Have you heard of Waterlogue yet? In short, it’s an iOS app that lets you transform photos into watercolour paintings. Had it not impressed the very professional Kris Atomic, I might’ve passed it over. But it’s really very cool. And it takes less than five seconds for a “painting” to appear, which appeals to the instant-gratificationer in me. Of course, the app works best if the original photos are clear and detailed. And keep in mind, too, that landscapes and flowers seem to work better than selfies. But for someone like me, with little artistic ability–and even less patience–it has been $2.99 well spent.
It should come as no surprise that the Japanese are as committed to perfection in food as they are to perfection in everything else. Food halls and convenience stores alike are laid out beautifully. Everything is orderly, neat, and logical: my convenience store onigiri came with a separate plastic coating so that the seaweed sleeve would not get soggy.
But perhaps I was led astray into thinking that I would find square watermelons and fugu on every corner. (I did not look very hard, but I never did find them!) Nevertheless, I had many other food experiences which were equally delicious, and very “Japan.”
Coffee Jelly: Unsweetened coffee turned into Jello, often mixed with ice cream. This bizarro delicacy can be found in plenty of cafes, and has even made its way to Starbucks:
Kit Kats: I had heard rumors about strange-flavoured Kit Kat bars, and was very glad to pick up a few boxes at the airport (in matcha, sakura, red bean sandwich and chili flavours). Most convenience stores seem to stock only one or two flavours, so it’s best simply to buy at the airport.
Matcha: Matcha, or powdered green tea, is a Japanese tea ceremony staple. Over the course of my two-week holiday I tried matcha cake, matcha ice cream, matcha tea lattes, matcha Kit Kats, and a matcha croissant from this place. It was one of the most delightful croissants I have ever had.
Natto: The beans on toast of Japan, Natto is a fermented soybean dish that you mix together with mustard and soy sauce to serve on top of rice. It has a very strong smell and becomes slimier and stringier as you stir it, so it is definitely an acquired taste. But it is cheap, ubiquitous, and very nutritious, so there’s that.
Onigiri: In this category I include all convenience store snacks like inari sushi, rice crackers, and my favourite triangular onigiri, which can be filled with tuna, salmon, cod roe, smoked shrimp, kombu, etc.
Red Bean Cakes: Japan on the whole is not big on sweets, so even desserts are a bit “earthy.” But red bean paste is delicious and features in many North Asian desserts.
Sushi: Sushi chefs train for eight years–I repeat, eight years–before they are said to have “mastered” nigiri hand rolls. Knowing that I was extremely appreciative of our fine chef at the Mandarin Oriental. This meal was expensive, to put it mildly, but worth it for the lovely view of Tokyo and getting to sit two feet away from a master chef. Sadly, we did not get to Jiro’s restaurant, or even get to speak with a member of his staff, but this place was just as lovely–and with the added bonus of a very chic black-panelled interior.
I thought I had seen some big cities–Shanghai, Seoul, and even Moscow all have more than 10 million inhabitants. But Tokyo felt–and, according to some sources is–bigger than any of those. Maybe it’s the high-rises, the vertical shopping, the crowds of people on the metro, the tiny apartments, or the fact every square foot is made useful (and beautiful). It feels big. It was at times thoroughly confusing, but also completely impressive. I spent three entire days shopping, unable to tear myself away from all the shops. Every brand I’d ever heard of–and plenty I hadn’t–was there. There are Comme des Garçons, Hermes and L’Occitane cafes. Marc Jacobs bookstore with Marc Jacobs Sharpie? Why not. 12-floor Uniqlo flagship? Even better. But I find browsing through hundreds of stores in giant cities thoroughly enjoyable, so Tokyo is for me. And Kyoto is rather lovely too–it runs at a slower pace, and has the beautiful traditional streets of Gion.
Everything in Japan seems to have this secret logic to it that I don’t understand yet: ways to eat, ways to navigate train stations with 12 different exits, ways to flick on the lights in a high-tech apartment without clicking 25 buttons. I was a bit nervous about stepping out of line, culturally speaking, but I really needn’t have worried. Like everywhere else, foreigners often get a faux-pas pass:
Sumimasen: If you are committing many faux-pas, saying “excuse me” is an important phrase to know. It’s said to you when you come to a store, to get people’s attention, and when you inevitably bump into them. Its importance is only surpassed by “arigato gozaimasu” (thank you very much).
Umbrellas: Almost everyone carries the same kind: the clear plastic domey variety. They’re designed to be the kind you use for one downpour, then throw away, so everyone buys them from the ubiquitous konbini (convenience stores).
Black Suits: Are a uniform for the salarymen. Maybe you’ll see navy blue or a light (I mean light) pinstripe.
Women: Always look put-together, often with heels and nice makeup. Speaking of the face…
Skincare: Is sooooo good, just like Korea. But a bit pricier, and sometimes fancier.
Apartments: Are generally beyond me. Our posh-ish place in Kyoto locked not with a key, not with a card, but with a remote control.
Cute Haircuts: Are all around. Kind of making me want a natty bob like this girl.
Ginza: Is amazing. 10-storey Zara. Massive Uniqlo. Swoon.
The Metro: Is pretty confusing. Be sure you don’t attempt to help anyone who falls in, like this guy:
English: Is everywhere. You’ll be fine.
Cat Cafes: Hee!
Shinjuku Station: Is the WORST. If you have to go through here, plan ahead and leave yourself lots of time. I found it extremely confusing.
Prices: Are high, but not higher than London or Moscow. For example, a tall Starbucks matcha latte which I ordered, ahem, more than once, is ¥415, or about $4.50.
Shopping: As I alluded to, is hands down the best I’ve ever seen. Where to begin!? Omotesando, Shinjuku’s Isetan mall, Shibuya’s backstreets, all of Ginza. Just go.
Eating: Is generally done in a restaurant, at home, or on a long-haul train. It’s frowned upon to eat or drink on the street.
Children: Are the absolute cutest in the world.
Basement food halls: a.k.a. the depachika in most malls, surpass even Harrods for quality and beauty.
Rush Hour: Is an exercise in zen. People are rushing but no one is pushy or unfriendly. I didn’t witness it, but apparently it’s all true: white-gloved guards do come to squeeze you onto the train, asking nicely all the while.
Strange-flavoured Kit Kats: Exist! But pretty much only at the airport.
Money: When you pay for something you put your cash or card on a little tray for the attendant to pick up. But then they return the change to your hand. This happens in Russia sometimes too, but usually your change will be put back on the tray, not into your hands.
Shrines: Are really beautiful, but if you are lazy like me you will only make it to two. Make it count!
Trash Cans: Are almost non-existent. I heard that the reasons are twofold: security and cleanliness. I was advised to look for garbage/recycling bins near the source, meaning the convenience stores or beside vending machines.
Matcha: The best tea in the world, is ever-present. More on that soon!
(Oh! And you may like to read last year’s notes: 21 Things I noticed about China)
I am excited to announce that my next holidays will be taking place in Japan! In a month! If you’ve been paying attention you’ll know that, for me, formula number one for a successful vacation is a set of terrific food experiences. Here’s what/where I hope to be eating:
Sukiyabashi Jiro: Jiro dreams of sushi at his original Ginza location or his son’s branch in Roppongi Hills. The meal can take as little as 15 minutes, costs 30,000 yen ($300) and is adjacent to a metro station. But the sushi is supposed to be incredible. So good, in fact, that it is the subject of an entire documentary.
Planetarium Cafe: Could anything be better than drinking under the stars in a climate-controlled environment? How about drinking surrounded by exotic fish? Or in a vampire cafe? So many options.
Square Watermelons: What a cute, clever idea, Japan! However, now that it’s been confirmed that they are $80+, I’m not sure I’ll be buying one any time soon. But I definitely at least want a photo of me stacking them, Lego-style.
Owl Cafe: Just like the cat cafe only…with owls. Some cafes even have owl-themed snacks! But, um, the restrictions for holding the animals are a little different:
Wriggling Squid: An experience I declined in Korea but I think I might try it now. The squid is still wriggling as you eat it…
Fugu: I’ve never started dinner with a warning before, but if they slice the pufferfish the wrong way, you can die. Challenge accepted!
Japanese Beauty Drinks: Hyaluronic acid and collagen are important ingredients in anti-aging beauty creams, and in Japan you can get them in drink form for a not-that-bad price. Perfect skin will be mine!
Cafe Anniversaire: Seems like one of those trendy, traditional cafes with good coffee and drinks: like Cafe de Flore in Paris, or the fancy Bosco Cafe at GUM in Moscow. Perfect people watching.
Streetside Ramen Houses: After reading a lot of Murakami, nothing sounds better than going to one of Kyoto’s many ramen shops to eat noodles, listen to jazz, or just reenact this futuristic scene:
Bento Box: Damn, all I want in life now is a Totoro bento box! Is there a restaurant I can go to for this? If not, I may have to find myself a Japanese mum. Apparently, in Japan, your child’s lunch will ideally consist of five+ colours. If it doesn’t, other children will ridicule their ugly lunch and comment that their mother clearly doesn’t love them. Please note that the lunch below has not five, not six, but TEN different colours!
Japanese Coffee: Specifically, Kyoto slow drip coffee. I’ve heard Blue Bottle Coffee in the States uses this method, and there may be others in North America too. But I can’t wait to get my hands on the real deal. And look how beautiful those glass kettles are, too.
Anything else I should eat in Japan? How delicious (or not) is fugu? Which coffee shop should I head to first??