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WORST ramen shop I've ever tried! (Kyoto)

Usually I share about the ramen shops I tried and enjoyed, and I am pretty good at picking good options before putting my money down, but there are exceptions.This shop, Ichibankan (not to be confused with the Chuubu tonkotsu chain, Ichibanken, which I've never tried but looks not bad) around 4-cho of Kyoto, was an absolute disaster.I went in around 5 for an early dinner, because it had been 3 days since I've had noodles. No one was in the shop, which is fine, given the time of the day, but the shop's decoration from a mixture of different Asian cultures already struck me as something strange.Then I ordered the standard ramen, and I realized I hit a LANDMINE when I saw the man cook.He was using his hands to see if the noodles were cooked firm enough!Again, instead of knowing how long the noodles should have cooked for, HE HAD TO TOUCH IT TO KNOW IT!And what came out was a chaos. The soup was between thick and thin, but overall tasted muddy and dirty. The cold cha-siu had nothing to be proud of. And the noodles, the freaking noodles that he didn't know how long he should cook for, were of course, too soggy.It was a complete mess for a ramen shop I would expect to find in a busy district like 4-cho of Kyoto, and I had to rush to the Kyoto station right afterward to eat another bowl of ramen 2 hours later to cleanse my palate. (Check that much more successful eating experience here: Tokushima Ramen)So if you are ever around the area and want to get some noodles, by ALLLLLLLLLLLL means, avoid this tragedy that is called Ichibankan.

Tofu + Sesame Icecream (awesome!)

When you visit Arashiyama in Kyoto, I'd highly recommend you to check out this little corner shop on your way to or from the mountain to the station. The shop serves what are two of my favourite ice-cream flavours in one cone: Tofu icecream and black sesame icecream.The creaminess of vanilla blends perfectly with each flavour, and yes, the two match fantastically too. You won't be overwhelmed by the sweetness like with some other icecream choices, and this peaceful sweetness is perfect for a spiritual place like Kyoto.Kyoto is famous for its tofu, and this little dessert option is one not to miss, especially when you're visiting Kyoto in summer!

How I stopped worrying and love Japan

So you`ve decided to move to Japan. Great stuff! Japan has a lot to offer and is full of rich culture, be it historical or anime in nature. But beware. There are many traps and pitfalls everywhere you go. You might be lulled into a false sense of security and before you know it, disaster strikes like an angry Charizard. Surely all of us who have lived and loved in another county have gotten into some hard times. This is a normal part of the experience and should be embraced rather than ignored or feared. What does not kill us makes us stronger and all that. I am by no means a master expat; I have only lived in Japan for about 4 years in total and I am constantly being challenged by the cultural and sociological differences that are inevitable when living over 8000km away from your own homeland. The advice I give here is merely based on what little information I have gathered (I majored in Japanese culture in university, albeit a “C student”), mixed in with a lot of predetermined ideas and a lot of help from a very patient Japanese significant other. If that is a recipe you can get behind, by all means read on. You might not think this information is relevant right now, when you are just entering the country for the first time, but it is better to be prepared. The Honeymoon period “Yes, this is Japan! I am finally here. Everything is perfect. I love everything. Even the bad things are good. The food is amazing. The people so friendly and polite. I could stay here forever.” Sound familiar? This is exactly my line of thinking when I first came to Japan. There`s a thing called “the honeymoon period", which describes the feeling above. Total euphoria and a complete disregard to any negative thing for the country. It varies from person to person, but can last from a few months to a few years. It happens to most of us and is pretty nice on its own. The problem comes when the period ends. When all the little negativities and problems arise and your perfect country doesn`t seem so perfect anymore. Although it`s really hard to give advice on how to deal with the inevitable collapse of this utopian idea in our heads, I just wish more people were aware of this so they could mentally prepare themselves. Which brings me to my second thing: Take it slow Sometimes, being reluctant can be beneficial. I understand the idea of wanting to try everything at once and loving it so much that you want more and more and more. Especially if you are her for a limited amount of time. However, just like with cake, which can be the most delicious thing you have ever tasted in your life, too much too fast can lead to some major misfortunes. Just.. I don`t know.. Try to see the whole picture before rushing into things you might regret. Try not to join the local Judo Dojo, only to be surprised they make you clean up everything and barely allow you to practice. (Uneducated anecdote) Heinlein's Razor So the guy in the train was pushing you. The group of girls in the coffee shop were staring and probably gossiping about you. Everyone is giving you the cold shoulder. Everyone seems to be against you; seem to despise you with their eyes. And it`s probably because you are a foreigner and different, right? Wrong! (probably). Let us look at it from another perspective. How many people do you look at on the train and think “hey, this guy is different” or “why is he wearing that?”. Is there any malice in those thoughts? Probably not. But you`ve been looking at them and judging them with your eyes, probably giving them the creeps. And then they forget about the whole incident in the next five minutes. Because that`s what happens. The guy on the train? Super late to an important meeting with the Big Boss. The group of girls? Wondering where to go during Golden Week. The cold shoulder people? Been doing unpaid overtime for the past thirty years and just want to get this document faxed as soon as possible. Everyone is simple, busy, neutral individuals who in 90% of instances are thinking about themselves. Realizing that, we can just ignore their unmannerly stares and continue on with our own lives. It`s a country with 127 million people. You`re going to get all kinds a number of times. Micro aggression. This is a big one (even though it has “micro” right in the title.). The waiter at the restaurant brings you an English menu, even though you speak perfect Japanese and the menu has like 1/3 of the information the Japanese version has. People at the supermarket get flustered when you arrive, forget you said “no” when they asked you if you need a plastic bag, try to speak what little English they can, even though you just spoke to them in your “pera-pera” Kansai dialect. The umpteenth time someone compliments you on your chopstick skills, asks if you can eat wasabi, asks if your country has four seasons, asks if you can read the simplest kanji, tells you your nose is long, tells you you are soooo tall ad nauseam. In short, it is the little annoyances in the day that later combine into a giant Katamari of aggression that takes you down a dark path. We don`t want that. The solution? Develop the memory of a goldfish and just let the little things slide. I know it is not as easy as it sounds, but let us be perfectly honest. There are 127 million people here. I am not going to prove to them all that, yes, other countries also have 4 seasons (although mine only has 2 as far as I remember). There are a bazillion other tips I can give to you. Here are a few runner-ups: Go to a Batting center and release the built up stress by pretending the ball is your boss. Go to an onsen or sento and let your worries melt away. Find the good parts of Japan and embrace them. I try to find at least one thing I am grateful to have in Japan. It`s not hard. (Today I am grateful for the half price deep-fried stuff in the supermarket after 10 P.M.) Learn the language. I am only conversational level and it helps me tremendously. I just wish I had learned more in school. You are going to make mistakes. It happens and you can learn from it. Do not sulk. Don`t believe the internet. Not even me. The internet is full of angry individuals with poo-brains. Watch Doraemon. He is fun, educational and I feel he clearly represents the sociological status of Japanese society at the given time. (Last week, Nobita created a country in his living room and had border patrols and when his mom tried to enter illegally, the guards shot her. Then his friend became a fugitive in the new country to escape his mother`s wrath). In any case, just remember to be aware of your mental state and keep an open mind about everything. Keep yourself safe and try to have fun. Good luck and Welcome to Japan!

Whose food is it anyway?

A country`s food culture is like a window into the heart of the people who live there. You can tell a lot about people from what they eat. Italians like to have longwinded conversations, much like the spaghetti they eat, Russians have heavy personalities, like stroganoff, and Americans are like tater tots. You can`t just have one. And if it wasn`t obvious before, I just made all that up. I am a simple man. I come from a small country with a rather limited food culture (amongst other scarcities). So my knowledge is limited in the culinary aspects. If someone tells me a food comes from some country, I will believe that with all my might. I will take that information to my grave. So imagine a 20-something man in his first ever ALT teaching job in an Elementary school. Bright eyed, full of hope and wonder, wanting to make a difference in the world of children. “Let`s do self-introductions” the homeroom teacher shouts and everybody thinks that is a great idea! The kids want to know what strange and weird and possibly horrifying likes and dislikes this Non-native, but still somehow innocent looking enough English teacher has. “What Japanese food do you like?” They shout in unison (because I made them to) and I answer with full confidence “I like Ramen!”. …Silence in the classroom. The longest three seconds in this new teacher`s life. Oh-emm-gee, have I said something to offend? Have I possibly struck a sensitive cord that will inevitably result in my expulsion? Has the Japan dream died before it started? …no. Of course not. But I did get a room full of 10 year olds explaining to me that Ramen is in fact not Japanese, but Chinese instead. So I learned a valuable lesson that day. Until I went on Wikipedia and read that ramen is a Japanese cultural icon! Now I don`t know what to think anymore. So here I want to explore some staple food of Japan, find out its origins and whether it can be considered Japanese food (Read: What I can and cannot say in front of 10 year olds) 1. Ramen (Definitely Japanese) As I said before, it most definitely is Japanese food, gosh darn it. Whatever the kids these days say. It IS true, however that the noodles themselves come from China. The word Ramen even comes from the Chinese word “lamian”. Now I don`t think I need to sing its praises or anything; I`m sure we all have a small, emergency ramen stash (or in my case, an entire full cabinet) but that`s just the instant stuff.  The thing about Japan however, is whenever they get something new, they do not mess around with it. It is either fully in or out. So they took ramen, put it through its paces and created local varieties with flavors complementing the area. Don`t think you need to visit every small inaka town in Japan to be able to taste the variety however. (Well, you can, and if you do, please write an article in City Cost for each one). For example, on the 10th floor in Kyoto station, you can find a Ramen street, a collection of ramen shops from different areas of Japan. I recommend “Ramen Todai” since I love everything to do with pork. (The vending machines also have English language support).   2. Tempura (possibly Japanese) Before the Portuguese came to Nagasaki in the 16th century, the Japanese “tempura” was just deep fried food, without any eggs or even flour (sometimes rice flour). I don`t know about you, but the batter made from flour and eggs are what makes tempura the irresistible delicacy that it is. Never mind what is inside the batter. If the crunchy, oily stuff on the outside isn`t there, I wouldn`t touch it with a ten foot chopstick. 3. Curry (absolutely Japanese *terms and conditions apply) So I come to my Junior High School one day and half the school is missing. I ask the remaining teachers and they inform me that there`s a school trip. Kasajizo: Where did they go? Teacher:To the countryside. Kasajizo: Why did they go there? Teacher:To make curry. Kasajizo: Why curry? *teacher shrugs and walks away. Need I say more? (I also have a stash of curry roux in my other cabinet) Never mind the fact that the Japanese curry we know today was not available in supermarkets until the 60s. Today I think a household in Japan without at least one packet of curry roux is extremely rare. In short, Japan can call any food they want Japanese if they want. There is a certain separation from “Traditional” Japanese food, called Washoku and the western one called Yoshoku, but how far you have to look back for a food to become “traditional” requires a level of research that is beyond me. Post script: For the sake of weirdness, here is a picture of the strangest drink I have ever bought. Orange juice with rare cheese flavor. And yes, it tasted just as you would expect. Disgusting.

Memories of an Unexpected New Year's Eve at a Small Temple in Kyoto.

            New Years Eve is always a really big deal for me; I love the feeling of celebrating and reflecting on what's been and looking forward to, and creating new dreams and resolutions for the year ahead. Every year I try to mark it by doing something different, and I've found that Japan holds an attractive array of both traditional and less-traditional options up its sleeve for me to be able to achieve that. From the traditional Oshogatsu traditions, to countdown parties, to live shows , to early morning hikes for the purpose of getting that all important first glimpse of the year's first sunrise (Hatsushinode) - there really is something to cater to every taste.One of my most memorable New Year's Eves here sort of came about by accident in Kyoto on the turn of 2012 and 2013 . The plan had been to head to the city's much-famed Chion-in Temple to bear witness to the ringing of it's seventy ton bronze bell. The bell is one of the largest in Japan, and every year it takes 17 monks  to perform the customary Japanese New Year ritual: 'Joya no Kane' which involves striking the bell 108 times; making it  one the most sought after New Year spectacles in Japan.This reputation together with Kyoto's own reputation for being the place to go to for an authentic Shogatsu experience means that every year the temple is descended upon by thousands of people, which can often lead to overcrowding and many people being turned away at the gate; which proved to be the case for me and hundreds of others others who had failed to read the subconscious small print saying: 'get there early to avoid disappointment'. Luckily for us the Maruyama park area (where the temple is located) had several much more localized smaller temples tucked away in it's streets. The kind of temples that usually get overlooked by visitors to the area in favor of the area's more celebrated venues like Chon-in and nearby Yasaka Shrine.To this day I still don't know the name of the temple I ended up at.  I just remember walking off into the area's adjacent side streets and joining on to the first line I saw, hoping for the best with a sense of not really knowing what to expect. Although, One thing I did know was that rather than watching hatsumode rituals being performed by others, I was now  on the verge of fully engaging with Japanese New Year tradition by actually ringing a bell at a temple on New Years Eve myself; a custom which I'd be partaking in for the very first time. I'd visited shrines in an around Kyoto, Osaka and Tokyo during the first few days of January before, but never a temple on New Year's Eve.Once midnight came about a group of well-meaning French tourists attempted to encourage a countdown and then proceeded to crack open a small bottle of champagne. Coming from a culture of New Year countdowns and parties, I desperately wanted to join in, but given my position as part of a peaceful line waiting to enter a temple, it just somehow didn't seem entirely appropriate, so I just joined in with a light applause of solidarity along with a few other people waiting alongside me.One hour later, and I was still yet to step foot on to temple grounds. By this point my toes despite being comfortably cushioned in what deceivingly gave off the look of being super warm ugg boots were cold to the point of pain. Part of me did contemplate giving up and heading to one of the nearby shrines to observe happenings there, but I'd made it this far and didn't want to walk away from something that I knew could potentially be a special and memorable experience. As the long wait continued a very sweet Japanese family decided to strike up a conversation with me. I think it was my jumping up and down in an attempt to keep my feet warm which caught their attention. Our short conversation though, was a nice way to pass the time, and before long we soon found ourselves finally making that long-awaited step through the temple gates.The next big moment of excitement came when we were finally able to get our first glimpse of the temple and  its bell ringing platform. As we gradually moved closer the sound of the bell's distinctive chimes  grew stronger and the anticipation and excitement for what we were about to experience grew more powerful.Lining the path to the bell were several monks bowing and welcoming worshippers one by one, which added a more personable feel to proceedings. There were also several fires lit inside medium-sized metal cans. Walking past them was definitely a source of warmth on what was a freezing cold night, but I knew that that wasn't their purpose.The Japanese family who I'd spoken to earlier explained that the fires were placed there for people to burn their omamori (lucky charms) from the previous year which are purchased from shrines every year. Anyone who has seen one of these charms will no doubt  describe how gorgeously crafted they are through a combination of silk and beautiful kanji inscriptions.I asked the mother from the family in front of me if she ever 'felt sad about throwing such a beautiful object into a fire?' She explained that when she buys them every year she becomes attached to the charm's meaning and not to the charm itself. She then went on to tell me a story about a time  when she had once sent an omamori to her friend in Germany as a gift. Her German friend responded with a card 'thanking her for the beautiful gift, with a promise to treasure it forever'. She smiled and said that 'it all made sense now'. I smiled too, our difference in thinking was enlightening.After almost three hours of waiting, and  with my toes now surely on the cusp of frostbite, I was now just eight people away from ringing the bell.  I felt a sudden wave of panic as I realized that I wasn't actually sure what I was supposed to do:  I observed closely the people in front of me for tips on the correct bell ringing etiquette to follow: from what I could gather from my crammed moments of on-the-spot study, it seemed to be prey and bow once, ring the bell, bow and prey again before making way for the person waiting  behind.Typically, my own encounter with the bell ringing process ended up being a lot more comical than it should have been: as I readied the bell pull, the bakers boy hat which I somehow managed to forget I was wearing fell off rather awkwardly in slow motion. It  was picked up for me  a few moments later by the lady following me on to the bell ringing platform. I thanked her, bowed politely and left feeling slightly embarrassed, but also fulfilled having finally sampled a New Year's Eve in Japan in true Japanese style. With the wisdom of hindsight, I now realize that I should of taken the hat off, out of respect more than anything else.The streets  that greeted me outside the temple were filled with people making their way to other nearby temples and shrines to complete their own annual Hatsumode rituals. There was also a line of yatai (street food vendors) which are always a much welcome and common sight at most festivals in Japan. The New Year festivities were now in full swing, and the atmosphere was suitably festive and full of optimism and mystery for what the new year  would bring. I stopped off at one of the yatais for some Takoyaki before taking a relaxed and appreciative stroll back to the station and making my way back to Osaka just in time for first sunrise of the 2013 over Abeno Harukas. 

The grievances of 2016 that weren`t

This year has been a remarkable one. With celebrities dropping like flies and America`s political biosphere on fire, it is good to look back and reflect on all the good and bad things these past 365 days have brought. Of course, living in Japan is a whole other story. When you stay here for long enough, the outside world starts to look like some distant memory; nothing can touch you. For some, this means the stress of war, turmoil and new presidents (not necessarily talking about Trump here. Iceland also got a new president this year, albeit one with less fabulous hair). Some people come to Japan to run away from their problems. The problem is that this country is not free from its own problems. Troubleshooting in a completely different environment is not for the faint of heart, and many well-meaning individuals buckle under the pressure and leave within a few months. There is a term I often refer to when discussing the expat experience: The Honeymoon Period. For those not familiar with the term, The Honeymoon Period is the time period in the beginning of your stay somewhere unfamiliar, where everything seems perfect. The flowers smell fresher, the air is cleaner, the people more polite, trains on time and the food. Oh my Glob, the food! Like an explosion of feel-good senses burst from your brain and permeates everything you see. Even the homeless people seem to be smiling. Now, as we hopefully know by now, all good things come to an end. It is sad but true. You wake up one morning and you find an uncooked rice in your bowl of gyudon. You drop your change from the conbini because the teller put the coins on top of the receipt again. Some kid yelled “Why Japanese people!” at you for the three-thousandth time and something inside you. Just. Snaps. This is when the honeymoon period ends. The time it takes differs between people. For some it takes only a few months. For others, a few years. The most common timeframe I`ve heard is two years. It seems that the second or third year for expats is the hardest one. I guess it has something to do with starting to see patterns in life. You`ve experienced the same things before, the veil of freshness drops and your brain starts getting bored. And when it gets bored, it starts focusing on the negative parts in life. And that`s when you`re in trouble. For myself, I have no idea where I am on the “honeymoon-period-curve”. I am on my third consecutive year in Japan, but my fourth in total. I have experienced some hardship and annoyances during that time, but never have I gotten close to saying “well, it has been fun. I`m leaving. See ya never!”. So for the difficulties of 2016, I would only count the minor grievances as a collective, rather than one big event. And even then, these annoyances don`t add up to me wanting to pack my bags.   So, without further ado, I present the top 5 gripes of 2016 in no particular order. 1. The amount of people (hito-gomi). There are so many people in Japan. There are so many people in the cities. There are so many people in my train station. Why can I not get a seat on the train at 7:30 on a Wednesday in the most populated station in West Japan? Why is everybody pushing me? Why is that person running? What does he know that I don`t? Don`t you dare steal that seat. I saw it first! What`s that smell? Why is a school baseball team taking the train now? Despite all that, I actually really like riding trains. 2. Polite versions of already polite enough words There`s the plain form, there`s the polite form, there`s the super polite form and probably twenty more forms. I barely mastered using the desu-masu forms, and the teller in the Disney store just asked me something I couldn`t understand. I say “eh?” and the teller replies “puresento?” like I`m a damn fool. Even now, I cannot recall what she actually said, but I know it was not a “masu” form of any word I know. Or maybe it is. Now, the real reason I don`t understand is because I haven`t bothered to learn as much as I should have. That doesn`t make me feel any better, you know! 3. The lack of sleep Japan has such variety. There are so many things to do here. Everything is available almost any time of the day. 24/7 entertainment. Why would you want to leave? Why would you want to sleep? So what if you have to wake up at 6:30 to dance in front of hundreds of 6 year olds. You can survive on 3 hours of sleep and coffee. There is no escape. Sleep or boundless entertainment. Choose one and regret the other. 4. The variety Why buy this when you can buy that? This place has a discount, but this place uses point cards. If you sign up now, this place offers a free takoyaki machine with your purchase. Options, options, options! Sometimes I wish for a world that has just ONE STATE APPROVED TOILET PAPER TYPE. And then I remember that I actually like takoyaki. Oh well. 5. The weather It`s too sunny. It`s too cloudy. It`s too rainy. It never snows! It`s too cold! Why can`t it be summer in wintertime and winter in summertime? Why is the weather not like it used to be back home? What? It`s because I`m not home? What`s this nonsense? Now, as you may have noticed, these are extremely minor annoyances. Barely worth mentioning. And all of them can be summed up to my own personal view of the world. My own failures as a person, my own inexperience and my own irrational, egotistical ways. And that is the way of the world. We all get upset sometimes that the world doesn`t revolve around us. And that`s quite alright. As long as we recognize and deal with our feelings in a productive, safe manner (Batting center!), it`s alright to feel the way we feel. If you start feeling overwhelmed and alone, just remember that there are options (options, options, options!). We all get into a slump every once in a while. As Doctor Seuss said, there are plenty of ways to “unslump” yourself. 2016 is coming to an end. The next year will promise another four seasons and a whole lot of reasons to leave the country. It also gives us just as many reasons to stay. So let`s rejoice and count our lucky stars we`re not celebrities.

Oshogatsu ( New Year ) in Japan

In Japan they spend their new year in visiting a temple. In the midnight of Dec.31st the temple bell begins to ring . And they pray for a good health and prosperous for the coming year. And some of them went to a mountain to witness the first sunrise of the year.

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