Friday, 11 March 2016

Japan - Oshin's Country

Does anyone remember the old TV series, Oshin? The tale of struggles of a poor Japanese girl who changes her destiny through hard work and resilience. From an abused and ill-treated baby sitter, she becomes the owner of one of the biggest chain stores in Tokyo. I used to watch it on Pakistan Television in early 90s. It was remade in 2013. Though, the story did not resonate with me, but Oshin was my first childhood hero. I was obsessed with Oshin and her story and naturally also fell in love with the country the series was set it in. When I came to know that we are visiting Japan for a company trip, I was thrilled. I knew I will not be able to see anything related to Oshin, as she was just a fictional character, but I was excited as I was going to - Japan...I was finally going to Oshin's country!

It was a full packed 4D3N trip to Tokyo with back to back activities. As it was all arranged by a tour agency, I did not need to put any brain in planning the trip but I think a few tips below will help you plan your trip better...

In March the weather was cold between 2-14 degree centigrade. I needed a good jacket to keep myself warm but did not need any body warmers. It was pleasantly cold during the day but for walks in night, I kept a scarf to cover myself. 

We took ANA airline on the morning of 3rd March which was a straight 6 hours flight from Kuala Lumpur to Narita Airport, Tokyo. We were greeted at the airport by our tour agent who took us to our hotel in suburbs of Tokyo for check-in. On the way to the hotel we stopped at a restaurant to have a Japanese Bar B Que buffet dinner. The BBQ grill was fixed in the table and you could take raw meat from the buffet and cook it according to your taste, seasoning as you liked.

Along with multiple available choices of meat in the buffet, we were served Kobe beef as well which is a delicacy in Japan. It was non halal so I could not try it but if I go visit again, I will definitely look for halal buffet. Kobe beef is quite expensive as this beef is obtained from a special breed of cattle called Tajima-gyu, raised in a special way. It needs to be pure breed. I understand that there are different theories regarding how Kobe beef gets its flavor, marble feel and smooth texture. Some say that the cow is given beer to achieve this type of meat while some say that the cow is given milk or sake (Japanese rice wine) and is massaged regularly. One theory says that with the massage and milk, classical music is also played which increases the appetite of the cow. Basically, the cow is given a lavish treatment which yields soft meat that melts in mouth. Kobe beef is expensive but an amazing culinary experience especially while visiting Japan. The box below of five pieces was for 70USD

We checked into APA Hotel & Resort Makuhari Bay which was almost an hour away from airport. It had plenty of shops and cafes at a walking distance which we explored on the very first night, right after check in.  Kaihin-Makuhari train station was just at 10 minutes walk. The hotel was very nice and comfortable with an in house Onsen which was operational from 5am to 1pm. Onsen or public bath is also a very Japanese thing to do. Onsens are hot springs. It is a traditional way of bathing which is considered a kind of icebreaker, a way to communicate and getting to know people better. I do remember seeing this in Oshin as well, but perhaps that was very traditional version. Latest Onsen are very sophisticated and well built with pools, saunas and fitness facilities. There are well defined etiquette of using this public bath that you must read before opting for the experience. Read the details of Onsen here.

The next day, we had the wake up call at 7am and after breakfast we went to see Mount Fuji and Owakudani Volcanic Valley at Hakone. We took an aerial tram to the top of Mount Komagatake for these breathtaking views. I saw the snow covered tip of Mount Fuji for a bit before it hid itself behind the clouds. My phone could not do justice to the beautiful scenery that we witnessed. 

We cruised on Lake Ashi and had traditional Udong noodles at a small Island.

After lunch, we went to Gotemba Premium Outlets for some 'serious shopping'. Gotemba is huge open shopping area with almost 205 shops. We had only one and a half hour to shop. Imagine! I think you need at least half a day there since brands like Gap, Abercrombie & Fitch, Banana Republic, Ralph Lauren and Tommy Hilfiger were cheaper compared to Kuala Lumpur (not US). My friends bought Seiko and G-Shock watches, Ray-Ban sun glasses at really good prices. In one and half hour that is all that we could do ;) 

We had cold crabs and clams for dinner at quite a posh place. The name was in Japanese so I don't remember. I overdosed myself on the desserts and ice creams which were quite nice.

After dinner, we decided to take the train to Shinjuko and roam around in the streets to see the night life and shop a bit. The train map is pretty mind boggling and all the instructions are written in Japanese and Chinese. In fact, most signs were only in Japanese. We took help from the information counter and reached Shinjuko without getting lost! 

Make up and skin care products are a must to buy. Brands like Shiseido, Kose and SKII are cheap and available in their normal pharmacies. In fact all the toiletries in our hotel were Shiseido. Horse oil products are very famous in Japan. Moisturizers, body creams, lotions and hand creams of Horse oil! No, I did not buy any. No, there was no horse smell! 

After our shopping we took train back to hotel for about 850Yen (approx. 8USD), while the taxi for the same distance would have costed us 20,000Yen (Approx200USD). (Just giving you a perspective of how expensive taxis are in Japan). The walk from one station to the other was not less than a marathon and it took us almost an hour to reach but that’s the fun part when you are traveling, isn't it? I observed the local people dressed in office attire, tired, returning to their homes from work around 11pm. They all looked drained and sad which just shows how tough is the working environment in Japan. It made me wonder if all the technology and development is worth it when you do have every facility and but no time to enjoy it! 

The next day we went to Ameyoko Shopping Street. By chance we found a whole row of halal food shops! There was a Pakistan Mosque too, a few meters away, but due to shortage of time I could not visit it. Ameyoko shopping street has all kinds of things to buy. Clothes, shoes, bags, accessories, dried fruits, fresh fruits, snacks, fish etc. There is a 3 storey Uniqlo in this shopping street as well. 

But I was so over joyed at the discovery of Halal food that at 9 am, just half an hour after I had a lavish breakfast, I bought my lunch from Oskar Kebabs. I was in full agreement with its tag line 'No Kebabs, No Life'. I devoured the shawarama/Kebab roll greedily while my friends enjoyed their Sushi lunch at Sushi Zanmai, Ginza which according to them was the best sushi! I cannot appreciate sushi so I have no idea if it was good or bad but I can confidently say that after two days of seafood, my shawarma tasted heavenly too! 

It was such a treat to find a fully blossomed Sakura tree right in front of Ameyoko shopping street. Sakura is expected to bloom by April. So, it was a bonus to see one in March. It was an absolutely beautiful sight. It was just one tree and many people around it, taking photographs and selfies :)

Later, we took the monorail to Odaiba to see Gundam (The giant robot in picture below), Statue of Liberty and Tokyo Bay. I did not know there was a Statue of Liberty in Japan too. Who needs New York now? We sat in Himiko, the spaceship lookalike water bus, to travel through Tokyo Bay. We reached the Sky Tree, tallest structure in Japan, after an hour ride in the water bus. For the next two hours, we did window shopping (because actual shopping is very expensive) at Tokyo Solamachi where I bought these adorable magnets from a random shop. I love such unexpected finds!

Japanese shops are overloaded with adorable little things. You will be tempted to buy just everything. Some of the stuff is unbelievably cute. I just fell in love with the way things are packed and presented. A lot of attention is paid on the little details which really makes the difference. I should have gotten my magnets gift wrapped and gifted it to myself! 
The packing is that cute!

The next day, which was our last day, we visited the emperor’s palace on Uchibori-dori Ave after checking out from hotel. There is nothing much to see in the palace. But after the palace we went to Shibuya which, I think, is THE spot for shoppers, fashion lovers and also those who love night life. 

Shibuya’s crossing, The Scramble, is the busiest intersection in the world. I could spend a whole day there without getting bored but we just had a few hours. You will see the younger generation there happily shopping away which is quite a contrast to the older generation returning from work every evening. 

I also got to see the statue of Hachiko - the faithful dog who waited for his master at Shibuya Station every day for nine years, nine months and fifteen days after the master failed to return due to sudden death. Hachiko is a symbol of loyalty, friendship and trust. There is movie as well based on his story called Hachiko Monogatari. You will definitely need tissues to watch it. Here is his story and trailer of the movie.

Shibuya is famous for Ramen; a soupy noodle dish with meat and flavoured with soy or miso (a Japanese seasoning). You will have to look for halal Ramen but for all those who can take non halal, Shibuya has lots of options to choose from. There is a huge Starbucks there too with a beautiful view of Shibuya from its sitting area on the second floor.

A must visit would be the 9-storey mall, Shibuya 109, for Japanese fashion. clothes, bags, shoes, jewelry and what not! I walked through the lanes and entered different malls looking for the perfect souvenir to take back home. I got this amazing deal at the Tokyu Toyoko departmental store for these "Made in Japan" (that is what the sales girl told me in Japanese!) tea set for two at a really cheap price (Approx 20USD). And this was my second good find in two days! A perfect memory of this trip!

After enjoying the hustle and bustle at Shibuya, it was time to go back. At the airport duty free, I bought a pack of Tokyo Bananas, which are banana shaped sweets filled with different flavoured custard wrapped in a fluffy sponge. I got caramel flavour. Tokyo Banana is a famous souvenir and was selling like hot cakes. It is sold at the same price all over Tokyo, so I decided to get it from the airport. Plus, for hubby dear, I got Royce Chocolates  - the finest chocolates made under the strictest quality controls. After all....  hubby deserves the best ;) 

and of course, the magnet collector that I am, I picked up some fridge magnets for my fridge that is already over flowing with magnets :)

As expected, I did not find anything related to Oshin in any souvenir shops but it felt great to be able to see the country that produced one of the most inspirational characters ever.  

Before I end, I must tell you that I was impressed by Japanese hospitality. The staff at the hotel, train stations and cash counters were super polite. The only thing is that they keep talking to you in Japanese whether you understand or not. Like at the cash counters, they probably explain you that what you have purchased has an additional 8% GST that is not stated on the tag, and then probably things like thank you for shopping etc but they say all this in one go without stopping or realizing that you haven't understood a word :) You start enjoying it after a bit ;)

 And oh yes, here is the poster of Oshin.... 
Taken from Internet


  1. Such a rich culture,and amazing food! The closet I've been is the Japan showcase at EPCOT, our daughter's favourite place to shop. Great post!

  2. Thank you! Indeed I loved the richness of culture in Japan ... They have very strong values despite being so modern and technically advanced!

  3. All I remember about Japan from my childhood is Pokemon (or at least I think that's Japanese). Loved it!

  4. The fights you had with your brothers to watch Oshin were remarkable 😊 I am happy you had the chance to visit her homeland.

  5. Haha ..I should watch it again without any disturbance ... :)

  6. This trip looks amazing! I've always wanted to visit, but never got the chance... if only for the food!

  7. This looks absolutely amazing!!! Japan is on my my-visit-ASAP list :)
    XO Amanda |

  8. What a wonderful trip! I lived in Japan for three years and for me it was one of the most amazing and unforgettable experiences of my life. I'm so glad you got to go. That tea set is so pretty!

  9. It sounds like you had a wonderful trip. I've never eaten Japanese food, but that looks delicious :) Hopefully I'll make it there one day.

  10. Thank you guys! Yes Japan has a beauty of its own! it is definitely a must visit!

  11. Looks like a wonderful time! I would love to visit someday.

  12. Not only does your trip sound amazing. Now we must stop what we are doing and find somewhere we can cook some Kobe beef.