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Tottori Sand Dunes

Totoro happy in Tottori


Memorial weekend is around the corner, which for most means lots of quality beach time! I, too, am eagerly looking forward to a beach weekend, and thinking about the last time I was relaxing on the sand sparked a flashback to my visit to the Tottori Sand Dunes in Japan. Granted, I was rocking boots and a down jacket because it was mid-March so the experience was a little different. That, and the camel that strolled by reminded me that I was more in a mini-desert rather than at Zuma beach in Malibu.

The Tottori sand dunes are located in the northern part of western Japan. It’s a natural formation that was created over thousands of years from sand being brought in from the Chūgoku Mountains via the Sendai River. The sand dunes are located in east Tottori and span over 16 kilometers and the tallest dunes can be as high as 50 meters. Hiking up those suckers can prove to be a bit of a workout, but the panoramic view of the sea and the dunes once you reach the top makes it worth it.

Getting to Tottori can be kind of a pain but if you have the time to make it out there I would definitely recommend it. Fyi, part of the train ride isn’t covered by the Japan rail pass so you have to fork over some extra yen. They’ll explain this at the station, but if you know before you go you won’t be a confused gaijin looking at the station attendants with an empty look like I did. ::blink blink:: Tottori is about a 2 1/2 hr train ride from Osaka, then you can catch a 20 min bus to get to the dunes itself.

I particularly loved visiting this area because it is not what I would have imagined out of a typical trip to Japan. I think most people immediately see the temples and shrines, maybe the fantastic skiing up north, and of course all the FOOD, but there are so many other gems in the country that are worth checking out too.

Can you tell that I’m already daydreaming about my next vacation?



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Japan, A Year Later

My second visit to Japan has ended, and this trip turned out to be even more incredible and eye-opening than I could have hoped for. Not only did I get to check out amazing places like the Chichu art museum in Naoshima and the massive sand dunes in Tottori, but in addition I was able to volunteer with typhoon relief efforts in Wakayama and see some of the tsunami devastation first-hand in Sendai. Even though this country is filled with so much beauty (and, of course, delicious foods), many people are of course still wary about visiting after last year’s events. While I hope that some of my previous posts about Japan can encourage more people to visit the country, I would also like for my entries to encourage others to further explore what’s happening there today. The beauty of Japan is found in more than its beautiful coastlines, amazing ski slopes, and intricate temples – it’s also found in the resilience of the people that are working everyday to restore their towns for their families and future generations. I was especially impressed with the amount of fundraising that I’ve seen from expats there. One group of JETS living in the Fukushima prefecture are selling Fukushima t-shirts in order to raise money for tsunami relief efforts. My sister, a current JET living in Nara, has already ordered several t-shirts and I am anxiously awaiting for mine to arrive in the mail. If you are interested in ordering shirts internationally you can email Galileo Yuseco at fukushima.tshirt@gmail.com.

Back in NYC, I am glad to hear that the conversation is still on-going as well. In February I attended a LucidNYC event where an acclaimed photographer named Kyoko Hamada spoke about her visit to Fukushima and her interactions with the people there. To hear her story and see some of the pictures she took, check out the video clip here. I was also fortunate to help out with another great event this past week hosted by Indiegogo over at Projective Space LES. Jason Wishnow, the filmmaker behind TedTalks, was one of the speakers and shared a new project of his called “We Are All Radioactive.” This online documentary series is about the people living in Motoyoshi, a small surf town 100 miles north of Fukushima, and focuses on their experiences with how their businesses and daily lives have been affected by the concern about radiation. While part of the series was filmed by Wishnow and his team, they also gave out cameras to the locals there so that us viewers can see their story through their eyes. The online series is crowdfunded and new episodes are being “unlocked” as each fundraising goal is hit – to find out more about this project and to donate, visit their site here.

I plan on visiting Japan again within the year and look forward to seeing all of the progress that will be made. Until then, I will have to be content with staying connected online and rationing out my green tea flavored kit kats appropriately.

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How To Eat Hitsumabushi

Unagi lovers, rejoice! Hitsumabushi is exactly what the food doctor ordered for hitting that eel fix. The dish is grilled eel over rice, and is one of the more popular local cuisines in Nagoya. And I’ll admit, while I did go to Nagoya to see the town’s beautiful castle, a big part of the reason was to get my hands on some of this grub. But wait, you don’t just dive right into face-first, there’s a whole process to enjoying the hitsumabushi experience!

Step 1:

Divide the eel dish into four sections. Separate the first section into the smaller bowl and enjoy as is.

Step 2:

Eat the second section, except this time add as many seasons and spices as you would like. Go wild!

Step 3:

If you were confused about that broth on the side, this is where it comes into play. Add the different seasonsings to your taste,  and this time top it off with the broth. I went a little crazy with this part, nom nom.

Step 4:

What did you like the most? Lots of seasonings, a drop of the broth to add flavor, or maybe the delectable grilled eel by itself? I prefer dividing it into quarters so that after trying it the first three ways you can pick your favorite and end the meal just right. I preferred it with the broth myself. Enjoy!

 

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Snow Monkeys in Nagano

Onsens are a big part of Japanese culture. People of all ages go with friends and family to relax, and some onsens are also known to have mineral waters to heal different ailments. Well, as it is so common in Japan, it shouldn’t come as a surprise to hear that monkeys enjoy taking part in the onsen experience as well! Nagano is an area northwest of Tokyo, only about an hour and a half shinkansen ride away, and is famous for its snow monkeys. Originally, I wanted to go stay in a hostel for the night and have a longer stay in Nagano, but due to time constraints (there’s so much to see in Japan!) we decided to only go for the afternoon.

One of the best parts of visiting the snow monkeys was the trek to get there. I believe there is another, more direct ways to get to the actual site (some hostels may have a bus service as well), but I highly recommend the route we took! We hopped on the local bus which dropped us off at the base of a trail. This trail was awesome and it took us through the forest for about a half hour. Even though its almost Spring, it was still snowing that day and so we had to step carefully (especially me because, let’s face it, I’m clumsy.) Definitely take the trail if you’re planning on going to see these snow monkeys, talk about a great scenic route.

Once we finally reached the area, the first thing we saw was a naked man sitting in an onsen for all the world to see him. Seriously? After taking a few pictures (he was far away so it was NOT perverted!), we headed in for the main attraction. From reading up on this, I knew that you are not supposed to make eye contact with the monkeys because they will take it as a form of aggression. So naturally, what did I do? I made eye contact with every monkey in the place. I couldn’t help it,  I panicked – snow monkeys were EVERYWHERE! Sitting on the bridge, walking along the path, darting between people’s feet. But fortunately they were too concerned with picking things from each other’s fur and bathing in the onsen to give me a second glance. Sorry guys, you get zero privacy while bathing. Once I calmed down and realized there would be no animal altercations today, I really enjoyed the scene. It was something very different to check out in Japan apart from the typical tourist spots. I’ll say it again, you’ll find the coolest stuff in Japan when you take the time to get out of the big cities!

 

  

Would you want to bathe with monkeys like this guy?

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The Cat’s Meow: Cat Cafes in Japan

You already knew that Japan was obsessed with cats from Hello Kitty. And how about Maneki Neko, the “Beckoning Cat” sculpture of the waving cat that is meant to bring good luck. Well then, you shouldn’t be too surprised to hear about our visit to a cat cafe. Yes, a cat cafe – do we even have these in The States? While in Kyoto, Neetha and I made a stop over at one and spent a half hour petting some friendly felines. You pay by the half hour, and with the admission cost you get a free drink and entry into the area with about a dozen or so cats. Most were sleeping (duh, they’re cats) but a few frisky ones were up and ready to try to steal some of our iced coffees or to play along with us with the cat toys. The whole idea of a cat cafe is interesting to me because I grew up with cats in the house and so I never thought much about having to go out of my way to see them. However, apparently many landlords in Japan don’t allow pets at all, so a lot of younger people are starved for some cat attention. There’s also something very soothing about spending some time around cats: even during the short half hour we were there, I could feel myself unwind a little and feel more at peace with every minute I spent petting the giant gray furball behind me. In a country with a crazy hectic work culture, they may be onto something with this. It’s also known to have a more friendly vibe for a cafe, and some people even go there on dates so the cats can be the icebreaker during those awkward moments.

Oh but there’s more. If you didn’t get enough cat love at the cat cafe, stop by to say hello to Tama the Cat, the station master in Kishi. Tama is a real cat, a calico in fact, and he’s quite popular in Wakayama. As a station master, he’s been photographed wearing his conductors hat which makes him look quite dashing. People take the half hour electric railway ride on the super fabulous Tama the Cat Train and go oogle Tama as he sits back and watches his adoring fans behind glass. Ok, in reality the poor cat looks like he’s over all the glitz and paparazzi, as we soon realized after staring at his backside for a few minutes. But even with a less than zealous mascot, the train station in Kishi is still pretty entertaining as the whole place is decorated with Tama photos. Neetha and I were probably a little over the targeted age range there, but we still had a good laugh about it.

Japan’s obsession with cats is just another pro to the growing list of reasons that Japan is an awesome place to visit. Meow!

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Must-See Sites in Nagasaki

As I may have already mentioned once or twice, I really enjoyed the town of Nagasaki. The combination of the nice people, great weather and interesting sites made it just an awesome place to visit in Kyushu. I was only there for a day and a half, but here are some things I did that are worth checking out if you’re ever in town.

1) Glover Garden

Glover Garden is a beautiful spot that overlooks the Nagasaki harbor. It was named after the merchant Thomas Glover who moved there from Scotland in the mid 1800s. Nagasaki was brimming with foreign merchants as was a free trade port. In addition to having stunning scenic views and beautiful flowers, the garden also has preserved old merchant homes on the property. The hike up to garden from the port is also a cute old shopping street.

2) Chinatown

Japan’s oldest Chinatown is located right here in Nagasaki. It was created as early as the 17th century due to the trading that was done with China. It’s not a particularly large Chinatown, but it does have many good restaurants, including some great spots to eat the delicious local dish, champon.

 

 

 

 

3) Meganebashi (Spectacles Bridge)

The Nakajima River runs right through the center of Nagasaki City and is definitely what makes the area so beautiful. It is dotted with many stone bridges, the most famous one being Meganebashi, also known as Spectacles Bridge because the reflection of the bridge in the river makes it look like a pair of spectacles. When I was in town, the weather was amazing and you could find many people sitting by it and enjoying the day with friends. By Meganebashi you can find many giant koi fish that are very used to people and will follow you around begging for food. This bridge was just a few minutes away from my hostel so I spent a lot of time here and loved it.

4) Kazagashira Park

I couldn’t make it to the infamous battleship island (more on that below), so on Wednesday morning I decided to hike up a mountain to see Kazagashira Park instead. I wasn’t at all prepared for just how many steps were involved to get there, so the hike up did prove to be quite a workout. But when I did (finally) make it up there, I was rewarded by a fantastic view of the city from the observatory deck, as well as the many beautiful cherry blossoms trees that were blooming. This place isn’t quite as popular as Mt. Inasa, but it is also a great treat if you are up for the hike.

5) Peace Park

On my last visit to Japan, I visited Hiroshima and saw their Peace Park and A-Bomb museum. In Nagasaki, I skipped the museum this time because of a lack of time, but did make it over the Peace Park as well as the hypocenter park a few hundred meters away. The Peace Park has some great statues and art pieces that were given from other countries, as well as a giant Peace statue as the main event. I first visited the Peace Park at night which was a mistake because the statues look haunting and I couldn’t help but feel that the many cats that roam in the area carried the souls of those who lost their lives that day. Take my advice and go during the day when its not so creepy.

6) Dejima

Nagasaki has a very interesting history which includes a period of isolation where all international trade was stopped other than Chinese and Dutch trade. Dejima is a district that housed Dutch traders back in the 17th century – the Dutch traders were in fact kept isolated in that area. Most of the houses and werehouses there were built as replicas of what used to stand, but you can see the real stone foundation below which is pretty cool. Dejima used to be an island but other places have been built up around it starting in the 20th century.


Where I plan to go on my next visit:

1) Gunkanjima (Battleship Island)

I was really bummed when I found out that there weren’t any English tours available the day I wanted to go to Battleship Island (I’m kicking myself for not just tagging along with a Japanese tour.) Gunkanjima was essentially a large coal mine, and got its nickname because its 5,000 residents were all housed in tall buildings that all together resembled a large battleship. In the 70’s the mines were closed and everyone was forced to leave. Because of the typhoons that have hit, the buildings have since then started to fall apart – in fact, you can only visit the island as a tour group and can’t get too close to the buildings because they may collapse. It sounds so freakin’ cool, I am definitely going to make it over next time.

2) Mount Inasa

Who doesn’t love a good ropeway! Mount Inasa boasts the best panoramic views in Nagasaki, and you get to take a fun ropeway on your way to the top. At over 300 meters high, you can get a great view of the port and Nagasaki city. Also, Mount Inasa is known to be one of Japan’s top three best night views.

3) Penguin Aquarium

It’s a little bit of a trek since its outside Nagasaki City, but hello penguins that you can pet!? ‘Nuff said.

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Nagasaki

Japanese kid: Hello!
Me: Hello!
::Japanese kid continues to stare at me with a big grin::
Me: How are you?
Japanese kid: Happy!

Yeah, me too.

I friggin’ love Nagasaki. Last time I was here I remember saying if I could live anywhere in Japan I’d probably pick Kobe, but now Nagasaki is giving it a run for its money. I don’t know if it was because of the ridiculously warm weather, or the cute tram cars and the adorable stone bridges, or the fact that a cruise ship was docked and a ton of Euro foreigners speaking a jumble of different languages were walking around, but this town has just put me in the best mood ever.

I was sitting on the steps by Meganebashi  (also known as Spectacles Bridge) basking in the sun and enjoying watching some little kids unsuccessfully try to capture massive koi fish from the river. Every now and then someone would walk by and we’d exchange a friendly konnichiwa. The people here are so nice. Soo, nice. It’s like no one ever has a bad day. I sat with a big smile on my face people watching and simply enjoying the quiet.

And then I thought about how weird it is, that even though I claim to love NYC because it’s so fast and big and bustling, it’s the smaller cities that get me everytime when I travel. Why is that? Is it because I just need to unwind after being cooped up in Manhattan? I, like many others living there, have a love/hate relationship with NYC. I keep telling myself I’m ready to leave, but then I figure I can only move somewhere that’s bigger. Louder. With more stuff going on and more people. Ugh, just thinking about it right now is overwhelming. Maybe I’m wrong, and maybe I could be satisfied living in a smaller spot – I mean Nagasaki isn’t exactly the boonies or anything, but it seems to be a smaller city thats lively yet also personal. Oh Nagasaki, if you only knew the impact you’re having on me. The fact that you look absolutely radiant with the cherry blossoms blooming doesn’t hurt, either.

More on the amazing sites of Nagasaki to follow…

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Nagasaki Eats

I love Nagasaki! And it may be because FOOD is the way to my heart. The people of Nagasaki have been nothing but kind to me, saying a friendly hello and shoving food into my hands. And ohh, the food has been amazing – it was love at first bite. So before I get into all the other things that make Nagasaki so incredible, here are some awesome spots you must eat at when you’re here.

1) Log Kit – Sasebo Burger

So, Sasebo is a town outside of Nagasaki that is known for its burgers. It’s said to be Japan’s best burger becuase they’re grilled after you order and apparently the buns are homemade as well. Sasebo is about an hour and a half bus ride away and seeing as I didn’t have the time to go over there, Neetha told me about this gem of a burger shack that’s right outside of Nagasaki’s Chinatown. It’s a tiny spot, and I actually walked by it the first time even though I was intently looking for it. Luckily, everyone there is familiar with the place so if you can’t find it just put a pathetic lost foreigner face on like I do and sadly ask “sasebo?” They’ll point you in the right direction. The beef is yummy, the sauce they put on it is delicious, and the fun part comes in when the right way to eat the burger is to “smoosh” it. Seriously, the guy brought me my burger and said “smoooosh, ok?” Sure! The French fries are on point too, and with all the healthy sushi you’ve been eating you can chow down on this guilt-free.

2) Keikaen – Champon

Nagasaki is known for champon, a giant bowl of noodles and other seafood-y goodness. It reminded me of pho because of its size and that there was so much good stuff in there: pork, lots of seafood and veggies. My eyes grew large when I first saw the gigantic bowl that was all mine. This place is fancy but their champon price is right – under 800 yen for a bowl that will definitely fill you up.

3) Wakatakemaru – Conveyor Belt Sushi

Shout out to Hostel Akari for one badass neighborhood map of where to go and what to eat! Akari pointed me in the direction of this ultra-cheap conveyor belt sushi place located in the Hamanomachi Arcade. Every plate was a mere 110 yen each (two pieces to a plate.) What a freakin’ steal. And I’m guessing that this must be the norm for Nagasaki but I was also pleasantly surprised to find mussels in my miso soup. Win! A full dinner cost me only 500 yen, nom nom.

4) Kiitos – Coffee

It was a hot afternoon and I had been walking all over Nagasaki – by the way, who knew this town had so many stairs?! I was falling asleep on my short twenty minute tram rides and I knew I needed a pick me up and a chance to rest my weary legs. Well, Akari came to the rescue once again when it pointed me in the direction of an adorable coffee shop on the Naka Dori shopping street. Walk upstairs and you’re suddenly in bliss with calming music playing and Marimekko art everywhere. I was happy to see that they had cappuccinos and even happier when a deliciously frothy cappuccino appeared for me to nose-dive into. The ambiance of this place is great and the decor is simple yet chic – I could easily see this being a great coffee spot in the village. The owner of the cafe, Julie, started chatting with me and she is absolutely adorable. She’s from Nagasaki and fellas, if she’s not yet taken someone needs to go and swoop her up. Seriously. Also, when I told her I was heading to Fukuoka tonight she ran and gave me a bagel to eat on my trip. So, so sweet. Great food, wonderful people, and a delicious cappuccino: what more could a girl ask for!

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Matsushima

On Friday I felt like I was in the arena, and this time the arena was a small island. I crept around quietly like Katniss, taking care not to step on the many tiny pine cones that dotted the ground. I spotted a secluded part of beach that was roped off, and wished that Tim was my tribute partner from the SoCal District so we could hop over the rope and explore anyway. I frowned at the overcast sky and wished if only a Gamemaker could take pity on me and give me some sunshine for an hour…

Clearly I’ve been reading way too much Hunger Games on this trip. ::shakes head::

The  island I was on is Fukuurajima, which is off the coast of Matsushima. Matsushima is about a half hour outside of Sendai, and boasts to have one of the top three scenic views in all of Japan – the other two being Miyajima and Amanohashidate. As someone who loves taking the scenic route, it was only natural that I felt compelled to go. The other main reason being that I was very curious to see what shape Sendai and other areas that were devastated by the tsuami were in. As Friday was my only real chance to go north of Tokyo, I decided to check it out regardless and am happy to say even with the overcast skies I wasn’t disappointed with the beauty of Matsushima. Cute, tiny islands (or large rocks, take your pick) line the coast and would be downright gorgeous on a clear day. The Japanese seem to be pretty fascinated by large rocks, which is lucky for me seeing as I share that same interest. And, as I realized on my previous trip, I really love visiting the quiet parts of Japan over the loud, large cities. I spent the afternoon exploring all the dirt paths and corners of the island. One of the pros of the bad weather was that I had the place mostly to myself, Fukuurajima is only accessible by it’s infamous 252 meter long red bridge and there is an entrance fee of 200yen to go over. I was surprised to find that the island itself seemed to be in good shape after being hit by the tsunami – some other sights in Matsushima got wiped out and even the bridge needed to be repaired.


Godaido Temple

Aside from the occasional eerie tsunami warning signs, during my brief time in Matsushima I didn’t see notice a lot of damage that was done last year (this is most likely because its a very popular tourist spot.) On the other hand, from my train ride up I did notice that Sendai still has a long road ahead with a lot of debris and dried up landscapes. If you’re interested in volunteering in the Miyagi prefecture, check out The Association for the Revitalization of Ishinomaki. Neetha put me in touch with this group, and I know that they are always looking for helping hands.

 

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SUMO

I am fortunate to be in Japan this month because of the awesome annual March sumo tournament! I joined my sister and a bunch of her JET friends in Osaka and was very excited to see sumo for the first time. Yes, my only experience with this before has been watching people put on giant blow-up sumo outfits and run into each other – I know you know what I’m talking about. And well, I am pleased to report that the real thing is a helluva lot better. While we were there for about 5 hours, the pros came out about half way through and that was the real deal (you can spot the pros by their brightly colored garb.) I also loved that people of all ages were enjoying the sport – even a 5 year old girl a few rows behind us was screaming her head off for her favorite wrestlers.

Here are a few pics out of the hundreds we took that day – if you have a chance to attend the Grand Tournament in Osaka, do not pass it up!

 

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