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。