March 31, 2012

A Tribute to Melon Pan

What's your favourite Japanese food? Mine's not sushi. It's not tempura. Not even okonomiyaki. My favourite Japanese food is a bread roll that is shaped to look like a rock melon. It's called melon pan.
So beautiful. So delicious. So cheap.

Melon pan surrounded by other baked goods, none of which are as good as melon pan.
Someone told me that melon pan was created because rock melons are so expensive in Japan (we saw some for sale at a supermarket for 3150 Yen each... that's nearly 50 New Zealand dollars). So people would just give these bread rolls as omiyage, or gifts, instead of shelling out the cash for a real melon.
Piles of melon pan at a bakery.

It's the perfect texture; soft, fluffy bready goodness topped with a light crust of cookie dough and sugar. You can get different flavours and colours, too. I've had melon pan filled with strawberry milk custard, chocolate chips, and one topped with mochi (sticky rice) instead of cookie dough. Some cheeky fellow also came up with the idea to have a melon flavoured melon pan. I totally see what they did there.

Enjoying a melon pan approximately the size of my head.

I was talking to Mum about Japanese food the other day, and she goes 'you're probably really healthy, the food is so good for you.' And I laughed. Because the problem with my melon-pan-a-day addiction is that, by the time I leave Japan, I'm probably gonna look like a melon pan.

This is the extent of my Photoshopping skills.

March 29, 2012

Osaka vs. Tokyo

I have finally made it to Osaka, so my adventures as 'The Only Blonde in Osaka' officially begin here. I would just like to provide a disclaimer before we go any further, and inform you from my experience here so far that I should technically be renaming this blog to 'One of Actually Quite a Few Blondes in Osaka'. But it's not as catchy, so please let me indulge in my own self-importance for a bit longer.

Anyway. I have been in Osaka for almost a week now, and after spending a week in Tokyo, it's been really hard not to compare the two major Japanese cities. But it actually turns out that by comparing the two cities, I am partaking in an ingrained tradition of Osakan-Tokyoite rivalry, that considers each city's culture and language to be completely different to - and better than - the other's. 'Osaka people are rude and unkempt,' say the Tokyoites. 'Tokyo people are rigid and pretentious,' say the Osakans. I guess it's sort of like the relationship between Australia and New Zealand. We just love to hate each other.

Well then, what are the differences between Tokyo and Osaka I've noticed so far?


Tokyo people are friendly, Osaka people are FRIENDLY. In Tokyo, I always felt a bit awkward if I had to ask anyone for help, or directions - mainly because everyone seems so tied up in their own worlds, and you got the impression you'd be disturbing them - even if they're too polite to say so. But on our first night in Osaka, we were reading a map in Namba station, probably looking quite tired and confused, and a random man just came right up to us and asked if we needed help finding anything. Maybe it's because of Osaka's history as a merchant city, you get the sense that people are more relaxed and open to dealing with outsiders.

This carefree attitude can be seen in the clothes Osaka people wear, too. In Tokyo, everyone is a slave to fashion. I would see girls freezing their arses off in miniskirts  and stumbling around in high-heels too big for them, while clutching Louis Vuitton handbags in their claw-like manicured hands. Osaka is way more casual. Understated clothes seem to be the norm, jackets, jeans, nothing too flashy. And you're more likely to hear someone bragging about a bargain than showing off a brand-name.


They say that Osakans like to break the rules, and when it comes to the road rules, I reckon that's a fair statement. It takes about half an hour to walk from our hotel in Esaka to Kansai University each day, and there are times in which I fear for my life. The streets are incredibly narrow, and footpaths don't seem to exist, so you have cars, trucks, scooters, cyclists and pedestrians all jostling for the same space. As one of my new Japanese friends said about Osakan drivers, 'if it's green - go. If it's yellow - go. If it's red - go carefully.' I laughed, until I realised he wasn't joking.

Another thing you should know if you're going from Tokyo to Osaka is that while most of Japan stands and waits on the left side of escalators (leaving room for people in a rush to get past on the right hand side), this is far too ordinary for Osaka, where the right side is the norm. This may sound like a minor detail, but trust me, you don't want to be the annoying foreigner holding everyone up by standing on the wrong side of the escalator during rush hour (yep, I was that guy).


One of the main reasons that I wanted to study here in Osaka was because of Osaka-ben, the regional dialect. It's hard to explain, but something about the style of Japanese they speak here just sounds nicer, for lack of a better linguistic term. Osaka-ben rolls off the tongue of the native speaker; it's musical, expressive and almost comical. In fact, most Japanese people associate Osaka-ben with comedians - and it's true, all the Osaka people I've met so far have had a wicked sense of humour.

So... it turns out I'm a bit of an Osaka Otaku. I really love it here. To the person who described Osaka-lovers like me as 'a new breed of Japan hipsters that don't like Tokyo because it's too mainsteam' - shut up, and come and experience the city for yourself. I bet you'd take takoyaki over Tokyo any day.

Takoyaki... one of the many things I love about Osaka.

March 26, 2012

Sailor Moon - We Meet Again.

During my first week here in Japan, I saw some amazing sights. I saw temples, shrines, historic monuments. I saw skyscrapers, bright lights, castles and towers. But the one thing I saw that made me squeal with delight and bounce up and down declaring 'I love Japan' was the Sailor Moon merchandise at Mandarake, Nakano Broadway.

I read about Nakano Broadway in this article of the very useful website Essentially, it is a shopping mall for otaku, or Japan pop culture geeks. I usually wouldn't really be into this sort of thing. But Ryan is. So, we hopped on a train from Shinjuku to Nakano Station, and in 10 minutes found ourselves in the most bizarre shopping mall I have ever been in my life.

Do you collect character key chains? Billions of 'em here, from Disney, to realistic-looking food miniatures, all wrapped up in tiny little plastic bags. What about dolls? There are entire shops devoted to doll body parts, row upon row of dolls' heads stare out at you from empty eye sockets. Figurines? Thousands, some innocent - like the popular Mario Kart characters, and some naughty - like the pornographic cartoon girls in provocative poses with plasticine boobs bigger than their faces. You can also find a huge array of cosplay items, for dressing up as your favourite anime/manga/game characters. Some of the shop assistants are required to wear costumes as a uniform.

Within Nakano Broadway are 3 floors of the very awesome Manadarake, the pre-owned manga, anime and collectibles dealer that has its base here. Even if you're not into Japanese pop culture, the sheer size of this shop will blow your mind. From the floor to the ceiling are shelves bursting with glossy manga (comics), from every genre imaginable. The amount of reading material in this store would rival any library. Then there's cabinets full of all sorts of game consoles, and you have to squeeze past all the earnest looking, bespectacled Japanese men looking for the latest 3DS games.

It was on the top floor that I found heaven.  There was a special collectibles cabinet. And in that cabinet was my beloved Sailor Moon. Sailor Moon everything. Dolls, cups, lunchboxes, keychains, trading cards, toys... all second-hand, all extremely rare - and expensive.

A Sailor Moon wand in perfect condition with original packaging will set you back 21000 Yen. A full set of Sailor Moon plushy dolls were about 10500 Yen. Even a broken Sailor Moon locket was still going for 1575 Yen. I wanted everything, and had to be forcibly restrained and reminded that rent was not going to pay itself.

What I did buy was a Sailor Moon mask (used, and child size - so it doesn't even fit my face), for 615 Yen. Then I found some cool pictures for 315 Yen each, a fan for 180 Yen, and a character book for 450 Yen.

If you want to buy Sailor Moon stuff, Mandarake seems to be the place. They have a few around Japan, but Nakano Broadway is boss. Alternatively, you can check out the Mandarake website and enter 'Sailor Moon' in the search database. (Be warned however... I tried this before, and was shocked to find out that Sailor Moon porn exists. Childhood ruined.)

I guess the theme at Nakano Broadway is that you can enjoy toys and games and cartoons at any age. The most common demographic I saw there was probably youngish-to-middle-aged men. And while some of it is a bit creepy, for the most of it, it's about harmless escapism from the harsh realities of adult life for a little while, and going back to the good old days of your childhood.

So, who wants to buy me that Sailor Moon wand?

March 23, 2012

The Magical Witches of Shibuya 109

Sorry kids, yet another post about shopping. Which, strangely, I have been doing very little of. Maybe it’s because I’ve been saving for this trip to Japan for so long that I’ve conditioned myself to become a perpetual cheapskate. But more likely, it’s because shopping in Tokyo is the single-most overwhelming shopping experience that you will ever have. You are a small, vulnerable caterpillar – and every shop in sight is vying to turn you into a butterfly.

The minute I stepped into the giant hairspray can-shaped department store that is Shibuya 109, it became clear that while I might be the only blonde in Osaka, I definitely wasn’t the only blonde in Tokyo. Sales assistants with fake golden tresses as shiny as My Little Pony tails strutted outside of each shop, every few seconds pausing to invite you inside, with a loud, screechy ‘irashimaseeeee’. With their spidery black eyelashes, bronzed faces, and candy pink lips, the girls took on an almost witchy appearance – like Glinda from The Wizard of Oz on crack.

At the same time as your eyes are assaulted by all the sparkles, bright colours, and frothy pastels, the platform boots and fishnets, your nose is overpowered by the sweetest scents wafting from every store. For some reason, all 8 floors of Shibuya 109 smell like a combination of fizzy fruit lollies, bubble bath, candy-floss and maple syrup. I don’t know where it comes from - is it just that everyone wears insane amounts of perfume? Do they put something in the air conditioning vents? I like to think that it was a magic potion concocted by the witches of 109, designed to lure you into their lairs to sell your soul and spend all of your yen…

Even if shopping ain’t your thing (or if you’re a helpless male who has been dragged along against your will – sorry Ryan) – Shibuya 109 is worth exploring. Really, it’s worth it just to have a giggle at some of the names of the stores – ‘Titty & Co’, ‘Peach John’, and ‘tutuHA’ were my personal favourites. Tomorrow, we’re going to 109 Mens… it will be interesting to see if it’s just as spell-binding as its female counterpart.

March 21, 2012

Shopping at Harajuku: Things You Convince Yourself You Need

Sea of umbrellas down Takeshita-dori on a rainy Sunday afternoon.
Harajuku. Takeshita-dori. It is the stuff that dreams are made of. The kind of dreams that are neon green, acid pink, sparkly, glittery, fizzy, kawaii, and oh-so-rock 'n' roll. I like to think of myself as a sensible person when it comes to shopping. I'm not easily seduced by shiny new products, or glitzy marketing, or anything with Hello Kitty's adorable mouthless face on it. But when it comes to Harajuku, I am hypnotised.

I nearly bought a Winnie the Pooh outfit for a dog. I don't have a dog. But in Harajuku, I found myself thinking, 'maybe I should buy this in case I get a dog in the future...?"
I nearly bought a bright pink tutu. I am 21 years old. I stopped taking ballet lessons when I was 6. But something about Harajuku makes a tutu seem like a respectable wardrobe staple item.
Then of course, I wanted to buy shoes that would go with the bright pink tutu. I thought the lime green ones were rather pleasing to the eye.

Or, how about a sweater brandished with the smiling face of a monster wearing a hair ribbon? So cute! So hip! So Harajuku.

March 20, 2012

Narita to Tokyo: Not for the faint hearted or weak stomached.

Hello friends. I am pleased to announce that I am finally blogging from Japan. It is 10pm local time, 2am New Zealand time, and I am currently sitting in my room at Shibuya Tobu Hotel, wearing a sexy polyester nightshirt (is that just a Japan thing, where hotels give you complimentary pyjamas?), and pondering the events of the past couple of days.

I have to tell you about my entry into Japan, which may possibly be one of the most humiliating events of my life so far. Humiliating, but also educational, because I ended up learning a new Japanese word out of the experience. Unfortunately, that Japanese word happened to be 'norimonoyoi' 乗り物酔い. Motion sickness.

It all began on the plane, as we circled a few times before descending into Narita. The contents of my stomach (chunky chicken casserole, cheers Air New Zealand) started to slosh around ominously, and I broke into a cold sweat. I gritted my teeth and hoped it wouldn't be too much longer until we landed. We broke through the clouds, and Tokyo greeted us with a cold, rainy and grey day. About the same colour grey as that chicken I'd eaten.

I thought it would all be ok once my feet were firmly on solid land again, but clearly I'd underestimated Narita Airport. Because there's not really any point in which you aren't moving. You have to get a mini train from the arrivals terminal to customs. Then you have to go along what feels like kilometres of moving walkways. Then there are the normal escalators that lead to the train station. And then, of course, you have to get on a train to get from Narita to Tokyo.

We got on a JR train bound for Nippori, going by the advice of one of the Narita station staff. We were too tired and overwhelmed to question it, so we just grabbed a ticket and hopped on the first train we saw. My advice to all Tokyo first-timers would be, take one of the N'EX Narita Expresses. A bit more expensive than the normal trains, but the service is direct, easy to use, and you're guaranteed a seat.

When you're feeling sick as a dog, the last thing you feel like doing is standing on a crowded, high-speed train, trying to balance your hand luggage and 20kg suitcase in one hand, and clutching the hand ring for dear life with the other. Oh, and doing all this for about 2 hours.

I begin to panic. I begin to pray to God, 'please do not let me vomit on this train in front of these salarymen'. I begin to plan exit strategies in my mind, what if I just get off at the next station? I don't care where I end up as long as there is some sort of vomit-receiving vessel there. I completely forget about Ryan.

But finally, about an hour and a half after leaving Narita, Nippori station is announced. I cannot believe it. I have made it. I have survived the journey. The train doors open, and we hoist our luggage out onto the platform. 'Are you ok?' Ryan asks.

It is at this point that I dramatically fall to my knees in the middle of the platform, like some sort of Christ figure, and empty my guts into a paper bag. At the exact same time, a train pulls in, and about a thousand Japanese passengers peer suspiciously at me, the spewing blonde gaijin freak.

I would also like to mention, to conclude my story, that it is really hard to find rubbish bins at train stations. Carrying around a paper bag overflowing with spew is not ideal. And then when you do find a bin, thanks to a meticulous recycling system you have to decide what category of waste it goes under. I picked 'Other'.

But no fear, a quick trip to the drug store and I have gotten myself some tablets to prevent this from happening again. Norimonoyoi, you bastard of a thing.

March 12, 2012

Omiyage (おみやげ): How to Make Friends and Embarrass Your Homeland.

Ryan and I are in full-on freak-out mode. Tomorrow is when we officially leave our glorious, stunning southern city of Dunedin (it's amazing how you only appreciate your hometown when you leave it. Usually my adjectives of choice would be 'cold, rainy shithole'). We will fly to Auckland, and spend 3 days there. Then, early on Saturday morning, we are outta here. Narita Airport will welcome us with the seductive embrace of an exotic temptress. Our love affair with Japan will begin.

The other day, we went shopping for New Zealand souvenirs, or in Japanese, omiyage, that we can use to bribe people to be our friends. I say this in the least desperate way possible. But really, what does tiny little New Zealand even mean to Japanese people? I remember during my high school exchange in Hiroshima, one time a middle-aged man came up to me on the street, and asked excitedly 'America?!'
'Nup,' I started proudly, 'New Zealand.'
The disappointment - no, the heartbreak - was evident on his face. I was no yankee doodle dandy. I was from a country that was known more for The Lord of the Rings than its historic, diplomatic and economic relations with Japan.

So, look what we have here. A collection of all that represents our fine nation. The cute-animal-to-culture ratio is a bit off. While we did manage to find a couple of tiki (a traditional Maori talisman), most of what was on offer were fluffy wee sheep, jaunty little kiwi birds, and Ryan's personal favourite - rams with soft merino horns. So kawaii.

There are also a couple of rugby balls in the pile. I hate rugby. But all I know is, the last time I was in Japan, for a speech competition involving participants from all over the world, rugby was New Zealand's one redeeming factor. Everyone 'oohed' over the Canadian maple leaf flag. Everyone 'ahhed' over the traditional Cambodian dancing. They all frowned when I tried to talk about the Treaty of Waitangi. But then, someone yelled 'can you do a haka? Like the All Blacks?'

I am going to Japan, a country with a fascinating, rich, ancient culture.
I am from New Zealand, a country that is famous for Dan Carter's groin.

March 05, 2012

It All Began With Sailor Moon.

This is me, in 1996, at the tender age of 5.
Why am I showing you this seemingly ordinary, blurred, unfocused, awkward portrait from my childhood album?
Because you need to understand.
Look closer. Notice those little buns on top of my head, and the pigtails. You might just be able to make out a locket hanging around my neck. Admire my little red socks, pulled up as high as they could go.
This was my uniform. I forced Mum to twist my hair up into those 'meatballs' on a regular basis. I made my friends call me 'Serena' instead of 'Siobhan'. The locket was a magical weapon I got for Christmas, used to fight evil... by the moonlight.
I was obsessed with Sailor Moon.
I remember the day that I first made the connection between Sailor Moon and Japan. A girl in my class had just come back from a trip to Japan, and was doing a show and tell - with real, actual copies of the Sailor Moon manga in Japanese. You had to read them back to front! And the words looked all funny! But there was my idol, winking up at me from the pages of the comic.  In the 6 years of my life, I had never been so intrigued.
People usually have good reasons for doing what they do. Most foreign language majors, for example, have an intrinsic love of linguistics. Or, they appreciate the history and culture of their chosen country, and hope that by pursuing their language studies, they will come to understand the country at an intimate societal level.
When I tell people why I chose to study Japanese, I usually spin the 'interested in the language and culture' yarn.
It just doesn't sound right to say that you have racked up a $20,000 student loan because you really liked Sailor Moon as a child.