Kōyō in Kyōto

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Kōyō (紅葉)

Kōyō (紅葉) refers to the colourful leaves that dominate the landscape in the autumn. Kōyō viewing is a very popular fall activity throughout Japan. With this in mind, we timed our trip to Kyoto specifically to catch the kōyō season, and ended up with more pictures of trees and leaves than I normally take when traveling (and that’s saying something, considering how many tree pictures I usually take).

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Nishiki Ichiba (錦市場 ), Kyoto

Nishiki Market (錦市場), Kyoto, Japan

Nishiki Market (錦市場), Kyoto, Japan

Markets are among my favourite places to visit in any city. They are wonderful place to try new and interesting food, mingle with the locals, and immerse yourself in the culture. With only three days in the Kyoto, we budgeted out an entire day in our itinerary solely devoted to exploring Nishiki Ichiba (錦市場 Nishiki Market).

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Ambling through Arashiyama

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Our second day in Kyoto, we headed over to Arashiyama (嵐山) on the other side of town. This day was much less planned than our previous day in Kyoto, believe it or not. In a similar vein, our plan was to get off at Saga-Arashiyama Station and wing it from there.

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A Day in Higashiyama-ku, Kyoto

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I suppose one of the reasons why I haven’t been blogging as much as I originally intended is because life in Tokyo is really starting to feel normal. Although I was wide-eyed and easily amazed by everything around me when I first landed in the city, now the vending machines, the lights, the clean streets, the arcades, even the Engrish t-shirts are all remarkably ordinary.

And so after four months in Tokyo, it was super refreshing to be able to slip back into tourist mode for a few days for a weekend getaway in Kyoto. Once the capital of Japan for over 1000 years, Kyoto has a rich cultural history and I was very eager to get a chance to explore another part of the country.

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6 Packing Tips for International Moves, Acquired through Trial and Error

I read a lot of travel blogs in my spare time, and a lot of my favourite blogs are written by serial nomads who move to a new country every few months or so. However, whether you move to a new country several times a year or just once in your lifetime, the question still remains — what do you do with all your stuff?

Many nomads and long-term travelers solve this problem by opting for a minimalist lifestyle. Now, in my situation, I admit that adopting a more spartan lifestyle would certainly decrease the hassle of moving internationally. However, because we work in the video game industry, certain possessions which would be considered frivolous to some are necessities for Edu and me — our growing library of reference books, all of our game consoles, our game collection, anatomy figures, our television, and our custom-built desktop computers.

And also, let’s be honest: I like having stuff.

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Carasawagi Night

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I know I’ve been slacking lately in terms of regularly updating the blog, and I’m not entirely sure it’s clear yet from the few blog posts that I have written, but just in case there is any doubt, I would just like to say, that I really, really love Tokyo. Tokyo is easily the best city that I have ever lived in. The convenience stores are actually convenient, the streets are clean, the city is safe, and food is amazing. However, my favourite thing about Tokyo is the people.  Almost everyone we’ve encountered so far has been really kind and friendly. It’s because of the people that a couple kanji-illiterate gaijin like us have been able to get around so easily in the city. It’s because of the people that a night of after-work drinks could evolve into an impromptu jam session with an entire bar full of strangers.

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Dinner time with Ninjas and the Dogs

A few weeks ago, I had a chance to meet up with a few friends from ICE who were in Tokyo for work, and another friend from the Kennel who happened to be vacationing in Tokyo at the same time. It was great getting to hang out; I definitely have moments of LA-homesickness (to differentiate from homesickness for my actual hometown), and hanging out with my former Naughty Dog coworkers definitely cured it that weekend.

On one of the nights, we had dinner at Ninja Akasaka, a ninja-themed restaurant located in Chiyoda-ku. It is built like a ninja fortress, a dimly-lit labyrinth of winding hallways, secret doors, and crumbling bridges. Even the entrance to the restaurant itself is somewhat concealed.

Ninja Akasaka

Upon arrival, we were greeted by a ninja (of course) and brought inside in separate groups of five, as the narrow, winding corridors could only accommodate a few people at a time.

The “fortress” ambiance was quite convincing. The cave-like walls, the torch lighting and the maze-like layout of the place really did make you feel like you were transported back to the Sengoku period, only an alternate-reality Sengoku period in which all the ninjas are happy and smiling and are more concerned with serving you really amazing food, rather than being immersed in endless war and political chaos.

Anyway, after our treacherous journey through the restaurant, we were all finally reunited with our group in a private dining room. Interestingly, the singer Bruno Mars had also, at one point, dined in the very same room, as evidenced by this scribble on the wall:

Clearly, this alternate-reality Sengoku period is one in which pop singers vandalize ninja property.

Clearly, this alternate-reality Sengoku period is one in which pop singers vandalized ninja property.

We each opted for the Yamato Spirit Course, an 11-course tasting menu, which included some ninja-themed items (e.g. Shuriken star blades grissini) and some creative takes on familiar dishes (e.g. Ninja-style cream puff, a savoury version of a cream puff).

Shuriken star-blades grissini

The shuriken crackers came with a foie gras star.

Our ninja server

Ninja-style cream puff

Turban shell bombs with garlic butter

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Sorry dudes, I forgot what this was called (I could never be a food blogger). But it was yummy!

Ninja korokke!


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The ninja server preparing the stone-boiled soup at our table

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We each had a choice of several dishes for our main course. I chose the beef with foie gras.

Ninja washroom! Because the restaurant is constructed like a maze, you need to ask a server to escort you to the washroom so you don’t get lost.

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Finally, dessert! This thing was so cute, I didn’t want to eat it!

But I eventually overcame my fears and CRUSHED IT. LIKE A NINJAAAAA.

After we cleaned off our plates, we were treated to a post-dinner ninja magic show, which consisted of standard card and coin tricks, but the fact that the ninja magician performed them while seated with us at our table was pretty neat.

One of the playing cards, touched by ninja magic! (We weren't allowed to film or photograph the magic show, but no one said anything about documenting the evidence afterwards.)

One of the playing cards, touched by ninja magic! (We weren’t allowed to film or photograph the magic show, but no one said anything about documenting the evidence afterwards.)

The damage at the end of the night. Thanks for buying me dinner, Sony!

The damage at the end of the night. Thanks for buying me dinner, Sony!

Overall, I very much enjoyed Ninja Akasaka (and even moreso because I didn’t have to pay :P). Tokyo is full of theme restaurants, and this one was pretty elaborate and well executed — I recommend going at least once, and definitely with a group of good friends to share in the experience.

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Blurry Photos from Tokyo Game Show 2013

Tokyo Game Show 2013

This year, I had the chance to attend Tokyo Game Show for the first time. It’s a four-day game convention, quite similar to E3although smaller in scale. The first two days are industry-only Business Days, while the last two days are open to the public. I originally wasn’t planning to go, as Business Day passes normally cost ¥5000 a piece, but Miyazaki-san came through in the nick of time with four pre-paid tickets, which meant that Edu, Bob, Kairi and I were able to indulge in a field trip to TGS this past Friday. The great thing about attending on Business Day was the lack of crowds! I hate line-ups that last more than an hour, so if I’m lucky, I’ll try out maybe one game at E3, but at TGS I was able to spend a considerable amount of time playing the RYSE multiplayer demo, the Knack demo (which actually had quite a long line), and check out a few on-stage demos as well. I won’t review any of these, because hey, why read reviews when you can look at blurry pictures I took with my phone instead!

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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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