Smart & Cheap Japan Travel

Japanese Food: Onigiri / Omusubi

August 27, 2010
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“Onigiri,” also known as “Omusubi,” is the most widespread snack in Japan. This fist-sized rice ball, which, having been industrialized, comes in somewhat disturbing triangular shapes as well, is made from white rice and wrapped in seaweed, called “Nori.” The rice could be flavored with fillings such as salt and black sesame seeds, and/or stuffed in the middle with sour or salty ingredients like salmon, pickled plums (“Umeboshi”), and “Tarako” (cod roe). The stuffing options are endless – pretty much anything goes.

Onigiri/omusubi is distinct from sushi as plain rice is used rather than special sushi rice that contains vinegar, sugar, and salt. This makes it even easier to prepare, and thus is very popular as snacks to take on picnics, to work, and even to ball games. Who would not want to munch on some rice during the 7th inning stretch, right?

To prepare this dish you will need a small bowl, thin plastic wrap, a rice spoon to scoop, a bowl full of white, round rice properly cooked (and cooled off), nori to wrap the rice, fillings of your choice, and a little bit of water and salt to taste. Take the small bowl and line it with the thin plastic wrap. The wrap should be big enough so that rice does not overflow when you make a ball out of it. Sprinkle some salt, fill the bowl with cooked rice and make a hole in the center with the help of your finger. Add your desired fillings in the hole. Bring the ends of plastic wrap together and twist them tightly so that it looks like a ball. If you succeed in making this a triangle, let me know. Take off the plastic slowly, and wrap the rice ball partially or completely with some nori.

Of course, as is almost anything else in Japan, you can find onigiri/omusubi in 24/7 convenience stores that daily stock up on them and offer a wide selection of filling types. This is an ideal budget snack when traveling in Japan.

Japan Travel Destination: Yakushima Island

August 18, 2010
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Yakushima is an island located off the south-east coast of Japan. It is officially recognized by UNESCO and is on the World Heritage List since 1993. Yakushima is an extraordinary travel destination, referred to even as a magic island, as more than seventy-five percent of the place is covered with dense forests and mountains. Mountain tops are covered with snow throughout the winters and climate is sub-tropical in the coastal regions. These mountains receive heavy rainfall, making Yakushima’s climate soggier than other parts of Japan. The word Yakushima means Medicine Island and herbologists around the world have been cultivating local herbs for various cures for a long time.

With one main road circling the island, beautiful mountains, trails, and waterfalls along the way attract a lot of hikers and nature lovers. Fruit gardens and museums are some of the main tourist attractions that make Yakushima an enchanting place. The fruit garden is at the south-west coast of the island, offering a relaxing stroll between the tropical trees and fruit plants. The museums and visitor centers in Yakushima exhibit the natural wonders of the island. They also provide a knowledge ride of the history of Yakushima Island.

This mountainous region offers a plethora of beautiful scenery. There are two waterfalls, “Okonotaki” and “Senpironotaki,” just off the main road. Spread out over the island are also beaches, the most famous among them being “Nagata-inaka-hama.” If you happen to visit the island between the months of May-August you could encounter giant sea turtles. They come to shore to lay eggs late at night (or early in the morning, depends how you look at it), between 1 am to 2 am.

Some buses run between major destinations inside the island, but renting a car in Yakushima is practically a must. It’s a long way from Tokyo and requires a ferry or flight in from Kagoshima, but well worth the trouble for those of you who are hungry for some adventure.

How to Stop a Running Train in Japan

August 14, 2010
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Japan’s train system is one of the world’s most advanced and timely, yet there is just one obstacle that stands in its way – physically. Not a day goes by in the otherwise peaceful country of Japan without an announcement of an “human accident” causing a certain route to be temporarily blocked to the disappointment of a frustrated (yet accustomed) mob of neatly dressed corporate businessmen and women. “Human accident” is, in fact, a subtle way of saying that someone deeply depressed, stressed out, disgraced, in serious debt, or all of the above has thrown him/herself onto the tracks as a train was approaching. I’ll let you picture the result.

Suicide bombings are a common phenomenon these days in our war-torn world. Life in the affluent Japanese society is quite detached from the bloody conflicts in Chechnya, Iraq, India, and elsewhere, news of suicide bombings being viewed as alien events or something that prevails only in virtual computer games. Suicide, however, is not a foreign concept in Japan at all. It is a long standing cultural act that has been practiced to save an individual or family’s fame. Suicidal act in Japan is unique as it has often been accompanied by meanings of vindication and valiance. Japan at times even promoted suicide, in order to implant the vocabulary as a way of saving fame and to prevent probability of rebellion against the government.

The Japanese have attempted (and “succeeded” in) peculiar forms of suicide throughout history. The “Hara-kiri,” an act of cutting oneself open with a sword or knife, was once the privilege of Samurai warriors, performed in order to protect themselves from being killed by executioners. Another form of suicide called “Shinjuu,” would be committed by lovers to romantically end their lives. Military suicide, commonly known as “Kamikaze,” was prevalent during Japan’s imperial years, when warriors and soldiers would sacrifice their lives for the sake of victory and glory.

As per studies conducted by Japanese national police, the numbers of suicide cases in the year 2000 were 24 per 100,000 people, rising to 27 in the year 2003. The high suicide rates in Japan became the subject of debate, especially during times of economic recession and dearth in the social welfare system. Only in recent years has the government allotted billions of Yen to curb the suicide rate, and the numbers have been improving.

It is often questioned whether the acts of Kamikaze and Hara-kiri should be considered as suicide, as they are claimed to have been obligatory deaths due to overly strict social norms and harsh circumstances. The same perhaps could be said for the present situation in Japan, where certain actions remain unpardonable in any other way and the stress of everyday life could be overbearing. At least the Japanese know how to accept responsibility for their actions – that’s more than what could be said about politicians, CEO’s of large corporations, and people in general elsewhere.

Japan’s New Old Society

August 11, 2010
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We all hope to spend our retirement years living a peaceful and content life with our family, traveling places and enjoying everything we’ve been missing while staring at glaring computer monitors, monotonously typing and filing away our best years at the desks of our puny cubicles.

In Japanese culture, much respect is given to the elderly. Japan’s astonishingly high aging rate and life expectancy, however, is making it more and more difficult to sustain this social norm. In this country, the average life expectancy for women is 86 and 79 for men. With an estimated population of about 127 million people, more than 20% are above 65 years of age, and surprisingly only 14% are under the age of 15 years.

The first question that pops into mind is: What are they eating? Their healthy lifestyle (or just good genes), however, poses problems that require more than just short term solutions. There are more and more elderly people on the waiting list to the facilities, medical care, and nursing they are entitled to. There are more and more retirees that have to take care of their own parents, rather than being taken care of themselves. Their problems highlight the lack of government run medical and elderly daycare center facilities in Japan – a crisis brought on by the increasingly aging society and the apparent inability of the government to cope with the growing demand, or with any strategic issues in Japan in general for that matter. It has been a while since a Japanese prime minister succeeded in staying in office for a full term.

The present scenario has left people concerned about the economic and social consequences like increasing pension and health care expenses, reduced savings and investment rates and decline in workforce. All these factors have resulted in a new debate on immigration policies in Japan, as well as newly designed incentives for Japanese families to bring more children into the world. Japan must now redesign current structures to meet the challenges of the new, old society. The upside is that it should get easier to acquire a work visa…

Tokyo Disneyland

August 6, 2010
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The magical world of Disneyland fascinates many all over the world, from young to old. The Disney brand has become such a global success that Donald Duck’s fame exceeds that of Barack Obama. Well, certainly that of Donald Trump. Disneyland is even expected to open in Shanghai in 2014. Hong Kong has already opened its doors to Mickey Mouse in 2005, while Tokyo’s Disneyland Resort has been around since 1983.

If you’re in Japan and interested in immersing yourself in all the magic and fantasy, the Disneyland in Tokyo, which expanded in 2001 to include DisneySea, is still a tough competitor to even the newer parks out there like in Hong Kong. Divided into 7 parts – Mickey’s Town, Critter Country, World Bazaar, Tomorrow Land, Adventure Land and Fantasy Land – it is a miraculous world where people feel young at heart and engross in fantasy. Numerous roller-coaster rides, and various other attractions, including a glamorous night parade, are there to keep any family, couple, or group of friends fully entertained at all times. You’ll be greeted at the entrance by the “World Bazaar,” the reminiscent of older American towns. Here you will discover shops, restaurants, and outlets selling souvenirs that entice vacationers who want something to remember their Disney holiday by. Oh, and do not worry about the dining options. After all, this is Japan we are talking about. Tokyo Disneyland has a wide assortment of restaurants and food stands on offer.

In general, all Disney theme parks present similar themes and attractions, and Tokyo Disneyland is no exception. You’ll get to meet mighty icons of Disney, such as Donald Duck, Captain Hook, Snow White, Peter Pan and Goofy, while going through not-so-scary haunted houses and riding slightly toned-down roller-coasters. Yet, there is a Japanese twist to all of it that to feel you just have to be there. Just remember: Never visit Tokyo Disneyland on Japanese holidays or on weekends, unless you happen to be writing a PhD thesis on the mathematical models of queue lines that run to infinity.

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    Born in Tokyo. Lived, worked, and traveled in Japan for over a decade combined. Author of the book, "All-You-Can Japan: Getting the Most Bang for Your Yen" -

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