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Sake January 4, 2011

Posted by Dru in Food.
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Author’s Note:  Dru’s Misadventures has moved to HinoMaple.  Please venture on over there to read “Sake” complete with photos.  http://wp.me/s2liAm-sake

One of the most famous drinks to come out of Japan has to be sake.  It is a clear alcoholic drink that is enjoyed in various ways.  It is often said to be “rice wine” because of the taste.  The subtle differences in flavour and ability to pair it with most types of food, depending on where it’s made, creates this comparison.  However, unlike wine, it is brewed like beer.  The main reason no one would ever compare it to beer is because beer is carbonated.  In reality, sake cannot be compared to anything.  No one would ever consider comparing an apple and an orange, so we really shouldn’t be comparing sake with anything at all.  In fact, saying the word sake in Japan would only make people confused.  The true translation of sake is “alcohol” or an “alcoholic drink”.  The true translation should be “nihonshu”, Japanese alcohol.

Nihonshu can be found in almost every city in Japan.  Local nihonshu, however, is sometimes hard to find.  If you travel to Nigata, north of Tokyo, or the Kyoto region, you should be able to find a plethora of local nihonshu brands.  There are essentially only four varieties of nihonshu, Jumai, Honjozo, Ginjo, and Daiginjo.  Like wine, if you don’t drink a lot of nihonshu, it will be difficult to tell the differences in each type.  In Japan, the easiest way to tell what type of taste a brand has is to check its “level”.  Japan has a level classification to define how spicy or how sweet a bottle of nihonshu is.  A high number implies a spicy taste, while a negative number implies a sweet taste.   Playing it safe by buying a “0” is okay, but generally, like wine, spicy nihonshus are good with meat, and sweet ones are better with fish or vegetables.  When drinking only nihonshu, it’s up to your own personal taste buds to decide which is best for you.

In Japan, and around the world, you will be able to find various types of nihonshu.  Price makes a huge difference between a good and a bad nihonshu.  Paying less than $10 a litre will almost always guarantee bad sake.  In Japan, you can buy sake from a roughly 300mL jar for about 200 Yen.  This is probably the worst thing you can do.  The nihonshu is mass produced to such a degree that it generally doesn’t taste good.  For a small bottle, roughly 355mL, you can expect to pay at least 500 Yen, but that can also go up to 1000 Yen.  When leaving Japan via the airport, you can find several 750mL bottles running around 2000 Yen.  These are all valuable bottles and you can never go wrong with them.  I have never personally purchased any special nihonshu bottles, such as those in a ceramic jar or ceremonial barrel, so be aware that it may or may not taste good.  Do note that prices in North America should be at least 50~100% more than Japanese prices.

There are many ways to drink nihonshu.  You can look all over the internet and find different opinions on how to drink it.  Essentially, nowadays, most of the people I have talked to enjoy cold nihonshu.  Heated nihonshu is generally for the winter season, and there are specific types of nihonshu for the winter season.  When going to an izakaya, the most common way to be served nihonshu is in a shot glass.  This is also how I generally enjoy nihonshu.  It’s simple and it keeps the flavours in tact.  You can also drink nihonshu from a “choko” which is essentially a small ceramic tea cup.  This is the very same cup you will see that comes in a “sake set” where you get a bottle and two cups.  While this is nice, a shot glass is more versatile.  There are some special cups used to drink nihonshu.  “Sakazuki” is a saucer like dish, about the size of a small tea saucer.  It is almost exclusively used in ceremonies and highly unlikely to be seen in a restaurant as it can only hold a small amount.  More commonly seen in Japan is a “Masu”.  This is a small wooden box made of hinoki or sugi.  Generally, these are fragrant woods that add to the flavour of the nihonshu.  High end restaurants may use real masu boxes, but regular izakayas tend to use plastic versions that are lacquered.  It’s customary to put a shot glass inside the box and fill it till it is overflowing.  The best way to drink the nihonshu is to sip it from the glass until it’s possibly half empty.  Then, you can pour the nihonshu that’s in the masu into the glass.

Nihonshu is one of my favourite drinks in Japan.  I don’t really drink enough of it, to be honest.  Like any alcohol, it isn’t for everyone, but if you only drink the cheap stuff, you won’t like it.  It can be an acquired taste as well, so just do your best and over time, maybe you’ll grow to like it.  This is only a basic introduction, so please read some of the following guides if you want to find out more.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sake (sake basics)
http://www.jetro.org/trends/sake_intro.php (a good introduction to sake)
http://www.sake-world.com/index.html (everything you need to know about sake)

このblogは英語のblog。もし私の英語は難しい、日本語のquestionは大丈夫。

Tottori July 27, 2010

Posted by Dru in Chugoku, Japan, Travel.
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Author’s Note:  Dru’s Misadventures has moved to HinoMaple.  Please venture on over there to read “Tottori” complete with photos.  http://wp.me/s2liAm-tottori

Tottori is a small city on the cost of the Sea of Japan in western Japan.  It is located north west of Kobe.  The city itself is not a major location for tourists, even for Japanese people.  The city has only one major reason to be.  The Tottori Sand Dunes are the major attraction with Japanese pears being the major tourist gift.  In general, there isn’t much to see or do in this small city, but if you are looking for a small Japanese city to visit, Tottori might be a good place to see what small Japan looks like.  Personally, I think there are many better places to visit than Tottori.

The Tottori Sand Dunes, or rather “dune” is a short bus ride from Tottori Station.  It isn’t very expensive to visit the Sand Dunes and there are many things you can do.  It isn’t a proper beach where you can just lye in the sun and get well tanned.  It’s a tourist attraction with people walking up and down the one dune.  There are several things you can do when you visit the sand dunes, but do be aware that when it’s raining, most of the activities are cancelled.  One of the most interesting things you can do is to enjoy a nice ride on a camel.  The price is a little steep at nearly 2000 Yen per ride, but when in your life will you ride a camel, let alone a camel in Japan!  The other major attraction is to take a horse and carriage ride.  These rides go rain or shine as the wagons are covered.  I can’t comment on the experience as when I went it was raining somewhat heavily, so the smell of the wet horses was pungent.  You can also try sand boarding, paragliding, or just take a nice walk on the beach.  Since most things were closed, I decided to take a nice walk from the main station to the coast.  There are three sections to the sand dune area.  There’s the section between the dune and the tourist centres, the dune itself, and the coast.  The area between the dune and the tourist centres has been changing over the years.  In recent years, there have been grass growing at the basin, and a small pond has been growing in size.  What was once a sand covered basin is now starting to change into a small green oasis in the middle of a large “beach”.  The dune itself is somewhat tall and requires a little energy to climb.  It’s not a difficult climb at all, but the sand doesn’t help in the ascent.  Just past the dune is a steep drop that leads to the Sea of Japan.  The views from the top of the dune are beautiful, if it was a sunny day, and the water is refreshing.  A quick trip to the shore is recommended, if anything to get your feet wet and to enjoy the sea.  The challenge of running down the dune is fun fairly easy, but one has to remember that what goes down must go up to get home.

Other than the sand dune, Tottori has several nice temples and touristy things around the city.  If you have a chance, a bicycle is more than sufficient to get around and a great way to spend a day in the city.  The loop bus would be nice as well, but I prefer to either cycle or walk around on my own.  In my journey, I decided to walk and see whatever came my way.  There is a nice small river that has various old bridges and sculptures lining it.  I also stumbled upon a small zoo, and when I say small, I mean tiny.  There were very small cages for animals such as goats, birds, and monkeys.  The cages themselves looked too small to keep the animals happy. I arrived after 5pm, so the zoo was closed, but the entire area is encased in a park.  It’s free to walk around the outside of the zoo, and the paid area of the zoo is only a single 10 metre long path that showcases, at most, a dozen or so animals.  I doubt it’s worth the admission as you can easily see the animals from outside.  There was nothing I could do to help the animals, and I could only hope that when the zoo was open, the animals are free to walk around the park, or a bigger area.

Other than that, there really isn’t much to do in Tottori.  If you go to the sand dunes, you can try to pick up a sand dune egg.  These are hard boiled eggs that were cooked in the sand itself.  It’s not particularly delicious, but it is “unique” to the area.  I’d probably recommend trying the “ago” (ah-go).  The main Japanese name is “Tobiuo” or Flying Fish.  It’s a small fish that literally jumps out of the water and can fly for several metres.  The main food to come from Tottori is rakkyo and Asian pears.  Due to the climate and poor soil conditions, these are the only foods that Tottori can produce consistently.  Rakkyo is a type of pickled onion. It’s difficult to explain, but it has a somewhat sweet taste.  It’s popular as a topping for Japanese curry or as a small side dish for lunch.  The pears themselves are generally in season towards the end of summer.  Any other time, you’d only get pear treats rather than fresh pears themselves.

If you do go to Tottori, I highly recommend renting a car.  Tottori city can be visited in a day, maybe two, but if you want to really see the area, a car is a must.  There are various beautiful beaches just outside of the city towards the west.  You can also head towards Mt. Daisen which is a large mountain that is considered to be the Mt. Fuji of the area.  Another great option is to take the San’in Railroad, run by the JR Company.  I have heard it’s a beautiful train that goes up along the coast.  You can enjoy a beautiful day going from Kyoto all the way up to Tottori, then over and along the coast.  If you have the time, and want to just enjoy a day as the world passes by, this is a good way to spend it.

Tottori Information:

Tottori (Wikipedia): http://wikitravel.org/en/Tottori

このblogは英語のblog。もし私の英語は難しい、日本語のquestionは大丈夫。

Amanohashidate (Top 3 Views of Japan) October 27, 2009

Posted by Dru in Japan, Kansai, Travel.
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Author’s Note:  Dru’s Misadventures has moved to HinoMaple.  Please venture on over there to read “Amanohashidate (Top 3 Views of Japan)” complete with pictures.  http://wp.me/p2liAm-i2

Amanohashidate is one of Japan’s Top 3 views.  Along with Miyajima and Matsushima, it is considered beautiful.  In my previous posts, I have mentioned both Miyajima and Matsushima.  I was awestruck by the beauty of Miyajima and let down by Matsushima.  For the third year in a row, I went to visit one of Japan’s Top 3 views.  This time, I went with no expectations at all.  I was looking for a nice relaxing day and to just explore a remote area of Japan.  Getting to Amanohashidate is much harder than Miyajima and Matsushima.  Miyajima is difficult because you have to take a ferry.  Matsushima is difficult because it’s located outside Sendai.  Amanohashidate, however, is located far from Kyoto, and Kyoto is the nearest major city.  In fact, Kyoto is closer to the Pacific Ocean, and Amanohashidate is located on the Sea of Japan coast.  If you are travelling from Tokyo, expect to travel for roughly 5 hours.  Bring a fully charged iPod and you’ll be okay.

Amanohashidate is famous because it’s a 3 km sand bar.  Translated, Amanohashidate means “Bridge in Heaven”.  The most famous thing to do, when visiting Amanohashidate is to venture up one of the nearby mountains, stand with your back facing the sand bar, and look at it from between your legs.  This gives the impression that the sand bar is actually in heaven, or heading to heaven.  You can do this on both sides of the sand bar, and it isn’t too expensive to head up.  When you do head up, be sure to take the chair lift.  It’s one of my favourite things to do in Japan.  These chair lifts are not like your traditional ski lifts.  Rather, they are simple chairs with almost no safety features whatsoever.  It can be a little scary at first, but it’s such a peaceful ride that you’ll feel almost as if you were floating in the chair.  Unfortunately, the views of the sand bar aren’t great from the chairlift.  If you head up from Amanohashidate station, you’ll have a little luck as the top of the hill has a small, and I really mean small, amusement park.  It’s probably great for kids, but for adults, it’s nothing special.  You can easily spend an hour just relaxing and taking your time wandering the area.

When you finish looking at the sand bar and get tired of seeing the same static views, Chionji is the only notable temple around the station.  It’s somewhat large for the population, but it isn’t bad.  I’d say it’s worth checking out, and don’t worry about time.  If you arrive on the late train, you’ll still have plenty of time to walk around the entire area as the first trains back to Kyoto aren’t until around dinner time.  The temple itself, however, isn’t special.  The main point of interest is probably the omikuji, fortunes.  They come in small wooden fans which are pretty cute, and I’ve never seen them in that form before.  From there, you can take a look at a type of key/lantern.  Located next to the bridge leading to Amanohashidate is a key that looks similar to an Egyptian Key.  Of course, it doesn’t look the same, but this key is supposed to bring luck for ships.  Many people climb into it and enjoy a picture with it.

Heading to Amanohashidate, you’ll have to cross a bridge.  This is a famous point for photos.  It’s an old swing bridge that opens up many times a day to allow the tour boats to pass.  It’s nice for photos, but after you’ve seen it once, there isn’t much of a point to wait for it a second time.  When you do cross the bridge, you’ll be on Amanohashidate.  This 3 km sand bar is easily traversed by bicycle, but if you feel up to it, feel free to run across.  It appears to be somewhat popular for locals looking for exercise to run up and down the sand bar.  You could also go for a nice swim as the beach is quite beautiful.  The water is very clean and there are various showers located along the beach.  Do note that the showers are turned on during the summer season only.  Also, be aware of traffic.  The sand bar is closed to cars, but motorcycles up to 50cc are allowed and maintenance trucks may travel along the sand bar on weekdays.  Located in the middle, there is a small shrine and various haiku passages.  A famous Japanese writer was inspired to write several haikus while in Amanohashidate.  If you didn’t bring your own bicycle, don’t worry.  Just rent one from one of the many souvenir shops next to Chionji Temple.

One of the last few things you can do is to take a boat ride to the northern shore.  While I never did this myself, it looks nice and it’s a good way to burn time.  The other is to head to the sento.  There is a nice looking sento located next to the station.  A sento is a Japanese public bath house.  The prices for bathing in this sento are a little expensive, but apparently there is a free foot bath in front of the sento.  If you need to pick up some gifts, Amanohashidate is famous for its black bean snacks.  While this is not for everyone, it is an option, and some of them are delicious.  They also have a few varieties of sake and shochu.  Amanohashidate also has a regional beer, but I never tried it.

Other than that, there really isn’t anything to do.  I’d suggest bringing a picnic and enjoying it on the beach.  Amanohashidate feels very remote and other than a few souvenir shops and touristy restaurants, there isn’t much to do.  Once you’ve seen the sand bar, that’s it.  Unlike the other two Top 3 views, there is much less to do here.  I do feel that it ranks in at number 2 compared to Matsushima, but by and far, Miyajima is still the best.  The best thing to do is to make the most of your time when you are in Amanohashidate.  Enjoy being out of the big city.  Relax at the beach.  Read a book.  Talk with your friends.  Enjoy a beer on the beach.  Do everything that you should do when you are on vacation, mainly relax!

Amanohashidate Information:

Japan Guide:  http://www.japan-guide.com/e/e3990.html
Wikipedia (minimal information at best):  http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Amanohashidate
Wikitravel (the best guide, but still not great):  http://wikitravel.org/en/Amanohashidate
Official Site (Good information on events and tours, but no information on the sites themselves): http://www.joho-kyoto.or.jp/~center/english/shop/amanohashidate/

このblogは英語のblog。もし私の英語は難しい、日本語のquestionは大丈夫。

2009 Formula 1 Fuji Television Japanese Grand Prix October 13, 2009

Posted by Dru in Sports.
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Author’s Note:  Dru’s Misadventures has moved to HinoMaple.  Please venture on over there to read “2009 Formula 1 Fuji Television Japanese Grand Prix” complete with pictures.  http://wp.me/p2liAm-hI

On October 4th, 2009, Japan hosted it’s annual round of the Formula 1 Japanese Grand Prix.  For those of you who have been reading this blog, last year, I also attended the Japanese Grand Prix.  This year was a little different.  After two years at Fuji Speedway in Shizuoka, the Japanese Grand Prix moved back to its traditional home of Suzuka Circuit in Mie Prefecture.  Mie is located south west of Tokyo.  The closest major city is Nagoya, but you can still access Kyoto and Osaka from Suzuka.  By and far, the easiest and most common way to reach the circuit itself is to leave from Nagoya.

The biggest difference between Fuji Speedway and Suzuka Circuit is the owner.  Fuji is ultimately owned by Toyota, while Suzuka is owned by Honda.  The two car giants of Japan competed for the rights to hold the Japanese Grand Prix for the last three years.  From this year, the plan was to alternate between Fuji and Suzuka.  Next year’s race was supposed to be held in Fuji.  Unfortunately, due to the downturn in the economy last year, Fuji decided to not hold the race in 2010, so Suzuka stepped up and will hold the race in Japan for the next few years.  Many of the drivers were very happy about this, but what about the fans and the Japanese people themselves?  While a lot of people don’t really care, race enthusiasts were always happy to hear that Suzuka won the race.  It is one of the very few figure 8 circuits in the world, and the only one on the F1 calendar.  It is steeped in history that, while not as old as Fuji, is more prestigious.

Accessing and retuning home from Suzuka Circuit is very easy.  From Nagoya, it’s a simple reserved express train from Nagoya Station to Suzuka Circuit Inou Station.  You can also purchase reserved tickets to get back to Nagoya.  While this may be a little expensive compared to the regular trains, it guarantees that you’ll have a seat, and when you return to Nagoya, that may be very important.  When you do reach the station, it’s very easy to find your way to the circuit.  Just follow the groups of people and you’ll be fine.  While it may be different in future years, be sure to pick up a map and ask the staff for some information to make sure you know your options.  If you want to play it safe, just return to the same station.  The second option is to take the Kintetsu trains to Shiroko Station.  It’s about 5 kilometres away from the circuit, or an hour walk.  There is a shuttle bus, but it can take up to an hour to wait for it.  Many people enjoy a nice walk in the countryside to get to this station.  To reach it, you must also walk past the Inou.  The main advantage of walking to Shiroko is that trains come more often than at the Inou station.  When leaving Nagoya, don’t worry too much about buying tickets.  You can easily buy them at the main entrance as there will probably be a table set up for selling return tickets.  Just be sure to know which tickets you need before leaving.

When entering Suzuka circuit itself, it’s evident that Honda’s circuit company knows what it’s doing.  It has held the F1 event and other major world sporting events for years.  The F1 event itself is very similar to the one in 2008, but there are noticeable differences.  The first is that the party is slightly bigger, yet more compact.  In Fuji, everything was spread out a lot more.  Suzuka’s main entertainment area was behind the main grandstand, and there wasn’t a lot going on outside of that area.  Of course, you can always buy the basic souvenirs around the course, but there were fewer opportunities to do so.  However, buying food was ten times better in Suzuka.  The options were slightly limited, and it wasn’t the cheapest food in the world, but it was good and reasonable for a world sporting event.  The major plus is the number of activities that are available for children.  There is a large ferris wheel, and other various amusement rides that are centred for children.  Suzuka, being Honda’s signature track, has a better amusement area compared to Motegi.  There are various boat rides, and roller coasters.  There was a go-kart track, but this was closed to add more space for exhibitions.  Overall, I’d prefer Suzuka over Fuji, and most Japanese people would tend to agree.  Fuji’s major advantage was being close to Tokyo.

Looking at the race, it was your typical F1 race.  I had the chance to enjoy the event during qualifying for the first time.  It was a nice event, and qualifying made walking around the main areas easier.  It was extremely busy on race day, so if you can enjoy the Saturday qualifying, be sure to do your shopping then; don’t wait until race day or things will be sold out.  Qualifying was riddled with accidents, and the race itself wasn’t that exciting.  In typical F1 fashion, there were several passes on the first few laps, but after that, it was a war of attrition.  Everyone kept circling the circuit and any passing was done in the pits.  By the end of the day, Sebastian Vettel won the race with home team Toyota’s Jarno Trulli in second.  Bringing up the last spot on the podium was McLaren’s Lewis Hamilton.

このblogは英語のblog。もし私の英語は難しい、日本語のquestionは大丈夫。

Suzuka Circuit Links:

(English – Note that this site has only information on the facilities) http://www.mobilityland.co.jp/english/
(Japanese – Note that this site has information on events) http://www.suzukacircuit.jp/
(Wiki) http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Suzuka_Circuit
(Official F1 Website) http://www.formula1.com/

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