26 April 2016

The Taishi Shotoe festival of lights

One of the things you always look for when you're travelling, is something that little bit unusual, something only the locals know about, something that isn't mentioned in every Lonely Planet or Rough Guide. I don't have anything against the big tourist destinations - they're usually popular for a reason, and of course if you're visiting somewhere for a short period of time, you want to tick the top destinations off your list. However, I'm not in Japan for a short holiday this time, but living here for an extended period, so seeking out experiences beyond the guidebook is something that I am lucky enough to have the time to do.

It was with this aim in mind that on Saturday night I found myself getting off at Kaminotaishi station, in an Osaka suburb. I had taken the train there in order to visit the Taishi Shotoe festival of lights. This is an annual festival where a number of local temples are illuminated by lanterns at night. I hadn't done a huge amount of research before travelling there, and had hoped that there would be people heading towards the festival, or some signage, pointing me in the right direction. I quickly realised this wasn't the case, as the stream of commuters walked off to their homes and I was left standing at the train station unsure which way to turn. It was still light, so I followed my gut instinct and walked directly away from the station, looking around for signs of festivity. After about 10 minutes of walking and not seeing anything, I asked a passing couple for help, in my poor Japanese, and they of course responded in perfect English that I was going the right direction, and would be able to see the temple from the road if I continued to walk straight ahead. What a relief!

At last I came upon Taishi Nagomi Park, where the festival was taking place. It was clearly a local affair and at first I felt very much like a stranger who had turned up uninvited to a village fete! However, that feeling quickly disappeared as I made my way into the throng of the festival. There was a market with hot food (including the biggest yakitori skewer I've ever eaten) and games to entertain the children. There was also a band stand in the park, where wadaiko drummers performed as the sun set.

The market gets busier as the day draws to a close

The wadaiko drumming performance begins in broad day light...

... and ends when the sun has set

Once the drumming performance was over and I had finally finished eating the biggest yakitori stick on the planet, it was time to explore the light displays. As soon as the sun went down, the festival came into its own as the many different coloured lanterns carefully arranged around the festival site burnt brightly in the dusk light. The lanterns were laid out in various patterns, from flowers to peacocks, both in the main square and around the neighbouring Eifukuji Temple and Saihoin Temple. Children wandered between the lanterns as if they were a maze, and others stood back and admired the displays from afar.

The lanterns come to life as the sun sets

The path of lights leads you to the temples

The lanterns were laid out in various patterns, such as flowers

Lights are arranged in the shape of the kanji for 'harmony'

Apparently there were over 10,000 lanterns used for the festival! The festival is dedicated to one of the articles issued by Prince Regent Shotoku (574 - 622), which states that 'harmony is to be valued'. The reason why this is celebrated here is because Eifukuji temple in Taishi is known as the site of the tomb of Prince Shotoku.

There are many matsuri (festivals) in Japan, some are local, others are nation-wide. It was a privilege to experience this local festival, which was no less impressive despite its relatively small scale. In fact, the small scale lent the festival an intimate and moving atmosphere. The other festival I have visited since arriving in Japan was the Sapporo Snow Festival, which although was vastly bigger in scale and impressive in many ways, didn't compare to the smaller taishi shotoe festival in terms of atmosphere.

It was awesome to experience these temples at night, surrounded by such beautiful light displays. The atmosphere was one of both joy and reverence. It was particularly interesting to visit temples that are used by local people, unlike the temples that attract thousands of tourists each year which, with their many signs telling you to take your shoes off and not to take photos, feel more like museums than active places of worship.

Inside the Eifukuji temple complex

Two-storey pagoda inside the Eifukuji temple complex

Saihoin temple

Sadly, as you can probably tell from the number of umbrellas in the photos, it was raining for most of the evening. However, there were lots of festival volunteers who did their best to re-light any lanterns that went out over the course of the evening, so it didn't impact on the enjoyment of the festival too much.

As summer approaches, I look forward to visiting many more Japanese matsuri! I visited the 9th Taishi Shotoe festival, which took place on 23 and 24 April 2016.

Have you ever been to a light festival? Have you discovered something or some place that isn't in the guidebooks?

24 April 2016

Sakai City: off the beaten track in Osaka

Having left Niseko, I'm now staying in Osaka for a month. Or rather I'm staying in Sakai, which is a suburb of Osaka. It's not somewhere that appears in any guidebooks, so you probably won't have heard of it, even though it is just a 10 minute train journey away from central Osaka. However, the lack of tourists is not a reflection of the historical importance of the area: I've been surprised to discover the heritage of the area, with cultural properties that are not just important for the Kansai region, but for the whole of Japan. On my first day, having arrived late the previous night, I decided to take it easy and explore the local area. Here's what I discovered on my first day.

Having looked at the local area I would be staying in on google maps, I was intrigued to see a series of odd key-hole shaped parks with lakes around them. I did a bit of research and discovered that these areas are actually ancient burial mounds surrounded by moats. These are known as kofun tombs, which were actively being built in Japan for around 400 years, from the 3rd century onwards. People of high rank, including emperors, were buried in these. The kofun are now overgrown with trees and grass, but originally would have been ornately decorated with terracotta figures called haniwa.

Japan's largest known kofun, Nintoku-ryo tumulus, is just a 5 minute walk away from the guest house I am staying at (Banana House). This seemed like a great place to start exploring the area. Now, you have to use your imagination a little bit when visiting the tumuli, because the best way to appreciate the size and shape is aerially, which sadly isn't possible unless you have a helicopter! From the ground you can walk around the outside of the moat, which for this largest kofun, is just under a 3km walk all the way around. Despite not being able to see much of the kofun, it was amazing to be near something so ancient, which is now surrounded by modern Japanese life (including a motorway on one side). Although you can't walk onto the kofun itself, there was plenty of wildlife to enjoy in the surrounding moat, including turtles!

View of the moat

Egret fishing in the moat

Turtles enjoying the sunshine

Heron in the reeds

Across the road from the kofun, there is a city park called Daisen Park. It's a pretty park for running in or picnicking in on a nice day, and it also has a few different attractions including Sakai City Museum. This is definitely worth visiting if you are taking a look at the kofun, as a large part of the museum is dedicated to explaining these ancient monuments. Entry to the museum costs just 200 JPY.

The museum staff were really welcoming and helpful and immediately gave us a selection of english language leaflets to look at as we waited for the short film at the beginning of the exhibition to start. The film gives you a brief history of the kofun and some imagery demonstrating what they would have looked like when they were first built.

Most of the museum is dedicated to archaeological artefacts from Sakai. This includes some of the haniwa sculptures that decorated the kofun, and other objects related to the local area.

Horse-shaped haniwa

Human figure haniwa

Sakai historically produced the best blades in Japan

A pair of masks on display

Other attractions in the park include a Peace Tower (pictured below), a Japanese Garden, and a Bicycle Museum. Elsewhere in Sakai there are other interesting destinations including the Old Lighthouse and the Plaza of Rikyu and Akiko (two important historical figures born in Sakai) as well as temples and shrines. Hopefully I'll get to visit these too at some point during my time here.

Peace Tower in Daisen Park

If you are visiting the Osaka area, I would definitely recommend a trip to Sakai if you are interested in ancient history and archaeology. Sakai lacks the throngs of tourists that surround more popular attractions in the area, making it somewhere you can really enjoy a relaxed day out. There are also some lovely green spaces to enjoy some time away from the city!

I've been in Sakai for a week now, and have taken day trips to some incredible places in the Kansai region. Keep an eye on Foods for Thought for more posts coming soon!

15 April 2016

NISEKO: Where to Eat

After nearly 6 months of living in Niseko-Hirafu, it is now time for me to leave. Although I'm sad to say goodbye, the time is right, as the town changes from a bustling ski resort back to the sleepy village it was when I first arrived in October. Besides, the snow has now turned to rain, and if I wanted rain, I would have stayed in England!

So in typical Foods for Thought fashion, I'm writing a post to look back on some of the meals I've had during my time here. There are so many great places to eat in the area that I could easily write a whole series of posts on my favourites. Maybe I will, when I return to work a second season here this coming winter. As I was working as a concierge this season, it's been part of my job to know where to eat, and I've been lucky enough to also dine at some restaurants through work. I've had too many delightful meals to be able to mention them all, but I've listed some of my favourites below.

This tiny izakaya in lower Hirafu was one of my favourite discoveries this year. I was particularly interested to go there as I knew they served oden, which is a Japanese dish I had never tried despite holidaying in the country a couple of times previously. Although I've eaten a lot of Japanese food, there's still plenty I haven't tried yet! The oden was wholesome and satisfying in its simplicity. I was impressed by the quality of the other dishes on the menu too, plus Ebisutei is a bit cheaper than many other restaurants in the area, which is always a plus.

A selection of sashimi

Deep fried oysters with tartare sauce

Teriyaki chicken

Oden: tofu, daikon radish and fish cake

Squid tempura

There's something really comforting about a hot pot dinner when it's cold outside! Sessa specialises in sukiyaki and shabu shabu of wagyu beef. The broth of your choice is simmered on a tabletop gas stove, and you add the vegetables and beef to cook to your liking. I personally really enjoy the sweetness of the sukiyaki broth and think it compliments the beef really well. With sukiyaki, you also traditionally dip the cooked meat into a raw egg before eating it. Although initially a bit odd, I actually quite like the texture the egg 'glaze' creates when covering the meat, but in terms of flavour I don't think it adds anything. Once only the broth remains, you can add udon noodles or rice to the pot to soak up the broth and finish your meal.

Sukiyaki broth with raw vegetables added to cook

Cooking the slices of wagyu beef

Yo (Hurry Slowly)
Yo is a great place to have a traditional Japanese set menu in a cosy, intimate setting. You have to choose the set menu you want to order when you place the reservation, and can choose from options including meat, seafood, vegetable, shabu shabu or irori (cooking over a sunken hearth).

I chose the meat set menu when I went. As well as the main course, which consisted of marinated beef and vegetables which you cook yourself over a gas stove at the table, the meal also included appetisers, salad, chicken kamameshi, chawanmushi, thinly-sliced rare roast beef, slow-cooked pork spare ribs, tonkotsu ramen and dessert. Altogether quite an epic meal!

Meat main course: cooked by the diner over a flame at the table

This restaurant is definitely one for lovers of seafood. They source their fish from both local fisheries and Tsukiji fish market in Tokyo, and serve an impressive quality of sushi and sashimi as well as other seafood dishes. They take pride in presenting their dishes very attractively too, so the table is always a feast for the eyes (and the camera!). The below dishes were all served as part of the set menu, and I actually lost count of how many dishes they brought to the table...

Sashimi platter

Hairy crab

Blackened cod

Seafood salad

Sushi platter

Seafood miso soup

Ichimura Soba
This restaurant on the outskirts of Hirafu is a great soba alternative if you fail to get a reservation at the famous Rakuichi. Ichimura Soba make their own soba freshly each day and are only open for lunch. When I visited I ordered the Kamo Seiro, which is cold soba noodles served with a hot duck and spring onion broth. I prefer to order cold soba noodles as they retain their texture better if they're not submerged in hot soup! You can then dip each mouthful of soba noodles into the soup to soak up some of the broth as you eat. The soba noodles had a wonderful texture here, and the soup had a surprisingly rich, gamey flavour. 

Kamo Seiro lunch set

Other notable mentions in the Niseko dining scene go to The Barn (mouth-watering French-style food made with local produce), A Bu Cha 2 (lively izakaya), Asahikawa Ramen Tozanken (hearty ramen with 100% Hokkaido wheat noodles), Green Farm Cafe (great breakfast/lunch/brunch spot) and Graubunden (continental style sandwiches and delicious cakes).

One of the things I love best in Niseko is the amount of great restaurants. There are far more (and better quality) restaurants within a mile radius of where I work in Niseko than there are in the neighbourhood where I used to live in London - and London is known for its foodie scene. I'm just glad that there's a mountain where you can ski off all the food, or I would be leaving significantly heavier than I was when I first arrived!

Do you have a favourite restaurant in Niseko? Have you been to another ski resort with an impressive selection of dining spots?

12 April 2016

PHOTO DIARY: Barcelona

In September last year I went on a short trip to Barcelona... and I realised that I never actually got around to blogging about it. Oops! So, here's a short post about my 5-night stay in the Catalan capital.

Early September is a really great time of year to visit Barcelona, as the weather is still fine... it's warm enough to spend some time on the beach, but not hot enough to prevent you from wanting to go sightseeing.

I enjoyed my trip to Barcelona much more than I thought I would. Of course I was looking forward to taking in all the Gaudi architecture, spending some time by the sea, and enjoying some good food. However, after spending a few days there, I had developed an affection for the city beyond what I had expected. It has a real warmth and charm to it, and the relaxed mediterranean atmosphere is irresistible.

I flew to Barcelona from London with British Airways (as it turned out to be about the same price as Easyjet, once taking into account an item of checked luggage). The return flight cost around £180, but you could definitely fly cheaper if you booked further in advance, or during a sale. The flight is only a couple of hours, making it an ideal weekend getaway if you're located in London.

Below are a selection of photos taken during my stay in Barcelona.

Snake fountain at Park Guell

Salamander Fountain at Park Guell

Gaudi sculpture on the rooftop at La Pedrera

Another stunning Gaudi sculpture at La Pedrera

A selection of pintxos

The botanical gardens of Barcelona

Fish counter at a local market

I also visited The Sagrada Familia (mind-blowing!), The Picasso Museum (comprehensive), Boqueria (tasty) and had some amazing meals at restaurants including Barceloneta and Botafumiero. Spanish food isn't my favourite cuisine usually, but the seafood in Barcelona was incredible.

I hope the above gives you an idea as to why I fell for Barcelona!

Have you been to Barcelona? What's you're favourite destination for a weekend getaway?

10 April 2016

Sapporo Beer Museum and Biergarten

Whilst visiting the Sapporo Snow Festival a couple of months ago, I couldn't pass up the opportunity to visit the Sapporo Beer Museum, dedicated to Hokkaido's most famous brew.

The red brick building dates back to 1890

The museum is about the history of Sapporo Breweries and beer brewing in Japan more generally. There are good quality English-language leaflets available so you can actually learn quite a bit about the history of the company as you walk around the displays, even if you don't speak Japanese. The attractive building which houses the museum dates to 1890, and was originally the factory for the Sapporo Sugar Company.

A view of the building's tower, which can be seen from miles away!

The museum has a series of really cool animated models on the 3rd floor, which display the different stages of the brewing process. There is also a timeline of the history of the company, including where the brewing technique came from. A member of the company went to Germany in 1873 to learn the craft, and returned as Japan's first brewing master: which probably explains why the beer tastes so good! 

One of my favourite elements of the museum, which continues down on the 2nd floor, are the displays of the packaging design and posters from previous eras.

Yebisu beer bottles from the early 1900s

Interesting choice of brand name...

Some of the company's non-alcoholic beverages

A range of rather artistic designs for beer cans

The museum itself is free to enter, but you have to pay for the samples at the end. You can get a tasting set of three beers (Sapporo Black Label, Sapporo Classic and Kaitakushi Beer) for 500JPY, which is pretty good value I think. You also get a free snack of cheese or crackers to go with your beer!

The tasting set goes down well!

Next door to the museum is the Sapporo Biergarten, where you can go on to have a few more beers if the tasting set wasn't enough!

You can enjoy draft beer in this nostalgic beer hall, as well as one of Hokkaido's best-loved dishes, Genghis Khan (Jingisukan). The dish consists of mutton and a selection of vegetables (cabbage, beansprouts etc), which are all cooked by the diner on a metal skillet at the table. It is well worth trying, although be warned that you will leave smelling of grilled lamb!!

You start by melting some fat onto the skillet...

... and then grill away to your heart's content!

The Sapporo Beer Museum and Biergarten are definitely a fun way to spend an afternoon in Sapporo! If you visit Sapporo and visit just one place, you can't go wrong with the a trip to the Beer Museum.

Have you tried any Japanese beers? How do you think they compare to European or American beers?