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A week in Tokyo August 28, 2013

Posted by ayasawada in Japan, Travel.
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Harajuku signage

Back in June, I had a “short, relaxing break” in Tokyo. This was my fifth time in Japan, my fourth in Tokyo, having stuck entirely to Kansai and Kyushu on my last trip. Seeing the Japanese capital again after 4 years, it’s interesting how much has changed – and not changed – both in the city and myself.

On the one hand, nothing much has changed. This is still the same Tokyo I’ve found my way around several times before. Convenience stores and vending machines still sell my favourite bottled green tea. I still know the Yamanote line like the back of my hand. Suica is still the way to travel, Ueno station in rush hour is still a nightmare. My favourite haunts of Ikebukuro, Shibuya and Akihabara remain largely the same. And unlike much of the western world, there are still physical record stores you can browse CDs and DVDs in. On the other hand, it’s amazing how much can change in 4 years, like the entire Radio Kaikan building being demolished or the Japanese population finally embracing the smartphone revolution.

I spent the days walking around my favourite parts of the city, doing the things I love and, unlike previous travel-rushed trips, just experiencing life as a Tokyo-ite. (more…)

Saitama and the Bonsai museum August 27, 2013

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Omiya Bonsai Art Museum

Toro is a small town in Saitama prefecture, about 30 mins from Tokyo. It’s a peaceful little place: station, supermarket, 100 yen shop all within a few metres of each other and then just sprawls of houses. But in amongst this is a little gem: the Omiya Bonsai Art Museum.


My friends tell me that years ago after the Second World War the bonsai craftsmen of Tokyo were forced out of the city centre, I think by a combination of rebuilding, expansion and rising property prices. They decamped to Omiya in Saitama (just up the road from Toro) and the area is famous for many stellar bonsai dealers. Hence the opening of a small but plush and very technologically furnished (in terms of touchscreens and the like).

I didn’t really know that much about bonsai, so I didn’t know what to expect when my friends suggested visiting. To the ignorant foreigner ‘bonsai’ just means those little dinky trees about the size of a bowl. But bonsai actually means miniaturising and taming any tree into a smaller vessel. Certain trees work better than others of course, but I was stunned at the variety of species, colours and patterns. Most were the size of my iMac, some even larger, but all showed tremendous craftsmanship through the use of gentle wiring, careful pruning, repotting and applying just the right amount of light and water (I learned all this from the display videos, though not much since everything – even the signage – was in Japanese).

The well-furbished interior showcases how bonsai has been used throughout the ages to bring nature into the Japanese home, and this is supplemented by an outdoor garden with further trees that are in preparation. You can’t take photos anywhere other than a small area of the garden, so I can’t show you much of the museum, but it’s definitely worth your time. The Omiya Bonsai Art Museum has a 300 yen entrance fee and a tearoom on the first floor with a great view of the garden for you to maintain that zen feeling at the end of your visit.

Thanks to my friends’ local knowledge, I also got to visit one of the local bonsai dealers, one of the few that would allow visitors to browse their collections without necessarily purchasing. Again there were some stunning specimens retailing for upwards of hundereds of thousands (probably millions) of yen.

Not many people head out to Saitama, but it’s a nice place. And if the hustle and bustle of tourist-trap Tokyo is getting you down, a trip to the bonsai museum in the perfect antidote.

Yokohama August 26, 2013

Posted by ayasawada in Japan, Travel.
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Yokohama bay

Just a 30 minute train ride from Tokyo, Yokohama’s one of those places that I’ve always wanted to visit. Not for any particular reason other than its prominence in numerous Japanese media (a famous chapter in Honey and Clover for instance). Well, okay, maybe this time for one particular reason.

It was well worth the visit because Yokohama is a really beautiful city. From the modern architecture of Minato Mirai to the peaceful harbour-side Yamashita Koen and the bustling Chinatown (pretty much like any other Chinatown), there’s variety in both scenery and activities (including a famous ferris wheel) that makes Yokohama the perfect date spot. In fact, that’s what it’s known for – I hadn’t realised it before this trip, but all my friends were surprised when I said I was taking a day trip to Yokohama by myself. I thought they were exaggerating about it being made for couples, but it’s somewhat true – there were couples EVERYWHERE.


Yokohama’s easy to get to from Shibuya, Shinjuku and Ikebukuro and costs about 500 yen one way. I rode the Keihin-Tohoku line from Shibuya all the way to Motomachi-Chukagai so I could stop off at Minato Mieru Koen, a spot immortalised in Studio Ghibli’s recent Kokurikozaka Kara (From Up on Poppy Hill).

Kokuriko-zaka Kara no hata

Kokuriko-zaka Kara

I then had a pleasant few hours stroll through the city centre, Chinatown, Yamashita Koen and Minato Mirai, before heading to the Nissan Stadium for an afternoon of AKB. (^_^;)

Yokohama Chinatown


Yokohama Stadium

Yokohama bay

The one thing I didn’t get to do was the Cup Noodle Museum in Minato Mirai. I guess I’ll save that for my date next time. (^_^)

More from Yokohama in this Flickr set.

Meguro and the Parasitological Museum August 25, 2013

Posted by ayasawada in Culture, Science, Travel.
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Meguro Parasitological Museum

Ever wanted to visit a parasite museum? Of course you have. There’s only one in the world, and wouldn’t you know it, it’s in Tokyo in the pleasant southern suburb of Meguro. A friend of mine happens to live there (as does Danny Choo) and mentioned the museum to me as a local curiosity. Given my day job as a science writer, I couldn’t really pass up the opportunity to see it. (more…)

Perfume World Tour 2nd: Dreams are made of this July 10, 2013

Posted by ayasawada in Music, Travel.
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OMG this is really happening! #prfm

Sometimes good things happen. And sometimes AMAZING things happen that make you feel suddenly connected and belonging to your life and your world.

After the miracle of Singapore, I vowed to see Perfume, my favourite Japanese group, again someday. But I was stunned when just two months later the group announced a European tour. They would be coming to Cologne, Paris…. and London.

I intended just to go to London, but my friend Andy (who I met at the Singapore live) and I got a bit nervous that the London tickets would sell out really fast (which they did). The Paris tickets went on sale immediately, so we got a couple of those just in case. When we managed to get London tickets too, Andy shrugged and said, “It would be rude not to go to Germany too…” :P

What followed was a whirlwind. Twelve months ago I thought I would never see Perfume perform live. If you’d have told me then that a year later I’d have seen them not once but FOUR times in four different countries, I wouldn’t have believed it. If you’d have said I’d also have met them in person, I’d have laughed in your face.


AKB48 Super Festival June 23, 2013

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AKB48 Wonda advert

So, clearly I’m quite into AKB48 and on my recent trip to Japan I decided to indulge somewhat in what it’s like to be an AKB fan in the motherland. It was a thrill to be there, particularly around Akihabara, seeing the members plastered on every billboard, every public transport TV, appearing on numerous TV shows and hearing their songs playing across the streets and in stores all week. ^^ (more…)

Documentary of AKB48: No flower without rain June 16, 2013

Posted by ayasawada in Film, Music.
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No flower without rain cover

The Documentary of AKB48 films are really special to me. Bearing the production backing of indie director Shinji Iwai and given unparallelled access behind-the-scenes of the AKB machine, it’s fascinating and gripping stuff for anyone intrigued by the circus. Given that these films are also somewhat responsible for me becoming an AKB fan, I’ve been looking forward to this latest one for months. So was it worth the wait? Hell yeah. (more…)

Souzou: outsider art from Japan March 30, 2013

Posted by ayasawada in Culture, Japan, Personal.
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Untitled (2013-03-26 21:20:53)

It’s not often (read: NEVER) that anything in my workplace crosses over with my love of all things Japan. So when my colleagues at Wellcome Collection told me that they were bringing a Japanese exhibition over I got very excited. What I actually saw when the exhibition opened this week blew my mind.  (more…)

Kyary Pamyu Pamyu February 24, 2013

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ありがとう@pamyurin。とっても楽し方! ロンドンはキャリーに大好きだ ^^ #kyary #kpp

Two weeks ago Harajuku superstar Kyary Pamyu Pamyu played in London. As I often say on this blog, it’s rare that any Japanese music comes to the UK so when a pop culture phenomenon who’s riding high in the Japanese charts comes to town, we’re in for an extra special treat.

In all honesty, I hadn’t heard of Kyary up until a few months ago, when a friend asked on the morning of the ticket sales if I was going. I bought one on a whim, figuring a) it’d be fun at least and b) I’m liable to like anything produced by the inimitable Yasutaka Nakata, the man behind my favourite group Perfume.


峯岸みなみへ:みいちゃんがんばって January 31, 2013

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Minegishi Minami

Since becoming an AKB48 fan, Minegishi Minami has been my favourite. Always bright, bubbly and playful, she’s never been as super super popular, but is a founding member and always in the top 20 of the Sousenkyou. So I was pretty upset to read today of this scandal broken in a Japanese tabloid and even more disappointed at the typical AKB management’s reaction to it. Punishment was swift, with Mii-chan demoted to Kenkyusei level for the indiscretion.

On the one hand, you could say this is what all the girls signed up for – the rules on boyfriends, or even to be seen to be doing anything vaguely construed as having anything to do with boys, is pretty clear and it’s not like any number of members haven’t suffered the same paparazzi treatment, scandal and punishment in the past few years. But there’s always the feeling that we, the fans, are far from inconvenienced and more saddened that the reaction to a girl just doing what any normal human being would be doing. And instead of being given a supporting arm around the shoulder she’s shown severe punishment – to the extent that Mii-chan felt she had to shave her head as some form of retribution (I never quite got that as a Japanese self-punishment, but it is one of the few noticeable actions one can do in such a powerless situation, particularly when your hair is one of your most attractive features).

The subsequent apology Mii-chan posted to AKB48’s YouTube channel is totally heartbreaking. (more…)