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Archive for December, 2017

Jigokudani Yaen-Koen Snow Monkey Park

Posted on December 26th, 2017 by Stephanie Miera

After a short bus ride from the Nagano station you will find yourself on the side of a hill with a sign depicting a monkey in water urging you upward. These signs will lead you on a short walk through a small town to a forested path that will end at the snow monkey park.The path is easy and well marked, surrounded by tall trees and vines and it is not hard to believe this is the home to the monkeys you are looking for.  After about half an hour of walking you will see a geyser shooting water high into the air and a nearby onsen across the river that you are now next to.  You will climb several flights of stairs on your side of the river to the small shack where you will pay your meager 500¥ to enter the Jigokudani Yaen-Koen Snow Monkey Park.  

Once inside, you will follow a trail lined with warning signs about not feeding or touching the monkeys.  This is no zoo with cages of animals brought to you.  Instead you have come to their home so must watch your manners to avoid upsetting your hosts.  The path is not long but follows a stream with some small waterfalls where you can see baby monkeys playing and trying to keep up with their parents.  The path ends at a wall of large stones that the monkeys love to lounge on next to the hot spring bath.  When they climb into the water and begin to relax and calm down, the monkeys seem even more human-like. You will want to join them but keep in mind they are wild animals.  

While this trip will fill a day if coming from Tokyo, it is definitely worth it.  Not only will you get to make your friends jealous of getting to see such a well-known Japanese attraction, but if you enjoy a relaxing hike through the woods and some beautiful countryside you will not be disappointed.  For a taste of the experience a man from Google with a strange 360 camera backpack has made the trek and you can follow along with Google Street View.  Then check to see who is currently in waters with a live camera feed from the parks website here.

Google street view

https://www.google.com/maps/@36.7326444,138.4621934,2a,75y,264.85h,90.02t/data=!3m6!1e1!3m4!1siB8gCPaUj52te4tMj1zceA!2e0!7i13312!8i6656

Live cam

http://en.jigokudani-yaenkoen.co.jp/livecam2/video_en.php

Fugu: A Deadly Meal

Posted on December 26th, 2017 by Stephanie Miera

Japan is well known for its unique and delicious food, however many people don’t know just how unique some meals can be. Fugu, or blowfish, is one of these delicacies. 

There are over 100 species of poisonous fugu world-wide, and many are sold in Japanese restaurants as a luxury dish. The poison (tetrodotoxin) is contained in the intestines, liver, andovaries of the fish, and can be up to 1,200 times deadlier than cyanide. In fact, a single fugu fish has enough poison to kill 30 people. If ingested, it causes numbness around the mouth followed by paralysis, which leads to a rapid death.

Proper preparation is critical to ensure that no poison has contaminated the thin slices, typically served as sashimi. Afterwards, the chef will dispose of the poisonous parts of the fish in a sealed and locked container where it will eventually be burned. Although accidental deaths do happen from eating fugu, they are very rare in Japan today, and most occur from amateur fishers who attempt to prepare the fish for themselves.

Although many would consider this a crazy endeavour, the danger makes it all the more exciting for many people. Tokyo and Osaka contain some of the best fugu restaurants in Japan, and therefore some of most highly skilled chefs. You must have a special license to serve fugu, and the training itself takes a minimum of two years. A full fugu meal typically starts at $100 USD, but people are often willing to pay much higher for the assurance of the fugu chef license.

If you are looking for something profoundly unique and exciting to eat, check out one of the fugu restaurants in Tokyo or Osaka, and enjoy bragging to your friends about your Russian roulette Japanese eating experience!

Zatoichi – The Blind Swordsman

Posted on December 5th, 2017 by Mike Roberts

Zatoichi - The Blind Swordsman

Zatoichi – The Blind Swordsman

I am writing again about one of my favorite subjects: Japanese movies. One of my favorite Japanese movie series is Zatoichi, The Blind Swordsman. A total of 26 movies were made between 1962 and 1989, and 105 television shows were made between 1974 to 1979 making it the longest-running action series in Japanese history. Oddly enough, all of the movies and television shows feature the same person playing the main role. Shintaro Katsu, the son of a Kabuki actor, was an actor, singer, producer, director and shamisen player who appeared in more than 110 movies, but became synonymous with his role of Zatoichi.

The Zatoichi movies are formula movies in the same fashion as Bond movies and Law and Order television shows. Each movie has a similar storyline and plot. Zatoichi, a traveling blind masseur and sentimental drifter is a man who lives staunchly by a code of honor and delivers justice everywhere he goes during the late Edo Period (1830s and 1840s). He meets old friends or makes new friends who are forced to suffer some kind of harm or injustice by oppressive and/or warring yakuza gangs. In the meantime, Zatoichi, through no fault of his own stumbles into harm’s way. Eventually, Zatoichi overcomes his own problems, and comes to the aid of the unfortunate and innocents. (The Japanese love a good revenge story.) And, after every sword fight, there is the signature way Zatoichi slowly sheaths his cane sword.

Because of his blindness, his other senses are more finely attuned. His keen ears, sense of smell, sensory perception and his wits in a fight, combined with his incredible lightning-fast sword skills make him a formidable adversary. In addition to his sword skills, he also has a fondness for gambling on dice games where, once again, his other senses make up for his inability to see. He wins large amounts of money by his ability to identify whether the dice have fallen on even or odd, and the ability to identify loaded or substituted dice by the difference in their sound.

A number of sequels have been released since the last Zatoichi was released. There was even one that was about Zatoichi’s daughter. Recently (2003) a remake was released with Takeshi “Beat” Kitano playing the leading role of Zatoichi (he also directed the movie). Kitano did an excellent job creating the movie, and his portrayal of Zatoichi was spot on. It won a number of Japanese Academy Awards as well as a Silver Lion Award at the Cannes Film Festival.

Omoide Yokocho “Memory Lane”

Posted on December 4th, 2017 by Stephanie Miera

It’s easy to get lost in the towering skyscrapers and bright lights when walking around the Shinjuku district of Tokyo, but if you look closely enough you will find a cramped alleyway called memory lane (known as piss alley to the locals). This local hotspot started out as an illegal drinking quarter after World War 2 and quickly became one of the most popular and affordable places to eat and drink.

Located near the west exit of Shinjuku Station, entering the alleyway is almost like stepping back in time. Japanese lanterns light the tight alley as all different kinds of aromas fill the space. Each restaurant and bar could only be described as tiny, most having only about 6 seats. As you walk down the alley, you will see shopkeepers working over grills or caldrons, carefully preparing their shop’s specialty. The food here ranges from Yakitori (grilled skewers) to Nikomi (thick Japanese stew)  and one particular restaurant famous for it’s odd offerings. While food is the highlight of Piss Alley, the drinks available are the perfect pairing. The small bars are the perfect place to meet other foreigners or Japanese locals for a truly Japanese experience.

We would recommend taking the evening to tour Piss Alley, as it is easy to take your time making multiple stops at different eateries. You will likely not find an English menu, but with that comes an adventurous evening, eating things you may love before ever learning what they are.