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(Birth)Day in Kyoto, Japan [Part I]

25 Dec

Happy Holidays Friends!

Wishing you all health and happiness in 2013.

2013? I can’t believe how fast time has flown. Could it be that I’ve already lived in Korea for 2 years?! 헉!

And while we all begin to make plans for our big new year’s celebration (lie: I’m not planning on planning a thing), I thought it would be the perfect time to share how I celebrated my new year – of life – during my most delicious birthday ever.

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It all started one week before my birthday, when G and I were playing a romantical game of cards (Geriatric love, anyone?) and I was complaining about my self-induced pressure to host a party with no venue in mind.

By the way, I’m faced with this conundrum every year, which usually results in avoiding the birthday-thing altogether.  

G, having (undoubtedly) anticipated this annual conversation, smiled and whipped out a piece of paper saying, “Oh yea, I printed out the weather report for your birthday weekend, so we could figure out what we wanted to do- picnic, bbq…”

And then time stopped.

Because this I know for sure, G has NEVER, in his life, noticed the weather (nor planned a weekend in advance, but I’m not gunna go there).  This kid does what he wants, when he wants, rain or shine-  making this conversation entirely suspect.

I puzzled-ly took the paper from his hands and realized – HOLY SUSHI – G had printed out the weather report for KYOTO!

And that is how my surprise birthday weekend in Japan was unveiled.

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A few days later, G & I landed in Osaka and took the JR WEST train straight to Kyoto (approximately a 75 minute ride).

Quick tip #1: Travel to Kyoto is exceptionally easy as the train station is located right outside the airport.  Also, foreigners are able to buy discount tickets (Japan West Rail Pass) at the tourist information counter, as seen below.

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 Quick tip #2:  Make sure to stop by a 7-Eleven around the airport to pick up some water and Japanese snacks for the journey (ice cream waffle sandwich is our personal favorite).

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Kyoto, the former capital of Japan (quite possibly my favorite, non-homeland, country), exceeded my high expectations in every way.  The city is traditional with pops of new; quiet, but lively; inviting yet secretive; majestic and humble…

and all juxtapositions aside, it’s really just perfect.

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We hopped off the train, stashed our backpack in lockers, and immediately set off for our first destination – Nishiki market, Kyoto food mecca.

What?! With only 48 hours in Japan, one must seize all Japanese food intake opportunities.

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Nishiki Market is a narrow, indoor, food market that spans a delectable 5 blocks.  The market has over 100 tiny shops and restaurants selling local ingredients and specialized, ready-made food.

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I have no idea how long we spent eating our way through the market, but every second was delicious.

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To walk off the few (million) calories absorbed during our foodie-adventures, we headed to Gion, Kyoto’s famous Geisha district.  There, we purposely lost ourselves in the beautifully preserved streets, peeping into dimly-lit tea houses, and finding treasures as we explored.

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We were also lucky enough to spot a few Geishas, who hurriedly walked past the swarming, paparazzi-like tourists.

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At the East end of Gion’s main touristy-street, Shijō-dōri, we stumbled across the Yasaka Shrine.

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This was just the first of many religious places we stumbled upon in Kyoto- a city packed with over 1,600 Buddhist temples and 400 Shinto shrines.

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And as much as I can’t wait to tell you about all our religious & non-religious activity (sashimi and Asahi, anyone?!), I’m realizing now that this post has grown too long and I am about to miss my flight…

Part II in the works!

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Tokyo Highlights (Part 3)

27 Aug

I realize that I shouldn’t be abusing my lovely blog platform to wax-poetic about Tokyo (see Tokyo Highlights Part 1 & Part 2 for evidence), but I just can’t help myself.  So, dear friends, allow me to indulge in 1 final post about this delicious city & then I promise I’ll stop with all the Tokyo talk (for now).

Dōmo arigatō.

Okay, so let’s talk Sunday FUNday.

If you happen to be visiting Japan on a Sunday, I’d highly recommend that you spend the day people-watching and boutique hopping in Harajuku and Aoyama.  These vibrant, young neighborhoods are the best places in Japan (dare I say, the world?!) to indulge in crazy, cool and unbelievably unique fashion.

For someone who is lightly obsessed with fashion, like myself, walking around Harajuku is pure divinity- neon pants, colorful wigs, 6 inch platforms – anything goes!

But this area isn’t fun for the fashionistas alone, it’s also the perfect place for the anthropologically-minded tourist.  Believe me, you’ve never seen anything like it.

On a sunny afternoon, Jingu Bridge (right outside the Harajuku metro stop) is the perfect place to witness some of Tokyo’s many sub-cultures.  Here you’ll find Harajuku’s cosplayers, Lolitas, anime characters, etc. hanging out with each other and getting photographed by wide-eyed tourists, like moi.

(Stare all you want, but be sure to ask permission before taking a photo.)

If you need a little break from the “cray-cray” Harajuku fashion, cross the Jingu bridge to reach the beautiful Meiji Shrine.  The gardens surrounding the shrine are so lovely, that you can easily forget that you’re still in ultra-modern Tokyo.

But I didn’t want to forget.

So, after the quickest of walks to the Meiji Shrine (I didn’t have time to dilly dally – I was on a fashionably anthropological mission here, folks!), I pushed G & my friends toward the neighboring Yoyogi Park.

Looks pretty normal, right?

WRONG!

Yoyogi Park, on a Sunday, is one of the kookiest places I have ever visited.  (And for point of reference, I went to U.C. Berkeley, so I know kooky.)  Remember the quote from Zoolander, “I feel like I’m taking CRAZY pills?”  That’s exactly how I felt when walking through Yoyogi.

Let me explain.

At the entrance to the park, we had our first encounter with weirdness (in a good way) – the Rockabilly dancers.  This eclectic group of rockers, rappers, greasers and twisters gather every Sunday at Yoyogi Park to perform their favorite dances.

You know, just for fun… leather jackets, pompadours & all that jazz.

It was a fascinating display, to say the least.

Once we were finally able to detach ourselves from this bizarre jiving site, we entered the park & saw…

HAIR!  And lots of it.

But that was probably the most “normal” thing we saw that day because right around the corner there was…

a novice boy band!  (It wasn’t pretty.)

And just a hop-skip away, we ran into…

and people playing…

and dogs wearing…

and who can forget…

not to mention…

Now can you see why I fell so hard for Tokyo?!

I thought so.

Okay, now I’m done.

Tokyo Highlights (Part 2)

24 Aug

Now that you’ve followed Part 1 of my tour de Tokyo, it’s time to explore the city’s nightlife in some of the saucier parts of the town-

Welcome to Shinjuku

Shinjuku is one of the busiest districts in Tokyo- full of skyscrapers, neon lights, energetic crowds &, hello, the 2nd largest train station in the world (meeting up with your friends in this area is not an easy task).

While it may induce a bit of sensory overload, I fell in love with Shinjuku for several unconventional reasons:

(And this is the part when you find out how weird I really am.)

(1)  The man-hair of Shinjuku is out of control.  I think these guys are club promoters, and frankly, I’d follow their hair anywhere.

*Sorry these photos are terrible, but I tried to be sly when snapping them*

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(2)  G & I found a fruit stand in Shinjuku selling fairly-priced watermelon and pineapple slices on a stick.

What? You don’t think that cheap tropical fruit merits love?  Try living in Seoul, where watermelons are paid for in gold.  Then come talk to me.

(As you can see, we’ve visited this fruit stand many-a-time.  Even brought along J & P.)

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(3) Shinjuku is home to Kabukicho, Tokyo’s well known red-light district.  Okay, I know this sounds terrible, but I do find it extremely interesting to walk around these brothely areas of town – especially when they are seedy, but safe.

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(4) Nothing revs up ones hunger like walking around peep shows and cabarets (or not), & thanks to G’s food-spotting skills, we found the best hole-in-the-wall udon place that Tokyo’s red district had to offer.

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(5) Last but not least, my absolute favorite part of Shinjuku is Golden Gai, an area comprised of 6 rickety & narrow alleyways, containing over 200 tiny tiny tiny tiny bars.  How tiny?  5 people at a bar- tiny.

I was totally smitten by the Golden Gai bars because they are both uniquely intimate and artsy.  Almost every little bar has a different theme: flamenco, jazz, piano, classic movies, karaoke, pop – making it extraordinarily fun for a pub crawl with friends.

CHEERS!

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On a completely unrelated note, I have a quick confession- I’m falling asleep at my computer & I think it’s about time I put myself to bed.  If you are still interested in my adventures in Tokyo, I’ll be writing Highlights Part 3 this week.

Tokyo Highlights (Part 1)

23 Aug

Planning a trip to Tokyo?

Then you know that Japan’s capital city can be a bit overwhelming.

Tokyo is huge, modern, unexpected, fast, bright, electric, stylish, and unbelievably gorgeous.  (Yes, I could use every positive adjective to describe it, but I think you get the point.)  There are so many sites and flavors that it’s easy to be daunted by Tokyo’s immensity.

So, if you want to visit Japan, or if you’re just interested in sampling a bit of Tokyo from your computer screens- I’m happy to share my top-Tokyo-picks, in hopes of making a BIG city feel a bit smaller.

So, first thing’s first – to get around Tokyo, you must be equipped with at least 1 good guide book.  I mainly used Lonely Planet’s Tokyo City Guide as well as Tokyo Encounter.

But here’s the catch…

No matter how much you read, organize, plan and prepare – you will get lost in Tokyo.  Fact.  Own it and get comfortable with it because it’s just going to happen.  Tokyo’s streets are rarely named and the buildings are numbered in the order in which they were constructed – so following a map or finding an address isn’t easy AT ALL (even for the savviest of navigators).  Luckily, if you really are a lost sheep, you can always rely on the trusty Japanese, who are EXTREMELY nice and super helpful.

Okay, so now that you are mentally and emotionally prepared for this adventure, it’s time to dive into one of the coolest cities in the world.

First stop: Tsukiji Market

Quick tip: Unless you want fish guts all over your feet, I'd highly recommend close-toed shoes for the day!

Tsukiji is Japan’s biggest wholesale fish market, and is packed to the brim with colorful stalls selling over 450 different types of seafood.  G & I got an early start on Tsukiji (arriving around 7:00 or 8:00 am) to fully experience the hustle & bustle of the market in action – and trust me, there was ACTION!

In fact, the first time I went to Tsukiji, I was so consumed by all the colors and activity (like an infant attracted to light and sound), that I almost got run-over by a zooming mini-tractor-cart-thingee without even noticing *woops*!

Lucky for me, Superman G saw the electric cart speeding in my direction and pulled me backward by yanking my shirt (and then I got mad at him for stretching out my T…  I’m not a morning person).

After wandering the many aisles of the fish market, G & I headed to breakfast with our friend K, at the nearby Sushi Daiwa (and later came back to eat at the neighboring, Sushi Dai- which was even tastier! tel. 03/3547-6797), where we devoured the freshest sushi in Tokyo.

Think it’s weird to eat raw fish for breakfast?!  Think again!

I’m drooling as I post these pics.  Tuna, scallops, yellowtail, shrip, tomago… what more can a sushi fanatic ask for?!?  Oh, and please note the intense amount of ginger that the chef so lovingly placed in front of me (per my request… alright, I begged).  I’m not ashamed to admit that I had 2 more heaping servings of ginger that morning.

YUM!

To walk off our breakfast belly, we took a quick stroll to & through the beautiful Hama-Rikyu gardens.

The serenity of Hama-Rikyu helped us unwind and relax after a crazizle morning at the market.  When we finally felt bastante rejuvenated, we walked towards the Garden’s pier, where we caught a sightseeing boat up the Sumida River to Asakusa.

By the way, if you take this boat tour & are offered a weird looking waffle-covered-ice-cream-sandwich-type-thing, DO YOURSELF A FAVOR and buy it!  G hasn’t stopped dreaming about this yummy & bizarre treat since.

The boat dropped us off at Asakusa, where we visited Senso-ji, Tokyo’s oldest temple.

And when in Tokyo temples, do as the locals do – so we spritzed ourselves with healing water, burned some incense and got our Buddhist fortune on.

As you can imagine, performing all these Japanese Buddhist rituals can really make a girl (and guy) pretty hungry.  So, after a quick tour around the old & quaint alleys of Asakusa, G & I met our friends for a delicious tempura lunch at Daikokuya (tel. 03/3844-1111).

Feeling fat and happy after yet another great meal – we lazily decided to head to Ginza, one of the poshest and most expensive shopping districts in Tokyo.

And, of course, where there is status, there is the Gap!  😉

(Miss you guys!)

FYI- this picture was actually taken in Shibuya's Gap, but I thought I'd add it anyway

All kidding aside, if you like international luxury brands and beautifully modern stores – Ginza is your place.

Unfortunately, with no full-time job and the slight absence of incoming $$$, I did not have the best time in Ginza- swooning over product that I couldn’t afford to buy.

In retrospect, I would have much preferred to spend a low-key afternoon exploring the less touristy areas of Ebisu, Daikanyama & Naka Meguro (which I visited with J on my most recent trip to Tokyo).  These neighborhoods have no major sights, but are littered with hip cafes, well-designed boutiques, and European-type streets.  If I could live in Tokyo – this would definitely be my area of choice.

Exhausted of this post yet?!  So am I…  Too bad we haven’t even gotten to Tokyo’s nightlife, Japanese sub-cultures and, HELLO, shopping!  If you are still interested (and honestly, I commend you for reading up to this point) – tune in later this week for my Tokyo Highlights Part 2.

This Week I Liked…TOKYO!

21 Aug


This week I met my San Franciscan loves, J & P, in Tokyo- one of the coolest cities in the world.  We started off our Japanese adventure with Tokyo-tapas and a champagne toast- Kanpie! 乾杯!

C’est moi pretending to be lighthearted and carefree, while actually being trampled by the crowd in Shinjuku.  (Shinjuku is one of the major commercial centers in Tokyo & is also the location where Lost in Translation was filmed.)

J & P captured in a candid moment of violent romance.

J’s favorite lunch in a perfectly hidden Naka Meguro restaurant- rice bowl with ahi tuna, avocado and flavorful mayo.  I can only describe it as a happy dance for my taste-buds.

Beautifully decorated yarn store in the alleyways of Omotesando.

After a 2+ hour wait, J & I finally squeeze into a famous (& tiny) sushi bar in the Tsukiji Fish Market.  Food just doesn’t get better than this.

Enjoyed peeping into the colorful internal organs of these fake creatures.

Kirin beer, my new drink of choice.

G meets us in Tokyo and we all go out to my favorite pub district, Golden Gai (discovered during our last visit with E & J!  OUR BAR!).

I have many more stories from my trip to Japan, so prepare yourself for Tokyo Part II tomorrow!