Sunday, September 28, 2008

Kappabashi (合羽橋) Kitchen Town

P9270278 If you are a restaurant owner in Tokyo starting a new business, you are going to need lots of things like utensils, chairs, signs, menus and so many other things. Well, you can get all that and more at Kappabashi - the Kitchen Town which is basically a very long street close to Asakusa (浅草). With offerings very very diverse and culturally significant, the street has become a interesting visiting spot to not just restaurant owners but other curious visitors as well.

P9270270 Now before I mention some of the interesting things I saw there, let me briefly talk about the name. See, "Bashi/橋" just stands for "place" but "Kappa/合羽" is the name of a mythical creature that is said to live in rivers. It looks like a cross between a man and a frog with a star shaped crown on its head which holds a plate full of water. It was believed to kidnap children playing in the water and its main weakness is losing all of its power if the plate dries off so he always makes sure to keep the plate full of water. It looks like recently they have been working on this "monster's" image though and now there are very friendly cartoons of it drawn on the posters around Kappabashi. Moreover, there is a statue of Kappa (that's where I took this picture) hidden in a small inlet around the middle of Kappabashi.

P9270268 Kappabashi is full of pots and pans of all prices as well as other usual suspects of restaurants all around the world but one can buy these things pretty cheaply here and some stores offer these not just in wholesale. The main stores of interest for me however were the ones selling plastic sample food (サンプル) that a lot of restaurants in Japan have right outside, kind of like a 3D menu. Some of these are very very detailed and their prices show that. A plastic sample of a hamburger with a "slice of tomato" and "lettuce", complete with "ketchup" and "mayo" sells for more than $100 easy. There is even sample food, usually not life-size, which can be used as a cellphone strap or fridge magnet. There was a fake scrambled egg badge even :P

Thursday, September 25, 2008

Capsule Stations

P1040086 I am sure I mentioned these before - they look like sweet dispensers in the US where you put in a quarter and turn a little wheel and a bunch of sweets (I have seen jellybeans more than anything else) fall to the bottom for you to pick up. Except in the case of "capsule stations", things you get are usually non-edible but quite varied nonetheless: from countless different little figurines to straps with little characters for your phone to fridge magnets. They are literally everywhere in Akiba (秋葉原・秋葉) but I never thought I would see these in such huge numbers on the top floor of an electronics store, Yodobashi Camera in Kichijouji(吉祥寺).

P1040087See, one or two of them and I wouldn't turn my head I guess but in this case there  were... well... 324 of them. Each one unique and dispensing different items from different themes from locations in Tokyo to different trains to anime characters. Of course each one is also neatly numbered so that you can remember where to keep putting money in so that you get all sorts of different characters from your favorite anime series :)

Monday, September 22, 2008

Press Button for Service

P1040083 See it only makes sense right ? If you are in a pretty big restaurant and there are only a few waiters, you need to be really lucky or get really loud in order to get the attention of the wait-staff. In Japan, where they seem to favor minimizing the overhead of waiters/waitresses, the customers are given a better option (at least in certain restaurants) - press a button and a little bell goes off in the front with an indication of which table pressed it. It's a win-win: The restaurant owner gets to minimize the staff cost and the customer does not have to wait half an hour to get a glass of water :)

This particular one is from a soba restaurant in Roppongi/六本木 which also offers an English menu. I guess that explains the extra English directions on the "button". Be warned though - as I must have mentioned earlier, the fact that there is some sort of sign in English displayed in a store says nothing about whether or not the people who work there can speak a word of the language.

Sunday, September 21, 2008

False alarm (and Lehman Brothers in Tokyo)

P1040081 So as it turns out, the hurricane did not really pass over Tokyo today. In fact it was quite sunny for the whole day, leaving me quite surprised... Anywho, I thought I would post an interesting picture today, something to coincide with the recent crisis in the US. Lehman Brothers has (or may be I should say had) offices in one of the most luxurious buildings in Roppongi - Roppongi Hills. Since the news of their bankruptcy though the lights illuminating their sign seems to be out... Very symbolic I thought.

Friday, September 19, 2008

Hurricane is coming!

So it looks like tomorrow a hurricane will be visiting Tokyo... I am going to have to cancel my bi-weekly visit to Akiba it looks like. Well, on a positive note I will be staying in and I will try to take pictures to post here - the hurricane should leave Tokyo after 3 pm so it's not that bad. The picture below is from the Japan Meteorological Agency's web site and it shows the progression of the hurricane. Let's see what happens tomorrow...


Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Tokyo Disneyland (ディス二ーランド)

P9150156 After spending almost a year in Tokyo I finally managed to make my way down to Tokyo Disneyland in my first visit to any Disneyland during my 28 years on this planet and I must say it was a lot of fun (even though it was a bit cloudy)! Before going a bit deeper a quick tidbit of information about Tokyo Disneyland - it may be called "Tokyo Disneyland" but it is actually not in Tokyo. In fact, it is slightly less than an hour away from central Tokyo by train or car (well, the second obviously depends on the traffic situation). It is located in Chiba Prefecture but I suppose "Chiba Disneyland" would not be a catchy name...

  P9150193Now the rides are obviously great but I think they are pretty much the same in all Disneylands. The big ones that seem insanely popular are Space Mountain, Big Thunder Mountain (both roller-coasters and both pretty famous I believe), Haunted Mansion (similar to a haunted house but much MUCH tamer) and "Pooh's Honey Search/Hunt" which actually seemed to have the longest lines... Apparently Winnie the Pooh (or  Pooh-san as he is known around here) is pretty popular especially with the girls/women. Now there was one P9150203twist added however - some rides had their "Halloween Versions"  and there were so many visitors who had full costumes on (something that apparently is not normally allowed). Because of that I managed to see two "Captain Jack Sparrow"s within 5 minutes of each other - one talking in English and acting and looking like the character from Pirates of the Caribbean and the other one looking so very Japanese save for the complete make-up and outfit.

I must say however though the highlight for me was the parades... The music, the attention to detail, the dancers (who made me realize it's very interesting to see an "Asian Middle-Eastern Belly-dancer" :P) it was all great.  There were two kinds of parades each of which is repeated twice throughout the day as well as a night "Electrical Parade". People start lining up hours before them but with a little planning you can get a good seat even 5 minutes before the start of the parade ;) Well, here is a couple snapshots of the different parades for you. There is another Disney Resort right next to this one called "Disney Sea" which I hope to visit soon though how soon I am not sure yet...

P9150184 P9150216

Sunday, September 14, 2008

Miyajima Island (宮島)

About half an hour or so from the center of Hiroshima by train,  lies Miyajimaguchi (宮島口) or literally "Entrance to Miyojima". This is basically a port town which seems to have a single important reason for its existence - it is home to two ports (one operated by JR - Japanese Railways, the other by the company that operates the trams in Hiroshima) which have ferries every 15-30 minutes to the wonderful little island of Miyajima.

P9070098The ferry takes about 15-20 minutes but the view is pretty and you get a preview of the island's coastline and forest, as well as the artificial "pools" that are basically used for fish farming. Of course, also visible is the island's shrine that is a UNESCO World Heritage site. The island is anything but flat so it makes a good place for climbers/hikers too and this is pretty clear on the ferry trip. Oh and a quick tip - the right side of the ferry gets a much much better view ;)

P9070116 Now before we got there I was told that there were deer on the island and of course my first thought was that the deer would be on the mountains and one could see them on a lucky hiking trip. As soon as we got off the ship though things turned out to be quite different: the deer basically welcome you to the island right in front of the port building. There were literally at least 10 - 2o of them walking around, greeting the tourists - both the Japanese and non-Japanese types. They seemed to be on the thinner side and eagerly followed anyone who had any type of food they would be interested in, including little information booklets or any piece of paper for that matter.

P9070121 Being an island, Miyajima has access to really fresh seafood and this is pretty evident in all the little restaurants dotting the path around the island (there IS a road for cars but it is mostly paved walkways). The main delicacy seemed to be oysters (both raw and cooked) but seafood in general is king at the restaurants. There are also little stores selling T-shirts and little souvenirs but the most famous souvenir, or Omiyage (おみやげ) as they put it around here, is a variety of "manju" (bean paste filled pastry in the shape of a kind of a maple leaf - symbol of Hiroshima). The machines they use to make these things are huge and pretty impressive - they are usually put right in front of the store for all potential customers to see the process but usually with a sign saying taking pictures is prohibited.

The walkway which starts at the port, ends at the shrine which is one of the biggest reasons why people visit the island. The shrine itself is big and nice looking but the highlight is its big red gate that seems to "float" on the water during high tide. Unfortunately the weather was not great which made taking a good picture difficult but I tried my best. Here is a panorama I made - I am keeping it at a bit higher resolution too for detail (click for the bigger version as always).

Panorama view of Miyajima Shrine Gate

Thursday, September 11, 2008

Hiroshima City

Hiroshima is what may be considered a typical sea-side town with a much more relaxed atmosphere than Tokyo. Oh before I forget, the residents speak with a slightly different accent than in Tokyo, so don't be surprised by the way they end their sentences ;)

P9060035 The town has just one big shopping street (but it IS big) called "Hondori" which goes for three or four blocks and the top is covered to keep the shoppers from the rain or the sun. There are shops of all kinds here - from Benetton to small Japanese clothing stores to pachinko parlors. In fact this place is so popular that usually friends run into each other on the weekends since young people frequent the area quite a bit. The prices seemed lower than Tokyo to me but then I am really not the right person to ask about prices of anything other than electronics.

P9060037 One of the most famous dishes from the region is Okonomiyaki (お好み焼き) and we went to a small but famous Okonomiyaki restaurant close to Hondori. Okonomiyaki actually exists outside Hiroshima as well and there are two main versions - Osaka style and Hiroshima style t he difference being the inclusion of noodles in the Hiroshima version. The dish basically consists of lettuce, seafood, and optionally bacon (which I skipped) sandwiched between two "pancakes", cooked all-together on a hot plate. In most restaurants the patrons do their own cooking but the one we went to actually had cooks preparing the dishes. Let me tell you one thing about this dish - it is pretty tasty but SOOOO difficult to eat as well!

P9060062 Another famous part of the city is the Nagarekawa Street (流川通り). While there are lots of little streets of its kind, this is easily the biggest one. This street comes alive at night with restaurants, bars, and pachinko parlors, as well as "Gentlemen Clubs" with young women serving drinks to the patrons. The doors of these clubs are usually decorated with the pictures of women working there and they all kind of look like each other - unnaturally curly hair and looking not a day older than 20 at most. There are even stores that are there to provide guidance for which one of these clubs to go to. I am guessing they have sort of a list with pros and cons of each...

P9070070 Of course no discussion of Hiroshima would be complete without mentioning the trams/streetcars. Apparently after the war there was an effort to build a subway system in Hiroshima as well, just like in other Japanese cities, but the amount of sand in the soil made this prohibitively expensive in the day. So instead, the city embraced its trams and unlike Tokyo which lost most of its trams (I believe one or two lines remain around Ginza), trams in Hiroshima thrived. They are definitely slower than the subway or the JR (which is available by the way, connecting some parts of the city and you can use SUICA which cannot be used on the trams). There is something nostalgic about trams I think. Even if they are modernizing them and some of the newer trams look almost like bullet rains...

P9070081 Hiroshima is home to a very pretty, albeit kind of small castle called, well, Hiroshima Castle. It is not nearly as big as Osaka Castle but still, it is a sight to behold. Apparently the original castle was one of the casualties of the atomic bomb though and they built a replica. Inside can get extremely hot in the summer even though they have A/C and fans inside. I guess one of the prerequisites of a castle is good ventilation and that does not work well with ventilation. Thankfully they let you borrow a fan (the kind you use in your hand) which actually helps and the climb to the top is fun if not to see some real Samurai swords but to take in the view.  Well, you tell me if you like it...

Panorama view from Hiroshima Castle

Tuesday, September 9, 2008

Hiroshima Memorial Park and Museum

P9060018 Of course when one hears the name "Hiroshima" today, the first thing that comes to mind is (unfortunately) the Atomic Bomb that was dropped on the city in August 1945, destroying a big part of the city and killing tens of thousands of people - overwhelmingly civilian - instantly. The city has of course been rebuilt in the sixty odd years that have passed but they have left an area that was close to the bomb's epicenter as a memorial park. The first place I visited in Hiroshima was this park which contains the Atomic Bomb Dome (原爆ドーム), Hiroshima Memorial Museum, the eternal flame that has been burning for roughly the last 60 years, and a lot of statues, each put there to remember people who died in the attack. Getting there is easy by tram (or streetcar as they prefer to call it) - the stop names are in English, Korean, and Chinese too.

P9060008 The moment I took a step into the park I felt a bit weird. After all, less than 60 years ago, the same place was literally hell on earth... After composing myself a bit I saw the building that has become almost a symbol of Hiroshima - the Atomic Bomb Dome. This building, constructed with much stronger materials than the houses people lived in, somehow survived the bomb blast - at least in terms of its general structure (save for the dome). Now it stands as a reminder of the sheer destruction that it witnessed, almost like a silent ghost of the past that lots its ability to speak that day.

P9060017 The memorial for the children that died in the explosion (and later because of the radiation) stands in the park. It is adorned by cranes, telling the story of little Sadako Sasaki, a little Japanese girl who was exposed to the bomb when she was 2 years old. It looked like she survived it and that she would have a normal life but she  was diagnosed with leukemia which ultimately claimed her life at 12. While she was in the hospital she started making paper cranes because she heard that if you make a thousand cranes your wish would come true. The museum has her pictures and the letters she wrote to her classmates while hospitalized. For me she is the best example of how the bomb took away so many innocents...

P9060033 The museum consists of three buildings, the middle building being the most shocking one. There are copies of letters written by the US Administration of the time to the military explaining why and how the bombing was decided. There are maps and pictures showing how the city looked before and after the bombing and most touching, there are clothes and items that belonged to the victims of the bomb, mostly children who were outside working on clearing fire lanes in case there was another bombing (during the time that the bomb was dropped Japan had little means of defending itself so bombing of mainland by the US was becoming pretty routine) or playing. Some middle schools lost more than 90% of their students to the bomb with the luckiest ones losing around 50%.

The experience may be haunting for some - it definitely was for me. I had a hard time holding back my tears after reading the letter Sadako wrote to her friends and seeing her picture... I am still glad I saw the memorial though. I think without doing so one can think one understands how terrible a nuclear weapon is but he/she could not be any more wrong. If you have the chance please go and see it.

Tomorrow something more cheery I promise...

Monday, September 8, 2008

Visiting Hiroshima (広島) - Part 1

Hiroshima Airport

The train station and the airport

I was fortunate enough to get a chance to visit Hiroshima last weekend. The weather was great and I had a wonderful pair of guides to show me around the city.

I will try to do this in 4 parts:

  1. Getting to Hiroshima
  2. Hiroshima Memorial Museum
  3. Nagarukawa Street, Hiroshima Castle
  4. Miyajima Island (宮島)

The Memorial Museum/Park and Miyajima Island with its famous shrine are both UNESCO World Heritage Sites.

Getting to Hiroshima from Tokyo is pretty simple. There basically two main options for those who do not want to drive for 6-7 hours: The bullet train (新幹線/Shinkansen) or a local flight using ANA or JAL. The train is not always cheaper so it makes sense to check beforehand. In my case the plane was actually cheaper - go figure...

The Hiroshima Airport is a bit outside the city center (which is one thing the bullet train has going for it - it goes directly to the city center) but there are busses that can take you to the main train terminal for about ¥1300 (about $11 as of now).  The trip takes about 40 minutes and there are machines at the airport that sell tickets.

The trip from the airport to the city is pretty nice with a lot of green flanking the highway, dotted here and there with houses with big gardens. So unlike Tokyo. Hiroshima in general is pretty different anyway - a much more relaxed atmosphere compared to the hustle and bustle of Tokyo.

Well, tomorrow onto the Memorial Museum and the Memorial Park...

PS  From now on I will be using Windows Live Writer to blog. It seems much more efficient than using the Web interface of Blogger. Oh and it is much easier to put in a map this way :)

Sunday, September 7, 2008

Back from Hiroshima.. details coming soon...

I just got back from Hiroshima after spending the weekend there. I have lots of pictures and things to write about but given the time, how tired I am from squeezing so many places and things into two days, and the fact that there is work tomorrow, I will postpone writing about it until tomorrow or so.

Still, a heads up is good no? :)

Check back tomorrow/day after for the update!

Tuesday, September 2, 2008

Google Map-ifying Posts

From now on I will be using my new toy when posting - the little Sony GPS locator that I will use for GEO tagging the images. That way, if you want to visit the same place as I did, you can just use Google maps.

Well, consider this one a trial :)

The image comes from the Immigration Bureau in Tachikawa (立川) that I went to yesterday for extending my visa. It is much less crowded than the alternative in Shinagawa (品川) though it still took me about an hour or so. Getting there is simple - just take Chuo Line (中央線). From Mitaka (三鷹) it's about 20-25 mins. Then, just take the bus from bus stop 12 at the station. They have notices in English (and Chinese, among others) at the stop and in the bus when it is at the right stop (oh and it keeps reminding us "foreigners" about having change ready :P).

Update: I will be using Microsoft Live instead for mapping so I took out the ever refreshing Google Map. Much cleaner ;)