Tuesday, December 30, 2014

Lifeline of a Tourist’s Belly in Japan: Plastic Food Replicas

Many restaurants in Japan (except for the fine dining league), especially in highly visited areas by tourists have these plastic food replicas as visual aids. Their popularity soared after the second world war when local and international tourism picked up again in Japan.

Even the lagers in pints have their own replicas. These replicas are made from silicone material. In the past they used wax models.

Because many visitors do not have a basic level of Nihonggo literacy, the ingenious Japanese – always inventing new stuff – found a way to make things easy for all of us during meal times. These plastic food models are truly a lifeline for our gaijin bellies. What would we, lowly tourists, do without them?

At many izakaya restaurants though, which are mostly catering to the local market, we rarely saw these plastic food displays. Sometimes they provide pictures on their menu, but not always for all the dishes, unfortunately. So on our first time at an izakaya restaurant we ordered the wrong food. Shit happens, hehe.

I took by the way these plastic food replica photos in Asakusa. It’s a popular place often visited by many tourists because of its resident temple, and well, the geishas too.

These fake food mock-ups are also popular in South Korea, and there is a growing market in China as well. At least you now know where this food replica concept came from: Invented in Japan.

We also thought that food in Tokyo is relatively cheaper compared to the Netherlands. A deluxe set lunch is usually priced at ¥1,180 which is about €8. A much cheaper set lunch is around ¥650 (€4.40). A bowl of ramen ranges from  ¥390 to ¥550 (€2.60 to €3.70), and a serving of gyozas for 5 pieces is around ¥190 (€1.30).

These prices are quite cheap for Europeans, especially for residents from northern European countries. So I guess its the rent and prices of real estate that makes Tokyo very expensive, not the food.

Shrimp Tempura set lunch looking very real.

Fake sashimi set lunch.

This looks like a prepped up for tourists izakaya restaurant.

Delicious ramen bowls. The Japanese have a penchant for topping their noodles and rice dishes with poached and raw eggs.

For a ¥490 (€3.70) big ramen bowl, you will get an apple tart with cream in the Netherlands. A noodle bowl like this here in the Netherlands would easily be 2x to 3x the price.

Due to getting sick, I was not able to eat a lot of variety of Japanese food in this trip. But hey, the good news is, I am so coming back soon for some serious food tripping.

Travel Period: November 2014
Destination: Asakusa (Taito – Tokyo), Japan

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Monday, December 29, 2014

What I miss about Japan: Washlets aka High-Tech Toilets

Most toilets in Japan are equipped with modern electronic washlets aka high-tech toilets. They are somewhat similar to the bidets in Europe, but more high-tech in terms of presentation and operation.

On the first day inside our hotel room in Chuo, Tokyo, the inquisitive Dutchman quickly discovered in the toilet the washlet buttons on the wall. While inside the loo, he asked me what the buttons were for, so I explained in lay man’s term that it is to clean his bum.

The washlet buttons inside our toilet in our hotel room in Tokyo, Japan. You can use the spray or the soft version, and for the women, the bidet function. You can as well adjust the water pressure that suits you. Cool, huh.

‘Have you tried it?’ he asked curiously.


‘How did it feel?’

‘Hello? You have to try it yourself!’ I shouted back. ‘Don’t be such a wussy.’

OK, I will stop here before its going to get TMI, haha.

If you’re not used to it you’ll probably find it a little bit funny, and er, a little bit tickly as well, haha. It does not hurt to have a little bit of a toilet adventure in a different country huh? Eventually you will get used to it. I did, and on the second day I was already using it like a pro.

It’s very hygienic and saves you from using a lot of toilet paper and wet tissues. It will give a new meaning to recycling and help save mother earth initiatives (think of WWF for example) but will obviously increase your water consumption, and I mean the bill of course.

Honestly, I kind of miss it.

This washlet button with a full instruction on how to operate it is taken from the toilet of Tokyo Haneda International Airport. I am liking the 'dryer' function here. 

So when you are in Japan, expect your toilet experience to be laced with some kind of high technology =)

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

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No Translation in Tokyo: Ordering the Wrong Food at an Izakaya Restaurant

An izakaya is a casual restaurant frequented by corporate workers, or as colloquially called, the salary men, for after work socials over drinks and food. I made an entry about this here: Izakayas: Traditional Japanese Gastropubs, Male Supermacy and Why is Smoking Indoors still Acceptable in Japan?

Everything is in Japanese so I have no idea of the name of this izakaya restaurant. The restaurant is located in Kodenmacho area in Chuo, Tokyo.

Dutchman actually spotted this izakaya restaurant near our hotel on his way back one evening. ‘I found a restaurant nearby that you would definitely like! I promise!’ he announced as he entered the hotel room. You know, I was shackled to the bed because of a bronchitis situation which later turned into a pneumonia crisis. Nevertheless, I need to feed myself so I got dressed up and we went to this restaurant.

He knows my penchant for very local but nice places to eat so his definition of ‘what I like’ is obviously based on here. He got it right though because the place had a very Japanese façade and interior design, and we were the only foreigners around, which heightened my ‘experiencing Tokyo the local way’ trip objective. This was by the way our first time dining at an izakaya restaurant.

Upon entering the establishment, we were greeted with a loud chain of ‘Irrashaimasse!’ shouts by all the staff. For a moment I thought I just entered a Friday’s restaurant, haha. You know at Fridays, or at certain upbeat American restaurant food chains, waiters are always in a state of euphoric mood, yelling hellos and welcomes and later announcing at your table—‘Hi! I am your waiter for the evening!’ At izakayas though, they just tend to greet, albeit enthusiastically, customers when they arrive, as well as when they leave.

Each wait staff is not exclusive to a particular table, they wait on every customer, which is more similar to some of the European practices. Any wait staff can serve you. I am happy with that. Also, the Japanese does not accept tips. Now I like that. Transparency.

So we started looking at the menus. Turned the pages. Looked some more. And turned some more pages...

Uhum. Our eyes just kept glazing over at the menu, page per page...

We are not getting it? Everything was in Japanese, and there was no English translation available. It is almost impossible to second guess a dish as well because the Japanese language is character based. So we thought of a brilliant idea: We will narrow down our choices to the ones with pictures. Aren’t we just so smart he?

Feeling a bit confident of our choices, we ordered our food. But little did we know that we ordered the wrong kind of food. Except for the free starter though, which is the fresh cabbage and whisky-wasabi sauce, and oh, by the way, the sauce was super delicious and very addictive(!), all the foods we ordered were a flop. A total fail.

This is the free starter: fresh chunky cabbage and the secret weapon of sauce--whisky and wasabi. I did not ask what it was really, I just assumed as it tasted like the whisky sauces we have here in the Netherlands, with a touch of wasabi.

Not my kind of bbq really.

I ordered an innards-butt-of-a-chicken barbecue in what I thought was a pork barbecue. Although this was tasty, I barely ate it.

It's all chicken skin =) Fat stuff, high cholesterol calling.

Dutchman ordered sautéed chicken skin in what he thought were filet chicken strips. Eww, chicken skin???

The too spicy and too oily fried rice.

And we both ordered an additional very spicy and oily rice in what we thought was a normal fried rice. Because I was sick, I was supposed to stay away from spicy and oily foods.

Our whole dinner spread minus my innard-butt bbq.

So for food: Ugh, total fail. But for the ambiance: We quite enjoyed the place. We really liked the local setting and the friendly staff, it helped compensate for the wrong food we ordered and the smoking indoors (which is pretty much normal for most izakaya restaurants). Fortunately I came armed with a face mask.

The lesson: When in doubt? ASK. And well, with the hopes that the wait staff speaks English, haha. This is, after all, Japan =)

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

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Sunday, December 28, 2014

A Westerner’s Perception of the ‘Maid Cafes’ in Akibahara (Tokyo, Japan)

Akibahara in Chiyoda, also nicknamed as Akiba, was one of the places I wanted to visit mainly because of the ubiquitous ‘Maid Cafes’ there. I just wanted to observe the whole maid culture in the background and take pictures of course. Unfortunately I got sick in Japan. I spent most of my days shivering and coughing inside our hotel room. I managed to go out to a few places though but not to Akibahara. Dutchman however did visit. He usually leaves our daily travel agenda to me so each day that I am stuck sick in the hotel room, I gave him tips on where to go.

He is a gamer so I sold him Akibahara as the gaming centre of Japan, which it really is. He is of course enthusiastic at the prospect of visiting, however, I forgot to tell him about the maids and the maid cafes. I am normally quite thorough with passing information but when you are sick, you become less sharp.

So when Dutchman came back, the first thing he babbled excitedly about were the maids. He does not understand the whole concept though and admittedly found it to be very odd. LOL

The maids are sexy, demure and cute.

For westerners who are not exposed to the anime and manga culture, the whole thing can prove to be a bit difficult to understand. I grew up in Asia watching anime on TV, as well as I understood the obsession of many Asians, and not just the Japanese, with the demure, cute and obedient female role model fantasy.

So when male westerners who have no clue about anime and manga see girls in French maid costumes in Akiba, they are in for a surprise, but they also become suspicious and guarded (read this as well from several reviews online), and have questions running in their minds such as:

1) Why are they dressed like that? Why are their skirts so short? Are they selling sex as well?

2) What’s with that girlish façade? The pigtail hair? And trying to be cute (kawaii) all the time?

Combined with the short skirt and all this trying to be a cute little girl effect, do you know what a westerner thinks? Borderline paedophilia. Lolitas. I mean, seriously.

Different takes on different cultures, huh.

Here’s the good news. The maids of Akiba have nothing to do with sex. It all has something to do with what they call ‘moe’. It’s some sort of fixation to a character, and in this case the fixation symbol in question is the maid, typically dressed in a sexy French maid uniform. Customers, usually of the male kind, are called masters and pampered to bits by the maids in these cafes.

I personally think they are a form of modern day geishas, a subculture that sprung up within the gaming community to feed a new form of philosophy. It started with the otaku’s fantasy—the Japanese male who is fanatical with anime and manga. Female characters in the anime and manga world became an obsession to these men. They have become an extended real-life infatuation that ultimately led to the beginnings of the maid cafes. The besotted otaku’s can now spend their time with their favourite precious female anime character in live version. I don’t know though how the French maid character found its place here, but one thing for sure, it may sound a bit kinky but there’s really no sex involved here.

It’s one quirky business concept that is G-rated which happens to only exist in Japan, although nowadays the maid café concept is exported to other countries.

However, I would not be surprised if the career change of a Maid here in Akibahara to the complexer road of prostitution, might be easier than we would ever think.

Many of the girls give away flyers (cafe invitations) on the streets of Akibahara.

This one though is a lost clown on the street =)

Travel Period: November 2014
Destination: Akibahara (Chiyoda - Tokyo), Japan

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Saturday, December 27, 2014

Pachinko: The Pinball Craze in Japan

If I did not get sick in Japan, I would have tried this Pachinko game, which is also called Pachislot and Pachislo.

Pachinko is a mechanical arcade game (read: pinball) that has taken the country by storm for decades already. It’s everywhere in Japan, even a friend of mine has gone crazy playing this game. She is addicted, she could not live without it. The goal is to get as many silver balls as you can, and these balls can then be exchanged for prizes.

Dutchman however managed to get out during the day and came back with this video:

He is a bit like me, always observing and very inquisitive, and naturally he quickly noticed, among many other fascinating stuff and goings-on in Akibahara, the noisy pachinko parlours.

‘The noise inside this game arcade is deafening!’ Dutchman told me.

Gambling is illegal in Japan, however, Pachinko is given some sort of immunity and is classified as an amusement activity. I read that the balls and prizes can be exchanged for cash at nearby exchange centres. Some pachinko parlours even trademarked their balls so gamers could not exchange them at other places. It is a big industry, and one can earn big money here, if you are good.

When I am back in Japan, I will definitely try this, and find out for myself what the craze is all about.

Travel Period: November 2014
Destination: Akibahara (Chiyoda - Tokyo), Japan

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Me, Myself and My Uzi

We just had our first snowfall here in the Netherlands! I don’t think the snow will last long though as it’s all slushy right now.

Anyway, Dutchman and I went to the newly opened National Military Museum in Soesterberg Airbase today. We both took a whopping 126 pictures!!! If there is a contest on how many pictures you can shoot in a minute, I sure need to enlist.

Now this means I need time to get my pictures ready. So for now let me show you my new uzi.

Don’t I look good with it? =) *this thing is sure heavy*

For a quick tour of the museum click here: National Military Museum Tour. This museum just opened 2 weeks ago.

Visit Period: December 2014
Destination: Soesterberg (Soest - Utrecht), The Netherlands

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Friday, December 26, 2014

Must Do in Milan: Climbing the Roof Terrace of the Milan Duomo

This might be too touristy but really, it’s just beautiful up there. Trust me on this!

The skies were grey and it was drizzling when we went up the roof terrace of the Duomo, but even with the bleak weather conditions, it was gorgeous up there. The views were still spectacular and the whole experience brought me closer to the Gothic Age.

The complexity of the details is just amazing. 

I was so thrilled to see sculptures of seraphims everywhere, and the sea of gothic minutiae on the wing arches and the pointy spires jutting out from the edges, they are all so elaborately designed. You can get a closer look at them and even inspect their details, and after staring at the chubby little angels for a long time, I think I might have seen one of them winked at me. Haha. I have a Fine Arts background so this kind of stuff gets me excited.

Anyway, I can only surmise that architects in the medieval times truly make their lives complicated? Sans the romanticisation of the Medieval Period, life before indeed was not only complicated but dangerous as well. Life expectancy was short. I can’t imagine what the safety procedures were during the building of this church. Perhaps there was none.

So what am I trying to say here? It is a cool experience to walk on the roofs of the cathedral and enjoy the panoramic views of Milan and the Piazza del Duomo down below. It’s worth the money and the climb, and I managed to take really nice pictures as well!

The entrance to the roof terrace is at the back of the cathedral. We chose the combi ticket with the lift. You go up first with the lift and the rest of the 82 steps you have to climb it yourself. A cheaper ticket is available without the lift which I believe is a climb of about 250 steps. Not an option for us though.

Definitely a must do if it’s your first time in Milan.

Literally walking on the roof of the cathedral.

The Corso Vittorio Emanuele below (the street).

I so love these close up shots of the angels.

And these ones as well. I think one of them just winked at me =)

 Need to take a pose, haha.

Another beautiful detail, acanthus leaves.

The final steps to climb before finally reaching the top.

The view down to the Piazza del Duomo.

The statue of the first king of Italy, King Vittorio Emanuele.

The chic historical shopping mall: Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II.

Finally at the top! The rooftop of the Milan Duomo.

In the far distance you can see the modern buildings of Milan's business area.

The staircase to reach to the top, and the roof arches, and wings and spires.

The views down to the Piazza del Duomo are beautiful, doesn't matter the weather really.

Statues standing on top of the spires.

People queueing up to get inside the Royal Palace of Milan. I do not like long lines so we never made it to the palace.

Yup a looooong line to the Royal Palace.

Travel Period: April 2014
Destination: Milan (Lombardy), Italy

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