10 surprising things about Japan

Japan is one of my all time favourite destinations so I thought I would share some of the kooky, awesome and surprising things I learnt while I was there.

10 surprising things about Japan

1. Not everything is high-tech

So you know about the high-tech toilets right? The ones with seat warmers and sounds? Yet how come in most public restrooms they have these fancy toilets yet there are no hand dryers and quite often not even any soap?!

2. Kawaii is everywhere

Kawaii (cute) is not something just for school girls and small children, I saw grown business men (or salary men as the Japanese call them) with kawaii Pikachu phone charms.

Black Egg Kitty - a mascot at Owakudani where you can buy blackened eggs cooked in volcanic pools
Black Egg Kitty at Owakudani where you can buy eggs cooked in volcanic pools

3. Japanese people are incredibly helpful

Although English is not as widely spoken there as it is in other parts of Asia, people will still go out of their way to help you.

On our first visit to Tokyo, we were stood in a train station, slightly baffled, trying to make our way to Harajuku. A random commuter approached us, not speaking a word of English (and us not speaking much more than a couple of words of Japanese). He then proceeds to point at our map and point at the map on the wall. After alot of pointing from us and the man, we thanked him (arigato) and went on our way. We made it to Harajuku fine. I also remember having lunch one day and flicking through my Lonely Planet guidebook, when out of nowhere a young woman came up to us at our table and asked if we needed help finding anything.

On our second visit to Tokyo, a kind old lady showed us the way to our hotel, again not speaking any English, but happy to help us without us even asking.

4. Japanese people are also polite and kind

Being a tourist in a foreign city it’s easy to be wary of any strangers who approach you because more often than not, they want something. To be fair, this happens at home too. So anyway, when we were greeted by a man suddenly at Ueno Zoo who offered to take our photo and then asked us alot of questions, my guard was up. He then gave me a little leather shoe phone charm and went on his way. He didn’t want money. It was a gift. He had made it himself. I was wrong to jump to a conclusion but can you blame me? I spent the rest of the trip gushing about how nice everyone in Japan is.

5. The television is as weird as you imagine

We saw a show where they got a bunch of people to make a human table and then a girl proceeded to dance on top of this human table. We also watched a programme of people being surprised with cute animals to play with!

Bizarre Japanese television - a human table
Gives a whole new meaning to the phrase ‘bending over backwards’ !

6. They play cutesy jingles in train stations

For some reason, most of the train stations we hopped on and off at played cheeping bird noises from a speaker. I don’t know why but I kind of miss it. They also play cutesy jingles when the train is in and doors are closing. Not something I’ve ever experienced anywhere else.

7. The Japanese love a theme

Theme restaurants and cafes are all over Japan. We visited an Alice in Wonderland restaurant, a cat cafe, a rabbit cafe and a maid cafe. There are also many other places you can go and experience, from dining in a jail cell to having your food brought out to you by a ninja!

Cat Cafe in Ikebukuro, Tokyo, Japan

8. Vending machines are king

Yes they are everywhere. Most of them sell drinks but you can buy all sorts of other stuff from them. Gachapons are also quite common and mainly sell toys, although apparently there is one somewhere in Tokyo that sells wigs for dogs!

Souvenir vending machines in Japan
Souvenir vending machines

9. Gerbils are zoo animals here

I used to keep pet gerbils in the days before I had my cat. They’re not super common pets in the UK in the way that cats and dogs are but they are still pretty popular. So it came as a surprise to me to find that in Japan, gerbils are actually zoo animals!

Mongolian Gerbil at Ueno Zoo in Japan

10. Robots are for real

Imagine my excitement on my first evening in Tokyo, I headed to the Tokyo Dome entertainment complex for a bite to eat to find this robot just wandering about!

Have you been to Japan? What surprised you?

Why not follow my Japantastic Japan board on Pinterest for inspiration?

10 foods to try in Japan

Those who have never visited Japan may be under the illusion that Japanese cuisine is all about sushi and raw fish (sashimi) but there’s so much more to be had and for those afraid of trying new things you may be pleasantly surprised.

So let me whet your appetite and take you on a culinary tour of Tokyo and beyond – presenting my top 10 foods to try in Japan …

1. Ramen

vegetable-ramen

meat-ramen

Ramen is a Japanese noodle soup dish and is cheap, tasty and filling. It consists of thick noodles swimming in broth and then garnished with an assortment of toppings such as vegetables and/or meat. We had ramen a couple of times during our stay – a perfect dish for any budget-conscious traveller.

 

2. Okonomiyaki

nishiki-warai-okonomiyaki

Okonomiyaki is a cross between a pancake and an omelette and consists of flour, eggs, cabbage and your choice of toppings, such as pork, shrimp, mayonnaise and fish flakes. The name ‘okonomiyaki’ pretty much means ‘grilled as you like’ so there are many variants to be tried and some okonomiyaki restaurants are even grill-it-yourself where you are given a bowl of raw ingredients to cook on a hotplate! We dined at an okonomiyaki restaurant in Kyoto called Nishiki Warai, where the tables have hot plates on them but the dishes are brought ready cooked to your table and are just placed on your hotplate for warming. Yum!

 

3. Conveyor belt sushi

musashi-sushi-1

musashi-sushi-2

Of course, it’s not all sushi but you can’t have a list of Japanese foods without including sushi on there somewhere! We dined at two different branches of Musashi Sushi while we were in Kyoto and we were pleasantly surprised. If you’ve ever been to a branch of Yo Sushi in the UK then you will love Musashi Sushi – it’s much cheaper! Every dish is less than £1 GBP (around 130-140 yen) so you’re alot more inclined to be adventurous with your food choices. I tried unagi (eel) as well, just because of that Friends episode. It wasn’t too bad actually!

 

4. Bento

japanese-lunch
A restaurant bento lunch
japanese-bento-lunch-box
A prettily packaged take-out bento box

Sushi doesn’t just come on conveyor belts here! A popular Japanese lunch is a bento box – a box containing a selection of lunchtime goodies such as rice, pickled vegetables, fish or meat. These can be purchased as take-out boxes from convenience stores or train stations, served as a bento box tray in a restaurant, or even made at home. Some Japanese homemakers even go that extra mile by making Kyaraben (character bento) where the food is arranged to look like characters, animals, people etc. Very kawaii!

 

5. Katsu Curry

katsu-curry

Chicken Katsu curry or Tonkatsu (pork) curry were my husband’s absolute favourite dishes during our trip to Japan, so of course my list had to have them. The curry consists of meat that is dipped into egg and then rolled in panko breadcrumbs before being fried. There are many varieties but pork is the most common. We ended up eating twice at the Curry House CoCo Ichibanya, once in Tokyo and then again in Kyoto because it was cheap and my hubby enjoyed it that much!

 

6. Kaiseki

kaiseki-appetiser
Appetiser
kaiseki-fish-course
Sashimi course

Kaiseki is a traditional multi-course meal which is beautifully created and often very expensive. Now, I’m not normally one for fine dining but we got to experience a Kaiseki meal during our stay at a ryokan in Kyoto as it was included in the price of the room. Our dinner was served to us in our private room, course by course (of which there were about 8). It was fantastic to experience something so traditional and lavish but I will confess that I didn’t like everything I was given, so I was glad that I was trying Kaiseki as part of the whole ryokan experience as opposed to going specifically to a Kaiseki restaurant. Stay tuned for a future post about my ryokan experience!

 

7. Ice Cream

with-my-green-tea-ice-cream
Sampling green tea ice cream in Kyoto

So you can have ice cream anywhere, sure, but can you have Purple Sweet Potato ice cream anywhere? No! And you know what, it’s actually quite nice! We went into a little shop in Asakusa and ordered a couple of what we thought were berry ice creams. After we ordered as I was gazing around I noticed that everything else in the shop was potato-based. Oh dear. But fortunately I was pleasantly surprised by the taste – not too dissimilar to vanilla. We also tried sakura and green tea flavours too – delish!

 

8. Kit Kats, Pockys and Tokyo Banana

giant-rainbow-pocky

tokyo-banana

I mentioned all the crazy Japanese Kit Kat flavours before, but let’s not also forget the assortment of Pocky (biscuit sticks covered in flavoured coatings) you can buy. Rainbow Pocky has 7 different flavours including orange, strawberry and chocolate. I also saw some Tokyo Banana cakes at the airport and thought the packaging looked fun – hey who doesn’t love a giraffe print banana?!

 

9. Harajuku crepes

angel-heart-marion-crepes
I will spare you the photo of me stuffing crepe in my face!

santa-monica-crepes

If you’re in Harajuku then be sure to take a walk down Takeshita Dori and stop at one of the little crepe kiosks. There are loads of flavours to choose from – savoury as well as sweet. Both times I have eaten Harajuku crepes I’ve opted for sweet. The sweet crepes are filled with ice cream, fruits and lots of sugary yumminess – and some crepes even have whole slices of cheesecake inside!

 

10. Novelty/themed food

alice-in-wonderland-desserts
Alice in Wonderland desserts
panda-rice-meal-from-ueno-zoo
Panda rice lunch at Ueno Zoo
lotteria-fries-and-chocolate-dip
Lotteria fries with chocolate dip

The Japanese love anything novelty and anything themed, much like myself. Whether it’s one of Tokyo’s many themed restaurants, like the Alice in Wonderland restaurants or even some seasonal novelty fast food, you’re sure to find something random. Even at Ueno Zoo my lunch had a panda face in it, although in hindsight I probably chose the children’s menu. During our stay, McDonalds were selling burgers with pink buns (because it was cherry blossom season) which my husband tried and didn’t rate very much. Lotteria were offering fries with chocolate dip which I tried and I actually quite liked – fries? good! chocolate? good! And I think if we ever make it to Japan for a third time I’d like to try some more novelty nibbles.

Have you ever been to Japan? What Japanese food would you recommend?

Follow me on Follow

Alice in Wonderland Restaurant – Quirky dining in Tokyo

When we were planning our trip to Japan there was one place in particular I was desperate to dine at and that was the Alice in Wonderland restaurant. I am a big fan of Alice in Wonderland, and the Disney animation was always my favourite film as a child and is still one of my all-time favourites now, so I couldn’t miss this opportunity – especially as Japan is well-known for its theme restaurants.

When I was researching into it I found that there were a few Alice restaurants in Tokyo, but we chose to go to the one in Ginza which was called Alice in a Labyrinth. As we flew to Japan on my birthday, we decided that the restaurant would be the perfect place to celebrate a belated birthday meal… or my very merry unbirthday if you prefer!

My Alice in a Labyrinth Rules:

1. Make a reservation. The restaurant is small. Ask your hotel concierge if they wouldn’t mind making dinner reservations for you, thus avoiding any disappointment of being turned away when you get there.

2. Allow extra time to get there. You don’t want to be late for this very important date! This place is difficult to find. We caught the train to Ginza and were planning on walking to it from the train station but after going round in circles, we hailed a taxi and asked the driver to take us there (we even had a printed map). I think the driver struggled a bit to find it too!

3. Look up! The restaurant is on the 5th floor of a rather generic looking building. We were all puzzled when the taxi driver pulled up until I spotted the distinctly Alice logo when I looked up.

alice-in-a-labyrinth-ginza-tokyo

alice-in-a-labyrinth-restaurant

The restaurant is decorated beautifully in a wonderland design, complete with storybook corridors leading into the main restaurant which even had a giant teacup booth for larger parties. The lighting is low and despite the colour and quirkiness, the atmosphere was quite intimate.

After being shown to our table, our waitress who was dressed up as Alice presented us with the menu. It wasn’t just any old menu though, this was presented to us in a diorama type box. She did explain it to us but sadly we didn’t understand what she was saying due to us knowing very very little Japanese, still it looked pretty cute.

Menu at Alice in Wonderland restaurant

Pop up cocktail menu at Alice in a Labyrinth, Tokyo

The menus themselves were tucked away at the back of the box and were pretty much like normal printed menus, although the cocktail menu was pop-up, so I’m not really sure what the box was all about but I liked it all the same.

Of course I had a cocktail! We also learnt that the little bell on our table was to be used for if we needed the attention of the waitress, a rather novel idea!

alice-in-wonderland-cocktail

We were brought over some bread and butter to nibble on while we waited for our main meals. I loved the little touches like the butter being in playing card suit shaped bowls and the little ‘eat me’ card that was sat on the plate.

For my main meal I ordered the Cheshire Cat pizza and my husband ordered some sort of beef dish although neither of us can remember what it was called. The food was tasty but I was a little disappointed that the dishes didn’t have much of a wonderland touch to them. They also weren’t very big – and that’s coming from someone who isn’t a big eater anyway!

Bread at Alice in a Labyrinth

Cheshire Cat Pizza

Meal at Alice in Wonderland restaurant

The desserts, on the other hand, were much more impressive – both in size and presentation. Not sure what the dishes were called but my husband’s dessert involved something chocolatey, fresh fruit, a flaming alcoholic concoction and a cute biscuit shaped like Alice’s silhouette. My dessert was ice cream (my favourite dessert is ALWAYS ice cream!) and by coincidence, like my dinner, this too was Cheshire Cat related – complete with a dusting of kitty footprints in cocoa powder and a cat face made from pastry, cream and fruit.

alice-in-a-labyrinth-waitress

alice-dessert

alice-in-a-labyrinth-sundae

I loved all the decor within the restaurant and how you felt like you were walking into a storybook. Even the toilet doors had a nod to the King and Queen (of Hearts) on them!

Alice in a Labyrinth restaurant, Ginza

Toilets for the King and Queen

I enjoyed my evening at Alice in a Labyrinth, mainly for the whimsy of it all. If you’re a hardcore foodie then you probably won’t be satisfied, but if you love everything Alice then you won’t be disappointed!


If you liked this post then why not show me some love and like me on my new Facebook page.

Hyper Japan 2015

This Saturday I attended the Hyper Japan Festival at The o2 in London, an exhibition dedicated to all things Japanese. Naturally, being a bit of a Japanophile myself, I was eager to attend.

We opted for the Saturday morning slot (9am – 3pm) which was perfect as it wasn’t too busy when we arrived just before 9am but getting quite hectic by the time we left (around 2pm).

I will admit I spent longer choosing my outfit for the day than I have spent picking out some wedding outfits! Although I didn’t go full on cosplay, I wore some accessories I bought in Tokyo (cat tights, robot earrings, Alice in Wonderland bag) and threw on a light summer kimono over the top of a black skirt and pink top. I also pinned all my hair up and slicked on the red lippy and winged eyeliner… I guess I looked somewhere between a wannabe geisha crossed with a 90s girl band member.

However, I was happy to see that there were plenty of cosplayers walking around inside the o2 and I even asked a few of them if I could take their photographs, all of them happy to oblige. It’s funny because I saw more Harajuku-inspired outfits here in London than I did in actual Harajuku while I was there!

Hyper Japan cosplayers

The festival was quite disjointed within the o2 as it wasn’t in the arena itself, but dotted around outside, where the restaurants are. We headed to the main section first where there were many stalls selling food and gifts. We posed for a picture with Domokun and were given some free Snapea rice sticks from the Yushoi stall – they were pretty good!

Hyper Japan London

I personally found that alot of the stalls were quite expensive, which I guess is understandable as they are selling Japanese imports but when I paid around £5 for a box of KitKats in Japan (expensive enough!) I wasn’t prepared to pay £17 for the privilege here. There were many etsy stalls selling cute crafts and jewellery but many of these were UK based and appealed to the Japanese kawaii lovers rather than being authentic Japanese themselves.

I did end up buying a necklace though. Anyone who knows me knows that-

  1. I love quirky jewellery
    and
  2. I love animals

It seems to me that I have a bit of a thing for baby pandas at the moment and treated myself to this super kawaii necklace from Little Moose.

kawaii-panda-necklace

We were in need of some refreshment so headed up to the Maid Cafe where we had Dorayaki (basically like two pancakes with a filling in the middle). I opted for strawberry and the maid drew a little face on my Dorayaki in chocolate sauce – much like the real Maid Cafes of Akihabara but much much less expensive!

After our yummy pancakes we watched a performance on the stage below. Although I’m a Japan fan I’m not really familiar with any J-Pop acts so I have no idea who the group were but the crowd seemed to love them.

Next we headed into the Hyper Game and Anime Park – a section full of people playing video games and shopping for anime. I know very little about anime and the queues to play the various Nintendo games were too long for my patience so I just stopped by to have my photo taken with Pikachu before moving back to the main section for some lunch.

Hyper Japan 2015

I was surprised at the lack of seating and lack of sushi in the food section, but between us we had vegetable noodles, okonomiyaki, tempura prawns and gyoza. And later on we bought some ice cream from one of the stalls – I chose yuzu flavour (Japanese citrus) sorbet. Yum!

Hyper Japan was a good experience but I definitely didn’t need any longer there, I would have also liked to have seen a few more interactive stalls and freebies but if you need a kawaii culture fix then this is the place to come. Next time though, I think I would like to go cosplay for the full Japantastic experience!

A Glimpse of a Geisha – Weekly Photo Challenge: Ephemeral

Emphemeral:
adjective
1. Lasting for a very short time

geisha-by-quirkylittleplanet

We took an after dinner evening stroll through the Pontocho district of Kyoto in the secret hope of spying a geisha, never expecting to see one. But as we walked down this narrow street we saw a figure dart out of one of the buildings – our attention was drawn to the jingle bell sound she made as she walked. This maiko (apprentice geisha) was hurrying to her next appointment and as quickly as she appeared… she disappeared.

Part of the WordPress Weekly Photo Challenge.