Day-trip from Tokyo: Odawara castle

Day-trip from Tokyo: Odawara castle

[[Featured image: The Tora (tiger) sign of the Odawara castle.]
[[Image Gallery follows]

It’s been a week now that a university friend is visiting me in Tokyo. He couldn’t have picked a worse time possible. The start of the year comes bearing fruits: progress reports, presentations, assignments, and so on. Nevertheless, I have to be a good host and entertain my valued visitor, haven’t I? So, one of events that we schedule was a visit the the Odawara castle in Kanagawa, combined with a short visit to Hakone.

Odawara used to be a powerful city, home of the Houjou clan, that controlled a large part of the Kanto area. The castle was thought to be impenetrable. Then the feudal lords started fighting among each other and hell broke loose. At the battle for the siege of Odawara (which at that time had a coat of arms similar to the Legend of Zelda logo), Odawara castle was sieged by Toyotomi Hideyoshi. For some obscure reason, the soldiers from the disbanded odawara army continued to fight under different clans, while disclosing the castles defense techniques to their new generals, even though the castle did fall to the enemy [because the defense was THAT cool, huh]. Apart from the castle, the main attractions in the vicinity include the seashore and the onsen (hot springs) in Yugawara.

As soon as we got off at the train station (super easy to get there with JR) we realized that we were hungry. Abiding by the rule ‘no money, no honey’ , we bought cheap sushi bentos and headed straight to the castle, only to stop and eat them outside the main gate. Suddenly, a young lady with a cute child comes talk to us first in English and after judging our ability, in Japanese. I was quite surprised to come across that level of good English (not common for Japanese people) and judging by my prior experience of enthusiastic people of all ages that want to introduce every nook and cranny of Japanese culture and customs to foreigners, we started a long conversation. She offered to show us the castle, and then a small Buddhist temple that had a valuable but unknown statue of Buddha and also teach us some kind of ritual writing. Normally, my head should have started flashing and ding-donging at the first 5 minutes, but my trust in Japanese people must have disarmed the proselytism alarm. We suggested going first to the Buddha and then to the castle, so that we have more time for the later. As we were walking, phrases like ‘The only true god is Buddha and that specific prayer’ and ‘we have so many wars in the world because of all the false religions’ started to appear, managing to re-arm the alarm, and eventually make me excuse myself tactfully. Conclusion: Don’t trust young English-speaking ladies with cute children, they only want to save your soul.

Soon after, we were heading once again towards the castle. This time, we managed to get inside without distractions. It is not as huge and imposing as the medieval castles of the West, but it had a certain charm. White and plain, it looked pretty under the blue sky. We bought a 800yen joint ticket for the castle, the museum and the samurai museum. The exhibits were not so impressive. The important part for me was the castle architecture itself and the wonderful view of both the sea and the Hakone mountainous area, which made clear in mind why that clan had such a power in their hands. However, at that exact moment, I also noticed the smoke of a forest fire on the mountain side and the fire-brigade moving hastily to the rescue. I heard no news about anything serious, and we visited Hakone soon afterwards, so I guess it was not a matter of concern after all. Regarding Hakone, we followed the obvious and usual approach: First visit lake Ashinoko to get a perfect view of Fuji and the red torii gate, and then go to Hakoneyumoto to enjoy onsen. We visited Izumi (和泉) onsen [~1300yen per person], but I consider the onsen at Yoshiike (吉池旅館) hotel [~2000yen per person] a wonderful choice (too many ladies with kimonos in the lounge – I was feeling too dirty and lowly at that point, I wanted to avoid any fanciness). The evening ended with dinner at a restaurant close-by, with tonkatsu and salmon dishes, although when asked for ramen, the onsen receptionist recommended Nisshintei (ハイカラ中華 日清亭).


Fun Japanese history facts:

  • The 3 big unifiers of Japan are Nobunaga, Hideyoshi and Ieyasu. There is a phrase  that describes the relationships among each-other:  “織田がつき 羽柴がこねし 天下餅 座りしままに 食うは徳川 – Nobunaga pounds the national rice cake, Hideyoshi kneads it, and in the end Ieyasu sits down and eats it.”

  • Hideyoshi was a nameless peasant that turned to one of Nobunaga’s top generals. But when he rose into power he passed a law that banned class mobility. The samurai right became permanent and heritable.

  • Ieyasu grew up as hostage of Nobunaga’s Oda clan, but despite their rivalry, eventually they became strong allies.

  • Nobunaga had a younger sister. The sister had 3 daughters. One, Chacha, married Hideyoshi. One, O-Hatsu, married Kyogoku Takatsugu (another warlord). One, O-go, married Hidetada, Ieyasu’s son and Tokugawa shogunate heir. But Chacha and O-go’s children, Hideyori and Senhime, married each other. Even in hardships, Nobunaga’s bloodline remained strong and continued to flow quietly underground towards high power concentration.

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Greece vs Japan: LIVE Concerts

Greece vs Japan: LIVE Concerts

Recently, I had the chance to visit two rock music concerts in Japan. Of course, I’ve been to other concerts before, but it was always the case of big opera hall kind of concerts until now (eg NHK Hall or Tokyo National Opera). Opera or classical concerts feel the same worldwide, the singer’s and orchestra’s behavior is predetermined, the audience is educated and the flow of the show is perfect. However, rock concerts differ a bit. The atmosphere is more ‘raw’ and ‘loose’, the band members joke with the audience, try silly stunts, talk about politics, may even perform drunk. Depending on the genre, both the band and crowd reactions span a wide range.

From my experience in Greece, concerts of local and overseas artists exhibit some differences. Greece is a nation stricken down by financial and social problems, with the new generation of musicians expressing their political opinions via lyrics and interviews, in order to inform or motivate the crowd. Nowadays, most of the concerts are in solidarity or support of a social movement or wrongly prosecuted individuals (e.g. solidarity to immigrants, covering the trial costs of activists etc). Overseas artists usually don’t have such an interest, but because Greece is not one of the HOT live concert destinations and the country’s situations is pretty known around the globe, most bands offer some words of sympathy or revolution. Punk and rock bands are by default fueled by teen angst and feelings of dissatisfaction, so it’s only logical that they are supportive. As for the crowd, if we take out the local Greek subculture of ‘bouzoukia’, usually involves a pit, even during the happy reggae songs of Locomondo or slow ballads of Pavlos Pavlidis. I speak from experience, I have my bruises to prove it. When I started my undergrad in Athens, I visited a handful of lives. On the aftermath of a super heavy pit for Mocha (?I don’t even know how it started?), I returned to my hometown for the weekend. My dad saw some bruises on my arms and legs and was literally terrified about the kind of life I was living by myself. People are drinking and dancing, smuggling tsipouro and cheap wine in water bottles, smoking tobacco or others, lighting up red and green smoke sticks. In case of couples, usually guys create a wall formation to protect girls from the expanding pit of wild dancers. Nevertheless, girls are far from fragile; they dance with force and pride, and if the band is lucky, a bra or two might be thrown at them (and then requested back because ‘That thing costed me 30 euros, bras are expensive, man!’). This might look dangerous and unthinkable for many, but I, as many others, enjoy it truthfully. The crowd is aware of the dangers, so everyone is careful of others and reacts immediately in case of emergency. Last but not least, the clothes are not fancy. Most of the people wear simple black T-shirts and old shoes, because of the high possibility to ruin them from being stepped over or random wine in the air.

Some examples [not exactly rock genre though]:

Japan is the exact opposite. It doesn’t matter if it is a huge stadium concert (the recent live of UVERworld in Yokohama arena) or a gig of local bands in a small live house (AGNO et al in Baysis Yokohama). The performance starting time was 18:30 – so at 18:29:55 the audience begun a countdown. The concert started sharp on time, no delays for any reason. You noticed the 18:30 right? That was a new one for me. I am used to either all-day-long festivals or concerts from 21:00++. But here concert hours are similar to office working hours, 18:30-21:30. The audience stood up as soon as the artists came on stage. Everyone put their hands up and started moving their fists rhythmically while singing. Always the right fist, and always with the same rhythm. No deviations from that. I was enjoying it my way, moving the left hand and rocking my body loosely, but everyone around me was serious and stiff, thus making me feel a bit awkward and out of place. When the singer addressed the crowd, the audience remained quiet and still. No whispering, no coughing, damn I wonder if people even breathed. The artist gets ultimate respect and attention both when performing and when talking. Almost every band member talks at some point. They talk about love and life and dreams and prayers. They talk about trivial matters like the weather and getting dressed well because now it’s the flu season. They talk about how much they try to improve their musical abilities, strive to be the best and present the best version of them selves to their fans. Fire, smoke, elevation stage for the famous band; lights, sound effects, stage jumps for the local band. Lead singers especially emit huge amounts of energy, dancing, jumping around, trying to offer an unforgettable experience. In case of a big band, I guess it is something to be expected. But small bands with an audience as much as a handful of people, are not bothered, they perform as if they were addressing hundreds. And they keep thanking the crowd for their participation and support. Again and again and again. I was literally taken aback by the enormous amount of respect from singer side and audience side. Another huge difference was that no cameras, iPads, tripods were present at any point. The audience came to enjoy the music, instead of recording a video that they would never even access, and that is what they did. The whole Yokohama arena was pitch black, with no rectangular light sources blocking your field view; just the occasional blinking of LED wristwatches. The dress code was far from the usual black T-shirt. Some were wearing their work clothes, some had their outfits specifically picked out for the occasion, a lot were wearing the bands T-shirts, wristbands, towels, and any other accessory. I was excited to see a cute girl with a long pink skirt and a red beret, headbanging to an hardly known metalcore band. Even the smallest band has a devoted fanbase, ready to buy merchandise and visit all the gigs. Because being a band in Japan is a serious issue (everything is a gravely serious issue around here, I gather). Local bands have a logo, a website, official photo-shoots, trivia pages, live streaming channels. It is of no importance if the band’s drummist is a hardworking salary man, he will devote himself 100% to the band’s business.

verdict
Greek concerts are unpredictable and crazy.
Japanese concerts are safe and relaxing.

Despite the differences, I enjoy both versions. However, when it comes to American or German bands, I prefer the Greek option of the concert. Japanese bands fit better to the Japanese live performance concept.

Merry Doric Xmas

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[Greek] 

🎄🎄 Γιατί χριστουγεννιάτικος στολισμός στην Ιαπωνία σημαίνει ότι αντί για αστέρια ή δέντρα, στολίζω τους δρόμους με ναούς δωρικού ρυθμού. nailed it.  (Σιμπούγια)

[English]

🎄🎄 According to Japanese standards, is there a more iconic and traditional Christmas decoration other than an ancient Greek temple in Doric order? Nailed it. (Shibuya)

Japanese foodporn (Part 4) + Autumn delicacies and travel suggestions

Japanese foodporn (Part 4) + Autumn delicacies and travel suggestions

[Feature Photo: Come on! Welcome to our house, we have coffee and cookies!  — reminds me a bit of the ‘come to the dark side, we have cookies’ meme (Credits to Martin)]

Hey there! I haven’t been active for a while because I was busy EATING. Oh my god, this Sunday was the first day in two months that I managed to sleep later than 9am. But, the reason for not sleeping was having fun, so I guess it’s ok. Autumn is the best season for excursions, short hikes and roadtrips, I encourage you to do so. I strongly recommend: Nikko, Hoshinoonsen in Karuizawa,Teradomari, Yuzawa and Yahiko in Niigata, Matsumoto in Nagano, Hakone and anywhere else with nature nearby! If you don’t like nature that much, Xmas is closing up on us, which means —> ILLUMINATION TIME // BLINK BLINK PIKA PIKA LIGHTS EVERYWHERE! Enjoy the red autumn leaves (koyou) and remember that it’s the best time of the year for hot coffee, Irish hot coffee or warm sake with rice porridge (amazake). Also I suggest this version of hot chocolate : melt chocolate with rose petals, add milk,  a pinch of cinnamon, 1-2 threads of saffron, a blanket with cats and a medieval fiction book.

Regards! 

P.S. Mostly Japanese stuff with Greek, Finnish and Ecuadorian surprises.

Open the gallery images for detailed captions!

Enough about food, let’s check some cheap yet fancy cosmetics and random stuff!

Japanese foodporn (part 3) with goodies: What to eat/drink in Okinawa + Random 100yen shop beauty products

Japanese foodporn (part 3) with goodies: What to eat/drink in Okinawa + Random 100yen shop beauty products

Pretty much only one thing happened during the past days: rain. So it was a great opportunity for me to start experimenting with Japanese cooking. The results were satisfying, so I’ll try to keep up the pace and try to get better! The recipes that weren’t improvised, were successful thanks to japanesecooking101. Pro tip: Be extremely careful when you buy the ingredients; the contents may look the same, the kanji may look the same, BUT it’s highly possible that it’s NOT the same.

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Avocado-Chicken with Korean noodles

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Japanese satsuma sweet potato a la amani (basically boiled in sugar syrup) [recipe here]

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An awful lot of ingredients here – I mixed up too many things together, but at least it was eatable; salmon flakes, avocado, bean sprouts, fermented bamboo shoots (menma), red ginger (紅ショウガ), some king of transparent noodles made of kudzu starch (くずきり) which I accidentally bought instead of bean threads (春雨) – I wanted to make this cooling salad .

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Trying to make gyoza. I made it using a filling with minced pork meat, cabbage, green onion etc. The folding is tricky at the beginning, but ‘practice makes perfect’. In the background: Vietnamese ‘Nem’ cooked by my roommate, and an episode of ‘Rick and Morty’. I had to spend my time resourcefully, considering I was making gyoza, tsukune and greek meatballs all at once.

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Special Halloween KitKat with caramel pudding flavor: The individual packages came with cute little messages like ‘thank you!’, ‘sorry’, ‘you can do it’, ‘good job’, ‘of course’ & ‘friends’

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Special edition Milk Tea with Princess Ariel and her sisters, from Disney’s ‘Little Mermaid’

PLUS: What to eat in okinawa

  • サーターアンダギー(saataa andagii): something like doughnut, with brown sugar coating
  • 紅イモ(beni imo) tarts/soft cream/kitkat/everything: purple yam flavour
  • タコライス(tako rice): doesn’t have any actual taco(octopus) and comes in a lot of variations with avocado, tomato , etc
  • ソーキそば(sokisoba): soba served containing giant lumps of meat
  • ゴーヤチャンプルー(goya champuru): omelette style dish with the okinawan cucumber(goya), tofu, pork etc
  • Orion beer: the local beer, they advertise it everywhere, and comes in 3-4 variations
  • さんぴん茶: jasmine tea, but it’s supposed to be a special okinawan blend that offers longelivity
  • シークワーサー・パッションフルーツ・マンゴ・グアバ お酒 (flat lemon/passion fruit/mango/guava drinks):local alcoholic cocktail canned drinks with tropical fruit flavours
  • 泡盛(awamori): the local alcoholic drink (around 25%), resembling shochu in terms of production, as it is a product of distillation

EXTRA SECTION: Cosmetics

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Silicon covers for relaxing and hydrating the feet

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Concentrated facial masks; I saw them for a first time, and tried to infuse one with the Kose ‘Sekkisei herbal gel’, with satisfying results

Thoughts on climbing Mt. Fuji (富士登山)

Thoughts on climbing Mt. Fuji (富士登山)

Hey there! How was your summer vacation? Mine was quite floppy, as it was inconveniently interrupted by my entrance exams (check out anxiety lair post).

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Nevertheless, end of August is a relatively good time to visit Mt. Fuji. Considering that the main paths are open to the public only ~2months in the summer, it’s a shame not to arrange a plan to visit. As a matter of fact, it turns out that climbing to Mt. Fuji summit is some kind of pilgrimage, sought after both by Japanese people and foreign tourists. Almost half of the climbing crowd was short term staying foreigners, some of them awfully under-prepared for the weather conditions and the mountainous/volcanic ground. On the other hand, I met a lot of old Japanese people who are recurring visitors every summer for an impressive number of years.

So, the big question is, how was it? I’ll be honest, not bad – but not as good as I expected. The natural beauty was breathtaking, the sunset and sunrise sky colors, the red and black volcanic dirt, the clouds riding on the mountain slopes.. but the experience as a whole left me unsatisfied. Surprisingly, I can pinpoint the reason why quite clearly: too many people up there. Having a huge crowd is good for events like parties and concerts and parades, but for nature appreciation? Ehm, not so much, to say the least. Fuji is imposing and inspiring, but not unmatched in terms of natural beauty. Add up the huge, noisy, smelly, annoying crowd, and there you have it; a magnificently unique experience for all the wrong reasons.

Time for tips: Going there on the weekend may have contributed a lot to my not-so-good experience, so I strongly suggest weekdays at the beginning or end of the visiting seasons to anyone who is interested in getting there. Don’t worry too much about food; the higher you climb, the higher the cup noodles price climbs, but the overall provision prices are not prohibitive to buy. Bring an awful lot of warm and waterproof clothes. If you go for the sunrise, it means you’ll climb during nighttime. When you are moving, everything is fine, but when you decide to sit and rest, the low temperature hits you – HARD. Patches like kairo (カイロ) can keep you warm, and usually you can by at the huts, if need be. Extra socks, so that you can change your sweaty wet ones and spare your feet of some chilliness, is a wise idea. Headlight: useful. Hiking sticks: necessary for going down – the ground is slippery and knee-hurting. Oxygen can: did nothing for me. As a 2 decades long Japanese path guide told me: ‘Don’t hurry to get up, walk slowly with a steady pace, don’t take a break, just move with small steps and always choose small inclination slopes instead of stair steps. Stretch your legs and body minimally, and you’ll be surprised when you see that you arrived to the summit before all the rushed youngsters.” That being said, a path guide is absolutely not necessary. The mountain paths are properly signed, and just following the crowd will suffice. There are not many places to go on a bald mountain side.  When you see big organized groups about to set out, set out before them, some parts of the path are narrow, and the last thing you want is to be trapped in one of them. Be prepared for a lingering smell of human byproducts near the toilets – you can’t expect a pine tree fragrance when you have a toilet in the middle of nowhere with nothing but lava rocks around you. Also, by witnessing both sunset and sunrise, I recommend going for the sunset. The reddish colors are stunning, more impressive than the sunrise orange ones, and the hike will all-in-all be easier. Climbing from the easily accessible Yoshida trail is of moderate difficulty, so even inexperienced, hiking first-timers will be just fine, with only some leg discomfort in the following days. Think about the ~70yo Japanese security guards, climbing up and down around 3 a.m., controlling the crowd flow at 3.400m by lively yelling ‘5 minutes more to the top, guys, 10 if you do it slowly, move on move on, you can do it!’ . If the super genki ojiisans can do that without breaking a sweat, you can at least reach the top, right?

Now, now, enjoy some representative shots!
 (Photo credits also go to Yili-san and Dara-san)