Monday, August 27, 2012

End of Summer

This photo is everything summer.

And as the summer's ending....

Even though the scorching temperatures are here for at least another month and cicadas are singing louder than even, summer is officially over. Long gone days spent lying on the beach, train hopping across the country, iced lattes-sipping, lazy mornings in the sun.

I just love how despite scribbling down a detailed summer wish list, nothing went according to my plans. That's how life works, and usually it's for the best. Summer started a bit on an upsetting note, as going to Canada was out of the question for too many factors I had no control over, and that mood lingered for a few weeks, unable to snap out of it and questioning every little thing.

Yet, it completely turned around when I took a much-needed trip back to my other home, Shikoku, as getting back in touch with my roots, swimming in the dark sea and island hopping made my heart burst with happiness, killed the sour thoughts and enabled me to come home to Tokyo, and well, feel at home. Shikoku was the highlight of my summer, along with some random day trips to traditional areas of Tokyo and unexpected summer nights.

I also spent countless hours confined in my room, writing away and taking a breather from all the distractions. Maybe it all paid off in the end, my head is no longer cloudy, and I'm the happiest doing what I love, putting thoughts into words and aimlessly running around the Uehara area (my new favourite area for running). Perhaps I've found my stride here in Tokyo?

I must admit, I love when nothing goes according to the initial plan, makes things exciting.

... I've packed a change of clothes and it's time to move on.

(Make fun of me all you want for the end of summer quotes- find them and guess the song please).

Thursday, August 23, 2012

Bento Art

On the subject of bento....

The Japanese bento 弁当 is more than a mere lunch box, and I like to call it a work of art. Forget about sandwiches wrapped in cellophane paper and a juice box: every morning, mothers across Japan are up at the crack of dawn, arranging lunch boxes for their little ones. Back when I was a kindergarten teacher, I used to witness the most amazing lunch box creations, such as panda-shaped rice balls and octopus sausages that were way too pretty to eat.

A variation on the traditional bento is "character bento", kyaraben, which is typically decorated to look like popular Japanese cartoon or video games characters. I don't think most mothers make those specific ones on a daily basis, but some definitely do.

Supermarket aisles and entire sections of lifestyle shops such as Loft are dedicated to the art of the bento, and luckily you can find an array of accessories to help you compose your own chef d'oeuvre: stencils, special scissors, seaweed cutters in all shapes, dividers, and obviously the cutest lunch boxes and chopsticks sets.

I've been leading a pretty low-key lifestyle lately (did I mention that?!), and after numerous visits to nearby shops, I stocked up on cute items (I'm in Japan, so cute is acceptable) such as a strawberry-shaped bento box, pink chopsticks, rice ball molds in the shape of a bear and a flower, to go along with the adorable onigiri box I already own.

This triangle-shaped treasure
should contain a rice ball

Those can be used to shape the rice into flora and fauna
Let me explain what's inside.

A traditional bento contains rice, fish or meat, and a few types of pickled or cooked vegetables, and is arranged with great attention to aesthetic detail. Personally, I want to have fun with my bento, and I like filling the container with foods I love, such as strawberries, blueberries, pasta and other things I regularly cook. I think any foods are acceptable, as long as they are tastefully put together.

For your viewing pleasure I rounded up some eye candy bento. Just don't expect me to re-create them.

Hello Kitty decked out in kimono, YEAH

Christmas bento: Santa, reindeer, snowman, oh my.

This character is Totoro. He's very popular.

A simple but cute one. How about that egg?!

Pink rice? Nintendo DS?! I could never even eat that one.

Credits: [1] [2] [3] [4] [5]

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Cakes + Strawberry

Today I ate a delicious and beautiful vanilla cupcake

This week, I've been on a quest for the best cakes in Tokyo (found some wonderful cupcakes but suffered from sugar rush), and I've been getting creative at making bento (lunch boxes) for fun, equipped with a strawberry shaped lunch box. I've also been writing nonstop, confined to my room with my MacBook (it's getting quite old, and I'll have to bid farewell to it soon, but I cannot imagine parting with the object where it all started), snacking intermittently on wheat cereal and honey, and drinking too much milk. I've been reading countless magazines and browsing blogs and listening to the entire content of my iTunes library. This summer has been so slow but in the most favorable way.

I keep thinking I should go out more but I'm (not so) secretly enjoying being a homebody. The air is too hot and stifling to run, even at night, but I consider the heat a natural sauna, therefore the best way to stay slim with all that cake consuming. I want the chilly weather to return, because I miss running so much.

Wishful thinking? Wish me luck.

Strawberry Bento box

My bento is filled with fruit 

If you have any favourite cakes and sweets shops in Tokyo, please let me know in the comments or email me! xo

Summer Sonic: We loved it.

Click here to read about the day I developed a major girl crush on Rihanna.

My friend Tom and I wrote this article together, which was a first for me and it was a lot of fun!

Sunday, August 19, 2012

Summer Sonic 2012

Summer Sonic style
If I had to pick one word to describe this year's Summer Sonic festival, it would be 'nostalgia'. From the bands that played there to my first time attending Summer Sonic four years ago while not living in Japan, almost everything smelled of teenage years and time gone by, along with a few fun additions thrown in.

Summer Sonic tends to be a mix of big international names (Rihanna), up-and-coming indie acts (Grimes), and some bands that are embarrassingly brought back from 1996 (Garbage). Yet, I believe it's the beauty of Summer Sonic, and I fully indulged in some guilty pleasures.

What I love about Summer Sonic is the location: indoors for the most part, so you can just lie down on the cold floor, escape the August heat, and listen to your favourite acts in the comfort of an air-conditioned room. I've never seen a festival with so many people sleeping, but it wasn't out of boredom, as I later found out. I think Japanese people are the most dedicated and attentive fans, who turn into a respectful and appreciative crowd, therefore international bands love playing in Japan.

The highlight of my experience was surprisingly Death Cab for Cutie, who made my heart ache with their songs about summer days and summer flings, perhaps because I'm such an emo mess lately. I had seen them four years ago at the same event, and funnily my friend Tom was also present back then, but we had not met yet, which made it special to see them again as friends this time.

My other favourite was ethereal Icelandic band Sigur Ros, who were absolutely mesmerizing, and sound best whilst lying down with eyes closed. I could have listened to them forever, it was quite moving, something I haven't felt in a long time at a concert.

I had a blast dancing to Azealia Banks, and despite my dubiety towards mainstream pop music, I was completely enthralled by Rihanna, who was so beautiful, talented and utterly perfect. I loved her so much, and her performance can only be described as hot. I did sneak out to catch an old favourite, New Order (sans Peter Hook), whose synthpop new wave sounds and performance of 'Blue Monday' made my life complete.

Those are just a small handful of acts I saw. Amongst the hectic running around to follow my timetable to the exact minute (I am a music nerd), I caught a glimpse of Tears For Fears, whom I used to love as a little girl. I was definitely the youngest person in the crowd, and I found the random bunches of sunflowers during 'Sowing the Seeds of Love' quite endearing- that's what I mean by fan dedication.

I enjoyed roaming around the area, as the venue spreads all the way to the beach, including a baseball stadium as a main stage for the headliners. I dipped my toes in the ocean while watching the sun set, and listening to some of the live performances, before going back inside for some cool air.

As for the festival fashion, which I had my eyes open for, it ranged from camping-chic (are backpacks and hiking boots necessary?) to Ke$ha-fan style (colourful neon getups, heeled sneakers and glued on nails and lashes), to simple summer shorts and tees with a sophisticated touch, which I prefer.

The back and forth train rides between Tokyo and Chiba were a bit lengthy and crowded, but they play a big part in the whole festival experience, and I secretly love them.

I think I'll be in a daydream-like state for the next few days, that's how much I loved Summer Sonic. Maybe I don't need to sugarcoat any of that for my official magazine article.

Summer Sonic 2012- TOKYO!

Welcome to Summer Sonic,
a devilish whale welcomes you.

Chilling out much

Death Cab For Cutie (maybe?)

Tom and I got emo during Death Cab

You can play pachinko at Summer Sonic.
I won a tee-shirt and a towel.

I spelled out my name during Sigur Ros.
They made me feel creative with shiny bits of confetti.

Day one: Super Sonic

Pre-festival egg udon

Day two: cropped top

Summer Sonic displays art

The beach, part of the venue
Chiba prefecture

A stadium filled to the brim for princess Rihanna

Thanks, Creativeman. Let's be friends.

Friday, August 17, 2012

Food for (Tokyo) Thought

Luggage + Shinkansen

Exactly a year ago, I moved to Tokyo.

Tokyo is a blend of all the following: big, exciting, beautiful, stylish, expensive, glamourous, stressful, exhausting, crowded. Some days, Tokyo makes me so frustrated- it seems like I am working so hard and not getting anywhere, or I think I don't belong here and never will. Other days, it's the complete opposite, and I feel like I could live here happily forever.

This year has been so much fun, yet very eventful. Thankfully I found some treasures here, in the form of friends and neighbourhoods, and I grew to adore Tokyo. This city literally never sleeps, and looking back on the past year, I wonder if I ever did sleep. In Tokyo, I found a comfortable nook I'm pleased with, and I'm hoping the next bit will be a little more... still.

In other news, all this thinking has made me hungry, and I took part in some memorable feasts. First, some delicious Korean fare in Korea Town (Shin-Okubo), where my lovely friend Mayo and I sampled a bit of gamjatang (spicy pork bone soup), bibimbap (rice and vegetables with a fried egg mixed in), and kimchi chijimi (a kimchi pancake). Eating Korean food is always a treat since I left Seoul, and walking the streets of Shin-Okubo makes me reminisce about my time there, with the K-pop songs blaring and spicy aromas.

Second, my friend Danny, with whom I traveled the length of Japan through various transportation modes, threw a BBQ party at his house. It's a bit of a rare occurrence to hold house parties in Japan, but it happened, complete with a backyard, wooden picnic table, grilled Thai-style tuna and chicken skewers, homemade potato salad, chestnut-based veggie burgers, sweet corn, baguette, and copious amounts of alcohol. It was a scorching hot and sticky summer night, with a soundtrack of cicadas, and it made me like August in Japan.

To celebrate my one-year anniversary in Tokyo, I should just sleep endlessly to recover from the past year, but instead I'll head to Summer Sonic and find more treasures to write about.

Kimchi chijimi:
pancake batter with kimchi and spring onion

Korean table and the plethora of dishes

Grilled corn + potato salad: Am I back in Canada?

A real, outdoor BBQ party, with a Japanese touch

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

August, Obon, Literature

It's mid-August, the temperature has reached unimaginable peaks, it's Obon holiday (a Buddhist tradition, when many Japanese people travel back to their hometowns and ancestral family places), and I'm happily avoiding the heat and chaos.

Perhaps a summer hibernation repeat? I'm amazed at how much I'm selfishly enjoying being confined at home. Reading, running, lots of writing, and quality time with my closest friends. Sometimes I can see how spending a year by myself in rural Japan has made me love and appreciate my alone time, something I never used to be comfortable with.

She refused to be bored chiefly because she wasn't boring.
-Zelda Fitzgerald

The shortest my hair has ever been. Summer!!!

My new favourite café, Fuglen.
A Norwegian hideout near Yoyogi.

Arms burgers near Yoyogi Park.
Is it wrong to eat a burger mid-run?

Orion is a beer from Okinawa.
Short of traveling there, I've been eating Okinawan food.

It's hot.

I do frequent the Shimokitza Starbucks quite regularly.
My Japanese book is called "Genki", I'm almost finished.

This alpaca is decked out in yukata.
Takamatsu supermarket, where else.

Baking in Japan

I made these cupcakes. Yum!!

Aside from running, baking is one of my favourite activities (they go hand in hand: running allows more indulging, and my motivation for running stems from my love of cakes). I'm not quite sure why I'm writing about baking in the midst of the August heat, but I've been in slight hibernation mode since returning from Shikoku, and I've somehow kept myself occupied with books, magazines, and sweets.

Baking can be rather challenging in Japan, due to the lack of ingredients, required appliances and space, but it's not impossible and I managed to make it work.

Here is a little guide to baking in Japan.

You can find all the basic baking ingredients at your local supermarket: flour, baking powder, sugar, chocolate chips, butter, milk. Most grocery stores have a small baking section, stocked with tiny bags of cake decorations, cake mixes, as well as cupcake tins. Everything is just a notch smaller and more expensive than back home, but it's there. Reading some packagings can be difficult if you don't know how to read kanji characters, but here are some of the staples you can easily locate, as they are written in katakana:

Baking powder


Vanilla essence

I prefer brown sugar

Certain ingredients such a powdered sugar, coconut, cocoa, and other types of flours are only available at import shops, but you can most likely find everything (at a cost!), as Japan does baking extremely well.

Most small apartments in Japan are not equipped with an oven, but you'll be surprised to find out that most microwaves in Japan double as an oven. There is a button that changes the function to oven, in katakana: オーブン

If not, a toaster oven is a cheap and convenient alternative to a full-size oven. I spent my first year in Shikoku baking tiny cakes and individual cupcakes in my toaster oven. It requires more time and patience, but the result is just as good. You can easily find cake tins of any size (and shape: try heart or star-shaped!) at the supermarket.

Once again, kitchens in most Japanese apartments do not offer much counter space, but that's the part where you can get creative. I usually would cover the stove with a cutting board and use the extra space, the top of the microwave, a coffee table, or a pile of books. No one has to know...

You can practically re-create any recipe you like, even if you have to adjust the quantities to fit a smaller oven, or substitute ingredients. Unlike cooking, baking does not allow much room for creative measuring, so make sure you calculate everything accordingly. Math never was my strongest skill, but it is necessary for baking.

Here is my favourite cupcake recipe, and it's very simple to make in Japan.

Buttercream Vanilla Cupcakes

1/2 cup unsalted butter
2/3 cup sugar
3 eggs
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 1/2 cup flour
1 1/2 teaspoon baking powder
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon milk

Mix the sugar, butter, eggs, and vanilla extract. Then add the flour, baking powder and salt. Pour the batter in individual lined tins, and bake for 17-20 minutes at 180 degrees C. Keep an eye on the cakes, as each oven varies, so stay near!

Buttercream frosting:

2 cups powdered sugar (confectioner's sugar)
1/2 cup unsalted butter
2 tablespoons milk

Mix everything together until it becomes light and fluffy, it may take several minutes if you don't own a mixer, but be strong and patient.

Makes about 12 cupcakes, but feel free to do the math to downsize the recipe.


Friday, August 10, 2012

Shikoku Journey: Ferry + Osaka

From Takamatsu to Kobe, Seto Inland Sea ferry

The last bit of my Shikoku journey included a small stint in the Kansai region, and a LONG trek back home. Since I shamelessly cheated and exchanged my local train pass for a Shinkansen ticket (gasp!!) at the very last minute, taking the longest (and cheapest) possible way home to Tokyo seemed quite fair and deserved.

After reluctantly leaving Marugame and saying farewell to my friends, I headed to the city of Takamatsu, where I met up with fellow Tokyo resident Danny, who had once lived in rural Shikoku and who happened to be visiting at the same time. I tricked him into thinking the longest way back would be the most fun, and promised him a party complete with some Kansai goodness.

In Takamatsu we boarded the Kobe-bound ferry, which was rather impressive. I was expecting a low-budget boat with plastic seats, but no! The ferry is called "Jumbo Ferry", and looks like a love hotel, decked out with mirrors, low lighting, and golden accents. The three-storey structure boasts an udon shop (surprise surprise), a souvenir shop, and a glitzy stairwell that made me feel like I was on an eighties honeymoon.

Riding the Jumbo Ferry was the best part of the trip: the four-hour trek across the Inland Sea was absolutely gorgeous, and not to mention comfortable in a living room-like setting (with drinks flowing and ichigo daifuku snacks). The ferry made its way across the hundreds of little islands scattered in the sea, and sailed under the longest suspension bridge in the world before arriving at Kobe Port after sunset.

What ensued was a frantic series of events and mishaps and a change of plans, and next thing I knew, we were the proud (and dreadful) owners of night bus tickets to Tokyo. I absolutely despise the night bus, but it was the last resort, and a night out in Osaka was greatly needed in order to prepare for that last step.

Being back in Osaka felt strange, as I left that city quite hastily and with a sour taste. Yet, stepping off at Osaka station instantly made me happy, and I quickly remembered why I loved that city so much in the first place. It's relaxed, friendly, chaotic, a bit grimey, and the food is heavenly. We feasted on some meat dumplings from 551 Horai (the best in Osaka), sat outside soaking in the Osaka vibes, and had a few more drinks before embarking the long, sleepless night bus ride back to Tokyo.

The night bus isn't so bad if you have friends to keep you company, a handful of snacks and water, and Hello Kitty socks. I feel bad for my friend Danny, who had to put up with me chuckling every time I heard someone snoring, but after nine hours on the dark Japanese highways and about five rest areas that looked exactly the same, we made it back home to Tokyo.


Last udon in Takamatsu: egg goodness

The Jumbo Ferry

Glitz! Lights! Mirrors! The ferry decor.

That stairwell was the highlight of my trip

Freight on the ferry

Our ferry living room

Asahi beer and ichigo daifuku

Seto Inland Sea

The giant roof terrace... all mine.

Akashi-Kaikyo Bridge

551 Horai... worth the Osaka trip

Osaka has not changed at all. It made me miss it a little.

Osaka station,
I could go through it with my eyes closed

Dun dun dun... the horror!! The night bus!!!

Takoyaki Hello Kitty socks

Note: I highly recommend hopping on the ferry that travel between Takamatsu and Kobe. It's dirt cheap, and feels quite luxurious, in a bit of a tacky way.