Monday, September 29, 2014

A Day Trip to Otaru

German beer hall

Otaru is a sleepy little tourist-friendly town just outside of Sapporo, Hokkaido. Anyone spending a couple of days on Japan's main northerly island should try to make time to stop by. I've been a couple of times while visiting Sapporo for the annual snow festival. During the same week, Otaru holds their own smaller event, filling their famous canal walk with hand-made ice lamps. Although it's usually quite full of tourists, it's still a nice break from the crowds of Sapporo.

Pretzel face

I assume most foreign tourists in Otaru want to experience Japanese things, but my favourite spot is the Bavarian beer hall. It's kind of cheesy and kitsch, but it's also and warm and cosy - the perfect place to take shelter from the snow! It's decorated like a ye olde german tavern and even the staff are dressed in period costume. There's a wide variety of beer on the menu, along with potato and sausage dishes. Personally, I love the giant pretzels (see above) which go perfectly with the hot wine.


Otaru is famous for making two things: glass and music boxes (orgels). In the canal district there are countless shops and museums dedicated to both. Tourists can even try their hand at at blowing their own glassware or designing their own music box. I'd really love to try to create my own box but it was too crowded and noisy during the ice festival. Instead, I found this groovy little statue outside.

We shared a moment.

Ice jack'o'lanterns or maybe Nameko

Dating from the 1920s, the heart of Otaru is the canal.On one side is a walkway, while the other bank is home to shops, warehouses and the aforementioned beer hall. Although the snow sculptures in Sapporo vary in size and style, the ice sculptures in Otaru are much smaller and delicate. There's not a whole lot to see, but strolling along the canal bank makes a perfect evening.

Canal walk by candle-light

Although this photo of the canal looks peaceful, I had to lean out over the wall to get it. To the left is the rest of the path leading along the canal bank. At the time it was full of people, forcing everyone to stick to two lanes along the narrow path. Nonetheless, people were very understanding about pausing so others could pose and take pictures with the sculptures.

Otaru might not be worth a dedicated holiday, but if you're heading to Sapporo then I highly recommend it as a day trip at the very least. My goal is to visit in summer next time. I'll miss the ice sculptures and cozy warmth of hot wine, but I want to make a music box!


On a more personal note, today I graduated from my Japanese language school. I've spent the past year attending an intensive system of courses in Tokyo and not everyone managed to pass our final exams. Honestly I doubted that I would do so. There were times when living here, studying and just getting by seemed impossible. Getting that certificate today felt like a year's worth of validation.

It sounds a bit silly, but I live my life believing that something better is always around the corner, even if you can't see it yet. If anyone feeling self-doubt is reading this, then I want to pass on this feeling of confidence to you. No matter how many times we lose our way, we always end up where we're supposed to be. Here's to living life like a cheesy, 1980s motivational song!

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Maison de Fleur Lavender Giftbox

Honestly the box would have been present enough

Japan places a huge emphasis on gift-wrapping. I'm in two minds over it. On the one hand, who doesn't get a thrill from ribbons and coloured tissue paper? On the other hand, it's a waste of money and not very eco-friendly. 

When I lived in Sendai, I volunteered as an English teacher at a local community centre. For the Christmas party, each teacher was supposed to organise a game and supply some little prizes. I decided to give something very precious to me - some Irish tea bags. If you know Irish people, then you know that we love our tea. However, unlike English tea, it's impossible to find abroad. I thought it was a rare and thoughtful present and popped the teabags in a little clear plastic bag for the winner. I didn't know that I would be judged on presentation. At the party, when the (adult) prize winner held up the plastic bag so everyone could laugh at it, I wanted the ground to swallow me up.

That was four years ago but the feeling has stuck with me. Since then I always keep a supply of gift bags and ribbons at home. Also, I would never judge someone for lack of gift wrapping skills. If you're lucky enough to get a present, then to expect more money and effort spent on decorating it is so selfish.

Maison de Fleur logo with added alpaca

That being said, getting a beautifully decorated package is definitely a pleasure, albeit a guilty one. My boyfriend surprised me with this box from Maison de Fleur and, not gonna lie, the gift-wrapping was almost my favourite part. Second confession: he gave it to me at a restaurant and the looks of admiration from other tables made it even better! 

It takes great restraint to open a box like this slowly

Maison de Fleur sells a variety of goods, all following in their mission statement of supplying a French-style happy birthday to girls who love pretty things. It's the kind of shop that you always stop into to browse, but rarely can justify treating yourself to something in. They have little make-up cases, hand cream, jewellery, that sort of thing. When I get rich I'm going to treat myself to these unnecessary but gorgeous things all the time!

No alpaca no life

First out of the box alpaca! This is a face towel, something every Japanese lady worth her salt (and most of the men too) owns many versions of. I used to think they took up valuable handbag space but the Tokyo summer proved me wrong. It's so handy to be able to freshen up while you're out in the heat!

Total contents, but what's in the box?

After a lot of unpacking, this is what I was left with: face towel, mystery box and bath cubes. For some reason everything was scented with lavender...

Varo Lavender Wax Bar

...and this is why. A delicately scented wax bar. What is it? Check back in a couple of days for a full explanation and review!

Made in Holland Essential Oil Bath Cubes

Last out of the box were these bath cubes. I tried searching online to find out more about this brand but the company just names them as coming from Holland *shrugs*. They're a simpler version of Lush bath bombs, made with essential oils and without the crazy colours. I got Lilly of the Valley, Rose and Lavender but other scents are available on Rakuten. There was a definite lavender theme in this gift box!

I'm looking forward to pampering myself with these goodies and don't worry, I fully intend to reuse all the gift-wrapping!

Wednesday, September 3, 2014

Tokyo Famers Market in Aoyama

Hot enough for you?

Here's the thing about farmers markets: you have to go there prepared to pay a lot of money. The modern incarnation of a once-per-week food festival bears little resemblance to what originally started as a place to do your weekly shop. Of course, farmers and other stall holders have to earn a living. But that doesn't change the fact that the market scene is not what it once was.

 Back in Dublin, I used to visit the (usually) excellent Dun Laoghaire Farmers Market with my family. Aside from a coffee and a snack, there's little worth buying unless you have a special need to. Ok, a pack of organic eggs are better than what you might find in the supermarket and it's nice to have a fresh, home-made cake if you're expecting company. However, the really appeal of the modern farmers market is the chance to soak up the atmosphere and chat with the sellers who really care about their product.

Young couples and young families

I went to Aoyama Famers Market in Tokyo to see how it compared. Of course, this being Tokyo, I should have anticipated the large crowds and high prices. Nonetheless, despite the reasonably decent selection of produce on sale, I didn't really feel like waiting 10 or 15 minutes to be served at some of the more popular stalls. On the plus side, there were free samples a-plenty so if you like farmers markets but don't feel like spending a fortune, Aoyama Farmers Market is at least worth a visit.

Queues in front of almost every stand

In a different kind of long queue, one for refreshments

I don't want to jump to conclusions after only one visit, but I'd list Aoyama as a good place to start a day of Tokyo sightseeing and even worth a visit for locals. At the very least there are enough snack stalls to cater to everyone's tastes. Also of note is an area to adopt poorly-treated or abandoned dogs from shelters. It was so heart-warming to see encouraging their kids to connect with animals in this way rather than just going for the usual puppy or kitten.

Final purchases: lots of spicy peppers (see below), some fancy mushrooms (long gone)

This outing was only a medium level success, 
so if anyone knows any other good Tokyo food markets let me know!


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