Saturday, February 6, 2016

Why I Like Japanese Konbini


There have been piles of articles about the greatness of Japanese convenience stores or konbini.  I'd have to agree that they are:
  1. Convenient by being ubiquitous in the big cities near train stations.  There could be one on every block or corner depending where you are.
  2. They stock good, fresh food that is replenished daily.  The prices are competitive for food.
  3. They are clean and well organized, even the bathrooms are nice.
  4. The staff are polite.
  5. There are plenty of products for snacks, drinks, and food.  They stock good instant noodles and will supply the hot water or microwave your food for you.
  6. They provide many services from photocopying, selling tickets, paying bills, picking up packages, or even ATMS (for 7-11) that take foreign bank cards.
Originally an American invention, they were brought to Japan in the 1970's for 7-11.  The Japanese massively improved on the concept (probably through kaizen or continuous improvement).  Decades later, the Japanese 7-11 company (Seven and I Holdings), bought out the parent chain back in the States, and competes in a fierce Japanese market with many other konbini companies like Lawson and Family Mart. I also really like the limited time products they stock to bring customers into  the store and even more so when they have anime tie-ins.  I'll list some of my favourite things about konbini below now.

Onigiri or rice balls.  These are hand-sized pucks or triangles or rice that are often filled with pickles, salmon, tuna, etc.  They are just so delicious and make for a great snack or lunch if you have a few.

The wonderful variety of drinks, from juices, soda, energy drinks, green tea, canned coffee, and alcohol like beer, saki, and whisky.

Canned coffee is pretty darn good too if you just want a fix, especially when it is hot.  Most stores also sell fresh brewed hot coffee now too due to the competitive nature of the business.

Some of the types of fresh food or bentos that can be bought and heated up in the store.  You have everything from Japanese food to Italian food to fresh salads.  When I visit, I rarely buy these as I'd rather eat at a quality Japanese fast food chain for rice bowls, tempura, sushi, or curry.  But these are good for on the go for sure.

A whole display of different kinds of rice balls.  There are many kinds to suit different tastes.  You can get everything from pork flavoured to salmon roe to rice balls with boiled eggs in them.

Many different kinds of instant ramen or cup noodles to help fill the tummy.  I particularly like Nissin myself.  There are plenty of different kinds of flavours to try.

Fried chicken or karaage.  This is another very competitive area for konbini.  Their fried chicken products are usually really tasty and I'm drooling just thinking about it.

There is a  wonderful variety of snacks from biscuits, gummies, gum, all kinds of chocolates, to hard candy.

There is no shortage of different kind sof potato chips or puffed corn snacks either.  Rice crackers and other kinds of crunchy goodness are also available.

Did I mention beer?  I probably did already, but it is something I definitely like to have in the hotel room after a long day of sightseeing.

They also have a nice variety of freshly baked goods like sponge cakes, and also very good sandwiches.  Try the egg ones too!

A limited edition instant ramen bowl from 7-11.  Even came with a piece of pork and a pickled umeboshi plum. It was very tasty.

A variety of candies and snacks picked up at konbini.  Buying treats at the konbini allows you to bring them home and enjoy your trip to Japan long after you have returned.  :)

I didn't show many fresh fruits and vegetables, but they do exist too.  In fact, there are specialty stores like Natural Lawson and such that stock more healthy snacks and food.  Don't forget they sell treats like ice cream, pudding, and other really tasty desserts too.  Anyhow, konbini are pretty cool and I'd never say no to have one near my home.


Sunday, January 31, 2016

My Favourite Anime of 2015

Tastes in anime are going to vary from person to person.  I must have watched a couple of dozen series last year and some were good, some were really good, and some I never watched more than a couple of episodes.  I lean more towards the science fiction or slice of life end of the spectrum and avoid a lot of the shonen type anime as I'm just not particularly fond of hotheaded heroes.


Still, here is a list of the stuff I enjoyed the most from last year in alphabetical order.
  1. ALDNOAH.ZERO.  It wasn't that surprising that I really liked this anime.  This anime had an interesting setup between Earth and a more advanced Martian Empire established by humans.  The Martians have better tech as they found this Aldnoah Drive from a long dead civilization on Mars.  So, you have a cool and calculating protagonist defeating advanced Martian mechs with his less capable mecha every week by figuring out how to exploit their weakness as each different implementation of the advanced tech has a different Achilles heel.  Formulaic, but it was still original and fun.
  2. ARGEVOLLEN.  I liked this series for the platoon of special forces misfits, some of which are pretty good mecha pilots.  The political situation was contrived, and I still can't figure out what happened to planes in this series (they have advanced everything, but no flying machines), but it was still entertaining for a mech show about a "special" pilot for an experimental mech that is slowly killing him.
  3. Arpeggio of Blue Steel.  I'd say this show was surprisingly good for something that was supposed to be a submarine show with low key fan service.  Once you got past the Fleet of Fog owning all of the world's oceans after defeating all of the combined naval might of our planet with super advanced tech, the story plays out rather well.  The characters, story line, submarine tactics, and political machinations were top notch, with the AI's that ran each of the Fog warships actually being pretty cool, even if they're anthropomorphized as cute human females.
  4. Food Wars! Shokugeki No Soma.  Lots of food and food ectasy related fan service in this show, but I like the star and his cooking when he is up against the best that the cutthroat cooking academy can offer.  A great cast of characters, super tasty looking food, and cooking tips (some of which are actually real) make this an awesome cooking competition show.
  5. Gate.  This modern day story of the modern Japanese Self-Defence Forces establishing a defensive base around a gateway from a medieval world where magic works, gods exist, and dragons are big and scary is one of my favourites of all time.  Our hero is a special forces soldier who would rather be an otaku, but he's a practical guy who wants to do his best for the soldiers he leads and the locals that he befriends.  You have a goth-loli demi-goddess, elves with pointy ears, a smart apprentice mage who looks like Rei from Evangelion, and of course cat girls.  Good stories, great application of modern weapons against the locals who don't understand they have bitten off more than they can chew.  While I really like this show, it  does treat women as being very subservient in many cases, too much for my liking, and their attempt at a couple of strong female leads don't really balance this out that well.
  6. Gundam, Iron Blooded Orphans.  I didn't actually think I would like this Gundam series as it seemed like it was more the of the Earth versus the colonies theme, but with children warriors being exploited.  The story turns more interesting after the kids revolt and start their own mercenary company that is escorting a female peacemaker to Earth.  They join one of the factions vying for power, meet space pirates and are caught up in revolutions along the way.  You cheer for them as the show goes on. 
  7. Is it Wrong to Try to Pick Up Girls in a Dungeon.  Another fantasy themed anime with a plucky hero who is inspired to be better after being saved by an advanced swordswoman.  Adventurers all belong to a Familia run by a god/goddess and delve into a central dungeon.  Lots of old tropes, but it is well done, and very entertaining.
  8. KanColle.  Fleet girls, based off the computer game.  This is kind of like Strike Witches with a more organized naval theme and big battles against the Abyssal Fleet.  If you like Strike Witches, you'll like this.
  9. Log Horizon.  This is the best thought out fantasy series where the protagonists are trapped inside a MMORPG.  Plenty of development for the characters, the world, and backstory to the event that trapped them.  I looked forward to this show every week.
  10. Rail Wars!  Only for rail way fans.  I like trains and fan service in this context I guess.  This was a fun series and it ends up being a harem type anime with lots of trains and a character who aspires to be a train driver for the Japan National Railway (fictional organization based on real rail companies).
  11. Rokka - Braves of the Six Flowers.  This is a pure fantasy anime with super powered heroes in a faux Aztec type world.  The world building could have been better is it was kind of like Japan with Aztec makeup, but the storyline with humans versus the great demon evil was pretty well done.  I'm looking towards the second season to conclude it after the great mystery plot that ended the first season.
  12. SHIROBAKO.  An absolutely awesome anime about a group of female friends who want to make it in the world of Japanese animation.  It give you good insight into how anime are made and makes it way more exciting than it probably is.  If you like anime and have an interest in how it is made, this show is for you.  There are many inside references via the characters who work at the anime studio to existing creators at many real anime companies.
  13. Sound Euphonium.  The first of two musical anime.  This one is about a school band and it had great characters and interactions.  Very good.
  14. Your Lie in April.  The second of two musical anime that I really enjoyed.  This one is a real tear jerker with absolutely great characters, tough musical competitions, and a story that would bring tears to a hardened warrior.  A really good watch.  Watch Anohana after this or before this.
Those were some of my favourite anime for 2015 and it seemed like it was bit of a hit and miss year as it went, but looking back, there was some really good stuff that was aired.  All of these shows are on Crunchyroll.

What I like so far for 2016.  Plenty of new shows and I'm busy watching!
  1. Erased
  2. BBK/BRNK
  3. Durarara
  4. Myriad Colors Phantom World
  5. Schwartzes Marken
  6. AOKANA: Four Rhythm Across the Blue
Other stuff from last year I need to watch
  1. My Love Story
  2. Gatchaman Crowds
  3. Beyond the Boundary
  4. Knights of Sidonia

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Tuesday, January 26, 2016

The Tokyo Tower Experience (The Classic Red One) and Zojoji Temple

In a way, this is the story of three towers, two in Tokyo, and one in Paris.  This is because the Tokyo Tower design was influenced by the Eiffel Tower in Paris, and now the Tokyo Tower has been superceded by the Tokyo Skytree.  There is even talk about demolishing the Tokyo Tower (as of 2014), but I hope it sticks around as it is very iconic to Japan.  It was also something that I had always wanted to see when I went to Japan for the first time.
Tokyo Tower as seen from the Mori Office Tower in Roppongi.
The Tokyo Tower is classic to Tokyo and is a very nice tower on its own.  The tower was originally built in 1958 and was one of those Showa Period symbols of modernity and pride for the Japanese.  It towered over the Tokyo skyline then and has been part of Japan for over 50 years and has been part of the cultural matrix.  This tower has been destroyed over and over in monster movies and everyone knows its orange and white colored steel latticework shape. 
It is still a tall structure in Tokyo, but you can see how many tall buildings there are now.
Now lets talk about the Eiffel Tower in Paris.  I bring this up as I visited Paris and Tokyo both last year and wondered about the comparison between the two.  The Eiffel Tower is simply more iconic and  massive in comparison to the Tokyo Tower even if they share a similar form. Considering the Eiffel Tower was built in the 1880s, it is an amazing architectural marvel of its time that has endured to the present.  The Eiffel Tower and the Tokyo Tower are almost the same height with the Tokyo Tower being taller by about nine metres at a height of 332.9 metres.  However, you can tell the Eiffel Tower is more massive by walking around it's base and compared to walking around the Tokyo Tower.  The ground footprint is huge for the Eiffel Tower and the Eiffel Tower masses at over 7000 tons compared to about 4000 tons for the Tokyo Tower.  Still, visiting both towers is a ton of fun and crowds are often mandatory at each!
Eiffel Tower
Both times I visited Tokyo on my own, I ended up visiting the Tokyo Tower on the very last day.  On both times I also had good weather.  I'm going to share some of my experiences with Tokyo's classic tower icon from both visits in this post.  The first time I went was back in 2009 and this was before they have even started building the Skytree to replace the Tokyo Tower as a taller and better radio antenna and tourist attraction.  I've been to both towers now and I have to say that the Tokyo Tower still has a lot of charm and things going for it.  The Skytree is designed to be a modern tourist attract with a train station, mega shopping mall, museums, and other attractions deliberately built under it.  The Tokyo Tower is your old school stand alone attraction with a small entertainment and shopping complex built under it.  The Tokyo Tower looks vintage and that is where it's charms are.
Zojoji Temple
It was the last day of my first trip to Japan.  I checked out of the hotel, leaving my luggage for the morning and wandered off to see the Tokyo Tower.  Getting off at Hamamatsucho Station from the Yamanote Line you are in an older area (as in post WWII)  that is full of shops and cafes at street level.  You pretty much just walk due west to get to the tower.  As you can see from the photos it was a beautiful early fall day.  It turned out to be a wonderful way to end the trip.
Jizo Statues.
There are many gardens and cemeteries in the area.  One part of the garden at Zojoji Shrine has a shrine area full of Jiz┼Ź Statues.  While they are very picturesque, they are little shrines decorated by parents who have lost unborn children.  Jizo is the guardian of unborn children and ensures that they are brought to the afterlife.  It is both a beautiful and a sad place at the same time because of this.
Tokyo Tower
Tokyo Tower
Tokyo Tower
While I didn't go up the tower the first time, I walked all around and took plenty of pictures.  Six years later I came back for another visit to the tower.  Strangely enough, this time I went on the last day of a trip in the spring and it another beautiful day, unlike the damp experience from the rain for half of the time.

So in 2016, I also stayed down at the Shinagawa Prince Hotel in a small single room. I checked out and left my luggage at the hotel and had a similar repeat of my first trip.  Shinagawa Station had undergone a few renovations, and a massive office complex with many shops, restaurants, and walkways on the east side of the station (Konan Exit) had appeared by now.  Walking through the station, there are many shops selling ekiben (train bentos), bakeries full of tasty baking, and even specialty onigiri (rice ball shops).  Shinagawa is a Shinkansen (bullet train) hub too, so these shops cater to the many people passing through.
Tasting baking.
Rice ball shop sign.  I love the shrimp tempura onigir shown here.
Many onigiri for sale here.
An ekiben shop selling the train bentos.
Train bentos display.
After getting on the Yamanote Line I went to Hamamatsucho Station and disembarked there.  There is an observation deck here at the World Trade Center where you could get a good view of the Tokyo Tower, but you need to pay for the privilege.  Out on the street, on the north side of the station you walk west for a bit to get to the tower.  The next couple of photos below shows what the walk to the Tokyo Tower is like in the commercial district.

Lots of cafes and shops at street level.  You'll pass things like Coco Curry, Starbucks, and many other local restaurants.
You're on the right track when you see this gate.  Of course you home in on the tower.
Finally you get to the front gate for Zojoji Temple.  Pass through the gate to get to the parks and the tower beyond.
Zojoji Shrine Front Gate.  Big and imposing for an important temple.
The front gate up closer.
The main temple building.
This is a big temple.
The Jizo statues again.  There are hundreds and hundreds of them.
Amaterasu I think.  The goddess protects the area.  View is through a rack where bad fortunes are tied off.
Temple grounds Info
Walking past the Jizu statues, you'll find this road that leads down to the Tokyo Tower.  It is very pretty here.  Quite quiet.
Another shot of the Tokyo Tower.
On the second floor is a bazaar of souvenir shops.  There are all kinds of little toy, Tokyo souvenir, and food shops.  You can buy these Tokyo Banana sponge cakes.  They're actually quite popular.
There is now a One Piece theme park in the base of the tower.  It actually looks like it would be worth a visit if you are a One Piece anime fan.
The first observation deck of the tower.
Carp streamers or koinoburi for Children's Day in Japan.
The view down from the first level observation deck.  You can see some of the newer skyscrapers near the tower, including Toranomon Hills.
Looking west, you can see the Mori Tower at Roppongi Hills on the left.
Observation Deck.  This time I went up and had an enjoyable time walking around and seeing the sights.  It was a classic observation deck type experience, but thoroughly enjoyable.
Looking below, you can see many cemeteries surrounding the tower.
Zojoji Temple from behind.
Mori Tower.  This places has a great observation deck and the Mori Museum also often hosts really good exhibits.
The One Piece Theme Park
There is a food court here too.  You can actually order Pizza-La Japanese pizza.  This is one of the few outlets in a food court.
I was tempted, as Japanese pizza is quite different and I think the quality of the ingredients is higher, but it is more expensive than North American pizza.
Some Pizza-La meal specials.
There is also a MOS Burger Outlet.  I highly recommend that you try them for a Japanese burger experience.  Pick something different like rice buns, or teriyaki grilled chicken.  It's nice a freshly made.
MOS Burger menu.
I was here to try the Tokyo Curry Lab outlet.  They have some unique curries and are quite good.  Curry is a Japanese national dish, and is very popular with the locals.
Curry menu.
I love their place mats.  The water is very much needed after eating.
It was a tasty vegetable curry with veggies and an italian meat sauce.  Very different, but good.
Closeup of the curry.
More Koinoburi
Some of the parks nearby.  I saw joggers going through here.
A roasted sweet potato vendor who was calling out his wares.  I was full but I wanted to try it too.  That's one of the problems visiting Tokyo as you always want to eat some more.
Back at the temple they were burning old furniture in these pits for either a purification or a funerary ritual.
Another shot of the tower from the temple.
Going up the big stairs up front.   They did some redecorating of this place and it was where they filmed the funeral scene in the movie Wolverine, where he goes to Japan.
Inside the Zojoji Temple main building.  It is beautiful with a great deal of gold in the decoration.

Closeup of the main altar with Amida Buddha.
The big gates from the inside.
Bullet train.
So that is a brief walk through of the trip to the Tokyo Tower and of the tower itself.  It is a visit that will last a couple of hours, but you can do it at your own pace.  I've enjoyed visiting it both times.  I also bumped into a bunch of New Zealanders who were looking for the Pokemon Center that used to be near Hamamatsucho Station, which closed a year ago.  I was fortunately able to direct them to the new one that I had visited this trip over in Ikebukuro at Sunshine City, after they saw the Wolverine Temple.  After this, it was back to the hotel and then I caught an NEX Express Train back out to Narita.  It was a nice way to end my third Tokyo Trip.

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