Saturday, May 18, 2013

Tokyo Skytree

This month will be the one year anniversary of the Tokyo Skytree. Although we had seen the skytree from a distance, towering over the other skyscrapers in Tokyo, we hadn't visited it yet. This month, during the Golden Week holidays we finally had the change, together with Daphne's parents, the admire the view from the Skytree!
Even though the Skytree is already open for almost a year, it is still very busy and (in)famous for its long queues and waiting time. On top of that, we decided to visit during Golden Week, the week know especially for its crowds! Anticipating the long lines that would definitely be there, we decided to go early in the morning and hope to be before the peak hour crowds.

We arrived at 8am, and there already were a lot of people! We received a ticket, similar to the Disneyland fast pass, so we could buy tickets at 9.30. How convenient! Instead of standing in line for 1,5 hour, we could use this time to walk around. 
 We returned to the ticket counter at 9.30, didn't have to wait at all to buy our tickets. 5 minutes later we were already in elevator, going with incredible speed to the first observatory.
The observatory is very nice, and the view is beautiful! We had a day with very clear weather and we could see all the way to Yokohama. 
View over Tokyo

From the first observatory you can buy extra tickets to go on to the second observatory,100 meters higher! We had to wait another 30 minutes, but the second observatory is really worth it. It is designed with a sloping spiral ramp that gains height as it circles to tower. This makes for a very special view, as you can really look down to the city below you.

Looking down on the city

Second observatory spiral

at the highest point for visitors

the elevator to the second observatory has a glass roof

looking down through the glass floor

Tuesday, April 23, 2013

High-tech sushi

What do you think of when you think about Japan? A country of technological innovation and all kinds of cool, flashy gadgets? Or do you think about the delicious Japanese food, like sushi? Those who think about both will be happy that you can experience those together when you visit Japan: at high-tech sushi.

High-tech sushi is the new variation on kai-ten sushi (conveyor belt sushi). With kai-ten sushi you take place at a counter with a conveyor belt at which different plates of sushi are placed, you then take the plates with the sushi you like to eat.
With the new high-tech sushi restaurant you also take place at a counter with a touch screen in front of you. You then order to sushi you like to eat, it gets places on a high speed track and send to your seat! A very cool experience, and perfect way to enjoy sushi.

Sushi counter, with sushi!

We went to such a sushi restaurant in Shibuya (Uobei, 2-29-11 Dogenzaka, Shibuya-ku, Tokyo) which was quite busy! The new way of ordering sushi is also really popular with the Japanese. The place is also quite cheap (105 yen for all sushi orders) while the quality of the food is pretty high! The menu has all the regular sushi dishes and also some quite strange ones: if you ever wanted to try hamburger sushi this is the place to go!


Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Roppongi Art Night 2013

Last weekend the yearly Roppongi Art Night was held: from sunset to dawn the whole area of Roppongi was centred around art. Art centers and museums were open for the whole night (free, or discounted admission), and many extra exhibitions and events were held around the famous buildings of Roppongi.

Central street in Roppongi

Luckily the weather in Tokyo already feels like spring, so the temperatures were quite nice to walk around at night. Not surprisingly, Roppongi was crowded with visitors giving the festival a nice busy atmosphere. It was actually our first visit to most of the museums/areas, so we had lots to explore. Luckily we had a whole night to do so!

National art center
Mori Tower
The central theme of this year was 'trip', featured in many displays of crafted artwork of boats. Different ideas and inspirations of artist had lead to a great variety of boats, and were always surrounded by people taking pictures (no longer a surprise to us, since by know we have learned that Japanese people love taking pictures always)

 In some of the parks around the museums and building you could even combine art night with some cherry blossoms viewing: a perfect night out in spring time Tokyo!

Sakura trees at Roppongi Hills

Saturday, March 23, 2013

Graduation ceremony

March is in Japan the month of the graduation ceremonies (Sotsugyoushiki). It is the end of the Japanese school year, and for all those students who are graduating big ceremonies and parties are being held. Graduation ceremonies are an important part of the Japanese education culture. The ceremony is held in all schools from elementary school to university. Even my language school had its own graduation ceremony!
Normally the graduation ceremony will be held in a nice looking venue (which the school rents especially for this occasion), there will be much nice decorations and traditionally everyone will be beautifully dressed. I even saw several beauty salons offer special services to help make sure you can look your best in perfect kimono and perfect hair-style!

Luckily, at my language school it wasn't all that formal. Actually there are many student who don't graduate in March, but study until they either find a job or want to return to their own country which can be any time during the year. Therefore, most students actually finishing in March are those entering Japanese university next month. The ceremony is however for all students in classes above intermediate level, so also the students who don't graduate yet (and do not yet get their certificate) will participate in the ceremony. So, even though I plan to be studying till June I got to experience my first Japanese graduation ceremony.

The main event of the ceremony is of course the handing out of the certificates. But further, all classes are required to do a class performance (a song, a drama, etc.). The rehearsals sometimes felt a little like you were back in elementary school (and not all students were really motivated), but I think they also just wanted us to use our Japanese in a different way then during normal class: discussing what song to sing, who should be standing where, etc.,etc.
The actual ceremony was quite fun, and it was great to see all teachers so involved with the students and their graduation. After the ceremony we had a little graduation party, with some extra chances to take pictures and say goodbyes to the students leaving.

School group picture

(part of) my class at the graduation party

Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Tokyo marathon 2013

Last Sunday the yearly Tokyo marathon was held. On a sunny Sunday morning all runners started in Shinjuku, to run the entire 42.195 meter through the streets of Tokyo to finish in Odaiba. Although the weather looked good, blue sky and sunny, there was actually a quite cold and strong wind, so we think that was pretty tough for the runners.

Just like last year, we decided to go watch this event. Actually, this time the race would pass real close to our house, so we decided to watch by Akebonebashi. At that point the runners were only 4km into the race, so most of them still looked quite fresh and energetic.

head of the race

Spectating the Tokyo marathon can make you wonder why there are actually people participating that wear normal sportswear... Dressing up in strange, weird, original outfits seems to be a part of the Tokyo marathon. We actually spotted some of the same runners and outfits as last year.
Compared to last year, the Tokyo sky tree was no longer the most popular inspiration for outfits: we only spotted a few sky tree hats in the outfits. The real trend this year was to run dressed up as a vegetable or fruit. All kind of varieties; eggplant, melon, beans, bananas, strawberries, were spotted in the marathon. Almost a real promotion for a healthy, balanced diet!
Further, outfits from the popular One Piece-series, business-outfits, cultural or historical figures, and animals were still very popular.
The most impressive dressed up runner was actually running while he not only carried his guitar, but was also playing it and singing various songs. We wonder if he managed to continue doing so for the entire race...

Apart from our photo collection, we made a video of 10 minutes of the Tokyo marathon, so you can all see really how many runners are wearing strange outfits and spot them yourselves! Please enjoy!

even other runners are taking pictures...
Whooh! All the same outfit!

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Chinese New Year: Chinatown in Yokohama

Last weekend was the Chinese New Year celebration. What can be a better place to celebrate this then at the biggest Chinatown in Japan: in Yokohama!

So, last Sunday, we took the train to Yokohama. Since the new year celebrations would only start in the late afternoon, we decided to first explore some other areas of Yokohama. We started out in the Minato Mirai area, a big district close to the station and containing many shops, entertainment and restaurants. The spaciousness and wideness of the area is a welcome change from the crowds of Tokyo. Especially the area around the cruise terminal (Osanbashi Pier and the Yamashita Park) gives a wonderful view over the bay and the water and makes for a relaxing stroll.

View from Osanbashi Pier over Yokohama: Landmark tower, ferry-wheel of Cosmo World & Red brick warehouses are easy recognizable

Chinatown lies on walk-able distance from the bay. The area is filled with Chinese restaurants, food stalls and souvenir shops. Central in the area lies a big temple, with its various colours and many dragons it looks distinctly different from the typical Japanese temples.
The New Year celebrations had brought many people to Chinatown, and the streets were very crowded. It was a great mix of nationalities, of course many Chinese, but also many Japanese and foreign tourists wanted to experience the celebrations and eat the Chinese food. So there were many queues, for all the food stalls and restaurants people were lined outside and around the celebrations it was crowded with people .

Chinatown, Yokohama

The main part of the festival consisted of traditional Chinese dragon dances. Dancers, supported by drums and Chinese fire crackers, would perform the dragon dance in front (and inside) of stores. They go from store to store, and continue through all the streets. Even though it is very crowded, everyone has a change to see a dance, just line up at the store where they will perform next. The dragon dance supposedly gives good fortune to the shop for the next year.

Dragon dance video:

After trying some delicious Chinese food, and watching the dances, we walked back to the bay area to enjoy to beautiful light up skyline of Yokohama.

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Kagami biraki

The Kagami-biraki is a Japanese ceremony, performed usually at the beginning of each year. It has become closely related to martial arts, since many dojo's use the celebration as a start of training in the new year.

This year we actually attended two Kagami-biraki events, first Sunday (13/1) at our Aikido dojo and the second on Monday (14/1), which was a national holiday, in the Nippon Budokan.

Kagami-biraki literary means 'opening of the mirror'. However no actual mirror is involved, but the mirror is symbolised by two (big) round rice cakes placed on top op each other. The ceremony involves around the breaking of the rice cakes (not with a knife!) with a big hammer. The cake gets divided and is eaten with sweet red bean (azuki bean) soup: oshiruko.

On Sunday the Aikido hombu dojo was packed with people visiting for the kagami-biraki! When we arrived the 3rd and 4rth floor were already full of people, and we were seated at the 2nd floor. From there we could watch on a big projection screen what was happening at the 3rd floor. The ceremony started with several speeches, followed by a demonstration (because of the amount of people, performed on a very small place!), and the grading ceremony. Then, the tables would be set, drinks and snacks would come and we would all together eat the oshiruko soup. The mochi in the soup was actually freshly made by various sensei of hombu. It was our first time eating it and it was actually quite nice.

On Monday, the day of the Kagami-biraki at the Nippon Budokan, it snowed all day! We arrived early when the Budokan was starting the turn white from the snow. This Kagami-biraki was a combined ceremony of different martial arts. Next to aikido there were people from Judo, Karate, Kendo, Kempo, Niginata, Kyudo.
Start of opening ceremony

After the opening ceremony, there were demonstrations from all these martial arts. Very interesting to watch, since we did not have the opportunity to see all these martial arts in real life before. After the demonstration followed a combined training session, representing the first training of the new year. In the Budokan all present budo had there own training, and we participated in the Aikido training. Very fun and impressive to train in the budokan, although it was a little crowded (and loud!) being surrounded by all these other martial artists. The day ended again with some oshiruko soup and drinks, and a return back home through what had become a very big amount of snow!

Nippon Budokan covered in snow

Gate towards the Budokan

Lane towards the Budokan

Friday, January 18, 2013

Winter-trip Part IV: Snow, onsens & monkeys

The second day of our winter trip we left Nagano early in the morning by bus (a nice change from all those trains the day before), and we headed to Yamanouchi area.
The Yamanouchi area lies north-east of Nagano, and features many tourist attractions and outdoor activities. The area is famous for its onsen, so we were looking forward to relaxing in the warm water.
But first, we were going to make a beautiful walk through the snowy mountains. We headed to the Jigokudani Monkey park (famous for monkeys bathing in the outdoor onsen), and the route to get there leads through a winter wonderland in the mountains.
Entrance to the walk to the park
Along the way
View close to the monkey park
The monkey park was very fun. Everywhere there were monkeys playing in the snow, and they all gathered at the big outdoor bath. Probably to escape the cold and get warm again. There were many young baby monkeys, and all around us people were saying how kawaii (cute) the monkeys were. Especially around the onsen is was very crowded with tourists taking pictures of this picturesque scenery with the bathing monkeys surrounded by snow.

Bathing monkeys
Baby monkey taking a bath

Monkeys bathing in the onsen
 After we warmed up with some hot chocolate we walked back the the town centre, to check in to our ryokan (traditional Japanese style hotel) and enjoy a nice warm onsen ourselves.
Our ryokan was very nice, we had a lovely big room and guests could freely use both the gender-seperated onsens and the private-use onsens of the hotel. Very luxurious! Since there were not many staying guest (and most stayed until late at the ski-slopes) we had lots of opportunities to use the private onsen for ourselves, very relaxing.

We stayed in the centre of Shibu Onsen, a small traditional onsen town. In the centre of the town (really only a couple of small streets) there are 9 pubic onsens scattered around. Staying guests at one of the hotels in town get a master key and can freely use all the baths. The baths all look different, have different water and supposedly heal different ailments. Is it said that taking all nine baths will bring you good fortune. We changed into our yukata in the hotel (traditional Japanese robes), in which you can walk in between the baths. Very cold in the beginning, since there was much snow around town, but after soaking in a warm hot water you don't get cold walking around town.
Light up streets in Shibu Onsen
Entrance to one of the 9 public baths
Shibu Onsen
Especially in the evening the streets become very atmospheric; beautiful light up and with various people walking in yukata in between baths.

We, after a relaxing onsen
That afternoon/evening and following morning combined, we tried all the nine baths! So at the end of the morning we could very relaxed walk back to the station, and start our trip back home. It had been both very busy days, as very nice and relaxing time, but a very fun en enjoying trip!

Sunday, January 13, 2013

Winter-trip Part III: Nagano

When you enter Nagano you will immediately be reminded that the city hosted the Winter Olympics in 1998. In the middle of the station there is a big plaque showing the symbol and sign of the Olympics. All kind of signs, and statues around the city still show the Olympic history of the city, something the city is still very proud of.
We remembered watching the Olympics on television (with lots of success for the Netherlands: 5 Gold medals, 4 Silver and 2 Bronze, giving us the 6th place in the medal count!), so it was extra special actually visiting the city ourselves. 
Throughout the city the Olympic Stadia can still be seen, although some are not being used for sports any more. Unfortunately, they are quite scattered around the city, making them hard to access and mostly you are not allowed to enter. So, we were pleased to be able to see some of the stadia were the athletes competed from the bus, and recognize them from what we saw on television! If you want, you are able to ski on the same slopes and mountains that were used in the Olympic competition. But (since we both can't ski) we decided to skip that part..

Nagano 1998 commemorative sign in the Station
Small scale model of the Olympic fire in the streets of Nagano
The other famous attraction of Nagano was build long before the Olympic stadia, and dates back to the 7th century. This is when the Zenkoji temple was founded, a popular attraction in Nagano.

The entrance to the temple leads to a atmospheric street with many nice shops. We found the temple itself truly impressive to visit. It was still quite busy at the temple, probably because of the New Year prayers, but the temple complex it quite big so there were not so many crowds or queues. The extent and magnitude of the complex makes the temple really impressive. Apart from the mail hall there are several small buildings, a big gate, and various statues lined up on the complex. The scenery looks beautiful with the mountains of Nagano in the background, even though we arrived later in the afternoon when it was starting the get dark.
Street toward Zenkoji temple
Zenkoji temple
After a very busy day, were we travelled long and saw much we were very happy to get something to eat, warm up in our hotel room and get a good night rest, before we had to wake up early again next morning.

Wednesday, January 9, 2013

Winter-trip Part II: Matsumoto

After getting off at Matsumoto-station we walked through the city to Matsumoto castle. Matsumoto proved an interesting walk, a nice atmospheric city, with some traditional streets and temples. At the outskirts of the city you can see the mountains surrounding Matsumoto, giving beautiful views.

Street with temple in Matsumoto

Matsumoto's biggest attraction is its historical castle; one of Japan's most complete and beautiful original castles. The castle, build in the 16th century, maintains its original wooden interiors and external stonework. The story goes that this preservation is owing to the protection of the Goddess of Nijuroku-yashin. "On the night of January 26, 1618, in a vision, one of the young vassals on duty saw a woman dressed in beautiful clothes. Handing him a brocade bag, she said “if the lord of the castle enshrines me with 600kg of rice on the 26th night of every month, I will protect the castle from fire and enemy.” It is believed that because the bag was deified the castle was preserved and has survived to be the oldest castle in its original form" The shrine dedicated to the Goddess is still viewable through the ceiling. The castle has indeed been protected, being one of the few perfectly preserved castles in Japan!

A visit to the castle makes for a very impressive experience. The outside of the castle, of beautiful black and white shades, makes for a very picturesque scenery: located next to the water and with the mountains surrounding Matsumoto on the background. Not surprisingly, it is a very popular photo-spot with both Japanese and foreign tourist lining up to make the most beautiful picture of the castle.
Matsumoto Castle

Matsumoto Castle seen from the castle's garden
Matsumoto Castle by the water surrounding the castle's grounds
The fully preserved interior is fully accessible to the public. It not only shows perfectly how the inside looks, but also how cold is it inside!
The castle was build to be defended from attacks, leaving special walkways, shooting holes, and a secret floor for ammunition and food storage that could not been seen from the outside. (it looks as though the castle only has five floors, while in fact there are six)

Samurai floor: designed so the warriors could easily run through in full armour in time of attack
In order to walk through the castle the visitors have to use to traditional staircases. Very narrow, and with some very steep steps, these make for an adventurous route. (giving the real castle-experience)
After that we headed back to the station to continue our journey ...