Japanese style bars / pubs: Izakaya

If you can't see the video, go here: http://youtu.be/pe0EMLeYH1I

This topic wasn't on our schedule, but we found ourselves in an Izakaya on a quiet night and Nat said "Hey, we could make a video now". So we did. And there was much rejoicing. 

So what is an Izakaya? In short, it's the main, traditional watering holes in Japan. This country has a lot of bars and I'd be more surprised than an aeroplane pilot who finds a bunny in his headlights if you can go to a Japanese city and not find a British themed or styled pub. You might even find one that's a major gaijin (foreigner) hangout and make some new friends... or run from new enemies. You know, whatever your social circle. So, yes, Japanese folk can drink like the rest of us... well, at least they have the opportunity. However, it is a borrowed Western idea, just like McDonald's (except beer actually improves your health), just like baseball, just like some other cool similie I can't think of right now. Don't judge me! 

Izakaya are the true Japanese style establishments that primarily exist to ply the customers with alcohol just as long as they ply the owners with money. So, in it's basic principal it is also the same. However, there are many differences. So here they are in handy list format:

  • Greetings and shoes: Don't be surprised if the waitresses bow and greet you at the door and then ask you to take off your shoes. If they don't take your shoes at the door then they will probably ask you to when you enter the private room.
  • Private rooms: You can sit at a counter in some places (it is cheaper) and you can sit at an open table if you like, just like a regular restaurant, but Izakaya also have private areas marked out by sliding doors and in here you are in your own little drinking world. Have a look at our video to see how it works. The awesome thing is the staff can move the walls and doors around to make different sized rooms based on requirements. Confuses the hell out of drunk foreigners.
  • Food: At most, in the west, we would scoff some crisps, nuts or mini-pizzas (in those posh gaffs), but Izakaya are very close to being restaurants. They offer a full menu and often a huge variety. Though some may specialize in certain types of food. You'll have to shop around to find one with a menu you like, but be adventurous. There are some strange but fantastic foods. I swear once I picked stuff at random and I got fresh baby squid on ice. Of course they have normal food too. Also, because Japanese think it is bad to drink on an empty stomach, you will be forced to accept a small dish of snacks on your arrival, along with your towel. This is not free! But you can't refuse it either. Otherwise ninjas jump out of the walls and take you away.... no one knows what happens next.... 
  • Drinks: They have all the usual and all the types of Japanese drinks such as sake (rice wine), shochu (potato or rice spirit), umeshu (plum wine). 
  • Towel: Wipe your hands! Wipe them!
  • Cute slave: The waitress is at the mercy of you and your magic summoning button all night. Use it wisely, and be nice to the girl. She has to put up with a lot.
  • Sharing: The western man's drink time snack is his treasure, take it without permission and be at the wrath of his insatiable drunken cravings. However, in an Izakaya, the idea is to share. Some dishes will be very small and compliment one another. Others, like the chips (french fries - see the video) will be very large and meant to be shared. The idea is that people order bits of whatever they like and then you sample a different set of whatever you like on the table, while you are chatting, singing, dancing and insulting a fellow gaijin's home country and choice in women. Or something. 

So now I have tempted you, how do you find them? Well, like I said, they are everywhere. If you can find any building with bars and restaurants in it, there will be an Izakaya but it can be hard to tell exactly which is which. You could keep an eye out for the kanji that says Izakaya (居酒屋).

The easiest way however, is to let someone show you. Around any meal time that isn't breakfast, but especially at night, there will be plenty of people in Izakaya uniform (or super thick winter coats, if it is winter) carrying a menu. As you walk near them they will shove the menu in your path and spout a sales pitch. That's your cue! Nod enthusiastically! Speak to them if you can. They work for the Izakaya and they will take you to their restaurant. If you want a certain something or you see something on their menu, tell the worker and they will likely call it down to the Izakaya on a secret radio and warn the others you are coming. They will probably show you to an elevator if it isn't on the ground floor, and then you can laugh as the same person sees you off and then runs all the way up (or down) the steps to greet you when you get off the elevator and show you inside. They do that sometimes. It depends how many workers there are. Feel free to discuss deals and special offers with these people. It is their job to entice people inside, and that is often why they will be girls. 

There is another type of person who wanders the street at night, looking for customers, and that is not an Izakaya worker, but karaoke. You can usually tell them apart as the karaoke name will be branded on their clothing. 

So that's it! Take some friends, have a party, enjoy your Izakaya!

Have you ever been to one? What was the strangest or most amazing food you ate there?


Chinese New Year: How to Make Gyoza (dumplings)!

If you can't see the video, then please go here: http://youtu.be/-ev-gmaOKxk

I know normally we are focussed on Japan, but we can't miss talking about an important event to Chinese people. In today's blog we'll talk about the Chinese New Year ! The Chinese New Year is different from the western calendar ! The date of the Chinese new year may occur anywhere form January 21st to February 21st, as it falls on the second new moon after the winter solstice. New year is important, but the happiest day is the new year 's eve ! Chinese make long preparations for the new year: shopping, cleaning house etc.

There's a lot of traditional things we must remember : 

  • Must have a total bath before the new year 

Because the new year is new start everything must be new, fresh body, new clothes, new age! And as tradition goes, bathing in any form on the day of Chinese New Year is considered bad luck because one would be washing away the good luck that has been bestowed and whisked upon them for the new year.

  • Can't cut your hair during the new year until next month (if you have maternal uncle )

Haircuts are received before the new year begins since it is thought cutting hair during the first lunar month of the year places a curse on maternal uncles. Therefore, people get a haircut before the New Year's Eve.

  • All doors and windows must be open and all light must be turn on New Year's Eve 

Open the doors and windows is to allow the old year to escape. Turn on the lights just for allow the good luck of the new year to enter.

  • Setting  off firecrackers on New Year's Eve 

Do that is scares away evil spirits while sending out the old year and welcoming the new one.

  • Knives and scissors forbidden 

Knives and scissors may not be used because they may cut off fortune.

  • Wear red (avoid clothes in black and white )

Celebrants wear red to scare away evil spirits and bad fortune and ensure a bright future.

There you go! I hope you had a happy Chinese New Year and that you can celebrate it properly from now on. Check out our video for full details on how to cook real Chinese dumplings; gyoza (in Japanese)! There is even a vegetarian option, since Matt is vegetarian too!

Have you ever had gyoza before? Do you prefer them fried or boiled? Please let us know too if you try to cook them and how they turn out!  


What can you buy in Japanese convenience stores?

If you can't see the video, go here: http://youtu.be/6Wa94Rpslpo

A convenience store is probably the second or third building you will go into when you arrive in Japan. The first being the airport, the second possibly a hostel or hotel, just incase you wanted to test me. They are everywhere, so you won't have any trouble finding them, and they are reasonably priced - though a little more expensive than the shops that will end up being your locals if you stay here. The other benefit is they sell pretty much everything, and there are a few other things you can do there that you might be surprised to hear.

Before I reel off a list that will drop your jaw faster than a naked supermodel, I just want to say that we are not endorsed nor do we support any particular brand, we are just providing information of services available. However, if any convenience company wants to give us money please get in touch we'll be glad to alleviate you of cash for advertising. Also, if any of these "surprising things" are no longer surprising because you have them in America now, or whatever, then I apologise but they don't as far as I know, and didn't when I was there. 

The video above shows just about everything that is in the store, but let me list the essentials. In a Japanese convenience store you can: 

  • Buy Food: Kinda obvious, but it's true. You can buy snack foods from potato chips to dried squid, ice cream to frozen chips, rice balls to fresh fruit. There's prepared meals which just need a minute in the microwave to get you going (they will even ask you if you want it heated in store). There's sweets like chocolates and super sour fruit gums, but be careful because the packets are very small. They also have fried food like hot dogs and meat buns (nikuman) kept warm in a glass case that is possibly fuelled by the burning souls of disrespectful customers, but Japan is pretty short of those so I guess not. 

  • Read comics and magazines for free: A convenience store is like a library. People go in there and flick through the magazines, read all the comics and then leave. They sell all sorts too. From kids manga and puzzles to study books, style mags to young adult manga complete with bikini model shots and no holds barred porn. It's all right on the shelf on the same level with a wide range of fetishes, real women and cartoon... not that I know anything about that, but if you can't find what you want, check on the shelf under the main displays. They have even more there. Ahem. 
  • Buy seasonal gear: Depending on the current time of year, convenience stores will have a small section devoted to surviving. In winter they sell cheap hats, gloves, scarves and pocket heaters. In  summer they sell hand fans, folding fans, cooling gel and other things to get through the heat. It can be good, and I've used it when I've lost gloves on the way home. Just don't go in their expecting fashion. Your choices are normally black or black. You can always get a cheap umbrella or cover-all to protect from a sudden rainstorm too! 

  • Buy DVDs: They have some older, cheap movies by the entrance, but some new, fancy ones (and Adult Video) behind the counter. Just ask the clerk! I know you won't! 

  • Go to the toilet: Yes! conbini's (conveniences stores) have public toilets that you are allowed to use without having to worry about the formality of having to buy anything in store! Genius! If you are lucky, they may even have a heated seat.
  • Bank: There will always be an ATM. They do all the things that western ATMs do and also deposits! I don't remember all western ATMs doing that. Just be careful, they will charge you for withdrawing money, about 100 yen or double that if it's a holiday. However, if you have an account with Shinsei bank, the online bank, it's completely free all the time. So guess who I have an account with. This is all extra awesome because bank's ATMs are rubbish in Japan and access is usually restricted after 7pm (defeating the whole point of having an ATM, stupid Japan) but conbinis are sometimes open 24 hours, at least until 11pm anyway.
  • Pay Bills: Through the post, for gas, water, electric, tax, health insurance, your internet and probably your mobile phone (depending on carrier) you will get a paper slip that you can take to the conbini. They will stamp it, ask you to press a button and take your money. Bill is paid! Go home and rest! Some places will not take payments for tax or insurance though. Kill them. Burn their souls and eat their children.
  • Make online payments: This is my absolute favorite! I've been trying to get a credit card in Japan since I got here 4 years ago and I have never succeeded. For why I do not know. I also refuse to use my UK card because the bank transfer fees to pay the bill are almost as much as the credit card bill. So, I was delighted to discover that in Japan you can buy something online and then choose to pay for it at a conbini. The company will email you a code, you take it to the conbini and show it to the clerk or input it into the computer like machine by the ATM and it will print a receipt. Show that to the clerk and then pay your money. Then you just wait for your delivery, or if it's tickets, the clerk will give you them on the spot. 
  • Buy tickets: On the same computer like machines, you can search for bus tickets, plane tickets, concert tickets, lots more and you can buy them there and then. It's really fantastic. I've used it 5 times for concert tickets (4 times for the same band) and no fails. 
  • Photocopy/fax: There is copy machine that's coin operated and it usually has fax capability and an English language option. It's great if you forget an important document after leaving work. 

So Japanese convenience stores are truly convenient. The only problems I have ever had with them are when they are on the other side of the road... or when Nat almost choked on some plastic in an onigiri. And oh my, how cute. My cat is playfully clawing at my fingers as I type so I want to keep typing rubbish just so she'll carry on playing with me. She is so furry! 

Oh well, this will be boring for you guys. So I'll stop and play with my kitten properly. No that is not a euphemism  Get your mind out of the gutter. There isn't room for the both of us.

So why don't you tell me the best thing you ever found at a convenience store. What was it?