Tags: christmas, christmas tree, german, japan, market, osaka, sky building, umeda
After a long festive season hiatus, I’m back at the blog again. My apologies to those who checked back here in search of food for thought and a feast for the eyes, only to be greeted with a stale layer of mould from old posts.
Anyway………”Happy New Year” and all that. Being a month and a half late, I’m probably the last blog artist on the planet to say happy new year , but I guess it’s never too late to start. Actually I don’t feel too bad about it, because there are still Christmas carols on the playlist at my work. So I realise I’m 3 months late to talk about the Yuletide season, but here goes anyway.
Christmas in Japan is an interesting one, in the fact that they don’t celebrate it as a public holiday. People go to work like it’s a normal day and all the shops are open. They do however love the idea of Christmas, which to them is all romantic and a bit of an excuse for some seasonal marketing. In Japan, New Years Day is the most important holiday festival with the emphasis on family in the same way we would at Christmas. Christmas is then seen more as a romantic time for couples, a time to eat Christmas cake and go to KFC. Eating at KFC as part of the season’s festivities is a really big deal. 20% of KFC’s annual sales in Japan is on Christmas and Boxing Day, resulting in people booking weeks in advance for a taste of the Colonel’s secret recipe.
Osaka holds an annual German Christmas market which runs for about four weeks at the Umeda Sky Building. At first I couldn’t figure out what eating knackwurst and sauerkraut had to do with Christmas, until my Dad reminded me that Christmas trees originally came from Germany. So apparently they didn’t just invent the car and roads to drive really fast on them, but they also invented a place to put Christmas presents too.
Needless to say then, the market features a 27 metre tall tree (one of the largest in the world) and a vintage German merry-go-round built in 1896. There are also stalls selling different German food and drink to try, including sausages, potatoes, gingerbread cookies and some spiced, mulled wine served warm in a glass shaped like a Christmas stocking. It was all a bit fun and the because the weather was cold it made the food taste even better.
Next post I’ll talk about our trip to Sapporo.
Tags: arboretum, autumn, fall, foilage, japan, kobe, kyoto, leaves, maple leaves
I remember on a few occasions, walking into homewares shops in Australia and seeing vases for sale that were filled with fake plastic branches of red Japanese maple leaves. I remember thinking they looked ridiculously fake and that whoever made them wasn’t even trying to make it look real. Come on. There is no way that leaves look that colour.
It’s strange to say this, but being in Japan and seeing real Japanese maple trees, the fake plastic leaves almost look more ‘real’ than the real maple leaves. The colour on some of the leaves here is so red and so vibrant that it almost looks fake. It’s also amazing to see the gradient of colour on each of the leaves that go from yellow/orange in the centre, to red on the outside of the leaf.
If you were to look at destinations around the world to spend a picturesque autumn afternoon, it’s fair to say that New York or Paris would be at the top of most people’s lists. While most people wouldn’t think of it, autumn in Japan is quite stunning if you visit areas full of maple trees that carry the full spectrum of yellow to dark red and every shade in between.
Kyoto is probably the most iconic location for seeing autumn foilage in Japan and rightly so. There are some amazing temples surrounded by stunning gardens that look good all year round, but especially come alive in spring when cherry blossoms blanket the area in pink and white, and in autumn when the maple leaves set the forest alight.
We visited Kyoto in the evening for a special night illumination of the maple leaves. One of the gardens we walked through had well positioned lights that make the red of the trees look like they were almost on fire. There was some guy playing acoustic guitar which added to the whole experience, then at the end there was an outdoor tea house that gave everyone a cup of green tea and a traditional sweet potato cake. The temperature was quite cool so it was nice sitting in the chilly air sipping tea and holding the cup to warm our hands while being surrounded by maple leaves. I realise that I often go overboard with superlatives, but from the combination of factors in that experience, I can honestly say it was the best cup of tea I’ve ever had.
The following weekend, we were in Kobe to visit the doctor to see if our baby is going to be a girl or a boy, but the doctor was unable to tell and said we have to come back in a few weeks to find out. We figured that while we were going there, we should try see some of the seasonal foilage. The truth is no one really thinks of visiting Kobe to see autumn leaves. It’s alway’s Kyoto or Nara that attracts the crowds.
Doing a search online, we found that the Kobe Arboretum (tree garden) was listed as a good location, so we took a bus up a long winding road to Mount Rokko. It’s the largest botanical garden in Japan, so we figured there would have to be at least one tree that was red in colour. When I say that the road was winding, I mean the road was seriously windy and narrow, and the bus driver had quite a challenge getting up. He stalled a few times and scraped the bus along the side of the cliff, but we managed to make it to the top without falling to our doom. Kobe turned out to be a fantastic place to visit, because it didn’t have the crowds of people that Kyoto gets. There were a few times when we were walking through the gardens, that there was no one else around. It’s strange to be anywhere in Japan where there isn’t masses of people.
I don’t really have much else to say about the autumn leaves in Kobe, other than I totally amazed how vibrant the trees looked and would highly recommend visiting in autumn.
Tags: bento, cute, hello kitty, japan, kawaii, osaka
I was perusing over a mini list I had made of places and topics to share in this blog, when it struck me that there was something which needed to be explained in order progress further. To an outsider from another country, Japan appears to have a really strange culture which takes delight in all things weird, however as I’ve been living here, I’ve gotten to know a lot of Japanese people and a better understanding of their way of doing things. I’ve come to realise that Japanese culture is not as strange as I first imagined. It’s much, much weirder.
I’m just kidding……sort of. Actually, it all makes a bit more sense when you understand this country’s love for Kawaii.
The word Kawaii (which sounds a bit like Hawaii with a ‘k’) means ‘cute’ in Japanese and would probably be one of the most overused adjectives in their language. The reason for this is due to the fact that Japanese culture has changed in the last 40 years to become a culture of ‘cute’.
I should point out as well, that the word Kawaii mustn’t be confused with the piano brand ‘Kawai’, the Hawaiian island ‘Kauai’, or the classic tourist mispronunciation of the word – Kowai, which means ‘scary’. I’ve seen a foreigner try to be nice and say to a mother that her baby was cute, however they unknowingly said that the baby was scary.
Japan’s obsession with cuteness started 40 years ago when the mechanical pencil (also know as clutch pencil, pacer or clicky pencil) was invented. Japanese school girls could write smaller and added little drawings such as love hearts and smiley faces, creating a new style of writing. Magazine and comic companies started to realise what was going on and began to use it in their advertising. This progressed to stationary and other products with cute writing and pictures, and eventually lead to the rise of companies such as Sanrio, who invented Hello Kitty and now has about 50 characters that can been seen on all sorts of products.
I should add that this is no small industry; Sanrio make over a billion dollars every year. Not bad for a company whose characters include ‘Pandapple’. A panda with half of it’s head looking like an apple.
This culture of ‘cuteness’ has gone even further and no longer is just aimed at school girls, but adults and children alike. Everything from food, clothing, public transport, corporate business logos, police stations, buildings and advertising has been given the cute treatment. Even the way people talk and act has changed. So whilst it doesn’t justify why a police department should have a mascot of a dancing, cartoon chicken, or why a bank should have Miffy the rabbit as their mascot, it does help to understand that it’s part of the cute culture.
Mostly it’s kind of amusing, but sometimes it gets a bit much and can feel like sweetened condensed milk injected into your eyeballs. Their appreciation of anything remotely cute is overwhelming. When I show students a photo of our dog (which I must say is a cute looking dog), they scream “Kawaaaaaaaaaaiiiiiiiiii” and nearly faint.
Despite the fact that Japan can go overboard in their love for Kawaii, I do really like the fact that they are genuine and sincere, not cynical and critical like we have sadly become in western culture.
Hopefully this helps explain an important part of this country’s culture and brings a bit understanding about some weird and wonderful, topics that I’ll cover in the near future of this blog.
Tags: alley, night market, snake, taipei, taiwan
It was our last night in Taiwan, and I’m on the train heading down to the oldest district in Taipei to visit the notorious Snake Alley Market. In case you are thinking that perhaps the name ‘Snake Alley’ is due to the winding S-shape of the market, or that it was given the name years ago from the sighting of local fauna, I regret to inform you that neither of these are the case. It’s a market that has live snakes with restaurants serving snake meat, blood and bile, as well as other reptiles and parts of animals that shouldn’t be eaten.
So with the song ‘Eye of the Tiger’ playing in my head, I got off the train having mentally psyched myself up to go and eat some reptilian cuisine. It sounds kind of terrible, but I figured that people eat snake in Australia, so it can’t be that bad. Then again, people eat spam in Australia.
I found a restaurant with a giant yellow python in a glass cabinet and a very bored looking guy sitting behind the front counter. On top of the counter there was a meal set on display which consisted of snake soup and two small glasses, one with snake blood and the other with bile. I took a photo of the snake and the guy at the counter pointed to a bunch of signs saying that you can’t take photos unless you eat at the restaurant.
On the side wall, there were a number of other yellow pythons with rats in cages above. He told me that you can feed the snake and then eat one of them. I didn’t ask whether the snake digests the rat first, or if the half digested rodent comes complimentary with the meal. I figured that the cost of buying a yellow python ($200 to $600) seemed too expensive for the very cheap amount they were selling the McSnakey meal for, so my guess is that their ingredients were sourced from other areas. There is probably some kid running around the dumpsters out the back with a stick, catching a dirty, old, two-headed, disease ridden snake that the cook chops up and put in a pot. I’d love to see what Gordon Ramsay thinks about that.
Three Chinese guys who were paying for their meal and leaving the restaurant, told me I should try it. They seemed pretty excited and loudly stated how delicious it was, but I didn’t really trust what they were saying for a few reasons: 1. They were visiting from China and weren’t even Taiwanese, 2. China eats things that should never be food, so snake is nothing in comparison, 3. They were really drunk.
The other markets that we visited were quite vibrant with lots of things going on, but in contrast this place felt like a ghost town. The combination of a quiet street with hardly any people, dim lighting and a lot of the shops being closed, made for an eerie atmosphere.
The Chinese guys left and I was standing at the front of an empty restaurant that looked more like pet shop, with Mr Frowny half asleep behind the counter and the sound of tumbleweeds rolling behind me. I couldn’t bring myself to eat any snake for the fact that the atmosphere of place was making me feel too weird. Had the circumstances been different, I definitely would have tried it. Oh well, maybe next time. Because there were signs everywhere saying ‘no photos’, I was only able to get a few low quality ones from a distance.
As it turns out, most Taiwanese people have never eaten snake and are quite unhappy at the idea. I asked some Taiwanese friends of mine if they had tasted it, and they all screwed up their face and said they wouldn’t.
So that’s it for Taiwan. It was fun, but it’s nice to be back in Japan. Despite all the weird food, the people are nice and friendly and it’s definitely an interesting country to visit.
We took a day trip to the scenic little town of Jiufen, which in Chinese translates as ‘Nine Portions’. That’s a bit strange really. It got the name because there were nine families that lived in the town and when shipments of food arrived, they always requested nine portions. If I was naming the town, I would call it something far more interesting and marketing friendly, such as ‘Diamond Lookout’, ‘El-Moutain Relaxo’ or ‘Awesome Cat Hill’.
I dunno. The problem with calling it ‘Nine Portions’, is that it doesn’t sell the strong points of having an amazing view of the ocean and the surrounding valley. Regardless of what it’s called, I have to say that Taiwan really does have some incredible natural landscapes.
Speaking of names, I talked to a Japanese guy at work the other day who told me that his name means ‘Flying Man’. I’m guessing he that he can’t actually fly.
The little town of Jiufen has a market running through it that you walk through to get to the lookout. Upon the first few steps of entering, we were greeted with the now familiar, delicious smell of stinky tofu gently wafting through the air. Actually it wasn’t gentle at all. It was like a punch in the nose. A punch in the nose from a bag of rotting garbage that bursts in your face.
Apart from that, the market had an interesting assortment of food and gifts, which were all very cheap. We ate wild boar sausages on a stick, which tasted okay, and bought a hand crafted flute in the shape of a duck. You can play two full scales on it, which I think is pretty amazing. For lunch we had Chinese hot-pot, which didn’t taste that great to be honest. It was difficult not to compare it to Japanese nabe, which is a similar dish except that it tastes really good. What the cafe lost in culinary points however, was certainly redeemed by it’s location value. Sitting on the edge of the cliff overlooking the hinterland and the ocean below, was such a nice view that it made me care very little for what I was eating, except maybe if it was stinky tofu.
So the next post will be the last one on Taiwan. It’s back to Taipei to visit the infamous Snake Alley.
I’ll admit the title is a little ambiguous, so let me explain. See, what I’ve done is a clever, visual play on words. ‘Hualien’ is a place we visited in Taiwan, which looks very similar in spelling to the word ‘alien’. The only problem with this hilariously brilliant title, is that ‘Hualien’ is pronounced nothing like the word ‘alien’, but rather sounds like ‘Hwa-lin’. So it works on a visual level, but as soon as you read it out loud it falls flat, like an alien falling off a bicycle.
Hualien is the little city we stayed at when we visited Taroko Gorge. It’s a small place and probably a waste of time to stay at if you weren’t travelling to the gorge. As it turns out, we had a lot of fun in there. The hotel was in the centre of town and was quite nice. The lights on the outside changed colours at night and the interior had a slick looking modern, asian theme going on. The only weird thing is that we were the only people staying there. I mean, we never saw any other guests or any indication there were other guests, the whole time we were there. The giant foyer, lounge area and breakfast room were all empty. So that was odd, but it was still nice.
As part of our accommodation, the hotel gave us bikes to ride. I don’t know why, but the words ‘complimentary bicycle’ just sound funny together. I’m imagining a bellboy wearing a little top hat, riding it up to me and saying , “Your complimentary bicycle sir. We do offer hokey spokes and a basket with flowers on it, for an additional charge if you are at all interested”. “No thank you”, I’d reply. “Maybe next time if it’s my birthday.”
We rode to a night market that was more like an Asian side-show alley. They had the usual strange food for sale, including small shells with some sort hermit crabs in them, that you fill in a cup to snack on like popcorn. Not exactly sure how that worked, but the market was fairly quiet and mostly just sideshow games where you could win prizes. I used a skill tester and won a little Japanese Domo plush toy, key-ring on my first try. Pretty happy about that.
Riding our bikes through the city streets was really fun, but kind of scary because there was no room to ride on the footpath and in Taiwan, cars drive on the right side of the road. We nearly got hit quite a few times by cars or scooters and in the midst of the frivolities, I somehow ripped a giant hole in the knee of my jeans. It almost looked like I had been shot in the back of the knee and there was a huge exit wound on the front, minus all the blood.
After seeing Taroko Gorge, we took a train up to Jaioxi, where we stayed at an onsen (natural hot springs) hotel. I’m sure we were the only foreigners at both the hotel and the rest of the city. There were quite a few different types of hot spring spas to use, including a pool where you put your feet in and small fish eat all the dead skin off it. It felt too weird for me with the fish biting my feet, but interesting non the less. At the hotel, we also had a massage which I was nervous about because I had never had one before, but as it turned out, was really nice and relaxing. Overall it was a really great stay and would definitely go back there.
Next post I’ll talk about visiting Juifen, buying a whistle and eating wild boar.