Sunday, March 30, 2014

Early Tokyo Hanami

This weekend marked the start of the fleeting hanami season, which literally means 'flower viewing'. For the fifth spring (fifth! gah!!) in a row, I engaged in this traditional activity, complete with a leisure sheet, sweets, snack and various alcoholic beverages. It was one perhaps the best hanami I've had in Japan, for various reasons: the weather was mild and sunny, the park was peaceful, gorgeous and quiet (location undisclosed!), and I was surrounded with some people I truly cherish, such a longtime friends and even Rachel, a visiting friend from Canada.

The sakura were sparse and small, but they were there, and we found a nice spot under a cherry tree. Everyone brought hanami essentials, including traditional Japanese sweets, fried chicken, sparkling wine, craft beers, red wine, Tim Tams, and plastic plates and cutlery, all spread out on the leisure sheet. We shared drinks and had a photo shoot right before dusk, and we continued the party downtown Tokyo with some nighttime hanami at Roppongi Hills.

We had a long drive with loud music and chu hai's, belted out Kate Bush, Soul Decision (hey, it's Canadian) and The Knife, and went to Tokyo Tower to show Rachel; a must-see for any Tokyo guest, along with the seedy side of Roppongi, from the safety of a car. Hanami season is not over yet, but the flowers are so ephemeral and there's only a small chance to catch them in full bloom and in good weather. Times like these make me feel so lucky to live here.

This is hanami.

Essentials

Rachel's first hanami!
                                               
We're seasoned hanami'ers

Sakura be poppin'

Under the cherry tree

Nighttime hanami is exquisite

Darker shade of pink

Group shot, taken from an admirer

Taking a photo of the photographer

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

My Suica Adventure

Hello.

A few days ago, I went on a little adventure involving a train pass, Tokyo station and lots of penguin-themed merchandise: not a bad day for me. As many of you probably already know, I'm a bit of a train 'nerd'. I love learning more about the Japanese train system and its history, and I'm fascinated with the Shinkansen (in fact, I believe I listed the Shinkansen as a reason for moving to Japan…). Even though I'm not the kind of otaku who stands by the tracks to take photos of arriving trains or the type who participates in weekly clubs (oh yes, they exist), I am definitely enthusiastic about the subject.

My Suica card.


Riding trains in Japan is easy and efficient, thanks to the extensive railway system, and the simplicity of a single swipe to enter the network. Most train users have a rechargeable train card, which can be used on all train lines, so it doesn't matter if you switch from a JR line to the metro to a privately-owned line. In the Greater Tokyo area, the cards are called Pasmo and Suica, and each region in Japan has its own twist. For example, when I lived in Shikoku and Kansai I could use Icoca. They all have cute names and animal mascots, and the best thing is, you can use your card all over Japan. When I travel to Kyoto, I always use my Suica there.

Tourists can also use those cards, as you don't need to be a resident to purchase one. They're so easy to buy from the machine, you can just press the 'English' button and follow the instructions, and charge them with whichever amount (minimum for a Suica is ¥2,000, including the refundable ¥500 deposit). The cards are a great souvenir too after you leave Japan. I highly recommend getting a Suica or Pasmo when traveling around Tokyo, as it avoids the hassle of buying a ticket every single time. Not to mention it's troublesome to insert that paper ticket in the automated gate, and it's easy to lose.

The cards also have a lot more functions than just getting you past the train station gates; you can also GO SHOPPING with them, and this is my absolute favourite part. I actually didn't know you could buy so much with the cards. I knew they were a valid means of payment at any convenience store (think 7-Eleven, Lawson, Family Mart, etc), but I had no idea all the shops and cafes inside the JR stations carried this payment mode. For example, you can buy souvenirs inside the station, coffee, bento boxes, and even clothes! The big Uniqlo inside Tokyo station has a card reader, so this could be very dangerous for someone like me. I was also shocked to see you can buy alcohol with your train pass- why not. I'll have to remember for the next time I go broke.


Kiosks are located on train platforms and in stations
for a quick snack, newspaper or drink

Yup, the robot has its own cafe

Robot paraphernalia 

I went shopping around the station with my Suica card. The Suica mascot is a penguin, and Tokyo station has a souvenir shop dedicated to the aquatic bird. I picked an insulated tea bottle with the cute mug of the mascot, and a box of strawberry sweets for my boyfriend's family. I also used my Suica to buy a drink from the vending machine- in fact, you can use the card in most vending machines around train stations for a quick refreshment, minus having to fish for change. The vending machine located on the platform was one of those enormous digital futuristic machines, the kind that has a camera and automatically detects your gender and height (and weight, I bet) to recommend a drink for you. They kind of creep me out, but I went for a simple chilled green tea bottle.


Penguin everything

Oven mitt! Too cute for words.


Almost went for an iPhone case

Blow up penguin

So, that was my Suica morning at Tokyo station. I forgot to mention how much I love the area around Tokyo station, it's so clean, beautiful and filled with posh boutiques. It's within walking distance of the lush grounds of the Imperial Palace. I wish I could live there!


Tokyo station is majestic: Tokyo Station Hotel



Wednesday, March 12, 2014

March Things


A few colourful, happier things… I've been cooking a lot this week and packing my lunch box every day, it's amazing how much healthier I feel (let alone richer). I made some Italian staples like risotto, but also packed simple sandwiches and carrot sticks. My boyfriend was so surprised to see I packed a sandwich and raw carrots for lunch, I guess it's a little unusual in Japan and he thinks this kind of food is more fit for a rabbit. It's funny how such regular habits suddenly turn out to be a huge cultural gap. I've been taking long walks in addition to going to the gym, spring is definitely here as I came out of hibernation and feel more active (maybe I really am a rabbit).

A few days ago I saw a movie called Like Crazy (2011), and it really left a strong impression on me, a bit like Lost in Translation and Chungking Express did. It's a straightforward story about a long-distance relationship between LA and London, over a few years, and the difficulties that comes with it. Not that I ever personally experienced that, but I could relate to the growing pains, the visa troubles, the girl being a writer and that kind of career and lifestyle. Such a simple movie, loved the main actors and wardrobe throughout the movie and I watched it twice already. I don't know why, but it made me feel so good.

In other news, back to the gym: I'm seeing the worst habits and lack of manners in the locker room. Am I being picky and noticing flaws all over, or is leaving your outdoor shoes right on the locker room floor acceptable? Not to mention the sitting right next to me in the sauna when the whole sauna room is completely empty, splashing water, not wiping sweat off the seat/machines, littering and other things I cannot mention in such a public space. It's such a nice gym, too! Sigh.

Blending in

I have an apron, from LoFt

Mr Donut is all about ¥100 strawberry doughnuts

My lunch: miso soup and risotto

Bamboo-lined Nezu Museum

Tuesday, March 11, 2014

March 11, 2011

Already three years have passed since that date, and I still remember it like it was yesterday. I was living in Osaka at the time, having recently moved there from Shikoku. That afternoon, at 14:46, I was sitting in the staff room at work, cutting out some shapes for an upcoming craft, along with two other teachers. There was no shake, but major swaying that lasted for several minutes. No one really knew what was going on- until I checked the news on my phone, and there it was.

What ensued were some of the strangest, surreal weeks of my whole life. Realizing the proportions of the disaster, feeling unable to help, anxious and isolated, not knowing what would happen next. Even though Kansai was fine, I could not sleep for days, refreshing the news, hearing different things from both Japan and abroad. Many of my Tokyo friends came down to Kansai and it felt like having family around, but deep down I could not shake that feeling of isolation and that incident made me feel paranoid for a long time. Yet I could not imagine ever leaving Japan, the place I had made my home.

My experience is absolutely nothing compared to what others went through: losing homes, family members, friends, watching their whole lives being washed away. Last year, I had the opportunity to visit the town of Ishinomaki, and met some people that opened my eyes and changed my life, such as Abe-san*, who lost several family members, her home, her business, and all her belongings, yet still smiled and welcomed us with open arms, sharing stories and insisting on preparing a meal.

The most disturbing part is that not much has changed, three years following the disaster. The affected area is still very much devastated, 267,000 people still live in temporary housing and other makeshift facilities, and thousands of people are still missing. It angers me to see how the Japanese government seems to be more interested in the upcoming 2020 Olympics than the recovery of that area- it's shameful, really. It seems like very little is done to clear up the debris and build homes and encourage people to build businesses again. Instead, Japan is all about getting excited for those Olympic games, and talking about re-starting those leaky nuclear reactors.

Tohoku still needs lots of help, and I wrote about how to contribute, in any way, from anywhere in the world.

My thoughts go to everyone in Tohoku who experienced loss and are still struggling with loneliness, isolation and sorrow. Let's not forget.

Last year, with Abe-san in Ishinomaki


*You can support her and local fishermen by buying products from her shop.

Saturday, March 8, 2014

Imperial Palace Course

A few days ago I happened to be near the Imperial Palace in the middle of Tokyo, and it was my first time seeing the premises up close. I know the course which surrounds the moat is very popular for runners, as it's exactly 5k. I always want to go running there, but never actually do it. The nearby area even has facilities like showers and lockers (I don't know the exact places, but this slightly outdated article may offer some information), so there is no excuse not to go. Although I'm running at the gym, I miss the freedom and nature of the outdoors, and the Imperial Palace course is just so beautiful. Have any of you ran around the Imperial Palace, and do you have any tips?

With spring just around the corner, I feel so motivated to get deeper into my workout routine, instead of just half-heartedly hitting the treadmill like I've been doing all winter. I still love my gym, despite how expensive it is I'm glad I joined again as it's essential for my sanity. I easily get irritated by how crowded it gets, especially in the locker room. Sometimes the gym makes me feel kind of lonely, there is no friendly vibe really like my gym back in Canada or even Korea. The trainers are nice though, and since I'm one of the very few foreigners who go there, they always recognize me and make small talk.

On that note, I need to update my playlists, so please share you favourite music for running or just things you listen to lately!


Imperial Palace, Tokyo

Sakurada-mon, Imperial Palace

Hibiya Park, how pretty is it??

Hummus toast + cream soup, Pure Cafe breakfast

Tuesday, March 4, 2014

Good Morning Tokyo

I guess the train commute isn't THAT bad some mornings, especially if it's nice out and I've had a nice breakfast or the prospect of a coffee.

Shibuya crossing, view at 9:00 am, looking very empty. Shibuya is more of an entertainment and shopping district, less of a business one, so workers usually just pass through Shibuya station for train transfers.

                                     

I still make smoothies every morning. I buy a bag of mixed frozen berries and a├žai every week, which I mix with soy milk, yoghurt or juice. This morning I mixed berries with orange juice. Laugh all you want at my all-fleece pajama, including booties. I could live in that getup.


                                                

Homemade pancakes! The American style. This isn't a typical weekday breakfast, but rather a Sunday one. For breakfast I mostly eat oatmeal. I splurged on a family-sized bag at the import shop, and I soak it into soy milk, honey and cinnamon overnight. Many people ask me what Japanese eat for breakfast. Traditionally, it consisted of miso soup, natto, rice, boiled fish and pickled vegetables, but nowadays, most people just grab bread and coffee from the conbini, or have corn flakes. Japan is newly obsessed with pancakes- pancake shops are popping up all over Omotesando and people queue for over two hours to eat 'American-style' pancakes. I like this new pancake craze, which means good brunch places all over, but you'll never see me in one of those queues...



Train platform, waiting for the morning train. To be fair, my train line is really frequent in the morning; trains come in 2-mintue intervals. Somehow they're all packed to the brim, so I guess that's the best they can do. I'm amazed at how efficient public transportation is here, rare delays, but always crowded. I meant to take a photo of the crowd waiting on the platform, but could not bring myself to it so early in the morning. Next time...



Not morning related, but this humidifier saved my life this winter. The air gets so dry in my house, and this cat-shaped contraption is pretty amazing- cute and useful. If you don't have one yet, this is a MUST-HAVE in winter.