Tag Archives: food

How I’m Spending My Food Budget

Standard

Though my days as a study abroad student are largely dedicated to schoolwork, commuting, and learning about the country I’m living in, cooking and buying food is central to my daily life in Tokyo. Temple University in Japan has no meal plan and no facility for making students meals, so Temple students are required to find food for themselves. While some students are provided meals through homestay, the majority of students eat from the same, extremely cheap, restaurants, grocery stores, and convenience stores.

Like my peers, I frequent the Lawson’s and Seven Eleven convenience stores that appear on every city block in Tokyo. Unlike those in the the United States, convenience stores in Japan are known to carry a variety of Japanese food, both healthy and unhealthy. Frozen Slurpees are replaced with nikuman, a steamed bun with meat filling. Cans of Coke are substituted with cartons of strawberry and matcha-flavored milk. I often go to my local convenience store to grab a pre-packaged lunch or a quick snack. My personal favorites are egg sushi trays and onigiri, rice balls wrapped in seaweed with a small amounts of mayonnaise, fish, veggie, or egg in the middle. Food is sold at a reasonable price, usually between 100 to 500 yen, roughly 1 to 5 U.S. dollars.

The Seiyu supermarket a block away from my dorm is also a great source for inexpensive meals. Seiyu is literally the Japanese equivalent of Walmart, as both store chains owned by the Walmart Corporate Company. I have been able to find pre-packaged meals of slightly higher quality at Seiyu between 10,000 and 300 yen (10 to 3 U.S. dollars). I often use these meals for lunch or a last minute dinner.

img_0330

Last minute dinners from Seiyu are pretty satisfying

Japanese supermarkets hold daily sales on pre-packaged meals, so the store can restock on fresh meals for the next day. The sale at Seiyu starts at 9pm and goes until 11pm, so I often go by the market late to grab discounted meals. I’ve been able to find some very nice entrees, such as a full sushi tray or chicken karaage meal at discounted price.  

I also buy raw ingredients at Seiyu to cook back at the dorm. I eat dorm-cooked meals twice a week with my friends. The kitchenette in my dorm room is very small, so my friends often find themselves cutting vegetables on my desk and cooking rice on my floor. We eat dinner while sitting on my bed or at my desk, and I often find dishes people left in my room the next day.

img_0334

Cooking at home with friends is the best!

We have tried a combination of Japanese and Chinese recipes, and the Japanese recipes are much easier to cook in the dorm kitchen. Japanese dishes often involve boiling food and adding various sauces and spices for flavor, while Chinese recipes call for pan frying. I don’t want to buy another pot or pan, as I have no way of taking such a thing home. However, stir frying in one small cooking pot has proven difficult, and has occasionally ended with me scraping blackened bits of food from the bottom of my once-silver appliance.

img_0331

Chinese food can be a little tricky–but it’s pretty worthwhile

Advertisements

Living In Japan, Part I

Standard

With only a few weeks left to go till the summer session wraps up, it seems like a good time to take a look at some of the quirks and adjustments that come with living abroad for a summer. While it’s hard (and likely impossible) to come up with all of the differences and difficulties, I tried to come up with some of the more interesting and prominent ones. Let’s start with the basics: getting around, and getting food.

Snapchat-6150455142912494830

A normal day at Hiyoshi Station (after most of the crowd had already boarded the train!)

The Trains

This one’s fairly obvious. The network of trains in Japan is nothing short of phenomenal. Dozens of lines, carrying what seems like millions of people, at all hours of the day. It’s also incredibly intimidating. My first experience was taking the train from the airport to my dorm, and even that was overwhelming. Fortunately, the public transit system seems built for people who don’t know exactly where they’re going, which helps when navigating the labyrinths of platforms and stations. It’s probably even more startling coming from Philadelphia, where the train system in the city is more or less limited to two major lines. If you’re even in Japan, I highly recommend the app “JapanTravel.” It comes with a map of the rail lines, and lets you input a starting station and destination, and it tells you which trains to take, what transfers, and even how much it will cost.

Of course, the trains are also often packed, in particular express trains and rush hour. From about seven to nine in the morning and any time after six at night, the question isn’t if you’ll get a seat, it’s if you will fit in the car. It’s not uncommon for commuters to exit the car when the train stops, then cram themselves back in before the train departs again just for a bit of space. Fortunately (and amazingly), the trains are very quiet, orderly, and ALWAYS on time.

The Food

A frankly ridiculous amount of soba, for less than 400¥!

A frankly ridiculous amount of soba, for less than 400¥!

This was something I wasn’t expecting. When planning to go out to eat, I’ve learned to start looking before you actually want to eat, because it often takes some time to find a place, particularly if you’re looking for somewhere foreigner-friendly. Many restaurants do have English menus, and if not, the universal language of “pointing at the thing you want and saying please” works just fine; but sometimes the menus are complicated, and you can often end up with food you hadn’t planned on ordering (like accidentally biting into some raw tentacles from something – yuck!).

It’s also a little surprising that their isn’t a huge amount of variety. Side streets may be crammed with restaurants, but they’re often all very similar. I can’t count the number of ramen shops, curry shops, and soba shops I’ve been to. Though many restaurants are fairly samey, I still have yet to eat a meal I didn’t thoroughly enjoy. Even for those with more Western tastes, there are still options (even barring the bizarre popularity of KFC and Denny’s). One highlight that I found was a burrito place in Harajuku, which was described by my friends as “Japanese Chipotle.”

The food can also vary in price wildly. I regularly pay no more than 600¥ for lunch, or about $5, but this is for lunches from convenience stores (which are, amazingly, full meals rather than the junk food you find in American stores). At some restaurants, though, I’ve paid upwards of $30 for a meal! Fortunately, though, it seems to average out at about 1000¥, or about $8. And, as expected, the more you pay the higher quality you get!

More Must-Visits in Japan: Release Your Inner Foodie

Standard

There are big differences between the “food culture” of the East and the West, and while there are countless similarities, there are still plenty of unique foods, places to eat, and ways of eating that are fun to discover about both areas. Studying abroad in Japan after living all my years in America, I have enjoyed experiencing excitement and surprise as I uncovered some of the similarities and differences of the two types of food cultures I am now familiar with.

A few of those who will study abroad in Japan after living in the States might be a little disappointed with the disappearances of the kinds of foods they’re used to (cheap peanut butter, for instance, is difficult to find in Japan’s grocery stores, and cereal is also not as big a part of breakfast in Japan so the choices are limited) and the introduction of new foods that take center stage at different meal times. These phenomena take some getting used to, but most of what you’ll eat are things you like because, although restaurants don’t serve typical “American food,” you can still shop for most of your favorites at the markets.

To give you a preview of what you can expect traveling to Japan (from an American’s point of view), I thought I’d introduce you to some of my most frequented food spots and most tasted treats. I have many favorite traditional Japanese places, but these are some of the good eats you may not have heard of!


マルイチベーグル -- See how glorious this giant bagel looks! <3

マルイチベーグル — See how glorious this giant bagel looks!

 

Maruichi Bagel

The first place you should know about if you miss rich, beautifully baked bagels, is Maruichi Bagel (マルイチベーグル) which is right near TUJ and the Shirokane Takanawa Station stop (near the park there). It’s an inconspicuous little shop with a white interior and friendly and sweet staff that get so excited to see customers come in to buy their amazing bagels. Another TUJ student frequents the shop so much that the staff learned his favorite order right away and tried to save a cinnamon raisin bagel for him at the end of his long day of classes! We went in together as the semester came to a close and I mustered up the courage to explain in Japanese that we were heading back to America in a few days, and that it would be our last bagel before we left. They were so sad to see us go! Definitely make a Maruichi bagel your morning breakfast before you finish your walk to TUJ!

Pancakes bigger than your face topped (or put on the side) with a giant mound of whipped cream.

Pancakes bigger than your face topped (or put on the side) with a giant mound of smooth whipped cream.

 

Eggs ‘n Things

One of the top restaurants on your list of places to stuff your face should be Eggs ‘n Things, an extremely popular “all day breakfast” Hawaii-based gem that has several locations in Japan (including Harajuku–convenient if you spend the rest of your day there shopping!). They do feature seafood dinner options, but they are known for their ridiculously enormous pancake and whipped cream set that is available all day and night. Get to these restaurants early though, there’s a wait for their delicious wares!

Spagiro

Missing American or Italian-style spaghetti? Check out Spajiro (すぱじろう) which has eight locations in Japan, including one open for the (very) late night owls of Roppongi (think karaoke!). They have delicious giant bowls of spaghetti in so many styles, and the sizes are all the same price (small, medium, large and for the big eater, extra large). It’s on the cheaper side of the really filling American-sized portion restaurants–even the small size is big enough for those who feel like they are ready to eat a horse! There’s a location in the Azabu-Juban area, which is a ten minute or so walk from TUJ’s Shirokane Takanawa. I’ve been here so many times after wasting time struggling to find dinner spots near TUJ. I usually always find myself trekking the walk to Azabu-Juban to bask in the warm, saucy red glow of a big bowl of Spagiro’s spaghetti.

And for dessert…

St. Marc Cafe (サンマルクカフェ), known for its signiture and original “Chococro” pastry, is an amazing spot for coffee, pastries, and ice cream dishes and there are several of them that will seem to pop out of the woodwork in the spots around Tokyo and Yokohama that you’ll frequent. There are also tons of crepe shops in shopping centers, and two rival shops in Harajuku that serve up some of the best crepes you’ll ever taste. Have fun discovering your own favorite foods in Japan while studying abroad! Just remember to watch how much you dish out on ramen, udon, pancakes, spaghetti, desserts and more! Don’t forget to buy groceries!

Ice cream from St. Marc's and a beautiful pastry behind it!

Ice cream from St. Marc’s and a beautiful pastry behind it!

My favorite dish at Spagiro's (go mushrooms!!).

My favorite dish at Spagiro’s (go mushrooms!!).

Tsukiji Market

Standard

On one of our last day in Tokyo, I decided to go to the Tsukiji Fish Market with one of my fellow TUJ classmates. In order to go, however, you need to usually find a place to stay all night because the market opens up at 5am every morning (except for Sundays, Holidays, and certain Wednesdays). The market is known to be one of the largest in the world, with business coming from all over the globe to purchase and sell fish here.

The streets near Ginza were completely deserted around 4 AM. We decided to leave around 4 AM for the market, before it got too crowded.

The streets near Ginza were completely deserted around 4 AM. We decided to leave around 4 AM for the market, before it got too crowded.

When we arrived at the market, it was still slow but vendors were putting out their goods, and shops were turning their lights on. Here is one of the main signs indicating where the outdoor market begins.

When we arrived at the market, it was still slow but vendors were putting out their goods, and shops were turning their lights on. Here is one of the main signs indicating where the outdoor market begins.

Even though it was still early morning, the market was moving about already. When visiting here, it is recommended that you take caution where you walk, because it can become very very crowded and busy.

Even though it was still early morning, the market was moving about already. When visiting here, it is recommended that you take caution where you walk, because it can become very very crowded and busy.

Many of the vendors had history of the trade outside the building. The market actually used to be in Kanda, but was relocated to Tsukiji some time after World War II, since the city was growing around up around it and the area wasn't as close to the port.

Many of the vendors had history of the trade outside the building. The market actually used to be in Kanda, but was relocated to Tsukiji some time after World War II, since the city was growing around up around it and the area wasn’t as close to the port.

We managed to arrive at the market a few minutes before 5 AM, when the market opens. The area is actually patrolled by the police, and they are very strict with their rules about the market.

We managed to arrive at the market a few minutes before 5 AM, when the market opens. The area is actually patrolled by the police, and they are very strict with their rules about the market.

In recent years, tourists have caused quite a problem in the market. In all honesty, Tsukiji is NOT an attraction, but merely a market. Vendors are trying to conduct businesses, and so many tourists flock to the area now that it inhibits that. It also has become a health hazard for the fresh fish being sold. Too many people around makes the temperature much hotter, and increases the risk of the fish getting contaminated with germs. Because of this, Visitors are not allowed to visit until after 9am when most of the fish are sold.

In recent years, tourists have caused quite a problem in the market. In all honesty, Tsukiji is NOT an attraction, but merely a market. Vendors are trying to conduct businesses, and so many tourists flock to the area now that it inhibits that. It also has become a health hazard for the fresh fish being sold. Too many people around makes the temperature much hotter, and increases the risk of the fish getting contaminated with germs. Because of this, Visitors are not allowed to visit until after 9am when most of the fish are sold.

Since we had arrived a little too early, it was a perfect time to catch the sunrise on Tokyo Bay.

Since we had arrived a little too early, it was a perfect time to catch the sunrise on Tokyo Bay.

The port area is where the real action happens. Here, there are trucks, carts, scooters, and bikes constantly moving. They're transporting fresh fish and other goods to and fro. Even though the fish wasn't visible, the smell was quite apparent that we had found where they were being sold.

The port area is where the real action happens. Here, there are trucks, carts, scooters, and bikes constantly moving. They’re transporting fresh fish and other goods to and fro. Even though the fish wasn’t visible, the smell was quite apparent that we had found where they were being sold.

In the market, there are certain areas that are restricted at all times. This is where the products are actually being brought in from buses, trucks, and of course, boats.

In the market, there are certain areas that are restricted at all times. This is where the products are actually being brought in from buses, trucks, and of course, boats.

In the market, there are many famous sushi and sashimi restaurants, since the fish could not get any fresher than from a place like the market.

In the market, there are many famous sushi and sashimi restaurants, since the fish could not get any fresher than from a place like the market.

Many merchants sold variations of dried goods. I've never seen so many beans and dried fruits ever!

Many merchants sold variations of dried goods. I’ve never seen so many beans and dried fruits ever!

If you love seafood, then you will love some of the things Tsukiji has to offer. All kinds of fish, shellfish, squid... you name it, they have it. The market is most famous for it's tuna auctions at 5 AM. Merchants from all over the world come to bid on gigantic tuna, but only about 70 are allowed in every morning.

If you love seafood, then you will love some of the things Tsukiji has to offer. All kinds of fish, shellfish, squid… you name it, they have it. The market is most famous for it’s tuna auctions at 5 AM. Merchants from all over the world come to bid on gigantic tuna, but only about 70 are allowed in every morning.

The Tsukiji Market was an amazing experience to see a tradition that has been around for decades. I really thought going early was a much better experience, because there are no tourists around and you can really see the “behind the scenes” of the market.

Welcome to Japan: 5 New-Student Tips & Tricks

Standard

Study Abroad Tips & Tricks

Before arriving in Japan as a student studying abroad, I didn’t fully know what to expect: I didn’t know what kinds of necessities I would buy for myself or my room, the types of shops that would be available in Tokyo, the food options I would have, the best ways of surviving a subway ride… There turned out to be more than a few things I wish I had known before stepping off the taxi and walking into my room at the Kitazono Women’s Dorm, and some insider info I wish I had heard before waltzing into TUJ for my first class in January. After more than a month in Japan, I found the answers to all of these questions, and the answers to new questions that arose as I adapted to life here. I’m sure there will be many more before my last day in Japan, but I’ve compiled a list of some things you might want to keep in mind before you study abroad at Temple’s Japan Campus.

1. The Subway

The subway system in Japan is very efficient and clean — nothing like the ones you’re used to in Philadelphia, but unlike in Philly it’s ok to push and nudge people around; in the early mornings and evenings the cars are literally packed with people heading to and from work. People turn around and give a little push to pack themselves in to catch the train. As there’s no “it’s full so I’ll get the next one,” I often times find myself wishing I had worn more layers because sometimes it does get stuffy and heated in the subway cars from all the people inside. Also, if you miss your train, there should be another heading in the same direction within five to seven minutes at most stations. This is helpful to know before you panic about getting somewhere on time — in Philly the subway trains can sometimes run pretty late and mess up your schedule, but for the most part its timing and the frequency of its trains are comparable to that of Tokyo’s subway system—Tokyo just does it cleaner!

2. Food

If you’re an adventurous eater at home in America — or even if you’re just a typical consumer of the culturally diverse food “melting pot” of America — you’ll be able to find what you like upon arriving in Japan, for sure. There are a few things that I’ve noticed, however, about the food options here. Cereal doesn’t seem to be a big thing in grocery stores and in Japan in general, but you can find a few (usually five different styles of cereal) at your larger grocery stores and maybe a box or two in specialty/local snack shops. Pancakes and waffles that you can normally get at a diner in America are a little difficult to find and popular pancake/breakfast places like Eggs N Things are expensive (there’s not really a comparable Sabrina’s or Cafe Lift in Japan!). It is also true that if you’re American you will find that the portion sizes are smaller, and thus you might also argue that food here is a little pricier when considering the amount of food you get when it arrives at your table. If you are a picky eater, you’ll be able to find pizza places, lots of Italian restaurants and French bakeries, and you can always shop for meals at a grocery store, but if you often find yourself in the mood for American-style diners, you might run into some difficulties. Diners are a little on the expensive end, though they do exist (Jonathan’s and Denny’s), but their menus feature a lot of traditional Japanese dishes. Overall though, you should not have a problem with finding food you want to eat, but I would encourage you to try traditional Japanese meals as well!

3. Money

Unlike in America, a lot of daily transactions are done with real cash. The only big difference is that coins are used more in Japan so everyone carries coin purses. If you purchase one thing when you set foot in Narita Airport, or as soon as you get a free day to explore after moving in, let it be a coin purse because you cannot function without one in Japan! Using cards to get money out of ATMs should not prove difficult, but it is true that certain convenience stores won’t accept foreign ATM/debit cards — 7 & I Holdings (7 Elevens) though usually always have machines that will take your card no problem.

4. Girl’s Dorm Necessities

For those staying in the Kitazono Women’s Dorm, after you settle in, you’ll need to buy toilet paper and cleaning supplies for your bathroom (toilet, bath, and mirror cleaner, etc). I recommend packing light and also leaving room for things to bring home, but there is a ton of space in your dorm room for storing clothes. The only thing I didn’t purchase that I could have at the 100 yen shops are hangers, because there is enough space for me to fold and store clothes on shelves. The dorm provides you with around four or five hangers, which are perfect for the few dresses I brought along with me, but if you need more things hung you can easily find hangers for cheap.

5. Shopping

There are plenty of convenient places to get anything and everything you could possibly need while in Japan: convenience stores that have everything down to underwear and toothbrushes, Uniqlos (fashionable, bright simple clothing stores that are everywhere in Japan) for last minute coats or jeans and the like, niche stores and souvenir shops, trendy fashion boutiques, 100 yen shops (dollar stores that have everything under the sun), and more. Especially near the women’s dorm, you’ll never find yourself needing to run out to another station or area to find a 7 Eleven, a coffee shop, or a clothing store — it’s all right around you. Just budget and try not to buy too much stuff! One thing that is hard to find, however, is deodorant — the specific kinds you’re used to in America. You’ll find that most stores carry lightly scented spray deodorants, not so much the solid stick or gel types, and at that there aren’t many brands to choose from. Keep this in mind, and if you want to you can always bring a stick from home in your luggage; most sizes fit the maximum amount of liquids/gels/etc that you are permitted to pack! And don’t forget to pack light. Although you’ll have a lot of closet space, you’ll want to leave room in your bags for awesome Japanese fashion and souvenir stuff to bring back home!

Convenience Stores

Standard

Known for its famous convenience stores, there is no way that the country will ever be short of them. I have found out just how closely tied my life has become to my local 7-Eleven, Lawson, and Family Mart (the first and last only 4 minutes away from Kitazono!).

Tokyo-Convenience Store Yoghurt-Ashlee Mantione-SP15

If you have seen any Japanese sweet before, you may have seen it adorned with an odd shaped jello-looking thing. This is pudding! Pudding is mainly the same color everywhere, with the top layer varying in color and flavor. They are sold with the Yoghurts.

On rainy days most places will have an empty square object will holes in it waiting at the entrance. This is for wet umbrellas to be stored in, so the floor won't get slippery in the store.

On rainy days most places will have an empty square object with holes in it waiting at the entrance. This is for wet umbrellas to be stored in, so the floor won’t get slippery in the store.

Yes, Valetine's Day is coming, but Japan is always excited about any candy it can get its hands on, so you will never see these shelves dwindling down.

Yes, Valentine’s Day is coming, but Japan is always excited about any candy it can get its hands on, so you will never see these shelves dwindling down.

Ramen. The iconic symbol  of a college student's life, as well as a great "fast food."

Ramen. The iconic symbol of a college student’s life, as well as a great “fast food.”

In Japan, there are bookstores everywhere (a dwindling enterprise in the United States) but here is just a small selection of what you could find at a convenience store. Yes, they do sell books here!

In Japan, there are bookstores everywhere (a dwindling enterprise in the United States) but here is just a small selection of what you could find at a convenience store. Yes, they do sell books here!

Never short of anything, here is a great combination of toiletries right next to school supplies. A great reminder to keep brushing your teeth in case you somehow forgot.

Never short of anything, here is a great combination of toiletries right next to school supplies. A great reminder to keep brushing your teeth in case you somehow forgot.

Tokyo-convenience store drinks more-Ashlee Mantione-SP15

Coffee in Japan is like how a person breathes air. You need it to survive, and in Japan, they have pretty much convinced me of that.

Tokyo-convenience store drinks-Ashlee Mantione-SP15

Juice. Juice. Everywhere. I have yet to be a place where juice has not been within a few meters within my reach (either in store, vending machine, convenience store, etc.). Juice in Japan tastes very much like the fruit it is. For example, although cherry flavored candy doesn’t taste like a real cherry, the juice in Japan will for certain.

They even having cleaning supplies and detergents for those not wanting to go far from home to get them.

They even have cleaning supplies and detergents for those not wanting to go far from home to get them.

Bike parking is a must at any convenience store. You will always find bikes and sometimes scooters around convenience stores.

Bike parking is a must at any convenience store. You will always find bikes and sometimes scooters around convenience stores.

Honestly, a way I have found to save money on some delicious treats is going to the convenience store at night, especially for lunches and breakfast items. The price range can go from ¥50-¥900, and possibly higher depending on the item. Most foods tend to not go over ¥300.

“My Lawson, tis of thee, sweet land of groceries…”

Food? Is There Food? I Want Food!

Standard

Warning: Do not read this post on an empty stomach. You will get hungry. I repeat! YOU WILL GET HUNGRY!

Have you grabbed a quick bite to eat? Yes? Good. Then allow me to continue.

I realize that I’ve been in Japan for the past 3 months and have yet to write about the one thing that I encounter every day, food. Since I have been in Japan, I’ve noticed some major similarities and differences between Japan cuisine and American cuisine. So, let’s dig in, shall we? いただきます!(which means “I will humbly receive” and is said before eating a meal).

Tomomi made such wonderful Endomae Nigirizushi and I loved every bite!

Tomomi made such wonderful Endomae Nigirizushi and I loved every bite!

She even made a mixed berry tart for dessert. It looks so perfect, I don't want to ruin it.

She even made a mixed berry tart for dessert. It looks so perfect, I don’t want to ruin it.

There’s one thing that I’ve always admired about Japanese cuisine, and that is the amount of dedication that goes into each dish. From preparation to presentation, even making something as small as a sushi makes me love the cuisine every time I eat. For example, my friend, Tomomi was kind enough to invite me into her home for dinner and I was amazed at what she prepared. Tomomi is 25 years old and in addition to salad, dim sum, and yakitori, one of the dishes she made was called 江戸前握or “Edomae nigiri zushi,” which looks similar to what I see in the grocery stores here, but it tasted so much better. Maybe it was because it was eaten shortly after made, nevertheless, I thank her so much for the food and the work she put into making it. ごちそうさまでした!(which means “Thank you for the meal” thus is said after eating.)

Hamburger Steak with spaghetti, shrimp tempura, potato salad, salad, and rice. A little taste of Italy, courtesy f Japan.

Hamburger Steak with spaghetti, shrimp tempura, potato salad, salad, and rice. A little taste of Italy, courtesy f Japan.

Even in Japan, there are restaurants that serve their take on foreign cuisine. For instance, I went to Fresca in Akihabara and was treated to Hamburger Steak (ハンバーグ), which came with salad, potato salad, spaghetti, shrimp tempura, and of course, rice. There’s a popular restaurant by TUJ that specializes in kebabs and a Chinese restaurant next to the nearby 7-Eleven. There are also Mexican, Indian, and Korean restaurants all over Tokyo. Just like in the US, Japan manages to incorporate the tastes of different countries without customers having to travel there.

Thanks to cream yaki, I now know that fishes can fly!

Thanks to cream yaki, I now know that fishes can fly!

Filled with golden cream, so warm during the winter.

Filled with golden cream, so warm during the winter.

Strawberry Cheesecake Crepe

いちごチーズケーキ (Strawberry Cheesecake Crepe)

SA student, Christina, couldn't help but get one as well :)

SA student, Christina, couldn’t help but get one as well 🙂

No meal is complete without a little dessert. I’ve come to like cream yaki since being here and winter has deepened this liking. During cold nights, on my way home, I sometimes buy a cream yaki from my favorite vendor. It’s so warm and fluffy that it hits the spot. Speaking of fluffy desserts, while in the US, I tend to favor a nice, thick slice of strawberry cheesecake or a rich double fudge brownie, Japan takes a more light and airy approach to their desserts. For instance, two other students and I went to Harajuku and we bought crepes. As soon as I saw a strawberry cheesecake crepe, I thought “Oooooh, I can have thick cheesecake in a crepe? Yes please!.” To my surprise, the “cheesecake” had the consistency of flan rather than the cheesecake I knew, but it was still good. Crepes, tarts, cream yaki, Japanese desserts have the same amount work put into them as meals and they look just as perfect so you don’t want to eat them, but eat them you must! Nom nom nom…

All this talk of food makes me want to get in the kitchen, go crazy, and make everything I possibly can!

Gaijin Stories Part 2

Standard

Food Etiquette:

Even with all the research I did beforehand, sometimes habits are just hard to adjust to. Although I was fully aware of their tradition of saying “itadakimasu” (a phrase used to give thanks before a meal) and “gochisou sama deshita” (a phrase used to express gratitude for the meal) I often forget to say one or the other. Fortunately, my host family is very understanding and usually initiates the phrase so I don’t forget to say it. However, there are a plethora of other unfamiliar rules and exceptions that come in Japan’s food etiquette. For instance, a friend of mine and I once went to a small shop in Shinjuku. After staring at a menu outside for a couple minutes, an old man ushered us in to talk with him. He didn’t speak English at all and spoke with an Osaka ascent. Luckily, my friend and I were able to piece together what he was saying to us. Apparently he was the president of Generali (the largest insurance company in Italy) Japan’s division! Anyway, back to the topic of food etiquette, he explained to us that when you are eating soba, it is polite to slurp your noodles. It shows that you are enthusiastic about the meal.

Am I suppose to make the slurping sound for this one?

Am I suppose to make the slurping sound for this one?

However, I discovered that this rule doesn’t apply to all noodles when my host family give me funny looks as I was applying this rule to pasta. I think in the future, I’ll just wait until someone else takes the first bite to figure out what I’m supposed to do.

Lost in translation:

One night while Alfonso (a close friend) and I were trying to figure out what we wanted to eat, we found a Spanish restaurant near campus. Being in Japan, you typically wouldn’t expect to see a Spanish flag in front of an establishment, so it caught our attention and we decided to read their menu outside to see what they had. As expected from Japan, once we were near the door, a worker approached us to urge us to come in. What we didn’t expect was for him to greet us in Spanish. Alfonso, being from Venezuela, was excited for the opportunity to speak Spanish with someone for the first time since arriving in Japan, so we decided to give the place a try.

Not sure if this was a Spanish dish, or a Japanese one. Either way, it was delicious!

Not sure if this was a Spanish dish, or a Japanese one. Either way, it was delicious!

The food was delicious but also a bit expensive so we only ordered one dish to share. In the meantime, we chatted with Taki-san (the worker who greeted us), who we learned to be the owner of the establishment. Taki-san introduced us to his wife and Momo, a student who was working there because she wanted to improve her Spanish. When Taki-san introduced us to Momo, he told us her name in Japanese means Peach and translated her name to Mandarina (which apparently means tangerine in Spanish). Alfonso, thinking that was a cute name, intended to tell her that she had a “kawaii namae.” Instead, he said “kawaisou” which translates to “poor thing.” (He was trying to say “kawaii sou,” which roughly translates to, “seems cute.”) I noticed the mistake, but the owner and Momo giggled, and my friend looked confident, so I thought maybe I was wrong. Besides, in my culture, it is rude to correct others in public. After we finished our food and said goodbye to the staff, I asked him if my translation was wrong. He stopped momentarily to think about what he said before. Upon realizing his mistake, he squatted down on the sidewalk, covering his face in embarrassment. Pretty sure, now is an appropriate time to use the term “kawaisou.

Seeing a Familiar Face in an Unknown Place-The Fight Against Homesickness Starts

Standard

From the day I arrived, I was in the honeymoon phase with Japan. I was absolutely in love with whatever I saw. The Japanese McDonalds by the train station? Sugoi! The shiba inu walking past me? Kawaii! The random ice cream wrapper on the ground? Subarashi! (Alright, they get it. Let’s scale it back a little.) It wasn’t until after my first week of school that it began to slowly creep up on me…homesickness.

I started to realize that yes, I had finally made it to the one country I wanted to go to since I was a child, but then I thought about it more and it sunk in slowly. I was here. Just me. Not with family, friends or anyone with whom I could identify. Only me. I was by myself in Japan. Even with the convenience of Facebook, Skype, and Line, at the end of the day, nothing can really compare to the face to face interaction one can have with a friend or family member and I began to miss it dearly. (Homesickness level…95%)

But then I received a message later that week that changed my entire mood. I found out that two of my good friends from my home university were English teachers in Aomori and Kyoto and wanted to set up a little reunion during the following weekend. I was absolutely elated. Just from the anticipation, my heart felt lighter and I couldn’t wait to see a familiar face in this unknown place. (Homesickness level…80%)

Upon arriving at Ueno Station, I was greeted by…three people? (I was only expecting two. What is this madness?) But yes, the other person was a Chinese co-worker of one of my friends. We exchanged formal greetings, but I think we both sensed each other’s nervousness. Either way, we dismissed it and went on our way to get a quick lunch (surely food can help ease the tension, right?)

20140913_092636

A little Japan Club reunion between me and my two senpais, Jordan and Ashley. Instant “Homesickness Repellent”

20140913_092612

Food is capable of bringing people together and getting rid of the awkwardness of meeting new people.

Of course, food brings everyone together! (Homesickness level…65%)

Just as the nervousness of meeting someone new started to fade away, it came back when I found out we would be going to someone else’s apartment in Saitama and staying there for the weekend. Even though my friend told me that he was a very relaxed person, a rush of questions rushed through my mind: What if he doesn’t like me? He’s Japanese and doesn’t understand English that well. Will my Japanese be good enough? What if I end up offending him and not knowing it? I forgot to bring him a gift. Will he be insulted? (Can you tell I was nervous yet?) As a result, I clung to the safety of my old friends for dear life. (Warning! Homesickness levels raising…85%)

Thankfully, he was a relaxed person so my worries were for nothing. He did however, speak very little English so from time to time, I had to look to the others to translate. But I will say this, it was a great opportunity to naturally learn conversational Japanese. Yes, I fumbled on some words and phrases, but you can’t learn without making mistakes right? His apartment was small (it was a single room apartment) but with some clever interior rearranging (aka moving the kotatsu from the middle of the floor) and playing a little human Tetris, all 5 of us slept in a 12ftx20ft room. What I didn’t expect was for this small room to bring us all closer together. Because our group consisted of people who were Chinese, Japanese, African American, Caucasian and Latin American, we had mini UN Q&A sessions to find out more about each other’s cultures. Of course none of us could answer for our own countries in their entireties, but we did the best we could from what we knew. In this small room in Japan, our little group managed to break down some cultural barriers and deepen our bond. (Homesickness level…60%)

Throughout the weekend, we explored Saitama, Harajuku, Shinjuku, Shibuya and Akihabara; meeting and recruiting new people into our group along the way (including a Military Defense Attorney and a former lab worker of the Maruchan Ramen Company, the one that college students know so well.) It’s amazing how you can meet people in the most unexpected situations and how they can really make the whole experience a lot better. As time went by, I found myself missing home less and less.

20140913_134630

トマトビーフとふわふわオムライス(Tomato Beef Stew and Fluffy Omurice) at Dining Out 53–いただきます!

20140913_142853

The amazing view of the city that came with lunch 🙂

20140913_143702

Yoyogi Park is so close but so far away!

20140913_142759

We added more people to our group, Shouta, Keiko, and Hiroki. Told you food brings people together.

20140913_164718(0)

Hachiko approves of our friendship.

20140913_172956

Conveyer Belt Sushi in Shibuya with our newest recruit, Michael, a military defense attorney.

20140913_153508

Holy cow! Never in a million years did I think I would ever do purikura. Oh look, has it been a million years already?

Taking in the fantastic view with my lunch at Dining Out 53 in Shinjuku, going to a Purikura booth in Harajuku, commemorating a newly found friendship by Hachiko then going to for conveyer belt sushi and karaoke in Shibuya and going to the Gundam Café in Akihabara; all of these things and more were made so much more enjoyable once I realized that they wouldn’t have been possible had I been back in the US. (Homesickness level…50% and stabilizing…) 

What started as an attempt to hold onto home turned into 36 hours of venturing further away from it and doing a lot of exciting things for the first time. Japan is a unknown place to me right now, but you know what they say? A stranger is a friend you haven’t met yet. I think that may be the key to fighting homesickness. Just get out there, meet new people and explore new places. No, the homesickness is not completely gone but it’s a process that requires you to make an actual effort. That being said, I will dedicate myself to doing just that. I will explore more and more of this beautiful country so by the end of my time here, I will see Japan as a familiar face.

Experience the Kawaii, Taste the Kawaii (^_^)

Standard

What began as a mission to get a phone in Akihabara, became an unexpected journey outside of my comfort zone and into all things kawaii.

With our phones bought, my friend and I decided to explore the Electric City and after turning a random corner (because that’s the only way to explore properly), we soon came across a maid. She told us about the Maidreamin Maid Café and what they do there. I finally gave in and she kindly escorted us to the building where the café was. During the 5-minute walk there, she pulled out a small walkie-talkie and informed someone that she was bringing two guests. I didn’t know who she was talking to exactly, but by the time we got to the building, another maid met us at the entrance and took us into the café.

20140907_161444

Maidreamin welcomes you! いらっしゃいませにゃ!

Two words can summarize the entire experience…CUTENESS OVERLOAD! I was not ready for everything that happened within the one hour we were there. Our maid was adorable as she presented us with the Grand Menu, which listed the different foods, desserts, drinks, etc. They also had services that the guests could pay for. For instance, for 500yen guests could take a picture with the maids, for 700yen the maids could play games with them and for 900yen, they receive glow sticks and could have the maids perform live on a mini stage.

I decided to have a strawberry parfait (while my friend had the chocolate parfait) and while we waited, our maid, Tora, kept us entertained. Being the only female customers (and the only African American ones at that), we felt a bit awkward, but she asked us questions like where we were from and why we came to Japan and she did her best to make us feel as comfortable as possible. Everything about her was charmingly adorable: her outfit, her way of speaking, her mannerisms, her whole demeanor.

How can dessert be this cute?

Strawberry Parfait—How can dessert be this cute?

But wait! The cuteness did not stop there! When our desserts came out, Tora had us say a “spell” with her that would make the desserts extra delicious. (Excuse me while I prepare myself.) “Oishii oishii naruite moe moe kyuuu!” (or “おいしい おいしい なるいて もえもえ きゅう~,” which roughly translates to “Become Delicious! Become Delicious! Cute! Cute!”) In the middle of our dessert, two maids announced a random drawing for two sets of rabbit ears. My friend and I looked at each other and before I knew it, I felt a pair of fluffy rabbit ears being placed on my head. わたしはとてもはずかしかった! (I was so embarrassed!) But at that moment, I was officially a princess (for the rest of the hour anyway.)

They made me a fluffy princess! Now where are my rabbit underlings?

They made me a fluffy princess! Now where are my cute bunny underlings?

Me and Jennifer, another study abroad student who lives in the same dorm. We're princesses at last.

Me and Jennifer, another study abroad student who lives in the same dorm. We’re princesses at last.

I was pleasantly surprised to see that the maids try to engage everyone in whatever they do, even if they have their own customers. For example, even though one guest paid to have their maid perform on stage, the rest of the guests were encouraged to join in and enjoy the show. At some point, a guest was leaving and the maids had everyone in the café (guests and maids alike) say “Nya nya!” as a final farewell. (See, I told you it was cuteness overload.)

Upon finishing our desserts, we were approached by another maid who had us do another spell (and you better believe this one included hand motions as well.) “Oishikatta oishikatta nya!” (or “おいしかったおいしかったにゃ,” meaning, “It was delicious. It was delicious! Meow!”)

But alas, the time came for us to leave. Our hour was up, our stomachs were full and our faces hurt from smiling so much. Going to a maid café was definitely a unique experience and one I don’t think I would have considered going through had I not been in Japan. I don’t consider myself to be the kind of person who would normally partake in “cutesy” things, but the maids themselves work hard to make sure each and every customer has a wonderful time and they really make the café come to life, so why not go and experience the kawaii?