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

Monday, January 12, 2015

Coming of Age Day

Today was Seijin no hi, and I should have been in front of Futaara shrine with my camera trying to sneak a few photos of girls all dolled up in kimonos and wrapped in rabbit fur stoles.
But I wasn't.
It turns out that in our lovely city the day for 20 year olds celebrating their coming of age was held yesterday.
So even though the actual public holiday is today, the fun stuff took place yesterday.
Out of consideration for the freshly minted adults.
If they party hard on Sunday, they have all Monday to recover and can show up for work on Tuesday without raging hangovers.
See? That's how considerate our great city is. No wonder I love living here :-)

As I wasn't able to take any photos today, I found some from two years ago.

That was one coming of age day to remember.
The weather was getting progressively worse and worse. And when it couldn't get any worse, the train service got suspended due to snow.

I was having lunch with friends in Omiya and, along with a couple thousand other people, we got stuck there.

There were shinkansens going south, but nothing going north. Which was where we needed to go in order to get home.

We eventually did get home. It cost a lot of money and took more than 12 hours.
And I've been hating Omiya ever since.

At least today it was sunny. And so far - no snow this winter. Yay!

Have a great week!

Sunday, January 11, 2015

Eel be back

Narita city is famous for unagi. That means eel. Freshwater eel, to be exact.
Why eels in Narita? No idea.
Back in the olden days, supposedly, there were eels in Tonegawa (Tone river), but that must have been a long time ago.
These days Narita gets its eels by plane. Having the airport right there is a huge advantage, I'm sure.

On the main drag from the train station to Naritasan temple there are about 60 unagi restaurants. Some are big and famous, some are small, but all of them get their eels fresh.
How fresh?
Live fresh.

During our walk to the temple we passed by many unagi restaurants.
You can watch your fresh eels being turned into eel fillets right in front of your eyes.
Like this:

These guys work with the deadly efficiency of Terminators.
Grab a still moving eel.
Drive a spike through its head to secure it to the table.
Slice, clean, chop.

And the finished product, cooked and served, should look more or less like this:

image: wikipedia

I'm a big fan of grilled unagi. It's delicious. Eating unagi is easy.
What's hard is finding good unagi.
The stores here are flooded with cheap eels from China. And I admit it, I tried it. It tasted like garbage.

Most of the cheap unagi you can find at Japanese fast food joints is Chinese. Good unagi is pricey. And unlike cheap unagi, it actually tastes good.

So next time you have a long layover in Narita, catch the train to the city, and take a walk up the main street to the temple. And try some good unagi while you're there.

This photo was taken during my first visit to Narita city. Not on New Year's Eve. On a normal evening the whole place looked like after a zombie apocalypse.

Yes, eel be back. I can't wait to return to Narita city!

Tuesday, January 6, 2015

New Year's Eve at Naritasan Temple

A wise man (though in reality he's more of a wise guy) once said that information is like fresh fish. So with that in mind, I'm going to serve you now stuff that is a week old. Well, better late than never.
(you'll get your fresh fish in the next post, I promise!)

Naritasan temple is a very special temple to me. Sentimental reasons, you might say. And though I'm a fan of Buddhist temples in general, Naritasan will always have a very special place in my heart. It was a place where, once upon a time, one chapter of my life came to an abrupt end, and a new one began.

So when a chance to end the old year and welcome the new one at Naritasan presented itself I couldn't pass it up. I just couldn't. For old times sakes. To remember the good. And to forget the bad and the ugly.
And that's how on December 31st (can't believe it was just last week), I found myself, armed with my camera, walking very purposely (with a brief stop for some very potent Thai food) along the winding streets of Narita city.

This being the last day of the year, the streets were pretty crowded. It seemed the entire town (and parts of the neighboring prefectures) had exactly the same idea. I had not seen that many foreigners in 5 years in Tochigi as during that one evening in Narita. Amazing. Or not.

The temple, its formal name is Naritasan Kongo-o-in Shinshoji (it's the lead temple of the Chisan sect of Shingon Buddhism) was exactly as I remembered it. But this time it was all dressed up for New Year's Day festivities.

The lower courtyard was filled with stands selling everything from daruma dolls to sheep cell phone straps (yep, you got it, 2015 is the year of the sheep).

Because it was dark, the Nio figures were impossible to photograph. So here's my excuse to visit the temple yet again, this time during daytime. Ha! Crafty me!

I'm not going to bore you with the wiki details, if you're interested you can google them.
I'm just going to show you what it looked like.

The  cops were busy calibrating the spotlights in preparation for the midnight service and actually helped me capture this reflection of the three-storied pagoda.

And this is how it looked like in real life:

The plan was to go back to the hotel, take a rest, and then return for the midnight bell ringing. But as with all best laid plans, it didn't turn out that way. So here, yet another excuse for me to return to Naritasan. Awesome!

And the other side:

It's a quite odd feeling to walk around the temple grounds at night when the place is empty. But it felt even odder when despite the darkness, the temple was full of life.

And everything was brightly lit.

Of course I forgot my goshuin book, stupid me. To be at Naritasan on December 31st and not get a red temple stamp? Sacrilegious! No choice but to buy a brand new goshuin book. And guess what? They had it in pink and it matched my jacket exactly.

And here's the stamp:

I can't wait to return there. Soon I hope.

Happy new Year of the Sheep!!!

May it be a good one!