Friday, May 29, 2009

Japan Travelogue - Hailing from the Land of Instant Noodles

Remember my previous post on the first impressions of Japan? Those were some of the very new things that I have come to realized about the country - and refreshingly so. The next pressing concern upon touching down, other then lodging and accomodation? It's obviously food. Granted, there are already plenty of options when it comes to Japanese food here in Singapore, but there's nothing like having a first-hand experience of them in their own land is it? Tempted? Read on to whet your buds even more! ;)

The very first oddity that dawned upon me is the general absence of food courts, something that has been so commonplace to me. Rather, there was an abundance of food outlets, scattered all over the place. If you want something more posh, of course there are plenty of restaurants for you to choose from too - but be prepared to get your pocket burned. A plate of assorted sushi, containing six to eight pieces of them, already cost something in the range of $25. Even the 'normal' meals don't come cheap, with prices in the range of 450 to 650 yen ($7 to $10) being the norm, such as the bowl of ramen below:

A bowl of spicy ramen

Noodles and rice make up the bulk of Japanese cuisines. For the noodles, apart from ramen, there are soba (a brownish type of noodle that resembles the local yee mian) and u-don (thick, white noodles) for you to choose from. Not a fan of noodles? You can try out their rice too, as shown in the picture below:

Typical combo set

The main attributes of Japanese rice lie in their texture and size - first of all, the grains are generally more 'plump' but shorter; also, they appear to be more sticky than the rice I have been used to, such as the Royal Umbrella brand. Being stickier also allows it to be made into convenient dumpling-like meals, such as the onigiri:

Japanese bakzhang!

It's always handy to have a couple of these in your bag, especially during those seemingly never-ending Shinkansen rides. Two is enough to satiate your hunger, while having more is fine too - if you can take it. These 'bakzhangs' come in a variety of flavor, and the main ingredients are seaweed, rice and the core - which can be anything from salmon to mayonnaise tuna. And an additional plus to these 'bakzhangs' are its price - with everything else so pricey, having a couple of them at approximately 100 to 130 yen (~$2) seem like a catch!

Other than the onigiri, another type of food that might come in handy would be the bento, which is equivalent to the mixed vegetable rice locally. These bentos don't come cheap either, with prices ranging from about 400 yen to 750 yen normally. And an additional downside is, you can't customize your own dish - so you may need to depend on your luck in coming across one that you like. If you do, it is usually a wholesome and balanced meal:

Munching on one during rush hour

Being in Japan, it was almost an imperative to try out sushi, which I did on one of the days in the later part of my travels. As the conventional ones were too expensive, we had to do some leg work to land our butts in a sushi bar - the conveyor-belt type. The sushi there were much more afforable at 105 yen each and came in large varieties. Me and my friends gobbled down at the plates like hungry wolves and in the end, each of us finished about six to seven plates - and the total cost was still at an affordable $10-ish. However, sorry for the absence of pictures! Guess we were too engrossed then. Heh. :p

I bet you must be a bit tempted to try them out yourselves? Oooh wait. I think I forgot about something. What is it? That's right! The instant noodles! How can I not talk about them when Japan is, technically, the land of instant noodles? After all, these handy little stuff was invented by a Japanese guy back in the 1950s (I think) for convenience sake and it became such a blast later on. As with other food, their instant noodles are quite pricey too - selling at about 200 to 300 yen ($3 to approximately $5) per bowl. However, there is no reason not to try them, for all their flavors looked so foreign to me! None of the locally available flavors are sold there - there is just no overlap between the two. Rather, the flavors available for selection are very Japanese-based: salted chicken, milky pork flavor, dry noodles with soy sauce, etc. And it sure felt different when one is staying in a Japanese inn-typed hotel, slurping away at the noodles while donned in traditional Japanese robes and sitting on the tatami - very authentic Japanese feeling.

All in all, it's rather easy looking for food in Japan, provided that you are amply loaded and have some legs - 'cos the primary downside is, you have got to walk a bit if you want things on the cheaper end - and the maps are pretty bad in the sense that, only major buildings and road names are shown. Besides, there is an abundance of convenience stores located throughout Japan - and you would come to familiarize with them, such as the Family Mart links. There's also a wide selection of foodstuffs in their supermarkets, and you will find yourself dragging loads and loads of shopping bags home, if you do know where to go.

Of course, the genres of food don't end here - there are more of them, such as the grilled meat, herbal soups and such - but for the lack of time, I did not get to try them. But no worries! For the shortage in food, the load of cultural immersion and brushes with danger more than make up for this regret - and I'll show you why and how.

Thursday, May 21, 2009

Japan Travelogue - Everything Peculiar

We come across many things Japanese in our everyday life - most notably, their game consoles, electrical products, etc. And not to mention, the NSFW stuffs that we could be all too familar with. But what is it really like to be personally in Japan and experiencing everything Japanese? If this intrigues you, then you have come to the right place! Here, you will find episodes revealing different facets of this fascinating country, courtesy of my ten-day trip. ;)

The very first things that dawned upon me upon my arrival are the peculiarities - and as the days go by, more and more of them were either overtly or subtly discovered. Firstly, it's the currency - the Japanese do not use cents. At all. Part of the reason might be because their currency is weaker compared to ours? Anyway, here's a snapshot of some Japanese coins:

Japanese coins

And Japanese notes:

Japanese notes - 10,000 yen

Speaking of currency exchange, 10,000 yen is approximately equivalent to 150 SGD, which makes product price range of a few to tens of thousands commonplace. But that doesn't make the coins useless! In fact, you will often need them while purchasing small items and tickets, such as the ones shown below:

A flurry of tickets

The Japanese seems to have a strong inclination towards use of tickets - lots of stuffs are being ticketed, including food (an example of one such ticket, is the one on the top left-hand corner - it says that I have purchased one set of fried pork with raw ginger)! However, I also have to say this is much more convenient than the queuing system that we have here in Singapore - and it minimizes the error in cooking the wrong meal as well! However, the food there is definitely not cheap - as you can see on the ticket itself, the set costs about $9. Speaking of food, I am sure you must be eagerly anticipating savory photos to follow, but nope! Not in this episode anyway, but stay tuned 'cos there will definitely be more to come.

Out of the airport to hit the streets! The first thing one would notice about the streets in Japan are its orderliness - the lands are divided into small plots, where major and minor roads are interspersed between these plots:

Street in Osaka

However, by observing closely, it can be seen that there are certain things about Japanese roads that are quite different from that of in Singapore. Firstly, the wordings on the road are in Japanese (DUH!!). And they have lots of zebra crossings - I means LOTS. Back here, the part where passengers are permitted to cross are denoted by two parallel white lines, but in Japan, they are all represented by zebra crossings - even diagonal ones. Some roads even have specially allocated bicycle lanes! In addition, their traffic lights have no buttons, so all you can do is to just stand and wait. Fortunately, the green man seems to appear more frequently than in Singapore, so waiting isn't really an issue.

What's another thing that you will notice that is markedly different from Singapore? It's the weather. Granted, I haven't really experienced how their summer is like, the temperature now is ideal for trips and living. It's temperature range is at a cool 15C to about 25C, which is on average, about 10C lower than what's in Singapore. Don't believe? See the weather forecast below:

Weather prediction board - found in a hostel!

Another good thing is, you hardly ever sweat! Unlike here, where merely making a trip to the supermarket would reward you with a sweaty T-shirt. However, the cold and dry weather might lead to symptoms such as parched lips and flaky skin - both of which had been experienced by me, and those are definitely downsides to the otherwise wonderful weather.

That was a lot of information, wasn't it? post is definitely insufficient to cover the vast amount of wonders witnessed there. I have to stop here for the time being, but I promise there's more to come. ;) Stay tuned!

Friday, May 8, 2009

It's all over - after 4 years

It is finally over. After a long journey of 4 years, my sojourn at NUS has finally come to an end - marked by my final paper yesterday, which finished at 3pm. The moment when I walked out of the exam room, I suddenly felt my shoulders are completely free of burden - wait. Free of burden? Not exactly true...'cos there are bigger things to do after this! However, I am just gonna enjoy this moment, which I have very much so earned it - after countless hours of mugging, headache, sleepless nights, late journeys home, and what nots.

Looking back at the four years in university, I can't really say that it has been an ideal experience, for many reasons. Perhaps mixed with a heavy dose of idealism, I have always wanted varsity life to be a colorful one - one that has many components to it: lesser focus on studies, work opportunities, chances to meet tons of people, partying, outings and stuff. However, after going through everything, I am sad to say that a major part of university life is still buried in books, notes, lectures and midnight oil. I consider myself to be quite hardworking already, but as the saying goes: "for a tall mountain, there is bound to be (at least) one taller than that". This feeling is amplified whenever I passed by the YIH study rooms when nearing exam periods - there would already be students 'camping' there to study, some of them even overnight. I am sure this is so too in other parts of the school. I have to hold my hands up though, that I can never mug this hard - and seriously, I don't see why I should despite knowing the perennial importance of grades here.

My experience with the chemical engineering course is also a relatively rocky one - there have been times when I was really struggling, the stuff that I was studying just cannot get into my head, or worse, look absolutely alien to me. There were a couple of modules that I nearly failed, or so I thought, but fortunately, I didn't. The multitudes of modules that I took did open my eyes to many things though, to the facets of chemical engineering and beyond. It is a very tough course alright, and to be able to make it through is, in itself, an achievement.

Due to the heavy academic commitments, most of the people I got to meet and socialize with naturally came from my course - and there are a few that are truly formidable in terms of ability. I am also being exposed to pseudo-political maneuvrings and undercurrents, which made me sick to the stomach in some instances, to still see some of them and be able to tide over the awkward moments with feigned smiles. Those that have been there before, you know what I mean. Not that I like it, no one does, but we all have to deal with it. It is, after all, part and parcel of the route of maturity and independence. But if you ask me whether I would select this course again if given a choice, I would give you a negative answer. Once is enough, I would like to try something else. For an over-engagement in mechanical stuff does make one lose a bit of edge in terms of fulfilment of relational needs and sociability.

That said, I feel that I have gone through a lot, and learned aplenty too. And as I hit my quarter life mark, things are chugging on faster than usual, I have noticed. But I have to bite the bullet and carry on. And to the one that I thought was the one, it was a short, bittersweet memory that I will never forget, forlornly so - just that fate does not ordain us to walk the same path. Anyhow, you can bet that one day I would emerge with the hand of the other. So long.