Ōfuna Kannon-ji Temple, a Less Crowded Alternative to Daibutsu

Daibutsu, the giant Buddha statue in Kamakura, is a great tourist attraction. Last time I went there, though, the effect was ruined a bit because there were so many tourists. Since I was a tourist too, we couldn’t really complain, but the gift shop and wandering foreigners sort of cheapened the experience of seeing the lovely old statue and shrine garden.

Today, though, one of my students introduced me to a giant statue in Ōfuna, which is right near Kamakura, just four minutes on the Yokosuka line from Kita-Kamakura Station. Kannon-ji had no people at all except the staff, and one other person showed up as we were leaving. It’s a real hidden gem.

By Japan’s standards, this temple is fairly new. It was completed in 1960 after generous donations from local people. Entry is 300 yen and you have to walk a little slope and some steps to reach it.

You can actually see the statue’s head from Ōfuna Station, so it isn’t hard to find at all. There isn’t much else around to see or do in this area, however, which might be a reason why people don’t really visit.

As with many of Japan’s temples, shrines, and holy places, it was beautifully taken care of. There were many flowers and little statues on the way up.

There was a really local vibe to the place. There was a little community centre nearby and the quiet feel of the countryside all around. That being said, you know you were still close to the city because of the slightly muffled sounds of the train station.

You could see the statue, which represents the white-robed Guanyin Bodhisattva, peeking to say hello before the final stairs.

We’d made it!

There was a place to offer incense sticks and a handwashing area. Inside, there was art done by local children, a small shrine, and hundreds of little wooden statues made by visitors. You can also make your own for 1,200 yen. They were really good!

If you’d like to experience Ōfuna Kannon-ji Temple and avoid the crowds, head to Ōfuna Station and cross the bridge. You can see the statue’s head on your way and you’ll find a slope flanked by red flags leading up.

I don’t know if the temple is usually busier and we happened to arrive on a quiet day, but it’s definitely worth a visit either way!

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Japanese Word of the Week: 褒美

Reading

Kanji: 褒美
Hiragana: ほうび
Roman letters: HOUBI

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English Meaning

Reward, prize

Kanji Used

  • 褒 (praise, admire) [N1]
  • 美 (beauty) [N3]

Example Sentences

  • テストの成績が良かったらご褒美に、ゲームを買ってあげる / If you get good exam results, I’ll buy you a new game.
  • 犬が新しい芸を覚えたから、ご褒美をやったんだよ / The dog learned a new trick so I gave him a reward.

Book Review: “Norwegian Wood” by Haruki Murakami

Haruki Murakami is a Japanese author who, so I’ve heard, is one of the most famous and well-loved writers in the country. At writers’ club, my friend Jennifer handed me a copy of Murakami’s first novel, Norwegian Wood (“Norway no Mori” in Japanese), and said, “give it a try” with a smile.

81lnnTBF8dL“Toru, a serious young college student in Tokyo, is devoted to Naoko, a beautiful and introspective young woman, but their mutual passion is marked by the tragic death of their best friend years before. As Naoko retreats further into her own world, Toru finds himself drawn to a fiercely independent and sexually liberated young woman. 

A magnificent coming-of-age story steeped in nostalgia, Norwegian Wood blends the music, the mood, and the ethos that were the sixties with a young man’s hopeless and heroic first love.”

The story follows Toru Watanabe, a young college student who reconnects with an old friend from school, Naoko, with whom he shares a sad past: his best friend and Naoko’s boyfriend, Kizuki, committed suicide at seventeen. They’re both desperately trying to move on, moving from Kobe to Tokyo to move somewhere they know nobody.

I loved the writing style in this book. It read very much like an autobiography, sometimes with Stephen King-like digression, with minute details that were somehow pointless yet fascinating at the same time. What did it matter what he was wearing that day or the fact that the drink he chose from the vending machine was a Pepsi? Yet it gave the story much more depth, like Toru was really talking to me about the sad events of his college days.

Toru himself was nothing really special. He was quiet, often not articulating how he felt, was average-looking, had a simple schedule. And yet I felt inexplicably drawn to this unremarkable man and his unremarkable life.

Though at times I found the plot slow and sex was mentioned far, far too much in painfully unnecessary detail, the story touched me very deeply. A black cloud seemed to hang over the whole thing – Toru’s dorm, the apartments and bars he visited, the characters we met. Almost everyone was messed up mentally some way or another, no one more so than Naoko, who sometimes got so bad she heard voices and couldn’t put pen to paper to write to Toru.

I’m glad I’ve lived in Japan long enough to understand many of the subtle cultural differences. The way people speak to each other, their behaviors, and even a mistake someone made (buying cucumbers instead of kiwi fruit; in English, it doesn’t make much sense, but in Japanese, cucumber (kyuri) and kiwi fruit (kiwi) sound very similar, thus potentially explaining the mistake). That gave it a more realistic edge that I’m glad I could experience.

I finished the book feeling depressed and a little frustrated. I personally disliked the final scene, seeing it as a bit strange that after everything, two characters found that cause of action to be best. Many other readers, such as on Goodreads, also mentioned that they disliked it. Usually, I’d give a book three stars for the reasons listed above, but I know in my heart I’m not going to be able to forget this book easily. Not the descriptions, not Toru’s melancholy nor the poignant memories, nor the quiet romance of Naoko.

I give Norwegian Wood four stars out of five, but now I feel I have to watch a comedy to feel better after such a heavy tale.

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Get Norwegian Wood on Amazon US
Get Norwegian Wood on Amazon UK

Amuse Bar in Musashi Kosugi: Beer, Karaoke, and Retro Games

Japan is a country that loves to drink and isn’t short of bars and izakayas. Though there are many interesting themed bars in the big cities as well as the traditional hole-in-the-wall establishments offering beer and sake, there are also some rather unique places only known to locals.

Amuse Bar in Musashi Kosugi is run by a man named Takeshi Hasegawa, who loves beer almost as much as his customers. His bar is underground and lit with fairy lights and half a dozen televisions! It’s no surprise that he’s a huge fan of TV shows and anime.

Where most izakayas and bars have these paper menus displaying dishes and prices, Takeshi has written the names of faithful patrons. The number written below their name is the number of times they visited in one year!

He had the bar filled with cool vintage stuff like this fruit machine and a Super Famicon (SNES).

I played Kirby for the first time!

After some beer and some ginger highballs (where he let us draw the whisky ourselves!) it was time for karaoke.

Some ladies joined us and sang their fair share as well.

This bar was a lot of fun and I plan on visiting again very soon! Maybe I’ll have my name on the wall one day.

Another thing that makes Amuse Bar so unique is that Takeshi is OK with you taking food and drink along with you, as long as you don’t mind paying. A customer will usually pay around 3,000 yen, which is pretty reasonable considering the free snacks and flow of drinks on offer, as well as karaoke and games.

How to Get There/Opening Hours

Amuse Bar is just a few minutes’ walk from Musashi-Kosugi Station, which is on the Nambu line, Toyoko line, Meguro line, and Shonan Shinjuku line and just 15 minutes from Shibuya and 20 minutes from Shinjuku.

It’s open from 18:00-5:00 Monday to Saturday. It’s closed on Sundays, though this may differ when it comes to national holidays (as a rule, if a Monday is a national holiday, establishments in Japan instead take their days off on the Monday instead). If you’re not sure, you can call Amuse Bar at 044-422-7627.

Come sing, drink, and play games at Amuse Bar!

@HomeCafe Maid Café in Akihabara, Tokyo

Akihabara is the place to go for “nerd stuff”: anime, comics, figurines, electronics, and video games. I took my brothers there today and we decided to get lunch in a maid café.

There are several maid cafés in Akihabara. We chose @homecafe as it’s highly rated and close to Super Potato, a retro gaming store.

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Rules of Visiting @HomeCafe

  1. No pictures (except of food and drinks).
  2. Credit cards accepted.
  3. Don’t touch the maids or ask them for any personal information.
  4. All guests have to order at least one item from the menu.
  5. There is an additional fee as well as food and drink of 700 yen per adult, and discounts for seniors and students.

Upon arriving, we were greeted with a happy “welcome home, masters and princess!” Maids are there to make you happy and give you what you need. All the maids, dressed up in cute outfits, had smiles on their faces and were very kind.

Our server, Aqua, said some cute, quirky stuff like she was from Aqualand in the deep ocean and that she had eaten magic food that made her 17 years old forever.

We ordered the Food Combo, which included one food item from the menu, one soft drink, and a picture with the maids. We all ordered the omelette rice, where the maids draw a picture of your choice on top in ketchup. I got Princess Peach and she did a pretty good job!

The boys got milkshakes and I got a mocha latte where I could also choose the picture on top in caramel sauce. I requested Wario.

We even managed to catch a cute show where the maids sung and danced on stage. Because why not, right?

Here’s me with Aqua. She was awfully sweet and she definitely had the biggest smile out of all the maids in @homecafe.

Kawaii as heck.

A maid cafe is always a fun experience; just expect to plonk down around 3,000 yen for your meal and experience. It’s an experience you should try while in a Japanese city.

3 Weird KitKat Flavours

Japan is famous for distributing a bunch of different flavours of KitKat. There may be hundreds out there, changing with the seasons, the most popular, such as green tea, enduring at sweet shops and airports. They even release a sakura flavour for cherry blossom season.

I’ve got a soft spot for Kit Kats because back before Nestlé bought them, the producer was called Rowntrees and based in York, the city where I went to university.

Here are three crazy flavours of KitKat I recently tried.

1. Roasted Green Tea

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Roasted green tea is yummy; I love getting lattes from the convenience store. The KitKat tasted almost the same, containing much of the same ingredients and a pleasant tea-like aftertaste.

2. Wasabi

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Wasabi is spicy Japanese horseradish served with sushi. I don’t like wasabi at all, but someone at work gave me this so I gave it a try. It’s actually not bad, though the wasabi and chocolate flavour together is a little strange. It has a spicy aftertaste but it’s not as strong as the real thing. Oddly, it kind of reminded me of mint.

3. Grape

You can get a lot of grape-flavoured goodies here. Fruit and chocolate is always good together, and this pink treat was tasty, though honestly, tasted quite artificial.

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I’ll be adding to this list when I come across new Kit Kat flavours. What kinds have you tried?

10 Awesome Facts About Mt. Fuji, Japan’s Tallest Mountain

Mt. Fuji, or Fuji-san (富士山) as called by locals, is a volcanic mountain in Japan that has been used in art, literature, and mythology for centuries. This instantly recognisable mountain is well loved and awe-inspiring, prompting millions to visit and thousands to climb every year.

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Here are ten awesome facts about Mt. Fuji.

1. It’s in the Top 50 Tallest Mountains in the World

As well as being the highest in Japan, according to PeakList, Mt. Fuji ranks at the 35th tallest mountain in the world!

2. It Last Erupted Over 300 Years Ago

Mt. Fuji is one of the many volcanoes in Japan, and its last recorded eruption was on the 16th December 1707.

3. It Could Erupt Again Anytime

though it’s been centuries since its last eruption, geologists classify Mt. Fuji as dormant, and technically speaking, it could erupt again anytime. Needless to say, scientists are keeping a close eye on this mighty volcano just in case.

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4. It Can Only be Climbed at Certain Times of the Year

Even the most experienced of hikers are greatly discouraged from attempting to climb Mt. Fuji outside of climbing season, which is from July to September. The tricky conditions mean that it’s incredibly dangerous to attempt to get to the top outside summer.

5. The Oldest Recorded Person to Reach the Summit was 103 Years Old

Japan Times told the story of Masashi Toyoda, a 93-year-old man who reached the mountain’s peak in 2017. Though this is indisputably impressive, and many elderly people climb Fuji every year, according to Sengen Taisha, the oldest ever recorded climber was a whopping 103 years of age.

6. The First Non-Japanese Person to Climb Mt. Fuji was a British Man

Sir Rutherford Alcock (1809-1897) was the first diplomatic representative to live in Japan. He was also the first recorded non-Japanese person to scale the mighty mountain.

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7. Women Weren’t Allowed to Climb it Until the Late 19th Century

The name “Fuji” is said to come from the Ainu people’s Fire Goddess “Huchi” or “Fuchi,” and that since she would have gotten jealous of any woman on the mountain, females weren’t allowed to approach it until the 1860s.

8. There’s a Proverb Saying You Should Only Climb it Once

There is a famous Japanese saying: “A wise man will climb Mt Fuji once; a fool will climb Mt Fuji twice.” Of course, no one is actually discouraged from hiking the mountain more than once anymore.

9. There’s a Realm of the Living and the Realm of the Dead

Mt. Fuji is partly famous for the many myths and folklore surrounding it, filling it with a sense of mystery and magic. The stark borders between the mountain’s forest greenery and its lava-burned rock are rumoured to be the doorways between the realms of the living and the dead.

10. You Can Enjoy Amazing Views of Mt. Fuji All Over Japan

Due to its central location, there are hundreds of viewing spots of this gorgeous mountain all over the country. These include Tokyo Tower, Tokyo Skytree, parks, other mountains, various well-placed ryokans (Japanese hotels), or from one of its five surrounding lakes. While hiking or enjoying a day out, it’s always a nice bonus when you can catch a glimpse of Fuji on a clear day.

Mt. Fuji is an icon of this great country and thousands more every year challenge the mountain’s trails to try and reach the top. How many of these facts did you know?

7 Drinks From Japanese Convenience Stores

There’s a reason local konbinis are considered convenient in Japan. There is a 7-11, Family Mart, Lawson, the Daily Yamazaki, or another brand of shop on pretty much every street in the country, open 24 hours a day, seven days a week, selling food, drinks, makeup, toiletries, gift cards, magazines, and other necessities.

Japan never fails to impress with its endless choices of drinks. I’ll talk about alcohol in another article, so this post is mostly about the different drinks you can grab while you’re on the go. You won’t just find instant coffee, but an impressive variety of thirst-quenchers that go beyond the usual sodas and fruit juices. Here are a few examples.

1. Kiwami Cafe au Lait by Wonda

Canned coffee is a wonderfully weird phenomenon. I try not to buy it too often as it’s often loaded with sugar, but I was jonesing and the word “Kiwami” caught my eye – it’s the name of one of the famous Yakuza video games, which my husband loves. This sweet cup-o-joe-in-a-can was yummy.

2. Butter Matcha

I’m one of those people who just love matcha lattes. I always try different brands but again, try not to drink them too much because of their high sugar content. “Butter matcha,” alongside the “butter coffee,” looked so weird I just had to try it.

I should have looked closer. See the picture of the fit woman in the background? And see the zero at the top? Since when has a healthy version of anything been delicious?!

This nasty, watery mess was disgusting. Don’t buy it.

3. Hojicha Latte

DUDE! Hojicha, or roasted green tea, is just awesome. If you’re not keen on sweet lattes, at least try real hojicha at some point if you come to Japan. There are quite a few hojicha lattes out there, and this one was creamy and delicious.

4. Sakura Chocolate with Strawberry Jelly by Starbucks

I mentioned this drink in another post, appearing right after Valentine’s Day in time for the much-loved cherry blossom season. It’s an imitation of their sakura drinks (way more expensive if you buy them in an actual Starbucks, and ranging from 200-300 yen in a convenience store).

It was a little too much for me, but I understand why those with a sweet tooth might enjoy it.

5. Chocolat Drink by Ken’s Cafe Tokyo

Now this is the kind of sweet drink I can get behind. It’s not really a chocolate milkshake, though it was served cold; it was creamy, rich, and pretty much a dessert in a cup. If you’re a chocoholic, I can recommend this one.

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6. Cafe Latte by Georgia

(Sorry, I drank this one before taking the picture).

I’ve loved Georgia’s cafe lattes for ages, and you can usually find them in vending machines or the ‘HOT’ section of convenience stores. Just keep in mind that konbinis usually struggle to keep their ‘hot’ drinks, well… hot. A lukewarm Georgia coffee is still nice on a cold day. Just remember that it’s sweet.

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7. Yasai Days Vegetable and Fruit

This is my favourite drink of all time! The photo below is the drink at a supermarket and the convenience store packaging may be different, but it’s all the same stuff. Yasai Days has LOADS of different fruit and veg inside, including lemon, apple, spinach, kale, carrot, bell peppers, and more.

It apparently contains all your vitamin C for the day. Drinking this stuff is really good for you and it tastes nice, too; most juice, like pure orange juice, is far too sweet. Definitely give this one a try. It’s good for ya.

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I’ll probably add more to this list as time goes on. What’s your favourite konbini drink?

Cook-It-Yourself Monjayaki: How to Experience This Tokyo Dish

Monjayaki is a Tokyo-based Japanese dish that, despite being delicious and diverse, doesn’t seem to be as well-known as other foods such as sushi, ramen, tempura, and sashimi.

Maybe it’s because it doesn’t look as good as the others. To be fair, while it’s cooking, it looks like mush at best. Don’t let it deter you, though; the flavour makes up for it. There are plenty of monjayaki places in and around Tokyo. It’s the capital’s answer to the better-known okonomiyaki, a cabbage-based dish that came about in west Japan when there was a shortage of rice.

 

What can be intimidating about monjayaki is that you’re expected to cook it yourself. Sometimes, during quieter times in a restaurant, a waiter will do it for you, but this isn’t always guaranteed.

There are various monjayaki restaurants dotted around Tokyo and beyond, but a great place to try different kinds is Tsukishima’s Monja Street.

Step 1

The first thing you need to do is decide what kind of monja you’d like to eat. The dish consists of cabbage, various vegetables, and flour, but the possibilities for fillings are virtually endless. Here are some fillings you might find.

  • Pork
  • Mochi (small, chewy lumps of pounded rice)
  • Kimchi (spicy Korean cabbage)
  • Cheese
  • Garlic
  • Prawns
  • Spring onion
  • Corned beef
  • Curry (very weird, never tried it)
  • Ginger
  • Mentaiko (salted pollock roe; one of my favourites)

The types of available fillings depend on the restaurant, but pork, kimchi, and prawns wherever you go.

Step 2

The waiting staff will bring a bowl of raw ingredients to your teppan, or table with a hotplate. They should also switch the hotplate on for you. After spreading some oil onto the hotplate, mix all of the ingredients together in the bowl.

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Step 3

When it’s all mixed together, pour the ingredients onto the hotplate, leaving the liquid in the bowl. Make a sort of crater or circle in the middle like in the photo below.

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Step 4

Pour the liquid in the middle.

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Step 5

Let it bubble!

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Step 6

When it’s ready (a couple of minutes of bubbling until the ingredients are cooked), use a moji-bera, or small metal spatula provided, to scrape bits of the delicious mix onto your plate. From your plate, you can eat it with chopsticks.

This rich and flavoursome dish doesn’t look all that great, but it’s soooo good. One serving is about enough for one person, so if you’re sharing, be sure to order more than one. Most monja places also serve okonomiyaki, so an ideal meal for two is one serving of monja and one serving of okonomiyaki.

That’s how you cook your own monjayaki! If you have any questions, feel free to comment below.

3 Stars Pancake in Musashi-Kosugi, Kanagawa

Today I found out that there’s a charming little pancake shop just a short walk from my apartment! It’s funny how you can live somewhere for a while and yet never know something exists until it’s introduced to you. 3 Stars Pancake is a ten- or fifteen-minute walk from Musashi-Kosugi Station, a little farther on from GrandTree, the nearby department store.

Since we arrived on a Sunday, it was insanely crowded. It took a while for the six of us to squash our way in; from the outside, it had looked bigger, but there were just a couple of tables.

It had the simultaneous feel of a chilled out European café and a trendy American lunch spot. It had a really nice, relaxed vibe which contradicted the long line of customers waiting outside.

3 Stars Pancake serves, as you might be able to guess, pancakes. I ordered the February special: chocolate, chocolate, and more chocolate. They’ll stop selling it after the end of this month, and the theme likely stems from Valentine’s Day, where women buy chocolates for the men in their lives.

It was monstrous!

The strawberries and the sharp, tangy berry flavoring in the ice cream granted respite from the potentially overpowering chocolate in the pancakes and cream. I couldn’t finish it by myself. This chocolatey delight is more than enough for one and would probably be able to satisfy two people (that being said, my twelve-year-old student next to me ordered the same thing and demolished it on her own).

Other types of pancakes include a classic-style fluffy type with cream and a fruity delight for those looking for a healthier, lighter dessert.

The drinks were cute, too; cold ones are served in glass jars, American style. From left to right: orange juice, grape juice, ice café latte, ice coffee, and iced tea. My hot café latte (as seen in the featured image) had a cute drawn heart on top of the cream.

The weekend was busy, but going for lunch on a weekday would mean getting in much faster. Certain soft drinks are also free between 10:00am and 2:00pm Monday to Friday.

Important Information

3 Star Pancakes is a cute café, perfect for visiting with friends for a treat. If you order a plate of pancakes and a drink, expect to pay around 2,000 yen. Children and kids are welcome and it’s a non-smoking establishment.

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