Stories of bottled soft drink shortages in Tokyo just don’t hold water

Amidst reports of Tokyo mums buying up bottled water for their babies, let’s not overlook the vast array of flavoursome soft drinks on offer in Japan. Factoid of the day number 1 – there’s a vending machine for every 12 citizens in Japan (including a couple at the top of Mt Fuji).

Man vs. the Vending Machine

2 – more new soft drink beverages hit the market in Japan than anywhere else in the world. In a country seemingly obsessed with hatsubai 発売 (new products), 300 to 1,000 new fresh and funky flavours appear annually. Most disappear faster than a J-Pop band member after her twentieth birthday, but some of the wackier ones end up selling millions a year. And when I say funky, I mean ‘slightly funny smelling’ as much as ‘wow, cool new flavour.’ Pepsi Ice Cucumber, anyone? Fair enough. Then can I tempt you with a Kimchee (Korean spice)-flavoured Coolpis?

Spice up your soft drink life

 

Hunt among the many brand names – often amusing to an English speaker – in the local conveni and you’re bound to get hooked on one eventually. Pocari Sweat is a firm favourite, the makers claiming it’s Japan’s top-selling soft drink (is there a supercomputer attached to all those vending machines?) To some it’s electrolyte-filled manna from heaven on a hot humid day downtown; to the Urban Dictionary it tastes like ‘putting your tongue on the twin terminals of a 9v battery.’ If they mean it recharges you instantaneously when you’re hungover, they’re right. If they mean it tastes a bit funny, they obviously don’t have any of the more special flavours of Coolpis to compare it with.
Other enduring favourites include CC Lemon – the front label claims it’s got the juice of 70 lemons in it yet the back says it’s only 50% lemon – and the milk-based Calpis which comes in hot, cold and alcoholic forms. With so much to choose from it’s hard to work out what people are talking about when they say there’s shortages in Tokyo. Leave plain old bottled water for the kids and look cool and sophisticated with your new favourite funky flavoured soft drink product.

I ordered BEER, not ice-cream!

Many a gaijin (foreigner) has grumbled at the size of the frothy head on their chilled mug of draught beer in an izakaya in Japan. To us westerners, and particularly the brits, a pint is a sacred thing, and being offered anything less than a full pint is second only to being told there are no pork scratchings on the menu. However, on a recent visit to Japan I discovered that not only is there a logic and reason behind the over-siz

"Here comes the science..."

"Here comes the science..."

ed head on a Japanese beer, but also science and mathematics too! Take a look at the pic above. This analyses the beer for “best balance”, awards red cards for poor efforts, shows the correct ratio of head to beer, and even points out the “rings of deliciousness” that should cling to the glass as you sup! So next time you are out in Tokyo and somebody moans about the state of their beer, you can inform them that (as with most things in Japan) there is strict etiquette in place, and the Japanese know EXACTLY what they are doing! Kampai!

Tohoku – Can’t Wait to Go Back

Tohoku is a beautiful part of Japan, but receives very few foreign visitors, as most arrive in Tokyo and head west for Kyoto, ignoring the amazing sights to Tokyo’s north. The tragic events of the last few weeks mean there is a danger that this trend will continue, and even strengthen, and Tohoku could become even more forgotten than it has been in the past. Having travelled Tohoku extensively I am keen to highlight some top spots of Japan’s north-east that I have been to in the past, in the hope that people will soon be heading there, to help the local economy and local people head into the future following the earthquake and tsunami.

First up is Tazawa-ko, a beautiful circular lake in the heart of rural Akita prefecture.

Tazawa-ko, home of a randy dragon...?

Tazawa-ko, home of a randy dragon...?

The lake and surrounding countryside are very picturesque, offering a great insight into the slower pace of life that goes on in this very rural part of Japan. The lake also comes complete with its own legend, of which (in the best tradition) there are several versions of, depending on who you believe. On the southwestern side of the lake you will find a gold statue of a beautiful girl named Tatsuko. One version of the story says that she wished for her beauty and youth to be preserved forever but was turned into a dragon and sank to the bottom of the lake, where she remains; another claims that the dragon is in fact her husband who she lives with in the depths of the lake, and it is their energetic lovemaking that ensures that the lake never freezes over even in the depths of winter! Take a look at the statue and make up your own mind!

Legends - rarely reliable

Legends - rarely reliable

Tazawa-ko is a great day out, and with direct Shinkansen access from Tokyo, there’s no excuse not to visit!

Japanish Food

I`m pretty sure I like Japanese food, I`m just not really certain what it is. Nobody has given me a list, and I know there`s far more to it than just soba noodles and sushi.

Last week, wandering around tourist-free Tokyo, I tried a couple of dishes that are not traditional Japanese, but they are unique to Japan. I have called them Japanish.

Omuraisu, a classic Japanish dish, in Asakusa.

My first Japanish dish was in Asakusa at Yoshikami Yoshokudo. Yoshokudo means western diner, but the name is just a cunning disguise. The chefs and patrons are all Japanese, as are their main dishes – like omuraisu.

Omuraisu was first served in Osaka in the 1920s. Now you can get it anywhere in Japan. It consists of sticky rice, mixed with fried pork, wrapped in a fried egg and hosed with tomato ketchup.

It`s kids food in adult portions. Eating it, I felt nine years old, but the sweet tomato ketchup was worth all the shame.

A couple of days later, near Shinjuku, I went to a restaurant for some French curry. French curry sounds like a dreadful idea, as appealing as English sushi, but the small counter-seating only restaurant is always full.

The enthusiastic head chef told me he had studied French cuisine for several years. Adding red wine to curry sauce seemed to be his specialisation.

The meal came as a pleasant surprise. Smooth sweet and satisfying, it was the only best French curry I have ever had.

French Curry

Japanish food does stretch credibility at times. You sometimes wonder if they are jokes, like the pineapple chunk sandwiches, horseradish flavoured Kit-Kats and ice burger buns on sale at conbini stores. I don`t recommend all of those, not in one sitting anyway, but trust me, Japanish food is here to stay.

A report on life in Japan from tour leader and Tokyoite.

Blog post written by Steve Parker (InsideJapan Tours tour leader)

The images beamed across the globe in recent weeks have been indeed deeply distressing – not least for those of us who have spent a number of years in this great country. However, Japan is a country whose people have bounced back from times of immense adversity on many occasions – this time will be no exception – the people are already pulling together in a huge effort to get back on track.

When the unprecedented temblor hit the northeast of Japan, I was with a group, touring Kyoto city on foot. I actually had no idea of the incident as I was running errands during lunchtime. When one of my travellers asked, “was that an earthquake earlier?” I replied that she may have felt the rumbling of a bullet train as it whizzed out of Kyoto station. Of course, she had been correct but in being so far away, we had no idea of the devastation that would be wrought upon the Tohoku region, over 500miles away.

Within no time that evening, I was receiving calls and emails from back home – of concern for my safety and then urging me to leave Japan. Having also been able to access the media from the UK, I knew that geographical awareness of the badly affected area would be hazy to folks back home. Thankfully for my group and I, Kyoto was a world away from the situation in the north. Everyday people continued with their everyday errands and were no doubt many oblivious to the events until switching on their TVs after returning home.

As a group, we discussed things after understanding more of the events in the north and that we were far away from danger. People wanted to continue as usual, which we did: geisha-spotting in the quaint backstreets of Gion; stopping to say a prayer for those in need at Kinkakuji Temple – home to the magnificent Golden Pavillon; and exploring the fascinating food markets – sampling the weird and wonderful. I was really happy that people could still experience the Japan they had dreamt and read about.

Only when we arrived in Tokyo could I sense a slight difference that was undetectable to the fresh-faced tourist – the brash neon was less in-your-face, shops were open for reduced hours, the stations less busy with commuters. However, in such an energised metropolis, the newcomer would never be able to tell, all things being relative. A half-asleep Tokyo would seem more than lively to most!

So far, areas I have visited since the quake, such as Kyoto and Nagoya, really have seemed unaffected on a day-to-day basis, though of course hearts are heavy in sympathy for the people of the north. Tokyo, although rocked, received very minimal damage – a testimony to its anti-earthquake structures. Trains are slightly running reduced services that still put the UK’s public transport to shame, and although no oft-superfluous escalators and fewer mega efficient ticket vending machines are in use – to save energy – this poses no major problem to Tokyo’s commuters. Enforced blackouts at designated times for designated areas are further helping to conserve valuable energy. These are inconveniences that the locals are dealing with as inconveniences and nothing more, and they seem to be going about their business as usual. The broader picture in mind, people are simply dealing with new circumstances and exercising more awareness of what they consume, whilst life continues.

Reported panic shopping has seen stocks of milk, bread, bottled water, cup noodles and batteries plundered by worried Tokyoites – hardly leaving supermarkets bear though! Some even fled temporarily to the west for fear of further large quakes, taking bullet trains to the Kansai region, home to the cities Osaka, Kyoto and Kobe. But these numbered a relative few and a week on most have since returned, the initial shock and panic of the quake over.

The biggest earthquake and tsunami in Japanese history will leave an indelible mark on the people but moreover it will bring out their fantastic sense of awareness of and consideration for others, cooperation, loyalty, generosity and determination – qualities which always strike all of the groups I lead in Japan.

Spring is on the horizon – Mt Fuji looks majestic in her snowy cape, the plum blossoms are out in many areas and the wonderful cherry blossoms are coming soon – Japan has so much to offer people, even in times of difficulty. Foreigners coming to see the country in the glorious springtime are surely in for the same treats as always and can feel good in themselves by supporting the country’s recovery. Their visit will make the local people very happy, ensuring that eternally friendly Japanese welcome.

Please support the InsideJapan Tsunami Relief fund which is raising money for a Japanese charity called Civic Forcehttp://www.justgiving.com/InsideJapan


Family trip to Japan during the biggest earthquake and tsunami in history

The Linville family travelled to Japan at the beginning of March 2011, a couple of days before the massive earthquake and tsunami struck the Tohoku region in northern Japan on March 11th. The family of four started their trip in Tokyo before heading to the cultural capital of Kyoto 500km south of the Metropolis on the day of the tsunami. They stayed in Kyoto for six days and enjoyed traditional festivals amongst other Japanese cultural highlights. The Linville’s then headed back north to the mountains and hot springs of Hakone national park in the shadow of Mt. Fuji before returning to Tokyo on March 19th.

During this time, there have been all sorts of sensationalised reporting in the west about the earthquake, tsunami and the situation at the Fukushima power plant and it is hard for people to know what to think. Although the earthquake and tsunami is devastating for the people in the northern Tohoku region of Japan, life does go on elsewhere in this beautiful but stoic nation.

John Linville has kindly allowed InsideJapan Tours to use his feedback from their trip (March 8th-20th 2011) which is as follows;

“We had a great time, even with what was happening to the north. We decided the best thing we could do for Japan was to stay there. I had trip insurance and could have left without any problems, but we didn’t want to do that.

The Japanese people were great hosts our entire trip. The way they continued their daily routines, you wouldn’t know there had been a disaster. We had no idea how big it (the  earthquake) was until much later that night. There were no disruptions to our itinerary, and only a minor inconvenience of planned power-outage’s when we went to Hakone. Even that was no big deal. The Ryokan in Hakone will definitely be one of the best memories of the trip. The accommodation and food there were excellent.

I can’t think of a single thing we missed due to the earthquakes, tsunami, or nuclear emergency. Words can’t describe how impressed, and how much respect I now have for the Japanese people. We would have loved to stay longer.

There are obvious problems north of Tokyo, but as long as people travel south of Tokyo they should have a great time. There is so much to see and do in the Kyoto – OsakaNara areas. Thank you and everyone at Inside Japan Tours for a great and unforgettable vacation”

John Linville, Illinois, USA

Along with John’s comments, we are hearing all sorts of praise for Japan and the Japanese people from our returning customers. The majority of people note that life is carrying on as normal hundreds of miles south of Tokyo and that their trips were largely unaffected by the events in the north.  Some people have expressed a feeling of guilt for thoroughly enjoying their Japanese cultural experience, but the Japanese people would not be happy to hear this. In general, the Japanese are always very keen for foreign visitors to enjoy Japan as a nation and culture and will go out of their way to make sure visitors enjoy the country that they are so proud of.

Late March and early April are traditionally the most popular times of year to visit Japan, with temperatures getting warmer and cherry blossom season brightening up the temple gardens and mountainsides.  Cherry trees across Japan will still bloom and although thoughts of Tohoku will no doubt be in their minds, the Japanese people will still enjoy ‘Hanami’ (Cherry blossom viewing) largely unaffected by events hundreds of miles away in northern Japan. With a massive rebuilding project about to take place in the north, Japan as a nation needs foreign visitors now more than ever to support local economies and the people across country. Japan is still a beautiful nation with amazing people.

Please donate to InsideJapan Tours’  Tsunami relief fund. All proceeds are going to the Japanese charity, Civic Force who are providing direct relief in areas hardest hit by the earthquake and tsunami in Tohoku http://www.justgiving.com/InsideJapan

Life in Tokyo and the people of Japan…

It’s a rainy Monday afternoon in Tokyo, but signs of spring have been appearing lately. This weekend the sun was shining, the first buds of sakura began to bloom, and just down the street from my apartment families were in the park drinking beer and playing with their children.

The People of Japan...

For those of you watching the news from overseas I can only imagine how hard it must be to imagine any semblance of normal life returning to this country after such devastating events. And, I must admit, as I sit in my apartment writing this blog I am finding it more than a little difficult to say anything about Japan right now without mentioning the earthquake, tsunami, or radiation. Especially as small but numerous aftershocks continue to shake my walls and light fixtures.

As time has passed I have come to realise that the father of someone close to me was swept away by the tsunami and an acquaintance whom I had expected to meet yesterday was busy trying to find accommodation for his parents because their house had been obliterated by the tsunami. These simple connections make the images on the news seem all the more real and heartbreaking, but for the majority of us in Tokyo, life is beginning to return to normal. Yes, there are a few empty shelves in the grocery stores, a few less trains to carry us in, and far fewer lights turned on (in the co-ordinated effort to save electricity) but, for those of us who call Tokyo home, this is a time to appreciate our loved ones with new fervour and do whatever we can to help the thousands up north who desperately need it.

The People of Japan...

Over the past two weeks I was lucky enough to travel around Japan with 14 amazing individuals (from England, Australia, and Canada). Each and every one of these people were here during one of the worst disasters to hit Japan since World War II. Yet despite the timing of our trip, we were lucky enough to have been far away from the areas that were worst hit and found ourselves in the somewhat surreal position of being completely and utterly unaffected (though not emotionally) by what was taking place in the north of the country. In Hiroshima, we found ourselves mesmerised by the news one minute and downing beers with locals the next. In Okayama, we wrote emails to our loved ones back home who were worried for our safety and then spent the afternoon riding bicycles through the Japanese countryside, meeting smiling old ladies along the way.

The People of Japan...

I am always curious about what it is that makes people fall in love with Japan but, in light of the recent events, people’s answers to this question had a special resonance this time around. Their answers ranged from sushi-eating contests to bathing monkeys, late-night karaoke parties to early morning chanting monks, Star Wars inspired chopsticks to geisha dances, the efficiency of the bullet trains to sipping sake out of square cups, the cleanliness of the cities to the understated elegance of the temples in the countryside and, of course, the feasts of Japanese food at every stop along the way. But what always seems to make the top of everyone’s list is simple; it is the people.

As someone who has chosen to make my home in Japan, I couldn’t agree more. The people of this country are what make it one of the most amazing places in the world and the one reason that we can all rest assured that Japan will pull through this event more united than ever.

The People of Japan...

Although this blog is not about donating or asking for money, for those who are interested in giving, InsideJapan recommends an organisation called civic force. For those who aren’t, we can assure you that your kind words and thoughts are not going unappreciated.

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