May 31, 2012

Cooking in Japan

A reminder of what the kitchen looks like.
When your kitchen in your apartment has just one stove, one sink, no hot water, no plug, and next to no storage space, cooking is no joke. It takes zen-like patience and skill. It takes focus and precision, because if you get even slightly too vigorous in your actions, you will knock everything off the shelves. It takes creative thinking, like bringing your dirty dishes into the shower with you to wash them in hot water. It takes questionable hygiene practices, like chopping up your onions on the floor because you have no bench. Tears have been shed, tantrums have been had, and things have been broken... but in this post I would like to share a week's worth of recipes. Mainly just to prove to Mum that we actually have been cooking in Japan.

It should be noted that we do most of our food shopping at the Lawson 100 convenience store just up the road, where every ingredient can be bought for 100 yen (about $NZ1.60). They even sell a small variety of fresh fruit, veges and meat. This place is like a haven for a student budget. Also, interesting cultural difference - although in NZ families tend to do one big grocery shop per week, it's typical for Japanese people to go to supermarkets or convenience stores nearly every day, and just buy as much as they need for the next day or two. It's very rare to see a supermarket that even has big shopping trolleys. As a former checkout chick, this sort of thing interests me. Sorry. Anyway.

Things you can cook in Japan with limited money, appliances, space and skills: 

1. Okonomiyaki (Japanese pancake)
Served with a smile.
Need: Okonomiyaki flour, 2 eggs, 3/4 cup water, chopped up cabbage, tenkasu (tempura bits), any kind of pre-cooked meat you like, soba noodles (optional). Okonomiyaki sauce and mayo for topping. How: Mix everything in a bowl to make batter. Pour batter on frypan to make pancakes. Flip. Serve with okonomiyaki sauce and mayo.

2. Nikujaga (Meat and Potatoes)

 Need: 200 g thinly sliced meat (pork or beef), chunks of onion and potatoes, 2 spoons each of sake, mirin, and sugar, 4 spoons of soy sauce, cup of water. How: Fry meat, add onion and potatoes. Add all other ingredients. Boil for about half an hour until potatoes are cooked and have soaked up broth.

3. Yakimeshi (Fried Rice)
Have rice cooker, can cook rice.
Need: Rice, rice cooker, soy sauce, egg, frozen veges, packet of chopped up mini 'wiener' sausages. How: Cook rice using rice cooker. Fry an egg on stove, cut up, put aside. Put cooked rice in frypan with 2 tablespoons of soy sauce. Fry the rice. Add frozen veges, sausages, and egg.

4. Yakisoba (Fried Noodles)
Need: Soba noodles, chopped up cabbage, little bit of meat (pork or beef), yakisoba sauce. How: Cook meat in frypan. Add noodles. Cover in yakisoba sauce. Add cabbage. Stirfry everything.

5. Curry Rice (Curry and, um, rice)
It is acceptable to use a spoon to eat this dish.
Need: Rice cooker, rice, beef, carrots, potatoes, sweet potatoes, onion, cup of water, instant curry roux. How: Put rice cooker on. Fry onions and meat. Add other vegetables. Pour in cup of water and boil until potatoes are soft. Add two of the curry blocks, and cook until desired thickness. Serve with rice. 

6. Gyudon (Beef Bowl)
Need: Rice cooker, rice, beef (despite the name, pork works too), onion, chopped up cabbage, yakiniku sauce. How: Put rice cooker on. Fry onions and meat. Squirt with yakiniku sauce. Stirfry with cabbage. Serve on top of rice.

7. Bacon Sandwich (The 'I Hate Cooking in Japan' Dish)
Need: Bacon, Bread. How: Fry bacon. Prepare bread. Place bacon on bread. Assemble.

May 29, 2012

Kyoto International Manga Museum

If you're a self-confessed Otaku, a Pop Culture aficionado, or just want to know why Japanese businessmen are always reading comic books on the train, the International Manga Museum in Kyoto is the place for you. Check out the English website here.

Located in a grand old elementary school building, the museum houses 300, 000 manga (Japanese comics) 50,000 of which are available on the 'Wall of Manga'. For an entrance fee of 800 yen, you can access these manga, and flick through them at your leisure, whether it be on the seats and benches placed around the museum, or in the courtyard outside, where cosplayers (people dressed in costumes of their favourite characters) can often be seen. It's sort of like the coolest library ever.

Being a museum, it also shows the history and development of manga, as well as holding special exhibitions to do with manga artists, genres, and events. When I went a month ago, there was an exhibition called 'Magnitude Zero', where manga artists had drawn pictures portraying Japan's March 11 earthquake. At the moment, there is a display on Shojo (girls') manga and fashion.

There are lots of fun interactive things, too, such as a workshop where you can learn to draw manga characters, and a studio where you can watch real-life manga artists at work. In the weekends, they have a service where you can get your portrait done in the manga style, and, well... this was just too good to pass up. The artist was super talented, and whipped this up in about 10 minutes.

It might be something a bit different from the typical Kyoto tourist itinerary of geisha, temples, and tea ceremonies, but by visiting the Manga Museum, you're seeing a form of modern Japanese art that is very relevant to Japan today - it's an enormous industry, and a part of everyday life and culture.

If you want to give manga a try, I recommend hunting down Nakazawa Keiji's Barefoot Gen, a powerful and sophisticated comic series about the atomic bombing of Hiroshima. This series is what sparked my interest in manga, and it's actually the subject of my university dissertation which I am currently writing. You can read the first three (in English) online here.

Some of my copies of Barefoot Gen in Japanese.

May 28, 2012

Tsuruhashi, Osaka's Korea Town

Something I find interesting about Osaka is the variety of people who live here. Osaka is home to Japan's largest Korean population, with the highest concentration living in Ikuno ward. This area, in particular that surrounding Tsuruhashi station, has become a Korea Town in its own right. Located under the train tracks, and consisting of a maze of mysterious tunnels and narrow alleyways, Tsuruhashi is the cultural experience that you wouldn't expect to have in Japan.

An entrance to the Tsuruhashi cavern of Korean goods.
Koreans in Japan have a troubled and complex past. Known as zainichi, meaning 'to reside in Japan', the roots of Korean migration can be traced to Japan's annexation of Korea in 1910. From this time onwards, many Koreans came to Japan, working in manual labour jobs such as coal mining and construction. During World War II, Koreans in their millions were forced to migrate to Japan, to serve as slaves, soldiers, and 'comfort women' for the Japanese Empire. While most repatriated after the war, a sizeable Korean population remained in Japan.

Koreans in Japan - even families who have lived here for generations - have been faced with a kind of contradictory discrimination regarding their ethnic status. On the one hand, the Japanese government has tried to assimilate Koreans into Japanese society, by encouraging to take Japanese names, making them pay taxes, and forcing them to speak Japanese. On the other hand, it has been ensured that Koreans will never become fully integrated into Japanese society. Until recently, zainichi Koreans, including those born in Japan, were required to provide fingerprints and carry an Alien Registration card, like any other foreigner.

Korea Towns such as Tsuruhashi are important, as they represent a place where Korean culture - which, like it or not, is undeniably a part of Japan's history and larger culture - can be unabashedly displayed and celebrated. Though you may be surprised at how relatively un-Korean looking and sounding Tsuruhashi is. Almost all of the shop names are in Japanese, and shopkeepers will speak to you in perfect Kansai-ben. Japan is, after, their home.

A rare glimpse of Hangul, Korean script
Cross cultural... kimchi stored in Kirin refrigerator
Assortment of spicy Korean ingredients
Tsuruhashi is dark, dank, and some of the food safety practices are questionable. Raw fish, meat and kimchi all sit out on display in the open air. Old Korean women haggle in loud voices, while old men shuffle past, coughing raggedly.  It's the kind of place where you'll find three legged cats limping down the alleyways, hunting mice and food scraps. Surrounding houses look as though they could collapse at any moment. Yet there are moments of beauty. Shops selling brightly coloured Korean fabric and hanbok (kimono). Little bowing dolls in traditional Korean dress.

Dark, covered arcade of Tsuruhashi
Abandoned (?) house just outside the shopping area
Beautiful Hanbok (traditional Korean dress) store.
Piles of fabric everywhere.
Bowing dolls.
Despite above-mentioned questionable food safety practices, Tsuruhashi has become somewhat of a foodie destination. There are all sorts of interesting vendors selling bulbous, bobbly-looking red-hot snacks that I can't remember any of the names of. But the main attractions are the many delicious yakiniku (barbecued beef) restaurants, derived from the Korean bulgogi dish. We found a picture of a cow that detailed all the different parts of the animal that could be barbecued and consumed. No vegetarians allowed.
Got meat?
Instead of yakiniku, however, we decided to have Korean noodles - jajanmen, coated in a sweet, thick, glossy, meaty, black soybean sauce. The noodles are so long that sometimes you need to ask for scissors to cut them so you can eat the dish properly!

Chowing down.
The longest noodles you will ever eat.
Tsuruhashi was another eye-opening Osaka experience for me, and the area has established itself as a unique kind of tourist attraction. The awareness that this brings to the plight of Koreans in Japan is necessary - because even today, a new source of discrimination against Koreans is brewing. This time it stems from television screens - with some right wing Japanese arguing that there are too many Korean dramas being broadcast on Japanese TV. I think I actually saw one of these protests outside the Korean consulate in Shinsaibashi a couple of months ago... it's scary stuff.

New York Times article
Japan Focus article
SPICE paper - 'Koreans in Japan'
Japan Times Blog on Korean Boom

May 23, 2012

Nomihoudai and Tabehoudai - All-You-Can-Eat and Drink

Sometimes I think of Japan as one big playground, full of weird and wonderful 'only in Japan' activities. The kinds of too-good-to-be-true things that make you exclaim, 'man, I never wanna go home!'

Like many foreigners before me, I have discovered the joys of Japan's nomihoudai and tabehoudai culture - bars and restaurants that offer 'all-you-can-drink' and 'all-you-can-eat' for a cheap price. And when I say cheap, I mean $15 for two hours of unlimited eating/drinking. My favourite economic analysis of this system is from Ryan at Ryman in Japan: "It's like I'm making money!"

"You're practically making money!"
How can these places afford to do this? Well, I have observed a few common factors during my experiences of nomihoudai/tabehoudai. If you order cocktails during nomihoudai, you will probably find they don't tend to put as much booze in as they normally would. Also, if you're with a large group, sometimes they take a while to bring the drinks out. You're on a time limit, so the amount of drinks you can consume is dependent on the speed in which the waiter/waitress can bring them out.  With tabehoudai, it seems that most of the places serve Italian food - pasta and pizza. This kind of food is high in carbohydrates so you get full quicker!

I think there's something about Japanese culture that makes nomihoudai and tabehoudai work, too. I don't want to generalise, but most Japanese people are so polite and trustworthy that they don't treat it so much as a binge-drinking/pig-out sesh as, perhaps, we do. I've read that some places in Tokyo have an unofficial 'no foreigners' policy, because of bad experiences with people taking advantage of the system and going absolutely bananas. Which I can relate to. At our first tabehoudai, we acted like starving Ethiopian children tasting food for the first time. 7 pizzas and 4 pastas later...

If you're in Japan and want to give nomihoudai and tabehoudai a go, look for this kanji: 飲み放題 (nomihoudai - all you can drink)、食べ放題 (tabehoudai - all you can eat). Some places even have both, at the same time! For food, I recommend 'Shakey's' (Pizza and pasta, found pretty much everywhere in Japan), and 'Sweets Paradise' (all-you-can-eat sweets, but with some pasta dishes too).

May 22, 2012

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May 21, 2012

University life in Japan

Kansai University
I post a lot about eating, drinking, shopping, sightseeing and partying in Japan, but barely anything about studying, as my parents have not-so-subtly pointed out on numerous occasions ('that all sounds lovely, but when do you have time to do your homework?'). I think I speak for most exchange students when I say, the actual 'study' part of the deal is not exactly the highest priority. And it shouldn't be. When I was figuring out my workload for this semester, even my course adviser said, 'you don't want to be spending all your time overseas stuck in the library.'

But there is no escaping the fact that classes and homework are a part of daily life while on exchange. And although I would rather spend my days visiting temples, castles and Sailor Moon cafes, university life in Japan still has its interesting points, and says something about Japan's education system.

At first I was worried university would be really difficult and strict here, because classes go for an hour and a half (as opposed to 50 minutes back home), and there are even classes on Saturdays. Then I got my timetable, and realised it wasn't going to be so bad after all. I have class Monday to Thursday, with just one class on Monday, and two on all the other days. You only need 7 credits (5 classes) to maintain your exchange student visa status, so I'm just doing the bare minimum.

I'm taking two advanced Japanese language classes - oral communication and literacy. The way these classes are taught is so different to the way I was taught Japanese back home. For one thing, instead of computers and PowerPoint, they still use blackboards and chalk here - in the land of electronics and gadgets, that was a big surprise. Also, there's a huge emphasis on rote learning. Every week we get tested on kanji and vocabulary that we're probably never going to use again (at least, I hope I'm not going to need to use 'cerebral apoplexy' again...). It all seems aimed at teaching us how to pass the Japanese Language Proficiency Test, which I'm not a big fan of. I just don't see how cramming a lot of pointless vocab measures proficiency.
Writing kanji over and over and over again...
Something else that's really different to back home is that you are graded on your attendance. For each of my classes, at least 30% of the final marks are based on attendance. Some classes make it a little bit more difficult by adding 'participation' into the mix, in order to target the students who come to class and sleep the whole way through it.. so essentially, 'participation' just means sitting up and looking perky.

The content of the lessons is always sort of strange, too. In Japanese class back home, our lecturer would always try and make each lesson topical and relevant, by teaching us about current issues in Japanese society. In Japanese class here, one of our reading topics was, 'are dolphins smart?' Hm.
Are dolphins smart? Am I smart enough to be learning about dolphins?
One good thing, though, is that the Japanese classes are actually taught entirely in Japanese, and you are expected to speak only in Japanese to the teacher and your classmates. This has been quite challenging, but it's been good to be immersed entirely in Japanese for at least an hour and a half a day. Being surrounded by English-speaking exchange students doesn't exactly encourage you to speak Japanese 24/7...

In addition to Japanese, I have 3 culture classes, which are taught in English (Politics, History, and Geisha culture) and are designed especially for exchange students. Again, the expectations for these classes don't seem to be that high. We have to do a presentation and a revision quiz for History, a presentation, 1500 word essay, and final exam for Politics, and just one final exam for Geisha culture.

Overall I think that university classes here are quite old fashioned in teaching style, and (dare I say?) much easier than back home. I think Japanese education puts too much emphasis on tests and exams, and not enough on critical, creative and independent thinking. From what I've seen/read/heard, in Japan, the high school years are actually more stressful and difficult than university - the complete opposite to New Zealand. Students spend their whole high school lives preparing to sit university entrance exams, particularly those for Japan's most prestigious universities. But once you've gotten into university, you're safe. Grades don't seem to matter to employers so much; just the fact that you got into that university is enough. So for a lot of university students in Japan, these years are a time to party and have fun.

Oh yeah, this post is dedicated to Matt, who wanted to know how academia in Japan differs to NZ. You nerd, you. =P

May 16, 2012

Favourite Japan Foods: Chibi Kara Don

I have a love-hate relationship with the Japanese word 'chibi'. It basically means 'small and cute', and can be used to describe cartoon characters who are tiny but have oversized heads. Now, my nickname in high school used to be 'Shivvy', and when I would ask Japanese people to call me by that name, it would inevitably result in shrieks of hilarity and exclamations of 'CHIIIIBBBBIIII!' Repulsive.

There is one type of chibi that I do not mind at all, however, and that is Chibi Kara Donburi, or a bowl of tiny juicy pieces of lightly fried chicken on top of rice, drizzled with a sweet and sour sauce and topped with seaweed, cabbage, and spring onions. It is the specialty dish of a small restaurant just down the road from campus, and every lunchtime there are long lines of Kandai students waiting to eat there. Delicious and cheap - Chibi Kara Don only costs 350 yen. It is the perfect loose change meal.
If I could eat this everyday for the rest of my life, it would still be not enough.
Another reason I love this restaurant is the fact that they have two beautiful labradors, one white and one chocolate, who hang outside in a little kennel near the entrance. They are adorable, and you can often see them around the area being taken on walks.

Wee gem of a restaurant, located in Kandai-mae
It's called Umakara... something. Can't read the kanji.
The owners are a really down to earth couple. The husband sits behind the counter grunting 'welcomes' at customers. He has a droopy moustache that makes him look exactly like his dogs. The wife rushes around the cramped little restaurant taking orders. For such a tiny person, she has a very loud and authoritative voice. One time she told our group to 'stop chatting and order already!' Another time, during a particularly busy lunch hour, she told a table of guys who had just finished eating to hurry up and get out, because other people were waiting for the table. She is hilarious. Classic Osakan businesswoman.

We probably eat here about twice a week, and I think we are nearly counted as regulars. At least, whenever I order now, the lady goes 'without mayonnaise, right?'
She knows exactly what I like.

May 15, 2012

Summer Fashion in Japan

I have class at 9am every morning, and this is my typical routine: wake up at 8am, grab a pair of jeans and a t-shirt, slap on some make up, and check Facebook while eating breakfast. I leave my apartment at 8.45am, just as the Kandai-mae train pulls into the station, unloading about half of the student population. I join the mob of students, and we all snake our way up the hill to Kansai University.
Outside the Library at Kansai University
I always feel really inadequate during these daily walks to university. See, it's not like back home in New Zealand, where students wear leggings, puffer jackets and jandals to class (hell, I've seen people in pyjama pants). In Japan, university is the equivalent of a Nicki Minaj concert. Everyone looks fabulous. The walk up to Kandai is a sea of leather, lace and sequins - and that's just the boys!

I'm joking. Sort of. Japanese boys are noticeably fashion conscious. They will regularly wear suits to class, and snappy, expensive looking shoes. And the hair. We have a hair salon on campus, and I was in there one day waiting for Ryan to get his hair cut. There was a guy sitting next to me who had the most perfect locks I have ever seen. No idea why he needed to get his hair re-done. He kept fiddling with it as he waited, looking at himself adoringly in the mirror, tilting his head at different angles and making a pouty face. He was clearly obsessed, and I'm willing to bet he spends more time in that salon than in class.

It's the girls who really fascinate me. They get so dressed up for class. Almost all Japanese girls wear painful looking high heels to university each day. And when I say high heels, I mean sky-high stilettos that are made for clubbing. I just love the thought process behind these choices. 'Ooh, history class today... I know! I'll wear my Jimmy Choos.'

I'm quite happy wearing my converse sneakers. But if I wanted to, I could upsize to a scary looking platform sneaker. I'm having Spice Girl flashbacks so bad right now.

Summer trends in Japan are easy to pick up on, mainly because girls in Japan follow them religiously. Magazines just have to say the key word - for example, 'DENIM' - and suddenly, like magic, everyone is wearing something denim. Denim shirts, jackets and dresses are huge right now.

Another trend that a lot of Japanese girls are wearing are 'tattoo tights'. These are stockings that have tattoo designs on them so it looks like you have tattoos on your legs. Funky and rebellious!

Something interesting about summer fashion in Japan is that a lot of it is aimed at preventing exposure to the sun. While western countries find a suntan attractive, Japan (and Asia in general, I presume) see pale skin as highly desirable. Instead of fake tan, they sell skin whiteners. When it's a hot, sunny day, many women will actually carry umbrellas to shade themselves. I've even seen girls wearing face masks, the sort people wear when they have a cold, to hide their faces from the sun.

Surprisingly, one sun-smart accessory that hasn't caught on is sunglasses. I hardly ever see Japanese people wearing them. I asked my friend why, and he said sunglasses are seen as something that only 'Yakuza, rich people, and gaijin' wear. I wondered if I was being rude by wearing sunglasses, but my friend assured me no, I wasn't, but I was just acting like a stereotypical foreigner.

What a tourist.
I recently donned a pair of (ridiculously huge) sunglasses on a trip to Nara. It was a really sunny day, so I thought, why not. There were a lot of middle school students on a field trip in Nara that day, and my sunglasses became a topic of fascination. A group of boys came up to me, and one of them said 'Gaga, Gaga, I love you!' Then two groups of girls asked in giggly English if they could take photos with me. Oh, it was awkward. And I'm still not sure if being compared to Lady Gaga is a compliment. But hey. Sometimes it's fun to live the life of the rich and famous.

May 12, 2012

In the Name of the Moon: Sailor Moon Cafe

I found out about Cafe Talisman in Osaka from this post in the very entertaining blog kansai gyaru salarymen & co. Discovering this post was among the most enlightening experiences of my life. There was a Sailor Moon Cafe. In Osaka. And I was going to go. Immediately, if possible.

It ended up being closed every Wednesday and the 2nd and 4th Thursdays of each month, so I had to wait a couple of days before I could go. Today, after oohing and ahhing over pictures of Cafe Talisman on tumblr and the official Cafe Talisman website, it was finally time to pay tribute to the soldier of love and justice herself. I debated about wearing my hair in pigtails with meatball-like buns for the occasion, but, well, decided not to. We took the Hankyu line to Umeda Station, went out the Chayamachi East exit, walked past Loft, went under the highway overpass, and followed the JR tracks for about 15 minutes, until we saw a sign for 'Honjonishi 3 chome'. We then kept walking straight, past a conbini and a park, and... konnichiwa. There it was.

Understated, yet magical. Cafe Talisman.
When we went in, the Sailor Moon theme song was playing, and I must admit I giggled like a giddy school girl. The waitresses welcomed us in, cool as anything, and handed us menus like this was just a normal cafe and not the most amazing cafe in the world. The menu caused me to have more heart palpitations. It was cute and sparkly and had a little picture of Luna on it!

Sparkly and moony menu.
Hello Kitty! I mean, Luna.
There were bits and pieces of Sailor Moon merchandise placed around the shop, and some pictures on the walls, but most of the really cool looking stuff was behind the counter, which was a shame. I wanted to take a closer look but felt a bit awkward asking... maybe next time? Still, it had a lovely atmosphere. There were also lots of roses, stars and jewels around the place, in addition to the character goods!

Sailor Moon pictures on the walls!
We decided to eat lunch there. From what I can remember prices ranged from about 400-500 yen for sweets, and maybe from around 700 yen for pasta and donburi meals. Drinks started from about 400 yen, so it's reasonably priced, I think. The same sort of prices as most cafes. And presentation is top notch - adorably Sailor Moon themed! I chose Chocolate Banana pancakes and a Sailor Neptune float. The pancakes were star shaped, and the float was bright green melon soda. Ryan ordered a hambuger donburi, and one of the famous lattes, with a little picture of Luna traced into the milk!

Star shaped pancakes!
Sailor Neptune float. Check out the cute little spoon, too!
Adorable Luna cafe latte.
After we'd paid up and got given a special Sailor Moon loyalty card, we walked back to Umeda, having had our day made a little more magical by Cafe Talisman. Perfect escapism... I think Usagi Tsukino herself would approve. Before going home, we stopped off at Umeda Mandarake, and I bought the first three Sailor Moon manga. Which I intend to to bring with me to Cafe Talisman next time... Cafe Talisman, this could be the start of a beautiful relationship.
My latest purchases.

May 09, 2012

Alien Registration Card and Somewhat Related Aliens

If you're staying in Japan for more than 90 days, you need to register as an Alien at your municipal office and apply for an Alien Registration Certificate. This is called a 外国登録証明書 (gaikokujintourokushomeisho - why the hell is the most difficult word in the Japanese language a word that only foreigners need to use?!) The 'Certificate' is actually a little card, and you're meant to carry it on you at all times. You also have to have one if you want to buy a cellphone, open a bank account, or rent an apartment. It's sort of like a driver's license - this is your license to live in Japan.

Kansai University spoon-fed us through the process, which involved filling in a registration form, providing two photos, our passport, and proof that we were students. We went to Suita City Hall, waited in lines, got papers stamped, signed, photocopied, put in a time capsule, sent to the emperor, etc. We were given a piece of paper to act as a temporary Certificate until the real ones were ready. Then we had to go back to the City Hall about 3 weeks later to pick up the cards. I like mine. It's sparkly. And it has my address in Japanese on it, which I always forget.

My Alien Registration Card!
Registering as an 'Alien' in Japan has resulted in a new-found love of all things alien. You know those little green men aliens from Toy Story? I am obsessed with them. And Japan being Japan, you can buy almost anything with their cute little faces emblazoned upon it. My alien collection (so far), for your viewing pleasure... (why yes, this is the real reason for this post).
At Tokyo Disneyland. We come in peace. All of us.
My alien letter writing set.
Alien hand towel. They are also taking over our apartment.
Alien bento lunchbox.
Little Green Men cup. I suspect this is for children. I don't care.

May 07, 2012

Natsukashii Hiroshima

A Japanese word I love is 懐かしい (natsukashii). It roughly translates in English to 'nostalgic', but not many people use the word 'nostalgic' that often. Japanese people use 'natsukashii' all the time. Perhaps it's a cultural thing - in the western world, we like to focus on our futures, without really taking the time to consider our pasts. In contrast, Japanese society is strongly grounded in history and tradition. I think there's more of a tendency to contemplate what once was, and what now is. But anyway. That's enough philosophy for now...

I was 16 when I came to Japan for the first time, spending the winter living with a home stay family and studying at a high school in Hiroshima. It was an interesting experience - it wasn't easy. But for the past 4 years since then, Hiroshima has been on my mind. When I found out I'd been accepted into Kansai University, I knew I had to go back. And this weekend, I did.

Genbaku Dome, Winter, 2008
Genbaku Dome, Spring, 2012
The first thing we did when we arrived in Hiroshima on Thursday night was to hop on one of the city's quaint little streetcars and head to Okonomimura (Okonomiyaki village), parallel to Hondori. If you live in Osaka, you might be under the impression that you've already sampled the best okonomiyaki that Japan has to offer - at least, that's what the Osakans will have you believe. But I reckon Hiroshima-style okonomiyaki is the superior of the two. The main difference between the regions is that all the ingredients are mixed together in the batter in Osaka style, whereas Hiroshima style is carefully compiled in layers, with a high concentration of cabbage and the addition of soba or udon noodles.
Hiroshima-yaki. Melt-in-your-mouth noodles smothered in tangy Hiroshima-brand okonomiyaki sauce.
There are loads of places where you can eat okonomiyaki in Hiroshima, but Okonomimura has to be seen to be believed. It consists of a few multi-storeyed buildings in which every single floor contains nothing but okonomiyaki restaurants, squeezed in beside each other. Chefs prepare the dish on long hot benches right in front of the customers, which is exquisite to watch. We went in the middle of Golden Week, so there were lines spilling out of the buildings. But the wait was worth it. Actually, I'm not even ashamed to admit that we dined there twice in one weekend.

Entrance to Okonomimura
Lines of hungry people waiting to feast on Hiroshima's famous fare
I know it's horribly cliche, but no trip to Hiroshima would be complete without visiting the Peace Park. I had to see the Genbaku Dome right away to confirm that I was really, truly in Hiroshima again. I don't think I'll ever forget the first time I saw it. From Hondori station there's this sense of anticipation - the signs say 'Genbaku Dome this exit', and you prepare yourself to see what you've already seen so many times in pictures and history books. But it's so different in real life. It's tangible, three dimensional, and hauntingly hollow. A true piece of history.

Genbaku Dome lit up at night.
We were fortunate enough to catch glimpses of Hiroshima's annual Flower Festival, held in the Peace Park during Golden Week. For such a poignant place, it had a fresh, spring-like, celebratory atmosphere. I bought a toffee apple and enjoyed it sitting on the riverbank, beneath the Dome.

Floating flowers
I love the bright colours of the origami peace cranes
View from the top of the Peace Park Memorial Museum - decorative peace cranes on the lawn
On Saturday, like true Japanese Golden Week tourists, we decided to go to Miyajima. Unfortunately, all those other Japanese Golden Week tourists had the same idea. Even more unfortunately, the island's crowning glory - the big red floating torii gate - was covered up in scaffolding, having been damaged in a recent storm. Such disappointment.

Not quite the World Heritage Site I remember...
But everyone knows the main reason to go to Miyajima is to play with the wild deer, anyway. Oh, and to eat the Momiji Manju cakes. Chocolate and cream filling are my favourite.

Me playing with a Miyajima deer 4 years ago! Why did I think acid wash skinny jeans were a good fashion choice?!
... And now!
Miyajima 5 storey pagoda. Also big, beautiful and red (suck on that, floating shrine).
After visiting old friends, my old school, familiar neighbourhoods, and using familiar transport (hello Astram line), Golden Week came to an end, and it was time to take the night bus back to Osaka. Revisiting Hiroshima was a very 'natsukashii' experience. As we pulled into Umeda at 5am this morning, and watched the sun rise up through the Sky Building, I thought to myself, Osaka is my new home in Japan. But Hiroshima will always have my heart. I can't wait to go back again.