Tag Archives: Culture

A Japanese Adventure : “Shabu Shabu and Shibuya”

With our spiritual batteries recharged we then headed to another selection of local cuisine for lunch .. This time we were going to try some ‘Shabu Shabu’.

Background:
Shabu-shabu (しゃぶしゃぶ , also spelled shyabu-shyabu?) is a Japanese dish featuring thinly sliced beef boiled in water. The term is an onomatopœia, derived from the sound emitted when the ingredients are stirred in the cooking pot. The dish is related to sukiyaki in style: Both consist of thinly sliced meat and vegetables and served with dipping sauces, although shabu-shabu beef is sliced much thinner and cooked piece by piece by the diner, whereas sukiyaki arrives from the kitchen completely assembled. Also shabu-shabu is considered to be more savory and less sweet thansukiyaki, and is a more expensive dish with finer vegetable ingredients and better cuts of beef.
(https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Shabu-shabu)

The restaurant was quiet and dark, lit only through mild lamps… which was great.. very relaxing. Now.. please note that I can barely fry an egg so this was a unique experience for me…ie. being able to ‘cook’ your own food 🙂

At the center of each table (between 4 people) was a giant hot pot with boiling water (and I think there were some mild spices in the water). We were brought a plate of lean beef strips and a separate plate/bowl of vegetables. The idea was that first you boil the vegetables (you can pick what you like… you don’t have to boil everything) .. then using your chopsticks you take one beef strip at a time (you can put many in if you like) and put it in the hotpot… letting it boil (turning from the raw red to the darkish brown) before pulling it out and eating it along with your vegetables.
Yup… that’s the extent of my culinary descriptive capabilities. 🙂

The experience was awesome… and the food was delicious… and even though I’m not big on beef, I loved every bite! 🙂

With our bellies full our next stop was “Shibuya Crossing” …
(Actually it was a specially arranged Tea Ceremony after which we went to Shibuya crossing… however, since we weren’t allowed to take pictures or make a movie at the Tea Ceremony … i’ll cover that separately in another blog post)

Background:
Shibuya Crossing is the world’s busiest pedestrian crossing. It represents the towering neon lit Tokyo that travelers expect. The traffic lights at the crossing have a 2 minute cycle. Cars from various directions eat up more than half of the time. Thousands of pedestrians all cross at the same time from five directions. When the crowds meet in the middle chaos ensues. It’s a spectacle that’s repeated every two minutes all day and most of the night until the crowds finally thin out after midnight when Shibuya stations closes.
(http://www.japan-talk.com/jt/new/shibuya-crossing)

I don’t really have any words to describe it. The number of people, the buildings, the signs…. it’s overwhelming.

Actually using the crossing only takes maybe 20 seconds (ie. crossing from one side to another when the crossing lights are green)… but it’s not about actually crossing the intersection… it’s about just standing there and taking it in: the sheer number of people crossing each time and the way it’s set up with the giant neon ads, billboards, tv screens, etc. I hope these pictures do it at least an ounce of justice. It’s something you have to experience for yourself. We were there during the day time so we didn’t really get to enjoy the night light from the neon sign boards.

And believe it or not… my opportunity to make a video was interrupted by emails from work! In the middle of the crossing! It’s my mistake.. I should never check my phone when I’m out on vacation… Lesson learnt… 🙂

We then had some shopping time in Shibuya. Here’s a panorama of a very small part of the shopping area around Shibuya
IMG_5958The coolest thing happened when we were walking back to the bus… we found a ‘Kawaii’ fruit vendor by the side of the road! The fruit/veggies were fresh and amazing… and after having snacked on vending machines, we decided to take advantage of the opportunity and have something healthy for a change:

 

Depleted explorers but contented shoppers we then headed to dinner…. stay tuned… more Japanese cuisine.. 🙂

 

 

A Japanese Adventure: The Little Things …

Akihabara was amazing, energizing and refreshing… I loved every minute I was there.

You hear a great deal about Japanese culture, and you can experience it, wherever you are in the world, through their unique media culture but it’s a whole other experience when you are actually there, surrounded by it. You understand the scale of certain subcultures and how fascinating they all are.

I realized that there were certain things that as a tourist you had to do to truly experience these aspects of Japanese culture that you only caught a glimpse of when you were back home.
Here are a few, regardless of whether you are a fan or not:
– Actually go to a manga store and buy a manga
– Explore anime and buy one that you think interests you
– Visit a themed cafe (like the Gundam cafe in my last post)
– Buy KITKAT! (Coming up in a blog post soon)

Keeping this in mind, and having visited the Gundam Cafe, we decided to take a walk to ‘Mandarake‘ to try to check off the anime/manga exploration.

Background:
Mandarake is an anime/manga paradise. Manga, both new and pre-owned, anime collections, and more importantly… collectibles! Tons of figures, posters, artwork, etc.. for fans of any franchise. (http://www.mandarake.co.jp/en/shop/)

A very unique experience indeed! I was a little in shock (and awe) and didn’t take many pictures.. instead spending more time appreciating gaping at the shelves and shelves of goodies.. 🙂
What’s a little surprising is that despite floors and floors of manga you’ll find it very hard to find any manga in English… perhaps a small single shelf in a corner.. with maybe 5 manga on it… 🙂 … So unless you are a fluent in Japanese, it becomes a little bit tricky. The same goes for anime..
Since I’m not fluent in Japanese I wasn’t able to pick up either from Mandarake (I did pick them up later in the trip.. stay tuned.. 🙂 .. )

If you’re like me then though you might enjoy hours and hours of browsing stores full of amazing collectibles you still prefer actually walking outdoors and breathing in the culture… the environment, the sunset, the people, the atmosphere. Although Mandarke was fantastic, simply walking from the Gundam Cafe to Mandarake and then walking the way back to Yodobashi camera was great… 🙂

Our dinner stop for the night was a touch of Mediterranean cuisine at ‘Al Mina’.
Mediterranean cuisine: Healthy + Delicious… always a good option.
The salad, appetizers, and grill were awesome… make sure you try the ‘Banana-Date-Honey Smoothie’ … 🙂

That was it for the day… almost…

On the way back we caught our first glimpse of some of the unique KitKat flavors in Japan:

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Stay tuned for a post just on  KitKat awesomeness… 🙂

 

A Japanese Adventure: Ninjas!

Another day, another adventure… this time with a little more action!

Our first stop of the day was the ‘Ninja Museum’ (http://iganinja.jp/en/) …
If you ever visit Japan, this is one place you simply must visit.. history, culture, action and fun.. all in one 🙂

There are 3 main areas to visit at this site:
– A ‘performance’/show demonstrating the use of real ninja weapons (in a humorous play/skit)
– A ‘Ninja-house’ demonstrating secret passages/hiding places actually used by Ninjas in order to conceal themselves, escape when in danger, or hide valuables
– A Ninja Museum where you can learn more about the weapons/artefacts and history/culture of the period

The performance is amazing, short but thoroughly enjoyable. Queues were long and there were many excited mini-ninjas all dressed up and excited for the show!

The performance is hilarious and we were allowed to take pictures, although capturing videos was not allowed. It features one amazingly powerful ninja-girl who overwhelms her opponents through martial arts, ninja weapons and wraps up her performance with a casual and ‘kawaii’ ‘V’ sign for the cameras… 🙂 Smoke effects and sound effects were perfect, keeping kids energized and most of us laughing along.. and the humor was punctuated with explanations of what was being used and more serious demonstrations with swords and shurikien.

Interesting note: As Ninjas were essentially undercover, they had to be able to do their cover-roles perfectly, whether as performers/entertainers or as farmers.. so it wasn’t just about being a good assassin, it was about stealth and maintaining your cover.

After the performance, we also had the opportunity to throw shurikien at a target.
Background: “A shuriken (Japanese 手裏剣; literally: “sword hidden in user’s hand”) is a traditional Japanese concealed weapon that was generally used for throwing, and sometimes stabbing or slashing. Ninja stars, or Shuriken, were invented in the Three Year War (1083-1087 AD) by Tadamasa.” (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Shuriken)

I wasn’t great… but I was, surprisingly, not all that bad either.. 🙂

We then moved on to the Ninja House! Hidden revolving panels/doors, secret staircases, observation passages near the ceiling. Hidden swords, valuables and escape passages… impressive! I couldn’t capture many photographs, and videos were not permitted… 😦

The last stop was the museum and souvenir store. Perhaps the most interesting piece of gear in the museum was the pair of wooden slippers used by ninjas to walk over water!

A few hours well spent, our adventure of stealth, intrigue and shurikien target practice complete, we were all set for lunch and a trip to Nagoya castle.. which I’ll cover in the next post. 🙂

 

A Japanese Adventure : “Shrines, Foxes, Temples and Deer”

It was hard to believe the first real day of sight-seeing (Day 2 of the trip) was over! We woke up energized and ready for our next adventure!

And we started off our adventure the way all great adventures should start…. with a healthy (and delicious) breakfast.. thanks to some Matcha Latte and Eggs Benedict – Kyoto Style..! 🙂

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And then we we were off! Our first stop was the Fushimi Inari Shrine!

Background:
Fushimi Inari Shrine (伏見稲荷大社, Fushimi Inari Taisha) is an important Shinto shrine in southern Kyoto. It is famous for its thousands of vermilion torii gates…[…]…Fushimi Inari is the most important of several thousands of shrines dedicated to Inari, the Shinto god of rice. Foxes are thought to be Inari’s messengers, resulting in many fox statues across the shrine grounds.”
(http://www.japan-guide.com/e/e3915.html)

As we walked to the shrine from the bus parking, the streets were lined with lively little shops, selling snacks, souvenirs, paintings, postcards, plants and more… we stopped by the shops once we’d seen the shrine. With plenty of tourists making their way up, just for a moment, I was concerned about getting lost or separated from the group, but fortunately that did not happen.

As you can see in the pictures, the entrance to shrine is flanked by 2 foxes and one has a key in its mouth.
A little info: “Foxes (kitsune), regarded as the messengers, are often found in Inari shrines. One attribute is a key (for the rice granary) in their mouths.”  https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fushimi_Inari-taisha)

‘Thousands’ of gates is no exaggeration as you’ll see from the pictures below! The entire shrine spans a large area. There’s quite a bit of walking from one area to the next, and every path, passage or walkway is lined with … you guessed it… red gates! 🙂

At some areas of the shrine (as with subsequent Shinto shrines we visited), we saw people writing their wishes/prayers on little wooden plaques. The plaques are called ‘Ema’.

Background:
““Ema” (絵馬) 
are wooden wishing plaques. This is a Shinto custom and thus can be found at shrines all over Japan…[…]… In recent days people write their wishes or prayers on a wooden plaque that can be purchased at the shrine and then hang it up on the shrine grounds.” (http://zoomingjapan.com/wiki/ema/)


On the way back to the bus, many of us had split up to do our own exploring, so my sister and I had time to explore the shops we had passed on the way to the shrine.

And that’s where I picked up this adorable little souvenir!

0I also had the chance to try ‘Inari Sushi’.
“Inarizushi is a simple and inexpensive type of sushi, in which sushi rice is filled into aburaage (deep fried tofu) bags.” – (http://www.japan-guide.com/e/e2038.html)
That about sums it up – Simple, inexpensive… and tasty! 🙂

There was a bit of strange incident as we had to wait first at a train crossing, because someone seemed to have tripped an emergency switch causing all gates to lock down, and each gate had to be opened manually one at a time by inspectors, ensuring that no actual accident had taken place. Fortunately, there didn’t seem to have been any accident. After that mini-adventure (which just involved waiting), we had to wait for 2 missing and chronically late group members who unfortunately got lost and found their way back after an hour.
Interesting Note: In some bus parking areas, the bus cannot start its engine (and therefore its Air Conditioner) while parked. This means that if even one member of your group is late, you could end up stuck and waiting for your missing buddy on a very hot and humid summer morning! 🙂

When we finally did get moving, we took our time to relax, rehydrate and enjoy the view from the bus:


 

Our next stop of the day was the Todaiji temple at Nara.
Background:  (東大寺, Tōdaiji, “Great Eastern Temple”) is one of Japan’s most famous and historically significant temples and a landmark of Nara… […]… Along the approach to Todaiji stands the Nandaimon Gate, a large wooden gate watched over by two fierce looking statues. …[…]…Temple visitors will also encounter some deer from the adjacent Nara Park, begging for shika senbei, special crackers for deer that are sold for around 150 yen. (http://www.japan-guide.com/e/e4100.html)

Yup… that’s right… DEER! … roaming around quite peacefully between visitors 🙂

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And here are the two guardians. “Representing the Nio Guardian Kings, the statues are designated national treasures together with the gate itself.” (http://www.japan-guide.com/e/e4100.html)

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The entrance to the temple was absolutely stunning! I enjoyed the walk up to the temple entrance, perhaps even more so than the temple itself. 🙂

Background on temple:
“Todaiji’s main hall, the Daibutsuden (Big Buddha Hall) is the world’s largest wooden building, despite the fact that the present reconstruction of 1692 is only two thirds of the original temple hall’s size. The massive building houses one of Japan’s largest bronze statues of Buddha (Daibutsu). The 15 meters tall, seated Buddha represents Vairocana and is flanked by two Bodhisattvas. Big Buddha (Daibutsu) – his open hand alone is as tall as a human being
Several smaller Buddhist statues and models of the former and current buildings are also on display in the Daibutsuden Hall. Another popular attraction is a pillar with a hole in its base that is the same size as the Daibutsu’s nostril. It is said that those who can squeeze through this opening will be granted enlightenment in their next life.” (http://www.japan-guide.com/e/e4100.html)


 

It was really quite a wonder to behold. As we walked back, many of us taking time to relax by the lake or feed the deer, and others scouring souvenir shops nearby, I helped myself to one of these delicious delights (perhaps my favourite snack in Japan): “Shaved Ice with Strawberry Syrup” – perfect to beat the heat! 🙂

IMG_4846Our next stop was another traditional Japanese lunch… which I’ll cover in my next post.

 

 

 

A Japanese Adventure: Kiyomizu-dera (清水寺)

And so it began!
Our first group bus ride to a site of historical and cultural significance: The ‘Kiyomizu-dera’ or as it is known in english, “The Temple of Clear Water”.
We were accompanied by our kind, well-informed, and, importantly, English-speaking tour-guide, Hiroko-san.

Although the template is not that far from the Kyoto-Tokyu hotel, we encountered what Hiroko-san considered ‘unsual’ traffic. This was mainly due to the fact that the ‘Gion’ Festival (http://www.japan-guide.com/e/e3942.html) was taking place and there were many tourists in the area.

We made use of the time lost in traffic, taking a few pictures of what we could see from the bus windows, listening to Hiroko-san introduce the area to us and also just experiencing what a work-day morning felt like in Kyoto.

We reached the temple, eager to explore its treasures… and thanks to our Sensei, the tourism authorities and other parties, that’s exactly what we did right at the onset! Our group was escorted to an area which is not generally open to the public.

Sadly, our group has no photos to share from this “inner sanctum” since photos/videos were not allowed. I shall try to describe it with mere words but I shall never be able to do it justice:

After taking off our shoes at the entrance and switching to slippers (if that is the correct english equivalent), we entered what could only be described as an indoor balcony which went along the walls of a square room. As we stood along this balcony/walkway we could look both down into the center of the room, where far below us were the outlines of the massive footprints of the Buddha, and we could look up at the ceiling which was quite high up. There was no statue, but the walls were lined from top to bottom with grey, square tiles with carvings of different versions of Buddha. Far down below us, near the toes of the footprints, was a red book which, if I’m not mistaken, listed the names of all those who had donated to the temple. We were told that typically this entire area was completely silent, except for when sermons were held. However, at the moment, a light and soothing tune played, in perfect harmony with the atmosphere; still and sacred.

As I stood there, our group asking questions and patiently waiting for translated answers, I felt at peace. There was an air of simplicity with no exquisite gaudy gold decorations. It was a place where I felt someone from any religion could come and pray. There was beauty in that silence… perhaps felt more keenly, as outside this sanctum, the air was thick with the laughter, cries and camera snaps of bustling tourists.. a different sort of enjoyment.

These pictures are from when we entered the area:

After having experienced the hidden and silent beauty of the temple we made our way to the ‘Main Hall’ which is has been designated as a ‘National Treasure’ and which was registered on the UNESCO World Cultural Heritage List as one of the Historic Monuments of Ancient Kyoto in 1994. (http://www.kiyomizudera.or.jp/lang/01.html).

It truly is a national treasure, one which takes your breath away, particularly from a distance. It is difficult not to lose yourself in the moment, as you admire not only the beauty but the architectural significance of the Main Hall which “was built using a special method; huge 12-meter high keyaki (Japanese Zelkova) pillars were assembled without using a single nail” !!

This pictures are but a shadow of its brilliance (some are taken from the bottom as we made our way down):

After getting our fill of the breathtaking views from the Main Hall, we made our way down to the ‘Otowa Waterfall’. The water flow is divided into 3 streams, each said to have a magical benefit. “From the drinker’s viewpoint, the one to the left is good for wisdom, the middle one for longevity and the one to the right is helpful for good matchmaking.” (http://en.japantravel.com/view/otowa-waterfall). I think I ended up going for the right, mistaking it for wisdom… but hey, I’d be happy with any of them.. 🙂 It’s important to note though that as the story goes, drinking from one stream will grant you that specific blessing, but drinking from all three is an act of greed… so pick the one you feel you need most and just stick to that one. 🙂

And with my wisdom (or luck in love) bolstered, I made my way back, with the group, past the stage, the tourists and exotic vending machines…

Our next stop was a very special, traditional Japanese lunch, vegetarian and based on the dietary habits of monks in training… yes, we were excited!

Stay tuned, that exotic, 13 course, lunch shall be covered in the next post! 🙂

A Japanese Adventure: Getting Started!

It’s only been 2 days since I returned from a perfect little tour of Japan, and I can’t describe just how badly I want to fly back to the little island paradise.

This is the first post in a series which will cover various aspects of the journey. I’ll be adding some tips for those who’ve never been to Japan, and I’ll also try to add links to any useful websites.

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The UAE-Japan Cultural Center (http://jp.ae/) organized a summer tour of Japan this year, and my sister and I (who had previously studied Japanese at the center) were fortunate enough to take time off work to be able to join the adventure.

We landed at Kansai airport (http://www.kansai-airport.or.jp/en/index.asp), which is built on a man-made island about 50 km from the center of Osaka. Passing through the airport was a fairly pleasant experience. There are signs in English so it’s easy to find your way through. Due to the sudden influx of a large number of tourists (including ourselves :-)) queues at passport control were pretty long. However, the process was quite organized and we made it through without any hiccups.

Airport Tips:

  • Forms: Do not forget to fill in the forms detailing your visit, any cash you are carrying etc, prior to reaching passport control. The forms are relatively easy to find. There are two forms you must fill. Do not forget to check both sides of the form! 🙂
  • Sim Card: In Japan, you cannot obtain a voice enabled sim card without comprehensive registration. There is no concept of a visitor voice sim as there is in other countries. However, data-only sim cards are available for visitors. As you exit the baggage claim area in Kansai airport, on your left is Starbucks. Right opposite Starbucks are sim card vending machines. Yes, vending machines 🙂 I purchased a sim card pre-loaded to 1GB data. I did have to top it up with another 1GB towards the end of the trip. The cost, if I’m not mistaken, for the 1GB sim card was about 3000 Yen. You can also find 3GB and 5GB data sim cards. They were available in standard, micro and nano sim form at the vending machine. The sim I purchased was from ‘so-net’. More information is available here: http://www.so-net.ne.jp/prepaid/en/index.html#buy
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  • Money Exchange: There is a money exchange at the airport which you should take advantage of, if you’ve not already brought some yen with you. Money exchanges are not very common, and although major department stores take credit cards, most of the small vendors, souvenir stores and coffee shops, etc deal only in cash.

From the airport we took the group tour bus to our hotel, the Kyoto Tokyu hotel, in Kyoto, where we’d be staying for the first leg of our tour. We arrived late at night, and were glad to find a simple dinner had been arranged for us in our rooms – sandwiches and crips. Given the 9 hour flight, we were all quite happy to snack away and get some shut-eye before our first day of site-seeing.

The hotel
Kyoto Tokyu hotel was perfect (http://www.kyoto-h.tokyuhotels.co.jp/en/). I couldn’t really find anything to criticize. Everything from the rooms, the wifi and the fantastic breakfast buffet to the service, the location, and the little souvenir store in the hotel was perfect. It is also quite close (5 minute walk) to ‘Lawsons’ (http://lawson.jp/en/). Lawsons is a 24/7 convenience store for any snacks, beverages or essentials you might need to pick up.


Day 1: Breakfast buffet at the hotel

The breakfast was deeelicious! There was a wide selection of dishes to sample, including Japanese breakfast dishes, fresh fruits, juices as well as the usual American breakfast selection.

Favorites:
‘Matcha’ latte:  The Matcha Latte from the breakfast buffet vending machine was great!
From Wikipedia: Matcha (抹茶, pronounced [mat.tɕa]) is finely ground powder of specially grown and processed green tea.
In Japan, Matcha is extremely popular, both as the tea itself, but also as a flavor for sweets, beverages, snacks, cakes, etc. The tea can be quite strong/bitter if you’re not used to it, but matcha flavored snacks are delicious! In fact the first thing I saw at the airport was a Starbucks, which had a Matcha latte and Matcha frappuccino on its menu. (http://www.starbucks.co.jp/en/beverage/frappuccino.html)
Eggs Benedict – Kyoto style (also from the breakfast buffet)
One word: Delicious.

Weather Tips:
Summer can be quite hot and extremely extremely humid. Even for someone like me, travelling from Dubai, where temperatures hit 50 degrees Celsius and humidity is quite high.
If you’re travelling to Japan in July or August, you need to have 2 essentials:
A Fan: Yup. The nice manual fan that you use to cool yourself down. We were fortunate enough to be given some free fans on our very first morning, and, believe it or not, we were, all of us, using those fans till the very last moment of our very last day.
Water: Drink lots of water as you will need to take long walks and you will sweat a lot. The good news is that there is a vending machine almost at every single street corner, selling an assortment of unique, and delicious, cold, and often hot, beverages. So you can choose to purchase water bottles (usually costing between 100-130 yen) at any vending machine, if you prefer not to carry one with you.

The next post will cover the ‘Tea Tasting Session’ which was arranged for our group at the hotel after breakfast!  🙂