Itadakemasu!

I’ve already blogged about food experiences in Japan, so I won’t repeat (m)any of those observations here. As before, this is a fairly random collection of foods and restaurants from our recent trip, with no overall theme or message.

One of the first places we ate in was chosen with the kids in mind, and the food was probably the least important part of the experience. Kawaii Monster Café is located in Harajuku, and is probably a perfect distillation of the kind of colourful, playful pop culture for which that Tokyo district is best known. It sits on the top floor of a shopping mall on the main street, and the queue to enter is usually quite long. I’d managed to book a table in advance and so we walked right in, and as soon as the doors opened the loudness (both in terms of music and colour) hit us right in the face.

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This should give a better idea:

In the centre of the room sits a cake-shaped podium. These ladies spend most of the time wandeing around, posing for photos with the diners, but once you’ve finished eating they climb aboard the cake and spend about 15 minutes dancing to loud J-pop songs. But even louder was the hostess who spent the almost the entire duration of their routine screeching into a microphone. I have no idea what she was saying but I don’t think I missed much of any importance.

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The food itself is colourful but bland. Basically fast food with added psychedelic colouring.

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Although I like the idea of a dessert that looks like it’s trying to eat you.

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Go for the novelty and the “vibe”, not the food.

Coffee is easy to find in Japan. Good coffee, not so easy. Even the Starbucks drinks taste a little different there, and when we were on the go I usually found it easier to just grab one from a machine. Kind of disgusting if you’re expecting it to taste like normal coffee, and usually very sweet, but I developed a bit of a habit nonetheless. Also, I know that in some places frappuccino is a thing, but Japan is the only place I’ve been where they systematically ask you when you order a coffee if you want it hot or cold.

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One drink they do well, obviously, is saké. At dinner one night we were served saké “sosogi-koboshi” style, which basically means that the glass is filled until it overflows into a little box underneath. The origins of this practice are shrouded in mystery and some people object to it for hygiene reasons. I didn’t object and greedily slurped it all up. Further explanations here.

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In the same restaurant the menu was an interesting read. There was some discussion about the difference between “guts” and “entrails”, and puzzlement over “entrails upwards”. My personal favourite is the contrast between danger and delicacy in the description “Shark cartilage dressed with plum pulp”.

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I also like number 10 below, which manages to be both very specific and frustratingly vague at the same time.

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I’ve written before about my appreciation for okonomiyaki, and in Hiroshima I got to try a local variation. Most of the recipe is the same, with savoury pancakes, shredded cabbage, some optional extras like bacon and cheese.

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But in Hiroshima they also add a layer of fried noodles in the middle, before topping it all with a brushful of that dark, sweet okonomi sauce.

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Sashimi is pretty.

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Especially when served in a mirrored bowl.

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Tempura too, although I’m more used to seeing shrimp and beans than these strangely formed mushrooms:

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Finally, we wandered one night just off the fringes of Shinjuku, into a neighbourhood of narrow lanes full of small bars and even smaller restaurants. We chose a ramen noodle bar.

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We were told to wait outside in the adjacent alleyway until some space freed up.

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Inside there was room for about ten diners. Note the tissue boxes above their heads.

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The options were limited and basically consisted of minor variations on a bowl of noodles topped with pork. Prices depended on the quality of pork used, and whether or not you wanted some extra toppings. The waiter punched your order into this machine and you paid by inserting cash. The priciest dish on the menu: the “Super Golden Unbelievable Niboshi Ramen”, is around €12.

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This picture behind the bar gave you some idea of what to expect. I’m sure it says lots of other things too but I can’t read kanji.

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Served with a large sheet of nori (pressed, dried seaweed). The broth was amazingly rich and tasty, the noodles slightly al dente (you could choose how soft or hard you wanted them when you placed your order). Very satisfying.

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Sakura

Sakura is a big deal in Japan. Sakura being the word for cherry blossom, that is. And they even have a word which specifically means ‘looking at cherry blossoms’: ‘hanami’.

Every year the progress of the blossoms across the country is obsessively tracked, trees are judged for the percentage of blossom, and large group outings are organised to the most photogenic spots. The last time we were in Japan, in 2008, we only caught the end of the display when it was starting to fade, but this time we got lucky and arrived at peak blossom. We also got to see something we’d missed the last time: night-time sakura.

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And of course when one is viewing sakura at night, one must celebrate with a glass of single serving ‘One Cup’ saké from the local convenience store.

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But daylight is probably still the best way to see the flowers, and again we got lucky with several days of warmth and sunshine. Local parks were packed.

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Photography is essential #hanami #sakura #nofilter

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“Quick, take a photo of me taking a photo of the sakura!”

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The next two photos were taken by my daughter.

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Large bins are provided to collect all the refuse generated by the wild partying. Some groups even picnic directly on these large plastic sheets, and then pick the whole thing up and dump it in here afterwards. TV news features rolling coverage of the extent of the blossoms and the size of the crowds.

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Although there’s always one straggler who’s reluctant to leave…

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Volterra AD 1398

I’m a bit of a sucker for medieval fayres. Not sure why, as all the luxuriant beards and local artisans make it look a bit like history for hipsters. But it’s certainly photogenic, and the Italians do that aspect better than most. On a recent trip to Tuscany we stopped for a couple of nights in Volterra, in time for a two-day event called Volterra AD 1398. 

We started in the main square, watching some very energetic flag-twirling displays.

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Video, so you can better appreciate the twirliness:

Other parts look more like a BDSM convention.

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Love the curly beard – chain mail combo.

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The food’s usually good too, as long as you’re happy looking it in the face while you eat it.

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I opted for a cheesey sausage sandwich. The cheese melting technique was low tech but efficient.

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I had to pay with “grossi”. The exchange rate was one grosso to the Euro.

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Authentic 14th century doughnuts were also available.

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In addition to artisans, stallholders and performers there were plenty of people just wandering around in costume. Although maybe that was considered a kind of performance too.

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There was also a falconry display, although when I passed by all the raptors were resting.

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At first glance I thought this manuscript illuminator had an iPhone, but it turned out to be his palette.

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Others just sit there and soak up the attention.

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One thing seems sure: being medieval is really tiring.

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Laulupidu: Estonian Song Festival

Laulupidu is an event which takes place every five years in the Estonian capital Tallinn. There’s an overview of the history of the event here, and it’s deeply rooted in Estonian culture and their sense of national identity. It’s part of a weekend-long festival which incorporates dancing and choirs both adult and junior. We were there to watch our daughter, whose school choir had been accepted as participants.

The day started at 09:30 as all the choirs gathered in Freedom Square in the city centre. The bears arrived early.

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It was a grey day so many people came wearing transparent plastic ponchos, but the rain held off.

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The parade made its way through the centre of the city and down a wide road towards the festival grounds, about 5 kilometres away.

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Apart from the impromptu singing from some groups (other saved themselves for the actual concert) the main attraction for me were the traditional costumes.

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I wasn’t the only one taking photos.

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I’m not really sure what the large yellow ball signifies, but many people at the head of their group had them. There were choirs from all across Estonia present, plus some from Canada and the US.

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Several people had these large circular metallic brooches.

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That’s the Estonian flag. The colours represent sky, earth and snow.

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At the grounds themselves the crowds gathered. We had seats quite close to the front. Those on the slope in the background were standing or sitting on blankets.

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And there are the singers. Thousands of them.

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There was a brief ceremony at the start with an Olympic-style torch.

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And then the singing started. For the first few songs everyone sang together, which made quite an impression.

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Then some left the stage and a certain number of children’s choirs (including my daughter) sang five or six songs, all in Estonian. here are extracts from my favourite two.

 

 

 

Although this kind of event can never have the same significance or emotional charge for someone not raised in that culture, it’s still powerful and moving to see and hear that many people singing in harmony. If that whet your appetite, you can see full coverage of the parade and the concert on the website of the national TV broadcaster.

Tallinn stories

The title is a lie. I don’t have any stories about Tallinn, just photos. But you know me: I like bad puns.

Anyway, Tallinn is a lovely place to spend a weekend. The exceptionally well-preserved historic centre is a UNESCO World Heritage site. Here’s the town hall in the main square.

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And here are some crazy, thrill-seeking Estonians sitting on a sloping roof in the main square.

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That’s Olde Hansa on the left, a medieval-themed restaurant which is actually less tacky than it sounds. Decent food, too.

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Dragon-gargoyles on the town hall.

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There are lots of guild halls and merchant houses in the lower town, many dating from the 13th-14th century when Tallinn (known as Reval in those days) was part of the Hanseatic League.

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The nobles used to live in the upper town, which has a nicer view.

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Apart from anything else it was handy for seeing when another ferry-load of Finnish tourists had arrived.

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Just outside the old city walls, across the road and behind the train station (only a ten minute walk) is the achingly hip area of Telliskivi. An old abandoned industrial zone, this is now home to ‘creative’ types and their media start-up offices, coffee bars, eateries and live music venues. There are lots of nice murals.

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And the inevitable trash rodents.

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A little farther north is another area being prettied up with murals and new apartments and restaurants. The neighbourhood of Kalamaja used to be home to fishermen and their families. There’s still a small harbour with a regular fish market, and some of the old wooden houses still survive, although there’s a lot of new construction going on.

Murals abound here too.

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The chimney on the right is part of an old chemical factory where Tarkovsky shot scenes for his film Stalker back in the early ’70s. Now it’s being converted into a cultural centre.

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That’s Tallinn. It’s the kind of town where ancient and modern co-exist.

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More photos here.

Museum, metro, church

There’s a lot of art in Russia, and it isn’t always in galleries. A lot of it is in churches, for obvious historical reasons. Here’s St. Basil’s cathedral, probably the most famous church in Russia, in Moscow’s Red Square.

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The interior is as baroque as any Russian church, with a richly decorated iconostasis behind the altar.

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The Church of the Saviour on the Spilled Blood (so called because Alexander II was wounded there in an assassination attempt) in St. Petersburg has a very similar exterior design.

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The big shiny door in the iconostasis. The craftsmanship involved is amazing, but after a while my eyes get tired looking at this kind of thing.

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But what interested me more about this particular church was the art on the walls. The entire interior is covered with mosaics.

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Lots of them. And very colourful ones.

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Apart from the skill involved in creating something like this out of tiny pieces of coloured stone, I love the colours and graphic style.

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If you’re in St. Petersburg and you like art there’s only really one place to go: the Hermitage. It houses mostly foreign (i.e. non-Russian) art, and it’s huge. It’s also as richly decorated as the churches.

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Which is fine if all you want to look at is the building, but it can sometimes feel as if the rooms are fighting for your attention, distracting you from the art they were built to house.

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I overheard a private tour guide telling a couple that she recommended limiting their visit to two hours, and I had to agree as by that time I was feeling a little:

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It also has a quite confusing layout and it took me half an hour to find the exit, which had me feeling quite:

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Next door is another section of the Heritage collection (it’s actually spread over several buildings) called the General Staff Building. This may sound like an odd name for an art museum, but then again the name of the Uffizi in Florence translates as “the offices”. In here the decor was plain enough to let you concentrate on the paintings, which were mostly more modern than in the main building, which suited me as it meant fewer religious scenes and aristocratic portraits.

The school group seemed to appreciate it too.

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Art of a different kind is on display in the Kremlin armoury in Moscow. Initially I was skeptical about the prospect of looking at weaponry in glass cases, but some of the ceremonial and specially created diplomatic gift versions of firearms were fascinating, like these very steampunk pistols.

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Or these moustachioed masks.

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There are a lot of gilded regligious knick-knacks which I found quite boring, but also some more wacky and original stuff like these goblets made out of nautilus shells.

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But art is also for the proletariat, which explains the opulence of Moscow metro stations. Other metro systems are decorated with art (Brussels, for example) but not quite in this style or on this scale. We only saw a few stations during our stay but they made an impression.

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You can see some more stations here.

One thing I did rather miss on this trip was seeing some of the old Communist graphics and art, as a lot of that was junked post-Glasnost. Which is a shame as it’s very pretty. You still see bits of it here and there in the streets.

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And in museums, of course. This display was in St. Petersburg’s museum of political history.

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And of course there’s one Hero of the Soviet Union whose place in history will never be erased. This stunning statue of Yuri Gagarin can be found looking over a rather large and otherwise featureless intersection just off the south side of Gorky Park.

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More photos in the flickr album.

Izmailovsky market

Shopping is, for many people, an integral part of the travel experience. Whether it’s the search for the perfect souvenir or gift, the chance to find authentic local produce and crafts, or just the desire to hang out in an everyday environment with local people going about their business, it’s often one of the most enjoyable parts of visiting another country.

Often when in a foreign land we’ll pop in to a local supermarket just to get an idea of what’s different and what’s the same as back home, and we did this a couple of times during our recent week in Moscow. But a few hundred metres down the road from one of these supermarkets was a slightly different kind of retail experience: Izmailovsky market. From the outside as you approach it from the metro station it looks fairly kitsch: a Disney vision of a Russian castle with a profusion of colourful decorated towers.

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Inside you are thrown immediately into a partly covered area housing a succession of stalls offering the most typical tourist tat and souvenirs. More matryoshka dolls than you can imagine, both the traditionally decorated kind and more modern iterations (political figures, Marvel superheroes and Disney characters…).

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Other popular offerings are small lacquered boxes painted with farytale scenes (we got one for each of our daughters), icons and books about Russian art. There are also many shops with a large selection of Putin t-shirts. He’s inevitably portrayed in a completely unironic fashion looking cool and masterful, wearing sunglasses, riding on a bear’s back. I’m trying to think of any other country where you could buy such worshipful merchandise based on a head of state. Certainly nowhere in Europe. And these aren’t just for tourists: I saw a guy on the Moscow metro wearing the one in the centre of the top row, with Putin karate kicking Obama.

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Once you push past the tourist section you can go to an upstairs area which is more of a traditional flea market. These places always fascinate me, not because I particularly want anything they have to sell, but because it’s amusing to see the completely random selections of objects the vendors put together, and you wonder how much of it they ever sell, and to whom.

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Back down on ground level and out towards the back end of the market there’s a different feel, as we enter the realm of the arms dealers. Men in camouflage jackets scowl over large collections of guns, grenades and uniforms, and there was even one display of a motorbike and sidecar ridden by dummies in uniform toting Kalashnikovs and AK-47s. I had been advised not to take any photos in this part of the market.

Once we’d had our fill and had stopped for a plate of grilled meat and pickles, we were about to head back when we realised that there was a large building to the side which we hadn’t yet visited. It turned out to be a more recent addition to the complex; a kind of cultural centre featuring a large wooden church, food court, and various artisan workshops and boutiques.

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We tried a glass of fruit punch, and also stopped in one of the cafes for a cup of tea and a selection of fruit sweets made from apple and egg whites called pastila.

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When we’d finally had our fill (and had bought a fridge magnet and a t-shirt) we made our way back to the metro station. But just outside the cultural centre we saw what looked like a wedding party, based on the billowing white dress and the white stretch Humvees.

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Further along the road I saw no fewer than seven more stretch Humvees, presumably part of the same party.

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All in all a pleasant way to spend an afternoon and a good way to sample various aspects of Russian culture all in one spot.