Saturday, October 30, 2010

ANZENCHITAI Singapore 2010 Concert: Blast from the Past

I realised I have been far from prolific in blogging this month, which I think was a result of a combination of blog fatigue, lack of inspiration, and ever diminishing material to write (did I mention I need to visit Japan again!?). Since memories of my Japanese experiences have faded somewhat, it means ever more research to back up what I have to say (write). Better to blog "fresh from the oven", wouldn't you agree? In addition, I have been in a more "Korean" mood this past month, listening to K-pop blasting from my newly bought Creative D5 speakers and becoming fixated with absolutely awesome K-dramas (Sungkyunkwan Scandal, Baker King etc) online. Maybe I should start an alternative page for my twin persona, "Memoirs of a Fat Gisaeng" for postings on Korean related stuff. Ha!

Anyway, the bright Japanese spark this month was that my sister-in-law got her hands on two free tickets to the Singapore ANZENCHITAI (安全地带) ("Safety Zone" in English) concert. Since Samurai T is not a concert person (he actually turned down going to the Retrolicious Concert, that stick-in-the-mud!), I happily attended the concert with my sister-in-law at the Singapore Indoor Stadium last Sunday. 

An ANZENCHITAI fan for every concert goer. The stadium was pretty filled up as you can see!

I have to first clarify that before being invited to this concert that I knew NOTHING about ANZENCHITAI. I am ashamed to admit that I am not very familiar with the J-Pop scene in general, other than the existence of SMAP and Chage and Aska. I went along because I was curious and it was FREE, for goodness sake. But doing what I always do best, I went to Wikipedia and found out that they are a rock band formed in 1973 (Good gracious, before I was born!!!) hailing from Hokkaido. They had several great hits in the 1980s and 1990s apparently. Then they went on a hiatus and announced their return to the music scene in the beginning of 2010, and hence the Singapore concert!

After reading the information, I was only semi-enthusiastic. First, I was not really interested in rock music. Second, these were not hot Japanese studs but has-beens (or so I thought) in their 50s. But I thought I could practice my Japanese by immersing myself in a Japanese environment (AS IF I could catch what they were singing - ha!).

Start of the concert with flashing laser lights. Sorry about photo quality. No DSLR.

But I was pleasantly surprised. More than pleasantly surprised. Although the rock songs in the first segment of the concert did not really rock my boat, I appreciated the high energy of the band and the extremely solid vocals of lead singer, Koji Tamaki. In fact, the band went on for 2 hours without any discernible breaks, unlikely most pop stars (East or West) nowadays, for stage or costume changes. They were remarkable, and the quality of the performances were maintained throughout. I had in particular been impressed by Tamaki. Coming from a singing background, I understood how difficult it was to go on singing at top form for 2 hours, and he was the only vocalist! He has a great pair of powerful lungs, that Tamaki, as only a seasoned singer could have.

Serenading us during the second segment of the concert

Then came the second segment where the band slowed things down, sat in a line at the front stage and serenaded the audience with their best hits, and I was completely FLOORED. At that point in time I was converted into a fan, and swore to download their songs the minute I got home. And I knew why Hong Kong stars like Jacky Cheung and Leon Lai actually remade their songs. They were freaking fabulous. Coupled with Tamaki's soulful voice, both my sister-in-law and I were captivated. They belted songs like "Friends", "Red Wine no Kokoro", and "Yume no Tsuzuki".

By the time it came to the third set, the audience, mainly in their 30s and above, were on their feet, including yours truly. When they ended the night with their greatest hit, "Kanashimi ni Sayonara", everyone was singing along (whether they know the lyrics or not is another matter) and waving their hands in the air. Although I did not know the lyrics I was humming along as well (yes, the song was THAT catchy), and squealing like a fangirl. When they left the stage, a member of the audience shouted "Mo Ichido!!" which meant "Again!". That word I understood and totally agreed.

Freaking marvellous.

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Kor-Panese or Ja-rean? When You Watch Too Much K-Dramas and Learn Japanese at the Same Time

I am very pleased to announce that I have finally completed my Basic Level 1-1 at the Ikoma Language School, and am moving on to my Basic Level 1-2. To my utmost dismay though, it is getting more difficult as we start to learn Japanese verbs and tenses. I was always under the assumption that there were no tenses to the Japanese language, that it would just be like Chinese. Sigh, I was so wrong. SO.WRONG.

Besides having to struggle through tenses and particles now, I have made myself even more confused, linguistically, by the disgusting number of hours I spend watching Korean dramas each week. It is most unfortunate that there are not that many, in my opinion anyway, engaging Japanese dramas on the market. A couple of the recent ones that made it to my "interesting" list was due to the mere presence of Takuya Kimura (e.g. Moon Lovers) although in all honesty they were quite sucky. I had more luck on the anime front with "Itazura Na Kiss" and "Fruits Basket" but with so many animes floating around the market, it is difficult to identify the good ones unless they come strongly recommended by friends. Nevertheless these are like a drop in the ocean compared to the vast number of Korean dramas that have been hogging my prime time viewing.

Which brings me to the main point of this blog: that I am starting to mix up whatever Korean vocabulary I have picked up over the course of drama-viewing with the Japanese stuff I have learnt in school. As both Japanese and Korean have a lot of similarities with Chinese, due to their closely linked histories, I have depended much on my prior Chinese knowledge to pick up Japanese and Korean. And I have come to realise, that although the Japanese language uses a lot of KANJI (Chinese characters) which makes it a hell lot easier for us to comprehend the meaning especially as we navigate around Japan, they sound almost nothing like their Chinese counterparts. Conversely, there are many Korean words that sound similar to Chinese, almost like a Chinese dialect sometimes, which makes it easier to pick up speech as it sticks to my mind faster.

Take for example the word "Friends". In Korean, it is a simple "Chin-gu" and in Japanese which I have just learnt in the previous class is "Tomodachi". 4 syllables to describe a very important and commonly used word? Best of all, it sounds nothing like the written Kanji (which is only 2 characters), which creates even more confusion. For goodness sake, I am no longer a spring chicken and much as I try to convince myself otherwise, my brain has slowed down considerably since I was in university (which was eons ago).

So now, on some days, I find myself in funny situations when I want to express a feeling in Japanese (or Korean), and I had to pause for a moment and think if the word I was thinking was actually Japanese or Korean. For example, I wanted to exclaim to a friend, "REALLY? Are you serious?" which is "Hontoni?" in Japanese and "Chin-cha?" in Korean, and my mind was tongue-tied. I will not be surprised if one day I started speaking in sentences comprising both languages, which shouldn't be a strange occurence to Singaporeans since we are used to mixing English and Chinese in our daily speech. Since I have also learnt German for 4 years sometime back, I also sometimes speak to Samurai T in a combination of (broken) English, Chinese and German. Indeed I am a "Jane of all languages and mistress of none."

Somewhere down the road then, I should look forward to speaking in English, Chinese, German, Japanese and Korean in one sentence. But for now....

Konnichiwa and Kamsahamida

Monday, October 18, 2010

Kyoto See: The Path Of Philosophy - A Poetic Walking Trail

Actually this should be "Kyoto Do" instead of "Kyoto See" but I don't want to create another label. The title is also not completely wrong either since there are a lot of things to see along the 2 (Yes, TWO!!) kilometre walking trail. Ok, I don't know why I am nitpicking with myself. Out of sheer boredom I guess. When you start squabbling with yourself on the blog, it may be time to call the mental institution, or go for another Japanese holiday. Yes I need to go for another holiday to JAPAN!

The Start of the Path of Philosophy

Take a Kyoto city bus from wherever you are to the Ginkakuji (Silver Pavilion) or Nanzenji Temple and start walking down the narrow stone path from either end.

The Path of Philosophy, or "Philosopher's Path" is a very pleasant walking trail alongside a scenic canal (or what we Singaporeans would call a "Lonkang" - big drain) with lots of flourishing fauna and flora. Apparently, there are hundreds of cherry trees lining the trail and during cherry blossom season in April, the place will be even more gorgeous with an explosion of pink. It was a pity then we visited during autumn; nevertheless there were sufficient maple trees in the surrounds and other colourful plants to provide a visual feast for our eyes during our morning stroll.

The Fat Geisha becomes philosophical (or tries to...)

Since there are so many sights and attractions in Kyoto jostling for one's attention, it is quite easy to overlook the Path of Philosophy unless you are intending to visit second tier attractions like Ginkakuji and Nanzenji Temple. Since I am the "kiasu" kind of person and wanted to do and see as many things as possible even if it killed me (us), upon the strong recommendation of my sister-in-law, I dragged the Samurai on our last day in Kyoto to walk down the fabled path.

We started off at a leisurely pace from the Ginkakuji end in the north (no choice but to walk leisurely since our legs were killing us). Fortunately for us, Ginkakuji was undergoing some restoration works so we did not visit the site. I wasn't that keen to visit in the first place, because unlike Kinkakuji (The Golden Pavilion) which is truly covered in gold, the silver counterpart is NOT covered in silver. It was so named because the original builders had the INTENTION to make it silver, or something to that effect.

The walk was indeed serene and beautiful. The soft gurgle of water from the canal beside us, the cool autumn breeze, the flourishing fauna, the chirping birds lulled us into a deep sense of contentment. Along the way, there were also many interesting restaurants, tea houses, and private homes to attract our interest. There was even a street artist with his cat from whom we bought a sketch of the canal for 1,000 yen. It was a great way to recharge without expending too much energy.

How picturesque - like a painting

The cute garden of a private home along the path

The sun hitting the water amidst the maple leaves - one of my fave pics of the trip

The street artist and his loyal cat

The entire stroll took us about 1 hour. It would have been longer if we had stopped at any one of the quaint tea houses along the route, which we did not have the time for. We did enter into the Nanzenji grounds at the southern end of the route, which was a fairly prominent Zen temple with very beautiful grounds and an imposing brick aqueduct on its premises.

My verdict? If you have at least 4 days in Kyoto, do make time to walk down the Path of Philosophy (preferably in the morning). You may not turn philosophical, but you will certainly be refreshed. What you encounter during your stroll may also surprise you.

Monday, October 11, 2010

Tokyo See: Yasukuni Shrine - Where Controversies Abound

I have another confession to make: we have not been to Akihabara Electric Town yet. Samurai T belongs to the Pre-Technology Stone Age Era,  and while I love to own the latest tech toys out of sheer vanity and/or curiosity, do not have a single tech bone in my body. But yes, I have promised myself that I will visit Akihabara when we next visit Tokyo (whenever that may be), and come hell or high water, I will drag the Samurai (kicking and screaming if need be) along with me. I am most keen to visit a Maid Cafe.

So, instead of Akihabara which usually ranks as one of the top attractions in Tokyo, we have been to less touristy places like Yasukuni Shrine, no thanks to the history-mad Samurai, but I am also guilty lah - I love history and international relations subjects.  Chosen by the Meiji emperor to commemorate the war dead starting from the Boshin War in 1867, Yasukuni Shrine is a political hot potato come every World War II anniversary for having enshrined Class A war criminals within its premises. Added to that, the shrine operates a military museum, the Yushukan, which presents a revisionist interpretation of history where Japan is seen as an Asian liberator and highlights "heroic" war stories like the kamikaze pilots.

Yasukuni Shrine is easily accessible via the Tokyo Metro Subway. Take the Tozai or Hanzomon Line to Kudanshita Station and it is a painless 5-10 minute walk to the shrine.

The eager Samurai pointing the way to Yasukuni at the Kudanshita Station

Surprisingly, for a city based shrine, Yasukuni Shrine has sprawling grounds - which also means more walking. From the entrance of the shrine where a massive Torii stands guard, we had to walk a fair distance to the main building. And unfortunately for me, it was a hot summer day.

 At the entrance of Yasukuni Shrine

One of the biggest and tallest Torii I have ever come across in Japan. Also note the clear blue sky.

While for most people the major focus of the shrine is the presence of the WWII war dead, there are actually a lot of monuments on the grounds commemorating the Japanese soldiers from multiple wars stretching back to the 19th century.

According to the Samurai, this is dedicated to the war dead from the Japanese expedition to Siberia.

The "national" nature of the shrine could be seen by the large number of the imperial Chrysanthemum crests adorning the architecture of the shrine. It also did not escape us that there were hardly any tourists around, as opposed to Meiji Jingu Shrine. The locals, mostly old and middle-aged Japanese, looked to be paying respects to relatives. Some were taking their dogs for a stroll around the grounds. As we neared the main shrine, I saw military men standing guard where people offered their prayers. (We have visited multiple shrines in the country but never encountered any guards.) I tried to peek into the prayer hall to see if I could see the tablets of the controversial war criminals to no avail. I also attempted to take a picture of the interior of the shrine, and was shouted at by the military guard. Uh-oh. They were obviously very sensitive around here.

A chrysanthemum crest on the wooden door

The main shrine building. Did you see a guard?

I was shouted at for taking this photo!! Thankfully my camera wasn't confiscated.

Well, since we were not allowed to take photos near the main shrine, and I certainly wasn't going to pay my respects to the WWII criminals (not keen to be struck by lightning by my own ancestors), we made our way to another part of the shrine where the military museum was located. It was actually a fairly modern looking building, with an adjourning nice little park peppered with lots of bronze statues. 

Dedicated to military dogs. How cool is that!!!

On the first level of the museum (free admission) which had a modern glass facade, we immediately saw the highlight display which was a Zero Fighter aircraft used by the kamikaze pilots from WWII. Having read so much about the Zero Fighters during history lessons, it was awesome to come face to face with the real thing. The ground floor exhibits also included a section of a steam locomotive and actual cannons with battle scars. There was also a gift shop at the corner which sells mostly nationalist and imperial military knick-knacks which were most interesting to look at, and would be a great addition for collectors of war memorabilia. To access the second floor where there are more war artefacts and weaponry, a 800 yen admission is required. Being cheapsakes, we decided to forego exploring that part of the museum.

The remarkable Zero Fighter with the Japanese Sun under its wings 

A severely "wounded" cannon

Although I am well aware of the atrocities committed by the Japanese against the various conquered Asian countries, including Singapore, I did not feel any up-swell of rage nor sadness as I walked around the shrine and museum. The Japanese themselves have also paid the price with the 2 atomic bombs, and the citizens then were also the victims of an ambitious and militarized government. Obviously I did not live through the horrific war to colour my feelings, but one thing I do understand is that war is cruel and as part of the global community we should all do our part to prevent such large scale massacres from ever happening again. 

The shrine and the museum are reminders that there remains pockets of hawks and imperialists in Japan lobbying for the resumption of Japan's military power, and in view of China's meteoric rise as a military power in the region, the governments should make doubly sure that all conflicts must be resolved in the diplomatic arena. As it is we have more than enough problems (terrorists, anyone?) to confront this day.

(Hmm, the last section sounds like something I would write on a political science paper. Haha.)

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Kamakura: Another Mystical Ancient Capital outside Tokyo

Looking back, there was something very strange about the way I planned our itinerary the two times we visited Tokyo. Within Tokyo itself, there are a gazillion things to see and do, but somehow, the Samurai and I were never overly excited by the "bright lights, big city" attractions. Probably because we have lived all our lives in a city state, although Singapore does not even have a fraction of Tokyo's metropolitan buzz, but you get my drift. Yes, we had to go to Ginza/Harajuku, visit Tsukiji Market, shop at Shinjuku and pay our respects at Meiji Shrine (NO DISNEYLAND!), but I was always more keen to explore places outside Tokyo and exhausted much of my time deciding where to make our day trips out of the city. Over both trips which totalled a miserable span of 8 days, we spent 3 days out of town - visiting Hakone, Nikko and Kamakura.

The Kamakura expedition was the MOST painless to plan. First, it was the closest to Tokyo in terms of location. From our base in Shinagawa, we took a direct train along the JR Yokosuka Line (which also goes to Yokohama) to Kamakura Station in under 50 minutes and costing us about 800+ Yen per person. Second, as it was an easy-to-navigate town, we did not have to buy any special passes or packages (like for Hakone or Nikko), and we could basically explore as we wished once we arrived. It was our cheapest day trip!

A short blurb about Kamakura for those not in the know: Kamakura was the capital of Japan when Minamoto Yoritomo became the shogun in 1192, and remained the seat of government for over a century. Sometimes known as "Kyoto of Eastern Japan", Kamakura has a lot of historical monuments, temples and shrines, and awesome views of the Pacific Ocean since it is located along the coast.

We visited Kamakura on 31 December 2008, New Year's Eve, and it was an amazing experience. The New Year is the most important holiday for the Japanese, and the locals would be rushing home to be with their families and the city becomes a ghost town. Like an apocalyptic scene from a movie, Samurai T and I were the ONLY people in the train carriage (this is Tokyo, mind you!!) that morning which led to a lot of clowning around. Kamakura, as the base of some important Shinto shrines and temples, would be receiving massive crowds come that evening, as the Japanese ushered in the New Year, and over the next few days when devotees come to pray for a good year. However, it was peaceful and quiet that particular morning.

There are many sights and attractions in Kamakura, but as usual, due to time constraints we selected a few places which we most wanted to see. Upon arrival at the Kamakura station on a cripsy and bright winter morning, we made our way on foot for about 20 minutes past the Kamakura shopping street to our first destination, the Tsurugaoka Hachimangu shinto shrine, built by the Minamoto regime and is one of the most important Shinto shrines in the country. When we got there we could see staff and volunteers busily preparing for the upcoming New Year celebrations, and the shrine all decked out in New Year decor.

At the start of the Kamakura Shopping Street

Not too sure what this is - collecting donations for the New Year?

To the main Tsurugaoka shrine

After Tsurugaoka, we made our way again on foot for another 15 minutes to the most important and oldest ZEN shrine in Kamakura, the Kenchoji Temple, built in 1253. Unlike Tsurugaoka which was bustling with activity, Kenchoji was remarkably silent and peaceful. I found the grounds very beautiful and for want of a better word, Zen-like, with lots of balding trees and rock gardens. The interior of the shrines were also surprisingly colourful and lavish.

Inside the quiet grounds of Kenchoji

The lavish and colourful temple halls of Kenchoji

After Kenchoji we finally strolled back to the Kamakura town centre for a bit of shopping, where I think we bought sweet potato soft serve which was yummy to the max and had a quick lunch before proceeding by Enoden (streetcar-like train) to The Great Buddha (Daibutsu), which is the second tallest bronze Buddha statue in all of Japan dating back to 1252. The statue was originally housed within a temple building but as a result of typhoons and earthquakes over the years, the statue is now left standing in the open, which is quite an awesome sight.

The Great Daibutsu

Our final stop of the day was the Hasedera Temple (located within walking distance of the Daibutsu) which is famous for its Kannon (Goddess of Mercy) statue and situated on top of a hill offering spectacular views of the Pacific Ocean. The temple grounds were lovely with many religious statues (some of them very cute!), koi ponds and lush foilage (even in winter). The Pacific Ocean views were also marvellous!!

I lurvvvve these cute figurines!!!

Best wishes for the New Year at Hasedera

The glorious views of the Pacific Ocean and Kamakura Town

It was a very pleasant and enjoyable day trip for the both of us, and not too tiring or stressful too. All attractions were fairly close to one another, and easy to find. I like!!!! There are still many other attractions at Kamakura like the beaches and hiking trails, which we did not have the time to see. Given the opportunity, I would like to revisit Kamakura again in the future.

Saturday, October 2, 2010

Singapore Eat: SABOTEN - Our Fave Tonkatsu Restaurant

I have to confess: I have yet broken out of my doozy hibernation, but I am forcing myself to write this post, which is wAAAy overdue in my opinion.

Samurai T and I are pretty carnivourous people; no, actually, I am omnivorous because I still love my salads, but my man, if he can get away with just eating meat (preferably fried) for the rest of his life without me threatening to divorce him, he would do so. Even as the weighing scale protests under his burgeoning weight each day, his multiple excuses range from "I have got to finish marking my scripts before the deadline", "It is raining, I cannot go running", to "I have already eaten TWO cherry tomatoes LAST week".

But I digress. I love my meats as much as he does, and one of our favourite Japanese haunts in Singapore is the quite newly opened Tonkatsu restaurant at Parco Millenia called Saboten, which is one of the largest Tonkatsu chain back in Japan (Shinjuku, Tokyo origins). Previously we had our tonkatsu fix at Tonkichi, which is really quite delicious as well. But once we went to Saboten, well, our love for Tonkichi was "saboed". (Hehe, lame I know.)

Lovely traditional lamps adorning the Saboten restaurant 

Let me start off by saying that THEY HAVE AMAZING SERVICE. It was like we were back in Japan, with the Singaporean waiting staff bowing at every serving and being so astonishingly polite, thoughtful and prompt. We have been there twice and the service had been consistent. Since I am from the service sector as well, and as a customer having been confronted with lacklustre service almost everywhere I go in this country, I must say, "Kudos, well done" to the Saboten wait staff.

Saboten's prices are also extremely affordable with the basic tonkatsu set starting at about SGD22, which includes a free flow of green tea, raw cabbage, miso soup and rice! So if you are a starving army boy, I think that it can turn out to be a very worthwhile meal. Although the rice was super delicious and fragrant, having come from the Iwate Prefecture, I could never finish it since I was busy chomping down on the raw cabbage drenched in my beloved sesame dressing.

All the delicious sauces and dressings. The white sauce is our favourite sesame salad dressing!

Sesame sauce drenched cabbage - YUMS x 10000

To an extent, the cabbage is almost the highlight of my meal, but the tonkatsu in all honesty is equally oiishi. Although fried, the tonkatsu is never oily or heavy to the palate, the pork retains its juiciness and tenderness which is absolutely amazing. Same goes to the tempura as well (if one orders a special mixed set). I especially LURVE the tenderloin tonkatsu - so crunchy on the outside, so tender on the inside - mmmmmmm.

That's my special mixed set - tenderloin pork and ebi!

And a yummy green tea ice cream for dessert!

This heavenly meal is completed with a scoop of green tea ice cream, and I am all ready to float home on a bursting stomach. All said, I am a bit worried about the business though. Parco Millenia is always like a ghost town on most days, and although in the beginning the restaurants on the uppermost floor seemed quite crowded, the crowds appeared to have dwindled quite a bit. The two times we were at Saboten, there were hardly any customers (although we had our dinner early around 5-ish and 6-ish). I really, REALLY hope they don't close down, because Saboten (as well as the other ramen restaurants) offer excellent food.

So if you like tonkatsu, go support them, please! (P.S. I am not a shareholder or in anyway related to them. I wish.)