Category Archives: Tokyo

Oshōgatsu in Tokyo

皆さん、明けましておめでとうございます!

Happy New Year!

Like last year, I was sadly not able to go back home for the holidays. However, it wasn’t entirely a bad thing, as it gave me the opportunity to experience New Year’s in Japan for the first time. It was quite wonderful seeing a different culture’s take on a familiar holiday.  Oshōgatsu (Japanese New Year) in Japan is definitely a more family-oriented holiday than it is in Canada. Most businesses are closed from the 1st to the 3rd of January, and so everyone takes the opportunity to spend time with their families and engage in the numerous customs associated with oshōgatsu.  For our first New Year’s in Japan, we were able to take part in one of those traditions — hatsumōde, the first shrine or temple visit of the year.

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Tokyo Tower and Really Amazing Tofu

Normally when I travel, I do some research ahead of time. I don’t like to have a regimented schedule, but I do like to have something of a to-do list to act as a guide. I’ll browse the Lonely Planet forums and Wikitravel pages on the region, and so prior to setting foot in a new place on the map, I am at the very least aware of what cool things there are to see and do there — even if I don’t get to them all or even if my itinerary ends up being something else entirely.

Coming to Tokyo was different. The thing is, moving to a new country is nothing at all like traveling to spend a few days or weeks in a new country. Pre-flight research doesn’t consist of fun things like what museums to check out, what temples to see, what new foods to try, what souvenirs to buy. Instead, it’s all, how do we sign up for national health insurance? Where should we rent an apartment? Where can we get a good deal on household appliances? Where is the nearest grocery store?

The result of this is that touristy moments often take us by surprise.

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Hot Dog Café, Akihabara, Tokyo

Ok, this is starting to get a little ridiculous. How is it that literally every place we go to eat has amazing food? This is insane.

I still haven’t been able to find the Japanese equivalent of Yelp, but so far, I haven’t needed it at all, at least when it comes to restaurants — literally every restaurant, cafe, and convenience store has great food.

How is this possible?

Since moving here, we’ve mostly stuck to Japanese food, but this weekend we decided to venture into the world of Japanese “foreign” food. Throughout my past travels, I’ve tasted Canadianized, Americanized, Brazilianized, Koreanized, Argentinized, and Britishized versions of Japanese food (all with varying results) , so I was curious to try the Japanese take on another culture’s cuisine.

This past weekend, we had lunch at Hot Dog Cafe, an American restaurant just outside Akihabara Station. I’d had Japanese-style hot dogs before, but never in Japan.

I’ll start off with the second thing that struck me about the place, which was the eclectic decor. The restaurant was lined with a mishmash of beer bottles and books and other odds and ends — it didn’t remind me of America, but it certainly looked cool.

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Yes, that is a poster of Reba McEntire and a Bratz doll on the same bookshelf.

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Of course, the initial thing that struck me about the place was the menu. They had a wide assortment of different kinds of hot dog creations, including a Garlic Dog, a Vietnamese Dog, and a charmingly spelled “Itarian” Dog (イタリアンドッグ). After much contemplation, I finally settled on the Akiba Dog, which seemed appropriate as we were in Akihabara, after all.

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It may not look like much, but it was very tasty, although it came at a much smaller portion size than anything you would actually find in America.

Edu ordered the Hamburger Dog, which was also very yummy.

(I was actually kind of jealous of his order).

Despite the seemingly über-American combination of hamburgers and hot dogs, it was smothered with kewpie mayo and thus still managed to taste very Japanese.

For dessert, we split a Cream&Choco, which consisted of whipped cream and chocolate sauce on a hot dog bun, which was a lot better than it looked, and ten times better than how it sounds.

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The verdict: yes, even hot dogs taste amazing here. However, given our track record so far with the food in this city, this is not surprising at all. Also, I should probably point out that hot dogs taste great everywhere, so really, we were just setting ourselves up for another win here.

Then again, I’m not complaining in the slightest.

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A Walk in the Neighbourhood

Tokyo is the largest metropolitan area in the world, with a population of over 13 million people; Shibuya is known for being a bustling centre of nightlife and youth culture and also home to the famous Shibuya Crossing.

Knowing this, one of the observations I was most struck by when we first arrived here was how quiet our neighbourhood in Shibuya-ku is.  We live very close via metro to the tourist centres of Shinjuku and Shibuya Station. However, don’t let the colourful signs fool you — our neighbourhood in itself is actually very peaceful. There are barely any cars, and at night, all you can hear is the sound of cicadas. It’s definitely the safest place in which I’ve ever lived.

This is the street we take to get to work each morning.

It is really safe here; seeing young children (like this boy) walking about town by themselves is a common sight.

Another testament to the safety of this neighbourhood — no one locks up their bike! Conversely, back in Santa Monica, my bike was stolen within a week of moving into our old apartment.

Total environment reference shot.

Entrance to a tiny park.

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In spite of how narrow the streets are, they are shared by drivers, cyclists, and pedestrians alike.

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Obon by Chance

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Obon is the Japanese Festival of Souls, a three-day celebration that takes place around July-August, depending on the region. Japanese families typically reunite during this time to honour their ancestors.

Edu and I knew none of this until after we experienced it for ourselves last weekend. Our first encounter with this traditional Japanese festival came about entirely by accident. We had spent the day in Harajuku and the Meiji Jingu Shrine. Towards the evening, we headed towards what we thought was the JR Harajuku station to begin our trek home, but instead ended up going in the complete opposite direction, wandering down a long avenue lined with high-end Western shops.

I've been lost in worst places.

I’ve been lost in worst places.

Lost in a completely unfamiliar area, with no phones, no map, and no language skills, it would have been a complete disaster of an evening, if we hadn’t heard the sound of — taiko drums? Coming from where?

We turned into an alley to try to find out where the music was coming from, and found ourselves here:

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We were surrounded by beautiful red and white lanterns, food stalls selling the best yakisoba I had ever had to date, amazing taiko drummers, and various families encompassing several generations gathered together to eat and dance and celebrate. It was such an unforgettable event to be a part of.  I later found out through my friend Reiko that what we had unwittingly experienced was in fact, Obon.

Here are some photos of the evening:

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The Week in Pastries

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There is a wonderful pastry shop located a short walk from our apartment called Le repas. You pick up a tray and tongs as you walk in, grab whatever you like, and then pay at the front counter. Simple enough, apart from the “grab whatever you like” bit — everything looks great. And, at about ¥150 a piece, priced incredibly reasonably as well.

How could I possibly choose?

The solution, therefore, was to return the following day to try something new. This plan ended up extending to a week, since they change up the selection everyday.

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Sayonara Santa Monica, Hello Tokyo

It didn’t really hit me that we were moving to Tokyo until we actually stepped off the plane at Narita Airport.

I’d spent my last few days in Santa Monica dealing with the logistics of our move, frantically selling our furniture on Craigslist, attempting to pack our entire lives into however many boxes could fit into 150 cubic feet, and then throwing away the rest. I’d slept maybe eight hours in three days. There was simply no time to get excited or scared or even emotionally acknowledge our move.

Even during the 11-hour flight from LAX to NRT, during which you’d think that I’d have ample opportunity to pause and reflect on the situation, I managed to keep myself distracted with movies and sleep. It really wasn’t until we stepped through the jet bridge, luggage in tow, the hot, humid air enveloping my body in instant sweat, that it finally hit me:

HOLY FUCK. We’re moving to Japan. No — scratch that — we’re in Japan. To live here.

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