Thursday, July 29, 2010

Vending Nation

The Japanese will never die of thirst (or hunger).

One of the things you will notice is the INCREDIBLE number of vending machines in the country, even in older, smaller towns. I do not have actual statistics but it is known that Japan has the MOST vending machines per capita in the WORLD. They are always brightly lit up and stocked with a colourful array of all types of drinks imaginable, beer, flavoured water, coffee, milk tea, soft drinks etc. Not your usual Coca-Cola and Sprite, mind you, but products from major Japanese beverage makers like Suntory and Kirin.

Prices are not too high; on average it is anything from 100 yen to 150 yen (Tokyo vending machines are generally pricier). Samurai T and I absolutely love to buy different drinks to try, particularly those that we cannot find back home. I especially lurve the milk teas - they are super delicious. There are some misses as well - some of the roasted green tea drinks are so bitter they choke you, but I can never fault their packaging - always look so nice and appetizing (regardless of actual content).

Besides drinks, we see vending machines for cup noodles and even ICE CREAM (see pic above). We have tried the ice cream, and they tasted quite yummy. Apparently there are also vending machines for stuff like underwear, but I haven't seen any yet. We did encounter vending machines for buying entrance tickets to tourist sites (Osaka Castle), which was quite interesting to me. You can also order meals in a restaurant (normally the low end ones) via the vending machine - press and pay for your order at the machine located at the entrance, take the ticket stub to the counter and collect your food. Problem was, the first time we patronised such an establishment, all the labels were in Japanese. We needed a Caucasian man (tourist or student??) to come up and helpfully teach us how to utilise the machine. How embarressing. But the food was not too bad, and cheap of course, starting from 500 yen upwards.

Japanese vending culture is cool!

Haneda Vs Narita

All due to a bunch of "happy" friends who are going on a long trip to Japan end of this year that I got to know that Singapore Airlines now have direct flights to Haneda Airport, which used to be solely a domestic airport. I have always landed at Narita, and out of curiousity I went to check out more on Haneda. Damn it, it is MUCH nearer to Tokyo than Narita!

Ever since my "first" experience at Narita, my not-so-good impressions never changed much despite passing through the airport a couple of times (Ok now passing through customs is much faster than in 1992). Frankly, for a country so advanced and wonderful, Japan's airports seem totally out of place and even backward (I will discuss about Kansai International Airport another day), there is ZERO buzz that we have come to associate with international airports around the world. I just read recently in the news that Incheon Airport of South Korea has in effect become the de facto airport hub for Japan, which is really laughable. Finally the Jap authorities are waking up and trying to bring their airports up to mark, starting with the transformation of Haneda, which is the biggest in terms of passenger traffic.

Based on my preliminary research, Haneda is only 15-30 minutes away from Tokyo (oh man, so near) and hence obviously one can save tons of money on transport as opposed to coming in from Narita. To Tokyo Station, it supposedly costs 620 yen (SGD10) by train, and 900 yen (SGD14) by limousine bus. Now compare this to trips from Narita: a one way NeX (Narita Express) ride costs 2900 yen (SGD46) and 3000 yen (SGD48)on an airport limousine bus (but the bus brings you right to the hotel doorstep). A trip from Narita to downtown Tokyo is also at least one and a half hours - that's an hour of missed shopping. Ha! I am so landing at Haneda next time.

However, since my experience is at Narita, and for the few poor souls who are still landing there, here are some tips. I ALWAYS choose to take the Airport Limousine bus simply because they deliver me right to the hotel doorstep (but please do check in advance that they go to your hotel - but they cover most hotels). Trust me, you do not want to lug your heavy lugguage up and down the train stations, absolutely not the way to start a holiday. Unlike in some countries, not much time is saved if you take the train. And, most important of all, if you are staying in Tokyo for a few days, there is an Airport Limousine package that allows you to save some money. If you buy a one-way ride, add another 100 yen (total: 3100 yen) and you can get an ALL-DAY Tokyo Metro Pass worth 610 yen. You can maximise the ticket by travelling all over Tokyo on the subway and save much. Best, if you are only staying in Tokyo, purchase your return ride on Airport Limousine in advance (total: 6000) and get a FREE TWO-DAY Tokyo Metro Pass! This is not advertised on the website, but we found out on the most recent trip to Tokyo when we purchased the tickets at the counter. You can find more information here:

Whether or not you exit by the North Wing or South Wing, you can see the Airport Limousine counter right in front past baggage clearance. Japan is also a very punctual nation to the MINUTE, so make sure you know when the bus is arriving and departing. The rides to each destination are normally on an hourly basis.

The freebies do not seem to extend to Haneda Airport, possibly because the fares are so much cheaper, but I guess we need something special for us to get off at Narita from now onwards :).
On a last note: I did not mention travel to town by taxis because unless you are a millionaire many times over - do not bother.

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Why I Love Japan

Ohayu Gozaimasu!

I love travelling so much it is almost an understatement. But like many others, I dreamt of travelling to far-flung places like America, Europe and even the Middle East. Asia, much less Japan, was never on the horizon. It did not help by the fact that the older generation always told me that "Japan is a ridiculously expensive place no one else can afford to go" and in school we learnt that Japan was the major villain in the Pacific Theatre of War in World War II. All those unfortunate preconceptions!

I vividly remember my first encounter with Japan. I was 17 and travelling to the US of A for the first time, and we were transiting at Narita Airport. Unfortunately Narita left a bad impression on me. First, there was no aerobridge and we had to trudge from the tarmac to the main building. And processing though customs took more than an hour (where was the famed Japanese efficiency?) and a can of drink cost about 100 or 150yen in the early 1990s which was very expensive compared to in Singapore! Thereafter I did not reacquaint with Japan for another 15 years while we visited most part of Europe and spectacular Egypt.

But Japan continues to seep into our daily consciousness. Samurai Teh and I found that we love all the second rate Japanese food in Singapore, from ramen to sashimi to sushi. I watch an increasing number of Japanese drama serials and became a fan of animated films like Howls' Moving Castle and Spirited Away. I started appreciating Asian culture as a whole and found slowly that they are just as fascinating if not more so than European ones. Samurai T was also helpful in sharing interesting historical titbits on Japan which he learnt while playing Nobunaga's Ambition (a computer game). And Tokyo is well-known as a hotbed of fashion and culture and remains one of the top must-go cities of the world.

And so at the end of 2008, we finally made our first ever trip to the Land of the Rising Sun. And we went again, and again -travelling to Tokyo, Hakone, Kamakura, Kyoto, Osaka, Nara, Kobe, Nikko within three years, and already we are planning on another trip, this time to Hokkaido. Now I am totally crazy about the country and these are the reasons why:

1) It is only a 6 and a half hours flight (max 7) from Singapore. I hate long flights (actually I hate flying - period) and with a short overnight flight and I am transported to a different world.!

2) Japan is comfortingly like home, being an Asian country but startlingly different in everything else. I do not feel like the odd one out but at the same time everything is so fresh and new to me - the people, the culture, the technology and the sights.

3) It is incredibly CLEAN. I cannot state how important cleanliness is when we are on holiday, especially when looking for clean washrooms. This country is so sanitary and even cleaner than Singapore. The level of civic consciousness is unparelled. Even their "longkangs", drains/small streams have such clear water you are likely to be able to drink from them. Whether it is in the big cities or small towns, the whole environment is so unbearably clean, and what makes it even more amazing is that there are hardly any rubbish bins in public! The Japanese keep and throw their waste at home!

4) The amazing food and the freshest of seafood. Yes, I do feel a little regretful over their whaling policy but their sashimi and sushi are TO DIE FOR. After we tasted the real thing, we could never go back to the lousy second rate food offered by many establishments here (yes, Sakae is a culprit). The ramen, the tonkatsu, the tempura, the wagyu beef - Samurai T and I get very excited about our food options everytime we visit Japan, and time is never quite enough for us to eat all that we want to eat. The food is superb whether we go to a big restaurant or a side street family owned cafe. Of course, we have dislikes as well - like sea urchin (NASTY) and natto beans (ugh x 10) which I have the misfortune to try during my most recent trip to Tokyo.

5) The natural scenery and terrain is one of the most beautiful on earth - in large part thanks to it being located in an area of plentiful sesmic activity and flanked by the Sea of Japan and the Pacific Ocean. You want soaring mountains? You've got mountains. Beautiful beaches? You have them as well. Rolling greenery? Yep. Waterfalls, rivers, gorges? Yes, yes and yes.

6) Unbeknownst to me before, Japan is also a country full of history and unique culture, and this is evident in their myriad ancient temples, shrines, castles and small town architecture. Much more than the bright lights of the big city, Samurai T and I are attracted to these wonderful historical places, many of them world heritage sites, and we can prowl them for a very long time.

7) Shopping is fantastic which goes without saying. Besides being at the very forefront of fashion, the Japanese has a penchant for a wide array of strange and colourful knick-knacks that one cannot resist in buying, whether we have use of it or not. They have everything for every budget, and I can buy cartloads of goodies from 100yen shops, bags from Samantha Thavasa, colourful accessories for my iPad from Bic Camera and lovely affordable clothes from Uniqlo.

8) And related to shopping is the to-die-for service you get in Japan. They are so polite, you know you have to reciprocate with equally good behaviour otherwise you will feel like a monster. Most of them may not speak English, but they will do all their best to help you. Regardless of where you go, in a restaurant, department store or small town shop, it is always service with a smile. And your purchases are always wrapped up beautifully!

9) Japan feels as safe as in Singapore, perhaps even more so. Yes I have read about psychos going on shooting binges in Ginza, but this is generally how I feel everytime I am in Japan. I am normally quite watchful during my overseas trips, but I generally feel relaxed in Japan, which means a lot during a holiday. I also know if we do get lost, there will be plenty of people willing to help us!!

10) Japan, contrary to old thinking, is VERY AFFORDABLE. In 1992, at Narita that can of soft drink cost 100-150 yen. Almost 2 decades later, the same can of drink cost the SAME amount. Obviously the effects of Japan's lost decade is disastrous for the people, but good for the rest of the world. Our living standards have finally caught up with the Japanese and I can spend very liberally!

There are plenty more things about what I love about Japan, but the above are my top 10 reasons. Here's one of my favourite photos of Mount Fuji in winter 2008.

What are you waiting for now? Let's go Nihon!

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Googled Fat Geisha

Out of curiosity, and the fact that I just started this blog, I googled "Fat Geisha" to see what would turn up.

Lo and behold, there is a "Fat Geisha" term in the urban dictionary (dated 2006) and the meaning is totally NOT flattering:

Fat Geisha: An imitator of something great, someone who uses others' greatness as their own; a poser, hack, imitator, cheat.

!!!!! Dear readers, I can completely assure you that I am none of the above. It was a spur of a moment term that came to me as I was updating my Facebook status on Japan-related updates, and my friends loved the name and so the name got stuck. Who knew that it had such an unsavoury meaning? Like hallo, what had the fat geishas of this world done to warrant such a term??? Tsk, tsk.

Regardless of this shocking finding, I shall continue to utilise this identity for the blog as per my original intentions. Don't discriminate us fat geishas because of that - we are truly innocent of any dissembling. (Am batting my heavily mascaraed eyelashes to gain your sympathy.)

Now I need to rest my poor heart and recover from the shock before my next post.

Hajimemashite! Watashi wa Fat Geisha des.

Hajimemashite. Watashi wa Fat Geisha des. Dozo yoroshiku!

Hallo dear readers - I am Fat Geisha, but you may have guessed that I am not really Japanese. In fact I am not a Geisha, nor am I extremely fat - just moderately so if I am being frank. But a Geisha is so old world, so romantic and glamourous no? Of course, it would have been better had I been slim and beautiful, with grace oozing out from my every pore but sometimes we really don't have a choice.

I am a bored 30-something married woman based in tropical Singapore (ugh!) but fell deeply in love with all (almost) things Japanese less than 3 years ago during my nth honeymoon in Tokyo with my dear husband, henceforth known in this blog as Samurai T. I must confess that I used to be very Western in my travel desires and now everything's changed! I have taken my fat self by surprise at the speed and depth of my new love!

I eat a lot of Japanese food - sashimi is oiishi!! Watch quite a bit of Japanese drama serials (hmmm Takuya Kimura and Matsuharu Fukuyama) and animae (Howl's Moving Castle was superb!). I also like a fiction series by a certain Ms Laura Joh Rowland on an Edo period detective known as Sano Ichiro (in English of course). And I have just started learning the Japanese language, hence my self introduction above.

Still, I have a looooooong way to go before being a true blue "Japanophile", unlike the many people I know. I have only been to Japan thrice on fairly short trips and there are still so many unexplored gems in the country. Samurai T, being a historian buff, knows 1000% more Japanese history than I do (hence he makes a good travelling companion and I get to save on tour guides - hurhur.) So in this blog I endeavor to share my past Japan adventures, and my ongoing journey to discover more about the country, its culture, food (!) and people (I would certainly love to uncover more about Takuya..... ;) ). I will also be sharing my travel experiences OUTSIDE of Japan for those not so hot on Japan (but if you are not, what are you doing here????), and other useless titbits about my Fat Geisha life.

So join me on this exciting journey of discovery!