August 28, 2012

The Only Blonde in Osaka in the Otago Daily Times

Today an article I wrote about Osaka was published in the travel section of the Otago Daily Times. It talks about some of my favourite places in Osaka that have been featured in past blog posts, like DotomboriAmerika mura and Shinsekai.

You can read the article online here or after the jump...

August 23, 2012

Kit Kats in Japan: A Journey

As a chocoholic, one of my main goals in Japan was to collect as many Kit Kats as possible. In New Zealand, we just have the standard milk chocolate, caramel, and cookies 'n cream chocolate bars. But I had fond memories of enjoying green tea, apple and strawberry flavoured Kit Kats during my time as an exchange student in Hiroshima, and I knew there were many more out there, with new seasonal and regional varieties being added each year.

Kit Kats are especially popular in Japan because the name 'Kit Kat' pronounced in Japanese sounds like 'Kitto Katsu', which roughly translates to 'certain win'. In this sense, Kit Kats have become an unusual good luck charm in Japan, particularly among students sitting exams who need a little bit of the old Nestle sweetness to help them towards a 'certain win'.
Green tea and vanilla
'Adult Sweetness' Raspberry
Over the course of five months, the Kit Kat collection became quite impressive indeed. Each Kit Kat came to have a story behind it - a memory of where, when and how it was obtained. A rainy day in Kyoto saw the procurement of Yatsuhashi cinnamon and Houjicha roasted tea flavoured Kit Kats, where the lady at the souvenir shop laughed and said 'foreigners love Kit Kats, don't they?'

On our trip to Miyajima, we had been disappointed because the famous floating torii had been under construction. The disappointment was quickly replaced by delight upon discovering a pack of Hiroshima Golden Citrus Kit Kats.

On the first day of summer, a reluctant visit to 7-Eleven to pay the bills resulted in the triumphant discovery of a new vanilla ice cream flavoured Kit Kat. I bought three packs, then had to get extra money out to pay the bills.
Yatsuhashi cinnamon and Houjicha roasted tea
Golden Citrus Blend
Vanilla ice cream
News quickly spread of the Kit Kat collecting mission, and soon I was bombarded with advice by Japanese friends and fellow exchange students - where to go to buy them, what flavours to look out for. I remember on a group trip to Nara, a Japanese friend gallantly went into souvenir shops asking on my behalf if they stocked any special Nara Kit Kats. It had turned into a highly competitive treasure hunt, with everyone wanting to bask in the Kit Kat glory. No expense was too great: 1050 yen, or about $16, was recklessly spent on a box of Rilakkuma hotcake flavoured Kit Kats, which came in a big fancy box, but only contained 12 little chocolate bars...
Rilakkuma hot cake
Part of the final collection
I didn't eat any of my Kit Kats until a couple of weeks before I left Japan. They were too precious, like little edible relics of my life in Japan. Then I realised they weren't going to all fit in my luggage, so I thought, bugger it, and we ended up eating most of the five months worth of Kit Kats in one night. I thought I would never be able to eat another Kit Kat again. But alas, guess what my last purchase in Japan was - at Kansai International Airport, past immigration, in the Duty Free shopping area, using my last remaining yen. Yup. Kit Kats.
Sakura green tea and 'peace' strawberry, packed into hand luggage
Blueberry cheesecake... also packed into hand luggage

August 14, 2012

Hiroshima Survivors Speak: "Never Again!" at Otago University

I've been avoiding writing this... but I should probably let you know that my semester at Kansai University has come to an end, and just over a week ago I went home to New Zealand. More on that in a later post, but because the past week signaled the 67th anniversary of the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, this post will talk about a special public lecture held at my university, where Hiroshima survivors Shigeko Niimoto Sasamori and Michimasa Hirata shared their experiences of August 6, 1945.
Children's Peace Monument at Hiroshima Peace Park
The medium-sized classroom chosen as the venue wasn't enough to hold the public, as about 200 people piled in to hear the talk. Not many public lectures at Otago could draw a crowd like this, but Hiroshima is a part of history that equally horrifies and fascinates - and the fact that hibakusha, or atomic bomb survivors, are dwindling in number with each year that passes meant that this probably was, for most, one of the last chances to hear from a hibakusha firsthand.

Shigeko, a small woman with a strong voice, began, telling us 'because I am here, this is my mission.' She was a junior high school student, mobilised for labour on that sunny Hiroshima morning, when suddenly she saw a plane in the sky, which then dropped a 'white thing'. She was knocked out by the powerful forces of the blast, and spoke of spending five days at a school auditorium, before being taken home to recover. It was only mentioned later that she had actually suffered third degree burns to a quarter of her body. Rather than dwell on her suffering, Shigeko's message was simply one of peace - she was able to forgive the Americans (she eventually went to America for plastic surgery on her burns, and even lives in California now), and just wanted to make sure there would be 'no more Hiroshima, no more Nagasaki, and no more hibakusha' ever again.

Michimasa wore a neat grey blazer jacket, but underneath was a black t shirt with bright red writing - 'No more Hiroshimas', with a picture of a crossed out mushroom cloud. He was at home with his family when the bomb was dropped. Michimasa lives in Tokyo now, and urged the audience to think about the consequences of nuclear weapons and nuclear power.
Genbaku Dome, Hiroshima
Listening to Shigeko and Michimasa speak was a moving, thought-provoking experience. As Shigeko said, sharing their stories of that day in the hopes that it will one day put an end to the nuclear threat for good is their 'mission' - a mission forced upon them by a tragic event in history. What will happen when there are no hibakusha with that same sense of mission left? In an age of complacency regarding nuclear weapons and power, people like Shigeko and Michimasa really are living treasures. If only more people would listen.

August 11, 2012

Day Trips to Kobe

Kobe is a city that is perhaps underrated among tourists to Japan. People kept telling me it was a beautiful city, but all I knew about it was that it was famous for the 1995 earthquake, and beef... with the result that my image of Kobe was a mixture of rubble and cows.

After numerous day trips to Kobe, which is only a half hour train ride from Osaka, I can now say that it is one of my absolute favourite cities in Japan. This list is highly subject to change, depending on my mood, or who I'm talking to (tip: when talking to an Osakan, Osaka is without a doubt your favourite city). But Kobe is a city I could live in. It reminds me of New Zealand in many ways, and some areas and landscapes are so familiar that we would keep saying things like 'I feel like we're in Queenstown', or 'doesn't this remind you of Wellington?' Being able to see the mountains, as well as the gorgeous harbour, may be some reasons for these waves of sentimentalism for home.
Kobe harbour (complete with Kobe tower) on a sunny day
Ferris wheel at Kobe Harbourland 
It could just be that Kobe is something of a chameleon. During its history as a port and trade city, all sorts of foreign settlements were established in Kobe, leaving behind unique neighborhoods and architecture around the city. One example is Nankinmachi, Kobe's vibrant Chinatown. A walk down this street - marked by its golden Chinese lanterns, bright red restaurants and food stalls, and a distinct scent of dumplings - and it's easy to forget you're even in Japan.
Coke machine, Nankinmachi style 
The colours of Chinatown

For a European flavour, all you have to do is walk up the hill from Sannomiya Station, past an old-style Starbucks that looks like a home out of Anne of Green Gables, and you'll soon find yourself in Kitano-cho, a picturesque area that contains western-style houses, once the homes of foreign settlers. You can pay a fee to enter many of the houses, where they've restored some of the original interior designs. There are also a number of little cafes and restaurants. Best enjoyed on a sunny day, strolling lazily through the village with a purin (custard pudding) flavoured ice cream.
View of Kobe from Kitano-cho on the hill
The 'Austrian' house
Outside the Holland, Denmark and Austrian houses
A day trip to Kobe should be completed with a ride up the cable car to Mt. Rokko. Leave around 6pm, in order to catch the sunset, and one of the three best night views in the whole of Japan. Now, it should be mentioned here that the Rokko Cable Car has seen better days. I think they like to market it as 'nostalgic'... but better adjectives would be 'old, red, rickety little train of doom.' Somehow, we made it to the top, after ten minutes of the deadly incline. Through the cool evening mist (being on the top of a mountain somehow causes temperatures to plummet), the sprawling city lights of Osaka and Kobe provide a spectacular view, making the uphill trip worth it.
Inside the Rokko Cable Car
Dusk view of Kobe from Mt Rokko
So there we have Kobe, an exceptionally clean, glamorous and modern city. It's hard to believe that less than 20 years ago it was absolutely devastated by a 6.8 magnitude earthquake. I think that Christchurch can take hope from the Kobe example. A small tribute on the edge of the Harbour, in Meriken Park, where part of the damaged pier has been preserved, is now all that remains of the Kobe earthquake.
Tribute to the earthquake in Meriken park

August 08, 2012

Umeda, Osaka

While Namba is Osaka's old South, Umeda is the new North. Whereas Namba is defined by its slightly wacky landmarks - a giant crab, the Glico running man - Umeda keeps it classy, with the imposing Umeda Sky Building and red Hep Five Ferris Wheel against the skyline acting as the area's main symbols. The district is home to the world's third busiest train station, JR Osaka/Umeda Station, and contains a lot of office buildings, hotels, and department stores. It is polished, posh and full of people who walk around with purpose.
Umeda cityscape
Hep Five Ferris Wheel
I never used to like Umeda as much as Namba. The layout of the station was completely overwhelming, and I always felt bored, surrounded by suits and serious faces. Department stores have never been my shopping style, and Hep Five shopping mall, while a haven for young Osakan fashionistas, was a bit too expensive for my budget - although sometimes I would go and splash out on imported lollies from the Plaza store in the mall.
HEP Five shopping mall
After months of walking somewhat aimlessly around Umeda, I now have a list of favourite shops and places that make it worth visiting. Childhood shopping fantasies come in the form of Kiddyland, located in the underground Hankyu San Bangai. This store is two levels of cute, with sections dedicated to Hello Kitty, Disney, Snoopy, and the Rilakkuma Bear. Small Japanese children toddle around carrying their own shopping baskets while mothers follow behind looking defeated. Next we have the world's biggest Pokemon Centre, which is rather strangely located in the swanky Daimaru department store. Go from Prada on one floor, to Pikachu on the next...
Geeks at the Pokemon Center
Behind Hep Five is Don Quijote, the crazy discount warehouse chain store that has everything you need and everything you really don't need but really want. Like a dancing monkey that you plug into your iPod. It also has the most impressive range of candy, snacks and alcohol I have ever seen in my life. For reasonably priced electronics, on the other side of Hankyu Umeda Station is Yodobashi Camera, which is like Akihabara all rolled up into one monstrous store. There are also some clothes shops on the upper floors, including a huge Uniqlo, and a floor of restaurants.
Yodobashi Camera, Umeda
Umeda may be a well-to-do destination by day, but by night, you'll be pleased to know, all sorts of interesting things creep out from the shadows. A thriving gay district pops up in Doyama-cho, behind Hep Five. The neon glare of love hotel lights reveal themselves after dark. 'Information' shops, 'costume' shops, girls dressed as cheerleaders asking you to visit their 'restaurant'... they're all here, hidden within a long, covered shopping arcade called 'Higashi Dori'. I have other reasons for visiting this street though. The actual restaurants. Conveyor belt sushi, Okinawan style cooking, and best of all, all-you-can-eat Korean barbecue for 1000 yen.

Sometimes you gotta go off your own beaten track, and onto somebody else's.
Higashi dori, the most interesting street in Umeda