Japan – December 2010

Another trip to the Land of the Falling Yen – literally. This plummeting is more sickening than bad turbulence on the plane. But although some cynical person described the trip as ‘nothing more than a mileage run for Christmas shopping’, it was actually a chance to get acquainted with some lesser-known parts of various places. As I shall demonstrate:

A is for Airline: In response to demand but also in a clear bid to capture as much of the Japan – Australia traffic as it can get away with, QF upgraded its aircraft from an A330-300 to a 747-400 out of Sydney earlier in the year. And, to top it all off, started offering Premium Economy in them to boot. All of which made absolutely no difference to me because, due to the A380 problems and the need to provide Oprah Winfrey with not just one but two 747-400s, they reverted to A330-300s on the SYD – NRT route. Which was slightly uncomfortable on the way up but very handy on the way back as I used some points to get an upgrade to Business Class and get some real sleep which was very necessary. Right now if you can get from A to B in a Qantas plane without any engine problems, that’s an achievement in itself. Was I nervous ? Not really. But I was moderately concerned. Although I was more concerned about the food – last time I went up, the meal was close to inedible (in my opinion). It was better this time but it was interesting to see more fish dishes on the menu. And the pattern of disrupted / cancelled flights continued again this year with the SYD-AKL leg being canned (it was the LAN 800 flight). I suppose that I should have picked up on the fact that no boarding pass was provided at NRT as it normally is.

K is for shopping (Kaimono in Japanese): Given that it’s nearly Christmas / New Year, what seems to be trendy in the department stores and other places ?

Department Store Report: In recent years, there’s been some consolidation of some of the dramatis personae in the department store arena. Isetan and Mitsukoshi merged in 2008 to become an even bigger monolith and took the battle to the competition right in the heart of Tokyo’s pricey Ginza district with a fully refurbished Mitsukoshi store. Naturally, some of the others have looked to do the same – Matsuya Ginza has refurbished two of its floors and Matsuzakaya has done the same, primarily to attract younger shoppers. Although the Japanese don’t celebrate Christmas as we do (New Year’s is more important and significant), that doesn’t stop the major retailers having a field day in terms of gift catalogues and sales and so on. You could easily do your Christmas card / decoration / present shopping here (if the exchange rate were considerably more favourable !) But it was interesting to see a number of contrasts – some companies have pretty much retained a similar product line or approach to say two or three years ago with only minor changes. A minority have done a product refresh to a great extent and there are even a few new players trying to elbow their way to a greater take of the consumer dollar (the Austrian confectioner / patisserier Demel being one). Some retailers have savagely cut back on the traditional catalogues that are a cornucopia of foods, fashions and gifts. Others have retained the catalogues but have taken varying approaches to segmentalise various markets (e.g. fashion has its own glassy, food has its own glassy etc) or create different images. The results therefore vary – Isetan’s segmented approach works in many ways, Takashimaya’s is slightly disappointing, Mitsukoshi have kept to the same old formulas and others have sat on the fence. Having said all of that, the Christmas cake catalogues kept to their usual amazing standard this year and one in particular caught my eye – partly because of its delicate elegance but partly because it seemed incongruous for Christmas. Oh, well.

Gadget Report: We all want new gadgets. Probably more so now than ever. And I was after something small, inexpensive yet flashy (fat chance of getting anything decent, I can hear you say). So naturally one heads to Akihabara Electric City. Apart from seeing a rather disturbing increase in the number of ‘maid cafes’ (if you know what these are, you know. If you don’t, don’t ask) the biggest items being pushed are 3D televisions. I tried watching a few demo programs using the glasses but frankly I’m not sold on the concept yet. You might have to give it a few more years yet. Somewhat more worrying for me was the lack of any really good ‘bridge’ digital cameras – ‘bridge’ being in between a digital SLR and a point-and-shoot small thing. I would like to upgrade my camera at some stage but like the idea of having almost-SLR-like features without the hassle of the extra weight and other things. Nearly everything these days takes 1080HD quality mpegs as well as pics that have resolution of 12 Megapixels or above.

S is for Sendai: I should know this city better than I do. But the reality is that the last time I had a good look around the whole city was 22 years ago. Time to correct that. The best way to get around is by the ‘Loople’ tourist bus which costs only Y600 for a day pass. Most of the tourist sites are covered on the way

Zuihoden: This mausoleum is where the remains of Date (pronounced ‘Dah-tay’) Masamune are housed as well as his son and grandson. He made Sendai what it became and turned it from a sleepy fishing village to a seat of great power within Northeastern Japan. Known for his distinctive black and gold armour and his helmet with a representation of a crescent moon as well as losing his right eye to a bout of smallpox, he consolidated his hold on the Tohoku region about the time Toyotomi Hideyoshi seized Odawara Castle. Subsequently, his hold on power was confirmed by Tokugawa Ieyasu who virtually controlled Japan with his clan. One of Date’s more remarkable achievements was the building of a western galleon in 1613 to despatch messengers and return Christian missionaries back to Europe and this delegation made it safely to Mexico, Spain and Rome and delivered a letter from Date to the Pope. Believe it or not, some of the Japanese party remained in Spain and there are said to be about 600 descendants. (The party did manage to get back home again, but what happened when they got back need not concern us). The mausoleum itself was simple but ornate with carefully crafted wood and laquerwork in a variety of different colours in the Momoyama Period style. The best way to access it via the Loople Tourist Bus as it is a bit out of the way for the uninitiated but can be reached on foot if you are near the International Centre.

Aoba Castle: The seat of power in Sendai for centuries, but now a shell of what it was as it was partially destroyed by fire bombing in World War 2. The remains of the castle (including much of the stone base and many of the stone walls) remain and an ongoing project is to rebuild some of these to their former status. Being deliberately built on a hill, the view over the city is very good provided the weather is favourable. One can (if one has the time) walk down a number of paths around where the various parts of the castle used to be but it is not that well marked out and the maps are not particularly user friendly. So most people just admire the view and to the Shrine nearby.

Jozenji Dori (Jozenji Street): Sendai has been known as the City of Trees and not for nothing either – along many of the major streets, you’ll find trees planted on the sidewalks or in fact down the centre lines as there are along Jozenji Street. There are sixty zelkova (a relative of the elm tree) along here and they are often photographed throughout the year and indeed the Pageant of Light was scheduled to take place just before I left but due to a weather bomb crossing all of Japan, I didn’t go and see the first night. Some of my abiding memories of Sendai are photos of Jozenji Dori and walking down part of it over twenty years ago and being wonderfully green. Although the best of the autumn colours finished about ten days to a fortnight ago, a number of the trees still had brilliantly yellow leaves which were nice. Definitely worth a look and again accessible by either the Loople Bus or the Sendai Subway.

AER Observation Deck: Familiarity breeds a degree of contempt, I suppose. The AER Building is a rather eclectic mix of retail, conference space, office space and a few other things which I don’t know about. With its proximity to Sendai Station, it is ideally located and well patronised. Unfortunately the free internet access that we got used to in the past has been cut, primarily because of regulations now requiring internet cafes and the like to complete documentation about users. But I was rather surprised to see details of the 36th level observation deck – it’s free. Although for obvious reasons it’s an enclosed space, nonetheless, you can get a good view of the city centre and surrounds from two platforms with a view to the north west and the south east. The light and the triple glazing make taking picture rather difficult but you might get something decent on a fine day.

T is for Tokyo: Having done most of the usual tourist sites, it was time to see some of the lesser-known (but no less interesting) parts of the city:

Rikugien: Built between 1695 and 1702, this was originally a private garden and retreat for one of the many feudal lords (Yanagisawa Yoshiyasu, if you must know) and the name refers to the six elements in ‘waka’ (Classical Japanese) poetry. I thought I might be a bit late for the autumn colours (koyo) but luckily in amongst it all, there were still some lovely pockets of yellows and reds amongst the maple trees. Given that I wasn’t going to Kyoto and its surrounds, the timing was lucky and while not as breathtaking, was beautiful nevertheless. A good place to walk around in the autumn or any other time, they say. Rikugien is a short walk from Komagome station on the Yamanote loop line which makes it close to Ikebukuro.

Ameyoko: Essentially one long street between Okachimachi and Ueno, this used to be where the black market flourished just after the war. The name is a shortened form of ‘ameya yokocho’ or “sweet vendor street” and there are one or two old-time vendors trading around the place although they are very easy to miss. So why come here ? Simple, really – after a decade of stagnation and increasing economic pressures, the demand for cheaper goods has risen exponentially over recent years. Ameyoko is a bustling market more or less with several hundred shops and stalls selling an array of products from clothing to food to cosmetics to you name it. There’s the fish and seafood area, there are the clothing stalls (including an amazing US Army Surplus store), there are the bric a brac and miscellaneous items stores and a wide variety of restaurants and eateries. Given the proximity of the winter holidays, there were plenty of people in and around the place and I mean plenty. Worth checking out if you have a minute.

N is for New Things: Of which there were a number worth noting.

JR East Pass: This is a regional variant of the Japan Rail Pass and is good for travel in Tokyo and most of the Japan to the East / North East of Tokyo (but excluding Hokkaido, of course). Thus, you can use the Narita Express airport service, the Tohoku, Joetsu, Nagano, Yamagata and Akita Shinkansen services (without the restrictions you get on the Tokaido Shinkansen). However, unlike the Japan Rail Pass (which is available to Japanese expats and foreigners), the JR East Pass is exclusively for foreign visitors (there’s a reason for travelling on an NZ passport, you know).

Haneda International Airport: Well, a new old new thing. Or should that be old new ? I’m not sure, but international flights have recommenced from Haneda Airport (which was international until they built Narita, at which point it became solely domestic). It’s very clean, white marble and modern with lots of restaurants cleverly designed to give a feel of a small Tokyo alleyway (red lanterns, bamboo frontage and so on). The effect is rather spoiled by the crush of people that were there (90% of whom were just interested visitors, not travellers). The great thing is that you can now use the JR Rail Passes on the Tokyo Monorail.

H is for Hotels: In Sendai, the Hotel Metropolitan is the most convenient and best known (although a Westin has just opened there and Holiday Inn is trying to consolidate although it looks and feels a bit dull) and it is convenient if you are taking the Tohoku Shinkansen or any train for that matter. Get off, walk a short distance through the S-Pal complex and straight through. Having been well refurbished since I was last there in 2006, it was nice to get a more modern room. It was smallish but functional and comfortable and that’s really all you need. Breakfast at the Metropolitan is worth a mention – get the package with it included and there are two options, one Western, the other Japanese. For research purposes, your correspondent tried both and they were really good (although there were a couple of points under ‘W’ below). A Western breakfast is available at ‘Serenity’ restaurant while at ‘Hayase’, you get a traditional Japanese breakfast. While one can consume more croissants and bacon and eggs as one may require, I found the quality of the Japanese breakfast to be exceptional and I definitely recommend trying it. As for Tokyo, see ‘M’ below.

M is for Mitsui Garden Hotels: We have a marketing alliance with the Mitsui Garden group (who knew that ?) so this was an opportunity to try one of the properties for a night. Their hotel near Ueno Station, the Mitsui Garden Hotel Ueno, only opened in September and was offering discounted rates (anything under Y10,000 a night in Tokyo is cheap) – so I was rather keen to try it. Being new, it was actually quite spacious, very clean with conspicuously modern amenities in the bathroom and the 40′ flat screen television was a welcome touch. They also have a programme whereby if you don’t use any of the amenities like the toothbrush, comb, razor and so forth, you hand a card to reception and the hotel makes a donation to a ‘green’ cause. Rather clever, that. Location-wise, Ueno is not the most fashionable area in Tokyo and you get a few raised eyebrows. That said, it’s proximity to Ameyoko (see ‘N’ above) and the restaurants and bars nearby together with Ueno Park are points in favour.

Y is for Yubeshi and other things like that: Mention Japanese food to most people and the usual stereotypes emerge – sushi, sashimi and its distant relative ‘sushimi’ (which I am convinced is the correct technical term for thawed surimi, but that’s another story), tempura, teppanyaki and so on. But this is only scratching the surface. Japan, like most other countries, has strong regional cuisines and delicacies. What you get in Hokkaido has little resemblance to the food in Fukuoka, for example and even something seemingly basic as noodles in Tokyo would be quite different if done in Osaka. As it’s nearly Christmas and the sweet tooth prevails, the subject of Wagashi (Traditional Japanese Sweets) seems appropriate. One particular one from the Tohoku region is Yubeshi. Made from a refined rice flour and brown sugar (the savoury ones can be flavoured with soy sauce), it comes in various shapes and sizes, but the one we like is a sweet rectangular block filled with walnuts (‘kurumi yubeshi‘). Might not be for everyone – these are dense and a bit chewy but if you like walnuts and brown sugar, you would likely enjoy these. A rather intriguing blog on Wagashi with good information can be found here: http://sweet-travel.blogspot.com/. (You need to look at the entries for 2008).

I am guessing that my appreciation of macarons started by hogging Monaka – these in many ways resemble the mooncakes that you get for Chinese festivals (well, the bigger ones do), but are a bit more delicate that that. The shell is in fact a very thin layer of rice wafer that is baked to crispiness in an iron mold. The filling will vary but the most common is sweet red bean paste (although the chestnut ones are great as well). As one US blogger put it, they rather resemble the styrofoam clamshell you get at McDonalds. But the difference is that monaka are a lot more satisfying. The best known brand is Shiramatsu (White Pine) and getting something from the various stored around Sendai is a must-do. There are many other delights of course. But space here is limited. And I’ve eaten most of them already anyway !

R is for Rabbit: 2011 is the Year of the Metal Rabbit (which should come as a welcome relief from a turbulent and disruptive Tiger year). Initial predictions suggest that while, like the bunny, the year should appear to be simple, transparent and peaceful, there will be a carryover from this Tiger year with many of the problems not going away any time soon !

W is for ‘what the…..’: Some of the more ‘esoteric’ bits and pieces:

–The weather bomb produced some interesting side-effects, one of which was a massive (38 minutes) delay on the bullet train. The strong winds buffeting from south and through to the north caused the drivers to slow down to a crawl or stop altogether until it was safe to resume. Prior to this trip, the most delayed Shinkansen I had been on was five minutes late. But that wasn’t all – due to the delay and the jammed tracks at Tokyo, they terminated the service two stops early at Omiya and politely requested all passengers to disembark and get the next on-time train to Tokyo. Initially, there were no complaints but as we had to change platforms, the grumbling started in earnest. It’s the first time I’ve seen wide-scale group consumer malcontent in Japan.

–Spaghetti / pasta for breakfast is a new one. But at Serenity at the Metropolitan Hotel Sendai, in amongst all the other breakfast foods, there it is.

–Fake / cheap iPod or other brand MP3 player knock-offs can be found for a pittance down the back alleys of Akihabara. All of them are made in China and you have to wonder how long they would actually last.

N is the last letter of the Japanese alphabet (Hiragana / Katakana at least): And that’s where we will end things. A very Merry Christmas to you and yours and best wishes for 2011.

About TI

TI is based in Auckland, New Zealand. TI's somewhat eclectic interests include (but are certainly not limited to) legal humour (the law can be funny), good wine, the search for the best possible chocolate, alcoholic beverages, travel, commercial aircraft, photography, weird news stories and classical music.
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