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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。

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Temples of Tokyo – Part II [Meiji-jingu & Zojoji] February 16, 2010

Posted by Dru in Japan, Kanto, Tokyo, Travel.
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Author’s Note:  Dru’s Misadventures has moved to HinoMaple.  Please venture on over there to read “Temples of Tokyo – Part II [Meiji-jingu & Zojoji]” complete with photos.  http://wp.me/p2liAm-gk

Once you finish with Sensoji, you can make your way across town to visit Meiji Jingu.  This is much more tranquil than Sensoji.  There are far fewer people here, and there isn’t any shopping within the shrine grounds.  The first thing you must do is venture to the main shrine.  This is, in itself, a difficult task.  It can take roughly 10 minutes to walk there.  The walk itself is very nice, as you are walking within a natural forest.  The various torii gates are also magnificent as they tend to blend in with the surrounding trees.  The entire walkway leading to the temple is also very spacious.  This is mainly due to the crowding during the New Year celebrations.  If you have a little money and want to see a garden, you can have a nice walk around the private gardens of the shrine.  I doubt that this garden is that beautiful, so it’s easy to skip.  You will also run into a row of large barrels with various writings on it.  These are sake casks.  Inside each one, it is filled with sake.   They are donated to the shrine by various sake breweries and companies for various reasons.  It makes for an interesting photo opportunity.  The shrine itself is pretty interesting.  The main courtyard is situated in such a way that you cannot really see any buildings in the surrounding areas.  This makes it a sort of oasis within Tokyo.  You can also see the inner buildings from the entrance way, but don’t expect a full walk through.  Like most of the other temples and shrines, there is a public area, and a private area.  Overall, the private area is nothing special.  They usually hold weddings and other ceremonies inside the various halls.  There isn’t much in the way of statues or things worth photographing.  Temples tend to have more interesting things behind the closed doors.  After you finish with the main court yard, you will be greeted by the fortune area of the shrine.  Shrines tend to make more money selling fortunes than anything else.  Do you want to have a child?  Do you want to do well on a test?  Go to the priest, tell them, and they’ll make a fortune for you.  It’s valid for only one year.  After that, you have to return it, or go back to recharge it.  When that is over, you can make your way back to Harajuku station.  On the way out, you can visit a small museum dedicated to Emperor Meiji, but do note that the cost to enter is probably not worth the visit.  I heard that there are only pictures inside, and very few artefacts.

If you have the time, visiting Zojoji before Meiji Jingu is recommended.  Zojoji, as I mentioned, is not very famous outside of Tokyo.  It is relatively small compared to Sensoji and Meiji Jingu.  The approach from Daimon station isn’t very interesting either.  You can do everything you want to do at Sensoji and Meiji Jingu, so visiting Zojoji isn’t necessary.  However, the experience of Zojoji is very unique.  Just outside the main entrance, there is a very major street.  It’s bustling with traffic all day long.  In fact, it can be extremely noisy.  However, once you walk into the temple grounds, the noise seems to disappear.  All around the temple, you’ll see various trees planted by various dignitaries, such as George W. Bush.  There are various statues, and a unique cemetery located in the temple grounds which also helps make it more unique.  You can see a large bell that is rung to signal the start of the New Year.  The major draw for this temple will be the ability to take a picture of the temple near the foot of Tokyo Tower.  It’s a great picture to show friends, and it truly shows the mix of traditional Japanese culture with modernism.  The other main draw, on a personal note, has to be entering the temple’s main hall.  While Sensoji allows you to only enter the entryway, Zojoji allows you to enter, sit, and meditate.  It is a nice cool place to relax on a hot afternoon, and the smell of the incense is very calming.  If you are lucky, you can see one of the monks performing a prayer.  It is, without a doubt, one of the best temple experiences I have had in Japan, and the best one in Tokyo.

Temples and shrines in Tokyo vary from large and extravagant, to small and unnoticeable.  Meiji Jingu is one of the large ones, but if you are walking along a side street, you might see a small shrine no bigger than a pay phone.  It’s impossible to truly recommend only three temples to visit in Tokyo.  It’s even more impossible to recommend three in all of Japan.  Each one has their own unique layouts, unique statues, and unique festivals.  If you are lucky enough to be living in Tokyo, be sure to visit other temples, especially your local temple.  You never know what interesting things are going to happen.

Note:  Other notable temples and shrines include Yasukuni Shrine (infamous for worshiping battles in the name of peace) and Sengakuji (famous for being the resting place of the 47 Ronin).

This is Part II of a two part series.  To read more, please head over to Part I.

http://www.japan-guide.com/e/e2059.html (About Shrines)
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Meiji_Shrine (Meiji Jingu)
http://www.japan-guide.com/e/e3002.html (Meiji Jingu)
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Zojoji (Zojoji)
http://www.japan-guide.com/e/e3010.html (Zojoji)

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。

Matsuyama July 14, 2009

Posted by Dru in Japan, Shikoku, Travel.
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Author’s Note:  Dru’s Misadventures has moved to HinoMaple.  Please venture on over there to read “Matsuyama” complete with pictures.  http://wp.me/p2liAm-cN

Matsuyama is a city located on the western side of Shikoku.  It is, by some standards, considered the largest city on Shikoku, but this is debated with the city of Takamatsu.  The city itself has a very small feel, yet has enough shops to keep city folk happy.  It is also an excellent place to see different things at a somewhat relaxed pace.  You’ll be able to see a castle, onsen, parks, and temples, all in one city.  If you don’t have a lot of time, Matsuyama is a great place to see everything in a couple of days.

The heart of Matsuyama has to be the castle.  Matsuyama-jo is located on Mount Katsuyama.  This is a relatively small mountain that provides a nice getaway from the city itself.  There are about four different routes to climb Katsuyama to reach Matsuyama-jo.  Heading to the east side of the mountain is by far the easiest way to get to the top.  You can ride the gondola, or take the chairlift.  Both take roughly the same amount of time to reach the top.  The chairlift is a single chair that slowly climbs the mountain.  It is a very Japanese style of moving people.  It is very peaceful, providing beautiful views of the city as you climb the side of the mountain.  Riding the gondola is better if you have many small children with you.  The gondola is usually packed, so the view depends on where you are inside the car.  At the top of the gondola station, you’ll be greeted by many shop keepers trying to entice you to buy one of the citrus fruit drinks and bring a bottle home with you.  It is a nice refreshing drink, especially if you decide to hike up the mountain, but a little expensive.  Depending on the day you visit the castle, you might also find a few activities in the outer courtyard.  On the day I visited, there were opportunities to dress up in period clothing, such as a samurai, or in an old style kimono.  The castle itself is a well preserved original.  As I mentioned before, Shikoku has many wonderful and original, castles, unlike Honshu, the main island.  This one is no exception.  Upon paying the entrance fee, you will have a great opportunity to have spectacular views of the city.  The inside of the castle is extremely busy.  You must remove your shoes and wear slippers as you walk through the castle.  Unlike Kochi-jo, there isn’t much to see or do in this castle.  It is too busy to place dioramas, so you can only enjoy the original architecture and views from inside the castle.  It was amazing to see the Japanese people lining up in a very orderly fashion to leave the main tower of the castle.  If you have the energy, I would also recommend hiking down the mountain and taking a look at a shrine located halfway up the gondola.  If you head to the south side of the mountain, you can also visit Bansuiso.  It is a French style villa that is now part of an art gallery.  Unfortunately, I didn’t visit this gallery, but if I do return to Matsuyama, I will.

Matsuyama has two stations named Matsuyama, JR Matsuyama and Matsuyama-shi.  When you travel to Matsuyama, it is important to know which one you are at.  JR Matsuyama is a nice station, but it is highly focused on travellers only.  There are very few things to do around the station itself.  Located a fair walk west of the station is Matsuyama Central Park.  It is a more secluded park that is probably used by locals rather than everyday tourists.  It does have its own “castle”, but it is modeled after European castle walls, rather than Japanese style castles.  Matsuyama-shi station is more interesting.  It is the start of Matsuyama’s long shopping arcade.  As I have said, countless times, shopping arcades in Japan tend to look and feel the same.  Matsuyama’s shopping arcade is no different.  It is definitely worth a visit as it is somewhat unique.  I would probably take a quick look through the arcade, but focus more on the area just below Matsuyma-jo.  Around the gondola, you will be able to enjoy a more touristy and local experience.  This is also the location of the Matsuyama Guesthouse.

Matsuyama Guesthouse was my home for one night.  As a tourist on a budget, hostels are a great way to save money.  Although the sign says it’s a guesthouse, you can also rent rooms for one night.  The day I arrived, the hostel filled up completely.  There were two long term guests.  One was a New Yorker who had lived in China for a couple years.  He was just starting out in Japan, and decided Matsuyama would be his base.  There were also a couple of American hikers who were hiking all around Shikoku, but had to stop and return to Tokyo as they needed to get back to work.  An older Australian couple also came by.  They shared their stories of travelling throughout Japan and how they were going to another country, maybe Korea, to visit their son.  I also got to meet a Dutch “kid” who just finished High School and wanted to spend his GAP year in Japan.  At night, they had a special party for either Kids Day or Green Day.  In May, Japan has Golden Week, 5 consecutive days off, including the weekend.  With so many new guests, I guess we had to party.  We had some homemade okonomiyaki, cold sake, and some umeshu.  It was a wonderful time, but unfortunately, I couldn’t stay more than one night.  They were fully booked the next night.  The host of the hostel is very friendly and very kind.  Her English may not be perfect, but she tries so hard and she is always smiling.

Overall, Matsuyama is a wonderful city that is a must visit if you go to Shikoku.  While in Matsuyama, I would also recommend heading over to Dogo.  It is a very short tram ride, and I’ll talk about that next week.

Please feel free to visit Guesthouse Matsuyama and read their blog.  Unfortunately, their blog is only in Japanese, but the pictures are always nice.

Website: http://www.sophia-club.net/guesthouse/
Blog: http://www.sophia-club.net/blog.php

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。

Asahikawa March 31, 2009

Posted by Dru in Hokkaido, Japan, Travel.
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Author’s Note:  Dru’s Misadventures has moved to HinoMaple.  Please venture on over there to read “Asahikawa” complete with pictures.  http://wp.me/p2liAm-9y

Asahikawa is a major city located in the middle of Hokkaido.  It is also known as the coldest city in Japan.  The city is served by a small airport that has daily flights to various major cities in Japan and special flights to Korea from time to time.  The easiest way to get around is to rent a car, or by bus.  The trains run roughly every 30 minutes making it difficult to plan anything.  The city is also very easy to navigate, so driving shouldn’t be a major problem for anyone, even a foreigner.

There are three major things to see or do in Asahikawa.  Asahiyama Zoo is the second busiest zoo in Japan, after Ueno Zoo in Tokyo.  It is well known in the summer for its bird display and various exotic animals.  They have many large cats and monkeys on display, but in the winter months, they are fairly inactive.  The main attraction in the winter is the sea animals.  The main attraction is the penguins.  There is a large pavilion where you can walk within the penguin pool.  It’s very nice to watch penguins flying overhead.  When you watch them swim from above, it looks like swimming, but when you are below them, it appears as if they are flying.  It’s quite beautiful.  The pavilion is also based outside where you can get very close to the penguins.  It’s possible to touch them, but you aren’t allowed.  In winter, you can also watch a “Penguin March”.  They take a nice slow walk around the zoo, but the main feature of the walk is that you can see the penguins without any glass in front of you.  You can almost touch the penguins, but it’s not allowed, of course.  The Penguin March itself is quite simple and boring as they have King Penguins, but from time to time, some Gentoo Penguins also join the walk.  These are much smaller, but more active, providing a better show for the audience.  While the penguins are the main attraction the second biggest attraction during the winter months are the polar bears.

These majestic bears tend to just sleep during the day, but they have a few unique attractions.  The first is an observation bubble.  You can pop your head up from a tunnel and see the polar bears resting.  It’s to simulate the feelings a seal would have if it were to be attacked by a polar bear.  The other attraction is the pool where the bears play around.  In the summer months, the zookeepers tend to add fruit encased in ice as a special treat.  Watching the bears can be fun, but it is very busy, and timing is everything.  The last attraction is the Leopard Seal pavilion.  Its main feature is a glass tube where the seals can swim up and down.  It allows you to enjoy a full 360 degree view of the leopard seal swimming.  It is a very cool sight to see and highly recommended.

The second thing to do in Asahikawa is to eat ramen.  Asahikawa is famous, like most places in Japan, for its ramen.  The ramen itself isn’t that special, but it does have a slightly distinct flavour.  It has a stronger fish taste to it, in general.  Myself, I can’t really tell the difference, but it is a very nice lunch if you are outside all day in the freezing cold.  The last thing to do in Asahikawa is to visit the Otokoyama sake factory.  It is one of Hokkaido’s most famous brands and it tastes wonderful.  It’s a nice way to end your day and pick up a few gifts for some friends.

If you are intending to go to Hokkaido for a vacation, Asahikawa is a wonderful place to visit.  It isn’t the best place as a base for your trip, but it can be a base for part of your trip.  In the winter, it’s good for a few days of skiing, but in reality, it’s not close enough to any famous ski hills.  In the summer, it’s good because it’s very close to Furano.  However, it is better to stay in Sapporo as Asahikawa can easily be finished as a single day trip.  As I have said in the past,  Hokkaido is a wonderful place to visit, and I hope you can enjoy a trip there someday soon.

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。

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