Thursday, 3 December 2015

Sam Smith Tokyo Concert 2015

Sam Smith cancelled a concert earlier in the year, as he was suffering from a vocal hemorrhage. Fans were, understandably, disappointed, but I simply glanced at the news and shrugged, as I had been unable to get tickets. He’s quite popular even here in Japan, so seats were sold out. However, he announced a new tour date and I rushed to the convenience store, and was able to get tickets! So, four of us made the trip out to Tokyo on a Tuesday night to hear his dulcet tones. Tickets were ¥8000, not including taxes and other charges.

The Yoyogi arena seats about 15,000 people or thereabouts, so even though we were up on the third floor, we had a good view of the screen and could still make out the people on the stage without straining too hard. Japanese and Korean music companies are extremely strict about fan recordings, but English-speaking artists don’t seem to mind. This can be good or bad, but the seats were sloped enough that anyone holding up a phone (no professional recording equipment or cameras were permitted into the stadium) could snap some shots.

It’s always interesting watching an English-language artist in Tokyo, because the crowds are a mix of Japanese and non-Japanese, with a good amount of English-speakers, so people react in real time to whatever the singers say. In some concerts, the singers have a translator, and you can tell who understands what language by when they react. However, Sam Smith forwent translation and talked to the audience, who cheered audibly at appropriate times, so it obviously wasn’t a problem!

On the other hand, however often he asked the audience to sing actual lyrics, it wasn’t very successful; as much as people love his music, it’s pretty difficult to memorise lyrics in another language. When we asked us to create the backing track for “La la la”, the audience went at it and did fantastically, but dancing and singing was a bit beyond us!

Near the end, many fans got out their phones and turned on a flashlight. A lot of Korean and Japanese companies have jumped on the merchandising bandwagon and made official concert fanlights, but for artists who don’t have all the extras, music lovers just use their phones. We all waved our phones from side to side in time with the music, twinkling along with Sam’s gorgeous voice. Perhaps that’s why he called it “one of the most beautiful gigs I’ve ever done” – although to be honest, he could easily say that at every concert and we’d never know! Still, it was really lovely to join in with the crowd and wave back and forth, bought together by our love of music.

Two songs which he mixed up a little were “Not in That Way”, which he added some classic “Can't Help Falling in Love” (Elvis Presley), and “Money on My Mind”, which segued into “Finally” (by Cece Peniston). It was a short concert – over in 90 minutes, but he is, after all, just one man, and he didn’t take many breaks between songs either!

One of the best and most exciting Tuesdays I've experienced in a while!



Saturday, 28 November 2015

Kanazawa Day One

We caught the shinkansen by the skin of our teeth, as it was an early morning start. It was certainly a breathless way to start the trip, but I recommend not rolling around for twenty minutes after your alarm rings. Do pack some snacks though; munching sweatily on my food made me feel a lot better after we’d stopped panting!

The sunrise was lovely on the way out though!

We took the Shinkansen to Maibara, a lovely smooth ride, and then switched to the local express. Here’s a tiny tip for those looking to save money – get discounted tickets beforehand if possible, but even if not, leave the station and look for the ticket machines. They’ll only save you a few hundred yen, but you not only feel victorious after figuring out the kanji, but you can go and buy yourself an onigiri for your troubles. You can’t find the machines on google maps, but they’ll usually be close to the station entrance, tucked under an overhang or in a discreet corner.

Manned ticket booths
We reached Kanazawa station just before noon, and were entranced even before exiting the ticket gates. Kanazawa is one of the few places that still has ticketmen (perhaps also women?) manning the gates, and so we were ushered efficiently through the gates and into the very large, modern station.
Kanazawa station is a place to explore in itself, and we were treated to an “eki-con” – station concert, just opposite the track gates. A string quartet began to play a jaunty tune, accompanied by a lone man whose instrument seemed to be alternating between a whistle and a small train pipe. It later turned out that he played the French horn, but wouldn’t it have been great if he had been employed for that sole purpose?

Tootle tootle

An imposing sight
Outside the station, the massive gates, a modern take on the traditional Japanese tori, loomed large under a giant domed roof. At the end of the walkway, a fountain burbled “WELCOME”, “KANAZAWA” and the time of day. It was rather fascinating – a simple idea, but very effective – tourists all around us were caught frantically between. Which to snap a picture of first? Where to pose? The choice was daunting.

We wanted to set our bags down first, so we set off on the 30 minute walk to our accomadation. That took us through the heart of Kanazawa city, so we enjoyed coming across random art sculptures and observing the buildings and people around us. Our route took us through omi-cho, the local fish market, so we got to see the local businesses hawking their wares. It all looked incredibly fresh, for ridiculously low prices. Much of the shellfish was still alive, crabs with claws tied together, shrimps still swimming around in their tanks.

Artwork on the street

The mama-san at Minshuku Ginmatsu was a tiny smiley lady. She speaks a little English, and makes herself understood quite loudly and clearly, and we met both local and overseas guests, so it’s evidently a well-known and international place. Our rooms were about 2,000 yen per night per person, with a decent amount of space once the futons were rolled away – perhaps a five or six mat tatami room.

Once we’d settled in, popped the bags down and unpacked, we walked out to the Higashi Chaya district, which essentially means South Tea Area. Many of the buildings are faithfully restored, as their tight-knit structure meant that any fires rampaged through the town and destroyed many a building. We wandered through the small alleyways to get to the main square, where there was a wedding taking place – the bride resplendent in a white kimono, and men sleekly poised in grey suits. Higashi Chaya is the only one of its type to be named a cultural asset, as it’s particularly well maintained and historical.
A wedding in progress

Waiting on ice cream

All about higashi chaya
Traditionally, tea districts are a place of entertainment, filled with geisha and music. Most of the buildings have been converted into shops selling all manner of things – traditional pottery, chopsticks, golden beauty products, and many shops had little plaques relating the history of their buildings – what it had been used for in the past, how many times it had burned down and been rebuilt – that sort of thing. I really liked the old-time vibe of the area. It wasn’t quaint – it was absolutely bustling with tourists and business, but it had certainly preserved a historical feel for visitors to appreciate. We saw posters for geisha shows on the weekends, too, but since I am fortunate enough to have the same opportunity around my own area, we skipped it for sights harder to find back in our prefecture.

Golden buildings

Since Kanazawa is largely renowned for gold-leaf production, that was incorporated into almost every shop. One even sold a face mask of gold (for a cool ¥5000) and we could get gold leaf ice-cream too. I tried some coffee with gold leaf, but wasn’t overfond of it. Gold leaf has no flavour apart from extravagance, and it was a fun gimmick, but certainly not something I’d go out of my way to get. Still, Kanazawa managed to put it everywhere!

We wandered in and out of various shops and snapped a good amount of photos. Once we’d explored what the place had to offer, we followed signs towards a museum that turned out to be the Sakuda Gold and Silver Leaf Museum. Although we hadn’t made a reservation, there was space for us to try our hand at crafting some gold leaf products! There were a variety of things to choose from – small lacquer boxes, chopsticks, pendants and the like. The cheapest and least time-consuming option were the chopsticks (¥800), so we chose that. The workshop leaders didn’t speak any English, but showed us the process, then let us at it! We had a bouquet of chopsticks to gain inspiration from, and A-Sharp went for a cool striped design, whereas I tried my hand at a wonky “Kanazawa” and “2015” in kanji. I am now well aware that my dates are wrong, but nevermind.

Craft tools

Sample chopsticks

Making our designs

Brushing on gold leaf

It was getting dark by the time we finished with our golden leaf adventures, so we headed back towards omicho market for dinner. All the stalls were closed up, but the restaurants were bustling. We threaded our way through the damp cobbles and randomly chose a restaurant tucked into the corner of an alley after seeing a pair of salarymen stagger ahead of us. They were completely right – we were lucky to snag one of the last free tables. Not ten minutes after we’d entered, a queue of hungry customers began to grow. However, we gleefully sipped our cups of roasted rice tea and looked at the menu. We decided to share a sashimi and rice platter, topped with everything! You could either choose a combo, or go for everything, and of course, what’s a hungry girl to do but choose the most extravagant? Omicho has fantastic seafood and I wasn’t about to miss out on the opportunity to try it out!

Nor do I regret the choice – it was absolutely delicious. And, of course, it being Kanazawa, they sprinkled a little gold leaf on top. I bet organ donations in Kanazawa are worth more money… my villi were probably lined with gold leaf! I was King Midas on the inside (except hopefully less foolish)!

We finished the day with a coffee at Starbucks. I have no way to defend myself except to say that Starbucks represents holidays to me – they don’t exist out where I live, and its genuinely become a treat for me!

Just chillin' with ojipan

The only thing I would add to this first day timetable, if you’re looking for suggestions, is the confectionery museum. I did a little trip research beforehand, but we weren’t going by any solid timetable, so it slipped our minds. Kanazawa is also known for its sweet making, so it’s definitely something to keep in mind!

Wednesday, 7 October 2015

POLA Annex, Ginza

POLA is a cosmetics firm based in Japan, which was founded in Shizuoka nearly 100 years ago! It started out as a chemical products firm, but quickly branched out. It’s an international brand now, but still mostly popular within Japan, and not that well known outside the islands. There are a lot of branches dotted around, and I’ve toyed with the idea of getting a facial done at one of them but have not yet got round to doing so. However, POLA also has an art foundation; giving scholarships and sponsoring works around Japan.

They also own a well-stocked museum in Hakone; Claude Monet, Pierre Auguste Renoir, Pablo Picasso and Léonard Foujita are represented within the museum’s collection. It’s definitely worth a visit, and Hakone isn’t far out from Tokyo at all. I’ve visited once, and was rather impressed both by the indoor and outdoor esthetics; I’d like to go back and do a photoshoot sometime. In the meantime, I’ll make do with the cute gift shop stuff my friends bought for me – a rather crazy looking Monet post-it set, and a badge with a popular Renoir painting. Japan really knows how to market things – I have more stuff here than I know what to do with, all of it cute or memorable or somehow unpartable with.

There’s an art annex above their store in the midst of the upmarket district of Ginza, so we went to have a gander at what it had to offer. It’s not a particularly large gallery – just the one room, but what it had to offer was very enjoyable.

This particular exhibit, Crystal Universe, was a combination of colour-changing LEDs in a darkened room, accompanied by music. The Japan Times provides a little more background on the event:

“Artist collective teamLab was founded in 2001, and its members include artists, programmers, engineers, CG animators, mathematicians, architects, designers and editors. Its work, therefore, has always been of a sophisticated artistic and technological nature. For the Pola Museum, it is turning the building’s annex gallery into an atmospheric interactive space, using 60,000 LEDs in a 3-D form.”

I just re-read it myself, and visitors could somehow adjust the lights through the website, so I wish I had knows that! We were absolutely mesmerized by the lights and colours. I wished that the short bursts of music/color were a little longer – each phrase was around a thirty seconds maximum, and I felt that something longer could have been orchestrated to keep the audience’s attention longer, instead of constantly waiting and wanting for more. Still – can’t complain. I’m an absolute sucker for lights and colours – fireworks, fireflies… winter illuminations are the bright spot in an otherwise cold and dank season.

You can check out their upcoming exhibitions here. I’m intrigued by November’s “Hats Off!” – I’ll probably pop by and let you know what they’re like!
Location: Pola Museum Annex; Pola Ginza Bldg. 3F, 1-7-7 Ginza, Chuo-ku, Tokyo
Free admission.

Wednesday, 30 September 2015

Tokyo Art Book Fair, 2015

The Tokyo Art Book fair was one of the most stunning gatherings of creativity I’ve experienced in one place since coming to Japan. Although I love living in the countryside, it’s the masses of creativity that can be experienced in the city that I miss, so I was determined to visit. I set off early in the morning on the three hour train to Tokyo, ready to read.

The fair was being held at Tohoku University of Art and Design (Gaien Campus), on three beautifully sunny days. The campus was easy to find, just a few minutes’ walk from the station. I visited on the final day, a Monday, 21st of September. Apparently, the first two days had been quite packed, so I was glad to be there early Monday to avoid the crowds. There were still a lot of people around, so my giant hiking bag was a little distracting, but I later managed to put it behind a table and wander around more freely. The fair started out in the courtyard with a selection of delicious looking food (and each stall with some cookbooks or trinkets that matched the culinary theme) and led into a corridor, with a number of rooms to choose from.

The ground floor held one large “international” room, with vendors selling photobooks from all over the world, whereas the smaller rooms were dedicated to less well-known exhibitors, some tended to by the photographers themselves. It was great to see some zines and university students displaying their wares, and I was impressed by the sheer talent and creativity crammed into one building.

The upper floor held even more stalls, separated into smaller rooms, and one larger area dedicated to printing. The printing room – oh the printing room! There were reams of paper, from stacks of B5 to paper that could have served as a small bed, carefully piled on wooden pallets. It was stationery heaven. Although I resisted buying any books for myself (buying a single one would have unleashed a floodgate), I did pick up a rather interesting notebook. Rather than paper, it’s a few whiteboard pages spiral-bound together. It came with a thin whiteboard marker and eraser, and seemed rather useful for classes, so I parted with ¥2,000 yen for it – rather pricey for a normal notebook, but not that bad when you consider that it’s good just about forever! When I took it home and opened it up, I noticed four squares on each page, one on each corner – very much like what you see for QR codes. Following that line of thought, I did a brief internet search on the brand and figured out that there was an accompanying application that allowed me to scan and upload any notes I wanted to save onto my phone! Very handy. I could easily just snap a photograph, of course, but the app cleans up the note a little and organizes it a bit better. I think it’s a bit like Evernote.

 I couldn’t resist buying a bunch of poetry postcards either. As I browsed through the rooms (I genuinely went through each one at least thrice, finding new things to catch my eye each time), I was hearing a mix of both Japanese and English, but a particular accent caught my ear as I walked by a table. It was Singlish, so I stopped to have a chat and look through what they had to offer. I have an especial soft spot for anything from Malaysia and Singapore, so I may have just… bought the entire set. Um. Moving on. Sarah and Schooling were the company present at the school, and I discovered an excellent Singaporean poet, Joshua Ip, whose poetry was embossed on the cards. I tried to purchase a book online, but it seems they’re all sold out.

Spoils of Singapore

I also found an old friend working the stalls at Shashasha, a photography gallery based in Shibuya. They showcase Japanese and Asian photographers, and even offer an app to view the photographers they publish! It’s pretty forward thinking, and they had a good range of books. I was fascinated by the dreamy black and white photos by Kiyoshi Suzuki

Kiyoshi Suzuki, Aus Mind Games, 1982

 Kiyoshi Suzuki, The town of circus tent 1983

Another of my friends is doing an internship with a German publisher, Kehrer. I’m so glad he found me (I drifted past the stall before he spotted me and called me back), because I discovered a new photographer who I’ve become slightly obsessed with – Vee Speers. Her style is very light and exposed; simple backgrounds, focusing on a single subject in a photo. The book I saw, Bulletproof, was a 6 year project in the making. Speers took photos of children in dress-up, posed, masked, uncertain, young. Then, years later, she returned to do the same, but showing their growth and change, adding strange, fighting props to signify how they have to adapt to the world around them. Some might call it pretentious and unoriginal, but I felt she really captured the atmosphere and vulnerability of the current generation. The fairy-tale vibe works well with their bizarre costumes.

Vee Speers, Bulletproof
The Tokyo Art Book fair is an annual event, and one well worth visiting. Keep your calendars free in 2016 mid-September, and go have a look at the mad stacks of creativity for yourself! I felt pretty inspired by the whole thing and went out for a photowalk with a friend the following weekend. But that is another post for another day.


Saturday, 4 July 2015

Koyoi Ryokan, Heda, Izu Peninsula

Fuji views from Heda

Is it possible to be exhausted from relaxing? I certainly feel that way after this past weekend. I organized a weekend ryokan retreat for myself and some other people in the area. There were nineteen of us, all ready for some serious bathing time.

Tuesday, 11 March 2014


So at the two tips of Japan, we have Hokkaido in the North, and Okinawa in the South. Now, as someone who definitely doesn’t like the cold, and has been to Hokkaido before, you’d think I’d say “hey, let’s go to Okinawa for a winter holiday! It will be warm” That, at least, would be the logical thing to do. But I defy logic. I like to stomp all over it. And then, it stomps all over me.

A group of fellow gaikokujin and I all got together and decided to go to the Snow Festival, a famous yearly event in Hokkaido. Hokkaido is hidden under a few meters of snow every winter, so at the end of the year, they gather up as much snow as possible, shovel it into a few parks, and make it into ice sculptures! When I visited last year around December, it wasn’t quite the season, so all we saw was piles of snow, waiting to be transformed. This month, February, was perfect.

The plane journey from Haneda airport in Tokyo only took an hour, so we arrived in the early afternoon. Rather than staying in a hotel, we opted to go with airbnb, which is like a paid version of couchsurfer. Essentially, people living in the area open up their houses as and when they have the time/space/inclination. Airbnb puts visitors directly in touch with the homeowners, who then decide whether they want to take you in or not. Fortunately, Mr. Sangun decided that we seemed a trustworthy bunch, and eleven of us trooped into his house. It was set up rather like a B&B; a simple breakfast was provided – nothing exceptional, though we did get nabe on the last day!

It was quite centrally located, so after checking in, we quickly headed out to one of the main parks, Odori. There were some magnificent sculptures of all shapes and sizes. There were four or five main, gigantically sized buildings – an Indian Palace, a grand mosaic dedicated to the Sochi Olympics. There was even a (possibly life-sized) replica of the Malaysian parliament! Of course, no Japanese matsuri is complete without the food stalls, and so, next to the sculpture was a dedicated stall to Malaysian food! There were a few bona-fide Malaysians in there, churning out satay, teh tarik and other quintessential Malaysian delicacies. I didn’t give them a try as I was already loaded up on seafood and miso soup, but it was a surprising and fun reminder of my childhood.

The sculptures were absolutely fantastic, but even with a number of pocket warmers I was absolutely freezing, so every so often, we’d pop inside the nearest combini to warm our frozen limbs back to life. There were some repeated themes – Funashi, a really popular mascot, and anpan man, the mascot for a particular brand of bread. We trudged along the entire street and back to ensure that we didn’t miss anything. It was all very cool (perhaps around -5 or so, to be precise…)

We certainly appreciated a nice hot dinner afterwards

Wednesday, 5 March 2014

Girls and Pancakes

Hinamatsuri is a celebration for the little ladies; “girls’ day”, or “doll’s day” in Japan. There’s also a corresponding “boys’ day” later on in the year, but that’s gradually just become a “children’s day”, so hinamatsuri is a particularly lovely little reminder to appreciate the young ladies.

One of my co-workers made her daughter some colourful sushi, a traditional meal on the day. Other typical hinamatsuri ingestibles include shirozake, which is a type ofsake made from fermented rice and hishimochi, a diamond-shaped colored rice cake. So, while I couldn’t get out to any shrines to see a display of the ningyo (sets of dolls that represent the Imperial Palace’s occupants during the Heian period), I paid my respects by visiting a local Baskin Robbins for ice cream. I’m not being entirely facetious, for although it’s not exactly a traditional food, Baskin Robbins is doing a special set of ice cream “dolls” to capitalize on the festival. The deal was a set of five scoops of ice cream topped with little faces and accessories.

As usual, Japan thinks of all the small details – the set was served in a box that imitates the platform on which the dolls are displayed in a shrine. 

Ningyo, to go into a little more detail, are traditional wooden dolls. Unlike daruma, which are essentially spherical and simply, but brightly painted, ningyo are more elaborate. The typical hina doll will be wearing more kimono than a Japanese person even owns. They’re as realistic as possible – some even have human hair! A complete set of dolls has 15 characters, representing different courtly characters, but as long as one has the basic Emperor-Empress/male-female pair, that’s also deemed acceptable.

Crunching uncouthly on the ningyo's face

I don’t think we could have handled fifteen scoops of ice-cream, though had the opportunity arisen, I’m sure my appetite would have valiantly risen to the challenge. I certainly felt as though I deserved the ice-cream, since I got lost cycling there, and took a good 40 minutes pedaling around before I found the place! Instead, we settled for a doll each, and then I followed it up with a triple scoop of matcha, choc chip mint and oreo chop chip. And a free taster of Amaretto chocolate. Thank you, Baskin Robbins. Thank you.
It can only be bought in sets, it’s ¥1,700 for 5 cups. Check the Baskin Robbins website for the nearest location near you. Kotaku has some more information on it!

Before and after?

Now, the following day was of course the 4th of March, which will be familiar to many people in the Western hemisphere colloquially as “Fat Tuesday” (oh you Americans), or “Pancake Day” (oh us Britons), or perhaps more correctly, “Shrove Tuesday”. For the less Catholic of us, it’s the day before Lent, a month of restraint and appreciation leading up to Easter. Many people give up desserts, sweets, or bad habits. However, the day before the 5th (Ash Wednesday) is a free-for-all. In England, this means pancakes. So, I went from celebrating with ice-cream, to pancakes.

A good friend of mine, Amelia, invited myself and a few others over. We went all out – a good twenty eggs, five packs of bacon, mushrooms galore, spinach, whipped cream, a good half kilo of strawberries, and we even had sprinkles! We doubled a random recipe that we found online and still ended up with the same amount of pancakes, but it was just the right amount for the five of us. The amazing Sushi-chan did a fantastic job pancake flipping, ramped up our kitchen skills by making two batches of pancakes, one normal wheat-base, and the other gluten-free.

These gluten-free pancakes are ridiculously easy to make. I sourced the recipe from The Skinny Confidential. While I didn’t have any flaxseed, I think they still turned out pretty well. The edges look burned, but I couldn’t taste the char at all, so I’m wondering whether it’s just the way the ingredients react. Where is my McGee On Food and Cooking when I need it?

With a few deliberately blackened bananas, we tossed one into the blender, added two eggs, and blended the whole thing. This is literally the entire recipe. TLDR? Kind of impossible, but here ya go…

1 banana
2 eggs.
Blend. Put oil in pan. Heat pan. Cook in frying pan. Makes one face-sized pancake (unless you have a super tiny or huge face, sorry, I lied)

It doesn’t get much simpler than that, really! I think it works best this way for sweet pancakes. If I were to remake it with savoury toppings, I’d add a few herbs in and a pinch of salt. It tastes banana-y, but not overwhelmingly so, so it’s a nice plain base, as long as you’re not averse to a hint of banana complementing whatever you decide to top it with.

One savoury, one sweet.

For the purposes of the photo, I tried to make a bacon face, I don’t think it worked very well though. After this, I piled on the bacon and vegetables like no tomorrow. There’s also a small hoard of cheese melting nicely underneath the pancake. A proper Paleo indulgence!

Quizu over and out~