Tag Archives: Travel

A Japanese Adventure: “An Icy Delight” …

Wow! It’s been a couple of months (I think) since I last blogged about the amazing Japanese adventure.. 🙂 It’s time to get back to it!

The next stop was perhaps THE best stop of our trip…. none other than Fuji-san … aka Mount Fuji!

I’ve forgotten our awesome tour-guide’s name… but she made great use of our long bus ride… by educating us on the mountain structure and regional landscape, a little Kanji-analysis, some awesome origami (yes, we made Mt. Fuji!) and telling use some mysterious stories…
I can’t believe I don’t remember the story.. I’m going to have to chase my sister on this! (Stay tuned!)
By the way, in the snaps below you’ll notice that in my (not so well-done) Mt. Fuji origami pieces, the white layer at the top (which represents Mt. Fuji’s snow-capped peak) is always different in size. While you may be tempted to think this is because of my ridiculously poor origami skills (and you’d be right) .. it is also intentionally different because it represents Mt. Fuji at different times of the year (more snow on the peak in winter).. 🙂

The weather was definitely a step up from our earlier hot and humid days… It was still humid but cooler… and we had no idea just how cold it was going to get.. 😉
We had been told that our first stop was going to be the ‘Ice-Cave’.. and we were pretty excited when we finally got off the bus and saw the sign “Narusawa Ice Cave Entrance”.

Our guide once again took us through the flow of the ice-cave and warned us that there would be some narrow tunnels and that we’d really have to kind-of crouch and scoot a bit. We were also ‘advised’ to take a hard heat to protect our fragile heads….

Of course I didn’t take a hard hat and I ended up exactly as the warning sign said I would:
(The sign also won the award for cutest warning sign ever… haha… :D)

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And so off we went.. descending into the unknown.. 🙂

Our guide carried a giant thermometer to show us exactly how fast the temperature would fall (mercury-based thermometer and not a digital one.. )

It’s a short way down and yes it does get quite low at times.
Little tips:
1. If like me, you are not used to the cold, you may want to carry some gloves. Why? The bamboo supports are COLD too and slippery! So gloves might help you get better grip. You don’t want to slip and fall down…
2. It get’s cold pretty quick. The temperature fell almost 20 degrees in the little walk! At the bottom of the cave, surrounded by ice… it was 3 degrees celsius! (Yup, for me.. coming from a 40 degree climate… that’s COLD!!)
3. Obviously.. carry a nice warm jacket.. 🙂
4. Wear comfortable and solid shoes.. maybe hiking boots.

It was an amazing experience… my nose turned red and I was freezing! I didn’t have a warm jacket so I was wearing a thick sweater on top of a light hoodie… yeah.. it didn’t feel enough.. 🙂

We then took a little breather before heading off to another cave: The Wind Cave!
Our Mount Fuji adventure had just begun… there was a lot more to see… trekking between the sites took some time and allowed us to take in the amazing natural beauty around us.
Stay tuned for upcoming posts on the trek!

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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: Peace and Prosperity

After days of heat and humidity and an overpowering sun…. we finally woke to cloudy skies … 🙂
This was just what we needed because we would, again, be walking quite a bit. This time the first stop was the ‘Meiji-Jingu‘ shrine.

Panorama from the hotel:

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Background:
Meiji-Jingu is one of, if not the most, famous Shinto shrines in Tokyo.
“Meiji Shrine (明治神宮, Meiji Jingū) is a shrine dedicated to the deified spirits of Emperor Meiji and his consort, Empress Shoken. Located just beside the JR Yamanote Line’s busy Harajuku Station, Meiji Shrine and the adjacent Yoyogi Park make up a large forested area within the densely built-up city. The spacious shrine grounds offer walking paths that are great for a relaxing stroll.”
 – http://www.japan-guide.com/e/e3002.html
More information here : http://www.meijijingu.or.jp/english/

After a taste of Tokyo’s commercial atmosphere, it felt good to get back to more peaceful, cultural and spiritual centers. The walk from the bus to the shrine was refreshing.. finally a little cooler (although still humid) .. and the entrance to the shrine was like entering a forest… a forest of perfect green with beautifully tall trees. While some of you may not find this particularly amazing… for those of us coming from desert-ish countries, greenery is always appreciated.

I have to say I stood a little in awe of all the beauty around me.

The path was lined with donations:  Japanese ‘sake’ on one side of the path… and international donations of other forms of wine on the other side.

The shrine is quite massive, with many buildings and structures  and it is quite a beautiful walk, especially if the weather is right. As with the previous shinto shrines, there is also an area for purification with water (prior to entering the shrine), and also a place where wishes are written, either on wooden tablets or on paper, and hung.

Weather and time permitting, one can lose oneself….. and find oneself in this shrine of beautiful green.

Instead before I knew it we were already off to our next stop… which was “Takeshita-Dori” – the center of ‘Kawaii’ culture. Unfortunately, I don’t have many pictures of this amazing street because I was just too busy taking in the sites and trying to pick up some goodies… in particular a cap. Since arriving in Japan, I’d been looking for a good cap… but I hadn’t found one I liked yet. The caps either said: “tokyo”, “kyoto”, “Japan”, “samurai” or “ninja” … or they said “New York”….
(I did find one I really liked later on… a separate blog post on that.. 😉 … )

Background:
Takeshita-Dori  is summarized pretty well in this little leaflet snapshot as “the birthplace of Kawaii culture”.

It was fantastic to see some people in character outfits with hair dyed in various colors… 🙂
The shops had everything from fashion, to figures, belts, swords, food (lots of food goodies), dog clothes.. and believe it or not dog cosplay gear.., kimonos, sports wear and more…
Another perfect little shopping street. 🙂

Sadly, I didn’t get to snap too many pictures as I was busy enjoying the stores and the unique gear. The street was insanely busy (which was awesome) but also made it difficult to take any clean shots of buildings/stores.

One place that I did want to visit while there was the Evangelion store (which is on a parallel street).. but I was sad to see that it had actually closed and had re-located (Google Maps… you let me down.. 😥 … )

Background:
Evangelion is another popular anime series with quite a fan following.
Themed stores for the franchise allow fans to enjoy the anime merchandise.
You can see snaps from one of the stores here: http://japanlover.me/otaku/otaku-travel-guide/evangelion-store-harajuku-tokyo/

I was completely drenched (nope not in rain.. just sweat) after the humid walk through this little shopping heaven and decided to stop at the Starbucks at the end of the street for a little ice cold drink. One thing you can always count on is a Starbucks, or, my preferred coffee shop in Japan, “Tullys” to be close by for a refreshing snack.

Surprisingly, the best coffee shop I visited in Japan was not one of the more well known brands.. but rather was a small family run coffee shop. It was one of the best coffee shops I have ever visited. The food was delicious and I’d love to go back!!! This little hidden gem will be discussed in an upcoming blog post…. but not for a while. The next blog post is going to cover a very interesting lunch and the amazing Shibuya crossing.. 🙂

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: Akihabara and … Gundam Cafe!

After a quick lunch at Bosporus Hassan (Turkish cuisine) we headed to one of our most eagerly awaited destinations…. Akihabara!

Background:
Akihabara (秋葉原), also called Akiba after a former local shrine, is a district in central Tokyo that is famous for its many electronics shops. In more recent years, Akihabara has gained recognition as the center of Japan’s otaku (diehard fan) culture, and many shops and establishments devoted to anime and manga are now dispersed among the electronic stores in the district.
(http://www.japan-guide.com/e/e3003.html)

It is the place to go to enjoy technology, anime, manga, and a fantastic atmosphere!
I had my map (an actual paper map) and I had Google Maps, and I was energized …. I was ready!

The group bus dropped us off at the Yodobashi Camera megastore... a shopper’s paradise.
Whether you are looking for mobile accessories, computers, Apple products, consoles and games, models, crafts, gifts for children…. this is the place to visit. 🙂

After browsing the many many floors of Yodobashi Camera I decided it was time for a little exploration… and the first stop was… the Gundam Cafe!

Background:
In case you’re not familiar with ‘Gundam’: Gundam are mech or mecha or human/pilot operated robot suits (also called “mobile suits”). The Gundam franchise has been running since 1979 (so before I was even born) and is extremely popular.
You can read more about the history of Gundam here:
(http://io9.com/a-history-of-gundam-the-anime-that-defined-the-giant-r-1690326227)

I never actually watched Gundam.. until Mobile Suit Gundam 00 which aired between 2007-2009. This was my first ‘contact’ with Gundam and what fascinated me was the depth of the narrative, the political context and the character development. This particular incarnation of the franchise is set at a point in time when humanity has finally turned to solar power as its source of energy and has evolved technologically to the point where it can harness solar energy through receivers in space and transport that energy efficiently back to earth… thereby causing oil dependent economies to start to collapse…. an interesting political/economic backdrop isn’t it? 🙂

Anyway, back to the Gundam Cafe. In Japan you’ll find many ‘themed’ cafes or restaurants or stores. These are outlets dedicated to specific franchises and the Gundam Cafe is all about Gundam.

We were able to find it easily.. thanks to Google Maps.. 😉 … and I was in for a treat.
The menu was actually based on Gundam 00.. the only franchise I had watched… so I could actually appreciate all the references! Woohoo!
I ordered the Tieria Erde (my least favorite Gundam Meister.. but hey.. it was berry flavor).. 😛

Another surprise was that they had strawberry shortcake!
So.. I’d been hearing a lot about how I absolutely had to try strawberry shortcake and I finally got my chance. It was deeelicious!

For someone who enjoys Anime, Gundam, Food… this place is perfect. I loved it.. it was the icing on my strawberry shortcake of a trip.. 🙂

I picked up a few souvenirs from the attached Gundam souvenir store and we continued our exploration of Akihabara.. more to come in the next blog post! (Hint: More Gundam adventures too.. ;)… )

A Japanese Adventure: Heavenly Bites and Nagoya Delights

After our flashback into the past – Ninja Style – we ‘stealthily’ made our way to lunch at ‘”Chitoseya Nishikiten”…
A combination of a hot pot and unbelievably delicious bento (even better than the previous one)!

The bento had a mix of chicken, fish, some delicious salad and seaweed… and every item was delicious. The dessert was perhaps the best dessert so far: Mango Pudding!… Soft, sweet and flawless. The hotpot was thoroughly enjoyable, but I have a limited appetite, and after polishing off the bento, I couldn’t bring myself to wrap up the hotpot. It’s supposed to be eaten in stages… they bring in noodles later on to add to the hotpot… I was completely full by then. Others in the group though, couldn’t get enough of it. 🙂

The restaurant was very comfortable, the service was great (as it was everywhere), and the meal gave us the energy we’d need very very soon… for our next stop…. Nagoya Castle!

The walk from the bus to the actual castle takes about 10-12 minutes… and the view is great.. the castle is like a hidden gem, peeking out from between the trees… the walls apparently designed to keep even climbers out…

The castle is absolutely gorgeous… it’s hard to grasp how such structures were built in the past…

Although there are multiple levels at the castle, we didn’t go through all of them.
Our main goal was to get to the top and enjoy the view… (as well as the souvenir store that is always at the top floor of such sites).. 🙂

I picked up a couple of unique souvenirs (which I shall discuss in a separate post on souvenirs)… 🙂

The elevators to go up to the top and back are usually crowded, but not unbearably so.There is a lot to enjoy, not just the view. As always everything is ‘Kawaii’ and you can’t help but pick up a little memento.

As we made our way back down and to the bus… I couldn’t help but stop at the snack store to pick up a little treat to cool off…

Yup… some shaved ice with strawberry syrup… an absolutely essential treat for every outdoor excursion.. 🙂

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I’m breaking up my adventure into tiny little posts so that I can relieve it piece by piece. From Nagoya castle, we headed to Nagoya station to take the bullet train (Shinkansen) to Tokyo! 🙂
(The Shinkansen (新幹線, new trunk line) is a network of high-speed railway lines in Japan – https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Shinkansen)

I’ll cover our first experience taking a Shinkansen, (even our first visit to a Japanese train station) in the next post!

 

A Japanese Adventure – Shopping Districts and Moroccan Cuisine

After exploring and appreciating the historical and spiritual sites in Kyoto, we finally got our first taste of a little ‘commerce’… at ‘Teramachi-dori’ or Teramachi Street in Kyoto!

 

Background:

“Teramachi-dori is one of the most famous streets in Kyoto city. This street has a variety of characteristics, and a calm ambience. There are many good stores from south of Kyoto City Hall to north of the center of Kyoto. These stores can be both tasteful and traditional, but on the other hand, there are also a number that offer modern styling for Japanese people.”
(http://thekyotoproject.org/english/teramachi-dori-teramachi-street/)

The variety of shops/stores is impressive… you can find a little bit of everything.
Snacks, more vending machines, coffee shops, clothes, technology (I picked up a lighting cable for my iPhone), arcades, a cinema, and more…

I think this was perhaps the first place where I really got lost in the atmosphere and forgot to take pictures 🙂 … Just spent the next few hours walking, browsing, doing a little shopping and appreciating the energy.

My only regret is that I didn’t visit these two places:

I can’t believe I missed a coffee shop and a book store!!
I did stop at an anime/manga store later on, and as expected in an entire store full of manga there were only a handful of english volumes… which is a pity given the number of tourists.

Interesting point on bookstores: They are specialized. The smaller bookstores specialize in specific categories, so a bookstore would only sell art books, or only sell law books, or only sell engineering books, etc etc..
At least, that’s what I’ve been told but it would be good if anyone could confirm that for me. 🙂

The greatest takeaway of the night:

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Yup! Turns out at ‘ABC Mart’ (http://www.abc-mart.co.jp/english/rekishieng.html), Converse is much cheaper than back here in Dubai… and there was a sale on! Picked up a couple of pairs of editions I’d been looking for for quite some time.

After a long long time browsing this endless shopper’s paradise, it was time for dinner!

Oh! By the way, a note on ‘stamps’: So in Japan, stamps are used instead of signatures, so if you have a common tourist name you’ll be able to find it in a stamp form! Stores have them ready.. so Keep a look out! 🙂


 

Dinner was at a Moroccan restaurant… and needless to say… we were starving! It’s that summer humidity which totally saps your energy and whets your appetite.

We were greeted, as always, with some deliciously refreshing cold water, followed by soup, an incredible salad and the main course.

The highlight of the meal for me was the tea… sweet and delicious! I was totally ready for another cup… but it was time to head back to hotel and recharge. A long day finally at an end and many more adventures to follow.


 

Stay turned, the next blog post will cover the NINJA MUSEUM! 🙂