Friday 29 March 2013

Sakura!! Cherry Blossom time and shopping in Japan - Yoyogi Park

I know I took some photos of cherry blossoms last week, but this week they were better!!  They were at their peak a few days ago, and I took the opportunity today to track some more down.  

Before that, however, I went to an area in central Tokyo to grab a bite to eat.  I was looking for a specific ramen (soup noodles) restaurant that I had read a review about on a blog, so armed with a photo of google maps on my phone I went in search of it.  Unfortunately, being that I am in Japan, the map was also in Japanese which made the task of finding the restaurant that much more challenging.  I arrived at a point where I knew I was in the right general area and stopped to look at another ramen restaurant.  I knew it wasn't the one I was looking for but I stopped to have a look at their menu anyway.  It was in Japanese but it also had pictures so I was able to see what it all looked like.  As I was standing there, one of the staff came out and showed me a copy of their menu, in English and invited me in.  I asked him what flavour soup they used (generally there are 4 main types, miso, salty, soy sauce and tonkotsu or pork bone soup).  He told me they use the pork bone soup, which happens to be my favourite, so I went in and ordered "chashumen" which is soup noodles with pieces of roast pork, it also came with an egg, seaweed sheet, bean sprouts and spring onions.  Sorry, but I didn't take a photo.  I also ordered a serve of gyouza (dumplings).  It came out and I got into it.  Near the end, I was filling up real fast, and could barely finish it.  I sat there sipping water and trying to let it all settle before I attempted to move.  The shop door opens and this petite young Japanese lady comes in and orders her food.  She ordered a large size, so I waited around for her food to come, just to see the size of it.  I kid you not, her bowl was twice the size of mine!!  I sat there with a bemused look on my face wondering where she was going to put it all!!  She put on her paper apron/napkin to catch all of the soup splatters and got to work.  I didn't wait around though as I am sure she would have finished it and put me to shame, so I sloshed my way out the door and headed back (slowly) to the train station.

Before getting on the train I stopped to take a couple of photos of the worlds busiest pedestrian crossing:

Depending on what time of the day it is, it can be a real adventure getting across.  As you can see, all traffic stops and pedestrians cross from all directions.  In the building on the left hand side of the photo, there is a Starbucks coffee shop and it is the busiest Starbucks in the world.  No wonder with all of those people!

I made my way to nearby Yoyogi Park which used to be famous on a Sunday for young people to come dressed in gothic clothing, and all kinds of different cosplay outfits.  It seems to have died off though, which is a shame as it was always so colourful and interesting.  I remember my sister coming to visit one time when I lived here before.  My sister had interesting coloured hair at the time, all natural mind you.  Her hair was a rainbow of different streaks of grey, light brown and dark brown.  We were at this park, and she was taking a photo of someone dressed in a cosplay outfit and I noticed someone was taking a photo of her.  I swear, next time I went there on a Sunday, I saw a Japanese girl with similar coloured hair to my sister!!  My sister had influenced Japanese Pop culture!!

But, I digress.  I went to this park today as it is one of the more popular spots for viewing cherry blossoms and for having Hanami parties.  I think I explained in my last post that Hanami parties are enjoyed by friends or co-workers.  Much alcohol and food is consumed while enjoying the beauty that the cherry blossoms bring.

Being that it is around the peak time for cherry blossoms, there were quite a few parties in progress:

Parties were in full swing, and everyone was enjoying themselves.  The cherry trees are simply amazing when the blossoms bloom, and in some cases look like they have a coating of snow on the, the blossoms are such a pure white colour.

Anywhere there are trees in Japan, you are bound to find huge black birds.  I am sure they are Ravens because they are a whole lot bigger than crows, and I am sure they could fly away carrying a small child!

At the end of cherry blossom season, the ground looks like a whole lot of weddings have taken place as the petals from the cherry tree coat the ground like confetti:

I headed home after blossoming myself out and thought I had better go to the supermarket to get some groceries for dinner.  One of my housemates, Dustin, is leaving this weekend and moving to Osaka to start a new job.  He will be in Osaka for three months of training and then will move back to Tokyo.  We decided to have nabe (hotpot) for dinner tonight as kind of a farewell dinner.  One of the really interesting things about being here is the supermarkets.  Very different to supermarkets back in Australia.  Shopping can be one big adventure here, especially when you don't understand what you are buying!!  My lack of Japanese has caught me out on a few occasions!  I thought a pictorial tour of a supermarket might be interesting.

When you first walk through the door, you are greeted by the fruit and vegetable section which is not so different except for some of the prices:

That's a $5 apple there!

A little further along is where it starts getting interesting.

Umeboshi, or sour plums.  These are as sour as lemons!  I remember the owner of a local restaurant in the area I used to live in loved giving me a free bowl of these each time I went to his restaurant because he loved seeing the expression on my face as I tried to eat them!  I had to eat them though, he was giving them to me without charge!

Near the umeboshi are a big selection of pickled vegetables.

Everything from cucumber to radish to eggplant and a whole heap that I don't know the names for!

Next to the pickles is the natto or fermented soy beans.

If you only ever take one thing away from reading my blog, please let it be this.  If a Japanese person ever asks you if you want to try natto, be prepared for a culinary experience like no other.  The word fermented should give a slight clue as to the experience you are about to enter into.  Nearly all Japanese people eat natto for breakfast.  They mix it with soy sauce, mustard, egg and have it on rice.  Nearly all Japanese people will tell you, with a barely perceptible hint of a smile on their faces, that natto tastes great.  I have only met two people here who have admitted that it tastes terrible, but they eat it because it is very healthy (which is true).  So what does it taste like?  Well, imagine wearing the same pair of socks for 30 consecutive summer.  At the end of the 30 days, you hold up your sock and take a big sniff before eating it!  That is what natto tastes like!  We Australians take great pleasure out of watching someone from another country try Vegemite for the first time (I did it tonight actually with one of my housemates!).  I am sure Japanese people have just as much fun watching someone from another country try natto for the first time!  Don't get me wrong, it is a very healthy food, but as with most things that are good for you, it does have its drawbacks.

So, back to the supermarket tour.  After the natto, we come to the kimchi.  This is actually a Korean food that is popular in Japan also.  It is basically spicy pickled vegetables of different varieties.  Cabbage, cucumber, radish etc.  The Japanese version is a little sweeter and milder than the Korean version which is much more spicy and has a stronger vinegar taste.

Kimchi is great to sit down and watch sport with while enjoying a beer.  Further along, we come to the seafood section with a lot of different kinds of seafood, and also freshly prepared sushi.

An entire section devoted to tofu!

Next I encounter something I couldn't find when I lived here previously:

Australian beef steak!!  About $3.50 for a 184 gram piece of steak!

In this supermarket, you could buy eggs by the half-dozen, dozen, or

individually!  I think they were about 35 cents each.

Then you get to the aisles where there are all kinds of interesting things:

a whole row dedicated to sauces of different kinds,

many different kinds of miso, for making miso soup etc,

some things are just popular no matter what country you are in!

Canned tuna, which is called "sea chicken" here.  I guess it is a white coloured meat, and does come from the sea.

Of course!  Japan is home to the instant noodles!  Next row, curries of different kinds.  I swear there is as much curry in Japan as there is in India!

Next was the snack aisle.  Dried fish,


dried cheese sticks.

In the smallgoods section, we find the wiener sausages.

I like the anime characters advertising the first one!  

Some things don't change from country to country.  A pizza party!

This is the section of the supermarket that sells different kinds of prepared meals to take home, heat and eat.  Takoyaki (octopus balls),

different kinds of noodles,

assorted mixed dishes

lots of fried things!  Pork cutlets, breaded and fried, mince meat patties, breaded and fried,


and pasta salads,

fried chicken and calamari rings.

An assortment of different drinks,


iced coffee (but sadly, no Farmers Union...).

I even managed to find some Australian wine!

So, there you have it, a tour of a Japanese supermarket.  Like I said, it can be quite the adventure going grocery shopping.  What did I buy, you ask?

Which eventually ended up as this:

Cheese curry nabe (hotpot)!  It went down very nicely!

Well, that's it for another week.  A long post, I know, but I hope you enjoyed it.  See you next time.

Saturday 23 March 2013


When I lived here in Japan the first time, I worked in a suburb of Tokyo called Akasaka Mitsuke.  A couple of years after I left, the company I worked for went bankrupt (I am sure it had a lot to do with their choice of logo, a pink rabbit with huge ears and a beak-like mouth).  A lot of teachers and students had a lot of problems as a result of this, but luckily I was not around to experience any hardship.  In two visits to Japan since, and after six weeks of living here again, I had not been back to Akasaka Mitsuke.  Last Sunday night, I decided I would stop there on my way home from work (it is on the same train line that I use now) and have a look to see how much had changed.  The first thing I noticed after getting out of the station is the area has a Hooters restaurant now (after I move away from the neighbourhood, they choose to open it!!).  The biggest change was that my old school no longer exists.  The building now has a dental clinic where the school used to be, on the first floor (or second floor for my North American and Japanese readers) and a convenience store on the ground floor (first floor).

I wandered around the neighbourhood for about half an hour and found a few of my favourite restaurants were still there, but a fair bit had changed (the girls who wait at the intersections for men to walk past tempting them with a "sexii massagii were still there).

Here is a shot looking down the street my school was on:

I am glad that I did stop in, and will probably go back again now, it did satisfy any curiosities that I did have.

A few days ago, I double checked on the location of Ameyoko-cho, the place that I wanted to find two weeks ago and discovered that I had gotten off the train at completely the wrong station, so armed with the correct information and a photo of the location from google maps I met up with my friend Daniel again and we set forth again for Ameyoko-cho.  After getting off the train at the right station, we found it very quickly.

A bit of history about Ameyoko-cho as it is quite a historical area.  Ameyoko-cho literally means "candy shop alley "It was one of the few places that survived the Tokyo firebombing at the end of WWII and as a result, pretty much all of the buildings are the ones that were there at the end of the war.  Soon after the war finished the area became home to one of Tokyo's black markets.  American soldiers could be found here selling candy to the locals, and from that came it's name.  Now it is a thriving, bustling lively shopping street with shops and stalls selling everything from clothing and shoes to weird and exciting food from Japan, Korea, and China.  Shop vendors shout to people passing by, letting them know what they are selling, how cheap it is, and how delicious their food is in order to tempt them into buying something.  It really is a vibrant area that was pretty crowded when I was there on Thursday, and is jam packed on the weekend days!

Daniel enjoys playing UFO catcher games and today he won a big Panda bear soft toy.

As we were walking out of the shop, two young girls looked at Daniel with a mix of utter awe and envy as he carried his hard earned prize with him.

After walking around reminiscing enjoying the atmosphere of Ameyoko-cho again, I bought some kim chi (korean spicy pickled vegetables) and Daniel and I made our way out of Ameyoko-cho and across the street to Ueno park.  This time of year is a celebrated time of year as it is Hanami time, cherry blossom time.  The cherry blossom period only lasts for a short time and came a little earlier than usual this year because of the warm weather that arrived early.  There are many famous places to view the cherry blossoms, and a lot of people have Hanami parties under the cherry blossom trees with friends or co-workers.

There is a lake near the park with a temple nearby so we wandered over there to have a look and a bite to eat.

You probably noticed the sign in the lake there, and wondered as I did what it says.

It had a very stern looking seagull sitting on it, so I took a photo so I could ask a Japanese friend what it said.  I was told it says "No fishing".  I assume the seagull was there enforcing the rule.

A few photos of the temple.  Another one of those "lucky" incense smoking things that helps you to not lose your hair......

We sat  down to have a bite to eat and we were talking and I noticed a Japanese couple (probably in their late 30's) walking toward us.  About 2 metres away from us, the lady stopped and was staring at Daniel's panda that he had won playing the UFO catcher.  She said "sugoi, kawaii!" (great, cute!) and I gave her a smile as she and her husband walked on.  Daniel hadn't noticed this so I told him what had happened and he told me I should have said something because he didn't really want it and would have given it to her.  So we chased them down and Daniel (whose Japanese is pretty good) explained to her what I had told him, and he then gave her the Panda.  You should have seen the look on her face, she was so happy!  She then did something completely unexpected.  Public displays of affection are not common at all in Japan, and just don't exist between people who don't know each other, especially toward a foreigner.  She stepped up and gave Daniel a huge hug, in the middle of the Park!!  Daniel and I are big believers in a concept called "ichi-go ichi-e" which literally means "one time, one meeting" a really great concept in Japan that says you may only meet a person once in your lifetime, so you should make a good impression of yourself so they remember you.  This happened to me at the airport when I arrived (you may remember me writing about it) when the Japanese guy helped me with my luggage to the next terminal where I was to pick up the sim card for my phone.  Daniel had just performed ichi-go ichi-e!

We then headed off home and I stopped to have a beer with another friend Charlie to finish off another great day in Tokyo.

That's it for this week, see you again next week for another update.

P.S. I might not be able to take any video footage for a little while.  I think i have left my video camera charger in Australia and the battery is flat!