Sunday, May 30, 2010

Hello, Osaka.

Back from a whirlwind twenty four hours in Osaka.

After a long week and way too many ingested green tea Kit Kats (I found crumbs on my futon) and no plans going on for the weekend (most of our friends were away at a rugby tournament), Isabel and I decided to go to Osaka on a whim. It's definitely our second home now, as the hostel staff knows us, and we pretty much know the bus schedule by heart.

It was literally twenty four hours in Osaka (perhaps even twenty three!), in which we got about three hours of sleep, and the rest consisted of Mexican food with a group of friends, running away from a Frenchman, looking everywhere for a hairbrush (I lost mine last week, hadn't brushed my hair in a week!), stocking up on more Kit Kats and other green tea sweets, getting lost in the new H&M, sundresses and a little spritz of Chanel, meeting host boys on Dotonbori Bridge (I really need to post about host bars in an upcoming entry!), going to an "all you can drink in thirty minutes for 300 yen" type of bar, munching on edamame, hanging out in Triangle Park and watching the crazy Osaka fashionistas walk by, hitting a club and leaving because the music was horrible, and going to god knows how many other places, to end the evening with The Mikes from training at a British-themed bar, then eating French fries at McDonalds and taking pictures of The Mikes jumping in big piles of um, garbage.

That's Osaka for you. Not the classiest, not the most sophisticated, but always the most FUN.

{Host boys we met. Basically, they get paid to talk to girls in some establishments. They have the most elaborate pineapple hairstyles.}

{The Mikes jumping in empty milkshake cups at 4am. Uncouth.}

{Can you tell I'm a bit uncomfortable?!}

{Friends!}

{Osaka has some of the craziest fashions. Furry shoes are acceptable in Osaka. It was a blast trying them on, but the shop staff wasn't as amused.}

I'm definitely ready to have a quiet seaside town type of week, with my little bike, my friends, and some fresh air!

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Omiyage


{All the omiyage that was purchased in Kyoto.... and mostly eaten by Isabel and I!!}

Omiyage is a Japanese word that means souvenir, or gift. Like most small things, gift giving is an art in Japan. I love how they pay attention to the tiniest details, and how small gifts are so important.

When Japanese people travel around, they always bring back souvenirs for their family, friends, and co-workers. Those souvenirs usually are sweets or delicacies, beautifully wrapped in special gift boxes. Each region in Japan has their own local sweet: for example, if you go to Kyoto you would bring back Yatsuhashi, or the special Kyoto pudding. If you travel to my prefecture, Kagawa, you'd probably purchase some packages of udon, or different types or rice cakes.

Not only is it polite, but also expected to bring back omiyage from your trips. Your Japanese co-workers and friends might get offended if they find out you've been traveling and did not bring anything back. I think the 'rules' are more relaxed for foreigners, but I do enjoy this tradition and happily partake in it.

Omiyage is a huge business in Japan. Every train station has special counters that sell the local souvenirs. I think some major Shinkansen stations also sell omiyage from all parts of Japan just in case you forgot to pick them up on your trip!

Whenever I travel, I make sure to bring back a few boxes of sweets to share: for my close friends in my town, for my colleagues at the staff meeting, for the kind owner of my favourite café, and for special boys who get sweet treats every time I hop over to the mainland.

{I once ripped open a perfectly packaged box of sweets meant as a present because I got hungry on a bus ride!}

Breakfast talk

Breakfast is my favourite meal. However, it's also the most challenging meal to re-create in Japan. Bread in Japan is pretty awful: they only have some very soft and sweet white sandwich bread, and the cereal selection is VERY limited. I gave up bread completely, and thankfully found a type of granola I really love, which I pair with fruits and yogurt.

Back home I used to make this awful-sounding (but delicious tasting) breakfast smoothie:

Chocolate soy milk, ice, banana, peanut butter, honey, apple juice, oatmeal.

Yes. Living in Japan means giving up some of your favourite foods from home, but I wasn't going to compromise for my smoothie addiction. After seven months living here, I finally purchased a small blender, and found everything I need to re-create my recipe. The chocolate soy milk was a bit difficult, as it only comes in individual portions, and I had to go to the import store to find peanut butter.

But I did it! Seriously, don't knock it until you try it!


Monday, May 24, 2010

Kyoto

Kyoto is a magical place.

{Yasaka Shrine, the gate to Gion}

It's the third time I visit it now, and I fell even more in love with it this time around. I left grey, rainy Marugame on Thursday with a whole lot on my mind, but as soon as I hit Kyoto I felt lighthearted again. It was so lovely to see my mom after being gone for several months! I haven't been homesick at all, but I've definitely missed my mom... sometimes a girl just needs her mother. She really loved Japan, and it made me happy. She was smitten Japanese people, their kindness and politeness, and she enjoyed how clean and beautiful it is. I had a great time showing her my favourite sights in Kyoto, such as the little tiny alleys in Kyoto, and some exquisite temples. Kyoto is so majestic and traditional, and it feels mysterious and fascinating.

{Maman et moi}


{Lovely streets of Gion}



{Teahouses and alleys}

It was nice to stay in a luxurious hotel room, and to get a bit spoiled! We did lots of shopping, sampled green tea sweets, and just relaxed in beautiful cafés and caught up on everything. Then on Saturday lovely Isabel came to join us! We walked around the wonderful Gion district, where all the Geisha activity takes place, and stocked up on everything green tea-flavoured you could possibly imagine: tea, lattes, chocolates, Japanese sweets. Kyoto is famous for its green tea, and they make the most delightful confectionary, called Yatsuhashi: the paste is made from rice flour and cinnamon (and often green tea), and it's wrapped around red bean paste. We also walked along the Path of Philosophy, at stopped at the cutest little apple-themed café along the way, where we sipped apple tea and ate apple cake, and chatted with the owner, who was also from Shikoku island.

{Pomme café, on the Path of Philosophy}



On Saturday night, Isabel and I booked a youth hostel and went out to sample Kyoto's nightlife. Kyoto is very touristy and not the place of choice for a wild night out, but we managed to find lots of cozy little bars along the canal, and fun young people. We got high on chocolate and green tea lattes by the canal with our friend Danny, ran away from a creepy businessman, got our photo taken with some friendly Japanese doormen (they call themselves 'guest catchers'), ate some tuna salads from the convenience store, and practiced our Japanese over gin and tonics. We stayed up until 4 am just walking around and laughing, and returned to our cute little hostel to squeeze in a few hours of sleep.

{Our new Japanese friends!}


{Matcha lattes in Kyoto oblige. It wasn't sweet enough so we ordered cake and cookies...}

{Sitting in Ponto-Cho alley}

{We met Danny for a few hours, and enjoyed our sweets overload by the canal}

{Yasaka Shrine at night}

Again, it was sad to leave a place as enchanting as Kyoto on a rainy Sunday. It was sad to say good bye to my mom, for another several months. But I'm so happy she came to Japan and saw my world, and understands why I'm not ready to leave any time soon. Isabel and I boarded our bus, Starbucks in hand, sleep-deprived, but in good spirits and with clear minds. Kyoto itself it like a temple, very peaceful and soothing.

Kyoto is definitely magical.

Thursday, May 20, 2010

Smitten!

I was pretty flattered to be asked to write a little city guide about Tokyo... go read about my favourite spots!

Thanks, Smitten!

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Kyoto Love



I'm going to Kyoto for the rest of the week... to meet up with my mom! She and her friend are taking a trip all over Japan, and their last stop is Kyoto, so I'll join them for a few days. I'm very happy to see my mom after six months, and ecstatic to show her my world. I'm hoping she loves Japan as much as I do, and that she can understand why it would be difficult to ever leave this place. Kyoto is such a magical city that I've grown to know pretty well, so I think it will be very, very nice.

Monday, May 10, 2010

I heart Japanese food!

I'm in love with so many aspects of life in Japan, and food is one of them. I came to Japan thinking I'd probably have a difficult time dealing with the amount of rice and fish, but not at all. Japanese food has a lot of variety, and can be kind of dangerous! Seriously, everything is so tasty, and oh, the sweets...

Here's a list of my favourite eats in Japan:

Okonomiyaki
A savoury pancake made of batter, vegetables such as cabbage and green onions, and different types of meat and fish. Practically anything goes in okonomiyaki. I love going to restaurants where you grill it yourself, it's part of the fun. The Kansai style okonomiyaki is just one pancake containing all the ingredients, whereas the Hiroshima-style version is served with a layer of fried noodles. Personally, I prefer the Hiroshima style: much more vegetables, and the noodles make it more crunchy and exciting.

{Kansai style}
{Hiroshima style. Notice the noodles in the middle!}


Sushi
As cliché as it sounds. My region is not famous for its sushi. I think the best one is found around Tokyo. The freshest sushi I've ever had was at the Tsukiji Fish Market in Tokyo, the early catch of the day. Sushi in Japan is very, very different from the North American version. Forget about everything you know about sushi and names like Tuna 911 and concoctions containing cream cheese. Sushi in Japan is at its most simple, a piece of fresh fish served on a bed of rice, with a dab of wasabi. Many of my fellow foreigner friends here told me they miss the North American version. I love going to the conveyor belt sushi restaurants, where sushi rolls around and you pick your favourites. Cheap, efficient, and tasty!


Onigiri
Onigiri are rice balls (or triangle shaped) with some kind of meat or fish in the middle. They're real life savers. I don't make them at home, but I usually pick them up at convenience stores when I'm in a hurry. My favourite kind has tuna in the middle. I also love the ones with the pickled plums (umeboshi). Opening the package can be mind-boggling, but it's all worth the trouble. Sometimes I cannot read the package since it's all in Japanese, so more often than not it's a ball of rice with a surprise inside. Fun!



Nabe
My students always laugh when I tell them I like nabe. It's a very traditional Japanese dish, usually served in the winter. Nabe is a hot pot, and you just throw in tons of vegetables, meats, and fish. My friend Yoshi made nabe for New Years, and it was the best: miso broth, with shrimp, chicken, mushroom, cabbage, and green onion. I love the fact that you don't have to rush to enjoy this meal (honestly, most Japanese meals are ingested at a ridiculous speed), and I enjoy sitting around the pot in good company.



Udon
As I've mentioned before, udon is famous in my prefecture. To be honest, I thought it looked (and tasted) kind of boring at first. I mean, what's exciting about a huge bowl of thick noodles? Oh, but then came the slice of lemon... the ginger... the green onion... the fish cakes... the tempura... oh deliciousness. Cold udon is the best for hot summer days, too!



Ramen
When my friends from Montreal visited last week, I excitedly told them I'd take them out for ramen. They reluctantly followed me, expecting pre-packaged noodles in a tasteless broth. They were in for a surprise as they saw heaps of noodles served with slices of pork and onion in a soy broth. Ramen is my comfort food here. My favourite ramen shop in Marugame serves it with kimchi. I love how traditional and informal ramen shops are. I wish I could slurp my noodles without feeling guilt about the noise... still can't do it even though it's socially acceptable!



Bento
It's technically not a dish, but bento are brilliant little lunchboxes. You can pick them up pretty much anywhere: convenience stores, department stores, train stations. They're perfect for picnics, or when you're in a rush... or riding the Shinkansen. There are hundreds of varieties, but they usually contain rice, a meat or fish, and various side dishes (pickled vegetables, salads). Bento is a real art in Japan- you can have animal shaped rice balls and all sorts of cute arrangements. Eating bento is a special treat for me, as I reserve it for special occasions (um, as a reward for running).



I'm sure I'm forgetting tons of other delicious Japanese fare, and don't even get me started on sweets and snacks... I'm saving it for another post!

いただきます!! ("itadakimasu", which means "enjoy your meal").

Springtime bliss!


{Iced Royal Milk Tea...mmmmmmmm}

Coming home to the countryside after living it up in Tokyo and Osaka was a tad difficult after having so much fun. But, sometimes the most quiet, uneventful weekends are the best.

*Sunny, warm weather and hours spent lounging around on the grass at the castle, mindless chatter with friends, and picnics. My skin finally got some golden tones.

*A relaxing movie night at a friend's house, alongside lovely people and tons of sweets and tea. Coziness.

*Although I was far away from my mom on Mother's Day, I sent her a message... and the best part, I'll see her next week! She is coming to Japan on a trip, and I'll go meet her in Kyoto. Happiness.

*Someone I've missed dearly is back from Thailand, and was not eaten by a tiger! It's been so good to share everything about our respective vacations.

*Tons of time spent with my dear friend Isabel, whether it's shopping and bar hopping in Osaka, or riding our bikes around Marugame to find the best sushi around, or laughing at the silliest things (a banana on an escalator). I will be so sad when she leaves Japan, but I don't want to think about that now.

*A friend from home sent me tons of music, which I love. I've been listening to Charlotte Gainsbourg on a loop, while baking cupcakes on a warm evening. How very French of me.




{Going to work is a lot more fun when it involves the special edition panda Pocky sticks... a present from my Japanese friend and co-worker}

Saturday, May 8, 2010

Broke in Marugame

My recent excursions to Tokyo and Osaka have left me a little broke for the rest of the month, so I had to come up with creative ways to entertain myself in Marugame. And let's be honest here, my town is very countryside, so it's kind of a challenge for me to come up with fun ideas that do not involve Starbucks or art galleries. Armed with only my lovely bicycle and a few yen in my pocket, I cycled around to find the best of Marugame for a bored (city) girl on a tight budget:


{A delightful spicy ginger tea at my favourite café, where I get to make small talk in Japanese with the friendly owner. For its small size, Marugame has lots of really nice little independent cafés.}

{A delicious bowl of cold udon, perfect for a hot day, and so cheap and filling. My prefecture, Kagawa, is famous for its udon. Yum!}

{Another claim to fame: Marugame is where most paper fans in Japan are made, so I hit the paper fan museum. It's free, it's tiny, but you can make your own fan!}

{Marugame castle. It's a hike, it's gorgeous, and you can have picnics under the trees on a lazy afternoon}

{Marugame has a lovely harbour. I've never lived by the sea, so I'm always amazed when I cycle around it. I love running by the water}


Living in a small town can be challenging, but it can also be very charming. I really appreciate my little getaways, and I also feel like I'm experiencing the 'real' Japan- something I would not get to see if I lived in a bigger city. Also, may I point out that in the short time I've been here, I can speak more Japanese than some of the foreigners I met in Osaka and Tokyo, who have been living there for one or two years? Living in the countryside is great for learning Japanese, and I'm very thankful for that!

Thursday, May 6, 2010

Hot Hot Heat

Summer has arrived.

Last week I was still wearing my winter jacket and tights. Then one morning I woke up in Osaka, and it was hot. Not warm. HOT.

Summer is here, and the heat won't leave for several months. I'm a bit scared. Summers in Japan are scary hot and humid, especially where I live, in the South. When I came home from Tokyo and Osaka, my apartment felt like an oven. And it will get worse. My green tea Kit Kat melted on the counter. And the arrival of hot weather brought along weird species of supersized bugs. I saw a cockroach chilling out on my front porch, and what seemed to be a gigantic winged caterpillar.

Despite all the inconveniences, I decided to fully embrace the summer months. I do love sleeping with the windows wide open, and some new sundresses and sandals should cheer me up a bit. I started running at night, mostly by the harbour, where it's so quiet and peaceful. I can see the stars and the lights reflecting on the sea, and it's almost magical. I gave my futon its summer bedding (some special Muji sheets designed to keep cool). And, hello cold udon noodles!

Oh, summer in Japan... wish me luck!


{From now on, all Kit Kats go straight to the fridge. I'm not losing another green tea chunky delight.}

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Pure Madness

Back from a whirlwind week traveling all over Japan. Exhausted, but so, so happy! The trip started in Tokyo with my friends from Montreal, and ended up in Osaka and Nara with my friends from Marugame. I slept on sofas, hostel beds, and overnight buses, wandered the streets of Osaka at 6am, and soaked in all the Tokyo frenziness. I'm happy.

Tokyo
It felt so good to see friends from home, and so good to speak French again! Tokyo was filled with fabulousness... as usual. Lots of champagne, fashion shows in Ebisu, Shibuya crossing at night, window-shopping in posh Ginza, lazy Sunday afternoon in Yoyogi park with my Japanese friends, crowded Harajuku streets, and getting lost all over Shinjuku. Madness. Tokyo is pure madness. I had forgotten how amazing Tokyo is. I feel so refreshed from my escape there, and Tokyo is always there to remind me of my dreams, and to remind me of why I came to Japan in the first place. I'm in love!

{Me and my obsession, Shinkansen!}

{From Montreal to Japan... friendships}

{Shibuya frenziness at night}

{Getting dressed up for a night out in Shinjuku}

{Me and the girls!!}

{Champagne and lingerie at a posh fashion party in Ebisu}

Osaka
After Tokyo's craziness, I could not bear the thought of going straight back to the countryside... so I hopped on an overnight bus and met some Marugame friends in Osaka for a few days of FUN. I must admit, the 8-hour bus ride from Tokyo to Osaka was brutal! I thought I was being smart and frugal, but the disgusting, snoring man next to me ruined my whole trip and drove me insane. I arrived in Osaka at 6am, just wandering the streets and waiting around. Thankfully the kind staff at my favourite youth hostel in Osaka allowed me to shower and nap. Osaka was all about shopping and having coffee with my lovely Isabel, getting lost in the crowds, going dancing, and eating the delicious local dish, okonomiyaki.

{Osaka... where food and crazy nightlife abound}

{Marugame besties are trouble}

{Okonomiyaki, Kansai style. Honestly, I prefer Hiroshima style!}

{Oh, youth hostel mirrors! Getting ready for some shopping in Shinsaibashi}

Nara
Finally, the adventure ended with a day trip to nearby Nara, a beautiful city nestled in the mountains, where deer roam around. Isabel and I ate sushi, walked around in the heat (Japan suddenly got so hot!), and shared so many laughs before boarding our bus back to Shikoku.





It's always a bit difficult to say goodbye to the bustling city life, but I happily rode my bicycle around Marugame and breathed the clean, crisp country air. Those small trips I often take are quite vital, and re-energize me in a way that I cannot explain. Lots of time spent alone in long bus rides and getting lost in a strange city is to me the best way to get re-acquainted with myself, and to never forget about my dreams.

(Whoa. I swear the overnight bus ride got me all philosophical and deep!)