Happy Fourth of July! Japanese Snacks for an American Summer

Summer in Japan isn't really much different from summer in America. Where in the US everyone takes July 4th off to grill out and watch fireworks, Japanese towns and cities have differing dates for local festivals and fireworks shows. The festivals are similar to old-style American town fairs, with food stands, kid's games, and various events. The only thing missing is the carnival midway!

With summer here comes summery drinks. But first, some things to snack on:
These are "Hot and Sour Tacos" flavored Doritos. They've got a nice kick and a good bit of sourness similar to sour cream or vinegar. I shared the bag with my coworkers and everybody enjoyed them! They're probably quite limited like the other Doritos special flavors.
I'm sure you can guess what these are. Watermelon is a summer luxury here (they don't come cheap!) but you can find watermelon-flavored candies in hotter months. One popular ice cream manufacturer makes really good watermelon-flavored bars with chocolate "seeds" inside. And these little chocolates taste like watermelon too, though it's a fairly mild taste.
After snacking, you're going to want something to wash it down. Last year, it seemed like yuzu (a lemon-like citrus fruit) sodas and drinks were everywhere. They are back again this summer, as is melon soda. But something that I grabbed just a couple days ago for the first time is this "Blue Hawaii Float" soda. Made by Pokka Sapporo, it's part of the Gabunomi drink line. The other flavor I regularly see is melon float (if you look at the logo on Kanna Hashimoto's shirt, you'll see it's green to match the melon soda bottle). Blue Hawaii tastes like... blue. Sweet, but with no really distinct flavor. Perhaps cotton candy, or bubble gum. It's good, at least for kids!

This summer, there is one set of drinks I want to find. Ramune is a soda like Sprite, sold in glass bottles with glass stoppers and is fairly unique to Japan. I see the usual flavors fairly often here, but there is an entire rainbow of colors and flavors sold across the country. I'm hoping I can find at least a dozen different flavors in the next few months... I guess I'll be stopping at the kid's snack shops and souvenir stands as much as possible!

Boy, could I go for some grilled sausages or steak, a chili cheese dog, and a Fritos pie now.

Happy Fourth of July!

Tokyo SkyTree: Inside the Base

Don't expect any cool behind-the-scenes photos here. Actually, I only have two photos for this post.
Tokyo SkyTree is Japan's newest and most visible man-made landmark. You can see the thing from all over Tokyo and beyond with clear weather, and it's highly popular with foreign and domestic tourists alike. When something makes the "must-see" list in Japan, everybody goes. (See also: Disneyland, Mount Fuji, Kyoto, and Hiroshima's A-Bomb Dome.)

While the prior generation Tokyo Tower remains standing and still draws its own share of tourists, that development was more for TV purposes, with only a small shopping/dining area found beneath. SkyTree was heavily planned to generate as much revenue and tourist interest as possible regardless of the weather, so the 10-ish floors found at the base have more than just a couple restaurants and souvenir shops.
Like fresh fruit (in plastic packaging) vending machines.

Actually, the first three or so floors of the complex serve as a standard shopping mall. There are the usual clothing and accessories stores, the usual mall restaurants, and so on. There's a Disney Store and a store for Studio Ghibli. There do seem to be more shops selling souvenirs, though the fourth floor is designated specifically for souvenirs. Next to the McDonald's, we found a store for one of the major TV studios with all sorts of goods relating to many of the popular Japanese TV shows. 

There's also a popular aquarium, a planetarium, and the relocated (and refocused) Postal Museum Japan. Many restaurants are found on the sixth and seventh floors.

Granted, if you come to SkyTree, you're probably coming for the view. But you can also plan on the museum and aquarium, and if the weather isn't so good the food souvenir areas are worth a stroll to try a bunch of traditional Japanese snacks.

Shikoku: The City of Kochi

 Kochi is a small, quiet city. It's about as far off the beaten path as big cities can go. A single transportation route from Kagoshima at the southern end of Kyushu up to Aomori and even Sapporo and Wakkanai at the northern tip of Hokkaido can be drawn. It runs through almost every important city in Japan - Kagoshima Fukuoka, Hiroshima, Okayama, Himeji, Kobe, Osaka, Kobe, Nagoya, Yokohama, Tokyo, Sendai, Morioka, Hachinohe, Aomori, Hakodate, Sapporo, and finally Wakkanai. Shikoku doesn't figure in that route at all, and far off that line is Kochi.

It is a coastal town, though, and as such could be reached by ships traveling north and south traveling through the Pacific Ocean. And today, it remains quiet and fairly isolated, with a fairly flat main area.
 One thing I noticed very quickly was Anpanman. Kochi is home to an Anpanman Museum, and the streetcar at the top of this post and these benches near the main train station are a constant reminder of that fact.
 Kochi is known for several locally-produced goods (what town in Japan isn't?) including naruko. That giant red, black, and yellow wooden "toy" was originally created to keep birds away from rice crops, and are primarily used in dance festivals today.
 The train station has a visitor's center that showcases a lot about the region's history, though English signage was minimal.
 Kochi is another town with a proud history of samurai, including Sakamoto Ryoma. There is a museum telling his story and about Kochi in town, and these three large statues watch over Kochi from the train station. I didn't visit because I didn't know about it at the time, but there are some free samurai residences near Kochi Castle.
 There is a large pedestrian shopping arcade about a ten minute walk from the station. There's a tourist attraction nearby, and the castle is about 10 minutes away as well.
 Don't be surprised when I tell you Kochi has a mascot. Everything in Japan has a mascot. I wonder if any mascots have mascots. Anyway, he's modeled after that naruko Kochi is apparently known for.
There's a small river running parallel to the shopping street. Nearby is that tourist attraction, but you'll also find more statues of Anpanman characters along the main streets. I believe those are whales in the water, a nod to Kochi's maritime history.
 Hello Kitty is everywhere, including on Harimayabashi! There's a story about this small bridge that draws Japanese visitors to the site.
 A priest from the nearby temple of Godaisan (where relationships aren't allowed) and a girl from Kochi met in secret and had a forbidden romance. They would exchange small gifts; one day the priest was seen buying a comb here and their affair was discovered. The story says the two fled the city to avoid punishment. Of course, you can buy hair combs at the shopping arcade along with your own naruko.
 Anpanman. Is. Everywhere. I really don't know much about the show, other than it's unbelievably popular even after all these years (how?!) and the characters are all pieces of bread. I call the sliced bread guy Powdered Toast Man because of the character on Ren & Stimpy (which was probably created because of this show).
The heavy rains Shikoku suffered during my stay threatened the safety of the railway and closed my route home. Luckily I was able to buy a bus ticket and get back to my hotel that night.

Kochi wasn't a planned stop, so I feel like I missed out on some things I would have seen if I had prepared a bit more. Those samurai houses would have been a definite stop, and I might have stopped at the local museum of art, the Sakamoto museum, and possibly even the Anpanman museum.

Additionally, Kochi is known for a bonito (shipjack tuna) dish called katsuo no tataki, It looks pretty good, but timing and uncertainty of travel meant that I couldn't stay for dinner. I don't even remember having lunch there! I probably grabbed a sandwich and ate on the train ride to Kochi.

Anyway, access is not so tough from Okayama (2.5 hours) and other cities in Shikoku, though getting in from Shikoku cities might require changing trains somewhere like Marugame. In town, there are two tram lines that can help those not keen on walking get around the main sights.

Getting out to Mount Godaisan, where a temple and botanical garden are located, and beyond to Katsurahama Beach, where the Sakamoto Ryoma museum is, requires a bit more time. The best way to access both is with the My Yu Bus. A day pass is 1000 yen (only 500 yen for foreign tourists, passport required) and will let you get to both sites fairly easily. My Yu buses run about once every one or two hours.

Shikoku: Kochi Castle

 Boy does Shikoku have a lot of castles. Then again, so does Japan. But Shikoku has a larger concentration of original castles, and I managed to visit a bunch of them during my short stay on the island. Kochi's castle was a last-minute addition to my itinerary - I wasn't expecting to go to Kochi on this trip but the weather canceled other plans... and seriously messed up even these simple plans.
After hiking up yet another mountain, I found myself looking at Kochi's keep. It looks great on the well-landscaped grounds, but most of the building is fairly low-lying.
 It does have one thing going for it - it's an original castle. You can wander through the building's original halls and rooms.
 While a lot of people make a big fuss about Japan's whaling industry, in the past those gigantic animals were a major source of food and materials.

As you travel through the castle, you can get a few good views of the town and other parts of the castle structure.
 As one would expect, a good collection of artifacts are found throughout, and this castle has multiple dioramas showing life in Kochi during the feudal era.

While the castle itself is nice and I still enjoy visiting ones I have yet to see, it is a bit tough to find something unique about many of them. I think the dioramas are pretty cool, especially that whaling one I showed above.
 Kochi Castle is located near the Kochijo-mae tram stop. Using the tram costs 200 yen, takes 15 minutes, and requires a transfer. Alternatively, you can just walk from JR Kochi Station in about 20 minutes and save a little money. The downtown area of Harimayabashi is about 10 minutes away on foot, with shopping arcades and famous tiny bridge.

The castle is open 9:00-17:00 (closed around the last week of the year), and admission is 420 yen.

Shikoku: Marugame Castle

 My last day on Shikoku island was improvised due to weather issues. And the weather continued to affect my itinerary later in the day. But my first stop went over good enough.
 Marugame is the town in Shikoku closest to Okayama, and sits at a narrow portion of the Inland Sea which gave it quite a military advantage. So it should be no surprise that there's a castle situated on the hill overlooking the port. A park in front of the castle has some large modern art.
 The weather wasn't exactly nice here, being overcast and later turning to rain. But at least the showers held off until I was on my way back to the station. It's a bit of a hike uphill to reach the castle.
 The location really is perfect for keeping an eye on the entire surrounding area. The ports and even Honshu (the main island) are visible to the north on clear days, while the valley surrounding the castle affords views for miles in the other directions.
The stone walls remain from the original construction, as well as the inner moat.
 The castle keep isn't very large, but it is original.
 Inside are a few exhibits and you can explore around.
 It's a cozy castle keep, and there isn't much to see, but I'd be happy to call this home.
 On the western side of the castle park is a museum building with artifacts inside and out. Photography isn't allowed inside, but there were some nice large art - old maps and scrolls and such.
 In addition to the large farming equipment under the museum building overhang, the outside displays include some cases with things from the Showa era. I love the old advertising signs!

Kameyama Park is the official name of the park with Marugame Castle, and it's located about 15 minutes on foot from Marugame Station. You can catch a bus for 200 yen that will get you there in 5 minutes. The grounds and museum are free, but entrance to the keep will cost 200 yen - not a bad price to pay for an original castle. The keep is open 9:00-16:30, closed the last week of the year.