July 30, 2012

Burgers in Japan

When it comes to western foods, while Korea is known for its pizza, Japan goes crazy for hamburgers. American-style diners and fast food chains are ubiquitous in Japan, with the humble hamburger representing all that is hip, young and cool. Something that surprised me when I first came to Japan was that Burger King and McDonald's don't have the same negative image here as they do back home. Going to these places is a much more (dare I say?) classy experience; staff are impeccably dressed and even wear posh little berets, portion sizes are more ladylike than the western counterparts, and the overall atmosphere resembles a pleasant cafe more than a greasy fast food joint.

That said, I've hardly ever been to BK and McD's while I've been in Japan. Instead, I have discovered two of Japan's homegrown burger chains, MOS Burger and Freshness Burger.
MOS Burger in Kandai-mae
MOS Burger. Don't be put off by the slightly fungal sounding name. It is sensational. There is a MOS Burger three minutes away from our apartment, and it became a tradition to have it for lunch every Saturday. I always get a W Hamburger (double hamburger, because 'W' in a Japanese accent sounds like 'double'), fries, and a strawberry milkshake. The strawberry milkshake is probably my favourite thing on the menu, because it is delicious and provides me with the illusion that I am getting my intake of dairy and fruit, two things that are severely lacking from my Japanese diet. There are lots of interesting things on the menu I have not dared to try yet, such as a rice burger (flattened rice balls instead of buns), and a naan bread with spicy Mexican toppings.
Freshness Burger in Amerika-mura
Freshness Burger is a teeny bit on the pricier side, but is a truly gourmet burger experience. They have all the classic options - cheeseburgers, hamburgers - and then some slightly more unique combinations, such as the Salsa Burger or Spam Burger. I like the restaurant's namesake 'Freshness Burger', which is a simple hamburger with a tomato slice, red onion and sauces, and the buns taste like they are made from sweet potato or something. Healthy (sort of) and very fresh indeed. The cold drinks here are great too; lots of homemade options, with lemonade freshly squeezed in front of you, and the Mojito Ginger Ale contains fresh mint.
MOS Burger meal
As always in Japan, presentation is key, and just because it's a burger joint doesn't mean they're about to start slacking off. At both MOS Burger and Freshness Burger, each item of food comes wrapped neatly in a little paper bag, placed carefully in a wicker basket. Ultimate fast food experience.

July 29, 2012

Hanshin Tigers Baseball Game

When I spent time with one of my friends in Hiroshima, she told me I had to experience a baseball game while in Osaka. 'Hanshin Tigers fans are the craziest,' she said, despite being a staunch Hiroshima Carp supporter herself.

Last night, a group of us went to Hanshin Koshien stadium in Nishinomiya to watch the Tigers go up against the Yokohama DeNA Baystars. Arriving at the stadium, you got the feeling that this was serious business. Lining the path to the entrance were back-to-back street vendors selling Tigers merchandise, in addition to the two large official Tigers shops. Fans wandered around in a sea of white, yellow and black, wearing Hanshin Tigers towels tied around their heads to combat the sticky summer heat.
Tiger statue at Koshien Stadium
One of the official Tigers shops
We got the cheapest tickets (1900 yen) and were seated in the outfield, right next to a small but enthusiastic bunch of Baystar supporters dressed in blue. They had trumpets, and a catchy little chant that we couldn't help singing along to. We had to keep reminding ourselves what side we were on.
Yep, we visited the Tigers shop...
View of the field
I was sort of so busy enjoying my American hot dog that I missed the start of the game, and from then on I was a bit... lost. I'm not a very sporty girl, and baseball is non existent in New Zealand. But by the 4th inning I had figured out what an inning is, and I was then informed that the Baystars had scored (?) three home runs (?) and were winning easily. Probably should have paid more attention.
However, I can tell you that number 4 on the Baystars caught a lot of balls, and number 32 on the Tigers is my favourite player. His name is Ryota, and the crowd cheered his name a lot. I think that's probably the main reason he's my favourite.

The best part of the game was the end of the 7th inning, when all of a sudden everyone in the stadium started blowing up long balloons, which they then released into the sky. After that everyone started singing a song about the Hanshin Tigers, and from then on the chanting didn't stop until the end of the game, despite the fact the Tigers were losing. Apparently the balloon release and song is a Tigers tradition, and happens at every game. It was awesome.

Balloons starting to spring up towards end of 7th inning
Ready for balloon release
I read a funny story about how in 1985 the Hanshin Tigers won the Japan series, and in order to celebrate, fans who resembled each of the players jumped into Dotombori canal. The problem was, they couldn't find a person who looked like American player Randy Bass, so they ended up stealing a Colonel Sanders statue from a nearby KFC and throwing him into the canal. This incident is said to have cursed the team, and they would never win again until the statue was rescued from the water (which it was, in 2009). I think this proves that Hanshin Tigers fans are truly crazy. But it just makes me love Osaka a little bit more.

July 26, 2012

Salty Watermelon Pepsi

The taste of summer... salty watermelon Pepsi.
Japan is known for taking popular global products and putting a local spin on the flavours, from Kit Kats (green tea, wasabi, every flavour you can think of...), to Pretzels (okonomiyaki flavour, anyone?), to Pepsi. I had read stories about some of Japan's disastrous seasonal Pepsi varieties, with ice cucumber and azuki bean receiving awful reviews. Nevertheless, there seemed to be a sort of legendary hype surrounding Japan's limited edition Pepsi flavours. I immediately wanted to be a part of the taste-testing tradition.

Then it was announced that the special Pepsi flavour for Summer 2012 was going to be Salty Watermelon, a nod to all things summery and sweet, taking into account the fondness of Japanese for sprinkling salt on their fruit. I was excited. But also a little disappointed - it was almost too normal. I had actually had dreams about what Pepsi Japan were concocting in their laboratories, and was fully preparing myself for 'Pepsi: Bacon Blast' or 'Pepsi: Sushi Surprise' (complete with a live fish swimming in the bottle).

Salty Watermelon Pepsi was released yesterday, July 24th, and naturally I went straight to a conbini to find it. There it was, in Lawson, lined in a neat, pink, row in the refrigerator... pink. Was not expecting pink.

It was a very hot day, 34 degrees, and I was more than ready to swig the sucker down. It first hit me with a wash of watermelon, sort of sickly but at the same time refreshing. The watermelon assualt was followed by the familiar sharp, syrupy cola taste of normal Pepsi, creating a thought-provoking union of flavours. Retained fizz nicely. Satisfying 'chhhhhhh' when opening bottle, even an hour after first opening. Unique pink shade grew on me, despite initially reminding me of nail polish remover.

I think Pepsi might be onto a winner.

July 25, 2012

Juso, Osaka

Juso is an old area of Osaka that fascinates me. On train trips along the Hankyu line from Kandai to Umeda, there comes a point where the scenery fades from clean-cut apartments and convenience stores, turning into run-down restaurants, pachinko parlours and shady buildings with photos of scantily clad girls on the windows. This is Juso; residential area by day, red light district by night.
'Juso Friendly Street'
Across the road from Juso Station is the optimistically named shopping arcade, Juso Friendly Street, which contains all sorts of quirky little retailers. Many are traditional, selling sake, kimono, fabrics and Japanese snacks. Some are musty second hand shops, with an assortment of cheap toys, books, furniture, and knick knacks nobody would ever want or need. There are also fresh foods out on display, providing the street with a particularly pungent aroma - fish, meat, even live crabs. The arcade is slow paced and grey - quite like the customers who seem to frequent it. The older generation leisurely ride their bikes through Juso Friendly Street, stopping abruptly outside shops to have a loud conversation (in thick Osaka dialect, of course) with the owners.
Inside the arcade
Traditional Japanese store
Live crabs sitting outside in a wrapped bowl
This is all fairly tame. But parallel to 'Friendly Street' is another Juso landmark - Sakaemachi, home to all creatures of the night, and some of the best Engrish I have seen in Japan yet. 'Sakaemachi' literally means 'prosperous town'... and considering sex is Japan's second largest industry, I suppose that could be considered an appropriate description. Sakaemachi is so open and in-your-face it's surprising, considering prostitution is technically illegal in Japan. But the red light districts such as Juso find all sorts of ways to get around these laws and disguise their trade, operating under an 'everything but' facade. A common sight in these kinds of sleazy places are the innocently named 'annai-jo', or 'information centres', which act as a sort of directory for adult services in the area.
Sakaemachi, Juso's red light district
Obligatory host club
Is not the lover of the limit looked for by bunny at night?
Medica Room... not even sure what the imagery is meant to represent here.
Exit Sakaemachi, head back towards Juso Station, and follow the glowing orange, bespectacled Astro Boy lookalike lamps through a network of narrow alleyways tucked in under the train tracks. This is where you find wall-to-wall restaurants, differentiated only by the writing on the lanterns hanging outside. As you walk down these alleys in single file, peek through the slatted curtains to see people slurping up udon noodles at any time of day. It was ominously dark and thundery as we walked around this area, which made the warm golden lanterns and the smell of noodle soup coming from either side of the street even more inviting. Walking around in the near-darkness was a surreal experience. Barely a word of English is to be found here, making it one of those rare places where you actually feel immersed in the 'real' Japan.
Follow the Astro Boy
Restaurant alleyways... I spy cheap beer and kushi katsu.
Juso-ya, or Juso house (I think this sells noodles?)
Astro Boy watches over the streets
Walking around Juso is like stepping into another place and time. For all those people who have lived in Juso their whole lives, I don't think anything has ever changed - and, again demonstrating that stubborn Osakan way of doing things, it probably never will.

July 22, 2012

Ashiya Summer Carnival

Fireworks at Ashiya Summer Carnival
Summer festivals in Japan don't necessarily need to be steeped in tradition, ritual and ceremony. Some of them - like the 34th Ashiya Summer Carnival held last night - are simply glorified beach parties, an excuse to feel the sand between your toes while squealing at fireworks. After a day of thunderstorms and torrential rain, luckily by sunset the skies had cleared - and it seemed like the whole of Hyogo prefecture turned up to enjoy the show.
Ashiya sunset
Ashiya is a perfect gem of a city, about halfway between Osaka and Kobe. It's nestled behind a mountain range, and has a sparkling tree-lined river that turns into the sprawling Osaka Bay. My friend told me it's known as Japan's Hollywood because so many famous people live there. As we walked along the river to the carnival, we could easily make out a number of beautiful mansions - actual mansions, too, not just the Japanese meaning of a mansion!
Riverbank and flash houses
After a 40 minute walk along the riverbank with about 50,000 people, we made it to the beach right on time for the fireworks display. Fireworks were watched intermittently with visiting food stalls. I chose my favourites; takoyaki and toffee apples. The toffee apple somehow ended up all through my hair. Actually, apple ended up being the theme of the night. On the way home we stopped into a conbini for drinks, and ended up discovering apple flavoured Fanta. It was a big deal.

July 20, 2012

Gion Matsuri 2012

It seems like the second we got back from Korea, summer decided to unleash itself on Kansai. While this means sticky, uncomfortable heat all day and night, it also means summer festivals, or 'matsuri', with plenty of opportunities to dress up in traditional Japanese summer clothes, gorge on festival foods such as yakisoba and candy apples, and enjoy float processions and firework displays.

Gion Matsuri in Kyoto is one of Japan's most famous festivals, said to be over a thousand years old. It lasts all through July, but the festival climaxes on the 17th with the grand parade. The three nights leading up to this parade are known as yoiyama, which are pre-parades. We went to the Gion Matsuri yoiyama on the 16th, which was the hottest day of the year so far.
Shijo-Karasuma, Kyoto, on night of Gion Matsuri Yoiyama
Traditional musicians playing on naginata-boko

For me, one of the best parts of the festival was getting to see lots of people dressed up in yukata and jinbei. Especially the girls - the colours and patterns of the yukata were so bright, the obi bows were so cute, and hairstyles were immaculate. I decided to wear a jinbei, which consists of a top and shorts - usually men wear them, but I found a very girly version, and thought it was kind of funky. On the way to Kyoto we got some funny looks on the train, and even heard two old men loudly appraising our outfits. It was a relief to finally meet up with the other exchange students, and see them also looking awkward in various states of Japanese dress (one student had rather creatively paired hiking boots with his yukata).
Rocking the jinbei.
Girls in yukata
We spent about an hour walking up and down the streets, listening to the music of the men sitting in the naginata-boko, watching the police meekly try to organise the crowds into two orderly lines, and complaining about the heat. Then someone suggested we check out the food stalls, and I'm not ashamed to admit that the rest of the night was spent eating everything from chocolate ice bananas to fried potato curls.
Food stalls (shaved ice in the front)
Yakisoba stall
Festival atmosphere
Going to a matsuri in Japan is one of those must-do cultural experiences. Even if you're not really interested in the history behind the festivals, it's worth it just to party with the locals - whether it be being handed a container of yakisoba at a street vendor by a heavily tattooed man, scooping up a goldfish at a stall with a little kid, or sitting in the gutter drinking chu-hi with a group of drunk university students.

July 16, 2012

Three Days in Seoul, South Korea

I'm standing on the subway in Seoul, awkwardly clutching the hand ring, and trying not to make eye contact with the old man sitting down in front of me, who is, for some reason, staring pointedly at me. He says something in Korean. I smile apologetically and ignore him. He tries again, more urgently. This time he begins making strange hand gestures. He is rubbing at his crotch furiously and grunting out words I don't understand. Then he points at my crotch, gabbering away and moving his fingers up in a sliding motion. What? Mortified, I look down. Oh. My fly is undone. I deal to the problem, and the old man chuckles, and sits back, satisfied.

This, I thought to myself, would never happen in Japan.

During my three day trip to Seoul - barely a two hour flight away - I experienced a glorious culture shock whirlwind of language, food, people and culture. It all happened at once. Less than two weeks ago, Ryan, one of our friends and I decided spontaneously to go to Korea. We bought cheap flights on the new budget airline Peach, booked accommodation on Hostelworld.com, and armed ourselves with the Lonely Planet Seoul travel guide and a 'Survival Korean' language book. Then we were off.

Walking through Hongdae, the university district where we were staying, at midnight on the Wednesday night we arrived, I was surprised to see almost everything was still open, and people were everywhere. Neon lights with hangul characters twinkled invitingly, rainbow-coloured pamphlets advertising clubs, restaurants and shows littered the ground. The smell of barbecued meat and kimchi wafted outside through open doors, followed by the sweet scent of squeezed lemons as we walked past one of the many lemonade stands dotted around the nighttime streets.

The people were open, too. Young couples walked around holding hands, making out, not caring who was watching. Crossing busy roads, people weren't afraid to touch you, in order to jostle past. The older men and women working the street vendor stalls gossiped away as they stirred big, bubbling pots of orange topogi, and twirled sticks of vegetables and hot dogs into vats of oil. As we lined up for a hot dog, the woman at the stand used her spoon to nonchalantly fish a hair out of the topogi pot. It didn't seem to matter.
Night scenes in Hongdae
Sipping on homemade lemonade served in a plastic bag.
It was three days filled with shopping. We saw the workings of Seoul's famous markets, Namdaemun and Dongdaemun, with their mazes of streets and stalls selling all sorts of treasures. Ryan took up haggling as a sport. The reaction would always be the same - the salesperson would give a long, pained sigh, and glare, before pulling out a calculator and typing out the new price. I guess you have to be careful not to rip them off too much - at Namdaemun, we saw two Korean men get into a loud fist fight over a pair of women's underwear, which attracted a curious crowd of onlookers. I loved the Migliore malls - multi-storeyed malls found at the edge of the markets filled to the brim with clothes, of all styles, qualities and prices. It was a completely different style of shopping than I'm used to. No changing rooms, and if you saw something you liked you had to get it immediately, otherwise there was a high chance you'd never find it again. It turned shopping into a risky adventure.
Scenes at the Namdaemun market

Myeong Dong was Seoul's equivalent of Harajuku, teeming with fashion, and popular chain stores such as Forever 21, H&M, and Uniqlo. All sorts of interesting people could be found here - from young men in full army uniform on dates with their girlfriends, to Korean nuns - there were so many churches in Seoul, neon crosses visible on the skyline in every direction. A guy dressed in a dog costume, advertising a dog cafe. A girl in a Minnie Mouse costume, advertising a cat cafe. There were beauty and skincare shops, which Korea is so famous for, absolutely everywhere. At Skin Food, The Face Shop, Missha and Holika Holika, I bought baskets full of face masks, creams and lotions. These shops smelled amazing - most memorably, Holika Holika smelled like soda, as it had just released a new range of soda-scented beauty products. They also gave out handfuls of free samples and testers with your purchase, which was another incentive to buy things.
Myeong Dong shopping area
Looks a bit like Harajuku, don't you think?
Cat cafe this way.
We visited the ancient palaces Changdeokgung and Gyeongbokgung, exploring the grounds and admiring their teal blue floral designs that almost looked like something out of the flower power movement. At Gyeongbokgung, we were lucky enough to witness the changing of the guards ceremony, which saw a procession flamboyantly dressed traditional soldiers marching with flags and musical instruments. The palaces were spectacular, nestled within the cityscape. They contained wide, sparse spaces and gardens, a contrast to the bustle of the inner city.

At Changdeokgung
Design on the palace
Gyeongbokgung Palace
Changing of the guards ceremony
On Saturday we had wanted to visit the weekly Hongdae Free Market, held at a playground and run by arts students from Hongik University, but unfortunately it was cancelled because of the dubious weather. We found ourselves hanging out at the playground anyway, enjoying warm pies from a food stall while watching a boy band film an amateurish looking video, which was attracting quite a crowd. Even in the grey weather during the day, the colours of Hongdae were vibrant, the atmosphere was electric. As well as being a centre for arts, Hongdae is the birthplace of Korean punk music - you can see it literally written on the walls, with graffiti everywhere, posters promoting Marxism, and murals featuring a gorilla wearing headphones, with 'fuck the system' written next to it. Strangely, amongst all this anarchy was also a bright pink Hello Kitty themed cafe.
Playground in Hongdae - home to the Free Market

Boy band shooting a music video
Hello Kitty Cafe
Seoul was an interesting escape from Japan, but I have to admit, it was a relief to come back to the comfort of a language and culture I can kind of understand. I will definitely be going back to explore Korea in the future, but until then I will put on my face masks and listen to K-Pop... and make sure my fly is done up at all times.