Da Nang

After a 16 hour long train journey, Shivani and I found ourselves in Da Nang, a city in the middle of Vietnam. Da Nang is much smaller than Hanoi. It has less people, less traffic and fewer people speak English.

I really enjoyed being there, because it had a good mix of everything. There were beaches to hang out at, a riverside with lots of hangout spots, some beautiful bridges and it was fun to just walk around the city. We encountered some statues, museums, churches and old buildings.

Da Nang was more spaced out, which is why the roads were wider and there were fewer commercial spots at most places in the city. We noticed a lot of tourists renting and riding motorbikes there. It was rainy and cold most of the time we were there, which was a bit disappointing since we were hoping to meet pleasant weather after Hanoi.

We spent 3 days in Da Nang which turned out to be a perfect duration for us. We spent two days in the main city and by the riverside and one relatively pleasant day at the beach.

Mi Quang, a noodle dish that originates from Da Nang with Thai coconuts! 

A night besides the riverside! At this bar, we met a waitress originally from Ho Chi Minh city who was our age and trying to improve her English before she could get a job on a cruise ship and travel the world. 

A view of the Dragon Bridge that is one of several bridges over Han River. The Dragon Bridge connects one part of the city to another. The two parts are quite different from each other in that one is more city like and the other is filled with hotels, beaches and sea food restaurants. 

Eating Delicious Bahn Xeo (rice crepes with beansprouts and egg) on the popular Hoang Dieu Street. This place was hidden at the end of tiny alley and took us quite a while to find. As soon as we sat down we were served a standard meal which everyone seemed to be eating. Shivani ranks this meal as her best meal in Vietnam!  
On our third day, we got a few hours without rain. It didn’t take us long to figure out what we wanted to do that day. 

There are several cruises along Han river for $5 per person which take you past the several bridges in about an hour or two. 

Day 50: Weeding and a Portuguese Dinner

My last day at the farm started at 7 am with weeding. Although it still felt tough and physically taxing, I pulled through 3 hours of weeding. After that I did some carving on the wooden deck. Later, Sayaka-san had a group of 5 ladies for lunch and needed help with the kitchen and in serving them. There was a certain way to set the table and specific sides from which to serve and to pick up the dishes. Sayaka-san’s father came for the night too and Celso and I ate lunch with him while Sayaka-san was busy in the kitchen. 
It started to rain quite heavily and we were indoors for the rest of the day. The rain was so bad that there would be lightening every now and then which would shake the house and make us jump. Since we had started early, there wasn’t a whole lot of work to do in the afternoon apart from drying dishes. 
Later in the evening Sayaka-san’s friend arrived from Tokyo for Sayaka-san’s birthday which is tomorrow. We cooked Portuguese dinner. We all ate together and drank some wine. The interaction between Sayaka-san and her friend was akin to mine and Shivani’s (my best friend) on one of our sleepovers. 

Portuguese dinner featured octopus salad, grilled fish and potato. It had lots of garlic and olive oil. We chatted for a long time afterwards and it was a perfect last meal.

Sayaka-san’s neighbor presented her with a freshly caught fish for her birthday!

A portuguese dish cooked by Celso: Cod fish and potatoes with garlic and olive oil

All of us ready to eat the yummy food

Day 28 continued: Wearing a Yukata!

After the end of the field trip, some of us headed to Waseda University to attend an event featuring a tea ceremony and wearing of Yukatas. Waseda often organizes such events for the benefit of international students at Waseda. There were quite a few people there. Many of them were taking summer language courses.

The tea ceremony+ yukata wearing event for international students at Waseda

Yukatas are traditional Japanese summer clothing. They are easier to put on than kimonos, and also much cheaper. The red sash is called an obi sash. The Yukata is worn with traditional geta slippers. 
I was unfortunately not able to do the tea ceremony, but I learnt what it was. It involved drinking macha tea and eating a Japanese sweet to nullify the bitter taste of the tea. People sit in a circle on tatami mats and are served the sweet first. The tea is served and drunk after that in traditional looking bowls.

 I headed home after the event at Waseda to find a delicious dinner waiting for me.

Kaori-san made a traditional Japanese dish called ‘buta no shogayaki’ for dinner, AKA ginger pork. 

Miso Soup with Tororo seaweed-I didn’t know this earlier, but there are apparently several different kinds of seaweed.

Day 27: Discovering New Comfort Foods

Tired of all the course work and physical exertion, my body felt exhausted and I decided to take it easy.

So I started the day with Starbucks coffee. I rarely drink Starbucks, which is why I’m not very well acquainted with their latest menu. I noticed quite a few unique drinks on their menu and instead of going for my all time favorite cafe latte, I opted for a drip coffee instead. The toppings station had a diverse set of options, from different kinds of sugars and powdered cocoa, vanilla and cinnamon, etc. I added some brown sugar and cocoa powder to my drip coffee. It didn’t taste exceptional compared to other starbucks coffees, but seeing so many different options available from the basic coffee to the toppings, I felt the desire to bring my essay to a Starbucks over the weekend.
The atmosphere at the Ikebukero Starbucks was pretty cozy and I loved spending my morning there.

After coffee, I walked across the street for some comfort food from subway. I got an avocado veggie sub on sesame bread with egg. In an attempt to get some Vitamin C, I also got some terrible tasting orange juice.  (Piece of advice: don’t trust them when they say its 100% orange juice)

After class, on my way home, I got a salmon onigiri. The fish was excruciatingly salty but the seaweed and rice nullified the effect, making the onigiri totally worth the money and calories. I stopped for a matcha latte on the way home and letting myself spend over 300 Yen (~$3) on it was the best decision I’d made all day. It was warm and soothing and the perfect balance between bitter and sweet.

Matcha Latte: worth the money

Ending the day with a salad featuring the much remembered broccoli and pumpkin

Day 26: WW2 and Ueno

This week, we are studying the post war years in class. When Japan lost the war, the emperor for the first time made a public announcement. He was so far removed from the public, that people weren’t able to understand his message, which basically meant ‘We surrender’. Some patriotic soldiers didn’t want to stop fighting. Families were shattered. Soldiers who were abroad were stuck there for a long time. Some were returned after a year and a half but most remain unaccounted for. Six major cities, including Tokyo, Hiroshima and Nagasaki, were in ruins from bombing and subsequent fires. In Nagoya, one of the six cities which were heavily bombed, over 80% of residences were destroyed.

We watched the movie Gojira, which was the original Japanese version of Godzilla. Gojira is about a sea monster whose natural habitat is destroyed as a result of atomic radiations in the water and as a result he comes out of the water and causes great destruction on land. The destruction he causes seems akin to the destruction caused by the nuclear bombs. The way a city built over thousands of years can be destroyed in a matter of minutes is terribly sad to see. A scientist in the movie who has come up with a way to kill Gojira is afraid of revealing his invention because he knows that human beings would end up using it against each other in war.

A bento box-packed lunch in plastic boxes found in convenience stores and specialized roadside stands which specialize in bento food. I picked up a bento box for lunch from one of the roadside stands today. It just cost 500 Yen and included sweet and sour chicken, rice, pickle, tofu and some pasta. I was too lazy to take a picture of my bento box, but this picture that I found on the internet is a great representation of a bento lunch. 
Source: commons.wikimedia.org

Apart from studying about war and writing papers, I visited Ueno. Ueno is a complete tourist destination. It has six museums located close to each other, a zoo, of which the main attraction is a giant panda, a lake, a garden, a shrine and a cheap shopping area. If you only have one day in Japan and want to experience as much of Japanese culture as possible, this would probably be a good option.
I went to the Tokyo National museum, which is the largest museum in Japan. To get there, I went through the park and passed the shrine and lake on the way.
At Ueno park with my friend and classmate Steffi. During spring time, cherry blossoms bloom here and this location is often seen in pictures with pink trees on either side. 

Passing by a shrine at Ueno

It’s a lake! Can you believe it? 

Ink paintings from the 16th  century at the Tokyo National Museum

Have you dreamt about any of these? If you have, flip the pillow over to read your fortune.
Sighted at the Tokyo National Museum in section about fortune telling.

 After the museum, I took a quick walk through the shopping area, called Ameyoko. I felt like I was in Singapore’s Chinatown or Kuala Lumpur’s night market again. It had extremely cheap items on sale. There were roadside restaurants of all kinds of cuisines with outdoor seating. There were stalls selling cheap matcha ice cream and other sweets which I didn’t recognize.

Ueno’s shopping area: Ameyoko

Dinner featured two new dishes today.

Takikomi Gohan: rice with some meat and vegetables mixed with soy sauce. Its a lighter (and for me, better) version of fried rice. 
Source: humblebeanblog.com

Buri-daikon: Buri is a kind of fish and daikon refers to the Japanese radish. They are cooked in soy sauce and make a delicious but light dish. 
Source: tokyostation-yukari.blogspot.com

Day 24 & 25: Food highlights

My essays have been keeping me busy, which means less time to gallivant. But I haven’t stopped eating, so here are some food highlights. 
Mos Lettuce Burger for lunch. I’m not sure what was inside it, but I think it was teriyaki chicken. 
Photo source: barokonews.blogspot.com

For dinner, Kaori-san cooked aji-fish, which is a grilled, salty kind of fish. It is served as a whole fish (meaning that it isn’t chopped up and you can clearly see the shape of the fish). It has a lot of small bones in it, and it is a skill in itself to be able to eat the fish without getting the bones in your mouth. As Masaki-san showed me, you’re supposed to peel off the outer skin of the fish which is slightly protruding, and the bones come out along with it. 
Another new item on the menu was Nameko mushrooms in miso soup. 

Nameko mushrooms-often eaten with Miso soup.
They have a slimy texture which make them really easy to chew. 

Photo source: chow.com

Mitarashi Dango: consisting of mochi rice balls topped with a sweet type of soy sauce.
It’s a must have Japanese dessert . I can’t believe I tried it after three weeks of being here. 

On day 25, I decided to grab a sandwich for lunch to eat in class. Kaori-san suggested I go to Doutor, a popular coffee chain in Japan. I grabbed a salmon sandwich (I love the omnipresence of salmon here!) which wasn’t half bad for the price of around 400 Yen. 
Dinner was a western meal, consisting of clam chowder and bread. This was my first time eating clam chowder.It was a great meal way for a  rainy Tuesday. 
It had been raining pretty heavily in some areas of Japan, one of which was the target of a hail storm. Apparently, it isn’t normal. Such hail storms are the affect of global warming and are a fairly recent phenomenon. 

Day 23: Learning about the 2011 Tohoku Earthquake and Tsunami

Exhausted from the past two days, I didn’t have the strength the brave the rain and visit a museum as planned. So I spent all day at home with my host family. From waking up at 11 to surfing the web, it was a perfect Sunday.

For lunch, we ordered in a dish called Yamameshi with unagi gobo. Yamameshi is traditional rice cooked in a steel pot with a fire. It is very difficult to cook rice that way and is rarely done now. Unagi gobo is the Japanese sea eel (unagi) with gobo (bitter gourd) in a kind of sauce. Unagi is an expensive food, and isn’t eaten regularly by most. Its well worth the money though.

Yamameshi with Unagi Gobo

 I was impressed to see that the restaurant which we ordered from sends proper trays and cutlery as they would provide if we were eating in the restaurant, unlike the usual disposable plastic boxes. The delivery man comes back the next day to pick up the cutlery and take it back to the restaurant. 

 For dinner, Kaori-san made Okonomiyaki, which is a type of Japanese pancake. A batter is made of wheat and cabbage among other kinds of vegetables and meat. Just before eating, it is placed on a sort of portable frying pan along with slices of pork. The pork forms the crust of the Okonomiyaki. After the meat turns red-ish in color, the Okonomiyaki is eaten with sauce, mayonnaise, a bit of seaweed and  bonito flakes.
Okonomiyaki is a food that was invented in Hiroshima after the war bombings due to the shortage of rice. Until the people of Hiroshima had access to rice again, they ate Okonomiyaki as their staple food using the wheat that was imported from other countries. It is now a popular food among households with kids, since it requires very little preparation.
We ate outside on the terrace. It’s been a long time since I’ve eaten out in the open without noises of construction, cars or other people around me.

Okonomiyaki in the making

Okonomiyaki, ready to be eaten! Toppings include sea weed and bonito flakes, sauce and mayonnaise. 

Over dinner, my host family told me about their visit to , Minami-sanriku a small town in the Miyagi prefecture which was severely affected by the 2011 Tohoku earthquake. Minami-sanriku was a small town of about 10,000 people by the coast. When the earthquake came, the town wasn’t really affected thanks to earthquake resistant houses. But there was a tsunami warning and instructions to evacuate. Some people went to the evacuation buildings and others went to the top of a mountain. The Tsunami came about 45 minutes later, and it was the largest one in Japan’s history. Only one building survived the earthquake and others were washed down, including the building of disaster management. A large number of people died and large portions of the town were completely wiped out. A local of the town whose a photographer was up on the mountain taking pictures of the Tsunami. I was looking at some of his pictures in a book that my host family had and I was surprised to see that the Tsunami was forceful enough to uproot houses and send them crashing into other houses behind them. A picture showed the locals’ joy at being able to take a bath in a communal bath tub that was sent as relief in May 2011 (2 months after the Tsunami struck). My host family visited this place in 2013 to see the after affects of the Tsunami and told me that the government wasn’t rebuilding this town since it was too close to the coast.

My host mum whose from Fukushima, where the nuclear disaster happened, told me that the nuclear disaster also took place about an hour after the earthquake. But because there were so many people trying to reach their families and friends in Fukushima, it was difficult to contact them and she only heard from her family at 9 p.m. that night.

This earthquake was worse than the 1923 Kanto earthquake. But after the Kanto earthquake the Japanese took great care in building earthquake resistant houses and having evacuation areas for Tsunamis. Its very impressive to see how they survived an earthquake of 9.0 magnitude, the aftershocks, the nuclear disaster and the Tsunami, all of which were capable of destroying the country within an hour.

Day 20: Fusion food and a history lesson from my host mum

I spent the morning at the library again, finishing the Scarlet Gang of Asakusa. The latter half described more of the decline of the entertainment industry in Asukusa during the late 1920s and early 1930s. Later, my host mum told me that it could be because the introduction of mass culture, which was cheaper and more easily accessible than theater and other forms of entertainment offered in Asakusa.
I went to Mos Burger for lunch, where I tried their Ebi Rice burger. The burger had rice instead of bread buns. It was strange. A little bit too plain for my taste. But I noticed a lot of unconventional items on the menu, like the lettuce burger, for example. I was later surfing the internet and found this interesting article about unique fast foods of Japan. Bored of eating convenience store food, I shall now resort to this list.
Mos Ebi burger-a burger of rice buns originating in Japan
After class, I felt ready to take a nap. So instead of heading to yet another unexplored place, I headed to the most familiar-home. For dinner, Kaori san made Mentaiko pasta, a kind of fusion food. The cream of the pasta has spicy cod roe in it and is topped with sea weed and aujiso. Its apparently a popular dish in Japanese households. I can see why, it tasted amazing, even to someone who doesn’t usually enjoy fusion food. 
Mentaiko pasta, featuring spicy cod roe, sea weed and aujiso
Kaori san educated me about the history of Japan over dinner, filling the gaps in my broken knowledge from class. I learnt that Japan has had an emperor for the past 2000 years from the same royal family. And that the Meiji restoration involved the Shogun (the military head of the preceding Edo period) voluntarily handing over power back to the emperor ans the old system without bloodshed or war. We also talked about geishas. Kaori san told me that becoming a geisha in Japan is one of the ways to enter more prosperous ranks of society, because geishas can marry into higher ranks than the ones they were born to. I was surprised to learn that it isn’t easy to watch geishas perform. They perform in very specific places and to enter those places, you need to be invited. It is also quite expensive.
I read online that Japanese culture is fairly liberal when it comes to having multiple sexual partners at the same time. Utagaki, which is an event after traditional festivals, involves men and women writing poems for each other. And if they’re attracted to each other, they can go hook up. Some end up married.
Japanese culture never fails to surprise me. With every new bit of information, I am reminded of how much more there is to it.

Day 17: An earthquake and more food

I was woken up by an earthquake at 5:30 a.m. It had its epicenter in Fukushima, which is not too close to Tokyo, so it wasn’t too strong. It was long though. In any case, I trust Japanese buildings, so I went right back to sleep and slept peacefully till 9. My host mum later, whose from Fukushima, told me about the Fukushima nuclear disaster in 2011. The areas around the nuclear reactor had to be evacuated and remains uninhabited till date. Children were found to develop diseases after the disaster. The crops produced in Fukushima have to go through an inspection before they’re taken to the markets. Some men refused to marry girls from Fukushima out of the fear that they would bear infected babies. People from Fukushima were considered infected and were often bullied in other areas of Japan. It was sad to hear how a natural disaster, that is not in the control of any human being, can impact some people’s lives in such an adverse way.

I went for my class to Waseda and tried some new kobini (convenience store) foods. There was kiwi yogurt, which was not just kiwi flavored but actually had bits of kiwi in it. I also tried an onigiri with brown rice and a soft boiled egg inside.

After class I tried finding a starbucks to finish my essay which was due the next day. I looked forward to a matcha latte and free internet. But on a day that I wanted starbucks, all the starbucks in the city seemed to have disappeared. I got off at two train stations to look for a starbucks chain and eventually gave up.

I came home to a delicious ramen dinner. Kaori-san had cooked Hiyashi-chuka, which is cold ramen with vegetables and meat.

Hiyashi-chuka (cold ramen with meat and vegetables-in this case tuna and eggplant) 

I ended the day with reading some manga comics for the first time. I read what a friend later told me are Yonkoma comics, comics with four panels on one page. The comics were entertaining, and I kept clicking on the next chapter to know what happened next. Another interesting thing my friend told me was that manga comics typically have fairly short chapters and they end on a note of suspense. Readers need to wait for the next version to come out. And those who can’t understand Japanese have to wait for the comics to be translated before they can access them.

Day 16: Shinjuku encore

I went to Shinjuku again .My host mum and dad accompanied me, who are experts on Shinjuku. It is said that one can be considered a local of Tokyo once they know Shinjuku station in and out. Shinjuku has two parts-the business and office area (called nishi-shunjuku) in the west and the entertainment area (called kabukicho) in the east. I learnt that Shinjuku comprises the largest entertainment area in Asia.

This time, it wasn’t raining, and I took lots of pictures.

Cold soba noodles for lunch. Soba noodles are made using buckwheat. They are dipped in soy sauce and eaten (surprisingly, pouring the soy sauce over the soba isn’t the way its done. you always dip). Toppings like sesame and spring onions can be added. After finishing the noodles, you pour warm water in the sauce and drink it. 
Tokyo Metropolitan Government Building

An aerial view of Tokyo from the Tokyo Metropolitan Govt Building: The tall tower in the distance is Tokyo Tower. 

Another aerial view

We take a break from walking and stop for drinks in this open area with coffee shops

A curved building-if you leaned against the walls, it felt as if the building was falling on you

Cocoon Tower-the iconic symbol of Shinjuku
A cute sign by a crossing in Shinjuku

I noticed some homeless people on the street in nishi-shinjuku. Masaki-san told me that the Shinjuku streets would be filled with homeless people when he was a child. I was surprised to see homeless people in such an upscale area. Kaori-san mentioned that Japanese people don’t like to acknowledge the existence of homeless people.

Kabukich-the entertainment area of Shinjuku-and the largest entertainment area in the world

Omoide Yokocho-a small lane in Shinjuku comprising of Izakayas-it was built post-war in the 1940s and was one of the first things to come up in Shinjuku. Efforts are made to preserve it. There is much anger with respect to Korean and Chinese immigrants beginning to work in these izakayas. 

Posters of cafes where men entertain women

Golden Gai-an area known for its nightlife. It comprises of 6 narrow alleys of izakayas, restaurants and clubs. 

Hanazono Jinja Shrine

Miso Spaghetti with duck at one of the favorite izakayas of my host family. It was AMAZING. Another interesting item on the menu that night was umeshu (in the background), an alcoholic drink of Japanese picked plum. The izakaya was so popular that we went at 5 pm. before it started to get crowded. 

I was surprised to learn that Shinjuku is an area not just for the rich. It has some very affordable places and people in their 20s from all types of economic classes go there. We ended our day at Shinjuku by going into a department store. Department stores at Shinjuku are typically very expensive. We ended up going to the basement floor which comprised of the restaurants and food shops (known as depachika in Japanese), and sampling food that we had no intentions of buying.