Jun 30, 2014

Day 31: Cheap Yummy Sushi and Making new friends

It's been a month! This is my study abroad program's last week, which also means my last week in Tokyo. Yet I continue to get my share of new experiences.

I ate konbini sushi for lunch, which was surprisingly excellent. It was under 500 Yen (~$5). Great value for money.

I watched the animated movie Akira in class today (animated movies are not the same as Japanese anime though. They differ in style, realism, etc.). It was so action packed that I zoned out repeatedly, which is why I wasn't sure what exactly was going on. Monsters appeared out of nowhere and there always seemed to be blood somewhere on the screen. Anyhow, based on what little I did follow, the movie was a futuristic one about the damage caused by World War 3.

After class, I went to another Waseda University event. This one was a chat session in which international students got to interact with local students. It was really nice to meet locals my age and spend time with them. The session was really well organized. They started with an ice breaking game and then placed us on tables of 5-7 people each. We were given a list of things to talk about in case we ran out of topics. After about 30 minutes, we were asked to switch to another table. Both my tables had really interesting and inspiring people, who I enjoyed talking to. I felt unfortunate to have met all these people in my last week here.
Suggested topics to talk about in case things get awkward!

Dinner at home was a learning experience as always.
Hambagu (Japanese steak): a patty made with hikiniku meat (a combination of pork and beef) and tomato sauce

Tomogodo Hu: A blend of tofu and egg

Jun 29, 2014

Day 30: Amazing people and Roppongi

I met a college friend's brother and his friends today for lunch. They were an amazing group of people from all walks of life. Not knowing Japanese, I haven't been able to interact with a whole lot of people in Tokyo and have had to rely on sight seeing and books to learn about Japan. Meeting people who are living in Tokyo taught me a lot about life here. Since they were all young working professionals in Tokyo, I especially learnt a lot about the work culture and corporate world of Japan.

After a Mexican lunch, we headed to Roppongi, a place known for its shopping and sketchy clubs. I was told about scandals that have occurred in the area. Many of the clubs here are go to places for underage partying. Roppongi is a popular area among expats.

Roppongi Hills, a popular building of apartments, office space, shops, restaurants, parks and everything you can think of. 

An aerial view of a cafe inside of Tokyo Midtown. Tokyo Midtown is another mixed use building near Roppongi Hills

An interesting fountain inside Tokyo Midtown. The lines you see in the center are strings of water going all the way up to the ceiling.
Gapao rice for dinner: Thai stir fried chicken with basil leaves. It was slightly spicy but so delicious! 

Jun 28, 2014

Day 29: Japanese music and Disneyland

Masaki-san and I spent the morning listening to Japanese music. I got to hear some Japanese classics and his favourite music. Here are youtube clips of two of my favourite Japanese songs.

The first one is called Linda Linda, by Blue Hearts. Its apparently a Karaoke favourite. Be patient for the chorus when you listen to it. If you're in a hurry, skip to 0:47. That's the best part!

The second one is called Nijiro, by Ayaka. Start listening at 0:40.

Japanese pasta once again: food in plastic has never tasted so good! 
Since Kaori-san wasn't at home, and neither Masaki-san nor I can cook anything edible, we walked to a nearby 7/11 to pick up some delicious konbini food. On the way there, I saw many open spaces and stand alone houses. On asking what they were, I was told that they are farm lands. It was surprising to see farming so close to Tokyo. Masaki-san said that these were farms that had existed before Tokyo started getting populated. Since my host family's house is in a suburb, which is officially in another prefecture (called Saitama), the farm land remains operational. I learnt that the property prices had been increasing ever since Tokyo's suburbs came up in Saitama and many farming families have been renting or selling their houses to people who work in Tokyo and want to live in a suburb. My host parents sometimes go to the farmer's market there on weekends to buy fresh vegetables, which happen to be cheaper. Kaori-san later told me that many of the vegetables being sold still have soil on them!

In the afternoon, the weather seemed kind. So I decided to spend the second half of my day at Disneyland. I didn't really want to go, but I felt the need to check it off my list. At first I was a bit bored, since I was by myself and I didn't want to spend an hour in line for rides alone. But soon, it started raining and getting dark, so the lines got significantly shorter. Suddenly, it felt like a great decision on my part to have come to Disney! I also watched some music and dance shows, which were of Disney characters but in Japanese. Not being able to understand the words made me realize how much I underestimate the value of words and lyrics when listening to music.
Enjoying Disneyland all by myself!

Many of the workers at Disney didn't speak English and the instructions they gave before or after rides were incomprehensible to me. I had to concentrate on their gestures and facial expressions to understand what they were saying.
The rides were amazing as always. Being alone gave me the opportunity to observe them with greater detail. The timing of sounds and effects are impeccable. The rides successfully attempt to give each person on the ride a personalized experience wherein everyone receives the same impact no matter where you're sitting.

A mickey shaped chicken deli sandwich at Tomorrow Land. Even though Disney food is expensive, the quality of it is amazing for mass produced fast food. 

This was my fourth disneyland, after California, Florida and Kong Kong. Hope to visit Shanghai and Paris disney soon!

Jun 27, 2014

Day 28 continued: Wearing a Yukata!

After the end of the field trip, some of us headed to Waseda University to attend an event featuring a tea ceremony and wearing of Yukatas. Waseda often organizes such events for the benefit of international students at Waseda. There were quite a few people there. Many of them were taking summer language courses.
The tea ceremony+ yukata wearing event for international students at Waseda

Yukatas are traditional Japanese summer clothing. They are easier to put on than kimonos, and also much cheaper. The red sash is called an obi sash. The Yukata is worn with traditional geta slippers. 
I was unfortunately not able to do the tea ceremony, but I learnt what it was. It involved drinking macha tea and eating a Japanese sweet to nullify the bitter taste of the tea. People sit in a circle on tatami mats and are served the sweet first. The tea is served and drunk after that in traditional looking bowls.
 I headed home after the event at Waseda to find a delicious dinner waiting for me.

Kaori-san made a traditional Japanese dish called 'buta no shogayaki' for dinner, AKA ginger pork. 

Miso Soup with Tororo seaweed-I didn't know this earlier, but there are apparently several different kinds of seaweed.

Day 28: Architecture Field Trip to Omotesando

 The last field trip in Tokyo, this one was about looking at architecture of buildings in Aoyama and Omotesando, one of the more upscale areas of Tokyo. Omotesando, commonly known as the architect's playground, is clustered with buildings of innovative designs. It was amazing to walk around the place with the professor telling us about each of the interesting and popular buildings. Although it's difficult to ignore the uniqueness of the buildings in Omotesando, it is easy to get distracted quickly by all the fancy stores and tiny alleys that lead towards the Shibuya area of Tokyo.

The whole group at the Meiji shrine, which was built in 1921-the pebbles on the ground are meant to keep more plants and trees from growing so that visitors have a walking path to the shrine.
Photo credits: Stephanie Siow 

Wishes and prayers of all languages hung on a rack besides the Meiji shrine

The National Olympic Stadium-built for the 1964 Olympics. 
We make a stop for lunch at an Italian place-I ordered a cod-roe Japanese pasta. 
The pasta came with a lemon squeezer-so nifty, isn't it? Ahh Japanese technology.  

The Dior building in Omotesando, like many other buildings in the area, has covered windows so as to give some privacy to the shoppers inside and raise the exclusivity and enigma of what's inside the store. 

The celebrity of Omotesando: THE PRADA BUILDING!This building has no walls. It's all diamond shaped windows. The glass of the windows is made of different kind of glass-some are concave, others are convex and the blurred ones are mirrors on the inside. There are no price tags on the products inside the building. The people who shop here presumably don't care about that. 
Photo source: glamasia.com
The ceiling of the lobby of Omotesando Hills-a shopping complex. It is known for its brilliant (and highly unusual) architecture, designed by famous architect Tadao Ando

Although Omotesando Hills deceives you into thinking that its just two storeys from the outside, it has 5 or 6  storeys in total fitted inside. 

The corridors of Omotesando Hills are sloped upwards. It spirals up, so you needn't take the escalator to go to another floor. You can simply walk up. 

Omotesando Hills has a triangular structure to it. Notice the stairs becoming narrower near the top. 

The stores inside Omotesando Hills aren't on a slope though (if you look carefully, there is a platform on the right side which raises the store to even ground), because it would be quite hazardous for the customers to have racks of clothes sliding and falling on them. 

Hugo Boss: a curved building

Apple Store at Omotesando: Standing among buildings of fancy design, the Apple Store is meant to give a clean and simple look, similar to the surface of a Mac. By being simple, it stands out on the street, like a silent person in a noisy crowd. The store on the inside is very spacious and the products are placed far from each other. 

Paul Stuart: This store's building is traditional on the bottom (notice the grey bricks) and modern from the second floor up. It signifies the building of modern design on top of a traditional foundation.  
Louis Vuitton: the building looks like suitcases stacked on top of each other. Suitcases are one of LV's main products. 
 Source: aefirms.wordpress.com

Jun 26, 2014

Day 27: Discovering New Comfort Foods

Tired of all the course work and physical exertion, my body felt exhausted and I decided to take it easy.

So I started the day with Starbucks coffee. I rarely drink Starbucks, which is why I'm not very well acquainted with their latest menu. I noticed quite a few unique drinks on their menu and instead of going for my all time favorite cafe latte, I opted for a drip coffee instead. The toppings station had a diverse set of options, from different kinds of sugars and powdered cocoa, vanilla and cinnamon, etc. I added some brown sugar and cocoa powder to my drip coffee. It didn't taste exceptional compared to other starbucks coffees, but seeing so many different options available from the basic coffee to the toppings, I felt the desire to bring my essay to a Starbucks over the weekend.
The atmosphere at the Ikebukero Starbucks was pretty cozy and I loved spending my morning there.

After coffee, I walked across the street for some comfort food from subway. I got an avocado veggie sub on sesame bread with egg. In an attempt to get some Vitamin C, I also got some terrible tasting orange juice.  (Piece of advice: don't trust them when they say its 100% orange juice)

After class, on my way home, I got a salmon onigiri. The fish was excruciatingly salty but the seaweed and rice nullified the effect, making the onigiri totally worth the money and calories. I stopped for a matcha latte on the way home and letting myself spend over 300 Yen (~$3) on it was the best decision I'd made all day. It was warm and soothing and the perfect balance between bitter and sweet.

Matcha Latte: worth the money

Ending the day with a salad featuring the much remembered broccoli and pumpkin

Jun 25, 2014

Day 26: WW2 and Ueno

This week, we are studying the post war years in class. When Japan lost the war, the emperor for the first time made a public announcement. He was so far removed from the public, that people weren't able to understand his message, which basically meant 'We surrender'. Some patriotic soldiers didn't want to stop fighting. Families were shattered. Soldiers who were abroad were stuck there for a long time. Some were returned after a year and a half but most remain unaccounted for. Six major cities, including Tokyo, Hiroshima and Nagasaki, were in ruins from bombing and subsequent fires. In Nagoya, one of the six cities which were heavily bombed, over 80% of residences were destroyed.

We watched the movie Gojira, which was the original Japanese version of Godzilla. Gojira is about a sea monster whose natural habitat is destroyed as a result of atomic radiations in the water and as a result he comes out of the water and causes great destruction on land. The destruction he causes seems akin to the destruction caused by the nuclear bombs. The way a city built over thousands of years can be destroyed in a matter of minutes is terribly sad to see. A scientist in the movie who has come up with a way to kill Gojira is afraid of revealing his invention because he knows that human beings would end up using it against each other in war.
A bento box-packed lunch in plastic boxes found in convenience stores and specialized roadside stands which specialize in bento food. I picked up a bento box for lunch from one of the roadside stands today. It just cost 500 Yen and included sweet and sour chicken, rice, pickle, tofu and some pasta. I was too lazy to take a picture of my bento box, but this picture that I found on the internet is a great representation of a bento lunch. 
Source: commons.wikimedia.org
Apart from studying about war and writing papers, I visited Ueno. Ueno is a complete tourist destination. It has six museums located close to each other, a zoo, of which the main attraction is a giant panda, a lake, a garden, a shrine and a cheap shopping area. If you only have one day in Japan and want to experience as much of Japanese culture as possible, this would probably be a good option.

I went to the Tokyo National museum, which is the largest museum in Japan. To get there, I went through the park and passed the shrine and lake on the way.
At Ueno park with my friend and classmate Steffi. During spring time, cherry blossoms bloom here and this location is often seen in pictures with pink trees on either side. 

Passing by a shrine at Ueno

It's a lake! Can you believe it? 

Ink paintings from the 16th  century at the Tokyo National Museum

Have you dreamt about any of these? If you have, flip the pillow over to read your fortune.
Sighted at the Tokyo National Museum in section about fortune telling.
 After the museum, I took a quick walk through the shopping area, called Ameyoko. I felt like I was in Singapore's Chinatown or Kuala Lumpur's night market again. It had extremely cheap items on sale. There were roadside restaurants of all kinds of cuisines with outdoor seating. There were stalls selling cheap matcha ice cream and other sweets which I didn't recognize.

Ueno's shopping area: Ameyoko

Dinner featured two new dishes today.

Takikomi Gohan: rice with some meat and vegetables mixed with soy sauce. Its a lighter (and for me, better) version of fried rice. 
Source: humblebeanblog.com

Buri-daikon: Buri is a kind of fish and daikon refers to the Japanese radish. They are cooked in soy sauce and make a delicious but light dish. 
Source: tokyostation-yukari.blogspot.com

Jun 24, 2014

Day 24 & 25: Food highlights

My essays have been keeping me busy, which means less time to gallivant. But I haven't stopped eating, so here are some food highlights. 

Mos Lettuce Burger for lunch. I'm not sure what was inside it, but I think it was teriyaki chicken. 
Photo source: barokonews.blogspot.com

For dinner, Kaori-san cooked aji-fish, which is a grilled, salty kind of fish. It is served as a whole fish (meaning that it isn't chopped up and you can clearly see the shape of the fish). It has a lot of small bones in it, and it is a skill in itself to be able to eat the fish without getting the bones in your mouth. As Masaki-san showed me, you're supposed to peel off the outer skin of the fish which is slightly protruding, and the bones come out along with it. 
Another new item on the menu was Nameko mushrooms in miso soup. 

Nameko mushrooms-often eaten with Miso soup.
They have a slimy texture which make them really easy to chew. 

Photo source: chow.com
Mitarashi Dango: consisting of mochi rice balls topped with a sweet type of soy sauce.
It's a must have Japanese dessert . I can't believe I tried it after three weeks of being here. 

On day 25, I decided to grab a sandwich for lunch to eat in class. Kaori-san suggested I go to Doutor, a popular coffee chain in Japan. I grabbed a salmon sandwich (I love the omnipresence of salmon here!) which wasn't half bad for the price of around 400 Yen. 

Dinner was a western meal, consisting of clam chowder and bread. This was my first time eating clam chowder.It was a great meal way for a  rainy Tuesday. 

It had been raining pretty heavily in some areas of Japan, one of which was the target of a hail storm. Apparently, it isn't normal. Such hail storms are the affect of global warming and are a fairly recent phenomenon. 

Jun 22, 2014

Day 23: Learning about the 2011 Tohoku Earthquake and Tsunami

Exhausted from the past two days, I didn't have the strength the brave the rain and visit a museum as planned. So I spent all day at home with my host family. From waking up at 11 to surfing the web, it was a perfect Sunday.

For lunch, we ordered in a dish called Yamameshi with unagi gobo. Yamameshi is traditional rice cooked in a steel pot with a fire. It is very difficult to cook rice that way and is rarely done now. Unagi gobo is the Japanese sea eel (unagi) with gobo (bitter gourd) in a kind of sauce. Unagi is an expensive food, and isn't eaten regularly by most. Its well worth the money though.

Yamameshi with Unagi Gobo

 I was impressed to see that the restaurant which we ordered from sends proper trays and cutlery as they would provide if we were eating in the restaurant, unlike the usual disposable plastic boxes. The delivery man comes back the next day to pick up the cutlery and take it back to the restaurant. 

 For dinner, Kaori-san made Okonomiyaki, which is a type of Japanese pancake. A batter is made of wheat and cabbage among other kinds of vegetables and meat. Just before eating, it is placed on a sort of portable frying pan along with slices of pork. The pork forms the crust of the Okonomiyaki. After the meat turns red-ish in color, the Okonomiyaki is eaten with sauce, mayonnaise, a bit of seaweed and  bonito flakes.
Okonomiyaki is a food that was invented in Hiroshima after the war bombings due to the shortage of rice. Until the people of Hiroshima had access to rice again, they ate Okonomiyaki as their staple food using the wheat that was imported from other countries. It is now a popular food among households with kids, since it requires very little preparation.
We ate outside on the terrace. It's been a long time since I've eaten out in the open without noises of construction, cars or other people around me.

Okonomiyaki in the making

Okonomiyaki, ready to be eaten! Toppings include sea weed and bonito flakes, sauce and mayonnaise. 

Over dinner, my host family told me about their visit to , Minami-sanriku a small town in the Miyagi prefecture which was severely affected by the 2011 Tohoku earthquake. Minami-sanriku was a small town of about 10,000 people by the coast. When the earthquake came, the town wasn't really affected thanks to earthquake resistant houses. But there was a tsunami warning and instructions to evacuate. Some people went to the evacuation buildings and others went to the top of a mountain. The Tsunami came about 45 minutes later, and it was the largest one in Japan's history. Only one building survived the earthquake and others were washed down, including the building of disaster management. A large number of people died and large portions of the town were completely wiped out. A local of the town whose a photographer was up on the mountain taking pictures of the Tsunami. I was looking at some of his pictures in a book that my host family had and I was surprised to see that the Tsunami was forceful enough to uproot houses and send them crashing into other houses behind them. A picture showed the locals' joy at being able to take a bath in a communal bath tub that was sent as relief in May 2011 (2 months after the Tsunami struck). My host family visited this place in 2013 to see the after affects of the Tsunami and told me that the government wasn't rebuilding this town since it was too close to the coast.

My host mum whose from Fukushima, where the nuclear disaster happened, told me that the nuclear disaster also took place about an hour after the earthquake. But because there were so many people trying to reach their families and friends in Fukushima, it was difficult to contact them and she only heard from her family at 9 p.m. that night.

This earthquake was worse than the 1923 Kanto earthquake. But after the Kanto earthquake the Japanese took great care in building earthquake resistant houses and having evacuation areas for Tsunamis. Its very impressive to see how they survived an earthquake of 9.0 magnitude, the aftershocks, the nuclear disaster and the Tsunami, all of which were capable of destroying the country within an hour.

Jun 21, 2014

Day 22: Tokyo Disney Sea

Another 18 hour day, this one was spent as a complete tourist. I went to Disney Sea, one of Disney's theme parks. This was my fourth Disney theme park which is why most of what I saw wasn't surprising. It was very much like its counterparts in Hong Kong, Florida and California. However, it was unique in its sea element. Disney Sea is unique and does not exist anywhere except Tokyo. Some of the rides it had were water based, and its parades and shows took place on a water body in the center of the park.

Mickey shaped windows and handles on the train towards Disney sea
Equipped with my regular (and only) Disney accessory-the Mini mouse hairband 

The iconic Disney globe near the entrance
 The tickets were cheaper than I expected (6400 Yen for a day which equals $64). There were also cheaper options available for people who wanted to spend half a day at the theme park. As of 8 a.m., the queue wasn't too long either. 
In terms of size it was fairly large and had seven parks. My friends and I took advantage of the fast pass system which proved to be extremely useful. We got a fast pass for most of our rides and had to wait in line for only one. (The lines were typically about 60 to 90 minutes long).
Approaching the Mysterious Island

The Lost River Delta

The food was expensive but amazing. Some exceptional food items included milk tea popcorn, a scallop shaped sandwich and sea salt ice cream. The staff, who is always friendly at Disney, was even more friendlier here. Japanese politeness coupled with the Disney enthusiasm creates a great atmosphere. There were fewer Disney characters walking around here and the park in general was less Disney themed than the Disney lands, but it was great all the same. 
Mickey shaped raspberry ice cream

My delicious tiramisu ice cream sandwich 
On first guess, its just staff cleaning the railings. But if you stop and watch, its actually a show. The dustbin makes sounds with every action of the cleaner, be it scrubbing, dusting, wiping. Without a single dialogue, the cleaner put on a great show just through his actions and sound affects. 

All of us at the Mermaid Lagoon

Port Discovery
 The souvenir shops had merchandise much like the other disneys. Very few of them were specific to Tokyo Disney Sea. They are probably mass produced for the disney theme parks worldwide. Yet, there were souvenir shops in each of the seven areas of the park along with a big main one. They were all fairly crowded with shoppers. 
A very authentic looking building at Arabian Coast

A fountain of money at the American Waterfront-a flattering image of the US

One new thing I learnt about Disney was the difficulty of the employees in wearing costumes all day. Its awfully hot and sweaty to walk around as Mickey Mouse. Through an article that a friend later linked me to, I learnt that the people who dress up as characters go through a rigorous selection process and need to be able to act like the characters among other things. Unfortunately, I also learnt that visitors often misbehave with the characters by punching them to hear their sound or inappropriately touching them. But on a more positive notes, I read that Disney employees are happy to working there. 

Venetian Gondolas at the Mediterranean Harbor

The rides at Disney Sea were not super intense, but the effects were amazing as always. I caught a show in the afternoon and the night time parade. Apart from being on water, the show was quite different from the ones I had seen in other Disney lands. It had more fancy objects appearing out of nowhere and the technology was more enhanced. Over the years I have come to realize that Disney is constantly innovating with its shows as well as its rides. It makes sure that no two theme parks are identical. Looking forward to visiting the Disney parks in Shanghai and Paris!