15 Oct 2010
Christina Lund Sørensen
I'm a keen collector of refrigerator magnets and I have a newfound passion for 'usu nigori' - sparkling sake

I had high expectations for my departure to Europe from Central Japan International Airport. The airport is located 35 kilometers outside Nagoya and I’d heard rumors that this was an amazing airport.

I’d red online that the train from Nagoya Station would only take around 15 minutes and that there would be an onsen (Japanese bath where you soak in tubs) in the airport with a view over the runway and a big shopping center. My expectations got even higher.

The train ride to the airport from Nagoya Station ended up taking closer to 35 minutes than to 15, which left me a bit short of time, but still in time for my onsen adventure. But when I arrived at the check-in lines the queue was horrendously long. I was booked in Finnair’s Economy Class, which had five check-in lines, but only four were actually functioning. Well, in fact only 3 ½, since one was only open to check-ins sporadically during the 30-40 minutes, I was queuing.

Endless lines at check-in

It looked like there was enough staff to actually man all the counters, so I was wondering why they didn’t. Or maybe the staff at one of the two virtually empty Business Class counters could have checked in some of the Economy Class passengers in and serviced the Finnair customers much quicker.

When I finally made through check-in and security check and entered the terminal, I started looking for signs saying spa, massage, onsen or bath, but they were nowhere to be found. I decided to ask at the airport information counter:

Me: Hi there, could you please tell me where the spa is?

Lady: Spa?

Me: Yes, please. Where the onsen is?

Lady: Oooooh, there is an onsen outside. That is BEFORE check-in.

Needless to say that this was extremely disappointing. If you build a spa and an onsen in an airport, it doesn’t make sense that it is situated outside the terminals. It’s when you’ve checked in you expect these services. At least that’s where I expect is. You don’t go to the tax free shops and lounges before check-in either.

Disappointed, cranky and hungry, I decided to find a restaurant. Airport-food isn’t usually an explosion of culinary creations, but I thought that in Japan, where you can buy great food anywhere, there had to be a good restaurant or two in an airport.

I looked around and found no signs of places to eat. Eventually I found a map over the airport that showed, that the airport had a deli, a Starbucks and a couple of vending machines. That was the food selection at Central Japan International Airport, where they have over 30 international departures every day.

Dining option 1

Dining option 2

Dining option 3

I boarded the plane for Helsinki  and thought that this was definitely an airport I would  remember. Unfortunately not for a lot of great things.

14 Oct 2010
Christina Lund Sørensen
I'm a keen collector of refrigerator magnets and I have a newfound passion for 'usu nigori' - sparkling sake

I used to live in Bangkok, and in the Thai capital, I had a favourite thing to do on lazy days and to show European visitors, when they were in town. A food court in a shopping complex called ‘Siam Paragon’. It’s absolutely huge and there’s food from all over Thailand and from all over the world for that matter. I could spend hours there. Tasting, looking and asking questions about the food.

While in Nagoya I managed to find the Japanese equivalent to my favourite in Bangkok – the shopping center ‘Mitsukoshi’. It’s headquarter is in Tokyo, but the Nagoyan branch is still a landmark for Japanese high end consumer culture. But forget about all the Jimmy Choo shoes and Chanel bags you can buy here and head straight to the basement. Here is a food-mekka waiting for you that you will have pleasant dreams about for the rest of your existence (I know, I will). There was so much food to look at and buy, that I had to go there twice in one day. Not only to buy food, but also to buy usu nigori (sparkling sake) and umeshu (plum wine).

Browsing at Mitsukoshi

Addictive lotus root salad

There is a French bakery, several stores with European chocolate brands (quality, not the cheap stuff). And though I’d made a rule for myself only to eat Japanese food in Japan, I had to buy one of the French macarones. It was absolutely delicious.

Bento box at Mitsukoshi

Cakes

Mitsukoshi is located in downtown Nagoya. Take the subway to Sakae Station and exit 12 and 13 will take you to the shopping complex. But be warned, you may never want to leave the place…

Sweet potatoes

13 Oct 2010
Christina Lund Sørensen
I'm a keen collector of refrigerator magnets and I have a newfound passion for 'usu nigori' - sparkling sake

Lucky me. I got to ride the über cool Shinkansen twice on my trip in Japan – YAY – and if anything is quality it’s definitely that railway line. Full stop.

Departure from Shin-Osaka

No delays. No fuss. High comfort. A soft voice announcing in English (and in Japanese of course), which stop is the next one. An absolute delightful way of getting from A to B. And my favorite aspect of riding with the Shinkansen is the speed. 320 kilometers per hour. 320!

Arrival at Nagoya

I recorded this little video on my way from Osaka to Nagoya and I hope it’s possible to grasp that 320 kilometers an hour is pretty damn (sorry, but it is) fast!

Click on the link and you will see the video: Riding the Shinkansen in Japan

13 Oct 2010
Christina Lund Sørensen
I'm a keen collector of refrigerator magnets and I have a newfound passion for 'usu nigori' - sparkling sake

One could think that I’m sponsored by a convenience store or something. First the 7-11 blog post, and now another post about these stores. Where will this end? Well, let me tell you, I wouldn’t write about them unless I thought they had something to offer. In this case food.

A reader asked me last week, where I ate breakfast in Japan, and what I was eating. I promised her to write a blog post about it at some point and here it comes.

I’ve stayed at three different hotels during my stay in Japan and none of them has had breakfast included in the room rate, which means I’ve been free to take in the first meal of the day, wherever I wanted. And every morning I’ve gone to the same kind of shops – the convenience store.

Convenience stores in most other countries is filled with fattening food that will max out your calorie-account just by looking at it, but not in Japan. You can buy delicious salads with lotus root, salmon sashimi, beans, sprouts, ginger or sesame dressing. And you can buy sushi rolls and rice rolls fresher and more tasteful than in any sushi restaurants in Europe (at least the ones I’ve eaten in).

What I do is, I buy the food, find a bench in a park or somewhere else. I eat and I look at the world. A great combination!

Also If you’re travelling on a tight budget, breakfast at convenience stores is a great option as it’s cheap.

Where do you eat breakfast, when you’re traveling? And would you ever regard food bought in a convenience store as quality?

13 Oct 2010
Christina Lund Sørensen
I'm a keen collector of refrigerator magnets and I have a newfound passion for 'usu nigori' - sparkling sake

For the past couple of blog posts I’ve been ranting on about how few sights can be found in Osaka. Well, in fact it doesn’t really matter, unless you’re planning to not leave the city at all, because two of Japan’s most culturally rich cities are within close vicinity of Osaka – Kyoto and Nara.

I opted for a daytrip to Kyoto, which is only 30 – 40 minutes away by train. With the Shinkansen (bullet train) you can even get there in about 15 minutes, but it also costs a lot more then the local JR trains. When you get to Kyoto it’s easy to get to the sights, busses from outside Kyoto Station head of to all the castles, shrines etc. every five-ten minutes.

The Tokugawa Shogun

There are numerous shrines and castles in Kyoto and it’s impossible to see them all in a day. I chose to focus my energy on the Nijo Castle (Nijo-Jo), which was build by the first Tokugawa Shogun in 1603, when Kyoto was the capital of Japan (back then Kyoto was called Edo).

An amazing castle with beautiful wall paintings and when I passed the Samurai Room and walked across the Nightingale Floor, I almost expected the Shogun and the lords to sit somewhere with a cup of tea and a couple of Geishas hanging around.

The Nightingale Floor is constructed in such a way, that when you walk on it, the floor says the sound of birds singing or at least chirping somehow. An important tool in Old Japan as it helped the Shogun and the Samurais detect if intruders or enemies were trying to sneak up on them in the middle of the night. Cunning indeed.

Nijo-Jo (Nijo Castle)


A must when visiting the Nijo-Jo is a stroll in the Ninomaru Garden afterwards. At one point I almost thought that I’d spotted a real Geisha, but then she pulled out her iPhone from the kimono and we were back in 2010.

iPhone Geisha

Personally, I’m not a big fan of going to these declared tourist sights. It’s always crowded and there are signs telling me what I can do and what I can’t do. I often feel like I’m walking in a herd of cattle, when visiting these places, and I definitely felt that way at Nijo-Jo, but in this case I wanted to see it, so I was willing to pay that price.

Ninomaru Garden

What about you, dear reader? Tell me about your best/worst experience, when you visited a tourist sight. Do you feel like cattle, just like me? Do we have to visit The Eiffel Tower, Big Ben and The Statue of Liberty, when we travel, in order to really feel that we’ve been to our chosen destinations.

12 Oct 2010
Christina Lund Sørensen
I'm a keen collector of refrigerator magnets and I have a newfound passion for 'usu nigori' - sparkling sake

As mentioned in my previous post, Osaka isn’t exactly “happening” the same way Tokyo is, but that doesn’t mean that the city does’t have anything to offer at all.

The area called Amerika-Mura, which means ‘American Village’ is a very interesting area with a lot of great restaurants, a few love hotels and hoards of fashion-obsessed teenagers showing of their newest bling-bling.

A walk along the river makes for a great evening stroll and if you’re not quite ready to head to your hotel then head for the nearby nightlife area – Dotonbori. Here you’ll find Japanese-style bars, western-style bars, clubs and everything else a party-oriented person’s heart could desire.

Here are some snapshots from my evening stroll the other night.

12 Oct 2010
Christina Lund Sørensen
I'm a keen collector of refrigerator magnets and I have a newfound passion for 'usu nigori' - sparkling sake

Whereas Tokyo and Kyoto seem to have countless attractions for a traveller (though very different attractions), and things to do and see, the immediate appeal to Japan’s third largest city, Osaka, is not as obvious. The city is pleasant, the food is great and the locals are lovely, but the city lacks real attractions and activities.

Thus I decided to find out, what the locals are up to, when they’re not working, which is what they spend most of their time doing all over Japan. And I accidentally stumbled across the three storeys bowling alley ‘Sakurabashi Bowling’. Most of the bowlers were young office employees, who either had a break from work or just finished work and then gone bowling with their co-workers. They’d all taken off their ties and jackets, but they were wearing white shirts and black trousers, which revealed that they just came from the office.

Bowling in Black & White

Bowling in Black & White

In Denmark we often have a beer or two while we bowl and the Japanese usually drink beer at any occasion, but definitely not when they’re bowling. Bowling is serious business here and they’re too passionate about the sport too mess it up by drinking alcohol.

Passion

Strike

I was told that most bowling alleys are open until 2 -3 am and some are even open 24 hours a day. So even if the office workers finish late (which they usually do), they can go bowling at any time. If you’re in Osaka and have time to kill or just feel like going bowling check out Sakurabashi Bowling next to Umeda Station.

Sakurabashi Bowling

11 Oct 2010
Christina Lund Sørensen
I'm a keen collector of refrigerator magnets and I have a newfound passion for 'usu nigori' - sparkling sake

Look for this!

I will make something clear from the beginning: This is NOT an advertisement for the American convenience store, but after a week in Japan, I’ve learned that 7-11 is indeed my friend. And now I’ve decided to pass on the invaluable advice to other, who are on their way to Japan or considering to do so. Here goes:

In ‘The Land Of The Rising Sun’ cash is king, meaning that most restaurants etc. only accepts paper money and not the plastic kind. This means that you have to go the ATM, which shouldn’t be a problem at all in such an ultra-modern and high-tech nation like Japan. Except it is a very big problem if you carry a foreign credit card, which tourists generally do. The ATM’s in most banks and other convenient stores wont accept foreign credit cards and most of them don’t have an English menu, everything is in Japanese.

This is where 7-11 comes in. In all their stores you can withdraw money on you foreign credit card – VISA, Mastercard, American Express etc., but there is a limit to how much you can take out, which is 10,000 Yen (around 87 Euro). This means you have to take out money quite often, which can be a bit of a hassle, but better than not being able to take out money at all, which I feared would be the situation to begin with.

11 Oct 2010
Christina Lund Sørensen
I'm a keen collector of refrigerator magnets and I have a newfound passion for 'usu nigori' - sparkling sake

The train arrives at Tokyo Station at exactly 3:50 pm and that’s one of the things the bullet train or the Shinkansen, as it’s called in Japanese, is known for. Extreme punctuality meaning virtually no delays. The other is the speed. At 320 kilometers per hour I race from Tokyo to Osaka in only two hours and 40 minutes – the distance is 550 kilometer.

Tokyo Station

Riding the Shinkansen is a memorable experience and it is a must-do experience in Japan. It is almost as if the bullet shaped train has become the symbol of Japanese society: hyper-efficient, smooth and fast.

When you’ve boarded the train everyone seems to enjoy the same ritual of opening their bento box (single portioned take out food) with an accompanying bottle of green- or jasmine tea. If you haven’t bought anything before boarding, you can do it, when the sales cart comes through the train. The stewardesses will sell you chocolate, nuts, organic coffee and even sake.

Taking a look at the snack selection

Riding the Shinkansen is an absolute delight. The only remotely negative thing there is to say about this form of transportation is the price. It is almost as expensive as a flight ticket, but in many cases much faster.

The ticket from Tokyo to Osaka cost 14.000 Yen, which is about 123 Euro and in my opinion that’s a steep price to pay. What you can do to get a discount is to order the JR pass online BEFORE you go to Japan, which I unfortunately didn’t. You can buy tickets valid for either 7, 14 or 21 days of traveling, and if you’re planning on doing a lot of train traveling in Japan, this is the way to do it.

On board the Shinkansen to Osaka

9 Oct 2010
Christina Lund Sørensen
I'm a keen collector of refrigerator magnets and I have a newfound passion for 'usu nigori' - sparkling sake

It started as a hobby for Melinda Joe, when she decided to blog about wine, sake and Tokyo bars. Like a lot of other foreigners in Japan, the Louisiana native started out as an English teacher, when she arrived eight years ago. She’d always had a passion for wine, and at some point she started applying the same tasting techniques she used, when she tasted wine to tasting sake. Today she is probably one of the foreigners in Japan, who knows most about the country’s proud sake tradition and brewing techniques.

Melinda Joe at sushi matsue

“Sake is not distilled like wine. It’s produced like a beer, but the way we drink and enjoy it resembles the way we drink wine”, Melinda says.

She has invited me to the sake bar, Hasegawasaketen, on the top floor in the swanky mall ‘Omotesando Hills’ in the Harjuku neigbourhood. I reveal my obsession with sparkling wine to Melinda, who informs me that I can have sparkling sake as well.

Sparkling Sake

This kind of sake is called ‘usu nigori’ and it has a milky colour and a taste that is similar to a dry cava. It’s rather fruity compared to any other sake I’ve had, but ‘usu nigori’ has never been near wine grapes or fruit, the only ingredients are rice, yeast and water.

From the sake bar we move on to one of Melinda’s favourite sushi places, sushi matsue, in the Ebisu area. Out of her passion for sake and wine grew a passion for sushi for Melinda Joe – and for Japanese food in general. She eventually quit teaching and started as a writer for the English language food webpage based in Tokyo called ‘Bento’.

“My favourite thing about sushi is the simplicity. It’s a dish where the ingredients really shine. It’s all about the raw fish”, she says.“

Sushi nigiri with Bonito Fish

Melinda now writes about food, wine and sake for a number of publications like ‘The Guardian’, ‘Japan Times’, ‘CNNGo’ and ‘The Wine Enthusiast’.

And according to her there are three very important aspects to take into consideration, when eating sushi: quality of the ingredients, skills of the sushi chef and your own open-mindedness-

And she adds:

“You can not be a close-minded person and enjoy sushi, in my opinion. It is after all raw fish!”

In Melinda Joe’s opinion there is a lot more to eating sushi than salmon and tuna, and when I dined with her, she introduced me to the delicacy of the sea urchin and it was yummy. Everything was fresh, tasty and well made.

Nigiri at Sushi Matsue

Learn more about sushi, sake or any other cuisine and wines from Melinda Joe’s blog: TOKYO THROUGH THE DRINKING GLASS

Tell me what do you think about eating sushi? Or tell me what your best, worst or funniest food moment was? I’m looking forward to reading your comments.

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