Sunday, February 27, 2011

Kiddy Land, where I get my cute toy fix

 I have been meaning to write about Kiddy Land since the very first weeks of my stay in Japan, it is one of my favorite places in Tokyo. Kiddy Land is a store tucked in a cute side street in Omotesando known as Cat Street. It is basically 3 floors full of the cutest animated characters the funkiest little toys.

 The first floor is filled with various cute characters like the San-X classics like Rikakkuma. They have a section devoted to Studio Ghibli films like Totoro and Ponyo. Let's just say that I lingered in this section of the store A LONG TIME and it took all my will to move on without buying any Totoros.

How cute is this Totoro baby set?

The second floor is split between toys for boys, like Lego and trains, and funky little toys (a good much made for dorks). Naturally, I went to the funky/dork section for A LONG TIME too.

Onigiri and Bento Box playing cards

Miniature Hello Kitty plastic food, you never know which one you will get!
Display of the miniature Hello Kitty plastic food
Display of miniature Rikakkuma plastic food

The second floor also has a whole row of machines where you put in coins and get fun toys to hang from cell phones, as well as other funky collectibles. I am a total sucker for these machines and I gladly give them all my money in exchange for cell-phone accessories.

These cats stack up on top of each other
For 200 Yen (~$2.40) you can get a deeply apologetic Salaryman for your phone
StarWars accessories. How awesome is this?
I was not able to take pictures of the last floor. But it is basically devoted to the Sanrio and Peanuts brands. It's full of Hello Kitty, Little Twin Stars, Cinnamon Roll and Snoopy. Pretty sweet.

So what did I get at Kiddy Land? Check out my Mameshiba edamame phone accessory.

Still in the pack

At first sight, it looks like a little plastic edamame

Surprise! You can pop them out and the go right back in!!!

And the piece de resistance ... Mameshiba, a dog shaped bean is in the middle!

This Mameshiba edamame is part of the "Mugen" series. Mugen means infinite in Japanese, referring to a bunch of toys designed to be played with over and over again. Other Mugen favorites are designed to simulate the feeling of popping bubble wrap and opening beer cans. If you are in Tokyo, make sure you go check out Kiddy Land!

To see more toys of the Mugen Series click here

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Asa Geiko: Summo Morning Practice

Yesterday I had one of my most interesting experiences while in Japan. I went to see sumo morning practice "asa geiko". Since Natalie is visiting Japan in February there are no sumo tournaments going on right now. I still wanted her to experience this aspect of japan, so the solution was to go straight to the source and see sumo morning practice at a sumo stable.

Yes, that is right, the building where a group of sumo wrestlers live and train is called a "stable". We called Fujishima-beya, a stable here in Tokyo and they welcomed us to visit them during morning practice from 6 to 9 AM.

The main entrance to Fujishima-beya

 It was bright and early when we reached our destination in Uguisudani station and we knew we had reached the beya when we heard the rikishi grunting from the street adjacent to the beya. We were really nervous when we rang the door to the beya. When one of the rikishi opened the door we totally froze but he was nice and let us in.

We got invited in and sat on the tatami mat to watch the practice. Unlike sumo matches at the stadium, where fights last less than 30 seconds and are followed by long periods of religious rituals, the practice was intense, with matches happening quickly and successively.

The practice hall is a long room with a raised tatami floor were the beya owner and the coach sit. And the clay pit with the rope delineating the sumo ring "dohyo".

The first thing we saw were rikishi charging and resisting. One rikishi charges from outside the ring, while another rikishi tries to hold ground and act as resistance as he gets pushed across the circle. They would then switch roles and repeat. They would then practice falling by doing shoulder rolls.

Then, two rikishi that appeared senior started practicing. They would fight over and over with almost no breaks in between. I had never seen rikishi  up close like this or fight continuously before, and I was amazed at the physical exertion of the practice and the athletic ability of the rikishi.

I had already concluded on previous sumo watching that rikishi have an incredible amount of muscle underneath their fat. Being so close to the rikishi made me realize this again in a whole other level. Their leg muscles looked like tree trunks, it was incredible.

So what do the other rikishi do when there are two rikishi practicing in the ring? They are all practicing really really hard outside of the ring. This rikishi is holding a marble/stone ball and then he would proceed to do sqwats with it. It was incredible, it made my four-day-a-week gym routine look like baby's work.

Rikishi training on the side

Here I will add my girly comment of the day. You would think that a practice room that includes 20 guys sweating like machines would be the stinkiest place on earth. I was very surprised but the room had a very pleasant and earthy smell. It smelled like clay and tea seed oil, which the rickishi use on their hair.

 Lastly, at the end of the practice the coach went into the pit and the rikishi started practicing "dohyo-iri", which involved raising their legs high and then stomping on the ground to drive evil out of the dohyro. They would do sets of ten, over and over and over again. I was surprised that they where able to do that after all the other practice that had taken place earlier.

 After the morning practice was over, the rikishi gathered in a circle, recited things in Japanese that I unfortunately could not understand. Then they bowed at the shrine in the practice room and left.

Natalie and I thanked the coach and owner and stepped outside into the crisp cold and bright day feeling like we had stepped out of a dream. It was very clear that we did not belong there (two non-japanese girls in a heya with 15 rikishi, you bet that we do not belong there) and we had the feeling that this was an authentic experience of their every-day lives, not a show for tourists.We felt like we witnesses something that few people (let alone Westeners) are able to see. It was very special.

Monday, February 21, 2011

Good Slurps - Jangara Ramen!

Its been really fun to have my friend Natalie visit me in Tokyo. She is one of my best friends from college and even though college seems like it ended yesterday, this actually means that we have been friends for 10 years!

This is Natalie's first trip to Japan, so there are some things she must see, like Asauka Temple and Meiji Shrine. And there are some things she must eat, like .... ramen!

When in Rome ... Pose like the Japanese and eat like the Japanese!
Ramen chefs hard at work still have time to pose for me ;-)

Jangara is a famous ramen shop serving Kyushu-style ramen (specialized in tonkotsu or pork-flavored broth). There are about five Jangara Shops in Tokyo and we visited the one located near Harajuku station. We had the ramen gods on our side, when we got to the store there where only 8 people ahead of  us and two minutes later the line of people behind us was turning around the corner.

Jangara's menu is set up so you can customize in to ways. The first is the amount of toppings you get and the second is the level of spiciness. Natalie and I decided to go with the Jangara classic with all the toppings. We sat down and waited patiently for our ramen while these nice little plastic ramen bowls kept us company.

Then our ramen arrived, it was so good! This is by far the best ramen I have had so far on this particular trip to Japan and I am happy to report that I finished my bowl. There where two things in this ramen that made it so memorable. The first was the broth, its is incredibly flavorful and rich but not overpowering or too heavy. The second was the generous ball of mentaiko (spicy roe) that they added to the ramen. It was tasty, went really well with all the other flavors and gave the ramen a nice spice kick.

Anatomy of Jangara Ramen

The chasu was good, it was very thick and sweet in comparison to all other chasu I have had. It was a little too sweet for me, so I could have used only one piece of chasu instead of two but needless to say it was very nice and interesting. The egg I am sad to report was not soft boiled, so it was nothing special. The noodles were very think and not curly, I could have had my noodles a little bit more al dente (note to self: need to learn how to request that in Japanese).

A closeup of the deliciousness
 We clearly where on a roll with the food that day, because we found a very tasty Anpan store in Omotesando later that afternoon. We shared a white bean anpan and it was delicious. The crust was thin and crisp and the bean paste was warm and not overly sweet. Not only as the anpan good but the shop was really beautiful too.

The anpan shop. I wish I knew its name!
Beautiful anpan molds
White-bean anpan

Monday, February 14, 2011

Weekend trip: Part II - Mt. Koya

Koyasan is a sacred Buddhist mountain south of Osaka with over 100 temples. Hiking the ancient pilgrimage trail and spending the night in a Buddhist monastery has been in my bucket list for a long time. Paul, Richard and Rob decided to come too, so I had hiking buddies!

Statues at the beginning of the trail

The pilgrimage route leading to Koyasan is called the Choishi Michi, a 20 kilometer, 800 meter elevation hike marked by 180 pillars marking ever cho (cho = 108 meters). We started our hike around 10 am.

1st Cho, 179 to go!
 The trail started steeply and then it levered. We got some nice views of the surrounding area. The air was cold and crisp and the day was clear. It was a beautiful day to hike.

Another cho marker, I had already lost count
The trail runs into a golf course. Ha!
I guess he got cold too
  Further up the hike, we started to see signs of snow. This was certainly unexpected because snow is not usual in Koyasan, even in the winter. The unusally cold winter we are having in Japan threw a few surprises our way and slowed down our pace for the last three kilometers.

After 6 hours of hiking, we turned around the corner and were rewarded with the view of the Daimon, or main gate! The bad news was that our monastery was 2 kilometers away from the Daimon, so we had to pick up our stuff and keep hiking.

The Daimon
Various temples at Koyasan

We finally arrived to Eko-in, the monastery where we were going to spend the night. The bath was very simple but after 6 hours of hiking it felt so great. We changed into our yukata and got ready for dinner at the monastery.


Part of the experience of staying in a buddhist monastery is to eat shojin ryori, the vegetarian food that monks eat. I am in love with shojin ryori. It was very traditionally Japanese, with a lot of umami flavors and so pleasing to the eye as much as the palate. We also lugged up the mountain bottles of "nama sake"(unpasteurized fresh sake) from the brewery in Kobe, so it felt pretty good to open the bottles and toast.

Soup, seaweed and oshinko (pickles)
Tofu with wasabi and seaweed
Udon noodles in the pot and yuba and vegetables
And the Nama Sake I lugged all the way up the mountain

The next day, we woke up early to attend the morning Buddhist prayers and the fire ceremony. I really wish that we had more explanation about the prayers so we could understand what was going on. After the prayers, we had Japanese breakfast and left Koyasan via the cable car that connects the mountain to the train station below. Now I need to start planning my next hike.

The fire ceremony