To Market, to Market

There’s less than one week till Christmas! I hope everyone is ready… presents bought and wrapped, Christmas tree up, ugly Christmas sweater (that you secretly love) waiting to be worn! Isn’t it just the best time of the year?

One of things I love about celebrating Christmas in the northern hemisphere are the Christmas markets. I got my first taste of authentic German-style markets last winter when I visited the Czech Republic and Hungary. Despite the freezing outdoor temps, the markets were full of warmth and coziness. Held in the centre of the town, people seemed to come not only to shop but just to socialize with friends. Personally, I couldn’t stop drinking hot chocolates and mulled wine and eating trdelník (or kürtőskalács) pastries!

Christmas markets have been gaining popularity over the past few years in Tokyo. Some of the more well known ones can be found at:

Roppongi Hills…

Ebisu Garden Place…

And the Red Brick Warehouse (in Yokohama)…

But my favourite – and in my opinion, the best – is the Tokyo Christmas Market at Hibiya Park.

It’s the largest of all the markets in Tokyo, making it a fun way to spend a whole evening. There are loads of stalls selling gorgeous wooden toys, ornaments, stollen bread, sausages, eggnog, hot cocoa, etc. There’s also a huge, heated marquee where you can escape the cold while enjoying some live entertainment.

Take a look for yourself!







Snow Magic in Sapporo

Sapporo, the city of the north… Despite it’s harsh winter weather and average annual snowfall of about 6 metres, it’s surprisingly Japan’s 5th largest city. It’s not constantly dark and gloomy, though. Just think, endless chances to have snowball fights, make snow angels, go skiing, eat fresh seafood, slurp down miso ramen – there’s a lot to love! And there’s one more big reason we are obsessed with Sapporo…

During the second week of February, the normal 2 million population skyrockets as people from all over the world come to see the annual Sapporo Yuki Matsuri. This year, the event saw a hefty 2.6 million visitors! There are many snow festivals in Japan – you may recall I went to the Tokamachi Snow Festival a couple of years back – but Sapporo’s is the grandfather of them all. It’s been on my bucket list forever!

The main park, Odori Koen, transforms into an outdoor snow museum with sculptures of all sizes. There are many small sculptures, but the towering 20m-high ones are the biggest drawcard; this year, there was a Star Wars-theme, Final Fantasy VII-theme, Paris’ Arc de Triomphe, and world heritage Kofukiji Temple sculpture. It’s incredible to stand below these and realize just how much work went into creating them – it really is like snow magic.

Another section of the park is dedicated to the International Snow Sculpture Contest, where teams from around the world compete to be the snow sculpture champions. This year the Macao team won with their ‘crane dance’, and Latvia came second with their ‘wooden dreams’ – both were my favourites, too. The crane sculpture reminded me of the elegant mating dance Japanese cranes do in winter, which is something I want to see with my own eyes one day. And the design of the Latvian sculpture was so original and intriguing – a head made of timber with a forest inside its forehead!

Meanwhile, the downtown area of Susukino is where you will find the ice sculptures. Oddly, they are placed in the middle of a busy road, so you’re forever dodging cars. It’s harder to see the detail in the ice sculptures, but there was one of a crown tail fish which I thought was absolutely stunning.

Aside from the sculptures, there is a lot of other entertainment. We went ice skating, watched music performances, cheered on ski jumpers, climbed to the top of the TV tower and ate as much Sapporo food as we could before jumping on the plane back to Tokyo.

♦ The city

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♦ The food

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♦ The sculptures

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Christmas Time in Tokyo

Sparkling lights and cool winter nights… Christmas in Japan is all about romance. It’s a day for going on a special date with your significant other. So, it’s no wonder winter illuminations are hugely popular. You can drink champagne beneath the lit-up trees and cuddle together for warmth. It’s the perfect date spot! 

My top 3 picks for this year were the illuminations at Naka-Meguro, Yomiuri Land and Yoyogi. The amount of effort that goes into setting up these lights always blows me away. It’s something I look forward to seeing every year!

Yomiuri Land is an amusement park in western Tokyo. They have roller coasters, ferris wheels, rockets that spin, rides where you have to pedal a bike up in the air and more. It’s so much fun. And add to that the beautiful lights covering every corner, it’s the perfect night out with a bunch of friends!

This year was the first time for Yoyogi to host the ‘blue cave’ lights – previously it was in Naka-meguro back in 2014. This brilliant blue world stretches between Yoyogi Park and Shibuya and is the perfect place to go after a bit of Christmas shopping. 

Naka-meguro is Tokyo’s crowning glory in spring, when the canal is packed with cherry blossoms. In winter, rather than leave the trees bare and lonely, they decorate them with millions of lights – a sea of champagne. It is the perfect place for a date, or to go after dinner with friends, or just for a stroll on your own. 

Merry Christmas, everyone! 

WPC – Chaos

When you think of the Japanese way of life, words that typically come to mind are orderly, calm or disciplined.

Then there are matsuri, or Japanese festivals…

My first taste of a ‘chaotic’ festival was the Sanja Matsuri, famous for the yakuza who walk around freely showing off their tattoos. Men and women heave portable shrines through the packed crowds, shouting, chanting and almost getting crushed along the way.

Recently, I went to the Kawagoe Matsuri for the first time. I’m not gonna lie, it was about 5 times more chaotic than the Sanja. It was hectic.

During the day, things are relatively peaceful. Hundreds and hundreds of yatai  – more than I’ve ever seen at a festival before –  line the streets selling yakitori, takoyaki, yakisoba, taiyaki, karaage, and all that good Japanese street food. Everyone is relaxed and having a good time.

Then when the sun goes down, the youngsters go home and the atmosphere completely changes. The crowd gets even more congested, everyone there to see 5~6 tonne dashi floats take part in ‘battles’. Whenever floats coming from opposite directions meet, they face each other and compete to decide who can pass first. The musicians on board turn it up a notch, the masked dancers at the front try to outdo each other, and the crowd cheers in support.

Because the streets are so narrow, the floats have to push their way through the half a million spectators. For the crowd, it’s like being in a concert mosh pit. You have no choice but to go with the flow even if that means stomping on toes and pushing people in the back. I came scarily close to the giant wheels of the dashi at one point. I also got separated from my friends during one of the battles. As soon as that battle finished, another started, and then another. It was 45 minutes till I finally managed to reunite with them!

Festivals like these have this exciting energy which you don’t get to see or feel in everyday Japan. It might be a little chaotic, but it’s definitely a lot of fun!

Weekly Photo Challenge: Chaos

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Tokyo’s 438 year old market

It all started way back in the year 1578 when Tokyo was nothing more than agricultural land dotted with a few castles. Odawara Castle, close to Mt Fuji, was under control by the prominent Late Hojo clan. They had an alliance with many smaller warlords and ruled the entire region including present-day Tokyo.

Wanting a place where they could buy and sell agricultural equipment and products, the farmers in the area gained permission from the Late Hojo clan to start up a tax-free market. The market was positioned along a main highway that linked 2 or 3 different warlords’ territories. When it opened, “Rakuichi” was held 6 times a month and was immensely popular. At its peak, there were around 2,000 stalls.

Over the years, many battles took place and each time some of the farmers would lose their land or even their lives, and the market, too, would be forced to close. But it never completely died. So long as there were farmers, the market would reopen and trading would continue.

By the late 1800s, however, the market had become not much more than a nostalgic event. It was decided that the market would be held over just 4 days each year – December 15, 16 and January 15, 16 – and it has been that way ever since.

Today, Setagaya Boroichi flea market is made up of about 600~700 stalls. A lot of the vendors have been coming here for years, and actually this is the only time some of them set up shop. Thousands of people pack the narrow streets, hunting for bargains and one-off antiques. The agricultural equipment have been replaced by everything from old kimonos to traditional ceramics to samurai swords! The crowds are a little intense, even for Tokyo standards, and you will probably lose your friends within 5 minutes of arriving, but a trip to the Boroichi is treasure hunting at its finest!

A Pocket of History in Tokyo

Right in the very centre of one of the world’s most populous metropolitan areas, is a legendary neighbourhood known as hon no machi, or ‘book town’. Here, book lovers hunt for antiques in streets that have a history spanning as long as Tokyo has been Japan’s capital city.

This week, the entire suburb of Jimbocho has been turned into a massive, outdoor bookstore for the annual Kanda Second-Hand Book Fair, now in its 56th year. I went along on the weekend and was overwhelmed with the amount of books that were spilling out onto the streets. Rows and rows, mound upon mound, bookstores packed with books from the floor to the ceiling. The festival organisers claim there are about 1 million books on sale for this festival! And they’re not all just Japanese books – I picked up a bunch of English novels for myself, and also saw books written in Italian, Spanish and a few other languages.

As I wandered through the atmospherically-lit bookstores that evening, I couldn’t help but think about who else had tread the very same streets. This festival has been running for close to 60 years, but how did this hon no machi come to be?

In the Edo Period (1603-1868), the city was centred around Edo Castle. As with all Japanese castles, it was surrounded by a moat, or 3 in the case of Edo, and on the other side lived the highest-ranking samurai. Because of their status, these samurai had not only large houses, but huge properties. They lived a life of luxury, at least compared to the common people who lived further away from the castle.

In 1868, the military government of Japan was finally overthrown, and the Imperial family took control of the country once again. The family moved from Kyoto to Edo, thus shifting the capital city to what is now Tokyo. The country underwent a major change as it entered its ‘age of enlightenment’. The city became the centre of modernisation, industrialisation and urbanisation. It was an exciting time!

When the Imperial family took over the castle and turned it into the Imperial Palace, the samurai were forced to leave the city. Because of their size, their vacant properties became public schools and hospitals. Some of the schools quickly grew into prestigious universities, like Meiji University which still exists today. Of course, there had always been many people in Japan who were eager to learn, but they now had a common place to study. At the time, only men were allowed to go to school, so the streets were filled with guys studying science, medicine, law, and so on. The concentration of knowledge-hungry students in the area demanded the supply of textbooks and other literature; consequently, a book town was born.

Present day Jimbocho sits on the northern border of the former Edo Castle. Through the years, this book town has seen its fair share of disasters, from fires to bombings to earthquakes, but it has managed to stay alive for almost 150 years! It is a remarkable pocket of history in the modern world.