Bubblegum soda

When Raquel and I went to Japan last year, I discovered this wonderful softdrink called Mitsuya Cider. It tasted like a cross between 7-Up and Juicy Fruit. That’s right, the chewing gum. I was an instant fan.

On the day we were to fly back to Melbourne, I came to a sad realisation: I wouldn’t be able to drink anymore Mitsuya Cider. That is, unless I can find a shop in Melbourne that sells the drink. Unfortunately, I’ve looked all over the place and couldn’t find an Asian shop that sold it.

Today, we went to the big Asian shop in the city to get some siopao and siomai. Since I was already there, I decided to look for the drink again I’m their drinks section. Well, it wasn’t there, as expected.

However, there was a drink being sold there that caught my eye. It was drink that I saw numerous times in Japanese animation. It was a variation of Ramune, the drink that’s sold in a glass bottle with a glass marble in it. Except the one in the shop was sold in a can and was called Ramu Bottle instead.

I’ve been very keen to try the drink since seeing it in anime and now’s my chance to sample it. I know I should’ve tried it when I was on Japan but I just totally forgot about Ramune and it wasn’t a drink I noticed being sold there. I would’ve instantly recognized the odd bottle.

Anyway, I bought it had a sip of it. To my delightful surprise, it had the same Juicy Fruit taste I loved about Mitsuya Cider! At last! Although I couldn’t find Mitsuya Cider anywhere in the city, I at least have a nice substitute for my favourite bubblegum soda in Ramune.

I’m so happy! I can’t wait to get back to the shop and get some more.

Published in: on August 31, 2008 at 9:43 pm  Comments (3)  

Bought in Japan

We just got our credit card bill in the post recently. That reminded me of the purchases we made while we were in Japan. Here, I’ve even taken a photo of it all. Well, most of it.

On the upper left corner of the photo is a cute small green toy from toy manufacturer, Tomy. We bought this in KiddyLand along Omotesando near the Harajuku station. What attracted me to it was that it swayed its head from side to side all because there was bright light shining on it. Yep, it’s a solar powered toy. No batteries required. There were a variety of these animated solar toys and I wanted to buy them all. But since I really couldn’t do that, I had to settle for this one which we both thought was the cutest for sale.

See it in motion by watching the YouTube video I uploaded below:

I bought the fully posable Saber from Fate / Stay Night, a popular Japanese game, because this character closely resembles a comic book creation of mine: Nadine Strange. The resemblance between the two characters were so uncanny to me that I thought somebody ripped off my Nadine character design when I first saw images of Saber. It was only later I found out that it was actually a character from a game. Anyway, now I have an action figure that resembles Nadine as a bonus.

Look at the similarities below. Admittedly, Saber was better drawn than the drawing I have of Nadine here but you get the picture.

As for the books, we so loved the Japanese food while there, we bought a Japanese cookbook at Narita Airport just before I flight back to Melbourne. The funny thing was that the book was actually available in Australia for cheaper. Ah, well.

You can also see here two white square books. These are actually colour pencils instructional art books. I bought these because I was attracted with the book’s art style using colour pencils. The downside was that it was written totally in Japanese.

I hope to be able to read these books someday and that hope is fueling my desire to become fluent in Nihongo (Japanese). Trying to translate these books word for word by looking at Kanji and Japanese dictionaries would take forever (or thereabouts). So, I figured that learning the language might actually be a faster way to go. Plus, I’ll be able to read Japanese manga (comic books) and watch anime (Japanese animation) in the original Nihongo in the future.

At the bottom right is a nifty little paper stand easel. It’s as big as a 3.5″ disk in its case. Set it up and it can hold a piece of paper erect. Pretty useful. I have an ordinary looking one at the office. The one in the photo has a cute pig design.

Well, we now wished we bought more cool stuff while we were in Japan. There were lots of cool things to buy there. Maybe next time.

Published in: on May 24, 2007 at 1:13 am  Comments (5)  

The JR Experience

One of the most amazing things about travelling in Japan is their railway system. The trains were clean, a joy to ride in and were never late. And when I say they’re never late, I mean you could really set your clock by their arrivals and departures. None of Connex’s definition of punctuality, which is within five minutes of the appointed time. Feh, talk about stretching the truth on that one. But I digress.

I’ve done some research prior to Japan and found out that Japan Rail offers tourists the opportunity to buy JR Passes that could be used to travel across Japan using trains and fast trains (called shinkansens). The only exception is that JR pass travellers could not use the super fast Nozomi trains but it’s not such a big deal anyway. You could still take the other trains in the route and there’s only a few minutes difference between using a Nozomi and the slightly slower Hikari train.

You’d have to buy the JR Rail pass outside of Japan and it’s available at most travel agencies. We got ours from H.I.S. travel. There are two categories for the pass: ordinary or green (luxurious first class). Each pass is available in 7,14 and 21 days of validity in increasing price increments. The price of the pass is fixed in yen but the exchange rate used by travel agencies tend to change so it’s good to shop around. Also, quote the prices on an agency’s website when you’ve decided on a place to buy your pass. We made the mistake of not remembering the exact amount listed for the pass in the agency’s website and only later realised that we paid a slightly higher amount than what was quoted on their site.

Bring a copy of your passport when making the purchase as the name on your passport would be used in issuing you with the travel voucher (shown on the left side of the photo) with a booklet with the terms and conditions of using the pass and a rail map. Once you arrive in Japan, you would have to go to a JR exchange office to get the actual ticket (shown on the right side of the photo).

The pass is just a cardboard booklet with your name, passport number, country of origin and the expiration date stamped on it. Because it does not have a magnetic strip on it, you would have to go through the turnstiles with a wheelchair access. These turnstiles are usually manned by JR personnel and you would have to show them your pass with the expiry date showing after which they’d press a button to let you through the turnstile. Unlike a local, you cannot just zip through any turnstile while hovering your wallet over a magnetic reader (which would have been cool, faster and easier but I guess the discounted price more than justifies this small inconvenience). You are advised to bring your passport with you every time you have to use your pass but we were never asked to produce it while we were there.

Another great thing is that you could use JR’s online travel planner facility to find out the exact time and route you’d have to take to get to from one place to another. As an example, type in Narita as a start point and Tokyo as a destination then click Search. The screen would refresh and show you several options for date, start point and destination, route limitations and type of fare. Click on Start when you’re satisfied with all your trip parameters and choose the best route combination for your trip. The pass does not include the subway network (which we used to get to Asakusa and Tsukishima) but the costs for these trips ought to be minimal anyway. However, take note that the online travel planner would sometimes suggest routes using the subway so factor this additional cost in your budget.

This facility is specially useful for long trips across the country using the shinkansen. I used this tool in planning our trips from and to Narita, Tokyo, Kyoto and Himeji, copying the date and time for each journey and using this information in reserving our seats for each trip on the shinkansen. There is no reservation fees for users of the JR pass so it’s best to reserve your seats for long trips. You could reserve several days in advance and I recommend that you make all your reservations in one go. I also recommend you do it in the JR office at Narita airport because you might have difficulty in locating the reservation office elsewhere and the staff in other offices might only have limited English-speaking ability. You would be given several tickets for each reserved trip, make sure not to lose it as it has your car/seat information and a conductor might ask you for the ticket during the trip.

Once on a shinkansen, a lady with a food cart would be selling all sort of goodies and drinks. We’ve found out later that these food carts usually feature great food from the towns on the train route. We didn’t have the courage to chat up the lady and ask about the goodies in her cart so we didn’t purchase anything from these snack carts. Definitely something for us to do if ever we find ourselves in Japan again.

The Japanese are well known for their politieness and practice phone etiquette on the train. They would go to the back of the train and speak in a hushed tone if they ever do get a call on their mobiles, only returning to their seats after the call is finished. Most passengers on the train sleep, eat, read or play portable game consoles with head phones during the trip, which makes for a very quiet time during the trip. No complaints from us as we also caught up with some quality sleeping time during our long train trips.

The trains were also very clean despite people bringing in food or buying snacks from carts because most of them bring their rubbish with them. Also look out for ladies dressed in pink uniforms waiting beside each door after a shinkansen arrives at a major station. Seen mostly in Tokyo station, these ladies wait for all passengers to disembark then hurriedly board the train, clean up, turn the seats around to have it facing the right way and replaces the headrest paper on each seat. They do this in a span of a few minutes and it’s such a wonder to see them work, it’s almost like they zip through all the seats and leave everything spotless.

A trip on the shinkansen is an experience by itself and the pass pays for itself pretty quickly. To illustrate, we bought an ordinary 7-day pass for $318.00 each. A return trip from Narita Airport to Tokyo and a return trip from Tokyo to Kyoto paid for the cost of the JR pass. Add to that the fact that we also used the pass to get to Himeji, Kamakura and took several trips within Tokyo and you’d see that using the pass is a great idea if you want to save on transport costs.

Published in: on May 23, 2007 at 12:48 pm  Comments (2)  

Missing Japan

It’s already been a week since our trip to Japan and yet, I still can’t stop thinking about the place. I can’t stop thinking about the delicious food we’ve tried there, the colourful busy streets, the tranquil and serene temples and the lush flora of the parks there. If it was only cheap to go back there, I’d do so in a heart beat. Even now that we’re back in Melbourne, I’m still yearning for Japanese-related stuff.

We’ve been eating more Japanese food lately. I started making sandwiches for breakfast that are similar to those we’ve eaten while in Tokyo. We’ve been eating at Japanese restaurants and fastfood during lunch break more often than not. We’ve even been having home-cooked Japanese dishes for dinner at home. Yeah, we bought a Japanese cuisine cookbook at the airport on the flight home. (The sad part was that the very same book was also for sale locally in Melbourne for cheaper.)

Although I know it’s a bit too late for it, I’ve started learning to speak and read Nihongo in earnest. I want to eventually be able to read the cool art books I’ve bought when we were in Japan. Incidentally, my interest for anime (Japanese animation) has been rekindled, too. I want to be able to watch anime in the original Japanese eventually. Not only anime, but even the live drama stuff.

That reminds me of our flight back to Melbourne. With Singapore Airlines, each passenger has a small TV monitor in front of his or her seat. You can choose which in-flight movie you could watch. I chose to watch two Japanese movies. One was called Free and Easy, a supposed comedy that turned out to be more drama than comedy. The second one was a drama film called Nada Sou Sou. I hate to admit it but that movie made me cry. I loved it! Can’t wait to get my hands on more films. Luckily, there is a shop in the city along Bourke Street near Russel Street that sells Japanese DVDs and CDs. I can just buy more movies there in the future.

I’ve started listening to the Japanesepod 101 podcast again to help me pick up Nihongo faster. I’m also studying a book called “Japanese the Manga Way” which uses Japanese comics to help teach how to read Japanese. Hopefully, I’ll stick with this. Next time we visit Japan again, I will be better prepared.

For now though, I’ll just look at the photos we’ve taken while we were in Japan. I remember our walking around Tokyo and Kyoto whenever I close my eyes. The thought of that place has kept me relaxed and cheerful despite the stress and pressures from work.

Published in: on May 10, 2007 at 11:32 pm  Comments (2)  

The Quest for a Game

My current favourite video game is a sort of puzzle-rhythm game for the Nintendo DS called Elite Beat Agents. My brother introduced me to the game when we were home in the Philippines last December. It’s a good thing, too. I’ve been playing and enjoying the game since January while the game only got released in Australia just a few days ago.

The thing is, I’ve already played through the default level once and almost done playing the more difficult level. I just felt like it was getting a bit old. Although I still enjoy it, I want to be able to play new or different songs. I then realised that I should’ve also bought the original Japanese version of the game called Osu! Tatakae! Ouendan! while I was still in the Philippines. I was pretty sure it was available there as my brother had one.

Then, a few weeks ago, I felt fortunate that we were going to Japan. I could just buy the Japanese game when we get there. As a side note though, the sequel of the game will be released in Japan a week after we return to Melbourne! Damn. Anyway, I’ve placed Ouendan on my what-to-do-in-Japan list.

I only started to actively search for the game about mid-way into our stay in Japan. I thought that it would be very easy to find. Just go to the rack where all the other Nintendo DS games are and pick it out from there. But, no. I didn’t find it in the first electronics shop I went to. In the second shop, I decided to get help from one of the sales people on the floor.

I tried asking him: “Osu Tatakae Ouendan wa arimasu ka?” I hoped I said “Do you have Osu Tatakae Ouendan?” correctly. Right or wrong, he started talking to me. Here’s the problem: I may know how to ask the right question, but I’m not fluent enough in Nihongo to understand the reply. I tried reading his body language but there was nothing. His face was expressionless and he wasn’t making any hand gestures as he talked.

I clarified to him that I don’t really speak Japanese very well: “Nihongo ga hanasemasen.” Translation: “I don’t speak Japanese.” which is actually a bit ironic since I’m saying it in Japanese. He started talking again and he was moving his two index fingers and thumbs to form a rectangle in the air this time. The gesture didn’t help any as I still couldn’t understand what he was saying. He could still be speaking in Japanese or a heavily accented English. I can’t really tell. I finally gave up, apologised (“sumimasen”) and left the shop. They probably didn’t have the game, anyway. I was definitely regretting my failure to brush up on my Nihongo before we went to Japan.

On our last full day in Japan, we went to Akihabara, an area in Japan known for lots of electronics shops. I didn’t realise that the place also had lots of manga and anime shops! Anyway, I digress. If there was a place I’d find the game, it must be there at Akihabara. We also did our homework before hand. I had Raquel write down the kanji (Chinese characters) for the name of the game on a piece of paper so that I could just show the piece of paper to the sales person next time. That should avoid any further confusion as to which game I really wanted.

The good thing about Akihabara was that more employees at the shops speak English. They were able to tell me that the game was just sold out, at least. After going through several shops, I finally found a shop that has the game in stock! At last, my search was over. I promptly bought it, of course. Mission accomplished.

Published in: on May 8, 2007 at 10:23 pm  Comments (4)  

Language Barrier

Being a big anime (Japanese animation) and manga (Japanese-word for comics) fan when I was young, I wanted to learn how to speak and read Japanese or Nihongo. I even took up Nihongo classes at the Japanese Embassy in Makati, Philippines in the 90’s. I was actually doing pretty good with me being fourth best in my class midway through. Unfortunately, I stopped taking the class due to other priorities and so my Nihongo never really improved beyond those I have already learned up to that point.

So, I’m not a total newbie when it comes to Nihongo. I could read hiragana and katakana (alphabet-like characters that make up Japanese words) just fine albeit slowly since I haven’t been practicing. That meant that if there is something written in Japanese that isn’t written with kanji (Chinese characters), I can read it out loud. Understanding what the words mean is a different thing entirely though.

That little skill actually helped us a little when we visited Japan last week. You see, the Japanese have borrowed a lot of words from English over the years and they write down these borrowed words in katakana. So, when I needed to know what’s on the menu, I scan for words written in katakana hoping they were borrowed English words. I was at least able to read hamburger, chicken, pork, beef, Coca-cola, Pepsi, ice-tea, katsu, curry and ramen off the menu.

In hindsight though, I should’ve been more prepared. I should have brushed up on my Nihongo prior to our flight to Japan. It would’ve have spared us a lot of misunderstandings.

I can say hello, thanks, excuse me, and other simple phrases. I can even ask basic questions. The problem was that I wasn’t fluent enough to understand the replies to my questions. Many times I had asked how much an item is and the salesperson would quote the price in Nihongo real fast. I had to ask him to write it down or enter it on the cash registry so I could see how much it was in numeric form. One time, I also asked where a particular place was. The person I asked replied but I couldn’t understand a word of what he said.

That said, if you have any plans of visiting Japan, I highly recommend you study basic Nihongo first. Unless you have friends there who can act as your guide, you’ll have a tough time trying to get your point across as most people you’ll come across there aren’t very fluent in English. Having a phrasebook without prior studying isn’t much of a help, too. I was able to say and ask what I want thanks to our phrasebook but I still couldn’t understand the replies of the person I was talking to.

Now that we’re back in Melbourne, I started learning Nihongo again. I know that it may seem like it’s a little too late for that, but I have another motivation now. I want to learn the language so I can read their books. Their art books, to be specific.

I was overjoyed to have found these various art instruction books in Japan. The only problem was that they were all written and Japanese and I couldn’t read any of it. Sure, I could still stare at the pretty pictures but the professional advice and instructions were lost to me. I actually bought two already and my aim is to be able to read them easily eventually.

I also wanted to learn Nihongo now so that next time we go to Japan, I’ll be ready. I loved it there. It’s already a few days since returning to Melbourne and I still daydream about Tokyo and Kyoto. Next time in there, I’ll be able to appreciate it a lot more than I did the last time.

Published in: on May 7, 2007 at 11:00 pm  Leave a Comment  

Our Japan Photos

It took us a while to upload, sort and caption the photos we took from our trip in Japan but we’re finally done. We actually took more photos that shown in the photo albums but we a lot of the other photos were either blurry or just plain redundant anyway.

I recommend you read the captions on the photos themselves as they would tell the story of what was happening on the photos. We also added some details on our trip on those captions as well. This way, we won’t be doing a day by day blog account anymore. However, I will still probably write future blog posts about some of the more striking things about our trip later.

Day 1: Arrival

Day 2: Tokyo, Asakusa and Ueno

Day 3: Kyoto

Day 4: Himeji and Shibuya at night

Day 5: Kamakura and Harajuku

Day 6: Tsukiji, Tsukishima, Akihabara, Shinjuku and Ginza

Day 7: Going Home

Published in: on May 6, 2007 at 12:25 am  Comments (3)  

Back from Japan

We flew back in from Japan yesterday and spent the rest of the day, well, resting. I must say that I really enjoyed our trip to Tokyo and Kyoto, Japan. There were some communication problems due to my very poor Japanese language skills, but it didn’t diminish the great experience I had there.

I specially love the food we were able to eat there, from Japanese crepe to curries, from katsudon to tendons, from sando to hambaagaa. I’ll tell you more about it later along with some photos of our trip. Right now, I just wanted to let you guys know that we’re back safe in good old Melbourne.

Published in: on May 3, 2007 at 8:26 pm  Comments (5)  

In Transit at Changi

We are currently twiddling our thumbs here at Changi Airport in Singapore while we’re waiting for the boarding call for our connecting flight to Tokyo, Japan. We’ll be spending a few days in Japan and hopefully we’ll get a lot of sight-seeing done. Meantime, we have a few hours to kill here at Changi Airport.

Although we were fed twice on the flight over from Melbourne, I still felt hungry when we got here. The chicken pie and the vegie frittata the airline served wasn’t at all filling. Here at Changi, there are a lot of shops where we could buy food. The only problem was that we didn’t have any Singapore dollars.

Fortunately, the nearby foreign exchange counter said there wasn’t a minimum amount that we could have exchanged for local currency. So, we had $20 Australian changed over to Singapore dollars (around S$24). At last, we have the money to buy some food.

Since we’re in Singapore, albeit only in the airport, I didn’t miss the chance to eat Chicken Rice. Frankly, I’m so tired of this dish that I once considered my favourite when we used to visit my Dad in Brunei in my youth. But the Chicken Rice here seems different. It seems more delicious. Either that or I’m just really hungry.

I don’t know when I’ll be able to make another blog post though. I’ll just do back-dated posts when we get back to Melbourne if I can’t post anything while on the road. Anyway, I’m signing off for now.

Published in: on April 25, 2007 at 10:04 am  Comments (2)