Saturday, February 22, 2014

Musical journey (43)

My next series of vacation pictures will come next week as it is time for this month's musical journey once again. When I was living in America, I was heavily involved in an online community that was set up to share download links, IT tips and jokes, discuss TV shows, debate about life issues, and everything else under the sun. That was a time when I realised that one can actually have strong feelings for a group of people one has never met. This online family helped get me through a sometimes rather lonely period and to show my appreciation, I wrote two songs for the website (it is called "Jimmy's Forum"), one fast and one slow. This is the slow one. If you swap certain words in the song, you can change the target audience very easily. That is how powerful song lyrics are when coupled with a great tune. I like this tune a lot and hope you will like it too.

[Fly Away]

When you're feeling lost and you need a hand
There's always one on whom you can depend
When all your worries don't seem to end
You can count on this old friend

When you're down and out and you've lost all your strength
When your road's about to bend
Thank God, take a look at what He has sent
It's anything but a man

Come on in, take shelter
Heal the pain with laughter
It is our home like none other
With all the troubles in our world today
We need a place to where we can escape

Fly away, on the wings of Jimmy's
Fly away, surfing you along the streets of heaven everyday
Fly away, 'cos I don't wanna miss a single thing
I'm so blessed you came my way
Jimmy, I'm coming home to stay

Saturday, February 15, 2014

Hello Japan! (part 4 - food)

OK, Valentine's Day has come and gone and I must say I have never been as withdrawn from this commercial "holiday" as how I was this year. Maybe I am getting old and jaded but I am sure many will agree with me that it is an absolutely meaningless day, or at least not one that deserves this much attention. Well enough whingeing and let's bring on the next set of my vacation pictures.

What is a vacation without plenty of great food as well as the discovery of new tastes and new ways of eating. I also tried things that I haven't before during this trip and I have the pictures to prove it.

A walk through the food halls of department stores is always an eye-opening experience. Who knew chicken skin can be the wrap of choice for dumplings and lotus roots can replace buns for burgers? And those sushi rolls were ginormous!

The famous fruit shelf at Takashimaya. The selection on display looks completely fake and at more than AUD$100 a melon, they better not be!

This is one food item that tastes exactly the same as other parts of Asia, even Australia. It's Takoyaki from Osaka, the birthplace of this wonderfully-gooey snack.

Happy hour with the most awesome view. This is at a bar on the top floor of the Mori Tower in Roppongi Hills. Champagne will never taste the same again at ground level.

I saw this menu item on my first night in Japan and I swore I would garner enough courage by the end of the trip to try it. Yep, that's horse sashimi. To add to the irony of it all, my Chinese zodiac sign is horse and I had the sashimi on the eve of the year of the horse.

One thing I missed out on was a good kaiseiki ryori (Japanese degustation). There were many really nice restaurants scattered amongst the Kyoto shrines that served it. At about AUD$60, they are a steal! Well there is always next time.

Japan is the land of vending machines and the city is packed full of them. You cannot throw a stone in Tokyo without it hitting one of these boxes that never sleep! They spit out both cold and warm drinks which was really amazing. I heard there were ones that even vend fresh vegetables and fish!

But these machines sometimes offer rather dubious drinks. This "cider" is actually nothing more than flavoured soda water.

It was raining the night I was at Osaka and the best way to spend a cold rainy night is to stay indoors and have hot pot! The one I had was an everything-in option (mixed meats, seafood and vegetables) and was very reasonably-priced.

This is my favourite fast food restaurant and needless to say I must try something from MOS Burger in its country of origin. In Tokyo, they have rice burgers with steamed fish in miso sauce as well as onion rings, two of the things I got to savour.

Is this the smallest martini or what? But it was potent I tell you. At AUD$8 a pop, you can't go wrong.

This elaborate yet simple meal I had in Nara costs only a little more than AUD$20. You can never find Japanese food of this quality and price in Australia. Unique to the region is the leaf-wrapped steamed sushi (bottom left of the picture).

I was super impressed with the convenience stores of Japan as they actually sell delicious food that I would want to eat. Bentos of restaurant-quality could be found in these stores littered all over the country (they are almost as plentiful as vending machines).

Rows of fried delicacies (left) and oden (right—various food items cooked in stock) could also be found in the simplest of convenience stores. The Japanese sure know how to eat and how to eat well in the most efficient manner!

Can you tell that this is a replica? Japan boasts the most realistic food replicas often found in restaurant display shelves.

Saturday, February 8, 2014

Hello Japan! (part 3 - spirituality)

Japan manages to achieve a unique balance between spirituality and hedonism—look at this picture where a quite shrine (bottom) can be found nestled amongst the crowds of Harajuku (top). Another good example was when a gay person I spoke with told me he first went to the shrine to pray on New Year's Day at midnight (like most other Japanese) and then proceeded to a gay dance party. During my trip, I dropped by numerous shrines, temples and palaces and here are some of the pictures from those visits.

At Asakusa, the contrast between the traditional and the new becomes as clear as day. I particularly like this shot with the Senso'ji Temple standing majestically in front of the Tokyo Skytree.

This place would be swarming with extreme crowds when it turns midnight on New Year's Day. Well I am guessing as I was busy partying then.

Is that a giant slipper in the rightmost picture?

Scenes of praying and fortune-seeking. Also, it is believed that you will receive good blessings from the smoke of the burning incense.

The grounds of the Kyoto Imperial Palace can only be accessed via a free tour that needs to be booked in advance where you'd have to register your personal particulars. Because of this, it is extremely peaceful and serene. It makes you pause for a moment to imagine how it was like back in those days when the emperor was still living there.

The Todai'ji Temple in Kyoto is a UNESCO Word Heritage Site and is the largest wooden building in the world. I was very impressed by its architecture and its sheer size. Just look at those ant-like figures at its doors!

Kyoto is dotted with countless little shrines and though I am not a spiritual person, the quiet ambiance there was amazing and very refreshing.

These shrines are a photographer's heaven.

You can find these mini shrines in tiny alcoves by the streets of Kyoto. I heard there is a shrine in Japan for almost every thing one would want to pray and wish for.

Saturday, February 1, 2014

Hello Japan! (part 2 - other areas)

In this second set of my vacation pictures, I will be introducing some sights from places outside of Tokyo. I planned for a two-week Japan trip on purpose so I can not only fully-explore Tokyo but also spend some time out of it.

This is the view of the sulphur hot springs from the cable car in Hakone (1.25-hour train ride from Tokyo). Yellow bits of sulphur and the smell of rotten eggs filled the lightly-snowing air that afternoon. Hakone is a good place to visit for a day trip.

At the open area of the Ten-Zan hot spring in Hakone after a really relaxing few hours. This onsen is a little out-of-the-way but it is very authentic and is highly recommended. At 1200 yen per visit, you can't go wrong. There were so many naked see-no-touch hot young muscular guys around and they got me so bothered that I had to visit some see-and-touch establishments back in Tokyo that very night!

This is the famous Nishiki Market in Kyoto (2.25-hour bullet train ride from Tokyo).

Visiting markets is one of the must-do things during all of my holidays. Having lots of free samples available for tasting is just one of the many reasons why.

Things on sale at the market can be as intricate as carved root vegetables (top picture) and as unknown as the stuff shown in the middle picture.

The wonderful thing about these market stalls is how specialised the goods on sale are, be it pickled vegetables, tea, seaweed or steamed egg rolls!

Kyoto is the old capital of Japan and these (refurbished) streets have been done up in a way to mimic the olden days—definitely a different feel here compared to the oft-claustrophobic metropolis we call Tokyo.

Monks seen at a Kyoto subway station. What you can't see from this picture is how disciplined their actions and movements are (think military precision).

Don't be fooled by this huge Christmas tree at my Kyoto hotel lobby. Japanese are not big with this Christian holiday—them taking down the festive decorations before midnight on Christmas Day is a dead giveaway.

The nice little creek that runs through the city gives Kyoto a very peaceful feel. And where else can you find seat cushions at a bus stop?

In the top left you can see queueing directions on the small floor area of an ATM booth (how uniquely-Japanese) and in the bottom left a solution borne out of a lack of space. Top right shows a little garden that pops out of nowhere in the shopping district and bottom right shows mannequins found nowhere else but in Japan, the most polite country in the world.

If you want to see the most temples and shrines in the shortest amount of time, Nara Park (1-hour train ride from Kyoto) is the place to go. Deers roam wild there and create their own little problems, both to the visitors and the cleaners.

It was a rainy night when I was in Osaka (0.5-hour train ride from Kyoto). This is Doutonbori, one of the hipper places. The transparent umbrellas are the flavour of the day and I bought one too.

The longest shopping street in the country (Tenjinbashisuji) can be found in Osaka. 2.6-km of pure retail joy and some of the things on sale have really misleading labelling!

Love hotels are quite commonplace in Japan and this one in Osaka is very aptly-named.

Due to a lack of space, a lot of businesses (particularly bars) set up shop in apartment blocks and thus a block can house a lot of bars (note: "2F" means 2nd floor), some of which can only have 5 or so people in them at any one time. The one pictured above is from Osaka (straight joints) but I have been to the ones in the Tokyo gay area (Shinjuku Ni-Chome)—they are a must-see for all gay visitors!