Tuesday, April 14, 2015

Want to really understand Japan? Try these:

As most sites with "user" generated content, RocketNews24 can be a hit or miss experience. But mostly a miss, as I suppose its intended audience are otaku-wannabes in far away lands and teenage girls, who just "love Japanese culture". But mainly J-pop idols. Whoever they might be these days.

Then, there are "articles" that on the surface give useful advice, but are nothing more than filler for ad space. The recent piece about 7 things you should know before moving abroad immediately comes to mind. Not sure what kind of lobotomized drones that one was intended for. If you so completely lack common sense that this "helpful" list was news to you, please, do yourself and the world a huge favor and stay at home.

And then, there are articles, with obligatory catchy titles, that pretend to offer something new and exciting, but in reality are nothing more that the same stale, gag-inducing, regurgitated content.

(Why have I suddenly started reading RocketNews24? I've rejoined the Twitterverse and had nothing to do at work today.)

It's even more trying on your gag reflex, if such an article is committed by a Japan veteran, a journalist, and a person, who (supposedly) has some sort of intimate knowledge of the convoluted reality of this country. But you'd never know it from reading this piece.

Yeah, these are the "8 things you need to do to really understand Japan" by the illustrious Ms Chavez.
The same sort of drivel that could have been copied verbatim from any guidebook, or a more ambitious tourist brochure.

Not sure how this itinerary for a 10-day package tour is supposed to help you understand Japan. To really understand Japan.
The only thing missing from this list to make it an even more complete moron's idea of Japan is a visit to Harajuku and / or Shibuya.

You want to REALLY understand Japan?
One of the commenters had a few good ideas.

I'll add a few of mine:

1. Go to an old people's home/ assisted living facility, or whatever the politically correct name is these days.
See for yourself how Japan is going to look in the future unless either more babies are going to be born very soon, or the government eases immigration rules.
Your visit will be the most exciting thing that happened to the residents in... oh, about the last decade. You'll be the star of the show, and not because you are a foreigner, but because you are a living, breathing human being. Don't speak the language? Don't worry. Chances are nobody's going to notice. Just smile and enjoy the glimpses into Japan's future.

If you've read any of the alarmist news about Japan's aging population, you are, no doubt, aware of the problem facing this country. The nation is getting old. Literally getting old. What you don't see at the old folks' assisted living facility are the countless families where sons and daughters in their 60s or 70s care for the parents in their 90s.

That should help you to REALLY understand Japan.

2. Visit a nursery.
To see the other end of the spectrum, go and take a look at the babies that are being born. The babies, who when they reach the ripe age of 6 months, go to a nursery school, so their mothers can work during the day.

What? Women in Japan work after marriage? Unheard of! What? Mothers in Japan work after having babies? Can't be! This is contradictory to what's reported by every news source out there!
Yes, shock and horror, mothers in Japan do work. Not because they want to, but because they have to. We're not talking about trailer trash here, but normal families, who are scraping by, working a string of part-time jobs to pay the bills and provide for their children.
Some nurseries take babies as young as 3 months old. It must take a really heartless mother to do that. Or a really bad economy and a stack of household bills to pay.

That should help you to REALLY understand Japan.

3. Visit a school, or a kindergarten, on sports day (undokai).
It doesn't matter who wins and who loses. What matters is the team.



Curious about Japan's conformist, obedient, herd collective? Start on a sports field during undokai. The Borg would be proud.

That should also help you to REALLY understand Japan.

4. Missed the undokai season? No worries. Take a look at the yard or parking lot of any semi-large company early in the morning and enjoy "rajio-taiso".

image source

Watch as the employees in unison perform their morning exercises to the accompaniment of piped music. A magical moment when maintenance workers and salarymen are doing their part to build morale, foster a sense of group unity, and exhibit such collective mentality that many a cult would be put to shame.

That should definitely help you to REALLY understand Japan.

5. Go to the countryside. Visit a farm. Or better yet, volunteer on a farm.
See a familiar patter of old folk doing backbreaking work with nary a young face in sight. Who will grow our rice and take care of our cabbages, when the old farmers are gone? Ah, right, there's always food imports.



6. While you're there, go to a local countryside restaurant. You know, the type that is housed in somebody's converted living room, where there are no menus, and you get what grandma cooks for you from the produce that grandpa brought from the field.

This is the Japanese cuisine that nobody told you about. And guess, what? It's delicious.

7. Go a step further - take a cooking lesson.
Learn how to make udon the traditional way, how to cut fish for sushi and experience the 267 varieties of soy sauce. 



If that won't help you understand Japan, then nothing will.

8. Matsuris and pilgrimages are lovely, but they won't help you really understand Japan. Instead, you'll end up looking like a wapanese, weeabo (or whatever the correct term these days is) schmuck. How do I know? Been there, done that.

Instead, read the English translation of Kojiki and then visit one of the grand shrines of Japan. Izumo Taisha immediately comes to mind.



That should most definitely help you to REALLY understand Japan.

But if you just want to do what the tourists do and post some sweet shots to Instagram, then by all means, go see a geisha show, watch a sumo tournament, visit onsen.

But please don't say that it somehow helped you to really understand Japan. Because regardless of what the internet gods of RocketNews24 might say, Japan is a lot more complicated than that.



Sunday, April 12, 2015

Kanamara Matsuri 2015 (NSFW)

It always rains the first weekend of April. Sometimes it rains on Saturday, like in 2013 and 2014 when we had the first mini-typhoons of the season. Sometimes on Sunday. It rained the first Sunday of April both in 2013 and 2014, but only for a little bit. And sometimes it just rains all weekend. Like it did this year.

And why do I remember the weather on a particular day two years ago? Because on this particular day, namely the first Sunday of April, there is a matsuri held at Kanayama shrine all the way down in Kawasaki city. Not just any old matsuri, but the world famous (well, nearly), the one and only Festival of the Steel Phallus. Or more properly - Kanamara Matsuri. Or more commonly - chin-chin matsuri.
And that's how you just learned not one, but two words of Japanese: matsuri - festival, chin-chin - well, you know, that part of the male anatomy.


This year it was raining, and we should have stayed home, or gone to Starbucks at FKD Interpark, or watched a stupid movie. But noooo... Once we'd made our minds to go to Kawasaki city, there was no turning back.

Luckily for us, the Utsunomiya line doesn't terminate at Ueno these days, but continues all the way to Tokyo and beyond. So, at least getting there was easy - directly all the way to Kawaski. No mad dashes changing platforms at Ueno anymore. Awesome!

In Kawasaki - more rain.
Luckily for us, you can transfer between the stations (from JR to Keikyu) through an underground passage. That's the good part. The bad part was that walking underground we missed the much needed Starbucks.

The Keikyu Daishi line wasn't packed at all. Very unusual. Either we were very early, or the rain kept most festival goers away.


Kawasaki Daishi station was virtually empty. On Kanamara matsuri day! Unheard of.

We arrived at Kanayama shrine around 10AM (don't ask me what time we had to get up to catch the first train, it's a painful memory).

The first thing that I noticed was the increased number of porta-potties. Wow! They were literally everywhere on the shrine grounds.

(taken last year next to a portable toilet)

Other than portable toilets, there were also more food stalls than last year, and a lot fewer "souvenir" stands. Miss I. was determined to get some chocolate and a lollipop. I was forced to get a towel to protect my camera from the rain. I was miserably cold and my pretty shoes were getting muddy. I had enough sense to wear a rain jacket, but apparently not enough to put on a pair of rubber boots. That will teach me.

Kanayama is just one of the shrines in the complex properly known as Wakamiya Hachimangu.

 (taken last year when it was sunny)

The main big building is the "hachimangu". The smaller building off to the side, the one with a black penis statue next to it - that's Kanayama shrine.

 (taken last year)

It's inside that smaller building where the important religious ceremonies are performed during Kanamara matsuri.


 Well, yes, the matsuri...

In its present form it started in 1977, if them innertubes don't lie. But its history goes back all the way to the Edo period.

Kawasaki city had the good fortune, or misfortune, depending on how you look at it, to be the second station on the historical Tokaido road leading from Tokyo (back then known as Edo) to Kyoto. It was a busy road, it's starting point was in Shinagawa, but in reality, station number two, Kawasaki, was the town where all the pre-departure action was. The last place where busy travelers could fill up their stomachs and empty their balls before the long journey to Kyoto.

(taken last year)


The emptying of balls business was handled by a thriving prostitution scene. These ladies started coming to Kanayama shrine to pray for good business and for protection from STDs.
Why to Kanayama, and not to a different shrine?

 (taken last year)

Ha, as always in such cases, a legend is to blame.

Kanayama was (still is) the shrine where Kanamara-sama (Lord Iron Penis) is venerated.
The legend goes more or less like this:
There was a girl. There was a demon with big teeth. The demon got into her vagina. When the girl's husband tried to perform his husbandly duty on their wedding night, the demon bit off his manhood.
The same thing happened to husband number 2.
In desperation, the woman asked a local blacksmith to create an iron phallus to trick the demon and break his teeth. The blacksmith did as he was told, the woman used the iron dildo, the demon lost his teeth and departed from the woman's hoo-ha.

Happy end all around.

 (taken last year)

The legend of vagina dentata (a.k.a. womanly bits with sharp teeth) is actually not as uncommon as one might think. These days most people who study legends agree that it's a metaphor for a sexually transmitted disease. The prostitutes of the Edo era must have thought the same. Hence their prayers for protection from STDs at Kanayama shrine.

And supposedly it's in their honor why the pink penis mikoshi is being carried around by men dressed like women.

 (taken last year)

While these days you won't see prostitutes praying at the shrine, Kawasaki city is still pretty famous (or infamous, depending on your point of view) for its thriving pleasure business catering mainly to blue collar workers. Nowadays it's women from Eastern Europe and South East Asia, considered too low class for Tokyo, who work in Kawasaki's hostess bars, strip clubs, and brothels.

Anyway, about the festival...

 You wish, buddy... you wish...

Kanamara festival still retains its sexual health past, and in present times it has expanded to AIDS awareness. In addition, it's an occasion to pray for fertility in general, to ask and thank for healthy delivery of babies (as evidenced by numerous couples with small children), to wish for happy marriages, to promote gender equality (as evidenced by throngs of transvestites in attendance), and to raise the awareness of FGM (as evidenced by a special section of this year's procession).
So yeah, it's your all purpose ob-gyn event.


Only a mobile unit offering cervical cancer screenings and prostate exams was missing. Now, there's a healthy idea for next year!

Kanamara festival starts with off with religious ceremonies performed inside the shrine. That's supposedly the place to be, if you want to be healthy and fertile.  Though if you're early menopausal, like me, even the Lord Iron Penis won't be able to help you.


After the ceremonies, the window finally opens and you can get your goshuin (red temple or shrine stamp). This year I was smart and remembered to take my goshuin book. Here you have to make some tough choices.

 (last year)

Wait in line for a goshuin, or hop over to the area in front of the main shrine and watch the ritual dance and ceremonies before the mikoshi procession.
I watched the ceremonies last year.
This year I stood in line to get a red shrine stamp (500 yen).

(not this year's photo)


There are 3 mikoshi in total:
  • black schlong (a.k.a. Fune mikoshi, in honor of the iron penis that defeated the sharp-toothed demon)
  • pink schlong (a.k.a. Elizabeth mikoshi, carried by men dressed as women)
  • small schlong (the sacred one that is supposed to give you all sorts of sexual good fortune)

The procession starts at noon and perambulates in the vicinity of the shrine.
Last year I dutifully waited along the street and then followed the procession, or rather - ran in front of it to take this video:




This year we were wet and cold and decided to shield ourselves from the elements under a restaurant awning along the route.

The restaurant was full of local matsuri participants of the male variety, who were joyfully getting stark raving drunk. All still technically in the morning - before 12 o'clock.


As soon as the procession passed us by, we took the back street to the station and went to Koreatown to have lunch.

The procession:


Surprisingly, Tengu (the one in a red mask) has a normal nose. One would expect that here it would be, you know, more suggestively shaped.


I love the "get me out here" look on the woman's face.

Of course what would a mikoshi procession be without fundoshi:


While attending Kanamara might be good for the health and well being of my private girly bits, getting soaked in the rain and shivering for the rest of the day gave me an awful cold.


Apart from the religious ceremonies, there are also additional activities to keep the masses occupied. One of them is the radish carving contest.


I was going to participate this year, I even dutifully practiced all week, but... well... it was raining.

The festival, due to its "shocking" value is very popular with foreigners.

(No, not me. A random Russian chick.)

 Last year it seemed that every gaijin in the Kanto region was there.


And most of them seemed to be quite drunk:

(last year)

This year the crowds were not as intense, but still, plenty of foreign folk around. We chatted with a French family who thought that parading a giant pink penis around town in full view of everybody, including small children, was just the coolest thing ever.

 (taken last year)

Some people come dressed in costume.

(last year)

Some? I don't know?


Miss I. was looking forward to seeing Mr Kobayashi for the very first time. Alas, no luck. He arrived after we left. I showed her a picture I took of him in 2013.


Mr Kobayashi is a cult figure of sorts of the schoolgirl uniform subculture in Japan. In a gaijin mind he's a symbol of everything that's sick and perverted in this country.

Instead of Mr Kobayashi, we had to make do with a different school girl.


This matsuri claims to raise funds for AIDS research. Not sure how it does it, but when it comes to funds, there are plenty of opportunities to part with yours.


Anything and everything, penis and vagina shaped, of course.


Candles, candies, lollipops, keychains, T-shirts, pseudo-dildos and plenty of things that I'd rather not know what they're for.


All in all, a fun day when the weather's nice.

 (last year)

And a miserable, wet and cold day when it's not.


This year. Poor guys... I mean, girls...





Saturday, April 4, 2015

Gotochi Postcards - Tochigi and Gifu

I don't know about you, but I love road trips. Or any trips, to be precise, I'm not that picky. Give me a chance to go somewhere, and I'll go. Even if it means flying Transasia.
But if I have a choice of transport, I actually prefer traveling by car. Even if it means that I have to drive.
(And trust me, you don't want me to drive. I have no sense of direction whatsoever. Those who were unlucky enough to travel with me as passengers, can confirm that. One memorable trip to Ishinomaki right after 3/11 immediately comes to mind... 
I'm a safe driver, but I have absolutely no idea where I'm going.)

Anyway, the reason why I like road trips is that you can stop anywhere you want (well, almost anywhere, if you can find a place to park - that can be problematic in Japan) and investigate the local area.
I also absolutely love highway SAs - service areas. The bigger the better. Just had a heated discussion about the largest and the grandest service area in Kanto. Ahhh... Summer road trips in the making. And yes, it's hard to believe, but there are people in this country that will drive ridiculous distances just to visit a particular service area.

On this trip, however, we skipped most of the service areas, even Yokokawa, where there's a Starbucks. We did stop at a small countryside post office in Gifu, because I suddenly remembered that it might be my chance to get some gotochi postcards.

If you don't know what gotochi postcards are, visit this blog.
But basically, they are prefecture specific, have odd shapes and sizes, and showcase things, places, foods and whatever else, that are characteristic for that particular region.

For example, these are gotochi postcards from Tochigi:





Tochigi is famous for Tochiotome strawberries. Utsunomiya is famous for gyoza. Nikko is famous for Toshogu, and Toshogu is famous for the three monkeys. Ashikaga is famous for the oldest university (technically, it's called a "school", though) in Japan.

Sorry, the kampyo maki one (top left) is upside down. Kaminokawa is famous for kampyo. Nikko is famous for Irohazaka (that bendy and twisty road to Chuzenji), and Mashiko is famous for its pottery.


So when I saw a post office in the middle of pretty much nowhere in Gifu (Shinhotaka area?), I demanded we stop and hopped over to the building in the pouring rain.

Inside an ancient grandpa, who looked like he was two days away from retirement, greeted me in English (shock and horror) and cheerfully proceeded to take his sweet time to calculate the payment for these six cards:

All six in one swoop at one post office. I'm awesome!

Gotochi are released annually, and since I have 7 from Tochigi and only 6 from Gifu, that means one is missing.

Of the Gifu ones, only the top right is familiar to me - that's Shirakawago.
And now, I also learned about the top middle one. The red thing that looks like a cute mini-demon is sarubobo, a doll from the Hida region of Gifu.

There was a real sarubobo hanging at the post office:





And apparently, there is even a Hello Kitty sarubobo doll. That alone is enough of an excuse for me to visit Takayama (the main city in the Hida region of Gifu prefecture) again.
This time we just drove through on our way to Shirakawago. Next time I'll be sure to stop and explore in detail.

And if you're in Takayama and have a bit of time, you can even try making your own sarubobo doll - more information here.

Now, if you excuse me, I have to get ready for bed.

Tomorrow is Sunday, and I have to get up at 5am and be on the train at the ungodly hour of 6 o'clock. Me and the girls are going to the chin-chin festival in Kawasaki city. Yay!

Sunday, March 29, 2015

Hello Kitty Kitchen and Dining in Taipei

Almost paaaaradiiiiise!

Taipei, or Taiwan in general, turns out to be a rather fertile ground for theme restaurants. Something in the island water, perhaps? Yeah, there are theme restaurants in Japan and Korea, too. But Taiwan brings this game to a whole new level. I mean, what else can you expect from a country that has not one, but a whole chain of toilet themed eateries? And yeah, we went there too. Duh, of course! That was the sole reason why I wanted to visit Taiwan in the first place.

And since I was already there, I simply couldn't miss a chance to eat at this other mystical, mythical place... A Hello Kitty themed restaurant.



Yes, I'm a 43 year old woman and I'm not ashamed to admit that I love Hello Kitty. (I also love My Melody, Rilakkuma, Totoro and Kumamon. I do draw the line, however, at Jewel Pet and Yokai Watch).

The tourist office folks advised us that if we wanted to eat at Hello Kitty Kitchen and Dining, we should definitely make a reservation.
The phone was busy. And busy. And then busy some more.



When I finally did get through, the woman who picked up spoke enough English (or rather, Engrish) to understand that I wanted a reservation for 5PM. She then proceeded to ask me something apparently very important, because she kept repeating it over and over, with increasing levels of frustration. Yet as she was doing it in Chinese, her efforts were all but lost on me.
Later, at the restaurant, I realized that she most likely wanted to know if we preferred downstairs or upstairs seating.


Getting to the restaurant was easy.
We took the subway to Zhongxiao Fuxing station and then walked through a long underground shopping passage looking for exit number 13. If a person with my sense of direction, or rather, lack thereof, could find the restaurant, it should be pretty easy and straightforward for normal folks, too.



The place was busy. The downstairs section filled up the minute we arrived. By 6PM, there was a line outside.



I have read many reviews claiming that the waitresses are rude and impatient with the guests. That has NOT been my experience. If anything, they were very accommodating and pretty indifferent to my attempts to photograph every square inch of the restaurant.



The place has a minimum order per person policy, but I don't remember what it was. And since the prices are rather high to begin with, it's easy to go above and beyond this requirement. Because, let me tell you, everything on that menu is bloody cute. And you'd want it all.



The food itself is hmmm... how to put it nicely... edible. The fact that you don't go there for the food should be obvious to any sentient being (but apparently not to some online reviewers who expected, I don't know what? Michelin stars, or something?).



We ordered burgers and dessert, and the portions were big enough that I wasn't able to finish everything in one sitting. And if you know how much I can eat, you can easily imagine that this was a load of food. Cute looking food.



The decor is what one would expect from a Hello Kitty themed place. Paradise! Pink heaven of cuteness and sugary overload. Even in the toilet.



You can't help it but feel like a Sanrio character yourself. You can't help it but smile and be cheerful and kind to your fellow human beings, because you're in Hello Kitty land. Unless you're a man. Then you sit there with a pained expression on your face and count the minutes until you can leave.




This is what we ordered:



We also had salad, soup and desert, but for some reason I didn't take photos of most of it. That alone should tell you how excited I was. LOL!


Kitty, kitty everywhere!



The guests were not just adolescent females, as you might expect, but a varied crowd you might see at any other restaurant - young and old, male and female, families and couples, with kids and without.
There was even an all male group waiting to be seated as we were leaving.



I love this place. But then again, I'm a grown woman who not so long ago owned a Hello Kitty comforter, a Hello Kitty toaster, who still owns Hello Kitty cups and t-shirts and socks and pens and watches (yes, plural - watches) and over 50 Hello Kitty cell phone straps.



And like a total perv, I was also taking photos in the toilet.


Because if I had my way, every toilet would look like a Kitty palace.


So we could always remember to "be a lady".



Told you I was acting like a total pervert.


I had enough self restraint not to go and investigate the boys' room.

If I go to Taiwan again, will I make a repeat visit to Hello Kitty Kitchen and Dining? You betcha!
Despite the high prices and pretty looking but mediocre food, this place made me forget the troubles of daily life and be a kid again. Even if only for an hour.


And if you have no time to sit down and have a meal, no worries, there's always takeout.



And on the way back to the place where we were staying, we passed a music store.


It was the day of the Kitty...


Practical info:
Address: No. 90, Section 1, Da'an Road, Da’an District, Taipei City, Taiwan 106
Phone:+886 2 2711 1132