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You don’t have a pet? No problem, go to a Cat cafe or a Rabbit cafe


…And in the saga of offbeat things you can find in Japan and  you cannot miss is the Neko (cat) or  the Usagi (rabbit) cafe !

Yeap, that is right, a place on earth where you pay to pet cats or rabbits! Cat cafes are perhaps more popular than rabbit cafes ( So far I haven’t seen a rabbit cafe here in Tokyo, but I know they exists because I got a link  from a friend to a Usagi cafe homepage) The popularity of   these cafes can be attributed to the limited space you have in many Tokyo apartments and to the  so unfamous forbidding -pet rule many landlords impose their tenants. So how the Japanese kawaii culture addicts managed to satisfy their kawaii needs? Well, for a cover fee, you can have a drink and up to an hour or more to enjoy the company of these little furry creatures. This picture was taken in a cafe in Shimokitazawa, (for 30 minutes 700yen!!!!! I think this one was pricy):

catcafe

Now I as told  that these cafes actually are controlled by the local authorities in order to protect your health as well as the animals’  health. The protocol to enter this place demands you to remove your shoes (well that is pretty much everywhere in Japan), wash your hands and sanitize them with alcohol gel at the entrance. You are provided with cat toys to play with and you may not bring you own . You cannot disturb sleeping animals and you will be asked to leave if you engage in inappropriate behavior. This place is quite peaceful, but not peaceful enough for me…. did I mention I was allergic to cats? well, yea, I just did this for mere curiosity :)

I am not going to start a debate here about animal rights, but I have to consider both sides of the coin. This place keeps more o less 20 to 60 cats. Some I was told where stray cats and some cafes intend to promote awareness about pet abandonment. However  some people argue that these cafes are  some sort of  ”pet pimping” places: you pay, you can touch. Many  are  open until late hours and despite the rules, it is doubtful these animals have complete rest when numerous customers  touch them per day.

Up to  you to make an opinion… perhaps visit them and judge by yourself…..

Here below: a cat cafe in Shibuya

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Machida Gardeners do light painting!


When you live in a guest house, you meet all sorts of people from different backgrounds.  The best is when you discover people with interesting skills… like my housemate. My housemate is an amateur, almost professional photographer. He made us discover light painting , something I didn’t know it existed until last week. Pretty much is this:

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You paint or draw with lights and it is not that difficult. Everybody can do light painting , All you need is…

1. A camera that can hold long exposures and perhaps a tripod. Yes, my housemate has a super camera, but you can do it with non-professional cameras as well.

2 A dark room. Well yea, we don’t  have a dark room, we just closed all curtains in our living room  and it was late evening:)

3. Flashlights! Color flashlights. The more colors you find, the more creative you will get

4. A model, at least 2 people. One that paints and one that takes the picture.

Once you get all these things, you can start creating. So how did we do it…Well, it depends what you want to do. If you want to do something like the picture here, you have to ask the model to not move at all. Then a second person has to move around the model with a flashlight, drawing around the person. Now this second person has to move fast enought to not appear in the picture, but not so fast to actually make a figure with lights.

See the picture below:

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There actually two guys in this picture: one with a red flashlight and one with a white one. They moved fast enough to make different faces, but stopped a few seconds in an specific spot to make scary faces :) Notice we forgot to close the curtains, but we managed to have the picture anyway.

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In this picture there are two drawing around a model who doesn’t move at all. I actually appear in the picture (left). I have the red flashlight and I didn’t move fast enough, so I do appear in the picture a little bit.

Now, you don’t necessarily need models for you pictures, you just need yourself to move fast while drawing and you can get this:

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Well, the picture above was made by my housemate who is a professional illustrator, so if you don’t get this the first time, keep practicing :)

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In this picture ” I love Tokyo”, we were two to draw : I was with the red flashlight and my housemate was with the white flashlight. We managed to not appear in the picture :P

I hope this gives you ideas of how to spend a rainy sunday evening indoors ! Enjoy drawing!

WHAT IS GOOD ABOUT A GARDEN IN TOKYO? Umeshu and Kaki jam


I am a lucky person … why? Because I live in a house with an awesome GARDEN in Tokyo! Not many can say that. I live in a house with plenty of green and I love it!  That is actually one of the main reasons I chose Machida Garden. Look at this:

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Now, I am not really a gardener. Having goods things require major responsibilities and having a garden like ours demands time and patience. In addition to that I am afraid I was not born to grow my own veggies and a cactus doesn’t last much in my possession :(  So how can I have an awesome garden in my house without it becoming a hopeless jungle?  I have the luck to have housemates that love gardening! They take good care of the garden and I may say I enjoy having people like them around. They are a French couple that enjoys working on our Japanese garden in exchange of a discount in their rent with Oakhouse.

So I get to enjoy the benefits of a garden without being an expert: In our garden we have a plum tree and a kaki tree. And what did we do? We did Umeshu last weekend. Yes, The kaki season is over, it was in November and we had plenty of kakis to make jam until we got sick of it:

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However picking the Ume (plums) last weekend reminded me of the good time we had last November and that it is nice to have a garden and have something to do with the fruits in all seasons.

In Japan there are a couple of things you can do with Ume. You can try to do Umeboshi, which is like a pickled plum that you can eat with rice. Some people hate it because it is extremely salty and sour, some people love it, I personally looooove it! Nonetheless our Ume were very green to make Umeboshi and with my housemates, who are not as Umeboshi fans as I am, decided to make Umeshu.

Umeshu is a sweet liquor made with steeping Ume, fruit alcohol and rock sugar. If you are interested to make this liqueur, you need:

a. 2¼ lbs of unripe green Ume plums. If you don’t have a plum tree like me, you can buy them in the supermarket, they look like this:

b. 2 lbs of Rock sugar (or kouri zatou 氷砂糖 is Japanese). Rock sugar is preferred because it melts very slowly, however if you cannot find it, you can also use granulated sugar.

c. 7½ cups of Shochu or another flavorless distilled alcoholic beverage.  (any white liquor with 35% will be fine. No worries, at the end your Umeshu will be 15%)

d. Very important: a sterilized glass jar that you can hermetically close with a plastic lid. You can buy the jar in any big supermarket store  (especially during this season) or in Tokyu Hands. Most supermarkets will sell the DIY Umeshu kit if you feel you don’t want to search all ingredients separately.

e. And the last thing you need is: PATIENCE – You will not enjoy your drink right the way. Once you have followed all steps, you need to store your jar for 6 months to have real Umeshu. If you really want it to have a strong taste, store it for 1 or 2 years!

NOW, once you have all ingredients:

1.Clean the Ume! Remove the dead skin, any “bruises” and the stem. The stems are small and deep, so use a toothpick or your pinky fingernail to dig them out.

2. Once your Ume are clean and dried with a towel, place a layer of plums in the jar, then a layer of rock sugar, then a layer of plums, then a layer of rock sugar. Continue until all the plums and sugar are used up.

3. Pour the alcohol in the jars until there’s about an inch of alcohol over the top of the plums.

4. Put the lid on the jar securely and store the plums in a cool, dark place. Shake the jar occasionally to help the sugar mix with the alcohol. Like I said, after 6 months, the umeshu is ready to drink. However, this liqueur is better with age, so you may notice a different flavor after a year or two.

FOR MORE INFORMATION CHEK OUT THIS LINK:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZlBNdRKNhJI

ENJOY!

Sometimes Japanese make weird inventions…


One of the things that makes this country interesting is that here you can see some crazy things you normally won’t see anywhere else on earth. Yes! Japan is the birthplace of some wacky stuff. And… even if you don’t personally see them, you won’t get surprised when you are told about their existence in this country because…hey! it’s Japan and you can expect things like dancing robots  or used- schoolgirl -panties’ vending machines (I have never seen them, but I have heard so many people talk about them, I got to check them out)

One crazy invention I came across with (sent via facebook by a friend) is … the cat ears that move according to your “mood”. These ears are actually “connected” to your brain! :

Check out the video : Necomimi

Another crazy invention that  I actually did see was the …..”Menstruation Machine”. Yep, wacky invention indeed! Now I was in a conference about art in Tokyo the day of the earthquake last march. Just after a couple of minutes the creator of this machine, a girl named Hiromi Ozaki, started to explain how this machine works, the eathquake started… in a conference room in an 11th floor in Ginza (but that is just another story). The machine makes men feel the pain and the whole thing about what we girls experience every month. Not very pretty to see, but yeap, it exists! And boys, you can try it on! ( I do remember her saying that it only fits Japanese man and that she had to create a larger size for American men)

And the video: Menstruation machine

Now what about high tech toilets in Japan? Let’s not go far and find complicated stuff. When you live here for a while, it becomes normal to sit on the sophisticated toilets with complicated array of buttons on the side, ranging from the temperature and force of the water that will clean your bottom to the “Sound princess” ( the button that we girls use to camouflage the ‘unladylike noises’ with flushing sounds). Admit it!!, how many of us Gaijin are baffled by a Japanese high tech toilet when we first see one? :) Not to mention that there are some that are self cleaning!

I could write about a lot of  inventions the Japanese have done.. the list is not exhaustive, specially the wacky ones, but here are some that just failed to do the purpose or never really took off, you judge (I even dare you google them, it’s hilarious):

The baby mop (no, really!!! a baby mop?)

My favorite: The helmet that will keep your head from tilting while you sleep and displays a tag with your station name so people wake you up when you get there:

there is also this one, the tripod,because not getting a seat doesn’t mean not being able to sleep:

Anyway, I have never seen these last 3  inventions, like I said , they never took off, but they are funny!!!

and there are more and more…. check them out in the internet :)

A French Restaurant in Tokyo…..


I adore Japanese food (no question about that), but when you live here for a while, from time to time you just want  to eat something else that is not-Japanese…just for a change.  I was a little “homesick” the other day and I had this crazy desire to eat French food  ( I am not French but I did spend  7 years of my life there). I discovered this great restaurant in Omotesando called Le  Pré Verres. The food is just great! The atmosphere is just like in Paris: the decoration, the food and even the music (they made the effort to put French music all times). About prices….well, I went during lunch time (Restaurant rule in general: lunch time is always cheaper than dinner time). Expect to pay around 1,500 yen for a lunch menu: it includes the starter, main course and dessert. Be ready to pay more if the ingredients you ask have a supplement, even more if you ask for some wine. (But the quality of the food is worth it!)

They also have a restaurant in Paris, in the the Latin Quarter (I didn’t know that, it is a shame I didn’t discover that while I was there, however I heard it is hard to get a reservation there, so feel lucky you will experience that in Tokyo). The story goes like this: two chef brothers, the Delacourcelle brothers, started the difficult task to feed  happy customers in Paris. After having a great success there, they decided to transfer all these cuisine values to the metropolis of Tokyo (not long ago). Do you want to venture and taste a bit of this French cuisine? Go to the 4th floor in the Gyre building in Omotensado ( the building that has the MoMa design shop). They open from 11:00 to 23:00 (Lunch L.O. 14:30; Diner 22:00)

For more info about the menu, prices, map access, etc visit (website in Japanese, French and English) :

http://www.lepreverre.com

And here, one of my favorite desserts, “Glacé du persil” or Parsley ice cream!!! with strawberries

BUNRAKU -Japanese drama played by puppets


Last Sunday I had the pleasure to assist to a Bunraku show in the National Theater in Tokyo. This theater art is not as known as Kabuki or Noh, but it very well deserves some attention from the Japanese traditional art lovers. AND….Even if you are not into theater at all, it may be interesting anyway to check out this form of theater for the colors, the singers and the puppets, yes….the puppets: Bunraku is a type of traditional puppet  art theater.

I have never been to a Kabuki play, but from what I understand, Bunraku has adopted a lot from Kabuki. However, it has characteristics of it own. The stories in Bunraku are most of the time,like in Kabuki, TRAGIC!. The show I saw was broken down into 3 parts: Part one was only 15min long and it was a dance  of two Kamuro ( young courtesans). The second part had nothing to do with the first part, it was a tragedy about a Samurai family . My guess,  it was just one scene of a long story of vengance probably adapted from a Kabuki play. The third and last part was also  completely different from the first and second. This time, it was a sad story  of a long lost love. If you are worried about getting “lost in translation”while watching the show, no worries, before each scene, there is a narrator that will explain the story so you know which scene is being played. Can’t speak Japanese? No worries, for 650 yen more (and 1,000 yen refundable deposit), you can get an English audio that will explain/ translate whatever it is happening.

The puppets  are quite unique. They usually wear elaborate customs. They are half the size  the human body, and it takes three puppeteers to manipulate one single puppet. The HUGE difference between Western puppets and  these puppets?  The pupeteers do not try to hide when  they  manipulate them. They dress in black covering all their body, even their faces. You may see as well on stage one of the three man who is not covered in black: This guy is the puppet master. Puppet masters are recruited into this form of art from a very young age. The average age is 15 years old. After this age the person is considered to be too old to learn. It  takes about 10 years to master just the puppet’s feet movements. Unfortunatly, the low pay and the rough discipline that these guys have to endure is not very appealing to young people today. Therefore  the future of this art is uncertain: Only 4 young men have enrolled to become masters in the last 2 years.(How long are we going to be able to see this type of show??)These puppets masters are however, amazing to see. They move softly, maneuvering their puppets with a great flow. Most important, their faces do not show ANY kind of expression. They let the emotion flow to their puppets’ movements and not their own bodies. You can almost forget he is there!  So how do we know what is going on in the story ig he can speak and he is expressionless? If the puppet master is in charge of the puppet movement, the story teller is the one who will express it all!!!  The story teller is the guy who sits next to the musician, and he has the task to do all  voices of the story. He will transmit the sadness, anger, joy and frustration of the puppet.

Now, what are the drawbacks of this beautiful show? If you want to see the puppets closely, you have to “fight” the good spot. The most expensive spot is 6,500 yen, but this will not guarantee you will be seeing all the puppet’s facial movement’s ( yes, some of them can move their eyes!!). This is not for everybody, a show can last 4 hours to 6 hours. You got to come to this show with “open minded” and ready to seat 4 to 6 hrs, it is not a movie!!! You will certainly get hungry! Bring your own food ( I did) or your can always buy the bento boxes they sell on the spot ( you have a 25 minute break between long scenes). Like in the opera, you will need binoculars if you want to see more details! I forgot mine!!!  ( But they always have a puppet at the entrance to welcome you, so you will get to see  at least one

from close distance)

Bunraku is more popular in Osaka than in Tokyo. In Tokyo you can get information, tickets and see a show at the National theater. More info:

http://www.ntj.jac.go.jp/english.html

http://www2.ntj.jac.go.jp/unesco/bunraku/en/

Japanese Bunraku

Nakasendo Trail : The samurai trail from Kyoto to Edo (Tokyo)


The Nakasendo trail is one of the old 5 routes that connected Edo (today’s Tokyo) and Kyoto. It takes about a month to do the whole trail, maybe more depending on your speed to hike. We only did the Kiso Valley part. Most travel guide books and agencies talk about the Magome-Tsumago part and suggest to stay in 10,000yen Ryokans (Japanese inns) While it is worth considering spending a night in a Ryokan at least once during your stay in Japan (or in your lifetime), we did not have the money to do so for 10 days, so we did the trail the old way: camping. This however, proofed to be difficult for me (lets say I was spoiled during my life as a hiker in Europe): Japan does not have as many campsites scattered everywhere like you can see in France, Germany or even Switzerland. Finding a camping spot in strategic places when everybody goes to Ryokans was quite difficult but not impossible. We fortunately bought maps of the area and we spotted some campsites and mountain lodges that are open to hikers from spring to fall. If you plan to do this trail, don’t forget your maps  (and your bell as there are bear warning signs everywhere)!

The most famous towns in this trail are Magome and Tsumago. If it is true that these two towns are astonishing, there are as well many little towns on the way that travel guides seem to have forgotten to mention or give very little credit to them. Kiso-Fukushima has lost most of its “Edo charm”, nonetheless, there are still some areas that have been preserved (perhaps reconstructed) and are worth to give it a little tour. My favorite was Narai. This town seems to have more authenticity and you can very well picture the samurais passing by the main street of this place. However, if you expect to find the whole Nakasendo trail as it was during the Edo period, you might get disappointed. Today you can very well see parts of the old path, but a lot of it has been erased or parts of the trail are pavement roads. Not to mention that the Chuo railway goes through the whole Kiso valley, “killing” a bit the antique atmosphere. This said, the mountains and the natural scene make up for everything.

If you don’t have a month to spare, you can always hike parts of it and cut others by train. For more information, contact the tourist office in each town, they were very helpful, or send me a message; I’ll be happy to suggest itineraries, restaurants, etc.

Here are some websites:

http://www.japan-guide.com/e/e6075.html

http://www.japan-guide.com/e/e6078.html

http://www.jnto.go.jp/eng/location/topics/nagano/jnto/83dn3a000000dppf.html

very useful site:

http://www.jnto.go.jp/eng/location/rtg/pdf/pg-408.pdf



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