 40 countries and regions living in Japan are active as CoFesta Ambassadors.

As long as you are a foreigner studying in Japan and are over 18 years old, all you need is a love for Japanese subcultures to become an Ambassador! Even if you are currently living abroad, you can subscribe to become an overseas CoFesta Ambassador and might be invited to Japan as a representative of overseas CoFesta Ambassadors! Apply here.

CoFesta(http://www.cofesta.go.jp/)CoFesta

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WAttention received feedback from these CoFesta Ambassadors regarding their visits to 6 different events that showcased the newest and hottest subculture and technology contents of 2015. We bring you the highlights of these events as seen through their eyes.

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  1. 25th TOKYO GAME SHOW 2015
    September 17 – 20

As one of the world’s biggest game shows, TOKYO GAME SHOW has come to host many new gaming announcements throughout the years that have excited dedicated gamers throughout the world, especially fans of Japanese games.

(http://expo.nikkeibp.co.jp/tgs/2015/en/)

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“I was especially impressed by Sony’s VR gaming device Playstation VR. It made me feel like I was actually inside a video game world!” – Steven Konatra (Indonesia, 23 years old, studies Game Graphic and Character at Tokyo Communication Arts College)

“It was great to see so many contents at the indie games corner, and I think it is really good that game and anime schools are here to recruit new talents!” – Gianluca Abad (Philippines, 21 years old, studies International Liberal studies at Waseda University)

 

  1. 4th KYOTO INTERNATIONAL MANGA ANIME FAIR 2015
    September 19 – 20

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The KYOTO INTERNATIONAL MANGA ANIME FAIR, fondly known as Kyomafu, is the biggest exhibition related to manga and anime in the Kansai area. Being held in Japan’s ancient capital Kyoto, collaborations between manga or anime producers and traditional Japanese crafts can be spotted here as well. With volunteer guides that can assist foreign visitors in English, Chinese and Korean, this event is easy to enjoy even without any knowledge of the Japanese language!

(http://kyomaf.jp/en/)

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CoFesta Ambassadors were present at this event.

 

  1. 16th CEATEC JAPAN 2015 (Combined Exhibition of Advanced Technologies)
    October 7 – 10

CEATEC JAPAN was held for the 15th time this year. From major Japanese companies as NEC and Hitachi to small individual companies and research teams of universities, a total of more than 350 exhibitors gathered here to bring the world’s newest and hottest technology at one spot. What kind of new gadgets and inventions have the Japanese exhibitors in store for us?

(http://www.ceatec.com/en/)

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“I was really amazed by a robot created by the research team of Keio University. This robot can grab a piece of potato chips without breaking it!” – Carlos Cesar Cortes (Mexico, 35 years old, studies mechanical engineering at Keio University)

“A computer at Hitachi’s booth was able to put on screen what someone writes in the air, incredible!” – Zheng Lin Chia (Malaysia, 23 years old, studies  Japanese at KCP International Japanese Language School)

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  1. 8th DIGITAL CONTENT EXPO 2015
    October 22 – 25

The Digital Content Expo is an annual event held at Tokyo’s Miraikan, the National Museum of Emerging Science and Innovation. With new technology products and experiments for digital contents as video-games and anime, walking around in the showroom here gives you a good impression of where modern technology is heading.

(https://www.dcexpo.jp/en/)

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“I was most impressed by The Planet of Hakoniwa. It makes a 3D scan of someone and projects this person in a virtual miniature garden with flashy neon lights and beams. Really cool!” Reem Mostafa (Egypt, 21, studies Japanese language at Cairo University)

“I thought that the Doodle Zoo – a sketchbook that makes animals you draw come to life on a screen – is a great device to stimulate the creativity of children!” Edgar Santiago Pelaez Mazariegos (Mexico, 31 years old, studies Asia-Pacific studies at Waseda University)

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  1. 28th Tokyo International Film Festival
    October 22 – 31

With TOHO Cinemas Roppongi Hills as the main venue, the Tokyo International Film Festival was held for the 28th time this year. Not only Japanese but also a great number of foreign movies were presented at the show. Famous directors and actors from all over the world could be spotted at the red carpet opening ceremony, which showed just how international this film festival is.

http://2015.tiff-jp.net/en/

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“It was my first time to attend an event of this scale, and the amount of foreign celebrities really surprised me. The first thing I’m going to do when I get home is tweet that I saw the girls of Perfume!” – Linnah Tan (Singapore, 20 years old, studies Japanese at National University of Singapore)

“My friend from junior high-school plays the main female roll of “Snap”, a movie that will be shown at this festival. I really look forward to seeing her on the big screen” – Manassavee Issarathamrong (Thailand, 21 years old, studies Japanese at Chulalongkorn University)

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  1. 50th Inter BEE 2015
    November 18 – 20

At Inter BEE (International Broadcast Equipment Exhibition)  2015, a total of 996 exhibitors showcased the newest broadcasting, audio and lightning equipment, together giving a general impression of where the world of broadcasting is evolving.

http://www.inter-bee.com/en/

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“I was impressed by the evolution of camera drones. They used to be easily blown away by the wind, but some models exhibited at the event were built so that they catch as little wind as possible. Even if you push them away, they automatically return to their original location” – Edgar Santiago Pelaez Mazariegos (Mexico, 31 years old, studies Asia-Pacific studies at Waseda University)

“I used to edit videos for work. Back then, we used to edit images with Photoshop, which we then inserted into a video editing program. But a video editing software program showcased at the exhibition was developed so that you can edit both images and videos at the same time!” – Sansan Chen (Australia, 36 years old)

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

Restaurant Review: Harukiya Ramen

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Cravings for ramen

Last night, I just couldn’t fall asleep. As soon as I tried to close my eyes, a bowl of Harukiya’s ramen appeared in my mind. That’s just how much I love this ramen shop in Ogikubo.

Harukiya has been around since 1948, and is renowned for being one of the most traditional “Tokyo ramen” shops out there.

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Harukiya’s menu is very simple. It consists of ramen, chashu ramen, and won-ton ramen, all with the same noodles and soy-based soup that is made out of niboshi (dried sardine), broth and vegetables.

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True, this soup may not be as thick and strong as today’s most popular type of ramen, tonkotsu (pork bone broth), but the delicateness of Harukiya’s version of Japan’s beloved noodle bowl, is something few other ramen shops can compete with.

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Photo credit: Harukiya

Restaurant information:

Name: Harukiya

Price range: 1,000 yen

Location: Kamiogi 1-4-6, Suginami, Tokyo

Access: A 3-min walk from Ogikubo Station (JR Chuo Line and Marunouchi Line)

Website: http://www.haruki-ya.co.jp/english/

Editor’s pick: Memories of Matsuko

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“Memories of Matsuko” by director Tetsuya Yamada (also known for “Kamikaze Girls”) tells the sad life of goodhearted and cheerful, but oh so clumsy Matsuko. We follow her through the eyes of her nephew, who tries to figure out who she was, after Matsuko has passed away.

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Matsuko starts her adult life as a schoolteacher, but soon gets herself involved into trouble she cannot control, which eventually brings her to the darker sides of modern Japan, ranging from hostess clubs to yakuza and even prison.

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“Memories of Matsuko” is a sad story with an optimistic, sometimes even cheerful approach. Whenever Matsuko’s life changes for the worse, you will see her cheerfully dancing and singing in a musical scene. It is during these moments that I feel the Japanese nature of this movie, as Japanese tend to hide their inner feelings, be it without singing and dancing.

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Personally, I was especially moved by Matsuko’s “funny face”. This face was her only way to make her strict father smile as a little girl. Seeing her still making the same funny face more than 20 years later, after for example being treated like garbage by her Yakuza boyfriend, makes Matsuko sympathetic and pitiful at the same time. Details in Matsuko’s character like this, kept me caring for her even after the final credits had rolled.

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While making the most crazy and drastic developments, “Memories of Matsuko” manages to avoid plot holes, resulting in a fantastically well-paced story. If you are in for an engaging movie that takes you to many different sides of modern Japan in little more than 2 hours, this has to be your pick!

Movie details:

Title: Memories of Matsuko (Kiraware Matsuko no Issho)

Director: Tetsuda Yamada

Language: Japanese (English subtitles available)
Year released: 2006 (Japan)

Runtime: 130-min

Genre: Drama

Editor’s pick: ICHIGENSAN The Newcomer

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This novel was published in Japan in 1996, and was one of the first novels to be written in Japanese by a Westerner. In one of the original reviews, a Japanese journalist mentions that the Swiss writer, David Zoppetti, “writes better than 99 percent of all Japanese”. Now that is a big statement to make, and indeed, his beautifully flowing sentences make me as someone who writes in Japanese as well, feel jealous to say the least.

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The novel tells the story of a young exchange student in Kyoto. He finds it hard to integrate with the local culture as he is always judged by his appearance. Japan is generally known as a culture that does not easily open up to foreigners, which can especially be said for Kyoto. In Kyoto, even Japanese outsiders have a hard time becoming part of the local society. As to this day, Kyoto still has many restaurants that do not accept “Ichigensan”, or outsiders, which is also the title of this novel.
Life in Kyoto becomes harder and harder for the protagonist, but then, he meets a blind girl, who treats him as a normal person, as she can obviously not judge him by his foreign appearance.

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From “Ichigensan” the movie, released in Japan in 2000.

If you are dreaming of studying or working in Japan, this book will give you a realistic and honest impression on what living in Japan as a foreigner is like. In case you already live here, I’m sure you will identify with many experiences of the main character, and understand his frustrations.
Read it in Japanese if you can, as it will allow you to enjoy beautiful sentence structures and accurate metaphors that burst in character and creativity. For example, I remember I couldn’t help but laugh when the main character’s kitchen is described as “a place that makes even the most experienced cockroach want to commit suicide”.
The novel was made into a movie in Japan in 2000, but sadly no subtitled version has been released at the moment of writing this article.

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Novel details:

Title: ICHIGENSAN The Newcomer (Ichigensan)
Author: David Zoppetti
Year released: 1996 (Japanese) 2011 (English)

Nightlife at Yokocho’s in Tokyo

How and where you should have your beer in Tokyo

 

Being a vibrant city, Tokyo is full of bustling entertainment districts, but where and how do the locals take their beer after a hard day of work?

If mingling with the locals at small pubs and bars is your thing, head over to one of Tokyo’s many Yokocho’s, which are narrow alleyways full of quality drinks and simple but delicious food awaiting you.

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In this article, I will not introduce any specific Yokocho, but give you an impression of what kind of bars, pubs and restaurants you can expect in general.
(A list of some Yokocho in Tokyo can be found at the end of the article.)

Yakitoriya

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Without a doubt, Yakitoriya are the most common type of bars at Yokocho’s. You will recognize them by the smoke that comes from the charcoal grill on which the Yakitori skewers are grilled. In most cases, a crowded counter is faced towards this charcoal grill. While consuming a beer or shochu, mostly male customers will be enjoying a conversation while their skewers are sizzling on the grill. Skewers come in a large variety such as chicken breast, chicken leg meat, chicken meatloaf, chicken skin, gristle, gizzard and even beef tongue and entrails.

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Izakaya

You might know Izakaya as big dining style restaurant bars, but the Izakaya at a Yokocho are usually much smaller, simpler and more old-fashioned. Their coziness gives them an undeniable charm, and they often have rare sake bottles collected from all over the country for you to pick out. The dishes served here might not be culinary masterpieces, but you will be able to taste the character of the bar owner that prepares these dishes like a caring mother does for her children.

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Tachinomiya

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If you just want a quick drink or bite, a Tachinomiya, or a stand and drink bar, is your pick. The alcohol and food here is usually very cheap, and you don’t have to gather energy to stand up if you want to leave!

If this does not sound romantic enough to you, think again. I for one, would chose picking at some edamame (boiled and salted soybeans) from a wooden board that is balanced on empty beer cases on the side of a small alley with a highball cocktail in my other hand over a luxury French restaurant anytime!

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Ramen and gyoza

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Every good Yokocho has a small eatery that serves quality ramen and gyoza, but do you know why? In Japan, after a session of bar hopping, the night is often ended by slurping a good ol’ bowl of ramen, maybe together with some gyoza. Once you also get strange cravings for ramen after a night of drinking, it’s time to start considering yourself Japanese!yokocho10

Snack

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 Don’t think that bars that say “snack” are simple snack bars where you can have a light meal. Snacks are drinking bars with a woman host called “Mama” that entertains guests and listens to their problems and worries of life. Many Japanese salaryman have one particular Snack they visit regularly to have their favorite Mama cheer them up. Snacks are an interesting phenomenon in modern Japanese society, but are not really a place for tourists to visit, especially without any knowledge of the Japanese language, so be careful!

Spot information:

  1. Omoide Yokocho

 Location: Nishi Shinjuku 1, Shinjuku
Access: A 1 minute walk from the West Exit of Shinjuku Station (JR Lines, Subway Lines, Odakyu Line, Keio Line)
URL: http://www.shinjuku-omoide.com/english/index.html

  1. Ameya Yokocho

 Location: Ueno 4-9-15, Taito
Access: A 3 minute walk from Ueno Station (JR Lines)
URL: http://www.ameyoko.net/ (Japanese only) 

  1. Ebisu Yokocho

 Location: Ebisu 1-7-4, Shibuya
Access: A 2 minute walk from the East Exit of Ebisu Station (JR Lines, Saikyo Line, Shonan Shinjuku Line)
URL: http://www.ebisu-yokocho.com/top.html (Japanese only)

  1. Harmonica Yokocho

 Location: Kichijoji Honcho 1-1-2, Mushashino
Access: A 3 minute walk from the North Exit of Kichijoji Station (JR Lines and Keio Inokashira Line)
URL: http://hamoyoko.com/ (Japanese only) 

  1. Nonbe Yokocho (Tateishi)

 Location: Tateishi 7-1 Katsushika
Access: A 3 minute walk from Keisei Tateishi Station (Oshiage Line)
URL: none available

 

Wakayama’s workaholic cats

Cat-ch Tama the station master and her apprentice, Nitama

Cat-ch Tama the station master and her apprentice, Nitama

Note: Tama Station Master passed away on June 22 2015, one month after this article. Tama was 16 years old.

What do you do if a train station in the countryside is threatened with closure due to declining ridership?
Hire a cat as the stationmaster!

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Show me your ticket nyaow!

This idea was a huge success for Kishi Station on the Kishigawa Line in Wakayama prefecture. The station is now a major tourist site, and was renovated to become cat-shaped in 2010.

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How a cat can change a railway company’s fortune!

Inside the station, there is a cat themed cafe, and even a small Tama museum. A Tama train that features 101 cute illustrations of our hard-working station master is on the tracks as well.

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The insides and outsides of the Tamaden, or Tama train.

Tama, the stationmaster will soon turn 16, so be quick if you want to see her on duty before she retires! Don’t worry though, Tama’s apprentice, Nitama is currently learning how to take over this busy job.

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Tama, exhausted after a long day of checking tickets.

How was Nitama recruited for this role? In 2012, Nitama was saved from a car accident. Due to her similarities in appearance with the then already famous Tama station master, Wakayama Electric Railway decided to recruit Nitama, … after carefully reading her resume, of course.

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Nitama’s educational background impressed the people at Wakayama Electric Railway.

Nitama is usually on duty at Idakiso Station, but also at Kishi Station when Tama takes a day off on or in case she catches a cold.
After Nitama’s arrival, Tama station master was promoted to the status of Ultra Station Master, while Nitama proudly inherited Tama’s former status of Super Station Master.

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Tama’s speech on Nitama’s first day of work, left everyone in tears.

Spot information:

Station Names: Kishi Station and Idakiso Station (Kishigawa Line in Wakayama Prefecture)

Tama Station Master Working Hours: From Tuesday to Friday (10am – 4pm) at Kishi Station

Nitama Station Master Working Hours: Monday, Tuesday, Friday (10am – 4pm) at Idakiso Station. Saturday, Sunday at Kishi Station

URL: http://www.wakayama-dentetsu.co.jp/images/wakayama_eng.pdf

A staff cafeteria high in the sky

Enjoy your less than 680 yen meal with a 100 million dollar view!
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Standing 243 meters tall, the Tokyo Metropolitan Government Building, or Tocho as the Japanese like to call it, is still Shinjuku’s tallest skyscraper. With an unparalleled view on Tokyo’s skyline, the free observation deck on the 45th floor has become a popular tourist spot in Shinjuku. However, the vast majority of visitors are missing another tourist spot hid in the same building.

At the 32nd floor, you can find the staff cafeteria, and guess what, it’s open to the public! If you want a lunch with a view, there’s no need to head for chic and pricy restaurants, as this staff cafeteria provides simple but good typical Japanese lunches so cheap you won’t even find them without a view!
Restaurant Information:

Name: Tokyo Metropolitan Government Building 32nd floor

Location: Nishi Shinjuku 2-8-1, Shinjuku

Access: A 10-min walk from the West Exit of Shinjuku Station (JR Lines, Subway Lines, Odakyu Line, Keio Line)

Website: http://www.tokyo-jinzai.or.jp/eng/index.html

Kanpai to Shibuya Beer!

Developed by Cafe Udagawa in April 2015, Shibuya Beer is the newest alcoholic trend in town with already more than 150 restaurants & cafes serving this original craft beer.

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The high-quality maca (a root vegetable) used in Shibuya Beer makes it a drink that not only boosts one’s spirit, but also stimulates one’s health, as maca is good for anti-aging. The grapefruit flavored beer aims to become synonym to Shibuya, and online retail has recently started here (Japanese only).

ICHIRAN New Branch Opened in Asakusa

The best ramen with the best company

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Fukuoka based ramen shop ICHIRAN, a favorite of many tonkotsu (pork bone broth) lovers will open its 13th Tokyo branch in Asakusa on December 10, 2015. It will be the first branch in Tokyo with the “ICHIRAN Yatai” concept, which resembles the spirit of ramen food stalls common in Fukuoka. Different from ICHIRAN’s separated seats that make sure you are not distracted and can concentrate on the noodles, “ICHIRAN Yatai” is a cozy open space were you can enjoy the ramen and other dishes together with your friends!

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ICHIRAN focuses purely on tonkotsu ramen, striving to bring you the best bowl in the genre. Topped with its iconic red-pepper sauce, the classic tonkotsu ramen here can be customized according to  your preferences. The order sheet (which is available in English, Chinese and Korean) allows you to choose the strength and richness of the flavor, the amount of garlic, spiciness of the red-pepper sauce, firmness of the noodles and more.

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This classic bowl of tonkotsu ramen is one of WAttention’s favorites, and it feels great to finally be able to enjoy it with company!

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Together with Tokyo’s first ICHIRAN Yatai, Premium Sliced Pork – Kamadare Style – also makes its Tokyo debut. Topped with nori, these juicy pork slices go great with rice during lunchtime or as a snack together with your beer after a hard day of sightseeing.

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For dessert, how about a green tea flavored annin tofu, or matcha annin tofu? Although annin tofu is a common dessert in Japan, green tea flavor is a rare find!

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ICHIRAN Asakusa

Price range:1,000 – 2,000 yen

Location: Asakusa 1-1-16 B1F Tatio

Access: 1-min from Asakusa Station (Ginza Line, Toei Asakusa Line, Tobu Skytree Line)

Crispy but soft, a new style of pancakes

During this year’s Christmas season, confectionery maker & café Nicolas House’s Omotesando branch presents a new style of pancakes. Decorated with thorny meringues that together look like an elf’s cap,  this fluffy pancake’s unique texture and flavor can only be enjoyed here. This could very well be the next big hit at Tokyo’s mecca of pancakes, Omotesando.

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Nicolas House Omotesando Store

Address: 4-26-5 Jingumae Shibuya
Hours: 11am-8pm
WEBSITE:http://www.nicolasusagi.com/

Christmas Illumination @ Hachiko

Since yesterday, Shibuya’s most loyal dog Hachiko won’t have to feel lonely at night anymore, as he is no surrounded with more than 30,000 LED lights. WAttention went to check it out yesterday, and brings you the first pictures of this spectacular illumination, which will continue until December 25.   

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Event Information:
Location: In front of JR Shibuya Station Hachiko Exit
Period: December 1 – December 25

Restaurant Review: Sakamotoya

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Katsudon perfection

Located in Nishiogikubo, Tokyo, Sakamotoya has the facade of an old-fashioned restaurant. With a hand-written menu on the plaster white wall and a weight scale casually placed on the wooden counter, there is something about Sakamotoya that instantly makes you feel at home. The store owner and his wife will be working hard in the kitchen and their friendly daughter serves you with a homeyness that seems to resemble the store interior. This is really a mom-and-pop shop in the purest sense of the word!

Sakamotoya has been loved by the locals for almost 100 years since the store opened in 1923, and for good reason! A large number of Japanese soul-foods such as ramen, fried rice, omuraisu and curry can be consumed here, but the great star is – without question – Sakamotoya’s famous katsudon.

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Sakamotoya’s variant on this contemporary Japanese classic dish that consists of a rice bowl with deep-fried cutlets and a lightly beaten egg on top of it – is so popular that people are almost always queuing for it! It was praised as Japan’s most delicious katsudon by magazine Dancyu in 2007 as well.

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I just had to go and get my portion to see if Sakamotoya’s katsudon truly deserves all the fame and glory it receives.
Let’s keep things simple, the answer is yes. Instead of trying to be original by coming up with new cooking methods or adding extra ingredients, Sakamotoya just focuses on creating a simple but flawless katsudon, and does so with perfection hardly seen elsewhere. The soft but crispy fried cutlets create a sublime balance with the lightly beaten egg that is sweetened just right, which will make you realize why katsudon is such a beloved dish in the first place. It is simple, affordable and yummy, and that is all a katsudon shoud be!

Restaurant information:

Name: Sakamotoya

Price range: 1,000 yen

Location: Nishiogi Kita 3-31-16, Suginami, Tokyo

Access: A 3-min walk from Nishiogikubo Station (JR Chuo Line and JR Sobu Line)

Ryugin, the world’s 29th best restaurant

Japanese restaurant Ryugin – located in Roppongi – is one of Tokyo’s 12 restaurants that boast 3 Michelin stars, and has received this honor for 4 years in a row! It is also one of the two only Japanese restaurants to be listed in “The Worlds 50 best restaurants”, coming in the 29th spot! No wonder that Ryugin is one of Tokyo’s most popular dining spots for those that can afford the luxury.

While classic Japanese restaurants traditionally have counter seats faced towards the kitchen, Ryugin only has normal table seats and a private room for 4 people. The somber interior is significantly different from most other Japanese restaurants, representing a modern sense of style.

Ryugin

Ryugin’s refined cuisine brought to you by chef Yamamoto, puts an emphasis on only using the freshest and best ingredients of the day without any use of food additives. While authentic seasonal ingredients gathered from the whole country form traditional kaiseki dishes, Ryugin’s methods and techniques are groundbreaking at the same time, with philosophy behind dishes that go not only well with sake, but with quality wine carefully selected by chef Yamamoto as well.

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Given the fact that the ingredients are different from day to day, Ryugin does not have a steady menu, but courses are available for 27,000 per person (exclusive of beverages).

Here follow some images to give you an idea on what you can expect out of a course at Ryugin.

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The course starts with cold and warm appetizers like this
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It is then followed up by a seasonal owan (bowl) dish
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Expect an assortment of the freshest sashimi of the day!
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Grilled fish like this Ayu (sweetfish) is a feast for the eye and tummy
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Shabu shabu hot pot with fresh vegetables is a relatively common dish at Ryugin
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Grilled meat decorated with nori seaweed
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In this case, the rice dish of the day came with Japanese soul food Unagi (eel)
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The dessert usually uses fresh seasonal fruits of the time of the year.
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Ryugin’s original “Roppongi Pudding” which focuses on the original taste of eggs, makes for a great souvenir!

Another interesting fact is, that while Ryugin is ranked as the 29th restaurant of the world internationally, at Japan’s largest food community Tabelog, it is only ranked as the 74th best restaurant of Japan (34th in Tokyo). This really shows how many incredible restaurants Japan – the country with the most Michelin stars in the world – hosts, creating a true paradise for foodies!

Photo credit: Shen Mu Photography

Spot Information

Location: Roppongi 7-17-24 Minato

Access: 2-min walk from Roppongi Station Exit 2 (Hibiya Line, Oedo Line)

Price Range: 30,000

Hours: 18pm – 1am (last order: 10:30pm)

*Reservations are required!

Western Emoticons VS Japanese Kaomoji

Kaomoji history in a nutshell

If you have any Japanese friends that you correspond with through internet, it should be no secret that most Japanese love to use emoticons. With chat applications as LINE providing an amazing range of stamps and even the opportunity to create your own originals, things only become crazier from now on. And only to think that it all started with some simple combinations of symbols typed out on the keyboard. Yes :-) and (^_^) , I am talking about you guys!
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The first use of emoticon dates bake to a time when the internet did not exist yet as we know it today. Communicating with text by a computer was something completely new, and sometimes resulted in conflicts, as it was hard to tell if someone was serious or not just by reading the text. That’s why in 1982, Scot Fahlman was the first to propose the use of emoticons.  :-) was to be used for something that was meant as a joke, and :-( for something that was not. This marked the start of western emoticons as we know them today.

4 years later,  the first Japanese emoticon was put on screen by Yasushi Wakabayashi in a correspondence through ASCII Net, a Japanese forerunner of the internet. Today, Japanese emoticon are known as kaomoji, literally translated as “face characters”.

kaomojiEmoticons as cultural icons

Western emoticons and Japanese kaomoji have had two significant differences in style from the start. First of all, while western emoticons as :-) are looked at sideways, kaomoji as (^_^) can be understood without tilting the head. This difference might be pure constructive, but the second difference indicates cultural characteristics.

:-) and (^_^) are both so called smileys, but why do we know that they are smiling? The western emoticon obviously has a smiling mouth, but its Japanese variant does not. However, the eyes of the kaomoji is expressing joy. While in western culture smiling is always done with the mouth – often while laughing out loud – the Japanese tend to silently give a friendly nod, expressing their joy with the eyes.

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This is not just a hypothesis by the writer of this article. The Japanese language has actual phrases that show there is truth to this statement. Me wo hosomeru (narrowing one’s eyes), for example, is a synonym for smiling in the language.

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Joy is not the only feeling the Japanese express with their eyes. The following list of emoticons indicates that western people tend to read a person’s expression by the mouth, while the Japanese focus more on the eyes.

Sad face:        Western :-(             Japanese (>_<)

Sorry face:                 Western  :‑c                                 Japanese m(_ _)m

Crying face:                Western ;-(                                 Japanese (T_T)

Angry face:                 Western :[email protected]                              Japanese (ーー゛)

The next time you are talking or chatting with a Japanese in real life, try to see if you can read his or her eyes, be it virtual or real pupils!

Let’s Talk Subculture Vol. 9 KAWAII MONSTER CAFE

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

Beyond Kawaii 

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From the moment you are swallowed by Mr. Ten thousand Chopsticks, or Choppy, KAWAII MONSTER CAFE’s mascot character which’s mouth functions as the entrance of this café newly opened in August 2015, you know that you are entering a different world. One so vivid and crazy that it could only be possible in Japan, or to be more precise, only in Harajuku.

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Harajuku, Tokyo’s hip and wacky youth fashion trendsetting area is like a giant toy box turned upside down with toys of all sorts of colors and shapes spread throughout the city. Not just the architecture, but also the people that walk the streets scream originality and abstractness, together making Harajuku a monster of a city, and a cute monster it is!

But even in Harajuku, KAWAII MONSTER CAFE’s bizarreness manages to stand out as a monster within a monster. After entering the café, you will first be confronted by the sweets go round, a carousel with the looks of a giant cake. While fairy-tale like animals galloping on this alone are enough to bring about a sense of awe, do realize that this is only the beginning.

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As one of Tokyo’s most spacey cafes, KAWAII MONSTER CAFE boasts 4 zones of different theme and interior. These range from unicorn heads drinking from baby milk bottles to a glowing jellyfish spreading its tentacles over a bar. These scenes go way beyond something one could refer to as just “cute” in the English language. However, presenting an absurd, grotesque yet somehow charming world, KAWAII MONSTER CAFE suggests that the Japanese word “kawaii” could be a much broader concept.

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“Monster girl” – gaudy girls dressed up so flashy you won’t even see on Harajuku’s streets –make an essential part of this surreal world. They are not waitresses, and are best interpreted as the inhabitants of KAWAII MONSTER CAFE. Their presence makes the concept feel real and organic, and make this world actually come to life.

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Surprisingly, the dishes are quite yummy and don’t taste like they contain as many food additives as you would think.

Dishes like Colorful Rainbow Pasta and Colorful Poison Cake make KAWAII MONSTER CAFE’s universe complete. Their appearance is more like the pallet of an abstract painter and rank among the most toxic looking foods you will ever see!

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Kawaii culture is one of Japan’s largest subcultures, but KAWAII MONSTER CAFE serves something way beyond your expectations directly on your plate. A visit to this new Harajuku landmark will blow your mind and have you rethink the definition of “kawaii”. At least KAWAII MONSTER CAFE suggests that if translated simply as “cute”, the true essence of this culture could be lost in translation.

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

Let’s Talk Subculture Vol. 8 Haruka Kurebayashi

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

All decorations lead to Harajuku

If “cute as a button” refers to the buttons on clothing, it might be about time to call the idiom dated. Haruka Kurebayashi is about as cute as it gets, and while we spotted more than 10 bracelets, 9 hairpins, 3 necklaces and 6 shoelaces, there was not one button to be found on her!

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If you have ever walked the streets of Tokyo’s Harajuku, you have probably seen a girl colorful as a candy cane like Haruka before. This eccentric, over the top fashion style is called Decora, which started off in Harajuku in the late nineties. Being an abbreviation of the English word “decoration”, Decora girls – or Decora-chan as they are called – are not frugal with the use of accessories. From hair to shoes, these girls put an effort in decorating themselves as flashy and gaudy as possible. However, it is important that they do look girly and kiddy and refrain from too boyish or intimidating looks as in other Harajuku fashion styles as for example Gothic Lolita or Hadeko.

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Why does Japan boast such a novel fashion style as Decora? Haruka thinks that because of Japan’s generally strict and formal society some people find it hard to be themselves. Decora functions as a tool for such individuals to freely express who they are.

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Frequently featuring in teen fashion magazine KERA, Haruka is not only a model, but also a mentor to beginning Decora-chan girls as she gives detailed advises on her blog, twitter and even Youtube on how decorate oneself as kawaii as possible. These advises range from matching vintage clothing to how to make even braces an appealing fashion item.

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“There is always one item that I especially want to wear, so I dress and decorate myself around this item” Haruka explains, pointing at her stuffed sheep-doll necklace, the item that stood central in her outfit on the day we interviewed her.

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“From boutiques to vintage stores, I buy my clothes and accessories at all sorts of different places, and even make some of them by myself. What is most important to me, is how I combine these clothes and accessories together. For example, I matched these colorful shoelaces with my white plateau high-heeled boots”

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Fully decorated with toyish rings, sweeter than candy nail art, a girly yet punk hairstyle, heart shaped contact lenses and what not, Haruka truly represents her fashion style’s concept. However, while Haruka might not hesitate in decorating her looks, she does not decorate who she is. Decora fashion is simply a part of her identity, and it is this natural flair that has made her such an iconic model to the genre.

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But Haruka was not always the star she is today. “Until I was scouted, I was just a girl in Shizuoka prefecture far away from Harajuku, a fairy tale like world where everything seemed possible.”

While Haruka totally has the atmosphere of a charismatic muse, the fact that she is just being herself is what makes fans feel closely related to her. Even foreign girls obsessed by Harajuku and its magic find it easy to sympathize with Haruka as although on a different scale, to Haruka too, Harajuku was once a faraway land.

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

The 5 highest mountains of Japan

Who is Japan’s king of the hill?

With 73 percent of Japan’s land consisting of mountains and more than 100 of them being over 2,500 meters high (including peaks of the same mountain range), it is safe to say that Japan is a mountainous country. But which of these giants, are the very highest? Here follow Japan’s big five!

1. Mt. Fuji

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Height: 3,776m
Prefecture(s): Shizuoka, Yamanashi

Mt. Fuji is not only Japan’s most iconic, but also Japan’s highest mountain. Best viewed from Yamanaka lake in Yamanashi prefecture.

2.  Mt. Kita

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Height: 3,193m (10,476 ft)
Prefecture(s): Yamanashi

Mt. Kita is Japan’s tallest non-volcanic mountain. It is located in Yamanashi’s Minami-Alps city, which can be translated as Southern Alps city.

3. Mt. Okuhotaka

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Height: 3,190m (10,470 ft)
Prefecture(s): Nagano, Gifu

If its peak had been only 2 average women’s size taller, this would have been Japan’s second highest mountain. Being more rocky than most of Japan’s other mountains, climbing Mt. Okuhotaka is not recommended if you are not an advanced climber.

4. Mt. Aino

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Height: 3,189m (10,463.0 ft)
Prefecture(s): Yamanashi, Shizuoka

With a mountain peak so wide you can even get lost, Mt. Aino’s peak is also known as the Aino Dome. Climbing Mt. Aino is often done on the way to Mt. Shiomi, a popular mountain to climb in the same region.

5.  Mt. Yari

 

m_163605Height: 3,141 m (10,305 ft)
Prefecture(s): Shizuoka, Nagano

Towering in the back of this picture like a sharp spear, it is not hard to understand where Mt. Yari got is name from, yari being Japanese for spear.

J-Speak, an application that will spread its name by word of mouth.

Getting around Japan can be daunting without speaking the language. But with Docomo’s new free application J-Speak that automatically translates speech between Japanese and 10 languages (English, Chinese, Korean, Thai, Indonesian, French, German, Italian, Spanish and Portuguese), one no longer has to play a game of charades when trying to get your meaning across. In addition, you can get free discount coupons to be used as various shops and restaurants during your Japan trip. This version was made available for android smartphones since October, and an iPhone version will be available from January 2016.

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While all WAttention foreign staff speak Japanese, we tried to have a conversation with our Japanese colleagues using J-Speak, and were able to communicate quite smoothly without the awkward pauses common when using similar applications.

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However, do keep in mind that this is automatic translation, and therefore not always completely accurate. If you want to be 100 percent sure that you are correctly translated, choose from a large amount of pre-translated sentences that can be selected per situation. These situations range from asking directions to checking in at the hotel and are always reliable.

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Representing the spirit of Japanese hospitality, this completely free application is not only a translation tool, but functions as your travel guide to Japan at the same time.

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For each region of the country, you can find information on tourist sights, shopping, food and activities in your own language and receive free discount coupons. The application can be used anywhere in the world, so you can also use it when preparing your trip to Japan!

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Click here to download J-Speak for android.

Click here to download J-Speak for iPhone (old version) *This version is only a translation tool and does not include any travel information or coupons.

Maple hunting in Tokyo: Mt. Takao

A magical ride through golden and crimson tunnels

From Shinjuku, hop on the Keio Line and within an hour your are at the foot of Mt. Takao, which is arguably Tokyo’s best autumn leaf viewing spot. You might think that autumn leafs are best viewed deeper in the country, but don’t underestimate Mt. Takao, which is ranked as the 4th best autumn leaf viewing spot of the whole country by Tokyo Walker.

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There are three ways to enjoy the feast of leaves here. Get sweaty by climbing the mountain yourself, or choose for either the cable car or chair lift to take you on a magical ride. Especially the cable car is highly recommended as it takes you deep into Mt. Takao’s autumn forests otherwise not accessible.  The myriads of maples here form golden and crimson tunnels that lead you to the top of this 599m high mountain.

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The leafs surrounding Yakuo-in temple near the top take on an amber hue as well and make for a spot well worth the hunt.

While not joining the autumn leaf festival as you  might hope, the stunning mountain range view with Mt. Fuji in the backdrop from the top make a perfect ending to this mesmerizing journey.

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Mt. Takao

Best period for autumn foliage: Mid November

Location: A 5-min walk from Takaosanguchi Station (Keio Line)

Let’s Talk Subculture Vol. 7: Digital Content Expo 2015

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

Where is modern technology heading?

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At the main hall of Tokyo’s Miraikan

The Digital Content Expo is an annual event held at Tokyo’s Miraikan, the National Museum of Emerging Science and Innovation. With new technology products and experiments for digital contents as video-games and anime, walking around in the showroom here gives you a good impression of where modern technology is heading. WAttention was on the site to check it out, so let’s see what the newest Japanese technology has in store for you!

Peek into different worlds

At this year’s Digital Content Expo, it was very noticeable that VR (virtual reality) devices are becoming more and more mainstream. While video-game companies as Nintendo and Sega released VR devices way back in the nineties, technology was too limited to provide an experience appealing enough at the time.
Now, roughly 20 years later, VR devices are so advanced and functional that they seem to be well on their way to create a new revolution in the world of technology, and with this I am not just talking about video games. At the Digital Content Expo, developers showcased many new ways to use VR devices, ranging from architectural software to practicing sports and interactive contents for museums.

Staying innovative

Among the products and experiments displayed at the event, the one’s that attracted the most visitors were not per se those that used the most advanced technology. Of course new technology creates new possibilities, but what’s even more important is how and what you decide to do with it. The popular booths all had something unique and special on display that did not only rely on heavy investments, but on the ideas of the creators even more so. Here follow some of the most creative digital contents we saw this year.

 

The Doodle Zoo

At first sight, this project might just look like a simple sketch book to make drawings of animals. But after you finish drawing your animal and put a stamp on its belly, your creation comes to life and will start walking around and shaking its ears. Seeing your own drawing walking around together with animals drawn by other people is a total blast and great fun for kids!

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Parents always worry about their baby. It is not uncommon anymore for parents to install a webcam in their home to check on the baby with their smartphone or computer when out or at work. Now, with this digital pacifier parents can know things about their baby that aren’t even possible with the naked eye. The sensor attached to this pacifier detects how strong and in what kind of patron the baby sucks on the pacifier. The pacifier sends over the situation the baby’s sucking indicates to a computer or smartphone. For example, if the baby stops sucking, the devices sends over “Your baby has fallen asleep”.
I feel great potential in this project. If it evolves even more, we might even become able to talk with animals!

 

Lyric Speaker

Hardly anyone buys CD’s anymore. Music is downloaded digitally or listened to online. But hasn’t a part of music’s charm gotten lost? For example, CD’s used to come with lyrics books. Today, less and less people take the time to have a good look at the lyrics. The newly developed music playing device “The Lyric Speaker” solves that problem, as it “plays” music not only the sound, but also the text. The lyrics of the song are displayed on the device, allowing you to pay attention to the lyrics without having to search for them online. This concept might also work for discos, where larger versions of these devices could be installed to dance not only to the beat.

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Avatar Phone

If you are a shy Japanese but still want to show your expressions, this new application developed by Yahoo! JAPAN will come in handy as it reads both your movement and facial expressions which you can show through an anime-ish character during a chat session. Choose the character that matches you the best as your personal avatar to show your feelings to someone without having to actually confront this person. Leaving away the question whether this is socially healthy or not, it definitely shows something about the Japanese society and the way people interact with each other.

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

 

Let’s Talk Subculture Vol. 6: OJAGA DESIGN

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

Japanese craftsmanship spirit meets Pikachu

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Already as a child, the founder of OJAGA DESIGN, Sei Ogawa, or Ojaga, the nickname he is known by, loved to create. “I could spend hours tuning up my Mini 4WD’s” he says, showing his fond memories of these Japanese miniature race car models by brand Tamiya, that were a huge boom among children during the eighties and nineties. It was a great time to be a child in Japan, as the dawn of the golden years of Japanese subculture entertainment brought along many classic manga, anime and video-games to be engrossed by. These would later become a major source of inspiration for OJAGA DESIGN’s leather accessories.

After graduating high-school, Ojaga stuffed the minimum items necessary to survive in his backpack, and departed on a journey that would change his life forever. In Africa, a land that has inspired him in many ways, Ojaga became fascinated by leather through African drums, realized the material’s potential and decided to make what would later become his lifework out of it.

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Today, Ojaga is the owner and founder of OJAGA DESIGN, a leather accessory brand that creates handcrafted Japan made products. The iconic sewing stitches that show how hours of love and care went into each craft are not just charming, but also proof that Ojaga and his employees are proud owners of the Japanese craftsmanship spirit.

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Since its founding, OJAGA DESIGN has been part of a wide variety of collaborations. It has teamed up with different fashion apparel brands, and one of its first joint projects was a partnership with Tamiya, Ojaga’s beloved brand of mini plastic model cars. He is heavily inspired by Japanese subculture, and two and a half years ago he even managed to catch his first Pikachu, the best-known character from the beloved global video game and animation franchise, Pokémon. “I received an offer from The Pokémon Company to create a Pikachu themed accessory.”

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While most Pokémon Trainers aspire to catch ’em all, Ojaga chooses to focus instead on just Pikachu. Throughout the years, he has produced a wide assortment of Pikachu themed leather accessories, as well as key holders and pouches featuring Poké Balls, devices used for catching wild Pokémon.

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After Pokémon, many big names including Studio Ghibli (“My Neighbor Totoro”) and SANRIO (“Hello Kitty”) followed, and so OJAGA DESIGN’s assortment is full of must have items for otaku.

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What makes OJAGA DESIGN special, is that even after receiving such fame, Ojaga has refused to change his philosophy of putting an emphasis on handmade products. Every single accessory crafted by OJAGA DESIGN is still sewed by hand to the last stitch, making the amount of products that can be manufactured extremely limited. This forces foreign customers to come to Japan to purchase these limited crafts. “But isn’t the journey itself half the fun?” says Ojaga, a man that has travelled the world in search for unique crafts himself.

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Ojaga wants you to experience and appreciate the hard work that goes into handmade crafts for yourself, and introduces the OJAGA KIT, a workshop kit that includes all the materials and tools necessary to make your own creation. “With our Pikachu OJAGA KIT, you can sew your own Pikachu strap. It makes for a unique present to give someone, especially a Pokémon fanatic”

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“I’m not striving to become a multi-billion dollar brand. I just hope that people can remember the charm and appeal of handmade crafts through my work.” And indeed, from its creations to the people that make them, OJAGA DESIGN succeeds in reminding you and me the character of crafts before mechanization and mass-production.

Interested yet? Check out OJAGA DESIGN’s official stores in Tachikawa and Daikanyama during your visit to Japan!

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


OJAGA DESIGN Tachikawa

Location: Takamatsucho 1-16-20, Tachikawa, Tokyo

Access: 10-min by taxi from JR Tachikawa Station North Exit

Hours: 11am – 8pm

OJAGA DESIGN Daikanyama

Location: Ebisu Minami 3-6-7-201, Shibuya, Tokyo

Access: A 6-min walk from Daikanyama Station (Toyoko Line)

Hours: 1pm-9pm (from 12am to 8pm on weekends and public holidays)

 

©Nintendo・Creatures・GAME FREAK・TV Tokyo・ShoPro・JR Kikaku ©Pokémon
©1976, 2014 SANRIO CO., LTD. APPROVAL NO.S550740
© 1988二馬力・G

Hoshino Resorts RISONARE Yatsugatake: A Japanese Wine Paradise

Savor it, experience it

Japan is not the first destination that comes to mind for wine tasting. But times have changed and Japan is no more a country of just sake. The quality of the country’s whiskey has been acknowledged globally with some of the finest liquors, and while still standing in the shadows of top-class vineyards as, say, Italy’s Tuscany or France’s Provence, Yamanashi Prefecture is gradually spreading its name throughout the world as an area of quality wine.

The best way to see, feel, and of course savor the wines of Yamanashi, is without a doubt by staying at Hoshino Resorts RISONARE Yatsugatake located in Hokuto city. This “wine resort” allows you to get familiar with the local wines in style and comfort that few, if not no other facilities can compete with.

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At Hoshino Resorts RISONARE Yatsugatake, the amount of activities available to get you familiar with the local wines are staggering. Taste 24 different local wines at the resort’s YATSUGATAKE wine house, have dinner at OTTO SETTE – the resort’s chic Italian restaurant that serves refined dishes to go with the wines – and enjoy a conversation with an experienced sommelier.

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But that is not where it ends. Hosnino Resorts RISONARE Yatsugatake offers various plans to make your stay as romantic and wine-full as possible. How about a stay at the “wine suite room”, for example? While a stay in this wine-themed suite might be a little pricey, do note that it includes 5 quality wines for you to freely drink and take home, a chic dinner and breakfast at the resort’s restaurants and more.

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Everything about this suite just screams wine!

Of course, there are plenty of other activities not related to wine available as well. The resort’s stylish Piment-dori street has seasonal activities and stores that range from local bred vegetables on sale in summer to Halloween illumination and a Christmas show.

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Il Mare, the resort’s spacey pool equipped with a cafe is ideal to relax and Yatsugatake activity center offers plenty of outdoor activities for the children while you receive a winter limited VINO Fonte treatment at the resort’s spa that uses wine grape draffs.

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If you are an outdoor person, horse-riding through Hokuto city’s picturesque forests or skiing in the winter can also be enjoyed.

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Hoshino Resorts RISONARE Yatsugatake

Location: 129-1 Kobuchizawa-cho 129-1, Hokuto, Yamanashi

Access: 5-min by pickup bus from Kobushizawa Station (Chuo Main Line, Koumi Line)

URL: http://www.hoshinoresorts.com/en/resortsandhotels/risonare/yatsugatake.html

Three Ways To Eat Fugu

Fugu, Safe and Yummy

Being a poisonous fish, Fugu, or pufferfish is one of the most notorious delicacies in Japanese cuisine. Although most of our  readers are probably familiar with it, I assume that most of you have yet to try it out for yourself.

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While between 1 to 6 people die by Fugu poison per year in Japan, calling an evening at a Fugu restaurant “Japanese roulette” would be unfair. More than 90 percent of the Fugu poison incidents do not occur at restaurants, but at home by eating self-caught and self-prepared fugu.
To be allowed to serve Fugu at a restaurant, all the chefs need to have a license, which can only be obtained by 3 years of hard training. Furthermore, the liver, a Fugu’s most poisonous part, is forbidden to be served.
While eating an amateur prepared Fugu can indeed be very dangerous, having Fugu at a restaurant is a lot more safe than for example driving a car, practicing sports or even eating fast food!

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The iconic Fugu of Tsubora, a famous Fugu restaurant in Osaka

While Fugu is widely renowned for being poisonous, what is less known, is how it is eaten.
At a Fugu restaurant, a dinner course that has several dishes with Fugu prepared in different ways is generally ordered. Here are the 3 major ways in which Fugu is often prepared.

1. Fugusashi

Fugusashi, or Fugu as sashimi, is without a doubt the most traditional and most famous way of serving fugu. Due to Fugu’s firm texture, normal sashimi slices would be too hard to chew. This is why fugu is cut in slices so thin that they are transparent, also making it a feast for the eyes. The slices are served on a large plate, often in the shape of a crane.
Fugu as sashimi is dipped in Ponzu (citrus soy sauce) rather than plain soy sauce.

 

2. Fugu  no karaage

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Today, Fugu chunks deep fried in a thin layer of flour are one of the most popular ways to eat Fugu. These crispy delights can be dipped in either Ponzu or salt.

 

3. Fugunabe, or Techiri

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The main dish of a fugu course is usually Fugu nabe, a hot pot dish with a konbu (seaweed) broth soup that includes many vegetables as shiitake, enoki mushroom, Chinese cabbage, spring onions etc. which are simmered together with the fish. Once only the soup is left, the dish can be finished by adding some salt and rice. This is called zousui and is also common in other Japanese hot pot dishes.

Other popular Fugu dishes include Shirako (Fugu’s soft roe), jellied Fugu, Hire-zake (dried fugu fins served in hot sake), and the now forbidden Fugu liver.

Onsen Oasis: Kinugawa Nioson Plaza

An onsen for everyone, with everyone

Kinugawa is a popular onsen retreat in Tochigi Prefecture, located near famous world heritage site Nikko. In the old days, it was a sacred onsen only for monks and Daimyo  (feudal lords) after their prayers in Nikko. Today many spas, ryokans and hotels are located along the leafy valley of Kinugawa.

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Other than onsens, a wide arrange of activities can be enjoyed here. Take a leisurely boat trip downstream or go whitewater rafting along the Kinugawa river. Also be sure to visit the Tobu World Square, a museum park where famous buildings and world heritages have been rebuilt on a 1/25 scale.

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Tokyo Skytree is huge even when its 25 times smaller!

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Located along the Kinugawa river, Nioson Plaza is a great place for families or couples to stay and soak in an onsen for a one or two day trip to combine with Nikko. The traditional tatami rooms here create an authentic atmosphere, and the romantic view of the river from the outdoor baths while soaking in the 100 percent natural onsen water is amazing.

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One of the outside baths is entered with a swimsuit and is gender free. That means that you can enjoy this great onsen experience as a couple or even with the whole family!

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Another outside bath is a real Japanese riverboat filled with onsen water. How about staring at the boats descending the Kinugawa river from your own boat?

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


Kinugawa Onsen Nioson Plaza

Location: Kinugawaonsen Ohara 371-1 Nikko, Tochigi

Access: 10-min by taxi from Kinugawa Onsen Station (Tobu Line)

URL: http://www.niousonplaza.com/ (Japanese)

Learn a Word: 犬も歩けば棒に当たる

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.

犬も歩けば棒に当たる

Pronounced: Inu mo arukeba bo ni ataru
Kind of phrase: Japanese saying

What it implies

I recently visited my home country the Netherlands for the first time in almost 2 years. I had not spoken much Dutch since my last visit, which resulted in awkward language mistakes made by a native. Remembering sayings especially troubled me, and phrasing them wrong was found hilarious by my Dutch friends.
“Aren’t there any sayings in the Japanese language?” asked one of them.
“Oh yes there are” I answered, and of course I had to come with an example. The first Japanese idiom that struck my mind was 「犬も歩けば棒に当たる」 (Inu mo arukeba bo ni ataru), which can be literally translated as: “If a dog keeps walking, it will eventually bump into a stick / get hit by a stick”045717

This translation made my friends frown at me. They were obviously unable to understand what this saying could possibly imply.

“Well” I started to explain. “The walking dog is a metaphor of a person that acts and doesn’t sit still. Just as the dog bumps into a stick, something will happen to a person that acts too.”

“So basically this idiom tells people to sit still and don’t do anything so nothing bad will happen?”

“No, no” I shaked my head. “The opposite. Something good will happen eventually as long as you keep acting.”

“But how is bumping into or getting hit by a stick a good thing?”

Now it was my turn to frown. I had never thought about it, but of course bumping into a stick is not nice for a dog. Then how could this saying have come to life? It was time to consult Google sensei.

What it used to imply

Apparently, 犬も歩けば棒に当たる was originally used as what my friends first thought it was. A walking dog that bumps into or is hit by a stick is a metaphor of something unfortunate happening to a person that shows off too much or is too self-assertive. However, 当たる (ataru) which stands for “bumping into” or “getting hit by” in this sentence, is also often used for winning something, as in “hitting” the jackpot. Therefore, 当たる has a positive sound to it, despite the fact that the dog is being hit by a stick and not the jackpot. This is why the saying started to be used in a positive way more and more often, and its original meaning was slowly forgotten.

So there you have it, a great advice in life. If you want good things to happen, just keep on walking….and if something bad, a stick for example, stands in your way, just jump over it like this dog!

Editor’s Pick: Warehouse Kawasaki – A Piece of Ghetto Hong Kong in Japan

Legendary Hong Kong Ghetto “Kowloon Walled City” rebuilt in Kawasaki

Japan just seems to be able do everything better – even in terms of getting all dirty and ghetto. Not convinced? All you have to do is visit amusement park Warehouse Kawasaki to get a taste of true Hong Kong ghetto that would probably be hard to find in the real place itself.

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Even real rubbish from Hong Kong was flown in to recreate the full grittiness of the notorious Kowloon Walled City when Warehouse Kawasaki opened in 2009.

If you love your Hong Kong Kung-fu movies, are a fan of classic anime Golgo 13 or consider the video-game Shenmue part of your education, there’s a pretty big chance that Kowloon Walled City rings a bell.

This phenomenon was an incredibly dense ungoverned “city” located in the outskirts of Hong Kong until it was demolished by the Hong Kong government in 1993. The name “walled city” can almost be taken literally, as the buildings were built so closely next to each other that they almost seemed like a wall of buildings, and like a giant box from above.

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This walled city was also a spectacle to behold from the inside, with dark narrow alleys creating an incomprehensible maze of everything illegal, ranging from prostitution to clinics of unlicensed  doctors.

While it is probably for the best that the area is no more, its atmosphere can still be savored, but in Japan’s Kawasaki and not Hong Kong. Amusement center Warehouse Kawasaki came with the idea of recreating the Kowloon Walled City’s legendary alleys as a concept for its retro video-game floors, and the result is incredibly realistic.

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In the shabby alleys here you will find old Hong Kong neon-lights and advertisement stickers, dark and gray residences and small companies, one more suspicious than the other, food stalls with hanging chickens and ducks at display, restrooms that seem like they are taken straight from a horror movie and everything else you would expect from a lawless land.

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Although the upper floors of Warehouse Kawasaki are a video-game arcade of modern times, even the facade of the 18-storey building is a serious attempt on recreating the Kowloon Walled City, with dust and rust noticeable on every part of the building.

If you need a break from the always clean and tidy Japanese streets, search no further than this!

Warehouse Kawasaki

Location: Nisshincho 3-7 Kawasaki-ku, Kawasaki, Kanagawa

Access:  An 8-min walk from the Central Exit of Hatchonawate Station (Keikyu Main Line)

URL: http://www.warehousenet.jp/ (Japanese)

Nakamura Keith Haring Collection: New York pop art in Yamanashi

Universal art meets Japanese blending

The Japanese are masters in blending their ancient culture with foreign and modern influences. Majestic shrines next to towering skyscrapers, tatami rooms with plasma screen televisions, manga-themed kabuki performances, anything seems possible in this country of juxtapositions.

That’s why finding a private museum dedicated to works of New York pop artist Keith Haring in Yamanashi Prefecture’s Hokuto City, a city of natural beauty surrounded by mountains, somehow didn’t surprise me at all.

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The museum building designed by acclaimed architect Atsushi Kitagawara seems like a mysterious artifact from outer space that coincidentally landed in the middle of a forest. Still, the futuristic piece of architecture somehow manages to feel at home here. The museum floor’s level gradually changes as it descends together with the hill it stands on, showing that while being eccentric, the museum was designed to stay in harmony with nature. This, is exactly what I would like to call Japanese mastery of blending completely different aspects into one.

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Keith Haring started off his works in the late seventies and early eighties by making drawings with chalk on empty advertisement billboards in the New York subway. His simple, cartoonesque drawings soon received a wide acclaim, allowing him to make a breakthrough. Until he died of aids in 1990, Haring continued to produce abstract pop-art, sticking to his original style. There was something extremely genuine and universal that could be felt through his works, and so he managed to touch the hearts of people regardless from their ethnic backgrounds. Even today, Haring’s works still have a lasting impact on busy modern people like you and me.

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Keith Haring artwork © Keith Haring Foundation / Courtesy of Nakamura Keith Haring Collection / Photo © Rakutaro Ogiwara

While being guided through the museum, I realized that the ability of the Japanese to bring different aspects from all over the world together and blend them, is similar to what Haring achieved through his works. The people on his works are not of a certain race, but still colorful and diverse. Abstract illustrations of a man with a hole in his stomach and a dog jumping through it like a hoopla, or men watching a pyramid with a UFO next to it while masturbating might all be totally absurd, but display a universal world and the unique vision of a true artist. Having these works displayed at a museum not in Tokyo, but in a laid-back area of Yamanashi prefecture, sounds only fitting, and should be considered a piece of art itself.

Nakamura Keith Haring Collection

Admission fee: 1,000 yen for adults, 800 yen for college students and seniors, 600 yen for children from 6 to 18. Free for Children under 5

Hours: 9am – 5pm

Location: Kobuchizawa-Machi 10249-7 , Hokuto, Yamanashi

Access: 8-min by taxi from Kobuchizawa station (Chuo Main Line)

URL: http://www.nakamura-haring.com/english/index.html

Maple Hunting In Saitama: Nagatoro

A river engulfed in floral flames

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Located along the Arakawa river in the mountains of the Chichibu area in Saitama Prefecture, is the town of Nagatoro, a picturesque nature paradise that flaunts its assets throughout the year. During spring, the whole town becomes one big pink fairy tale with a total of more than 3,000 cherry blossom trees, while new green leafs create an amazing contrast with the Arakawa river in summer.

In autumn, the Arakawa river will be engulfed in floral flames. Magnificent golden and crimson leafs can be enjoyed while going down the river by a traditional Japanese boat. Together with these autumn leafs, the river’s azure surface and rough cliffs and rocks along the way make for an enchanting ride through Japan’s mesmerizing nature.

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The Tsukinoishi Momiji Park, or Moon Stone Maple Park, is another popular maple tree spot. While fresh verdure can be enjoyed during spring, the crimson leafs during autumn are without a doubt the biggest charm here.

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How about a romantic late-evening stroll when the maple trees are lit-up?

月の石もみじ公園(ライトアップ)

 

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Location: Nagatoromachi, Chichibu-gun, Saitama

Access: 1 hour and 40 minutes from Ikebukuro by Seibu Ikebukuro Line and Chichibu Railway

Maple Hunting in Kyoto: Tofukuji

Sacred temple leafs

As one of Kyoto’s best spots for autumn foliage, Tofukuji temple should be high on the list of anyone that calls him/herself a “maple leaf hunter”.
You will be overwhelmed by the myriads of maple trees that stand on an area equivalent to 5 baseball stadiums, and enchanted by the Japanese harmony they create together with one of Kyoto’s most picturesque temple complexes.

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Especially famous is the Tsuten bridge, which connects the main temple to the Kaisando temple that stands at the foot of Mt. Higashi.
From the viewing point at the middle of this bridge, you look out at the stunning maples from both sides.
However, don’t expect to be the only visitor as this is a really popular destination during the autumn foliage season. But even with the shutters of photographs that go on like summer crickets, the magnificent view on tons of golden and crimson maple leafs take away your breath anyway.

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For photography, also check out the Ga-un bridge and Engetsu bridge, which are two smaller bridges located next to the Tsuten bridge.

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Tofukuji temple is also renowned for its 4 artistic gardens laid out by acclaimed Japanese gardener Mirei Shigemori. Each garden has a completely different style, ranging from the southern traditional Japanese rock garden to more eccentric gardens such as the northern garden with its check pattern of moss and square-cut stones.

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While most tourists only come to visit the Tofukuji temple, it is only the start for the devoted maple hunter! A walk from Tofukuji temple to Sennyuji temple is highly rewarding, with tons of hidden maple spots on the way. Spots like the Raikoin temple and the Imakumano Kannnonji temple are just as picturesque and breathtaking as Tofukuji temple, but without the crowds!

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Best period for autumn foliage: End November – Begin December

Location: A 10-min walk from Tofukuji Station (JR Nara Line, Keihan Main Line)

Access: Honmachi 15-778, Higashiyama, Kyoto

Make and eat sushi the professional way

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Stand at a restaurant counter like a real sushi chef

You love Japanese cuisine and trying out some of Tokyo’s most refined sushi restaurants is not enough for you? Then how about learning how to make sushi yourself at long established sushi restaurant “Tsukiji Tamazushi” located near the famous Tsukiji fish market! A professional chef does not only teach you how to prepare a total of 9 different sushi, but also explains you the history of the kitchen utensils you will be using, and give a lecture on how to properly interracial dating app eat sushi.sushitaiken3

Discover the depth of Japanese culture through the art of sushi!

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Spot information:

Name: Tsukiji Tamazushi
Price range: 8,000 yen
Location: Tsukiji 2-15-19 Millennium 1 2F, B1, Chuo
Access: A 3-min walk from Tsukiji Station (Hibiya Line)
Website: http://r.gnavi.co.jp/jge/en/entry/post-000814.html
Note: No English instruction available. If you do not understand Japanese, coming with an interpreter is mandatory.

Shichiken: A Traditional Sake Brewery With Modern Ideas

A brewery that is a world of its own

Yamanashi Prefecture Hokoto City’s Hakushu area might be famous for Suntory’s Hakushu Whiskey, but did you know that it is also home to long-established sake brewery, Shichiken? WAttention went to check it out, and quickly came to the conclusion that Shichiken is much more than just a sake brewery. It is a museum, a restaurant, a cafe, and you could even call it a world of its own!

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Shichiken brewery ‘s entrance was built in 1835, and its traditional facade alone already makes it worth a visit

Shichiken as a brewery:

Shichiken is a Japanese sake brewery with over 300 years of history, and has been run by the Kitagawara family for 12 generations. Rather than secretly developing techniques without opening up to the public, the young Kitagawara brothers take a more modern approach towards their craftsmanship, welcoming anyone to come and observe the process of sake brewing, and even to see the Kojimuro (a room where the malt is dried), where traditionally not even workers at the brewery were allowed to enter unless they were involved in the process.

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Sake tasting can be enjoyed near the brewery’s entrance, and is sipped from wine glasses. While this may sound unauthentic, wine glasses have proven to be best for sake, as their round shape allow you to enjoy its fragrance more.


Shichiken as a museum:

The Shichiken brewery’s main building is almost 200 years old. In 1880, Shichiken had the honor to receive Emperor Meiji to stay at the brewery during his journey in Yamanashi, Mie and Kyoto. The Kitagawara family redesigned three complete rooms for the Emperor to function as his palace away from palace, which has been left completely intact.
Upon his arrival, Emperor Meiji passed through Shichiken’s main gate. This gate was never used again to this day, as it would be odd to have ordinary people pass the same gate the holy Emperor has passed.
Until it became a museum for visitors, not even the Kitagawara family entered the three rooms Emperor Meiji emperor stayed at, despite the fact that these rooms make up for the major part of their residence. One of the Kitagawara brothers told me that as a young child, he did not know what was in these rooms, and was scared of it. Having lost 3 rooms of their house, the Kitagawara family continued to live in the smaller rooms that were left over.

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Shichiken as a restaurant:

Next to Shichiken, is restaurant Daimin, which belongs to the brewery. The water served on your table is the same water used for Shichiken’s sake.
Daimin uses fresh meat and vegetables from the region, but what makes it special, is that these ingredients are prepared using sake. For example, the fried salmon on this picture was coated in a sauce made of malt left over from the sake. Stewed dishes use sake instead of wine, vegetables were pickled in sake lees and even the delicate dessert had a tint of sake fragrance to it. The result is not only delicious, but also environment friendly as ingredients left over from sake brewing can be used here. That’s the mottainai (a Japanese philosophy of not wasting anything) spirit!

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Shichiken as a cafe:

In the same mottainai spirit as that of DaiminKoji’z, a small cafe located inside the brewery, uses malt left over from sake brewing to create yummy “Koji smoothies”, or malt smoothies. Their natural sweetness is their greatest appeal, as no artificial sugar is added, using only the original sweetness malt contains. These are mixed with local fruits as peach and blueberry, resulting in a healthy yet yummy (alcohol-free) drink dessert.


Shichiken

Location: Tagawara 2283, Hakushucho, Hokuto, Yamanashi

Access: Approx. 2 hours by car from Tokyo. 15-min by taxi from Nagasaka Station (Chuo Main Line) or Hinoharu Station (Chuo Main Line).

URL: http://www.sake-shichiken.co.jp/eng_chn_kor.html

Yakitolympic: That Other Event Hosted By Japan

Japan’s best skewers all at one spot

If you are a Yakitori lover, you absolutely have to visit the Yakitolympic, which will be held in Higashimatsuyama (Saitama) on the weekend of September 26 and 27. This is the 9th time this olympic of sticks is held (just to make sure, by sticks I mean skewers, not the sticks used in high jumping!)

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This image is of the same event in 2014.

Why go to an event like this if you can also have great Yakitori at an Izakaya or at small eateries in Yokocho alleys, you ask? Well, this event brings together Yakitori from the whole country, including the best skewers from the so called “7 Yakitori Towns”, which are Bibai (Hokkaido), Muroran (Hokkaido), Fukushima (Fukushima), Higashi Matsuyama (Saitama), Imabari (Ehime), Nagato (Yamaguchi) and Kurume (Fukuoka). Being able to try out all these big names on one day, is almost like seeing the 7 world wonders on 1 day! I know, I’m exaggerating a bit, but this is really a big deal!


I go the chance to try out the skewers that will be at the event on a press event last Monday, and I have to tell you, anyone that’s visiting this event is in for a real treat. It was also my first time to realize that Yakitori is a dish with so much variety. Not only is the meat different (while chicken is main, pork and even horse meat can also be used), but the tare (sauce) also differs greatly depending on the skewer’s region of origin. It was really interesting to compare the flavors of all these skewers. However, one thing they have in common is that they are all heaven on a stick!


The 9th Yakitolympic

Date: September 26 (Saturday) and September 27 (Sunday)

Hours: 11am – 7pm

Location: Matsuyama Shiminkatsudo Center’s North Parking Space

Address: Matsumoto-cho 1-9-35, Higsahimatsuyama, Saitama

Access: 10-min from Higashimatsuyama Station East Exit (Tobu Toujo Line)

 

Water dessert! Kinseiken’s Mizu-shingen Mochi

Water selling like hot cakes

It was on a rainy Saturday morning that we arrived in Hakushu, Yamanashi Prefecture, but a long queue was already snaking its way to the entrance of Kinseiken, a Hakushu based long-established confectionery manufacturer with the facade of a traditional Japanese residence. And were these folks queuing for in the rain? Nothing less than what looks like a big drop of water–the Mizu-shingen Mochi.

The Ojira river that courses through Hakushu is widely known for its clear and pure water and has been selected as one of the best 100 water sources of Japan, which is why many breweries and mineral water producers are based or have a factory in the area, including Suntory and long-established sake brewery Shichiken.

So what’s the fuss with the “Mizu-shingenmochi”? Shingenmochi is a beloved sweet rice-cake that has been a staple product of Japanese confectionery manufacturer Kinseiken for over a hundred years. However, it was not until 2013 that the people at Kinseiken had a once-in-a-lifetime stroke of genius and developed “Mizu-shingenmochi”, which would become a revolutionary dessert in the following year.

Looking almost identical to a waterdrop, it is no wonder that Mizu-shingenmochi was produced under the concept of creating “edible water”.

Before actually trying it out, I imagined the texture of western jelly and the sweetness of Mizu-yokan (a Japanese confectionery that consists of red-bean paste, sugar and agar), but I couldn’t have been more wrong. While biting into my waterdrop dessert, I immediately realized that Kinseiken’s statement of having created “edible water” was not an exaggeration nor a marketing trick; it really tastes and feels like it, with a slight amount of sugar added to remind you that it is a dessert. The kinako powder (roasted soybean flour) and brown sugar syrup also used for original Shingenmochi is there to add some extra sweetness if you want, but eating it without sweetening allows you to savor and appreciate the water’s pureness to the max.


Despite that fact that there are no train stations located hear Hakushu and that it takes roughly 3 hours to reach by car from Tokyo, people were already queuing at 8 am, which is one hour before Kinseiken opens.
850 portions of Mizu-shingenmochi are served on a weekend day, but they usually sell out between 11 and 12. That means that visitors from Tokyo are advised to depart as early as 7 am if they want to make sure they can get their 300 yen portion of edible water. This is literally water selling like hot cakes!

Although the recipe of this watery dessert was leaked, none have succeeded in matching Kinseiken’s quality. This is because Hakushu’s pure water is what makes Mizu-shingenmochi such a refined dessert in the first place.

Mizu-shingenmochi cannot be taken back home as it shrivels and dissolves within 30 minutes.
To try out Mizu-shingenmochi yourself, your only option is to directly pay a visit to Kinseiken in Hakushu. To make things even more difficult, Mizu-shingenmochi is only sold during the weekends from June to September.
This may all sound like a lot of trouble for a drop of water, but trust me, it’s worth the effort!

Kinseiken

Hours: 9am – 6pm (Closed on Thursdays)
*Mizu-shingenmochi are only available during weekends from June to September in 2015.

Location: Hakushu-machi Daigahara 2211, Hokuto, Yamanashi

Access: Approx. 2 hours by car from Tokyo. 15-min by taxi from Nagasaka Station (Chuo Main Line) or Hinoharu Station (Chuo Main Line).

Watching Sumo Live Up Close–A “Masu” Do!

Watching sumo from the best seats

Just like in any other sport, getting front seats to watch the matches is an almost impossible task. In sumo, these seats are called Sunakaburi (literally translated as “sand shower”), because they are so close to the dohyo (wrestling ring) that you may find sand, or even an actual sumo wrestler, flying in your direction!

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The most luxurious seats of the stadium are masu-seki, which are seats for a group of people to sit together and enjoy the matches while having sake and a yummy bento.

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Before the actual matches start, the sumo wrestlers gather in the ring where they will be introduced to the public. The heya, or sumo staple they come out for is of great importance, and so you will hear the crowds cheer for wrestlers of the heya they support.

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Once the matches begin, the sumo wrestlers enter the ring from two sides. While in boxing matches these are called the left and right corner, sumo uses east and west. After the ritual of throwing salt in the dohyo to purify it and making shiko drills (stomping the ground with your feet from as high as possible), it’s finally time to clash!

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During exciting matches, passionate supporters forget their Japanese reservedness and stand up to cheer. But fear not because as soon as someone tells them to sit, they will go back to their polite nature, apologizing to the people around them and sit down. The ability to maintain harmony in the midst of the excitement, is something supporters of other sports have a lot to learn from.

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Popular bouts of ace fighters, often have a Kinsho-kin, an additional sum that goes to the winner of that match. There is a lot of excitement surrounding these matches, especially when the higher ranked fighter loses the match, so watch out for the flying cushions!

 

Japanese Dishes With An Identity Crisis

Flavors can be deceiving

Japan has a rich cuisine culture, but it’s not just about sushi, sashimi or yakisoba.

    Yoshoku, which literally means western cuisine, boasts many western-looking dishes that can actually only be found in Japan. Japan’s Chinese cuisine also has its fair bit of dishes that are unheard of in China.
Let’s have a look at some of Japan’s most popular western and Chinese dishes that in fact don’t come from too far.

1. Doria

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“The Japanese love rice so much that it should even be in gratin” thought Saly Weil, chef of Hotel New Grand in Yokohama in the thirties. The dish was named Doria, and can be found at pretty much any “family restaurant” or Yoshoku restaurant in Japan today.

2. Spaghetti Napolitan

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Shigetada Irie, Saly Weil’s successor at Hotel New Grand, saw American soldiers slurp away at their spaghetti mixed with ketchup sauce which was one of the military rations. He adapted the idea, but fried the spaghetti on an iron plate in similar fashion to that of Yakisoba, or Japanese fried noodles. Napolitan’s sauce is a mixture of ketchup, tobasco and worcester sauce, and common ingredients include capsicum, onion, bacon and sausages.

3. Omurice

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As its name suggests, Omurice consists of a portion of chicken rice (fried rice with chicken in ketchup sauce) wrapped up in an omelet. During the early 20th century, the dish was prepared as a quick stomach-filler for the staff of Rengatei, a Yoshoku restaurant in Ginza. The customers soon started requesting to bring the dish to the restaurant’s menu, and so Omurice was first served to the public.

4. Hayashi Rice

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No, this is not curry, but Hayashi rice, a dish of beef and onions stewed in a demi-glace sauce that consists of tomato sauce and red wine. There are several stories behind its origin – one is that it was invented by a cook named Hayashi who served this at staff meals at the Ueno Seiyoken yoshoku restaurant. Another is that it has its roots in “hashed beef”, and evolved into a Japanese pronunciation of it – “hayashi”.

5. Tenshindoni005_535

 

Tenshin is the Japanese name for Tianjin, a Chinese harbor city located near Beijing. However, Tenshindon, a crab fried rice omelette dish with starchy sauce could not be found anywhere in the city until Japanese tourists started asking for it and Chinese restaurants smelled good business. There are various theories to when and how Tenshindon was created, but all indicate that the dish is at least 100 year old and has its origins in Japan.

 

All About Ramen

Everything You Need To Know To Become A Ramen Expert

Just like how spaghetti is served in different sauces (tomato-based, carbonara and alle vongole come to mind), ramen comes in a wide array of different soups. The flavor of these soups vary from each other just as much as the character of one ramen master varies from another. However, most ramen can be categorized in the following types.

Shoyu (Soy Sauce) : The Classic Ramen

 

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This Shoyu Ramen is served at Nidaime Nyaga Nyaga Tei in Tokyo

Shoyu Ramen is the most basic version of Japanese ramen, and has its roots in Tokyo. A soy sauce based soup similar to that of Japanese noodles as soba and udon was used to familiarize the Japanese with a type of noodle that was still foreign to the nation at the time. Together with soy sauce, a wide array of ingredients such as chicken bones, niboshi (dried sardines) and vegetables are used to bring out an original flavor.

Shio (Salt) : The Delicate Ramen

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This Shio Ramen is served at Mendokoro Honda in Tokyo

For those that want something a bit lighter on the stomach, Shio Ramen is the best choice as the soup is not as thick and fatty as most other ramen. Together with salt, which is used as the basic ingredient for the soup, chicken bones and pork bones are often used in the soup broth, but aren’t boiled as deeply as in other ramen, resulting in a more delicate flavor. Tanmen, a popular type of Shio Ramen, is especially beloved by the ladies as it is topped with a mountain of fresh vegetables.

Miso: The Heartwarming Ramen

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This Miso Ramen is served at Kanazawa Noko Chuka Soba Shinsen in Ishikawa Prefecture

Miso Ramen first came to life when a customer at a small eatery in Sapporo asked the cook to put ramen noodles in his tonjiru (miso soup with pork meat) in the fifties. Today, miso ramen is often mixed with pork bone broth and pork lard to keep you warm during the winter. Corn and butter are often used as topping, which you will not often see in other ramen.

Tonkotsu (Pork Bone Broth) : The Heavyweight Ramen

This Tonkotsu Ramen is served at Kourakuen throughout the country

You could say that Tonkotsu Ramen is what cream sauce is to spaghetti. The deeply boiled pork bones create a thick, creamy soup that is without a doubt the heaviest on the stomach among the basic ramen soups. Although Tonkotsu Ramen – which has its origins in Kyushu – is arguably the most popular sort of ramen today, it was not until the nineties that it became popular throughout the country.

Tsukemen: Another way to serve ramen

【山岸一雄 一門】特製もりそば
This Tsukemen was prepared by the disciples of Kazuo Yamagishi.

Tsukemen puts the main focus on the noodles rather than the soup by serving them separately to dip in the soup. Tsukemen noodles are usually thicker than that of standard ramen, and are cooled down to create an extra firmness. Tsukemen was invented by Kazuo Yamagishi of Taishoken Ramen in 1955, who passed away in April 2015.

The dashi

The essence of a ramen’s soup lies in its dashi, or soup stock. A number of different ingredients are boiled over a long time so that their flavor is extracted. The choice of ingredients for the soup stock and how long to boil them, are crucial elements that heavily influence the flavor of the soup, and a true ramen master will keep perfecting this art for his entire life.

Regular soup stock ingredients are:

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From left to right: Tonkotsu (pork bone), Torigara (chicken bone), Niboshi (dried sardines), Konbu (dried kelp), Katsuobushi (dried bonito shavings)

The noodles

Ramen noodles differ in texture, thickness and shape.
In Japan, you can specify the firmness of your noodles – hard, regular or soft. 
In general, the Japanese prefer chewy, firm noodles, but in some regions a more soft texture can also be popular. Of course, this is a matter of personal taste, but it cannot be denied that just as in Italy, al dente is how the majority likes their noodles cooked.
And like how the type of pasta changes to match the sauce used, the same goes for the shape of ramen.
For Tonkotsu Ramen, the main focus is the soup, which is why Hosomen, or thin noodles are often used to keep the dish from being too heavy. Futomen, or thick noodles, go better with Tsukemen as the dipping soup finely escorts their chewy texture.
When the soup is light in flavor, straight noodles might not be able to carry the soup to one’s mouth even if the art of slurping is properly executed. But fear not, in a case like this, chijiremen – or curly noodles – will do the job, keeping a hold on the soup due to their curled shape.

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From left to right: Straight Hosomen (thin noodles), Chuboso Chijiremen (curled noodles of medium thickness), Futo Chijiremen (thick curled noodles)

The toppings

The picture is only complete once the chashu (roasted pork), a boiled egg, leek, nori, menma (fermented beansprout) and naruto (fishcake) are topped on the ramen. These toppings also give the dish a more healthy balance (well, at least to some extent). Toppings vary depending on the ramen in question, but these are the most common.

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First row from left to right: Chashu, Menma, Negi Second row from left to right: Ajitama, Nori, Naruto

With this knowledge, we hope you will be able to enjoy ramen to the max the next time you get to slurp one of these yummy bowls. Don’t forget to let us know once you find your favorite ramen!

Yokohama Minatomirai: Port of the Future

A skyline that truly impresses

Yokohama’s Minato Mirai skyline has become iconic to the city. A cruise along this port skyline at night will be among the most romantic and exciting experiences during your trip in Japan.

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The towering Yokohama Landmark Tower that was until recently Japan’s tallest skyscraper, the Yokohama Grand Intercontinental Hotel that boasts the appearance of a neatly cut piece of cheese (at least that’s how a Dutch would describe it), and the Yokohama Cosmo World theme park with its lit-up ferris wheel make for a futuristic skyline more than worthy of its name, Minato Mirai, which can be translated as “Port of future”.

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To the port of future, an anchor is no more than decoration

Take the world’s second fastest elevator all the way up to the Yokohama Landmark Tower’s 69th floor observation deck to get a bird’s-eye view on the whole city that stretches out to the mountains. On a clear day, you can see as far as Mt. Fuji!

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Other not to be missed activities include hopping on Cosmo World’s ferris wheel (or maybe even one of the mind-boggling roller coasters, not me though…), and strolling along the Yokohama Red Brick Warehouse, which is one of the few historical buildings that show that the area has not always been the “Port of future” it is today.

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A visit to the CUPNOODLES MUSEUM might also be interesting, as it tells a significant but not often discussed part of modern Japanese history; the history of instant noodles, which were invented by Momofuku Ando in 1958.

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Another spot I would like to recommend, is Yokohama Minatomirai Manyo Club. You might not believe it, but this is a hot spring located in the middle of Minato Mirai! Hot spring water is carried from Yugawara (a famous onsen resort in Kanagawa Prefecture) on a daily basis.
Relaxing in a hot onsen tub while gazing at Minato Mirai’s impressive skyline with awe, is an unforgettable experience that gives you the best of both Japan’s modern and traditional side.

Yokohama Minatomirai

Access: Get off at Minatomirai Station (Minatomirai Line)

Shinyokohama Raumen Museum: Ramen in Showa fashion

A delightful “timeslurp”

Contrary to its naming, Shinyokohama Raumen Museum is more a theme park than a museum.
But fear not, by theme park I don’t mean crazy, looping roller coasters, pendulum rides, drop towers and what not, as such attractions would not be very good on one’s stomach after slurping a portion of ramen noodles. However, what Shinyokohama Raumen Museum’s atmospheric ramen stalls do have in common with such attractions, are the lines you will have to queue at before you get your hands on your bowl of choice.

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The stairs to the museum’s basement floor serves as a time machine that takes you to a nostalgic Japan of a long-gone era. As you make your way through narrow alleys with replicas of drinking holes, tobacco kiosks and bathhouses of postmodern Showa facade, you might bump into a policeman on an old model bicycle who gives you a friendly nod as he passes by.
The main square is decorated with movie posters of Japanese film’s glory years and the publishing firm on the corner looks so real you wouldn’t be surprised to see literary legends such as a young kimono-clad Yasunari Kawabata or Yukio Mishima walk inside with a manuscript under arm.

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Of course, the main attraction of this food-themed attraction park is the ramen, and Shinyokohama Raumen Museum does not disappoint in this field either. A total of nine famous ramen shops from all over the country and even overseas are gathered here to bring you their version of Japan’s now internationally beloved soul food.

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*Please note that these ramen images are posted for the mere purpose to give you an idea on what to expect and are not the actual products available at the Shinyokohama Raumen Museum.

Although eating all 9 ramen on one day is a nearly impossible task, the available “mini ramen” make slurping more than just one ramen possible even for the ladies. The 9 ramen stalls change from every 3-months to 1 year, so even in the unbelievable case that you manage to eat all 9 bowls, this museum is still worth a second visit!

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The connection between ramen and the museum’s postmodern theme, you ask? Good question! Apparently, the museum is replicating a Japanese urban landscape of 1958, the year in which Abe Momofuku invented instant ramen. Ramen itself, was already in Japan before WWII, but only started its journey to become the Japanese soul food it is today after the war ended and soldiers tried to recreate the Chinese noodles they couldn’t forget about.

Shinyokohama Raumen Museum

Location: Shinyokohama 2-14-21 , Kohoku, Yokohama

Access: A 5-min walk from Shinyokohama Station (Tokdaido Shinkansen, JR Yokohama Line, Yokohama Municipal Subway)

Entrance Fee: 310 yen (13 or older) 100 yen (from 6 to 12)

URL: http://www.raumen.co.jp/english/#manual

 

Hie Shrine, Japan’s Most Urban Power Spot

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A sacred shrine you reach by escalator

Presiding over a steep slope in the middle of Tokyo, the Hie Shrine is probably Japan’s most urban shrine. Located in Nagatacho of the Chiyoda Ward,  the shrine is surrounded by a cluster of impressive skyscrapers, and most of Japan’s national government buildings can be found in the area as well. This mosaic of the old and new is typically Tokyo.To head up to the shrine, take the scenic stairway of red torii gates, or simply hop on the escalator! Yes, this really is Tokyo.

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However, as you reach the shrine, you realize that this is in fact a very authentic shrine. Originally built in the 14th century, the Hie Shrine used to be a part of the Imperial Palace until it was moved to its current location in the 17th century. The shrine was destroyed during WWII, but reconstructed in 1958.

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Today, the Hie Shrine is a popular venue for traditional Japanese weddings. During your visit, you might be lucky enough to spot a Japanese bride in a white shiromuku kimono with a wedding headpiece next to her new husband in hakama, or Japanese robe.

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Hie Shrine has brought fortune to so many couples that people have come to regard the shrine as a power spot for love fortune. The cute monkey amulets that are also said to bring luck to ones love life, make for a great souvenir!


Spot Information:

Name: Hie Shrine

Location: Nagata-cho 2-10-5, Chiyoda

Access: A 3-min walk from exit 2 of Akasaka Station (Chiyoda Line)

Japanese Bathing For Beginners

A step-by-step bathing lecture

For the Japanese, bathing is not just done with the pure purpose of cleansing one’s body. Taking a good bath relaxes both the body and soul, and is seen as one of life’s major pleasures along with gourmet and entertainment.  Be it an old-fashioned sento (public bath) or a luxury onsen (hot spring) resort, visiting a Japanese public bath should be on the list of any tourist in Japan. However, the majority of Japanese bathhouses have little to no English explanations, let alone English speaking staff. Heading into a bathhouse without any knowledge on the subject will leave you feeling naked, literally. 

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Although it is generally understood that a foreigner is unaware of the Japanese bathing etiquette and rules, seeing you do things right will make the locals surrounding you genuinely happy. To make sure you can enjoy your soak without having to worry, here’s a fail-proof step-by-step guide on public bathing in Japan!

*Note that some details may slightly vary depending on the bathhouse.

STEP 1: SHOES OFF

Before you take off your clothes, take off your shoes!

Just like when entering a Japanese house, entering a bathhouse starts with taking off your shoes. Most bathhouses have shoe lockers to put your shoes in.

Before heading into the bath, pay for the fee at the reception counter, or bandai in Japanese. Depending on the bathhouse, shampoo, soap, a towel etc. need to be purchased here as well in case you did not bring your own. Note that luxury onsen usually have shampoo, soap and more provided inside the bath.

STEP 2 ENTER THE RIGHT DOOR

Unless there is only one mixed-gender bath (which is uncommon in Japan), a Japanese bathhouse usually has both a male and female bath. Two separate entrances for these baths have a noren, or curtain which indicates for which gender it is. In most cases the male bath curtain is colored blue while the female bath curtain is colored red.
However, this is not always the case, so you are advised to memorize the kanji (Chinese characters as used in the Japanese language) for male and female to make sure you don’t enter the wrong bath. 男 (otoko) means male while 女 (onna) stands for female.

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STEP 3 UNDRESS YOURSELF

A Japanese bath should be entered completely naked. Don’t keep on your T-shirt or trunks, and refrain from wearing swimwear. As you share your baths with others, entering the bath completely undressed is considered more hygienic. Also, be sure that you put all your clothes and belongings in the provided lockers, and check if none of your belongings are left on the changing room floor. Once you are ready, take a small towel to wash your body and enter the bath, and don’t forget to close the sliding door behind you.

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STEP 4 CLEAN YOUR BODY FIRST

Although the spacey, hot-steaming bath-tub might be tempting, don’t jump in right away (jumping is forbidden anyway). Cleansing your body at the showers first is probably the most important etiquette in a Japanese bathhouse. While it is common to stand under a shower in most foreign countries, Japanese tend to sit in front of the shower on a small stool. Don’t stand under your shower here as you will splash water on the people surrounding you. Put soap on your small towel and rub your body, but rinse yourself well and be sure that no soap or shampoo is left on your body or towel once you go in the bath.

STEP 5 ENTER THE BATH

It is now finally time to enter the bath and relax. Letting out a sigh of pleasure is allowed and something you will see the locals doing, but please refrain from doing the following:

1. Entering the bath with shampoo or soap on your body.

2. Diving, swimming or splashing the water.

3. Putting your small towel or other belongings inside the water. Your small towel should be rested on your head, or put it on the rim of the bath, but be sure that it does not fall inside.

STEP 6 DON’T MAKE THE FLOOR WET, AND DRINK MILK AFTERWARDS

Back in the clothing room, dry your body at the entrance to make sure that you aren’t dripping water on the floor as you head back to your locker. Once you have put your clothes back on, take all your belongings with you and exit the bath.
By the way, did you know that the Japanese like to end their bathing experience with a bottle of cold fresh milk? Although this is of course not a rule nor an etiquette, doing as the Japanese do will largely enrich your experience!

So, follow these unspoken rules to make the best of your public bath visit, because there’s no point crying over spilled milk afterwards, is there?

Picturesque Japan: The Oki Islands

10 Dangyo-no-taki

If Japan is still thought of by some as a sort of Galapagos, the Oki islands – not to be confused with Okinawa – is like a Galapagos within a Galapagos. Located off the shores of Shimane Prefecture, this remote cluster of islands comprising four inhabited and numerous uninhabited islands boasts Japan’s oldest rocks, and in 2013 was recognized as a member of the UNESCO Global Geoparks Network for its rich flora and fauna.

Oki Ferry
One of the most unique sights here is the Rosoku Island – or literally, candle island – a 20-meters tall candle-shaped cliff protruding out of the sea just off Dogo Island’s (one of Oki’s major islands) coast.
The Rosoku Island is most romantic at dusk, when it stands alit by the setting sun.

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The dramatic rugged coastlines of the Oki islands will have you staring at the ocean for hours. Of course, sunbathing, going for a swim and even full-fledged marine sports as kayaking and scuba diving can be enjoyed as well.

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Hidden deep in the island forests, you will find many gems such as the Dangyo no Taki, a 40-meter high waterfall that gives the illusion of water streaming out of the sky. A shrine embedded in the midst of nature like Dangyo Shrine won’t be easy to find on Japan’s main islands anymore either.

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The Chichi Sugi, or breast-shaped cedar tree, is a natural wonder on the peculiar side that can be found on Dogo Island.

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If you want to enjoy a more remote tourist destination in Japan, the Oki Islands are highly recommended. Besides the stunning nature, there are many activities to enjoy, the fresh seafood is fantastic, and the island inhabitants are so friendly the language barrier is easily forgotten. 

The islands can be reached by direct flights from Shimane Prefecture or Osaka in around an hour, but why rush to the slow life in Oki islands? Getting there by a ferry which departs from Sakaiminato Port in Tottori Prefecture, and Shichirui Port in Shimane Prefecture is much more fun, as it allows for island hopping within the Oki Islands as well.

Oki Islands

Access: 1 hour and 3 minutes by ferry from Sakai-minato Port, 1 hour by ferry from Shichirui Port
URL: http://www.oki-geopark.jp/en/

Cafe Crawl: Koso-an

Authentic Japan in the midst of chic cafes and boulangeries 

Tea-house Koso-an is located in Jiyugaoka, the suburb with Tokyo’s highest dessert and confectionery density.

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While serving fantastic sweets and desserts, Koso-an is the exact opposite of the European-inspired boulangeries and cafes prominent in the area.

In a remote corner of Jiyugaoka, close to the Kumano Shrine, which is the favorite playground of children in the neighborhood, you will find Koso-an, a 90 year old Japanese wooden residence that functions as a tea-house.

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Koso-an was a popular retreat for writers in the glory days of Showa literature, and indeed, both the facade and inside of Koso-an seem like the ideal spot for a writer to think about his work and receive new inspiration.


Traditional Japanese desserts as Anmitsu and Matcha Zenzai have a more authentic taste to them while gazing at the well maintained Japanese garden from your tatami seat.


The classy madam at Koso-an takes care of her guests like a loving mother. And so, while being exotic, Koso-an is also a home away from home for anyone with a sweet tooth.


On my visit, I ordered a sweet portion of Anmitsu, a delightful Japanese dessert with red bean paste, agar, seasonal fruits and black honey syrup. Delicate Japanese desserts like this go great with a cup of Japanese tea.


Savoring the atmosphere: ★★★★★

Savoring the dessert itself: ★★★★☆

Koso-an

Price Range:

Location: Jiyugaoka 1-24-23, Meguro, Tokyo

Access: A 5-min walk from the main exit of Jiyugaoka Station (Toyoko Line, Oimachi Line)

URL: http://kosoan.co.jp/

Strolling the Shotengai: Togoshi-ginza

The most original “unauthentic” Ginza

If you are a tourist in Tokyo for only a short time, there’s a pretty big chance you will skip on Togoshi-ginza Shotengai (shopping street). But if there is one neighborhood shopping street worth visiting, it has to be this original “unauthentic” Ginza.

Togoshi-ginza, 15 min from Shibuya, is the first of many neighborhood Ginzas to spring up around the early 1920s, borrowing the name from Tokyo’s main shopping street in the hope that some of Ginza’s glamour may rub off on them.

While none of the neighborhood Ginzas really resemble the real thing, they are charming in their own right.


Togoshi-ginza is one of Japan’s longest shopping streets, and with more than 400 nostalgic mom-and-pop stores standing side by side, it offers a nostalgic walk interrupted only by delicious finds.

To be honest, I myself had never thought of visiting Togoshi-ginza until recently, despite being a Tokyoite for almost 10 years. Walking along the streets of Togoshi-ginza Shotengai, I immediately realized how much charm I had been missing on.

Most people would agree with me that the best way to enjoy a shotengai stroll is with a snack in hand. So here is a guide to some of the best finds!

Floresta Nature Doughnuts
Editor comment: Too cute to eat, but also too yummy to not eat!

Dobutsu Doughnuts, or animal doughnuts. Price range is from 240 yen to 360 yen (depends on the animal of choice)

Henteco
Editor comment: I give up! These are just too cute, I can’t eat them!

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A chocolate tapir and hazelnut squirrel

Kumono

Editor comment: Crispy croquettes from the butcher shop. Fried in tallow instead of normal oil.

120 yen potato croquettes

Goto Kamaboko
Editor comment: Goto Kamaboko is a good old Oden (simmered vegetables, Japanese fishcakes and egg) stall where you can pick your favorite ingredient.

Price differs depending on the ingredient.

Tori & Deli
Editor comment: Kara-age, or Japanese fried chicken dipped in a Hawaiian salsa sauce!

Fried chicken leg meat (270 yen) together with Hawaiian mango salsa sauce (100 yen)


Togoshi-ginza’s milkman
Editor comment: I was glad to see that someone born to be a milkman can still be a milkman even in modern times.

Normal milk (127 yen), fruit milk (117 yen) and coffee milk (117 yen) bottles come with a lovely smile from our favorite milkman

Togoshi-ginza shopping district

Location: Togoshi, Shinagawa, Tokyo

Access: In front of Togoshi-ginza Station (Ikegami Line)

Jiyugaoka, stylish and yummy

Suburban strolling in sweet Jiyugaoka

For stylish and yummy suburban exploring, the leafy neighborhood of Jiyugaoka is the perfect pick. While only 10 minutes away from Shibuya by train, Jiyugaoka is a calm village compared to the hectic and crazy youth culture center of Tokyo that is Shibuya.
However, don’t underestimate Jiyugaoka, as it is a creative neighborhood in its own chic, stylish and sweet way.

While strolling around, one soon notices Jiyugaoka’s undeniable European influences. Leafy promenades with benches lined along the street, shops and restaurants with Mediterranean and South European facades, and even a romantic canal streaming through town that strongly hints Venice.

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Ginza might be Tokyo’s center of high-end fashion, and Shimokitazawa is second to none when it comes to vintage clothing, but Jiyugaoka is the place to be if you are looking for something stylish and classy yet unique, as there are many fashion boutiques scattered throughout the neighborhood that burst in character.

The most difficult question to ask someone in Jiyugaoka would be “What would you like for dessert?”, as nowhere in Tokyo is the dessert and confectionery density as high as here. The streets are literally filled with too beautiful to eat pies, rolled pancakes, parfaits and what not at display at cafe’s, bakeries and ice-cream parlors.

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Jiyugaoka even hosts “Sweets Forest”, a sweets theme park that celebrates its 11th anniversary this year.

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Jiyugaoka is anything but your typical Tokyo suburb, but European culture has not completely taken over quite yet. Keep walking west and you will find the ancient Joshinji temple that reminds you that this area hasn’t always been a chic area of boutiques and boulangeries. And if you have a sweet tooth that is looking for something more authentic, Kosoan, a cafe with the facade of an old Japanese residence and a Japanese garden attached to it will more than satisfy your cravings.

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Jiyugaoka

Location: Jiyugaoka, Meguro, Tokyo

Access: Get off at Jiyugaoka Station (Toyoko Line and Oimachi Line)

Onsen Oasis: Yumori no Sato

Tokyo’s best soak even Tokyoites aren’t aware of

People from Tokyo often head out to other prefectures in search of “hidden hot springs” deep in the mountains to refresh their weary bodies and souls. 

But believe it or not, Tokyo has a natural “hidden” hot spring of its own that can compete with the best hot springs in the country – and it’s just a 30 minute ride away from Shinjuku.

Even many Tokyoites are not aware of this hidden gem, so you can enjoy your soak peacefully and quietly.


The Yumori no Sato Hot Spring is located in Chofu, a residential area west of Tokyo which you can reach by taking the Keio Line from Shinjuku.

From Chofu Station, take a 10 minute bus ride headed for the Jindaiji temple, which is well worth a visit by itself – even if only for the soba noodles, a a specialty of the area since the Edo period.

The hot spring is just 5 minute walking distance from here. Walk down the street forking right from Jindaiji Temple, with Soba Restaurant Kiyoshi on the corner.

Once you reach this hot spring oasis, you will be treated by what I think is Tokyo’s best and most authentic soak. I have been to countless hot springs and bathhouses in Tokyo, but this is the one I keep coming back to!

The water you soak in gushes from 1,500 meters under the ground, and contains various natural minerals and substances – such as humic acids that makes your skin feel silky smooth – resulting in a deep black water color.

The leafy natural surroundings will give you the illusion that you are at a hot spring somewhere in Japan’s countryside.

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And to complete your authentic soaking experience, how about a bottle of cold milk or coffee-flavored milk after your refreshing bath just like what the locals do?

You can also choose to enjoy a wide array of treatments at the massage salon, ranging from authentic oriental to esthetic massages.

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If you have been looking for an onsen retreat in Tokyo’s concrete jungle, Yumori no Sato is your definitive answer!

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

Spot information

Name: Yumori no Sato

Price range: 1000 yen

Hours: 10 am – 10 pm

Location: Jindaiji Motomachi 2-12-2, Chofu

URL: http://public.oidejapan.jp/yumorinosato/

Nagomi Visit: A Brief But Precious Local Dinner

Gather around the dining table of a local household anywhere in Japan!

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Curious to see what an everyday dinner spread looks like in Japan? Hope to make local friends during your stay in Japan? Interested to see the inside of a Japanese house but find couchsurfing too extreme?
Nagomi Visit offers a brief but precious local experience that fulfills all these wishes at once.

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Nagomi Visit gives you the opportunity to be invited for lunch or dinner by a local host anywhere in Japan. Instead of preparing a huge feast, the host just cooks an everyday meal to give you an authentic impression of what a real Japanese dining table looks like.
This is an experience no restaurant can give you.

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It’s easy to get started. Just make an online booking at Nagomi Visit’s website and choose where in Japan and when you want to be invited.

After you have made a successful booking, you contact your host in advance so that you can already get to know each other a little bit. Your host might even be so friendly to give you a few tips on your trip! On the day itself, you meet at the train station designated by your host from where your host will take you to his/her home.

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In just a couple of hours over lunch or dinner, you will be an experience richer, and hopefully have a great time with your new Japanese friends!

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Nagomi Visit

URL: https://www.nagomivisit.com/

Learn a Word: 空気を読む

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.

空気を読む

Pronounced: Kuki wo yomu

Format: Noun + particle + verb

Meaning: Literally, “Reading the air”, referring to “reading the situation” or “sensing the mood”, something very important in Japanese society.

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Two Japanese people reading the “business air”.

Why we like this word: 

Because it describes a key aspect in the way Japanese socially behave. People are expected to think about the situation and the people around them before they act or speak. For example, kissing your girlfriend in front of her parents would be “Kuki yomenai”, or not reading the air, while asking for the recipe of the dish her mother made would be “Kuki wo yomu”, as you are indirectly praising her great cooking.

 Is 空気を読む old or new?

While the concept of “reading the air” has always been of great importance to function in a Japanese society, and ”空気を読む” (Kuki wo yomu) has been an existing phrase, it was not used as frequently as today until 2007.

In 2007, ”場の空気を読む” (Ba no kuki wo yomu), or reading the air of the occasion was shortened by the younger generation to simply Kuki wo yomu, or reading the air. The phrase especially gained popularity in its negative form “空気読めない” (Kuki yomenai), as a convenient way to address someones inappropriate behavior. This became so commonly used that it was abbreviated to “KY”, using the initials of Kuki and Yomenai, by for example saying “My god, you are so KY!”.

While the trend of calling someone KY for whatever he or she does is in fact the most KY thing to do, it cannot be denied that KY is a convenient new word to put someone in one’s place without being too direct.

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Even after being addressed by his superior for being KY, this guy is still KY!

Of course, KY is nothing more than an old Japanese concept in a new jacket, but it deserves kudos for spreading that concept on to the new generation. We figure that this might have been the major reason for KY receiving the “New word or slang grand award of the Japanese language” in 2007. Great air reading by the committee if you ask me!

Picturesque Japan: Unkai Terrace

Heaven in Hokkaido

Tokyo’s towering skyscrapers – not to forget about the Tokyo Skytree – might take you up high in the sky, but Hokkaido’s nature takes you above the clouds. A 13 minute gondola ride in Tomamu goes up to an altitude of 1,088 meters, which is just high enough to surpass the clouds.

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The Unkai Terrace is located near the endpoint of this gondola, and trust me, you will understand why this terrace was named Unkai, or “sea of clouds”.

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Tomamu has been a popular ski resort since the early eighties. However, the amazing summer view remained a secret only known by the gondola staff until a summer service started in 2005.

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Tomamu in summer and winter

From the Unkai Terrace, you can see one of Hokkaido’s most stunning views, but only if it’s your day. The endless sea of rolling clouds that conjure the illusion of heaven can only be seen if the right amount of clouds appear at the right time of the day.

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As Tomamu is not easy to reach and the gondola and terrace are only open from 4:30 am to 8 am and from 11 am to 2 pm, staying at Hoshino Resort is highly recommended.
Hoshino Resort Tomamu consists of The Tower and Risonare Tomamu, and both feel just as close to heaven as the Unkai Terrace itself!

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If you are in luck and get to see this phenomenon of heaven in Hokkaido, sitting down on the terrace with an “Unkai Coffee” while gazing at the clouds like a lookout staring at the sea from a crow’s nest might very well become the highlight of your trip to Hokkaido, or even to Japan in general!

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Next in this series: Picturesque Japan: The Oki Islands

Spot information

Name: Unkai Terrace
Address: Nakatomamu, Shimukappu-mura Yufutsu-gun, Hokkaido
Access: From Tomamu Station (JR Hokkaido), call for a pickup bus with the telephone on platform 2 that takes you to the resorts.
Period: From May 16 to October 13 (check the website for time schedules)
Gondola Round Trip Fares: 1,900 yen (adults) 1,200 yen (children)
Official Information: http://www.snowtomamu.jp/unkai_terrace/index_en.html

Tenkawa Shrine, Japan’s Most Seclusive Power Spot

Simultaneously valuing traditions and welcoming the new

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What exactly does religion mean in Japan? What is Shinto and how important is it to the Japanese? Never during my 10 years in Japan did I ask myself these questions as much as during a recent trip to the village of Tenkawa in Nara Prefecture. Here, I attended the annual summer Taisai ritual at Tenkawa Daibenzaitensha, or Tenkawa shrine, which is highly regarded by a select few.

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Even most Japanese will not easily have the chance to witness this ritual, as Tenkawa is located deep in the mountains of Yoshino, far away from modern society. Together with three other sacred sites linked by pilgrimage routes, Yoshino makes part of the “Sacred Sites and Pilgrimage Routes in the Kii Mountain Range”, which was designated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site back in 2004.

While the isolated mountain village of Tenkawa does have a bus to the most nearby train station, the ride takes over an hour and only three buses come every day. In the village, rice fields and traditional Japanese wooden houses make up the landscape instead of combini and multi-unit apartments.
You will notice a certain spirituality to Tenkawa as soon as you come out of the tunnel that marks the village’s entrance.

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Tenkawa shrine’s history dates back to the 7th century, when goddess Benzaiten (said to originate from the Hindu goddess Saraswati) revealed herself to En-no-Gyoja, the founder of a syncretic religion called Shugendo. He revisited this same location again later, but Benzaiten would not appear a second time. Today, Benzaiten is enshrined at many shrines throughout Japan, but it is fair to say that Tenkawa shrine is (one of) the mother shrine of all Benzaiten shrines. In fact, Tenkawa shrine is  regarded as one of the birthplaces of Japan’s religious traditions as we know them today.

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At this ritual, wishes written on wooden plates by visitors are burned together with a tree log.

What makes Tenkawa shrine special, is the fact that it is one of the few shrines that are still a mixture of Buddhism and Shintoism.
At the summer Taisai ritual I attended, I was chanting along to a Shinto prayer one moment, and to Benzaiten’s Martra, Heart Sutra and other prayers from Buddhist sects the next moment. Tenkawa shrine is also famous for its Noh performances, and so a performance was held as part of the ritual.
The shrine is open to modern culture as well, with a fantastic chromatic harmonica performer playing songs of Elton John and karate students breaking boards in the performance line up dedicated to the gods.

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It is this type of openness to new and foreign things that makes Japan’s religion as peaceful as it is, and I think that Japanese people today share that same kind of openness, despite the fact that the majority consider themselves non-religious.

Tenkawa

Location: Tsubonouchi, Tenkawa-mura, Yoshino-gun, Nara

Access: From Shimoguchi Station (Kintetsu Line), take the Nara Kotsu Bus and get off at Tenkawa Kawa-ai.

Onsen Oasis: Arima Onsen

1,400 years of history hidden in the outskirts of modern Kobe

After introducing two of Japan’s three oldest hot springs (Dogo Onsen in Ehime Prefecture and Nanki Shirahama Onsen in Wakayama Prefecture) it is now time for the last one.
Last but not least, here is Arima Onsen of Hyogo Prefecture.

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Starting from Nihonshoki (a book of classical Japanese history) in 631, there are many ancient documents that mention Arima Onsen. From these documents we can learn that a monk in the 7th century helped develop Arima Onsen.
The connection between Arima Onsen and monks goes on in the 12th century, when the monk Ninsai came to rebuild Arima Onsen which had suffered from a natural disaster in 1097. He also established and ran 12 monk accommodations in the area, which is why a great number of the ryokan at Arima Onsen today have the word Bo (坊, monk) in their name.

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Onsen-ji (Onsen temple) with sakura blossom in spring

Arima Onsen can be found in the outskirts of Kobe city, hidden behind Mt. Rokko, away from the city center’s hustle and bustle. Given the fact that it is located in the mountains, the narrow roads in town can be quite steep.

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You can find the two public baths (Kin no Yu and Gin no Yu) on a short distance from Onsen-ji (Onsen temple) which marks the town center. Kin no yu, or golden bath has yellow-brown colored water from iron and salt. Gin no Yu, or silver bath, has transparent water and contains radium and carbonate. All of the other baths at Arima’s ryokan and bathing houses share either the same characteristics of Kin no yu or that of Gin no yu.

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Since the area is rich in carbonate, Arima Onsen is known for cider, carbonate rice crackers and cakes which can be purchased at the souvenir shops of traditional facade in the town center.

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Most of the luxury ryokan can be found in the mountains on a short distance from the town center. Enjoy tranquility, wonderful scenery and a fantastic warm bath!

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

Arima Onsen

Location: Higashimonguchi 1401, Arimacho, Kita, Kobe, Hyogo

Access: Get off at Arima Onsen Station (Kobe Electric Railway Arima Line)

Mt. Takao, Tokyo’s Mountain Everyone Can Climb

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

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Looking at Hachioji city from the top of Mt. Takao


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

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

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

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

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

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

Location: Takaomachi, Hachioji, Tokyo

Access: Takaosanguchi Station (Keio Line)

Toba: A Small Fisherwoman’s Village

The home of pearls and Ama-zing female divers

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Upper left: Large clams Upper right: Oyster

Toba

Location: Toba, Mie Prefecture

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

 

Restaurant Review: Ise Katsura

Divine Dining At The Spiritual Center Of Japan

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

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

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

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

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

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

Restaurant Information

Name: Ise Katsura

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

Location: Honmachi 17-6, Ise, Mie Prefecture

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

Akafuku, Mochi Heaven

The inside out mochi

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 
Check out other mochi articles >>

Ise Grand Shrine: Japan’s Top Power Spot

A Shrine For The Bucket List 

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

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

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An image of the old day pilgrimages

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ise Grand Shrine

Location: Ujitachi-cho 1, Ise, Mie

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

Shibamata Street Life

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Where Shitamachi culture is still intact 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Spot Information

 Spot Name: Shibamata

Location: Shibamata, Katsushika

Access: Shibamata Station (Keisei Line)

Restaurant Review: Shinjuku Nakamuraya Manna

A curry love story

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 Restaurant information:

Name: Shinjuku Nakamuraya Manna

Price range: 1500 – 3000 yen

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

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

Kichijoji, casual Tokyo

Enjoy Tokyo like a local

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

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

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

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

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

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

Spot Information

Name: Kichijoji

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

Restaurant Review: Kiraku

THE Shibuya Ramen

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Recommendation rate for ramen addicts: ★★★★☆

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

Restaurant information:

Name: Kiraku

Price range: 1,000 yen

Location: Dogenzaka 2-17-6, Shibuya

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

Picturesque Japan: Yakushima

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Next in this series: Picturesque Japan: Unkai Terrace

Spot Information

Name: Yakushima

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

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

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

Onsen Oasis: Dogo Onsen

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

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

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At Dogo Onsen Honkan

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Spot Information

Name: Dogo Onsen

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

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

A nostalgic ride in a modern city

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

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

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

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

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

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Toden Arakawa Line

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

4 hotel pools in Tokyo to escape the summer heat

Swimming and sunbathing in Tokyo’s concrete jungle

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

1. Keio Plaza Hotel Tokyo Sky pool

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

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

2. Tokyo Prince Hotel Garden Pool

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

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

3. Hotel East 21 Tokyo Garden Pool

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

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

4. ANA InterContinental Garden Pool

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

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

Picturesque Japan: The Tottori Sand Dunes

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Sand, camels, and…a refreshing sea breeze

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

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

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

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

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

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

Next in this series: Picturesque Japan: Yakushima

Spot Information

Name: Tottori Sand Dunes

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

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

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

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

-a tabelog reviewer lucky enough to have dined at Yanagiya

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

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

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

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

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

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1. Accessibility 

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

2. Reservation

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

3. Price Range

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

4. Ichigensan Okotowari

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

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

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

Ayu (鮎、Sweetfish)

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

Uribo (うり坊, Wild Boar Piglet)

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

Kojika (仔鹿, Venison Loin)

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

Koguma (小熊, Young Bear)

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

Unagi (鰻, Eel)

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

Kamonabe (鴨鍋, Wild Duck Hot Pot)

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

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

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

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Spot Information:

Name: Yanagiya

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

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

Price Range: 15,000 – 20,000 yen

Nostalgic Pottering in Yanesen Part 2

Shitamachi roaming by bicycle

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

Nezu Shrine

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

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

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Hebimichi

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

Information:
Location: Yanaka 2, Taito, Tokyo

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Shops near the Aizome Bridge

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

Coffee Ranpo

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

Isetatsu:

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

Shokichi:

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

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Yanaka Ginza

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

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

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Suzuki Niku Minced Cutlets , 200 yen

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

Asagaya Tanabata Festival, larger than life

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How a traditional Chinese festival became Japanese street art

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


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

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

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

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Wait, what model is that smartphone?

 

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Not too hard to guess who this is!

 

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The local hall of fame

 

VIPs from overseas


Asagaya Tanabata Festival

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

Restaurant Review: Yasubee

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A tsukemen for everyone

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

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

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

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

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

For men that want to eat a lot: ★★★★★

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

Restaurant information:

Name: Yasubee

Price range: 760 – 860 yen

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

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

 

Nostalgic Pottering in Yanesen Part 1

Shitamachi roaming by bicycle

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Without any further ado, let the pottering begin!

Ogyochi

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

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

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

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Ogyochi, 400 yen

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Shitamachi Museum

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

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

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

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Yanaka’s Himalayan Cedar Tree

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

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

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Nennnekoya

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

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

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

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

Summer Illumination at Meguro Gajoen

A display of Japanese lights

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

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

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

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

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

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Meguro Gajoen “Wa no Akari”

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

Restaurant Review: Ginza Rangetsu

Refined cuisine in Ginza

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

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

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

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Ginza Rangetsu

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

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

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

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

Tokyo Bay Summer Night Cruise: The Definitive Tokyo Summer Experience

A cruise like a summer festival

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

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


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

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

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

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Point proven?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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Tokyo Bay Summer Night Cruise Information

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

Picturesque Japan: Engetsu Island

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Japan’s most magical sunset display at Nanki Shirahama

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Spot information:

Name: Nanki Shirahama

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

Restaurant Review: Kyuzuryu Soba

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Today, soba noodles might stand in the shadow of the almighty ramen, but in eastern Japan, soba have been the major type of noodle for centuries.
Compared to udon which is more popular in western Japan, soba tends to be less internationally recognized, but for those that want to get a deeper taste of eastern Japan, slurping soba is an experience not to be missed. A great restaurant to do so in Tokyo, is Kyuzuryu Soba, a chic soba restaurant located in a narrow but picturesque alley of Kagurazaka.

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Whilst Kagurazaka might be one of Tokyo’s most Edo-ish areas today, the soba and other dishes served at Kyuzuryu Soba, are specialties of Fukui prefecture.
Located east from Kyoto, and lying along the Japan Sea, Fukui’s cuisine is especially known for fresh seafood, and of course, soba!

Kyuzuryu Soba has two branches in Kagurazaka, its main branch, and “Hanare” or annex branch. I would like to recommend Hanare for its fancy cottage style architecture and homey atmosphere.

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The soba here are best eaten chilled, as it allows you to enjoy the chewiness and savor the newly-harvested buckwheat, or shin-soba. You notice how Kyuzuryu Soba is particular about using fresh and additive-free ingredients just by looking at the wasabi!

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Zaru Soba 800 Yen


To do as the Fukuians do, order Echizen Oroshi Soba, which comes together with grated daikon raddish and a chilled soy broth soup.

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Echizen Oroshi Soba 800 Yen

Crispy tempura of season vegetables make for a great side-dish together with the soba, and full-course Fukui cuisine is available as well. Also, don’t forget to enjoy these delicacies together with Fukui sake not easily found in Tokyo to make your dining experience as Fukui as possible!

Noodle chewiness rate: ★★★★★

Freshness of ingredients:★★★★★

Restaurant information:

Name: Kyuzuryu Soba Hanare

Price range: 1,000 yen – 5,000 yen

Location: Kagurazaka 5-1-2 Kagurazaka TN Hills B1, Shinjuku

Access: A 3-min walk from Ushigome Kagurazaka Station (Oedo Line)

Your last chance to pay homage to the Tsukiji Fish Market!

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A holy ground for sushi lovers

Without a doubt, Tokyo’s Tsukiji Fish Market is the largest and most famous fish market on the planet.
Paying a visit is like a holy pilgrimage that sushi lovers all over the world dream about.
If you want to make that dream come true, it is time to hurry up! The Tsukiji Fish Market is due to move to a different location in 2016. Yes, you hear that right, this Tokyo landmark that has been around for nearly a century is in its last year of existence.
Before it’s too late, WAttention introduces you the best way to experience your first and probably last visit to the Tsukiji Fish Market.

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Point 1:  Arrive early!

As the fresh seafood comes in during the early morning after being hauled by fishermen the night before, waking up early is a must if you want to fully experience the market. Shops for visitors will be open until 1 pm, but the actual market is pretty much finished after 9 am, and the famous tuna auction starts at 5 am. Only the first 120 visitors can observe this auction, so if you want to secure your tuna auction observation, arriving at least 30 minutes before is recommended.

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The auction hall will be full of gigantic tunas caught the night before. Nothing here is mechanized nor computerized – auctioneers shout the prices with hoarse voices as if they are singing while lightly bending and stretching their knees to the rhythm. The auctioneer is reading out the price of the tuna, but uses special terms even most Japanese won’t understand.
The bigger tuna weigh around 220 kilograms, and millions of yen are put on the table for them. The scary thing is that even tuna experts cannot be sure of the fish’s quality before it is cut open, which can only be done once the fish is purchased. There sure is a lot at stake at this auction!

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Point 2: How to walk around

One should first understand that the Tsukiji Fish market consists out of the outer part and the inner part. The outer part is open for tourists, and many small restaurants and shops can be enjoyed at ease here.

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The inner market is where the real business is happening, with motorized trolleys driving around through the busy, narrow paths with stalls that have any fish you can imagine. The inner market is not open for window-shopping, and you will be told that it is forbidden for tourists. However, this is not entirely true. You are allowed to enter as long as you are buying something, so if you say “kaimono” (I’m here to buy), the guards will let you in.

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Point 3: Don’t forget to have breakfast

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As mentioned before, the outer market has lots of restaurants and shops to satisfy your seafood appetite, but true sushi addicts will most appreciate Sushi Dai, a popular sushi shop located in the inner market. Expect to queue even in the early morning, but once you get in, you will soon realize that you have made it to sushi heaven! We recommend the “Trust the chef” menu available for 3,900 yen, which consist out of the freshest fish of the day selected by the chef. The sushi will be put straight on the counter piece by piece.

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Point 4: Do research before going

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First, check the Tsukiji Fish Market calendar to see if the market is open on the day you plan to visit. The market is closed on Sundays and usually (but not always) on Wednesdays.
Be sure to wear the right shoes, as flip flops and high heels are not allowed.
Also keep in mind that you might have to wait for a pretty long time (before the tuna auction starts and in case you decide to queue at Sushi Dai) so wear something warm during winter, and take a book or charge your smartphone to 100% to prepare for time killing.

Point 5: Last but not least, be polite and obey the rules

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The most important thing when visiting the Tsukiji Fish Market, is to be polite and obey the rules. People here are at work, and are not benefiting from your visit. Therefore, it is important that you don’t interrupt or disturb their business. Flash photography is prohibited, especially when observing the tuna auction as the auctioneers might not be able to catch some of the bids because of it.
When walking the inner market, give way to the motorized trolleys as they are given priority. If you stand in their way, expect to be pushed aside without any precautions.

That being said, as long as you are polite and respect the rules, the people at the Tsukiji Fish Market will treat you friendly, especially if you buy a fish or two!
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Photo Credit: Paul Tsunobiladzé, Atsuhiro Suenaga, WAttention

Cheap Dining At Tokyo’s College Cafeterias

A university lecture on how to eat

Eating like the locals is a precious experience for anyone traveling to Japan, but if you don’t know how to and where, there’s a pretty big chance you end up only eating the dishes you already know, like sushi, sashimi, tempura and sukiyaki.

A great and cheap way to dig a bit deeper into modern Japanese cuisine, is to visit a university cafeteria, as quite a lot of them are open to the public. Here you can find a range of food, from udon to ramen, and “stamina” rice sets in the range of 500 yen. 

The WAttention staff sneaked into (just joking, this one is open to the public as well) the Aoyama Gakuin University’s cafeteria, to give you an introduction on how to order your meal at Tokyo’s university cafeterias.

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All set? We’re going in, so let the lecture begin!

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As you can see, Aoyama Gakuin University’s cafeteria is quite modern, with screens displaying the dishes of the day!

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After choosing your dish from the screen, you purchase a lunch voucher from the ticket-vending machine. If you can’t read Japanese, just compare the characters with those displayed on the screen.

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Next, you stand in line and put your ticket on the counter. Here, it’s important you stand at the right counter to avoid queuing for nothing. There’s usually a counter for noodles, one for rice bowl dishes, and one for set meals.

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After receiving your meal on a tray, you walk over to a corner where you can put dressing on your salad, pepper on your ramen, and most importantly, pour in free tea or water.

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OK, you have made it this far, but its still too early to feel at ease, as the last and most difficult part is yet to come. With your meal and a cup of tea or water balancing on the tray in your hands, you have to somehow find an empty seat while dodging incoming students on your way that are trying to do the same thing.
Especially during the busy hours, this can be quite difficult, but as long as you stay persistent you will succeed for sure. Just make sure you don’t end up throwing over your tray, because that would mean starting the whole process over from scratch!

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Once you have safely found a free table, it’s finally time to enjoy your student meal! “Itadakimasu!”

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From left to right: Soy Ramen, Fried cutlets curry, Aoyama Monogatari (Aoyama’s dish of the day)

Here follows a list of school cafeterias in Tokyo that are open to the public.

  1. Aoyama Gakuin University Aoyama Campus
  2. Toyo University Hakusan Campus
  3. Kogaku-in University Shibuya Campus
  4. Hosei University Ichigaya Campus
  5. Taisho University Sugamo Campus
  6. Tokyo University Komaba Campus
  7. Rikkyo University Ikebukuro Campus
  8. Meiji University Surugadai Campus
  9. Musashino University Ariake Campus
  10. Tokyo University of Agriculture Setagaya Campus
  11. Chuo University Tama Campus

Osaka’s Over-The-Top Billboards

From Deep Sea Creatures to Cheese Puff s’ Uncle Karl

In Osaka, people are loud and things tend to get larger than life – especially their billboards.

These flamboyant and extravagant advertisements show how Osaka has always been a city of tradesmen that know no bounds when it comes to selling a product. It also seems as if it reflects the in-your-face, casual and tongue-in-cheek Osakans we know today.

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The Glico billboard (Dotonbori)

Glico’s marathon runner has been iconic to Osaka ever since 1935. Over the last 80 years, the board was renewed many times. Right now we are looking at the 6th generation of Glico’s marathon runners.
Glico is a candy and snack manufacturer based in Osaka, with long-time best sellers as Pocky, Pretz and Caplico.

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Kani Doraku (Dotonbori)

At Kani Doraku, you will know what to expect even if you can’t read any Japanese.
Although this restaurant chain might have branches throughout the country, it’s main branch in Dotonbori is so famous it would be hard to find a Japanese person that has never heard of it.

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The Konamon Museum (Dotonbori)

Established in 2011, the Konamon Museum is relatively new, but its huge octopus (“tako” in Japanese) seems to feel quite at home here in Dotonbori already. At Konamon Museum, you can eat, make and learn about Osaka’s most famous street-food, the Takoyaki.

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Gansozushi Dotonbori Branch (Shinsekai)

Tokyo-based sushi chain Gansozushi decided to do as the Romans do for its Dotonbori branch!

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Yokozuna (Shinsekai)

Yokozuna in the Shinsekai district is not a sumo stadium, but if you want to eat like a sumo wrestler, you won’t be disappointed. Yokozuna serves chanko nabe (sumo style hot pot) and kushi-katsu, which are fried skewers that originate from Osaka. Yokozuna’s kushi-katsu skewers are three times the size of an average skewer!

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Tsuboraya (Shinsekai)

Long-established restaurant Tsuboraya makes sure you know where to try out arguably Japan’s most notorious delicacy, fugu.
In the backdrop, you will see the famous Tsutenkaku Tower. Literally translated as “tower reaching heaven”, Tsutenkaku was Asia’s second tallest structure when it was originally constructed in 1912. With a mere 100 meters, Tsutenkaku might not be something to shout about today, but it has not lost its charm.

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Uncle Karl (Dotonbori)

Uncle Karl has been the mascot character of Karl Cheese Puffs since 1982, and apparently Osaka is still crazy about him! This flamboyant billboard was created to celebrate Uncle Karl’s 30th year as a mascot in 2012.

Thought that was all? Think again! We haven’t even introduced “Kuidaore Taro” yet, a clown-drummer that has been a landmark in Osaka for over 60 years, and than there are tons of other crazy advertisements including a giant plate of gyoza, a ramen dragon, an angry kushi-katsu master and more, but we don’t want to spoil everything for you before your visit!

Access: 

Dotonbori: A 5 min walk from Nanba station (JR Yamatoji Line, Nankai Main Line, Koya Line, Midosuji Line, Sennichimae Line, Yotsubashi Line, Kintetsu Namba Line, Hanshin Namba Line)

Shinsekai: A 5 min walk from Shin-Imamiya Station (JR Loop Line) or Dobutsuen-mae Station (Midosuji Line, Sakaisuji Line)

 

Cafe Crawl: Kotori Cafe

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Tweet along with Kotori Café’s adorable staff

How about some chitchatting with cute birds at Kotori Café (literally meaning Small birds Café) in Omotesando? This café is a parrot’s answer (or is it just mimicking?) to the recently popular cat cafés. Kotori Café’s greatest aspect is truly its staff, and by that, I mean the birds. Charming parakeets, canaries and parrots come in a wide array of colors and sorts, one just as cute as the other.

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They won’t sit next to you when you have your coffee, but you can look at them from close by through a window.

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But no need to be disappointed. For hugging and petting, there’s always the “Mofumofu Room” (mofumofu being a mimetic word for the soft skin of animals) attached to the café, where you can enjoy some interaction with these affectionate birds. Do note that this service is only available from 11 am to 5 pm.

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Kotori Café’s homemade sweets are just as cute and colorful as the birds, which is no wonder, as they are cake portraits of the café’s charming staff, and the degree of perfection is really impressive! Enjoy a cake set for 1,500 yen that comes with a drink and savor your cake while comparing it to the adorable birds!

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Spot information

Name: Kotori Cafe
Price range: 1,000 – 1,500 yen
Location: Aoyama 6-3-7, Minato, Tokyo
Access: A 5-min walk from Omotesando Station (Chiyoda Line, Hanzomon Line, Ginza Line)
URL: http://kotoricafe.jp/ (Japanese)

À la Kagurazaka



Tokyo’s classy hill

Tokyo boasts an almost uncountable amount of shopping and dining districts. Kagurazaka is not only one of the most authentic and chic, but also definitely the most French district. 
Two French schools are located in the neighborhood, and so the area has a significant French population, and you will find many fancy French brasseries next to the long established Japanese restaurants with traditional facades. This fusion display differentiates Kagurazaka from Tokyo’s many other districts.

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Whilst located in the middle of Tokyo, Kagurazaka is blessed by a cozy and laid-back atmosphere with leafy trees lined up along the main street. Regardless from the time of the day, the district is ideal for shopping, dining, or just to take a stroll.

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By venturing into the narrow side alleys, you can discover a more authentic Kagurazaka. You might even stumble upon geisha houses that take you back to an older Tokyo, …with probably a French brasserie next to them!

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As one of Tokyo’s more old-fashioned districts, the noodle to slurp in Kagurazaka is not ramen nor udon. Soba is the specialty here, and you will pass a wide array of long established soba restaurants as you stroll.

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Onsen Oasis: Zao Dairotenburo

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King of Onsens – The Princess Water hot spring

Some hot springs are so good you never forget them. For me, the Zao Dairotenburo Hot Spring in Yamagata prefecture is one of those. A decade has passed since my trip there, but I can still remember thinking to myself excitedly, “So this is what a real onsen is like!” as the sulphuric hot spring smell became stronger and stronger and started to permeate the taxi as we ascended the mountain.

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What I saw upon arrival, was beyond my expectations. While famous throughout the country, Zao Dairotenburo Hot Spring has managed to resist modernization into a tourist attraction, and I mean that in the very best possible way.

Unlike other man-made onsens that are designed and dugged, this is a natural onsen around which some basic structures have been built to allow people to enjoy it – so don’t expect any saunas, showers or any drink dispensing machines!

All you will find, is the huge crater-shaped natural stone baths located on the top of a mountain hill surrounded by mountain forests. As you soak in the steaming hot, silky smooth, milky water, you realize that people must have come to enjoy this hot spring in the exact same way for centuries.

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The milky water feels like music to your skin, or rather makes your skin sing! This is not is not just one’s imagination, as the water comes from a natural sulfur spring with strong acidity. The water is so good for softening and whitening the skin that it has become known as “Princess water”.

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The Zao Dairotenburo Hot Spring is open from mid-April to the end of November. You will be mesmerized by either fresh verdure or golden foliage depending on the time of the year, but whenever you visit, this hot spring and its surrounding nature are well worth you visit and make for an authentic experience you will not forget!

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

Spot information

Name: Zao Dairotenburo Hot Spring

Price: 470 yen

Hours: 6 am – 7 pm (clost from end November to mid-April)

Location: Zao Onsen 832, Yamagata

URL: http://www.joy.hi-ho.ne.jp/ma0011/T-Yamagata01.htm (Japanese)

Combini Checkout: Haagen Dazs’ Matcha Crumble

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I confess, I am a matcha (Japanese green tea) sweets addict. And to any matcha-lover, Haagen-Dazs’ “Matcha Crumble” (available for 272 yen at most combinis) ice-cream bar is heaven on a stick. I don’t want to exaggerate, but this might just be the very best matcha flavored ice-cream to have ever reached the combinis.

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Why? Because it packs three times the matcha than other ice-creams. Not just the ice-cream itself, but also the chocolate coating, and even the cookie crumbles on the coating are matcha flavored! As can be expected of Haagen-Dazs quality, it has a soft, creamy texture and a refined, bittersweet matcha taste. The same can be said for the crunchy coating, which shares the same depth in both flavor and texture. That’s quality and quantity in one package!

 

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Matcha addict satisfaction degree:
★★★★★

Advised if you want to lose weight? ★☆☆☆☆ (The calories are not extremely high for an ice-cream, but be aware as you might get addicted!)

 

Fireworks from a different angle

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High above from the Tokyo Skytree

There aren’t that many places where you can look down at one of Tokyo’s best fireworks shows – but the Tokyo Skytree is one of them.

The Sumidagawa Fireworks Festival – Tokyo’s oldest fireworks festival – is often referred to as one of “Tokyo’s big three firework festivals” together with the Tokyo Bay and the Edogawa Fireworks Festival. And the Tokyo Skytree nearby provides an amazing vista of this fireworks show with around 20,000 shots of fireworks over 2 hours.

Of course, looking up in awe at these colorful explosions while sitting along the riverbanks is a classical experience. However, if you want to look at things from a different angle (literally), try viewing it from the Tokyo Skytree, where you can look down on this festival of colors!

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The festival attracts over 700,000 people every year, making it one of the most crowded fireworks festivals in Japan. If you want to get a good viewing spot, make sure to leave your house early and plan ahead.

The 39th Sumidagawa Fireworks Festival
Date: Jul. 30, 2016
Hours: 7:05pm – 8:30pm
Location: Sumida River

Where does this ghost train bring us?

A visit to ghost town, Sakaiminato

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A visit to ghost town, Sakaiminato

Take this ghost themed train to Sakaiminato in Tottori prefecture, the hometown of Shigeru Mizuki, spiritual father of ghost manga series “Gegege no Kitaro”. The “Kitaro ressha” or Kitaro train, which takes the name of the series’ main character, runs on the JR Sakai Line.

Ever since the first entry of “Gegege no Kitaro” was published in 1965, this manga series has received a nationwide popularity, and is still going strong today! Never heard of it? Don’t worry, you will be able to enjoy Sakaiminato nonetheless. For example, try to find all the cute bronze ghost statues (sorry ghosts, I know you hate being called cute) hidden in town.

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If you manage to find them all, hats off, as there are a total of 153 of these to be found in Sakaiminato!
(See them all here http://www.sakaiminato.net/site2/page/roadmap/bronze/)

There is even a ghost shrine in town, and actual ghosts (really!) walk around in Sakaiminato every day. Apparently, different ghosts appear depending on the day, so if you are a true fan, stay at least a week!

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The Shigeru Mizuki Memorial Hall does not just familiarize you with “Gegege no Kitaro”, but also shows the personality of the artist himself, who is not only a manga-ka, but also a ghost specialist and an adventurer. Despite reaching the age of 93, he still continues to work today!

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Sakaiminato is also famous for its fresh seafood. Once you have had enough of ghosts, head over to the fish market and taste some of the super fresh crab, tuna, and especially the Mosa Shrimp, a shrimp only to be found in the area. Modern dishes as Tuna Ramen and Crab Donburi (a rice dish) are also more than worth a try!

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Tuna ramen with a naruto (sliced fish paste) with Kitaro on it!

 

Picturesque Japan: The Takachiho Gorge

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Like magic to your eyes
Located on the north edge of Miyazaki prefecture on Kyushu Island, the Takachiho Gorge is without a doubt, one of Japan’s most impressive natural landscapes. With dramatic cliffs, verdant forests, an emerald green river, and not to mention, the Manai waterfall that strikes you like sunlight bursting through the morning clouds, this gorge along the Gokase river is so beautiful it’s magic to your eyes. Paddle your way around with the rental boats available, and be thrilled by the Manai waterfall from up close.

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You can also chose to hike the path along the Takachiho Gorge that lets you look at this breathtaking landscape from above. After passing the gorge, the path leads you to the picturesque Takachiho Shrine that boasts a history of 1,800 years. Be sure to wear the right shoes, as there are quite a lot of stairs to climb along the way.

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If you visit during the summer, enjoy a refreshing meal of ice-cold somen noodles at the tea houses located nearby. These thin wheat flour noodles will come floating your way on a long bamboo flume. Can you catch them with your chopsticks before they flow on to the next customer? The gorge is also lit up with illuminations until 10PM during the summer months.

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Trust me, the Takachiho Gorge won’t dissapoint, and there are many other sites to visit nearby as well, including the mysterious Amanoyasugawara cavern, where according to legends the sun goddess Amaterasu used to retreat.

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To sum it up, if you are making a trip to Kyushu Island, the Takachiho Gorge has to be on your list!

Next in this series: Picturesque Japan: The Kujuku Islands

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Spot information

Name: Takachiho Gorge
Address: Mitai, Nishiusuki-gun, Takachiho-cho, Miyazaki Prefecture
Access: Takachiho can be reached by bus from Kumamoto or Nobeoka while the gorge is located within walking distance from the Takachiho Bus Center.
Boat rental fare: ¥2000 for 30 minutes (Can fit up to 3 people)
Boat rental hours: 8:30 ~ 16:30
Official Information: http://takachiho-kanko.info/en/