Musashi-Kosugi Food Festival (November 2019)

There are many famous festivals all over Japan: the Gion Festival in Kyoto, the Sapporo Snow Festival in Hokkaido, and Omizutori in Nara are just a few examples. But there are also many events held for and by locals, sampling local delicacies and featuring shows by children from nearby schools.

The food festival here in Musashi-Kosugi had food from local restaurants and some dancing by kids. Thankfully it didn’t rain today (yesterday was freezing and sleety, so many people were worried it would have to be cancelled.)

The guys working at the stalls were super energetic; they were constantly yelling “WELCOME, WELCOME! COME HAVE SOME SPICY GYOZA, IT’S THE BEST!” So I got some spicy gyoza. Ken bought some pork, and it was so succulent and perfectly cooked!

There was a lot more available too, like sausages, Indian curry,  meat and tofu, and fried rice. Beer was sold, too, of course. The festival was small but had a happy, enthusiastic atmosphere.

Sometimes the little festivals are just as fun as the super hyped famous ones. Try a local festival sometime next time you hit a local area – you might be pleasantly surprised!

A Day in “Coedo” Kawagoe, Saitama Prefecture

Just half an hour from Ikebukuro is Kawagoe, a town in Saitama that is affectionately nicknamed “Coedo” or “Little Edo” for its resemblance to the Edo era. Many old buildings and landmarks untouched by war and fire still stand, and it’s a lovely place to visit for a day trip.

Unlike other hotspots like Senso-ji Temple and Kyoto, Kawagoe didn’t have many foreign tourists at all. Saitama, the prefecture just north of Tokyo, is often overlooked by visitors, but I recommend Kawagoe for its peaceful atmosphere.

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Though a bit of a trek from the station, the attractive part of town is worth the walk. The cute buildings and the shouts of stall staff hard at work gave the streets a nostalgic atmosphere.

The Time Bell is a must-see; its chime is one of the 100 Soundscapes of Japan.

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On every street, there was something to do or see, whether it was coffee, ice cream, or traditional toys to take home.

Walking around was thirsty work, so we stopped for a Coedo beer. Right opposite is a unique-looking Starbucks if you prefer coffee.

After exploring, we stopped for some food. My husband managed to bypass all the expensive touristy places and found a charming hole-in-the-wall ramen shop run by a little old lady. She had money all over the wall from visitors from various countries, and she only served one dish: shoyu (soy sauce)-based ramen, a signature type of noodles for this region.

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This delicious and hearty bowl of ramen, plus a small bowl of rice with a little umeboshi plum, came to just 500 yen!

We also went to visit some temples, though I didn’t take any pictures aside from the enormous torii gate.

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If you ever get the chance to visit Kawagoe, please do! It involves some walking, but it’s a really beautiful and peaceful area without the crowds you get at some other places.

A Short Break in the Japanese Countryside

A few weeks ago, I had the opportunity to visit a town in Nagano Prefecture called Okaya. I lived there from 2014 to 2016 and hadn’t been there since, so it was great to be able to go and hang out with my friend and get some fresh air.

I love Tokyo, but stepping off the bus into the quietness of Okaya “city” was peaceful. There were so few people! I went to a nearby shop to browse the clothes and ended up finding some amazing deals, such as a skirt for just 200 yen.

The old man at the cashier wasn’t the usual moving-at-the-speed-of-light-to-serve-you-as-fast-as-possible like you’d see in the capital, but he slowly and carefully cut off the tags and input the amounts in the till at his own pace. I, with nothing to do except kill time to wait for Alex, found myself smiling as I watched him take his time.

I had a cold while I was there so unfortunately, I couldn’t really smell the fresh air, but I saw the sky, heard and saw frogs, and enjoyed the peace of few people. And this was festival week; it was actually crowded for the area at the time!

Though we didn’t go to the festival in the evening when it kicked off properly, I watched Alex try his hand at a shooting game.

Alex’s house was a twenty-minute walk from his station, and trains from Okaya only went every hour or so. There were houses, rice fields, and amazing views of the hills. I found myself gushing like a city girl seeing grass for the first time.

I was only there for two nights, so I didn’t get to do or eat everything I wanted, but it was a wonderful time nonetheless. I got to catch up with old friends I hadn’t seen in years and have a short break from the business of Tokyo. Next time, I hope I can stay for a lot longer.

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!

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.

4stars

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!