Thursday, June 28, 2012

Cheap Thrills

I should wear jeans more often

Tokyo has recently been put at the top of the list as Most Expensive City in the World. Whether it's actually true or not (after all, it's all relative and heavily depends on the currency rate and other varied factors), Tokyo is definitely an expensive place to live. The good news are, it's one of those cities where you can have lots of fun for very little money, or none at all.

In Japan, activities such as going to the cinema or buying (English) books can be very expensive. Traveling around the country is quite costly, especially if you ride the Shinkansen. Eating foods other than Japanese fare is usually quite steep. As for music concerts, they are such a treat and I usually don't attend them unless I have a press pass. The best way to enjoy Japan on a budget is to go local and eat mostly Japanese food, and learn Japanese so you can access the wide variety of books and colourful magazines that I love flipping through.

Tokyo has so much to offer, and here are some (very) random cheap thrills I really love:

Books + magazines
Going to the bookshop and browsing endlessly through all the books and magazines. I highly recommend Daikanyama T-Site, the most gorgeous book shop I have even been to. Just stay away from the café.

Movies + TV shows
Thank goodness for the internet, although maybe not for much longer in Japan.

Hopping on a local train (they are fairly cheap), and just head somewhere I haven't seen before. Tokyo and its surroundings has tons of cultural sights such as temples and shrines, hiking and waterfalls, beaches and unearthed neighbourhoods that I have yet to visit. Also, for a limited time, the brilliant Seishun 18 train pass (which offers unlimited rides all over Japan on local trains) is on sale, so do yourself a favour and pick one up. It's one of the best deals in Japan.

Even though many museums charge a fee, Tokyo is brimming with cool (and free) art galleries and exhibits. I usually check the listing here.

Cycling + walking
The beauty of Tokyo is that it abounds with neighbourhoods, all so different from one another. Sometimes I just grab a coffee and walk aimlessly around my local area, and suddenly find myself somewhere completely new and different. Having a bike would be even better, I'm not sure why I haven't gotten one yet, I miss it!

Food + drinks
Convenience store beverages, especially the canned cocktail kind. Mojitos, anyone? Take them to the street and create a makeshift bar, as drinking in public is fully acceptable everywhere in Japan, something that still amazes me. As for foods, onigiri (rice balls) and ready-made bentos are your best best (and healthy enough) when you're completely skint, as well as creative cooking (using all the food in your fridge). My latest success was a spinach omelet, that started a cross-city competition amongst my friends.

Taking photo booth pictures. Taking pictures of food. Going running. Making playlists. Trying on expensive clothes at designer boutiques. Re-organizing my closet. Lipton Milk Tea(¥105). Window shopping. Sleeping. Bananas (¥88). Painting my nails (nail polish is super cheap in Japan). Finding the best (and weirdest) vending machines. Skyping. Okonomiyaki, udon, and yakisoba. Guest lists and press passes. Free parties. Street drinks. Walking home. Blogging. Drinkable yoghurt (¥110). Paying for groceries with my Pasmo train card.

What are your cheap thrills?

Eating chocolate in my room is what I did today

Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Running Playlists

When I'm not running or writing,
I ride trains and drink coffee
(and break the rules)

When running (or exercising in general), a great playlist is a deal breaker: wanting to listen to a full playlist I love will make me run much longer. Also, great tunes take my mind off the actual work out, and it's the best (and most selfish) way to relax and clear my mind.

Please share some playlists or songs, as I'm always on the lookout for different music. I don't always need to listen to upbeat music to keep up my pace, just songs I like will do the trick. Here is a playlist I really like for running:

The Clean- Anything Could Happen
Superhumanoids- Geri
A Guy Called Gerald- Voodoo Ray
Small Black- Despicable Dogs
Onra- High Hopes
Discovery- Osaka Loop Line
Aphex Twin- Window Licker
Holy Ghost!- Hold My Breath
Ciccone Youth- Into the Groove(y)
Chapterhouse- Mesmerise
Ol' Dirty Bastard- Shimmy Shimmy Ya (I like my dirty rap)

It's long enough for a nice weeknight stroll around Shimokitazawa, and my new favourite place to run, Yoyogi Uehara.

I've only been running and writing lately. Can you tell? Maybe it's a good thing.

Saturday, June 23, 2012

Breakfast + Brunch in Tokyo

Baker's basket at Le Pain Quotidien,
special thanks to the lovely Mai for her warm welcome

After weeks and weeks of extensive research, looking for all the breakfast fare Tokyo has to offer, my story came out yesterday, gracing the cover of one of Tokyo's most important English magazines, Metropolis.

My first cover! Waaaaa

I did spend the last few months eating the most delicious food in Tokyo, but despite the glamourous aspects of that kind of writing assignment, it wasn't an easy task. First of all, the idea of a Western breakfast is a bit of a new trend in Japan, so fresh whole wheat bread, eggs Benedict, muffins and bacon are not the easiest to come by. I had to scratch the surface, to find out that indeed they exist, and they are probably even more delectable than anywhere else in the world. As with everything else, when Japan does its own twist on overseas favourites, they do it amazingly well and with the utmost attention to detail.

A traditional Japanese breakfast is composed of broiled fish, miso soup, and rice. To be fair, fish is not exactly what I crave first thing in the morning, and even though young Japanese typically consume bread and coffee for breakfast, options are limited: the bread is white and pillowy, the fruit is scarce and overpriced, and the coffee canned. Yet, I unearthed Tokyo's treasures and found such delectable fare, and with breakfast being my favourite meal, I wish I could eat it all day long.

Read about breakfast in Tokyo here... many thanks to all my friends whom I dragged out because I simply had to try a specific place and photograph every angle of my meal (Tim, this one's for you). A special mention to the lonely nights spent writing at home, which are finally paying off, and it's hopefully the proof that I do a bit more than just partying in Tokyo....

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Typhoons in Japan

Last typhoon I kept busy by cutting out some shorts

Typhoons 台風 are a common occurrence in Japan, unlike back in Canada where they are nonexistent. A typhoon is the strongest kind of tropical storm, with severe sustained winds and strong rainfalls. Yesterday in Tokyo was an important typhoon, my third one since I moved to this city: one last September, one last April, and one yesterday.

I find typhoons very scary and unsettling, a bit like earthquakes, because it's something we don't have back home. I'm comfortable in snowstorms and find them soothing, but slowly I'm getting acquainted with typhoons and am learning to relax a bit, amidst the shaky windows and doors, while I secretly pray my old, traditional house will survive.

Somehow, something interesting always happens during each typhoon. For example, in the April one I was stuck at Mike's (Prince Ness) house while he was emptying his apartment to move to Canada, and we could not get out so we just drank every single remain of liquor he had lying around his house, and just fell asleep on the floor out of boredom (and drunkenness). When we woke up the storm had ended, and it's one of my favourite memories now.

I usually am luckily home and keep myself entertained with writing and texting friends, and checking train statuses. Last night I actually took a walk in the storm, which wasn't as bad as it seemed from indoors. I just hid under my hooded sweater, no umbrella necessary, and slipped on my rain boots. It was actually incredibly calm and dark and empty, and I loved it so much.

Trains in Japan

The Yamanote line

I'm a bit of a (not so) closeted train nerd. I find trains fascinating, and I like to learn more about them and the different lines that run across the country. I'm in the right place, as Japan definitely caters to this kind of niche: you can find all sorts of magazines solely dedicated to trains, with glossy pictures and all, and even the Japanese film industry has well, some train-related features, which I won't tackle in this post or probably ever watch.

After reading some excellent posts about how non-Japanese sometimes feel on the train (a hot topic lately in Japan) and a seriously brilliant post about offensive train behaviour, I was inspired to raise the issue of trains in Japan. I spend an important portion of each day commuting around this city, and trains have somehow become a second nature.

I would like to know, which train lines do you like best? What are the things that bother you the most in trains? And, what are the worst train lines in the country and why?

I'll shamelessly start my train talk here:

Best train line in Tokyo
It's no secret that I love the Yamanote line. It comes frequently, and because it goes around on a loop, it never gets too crowded as people get in and out regularly. It also offers a great view of the city, as it hits all the major hubs of Tokyo. I like the music it plays when I wait on the tracks. And you can fall asleep on the Yamanote if you have some time to spare, it goes in a circle so you'll never be too far.

Worst train line in Tokyo
I really don't like the Keio Inokashira line, and it's my train line so I'm trying to grow to love it, but it will never happen. The train only has five cars, and it comes in intervals of about ten minutes, so it's always crowded, especially the last few ones each night. People will push and squeeze in, even if it seems humanly impossible. I want to cry every time I'm on that train, so instead I just walk home. If I move houses in Tokyo, I will make sure it's not on that line.

Best train in Japan
The Shinkansen, of course. I'm seriously obsessed with the Shinkansen, as it's fast, smooth, and comfortable. Why does it have to be so expensive?

Special mention to the JR line in Shikoku, with slow trains that come every thirty minutes but that offer the most exquisite scenery. Usually they were filled with drunken elderly men, but it was only part of the charm. I miss the countryside.

Bad manners
Here are the things I despise most:

a) People who fall asleep on my shoulder
b) Salarymen reading some kind of soft core manga next to me
c) The first AND last trains, which reek of alcohol
d) Nose-picking, which seems to be the hobby of many commuters
e) Watching girls putting on fake eyelashes. Even though I admire their skills.

Despite those daily annoyances, I usually only have good experiences in Japanese trains. They are (almost) always on time, they are clean, and quiet. I love riding the trains in Japan, and especially in Tokyo, where there are so many lines to choose from. I always get excited when I try a line for the first time.

In Japanese trains, it is rude to use a mobile phone, eat, or drink on board. No one really does and you may get scolded if you do, like that one time I discreetly ate a bite of bread on the Yokohama subway line.

If you're riding the Shinkansen, I highly recommend ordering a bento, they are quite tasty and it's acceptable to eat on that train.

Please let me know any observations you have on Japan trains. Furthermore, I'd like to know what the 9/11s have to say about Tokyo trains.

Platform manners. The first picture is the best.

Sunday, June 17, 2012

Sunday Musings + Music

Playing DJ and pondering life are things I like to do

As my stint in Tokyo is now approaching the one-year mark, I'm faced with the endless questioning, as to whether my life in Japan is real life or just a daydream, and when is the expiration date. As restless as I am, I have not been in one place longer than a year lately, hopping from Shikoku to Osaka then Tokyo, and part of me is craving a bit of stability. Yet, stability is scary and comes with responsibility, and I'm selfishly holding on to my freedom and independence, which could possibly end if my life in Japan comes to a conclusion.

About a year ago, I wrote a post about how my experience in Japan had been one of the most independent and carefree times of my life, as well as the healthiest, yet unhealthiest times. I don't want Japan to ever end, as I know I would miss it so much it would physically hurt. I don't want to make a decision just yet but my ambitious self is always out looking for more, and it's making me sleepless in Tokyo.

In the meantime, it's summer, and I will enjoy all of it in form of mindless fun. Last night, American magazine SOMA, for which my friend Mike is Tokyo editor, had a launch party dubbed "Love to Pose". In each issue, young creative Tokyo minds dress up and pose as their artistic icons, and last night all the models and their friends gathered at Trump House for a night of music and dressing up.

I had the chance to DJ and pose as Sofia Coppola, and I made sure to include a bit of Phoenix, Sonic Youth, and some ethereal summer sounds in honour of my style and artistic muse. Highlights of the night included a gorgeous young Madonna by my friend Yurie, as well as Nylon model Jillian Kate posing as Grace Jones, and a blinged-out Run DMC by my friend Jason. The cream of the crop, however, was the 9/11s, who went all out with their Nelson/Winnie Mandela (that would be Gordon) and M.I.A. (Tom) costumes, in the most hilarious and upbeat performance.

Cheers to another fun soiree, and some incessant chuckling over a 6am gyudon breakfast in Shibuya.

That is what Sofia Coppola would have picked in my closet
c/o Yurie, thank you!

The line-up

To this day, I still think Trump House
is the most gorgeous venue

The DJ booth is not as scary as it looks

A young Madonna by Yurie

Jillian Kate as Grace Jones

Daft Punk, complete with the masks 

Bryan as Sébastien Tellier

Jason as Run DMC, and Mike as Liam Gallagher

Tom in his M.I.A. costume. Pure brilliance.

Nelson/Winnie Mandela and M.I.A.

The sweet marinated beef strips taste best at 6am
whilst playing the airplane spoon feeding game

Friday, June 15, 2012

The Art of Karaoke

Karaoke, Lost in Translation style

In Japan, any fun night out has to include a few hours of karaoke, usually at the very end of the night (or early morning), when everyone is inebriated and uninhibited. As opposed to karaoke bars back home, singing in Japan is not done in front of a full audience. Instead, private rooms are rented, in which anywhere from one to over ten people can squeeze in and sing their hearts out (people do go to karaoke on their own, apparently).

Karaoke is taken quite seriously in Japan: some even practice before a group event (most likely work-related), and most of my Japanese friends are surprisingly amazing at performing songs. I suppose non-Japanese's take on karaoke is a bit different, as we shamelessly blurt out high notes we can't quite reach and make sure we select the tackiest songs we can find on the menu.

To be fair, the selection is rather impressive, ranging from The Smiths and Joy Division, to early 90s cheeseballs such a Snow and Kriss Kross and other, more or less obscure one-hit wonders. Karaoke is usually a trip back to high school memory lane for most of us, and even though I'm never too keen on going karaoke, once I get there I get very enthralled, dancing and hogging the microphone.

Karaoke rooms come equipped with various lighting effects and sometimes disco balls, and tambourines are provided. For an extra fee you can go all out and rent wigs and costumes. You can also include a nomihodai option to your night, which means unlimited alcoholic drinks from the menu and juice bar. In Japan, karaoke can be a bit pricey, especially on weekends and in popular spots like Shinjuku and Shibuya. In order to save money, I suggest frequenting low-budget karaoke rooms in less popular areas (Meidaimae, that's right!), going on weeknights, and sneaking your drinks in drinking beforehand.

I must say, I have a deep appreciation for the videos that are featured in the background of the lyrics: usually a rotation of four or five mini films, each depicting romantic scenes, such as bubble baths, couples contemplating a landscape, or Fabio-esque men driving motorcycles along the beach. I also suggest selecting the "plus-seven" option, which accelerates songs by well, seven times, as my friends Tom and Eloise discovered. You'll never go back to the regular kind.

Here are some of my most memorable nights out, featuring some pretty exquisite "karaoke faces". I hope my friends don't hate me for posting these.

An unforgettable Osaka all-nighter:
This was The Blue Hearts' "Linda Linda", a Japanese classic
Best karaoke faces,  The Mikes, circa Osaka.

Last Sunday in Meidaimae, flamenco stance by me,
"Bailamos" vocals courtesy of Tom and Cate

I'm better at dancing than singing

Eloise and Tom, perhaps a rendition of  JLo's "Jenny from the Block"?

That's right.
The Beastie Boys always make it into my list.

Prince performing his best, The Strokes' "Last Nite"

Oasis' "Wonderwall" is a nightcap, brings people together
in harmony, over a chiseled man image

This makes me a bit sad actually... the end of an era.

The time we drank tea at the Shimokitazawa karaoke,
we felt so classy

Fashimi and Tom

Sneaked snacks: Chocopie, and Mike soy sauce popcorn

Thanks Eloise for the pictures of last Sunday!!

Monday, June 11, 2012

Tokyo Fridays (and Sundays)

Sunday night antics: a small squid landed on my tights

In June, I have toned it down on the big all-nighters and instead have chosen to spend quality time with friends, and indulge on some tasty eats and early evenings spent outside. The nights are warm enough to sit outdoors on the curb without getting chilly, and I've been liking the balmy summer evenings spent with friends in this jungle of a city.

June was kicked off with First Friday Harajuku, a monthly event that takes place in the narrow winding streets of Harajuku, every first Friday of the month. The event is a gallery hop and art walk, as well as fashion and culture walk. On the occasion, select shops feature DJs and performers, and offer free drinks and promotions. It's a great way to browse some of Harajuku's most unique shops and art galleries, and to hear the local talents. And well, free drinks on a Friday night is the best incentive to not go straight home and crash. 

Another Tokyo favourite of mine, Hindu Love, is back (sans Prince Ness) and is now called simply Hindu, but the music remains just as fun and upbeat and I can't wait for the next one. 

I've also been enjoying going out on Sunday nights, which is the best way to end the weekend and start a (sometimes not so) fresh week, as it really beats the Sunday night gloom. I've been working very hard lately, and feel like I can't have as much fun as I wish, but the Sunday nights out, occasional burgers and karaoke are essential to keep me in good spirits. 

And it all pays off, in the end, doesn't it?

First Friday Harajuku
DJ booth inside 55DSL shop, fun beats

Skateboarder inside 55DSL shop
(you know how much I love those boys)

Time for some browsing with the boys

The turntables of Hindu

Rob and Gui forever Hindu masters

A rejected name for Hindu Love

My signature cat, which I drew on the provided canvas

Gorgeous fashionista Maria

Forever framed, the best Hindu Love poster of all

I was introduced to Gogyo ramen in Nishi-Abazu
and I've been dreaming of it ever since
Goma tonkotsu black ramen
the tastiest I've ever had, surpasses Ippudo

Eloise was visiting from Australia!!
We ate at Chinese Café Eight in Shinjuku

Tom (personifying appropriateness) and Eloise

Gordon has been working out
(he got this for ¥100)

Sunday night ended at a low budget karaoke in Meidaimae.
I was skeptical, but the 9/11s impressed me once again.

Can you guess which song we rocked?
Hint: it's not a latin one.