Sunday, February 22, 2009

Home cooking

Machiko’s parents were on a trip to Hiroshima this weekend so she invited us to her family’s apartment. Her mother cooked us a bunch of pork spareribs, and Machiko made us some clam chowder (filled to the rim with carrots, potatoes, onions and shrimp), yudofu (tofu warmed in water with konbu and tiny mushrooms), and salad (consisting of broccoli, mozzarella, avocado, and ham) and before arriving at her place we stocked up on sushi and wine. In the end we had way too much food, but it all tasted great!
After dinner we went online and chatted a bit with her sister and niece who live in the Netherlands. Ben subjected us to an Australian slang quiz, and we all ended up watching Top Gun on an old video, because I’d never seen it and they all loved it so much. Of course, we all missed our last trains, so we ended up staying the night, I was given the luxury of a bed, but Enzo had to sleep on the couch and Ben even slept on the floor. It was a fun evening and it was great to see where Machiko lives and see all the Dutch decorations courtesy of her sister living in the Netherlands.
Home cooking

Saturday, February 14, 2009

R.I.P. Oma

My sweet step-grandmother passed away this afternoon in the Netherlands. She leaves behind a loving husband, son and a very large family. The last time I saw her in January, I knew it was going to be the last time to see Oma alive and I made lots of videos to commemorate this wonderful woman. Sadly, I can't make it to her funeral in the Netherlands, so I want to say goodbye to her here with this short video:
Bye, sweet Oma. We love you and you will always be in our hearts. Rest in peace...

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Harajuku

Before heading back to Osaka, we wanted to visit famous Harajuku one more time. Of course, Harajuku is famous for herds of young people with an outrageous sense of fashion, but we came there for the crêpe stores on Takeshita-dori. They sell rolled-up French pancakes (large and very thin) with a choice of fillings. They have lots of sweet options, with things like chocolate, fruit, ice cream, custard, whipped cream and cheesecake, but they also have some savory filling options like cheese, salmon, salad or vegetables. But we’ve only ever had sweet ones, and that’s what we wanted today.
After dessert in a cold and crowded side alley in Harajuku we jumped on a Shinkansen home, not as fancy as the one on Sunday but still way more comfortable than a plane (which is also a popular means of travel between Tokyo and Osaka).
Harajuku

Shinjuku

Last year, I was surprised to learn that Tokyo is actually not a city, anymore. Tokyo, officially Tokyo Metropolis, is actually a prefecture (similar to a state or province in other countries) and 23 special wards or cities now occupy the land that used to be the city of Tokyo until it was abolished in 1943. Shinjuku, one of Tokyo’s biggest cities, with the busiest train station in the world, is a major commercial and administrative center. It was actually quite deserted today because it’s an official holiday. We came here to check out the view from the top of the Tokyo Metropolitan Government Building, a.k.a. Tokyo City Hall, which houses the headquarters of the Tokyo Metropolitan Government.
At 243 meters, this building with two towers used to be the tallest building (by roof height) in Tokyo until late 2006. The building consists of a complex of three structures and the tallest structure is a tower that is 48 stories tall and that splits into two sections at the 33rd floor, creating the look of a very modern Gothic cathedral.
Both sections have panoramic observation decks which are free of charge. We went up to one observation deck which provided us with a nice view of the metropolis and its millions of buildings.
Shinjuku

Asakusa

Yasu would probably have preferred to just take it easy today and head on home on time, especially after two days of hard work (standing in long lines at the Disney parks), but I figured this was probably my last time in Tokyo ever, so I wanted to some more sightseeing. And being the good boyfriend that he is Yasu accompanied me to Asakusa without complaint, to visit the famous ancient Buddhist temple, named Senso-ji. It’s Tokyo’s oldest temple built in 645 and it’s dedicated to Kannon, the Goddess of Mercy.Dominating the entrance to the temple is the Kaminarimon or ‘Thunder Gate’, featuring a massive paper lantern dramatically painted in vivid red-and-black tones to suggest thunderclouds and lightning. And apparently, we weren’t the only people who decided to visit the temple today...
Beyond the gate is Nakamise-dori, the 250 m. street leading to Senso-ji, lined with 89 small shops selling souvenirs and traditional sweets. Yasu introduced me to some of his favorite Japanese sweets. Like little balls of warabimochi covered in soybean powder on sticks, which had a lot more taste than the warabimochi in Kyoto. Ningyoyaki, which tastes like pancake on the outside and like sweet red bean paste on the inside, kind of like dorayaki, which was so-so. Soft senbei on a stick, which was crunchy on the outside and way too soft and sticky on the inside, I really didn’t like it. And my favorite was goma agemanju, which is deepfried rice cake with black sesame and red bean paste on the inside, which was really good.
At the end of Nakamise-dori we found the Hozomon or ‘Treasure House Gate’ which is the entrance to the inner complex of Senso-ji. This gate features three large lanterns, a huge red one in between two copper lanterns weighing about 1000 kg each. On the back of the gate are two wariji (straw sandals) large enough to fit a giant.
In the actual inner complex of Senso-ji we admired a five-story pagoda, a Japanese garden and of course the main temple hall, with loads of people throwing lucky 5 yen coins into a pit, a.k.a. the temple’s bank account, for the priviledge to pray in front of it. Like every Japanese temple there also a incense burning place, where people try to inhale the smoke in order to become smarter, healthier or something like that.
Trying the Japanese sweets was interesting, but exploring the temple grounds... Maybe I’ve been spoilt by too many visits to Kyoto, Nara and Koyasan, but it’s kind of like: seen one temple, seen all of them.
Asakusa

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Tokyo Disneyland

After an exhausting day at DisneySea yesterday, we still wanted to get up early today to go to Disneyland, which opened at 9 AM. It wasn’t easy, but we made it there just before 10. After yesterday’s 4-hour-line shocker, I was prepared for the worst, so things didn’t seem so bad in comparison, although I believe it was actually busier here than yesterday in DisneySea.
At the entrance to the 20th-century small-town-American ‘World Bazaar’ there were several Disney characters waiting to greet us and the thousand other visitors. It’s impossible to take a picture with one of your Disney friends if you don’t want to wait in line for it, so I just settled for pictures of them with other more patient people. Notably absent, like always was Mickey Mouse, because he is the Master of Disneyland and hides in his ToonTown Mansion for people to meet him after having waited in yet another long line... But luckily, he does leave his house (or maybe it’s just his evil twin) to join in the parade and shows, so we did get to see Mr. Mouse on a few occasions today.
It seems like Disneyland has more rides and other attractions than DisneySea, and doing them all would have been impossible with the considerable lines. Fortunately, we could already cross a few things from our list of rides-to-ride because we’d already done them last year. Like observing Captain Jack Sparrow among other rollicking pirates in the ‘Pirates of the Caribbean’, and venturing deep into mysterious danger-filled jungles (which is actually rather boring if you can’t understand the guide’s Japanese) on the “Jungle Cruise’. So the only thing in ‘Adventureland’ that we did today was attend a tropical music show by Stitch and 4 singing parrots in ‘The Enchanted Tiki Room’ (which had been under construction last year). And checking out the Disneyland map as I write this, I realize we’ve missed an opportunity to check out the ‘Swiss Family Treehouse’ built by the shipwrecked Robinson family... And I’ve always been fascinated by treehouses, oh well.
In the old American frontier of wild, wild ‘Westernland’, we managed to get a fastpass for ‘Big Thunder Mountain’ which suddenly closed halfway through our day at Disneyland last year. This time around we actually got to ride the runaway mine train on a very wild journey up and down and around the mountain. And we finally got to try some smoked turkey legs, which we wanted last year, but the lines had been impossible back then. Not that they were short today, but at least kind of doable, but I won’t stand in line for a Disney turkey leg again, because it wasn’t that good.
In ‘Critter Country’ people are invited to take a peek into the fun-filled world of some lovable, little Disney critters, but I don’t think we saw any critters, although we did encounter a bear here and there. We got another fastpass for Splash Mountain, like last year when the pass told us to come back at 9:15 PM on a cold day, which we didn’t do. But this time we were invited back in the middle of a sunny afternoon, so I didn’t mind riding a log of timber down a flume with the wettest drop ever. They actually spray you with a load of water just before the big splash to make sure you don’t leave the mountain without needing a towel. Good thing it was very sunny.
‘Fantasyland’ houses a lot of attractions, including the most popular of the park: ‘Pooh’s Hunny Hunt’, one of only two rides in the world (the other one being DisneySea’s Aquatopia) that is unique every time you ride it because of the trackless local positioning system. Having learned about it after our first visit to Disneyland, and not having tried it then, I was eager to try it today and it was the first thing we did today. Well, that is after waiting in line for more than an hour, but it was okay because the line was entertaining. They printed Pooh’s story on giant pages and positioned them in order along the queue, and fortunately it was all in English.
During the ride itself you sit in huge honey pots with wheels that are completely hidden, making it seem like the pots are gliding across the floors. The pots appear to move through the attraction independently, wildly stopping, starting, reversing direction, and even spinning, providing the rider whimsical and dreamlike visuals. At some times our honey pot appeared to dance to the beat with the other pots in the room, while following around Winnie the Pooh in search of his favorite food: honey.
Last year, we endured a two hour line to ride through an not-so eerie Gothic mansion (a.k.a. ‘Haunted Mansion’) with 999 ghostly inhabitants, and it wasn’t that impressive (but nothing is after such a long wait, I guess) so we passed on it today. Other rides we skipped because we already did last year were the happy cruise in ‘It’s A Small World’ and the spinning teacups of ‘Alice’s Tea Party’. Things we did try in the land that promised to make our dreams come true: flying on a pirate ship from London to Neverland in ‘Peter Pan’s Flight’; listening to an orchestra of Disney characters play famous Disney tunes in ‘The Mickey Mouse Revue’; trying to stay awake on ‘Pinocchio’s Daring Journey’; flying high and admiring the electrical parade from above on ‘Dumbo The Flying Elephant’.
Last year we really enjoyed looking around ‘Toontown’, but today we hardly had time to check out Mickey’s hometown. We kind of rushed there in the last 30 minutes the park was open to take a cartoon cab for a wild spin through the back alleys of ‘Toontown’ in ‘Roger Rabbit’s Car Toon Spin’. We didn’t meet Mickey, we didn’t climb up ‘Chip ‘n Dale’s Treehouse’ (another one I missed today) and we didn’t try out the periscope on ‘Donald’s Boat’, maybe next time in another Disneyland.
In futuristic ‘Tomorrowland’ we experienced the high-point of the day on ‘Space Mountain’. They call it an exciting rocket journey through space, but I would describe as a turbo roller-coaster, that wildly shoots you through a very dark dome with some lights pretending to be stars. It’s scary because you can’t see the tracks and therefore have no idea which way you’re going so you can’t adjust your body to decrease the impact on your body. It was definitely scream-worthy and I loved it, as did Yasu only it had a really detrimental effect on his weak back. We didn’t have a chance to try ‘Buzz Lightyear’s Astro Blasters’ and ‘Monster, Inc. Ride and Go Seek’ (the latter because it hasn’t officially opened yet). But we were shrunk (like in the movie ‘Honey, I shrunk the kids’) in a 3D show called ‘MicroAdventure’, and Yasu drove a race car up, down and around a network of challenging curves in the ‘Grand Circuit Raceway’.
Tokyo Disney Resort celebrates its 25th anniversary this year and it has been celebrating this for a year, right now they’re in the finale of celebrations. They celebrate with special shows, like a special show named ‘Dreams Within’ on the Castle Forecourt Stage, and a fireworks show which unbelievingly was cancelled both yesterday at DisneySea and today at Disneyland... And besides the regular Electrical Parade at night, there was also a daytime parade today. Yasu loves shows and parades and so we tried to see as many of them as possible.
The big ‘Dreams Within’ show required admission tickets which guests could win through some kind of lottery somewhere in ‘Tomorrowland’. We decided not to try because the show was in Japanese, so I wouldn’t be able to get it anyway. But when we were in line to buy some popcorn and I observed the lottery machines in the building across the street, I suddenly got this overwhelming feeling that we would win a few of the last tickets just 30 minutes before closing of the lottery. And weirdly enough I was right. Even though, we could see the machines disappoint everybody that went before and after us, we were congratulated and the machine printed us two center-stage tickets on row 12 (of at least 100), so we felt very lucky.
The 20-minute-show was really impressive, they sang the songs in English, and all the Disney characters appeared on stage. And most importantly Yasu was very happy!
All in all, our visit to Tokyo’s Disney Resort this time was very successful, we rode almost all the rides and saw most of the shows and parades and really enjoyed all of it. Except maybe for the huge crowds and seemingly endless lines... I think when I think back to Japan in 20 years, the long lines for everything even in daily life will come to mind first.
Tokyo Disneyland

Monday, February 09, 2009

Tokyo DisneySea

Back at Tokyo’s Disney resort, hoping to not find a jam-packed park like last year, when we actually left hours before closing because I couldn’t take the 3 hour lines anymore. We were hopeful because Yasu does business with people at Disney’s headquarters and they informed us that weekdays in February are Disney’s least crowded days. So when we encountered the first line at DisneySea today and saw that we had to wait for 220 minutes (a.k.a. almost 4 hours!) I was very disappointed, and couldn’t believe how stupid I’d been actually hoping for a much emptier park. I was about ready to walk out of the park and forget about everything Disney, but Yasu still had hope. And he was right to hope for shorter lines, because most of the other attractions had lines of about 60-70 minutes, which was doable. Although I remember when I visited Disneyland Paris, I was very discouraged by the 45 minute lines and gave up after two attractions, and now 45 minutes seems so short. Everything’s relative.
In the ‘American Waterfront’ we could find streets that made us feel like we were in New York City, and a big Titanic-like ship in a New England fishing village. The park’s most popular attraction (judging by the constant 4-hour-line), the ‘Tower of Terror’, is located here. We obtained a fastpass for this attraction in the morning which told us to come back a lot later at 6:45 PM. But that was fine with us, that way we could build up some courage for the free-fall attraction. And it turns out we needed it, because it was spine-chilling! I’ve been in several free-fall attractions before and yeah they all made me scream, but none of them freaked me out just as much as this one. It kept leaping you up and down, sometimes a little, other times a lot, in such a way that you had no idea when it was over. The ride feinted to finish a couple of times, so when it was really over we couldn’t tell. Some of us were still screaming and kept asking Yasu over and over again whether it was over. This attraction was definitely the high-point of the day and everything after that was kind of an anti-climax, so it was better to ride it at the end of the day.
We also rode the ‘DisneySea Electric Railway’, which is a comfortable and warm (it was cold today) early 20th century elevated electric trolley which eases its way from the ‘American Waterfront’ to ‘Port Discovery’, a themed port located across the horizons of time. The major attraction here was the ‘Stormrider’, which is an advanced flying weather laboratory that descends into the eye of a storm to experience the wild turbulence of powerful winds... Sounds a bit like the Ferris wheel in Odaiba yesterday, doesn’t it? But it was actually way better, because you know it’s all fake! ‘Aquatopia’ is a wild, spinning, twirling ride through a maze of fountains, rock formations and whirlpools aboard a watercraft. Because it is a trackless ride with self-guided independently moving hovercrafts, your path through the water lagoon is unique with every ride. And surprisingly Aquatopia had an extremely short line, so we rode it twice.
The ruins of an ancient Central American civilization awaited us deep within the remote jungles of the ‘Lost River Delta’ port. We got a fastpass for the ‘Indiana Jones Adventure: Temple of the Crystal Skull’. Inside the Aztec temple we joined Indiana Jones on a search for the Fountain of Youth while trying to escape from the supernatural and vengeful Crystal Skull. We also dared the wrath of two ancient gods (the God of Water and the God of Fire) in the ‘Raging Spirits’ roller coaster. Which propelled us along tracks around an archeological excavation site, passing through bursts of water and fire before a 360-degree loop followed by a plunge into a steam-filled sinkhole.
The magical ‘Arabian Coast’ was created by Genie from the Aladdin movie. Main attractions in this port are ‘Sinbad’s Storybook Voyage’ (the one ride we wanted to try but couldn’t because it was already closed when we got there) and ‘The Magic Lamp Theater’. The latter was a performance combining live actors, illusion, music and the Genie (with 3D glasses and a big screen), and they even had handheld units with English subtitles for foreigner like me.
Then inside the ‘Mermaid Lagoon’ we discovered a paradise for children, still enjoyable for somewhat adults like us, though. We floated up and down suspended from the friendly ‘Jumpin’ Jellyfish’, the colorful blowfish took us on an exciting undersea race on the ‘Blowfish Balloon Race’, we went for a spin in ‘The Whirlpool’s’ twirling kelp cups, and we played around on ‘Ariel’s Playground’. But one of my favorite things of the day was the live musical production ‘Under the Sea’ featuring Ariel flying/swimming through the air in the ‘Mermaid Lagoon Theater’, complete with live actor and more English subtitles.
‘Mysterious Island is a port-of-call within DisneySea’s Mount Prometheus, created by Jules Verne’s Captain Nemo as his secret base for his explorations into the depths of the earth and beneath the waves. ‘Journey to the Center of the Earth’ was an exciting thrill ride, which traveled through caverns to the earth’s core, and then shockingly appears outside all of a sudden. ’20,000 Leagues Under the Sea’ was a rather boring dark ride aboard research submarines to discover the undersea world. But that may have been boring because of the anti-climax effect after the ‘Tower of Terror’.
We could enjoy the ambience of a Southern European port town in the ‘Mediterranean Harbor’ of DisneySea. You could even take a ride on a Venetian gondola there, but we didn’t. All we really did there was browse through the merchandise stores, wait for the fireworks show which was canceled due to wind conditions, and have a last minute dinner at 9:45 PM.
Of course, Disney made sure there was more than enough enticing merchandise to make people spend even more money in their park. Because it’s winter they had a lot of Mickey shaped earmuffs, and really fun winter hats. They were very warm, and therefore comfortable on such an overcast and cold day like today was, but I didn’t buy anything because I knew I’m never going to wear it after I leave the Tokyo Disney Resort, except perhaps on Halloween. But that didn’t mean we still couldn’t have fun trying on the Disney merchandise!
DisneySea is a really fun park and we had a great time riding the thrill rides. They scare you so much, that they get your adrenaline pumping, they make you scream until your voice is gone and afterwards they make you laugh until it hurts. They make you feel alive! Yasu kept telling me he doesn’t need to be scared to feel alive (which is why he’ll never watch horror movies with me), but he loved the rides nonetheless, and he was often laughing harder than me after a petrifying ride.
Tokyo DisneySea

Sunday, February 08, 2009

Happy birthday Gy!

Today my little brother Gyano turns into an adult, at least by Dutch standards. It’s his eighteenth birthday!
He can finally vote and drive cars. I’m not sure if he’s interested in the former, but I know he’s got his first driving lesson planned for today, so he’s definitely interested in the latter. I hope he has a great day, and that he doesn't crash into anything...

(Too much) excitement in Tokyo

Usually, Japanese national holidays are on a Monday, which is useless to me because Sunday and Monday are my regular days off. But this Wednesday is Japan’s National Foundation day (February 11, 660 BC the first Japanese emperor was crowned), which is an official national holiday! So I took Tuesday off effectively creating a four-day-weekend! Which shouldn’t be wasted on doing nothing special, so this morning Yasu and I hopped on the bullet train to Tokyo. And not just any bullet train, no the new 500 series Shinkansen, which actually looks like a very long bullet or huge snake.
First thing we did in Tokyo was drop our suitcases off at the hotel in Maihama, where Disney Sea and Disneyland are located, which we’ll be visiting this week. We enjoyed exploring Ikspiari, Japan’s version of ‘Downtown Disney’, a shopping, dining and entertainment complex, before going back to Tokyo.
Having been to Tokyo twice before, I’ve only a few things left on my things-to-see list, one of them was Odaiba. One of the world’s largest Ferris wheels is located there and I wanted to ride it.
You know, I’m actually really afraid of heights and even though Japan’s numerous glass elevators have numbed the fear a little, a shaking Ferris wheel gondola, 115 meters above the ground can still scare me shitless. Maybe, riding the Sky Wheel on an extremely windy day wasn’t such a smart idea...
After my panic attack on the big wheel, we set out to find the Statue of Liberty, that’s right Tokyo has its own. It’s smaller than the original in New York, but besides that it looks pretty damn similar. I’m not sure why Odaiba has a replica of the statue, but apparently it’s just one of many replicas around the world.
Facebook, a social networking site, is good to keep in touch with people from your present but even better to get back in touch with people from your past. A couple of weeks ago, I started talking to one of my old classmates from the international secondary school I went to in the Netherlands. Takeshi moved back to Japan many years ago and now lives in Yokohama, so we decided to catch up over dinner in Tokyo. He brought another old classmate along, Norikatsu, who now lives in Tokyo.
Takeshi and Nori treated us to a delicious dinner at a Mexican restaurant, and we spent some four hours going down memory lane. It was a little strange to see them after 14 years, but it was also really fun.
Tokyo

Monday, February 02, 2009

Trying some things

Takoyaki (octopus balls) is a typical Osaka food, which I’ve never liked. Not because I don’t like octopus (which I do like) but because I don’t like the copious amounts of brown sauce and bonito flakes on top of it. Which is also one of the main reasons I don’t like the other typical Osaka food: okonomiyaki. But I didn’t like a lot of Japanese things when I first got here, which now I do like and some even love, like cold barley tea, tofu and miso soup. So lately, I’ve been thinking to give takoyaki another chance, and Yasu loves it so we got a boat of balls together, today. We bought them outside the station here in Tsukamoto, but Yasu was cold so we ate them inside the station, which resulted in a lot of stares. Oh well, I get stared at all the time for looking foreign so I’m used to it. I finished four whole balls and I kind of liked them! Am I turning Japanese?
After a lunch of octopus balls we went to Umeda to get ourselves massaged. I had one short official massage in Tokyo before, which kind of hurt, but I wanted to give it another try and Yasu needed some relaxation (he’s been too stressed lately). We found a massage place in the Yodobashi camera building and paid someone to knead our flesh for an hour. Yasu got some set-course of reflexology and body massage, and I ordered several reflexology massages; foot-leg, arm-hand, head and face. At sometimes it was painful but overall it was very nice! Next time, I’m going to get a neck massage.
Dinner was a new experience too: Indian food. I’ve never eaten Indian food before and I was a bit apprehensive when I saw all the curries on the menu, because I don’t like curry. But when Yasu asked what I wanted for dinner earlier, I’d said “something new”, and that’s what this was. So we stayed, and ordered from real Indian people.
And the food was really good, very spicy, and really tasty. And the nan bread was just great, I would go back just for some of that. Dessert was coffee at Starbucks in the building next door and that concluded another weekend... Why are the weekends always so short?

Sunday, February 01, 2009

Unusual karaoke

When I found out my new friend Yumiko’s been a fan of Bon Jovi since she was nine, I knew we had to meet up in some karaoke room soon. Tonight was finally the night! We went to Shidax in Esaka and started off immediately by singing a number of Bon Jovi songs. Which was really fun, but during singing we would occasionally stop to continue talking which of course was also fun.
Then over dinner (inside the karaoke room) we discovered that we’re both Linkin Park fans too! So we decided to sing one Linkin Park song before continuing with Bon Jovi. But singing the Linkin Park song turned out to be so much fun, that we ended up singing almost all Linkin Park songs in the machine, and only one more Bon Jovi song before we left! Highly unusual karaoke behavior for me, but it was so refreshing to sing something I’d never sung before, and something that is a tad more aggressive than Bon Jovi songs are.