Sunday, November 30, 2014

Izakayas: Traditional Japanese Gastropubs, Male Supremacy and Why is Smoking Indoors still acceptable in Japan?

Izakayas are found all over Tokyo. They are Japanese gastropubs or food pubs. They are basically café restaurants selling alcoholic beverages and food. Usually oily kinds of food served in small plates for sharing that go well with beer and sake. Most of these joints are frequented by salaried men who enjoy booze + food + social camaraderie with colleagues. It’s some form of popular local social scene among corporate workers in suits after work.

Most izakayas have a red lantern (see below), sometimes white lantern outside the establishment. However, some of them do not have any, as seen in the above example.

It’s very interesting to see the ‘male supremacy’ culture in Japan. The gender roles are still very traditional. Japan’s breadwinners are the men and the women are supposed to quit their jobs and stay at home once they are married. The independent and strong-willed leader (before joining the Japanese Imperial Royal Family), Crown Princess Masako, among many other things, has led a long case of royal depression as she was unable to produce a male heir to the throne. On the streets, in the subways and metro, and of course in the izakayas, we mostly saw men in dark suits. It is clearly the men running the economy. Recently, I read in the news that two of the female ministers that Japan’s Prime Minister, Shinzo Abe has supported into the position have resigned due to possible corruption issues. The fight to female equality and emancipation in Japan, well I guess, may take some time.

In Chuo ward district where we stayed for the holiday, we saw izakayas on every block. Some are old and traditional in style whilst others have caught up with the times. All the izakaya pictures in this entry were taken in our neighbourhood in Kodenmacho which is part of the Nihonbashi area of Chuo.

Dutchman and I in fact ate at an izakaya twice, which I will post separately soon. Our first experience was a bit hilarious because we ordered the wrong food. Well, what can you actually expect when everything on the menu is written in Japanese Kanji?

Izakayas are also generally loud places. When you walk in the establishment, all the wait and cook staff greets you, well shouts at you actually—‘Irasshaimase!’. The yelling caught me off guard. What the heck was that about? Haha. Well, they are generally an upbeat place with a young employed staff. The constant yelling goes into the night as new customers arrive and leave. Yes, when you leave, they again bid their goodbyes in chorus—‘Onegaishimasou. Arigatou Gozaimasu!’.

Japanese people by nature are usually polite and soft spoken, well at least based from the ones we have encountered, thus izakayas somehow brings out the other side of them. Their loud, and if I may add, their smoky side.

This is a traditional izakaya, just around the corner from our hotel.

Mostly men in suits eat at izakayas, although we have seen women as well and even a family.

These two workers were very drunk, they just came out from an izakaya and were walking in zig-zagged patterns with arms over each other's shoulders. Dutchman was quite amused because in Europe only gays would touch each other like this. In Asia however, straight men hug each other and walk arm in arm, but only when they are overpowered by alcohol.

Now the biggest question however since my visit to Japan is this: Why is smoking still allowed in cafes, bars and restaurants?

Uh, beats me.

The smoking phenomenon is perhaps the most backward aspect I have seen and experienced in Japan, well not to mention the male supremacy as well which I am sure is debatable for many. I was truly shocked when I saw people taking out their cigarettes and lighting them from across our table. Within seconds smoke filled the room. Yuck. Luckily I had one of those surgical masks on because I was not feeling well. In Japan, you are somewhat forced to wear this if you exhibit coughing in public. It’s a—‘If you cannot beat them, join or let them quandary’, both for the mask and the smoking thing.

After a few visits to izakayas, cafes and restaurants, I realised that smoking is the most normal thing to do indoors, especially at izakayas. Thus, when visiting Japan, you have been warned about this unexpected smoking oddity.

A red paper lantern outside the door is a sign that the establishment is an izakaya.

However, some of the modern places do not have lanterns such as the above.

Beer is very popular in Japan.

This is perhaps more of a casual restaurant than an izakaya. There is probably a thin line in distinguishing them as some of the restaurants offer alcohol and have a bar area.

Travel Period: November 2014
Destination: Chuo (Tokyo), Japan

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Random on the Streets in Tokyo: Beverage Vending Machines and Mini Parking Spaces

Perhaps the most random thing we saw on the streets of Tokyo, which I guess you will not see on other streets in cities around the world, are the ubiquitous automated beverage vending machines.

We stayed in Chūō, Tokyo which is also called as Chuo City. Chūō means ‘central ward’ and the district is located in the heart of commercial Tokyo. In Chuo, we stayed in the Kodenmacho neighbourhood which is part of the Nihonbashi area of Chuo.

On the streets in Kodenmacho we quickly noticed the random automated drinks vending machines everywhere. They really stand out. They are placed along the side streets, at street corners, beside parking lots and basically, just everywhere. Some of them are grouped in two’s or three’s and offer a variety of beverages, such as water, cola, tea, coffee, ale, fruit juice and energy boost giving drinks.

I find these very handy, but most importantly, this gives us a peek into the Japanese’s highly developed culture of convenience, technology and trust. I added trust in there because try placing a vending machine randomly on a street in any major metropolitan city anywhere in the world and I am sure it will get vandalised or ransacked in less than 24 hours.

The streets of Tokyo are also very orderly and clean. They are so well groomed and maintained that in Chūō we thought someone must have vacuum cleaned them daily as we rarely saw dust gathering on the side streets. This is the first time we saw a country/city that is very orderly and almost hygienically clean.

Another random thing we saw are mini parking spaces. Some parking spaces are so small, they just offer 2-4 parking spaces whilst others have an elevated solution which are quite similar to the ones I saw in New York City.

Tokyo is one of the most populous metropolitan cities in the world and but you will not notice this in Chūō where the streets are quite relaxed. It is however different in districts such as Shibuya and Shinjuku, where there’s more activity happening on the streets.

Travel Period: November 2014
Destination: Chūō (Tokyo), Japan

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Thursday, November 27, 2014

First Meal in Japan: Udon, you are not my kind of Noodle

We flew from Amsterdam to Tokyo via Fukuoka, a large city in the southern part of Japan. Japan's airports are divided into domestic and international and they are a (free) shuttle bus away from each other. Because our flight from Fukuoka to Tokyo is a domestic flight, we have to transit from the international airport part to the domestic part, but first, we have to go through immigration and then pick up our luggage.

Finally arriving at the domestic airport of Fukuoka and having just checked in for our flight to Tokyo, I was looking forward to my first meal in Japan: A warm noodle soup lunch. I was not feeling well and I needed some hot soup to warm up my stomach. The Dutchman on the other hand did not want anything.

The noodle bar at Fukuoka Domestic Airport.

Udon noodle with a vegetable tempura fritter. 

Fukuoka is famous for its Hakata Udon Noodle and I have read that Fukuoka is apparently the birth place of Udon, so that made me a very curious foodie. I need to try Hakata or any Udon noodle in Fukuoka! And so I found this noodle bar just beside our boarding gate which was very handy.

Udon is a typically Japanese type of noodle, a thick wheat flour noodle which I realised I do not really fancy at all. It may have to do with its girth, too thick for a usual noodle, and the texture, a bit slimy for my liking. There are however other types of Udon, varying per region, some are thinner and flat, whilst others are shaped differently.

Perhaps I will like Yaki Udon which is similar to Yaki Soba, a stir-fried noodle dish garnished with vegetables and meat. Stir-fry dishes are always good.

Have you tried this thick Udon noodle? Do you like it?

Travel Period: November 2014
Destination: Fukouka, Japan

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Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Tokyo, Japan Skyline

Hello! Konnichiwa!

Tokyo skyline by day from the Mori Towers in Minato ward district.

Tokyo skyline with the lighted Tokyo Tower at dusk. The tower is an observation and communications tower similarly designed to the Eiffel Tower in Paris.

Finally, Tokyo skyline at night.

Go here to see more skyline pictures: Tokyo City View from the Mori Tower Observation Deck

I have been battling Influenza and Bronchitis in the last two weeks. The sad part is this all happened just before and during my travel to Tokyo, Japan and the Philippines. The timing could not have been so perfect *sigh*, and well, hence my silence.

Having said that, I have not seen much of Tokyo, which is really a let down as I have so many things packed in our travel agenda. I spent most of my days in the metropolitan city snuggling under the sheets, with a high fever and a persistent cough in the four corners of our hotel room, luckily with the Dutchman nursing me.

I am now in Cebu, Philippines with my family, and have since rested well. In fact, today marks the day that I have indeed slowly recovered and come out from this dark hole of sickness because today is the first time I have finally opened my laptop =). Now that is a good sign!

Travel Period: November 2014
Destination: Minato (Tokyo), Japan

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Sunday, November 02, 2014

Monschau (Germany): The Pearl of the Eifel

I am always happiest when I am at home and with the Dutchman or when I am travelling, with or without him. When you are happy, you become contented. Now this means that the act of travelling makes me a very contented woman. It is a vicious cycle I guess, the happiness and travelling thing, alhough recently, my thirst for travelling has slowed down a bit. I guess contentment has slowly catched up. It worries me somehow though because I still want to see the world, but at the same time this brings a warm, and new, yet familiar feeling within. Can you relate?

This trip to Monschau was a last minute plan when I missed my flight to Riga, Latvia last March. It was all my fault so I am not going to moan and cry over milk that I spilt over myself. Instead, I took charge and moved on. Monschau and Lille became the substitutions =)

This is Monschau on Google Maps and my driving route from Utrecht, the Netherlands:

You can move the map by holding it with your mouse, as well as zoom it in and out by clicking on the + and - signs at the lower right hand side.

Monschau [click for tourist info] has been described as the ‘Pearl of the Eifel’ because it is a very charming and picturesque village with preserved half-timber houses in the Eifel mountains on the Rur River Valley. The whole place not only exudes with history, architecture, but also with romance. Yes, it is a dreamy little village.

Not many people know about this village except for the locals and neighbouring cities and countries (Belgium and Netherlands). In fact here in the Netherlands not many people know about the place, only in the southern part in Limburg and North Brabant are people more familiar with it, and I reckon because of its Christmas Markets.

When I arrived town I right away had lunch on the market square. I had a warm schnitzel and fries and had a good view of the square from where I was sitting. After lunch I did some strolling and window shopping. Yep, literally window shopping, if you know what I mean =)

I wanted to try the Monschauer Dütchen which is a sponge biscuit cake formed like an open cone and usually filled with cream or ice cream, but I was so full from my lunch that just the thought of it made me sad. Perhaps next time.

And like most villages in the mountains, Monschau becomes a sleepy town after 17:00 when all the day tourists have gone back to their hotels and homes.

The town has more than 12,000 residents and the core centre is very compact and can easily be strolled within 30 minutes to an hour.

Only residents can park inside the town. Parking for visitors are located outside the village and there is a huge parking area at the back.

The River Rur flowing through the village.

One of the shopping streets in Monschau.

A little bit of history:

The settlement of Monschau (until 1918 Montjoie) owes its foundation to the castle built by the Dukes of Limburg in the 12th century.

The rise of the town was connected with the development in the manufacture of cloth since the first half of the 17th century. Its heyday was in the 18th century: Through a continuous improvement in its quality, fine cloth from Monschau became a brand article that was also exported outside of Europe. With the occupation by the French and the transfer of the Rhineland to Prussia began the demise of the cloth industry.

You can see the old castle ruins above the hills. I actually went up there.

Hanging art (from the bridge): metal fish bone

A local specialty: Monschauer Dutchen which is a sponge type of biscuit cake and usually filled with cream or ice cream. I so wanted to try this but I was too full from the schnitzel lunch.

This is another local specialty: Monschauer Vennbrocken which is a mix of marzipan, nougat, cointreau liquor and truffel.

The market square filled with cafe terraces.

You can find small cafes in the corner and narrow back streets of the village.

The church is located on the market square and beside the River Rur.

A peek inside the church which has a half arena type set up. The altar is placed on the left side (see candle, red table and pulpit on the mid left) and what you are looking straight into is the organ (not the altar).

The village was quite busy for a sunny end of March winter day. Many tourists were local German tourists from neighbouring regions on a day trip.

A house on the other side of the river.

I wanted to eat at this restaurant with the hanging terrace, however it was closed for the season.

A quick stop for coffee is always good. I managed to pick a National park Eifel tourist brochure from the tourist office.

This was at the outdoor terrace of Hotel Horchem which has a very nice location on the river and just before reaching the market square.

Travel Period: March 2014
Destination: Monschau (North Rhine-Westphalia), Germany

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