Ahhh, winter vacation. I’m basking in it. I’m loving it. It’s going by so quickly, but I’m still clinging to the last days before work on Monday.
The Saturday before Christmas we had our Winter Festival at school, which I was happy to finally see come and go. The kids prepared speeches, songs, dances and a drama of Rudolph the Red Nose Reindeer that they worked on for months, and by the end of December we were ALL exhausted. In the end the performance was the cutest thing in the world, and I was super proud of my babies. Here are some pictures of the day:
On Tuesday we had a Christmas Eve party with all the kindergartners, and it was fun to see them so excited about Santa. We got the day of Christmas off which was spent opening some wonderful presents, Skyping with friends and family, and watching multiple Christmas movies while cooking and baking all day.
Finally, Saturday arrived and Renee and I headed to the airport in the morning and flew to Tokyo, Japan! Let me be honest: originally, I was not too excited about going to Japan. I had traveled to Japan about five years before, and Tokyo was the weirdest place I had ever been – EVER.
A quick note about that trip: right before I went to Tokyo that first time, I had traveled to India, Malaysia, Vietnam, Hong Kong and China right before that – but Tokyo took me by surprise. It was so vastly different from any of the other Asian countries I had just been to, and I spent most of time in the city with my jaw on the floor. Tokyo was super clean and safe, which was exactly the opposite of where I had just been. People dressed really nice, and once I got to Harajuku, the fashion district of Tokyo, my mind was blown. A lot of women dressed like Little Bo Peep: frilly, poofy, short dresses with lace and shiny satin, knee high socks, huge platform shoes, wild and extensive makeup and hair in pigtails. They would often be carrying a little stuffed animal sheep in a basket or a lacy umbrella, and they constantly talked in a high baby voice. I was fascinated, but I was also super confused. Why were they doing this? Was it a sexual thing? A rebellious thing? A fashion thing? Also, there seemed to be sex shops on every corner and up every side street. I finally stepped into one of them and saw some ::ahem:: interesting things. I also found an internet café so I could let people know I had arrived in Tokyo, but when I got there the whole room was filled with cubicles with doors, and the shop walls were lined with Anime porn. Each little cubicle room had a TV, DVD/VCR player, a computer and a box of tissue. They also served free slushies in the back. Needless to say, when I left Tokyo I felt confused, a little creeped out, and I had no real desire to return.
But, here we are five years later, giving Tokyo another chance. Renee and I stayed near Roppongi, an area in Southwestern Tokyo. The first night we got in we walked around our area and ate Chashu Ramen: a delicious bowl of hot soup with wheat noodles, sliced pork, green onions and bamboo shoots. It was so flavorful, and that bowl of deliciousness combined with an Asahi beer eased us right into our five days in the city.
The next day was Sunday, and if you’re in Tokyo on a Sunday, visiting Harajuku is a MUST. This is when all the people in their funky clothes come out and do all of their shopping down Takeshita Street and the less crowded Harajuku Street. To know what I mean about the fashion, all you need to do is Google Image “Harajuku.” Just do that and you’ll get a taste of what is all around. If you’re planning to travel there, I would recommend going when the weather is warmer because people can get more elaborate with their looks, but we saw plenty even in the colder weather.
After walking around all afternoon we headed back to the Roppongi area and ate a mouthwatering dinner filled with calamari, an oyster pasta in anchovy oil, and a pasta dish with duck and marinara sauce. Does this sound more Italian than Japanese? It was. Don’t judge me – I live in Asia, so getting a really good Western style meal is not all that easy to come by. I also ate a frosty and french fries at Wendy’s because I haven’t eaten that in years. We felt a little guilty about not eating only Japanese food, but keep in mind that when you see a foreigner coming out of a Western restaurant and want to turn your nose up at them for eating food you can easily get at home, realize that they probably don’t live in their home country and it’s nice to have some comfort food now and then.
The following day was one of those travel days that makes you feel a bit defeated. Everyone has those days where things just don’t pan out the way you intended, no matter how much planning you did. Renee had found an old coffee shop in Ginza called Café de l’Ambre that had been around since 1948. We finally made our way there (thank the Lord for Google Maps and the metro internet!), only to find that it was closed. We did a little shopping and looking around, picking up some delicious macaroons, and then made our way up to Asakusa in the Northeastern part of Tokyo. There we searched for Bonji Bar, a Hookah bar with various flavors of shisha and interesting drinks to pair it with such as cannabis vodka, peyote-enhanced tequila and absinthe. We jumped in a taxi (starting at about $7 – ouch) and when we pulled up to the place, it, too, was closed. After walking around searching for a coffee shop with internet, we came up empty. Not wanting to spend another $7 on a cab for a short ride we walked the back streets until we hit the metro, albeit the wrong one, and we discovered a livelier area of the town. Feeling let down not being able to see these cool places, we decided to hit up a Maid Café. A maid café is basically exactly how it sounds: a tiny café filled with girls dressed in French maid outfits who prance around, serve you food and do a little dancing and singing. I did not want to do this at all, and neither did Renee, but she convinced me that we should do it because it’s so weird and something that’s popular in Tokyo. We walked into one, and it looked like a seedy version of Candy Land, everything pink and fluffy and cutesy. The girls wore elaborate French maid outfits and talked in a high, squeaky voice. The café was filled with men eating various desserts, such as ice cream sundaes, watching and interacting with all of the girls. We were the only women in there, and I felt like I had reached a whole new level of uncomfortable. We sat at a table right next to a tiny stage, and our maid explained the process of how the café works (most of which was in Japanese, so we had no idea what she was saying), and told us that when we wanted to get her attention we shouldn’t say “excuse me” but rather say, “meow meow.” Renee had to do all of the talking (or meowing) because it was her idea and I would have never done this had it not been for her. As we started to eat, different maids got on the stage and did a song and dance routine, making me increasingly uncomfortable as I was sitting right there, watching all of the guys enjoying the show. I was also terrified that I would be singled out for an audience participation thing, seeing as I was sitting right there, I was a foreigner, and one of only two women in there (thankfully my fears did not come true). You have to pay about $10 to sit at the table for an hour and buy food, so after we were done eating we left (about twenty-five minutes after we got there). We couldn’t take pictures because you had to pay for a package that included that, and we pretty much just wanted to leave. The experience was… eww. And creepy. And confusing. This was clearly a sexual thing seeing as it was all guys, but why were the maids acting like little adolescent girls? Why was that so attractive? I understand strip clubs – they’re naked, you’re looking, it’s all out there and you know what’s going on. But here, you just watch maids prance around and sing and dance while you eat ice cream sundaes and watch them act like little girls. There was no touching or stripping, but it left me feeling super creeped out. After we left we walked around the city and stopped to eat some Yakitori (kebabs) and drink a beer, trying to make sense of what we saw.
The following day was New Year’s Eve, and we made our way to Shibuya to cross the famous intersection, which is super busy and all of the crosswalks change green at the same time. It’s usually packed with people going in all different directions, and the area is surrounded with neon lights, tall buildings and TV screens.
We walked around the area and found an Okonomiyaki restaurant, a food I had tried before and was desperate to find again. It can be made a lot of different ways, but the basics are a batter, noodles, cabbage, egg and your choice of meat and various toppings. I found a place here in Korea that serves it, but it’s not even close to how amazing it is in Japan.
We then went back to Roppongi and found a shop called Don Quijote, which is a store filled with everything from groceries to clothes to electronics. You can also find some super weird products such as this:
In the evening we met up with two other friends who were spending their vacation in Tokyo, and we first headed to Ant ’n Bee, a craft beer bar with some delicious tapas. The beer was so delicious (craft beer is hard to come by here in Korea), and I highly recommend the fried baby octopus. After that we hopped around to different bars, counted down to midnight, ate some ginger pork and rice and drank some more. It was a great way to ring in the New Year with good food, good beer, good friends and a new city.
The first day of the New Year we slept in a bit and then headed to a local temple, which ended up being closed, but it was pretty anyway. We then went to Tokyo Tower, the second tallest building in Japan, which looks like an orange Eiffel Tower. We looked over the whole city, and then we went out to eat sushi. It goes without saying that the sushi in Japan is second to none in the world.
All in all, Tokyo totally redeemed itself this time around. I had the best time people watching, their fashion is on point (Harajuku being the extreme and super entertaining), it was still quite weird at times (although a lot less sex shops than before), and the food was seriously amazing.
I hope you had beautiful holidays, and may your 2014 be filled with happiness, adventure and endless sources of inspiration and love.