Wednesday, May 30, 2007

Trend Update


Japanese people can go crazy about touring from shops to shops, cafes to cafes exploring new kinds of luxury cakes and confectionaries, but this is probably the first time for luxury marshmallows to catch attention.

One TV show featured luxury marshmallows in Tokyo the other day. It seems like the petit boom started a couple of months ago around the White Day season (White Day = March 14th, a day for boyfriends to give their girlfriends a gift in return for the Valentine's Day gifts. For Valentine's girls usually give boys chocolate, and for White Day boys give white sweets like white chocolate and marshmallows).

Luxury marshmallows are those that are given labels of luxury hotels and restaurants, and they are available at the confectionary/ pastry shops of those places.

At first, I was only like, "how could marshmallows be so different?" but I happened to have a chance to buy these marshmallows for my aunt so I got a box for myself. The place I went to is the
Park Hyatt Hotel in Tokyo and they actually call them not marshmallows but "guimauve" (French, I think?), and Park Hyatt's guimauve looks like the one in the picture (I didn't bother taking a photo until the last piece so it looks kind of odd...).

The shape is like a slightly bigger version of kiss chocolate, and the texture smooth and moderately springy. As compared to regular marshmallows sold in supermarkets this one is a lot softer and delicate, and you'll feel that even more when you take one into your mouth. It's really delicate and fine. I was surprised how it melts on the tongue. It feels more like meringue barely keeping its form... and the flavor too was very rich. This one in the picture is raspberry flavor and it tasted like I was tasting raspberry puree. Very rich.

Park Hyatt had two kinds, raspberry and passion fruit, and I bet the passion fruit tastes as rich as the raspberry. A box costs Y800 (US$6.7) so although they call it luxury, it's not like it's unaffordable. I think it's certainly worth a casual gift for someone or even for yourself.


About 10 months ago the entire country was literally stirred by the two highschool baseball monsters Saito Yuuki and Tanaka Masahiro. The same fever has now shifted to university baseball league and professional baseball league.

Winning pitcher Saito Yuuki decided to go on to higher education and entered Waseda University this past April. Waseda is one of the
Tokyo Big6 Baseball League (Tokyo's uni sports conference, sort of like the equivalent to the IVY League in US) and its baseball team is strong enough, but with Saito joining the team looks like its gotten even stronger and energetic.

The participation of Saito in the Big6 didn't only vitalize his own university but brought a huge influence on the popularity of the Big6 League itself. University baseball, back 60 years ago was the most popular amateur sport that attracted the largest number of crowds (people waited in ticket lines overnight... thought this was a modern phenomenon, nevertheless...) but the popularity kind of sank in the following decades. Eventually the center of baseball became the professional leagues (we have two, the Pacific and the Central) where the top players play every night.

However, by entering university baseball instead of professional Saito brought his fans to the Big6 games and now tickets for every game he plays sell out in seconds. More games are being shown live on TV, and the goods are selling out as well as the tickets.

This weekend is going to be a festival around the Jingu Stadium and at the campuses, for the game taking place is fought between Waseda and Keio. Known as "Sokei-sen" (So for Waseda, Kei for Keio, sen means match/battle) the match-up between these two are traditionally the most popular especially for baseball, and this weekend is even more special because if Waseda wins it automatically makes Waseda the winner of the spring tournament. The game is going to be aired live on two channels which is needless to say an irregular case.

Besides the baseball game itself, Sokeisen provides a stage for another kind of battle, which is the cheering. Called "Ouen-gassen" the cheering for both schools (and other schools of the Big6 as well) is another feature of the Sokei-sen and no doubt the most important leader of the crowd. So that's another something to look out for. As for Saito, he's doing pretty well improving his baseball skills and marking good records.

The other mammoth pitcher Tanaka joined the Tohoku Rakuten Golden Eagles, a relatively knew team having its home base in Sendai. The team despite its unwell team performance in the past couple of years is quite popular and the popularity rose higher with Tanaka joining the team. He's expected a lot from the fans. Though his debut game was not really a good one for him (as far as I recall which is not too much) he's been dedicating to the team a lot in terms of results in numbers and as a stimulator for the other players. His influence on the team can be seen in the team performance of Rakuten this season. Pretty good ;-)

Tuesday, May 29, 2007

Japan Travelog vol.3 - Kyoto Day 1

Fushimi Inari Taisha (Shrine) is located only two stops south from Kyoto Station on JR Nara Line, and the grand gate to the shrine is located right in front of the Station exit. As you go through the gate you will find a shrine pavilion and behind that the main shrine where you make offerings and pray. Behind the main shrine there is a path that leads you to the widely known Sembon Torii (thousand torii). This Sembon Torii was what I wanted to see with my own eyes, and thus the highlight of this trip.

Torii are the gates you find at Shinto shrines or grounds that are affiliated with Shinto sanctity. They are often located at the entrances to the shrine grounds as well as within, and many times in the nature as best represented in rocks and forests/ woods. Torii are made of wood and are in the color of the wood (brown - dark brown) if not vivid vermillion red representing brightness (light, hope, life).

Since these gates are indicators (or even reminders) that are built on the boundary of the sacred and the profane, in most cases the gates stand individually. Fushimi Inari is no exception in terms of the main entrance, but the most unique feature of this shrine is this Thousand Torii where hundreds of them are placed one right next to another creating tunnels of torii. The location appears in many posters, travel brochures, TV commercials, TV dramas and films... and I simply wanted to see this almost insane collection of red.

Probably because a Japanese like myself is brought up tacitly being taught that torii as well as vermillion red for the shrines
are something sacred or something apart from our daily lives, these kind of places give me a sense of chilly awe and take my breath away in a different way from standing on top of a mountain and looking across the universe. It was beautiful but at the same time a bit eerie. Would have been much eerier if there weren't any fellow tourists and students on trips.

As you come out to from the narrow vermillion tunnel you reach the Okunoin, and behind it Mt.Inari. Not only the shrine ground and the approach expands to the entire side of the mountain, like many other Shinto shrines the Shrine worships this whole mountain (... is what I learned afterwards. I didn't even know that the visit would be a good 2-hour-hike).

The approach that climbs up the mountain is marked with another set of hundreds of torii, this time larger and placed slightly (only slightly) apart. Moderately steep stairs lead most of the way with partially really steep places, and along the path stand several houses. Many of these houses have rest areas located next to them, offering food and drinks as well as great view. (The picture is of hiyashiame, literally cold candy, a very sweet drink made of malt sugar with ginger. Savior of my soar throat this day.)

Also along the circular route across the mountainside are smaller shrines, all related to the main Inari but each with different purposes. Some are for safe traveling, some others for health around your neck and head, others for health for back and legs, etc. etc.. Some are relatively bigger in terms of size and significance than others, but there were more than a dozen located on the route.

In addition to the shrines are the... heaps (I don't know how to describe them)... called tsuka. At a glance these places look like a mixture of Shintoism with Buddhism as the carved stones look like Buddhist gravestones, but the surroundings are of complete Shintoism. The stones are actually not gravestones but are each gods - households that worship Shintoism carve the sacred (gods') names on the rocks and enshrine the rocks on this mountain as part of the Inari (god of agriculture and harvest) because this is Inari's center of worship.

Overall the visit was a pleasant one, not to mention fascinating... and good exercise. Just one thing though: even though there were fairly many tourists, there weren't too many that actually climbed the route and so I wasn't always seeing people around. When encountering couples and groups I didn't really feel anything, but when I saw some people who were there alone, silent and slow, there were some times when I didn't know if I were seeing real people or not. I don't usually see ghosts and phantoms, but so-thought sacred grounds like this sometimes make me feel... unsure.

Friday, May 25, 2007

Japan Travelog vol.2 - Osaka

My first night in Osaka was my first time to use the internet cafe as an accommodation. It wasn't awfully bad, but perhaps by no means comfortable. Chilly and smokey, plus the flat type rooms were all taken so we had no choice but to take the recliner seats. Well... the seats weren't bad. What bothered me more was the rustling sounds people made throughout the night whenever somebody moved around. It's an internet cafe after all. Can't complain.

We spent the first real day in Osaka in the Namba area. That's probably the busiest and noisiest area of the city, I think. This is where you can find the famous Glico neon board and the Kuidaore figure, not to mention tons of eatouts particularly of Osaka's specialties takoyaki and okonomiyaki. It was a Friday morning but the place was already bustling with mostly tourists and students on school excursions. Busy place. I went back to the area alone on a Sunday after my friends had headed back home. Well, that was quite a crowd. Not just this Dotombori area but even more crowded in the Shinsaibashi area. My impression of Shinsaibashi was Shibuya made into a single straight arcade. Lots of shops and young people. I had heard before that the fashion in Osaka (actually not just Osaka but also big cities like Nagoya and Kobe respectively) is different from Tokyo. I think I would agree. At least for the girls, it looked like Osaka girls prefer gears on the gal side more than the Tokyo girls like. Strong vivid colors and glittery accessories, too.

The following day we went to Osaka Castle and Shitennoji Temple. The temple ground was pretty big though not vast like the ones in the ancient capital Nara. Still the 1,400-year-old temple is preserved well (of course with nummerous refurbishing and restoration) and is a peaceful place to stroll around. The exterior is good enough, but the impressive features of this temple are the religious (wall) paintings and statues stored inside the halls. The paintings tell the stories of Buddha and Asoka and the art is very beautiful.

I stayed in Osaka for another day after my friends have left, and went to see a shrine called Sumiyoshi Taisha. This was another pretty shrine with unique architecture (I like architecture of shrines and temples). An amazing contrast of vermillion lacquer, deep brown of the thatched roofs and white all surrounded by early summer green. I got to see three Shinto style weddings that morning. They were certainly beautiful especially on a day with such perfect weather, but I have to say that although they were three separate weddings, the way the shrine conducted (conducted more like, than carried out) the weddings were kind of systematic. One right after another. Popular place, good day, I guess it couldn't be helped.

Then I wandered into the Shinsekai area. That's where the Tsutenkaku Tower is (every big city has its own tower). Since I already went up the Castle to get a view of the city I didn't go up this one and just walked around the area at its foot. Shinsekai looked like a block of dozens of kushikatsu (fried... pretty much any kind of food stuck through skewers) eatouts huddling together. Most of these places had statues of Billiken in all sizes placed at the entrances. First I didn't know what it was, but later on found out that this is the famous Osaka god of all-purpose luck. Actually, I just found out that Billiken was designed by an American artist based on the inspiration she got from her dream one night, and the figure went popular worldwide, that is to say back in early 1900s. Is that right? At least, not too many of the Tokyoites know of the god. Anyway.

The following day I woke up in the morning and decided to leave Osaka for my personally most exciting destination for this trip, Kyoto. I've been to Kyoto so many times but like many say, you can visit Kyoto one hundred times and not even see half of it. This trip was particularly an exciting one. Will go on to vol.3.

Thursday, May 24, 2007

Japan Travelog vol.1 ?

Didn't mean to have a break so long... well I am back to blogger after 6 weeks. Many things happened - or rather, I was engaged in many projects during these past weeks.
I did quite a lot of Tokyo guiding as well as interpreting, went to Australia for a week accompanying a filming crew as an interpreter (now that was one awesome trip: we traveled parts of Cairns, Brisbane and Gold Coast). Then I played in an orchestra for an operetta, and after another Tokyo city tour I traveled around Kobe, Osaka and Kyoto, all pretty big cities as well as tourist attractions in mid-west Japan.

It was my very first time to go to Kobe. Quite honestly I didn't know what to expect.
The overnight bus from Shinjuku (Tokyo) to Kobe was surprisingly comfy with considerably wide space and relaxing recliner seats. Though the price can't exactly be described as cheap, it's a whole lot more affordable than bullet trains when traveling this country for such long distance. The downside of it, however, is that the bus arrives at the destination pretty early in the morning (7:3o-ish) when not many of anything in town are open. Two more friends and I had to kill time in a cafe, but it was okay cuz this way we could plan the route for the day.

We only had one day in Kobe and that day had been pretty miserable weatherwise. It poured and poured and poured all day and I got myself soaked on the first day of my trip.
Kobe I imagined prior to this trip was a classy stylish town: the impression I actually got was that the town resembled a lot of the int'l port town of the east, Yokohama. Of course these two cities are different, and if I had more time to explore the town I probably could have gotten more different impressions, but it seemed to me that the types of attractions... or districts they have are quite similar. The former foreign (western) residential area, China town, the shopping/commercial district, the port area - I thought that the two cities shared a lot of common elements.

What interested me the most, or gave me the biggest impact, was the remains of the dock located in the port area. The dock known as Meriken Hatoba had been damaged severely (almost destroyed) just like how the entire region was by the Hanshin Awaji Earthquake back in 1995. As a remembrance of the tragic disaster of more than 40,000 casualties the dock is preserved in exactly the way the earthquake left it.

Afterwards we went to a Chinese temple (by chance, kind of) and made an interesting observation on Japanese uni students and professor. I looked like a class on religious studies or art or sociology or one of the kind was visiting this temple, one professor and about a dozen students. At first they were just looking around the small temple and its grounds, but (unfortunately, to them at least) they were caught by an elderly (yet more energetic than any of the class there) worshipper who literally started a lecture that went on for half an hour. The lecture was actually pretty good, though the attitudes of the students were by no means nice. They looked like they as well as the teacher were terribly annoyed and wanted to leave asap. No comments, no questions. My two friend coming from overseas were amused by the situation. They said they couldn't believe what they were seeing, the silent and annoyed group, because if this was the case in their country there would definitely be a shower of questions and the professor would have to stop them because otherwise they'd run out of time, not because they wanted to leave any second.

The day ended with good Indian dinner followed by a businessy conversation with the Indian owner of the restraunt, and after relaxing in a jazz bar with live performance we left the city for Osaka.
So much for today. I will write about Osaka in the next entry.