Take me out to the (Japanese) ball game — watching a Hanshin Tigers baseball game

16 Oct

Hanshin Tigers player Takashi Toritani at bat.

The crowd is quiet, save for areas in the outfields where the hardcore fans seem to be. From where we are, near first base, I can faintly hear their songs and cheers. All around me people are drinking beer and eating greasy baseball food. But here there is more takoyaki and yakitori than hotdogs and corn dogs. I’m a bit disappointed that it’s not as rowdy as I’ve been told it would be.

That is until a Tiger steps up to the plate.

Hanshin Tigers player Takashi Toritani at bat.

Hanshin Tigers player Takashi Toritani at bat.

Small plastic bats, towels and other paraphernalia begin to appear. These Japanese people, who rarely ever raise their voices or answer a phone call on a train, start to yell and cheer. They hit the bats together, singing elaborate songs for each player and moaning in disappointment at every out.

Though they are respectful when the other team is at bat, in this case Tokyo’s Yakult Swallows, Hanshin Tigers fans are known as some of the most dedicated in the game.

The Tigers are the favourite team of the Kansai region. Koshien Stadium, the Tiger’s main stomping grounds, is the oldest ballpark in Japan. The Tigers have a strong rivalry with the Tokyo Giants, often compared to the Red Sox and the Yankees. The Tigers, like the Red Sox, even have their own curse — the Curse of the Colonel.

The Tiger's main turf, Koshien Stadium, is old school -- natural grass and dirt.

The Tiger’s main turf, Koshien Stadium, is old school — natural grass and dirt.

The cursing Colonel after being fished out of the Dotonbori canal.

The cursing Colonel after being fished out of the Dotonbori canal.

In 1985, after the team won their only Japan Series championship, fans gathered downtown Osaka near the dirty Dotonbori canal. Player’s names were called out and people looked like that player jumped into the canal. When American born Randy Bass’ name was called, there was no foreigner with a beard in sight. That is, except for a statue of the Colonel in front of a KFC. In the canal the Colonel went and the Tigers haven’t won the Japan Series again.

The statue was finally recovered in 2009 but the curse still hasn’t lifted.

You’d think with such a long history of losses, the fans would get a bit discouraged. Watch a game and you wouldn’t think so. Tigers games are filled with rituals. Each player at bat has their own song that everyone tries to sing along to. As a foreigner, and one unacquainted with the team, watch the scrolling screens above home plate for the player’s names written in the roman alphabet.

The highlight of the game is the seventh inning stretch, after the singing of the Tigers’ fight song, when everyone in attendance lets balloons off into the sky.

Balloons being let off into the sky at a Hanshin Tigers game.

Balloons fill the sky at a Hanshin Tigers game.

Watching baseball in Japan is not only a lot of fun, but a great time to see Japanese kicking back and getting a bit rowdy. And while it’s America’s favourite game, it sure feels very Japanese.

 

TIPS

I purchased my tickets from a Family Mart convenience store, they were 2,500 yen each. There is a stand-alone machine that sells all sorts of tickets. It’s all in Japanese and a bit confusing, so enlisting a cashier’s help is a good idea. Tickets can also be purchased on the Tigers website, but it’s also in Japanese and even more confusing.

The Tigers usually play at Koshien stadium for home games, but not always, so double check. The stadium is right next to Koshien station, twelve minutes from Umeda on the Hanshin main line.

There is lots of food and drinks available inside and outside the stadium, everything from curry rice to pizza. Food and drinks can be brought in, but beer is poured into plastic cups at the door. Beer girls carry around kegs on their backs and sell cups for 600 yen.

News story about the Colonel’s reappearance:

Three days in Penang, Malaysia

3 Oct

Indian restaurants at Lebuh Penang and Chulia in Georgetown.

Taking the long bridge into Penang that connects it with the mainland, the sights are not that impressive. Large vacation resorts and strip malls line the main streets, looking a bit dated and tired. But the closer you get to the historical core of Georgetown, the capital, the more your surroundings completely change.

Indian restaurants at Lebuh Penang and Chulia in Georgetown.

Indian restaurants at Lebuh Penang and Chulia in Georgetown.

Georgetown was established as an outpost for the British East India Company. It has the little back streets with colourfully painted buildings and converted shophouses of Hoi An mixed with the dustiness and dilapidation of Havana.

Penang is off the northwest of peninsular Malaysia, less than 200 km from Thailand. I arrived by bus from Kuala Lumpur, the trip took about five hours. I stayed on Lebuh Chulia which is lined with guesthouses, restaurants and cafes and has a vibrant street food scene in the evenings.

Old advertisements in historic Georgetown, Penang.

Old advertisements in historic Georgetown, Penang.

What to see and do in Penang:

Wander the historic core on foot

The northeast corner of Georgetown has been certified a UNESCO World Heritage site. It’s old, crumbling and charming. Old converted shophouses fill this area, their insides carved out, making for soaring ceilings and ground floors that seem to stretch back a city block.

Walking the area is easy, save for the punishing heat. Strolling the streets in August, during Ramadan, I encountered the odd foreign traveler or group of Chinese tourists, but generally only the haunting call to prayer at designated times stirred the silence.

You can obtain a map from the tourist information centre, or print this one. Of particular interest are Lebuh Armenian, which has many artsy shops, and Lebuh Pantai, with cafes and restaurants. The area about Lebuh Armenian also has many historical buildings.

Little India

It’s smaller than Kuala Lumpur’s Little India and a bit more rustic, but just as colourful. Shops sell Indian fabrics, spices and Bollywood films. There’s also great street food, with fresh produce, prepared meals and sweets. Start at the corner of Lebuh Chulia and Jalan Masjid Kapitan Keling and start wandering east.

Indian sweets and snacks on sale in Little India in Georgetown, Penang.

Indian sweets and snacks on sale in Little India in Georgetown, Penang.

Clan Jetties

What do you do when you move somewhere and can’t afford to buy land? Why not live on the water?

The boating area of the Chew Jetty -- the largest clan jetty in Penang.

The boating area of the Chew Jetty — the largest clan jetty in Penang.

The jetties are little villages built over the water, with houses on stilts all coming off one main runway.They were built by Chinese immigrants from the 19th century. There are currently six jetties, each one was home to a clan — a family or group from the same place in China. Unfortunately some of the jetties have become fairly touristy, with souvenir shops lining the main platform. But it’s still neat to wander the jetties and peek inside all the old houses and shops.

Little houses off the Chew Jetty.

Little houses off the Chew Jetty.

Leong San Tong Khoo Kongsi

To see how wealthy Chinese immigrants lived and worshiped, visit Khoo Kongsi. It’s a clanhouse centered around an ornate, impressive temple filled with gold and covered in stone carvings. The compound is located just off of Lebuh Armenian, they have a great website with lots of information.

Inside of the Leong San Tong Khoo Kongsi temple in Georgetown, Penang.

Inside of the Leong San Tong Khoo Kongsi temple in Georgetown, Penang.

China House

In terms of modern remodeling of old shophouses, this is the mother lode. Three heritage buildings were converted into this very long space, now comprised of restaurants, art spaces, bars and a courtyard. It’s a beautiful building with many small, differently themed rooms. One room is a large restaurant with its centerpiece a table covered in cakes. Walk further down the hall and you encounter a library with games, turn a corner and you’re in a dark whiskey and wine room.

The courtyard at China House, in Georgetown, Penang.

The courtyard at China House, in Georgetown, Penang.

It’s great to explore but a bit difficult to navigate socially, in that people were waiting for seats in different places but other areas were entirely empty. I flagged down a waiter and asked if I could sit anywhere. He put me on a narrow bench to enjoy a giant slice of chocolate cake and a glass of red wine. Pleasant but a bit strange.

China House stretches between Beach and Victoria streets near Lebuh Chulia, visit their website for more information.

I can appreciate a restaurant with a giant table of cake.

I can appreciate a restaurant with a giant table of cake.

Penang Botanical Gardens

After all that time hitting the streets, it’s nice to be around some plants and trees. The gardens are about 8 km from the city centre and can be reached via the number 10 bus, that leaves from the jetty quay and the Komtar mall. The gardens are free to enter and are a good size, with many monkeys scampering around.

Cheeky monkey at the Penang Botanical Gardens.

Cheeky monkey at the Penang Botanical Gardens.

 More photos:

What to eat in Malaysia

12 Sep

Wan Tan Mee, eaten at a Chulia street hawker stall in Georgetown, Penang.

Why is it that countries closer to the equator have such bolder flavours in their food?

On a recent trip to Malaysia over summer vacation, I was keen to eat my way around the country. Malaysia has an interesting food culture, predominately made up of Malaysian, Chinese and Indian, but most asian food is enjoyed on its streets. This is a place where you can have dim sum for breakfast, spicy Indian curries off banana leaves for lunch, and then slurp up a pungent and fishy noodle soup in a back alley for dinner.

Enjoying a cold cendol, a drink with coconut milk, palm sugar and jelly noodles, before my spicy noodles come.

Enjoying a cold cendol, a drink with coconut milk, palm sugar and jelly noodles, before my spicy noodles come.

While my mother says I take too many photos of food, I thought I’d put them in one post as an overview of all the delicious things I ate in Malaysia (and she can skip it if she’d like!). Here are some of my favourites.

Asam Laksa

It’s the perfect balance of sour, salty and fishy, without being offensive. Laksa is a noodle soup, the asam variation is made with a fish and tamarind broth, with shredded fish, cucumber, onions, chilli, pineapple and mint.

Despite it being one of Malaysia’s most well-known dishes, it was difficult for me to find. I had this bowl on Jalan Alor, in KL. I spent the rest of my time in Malaysia and one frantic last day in Penang searching for another bowl to no avail. It’s that good.

Laksa -- one of Malaysia's most well known dishes.

Laksa — one of Malaysia’s most well known dishes.

Wan Tan Mee

A noodle dish of Cantonese descent, Wan Tan Mee has egg noodles with barbequed pork, wontons, greens and spicy pickled green chillies, swimming in a dark soy sauce.

Wan Tan Mee, eaten at a Chulia street hawker stall in Georgetown, Penang.

Wan Tan Mee, eaten at a Chulia street hawker stall in Georgetown, Penang.

Oyster noodles

If I closed my eyes and ate these noodles, and forgot the fact that I was in a cavernous Chinese restaurant in a converted mansion in Georgetown, Penang, I would’ve thought that this was a homemade Italian pasta. This dish was lightly creamy with fresh oyster chunks. I ate it with fried greens.

Chinese oyster noodles, eaten in Georgetown, Penang.

Chinese oyster noodles and fried greens with carrot juice, eaten in Georgetown, Penang.

Satay and spicy pepper sauce crab

This was an indulgent meal I had on Jalan Alor. With drink, it cost about 35 ringitt ($11). Satay is meat grilled on sticks and very cheap, sold at street stalls and in restaurants. This crab was probably meant for a family, but I tore it apart in all its spicy, messy glory by myself. Amazing!

Crab and chicken satay on Jalan Alor.

Crab and chicken satay with a litchee shake on Jalan Alor.

Chee Cheong Fun

These are like a very wide, thin rice noodle rolled up and cut into pieces. A Cantonese specialty, these are often found at dim sum restaurants around the world. In Malaysia, they’re served with a sweet sauce with chilli and shrimp paste.

Chee Cheong Fun on Georgetown's Chulia Street.

Chee Cheong Fun on Georgetown’s Chulia Street.

Street treats

Little markets seem to pop up just as the sun is about to set on side streets all across Malaysia. Many street stalls with have numerous trays with little fried foods and sweets that can be purchased for very cheap (like three for $1). A great way to try out interesting looking things.

Malay sweets -- the ones in front are like chewy jellys covered in coconut.

Malay sweets — the ones in front are chewy, gelatinous squares covered in coconut.

Indian thali

Thali are plates filled with many different tastes — curries, vegetables, meat, breads and rice. These are popular in Malaysia and allow you to choose different things and only need to eat a little bit (if you don’t like it!). Great with a lassi or glass of fresh soy milk.

Thali with tandoori chicken, naan and curries.

Thali with tandoori chicken, naan and curries.

More food porn:

Two days in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia

31 Aug

Nothing beats sitting outside of cheap plastic furniture, drinking beer and eating delicious food — at Jalan Alor

Kuala Lumpur is a chaotic city, a mix of both high-end architecture and crumbling brick buildings, with patches of jungle, abandoned construction sites and slums thrown in. It’s trying its hardest to be a developed, modern city but it isn’t yet there.

Tourists generally come to KL, Malaysia’s capital, for two pursuits — to eat and to shop. I came for the former. Malaysia is very diverse with Malays, Chinese and Indian ethnic groups making up the majority of the population and their cultures and food strongly represented. If you are a lover of Asian food, as I am, this is the place to be.

The view from Malaysia's National Mosque.

The view from Malaysia’s National Mosque.

Accommodation and Costs

I stayed in the Bukit Bintang area, on a street parallel to Jalan Alor, a well known eating street. The area had both street markets and high-end shopping, all sorts of restaurants and was close to two LRT stations and the Pudu bus station. It also seemed much calmer than Chinatown, where many budget accommodations are located.

Cheap guest houses had very basic private rooms for around 70 RM ($20) a night, which is more expensive than Malaysia’s neighbours to the north. Despite that, visiting the city was incredibly cheap. Most meals I had were around 10 RM ($3). During my first trip on the monorail, I was sure the fare was 12 RM when in fact it was 1.2 RM — around $0.37!

Delicious dining on the street at Jalan Alor.

Delicious dining on the street at Jalan Alor.

In this sprawling city where the temperature is often in the mid 30s, the monorail is a great way to get around the city. Some areas downtown are walkable but the city is divided by large highways. Taxis are plentiful. Most drivers try to ask for a flat fee, generally around 10 RM ($3) for a ten minute trip, but the meter is much cheaper.

A typical street view in Kuala Lumpur -- a mix of old and new.

A typical street view in Kuala Lumpur — a mix of old and new.

Here are some things to do if you have two days in Kuala Lumpur:

Petronas Towers

The most distinguishing part of KL’s skyline, these towers used to be the tallest buildings in the world and are currently the tallest twin buildings. Though they’re owned by an oil and gas company, it’s still a nice sightseeing spot.

The closest LRT station is KLCC. There is a fancy mall under the towers, a good place to escape the heat, and a nice park with ponds and a kid’s splash pool.

A green escape next to the Petronas towers.

A green escape next to the Petronas towers.

Little India

It has women in sarees maneuvering down crowded narrow market streets, browsing fabrics and spices, to the beat of Bollywood tunes and the smell of curries in big pots in shabby restaurants. I haven’t been to India yet, but it surely must feel like this small recreation in Malaysia.

This is one of the best places to eat Indian food in KL and can be accessed at LRT station Masjid Jamek.

Domed ceiling in Kuala Lumpur's Islamic Arts Museum.

Domed ceiling in Kuala Lumpur’s Islamic Arts Museum.

Islamic Arts Museum

In a beautiful stark white building with large domed ceilings, this museum has scale models of famous mosques around the world, many ancient qur’ans and a reconstruction of an early 19th century Ottoman Syrian room.  Unfortunately, the large textile, jewelry and weapons collections didn’t really interest me and there was not much general information about Islam, which I could’ve used.

Really interesting script from a very old qur'an page.

Really interesting script from a very old qur’an page at the Islamic Arts Museum.

Masjid Negara, Malaysia’s National Mosque

Never been inside a mosque? Between prayer times, non-Muslim visitors can visit Malaysia’s National Mosque, covered up in the large purple capes available for free at the entrance. This peaceful place with gardens and fountains is a short walk from the Islamic Arts Museum, near the Lake Gardens area.

Masjid Negara, Malaysia's National Mosque, with it's many pools and gardens.

Masjid Negara, Malaysia’s National Mosque, with it’s many pools and gardens.

Jalan Alor

Though some say it’s a bit too touristy now, Jalan Alor is still a great place for an introduction to the food of Malaysia. It’s a fairly short street, but it’s lined with restaurants and food stalls that spill on to the street at night. As with most of KL, many of the signs and menus are in English, which makes ordering very easy. The restaurant staff I talked to were also very friendly, recommending dishes and explaining what was in them. Jalan Alor is a two minute walk from Bukit Bintang station.

Nothing beats sitting outside of cheap plastic furniture, drinking beer and eating delicious food — at Jalan Alor

Nothing beats sitting outside of cheap plastic furniture, drinking beer and eating delicious food — at Jalan Alor

More photos:

Gion Matsuri — Kyoto’s summer festival

30 Jul

One of the massive parade floats sitting on Shijo dori. The white splotches near the tops are the backs of men ringing many little bells.

Gion is one of my most favourite places in Kyoto. It retains much of its pre-war charm, with cobblestone streets, paper lanterns and wooden storefronts, all a facade for the mysterious world of the geiko, Japan’s most famous geisha. In a city so rich in history, it’s no wonder that one of its most beloved festivals is more than 1200 years old.

Gion Matsuri (festival) is held always on the same days in July, with different events happening each week, with the highlight being the grand parade being held on July 17th. More information on the schedule can be found on the Kyoto Visitor’s Guide.

One of the massive parade floats sitting on Shijo dori. The white splotches near the tops are the backs of men ringing many little bells.

One of the massive parade floats sitting on Shijo dori. The white splotches near the tops are the backs of men ringing many little bells.

As this past July 15th was a national holiday, a group of friends and I went to Kyoto to, mostly, stuff our faces and wear fancy clothes. For one month a year, people are shuffling down almost every street in downtown Kyoto, wrapped in yukata under the strong July sun, and taking in the festivities. Yukata and kimono can be rented and purchased in Kyoto, but come at a wide range of prices. As yukata are light summer kimono and much less elaborate, they can generally be had for under 10,000 yen ($100).

A friend and I completely lucked out when we found a shop selling cheap yukata, just north of Kawaramachi station on Shijo dori. I chose a blue, flower print yukata with what a salesperson said was a “sexy” obi (sash) for 3800 yen ($38). And she then wrapped me up in it like a present, something which I am doubtful I can replicate.

My first yukata.

My first yukata.

We then met up with friends and made our way to Yasaka shrine, one of the most well known in Kyoto, for festival songs, dances and food stalls. My tightly wound yukata seemed to loosen a bit after a skewer of garlic and pepper Kobe beef and a mango snow cone with sweetened condensed milk. We then spent the afternoon relaxing and taking photos in the adjacent Maruyama Park, which I also visited during hanami season.

Grilled meat on a stick -- essential Japanese festival food.

Grilled meat on a stick — essential Japanese festival food.

After all that time sweating in pretty fabrics, it was time for more food. During the evenings of Gion Matsuri, the streets near the intersection of Karasuma and Shijo become clogged with people visiting street stalls and viewing the floats that will pulled during the grand parade. The floats are quite magical — these large constructions that look like shrines with many moving parts and ringing bells.

It would have been great to see the grand parade, but it’s held this year on a night that I work. Maybe I’ll still be around next year for it!

Gion Matsuri ends tomorrow, July 31st. Visit the Kyoto Visitor’s Guide website for more information.

Memories of a Geiko

21 Jul

Geisha of Gion, by Mineko Iwasaki.

It’s an inside look at the world of geiko and maiko, the geisha of Kyoto and their apprentices, and also quite an engaging character study. Geisha of Gion is the memoir of Mineko Iwasaki, possibly one of the most famous and successful Japanese geishas of all time.

The story is an interesting look at this mysterious part of Japanese history. Who are these women and what did they really do?

Iwasaki had been extensively interviewed by Arthur Golden for his enormously popular book “Memoirs of a Geisha”, yet she had asked that she keep her anonymity. When the book was published her name was listed in the acknowledgments. She felt betrayed and sued Golden. This book is her turn to tell her story.

Geisha of Gion, by Mineko Iwasaki.

Geisha of Gion, by Mineko Iwasaki.

She details the life of a geisha, the hours each day and years they must devote to their crafts, and paints the lifestyle as that of professionals. “Geisha” is often translated as artist or woman of the arts and Iwasaki describes how they must perfect their arts — of dancing, playing instruments, singing, tea ceremony and conversation.

It sounds like a pretty cushy gig, but at her heyday, Iwasaki says she was only sleeping a few hours each night before practicing all day and performing all night, and she would be booked a year and a half in advance of a party.

“Basically, I was booked solid for the entire five years that I was a maiko,” writes Iwasaki. “I worked seven days a week, three hundred and sixty-five days a year, from the time I was fifteen until I was twenty-one.”

She tries to dispel the myth that geishas are just high-end prostitutes, saying that very few men are even allowed in geisha houses. Yet she does says it’s natural for geisha to develop relationships with clients and she herself did as well.

She was the best, or so she says, and doesn’t fail to mention the fact every few pages. But her anecdotes do live up to her assertions. She entertained both the Queen of England and Prince Charles, both humourous and very telling stories regarding her character.

Prince Charles signed one of her favourite fans and she later threw it out, upset that he had done so. When the Queen didn’t touch any of the Japanese food made for her, she flirted with Prince Phillip. The Queen and Prince decided to sleep in separate rooms for the night at the last minute.

Geiko waiting on a Kyoto street corner?

Geiko waiting on a Kyoto street corner?

She was living in a very strange world of extreme privilege. Iwasaki details how she would have a new kimono made for her every week and would wear each one only four or five times. Each kimono could cost anywhere from $5000 to 8000.

But she had no concept of money. Everything was paid for. She rarely even touched money, though many envelopes of tips were slipped into her kimono each night. As a full geiko she decides at one point to move out on her own. She shops for groceries for the first time, buying a few vegetables at a shop and gives a 10,000 yen ($100) bill and walks out the door.

But there is a darker side to her story. Iwasaki met the owner of the geisha house she would eventually move into at the age of three. The owner said she was very beautiful and suggested she could become her successor. This was basically decided from that young age. Iwasaki’s father had already sold her two older sisters to the same geisha house, one sister never really gets over this betrayal. In becoming the successor, Iwasaki must be adopted into the geisha “family” and completely leave her biological one.

Mineko Iwasaki during her last day as a maiko.

Mineko Iwasaki during her last day as a maiko.

Iwasaki is a character and some things she writes can cause a few eye rolls, but she seems very honest. For instance, as a young girl she meets another girl that could be her friend. The other girl is older than her but lower in status.

“I took off my tabi. ‘Meku-chan, my little toe itches.’ I stuck out my foot and she respectfully stroked it,” she writes.

Iwasaki often mentions the in-fighting within the geisha world and the jealousy she had to deal with (no wonder given how she treated some people). But it is interesting given what she went through on a daily basis all while maintaining a perfect image of this mythical beauty.

“I was afraid that if I didn’t maintain the professional demeanour of a maiko at all times I would simply fall apart,” she writes.

A sporty night out — Spocha in Osaka

25 Jun

The rollerskating rink at Spocha. I see at least one person on the ground.

One of my group of friends’ favourite way to spend a night out, besides karaoke of course, is going to spocha. Spocha is pretty much any game you can think of for a set price… and there’s karaoke if you get restless.

We go to the Round 1 just south of Dotonbori, which is open 24 hours a day. When choosing how long to play, I would recommend going for the all night option. A two or three hour pass costs about 2000 yen ($20), but for a few hundred yen more you can play all night and not have to worry about late charges. The prices do seem to vary on what time you enter though.

The rollerskating rink at Spocha. I see at least one person on the ground.

The rollerskating rink at Spocha. I see at least one person on the ground.

After paying for the bracelet, you have five floors of entertainment to make your way through. The options seem endless and I doubt any person has played every game in the place in one night. The first floor welcomes you to the mayhem with bowling, pool and bull riding. For sports, you have team games such as soccer, volleyball, tennis and basketball on fairly good sized courts with nice squishy balls. There’s also dodge ball if you take the volleyball nets down and make your own court as my friends and I did in a fairly intense game one night. There are many games to play on your own or with a small group — darts, ping pong, archery, mini golf and batting cages.

Soocer or footie, depending on where you're from, at Spocha.

Soocer or footie, depending on where you’re from, at Spocha.

And there’s also the place that a select few of my friends and I shine at — the rollerskating rink. Apparently Canadians rock at rollerskating (I wonder why?). As every time we go, the Japanese seem to clear the rink and watch us in amazement while calling for rolling-by high fives. This while our gaijin friends from other countries are sore on their butts or clinging to the rails.

If you’re especially lucky you may witness the skating rink turn momentarily into a mini motorbike track. I sadly haven’t had the chance to race these yet.

For those less inclined to sweat, there is a whole floor dedicated to video games, with both new style games and arcade classics like Pac Man. This floor also has a children’s play area with ball pit, which I sneak into every time, powerful massage chairs with comic books to read and the aforementioned karaoke rooms.

Each time I go I’m so shocked that this much fun can be had under one tall roof for $20. One of the many, many reasons why Japan is fantastic.

Visit the Round 1 website (in Japanese) for more information and locations.

A visit to Tsukiji fish market in Tokyo

24 May

Crab, fatty tuna and sea urchin sushi.

From the ocean to the market to my plate — I witnessed part of that process during a recent visit to Tsukiji fish market in Tokyo.

Tsukiji (pronounced “ski-gee”) is the biggest fish market in the world and has, probably much to the surprise of the hard-working fish mongers, become quite the tourist destination. Anyone who has seen “Jiro Dreams of Sushi”, “The Cove” or any other documentary about sushi or the fishing industry in Japan will have heard of Tsukiji market. During my first visit to Tokyo, over the New Year’s holiday, the market was closed, so I was pumped to visit during my Golden Week trip.

Tsukiji Market winding down for the day.

Tsukiji Market winding down for the day.

Because of the influx of tourists, there have been more and more restrictions on which areas of the market can be viewed and when. At times the market has been totally closed to tourists. This seemed a bit rude until we got there and realized how busy the place truly is. With people whizzing through the market on large motorized carts and storming through the narrow alleys ways with large bags of fish, I felt like I was often in the way in this big fishy operation.

Seafood blood bath.

Seafood blood bath.

Now only 120 tourists are allowed to view the tuna auction and registration begins at 5am. Since the subway starts running at around 5am and my friends were not interested in getting up that early, we arrived at around 7:30am, fueled by McDonald’s coffee and egg McMuffins. The seafood wholesale area opens to the public at 9am, after the bulk of the business has been conducted. So we did what most visitors must do during a visit to Tsukiji — eat sushi for breakfast!

The big kahuna of the fish market -- tuna.

The big kahuna of the fish market — tuna.

Since the restaurants are literally steps from the market, they are known to have some of the nicest sushi in the world. Unfortunately, they also have the lines to match. Some of the most well-known sushi bars have wait times that can easily exceed three hours. Since Japanese people will line up for anything that has been on television and we figured all the fish was coming from the same spot, we went to a restaurant with one of the shortest lines, but it still took about forty minutes.

The sushi at this restaurant, called Yamazaki, was really good but was not, cumulatively, the best I’ve ever had. The scallop was my favourite, the fatty tuna rich and buttery. The snow crab was quite tasteless, like all crab sushi I’ve had, but perhaps it’s a delicate flavour. The eel was incredible, but I can rarely go wrong with eel.

Crab, fatty tuna and sea urchin sushi.

Crab, fatty tuna and sea urchin sushi.

I also had sea urchin for the first time, which many Japanese proclaim as one of their favourites. I figured that this was the place to try it. Another foreigner sitting at the bar described it, quite accurately, as tasting like “a tide pool”. A mushy tide pool that took too many chews and swallows to get down.

After discovering that I really can eat sushi for any meal of the day, we took to exploring the market. In the hour that we spent wandering, the pace of the market slowed and the workers prepared to leave for the day. They went from frantically packing and selling seafood to happily saying hello to us young, female gaijin (foreigners).

Beautifully coloured octopus.

Beautifully coloured octopus.

It was great to get a behind-the-scenes look at one of Japan’s best exports and I would recommend visiting soon as there are rumours that the market may soon move or close entirely to tourists.

See the Tsukiji Market website for opening times and details on visiting.

Sumo size it

4 Apr

How many french fries can a sumo eat?

Apparently sumo wrestlers don’t stick to a strict diet of chankonabe. I caught these wrestlers at the local MacuDo while they were in town for the Osaka Grand Sumo Tournament.

Everyone secretly loves McDonald's.

Everyone secretly loves McDonald’s.

Are they deciding between local favourites — the shrimp burger or the teriyaki burger? Or perhaps they are just deciding how many burgers to get in total. A sumo wrestler has to eat.

How many french fries can a sumo eat?

How many french fries can a sumo eat?

Read more about my experiences watching sumo for the first time.

It’s hanami time! Cherry blossom season in Osaka, Kyoto and Kobe.

3 Apr

The coming on spring is not a small occasion in Japan. It’s not a subtle and slow change from the brown and gray of winter to the new green of summer. It’s an explosion of white, pink and purple as the peach, plum and cherry trees blossom all over the country. The weather gets much warmer and it’s time for a party!

Sakura in Shukugawa.

Sakura in Shukugawa.

Hanami (flower viewing) is when everyone gathers with friends and family under the sakura (cherry blossoms) to spread out their leisure mats (tarps) and enjoy food, drink, games and many photo shoots with the blossoms. The tradition is thought to go as far back as the 8th century. Depending on the varietal, most cherry blossoms only last a week or two, so it’s really a time to seize the occasion and get outdoors.

Hanami parties at Maruyama Park.

Hanami parties at Maruyama Park.

This past weekend, the trees were in full bloom in many areas in Kansai. I took full advantage with three straight days of hanami. After a short day of training at work on Saturday, a group of teachers and I went to Osaka castle park, one of the greenest spots in the city with a range of blossoming trees.

Hiding in a plum (?) tree at Osaka castle park.

Hiding in a plum (?) tree at Osaka castle park.

Sunday saw a trip to Kyoto to visit Maruyama Park, which is just behind the well-known Yasaka shrine. This was a very popular hanami spot with many families having picnics, teenagers curled up in sleeping bags playing video games and coworkers sharing large bottles of beer. There were food and drink stalls lining the walkways and even a haunted house, in case the sakura are too relaxing!

A weeping cherry tree in Maruyama Park.

A weeping cherry tree in Maruyama Park.

We also wandered Kiyomizu Temple, close to Yasaka shrine, which had many ponds and gardens accented by sakura.

As I have Mondays off, it was time for even more hanami. We visited Shukugawa, which is on the Hankyu line to Kobe, and has a long river lined with cherry trees.

Each bank of the river in Shukugawa was lining with groups of people enjoying hanami.

Each bank of the river in Shukugawa was lining with groups of people enjoying hanami.

The whole weekend was such a nice introduction to a beloved holiday in Japan. The sakura are beautiful and the Japanese celebrate them, which is great to see. It’s also a fantastic way to welcome the beginning of summer!