German Christmas Markets in Tokyo — A Review

I lived for nine months in Strasbourg, “The Capital of Christmas,” on the border of France and Germany, so I am well-acquainted with Christmas markets. And I lived with an Alsatian host family who made honest-to-goodness Alsatian home cooking — so I know (and crave) good sauerkraut when I see it.

Therefore, when I heard that there are German Christmas Markets in Tokyo — well, you better believe that I all but reserved a day to visit. (And then for the weeks leading up to the actual day, I salivated at the thought of all the mulled wine).

I’ll say one thing, right at the start, which we all knew would be true: they couldn’t compare to the real Christmas Markets of Germany and France. My goodness, I mean, this is what they are competing with in Strasbourg and Colmar alone:

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And I don’t even have personal experience at the markets in Germany, which are rumored to be the best of the best! So clearly, the German markets in Tokyo have to step up their game if they ever want to get on France’s and Germany’s level.

Luckily, when I visited the markets a few weeks ago, I didn’t go into the day with grand illusions of Strasbourg in Tokyo. All I was hoping for was some good sauerkraut, some sausage, some mulled wine, and–if at all possible–some spätzle.

There were three main Christmas Markets advertised in Tokyo — the one in Roppongi Hills, the one at Soramachi (Tokyo Sky Tree), and the Tokyo Christmas Market at Hibiya Park (this last one had the backing of the German Embassy). My friend and I decided to visit the latter two, as Roppongi is apparently a super-touristy, slightly kitchy, area of Tokyo.

First up was the Hibiya Park market.

My ranking: two thumbs up. This is the market with the backing of the German Embassy, and I found their food to be pretty authentic. We tried mulled wine from three different stalls, feasted on sauerkraut and sausage, and even tried some beer-batter french fries (so crispy, so delicious!). No spätzle, but I figured that was too much to ask for, anyway.

The Hibiya Park market was rather crowded, and not super big, and it didn’t have a lot of crafts or decorations to buy, but despite all of that, it had a little of the magic of the Strasbourg markets, so I really enjoyed it.

Next up were the  Soramachi markets at Tokyo Sky Tree.

My ranking: mehh. Okay, so this market was even smaller than the one at Hibiya. I didn’t really find the food here to be authentic German food. It definitely looked more like tourist-trap fare. And it was a bit more expensive, too, so we didn’t really eat anything (instead, we went into the Sky Tree shopping mall and had a fantastic Korean dinner). However, the one thing this market had going for it was the “illumination” / light show that went off every thirty minutes. It was pretty cool, so that makes it worth checking out if you’re in the area.

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I wish I had had an opportunity to visit some of the other Christmas markets as well, but we were only in Tokyo for the day. I’m pretty sure the one in Roppongi is bigger and more German-craft-oriented than the two I visited, so maybe check out the Hibiya market and Roppongi market if you happen to be in Tokyo around Christmastime.

Unfortunately, all the Christmas markets in Tokyo ended on Christmas day. But I’m already looking forward to visiting them again next year, if only for some sauerkraut and mulled wine!

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“I’ll Be Home for Christmas ~

— if only in my dreams…”

It’s Christmas Eve, and you will never guess what I did today.

I went to work. No, wait, that’s not the surprising part. Then I was invited to a sushi lunch with coworkers. That isn’t shocking news, either.

Then, at 2:30 this afternoon, one of the older P.E. senseis informed me that a few of us were “training.” But I didn’t need to change out of my skirt and ballet flats to do this mysterious “training.” I followed everyone outside… into cars… and to, of all places, a driving range.

Yes, I spent a good hour today–an hour I should have been “working” (in actuality, desk warming, as there is very little for me to actually do)–at the driving range with my coworkers, practicing my golf swing. For the very first time in my life, in fact; that is, if you don’t count miniature golf.

Never a dull moment…

The other day, at the same school, I was invited to a 1 o’clock “meeting.” Which is silly, because I can’t understand Japanese, but I went anyway. And it turned out that this “meeting” was really just a gathering of 10 teachers for tea and Christmas Cake.

Four beautiful Christmas cakes — chestnut cream and meringue mont blanc, strawberry shortcake with sugar snowmen, chilled chocolate cheesecake, and a bread-y cake roll filled with tangy strawberry mousse — split between ten people over mugs of Jasmine tea. The best “meeting” ever.

My mom will soon arrive in Japan for New Year’s, so just a few more days till a very welcome reunion. Happy holidays, everyone! Or, as the Japanese say,  よいおとしお!

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Winter Illuminations in Ashikaga

It’s the most wonderful time of the year!

Honestly, I was a little worried that December in Japan would be terribly depressing–no Christmas lights, no Christmas spirit, and no family to celebrate the holidays with. Then November arrived and my worries were put to rest: Japan LOVES Christmas. They love the lights, they love miniature Christmas trees, and they love blaring holiday songs in major shopping malls. It’s almost like being home, except for the prevalence of KFC Christmas chicken and the advertisements for strawberry-and-cream Christmas cakes.

It’s been fun to discover what they know about Christmas as well. For the past two weeks, I’ve been playing Christmas Jeopardy in many of my classrooms (with a short introductory PowerPoint covering important vocabulary and major traditions)… so here is what the typical Japanese high-school student knows about the holiday:

  1. Even after stressing that stockings are called “stockings,” my students still call them socks. Always.
  2. But for some reason, everyone knows that American children leave milk and cookies for Santa on Christmas Eve.
  3. The word “Candy Cane” is a struggle because they don’t seem to exist in Japan. So my students call them “Candy Sticks” or “Candy-Candy” or, inevitably, “Candy Crush!”
  4. When asked to name  Christmas carols, the most popular (in order) are Jingle Bells, Last Christmas, and White Christmas.
  5. They only know one reindeer, and his name is apparently “Red Noze.”
  6. When asked what they will be doing over winter vacation, everyone replies that they will either “go ski” or “play ski.” So I expect the slopes in Nagano will be crowded.
  7. Even though I never review the word, everyone can correctly identify “snowman.”
  8. Most of my students know that Americans don’t eat Christmas cake (but most of my JTEs think that we do!)
  9. Stories like The Night Before Christmas and The Polar Express aren’t famous here. I had to delete questions about them, because students were mystified.
  10. When asked to name a Christmas movie, the only one that comes to mind is Home Alone.

Winter Illuminations

Moving on from Christmas in the Classroom… a few weeks ago, J and I took a trip to Ashikaga Flower Park in Tochigi Prefecture to see the park’s “Winter Illuminations.” We honestly weren’t expecting too much… but then we arrived.

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It turns out that Ashikaga Flower Park’s illuminations were voted one of the best in Japan last year, and they didn’t disappoint this year, either. It ended up being a perfect little evening excursion: we wandered around the park for three or so hours, marveling at all the lights and warming ourselves up with food truck fare, everything from corn soup and ramen to hot chocolate and sweet crepes.

Ashikaga Flower Park’s Fantasy illumination runs through February 4, 2016, so if you are in the area, be sure to check it out!

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Thanksgiving Away From Home

It was one of those moments where you realize that you really are living in Japan: the night of Thanksgiving, and I was eating raw fish.

This year marked my second Thanksgiving away from home (the first time, I was living in France). The holiday did not go unnoticed, however; I spent the night of Thanksgiving at a little enkai with my coworkers; communicating through a mixture of charades, laughter, puzzled facial expressions, and the random Japanese words that I’ve picked up in my months of being here; and eating various fish dishes, including sashimi (I guess the restaurant was fresh out of turkey). It wasn’t quite the Thanksgiving dinner that I was accustomed to, but it was a very happy one all the same.

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This is sushi, not sashimi… and I ate this particular plate back in October… but you get the point. Not a typical American Thanksgiving dinner by any standards!

Plus, I was about to get a second Thanksgiving, complete with all the American food I was craving. Because for the first time in my life, I was hosting Thanksgiving dinner.

Back in October, I came up with a little scheme to hold my own Thanksgiving dinner. I talked to J, and she jumped on board, and soon we were planning a full-out grown-up dinner party (complete with official invitations). We invited a few fellow JETs and JTEs, so Singapore, Japan, and America (both East Coast and West Coast) were represented at the celebration.

On Black Friday,  after work, J and I drove out to the closest Costco (in Tsukuba, 1 hour and 20 minutes away) to buy all the necessary ingredients. We cut it a little close, though–we arrived less than 30 minutes before Costco closed, so with our lists in hand, we ran through the store, making split-second decisions on how much of everything to buy. (This led to a gross overestimation of our produce, and so after the whole party, we still had 10 apples, a whole bag of onions, and half a sack of potatoes left over).

J slept over, and then all day Saturday, the two of us cooked. Here’s all the things that I felt particularly thankful for as we prepared the big meal:

  1. I was thankful that my kitchen is much larger than a typical Japanese kitchen, even though we still had problems finding counter space.
  2. I was thankful that I have an almost American-sized fridge (J and a few of my other friends have refrigerators the size of the mini fridges that college students store alcohol in). Despite this, we still ended up playing Tetris to fit everything inside my fridge.
  3. I was thankful that we DID NOT buy the 17 pound Costco turkey (my oven here is like all Japanese ovens–it’s smaller than a typical American microwave. We would not have been able to stuff a turkey into it.)
  4. I was thankful that J had brought her oven over to my apartment for the event (it made cooking things a lot faster. Two is better than one).
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We ran out of counter space pretty quickly….

Our guests arrived a little early, and we finished cooking everything a little later than intended, but all in all, everything came together perfectly.

Our menu featured: Costco rotisserie chicken, homemade gravy, cranberry sauce from a can (dolled up with some oranges and sugar, served warm), homemade stuffing, homemade pumpkin bread, homemade garlic mashed potatoes, homemade sweet potatoes, homemade sauteed carrots, and homemade fruit salad (my family’s recipe). Dessert was Costco pumpkin pie (with homemade whipped cream) and homemade apple crisp.

Quite a few of our guests had never eaten Thanksgiving dinner before and the general consensus was that they were most excited for the mashed potatoes. And they were not disappointed; J made the best garlic mashed potatoes I’ve ever eaten. Another hit, surprisingly, were the carrots (credit to my grandma–it’s her recipe).

Like any successful Thanksgiving, the seven of us ate until we could eat no longer; all our guests left with more food than they had arrived with (tupperwares stuffed with leftovers), and even then, J and I both ended up eating Thanksgiving dinner for the next week! It was a very special Thanksgiving, indeed.

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Osaka Weekend Part 2: Eating Our Way Through Osaka

Day 2, Distance Walked: 14.2 km (8.8 miles)

Day 3, Distance Walked: 9.7 km (6.0 miles)

Osaka has a few tourist attractions (such as USJ and Osaka Castle) but the city is really known for its food. So much so, in fact, that the first question everybody asked me upon returning from Osaka wasn’t “Oh, what did you do?” or “How did you like it?” — no, the first question I was asked was, “What did you eat?”

And the answer is, lots of this:

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Yes. Osaka is very well known for its tako, or octopus. So much so, that there is a giant octopus along Osaka’s main shopping/tourist street, Dotonbori. So I ate takoyaki (octopus balls) and tako yakisoba (fried noodles with octopus) several times during my three day holiday. If you look closely, you can see that the Dotonbori octopus is even holding a takoyaki ball! Although, fun fact: in real life, octopuses have been seen engaging in cannibalism, so I guess it isn’t impossible.

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Dotonbori also features a few other famous sights, the most famous of which is by far the giant Glico Running Man poster. I’m still not sure why he’s famous, but like every other tourist, I waited on the bridge for the other tourists to clear out so I could snap of photo with him.

It’s cheesy, I know, but it was also kind of fun.

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There’s also the giant crab (which lots of people were taking pictures of, so I figured he was famous for some unknown reason) and this angry-looking dude who I found hilarious. Dotonbori seems famous for these kind of characters, all of which appear above restaurants. The crab and the octopus I could understand… and even the angry chef guy, I can understand. But there was also a restaurant with a huge dragon above it, and I really don’t know what kind of food that was selling…

Our second day in Osaka consisted entirely of eating and walking. We did spend an hour or two at Dotonbori, but we explored other parts of the city as well, breaking up long periods of walking with well-deserved meals or snacks.

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Our third day in Osaka really only consisted of Sunday morning (we had reserved seats on a bullet train back to Tokyo for 1:30 Sunday afternoon) so we saved Osaka Castle for last.

Japan seems to have a preoccupation with naming a “Top Three” of everything, so it was a chance for me to cross off one of Japan’s Top Three Castles. It was also my first time at a Japanese castle, and it was refreshingly different from the French and English castles I’ve been to. Like many of Japan’s castles (and to be honest, like many castles worldwide), the current Osaka-jo is a reconstruction — the original was built in 1583, destroyed numerous times by conquering armies or lightning strikes until it was finally burned down in 1868, and then restored for good in 1931.

We arrived at the castle grounds on Sunday morning in time to witness a fantastic 10-minute downpour, which created huge puddles perfect for reflection shots once the rain cleared. Time prevented us from going inside the castle in the end–soon enough we found ourselves on the bullet train back to Ibaraki.

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Osaka Weekend Part 1: USJ for the Holidays

I’ll be honest; Osaka wasn’t at the top of my list of places to visit. But this meant that I walked into the weekend with an open mind, and I ended up enjoying myself immensely without getting tangled up in a web of disappointed expectations.

Our Osaka weekend started with an overnight bus — a Knight bus, if you will — directly to Universal Studios Japan (USJ). We arrived early on the morning of November 13th, which just so happened to be the first day of USJ’s Christmas season. Being a good hour early to the park meant nothing, though: we were by no means first in line.

When the gates opened at 9 a.m., a very weird sort of chaos unfolded.

As tickets were processed and entry was granted, everyone ahead of us would grab their buddies and start sprinting. Once my friend (M) and I were in, we followed the path of all the runners, half-jogging, half-walking, and altogether caught in a weird race of frantic excitement.

You see, everyone was making a beeline to the Harry Potter section of the park — including us.

And I don’t care how nerdy it sounds. I can’t even describe how — well, magical — it felt to walk through the forested path with a hundred other Potter geeks, “Hedwig’s Theme” making up the soundtrack for the moment we all arrived in snowy Hogsmeade, with the beloved castle looming the the distance.

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I didn’t have time to take pictures until the end, though. M dragged me through Hogsmeade at break-neck speed, dodging Korean tourists and families posing for pictures — our first goal was “Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey,” a 4D adventure ride located inside the replica of Hogwarts Castle. On a typical day, the attraction has a wait time of 3 hours in line, so we were determined to get there early (like everybody else).

Luckily we were able to breeze through the line, winding through a maze of chains that led through the Herbology greenhouses, the dungeons, and up the staircases whose walls were crammed with moving portraits. Even though it made me a slight bit motion sick, the ride itself was well worth it — I think I would have happily waited two hours for it, although I’m glad that wasn’t necessary!

After the ride, it was time for some sweet, hot butterbeer and some pictures in Hogsmeade!

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Admittedly we spent a while in the Harry Potter area of USJ (“I never want to leave”) but eventually, we decided to move on. Next, we headed to Jaws — an attraction where we were placed on a boat traveling through waters where the huge shark is on the loose. Our “boat” had a very enthusiastic Japanese lady as captain, and she was constantly shouting out (whenever the mechanical shark burst out of the water) or firing her “gun” (when the shark shook the boat) or just reassuring all of us that we had escaped the shark (only for it to inevitably reappear). It was one of those instances where I didn’t need to know exactly what she was saying in Japanese — her emotion conveyed everything better than any translation.

Following Jaws was a walk through the Jurassic Park area. We bought these HUGE turkey legs… I thought they were special “Jurassic Park” food because it made me feel like I was a carnivorous dinosaur… but apparently they sell them at Disney Land in Tokyo, too.

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A fun fact about Japan — even in the winter, you can ride the water rides. M and I lined up for the Jurassic Park attraction and everyone else in line had plastic ponchos down to their knees, which probably should have been my first warning. The whole thing is like a log flume with dinosaurs, and at the end, the log-boat plummets down a huge drop (to escape an animatronic T-Rex) and the fall creates a HUGE splash. I was soaked, even with my rain coat!!  It was a pretty chilly day, too…

The rest of the day was spent jumping between attractions (we rode the roller coaster twice despite the long line), eating lots of themed food (like chocolate-banana minion popcorn), hardcore people-watching (I learned that a lot of young Japanese couples will wear matching outfits for dates at USJ) and enjoying the Christmas music.

As it grew dark, the park was illuminated into a Christmas wonderland. Despite the rain, USJ still lit the giant Christmas tree (heralded as the World’s Most Illuminated Tree with 374,800 lights). It was still mid-November at this point, but Japan doesn’t have the buffer of Thanksgiving, so as soon as Halloween is packed away, Christmas is unwrapped in full force. And I loved it.

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End of day 1 in Osaka.

Distance walked: 13.4 km (8.34 miles)

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