Eating Japan: Donburi at Yoshinoya, Sukiya and Katsuya

If you’re looking for a quick one-bowl meal, get a donburi.

On the days I felt all the symptoms of a lonely solo traveler, I would opt for a small, humble meal. It felt all the more lonelier to sit at a big table with a party spread, just by myself. For times like that, I would buy some riceballs from a konbini or eat donburi.

You’ll see Yoshinoya everywhere. 20170303_194312.jpg

Ordered a small butadon (pork don). I only know the choices on the left, which are small and big size. No clue what the options on the right are. Maybe one of them is with an egg? And the other is a combo meal with soup and salad? Not sure. If I had the stomach space, I would have ordered one of the mystery options on the right. 20170303_194525.jpg

Thin slivers of fatty pork simmered with onion. Shit, now that I look at it, I ordered a large. I think I ordered a large out of the habit that a regular-sized anything in Japan always leaves me famished an hour and a half later. But here, a large is a large. That bowl is deep.20170303_194605.jpg

Sprinkled some spices and ate with pink-orange pickled ginger. You don’t get any side dishes unless you order them.20170303_194719.jpg

Another time, in Kyoto, I went to Sukiya.

Depending on the city, you’ll see more locations of a certain brand. Probably because the brand first started in the city, or a city nearby.

Sukiya menu20170317_150937 at sukiya.jpg

I only wanted a bowl, but the server thought I wanted a combo. Large bowl is 470 yen, and add 150 yen for a combo. This whole thing was 620 yen. Cheap, but very filling. Too filling for me. 20170317_151312 모르게 세트 시킴. 대자 470엔에다 세트 150엔. 총620.jpg

I’m never the one to leave crumbs or rice grains. The bowl tells me that Sukiya originated from Yokohama. Somewhere in Japan.20170317_153657.jpg

Ah, yes, I remember another donburi time. On a windy day in early March in Tokyo, I went to Katsuya. I saw this chain so many times in the Akihabara area. I had woken up at 4am as usual (the damn jet lag). I had nothing to do so I walked to Ueno Park and back and had early lunch…at 9:50am in the morning.

I don’t think I’ll ever go to Japan again (30 days is enough for my lifetime), unless there was an amazing job opportunity. Or I fell in love and he had to go to Japan for work or something, and I couldn’t bear to be apart from him. Well, that was a random thought about whether I would go back to Japan or not.

When I walked into Katsuya, I didn’t know what it was. I had seen people lining up to get in here the night before, so I thought, it must be good. Only when I walked in, I knew that it was a katsu place. Most people were eating the tonkatsu meal set that comes with soup and shredded cabbage. People here eat breaded, deep-fried meat for breakfast. How do they not fall asleep while working?

I didn’t want such a heavy thing for breakfast, and I didn’t feel like walking out and finding another place. So I tried to order something not deep-fried. Good luck doing that at a Katsuya. I thought the one on the left looked interesting, so I ordered it. 20170302_094906.jpg

Ummm….this looks heavy. And very deep-fried.20170302_095554.jpg

So much for ordering light. I had ordered a donburi with katsu slices (which were juicy, crunchy and heavenly, btw), shredded cabbage, mayo, topped with deep fried garnishes of spicy, crunchy batter. It was the most artery-clogging thing they had, and I had ordered that as my light, breakfast option. Gotta love not being able to read a language.20170302_095914.jpg

They had slices of oshinko that went really well with the rice and katsu.20170302_101459.jpg

I left with a very full stomach and wandered around the Akihabara area. 

Arcades in Akihabara. Pew pew pew pew. Ding ding ding ding ding. Zoing zoing zoing. *hollers of unidentified phrases in the Japanese language*20170302_105338 sega.jpg

Walking Japan: Ebisubashi and Dontonbori canal in Namba, Osaka

Namba is the major entertainment and tourist district in Osaka. It is abundant in pathways and side streets of shopping, restaurants, bars, and pachinko stations. It is home to Dotonbori canal and Ebisubashi bridge. There are many bridges that cross over the canal, but Ebisubashi is the most popular for tourists. It’s the one below the running Glico man, who is a must-include in your selfies.

Covered pathways that are always full of people. Most of the tourists were Asians, including Japanese tourists. It’s a great place to go shopping. 20170306_174356 shitload of ppl.jpg

These pathways have a PA system overhead. Guidelines for proper tourist etiquette is repeated in English, Japanese, Korean and Chinese. You are advised to walk on the left side of the path, don’t congregate in groups and block the middle of the path, don’t litter, etc.

There are gigantic posters hanging from the ceiling when you are about to approach Ebisubashi. It will tell you that you are 250 metres away, etc. If Ebisubashi is what you seek, just keep walking straight when you see these signs.

On my first outing in Osaka, I walked to Ebisubashi as if under a spell. I mean, that’s where everyone was headed. When I got out of the covered path and turned my head to the right, this is what I saw. More shops, restaurants and bars. It’s easy to find translated menus and signs here. Tourists are their business.20170306_160524.jpg

These humongous 3D signs tell you exactly what the shop is selling. In this case, pan fried dumplings.20170310_111831.jpg

This restaurant specializes in blowfish. You can tell… from the huge blowfish. I heard that this kind of signage culture was started to entice tourists who didn’t know how to read Japanese.20170310_111842.jpg

Got side tracked by the huge signs of food. OK, back to Ebisubashi.20170306_160527 entering ebisubashi.jpg

Dotonbori canal, as seen from Ebisubashi bridge.20170306_160611.jpg

You can head down to the water by using the stairs on either sides of any of the bridges. Pictured here is Ebisubashi, as seen from the canal walkway. 20170306_173326.jpg

The famous Glico man. Not sure why it’s so popular.20170310_121105.jpg

I saw a homeless man with a cardboard sign asking for money, sitting on Ebisubashi. Here were all these tourists, taking pictures after pictures of themselves, with their friends and families, doing the Glico-man pose. Selfie sticks and smiles everywhere, except for that corner of the bridge with the blank-faced homeless man. It looked like he was part of a different dimension.

I remember being really confused, because there was a young guy who was clearly not homeless, idly holding up the cardboard sign, while the homeless man sat beside him, looking very, very homeless. They looked unrelated in every way. The next few times I saw the homeless man, the young guy wasn’t there. Was he just a nice guy that was temporarily helping out, by holding the sign? I will never know.

Snacking on a cro-taiyaki. It’s taiyaki with croissant dough and there are several flavors of filling available. I had heard about this craze that started in Korea, but I prefer the classic taiyaki. 20170306_173825.jpg

I explored some smaller streets in the area until it got dark. There are lots of businesses in these streets as well, but they are smaller and not as many English translations.20170306_184748 just a regular side street.jpg

Dotonbori in the night. Taken on a less popular bridge.20170306_185406.jpg

Beer goggle shot from Ebisubashi20170306_185427.jpg

When you’re sober.20170306_185429.jpg

You come across some shrines when you explore the area. But I doubt anyone comes to Namba for shrines.20170306_202122.jpg

More streets near the canal area.20170306_202220.jpg

20170306_202306.jpg

20170306_203750.jpg

Circling back to Ebisubashi20170306_202944.jpg

The boat ride is quite popular. You can purchase tickets at a booth on the canal.20170306_205604.jpg

The running Glico man. He stays immobile, but the background changes with different scenery and the road moves ahead, to give the illusion of the man running on the road.20170306_203046.jpg

Holy crap, there were turf wars because people wanted to take selfies with this guy. You really had to wait, and squeeze in between cracks of people on the bridge to get a nice shot with him.

I didn’t see the big deal with this, but I am guilty of taking a few casual selfies with him. Herd mentality.

You don’t need street lights when you have commercial signs that illuminate the streets.20170306_204109.jpg

This is what happens when you disable your browser’s ad blocker.20170306_204123.jpg

Another shot of Dotonbori, because it’s so pretty at night.20170306_204509.jpg

Where there is beauty, there is…erm…non-beauty. It’s not rare to see puke puddles at night. I also saw some drunk people fighting. In the case I saw, they weren’t fighting seriously, just playfully wrestling each other, but they were clearly drunk.

Taken while I was on the stairs to get down to the canal walkway.20170306_221054.jpg

Larger-than-life store signs. This one replicated an amusement park ride.20170306_204747.jpg

As seen through the window of a fish-catching place by the canal.20170306_204813.jpg

The canal was my favorite part. 20170306_205411.jpg

Line-up for Ichiran ramen, a chain of ramen shops. Customisable ramen. Famous for having one-person, library-style cubby hole booths where you don’t get to see the employees that serve you. There is always a wait. People will line up in the rain and wait an hour and a half!20170306_205608.jpg

I came back to Dotonbori again and again. I remember fantasizing about Japan while looking at colorful pictures of Dotonbori posted by other tourists, along with some other pictures that used to fuel my desire to go to Japan. And now, I was here.20170310_110154.jpg

Dotonbori and Ebisubashi in the morning can be a depressing sight. There is garbage strewn everywhere because some people don’t bother to clean up after themselves.

So much food nearby. Waiting in line for takoyaki.20170310_113556.jpg

Freshly cooked takoyakiiiiiiiii (octopus balls).20170310_114158.jpg

5 for 350 yen, 10 for 650 yen. There are lots of places that sell takoyaki. Price, size and quality differ quite a bit, but many claim to be the “best takoyaki in Osaka” or “No. 1!”. Some of them must be lying.20170310_114524.jpg

Back on the canal. Sitting on a bench with a beer and takoyaki. Public drinking is legal in Japan.20170310_114928 물옆에서....5개350엔.jpg

I wish these signs had translations. What is up on that 9th floor?20170310_120701.jpg

Funny snacks featuring popular comedians. I’m sure the snacks are legitimately delicious; it’s the packaging that gets you the laughs. I don’t even know these guys and I was entertained.20170310_121453.jpg

Sure looks different at daytime.20170310_122355.jpg

It was really common to see students out and about on school trips.20170310_122713 너네드루소풍 점심 어디로 가니.jpg

They ate at Chibo lol 20170310_122735 치보호 가는거였구나.jpg

Manga book store! So old school. Most people read manga on their phones now. I guess if you’re a fan, you’d want physical copies. I loved Ebisubashi and Dotonbori and all, but I also liked the quieter streets that had a more everyday-life vibe.20170310_123026 여기에 만화 구멍가게가...jpg

 

Eating Japan: Okonomiyaki in Osaka and Kyoto

One of my many to-do’s in Japan was to eat DIY table-top okonomiyaki. Why? Because it’s delicious!!! Although, none of them ended up being DIY; I don’t think that’s even an option anywhere in Japan. Still good.

Okonomiyaki is a widely known savory, layered pancake, towered with the ingredients of the diner’s desire. Okono means “the way you like it”, and yaki means “grilled”. I salivate as I write this.

I had it for my first night in Osaka, a famed city for okonomiyaki. I had walked around the Dotonbori area quite a bit, looking at the menus of all the okonomiyaki places I came across.

After much deliberation, I settled on Chibo. It looked inviting and it had a translated menu. This is a chain that can be found in Tokyo and Kyoto.20170306_163701.jpg

I was immediately shown a seat at the bar since I was alone, and provided a warm wet towel and a glass of cold water, as is the standard package. There are also the usual tables with built-in steel hot plates, so the okonomiyaki stays hot as you eat it.

The stage. Infront of me is a rail of steel hot plate, where the chef places the already-cooked food so it stays hot.20170306_164129.jpg

International menu that tells you the top 5 most popular okonomiyaki variations at Chibo. Almost all the tourists in Osaka were Asians, so the English translation only tells you the name of the dish, and doesn’t explain the ingredients, as it does in Chinese and Korean. I ordered the No. 1, Okonomiyaki Dotonbori. Although, I should have just gone with my gut feeling and ordered the No. 5, Okonomiyaki Chibo…Oh, well.20170306_164153.jpg

It was all young guys working there. Felt like I was at a McDonald’s for okonomiyaki or something.20170306_164131.jpg

I have lots of videos, but WordPress makes me pay to post those, so never mind.

Yakisoba in the making. Two Korean dudes sitting beside me kept expressing delight, as they ate it. I wanted to order it, but I knew I didn’t have the stomach space for it. When you travel alone, you can’t order as many dishes as you would like because you have no one to share with, sigh.20170306_164231.jpg

Gots to have my nama biru (draft beer), just gots to. I get a mini flipper/cutter.

20170306_164302.jpg

Finally presented infront of me on the steel hot plate. The razor-thin fish flakes dance (sway back and forth) because of the heat. 20170306_165843.jpg

The cutting ceremony.20170306_165854.jpg

Itadakimasu…Holding a piece of squid with chopsticks.20170306_170016.jpg

Holding a small shrimp20170306_171003.jpg

It was a fun dining experience overall, but the okonomiyaki itself was so disappointing…I had thought the ingredients would be added in layers, but they were chopped into small pieces and were all spread throughout the batter, even the cabbage. There’s supposed to a whole layer of cabbage, man! Why so little cabbage?! Also, seasoning was bland. More importantly, the chef cooked it for too long, and it was way too dry when it was presented to me. To make it worse, it keeps cooking on the hot rail steel plate as you eat, so it got drier and drier.

When I got to Kyoto, I had to rewrite my okonomiyaki history. It was once again my dinner on the night of arrival to a new city.

I was at The Dining at Yodobashi building across from Kyoto station during my wandering-around on the first night. There was an okonomiyaki place that wafted smells of grilled heaven, so I just had to eat there. There are so many places to eat at The Dining; I took a whole hour to look at all the menus and decide!

Ermahgerd, looks so good. The prices for okonomiyaki in Kyoto are a bit cheaper than Osaka; maybe because it’s not a touristy food item for Kyoto? It’s probably all marketing, since okonomiyaki is a celebrated dish in the Kansai region (which includes Osaka).20170310_181505 오사카보가 훨 쌈.jpg

“Do not you work hard with us?”. Gotta love Jenglish. Minimum wage in Kyoto is 773 yen (approx. $10 CAD, $8 USD), so their rate is 127 yen above the minimum. And you get 25% more after 10pm…Hey, that’s not too bad, right? But then again, CAD is shit right now, so it seems a lot better when converted to Canadian.20170310_181556.jpg

The place is called Fugetsu, and it’s also a chain. I liked it a lot better than Chibo! There was a bit of a line-up at 6:30pm, so I wrote down my name and waited for 10 minutes to get in.

Yeeees. Got a whole table to myself. 20170310_183302 프겟쯔 (fugetsu) yodobashi 6층.jpg

I ordered a shrimp and pork modanyaki, which is a type of okonomiyaki that has a layer of cooked noodles in the middle.

Unlike Chibo, Fugetsu has their employees come around and cook your okonomiyaki from scratch in front of you. Some of the other dishes, like the yakisoba, comes pre-cooked from the kitchen.20170310_184132 기본 모단야끼 (면 포함).jpg

You need to be careful of that built-in plate. It is super hot, and I came across a lot of menus that had melted plastic edges, because people had placed it on the hot plate. Must have been tough to clean the plastic off the hot plate. I wouldn’t take young children here. Yeah, just don’t.

Every time the employees came around to cook my okonomiyaki, they kept smiling and saying, “Please, no touch” or “Please waitto (adorable Japanese pronunciation of “wait”)”. It’s stated everywhere that you shouldn’t touch the okonomiyaki; yes, it’s a safety precaution, but also, okonomiyaki can fall apart easily if you are inexperienced and playing around with it. I didn’t touch it even once, but they kept repeating it! I guess they often get uber-curious tourists that touch it and fuck it up.

Yeeessssss….Dance, fish flakes, dance!20170310_185056.jpg

Yo, why did you burn my pancake?! But then I took a look at another table’s, with Japanese locals sitting at it, and theirs was burnt even more than mine. I guess it adds flavor lol 20170310_185141 이 정도면 탄거 아닌가..근데 그 탄 맛이 또 있지.jpg

Lots of additional seasonings…I didn’t end up using any of them. Oh yea, I did sprinkle on some extra seaweed powder later. That wooden thing with a white nipple is the service button that will call over an employee.20170310_185545.jpg

Bring on the sauce! Japanese mayo and okonomiyaki brown sauce20170310_190035 플리스 웨이또 몇번 듣다가 이제 먹네.jpg

Seaweed powder to top off20170310_190105.jpg

This made me forget Chibo. The seasoning was just right. There was a whole layer of cabbage at the bottom and so it was a lot more moist and sweet.20170310_190153 치보보다 훨 간도 맞고 달고, 촉촉....양배추가 많아서 식감.jpg

While I was eating, I saw people open the booth chairs. I was like, whaaa? There’s a place for bags inside the chair, like they do with piano chairs! Such an efficient use of space.20170310_190708.jpg

You can’t smoke here until 2pm. 20170310_192631.jpg

After my satisfying modanyaki and mug of cold draft beer, I was was full and happy. On my way back to the hostel, I saw the lit Kyoto tower. This tower is the tallest structure in Kyoto, because there is a law that says you cannot build any building higher than the Tower.

Kyoto tower. Shit’s lit.20170310_194225 교토 타워...멋있다..jpg

Reflected on the glass building20170310_194049 반대쪽 거울 빌딩에 reflect돼보이는 교토 타워.jpg

And that is my complete okonomiyaki experience in Japan.

Fully Explained: How to ride the Shinkansen (Japanese bullet train)

I remember being scared about riding the Shinkansen! Not that I’m frightened of vehicles that travel at the speed of light (Disclaimer: hyperbole used), but I hadn’t had much experience in traveling by train, let alone the famed Shinkansen!

I believe Shinkansen is operated by JR (there are many different companies involved in the metro scene, as discussed here).

Let me tell you about my super comfortable and enjoyable bullet train experience in Japan. Even as I write this, I can remember the palpable excitement I felt during my first ride.

I rode the shinkansen twice. Once from Tokyo to Osaka. From Osaka, I took the regular metro to get to Kyoto, and stayed in Kyoto for 8 nights. I took shinkansen from Kyoto back to Tokyo.

Flashing my tickets; about to enter Platform 18. English and Japanese on display.20170306_101754.jpg 20170306_101751.jpg

Buying the ticket

Do NOT go to the machines – they are for people who actually know the system. Unless you’re a Japanese local, or a shinkansen connoisseur who knows what he’s doing, be humble, and go to the service desks. All the employees at the desk speak adequate English to be able to help you with purchase, and any questions. I had done some research beforehand about getting on the shinkansen, and I still had surprises!

Two fare tickets that will get me from Tokyo station to Shin-Osaka station (You would think it would take you to Osaka station, but nope, it goes to Shin-Osaka station; “Shin” means “new”). 20170306_102022 nozomi super express to Hakata edite.jpg

What’s written on the ticket?: I got the “Super-Exp”(ress) that only stops at major stations. You’ll also notice “(Reserved)” on the ticket; I let loose and bought a premium seat, which I heard has more leg room. Paid a total of 14,310 yen. Approx $200 CAD! Yup, it’s expensive as fuck (but it was worth it). The price difference between reserved vs. non-reserved was 830 yen (approx. $10 CAD). If I’m already spending around $200 bucks for a 2.5 hour ride, I wasn’t going to sweat about an extra $10. Fare price changes very frequently, depending on the time.  You can choose between window and aisle seat when you buy the ticket, and your seat is written on the ticket. The window seat gets sold out quickly.

The first thing the shinkansen desk employee asked me for was my used metro ticket stub, that I had used to get to Tokyo station in the first place. I gave it to him, and it seems that he deducted the 140 yen service charge, which he crossed out at the bottom of the second ticket. Thanks, man.

Why are there two tickets?: Beats me why they had to split into two tickets. I got stuck at the platform entry machine, because I didn’t know which ticket to put into the feed of the machine. Turns out you feed both, overlapping each other, at the same time, and the machine somehow knows to accept both tickets and let you enter. Don’t forget to grab the tickets when the machine feeds it back to you after you pass through the machine!!!

How fast is it? Car vs. Shinkansen vs. Bus: By car, it would have taken 6 hours, but the shinkansen only takes 2.5 hours to get to Osaka. The trains come pretty frequently. I bought the tickets at service desk on the day of travel, but I heard you should buy tickets in advance for long weekends and such, as the locals are also on the move during those golden times. There also express buses, and most people take the night buses that take about 6 hours one-way. Buses are a LOT cheaper, I think they were half the price of the shinkansen! However, I am not a fan of bus rides, and I was set on riding the shinkansen and eating ekiben inside the train.

Getting on the train

My train at Platform 18! 20170306_101915.jpg

But before getting on, of course, I had to purchase an ekiben. Ekiben is the standard term for a bento box eaten on the train. There are many shops in the station, and booths at the platform right by the trains, that sell a variety of ekibens. The contents of each box is on display, so you can just look and choose.

Finding my seat and admiring the Japanese bullet train culture

My ticket said Car 13, Seat 10-D, so I found my seat in Car 13 of the train. Super clean!20170306_103041 reserved seating shinkansen.jpg

And very roomy.20170306_103057 super roomy.jpg

Brah. REversiBle seatS!!! If you’re traveling in a group, you can make seats face each other!!!! See how the chairs in the middle of this picture is facing towards me, when all the others are facing the front? It was a group of 6 school boys (looked to be in high school) that blew my mind when they reversed the seats. I’m guessing they were on an exciting all-boys trip to Osaka. They played cards and spoke quietly during the whole ride so as to not disturb others.20170306_103759 brah, REVERSIBLE SEATS.jpg

It was a quiet 2.5 hours. What really floored me was how, before Japanese locals inclined their seat back, they would turn around and notify the person sitting behind them. “Is it OK if I put my seat back?”. Of course, it’s not really a question; it’s a polite notification. The answer is always “yes”, or a nod. I thought it was a simple, but courteous gesture that oozed with etiquette. I’ve never seen that before! So I did the same when I was about to put my seat back a bit. Hehe.

So much leg room.20170306_104423.jpg

Maps in the train to tell you where everything is. There are smoking sections, garbage disposals, washrooms, etc. They are spread along the 16 cars of this train. You might have to go to another car to go to the washroom. The washroom was spotless and odorless. Similar to airplane washrooms, but everything was motion-activated, so that you don’t have to touch any buttons.20170306_110002.jpg

Eating in the train

Train personnel come around to sell snacks, drinks and sandwiches. I’m pretty sure I saw beer as a choice, just like in airplanes. Not too surprising since it’s legal in Japan to consume alcohol on streets. 20170306_112133 selling snacks.jpg

After much deliberation, I had settled on very fishy ekiben called “Fukagawa-meshi”…20170306_113903.jpg 20170306_113910.jpg

Tasted great. It was pretty smelly and I wondered if it was bothering other passengers, but I consoled myself because it was sold at the ekiben store right by the train. I mean, it’s not just some gross, alien thing I had brought from home!20170306_114038 this was 980yen at the platform.jpg

Lots of people had brought bottled drinks, ate snacks and simple meals, like rice balls (onigiri), and katsu sandwiches. The ride is only 2.5 hours long, so you don’t necessarily need to eat a full meal on the train, unless you are famished. I’m always famished for ekiben. There’s just a nostalgic, peaceful feeling about eating a carefully packaged bento box in the quiet shinkansen train.

So that is the fully explained shinkansen experience.

Kyoto-to-Tokyo ride was a similar experience.

Kyoto Station to Tokyo Station. Only one ticket this time. 13,901 yen. It’s slightly cheaper than Tokyo to Osaka, since Kyoto is a bit closer to Tokyo. I got reserved seat on Nozomi again. The price difference is less than 1000 yen between reserved vs. non-reserved seat.20170318_113852 티켓두장이 한장에. 나즁에 jr chuo line도 공짜로 탐

Gotta catch the 12:05 at Platform 11. I gave myself 20 minutes to find an ekiben, hehe. 20170318_114337.jpg

The Hikari (in red) is the non-express; it stops at more stations than the Nozomi.20170318_115517.jpg

On Car 13 again20170318_120256.jpg

Ekiben again!!!!20170318_121139.jpg

The sensation I felt on these rides are indescribable. I felt flooded with possibilities and exhilaration when I got on the train. Traveling can be a real bitch sometimes, but there are these rare moments of rainbows and unicorns and butterflies that keep me coming back for more.

Walking Japan: Bicycles and anime everywhere

  • Bicycles

Bikes parked everywhere20170318_145217.jpg

I saw so many bicycles during my 30 days in Japan. The cyclists I had usually seen in Toronto were people trying to get somewhere nearby, or kids who can’t drive cars or people in speedos and shorts, trying to get a workout.

But in Japan, it was different. I saw the most unlikeliest people riding; People in full suits, mothers with their children, people who went grocery shopping, just riding it out. It was their primary vehicle of choice. Many bikes had a small basket attached at the front or at the back, that served as the trunk. It was easy to observe cyclists, since they roamed the pedestrian streets. In Toronto, cyclists must stay on the road along with the other vehicles, so this was new for me.

Befitting the quiet atmosphere of Japanese day culture, cyclists don’t make any noise. I think I heard someone ring their bell, once in all those 30 days. People innately know how to avoid collisions, almost like a 6th sense. In a busy city as Tokyo, everyone sticks to the left side of the road (on the right side for Kyoto), and so do the cyclists, so it’s orderly.

In especially narrow paths, I would remove myself by sticking close to the wall to let bicycles whiz through. They would nod at me as they passed by, as an expression of thanks.

I developed a habit of looking behind me before taking any stride to the left or the right. What if there was a bicycle right behind me?

I particularly remember a young man in a suit and I trying to avoid each other, but we kept moving in the same direction at the same time. In the end, he had to stop his bike because he was going to hit me if we continued our waltz.

A lot of tourists rent bicycles for a day or two to take advantage of this culture. Some hotels/inns provide rental, otherwise you can easily find a place to rent from.

  • Anime

As expected, I saw anime everywhere. I had considered myself a knowledgeable person on this topic, but clearly not. All the anime I had known were all outdated, and I failed to recognize the hotter animes that were found in the streets and book stores. I was behind the times, and it made me feel old and irrelevant.

This place even has anime characters on their store front sign. This store is related to the place I had my first breakfast, called Nomiu, as part of a chain. I am pretty sure they will replace the sign to a normal one after the promotion with the anime characters is over. Or maybe these characters were created specifically for this store? I wouldn’t put it past them.20170305_160815.jpg

I also saw pachinko places everywhere, and they would advertise the arrivals of “New Machine!” featuring the latest anime characters.

Japanese people are so reserved in their general interactions, so it would trip me out whenever I saw larger-than-life anime characters blending in with real people and everyday society like that.

 

 

 

 

Eating Japan: High-end konbini instant ramen

I bought one of the high-end instant ramens from a konbini (convenience store, like 7-11 or Family Mart). The “high-end” really means it’s around 300 yen per bowl, while the cheaper ones are around 150 yen each.

This is a product made from Nissin, Japan’s most famous instant ramen manufacturer (they have a museum and everything!), and is based off of a tonkotsu ramen from a famous brick-and-mortar ramen shop. The point of this is that you don’t have to travel far to the actual ramen shop to have a taste of their specialty ramen.20170306_074124.jpg

It comes with a dried piece of chashu (slice of cooked pork topping), a packet of liquid soup essence that contains a lot of fat, and a packet of dried soup powder. 20170306_074201.jpg

Pour the dried powder and desiccated chashu into the bowl. The dried powder packet consisted of white stock powder, dried green onion bits and dried beansprout legs. 20170306_074328.jpg

Pour hot water up to the line, and cover the lid with chopsticks and the liquid soup packet. I poured in extra hot water because I was trying to make it less salty. The liquid soup packet is pretty heavy in weight, so it does a good job keeping the lid covered, but also, you’re heating up the fats in the soup packet so that it’s easy to pour later.20170306_074559.jpg

Having morning ramen at my hostel at 7:47am in the morning…I thought I was strange for having such a heavy breakfast, but I saw another lady eating a tray of sushi, and another girl also eating instant ramen at the same time as me.20170306_074821.jpg

These packs of chopsticks are distributed by the convenience store clerk when you buy the ramen. It has a toothpick inside!20170306_075033.jpg

I waited 4 minutes, then stirred in the fatty, brown liquid soup from the packet I was heating up, and just started eating. You can see the green onion and beansprout that came in the dried packet floating at the top. The chashu looks pretty gross, if I do say so myself.20170306_075302.jpg

For an instant ramen that I bought off of some shelf, it was of a quality I have never tasted before (I had only had instant ramen in Canada). However, I strongly felt that the next time I want ramen, I should just take the time to go to a ramen-ya, pay about 500 yen more, and eat freshly cooked ramen.

It just wasn’t the same…The meat, green onion and beansprouts had their textures compromised by being dried, and they tasted pretty lifeless. Also, the noodles were cooked by me and not a real ramen master, so it was edible, but they didn’t have much of a bite.

Lesson of the day; if you want proper ramen, go to a ramen restaurant.

Fully Explained: (Weird) Vending Machines of Japan

Everywhere in Japan, you’ll see them. Sometimes they’re alone, sometimes they’re in a group, smoking thin cigs together and sniffing glue. They hang out in big streets, in malls, little side streets by the concrete parking lot. I’m talking about…street vending machines in Japan.

20170301_153532.jpgA vending machine that serves cold and warm drinks. The ones labeled red come out warm. You could buy the same ones in a konbini for a bit cheaper. This machine is very tea/coffee centric; the selection of drinks vary widely depending on the machine.

I would like to call vending machines the oasis of the streets, but really, there are so many konbinis around that I didn’t have to resort to going to a vending machine. I would buy from them just for the novelty of having done so. They are on almost every street in Japan, and it’s fun to see what each of them offer.

I think I saw like, two Japanese people use these during my 30 days here. Maybe when the weather gets warmer, more people will use them. I saw uniformed workers filling up these vending machines every morning, so people must buy from them, though.

They can get very strange on you.

20170224_140715.jpg This one has a whole dried fish in the bottle. This is not for leisurely drinking. You use the broth in these bottles to add to your soups when you’re cooking.

20170323_114019.jpg At Haneda Tokyo airport, they sell these wooden wish plaques for you write your wish and hang up on a wall, like you would at a temple.

20170224_071048.jpg“Psst…Want some crack?” How bad-ass does this vending machine look, right by the parking lot?

20170301_050259.jpg 20170301_050642.jpg This “yogurthie” was delicious. I tried to find this in konbinis but never succeeded. Are they limited vending machine editions, or something? They had little chewy jellies inside that were so satisfying to nibble on.

20170317_120658.jpg 20170317_120706.jpgYou’ll see these “1 coin” machines around. 1 coin= 100 yen coin. These are actually cheaper than buying at a konbini. I got a drink from my childhood, Pocari Sweat. It tastes like yuzu flavored sweat. I’d see this pop up in Slam Dunk and crave it.

20170301_151713.jpg 20170301_151923.jpgThis machine was in an indoor mall. Large malls will have these vending machines around, even though there are konbinis inside the mall. You’ll never be thirsty in Japan, basically. This apple juice was delicious.

Fully Explained: Capsule Hotels in Japan

They like to refer to themselves as a “hotel”, but really, Capsule Hotels are hostels, where you share the bedroom and bathroom facilities with everyone else. However, you do have your own budget “room”, which is your bed space with walls and/or curtains that can conceal you from other lodgers.

There are no minimum size requirements to a capsule hotel “room”. I stayed at four different ones in Japan (two in Tokyo, one in Kyoto and Osaka), and they were all quite different in spaciousness and set up. If you get easily claustrophobic, you are better off at an actual hotel, or hostels with the classic bunk beds.

I was in Japan late Feb to March. A room at Centurion Cabin in Akasaka, Bay Hotel in Akihabara and Fuku Hostel in Osaka cost approx $50/night. Wind Villa in Kyoto cost half that price.

Image result for centurion cabin and spa akasakaPhoto provided by Centurion Cabin and Spa in Akasaka, the first place I stayed at in Tokyo. If you got the cheapest room, you’ll have to crawl into your lower-bunk “room”. If you paid for TV in your room, you will get the top bunk. Centurion is a big chain of hotels and hostels in Japan. I remember this place had an unreliable supply of hot water. I’d have to turn the tap on and wait 15 seconds before the warm water would come back on.

The “room” is pretty much the space of your bed, but with walls on all sides. There is an opening in the wall for you to get in and out. The opening can be covered with sliding curtains. People can still see your body parts through the cracks of the curtains though, depending on the type of curtain provided by the place. Don’t be butt nekked in your room, just in case. The mattress is always a thin futon. The futon is fit perfectly to the size of the room, so there is usually no extra floor space. You’re not allowed to eat or drink (other than water) in your bed.

Some capsule hotels are Women Only (or as they like to express it, “Caters to Women”), or Men Only, as clarified in the name of the hostel in the booking sites. If no indication, it’s unisex. Centurion in Akasaka and Akihabara Bay Hotel were Women Only. These places always provide women-friendly toiletries (facial toner, make up remover, etc.), which the the unisex places don’t.

Unisex hostels may not be Women Only, but all of them have a Women Only floor or section. Japan is pretty big on Women Only. There are buses or subway trains that are only for women, after a certain time of night. In a city with very low crime rate, I wonder if this is really necessary…

A typical capsule room has a light, a face mirror (if it’s Women Only, it has a mirror for sure), plugs and sometimes, a rotating dial to control the intensity of your light. There is a narrow shelf at the back or side of your room for your to put your stuff on. The ceiling is always low, so you can’t stand up properly. This is the typical setting of a capsule room. Although I must say, Centurion was the most chicken-coop-y out of all 4 that I stayed at.

20170223_192602.jpg  I took this picture from the very back of my Centurion “room”, and this is all of the front that I could fit into my camera. Don’t get this room if you have claustrophobic tendencies. I had jet lag, so I would go to sleep at daytime and the curtain they gave me left a crack, so I had hallway light leaking into my room. The hallway light is turned off around 11pm.

 

20170228_160912.jpg 20170228_161136.jpgThis was my Akihabara Bay Hotel room (picture taken from doorway). Looks like a baking oven or something. The bed was a lot more spacious than Centurion. A lot brighter, and the curtain actually shut all the way so I didn’t have light leaking into my room if I wanted to go to sleep early.

Akihabara Bay Hotel cleans your room every single day. Other places only clean your room after you check out, but not Bay Hotel. This place doesn’t let you into your room from 10am to 4pm; 6 whole hours, you’re not allowed to be there, because they’re cleaning. Would be a lot better if they had shut-off hours per floor, instead of kicking everyone out for 6 hours of a day.

20170228_163316.jpgThis is the common washroom and makeup area at Bay Hotel. Reliable supply of warm water, which was not the case in Centurion. Super clean, and even provided hair straightener/curlers. Paper cups for your dental needs, and good quality facial cleanser, makeup remover, toner and lotion. I didn’t even have to use any of the stuff I had brought. They also provide q-tips, bath scrub towels, cotton pads for free, which wasn’t the case in Centurion.

At all the hostels I stayed at, there were sinks and mirrors on every floor. HOWEVER, most sinks had the hot water turned off. Only the sinks on the same floor as the shower stalls had hot water. I’d have to go to those specific sinks on that floor, if I wanted to wash my face properly with warm water. The hot water was never scorching hot either. It was pretty surprising that such a rich and advanced country like Japan limited hot water supply. I guess hot water is a lot more expensive here?

20170228_163338.jpgA full corridor of private shower stalls in Akihabara Bay Capsule Hotel.

20170228_163325.jpgReally nice, private shower stalls in Akihabara Bay Hotel. Centurion had a common shower and bathtub, which was a nice experience as well. Lots of nekked ladies just doing their thang.

20170228_164010.jpgAkihabara Bay Hotel was pretty big on security. They had these fob key entrances at the main door and at every floor.

There is always a common area which is a communal eating and relaxing space. Generally, there are tables, self-serve beverages, vending machines, hot water machines for your cup ramen, and Japanese TV being played. Out of the 4 hostels, Akihabara Bay Hotel is the only one that did not provide a shared refrigerator. The one in Centurion broke down while I was there, so the smell of rotting food hit me in the face full-on when I opened it.

20170228_163619.jpg The common area at Akihabara Bay Hotel. 

20170228_163613.jpg 20170228_163616.jpgAll hostels will have a common area with a microwave and hot water to cook your convenience store foods and ramen. Also some vending machines for your drink needs. Some places like Centurion and Wind Villa provide free self-serve beverages, but Bay Hotel and Fuku Hostel did not.

The one I stayed at in Kyoto, Guesthouse Wind Villa, was an actual room.

20170310_155758.jpgI was pleasantly surprised by my room in Wind Villa that was HALF THE PRICE of the rooms I had in Tokyo, and Osaka.

20170318_103352.jpgWind Villa in Kyoto has got to be the best experience. It had extra floor space for me to put all my stuff, and it HAD A WINDOW. It also had hooks in the room for me to hang my jackets. Also a real door that I could slide to close my room completely, instead of curtains. There is also a hook thing on the door to lock your room. 

20170317_101538.jpgMy room in Kyoto had a window! And it had this sliding mosquito screen. How cool is that.

20170311_102837.jpgWind Villa at Kyoto was easily my favorite hostel in Japan. It wasn’t at an as central of a location, but it was designed for travelers to feel at home. Here’s me looking out of their window in the morning.

All four places did not allow outdoor shoes to be worn inside. I thought this was smart; you couldn’t bring in all that cat poo and trodded-on yakisoba noodles at the bottom of your shoes, onto their floor. They provide indoor sandals at no charge.

Also, all four places had coin laundry facility. It cost me 400 yen everytime (200 to wash, 200 to dry for an hour), so it’s pretty expensive. Wind Villa in Kyoto had a powerful wash/dry machine that only charged me 100 yen in total!

20170228_163851.jpg 200 yen to wash your clothes, and 200 yen to dry your clothes (100 yen for 30 minutes of drying; 30 minutes was never enough). There are instructions in English. I like that the washing machine has an option where you can wash the washing machine (yes, wash the washing machine) before you put your clothes in.

The two hostels in Tokyo provided me with a set of shirts and pants as pajamas, free of charge.

Some places charge you a 100 yen to rent you a towel. Some provide a new one everyday at no extra charge, and some provide you one for free when you check in, and then charge you when you want a new towel.

Some have 24 hr check in and front desk, but most do not, and their closing time is indicated on booking sites. If you will be checking in past their closing time, you must notify them beforehand and they can make an exception for you. If the hostel doesn’t have 24 hour front desk, it provides you a security code that you must enter at the building door after a certain time in the night. Take a picture of this code so that you’re not locked out if you forget it.

Out of 4 “rooms” I stayed at, 3 did not have any locks on the doors, so do not leave anything valuable in your room. Keep it in your locker, which is provided free of charge. Most lockers can fit a carry-on luggage, and more. Some places have really small lockers (I’ve had as small as 20cm x 15cm, at Fuku), so it’d be just big enough to fit your small electronics and pricey valuables.

Some places have really charming common area, and I spent a lot of time in them.

 

20170314_104942.jpgEnjoying a cup of tea and a traditional Japanese snack as I stare out the common room window in Kyoto. 

20170224_020802.jpg Me enjoying a foot bath in my complimentary pajamas provided by the hostel. It wasn’t a real bath with water, but you cover your feet with plastic and dunk it into this box with warmed beads. Takes away some of the fatigue from all that walking. They also provided Japanese fashion magazines and recipe books for me to read as I relax. Some hostels have these surprising perks that are available for free.

All in all, capsule hotels differ widely in policies and size, and what they do or do not provide. My favorite was Guesthouse Wind Villa in Kyoto, and my least favorite was Fuku Hostel in Nanba, Osaka. I don’t have any pictures of Fuku hostel, because it was a really underwhelming place that only provided the bare necessities, and you had to make your own bedding when you use the bed for the first time, etc.

 

Fully Explained: Konbinis – A comparison of the major Konbinis in Japan

First off, what is a Konbini?

Konbini is a Jenglish term for “convenience stores”. It’s fitting that they have their own umbrella term for all the 7-11, Family Mart, Lawson, Mini Stop stores across the country. You cannot escape them; they are EVERYWHERE. You will daydream and nightdream (?) about them. These konbinis are so much more than what I am used to here in Toronto. I could live off of the food they have here. No, really, I could, because some of them carry fresh produce.

Below I have listed 10 brands of konbinis with a brief explanation of each. There are more brands in Japan for sure, but these are ones I saw in person in my 30 days of walking around as a tourist in Tokyo, Osaka and Kyoto, and have actually visited to get my fixes *eye twitch*.

Side note: If you want pictures of foods, snacks and drinks that I had from konbinis, click here: Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4, Part 5

The Top 3 konbinis are definitely 7-11, Family Mart and Lawson, no question about that. It’s to the point where I have seen two Family Marts located within a 5-second walk from each other, no joke. This is also the case for 7-11 and Lawson. Like, I’d shop at a 7-11, then cross the street and literally see another 7-11, offering pretty much the same things as the previous 7-11. Do they have the same owners, or is it two owners working for the same brand competing against each other? I have no clue, but the market cannibalization must be fierce.

Without further ado, here is a quick intro of each brand, and some of the distinguishing factors, from my personal experience. Brands are ordered from most frequently seen, to least.

 

FamilyMart Logo (2016-).svg

Out of all the brands, I saw the most of Family Mart. Not only is it common to see on the big streets, it was also in many nooks and crannies, and consistently spread out in the three cities I was in. Some Family Marts have an oden section, and they even advertise their oden section specifically on TV. However, I have found 7-11’s odens a bit more tastier. Personally, Family Mart’s food or bread or desserts did not entice me in terms of look and taste, but I shopped here a lot because there are so many of them around.

7-eleven-brand.svg

7-11, everyone knows about because this is a global brand. Most importantly, some 7-11s have international ATMs that accept foreign debit cards. The only reliable ATMs that will accept a tourist’s debit cards are at some 7-11 stores and Japan Post (yes, post offices have ATMs). I actually did not see much of 7-11 in Kyoto in general, as Lawson was the more dominant there, but I think 7-11’s food was generally the best tasting out of the Top 3. Their oden was good (not all locations have it), and their meal-replacement bread section has a large selection, and is the tastiest.

Lawson.svg

I saw a concentration of Lawson stores in Kyoto, but otherwise, it’s the rarer one out of the Top 3 in Tokyo and Osaka. Their desserts are the best in terms of quality, look and selection out of the Top 3. I also found their sandwiches very tasty. Surprisingly, their meal-replacement bread section always have a smaller selection and look lacklustre. I tried a hot pork bun here, and it wasn’t that great. I stuck to buying the sweet stuff and sandwiches from here.

lawson100.jpg

Lawson 100 carry fresh produce and household products, so I saw these in resident-heavy streets.

lawson natural.jpg

Natural Lawson features more organic and healthier packaged foods, and more beauty products than the other konbinis. Most konbinis carry only the essential beauty products, and you’re better off going to the pharmacy stores. Natural Lawson somewhat strikes a middle between the two, and I think it’s good for residents to get their daily beauty stuff. But for tourists, just go to a pharmacy, they’re not that hard to find.

k.jpg   sunkus.jpg

Circle K (or as I like to call it, K mart), and sunKus stores were bought out by Family Mart. Stores still carry these signs on the front, but if you walk in, their products are all Family Mart branded. So yeah, these are pretty much Family Mart clones.

MINISTOP

Ministop is owned by Aeon Retail, a huge retailer that owns super-tall department stores, so it’s pretty good in terms of selection. I didn’t walk into too many of these because I had more than enough 7-11, Lawson and Family Marts than I needed.

daily.jpg

You’ll see these around, mostly in Tokyo. It is similar to the others, but the selections are a lot smaller. Also, depending on the location, it’s very grungy. I walked into one of these and felt like some hooded Japanese teenage gangster was gonna come in and rob the store and hold me hostage. The second one I went to was a lot brighter and better-managed. I only bought one can of drink from here, so can’t say much about it.

 

don't know.jpg

I don’t even know what this is called, but I shopped at one that was in a subway station in Kyoto. I bought some desserts from here, and it was really good. Their desserts are not branded in their name like 7-11, Lawson or Family Mart has, but they get it from a company called Premium Sweets and it was really, really good.

Snacks and drinks from Konbinis (7-11, Family Mart, Lawson) – Part 1

I’ll explain more about Konbinis (convenience stores) in another post, but this is more of a dump for all my small but memorable moments and purchases from 7-11, Family Mart, Lawson, Mini-Stop, Sun-K-us, and all those convenience store chains across Japan. Konbini is bae. One love.

20170223_213645.jpg  I was in bed at the capsule hotel (separate post about capsule hotels coming). Suntory has these fruit flavored beers called Horoyoi with only 3% alcohol, so it’s like a carbonated fruit beverage with the bitterness of beer. This was a red-grape flavored drink, and the drink was purple. It was cloyingly sweet, so it was not my favorite.

20170224_020802.jpg Fruit flavored water. This was peach flavored. It was sweeter than I thought it’d be, so I switched to real water after.

20170224_082547.jpg Ah, the classic pink sausages, found in every Asian country. There’s barely any real meat in these sausages, but they’re so, so good.

20170224_082818.jpgErmahgerd, the self-serve oden section at 7-11. Family Mart, Lawson and 7-11 all sell oden. Not all locations carry it, but all the bigger ones do. 

20170224_082824.jpg*Salivating

20170224_231921.jpgSoft-boiled eggs, individually packaged. Also a nice selection of cheeses and meats to go with wine and beer.

20170225_083953.jpgThese are all appetizers to go with alcohol. Heaven. You can have a drinking party at home if you don’t feel like going out to an izakaya.

20170225_070843 seven ereven.jpgNo need to go to a bakery if you’re looking for a quite bite of bread. All konbinis carry a wide selection of bread and pastries. The one above is from 7-11, I can tell from the packaging. This was a corn-mayo bread, and the mayo was artery-cloggingly heavy. Do not recommend.