March 21, 2012

Tokyo - Flu & Fashion

I spent Thursday morning wandering the streets of Shinjuku, gazing at the skyscrapers and the infinite flow of people, until Noora and Heini arrived. We took the train to Harajuku and following the crowd we strayed into the depths of Yoyogi Park to visit Meiji Shrine.  As Finns we did not succumb to the slow pace of the other visitors and swiftly made our way through the park to emerge again in Harajuku. Harajuku is an enormous shopping district, so naturally the girls and I went our own ways. Since I had no money to spend on clothes, I window-shopped and contemplated the abundance of different styles visible in the streets. I really like the multitude of styles and colors that are present in everyday life and nothing seems to be out of the norm in Japan, nothing.

Senso-ji in Asakusa.
Small shops around the temples in Asakusa.
Asakusa and the newly build Tokyo Sky Tree in the background.

To celebrate the girls' last night in Tokyo we went for a few drinks. We felt compelled to try some quite awful drinks with Calpis, a local "milky" beverage that tastes (and probably is) merely like water mixed with sweeteners (coined by some as "cow piss"), just for the fun of it. After the girls left, I adventured into the nearby Kabukicho district, notorious for its red-light district and the many evident yakuza connections. I expected something murkier and more perilous, but apart from all the friends money can buy, only a few scrawny young men dressed in suits and one of them clacking his heels together actually looked like real yakuzas. What a disappointment!

Somewhere in Ueno.
More Ginza.

Having spent the whole day outside and indulging into a few drinks certainly did not make my flu any better, which I could feel in the lack of air in my lungs in the morning. Anyway, since I had come all the way to Tokyo, I was not going to let a mere flu prevent me from experiencing more of the metropolis. I wandered all the way to Asakusa to visit the temple and shrine there, again crowded with New Year's visitors. I walked a little further to reach Ueno station and took the train to Ginza, where I strolled amid the huge department stores in the afternoon sun. Before calling it a day, I wanted to marvel at the sunset from Tokyo Tower (passing by Roppongi Hills to make sure the day wouldn't, by any means, be too light for a flu-ridden traveller).

Sunset from Tokyo Tower. Mt. Fuji visible on the right.

The last day I mostly spent in Shinjuku, again gazing at the landscape from the Tokyo Metropolitan Government Building and then spending my last hours at an izakaya with Hiroshi and his friend enjoying a few beers (and flu medication) to make sure that I would be numb and doped during the overnight bus trip back to Nagoya.

Tokyo Metropolitan Government Building in Shinjuku.


February 12, 2012

Tokyo - Emperors & Electronics

Since my arrival in Japan I have wanted to go to Tokyo and the perfect occasion presented itself after the New Year in Yourou, since I still had a few days of vacation left and Noora and Heini were also opportunely traveling there. Tokyo's buzzing streets were a stark contrast to the peaceful landscapes of Yourou. Although Nagoya is a very big metropole, it just doesn't compare with Tokyo. Tokyo is on its own scale in every aspect.

Tokyo, here I come!

Due to traffic jams the bus trip took a stultifying 8 hours (estimated time 5,5h), but after stepping out of the bus in Shinjuku, I felt again the excitement of being in Japan and swiftly forgot about the hardships. I was back.  At first glance I could tell that nothing had changed in Tokyo since my last visit in 2009, except for the McDonald's near Asakusabashi station, which was now a Burger King. After checking in to the hostel, I had some ramen before a quick karaoke session with the girls, but the arising flu made me head back to the hostel relatively early to get some rest.

Ramen. I'll never get bored of this.

The next day we strolled through Imperial Palace Garden all the way to the resting place of some of the most notorious Japanese war criminals in Yasukuni Shrine. We stopped to watch some martial arts exhibitions at the shrine before hopping on the Chuo subway line to reach Akihabara, known for its huge electronic stores and a variety of manga and gaming shops. Not to forget every otaku's wet dream, the maid cafés. Some of the anime shops will never stop disturbing me: old men looking at some very questionable adult material without the slightest hint of embarrassment. What can I say... It's Japan! In the evening we went for a walk in Harajuku and then back to our lodgings.

Imperial Palace East Gardens.

The same garden.

ASENTO! Noora and Heini eagerly posing.

Approaching Yasukuni shrine.


Yasukuni shrine.

Still in Akihabara.



More toys.


The next part of the  Tokyo trip will "soon" follow. I can already reveal that I caught a deadly cough during my stay and it drained my energy to the point I couldn't write blog posts. And after that my best friends Joona and Lauri came to see me in Nagoya, which meant that I was exceptionally busy eating and drinking every night. But more on that later. 

January 04, 2012

The Year of The Dragon

I had the opportunity to join Mauricio's family and grandparents for the New Year festivities in Yourou, a small town situated on a mountainside in Gifu prefecture. New Year in Japan corresponds in many aspects to Christmas in the West: businesses shut down, people return to their hometowns to spend time with their families and visit temples to pray for good fortune.


We arrived with Mau's family to Yourou in the afternoon of New Year's Eve. The house was a traditional Japanese house and the location was quite remote, which was perfect for resting and spending a serene New Year. The grandfather and Mau showed me the surroundings of the house before we sat down to eat what the grandmother had prepared in the meanwhile: an abundant plate of sashimi from which we prepared sushi with nori and rice. Although the sashimi was enough to fill my stomach, we still had to eat toshikoshi soba (Japanese noodles), to my delight, before visiting the shrines. Toshikoshi soba is eaten on New Year's Eve and is believed to bring longevity because the noodles are long. We also watched a popular TV show called Kouhaku Uta Gassen, which is a singing competition between popular Japanese singers. 

My room.

Slightly before midnight we headed up a small and pitch-black path leading to a small shrine higher on the mountainside. We prayed, lit a bonfire and drank some sake to keep us warm. On our way back, we stopped at another, smaller shrine and repeated the same rite.

At the first shrine.

In the morning we revisited the shrine with the big bonfire.

Mau & me.

The next day we ate traditional New Year's dishes, altogether called お節料理 (osechi ryouri). The dishes included everything from roe to bamboo, so I won't even try to recount the innumerable amount of different things I ate. One dish that deserves a mention is ozouni, a soup with thick, viscous rice cake also known as mochi in it. The tradition of eating mochi results in several deaths due to suffocation each New Year, because the viscosity makes it extremely hard to swallow especially for older people. Unfortunately this year was no exception. In the afternoon we continued 初詣 (hatsumoude), the tradition of visiting shrines at New Year. This time we visited Tado Shrine in the nearby city of Kuwana. The temple area was overcrowded and the queue to the shrine was several hundred meters long, but the wait was shorter than I imagined (also, looking from the end of the queue it was impossible to tell how long it actually was, which probably made it easier... or not). The Japanese seem to have an endless patience when it comes to queueing, but more on that another time. We all bought an omikuji, a small paper that predicts one's fortune in different aspects of life. If the prediction is bad, the paper is folded and attached to a tree or fence at the temple grounds. This way the bad luck is believed to be left behind. Luckily for me, the prediction was good and I kept the paper!

Tado shrine & the beginning of the queue.

Food stalls in front of the temple.

The following day it was time to leave Yourou and start planning the upcoming visit to Tokyo, since I had still a few days of vacation left. More on that in the next post. I'm very grateful to Mau and Mami for this unique opportunity, which I will cherish for a long time. It was interesting to see the New Year traditions and experience them with a Japanese family. Thank you! 

 I'm a little late, but I wish everyone a happy New Year! 明けましておめでとうございます。

December 27, 2011

All I Want for Christmas Is...

The bounenkais were a lot of fun last week. We ate, drank, and lead by the professor we continued from the first restaurant to a famous restaurant chain in Nagoya, Yamachan, to eat spicy tebasaki chicken wings. And nothing is better than washing them down with some beer, of course. A few nights after was the time for our ultimate team's bounenkai, which ended in a karaoke bar. I was the only non-Japanese and also the only one singing non-Japanese songs. It was interesting to see what kind of music the Japanese enjoy and hearing them sing was quite an experience: they sang with such passion that I wonder if they still had vocal cords in the morning.

Bounenkai. Just before the "BOMB".

レミオロメン 粉雪 (Remioren - Konayuki) seems to be a popular karaoke song...

On Christmas Eve many foreign students gathered at Mauricio's place for Christmas dinner. Everybody brought more or less typical Christmas dishes from their country, so we had food all the way from South America to the Middle East, passing by Europe. Christmas Eve's dinner in Japan made no exception to the Finnish one and eventually I was on the brink of indigestion. Especially the numerous sweets and desserts at midnight were treacherous. The next day we had a small party at Alisson's apartment. We ought to have known better than so much as mentioning drinking games inevitably leads to the obvious outcome. Rumors say a merry party of one Japanese and two Finns was quite excited about the unexpected snowfall in the middle of the night...

Ok, so there is actually concrete proof of what happened.

The next day only one man was still standing.

December 18, 2011

Jazz & Shaking

The past two weeks I've been busy at the laboratory finishing a set of experiments and preparing a presentation about the results. I don't remember ever putting in so many hours in a week. Then, last Wednesday, just before the presentation, the tension was literally palpable. It started off as a little shaking and suddenly the building was swaying gently. It lasted for 20 to 30 seconds and, as suddenly as it had began, it also ended. I had just experienced my first earthquake. No need to tell you that after the tremor, the presentation was the easy part.

Our takoyaki party. Alisson behind the camera.

During the week I also received a very pleasant surprise from my parents, who had sent me a care package stuffed with chocolates, piparkakku, näkkileipä and warm socks. Thank you, Christmas came early this year! Speaking of Christmas, it doesn't really feel like it is at hand. Perhaps it is the lack of snow and cold. Or then, it is because Christmas is merely a popular day for romantic dates in Japan. Of course, many department stores have decorations in an attempt to exploit the commercial aspect of Christmas and boost their sells, but it doesn't have any deeper meaning to it in here. On the other hand, New Year is the most important holiday in Japan and it is the time when families gather to spend time together and visit temples. So the festive traditions are more or less the exact opposite of those in the West.

It's rare to see Christmas decorations in private houses, but these guys are
quite eager about it to say the least.

After all the sweating and shaking at the laboratory, last weekend was finally time for some fun. On Friday Viviane organized a takoyaki party. The takoyakis turned out delicious and it also came clear to me what some people were laughing about earlier that day, when I told them about the night's theme: it is usual to fill one random takoyaki with an excessive amount of wasabi to one unlucky person's delight. After eating, we headed to Sakae to sing the night away at a karaoke bar and took the first subway back home. Thanks Vivi for the great night!

Definitely no wasabi in that takoyaki just below the chopstick.

To put a perfect finishing touch to the weekend, we went with Joy and her friends to see Drunken Fish featuring guest stars from Jazz Dragon at Jazz Inn Lovely yesterday. The lead guitarist, who had been drinking something stronger than virgin Cuba Libres, engaged in spirited improvisations and solos to the surprise of some of the other band members too, judging by their laughs and expressions. You could see that the band was having fun playing together and the public was also entertained and amused, me included.

Drunken Fish feat. Jazz Dragon.

This week will be an interesting one and I'm looking forward to both our lab's and my ultimate team's 忘年会 ("Bounenkai"), the Japanese counterpart for end-of-the-year party and somewhat similar to pikkujoulut in Finland. The kanjis in Bounenkai actually mean "forget year party" and the aim is to leave behind the worries and troubles of the past year. In other words, it is an occasion to go on a binge and forget. Sounds good.

December 02, 2011

The Cardboard Dragon

Time to break radio silence! The blog is lagging behind, which you have probably noticed by the lack of updates recently. Some of you may have seen glimpses of the future blog entries in social media networks in the form of pictures, wall posts or location data. It's time to tell you what really happened.

Almost a month ago we decided to go to Spa Land in Nagashima. Spa Land is more than just a spa resort with outdoor pools and dozens of slides; it is also known for its onsen, japanese hot spring, and one of the biggest amusement parks in Japan. Our lionhearted group, consisting of Jana, Naoko, Noora, Viviane, Ankur and me, set on the arduous quest to tame the Steel Dragon (explanation follows, hopefully).

The last picture.

The weather forecast was cloudy with a 50% chance of precipitations at noon, increasing toward the evening, but it didn't discourage us. To the contrary, fewer people meant shorter queues and more time to enjoy the attractions. In our unfaltering logic, we decided to slowly build up momentum starting from the more easygoing and stomach-friendly rides, to finally culminate the day on the awe-inspiring and almighty Steel Dragon 2000, the biggest roller coaster in Nagashima and one of the biggest in the world as a matter of fact.

The almighty Steel Dragon 2000.

The traditional viking ship was the first attraction to test our guts (hehe, a pun). We also got rocketed sky-high and soaked in the overflowing chute just to be blow-dried a while later on the White Cyclone.
All slicked up, it was the perfect moment for an intense photo shoot in a purikura booth. The idea is the same as in a normal photo booth, but in purikura the goal is to strike cute poses and retouch the pictures with ready-made backgrounds, texts and items to make it as adorable and sweet as a possible.

Purikura. The definition of kawaii :)

Shortly after the purikura, the odds turned against us and it started to rain. The rainfall didn't stop and most of the attractions were shut down, thus we opted for some lunch. We had been to most of the rides, so as soon as the rain stopped, we rushed to the Steel Dragon entrance. We were fast enough to get on the second car and felt a surge of excitement. Finally, the big finale of the day! We were all laughing when I said let's take the last picture. As soon as we sat down in the car and the security belts were tightened up, all hell broke loose and spears of ice it started pouring and the roller coaster was closed. We weren't laughing anymore.

Next time your mine, Steel Dragon!

Fortunately, the day didn't end there. The hot waters of the onsen soothed our wounds and washed away the minor disappointment. Back at Nagoya, we were starving and decided to fill our stomachs with ramen. We were reborn. High five!


November 16, 2011

From Ultimate Failure to Success

Most of the readers probably know that I play ultimate frisbee and the title of the entry refers to that. With the intended pun, of course. To tell you the truth, I was not in a rush to start playing ultimate again, because after the very eventful ultimate summer I was not only bruised, battered and physically exhausted, but I needed to put it out of my mind as well. As the weeks passed, though, I had to give in to the temptation to play ultimate again.

Looking for an ultimate team was actually harder than I thought. The major obstacle was the language barrier since all the information was in Japanese. I spent countless hours trying to decipher kanjis using google translate and electronic dictionaries. The other obstacle was the surprisingly large amount of outdated information, which hindered my search. Even the Aichi flying disc federation (the region comprising Nagoya and its surroundings) had a lot of links to non-existing webpages and teams that no longer played. Despite the difficulties, I found out that the teams from Aichi face each other four times a year in a regional tournament, the Toukai Open, which was held for the last time this year at the end of October in the nearby city of Okazaki. A perfect occasion to get to know the local ultimate scene and find a team. Adding to my excitement was also the news that UNO, one of the best women ultimate teams in the world, was participating to the event.

Okazaki Sports Center

I nearly overslept the whole thing, because what was supposed to be one or two beers the previous night turned into partying the night away. Anyway, I was able to leave around noon and arrived to Okazaki around 2 pm, an hour later than I anticipated, because switching trains from two different railway companies and then finding the right bus in an unknown place took longer than I had imagined. Okazaki Sports Center extended over a hill and it took me some time to go around looking for the ultimate tournament. By 3 pm I had been everywhere, but I hadn't seen a single frisbee, player or team. The whole thing turned out to be an ultimate failure. Perhaps the games were already over by 2-3 pm, but I never got any confirmation to this and never found any tournament results. Luckily the weather was nice, so I went for a walk and tried to enjoy the beautiful scenery from the top of the hill despite the disappointment.

But where are the ultimate fields??

At the top of the hill with the city of Okazaki faintly visible in the distance.

Blooms, the ultimate team of Nagoya University, practices every Saturday morning from 9 to 12 am and two weeks after the Okazaki incident, I was able to participate. The team consists mostly of first and second year ultimate players with a few more experienced players, all in all a dozen players. The drills were quite basic throwing drills with one slightly more challenging one, ダンプ練習 (dampu renshuu) or more familiarly a dump drill with a few well-timed cutbacks from upfield. After the practice the whole team went to eat an abundant tonkatsu meal at a nearby restaurant, a custom after every Saturday practice. Such a habit is elusive in Finland, although it could be plausible a little bit more unfrequently, say once a month. At present our team in Finland goes to eat together only at the end of the season, so in my opinion such a habit would be very welcome.

The vending machines at the Sports Center sell two suitably named sports
beverages: Pocari Sweat and Match.

Next week Blooms has a practice match and I will go play with AG Funks, a non-university team based in the city of Toyota. So stay tuned, there will be more ultimate news in the near future!