Osaka by Night

When the sun sets, Osaka’s Namba district comes alive with its bright and flashy neon signs. Famous chef turned writer / travel host Anthony Bourdain visited the same area back in 2006 for an episode of No Reservations.

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The food culture of Osaka is often associated with the term kuidaore which roughly translates to eating until you go bankrupt. Kuidaore has its roots in Osaka’s early history as a city of wealthy merchants who would not hesitate to spend money in pursuit of good food.

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If you want to experience the kuidaore culture, Dotonbori is your destination. A lively alleyway that runs parallel to the Dotonbori canal, the place is lined with plenty of restaurants offering good, affordable food.

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One popular Osaka specialty is okonomiyaki – a savory pancake topped with various ingredients which can range from meat to seafood to cheese (basically, anything goes!). I had mine at a restaurant called Chibo which was delicious… though personally I prefer the Hiroshima version that has a layer of noodles on top.

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While exploring all the side alleys, I came across this one that displayed some kawaii banners of Southeast Asian countries (not sure why though). It’s nice to see a reminder of Malaysia all this way from home :)

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Finally, this explosion of neon signs is an iconic scene of Dotonbori… especially the Glico running man on the right side of the photo. Glico is a Japanese confectionery company that you may know if you are a Pocky fan.

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And that’s a wrap for my Osaka travelogue. It was an interesting two days and I can see why Osaka is popular on the foreign tourist circuit. It has something to offer for every type of traveler whether you’re into food, adventure, culture, history or some family fun.

Osaka by Day

Osaka is a Japanese city that I believe need no introduction among foreign tourists. I reckon this is the one of the most visited city after Tokyo and Kyoto (disclaimer: statement is not backed by any statistical proof). I visited Osaka during Golden Week 2014 which is just a fancy name for a string of national holidays that fall in early May (aka peak travel period).

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My first stop was Osaka Castle – a significant site in many of Japan’s historic moments including the epic battle between the Tokugawa shogunate and Toyotomi clan. They have plenty of exhibits describing the siege of Osaka Castle including this diorama of soldiers from both sides of the divide.

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There’s an elevator that will bring you to the top of the castle to begin your tour. From there you make your way down by stairs through the castle museum where there are plenty of exhibits and other items on display along the way. Here’s a view from the castle observatory.

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My visit coincided with a school visit. It’s common in Japan for schools to conduct field trips to historical sites or museums. You can spot them miles away because the students will all wear matching colored hats (easier for the teachers to keep track of them). I noticed that the students were given worksheets to fill up so there was a lot of running around as the students scanned through every exhibit for the answers to their worksheet.

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If you are in the mood for more history lessons, the Osaka Museum of History is nearby from the castle located in the Osaka NHK Building. I bought a combo admission ticket for the castle and museum (which is cheaper than buying them individually). So ask for those if you are planning to visit both.’

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The museum has many exhibits and detailed models showcasing the history of Osaka from the feudal age up to it’s pre-war days. This particular diorama caught my attention. It seems to be depicting a friendly neighborhood peeping tom having some fun at the local outhouse. Looks like the problem of dealing with lecherous men is one as old as time.

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This sewing machine brought back a wave of nostalgia because I have the exact same one at my home in Malaysia! It used to belong to my grandmother. I remember as a child watching my grandmother sew her clothes on the sewing machine.

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For the other exhibits, you’ll have to visit the museum for yourself. It’s definitely worth a visit if you’re a museum person. And if you’re not a history buff like myself, there’s plenty of other attractions around Osaka to keep you busy in the daytime. Wizarding World of Harry Potter, anyone?

Venturing Further into Nikko

Seems like I’m on a perpetual backlog clearing mode when it comes to blogging about my travel escapades. My current aim is to pen down my thoughts on all my trips around Japan before leaving. So let’s rewind the clock to April 2014 and allow me to finish the rest of my Nikko trip.

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Besides the shrines and temples of Nikko (which by the way is a UNESCO World Heritage Site), there’s also plenty of natural scenery to be enjoyed around Nikko. I ventured further to the Okunikko area (literally inner Nikko) to Lake Chuzenji. After  taking a bus up the Irohazaka Winding Road,  I arrive at the Akechidaira Plateau (fancy names, eh?). The only thing to do here is to take a cable car up to an observation point overlooking Lake Chuzenji and the Kegon Falls.

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I’ve read that the area is incredibly beautiful (and crowded) during autumn. Although I went in spring, I think the higher altitudes are a bit slower in catching up with the seasons so the trees and vegetation were barren and brown. Naturally, the view wasn’t all that great though you get a bird’s eye view of the waterfall.

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It’s 730 yen for the round trip on the cable car. Probably much more worth your while if you came at the right season otherwise I’d personally suggest to give it a miss.

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After that, I caught the next bus onward to Lake Chuzenji. It was a quiet day by the lake. There were a few anglers honing their fly fishing skills but there was not much going on besides that.

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I also made my way near to the base of Kegon Falls. The waterfall looks a lot more impressive up close though I was once again disappointed with the drab vegetation.

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My last stop was at the Futarasan Shrine which overlooks Lake Chuzenji. There are actually two other Futarasan Shrines around Nikko, the most well known one located next to Toshogu Shrine which I missed due to lack of time.

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I really like the trees planted around the shrine which reminded of my dad’s bonsai trees. I left around late afternoon making the long journey back to Yokohama as I had work the following day.

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If you’re a fan of Japanese history or natural beauty, Nikko would be a good place to visit. I’d recommend giving this place more than the 2 days I did so that you have more time to see everything. Also, there are discount travel passes that you can buy for traveling to and fro plus within Nikko. I referred to Japan Guide’s webpage for info on each pass.

Ushering in 2015 the Japanese way

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Once again I find myself in Japan on the last day of another year. I was expecting to leave Japan some time around Christmas before I received another request to extend my assignment here to end of May 2015.

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This year I ushered in the new year at Sumiyoshi Shrine in Fukuoka . It’s a smaller shrine compared to the one I visited last year (Gokokuji Shrine in Hiroshima). When I arrived at 11:30pm, the queue to the shrine was still quite short so I quickly slipped my way in. It didn’t take long after midnight before I got to the front of the shrine for the first prayer of the year.

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After that, I explored around the shrine grounds getting myself an omikuji (it’s something like a fortune cookie but without the cookie) and some supper from one of the food stalls. All the while, people continued to pour in that by the time I left, the prayer queue has swelled all the way outside the shrine beyond the torii gate.

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I wonder if the queue keeps going all night long. I wasn’t keen on staying around to find out though since it was a windy, chilly night.

How did you usher in 2015? Here’s wishing everyone a happy and fruitful year ahead!

My Top 10 Shots of 2014

I love reading Top 10 lists. There’s something very satisfying about picking your X favorite number of items of a theme and putting them in order. I’ve always wanted to make my very own Top 10 list but never got around to doing it. But this year I’ve procrastinated enough. So without ado, here is my Top 10 favorite photos that I’ve shot in 2014.

10. View of Mt. Shirane in Gunma.
I went there in early spring and surprisingly there was still plenty of snow on the mountain which contrasted nicely with the greenery.

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9. Hanazono Shrine Festival in Tokyo.
Blog post of this photo here. As I said in the original post, I really liked this shot as it is a rather unusual angle.

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8. Floating paper lanterns during Asakusa Toro Nagashi in Tokyo.
Toro nagashi is a festival where participants release floating paper lanterns down a river with the belief that the lanterns will guide the souls of the departed back to the other world on the last day of the Bon Festival.

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7. 29th Kanagawa Shimbun Fireworks Festival in Yokohama.
Blog post of this photo here. I would’ve liked this shot MUCH better if my office had a better vantage point.

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6. Kagaruzaka Awa Odori dancer in Tokyo.
Blog post of this event here though I did not share this particular photo in the post. Most of the dancers would look away from my camera and avoid eye contact but this particular lady decided to flash me a beautiful smile instead… or maybe she saw someone she knew in the crowd. We will never know.

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5. Ritual sumo tournament at Setagaya Hachimangu Shrine, Tokyo.
Salt throwing ceremony at the opening of an annual sumo tournament at Setagaya Hachimangu Shrine. Yes, sumo is closely associated with Shinto rituals and is held in conjunction with some shrine festivals.

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4. View from Tokyo World Trade Center Observatory.
I love this photo for the brilliant fiery sky with some (maybe too much) clouds to provide extra “drama” to the scene. I was going for the “end of the world” feeling in this shot and I think it conveys the feeling well.

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3. Fisherman at Lake Ashi, Hakone.
Blog post of this photo here.

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2. Cherry blossoms in Yokohama.
There’s quite a lot of things I want to say about this particular shot (especially with regards to the issue of copyrights) but that’s another story for another day. For now, this is definitely one of my best for 2014.

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1. Kintai Bridge in Iwakuni.
Blog post about this photo here.

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I took what I considered to be my best shot of 2014 on 1 Jan 2014. And I think this kinda reflects what 2014 has been for me in a way. At times,  I felt really jaded with work and with life so I just spent my weekends escaping from reality playing video games or re-watching tv serials (which explains the lack of posts).

Don’t get me wrong, 2014 was a great year. I’ve learned a lot in my career. I’ve traveled to so many parts of Japan, granted not as much as I would’ve liked but I’m contented. I’ve taken some photos which I am honestly proud of.

So I end by saying thank you 2014. Thank you for being kind to me. And bring on 2015. May it be a better year for myself and for everyone else!

Summer is for Dancing

Summer in Japan can be hot and humid and the very idea of dancing in the streets on a warm summer night may sound a little crazy to some but it’s a tradition deeply rooted in Japanese culture. Awa Odori (literally Awa dance) originating from Tokushima Prefecture of Shikoku (that’s one of the four main islands of Japan) is a popular dance style in summer.

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According to the Wikipedia page, the Awa Dance Festival in Shikoku attracts over 1.3 million tourists each year. Now that’s a lot of people! Legend has it that this style of dancing was born during a feudal lord’s celebration of the completion of his castle. The townspeople having consumed a generous amount of sake began to dance and play musical instruments in their drunken state.

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Tokyo also has it’s own rendition of the Awa Odori Dance Festival (albeit at a much smaller scale) throughout the months of summer. I went to two of them at Kagaruzaka and Shimokitazawa, both lively neighborhoods in Tokyo.

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Probably the most eye catching part of the dance is the costume, in particular the hat worn by the ladies. It’s straw woven hat and is known as amigasa in Japanese. As for the history and design of the amigasa, well I couldn’t find anything much on Google. If you know, leave  me a comment below :)

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I noticed that in all Japanese customs or festivals, there are always people of all age groups participating. Like this elderly gentleman. He’s definitely got the moves like Jagger.

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And then there are the children. The children who are always greeted by exclamations of “kawaii!!!” by every Japanese women in the audience. They are kinda cute… especially the ones who look like they have no clue what they’re doing.

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More importantly, I think it’s a great practice to ensure the continuity of Japanese culture. Some of them may be a little too young to understand what’s going on but I think it’s important to inculcate such values from childhood. The fact that these festivals continue to be held in the middle of a modern and bustling metropolis like Tokyo is a testament to this practice.

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As I was doing my research for this post, I read that there’s going to be a big Awa Dance Festival in Paris in 2015. Apparently hundreds of dancers from Japan will be flown over to perform. I think that speaks volumes on the popularity of the Awa dance style that Japan deems it fit as an “import” product.

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If you’re ever in Tokyo during the summer months, this is a dance festival I highly recommend. Better yet, make a trip to Tokushima, to the place where it all started and witness the biggest dance festival in Japan.

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Summer is for Matsuri

Many Shinto shrines hold their annual festival or matsuri over the summer months. Open air stalls selling food, toys and carnival games are setup in the shrine grounds to entertain the crowd. It’s a lively affair reminiscent of the pasar malam (night market) culture in Malaysia.

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One of the must-sees is the procession of people carrying the mikoshi around the neighborhood which worships in the shrine. A mikoshi (palanquin) is a portable shrine, sort of like a vehicle that transports the local deity as it travels around.

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Groups of people take turns to shoulder the mikoshi. As they travel they sway and move the mikoshi from side to side (believed to “amuse” the deity) accompanied by chants and music.

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I attended the Hanazono Shrine Matsuri (which actually was held in late spring but there are plenty of other matsuri in summer) and followed the mikoshi procession around Shinjuku.

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There was one part of the course where the procession goes under an overhead bridge. I thought taking shots from directly above the mikoshi would make for an interesting and different angle. So I ran ahead of the procession and this is one of those shots.

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I like the contextual contrast of people performing age old traditions in the backdrop of modern Tokyo with it’s sleek buildings and colorful signboards.

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Yep, the sun is setting. It was a day long affair. I’m sure there were plenty of sore shoulders there but they soldiered on.

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Finally, we made our way back to the shrine. It was extremely crowded and I had no chance of even getting near the front. I seem to have many photos of people’s backs in this post.

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After a closing speech and shouts of otsukaresama deshita (good job!), the participants immediately got down to dismantling some parts of the mikoshi. I assume it’s to prepare it for safekeeping until it’s services are required again the following year.

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