Monday, October 27, 2014

News in Japan: Japan to Release First Affordable (-ish) Social Robot in February

His name is Pepper. He is three feet tall and utterly adorable. V & I might need to book three seats on our flight back home!

Courtesy of

More on Pepper and his price tag here.

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Robot Bar: the Pinnacle of Kitschy Acultural Chaos.. and it's awesome

I heard about Robot Bar within a month of our arrival. It seemed to be a right-of-passage for foreigners and was routinely described exclusively with the use of adjectives that have both positive and negative connotations (e.g.ridiculous, insane, etc). Based on those descriptions, I couldn't suss out whether this was a tourist trap or some quirky oddity that was uniquely Japanese and a mandatory part of my cultural education. In short, I was skeptical. Fortunately for my skeptical side, one of our earliest visitors was unapologetically enthusiastic about checking it out. What I found was 77% kitsch, 83% tourist trap, 54% quirky Japanese oddity, 4% bar, 1% cultural... and unapologetially I profess: it was worth it.

Robot Bar is a 3 (or 4?) story performance space in Shinjuku's Kabukicho neighborhood. It caters to foreigners and unabashedly intends to drown its audience sense out with its over-the-top exploitation of the stereotypes of Japan as a land of ever-present if half-conscious eroticism, as the homeland of the impossibly youthful and doll-like and as an innovator of all things high-tech. 

Practically speaking, Robot Bar offers a 2+ hour show featuring north of a dozen, highly enthusiastic and dramatically dressed (or undressed?) young women; about a half dozen robots over 10 feet tall, and a bevy of costumed hype men prancing, play-acting, parading and posturing around a central stage in a uninterrupted marathon of genre-defying entertainment and mind-altering energy. It is so insanely over-the-top (notice my totally inadvertent use of said positive/negative adjective), that anything short of the 2+ hour experience might be enough to turn anyone off. Here's how it works:

Before the show, the audience is ushered into a third floor lounge area the size of a fair-sized restaurant that is covered from floor to ceiling and wall to wall with lights, jewels, glitter, embellishment, gold plating, mirrors and velvet. In this area, the audience is treated (?) to a pre-show show. On the day we went, it featured these two bedazzled, mostly Romanesque, yet slightly burlesque, singing angel girls. 

Pre-show entertainment.

After a significant rest in the lounge, the audience is ushered into the main stage area in the basement to get the evening started in earnest. Let the show begin:

Opening montage of fierce drummer gangs.

More girls with smiles and more appropriately-choreographed dancing, fist-pumping and general enthusiasm about that which is Robot Bar

And this thing (what is this thing?!?) that I must have

And the robots

And this woman flying on a pterodactyl?


I left feeling as happy as this girl (though with considerably more clothes on).

PS If you plan to visit Robot Bar, pick up one copy of the current Metropolis magazine for each person in your party. There is an ad in every issue for a 1000 yen (~$10) discount per visitor per magazine brought to the door of the bar. (Limit one magazine per visitor)

Kyoto: Japanese Cooking Class

Ok, last of 3 notes on Kyoto.

In the course of preparing for our trip to Kyoto, I stumbled upon and ended up making a reservation at a highly-reviewed cooking class in Kyoto called Haru Cooking Class.

Haru Cooking Class website:

HCC is a one-family operation run by a Japanese man named Taro with the assistance of his wife, Yoshiko, and the entertainment of their delightful 5-year old daughter, Haruko. (And child number 2 was on the way) The class, which is run out of the family's home, welcomes small groups of foreigners to learn about, help cook, and enjoy a traditional, casual Japanese meal in an intimate and quintessentially Japanese home environment.

The class exceeded my expectations. Taro was an evidently practiced chef and extremely knowledgeable about Japanese food and cuisine. He provided useful and surprising information about the key ingredients and mega-myths of Japanese food. For example...

The Great Kobe Beef Scam

Did you know that not one single ounce of Kobe beef was exported out of Japan until 2012? Not even one single ounce. And none was exported to the United States until November 2012? That's right. If you think you ate Kobe beef before November 2012, you were sold the culinary equivalent of a beach front property in Kansas. All those chain bars that offer Kobe beef sliders on the happy hour menu? Lies.

If you read Forbes in 2012, good for you. You were in the know:

As the above article mentions, Kobe beef was not permitted to be imported into the US until August 2012, and the first (tiny) shipments arrived in November 2012 and March 2013.

If you read the Wall Street Journal in 2012, good for you. You were in the know:

If you are comforting your culinary ego by telling yourself that the Kobe beef you dropped a pretty penny on was definitely in the last two years, so "it's cool," think again. You too were almost certainly scammed:

Certifying paperwork for the Kobe beef at HCC

Each year, a measly 3,000 head of cattle in Japan are deemed to satisfy the extremely strict requirements to become certified Kobe beef - a designation awarded by the Japanese government. Of that volume, as of 2014, only 10% is shipped abroad and of that 10% only a minuscule amount is sent to the United States.

The completed meal included many 
Every carcass that has attained Kobe beef certification is given a unique 10-digit identifier and certifying paperwork that follows the beef from slaughter to its place of consumption. So, if you want to end the great Kobe beef scam and look really snooty in the process, ask to see the paperwork on the Kobe beef sliders they are selling for $9 at your local happy hour joint.

A legitimate, certified Kobe beef steak runs bout $200, a Kobe beef burger about $50.

So, What Does Real Kobe Beef Taste Like?

At HCC, Vince had the opportunity to try two portions (mine and his) of certified Kobe beef and here is what he reports, in my third person paraphrase:

On sight, it is obvious that Kobe beef is different. The raw meat is extremely marbled, and this quality had a significant effect on both the taste and the texture of the steak. The marbling rendered the beef very tender and flavorful. It had a sweetness atypical of a common steak. The marbling also affected the texture of the steak in a way that was hard to describe but added an element of consistency throughout, and that effect was so significant that its texture was unlike any other steak he had eaten.

All of this was news to me (I blame my total ignorance on my vegetarianism!) and only the tip of the iceberg of what I learned. I won't delve into the 5 types of soy sauce, the 3 types of miso, and the proper preparation of dashi!

HCC was a highlight of the trip for me (even as a vegetarian) because it was so educational and interactive. And, by the way, HCC does offer a vegetarian class too!

Haru Cooking Class website:

Friday, October 17, 2014

Kyoto: North and East - Temple Redux

aka Kyoto part 2

Anyone who travels to Kyoto or reads up on the city will quickly learn 1) that Kyoto is the historical capital of Japan, a title it held for more than a millenia until the Meiji Restoration in 1868, and 2) that although it is no longer the political capital, it is still widely considered the cultural capital of Japan. Kyoto is where most of Japan's few modern-day geisha live; it is the home to literally thousands of temples that are profoundly symbolic to Japanese history and modern identity; it is a place where traditional Japanese arts such as the tea ceremony still flourish.

Most visitors arrive with that basic knowledge and dutifully set out day after day, map in hand, to put as big a dent as their schedule permits into a long list of temples to see. And, even though I could remember the feeling of temple-fatigue from my visit 10 years earlier, I couldn't resist my duty to temple hop, map in hand, husband in step. Having divided our time with non-temple activities (which was the best decision we made), we got to (only?) a handful of temples, boldly crossing them off of our list.

It is hard to describe what makes each temple unique, even 5 months after the fact, so I'll be brief and, for the sake of those who might read this and visit subsequently, I will list them in order of "so worth it" to "not worth it. seriously, not worth it" -- hope it might be helpful to someone, somewhere.

Chionin Temple

My attempt to capture the massive entry gate to this temple, were a complete failure, In order to not distract from the fact that a visit to Chionin is so worth a visit, I pulled a photo from the internet that does it justice. Thanks, internet!

Courtesy of, a must-review resource for anyone who visits Japan.

I enjoyed Chionin Temple primarily because the temple grounds are much more expansive than at many other places (a la Kinkaku-ji, Ginkaku-ji). We were able to enjoy just walking around and feeling like we were exploring rather than feeling like a sheep being shepherded down a single garden pathway, unable to stop for fear of holding up the line (think: a visit to the Mona Lisa). The grounds of Chionin boast several buildings, lots of stairs, and a graveyard that extends farther back into the abutting hillside than we were willing to explore. All-in-all a really pleasant and considerably less crowded temple experience than average.

Location: West/Philosopher's Path


Kyoto's Golden Pavilion is, despite the husbo's disagreement, a must visit site. While visitors cannot enter the pavilion itself, you can take a walk around the grounds, pass through the (former) living quarters of the head priest and, if you like, take a cup of tea in the tea garden.

It is worth mentioning that it is a bit out of the way. We visited Kinkaku-ji after Arashiyima (see previous blog post) taking the train in a way from Arashiyama, and then taking a cab.

Location: North

Kiyomizudera Temple

We went to this independent Buddhist temple in the wooded hillside at Kyoto's eastern most edge on the recommendation of Vince's co-worker, and when in Japan, I have learned to always take recommendations from the Japanese because they will only recommend the best. This beautiful temple is literally perched on a hillside, as in fully supported by stilts on one side, making it feel something like an epic, yet pristine tree house. The grounds feature many other beautiful structures and nice views of Kyoto (it was quite overcast and a bit drizzly, so I have no worthy photos to post) and, though it is a healthy distance from the city center, it is so worth it.

If my review and picture don't have you convinced, bear in mind that the majority of the buildings were under construction during our visit (the pagoda which I hid in the background was completely wrapped up on our visit - May 2014). The construction is scheduled to continue for the next several years, and yes that is something of a drawback, and no it doesn't change my opinion.

Location: West

Yasaka Shrine

We ended up by Yasaka Shrine by pure accident. On day, we decided to wrap up our full day of sightseeing in Gion, a historic neighborhood of Kyoto filled with shops and bars. After stopping for a few laps of fire-water at a whiskey bar and in search of dinner, we reached the far western edge of Gion, which runs directly into the entrance of yet another of the thousands of religious sites (shrines and temples) that dot the city. And, in a show of continued dedication to the Kyoto experience, we couldn't say no. By night, the grounds were quite impressive, if a liiiittle bit scary.

Yasaka Shrine is apparently the site of some big festivals in the summer, but where we were there it was virtually devoid of people. While I wouldn't go out of my way to see it during the day, it is a great site to stop by after sunset. It seemed that most of Kyoto's religious sites close around 4 or 5pm, so there are not many places you can photograph at night. A visit to Yasaka diversifies the Kyoto experience, and diversity is the spice of life now isn't it?

Location: West/Gion



Well, there it is, in all of its underwhelming splendor. The temple's name, Ginkaku-ji, means Silver Pavillion and unintentionally but appropriately suggests that it comes in a (distant) second to the Gold Pavillion that was the inspiration for Ginkaku-ji's construction. The grounds are small and include only a very short walk, chock full of people dutifully "awe"ing in a single file, through a tiny rear yard. With everything there is to see in Kyoto, skip this.

Location: West/Philosopher's Path

Thursday, October 16, 2014

Kyoto: South and West - Non-Temple Travels

An excessively overdue recap.

I can only hope that blogging about our trip to Kyoto area a solid 5 months late will provide me with a helpful and insightful filter that improves my writing, rather than rendering it jumbled and hazy. *fingers crossed*

We went to Kyoto in May during one of Japan's two vacation seasons. Japanese are renowned for being hard-workers who take little vacation and, like many things in Japan, when they do take vacation, they all do so at the same time. It is not difficult to imagine the effect this has on travel prices, hotel availability and the serenity of Japan's many popular and theoretically serene temples, shrines and gardens. We planned late, as we often do with travel, and were unable to secure an affordable hotel room anywhere in the city. The few vacant rooms we found would have set us back thousands of dollars. No thanks. So, we went to our trusty fallback, Air BnB where we managed to secure what I'm fairly confident was the absolute last affordable room available in central Kyoto. 

When visiting Kyoto, centrally-located accommodation is very important because the sites of the city are scattered far and wide in all directions, yet most are accessible by train or bus from Kyoto Station. The map here shows just a handful of Kyoto's many sites and excludes some of my personal favorites which are farther out from the center, but clearly shows the distribution of sites as if they were numbers on a clock. And, word to future travelers, don't try to walk around the clock. It is not feasible.

We managed to see sites in all four directions: 


Within one hour to the south of Kyoto by train, you can visit two of my absolute favorite sites: Nara, and specifically Todaiji (a temple the name of which translates to the Great Eastern Temple, 東大寺), and Fushimi Inari, a peaceful yet lightly grueling hike best done in the morning when it is shrouded with a light mist that only adds to its spiritual allure. 

As I have mentioned previously, I first visited Japan 10 years. My sister and I went on a whirlwind tour of as much of the country as could be seen in two weeks. It was an overwhelming experience in every respect from attempting to penetrate the language barrier, navigate new cultural norms and drink in every last panoramic vistas, palace, temple, and landscape. And, in the 10 years in between then and now, most of every gold-leafed tile, delicately carved wood masterpiece and lacquered detail blurred into one kaleidoscope memory of Japan. Todai-ji is the only exception. It was a site so magnificent to behold that it could not be melted into an alloy memory. 

I wish I could let the pictures speak for themselves, but they cannot. I have not ruled out the possibility that this is in large part due to my photography skills; however, part of Todai-ji's appeal is its somewhat impossible-to-capture nature. Todai-ji's main hall is the largest wooden building in the world. This is alone quite impressive, especially considering it was built in 752 in a country plagued with earthquakes, no less. 

The inside of this temple, which would be imposing in its immensity if it were empty, nearly fades into obscurity as each visitor enters coming toe-to-face with the 15-meter tall bronze Buddha statute that resides in the center of Daibutsuden. I have since seen other big Buddha statutes in Japan and have learned that there are some that are much bigger still than that at Todaiji, but the outstretched hand of the Buddha at Todai-ji has left its hand print on my memory. It is ethereal like nothing else I have ever seen and having the opportunity to see it again after 10 years was as wonderful as seeing it the first time. 

I post this photo of Buddha under protest as I believe that no photo that I took can do justice to this statue but feel this blog post cannot be complete without some image of the subject of my raving. 

On the same train line that travels to Nara (the JR Nara Line), about half way between Nara and Kyoto, is Fushimi Inari. I had never been to Fushimi Inari before. We put it on the itinerary largely because my wonderful and considerate husband was adamant that we integrate into our trip a number of sites that I did not see during my first visit to the area so as to explore together. And, five months out, I am very glad that Fushimi Inari was one of the sites that made the list. As with all of the sites we saw in Kyoto (save Todai-ji), everything in the Kyoto area is more beautiful, more peaceful and more available to be enjoyed in the early morning hours, especially during the Japanese holiday seasons. 

We arrived about 8:30am as best I recall, and wound our way to the back of the temple grounds to where the largely open space gave way to a well-forested area and a hiking trail marked by an endless succession of orange gates, which are called torii. The hike, which takes a couple of hours round-trip (and we got lost once!), is spectacular because it is wholly confined in an endless canopy of torii.

It is a silly delight to wonder at each turn if you have reached the end, wonder if perhaps this is the last only to peer down the next stretch of trail and find it similarly canopied in orange just like every stretch of trail before it and every one that follows.The hike at Fushimi Inari is special because unless you have done this hike before, you have never done anything like it. It is also a great respite for the temple-weary traveler, offering a revitalizing change of a pace, a healthy dose of exercise and fresh air (things I will rarely turn down). 


Some 20 minutes west of Kyoto by train is a more rural tourist district called Arashiyama. It is perhaps most famous for its bridge, I founds this to be the least appealing of its sites. Much more beautiful and perhaps nearly as famous is the area's bamboo forest. It also offers a monkey park (which we skipped having already been to Shiga Kogen), many temples, a large park, boat rides on the river, shopping and more.

Neither of us had been to Arashiyama before and that I didn't get there in my first trip to Kyoto area was a mistake. We visited the area in the morning, so it did have the built-in advantage of some serenity, and the lush bamboo grove is a site where a little less hustle makes a big difference in the experience. The path through the grove was much shorter and more direct than I would have liked. The trail is fairly straight and the high fences on either side prevent any meandering off the beaten path. The precautionary fences are, of course, completely understandable, but they do make it more difficult to get lost in the beauty of the groves. So, if you can, go in the morning in order to get the most out of these magnificent groves of what are technically grass, not trees.

 We limited ourselves to a few of Arashiyama's many other sites because, as good Kyoto area tourists, we had to pack in as much as possible. That said, everything we did and saw there we enjoyed. We had a packed lunch in the park adjacent to the bamboo groves and took a nice walk along the Oi River and watched the river traffic.


The ultimate highlight of our visit to the Kyoto area happened in Arashiyama, totally unexpectedly: we saw a geisha! Once ubiquitous in Kyoto and throughout Japan (estimates are there were 80,000 of them 100 years ago), it is now estimated that there are just over 1,000 geisha in the entire country. It is quick math to appreciate then that the chance of seeing a geisha in the street in a country of 126 million people, or even in Kyoto, a city of nearly 1.5 million people where most modern geisha live, is extremely slim.

Like needle in a haystack slim, yet, there she was:

... and this is why I travel, this is why I'll always travel - so that I may have even the briefest glimpse of that which is rare, alluring, heart-stopping and all-too-commonly disappearing in the world. And among that which is rare, one must count a geisha.

Sunday, October 12, 2014

Feel my heartbeat?!

I was just reviewing responses to an ad I placed for a conversation partner. Came across this gem:

Good morning.
Today is terrible cold cause of rain which generated Typhoon.
I'm xxx who live in kawasaki next to central tokyo.
I'm interested in your message.
I also improve my language skill.
That's why I'm writing you the message to create
a reletionship.
If you reply me message,I can feel my heartbeat.
Because it's first step of our reletionship.
Thank you.