Thursday, August 23, 2007

We are falling in love!

Our love for parks have grown since arriving in Japan. The Japanese Garden at the New Otani Hotel is now added to the list. With 400 years of history, this garden is one of the most renounced in Tokyo. Surrounded by the outer moat of the Edo castles, the garden offers a place of peace and Japanese tradition. Here there are beautiful trees, flowers, foliage, waterfalls, and carp ponds. This truly takes you out of the hustle and bustle of the city streets.
Omonte-Sando is calming street lined with beautiful trees. However, it is also dominated with chic boutiques and ritzy fashion stores. Attempting to see the Meji-Jingu (the grandest Shinto shrine), we had no sense of direction and ended up on the street, Gaien-nishi-dori better known as Killer-dori for its very fashionable boutiques. Here the stores consisted of Dior, Harry Winston, and Armani. It appeared that Tokyo is the fashion mecca of the world. Close to this street lies the Spiral building. This building is supposedly a hit with all architectural fans. However, we were not impressed. Its very subtle spiral is laden with boutiques and ever-changing modern art exhibits. At the time of our visit, the IAMAS (Institute of Advanced Media Art and Science/International Academy of Media Art and Sciences) presented artworks in the fields of art, design, and engineering. It was difficult to understand the concepts associated with each piece due to our inability to understand the Japanese language.
Due to the massive heat outside, we are waiting to go to the Azabu Juban Festival. This is one of the major summer festivals in Japan. As we approached the Azabu Juban area, the streets were lined with bright red and white lanterns and hordes of people. There were over 700 stalls of street vendors from shaved ice to barbecue squid on a stick. You could test your scooping skills at a game of gold fish catching. We observed each stall and decided to take the save route and tried a sample of yakatori, beef on a stick. After questing threw the crowds of people, we decided to have dinner at a Singapore restaurant. Here we ordered Jasmine rice and boiled chicken. It was served with three fabulous sauces, ginger, chili, and soy. We are unsure to as the spices and ingredients used in the rice and chicken. However, it sure was tasty!
Over this wonderful dish, we strolled around the Tokyo Mid-town Park. You've read about this park during the previous posting.
Back to the Japanese culinary experience. We had the privilege of meeting our friend, Kensuke for dinner. He took us to Toriyoshi, they specialized in yakatori. We sampled pork, chicken, and radish salad. It was absolutely fabulous! Next, we made our way to the Cold Stone Creamery, but it was closed. Then, we settled for a Brownie Sundae from Hard Rock Cafe. Soon after this, we retired home and Kensuke stayed the night. He was very tired as he only had 4 hours of sleep for the past 3 nights. Awaken by Jay pulling back the curtains, I scurried out of bed. Kensuke and Jay decided it was time to head out for lunch. But, first we had to try Natto, which was a smelly, sticky bean substance. Kensuke explained to us that his mother would make them eat this 2-3 times a week for good heath. Jay and I immediately did not like this. Let's say that this will not be in our future grocery shopping cart. For lunch, Jay had a special request, tempura. Luckily, Kensuke was able to find the perfect spot. Here we sampled vegetable and shrimp tempura. And don't forget the whale steak. Surprisingly, Jay and Kensuke liked the whale steak and described as a piece of beef with a slightly fishy taste. After lunch, Kensuke insisted that we try Ume boshi, a salty, sour apricot. Jay and I immediately spit it out and vowed not to buy this product, as well. We lounged around the apartment and watched Japanese music videos. Then, we decided that it was time to get out of the house and explore. We came upon the agreement of going to the Meiji-Jingu, Tokyo's grandest Shinto shrine. This shrine is dedicated to the divine souls of Emperor Meji and Empress Shoken. Mostly, the shrine is made of cypress from the Nagano prefecture. This was a beautiful sight and gave you much appreciation for the Gods.
As you know we love parks, the Yoyogi Metroplolitan Park is also added to the list. It is apparent that this must be one of the largest parks in Tokyo. Here you will find people sunbathing, little girls chasing dragon flies, people playing an arrangement of musical instruments from the saxophone to a traditional Japanese instrument, and dogs rolling in the grass. It had beautiful trees and flowers in collaboration with spewing water fountains. We made our way to the subway and said our good-byes to Kensuke. Tonight, we will pack our belongings as we are heading to Malibu, California tomorrow. Where we get to hang out at the beach and go to Yosemite Park with Jessi and her boyfriend, Tim. We can't believe that our journey is almost to an end.

Wednesday, August 22, 2007

Streets of Shinjuku!

Japanese food is such a culinary expereince. Jay and I had the opportunity to have dinner at a noodle house. Here we sampled a savory pork broth with ramen noodles, leeks, garlic, and spinach. With bellies full of ramen, we made our way to the notorious Shinjuku area. This is the area where Bill Murray, Lost in Translation, gets his first, jet-lagged glimpses of Tokyo. We weren't surprised to see bright, neon lights crackle with such high energy. Shinjuku is divided into two sides by the massive subway station. The east side is spontateous choas, where you wonder with your neck craining up and down. The colorful, but sleezy attractions here are Kabukicho and Golden Gai areas.
Kabukicho is Tokyo's notorious red light district. I'll let your imagination run with what happens in this part of the neighborhood. The Golden Gai area consisted of a ramshackle block with closet-sized bars. Here watch out for the steep stair ways, you may bruise your shin. This city appears to be overwheming, but we are falling in love with the exploding neon lights.
Heat and humidity have been a constant theme here, in Tokyo. However, we found sanctuary at a natural setting in the heart of Roppongi. Here we found the perfect spot to retreat from the constant struggles of day to day life. Tokyo Mid-town Garden is a realm where one can appreciate the natural art gallery of the lush green trees. Here there is a perfect spot to bring dogs, a fountain spewing with ice, cold water. The Hichnokicho Park has beautiful flora with a flowing rock pond. This is pure "Japanese beauty."
Another great culinary experience in Tokyo. We had the luxury of having dinner with Mike Herman and Chris. Lotus root, bunashimeji mushrooms, sweet potato, and Kobe beef were the main counterparts of this cuisine. However, the most interesting dish was the "throw anything from the refrigerator in." This dish originated after the war when people searched and used anything as a means of food. Therefore, whatever ingredients available was fried into a shape much like that of a pizza and drizzled with soy sauce. Our particular dish had potato, lettuce, scallops, and squid. This was fun and quite tasty. Bar hopping is utterly amusing, especially when every bar you enter is empty. The 06/03 bar is where we ended up at. Here classic rock was played boisterously on Bose speakers. And don't forget the small, Japanese man dancing in the corner to every song played. Man, you gotta love Tokyo!
Interview, Interviews, another motif of Tokyo.

Monday, August 20, 2007

Neon lights of Shibuya!

It's been a few days since the last post. Are you wondering what we have been doing? Sight seeing has been our game. Well, attempting to.
The National Art Center of Tokyo was recently open in January of 2007. This is the first art institution that does not maintain a permanent collection. It rather focuses on serving as a venue for various art exhibitions. At the time of our visit, the main exhibition was The 100th Anniversary of NITTEN. The major works of art were of Nihonga (Japanese-style painting), Yoga (Western-style painting), sculptures, crafts, and calligraphy. It traced the history of the trends and achievements in Japanese modern art over the past century. Jay and I were impressed with this exhibit. However, we were more in amazement with the architecture of the building. The lobby atrium features a 21.6 meters high ceiling and an undulated glass facade. It controls the amount of solar heat and ultra violent rays entering the building. Not only did we have a lovely afternoon appreciating the works of art. We also had a fabulous time having coffee and dessert at a cafe overlooking the heart of Tokyo.
The Musee Tomo is one of Tokyo's most elegant and tasteful museums. It features works of art from Kikuchi Tomo, who focuses on contemporary Japanese ceramics. However, we were unable to see her beautiful masterpieces, because we never found the building. We searched for at least an hour and went home due to exhaustion. Hopefully, we will venture out to find this museum again.
Step out of the Shibuya Station onto Hachiko Plaza, just after dark, and you are in the Tokyo of your dreams. The grand square is a spectacle in neon, streets that radiate out like a star burst, and the crowd is a mix of the up most elegance to adolescent punks. We scurried through the neon filled streets with our friend, Trevor, to his house. Two blocks away from the city, we were instantly in a quiet neighborhood where you could only hear insects mating with one another. Trevor welcomed us into his home, where we indulged in pizza and watched Lost In Translation. The movie was a perfect depiction of foreigners experiencing Tokyo. Constantly looking up in amazement at the neon lights and fighting the crowds of people, we made our way back to the Hachiko Plaza. Here, we learned about Hachiko the Dog Statue. A small Akita dog would come to this station every day to await his mater's return. One day the master died at work, but the dog continued to show up and wait at the station until his own death 10 years later. The Japanese built a statue in his honor for his faithfulness. This statue was surrounded by numerous people as I took a snapshot with Hachiko.
Spent the afternoon at the Ueno-Koen. This park has several names: its Sunday name, which no-one ever uses, is Ueno Onshi Koen; some locals dub it Ueno no Oyama (Ueno Mountain); and English speakers call it Ueno Park. Therefore, we called it Ueno Park. We walked up the huge stair way and contuined down a narrow road that follows a pond, Shi-nobazu-ike. Through the red gate, on an island in the pond, is Benten-do, a memorial to Benten, a patron goddess of the arts. We walked around the pond in amazement that such a beautiful, quiet place was centered in the heart of Tokyo. Continued with the walk and approached a baseball game. Then, we made our way to a playground pretending to be kids again. Walking around the narrow lit roads, we discussed this sanctuary and the beauty of being able to retreat from the busy streets of Tokyo. Through out the park, men and women slept on card board boxes. With this in mind, the park felt extremely safe. Spent numerous hours here and decided to roam the streets of Ueno. Once again, we were captivated by neon lights and bustling crowds of people.
Today, we slept in and Jay prepared for an interview. Who knows what the night will bring! Maybe, sake and sushi!

Monday, August 13, 2007

Praying to the Kami!

Addicted to grapefruit, I have become! We had this for breakfast and scurried out the door for a fun field day of sight seeing.
Hidden behind the main streets, a large splendid Shinto shrine, Kanda Myojin, lies in a beautiful courtyard. The kami (gods) enshrined here are said to bring luck in business and finding a spouse. Many worshippers surrounded this shrine to provide an offering, pray, and bow as a sign of respect. We came here to pray to the gods for Jay's luck within the trading industry. We hope the gods answered our prayers!
Remember the Tsukiji Central Fish Market? Well, Akihabara is to Japan's legendary electronics industry. Its bustling, busy, and fun to watch. Here, big box retailers, wholesale shops, and tiny stalls compete to sell you everything from big appliances to mouse pads. We roamed in and out of the shops in search for a Sony Viao laptop, Type T. However, this laptop appeared to be twice as much with the English OS system. Jay quickly determined that he was going to learn Japanese, so that he is able to by the computer at half the price. We stopped at the Sega Club and played a couple of arcade games, feeling like kids again.
We approached Asakusa to the Senso-ji shrine. Walking to the shrine, we were surrounded by numerous vendors overtaking the streets attempting to sell everything from bean curd filled cookies to kimonos. Senso-ji enshirnes a golden statue of Kannon, the Goddess of Mercy. Legend has it this goddess was miraculously fished out of the nearby Sumida River by two fisherman in AD 628. A steady stream of worshippers made their way up to the stairs to the temple, where they casted coins, prayed, and bowed. In front of the temple, a huge incense cauldron stood. People surrounded this wafting the smoke and scent to their bodies and over their heads to ensure good health. Today, we worshiped the gods as Japanese women and men do.
Later that evening, we roamed the streets and winding alleyways of Asakusa and found our way to our local sushi shop.

Sunday, August 12, 2007

24 hour Sushi!

At 8:30 am, we made our way through passport control and customs. Then, we followed Love to the bus terminal to the Roppongi station. Here we had to take an hour bus ride and then a 5 minute taxi-ride. We engaged in conversation with Love and during this time we exchanged telephone numbers in hopes that we meet up again. Finally, we arrive at our apartment complex. Greeted with perfect English and welcoming hearts, we were escorted to our 34 square meter apartment. Small, uh? Even though it was small in size, it had an extremely modern look with brand new amenities. We immediately put down our bags and headed out for sushi. Did you know that you could get sushi 24 hours, seven days a week? Later, we defintely took advantage of this luxury. After eating, we lounged around the apartment for a few hours, before time to see fireworks. Miharu, our friend that we met in Latvia, put us into contact with some of her friends that currently live in Tokyo. Before our arrival, we contacted her friend, Kensuke, who invited us to join his friends and him to celebrate the Sumida River Hanabi. In summer time, Japan is synonymous with exhibitions of fireworks. The ones on the Sumida River are among the most spectacular. We weren't prepared for this grandness event, which went on marvellously for hours. Not only did the city greets us with beautiful fireworks, we also met some wonderful people, Ryu, Hiroyuki, and Misa. After the fireworks, we made our way through the people to the train station. What a wonderful way to end our first day in Japan.
Jay prepared mentally for his interviews over the next few days. However, we did find time to visit the Tokyo Stock Exchange. The floor no long echoes with the flurry of busy activity. In 1999, the trading floor closed and now all trading is by computer. But, it was amazing to contemplate the sheer amount of capital that passes through there daily. The interviews went well and met wonderful people in the industry. Two guys in particular, Trevor and Phil. Both of these guys worked for Citi group and offered much advice to Jay. Trevor was kind enough to invite us to hangout with him at the pool at the prestigious American Club. The cafe there had wonderful grilled cheese and chocolate cake. As we all know, chocolate cake is a must for Jay and me.
The following week, I got sick with some sort of 24 hour flu. Therefore, we had to take it easy on Sunday and Monday. However when Tuesday came round, I was ready for sight seeing. First, we made our way to the Imperial Palace. Called the kokyo in Japanese, this is the home of Japan's emperor and imperial family. The palace itself is a contemporary reconstruction of the Mejii Imperial Palace, destroyed in WWII. On these grounds once stood, the Edo (now, Tokyo) Castle, in its time the largest castle in the world. At the end of the shogunal rule, due to Commander Perry and the black ships, the castle had been destroyed in the upheavels leading to the transfer of power. Much of the castle that remained was torn down to make way for the Imperial Palace. The palace it self is closed to the public except for two days a year, New Years and the Emperor's birthday. However, it is possible to roam around the outskirts to visit the gardens and the palace's most famous landmark, the Niju-bashi bridge. The Higashi-Gyoen, Imperial Palace East Garden, is the only corner of the Imperial Palace that is open regularly to the public. This makes for an excellent retreat as you are able to get up-close and personal views of the massive stones used to build the castle walls and climb the ruins. After spending three hours in the furious sun, we continued on our way to the Nihombashi bridge(Japan Bridge). Even with the bronze lions guarding it, we walked right pass this granite bridge more than two times. However, it is most important for its historic significance. This bridge was the point from which all distances were measured during the Edo period. Therefore, this bridge use to be the center of Tokyo.
The following day, we decided to make our way to Ginza St. Here, the streets were lined with designer shops, such as Coach, Louis Vuitton, and Prada. We roamed around these streets and found ourselves at the Sony building. This building attracts many hounds in search of gizmos that have not been released yet. We played with every electronic device in amazement at the technology that went to each product. After roaming each floor, we decided to return to our apartment for lunch. With the blazing sun and rising humidity, we stayed inside for the remainder of the day until dinner time. Before dinner, we decided to go to the Tokyo Tower. Here you are able to see a panaromic view of the city. We were not blown away with this view, but we were set into reality on how large the city actually was. In 1958, this 333 meter high, orange and white Eiffel Tower wannabe was built as a broadcast tower. At this time, it was the tallest structure in the city, it's actually 13 meters taller than the one in Paris. Now, it's observatory is considered more as a relic than a cause for breath-taken amazement. Soon we would discover, that places elsewhere offer better views of the city.
The next day, we woke early to make our way to the Tsukiji Central Fish Market. If it lives in the sea, then it is probably for sale here. Here, there are acres and acres of fish and fish products pass hands in a lively, almost chaotic atmosphere. But, make sure you watch out for motorised hand trucks. Everything is allotted its own area, you can see mountains of octopus, rows of giant tuna, endless varieties of shellfish, and tanks of unnameable fish. It's not unheard of for a single tuna to fetch an incredible 20 million yen. Tradition has it that you must finish your visit here with a sushi breakfast. However, we did not partake in this tradition. On the outskirts of the fish market, there is another market, called the Tsukiji Outer Market. Here you can browse produce, noodle shops, tiny cafes and cooking shops, in addition to boots, baskets, plates, really anything. It is quite an experience to see how these foods we love are actually made or two wonder what those tiny bowls are used for. In short, it's a one stop shopping for anything you need to prepare a Japanese meal. The rest of the day we lounged around the apartment due to the intensity of the heat and being an early riser.
Sleeping in definitely gets you a late start to your day. However, it is not as hot and humid. Luckily, we found this amazing discovery at the end of the week. This day we partook only in indoor activities. Roppongi Hills houses the Mori Art Museum, the Sky Aquarium, and Tokyo City View. All of these are on the 52nd and 53rd floors of the Mori Tower in the Roppongi Hills complex. At the Mori Art Museum, the feature artist for the month was Le Corbuster, an architectural giant, the founder of modernism. The exhibitions examined over 250 paintings, furniture, and architectural artifacts. The Sky Aquarium had numerous exhibitions of fresh and salt water aquariums in various different art forms. In the future, we hope to have a salt water aquarium. What can we say, this exhibition inspired us. From the Tokyo City View, you are able to see a spectacular panoramic view of the city. The numerous, huge skyscrapers appeared to be protruding out of the ground lining the bright blue sky. It is said that this is the best, central location for a view of the city. And, that is was.
As it was extremely hot and humid, the pool was calling our name. We attempted, but failed. It would cost $170 plus $10 per hour for a deck chair. We are talking about over $200 to hang out by the pool. Therefore, we stayed indoors and contemplated on what to do next. By the time, we came up with a solution, everything was closed. We resorted to having dinner at a lovely pizza joint. Returned home and updated the blog for you.

Tuesday, August 7, 2007

Bangkok, Thailand!

The island of Koh Chang was absolutely tropical! I won't bore you with all the details of our romantic getaway, but it was awesome!
We arrived to Bangkok and got busy with the finalization of Jay's suit. Actually, the suit is what entailed the rest of our days in Bangkok. However, I insisted that we must sight see. The only place of significance that we saw so far was the tailor shop. The day before our departure we attempted to go to the Grand Palace. That was completely altered when we were approached by a tuk-tuk driver that insisted for only 10 baht he would take us around Bangkok to extremely important sights. Being very honest, he said that he would have to take us to a souvenir and tailor shop. He continued to say that he would receive gas coupons for bringing us there. We were hesitant to agree, because our book cautioned us about this type of scam. He reassured us that tuk-tuk drivers were controlled by the government and not to be worried. Therefore, Jay instantly agreed. Our day went like this: Standing Buddha, Marble Temple, Jewelry store, Tailor shop, and Golden Mount. We spent most of our time at the souvenir and tailor shops. I can't remember any thing regarding these significant, important sights. However, I do know that the driver was able to get his gas coupons.
After we departed from our tuk-tuk driver we decided to walk to the Wat Pho (Reclining Buddha). This Buddha is Bangkok's largest and oldest temple. It is a massive, 46 m long with mother of pearl inlays at his feet. Chinese mythical heroes guarded the doorways of the compound. Inside the compound, there were numerous temples with golden Buddha images and dozens of colorful mosaics.
The following day, we awoke early and made our way to the Grand Palace. What else can I say, it was GRAND! The Grand Palace compound was established in 1782 and it houses not only the royal residence and throne halls, but also a number of governmental buildings. It covers an area of 218,000 square meters and is surrounded by four walls, 1900 meters in length. The exterior facades are only open to the public. This is by far Thailand's most famous attraction. The temple buildings are incredibly massive, with golden Chedi (Thai style stupas), statues of mythical beings, and incredible amounts of golden inlay. The main boht (chapel) is where the Phra Kaew, Emerald Buddha, resides. After visiting the Reclining Buddha, the Emerald Buddha is much smaller in stature, approximately 1 m tall. However, this Buddha was made of beautiful, shimmering, jasper quartz that dated back to the 15 th century.
After spending numerous hours in the sun, we scurried back to the hostel to pack our belongings. Our flight was leaving late that night and we still needed to make one last trip to the tailor shop. The suit was absolutely perfect...Jay looked like a stud!
It took approximately 2 hours in bumper to bumper traffic to get to the airport. It was literally hell! Upon checking in, the airline informed us that Japan will not let us enter their country without an exit ticket. Scared, we called our wonderful sis, Jessi, and she booked us tickets to California. We make our way through customs and passport control to find out that our flight was delayed 30 minutes. Finally we get on our flight at 1 am. We met our fellow neighbor, Mr. Love, from Dubai, India. He was traveling to Tokyo to visit friends and attend a wedding. We discussed our travels and he attempted to persuade us to visit Dubai. We spent hours upon hours on the worst flight ever. Never fly Air India...what were we thinking? Apparently, we were only focused on cheap tickets. Finally, we arrived the next day in Tokyo at 8:30 am.