Tuesday, 5 June 2012

Okinomiyaki - DIY Cuisine

Okinomiyaki is one of my absolute favourite Japanese foods. I love the taste, I love the fact that you can make it with whatever ingredients you want and I love, love, love being able to make it at your own counter cooktop with a group of friends. But I won’t lie, it can be a bit frightening, with no Japanese language skills, to wander into a Japanese Okinomiyaki restaurant with no idea what’s on the menu, no idea how to cook your meal and really just no idea whatsoever what to do. Sometaro takes some of the stress out of this experience (and, if you’re tourists, you’ll like its position – right near Senso-ji in the heart of Asakusa).

Don’t get me wrong, this is not the best Okinomiyaki you’ll ever taste. Taste and option wise it’s so-so. However, the helpful English menu (complete with instructions), the polite semi-English-speaking staff and the rustic atmosphere of the sit-down-take-your-shoes-off-and-relax restaurant make it a comfortable place for your first (or just a contented) Okinomiyaki experience.

Additional Fact: The tomatoes at this place were divine! Fresh and juicy and plump and absolutely perfect. If you’re a tomato fan do not pass up the opportunity to sample these delights – best part of the meal in my opinion! ♥

How to get there: Just off Kokusai Dori, on the side street that runs between the Drum Museum and the police station. It's in the second block on the right.

Friday, 1 June 2012

Smoking Etiquette

Outside LaAerial's house lies this hilarious ashtray.

Only in Japan would you find a rigid admonition demanding the social niceties and reinforcing the apparent etiquette of smoking.

Wednesday, 30 May 2012

Asakusa – Golden Child

Asakusa is heralded throughout the travel media as THE place to visit in Tokyo. People coo over its old-world charm and authenticity. However, much of its reputation is hype. Though it is by no means a dive it is a major tourist trap, and it is best to keep this in mind when visiting.

If you are expecting a tranquil tree-capped temple village, right in the centre of Tokyo, then think again. Like most of Tokyo the majority of Asakusa is tall buildings, hotels, shops and other bits of modern efficiently we, in the 21st century, have come to either adore or despise. Tokyo Sky Tree, towering over the the mini city, is a constant reminded of the fact that Asakusa in not, despite suggestions otherwise, part of Edo period Tokyo.

However, the streets surrounding Sensō-ji temple are quaint, by Tokyo standards, and the festival atmosphere guaranteed to greet you makes them a pleasant place to stroll, window shop and photograph.

The long lane way leading up to the temple is perhaps the pinnacle of this. Packed with people, shops and a jubilant feel it is certainly a fun place to meander!

Sensō-ji is also a fairly interesting and fun-filled attraction. Huddle around the large incense stacks with the Japanese hordes and waft the healing smoke over your ailments. Or wander over the the fortune stand, throw in your coins, take the silver cylinder, shake it vigorously and then tip it over to receive your bamboo stick. Find the draw that corresponds with the number on your stick and receive your fortune (in Japanese and English). I was over the moon when I received the very best fortune; I'm now confident in the knowledge that good things await me.

Overall though Asakusa is not, in my opinion, the most interesting place in Tokyo and should perhaps be left off a short itinerary it is nonetheless a fun place to spend a warm afternoon.


• The best time to go is on the weekends when you’ll find yourself intermingling with a lot (and I mean a lot) of fellow tourists, both foreign and domestic. You may even be lucky enough to spot a few street performers.

• Don’t go nuts with your cash. The stuff here is expensive and (in most cases) dime a dozen. If you desperately need to spend cash then splurge on the over-priced, yet nonetheless tasty fare from the numerous street stalls (yatai).

• On a hot summer day treat yourself to a snow cone and, if you feel like splurging, a rickshaw ride.

Wednesday, 23 May 2012

Nikko on Golden Week

Being an English teacher (in my particular case salary woman might be a more apt description) In Japan is, at times, quite trying. That’s why I, like many Japanese people, was wholeheartedly looking forward to Golden Week; that magically time of the year when you get at least three (and in my case nine) solid days of rest, relaxation and revelry. In the air of being traditional I put Nikko of the top of my Golden Week to-do list.

Firstly, a tip: if you can drive there, do. The scenery the entire way from Takasaki to Nikko was absolutely breathtaking: rolling green valleys, lush peaks, looming mountains stretching off into the horizon. Truly a stunning sight! I found my directions via Google Maps and if you just ignore the Japanese (or read it, if you can) and follow the road numbers and bearings you should have no trouble. This is just a teaser of some of the sights you’ll be treated to if you do:

If you do decide to visit by car then get there early to avoid a long wait for a car park (500 YEN seems the standard all day rate). We parked on the main street, just below Rinnouji temple (see Parking mark on the map) and were able to see everything easily. If you chose instead the train or bus option then your journey begins at the bottom of a long hill, pitted with souvenir shops and restaurants, which lead up to the shrine complex.

Second tip: go when it’s busy. I know many travel guides would suggest quite the opposite but at peaks times everything is open, street stalls pop up all over the place and the circus-like atmosphere, which adds so much to Nikko’s general appeal in my opinion, is guaranteed to put you in good spirits.

Now, starting off from the station is the uphill path leading pasts a plethora of souvenir shops. In my opinion the souvenirs available at Nikko were of a fairly standard variety and, as you would expect, overpriced. However there are some nice sweet shops (selling cookies, cakes etc.) that I would highly recommend for your peeps back home (or simply your own burgeoning waistline). The first is a shop, just off the main road (it’s easy to find from the station you just walk down the road closest to the station, at the back of the main road, for a block uphill and then it’s on the corner) selling milk-based sweets. I bought a box of various cookies and cakes and they were delicious. They also sell fresh and yummy ice cream ♥. My second recommendation specializes in what they call “Cheese Egg”. Don’t be turned off, it is in reality a cream cheese cake that is utterly divine and probably one of the best sweets I’ve ever had in Japan (marked “CE” on the map). Those these are my top places to visit I would still recommend delving into all the shops on your way to the temple as many of them offer that much-revered marvel: the free sample! If you’re hungry for something a little more substantially then, honestly, I’d stick to the convenience stores (marked on the map). The restaurants here are overpriced and certainly nothing to write home about. A Combini Bento is more likely to satisfy both your appetite and your wallet.

When you finally reach the temples, if you’re anything like me, you’ll probably be struck by the gorgeous fertile scenery more than anything. Nonetheless Toshogu is quite a sight to behold; the attention to detail ensures that every single element of the place is elaborately decorated. I would recommend investing in the 1050YEN combination ticket. The famed sleeping cat is worth seeing simply due to the fact that it is not at all lifelike, fascinatedly non-descript and absolutely impossible to understand what it is about it that makes it so apparently intriguing (and the long line of tourists waiting to photograph this baffling phenomenon are testament to the fact that it is, apparently, intriguing). Also make sure you make a wish at the sacred tree near the tomb because… well, why the hell not?!

The rest of the temple area is a great people-viewing spot, though I wouldn’t recommend forking out any addition cash. Simple wander around and soak up the carnival like atmosphere.

Here are some of the sights that await you, along with a map of the area:

If you did decide to drive then do not miss out of the long, winding, slightly frightening, utterly amazing road that leads up to Lake Chuzenji. It is a completely mind-blowing sight.

Nikko is a great place to visit and I would definitely recommend it to anyone and everyone.

Tuesday, 15 May 2012

Banking in Japan

With the help of my co-worker I've just set up my own Japanese bank account with Gunma Bank and it was surprisingly simple. All I needed was my address, my alien registration card, my personal stamp (it's unbelievably cool to have your own personal stamp ♥) and my own little piece of the Japanese economy was created, as quick as a flash.

An added perk, and this is apparently a thing in Japan, is that with every additional bit of banking you do with your bank you receive a free gift. So for my passbook account I received some tissues and for my attached Visa Debit card I got some toothpaste and a Gunma Bank table cloth.

I love these little eccentricities in Japanese culture, they're utterly fabulous, if a little baffling!

Friday, 11 May 2012

Disney Sea - My happiest place!

I love the Tokyo Disney parks. I make no pretentious show of smug indifference about this. Instead I embrace my own childish exuberance and excitement when visiting these delightful places. My most recent visit to DisneySea only served to rekindled my adoration.

At the moment (until June 30th) DisneySea's theme is "Micky and Duffy's Spring Voyage". Now I can't pretend that I actually like Duffy. For those of you who don't know anything about him I offer a brief (highly critical and biased) summary: Duffy is a bear that looks no different than any other standard run-of-the-mill bear. He has little back story or personality and was created solely for the purpose of marketing to the cute-obsessed Japanese market. In layman's terms Duffy is a proverbial 'cash cow', of which Disney have many, but I think it fair to say that none is so blatantly, pathetically obvious. So I didn't expect much from the Duffy themed celebrations. However, I must admit that I was won over. Not by Duffy, not exactly anyway, but rather by the lovely adoration of the Japanese tourists towards Duffy. In all sincerity I found the painstakingly hand-made Duffy outfits, the cooing and the various Duffy photoshoots utterly endearing. It's this zest, of a truly Japanese variety, which is one of the things I love about this country. I even got into the action myself and bought a Duffy ticket holder and a Duffy cake (the former is, admittedly, cute and I use it for my Suica and the latter was a glorified cream-puff and, though not terrible, not really worth the money). Overall the Spring celebrations did not disappoint.

Here's a few DisneySea tips to help you get the most out of your admission:

Tip 1: If you want the true Japanese Disney experience then pop into one of the entrance stores when you get there and buy yourself something Disney inspired (ears, a hat, a t-shirt) to wear. Almost every single Japanese person does and, believe it or not, it makes the day and the experience that little bit more special.

Tip 2: Make a beeline for the attraction you most want to ride (the Haunted Mansion is the closest and, in my opinion, the best) and grab a fast pass. Make a note of the time it asks you to return, along with the time you can grab another fastpass. Make sure to get your next fastpass as soon as you are able. If you keep doing this throughout the day you'll find you're able to ride all the best attractions without a ridiculous wait (I covered everything with ease and I visited during Golden Week).

Tip 3: The many different flavoured popcorn carts are a treat and quite a tasty one at that. The locations and flavours are marked on your map.

Tip 4: Find a show (whatever you're most interested in) that starts a little after lunch time. Grab your lunch, grab a seat an hour early (you should be able to get a good one) and enjoy a leisurely meal while you wait for the celebrations. If you leave it until the last minute you won't be able to such much (if anything at all).

Tip 5: It might seem stupid and childish and lame but visit Sinbad's Seven Voyages. It's the best attraction in the entire park. ♥ Same thing goes for Ariel's Grotto. The rides and not particularly adult friendly but the atmosphere there is truly awesome!

Tip 2: Need to grab something for your peeps back home? Skip the keyrings and teddy bears and buy some cookies. They're surprisingly tasty.

Here's some snapshots of what's awaiting you at DisneySea this spring.

Friday, 4 May 2012

Takasaki, Japan - Home

Though not ever read about as a must see location in Japan Tasakaki, my new home, is nonetheless a vibrant and dynamic city about two hours from the north east of Tokyo and easily accessible via train (less than an hour via Shinkansen or about 1.5 hours by rapid line).

The things I adore about it and which, in my opinion, make it worth a sight-seeing stop, are (in ascending order of importance):

1. Mountains. Takasaki is ringed, on all sides, by gorgeous mountainous scenery and therefore, every morning, my meander to the nearest kissaten (coffee shop) is beautified by the presence of these rugged heights. The absolutely breath taking semi-active snow-peaked volcano, famed for it's onsen (a review will be forthcoming), is a particularly lovely sight.

2. Kannon-dera. So-called because a giant image of Kannon rests on the peak of this hill. On the weekend people flock here and you can visit the temple to receive your fortune, buy charms and souvenirs and visit one of the many hole-in-the-wall restaurants for a bite to eat. It was a particularly lovely sight during the cherry blossom festival.

3. People. The people here, perhaps due to the convenient location yet slightly slower pace of life, are in general more laid back and friendlier. The chances of you feeling unwelcome here are slim to none.

4. Food. This place is absolutely brimming with restaurants and you can eat here (and eat very well) for under 1000 YEN. Here's a decent meal I had of OmRice, Hamburg, Salad and a delicious match cake for under 1500.

5. Fashion. Takasaki boasts all the fun and funky fashion of the hip Tokyo boutiques with much smaller price tags. I saw bubble shorts (which retailed in Tokyo for 5000 YEN) selling for 800 YEN at my nearby discount outlet. If there was a difference then it was not readily apparent.

6. Budget buys! And, hardly surprisingly for those who read this blog, my number one reason for a visit to Takasaki and it's surrounding cities comes (as with above) from the budget conscious shop-a-holic in me. Because this place is overflowing with second hand shops. In Australia that means stores brimming with crap where maybe (very maybe) one piece of treasure may lay hidden amongst the hordes. In Japan it means gold. There are numerous Book Offs (along with their various subsidiaries) selling designer goods in new condition for 10 to 50% of the original price along with housewares and just about everything else. There are also a plethora of pawn type shops where jewellery and the same designer goods go fro a steal. My favourite, however, is Toy Planet. If you, like me, are a kid at heart then you will adore this place. It's stocked to the brim with second hand toys that might as well be new and the majority of the items here go for under 500 yen. These discount wonderlands are, for me, the highlight of my town.

I am loving my new home! &heart;

Sunday, 4 March 2012

Teaching in Japan!

Good news: I’ve got a job teaching at an English Cram school in Takasaki Japan!

Stay tuned for travel tips, secret rendezvous and interesting places to shop, party and live in Japan.

If anyone has any requests, meaning places they’d like to visit but want to get the skinny on first, then tell me in the comments and I’ll put it on my to-do-list. So far my must-see priorities upon arrival are Disneyland and Disney Sea (predictable I know, but I can’t resist their fairy-tale charm), Ghibli Museum (another for the fairytale obsession) and La Qua Spa (because I can’t resist a good city onsen). I also mean to try absolutely every food I can get my hands on, regardless how horrible/strange/inedible it may seem.

Wish me luck. ^^

Thursday, 1 March 2012

Ozsale Mystery Packs #2

So, my second haul from Ozsale’s infamous lucky dips. This time I paid bargain basement prices ($10 a pair) for two pairs of woman’s and two pairs of boy’s shoes. This is what I got for my crisp blue notes:

A pair of funky Steve Madden thongs and a pair of Corell Shoes bat flats, both of which my little bro adore. I’m quite pleased with this haul.

A pair of cute leather soled sandals by RedHot (not a a huge fan, but I gave them to my mum and she likes them) and a absolutely gorgeous pair of quality leather loafers by Cecci. Overall I'm very pleased because I ADORE the loafers ♥!

All up I think this is one of my top Ozsale buys. I’m looking forward to bagging more bargains in the coming months.

Note: I think it also important to note, while I’m on the subject, that Ozsale postage does sometimes take a while. Rapidity isn’t there strong suit.

Wednesday, 18 January 2012

Ozsale Mystery Packs

As demonstrated by my obsession with Sasa Lucky Bags, I like a surprise, especially when it comes in clothes, shoes or accessories format. I guess it should come as no shock then that I’ve been won over by another lucky dip of the online variety.

Every so often Ozsale has ‘Mystery Packs’ (even the name is exciting, right?!) More often than not they’re for shoes (women’s, men’s and kids) or packs with 3 or 5 different pieces of children’s clothing. You pick the size and they send you the goods. I’ve bought both kinds recently, so I thought I might share with you what I got to give you an idea and, maybe, tempt you.

I took a gamble on the most recent ‘Mystery Designer Shoe Sale’ and brought three pairs of size 9’s. They costs $15 each. I received:

1. A pair of suede ankle boots (not my style so I gave them to my mother, but extremely good quality nonetheless).
Brand: Mea Shadow
RRP: $150

2. A pair of practical walking shoes (again, not really my style, but I kept them for walking as they’re ridiculously comfortable and, again, great quality).
Brand: Solace
RRP: ???

3. A gorgeous pair of multi-tone heels that I LOVE!!!
Brand: Zola Collection
RRP: $100

For the money I was pretty impressed and have since bought another couple of mystery pairs (which I’ll share with you when I get them).

I also bought a ‘Mystery Designer Kids Clothes’ pack for my brother (he’s eight). To say I was impressed would be the understatement of the century. The pack was three pieces and costs $25. He received two extremely thick, stylish and high quality Timberland jackets and a pair of light weight Timberland shorts. That’s well over $100 worth of clothes. I would definitely buy another kids packs.

So, like most lucky dips, these mystery sales are not necessarily going to be worth it, however for my money it’s worth the risk, judging by a little experience and a lot of hope, it's worth the risk.