Sunday, September 30, 2012

Stormy September

A cicada landed on my foot. Goodbye, summer.

In a few hours we'll welcome October, and a strong typhoon is making my house shake as I'm typing this. I don't like tropical storms, especially growing up with only snow storms, which I find soothing and peaceful.

Since my gyoza and udon exploit the other night (who knew a random Tuesday night in my kitchen would end up in the Japanese national news?!), I've been re-creating basic Japanese fare and thoroughly enjoying it. My latest obsession is miso soup, packed with heaps of vegetables, tofu and a handful of noodles. I could live on it.

With autumn rolling in, persimmons have also arrived. Persimmons are my favorite fruit in Japan, and I can't stop eating them. Last fall, my neighbours kindly gave me a basket of persimmons from their tree. The summer heat has gone, so I've started running again almost every day, and it makes me happy and unwind- something I really need lately.

And, chilly days also mean seeking comfort and warmth, so I've been hiding at the onsen near my house. On Friday, I ate sushi at my favourite restaurant, Sushi no Midori, then I had a nice relaxing soak at the onsen (and um, some Mr Donuts somewhere in between). I wish every Friday night was like that, because it was perfect.

Knits, leather and tights

Persimmon is called kaki 柿 in Japanese

My homemade hearty miso soup



I did not eat all that sushi... I promise

Mr Donuts loot
Honey, angel cream, and chocolate dipped.

Cicada close-up.
It was set free and not harmed!

My Onsen Journey

My favourite onsen in Tokyo


Onsen are the natural hot springs located all over Japan, and they are used as leisure facilities: you can go to an onsen resort for a full holiday, or you can quickly have a soak after work. I used to be intimidated (thanks, Tom) to visit onsen, but now I love it!!

Onsen used to be more stressful than relaxing for me: a handful of rules to follow, the fear of making a faux-pas and, most importantly, being naked in public. I think there is nothing relaxing about the idea of walking around naked (as an already conspicuous foreign girl), especially while trying to remember specific procedures. Sadly, all my apprehensions kept me (and most likely many fellow expats) at an arm's length from the country's finest natural resource for a few years.

When a friend suggested visiting the onsen a few weeks back, I immediately panicked: would it be a day trip, or a weekend getaway? And... nakedness?! Turns out, yes, it would involve taking clothes off, but it would not involve getting out of Tokyo. Surprisingly, our city boasts a small amount of natural hot springs, right in the heart of the city.

It's important to make the distinction between sento (public baths) and onsen (hot springs): the difference is that onsen use natural spring water, while sento use just hot tap water.
In the olden days, sento served entire neighborhoods as older Japanese houses were not equipped with baths or showers. Onsen have a similar purpose, although they are just so much nicer and pleasant (and it's reflected in the higher price tag). Tokyo’s onsen are the perfect place to visit after a long week, as they allow visitors to relax and unwind, and provide a temporary escape from the city's hustle and bustle.

As the stress of an onsen visit loomed over me, I took a deep breath and decided to get over my frivolous fear. Armed with two towels (a small one to wash, and a larger one to dry), I headed to the other side of the pink curtain and followed all the steps carefully: I stored my clothes in the provided locker, slipped the bracelet key around my wrist and nervously walked to the bathing stations, clutching my tiny towel. I then meticulously scrubbed and rinsed (entering the onsen while still dirty or with traces of soap on the body is socially unacceptable) in the washing area, which was complete with stools, buckets, and toiletries.

Turns out no one even gave me so much as a glance, to my relief. I finally relaxed a little, and spent the next hour soaking into different types of mineral waters, towel on the edge of the bath (don't immerse your towel in the bath, as it's considered unclean). By the time my session was nearing to an end, I was peacefully perched on a rock and almost forgot the being naked part.

Onsen visits have since then become a weekly pilgrimage, as they tremendously help me relax and sleep, and soothe my sore muscles and joints. I highly recommend making some time in your busy schedule for regular onsen soaks, as for me they literally melt away the stress. Make sure you re-hydrate afterwards, and be prepared for some of the best sleep you've ever had.

Want to know where to find the best onsen in Tokyo? Hop over to Tokyo Weekender to read my full story.

Thursday, September 27, 2012

Udon (and gyoza) Girl

Homemade gyoza

Homemade udon


After watching the lovely Ramen Girl movie (Yes! I like that movie so much! If you live in Japan you can absolutely relate, and if not, I highly recommend watching it to sneak a peek at Japanese culture, in ways that Lost in Translation completely ignored- gasp!), I was inspired to learn to cook homemade Japanese meals, and having lived in the udon prefecture and all, udon seemed like the right way to start.

Well, the story is a bit different, but I was taught how to prepare some basic Japanese fare, and since then a whole new tasty world opened up to me. I was always scared to cook Japanese food at home as I didn't know what ingredients to pick up, and what cooking techniques to use. Turns out it's much easier than I thought, and I stocked my kitchen with the essentials everyone should have on hand for cooking Japanese food at home: sesame oil, dashi (fish stock), vinegar, soy sauce, miso paste, tofu, negi (green onion), nira (garlic chives), and hakusai (Chinese cabbage).

The dinner menu was composed of gyoza (dumplings) and udon, two of my favourite dishes, and pretty much everything was made from scratch. It was one of the most scrumptious meals I've had, and I felt so happy I learned how to make it so I can re-create it by myself. Nothing beats having a private cooking session with a kind local, in my own (awful) kitchen.

ありがとう。

Here are the steps to make gyoza and udon, in one meal.

You will need: sesame oil, dashi (fish stock), vinegar, soy sauce, miso paste, negi (green onion), nira (garlic chives), hakusai (Chinese cabbage), minced pork (or tofu for veggie alternative), ready-made gyoza shells, and udon noodles.


The loot from the supermarket.

Slice the nira (garlic chives) and negi (green onion)

Don't slice your finger like this geezer.

Boil the hakusai (Chinese cabbage),
then squeeze the water out and slice it

Mix some minced pork and the vegetables,
along with a dash of sesame oil, salt and pepper
and a secret ingredient: a dab of miso paste.

Put a small spoonful of the mixture in the shell
and prepare to fold it shut,
lined with a bit of water on the edge, origami style

Tah-dah
Gyoza can be steamed in a cover frying pan,
with a tad of sesame oil and water

Leftover filling was shaped into meatballs
and boiled in the udon broth

Udon broth: water, dashi (fish stock) and a bit of soy sauce.
Simmer and add the noodles

Udon perfection.

Cooked gyoza, on a Kitty-chan plate, what else.

いただきます。




Monday, September 24, 2012

Odaiba

View of Tokyo from Odaiba

Right before autumn took over September, I squeezed in a last bite of summer by taking a little trip to Odaiba. Even though it's less than an hour away from my house, it was a true holiday.

Odaiba is a large artificial island located in Tokyo bay, and after undergoing several changes in the last decade, it became a sort of futuristic island with a modern city feel. It's now a popular shopping and entertainment district, and a favoured date spot. Odaiba is located across the iconic Rainbow Bridge, which looks especially stunning when illuminated at night.

To be fair I did not do much touristy things on Odaiba, but I caught a glimpse of the replica of the Statue of Liberty (aptly named "Godess of Liberty"), and mostly soaked in the view of Tokyo from across the bay. Tokyo Tower looks so beautiful with its deep red hues, almost makes newcomer Sky Tree pale in comparison.

I ate ramen, sweets, ice cream, cakes, tea, had several photo shoots, a picnic on the beach- that brief day trip made me feel more on vacation than almost anything else I've done in the entire summer. I'd like to visit Odaiba again and see all the other sights I've missed, but riding the Yurikamome elevated train is one of the best parts about it.

Nighttime Odaiba

Fast food romance

Hello, Tokyo


Hearty meal....

Every day should start like this

Beachside Odaiba

Autumn Equinox

It's autumn = tights

Like clockwork, autumn showed up suddenly on a Sunday morning, with heavy rains, washing away all traces of summer. Abruptly, it became chilly, and I added tights and a cardigan to my outfit. I love fall, it's my favorite season, with spicy aromas and snug knits.

In other news, the incessant rain also means bad news for my futon. I made the mistake of washing my whole bedding and drying it out in the sun, but it got soaked with rain while I left it unattended. For the past two days I've been sleeping without any blankets, and the cold nights have kept me awake. Silly me!

Sometimes Japan drives me completely out of my mind, even after living here for almost three years. The futon incident made me feel so inadequate and helpless- something that is such an unremarkable event on the scale of life gets blown out of proportion. Maybe it's just a reminder that I do live abroad, as it's sometimes easy to forget as I feel quite at home and settled in Tokyo.

I'm trying to forget the disaster that was today, and how much I was looking forward to come home, and eat kaisen donburi, a rice bowl with fresh pieces of fish on top (tuna, salmon, roe, egg, and garnished with ginger and pickled garlic). I never thought I'd one day dream of raw fish as comfort food.

Take-out kaisen donburi from the Tsukiji shop

Random omiyage from Kobe, did not know that bear was famous





Thursday, September 20, 2012

Washi Paper and Cats

Traditional Japanese paper washi

I had an interesting past few days, as I like partaking in random activities, and my daily Tokyo life has been punctuated with fun little stints. September also means typhoon season, so heavy rains and storms have passed by, but did not last too long. Typhoons used to scare me so much as we don't have anything quite like it in Canada, but I'm slowly becoming used to them.

A few days ago I went shopping for some traditional Japanese paper called washi 和紙. This kind of paper is made from using the fiber of bark of a tree called gampi, but also other elements such as bamboo, wheat or rice. Washi is used in traditional arts, and to make origami figures. I was delighted by all the gorgeous, intricate patterns available. I highly recommend picking up washi as a souvenir if you visit Japan.

I also ate a delicious Jamaican meal of jerk chicken, rice and banana chips in Ebisu- I can never eat enough Jamaican food! My friends and I also feasted on pizza not once, but twice in the past few days, so a lot of running is on the agenda for this week.

In other news, I caught an ear infection. My usual doctor wasn't available, so I saw an elderly, kind Japanese doctor. He blamed it on visiting the onsen (he made me point out the date that I had visited on the calendar), so he prohibited me from going to the onsen in the next three days. He also made grand gestures telling me, "no alcohol, not hot foods, no baths, no stress". I'm pretty sure he also said no sex, but I was too embarrassed to ask him to repeat.

I instagrammed a cat. He lives near my house.
I pet him every day.

Best and cheapest pizza in Shibuya!

More washi

Rows and rows of colorful paper


Jamaican meal, yes please.

Monday, September 17, 2012

I heart Kobe

Hello, you.

Life has been quite eventful lately, and even though summer is on its way out (but not quite), I got to take a small weekend trip to Kobe, one of my favorite cities in Japan. I used to visit Kobe regularly when I lived in Shikoku and Osaka, and I can easily say it's one of the most charming places in the world. After being devastated in 1995 by the Great Hanshin Earthquake, it was quickly reconstructed and it now looks sleek and modern. Luckily a few historical districts were spared, so the whole city is a perfect balance of modern and traditional.

I only keep amazing memories of Kobe: a rainy day trip with both Mikes when we first moved to Japan, a gin and tonic and cake-filled weekend with Isabel, a Chinese New Year in Chinatown, and a tour of of all the best cafes and shops with my friend Julie. This weekend followed suit, as Julie got married. Julie is the original queen blogger and one of the most amazing girls I've met in Japan. We hit it off as soon as we met, and despite living in different cities, we managed to keep a tight friendship.

Her wedding was one of the most beautiful I've seen, and she was a gorgeous bride. I don't tend to ever get too emotional at weddings, but hers was especially lovely and it was moving to see my friend so happy. Living abroad, I missed out on many of my friends' weddings and such events back home, so being able to be there meant the world to me.

I had a limited amount of time to spend in Kobe, but I wandered around the historical district of Kitano, which is filled with Victorian-style, foreign residences of the late Meiji era. Those houses are now home to exquisite cafes and boutiques, and the streets are lined with trees, with lush mountains in the backdrop. Kobe is so beautiful, part of me wishes I lived there.

I was happy to be able to go and see my friend get married, and I love little getaways to memory-filled places in Japan.

Trip essentials 

Shin-Kobe station

Gorgeous flower girls

Stunning bride

The most beautiful Starbucks in the world

Located in a historical house

This is NOT the Shimokitazawa Starbucks

I got myself omiyage: Kobe socks

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

What to do in Tokyo?

I have less time for those activities lately

So, I realized I never talk in great detail about my writing work for Tokyo Weekender, but I do seem to go out lots and somehow report about it. I've been recently given the (pleasant) task of finding interesting Tokyo events, foods or shops, and writing about them to entice people to go there. The editing team and myself are always on the lookout for fun activities and anything artistic and cultural, and we hope readers can use our ideas as a guide to find out what to do every week in the city.

Lately, my favorite posts have been about the upcoming sumo tournament, the art exhibit about train manners posters, the Starbucks museum (only in Japan...), the Kawaii festival (yes, only in Japan too), and traditional Noh theatre. Writing about them makes me want to try them all, if only I had the time!

If you'd like to read a bit more about what I do (besides 'shopping', running and coffee), check out the agenda section of Tokyo Weekender... that's where I've been spending most of my time. And you should bookmark it and consult it daily! Even if you don't live in Japan, you can learn about Japanese culture and what's going on in Tokyo.

Shameless self promotion, why not.

(and, if you have any fun Tokyo events we didn't mention, email me or leave it in the comments!)

In other news, I've been growing increasingly attached to the lady who gives basic Japanese lessons on YouTube. Even though the lessons are way too easy for my level, I can't seem to fall asleep without the sounds of her soothing voice. Thanks, lady. Who are you?

Sunday, September 9, 2012

Late Summer Diary

We made friends with a meat-loving cricket

It's approaching mid-September, but the thermometers are reminiscent of mid-August, and it's time to squeeze in all that's left of summer. Even though my social life revolves around my laptop and the ideas in my head, I've managed to venture out of the house a few times.

Last night was Vogue's Fashion Night Out in Tokyo, a mad dash around all the swanky shops of Omotesando and Aoyama, trying to accumulate as many freebies and cocktails as possible. To be quite honest, my loot was a bit disappointing (not to mention a significant lack of bubbly), but I got my hands on a gorgeous zebra-print scarf designed by Kate Moss for Longchamp. I also posed awkwardly in front of Miu Miu for a street style bit, and sauntered about in high heels, which I quickly traded in for flats.

A few days ago I visited an onsen (read my friend Tom's excellent post about the onsen culture in Japan) nearby. I had the most relaxing soak, I lounged on the rocks and felt deeply relaxed afterwards, all traces of stress gone away. I had only been to onsen once or twice before, always feeling a bit uncomfortable and unable to relax as there are so many rules to remember (all the while being naked), but this time I managed to go through all the steps smoothly. I must make this a weekly pilgrimage.

I also researched the gorgeous, newly renovated Daimaru department store near Tokyo station (hey, that's part of my job!), an area I never frequent. It's a bit out of the way, but it's beautiful and the view on the Imperial Palace is stunning. I had the chance to have lunch at Rose Bakery inside the Comme des Garcons shop, best location ever- I could ogle the clothes while noshing on thick bread and a veggie pizza.

Lastly, my first freelance effort for The Japan Times was published a few days ago, a concert preview which was fascinating to research and especially fun to write. Even though it's a small blurb, it's The Japan Times (!!) and it makes me want to jump around and shriek in delight. Silly me managed to mix up the dates and buy the wrong issue- maybe I got too excited.

Latest challenge: learning how to relax.

Hi, Mom.
I have a bit too much in common with Holly Golightly


Myself, and friends Mayo and Steve enjoying a last beer garden

Tom never fails to crack me up

Comme des Garcons + Rose Bakery, Marunouchi

A writer's bible + veg pizza


Impromptu Longchamp models

I love this scarf!