Monday, March 16, 2009

Tsukiji Fish Market

Well, a lot has happened since I last updated my blog and it’s a shame that I didn’t finish off my travels in Japan sooner but better late than never right. After I had returned from my unforgettable trip to Fukuoka, it was my turn to play tour guide. Calvin Siow, a good friend from Georgetown, had just finished studying abroad in Australia and by late November, he decided to come and visit for around 10 days. I put Calvin up in my dorm and gave him a bunch of places to check out while I was in classes and I have to say he did a great job of getting out and exploring Tokyo.

(Calvin and me, during his first night in Tokyo)

During his first full day in Japan, I showed him around the neighboring area of Akasaka and we looked around the Akasaka Shinto shrine together at night with my other buddy Sean. Afterwards, we ate at a small Japanese restaurant in town since Calvin was really eager to try some authentic Japanese food.

Having Calvin with me was a great way to get me looking around the city again, because by this point I had settled into a regular habit of things. With his desire to go out and see Tokyo’s major tourist attractions it finally gave me the opportunity to check out the famous Tsukiji fish market.

The market opens up at 5:00 am and all the tourist books recommend getting there as soon as possible, so we rolled out of bed at 4:30 and jumped on the subway over to Tsukiji. It was still dark out being up so early, but the market was packed full of people and machinery running across the entry streets.

Shortly after entering the main seafood hall, we were surrounded by stalls full of fresh fish brought in that very morning. There were many fishmongers filleting up whole tuna right in front of all the tourists and buyers.

We noticed that some of the foreigners had paid for tour guides to take them around and explain all the intricacies of doing business at the market and I took the opportunity to listen in a few times. Apparently the auction rooms were very exciting to see in the past, but they decided to close it off to tourists within the past year since too many people were getting in the way and slowing things down. I could definitely see their argument, the walkways were extremely narrow and we were both almost hit numerous times by the people rushing around.

It was a spectacle to see everything working in harmony and looking through the fresh fish laid out in front of us. While we didn’t buy anything directly from the market, Calvin and I ate at a nearby restaurant where we ordered a bowl of rice and sashimi along with some of the freshest sushi you’ll ever taste in your life.

Saturday, January 3, 2009

Fukuoka Trip: Day 3 - Dream Bridge & Fukuoka City

... On my last day with Masa, we still had plenty left to see and do in our remaining time. We would be completing the third leg of a triangle we made driving from Fukuoka -> Nagasaki -> Kumaoto -> Fukuoka. In the morning it was raining heavily and we had planned to visit the nearby "Dream" suspension bridge which is mainly an attraction for tourists since it is only crossable by foot. With the bad weather we thought about skipping it, but in the end we decided to give it a try, and I'm glad we did.

By the time we arrived, the clouds were separating and we were lucky enough to get a glimpse of the sun. Walking across the bridge provided a spectacular view of the landscape around us. Getting to to other side and back was time consuming though, there was only enough room for a single file line going both ways. Another notable feature was that the bridge kept swaying in the wind and shaking as people would walk on it. It didn't feel very sturdy but that definitely added to the excitement.

Shortly after that, we finished our road trip and arrived back in Fukuoka.

Seaside Fukuoka

Masa gave me a quick glimpse of his apartment and we were then off to the Yahoo Dome which lies right on the water. The Dome is where Fukuoka's professional baseball team plays - the Softbank Hawks - and adjacent to it lies a mall complex. We went into one of the big arcades/entertainment centers to hit at the batting cages, but we ended up playing the big UFO catcher games instead. Masa had become a semi-professional (according to him) in getting the prizes and he gave me some pointers to get better at it. By the time we had finished playing, we had won a big pack of Kit Kats, Grape Taffy, and Chocolates.

Yahoo Dome

Mall exterior

Finally, we drove to downtown Fukuoka which had some major Japanese department stores and also luxurious foreign brands. Masa explained to me that Fukuoka is an oddity in Japan because it is one of only a few cities that has a population which spends more money than it earns - which has put some financial strain on the area in recent times. From what I could tell, Fukuoka looked like a smaller scaled Tokyo, with interesting architecture and well developed public transportation.
Masa in downtown Fukuoka

Near the main intersection of downtown Fukuoka also lies a subway station which is bordered by a huge underground mall. We did some window shopping for a bit and Masa ended my tour at the Bank of Japan office he is working at.
underground mall
Bank of Japan Fukuoka Office

Before flying out, Masa and I grabbed dinner at the airport - where I got some green tea flavored noodles (tasty!). We talked a little about our future plans and said a final goodbye before I jumped on the plane back to Tokyo.

Thanks for all those great memories Masa!

Sunday, December 28, 2008

Fukuoka Trip: Day 2 - Castles & Onsens

...the next day we woke up early in the morning, determined to stay on Masa's well planned schedule. After about an hour of driving on some wide open roads, we reached a ferry port that took us across the water back to the center of Kyushu (Hiroshima is isolated on a peninsula). Both of us were a little tired from lack of sleep and we ended up taking a small nap inside the comfy cabin area above the car hold.

view from the outside deck of the ferry

We both woke up with about 10 minutes until reaching the destination and they were running a news special on a top story in Japan surrounding the murder of 2 civil servants. I'll never forget it because it was such an odd case. The killer was a man in his mid 40s and he had already admitted to killing the government officials. His motive for doing so was bizarre, claiming that when he was a boy, his pet dog was accidentally killed by a government program which rounded up and put down stray dogs and cats. Apparently the experience haunted him and he eventually snapped.

Anyway, back to my trip, after landing we drove a little bit longer until we reached Kumamoto Castle. Considered one of the most beautiful castles of Japan (Osaka Castle is another), the place was full of tour groups dominated mostly by Koreans. Kyushu is the closest to Korea out of all of Japan's major islands and there was a noticeable influence of their immigrants and tourists.

outside the Keep

Ninja posing for me
View from the top

The interior of the castle was turned into a museum full of artifacts of the inhabitants and history of what took place there. We looked around for about an hour and then eventually jumped back in the car to drive to our next destination.

Next, we set our sights on Mt. Aso - the largest active volcano in Japan. Its different from the more traditional volcanoes because Mt. Aso is a caldera volcano which are marked by large cauldron like craters in the center. The amazing thing was that the lava was a light green color and there was a strong sulfur smell in the air.

Mt. Aso

After that we drove into the Oita prefecture to visit the traditional onsens in the area. Unfortunately, I wasn't able to get any pictures at the place, but we went to a beautiful traditional little village which was bordered by farmland and full of hot spring inns (there were over 10 hot springs!). We decided to buy a 3-inn pass which allowed us access to pick 3 hot springs of our choice and enjoy them as long as desired. Although the little town was crowded with tourists for the long weekend, we had the hot springs all to ourselves during our time there. It felt really great at the time and I remember in the following week I had so much energy (which I attribute to the hot spring minerals).

Finally, we ended our second day together by traveling a little further north to reach our ryokan (traditional Japanese inn).

nearby ryokan signs

Masa had made a reservation which included a full dinner and breakfast the next morning, as well as access to the tiny hot spring establishments nearby. The inn was run by a local Japanese family and they were really excited to have a foreigner staying there. They really treated me well and I was able to use some of my Japanese to speak with them.

dinner is served

For dinner we got a sampler of many different traditional Japanese foods along with some local favorites. There was fish variations, tofu, miso soup, flan custard and much more, and most of it was delicious. One of the local specialties served was some raw horse meat! At first glance it looked like raw beef but I could tell it was slightly different. Masa assured me that it was tasty, so I hesitantly decided to try some.

raw horse meat
ready to try it!


He ended up being right and I enjoyed eating it. After dinner we went outside to inn to try the nearby hot springs. Once again it felt awesome and they had a really interesting steam room/hot spring hybrid which was my favorite.
on our way outside to the onsens

We ended the night by watching the movie Predator. It was funny to hear it dubbed in Japanese and the deep voice of the actor speaking for Arnold Schwarzenegger. I had never seen it before so Masa did some translating for me, luckily for us most of the movie is action scenes and fighting. And with that, we called it a day....
our bedroom

Friday, December 19, 2008

Fukuoka Trip: Day 1 - Nagasaki

Back in November, we had two 3 day weekends off from school due to a national holiday and a school holiday. This proved to be the perfect time to plan another trip out of Tokyo for a few days. I had originally planned to visit Seoul, Korea with Nick from TUJ, but after hearing a lot of good things about Hong Kong, I was interested in going there instead. In the end, I decided to keep things domestic and visit my Japanese friend from Georgetown who had shown me around Osaka during my first visit over New Years.
Masahiro Katsuragi

It wasn't easy tracking him down at first; he got a new cell phone number and I couldn't reach him by email so I called his home phone. I managed to communicate to his mother (who doesn't speak English), that I was calling for Masa and she gave me his new number and also told me that he moved to Fukuoka for his new job. After graduating from Georgetown after the Fall 07 semester, Masa got a job with the Bank of Japan (Japan's central bank, like the US Federal Reserve). As a researcher, Masa's primary task is to report on consumer behavior and trends - to do so he mentioned that he would go to different department stores to observe and interview people. Anyway, after speaking with him on the phone he said he would be happy to show me around for the weekend and visit some new places.

Flying out of Tokyo's Haneda Airport, it took about 2 hours to land in Fukuoka (the largest city in Japan's southern island - Kyushu). I met Masa quickly after arriving and we rented a car right away to begin the adventure. Not wasting any time or leaving anything to chance, Masa had planned out a 3 day itinerary of places to go and things to do - while also booking hotels for us both nights. I was really impressed and I appreciated the work he put into making the most out of our time together.

Tokyo's Haneda Airport

To start things off, we drove out to Nagasaki, the infamous city where the second atomic bomb was dropped. Our first stop was the atomic bomb memorial museum which had some really horrific photos of the aftermath. I had never really seen much of the effects before and it was hard to imagine that most of the city was completely wiped out in a matter of seconds.

atomic bomb museum

Right next to the museum, there is a small park area surrounding the hypocenter of the exact place the bomb exploded. At the entrance of the park stood a small sculpture depicting the many people who suffered from the bombing as well as the following radiation.
The closest building to the explosion was actually a Christian Church and the only thing that remains is a lone wall column still standing today.

At the hypocenter itself, there stands a giant copper sculpture pointing up to the sky where the bomb came from, while also pointing forward - warning future generations to remember what happened.

The city of Nagasaki itself has been completely rebuilt and has resumed its past role as a center for shipping as well as ship-building. Looking at downtown, if you didn't know any better you would have no idea that an atomic bomb exploded there around 70 years ago.

On the path up to Glover Garden

Staying in Nagasaki for the entire day, we then moved to visit the picturesque Glover Garden. A small community of western houses and inhabitants, Glover Garden was started by a Scottish entrepreneur in the 1860s when Thomas Glover came to Nagasaki. Glover established a successful coal and shipbuilding operation and made Nagasaki his permanent residence, eventually starting a family there. Due to his financial success, his home and the area has some of the best views of Nagasaki harbor and is a favorite tourist destination.

halfway to the top

Some other famous foreign inhabitants of the Glover community would establish Japan's first beer manufacturing company - Kirin, as well as a popular fast food noodle shop - Ringer Hut. Here are some photos at the top right next to Glover's house itself.

We finished the day at one of Nagasaki's brand new onsens (hot springs bathhouse). Once again it was really relaxing and both of us felt so refreshed afterwards. I'll never say no to an onsen but I think Masa especially enjoyed it after being stuck in the office from 8 am until 8 pm during most of the week. We got dinner afterwards ironically at Ringer Hut which is known for having dishes influenced by Nagasaki's local cuisine.

Finally we checked into our hotel and walked around downtown and near Chinatown for 40 minutes before getting some sleep after a very busy day.

Monday, December 15, 2008

Oboe Renaissance

Yet another idea inspired by Metropolis Magazine, after reading a small listing for an oboe soloist performing near the Shinjuku area of Tokyo, I decided to get some tickets for the show. Kazuhiro Miyamura was the oboist playing and although he is not well known yet, he has a growing reputation as an artist. He began playing in his early teens and now does solo shows with piano and guitar accompaniment, while also offering private lessons.

The performance was held at the Tokyo Opera City, completed in 97, and was a very clean and pretty building inside as well as out. Although it was mid-November, they already had many Christmas decorations up.

Opera City was running a theme of "Bach -> Contemporary" where they had different soloists come in and play a few J. S. Bach as well as a little contemporary music (as the name suggests). Other artists we saw coming after Miyamura were flute and french horn soloists.

As for Miyamura himself, he had a 5 piece set list of the following songs:
  • Concerto for oboe and piano, in D minor
    • 3 movements (including andante and presto)
    • composed by Marcello and edited by Bach & Miyamura
    • This song group really was beautiful and it meant a lot to me since I had played both the andante and presto movements for my state music test back in high school, having practiced both more than anything else I knew each part of the song and Miyamura's changes to it sounded great and made them extra lively.
  • Variations on "Brindisi"
    • by S. Yamazato
    • Italian sounding waltz which both of us really enjoyed
  • Aulodia per Lothar
    • by B. Maderna
    • Contemporary piece, very dissonant and neither of us liked it
  • Tenshi-no-nioi: Inspired by M. Passion
    • by Kusakabe
    • Again a contemporary piece I didn't really care for
  • Sonata in G Minor
    • by J. S. Bach
    • Sounded great!
In the middle of his performance Miyamura went on to explain how he was excited to be playing both classical and contemporary music which are both passions of his. He also made a point of explaining how difficult the oboe is and how there aren't many players because of it. Throughout the show he had piano and/or guitar accompaniment.

blurry (pictures weren't allowed but I snuck one)

After receiving applause and a bouquet of roses, Miyamura returned for 2 encores. I can't quite remember the titles for them but I really liked them both, they were familiar so I'm going to try and figure out what they were sooner or later.

On the way out I asked if it was possible to buy a recording of the performance, which is when the staff answered "no, but would you like to meet Mr. Miyamura". So I went backstage to say hello and I told him in Japanese that I had come from New York and also play the oboe.

Overall it was clear by the end of the night, that I don't really like hearing contemporary music but the classical pieces by Bach were really a treat to listen to.

With all of this in mind and hearing the oboe for the first time in awhile, I have decided that I will return to playing & practicing once I get home for Christmas!