Taipei: A City for Driving (Introduction)

Last August, I took my first international vacation from Japan, heading to Taiwan for a week of sightseeing around the country. While my trip actually finished in Taipei, I decided to recap my visit by starting in Taiwan's most famous city.

Below are some pictures from around Taipei before I look at individual locations.
 This is the Sun-Yat-Sen Memorial Hall and Library, located near Taipei 101. The first impression I had of Taipei as a city was how big everything is. The economic boom of the 1980s brought about modernization and redevelopment, including very wide boulevards and lots of space. There are still plenty of narrow alleys off the boulevards, similar to the narrow streets of Tokyo, but these are broken up by the wide main thoroughfares. In addition, many of the monuments (such as this one) and modern buildings are gigantic! Tokyo builds high but narrow buildings; Taipei builds up and out. I should note that the east side has more of the boulevards, being newer - the western side of Taipei has more of the smaller buildings and narrow streets.
 I really enjoyed the walking man on the street crossing signs. I think this sign was at a location where you had to cross about ten or twelve lanes of traffic. The man starts out moonwalking forward at a slow rate, but as you get closer to zero he speeds up and starts flashing. There are about 7 million people in the Taipei metro area, and I think there are almost as many cars and motorcycles. The motorcycles are parked and sometimes are driven on the sidewalks .
 Being such a large, spread out city, Taiwan has a lot of public transportation options. Depending on your destination, the subway, buses, or a taxi may be your best bet to get around. At times, the nearest subway station could be a 15-20 minute walk from your location, or the buses may not have a direct route from point A to B. But when you can take the subway, be on the lookout for art. This strange piece was inside one of the metro stations in Taipei!
 As I mentioned, the buildings are huge. The architecture of Taipei is worth looking at, from Taipei 101 to the sports stadiums, offices, and malls scattered around the city.
 Japan has a big influence in Taiwan, because it ruled the country until the end of World War II. Baseball, pop culture, infrastructure, and more can be seen relating back to Japanese. This elephant for the Japanese Hawks team was sitting in a shop window along with some other toys. Be sure to keep your eyes open when walking from place to place in Taipei, because you never know what you'll see.
 Taipei is hot in the summer, and there's no better way to cool down than to have a smoothie. This smoothie was made fresh before my eyes, and then the lid was put on sealing it, protecting it from bugs. Just poke a straw through the top! Yes, it was delicious.
Speaking of food, there are plenty of cafes and restaurants in the sprawling east side. While you should try Taiwanese staples and experience the country's culture, there's nothing wrong in taking a rest and having a slice of pie. Mmm. Pie.

Okay, now that I've warmed up, I'll start bringing you a recap of the locations I visited in Taipei and the rest of Taiwan! Until then...

Summer Festivals in Japan: A Quick Primer

Once the rainy season officially ends, Japanese people dress up in kimonos and costumes and celebrate the season with a bunch of local festivals. Last year, I took a bunch of pictures of the Koshigaya festival. It takes place over two days in front of the Minamikoshigaya/Shinkoshigaya Station complex.
 A large stage is set up in the taxi stand where performers dance and drummers bang on taiko drums. Meanwhile, a massive parade winds its way through the streets all around the station. I'm not really sure how big it actually is, but it takes over large area around the station (not just on this side!).
 Generally, the parade and stage performances are very similar. The dance is fairly simple at its most basic, basically involving stepping/walking while posing arms.
 There are dozens of groups participating in the parade with their own colors and styles of costumes, but they all do similar dances. I'm guessing there are differences to people in the know.
 Usually, groups are all women or all men.
 Sometimes kids are in on it. You can see a basic crossover step that seems to be common in all the dances, along with a bowed/hunched posture.
 There are drummers for each group and chanting.
 The hats and costumes are certainly worth seeing!
And finally, as with any event in Japan, there are stands set up selling goods. Some stands sell toys or have carnival-style games for kids, while plenty of stands sell food or drinks. And despite there being hundreds of stands there always seem to be long lines. But just as good as the costumes are the yukatas. It's pretty cool seeing all the ladies (and some of the guys) wearing yukatas - the women wear very bright, colorful yukatas and frequently wear flowers in their hair.

This year's festival is still about a month away, but now that I know what to expect I'll enjoy it even more and probably be able to learn more about it! But even without any knowledge of what's going on, visitors to Japan should try to see a festival while they're here.

DevilCraft: Chicago Pizza and Beer in Tokyo (and a quick look at the other pizza places)

Last year, I wrote about DevilCraft, a restaurant in Kanda that specializes in craft beer and Chicago-style pizza. Well, I've been back a few times since, with several of my friends, coworkers, and students. I figure it's about time that I show you a few pictures.
The restaurant takes up three tiny floors of a building near Kanda Station. The first floor is a bar, while the second and third floors have restaurant-style tables. I tend to get a Hoegaarden at some point every time I go, and on this particular trip it was my first drink.
A handful of appetizers are available - waffle fries (below), buffalo-style chicken wings, veggies (above), salsa or avocado dip with tortilla chips, and gyoza - in addition to some snacks like nuts and edamame.
The fries are pretty good, especially since waffle fries aren't very common around here. Look closely at the above picture and you'll see all the beer taps in the background.
This is a hand pump, though I've never seen anything advertised as being served from a hand pump. [And then I look at their website as I type up this post, and notice that they do have a beer served from the hand pump.]
So, how's the pizza? Pretty good. Different pizzas give different results. The two most-expensive pizzas (deluxe at 3100 yen and Meatzilla at a whopping 3700 yen) have more fillings and thus come out more Chicago-style-ish. The ones with less variety of toppings/fillings seem to have a bit more tomato sauce instead of more of each topping. Normally I wouldn't mind, but it does make the pizza a bit more runny.

As the only Chicago pizza place in town (as far as I know), it's hard to compare, but the pizza and beer is good, and it's as authentic as you can probably get in Japan.

I've sampled some of the other pizza choices in Japan, so here's a quick rundown.

Pizza-La is a major chain here, just like Domino's and Pizza Hut in America. They serve unique pizza by American tastes, with toppings including corn and mayonnaise appearing randomly among the offerings (even on a "meat" pizza I picked up once). Japanese pizza is generally served on thin crust and the toppings are exotic by American standards.

Domino's Pizza has established itself here in Japan, and they serve fairly standard pizza. The only crust I've tried is the thinner Japanese-style crust, and the pizza didn't have very much flavor. Like Pizza-La, Domino's uses different ingredients from what one might find on an American pizza.

The other big delivery company is Pizza Hut, also transplanted from the US. They, too, offer pizzas with strange toppings, and their frequent fliers in my mailbox advertise their "Four" pizzas, with four different sets of toppings for each person in the family or group. They are quite strange combinations, and many of them come drizzled with mayonnaise. But they do offer a few pizzas similar to US style pizzas, and their pan pizza crust has pretty good flavor. They have filled-crust pizzas, with cheese or sausage, though I haven't tried those. The meat lover's pizza I've had a few times has a lot of toppings and is delicious!

Keep in mind that Japanese pizza sizes are much smaller. I'd eat 2-3 pan pizza slices and be happy in America, but it takes half a medium pizza to keep me satisfied here.

Sbarro offers authentic (at least, as authentic as Sbarro is in America) New York style pizza in Shibuya (and probably a few other places). The slices are a bit expensive but are larger - two slices are certainly enough for me here. They had Chicago style pizza slices the last few times I went as well, though they aren't really as thick as Chicago pizza is supposed to be.

As before, I'm always looking for more pizza places to try, so shoot your suggestions my way via comment or email!

Location: Hama-Rikyu Detached Garden, Tokyo

 Let's visit a large garden a short walk from Ginza! It's right across this bridge.
 Hama-Rikyu is a landscape garden located next to Tsukiji and Shiodome, and is a very nice way to escape the city. Surrounded by an old moat, you can see an old stone wall as you enter the park through Otemon Gate.
 Unlike Japanese landscape gardens, Hama-Rikyu is a large garden designed for strolling. You'll find very wide paths and lots of grass.
 The skyscrapers of the city peak over the trees, but the size of the park means it is very quiet!
 Stroll around and you'll occasionally see flowers.
 I visited on a very nice Sunday, and the garden had several people inside, but the large size meant that I could feel like I had the place almost to myself.
 I'm not sure if it's allowed, but lots of trees provide shade where you could sit or lay down and read a book, or have a picnic.
 Or, you can enjoy big open fields with occasional trees. I like the shapes of the trees at Hama-Rikyu.
 Tree house foundation?
 An  old stone lantern looms in the distance.
 The garden feels very natural and the plants and trees go together well.
 Gardens are one of my favorite places to take close-up photography.

 It isn't hard to find space, but a certain area of the park is reserved for relaxing, with picnic tables. I believe sports activities aren't allowed, however.
 As you get deeper into the park, you'll find an old moat hiding among the trees.
 This shady path leads to some remains of the garden's former usage.
 Follow the stone steps up the small hill.
 And you come to some open water area.
 The pond was used for duck hunting. The reconstructed duck hunting blinds are hidden enough that most people might not even know they're there.
 You can walk around the pond and hide in the blinds.
 I was a little worried about insects hiding inside, but actually they were fairly safe.
 This is a view from another hunting blind. The skyscrapers of Shiodome are visible behind the trees.
 Continuing around the garden, there are cleaner waters to see.
 A large lake is cut into by a series of bridges.
 It's Mt. Fuji...mi. Head up the stairs for a nice view.
 You can see most of the garden from up here!
 The bridges are the traditional arched-style, though you won't cross any moon-shaped bridges.
 Another hill in the distance is a nice place to gather.
 A couple tea houses are found around the lake.
 The east side of the park, around the lake, is fairly open and empty, so you can focus on the beauty of the lake.
 I think this is the only statue in the entire garden.
 Nearby is an old traditional house which was closed. You can walk around some of it though.
 A more garden-like garden is near the house.
 A couple was taking wedding pictures here, seen to the right.
 Into the woods.
 Hama-Rikyu is quite large. I returned to the small hill near the lake just as the large group was leaving.
 Most gardens use lake shores with lots of bays and peninsulas to create mini scenes. You won't really find that here.
 Another tea house is located on the northeast side of the park.
 This field could be used for planting, I suppose. After seeing everything in the west and south sections of the park, the northern portion of the park felt kind of forgotten.
 I see these flowers fairly frequently here in Japan. They're really beautiful.
 There is one really cool thing on the north side of the park: 300-year old pine tree. It was planted in 1709.

Hama-Rikyu isn't a landscape garden designed to recreate famous nature scenes from around the world, but it is a beautiful, large garden that provides a quiet place to stroll and enjoy greenery. Tea can be had in the teahouse and snacks are available nearby as well. Plan to spend an hour at minimum for a stroll around the garden - you could easily spend two or three hours here if you have a seat and relax in the fields. Plus, you can watch the water taxis go by from the east side of the island.

The garden is about 10-15 minutes from Shinbashi Station (less from Shiodome Station), and admission is only 300 yen. It's open from 9-5. A free English audio tour is available at the entry gates, and while I haven't tried it I've heard it is very good.