Utogi, where wasabi was cultivated for the first time

Wasabi is an essential spicy source for some Japanese food such as sushi. However, do you know how wasabi is grown? In my hometown, Shizuoka, there is a place named Utogi, where wasabi was cultivated for the first time in Japan.

In 1 hour drive from Shizuoka station, after driving a winding road through mountains of Abe-Oku, we arrive at Utogi, which is in May surrounded by green colors including those of tea leaves.

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And soon after we walk from Utogi village toward mountains, we can find many green plants grown on terraced fields.

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Wasabi cannot grow without clean water flowing by the plant. Therefore, wasabi plants are always made along the river as terraced fields so that water from the river flow by the plant. The existence of wasabi indicates how clean water in the area is.

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According to the history of Utogi, at the beginning of 17th century, when the Shogun of Tokugawa started Edo era, a man living in the village tried to plant wild wasabi on a spring and soon found that wasabi by flowing water grew much better. This is how Utogi people started growing wasabi.

In the village we can taste fresh wasabi with soba noodle. With the knowledge how to grow wasabi, it tastes more special.

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Azalea festival at Nezu shrine

Our current home is close the areas called “Yanesen”, a set of three smaller areas, Yanaka, Nezu and Sendagi, which is one of the most popular areas in Tokyo for foreign visitors.

And Nezu, one of Yanesen areas, is famous for a shrine, Nezu shrine, as well as a traditional shopping street. In April, Nezu shrine has the Azalea (Tsutsuji in Japanese) festival to celebrate full bloom of Azalea in the shrine.

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The shrine says that it was established 1,900 years ago by Yamatotakeru-no-Mikoto, who is one of the legendary heroes in Japanese myth. But current main buildings were built in the early 18th century and they are well preserved. Japanese people, as they do in other places, make a long line and wait in a long time in order to come to the front of the main building and pray for the gods.

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And in April the shrine has the biggest number of visitors who come to see the Azalea festival. In the shrine there are approximately  3,000 azalea with 100 different kinds in full bloom.

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For Japanese azalea blossom is one of the common flowers we can see everywhere. when we were children, in spring one the way to school we used to pick up azalea blossoms and suck sweet nectar from the flowers. But, even though azalea is so common for Japanese, we didn’t know azalea has so many different kinds.

We thought the color of azalea blossom is pink. However in the festival there are many other colors of azalea such as white, dark red, purple.

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We thought the flower which represents April in Japan should be cherry blossom, but after the festival we cannot ignore azalea blossom as another flower of April. Furthermore like cherry blossom azalea matches Japanese traditional buildings.

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Yokohama port, where old and new coexist

Yokohama port is one of the biggest ports in Japan for our current global trade as well as one of the old ports opened to the West by Japanese government in 1859 as an important event in the first stage of Japanese modern history. Due to these backgrounds both old and new things coexist in this area.

At the first glance you can see skyscrapers of the new urban area named “Minato Mirai 21, (Port of Future). The tall building in the left of the photo below is named “Yokohama Landmark Tower” build in 1993 and had been the highest building in Japan till 2012.

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You might feel that everything in the historical port has changed after recent redevelopment. However, when you see more closely you can find many historical buildings.

One good example is the building of Kanagawa Prefectural Museum of Cultural History.

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You might think that you come to a historical district of a US major city. It’s not a strange feeling since this building is one of major architectural examples of the era when Japan was trying to accept Western culture so drastically in order to catch up to the West. The building was build in 1904 originally as the headquarter of Yokohama Specie Bank. The architecture, Yorinaka Tsumaki, designed it using Baroque Revival style, which was the latest style in the West at that time. In 1967 the building was reopened as Kanagawa Prefectural Museum of Cultural History.

Another good example is “Yokohama Red Brick Warehouse”.

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Yorinaka Tsumaki, the architecture of the building of the bank mentioned above, also designed this building, as the modern bonded warehouse of Yokohama port, which was rapidly developing as a sea entrance of eastern Japan. They used the latest architectural technique at that time such as the first commercial elevator in Japan to build the warehouse. Thus it had been known as a good example of bonded warehouse architecture in a long time.

This building also has finished its original role as bonded warehouse. In 2002 it was reopened as a shopping area. And now it’s loved by local people and visitors as a symbol of Minato Mirai area.

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Unagi (eel) at Una-Tetsu in Nippori, Tokyo

It’s understandable that foreign people have some hesitation to eat eel due to its appearance. It might be similar to my situation that I had a little hesitation to eat craw fish when I came to the South of the US for the first time. But after 4 years in the South, craw fish is one of my favorite foods! So I want to promote eel (Unagi in Japanese) to my foreign friends.

In five minutes walk from our home there is a good Unagi restaurant whose name is Una-Tetsu.

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This is a small restaurant even without its website. Inside the restaurant there are only 3 table seats and a bar. And we can see very closely Unagi chef cooking Unagi food.

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In good Unagi restaurant Japanese enjoy Unagi food as a full course of Unagi.

As appetizer we ordered a selection of Unagi skewers.

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The chef cut Unagi into many parts (like American cut beef into many different parts) such as head of Unagi and back of Unagi. Then he stuck skewers into these parts of Unagi and then grill them slowly. The Unagi skewers tastes differently good and go very well with Sake. Also it’s impressive that the chef use all the parts of Unagi for some menu including the head of Unagi and doesn’t waste any.

Then we ordered Una-Zhu, grilled Unagi body with rice bowl, which is the most poplular Unagi dish in Japan.

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In this menu Unagi is grilled with sweet source in a long time and a recipe of the source is house special at each Unagi restaurant. Each Unagi chef shows his well-trained technique to control time and temperature of grill. Another remarkable thing about Una-Zyu is that each Unagi restaurant has several different prices for the same Una-Zyu depending on the quality of Unagi.

At Una-Tetsu they have 4 different prices for  Una-Zyu, quality of plum (Ume in Japanese), quality of bamboo (Take in Japanese), quality of pine (Matsu in Japanese) and the best quality. Meanwhile the way to show these quality is same in many Unagi and Sushi restaurants in Japan. All of these three (plum, bamboo and palm) have happy meanings in Japanese tradition.

We ordered Una-Zyu with plum quality, which was very tasty. And it gave us a big expectation for our next visit when we will order Una-Zyu with the best quality.

 

 

Packed train in rush hour

One of globally-famous but not comfortable things in Tokyo is packed trains in rush hour. When I lived in the US, I drove to the office every day. And before I moved to the US, I had lived in Tokyo but at the apartment very close to our office so I could walk to the office.

However finally we need to ride a train to go to the office every day now !

Below is a photo of Nippori station in rush hour in the morning but on the day with “relatively” less passengers. On the other days, there were much more passengers and I had no chance to take a photo.

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A good point of train network in Tokyo is that trains come to the station every a few minutes without delay. A bad point, especially in rush hour is that there is almost no room for us in any train.

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Japanese people are known to be kind and modest. However, when the train arrives at the station in rush hour, people behave as if there is no human right in this country. We need to push other people in the train to make some space and squeeze ourselves into the train. While we are in train, sometimes we still keep pushing each other and need to be silent like a statue.

And when the train arrives at the destination, people start walking to each office as if there were nothing special inside the train.

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Nevertheless, Japanese people like train. Nippori station is one of stations where many train lines including Japanese bullet train pass by one another.

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And there is a bridge next to the station where we can see each train comes into the station. On weekend many people including families with small kids spend a long time watching trains coming in and going out. I got surprised some (not single) kids memorized many names of trains, while I cannot even distinguish some train…

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Maybe it would be a good strategy to learn more about train in order to somehow enjoy the time in the train in rush hour.

 

Akihabara, changing area of electrical products in Tokyo

Recently Akihabara is one of the most famous areas in Tokyo for foreign visitors. But for me it’s one of the most changing areas in Tokyo as well.

When I firstly moved to Tokyo from my hometown in 2002 in order to enter the university, since Akihabara was close to the university, I sometime visited there. At that time, there were many small shops which sold electrical parts for those who can made their own machines such as transceiver.

However after 15 years such scenery has totally changed. the most of such small shops has disappeared and when it comes to electrical products there are some gigantic stores with multi floors.IMG_0054

Yodobashi-Akiba is one of such gigantic stores with 9 floors. And even though some Japanese manufacturers of home electrical appliance recently sold their business to other Asian companies (Sharp is the latest example), here we can still see Japanese technology which is famous for improving the original concept created by others.

For example, next to Roomba developed by iRobot, American company, Panasonic, Japanese company sell their model of the automatic cleaning machine with lower price and (most possibly) better performance.IMG_0059

Japanese people is famous for hard working and also being always tired. So there is unique development of electrical appliance for relaxation. For example Japanese massage chairs are so good that customers start sleeping on the chairs even inside the store.IMG_0060

On the other hand, in the past decades Akihabara has been expanding as a center of Japanese pop cultures such as animation, manga and video game, which Japan has been trying to export as “Cool Japan”. As for this side of Akihabara culture I’m a little afraid that the industry of such cultures is targeting too much the specific people who like cute but unreal girls and started losing diversity.  IMG_0070 (1)

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Anyway, the change of Akihabara is successful in the sense that I see the more foreign visitors than any other areas in Tokyo. And there are several new fancy hotels which target such visitors. IMG_0067

So over all I think Akihabara is still one of must-visit areas in Tokyo for foreign visitors.

 

Sakura, Japanese soul flower

In this weekend, cherry blossom (Sakura in Japanese) is in full bloom in Tokyo Japan. I believe Sakura has been one of main subjects in Japanese culture, such as literature, song and paintings, so we can call Sakura as “Japanese soul flower”.

When we woke up on Saturday morning and saw outside from the window of our room, we found a very interesting thing.IMG_0033

Surprisingly there is a road led by Sakura trees in full bloom. We went downstairs and tried to find what it is.

On the way, many people are enjoying Sakura and taking pictures.

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After 5 minutes we arrived at the entrance of the Sakura road. It was a cemetery!IMG_0038

This cemetery is called “Yanaka Reien”, the biggest cemetery in this area. And there are a lot of Sakura trees along the road in the cemetery. According to our neighbors, here is the most famous spot to enjoy Sakura in this area. In the past people even sat down on the ground and drank sake to enjoy Sakura (now it’s prohibited, though…)IMG_0040

Sakura in full bloom is beautiful indeed. But at the same time Sakura sometime indicates an image of death for Japanese since the period when Sakura is in full bloom and thus in its full beauty is very short like human’s life and it scatters too soon like human does.

For example, Sai-gyo, a samurai as well as monk and poet who lived in Japan in the 12th century, made a following famous Tanka (Japanese traditional short poem) shortly before he passed away (above is an original Japanese version and below ( ) is my English translation.)

ねがわくは 花のしたにて 春しなん そのきさらぎの もちづきのころ(現代仮名遣い)

(I hope to die under Sakura tree in spring in that April with full moon)

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I hope this post could somehow express the delicate feeling about Sakura in Japanese culture.

Lastly Sakura is matching with a very American thing, McDonald’s, as well. lol.

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Nippori, our new home

One week ago, we moved to Nippori, Tokyo from the US and started our new life. Our new home is a room in the high-rise apartment next to Nippori station(The building in the center of a photo below).IMG_0018

As soon as we moved here, we liked this area, since this area is close to another area called Yanaka which is famous for Japanese traditional culture. In the center of Yanaka there is a long shopping street, Yanaka-Ginza, with a lot of small shops with traditional stuff.FullSizeRender

For example, a photo below is a Japanese candy shop. On the wall of the shop, they put several paintings featuring famous and traditional temples and shrines in Edo (old name of Tokyo).FullSizeRender (2)

In Yanaka-Ginza, the style for drinking is very casual, too. A photo below is a liquor shop. They sell “Sake” by glass at the entrance of the shop. After purchase customers can enjoy sake sitting on outdoor chairs next to the entrance. And the chairs are actually plastic boxes to be used to deliver sake bottles from the shop to customer’s house!FullSizeRender (3)

And more than all others in this season of late March/early April, Japanese people enjoy cherry blossom in bloom. As of today March 26th, they are 30-40% in bloom in Tokyo. However, those who have short temper have already started gathering under cherry trees and drinking with family and friends all day long.IMG_0026

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It’s said that next weekend is the best time to enjoy cherry blossom. We are looking forward to enjoying the flower most loved by Japanese, and also to drinking some sake…