Wednesday, May 8, 2013

Ashikaga Flower Park

On Sunday I finally made it out to 足利フラワーパーク(Ashikaga Flower Park) out in Tochigi Prefecture. The reason I say finally, is that I've been planning to go there for over 4 years now. Every year in May I say I'm going to go, and every year I wait too long and miss the window. The window being; the wisteria.

If you want to visit the flower park, but are worried about missing out on the wisteria, don't. A few of the purple ones are still in full bloom, the double flowering version is at its peak now, and the yellow variation of wisteria will continue blooming until the end of this month. Also, the park has a lot of other flowers like roses, irises, exotic waterlilies, etc.

Getting to the park from Tokyo turned out to be somewhat of an ordeal, so I hope you can benefit from my hard-earned experience. First of all, prepare to get up early. I left my house at 7 a.m. and didn't get to the park until 10:45. I got to Kita-Senju station around 7:50 and planned on taking the next train, only to discover I had just missed one. The next train wasn't until 8:49. When I finally got out to Ashikaga-shi around 10 a.m., I found out the shuttle bus wasn't a quick 5 or 10 minute run like I thought. It was 45 minutes.

I planned to be the early bird and get amazing photos by being first in the park. Instead, by the time I got there, about 8 huge bus loads of people had already arrived. Basically, my only thoughts at that point were, "Bugger. Why did I come here again?"

Is it worth it after all that bother? Let me show you a few photos and you can decide for yourself. I would go again in a heartbeat. The smell alone was worth it.

About 90m of white wisteria. It was beautiful, even if it was chockabock full of people!

End of my day with a wisteria and vanilla soft serve ice cream. It was a wonderful way to finish my trip!

Monday, March 4, 2013

Quick Random Photo Post

Since we're right between the end of one fiscal year and the beginning of the next, tax season, end of school, etc. I've been rather busy. I haven't had much of a chance to go anywhere or do anything. I'm hoping to head out to Kyoto at the beginning of April to see the Miyako Odori, and I'll be sure to post it if I do, but other than that I have nothing going on.

So, rather than just leave this blog with no updates, I thought I'd do a quick photo dump of things I've seen or like recently.

#1 Starbucks during Cherry Blossom season

I am crazy about the Sakura Chiffon Cake that Starbucks puts out every year around this time. It's delicious! They used to marble the cake, and have white and pink marbled chiffon, but this year it's a uniform pink. The taste is still the same. It's got a cherry flavor and on top you get a salted cherry blossom. 

They also do cute cups.

#2 Graduations equal Furisode

We're now getting into graduation season. This means more furisode and hakama! The best time is usually Seijinshiki (Coming of Age ceremony), but this year it snowed in Tokyo, so many people either didn't wear furisode, or stayed indoors as much as possible. I only saw one or two girls running off with their sleeves trailing behind them, leaving me no time to snap a photo.

#3 Dean & Deluca - Shinjuku Store

I don't often go to places like Dean & Deluca because they are overpriced (in my opinon) when it comes to groceries. But, lately some of their pastries are comparable in price with other shops, so I've been popping in every once in a while to grab a quick breakfast. I love their latte art. =)  

#4 Personalized Messages on Coffee Cups

Lately I find that the odd time I buy a cup of coffee from Tully's or Starbucks, I get a message written on it. This is super cute, makes my day, and I'm always excited to see if I get one. Mind you, when I see other people getting them and my cup sleeve is blank, I have major message envy. =P

If people are interested, I'll try and update with photos more often, instead of waiting until I have something interesting to talk about. =P

Sunday, February 10, 2013

Helping Out

Long time no post! I have a bunch of stuff I've been meaning to write about on this blog, but life has kind of gotten in the way lately.

Currently I'm holding down two jobs, going to classes to help me pass N1 on the Japanese exam, and trying to fit shamisen in there somewhere, too. It's not easy. I hardly every see my friends anymore, let alone blog about stuff we go do.

I'm not posting to start up the pity parade, though. I wanted to introduce you all to a cool site, and help out a friend.

The site is called Tokyo Faces. You can see it here. It's a site devoted to pictures of people in Tokyo and their own brand of fashion. My hair color specialist is involved with this project. She spends most of her free time running around Tokyo looking for people to take pictures of. Check it out. It's not like the site Tokyo Fashion, which focuses almost exclusively on Harajuku fashion. I don't know about all of you, but I get really tired of the crazy hair colors and contact lenses. Visual Kei and all its derivatives are so over. Tokyo Faces is much more funky and eclectic.

The site also has a fan page on Facebook. You'd be making some people I know really happy if you happen to click like! =)

I'll be back to posting again in the near future. I have plans to attend a few plum blossom festivals next weekend.

Talk to you all soon!


Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Hot boys, alcohol and rats

A few years ago, my friends and I decided to find out what this whole host club business was about. For those of you outside Japan who've never heard of them, host clubs are where (supposedly) handsome young men pour your drinks, wipe the condensation from the glass for you, light your cigarettes, flatter you, and basically make you feel like a princess.

The clubs are quite popular with lonely women who have no boyfriends (or neglected housewives), and can be somewhat dangerous if you get in too deep with a host. Remember, if you go to these clubs, the guys are in it for the paycheck. Never forget they aren't sincere and just trying to part you from your money. If you can keep that in mind, you can have a fun time.

I'm of two minds about host clubs now, because one of my ex-boyfriends was a host in college. The routine, according to him, is to meet  girl the first time and get her number and email. He will then get in contact with her and say that he wants to see her outside work and really liked her. They will start dating, and all dates are actually paid for by the club. After a few weeks or more, the guy will ask the girl to start visiting the club to "keep him company." You have to pay to have a host sit with you, so this costs the girl a lot of money. She must also buy her own bottle of alcohol to keep in reserve, so for one night you could be looking at approximately $400. The hosts also drink alcohol from your bottle, so you need to buy new ones quite often and they aren't cheap. This is another way to get a lot of money out of the patrons. After the girl has been visiting the club for a while, the boy will come up with a story like, "I'm so close to being number 1 this month and getting a big bonus, but I'm short by $500 bucks. If only one of my customers could buy that special bottle of brandy/champagne/whatever...." and the girl, so in love by this point, does it. Sounds horrible, right?

I can't really throw stones, though, because hostess bars do the same thing in reverse. The only argument I have is that the clients of hostess bars are usually successful business men, not lonely housewives or part time workers. They usually have more money to spend than the women in host clubs do.

This is my story of the first time I visited a club in Tokyo. I went with two girlfriends for solidarity and we had a real adventure!

On our way to the chosen club (Acqua, if you're interested), we had to walk up the main drag of Kabukicho that is riddled with host clubs. The club next to the one we had chosen had very aggressive hosts who tried to pull us in, but we had already made the choice to visit one specific club so we kept going.
The front of the building is really amazing with a huge, lit up sign and pictures of the most popular hosts. The downstairs entrance also seemed quite impressive with a sliding door and lots of lit up cases of expensive alcohol.
That is where the glamour stops.

The club is in a basement, and it looks like it. The ceiling was a bunch of pipes and rafters that were extremely dirty looking (big mistake painting them white if they aren't going to clean them occasionally). Also, within the first ten minutes of our stay we saw a huge rat climbing the back door frame where the hosts come out of. It was about a foot and a half long. Halfway up the door frame it fell down to the floor and disappeared behind some tables. Our girly screams echoed over the music of the club and all the patrons and hosts turned to stare at us. Seriously. They spent so much money on the decor at eye level, I couldn't understand why they wouldn't fix the ceiling (and any holes that the rats are apparently using to get into the club).
When we walked in, we were met with nervous faces (oh my God! Foreigners! What do we do?!?) and were asked for our gaijin cards (I.D. for foreign people living in Japan). We had to sit down on a bench and wait for them to give us the okay.
Eventually we passed whatever criteria they were after and were brought to a table. An extremely nice host (who I later designated -- let's call him pouty lips, cuz that's what he has in his picture at the club) explained the system to us and asked if we'd like to choose someone right away. We wanted the whole parade of hosts, so we said we wanted to meet them all and would choose later.
When you go for the first time, you're given a special price of 5000 yen (approximately 50 dollars) for 2 hours. You also get a bottle of either Shochu or Brandy to drink at your table. D and I chose brandy while H chose shochu. The bottles are fairly big, so you can get a good 12 to 15 drinks out of it. About 85% of the hosts also drank H's shochu, so our bottle of brandy lasted a really long time. 
The hosts came in groups of twos or threes and stayed for about 10 to 15 minutes each. Some were extremely funny and witty. Some were shitfaced or on drugs and were unintelligible. The conversation ranged from Canada to Japan to movies to sex. It was really hilarious.
One host, with the most perfect host hair was so wasted that his eyes were practically rolled back in his head. He slurred his words badly and the only things that were said clearly was his joke about his "Big dick" which was said in English. Yah, I wasn't too impressed with him. He had blue (?) contacts in, and in the dim lighting it made his eyes seem white. The whole experience with him freaked me out. His teeth were also almost transparent. I guess that's what happens when you constantly have to go throw up in the bathroom so you don't die of alcohol poisoning.
There were a few bright spots, though. Two or three hosts were very witty and seemed "real". Talking with them made the evening so much fun. Of course, one of them was from Osaka. I LOVE Osaka people. They are open, friendly, and don't bullshit or beat around the bush like Kanto area people.They weren't the most good looking hosts, but their personalities really made them shine.
After the first hour and a half, we were asked to select one host to accompany us for the rest of the evening. I was a little put out because there were a few more hosts we hadn't met yet. I really wanted the host to stop hovering and waiting for us to choose someone, because I wanted time to think about it and discuss it with the girls. As it was, I felt pressure to pick someone in a hurry. D chose the funny Osaka guy and H chose another hilarious host I'll call Mr. Personality. I didn't really know what to do, so I chose pouty lips that had explained the system to us at the beginning. He was pretty nice and I hoped we could have a good conversation.
Sadly, I was disappointed in pouty lips. He chatted with me about various topics, but his attention kept wandering, and as a result so did mine. He also laughed at a mistake I made in Japanese and repeated it to all the other hosts while laughing. I thought it was rude. I was bored with him. H and D seemed to be having a really great time with their hosts, so I had host envy.
When our time was up, Osaka, Mr. Personality and pouty lips carried our purses for us and led us back up to street level. They politely thanked us for the evening, but only Osaka made a point of telling D he wanted mail from her. I'm wondering if the other two just assumed we wouldn't return, or if they were put off by the fact we had boyfriends.
I had a really good time for the first hour and a half, but if I had to go back again and pay nearly 30,000 yen to sit with the same host, I wouldn't enjoy it.
I think the key to enjoying a host club is to only go for the first time. You get to meet a large assortment of boys, drink lots of booze, and only owe 50 bucks at the end of the night.

Out of curiosity, I emailed another host from the club that had given me his business card. I told him that pouty lips and I hadn't really gotten along and that I was curious about going back to the club and choosing a different host. I was told it was "very difficult" (translation: not done), but that if I had VERY strong objections to the host and still wanted to come back, I should talk to pouty lips about breaking off my relationship with him and seeing if it would be okay to continue with another host. I doubt many women do that, because you'd have to see that host glaring at you from across the room every time you went. It's better just to leave that club and choose another.

I visited another club in Roppongi called Club Dios, and I'll put the post up for that sometime in the near future.

Monday, August 27, 2012


This past Saturday and Sunday was one of the biggest festivals of the year: Koenji's Awaodori. It's estimated that about 10,000 people participate in groups called 連 (ren) and over a million people come to watch. This year the event was held from 5 to 7 p.m. (although it ran over and ended closer to 8:10), but some years it's held in the middle of the afternoon.

Dancers preparing to start the parade

What is Awaodori?

The dance originated in Tokushima prefecture, which is in Shikoku in the far south of Japan. It's approximately 400 years old and one of the three biggest summer dances, along with Nishimonai Bon-odori (西馬音内盆踊り) from Akita prefecture and Gujou Hachiman Bon-odori (郡上八幡盆踊り) from Gifu prefecture. Bon-odori is a kind of festival dance done in summer. You often see it at various events in Japan. The Awa odori is somewhat unusual in its dance moves. It is believed to have derived from Noh theatre.

The groups of dancers are accompanied by taiko drums, shinobue flutes, shamisen, and bells. There are two types of dances: those for women and those for men. The women wear a type of dance kimono, which is very tight with distinctive hats. They dance on the tips of their geta sandals with their hands in the air. The men wear happi coats or short yukata (summer kimono), shorts, and a type of tabi sock with a thick sole. Their dance is crouched down and often performed with a fan, lantern, or uchiwa (the round fans that don't fold). Women may also perform the men's style of dance, but men do not dance the women's style.

Sounds a bit boring, but the groups don't just dance in place. The drums get rocking and the men's groups start going crazy. There was running, big jumps in the air, insane freestyle moves, etc. This event is totally worth seeing!

Here are some examples of the women and men's costumes:

Young girl wearing the traditional hat, called 鳥追笠 (torioigasa) or 編み笠 (amikasa), which is a type of sloped hat made from grass. It is sewn together and often has a lovely contrasting colour border and strap.

Woman wearing the traditional happi coat, shorts, tabi socks, obi and head towel of the men's dance. She is carrying a dance fan called 舞扇子 (maiogi), but the dance can also be done with uchiwa (round fans that do not fold) or lanterns.

Women's Dance Style:

The dancers usually start in a crouching position, awaiting the signal to start dancing. The signal is the band leader hitting a sort of cymbal that sounds like a bell. This is a good signal for you to get your camera ready, too.

The women make small, mincing steps on the tips of their geta sandals (heels do not touch the ground) and make a sort of high kick in the back.

Here you can see the height of the kick in the back. This must have been a bit scandalous dance back in the day, showing so much leg!

Here is a close up of their feet:

The men's dance is also quite difficult, as it requires the dancer to stay in a crouched position, putting all his weight on his thigh muscles (rather like doing squats at the gym), moving his right hand and foot forward, with toes pointed down. He then makes a sort of triangle movement in the air with his hands and flicks them at the wrist. The leg is crossed over and down and the movement repeats with the left hand and foot.

Although Tokushima is the origin of Awa-odori, and undoubtedly the best place to see it, not all of us can afford to go down to Shikoku, so Koenji's festival is a good alternative. It's large, boisterous, and performed on several streets around the station, so you can be guaranteed of a good view.

I recommend getting there a bit early, if you want a good view. I arrived around 4, and immediately made my way out to one of the starting points of the dance. A good place to be is just past one of the yellow arches that have 読売新聞 (Yomiuri Shinbun- a sponsor of the event) written on them. Those are the starting points for each group to dance. If you're just on the other side of it (opposite the side with writing), you'll have a fantastic view of the dancers as they come through. 

Pick a spot you want to stay in, because as the festival goes on, the sidewalks fill up until they're three or four people deep. This makes it hard to move around and you may not get another good viewing spot. The farther out you are from the station, the less people will be there, so try to choose one of the locations at the end of the main street. Helpful people with pamphlets and fans (great souvenirs, as they're free!) will help guide you and give you a map. 

Don't worry about bringing a snack. Street stalls are set up every foot or so along all the main streets, selling drinks and various snacks. You can get everything from Japan's favorite summer drink, Lamune, to beer and Bacardi Mojitos (you can drink alcohol on the streets of Japan, so don't worry). Food varies from traditional festival food like yakisoba and okonomiyaki to hot dogs on a stick and gyoza. I guarantee you will find something you like. There are also a plethora of convenience stores, on the off chance you don't like what the stalls have to offer.

Here are a few more shots of the festival.

For more information on the festival and more pictures, please visit Koenji City's website that is dedicated to the event. You can also find information about buying goods from the festival.

Hope to see you all there next year!