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How to Celebrate Cherry Blossom Season in Japan

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If you’re heading to Japan within the next couple of weeks, you’ll be in for a lovely surprise – it’s cherry blossom season! O hanami – as it’s called in Japanese – is one of the most romantic times of year to visit Japan. But there’s more to taking in beautiful cherry blossoms than simply staring. Read on for some tips on how to celebrate Japanese cherry blossom season in Japan.

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Ten Places to See the Cherry Blossoms in Japan

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You always hear people going on about Paris in the Springtime, but Champs Elysees, Shmomps Elysees – when the bitter misery of snowy winter starts to ebb, I want to be in Japan.

Springtime in Japan is hanami (お花見) season – time to stop and view the flowers. Cherry blossoms, or sakura, in this case. Cherry blossom season in Japan is a time of warming weather, of gentle strolls beneath white-blanketed boughs, of outdoor barbecue parties and contented sips of beer. A spiritual time for sitting cross-legged on a blanket while the delicate white petals shower down around you.

Photo by Eva Sandoval

But the magic of Japanese cherry blossom season only lasts for about a week. As the weather warms, the beautiful petals begin to bloom in an upward crescendo throughout the Japanese archipelago, starting in the south during the last week of March and spreading upwards towards Hokkaido through the middle of May. Here, a list of ten great places to catch the cherry blossoms in Japan before they’re gone, gone, gone.

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The King (of Steak) and I

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There are so many reasons to visit Japan. The stunning shrines, welcoming culture, the artistry of their gardens: all worthy reasons to go to Japan. Us? Well, we had all those things on our itinerary but I would be lying if I omitted one of our main priorities from any account of our trip: we intended to eat ourselves silly. Udon noodles in expertly seasoned broth, oodles of sushi, steamed buns from convenience stores and bento box lunches…we ate them all. And then we did it again. There was one true standout meal on our trip, however, and that was our pilgrimage to Kobe.

Kobe beef is considered to be an incredible delicacy. In order to earn the honor of being called Kobe beef (and to satisfy the marketing qualifications) the meat from the Wagyu cattle must meet exacting cultivating, processing, and marbling standards. The cattle is pampered and well-cared-for, and the resulting flavor and tenderness are divine.

Kobe beef. photo by deannanmc

 

We planned our day rigidly: leave Kyoto, visit Himeji, get off the train in Kobe for a 2:00pm reservation on the way back to Kyoto. This ensured that we’d have some sightseeing time and that we’d miss both the lunch and dinner crowds. With such a fancy meal before us, we had to make absolutely sure our toddler would not ruin anyone else’s meal. (It worked, by the way–the restaurant was deserted.)

The best part of any steakhouse experience in Japan is watching the meal cook before you and the mastery of the chefs as they slice, dice, and chop. We were all transfixed by the flashing metal (I know I wasn’t the only one imagining how much it might cost to equip our kitchen with knives of that quality) as he trimmed the steaks and used the fat to cook the vegetables. This made the entire meal extra-tasty and ensured that our daughter would not throw an astonishingly expensive piece of meat on the ground. Not that we expected she would, but travel fatigue strikes in unlikely ways with the 3′-and-under set.  Read More »

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How to Eat Yakiniku

Filed under Culture, Food Culture, Japan, Travel Tips
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Surprise: one of the most delicious things you can eat in Japan doesn’t even have Japanese origins. Yakiniku – Korean-style barbecue adapted to Japanese tastes – is an extremely popular food in Japan, due to the country’s high percentage of Korean immigrants. Yakiniku (焼肉) literally means “grilled meat” in Japanese. Part of yakiniku’s appeal is the campfire-like atmosphere: each diner cooks his or her own meat on the grill built right into the table.

Osaka, Japan’s second-largest city, is home to the world’s largest population of Koreans outside of Korea. The Tsuruhashi neighborhood is Osaka’s little Korea - a labyrinth of Korean food and goods vendors underneath the train station. It is quite possibly the best-smelling place in Japan.

Yakiniku isn’t the most cost-friendly cuisine, but remains a hallmark of social and business gatherings nonetheless. Birthday parties and sayonara parties are made all the more bittersweet by the tangy smell of roasting meat. It is raw, simple deliciousness on a plate. Read on for some tips to better enjoy your yakiniku dining experience.

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Ten Ways to Celebrate Japanese Culture Day

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Hooray – it’s November 3rd! That means it’s Culture Day in Japan!

Culture Day has been held in Japan since 1948, when it was instituted to celebrate the announcement of the post-World War II Japanese constitution on November 3rd. In the intervening decades, it has become a day designed to promote Japanese culture, arts, and academics – usually celebrated with exhibitions and parades.

Photo by: Eva Sandoval

 

In honor of this Japan-rific day, I’d like to suggest 10 ways to celebrate Culture Day – even if you’re nowhere near Japan.

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How to Eat Kaiten Sushi

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If you’re a sushi fiend, sometimes you simply can’t be bothered to wait for your raw fish fix: you must make like a Paleolithic fisherman and simply grab. No regular restaurants for you, my piscivorous friend –  you want a kaiten sushi joint. Known as “conveyor belt sushi” in the United States, these Japanese imports feature a sushi bar in the center of the restaurant, surrounded by a conveyor belt. The hungry sit around the bar, in front of the conveyor belt, as the chef prepares items and places them on the conveyor. Customers may then simply take the items they want as they float past them. Kaiten sushi restaurants are popular in the United States as a fun, yet high-end version of a sushi restaurant, but in Japan, kaiten sushi establishments are considered to be the quick and dirty version of a sushi joint. Perfect for grabbing a casual lunch; perfect if you don’t feel like talking, or if you don’t speak Japanese.

Kaiten (回転) means “rotation” in Japanese. The value and quality of kaiten sushi differ radically from restaurant to restaurant. But if you’re like me, just the fact that it’s sushi is good enough.

Photo by Eva Sandoval

Just look at that senseless, fish-happy grin.

But is it as simple as simply grabbing your fish and eating it? Sort of. For the finer points of eating at a kaiten sushi joint, read on:

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How to Order Food in Japan

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Despite what movies and TV shows would have you believe, Japan isn’t full of humble English speakers ready to grant your every wish. While it is possible to find service people who speak English in larger cities such as Tokyo, it is by no means a given.

In light of this, many restaurant menus include pictures and plastic replicas of dishes in storefront windows, making it possible for non Japanese-speaking customers to simply point at the item they’d like. But pointing at the pictures on the menu can only take you so far. Before you head to the Land of the Rising Sun, arm yourself with a few helpful phrases guaranteed to help you put great Japanese food in your mouth.

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Ten Ways to Beat the Heat in Japan

Filed under Japan, Top Tens, Travel Tips
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The Japanese word for summer is 夏 (natsu). The Japanese word used to describe hot climate is 暑い (atsui).

Please use these vocabulary words in a sentence: During 夏 in Japan, people say “暑い!!” a lot.

The reason 暑い is such a popular word during the 夏 season is because throughout Japan’s central islands, the weather is. So. Freaking. 暑い. With temperatures hovering between 21 and 35°C (69 – 95ºF) – not to mention crippling humidity – you will hear the word “暑い!!!!” cried/moaned/squealed over and over and over again. 暑い. 暑い!!!! It’s so 暑い you practically squish in your shoes as you walk to the train or the izakaya. Sweat clinging to every garment. Long, stifling nights. Can we travelers and sweat-soaked residents get a little relief already?! Here, tripwolf’s favorite ways to beat the heat during a blistering hot Japanese summer.

This is your mini Japanese lesson for the day.

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Where to Drink: Kama Sutra in Osaka, Japan

Filed under Culture, Japan, Join the Party, Spotlights
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In Osaka, Japan, few words strike more terror into the heart of a party-goer than last train. It’s just not fair; a city aswim with brilliant nightlife – boozy izakayas, raucous clubs, cozy-but-gritty shot bars, throbbing karaoke houses – and, yet, the trains shut down from roughly midnight to 6 in the morning. Pay 3000 yen (~36 USD) for a 15-minute cab ride home? For-freaking-get it. If you can’t find a friend to give you a lift, your options become 1) shut the party down at midnight (lame) or 2) stay out until first train.

Hiromi Luke: an oasis of calm amid the madness



Luckily, Osaka is also full of establishments that stay open until dawn to get you through those rough wee morning hours. Should you find yourself in need of friendly shelter, tripwolf suggests heading to Kama Sutra; a karaoke bar and shisha joint all in one.

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Nine Japanese Hand Gestures for You to Learn

Filed under Culture, Japan, Travel Tips
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There are plenty of things to get used to when you spend time in Japan. For example, taking your shoes off before entering a room or carpeted home, bowing as a form of greeting, using chopsticks instead of silverware, no eating or talking on your cell phone while walking in public (ugh), and no tipping (woot!). Oh, and that pesky Japanese language. If you don’t speak Japanese, you’ll more than likely rely on your hands to get your point across. Hands spread wide apart to mean “big” and hand held close together to mean “small,” … right? Imagine my surprise when I gestured for my young ESL students to Come here! Come here right now! and they didn’t come. I thought I was just a poor authority figure; I thought they were just evil. In time, I realized that the North American gesture for “come here” is worthless in Japan. If I wanted my hellions to come to me, I had to use the Japanese hand gesture for “come here.” And the story doesn’t end there. Here are nine Japanese hand gestures for you to learn. Thumbs up?

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