11. THE PANDA CAFE

Guys, cat cafés are so 2014.IMG_2269

Time to usher in the New Year with something new, something exciting. As humans, we should learn to embrace change, to push on forwards in revolutionary strides. Yes, without further ado, I introduce to you
the next level of the animal-to-human culinary experience: panda cafés.

However, unlike their feline-friendly counterparts, these cafés surprisingly do not house actual pandas. Considering how vicious these ursidae really are, you would probably find yourself being mauled into bite-sized pieces before your hands hit the utensils. Here, in Asagaya-minami, lies a charming little café called the “Panda Coffee Shop” which is solely decorated under the motif of   IMG_2268everyone’s favourite black-and-white bear. Straight from the get-go, you’re greeted by decapitated panda heads (more charming than you think). After you climb a short yet steep set of stairs, you open a dainty door that feels like you’re entering someone’s little home. Once inside, it is panda paraphernalia galore. Toys, coffee machines, scent diffusers… to the naked eye, there is nothing that escapes the monochrome domination.

Of course, this theme extends towards the food of this café as well. The menu consists of “comfort food” like a nice omelette rice (omuraisu) or curry. For my drink, I ordered hot milk. Chatting with several of my friends here was a relaxing experience. The ambiance was serene, the warm lighting: tranquilizing. The owners of the café were very friendly too. I have a feeling that if I lived nearby and made a habit of coming to this place to study, I would have become quick friends with them—or at least, very friendly acquaintances. Back when I had lived at UBC, I was a regular at the Great Dane. The owner there was impossibly sweet and that sensation of comfort and welcome is a wonderful thing.

The omelette rice was smooth, buttery and with a hint of sweetness. Rather than restaurant quality finesse, the dish was more akin to that of home cooking. “Just like Mama,” as some would say (while swinging their wii-mote). The salad was dressed lightly, but the vegetables were fresh and delicious. It was just the thing needed to balance the richness of the omelette rice and milk. But before I dangerously tread the boundaries of food-blogging and travel-blogging, I’ll stop now.

The Panda Coffee Shop was a very charming place, if not adorable to an umpth degree. If you ever find yourself in need of a place to fulfill your panda passions, this café is the place to go.

 

10. TSUKIJI FISH MARKET

Want to know where the biggest fish/seafood market is in the world? Well, if you guessed Japan, don’t feel clever because obviously it’d be in Japan if I was blogging about it. Tsukiji Fish Market is the world’s biggest wholesale fish market, found in central Tokyo between Ginza and the Sumida River. Attracting tourists from all around the world, the outer market hosts a variety of restaurants and countless numbers of merchants selling fresh seafood commodities.

I had the chance to go there, luckily! With my friends, we readied ourselves for a day of eating, eating and more eating. Honestly, the seafood is so fresh here that you’d be foolish not to drop a few thousand yen on the vendors and restaurants at Tsukiji.MMMM

Immediately upon arriving, it’s easy to notice the international atmosphere of the place. Tourists from all around the world can be seen weaving in and out of the crowds, consulting with nearby sellers who speak in their charming, albeit broken English to persuade them to buy their wares. It feels a bit odd. Having lived here for several months now, I feel more like a local and more alienated from people who are obviously tourists. Then again, I looked like a tourist with my camera around my neck, snapping photos as I walked through the hordes of human traffic. All of us were herding into narrow alleyways where the countless stalls of fish awaited us.

Definitely have cash on you as most of the vendors will only take bills and coins. Besides, you can grab small snacks like buttered shellfish or even deep-fried whale (to the left) for a few hundred yen. In the picture to the left, you can see that there is a sign for ice-cream, as well. It’s whale ice-cream. 500 yen. Go ahead and try it if you find yourself here. Why not, right?

My friends and I decided on kaisen-don (seafood rice bowl) for our actual lunch. On the right, you can see it. It comes with fresh miso soup with seaweed which you can see, also! The sea urchin (orange heap in the middle) was extremely delicious, in particular. Man, all the ingredients just felt so… refreshing. If you come to Tsukiji, I seriously recommend having one of these if not, some special Tsukiji-exclusive sushi (if you google this, results will come up).

All in all, Tsukiji was an amazing culinary experience. Not only was the food great, but the atmosphere was alive and exciting, filled with an international yet strong local presence. You can tell that the people who work here have a passion for their trade and while Tsukiji may be an interesting crossroad of culture, the pride and unique flavour of Japan remains prominent and strong.

09. EORZEA CAFE

MOOGLEMan, I’ve just been geeking out while I’ve been in Japan, but hey! There’s nothing wrong in that nor was there nothing wrong with the food in Akihabara’s Eorzea Cafe. With a couple of friends, we had a delicious expedition into the Final Fantasy XIV cafe here and boy, it was something. Not only was the place beautiful, but the food was absolutely delicious.

On the left here is a Moogle honey toast: a visual testimony as to why this place is a must-go for Final Fantasy lovers. Not only does the food look amazing, but it tasted as equally as great, kupo. Honestly, I was half-expecting some “decent” food considering the novelty of the place. However, the reservation was worth it (it was a lucky steal too, since we basically reserved last minute and they fill up extremely fast). Destroying our dishes was an exercise in tough love. Although we looked like a bunch of tourists snapping LEVIATHANpictures non-stop at our table, it was simply impossible to ignore the hard work and effort the chefs put into our food. Just look at it! All happy and cute—until my friend carved its face out (rest in peace).

For my main dish, I ordered a plate themed after the Leviathan. You can see a nori cutout of the Sea King on my plate as well as a coaster with its name on it. With every drink and dish you got, you were handed a little coaster as a gift. Also, when you first enter, you have to choose your “class,” too. I chose the Bard card. I’d make a joke about being spoony, but I’m far from being spoony, darn you.

BOMBHowever, the whole experience was something you’d never be able to find anywhere else. The level of detail put into making the cafe is astonishing. Stained glass windows, game inspired plates and goblets, and the constant pleasant hum of music from the Final Fantasy XIV soundtrack helped make this cafe its own world. When we stepped in, we took a small trip away from Japan and entered a whole new world, it felt like.

I mean, where else do you get a dish that sizzles and threatens to explode your entire face off? Not that it would have actually exploded. The lawsuit would’ve been too heated…

Anyways, I recommend that if you’re a Final Fantasy fan to check this place out. It’s a one-of-a-kind experience. Not only is the food worth it (now that I think of it, it was relatively cheap), but it’s a memory I couldn’t have made anywhere else. I’m probably going back again, if not to collect the rest of the coasters, heh heh heh. Until next time! 

08. I’M IN LOVE

IMG_1892As soon as I laid my eyes on her, I could feel my heart attempt to tear away from the confines of my sweaty, shaking body. I could feel the blood pump violently through my veins. My face was flushed, my hands clammy. Suddenly parched, I tried to find the words to explain this feeling. This condition. But, this love can’t be expressed through words. No. This was different. Confession time: I fell in love with Ikebukuro’s Pokemon Center.

Yeah, there’s nothing to hide. I’m one of the biggest Pokemon fans you’ll ever meet. Ever since I’ve had my hands on those Gameboy cartridges, I was hooked. Lured by a world filled with electric rodents and slumbering giants, I spent most of my childhood daydreaming of a reality where these creatures really existed. And to be quite honest, I still do. We always crave for something extraordinary. Something new, something different. After all, maybe that’s why we study abroad. In fact, when I was very, very young, I was bullied by several upperclassmen at a Korean church (we’re all friends now, oddly enough). To endure it, I imagined as if they were gym leaders, people I had to overcome and defeat in order to push onward. I have a lot to be grateful for because of Pokemon. Those games helped me through some of the hardest times of my childhood.

TIMG_1891 hat’s why I can’t “grow out of it.” It’s a part of who I am and like the dozens of children, teens, mothers and fathers who filled the Pokemon Center building, I can’t seem to shake off this infatuation with Pokemon. For those who don’t know what a “Pokemon Center” is, it’s basically a shop dedicated towards selling Pokemon related merchandise. There are several locations (one in New York, even), but the one I went too had been opened recently in the Sunshine City mall complex inside Tokyo. You immediately notice the hordes of people with their gaming handhelds, playing with each other and receiving digital gifts by Wi-Fi. In particular, I loved seeing a family of four, all with their handhelds out, enjoying each other’s company. It’s a testament to Pokemon’s timelessness: people young and old can find comfort in playing with their favorite digital creatures and with each other.

I wasn’t the only “foreigner” there, of course. People from all walks of life were there. The Pokemon Center had an international atmosphere about it, really. Tourists sometimes come to Japan with the sole purpose of visiting one of these stores. For me, visiting this place was just icing on the cake.

Sometimes I’m in awe of the fact of how long Pokemon’s popularity has lasted and is still lasting. Japan has a penchant for cute things (especially mascots), and you can see this clearly by the array of Pikachu dolls lining the walls. Perhaps Pokemon continues to live on because of how much money it makes. Yea, I’m guilty. I splurged here, but hey! It’s the Christmas season! Treat yo’self. Christmas is a time of giving. A time of giving to yourself—right?IMG_1894

After purchasing a soundtrack, artbook (I collect these) and a Christmas-themed doll (don’t judge, man), I left the shop with my friends. We may be hitting our mid-twenties, but we still feel young. Not to say that Pokemon is solely for children. Why enjoy things in childhood if you’re going to end up shunning them afterwards? It’s just that this sensation was mixed with a longing for simpler days. Days where we weren’t so concerned about our futures. Days that only held pursuits for trivial things. Days that contained lifetimes within themselves and refused to loom ominously over tomorrow.

Exchange occasionally prods at you with questions about your future. It’s inevitable. However, in my opinion, if we revisit the pleasures of our childhood, we can find comfort. While mapping out my life’s course, I make sure to dip my toes in the pool of those old memories to refresh myself. We may be adults, but honestly, most of us don’t know what the heck we’re doing. Hopefully, studying here in Japan will offer me some sort of clarity.

And more Pokemon.

07. MIDTERMS & DON QUIXOTE

Long time no see!

If you think being on exchange means no quizzes, no unit tests, no papers and exams, then you’re so, so, so dead wrong. In fact, I was almost killed. Almost slain by the onslaught of midterms and papers that seemed to have come all at the same time. That feeling doesn’t change by being away from UBC.

The realization that I’m at school for the purpose of studying really hit me. Really hard. In the face. So hard that I might have to get some reconstructive surgery.

But, those exams have gone and past. I know a lot of UBC students have just started their finals, so who am I to complain? After all, being at a place as pretty as Sophia (as depicted above in a photo I took two days ago) makes me remember that I’m here not just for the courses, but here for the experience.

Again, the experiences you receive while being on exchange are not always what you imagined them to be. You gotta make sure you’re not wandering the lands like Don Quixote, viewing the world through an idealistic lens. Having been to Japan before, I know not to make this mistake.

Continuing on that thought, when I was in high school, I went on a school trip for two weeks to Japan. I was one of the few Asian kids who went, the rest being mostly Caucasian. There was a day where we explored the city of Kyoto and despite our freedom to do whatever we wanted to, we naturally organized ourselves into single file lines, as if we were following an imaginary teacher at the end of our obviously “foreign” parade.

There was a group of school girls. They were in their uniforms, some with pigtails, some with hair set straight down, huddled together on the side of the path. I passed them and they said nothing. My friend behind, visibly Caucasian, passed soon after. Immediately, I heard a flurry of “gaijin, gaijin, gaijin!” Meaning foreigner, they instantaneously recognized my friend as someone different and treated him as if he were some sort of celebrity.

No, I wasn’t jealous of this attention. Nor do I think the attention is entirely positive! In the end, the whole trip was superb and part of the reason why I decided to come back for a university exchange. However, that scene lingers in my head to remind me that I have a different perspective of being an “Asian” foreigner.

I recently read this article by Bernie Low called “An Asian Foreigner’s Perspective On Living in Japan.”

Reading through it, I found myself nodding my head to each point the writer made. I did in fact have different experiences. I did in fact, realize I was being treated differently than my peers. It’s a sad reality, but it’s something I have to live with nonetheless. While I may be doing fine in the process of making friends, I see now that it’s harder to initiate friendships with Japanese students just because I look Asian. Being another ethnicity other than Asian automatically grants you an ice breaker. A conversation starter. A certain, mysterious allure. If I was a Disney star who wanted to start a brand of perfumes to sell here, I could name it “NOT ASIAN” a scent by Brendan Ha. 

I’m not complaining. Let’s get that clear. However, you notice these things and you can’t help but to interrogate them. It’s an interesting part of the adventure of studying abroad. You get to situate yourself in a broader context and by doing so, you get to understand who you are as a person. While I may look outwardly Korean, having been born and raised in British Columbia, I have a stronger sense of being Canadian.

And I’m proud to be who I am.

06. SHARAPOVA AND THE TERRACE

You never realize how unique your own university is until you go to another campus.IMG_1552

Sophia University’s campus, although quaint is nothing in comparison to stretching roads and looming architecture of UBC and while we may complain about the fountains the shoddy signs and the seemingly never-ending era of construction, after seeing another campus, you realize just how beautiful your campus or at least, how much you’ve become accustomed to your home university. Sophia is by no means ugly, no. The place is clean and welcoming straight from the main gates. With a mixture of modern and traditional architecture and rows of trees to draw you inside, Sophia has a charm that it can be proud of among the busy streets of Tokyo.

However, with a slight exaggeration I have to admit, I can say that I can see the other end of the campus from the other. Of course, there are blessings to be found in that. No more are the tiring days where walking or sprinting from class was enough to call my daily workout. Also, there are downsides. No more are the days where moving between classes was enough to call my daily workout. I’ll have to find some other way to exercise. Eventually. Maybe. In my dreams.

IMG_1549When I’m “tired and sweaty” from my leisurely strolls between periods, there is an absolutely lovely place in Sophia I can relax in. On top of Building No 2. and connected to the cafeteria, is a terrace. Although usually busy during the allotted lunch time (12:30-1:00), if you move up there during any other time, you can usually find a seat to study, eat and bask in the sunlight. From there, the streets in Yotsuya stretch before you parallel to the hopefully blue sky above. It’s a beautiful place and if you do go on exchange here, make sure to come here at least once.

But, I do miss UBC. The more I think about it, the more I realize the truth of UBC’s moniker as a “city within a city.” It truly is and while Sophia may not be a city or even a small hamlet, it has the atmosphere of a secluded district. Except this district is filled with students. Did I mention how many pretty people are here? It’s too much for me. I can’t. Everyone’s beautiful and sparkling. Save me. SEND H E L P.

Sophia is teeming with student life and although it may not seem like it at first glance, activity is boundless. Student clubs (or circles, as the Japanese call them) run events constantly and books and trinkets are sold near one of the sitting areas. A truck filled with boxed lunches parks here everyday (I believe) to appease the hungry horde and the sports grounds are bustling with the Sharapova-shouts. Sophia has a culture just like UBC. Likewise, UBC has a culture of its own. I think it’s somewhat unfair to compare the two, to be honest and I think, in order to fully appreciate your host school, you need to embrace their differences, embrace their similarities and find comfort in that interesting, fantastic dissonance.

 

05. PARACHUTES

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8B-treTvwqQ
A string of short videos I’ve taken during my stay thus far.

Being in Japan for around a month now, I’m beginning to find my way! While the roads here may be narrow and curvy, I’m building a sense of belonging and each day feels more natural and more comfortable. Like the many stray cats that sneak around the streets of Japan, I’m starting to call these neighbourhoods “my neighbourhoods.” They’re my streets. Back off unless you’re a part of my gang—which reminds me, when I was walking by a river with some friends, they joked about how many bodies the Yakuza have probably dumped into it. To be honest, I’m not sure if they were punchlines or more… statistical facts.

Waterlogged bodies aside, I had Sophia University’s orientation. While most of the day consisted of speeches from certain department heads and advisors, it was the first I saw the other international students. It felt odd. To be called an “international student” was almost alarming, if not unnatural. For the longest time, I had the privilege of being a native to my own campuses, my own schools, but this time I was the outsider knocking on the gates. At the same time, being called an “international student” was enthralling. Finally, I had the privilege of experiencing an exchange student’s university life. It’s a little nerve-wracking, a little scary sure, but the goosebumps that pepper my skin remind me that I’m diving in headfirst with no parachute. I’m ready to experience a year at Sophia to the fullest and as cliched as that may be, there really is no other way to express that seemingly hedonistic desire.

The tour that followed our orientation introduced us to our supporter students: students from Sophia who have volunteered to help us throughout the course of the year. From there, we also became more friendly with the students assigned to our groups. It was the first stage in building relationships on campus. Since everyone came abroad, everyone had that particular common thread strung between each other so it was easier to make friends, to ask questions and to realize that I’m not alone in my experiences here. Two days later, we had a welcome party that featured more speeches and orientations. However this time they had food. Tenouttaten, five stars, best picture, game of the year, nobel prizes—all of them. It is amazing how much a social event can improve when there are trays of freshly-sliced sushi, succulent fruits and jam-packed dumplings greeting you by the door. Afterwards, we had another gathering at an Izakaya (Japanese drinking establishment) of sorts, headed by the students who ran the clubs responsible for cultural exchanges between students.

My university life is juuust around the corner and having already made so many connections, I’m ready to jump in. This time with a parachute.

04. HELLO ICHIKAWA

IMG_1388

The humble beginnings of my apartment.

Dedicating this post to Jerry because he kicked my butt into writing this belated post.

To be honest, I’ve been busy!

Moving to another city and relying on yourself  (and thinning wallet) to survive and create a normal living situation is more difficult than you think. Especially if you’re trying to get over a bout of homesickness—which I did! And settling into my apartment really did the trick. It was my own space: a place I could call home.

By building a home away from home I was able to overcome homesickness; I didn’t just construct a house over it like a haunted mansion above an old Native American burial ground. I excavated it, demolished it, kicked it away and I did it by following three tips.

1. DO NOT SKYPE YOUR FAMILY EVERY DAY.
Do it once a week if you want to keep a consistent personal contact. Distance yourself. Mute their voices. Forget their faces… Well, maybe not to that degree, but by slowly separating yourself from them, you’ll do yourself a big favor. You’re on exchange after all! You’re here to challenge yourself, to learn how to live independently and to explore your own limits. Make it an experience filled with stumbling and learning.

2. SET UP A ROUTINE
Get into a rhythm of doing things. Create a routine even if it’s filled with mundane tasks such as washing the dishes or folding laundry. Those chores will seem like nothing if you accompany yourself with music. Lately, I’ve been listening to the Guardians of the Galaxy soundtrack, the company of Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrell helping the time just fly by. A routine allows you to settle in easier because it creates a sense of familiarity to your every day life. Having and feeling stability in your life is something you will appreciate two-fold when you’re finding your way in a foreign country.

3. STAY COMFORTABLE
Don’t be afraid to say no to things you don’t want to do. Sure, you should test your limits like I’ve said before. Sure, you should face fears and make adventurous forays. But, if there are anxieties or fears that you have, make sure you work to resolve them. Those worries don’t exclude financial scares, as well. Make sure you feel comfortable in every way possible. Not only does this combat homesickness by keeping your wits about you, it also lays a foundation for you to enjoy yourself. If you’re occupied with troubled thoughts, then how can you really embrace your experience experience?

That’s how I overcame homesickness. Hopefully, you will be able too as well if you go abroad!
I’m going to sign off now and eat. At 4:37AM.
Please don’t judge me.

03. BYE-BYE SIBAYAMA-MACHI

BBLASJRAS

A shot taken nearby my friend’s house in Sibayama.

I’m gonna miss Sibayama’s lush green fields. I’m gonna miss the frantic chirping of summer cicadas. I’m gonna miss seeing the occasional flattened corpse of a snake, the seductively pointed legs of the spiders that invaded my room and the occasional rumblings of an airplane reminding me how far away I am from home.

Tomorrow, I’ll be saying sayonara to the countryside and moving a bit closer to Tokyo to a place called Ichikawa. It’s the thought of “moving” again that’s bringing back that crippling homesickness. I’ve skyped my family a couple of times, but it’s not the same. It’s a bit heartbreaking too when your dog can’t recognize your voice or your face through a screen (or maybe he did and he’s just foolin’). But, school hasn’t started yet nor has this exchange experience, really. I heard from a friend of mine who just completed her Go Global program in Hong Kong that the beginning and the end were the times where she was most homesick. I just gotta get to the middle of that delicious exchange sandwich after struggling with those dry, crusted slabs of whole grain. Don’t get me wrong, I love the bread on sandwiches, but seriously, no one eats a sandwich for the bread.

With the idea of heading into an apartment, the worries start to pile on. Money. Food. Space. Money. Laundry. Commuting. Transit. Money. Money. Money. Japan’s an expensive place to live in, but there’s ways to cut corners, to make sure you pay the bills and to be cheap-cheap-cheap. I for one, plan on heading to a Supermarket late at night where they markdown everything in an attempt to sell the last of their stock. 19yen udon noodles. Cheap frozen vegetables. I’m already salivating over savings.

While school hasn’t started yet (and it won’t until September 22nd), I hope I get used to the hustle and bustle of things before it does. My friends back home are already getting ready. Seeing people leading Jumpstart and or posting pictures of their return to UBC’s campus have bitten me with the vengeful venom (perhaps from a run-over snake) of homesickness. Though, I guess, you always carry a little bit of home around with you where ever you go. I just need to build my foundation. Build my house.

02. ARRIVAL

Originally published on August 16th.

Thankfully, I arrived safely.INAKAS
As soon as I got my baggage, I immediately took a shower in the basement floor of Narita’s Terminal 2 building for around $10.
Even though it was a bit pricey, there’s something priceless about the violent, skull-crushing pressure of a hot shower after being on a plane for ten hours.

CATSFor the time-being, I’m living with a friend in the countryside. The countryside might seem boring, but there are moments like the one captured on the left that you can’t really find anywhere else. They’re stray cats. Country stray cats. Superior to their city-counterparts.

But by bus and train, you can go far. To a Pachinko Parlor. Although, my friend and I didn’t try our luck with those notorious silver-balls. Instead, he tried the slots while I watched. While the slots might not be the most… appealing part of Japan, it was still a place I wanted to experience at least once.

When you enter, you’re bombarded with the sounds of coins smashing into metal trays, the coarse coughs of smoking grandpas, and the slapping of flashing buttons. When you leave, you’re lucky if you can hear your own voice. The blinking machines and the animated scenes that accompany them are colourful and extremely vibrant (probably because if you wanna make a profit, you gotta invest the time and if you invest the time, you’ll probably fall asleep if it weren’t for them and the dramatic voice acting).

By the way, my friend did make a profit. Turned $10 into around $110. We made it rain—quite literally since we were flushed with a sudden downpour afterwards.

SO, using that dirty money, we went to a conveyor belt sushi place for lunch.

You gotta lift the plate in order for the plastic cover to pop-up. Also, at the end of the video, you’ll see some orange plates passing by. Those are for orders you have specifically chosen using a touch-screen before you. On the touch-screen, advertisements flood the screen like screensavers and at times, animated cartoons replace the menu. These cartoons offer you a chance to win some capsule toys. That is, if you get the good endings.

The food was great, although I’m not sure if it was because I was extremely hungry. My favorite had to be the tuna with uncooked-yolk (seen first in the video above). Slid down the throat reaaaal nice. Thinking about it has made me hungry for more, but I’ll contain the beast for now.

Tomorrow’s apparently steak night, after all.